AN INSIDER’S GUIDE TO HOME THEATER
by George McKechnie
Coined more than 30 years ago, the term Home Theater captured the dream of enjoying an exciting movie-theater experience in the comfort of your own home. While the A/V technology then available fell far short of that dream, important innovations over the years have yielded products that now make home theater a truly engaging daily pleasure for many consumers, regardless of their room size or budget.
Video Innovations. The most dramatic improvements have occurred in video displays. Back then we had:
- Boxy picture tube TVs (up to only 36 inch diagonal images in the old 4:3 format),
- Bulky rear projection TVs with dim, washed-out pictures and ugly scan lines, or
- Fussy 3-gun CRT projectors that clearly displayed the deficiencies of both VHS and broadcast TV sources.
Today we enjoy:
- LED (Light Emitting Diode) & Organic LED (OLED) TVs with high definition (HD) resolution, brilliant contrast, and deeply saturated images up to 84 inches diagonal;
- DLP (Digital Light Processing), LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) & D-ILA (Direct Drive Image Light Amplifier) video projectors that provide huge, high impact pictures at moderate cost; and
- Ultra High Definition (4K) TVs and projectors, with even higher resolution images, at increasing popular prices.
Video source technologies have evolved too, and now provide content worthy of today’s high performance displays. They include: Blu-ray players, HD Cable and Satellite provider services, video streaming services (like Netflix) delivered via broadband internet, and now 4K sources, to make the most of the latest Ultra High Definition TVs and projectors. See Optimizing Your Video Display
Audio Improvements. Notable improvements in audio reproduction have occurred as well. Dolby Surround Sound, introduced early on to capture the natural ambiance of live music, dialogue, and special effects, has morphed to Dolby Digital, offering 5.1, 7.1, and now even 11.2 channels of spacious sound. In late 2014, Dolby Labs released Atmos, a revolutionary encoding and decoding algorithm that recreates the sounds of objects moving through space, especially above the listener—a task that conventional surround sound systems cannot do convincingly. Dolby achieved this effect by overcoming the need to mix independent sounds together into channels when creating a soundtrack.
These advances in surround sound have prompted the development of compact, high performance speakers and subwoofers, which—because of their smaller size—can be positioned for optimal spatial effects without visually dominating a room. High-quality in-wall speakers and subwoofers are available, too—making them even less conspicuous.
Audio recording and playback technologies have continued to improve, too. High-resolution low-distortion audio content from CD, lossless streaming, and Blu-ray soundtracks is now the norm. And up-conversion of this content to very high sampling rates is increasingly available, yielding superior sound quality. See Audio Sources: Old Favorites and New Directions, Matching Speakers to Your Room, and Audio Streaming & Network Playback (coming soon).
Engaging Realism. More important than technical developments per se are the dramatic advances in audio and video realism that have been achieved. As with most technology-dependent consumer products, important discernible differences will always be found between mass-market goods and those produced by premium manufacturers—as well as between entry level products and top-of-the-line models. For consumers with special interests, critical needs, or large and challenging rooms, these differences can be very important indeed.
When home theater components are carefully selected to be compatible with each other and with the space in which they are employed, and then expertly set up and calibrated, the resulting experience can be breathtaking. Even moderately-priced audio and video products today can provide a level of emotional engagement that was difficult to achieve and quite costly even a decade ago—but only if they are skillfully matched to each other and tuned to the environment in which they will be used.
Competition and Commoditization. This evolution of home theater components has followed the path typical of most technology-based consumer goods. Break-through models that embody heralded new technologies are introduced at premium prices to “early-adopter” enthusiasts. These sales drive production improvements and price reductions, broadening consumer interest and generating increased sales. This success in the marketplace supports further technical refinements and greater manufacturing economies. The end result is market saturation, accompanied by highly competitive pricing—until the next technology breakthrough occurs. Along the way, obsolete technologies and poorly designed models are driven out of the marketplace. Sound familiar?
This process of innovation generates intense competition among brands, and results in temporary states of commoditization—with a large selection of products (in a given technology category and performance level) that are generally similar in appearance, overall performance, and price. In each new production cycle, competitors strive to leapfrog each other with innovative features and price incentives. Consumers do benefit from low cost and wide selection, but in the process typically experience increasing confusion and uncertainty about what to choose and what they actually need. This is especially true in the consumer electronics industry today.
A PRACTICAL GUIDE
Getting the most out of a large video display and a surround sound system requires knowledge—not just industry terms and manufacturer’s specs, but—more importantly—how to match the components to the room in which they will be used, and to calibrate them to each other. Otherwise you’ll squander the potential for which you’ve paid good money—like the owner of a high-performance car who runs it on cheap gas, drives around on entry-level tires, and lets his teenager fiddle with the engine timing.
Elsewhere in SmartHomeGallery.com, we discuss specific home theater components in detail. See Flat Panel TVs, Video Projectors, The New Video Content Options, Friending Your Surround Receivers, (coming soon), Match Speakers to your Room, Subwoofer Tuning & Room Acoustics, and other topics. Here we’ll provide an overview of home theater, explaining the industry standards and demystifying the jargon. In the process, we’ll help answer the most basic of questions: What exactly is a Home Theater? Here are some answers:
A Place in a Home. A high-performance, sometimes highly-stylized personal theater, located in a dedicated room; or perhaps a virtual theater (with drop-down screen and projector or built-in flat-screen TV, plus in-wall speakers and concealed electronics) located in a family or other multi-purpose room; or maybe just a comfortable corner of the home where people gather around to relax and enjoy a good show.
An Immersive Experience. A subjective qualitative judgment about an A/V system, such as: “Your home theater is better than the local movie theater.”
A System of Components. A home theater is typically a large, wide-screen (16:9 aspect ratio or wider) High Definition flat-panel TV (or video projector plus screen), together with a surround sound music system, one or more HDTV sources—such as satellite or cable TV, Blu-Ray player, or A/V streaming device—and a universal remote control, to make the whole system easy to operate.
Even though the quality and cost of the equipment making up a theater can vary dramatically, from an inexpensive “Home-Theater-in-a-Box” and small TV to exotic high–performance gear, the component list is almost always the same. It includes:
- Content Sources. Blu-Ray/DVD Player; off-the-air TV broadcast, satellite or cable TV; video streaming; or other source to provide high-quality content of your choice.
- Control & Amplification. A surround receiver (or a control/processor plus multi-channel amp) to perform the following tasks: switch between sources (audio and video, simultaneously); decode digital audio formats, such as Dolby Digital surround sound; convert digital audio signals to analog; and amplify the signals sufficient to drive the speakers, with one audio channel per speaker (the subwoofer typically has its own built-in amplifier). This component typically also includes an AM/FM tuner. Some surround receivers can also provide a two-channel (stereo) signal plus amplification for sound in a second or even third room. See Multi-Room Music
- Video Display. A flat-panel TV—or video projector plus screen—which is large enough relative to the seating position, and detailed enough (with sufficient resolution, natural contrast and color accuracy), to provide an “immersive” or emotionally engaging experience. As a rule of thumb, this can occur when the size of the image displayed (when viewed at the seating position) is large enough to allow the viewer’s eye and brain to “read” emotions on a human face—whether the content is drama, sports, or comedy.
- Surround Sound Speakers. The most widely-used surround sound decoding standard—called Dolby Digital 5.1—requires three main speakers (left, center, right) plus two surround speakers (typically placed along the sides or above the main listening position), plus one subwoofer, each carefully positioned around the room to provide an optimal surround experience. Some time ago, the 7.1 format was introduced, which added two additional surround speakers in the back of the room.
Incidentally, the .1 in 5.1 and 7.1 refers to the number of subwoofers used (those cube-shaped boxes that sit on the floor and reproduce the bottom two octaves of sound). The latest surround processors are equipped to decode up to 11 speakers (plus 2 subwoofers)—thus Dolby Digital 11.2.
- Universal Remote Control. A skillfully programmed universal remote control system can perform multiple tasks:
- replace all the remotes in your home theater (the TV, Surround Receiver, Blu-ray player, and Cable or Satellite box) with a single smart unit;
- accomplish multiple tasks with a single keystroke—by custom-programming the “macro” feature. For example, a “Watch TV” button could be created, and programmed to turn on the video display, turn the surround receiver on and select satellite as the source to watch, plus turn on the satellite box itself and tune it to a favorite channel—all performed by pushing a single button;
- communicate via radio frequency (RF) to components that are not within line of sight for normal infrared (IR) control—for example, a stack of gear that is hidden in a closet or cabinet; and
- operate other smart home tasks, such as lowering the shades, dimming the lights, or turning down the temperature.
A Set of Video Standards. This approach specifies the technology platform(s) that are used to record and reproduce the picture, along with the cabling types required to connect a source component to the rest of the system.
- High Definition TV, the current digital video standard (called 1080p) specifies that 1080 pixels of video content per line are delivered from the source component to the video display, with the lines on the display scanned progressively (P). High Definition signals are transmitted from an HD source component to the TV via an HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) cable.
When it is impossible or impractical to retrofit a new HDMI cable from the surround receiver or HDMI source component to the video display (due to long distances or challenging wiring pathways), a special Balun Set can be used to transmit the signal over RG/6 coax cable or CAT-5/6 wiring that is already in place.
- Component Video, the older analog standard which HDMI was designed to replace, is called 1080i (for interlaced scan). With this standard, odd and even lines of pixels are interlaced (displayed sequentially rather than progressively, as with 1080p). The 1080i standard is sometimes referred to as 720p. Connecting to the TV using a bundle of three coaxial component video cables—also known as RGB, for Red-Green-Blue—it is still widely used by cable and satellite TV providers.
- Composite A/V, an even older analog standard, became obsolete about two decades ago. A composite connection carries both audio and video signals through a single coax cable. It is still sometimes used for small TVs, where the low signal quality isn’t very noticeable.
- Ultra High Definition TV, capable of so-called 4K resolution, was introduced in 2013. Offering four times the resolution of regular HDTV, it is already having a big impact on the industry, and is projected to become the dominant standard within a few years. Most currently-available UHD-rated TVs can up-convert 1080p signals and display them at near 4K resolution and quality. This upward compatibility is an excellent interim solution, as true 4K source material gradually becomes widely available.
- The 3-D Video standard, introduced a few years ago to much fanfare, is already fading from view, due in part to the constraints that it imposes on the process of movie-making, but most importantly because of the low light levels that the 3-D glasses impose on the viewer. A 3-D signal connects to 3-D compatible TV with an HDMI cable.
A Set of Audio Standards. The digital standard for audio recording is 48 kilobytes/ second. It refers to the rate at which the (analog) performance is sampled when it is captured on a digital recording. This standard has been around since the advent of CDs. Attempts to improve on it with SACD (Super Audio CD) and DVD-Audio were introduced about a decade ago, but failed in the marketplace.
Some of today’s high-quality CD players and Blu-ray players can play these orphan formats, and can also up-sample standard CDs to 96K or even 192K, significantly improving their sound quality in the process. Also available are “Universal” Disc players,which can play all audio and video discs, including standard (1080p) Blu-ray releases.
For many years, the name Dolby Digital has been synonymous with surround sound. Although it has become the de facto industry standard, alternate surround standards such as DTS are still available, and offer sonic alternatives.
Certification & Calibration. Certification and calibration standards have been developed over the years to help improve the sound and picture quality of home theater. Several companies are in the business of certifying that a given product meets certain performance standards, either on a laboratory test bench, or when installed in the room in which it will be used and hooked up to the equipment with which it is integrated.
With the calibration approach, component(s) of an system are installed in a specific theater (home or commercial), then measured and adjusted to optimize the audio and/or video performance of the system—within the limits of the equipment and room, of course.
- THX. The qualifying and quantifying of home theater performance has led to much confusion in the A/V industry. The well-known THX organization, for example, certifies commercial theaters based on the total performance of equipment installed in specific venue. If the movie theater is granted THX certification, it means that the performance delivered to the ears of the patrons is guaranteed to meet commercial THX surround sound performance standards.
For products intended for home theater use (a surround receiver, for example) THX certification means that a specific component model has met their performance standard on a test bench. This allows the manufacturer of the component to display the THX badge on that particular model. If a component lacks the THX badge, it does not necessarily mean that it is inferior or deficient in some way. It may simply mean that the manufacturer chose not to participate in the THX certification program.
- Image Science Foundation (ISF). The Imaging Science Foundation trains technicians in standardized procedures for calibrating home video displays (TVs and projectors) to specific performance standards. Once a system is installed, the ISF-certified technician calibrates each TV input to the performance characteristics of the source component delivering a signal to that input. If, for example, a theater uses three sources—a cable box, a Blu-ray player, and a video streaming device—the technician will calibrate the TV input to the source component hooked up to it.
Generally speaking, the ISF video calibration process involves adjusting color, contrast, and brightness to specific performance ideals. But in recent years, many consumers have become accustomed to the over-saturated color and brightness settings of out-of-the-box TVs. This is because factories have deliberately cranked up these settings to help their TV stand out in a demo room full of competing models: “I’ll take that one, with the brightest colors.”
In the retail TV trade, this adjustment is known jokingly as “flame-thrower” mode. As a result, a viewer who is new to ISF calibration may, for the first few days, be underwhelmed by a perfectly-calibrated system, and complain that the color is too green. But they soon “see the light” (as it exists in nature), and all is well.
- Home Acoustic Alliance (HAA). The Home Acoustic Alliance was established to train technicians in the art and science of calibrating home theater sound systems. For many years, HAA calibration was the gold standard for home theater audio calibration. In the last few years, auto-calibration systems such as Audyssey have entered the marketplace, often built into premium surround receivers and surround processors. Intended to make the process of acoustical calibration consumer-friendly, these automated systems can do a pretty decent job of contouring the sound to compensate for the limits of the room and equipment. But they are no match for a skilled expert. See Subwoofer Tuning & Room Acoustics; Matching Speakers to Your Room
When creating a home theater to meet the needs of a client and make the best use of the available space, audio/video specialists depend on the above (and other) technical concepts, specifications, and procedures to guide design, engineering, and installation decisions in both the audio and video realms. These specs provide a general framework for selecting compatible products for a system, as well as guidance in optimizing the performance of a given set of components once they are installed in a specific environment.
But as with other technical areas—like fine musical instruments —the design and tuning of a theater is more art than science, especially when optimizing within challenging physical and budgetary constraints. On the other hand, if the specialist is given a blank-slate with few or no physical or cost limitations, the task becomes more of a straightforward engineering problem.
Under typical retrofit conditions, the skill of the design and installation team—their training, experience, and commitment—can be much more important than the particular brands and models of equipment that are selected for the room. See Resolving Retrofit Challenges (coming soon); The Art of the Technology Upgrade (coming soon).
Given the complexity of home theater technology today, and the dogged product- and feature-centric focus of manufacturers (versus the client- and solution-centric approach needed for successful home theater design and installation in real-world environments), it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the home theater specialist has become the brand. So choose your dealer wisely. For help in finding a qualified specialist, see Finding an Expert.