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.
Click on over to Page 2 to find out about Source Material and Sample Rigs . . .
Once you've got your hardware customized to your exact needs, you're going to need some content. Thankfully, we live in a time when accessing TV, movie, and music content is as easy as ever. First and foremost, it pays to have a mobile Internet connection via a cellular data plan so you can stream all you want without worry. Otherwise, you will have to rely on local hotspots that are often unreliable, or you will have to transfer the files you want onto your computer or tablet before leaving home.
As for content, you need look no further than the iTunes Store, Netflix, Hulu, Google Play, or Vudu. Between these options, you can watch just about anything you want. If you have a subscription with DISH, then the DISH Anywhere feature is essentially a personalized Netflix that lets you access all your DVR content from a computer or tablet, provided you have a Hopper with Sling DVR or the Sling Adapter. DirecTV and most of the cable companies offer on-the-go solutions, too. Companies like Fox offer amazing support and supplemental material to their most popular shows (think: Sons of Anarchy, The Simpsons, American Idol) via their apps. HBO Go and Showtime Anytime offer quicker access to missed episodes and other unique content. Your tablet and laptop are, in many ways, better designed to give you access to this content.
For those of you who have a lot of video content stored on a server at home, consider the PLEX application (or something similar), which lets you stream your content to watch whenever, wherever, on your laptop or tablet. The best thing is, there's no hardware to buy, but it does cost money for the premium version of the service. Perhaps even better is that PLEX can sync the data to your preferred device, so you can load up a tablet with movies before a long flight without having to worry about having an Internet connection. You can also use an UltraViolet locker to do much the same thing, but you will be limited to media that is UltraViolet-compatible, which means that lots of movies and television shows will be off-limits.
Of course, in these days of streaming and beaming content around the world, it's easy to forget that (if you are using a laptop with a disc drive) you can simply slip a few DVDs or Blu-ray discs into your backpack for that long commute. Sometimes it's easier than dealing with the buffering blues, and the added benefit is that you will always know what kind of quality to expect.
For all the music lovers out there, I'd be remiss if I didn't give you a few tips to enjoy higher-quality music sources on the go. Of course you can rip your personal CDs at full resolution (instead of a compressed format) to store on your tablet or laptop, and you can get even higher-resolution files for download through sites like HDTracks.com (check out our "How to Get HD Music Into Your AV System Today" article for more on this topic). Worth mentioning is Neil Young's recently announced hi-res Pono music service and player. The triangular-shaped Pono Player is tailor-made for hi-res audio and costs (or will cost) $399 on its release (LINK). More exciting is the Pono music service, which offers downloads of classic and newer albums in the lossless FLAC format. The prices for albums are set by the record companies and are expected to be between $14.99 and $24.99. There are plenty of other well-regarded hi-res players already on the market, like those from Astell & Kern. Add in some nice headphones and mainstream, multi-platinum selling albums from the likes of HDTracks.com, and you're good to go.
Streaming services like Pandora and Spotify are very popular, but pay attention to the bit rate if you value a higher-quality experience. Through mobile apps, Pandora streams at a maximum of 64 kbps; on the computer, free streaming is also 64 kbps, while Pandora One subscribers get 192 kbps. Spotify Premium subscribers can get up 320 kbps through both computer and mobile applications, as can Beats Music subscribers.
A Look Into the Future
For a brief time back in the 1990s, virtual reality headsets were all the rage. The problem was that the tech just wasn't there yet, but today it has drastically improved. Companies like Oculus Rift (just acquired by Facebook for two billion dollars) and Sony's Project Morpheus are producing head-mounted displays that can be used for video games or movies. They're portability is still up in the air, though. In the meantime, Sony has you covered with its Wearable HDTV that supports 2D, 3D, and up to 7.1 sound, and has dual OLED screens for a resolution of 1,280 x 720. Additionally, with its built-in Lithium-ion battery, you can watch wirelessly for three hours - plenty of time to get you to and from the office. It may just be the ultimate home theater on the go accessory and can be yours for $999.
- Ultra-lightweight, small
- Good bass and sound cancellation
- Can upgrade to custom fitted ear molds
The Movie Lover's System
• Amazon Kindle Fire HDX $229
• Sennheiser HD650s $500
- Best portable video resolution currently on the market.
- Very comfortable, over-the-ear headphones with good noise cancellation by default
The Roving Audiophile's System
• Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Screen $2,099
• Resonessence Labs Herus USC DAC $399
• Transparent nine-inch USB cable $99
• Ultimate Ears Capitol Records in-ear monitors $1,995
- You start with a very capable computer that can access any content, be it HD, streaming, download or what have you.
- Even top-of-the-line laptops can't compete with the performance of a Canadian-made high-end, studio-grade DAC, which Resonessence Labs delivers in spades. It's also powered from the laptop when needed, or it can run on its own charge.
- Any audiophile worth his salt uses good cables, so why not do so on the road? Transparent will make you a custom USB cable for your travel rig, as you don't want too much of a mess.
- Ultimate Ears teamed up with Capitol Records to make the most neutral, high-end in-ear monitor in the world, which must be custom-fitted to your ears by a technician. Say goodbye to the sound of crying babies on a plane or the noise of the outside world. Forget having to deal with the acoustics of a room, as your room is now inside your head. Are these suckers expensive? Sure they are, and they are the best, too.
So, there you have it ... the state of the art for mobile high-performance home theater.
What's in your rig today? What do you take to the gym? What do you bring with you when you travel? What do you aspire to get next? What apps do you use? Where do you get your content? Streaming? Downloads? Tell us in the comments section below.