Adrienne Maxwell Tag

The Need for High-End Audio

The Need for High-End Audio

For me, high-end audio is all about the emotion.

 

Hold that thought for a moment.

 

In a recent column, my friend and colleague Adrienne Maxwell asked, “Do we really need high-end audio?” She outlined many valid reasons as to why the answer may not be “yes.” Certainly, high-end audio would not be at the bedrock of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And the path to high-end nirvana can have many challenges.

 

As a consumer, there’s the expense (though one can assemble a wonderfully musical system without spending outrageous sums of money, as Adrienne pointed out), the concerns of system and room matching, the need for proper setup, and the possibility that after investing all that time and money your particular combination of room and gear just might not work well together. (The advice of an expert can be invaluable in avoiding this pitfall.)

As a salesperson or dealer, you have a responsibility to provide your customer with what they want. It goes without saying that this requires skill and insight, not just a desire to earn a big spiff.

 

As a high-end manufacturer, you have to balance the sometimes opposing factors of price, performance, aesthetics, manufacturability, business costs, and market demand. If you’re going all-out on a product that strives for ultimate quality, it will almost certainly carry a high price tag, and the law of diminishing returns will be staring you in the face.

 

And, yes, sometimes a large speaker might cost $30,000 or $100,000 or more. But consider their multiple top-quality drivers, complex-geometry cabinets with expensive woods and finishes, elaborate crossovers, premium parts, and so on. These don’t come cheap, and manufacturers and dealers have to make a profit. And such speakers can outperform other designs, sometimes dramatically so, especially in presence, scale, dynamics and bass extension.

 

As a reviewer, I can attest that properly reviewing high-end audio gear is demanding. Let’s say you’re doing a speaker review. You need to listen using different amps, cables, source components, and even rooms in order to try to factor out what the speaker is doing from what the other equipment is doing.

 

Then there’s the psychological pressure. You have a responsibility to get it right because the stakes with a high-end review are high. Because this gear can be so expensive to produce, a negative review can financially harm a manufacturer, especially a smaller one.

 

So why get involved in high-end audio at all? And, as Adrienne pointed out, what the heck is it even, anyway?

 

There have been many definitions of “high-end audio” over the decades, most defining it as the ability for components or systems to more accurately or convincingly reproduce the sound of music than typical products. Harry Pearson, founder of The Absolute Sound, characterized high-end as the ability to reproduce the sound of real music—the absolute sound—in real space. Certainly, when most think of high-end they think of expensive prices.

 

But, like I said, for me—and for so many others—it’s all about the emotion.

 

A high-end system is one that crosses the line from a mere (even if high-quality) reproducer of sound to one that conveys the emotional impact of music.

 

It’s a system that draws you in and engages you. It makes you forget that you’re listening to reproduced sound and makes a direct connection to your feelings on a primal, soul-deep level.

 

This is an elusive quality. Just ask an audiophile dedicated to the pursuit, or anyone who’s spent hours or days setting up a system at an audio show or a dealer or a customer’s home. A system might sound good, or it might even sound bad, and after painstakingly adjusting speaker placement, cartridge alignment, vibration-isolating feet, room treatment, or what-have-you, there’s ideally a moment when everything comes together and the sound becomes right, locked-in, and, at the best of times, magical.

 

I fervently believe that high-end audio is worth defending, preserving, and encouraging. (Disclaimer: I’m in the high-end audio industry. And let’s set aside considerations of possible overpricing, marketing hype, accusations of “snake oil,” and other frown-inducing aspects for the moment.) High-end audio reflects not only a constant striving for excellence but a noble (if also commercial) effort to bring listeners ever-closer to the music.

 

And when you get that closeness, it’s one of the most wonderful feelings in the world.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Do We Really Need High-End Audio?

Do We Really Need High-End Audio?

In the roughly 17 years that I’ve been an AV reviewer, I’ve covered pretty much every product category. I’ve reviewed video displays, speakers, remote controls, disc players, AV receivers—you name it. And while the products I reviewed covered a wide price range, there was always one category I tried to avoid: High-end audio. Now, I can’t give you an exact price or spec that represented the cutoff where I would pass an audio review opportunity on to someone else. The best way I can quantify “high-end audio” is to say that you know it when you see it. And perhaps that’s part of my concern with it.

 

Eventually my focus moved into the realm of display reviews, and one reason I’m quite comfortable there is because, generally speaking, there are clear, quantifiable steps that distinguish one performance class from another. You can measure black level and contrast, color accuracy, and now HDR peak brightness and accuracy. You can say to someone, “If you really

value [this], then you should buy [that].” “If you mostly use your TV to do [this], then you should save your money and get [that].” Of course you’ll run into products that straddle the fence between budget and mid-level, or between mid-level and high-end, which may make it harder to render a final verdict, but those are more the exception than the rule.

 

That wasn’t always the case, though. I first started reviewing displays in the early days of high-definition. There were virtually no budget HDTVs, but there was certainly a high-end realm, inhabited by brands like Mitsubishi, JVC, and Pioneer Elite. Sitting at the very top of the food chain was Runco, maker of the ultimate high-end TVs and 

projectors. It wasn’t necessarily that Runco displays performed significantly better than other lower-priced options, but they were sold exclusively through dealers that were trained to provide a level of service and support to justify the products’ high-end prices. And that model worked for them. It’s fair to say that Runco owned the luxury market.

 

But then a funny thing happened. Samsung and Vizio came along and proved that you could sell TVs that performed really well for a lot less money. JVC and Epson did the same thing with front projectors. High-definition displays became less of a luxury and more of a commodity, and the brands that couldn’t adapt to this new reality died. One by one the high-end display products just sort of fell away. Even Runco was ultimately purchased by commercial-display company Planar, which tried for a while to keep a presence in the luxury home market but eventually gave up.

 

Sure, names like SIM2 and B&O still exist, but they cater to a very niche market of loyalists. For the most part, the era of the truly exorbitantly priced home video product is dead.

 

That’s not the case in the audio market, at least not to the same extent. This market has faced similar challenges over the past 10 years, as companies like GoldenEar, SVS, and ELAC on the speaker side and Emotiva on the electronics side have proven that you can deliver high-performance audio products for a lot less money.

 

It has certainly been disruptive, forcing some brands out of business and others into the hands of private-equity companies. But big-name audiophile brands like Paradigm, Focal, MartinLogan, Revel, NAD, Anthem, and Marantz are still alive and kicking—and producing great gear at lower price points than ever before.

 

But it poses the question, as the mid-level offerings from these companies get better and better, how can they continue to justify the existence of higher-end lines, especially in the speaker market? How do you quantify the improvement? That has always been my struggle.

 

Sure, you can measure a speaker’s frequency response and sensitivity. You can measure an amp’s power and distortion. There are some performance benchmarks by which to judge a product. But measurements don’t tell the whole story in audio.

 

Personal preference is certainly a valid benchmark. Some people prefer a little fuller bass, a little more prominent midrange, or a more emphasized treble. That’s true of any audio product, no matter the price. (Hey, it’s true in video, too. Some people prefer a less accurate, more exaggerated picture. But unlike with a TV, you can’t offer multiple performance modes in 

a pair of speakers that will significantly alter the sound profile to appeal to different tastes.)

 

As you move into the truly high-end audio realm, the performance conversation moves away from those basic sonic characteristics that are easily defined and more toward elusive qualities like space, texture, and liquidity—words that often make the more technically minded audio fan bristle. What exactly are we describing there? I’m not even sure what liquidity sounds like.

 

Certainly, build quality and design help to distinguish many high-end products. The use of higher-quality parts. A product that has been hand-assembled, or at least individually inspected and approved. Real-wood cabinets. Automotive-grade custom paint finishes. 

 

But even here you reach a point of diminishing returns on your investment. Some of the most eye-catching speakers I’ve seen at recent trade shows include the Focal Kanta No. 2 ($10,000/pair), the Paradigm Persona 5F ($17,000/pair), and the Revel Performa F228Be ($10,000/pair). For me, 

these seem like the pinnacle of performance and luxury, so when I see the existence of $65,000/pair or $100,000/pair speakers, my response is: Why? I’ve yet to hear a satisfying answer to this question, which is why high-end audio is still a category I shy away from as a reviewer. I just don’t get it.

 

I also wonder how much longer it can last. The high-end audio market has proven itself more resilient (or maybe just more stubborn) than the high-end video market, but is the end nigh? One audio reviewer I know has mentioned that the trend at many audiophile shows these days is to create products where exoticism, rather than sound quality, is the apparent goal. He sometimes derides these products as “wacky.” Like, if you can’t convince people to buy something expensive, convince them to buy something “unique” instead. This trend might be even worse, but that’s a topic for another day.

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.

After Life

After Life

If you appreciate a show that grabs you by the hands and pulls you through all the feels in a short amount of time, After Life is for you. Ricky Gervais writes, directs, and stars in this series about a man who has lost his wife to cancer and is trying to find a reason to keep slogging through this life. He can’t bring himself to commit suicide, yet he sees no hope for joy. So he has decided to embrace bitterness and hopelessness as superpowers that allow him to do and say anything. His resulting interactions with the people in his life swing between funny, heartbreaking, wickedly off-color, and even downright sappy. 

 

After Life is British to the core—a quiet little show filled with quirky people talking to each other a lot. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it delightfully honest and poignant. If you only know Gervais for his more acerbic wit, you might be surprised how unapologetically sentimental he can be at times, and those opposing forces mesh perfectly here. It’s like brewing Kuding to make sweet tea.

After Life

Season One consists of just six 30-minute episodes, so you can easily binge this one in a weekend. Netflix presents the show in Dolby Vision and HDR10, with a Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack. The picture quality through my Apple TV was very good—it’s a clean, nicely detailed image that goes for a natural look, so don’t expect a lot of stylized shots to exploit the HDR. Overall, the improved dynamic range just lends a better sense of realism. Not surprisingly, the soundtrack is primarily dialogue through the center channel, with some music filling out the soundstage. Overall, it’s not an AV presentation to show off your system, but it suits the subject matter.

 

I was surprised and perhaps even a bit disappointed to see that a second season of After Life is in the works. This one seemed perfect as a limited-run series—six episodes that tell a complete story, capturing a time of painful transition in someone’s life. But Season One proved to be such a sweet surprise to me that I’m also intrigued to see what the show has in store in its next life.

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.

Why I’m Not Ready to Let Go of Discs

Why I'm Not Ready to Let Go of Discs

We’ve sung a fair amount of praise on this site for streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Video, and a lot of the content we review comes from these providers. The convenience of steaming can’t be denied, and the quality is catching up. Netflix, in particular, offers a lot of excellent 4K HDR content that, provided you have the bandwidth to stream it reliably, is almost indistinguishable from Ultra HD Blu-ray. You still don’t get uncompressed Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, but you do get Atmos in a compressed form—so they’re making progress on the audio side, too.

 

I feel as enthusiastic about streaming as everyone else. I cut the cord a couple years ago, and streaming is how I receive most of my video content. Movie night in my house generally begins with a scroll through Apple’s movie rentals or Netflix’s

recent releases. Yet despite my appreciation of all things streaming, I have no intention of getting rid of my disc player, and I can sum up the reason why in three words:

 

The Sure Thing

 

Yes, I’m talking about Rob Reiner’s 1985 comedy starring John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga, a most beloved film of my middle- and high-school years. One recent evening, as I pondered what to stream, I thought of this classic film and decided a rewatch was long overdue. A voice search through my Apple TV revealed no results. Really? Could that be true? A quick trip to JustWatch.com, one of many websites that helps you search across streaming platforms, confirmed that The Sure Thing is not available to stream anywhere. I was out of luck.

 

Or was I? In a bold move, I got up from my couch, walked all the way across the room, and scanned my wall o’ discs that has become more decor than anything at this point. And there it was, right next to other beloved “S” classics like She’s Having a Baby, Splash, Sports Night: The Complete Series, and The Sound of Music that I acquired during the disc era’s heyday. Granted it was the DVD version; the film was never released on Blu-ray either. (I’m not holding my breath on a UHD BD release.) But it’s mine, and I can watch it whenever I want—as long as I hold on to that disc player.

 

This discovery sent me down the rabbit hole to see what other films from my youth are not available to stream. I came across an Engadget story from August 2018 about screenwriter John August, who, upon being equally shocked that he couldn’t stream Ron Howard’s Cocoon, called on the Internet hive to help him create a database of movies that are MIA from the streaming sphere. Here are a few that caught my eye:

 

Better Off Dead

The Cannonball Run

The Cotton Club

Dogma

The Flamingo Kid

History of the World Part 1

Irreconcilable Differences

Jungle Fever

The Last American Virgin

Mask

Prizzi’s Honor

Pump Up the Volume

Rhinestone

Silkwood

Spirited Away

To Live and Die In LA

Wild at Heart

Willow

 

The full list is no longer completely accurate (if it ever was). Some of the films on it are now available through at least one streaming service, although I was surprised that some pretty big names—like James Cameron’s The Abyss and True Lies—are only available through smaller-tier platforms (i.e., not Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Google Play).

Perhaps the above list doesn’t faze you. Perhaps it only fazes Gen Xers like me who grew up with a lot of those films on standard rotation on cable TV, and thus have a nostalgic attachment to them. But there’s another issue with streaming that might faze you: Its glaring lack of consistency, both in quality and content availability.

 

Netflix drops titles all the time. Content providers shift loyalties, so a movie you watched last month on Amazon Prime may not be there today. Disney, which now owns a frightening share of the cinematic universe, is getting ready to launch its massive Netflix competitor, Disney+. How that will affect the offerings now available through the other major steaming platforms remains to be seen, but we know it will affect them. How many streaming subscriptions are you prepared to pay for to ensure access to desired content?

There’s a continuity to the disc experience that I still find comforting. When we’re talking about movies that you know your family will watch over and over again, sometimes it’s better to just buy the thing so you know exactly where it lives. Plus, it took a lot of time and money for me to amass my disc collection, and I’m not prepared to part with it just yet. Even if I don’t partake of it as often as I used to, I know it still serves a purpose.

The other day, I was trying to explain to my kiddo why the phrase “I want my two dollars” will make most people my age laugh. It was time to introduce her to Better Off Dead, another 1985 John Cusack classic that has been mercilessly shunned by the streaming mafia. Thanks to the convenience of YouTube, I could show her just the film segments involving everyone’s favorite psychotic paper boy in one neatly edited montage. That’s the beauty of streaming. And when she’s ready to watch the whole movie, I know there’s a copy sitting on my shelf, eager to satisfy. That’s the beauty of disc.

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.

Luxury Can Be Invisible

Luxury Can Be Invisible

For many people, luxury and beauty are inseparable. Whether we’re talking about an Aston Martin sports car, a TAG Heuer watch, or even a Sub-Zero refrigerator, part of what makes it a luxury item is the beautiful design. It’s something people like to look at and show off.

 

In the world of high-end home cinema, luxury can certainly be beautiful. You may choose to assemble a system that gorgeously melds form and function—maybe a set of Focal or Sonus Faber speakers, a rack full of McIntosh’s cool retro-

looking electronics, and ornate lighting fixtures and shades that demand to be seen.

 

For some people, though, the ultimate luxury is a home media system that’s completely invisible and doesn’t detract from the home’s decor. A system that guests would never know existed—until the press of a button brings it to life to deliver a high-performance experience. If that sounds appealing, the good news is that today’s custom market offers plenty of ways to achieve invisible luxury.

 

Of course, audio is the easiest to hide. Gear racks can be tucked away in closets, wires can be run through walls, and there’s an endless array of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers from which to choose. The quality of in-wall speakers has improved greatly over the past 10 years; they’re no longer relegated to providing background music. Speakers from companies like Triad, Wisdom Audio, and Pro Audio

Luxury Can Be Invisible

Sonance’s Invisible Series in-wall speakers (also shown in the illustration at the top of the page)

Technology really can deliver audio- or theaterphile performance from within the walls.

 

And hey, if the average in-wall speaker is still too visible for your tastes, consider a truly invisible model, where you can’t even see a bezel or speaker grille. This is a growing category and now includes offerings from the likes of Sonance, Monitor Audio, Stealth Acoustics, and Nakymatone.

 

“Invisible” video products require a bit more creativity—or at least a bit more expense during the installation process. If you’re going the front-projection route, it’s common to install a projector in an automated cabinet that can lower from the ceiling,

and motorized drop-down screens are readily available.

 

If you’re thinking you can’t use front projection outside of a dedicated theater room, think again. These days, you can find projector/screen combos that work very well in a brighter room, and screen manufacturers like Screen Innovations even have creative drop-down screen solutions that hide in your window frame.

 

Where you really have to get creative is if you want a TV instead of a projector. Sure, smaller TVs can be hidden in cabinets, even automated ones where the TV rises up from within the cabinet itself. But it’s a lot more difficult to hide a 65- or 75-inch (or bigger!) screen. You may have to settle for a creative disguise, and technological advancements are helping this along. Back at CES, LG showed off a rollable 65-inch OLED TV that disappears down into a modern-looking cabinet. It’s supposed to come out this year, and we’ll see if LG offers announces larger screen sizes down the road.

 

MicroLED, which consists of smaller individual panels that can be combined in all shapes and sizes to form a TV, is also promising. It’s not invisible per se, but there are ways to creatively blend the panels into your wall design and perhaps use them as artwork when they aren’t functioning together as a TV.

 

In the meantime, another way to disguise your TV is to go with something like Samsung’s The Frame, which looks more like an art frame than a TV and displays art of your choosing when it’s in standby mode. Lots of TVs can show 

art as a screen saver, but The Frame does it more thoughtfully, keeping the power use low while automatically adjusting the screen’s appearance to suit your room’s lighting conditions.

 

The final piece of the puzzle is the home automation system that makes the invisible visible, transforming your everyday living space into your luxury home theater. Some dimmable lights. Blackout window shades (which, by the way, don’t have to be black—they can be quite lovely). And a controller to handle it all. A stack of remotes is hardly invisible, but all the major home-automation companies, from Control4 to Crestron to Savant, can put advanced control into an iPad or tablet that looks like every other tablet lying around your house right now. You can also integrate that control into subtle but stylish (and fully customizable) on-wall keypads. To your visitors, it’s just another switch on your wall, scarcely worth noticing.

 

As Lisa Montgomery said in her recent piece “Techorating—It’s a Thing,” the best way to achieve the perfect blend of technology and design is to get your interior designer and home technology team working together, on the same page, from the start. Creating a completely invisible home media system may take a bit more planning, a bit more expense, and a bit more patience, but the result will be a luxury that’s well worth the wait.

—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 Sell Specialty AV to Women

How to Sell Specialty AV to Women

In an era where it’s so easy to buy (and return) Internet-direct AV gear and smart-home products, specialty AV retailers and custom installers face the daunting challenge of figuring out how to get potential shoppers into their stores. It’s the same challenge that pretty much every brick-and-mortar store faces these days, but high-end AV retailers must deal with a second hurdle: When your industry still caters primarily to men, how do you avoid alienating the other half of the buying public?

 

I don’t speak for all women. I only speak for myself when I say that a trip to the specialty AV store sounds as appealing as a trip to the car dealership. In both cases, I’m going in with low expectations. I expect to be ignored or talked down to, to have all sorts of stereotypical assumptions thrown my way, and to be constantly pushing back against the upsell. If I can research and buy similar goods on the Internet and avoid that treatment, I’m going to do so.

 

We all know that sales is an art—the art of truly seeing the person right in front of you and figuring out how to sell specifically to them. Every sale is different because every person is different, so it’s hard to make generalizations on how to sell to anyone. But here are a few big-picture suggestions for AV/custom retailers to keep in mind when interacting with female shoppers—really, all shoppers.

 

Check Your Bias

I was originally going to title this section “Don’t make assumptions,” but the reality is that salespeople have to make assumptions. It’s just part of the job. The question is, are you making assumptions that immediately dismiss or diminish the person who just walked through the door? 

 

I’ve worked in the AV industry as a writer and gear reviewer for about 20 years, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve been dismissed or diminished at trade shows, industry events, and specialty shops by pitch people who assume I don’t know tech. If I’m standing next to a man while getting a pitch on a new piece of AV gear, the chances are still quite high that a male pitch person will not make eye contact with me at all. He assumes I don’t know or care about the technology and won’t understand what he’s talking about. If he does look at me, it’s always when we get to subject of design—the nice finish, 

If a man and woman come into your store together, don’t assume he’s the gearhead and she’s the reluctant tagalong

the color options, the pretty buttons. You know, the kind of stuff a woman would care about. If I’m the only person getting the pitch, he usually tends to dumb things down to an offensively basic level.

 

Even if all your past experience tells you women don’t care as much about the gear, it’s important to check that bias before interacting with any new customer. If a man and woman come into your store together, don’t assume he’s the gearhead and she’s the reluctant tagalong who’s just there to make sure he doesn’t go crazy or pick out ugly stuff. Treat them as equal partners, enthusiasts, and decision makers, at least until their own words and actions demonstrate otherwise.

And if a woman walks into your store by herself, she’s there for a reason. Maybe it’s not to buy a $5,000 tube amp or a $20,000 pair of electrostats (or maybe it is!). The melding of AV, smart home, and advanced control technologies has created an incredibly interesting and diverse portfolio of luxury home products that can appeal to anyone, so you should want and expect to see more women checking out your showroom.

 

The fastest way to kill that potential sale is to talk down to someone. And the reverse assumption is also dangerous: If you assume a man has a high level of tech knowledge and bombard him with overly complex specs and industry jargon, that can be just as off-putting. I personally would have nothing but respect for a salesperson who asks me what level of technical knowledge I have before showing me a piece of gear. Do I want high-level tech talk, do I want to keep it basic, or do I want something in between? It shows me that this salesperson is actively trying to avoid assumptions and wants to know more about me.

 

Another way specialty retailers can avoid bias is by hiring a more diverse staff—and not just in the accounting or purchasing departments. You need females on the show floor and out in the field. Every year, I attend the CEDIA trade show, which is where custom installers see and receive training on the latest AV and home-automation wares, and the vast majority of them are male. The luxury AV market lags far behind other consumer electronics categories like computers and gaming when it comes to gender diversity (or diversity in general, to be frank).

 

Show, Don’t Tell

No matter how tech-savvy a person is, they probably didn’t come into your store to see a box sitting idle on a display shelf and get a rundown of the specs. They can get that on the Internet. They came to experience something, and if you give them a good experience, you’re more likely to earn that sale.

 

I’ve read a lot of press releases over the years, and I can confidently state that reading about a cool, new feature is never as effective as seeing that feature in action. You read it on paper and think, “Oh, that sounds interesting.” But then you see a demo in action, and you’re like, “Okay, that’s awesome. I want that.”

I think the need to experience products and systems in action is especially important for women. As I wrote in a story many years ago  for HomeTheaterReview.com, women generally care more about the result than the process. While men may enjoying digging into the nuts and bolts of the particular pieces in an AV or home automation system, a woman is more likely to be swayed by the experiential result of all those pieces working in synergy. Let her experience the luxury of a luxury home cinema system—where the push of a button on a beautifully streamlined touchscreen controller dims lights, lowers 

I think the need to experience products and systems in action
is especially important
for women

shades, and queues up the perfect music or movie. Show her the many ways smart home products and an advanced control system can work together all around the house to make daily tasks easier.

 

To quote myself, “The best salesmen are equally deft at selling the process to the man and the result to the woman.”

 

Ease Up on the Upsell

Trust is the key to building long-term customers, and for me and most women I know, nothing destroys trust faster than the upsell.

 

I go to the same shop every time I need to get my car’s oil changed, because it was the one place that didn’t originally push me to deal with 10 others “problems” with my car when I brought it in. Now, when they say I really need to replace a certain filter, I trust that it’s true. Likewise, I won’t take my puppy to the vet that’s always pushing their own upscale product line of food and supplements. Or the dentist who’s always pushing elective procedures my insurance won’t cover.

 

And I won’t shop at a specialty AV retailer where I feel like they’re always trying to sell me more than I need or want. I know profit margins are lean these days, but if you can resist the urge to upsell now, it could pay dividends from a loyal customer in the long run.

 

Meet Them Where They’re At

Of course, the above suggestions are moot if there are no women to sell to. If you can’t get the female shoppers to come to you, consider taking the experience to them.

 

Specialty retailers will sometimes host listening events, where they invite people in to hear a hot new product. In my experience at these events, the audience is almost entirely male, and the demo usually takes place in a small, dark room in the back of the shop. This might be an effective way to appeal to the audio enthusiast, but you may need to think outside that box in order to get your product offerings in front of more women.

 

Consider partnering with a local gallery to show off both art and tech together. Or do an event at a local home goods store, where you can demo how custom home automation and smart products can improve your kitchen, living room, etc. Even getting a booth at the local street fair or farmer’s market to highlight some of the more basic products in your line can help get your name out there. Sometimes you have to start small. As I mentioned above, it’s all about building trust, and that might have to happen one smart speaker at a time.

—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 Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World

How to Train Your Dragon 3

The Hidden World is the third and final film in the How to Train Your Dragon series. It has been five long years since last we saw Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his beloved dragon Toothless on the big screen. If you followed any of the off-screen drama surrounding The Hidden World, you know that the film’s release was pushed back multiple times—partially due to the financial woes and restructuring of DreamWorks, but also due to script concerns. Apparently it took a few passes to nail the landing, but The Hidden World proved worth the wait.

 

The story takes place one year after the events of How to Train Your Dragon 2. Hiccup is the king of Berk, Toothless is the alpha dragon, and together with their merry band of dragon-riding misfits, they are freeing dragons from all sorts of ne’er-do-wells and bringing them home to live safely and peacefully in Berk.

 

Enter Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), the ultimate dragon hunter, singlehandedly responsible for the killing of all the Night Furies. All but one, that is—which is something Grimmel intends to rectify. He threatens to destroy everything that Hiccup loves unless Hiccup turns over Toothless, and with his own set of powerful (and powerfully drugged) dragons, he has the means to do it. Hiccup sets off to find the mythical Hidden World, a place where dragons and dragon-loving humans will be forever protected from evil men.

 

Meanwhile, Toothless has found himself a girlfriend . . .  and it’s adorable.

 

After seeing The Hidden World three times in the theater (you can read about that adventure here), I knew one thing for certain: The Ultra HD version would be a sight to behold. And indeed it is. The film’s animation is simply gorgeous, with

exceptional detail, a rich color palette, and a lot of complex interplay between light and shadow. If you’ve got an HDR-capable display, you should absolutely watch this film through a provider that supports HDR playback. I went with the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc, which offers HDR10 video. The scenes in the hidden world are perfect demo material, both for their HDR and their color. But really the entire movie is stunning, and there are also a number of scenes that will challenge your display’s ability to render deep, dark blacks and fine shadow details.

 

The disc includes a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that makes good use of the complete channel palette. It’s a well-

balanced presentation with clear dialogue and a lot of music and ambient sounds in the surround channels. It’s not really an Atmos showpiece, however. The film contains several battle sequences that could make aggressive use of the height channels, and a few such moments will catch your ears, but for the most part it’s a fairly conservative mix.

 

The UHD Blu-ray package also includes the Blu-ray disc and a digital copy, plus bonus features like deleted scenes, an alternate opening, some fun featurettes, and a full-length commentary track by writer/director Dean DuBlois, producer Bradford Lewis, and Head of Character Animation Simon Otto.

 

The Hidden World is a wonderful conclusion to a wonderful trilogy that will delight children and reduce grown men to tears. (No, really—I saw this myself in theaters.) If your family loves How to Train Your Dragon as much as mine does, this installment will be spending a lot of time on your TV screen, so it’s worth it to pay more to get the top-shelf UHD presentation.

 

—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.

Ep. 8: Who Needs 8K?

The Cineluxe Hour logo

Hosts Michael Gaughn & Dennis Burger open Episode 8 with an apology for the long gap between episodes, caused by a technical glitch.

 

At 4:39, Cineluxe contributor Adrienne Maxwell and Wirecutter senior staff writer Chris Heinonen—arguably the two biggest experts on video displays in the industry—join Dennis & Mike to discuss the emergence of and potential for 8K video.

 

At  26:37, Chris and Dennis discuss Chris’s online 4K viewing-distance calculator, and at 30:32, everybody talks about the movies, series, and books they’ve checked out recently.

CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT MORE EPISODES OF THE CINELUXE HOUR

RELATED EPISODE

Dead to Me

Dead to Me

In Netflix’s new original series Dead to Me, nothing is quite as it seems. Even the show itself isn’t exactly what you might glean from a casual viewing of the Netflix teaser. You think it’s going to be a show about a grieving wife who lost her husband in a violent accident and is trying to move forward with the help of a support group—and especially another grieving woman that she meets there.

 

Perhaps you tune in because you love the two female leads, Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, and you think it’ll be fun to watch a sharp-edged show about two middle-aged woman who suddenly find themselves single and must help each other navigate grief, dating, parenthood, etc.

 

You’ll realize before the end of Episode One that Dead to Me plans to tell a different—and much more interesting—story. And if you’re at all like me, you’ll be instantly hooked and burn through all 10 half-hour(ish) episodes in a weekend.

Dead to Me

One thing that does meet expectations is the performances, as both Applegate and Cardellini are a joy to watch. But the real credit goes to show creator Liz Feldman and the writing team for giving them such great stuff to worth with. This kind of story could easily slip into a stereotype: “One is hard and angry. The other is sweet and quirky. Don’t they make a wacky team?” But both characters are fleshed out with depth and believability. Yes, Applegate’s Jen has a hard time keeping her anger in check, but she’s written as a real woman, with a real vulnerability underneath that helps her remain the sympathetic heroine.

 

Dead to Me is presented in Dolby Vision or HDR10 with a Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack. I streamed it through my Apple TV to an LG OLED TV, and the picture quality was excellent. The show is meant to have a very natural, everyday look, so there’s nothing particularly stylized about the cinematography. But the image is clean, colorful, and razor sharp, and the many Orange County, CA landscapes provide some nice eye candy. It’s beautifully lit, and the HDR just serves to reinforce that, be it through bright patches of sunlight streaming in through windows or the flicker of a firepit’s flames against the dark night sky.

 

Dolby Digital Plus is just fine for this type of dialogue-driven content. Your surround speakers and subwoofer won’t see much action here, although there is some effective LFE use in certain key scenes.

 

I must admit, I’m not sure if Dead to Me has the legs to run many seasons without the story devolving into absurdity. But I thoroughly enjoyed Season One, and I look forward to seeing what surprises Season Two will throw our way.

—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 Good Control System?

What Makes a Good Control System?

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

What Makes a Good Control System?

Logitech Harmony Elite universal remote, with hub and app

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

 

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

 

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

What Makes a Good Control System?

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

 

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

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

 

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

  —Adrienne Maxwell

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