Tech

Can a Short-Throw Projector Replace a Big-Screen TV?

Can a Short-Throw Projector Replace a Big-Screen TV?

We’ve been talking a lot lately about front projectors versus direct-view TVs in the luxury home market—about the pros and cons of each. In general, the same truths apply now that applied five to 10 years ago: Front projectors are best suited for dark rooms and deliver the best value in screen sizes over 100 inches, but TVs are still the best choice for bright, multi-purpose rooms where you want a clean, all-in-one video solution.

 

One topic we haven’t discussed is how the ultra-short-throw projector fits into the equation. This is a product category that projector manufacturers are positioning to compete directly with big-screen TVs. UST projectors allow you to produce a very large image from a very short distance, oftentimes casting a 100-inch or larger image from less than a foot away. They’re usually designed to sit on a low stand and project the image upward against the wall. So, even though we’re still talking about

sorry (again) about the music

a two-piece solution that requires a projection screen, at least both pieces can be grouped together in one part of the room, more like a big-screen TV.

 

UST projectors are generally brighter than dedicated home theater projectors (ranging from 2,500 to 4,000 lumens), they usually rely on an LED or laser light source to provide a longer life span and instant on/off capability, and they often contain built-in speakers. A growing number even

include Web apps and/or TV tuners to more closely replicate the TV experience. A few examples of UST projectors include Epson’s LS100, LG’s HF85LA, Sony’s VPL-VZ1000ES, and Optoma’s upcoming P1.

Perhaps the most notable UST offering for this discussion is the $6,200 Hisense Laser TV, a complete AV system that includes a 4K DLP projector with a built-in TV tuner and Web apps, a Harman/Kardon sound system with a wireless subwoofer, and a 100-inch ambient-light-rejecting screen. It took a long time for Hisense to actually bring this system to market, but it’s finally available, and the company announced a larger, brighter, HDR-capable version at CES 2019.

 

Clearly Hisense is going right at the big-screen TV market, going so far as to put the word “TV” in the product name (since it includes a tuner, it is technically a TV). And while $6,200 isn’t cheap, it’s far cheaper than any 100-inch TV you’re going to find.

 

But is the Laser TV or any UST projection system really a better option than a large-screen TV? Based on what I’ve seen performance-wise from a couple of these projectors, I’m going to say no. The inherent problem with projectors is that they present an either/or performance proposition: Either you get a great black level to produce the best image contrast in a dedicated theater room, or you get a lot of light output that works in a brighter, multi-use space—but the minute the sun goes down or the lights go out, the contrast plummets. Even the brightest of these projectors can’t compete with an LCD TV, so they can’t do justice to new HDR source content the way even a mid-priced TV from the likes of Vizio or Samsung can.

 

At this moment, you can get a new 2019 82-inch Samsung QLED 4K TV for $4,500. For less than $2,000 you could assemble a good sound system to go with it and enjoy a true multi-purpose AV setup. Admittedly, 82 inches isn’t 100 inches or 120 inches, and prices in the TV market go up exponentially once you hit the 85-inch screen size.

 

So, if you’re thinking about assembling a media room in a multi-purpose space, you need to ask yourself a question: What do I value more, performance or screen size? If you want good performance that remains consistent regardless of room lighting, a big-screen TV is still your best bet. But if your heart is set on a 100-inch or larger screen, then an ultra-short-throw projection system may be the solution to deliver an immersive big-screen experience in a more room-friendly form.

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.

What Makes a Video Display Luxury?

What Makes a Projector Luxury?

Barco’s Loki 4K laser projector

One of the first posts I wrote for CIneluxe was “Luxury Defined,” where I took a stab at defining just what luxury is. To illustrate something luxurious, I could think of no better example than a Rolex timepiece, something nearly any person would consider a luxury purchase. When you look at a Rolex—regardless of the model, price, or number of complications—it is still a pretty “dumb” watch by today’s metrics. It does a decent job of keeping the time, never needs a battery change, and can survive underwater much further than you can, but doesn’t really do anything special when compared to watches that cost considerably less.

My second post here, “Luxury Defined—Take 2,” tried to define luxury as it pertains to home entertainment. To quote myself, getting “into the realm of true ‘luxury entertainment,’ we need to push the performance boundaries well beyond just what is necessary and start considering things like room integration and functionality.”

 

When it comes to a video display—one of the key components of any entertainment system, luxury or otherwise—what separates a luxury experience from something more typical? In his post, Luxury Isn’t About Price—It’s About Pride,” Andrew Robinson wrote that owning a luxury product like a pair of Wilson Audio speakers or a Mark Levinson amplifier resulted in feeling a pride of ownership. But you’re not likely to develop an emotional attachment to a video display. You could certainly love the picture and the experience, but you likely wouldn’t feel any deep connection to the physical technology itself. You often don’t spend time gazing at a projector, and virtually never touch it, so you don’t develop that prideful connection.

No, with a display, the luxury metric is generally measured in improved performance resulting in superior image quality. Adrienne Maxwell described the luxury direct-view displays featured at CES this past January, so in this post I’m going to focus on the luxury aspects of the front-projection market and five benefits gained from investing in a luxury projection system. (This post focuses on video projectors. But since a high-quality screen is just as important in any luxury entertainment system, I’ll be discussing those in a future post.)

 

Better Light Engine

One of the improvements in a luxury projector over lesser models is a better light engine. This can come in the form of either higher light output (measured in lumens), and/or a better light source, such as a laser instead of a traditional lamp-based design. A projector with higher light output is beneficial both for driving larger screen sizes and for delivering the high-brightness peaks required from HDR (high dynamic range) content. A laser light engine powers on and off far more quickly,

meaning significantly faster power on/off cycles. The laser light output can also be used dynamically to improve contrast ratio, and has a far longer lifespan (typically 20,000 hours) with significantly less dimming over its lifespan compared to a traditional lamp. Also, a better light source contributes to the projector’s ability to produce a wider range of the color spectrum.

What Makes A Projector Luxury?

JVC’s $35,000 DLA-RS4500K D-ILA 4K Projector

Better Lens

One of the factors that most influences image quality in traditional photography—either with a cellphone or traditional camera—is the quality of the lens. A larger lens with more glass elements does a better job of accurately capturing light and images the way we see them. Similarly, the quality of a projector’s primary lens greatly impacts the image up on screen. Consider Sony’s and JVC’s high-end projectors. These both use massive lenses featuring 18 all-glass elements. If bought separately, the lens alone would likely cost upwards of $10,000. The result is tighter focus, superior pixel detail, better corner-to-corner sharpness and color accuracy, less light loss, and tighter color alignment, all of which add up to superior images on screen.

 

Better Video Processing

Movies are typically filmed at 24 frames per second, this can result in having nearly 199 million pixels up on the screen every single second. That requires a lot of processing horsepower to make sure things look their best. This is especially important when watching non-native 4K content, such as traditional broadcast TV, DVD/Blu-ray discs, and much of the content on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, which the projector’s video processor upscales to its 4K resolution. This is most essential with moving objects, and a good video processor will keep diagonal lines sharp and straight without introducing any “jaggies.” The quality of the processor also determines how well a projector tone-maps HDR images, delivering the widest range of contrast without crushing either blacks or whites.

 

Multiple Aspect Ratio Support

One of the real benefits of a luxury projection system is its ability to handle content filmed in different aspect ratios in the most cinematic manner. With a traditional 16:9 aspect ratio direct-view display, anything not 16:9 (including almost half of 

What Makes a Projector Luxury?

A Panamorph Paladin DCR anamorphic lens
mounted on a Sony VPL-VW885ES projector 

Hollywood movies, and an increasing amount of original content on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon) is shown with black bars at the top and bottom of the image. This makes these movies appear much smaller and less cinematic. By using a projector with either lens memory or a separate anamorphic lens such as a Panamorph Paladin along with a screen that incorporates variable masking à la Stewart Filmscreen’s Director’s Choice, you will always have the largest, most cinematic image on screen regardless of the aspect ratio the filmmakers chose, with no distracting black bars.

Better System Integration

Luxury projector manufacturers understand their products are likely to be part of a larger luxury system, so they are generally designed to better integrate with other components. Whether it is tighter, more reliable integration with a third-party control system like Crestron or Control4, the ability to generate and send notifications to the dealer if there is a problem, or offer advanced adjustment tools for a professional video calibrator, these projectors are meant to play nice with the entire system and ensure they deliver the goods whenever you press “Play”!

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.

Are Home Theaters Making Movie Theaters Better?

Are Home Theaters Pushing Movie Theaters to Improve?

For years, home theater technology has been chasing after the commercial cinema, trying to keep up with this supposed Holy Grail of the cinematic experience. And over the years, every development that has come to the home —large screen, surround sound, 3D, and Dolby Atmos to name a few—began its life in a commercial cinema.

 

But lately the tides seem to be turning. Due to a variety of factors including the drastic improvement of home technologies, systems becoming far more affordable, and the wealth of original content provided by streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, more and more people are opting out of the commercial cinema experience and deciding to stay home.

 

One way in which commercial cinemas are trying to lure people back is through an experience called Premium Large Format (PLF). With massive screens, improved projection systems, and superior audio design, these PLF auditoriums offer a cinematic experience akin to what you could experience should you get an invitation to the screening room at Dolby Laboratories or The Stag at Lucasfilm. In short, the ultimate manner in which to experience a film in the way that matches the artists’ intent.

 

The PLF with the greatest name recognition by far is IMAX, which has been around for years and has over 1,300 systems installed around the world. Cinemagoers equate IMAX with a massive screen and impressive 11-channel digital surround system (but there are many online complaints that the brand has been diluted since the introduction of Digital IMAX—often derogatorily called LIE-MAX—in 2008, which uses significantly smaller screens and far lower resolution prints).

Are Home Theaters Making Movie Theaters Better?

Two other names in the PLF space include Dolby Cinema and ScreenX. (Barco had a short-lived venture in this category with its innovative Barco Escape technology, but it was shuttered in February of 2018.)

 

This past week, Sony announced it will be throwing its hat into the PLF space with Sony Digital Cinema, with the first screen set to open in Las Vegas this spring. Like Dolby Cinemas, the Sony Digital Cinemas will feature dual-laser 4K projection systems for an incredibly bright and contrasty image, as well as an immersive audio system, and luxury reclining seats.

 

One unique aspect of the Sony endeavor is that the company controls the cinematic process from end to end, from manufacturing the digital cameras used in filming, through the audio and video post-production at Sony Pictures Studios, to creating the cinematic 4K projectors. (While Sony did have its own version of theatrical surround sound—Sony Dynamic Digital Sound [SDDS]—this has long been discontinued, and the Sony cinemas will reportedly use Dolby Atmos immersive audio.)

 

One area where commercial cinemas have struggled to keep up with the home experience is through delivering high dynamic range (HDR) video. Whereas even relatively inexpensive direct-view 4K displays can produce a pretty dynamic HDR image, most commercial projectors fail to produce the deep blacks and bright whites needed to rival a direct-view home display. Couple that with the fact that many commercial cinemas run their projector lamps until they are on their last hours, making for a far dimmer experience that likely wouldn’t come anywhere near the minimum SMPTE (Society Motion Picture and Television Engineers) standard of 16 foot-lamberts.

Are Home Theaters Making Movie Theaters Better?

By using customized, dual-laser projectors (like those shown at left) à la Dolby Cinema, the Sony Digital Cinema should be able to deliver fantastic image quality on a massive screen, with HDR rivaling virtually any display. The Dolby Cinema system can deliver a staggering 31 foot-lamberts on screenalmost twice the brightness of the SMPTE recommended standard—while producing 500 times the dynamic range of a typical cinema projector,

delivering the deepest black levels of any commercial projector, and producing an unbelievable 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio. All that on a screen 68 feet wide!

 

Possibly of greater interest is the announcement from Bob Raposo, head of Sony’s theater business, that while these cinemas will launch with Sony’s laser projection system, the company has been developing a massive LED screen that could replace projection.

 

“Sony is going to once again revolutionize how people see movies, with our 4K laser projector and with our new technologies led by Crystal LED,” Raposo said. “Our goal is to deliver the ultimate brightness with mind-blowing contrast, allowing movies to be shown the way the movie-maker intended, without compromise and in the highest quality possible. Sony Crystal LED will create that new type of immersive experience for the marketplace, as Sony 4K did in digital cinema’s first phase. This is no doubt the future of cinema and our big opportunity to help exhibitors significantly differentiate themselves from the competition.”

 

Other benefits of these luxury PLF cinemas will include premium food and beverage offerings, stadium seating, and oversized reclining seating that can be reserved ahead of time.

 

The question remains, is it all enough? Will a premium experience be enough to lure you back to the cineplex, or are you content enjoying a luxury experience in the privacy 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.

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 2

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 2

In Part 1, I wondered if you could hear any differences in Dolby Atmos surround sound on the various movie streaming services and movies downloaded from Kaleidescape, and decided to do a comparison between Vudu, Apple TV, and Kaleidescape to find out.

 

After an afternoon of listening tests, here are my results.

 

I have a pretty high-end audio system, consisting of the new Marantz AV8805 flagship preamp/processor, two Marantz seven-channel amplifiers, and a 7.2.6-channel speaker configuration that includes Definitive Technology Mythos ST-L tower

speakers, a Definitive Trinity Signature Reference sub, and an SVS SB-16Ultra sub. I watched all of the movies at the same volume setting: -15 dB.

 

For source material, I used my Kaleidescape Strato to handle the Dolby TrueHD audio on movies downloaded from the movie store, a Microsoft Xbox One S to stream content from Vudu, and an Apple TV 4K to play movies from the Apple Store.

 

I mined my movie collection to find multiple titles I owned across all three services that featured Dolby Atmos soundtracks. This allowed me to cue up the scenes on all three devices and fairly quickly listen to each scene in the different formats.

I watched a number of scenes from six films I’m familiar with: Ready Player One, Baby Driver, Blade Runner 2049, Gravity, Venom, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. After A-B-C’ing each scene multiple times, I can definitively say two things: 1) the TrueHD audio mix always sounded better, and 2) audio from the Apple TV 4K sounded substantially quieter and more compressed.

 

By far the most readily noticeable audio differences were in the low frequency range. Consistently, film after film, scenes with low-frequency activity were far more dynamic and impressive in TrueHD. The low end had more physical impact, producing frequencies I could feel, as well as pressure waves that rattled doors and windows.

 

The opening “Bell Bottoms” scene from Baby Driver is a perfect example, where the bass notes in the song were thin and indistinct with the Dolby Digital Plus (DD+) on Apple TV and Vudu, and the shotgun blasts had little weight. With TrueHD, the bass was articulated, and the shotgun plumbed far lower and louder.

 

The bass-heavy Blade Runner 2049 also offered multiple scenes that showcased the superiority of the TrueHD soundtrack. The pistol Deckard uses in his fight with K in old Vegas had far more impact, as did the rushing water, thunder, and air vehicles flying at the pump station. The fantastic Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer soundtrack also sounded richer, producing notes that were more musical and real, with better tone and decay.

 

Textural sounds also had far more dimension and realism with TrueHD. The first challenge race from Ready Player One was a perfect example, featuring a lot of different vehicles with unique-sounding engines. The multi-layered sounds of the engines, crashes, crunches, and explosions had more detail and separation, being less distinct in the DD+ version. The motorcycle chase in Venom exhibited this same sonic loss in DD+, as with the sounds of the drones flying, or the details of bullets striking. It was similar with the crunching and thrashing from the hippo attack in Jumanji.

 

As mentioned above, the audio levels on Apple TV were significantly lower across every film—often 10 dB or more. This was obvious on everything, but especially noticeable on Gravity, where the opening dialogue chatter between Stone and Houston was virtually inaudible, making it completely unintelligible when played at the same levels as the Vudu and Kaleidescape versions.

 

Even with volume levels raised to compensate, the Apple versions of the films just seemed far more compressed, lacking dynamic range. This was similar to what I experienced on the Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour streamed from Netflix, making me wonder if there is some issue with the way the Apple TV 4K handles Atmos audio. 

 

Now, while the TrueHD mix was definitely better, that doesn’t mean the streamed mix was bad. Just not as good. This was especially noticeable when played back to back, where the TrueHD audio had a wider, airier, more natural presentation. Outdoor scenes like in the jungles of Jumanji just felt more open and like you were in the actual environment, while the DD+ audio felt more centered on the screen.

 

For luxury cinema owners who’ve invested in getting the best experience possible, there are definite, noticeable audio improvements to be had by purchasing content in the lossless format.

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.

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 1

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 1

For years, audiophiles have bemoaned the lackluster quality of MP3 audio files, saying they compress the life out of the music. Yet people still buy, stream, and enjoy MP3 (or similarly compressed) music files by the billions, so are they really that bad?

 

The music analogy of lossy, compressed MP3 files versus lossless, high-resolution .WAV (or similar) files is a great starting point for discussing the audio quality of streaming movie services. Without getting too deep into the weeds, streaming sites like Vudu, Netflix, and Apple deliver an audio bitstream using Dolby Digital Plus (DD+) while Blu-ray and UltraHD discs and titles downloaded from the Kaleidescape movie store use Dolby TrueHD. (We could also have a discussion of DTS versus DTS-HD Master or DTS:X, but since no streaming services yet provide or supports these, we’ll table that for later.)

 

A lossy codec like DD+ compresses the original full-resolution file, discarding information the encoder deems the listener won’t miss or wouldn’t have heard to begin with. This significantly reduces the original file size, making it easier to stream. But a lossless format like TrueHD retains all of the original information, resulting in a much larger file, which creates a problem for streaming services but isn’t a factor for a disc or for content downloaded from Kaleidescape.

According to Dolby, “Digital Plus provides up to twice the efficiency of Dolby Digital while adding new features like 7.1-ch audio, support for descriptive video services, and support for Dolby Atmos. Dolby Digital Plus is widely used by streaming and broadcast services to deliver surround sound audio at lower bitrates. 5.1-ch audio in Dolby Digital Plus is typically encoded at bitrates between 192–256 kbps.” (My emphasis.)

 

Dolby also says, “TrueHD is a lossless audio codec used widely on HD and UHD Blu-ray Discs. Dolby TrueHD supports up to 24-bit audio and sampling rates from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz. Dolby TrueHD supports up to 7.1 audio channels as well as Dolby Atmos immersive audio. As Dolby TrueHD is a lossless audio codec, the data rate is variable. For example, Dolby TrueHD bitrates average around 6,000 kbps for Dolby Atmos at 48 kHz with peak data rates up to a maximum of 18,000 kbps for high sampling rate content.” (Again, emphasis is mine.)

 

So, what does this mean?

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 1

Well, if you take the highest DD+ encode rate—256 kbps—and compare it to the average for Dolby TrueHD—6,000 kbps—you’ll see that the TrueHD audio stream has more than 23 times more data allocated to it.

 

Fine. But can you actually hear and appreciate the difference? In Part 2, I’ll give you the results of my comparison of the same movies streamed on Vudu and Apple TV and downloaded from Kaleidescape.

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.

UHD TVs Hit New Heights in 2019

Vizio P Series Quantum LED UHD TV

Vizio’s P-Series Quantum LED UHD TVs

We’ve been talking a lot about video displays lately. I described a few luxury TV designs shown at the recent Consumer Electronics Show, and John Sciacca discussed the choice of front projection versus direct-view, highlighting the pros and cons of each.

 

If you’ve settled on a direct-view TV as your display method of choice for an upcoming home theater or media room, you’re now faced with the daunting task of choosing which one to buy. With prices that run the gamut from dirt cheap to “You want me to spend how much?!”, you might be asking yourself, is it worth it to pay more? What actually distinguishes a high-performance TV these days?

 

The truth is, even a budget LED/LCD TV can look really good for everyday TV watching and streaming. You can get great detail, solid image brightness, and relatively accurate color. Most budget TVs now have a 4K resolution and even claim to support High Dynamic Range—but there’s the rub. Budget TVs seldom have a high enough contrast ratio to really do HDR justice, and many of them can’t deliver the expanded color gamut that’s available in Ultra HD content. So when we’re talking about building a high-performance media system that brings out the best in your UHD source content—be it movies, games, or streaming—there’s a clear advantage in moving up the price chain.

UHD TVs Hit New Heights in 2019

LG’s Signature W8 “wallpaper” OLED UHD TV

Top-shelf TVs like Samsung’s QLED lineup, Sony’s Master Series of OLED and LED/LCD TVs, Vizio’s PQ Series, and LG’s OLED TVs don’t just support the input of an HDR signal. They actually have the contrast ratio to deliver a fantastic HDR viewing experience, and that begins with the ability to produce a deep black level.

 

OLED technology is the current standard when it comes to producing truly deep, dark blacks, but LED-based displays that use full-array backlighting with good local dimming can give OLED a run for its money. Most budget LED/LCD TVs don’t use local dimming at all, or the local dimming consists of so few dimmable zones that it’s ineffective.

 

High-performance TVs are also capable of much higher peak brightness, which is essential for reproducing bright highlights in HDR content. When we say an HDR TV can crank out 1,500 to 2,000 nits, we don’t mean that it’s doing so constantly with

every type of content—that would be painful to watch. But the beauty of HDR content is that the highlights in a scene—like the sun, the moon, or the burst of fire in an explosion—can be very bright, more akin to what our eyes can see in the real world. LED/LCD TVs still trump OLED in their brightness capabilities, but with OLED, the black level is so dark that the perceived brightness of HDR highlights is still fantastic. Budget TVs (and, frankly, front projectors) just don’t have the brightness capabilities to bring out the best in HDR.

 

One performance element that often gets overlooked is the quality of the TV screen’s anti-reflective filter. Especially in today’s multi-purpose media rooms, people don’t always watch movies in the dark, and a good anti-reflective filter is essential for rejecting the ambient light coming from lamps and windows to cut down on screen glare and preserve image contrast. High-performance models are usually better in this respect, too.

 

The final piece of the high-performance puzzle is the ability to produce the expanded color gamut in UHD content. A wide color gamut can be achieved in various ways. Quantum dot technology is used in many top-shelf LCD displays (it’s the Q in Samsung’s QLED and Vizio’s PQ) because of its ability to accurately and efficiently deliver the wide color gamut at the very bright levels required in HDR content.

 

Of course, performance isn’t the only thing people look for when designing a nice media room. Top-shelf TVs also tend to have nicer aesthetics, so you don’t mind looking at them 

when the screen is off. They may be thinner and lighter, with more interesting bezel and stand designs. They may house the electronics/input panel in a separate box that’s more easily hidden away in a cabinet. They may integrate more easily with advanced wholehouse control systems. And they may have intelligent voice control and other user-friendly features built in.

 

Hey, a flagship TV is certainly not right for everyone. Most home entertainment enthusiasts will probably settle on something in between the low and high ends, and that’s OK. But for anyone looking to create the ultimate cinematic experience at home, there are plenty of reference-quality TV options to choose from this year.

—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 to Find the Perfect Integrator

How to Find the Perfect Integrator

I have been a technology integrator for more than two decades, and many consider me an industry expert. I have been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Worth, USA Today, and many other publications. My firm has won over a hundred industry awards, and our systems have been featured in world-famous media outlets like E!, HGTV, Fox, NBC, Architectural Digest, and Esquire. Not to boast, but on paper I look pretty impressive. Trust me, I am pretty underwhelming in person, but my team has accomplished a lot of cool stuff over the years.

 

I bring all of this up because I think I’m a pretty obvious choice if you want a top-tier integrator to deck out your new home with the latest and greatest technologies. Maybe I’m not the only choice, but at least a top contender, right?

 

Well, the reality is that most homeowners don’t really factor any of that stuff in when they choose a technology integrator. They tend to make really bad decisions and hire really bad integrators—or worse, they let some other trade like electricians,

How to Find the Perfect Integrator

security guys, or IT guys perform this very specialized work.

 

Why don’t consumers do any due diligence when technology plays such an important role in everyone’s lives?

 

And why hasn’t everyone caught on to the dirty little secret of the custom installation industry? 

 

What is the dirty little secret? 

A private equity firm that wanted to invest in the luxury home automation market recently surveyed homeowner’s who purchased home technology systems. The results were staggering. Over 50% of homeowners with home automation systems were “unsatisfied” with their technology. This is a lower satisfaction rate than cable companies and cellphone companies (historically the lowest industry satisfaction rates). So again, what is the dirty little secret?

 

Most installation firms . . . stink.

 

Why?

 

The AV and automation industry is the wild west. There is no government regulation, incredibly little formalized training, and in many states no licensing whatsoever is required. Anybody can pretty much hang their shingle and claim to be an AV expert regardless of their abilities. Even if there is a contractor’s license requirement, it has more to do with building guidelines than technical expertise in systems deployment. There are probably about 15,000 companies nationwide that call themselves “AV guys” or “integrators.” I would only let about 10% of them into my home. 

Well, most folks can instinctively tell the difference between a great firm and a fly-by-night, right? 

 

Uh . . . NO!

 

Unfortunately, most consumers know little to nothing about technology and have lots of anxiety about hiring a tech firm. Given that, anybody who walks in their door and has more knowledge than them will seem like an expert.

 

The typical decision-making process goes like this: “Who does my neighbor use?” “Who seemed like a nice guy?” 

“Who does my interior designer like?” There is typically no research on the firm, no reference checks, and most importantly no vetting to see if the firm they like has done a project of the scope and scale or has any expertise in the products they want to use. The guy who did a soundbar installation for your brother-in-law may not be the right guy to completely automate your home with Crestron, Savant, or Lutron—or deliver that amazing home theater experience.

 

Most consumers approach this industry thinking that most companies are probably reputable, probably sell the same stuff, and roughly have the same technical knowledge. But the reality—as people in the industry know—is much different.

 

So how does someone hire the right firm? Here are some simple question to ask:

 

Can I speak to three recent clients with similar scope and size projects?

You don’t want to be a guinea pig for this firm. They should have a proven track record of similar projects.

Are you a dealer for all of this stuff we want?

You need to be able to get support on the product in your home. If the integrator can’t get the manufacturer to answer a call, you’re in trouble.

 

What is your service policy and how do I get help after you install this stuff?

Most companies falter after the sale. They have no formal process to handle servicing their clients and typically devote all of their resources and staff to the big projects in process (with the big checks being handed out) and not the $150 service call. Find out how they handle service requests and after-hours problems, and if they have dedicated staff to address service issues.

 

Do you do all this work with in-house staff or do you subcontract any of it out?

Again, back to service. You want the company to be able to service you after the fact without relying on a pile of other subcontractors.

HTA Logo

A terrific resource to help you find a great integrator is the Home Technology Association. This is the first group to realize that 90% of companies in this trade wear clown shoes.

 

They have developed a certification system that puts integrators through the ringer so consumers can dramatically improve their chances of success. Each HTA Certified company must have a minimum of nine references from industry experts, design/build pros, and manufacturers. They must demonstrate that they have technical proficiency, have a great history of customer service, and have a stellar industry reputation.

 

I have been through the application process, and it is impossible to pass certification unless you are an exceptional company. They also do a terrific job of segregating the installers into three tiers: Estate—if you are a gajillionaire building a giant house; Luxury—if you are just a regular wealthy person; and Foundation—for the guys like me with regular-size homes. The HTA is the easy button for selecting an integrator, and as an integrator, the list of certified companies is really strong. It represents the best of the best.

 

E.T.

These are just a few easy ones to get you towards making a good choice. The bottom line is, don’t hire a technology partner unless you ask the important questions and do some research. Remember, the chances of you having a happy tech experience is less than 50% unless you do a little homework. You don’t have to understand tech in order to pick a great company.

Eric Thies

Eric Thies is the Founder of DSI Luxury Technology in Los Angeles. Eric is a board member
of Azione and an unpaid and overworked volunteer for the Home Technology Association.

Basic Choices: Projector or TV? Pt. 2

Basic Choices: Projector or TV? Pt. 2

In Part One of this post, I detailed the various pros and cons associated with going with a front projector and screen as the video display in your media room/theater. Here, we’ll dissect direct-view TVs to help you determine whether they’re the right technology choice for your room.

 

Pros

 

A Complete Solution
Unlike a projector, which is just a display device requiring amplification, speakers, and sources in order to perform, a direct-view TV can function entirely on its own. It has a built-in ATSC tuner for cable or off-air tuning, Wi-Fi access to the Internet or streaming Ultra HD content like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, and speakers to deliver audio. (Granted, the

speakers on most TVs are abysmal, and any luxury cinema would include a separate surround audio system.) But, for those wanting the simplest option, a direct-view TV might be the right call.

 

Better Performance at Smaller Screen Sizes
Sometimes bigger isn’t better, and a 65-, 75-, or 85-inch direct-view screen might be the perfect size for your room. While you could get a projection screen that small, the performance tradeoffs of going with a projector versus a direct-view set just wouldn’t make sense. If you’re looking for a screen size under 100 inches, direct-view is probably the right call.

 

Flagship Performance at an Affordable Price
Projectors in the luxury market can easily cost $30,000 to $100,000. But a truly state-of-the-art direct-view LED or OLED set can be had for a fraction of that.

 

Easier to Install
Since the electronics in many entertainment spaces are located right below where the TV will be installed, with power nearby, installation is straightforward. But since projectors are typically ceiling mounted on the other side of the room, they can be far more difficult to get power and wire to in a retrofit situation. Obviously, if you’re building or remodeling a room, this will be less of a factor. 

 

Unaffected by Ambient Light
While even a single lightbulb can wash out a projector’s image, direct-view sets can happily exist in rooms with virtually any amount of light. If it isn’t practical to fully darken your space at all times of day, or you prefer doing your movie/TV watching or gaming with some lights on, direct-view sets will give you a lot more flexibility. Granted, TVs can have issues with reflections, but these are often far easier to address than too much light on a projection screen.

 

Can Accommodate HDR/Dolby Vision
To bear the Ultra HD Alliance’s “Premium” logo, a TV’s HDR (high dynamic range) technology must be able to simultaneously produce both exceedingly deep blacks and bright whites. While many new projectors can display HDR content, they offer only a fraction of the performance that direct-view TVs can achieve. And no current home projector can handle the increasingly popular Dolby Vision HDR standard, which uses metadata to adjust the dynamic range settings of a movie scene by scene. While projectors continue to get better at handling HDR content, they’ll likely always lag behind direct-view sets, which can produce a far brighter and punchier image.

 

Can Produce 32 Million Pixels
As ridiculous as it sounds—especially since many people are just now considering the move to 4K sets—8K was the video talk of the recent CES. Never mind that most broadcast content providers still can’t even deliver 1080p, let alone any quantity of 4K content, and that there’s no solution even in the pipeline to 

actually deliver an 8K image. Put all that aside. 8K is not only coming, it’s here, with Samsung models already available. Now, I’ll be honest—the 85-inch 8K Samsung TV I saw at this past CEDIA was nothing short of flat-out stunning. Whether that was due to the oodles of extra pixels on screen, or the fantastic video processing and 4,000 nits of brightness, I can’t say. But the likely scenario is the next generation of flagship direct-view TVs will be 8K (7680 x 4320), and early indications are they will produce spectacular images from native-4K content.

Basic Choices: Projector or TV? Pt. 2

Direct-view TVs perform much better than front-projection systems in brightly lit rooms

Cons

 

More Expensive for Larger Screens
While an 85-inch screen size is nothing to sneeze at, if you want to go larger than that, it could cost you. A lot. While you can get a 85-inch set for under $5,000 (or snag the 8K Samsung mentioned above for under $15,000), prices go up exponentially above that size. For example, while the flagship Sony 75-inch Z9F set costs around $6,000, the 100-inch Z9D will run you $60,000! LG unveiled the world’s largest OLED TV at 88 inches during this past CES with no price announced yet, but expect it to be . . . high. And if you think Samsung’s 219-inch modular-design The Wall is right for you, plan on spending well over six figures when it actually becomes available for order.

 

Room Dominating
We’re a luxury website, so perhaps the prospect of dropping a ton of cash on a flagship direct-view set isn’t a deal killer. I mean, Ferrari is selling $300,000 488 GTBs faster than it can produce them, so clearly the luxury buyer is alive, well, and spending. But, one thing you’ll have a tough time doing with your massive direct-view set is hiding it or decorating around it.

 

Hinders Speaker Placement
The ideal speaker layout places the front left, center, and right speakers on the same horizontal plane as the center of the screen image, ensuring that sounds perfectly track the on-screen action. With an acoustically transparent projection screen, this isn’t a problem, but with a massive direct-view set, placing the center channel speaker becomes more problematic. Generally, the solution is to install it below the screen, and while this often does an OK job of marrying the dialogue to the screen, results can vary depending on how large your TV is, how low the speaker is installed, and how far the seats are from the screen.

 

Poor Off-angle Viewing
LED TVs can exhibit a real shift in image brightness and picture quality as you move off-center. If your media room is wide, with seats at extreme angles from the screen, those seats may have a compromised experience. Also, glare and reflections can become an issue when sitting well off-center.

 

Since choosing the right display technology is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make when creating a media or theater room, being armed with all the information necessary to choose—along with finding a competent installer—will definitely help your system turn out to be the best it can!

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.

Basic Choices: Projector or TV? Pt. 1

Should You Get a Projector or TV? Pt. 1

When determining the look and design of your new media room or home theater, you’re quickly going to be confronted with a major decision: The size and style of your video display. While the choice ultimately boils down to whether you’ll go with a front projector or a traditional direct-view TV, the number of factors that can go into making that decision can sometimes make it difficult. But you might find it easy to choose if one factor quickly sways your decision, since each technology has definite advantages.

In Part One, I’ll discuss the pros and cons of having a separate projector and screen. In Part Two, I’ll do the same for direct-view TVs.

 

Pros

 

No Limit on Screen Size

While TV screens are measured in inches, projection screens come in feet, and you can get a screen literally as big as your wall can support, meaning you can have a truly cinematic experience in your home. And while people might debate whether they can or can’t see the resolution improvements of 4K on their 65-inch TVs, you’ll be basking in all of the noticeably sharper detail on your 200-inch screen!

 

Less Expensive to Have Bigger Screens

Dollar per inch, it’s tough to beat front projection. Where the price jump from a 75-inch to a 100-inch direct-view set is exponential, it might only be a few hundred dollars more to go from a 110- to a 120-inch screen.

 

Supports Multiple Aspect Ratios

People primarily talk about two different aspect ratios: 16:9 (the rectangular shape of modern HDTVs) and 2.35:1 (the wider shape of many films). But in reality, modern filmmakers often use various aspects to capture a specific look or feel. More and more original content on Netflix and Amazon uses aspect ratios other than 16:9. With a projection screen and a masking system, you can make sure you’re always seeing the image as the director intended, with no distracting black bars.

Optimal Speaker Placement

The ideal speaker layout places the front left, center, and right speakers on the same horizontal plane as the center of the screen, ensuring that the sound exactly tracks the on-screen action. These speakers can be perfectly placed behind an acoustically transparent projection screen, just like in a movie theater.

 

Can Disappear When Not in Use

If you want a movie theater but don’t want your room to look like a movie theater, a front-projection system offers several solutions. Even the largest screens can be motorized to roll up and out of sight, and a projector can be concealed as well, with just a glass porthole in a wall or soffit for the lens to fire through.

 

Still Supports 3D

Direct-view display manufacturers have all abandoned support for 3D over the past few years, but nearly all projectors designed for home use still have this capability.

 

Offers Many Screen Material Options

When you buy a direct-view TV, you get what you get, but when you buy a projection screen, you have a myriad of options. Your installer can help you select the right material, color, and gain to make sure you get the most out of your projector, room, and screen size.

Should You Get a Projector or TV? Pt. 1

Stewart Filmscreen’s Gemini has separate screens for daytime & nighttime viewing

Cons

 

Needs a Dark Room

A projector can’t actually reproduce black, so it projects nothing where black should be. That means, to have black up on screen, the room needs to be black—or at least dark. Since projectors rely on dark rooms to produce their best image quality, that might not be your best choice if there’s any amount of light in your space. Sure, ambient-light-rejecting screens like Screen Innovations’ Black Diamond or Stewart Filmscreen’s Phantom HALR do an admirable job of producing viewable images in lit rooms, but they can’t deliver the same picture quality as viewing in a darkened room.

 

Not Always Good for Gaming
Using a projector can be a con, depending on the types of games you like to play. Many projectors have an input delay of up to several seconds, which means there can be a noticeable lag between when you press a button and something happens on the screen. While this isn’t an issue when pausing a movie, it definitely can be when playing a videogame where milliseconds of reaction time can be the difference between onscreen life and death. Also, if you play games that require standing in front of the screen, you might find yourself blocking the projector’s light path and creating life-sized shadow puppets instead.

 

HDR and Brightness Inferior to TVs

HDR (high dynamic range) can deliver both deep, detailed blacks and ultra-bright colors, but projectors can only deliver a fraction of the necessary brightness levels. This makes HDR on a projection system tricky, with manufacturers searching for the best solution to tone map the high-brightness images for their projectors. Also, outside of a custom, dual Christie Dolby Cinema projection setup, you currently won’t find any projector that can support dynamic HDR metadata like DolbyVision. That isn’t to say projectors can’t pull off HDR, and some of the new laser-based models look pretty spectacular. But direct-view sets will likely always be superior in this regard, able to produce images with more punch and contrast.

 

Lack of 8K Support

I hate to even mention this, but 8K is now apparently a thing, so here we are. Yet no projector manufacturers seem to be seriously pursuing 8K resolution. This is especially surprising since if there was any technology that could benefit from 8K, it would be a massive front-projection screen. (But I digress . . .) I’ve only seen one projector that can deliver 8K resolution, and it was nearly the size of a small car, required its own ventilation system, and cost a wallet-blistering $400,000! (JVC will be launching a native 4K projector that uses the company’s eShift pixel-shifting technology to deliver a pseudo-8K image at a far more reasonable sub-$20,000.)

 

In my next post, I’ll break down the pros and cons of going with a traditional, direct-view TV set for your entertainment room’s display.

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.

Luxury TVs Come on Strong at CES

Luxury TVs Come on Strong at CES

Samsung’s 75-inch Micro LED TV

In a time when you can get a free 50-inch 4K TV as an incentive to buy a smartphone (see below), it’s pretty obvious that larger-screen flat-panel televisions are no longer considered luxury goods. They’re a commodity, spit out en masse in specific shapes, colors, and sizes. And while you still have to pay more to get better performance, you don’t have to pay that much 

more to enjoy a pretty darn good-looking picture. Companies like Vizio and TCL have seen to that.

 

This presents a challenge for specialty dealers trying to design higher-end luxury AV systems with larger screens, especially now that many of those systems are moving out of dedicated theater spaces where front projection is the display method of choice. How do you incorporate these huge, often generic-looking boxes into a high-end media room in a truly elegant way?

 

In the world of luxury home entertainment, design matters just as much as picture quality. (I know videophiles may 

bristle at that statement.) Thankfully, as evidenced by the recent CES trade show, TV manufacturers like LG and Samsung haven’t forgotten this segment of the market. Both companies showed off some truly drool-worthy TVs that push the design envelope.

 

For the past few years, LG’s OLED TV lineup has been a great case study in how to sell to the high-end market, and this year’s line is no different. Purely from a performance perspective, the new C9, E9, and W9 series should all be pretty much the same (i.e., awesome).What you get as you move up the price chain are design enhancements.

 

The entry-level C9 has a pretty straightforward look, the step-up E9 has a nicer picture-on-glass aesthetic, and the W9’s “wallpaper” design puts all the electronics in a separate box to give you that gloriously thin, sexy form that OLED promises. This year, LG upped the ante even further by adding a flagship Z9 that increases both the resolution (to 8K) and the maximum screen size (to 88 inches, a first for OLED) to appeal to customers who want a larger, more immersive screen.

Luxury TVs Come on Strong at CES

But the design that really had everyone talking was LG’s new rollable OLED TV (shown above). The screen hides inside a stylish metal cabinet until you’re ready to watch it, at which point it gracefully rolls up into place. We’ve been teased by the promise of rollable OLED for a while, but this is a real-world product that will ship this year, albeit only in a 65-inch screen size.

 

Samsung’s “The Frame” and Serif TVs, which cater specifically to the more design-conscious shopper, have been around for a while. But this year the company is putting its flagship QLED performance into them, which means you’ll get the best of both worlds: Performance and design. The Frame, in particular, is a cool, well-executed concept.

 

One of the most promising and potentially game-changing TV technologies is Samsung’s Micro LED, which can combine the thin form and gorgeous black levels of OLED with the high brightness levels of LED/LCD. But perhaps the most enticing feature for the 

luxury market is that the tech is both modular and scalable. At this year’s show, Samsung displayed a 219-inch Micro LED display dubbed “The Wall,” but also a more real-world 75-inch model. (Getting the Micro LED modules down to smaller sizes is the current challenge.) You’re also not locked to a 16:9 aspect ratio—you can configure the display

however you want, à la a video wall. Check out this video from the show (above).

 

So, can a TV still be a luxury item? Heck yeah it can. I, for one, am really excited to see these new designs come to life in real-world settings.

—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.