Being a home theater enthusiast can be a richly rewarding pursuit, but it’s not without its pitfalls. Nearly electrocuting yourself while you try to install surround speakers in bare feet on what turns out to be a damp basement floor is the most common—but let’s not dwell on my past. Another less-talked-about danger is that of becoming too insular as a group, of only speaking to those who already share our passions and opinions, either in person or more likely on Internet forums while wearing a bathrobe. That’s why every so often, I like to go out into the wider world and hold informal focus groups in order to take the pulse of the average Joe or Josephine and see what they think about this hobby of ours.
A few times, I’ve used this column to pay homage to those once beloved and bleeding-edge technologies that serve us well for years but when, once supplanted by newer and superior technology, are quickly cast aside and forgotten. (Today’s chunky hipster glasses are tomorrow’s zebra-print Zubaz, I guess.) I have criminally neglected one technology that probably more than any other deserves credit for creating the idea of home theater in the first place. Let us now sing the praises of Laserdisc.
In days gone by, marketing was easy. If you had a product that you felt sure would benefit the general public, say, a nerve tonic (or an herbal tincture, suspension, or unguent), you would simply emblazon its name on the side of your covered wagon. You’d take care to correctly spell invigorating, rejuvenatory, and Dr. Southerby’s, of course, and then travel from town to town extolling its marvelous benefits. You’d be certain to mention how it can clear up milk leg in a fortnight, soothe nettle rash, and possibly even reverse ragpicker’s disease if used judiciously. To drive your point home more effectively, your organization’s single employee would mingle with the crowd and impress them with his own miraculous recovery from scrivener’s thumb in just two doses.
While the hobby of home theater may seem benign, it’s not without danger. How much danger? Experts tend to peg its level of potential hazard as being somewhere between that of stamp collecting—in which nothing whatsoever happens at any time and so the risk is quite low—and emu farming, where the chance of having your carotid artery flayed open by a razor-sharp spur is ever present. With home theater, the risks are somewhat more hidden but no less dangerous. If there are individuals who have somehow managed to flay open their carotid arteries in their home theaters, it probably went unreported. I know if it were me, I’d want my family to buy an emu and blame it on him to spare them the shame. To help you avoid the pitfalls, I’ve compiled this list of common home theater ailments.
There’s much to admire about Larry King, not the least of which is his longevity—he began broadcasting his show via Pony Express during the Buchanan administration. There’s also the fact that he has achieved so much despite his strong resemblance to a large, partially shaved rodent. He’s also to be commended for his ability to shift rapidly between subjects (almost as quickly as he shifts between wives), both in his TV show (“Tonight, I’ll be talking about radical Islam with author and former member of the Dutch Parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I’ll then be cooking a delicious and healthful egg-white omelet with funnyman Carrot Top”) and in his late, lamented column for USA Today (“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Nothing beats a nice, cold glass of pineapple juice... Went to see Legs Diamond on Broadway, accompanied by former Match Game host Gene Rayburn: Man, Peter Allen looks great in a tux!”). And so, Larry, I dedicate this wide-ranging column to you.
The kids today, with their Jason Biebers and their unlaced tennis shoes and their sparkly vampire movies: What in the name of Sam Hill are they coming to? Specifically, when it comes to home theater, I mean? They have literally thousands of entertainment choices. (When I was a kid, we had exactly three: yo-yos, Gilligan’s Island reruns, and seven-year-old copies of National Geographic magazine.) Will they care enough to invest in a good system? Will the flame of home theater continue to burn in the next generation and beyond? Or will it die out and become a fringe hobby, embraced only by a small faction of cranks with hitched-up trousers who cut their grass with vintage reel mowers and still think there’s some value in their sizable collection of S&H Green Stamps?
For every technology that has outlived its usefulness, there remains a (usually) small but highly committed band of enthusiasts who advocate for, preserve, and curate it (primarily by going on Internet forums and comparing doubters to Hitler). For example, the LP has had its best year in a long time, selling more than 2 million units. Yes, that’s roughly 0.01 percent of the number of CDs and downloads Lady Gaga sells in any given week, but still, sales are on the rise. And just dare to tell a fan of old-fashioned mechanical watches that your old $13 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles digital keeps better time than his. He’ll likely threaten to gut you like a fish. If you go on a search for fans of AM radio, you’ll find vanishingly small numbers and a distinct lack of passion. While a large number of stations still broadcast AM, their programming is generally limited to the unglamorous world of sports talk radio, local coupon shows, and the lesser songs of Bobby Goldsboro.
Mistaking my confidence for actual knowledge, many of my friends have inundated me with home theater questions lately. I don’t know why this is happening more now. Perhaps waves of unemployed people finally have the time to do that installation they’ve put off. Or maybe they’re preparing for the Blu-ray release of Twilight: New Moon (sexy shirtless werewolves are a powerful motivator). I thought I’d answer these questions in a feature called A Socratic Dialogue with an Imaginary Amalgam of All the People Who Have Been Asking Me Home Theater Questions as of Late.
Buy a new McLaren F1, and you’re not going to want to leave it parked in the garage next to the fertilizer spreader. No, you’ll take it out for many unnecessary 220-MPH trips to buy cilantro. Or if you’re lucky enough to acquire a vintage Perazzi shotgun, you won’t just stow it, you’ll pull it out regularly, especially when anyone gets near your McLaren. Similarly, if you’ve gone to the trouble of acquiring and assembling a top-notch home theater, you’ll want to put it through its paces, show it off, open up the throttle if you will. Of course, to do that, you’ll need the right fuel, which is the software in this case. I thought I’d bring together some of the best-looking and -sounding Blu-rays I’ve seen, stuff that should really impress your friends. A warning though: Some of these films are stupid enough to liquefy your brain, so be sure to program your material correctly to avoid death.
When it comes to their equipment, there are two kinds of people. There are those who want to squeeze every last bit of performance out of it by modifying, tweaking, and “working under the hood,” so to speak. Then there are those whose attitude is, “Hey, I took it out of the box. What the hell else do you want from me? Now I’m gonna go lie down.” These are the kind of people represented in a recent poll, an alarmingly huge number of whom have HDTVs but don’t have any HD sources to play on them. I can only imagine that more than a few of these people also own Lamborghini Gallardos, which they use exclusively to tow their lawn mulchers. (There was also a sizable slice of the populace who had never even heard of high def! Do we have a vastly larger number of cave-dwelling cloistered monks in our country than I have been led to believe?)
If you love someone, set them free,” is the advice Sting offers. He goes on to add, “Free, free, set them free,” about 300 times, but it does little to alter his basic message. Der Stingle can be forgiven for a lack of subject/pronoun agreement because he was probably doing something tantric at the time he wrote it. But even if we do him the favor of correcting it to, “If you love someone, set him or her free,” I’m not entirely sure I’d buy it. I’d counter with, “If you love someone, keep working on her, correcting her tiniest faults, and nudge her toward perfection at all times until she is exactly how you want her to be.”
The purchase of even a seemingly trivial home theater product is fraught with complications: Is this the right length cord? Did I buy the right adapter? Why does the guy at RadioShack smell vaguely of Hormel corned beef hash? The purchase of a new television, the centerpiece of a home theater, is that much more complicated. Understandably, people often view it with the same amount of trepidation as they do their own public caning. (I know I was nervous before mine, yet as it turns out, my caner was thorough, yet gentle.) Fortunately, this magazine gives you everything you need to help you choose the right TV. But there’s still the matter of actually buying your TV.
After being a stable homeowner for many years, the last three years have seen me moving more often than an aging knuckleball pitcher. This may seem like a negative—after all, moving is an event that many people view with as much enthusiasm as getting hit by a garbage truck or accidentally light-ing one’s hair on fire. But I prefer to look at the positives. Chief among them, I have become something of an expert at dismantling and reassembling a complex home theater system. Allow me to pass on my wisdom.
In the classic 1957 film Old Yeller, a young man faces a terrible choice when his beloved and faithful dog tangles with a rabid wolf and contracts hydrophobia. Of course, you know how it ends: with a bullet to the head and lots of tears. (Yes, I know, “Where’s the spoiler alert, man?!” You’ve had 52 years to watch it. I refuse to enable your procrastination.) Tragically, I’m smack dab in the middle of my own Old Yeller moment. A recent move gave my wife the perfect cover to do something she has long wanted: order the death of my beloved and faithful 55-inch CRT rear-projection TV. At my work, I have access to the latest LCDs, plasmas, and LED sets, yet at the end of the day, it’s the CRT that sits curled up at my feet and keeps me company.
It’s a safe bet that all of us, at one time or another, have been tempted to indulge in a little chronological chauvinism, i.e., the belief that the age in which we live is the most advanced, the wisest, and clearly superior to all that came before. To thoroughly explode that notion with regard to the wisdom of our current age, one need only reflect for a second on the fact that Perez Hilton is allowed to roam free—at least for a while, until Congress takes up my Send Perez Hilton to the Moon initiative. Yet as far as technology is concerned, it’s almost inarguable. Advance after advance has bequeathed to our blessed generation many wonders: the crescent wrench, the George Foreman Grill, SmartWool socks, chewable vitamins, and of course, Pizzeria Pretzel Combos.