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Home Theater: Some Points to Ponder.

I think that most of those who read this magazine are audio enthusiasts first and home-theater buffs second (if at all). However, even those with the most emphatic animosity toward home theater will have to admit several things.

(1) Home theater is where the action is right now. Even magazines like Stereo Review have switched to a home-theater orientation, because we now have Sound & Vision. Second, if it were not for home theater, home audio would be in even worse shape than it is. Financial shape, that is.

(2) Home theater has increased the general public's interest in high-quality sound reproduction. Yes, I realize that really dedicated, high-end audio enthusiasts probably sneer when they think of the terms "home-theater" and "high-quality" being used together in the same sentence, unless the words "is not" are put between them. However, the fact is that prior to home theater, high-fidelity sound reproduction was an even more horizon-limited hobby than it is now.

(3) Home theater has allowed many audio companies to make additional money--money necessary to survive. Although some enthusiasts may continue to prefer keeping high-quality, high-fidelity sound reproduction within the realm of the esoteric, I will have to note that if some of their favorite companies are not able to make enough money they will go out of business. Indeed, we have seen this happen to a number of good companies over the past few years. Even a truly high-quality oriented outfit such as Dunlavy has jumped on the home-theater bandwagon, and performance-serious outfits such as Atlantic Technology have been home-theater oriented from the word go. Consequently, it can be said that at least some of the outfits that probably would have folded in the past are still alive and kicking today, because people like to watch movies at home.

(4) Home theater has made many listeners aware that setting up speakers properly can make a difference. In the past, a surprising number of musically literate people, even those who owned passably decent audio systems, would often set up those systems in a rather slipshod manner. You know what I mean: one speaker off in the left-front corner of the room, behind a planter, and the other maybe far off in the right corner of the adjacent dining room. (Don't laugh, a pianist friend of mine who is very, very serious about her music has her system set up in a manner similar to this, with the focal point of her listening room reserved for her Baldwin grand.) Such an arrangement might be able to generate decent tonal quality, as well as a nice background mix, but the result hardly qualifies as high fidelity as serious enthusiasts know it. You at least need some kind of soundstage for that to exist and you do not get a soundstage with the speakers each hitting you from right angles, and from 25 feet away. What home theater has done is make some people aware that in order to get a presentable, movie-theater-like soundstage near the TV screen it is necessary to have the speakers flanking the set and pretty much equidistant from the listening/viewing position, and aimed in the general direction of the listener/viewer. Now that many people have done this (and of course added center and surround speakers and surround sound), they have suddenly discovered that even a passably decent "home-theater" system, even when handling audio-only material, can sound surprisingly good. In most cases it will sound considerably better than how it sounded before, when the speakers were off in limbo somewhere.

(5) Home theater requirements have led some manufacturers to rethink what they want their audio equipment to do. One of the most visible aspects of this is the advent of discrete, five-channel "surround" sound. The two most famous Versions are Dolby Digital and DTS, which are both direct spin-offs of the home-theater boom. In addition, we are on the verge of seeing some strictly audio-oriented, high-bit-rate five-channel formats also come on line, with the Meridian Lossless Packing and the Sony-Philips versions being in a position now to duke it out in a battle for audio loyalists. It is likely that these new five-channel formats, be they data-reduced versions or versions that preserve every note and nuance (or maybe a combination of both on different layers of the same disc, to insure the broadest possible consumer acceptance), will eventually eclipse the two-channel CD as we know it today, at least for serious sound reproduction. No matter what, it is the advent of home theater that has spurred and paid for the rather advanced technological research required to bring forth these new formats.

(6) Home theater has been responsible for the now well-known, Lucasfilm THX certification program. Whatever one may think of the Lucasfilm approach to audio, one has to admit that the company has made home-theater devotees more aware of what is needed for good sound reproduction, and that knowledge has trickled down into the audio-only part of the business, making both enthusiasts and audio journalists rethink their priorities. Incidentally, I should let our non-home-theater-oriented readers know that THX is not really a brand name or even a radically new type of surround sound. Rather it is a set of strict, licensed "amendments" to the basic Dolby Stereo, Dolby Digital, and DTS parameters that had been formulated by Tomlinson Holman and the research team he headed up when he was at Lucasfilm. These specifications were originally designed to improve the sound of Dolby Stereo systems in theaters. However, later versions of the original THX parameters have now been formulated for home-theater use and are designed to improve upon or at least "certify" basic equipment specifications - particularly those involving Dolby Pro Logic and Dolby Digital decoding, some TV monitors, and even some DVD players. In addition, for some time we have been seeing THX-certified software, including laserdiscs, DVDs, and even some video cassettes.

(7) Home theater has made a lot of people who were indifferent to audio quality in the past aware that audio-quality does indeed matter. In addition, it has lit a fire under a lot of manufacturers and software producers, resulting in products that are better than ever, and in many cases more sensibly priced than ever.

I would submit that for these reasons, home theater has helped to make home audio better than ever. - HF
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Author:Ferstler, Howard
Publication:Sensible Sound
Date:Apr 1, 2000
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