Over the past six months, as we've reported on various developments on both the video and audio sides of the home theater equation, I've noticed an interesting trend in the comment sections of this website and our Facebook page. Allow me to summarize:
"Dolby Atmos is stupid. 5.1-channel surround sound is fine."
"Hi-res audio is stupid. CD quality is fine."
"New disc formats are stupid. Streaming is fine."
"Ultra HD is stupid. 1080p is fine."
Apparently, everyone who works in research and development at a major AV company should just pack up and go home because the industry as we know it today is fine, and fine is good enough.
I know, I know--we're talking about the comments section on the Internet, where everything is stupid to somebody, and those somebodies generally like to be the loudest voices in the room. It's not a highly accurate sampling of reader opinions as a whole, but it still surprises me when someone who cares enough about the hobby to read our publication has an attitude of, "I'm perfectly happy with the system I've put together, so you guys should just stopping developing new things." It seems to run counter to very spirit of why people become audio/video enthusiasts in the first place.
As I look over these comments and examine the reasoning behind them, some common threads emerge. The first one is, "This new tech is just the manufacturers' way of trying to take more of our money." Well, yeah. Manufacturers are trying to take more of your money. They kind of need it to stay in business. Why do speaker manufacturers or TV makers develop new lines when the previous models got great reviews? Why not drop the mike and walk off stage, rather than spend vast amounts of time and money in R&D just to push the performance a little bit further? To keep us interested, excited, and willing to spend. And when the interest and excitement have reached a plateau, then it's time to find the next big thing that hopefully stirs them up again. You don't have to buy the next big thing if you're happy with what you've got, but someone else who is ready to upgrade or is just getting into the hobby may be thrilled to get the next big thing. Why begrudge that?
Another complaint is that all of these new developments are just gimmicks, and I think people are way too quick to throw that word around. A gimmick tries to add to a product's cool factor and its price tag while offering no discernible improvement in performance or experience. I would call curved screens a gimmick, but I would not call Ultra HD a gimmick. It's perfectly valid to question whether or not Ultra HD is ready for prime time right now and whether or not being an early adopter is worth the risk, but that's not the same as dismissing it outright as a gimmick. Yes, content is limited, and early models didn't have all the capabilities needed to fully exploit the format's potential. Does that sound vaguely familiar? Anyone still have a first-generation Blu-ray player in their basement? Remember the days when we had to discuss if a Blu-ray player was version 1.0, 1.1, or 2.0 to let shoppers know what features they would and would not get? The technology has evolved to the point where you can buy a fully featured Blu-ray player for $100 and not have to think twice about its capabilities...but tech can't evolve if it doesn't exist. Ultra HD is evolving, especially this year. That extra resolution will be combined with better color and better contrast (and more content) to offer a more obvious, tangible performance benefit.
As for Dolby Atmos, I've heard it, and it's no gimmick. The performance benefits that Atmos (or Auro 3D or, soon, DTS:X) can produce, in terms of soundstaging and immersion, are real. You may find them unnecessary or overkill in your home setup, but I guarantee that someone else can't wait to install an Atmos system...and they're going to love it. These words are coming from someone whose hardly on the cutting edge of home theater: my speakers are 10 years old, and I use a 7.2-channel AV receiver to drive a 5.1-channel system. The receiver has Pro Logic IIz, but I've never felt compelled to add front height channels...or even surround back channels, for that matter. I just don't need it, nor do I feel that my setup is somehow rendered inadequate because those channels exist and I'm not using them. Soon enough, Atmos will be a feature in most every AV receiver and processor at most every price point, for you to use or not use as you see fit. I welcome the progress, even if I don't have the funds or room environment to get in on the action.
Hi-res audio is, of course, a more complicated and contentious subject. Some will insist that it's a gimmick; others will insist just as fervently that the performance benefits are real and easily heard compared with CD and, especially, lower-res compressed files. It's a healthy debate that has people talking and teaching about audio/recording quality, and that in itself is a very good thing for our industry.
Finally, there's the "just say no to a new disc format" complaint. We recently posted a short news story with an update on the state of the Ultra HD Blu-ray spec and saw comments like: "Overkill. Blu-ray is fine." "Most of us aren't interested in replacing our whole collections yet again." "Another format that will be outdated in five years, rendering your library obsolete and your equipment inadequate." One person even went so far as to say that DVD was good enough for most people, and you know what? He's right. DVD is good enough for most people, but we're not most people. For us, Blu-ray is better...and Ultra HD Blu-ray will be better still. Enthusiasts who are willing to pay for a premium Ultra HD disc format deserve to have one--because that's where the best quality is going to be. I have a very good Internet connection, I've tested Netflix and Amazon Ultra HD streaming, and it really is just "fine." I want better: better detail, better color, better contrast, better sound.
The idea that you have to upgrade your entire media collection every time a new format comes along is just nonsense. If you don't want to buy new discs, don't! It's not like, on the day Ultra HD Blu-ray hits the market, some guy is gonna show up at your door, put a gun to your head, and make you pay to update every disc in your collection. (Wouldn't it be great if that many titles existed on day one, though!?)
Ultra HD Blu-ray is expected to be fully backwards-compatible with Blu-ray, which was backwards-compatible with DVD. I still own a lot of DVDs that I never bothered to upgrade to Blu-ray. Even some of my favorite films like The Matrix, I still only own in DVD form. Yes, I know there's a better-looking, better-sounding version out there, and I thought about upgrading...but I exercised my free will and chose not to. I spent the money on a new Blu-ray release instead. In fact, were I to organize my disc collection by release date, you could figure out quite easily when Blu-ray arrived on the scene, and I expect Ultra HD Blu-ray will be much the same.
I find that word "inadequate" intriguing because I feel like it goes to the heart of the problem. People don't like to feel that the system they worked so hard to put together or the media collection they've assembled is inadequate or outdated. It's a pride thing. Plus, our culture tells us that we deserve everything we want, and we deserve it right now. So, if something new comes along that we can't afford or accommodate, it offends us instead of inspiring us. We'd prefer it just didn't exist at all than to know that we can't have it. That's not a healthy way to view advancements in our hobby, which is designed to be, at least in some part, aspirational--just like cars or watches or fine wine.
As someone who has covered this industry for a long time, I enjoy watching the evolution of a new technology. I remember the LG press conference where the company announced the first-ever integration of Netflix into an AV device, and look at where that has led us. But not every "next big thing" plays out that way: 3D didn't exactly transform the way we watch TV, as video manufacturers and broadcasters hoped it would--but was it a waste for you to spend a little more on a 3D-capable TV or projector? Not if you still enjoy the occasional 3D movie through your system. It has evolved into a secondary feature that's great for some, unnecessary for others. Today's next-gen technologies may become the foundation of the home theater industry in upcoming years, they may evolve into a peripheral or niche market, or they may fade way entirely. But they are all trying to breathe new life and new energy into our hobby to keep it moving forward, which means in my book they are anything but stupid.
What do you think? Which new technologies excite you, and which ones do you dismiss? If you're not excited about any of the developments we've discussed here, then what next big thing would you like to see? Comment below.
• Do Consumers Really Want Curved HDTVs? at HomeTheaterReview.com
• Can We Sell Hi-Res Audio to the Mainsteam Music Lover? at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• What You Need to Know About HDMI 2.0 at HomeTheaterReview.com.