So, I was talking to Tom Hanks one day, and the topic of conversation came around to my work as a reviewer of home theater equipment. He had just finished installing what he thought was a kick-ass home theater. Next thing you know, he invites me back to his home for a demo to give him my thoughts. What an intro for an article, huh? If only it were true. While no real Hollywood celeb invited me back to their home to listen to their home theater, I recently got a chance to see and hear what one of those truly high-end home theater installations might be like.
Through one of our contacts at HomeTheaterReview, I was introduced to Paul Hales, president of Pro Audio Technology, a company that specializes in audio systems sold through professional installers. He invited me to visit the company's recently renovated PRO Experience Center showroom. In partnership with Trinnov, Pro Audio Technology upgraded the showroom to highlight 3D immersive audio formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X for its network of dealers. It's also a training center; Pro Audio Technology recently launched its PROCertified service, providing design and development assistance to dealers who want to move into the realm of 3D audio installation.
The PRO Experience Center is located in a small, unassuming building, nestled in a corporate park area in Lake Forest, CA. This locale isn't surprising, since it's just a short throw from some of the most exclusive beachfront neighborhoods in Orange County, where no doubt much of the company's clientele resides. Hales introduced himself and talked about his history with audio. He started out in high-end audio designing audiophile speakers under the Hales brand back in the '90s. After a few consulting projects, Hales went on to become Director of R&D for QSC Audio, one of the largest professional speaker manufacturers worldwide. That's when he got the idea of merging high-end consumer and professional audio technology to create audio systems that offered the refinement expected of high-end consumer audio that can be scaled up to the inevitably large, cavernous spaces that the rich and famous use for their home theaters. While Tom Hanks was only an example for illustration, Hales did drop a few names to highlight his client portfolio; I've been sworn to secrecy, so you'll just have to trust me when I tell you that they were household names--Hollywood A-listers, artists, and performers...and at least one billionaire media mogul.
Pro Audio Technology manufactures speakers that rely on horn-loaded designs. Hales cites high dynamic range as being one of the major reasons behind using horns. Simply put, horns can play louder than traditional dome tweeters without damaging the speakers. DSP is built into the company's proprietary amplifiers, allowing PRO's software to work in conjunction with Trinnov's Altitude32 AV preamp to control up to 32 speaker channels. Pro Audio Technology designed the software to be easy for installers to use. All they have to do is input how many speakers and what type, and it runs all of the processing.
The demo room was large for a home theater space (22 feet wide by 35 feet deep), and the ceilings were vaulted. One benefit of having a large room is that the room's effect on standing waves is less important, as the length of the wave gets longer with distance between walls. The second benefit is that there's just no substitute for big sound in a big room. It's just a lot easier to convey big scale--like a giant action-movie scene or a multichannel recording of a concert in a large venue. The drawback to a large room is that you need a lot of power and a lot of very powerful speakers to pressurize the room so that it doesn't sound thin.
The room features a 23-speaker system configured as in an 11.4.8 array. Yes, you read that right: four subwoofers. Two large ones with 24-inch woofers in the front, behind a curtain and Stewart Filmscreen projection screen, and two "small" subwoofers driven by only 15-inch woofers. The 11 main speakers reside in the listener's plane, including a trio of three-way speakers in front with 15-inch drivers. Then, there's a total of eight speakers in the ceiling for use with immersive sound formats like Dolby Atmos. PRO's own amplifier-processors (adding up to more than 14,000 watts) drive all the speakers. The system as demoed would come at an installed price of $130,000. As outrageous as this might seem, anyone who has frequented high-end audio shows can tell you that there are speakers that this cost much (or more) per pair. To the purchaser of a multi-million-dollar estate home, $130,000 may seem like a very reasonable upgrade.
Once we got all the shop talk out of the way, it was time for the good stuff: the demo. First up, Paul wanted to demonstrate for me the sheer power and scale of the system, using a Wolfgang Sieber rendition of Bach's Tocatta in D minor. He jacked up the volume for this one. Whenever Sieber stepped on those foot pedal bass notes, I experienced the raw power of really low notes playing at very loud volumes by giant subwoofers--a rare treat. The sense of scale felt like being blasted by one of those giant outdoor speakers at a Disneyland parade--you know, the ones you can hear all the way on the other side of the theme park. Except, in this case, I didn't get the feeling I had been been violently accosted by some large animal, the way those venues always manage to make me feel. High notes were equally crisp and grand in scale, yet not piercing.
Dynamic range was definitely the true strength of this system. Rock drum solos showed immense scale, yet with a level of precision and detail that would satisfy many high-end audiophiles. Similarly, with scenes from the Dolby Atmos demo disc like "Leaf" and "Rain," the subtlest sounds came across with stunning clarity. On many lesser systems, when you turn down the volume to a whisper, so the sense of scale diminishes by magnitudes. Here, when the volume decreased in the "Leaf" scene, the whispers of the wind and the crackles of the leaf permeated the entire room. With movie soundtracks, dialogue was immersive and expansive, yet always centered in the front and properly anchored to the actors on the screen.
The highlight performance of the day had to be the opening scene of Mad Max: Fury Road. The scene starts off quiet, with titular character Mad Max standing in the middle of desert sand. All the whispers of the wind and soft sifting of the sand were clear and evident. Tom Hardy's deep, narrating voice was solid and in your face. As the scene proceeds to the car-chase section, the rumble of large-engine monster vehicles and high-pitched gears filled the whole room. The "size" of the audio presentation was nothing short of amazing. You could hear the height of those monster vehicles and all the tension of a man running for his life in a futuristic society full of crazies. Yet, it never escaped my attention that, as loud as it was, it was surprisingly listenable. Many commercial theaters have big sound, which translates into speakers cranked way louder and driven harder than they were ever meant to be driven. And after a few minutes of any cacophonous action scene, you just want to leave your popcorn and drink and get out of there before you bleed out from your ears. Not here. This was big, but it was also a pleasure to listen to.
At the end of the day, while I didn't get to meet Tom Hanks, I did get to have a taste of what his home theater would look and sound like. All in all, it was an experience I will not soon forget. Home theater means different things to different people--and a lot of it depends on your budget. Most of our readers are likely looking to assemble a high-performance multichannel theater system for a small to mid-sized room, and I've certainly visited a few home theaters that could rival the performance of the PRO Experience Center showroom, but in a scaled-down size. Still, there's just no replacing that sense of scale you get when you can bring a true theater-sized environment into your home. You think it's too late for me to become a Hollywood A-lister or media mogul so that I can afford one?
• Visit Pro Audio Technology's website for more product information.
• Visit Trinnov's website for more product information.
• Pro Audio Technology and Trinnov Partner to Show Off 3D Audio at HomeTheaterReview.com.