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Small Room–Big Sound

Generally, when you think of a media room or home theater, it conjures up images of a fairly large space. Lots of seating, huge screen, drapes, columns, etc. And I would say most of the media/theater rooms I have worked in over the years are in the 18 x 25-foot ballpark, usually with 10-foot ceilings. Sometimes the areas are much bigger.

 

But do you need a large room to enjoy a luxury experience?

 

A few months ago, I reviewed a dARTS (Digital Audio Reference Theater System) audio system. Generally, I review gear in my living room, which is a fairly large space that opens up to both a kitchen and a nook area. With the room’s layout, I sit about 13 feet from my front channels and screen, and about 15 feet from my side surround and rear surround speakers.

Small Room--Big Sound

dARTS 535 Series digital surround theater system

But, due to the style and design of the system I was reviewing, installing it in my living room wasn’t practical. Instead, I installed the 5.2.2-channel speakers in a new bedroom we had built onto our home a couple of years ago. The room measures roughly 13 x 15 feet and has 9-foot ceilings—in other words, a bedroom size you would find in just about any home.

 

When I first started listening to the system, I was amazed at how much more detailed things sounded. Not that dialogue was suddenly clearer or that music notes were sharper, but how I was just constantly more aware of and noticing those distinct little sounds and Foley effects that are often buried in the background of a movie’s soundtrack. Small creaks and subtle ambient cues like leaves rustling, footsteps walking around in the distance, rain pattering outside. Watching It on this system—a movie with an absolutely fantastic and immersive Dolby Atmos mix—was absolutely terrifying, especially the scenes within the sewer and in the house on Neibolt Street.

 

And due to how the overhead speakers were installed (using a portable lighting rig re-purposed as an in-ceiling speaker holder to avoid cutting 10-inch holes in my new ceiling), they were 8 feet off the floor, or about 4 feet above my seated listening height. Compared with the “reference” system in my living room—which has vaulted ceilings spanning up to about 15 feet at the peak, with the four height speakers about 10 feet above my seated position—this produced overhead audio that was far more noticeable and localizable. When something was meant to sound as if it was happening above you, it happened right above you. Being in the center of this 5.2.2 speaker sphere produced incredible audio pans—front to back, side to side, top to bottom, sound just traveled with perfect tracking all around and over me.

 

Because there is less air to “energize” in a small room, you can use smaller speakers and still hit high sound-pressure levels, which helps from both a design and budget standpoint. Instead of one or two massive subwoofers, four small subs will deliver greater and smoother bass throughout. And because you’re physically closer to the speakers, you can generally listen at lower volume levels and still get a reference experience. I wasn’t blasting the system to feel bass impact waves or to be aware of the overhead and surround channels. In fact, I often listened at 10 to 15 dB lower than usual.

 

The smaller space also meant there were far fewer sonic distractions from other parts of the house—you know, the background-of-life sounds that every home has. Those hums, clicks, whirs, and other environmental noises all must be overcome in order to hear the soft sounds within a film or audio recording. Lower the background noise, and the sounds you want to hear are much easier to pick out.

 

In a way, this intimate, small-room experience was like listening to a pair of really nice headphones . . . but better! For one, I could share it with others. Two, headphones can’t deliver the same full-body bass impact of a great subwoofer. And three,

where headphones struggle to produce and place actual surround sound, this system did that in spades.

 

And guess what else? Because I was sitting much closer to my display, the 60-inch screen seemed far more cinematic.

Small Room--Big Sound

To be fair, some credit certainly needs to go to the fantastic sounding dARTS audio system and Marantz AV8802A processor (shown above). This combination would retail for just north of $20,000, and dARTS’ unique implementation of Audyssey room correction is a fair measure of the system performance’s “secret sauce.” Had I just tossed some entry-level gear together, the experience surely wouldn’t have been as impressive. (You can read my review here.)

 

Not only does every home have a small space or two that could be the perfect media room candidate, it might just turn out to deliver the best experience in the house. (For more on making the most out of a small space, read the “So You Think Your Room’s Bad” posts from Mike Gaughn & Dennis Burger.)

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.

Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague

To show that home theater and media rooms are for much more than just movie and TV watching, this week I’m reviewing Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague, available on Blu-ray Disc or for HD download from the Kaleidescape Movie Store (the version I watched).

 

If you’re a film fan, you’re likely familiar with Zimmer’s work, since it’s spanned the past 30 years. He has scored more than 150 films, including many for Ridley Scott, Jerry Bruckheimer, and, most recently, Christopher Nolan. Zimmer has received numerous Grammys, two Golden Globes, and an Academy Award in 1995 for Best Original Score for The Lion King.

 

Filmed in Prague, this concert captures an evening during Zimmer’s 2016 European concert tour where he plays 35 songs spanning decades of his work and includes music from Sherlock Holmes, Crimson Tide, Gladiator, The Lion King, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Dark Knight Trilogy, and Inception. (Sadly, this concert pre-dates Zimmer’s fascinating and intense score for Nolan’s recent Dunkirk.)

 

An interesting (in a good way) twist is the concert’s Dolby Atmos mix, meaning it’s recorded to really shine in a luxury home surround setup. Now, you might or might not love the decisions made in this very aggressive mix, but no one will watch this and leave wondering whether all of their speakers were active or not. 

 

Years ago, I had the privilege of seeing Star Wars in Concert in person, an event that brought together the 86-piece Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus along with a giant high-def LED screen, measuring some 60-feet wide by 30-feet tall. This two-hour performance featured music spanning all six Star Wars films, blending music, film, lasers, pyrotechnics, and spectacle into a fantastically memorable evening.

That experience set my expectations for this concert, so I assumed there would be video and effects accompanying the score, but I was wrong. In fact, the concert opens with no dialogue or introduction whatsoever. It merely begins with Zimmer alone on stage at a piano playing the opening notes from “Driving” (Driving Miss Daisy). He is soon joined by another musician on flute, and then another on accordion, and soon there is a full stage of musicians, along with a full orchestra, and backing vocals provided by the

Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague

Czech national choir, making 72 musicians in all—including Johnny Marr of The Smiths fame on guitar.

 

After playing the opening three songs, and at various points throughout the concert’s 138-minute run time, Zimmer steps to the mic to say a few words, introducing members of the band, and sharing some memories or anecdotes about the compositions.

 

Shot digitally on Arri Alexa, the 16:9 image looks beautiful. Colors are bright and punchy, black levels are deep and solid with no banding or noise, showing off clear differences between the different shades of black in the performers’ outfits, and there is plenty of detail.

 

While there are no laser effects and very little accompanying video (some pulsing lights and symbols that enhance the beat, rhythm, and mood of the score, not displaying any movie footage), the show features plenty of dramatic lighting to illuminate the performers and punctuate the intensity of various tracks.

 

One great benefit of owning the Kaleidescape version is that all of the songs are bookmarked, allowing you to easily jump to your favorite moments, or just press the “Info” button to bring up the title listing to identify what you’re listening to.

 

Like Zimmer’s scoring style, the audio from this concert is big and bombastic. It also differs from the original works in that it has more of a rock concert, electronic vibe to it, which arguably works better, and is more entertaining, for a live show. “Why So Serious?” from The Dark Knight is one of my favorite Zimmer works, and here it plays a bit like a Blue Man Group performance, with heavy percussion and an intense light show that well capture the Joker’s manic personality.

 

Played at reference volumes, this concert is quite loud, and has a surprising amount of deep low-frequency information, especially the opening notes of “Half Remembered Dream” from Inception. In fact, while watching this I had to remove the filter on my SVS sub that boosts bass at 32 Hz to give a bit of punch to films because it created just too much low-end bloat.

 

As mentioned before, the Atmos mix is highly immersive and aggressive, but also . . . interesting. Often concert or performance mixes are done from either an on-stage or in-crowd perspective, but for most of this show, you’re positioned primarily in the middle of the mix, with instrumentation and vocals frequently wrapping all around the room. The primary instruments and backing vocals are mixed heavily into the front channels, but also spread overhead and into the sides. If you find yourself too overwhelmed by the Atmos soundtrack, the Blu-ray also features a two-channel PCM mix. 

 

For fans of Zimmer’s works, this is an absolute must-get. For those who love watching live performances, or are looking for an entertaining evening at home that doesn’t involve explosions, jump scares, or the latest rom-com, this belongs on the shortlist.

John Sciacca

Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague

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 Tribeca Trendsetter

Cineluxe Showcase

Ed Gilmore casually bringing some shots of an install he’d done in Tribeca up on his computer monitor was a major “a-ha” moment for me. The first shot showed a stylish, obviously comfortable living area that also served as a billiards room, dining area, and kitchen. The second showed the same room transformed into a home entertainment space a lot of people would kill for. That, a completely intuitive part of me screamed, perfectly represents the new paradigm.

 

Others must agree with that conclusion because people just won’t leave Ed alone about that space. Ironically, even he admits it’s not perfect—but it’s getting there, as the client invests more and more in turning what was initially a whim into a room that can blow most movie theaters out of the water.

 

Having since visited the apartment, and shot some video there, I recently circled back around with Ed to talk about all things Tribeca.

—Michael Gaughn

 

 

People seem to love that installation because it says that almost any room can now be transformed into a legitimate entertainment space.

 

I think what we did was to, in a minimally invasive way, create a home theater experience in a room that, if you looked at it from any angle, you would immediately say it couldn’t be done there. There was just no way.

 

Aesthetically, the room had already been designed before you came into the picture. How were you able to navigate those waters?

 

We just needed to be open and try to find really unique solutions that would both satisfy a high-end level of performance as well as maintain a certain aesthetic value the client wanted us to maintain, and be true to the bones of that room. I don’t think that’s any rare talent. The issue was that he had interviewed a lot of other AV guys who told him right off the bat, “No, we won’t do that.” And that wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear. So we were lucky enough to be able to convince him that we could do it, and it could be compelling.

That communal area wasn’t supposed to be the main entertainment space, right?

 

Right. The den [shown at right] is the room where he really sits and watches most of his TV. That was the room he wanted to spend some money on. This other room was kind of an experiment for him.

 

But as he saw it implemented, immediately he thought, “I’m going to

A Tribeca Theater to Die For

photos by John Frattasi

sink some more money into this room.” And that’s exactly what he did. That’s what he did with the Kaleidescape Strato, that’s what he did with the Steinway Lyngdorf speaker system, and what he’s about to do with projection, by upgrading the projector there as well.

 

Are people fascinated by that room because it’s a kind of outlier or because it represents a trend?

 

I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s tapping into a trend, that trend being that people aren’t interested in having dedicated rooms for specific purposes like a theater, or even a dedicated music room.

The promotional media-room tour I produced of the Tribeca space.

There’s an aspirational aspect to it as well. It resonates with people because it’s well done. I mean, it’s a really beautiful space. And it’s well thought out. And that goes back to the developer, who did a really nice job on that building. The dimensions of the room are great, and it has this wonderful warm feeling to it without really needing much in terms of other types of interior design.

 

But these particular clients do have taste, and they’ve been around the block a few times in terms of renovations. He is a serial renovator. And so their choice of artwork, their choice of furnishings—those little details that they have there are great. And I think that resonates with a lot of people too.

 

If luxury is really about details—about somebody caring enough to make sure every last thing is done right—Tribeca would seem to qualify.

 

I think you and I agree on this, right? Attention to detail is really what matters in a luxury space. People have asked me about what luxury is, and I typically say that it needs to be inspirational. But that doesn’t mean it really needs to be noticeable. It’s something that kind of unfolds. And by the time you realize what’s happening, you’re kind of taken by surprise by it. And it’s organic—it feels like it was always part of what was meant to be there.

 

 

In a followup post, Ed will talk more about turning problem rooms into great theaters and about the increasing importance of interior designers in home entertainment spaces.

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.

Ed Gilmore

Since 1991, Ed Gilmore and Gilmore’s Sound Advice, Inc. have been designing, deploying, and servicing hundreds of integrated systems by strictly adhering to a word-of-mouth recommendation policy. Typical systems consist of audio & video distribution, home theater, lighting & shading systems, enterprise-level network/WiFi & telephony, along with HVAC & security systems integration. In 2016, Gilmore created one of the most unique showroom & event spaces in New York City. Increased space also allows GSA to rack-build, program, and test systems prior to deployment.

About HTA

The Home Technology Association is an independent organization that connects homeowners with the most reputable and qualified professionals in the home technology industry. In an industry that has no barriers to entry, it has created a rigorous set of standards for companies to adhere to. Only firms that meet the 60-plus points of evaluation criteria are granted certification status. Once certified, these firms must maintain HTA standards or risk losing certification.

 

Gilmore’s Sound Advice is an HTA member, and Ed Gilmore believes it provides an indispensable service. “I think the value of HTA is that it’s a vetted process. It’s a certification program that vets integrators and lets the general public know that we hold ourselves to very high standards. And no other organization does that.”

HTA Logo

REVIEWS

Mission: Impossible--Fallout
Blue Planet II
Netflix' "Filmworker"
Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague

ALSO ON CINELUXE

The Rumors of the Death of Home Theater
Luxury Made Easy, Pt. 1
So You Think Your Room's Bad, Pt. 4

Superman: The Movie

Superman: The Movie

Let’s talk about courage for a moment. Not the courage it took for Ilya and Alexander Salkind to make a sentimental and sincere big-budget superhero film when there was no precedent for that sort of thing at the time. Nor the courage it took for director Richard Donner and casting director Lynn Stalmaster to take a risk on unknown Christopher Reeve for the lead role, when so many other famous names were contending for the red cape and spit curl. You’ve no doubt heard those stories before.

 

Let’s talk instead about the courage it took for Warner Bros. to release a 4K HDR version of the film in 2018 that preserves all of the celluloid flaws (and charms) of the original cinematic release, in an era where so many studios are glossing up, de-noising, sharpening, and generally attempting to modernize the standouts in their classic film catalogs.

 

Superman: The Movie is one of those films I buy on any new home video format the day it’s released. Which isn’t to say that every home video release has been a major improvement over the ones before it. This is an intentionally soft and heavily filtered film, after all. It lacks rock-solid blacks. There’s a prominent graininess to the image, especially in special effects shots.

 

If Kaleidescape’s new 4K HDR release of the film weren’t true to all of that, it would be a bit of a betrayal. So why release it in 4K HDR at all? What stands out most in this release as compared with previous efforts (including the Blu-ray-quality 1080p version of the film, also 

included with the Kaleidescape download of this one) is the richness and saturation of its colors, especially in those early sequences in Smallville.

 

Before that, the scenes on Krypton also get a nice boost from the enhanced brightness afforded by 

Superman: The Movie

HDR. I finally think I get what Donner was going for with those silly reflective suits that Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and Lara (Susannah York) wear as they ponder the fate of their infant child before rocketing him off to earth. They have a pop and sizzle here that they’ve simply never had on home video before.

 

Other than that, it’s as if a layer of haze has been wiped off of the film. Granted, what was buried under the haze was a late-70s work of photochemical film. It’s fuzzy. It’s muted. Its effects shots look kinda laughable. But that’s long been part of the charm of this film, so kudos to Warner for having the cajones to release it as such, and kudos to Kaleidescape for delivering it with all of its textures and nuances intact. This isn’t the movie you’re going to whip out if you simply want to show off all of your projector’s or TV’s pixel-pumping, high-contrast capabilities. Still, it’s hard to deny that this is the best that Superman: The Movie has ever looked or will likely ever look. I daresay the original 70mm print didn’t shine this brilliantly the first time it was spindled through the projector on opening night in 1978.

 

One thing worth noting is that the Kaleidescape version of the film doesn’t include the new Atmos remix included with the UHD Blu-ray disc. I’m not sure how you feel about that, dear reader, but I don’t miss it. The new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix included with the Kaleidescape download is a big step up from previous efforts, especially in terms of its rich, bombastic delivery of John Williams’ iconic score. The fidelity here is simply flawless, yet it isn’t an outright betrayal of the film’s original aesthetic.

 

Am I alone in this, though? Would you rather see a classic like Superman: The Movie presented as a product of its time, in the best possible light of today’s home video technology? Or would you prefer that the studio iron out the grain, sharpen up the edges, slap on a fresh coat of paint, and try to make the film look (and sound!) more like the current crop of superhero flicks that owe so much to this cherished classic?

Dennis Burger

Superman: The Movie

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.

So You Think Your Room’s Bad, Pt. 2

So You Think Your Room's Bad, Pt. 2

We concluded our last post facing two major challenges: Squeezing a completely enclosed space into the middle of what had previously been an open-floorplan tradeshow booth, and then outfitting it with the kind of reference-quality movie system you usually only find in luxury home theater rooms.

 

It would seem like creating the room should have been easy. Just throw up four walls and drop a ceiling on them, right? Well, yeah—if you have enough space to work with. But the booth needed to be able to handle a constant flow of business traffic, and filtering all those people through a movie theater almost continuously in use for demos wasn’t an option. So we had to strike a balance between having a theater that groups could rotate in and out of while also having enough room on the outside for meetings and product spotlights—all within the confines of a 20 x 40-foot space barely large enough to hold a typical dedicated theater room.

 

We also didn’t want to give up the canted divider walls in the middle of the booth since they’d be used to hold big TVs showing videos that would lure people into the booth. And we didn’t want to completely give up offering a glimpse of the den-like theater room, since we wanted to make a statement that luxury cinema isn’t just about home theaters anymore.

The early, open floorplan, followed by the revised design incorporating
a self-contained room for a reference-quality home theater.

The solution was to cheat—a lot. Dennis, Marcelo, Melinda, and I kept moving the walls around, our fingers crossed the whole time, until we found positions for them that might allow the demo room to hold about a dozen people while about 40 other people milled around in the rest of the booth. The fire marshal nixed our plans to cover the whole booth, but we did get approval for a roof over just the demo area.

 

We eventually arrived at a 22.5′ wide by 14′ deep space—but remember that the back two corners were lopped off, thanks to the angled walls, so it was actually smaller than that. And, yes, under saner circumstances, the room would have been 14′ wide by 22.5′ deep—but that’s a whole other story.

 

So we ended up with a seriously space-challenged demo room with angled walls and the wrong orientation, the whole thing built out of narrow metal supports, thin fabric, a bunch of foam core, and not much else. And here’s where Dennis returns to continue the tale.

Michael Gaughn

Needless to say, getting a roof on the theater room was a boon for a few reasons. One, it meant we could control the light coming into the room. Two, it meant we could do an Atmos surround sound system, which was top on the client’s priority list. But it’s a pretty big step from figuring out, OK, yeah, we can do Atmos in this room, to actually deciding which components are going to come together and create such a system.

 

If you’ll indulge me some basic home theater ABCs here, I need to walk through the components of an 

In our sixth revision of the booth design, you can see how the shape of the demo room was defined by the needs of the booth exterior. The overhead view gives you a sense of what little space we had to work with, how the angled back walls ate into that precious space, and why in-room speakers were ruled out.

Atmos sound system, not because I assume you’re not familiar with them but to illustrate my thought process.

 

To do Atmos (or DTS:X) surround, you need to start with the components of a typical home theater system: Three speakers at the front of the room to deliver dialogue, music, and sound effects to the sides of the image, two or four speakers at the sides and/or rear of the room to deliver the offscreen ear-level sounds, and at least one subwoofer to deliver really deep bass.

 

To get from there to Atmos, you need to add two or four (or in some extreme cases six) channels of sound overhead.

 

Notice that I said “channels” there, not speakers. Because you can actually create those overhead sound effects by bouncing sound off the ceiling from little modules that sit atop your ear-level speakers. And that was certainly one possibility I explored for this room, since I wasn’t sure our ceiling would be strong enough to hold speakers.

Using sound reflections to create ceiling channels

This illustration shows a
driver on top of a soundbar
firing upward to create
sound reflections in order
to simulate Dolby Atmos
ceiling channels.

 

graphic courtesy of Dolby Labs

But at the same time, I also didn’t know how high the ceiling would be (it changed a few times) or if we would have room for physical speakers sitting out in the room. How many seats would we have in here? That question wasn’t going to be sufficiently answered until the last minute. So I decided that we needed to go with in-wall speakers all the way around, except for the subwoofers.

 

Mind you, there are some speaker manufacturers that make in-wall speaker modules designed to reflect off the ceiling to create those overhead effects. But while I was juggling all of the information above, I also had to consider the speakers in the back of the room. I needed a very specific type of speaker that would generate wide, immersive sound that would reach out into the room, no matter where people were seated. And I wanted all of our speakers to match in terms of the quality and character of sound. I quickly figured out GoldenEar Technology offered the ideal solutions.

 

We’ll dig into GoldenEar’s in-wall and in-ceiling speakers in the next post, explaining the exact problems their speakers solved, the guidance they gave us in terms of placement, and how I nearly had a nervous breakdown over the rotation of a single tweeter.

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.

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.

Diary of a Cord Cutter

Diary of a Cord Cutter

Humans are creatures of habit. We fall into routine with our diet, job, schedule and, for me, satellite service. I’ve been with DirecTV for well over a decade for no better reason than they had the best deal for my lifestyle at the time that I got fed up with the local cable company (which has since gone out of business). I’ve grown to appreciate the 4K they offer, the multitude of sports packages, and the DVR service. But as more of my friends eschew the traditional cable/satellite model, I yearn to know and understand the life of cord cutting.

 

Not to sound pretentious or elitist (which means I’m about to sound pretentious and elitist) but generally the home theater experience required by my friends doesn’t quite approach my expectations. Theirs involves uncalibrated televisions with the sound coming from the (gasp!) TV’s own speaker. Nothing like the 4K HDR and 5.1 (minimum) surround sound I’ve grown accustomed to. So while they’re happy with some limitations in their streaming services, I still need to fulfill my desire for high-end content.

 

And therein lies the challenge. How can I continue my indulgence of high-quality material and grow my offerings without losing key programming, such as sports and children’s shows. (I have a three-year-old son.) Is there enough Atmos content available to stream or download, or will I only find suitable soundtracks on UHD Blu-rays? Will relying on a collection of different services wreak havoc with my home automation? Over the upcoming entries, I plan to delve into what’s available that meets my needs, and describe how I overcome the hurdles and roadblocks I encounter. I’ll more than likely learn a few things about myself and the limits of my own sanity along the way.

 

But the big question is: Can I both cut the cord and create an even better home-entertainment experience than I have now. We’ll see . . .

 

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

We recently faced the challenge of trying to convert a clearly compromised—some would have said impossible—space into a reference-quality home cinema demo room. We’re going to tell our story over a series of posts, not because anyone should care about the innerworkings of a tradeshow but because we think anybody with a seemingly unusable room can learn from our experiences and will hopefully be inspired by them.

 

This series is an exercise in problem solving, meant to show that the technology and expertise now exist to take just about any room and turn it into a luxury entertainment space. In other words, don’t give up on the place you know you’ll be most comfortable just because it seems like a lost cause.

Michael Gaughn & Dennis Burger

 

M.G. sets the stage:

 

Kaleidescape tasked the extraordinary designer Marcelo Murachovsky, the equally extraordinary project manager Melinda DeNicola (of Detail in Design), and me with creating a booth for a recent convention. The booth was meant to show that luxury entertainment rooms aren’t just about dedicated home theaters anymore but can be just as satisfying in den/family-room/living-room/communal/mixed-use/multi-use/whatever spaces too.

 

We devoted about half of our design to an intimate, inviting area that would have been clearly visible to anyone walking by. No, you couldn’t blast Baby Driver in there without having it heard across at least half of the convention center, but our super-luxe media room would have definitely intrigued the showgoers.

So You Think Your Room's Bad

An early sketch of the booth, before Marcelo came on board.

But then, two weeks before the booth had to go into production, we were told to work a completely enclosed reference-quality demo room into the middle of the, until then, wide-open space. After a blizzard of phone calls, Hangouts, emails, sketches, renderings, and texts, Melinda, Marcelo, and I decided there was no way it could be done. But, given that the alternative was to have no booth at all, we decided to take a shot at it anyway.

 

Dennis had been involved from early on, initially a sounding board. But, citing his civil engineering background, he soon volunteered to create 3D renderings, which would prove invaluable in figuring out how to incorporate the demo space.

 

The four of us quickly came up with a layout that retained key elements of the original design—like an entranceway meant to evoke a hyper-modern theater proscenium, and canted walls that allowed big flat-screen TVs featuring promotional videos to be easily seen by passersby—while carving out an area in the midst of the booth just big enough for a theater room—maybe. If we got really lucky.

 

It would be hard to pinpoint the exact moment Dennis shifted from doing drawings to figuring out what gear we could use for the system without embarrassing the manufacturers. But I was eager for him to take over the system design, since I knew he wouldn’t feel constrained by any traditional notions of home theater or media room spaces.

The original sketch revised, with dividers placed between the demo area & the rest of the booth.
This is the design we were asked to add an enclosed room to.

D.B. picks up the ball from here:

 

If you’re unfortunate enough to work in an office environment littered with cubicles, imagine taking one of those infernal things, sizing it up to the dimension of a decent living room, slapping some foam-core board on top of it for a ceiling, and then lopping a couple of corners off for good measure. Now imagine that your job is to turn that area into an unimpeachably high-performance movie-watching space.

 

That is, essentially, the puzzle we had to solve with our design for the Kaleidescape booth. My efforts were at first focused on the 3D engineering and CAD drafting of the space based on Marcelo’s 2D drawings and Mike’s vision, with Melinda’s design input. But as we approached our deadline, I was also tasked with engineering the AV system for this quickly built temporary structure in such a way that it would deliver an immersive, full-fidelity audiovisual experience. One good enough to make attendees forget that they were actually sitting inside a jumbo-sized Erector Set covered in essentially the same material that we all used to make our middle-school science projects from.

 

Even though we were tight on space, part of our mandate was to incorporate an Atmos sound system complete with ceiling speakers, so picking the right speakers was critical. And we needed to find electronics with digital room correction to deal with such unenviable room geometry and atypical surfaces. I also knew early on that acoustical treatments were a must, but I expected a bit of pushback here because our goal was to create a room that looked like a relatable living space, not a recording studio.

 

If we’d had months to figure out how to make all of this work, I probably would have panicked at the impossibility of it all. But as is the case with so many home entertainment installations—in which construction and design schedules create an unavoidable ticking clock—we didn’t have time to panic. So we spent many a sleepless night collaborating, arguing, doing complex math, arguing about the math, revising our designs, and realizing that every problem we solved created another problem, right up to the minute in which our designs were locked and we couldn’t make any more changes because the booth was literally being constructed.

 

In followup posts, Mike and I will be digging into the specifics of the decisions we made along the way, and how we ended up turning this weird overgrown cubicle into a beautiful and effective luxury home cinema environment. Because if we accomplished anything, it was to demonstrate that practically no room is completely untameable.

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.

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.

Homecoming

Amazon Prime Homecoming

The brave members of the Armed Forces face numerous atrocities daily while on deployment, and the friendly staff of Homecoming is there to help ease their transition back into normal life. Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) is the therapist on site who leads the facility while also answering to her boss-from-afar, Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale). Colin is voraciously interested in the outcome of the experimental treatment Heidi was hired to facilitate.

 

We see the beginnings of this experiment with war veteran Walter, played beautifully by Stephen James, although we aren’t privy to the specifics and depths of the treatment until later. Then something happens, and a complaint is filed. But we have no idea what it is, and thus begins the psychological thriller/mystery at the heart of this series.

Homecoming began its life as a scripted podcast, and the Amazon Prime series honors that source material. (Although there are some major alterations later on, the first TV episode is almost exactly the same as the podcast.) We follow two timelines—one before the incident with Heidi and Walter at the facility, which is shown in a widescreen aspect ratio, and one after, shown in a constricting 4:3 ratio with muted colors, as Department of Defense investigator 

Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigman) tries to determine if the complaint is valid and worth elevating to his superiors.

 

The acting throughout is excellent. The chemistry between Roberts and James pulls us in to the intimacy of their private counseling sessions and carries us along on their journey. There are some wonderful moments from supporting members Sissy Spacek and Dermot Mulroney. And Sam Esmail (creator of Mr. Robot) is masterful in his direction of all episodes. The visuals and quirky music choices do a fantastic job of alternately keeping you on edge and settling you into the experience.

 

Homecoming is available in 4K HDR with a 5.1 soundtrack. An initial search for it through the Amazon app will probably come up with the non-4K version since Amazon doesn’t seem to push their 4K offerings as hard as they should. So be sure you’re getting the proper high-resolution experience. The image quality is stunning and serves the cinematography exceptionally well. The surround speakers are utilized well, and the 5.1 mix never sounds gimmicky but is only there to increase the ambiance or, at times, the tension. There are no explosions or intense car chases to test the limits of your system—it’s not that kind of show—but the subtle use of sound effects throughout leads to some startling moments for the characters.

 

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.

Is Personal Luxury Cinema Really a Thing?

Is Personal Luxury Cinema Really a Thing?

One of the things we’re trying to encourage here at Cineluxe is ongoing dialogue, debate, and discussion. As we’ve stated before, the term “luxury” can be a moving target and mean different things to different people—or to put it more crudely, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

 

Dennis Burger recently wrote a post, “Luxury System Basics: Another View,” in response to my post discussing the minimum electronics required to outfit a system capable of delivering a luxury home experience. Reading Dennis’ post made me think, “Well, would he consider a laptop and headphones a luxury experience?!?”

 

I’ll admit, at first that voice in my head had a pretty sarcastic edge.

 

But then I started thinking on it a little more. I mean, could a laptop and pair of headphones deliver a luxury experience?

 

I think that answer is simultaneously “no” and “yes,” but most likely “a definite qualified maybe . . .”

 

Before I give a more considered response, let me start with a story for a bit of perspective.

 

After I got married, my wife and I moved into an apartment building in Walnut Creek, California. My entertainment system at the time consisted of a 25″ Proton CRT tube, some Boston Acoustics towers and matching center channel, a Yamaha surround receiver, and a Definitive Technology 15″ sub. Our first night in the new apartment, we watched Babe—yes, the talking pig movie—on VHS at a volume level that I would describe as modest at best. The next morning we found a note on our door that said (to the best of my memory), “You don’t live alone in the woods! You need to keep the volume down!”

 

This was crushingly disappointing to me as I knew it meant I’d no longer be able to enjoy movies or music at any kind of volume level until we moved out. And this on the second day of our one-year lease.

 

So, what if you love movies—or music—but live in a similar situation, where you’re unable to have a system due to neighborly issues? Or if you have a space that just can’t accommodate a massive screen? Or you travel a lot and want to have the best possible experience wherever you go? Or if you’re like Dennis’s friend Sara Beth and just find large screens overwhelming?

 

Modern laptops can deliver 4K HDR resolution, which is insane pixel density when compared to screens four or more times larger. They also have ultra-powerful processors, many gigs of RAM, and fantastic video cards for wonderful video scaling.

 

Some laptops even offer an HDMI input, meaning you can connect an external 4K HDR source like a UHD Blu-ray, Apple 4K TV, or Kaleidescape Strato and watch it on the laptop’s screen.

 

By the numbers, a decent-sized laptop screen—say 16″ diagonal—sitting in your lap would achieve both SMPTE and THX recommended viewing angles for an immersive experience. This would actually deliver the same visual experience as sitting 12.5′  from a 100″ screen. (If you’re curious about calculating recommended screen sizes for your seating position, this is a great site.)

 

Regarding screen size, I’d also say that I’d rather watch a great image on a smaller screen than a good one on a large screen. In other words, a 75″ screen doesn’t always trump the experience of viewing on a 55″ or 65″.

On the audio side, headphones can definitely deliver the luxury Schiit. (I’m referring to Schiit Audio, of course.) In fact, in some ways, a good pair of headphones with an outboard DAC and amplifier can get you far closer to the source material than audio systems costing many times the price. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to audition a pair of truly cost-no-object phones like Sennheiser’s Orpheus 2 or HiFiMan’s Shangri-La, then you know how truly jaw-dropping audio can be. Headphones can reveal micro details and subtleties that can be lost when listening on a traditional pair of loudspeakers, with bass response, dynamics, and isolation from outside noise that traditional systems struggle to match.

 

Headphones also aren’t impacted by the room’s acoustics, typically deliver fantastic audio at less-than-reference

Orpheus Comes Alive

Powering on Sennheiser’s $52,000 HE 1 (also known as Orpheus 2) headphones initiates an elegant ballet, the controls slowly extending from their recessed positions on the front of the marble plinth, the eight tubes rising and slowly warming to life, and the storage cover gently rising to reveal the headphones themselves, enclosed in a luxurious storage case. This orchestration is designed to entice and excite as the system slowly comes online, timed so Orpheus is fully ready to entertain upon completion.

—J.S.

levels, and won’t have your neighbors (or roommates) leaving any snotty notes on your door.

 

With virtualization software and processing like DTS Headphone:X or Dolby Headphone, you can even get a simulated surround experience while wearing a pair of headphones. Is it as immersive as having an actual dedicated 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos speaker array, which can place sounds discretely anywhere in the room including directly over your head and behind you? No, but it can be pretty damn impressive.

 

The place where this kind of experience truly falls short is when it goes beyond an audience of one. Sitting hunched over a laptop screen side-by-side with a group of headphone-wearing friends is certainly no one’s definition of luxury.

 

So, can a laptop and headphones deliver a luxury experience for a solo cinephile? You tell me.

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.

Luxury System Basics: Another View

As you’ve probably guessed by now, we’re trying something new here at Cineluxe. We’re trying to find the boundaries of a relatively new phenomenon—one that combines the best elements of the old home theater and media room concepts, while rejecting their downsides. Out with the man cave. Out with isolated spaces in the home that merely ape commercial cinemas. (Because, seriously, mimicking that outdated and dying concept makes about as much sense as having a phone booth in the hallway. No offense to you Doctor Who fans in the audience.)

 

What we’re chasing after here is living spaces where all of a room’s purposes are served by its design on co-equal footing. In his latest piece, John Sciacca gives you a pretty good idea of what sort of electronics and effort it takes to appoint one of these spaces. It’s a good place to start if you’re wondering what the heck we’re all about here. But given that we’re a diverse bunch of folks with a diversity of thoughts on the matter, it’s no real surprise that my own opinion on what it takes to deliver a better-than-movie-theater experience at home is a little different from John’s.

 

His approach is an attempt at objectivity. Mine is a little more subjective. So, when John says that the minimum screen size should be around 75″, I get what he’s going for. But it gives me pause.

And it gives me pause because of my friend Sara Beth, with whom I’ve been to the movies once or twice when that was still a thing I did. SB refuses to see a movie in IMAX. And when we went to the movie theater together, she always wanted to sit in the back row. That struck me as odd, until I learned that she’s a hyper-focused person who can’t really concentrate on a movie unless she can take it in all at once. Any on-screen action that takes place outside of her paracentral vision is overwhelming to the point of distraction. If she had a 75″ TV, she would need to sit in her neighbor’s kitchen to watch it.

 

Does that mean she couldn’t benefit from a better, more immersive, more luxurious home cinema system? Of course not. It just means that her idea of “immersive” and mine are radically different.

 

So, when you see one of us throw out minimum standards like “75″ screen or larger,” keep in mind that what we’re trying to convey is that a Cineluxe environment should be one in which the screen commands your attention and removes distraction. So, too, should the sound system. Control and operation should be seamless and intuitive. When you dim the lights and press Play, the world should disappear. But just as importantly, when you press Stop and raise the lights, your room shouldn’t look like a Black Friday sale at Best Buy.

 

Do I absolutely agree that there are some minimum standards for achieving this? Of course I do. And I completely agree that a ratty old 720p TV with a soundbar plopped in front of it won’t do the trick. But I think those standards are different from person to person—because what matters is the experience. And that’s unique to you, your family, and those with whom you choose to share it.

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.