The Way Forward for Home Theater Is Science, Not Sorcery

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The Way Forward for Home Theater Is Science, Not Sorcery


1-CD-stoplight.jpgA lot of what people think about the audiophile hobby is bullshit. Their zealotry for promoting woo in the very mathematical, scientific world of audio reproduction is embarrassing for all of us who understand that it's fundamental physics that drives our hobby. Green paint around the edge of a Compact Disc or little saw horses to decouple speaker cables from the RF noise on the floor of one's home is dark magic with nothing more than placebo effect to support it. I'm sorry, but the path to the holy grail of audio doesn't come from the magical placement of Shun Mook Mpingo discs in just the right spots. Not by a long shot.

Most reasonable people see through this level of fact-free, anti-science woo, while others delve into the brain-numbing world of alleging that 14-bit "non-oversampling" DACs from digital audio's first generation in the mid-1980s are somehow the best way to listen to music in the modern digital era. With enough tubes and enough ignorance to the facts, any audio voodoo can sound better, right?

3-BackofSub.jpegHome theater can have similar issues. Despite what one Florida-based subwoofer manufacturer's VP of Marketing tried to sell me on years ago (that audiophiles buy more subwoofers than home theater enthusiasts, which is total bunk) those of us into the hobby of playing movies back at home know that the LFE (aka: subwoofer) is a key part of making our systems rock. But it wasn't that long ago that the best home theater (and audiophile) subwoofers came with a bunch of knobs and adjustments that most of us simply took to like a pilot flying without instruments. Can you really dial in phase by ear? I can't. This is what professional acousticians do. You can likely set the volume to match your main speakers with an SPL meter and get the crossover point close enough, but that's about it. Even delay settings for your subwoofer are difficult to set for the average enthusiast.

But today, with decent room correction built into your AV Preamp or AV receiver, you can use the power of computer processing to dial in your bass management settings, automatically set delays, compensate for room acoustics, and at best even correct for wonky speaker placement. Guessing just isn't a thing anymore like it was in the past. Your components can tell you what's best for you.

5-GIK-Room.jpgI don't mean to undersell the idea of getting your room acoustics right before applying digital filters, because that is the most important factor in any sound system. Too few articles have been dedicated to this topic, so let me recap briefly. Your first order reflections, meaning the areas on your side walls and ceiling about three feet in front of your speakers (depending, of course, on the dimensions of your room and the placement of your speakers), get a lot of sonic energy shot at them. Putting some very simple, very affordable absorptive and/or diffusive treatments there in a way that works with your décor is just a gigantic upgrade to your sound. Finding a way to absorb standing bass waves in the corners of your room that doesn't get you divorced is yet another massive upgrade. Removing a coffee table from in front of your speakers is another simple, physical upgrade that is addition by subtraction. Using "cityscape" type diffusers on your back wall (even a bookcase loaded with books or a brick wall can help) is another big upgrade sonically and in the physical domain.

6-LG-OLED-Image.jpgIn the world of video, things are a little different. In the past, even in the SDR days, TV manufacturers knew that brighter displays sold better, and that a cooler color temperature made a screen appear brighter even when it wasn't. So most new displays required some serious calibration to look even remotely accurate once we got them home. That isn't as much the case today. Yes, video companies do what they can to keep up in the arms race, but many companies now make TVs that can be practically calibrated with the press of a button. On LG displays, simply selecting the ISF Bright or ISF Dark mode gets you so close to SMPTE standards that you probably couldn't tell the difference, without a $300 or $500 professional calibration.

Many other TV makers offer similar modes, usually containing the word "Cinema" or something to that effect.  Are professional calibrations still cool? Yes, they are, but they aren't a necessity the way they were in the old days with rear-pro TVs and CRT projectors. A professional calibration might get you two percent closer to perfection rather than 20 percent. That's just how good today's TVs are. To get most of the way there, all you need is a TV remote and two clicks of a button. And it isn't some magical hack that has brought us to this point. It isn't $1,000 HDMI cables or some other form of superstition. It's engineering and physics, along with improved manufacturing. 

Sadly, we live in a post-factual society on so many fronts. Anti-vaccination people literally put lives at risk with their spooky anti-science wackiness. "Alternative facts" are now the currency of politics. Oil companies and lobbyists fuel anti-science propaganda about climate change, the greatest existential threat our species has faced in recorded history.

Thankfully, counterfactual thinking in the realm of AV isn't a threat to anything other than our wallets or reputations, and we live in a world where AV technology allows the mainstream consumer to achieve simply kick-ass performance for prices that were seemingly impossible just ten years ago. And as video science and electroacoustics continue to improve, the performance delta between affordable gear and the highest of the high-end continues to shrink. And yes, getting the most out of today's gear still requires some know-how and a personal touch, be it in terms of room acoustics or simply knowing which video settings to select. But there's no reason to embrace the ways of the uninformed. We've got the technology today to get to the holy land of audio and video for less money and with less grief than ever before, and that is something very, very cool my friends.

Additional Resources
• My Home Theater New Year's Resolutions at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• AV Bliss Is About More Than Merely Audio and Video at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Getting Started With Basic Home Automation: Control4 Edition at HomeTheaterReview.com.


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