Steven Wilson is best known as the founder, lead guitarist, singer, and songwriter of the progressive rock band Porcupine Tree, but he’s becoming the go-to man for remixing classic rock recordings into 5.1 surround for DVD and Blu-ray. His recent solo album, Grace for Drowning, proves he’s just as adept in creating new music that fully exploits the surround soundscape.
Selecting audio components is one of the more daunting tasks that any serious home theater enthusiast faces. On the surface, it seems evident that if you just go out and buy the best components you can afford, they’ll sound great with both movies and music. And that’s generally true: A better system will more accurately reproduce the waveforms you feed it, irrespective of whether they come from a movie or music. But it’s often not that simple. While assembling a home theater system that’s equally spectacular with movies and music may be a laudable goal, unless you have unlimited funds, you’ll probably have compromises to make. At that point, you might want to steer the system’s performance strengths one way or the other with the right mix of speakers and electronics. But how do you go about matching these up?
Jim Thiel must be a magician. At least that’s what I thought when I first heard his newest speaker, the SCS4. I was listening to an a cappella band, and the guys were all there—not just the voices, but I felt like the Persuasions were in the room with me. The sound was so utterly natural; it was as if the speakers weren’t doing anything.
I'm a big Samuel L. Jackson fan, but I didn't totally buy his performance in Black Snake Moan. Jackson plays a righteous old man who takes in a trashy nymphet (Christina Ricci) to set her straight. I was especially intrigued with the story because Jackson's character was loosely based on R.L. Burnside, who didn't just sing the blues, he lived them. Up to the point where Jackson picked up his guitar, he was perfectly fine. But when he started to sing, his performance didn't ring true. It comes down to authenticity. Acting is one thing; singing with a voice that sounds so rough it bleeds is something else. Come to think of it, I could say the same about great speakers. It's one thing to design a speaker that measures well, but that doesn't necessarily make for a great-sounding speaker.
At its best, home theater is all about making movies feel so real you'd swear you're there. And not just the wham-bam flicks; some of my best experiences have come from straight-ahead dramas. That was absolutely the case with Breach, a chilling portrait of FBI agent Robert Hanssen, the man who sold countless security secrets to the Soviet Union for over 20 years. Actor Chris Cooper's portrayal of the psychopathic traitor totally mesmerized me, but I also credit Paradigm's fifth revision of their Monitor Series speakers for keeping my attention glued to the screen. Every detail of the sound—from the claustrophobic acoustics of Hanssen's office and the whirring noise of his computers' cooling fans, to the dense traffic snarl of Washington, D.C. streets—were all so effortlessly presented that I never thought about the speakers. That's the Zen of it all. When everything's just right, you don't realize the speakers are there.
When it comes to home theaters, I thought I'd seen it all. But nothing's come close to this. First, I'm going to try to describe the sheer magnitude of Jeremy Kipnis' theater. His Stewart Snowmatte laboratory-grade screen is the biggest I've ever seen in a home, and in the back of the theater, there's a Sony ultra-high-resolution (4,096-by-2,160) SRX-S110 digital projector. I'm looking everywhere, jotting down questions, and Kipnis sounds almost giddy talking about his theater's capabilities. He refers to his baby, the Kipnis Studio Standard (KSS), as "The Greatest Show on Earth." And from the looks of it, he may be right.
Cinepro's demo at the 2007 Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA) show in Denver made a powerful impression on my eardrums. I'm no power-hungry audiophile—far from it—but I immediately understood what Cinepro is all about.
Billed as Ron Carter: The Master @ 70, it was a birthday celebration of the legendary jazz bass player's career—and the music at that early summer jazz concert at Carnegie Hall was truly magical. The highlight of the night arrived when Carter played selections from Miles Davis' Kind of Blue album with Herbie Hancock on piano, Wayne Shorter on sax, and Billy Cobham on drums. I could hear the quartet's music reflecting off the stage's rear wall while it simultaneously floated above the audience in the hall. The sound was so masterfully mixed, I couldn't tell for sure how much of what I heard was the actual instruments or Carnegie Hall's discreetly amplified sound system. It stands as one of those "is it live or...." moments. The next day, I played a stack of Ron Carter CDs over Anthony Gallo Acoustics' new Reference AV speakers and TR-2 subwoofer. The sound was so sweet, I experienced that déjà vu feeling all over again.
A few weeks before I started on this review, I went to a press event in New York City for the premiere of a "re-performance" of Glenn Gould's legendary 1955 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. No, they didn't play a new CD or even the original master tape; we heard Mr. Gould, who passed away in 1982, virtually playing a Yamaha Disklavier Pro concert grand piano. And it was no scam. Zemph Studios (a music technology company based in Raleigh, North Carolina) converted the original recording to high-resolution MIDI files and played them back over this very special Yamaha piano. The concert thrilled everyone, especially those in attendance who were lucky enough to have heard the flesh-and-blood Gould perform back in the day. The event organizers gave each of us a copy of the new Sony/ BMG Masterworks SACD of the re-performance.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit up front that I have a thing for big speakers. Not because they can play louder, reproduce much wider dynamics, and make more bass than smaller speakers—it's that the big ones are just more fun to listen to. Yes, a lot of them come with big price tags, and Klipsch's full-size Reference RF-83 Home Theater definitely sounds pricey. Its formidable transparency and resolution are a big part of that; you hear subtleties that other speakers gloss over. When I turn up the volume, the sound's character doesn't change, and there's no sense of increasing distortion or strain; the sound simply grows louder. No small speaker I've used, and certainly no in-wall speaker I've heard (no matter how advanced or expensive), has matched the big References' ease under pressure. The six-piece Klipsch Reference RF-83 system sells for $6,394, a slam-dunk bargain, at least by high-end standards. Stereophile magazine reviews interconnect cables with a price tag higher than that.