HomeTheater.com has been wearing the same haircut for a good many years now. Introducing you to HomeTheater.com 2.0 really takes me back, as I was intimately involved in the last design updates we did a few years ago, when we added the Buyer’s Guides and built out a lot of the content you see today.
This new design is up to the bleeding edge modern, with chunky images, large fonts and a very clean aesthetic that we think you’re really going to like. But a lot more function will follow the form too.
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.
When we wrote this feature for last year’s HDTV Buyer’s Guide issue, the flat-panel HDTV market was much simpler. 3D was nowhere in sight, and much of our analysis boiled down to the pros and cons of LCD and plasma technology. This year, 3D is just one of the newer wrinkles in the market. The number of plasmas in the market isn’t what it was just a few years ago, but plasma is not only hanging on, the best plasmas still stake a legitimate claim to being the best flat panels available. With LCDs, manufacturers are aggressively using the backlighting techniques to market the sets. In fact, LCDs are getting more and more sophisticated and offering serious potential value. There’s a lot to learn, so let’s get going.