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It’s Time to Update My Theater

 Some views of my home theater space, pre upgrades

photos by Jim Raycroft

The first home theater component I ever purchased was a subwoofer back in 1995. It was a big 15-inch black cube Definitive Technology model that I drove into San Francisco to buy after researching everything I could find for weeks in all the enthusiast magazines at the time. From there, I bought a Yamaha digital surround decoder and Dolby Digital RF demodulator

for a laserdisc player, connected it all to some speakers and a 25-inch Proton tube TV, and voila! I had my first home theater system.

 

It didn’t have a lot of style or elegance, and it certainly wasn’t luxury, but I was on the cutting edge of 5.1-channel technology, and it sounded better than anything my friends had.

 

And I was hooked.

 

Over the years, my system has seen a lot of upgrades, most frequently in the preamp/processor section, as I chase the technology dragon of trying to stay current with surround formats, channel counts, and HDMI processing. (For the record, the 13.1-channel Marantz AV8805 is currently serving processing duties in my rack, and doing a very fine job of it, thank you.)

 

Speakers get upgraded the least often, as a good speaker rarely stops sounding good, and, if cared for, rarely breaks. Sources come and go as technology improves. Gone are the VCR, and the LaserDisc and DVD players. Currently in use are a Kaleidescape Strato and M500 player, Samsung UHD Blu-ray, Apple 4KTV, Dish Hopper 3, and Microsoft Xbox One.

 

Lying in the upgrade middle ground is my system display. Long gone is the 25-inch Proton, having been replaced by a 35-inch Mitsubishi, then a 61-inch Samsung DLP, then a 60-inch Pioneer Elite Plasma. Currently, my primary display is a Sony XBR-65X930D, a 65-inch 4K LED. However, it’s a D-

generation, and Sony is now on G models, so it might be due for replacement next year.

 

One device in my system that has never been upgraded is my video projector.

 

I always wanted a truly big-screen, cinematic experience, and this meant a projector and screen. So I purchased the best projector Marantz made (the VP-11S2, shown below) back in 2008, along with a Panamorph anamorphic lens and motorized 

sled system. This setup fires onto a Draper MultiView screen that has masking to show either a 92-inch 16:9 image or a 115-inch 2.35:1 Cinemascope image.

 

The first time we dropped the lights, powered on the projector, and lowered the screen, I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have this amazing system in my own home, and we essentially stopped going out to the movies.

 

I continued to feel that way about my projection system for years. It 

It's Time to Update My Theater

provided an amazing, truly cinematic experience that made me happy literally every time we used it. And use it we did, generally watching two to three movies per week on the big screen.

 

But then, technology moved on.

 

Principally, HDMI went from 1.4 to 2.0, resolution went from 1080p to 4K, and video went from SDR to HDR.

 

While the Marantz still worked, it was now by far the weakest link in my theater chain, and it no longer supported any of the sources we wanted to watch. In fact, just watching a Blu-ray on the system via our Kaleidescape meant going into the Kaleidescape’s Web setup utility and telling the system to “dumb itself down” to output HDMI 1.4 signals. A huge hassle.

 

So, a couple of years ago, we basically stopped using the projector at all.

 

But, some things changed in the projector world at the recent CEDIA Expo in Denver that inspired me to finally make the upgrade plunge, and that’s what I’ll dive into in my next post!

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.

How to Become an Expert Listener

How to Become an Expert Listener

Recently, I helped my friend Ed set up two audio systems. During the process of dialing them in, I had to walk him through what to listen for in order to hear the improvements because he didn’t know what to focus on in evaluating the sound. It occurred to me that most people don’t.

 

A luxury stereo system or home theater should deliver exceptional sound, of course. But what exactly should you listen for in evaluating, choosing, setting up, and enjoying a high-performance system?

 

(Note: I’m not going to dig deeply here into how to set up various aspects of a system to achieve peak performance, but rather what to listen for.)

First of all: A system will only sound as good as its source material. It’s essential to use good demo tracks. Don’t go with a low-bit-rate MP3 file for music listening, for example. Use an audiophile CD or LP, or a high-res download or streaming service.

 

For stereo music evaluation, you can’t go wrong with that stone classic, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. It’s one of the best recordings ever made, thanks to the brilliant talent of Grammy-winning engineer Alan Parsons. Listing the strengths of this album is like outlining a mini-course in what to listen for:

 

—Deep, articulate bass, a rich midrange, and extended highs

—Accurate timbre of vocals and instruments (except when deliberately processed)

—An expansive sound field

—Wide dynamics, from almost subliminally soft to powerfully loud

—A remarkably clean sonic character.

 

(I’ll expand on each of these various areas below.)

 

A system should have a coherent tonal balance from top to bottom, without any particular frequency range sticking out. You don’t want it to sound too bright in the midrange (roughly the area between 200Hz and 5kHz, where most of the frequencies of the human voice reside) or have weak, recessed bass. With a solo piano recording like Robert Silverman’s superb Chopin’s Last Waltz, listen for the transitions between the low, middle, and high notes, which should be smooth and seamless.

 

Listen for a clear, “transparent” sound with a lot of fine musical detail. The sound should be pure, without any “grain,” hardness, or roughness in texture. (For example, a flute should sound clean and natural, not buzzy or strident or distorted.) Bass should be articulate, not indistinct. The midrange should have plenty of presence, since that’s where most of the music “lives.” Highs should be airy and extended.

 

Subtleties like the “ting” of the triangle in the Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony recording of Scheherazade (an example of the upper range) or the reverb on Shelby Lynne’s voice on Just A Little Lovin’ (an example of the midrange) should be clearly audible. Although it’s not all that realistic in terms of spatial positioning of the instruments, Miles Davis’ jazz classic Kind of Blue is excellent for evaluating timbre, resolution, and overall naturalness of sound.

 

For stereo setups, listen for a coherent sound field without a “hole in the middle” (from your speakers being too far apart 

or not angled in properly) or a lack of imaging and spaciousness (speakers too close together). Depending on the recording, vocals and instruments can be precisely defined in space, left to right and front to back, and the sound field can seem to extend beyond the speakers and maybe even the room. (For some tips on speaker placement, check out these articles from Lifewire and Dynaudio.)

 

However, be aware that on some recordings, especially those from the late 1950s through early 1970s, vocals and instruments can be placed too far off to the left or right. Also, you won’t hear laser-focused pinpoint imaging on a properly-miked orchestral recording—because that’s not what things sound like in real life. And keep in mind that changing your

listening position will have a significant impact on the sound.

 

I once visited the Harman listening lab in Northridge, California, where they used Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” to help determine the differences between speakers. That’s because it’s one of the easiest cuts for people to use in picking out sonic differences.

 

When listening to multichannel movies or music, the sound literally expands, thanks to the addition of center and surround speakers, one or more subwoofers, and, in some installations, height speakers (for example, in a Dolby Atmos system). In fact, Cineluxe has some excellent recommendations for home theater demo material.

 

Listen for a good balance between all the speakers. The surround speakers and subwoofers shouldn’t overly call attention to themselves except when the audio mix warrants it. You should hear a seamless, immersive 360-degree bubble of sound.

 

Dialogue clarity is critical for movies and TV! As such, the performance of the center-channel speaker in a multichannel setup is crucial. (Center-channel volume can be set independently—a very important aspect of home theater system tuning.)

How to Listen—The App

 

I have a confession to make.

 

Instead of writing this post,  I could have been lazy and just told you to check out the Harman: How to Listen app. It’s a training course that teaches you how to become a better listener by pointing out various sonic aspects to focus on, such as specific frequency ranges, spatial balances, and other attributes. Check out this post by Harman’s Dr. Sean Olive for more details.

–F.D.

On another note, it’s a good idea to use material you’re familiar with when evaluating a system, even if it’s not “demo quality,” so you can instantly hear the improvements a luxury system can make. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat someone in front of my high-end setup, asked them to pick a favorite piece of music, and then heard them say things like, “I can’t believe the difference! I never knew it could sound like that! It sounds like a different recording!”

 

The best advice I can give is to constantly school yourself to become a better listener.

 

Go out and listen to live unamplified music, whether at Carnegie Hall or a friend strumming an acoustic guitar. Get familiar with the sonic nuances of various instruments. Listen to as many audio and home theater systems as possible, at stores, friends’ houses, and audio shows. Listen to the sounds around you—birds, wind, city streets.

 

Good listeners are made, not born.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

4K is Sometimes Actually 2K–But That’s OK

4K is Sometimes Actually 2K--But That's OK

From time to time in our reviews of 4K/HDR home video releases, you may have stumbled across a phrase that seems downright perplexing: “Taken from a 2K digital intermediate.” It stands to reason, after all, that a video file that has spent some portion of its life at 2K resolution can’t really be considered 4K. Or can it?

 

This can be doubly confusing when the sentence before or after makes note of the film being shot “on ARRIRAW at 6.5K resolution” or something to that effect. That’s a whole lot of different Ks for a film that’s ostensibly being released in 4K (or, more accurately “Ultra HD”) for home video. So, what exactly does all of this mean? And should you really care?

 

To get to the bottom of these questions, we need to back up and discuss how movies are shot, produced, and distributed. To keep the discussion as simple as possible, we’ll ignore films that are still captured on actual film stock and just focus on digital cinema, since that’s the way most movies (and TV shows) are shot.

 

Depending on the model of camera used, as well as other technical considerations, the resolution captured by these cameras generally ranges between 2K (2,048 x 858 or 2,048 x 1,152) and 6.5K (6,560 x 3,102), with a few other resolutions in between—like 2.8K (2,880 x 1,620) and 3.4K (3,424 x 2,202)—also commonly used. The “K” is short for “thousand,” and the resulting abbreviation is simply a rough approximation of the horizontal resolution of the resulting file.

 

At any rate, no matter what resolution a film is shot in, the footage has to be reformatted to standard digital cinema projector resolutions, either 2K (2,048 × 1,080) or 4K (4,096 × 2,160), before being distributed to commercial movie theaters. But a lot more than that happens to most films before they’re released. They have to be edited and color timed, and with most 

4K is Sometimes Actually 2K--But That's OK

blockbusters, special effects have to be rendered and composited into the footage that was shot on-set.

 

This work is time-consuming and expensive, and the higher the resolution at which the work is done, the costlier and more time-consuming it is. As such, due to budget constraints, release schedules, or in some cases simply preference, this work is usually done at 2K (2,048 × 1,080) resolution, the result of which is what we refer to as a 2K digital intermediate. This is the last step in the post-production process for most films, before their conversion to Digital Cinema Distribution Master (DCDM) and Digital Cinema Package (DCP), the latter being the compressed version of the final film sent to movie theaters for public consumption.

 

Sometimes, budget and time allowing, films are finished in a 4K digital intermediate—Black Panther, for example, just to name one recent Hollywood blockbuster. But by and large, the vast majority of effects-driven tentpole films go through the 2K bottleneck during postproduction.

 

Which may lead to you ask why they don’t just shoot the movies in 2K to begin with, if they’re going to be downsampled to 2K. It’s a good question. And the answer isn’t a simple one.

 

But, to simplify it as much as possible, shooting in 6.5K or 3.4K or even 2.8K, then downsampling to 2K, will often result in an image that’s crisper, clearer, and more

detailed than an image shot natively in 2K resolution. Ironically, you’ll also find some filmmakers who admit to shooting closeups of actors through filters of one form or another because the enhanced clarity of shooting in 6.5K or 3.4K or whatever can be somewhat less than flattering, even once the footage is downsampled to 2K. Nevertheless, there are technical advantages to shooting at such high resolutions, even if you and I will never see the original full-resolution footage.

 

Of course, there’s one other obvious question you may be asking: If all of this imagery has been shrunk down to 2K resolution, and all of the special effects have been rendered in 2K, why not just be honest about it and release the film in 2K? Why make the bogus claim that these home video releases are in 4K?

 

The cheeky answer is that we don’t have a 2K home video format. Digital cinema resolutions and home video resolutions simply don’t match up for historical reasons that I won’t delve into here. The older high-definition home video format, with its 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, is pretty close to 2K, but it’s still about six percent fewer pixels.

4K is Sometimes Actually 2K--But That's OK

The Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which many feel is one of the most
visually stunning recent films and a reference-quality 4K HDR release, was created solely in the
2K domain and then upsampled to 4K for distribution

When you get right down to it, though, pixel count is actually one of the least important contributors to perceived image quality, once you get above a certain resolution. High dynamic range (HDR) video and wide color gamut actually play a much greater role in our perception of the quality of the picture. And HD video formats, such as Blu-ray or 1080p downloads and streams, simply don’t support the larger color gamut and higher dynamic range that modern video displays support.

 

For that, we have to step up to Ultra HD, which is colloquially called “4K” by many in our industry, if only because “Ultra HD” is a mouthful. The thing is, most UHD home video displays have a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160—a little less than the digital cinema standard 4K resolution of 4,096 × 2,160. But still, close enough.

 

And here’s the important thing to consider, if you take nothing else away from this long and rambling screed: If you want to enjoy the best that home video has to offer these days, you’re going to be watching your movies (and TV shows) in Ultra HD on an Ultra HD display. Would it be technically possible for Hollywood to release those movies and shows in something closer to 2K resolution, while also delivering HDR and wide color gamut? Sure. It may be contrary to home video format standards,

but nothing about that would violate the laws of physics.

 

But why would they? Your display (or your player, or maybe even your AV receiver or preamp) is going to upsample any incoming video to match the resolution of your screen anyway. One way or another, you’re going to be viewing 3,840 x 2,160 pixels. As such, why wouldn’t you want the studios to use their vastly more sophisticated professional video scalers to upsample the resolution before it’s delivered to you via disc, download, or streaming? Those video processors don’t work in real-time, the way the processors built into your player, receiver, or display do. They’re slow, methodical, and do a much better job.

 

So even if the movie you’re enjoying this evening technically passed through a 2K-resolution digital intermediate at some point, that doesn’t mean you’re being duped when you’re sold a “4K/UHD” home video release. You’re still enjoying the most important technical advantages of the Ultra HD format—namely the increased dynamic range and color gamut.

 

Mind you, for David Attenborough nature documentaries and other footage that doesn’t require the addition of special effects, I want a genuine Ultra HD video master, with every possible pixel kept intact. But for big Hollywood blockbusters? I honestly think this whole “Fake 4K” discussion has gotten way out of hand.

 

I’ll leave you with one last thought to consider. This summer’s biggest film, Avengers: Endgame, reportedly had a budget of more than $350 million before marketing costs 

were factored in. Of that $350-ish million, roughly $100 million went to the visuals, including special effects. Had the film been finished in a 4K digital intermediate instead of a 2K one, you can bet that budget would have been significantly higher (remember, the jump from 2K to 4K isn’t a doubling, but rather a quadrupling of pixels, since both the horizontal and vertical resolution is doubled, and rendering four times as many pixels simply costs a heck of a lot more money and time.)

 

Would it have been worth it? Well, consider this: The original John Wick film was shot in 2.8K and finished in a 4K digital intermediate, whereas the latest release in the franchise, John Wick 3, was shot in 3.2K and finished in a 2K digital intermediate. I haven’t seen any of these films, but every review I’ve read seems to indicate that the UHD home video release of the third looks noticeably better than the first.

 

If 2K digital intermediates were truly the bane of the home cinephile’s existence, this simply wouldn’t be the case. So, when we mention in reviews that an Ultra HD release came from a 2K digital intermediate, we’re not implying that you’re somehow being cheated out of pixels you thought you were paying for when you bought that big new “4K” display. We’re just video geeks being video geeks and pointing out the most pedantic of details. In the few rare cases where it makes a legitimate difference, we’ll point that out explicitly.

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.

The Current State of the Luxury Audio Art

The Current State of the Luxury Audio Art

Steinway Lyngdorf’s P200 surround processor

In my previous post, I talked about the intriguing video trends I came across at the recent custom integrators CEDIA Expo in Denver. While there weren’t as many new developments on the audio side, I did notice a few continuing and developing trends throughout the show that will have an impact on the luxury home cinema market. And, unlike some of the premium video solutions on the horizon, these are all things that can be implemented in a home theater immediately!

HIGHER CHANNEL COUNT

While immersive surround systems such as Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and Auro3D are pretty much de facto in newly installed luxury home cinemas, we need to remember that these formats have been available in the home market for only about five years, and until fairly recently the channel count for most of these systems maxed out at 12 in a 7.1.4 configuration (seven ear-level speakers, a subwoofer, and four overhead speakers).

 

But there has been an explosion of systems that support up to 16 channels in a 9.1.6 array, which adds front width speakers at ear level and an additional pair of overhead speakers. While having 15 (or more) speakers in a room might seem excessive, creating a seamless and truly immersive experience in large rooms that have multiple rows of seating requires additional channels to create cohesion between speakers as objects travel around the surround mix.

The Current State of the Luxury Audio Art

Companies offering new 16-channel AV receivers and preamp/processorss include JBL Synthesis, Arcam, Acurus, Bryston, Emotiva, and Monoprice. Some companies are even pushing the boundaries beyond 16, including StormAudio, Steinway Lyngdorf, Trinnov, JBL Synthesis, and Datasat.

 

 

BETTER BASS IN EVERY SEAT

Three home theater masters—Theo Kalomirakis, Joel Silver, and Anthony Grimani—presented a full-day training course titled “Home Cinema Design Masterclass,” where they discussed best practices in home theater design. Grimani, president of Grimani Systems and someone who has worked on more than 1,000 rooms over his 34-year career, stated that 30% of what people like about an audio system happens between 20 and 100Hz—the bass region. In short, if a system’s bass response and performance aren’t good, the whole system suffers.

 

But low frequencies are difficult to pull off correctly, especially across multiple seating positions, which is the ultimate goal in a luxury cinema. Good bass is possible for multiple listeners, but multiple subwoofers are always needed. Two subs are better 

than one, three subs are better than two, and four subs are better than three. (But Grimani stated that adding more than four subs actually has diminishing results.)

 

All the best home cinemas feature multiple subwoofers, not for louder bass, as one might think, but for more even bass at every seat. The best theaters deliver slam and impact at the low-end, but are also quick and free of bloat, which is what multiple good subs can deliver.

 

 

ROOM CALIBRATION

In  that same master class, Tony Grimani also claimed that achieving good bass performance almost always requires the correct use of equalization. Virtually every home theater receiver or processor sold today incorporates some form of room-correction softwareeither proprietary like Yamaha’s YPAO or Anthem’s ARC, or a third-party solution like Audyssey. At its simplest, these software systems employ a microphone to measure tones emitted by the speakers, which are used to calculate the distance from the speaker to the listener as well as to set channel levels. The more advanced systems employ equalization and other types of filters in an attempt to optimize how the room interacts with the signal. 

 

Three of the most revered and powerful room-correction systems all hail from Europe: Trinnov Audio (France), Dirac (Sweden), and Steinway Lyngdorf’s RoomPerfect (Scandinavia). These systems offer more adjustments, filters, and flexibility that less expensive, more mass-market offerings in order to make any room sound its absolute 

best. (For more on the importance of room correction, read this post by Dennis Burger.)

 

One of the big developments in room correction featured at the CEDIA Expo was Dirac’s new Live Bass Management module. An add-on to the existing Dirac Live correction system, it will aggregate measurement and location data from multiple subwoofers in a system to determine how best to distribute bass evenly across a room. It will also correct low-frequency sound waves produced by the main speaker pair so they’re in sync with the rest of the system.

 

But just having access to the best room-correction devices isn’t enough, as the best luxury rooms are calibrated by professionals who have been trained in acoustics to the Nth degree. This small group of top-tier calibrators travels the world with kits costing tens of thousands of dollars in order to measure, sample, adjust, and tweak the parameter of every speaker and subwoofer in your theater to wring out the very last drop of performance.

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.

A Guide to Luxury Amps & Preamps

A Guide to Luxury Amps & Preamps
What is a Luxury Entertainment System?

As promised in our last Cineluxe Basics post, which covered the things you should consider when picking source components for your luxury home-entertainment system, this time we’ll be turning our attention to one of the most important—but also one of the most overlooked—components required to make such systems work. It’s such an esoteric piece of gear that you may not fully understand what it does.

 

But hopefully by the end of this discussion you’ll not only have a lot more respect for the lowly preamplifier; you’ll also be better able to make a more informed decision about which one is right for your system.

 

Everyone understands that source components like disc players, satellite boxes, movie servers, and video streamers deliver the movies and TV shows you watch on a regular basis, either from a silver platter, the airwaves, or a hard drive somewhere.

It’s positively axiomatic that your TV or projector is responsible for delivering those images to your eyes, and your speakers transmit sound through the air to your ears.

 

The preamp, though? It’s the box that sits in the middle, functioning as a sort of air-traffic control for your entertainment system. It sends the video from your sources to your display. It decodes the digital audio stream from your source components and sends it to your amps and speakers in analog form.

 

And you may be thinking to yourself, “That sounds an awful lot like an AV receiver!” It’s true. Preamp/amplifiers serve the same function in a luxury home-entertainment system as do AV receivers. It’s simply that a receiver combines all of the preamplification and amplification in one box, whereas going the preamp/amplifier route gives you a lot more flexibility in terms of perfectly matching your amplification needs to your speakers and your room.

 

As a result, it’s not inaccurate to say that a preamp/amp combo will generally give you better performance than a receiver, especially in a larger room. A more accurate explanation would also be a much more complicated one, but if you’re itching for a geeky discussion about the topic, I wrote one a few years back for Home Theater Review.

 

At any rate, these days all of the above is only part of the equation when it comes to selecting the right preamp. Another important function that has arisen in the past few years is digital room correction. Broadly speaking, “digital room correction” is a catch-all term that covers a number of different technologies, but all of them ostensibly serve the same purpose: To use a combination of equalization and other filtering to reverse the deleterious acoustic effects your room itself has on the sound leaving your speakers.

 

These effects come in two forms: Those caused by the shape of your room and those caused by the surfaces in your room. The former affects the clarity and evenness of bass in the room, as the low-frequency sounds coming from

your subwoofers and other speakers bounce off the walls and ceilings and either cancel each other out or reinforce one another.

 

Bass frequencies below 250 Hz or so (the highest note you can play on a double bass) have a really long wavelength, between five and 60 feet, so it takes a really big, flat surface to reflect them. So, it doesn’t really matter if your room is decorated with wood paneling or acoustic fabric; your subwoofer is going to sound overwhelming in one part of the room and wimpy in another. All good room-correction systems will listen to a microphone placed in and around the seats in

your entertainment space and tweak the sounds coming from your subs and speakers so the bass has impact and authority without sounding boomy or sloppy.

 

A great example of a room-correction system that positively excels in this respect is Anthem Room Correction, which you’ll find, appropriately enough, on preamps made by Anthem, like the AVM 60 (shown at the top of the page). If you have a dedicated home cinema space with acoustically treated walls, Anthem Room Correction is likely all you need to whip your bass into shape and make your subwoofers sounds like a million bucks.

If, on the other hand, you have a multi-use home-entertainment space in a living room or family room, your installer may recommend a more sophisticated—and indeed more expensive—preamplifier with a more advanced room-correction solution. That’s because it takes a lot more processing power and a lot more calculations to digitally correct problems that arise from hard or uneven surfaces in the room—like mirrors, windows, cabinets, hardwood floors, etc.—or even standard decorations like vases, coffee tables, or even columns along the wall. Since these surfaces are smaller than, say, the entire back wall of your room, they affect smaller wavelengths of sound—hence, higher frequencies.

 

You can attempt to correct for such problems with almost any room-correction system, but the cheaper ones—like you’ll find on most mass-market AV receivers—don’t do a very good job of it, leaving you with a sound system that’s lifeless, dull, and uninspiring.

 

Better, more sophisticated room-correction solutions, though, can go a long way toward erasing the harsh audible effects of such surfaces from the sound that reaches your ears, without making it sound like you’ve thrown a blanket over your head. Examples of such systems include RoomPerfect, which you can find on Lyngdorf’s MP-50 and MP-60 preamplifiers, as 

well as Trinnov’s Speaker/Room Optimizer, found on the company’s Altitude line of preamps. Your installer may also recommend preamps that rely on Dirac Live room correction, an excellent mid-priced solution.

 

As for amplifiers? Your best bet here is simply to listen to the advice of your installer. You will, of course, need one channel of amplification for every speaker in your system (except perhaps for the subwoofers, which often contain their own amplification),

so if you’re installing a 7.2.6-channel system (that’s seven ear-level speakers, two subwoofers, and six overhead speakers), you’ll need at least 13 channels of amplification. That may come in the form of two seven-channel amps, seven stereo amps, or even 13 standalone “monoblock” amplifiers, with each configuration having its own relative pluses and minuses. But again, chances are good your installer is intimately familiar with the speakers going into your system, and knows what amplification will work best.

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.

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far from Home

Like James Bonds—and maybe even Batmans—people undoubtedly have a favorite Spider-Man between Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland, the latest webslinger to wear the red and blue. For me, I think it has less to do with the man behind the mask—although, I’ll admit to being partial to Holland’s portrayal—and more to do with the storyline and relationships that makes the latest Spider-Man films the best of the bunch.

 

This third franchise reboot can trace its roots back to Captain America: Civil War, where Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) took young Spidey under his Iron wing, gave him a better suit, and helped him in his fight against Cap and the Avengers. That mentor relationship continued in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Holland’s first turn carrying a film as Peter Parker and Spidey 

and one that, thankfully, didn’t make us relive the entire “bit by a spider, hunted down my uncle’s killer” origin. Of course, Spidey’s relationship with Tony Stark played a role in both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: Far from Home picks up and continues that storyline.

 

There will be some major story spoilers if you’ve yet to see Endgame, as much of Far from Home’s first act revolves around the ramifications of both Infinity and Endgame. So I would strongly suggest watching both of those films first—plus, they’re just a ton of fun to watch.

 

Home picks up about 8 months after the events of Endgame, and the world has come to call this time “The Blip.” We get a nice bit of exposition in an opening newscast from Peter’s high school, where we find how the kids are dealing with the ramifications of the Blip, where some have missed five years of their lives, while others who were previously much younger are now older. (If you’ve seen Endgame, you understand.) Peter is still personally reeling from Stark’s death, and he sees signs of Tony/Iron Man literally everywhere.

 

During a class trip to Europe, Peter is called on by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to help a new superhero, Quentin Beck/Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), who comes from another earth in the Multiverse, battle giant Elementals bent on destroying the planet. Peter is reluctant to help, wanting to just have a chance to relax and be a kid and profess his love for MJ (Zendaya), but Fury rearranges the trip’s itinerary to continue putting Peter in a position to help.

 

Of course, not all is as it seems, and Peter is forced to make some tough decisions while trying to win the girl, save his friends, and keep his identity secret.

 

As I mentioned at the beginning, it’s the continued relationships developed over the years of the MCU that make these latest Spidey films so much more enjoyable and feel so much richer. In Home, we get Happy (Jon Favreau) trying to step in as a Stark mentor replacement, while also romancing Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), who looks terrific here. Fury is trying to restructure after losing so many Avengers, and trying to get Spider-Man to step up to fill a bigger role.

 

The relationship between Peter and man-in-the-chair Ned (Jacob Batalon) continues here, but complicated by a new romantic interest, along with douchey Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) who admires Spider-Man but loathes Parker. The humor is deftly handled, and there are several references to other Marvel characters. (Pay close attention to the movie options Peter browses for his in-flight film!)

Definitely stick around for both the mid-credits scene—which potentially alters Peter’s life forever—and the post-credits scene, which has a nice callback to another recent Marvel film. And, while it in no way impacts the film, there is sadly no Stan Lee cameo here.

 

Far from Home looks fantastic. Filmed in a combination of 2.8 and 3.4K resolution, this transfer is taken from a 2K digital intermediate, but it is never wanting for pop or detail. This is a marquee title, and it absolutely looks it. Both closeup and long shots have great detail and texture, and razor-sharp edge detail with incredible depth and dimension—things like the metallic texture of Spidey’s Iron Spider suit or the fine detail in Ned’s hat.

 

The film travels through three major European cities, which all have their own look. While in Venice, many of the scenes are outdoors during the day, and the city looks so beautiful you could be watching a travelogue. At night, interiors are lit by the soft glow of lamps, revealing warm and natural colors. In contrast, much of the scenes in Prague are at night, and we get the bright lights and color of fireworks at a carnival.

Home definitely benefits from the high dynamic range and wide color gamut of UltraHD, and both are used well throughout to push images to their best. From the vivid red of Spidey’s suit, to Mysterio’s green blasts, to the broiling red-orange of the Fire Elemental, images pop off the screen when they should. Also, HDR just lends an overall better sense of depth to the image. Black levels are also deep and clean throughout, with clear differences between shades of black, such as Happy’s black suit, Peter’s black shirt and pants, and Fury’s black leather trench coat and turtleneck. The film’s Images are all reference-quality and offer no room for criticism.

 

Sonically, the Dolby Atmos track is also an absolute treat, with near constant and aggressive use of the surround and height speakers. There is a scene in a hotel in Venice where you hear workers hammering overhead even with no visible construction happening on screen, which is a great audio moment letting you know exactly what’s going on even without seeing it.

 

The battles also offer a complete hemispherical experience, with things crashing and being destroyed all around, or water splashing and raining down from the ceiling. Another scene where Spidey is inside the Illusion has voices swirling

Spider-Man: Far from Home

constantly overhead, moving from speaker to speaker all around and above you, creating a sonic illusion I don’t think I’ve heard in any other film.

 

Available now for download in 4K HDR from the Kaleidescape Store a full two weeks before the physical disc is released, Spider-Man: Far from Home is a fun and engaging movie that looks and sounds fantastic, making for a great home cinema selection.

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.

Yesterday

Yesterday

Of all the possible director/writer combinations that the world of cinema could possible throw together, the pairing of Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, Sunshine) and Richard Curtis (About Time, Love Actually, Blackadder) wouldn’t have occurred to me if you’d left me alone in a room for a couple of years with nothing but access to IMDb. So, it’s no real surprise that Yesterday—a new fantasy/romantic comedy with a preposterously adorable premise—feels so unlike anything either man has created to date.

 

Boyle, for all of his kinetic style, generally seems to make films that lack tenderness, whereas Curtis has the magical ability to throw a bunch of clichés in a bag, shake them up, and always pull out something sweet and unforgettable. But his films are rarely noteworthy in terms of aesthetic panache.

 

Despite not being the best work of either Boyle or Curtis (those would be Trainspotting and About Time in my book), Yesterday does manage to bring out the best of each man’s strengths. Boyle’s visual palette for the film, while certainly energetic at times, is admirably reserved at others. That balance takes a little of the saccharine out of Curtis’ story and

characters. (Saccharine that I enjoy, mind you; I’ll watch Love Actually any minute of any day. But let’s be honest: That movie is dessert, not a healthy meal.)

 

Yesterday also happens to be one of the simplest stories either Boyle or Curtis has committed to film, despite it’s convoluted-sounding premise. It goes a little something like this: Singer/songwriter Jack Malik (played by Himesh Patel) is on the verge of giving up on his musical career, 

despite the protestations of his manager and longtime friend Ellie Appleton (played by an almost unrecognizable Lily James, who distances herself from her famous Downton Abbey character not through accent or wardrobe, but in the very way she carries herself—her facial expressions, her body language, her laugh, even her smile).

 

Then fate intervenes. A 12-second blackout mysteriously envelops the entire world. When the power comes back on, Jack is lying on the side of the road, having been struck by a bus. He awakes in the hospital to discover that he alone remembers the Beatles. And, oddly enough, Coca-Cola. And, not so oddly given the initial premise, the band Oasis. As such, he sets out to recreate the Beatles catalog, taking credit for writing these forgotten songs, and becomes an international superstar.

 

I could go on, but as I said, aside from one half-hearted attempt at a plot twist that’s really more of a red herring, Yesterday is ultimately a simple tale. A fairy tale, almost. At its heart, it’s really the story of a girl who loves a boy but wants him to make the first move, and a boy who loves a girl, but thinks himself unworthy of her until he’s the biggest star in the world, at which point she can’t imagine him being with a simple middle-class girl.

 

Franky, if it weren’t such a straightforward narrative, Yesterday would probably collapse under its own weight. But by ignoring the historical significance of the Beatles’ catalog or the organic evolution thereof, and simply focusing on the inherent brilliance of this body of work one song a time, it works as a sweet and infectious modern fable that whizzes right by, despite its nearly two-hour length.

 

My only real beef with the film is that Kate McKinnon, whom I normally love as an actor and comedian, is woefully miscast in the minor role of Jack’s new agent. I can’t help but imagine that if Curtis were still directing his own screenplays, this part would have been played by regular collaborator Bill Nighy, as it seems to have been written for him. For what it’s worth, though, Ed Sheeran is perfect in the role of Ed Sheeran. The rest of the cast also excels—especially Patel, who has to perform the greatest hits of the Beatles in a way that’s not slavish, yet still faithful to the originals in spirit and also believable as modern popular music.

A few minutes into the film, I jotted down in the notebook I keep beside my seat: “Sound mix is too aggressive.” I quickly changed my mind, though. It’s true, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track included with the 4K/HDR Kaleidescape download of the film leans on the surround speakers and subwoofers way more than is generally my preference for feel-good comedies. But it works for Yesterday, especially in the way it uses samples, remixes, and remakes of Beatles hooks as a replacement for a more traditional score. Concert sequences, of which there are plenty, also benefit from the big, bold, dynamic sound design.

 

I also have to eat an early note I made about the 4K/HDR presentation. My first impression was that the film would work just as well in HD. Some quick comparisons between the 4K and 1080p versions did reveal, though, that the former is sharper, more nuanced in its contrasts, and is just generally less distracting and more engaging overall, even if its black levels are a little uneven.

 

That’s nitpicking, though. My one substantial grump about this early digital release is that it lacks the alternate ending and deleted scenes exclusive to the upcoming UHD Blu-ray release, as well as a couple of featurettes. The disc also promises to include a Dolby Atmos sound mix, which the download lacks. It remains to be

Yesterday

seen whether any of those bonuses and niceties are worth the wait. I can say this for certain, though: Yesterday isn’t a renter. It’s one to own, no doubt, even despite the fact that it’s not exactly high art. This is going to be my go-to watch on sick days or just when I need a pick-me-up for quite some time.

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.

The Need for High-End Audio

The Need for High-End Audio

For me, high-end audio is all about the emotion.

 

Hold that thought for a moment.

 

In a recent column, my friend and colleague Adrienne Maxwell asked, “Do we really need high-end audio?” She outlined many valid reasons as to why the answer may not be “yes.” Certainly, high-end audio would not be at the bedrock of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And the path to high-end nirvana can have many challenges.

 

As a consumer, there’s the expense (though one can assemble a wonderfully musical system without spending outrageous sums of money, as Adrienne pointed out), the concerns of system and room matching, the need for proper setup, and the possibility that after investing all that time and money your particular combination of room and gear just might not work well together. (The advice of an expert can be invaluable in avoiding this pitfall.)

As a salesperson or dealer, you have a responsibility to provide your customer with what they want. It goes without saying that this requires skill and insight, not just a desire to earn a big spiff.

 

As a high-end manufacturer, you have to balance the sometimes opposing factors of price, performance, aesthetics, manufacturability, business costs, and market demand. If you’re going all-out on a product that strives for ultimate quality, it will almost certainly carry a high price tag, and the law of diminishing returns will be staring you in the face.

 

And, yes, sometimes a large speaker might cost $30,000 or $100,000 or more. But consider their multiple top-quality drivers, complex-geometry cabinets with expensive woods and finishes, elaborate crossovers, premium parts, and so on. These don’t come cheap, and manufacturers and dealers have to make a profit. And such speakers can outperform other designs, sometimes dramatically so, especially in presence, scale, dynamics and bass extension.

 

As a reviewer, I can attest that properly reviewing high-end audio gear is demanding. Let’s say you’re doing a speaker review. You need to listen using different amps, cables, source components, and even rooms in order to try to factor out what the speaker is doing from what the other equipment is doing.

 

Then there’s the psychological pressure. You have a responsibility to get it right because the stakes with a high-end review are high. Because this gear can be so expensive to produce, a negative review can financially harm a manufacturer, especially a smaller one.

 

So why get involved in high-end audio at all? And, as Adrienne pointed out, what the heck is it even, anyway?

 

There have been many definitions of “high-end audio” over the decades, most defining it as the ability for components or systems to more accurately or convincingly reproduce the sound of music than typical products. Harry Pearson, founder of The Absolute Sound, characterized high-end as the ability to reproduce the sound of real music—the absolute sound—in real space. Certainly, when most think of high-end they think of expensive prices.

 

But, like I said, for me—and for so many others—it’s all about the emotion.

 

A high-end system is one that crosses the line from a mere (even if high-quality) reproducer of sound to one that conveys the emotional impact of music.

 

It’s a system that draws you in and engages you. It makes you forget that you’re listening to reproduced sound and makes a direct connection to your feelings on a primal, soul-deep level.

 

This is an elusive quality. Just ask an audiophile dedicated to the pursuit, or anyone who’s spent hours or days setting up a system at an audio show or a dealer or a customer’s home. A system might sound good, or it might even sound bad, and after painstakingly adjusting speaker placement, cartridge alignment, vibration-isolating feet, room treatment, or what-have-you, there’s ideally a moment when everything comes together and the sound becomes right, locked-in, and, at the best of times, magical.

 

I fervently believe that high-end audio is worth defending, preserving, and encouraging. (Disclaimer: I’m in the high-end audio industry. And let’s set aside considerations of possible overpricing, marketing hype, accusations of “snake oil,” and other frown-inducing aspects for the moment.) High-end audio reflects not only a constant striving for excellence but a noble (if also commercial) effort to bring listeners ever-closer to the music.

 

And when you get that closeness, it’s one of the most wonderful feelings in the world.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

The 4 Hottest Trends in Luxury Video

The 4 Hottest Trends in Luxury Video

Samsung’s The Wall Luxury microLED TV

I got a chance to get a bead on the latest trends in luxury video this past week at the annual custom integrators CEDIA Expo in Denver. It was great to see that some of the most intriguing products announced at January’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) are finally becoming real. 

 

microLED DISPLAYS

Perhaps the most exciting technology on display were large-screen microLED video panels that can come in sizes up to 65 feet diagonal. The images on these screens are incredibly bright, have no loss of black level due to ambient lighting, offer incredible contrast, support a wider color gamut, offer superior off-angle viewing, and handle HDR signals far better than front-projection systems.

 

MicroLED systems use small LED tiles, usually little larger than a brick, that snap into a larger matrix to form the full panel. You can later add more tiles to form an even larger screen, and tiles can be replaced as needed. (Most displays ship with extra tiles that have been matched to ensure color uniformity in the picture and facilitate in-field replacement.)

 

MicroLED panels increase resolution by decreasing the size of the pixel structure, or pitch. Reducing the distance between pixels—as measured from center-of-pixel to center-of-pixel—makes individual pixels invisible at typical seating distances.

Many companies offer panels with pixel pitch of less than 8mm.

 

The downside? This technology is massively expensive. How massive? Samsung’s 146-inch diagonal The Wall Luxury (shown above) will retail for $400,000. Need bigger? Sony has you covered with it’s Crystal LED Display System—previously given the awkward nickname CLEDIS—with a 16 x 9-foot panel (219-inch diagonal) that is full 4K resolution, with 1-million:1 contrast and supports high frame rates up to 120 fps, selling for $877,000. Other manufacturers I spoke with—such as Planar, Barco, and Digital Projection—all offer panels of varying sizes with similar pricing.

 

For the luxury market, this is truly the ultimate solution; but it looks likely microLED will never reach mainstream pricing.

 

 

LARGE-SCREEN PROJECTION

If you want a screen larger than 90 inches for your luxury theater or media room but don’t want to pay the exorbitant prices commanded by microLED displays, front-projection systems remain the best way to go. Due to limitations in light output, projectors often struggle with HDR signals, which are typically mastered for LED displays capable of producing far brighter images. Improving HDR handling is something projector companies continue working on, and both Sony and JVC rolled out new firmware specifically to address how their projectors process HDR images.

 

JVC’s new Frame Adapt HDR analyzes the peak brightness of each frame using a proprietary algorithm and adjusts dynamic range to provide the best possible HDR image. Frame Adapt HDR works with any HDR10 content, meaning all HDR sources—Kaleidescape Strato, Ultra HD Blu-ray players, Apple TV 4K, Xbox One, etc.—can be enjoyed with greater dynamic range and image quality.

 

Barco displayed a very cool projection solution by using a mirror system and its projection-warping technology to place the projector way off center and hidden out of the way—

actually turned sideways in a soffit and firing from the back corner of the room—while still offering a fantastic large-screen image.

 

 

ULTRA-SHORT-THROW PROJECTION

Ultra-short-throw projectors can sit very close to the screen wall—often just inches away—tucked low and out of sight, and can even be completely concealed in cabinetry. Paired with ambient-light-rejecting screens, these projectors produce bright and contrasty images in a typically lit room, meaning they can serve as a TV replacement, giving you 100 to 120 inches of screen that can be enjoyed all the time.

 

Short-throws have typically been priced for the upper end of the market. But at least four companies—LG, Epson, Optoma, and Hisense—now offer 4K laser projectors, usually paired with an appropriate screen and featuring a basic audio system, for under $6,000. This makes them a more attractive option for secondary rooms, like a den or bedroom. 

 

 

8K VIDEO

It seems silly to be talking about 8K video when we aren’t even at a point where broadcast TV—either off-the-air, cable, or satellite—can regularly deliver 4K images, but progress never stops in technology land. Sony, LG, and Samsung all demonstrated 8K displays at the show.

 

Beyond the added pixels—of which there are over 33 million in a 7,680 x 4,320 array—these sets also feature flagship video processing and higher brightness. And it’s these other features that have far more impact on the image than all the extra pixels.

 

Of the sets on display, one of the most impressive was LG’s new 88-inch 8K OLED, which delivered truly lifelike images, with amazing color detail and the ultra-deep black levels for which OLED is known. I’m sure they were feeding the set true 8K images, as they had stunning clarity and depth. At $30,000, this set is truly luxury, but for the viewer who wants the best-of-the-best, this 8K OLED panel won’t fail to impress.

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.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

There isn’t anyone (my parents excluded) who made quite the same long-term indelible impression on my life as Jim Henson did. Fred Rogers is close, but with Henson I’ve continued being entranced by his work, and the work of his company, far beyond my formative childhood years. I watch The Muppet Christmas Carol every December, Farscape is one of my favorite TV shows ever, and I’ve recently introduced my four-year-old son to Fraggle Rock. And of course he loves the lessons learned on Sesame Street.

 

But there was something about the release of The Dark Crystal in 1982 that had an even deeper impact. Maybe it was the fantasy setting or the incredible world-building of Thra, the world of the film. Or maybe the painstaking detail put into the terrifying Skeksis or the relatable Gelfling named Jen. Whatever it was, when The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance was announced as a prequel to the movie, I was part ecstatic and part scared. Would the Netflix series be able to capture the magic I felt from the film? And prequels can be problematic, as we already know what the outcome is going to be—at least in a broad sense.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

There was no need for me to worry. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a beautifully-crafted example of storytelling that builds on the mythology of the movie. The first couple episodes are a bit slow moving as there’s a decent amount of exposition covered and there are multiple storylines that need to be addressed and followed, but things soon get moving. And all the while we are treated to the expansive landscape of Thra, more so than what was presented in the movie.

 

Landscapes are full and lush, with intricate detail that’s on full display in the 4K Dolby Vision presentation. The characters are wonderfully unique—from the Skeksis to Gelflings to Podlings—and the HDR highlights the depth of the puppet designs. The

characters are brought to life with an all-star cast that includes Nathalie Emmanuel, Taron Egerton, Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg, Awkwafina, and Lena Headey. I was fully invested in their stories. The voice acting and puppetry kept me engaged throughout.

 

The vast majority of the series uses practical effects, but there are a few 

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

moments when CGI is employed that don’t quite match and can be mildly distracting when viewed in 4K HDR. Luckily these moments are few.

 

The Atmos audio is done tastefully. For the most part, surround channels are used to enhance the atmosphere with ambient effects sent to the rears. There are a couple choice moments with motion through the Atmos height channels that could draw your attention from the screen, but I didn’t find the mix to be excessive in any way.

 

Considering that The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is building upon an existing mythology, I could understand some concern that someone coming to the series fresh might feel lost. Luckily that isn’t the case. There’s plenty of information to bring in new visitors to Thra while keeping those of us who have spent years there enthralled. It’s an adventure for new and old alike.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.