There are few things that a home theater enthusiast enjoys more than sitting down in front of his or her system and being able to enjoy it for hours on end with no interruptions from the real world. I bet most of us could use a few extra hours of "theater time" each week, but sadly it can be hard to carve out enough time even for a single two-hour film on family movie night. Since more and more people are constantly on the go these days, there is a real value in setting yourself up with a portable home theater. Not only can you catch up on your favorite shows, but you can do it during your commute and in the pseudo-privacy that a pair of headphones provides. Sure, jostling with commuters on the train while trying to watch the Walking Dead finale may not be the same as sitting on a leather couch and watching a 90-inch screen, but it doesn't have to be all bad. Here are some tips to help you assemble a higher-quality, portable system - beyond your basic smartphone and its supplied pair of earbuds - and find content to play on it. With a little effort, you'll be able to take the home theater experience with you wherever you go.
There are two ways you can go when it comes to your display monitor: laptop or tablet. Resolution and brightness are important specs, as viewing angle will probably be constant and black level becomes less important when you're on the road. Most portable screens will be some variation of LCD, so all of the things we've said about that tech in the past still apply.
The current Apple iPad has a resolution of 2,048 x 1,536 at 264 pixels per inch (ppi) courtesy of its Retina display. Its competitor, the Kindle Fire, has it bested in this department, coming in at 2,560 x 1,600 and 339 ppi. Now, that may not seem like a big difference but, as many will be quick to point out, you hold a tablet much closer to your face than a television, so the increased resolution can help. Both of those screen resolutions are high enough that the likelihood of seeing the dreaded "screen door effect" is low.
The same goes for almost any current spec laptop, including the one you are probably using to read this. On average, the current laptop screen is 1,280 x 800. Sure, it's not 4K, but it's probably okay for the subway. To optimize your laptop's video performance, the serious videophile may want to invest in a professional calibration, just as he or she would with a television. At the very least, you should take the time to go into the laptop settings and make some basic picture adjustments. Apple laptops have a calibration tool in the Displays section of System Preferences, and Windows laptops offer Display Color Calibration that helps you properly adjust things like gamma, brightness, contrast, and color using patterns from the Monster/ISF HDTV Calibration Wizard tutorial disc.
iPhones and Android-based phones are also viable options but, given that we're trying to re-create the home theater experience, I can't in good conscience suggest that a tiny smartphone screen will accomplish this.
When you're on the go, speakers aren't really a good option (unless you want to be that guy on the subway), so a good pair of headphones is a must. MrSpeakers Alpha Dogs and Sennheiser's HD 700 are good choices for over-the-ear headphones, which do a nice job of blocking out the outside world. I'm not a big fan of noise cancellation headphones (especially if I am listening to music on the go, or walking through a busy intersection), but they certainly can help you get lost in a film or music track when you're stuck in a noisy environment, such as an airplane. Luckily, if you are a fan, tons of manufacturers now offer this feature.
The other cool option is in-ear monitors. Something custom-fitted like the Ultimate Ears UE7 Pro naturally shields you from most ambient noise simply because it fits so snugly. These earphones are like the ones most professional musicians use on stage and require a custom-fitting session. Another excellent solution is the Westone 4R In-Ear Monitors. They aren't custom-fitted, but they do offer a selection of tips and provide really good sound for the money. Whether you prefer in-ear or over-the-ear, keep in mind that fit is as important as sound; since you'll be wearing them a lot, any minor discomfort will be amplified over time.
Lastly, to get the best quality from your portable movies and especially music, you've got to get a DAC. If you're unfamiliar with DACs, then check here and come right back. Long story short is that DACs can make a big difference in the sound you get out of a portable device, and they have gotten increasingly smaller and more affordable, too. The $199 Cambridge DacMagic XS is a worthy contender, and at a great price. The Resonessence Labs Herus USB Headphone DAC costs a bit more, but its form factor might be more appealing to some, although it doesn't feature the onboard volume control that the DacMagic has. Simply put, companies like Samsung, Apple, and the like can't make devices like tablets, phones, and laptops that have audiophile-quality digital-to-analog conversion in them, but you can easily add such conversion to your travel rig with a USB-powered, high-performance DAC that can help take streaming or stored files and make them sound more musical and realistic. Is it as good as you'd get from a CD in a high-end audiophile system in a quiet, in-home environment? Nope, but our goal is to get you close enough to that performance in a system that can fit easily into your workout bag or briefcase.
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