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Tools

Slugline. Simple, elegant screenwriting.

Red Giant Color Suite, with Magic Bullet Looks 2.5 and Colorista II

Needables
  • Sony Alpha a7S Compact Interchangeable Lens Digital Camera
    Sony Alpha a7S Compact Interchangeable Lens Digital Camera
    Sony
  • Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4KBODY 16.05MP Digital Single Lens Mirrorless Camera with 4K Cinematic Video (Body Only)
    Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4KBODY 16.05MP Digital Single Lens Mirrorless Camera with 4K Cinematic Video (Body Only)
    Panasonic
  • TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
    TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
    TASCAM
  • The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    by Stu Maschwitz

Entries in Home Theater (5)

Monday
Jan062014

CES 2014: TVs You Don't Need

I bet you have a pretty sweet TV. It’s probably big, and bright, and connected to the internet. It plays movies and TV and streams stuff and is probably paper-thin.

And that’s the problem for TV manufacturers. Your TV is more than good enough. But they only make money when you buy a new one (unless they’re Panasonic. selling ad space on their menu screen). So imagine their desperation to get you to think your awesome TV is worth discarding in favor of a new, several-thousand-dollar model.

Oh, wait, you don’t have to imagine—because the annual Consumer Electronic Show (CES) is happening right now in Las Vegas, the land of let’s-see-if-too-much-of-a-bad-thing-turns-out-to-be-a-good-thing.

It’s not that it’s impossible for a new TV to be announced at CES that would actually improve your movie watching experience at home, but that’s not the actual motivation of the manufacturers.

Last year, it was all about 3D. You must have a 3D TV! What are you, an animal? This year, Vizio, one of the largest TV manufacturers, announced that it is dropping 3D completely.

Dolby announced Dolby Vision, an HDR display method that allows crazy-bright images. While this might be fun for some special venue projects (where the creator dictates the exhibition method), I doubt it will become a standard for movies or TV. But it sure is a wonderful distraction from the simple fact that blacker black levels would be a much better way to improve our home viewing experience—and would require no new standards.

What we should want from our TVs is accuracy, but that’s hard to sell. An accurate TV placed next to one in torch mode would look positively sad.

3D didn’t work last year, so this is the year of 4K. Actually, it’s the year of Moar-K—with Sharp announcing that they can type just about any number followed by a K into a press release.

There’s nothing new to say about 4K in the home—it’s stupid, just like it was last year. Seriously, go back and read this article. Here’s an update: I’ve since set up my home theater. I chose a high-end 1080p projector from JVC, the RS46U. My screen is 132“ diagonally, and my seating distance is about 12.5 feet. The universal reaction I get is ”wow, it’s so sharp!” That’s because the JVC has a great lens, and industry-leading black levels. Eventually you’ll be able to buy an affordable 4K display with no compromises in black levels, but that’s probably a couple of years out. Heck, maybe by then there will actually be some 4K stuff to watch. But beware: there will be a lot of crappy 4K out there as the technology is introduced. Good 1080p (from a low-compression source, like Blu-ray) will beat crappy 4K every time.

Sometimes these new TV gadgets demo well. But that often has little to do with their staying power. Beware the Cream Soda Effect.

CES is also a great time to be reminded that people use TVs for all kinds of stuff, not just watching movies. Many of the announced technologies might make sense for displays used in hotel lobbies and museum exhibits. Keep in mind that manufacturers are trying to create buzz in a more-is-more environment. If they happen make something that’s good for filmmaker or film-lovers, it’s a happy accident.

Oh, and the photo above? It’s a 40-foot-long road-cutting chainsaw that was parked in front of my hotel one year at NAB, also in Las Vegas. It’s really fun to look at, possibly of use to someone, undoubtedly quite expensive, and would be stupid for me to buy. And I didn’t have a photo handy of a 4K TV.

Thursday
Nov212013

The Perils of Home Theater

I love movies, and have always wanted a great home theater. This year I decided to build one. It’s been a daunting, exciting, and ultimately rewarding process. I’ve wanted to write about the experience of researching and installing this combination studio and theater, but I honestly haven’t known where to start.

Not knowing where to begin is such a classic form of procrastination that I’ve decide to skip “beginning” entirely. Instead, I’m going to jump into the middle, with a tiny detail of my setup—one that vexed me for days and caused me to watch movies incorrectly for about a week.

My Blu-ray player is a Sony Playstation 3. It is connected via HDMI to my pre-amp, which is in turn connected to my projector via another HDMI cable. It’s about the simplest possible configuration, and yet each noun in that last sentence is easily worth an entire post on its own. You can see why I’ve found the prospect of documenting this so daunting. Nevertheless, I’ll dodge the ratholes and plug onward with my two-day ordeal that boiled down to one incorrect setting.

My theater is in a large room, so I opted for a 7.1 system. This means that in addition to left and right surround speakers, I also have a pair of rear surrounds, for a total of seven primary speakers. I figure most of you know all about this, but if you’d like a refresher, here’s a good article on the basics of 5.1 and 7.1.

Most home theaters not only don’t require 7.1, but they could even be compromised by the addition of rear surrounds. The purpose of the surround channels is to provide an immersive, ambient soundfield. In many home settings, it’s hard enough to position two surround speakers correctly. My theater room is large enough and has enough space behind the viewer that I could add the additional two speakers for 7.1.

But I didn’t do it at first, because I needed to build custom mounts to allow the flat-backed speakers to hang vertically off my pitched, open-beam walls. I documented this process on Twitter, from my SketchUp plans to my first cuts, and finally to staining and hanging the mounts.

Prior to this project, my rear surrounds sat in their box for months, and many a movie was watched in “only” 5.1 channels. I assure you, no one complained.

When I finally got the rear surrounds mounted and wired (speaker wire is another perilous rathole to dodge for now), I popped in Pixar’s Brave, which features an optional 7.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. I waded through the punishing pre-menu crap that defines the Blu-ray experience, selected the 7.1 option, and played the movie.

And no sound came out of my rear surrounds.

The 7.1 of Silence

This launched me down a two-day path of trying various disks and various settings. I won’t bore you with the details, but there are a few salient points:

Many Pixar Blu-rays come with a home theater setup “maximizer,” lovingly made by some very smart folks at Pixar who care about your home viewing and listening experience. Found under Setup in the menu, it features discrete test tones for all six or eight of your audio channels.

In my case, different disks failed in different ways. Brave and Monsters University sent no sound to the rears, but Cars 2 (a DTS disk) did, just mixed up with the other surround channels.

There are also discrete channel test tones on the Digital Video Essentials: HD Basics disk, and my system passed their test. HD Basics was able to send a discrete sound to the rear surrounds. So not every disk failed.

At some point you have to stop futzing and start enjoying, so the wife and I popped in Tron: Legacy (a DTS disk which did send sound to the rears), and watched it. Or rather, listened to it, because as pretty as the film often is, it’s the soundtrack that inspired me to buy the disk.

The Daft Punk soundtrack filled the room. It sounded great. I was singing the praises of 7.1—despite a nagging feeling that something was still amiss.

There’s a scene in Tron: Legacy where someone knocks at a door positioned directly behind the viewer. The knocking seemed to originate directly from the back of our theater. Michelle even turned her head, perfectly illustrating one of my big reservations about aggressive 7.1 mixes. Localized surround events can sometimes be the opposite of “immersive,” reminding you that the visuals, unlike the sound, are happening only in a window in front of you.

As a home theater nerd, you want a disk or two on hand that will really show off the system, but, if you’re like me, you’ll find that your favorite movies are more reserved in their surround mixes. Surround should be subtle, and when you install 7.1 at home, you’re paying twice as much for a little more subtlety.

The next day, I did some more troubleshooting. I suspected that Tron, like the also-DTS Cars 2, was being mixed down somehow and sending identical signals to the surrounds on each side. I found the scene with the door knock, and stood next to my LR surround. The knock played equally in the SR and the SBR.

Confident now that I had yet to actually hear true discrete 7.1 in my theater, I resumed my research, and found this article at Engadget, which contained the answer.

In the video settings on my PS3, I has somehow set HDMI to output digital audio as “bitstream” rather than Linear PCM. Read the Engadget article for more on what that means—but in my case, the ramification was that I wasn’t getting true 7.1.[1]

Even though I knew that the PS3 needs to decode 7.1 itself and output it as uncompressed discrete channels (LPCM) as opposed to sending the unprocessed audio track and letting the receiver do the decoding, which already put me into a niche group of well-researched home theater nerds, this incredibly critical audio setting was buried in the Video settings, so I’d missed it.

I switched my HDMI audio output to LPCM and returned to the knocking scene. Now the knock came discretely out of the rear surrounds.[2] The Maximizer on both the Dolby and DTS Pixar disks sent discrete signals to each channel. Victory!

A Chapter About a Bolt

In The Hunt For Red October (the book), Clancy begins a chapter with a detailed description of a single bolt in a helicopter—how it works, and how, on this particular day, it failed. Here, I’ve written over a thousand words to describe how I got one simple setting wrong on my Blu-ray player, and wound up stuck for days not getting the most out of my home theater. While no one will make an awesome movie about my experience, I do think it was worth sharing, and I hope you agree.

Setting up a home theater is fraught with just this kind of pitfall, and clear, concise articles like that one from Engadget are rare. But even more rare is clear, trustworthy information on some of the less pushbutton-oriented aspects of home theater. There are endless debates about speakers, endless opinions on how much you should spend on cables, and hundreds of “experts” with fringe opinions and loud voices. There’s an entire industry of home theater and audiophile exploitation that I waded through in order to get to the point where I could be one, simple setting away from hearing movies correctly in my home. If you’re interested, I’ll write more about this in the future, in the hopes of cutting through some of that noise.

Right after I comb through my Blu-ray library for another 7.1 movie to watch.


  1. The HD Basics disk didn’t fail because it’s only 6.1, which can be sent over HDMI as Bitstream from a PS3.  ↩

  2. Why did the door knock seem so perfectly isolated to the rear in our initial, mixed-down viewing, when it was actually evenly distributed among all four surround channels? That’s a great rathole for a future post.  ↩

Wednesday
Sep252013

Taking The Movies Out of The Movies

The Hollywood Reporter, in an article called IBC Wrap: “We Would Be Fools if We Didn’t Learn From ‘The Hobbit’”:

Audience reaction to Hollywood’s first high frame rate movie, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was decidedly mixed, but frame rates—along with higher resolution, laser light, immersive sound and second screen experiences were very much on the minds of digital cinema leaders last week at the International Broadcasters Convention.

Audiences didn’t like it, so let’s keep talking about it, and other crap that isn’t movies.

“The audience response might have been mixed, but there were many examples of audience numbers increasing because of the technology, and we could charge a premium for the experience,” [Phil Clapp, president of the International Union of Cinemas] said.

So apparently, what we’d be “fools if we didn’t learn from The Hobbit” is that we can charge more money for stuff people don’t actually like.

Exhibitors, here’s how to take more of my money: build more theaters like the ArcLight, where they show movies—just regular movies—and show them well, and charge me whatever you want for tickets.

Tuesday
Jan222013

4K in the Home

Read this cnet article by Geoffrey Morrison called Why 4K TVs are stupid. Read every word. Because it is smart.

Have no doubt, manufacturers are going to start pushing 4K (some already are). The thing is, though, you don’t need 4K, because in the home, 4K is stupid.

Morrison goes on to back up this assertion with wonderful facts and math. If you bought a 60” television, you’d have to sit about four feet away from it before you’d perceive the full benefit of 4K over good old 1080p.

My favorite part of the article is this:

A few years ago I did a TV face-off with trained TV reviewers and untrained participants with Pioneer’s Kuro plasma (768p) against several 1080p LCDs and plasmas. Not one person noticed the Kuro wasn’t 1080p. In fact, most lauded it for its detail. Why? Its contrast ratio was so much better than on the other TVs that it appeared to have better resolution. The difference between light and dark is resolution. If that difference is more pronounced, as it is on high-contrast ratio displays, they will have more apparent resolution.

Those same few years ago, I would use charts like this to guide friends shopping for TVs toward a comparatively inexpensive 720p Panasonic plasma, because the deep, rich blacks matter more to our perception of sharpness than pixels too small to resolve at normal seating distances. Those who followed my advice were invariably happy with their choice.

I never doubted that last year’s push of 3D televisions would fall on its face, but I do worry about consumers being tricked into thinking 4K matters, because they were with 1080p. Many friends ignored my advice to go for the crisp plasma blacks of the 720p Kuro and instead opted for a 1080p set, due to the same inability to shake the sense of more-is-always-more that drives consumers to buy increasingly high-megapixel point-and-shoot cameras.

Back when Morrison was conducting his experiments and I was pushing 720p, we were already fighting a losing battle. No one wanted 720p TVs, even if their viewing experience would be better with them. 1080p became a buzzword, a must-have—charts and math be damned. Now you needn’t even check if a TV is 1080p “full HD”—they pretty much all are, because that’s all that would sell.

And today, that’s not such a bad thing, because the contrast levels of 1080p sets are now quite good. There are worse things about modern TVs than their excessive pixel counts.

Is 4K unilaterally worthless in the home? Not if you’ve got a projector, a huge screen, a close seating distance, and perfect eyesight. I’m building a new home theater, so this stuff is on my mind. I’m considering a 134” screen and a seating distance of about 15 feet. That puts me right on the very edge of wishing I had more than 1080 pixels across my screen.

A case can be made for 4K with larger screens at home. At the moment, though, light output limits screen size far more than resolution. For home projectors, let’s just shrug and ask, “OK, why not?”

The answer to that rhetorical question is, of course, that 4K is expensive/unavailable in the home just now. But that will change. Eventually, all big TVs (and projectors) will have more pixels than the bare minimum for 1080p, and eventually this won’t be something you need to pay a premium for, or for which you’ll have to give up other features that matter much more, such as contrast.

In the meantime, buy your TV (or projector) not for its pixel count, but for its black level, and you’ll be happy.