The Key to Home Theater Sound Quality–Pt. 2
In Pt. 1, I talked about how you can’t assume that something on a lossless source like a CD, DVD, Blu-ray Disc, or high-quality download will sound great just because it was recorded, mixed, and mastered by “name professionals.”
While I won’t publicly call out any aurally-disappointing disc titles out of respect for my colleagues in the recording industry, I did recently have an opportunity related to a friend who has grown into a world-famous Grammy-winning jazz vocalist but didn’t have a concert video yet. I encouraged him and his manager of the importance of not only having one but making sure the sound quality was top notch. (Of course, I told him I’d promote the heck out of it, if done well, in the world of CEDIA demo material.)
They agreed, and his label brought an A-list production team to the table to make the video during one of his concerts in Europe. When the time was right, the artist sent me the final edit of the surround mix to evaluate in some of my favorite local-area private theater rooms.
Much to my surprise (or maybe not), the balance between instruments was way off. Even more astounding, the editor had the same mono mix of all voices and instruments playing on the left, center, and right speakers! (Is this a new mode called Tri-ono?) No matter where you sat in the theater, the entire audio program was coming directly from the speaker in front of you, regardless of where the actual visual images of the voice and instruments were coming from!
Of course, I gave critical feedback to the production company, and the response I received from the lead engineer was:
My mix is essentially a 3.1 mix with some bled into the center speaker and the documentary
elements entirely in the centre speaker. This was deliberate, as 98% of people listen in their
living room on stereo or not well set up 5.1 systems and they will hear this mix as intended.
Those of us lucky enough to have full blown cinema rooms would possibly be better served
with a traditional 5.1 mix with the vocal in the centre speaker etc. as I would do if this were a
cinema release. The decision as to whether it should be a mix suitable for the majority or a
cinema-style mix I shall pass on to others. Happy to do either but would recommend the former.
This was the eureka moment that began to let me see first-hand just how disconnected the world of production can be from consumer audio. (I’m sure my video colleagues have many similar stories about video quality.) And why I always listen to new discs on known systems first, so I never have to wonder about the quality of what I’m evaluating.
Maybe it’s time we demand better recording/editing standards—especially on consumer releases of media content—to ensure we all receive the best quality in our private theaters and listening environments.
Steve Haas is the Principal Consultant of SH Acoustics, with offices in the NYC & LA areas.
Steve has been a leading acoustic and audio design & calibration expert for over 25 years in
high-end spaces ranging from home theaters, studios, and live music rooms to major museums
and performance venues.