Oftentimes, when we at HomeTheaterReview.com look into our crystal balls and make prognostications, we’re doing so in an attempt to chart a course for the future of the publication as a whole, for our readers, and indeed for the industry that feeds this hobby of ours.
This is not one of those pieces. Instead, here on the precipice of the dawn of 2020, I thought I would sit down for a bit of personal reflection, and plot a more near-term path for the future of my own home cinema systems, my job as a gear reviewer, and my role as a commentator in this space. Hopefully these resolutions will help you, dear reader, in one way or another, whether it be co-opting a few of the more practical resolutions for yourself, or simply benefiting from some new “best practices” or attitudes I plan on adopting when evaluating new gear. With no further ado…
1) I resolve to do better with my room acoustics
I’ve received criticism from time to time for reviewing AV receivers in my bedroom rather than in my main media room. The reason I do so is because my main media room, at 17.5 by 19 feet, is simply too large to give the amps in most AVRs a fair shake, whereas my 13-by-15-foot master bedroom is, I feel, a nice representation of the average mid-sized room in which most AVRs are employed. The irony here is that my bedroom is also better treated from an acoustical point of view.
Mind you, I don’t have professional diffusers and absorbers installed on the walls and ceiling of my bedroom, but all of the decorations and accoutrements in there were selected and positioned with acoustics in mind, from the bookshelves lining the front half the room (with their books arranged in a staggered configuration) to the absorptive draperies and a handful of diffusive bookshelves toward the rear of the room.
My main media room? The same is mostly true, but I’ll admit that I’ve gotten a little lazy in the past year or so with some new additions. A big IKEA glass case installed to display my Hot Toys sixth-scale Star Wars figures definitely gets a little too close to the first reflection point, not so much that it creates a harsh reflection for me, but certainly for some peripheral seats in the room if I have more than a couple of guests over.
As I’ve shifted my viewing habits away from pure reliance on physical media to more and more streaming video, I’ve also winnowed down my Blu-ray/UHD Blu-ray (and even DVD) collection to a couple hundred essential titles, which has changed the relationship between diffusion and absorption at the rear of my room. I need to fix that. And I’m not sure if that means hitting up my buddy Anthony Grimani for a friends-and-family deal on some of his gorgeous Sonata DR2 diffusers or opting for a more DIY solution with his guidance. But either way, I need to get that back in balance.
2) I resolve to keep my media room tidier
One unfortunate reality of being a gear reviewer first and foremost is that my home is a laboratory as much as a living space. And after a while, it’s easy to fall into a habit of treating it as such. In my main media room system, I have two large SVS PB-4000 subwoofers flanking my front soundstage, and I’m here to tell you: in addition to being amazing bass-makers, those things make great tables. So, when I’m reviewing a new surround sound preamp, it’s easy enough just to plop its empty box on top of a sub until I’m ready to repackage the preamp and ship it back. The things are so damned inert that it’s not a concern from a performance perspective.
As such, those subs also tend to be home to essential test discs and reference discs, books I need to read (Mark Waldrep’s Music and Audio: A User Guide To Better Sound, for one), books I’ve read and regularly reference (the third edition of Floyd Toole’s Sound Reproduction: The Acoustics and Psychoacoustics of Loudspeakers and Rooms), and random crap like a pile of Dungeon in a Box modules that I haven’t had time to unbox and organize in my D&D campaign planner yet.
Here’s the thing, though: all of those boxes and books and discs and whatnot end up being a distraction. Sure, it doesn’t keep me from objectively evaluating a new piece of gear, but it does keep me from being as fully immersed in the home theater experience as I should be. And yes, that does matter.
3) I resolve to think outside of my own box more
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I don’t think my job as a gear reviewer is to tell you whether I like a product or not; it’s to give you enough information to determine whether it fits your needs. The personal feelings that leak into a review are merely a byproduct. Still, the process of doing a review means installing a component in my home, living with it for a few weeks or months, and trying to get as much use from it as possible, both in terms of objective testing and simply letting it become part of my daily entertainment routine.
That means it’s easy to get into the habit of using a piece of gear the way I would if I owned it. And in a recent review of the Marantz SR6014, I really let down a reader who wanted to know if I had problems using the receiver to serve music from a NAS drive.
Well, I don’t store my music on NAS drives. I have a media PC connected to my two-channel listening system in my home office, but with receivers and preamps and wireless speakers in and around the house, I simply rely on streaming apps these days, since the only music I already own that can’t be accessed in amazing quality via Qobuz or what have you are the gigs and gigs and more gigs of Grateful Dead bootleg concerts I’ve collected, and few of those are really helpful in evaluating gear.
But I promise to try and do better. There’s literally no way I’ll be able to test out literally every function of any new AV receiver because time is a finite resource, but I will do my best to keep notes on the use-cases you ladles and jellyspoons rattle off in the comments section and put them to the test whenever I can.
4) I also resolve to have more fun
It’s sometimes easy to forget, as we get obsessed over bit-depths and sample rates, refresh rates and color spaces, channel counts and amplifier ratings, that when you get right down to it, I play with toys for a living. And you, dear reader, play with toys as your hobby. Expensive toys, mind you. Complicated toys, yes. But toys nonetheless.
It’s time that we all remembered that, including me. A while back, a reader took me to task in the comments section of a receiver review for not using any classical musical selections in my testing. I bent myself in half trying to justify the decision, but upon reflection, there’s nothing to justify. I don’t really enjoy most classical music. Appreciate it? Sure. Lean on it occasionally if I really need to test the dynamic capabilities of an amp if I have lingering suspicions? Absolutely.
But if I’m not working on a review, there’s almost zero chance I would cue up any classical music aside from the occasional Bach composition. So, why would you want me relying on classical music in my reviews if I’m not intimately familiar with it?
I realize there’s some irony here, especially given my pledge above to test gear in a way that’s more comprehensive. But here’s the thing: I can’t tell you how a specific receiver interacts with a NAS drive unless I connect a NAS drive. I can, on the other hand, tell you more about a DAC or amp or preamp’s performance after fifteen minutes with Axis: Bold as Love than I could after fifteen hours listening to Sir Snooty McFluffybritches’ Doodlings in F Minor Stygian LMNOPQ Eleventy-Three Op.69.
And look, that last dig isn’t meant as an insult to any of you who truly enjoy listening to classical music. I simply don’t, and I’m tired of the gatekeeping, the stodginess, the faux erudition that plagues our hobby. I’m done being influenced by it.
If I spend my time focusing on what brings me genuine pleasure in this hobby of ours, I’ll be better equipped to inform you and your purchasing decisions. And when you get right down to it, that’s my job: not to evoke all the right shibboleths, but rather to help you decide whether a component does the job you need it to do. And to have fun doing it. And I don’t need to pretend to like classical music in order to do that.
5) I resolve to give Atmos another fair chance
There’s also some irony in the fact that I, as the primary resident AVR and surround sound preamp tester around these parts, just don’t like Atmos or DTS:X. At least not with movies. I find it distracting. I find that it draws my attention away from the horizontal plane on which films exist. I do dig it with video games, especially open-world games where one’s attention needs to be spread out in every dimension. But so few games these days actually employ Atmos encoding that it’s almost not worth paying attention to. And I like it with subtler movie mixes, which add ambience and atmosphere without walloping me about the head and shoulders with aggressive overhead sound effects. But those are rarer still.
A lot of you do dig Atmos with movies, though. So, of course, when I’m reviewing a new Atmos/DTS:X receiver, I always hang a temporary speaker setup that allows me to push all (or at least most) of an AVR’s amps or a preamp’s output channels to make sure nothing goes kerflooey in that respect. But once that testing is done, I pull down the overhead speakers, undrape the wires, and finish my evaluation in 5.2 or 7.2 mode so I can concentrate on what truly matters: imaging, soundstage, dynamics, room correction, and–most importantly–overall fidelity, including clarity, tonal balance, and distortion or the lack thereof.
At some point during this year, though, I’m making a vow to subject myself to a bit of immersion therapy. I plan on installing a slightly more permanent 5.2.4-channel speaker setup and living with it for a few months straight, just to see if I can find some genuine love for this new-ish dimension of surround sound. I’m not making any promises on that front. And I should mention here that I am on the autism spectrum, so I find it difficult to ignore sensory distractions. As such, I may not make it to the end of this little experiment if I find that it’s interfering with my ability to deliver meaningful gear reviews.
But as much as we here at HomeTheaterReview.com holler at you readers about accepting technological innovation and adapting to the future, it’s time I swallowed my own bitter pill and tried to find some love for the future of cinema sound.
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