Cello already had a strong presence in professional audio, and a number of the company's clients -- including Bob Ludwig and Ted Jensen -- were using Apogee's DA-1000E and AD-500 converters in their studios. What sold Levinson is the new anti-jitter circuitry based around a low-jitter clock, with better than 30 picosecond rejection and said to allow coaxial and TOSlink connectors to outperform AT&T glass connections. Additionally, Levinson thinks it's so good that it negates the differences in transports. (The inclusion of TOSlink was deemed crucial as the majority of today's laser disc players feature TOS connectors for digital audio output.) The jitter clock was designed by Bruce Jackson, sound manager for Bruce Springsteen among others, and also the designer of highly-coveted retro-fit boards for the Sony 1610. Unlike most domestic audio DACs, the Apogee eschews chips by offering programmable geometry and proprietary software.
So what to use for a transport? Especially as the Apogee is supposed to be a great leveller? Cello settled on the Pioneer CLD95, which Levinson describes as producing 'the best picture I've ever seen'. And it's likely that there will be a Cello-badged version, tweaked by Cello and providing revised cosmetics. It's a handsome beast, capable of playing laser and audio discs and selling for around $2000 -- which makes it the least expensive part of the system.
Now we come to the most impressive unit in the system, the Cello Video Palette. Built by Faroudja Laboratories in California, it employs Faroudja's advanced video technology for line doubling, scan conversion, decoding and bandwidth expansion. The Cello version is similar to Faroudja's broadcast-standard LD100, but made domestically acceptable with a whisper fan and a front panel to match other Cello components. Inputs include Composite In (75 ohm), S Video and RBG, while the output is RGB to the projector. The video decoding converts NTSC In to RGB Out, the Faroudja 'thinking' in RGB. Signal processing includes the aforementioned duties plus motion correction, while individual front-panel controls handle brightness, contrast, colour, tint and detail. And demonstrating it is far easier than impressing an audience with subtle sonic tweaking.
Without telling me which switches he was flicking, Levinson ran through the Palette's capabilities, the most obvious (and necessary) being the line doubling. Without it, the picture on the 8x6ft screen (Cello recommends a Stewart at around $2000) looked just like blown-up TV: annoying, coarse lines turning the image into corduroy. Switch on the doubler and it was suddenly silk, near enough to 35mm to leave you gasping. The controls were easy to use; as with the Audio Palette, five minutes' worth of hands-on experience is all you need. What it does is improve focus and image stability, create realistic colour, reduce smearing, provide blacker blacks and whiter whites and reduce 'burn-outs'. Most impressive of all, the system delivers the kind of image depth tha'ts virtually 3D without the goggles, a standard virtue of cinema viewing which has eluded home theatre and which makes the experience so much more convincing. The effects are not subtle at all, even to my aging eyes.
To project this cleaned-up image, Cello has collaborated with Ampro, a Florida-based company which makes industrial projectors such as would be used by major companies for presentations, exhibitions and the like. The top of the line model is the reason I had to travel half way 'round the world; Hong Kong received the first sample of Cello's VRP 890M. Based on Ampro's 4200 high-resolution industrial projector, it employs 9in, magnetic focus tubes, graphics-grade high-definition lenses, a digital chassis and an ultra-quiet fan cooling system based on Cello designs. The projector has memory to store up to 50 aspect ratios, essential now that the software companies such as Tartan are issuing tapes and discs using the films' original aspect ratios, and both hard-wired and infra-red remote control operation allow adjustment from the viewing position.
The VRP 890M differs from the less-expensive VRP 890E only in that it offers magnetic rather than electrostatic focus operation, magnetic delivering a 15-20% improvement in resolution. The 9in tubes provide more brightness than do 7in tubes, typically 1100 lumens vs 700 lumens. The bandwidth is 75mHz, better than double that of most domestic projectors, while the scan rate is 85kHz, comparable to a typical 55kHz for domestic offerings. The specifications are said to better the minimum needed for HDTV by 'probably 50%'.
Other facilities include vertical and horizontal blanking (useful when you see microphones hanging from ceilings in movies broadcast with the wrong aspect ratio), compression and expansion which allow the projector to be used a variety of video sources, open architecture to accept mods for future formats and more. One musing involved the playing of computer games through the system, which should prove interesting as the Ampro was designed first and foremost as a computer graphics projector. Tube life should run between 10,000-20,000 hours, which means that -- at $45,000 for the projector -- you're looking at $2-plus per hour viewing should you trash it instead of replacing the tubes...
And just in case you have a lot of friends, the '890M can fill a screen up to 30ft wide.
Add the $45,000 for the projector to $2000 for the screen, $5500 for the DAC-plus-power supply (and another $4500 for A/D conversion), $18,000 for the Video Palette and you have around $70,000 not counting the audio system or transport. I reckon $200,000 all-in should cover the works, including a bit of carpentry and a few comfy Eames chairs plus hassocks. Is this what it takes to become your own J Arthur Rank?
Since most of you know me only as an audiophile, let me set the standards which I use...cinema-wise. I can name every main role played by Frank Thring and know the difference between Laird Cregar and Lon Chaney Jr. I know who played the zither for The Third Man theme and what Valentino drove. I've seen The Producers 50 times and can tell you what camera James Stewart used in Rear Window. In other words, I lurve the movies -- enough to have see Plan 9 From Outer Space when I was seven...30 years before it became hip. So, putting on my Barry Norman jumper, I let Levinson do his stuff.
He started out so conventionally that I wanted to hop back on the plane. Terminator 2 is to 1993 what Top Gun was to 1991, demo'd to death. But what I was seeing seemed like a new film. The detail, the sound of the crashes (the truck chase scene -- what else?) the fluidity of the transformations, the clarity of the explosions, the sense of speed while racing through the L.A. 'canals'. I was hooked.
We moved onto a personal favourite, that affectionate pulp hommage, The Rocketeer. Those flying sequences -- it reminded me of my lone visit to a true Cinerama theatre as a child. Full field of vision, side to side and top to bottom. Vivid colours. A flood of sound. Amusingly, the Lexicon surround sound decoder hadn't been installed by the time of my arival, but I never missed the centre or rear channels. And I had to keep telling myself that I was in a medium-sized listening room in a hi-fi shop.
Onto Fried Green Tomatoes, the kind of film which normally makes me gag. I told Mark what I thought of low-key, 'quality' movies adored by the critics. He said, 'Just watch', issuing the same kind of invitation which people swear will get me 'into' classical music if only I heard the right stuff on the right system. Well, it never worked for me with music, so why should a killer film system make me enjoy a movie on a par with an episode from The Waltons?
Okay, so I did laugh at the food fight, the car park incident. And yes, the system did increase the involvement, maybe because it's not like watching broadcast TV, when you can flip quickly to another channel. I was reminded of my own lack of immunity to this century's decimating of our attention spans. I was aware that I hadn't fully resisted the mind-compression employed by modern media. I sat there as if I'd paid real money at the kiosk out front. All that was missing was a huge tub of salted and buttered, a tube of Rolos and a shoulder to encircle.
I should tell you that I was sitting in a room empty of all but the hi-fi equipment and a couple of directors' chairs. Lights on, and it looked like a chic warehouse, with nothing to suggest picture palaces, Hollywood or making out in the balcony. Lights off, and all that was missing was an usher with a torch.
But let's get real. Even if you specify lesser hi-fi equipment -- which Levinson says in stupid because the secret to convincing cinema is unassailable dynamic capabilities -- you're talking six figures. And although there are less-expensive projectors and even a back-projection set in the Cello range, the Video Palette is still a serious investment. And I can't speak for the lesser models. But, and I hate to say this, I've seen the standard by which all home theatre systems must be measured.
And, no, I'm no longer happy with an eight-year-old 22-incher.