Tech

What Did We Learn from the “GoT” Debacle?

What Did We Learn from the "GoT" Debacle?

The impenetrable darkness of “The Long Night”

It was a simpler time before April 28, 2019. The Khaleesi was going to be the savior of Westeros, Disney was on their way to owning all of us, and Joe’s Pizza in the Village had the best slice. While two of those things might still be true, they don’t matter anymore because we now live in a post-“The Long Night” world, a world where terms like H.264 and megabits per second are no longer muttered about only on tech blogs but discussed out in the open around water coolers (is that still a thing?) Now that the dust has settled a bit from the Game of Thrones kerfuffle, what are some of the things that came to light out of the darkness of that long night?

 

 

Lesson 1:  Public Enemy No. 1—Compression

If you haven’t realized it from the discussion here at Cineluxe over the past month, compression has become a hot-button issue—for good reason. GoT fans were confronted with Lego-like picture artifacts for the duration of the 82-minute “Long Night” episode, and they’re not happy about it.

 

While the video quality of home viewing has increased dramatically over the past few years with 4K UHD becoming more mainstream and the latest TVs allowing for great-looking HDR and far more vibrant colors, compression hasn’t always kept up. For years, H.264 (also called AVC) was king, and really, still is. It can compress video all the way up to 8K resolution, and has been tweaked to include support for wide color gamut and HDR, and to produce smaller file sizes. But it just can’t create files small enough for efficient delivery through the current pipelines without leading to the kinds of problems that were amply on display in “The Long Night.”

 

You probably read Andrew Robinson’s take on H.265 (aka HEVC) as the next step forward. With H.265, a 1080p signal only requires a 3 Mbps bitrate as opposed to H.264’s 6 Mbps. And a 4K signal needs less than half of H.264’s bitrate—15 vs. 32 

What Did We Learn from the "GoT" Debacle?

Mbps. But, as Andrew mentioned, not everything is currently equipped to handle and decode H.265-compressed video. In addition to needing significantly fewer bits per second, H.265 does a better job with motion compensation.

 

I should stress that the Mbps numbers listed above are truly bare 

minimums, and at those rates you’ll likely see image issues. Netflix, which uses H.265 for all of its 4K content, recommends a minimum 25 Mbps connection for streaming.

 

Speaking of Netflix, they’re at the forefront of experimenting with new, better codecs for 4K streaming. As a result, you can expect to hear some new acronyms like VP9 and AV1 in the coming years. AV1 in particular promises to deliver HEVC-level quality while using even fewer bits.

 

 

Lesson 2:  It’s (probably) not your TV

The cinematographer for “The Long Night,” Fabian Wagner, found himself on the defensive after the uproar and, in addition to (rightly) blaming HBO’s compression, also blamed viewers and their TVs. “A lot of the problem is that a lot of people don’t know how to tune their TVs properly,” he told Wired UK.

 

Technically, that is correct. The vast majority of people don’t know how to tune their TVs properly. Luckily, they don’t really need to. Most TVs over the past couple years priced more than $500 come out of the factory looking really good and don’t

necessarily need to be calibrated. (But I would still recommend calibration for any mid-to-high-end TV, to make sure you’re getting that absolute most out of it.)

 

One thing Mr. Wagner brought up that has some merit is people’s tendency to watch TV with their lights on. Even minimal lighting can have an impact on your ability to see shadow detail in a darkly filmed scene, especially if you have an older LCD TV with mediocre black levels. So one quick fix for a murky picture might be to just turn off any extra light in you room.

 

If you want to make sure your TV is in the best viewing mode—and you haven’t had it calibrated—don’t, for the love of Werner Herzog, ever put it in Vivid (aka “Torch”) mode. Go for Cinema, or Calibrated, or Movie. These will generally have the best color accuracy and contrast/backlight/ dimming zones setting, and won’t include the bane of video reviewers everywhere—the “soap opera effect.”

 

 

Lesson 3:  The apps you use (and the device they’re on) matter

You can expect the quality and user experience to differ from one app to the next, since they’re all made by different companies that generally aren’t keen on sharing development secrets. But there can even be performance issues with the same app on different platforms—as Dennis Burger recently described in his article about the Netflix app. I have to admit, that revelation was a bit of a shock to me. The idea that a seemingly identical app could perform vastly differently through different platforms was a big surprise. Some variation is to be expected, but I would have thought it would be more of an academic argument than a bunch of extra artifacts on one app version over the other. Trying the Netflix app on a different platform could help clear up any artifacts you might be experiencing.

 

But this piece is really about how HBO screwed up. And if you’re watching HBO through your cable or satellite service, you’re dependent on the hardware they provide, which might not be offering state-of-the-art resolution support. For instance, if you haven’t replaced you DirecTV HDR in the past couple years, it might still top out at 1080i resolution. Signing into the HBO GO app (or the NOW app, if you’re streaming only) should guarantee 1080p support.

 

 

Lesson 4:  Choose your viewing window wisely

“The Long Night” had 17.8 million viewers when it initially aired over all delivery media, including cable, satellite, HBO NOW, and HBO GO. That was a new record for HBO, so 

congratulations are in order, I suppose. But with such a concurrent draw on the servers, the quality of the stream suffered. This severely exacerbated the already present compression artifacts, to the point of making the show unwatchable—hence the Twitter eruption that night and the next day. I watched portions of the episode a few more times that week after the viewing tide subsided to see if there was any improvement, and while the artifacts weren’t gone, they were much less obvious.

Lesson 5:  Aesthetic choices matter too

Why did the Internet hordes descend on Fabian Wagner? It’s rare that a cinematographer needs to come out from behind the camera to defend himself, but that episode was dark—intentionally so. It was his conception (in collaboration with the director) that was on the screen, after all, and people were upset they couldn’t see it. A hugely anticipated battle scene where you can’t see anything? Preposterous. In contrast, take a look at another famous nighttime battle—The Battle of Helm’s Deep from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. That place was lit up like a Christmas tree—or, more accurately, a huge amount of blue light that gave the feel of the moon. The whole sequence was masterfully shot.

 

That doesn’t mean “The Long Night” was shot wrong, just different. In fact, the move toward really dark seems to be a bit of a recent trend. In the spring of 2018, a little movie called Solo: A Star Wars Story was released. The cinematographer, Bradford Young, used a low-light approach much like Fabian Wagner’s to accentuate the shadows and grime of Han Solo’s earlier 

What Did We Learn from the "GoT" Debacle?

Solo: A Star Wars Story—into the darkness of the Maw

years. Complaints on the Internet were everywhere (for a Star Wars movie, go figure . . .) because many theaters, even in major markets, weren’t properly calibrated, which led to a lack of shadow detail. I happily didn’t run into that issue here in Los Angeles, and now regularly use Solo as a test disc for the gritty sabacc scenes and the darkness of the Falcon flying through the Maw.

 

 

What’s next?

Now that “The Longest Night” has brought the conversation out into the open, everything is solved and we don’t need to worry about encountering these problems ever again, right? Nope. Not by a long shot. It’s wonderful that we’re talking about what went wrong, but it’s going to take a while for the technology and the people who implement it to catch up.

 

Even though the first version of H.264 was completed in 2003, it didn’t really achieve widespread adoption until a decade later. The HEVC standard was ratified in 2013, and Netflix implemented it for 4K delivery in 2016, but it’s only recently begun to catch on elsewhere. If all of that is any indication, AV1 (which was released last year) won’t be in wide use for at least a couple of years.

 

And low-light cinematography isn’t going away, nor should it. But for HBO and their use of H.264, it does mean that grayscale banding in dark scenes will continue to be apparent. (We’ve already seen it again at the end of Episode 2 of HBO’s Chernobyl.)

 

The most we can do is make sure our TVs aren’t in Vivid mode, the lights are all turned off, and we’re using the best version of our streaming app we can.

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.

Will Enthusiasts Ever Learn to Love Smart Tech?

Yesterday, I posted a video on my YouTube channel discussing the smart speaker revolution, and why they and other powered smart devices are the absolute future of specialty AV. I knew this stance was going to be “controversial,” for if there is one thing enthusiasts love, it’s their equipment. In truth, promise an enthusiast an ounce of style and/or convenience and you’re bound to get a stern talkin’ to. Much in the way our grandparents always had to walk up hill in the snow in

order to get to school or work, audiophile and home theater enthusiasts believe giant amps, countless wires, and complicated subroutines are simply what’s necessary in order to achieve, well, something.

 

If you’re triggered by the thought of your precious amplifier, preamp, DAC, or even display having to grow up and work for its supper in 2019, then I would encourage you to stop reading, for what I’m going to say next is bound to put you in the fetal position. You’ve been warned.

 

Wires are stupid.

 

It’s 2019, people. We have self-driving cars. We have super computers in our pockets and augmented reality that can virtually drop us or an object anywhere we want in an instant. Yet there are those among us who believe an argument over Class AB

Will Enthusiasts Ever Learn to Love Smart Tech?

Bowers & Wilkins’ Formation Duo (above) and Bass (below) smart speakers

Will Enthusiasts Ever Learn to Love Smart Tech?

versus Class D amps is relevant. When did home theater—a hobby supposedly made up of technology enthusiasts—turn into The Antiques Roadshow?

 

Case in point, in my video I talked about a month-long experiment I’m trying whereby I’m going to only enjoy my music and movies via some form of wireless connection and/or connectivity to see if it’s possible. This means my display, a 75-inch Sony X950G UltraHD TV, is serving as the primary hub for a 2.1-channel entertainment system. My speakers—Bowers & Wilkins’ new Formation Duo and Formation Bass—are “connected” to the Sony via a Bluetooth connection.

 

In other words, I’m forgoing a receiver or processor, power amp, and all necessary cables needed between them. I am a vinyl enthusiast, so not wanting to go without my beloved records, I opted for a turntable with Bluetooth capability as well. Total number of cables . . . four. Total number of devices to enjoy said entertainment . . . four. Four down from nine. Had I gone with Bowers & Wilkins’ Formation soundbar, we’d be talking about three components total!

 

A day into the experiment, and already I’m feeling like going back to the “old” way of doing things is going to be difficult. It likely will be as difficult for me to give up as it is

proving to be for my audience to accept. For the mere thought of not being able to pontificate about the pros and cons of buying a new amplifier or processor is proving too much for some. Nevertheless, what I’m describing is without question the future of everything AV, which begs the question: Are the enthusiasts currently charged with this industry’s survival going to be the ones who ultimately kill it when they prove incapable of embracing change?

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.

If Your Stream Looks Bad, Don’t Blame Netflix

If Your Stream Looks Bad, Don't Blame Netflix

We all take for granted that buying a better video display will result in a better home cinema experience. Ditto speakers and sound processors and amps and control systems and so on. But for some reason, even in an era where streaming has pretty much taken over as the dominant source of AV entertainment, we talk about services like Netflix as if the hardware delivering them doesn’t really matter.

 

This realization has been at the forefront of my mind recently, as I’ve had discussions with videophiles on Facebook and in the comments section of Home Theater Review about the quality of the streamed video experience. Even folks with roughly the same internet speeds as me, similar quality home networks, and comparable displays seem to be watching a wholly different Netflix than the one I enjoy.

 

This absolutely baffled me for the longest time. My first inclination was to write it off as pure bias. Or maybe even ignorance. But then I started asking about a variable we videophiles rarely discuss when we talk about streaming: “How, exactly, are you accessing Netflix?” (By the way, I’m using “Netflix” a bit like “Kleenex” here, as a synecdoche for high-performance streaming

video across the board. You could just as easily plug in your high-quality streaming service of choice, be it Vudu or Amazon or what have you. But none of this necessarily applies to lower-quality streaming apps like CBS All Access, etc.)

 

What I found is that almost none of the commenters who bemoan the quality of Netflix watch it the same way I do, via Roku Ultra. Some use cable or satellite boxes. Some rely on the smart apps built into their TVs. Some even have their laptops plugged into their TVs via HDMI.

 

This makes a difference. Way more than you would think. Way more than I would have ever imagined until I actually sat down for some exhaustive comparisons between the exact same Netflix programming streamed to the exact same display.

 

The first thing I discovered is just how substantially different loading times are between devices. I did all of this testing on my 75-inch UHD TV, installed just above my credenza, which houses my Roku Ultra, Dish Network satellite receiver, Kaleidescape Strato, and my other AV components. All are plugged into the same enterprise-grade, gigabit Cisco network switch, and as such have access to the exact same level of connectivity. If you’re a numbers nerd, you can check the “Netflix by the Numbers” sidebar below for a breakdown of exactly how long it took each device to load the Netflix app (after a hardware reboot), begin playing a title, and reach full UHD resolution and full bandwidth.

None of the above is even slightly shocking. What was shocking, though, is just how different Netflix looked via these different devices. Cueing up my recent favorite, Our Planet, I couldn’t help but notice that via the app built into my smart TV, this gorgeous nature doc looked a bit less gorgeous. A bit smeared. A bit noisy. A good bit less refined. A closer inspection of the screen revealed the cause: Numerous video compression artifacts, pretty much right in line with what all of the streaming detractors have been hollering at me about on Facebook.

If Your Stream Looks Bad, Don't Blame Netflix

Switching inputs to the Roku Ultra—again, via the same network connection—I was a little staggered to discover a complete lack of compression artifacts. Ignore, by the way, the subtle swirling bands of brightness fluctuation in the image below. Those are a result of moiré, a misalignment of pixels between my TV and the digital sensor in my cell phone.

 

Ignore too the slight softness in the upper row of leopard spots. This frame is from about half a second later than the one above, and as such the cheetah is moving a little faster, so there’s some motion blur. Also, don’t focus on differences in color—my smart TV’s integrated Netflix app is delivering the program in Dolby Vision, whereas my Roku Ultra only supports HDR10, but the camera in my smart phone can’t capture the gamut of either format. This image was also taken a few inches away from the TV, so what you’re seeing is a tiny fraction of the screen, blown up way larger than life-size.

If Your Stream Looks Bad, Don't Blame Netflix

But I think what’s clear here is that via the Roku Ultra, Our Planet’s image is virtually artifact-free. (As I mentioned in my review of the program, the only compression artifact I could find in the series’ entire run, at least from any reasonable seating distance, was about a second-and-a-half of very minor, almost imperceptible color banding in one early episode.)

 

I sent a series of images to colleague Andrew Robinson, since he and I have been discussing the geeky particulars of compression a lot recently. He immediately started poking holes in my methodology, at my request.

 

“Are you using the same picture profiles?”

 

Yup.

 

“Are you letting the smart TV buffer up to full resolution?”

 

Uh huh.

 

“Is your Roku running through the video processing of your AV preamp?”

 

Nope. I bypassed my preamp and ran the Roku straight into HDMI 1 on my TV.

 

I’ve done my darnedest to think of any reason why the same UHD/HDR program would look so rough via one streaming device and so flawless via another connected to the exact same network switch in the same room, running the same

streaming service from the same account. The only thing I can come up with is something Andrew touched on in his most recent piece about compression: HEVC (aka H.265), the video codec Netflix uses to deliver UHD/HDR, is very processor intensive. The cost of shoving such high-quality video through such a small pipe is that it makes the device on the playback end do a lot of heavy number crunching. And if those numbers can’t be crunched quickly enough, the results look a lot like the top screen shot above.

 

My guess here is that my Roku Ultra has the horsepower to deliver Netflix practically flawlessly, whereas my smart TV simply doesn’t. (And as gorgeous as the TV is with native 4K video, its middling performance in upscaling lower-resolution video to 4K is further evidence of this. That’s why I use my AV preamp to upscale video.)

 

And look, none of this is intended to be an advertisement for Roku. It may be my streaming player of choice because it consistently delivers the best performance for the streaming apps I use most. But I haven’t tested every single media streamer on the market to compare their video quality. (As our own John Sciacca has reported, though, even the highly lauded Apple TV 4K sometimes struggles on the audio front, and Andrew reported anecdotally in our most recent conversation that he noticed a significant improvement in video quality when he switched to Roku.) Nor do I have a representative sample of smart TVs to confirm that all of their built-in Netflix apps render such poor video performance.

NETFLIX BY THE NUMBERS

A nuts & bolts comparison of different streaming devices

 

I started with a simple load-time test, to see how long it would take for Netflix to launch to the user-select screen via devices that had just been powered up. All of these numbers are, of course, influenced by the speed of my internet connection (500 mbps) and the quality of my home network.

 

Roku Ultra  3.05 seconds on average from the time I selected the Netflix app until it loaded to the user-select screen

 

Dish Network Hopper DVR  4.41 seconds on average

 

Smart TV  22.38 seconds on average

 

I then selected three different Netflix programs (Our Planet, Love, Death + Robots, and Test Patterns) and ran numerous tests to find the average time it took each device to start playing the program after it was selected.

 

Roku Ultra  3.20 seconds on average, from the time I pressed Select until the program started playing

 

Dish Network Hopper  9.64 seconds on average

 

Smart TV  13.15 seconds on average

 

Lastly, I cued up the Test Patterns again, specifically the pattern labeled “YCBrCr 10-bit Linearity Chart: 3840×2160, 23.976fps.” This test gives you a bitrate meter at the top of the screen, and also displays playback resolution, which let me gauge how long it would take each device to reach full bandwidth (16 mbps) and full resolution/color bit-depth.

 

Roku Ultra  Played at UHD 10-bit immediately, although it did start at 12 megabits per second and took 4.15 seconds on average to report full 16 mbps bandwidth

 

Dish Network Hopper DVR  Switched from 1920 x 1080 resolution to full 3840 x 2160 resolution after 15.62 seconds on average, and took an average of 46.26 seconds to reach full 16 mbps bandwidth

 

Smart TV Took 47.18 seconds on average to switch from HD to UHD resolution, and didn’t reach full 16 mbps bandwidth until an average of 142.54 seconds into the stream

All I can say for certain is that the device you use to access Netflix and all of the other streaming services you subscribe to does matter. And it matters way more than I would have predicted just a week ago. Simply put, if you’re streaming Netflix in your luxury entertainment system and notice that the picture isn’t up to snuff, don’t blame Netflix. Start pointing your finger at the device you’re using to access the app.

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.

Compression Revisited

Compression Revisited

an example of the compression artifact “banding”

If my last post made it seem like I hate compression in all its forms, you’ll have to forgive me. The simple fact is, without compression, there would be no digital video. All video is compressed. Period. Usually at the point of capture, then for exhibition at movie theaters, then again for home video. Even movies or TV shows shot on film are later transferred to digital for post production and compressed. There is no way to have a moving digital image of any kind without some form of compression.

 

For years, most popular digital video formats and capture devices have used H.264 compression. You don’t need to know exactly what H.264 is or how it works. Suffice to say, it’s been with us for a long while now, and it’s time in the spotlight is 

running out. Why? Because we’re moving ever faster towards needing video that maintains H.264’s quality, but with much better efficiency.

 

Enter H.265 (aka HEVC). While the similarity in naming to H.264 suggests there’s not a big difference, H.265 is an entirely different beast and the next frontier in compression.

 

So why are we, or am I, suddenly talking about the AV industry’s most boring topic? Well, because of Game of Thrones naturally. What, did you think I was going to ramble on about a Starbucks cup? No, compression is a big deal now because winter came and for a lot of folks it didn’t come with a very spectacular view! Suddenly the whole world cares about compression, even if HBO and the show’s creators would rather blame it on our lack of calibration. (Don’t get me started.)

 

You see, compression not only allows for digital video to exist in the first place but  also allows for so many of us to enjoy it all at the same time. So when a lot of people all decided they wanted to see some dragon porn at precisely 8 p.m. on the same Sunday night, it took a fair amount of compression to make that happen. Why?

Because digital video files are huge—not to mention complicated. Not like, “Oh, you attached a big file to that last email,” but rather, “Damn, you know I don’t have unlimited data on my cellular plan!” They’re actually even larger than that. In many ways, we’ve long since taken digital video for granted, because prior to the Battle of Winterfell, the only people who really griped about compression were AV nerds like me.

Compression Revisited

For what it’s worth, even most AV nerds misrepresent compression. To give you an idea of what I mean, here’s a comparison between the amount of data it takes to deliver a 4K HDR stream via Netflix (or similar services) compared to the amount of data that UHD Blu-ray discs and your local cineplex deliver.

 

Most nerds will tell you (ignorantly) that the line between unacceptable 

garbage and perfect quality video falls somewhere between the bottom line and the middle one. That argument looks sort of silly, though, when you compare all of the above with truly uncompressed 4K video (see the chart below). The difference between the most and least compressed digital video you as a consumer can access is minuscule by comparison.

Compression Revisited

Again, this isn’t a conversation most people are having. But when everyone’s favorite cousin-f’ing dating show suddenly looks like The Lego Movie, well, people notice.

 

Mind you, as I indicated in my last post, I’m not saying there’s no such thing as too much compression. As we saw with Game of Thrones, you can reach the breaking point of any codec. But it’s not anyone’s fault. You see, we’ve only had digital video in a

meaningful way for a very short time. While digital video has existed since the ‘80s and ‘90s, it didn’t really become the standard until the early 2000s—which means we’ve covered a hell of a lot of technological ground in a very short time.

 

H.264 has been a godsend for digital video both at the capture and exhibition levels. But it does have limitations—not in quality, mind you. Believe it or not, H.264 is robust enough to handle even 8K-resolution files. No, H.264’s limitation is that for as compressed as it is, it actually doesn’t compress enough, so one of two things has to happen. Either you need to compress the files right up to their limit so more people can watch them on demand—thus the GoT debacle—or two, you need a new compression scheme. That’s where H.265 comes into play.

 

H.265 doesn’t really promise to do anything better than its predecessor, except retain the same or better quality but at a quarter of the size. That is all great news. But to get the same horsepower from an engine one quarter the size, you need to do some tweaking—or in this case, some fairly substantial computing.

 

As a result, not everything in today’s modern AV eco system is H.265 equipped, or compatible. Moreover, not every modern camera has H.265 capabilities despite being so-called state of the art.

 

In other words, we find ourselves in a bit of in-between state, a mixed bag of both H.264 and H.265 content and capability. That’s why, at the moment, Netflix can even rival silly spinning discs when it comes to picture quality, whereas other streaming providers, like HBO Go or HBO Now, can end up looking awful while eating up the same amount of your internet data.

 

The good news is that we’re marching ever forward toward the full-scale adoption of H.265—which, in theory, should make something like that disastrous Thrones episode a thing of the past. But until that day comes when we’re all able to get on the same page, more and more of us may have to come to grips with compression and why it is both the lifeblood of digital video and its achilles heel.

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.

“Game of Thrones” Sheds Darkness on the Real Issue

"Game of Thrones" Sheds Darkness on the Real Issue

Hey, did you rage tweet after Episode 3 of Game of Thrones because, well, you couldn’t see it? Did you blame the filmmakers and HBO for an experience that was tantamount to trying to watch porn at 3 a.m. through lines of static like when you were a kid? Did you?

 

We’ve all come to the same conclusion in the weeks that have followed, and that is that compression is the villain here, not HBO, not TV manufacturers, and, of course, not us the viewers. It’s compression’s fault. To which I say good. I’m glad this happened because maybe now we can have an honest conversation about the issue of compression.

 

I feel like I’ve been stuck on an island these past 15 or so years, droning on about compression while the rest of the AV world ran full steam ahead into HD, then 3D, and now 4 and 8K. HD, 4K, 8K all sound sexy, and like the exterior of a car they’ve

marketed to get your ass in the showroom. So, if 4K is the body, compression is the engine, and, well, she’s a two-cylinder with some rather old horses under the hood.

 

Nothing makes or breaks a digital video presentation more than compression. Before those physical-media stalwarts start typing See, I told you so, may I remind them that their precious silver coasters are compressed to shit just like the rest of today’s digital video feeds. Now, I can hear them saying, Yeah, but discs are less compressed. True, but the argument is weak, for discs can vary wildly in their levels of compression (just like streaming). Moreover, no one wants your silly discs, so it’s all moot.

 

Getting back to the topic at hand, compression and streaming (i.e. the video format that will ultimately “win”). Presently most video is compressed using the H.264 format, which back in the day was fine—hell, it was great!

 

But when H.264 revolutionized digital video, it mostly had to contend with SD content and all that it entailed. Now, that same compression scheme is being pressed into service in a radically different world. It is because of compression that the promise of 4K—hell, HD—has been curbed over the years. Did you know the HD spec encompassed 10-bit color and a larger color space too? These are not 4K-exclusive selling points, but rather bits of information and performance left on the AV battlefield due to compression and our collective digital eco-system being unable to handle the demands of more.

 

So, what did we do?

Naturally, we gave poor old H.264 more to choke on, because no one understands compression, only what it looks like. They don’t want to accept why it’s happening, they just want to be mad at it. Thankfully H.265 is here, and is slowly being adopted, only it’s very hardware/processor intensive, which makes it expensive to implement.

 

H.265 promises higher quality at lower file sizes. For example, if 1 hour of content using H.264 comes to 4 GB, then H.265 should give you equal or better quality but with a file of only 1 GB. These are not exact figures, but rather an illustration I hope is easy enough for everyone to understand. With smaller file sizes, the hope is that it’s then easier for feeds to stream faster, further, and with more consistency, thus resulting in (hopefully) a better viewing experience. Of course this is all predicated upon the notion that the hardware at either end can do some of the heavy lifting itself, as H.265 is more complex than H.264. Thankfully we’re getting there, and will ultimately get there in the end. It just takes time.

 

So the next time you turn on Netflix or HBO Go and watch whatever drama turn into The Lego Movie, don’t get upset. Know that it’s happening because once again, we demanded to run before we learned to walk.

—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.

What Makes a Good Control System?

What Makes a Good Control System?

A good control system is the backbone of any high-end home entertainment system, whether that system resides in a dedicated home theater space or in a multipurpose media room. No matter how great the picture quality, how immersive the audio, how effective the lighting control, the experience falls apart if the control system falls short. If people don’t enjoy operating the system, they won’t enjoy using the system.

 

But what makes a good control system? I pondered this question recently as I reviewed a pair of universal remote controls sold directly through retail channels. Both remotes shared a common goal: Simplicity. There was simplicity in the design of the remotes themselves. Both had a minimalist layout, stripping out a lot of the buttons found on your typical universal remote to produce a clean, unintimidating look. And there was simplicity in the setup process, making it as easy and clear as possible for the average consumer to program the remote to switch between activities and control a variety of components.

 

Simplicity seems like a good goal, but in the world of system control, it’s definitely possible to make something too simple. While I found both remotes easy to set up and pleasant to use, neither could perform all of the advanced functions or accommodate all the use cases I needed. They were great for controlling my basic living-room system, which consists of a 

TV, streaming media player, gaming console, and soundbar. But when asked to handle my more advanced home theater setup, built around an AV receiver and usually including some lighting control, they were just too simplistic to get the whole job done.

 

The trick in system control is finding the sweet spot between simplicity and functionality. You need a system robust enough to handle anything and everything you might want to do, but also simple enough that anyone and everyone in the house can use it. And that sweet spot is different for each person, which is exactly why universal remotes have an inherent disadvantage compared with control platforms like Control4 or Crestron. A universal remote locks you in to someone else’s idea of what’s

What Makes a Good Control System?

Logitech Harmony Elite universal remote, with hub and app

intuitive, both in the setup process (which has to be simple and scaled down enough that anyone can do it) and in the remote design. Sure, you can reassign buttons here and there, maybe choose some specific functions to show on the small touchscreen at the top of some remotes, but for the most part you have to work within a one-size-fits-all grid.

 

The Harmony remote brand revolutionized the direct-to-consumer universal remote by making it so much easier for the average person to program complex macros and present them as simple activities anyone would understand. But how many times have you programmed a Harmony remote to work exactly the way you want it to, sat back all pleased with yourself, and then watched a family member pick up the remote and stare at it blankly, uncertain what to do next? It has happened to me a lot.

 

And that’s just AV control. If you want to add elements like complex lighting scenes, shade adjustment, and temperature control, a universal remote simply isn’t built to handle that load.

What Makes a Good Control System?

In the world of luxury home cinema, you don’t need universal control. You need personalized control. That’s really what you’re paying for when you choose to step up to Crestron or Savant or Control4. You’re getting a team that’s been trained to perform all that complex, behind-the-scenes programming so you don’t have to, and you’re getting a system that’s flexible enough to accommodate your idea of what’s intuitive.

 

You can get the handheld remote with a preset button layout, but you can also get the touchscreen controller, 

with fully customizable screens in which the page layouts and button names make sense to you. You can add customized in-wall keypads to quick-launch lighting/room scenes right when you walk in the door. It’s all about putting the right control options in the right place for you and your household—and you should absolutely include the whole family in the discussions with your custom installer.

 

Of course, just like in the world of DIY control, an advanced control system is only as good as the people who set it up, so don’t treat this step like an afterthought. Do some research on your local installers and what control systems they’re trained to program. Check references. Ask questions. Be involved. After all, what’s the point in paying more for personalized control if you don’t take the time to truly personalize it?

  —Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.

How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing

How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing

Like most of you, I’ve never put a tremendous amount of thought into the work involved in bringing a film from movie theaters to the home. Sure, I know the video needs to be compressed—more so for streaming-video services than for discs or high-bandwidth downloads, the likes of which you’d buy from the Kaleidescape store. But beyond that basic understanding, the process was a bit of a mystery to me.

 

Never one to let an interesting mystery go unsolved, I sat down with Kaleidescape’s Luke O’Brien, Director of Content Operations, and Mike Kobb, Principal Engineer, User Experience, to pick their brains about the process. I discovered that, in many ways, it’s a far more complicated undertaking than I could have imagined—mainly because there isn’t really

How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing

Luke O’Brien and Mike Kobb

a consistent pipeline from big screen to home screens. Much of that could probably be attributed to the fact that the home video market is ever-evolving, and that what Kaleidescape is doing—delivering high-bandwidth, pixel-perfect presentations of movies, TV shows, and documentaries—is unique in this era of highly compressed streaming.

 

In short, the files Kaleidescape receives from the various studios vary quite a bit. But they all fall under the umbrella of “mezzanine files”—and if you’ve never heard that term before, you’re probably not alone. To put it simply, mezzanine files are lightly compressed video files that 

are usually indistinguishable from fully uncompressed video. And by “lightly compressed,” I mean that your average movie might arrive in a file that’s ten times the size of a normal UHD Blu-ray disc.

 

So, how does Kaleidescape shrink that amount of data to a file small enough to be downloaded to your hard drive, but not so small that it compromises the viewing experience? How do they ensure that the image you see on your screen looks just as good as—if not better than—the master files delivered by the movie studios? That was my first question.

—Dennis Burger

 

 

Mike Kobb  I think one of the things that is a huge asset to Kaleidescape is the human element that goes into preparing this content. This is done by people who take a lot of pride and put a lot of effort into making stuff look really good and ensuring that everything is right. They sweat the details. It’s not, and I doubt that it will ever be, an operation where a digital file shows up from a studio and gets tossed into the hopper and completely automated machines grind it up and out comes the end product.

 

Dennis Burger  How long does that process take? I mean, let’s take a recent mainstream theatrical movie as an example. Let’s say, Captain Marvel, which I think it’s safe to say is being prepped for home video as we speak. How long does it take you, from the time you’re given whatever files you receive from the studio, to the point where it’s prepared and ready to be released once that digital release date hits?

 

Luke O’Brien  Well, we’re constantly doing things to try and make that process tighter and cleaner and quicker, to shorten the windows. And we have a whole toolset we’re working to go wide with this quarter, which I think will speed up this process significantly. But as it stands right now, the average title takes several business days.

 

MK  Yeah, it takes us about two business weeks to prepare a movie.

 

LO  And we’ve done it faster, in cases where we’ve needed to. And we’ve done it much slower in cases where we’ve run into problems that needed to be addressed. But if we don’t think it’s good enough, we just won’t release it. There’s a quality line we have to defend with our products. And mind you, I don’t consider anything in that state forever. There are files that we haven’t been happy where we landed with them, and I consider them to be still works in progress. And no, I’m not going to tell you what they are. But it will be a happy surprise when they show up on the service looking as great as they should when they’re on the Kaleidescape System.

 

DB  This was honestly a bit of a surprise for me, and I think it would be for many people who just assumed that in this era of 4K, Kaleidescape simply got a copy of the UHD Blu-ray disc, ripped it to your hard drives, put it on your servers, and delivered exactly the same bits that are on the disc via the internet. It’s nothing like that, though, is it?

 

LO  No. The files we get from the studios are raw files in a variety of formats, depending on the studio. Some of them are going to be ProRes files, some of them are going to be MOV files, some of them are going to be IMFs (Interoperable Mastering Format). There’s a variety of base container files they use to send those over, mostly because these files are 

How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing

ready wildly in advance of when disc files are ready and we’re really aggressive about making sure we’re always hitting the first possible date a digital release can be made available to our customers. So, we need to receive these files in a manner that a lot of the other places in the digital market do take them.

 

But we’re handling them differently, because obviously our delivery method isn’t to create something designed to be pumped out and compressed and uncompressed to varying degrees for streaming. We actually had to create a way to take the base files they give us and to create a Kaleidescape Container File: Something that is a beautiful package that will serve as

the movie on the customer’s system, that they would then download and have locally to watch and enjoy.

 

DB  The process obviously still involves some careful compression, though. Do you also do your own HDR grading? I ask because I’ve noticed that your HDR sometimes looks more cinematic, more subtle than what I’ve seen on other home video releases.

 

LO  We don’t do our own HDR grade. We don’t do that level of file detail correction.

 

MK  We’re not looking to make any changes to the way the filmmakers intended that movie to look. We always strive to get it to be as proper a representation of that as possible.

 

DB  So, what would account for the subtle differences I saw in, say, Incredibles 2, where other HDR home video releases seemed to focus more on stark contrasts, but the Kaleidescape HDR presentation seemed to err on the side of subtlety and richness of shadow detail?

 

LO  Well, we do have a transcode process that we take the files and run them through. And that will not be identical to what will come through when any other person puts their files together. One thing I can say is that you’re talking about a studio that’s very protective of their property, and between us and the studio there’s often an elaborate process to getting our titles qualified.

 

DB  One of the things that prompted me to want to have this conversation was the Kaleidescape presentation of Blue

Planet II. I thought your HDR presentation of that series was just utterly stunning. Does a series like that—a mini-series that was created for broadcast on BBC, rather than a theatrical presentation—go through a different process than your typical movie release?

 

LO  Oof. That one’s a little bit different, because there are a lot more pieces in the supply chain on that particular title, because it was created for UK television presentation. That was really the intended final target. So, we worked with BBC and BBC worked with some external processing houses to have a regraded, transformed file. But they work with them to make sure they’re happy with all the color corrections as everything goes through to get it to a file format that we can take and transcode and deliver to our customers. But on this end, it just goes through our normal process.

 

I love the way that particular title looks as well, and I want to give Kaleidescape credit for absolutely everything I can. But really, you have to give BBC credit for making such a beautiful, spectacular original source file. I don’t know what process it went through elsewhere, but I do think it looks stunning on our service.

 

DB  Would you say the process of something like that, which was intended for TV broadcast, ends up being more complicated or less so than your typical blockbuster movie?

 

LO  I think the important thing to consider here is that we have a human review process. So, it’s certainly more time-intensive. I don’t know if it’s more complicated, but that series is, like, the equivalent of eight movies. It’s 400 minutes of someone’s time 

How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing

Examples of video flaws that can appear during the transcoding process.

and a lot of Visine. 800 minutes, actually, because every episode requires two passes—because it will get an initial pass through our tools, and anything we see that we’re not happy with triggers a second pass, so it can be finalized and we can deliver it to our customers.

 

DB  What kinds of things might trigger a second pass?

 

LO  It’s all the stuff that you might imagine could conceivably bother you if you were watching this program on a reference-quality screen: Is there any sense that the black levels aren’t staying true? Is there any banding in the transitions of colors? Is the brightness fading properly when it should? Is there any macroblocking that 

shows up? And if any of that shows up, we work with proprietary tools to make sure we’re filtering out anything that’s not in the source file, that was introduced in the process of preparing it for public consumption.

 

MK  One other thing to consider, getting back to our earlier discussion about Kaleidescape versus discs: One area where we have some latitude is that the optical disc has whatever capacity it has, so when the disc is authored, they’re working with that limitation. We don’t have that limitation. We don’t have to conform our releases to something that could fit on an optical disc. We don’t have to worry about adding a second disc for bonus features. So, if a particular movie or TV series benefits from having higher-bandwidth encoding than a disc would allow, we can do that.

 

LO  Yeah, the result is that our files are big. They’re big because there’s all of that delicious, juicy information stacked up and stored in each one of those files.

 

MK  Exactly. But you know when you’re watching one of our premium movies that someone actually took the time to go over it with a fine-tooth comb and make sure that it’s right.

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.

Even Streaming is Better than Most Movie Theaters

We’ve been talking a lot here lately about how a home entertainment system—built with the right components, carefully installed, and properly calibrated—can now deliver an experience that surpasses that of most commercial movie theaters. There’s this persistent and niggling perception in the home theater enthusiast community, though, that achieving such a seemingly lofty goal means that you must eschew streaming formats like Netflix, Amazon Instant, and Vudu altogether.

Simply put, this is silly.

 

And mind you, I’m not saying that such streaming formats are perfect. Consider the fact that your typical 4K movie, which is only compressed down to roughly 250 megabits per second at your local cineplex, is squeezed into a 15- or 20-megabit-per-second pipe for Vudu streaming. It’s pretty obvious that something is lost along the information superhighway. (A UHD Blu-ray release or Kaleidescape download, by the way, runs at more along the lines of 60 to 100 mbps).

I’m merely arguing that when viewed in the right environment, on the right system, the quality of the experience you can get via streaming can far exceed the quality of most movie theaters.

 

How is that possible given the above admission about compression? It all boils down to the way our eyes prioritize certain elements of an image over others. In short, the most important aspects of an image, at least to our eyes and our brains, are black level and dynamic range. The closer the darkest parts of an image are to true black, and the more steps there are between the darkest and lightest areas of an image (to a point), the more pop and impact an image has.

Streaming Better Than Movie Theaters

Need an example? Here’s a screen grab from the 2017 Pixar film Coco. The top image is a direct screen grab in all its high-contrast glory, with inky blacks and sparkling highlights. And this doesn’t even capture the high dynamic range you’d get from the Vudu stream of the film, with its enhanced sparkle and superior shadow detail.

 

The bottom image? I simply tweaked the contrast to make the blacks a little less black and the whites a little less white, in line with the limited brightness and dynamic range capabilities of most commercial cinema projectors and screens.

 

And you may be thinking to yourself, “What about the vibrancy of the colors? The glow of those magically lit leaves? The pop of Miguel’s jacket? Surely you toned down the colors of the bottom image a bit, too!”  Nope.

The perceived loss of saturation in the bottom image is simply a byproduct of tweaking the relationship between black and white, to illustrate the differences between a good home display and Screen 3 at Jim Bob’s Continental Cinema 16 down the street. That’s literally the only thing I manipulated here.

 

Actually, I lied. The top image was also subjected to roughly four times as much lossy compression as the bottom before I combined them and compressed them again.

And hey, maybe you don’t like the DayGlo color palette of Coco as it was originally intended to be seen. That’s valid. But what’s true of this example is true for any other film. Even via a streaming source like Vudu or Netflix at home, you’re getting an image that’s more vibrant, with truer-to-life contrasts and oodles more brightness. And at the end of the day, that’s far more important to our visual cortices.

 

And that’s not even taking into account the films these days that were color graded and mastered with the superior brightness and dynamic range of home displays in mind, with no thought given to the compromised theatrical experience. I’ve never seen a theatrical presentation that came close to capturing the contrast, shadow detail, and highlights of Netflix’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, just to name one example.

 

Maybe if more commercials theaters converted to Dolby Cinema, with its vivid laser projection and higher dynamic range, this argument would carry less weight. But of the 250 Dolby Cinema theaters in the US of A, the closest one to me is a two-and-a-half-hour drive away. So, for me, the very best commercial cinema experience is defined by the

limitations of IMAX Digital. And if you bother to venture out to your local cineplex with any frequency, the same is likely true for you, as well.

 

In his most recent post, our own John Sciacca made the point that Kaleidescape is the only sure-fire way of ensuring that you enjoy the absolute best picture and sound that you can at home, short of buying UHD Blu-ray discs. That’s absolutely true. No arguments from me on that point. If nothing less than audiovisual perfection will suffice, streaming hasn’t reached that level
. . . yet.

 

But if we’re simply talking about enjoying a better experience than you’re likely to get at your average local megaplex? I would argue that streaming, in the era of 4K and HDR, and when viewed on a properly installed and calibrated home display, has already crossed that Rubicon.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

How to Have Movie Theater-Quality Content at Home

Movie Theater-Quality Content at Home

While streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime are terrific content sources boasting some great original programming, and include a smorgasbord of virtually unlimited on-demand programming, they’re not a complete media solution for a luxury home theater. And while the picture and sound quality is often “good enough,” when the goal is to exceed the commercial cinema experience at home, you need to look elsewhere for high-resolution content.

 

For a better-than-movie-theater experience at home, no source component or streaming service can touch the Kaleidescape Strato movie player. Here are several reasons why a Strato in your system gives you the convenience of Internet delivery along with the best possible quality, performance, and experience. 

HIGH-QUALITY SELECTION

Many people associate streaming services like Netflix with having instant access to everything their heart desires, but the reality is far different. In fact, Netflix currently offers only seven titles for streaming from the AFI’s Top 100 Movies list.

 

The Kaleidescape Movie Store is the only online purveyor of Hollywood titles in the highest quality, with hundreds of titles in full 4K HDR with lossless Dolby Atmos or DTS:X audio soundtracks. Along with films from every major studio, it has relationships with more than 20 smaller, “boutique” studios. Customers also enjoy new releases sooner—often weeks before the movie is available on disc or for streaming. And many titles still in theaters can be “pre-ordered” to be automatically download once they’re released.

 

 

 

CONTENT ALWAYS AVAILABLE

Streaming services regularly lose content due to changing licensing agreements, so just because something is here today doesn’t mean it will be here tomorrow. Consider Walt Disney Studios’ announcement that it plans to remove all its movies from Netflix in favor of its upcoming Disney+ service. Also, streaming relies completely on a fast, constant Internet connection. If you’ve ever had to stop a movie in the middle because of some Internet, network, or “app-crash” issue, you know how frustrating it can be.

 

With a Kaleidescape system, users have instant access to all of their favorite content. A film downloaded to a Strato never disappears, never buffers, and always plays in the highest audio and video quality possible. Enjoying content on a Kaleidescape never depends on your Internet speed or connection.

 

 

PICTURE & SOUND QUALITY

Kaleidescape’s content looks and sounds better than streamed content because its downloads feature far more data—more than 100 Mbps compared to approximately 20 Mbps for streamers—and far less compression. This means there are no motion artifacts or banding, blacks are clean and noise-free, and colors are delivered in full 10-bit, BT.2020 colorspace glory (provided you’re watching a UHD/HDR-quality download).

 

Considering that most digital commercial cinema projectors only have 2K (2048 x 1080) resolution, they aren’t capable of the detail, contrast, or HDR quality of a high-end 4K 

home system. Kaleidescape’s 4K HDR titles paired with a quality video display can easily best the movie theater experience.

 

Many Kaleidescape titles also include reference-quality lossless Dolby Atmos and DTS:X soundtracks, which are far superior to the lossy Dolby Digital+ streams employed by streaming services. This allows its systems to deliver soundtracks that can compete with the finest commercial cinemas, and that surpass most commercial theaters, whose audio systems often haven’t seen a refresh in years. (Check out “Online Movies Audio Face-off” Part 1 and Part 2 for a direct comparison of streaming audio to Kaleidescape downloads.)

 

 

EASY TO BUILD A LIBRARY

Instead of being limited to the movies screening at your local theater, or roaming through the often old and outdated films available for streaming, Kaleidescape’s Movie Store offers a simple, intuitive way to access over 10,000 titles of content. With Strato’s onscreen store, users can add titles from the comfort of their favorite chair, or, by using a phone app, from anywhere in the world. With an ultra-fast, Gigabit-speed Internet connection, a new 4K HDR movie can be downloaded in as few as 15 minutes, meaning you could choose a movie before dinner and enjoy it during dessert!

Movie Theater-Quality Content at Home

CRAFT YOUR ENTERTAINMENT EXPERIENCE

Unlike streaming services, which are generally delivered via apps embedded in other devices like a Blu-ray player or Smart TV, Kaleidescape movies are served up from an enterprise-grade system purpose-built to play movies in the best possible quality. Kaleidescape includes a best-in-class 4k60 user interface for browsing and sorting movie collections of any size, and integrates with numerous third-party control systems.

 

Movies from the Kaleidescape Store feature metadata supplied by Kaleidescape’s Movie Guide team. Beyond basic information like synopsis, running time, rating, director, and actors, many titles have iconic scenes or songs bookmarked for easy access.

Pairing Kaleidescape with an advanced control system can be like having your own projectionist. The download can provide information to trigger lighting scenes, adjust shading or curtains, open or close screen masking based on aspect ratio, or numerous other automation commands based on things like starting or ending a movie.

 

Like a movie mixologist, Kaleidescape lets you create a demo “script” of favorite scenes, trailers, cover art, or songs to handcraft a warmup to your movie night. Get the crowd laughing with some choice comedy scenes or hype-up an action blockbuster with some of your favorite chases and explosions.

 

 

ADVANCED PARENTAL CONTROLS

A lot of streaming content isn’t suitable for viewers of all ages. Or, there might be something OK for a 13-year-old but out of the question for a three-year-old. Or, what’s to keep kids from buying a ticket to see one movie and then sneaking in to see another you wouldn’t approve of . . ?

 

Kaleidescape systems offer robust parental controls with password protection for content of all ratings. Allow your older kids and guests access to PG-13 films while restricting your youngsters to G-rated titles. Of course, you can “re-rate” films as you see fit, perhaps removing a potentially frightening PG-rated title like Jaws while enabling access to PG-13 titles you consider OK, like Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Kaleidescape’s unique Kid’s Remote also offers children the ability to access and enjoy their own parental-curated movie collections without any chance of browsing into something they shouldn’t see. 

 

No one online service can address every entertainment need, but by having both a Kaleidescape and streaming service, you’re free to enjoy your favorite movies, TV shows, and concert collections in pristine, highest-quality audio and video on demand, while still being able to binge movies and series via streaming, all without ever having to leave the comfort of your own home!

John Sciacca

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

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

How Do I Define a Luxury TV?

How Do I Define a Luxury TV?

I’m thinking about upgrading my living-room TV, a five-year-old UHD TV that doesn’t support HDR. The process of choosing a new TV has me thinking seriously about a question that several Cineluxe writers have already attempted to answer: How do I define the term “luxury”?

 

For me, luxury simply means going beyond what you deem necessary in a given purchase. Whether it’s cars or watches or speakers, we all have a standard in our minds of what the base model is, the thing that will get the job done in the manner we want it done. And then there’s the thing that goes beyond, the thing that delivers a higher-quality experience that may not be necessary but is oh so delightful.

The standard is different for each person, which means the luxury is different for each person. I’m generally a frugal (okay, cheap) person. When I shop, I tend to start at a base model and actually talk myself down to something less. The plus side of that approach is that the luxury bar isn’t set terribly high. Sometimes just buying a brand name feels like an indulgence.

 

But that mentality goes right out the window when we’re talking about TVs. I’ve been a video reviewer for over 10 years, so I’ve had the good fortune to spend time with the creme of the crop in the TV category. I’ve had a taste of the best, and it has definitely raised the baseline standard of what I demand from a TV.

 

I won’t buy a new TV that can’t deliver a true HDR experience—by that, I mean it must have a great black level, above-average peak brightness, and support for both HDR10 and Dolby Vision. And since manufacturer review samples tend to be 65-inchers, I’ve grown accustomed to that screen size—anything smaller just won’t cut it.

 

Those requirements already set a baseline that’s higher than what the average person deems necessary in a TV, which is causing quite the internal battle between my inner cheapskate and my inner videophile over what’s essential in this purchase.

 

The (ahem) frugal side of me is leaning toward a midrange 65-inch LED/LCD TV—something with a local-dimming full-array LED panel and a respectable amount of peak brightness. As we discussed in a recent podcast, the performance of these midrange TVs has gotten so good 

that the vast majority of people will be truly blown away by the picture quality. My mind knows that these are very good performers that have the features I demand. They check all the right boxes. It’s a no-brainer.

 

But my heart has something else to say on the subject. It longs for the luxury of the far pricier OLED TV. I know rationally that, from a features standpoint, an OLED TV doesn’t really bring anything more to the table than those midrange LCDs. And while its performance is certainly better, it’s not two or three times better, which is how much more you’ll pay for a similar screen size—and that’s if you go with the “budget” OLED option. The true luxury purchase would be a flagship model like LG’s Signature W8, whose picture quality is essentially identical to lower-priced models in LG’s line. You’re paying for the sex appeal.

 

Ultimately, luxury lives on a sliding scale that’s determined entirely by our personal experience. Once you’ve experienced the Nth degree of performance and design—be it in a TV, a speaker, a control platform, or even a lighting system—your baseline is bound to shift.  You may know you don’t really need it, but it’s hard not to want it.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.