Entertainment

Content Providers: Who Does It Right?

Content Providers: Who Does It Right?

For those of us who grew up in the days of three (maybe four) broadcast TV stations—before the advent of cable and home video, much less streaming—the wealth of available video content today can be a little staggering. 

 

But how much of it is actually worth watching? That depends largely on what you want to watch and how much you care about the quality of the presentation. But even figuring out which sources excel over the others when it comes to quality can be difficult, especially given that streaming video sources (once undeniably the bottom of the barrel) continue to get better and better.

 

For now (and it’s important to stress that this can and will change over time), the pecking order looks something like this, from worst to best:

 

Cable/Satellite
One of the biggest trends in the home entertainment market over the past decade—cord cutting—started largely as a backlash against draconian pricing models forced on consumers by big telecom conglomerates. Simply put, subscriptions to a streaming service like Hulu—or even buying shows à la carte via iTunes or Amazon—just made more financial sense for a lot of folks.

 

These days, though, that’s not the only consideration. Today’s high-performance displays—even cheap ones—are so revealing that watching Grey’s Anatomy via satellite or cable can be downright insulting to the eyes, leading many to switch to streaming just for the upgraded experience.

 

Of course, it’s hard to ditch your subscription-based linear TV service if you’re a huge sports fan—especially on the professional, national level. But there are alternatives.

 

Broadcast Streaming
If you still dig the traditional linear model of broadcast TV (in other words, everything is parceled up into channels and This Is Us comes on at 9E/8C on Tuesdays), but can’t abide the quality of satellite or cable, or just don’t want to pay for all of those channels you never watch, broadcast streaming might be a better choice. Services like PlayStation Vue, Sling TV, and DirecTV Now allow you to cut the cord but leave it dangling. Most offer some form of cloud DVR so you can record your favorite shows, and most look at least somewhat better than the traditional alternative, assuming you have a decent-enough Internet pipeline.

 

Over-the-Air Broadcast
Yep, you read that correctly. The tried-and-true TV antenna is making its second comeback (its first being the early days of HDTV, when cable and satellite were struggling to catch up). These days, you can buy DVRs that allow you to record content straight from the airwaves, along with new antennas that aren’t as ghastly looking as the whale skeletons of bygone eras. And oddly enough, those broadcast images almost always look better than cable, satellite, or broadcast streaming thanks to less compression.

 

YouTube
Of all the non-linear streaming services on the Internet, YouTube demands its own spot on this list, but figuring out where to put it is a tough one. In addition to the glut of cat videos and Russian dashcams, you’ll also find some really nice-looking regular programming, as well as a wealth of nearly perfect-looking demo material that’ll put any 4K HDR display to the test. 

 

Hulu, Netflix, Vudu, Amazon Instant, iTunes, and the Like
Whether you’re looking for episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the latest Marvel blockbuster, or even compelling original content like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, streaming services are getting better and better all the time in terms of video quality. In fact, with certain content, it can be difficult to tell a good Vudu 4K UHD stream from the UHD Blu-ray disc. Granted, some of these services look better than others.

 

Some of them (like Netflix and Hulu) offer a vast collection of streaming content for one monthly fee while others are à la carte. And Amazon offers a bit of both. But chances are that no matter which pay model you prefer, you’ll be able to find tons of great-looking 4K HDR video just a few clicks (sometimes a few frustrating clicks) away.

 

UHD Blu-ray and Kaleidescape
While streaming services may be pushing video quality to the point of diminishing returns, there’s no denying that if you want the absolute best picture—and sound—for every movie or TV show you watch, you’re going to have to pick between UHD Blu-ray discs if you’re old-school or Kaleidescape downloads if you want to keep your shelves clutter-free. Granted, as mentioned above, streaming can come dangerously close to matching the quality of these full-bandwidth sources, but for some, “close” just isn’t good enough. What’s more, the Dolby Digital+ audio found on most streaming services usually can’t compete with the lossless Dolby Atmos or DTS:X soundtracks available only on discs or full-sized downloads, especially if you have a decent-enough sound system.

 

Again, the quality of all of these services is a moving target, and what’s true today may not be true a year from now. And when you look at the various streaming services like Hulu and Netflix, quality can vary quite a bit from one to the other, and even from device to device. So comparing them fully demands more scrutiny—a subject we’ll be digging into more in future posts.

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.

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

Of all the excellent points John Sciacca made in his latest piece, “Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy,one in particular leapt right off the page at me. Near the end, he recommends an ingenious solution to the problem of Peak Subscription Saturation: A unified “Premier Pass,” where streaming services join forces under a single banner, a single subscription, and divvy up the profits between them.

 

Unfortunately, that seems like an unlikely solution, especially given the corporate politics that have plagued and continue to plague streaming conglomerates like Hulu. But there’s already a precedent for John’s idea. One of the best-kept secrets in all of geekdom, it’s called VRV (pronounced “verve”), and it’s quickly becoming my go-to source for streaming video.

 

A word of warning for you Muggles in the audience: The next few sentences are going to get pretty geeky, so feel free to jump past the next line break. At any rate, I stumbled across VRV in my quest for a way to watch the streaming service Project Alpha in my media room via my Roku. As of late, my wife and I have been watching a lot of Critical Role, in which a group of voice-actor friends stream their weekly Dungeons & Dragons game for the world to watch. It’s honestly one of the

most compelling and entertaining programs I’ve ever seen. And yes, you can watch the show for free on YouTube, but we wanted to financially support its creators as well as gain access to the exclusive character portraits, hit-point counters, and ad-free graphics available only to paid subscribers of Alpha. (You can see those in the clip at right, and contrast them with the graphics for the free Critical Role YouTube broadcasts here).

But Project Alpha isn’t available on Roku, so we kept watching on the YouTube app instead. It wasn’t until some months later that I stumbled across the VRV app on Roku completely by accident, and found it offered Alpha content. That immediately seemed like the solution to my problem. What I didn’t realize is that it would be a solution to problems I didn’t even know I had.

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

What makes VRV great is that it houses a number of geeky streaming services under one umbrella, from the aforementioned Project Alpha (split there into separate Geek & Sundry and Nerdist channels), to classic cartoon channels like Boomerang, to anime streams from Crunchyroll and the like. And you can either subscribe to them à la carte and pay anywhere from $2.49 to $6.95 per service or spring for the lot of 12 different services for $9.99 a month total.

There’s also a free 30-day trial—during which I noticed that CuriosityStream (a documentary service I already subscribed to separately) was included in the package price. Add up the cost of separate CuriosityStream and Project Alpha subscriptions, and you’re within spitting distance of $9.99 a month anyway, so I just went for the complete package and canceled my standalone CuriosityStream sub. Purchased on their own, the subscriptions to all of these services (via VRV or directly) would add up to nearly 50 bucks a month. So, if nothing else, it’s a value.

 

But more than that, it solves the problem of jumping from app to app, service to service, in search of something to watch. Most nights, my wife and I fire up the VRV app when she gets home from work and don’t leave it until we shut down the media room at bedtime. If we’re not in the mood to start a new episode of Critical Role, there’s a vast collection of old Looney Tunes cartoons just a few clicks away, or that David Attenborough documentary we’ve been meaning to check out, or a compelling collection of curated spooky movies courtesy of Shudder if the mood strikes.

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

VRV also has something most streaming apps don’t: A really gorgeous and simple-to-navigate user interface that includes the features you might expect—like a “Continue Watching” shortcut and a watchlist management tool that puts Amazon Instant’s to shame—along with some unexpected niceties like a universal search function.

 

I get that not everyone will be into the sorts of programming offered by VRV, like video gaming or roleplaying or LARPing or miniature painting or quantum physics or classic cartoons, much less Japanese animation. But if nothing else, VRV serves as a role model for how independent streaming providers can learn to get along.

 

Sure, Boomerang may not be getting as much coin out of me every month as they would if I subscribed to their service directly. But guess what? I almost certainly wouldn’t drop $4.99 a month on Boomerang by itself, no matter how much I love some old-school Scooby-Doo.

 

Of course, it’s not surprising that a bunch of streaming services targeted at nerds were the ones to figure this out. Despite the fact that geek culture dominates popular culture these days, all of this is still—for whatever reason—viewed as niche content. So, the corporate overlords at Geek & Sundry and Nerdist (both owned by Legendary Entertainment), Crunchyroll (owned by WarnerMedia), Boomerang (Turner Broadcasting), NickSplat (Viacom), and others probably figured their chances were better if they banded together.

 

As with most things, though, the geeks were simply the first to figure out a way to make this new paradigm work to everyone’s benefit. Because if mainstream entertainment providers don’t follow the same template eventually, the streaming landscape is going to turn into The Hunger Games. And the odds won’t necessarily be in anyone’s favor.

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.

Demo Scenes: Deepwater Horizon

This is the third in our series featuring great demo scenes for putting a showroom system through its paces, making sure your new entertainment space makes the grade, or showing friends what your system can do. Deepwater Horizon joins Baby Driver and Ready Player One as a go-to title for showcasing a luxury Atmos system (see “Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos”). It’s available on Ultra HD Blu-ray, for download from the Kaleidescape Movie Storeand from streaming services like iTunes.

—ed.

 

Deepwater Horizon is part of a trilogy of films (including Lone Survivor and 

Demos to Die For

Patriots Day) that pair director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg recreating actual events for the big screen. (The duo also combined on a fourth film, Mile 22, that is decidedly not based on actual events.) The movie focuses on the events leading up to the uncontrollable blowout of the BP deep-sea oil exploration platform in 2010, which created the largest manmade disaster in US history.

 

The film is packed with action, and features vibrant colors that leap off the screen in 4K HDR. But the real standout star is the reference-grade Dolby Atmos soundtrack. This audio mix delivers from every square inch of your listening space, including wall-flexing bass and a massive amount of overhead information that will make viewers reach for their hardhats to avoid the falling debris. As the pull quote on the 4K Blu-ray box art says, Deepwater Horizon is “Shock-and-awe spectacle!”

 

Here are three scenes that tell a great story while showing off the film’s audio highlights.

Demos to Die For: "Deepwater Horizon"
Scene 1: “That was a bird strike!”
(12:30-15:00)

 

This scene leads you into the film easily—you don’t want to just jump straight to fire and explosions and mayhem, and this follows the crew as they head out to the DH. It begins in a lobby at the airfield, filling your listening space with background office noises, but as soon as they step out to walk toward the helicopter, the room sonically transforms into a helipad. Note the shift of helicopter blades from overhead to the upper left corner of the room as the onscreen PoV changes. While the crew is flying, the dialogue has a very “headphone” quality to it, but the room is filled with the steady whine of the engines and whump-whump of the blades. At about 14:50, the helicopter hits a bird that slams into the room high up on the wall, left of center, and then wings back through the room. It’s sudden and jarring, and a great use of audio to capture the intense moment. And I bet you’ll get more than one person to jump if you play it near reference volume.

Demos to Die For: "Deepwater Horizon"
Scene 2: “Biggest damn kick I ever seen!”
(51:00–58:10)

 

This scene just builds and builds in intensity and destruction, setting the stage for the final scene. The crew starts pulling back the drill and pumping out the mud when everything goes sideways. There’s deep rumbling as the mud starts flowing back up the drill line and explodes in a geyser that sprays mud, rock, and water all over the room. The water rushes and splashes around, a steady geyser jetting up the front wall and splashing down overhead.

 

In between the mayhem, notice the vibrant reds of the worker’s uniforms, especially contrasted with the mud-covered employees out on the deck. At 53:50, you pan outside and up the rig and travel to the ocean’s floor, the rumblings and waves swirling and rocking around the room. Bass explosions are powerful and deep, and a well-calibrated system should have you feeling the effects in your seat. At 56:30, glass starts shattering all around the control room, letting you clearly pinpoint each window’s location. After the mud-covered seagulls fly around in the confined space, the film cuts back into the pumping room, and you can hear sounds surrounding every inch of the 360-degree space around your listening position.

Demos to Die For: "Deepwater Horizon"
Scene 3: “We’ve got to get to the boats!”
(1:18:42–1:27:40)

 

This scene runs a bit long, but it has plenty of excitement to hold your attention. With the DH engulfed in flames, the crew is looking for last-ditch ways to save the rig while racing to abandon. As they rush around the rig, fireballs and jets of flames burst into the room, and explosions send shrapnel ripping into the space, fully immersing you in the conflagration. When power is lost, note how clean and noise-free the blacks are, with no banding or other distracting artifacts. The fire looks especially intense in HDR, delivering ultra-realistic shades of orange-red. Note all the subtle sounds of straining and groaning metal as the rig breaks apart. When Wahlberg enters the water at the scene’s finale, you get some great “submerged audio,” as water bubbles up and laps up and over the ceiling, and falling debris pelts the water around him.

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.

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & PIracy

Things were back in the day that if you subscribed to cable, you could expect to watch any TV content that came along. You paid a single monthly fee to the local cable provider, and you got their slate of programming. If you wanted to expand your viewing horizons to include movies, you could either wait and rent the videotape—VHS or Beta!—or add one of the nascent premium channels like HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, or The Movie Channel. But all original programming was essentially available to anyone willing to pony up for a cable subscription.

 

But, boy have times changed. Today, some of the very best original content is exclusively available on paid services. This trend can be traced back to HBO’s experimentation—and success—with original programming starting in the early ‘90s

with such shows as Tales from the Crypt, Tracey Takes On . . ., and The Larry Sanders Show.

 

Today, however, it isn’t just one or two services offering exclusive content, but many, with more seemingly coming every day. Sure, there’s still HBO with its award-winning Westworld, Game of Thrones, True Detective, and more. And Showtime, with Ray Donovan, Billions, Homeland, and others.

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy

Of course, you can’t forget the original streaming juggernaut, Netflix, which seemingly produces a new “must see!” show every day. In fact, Netflix has so much terrific original programming it barely seems to concern itself with providing Hollywood fare any longer. Besides its marquee titles like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, The Crown, and Stranger Things, there’s recent epic fare like BirdboxTaylor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour, Roma, and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

 

Then there’s Amazon Prime, which has been quick to join the original-programming game with features like Man in the High Castle, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Homecoming, and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.

 

Beyond that you have Hulu, with The Handmaid’s Tale, 11.22.63, and Castle Rock (review coming soon), among others.

 

And don’t forget YouTube Premium, which is trying to get all those eyeballs that are already tuning in for free homemade videos to pay for new exclusive content. One of the first shows used to attract paying viewers was Cobra Kai, a continuation of the Karate Kid series. But the company recently announced it plans to release 50 original shows during 2019.

 

Even traditional network channels like CBS are getting involved in the premium streaming game. If you want to watch Star Trek: Discovery, The Good Fight, Tell Me a Story, or the upcoming Twilight Zone reboot, you’ll need a CBS All Access pass.

 

Plus you have Shudder offering original horror content, Apple announcing it plans to spend in excess of $1 billion to acquire and develop original content, DC Entertainment with its DC Universe streaming, and the elephant in the room: The upcoming

Disney streaming service, called Disney+. We’re not even sure what Disney+ will cost, what shows/movies it will have, or the quality of the original content, but already people are calling it the next must-have service. I mean, sure, it might be worth subscribing just to see Star Wars: The Mandalorian (shown above) and The Clone Wars.

 

But getting some shows isn’t always just as easy as pulling out your credit card and clicking the sign-up tab. For example, if you want to enjoy any of the original programming on the Audience network—like the fantastic Mr. Mercedes—you’ll need to subscribe to either DirecTV or AT&T U-verse—a pretty big commitment just to watch a few hours of some show.

 

Of course, exclusives aren’t anything new. They’ve been a part of the video-game industry since the start. For example, if you wanted to play Mario, you needed to buy a Nintendo, but playing Sonic required going with Sega. Still today, games like Halo or Forza require owning an Xbox One, while playing God of War or Spider-Man requires a PlayStation.

Back at the launch of 3D Blu-ray discs, Panasonic and James Cameron played with exclusivity, making the only way to get a copy of Avatar in 3D—the top-grossing film of all time and (arguably) the best use of 3D—by buying a Panasonic 3D TV.

 

This can all lead to a serious case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). And then anger. And then piracy.

 

In fact, the pirate streaming service BitTorrent is re-gaining popularity thanks in large part to  these streaming exclusives. Cam Cullen, Vice President of Global Marketing at Sandvine commented, “To get access to all of these services, it gets very expensive for a consumer, so they subscribe to one or two and pirate the rest.”

 

People are clearly getting sick of being nickeled and dimed (or rather $10 to $15’d) to death every time they turn around because they want to watch some new show.

 

While unlikely, one solution would be some kind of unified “Premier Pass” where you pay some amount per month/year and have access to everything. Let the services divvy up the money based on a percentage of usage of each service. They now have the capability to see what and how often we’re watching something, so they could split the money up amongst themselves that way, but give consumers the ability to choose from everything available. Ultimately, the best content will win out by attracting the most eyeballs.

 

This seems to be something the music industry is already figuring out.

 

According to Troy Carter, Spotify’s Global Head of Creator Services, “Exclusive audio content, specifically with albums, is not within our playbook. I think people have learned over the last six months that it’s bad for the music industry, it’s not that great for artists because they can’t reach the widest possible audience, and it’s terrible for consumers. If you wake up in the morning and your favorite artist isn’t on the service that you’re paying ten dollars a month for, sooner or later you lose faith in the subscription model.”

 

Even Kanye West is against exclusives. Last year, he Tweeted that streaming wars were “f***ing up the music game.”

 

Amen, Yeezy. Amen.

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.

My Love/Hate Relationship with Dolby Atmos

My Love/Hate Relationship with Dolby Atmos

I have a friend who turns his nose up at surround sound. Press him on the matter and he’ll demur and hedge his argument, but it’s pretty clear he thinks stereo is where it’s at for movies and music alike.

 

And I think he’s absolutely bonkers.

 

I mention that not to pick on my friend but rather to empathize, because I imagine the face I make at him is the same face our own John Sciacca makes at me when I admit that I just don’t like Dolby Atmos—at least not for movies.

That may seem strange given that I’m on record as lauding the format—with its overhead speakers and innovative use of audio objects instead of channels—when applied to video games. You haven’t really played Overwatch until you’ve heard Pharah scream, “Justice rains from above!” from above your actual head.

The weird thing is, I love Atmos with gaming and generally hate it with movies for pretty much exactly the same reasons. And to understand why, you’re going to have to do a little homework.

 

Take a lawn chair out onto your front yard and sit in it with your back to the street. Your neighbors may give you strange looks, but this is for science. Just run with it.

 

Now pull out a book and start to read. At some point, a car might drive by behind you. If the book is decent enough, chances are you won’t even notice, unless you live on a street so remote that passing traffic is an oddity.

 

Keep on reading until a plane or helicopter passes overhead. Your concentration immediately broke, didn’t it? OK, maybe not if you live near an airport or airbase, and planes flying overhead are a regular occurrence. But for most of you, I’m sure, if something flies over your head, you’re gonna drop your book and look upward.

For me, Atmos is a lot like that. It triggers something in my primate brain. A fight-or-flight mechanism, if you will. I’m reminded of vervet monkeys, who have different words in their rather complex vocabulary for “python” and “eagle.” If a monkey shouts “python,” nearby members of its tribe scan their surroundings. If the cry is “eagle,” on the other hand, the other monkeys drop what they’re doing and run for the nearest hidey hole.

And Atmos generally does that to me. There’s just no denying that sound coming from overhead is hardwired into our brains as something we must focus on. And in a video game, that can be critically important. These virtual worlds often contain threats coming from every direction. Hearing that a baddy is attacking you from overhead can be the difference between virtual life and death.

 

But unlike video games, movies aren’t sandboxes. Our focus is on a rectangle of space right in front of us. Someone else gets to decide where our eyes turn. It’s an inherently horizontal experience. Surround sound coming from the sides and behind doesn’t violate that experience. Sounds coming from overhead do. As with our daily lives, anything that happens outside of that horizontal plane is somehow distinct, different, disconnected.

 

And that can actually be kinda cool with movies like Ready Player One or others that live or die purely on audiovisual spectacle. Heck, it’s even great with movies like The Last Jedi, where the overhead sound effects generally work to add ambiance and a sense of space, not vertical sensationalism.

 

But such mixes are few and far between. For the most part, Atmos serves only to distract from the narrative experience for me. And just to be clear, I’m not saying John or anyone else is wrong for liking that effect. I’m merely rebelling here against the increasingly pervasive notion that if you don’t have an Atmos-capable sound system by now, you’re somehow doing home cinema wrong. Try to seek out an Atmos demo before you decide if this “immersive” audio technology is right for you. And if it’s not—if tried-and-true surround sound does the trick—don’t feel like you’re selling your movie-watching experience short. I mean, as long as you’re not just watching movies in stereo . . .

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.

Demo Scenes: Baby Driver

Demos to Die For: "Baby Driver"

The demo scenes featured in this series of posts are perfect for putting a showroom system through its paces, making sure your new entertainment space makes the grade, or showing friends what your system is made of. Baby Driver is a go-to title for showcasing a luxury Atmos system (see “Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos”). It’s available on Ultra HD Blu-ray, for download from the Kaleidescape Movie Storeand from streaming services like Vudu and iTunes.

—ed.

 

Using R-rated content for demo material is a very slippery slope since it can easily be off-putting to many viewers and obviously isn’t suitable for families. And the

Demos to Die For

most demo-worthy scenes from R-rated films usually contain gratuitous violence, profanity-laced dialogue, and nudity that can quickly turn showing off your system into a turnoff. But these two scenes from Baby Driver are terrific exceptions you can show to any audience without fear of offending.

 

Both scenes show off the strengths of Dolby Atmos object placement and tracking capabilities—so make sure you have the HDR or UHD version of the film so you can enjoy the Atmos audio.

 

Scene 1: “The Bellbottoms Bank Job”
(0:50–6:25)

 

This scene is an absolute grand slam, checking off nearly every box for “What makes a great demo?” It’s literally the opening of the film, so you not only don’t spoil anything for people who haven’t seen it before, you’ll likely hook them to want to see more. It’s a complete story in itself, with a clear beginning, middle, and finale. And, it’s action packed, with some of the best driving you’ll see on screen, with a fantastic accompanying audio track.

 

One of the brilliant and innovative things about Baby Driver is how director Edgar Wright used music to propel and choreograph each scene. This opening plays loud and proud from the overhead speakers, with vocals that swirl around the room, and features a sub-heavy bass line that drives the tempo.

 

Notice how Jon Hamm’s shotgun blasts fire in time with the music. A potent and well-calibrated sub will have you feeling the Suburu’s engine revs in your chest as Baby pushes the WRX to its limits. As he drifts around the city, you’ll clearly hear tires squealing and protesting the physics-defying maneuvers, with the audio tracking every siren, horn honk, and car that whizzes by. While video isn’t the focus of this demo, notice the stoplight colors, with vibrant yellows and reds that push the color-space boundaries.

Demos to Die For: "Baby Driver"
Scene 2: Opening Credits/“Harlem Shuffle”
(6:25–9:09)

 

This scene couldn’t be easier to find since it begins right after the first demo scene ends.While the first scene is all about excitement and bombast, this one is just Baby walking to grab some coffee before heading to meet his crew. Notice how amazingly the audio tracks the off-camera action. You’ll hear an infant cry far off camera left, and then see a mother with a stroller pass Baby. Throughout, the audio swirls relative to Baby’s perspective and position, with the sounds of traffic, conversations, and jack hammers announcing their arrival long before they appear on screen, and long after they’re no longer in view.

 

Also notice how the audio changes when Baby walks into the coffeeshop. When he pulls out an earbud to hear the barista, the music volume drops and the sounds of the coffeeshop fill the room, with the music taking over as he replaces the earbud. This entire scene displays how a terrific audio mix along with properly placed speakers can transform a media room into an entirely different environment.

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.

Demo Scenes: Ready Player One

Demo Scenes: Ready Player One

This is the first in a series of posts featuring killer demo scenes for putting a showroom system through its paces, making sure your new entertainment space makes the grade, or showing friends what your system is made of. Ready Player One is great for showcasing a luxury Atmos system (see “Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos”), highlighting all the creative and technical virtues of the latest generation of surround sound. The Atmos version of RP1 is available on Ultra HD Blu-ray, for download

from Kaleidescape, and from streaming services like Vudu and iTunes.

—ed.

 

All you need to know about Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One is that it’s packed with ‘80s pop culture references, with hundreds of overt and subtle Easter eggs that will constantly delight any Gen-Xer, with terrific nods to video games, comics, movies, TV shows, and more in virtually every frame.

 

Most of the film takes place in the OASIS, a virtual-reality world of near infinite size and scope where players can select an avatar of virtually any look and design. All scenes in the OASIS are entirely CGI, which contrasts with the film 

Demos to Die For

stock Spielberg uses to capture life in the gritty “real world” of 2045. The plot of the film is that characters are involved in a hunt for the ultimate Golden Easter Egg, which will both give them control over the whole OASIS and a half-billion-dollar payday.

 

RP1 is perfect demo material because its Dolby Atmos soundtrack features a Gary Rydstrom sound design that makes frequent and terrific use of all the speakers in your room, really highlighting the immersive audio experience.

Demos to Die For: Ready Player One
Scene 1: “The First Challenge”
(11:25 to 16:55)

 

This is just fantastic eye and ear candy throughout. First, be on the lookout for some famous cars in the race lineup. Easily viewable are Speed Racer’s Mach 5, the A-Team van, the original Batmobile, and Stephen King’s Christine. Once the race starts, the music stops and the scene is all about sound effects. Notice how the smoky exhaust from Parzival’s DeLorean wafts into the room, the smoke dissipating. The rumble as the bridge constructs itself is deep with bass, and the fireworks to begin the race explode overhead.

 

The race itself is pure home theater adrenaline. It’s filled with non-stop, insane mayhem, with cars cartwheeling overhead and around the sides of the room, racers swirling back and forth, around all sides, and overhead, with tires squealing for mercy. Colors are bright, and detail abounds no matter how frenetic the action.

 

Explosions have tight, deep, concussive bass, letting you feel each virtual metal-on-metal crunch—and you can practically track the progress of every bouncing coin or piece of debris. When T-Rex and King Kong get in on the action, their foot stomps raise the bass concussion to the next level, with roars/growls that energize the entire room. At the end of the scene, notice how the mechanical sounds of Art3mis’ bike dying are clearly placed in the back of the room behind the listeners, and gradually move to the foreground as she approaches the bike.

 

Scene 2: “Stacks Explosion”
(57:35 to 59:27)

 

This isn’t a long scene, but it does a terrific job of highlighting the not-so-subtle benefit of having Atmos height speakers, and of audio object tracking. Note how the drones buzz from the back of the room, almost over your shoulders, and then fly up to the front wall. You could close your eyes and pinpoint their position just by listening. You also get some terrific bass during the building explosion, with debris and shrapnel blasting into the room all around you. Real cinephiles might notice that Rydstrom borrowed from himself in this scene, using some of the same creaking and groaning sounds from the Titanic sinking.

Demo Scenes: Ready Player One
Scene 3: “A Shining Experience for Aech”
(1:03:15 to 1:08:33)

 

This last scene is a bit edgier, with a few scares, but never veers too deep into PG-13 territory and is suitable for all but the youngest audience. It’s a fantastic visual recreation of and tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining that’s incredibly fun to watch, especially through the eyes of Aech, who has never seen the movie.

 

As the group enters the video library, you hear movies swirling around overhead, with distant thunder and lightning creating the ambience. Notice the creepy score playing overhead, setting the stage inside the Overlook lobby. After the twins go back into the elevator, the tidal wave of blood cascades down the hallway, making the room sound like a river rapids ride, with waves splashing all around, lapping up the walls, and gurgling overhead. The creepy factor kicks up several notches when Aech goes into Room 237, getting attacked by a knife and axe-wielding rotting corpse, with axes chopping through and splintering the bathroom door and then slashing overhead and across the room as he stumbles through the hotel’s infamous hedge maze.

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Trials & Tribulations of Amazon Streaming

The Trials & Tribulations of Amazon Streaming

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

 

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

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

 

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

The Trials & Tribulations of Amazon Streaming

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

 

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

 

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

John Higgins

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

Diary of a Cord Cutter

Diary of a Cord Cutter

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

John Higgins

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

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.