Tech

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.

What Makes a Projection Screen Luxury?

What Makes a Projection Screen Luxury?

The natural followup to my post “What Makes a Video Display Luxury?” is to talk about projection screens. There is a reason why projection systems—whether front or rear—are often referred to as “two-piece,” because the projector and screen play near equal roles in delivering the best image quality possible.

 

Fact is, no matter how fantastic your projector is, the image you‘re watching is reflected off of a screen, and an inferior one will rob a projector of its maximum performance potential by actually introducing artifacts or color shifts to the image or by just not delivering all the detail and resolution the projector is capable of.

For some assistance with this, I reached out to Robert Keeler, Vice President of Sales at Stewart Filmscreen. Stewart has been building high-performance screens for the luxury commercial, professional, and home cinema markets for the past 71 years, and is widely regarded as a leader in the premium screen category.

 

BETTER BUILD QUALITY

Like any premium product, a luxury screen will exhibit better build quality. This means frame corners that meet perfectly and screen material that’s tensioned to remain perfectly flat. A fixed screen (as opposed to a motorized model that rolls up and down) will have a velvet-like coating around the frame to absorb stray light and enhance contrast, and motorized models use quieter motors. And, since the screen is  the most visible part of most theater systems, it’s important to have one that looks good whether the lights are on or off. 

 

While not part of build quality per se, luxury screen systems also offer more ways to interface with advanced control systems, say either via contact closures, relays,

infra-red, RS-232, or IP. This ensures that the screen can accept the correct cues from, say, a Kaleidescape system when you’re switching between movies that have different aspect ratios. 

 

MASKING SYSTEM

Speaking of aspect ratios, the best luxury projection screens incorporate masking, which is black material that closes off, or “masks,” the unused screen area so just the projected image is visible. This eliminates any distracting white space around the image.

 

According to Robert Keeler, “The majority of [TV and projection] screens sold are 1.78 to 1, 16 by 9 aspect ratio, so we are used to seeing black bars either on the top and bottom or the sides of the image depending on the content aspect ratio. As good as projectors are getting, they are still widely based on a 16 by 9 chipset, so content with any aspect ratio other than 16 by 9 will have visible black bars showing.”

 

With front projectors, these black bars aren’t truly black because the projector is emitting some stray light. This ends up lowering the contrast ratio of the image. So having masking to cover these unused parts of the image visibly improves the picture quality.

 

But, aspect ratios can be tricky, since filmmakers choose different ratios based on the look they’re hoping to achieve. (See the diagram below.) For example, older films like The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca are 1.33:1, many documentaries like Free Solo are 1.78:1, some directors prefer using 1.85:1 such as Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan, E.T., and Jurassic Park, and you have “widescreen” films like Lawrence of Arabia at 2.2:1, Star Wars at 2.35:1, Bohemian Rhapsody at 2.4:1, and Ben Hur at 2.76:1.

What Makes a Projection Screen Luxury?

The ultimate solution is a system that can adjust all four sides of the screen image, like Stewart Filmscreen’s Director’s Choice, which uses a 4-way masking system.“This is the epitome of Hollywood,” Keeler says, “with the ability to frame the content so the black bars are invisible and only the content is being shown, whatever the aspect ratio.”

 

SCREEN MATERIAL

Choosing the correct screen material is about more than just its color. Screens use something called gain, which can increase or decrease the amount of light coming off the screen, but can also limit the viewing angle. Also, screens with high amounts of gain can introduce artifacts known as “hotspotting,” where images are brighter in the middle of the screen than at the sides, and “color shifting,” where colors can look different depending on where the viewer is seated. Discussing your media room needs based on its size, seating layout, and lighting conditions with a qualified installer will allow them to guide you in selecting the correct screen material for your installation.

 

“With more than 25 material choices, Stewart Filmscreen can offer end users the right material for the task at hand, rear projection and front projection alike,” Keeler said. “While some may choose not to go with the ultimate cinematic experience, they can at least purchase the very same screen material used by Hollywood directors, post-production departments, colorists, studios, etc.”

 

DIFFERENT SCREENS FOR DIFFERENT CONDITIONS

Say you have a room you use for a variety of activities. Maybe for a lot of gaming or TV watching during the day, but mostly for movie watching at night. Or maybe sometimes you like to watch with the lights up, and other times you want it pitch black. A screen that works best for one of these situations might not be right for the other. One incredibly innovative solution for this is Stewart’s Gemini.

What Makes a Projection Screen Luxury?

“Gemini [shown above] is a unique product that addresses a varied usage model,” Keeler explains. “While masking screens exist to accommodate a variety of aspect ratios, Gemini addresses the variety of usage model. Watching movies [usually] suggests a completely light controlled environment and the content is often in Cinemascope, 2:35 to 2:4. Whereas watching TV suggests the lights are on and the content is 1.78, 16 by 9. The screen material choice for one activity is likely the wrong choice for the other activity. With that in mind, Gemini is a dual-roller motorized screen that deploys a reference-grade material for movies, and an ambient-light-rejecting material when watching TV, giving viewers the best performance whatever the situation.”

 

ACOUSTICALLY TRANSPARENT

Another potential benefit of a luxury screen is using a material that’s acoustically transparent. Initially acoustically transparent screens used lots of tiny perforations to allow sound to pass through, but all of these holes allowed the projector’s light to pass through as well, resulting in a loss of brightness. Also, the holes would actually interact with the pixel structure of the projector and introduce a video artifact known as moiré.

 

While perforation technology has advanced to address these issues, another option pioneered by screen manufacturer Screen Research is to use woven material that allows sound to pass through without being degraded by the screen. Kind of like a special-purpose speaker grille cloth, these screens let you position your main three front speaker channels directly behind the screen just like at a movie theater. The benefits of this are twofold. First, you don’t have to worry about the speaker’s look or style impacting the overall look of the room, which can allow the installer to use a larger/better speaker that otherwise wouldn’t fit with the room’s décor. Second, with the speakers located behind the screen, the audio cues precisely track the onscreen action, perfectly marrying the picture and sound.

 

 

To wrap up, Keeler commented, “There is some science behind integrating the projector and the screen along with the room and viewing habits, and a luxury brand should be able to not only help with selecting appropriate screen size and material choices, but be well versed in other aspects of the project such as audio and video, and the rest of the package and maintain relationships with all sorts of ancillary brands to support the Big Screen Experience.”

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.

Why HDR Matters

If you read the reviews here at Cineluxe with any frequency, you’ve probably noticed that we make frequent reference to HDR—high dynamic range–video. By now, it’s a term you’re almost certainly familiar with. But if you’re not really sure what it means, you can be forgiven, because most of the standard marketing materials are confusing and misleading.

 

Here’s a perfect example. This image is representative of the images that most TV manufacturers use to convey the advantages of HDR. Look at that dull and washed out image on the left. Marvel at how it pales in comparison to the vibrant image on the right side of the screen. See how much better HDR is?

Why HDR Matters

There’s just one problem with this. This entire pictured is rendered in standard dynamic range (SDR). That vibrant, lifelike image on the right? Your old, non-HDR display could almost certainly render it with no problem. The image on the left? It’s artificially toned down and muted. This analogy isn’t really helpful. And mind you, I’m not knocking the graphic artist who made this particular example. The entire electronics industry seems content to rely on some variation of this example on every piece of marketing material promoting the advantages of HDR. I’m simply saying that if this is the only sort of comparison you’ve seen, you’re right to be skeptical.

 

So, how is one to understand the actually differences between SDR and HDR video? One easy way is to visit your local tech expert, be it a custom integrator or an electronics store you trust, and ask for a demo.

 

But you can also understand it with just a little math.

 

In short, the SDR video we’ve grown accustomed to for the past few decades, through DVD, HDTV, Blu-ray, and even non-HDR 4K, uses 8 bits of data to represent each primary color: red, green, and blue. What this means is that you can have 256 different shades of each of those colors, which are then combined to create the entire visual spectrum. 256 shades of red, 256 shades of blue, and 256 shades of green combine to create nearly 17 million total shades that can be displayed on a SDR screen, or captured in a video format like Blu-ray.

 

HDR, by contrast, relies on 10-bit (or even 12-bit) color. To understand what a monumental increase that is, understand that 10-bit color allows for 1,024 different shades of red, green, and blue, which when combined result in over a billion different shades onscreen.

 

Here’s a visualization of the difference between 10-bit and 8-bit, when limited to the blue channel alone:

Why HDR Matters

And grayscale, which represents every step along the way from pure black to pure white:

Why HDR Matters

Again, you’re seeing these images presented in SDR, but hopefully they convey the point that 10-bit video, and hence HDR, allows for more subtle variation in color and grayscale. Which means that you see more detail in the shadows of darker images (or darker areas of a complex scene), and more variation in the highlights of brighter images (or brighter areas of a complex scene).

 

But that’s not all. HDR also allows for greater image brightness, and more control over which areas of the image are dark and bright. Your old HDTV might be capable of delivering 300 nits (a standard unit of measurement for brightness), whereas many of today’s better HDR-capable displays can easily deliver 1,000 nits or more. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire 

image is brighter, mind you, as if you just took your old HDTV and cranked the brightness control. Turn up the brightness on an old TV, and the blacks get washed out and turn gray. Turn up the contrast to compensate, and what you end up with is an image with stark blacks, bright whites, and not much in between.

 

A good HDR TV, on the other hand, can make a small area of the screen—a flashlight beam, for example—shine with all the intensity of the real thing, while keeping the shadows wonderfully and natural dark, without robbing you of those all-important mid-tones in between.

If you’ll allow me my own dubious analogy, think of it like this: Imagine a piano that only had 22 keys. The key on the left is still low A, and the key on the right is still high C, but there are only twenty keys in between them and they can only be played with the soft pedal depressed. Compare that imaginary hobbled instrument to the rich sonic output of an 88-key Steinway Model D concert grand piano played at full volume, and you can start to really wrap your brain around the differences between SDR and HDR.

 

The bottom line is that good HDR displays do a much better job of matching our eyes’ (and our brain’s) ability to differentiate subtle differences in color and contrast, as well as the natural variations in brightness we experience out in the real world.

 

There is one other confusing aspect to all of this, though: The fact that there are competing HDR standards—which you may have seen referred to as HDR10, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, and Hybrid Log Gamma. You don’t really need to understand the differences between them to understand what HDR is and how it works, but we’ll dig into those competing standards in a future post and explain what sets them apart.

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.

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.