John Sciacca Tag

Hunter Killer

Hunter Killer

Don’t feel bad if you have never heard of Hunter Killer. It went in and out of theaters nearly as quickly as the first explosions occur in the film. HK belongs to that increasing group of films that have a huge divide between critics and moviegoers, with the film generally panned by critics with a 37% approval rating and average score of 4.7/10, but with CinemaScore audiences giving it a far more generous average grade of A-.

 

I originally stumbled across HK while scrolling through the trailers of upcoming films on my Apple TV, and I was sold. I’m a nut for submarine movies—Das Boot, Hunt for Red October, U-571, Crimson Tide . . . I’ve seen ‘em all. It’s been far too long since we’ve had a good sub film, and none showcasing the latest technologies of the newest real-world boats, and the trailer for HK was action packed. So, when HK arrived on the Kaleidescape Movie Store in 4K HDR with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack a full two weeks before being available on disc, it was a no-brainer for me.

 

There are essentially two types of submarines in the modern Navy, often referred to as Boomers and Hunter Killers. Boomers—technically Ohio-class ballistic- and guided-missile submarines—lurk around the world’s oceans as silently as possible, lying in wait and ready to unleash a maelstrom of ballistic missiles on an unsuspecting enemy should the launch order come. (That was the USS Alabama in Crimson Tide.) Hunter Killers—Virginia-class fast-attack submarines, of which there are currently 16 in active service—spend their time looking for and then tracking enemy subs and other ships, constantly prepared to destroy them before they can launch their payload should war break out.

Hunter Killer

Hunter Killer follows the USS Arkansas, a Virginia-class attack submarine, and its crew captained by the very non-traditional and unorthodox (“He didn’t go to Annapolis”) newly appointed captain, Joe Glass (Gerard Butler), as they sail off to investigate the disappearance of a US submarine feared lost in the Arctic. Concurrently, a four-man team of Navy SEALs infiltrates a Russian naval base and discovers a coup underway. After witnessing the Russian President taken prisoner and seeing the defense minister’s moves to goad the US into war, the SEALs are tasked with the mission of “rescuing” the Russian President and whisking him away to safety. These two plotlines ultimately converge in the film’s climax. In between is lots of gunfire, rocket launches, and sub-on-sub torpedo action.

 

The picture quality is pretty terrific, with loads of detail, especially in the brightly lit outdoor scenes. HDR is used to good effect in the dimly lit submarine, with its myriad of screens and displays. My one nit is that the 4K transfer is so good that some of the underwater sub-chase scenes ended up looking fake.

Hunter Killer

The interior sets of the USS Arkansas, however, look amazingly real and authentic. Apparently, the US Navy was involved with the film’s production and design team in developing the look of the sub, and it really shows. Every scene inside the sub looks and feels real, which goes a long way towards giving a sub movie credibility. Butler also spent several days aboard an actual Virginia-class sub while underway to get a feel for daily submarine life and operations.

Sonically, the Atmos mix does exactly what it should, and sounds mostly fantastic in a home theater. From the opening scenes, you are plunged underwater with sounds of the ocean rolling and bubbling overhead. The Arkansas is also filled with tons of little ambient sounds that place you right in the midst of the boat. There is plenty of low-frequency info to give your subwoofer a workout, specifically the deep, steady thrum of the sub’s turbine. Dialogue is mostly intelligible, but there were several scenes where it was buried in the midst of background sounds, making it difficult to understand.

 

Is HK a good movie? Meh. Let’s just say I doubt “cerebral” would be anyone’s adjective of choice to describe it. It also has its share of head-scratching moments, as well as scenes that stretch your suspension of disbelief (submarines don’t follow other boats just feet off the stern, or race around the ocean floor, zig-zagging through impossibly narrow channels with the agility of a Ferrari navigating Nurburgring). And Butler seems hellbent on being angry, defying all established protocol, and arguing with his XO in nearly every scene.

 

A far better question is, “Is HK an entertaining movie?” and if you’re a fan of the action or military genre, the answer is a definite yes. A good metric might be whether or not you enjoyed Gerard Butler in Olympus Has Fallen or its sequel, London Has Fallen, as Hunter Killer is similar in pacing and style but (obviously) set on a sub. The movie’s two-plus-hour run time zips by, and there is constantly something happening to keep you engaged and entertained. If you’re looking for a movie where you can sit back and just enjoy the action unfolding onscreen and the dynamic Atmos audio mix, HK is the perfect Friday-night popcorn flick.

John Sciacca

Hunter Killer

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.

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

Of all the excellent points John Sciacca made in his latest piece, “Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy,one in particular leapt right off the page at me. Near the end, he recommends an ingenious solution to the problem of Peak Subscription Saturation: A unified “Premier Pass,” where streaming services join forces under a single banner, a single subscription, and divvy up the profits between them.

 

Unfortunately, that seems like an unlikely solution, especially given the corporate politics that have plagued and continue to plague streaming conglomerates like Hulu. But there’s already a precedent for John’s idea. One of the best-kept secrets in all of geekdom, it’s called VRV (pronounced “verve”), and it’s quickly becoming my go-to source for streaming video.

 

A word of warning for you Muggles in the audience: The next few sentences are going to get pretty geeky, so feel free to jump past the next line break. At any rate, I stumbled across VRV in my quest for a way to watch the streaming service Project Alpha in my media room via my Roku. As of late, my wife and I have been watching a lot of Critical Role, in which a group of voice-actor friends stream their weekly Dungeons & Dragons game for the world to watch. It’s honestly one of the

most compelling and entertaining programs I’ve ever seen. And yes, you can watch the show for free on YouTube, but we wanted to financially support its creators as well as gain access to the exclusive character portraits, hit-point counters, and ad-free graphics available only to paid subscribers of Alpha. (You can see those in the clip at right, and contrast them with the graphics for the free Critical Role YouTube broadcasts here).

But Project Alpha isn’t available on Roku, so we kept watching on the YouTube app instead. It wasn’t until some months later that I stumbled across the VRV app on Roku completely by accident, and found it offered Alpha content. That immediately seemed like the solution to my problem. What I didn’t realize is that it would be a solution to problems I didn’t even know I had.

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

What makes VRV great is that it houses a number of geeky streaming services under one umbrella, from the aforementioned Project Alpha (split there into separate Geek & Sundry and Nerdist channels), to classic cartoon channels like Boomerang, to anime streams from Crunchyroll and the like. And you can either subscribe to them à la carte and pay anywhere from $2.49 to $6.95 per service or spring for the lot of 12 different services for $9.99 a month total.

There’s also a free 30-day trial—during which I noticed that CuriosityStream (a documentary service I already subscribed to separately) was included in the package price. Add up the cost of separate CuriosityStream and Project Alpha subscriptions, and you’re within spitting distance of $9.99 a month anyway, so I just went for the complete package and canceled my standalone CuriosityStream sub. Purchased on their own, the subscriptions to all of these services (via VRV or directly) would add up to nearly 50 bucks a month. So, if nothing else, it’s a value.

 

But more than that, it solves the problem of jumping from app to app, service to service, in search of something to watch. Most nights, my wife and I fire up the VRV app when she gets home from work and don’t leave it until we shut down the media room at bedtime. If we’re not in the mood to start a new episode of Critical Role, there’s a vast collection of old Looney Tunes cartoons just a few clicks away, or that David Attenborough documentary we’ve been meaning to check out, or a compelling collection of curated spooky movies courtesy of Shudder if the mood strikes.

VRV Helps Solve the Exclusive Content Blues

VRV also has something most streaming apps don’t: A really gorgeous and simple-to-navigate user interface that includes the features you might expect—like a “Continue Watching” shortcut and a watchlist management tool that puts Amazon Instant’s to shame—along with some unexpected niceties like a universal search function.

 

I get that not everyone will be into the sorts of programming offered by VRV, like video gaming or roleplaying or LARPing or miniature painting or quantum physics or classic cartoons, much less Japanese animation. But if nothing else, VRV serves as a role model for how independent streaming providers can learn to get along.

 

Sure, Boomerang may not be getting as much coin out of me every month as they would if I subscribed to their service directly. But guess what? I almost certainly wouldn’t drop $4.99 a month on Boomerang by itself, no matter how much I love some old-school Scooby-Doo.

 

Of course, it’s not surprising that a bunch of streaming services targeted at nerds were the ones to figure this out. Despite the fact that geek culture dominates popular culture these days, all of this is still—for whatever reason—viewed as niche content. So, the corporate overlords at Geek & Sundry and Nerdist (both owned by Legendary Entertainment), Crunchyroll (owned by WarnerMedia), Boomerang (Turner Broadcasting), NickSplat (Viacom), and others probably figured their chances were better if they banded together.

 

As with most things, though, the geeks were simply the first to figure out a way to make this new paradigm work to everyone’s benefit. Because if mainstream entertainment providers don’t follow the same template eventually, the streaming landscape is going to turn into The Hunger Games. And the odds won’t necessarily be in anyone’s favor.

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.

Demo Scenes: Deepwater Horizon

This is the third in our series featuring great demo scenes for putting a showroom system through its paces, making sure your new entertainment space makes the grade, or showing friends what your system can do. Deepwater Horizon joins Baby Driver and Ready Player One as a go-to title for showcasing a luxury Atmos system (see “Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos”). It’s available on Ultra HD Blu-ray, for download from the Kaleidescape Movie Storeand from streaming services like iTunes.

—ed.

 

Deepwater Horizon is part of a trilogy of films (including Lone Survivor and 

Demos to Die For

Patriots Day) that pair director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg recreating actual events for the big screen. (The duo also combined on a fourth film, Mile 22, that is decidedly not based on actual events.) The movie focuses on the events leading up to the uncontrollable blowout of the BP deep-sea oil exploration platform in 2010, which created the largest manmade disaster in US history.

 

The film is packed with action, and features vibrant colors that leap off the screen in 4K HDR. But the real standout star is the reference-grade Dolby Atmos soundtrack. This audio mix delivers from every square inch of your listening space, including wall-flexing bass and a massive amount of overhead information that will make viewers reach for their hardhats to avoid the falling debris. As the pull quote on the 4K Blu-ray box art says, Deepwater Horizon is “Shock-and-awe spectacle!”

 

Here are three scenes that tell a great story while showing off the film’s audio highlights.

Demos to Die For: "Deepwater Horizon"
Scene 1: “That was a bird strike!”
(12:30-15:00)

 

This scene leads you into the film easily—you don’t want to just jump straight to fire and explosions and mayhem, and this follows the crew as they head out to the DH. It begins in a lobby at the airfield, filling your listening space with background office noises, but as soon as they step out to walk toward the helicopter, the room sonically transforms into a helipad. Note the shift of helicopter blades from overhead to the upper left corner of the room as the onscreen PoV changes. While the crew is flying, the dialogue has a very “headphone” quality to it, but the room is filled with the steady whine of the engines and whump-whump of the blades. At about 14:50, the helicopter hits a bird that slams into the room high up on the wall, left of center, and then wings back through the room. It’s sudden and jarring, and a great use of audio to capture the intense moment. And I bet you’ll get more than one person to jump if you play it near reference volume.

Demos to Die For: "Deepwater Horizon"
Scene 2: “Biggest damn kick I ever seen!”
(51:00–58:10)

 

This scene just builds and builds in intensity and destruction, setting the stage for the final scene. The crew starts pulling back the drill and pumping out the mud when everything goes sideways. There’s deep rumbling as the mud starts flowing back up the drill line and explodes in a geyser that sprays mud, rock, and water all over the room. The water rushes and splashes around, a steady geyser jetting up the front wall and splashing down overhead.

 

In between the mayhem, notice the vibrant reds of the worker’s uniforms, especially contrasted with the mud-covered employees out on the deck. At 53:50, you pan outside and up the rig and travel to the ocean’s floor, the rumblings and waves swirling and rocking around the room. Bass explosions are powerful and deep, and a well-calibrated system should have you feeling the effects in your seat. At 56:30, glass starts shattering all around the control room, letting you clearly pinpoint each window’s location. After the mud-covered seagulls fly around in the confined space, the film cuts back into the pumping room, and you can hear sounds surrounding every inch of the 360-degree space around your listening position.

Demos to Die For: "Deepwater Horizon"
Scene 3: “We’ve got to get to the boats!”
(1:18:42–1:27:40)

 

This scene runs a bit long, but it has plenty of excitement to hold your attention. With the DH engulfed in flames, the crew is looking for last-ditch ways to save the rig while racing to abandon. As they rush around the rig, fireballs and jets of flames burst into the room, and explosions send shrapnel ripping into the space, fully immersing you in the conflagration. When power is lost, note how clean and noise-free the blacks are, with no banding or other distracting artifacts. The fire looks especially intense in HDR, delivering ultra-realistic shades of orange-red. Note all the subtle sounds of straining and groaning metal as the rig breaks apart. When Wahlberg enters the water at the scene’s finale, you get some great “submerged audio,” as water bubbles up and laps up and over the ceiling, and falling debris pelts the water around him.

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.

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & PIracy

Things were back in the day that if you subscribed to cable, you could expect to watch any TV content that came along. You paid a single monthly fee to the local cable provider, and you got their slate of programming. If you wanted to expand your viewing horizons to include movies, you could either wait and rent the videotape—VHS or Beta!—or add one of the nascent premium channels like HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, or The Movie Channel. But all original programming was essentially available to anyone willing to pony up for a cable subscription.

 

But, boy have times changed. Today, some of the very best original content is exclusively available on paid services. This trend can be traced back to HBO’s experimentation—and success—with original programming starting in the early ‘90s

with such shows as Tales from the Crypt, Tracey Takes On . . ., and The Larry Sanders Show.

 

Today, however, it isn’t just one or two services offering exclusive content, but many, with more seemingly coming every day. Sure, there’s still HBO with its award-winning Westworld, Game of Thrones, True Detective, and more. And Showtime, with Ray Donovan, Billions, Homeland, and others.

Exclusive Content Causes FOMO & Piracy

Of course, you can’t forget the original streaming juggernaut, Netflix, which seemingly produces a new “must see!” show every day. In fact, Netflix has so much terrific original programming it barely seems to concern itself with providing Hollywood fare any longer. Besides its marquee titles like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, The Crown, and Stranger Things, there’s recent epic fare like BirdboxTaylor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour, Roma, and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

 

Then there’s Amazon Prime, which has been quick to join the original-programming game with features like Man in the High Castle, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Homecoming, and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.

 

Beyond that you have Hulu, with The Handmaid’s Tale, 11.22.63, and Castle Rock (review coming soon), among others.

 

And don’t forget YouTube Premium, which is trying to get all those eyeballs that are already tuning in for free homemade videos to pay for new exclusive content. One of the first shows used to attract paying viewers was Cobra Kai, a continuation of the Karate Kid series. But the company recently announced it plans to release 50 original shows during 2019.

 

Even traditional network channels like CBS are getting involved in the premium streaming game. If you want to watch Star Trek: Discovery, The Good Fight, Tell Me a Story, or the upcoming Twilight Zone reboot, you’ll need a CBS All Access pass.

 

Plus you have Shudder offering original horror content, Apple announcing it plans to spend in excess of $1 billion to acquire and develop original content, DC Entertainment with its DC Universe streaming, and the elephant in the room: The upcoming

Disney streaming service, called Disney+. We’re not even sure what Disney+ will cost, what shows/movies it will have, or the quality of the original content, but already people are calling it the next must-have service. I mean, sure, it might be worth subscribing just to see Star Wars: The Mandalorian (shown above) and The Clone Wars.

 

But getting some shows isn’t always just as easy as pulling out your credit card and clicking the sign-up tab. For example, if you want to enjoy any of the original programming on the Audience network—like the fantastic Mr. Mercedes—you’ll need to subscribe to either DirecTV or AT&T U-verse—a pretty big commitment just to watch a few hours of some show.

Of course, exclusives aren’t anything new. They’ve been a part of the video-game industry since the start. For example, if you wanted to play Mario, you needed to buy a Nintendo, but playing Sonic required going with Sega. Still today, games like Halo or Forza require owning an Xbox One, while playing God of War or Spider-Man requires a PlayStation.

 

Back at the launch of 3D Blu-ray discs, Panasonic and James Cameron played with exclusivity, making the only way to get a copy of Avatar in 3D—the top-grossing film of all time and (arguably) the best use of 3D—by buying a Panasonic 3D TV.

 

This can all lead to a serious case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). And then anger. And then piracy.

 

In fact, the pirate streaming service BitTorrent is re-gaining popularity thanks in large part to  these streaming exclusives. Cam Cullen, Vice President of Global Marketing at Sandvine commented, “To get access to all of these services, it gets very expensive for a consumer, so they subscribe to one or two and pirate the rest.”

 

People are clearly getting sick of being nickeled and dimed (or rather $10 to $15’d) to death every time they turn around because they want to watch some new show.

 

While unlikely, one solution would be some kind of unified “Premier Pass” where you pay some amount per month/year and have access to everything. Let the services divvy up the money based on a percentage of usage of each service. They now have the capability to see what and how often we’re watching something, so they could split the money up amongst themselves that way, but give consumers the ability to choose from everything available. Ultimately, the best content will win out by attracting the most eyeballs.

 

This seems to be something the music industry is already figuring out.

 

According to Troy Carter, Spotify’s Global Head of Creator Services, “Exclusive audio content, specifically with albums, is not within our playbook. I think people have learned over the last six months that it’s bad for the music industry, it’s not that great for artists because they can’t reach the widest possible audience, and it’s terrible for consumers. If you wake up in the morning and your favorite artist isn’t on the service that you’re paying ten dollars a month for, sooner or later you lose faith in the subscription model.”

 

Even Kanye West is against exclusives. Last year, he Tweeted that streaming wars were “f***ing up the music game.”

 

Amen, Yeezy. Amen.

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.

Ep. 2: Let There Be Light–And Shades

Episode 2 opens with Cineluxe contributor John Sciacca joining hosts Michael Gaughn & Dennis Burger to discuss the reasons why home theaters are making a comeback. At 6:56, Lutron Communications Director Melissa Andresko joins Mike, Dennis & John to talk about the increasing importance of lighting & shading in luxury home entertainment spaces. At 12:13, we all talk about how lighting control can be a form of creative expression, and how interior design is becoming a key element in the creation of multi-use entertainment spaces. And the episode closes out at 23:28 with a quick discussion of ways to beat the wintertime blues.

The Cineluxe Hour logo

My Love/Hate Relationship with Dolby Atmos

My Love/Hate Relationship with Dolby Atmos

I have a friend who turns his nose up at surround sound. Press him on the matter and he’ll demur and hedge his argument, but it’s pretty clear he thinks stereo is where it’s at for movies and music alike.

 

And I think he’s absolutely bonkers.

 

I mention that not to pick on my friend but rather to empathize, because I imagine the face I make at him is the same face our own John Sciacca makes at me when I admit that I just don’t like Dolby Atmos—at least not for movies.

That may seem strange given that I’m on record as lauding the format—with its overhead speakers and innovative use of audio objects instead of channels—when applied to video games. You haven’t really played Overwatch until you’ve heard Pharah scream, “Justice rains from above!” from above your actual head.

The weird thing is, I love Atmos with gaming and generally hate it with movies for pretty much exactly the same reasons. And to understand why, you’re going to have to do a little homework.

 

Take a lawn chair out onto your front yard and sit in it with your back to the street. Your neighbors may give you strange looks, but this is for science. Just run with it.

 

Now pull out a book and start to read. At some point, a car might drive by behind you. If the book is decent enough, chances are you won’t even notice, unless you live on a street so remote that passing traffic is an oddity.

 

Keep on reading until a plane or helicopter passes overhead. Your concentration immediately broke, didn’t it? OK, maybe not if you live near an airport or airbase, and planes flying overhead are a regular occurrence. But for most of you, I’m sure, if something flies over your head, you’re gonna drop your book and look upward.

For me, Atmos is a lot like that. It triggers something in my primate brain. A fight-or-flight mechanism, if you will. I’m reminded of vervet monkeys, who have different words in their rather complex vocabulary for “python” and “eagle.” If a monkey shouts “python,” nearby members of its tribe scan their surroundings. If the cry is “eagle,” on the other hand, the other monkeys drop what they’re doing and run for the nearest hidey hole.

And Atmos generally does that to me. There’s just no denying that sound coming from overhead is hardwired into our brains as something we must focus on. And in a video game, that can be critically important. These virtual worlds often contain threats coming from every direction. Hearing that a baddy is attacking you from overhead can be the difference between virtual life and death.

 

But unlike video games, movies aren’t sandboxes. Our focus is on a rectangle of space right in front of us. Someone else gets to decide where our eyes turn. It’s an inherently horizontal experience. Surround sound coming from the sides and behind doesn’t violate that experience. Sounds coming from overhead do. As with our daily lives, anything that happens outside of that horizontal plane is somehow distinct, different, disconnected.

 

And that can actually be kinda cool with movies like Ready Player One or others that live or die purely on audiovisual spectacle. Heck, it’s even great with movies like The Last Jedi, where the overhead sound effects generally work to add ambiance and a sense of space, not vertical sensationalism.

 

But such mixes are few and far between. For the most part, Atmos serves only to distract from the narrative experience for me. And just to be clear, I’m not saying John or anyone else is wrong for liking that effect. I’m merely rebelling here against the increasingly pervasive notion that if you don’t have an Atmos-capable sound system by now, you’re somehow doing home cinema wrong. Try to seek out an Atmos demo before you decide if this “immersive” audio technology is right for you. And if it’s not—if tried-and-true surround sound does the trick—don’t feel like you’re selling your movie-watching experience short. I mean, as long as you’re not just watching movies in stereo . . .

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.

Demo Scenes: Baby Driver

Demos to Die For: "Baby Driver"

The demo scenes featured in this series of posts are perfect for putting a showroom system through its paces, making sure your new entertainment space makes the grade, or showing friends what your system is made of. Baby Driver is a go-to title for showcasing a luxury Atmos system (see “Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos”). It’s available on Ultra HD Blu-ray, for download from the Kaleidescape Movie Storeand from streaming services like Vudu and iTunes.

—ed.

 

Using R-rated content for demo material is a very slippery slope since it can easily be off-putting to many viewers and obviously isn’t suitable for families. And the

Demos to Die For

most demo-worthy scenes from R-rated films usually contain gratuitous violence, profanity-laced dialogue, and nudity that can quickly turn showing off your system into a turnoff. But these two scenes from Baby Driver are terrific exceptions you can show to any audience without fear of offending.

 

Both scenes show off the strengths of Dolby Atmos object placement and tracking capabilities—so make sure you have the HDR or UHD version of the film so you can enjoy the Atmos audio.

 

Scene 1: “The Bellbottoms Bank Job”
(0:50–6:25)

 

This scene is an absolute grand slam, checking off nearly every box for “What makes a great demo?” It’s literally the opening of the film, so you not only don’t spoil anything for people who haven’t seen it before, you’ll likely hook them to want to see more. It’s a complete story in itself, with a clear beginning, middle, and finale. And, it’s action packed, with some of the best driving you’ll see on screen, with a fantastic accompanying audio track.

 

One of the brilliant and innovative things about Baby Driver is how director Edgar Wright used music to propel and choreograph each scene. This opening plays loud and proud from the overhead speakers, with vocals that swirl around the room, and features a sub-heavy bass line that drives the tempo.

 

Notice how Jon Hamm’s shotgun blasts fire in time with the music. A potent and well-calibrated sub will have you feeling the Suburu’s engine revs in your chest as Baby pushes the WRX to its limits. As he drifts around the city, you’ll clearly hear tires squealing and protesting the physics-defying maneuvers, with the audio tracking every siren, horn honk, and car that whizzes by. While video isn’t the focus of this demo, notice the stoplight colors, with vibrant yellows and reds that push the color-space boundaries.

Demos to Die For: "Baby Driver"
Scene 2: Opening Credits/“Harlem Shuffle”
(6:25–9:09)

 

This scene couldn’t be easier to find since it begins right after the first demo scene ends.While the first scene is all about excitement and bombast, this one is just Baby walking to grab some coffee before heading to meet his crew. Notice how amazingly the audio tracks the off-camera action. You’ll hear an infant cry far off camera left, and then see a mother with a stroller pass Baby. Throughout, the audio swirls relative to Baby’s perspective and position, with the sounds of traffic, conversations, and jack hammers announcing their arrival long before they appear on screen, and long after they’re no longer in view.

 

Also notice how the audio changes when Baby walks into the coffeeshop. When he pulls out an earbud to hear the barista, the music volume drops and the sounds of the coffeeshop fill the room, with the music taking over as he replaces the earbud. This entire scene displays how a terrific audio mix along with properly placed speakers can transform a media room into an entirely different environment.

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.

Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour

Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour

I’m not embarrassed to admit it: I like Taylor Swift. I mean, I really like Taylor Swift. There, I said it.

 

I think she’s not only fantastically talented but I actually enjoy most of her music. And I really respect that in this day and age, the term “singer/songwriter” actually applies to her, as she’s literally involved in all aspects of creating her music. And as a father of a pre-teen daughter, I also really appreciate the lengths she goes to in order to protect her reputation, having risen to the top of the music industry (mostly) scandal free, and presenting a (mostly) wholesome image that young girls can be proud to look up to.

 

Lauryn (said pre-teen) graduated elementary school this past year, having received all A’s on every report card during her elementary career. And as a reward, I told her she could either have a pair of diamond earrings or I’d take her to see Taylor Swift in concert.

 

The choice for Lauryn was pretty simple.

 

I share this because I think it puts me in somewhat of a unique position to review the new Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour that launched on Netflix New Year’s Eve since I actually experienced that concert live this past summer in Atlanta, Georgia. (That’s Lauryn and me in the photo below.)

I’ve seen my share of concerts, but Reputation was my first stadium tour so I wasn’t sure what to expect. From the moment we entered the arena, it was clear that the size of the sets, stage, and video screens was massive and that this was going to be a big show. While not shown in the concert video, Charli XCX and Camilla Cabello both opened the show, making for an evening that lasted almost four hours. Taylor played for a solid two hours, leaving everything up on the stage, and I left hoping the show would eventually come out on disc.

 

In a way, the spectacle of the Reputation Stadium Tour reminded me of the first time I saw a modern, large-scale play—Phantom of the Opera. I pictured plays as small events, with static backdrops and a couple of changing sets, but Phantom blew me away in terms of what a major production could bring to the stage and live effects. Reputation was the same way, with sets, pyrotechnics, choreography, and production that were far and away above what I’d ever experienced before.

 

Reputation broke the record for the highest-grossing US tour ever, selling more than two million tickets and grossing $266.1 million. That bested the Rolling Stones’ 2005-2007 A Bigger Bang tour, which took 70 shows to rake in $245 million. Taylor did it in almost half the number of shows (38).

 

When I saw that Reputation was coming out on Netflix in 4K HDR video with a Dolby Atmos mix, I was beyond excited to be able to relive it in the comfort of my media room (and not shell out any more money for the privilege!). For us, experiencing Reputation meant buying a pair of tickets costing north of $700, a six-hour drive to Atlanta, fighting nearly 60,000 people to use the bathroom and exit the Mercedes-Benz stadium, and a weekend in a hotel. For you, a similar experience can now be had by simply turning on your home theater, navigating to Netflix, and pressing Play.

 

Most of the show includes songs from Swift’s most recent album, Reputation, but she works in other fan favorites, creatively blending everything together and playing all or parts of 24 songs.

 

I first watched the concert on my Apple 4K TV, and it delivered audio that was shockingly compressed to utter lifelessness. No matter how loud I cranked the volume knob, the bass was anemic and had no impact, and the show never rose above a moderate volume level—which was completely different from the concert experience, where the Reputation PA system sounded absolutely fantastic.

 

With my preamp at 0 dB, I measured SPLs of around 72 to 75, with some parts dropping to the low 60s . . . totally unacceptable! I checked every setting in my system—both on the Apple TV and my Marantz AV8805—looking for some compression button or setting that had somehow been turned on, but no luck. I watched the entire show angry and disappointed that the home audio experience was so lackluster, to the point where Lauryn finally said, “Dad, just stop complaining and watch the show!”

 

Before writing the mix off completely, I watched it again on my Xbox One S and . .  night and day difference! Not only did the concert now deliver bass you could actually feel with the volume at the same 0 dB position, but I was getting SPL peaks up near 100 dB (far more typical), making it feel more like a live concert experience and restoring life to the audio mix. I can’t explain what’s up with the Netflix/Apple implementation of this mix, but it was definitely wrong in my system. 

Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour

This concert gives you the chance to see someone who is a master of their craft at the top of their game. You can see how much work went into all of the choreography, set designs, the way Taylor moves around the stage and auditorium, how she transitions/blends from one song to the next, and the way she tries to engage with every section of the audience. She shows off all of her talents, singing, dancing, playing acoustic guitar, piano, and working the crowd.

 

One of the coolest things about the show was that when you entered the arena, everyone was given a white wristband. During the performance, these bands would light up, pulse, and sync to the music and where you were in the crowd. Taylor mentions the bands in the show—right before performing “Delicate”—but during the concert, notice them flashing and syncing when it cuts back to wide views showing the crowd. This really made you feel like a small part of the performance.

 

Production values in the film are top-notch, with terrific-looking video, and a film crew that mostly stays out of the way. The 4K HDR images let you clearly see every detail, and keep dark images nice and black, while still delivering bright highlights and lots of color pop, especially reds and golds.

 

On the audio front, the Atmos mix is a little reserved, with most of the audio spread across the front three channels and the surrounds primarily used for crowd noise and some reverb. This keeps the music and vocals clear and in front of you, but I would have liked a bigger, more stadium-vibe mix. The exception where the audio mixers get a little playful is the very beginning, where tabloid snippets about Taylor are read aloud, swirling across the surround and height speakers, creating a nice effect.

 

This was filmed in Dallas on the last night of the tour, and the film does a terrific job of capturing the energy and excitement of the evening. If you’re looking for something to enjoy with a daughter or granddaughter, this is a terrific option that might even convert a few new fans. Are you ready for it?

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.

Demo Scenes: Ready Player One

Demo Scenes: Ready Player One

This is the first in a series of posts featuring killer demo scenes for putting a showroom system through its paces, making sure your new entertainment space makes the grade, or showing friends what your system is made of. Ready Player One is great for showcasing a luxury Atmos system (see “Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos”), highlighting all the creative and technical virtues of the latest generation of surround sound. The Atmos version of RP1 is available on Ultra HD Blu-ray, for download

from Kaleidescape, and from streaming services like Vudu and iTunes.

—ed.

 

All you need to know about Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One is that it’s packed with ‘80s pop culture references, with hundreds of overt and subtle Easter eggs that will constantly delight any Gen-Xer, with terrific nods to video games, comics, movies, TV shows, and more in virtually every frame.

 

Most of the film takes place in the OASIS, a virtual-reality world of near infinite size and scope where players can select an avatar of virtually any look and design. All scenes in the OASIS are entirely CGI, which contrasts with the film 

Demos to Die For

stock Spielberg uses to capture life in the gritty “real world” of 2045. The plot of the film is that characters are involved in a hunt for the ultimate Golden Easter Egg, which will both give them control over the whole OASIS and a half-billion-dollar payday.

 

RP1 is perfect demo material because its Dolby Atmos soundtrack features a Gary Rydstrom sound design that makes frequent and terrific use of all the speakers in your room, really highlighting the immersive audio experience.

Demos to Die For: Ready Player One
Scene 1: “The First Challenge”
(11:25 to 16:55)

 

This is just fantastic eye and ear candy throughout. First, be on the lookout for some famous cars in the race lineup. Easily viewable are Speed Racer’s Mach 5, the A-Team van, the original Batmobile, and Stephen King’s Christine. Once the race starts, the music stops and the scene is all about sound effects. Notice how the smoky exhaust from Parzival’s DeLorean wafts into the room, the smoke dissipating. The rumble as the bridge constructs itself is deep with bass, and the fireworks to begin the race explode overhead.

 

The race itself is pure home theater adrenaline. It’s filled with non-stop, insane mayhem, with cars cartwheeling overhead and around the sides of the room, racers swirling back and forth, around all sides, and overhead, with tires squealing for mercy. Colors are bright, and detail abounds no matter how frenetic the action.

 

Explosions have tight, deep, concussive bass, letting you feel each virtual metal-on-metal crunch—and you can practically track the progress of every bouncing coin or piece of debris. When T-Rex and King Kong get in on the action, their foot stomps raise the bass concussion to the next level, with roars/growls that energize the entire room. At the end of the scene, notice how the mechanical sounds of Art3mis’ bike dying are clearly placed in the back of the room behind the listeners, and gradually move to the foreground as she approaches the bike.

 

Scene 2: “Stacks Explosion”
(57:35 to 59:27)

 

This isn’t a long scene, but it does a terrific job of highlighting the not-so-subtle benefit of having Atmos height speakers, and of audio object tracking. Note how the drones buzz from the back of the room, almost over your shoulders, and then fly up to the front wall. You could close your eyes and pinpoint their position just by listening. You also get some terrific bass during the building explosion, with debris and shrapnel blasting into the room all around you. Real cinephiles might notice that Rydstrom borrowed from himself in this scene, using some of the same creaking and groaning sounds from the Titanic sinking.

Demo Scenes: Ready Player One
Scene 3: “A Shining Experience for Aech”
(1:03:15 to 1:08:33)

 

This last scene is a bit edgier, with a few scares, but never veers too deep into PG-13 territory and is suitable for all but the youngest audience. It’s a fantastic visual recreation of and tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining that’s incredibly fun to watch, especially through the eyes of Aech, who has never seen the movie.

 

As the group enters the video library, you hear movies swirling around overhead, with distant thunder and lightning creating the ambience. Notice the creepy score playing overhead, setting the stage inside the Overlook lobby. After the twins go back into the elevator, the tidal wave of blood cascades down the hallway, making the room sound like a river rapids ride, with waves splashing all around, lapping up the walls, and gurgling overhead. The creepy factor kicks up several notches when Aech goes into Room 237, getting attacked by a knife and axe-wielding rotting corpse, with axes chopping through and splintering the bathroom door and then slashing overhead and across the room as he stumbles through the hotel’s infamous hedge maze.

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 You Have to Have Dolby Atmos

Imagine watching a movie where sound travels around the room with pinpoint accuracy, helping you follow a character as they move around or enhancing the sensation of bullets whizzing past your head, planes streaking through the room, or helicopters hovering directly over your head! That is the promise of Dolby Atmos, which delivers the most realistic and immersive surround sound experience ever.

 

In my opinion, Dolby Atmos is the most exciting development to hit the home market in years and has an even greater impact on the movie/TV-watching experience than 4K HDR video. In fact, when forced to choose between watching a movie in 4K HDR without Atmos or 1080p Blu-ray with Atmos, I go the Atmos route every time. I’ve given dozens of demonstrations both in my showroom and in my home, and after experiencing a properly set up and configured Atmos system, no one has preferred the older, 5.1-channel sound. Atmos is a must have for a luxury installation.

 

Dolby Laboratories launched Atmos commercially in 2012 with Pixar’s Brave, and hundreds of films have been mixed with it since then. (Click here for a complete list.) It is now supported by every major movie studio, and the number of movies, concerts, and even video games with Atmos soundtracks is growing all the time. Atmos content is available on Blu-ray and Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, titles

downloaded from the Kaleidescape Movie Store, and from streaming services like Vudu, Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes.

 

How do you get it?

 

Experiencing Dolby Atmos in your entertainment space requires three basic things: An Atmos-compatible media player, an Atmos-compatible receiver or processor, and a speaker system that can handle however many channels you and your integrator decide to go with.

 

Compatible players include any Blu-ray or Ultra Blu-ray player, including Xbox One. Many streaming players support Atmos, including Roku, Amazon’s Fire TV Stick, and the new Apple 4K TV. Receivers and processors are available from companies like Marantz, Yamaha, Anthem, Denon, Sony, Onkyo, Pioneer, and Integra.

 

What kinds of speakers do I need?

 

Dolby Atmos systems can support far more speakers than the 5.1 of Dolby Digital—up to 64 in commercial movie

WHAT MAKES ATMOS DIFFERENT?

 

Atmos is the latest in a long line of Dolby surround technologies dating back to the ‘70s. But, unlike previous versions, which were all channel-based (that is, the specific number of speakers the audio was mixed for in the studio), Atmos uses an entirely new process called “sound objects.”

 

Audio used to be mixed with a fixed number of speakers, up to 7.1 channels (front left, center, and right, surround right, surround back right, surround back left, surround left, plus a .1 channel reserved for low-frequency effects such as explosions). With Atmos, audio designers are no longer limited to a fixed speaker layout but have up to 128 sound objects they can move anywhere around the room, allowing sounds to be more precisely located.

 

These objects also have size and weight. Thus, a massive starship hovering overhead has a different feel—and plays out of more speakers—than, say, a bouncing tennis ball. All 128 of the audio objects from the original theatrical mix are retained and represented in the home release.

 

To precisely locate objects around the room, Atmos installations support far more discreet speaker channels, including multiple height speakers placed above listeners to create sounds that truly come from overhead. In fact, theatrical installations can have up to 64 speakers. Obviously, that is more speakers than home installations can support (Dolby Atmos for home cinema only supports up to 34 speakers), so Atmos uses something called a channel renderer to create a custom mix on the fly to remap audio objects to whichever speaker configuration is being used, meaning that nothing is lost between the theatrical and home audio mix.

theaters. One of the most significant changes with Atmos is the creation of two distinct speaker layers, with a bed of speakers at ear level and a second height layer that places sounds distinctly overhead. (See “What Makes Atmos Different?” above.)

The most common entry point for enjoying Atmos at home is a 5.1.2 speaker configuration. (In plain English, that means there are five speakers at ear or floor level, one subwoofer, and two speakers above ear level, for the height channels.) Most luxury installations use a 7.1.4 configuration (shown below). This provides a very immersive experience, with full 360-degree audio 

Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos

pans around the listener as well as good hemispherical coverage overhead.

 

For an even more engaging experience, companies like Marantz, Denon, Acurus, Storm Audio, and Datasat have receivers and processors that support more than 7.1.4 channels. And for a truly premium home experience, companies like Trinnov and JBL offer processors that can support the current maximum up to 24.1.10.

(While there are Dolby Atmos soundbars that do a fair job of creating an immersive audio experience, these would never be appropriate in a luxury installation, so I won’t be covering them here.)

 

Do I need speakers in my ceiling?

 

Yes. And no. (But mostly YES!) Having sounds all around the listener, including overhead, is key to creating a realistic, fully immersive sound environment, and locating speakers in the ceiling is the best way to help accomplish this. 

 

Fortunately, nearly any traditional, quality in-ceiling speaker is compatible with Atmos. (Dolby recommends using speakers with a wide dispersion pattern—that is, one that sends out sound more like a shotgun blast than a rifle bullet.) So choosing a model from the same manufacturer as your front speakers typically offers the best sonic match.

But if you can’t place speakers above you—due to a coffered ceiling or an open-beam design or difficulties running wire to the speaker locations—companies like Definitive Technology, Sony, Onkyo, Pioneer, Klipsch, and KEF offer floor-standing Atmos speakers with modules (shown at right) that can create an overhead speaker effect.

 

These angled modules sit atop the front and rear left and right main speakers, firing sound upward, where it’s reflected off the ceiling and bounced back down to listeners. While these can be great problem solvers, the audio effect of these upfiring modules is impacted by room design—ceiling composition, angle, and height, and seating distance—making it harder to predict performance compared to a true overhead speaker installation.

Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos

Dolby Atmos is a now a proven technology, widely adopted in both movie theaters and at home, and is almost always included as part of a modern luxury installation. If you’ve been looking to elevate your home audio experience to the next level, Dolby Atmos is a terrific place to start!

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.