It might not have felt like it, but home entertainment changed in a big way in 2019. And, as Dennis Burger points out in “Beyond Discs & Cinemas,” that monumental shift wasn’t due to any technological breakthroughs or new formats, standards, or must-have devices. The arrival of 8K, which would have represented a major seachange in an earlier era, caused barely a ripple.
What happened instead was that the stars aligned—in other words, a variety of existing technologies reached just the right point of maturity to radically change how we experience entertainment. Downloading and streaming, until now maligned as the feeble stepchildren of the moviewatching experience, emerged decisively and undeniably as the future of movies.
Check out John Higgins’ post for a recap of this pivotal year in the streaming world. The focus here is more on what it took to achieve a state-of-the-art viewing experience at home in 2019, and how expanding beyond AV has allowed luxury integrators to become far more responsive to how people actually live.
Home Theater or Media Room?
Just as downloading and streaming are no longer dismissed out of hand, the once lowly media room has recently made great strides toward respectability—due in part to forces that have little to do with the technology that serves up the entertainment
experience. And while many had declared the dedicated home theater room dead—or at least in rapid decline—there are signs of a legitimate resurgence.
It might seem counter-intuitive to say that both home theaters and media rooms are on the rise. And supporters within each camp will tell you their favored approach is way in the lead. But, in the luxury market at least, it seems to be a dead heat.
One big sign of change is that media rooms are becoming commonly referred to as multi-use spaces. “Media room” was a godawful moniker; “multi-use space” really isn’t an improvement, except that it emphasizes the room’s versatility instead of suggesting that it’s a slave to “media” (whatever that means).
Multi-use spaces are nothing new. People have been setting up entertainment systems in rec rooms, dens, family rooms, bedrooms, and elsewhere since the advent of the Victrola. The arrival of TV didn’t do much to change that—and, to be honest, neither did the arrival of home theater.
It took the emergence of non-AV domestic automation like sophisticated and responsive lighting and shade control to make multi-use spaces a viable alternative. And 2019 was the year automated lights and shades became pervasive and flexible enough to help turn non-dedicated spaces into legitimate viewing (and listening) environments.
To give the AV world its due, the arrival of more designer-friendly acoustical treatments and, especially, the emergence of ultra-customizable, professionally-deployed digital room correction also had a lot to do with putting high-performance multi-use rooms on the map. So did super-sized flat-panel TVs, which can provide a brighter (and some would say better) image than a traditional front-projection setup.
But let’s step back a second. While multi-use spaces might be on the verge of offering the performance of a dedicated home theater, do you really want to be blasting out the Endgame finale at reference volume in the middle of your home at 1 in the morning? And do you really want various family members wandering through the room while you’re absorbed in an episode of The Crown?
For as good as multi-use spaces have become, they still can’t provide the uninterrupted focus on the viewing experience that a home theater can. And, even though they’re on the cusp, it’s still going to be a few more years before a multi-use room can compete performance-wise with the best dedicated theaters.
Ironically, we can thank the tremendous improvements in streamed audio and video for the home theater’s rebirth. People who know little or nothing of LaserDiscs or DVDs are beginning to realize that downloads and streams are rivaling or surpassing what they can experience at even the best movie theaters, and they want rooms that can take full advantage of what internet delivery has to offer.
Also, no matter how cleverly a multi-use space is designed, it still clearly signals that it serves more than one master. To have the ultimate entertainment experience, and to create a space that strikingly and unambiguously expresses the value of that experience, you have to have a dedicated room.
The Art Wall Revolution
I don’t expect many—or any—of you to buy into what I’m about to say, but please suspend your disbelief for a moment and allow that video art walls (a description as ungainly as “media rooms” or “multi-use spaces”) will eventually have a bigger impact on luxury home entertainment than multi-use spaces and home theaters combined.
Here’s why. Architects and interior designers have traditionally held their noses throughout the process of designing, building, and installing entertainment rooms—and for good reason. As much as AV companies might like to think their products are designer-friendly, the truth is that almost everything they put out has all the visual appeal of a WalMart boombox.
And creating entertainment rooms means having to deal with tech—a lot of it. AV enthusiasts would have you believe that gear has gotten more user-friendly—it hasn’t. It’s just found new and more intricate ways to be cumbersome and unpleasant. And interior designers have a longstanding, and not unearned, reputation for being technophobes.
Also, every home theater or multi-use space is essentially a unique machine. The greater the demands made on it, the more complicated that machine
becomes. And unless you’re working with an integrator who’s something of a mechanical genius, you’re likely in for a decent amount of trial and error before your room is finally up on its feet.
Lastly, it’s hard to put a unique visual stamp on a home theater and especially on a multi-use space. Feeding generic content into your home in mostly generic ways tends to drain any meaningful personal touch from the environment—one reason why entertainment rooms tend to fall into disuse over time.
Video walls, on the other hand, are an opportunity to showcase unique, curated works of art via installations that can be seamlessly integrated into the decor (and structure) of a home. Interior designers love that idea; so do architects. And homeowners will too once they realize they can use these stunning installations to display something other than the usual mind-numbing mass entertainment.
This isn’t the place to provide more than just a glimpse of this emerging phenomenon, but it’s worth keeping an eye on—partly because, unlike entertainment-based tech, it’s a harmonious and complementary instead of disruptive and somewhat arbitrary experience. And no matter how they evolve, art walls will always remain a luxury affair.
Today & Tomorrow
With 4K HDR content and displays arriving solidly in the middle market, 2019 was also the year reference-quality playback made its way to the masses. Ironically, it was also the year luxury integration decisively separated itself from the world of trunk slammers, geek squads, and other purveyors of “good enough.”
Expect 2020 to be the year when professional-grade digital cinema systems, offering picture and sound exceeding the world’s best movie theaters, make serious inroads in luxury entertainment spaces. Expect to see 8K used not so much to create higher-resolution content as to significantly improve the quality of existing content. And expect to see interior design finally welcomed into entertainment spaces—and designers finally willing to accept the invitation.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtable, marketing, product design, some theater designs,
a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.
the most influential people in luxury
home entertainment on the trends
that defined 2019
Sam Cavitt, Paradise Theater
on how home theaters are better than movie theaters
and the importance of dedicated theater rooms
Ed Gilmore, Gilmore’s Sound Advice
on tunable lighting, voice control, apps vs. control
systems, 8K, and art walls
Al Patel & Cortney Combs, Enhanced Home
on media rooms, outdoor entertainment systems,
designer-friendly tech, 8K, and art walls
Cory Reistad, SAV Digital Environments
on media rooms, bulletproof installation, downloading
vs. streaming, and automated lighting
Tim Sinnaeve, Barco Residential
on the emergence of video art walls, and their influence on
artists, integrators, architects, and interior designers
Katherine Spiller, Steinway Lyngdorf
on designer-friendly tech, luxury audio systems, room correction, digital cinema, and no-compromise media rooms
Eric Thies, DSI Luxury Technology
on the return of home theaters, 8K, art walls, and the
sad lack of integration standards