Is Personal Luxury Cinema Really a Thing?
One of the things we’re trying to encourage here at Cineluxe is ongoing dialogue, debate, and discussion. As we’ve stated before, the term “luxury” can be a moving target and mean different things to different people—or to put it more crudely, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
Dennis Burger recently wrote a post, “Luxury System Basics: Another View,” in response to my post discussing the minimum electronics required to outfit a system capable of delivering a luxury home experience. Reading Dennis’ post made me think, “Well, would he consider a laptop and headphones a luxury experience?!?”
I’ll admit, at first that voice in my head had a pretty sarcastic edge.
But then I started thinking on it a little more. I mean, could a laptop and pair of headphones deliver a luxury experience?
I think that answer is simultaneously “no” and “yes,” but most likely “a definite qualified maybe . . .”
Before I give a more considered response, let me start with a story for a bit of perspective.
After I got married, my wife and I moved into an apartment building in Walnut Creek, California. My entertainment system at the time consisted of a 25″ Proton CRT tube, some Boston Acoustics towers and matching center channel, a Yamaha surround receiver, and a Definitive Technology 15″ sub. Our first night in the new apartment, we watched Babe—yes, the talking pig movie—on VHS at a volume level that I would describe as modest at best. The next morning we found a note on our door that said (to the best of my memory), “You don’t live alone in the woods! You need to keep the volume down!”
This was crushingly disappointing to me as I knew it meant I’d no longer be able to enjoy movies or music at any kind of volume level until we moved out. And this on the second day of our one-year lease.
So, what if you love movies—or music—but live in a similar situation, where you’re unable to have a system due to neighborly issues? Or if you have a space that just can’t accommodate a massive screen? Or you travel a lot and want to have the best possible experience wherever you go? Or if you’re like Dennis’s friend Sara Beth and just find large screens overwhelming?
Modern laptops can deliver 4K HDR resolution, which is insane pixel density when compared to screens four or more times larger. They also have ultra-powerful processors, many gigs of RAM, and fantastic video cards for wonderful video scaling.
Some laptops even offer an HDMI input, meaning you can connect an external 4K HDR source like a UHD Blu-ray, Apple 4K TV, or Kaleidescape Strato and watch it on the laptop’s screen.
By the numbers, a decent-sized laptop screen—say 16″ diagonal—sitting in your lap would achieve both SMPTE and THX recommended viewing angles for an immersive experience. This would actually deliver the same visual experience as sitting 12.5′ from a 100″ screen. (If you’re curious about calculating recommended screen sizes for your seating position, this is a great site.)
Regarding screen size, I’d also say that I’d rather watch a great image on a smaller screen than a good one on a large screen. In other words, a 75″ screen doesn’t always trump the experience of viewing on a 55″ or 65″.
On the audio side, headphones can definitely deliver the luxury Schiit. (I’m referring to Schiit Audio, of course.) In fact, in some ways, a good pair of headphones with an outboard DAC and amplifier can get you far closer to the source material than audio systems costing many times the price. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to audition a pair of truly cost-no-object phones like Sennheiser’s Orpheus 2 or HiFiMan’s Shangri-La, then you know how truly jaw-dropping audio can be. Headphones can reveal micro details and subtleties that can be lost when listening on a traditional pair of loudspeakers, with bass response, dynamics, and isolation from outside noise that traditional systems struggle to match.
Headphones also aren’t impacted by the room’s acoustics, typically deliver fantastic audio at less-than-reference
Orpheus Comes Alive
Powering on Sennheiser’s $52,000 HE 1 (also known as Orpheus 2) headphones initiates an elegant ballet, the controls slowly extending from their recessed positions on the front of the marble plinth, the eight tubes rising and slowly warming to life, and the storage cover gently rising to reveal the headphones themselves, enclosed in a luxurious storage case. This orchestration is designed to entice and excite as the system slowly comes online, timed so Orpheus is fully ready to entertain upon completion.
levels, and won’t have your neighbors (or roommates) leaving any snotty notes on your door.
With virtualization software and processing like DTS Headphone:X or Dolby Headphone, you can even get a simulated surround experience while wearing a pair of headphones. Is it as immersive as having an actual dedicated 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos speaker array, which can place sounds discretely anywhere in the room including directly over your head and behind you? No, but it can be pretty damn impressive.
The place where this kind of experience truly falls short is when it goes beyond an audience of one. Sitting hunched over a laptop screen side-by-side with a group of headphone-wearing friends is certainly no one’s definition of luxury.
So, can a laptop and headphones deliver a luxury experience for a solo cinephile? You tell me.
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.