My recent post on extended surround surprised me with the response it drew, both quantitatively and qualitatively. I think what surprised me the most was how many of you have already moved beyond 5.1. Myself and most of the writers for the magazine are still using 5.1 as a base system, and occasionally jury-rigging extended surround on an as-needed basis for testing. I can’t answer for all of them, but I did want to pass along more of my own thoughts and experiences on the subject and why I’m still using 5.1 and not at all likely to change that anytime soon.
Years ago, I experimented extensively with both 6.1- and 7.1-channel surround sound, both with a single surround back channel and with two surround back channels. I was then in a dual-purpose living room space, and the 6.1 with the single surround back channel was most effective, but not enough to totally sell me on the concept. My last two rooms have been dedicated media spaces, and each has been in the neighborhood of 25x16, with a first a 10’ ceiling and now just under 9’. The first house was new construction with a ground-up media room build. It was a big room, and I pre-wired the back wall for 7.1 as a precaution. It turned out I never felt I needed it and when I moved to my current house, a retrofit job, I didn’t give any consideration to 7.1, let alone height and width expansion. Let me speculate on why.
Extended surround sound is nothing new. The staple surround sound configuration for movie theaters and home theaters is digitally delivered, discrete 5.1-channel surround sound. But in both arenas there have also been numerous pushes to move beyond that paradigm. In the DVD era we were given a number of options for expanding our surround sound experience toward the back of the room, from the base 5.1-channel paradigm to 6.1- and 7.1-channels. Although only select DVD titles were encoded with extended surround, within a few years virtually every AV receiver and surround processor in existence offered tool sets that would decode these soundtracks- or any 5.1-channel soundtrack- to 6.1- or 7.1-channels on playback. And just about any AVR you look at today will include seven channels of amplification.
A couple of weeks ago we mused on the qualitative audio experience offered by Blu-ray, and whether our friends family and neighbors know or care what they’re missing with the lossy audio options available from streaming applications. Today, I want to get your lively thoughts on the video quality of streaming applications. Before Netflix, Apple TV or Vudu we’d been preaching that not all high-definition content is created equal. The high bitrates and advanced compression used on Blu-ray is superior on large screens to critical viewers. It’s the gold standard. While I’ve not found the video quality of streams from Cable on-demand, Netflix or Apple TV to be impressive my question is whether you have? Do you find that the difference in video quality between streaming and Blu-ray is definitive on your video setup? What about your friends and family? When they come over and see Blu-ray on your system do they seem interested in going Blu? Or if they notice, do they shrug, and not want to spend the money on a player and discs? Or are there other barriers?
Last week, just days before Black Friday, I received a letter from a reader lamenting the high prices of Blu-ray Discs. He quoted prices from a retailer of $35 for the Russell Crowe version of Robin Hood, and $32 for The Hangover. Curious fellow I am I hit Amazon and found that Robin Hood, a relatively new release, is $23 for a set including the movie on Blu-ray, DVD, and a mobile friendly Digital Copy. The Hangover was $15 for the standard Blu-ray and $24 for the Extreme Edition, which includes an extra disc and a book and other accoutrements. When I noted this to the reader, along with the fact that my, local grocery store is now carrying Blu-ray catalog titles for $9.99 he shot back some more outrage that the Avatar Extended Collector’s Edition Blu-ray, which was released on 11/16, was $22-$25, even on Amazon. This is three-disc set, which I just reviewed for our February print issue, includes three full cuts of the movie, and two full Blu-ray Discs full of hours of really incredible extras, including a terrific full length documentary. This strikes me as an extraordinarily good value, but I thought I’d ask you. Are Blu-ray software prices still to high? Do you think price is why some people are looking to move to Netflix, Apple TV and other streaming services or is that merely convenience driven? Or have the movie studios simply devalued their content after years of bargain bin pricing on DVDs?
I’m just putting together HT’s February Letters section, and one letter really stood out to me. A reader who’s Blu-ray centric and has built a quality surround sound system around lossless audio wrote in lamenting that streaming from Netflix and other platforms is gaining momentum even though the sound is not only lossy, but often limited to stereo instead of discrete 5.1. He wondered whether sound quality is going to continue to go by the wayside or whether, as bandwidth increases, these platforms will offer improved sound quality. Even the Vudu platform, which offers the highest quality streams I’m aware of, offers 5.1-channel surround at 640kbps lossy Dolby Digital at best. These are excellent questions, even if for now we’re ignoring the video quality issues (Apple’s iTunes movie downloads are limited to 720p, the high-def minimum). In the future, if bandwidth improves, it seems possible that high quality streams or downloads could be offered with lossless surround sound. But it would probably be at a cost premium, and people will have to be willing to pay more. To be willing to pay more people need to be educated that not all 5.1-channel surround sound is created equal, and be taught to aspire to lossless. HT’s readers are sophisticated on subjects like these, but I wonder, what about your friends and family? How many of them have component based home theater systems that would allow them to hear the difference? How many of your friends are using the speakers built-in to their TVs? Are these people into streaming? When they come to your house, and hear and see Blu-ray in its full glory does it make a difference? Do they ask you questions that suggest they’re interested in learning more and maybe elevating their experience at their house? I’m just curious, because for high quality options to exist in the streaming ecosystems, there needs to be demand.
Answering a reader letter for a recent print issue provided an opportunity to look at how the flat panel TV has evolved since the demise of the best flat panel TVs yet devised, the gone but hardly forgotten Pioneer KURO line of plasmas. These sets looked better, and the measurements demonstrated that in many key respects, they were in fact better than the competition. In blacks and contrast, objective and subjective, we’ve not yet seen their equal let alone their better. My question is whether anyone is really trying any more. The KURO in a short time built an incredible reputation and brand equity and identification. To this day, when readers email me about these sets, they say “KURO,” not Pioneer or Pioneer Elite. That mark stuck with people. When the KURO walked the Earth the other manufacturers were forced to catch up. Within a short time LCD flat panel manufacturers had to answer, and they did. LCDs improved dramatically, primarily through the advent of full array local dimming. Blacks and contrast with LCDs suddenly stood where no LCD had stood before. When the KUROs were here it seemed LED backlighting with local dimming and the performance increases it afforded LCDs were the next big thing. But the KURO went away. Edge lighting came about and is far more prevalent than full array local dimming, making TVs almost iPhone thin. But these sets don’t compete with local dimmers in blacks and contrast and have uniformity issues that may bother purists. The full-array local dimmers are now apparently confined to premium models from LG and Sony, with only VIZIO offering more affordable models. Since thin has been in, there’s also been a massive fixation on Internet streaming apps and of course, 3D. Rumors persist that engineering talent from project KURO now resides at Panasonic, and that the next KURO-like performance will emerge from there. Panasonic’s latest plasmas are definitely the closest we’ve seen from plasmas, but they’re not quite at KURO level in blacks and contrast even though Panasonic has a full suite of Internet apps and excellent 3D.
In the next few issues we’re going to be diving headfirst into the emerging Google TV ecosystem in the form of Logitech’s Revue and a Sony Google TV-equipped BD player. It occurred to me in planning this coverage that I’ve seen some of this before. Just a few years ago this merging of the computer world with consumer electronics was called convergence by its proponents, and collision by its many detractors. Its first clumsy steps were really little more than dragging a full blown PC into your theater system and using your TV as a really big computer monitor with a wireless keyboard and/or mouse. Instead of enhancing functionality, it combined the worst aspects of both worlds. People using computers all day for business had no interest in taking all the issues with computer interfaces and mucking up their leisure time with it. In response to its failure to catch on in the home theater world, computer monitors got bigger, desktop audio systems got better, and the home theater and computer/Internet worlds each went to their respective rooms.
An industry colleague and I spent some time together the other day, and in kibbitzing about the state of the industry as we see it, he wondered aloud whether we’re now in the beginning of the end of the era of the AV receiver. Blu-ray players are now equipped with full decoding capabilities for both legacy lossy and full lossless Dolby and DTS audio. In addition to playing back Blu-ray Discs, these players are now full media hubs with hosts of streaming apps for both audio and video. Other set-top box media hub devices are entering the market as I write this, and some even integrate cable and satellite broadcast content into a unified interface that manages all of this content. It doesn’t seem a stretch to think these devices could evolve to include the base level audio decoding found in BD players, or that more with integrated BD drives will emerge. And full range wireless audio is something that’s been around the corner for some time, clearly a question of when not if. So, my colleague wondered, if you add powered loudspeaker systems with wireless capability into this equation is that a look at the future? The dazzling capabilities of the AV receiver are both its strength and weakness. AVRs are intimidating. How much of all that capability do people really bother to use? How many people could get by with a lot less capability in favor of usability? I don’t know the answers to these questions but found them provocative enough to bring to you, and get your opinion. Are these the end days of the AVR as we know it?
These last two weeks have been very tight to find blogging time, but this is too cool not to share even if it’s a copout in the form of a quickie to those keeping score at home. A Home Theater reader named Andrew Lambert just emailed over a link to this YouTube video of his dedicated home theater.
So, here’s a little slice of the Editor’s life. I live in the Pacific Northwest and work from home, traveling to Home Theater’s Los Angeles offices about a week per month to close each print issue. Last week and next week are back to back closes for HT’s December issue and the massive Buyer’s Guide annual. Coming home from these work trips, after catching up with the family my favorite ritual is opening up my stack of packages that inevitably arrive in my absence, which always includes my supplementary/impulse buys from Amazon. Yes, movies and music.
Everyone seems to have a “for” or “against” position on 3D. In my last Blog most who chimed in were against. Very against. But what I’m wondering is, when people say they don’t like 3D, are they referring to the artistic merit of 3D or the technical limitations of many 3D presentations?
Yes, 3D is upon us and with it has come a surprising promotional turn of events. To grab your 3D dollars TV manufacturers are lining up as many hot titles as exclusives as they can get their hands on, including four of the hottest 3D titles of the holiday shopping season: Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, How to Train Your Dragon, and Shrek Forever After (and really, how far behind can an announcement be for a 3D exclusive on Toy Story 3?). All of these Blu-ray 3D titles, and others, can only be obtained by consumers who buy a 3DTV and Blu-ray 3D player in a bundle from certain manufacturers.
Is There a Future for High-End Displays?
I’ve had a running joke for the last couple of years, that the flat panel TV has ruined the entire industry. It never fails to provoke a reaction. But, people say, there are only two kinds of people in the world- those who want to have a flat screen and those who already have them! The flat panel has become a price-driven commodity. Who needs big screen specialty retailers when your HDTV is just another box you throw in the cart next to the 36-roll pack of TP when you’re at Costco? It’s a funny bit. Then I see Pioneer build the best single-piece HDTVs the world has yet seen, and fail. Not a funny bit. Makes me wonder. Is there a future for high-end displays?
A number of things have dovetailed into this Blog in the last week and a half. A NY Times article landed downplaying the success Blu-ray is having thus far and its future prospects, and, IMO, vastly overrating the current and future prospects of movie streaming and downloads. A massive wave of CE products launched at CES that connect to Internet-driven content, adding some fuel to this fire, and well, NPR called me in the middle of the show to get my take on this, which you can read and listen to here.
Month in and month out I receive letters from readers about pricing on Blu-ray, and noting that the public won’t buy in until Blu-ray is cheaper. What the public at large will or won’t buy into isn’t quite the same thing as what Home Theater readers will buy and for how much. For you, as a Home Theater reader, how cheap is cheap enough? Cheaper than an iPhone or an iPod? Walking through Costco the other day I saw every day pricing on players that was well below $299, and I’m sure we’ll see cheaper prices around the holidays. But realistically, is Blu-ray cheap enough to make it down your chimney this year? Was there ever a case to make that Blu-ray was genuinely “expensive” to begin with?