The Lower Cost of Luxury
Ed Gilmore in front of the Planar video wall in his midtown Manhattan showroom
Of all the radical changes happening in home entertainment, maybe nothing is having a bigger impact
than the unprecedented drop in the cost of reference-quality gear. We’ve already established on Cineluxe
that the once unassailable gold standard of the movie theater no longer pertains. The best possible
entertainment experiences are now happening at home. And not only has the quality of gear improved by
leaps, the cost of entry for a complete luxury system has tumbled just as dramatically.
But it’s not clear if most people understand how much has changed, and how fast. Today bears little
resemblance to five years ago, and the next three to five years are poised to bring vast changes in home
entertainment that will make today’s innovations seem hopelessly quaint.
Wanting to get a perspective on all this from somebody who spends every working day on the luxury
frontlines, I recently sat down with Ed Gilmore, founder and owner of Gilmore’s Sound Advice in midtown
Manhattan. Ed’s high-end clientele is, knowingly or not, at the very epicenter of the entertainment
revolution, and his vast experience in the installation world gives him unique insight into the changing
cost of luxury.
Michael Gaughn What would a typical luxury system have come in at five years ago, and why?
Ed Gilmore Five years ago, we were putting in Runco projectors that were in the vicinity of $40,000, and as much as $100,000. Even today, you’d pay close to $50,000 for a three-chip 1080p projector with a decent anamorphic lens. But you can get a great 4K laser projector for about $30,000, which is definitely a big drop.
For people who want to put together a home theater for, say, $30,000 all in, they have a wide variety of choices from projection companies. And they’re not horrible projectors by any stretch of the imagination. Sony, Epson, and Wolf Cinema
have laser projectors that are less than $10,000. You can even get a decent projector for $7,000. That’s a huge change.
MG How big will you go with a flat-screen TV?
EG I won’t go bigger than 85 inches. I won’t do 100, because the delta becomes just too big.
MG Do you consider that a media room at that size?
EG Yeah. That’s not a home theater. I don’t think anything with a flat screen is a theater, sorry. Some people want to put a 100-inch TV in there. But if I’m going to put an LED or OLED that big in a room, you’re going to spend at least $60,000, so why wouldn’t you do a projection system?
Plus, you have a huge piece of glass sitting in your room. And there’s no way to locate the speakers properly behind that. It’s a compromise.
Besides, there have been big improvements in projection-screen technology over the past few years. Before, you had
to be in a man cave—more like a bat cave, actually—but we’re now seeing decent results with ambient-light-rejection screens, decent enough where people can have a projection system in a room with windows, maybe with solar shades on them, maybe with lights dimmed.
Screens are less expensive, certainly, and projectors are plummeting in cost. As for receivers—you can buy a pretty darned well-equipped AV receiver for $1,700.
MG Do you spec any disc players at all?
EG Very rarely.
MG That would be pocket change anyway, right?
EG I think the only one out there that we’d consider a premier brand is the Pioneer Elite.
MG But five years ago that would have still been standard equipment.
EG Absolutely. Now you don’t need it. I mean, everybody is streaming one way or another.
One of the home theater demo rooms at Sound Advice (photo by Gusto Multimedia)
MG It’s amazing how quickly discs died.
EG Yeah. Streaming has really brought the whole world of entertainment to people at their fingertips, for better or worse.
MG You’ve even got YouTube offering great-looking 4K—even 8K.
EG Absolutely. We’re just seeing a huge change in terms of that kind of content availability. And it’s gotten cheaper and cheaper as well.
MG So what’s the typical pricing for a luxury system today?
EG A lot of components are no longer necessary, right? So, if you’re talking about a Kaleidescape and Apple TV, some type of a video and audio processing, then amplification and speakers, and of course, whatever choice you’re using for your video display, you can have a system for as little as $30,000, $35,000 now.
MG That’s with control?
EG Control, add another $1,500 to $2,000 max. If you then move up the ladder to say somewhere between $60,000 and $75,000, that’s a quantum leap actually. Then beyond that . . .
In our showroom we have Steinway Lyngdorf speakers, a Barco projector, and a Stewart screen with dual masking. So I have a room right now that’s about $175,000 all in, and it’s a phenomenal experience. I don’t think I could have possibly done that
five years ago. Back then, we were talking about a quarter of a million, easy. That’s a substantial drop in price.
MG If somebody comes in and says, “I have Apple TV,” or, “I’ve got Sonos—or I’ve heard about Sonos,” what do you do to get them out of that paradigm where they think that’s somehow the ultimate?
EG If you’re fortunate enough to be able to demonstrate the difference, that’s the easiest way to do it. With
music streaming, it’s really difficult to get people who have only experienced Sonos off of it. It’s almost kind of its own cult. But if you can play Spotify or Pandora for them and then play Tidal MQA, they clearly hear that difference. And once they hear that, some of them—not all, but some will say—“Oh my God, I had no idea.”
And you can play exactly the same clip—whether it’s a concert or a movie—on an Apple TV and a Kaleidescape, and people will not only see the difference, they’ll hear it as well. And the people who are discerning will say, “Absolutely, let’s do this. Let’s do Kaleidescape. I get it.”
But in no way, shape, or form do you say it’s Kaleidescape or Apple TV. It’s always going to be, “I’m going to have Apple TV and Kaleidescape.” I use Apple TV when I want to watch something on Amazon Prime or Netflix or YouTube. But when I want to watch a movie, and it’s something I really want to see, I download it and watch it on Kaleidescape. There’s just no other experience.
MG Is there still the perception that Kaleidescape is only appropriate for the most expensive installations and Apple TV is OK for everything else?
EG Yes, because Kaleidescape used to be so high priced—$30,000-plus.
MG The first unit was $35,000, wasn’t it?
EG $35,000, yeah. That was a big ticket item for people. And it could go up
from there. But now with the Strato at much lower price points, it’s really not a home theater until you have one. You can put a great projector and great surround sound system in. But if you’re not feeding it the best possible quality content, it’s like having a really wonderful car and giving it the lowest-grade gasoline. If a client’s already invested even $35,000 in a system, what’s another $7,000 for the 12-terabyte Strato S?
Let’s face it, five, six years ago we were putting $30,000-plus Kaleidescape systems in. Some systems were coming out to $50,000, $60,000 by the time all the storage was done. Now we can do the same thing for five or seven grand.
MG How big is movie collecting a factor in all of this? Because when you rely on streaming, movies disappear all the time. You really don’t own a collection then.
EG If you’re going to purchase a movie, and it’s going to cost you $28 or $30 to buy it in a 4K HDR format, then you’re making a commitment. It’s not a huge commitment, but you’re making a commitment to something you want to see time and time again. You’re also expecting that you’re going to see it in bit-for-bit resolution. I think that’s a wonderful trade-off. It’s affordable, and anybody who cares enough about that experience will say, “Yeah, this actually has value.”
If you look at the Kaleidescape experience from five years ago, we had clients who were buying discs and then ripping them into their system. And then there was that period with Blu-ray where you had to buy the carousel to do it. I think people lost interest in doing that. Plus it kind of defeated the whole purpose of having a server.
So, when you could start downloading Blu-ray, there was a little bit of a shift in terms of the value. Then the prices started coming down, and the Movie Store became accessible. I think there’s a lot of excitement about Kaleidescape now.
The biggest difference between now and five years ago with me and my clients is that you had to justify making a $30,000 investment. It was easier for people to say, “I’ll just buy a disc. I’ll have a bunch of discs.” Then there was Apple TV. So, “We’ll
rent a movie instead of buying it.” It’s much easier now for them to wrap their heads around the fact that they can start building a collection of their favorite movies, movies they want to see with their family and friends.
My clients aren’t necessarily making huge decisions about something that’s four digits anyway. I mean, they’re making $100,000 decisions, or $1 million decisions. They’re not making an under $10,000 decision. That’s just not part of their M.O.
MG Can you think of anything else, when you’re spec’ing stuff in, that still carries a similar stigma?
EG Control systems. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them. There never was. But a lot of people feel badly scarred by their experiences.
MG It all hinged on the competence of whoever was doing the programming, right?
EG Yeah. The client may have not had any real say, in terms of that engineering. Or they might’ve been ignored. Because let’s face it, when you’re creating a program pretty much from scratch, you’re going to put your own things in. You’re going to have it somewhat templated, and it may not jibe with what the client really wanted.
On top of that, you have a third-party control system. You’re trying to control components that have zero standardization, and that’s a recipe for frustration. People don’t like being frustrated. So that’s something where we have to push back all the time.
MG What do you tell people is the current state of control, based on whatever their past experience was?
EG Most of these systems are now app-based. So they already have those instruments in their hands. Whether it’s an iPad or an Android device they’re carrying around with them, that’s what they’re typically using to control the system. Remote controls still exist, especially for video
rooms. We think it’s a good idea. And in some cases, touch panels still exist.
But even the prices of these things have really plummeted. So you’re not talking about a $60,000 to $80,000 investment for a control system anymore. You’re talking $5,000, $6,000.
But even if a control system doesn’t cost a lot of money, the first time something doesn’t work, the client starts to question the wisdom of that investment. So if you’re talking about equipment that’s reliable, there’s this little thing called Kaleidescape that always works. It’s bulletproof.
MG With Apple TV, Roku, or whatever, you don’t have system monitoring going on.
EG Not at all. You’re in the dark with it. But Kaleidescape is really proactive when there’s an issue. They’ll let us know—we’ll know on our extranet, then get email notifications, telling us what condition that equipment is in.
Apple TV, you’ll get a client calling saying, “I have a spinning wheel here, and I don’t understand what’s going on.” You know how that usually translates, right? “I get the spinning wheel—I hate the whole system.”
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtable, marketing, product design, some theater designs,
a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.