Dennis Burger is a native Alabamian whose passion for AV began sometime before the age of seven, when he dismantled his parents' brand new 25-inch solid-state Zenith console TV and exclaimed--to the amusement of no one except the delivery guy--that it was missing all of its vacuum tubes. He has since contributed to Home Theater Magazine, Wirecutter, Cineluxe, Electronic House, and more. His specialties include high-end audio, home theater receivers, advanced home automation, and video codecs.
My mother-in-law recently drove down from Ohio to visit for the week, and in our attempt to find entertainment that we all would enjoy, my wife and I introduced her to the amazing David Attenborough documentary series Our Planet on Netflix. This was our third time watching the series front to back, and the second time through since Netflix introduced its adaptive studio-quality audio, which turned the series from a wonderful AV experience into truly reference quality home theater demo material.
Something weird happened when I pressed the Play button, though. The audio simply didn't sound right. For the first few minutes of the episode, I obsessed over trying to figure out what was out of whack.
Was it the tonal balance?
No. The bass, midrange, and high frequencies were all perfectly proportioned.
Squinting my auditory cortex as hard as I could, I couldn't pick up on any distortion, which I'm particularly sensitive to.
Nope and nope. The overall front-to-back balance of this amazing audio mix sounded spot on, and the front soundstage leapt beyond the boundaries of my main left and right speakers, as it should.
Volume? Nuh uh. My AV8805 preamp's loudness knob was set exactly where it always is.
I sat there for a while, trying to pick apart every quantifiable aspect of the audio to figure out why it just didn't sound right, and came up short. And then something completely unrelated occurred to me: It was too damned bright in my media room.
Not by a lot, mind you. I whipped out my Lutron app and noticed that the lighting in the room was at 60 percent, whereas my Control4 system normally tells my Lutron hub to dial the lighting back to 40 percent automatically when I fire up my AV system.
Here's where things get weird, though. As soon as my lighting was dialed in to my preferred TV-watching level, immediately everything sounded... well, right.
Nothing quantifiable changed. No shift in tonal balance. No removal of distortion. No tweaks to the soundstage or imaging or the dispersion of my speakers. What's doubly weird is that this change in lighting had no real perceivable impact on the image on-screen. Granted, had the lights been set at 100 percent, that would have washed out blacks a little and obscured contrasts to a degree. But the difference between 40 and 60 percent intensity in the ambient light of the room just wasn't enough to tweak my perception of the image. It was, though, enough to throw off my perception of the sound, in ways that couldn't be quantifiable because one thing just has nothing to do with the other.
Or so I thought. In an effort to understand all of this, I turned to an older AES paper "Interactions Between Audio-Visual Factors in a Home Theater System: Definition of Subjective Attributes" by Wieslaw Woszczyk of McGill University, and Soren Bech & Villy Hansen of Bang & Olufsen A/S. It's an older paper, from the bygone SD era, and it doesn't touch upon lighting control at all. But within the pages of that paper, I found some meaningful confirmation of the phenomenon I experienced. Right from the giddy-up, the paper states: "A body of evidence suggests that the two perceptual modalities, seeing and hearing, interact and reinforce one another in a complex relationship."
It goes on to discuss "visual prepotency," or a general attention bias toward visual modality, as well as the necessity of "balance of magnitudes of auditory and visual stimuli" in order to optimize perceptual fusion between sight and sound. In other words, as the paper points out, increasing the size of your screen without correspondingly increasing the magnitude of your sound will lead to the perception that the audio is weaker and less impactful than it actually is.
Again, I need to stress that at no point does the paper say that having your ambient lights too bright can muck up your perception of sound, but in general terms, the findings of the paper do support this sort of thing with a bit of extrapolation.
And look, before any of you full-blown subjectivists start cheering from the balcony seats, I'm not saying that we should throw objective criteria out the window and just focus on how a speaker or DAC or sound processor affects our fee-fees. In reviewing any new component, I'm still going to focus first and foremost on objective standards for performance.
I'm just saying that in addition to all of that, I'm also going to start being more careful to tweak my lighting to "entertainment" levels when I'm evaluating a new speaker system or receiver or what have you, especially if it's a fresh install and I haven't had time to reprogram my control system yet. Because it may not affect my objective analysis of a component, but apparently it does affect my subjective perception in weirder ways that I would have guessed, and try as I might to avoid it, that sort of thing does leak into reviews.
I'm also saying that maybe, just maybe, more of our readers should start thinking of lighting control and other smart environmental control technologies as equally essential to the home cinema experience as the AV gear, especially when a high-quality lighting control starter kit comes in at less than $100. We should all also give more weight to the notion that none of this audio/video gear we all love works in isolation. Picture affects sound. Sound affects picture. And environment affects both in ways that aren't quite as obvious as the truism that your room, acoustically speaking, is the most important component of your audio system.
That almost seems like the most "duh" pronouncement in the world when you spell it out like that. But we don't treat it as a "duh." How often have I seen photos of enthusiast systems that include IMAX levels of audio gear mated with a wimpy 55-inch display and a sofa ten feet away? Conversely, how many projection systems have I seen mated with speaker setups that are woefully inadequate for the room? What's worse, how many otherwise awesome AV systems have I seen installed in rooms with an old-school binary light switch on the wall? The short answer? Too many. On all counts.
The lesson to be learned here? Our brains process auditory and visual stimuli in complicated and intertwined ways, because our brains evolved to allow us to match those stimuli to better ensure our survival in the wild. As a result, our experience of home cinema is affected by a complex balance of sight and sound that can't be boiled down to simply installing the best display and sound system we can afford. And this is something that all of us--we reviewers included--need to keep at the forefront of our minds. Science is science. A good speaker sounds how a good speaker sounds. But the most unexpected things can affect the way we perceive that sound.
• Answering Reader Email: Room Correction Is Not a Panacea at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• What's the Ideal Speaker Driver Configuration? at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• One Thing We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Cord-Cutting at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Getting Started With Basic Home Automation: Control4 Edition at HomeTheaterReview.com.