Tech

2019: The Year in Luxury Home Entertainment

2019: The Year in Luxury Home Entertainment

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

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

CINELUXE TRENDSETTERS

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

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2019: Beyond Discs & Cinemas

Beyond Discs & Cinemas

2019 was the year in which nothing new happened in the audio/video marketplace, and yet everything changed in the world of home entertainment. We saw no meaningful new AV standards or formats, unless you count the fact that a handful of 8K TVs and projectors hit the market. And we don’t. Not yet. We also saw Dolby expand the capabilities of Atmos in the home, 

upping the number of speakers that could be supported in media rooms or home theater. But that’s more evolution than revolution.

 

So, what changed? In a sense, you could say market forces that have been simmering for a while finally boiled over, and we all had to acknowledge that, whether we like it or not, commercial cinemas are no longer the gold standard by which we judge our movie-watching experiences. 

 

Why Go Out to the Movies?

Granted, blockbuster franchise films still dominate the box office, with billion-dollar worldwide hauls almost being taken for granted. The thing is, though, that’s really the only thing drawing us to the local cineplex en masse anymore. Scour the Top 20 list of highest-grossing films for the year, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything that isn’t a superhero flick, Star Wars film, Disney movie, or sequel/ remake/reboot of some sort.

 

That doesn’t mean these are the only sorts of films we’re watching anymore. Far from it. It’s simply that these big event films are the only ones that really offer anything we can’t experience (arguably better) at home. They’re meant to be seen in crowds. They’re designed to trigger our popcorn-binging reflex. They are, in short, events.

 

With but a handful of exceptions, anything smaller, more meaningful, or contemplative in the world of cinema is far more likely to find its audiences on sofas or home theater recliners. And the underlying reasons for this are numerous (and a long time coming), but I would argue that the reason this trend hit a tipping point in 2019 is that 4K finally became mainstream. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s difficult to buy a new TV now at any price point that doesn’t offer a better image than you’ll find at your local cineplex, and that has a lot more to do with HDR than anything else. Granted, the device on which you do your streaming makes a big difference in terms of the quality of presentation, but who could have imagined just four or five years ago that we would soon be able to stream truly reference-quality imagery and sound into our home cinemas by way of a $99 box and a $15-a-month subscription service? 

 

The display is only half the equation, though. All of those people coming home with new UHD/HDR TVs are also discovering that there’s simply a ton of amazing-looking content no more than a click and a stream away. Sure, you could argue that Netflix has become the equivalent of the $5 DVD bin at Walmart, but the service is also the only place you can watch Martin Scorsese’s new film, not to mention David Attenborough’s latest planet-spanning documentary series

 

Ding Dong, The Disc Is Dead

The rise of new streaming services like Disney+ late this year further nail the coffin closed on commercial cinemas as the pinnacle of popular entertainment. But there’s another mainstay of the movie world that is taking an even worse beating as a result of the rise of streaming. This was the first year since 1993 that I didn’t buy a single movie on a disc of any sort. Discs have defined my entertainment experience since I plunked down $250 for thirteen pounds’ worth of LaserDiscs dubbed The Star Wars Trilogy: The Definitive Edition late that year. When I purchased my current home in 1998, one of its most appealing features was a closet off the main den that would perfectly store and conceal my burgeoning DVD collection. 

 

I’ve probably got one final disc purchase left in me—next year’s 27-disc, nine-film Skywalker Saga collection, which also, poetically enough, carries a $250 price tag and will finally bring my physical home video collection full circle, just as I begin to winnow it down. 

 

Make no mistake, though: I’ll continue to buy films for home consumption. They’ll simply be on Vudu and Kaleidescape going forward. I’m not alone in that, either. Disc sales have been on the decline since 2008 and show no sign of rebounding. We’ll almost certainly never have another disc-based home video format after UHD Blu-ray. And indeed, movie studios are already losing interest in that one (as evidenced by the fact that more and more films are receiving 4K home video releases purely in the digital domain, either streamed or downloaded). 

 

This was also the year in which completely non-traditional forms of media hit the mainstream in a big way, which has to be factored into the decline of cinemas and discs alike. A little show called Critical Role, which started a few years ago as a live-streamed home Dungeons & Dragons game, exploded into the public consciousness thanks to the most successful video Kickstarter crowdfunding project of all time  early in 2019. The eight best friends who started the show have also created a full-fledged “television network” around it, distributed mostly through Twitch and YouTube, which features shows ranging from art tutorials to video game live-playthrough/puppet show mashups to a weekly late-night talk show about painting miniature figurines hosted by that kid from Boy Meets World.

 

And I don’t mean to claim here that rolling dice and roleplaying as elves and half-

orcs is the future of home entertainment or anything, but it’s certainly part of it. The success of Critical Role not just as a show but as a network points to a pent-up desire for something different. Something genuine. And given that virtually anyone these 

some content from the Critical Role “network”

days can get their hands on near-commercial-quality video gear and upload their antics to the internet, it stands to reason that the real innovation in terms of what we view on our TVs and projectors will, in the coming years, increasingly come from the occasional lark of this sort.

 

Meanwhile, Netflix, Amazon, Apple, and other tech companies are sinking hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars into creating new films and TV shows that wouldn’t have looked out of place on cinema screens a few years ago, proving that there’s also still plenty of appetite for mid- to big-budget traditional media in all of the usual genres. It’s simply that the way we view that media has forever changed, and when the entertainment history books are written, I think 2019 will be undeniably viewed as the turning point.

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.

Every Room Deserves Great Acoustics

Every Room Deserves Great Acoustics

When most people think about good acoustics, the first area of a home that comes to mind is an entertainment room. The audio in this space should be pristine—from clear, intelligible dialogue to realistic, three-dimensional special effects. You feel as if you’re in the middle of the movie action, and proper acoustical engineering and treatment of the space contribute just as much as the equipment to delivering this experience. If the acoustics of the space are off, the listening experience will suffer.

 

To prevent this from happening, it’s important that a home theater include properly engineered and installed acoustics customized for the unique sonic attributes of the space. The floor, ceiling, walls, furnishings, etc. often require some level of modification to ensure that the movie audio sounds its very best, without reverberation, echo, or disruption from other sources of sound.

 

But why stop at the home theater? The same acoustical principles of a home theater can be applied in bedrooms, home offices, living rooms . . . really any space that suffers from unwanted external noise or acoustical conditions that conflict with the intelligibility of conversations. Just as a noisy heating and cooling unit can distract you from the plot of a movie, it can be a

literal nightmare when you’re trying to get a good night’s sleep.

 

And that’s just brushing the surface of the annoying sounds that can plague a household. Homes of all sizes and designs can be affected by excessive noise, lack of sound privacy, and an abundance of sound propagation.

 

Think about the things you hear at home on a daily basis: A delivery truck backing out of a neighbor’s driveway, the lawn maintenance crew working at the park across the street, barking dogs, the thump of the home gym treadmill at 5 a.m., and the incessant beat of your son’s garage band are just some of the many examples. They all add up to a lot of racket—most of which you’d probably rather not hear or at least muffle a bit. An acoustical engineer can minimize these audible distractions from any area of the house—not just the home theater.

 

Years ago, all of this commotion may have fallen on deaf ears. Most people worked in an office outside of the home, went to the neighborhood cinema to catch a show, and worked out at the gym. Today, though, we are home a lot, 

using it for a myriad of activities besides just eating and sleeping. We work in home offices, exercise in home gyms, entertain in home theaters, dine in gourmet kitchens, and shop online—subject to all of the audible chaos in and around the home. We cringe when the kids arrive home during a conference call, cover our ears during our son’s gaming marathon, and wait until the baby wakes up from a nap to throw in a load of laundry. Noise can disrupt our lives in so many ways. Thankfully, proper acoustical treatments applied by a professional can help.

 

Often, the remedy necessitates a structural modification of the ceiling or walls. Most homes are built in a way that allows sound to easily transfer from one room to another. Sheetrock is attached directly to studs and joists, which allows sound to move from one material to the next, one room to another. Separating these surfaces through the addition of isolation clips and hangers mitigates the sound propagation. It’s an expense, certainly, and more easily implemented during the construction of a home, but there’s no better way to preserve your sleep and sanity.

 

Other, less extreme remedies to tame the propagation of sound throughout a home involve adding aesthetically pleasing sound absorption materials to a room, such as acoustical plaster on the ceiling surface, fabric on the walls, specialty ceiling tiles, and even furnishings. If it’s sound from outside that’s bothering you, thicker, double-pane windows and heavy draperies can help.

 

Sound quality has an impact on more than just our ability to become fully immersed in a movie. It’s part of our everyday life, in good ways and bad ways. We might like how our audio system sounds in our home theater, but we’d rather not hear it in the bedroom upstairs. The same goes for other noises. They’re a part of the house and our lifestyle, but left untreated, they can interfere with work, play, and even our health. A professionally trained and experienced acoustical engineer can make these issues disappear, creating a more peaceful and healthy home environment.

Steve Haas

Steve Haas is the Principal Consultant of SH Acoustics, with offices in the NYC & LA
areas. He has been a leading acoustic and audio design & calibration expert for more
than 25 years in high-end spaces ranging from home theaters, studios, and live music
rooms to major museums and performance venues.

Why Aren’t Enthusiasts Honest (With Themselves)?

I would like to say AV enthusiasts are a weird bunch, but the truth is all enthusiasts of any genre are weird—present company included. One of the things I find most peculiar about enthusiasts of any persuasion is their—ahem, our—incessant need to “lie” to ourselves. What I mean by that is simple: We often lie or convince ourselves that we require, need, or even have

more than we actually do.

 

I have been running a YouTube channel aimed squarely at AV enthusiasts since 2013 (I think), and in all that time one “truth” has remained constant: Everyone claims to need or have more, when in reality they often do with less. For example, if I talk about or review an AV receiver, one of the common responses I get is, “Does it have [insert some insane request here]?” When I inevitably reply, “No”, the response quickly turns to, “Well, I would’ve bought it, but . . .”

 

Yeah, right.

 

What’s more interesting is the amount of data YouTube and other services provide creators like me that show just how not cutting-edge enthusiast are—or at least think they are. More often than not, enthusiasts shop solely on price and not on the features or performance they so dearly covet. Depending on what types of links within my videos they click on, I can quite literally see how they shop for AV gear. And I have to tell you, it’s never how they claim to.

 

More often than not, if enthusiasts choose to click on my

links in order to shop for AV gear, they often start by going to the product I talked about. But from there, they go on an exploration of other equipment that I would classify often as comparable, but which is almost always less expensive.

They only really buy what I’ve reviewed when it truly is their cheapest option—for example, Crown Audio’s XLS DriveCore 2 amplifiers (shown at right). These amplifiers cost a few hundred dollars each, but put out Krell-like power ratings. It doesn’t hurt that the Crown amplifiers also sound good, but you get my point.

 

All of this data flies in the face of enthusiasts’ public statements that products must offer the Earth, moon, and stars

Why Aren't Enthusiasts Honest (With Themselves)?

for them to consider purchasing, and that their purchasing decision is always about performance—absolutely.

 

I just don’t understand why we do this to ourselves. There’s no shame in having a $300 AV receiver if a $300 AV receiver gets the job done. There’s no shame in only having a 50-inch TV. I get the need to want to keep up with the Joneses, but the reality is the Joneses don’t even have what you think they do, for we’re all the Joneses.

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.

Does a Luxury Cinema Really Need a Projector?

Does a Luxury Cinema Need a Projector?

Here’s a pop quiz to start your day with: How big is the TV you see in the image above? If you’re familiar with this specific model (LG’s C9 OLED), the proportions of its pedestal may give you some idea. The rest of you probably think this is an unfair question. You’re trying to look for other clues that could give it away: How tall are those ceilings? How wide is that wall? More importantly, how far away from the screen was the camera when this photo was taken?

 

That’s actually exactly my point. For the record, the image is of a 77-inch display. But if I had told you it was 55, or 65, or even 88 inches, would you have balked? Probably not, because you intuitively understand that a display’s screen size isn’t the beginning and end of the conversation when it comes to how large it actually appears to your eyes. It’s the relationship

between the display size and the distance from seat to screen that determines the degree to which an image fills your field of view.

 

Not to pick on my colleague and friend John Sciacca here, but in his recent piece “Rediscovering My Joy for Home Theater,” he says, “Watching movies on a 115-inch screen is incredibly more involving than a 65-inch one.” What John is leaving unsaid there, though, is, “. . . from the same seating distance.” That last bit, that unspoken relationship between seat and screen, was taken for granted in John’s story, because to him it’s obvious. But that fact often gets tossed out the window completely when the gatekeepers of home cinema attempt to discredit the “lowly” TV as a legitimate screen for a proper home entertainment system.

 

I think this outdated perception of projectors as the only valid screens for home cinema systems is probably rooted in the equally outdated notion that commercial cinemas are the gold standard against which the home movie-watching experience should be judged. As I’ve argued in the past, that ship has sailed. 

These days, with a few rare and special exceptions aside, commercial cinemas are simply a way for most people to check out the latest Avengers or Star Wars flick before someone else ruins the plot for them. Or maybe they just want to view those big event movies with a few more subwoofers than their home AV systems can accommodate. But I guarantee you that almost none of the people who opt to go to their local movie theater to see the latest blockbusters would tell you that the allure of seeing an image bounced off a big sheet of perforated vinyl was what drew them out of the comforts of their own homes.

 

And mind you, I’m not claiming there aren’t plenty of valid reasons to install a projector at home. In his own media room, John sits roughly 12 feet from his screen, by his own estimation. He also has two kids at home, so movie-watching is often a whole-family experience. For his needs and his lifestyle, yeah, a projector is absolutely the right screen.

 

I, on the other hand, only have to worry about my wife and me. The only other permanent resident is Bruno, our 75-pound pit bull, and more often than not he either leaves the room when we watch movies or curls up in my lap and goes to sleep. We also only sit about six and a half feet from the screen in the main media room. The smallest high-performance home cinema projection screen I’m aware of is an 80-incher that would frankly be too much at that seating distance. A 75-inch display is pretty much perfect for this room, as it takes up a healthy 45.5 degrees of our field of view—a little more than

THX’s recommended 36 degrees, but so be it. We’d rather have a bit too much screen than a bit too little. But we don’t want The Last Jedi turning into a tennis match, either.

 

Interestingly enough, John’s 115-inch projection screen, when viewed from 12 feet away, takes up roughly 38.5 degrees of his field of view. In other words, my 75-inch screen looks bigger to me and my wife than his 115-inch projection screen looks to him and his family.

 

Am I bashing John’s choice of screens? Of course not. What works for him works for him, and what works for me

How to Determine Your Viewing Distance

 

If you want figure out your screen size based on viewing distance, or vice versa, but without having to wade through technical specs or do any heavy math, click this link.

works for me. And I’m sure he would agree. Different rooms. Different families. Different viewing habits. Different solutions. Without a doubt, we’re both enjoying a better movie-watching experience than we would at the local cineplex, and his system gives him one big advantage over mine: He gets to watch ultra-widescreen 2.4:1 aspect-ratio films without any letterboxing.

 

In addition to the larger perceptual screen real estate, though, my TV also gives me better black levels, better dynamic range, better peak brightness, and better color uniformity than any two-piece projection system could. And if for whatever reason we ever decided to watch a movie with the lights on, we wouldn’t have to worry about the screen washing out. (Not that we would, mind you. My wife and I prefer to keep any and all distractions to a minimum when watching movies, going so far as to put our mobile phones away or turning them off entirely. I’m just saying that we could leave a light on if we wanted to.)

 

And yet, the naysayers and gatekeepers would have you believe that for whatever reason my viewing experience is subpar. That I would somehow be better served by lacking black levels, middling contrasts, less peak brightness, and worse screen uniformity, simply because that would be a more faithful facsimile of the local cineplex.

 

To which I say this: The New Vision Theatres Chantilly 13 across town isn’t the yardstick by which I judge my movie-watching experience at home anymore. My home cinema system looks better and sounds better, and quite frankly has a better selection of films from which to choose. Granted, if we had a much larger room, or typically invited large groups of friends over to watch movies, a projection screen would likely be a superior alternative to our 75-inch TV on the balance sheet. If we had two or three rows of seating? No question about it—we would need a projector.

 

The beauty of current AV gear, though, is that you don’t have to change your lifestyle or viewing habits to have a better-than-movie-theater experience at home. You can assemble a reference-quality home cinema that conforms to your lifestyle, not the other way around. And if, like me, that means employing a gigantic TV as your screen of choice, you shouldn’t pay much attention to anyone telling you you’re doing it wrong, or that your system doesn’t count as “luxury.” Chances are, they’re trying to sell you something.

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.

Rediscovering My Joy for Home Theater

Rediscovering My Joy for Home Theater

I’d already planned to write a wrap-up post on my journey to get a new projector to update my personal home theater, but Andrew Robinson’s recent “4K is for Fanboys,” makes the timing of this post even more relevant.

 

As I mentioned in “It’s Time to Update My Theater,” technology had passed my previous Marantz projector by, and it had been quite some time since we had used it. Instead, we just watched our 65-inch TV screen full time. (I know, a first-world problem for sure.) Sure, it was still enjoyable, but it actually curtailed the number of movies we watched. When the projector was in action, we would generally watch two to three movies per week, making an evening around dropping the lights and focusing

on the big screen. But with the projector out of action, we went to watching two to three movies per month.

 

After the new projector arrived, I couldn’t wait to see it in action. Instead of waiting until I could get some help to properly install the JVC by retrofitting the new cabling required (sending 4K HDR signals upwards of 50 feet is beyond the limits of my old HDMI cable, and I’ve gone to an HDMI-over-fiber solution from FIBBR) and mounting the JVC, I just set it on its box on top of our kitchen counter, strung the FIBBR cable across the floor, did a quick-and-dirty alignment and focus, and settled in to watch a movie on the big screen.

 

And from the opening scene, I was ecstatic with my new purchase. The blacks were deep and cinematic, colors were bright and punchy, edges were sharp and defined, and, blown up to nearly 10 feet, the projector’s 4K image had incredible resolution and detail. For me, this is what true theater-at-home is all about.

 

Watching movies on a 115-inch screen is incredibly more involving than a 65-inch one. And with the projector, it is an active viewing experience, with the lights down and distractions minimized. In the short time I’ve had the new projector—less than two weeks—we’ve already watched seven films with it, and each time I’m giddy that this is something I’m actually able to enjoy in my own home.

 

Coupled with my 7.2.6-channel audio system, movies look and sound as good as virtually any commercial theater.

I’m not a filmmaker as Andrew is, and I’m not a student of film as site editor Mike Gaughn is. I don’t watch movies to dissect framing, composition, or lighting. And I’m sure there are many subtleties, references, and hat tips in films that I’m completely oblivious to. But, the fact is, most times when I go to watch a movie, it’s to relax and enjoy myself. And I’d imagine that’s what most people are looking to do with their home entertainment systems. I’m not looking for Ready Player One to change my world view, or for Alita: Battle Angel to offer a commentary on anything, or for John Wick to teach me any lessons, well, except for maybe on the benefits of rapid mag changes. 

 

I’m looking to sit back with a martini and be entertained for a couple of hours.

 

At the end of the day, unless you are a filmmaker evaluating your work, or a professional film critic getting paid to review the work of others, all of this “home theater stuff” is really just a hobby designed to be fun and enjoyable. And any technology improvements that can help people to achieve a better experience—be it 4K, HDR, Dolby Atmos, 3D, or other—is an improvement in my book.

 

To my eye, 4K HDR films look better, especially when blown up to large sizes. And, to my ear, Dolby Atmos (or DTS:X) soundtracks are more exciting and involving. And if I’m electing to spend my precious time watching something—be it Survivor on broadcast cable, Jack Ryan streaming on Amazon, the latest Star Wars, Avengers, or Pixar entry, or just some new release from the Kaleidescape Store, then I’d like to do so in the highest quality possible.

 

And if that makes me a 4K Fanboy as Andrew suggests, then sign me right up!

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.

“Apollo 11” Goes 4K

"Apollo 11" Goes 4K

If you’ve read my review of the original HD release of Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary film Apollo 11 from earlier this year, you may recall that it was a bit more of a rant than a proper critique. Not about the film, mind you. Apollo 11 still stands as one of the year’s best cinematic efforts, especially in the more straightforward, less editorial approach it takes in capturing this one monumental moment in history.

 

The rant was instead about the film’s home video release, which was originally HD only, with no mention of a UHD/HDR followup. As I said in that original review, this was doubly troubling because Apollo 11 is among a small handful of films released recently to actually be sourced from a 4K digital intermediate. In fact, its original film elements were scanned at

resolutions between 8K and 16K. Given that most modern films, especially Hollywood tentpoles, are finished in 2K digital intermediates and upsampled to 4K for cinematic and home video release, the lack of a UHD option for Apollo 11 was as infuriating as it was puzzling.

 

Thankfully, that mistake has been rectified. Apollo 11 is now available in UHD with HDR on most major video platforms, including disc and Kaleidescape, with the latter being my viewing platform of choice. I know I mentioned purchasing the film in HD via Vudu in my original review, but that purchase doesn’t offer any sort of upgrade path for UHD, the way Kaleidescape does.

 

At any rate, I did a lot of speculation in that first review about the sort of differences I thought UHD would make for this title. And having now viewed it, most of those predictions turned out to be true. UHD does, indeed, reveal a lot of detail that was obscured in the HD release. That makes sense given that the source of so much of this film’s visuals existed in the form of 65mm/70mm archival footage.

 

One of the biggest differences you see when comparing the 

HD and UHD releases is in the textures of the Saturn V rocket. Ribbing in the first three stages of the rocket that dwindle to nothing in HD are clear and distinct in UHD. The little flag on the side of the rocket is also noticeably crisper, and the stars in its blue field stand out more as individual points of whiteness, rather than fuzzy variations in the value scale.

 

As predicted, the launch of Apollo 11 also massively benefits from HDR grading. The plume of exhaust that billows forth from the rocket shines with such stunning brightness that you almost—almost—want to squint.

 

One thing I didn’t predict, though—which ends up being my favorite aspect of this new HDR grade—is how much warmer and more lifelike the imagery is. In the standard dynamic range color grade of the HD version of the film, there’s an undeniable cooler, bluer cast to the colors that never really bothered me until I saw the warmer HDR version. Indeed, the HDR grade evokes the comforting warmth of the old Kodak stock on which the film was captured in a way the SDR grade simply doesn’t.

 

It’s true that the new UHD presentation does make the grain more pronounced in the middle passage of the film—where 65mm film stock gives way to 35mm and even 16mm footage. That honestly has more to do with the enhanced contrast of 

this presentation than it does the extra resolution. HD is quite sufficient to capture all the nuances and detail of this lower-quality film. But the boost in contrast does mean that grain pops a little more starkly.

 

This does nothing to detract from the quality of the presentation, though, at least not for me. And even if you do find this lush and organic grain somewhat 

distracting, I think you’ll agree it’s a small price to pay for the significantly crisper, more detailed, more faithful presentation of the first and third acts.

 

If you haven’t picked up Apollo 11 yet, congratulations—you get to enjoy your first viewing as it should have been presented to begin with. If you already bought the film in HD, I can’t recommend the upgrade to UHD highly enough. Thankfully, for Kaleidescape owners, that upgrade doesn’t mean purchasing the film all over again.

 

It is a shame Universal, the film’s home video distributor, has for whatever reason decided to hold back bonus features. The featurette included with the UHD Blu-ray release, which covers the discovery of the 65mm archival footage, is missing here—although it’s widely available on YouTube at this point (and is embedded above). And only Apple TV owners get access to an exclusive audio commentary. Then again, given how badly the studio fumbled the original home video release, it’s no real surprise that they’ve dropped the ball on making the bonus features widely available.

 

Don’t let that turn you off of the film, though. This is one that belongs in every movie collection, especially now that it’s available in UHD.

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.

4K is for Fanboys

4K is for Fanboys

I feel as if I might have a reputation around these parts, a heel of sorts. Why a heel and not a hero? Because I find that my opinions are often in opposition to that of my contemporaries. Not because they are wrong, but just because I think their focus is continually on things, topics, and ideas that play to a base that, well, is dying.

 

Dennis Burger wrote a terrific piece on why 4K isn’t always 4K. It is a truly good piece of writing and one that gets 99 percent of the argument absolutely correct. For as someone who has literally filmed a feature-length film for a motion-picture studio in 

true 4K only to have it shown in theaters in 2K, I can attest to the article’s validity. But Dennis, like me some years ago, missed the boat by even framing the argument around resolution at all.

 

You see, I thought people/viewers cared about things like resolution. Back in 2008, when I filmed my movie, the original RED ONE cinema camera just came out, and as a result the “whole world” was clamoring for 4K—or so it seemed. I had the choice of whether or not to film in 4K via the RED ONE or go with a more known entity by filming in 2K via cameras from Sony’s CineAlta line. Ultimately I chose option C, and went with a true dark horse contender 

in Dalsa, who up and to that point, had no cinema pedigree—unless you count being the ones who designed the sensor tech for the Mars Rover a cinematic endeavor. But I digress.

 

We didn’t use the RED ONE because it was buggier than a roadside motel mattress, and I didn’t choose to side with Sony because they were HD, and HD was yesterday’s news. Filming in 4K via the Dalsa back in 2008 was an absolute pain in the ass. (That’s me with the Dalsa Origin II in the photo at the right.) Spoiler alert, not much has changed in 2019, as 4K 

continues to be a bit of a pain, it’s just more accessible, which makes everyone think that they need it—more on that in a moment.

 

What is upsetting is that I do know the monetary difference my need to satiate the consumer-electronics fanboys cost me and my film—a quarter of a million dollars. While $250,000 isn’t much in Hollywood terms, it represented over a quarter of my film’s total budget. The cost of filming in HD you ask? Less than $30,000. Oh, and post production 

4K is for Fanboys

would’ve taken half the time—thus lowering costs further. All of that headache, backache, and money only to have the film bow in 2K via 4K digital projectors from—wait for it—Sony!

 

Now, I will sort of agree with the assertion that capturing visuals at a higher resolution or quality and downscaling to a lesser format—say HD—will result in a clearer or better picture—but honestly, only if you preface what you’re watching as such ahead of time. Which brings me to my point: All of this HD vs. 4K talk is for fanboys who insist on watching pixels and specs rather than watch the damn movie. Not one person, or journalist (apart from me), wrote about my film from the context of being the first-feature length film ever filmed entirely in 4K. They didn’t ask about it, nor care, because it doesn’t matter.

 

It never mattered.

 

What digital has done is remove the magic from cinema and replace it with a bunch of numbers that bored middle-aged dudes (yes, dudes) can masturbate over in an attempt to differentiate their lot from the rest. None of it has any bearing on the story, enjoyment, or skill. It’s an arms race, one we all fall prey to, and one we continually perpetuate, because, well, it sells. We’ve gotten away from cinema theory, history, and storytelling in recent years and instead become infatuated with bit-rates, color spaces, and codecs. And yet, in the same breath, so many of us bitch about why there are no good films being made anymore. It’s because the only thing audiences will pay for is what they think is going to look great on their brand new UltraHD TV.

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.

Choosing My New Projector

Choosing My New Projector

Following up on my last post, “It’s Time to Update My Theater,” I’m going to delve into the thought process that caused me to splurge and finally upgrade my projector.

 

As I mentioned, my existing projector was about 11 years old, and, while it still produced watchable pictures from Blu-ray and DVD discs, it wasn’t compatible with many of the new 4K HDR sources in my system, so we had just stopped using it. I was

toying around with ditching both the projector and my current 65-inch Sony flat panel and upgrading to a new 85-inch flat panel.

 

Why 85 inches? Well, that is about the current size limit before you start getting into ridiculously expensive pricing. For under $4,500, you can get a Sony XBR-85X950G flat-panel that has been universally reviewed as a fantastic display. This would provide a large screen image for viewing all the time, not just at night with the lights down. It would also handle HDR signals (and Dolby Vision) far better than a projector at any price could.

 

As this was a significantly cheaper upgrade option, I really considered it, but ultimately decided I would miss the truly large-screen experience of my 115-inch, 2.35 aspect screen.

 

We use the projector almost exclusively for movie watching, and having nearly double the screen real estate makes a massive difference, and is far more engaging than a direct-view set, even one at 85 inches. (Now, had the 98-inch 

Sony Z-series TV been a tenth of its price—selling for $7,000 instead of $70,000—that probably would have been my pick.)

 

So, having made the decision to stick with front projection, I had to settle on a model. I had a few criteria going in that helped narrow the search.

 

First, I wanted it to be true, native 4K resolution on the imager, not using any pixel shifting or “wobulation” to “achieve 4K resolution on screen.” This ruled out many of the DLP models from companies like Epson and Optoma. Nothing against them, I just wanted native 4K.

 

Second, it had to have a throw distance that worked with my current mounting location. Actually, this isn’t much of a concern anymore, and most modern projectors have an incredibly generous adjustment range on their lens.

 

Third, I needed a model that offered lens memory so it would work with my multi-aspect screen (92 inches when masked down to 16:9, and 115 inches when opened to full 2.35:1.) This allows the projector to zoom, shift, and focus for a variety of screen sizes at the push of a single button, and is crucial for multi-aspect viewing.

 

Fourth, it needed to integrate with my Control4 automation system. Sure, I could cobble together a driver, but it would never offer integration as tight as one that was meant to work with that particular model.

 

Finally, it had to fit my $10,000 budget. Unfortunately, this ruled out brands like Barco and DPI. I was super impressed with Barco’s Bragi projector, but, alas, it doesn’t fit in my tax bracket.

 

Basically, with these criteria, my search was narrowed to two companies: JVC and Sony. And primarily to two projectors: The JVC DLA-NX7 (shown at the top of the page) and the Sony VPL-VW695ES. (Were my budget higher, I would have added the JVC DLA-NX9 to that list, which has the primary advantage of a much higher quality, all-glass lens, but it was more than double the price. And while the less expensive JVC DLA-NX5 also met all my criteria, the step up NX7 offers more bang for just a little more buck.)

 

So, I did what a lot of people do prior to making a big technology purchase: Research. I read a ton of forum posts, read all of the reviews on both models, and watched video comparisons. I also reached out to a couple of professional reviewers and calibrators who had actually had hands-on time with both models.

 

The CEDIA Expo is a place where manufacturers often launch new projectors, so this past month’s show coincided perfectly with my hunt. Since both companies had models that had been launched at CEDIA 2018, I was eager to see what announcements they might have regarding replacements or upgrades. Alas, there were no model changes, which, in a way, can be a good thing, since it means both models are now proven, have had any early bugs worked out with firmware updates, and  are readily available and shipping.

 

I really hoped to check out both projectors at the show, but, unfortunately, no one was exhibiting either. (Apparently, CEDIA is not the place to show your sub-$10,000 models.)

 

Ultimately, two announcements at the show swayed me to pull the trigger on the JVC. First, the product manager I spoke with said the price was going up by $1,000 on October 1, so buying sooner than later would actually save me money. But more importantly, JVC introduced new firmware at CEDIA that would add a Frame Adapt HDR function that will dynamically analyze HDR10 picture levels frame by frame, automatically adjusting the brightness and color to optimize HDR performance for each frame.

 

Projectors historically have a difficult time handling HDR signals, and this firmware is designed to produce the best HDR images from every frame. This used to be achieved by using a high-end outboard video processor such as a Lumagen Radiance Pro, but that would add thousands of dollars to the system. When I saw this new technology demonstrated in JVC’s booth, I was all in.

 

In my next post, I’ll let you know if the purchase was worth it. (Spoiler: It totally was!)

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.

It’s Time to Update My Theater

 Some views of my home theater space, pre upgrades

photos by Jim Raycroft

The first home theater component I ever purchased was a subwoofer back in 1995. It was a big 15-inch black cube Definitive Technology model that I drove into San Francisco to buy after researching everything I could find for weeks in all the enthusiast magazines at the time. From there, I bought a Yamaha digital surround decoder and Dolby Digital RF demodulator

for a laserdisc player, connected it all to some speakers and a 25-inch Proton tube TV, and voila! I had my first home theater system.

 

It didn’t have a lot of style or elegance, and it certainly wasn’t luxury, but I was on the cutting edge of 5.1-channel technology, and it sounded better than anything my friends had.

 

And I was hooked.

 

Over the years, my system has seen a lot of upgrades, most frequently in the preamp/processor section, as I chase the technology dragon of trying to stay current with surround formats, channel counts, and HDMI processing. (For the record, the 13.1-channel Marantz AV8805 is currently serving processing duties in my rack, and doing a very fine job of it, thank you.)

 

Speakers get upgraded the least often, as a good speaker rarely stops sounding good, and, if cared for, rarely breaks. Sources come and go as technology improves. Gone are the VCR, and the LaserDisc and DVD players. Currently in use are a Kaleidescape Strato and M500 player, Samsung UHD Blu-ray, Apple 4KTV, Dish Hopper 3, and Microsoft Xbox One.

 

Lying in the upgrade middle ground is my system display. Long gone is the 25-inch Proton, having been replaced by a 35-inch Mitsubishi, then a 61-inch Samsung DLP, then a 60-inch Pioneer Elite Plasma. Currently, my primary display is a Sony XBR-65X930D, a 65-inch 4K LED. However, it’s a D-

generation, and Sony is now on G models, so it might be due for replacement next year.

 

One device in my system that has never been upgraded is my video projector.

 

I always wanted a truly big-screen, cinematic experience, and this meant a projector and screen. So I purchased the best projector Marantz made (the VP-11S2, shown below) back in 2008, along with a Panamorph anamorphic lens and motorized 

sled system. This setup fires onto a Draper MultiView screen that has masking to show either a 92-inch 16:9 image or a 115-inch 2.35:1 Cinemascope image.

 

The first time we dropped the lights, powered on the projector, and lowered the screen, I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have this amazing system in my own home, and we essentially stopped going out to the movies.

 

I continued to feel that way about my projection system for years. It 

It's Time to Update My Theater

provided an amazing, truly cinematic experience that made me happy literally every time we used it. And use it we did, generally watching two to three movies per week on the big screen.

 

But then, technology moved on.

 

Principally, HDMI went from 1.4 to 2.0, resolution went from 1080p to 4K, and video went from SDR to HDR.

 

While the Marantz still worked, it was now by far the weakest link in my theater chain, and it no longer supported any of the sources we wanted to watch. In fact, just watching a Blu-ray on the system via our Kaleidescape meant going into the Kaleidescape’s Web setup utility and telling the system to “dumb itself down” to output HDMI 1.4 signals. A huge hassle.

 

So, a couple of years ago, we basically stopped using the projector at all.

 

But, some things changed in the projector world at the recent CEDIA Expo in Denver that inspired me to finally make the upgrade plunge, and that’s what I’ll dive into in my next post!

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.