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Three Essential Vinyl Demos

I’ve been a vinylphile since I was a child, when 78 RPM records like Debbie Reynolds’ “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” and Spike Jones’ “Hawaiian War Chant” captivated my young ears on my grandmother’s Victrola.

 

Here are three of my favorite demo discs for audio system and component evaluation and listening pleasure. In fact, I’d say you could tell everything you need to know about what your system is doing or where it’s falling short with these three records.

 

 

Bill Berry and His Ellington All Stars, For Duke

M&K Realtime RT-101

 

This LP attained audiophile-pantheon status shortly after it came out in 1978, and for good reason. It remains one of the most astonishingly well-recorded vinyl LPs ever. Unlike many “audiophile” discs with exceptional sonics and forgettable music, the playing is wonderful, with a jazz combo having a ball playing Ellington’s greatest hits, including “Take the A Train,” “Satin Doll,” and “Mood Indigo.”

 

For Duke was recorded direct-to-disc—the performance was cut live directly to the master disc, a process that eliminates the sonic degradation and generation loss that comes with recording to analog tape and then cutting the disc from tape.

 

It shows. In particular, the dynamics are remarkable. A couple of minutes into “Take the A Train,” Berry takes a cornet solo that is literally startling—when he comes in, it’s all you can do not to flinch in surprise (as I did the first time I heard it). The drums are powerfully lifelike, as are all the instruments—Ray Brown’s bass is jaw dropping in its richness and presence. The recording is astoundingly pure and detailed. The tonal balance is near perfect.

 

We’ve all heard the cliché “It sounds like the musicians are in the room” to describe the sound of a good recording, but in this case, it really does sound like that. This record is hard to find and usually expensive, but hey, that’s part of the agony and the ecstasy of record collecting.

Fritz Reiner, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Scheherazade

Analogue Productions LSC-2446 re-issue of RCA “Living Stereo” original

 

While For Duke is renowned for its up-front perspective, Scheherazade puts the listener in an entirely different acoustic environment, with its realistic rendering of an orchestra in the concert hall. Recorded in 1960 by producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton and brilliantly performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by maestro Fritz Reiner, this Analogue Productions re-issue is nothing less than sensational.

vinyl demos

The tonal palette of the orchestra is beautifully conveyed, with sumptuous lows, a natural midrange, and the sweet, airy upper midrange and highs that let you know you’re hearing analog at its best. On a good system, you can clearly hear the character of the hall. The quiet parts are exquisite (Sidney Hart’s violin playing could not be more nuanced and expressive) and the fortes are thrilling.  My feeble words don’t begin to do this masterpiece justice.

 

For decades, the legendary original RCA Living Stereo recording was nearly impossible to find, with various vinyl re-issues ranging from mediocre to very good. No longer—this 2013 Analogue Productions re-issue is magnificent. In fact, while I don’t have an original pressing on hand for comparison (though I’ve heard it many times), no less an authority than Analog Planet’s Michael Fremer thinks this re-issue actually betters the storied original. I won’t argue.

New Order, “Blue Monday”

Factory Records Factus 10 (1983 US 12-inch single)

 

But want to know if your system can rock? All you need do is listen to the first Oberheim DMX drum-machine beats of New Order’s “Blue Monday,” the best-selling 12-inch single of all time (according to Wikipedia), and one of the most groundbreaking, genre-defining, walloping bowl-you-over dance-music singles ever. But don’t turn it up too loud or you might blow out your woofers.

 

“Blue Monday” is insanely powerful and dynamic, irresistibly catchy and moving. Back in the day, this would propel people to the dance floor with its mesmerizing mix of synth and Peter Hook’s unmistakable electric bass, its layered synthesizer washes and melodies, its pull-no-punches electronic drums, and Bernard Sumner’s dryly-delivered vocals. On a good audio system, it sounds massive.

 

My copy is an original 1983 US version with the die-cut cover (designed to resemble a floppy disc!) and silver inner sleeve, though not one of the first UK pressings with the “FAC 73” catalog number. There are literally more than 50 1983 vinyl US, UK, and international issues listed on Discogs (and there were also 1998 and 1995 remixes and numerous CD and digital versions), so I certainly can’t vouch for the sound quality of every one of them! But since the record sold so well, you shouldn’t have to do a Where’s Waldo to find a copy like mine. Put it on the turntable and stand back!

Frank Doris

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

How to Cram for Infinity War in as Few Films as Possible

Like many of you, I’m sure, I already have my tickets to see Avengers: Infinity War this weekend. Unlike most of you, I hope, I won’t be using those tickets. A nasty abscess and a brief flirtation with sepsis have nipped those plans right in the bud. But oddly enough, this unintentional timeout has given me a chance to do something I probably wouldn’t have had time for otherwise: Actually prepare myself for the movie.

 

Mind you, I don’t have time, nor the desire, to watch every Marvel Cinematic Universe film leading up to Infinity War. But it is the 19th in the series and the culmination of every one of the films before it, so the assumption is that you’ve seen most if not all of them at some point since their release. And I have. I simply need a refresher to get me in the right mental and emotional space heading into this monumental event film.

 

So, while my buddy Dave was sitting by my side in the hospital last night, patting my head and asking if he could have all my Hot Toys figures if this whole thing goes south, we brainstormed the lazy nerd’s essential viewing guide for heading into Infinity War. Good nerds that we are, we had rules, of course. 

 

First rule: Six films, max. Reason: So people can actually get this marathon done before this weekend. 

Rule B: We’re not worried about the location and particular powers of every Infinity Stone (the powerful gems, remnants of six singularities that pre-exist our universe, which have served as MacGuffins for many Marvel films to date and which give Infinity War its name). Reason: You’d literally have to watch nearly every Marvel movie to get that, which violates Rule One. Plus, you can just look up any number of YouTube videos about the Infinity Stones and catch up that way.

Rule the Third: Try to include as many relevant characters as possible in as few films as possible without having to watch Avengers: Age of Ultron. Reason: Age of Ultron was just terrible. No, seriously, y’all—that was a bad movie.

 

Rule 4: This list has to work equally well for people who’ve seen all the films and people who haven’t. Reason: Because some people haven’t. 

 

So, with those rules in mind (and with a morphine drip in my arm, so take it for what you will), here’s my list of films that should serve as a quick refresher course in the overall state of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) leading up to the events of Infinity War

 

Captain America: Winter Soldier. Nope, don’t you dare blame the morphine for this one. Look, I realize that Winter Solider is a fully terrestrial film, with no hint of the cosmic or mystic sides of the MCU that are obviously going to be so important in the new film. But Winter Soldier is essential viewing because it sets the stage for everything that happens to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in the years that follow it. On top of that, it’s simply one of the best action movies ever made (and a pretty solid espionage flick at that), completely irrespective of its status as a Marvel movie. 

Infinity War

Winter Soldier is also an essential re-watch because Captain America: Civil War doesn’t make much sense without it, and Civil War is really the film that leaves the Avengers in the personal, emotional, and legal states they’re in heading into Infinity War. If you can’t quite figure out why Captain America looks like The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes in the Infinity War trailer, this one has your essential reminders. Civil War also serves as Spider-Man’s introduction to the MCU, and he looks to play an incredibly important part in the new film. (For what it’s worth, you can watch Spider-Man: Homecoming on its own if you want. It’s a hoot and a half. But it’s not essential viewing for the purposes of Infinity War prep.)

 

Next up: Guardians of the Galaxy, a film high in the running for best pop-music soundtrack of all time, and also our best glimpse at who this big, bad villain named Thanos really is, what he wants, and what he’s willing to do to get it. What’s perhaps most interesting is that we learn less about Thanos from his actual screen time than we do by watching his favorite “daughters,” Nebula and Gamora, who play central roles in this one.

 

And you just have to follow that up with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Dave reached over to check my temperature when I threw this one out, because it’s not an obvious pick. It has less to do with Thanos and the Infinity Stones than its predecessor. But again, it goes back to learning about Thanos by proxy. The interactions between Nebula and Gamora in this film tell you a lot about who the Mad Titan is. Vol. 2 also sneaks in a lot of history about the cosmic side of the MCU that I have a sneaking suspicion will become way more relevant in this upcoming film. 

Infinity War

Of course, you also need a heaping helping of immersion in the mystic side of this universe, and for that we turn to Doctor Strange. I’ve seen more than a few headlines recently along the lines of “WHY DOCTOR STRANGE IS SO IMPORTANT TO INFINITY WAR,” and I haven’t clicked on them. Any of them. Because spoilers, duh. But I can tell you this: It’s a pretty safe bet that the Time Stone featured so prominently in this film is at least one of the reasons Thanos’ sights are set on Earth in the new film. So, if nothing else, consider this (along with Guardians of the Galaxy) your essential primer on the power of Infinity Stones individually. It also has Rachel McAdams in it. Rawr. 

 

Last up, Thor: Ragnarok, the film that, as best I can tell, leads right into Infinity War. It also answers the important questions: Where the heck were Thor and Hulk during Civil War? And how are they gonna get back to Earth? Also, make doubly sure you stick around for the mid-credits scene in this one. But seriously, you should already know that by now.

 

So, lemme have it. What essential movies did I leave out? But more importantly, which of my movies would you drop from my six-film crash course to make room for your pick, and why? 

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.

ER

Like millions of Americans in the ‘90s, Thursday nights meant one thing to me: It was time for NBC’s “Must See TV” lineup. NBC had dominated Thursday prime-time programming from the moment Bill Cosby donned his first sweater in 1984, and classic shows like Cheers, L.A. Law, and Seinfeld only tightened the network’s hold on Thursday viewership over the next decade.

 

But even the execs at NBC had to be surprised by the immediate breakout success of two shows added to that already powerful Thursday night lineup in September of 1994: Friends and ER.

 

My mother fell in love with ER (and George Clooney, of course) from the very start, so we quickly settled into a family ritual. Every Thursday night after work, I’d drive the 20 miles to Mom’s house. We’d settle in, flip on NBC, order some pizza, switch to something else when Madman of the People came on, and then switch back in time for our weekly appointment with the doctors and nurses at Chicago’s County General hospital.

We clearly were not the only ones captivated by this new drama—ER became a mainstay in the Nielsen Top 10 for the next decade, and at the height of its popularity averaged more than 35 million viewers.

 

ER finally signed off in 2009 after 15 seasons, a remarkable 331 episodes, and 124 Emmy nominations (a record for a drama). The final episode gave the series its largest rating in years, but the show seemed to disappear from the public consciousness very quickly after it left the air.

 

We live in an era of countless cable TV channels and multiple streaming platforms, yet for 10 years the only way to watch ER was on DVD. That finally changed last year, when the POP network started airing three episodes every afternoon. I soon found myself entrenched in a full show re-watch—a task that took up a Dr. Benton’s ego-sized chunk of my spare time (and about 75% of my DVR) over a six-month period.

 

Thankfully, anyone who now wants to revisit ER can do so in much simpler fashion. Earlier this year, Hulu announced it had added all 15 seasons to its streaming service. You no longer have to force yourself to watch three episodes a day just to keep pace, like I did. But that does bring up a big question: Is an ER binge really worth 331 hours of your precious screen time?

 

At the very least, I’d recommend watching the first seven or eight seasons—especially if you’re a first-time viewer. Medical dramas have always been a staple on TV, but ER was the first to expose viewers to the real blood and guts of a big-city hospital. The fast-paced, in-your-face cinematography was always a standout aspect of the show, and these early episodes look even better now that they can now be seen in their original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. (Note: ER episodes began airing in widescreen during Season Seven, but they were filmed in widescreen format from Day One.)

 

As impressive as ER was from a technical standpoint, it was always the characters that were the heart of the show. George Clooney may have become the breakout superstar, but every member of that stellar original cast created a character to remember. Even the smaller roles of the nurses and desk clerks seemed like people you wanted to have a beer with, and that only added to ER’s mass appeal.

 

Of course, with great success came great cast turnover. One by one, George Clooney and Juliana Margulies and Eric La Salle eventually left the show. Maura Tierney and Goran Ivanisevic came on board and helped to keep the quality (and ratings) at a high level, but the glory days of ER officially came to an end with the departure of Noah Wyle’s John Carter in 2005.

 

With no ties left to the original cast, ER lost much of what made it appealing in the first place. The storylines became more and more over-the-top (so many explosions!), but there were always just enough quality moments to keep me watching for all 15 seasons.

 

And as my re-watch reminded me, ER was never lacking in star power. Almost every episode seemed to feature someone who would go on to do bigger and better things—Lucy Liu, Kirsten Dunst, Christina Hendricks. Zac Efron, Chris Pine, and Jessica Chastain are just a small sampling of the many then-unknowns who made visits to County General over the years.

 

While I truly enjoyed my recent re-watch, it wasn’t always easy viewing. ER will forever remind me of my mother, even though we stopped watching together on a regular basis after she moved away in the late ‘90s. Mom is older now and going through some tough medical issues, and more than a few episodes hit just a little too close to home—but that was always the power of ER at its very best.

 

I’m sure that over the course of 331 episodes, you’ll shed some tears as well. And if you do manage to make it through to the very end, you’ll be rewarded with a final season that features return engagements from almost all of the show’s original stars. Even Anthony Edwards makes an appearance, despite the fact that Dr. Greene passed away way back in Season Eight.

 

ER may have been on life support over its last few seasons, but the final episodes provide a fitting end to one of TV’s longest-running—and best—dramas.

Gary Maxwell

 

All 15 seasons of ER are available on Hulu. It is also available for streaming from Amazon,
Vudu, Google Play, and iTunes.

Gary Maxwell lives in Dallas with his wife, three cats, 6,000 LPs, and a vintage Atari 2600.
He once attended 218 consecutive Texas Longhorn football games over a span of 17 years,
yet he seems unable to commit to a particular brand of shampoo. His all-time favorite TV
show is Star Trek, except when it’s dark on Tuesday. When someone asks Gary if he prefers
the Beatles or the Stones, his answer is “The Who.”

REVIEWS

Wonder Woman review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review

‘Flower’ and the Power of Games as Art

Flower

Tucked away in the hidden recesses of the PlayStation Network Store, amongst the shooter games and fighting games and puzzle games and what have you, there resides a little work of art named Flower that everyone should experience at least once. It doesn’t matter if you’re a jaded gamer with forty years of pwning n00bs under your belt or a complete neophyte who has never picked up a controller, this delightful little download—originally developed nine years ago for the PlayStation 3, but lovingly revamped in 1080p with 7.1-channel sound for PS4—has a message for you.

 

What that message may be, I’m not quite sure. Because your relationship with Flower will almost certainly be different from mine. I’ve had hours-long conversations with fellow gaming friends, trying our best to come to some consensus on its themes and central messages. But I won’t rehash any of those discussions here, because if you’ve never played Flower, the last thing in the world I want is to color your own interpretation.

 

But I will say this: It’s pretty clear that Flower was made as a reaction to the rather limited range of emotions normally evoked by video games. Much like the recently released Celeste, Flower grapples with notions of achievement and pursuit and their effects on the psyche. Whereas Celeste dealt with such issues by immersing you in a quest and them commenting upon it slyly, Flower takes an alternative approach. It drops you into a gaming world in which achievement isn’t the point at all. Where it’s downright discouraged, in point of fact.

 

In the game, you live out the dreams of a handful of potted plants, perched upon a windowsill overlooking a gray and dreary city. In these dreams, you don’t control a character or any other sort of visible avatar. What you control is the unseen wind. And you control it not with some sophisticated series of button presses, but rather the gentle motion of the video game controller itself. Lean your hands to the right and the wind blows to the right. Lift them up, and you send a gust skyward. And as the wind blows around these beautiful dreamscapes, you collect the petals of flowers strewn throughout their many hills and valleys and ridges and plateaus.

It’s as simple as that, really. But to understand the appeal of Flower, you really have to immerse yourself in it. Because it isn’t until you’re consumed in this experience that you understand something quite profound: Yes, there are hidden secrets in this game. Yes, there are achievements of a sort. But everything about the game forces you into a mental state in which these things aren’t actively sought, but simply appreciated all the more when you do come across them. The goal here isn’t necessarily pleasure, nor fun, nor excitement, but rather peaceful contentment.

 

More so than anything else, what Flower forces you to do is to be present in this moment, right here and right now, with no regard for what comes next. What it pushes you toward is an intrinsic appreciation of the beauty of every interaction, whether it leads to something extrinsically fruitful or not. What it evokes—at least in me—is some approximation of anattā or self-transcendence, the likes of which normally require years of practice in vipassanā meditation to achieve on one’s own.

 

Will it evoke the same in you? I can’t say, of course. But you owe it to yourself to spend seven bucks to find out.

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.

Great ‘Last Jedi’ Demo Scenes

The Last Jedi

Following up on Dennis Burger’s lengthy examination of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I thought I would detail some of my favorite scenes from the movie. While Jedi has been a bit divisive amongst Star Wars fans—read the almost 100 comments on Dennis’s post on the Rayva Home Theaters Facebook page—now that I’ve had the chance to view it a couple more times at home, and after viewing the fantastic included two-hour documentary titled “The Director and the Jedi,” which examines many aspects of Rian Johnson’s filmmaking decisions, I’ve come to appreciate this movie in ways I couldn’t or didn’t during my initial theatrical viewing.

Regardless of your feelings about this latest installment in our favorite space opera, this is the best the franchise has ever looked or sounded and makes for reference demo material at home.

 

Much of Star Wars: The Last Jedi takes place in space, and you’ll marvel at the clean, deep, dark black-level detail of this terrific 4K HDR transfer. During the film’s first moments aboard General Hux’s ship, the floor, work stations, officers’ uniforms, and General Hux’s top and trench coat are all black. But a properly calibrated video display will reveal that these are all slightly different shades of black with clearly visible texture and detail.

During the scene where Rey trains on Ahch-To, note the texture in her staff, along with the detail in the stones around her. When she lights Luke’s saber, the blade glows hot blue-white against the sunny background, the HDR image retaining the dark and deep shadow detail of the craggy rocks while the light of the saber blade exceeds that of the sun!

 

HDR is used to great effect throughout the film, but especially during the bright outdoor scenes on Ahch-To and anytime a lightsaber blade is activated. The images from the 4K DI are reference in every regard, and virtually every frame will push your video system to its limits.

 

One of my favorite scenes is when Rey visits the dark place on Ahch-To. It just looks so cool, and the Dolby Atmos sound is terrific, swirling around the room as she snaps her fingers. Just following this is a conversation between Rey and Kylo by firelight with a closeup of their hands with fingerprint detail so amazing you could submit it to the FBI for evidence.

 

Check out the detail of Kylo’s wounds when he is communicating with Rey. You can clearly see the effects Rey’s lightsaber attack had on his face and chest from the end of The Force Awakens, as well as the scar in his side from Chewbacca’s Bowcaster. These are the subtle details that really come through in full 4K resolution.

 

The lightsaber dual between Rey and Kylo and Snoke’s guards and the finale battle on Crait look and sound even more awesome at home than you remember from the theater. Kylo’s poorly constructed saber crackles and sizzles erratically, barely containing the blade’s energy, and the ultra-sharp detail makes this more visible than ever before. (Jedi’s audio levels are a bit lower than some other titles, so be sure to turn the volume up to near reference level to truly experience the full impact of the immersive Dolby Atmos soundtrack!) The reds explode off the screen in HDR, producing rich, vibrant detail along with brilliant whites and deep, dark blacks. The orange-red of the Rebel pilots’ flight suits has never looked richer, and even old C3PO gets a visual upgrade from this 4K transfer, with his gold outfit shining brighter than ever before.

 

This is the demo candy you’ve been waiting for!

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.

Oppo is Dead, Long Live Oppo

Oppo

How’s this for timing? Just days after pimping my Oppo Ultra HD audiophile disc player as the king of the hill in my media room entertainment system, this happens. As of this week, the company has announced that production of its lauded disc players, audio systems, and headphones is winding down.

 

“As announced on April 2nd, 2018, OPPO Digital will gradually stop manufacturing new products,” reads a letter linked on the company’s homepage. “Existing products will continue to be supported, warranties will still be valid, and both in-warranty and out-of-warranty repair services will continue to be available. Firmware will continue to be maintained and updates released from time to time.”

 

To say the least, this is a sad day for videophiles. You could chalk this up to the gradual decline of disc sales, the prominence of streaming, the fact that people who rent their movies almost never rent physical media anymore. And you’d probably be right, to a degree.

 

The one argument I would make to counter that is that there’s still a very healthy market for discs. The massive decline in sales that everyone keeps touting? It was 14% last year. 10% the year before—the first year in which streaming overtook disc sales. That’s hardly doom and gloom.

 

What makes all of this so much worse is that there just isn’t another Oppo out there. Pick your favorite display manufacturer. Or speaker manufacturer. Or receiver manufacturer. If they disappeared tomorrow, you’d still have plenty of high-end alternatives.

 

Oppo, though, so thoroughly defined the high-end disc-player market that any alternatives I can think of off the top of my head were actually Oppo players at the core, perhaps with a different power supply or digital-to-analog converter chip.

 

When the last Oppo is boxed up and shipped to its last customer, what option does the up-and-coming videophile have? Get an Xbox One X, I guess. Or be done with discs once and for all and embrace Kaleidescape’s pixel-perfect digital downloads. The former is great as a disc player and a heck of a media streamer to boot, and the latter is undoubtedly the videophile future.

 

Still, losing Oppo feels like losing a friend. In its 14-year run, I’ve owned at least one player from every generation of the company’s offerings, and the latest are, without question, its greatest. I suppose there’s something to be said for going out on top of your game. There’s also something to be said about the fact that the UDP-205 was probably going to be the last disc player I would ever need anyway—especially given that I’m still using the company’s first-ever Blu-ray player in a spare bedroom, and it still works like the day I pulled it out of the box.

 

Is it silly to mourn the passing of a company? Perhaps. But when that company literally has no peers, what can we do but mourn?

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.

How the XBox Became My Favorite Video Player

Xbox One X

I just finished reading Dennis Burger’s ode to his Roku Ultra, and it inspired me to write one of my own—to my Xbox One X gaming console, which has positioned itself as the preferred video playback device in my everyday home entertainment system.

 

I reviewed the Xbox One X for HomeTheaterReview.com a few months back. As I stressed in that review, I’m not a gamer by any stretch of the imagination, but I have reviewed my fair share of Ultra HD Blu-ray players, as well as many generations of streaming media players from Roku, Apple, Amazon, and Nvidia. My approach to the Xbox review was to answer this question: Does this gaming console succeed as a complete all-in-one media player? Spoiler alert if you haven’t read the review: It does.

 

What’s my proof? Well, four months later, the Xbox One X remains the sole set-top box connected to my living-room TV, while an Apple TV 4K, Roku 4, and Amazon Fire TV sit idle in a box in my office/test studio. Sure, I’ll pull one of those players out when I’m reviewing a TV or projector, along with my Oppo UDP-103 Ultra HD Blu-ray player.

 

But the player I choose to use on an everyday basis is the Xbox. Why? Because it really does give me everything I want in one box, with one common user experience.

 

First of all, the Xbox One X is the only gaming console to sport an Ultra HD Blu-ray player, so I can pop in UHD Blu-ray discs when I want the highest-quality video experience. I use a Polk MagniFi Mini soundbar in this everyday space—but if I had a surround sound/Atmos system here, the Xbox One X could accommodate it, too. I can also pop CDs into the disc drive . . . and only listen to them halfway through.

 

Second, the Microsoft Store includes all the streaming apps my kiddo and I use on a regular basis. That includes Netflix, Prime Video, Sling TV, Vudu, Tablo, PBS Kids, YouTube, and Pandora. Here I will confess that I do miss the convenience of voice search offered by Roku, Amazon, and Apple . . . but apparently not enough to make a switch.

 

As a cord cutter, I no longer have a cable or satellite set-top box. If I did, though, I could pass it through the Xbox’s HDMI input and unite that source into the user experience as well.

Xbox One X

And then there are the games. Over the years, the kiddo and I have casually enjoyed the simple, family-friendly games that are available through platforms like Fire TV and Apple TV—such as Crossy Road, Pacman 256, and Hill Climb Racing. But now my daughter’s eyes have been opened to a glorious new world filled with Minecraft, Super Lucky’s Tale, Star Wars Battlefront, and Rush: A Disney Pixar Adventure—and I’m afraid there ain’t no going back to Minion Rush.

 

As I said in my original review, if you look at each of the above categories individually—UHD Blu-ray player, streaming media player, or music player—of course you’ll find better performers. Products that deliver a higher level of AV performance or a better user interface. But the Xbox One X does it all quite well, and for me the convenience of being able to jump from a game like Minecraft to a streaming source like Netflix to live TV through Tablo and then to Planet Earth II on UHD Blu-ray—without having to switch inputs or remotes—is just too darn enticing to pass up.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the AV editor at Wirecutter. Adrienne lives in Colorado,
where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time
being in them.

An Ode to My Roku Ultra

Roku Ultra

In her latest missive in our ongoing back-and-forth about media rooms—how to define them, how to design them, how to get the most out of them—Adrienne Maxwell made a point I want to make sure doesn’t get overlooked. In her discussion of sources that support High Dynamic Range, Ultra High Definition video, she points out that streaming media players like Roku are a great way to bring some truly great video content into your media room without breaking the bank.

 

Nothing could be truer. But I hope readers don’t mistakenly think Adrienne is positioning the Roku Ultra (or new Apple TV, or the Nvidia Shield—take your pick) as merely the low rung on the ladder of AV bliss.

 

Sure, if pixel-perfect presentation is the only criterion we’re talking about, my Roku Ultra fits into the “better” box of the good/better/best hierarchy in my own media room, with my satellite receiver holding down the “good enough” fort and my Oppo Ultra HD audiophile disc player currently sitting at the top of the hill.

 

But are perfect pixels the only thing I care about? When I’m watching Blade Runner 2049, absolutely. I’ll accept no less than perfection. At times like that, only a shiny silver disc will do. But what about the nightly news program I stream via YouTube? Or my weekly fix of The Star Wars Show? Honestly, nearly every box connected to my home theater system will stream those programs just fine. But none do so nearly as well as my Roku Ultra, with its instant-on accessibility and its ridiculously intuitive user interface.

 

All of the bonus features for The Last Jedi I recently reviewed? I didn’t plop in the bonus Blu-ray disc. I redeemed the digital code and streamed them via my Roku. It loads faster and is easier to navigate. When my mother-in-law visited last week and wanted to catch up on This is Us? I didn’t slog through the OnDemand menus from my satellite provider and wait for each episode to buffer. I turned to my Roku Ultra and asked it which streaming service had past episodes available for free.

 

If I won the lottery tomorrow and had the opportunity to build the home theater of my dreams, I can assure you, without question, that my first purchase would be a Kaleidescape Premiere System with banks of servers to store my massive movie collection. But I can also guarantee you this: Alongside those racks of hard drives—out of view, perhaps, but never out of mind—there would still be a space reserved for my lowly Roku Ultra.

 

Because other source components may outclass it, but nothing can replace 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.

What are the Media Room Essentials?

media rooms

Continuing our conversation about media rooms, I’m going to run with Dennis Burger’s initial premise that, for a room to qualify as a media room, some thought and effort have to go into creating the highest quality AV experience your space and budget will allow. Simply plopping a 55-inch HDTV, cheap soundbar, and set-top box on a TV stand in your family room doesn’t magically transform the space into a media room.

 

I contend that a high-quality media room system does two things: It offers great AV performance and it embraces the advanced technologies of the day. The beauty is, in today’s AV landscape, you don’t necessarily have to spend a fortune to get both of these things.

 

Here’s what I consider to be the core elements of a modern media room system:

 

A Large-Screen UHD Display

Just like in a dedicated home theater, a media room needs a large screen that draws you in and allows you to feel truly immersed in the source content, be it a movie, TV show, or game. The display should be the focus of your eye (at least when the system is turned on), and the room’s seating and layout should reinforce that principle.

 

What constitutes a large screen? It kind of depends on your room and how far the display is from the seating area. I’d say the screen needs to be at least 65 inches in a smaller room and 75 inches or more in a larger room. At these screen sizes, 4K resolution on its own isn’t crucial, but the other aspects of Ultra HD—namely, High Dynamic Range and expanded color—represent the best of what the video world has to offer right now. Once you see high-quality HDR content on a high-performance TV like an OLED, you won’t want to go back to standard dynamic range.

 

A word of warning: This is one area where you may get what you pay for. Lots of budget LED/LCD TVs support HDR but don’t deliver the level of contrast needed to fully exploit it. You really need an OLED or a good LED/LCD TV with a full-array backlight and local dimming technology to make the most of HDR.

 

An Ultra HD Source

You can’t enjoy HDR if your sources don’t support it, and it’s not difficult or even terribly expensive to upgrade to UHD-friendly source devices. Pretty much every new UHD TV is also a smart TV with UHD-capable streaming sources like Netflix, Amazon Video, and Vudu built right in. The newest streaming boxes from Roku, Apple, Amazon, and NVIDIA support HDR and are priced under $200 (some of them are priced way under that).

 

For those who have more to spend, it’s tough to beat the user experience of a Kaleidescape 4K movie server. And the company’s Movie Store offers 4K downloads that match the AV specs for Ultra HD Blu-ray.

 

We’ve also reached the point where every major Blu-ray player manufacturer now offers at least one Ultra HD model (if not more), and entry-level models are priced around $150. Many of these players also support hi-res audio playback via disc, USB, or streaming, so they can serve as a high-performance audio source, too.

 

Gamers can enjoy a complete 4K multimedia experience in one box, thanks to consoles like the Xbox One and Playstation 4 that support 4K/HDR gaming and streaming video. The Xbox One even adds an Ultra HD Blu-ray player.

 

Surround Sound

Just as the big screen will immerse you visually in the source, surround sound is a must for creating that “you are there” experience. If you hate the idea of running wires across the room, there are now plenty of creative ways to incorporate wireless surrounds. A 5.1-channel system is the minimum, but I’ll take it a step further and suggest that your system at least needs to be upgradeable to support 3D formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.

 

3D audio adds a height element to complete the soundstage, and you can get Atmos and DTS:X decoding in 7.2-channel receivers costing as little as $400. A 7.2-channel receiver only gives you two height channels, but it’s better than nothing. There’s no shortage of in-ceiling speakers at all price points that can serve as the height channels. But if your room can’t support overhead speakers, check out all the Atmos modules designed to sit atop your existing speakers and bounce sound off the ceiling. This path provides an easy and inexpensive way to upgrade your system as your budget allows.

 

A Unified Control Experience

Nobody wants to look at a pile of remotes on the coffee table, let alone have to use them all in order to launch media playback. A universal remote control is essential. Logitech’s Harmony brand still reigns supreme in the world of third-party universal remotes, and TV manufacturers like LG and Samsung have really upped their game in the control department, making it easer to control multiple sources with the TV remote and adding support for Alexa and Google Home voice control.

 

The wide range of smart lighting systems and window treatments makes it easier and cheaper than ever to add automation elements to your media system without having to invest in a full-fledged control system—although there’s no denying the appeal of a well-executed Control4 or Crestron setup, should you choose to go that route.

 

There you have it: My list of must-have components in a media room. Do you agree or disagree?

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the AV editor at Wirecutter. Adrienne lives in Colorado,
where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time
being in them.

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction

After saying goodbye to late-night TV in 2015, David Letterman returns to the interview chair in the new Netflix original series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction . . . with David Letterman. Gone are the Top Ten lists, stupid pet tricks, and cast of cohorts. The new show is just Dave and a guest, sitting on a stage in front of a live audience.

 

Maybe I shouldn’t have used the word “series” in that introduction because, for Netflix regulars, it might set up the expectation that there’s an entire season’s worth of episodes to binge on right now. After all, that is Netflix’ modus operandi with most of its original shows. Here, though, a new episode drops roughly once a month. The first one arrived on January 12 and featured a fellow by the name of Barak Obama. Since then, they’ve added interviews with George Clooney in February and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai in March. Up next on April 13: Jay-Z.

 

Each episode is pre-recorded and runs about an hour. The format is an interesting hybrid. On the one hand, you’ve got the Charlie Rose/Tom Snyder approach of sitting with just one guest and getting a nice, meaty interview. Yet the decision to add a live audience gives it a warmer, livelier vibe that’s obviously better suited to Dave’s interview style.

 

Spliced in between the interview segments are video vignettes—called “curiosity-fueled excursions” in the show description—in which Dave visits various locations to explore something related to the interview. In the first episode, he takes a walk with Congressman John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and they discuss the Bloody Sunday march in 1965. You may recall the powerful images of President Obama and Lewis crossing that bridge together during the 50-year anniversary march in 2015.

 

In Episode Two, we meet Clooney’s parents and are introduced to an Iraqi refugee named Hazim Avdal, whom the family sponsors. He tells the story of his flight from persecution by ISIS.

My Next Guest

In Episode Three, Dave takes a tour of Oxford with Yousafzai and several of her fellow female students—who don’t necessarily “get” Dave and his sense of humor. (“They hate me,” he quips to the camera at one point, and he may be right.) If you don’t know Yousafzai’s story (and I did not), she is from Pakistan and has been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, especially the right for girls to be educated. At the age of 15, she was shot in the head by the Taliban yet survived. Now, at the ripe old age of 20, she continues her activism while living and going to school in England.

 

I think you can tell from the above descriptions that, regardless of the guest, the show aims to dig deeper into important subjects of the day. I’ve found all the interviews to be really compelling, but one unexpected highlight is how much better we’re getting to know David Letterman as a human being with each passing episode.

 

Letterman has always been extremely private, and both Obama and Clooney try to turn the tables on him during their interviews, with limited success. But, just through the choice of guests, the extended conversations, and the vignettes, you start to see a fuller picture of this man who lived to entertain others for over 30 years and now, in his “retirement,” is free to explore some the issues that matter to his heart.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at WirecutterAdrienne lives in Colorado,
where  she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time
being in them.

REVIEWS

Wonder Woman review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review