Entertainment

Checking Out Sony’s First Digital Cinema

With the last day of CES ending at 4 p.m., and my flight home usually not leaving until around midnight (2:04 a.m. this year, as it turned out), I’ve developed a post-CES tradition of going to watch a movie at one of the premium large-format cinemas in Las Vegas.

Two years ago, I visited the AMC Town Cinemas to see The Commuter in that theater’s Dolby Cinema. This year, I was excited to visit the first—and currently only—Sony Digital Cinema, at the Galaxy Theatres in the Las Vegas Boulevard Mall. 

 

Even more exciting, this was the final week Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker would be playing there, giving me a much desired second viewing of the film in arguably the finest theater in Vegas and potentially the entire country. (I am keeping this spoiler-free for anyone who has yet to see the movie.)

 

Last February, Sony announced it would be introducing its new Digital Cinema, the company’s first foray into an

Checking Out Sony's First Digital Cinema

experiential premium large-format (PLF) theater. The Vegas theater location opened in April, with Shazam being the first film shown. (A second theater is expected to open in the Dallas/Fort Worth area this spring.)

 

I had wanted to visit the theater since reading about its opening, so I was extremely excited to finally be able to stop by after CES. The ticket prices were surprisingly reasonable, with an evening show costing just $14.75 (plus a small convenience fee 

for booking online). Compared to theaters in New York and LA, that is a bargain and a half!

 

Designed to compete against Dolby Cinemas and IMAX, the Sony PLF theaters are built around Sony’s flagship dual 4K HDR laser projectors as well as Dolby Atmos immersive audio. The SRX-R815DS projector combination delivers 30,000 total lumens on screens up to 82 feet wide with an industry-leading 10,000:1 contrast ratio.

 

The Sony Digital Cinema is touted as having “the biggest screen in Las Vegas,” and, in a town where size matters and bigger is better, that means something. While the theater didn’t have exact specs on the screen size, they said it measures roughly four stories tall by seven stories wide.

 

On the audio side, the Sony theater has a total of 18 side surround speakers (nine per side), six rear surrounds, and 16 overhead height speakers, along with an array of screen and subwoofer channels, delivering pinpoint audio immersion from any seat.

 

As you approach the ticket taker, you are greeted by an

array of nine flat panels showing what is playing in each of the theaters, along with a large display advertising the Sony Digital Cinema in Auditorium 2.

 

Dolby incorporates something it calls “inspired design” into its Cinemas, which is meant to transport viewers into another space to be fully absorbed in the cinematic experience. This starts before you even walk into the auditorium with an audio/

visual pathway with a full-motion HD video wall, and immersive sound sets the mood as you enter.

 

The Sony theater doesn’t employ anything quite so impressive, rather a sleek sign as well as digital signage indicating the movie playing and upcoming showtime.

 

Entering the theater, you get your first glimpse of the massive screen, and it definitely doesn’t disappoint. This is an auditorium where you would not want to sit anywhere near the front rows, as you would be straining your neck trying to take in the full scope of the image. The screen takes up nearly the entire front wall, and definitely fills your field of view.

 

The auditorium holds up to 217 people, with an entire row reserved for handicap seating. Chairs can be reserved 

Checking Out Sony's First Digital Cinema

when ticketing, and each faux-leather seat offers full power recline as well as a swing-out snack tray with integrated drink holder. (The theater has a large snack bar with a fairly extensive food and drink offering.)

 

The chairs were very comfortable, but I do prefer the Dolby Cinema’s seating, which is in two-chair, “loveseat” arrays where you can pull up the center arm rest for two people to sit together, if desired.

Checking Out Sony's First Digital Cinema

Also, there wasn’t as much care given to sightlines at the Sony theater compared to Dolby. Depending on where you sat—and how high or low you sat in your seat—the view of the very bottom of the screen could be blocked by the front-row seats. Also, the Sony seating array felt more like traditional “stadium-style” seating, where the Dolby seating has partitions between rows and is

staggered and positioned so you can’t see anyone in front or behind you, making it feel like a more private, personal experience.

 

For a design aesthetic, Sony chose a dark grey paneling look for the floors and walls, which offered a good contrast to the black seating and kept the environment nice and dark. Blue accent lights highlight each of the surround and height speakers 

prior to the beginning of the film.

 

The assistant general manager, Mike Boyd, was a fantastic ambassador for the cinema, and when I shared my enthusiasm for being able to experience the Sony Cinema, he went out of his way to provide me any details, including bringing the head projectionist down and letting me speak with him.

 

The projectionist, Paul, offered to let me stick around after the film for a special private viewing of some of Rise of Skywalker in 3D. However, 

Checking Out Sony's First Digital Cinema

due to some issues with my plane reservation, I had to head to the airport straight after the movie finished.

 

Sonically, Star Wars sounded flat-out awesome. The system delivered deep, powerful bass that was tight and sharp, easily able to produce frequencies I could feel in my seat. The snap and thrum of lightsabers delivered a near tactile experience that added to their power. The large array of surround and overhead speakers produced truly hemispherical sound, with ships streaking down the side channels and lots of creaks, groans, and water dripping from overhead aboard the destroyed Death Star, and voices echoing overhead and swirling around the room at appropriate moments.

Checking Out Sony's First Digital Cinema

Visually, the Sony projector combo easily lit up the entire screen, delivering bright and intense whites as well as deep and inky blacks. The brilliant reds of Kylo Ren’s light saber sizzled off the screen with true HDR vibrancy, as did crackling Force lightning bolts. The screen was so huge, the heaving waves 

outside the destroyed Death Star almost felt a bit disorienting, like I was floating and rolling on the water. Images were tack-sharp with razor-edged detail.

 

My one complaint with the image quality had nothing to do with the projector system, but rather with the layout of the theater. The walkway running between the first three rows of seats and the reserved handicap seating is constantly illuminated with pathway lighting. This was distracting, and just enough to kill the absolute contrast the Sony projection system is capable of, showing that the auditorium wasn’t truly black during dark scenes. Also, the lower corners of the screen were washed out a bit from the stair lighting left and right of the front three rows. I’m sure these are concessions to safety, but are issues I don’t recall with the Dolby Cinema.

 

I’m assuming readers will want me to choose a “winner” between the Dolby and Sony offerings, but that is difficult to do after watching two completely different films nearly two years apart. I’ll say that both theaters offer a fantastic experience that surpasses even what the finest luxury home cinema can deliver. Sonically, they were very similar (at least to my memory), with both featuring very immersive Dolby Atmos audio delivered via numerous speakers.

 

The Sony Cinema edges out Dolby in sheer size, but only by a few feet. However, I think I have to give the Dolby Cinema the edge in picture quality due to the better light control, keeping all stray light off the screen to deliver higher absolute contrast.

 

Bottom line, theater lovers living in or visiting Vegas have two great choices when it comes to watching cinematic content, and I’d strongly recommend checking out both for your next moviegoing experiences!

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

How to Listen: Just a Little Lovin’

How to Listen: Just a LIttle Lovin'

In the first installment of “How to Listen,” I talked about the sonics of The Dark Side of the Moon, an album with a sound as immense as the album’s influence. The sound of Shelby Lynne’s Just A Little Lovin’ is exactly the opposite.

 

A tribute to Dusty Springfield, with Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs and other covers (plus “Pretend,” a Lynne original), it’s almost minimalist in its approach, with Lynne’s lower-register contralto voice accompanied by just a few instruments on any given track—typically one or two electric or acoustic guitars, along with lightly-played drums (usually with brushes), acoustic or electric piano, and acoustic or electric bass.

 

As such, her vocals are right up front, and on a good system her singing and each instrument stand out with an almost physical presence, essential parts of a simple, pure, and clean sonic presentation that is remarkably well recorded.

No wonder—the album was produced by Phil Ramone, recorded and mixed by Grammy winner Al Schmitt and mastered by Doug Sax and Robert Hadley at The Mastering Lab. For the most part, it sounds like it was recorded with the musicians playing together live, although I don’t know that for a fact, and on a good system you can feel as well as hear them grooving together with a relaxed yet swinging feel. And Lynne’s gorgeously husky, smoky voice is so well-recorded and expressive that I don’t think you can help but be moved by the emotional nuances of her singing.

 

Small wonder the album has become a bonafide audiophile classic.

 

I listened to the Analogue Productions vinyl LP remaster, an astoundingly quiet and well-done pressing, as well as a Qobuz 24/96 hi-res stream and a recently purchased CD.

 

The tonal balance of the album is warm and smooth—if Just a Little Lovin’ doesn’t make your stereo sound sweetly, richly inviting, something isn’t right. In fact, it could be argued that the tonal balance is a touch too warm; but, on 

the other hand, some of that very deep bass you should be hearing is there (or should be) because on a few cuts (“Breakfast in Bed” for example), the bassist is playing a five-string electric bass, which goes deeper (usually tuned to a low B) than a four-string electric or acoustic bass.

 

The midrange sounds about as natural as you’ll hear on a recording and the upper-midrange should be detailed and transparent, without a hint of stridency or forwardness. The soundspace overall is big and deep, but not hugely extended beyond the speakers. This is a more intimate than cinematic recording.

 

Another attribute of the album is that while Lynne’s voice is dead center, the instruments, while occupying their own sonic spaces, aren’t laser-focused in terms of imaging. It sounds like some of them were miked in stereo and then panned a little more to the left or right, but I can’t verify this. In any case, most of the time the instruments create more of a sonic spread

across the soundfield than the hard left, center, or right placement you often hear in jazz albums from the 1950s and early 1960s, for example. So if that’s what you’re hearing, your system’s imaging isn’t vague—it’s what you should be hearing.

 

One of the key sonic ingredients is the reverb on Lynne’s voice. During quieter instrumental sections, it should not only be clearly audible but should fill the sound space. This leads to my one quibble about the album’s sonics—at times, the reverb sounds over-applied, and I would like to have heard more of her singing presented “dry” instead. This is especially apparent on the last track, a cover of the Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure.”

 

Listen for the quiet parts. Many demo tracks or audiophile recordings will 

How to Listen: Just a Little Lovin'

impress you with their loud and sometimes bombastic dynamics. This record is exactly the opposite—it’s the detail in the sparse, soft parts that will draw you in.

 

There’s no need to go into a track-by-track analysis since the above paragraphs describe the overall sound of the record, but there are a number of specific sonic attributes to listen for.

 

The first one happens on “Just a Little Lovin’” almost immediately with a literally startling thwack rim shot that happens with incredible realism. Lynne’s voice is so upfront and present that you can, on a good system, actually hear some mouth sounds at points when she pauses between phrases. The Rhodes electric piano gives notice of the sumptuously rich sounds to come.

 

Listen to the way the acoustic piano and electric guitar blend chordally and rhythmically on “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” It’s the sound of master musicians at work. It’s very hard for a guitar player and a piano player to “comp” together in a band, but here you can hear it done perfectly. And listen for the scrape of the drummer’s brushes on the drum heads. Incredible. Most of all, listen for the restrained passion in Lynne’s voice. Hair-raising.

 

“I Only Want to Be with You” is an all-acoustic-instrument (guitar, piano, bass, drums), languid take on the song Dusty Springfield made famous. As such, it’s a can’t-miss system demo track—if your system’s up to the task. The same is true for “The Look of Love.” It’s a song that’s been done and heard countless times, but Lynne brings a grit and a yearning to it that no one else does.

 

“Willie and Lauramae Jones” has a distinctly different sonic feel than the other tracks, thanks to the fact that Lynne is playing guitar on this one along with the other musicians. Listen for the “ring” of the drum hit (not sure if it’s a snare or

something else; the tuning is odd), the beautifully-recorded dobro happily sliding away in the left channel, and the acoustic guitar “chops” in the right channel, where you should very distinctly get the feel of a real person doing them.

 

Speaking of feel, Lynne’s version of Randy Newman’s “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore” is so emotionally riveting, I’ll bet it had him in tears the first time he heard it. The way the song ebbs and flows will simply be 

lost on a lesser system. And just when you think you’re hearing a fadeout, the musicians reveal they’re just getting quieter until they decide to end the song. Masterful.

 

Perhaps the best is saved for last: Lynne duetting with acoustic guitarist Dean Parks on the Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure.” Now the sonic minimalism is at its most sparse, just the two of them playing with, and off of, each other. Not only can you hear that Parks is fingerpicking rather than flatpicking the guitar, you can hear the sound of flesh on string and the way he continuously varies the touch of his fingerpicking. The beautiful fade out is the perfect ending to this sublime-sounding recording.

Frank Doris

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

The Mandalorian: More Than Just Star Wars

The Mandalorian: More Than Just Star Wars

If you haven’t already seen Season One of The Mandalorian on Disney+, it stands to reason that you’re simply not interested. You may even be sick of hearing about it altogether, given that it’s the only thing in 2019 that managed to out-meme that crazy woman from Real Housewives yelling at a cat eating salad.

 

Here’s the thing, though: While much of the discussion about The Mandalorian has centered on its adorable baby-alien McGuffin or the show’s ties to the larger Star Wars universe, or even on its everything-old-is-new-again weekly release 

schedule, there hasn’t been an awful lot of talk about whether it is actually good. Not as a Star Wars TV series. Not as a lore drop about one of the franchise’s most beloved and mysterious factions. Not even as a small plank in the bridge between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, chronologically speaking. But as, you know, just a TV show. A thing that exists in and of itself, independent of the fanatical fanbase or larger mythology.

 

The last time I wrote about the series, five episodes into its eight-episode run, I withheld judgment on that matter. Now that we’re a few days past the first-season finale, and I’ve had a chance to watch the season again from front to back, 

I wanted to step back and take off my Star Wars scholar hat and discuss the show on its own terms (not an easy task, since I once defeated the president of the Star Wars Fan Club in a trivia contest and still have the prize to prove it).

 

The Mandalorian is the love child of Jon Favreau, a name you definitely know, and Dave Filoni, who may be unfamiliar if you’re not a big Star Wars fan. In short, Filoni was half of the creative driving force behind The Clone Wars, one of the best TV series of the past 20 years, but also one of the most criminally underrated, likely because it was animated.

 

That aside, though, there’s one massive difference between The Clone Wars and The Mandalorian: The former assumed you were deeply invested in Star Wars lore and wanted to know more; the latter seems more interested in deconstructing the elements that made the original Star Wars trilogy such a cultural phenomenon and reassembling them into something new. Something that both pays homage and reinvents.

 

You don’t have to know much about George Lucas’s space opera/fantasy to know that this means going back to the wells of both Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone, the former of which influenced the latter and both of which inspired Star Wars in very different ways. Since The Mandalorian isn’t about a larger civilization-spanning conflict, Favreau and Filoni leave other influences—like The Dam Busters and Tora! Tora! Tora!—on the table and bring in some new inspiration, namely Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s epic Japanese comic-book serial Lone Wolf and Cub and the film adaptations it spawned.

The Mandalorian: More Than Just Star Wars

The beauty of Favreau and Filoni’s new pastiche is that you really don’t need to know any of that to enjoy it. Nor do you have to know that the show’s producers have eschewed CGI as much as possible by going back and developing new techniques for photographing and compositing spacecraft models that are very much inspired by the techniques of ILM circa 1976 to 1983. Without knowing any of that, you can just feel it. There’s this wonderful mix of the familiar and the foreign that drives this series.

 

And that’s true of everything, down to Ludwig Göransson’s incredible score, which may be my favorite thing about The Mandalorian. Instead of aping John Williams’ iconic themes, as so many other composers have done when playing around in ancillary Star Wars projects, Göransson gives us something new that isn’t really new at all. Squint at it from one direction and

there’s an undeniable Eastern influence to the tones, the textures, the overall structure of the music. Step back and look at it from another angle, and it could just as easily have accompanied any of the misadventures of the Man with No Name.

 

As with Williams, Göransson also sprinkles in the flavor of Holst and the spice of Stravinsky 

from time to time, but—at the risk of sounding repetitive—it’s the way he combines these influences, along with his own unique aesthetic, that results in something new and compelling that still feels familiar, even if you can’t quite put your finger on exactly why.

 

I hinted above that The Mandalorian doesn’t attempt to bite off more than it can chew, namely in the way that it doesn’t attempt to mash up every classic work of cinema or serial that inspired the original Star Wars, and that’s as true thematically as it is narratively and stylistically. There really isn’t much here by way of spiritual rumination. The mystical is treated as a mystery, and doesn’t play heavily into the meaning of the series.

 

Then again, it can take a while to really figure out what fundamental ideas the show is attempting to play around with, in large part due to its very episodic structure. In crafting this season, Favreau and Filoni seem intent upon letting the writers and directors of each 33- to 49-minute episode create their own little narratives, reminiscent in ways of David Carradine’s Kung Fu from the mid-1970s. And it isn’t until the very end that one episode really connects to the next and a larger story arc begins to congeal.

 

Taken as a whole, it’s not difficult to see a very simple thematic through-line woven into this collection of eight largely disconnected episodes: A tale of principles, of honor, of cultural (or familial) baggage, and of redemption—all themes that resonate within the larger Star Wars mythology, but that work just fine on their own.

 

Technically speaking, The Mandalorian is beautifully shot and honestly looks even more cinematic than its $15-million-per-episode budget would lead you to suspect. There has been some controversy over the fact that the show doesn’t make use of the expanded dynamic range or larger color gamut afforded by its Dolby Vision (or HDR10, depending on your device) presentation. Gleaming specular highlights are nowhere to be found, and the lower end of the value scale can be a bit flat. I’m guessing this was largely an aesthetic choice, as it does give the show a somewhat “classic” look, especially in comparison to other contemporary series that do make more obvious use of HDR.

 

I hesitate to accuse Disney+ of being dishonest in presenting The Mandalorian’s non-HDR cinematography in an HDR container, though, and that mostly boils down to a little-discussed advantage of our new home video standards in the era of higher-efficiency, lower-bitrate streaming: The minimization of video artifacts.

The Mandalorian: More Than Just Star Wars

On a lark, I disabled the HDR capabilities of my Roku Ultra and spot-checked an early episode, just to see what differences might pop up. In terms of color purity, shadow detail, overall brightness and so forth, any differences were hard to spot. But without the benefit of 10- (or 12-) bit color, large expanses of clear, pale sky were occasionally rendered like sun-bleached sticks of Fruit Stripe gum, with blatant banding stretching from one side of the screen to the other. Say what you will about the series’ overall flat color palette and lack of value extremes, but simply packing it in a Dolby Vision box does keep visual distractions of that sort to a bare minimum.

 

As for the audio, you’ll definitely want to enjoy The Mandalorian on the best sound system you can. One evening, whilst hanging out at a friend’s house, someone floated the idea of watching the most recent episode, which I agreed to despite having just watched it the evening prior. To be frank, I found it a lackluster experience mostly due to my buddy’s inexpensive soundbar. And it wasn’t really the explosions or gunfire that left me wanting more (although the sound mix does them justice); it was the presentation of Göransson’s score. There’s a dynamic drive to his musical accompaniment, as well as a rich blend of timbres and textures, that simply demands to be heard by way of a well-calibrated, well-installed, full-range surround sound system.

 

But should you give it a chance to shine in your home theater or media room even if you care little for George Lucas’s galaxy far, far away? I daresay yes. At its heart, The Mandalorian is a delightful bushidō/gunslinger mashup that nods at fans quite frequently, but also quite slyly, such that you’re likely to be completely unaware of any allusions or references you’ll almost certainly miss if you’re not a franchise devotee, at least once you get past the first ten minutes of the first episode (the only place where blatant fan service really rears its ugly head).

 

Taken as a whole, it definitely does stand on its own, despite its tenuous connections to the larger mythology, despite its heavy nods to works of classic cinema and television, and (perhaps most importantly) despite the fact that everyone else on your Facebook newsfeed won’t stop memeing the hell out of the series’ most heartfelt moments or most quotable dialogue.

 

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.

2019: The Year in Streaming

2019: The Year in Streaming

It might feel like the words “streaming” and “cord cutting” have dominated content conversations for the past few years, but once the dust has settled from the streaming vs. cable vs. disc conflict, 2019 will stand out as maybe the most important year in the shift toward the dominance of streaming content. Many of us still love our discs, but with the exponential

improvements in streaming quality over the past couple years, the end is nigh. The year in streaming wasn’t all highlights, but the bumps in the road look to be remnants of an aging past and not trends of what’s to come.

 

End of the Old Guard?

For decades, HBO was at the forefront of cutting-edge content with shows like The Sopranos, Deadwood, Veep, and Game of Thrones. But it was Thrones that brought some controversy to the premium cable network at the beginning of the year. The quality of the stream for one of its most anticipated episodes, “The Long Night,” was downright disgraceful. Blame was thrown at the director, the cinematographer, and even the audience, for not properly setting up their TVs. But when it comes down to it, the fault lay primarily with HBO. The network’s antiquated compression algorithm coupled with millions of people trying to watch the show at the same time led to an atrocious viewing experience.

 

While that whole fiasco became fodder for anyone looking for a reason to denounce the rise of streaming, people did learn how to improve their home viewing, and there are plenty of services that do streaming right. If anything, it shone a bright light on the deficiencies of HBO and the other cable services when it comes to providing high-quality content delivery. Hopefully HBO will improve with the release of HBO Max, the streaming service launching early next year from WarnerMedia. It has to, really, because there’s a new kid on the block.

 

The Disney Juggernaut

Right around the same time HBO was failing at “The Long Night,” Disney rocked the streaming world by announcing that its new service, Disney+, would only be $6.99 a month. And deals soon appeared that let you get the service for around $4 a month if you paid for three years up front (which I did). Compared to the competition, the price was surprisingly low for the expected content being provided.

 

What exactly we’d be getting, and at what quality, wasn’t fully known until Disney+ finally launched in November. Many titles are being offered in 4K HDR, including almost all of the Star Wars movies which, until then, had been capped at 1080p. (The two Star Wars titles that had previously been released on disc in 4K HDR—The Last Jedi and Solo—aren’t available yet on Disney+.)

 

The launch had its problems, namely that a lot of people couldn’t log on to their authentication servers and were left waiting for traffic to calm down and a fix to be deployed. But once that was resolved, we were all able to revel in the incredible content, like The Mandalorian, which is being released at one episode per week and not the drop-it-all-at-once-and-binge structure Netflix and Amazon Prime have followed. The Disney+ interface is also better than what other streaming services offer, and provides a good model for the others to follow—which they likely will in response.

 

Moving Away From Theaters

Toward the end of 2018, Netflix made some waves when it released a few of its films (like Roma and Bird Box) in movie theaters first, primarily to be considered for the Academy Awards, which require a minimum theatrical release of seven days. But the movies were only in the theaters from one to three weeks before they showed up on Netflix for subscribers to stream to their heart’s delight. The theaters weren’t pleased and voiced their dissent, but it blew over relatively quickly because the films, while they were awards contenders and included some incredible talent, didn’t have household names.

 

That changed this November when Netflix released Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman after only a month in theaters. Many major theater chains in both the U.S. and Europe refused to play the movie, and because of that it didn’t make anywhere near the money it could have with a traditional theatrical release. But that also was never Netflix’ intention.

 

There is still something to the shared experience of seeing a movie in a theater and the magic it can evoke. Just recently, I had the option of seeing Rise of Skywalker in a movie theater on opening weekend or staying home and watching it a screener copy. I chose to complete the 42-year journey in the theater with a group of strangers I didn’t know but was connected to through Star Wars nonetheless. But my motivation to spend the money and leave the house is dwindling when I have a perfectly good home theater and high enough bandwidth to stream a 4K HDR movie with Dolby Atmos through any number of streaming services.

 

On to 2020

The immediate future for streaming could be very interesting. There will be even 

more services coming online in 2020, including the aforementioned HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s Peacock. The problem is, the existing network services are still locked into 1080p. If they paid attention to their competitors at all in 2019, hopefully they’ll realize it’s time to step up their game.

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.

Streaming and Censorship

Streaming and Censorship

The other evening, my wife and I concluded our holiday binge of the Harry Potter franchise on Vudu when I noticed something that up to that point hadn’t really caught my eye—the presence of an option labeled “Common Sense Media.” Upon closer inspection, the presence of Common Sense Media revealed a deeper—dare I say darker—revelation: The presence of the service Clearplay.

 

Clearplay (aka Vidangel) is aimed at “wholesome families” whereby for a fee you—a presumably God-fearing parent—can enjoy content of seemingly any ilk distilled down so as not to offend your delicate sensibilities. In the case of Harry Potter, that means you can watch the film or films without any “snogging” or “longing looks” (I’m not joking), as well as the usual “dark and intense” moments.

 

A side note: One of the items Common Sense Media and Clearplay look out for and rate is whether a film has any implicit consumerism within it. I point this out because, at least on Vudu, this rating falls just below where Vudu, a subsidiary of WalMart, attempts to sell you Harry Potter toys via a special box labeled “Related Products.”

 

But I digress.

 

By enabling Clearplay (or what Vudu calls “Family Play”), the film you’ve chosen—in this instance, Harry freakin’ Potter—is shown edited to remove any and all instances of what Common Sense Media and Clearplay have deemed inappropriate. While some form of editing for content has been with us since the dawn of television, these edits have largely been relegated to gruesome violence, gratuitous sex, and profanity—all of which are common knowledge and even in some cases 

Censorship and Streaming

democratically voted on by representatives. That is to say, we know what words are not allowed to be said on TV, and we know what type of sex or violence doesn’t fly in primetime. While I could go off on even these acts of censorship, they’re known quantities and something we all sort of just accept.

 

But who decides on the edits put forth by Clearplay?

 

This is where it gets really murky, for both Clearplay/ Vidangel and Common Sense Media give little in the way of transparency. They’re like the Borg, really, in that they appear to be a collective of

values-conscious parents just trying to “save” children from the horrors of violence, sex, and commercialism. What the services do divulge—proudly—are the names of the organizations that donate a lot of money to them, such as Amazon, WalMart, and The Gates Foundation. They also share their goals or mission bullet points, among which you will find gems along the lines of supporting and electing like-minded officials in government who align with their views and values. What. The. F**k.

 

Both companies claim to be anti-censorship, that they’re but providing a service to help parents shield their childrens’ eyes from the horrors of Hollywood, but c’mon. The messaging on their respective websites is very clear: It’s a big, bad world out there, parents are simply out-matched, and they need Common Sense Media and Clearplay to step in and help be their savior to keep their kids’ eyes and hearts pure . .  for the Lord.

 

The fact that so many companies—media companies at that—have signed off on this arbitrary form of subscription-based censorship is worrying. Moreover, it would appear filmmakers such as writers and directors have seemingly no say over whether their content can be altered by these services, since the content is typically owned by the studios or corporations and not the filmmakers themselves.

 

I’m confident there are supporters who will say that viewers, even parents themselves, have a choice whether or not to enable these filters, and that it’s all about choice—to which I say, screw that. Films are art; they are acts of expression and communication put forth by an individual or small group of individuals. Even box-office juggernauts like Harry Potter are art, despite their commercial appeal and ancillary merchandising reach. And when you censor art, for whatever reason, you’re venturing into very, very murky waters, waters we’ve attempted to traverse throughout history only to discover the destination we arrive at was never where we thought we would end up.

Andrew Robinson

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

How to Listen: Dark Side of the Moon

How to Listen: The Dark Side of the Moon

In “How to Become an Expert Listener,” I talked about the kinds of recordings you can use to evaluate a luxury audio setup and walked you through the general things to listen for, such as deep, articulate bass, accurate instrumental and vocal timbre, and an expansive sound field.

 

Here I’m going to take one of the most revered albums not just in the audiophile world but in rock history and give you a sense of what makes it such a great recording—not just so you can better appreciate the virtues of this particular effort but so you can apply that knowledge to your own favorite albums. Once you get used to not just listening to the music but savoring the quality of its presentation, you’ll find it easy to pick out the common elements that make for a great recording and that

reveal the virtues and flaws of high-performance gear.

 

No album is more iconic than Pink Floyd’s towering 1973 masterpiece, The Dark Side of the Moon. (I don’t think I  need to give a musical synopsis here—is there anyone reading this who hasn’t heard it?). Dark Side is up there with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, and Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. It was the band’s commercial breakthrough (to put it mildly), spending more than 900 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart.

 

It’s also one of the best-recorded albums ever, thanks to Grammy-winning engineer Alan Parsons and the innovative use of then-new synthesizers, elaborate multitracking, found sounds, and the resources of Abbey Road Studios, to say nothing of brilliant performances by Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright. It’s a true reference recording that will give every aspect of an audio system a thorough workout.

 

I listened to an original UK pressing on my main system and on Qobuz in 24-bit/44.1 kHz hi-res on high-end nearfield monitors. (Geek-speak translation: “Qobuz” is a high-

resolution music-streaming service and “nearfield monitors” are speakers meant to be listened to from up close.) I also heard a good chunk of the album on a huge system at a trade show within the past year. Unfortunately, I now can’t remember the show or the system. I do remember the incredible sound.

 

One quick note: This isn’t meant to be an exam. You don’t need to go through the whole album, in sequence, to appreciate what Parsons and the band wrought here or to put it to use for demo purposes. Start with your favorite tracks and, if you find yourself getting into this new way of listening to an old classic, make your way around from there.

 

“Speak to Me”

The album sucks you in with the iconic heartbeat. You’re not going to hear it fully—or at all—on a small speaker with a small woofer. You need a speaker setup capable of extended low end. The track should sneak up on you quietly, then crescendo into . . .

 

“Breathe”

. . .and the trademark sonic signature of the album, a vast, wide, deep soundspace with instruments placed hard left, hard right and everywhere in between, up close and far away. Start with your system volume low!

 

Listen for the clarity of every instrument—electric bass, guitars, keyboards, drums, percussion, and effects. Even though some of the sounds are heavily processed, you should hear the clarity of the processing, such as the myriad of reverbs that are a major part of the album’s sonic palette. The tonal balance is smooth and even, from the articulate bass to the densely detailed midrange and clear highs—although I wouldn’t call TDSOTM the absolute last word in transparency.

How to Become an Expert Listener: The Dark Side of the Moon

Alan Parsons mixing The Dark Side of the Moon with Pink Floyd

(Check out a good version of the RCA Living Stereo Reiner/Chicago Symphony Scheherazade for that.)

 

In fact, this one track will tell you everything you need to know about how a system is performing—but you’d be shortchanging yourself if you didn’t keep listening.

 

“On the Run”

On a lesser system, this will sound like flat musical filler. On a good system, you’ll hear a rich variety of 

details, like the multiple synthesizers panning from left to right, and the very distinct sound of someone turning the knobs on the main sequencer/synthesizer in real time as it plays through the track. “On the Run” ends with a roar and a rumble that, on a system capable of delivering it, might even scare you.

 

“Time”

You know what I’m going to say here. The clanging of the multiple clocks going off at the beginning should be nothing less than startling. If ever there was a test of a system’s transient response, here it is. The soundstage, if anything, is even bigger now. This is one of the most masterful uses of reverb in recording history. The mixed male and female processed background vocals are utterly gorgeous. Those vocals rise in intensity after the second chorus, with a scraped guitar string lifting you to Gilmour’s fuzzed-out guitar solo, one of the most epic ever recorded. This should sound simply mammoth, thrilling, with layers of synths, vocals, guitars, everything, behind it. (Conventional wisdom opines that Gilmour’s greatest solo is on “Comfortably Numb” from The Wall. I’d argue, uh uh, no. This one is it.)

 

“The Great Gig in the Sky”

After those dizzying aural heights, you need a comedown. But it’s not a crash . . . just an intensity of a different kind. The soundstage expands to galactic proportions. The dynamic range goes from relaxing to system-taxing. (My main system has 100 watts per channel and three-way speakers, and I didn’t hear any strain. My desktop monitors? Well, I didn’t want to risk blowing them up.) You should be able to hear guest vocalist Clare Torry go from a very distinctive growl (on a good system; it’ll be completely lost on a lesser one) to seductive sweetness and every nuance in between. Wright’s piano accompaniment is the model of sensitivity. And listen to how Waters’ bass beautifully complements Torry’s vocals in the second half of the track. This should sound nothing less than emotionally riveting.

 

“Money”

Like the clocks at the beginning of “Time,” the cash registers and sacks of coins should sound surprising. Listen for the clarity of Waters’ picked bass (as opposed to played with the fingers on the previous track) and the way it drives the song. Once

again, the mix is “big,” but not as much as the previous tracks, and sounds more dynamically compressed. My guess is this was done to make the track sound more radio-friendly. But it’s relative—if the other album tracks’ soundspaces are the size of a galaxy, this one’s merely a solar system in comparison. Listen to the drastic removal of all reverb in the breakdown section after the guitar solo

How to Become an Expert Listener: The Dark Side of the Moon

—a dramatically effective sonic contrast that should come through razor-sharp. Gilmour’s final solo should practically peel the paint off the walls in its treble intensity, yet still have body and depth.

 

“Us and Them”

The galactic soundspace returns. Listen for the “swirl” of Wright’s Hammond organ played through a Leslie rotating speaker cabinet, and the complementing swirl of Gilmour’s guitar through a Uni Vibe pedal, designed to simulate the sound of a Leslie. It’s a rich, densely textured mix. When the sax comes in, even though it has added reverb, it should have a palpable presence and a physicality by comparison.

 

“Any Colour You Like”

Here, Parsons uses repeating echo on the main synthesizer to create spaciousness and depth, and even though it’s a dense mix, you should be able to clearly hear the echo repeats trailing off into the sonic distance. Listen for the harmonic complexity of the multiple synths and guitars and the, once again, startle factor of Gilmour’s guitar when it comes in dead center, in the middle of the song. Listen carefully and you’ll hear a clam (wrong note) from the left-channel guitar at around 2:14 into the song.

 

Another track that might sound like a flat wash on a so-so system. Not on a good one.

 

“Brain Damage” & “Eclipse”

I don’t know what else I can say, as these concluding tracks continue the sonic strengths of the rest of the album—exceptional clarity, dynamics, tonal balance, placement of instruments, soundstage width and depth, huge drum sounds, and masterful mixing of all the vocals, instruments, and effects by Parsons. A final test of your system’s resolving power: Near the very end of the album, listen for Abbey Road Studios’ doorman Gerry O’Driscoll saying, “There is no dark side of the moon, really. It’s all dark.” If your system’s up to the task, you’ll hear it.

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.

Disney+ and the Return of the Water Cooler

Disney + & the Return of the Water Cooler

As Game of Thrones ended its eight-year run earlier this year, the web was flooded with stories about its cultural significance, with many outlets predicting that it would be the last “water cooler” TV series. In other words, as our viewing habits shift more and more toward streaming, many said, we would be missing out on those big shared cultural experiences that have dominated popular entertainment for decades.

 

Popular though it may be, it’s hard to really discuss Stranger Things on an episode-by-episode basis when entire seasons are dumped into our laps at once, with some of us binging in one day, some moseying toward the end in a more relaxed weekend, and others sipping each new season an episode at a time over the course of weeks or months, long past the point 

where any meaningful discussion has fizzled.

 

We’ve become so accustomed to this binge-watching delivery of new series that when Disney announced a more traditional, weekly release schedule for its serialized Disney+ exclusives, the internet was sorta shocked. Some instantly leapt to the most cynical assumption possible—that Disney+ didn’t want subscribers signing up for a month, burning through what they wanted to watch, then canceling. The truth turns out to be a little less sinister: Entire seasons of its launch shows simply aren’t finished and ready to be binged just yet.

 

But never mind the reasoning behind this decision to forgo the binge model. What I’m more interested in are the effects. The day Disney+ launched back in November, all anyone in my friend circle could talk about was The Mandalorian, the new weekly Star Wars series set between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. That was to be expected. It’s the new and shiny Star Wars thing, and most of my friends were champing at the bit to watch it.

 

Then the next Friday rolled around, and my chat groups 

and Facebook newsfeed were once again dominated by discussions of The Mandalorian. And the Friday after that. And the Friday after that. And throughout all of these discussions, there has persisted a fundamental assumption that everyone has seen the most recent episode—that we’re all on the same page—to a degree I can’t remember since the advent of the DVR.

 

Last Friday, my wife and I had friends in from out of town, which meant we would had to put off watching Episode Five of The Mandalorian, “The Gunslinger,” until later in the weekend. What hadn’t really occurred to me is that this also meant I would need to mute all of my chat channels, opt out of Facebook, and eschew Reddit completely (even subreddits totally unrelated 

to Star Wars or Disney+) until I was caught up. Not so much out of fear of being spoiled, but more because I wouldn’t have a clue what anyone was talking (or memeing) about.

 

And it’s not merely The Mandalorian that’s creating this sort of phenomenon. While my main friend circle consists mostly of Star Wars geeks, I have 

Disney+ & the Return of the Water Cooler

The Imagineering Story

another, sizeable friend group that would be better described as Disney nerds. And their current idea of appointment TV is The Imagineering Story, a documentary series whose sixth and final episode airs (umm . . . streams) this weekend.

 

For my Marvel-loving friends, I can say with near certainty that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision, What If . . ?, and other ongoing series in the months and years to come will similarly dominate the pop culture conversation in similarly sustained ways.

 

Of course, all of this creates something of a problem for those of us who’ve gotten into the habit of examining an entire 6- or 10- or 12-episode run of a TV show and evaluating its merits as a complete work. That’s why you haven’t seen me reviewing The Mandalorian here on Cineluxe, because much as I’ve loved it so far, I honestly can’t tell you yet if it’ll hold up to scrutiny once this season has wrapped.

 

Does that really matter, though? The show could completely flub the landing in its season finale (which debuts just after Christmas) and it would still have merit in the way it’s brought me and my friends closer together, giving us something to discuss on an ongoing basis that isn’t politics or doctor’s appointments.

 

And to be completely fair, I should point out that, in the larger discussion about the end of Game of Thrones and the water-cooler discussion that ended along with it, not every pundit saw it as the end of an era. In a piece with the unwieldy title Game of Thrones doesn’t mark the end of appointment TV—Hollywood always gives viewers what they want,” Alex Sherman predicted the Disney+ release model way before Disney announced it. “Netflix has upended TV watching by giving consumers what they want—lower prices, no commercials, entire season releases,” he said. “But as long as consumers want shared viewing experiences (and they do), streaming platforms will come around and begin to offer them.”

 

I doubt Sherman would have guessed that his prediction would come to pass so quickly, or in quite this form, but with subscriptions predicted to hit 20 million (on par with the 19.6 million people who viewed the finale of Game of Thrones legally) and a reported 43 percent of Americans expressing some level of interest in signing up at some point, it’s pretty safe to say that Disney+ has brought the water cooler back again. 

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.

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 2

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 2

Disneys new subscription-based streaming service Disney+ has given everyone plenty to talk about, from its fantastic original programming, to its war on binge-watching, to the surprise revelation that almost all of the Star Wars films are available for the first time in 4K with Dolby Atmos (and they look way, way better than the Blu-ray releases). But one of the service’s most compelling features—its user interface—isn’t getting much discussion at all.

I can only assume that some form of Stockholm Syndrome is at play here: We’ve grown so accustomed to fumbling around with the terrible onscreen menus for Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu, and other such services that when someone comes along and does it right, we’re almost blind to it.

 

I’m hoping, though, that the designers for these other services are taking notice.

 

 

What Other Subscription Streaming Services Could Learn from Disney+

One of the most obvious ways Disney+ sets itself apart is by having distinct domains —mini user interfaces nested within the main UI—for different types of content. There are separate screens for Disney-branded content, Pixar content, Marvel shows and movies, Star Wars shows and movies, and a wealth of documentaries and TV shows from National Geographic.

 

Within these domains, you’ll find expected sub-categories, like Movies, Series, and Specials, as well as a nifty section called “Through the Decades” that lets you navigate a body of work (like Star Wars or Pixar movies) chronologically.

 

Back out to the main menu, and there are even more ways of finding content to watch, including the usual search terms, as well as curated collections. Perhaps my favorite feature, though, is that Disney+ allows you to navigate a complete list of all available movies, A-Z.

Keeping in line with the praise I heaped on the Kaleidescape UI in Pt. 1, one thing I really dig about the Disney+ UI is its varied aesthetic. The Star Wars portal doesn’t look like the Pixar portal. And an overall search of all Disney+ content looks quite different from navigating a list of, say, all the Toy Story movies. These different visual modes encourage different modes of thinking, and complement the different ways you might arrive at figuring out what you want to watch for the evening.

 

Disney+ also doesn’t seem to rely too heavily on algorithms for feeding you new content. It makes its entire library pretty easy to search, and while there are the obligatory “Trending” and “Recommended for You” lists, these make up such a small part 

of the overall experience that you could be forgiven for overlooking them completely.

 

Contrast this with Netflix, inarguably the biggest direct competitor to Disney+, which relies so heavily on its flawed recommendation algorithms that finding a movie or TV show any other way can be a hair-pulling, fit-pitching

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 2

The Disney+ National Geographic portal

exercise in masochism. I covered this to a degree in my previous post about Disney+, where I suggested you try to find a comprehensive listing of all the Netflix-original Marvel TV series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and The Defenders) without stumbling over all manner of unrelated garbage. It’s nearly impossible on Netflix, whereas Disney+ treats this level of ultra-specific sub-categorization as a given.

 

To be fair, Netflix has a wealth of amazing content that’s right up my alley and that Disney+ would never offer in a million years. Just this past weekend, I stumbled across a high-definition presentation of one of my favorite 1970s Hong Kong

Interface Faceoff, Pr. 2

action flicks, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, in its proper aspect ratio, complete with the original Mandarin soundtrack and subtitles. (Amazon, by contrast, only presents the film with an awful English dub.)

 

Here’s the thing, though: I never would have found this hidden treasure by searching Netflix alone, and the service never 

spoon-fed it to me even though I’m right in the movie’s target demographic. I happened upon it entirely by accident because I was using Roku’s excellent universal search function to try to find the film for sale anywhere in the digital domain. Disney+ paves so many varied roads to its vault of films and TV shows that I can’t imagine something similar happening on the newer service. 

 

One other, seemingly minor thing about Disney+ that I absolutely adore and don’t want to leave unsaid is that the app doesn’t hold you hostage the way practically all other streaming apps do. Exiting Netflix, for example, requires you to navigate to the left, scroll all the way to the bottom of the screen, and select the tiny Exit button.

 

Netflix isn’t alone, though. Practically all of these services hit you with a massive guilt trip when you attempt to leave. “Are you absolutely sure? Are you really going? I’m just going to go ahead and select ‘No’ for you since I can’t imagine you have anything better to do.”

By contrast, the only thing required to exit Disney+ is a single press of the back button on your remote, which evokes an air of confidence. Disney+ knows it can’t be your only source of streaming content, doesn’t take offense when you leave, and seems pretty sure you’ll be back sooner than later.

 

Of course, that’s not to say

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 2

The Disney+ “Disney Through the Decades” section

there aren’t areas where Disney+ could improve. I would like to see another level of sub-interfaces beneath the existing ones, so you could, for example, click on the horizontal Movies listing under the Pixar UI and be taken to a tiled list of titles instead of having to scroll right forever. But in the three weeks Disney+ has been available, we’ve already seen some substantial improvements, like the addition of a “Continue Watching” category, so you don’t have to keep a mental tally of which series you’re consuming and how many episodes you’ve seen to date.

 

It stands to reason that the service will continue to improve in numerous ways. The important thing is that it’s starting off with a well-planned and intuitive foundation, whereas all the other subscription-based streaming services need to start their renovations with a complete demolition.

 

 

The Best of Both Worlds

When you get right down to it, the two UIs I’ve held up as paragons of their disparate domains don’t have a whole heck of a lot in common. Disney+ and Kaleidescape serve very different purposes and work for very different content distribution and consumption models.

 

But both seem to be built on the same fundamental premise: That movie-watching isn’t simply something that happens between the opening and closing credits. It’s an experience that starts from the time someone says, “Hey, wanna watch a movie?” and someone else answers, “Sure, whatcha in the mood for?” It’s about browsing a library—one you own or one you subscribe to—and figuring out what strikes your fancy without getting lost in the weeds. It’s as much about getting to the movie as it is watching it. And the entire industry could learn a lot from how Kaleidescape and Disney+ help you navigate that entire process.

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.

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

Let’s be honest about something for a minute: While many of us love Netflix as an alternative or supplement to cable or satellite TV, its user interface is awful.

 

To be fair. Netflix isn’t alone. In a previous (and now woefully outdated) post, where we dug deep into the various content providers of the day and stratified them according to quality of delivery and quality of content, we outright ignored user interfaces, simply because most of them are abysmal. That’s ironic, given that the screens you use to navigate your content 

libraries or search through the trove of on-demand shows and movies in an attempt to find something worth watching are an incredibly important part of the movie-watching experience.

 

The original plan for this post was to rectify that by parsing all the major platforms and arranging them from best to worst on the design of their interfaces.

 

And then Disney+ happened.

 

Disney’s new subscription-based streaming service has been the talk of the entertainment industry for the past few weeks, for a number of reasons. For the purposes of this rant, though, Disney+ shines a very bright light on the fact that the user experiences for most other content delivery systems are so woefully lacking that a ranked list simply doesn’t make sense anymore. Because when you get right down to it, the home video industry currently has exactly two good examples of functional, attractive, and easily navigable UIs: Disney+ and Kaleidescape.

 

So instead of asking you to slog through a list of all the rest, complete with everything they do wrong, I thought I would instead focus on what Kaleidescape and Disney+ do right with their UIs in relation to the also-ran efforts from everyone else.

 

Before we get to a discussion about what makes these two UIs so good, I should point out that I don’t consider all of the digital video services to be in direct competition with one another in terms of their user experiences. That’s because there are two quite distinct ways in which we consume home video these days in the digital domain.

 

Disney+ and similar services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, and the upcoming HBO Max and Peacock, just to name a few, function as subscription-based on-demand libraries, where you don’t own anything but rather have access to a wealth of revolving-door content for anywhere between $4.99 and $16.99 per month.

 

On the other hand, services like Vudu, iTunes, and 

Kaleidescape offer à la carte sales of movies and TV episodes (along with bonus features) that are either added to an online library of streaming content you ostensibly own in perpetuity or downloaded to local hard disks or servers for viewing at any time.

 

There are, of course, services that offer a hybrid of these two approaches, like Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+, both of which feature a library of on-demand content 

for a monthly subscription fee, as well as access to films and TV shows that can be purchased individually. This does muddy our discussion a bit. But for the most part, I’ll attempt to keep any comparisons apples to apples.

 

In this first post, I’ll be digging into Kaleidescape and what it does right compared with other buy-it-and-own-it services like Vudu, iTunes, and to a lesser degree Amazon Prime. In Part Two, I’ll take Disney+ for a spin and highlight all the reasons it stands out in the realm of subscription-based streaming UIs.

 

 

What Other Digital Movie Retailers Can Learn from Kaleidescape

I’ve long contended that Kaleidescape has the best user interface in the entire home video industry, and I stick by that. The thing is, though, I often focus on aesthetics when talking about what makes the Kaleidescape home screen so appealing, and that’s really only half the story. It’s true, the beautiful layout of cover artwork is slick and inviting, and the way titles flitter on 

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

and off the screen just never gets old in terms of wow factor. But none of this would really matter if the Kaleidescape UI wasn’t so well-organized and easy to navigate.

 

All of that animation is really in service of helping you figure out what you’re in the mood to watch. Gravitate toward something like Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope

and the onscreen layout of cover art rearranges to fill the screen with similar titles—other Star Wars movies, of course, but also other action/adventure fantasy films. Pick one of those titles instead, and suddenly it becomes the center of a new universe, with similar titles orbiting outward toward the edge of the screen.

 

And, hey, if you know exactly what you’re in the mood to watch, you can skip this animated wall of cover art and skip straight to an alphabetical list of movies you own. It’s a different-horses-for-different-courses approach to digital library management 

that none of the other collection-based services seem to understand.

 

Buying new movies is also as easy as navigating over to the Kaleidescape Movie Store, a wholly separate area of the UI that features yet another unique interface designed to suit its purposes. You can navigate the Store by genre, by collection (for example, Marvel 

Interface Faceoff, Pt 1

Cinematic Universe or 2019 Oscar Nominees) or jump straight to new releases or pre-orders. If nothing less than 4K HDR presentation will do, you can also easily filter the store to just show titles available as such.

 

Contrast this with something like Vudu, which is probably Kaleidescape’s best competition, at least in terms of how it functions. Like Kaleidescape, Vudu allows you to purchase films in the digital domain outright, rather than paying a subscription fee to access an ever-changing body of on-demand content. It also comes with bonus features like audio commentary, deleted scenes, and behind-the-scenes documentaries, when they’re available.

 

No matter the device, though, navigating Vudu is an absolute nightmare. In addition to its outdated look and feel, simply making your way to the library of content you own is unintuitive, to put it kindly.

 

A few weeks back, my wife was itching to re-watch a documentary we own about the history of Dungeons & Dragons art, so I told her to cue it up while I powdered my nose. I told her the name of the movie (Eye of the Beholder) and the service on 

Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1
Interface Faceoff, Pt. 1

Vudu’s home (top) and “My Vudu” (bottom) screens

which we owned it (Vudu), and walked out of the room. When I came back a few minutes later, she was still futzing around on the home screen simply trying to figure out how to get to our library of previously purchased content.

 

This is largely due to the fact that every screen in Vudu looks the same: A wall of static cover artwork against a bleh blue background. There’s no real indication that, to get to content you already own, you have to navigate all the way up to the top of the screen, scroll over to My Vudu, go down from there, and toggle to the right to find Movies. There aren’t multiple roads to the same destination the way there is with Kaleidescape. There’s no visual or navigational difference

between content you own and content Vudu is trying to sell you. And as for the latter, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, Vudu’s organizational structure is an embarrassment.

 

You could say the same for services like Amazon Prime, too, especially when it comes to purchasing new films instead of waiting for them to hopefully show up on-demand. And Amazon makes it doubly difficult to find content in 4K HDR, especially in the way it treats the 4K release of a film as a wholly different title from the HD release.

 

There are things that could be better about the Kaleidescape user experience, to be sure. I grow aggravated that I often have to download both the 4K HDR and Blu-ray-quality versions of a film if I want to access all the bonus features, for example. But in its layout, navigation, operation, aesthetic design, and overall intuitiveness, Kaleidescape is so far ahead of all the other “build your own library” video services that it’s hard to knock it for the fact that there is a bit of room for improvement.

 

To be clear, I don’t expect other digital cinema retailers to mimic Kaleidescape’s flowing animations or speed-of-thought responsiveness. We’re talking about a dedicated media server with tons of processing power versus apps meant to be installed on sub-$200 devices. But Vudu and others could learn a lot from the way Kaleidescape uses varied graphics and navigation, along with an intuitive layout, to make the process of buying, organizing, selecting, and navigating a growing movie library such a slick experience.

 

In the next post, I’ll be digging deeper into Disney+ and all the things it does well compared to similar subscription-based on-demand streaming services.

 

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.

Inside “Forbidden Broadway”

Cineluxe is fortunate to have a number of writers whose expertise extends well beyond their ability to comment on the latest trends in luxury home entertainment. To take one truly exceptional example, contributor Gerard Alessandrini is the creator, 

writer, and director of the longest-running musical revue in history, Forbidden Broadwayan accomplishment that earned him a well-deserved Tony.

 

A spoof of all the latest Broadway shows and an incisive satire of musical theater in general, Forbidden Broadway has had productions around the world, including England and Japan, and has been the launching pad for many well-known actors, including Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander.

 

We recently had the chance to take a backstage look at the creation of the show’s latest edition, Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation, which is currently running at New York’s Triad Theater before embarking on a national tour. In 

the video above, Gerard provides glimpses of the new show and its amazingly talented cast, while also reflecting on the show’s storied history and enduring legacy.

Inside "Forbidden Broadway"

The cast of Forbidden Broadway: The Next GenerationChris Collins-Pisano, Jenny Lee Stern, Joshua Turchin,
Aline Mayagoitia, and Immanuel Houston.