Have you ever been on a home theater forum and read the impassioned arguments that erupt, often over some of the smallest issues related to our beloved pastime? People go to the mat over the smallest of disputes or differences of opinion when it comes to a wide variety of topics, from speaker setup to source-component tweaks to video calibration and so much more. Anyone outside of our industry’s inner sanctum would consider these quarrels by full-grown adults to be pretty silly. However, in the past few years, the skepticism that permeates the millions of posts and threads on any number of audio/video forums has migrated into the pages of many top magazines. Perhaps the bad economy or the burst in the real estate bubble in 2008 has something to do with this newfound anger, especially toward higher-end products.
It’s important to remember that home theater is a hobby. A few months back, I asked the question, “Does a dedicated home theater or home automation system increase the value of your home?” With my Los Angeles home in escrow as I type this, I can report to you that the screening room and automation system were things that people wanted but weren’t willing to pay one red cent extra to get. They would happily take all of the THX-calibrated 65-inch HDTVs I had to offer, but at no additional price increase. Home theater is simply not an investment like a stock, bond or even a piece of fine art. We spend money on HT gear solely for our own gain – to increase the buzz we get from our system, to make it more fun. We spend money to get more enjoyment from our music and movies, be it from deeper bass, better imaging, easier system control or deeper black levels. Each tweak provides another increment of joy.
Casual buyers who are in the market for a new HDTV might swing by HomeTheaterReview.com to read some TV reviews, but they are unlikely to be power users like those of you who comment on our pages via Facebook, Discus or the other tools that we provide for user engagement. For others, home theater is more like a journey, one that began with your first home theater purchase, and I urge you to enjoy the trip. Each upgrade should be fun. Visiting local retailers and/or installers should be like a baseball fan taking in a game at a new, out-of-town stadium. Ask questions. Take photos. Get cool ideas for your system. Share your experiences with other enthusiasts, friends and especially young people. Find the venues online that are the friendliest and get engaged. The moderators at our forum, HomeTheaterEquipment.com, make a point to be welcoming and helpful to newbies and advanced users alike, even though they come from all over the country and have varied opinions on what’s good and what’s not. Making friends and sharing thoughts can also be a big part of the fun of improving your system. The key word is fun.
The process of upgrading our systems is not a linear one. An extra $500 spent on a home theater component in the entry-level realm can yield wildly impactful upgrades, while at the higher level, you may pay much more than $500 for the nth degree of performance improvement. Is the money you invest worth it? That’s a question only you can answer. What’s heartening about our hobby in recent years is that the best audio and especially video products have dropped in price faster than computers have, even factoring in Moore’s Law. A $6,000 HDTV from five years ago is a joke compared with what $2,500 buys you today. AV preamps and HDMI receivers have more inputs, better processors and more trick features than you could get for the same money just two years ago. Speakers are easier to drive, more room-friendly (and wife-friendly) and can give you more goosebumps for less lettuce out of your wallet. These are things to rejoice about in our hobby. We live in good times.
Readers often email me and ask me, “How much should I spend on …?” While I have always answered reader questions as a matter of policy over the past sixteen years (you can email me at [email protected] or call the office at 310.860.9988 to talk with me on the phone personally), when it comes to exact prices, it’s really hard to say. Using a wine analogy, the most famous Super Tuscan wine is arguably Sassacia. It’s a rich, blended, high-end Italian red wine that is simply fantastic. If suitably aged, this fine, low-production wine might cost anywhere from $300 to $1,000 per bottle in a restaurant. Made on the same hill using the same “terroir” (as the French call it), Sassacia family members make a wine called Guidalberto that has many of the same characteristics as its wealthier cousin; however, you can buy a bottle of Guidalberto in a wine store for $50 to $60 per bottle and maybe $110 in a restaurant. Is there a difference between the two Super Tuscans? Sure there is. Is it a big difference? Not really. Is it fun to do a taste test with your foodie friends and discuss the pros and cons? For many, it is.
In the end, there is a right system for each of us. My encouragement is for you to enjoy each and every step from the first component that you buy until you reach the pinnacle of your personal AV mountain. AV gear has never performed better, while downward pressure on price has never been stronger. Without question, the hobby has changed with the advent of the Internet, the correction in the economy and a sea change in real estate in the United States. Nevertheless, it’s still a whole lot of fun to be able to lug home an 80-inch HDTV and hang it on your wall. It’s even more fun to have a professional calibrator come over and improve the picture to match broadcast standards in a way that looks night-and-day better than when you unloaded it from its box. The process, the research and the results all provide the fun.