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Ep. 4: Luxury TVs 2019

After show hosts Michael Gaughn and Dennis Burger have the briefest possible discussion of the most boring Super Bowl ever, they’re joined art 4:14 by Cineluxe contributor John Sciacca and Wiirecutter AV editor and Cineluxe contributor Adrienne Maxwell to discuss the state of luxury TVs in 2019. At 21:54, the discussion shifts to the many things movie-streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have to do to make themselves more user-friendly. And the episode closes at 38:21 with everyone naming the things they feel are most neglected in mass culture.

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Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan

Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan

I’ll admit, I’m a bit late to the party with this review of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, the Amazon Prime original show that debuted to much acclaim last August. As I watched friend after friend declare its greatness through social media last summer, I was intrigued. But I was also skeptical. As a big fan of The Office, I was having trouble buying into the idea of John Krasinski (aka Jim Halpert) as Jack Ryan. I wasn’t sure I could get past that, but I did recently decide to give the show a shot.

 

Although I’ve never read one of Tom Clancy’s novels, there’s a fondness in my heart for Jack Ryan, at least as he’s portrayed by Alec Baldwin in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October. That’s one of those films, like The Matrix or A Few Good Men, that I must sit down and watch anytime I come across it on TV. Later portrayals of Jack Ryan by Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck have a bit more of an action-hero vibe to them, but Red October is just a good old-fashioned spy thriller at heart, and Baldwin does a great job portraying Ryan as the fish-out-of-water CIA analyst who finds himself in the middle of a Cold War submarine standoff.

 

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan reboots the character in today’s climate of terrorist threats, and young Ryan is a Washington DC-based analyst whose job is to sit at a desk and follow the money. He discovers that a whole lotta money seems to be leading to a mysterious figure named Suleiman, and he’s quickly pulled into the effort to catch this target. The problem is, Ryan is an idealist who sees a black-and-white world where there’s a right and wrong way to catch the bad guys, but as he’s pulled deeper into the pursuit of Suleiman, his worldview is challenged by counterterrorism and its messy grey areas.

 

My skepticism of Krasinski proved unfounded. He’s wonderful in the role, absolutely believable as a former marine who can handle himself just fine when it comes to hand-to-hand combat but is still very much a fish out of water in those grey places. The rest of the cast is also fantastic—particularly Ali Suliman, who lends heart and complexity to a Suleiman character who could easily have devolved into a one-dimensional caricature.

 

Amazon presents the show in 4K HDR, with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Not surprisingly, the look of the show is natural and realistic, so the HDR is quite subdued, but the overall picture quality is good. I streamed the series through an Apple TV and saw excellent detail in facial closeups and the many colorful landscapes, from DC to Paris to Syria to Vegas. I find Amazon to be somewhat more aggressive in its compression than Netflix, so I did see some banding and compression artifacts in the opening credits and solid-colored backgrounds.

 

The Atmos soundtrack is dialogue-driven, with the surround stage used primarily for music and ambient sounds. A lively firefight in Episode One does flesh out the soundfield and provide good demo material.

 

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a tense, smart thriller that grabs a firm hold in Episode One and doesn’t ease its grip until the conclusion in Episode Eight. It’s best to set aside a chunk of time for this one—even if you don’t plan to binge-watch it, you probably won’t be able to help yourself.

—Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.

Why HTA is the Real Deal

Why HTA is the Real Deal

During the lengthy period where my career as a custom installer (beginning in March of 1998) and my role as technology editor (starting around 2000) have overlapped, I’ve written numerous posts similar to Eric Thies’ recent, “How to Find the Perfect Integrator.”

 

Sadly, none of them seem to have made much of a difference.

 

I agree with everything Eric said, but principally that most people take almost no time to vet their technology integrator. The bar being so low to becoming an integrator—most states will let you place a magnet on the side of your truck and call yourself Joe’s AV without even requiring a license for low-voltage work—has led to a glut of terrible work, and dissatisfied customers.

 

Over the years, our company, Custom Theater and Audio, has resurrected numerous projects for people who let the most random people into their homes to handle the technology install. Even though they comprehend that it’s too complicated for them to do, for whatever reason they think that virtually anyone else is qualified to handle their technology needs. I’m not even kidding when I say that some people say they hired “some guy” that was walking through the neighborhood putting leaflets on doors, had the flooring guy do it, used the electrician, used someone the electrician knew, etc. The tragedy is that most of these people ended up spending good money to get a system that was never right for their needs, never worked right, and then had to pay us more to come in and fix or replace it.

 

This is exceptionally frustrating and, frankly, bad for the entire industry because all installation companies end up being lumped together in the minds of people who have been burned by a bad installation. And them passing on their bad experience to others tarnishes the good along with the bad.

 

That’s one of the reasons why the Home Technology Association (HTA) mentioned in Eric’s post intrigued me: Could this certification identify the best integration firms and help the cream rise to the top? This would not only help customers looking to hire a good company but (more selfishly) help my company stand out as one of the good guys.

 

HTA’s Director of Certification, Josh Christian, says the goal of certification is to do for the custom installation industry what the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) has done for diamonds, allowing anyone to walk into virtually any reputable jewelry store and know that they’re purchasing a stone that has been independently verified for quality.

 

While HTA doesn’t guarantee that selecting a certified professional will result in terrific performance or outcome, in a sea of uncertainty, it certainly offers a beacon to help guide customers towards making a more informed selection from a pre-qualified group of top candidates.

 

My company recently went through the application process to became HTA Certified, and I can attest that it is a rigorous process, taking me several hours to research and gather all of the required information. Compared to the CEDIA (Custom Electronics Design & Installation Association) application, which has you fill out a single-page form asking only the most basic information (company address, size, gross revenue) and credit card information, and essentially approves any company willing to pay the $500 annual registration, HTA mines far deeper into how a company actually operates.

 

Josh said the application process is so thorough for two reasons. First, it helps HTA identify the best-in-class installation companies and provide a real look into their business operations and the kinds of jobs they do. Second, the sheer length and breadth of it scares away exactly the kinds of companies they want to avoid. (As does the $400 application fee, which has the applying company putting some skin in the game.)

Why the HTA is the Real Deal

Once certified, companies are listed on HTA’s website. (Click here—or on the image above-—to see our company page.) A consumer looking to hire an installation firm can get a pretty good idea if a company is going to be a good fit for their needs.

 

How long have they been in business?
Longevity is generally a good indicator that the company will be around when you need service down the road. Also, “bad” companies usually don’t last. The average HTA certified company has been around for almost 17 years.

 

How many employees do they have?
Larger companies can often handle bigger projects and respond to service issues faster.

 

What areas do they service?
Working with a company that’s near your home often means quicker response times and no trip charges.

 

What kinds of projects do they focus on?
If you’re building a $15 million, 20,000 square-foot home, selecting a company that focuses on $500,000, 3,500 square-foot homes might not be a good fit.

 

What brands are they authorized to sell?
This will give you a look at the quality of gear the company can provide. This can also be important if you’re interested in a specific automation system like Control4, Crestron, or Savant, as dealers often specialize in one, but not all.

 

How many projects have they done over the past 3 years in different price categories?
A good snapshot of how busy the company is, and the focus of their projects.

 

What does a typical dedicated theater and media room install cost?
It’s a good idea to see if your budgets align with the company’s typical installs. HTA’s website also has a 20-question budgeting tool that can be very useful for getting a rough idea of what your project’s budget range should be.

 

What industry awards and certifications do they have?
Bad companies generally don’t win awards or attain industry certifications.

 

What are their service policies?
No matter how good your system is, at some point it will need to be serviced, and knowing the company’s after-sale policy upfront is a good way to avoid any frustration later on.

 

HTA understands that its certification will only mean something if it actually means something, not only to the industry but to people looking to hire an integration firm. They’re trying to do this by only letting in the best firms, and raising awareness with architects, builders, designers, and consumers that choosing a qualified—ideally certified—integration firm matters.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Home Theater Reborn, Pt. 3

Home Theater Reborn, Pt. 3
Theo's Corner

photo by Adrianna Calvo from Pexels

In my previous column, I described how I discovered that the key to creating home theater designs that can be readily reproduced is to minimize the impact of the actual space—in other words, the room—on the design. This new approach, which is a radical departure from how I create my custom designs, allowed me to devise a system where wall panels wrapped in acoustical fabric and placed front of the room’s actual walls become a backdrop for artwork that hangs on them.

 

Treating the designs as akin to art displayed in a museum allowed me to focus not on how to fit a design into a room but on what the design elements should be, irrespective of any room. This freed me of the limitations of the actual space and allowed

me to focus instead on the thing that has the biggest impact on any room—the design elements. The design impact of a living room, for instance, isn’t primarily determined by the size of the space but by the choices of furniture, carpet, fixtures, and so on, and how they are placed within the room.

 

With this problem solved, I then decided, “I don’t want these designs to represent my aesthetic.” Now that I had devised a different approach to design, what if I invited others to create the actual designs, encouraging them to add new ingredients while staying within the confines of the new approach? By freeing these others of the burden of having to worry about the unique physical constraints of individual spaces, I could recruit collaborators so that home theater design would no longer be the solitary pursuit of just me and my imagination.

 

The decision to free home theaters from the restrictions of the room by devising a backdrop for a variety of designs was the first step. The second step was to devise those backdrops in such a way that they could not only serve as a blank canvas for design ideas but also address the other elements in a home theater that are usually dealt with separately, such as speakers and acoustics.

 

So we engineered the panels in such a way that they could not only incorporate and support various design elements but could also conceal the acoustic treatments and 

the speakers. Once I felt confident our concept for the panels could address all of these practical needs, I then approached various artists to create the room designs.

 

I originally said to myself, “Let me give a designer an empty room, and they can do what they want with it.” But the initial results were not what I expected. Designers are not trained to design with the technology needs in mind, so sometimes their design approach can have an impact on a home theater’s performance. So, by making the wall panels my responsibility, I relieved the designers of having to deal with an element that could limit their creativity. In other words, this approach allowed them to focus on having fun with creating their designs, which made the spaces fun for the clients.

Once I became a more active collaborator in the process, we were able to create some truly original works. We have since commissioned designs by well-known artists, including the sculptor Antonia Papatzanaki, architect Dimitris Theodorou, and photographer Marina Vernicos.

 

Each artist was able to use my backdrop as an opportunity to create artwork that reflects their individual aesthetic sensibilities. Having created the parameters within which someone’s design could be deployed on the wall panels, my primary responsibility was to ensure that the artwork wouldn’t in any way impede the room’s performance.

 

In my next column, I will discuss the extensive and innovative engineering that went into creating the amazingly flexible and adaptable wall panels.

Theo Kalomirakis

Theo Kalomirakis is widely considered the father of home theater, with scores of luxury theater
designs to his credit. He is also an avid movie fan, with a collection of over 15,000 discs. Theo
is the Executive Director of Rayva.

Why Does the AV Industry Always Ignore the Signs?

Why Does the AV Industry Always Ignore the Signs?

Does the home theater community ignore its greatest—arguably, only—asset . . . its customers? I ask this question because it’s one I don’t think anyone in the AV press, the manufacturers, and even enthusiasts are asking themselves. So allow me to put it more simply: Is this hobby ignoring itself?

 

Here’s why I ask: In numerous surveys conducted by many of the “mainstream AV publications” over the years, it would appear that the results are at odds with what the manufacturers claim people are clamoring for. For example, in a recent survey of dedicated home theater enthusiasts, the number who actually owned a multichannel home theater system (5.1) was less than what you’d expect from a readership “subscribed” to a publication with the words Home and Theater in its title. 

 

To test this, I recently did a survey myself, asking more than 1,000 home theater enthusiasts, whom would remain completely anonymous, to tell me what type of home theater setup they had. An overwhelming majority—a near 70%—said their home theater was but a 2.0 or 2.1 setup with respect to the number of speakers, with the display of choice being a single flat-panel TV and no more than two digital sources. The delta between 2.0 home theater and 5.1—which came in second place, by the way—was four to one. Of those who participated, less than four percent had a 7.1 or greater surround sound system. Dolby Atmos, get out of town—no one has Atmos.

 

Now, this may seem like an opportunity for manufacturers and sales people to begin selling more surround sound setups and whatnot, but many of the participants in this survey offered (unsolicited) further comment as to the reasons why they had but a stereo-based home theater. Many had downsized from dedicated rooms and/or “bigger” setups, opting instead for simple, stereo after having fallen down the home theater rabbit hole.

 

Moreover, many of those who felt the need to comment felt they were able to invest more wisely in better components by paring down and thus getting far more for their money than when they tried to make their dollar stretch over a complicated multichannel setup. So if the data shows that fewer and fewer enthusiasts are actually opting for more speakers and more gear, why are we so consumed with trying to sell them more? Why not sell them what they’re asking for? What they need? How can this hobby and thus the industry expect to survive by ignoring the data before it?

 

It can’t.

 

It is my belief that the AV industry has largely operated under the Field of Dreams mentality, whereby if you build it they will come. Only problem is, it would seem that the game ended a long time ago, and only those who didn’t get the memo are still standing around in the cornfields wondering where everyone went.

 

Every January, the AV press collectively writes about how CES isn’t about them anymore, passed over (or perhaps passed-by) for smartphones, smart speakers, and the lot. But therein lies the rub. It’s not that consumers don’t want better sound, bigger pictures, and an overall better experience—they just don’t want it the same old way. So they’ve turned to other means and products to get their “fix.”

Why Does the AV Industry Always Ignore the Signs?

The AV industry as a whole, despite being part of the technology genre, has proven incredibly slow to act, react, and innovate. You’d never know that reading their press releases or attending their press events whereby everything they announce is “game changing!” The truth is, it’s not—not by a long shot. Too often they keep knocking on the door of the same customers saying hey, remember us? Yeah, we remember you—we bought said widget from you last year, and it wasn’t much different from the widget we bought the year before that. Rather than take that feedback and truly innovate, many manufacturers have adopted a new tack: Find a new audience—an older audience—abroad. Worse still are the ones who stay and insist that the only thing people will buy in the US is cheap crap.

 

This really gets under my skin, because it’s not that enthusiasts are cheap; it’s that they’re tired of having to buy the same thing over again. What are consumers supposed to do when asked to buy the same TV, the same disc spinner, the same whatever each and every year? I can tell you what I would do—spend as little as possible.

 

Now, build me something truly forward thinking, a product that either combines previous technologies in a whole new way or introduces new ones that actually work, and then let’s talk. Imagine a display that replaces the need for separate components, powered speakers that connect to the display wirelessly, and a system that configures itself via input from your smartphone, and I bet you’ll be able to charge a little more than what Vizios are commanding at Costco.

 

But what do I know? I’m just one of those unicorns the AV industry is trying to reach so desperately. I’m under 40, educated, with disposable income, and a predisposition towards AV gear. How big is my system? Stereo.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a photographer and videographer by trade, working on commercial
and branding projects all over the US. He has served as a managing editor and
freelance journalist in the AV space for nearly 20 years, writing technical articles,
product reviews, and guest speaking on behalf of several notable brands at functions
around the world.

Russian Doll

Netflix' "Russian Doll"

Anyone who tells you they truly enjoyed the first episode of Russian Doll is either a liar or a masochist. That’s not to say there’s nothing redeeming about the inaugural 24 minutes of this new Netflix original. It’s beautifully shot in a gritty, naturalistic style that makes subtle but effective use of its high dynamic range instead of leaning on it as a gimmick. It’s undeniably well written, despite the fact that its dialogue is too clever by half and a little pandering at first. And the performances—especially by Natasha Lyonne of Orange is the New Black fame—are nothing less than inspired from the giddy-up.

 

The problem, though—and what kept my finger hovering over the cancel button for the entire first episode—is that the series starts on such an utterly grimdark note that it’s equal parts fatiguing and boring. It’s shocking just for the sake of shock value—or so it seems. It’s offensive for no other reason than causing offense. There’s nothing remotely likeable about any of the characters, and I found myself distracted by the incongruity of the fact that Amy Poehler produced this seemingly joyless pit of sardonic despair.

 

It’s not my intention to be moralistic here. And it’s not as if I shy away from the dark. But darkness without light is just sort of monotonous, and there’s nary a stray luminous beam to be found within Russian Doll’s first—thankfully brief—episode.

Netflix' "Russian Doll"

What follows that grimy start is a series of seven episodic romps, each of which cranks up the levity—and indeed the weirdness—until it manages to find some equilibrium. Some carefully teetering balance between the inherent grimness of the show’s premise (in short: Lyonne is forced by the universe to die in increasingly ironic ways and live some semblance of the same day over and over again) and the wonderful absurdity of it all.

 

By the time Episode 8’s ending credits rolled, I was oddly sad to see Russian Doll come to an end. I’d fallen in love with its unlovable characters. I was completely on board with its flippant earnestness. I wanted more of the show’s delightfully wacky and inventively improbable twists and turns. The utterly unapologetic human beauty and levity of its final moments more than made up for the soulless dehumanization of its earliest scenes.

 

Still, though, when I reflect on this undeniably beautiful work of whimsical and meaningful art and consider whether or not to recommend it to friends, I can’t help but pause. If you managed to make it through that first episode and you’re wondering whether to soldier on, yes. Keep going. It’s so worth the ride in the end.

 

But if you noped out before you even figured out what the show is really about, I can’t much say that I blame you.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Home Theater Reborn, Pt. 2

Theo's Corner

I have been spending the past two years trying to figure out how we designers can come up with a recipe for creating home theaters that puts us on more solid ground than the ground we are on when a client gives us an empty room and tells us, “Go ahead and design a theater.” The traditional solution has been to ponder the situation, produce some ideas, then implement them in a very custom way. In other words, we always start all over from scratch.

 

When I started developing the concept that would become Rayva, my guiding light was always, “How can I make this design process more predictable? How can I turn what has always been a unique project into a reproducible product?” The goal was to allow some flexibility for the variables that differ from project to project while creating a recipe that offers predictable solutions for 90 percent of what goes into any home theater.

 

Of course, I would love to have the freedom to do what I want with a room. But that freedom can become seriously constrained when you have to spend a lot of your time on a project reinventing things that could otherwise be standardized.

My goal was to create an approach to home theater design that allowed for traditional
elements like furniture, carpeting, and decoration but wasn’t dependent upon room size

So I took the concept of home theater and tried to “explode” it into its constituent parts. Some of those parts are obvious—such as the furniture, the carpeting, and the location of the speakers and the screen. My goal was to take those ingredients and find a way to make their implementation simple and safe, time and again—safer for the client, simpler for the designer—so they would yield more predictable results. But without sacrificing any of the diversity or fun of designing an exceptional home theater.

Part of the trick here was to determine not just the design but the technical choices that could be standardized. Nailing all of that down would create a solid foundation upon which I and others could let our creativity roam free—and in a fraction of the time it takes to create a completely custom design.

 

I began this exercise by contemplating, “At the most basic level. what makes a design custom?” And the answer is that you are always at the mercy of the room, which will always differ from any other room. The width, length, height, placement of door entries, and so on are almost always different. To solve that problem, I essentially had to make the problem part of the solution.

 

The answer, it occurred to me, was to a find a standardized design solution that wasn’t dependent on the room size. This was an important discovery, because not being beholden to the specific dimensions of a room makes it much easier to come up with a design. And it also creates a structure that others can use to create designs of their own.

 

Think of the room’s design as akin to a painting. If you have a painting you want to enjoy, you don’t care about the size of the room it’s going to go into. You find the most appropriate place to put it on the wall, and then the painting becomes the design element that determines the other elements in the room.

It is the same with furniture. A nice piece of furniture can fit into a room that’s 12 by 15 or 18 by 20 or 30 by 40. You just add more furniture—or bigger furniture—to fill the room.

 

This gives you a sense of the design approach I arrived at, where you have standardized elements that, once combined, can yield a result as exciting as if you were to create a custom design—but freed of the tyranny of the room’s size.

 

In my next post, I’ll describe the method I’ve created for having luxury home theaters fit it any rectangular room, beginning at 11.5 by 16 feet, and how that led to my collaboration with a number of brilliant artists and designers.

Theo Kalomirakis

Theo Kalomirakis is widely considered the father of home theater, with scores of luxury theater
designs to his credit. He is also an avid movie fan, with a collection of over 15,000 discs. Theo
is the Executive Director of Rayva.

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 2

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 2

In Part 1, I wondered if you could hear any differences in Dolby Atmos surround sound on the various movie streaming services and movies downloaded from Kaleidescape, and decided to do a comparison between Vudu, Apple TV, and Kaleidescape to find out.

 

After an afternoon of listening tests, here are my results.

 

I have a pretty high-end audio system, consisting of the new Marantz AV8805 flagship preamp/processor, two Marantz seven-channel amplifiers, and a 7.2.6-channel speaker configuration that includes Definitive Technology Mythos ST-L tower

speakers, a Definitive Trinity Signature Reference sub, and an SVS SB-16Ultra sub. I watched all of the movies at the same volume setting: -15 dB.

 

For source material, I used my Kaleidescape Strato to handle the Dolby TrueHD audio on movies downloaded from the movie store, a Microsoft Xbox One S to stream content from Vudu, and an Apple TV 4K to play movies from the Apple Store.

 

I mined my movie collection to find multiple titles I owned across all three services that featured Dolby Atmos soundtracks. This allowed me to cue up the scenes on all three devices and fairly quickly listen to each scene in the different formats.

I watched a number of scenes from six films I’m familiar with: Ready Player One, Baby Driver, Blade Runner 2049, Gravity, Venom, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. After A-B-C’ing each scene multiple times, I can definitively say two things: 1) the TrueHD audio mix always sounded better, and 2) audio from the Apple TV 4K sounded substantially quieter and more compressed.

 

By far the most readily noticeable audio differences were in the low frequency range. Consistently, film after film, scenes with low-frequency activity were far more dynamic and impressive in TrueHD. The low end had more physical impact, producing frequencies I could feel, as well as pressure waves that rattled doors and windows.

 

The opening “Bell Bottoms” scene from Baby Driver is a perfect example, where the bass notes in the song were thin and indistinct with the Dolby Digital Plus (DD+) on Apple TV and Vudu, and the shotgun blasts had little weight. With TrueHD, the bass was articulated, and the shotgun plumbed far lower and louder.

 

The bass-heavy Blade Runner 2049 also offered multiple scenes that showcased the superiority of the TrueHD soundtrack. The pistol Deckard uses in his fight with K in old Vegas had far more impact, as did the rushing water, thunder, and air vehicles flying at the pump station. The fantastic Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer soundtrack also sounded richer, producing notes that were more musical and real, with better tone and decay.

 

Textural sounds also had far more dimension and realism with TrueHD. The first challenge race from Ready Player One was a perfect example, featuring a lot of different vehicles with unique-sounding engines. The multi-layered sounds of the engines, crashes, crunches, and explosions had more detail and separation, being less distinct in the DD+ version. The motorcycle chase in Venom exhibited this same sonic loss in DD+, as with the sounds of the drones flying, or the details of bullets striking. It was similar with the crunching and thrashing from the hippo attack in Jumanji.

 

As mentioned above, the audio levels on Apple TV were significantly lower across every film—often 10 dB or more. This was obvious on everything, but especially noticeable on Gravity, where the opening dialogue chatter between Stone and Houston was virtually inaudible, making it completely unintelligible when played at the same levels as the Vudu and Kaleidescape versions.

 

Even with volume levels raised to compensate, the Apple versions of the films just seemed far more compressed, lacking dynamic range. This was similar to what I experienced on the Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour streamed from Netflix, making me wonder if there is some issue with the way the Apple TV 4K handles Atmos audio. 

 

Now, while the TrueHD mix was definitely better, that doesn’t mean the streamed mix was bad. Just not as good. This was especially noticeable when played back to back, where the TrueHD audio had a wider, airier, more natural presentation. Outdoor scenes like in the jungles of Jumanji just felt more open and like you were in the actual environment, while the DD+ audio felt more centered on the screen.

 

For luxury cinema owners who’ve invested in getting the best experience possible, there are definite, noticeable audio improvements to be had by purchasing content in the lossless format.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 1

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 1

For years, audiophiles have bemoaned the lackluster quality of MP3 audio files, saying they compress the life out of the music. Yet people still buy, stream, and enjoy MP3 (or similarly compressed) music files by the billions, so are they really that bad?

 

The music analogy of lossy, compressed MP3 files versus lossless, high-resolution .WAV (or similar) files is a great starting point for discussing the audio quality of streaming movie services. Without getting too deep into the weeds, streaming sites like Vudu, Netflix, and Apple deliver an audio bitstream using Dolby Digital Plus (DD+) while Blu-ray and UltraHD discs and titles downloaded from the Kaleidescape movie store use Dolby TrueHD. (We could also have a discussion of DTS versus DTS-HD Master or DTS:X, but since no streaming services yet provide or supports these, we’ll table that for later.)

 

A lossy codec like DD+ compresses the original full-resolution file, discarding information the encoder deems the listener won’t miss or wouldn’t have heard to begin with. This significantly reduces the original file size, making it easier to stream. But a lossless format like TrueHD retains all of the original information, resulting in a much larger file, which creates a problem for streaming services but isn’t a factor for a disc or for content downloaded from Kaleidescape.

According to Dolby, “Digital Plus provides up to twice the efficiency of Dolby Digital while adding new features like 7.1-ch audio, support for descriptive video services, and support for Dolby Atmos. Dolby Digital Plus is widely used by streaming and broadcast services to deliver surround sound audio at lower bitrates. 5.1-ch audio in Dolby Digital Plus is typically encoded at bitrates between 192–256 kbps.” (My emphasis.)

 

Dolby also says, “TrueHD is a lossless audio codec used widely on HD and UHD Blu-ray Discs. Dolby TrueHD supports up to 24-bit audio and sampling rates from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz. Dolby TrueHD supports up to 7.1 audio channels as well as Dolby Atmos immersive audio. As Dolby TrueHD is a lossless audio codec, the data rate is variable. For example, Dolby TrueHD bitrates average around 6,000 kbps for Dolby Atmos at 48 kHz with peak data rates up to a maximum of 18,000 kbps for high sampling rate content.” (Again, emphasis is mine.)

 

So, what does this mean?

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 1

Well, if you take the highest DD+ encode rate—256 kbps—and compare it to the average for Dolby TrueHD—6,000 kbps—you’ll see that the TrueHD audio stream has more than 23 times more data allocated to it.

 

Fine. But can you actually hear and appreciate the difference? In Part 2, I’ll give you the results of my comparison of the same movies streamed on Vudu and Apple TV and downloaded from Kaleidescape.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

High-End TVs Get Design Friendly–Finally

High-End TVs Get Design Friendly--Finally

LG’s OLED88Z9PUA 88-inch 8K TV

If you’re looking to create a multi-use luxury entertainment space in your home, chances are you’re eyeing a direct-view TV over a projection system. That’s not a given, mind you, since there are still any number of reasons to go with a projector. But these days, TVs are where it’s at, especially in terms of picture quality and value.

Still, you’re right to worry about packing a big monolithic black box in the front of your room, or hanging it on the wall of your immaculately decorated entertainment space. The good news is, TV manufacturers are finally starting to devote as much attention to interior design as they are to industrial design, at least at the higher end of the market. In fact, that’s one of the things that truly differentiates luxury TVs from more budget-oriented models these days.

 

In her latest piece, Adrienne Maxwell does a great job of breaking down the current state of the TV market from a performance perspective. But as she hints toward the end, performance isn’t everything. I recently replaced my old TV—a 65-inch flagship UHD model from one of the top manufacturers—with a mid-priced 75-inch model with Dolby Vision capabilities. (The old one only supported HDR10 high dynamic range.) The 75-incher retails for less than half the price the 65-incher did just three years ago, yet it positively blows its pricier forebear out of the water in terms of contrast, color reproduction, screen uniformity, and practically every other picture consideration that matters.

Turn off the screen and turn on the lights, though, and I start to miss my old TV a little. This new overachiever, for all its performance advantages, just kinda sits there. It’s a big, blah rectangle with four spindly feet protruding from the corners that do nothing to conceal the cables connected to the back of the set.

 

Compare that with the new and upcoming slate of flagship offerings from a number of manufacturers, and you can start to see where the high end is really differentiating itself. With little room left to grow in the picture department, today’s upscale-TV makers are decking out their offerings with all sorts of niceties meant to turn TVs from a design vice into a design virtue.

(sorry about the music)

Here are just some of the ways manufacturers are exploring the new frontiers of TV design:

 

Reframing the TV as Art
Samsung’s “The Frame” solves the problem of TV wall clutter by transforming itself into a legitimate piece of artwork when you turn it off. LG does something similar with its Gallery Mode, which uses your TV to display scenic vistas from around the world, updated for every season of the year, when it’s not in use.

Reshaping the TV Itself
Whether you’re looking for something like LG’s rollable OLED TV introduced at CES, or something more radical like the Micro LED displays that are being teased for future public consumption, odds are good that tomorrow’s luxury TV won’t even look like your typical notion of a TV at all. The rollable model literally shrinks into its combination pedestal/built-in sound system like an upside-down window shade. And Micro LED displays consist of Lego-like modular building blocks that let you build a vibrant screen to fit any space, irrespective of traditional notions about display size classes.

High-End TVs Get Design Friendly--Finally

Rethinking the Pedestal
Instead of the awkward stand you’re used to seeing, display designers are exploring new and varied ways of making sure your TV stands up straight. Take a look at Sony’s A9F Master Series OLED (shown above), for example, which sets itself apart with an innovative origami-style kickstand that makes the display positively captivating to look at from the back and sides. LG’s OLED88Z9PUA (say that three times fast) also takes a new approach to the tired old TV stand by affixing the massive display to the top of a simple, elegant open shelf that sits on the floor instead of on a credenza.

 

Whatever form your next display takes, I honestly believe we’re approaching a time in which near-perfect performance is just taken for granted at any price. And when we get there, manufacturers won’t be able to use geeky specifications like nits and dynamic range and awful “smart TV” interfaces to sell displays anymore. What will define the luxury TV of the future is how it fits into your lifestyle, even when—or especially when—it’s turned off.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.