The other night I had a few people over to my humble abode for dinner. None of my guests had ever been to my home nor did they have any idea that I was the Managing Editor for an online home theater publication. Upon entry the first thing that grabbed their attention was my 80-inch SI Black Diamond Screen hanging above my fireplace. “That’s a huge plasma,” one of the guests exclaimed. Of course the SI screen is far from being a plasma or flat panel display but I could see how one would get that impression. I politely corrected my guest, “it’s actually a projection screen.” Once I said projection screen I knew it was over. Dinner was going to be cold and whatever discussions were on the agenda were going to have to wait as my four houseguests took up residence on my sofa.
It was demo time.
I’ve played host to countless demos since becoming an audiophile and later a home theater enthusiast. I had a neighbor a few years ago who would invite himself over to my condo every time he noticed a FedEx or UPS package on my doorstep. My system and tastes have gone through countless transformations and iterations over the years, however my current system has to be the pinnacle of what I’ve learned over the past ten years and truth be told, I’ve never actually demoed it for complete strangers. This was going to be fun.
As my guests got comfortable I fired up the system and let everything warm up with a little Internet radio via my AppleTV. Right off the bat that seemed to be enough to wow this particular crowd but I was only getting started. As I gazed upon my shelves and the rows of Blu-ray discs, HD DVDs and DVDs I recalled all the demos I’ve seen over the years and how they either excited me or bored me to tears and realized how important a demo, or in this case a first impression, is. It’s not like I was trying to make a sale or am a dealer in any capacity, far from it, but since this was to be the first real demo of my system I wanted to make it a memorable one; not just for my guests but for me as well.
Anyone can put on a Hollywood blockbuster and crank the volume to 11 and get a response out of someone; it’s what most movie theaters do. But I wanted to be better than that. I wanted to avoid the usual suspects, which got me thinking, what are the 10 most cliché home theater demos I’ve seen in recent memory?
10. Heat -Bank Robbery Scene
Showcases: Surround sound effects and coherence, dynamics, bass performance, high frequency detail and grey scale rendering.
Heat is arguably one of the best crime dramas of all time. The story, cast, performances, cinematography and sound design are all top notch. So you’re probably wondering to yourself why, oh why, is Heat on my 10 Most Cliché Home Theater Demos list? Simple: when cueing up Heat for a home theater or in-store demo most folks skip straight to the film’s biggest action sequence; the bank robbery. I’m not suggesting you should watch Heat in its entirety as a demo, but the bank robbery scene has been played out and subsequently made the list not because it ceases to impress but because it’s no longer original or unexpected.
Alternate Demos: The Kingdom, Tombstone, The International, Miami Vice
9. Anything by Michael Bay
Showcases: Dynamics, high frequency detail, bass response, surround sound effects, color fidelity, saturation and black level performance.
Love him or hate him, Michael Bay is arguably the reigning king of Hollywood blockbusters. All of his films have grossed unseemly amounts of money worldwide and have provided more than ample demo fodder for home theater enthusiasts and retailers alike. Michael Bay’s formula is simple; wanton action set against vapid but attractive characters with a dose of comedy any 13-year-old boy would love. I have nothing against Bay or his films, hell I’ll even admit to liking most of them, but if you’re looking for a demo that showcases loud explosions, insane surround sound effects set against a vibrant over the top color pallet and lens flares you can be more original than a Michael Bay film.
Alternate Demos: National Treasure I and II, Children of Men, Taking of Pelham 123
Showcases: Bass response, surround sound effects, micro detail, soundstage coherence, high frequency detail, grey scale rendering and saturation.
Twister was quite possibly the film that got me started in home theater. I remember purchasing my letterboxed copy on VHS and rushing home to watch it in my downstairs media room with a buddy of mine and being out of breath when it was all over. At first blush Twister is an engaging ride to say the least and for its time it featured some of the best computer generated effects ever created. That being said, in the ten or so years since its release we’ve been inundated with natural disaster flicks all of which build upon the Twister tradition but do it better, though I’d argue none come close to telling as good of a story nor feature Phillip Seymour Hoffman before he was Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Twister will always hold a special place in my heart but for showcasing the best a modern home theater has to offer I think I’d look elsewhere.
Alternate Demos: The Day After Tomorrow, Sunshine, Vertical Limit,
Showcases: Surround sound effects, macro and micro detail, bass performance, midrange and high frequency detail, color saturation, contrast, edge fidelity and black level performance.
Let’s face it; Ridley Scott’s Gladiator was destined to be a home theater demo. Setting aside the story itself, the film has seemingly everything going for it; beautiful cinematography, tantalizing sound and surround sound mixing all wrapped up in epic, historical setting that begs for 1080p and uncompressed surround sound playback. That being said it makes my list because it’s simply been played to death, not to mention re-released on nearly every format imaginable. It’s not that I don’t love the film, I do; however with any good demo the element of surprise is often as powerful as the performance itself, which Gladiator no longer has – for I feel every man, woman and child has the film memorized.
Alternate Demos: For Love of the Game, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Last Samurai, Friday Night Lights,
6. Sin City / 300 / Watchmen
Showcases: Bright vibrant colors, black and white level detail, grey scale tracking, low video noise, edge fidelity, surround sound mixing and bass performance.
Comic book films are all the rage these days with seemingly every graphic novel and comic being adapted into a film to varying degrees of success. The three films in question, Sin City, 300 and Watchmen are such adaptations, only unlike other comic book sourced films these three films seem to have cemented themselves in the home theater space. And why shouldn’t they? Say what you want about the stories, all three are technical achievements of the highest caliber showcasing brilliant image quality mixed with a heavy dose of multi-channel magic. They make my list because seemingly every manufacturer and home theater enthusiasts have made the before mentioned films their benchmark in one way or another as to what a good home theater can do. That being said, with regards to Sin City and 300 the films, while beautiful, are essentially black and white, so while they may showcase black levels, contrast and edge fidelity they do little in terms of presenting the scope and breadth of a display’s capabilities. Watchmen goes a step further by offering up a full, four-color color pallet but it too suffers the same fate as, say, Michael Bay sourced demo material -not a whole lot of subtlety. Like all demos on my list these three films have run their course and taken the lion’s share of attention and subsequent blame of what makes or breaks a comic book adaptation. For a true, well-rounded comic book presentation or at the very least a film with far more complexity in terms of story and image I suggest viewers dig a little deeper.
Alternate Demos: History of Violence and The Punisher (not Punisher: War Zone)
5. The Eagles: Hell Freezes Over Live
Showcases: Multi-channel surround sound music, surround sound coherence, midrange performance, bass performance and overall musicality.
The Eagles: Hell Freezes Over Live almost took my number one slot on this list due to the fact that for almost a full year surrounding its release I’m not sure I was able to walk into a showroom and/or trade show without hearing the opening to “Hotel California” playing on loop. Hell Freezes Over Live is a good disc, arguably the original home theater/music demo but come on, how many more times do we have to hear the same track played over and over again before we stop caring about the performance and the sound quality and just run for the door out of nausea? Let’s mix it up a bit shall we.
Alternate Demos: Peter Cincotti Live in New York, 3 Doors Down: Away From the Sun Live From Houston, Texas, Godsmack: Changes,
4. Saving Private Ryan -Attack on Omaha Beach
Showcases: Bass performance, Surround Sound Effects and Mixing, High Frequency performance, Soundstage Detail, Motion, Black Levels and Contrast.
Saving Private Ryan is not wholly unlike Gladiator in that it’s a home theater enthusiasts’ wet dream when it comes demo material. It’s got Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, World War II with action and drama to spare. That being said, I kind of hope dealers and friends would spare me having to sit through such a traumatic scene for the purpose of showing me what their system can do. I’m not a prude but I kind of find the usage of this scene, or the film for that matter as nothing more than a technical showcase somewhat disturbing. By having the attack on Omaha Beach on loop in so many homes and showrooms across the country, have we become desensitized to what it is attempting to show us and forgotten the meaning of the film altogether? I think so. As impressive as the scene is, isn’t it a little disheartening to think that a dark yet triumphant piece of our nation’s history has been diluted to a 60 second demo where phrases like “cool,” “bad-ass” and “awesome” have replaced the homage and tribute the filmmakers set out to evoke?
I understand that war films are a big part of our cinematic culture and I’m not suggesting we do away with them by any means for I feel they are important, however I fear we lose sight of why they’re important when we use them as sales tools for luxury goods.
Alternate Demos: none
3. U-571 – Depth Charge Scene
Showcases: Bass performance and detail, Surround Sound Effects and Mastering, Micro and Macro detail, Dynamics, Contrast and Black Level Detail.
U-571 while inspired by actual events doesn’t evoke the same reaction from me as say Saving Private Ryan. I’m not trying to take anything away from the brave sailors who put their lives on the line in the vast oceans around the globe during WWII but the depth change scene is simply overused. If we look at U-571 solely as a submarine film there are so many out there that showcase similar performance benchmarks in a home theater without coming off as cliché. U-571 was a surprisingly good film but like all the demos on my list its time for it to retire.
Alternate Demos: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Crimson Tide, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Zodiac
2. The Matrix Trilogy
Showcases: Dynamics, Surround Sound Mastering and Effects, High Frequency Detail, Surround Sound Coherence, Black Level Detail, Contrast, Color Saturation and Edge Fidelity.
I’m not sure any three films in recent memory have done more to change the face of big budget movie making for better and for worse than The Matrix Trilogy. The Matrix films took what we thought was possible in cinema and turned it completely on its ear. It gave us dead time as well as introduced American audiences to Kung Fu wirework. While many believe the first film to be far superior to the two sequels, all three films were technical achievements of the highest caliber both sonically and visually. Furthermore, one could argue that the original Matrix film spawned a whole new generation of home theater enthusiasts upon its release on DVD. The problem with this is there are still those who cling to those same DVDs and subsequent HD DVDs and Blu-rays like it was 1999. It’s time to move on. Like they say in The Matrix “everything that has a beginning has an end.”
Alternate Demos: Equilibrium, Appleseed Ex Machina, Jumper, Anything by John Woo starring Chow Young Fat
1. The Fifth Element -Taxi Cab Chase and Diva Scene
Showcases: Everything yet nothing all at once because no one cares anymore.
Okay, The Fifth Element had to take my top spot because it quite possibly has become the definition of a home theater demo. Like Kleenex is to tissue, The Fifth Element is to a home theater demo. The Fifth Element isn’t valid anymore simply because out of all the cliché demos listed here it is by far the most overused and thus has lost all of its effect. I have a standing rule when I visit trade shows and showrooms, if you cue up anything with a double bass or the Diva scene from The Fifth Element I’m out.
Alternate Demos: Anything else…
Honorable Mentions For Tired Home Theater Demo: Top Gun, Jurassic Park, Days of Thunder, The Dark Knight, Finding Nemo, Blade Runner, Titanic and Speed.
Feel free to post your comments on other clichéd demos and or alternate demos below. Be sure to cite why something is cliché and or why the alternative is good.