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Luxury Made Easy, Pt. 2

Some of Rayva’s home theater design themes

In Pt. 1, legendary designer Theo Kalomirakis discussed the signature home theater he created in NY’s Westchester County for his company, Rayva. Here, we talk to Theo about Rayva’s streamlined approach to theater creation and its ambitious plans for the near future.

—Michael Gaughn

 

What are the differences between a Rayva theater and one of your custom designs?

 

That starts with the price. For a custom project, I am the one who will design the theater. Clients can make it very difficult to maintain a custom business because they are justifiably demanding. That means I must spend a lot of time just trying to keep them happy. That was OK for me in the past, but right now what excites me is focusing on Rayva. We can give clients a good-looking theater without the complications of a custom design.

 

The only real difference between Rayva and a custom design is that with custom you can pick and choose whatever you want. You want the Taj Mahal, you can have the Taj Mahal. If you want the Acropolis—God forbid—all you need to do is ask, and you will get the Acropolis. But with Rayva, there is a limited repertory of designs and that’s what you have to choose from.

 

It seems like Rayva is meant to speed up the whole design and installation process.

 

Absolutely. With the Configurator app on our website, a client can select the room size closest to their own room, the chairs that will go in, the electronics package, and the design theme, all in the course of about two minutes.

The main steps of Rayva’s Configurator app

We are in the process of engineering the hell out of our theaters. When the process is over, we will be able to inventory the various components so they can be available as parts. We’re creating a very large database of components that can be shipped by UPS or Federal Express for next-day delivery to the client. I believe that before too 

long, we will be able to have a theater ready to be delivered and installed in a matter of days. The only thing not included in a Rayva theater is the installation. For this, we work with audio/video integrators who not only install the theater but also service it after it is completed.

 

Are there any particular kinds of rooms Rayva is best suited for?

 

Dedicated rooms. If we try to put Rayva in an open media room, it’s not going to work that well. You need at least three walls. It can be a basement, it can be the extra bedroom, it can be the attic.

 

Do you consider Rayva to be a luxury product?

 

It depends on how you define luxury. We have solutions that start at less than $60,000 for a complete theater—design, chairs, electronics, lighting. But, depending on the electronics package and the design, the price can go up quickly. I guess at $60,000 or more we are talking about a luxury product, even though the price is low for a typical soup-to-nuts theater. I do consider a Rayva theater a luxury use of a space. A dedicated room is not something everybody has. But luxury in this case doesn’t indicate necessarily a high price point.

 

The Rayvas theater we talked about earlier [in Part 1] was definitely on the luxury end, because we used the best treatments, the best chairs, the best leather, and a pricey design.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

The Rumors of the Death of Home Theater . . .

The Rumors of the Death of Home Theater
Theo's Corner

Above: Theo’s personal home theater, the Roxy 2.0

The other day, while participating in a Cineluxe Hour podcast, I joined my colleagues Michael Gaughn, Dennis Burger, and John Sciacca to exchange—one more time—our thoughts about dedicated home theaters versus media rooms. Dennis seemed to believe that dedicated home theater has become less relevant in the last few years. A friend of his, he said, was selling his house in LA and the buyer wanted to reclaim the dedicated theater space and use it for something else. John chimed it to say that because consumers don’t want to cover over windows to make a room into a theater, dedicated theaters had become less popular than media rooms.

 

I respect both points of view, but I am not ready to accept that we’re witnessing the approaching demise of dedicated home theater. When I sold my past three homes—to people who did not know about me—it helped the sale every single time that there was a home theater in it. The argument that windows can discourage people from turning a room into a dedicated home theater is valid, although what really doesn’t help a dedicated theater is that most homes have no more than three bedrooms and they’re all used for the parents and their kids. Unless there’s a basement in the house, it’s hard to give up living space for a home theater.

The Rumors of the Death of Home Theater

There is yet another apparent foe of home theaters. Until recently, the only way to enjoy a movie without distractions was in the comfort of a well-equipped dedicated room. This is still mostly true, but something else is happening that has contributed to dedicated rooms losing some ground. No, our entertainment needs haven’t changed. 

What has changed is that we now have access to unlimited content that we can watch any way we want—on our phones while riding the subway, on a tablet while taking a lunch break, on a monitor while flying on a plane. That has to have trivialized somewhat the experience of watching movies.

 

I’ve noticed what happens to me when I’m on a long flight—all that available content makes me feel like a kid in a candy store. I start watching a movie, and then I drop it to watch another . . . and another . . . and another. The abundance of content has made us increasingly less focused, and I’m guilty of that too. My desire to enjoy a movie on the big screen of my theater is still there. But I also find myself watching Amazon Prime or Netflix on a regular TV, flipping through the content just like I do on a plane.

 

Has this hurt dedicated home theaters? Probably. Watching a movie in a dedicated theater or going to the movies used to be an event. It is less so nowadays. But those fortunate ones who have the space and the extra money for a dedicated theater—and appreciate the difference—aren’t going to settle just for casual viewing. They will want both. My take is that dedicated home theaters will continue to be the only option for those who want the focused experience that no TV, smartphone, tablet, or media room can compete with.

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.

Luxury Made Easy, Pt. 1

Cineluxe Showcase
THEATER PHOTOS BY Phillip Ennis

Legendary designer Theo Kalomirakis not only created the whole concept of home theater but has been the standard-bearer for luxury home cinema for his entire career. His two best-selling coffeetable booksPrivate Theaters and Great Escapesare filled with lavish theaters created in every imaginable style.

 

Seeing the interest in dedicated theater rooms decline over the past few years, Theo has helped form Rayva, a company devoted to dramatically simplifying the whole process of designing, engineering, and installing high-end theaters. Rayva recently completed a signature installation in Westchester County, north of New York City, that’s meant to show that the company’s streamlined approach to theater design can yield a luxury result.

 

In Part 1 of our interview, Theo talks about some of the challenges and triumphs of creating this strikingly contemporary space.

—Michael Gaughn

 

Did this begin as a Rayva theater?

 

No. The client saw a custom theater I had designed for a friend of his and said, “Let’s do something like that for my house.” I told him, “We can come up with something based on one of the designs we are developing for Rayva. There is one I think would fit your house very well.”

 

The room was above the garage, in a new space, and it was ready for the theater. But it was perforated with windows on three sides. So I said, “It’s not good to put a home theater in a room with windows.The light creates a problem, but more importantly, the sound will bounce off the glass of the windows.” He said, “I don’t mind if you cover the windows. It’s the garage. We don’t need to touch them from the outside. You can close them from inside.”

 

That was an interesting challenge. I wanted to cover the windows but I wanted the client to still be able to have access to them. So the windows dictated the design. And because Rayva panels are in increments of four feet, I could place one in front of a window and have it removable if access to the window was needed.

 

I felt very vindicated that this process we have developed allows even difficult rooms to become theaters. Because of the flexibility of our design elements, we can deal with difficult design challenges.

 

What were the client’s expectations for this room?

 

He just wanted to have a great theater. He said, “Cost is not the issue. I would just like to have the best technology, the best design, the best seats.” I shared with him brochures with Cineak seating. He selected one of the best-looking seats, and picked the finest leather. He wanted the softest, more plush leather, which is what he got.

 

And then we selected the carpet. Usually that happens at the end of the design process, and the clients are overwhelmed with all the expenses of equipment and woodwork and everything. So I automatically suggested just a plain grey industrial-quality nylon carpet that in a room like that would cost, at most, five, six thousand dollars. But I also showed him something that was plusher, like wool. He immediately went with the wool. He said, “Listen—I’m not going to use a nylon carpet. I spent so much money on the theater, I want the carpet to match the quality of the rest.”

 

I was trying to protect his budget, but clients who know what they want are different from clients who do things just because they want to save a penny here and a penny there. I respect how the former type of clients focus on the ultimate quality.

 

What was the installation process like for this theater?

 

Rayva doesn’t do the actual installation, so when we started the project, we reached out to Nick Di Clemente, the owner of Elevated Integration. When Nick introduced himself to the client, it turned out the client had additional needs. This was a newly renovated house and he needed whole-house audio. So Nick got the contract for the rest of the house, and he was happy about that.

 

What are some of the highlights of the theater?

 

The client selected our Origami design. The good thing about the triangles of the Origami design is that they allow flexible placement. We were able to use Wisdom Audio speakers—and there were lots of them and they’re big—without any conflicts with the room design.

 

This theater has a very different, outside-the-box design. In home theater, you expect to see columns and panels repeating themselves. You expect moldings that are gilded, and walls panels that are upholstered with brocade fabric. With Rayva, we tried to move away from that aesthetic because we wanted to change the perception of what a home theater looks like.

 

That’s why we bring in artists and architects that are not related to home theater to create the Rayva designs. With our guidance, their visions can be turned it into something that’s functional and can work with a variety of room sizes.

 

Also, this theater used acoustical treatments specified by Steve Haas’s company, SH Acoustics. Steve worked to get the best possible distribution of acoustical treatments within the limitations of the design. When the theater was finished, he spent two days calibrating the Wisdom Audio speakers and made the theater sound unbelievable.

Luxury Made Easy, Pt. 1

What was the client’s reaction to the theater?

 

The client is very happy. He told me that his kids practically live in that space.

 

Was there anything else you wanted to mention about the theater?

 

I want to tell you something. We put pictures of the theater on Houzz, where we can monitor which pictures resonate with end users. We were surprised to find out that we got a lot of likes for the interior of the theater but got more likes for the marquee outside. Go figure. I didn’t take that as an insult but as an indication that clients still relate to having a marquee outside the theater. So we will be creating a marquee as a Rayva product and make it available as an accessory to the theater.

In Part 2, Theo talks about how Rayva is ramping up to offer luxury theaters that can go from ordering
to installation in just a week.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

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.

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Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Venom
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

ALSO ON CINELUXE

Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos
Luxury Made Easy, Pt. 2
The Rumors of the Death of Home Theater

CINELUXE SHOWCASE

Cineluxe Showcase: A Tribeca Trendsetter
The Cineluxe Hour

So You Think Your Room’s Bad, Pt. 4

So You Think Your Room's Bad, Pt. 4

Dennis Burger:

 

In Part 3 of this series, I discussed how we arrived at a speaker system for the Kaleidescape booth by solving the riddle of the back of the room and working forward. I also hinted that Trinnov’s Altitude 16 home theater preamp/optimizer was key to making those speakers sound their best.

 

How did I get from “I need something to power these speakers and process all of the audio” to “Gimme one of the most advanced and luxurious audio/video preamplifiers on the planet,” you ask? It was a bit of a winding road, so let’s start at the beginning of it.

 

When we were first understanding what this room would look like and how we wanted it to sound, someone in our design group (I forget who) asked a simple question: “Can we do this with an AV receiver?”

 

It’s a reasonable question, since we wanted the space to evoke a living room environment, and AV receivers—in which all of the digital signal processing and amplification reside in one box—generally power the sound systems in such rooms. But in this case, my back-of-the-napkin calculations told me we needed 160 watts of clean power for every speaker, which is way more than most receivers can deliver.

 

I also knew we needed really amazing digital room correction to compensate for all of the acoustical shortcomings of this space. (If you’re not familiar with digital room correction and how it works, check out my article “Room Correction Revisited” at Home Theater Review.) The long and short of it is that the room optimization software built into most AV receivers wouldn’t be sophisticated enough.

 

So, given that we needed a separate AV preamp to handle the processing and standalone amplifiers to power the speakers, I started thinking long and hard about what was out there. I wasn’t picking between equipment manufacturers; I was picking between room correction systems—two in particular: Dirac and Trinnov. (Lyngdorf Audio’s RoomPerfect probably would have been a great option, too, but I don’t have hands-on experience with it, and given our time constraints I had to go with what I knew.)

The advantages of Dirac are that it’s available in much more affordable equipment, and its filters would have made this particular room sound really good with only a little effort. But I was informed that “really good” wasn’t good enough. We needed the best.

So You Think Your Room's Bad, Pt. 4

So, I turned to Trinnov, whose Altitude 16 (shown above) delivers the most advanced and customizable room correction I know of. What’s more, the Altitude 16 can sonically relocate speakers through some deft processing that I don’t even understand. This was handy because, as I said in the last post, sometimes we had to position speakers in such a way as to accommodate multiple standing-room-only attendees.

 

I reached out to Jon Herron, Trinnov’s International Sales Manager, and asked if I could take him on a 3D tour of my latest revision of the booth design via Google Hangouts. Here’s Jon with his own first impressions of the 3D renderings, along with some thoughts on the specific room correction challenges this demo space posed.

 

 

Jon Herron:

 

So, the challenge was to get sound that is as lifelike as possible in a space that (by itself) would be about as far from lifelike as you can get. The background noise would be high (since it was a trade show). The construction would be temporary and necessarily focused on speed of assembly rather than quality. The shape of the space was also driven to some degree by architectural features not normally found in a home.

 

Imagine trying to get a concert-hall experience in a baseball stadium.

 

Success in any endeavor involves first understanding the nature of the problem. In this case, the problem was largely based on psycho-acoustics—understanding how we humans hear and understand the world around us based on what we hear.

 

A key to understanding how we perceive sound is to understand that we always, without thinking about it, hear three different things:

 

Direct Sound: This is the sound that goes straight from the source (in this case, a speaker) to your ears. Our brains will “hear” this first arrival as the true source and nature of the sound itself.

 

First Reflections: The very next versions of the sound are the first reflections from the surroundings. In a room, these reflections are typically the first bounces from the floor, ceilings, and walls. These tell you quite a bit about the environment you’re in—outdoors (few reflections), or in a larger or smaller room, for example.

 

Subsequent Reverberation: Unless steps are taken to absorb or scatter the sound away from you, sound usually will bounce around for a while. These multiple, later, and smaller versions of the direct sound tell you even more about the environment you’re in. You’d have little or no reverberation outdoors; you’d have quite a lot in a cave; you’d probably hear something in between in your living room or a concert hall.

 

Unfortunately, it’s really easy to mess up what Dennis describes as “room correction” by trying to address all these disparate problems with a single solution. The problems are different; therefore, the best solutions are also different and need to be determined and layered together.

 

If you badly break a leg, you must first realign things, stabilize the leg with a splint, and then put it in a cast for long-term healing. Doing just one of those things, or doing all the things out of order, simply won’t work. It’s the same with using digital signal processing to fix a “broken” acoustical environment.

 

In our diagnosis of how we hear, the second and third items above are “soft” in the high frequencies (imagine turning down the Treble control) for the simple reason that higher frequencies are far easier to absorb or scatter than are lower frequencies. If you don’t make an allowance for the reflected energy sounding different than the direct, you’ll mistakenly ruin the direct sound in a vain effort to fix the environment of the room itself. They are different problems.

 

This, by the way, is why we at Trinnov refer to our system as a Speaker/Room Optimizer. We’re trying to optimize all these different problems with appropriate digital processing solutions, rather than trying to simply “correct” the room with a one-size-fits-all solution.

So You Think Your Room's Bad. Pt. 4

In the trade show demo room, the No. 1 priority was to focus on getting the direct sound as natural as possible. Mitigating first reflections (where we could) was also important, but not if it compromised the direct sound.

 

Similarly, we wanted to provide a more natural reverberant decay (the rate at which sound dies away) that didn’t allow one range of frequencies to stick out like a sore thumb or otherwise call attention to itself. In a good concert hall, when the symphony suddenly stops playing, the entire, rich tapestry of sound should

die away together. If the flute section reverberated after the other sounds had faded, even for a moment, it would sound extremely unnatural, even unpleasant.

 

Addressing all these varying challenges in a way that truly lets you enjoy the music or movie you choose without the heavy-handed overlay of the sound of the room you’re in requires (ideally) a combination of passive acoustics and what we at Trinnov have come to call “digital acoustics.”

 

 

DB again:

 

And that’s the perfect segue into the next post in this series. I knew that physical acoustical treatments, working in conjunction with Trinnov’s digital acoustics, would make this demo room sound its best. But I also didn’t want to make the room look like a recording studio. We’ll dig more deeply into those concerns in Pt. 5.

Jon Herron has been in the audio & video business since he was a teenager. The
combination of music and technology was simply too seductive for him to do anything
else—that and the fact that no one would likely hire him to do anything else. He has
worked in both large and small retail organizations, as a manufacturers’ representative,
and (mostly) for a series of audio manufacturers, including Snell Acoustics, Madrigal
Audio Laboratories, Wisdom Audio, and Trinnov Audio. He lives in Connecticut with his
wife and two terribly spoiled cats.

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.

Blue Planet II

My wife and I watch a lot of documentaries. No, seriously, a lot of documentaries. Air a special about dinosaur dung or the restoration of a 1967 barn-find VW Beetle or how a famous actress invented frequency-hopping encryption during World War II, and we’re pretty much guaranteed to boost your Nielsen numbers for the night. Here’s the thing, though: We watch a lot of documentaries exactly once. That seems pretty normal to me. After all, do I really need to re-learn how Lego bricks are made?

The one exception to this rule is David Attenborough’s captivating nature docs, because there’s absolutely nothing normal about the treasures this wonderful man has bestowed upon the world. If you’ve never seen one of his series, I’m truly envious that you have the opportunity to discover him for the first time. His infectious, childlike sense of wonder about nature, combined with the wisdom you’d expect of a natural historian with 92 years under his belt, makes each of his series seem like a sci-fi/fantasy exploration of a planet in a galaxy far away. There’s a weird and wonderful sense of cognitive dissonance that comes from realizing, somewhere in the middle of one of his shows, that we actually live on this weird and wonderful world.

 

A scant 11 months after the incredible Blue Planet II first aired here in the Colonies, my wife and I have already devoured the series from start to finish three times. And as we were sitting down for our fourth feast this weekend, we finally decided to retire the 4K broadcast recordings clogging our DVR and move on to a proper home video release.

 

Netflix seemed the logical place to turn to, since the series just made its way to the service this month. And it took no more than a few seconds of viewing to note that their version was a huge step up from the original 4K satellite broadcast. Kudos to Netflix’s engineers for compressing such a visually complex image as well as they have. Simply put, Blue Planet II looks brilliant streaming in 4K, as long as you’ve got a good ‘net connection.

 

But shows come and go on Netflix. I can’t count the number of times that utterly re-watchable favorites have been yanked at pretty much exactly the same time I had a hankering to watch them. So, when I noticed that Blue Planet II is also now available on Kaleidescape—along with a whole host of other programming from BBC America—downloading it was a no-brainer. At a hefty 193 gigabytes, the seven-episode mini-series is not an impulse download, but as I said above, this is a show that’s already in heavy rotation in the Burger casa. I knew it was worth the wait.

 

I just didn’t realize how wait-worthy it would turn out to be. As lovely as these alien undersea vistas are via Netflix, they’re positively stupefying in Kaleidescape’s full-bandwidth presentation. The tiniest of details simply fly off the screen here. And

thanks to the High Dynamic Range presentation—something Blue Planet II lacks via Netflix, for whatever reason—you can’t help but be sucked right into the image, eyelids peeled, jaw agape, breath bated, mind blown. If the Broca area of your brain can crank out much more than the occasional “whoa” while watching a technicolor cuttlefish hypnotizing its 

cancrine prey in Episode Three, you’re made of sterner stuff than I. Switch over to the Netflix stream (or the YouTube clip above), and that scene almost seems monochromatic by comparison.

 

Even if you’re not a biology nerd or a connoisseur of great documentaries, Blue Planet II is an absolute must-own on Kaleidescape (or on UHD Blu-ray, if you haven’t made the leap into the discless future just yet). It’s perhaps the most torturous AV demo material I’ve lain eyes on in ages. It’s the title you’ll pull up when skeptical guests ask, “Do I really need this HDR business?” Because Blue Planet IIs answer to that question isn’t a mere “yes.” It’s a yes with an exclamation point, delivered in a charming British accent, with a wink and an unforgettable lesson about the kooky unexplored corners of our own globe.

Dennis Burger

Blue Planet II

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 Expanse (Season 3)

Amazon Prime "The Expanse"

Back in May 2018, there was a disturbance in sci-fi TV culture. In the midst of broadcasting the third season of The Expanse, SyFy decided not to renew the show even though it was garnering its best reviews so far. This wasn’t the first time the channel had canceled a series at the height of its popularity. SyFy (then called the Sci Fi Channel) nixed Farscape in the middle of its fourth season after renewing it less than a year earlier for a fourth and fifth season.

 

The Expanse was reportedly cancelled because of broadcast rights. Unlike in the early aughts, options today go beyond network and cable distribution. International streaming rights for the series belonged to Netflix, while Amazon owned the domestic streaming rights. SyFy was only getting first-run rights, and that wasn’t enough for them so they killed the show. But after a #SaveTheExpanse fan campaign, Amazon worked out a deal and picked up the show. A happy ending for all!

 

The series is based on rich source material—a series of books by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who go by the pseudonym James S. A. Corey. It’s an epic space opera about citizens of Earth, Mars, and The Belt, and how they deal with each other after the introduction of an unknown infectious molecule. The story centers on the remaining crew of a ship destroyed in a mysterious attack. As they try to figure out what caused the attack, they’re pulled into a system-wide struggle between the political juggernauts of Earth and Mars.

 

To say the source material is dense is an understatement, but it’s translated to the screen exceptionally well. The outstanding ensemble cast includes veteran actors like Thomas Jane, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Chad L. Coleman, François Chau, and David Strathairn. There are also relative newcomers, including Cara Gee, who has a breakthrough performance opposite Mr. Strathairn during Season Three.

 

You can stream the first two seasons for free on Amazon Prime in 4K with 5.1 soundtracks. For now at least, Season Three is only available for purchase in 1080p with 5.1. But, with Season Four expected in 2019 (and possibly in 4K HDR), a 4K version of the third season seems imminent.

 

SyFy originally aired the first three seasons with HD broadcast masters, but the show was shot in 4K, and that’s what the UHD presentation is here (although visual fx were done at 2K and upconverted to match). The images look fantastic, and you’d be hard-pressed to see any degradation from the vfx being upped to 4K. Colors are vibrant when they need to be, and beautifully muted for some space shots—especially on the asteroid Eros towards the end of Season One. You can feel the oppression of being in a space station built into an asteroid.

 

The sound design is excellent throughout the series, although it really hits another level starting in Season Two. The Expanse begins by being true to the source material’s insistence on hard sci-fi—that is, a strong accuracy to the physics of being in space. Starting with Season Two, the series is a bit more lenient with its science, which leads to more engaging moments. The surround channels are used judiciously to enhance the atmosphere of the locations.

 

It’s been a while since I’ve experienced as much enjoyment from a sci-fi series as I have from The Expanse, both in book form and on screen. There are thousands of fans, myself included, who are incredibly grateful Amazon decided to pick up the show for another season. But best of all, watching the UHD presentations on Prime is a great way to get ready for what’s to come next year. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to start another re-watch from S1E1.

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.

Specs vs. User Experience

Specs vs. User Experience

Earlier today, I had a sponsored post from Samsung pop up on my Instagram feed. It was for an 80-some-inch 8K QLED display that could be mine for the paltry sum of $15,000.

 

On one hand, $15,000 could be seen as somewhat of a revelation, for it wasn’t too long ago that TVs of this ilk commanded price tags double that of what Samsung is asking. On the other, 4K is in its infancy, and here we are now having to debate over the need—dare I say relevance—of 8K. And yet, despite all my years in this business, the notion that an 80-inch 8K display exists does little to rev my proverbial engine. Samsung’s 8K display does little but make me spec drunk.

 

Many products over the years have made me spec drunk. That is to say, they’ve been beyond impressive on paper. Upon closer inspection or following first-hand experience, they proved no different than much that came before them. Specifications only tell half of a product’s story, and it’s the half that makes for a juicy Internet post, not so much what it’s actually like to live with and use said product.

 

For example, I am a photographer by day, and in that community the camera of the moment belongs to Sony and their A Series of mirrorless cameras. On paper (and on vlogs), the A Series cameras are without equal, and yet I don’t think you could give me one—again.

Yes, I once spent thousands of my own dollars chasing specs and joining the rest of the photographic world in switching from DSLR to mirrorless. I spent almost two years trying to convince myself of Sony’s superiority. I was desperate to fall in love with my camera’s specs and to see that love somehow manifest itself in the work I was creating.

 

Only I didn’t, and it didn’t. I became so frustrated with the user experience that I began to dread picking up the camera. Eventually I sold all my Sony gear and went back to the camera system that had served me well since Day One.

 

Specialty AV is no different, and the constant “noise”

Specs vs. User Experience

that specifications generate can be daunting, if not overwhelming. Moreover, specs are designed to create a sense of FOMO in consumers, for who wouldn’t want eight times more of something? Eight times more TV than the TV you’re likely watching, which was sold to you as being four times the TV of your last TV—and so it goes.

 

And yet, when pressed, my friends in and around this business rarely, if ever, speak fondly of the latest equipment adorning their racks or walls, but rather of equipment of systems past. Is this due to nostalgia? Is it because products of yesteryear were simpler, more straightforward? I don’t pretend to know. What I do know is that the user experience tells a lot more of a product’s story, and it’s the part of the story that resonates long after the newness of a billion more this and a trillion more that wears off.

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.

The Trials & Tribulations of Amazon Streaming

The Trials & Tribulations of Amazon Streaming

Sitting back and relaxing with a favorite movie or TV series is a luxury we can all appreciate. High-end picture and sound are the ideal, but getting to the opening credits can be an experience in and of itself. If we own the content, popping in a Blu-ray is a painless endeavor. Doing the same with a streaming service should be just as painless. That’s not always true, however.

 

When the Amazon series Homecoming was released, my wife and I sat down, turned on our home theater, and opened up the Amazon Prime Video app on the TV to start watching. Since the show was new, and Amazon was promoting it heavily, it was right at the top of the menu. No searching necessary. It was a pretty straightforward experience—at least for a few minutes. I knew from advertisements that Homecoming was offered in 4K, but what we were watching was most definitely

1080p. I found that, unlike Netflix, which automatically shows the best level of content available that your home setup can handle, with Amazon you need to actively search out the UHD version.

 

You’d think it would be as easy as typing in “Homecoming UHD 4K” or something similar. You’d be wrong. That search term, in fact, comes up with no hits. Zero. A show produced by the service itself, heavily marketed with billboards (around the Los Angeles area at least), its stars 

The Trials & Tribulations of Amazon Streaming

frequenting late-night talk shows, nominated for multiple awards—and the app search engine is unaware a 4K version exists. In order to find it, I had to scroll down their category listings until I found “Original Series in 4K Ultra HD.” I would have expected that option to be at or near the top, instead of a few scrolls below the fold.

 

I encountered similar problems when I searched for past seasons of The Expanse, a fantastic adaptation of the book series that Amazon recently picked up from SyFy to produce a fourth season. Even worse than my Homecoming experience, there was no way to find the 4K version through the TV app. (I checked the apps that are integrated on my Samsung QLED, a Vizio P-Series, and my Xbox One X.) The workaround (suggested by Dennis Burger) was to find the 4K-version listing on my computer browser, add it to my Watchlist, and then go back to the TV to select it from the Watchlist. Far less than an ideal situation.

 

So, what’s the solution? I’d say burn it down and start from scratch, using Netflix as an example. But considering the vast amount of work necessary for something like that to happen, it isn’t remotely feasible. This past summer, Amazon did announce an update is in the works, but it sounds like it will be limited to the mobile-app search function and won’t be a part of the TV app. Until then, the only option seems to be to grin and bear it. Or just open up Netflix instead.

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.

So You Think Your Room’s Bad, Pt. 3

Dennis BurgerAt the end of our previous post in this series, I teased the fact that one pair of speakers at the back of the room ended up driving the decision-making process for the entire Atmos surround sound speaker system. It’s worth digging a little more deeply into exactly why that’s the case.

So You Think Your Room's Bad, Pt. 3

Just to remind you what the geometry of our demo space looked like, here’s an overhead view of the back of the room. The rear wall is at the top. You can see a rough approximation of what we thought our seating may look like, as well as the canted walls that made the outside of the booth look so great, but crunched us a bit in the demo space.

 

If we had gone with seven ear-level speakers, that would have meant four speakers in the back of the room, at positions marked A and B. But this would have caused problems for anyone sitting in the back row. Someone sitting next to speaker A on one side of the room wouldn’t have really been able to hear speakers A and B on the other side, and the speakers at the front of the room—for dialogue and screen sound effects—would have been drowned out. Sometimes more isn’t necessarily better.

 

What I really needed was a speaker I could position somewhat closer to the points marked C, but a little higher on the wall so as not to overwhelm any one seat in the back row. The extra height was also added to accommodate anyone standing in the back of the room, so they wouldn’t block the surround sound effects for anyone sitting in front.

 

I desperately needed a speaker that would project its sound out into the room authoritatively, while also spreading its sound out less like a spotlight and more like a floodlight. 

 

I also needed an in-wall solution, for reasons discussed in our previous post. One speaker came immediately to mind: GoldenEar Technology’s Invisa MPX MultiPolar in-Wall speaker. The MPX’s bass/midrange drivers don’t point straight out into the room, as do those of most speakers. One of the drivers is rotated a bit to the right, the other a bit to the left. Combine that with the company’s High-Velocity Folded Ribbon tweeter (which squeezes air sort of like an accordion to create low-distortion, room-penetrating high-frequency sounds, rather than pushing air like a normal dome tweeter), and you have the makings of everything I needed here—wide, deep, enveloping sound that wasn’t diffuse.

So You Think Your Room's Bad, Pt. 3

And with that piece of the puzzle solved, the rest of the speaker system started to fall into place. To match the sound of the MPX, I specified three of GoldenEar’s Signature Point Source (SPS) in-walls for the front left, right, and center speakers, and four of the company’s Invisa 650 in-ceilings for the overhead channels.

 

We also had just enough space at the front of the room for subwoofers, so I opted for a pair of SuperSub X subs. Why two subs for such a small space? It wasn’t so much about producing enough volume as it was about delivering rich, even bass in such a weird acoustical environment and making sure every seat in the room experienced the same level of bass.

 

With those decisions made, I called GoldenEar’s Vice President of Marketing and Sales, Jack Shafton, and asked him if I could take him on a virtual tour of our most current 3D design for the booth. I wanted a second opinion from an industry expert, just to make sure I had made the right choices given such compromises. I also wanted his advice on exact speaker placement.

 

Here’s Jack with his reactions to seeing the 3D renderings for the first time, along with some thoughts on what makes GoldenEar’s architectural speakers unique:

Jack Shafton: When Dennis shared his plan for this booth at CEDIA, my first reaction was, “YIKES!” GoldenEar always uses a fully enclosed sound room for our own trade-show demos, so this was certainly a new challenge. We agreed that this room would never be ideal, but could certainly be done effectively using the Invisa speakers and SuperSubs. Dennis hit on one of the reasons the Invisa MPX was such a good choice: It’s a direct radiator (important for today’s surround formats) with very wide dispersion. But I would also mention that the power handling and efficiency of the speaker are of great importance given the semi-open nature of this sound room.

 

That’s just one speaker, though (well, two in the case of this room). As for why GoldenEar’s Invisa speakers were the right choice overall, remember that this system needed to impress consumer electronics industry members, not the average consumer who has never heard a great-sounding home theater. One thing that I think sets our in-wall and in-ceiling speakers apart is that we design them using the same drivers and technology employed in our award-winning Triton tower speakers. There is no good/better/best stratification in the GoldenEar architectural speaker lineup; just the best of everything we do. The folded-ribbon tweeter offers exceptional dispersion, amazing fidelity, and great power handling, and it is found in every Invisa speaker. Combine that with our mid/bass driver

So You Think Your Room's Bad, Pt. 3

GoldenEar Invisa MPX

technology, crossover design, and GoldenEar speaker voicing, and the result is exactly what Dennis needed to blow people away in a space that had no business sounding as good as it did. Of course, the two SuperSubs helped a lot, as they provide big sub performance in a tiny, vibration-cancelling design.

 

 

DB again: In addition to confirming my speaker choices, Jack gave me some helpful advice in terms of placement, especially of the front speakers and overhead channels. That guidance was invaluable given the weird geometry of the room. Mind you, the odds you’ll be installing a cinema sound system in a room as compromised as ours are slim. The lesson to be learned here is that when taming a problematic home cinema space, you’ll sometimes find that solving your most daunting problems first makes all of the other pieces fall into place.

 

Still, as amazing as GoldenEar’s speakers are, if we had merely slapped them in the walls and ceilings and provided them with power, they wouldn’t have sounded their best. In our next post, I’ll be discussing how Trinnov’s Altitude 16 home theater preamp/optimizer helped us tame some of the room’s worst acoustical problems and give the GoldenEar speakers room to shine.

Jack Shafton is a 40-year veteran of the consumer electronics industry who has been
involved in the design, manufacture, and marketing of some very successful specialty
audio products, including two highlighted in
Stereophile’s “100 Most Important Audio
Products in the Last 40 Years.” Jack’s love of music and movies, combined with a
passion to bring better sound into everyone’s home, has been the driving force in his
commitment to help the industry grow. He also loves fast cars and
cats. (Sorry, dog lovers.)

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.

Luxury Isn’t About Price–It’s About Pride

I’ve written professionally about the consumer electronics industry since I was 20 years old, which in a few short years means I will have been lovingly doing this shit for half my life. When I first started out, I will admit I was all about the gear. I loved it. I wrote my ass off in hopes of impressing my editors enough to trust me with the truly blue chip products in the future—products such as loudspeakers from Wilson Audio, or electronics from Mark Levinson, and perhaps a projector from Barco. I rose through the ranks of this business, and before I knew it I was the managing editor of (arguably) the largest consumer electronics publication in the world. And I loved it . . .

 

Until I didn’t.

 

My falling out of love with the consumer electronics industry and all things specialty audio/video coincided with my departure from my other profession of nearly as long, advertising. It was 2008, everyone was in the throes of the housing crisis, and I’ll be the first to admit I was hit very, very hard. I lived in Southern California, and I saw my property value plummet and the neighborhood I had purchased a home in not two years prior become littered with foreclosure and auction signs. To say that my priorities shifted would be a massive understatement, for I (let alone anyone else) had little use for the bells and whistles of specialty AV that once warmed my heart.

Luxury Isn't About Price--It's About Pride

photo by Jens Kreuter

I downsized in an attempt to stay afloat, a tactic that worked for me, though it did cost me one very nice, very trick, custom whole-home audio/video installation. From its ashes arose a new type of setup, one that was neither trick, nor custom, but that consisted of a handful of 55-inch flat screens and an equal number of soundbars. Until recently, this barebones-type setup is what I called my reference, and to be honest I was never embarrassed by it, because it just worked. Sure I had seen and heard better in my travels, but I didn’t miss “better,” for I had grown accustomed to the simplicity of this new “world.”

 

About six months ago, I was in the market for a display as my last remaining HD display was a bit long in the tooth and I wanted to use my new-ish UltraHD living room display as its replacement. This meant needing to shop for a new TV. Initially, I thought I’d just go on Amazon and order up another 65-inch something or other that cost roughly a thousand dollars and wait for my Prime shipping to bring it to me in 48 hours or less. But then I thought, what if instead of doing what I always did, or had been doing for the past few years, I was a little more selective? Choosing to buy based on quality and perhaps longevity (if there is such a thing in technology) rather than purely on budget—what doors or options would that open for me?

 

It would be the quintessential question that would reunite me with the hobby I had left, and set me on a new path of discovery. A path that wasn’t about quantity—be it number of channels or features—but rather quality, for I knew if I was going to spend money, I only wanted to do it once if I could help it.

 

We’ve been brainwashed into thinking that because technology changes so rapidly, we must change in kind, when that’s not really realistic, nor even the truth. True, new products come out each and every year, or sometimes more frequently. Yet if you really stop and compare them, there is often little, if anything, that separates the old from the new. Conversely, buying solely on price doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with quality, or longevity. Which brings us to luxury goods.

 

To me, luxury isn’t about price, though the two often are interchangeable. Luxury is more about the ownership experience, for long after you’ve swiped your credit card, or emptied a portion of your bank account, you have to live with your buying decision. Some of the most financially painful things I’ve ever purchased, I still have to this day, no doubt due to their superior craftsmanship and usage of materials that, while expensive, have stood the test of time. And that fills me with a kind of pride. It doesn’t make me better, but it does feel good, and that’s worth something.

 

If there’s one thing I think Millennials get right, it’s that they seem to value an experience over superficial goods. They’d rather have one truly great, timeless experience than several mediocre ones. Maybe this has to do with their fiscal outlook, or perhaps it’s their form of silent rebellion—who knows. But I do think that as things progress, we’re going to begin to place higher and higher levels of importance upon getting more from less.

 

This is what I believe, and this is what I wish to explore as a writer and regular contributor to this publication going forward. So, stay tuned, I guess . . .

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.