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There's a good reason audio comes before video in "audio / video."

Issue #8
January 6, 2004

Everything you ever wanted to know about the evolution of the modern home theater and why you need to know it.

If I ever doubted that an audio track can make or break an otherwise great film, I got an "up close and personal" lesson when I saw the first installment of Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy in 2001. I had read the book back in high school, mainly for the awed looks I got from my classmates when they saw me carrying around a book that weighed in at well over a thousand pages. (For more about "The Lord of the Rings" in print, see "Tech Notes Online: The Appenices" at the bottom of this page.)

As I watched part one of the "Rings" trilogy unfold, I was naturally impressed by the images onscreen. Well, who wouldn't be, as they have already set a lofty new standard by which all movies that rely heavily on special effects will be judged for many years to come. But aside from the final 15 minutes or so (the epic battle scene which leads to the death of Boromir and the breaking of the "Fellowship"), I came away feeling it was a good movie, but not great.

When the extended version of the film arrived on DVD, I bought it mainly to see if certain story elements had been restored that were missing from the original cut (and for the most part, they were), but also for the stunning visuals. But a strange thing happened: On my second viewing, I was suddenly blown away. Certainly the additional 30 minutes, which restored and clarified certain key plot-points, had an impact, but more than anything else, the "soundscape" of Middle Earth sucked me in.

Now the fireworks scene wasn't just visually dazzling; it exploded all over my living room! When the drums sound in the dark of Moria, they are full of menace and certain doom. Wow! The DVD sounded great on my home theater system! And now I came away feeling like I had seen a great movie.

Well, I knew my system was good, but was the sound system in the theater where I watched the original film so bad? Apparently so. I didn't remember the music being all that good on my first viewing, and yet here was the lyrical "Shire" theme, with its Irish whistle singing out so sweetly. How had I missed that? And when the full orchestra and choir are unleashed to finally state the majestic "Fellowship" theme in its entirety as the main characters cross a mountain pass (in slow motion, of course), it's a moment that cannot help but give you chills.

In subsequent viewings with friends and neighbors, I heard the same comments over and over - something along the lines of, "Wow! I had no idea this was so awesome!" Naturally, I take it as a compliment that my sound system can so enhance the viewing of a film that pretty much everyone has already seen, though it's really just a credit to the composer, Howard Shore, and the team of sound designers that crafted such a powerful surround sound experience.

A few months back, our local AMC cineplex upgraded all their theaters (all 20 of them) with state-of-the-art sound systems to match their projection systems. Their two biggest theaters, which can seat well over 300 now each include an array of over 60 main and surround speakers to match the gigantic screen (which is over 50 feet wide!).

This is where we spent the evening of December 17th, 2003 at the local premiere of the final chapter of the Ring trilogy, "Return of the King." Braving record lows that dropped into the teens that night, we waited in line with other hardy souls that were anxious to see what cinematic wonders the creative team could pull off, and we were not disappointed. If you have not seen the movie, by all means do so. It's the best theatrical release of the three, though I do look forward to the extended version on DVD in 2004.

With a huge screen, an excellent sound system and characters developed over three years in almost ten hours of screen time, the audience had a blast. I have to say, it was fun just experiencing the film with such so many enthusiastic audience that was so clearly into what was happening onscreen.

So then, we have come roundabout to my main point, way up there at the top of the page: There's a darn good reason audio comes before video in "audio / video."

Now, surround sound is not a new concept. Back in about 1970, a number of manufacturers and record companies introduced what the called "Quadraphonic Sound," which was really just a stereo mix, plus two rear ambience speakers. Unfortunately, with three competing encoding/decoding schemes that were incompatible with each other, and a lack of support by confused consumers, it has rated no more than a footnote in the history of 20th century audio. Today, both Dolby Labs and DTS have developed surround sound encoding/decoding that are nothing short of incredible!

I actually feel sorry for people who watch DVDs on their 27-inch TVs and listen to the sound through the tiny onboard speakers. I would willingly skip things like regular meals to own a home theater I can be proud of. Naturally, as I'm always trying to be on the cutting edge of that technology, I have missed many a meal (though the bathroom scale seems to contraindicate this).

But while a truly great home theater system - by every definition of the word "great" - will certainly cost a substantial sum, particularly if you feel the need for an appropriately large screen to match the sound system (think about a 42-inch plasma TV or bigger!), there are many systems that won't break the bank, and still deliver audio and video that is certainly going to impress most "normal" humans.

ProActive 5.1 system

Just as an example, though I have not had the opportunity to audition it yet, Alesis (a company well known for creating affordable products that perform far beyond what the price tag might suggest) has just unveiled their own surround system, dubbed the ProActive 5.1 (just $499 list!). You get a 505-watt (RMS) THX-certified system with matched front and rear speakers, along with a center channel speaker (for dialog) and an active (powered) subwoofer for bass that is solid down to about 35Hz. Both Dolby Digital and DTS discs can be decoded with the onboard hardware. And THX-certification means the system has to meet the lofty standards set by the THX Ltd. engineers.

While I don't intend to retire my personal home theater system (which probably would cost about ten times what the ProActive 5.1 system sells for today), I do want to upgrade my studio to a surround system, and for that, the ProActive 5.1s should be perfect, particularly given the fact that you can buy the whole thing for under $400 from Sweetwater. That's a steal!

As I said, this system will probaby be just fine for most home theater setups, and certainly a step up for many existing systems. But what if you're looking for world-class sound that will blow away anyone who stops by for a demo? Sure, you could go down to one of the big chain discount electronics stores and pick up a very good speaker setup for just under two grand. Or you can actually spend less money and equip your home theater with four matched Tannoy Reveal monitors, the RevealX center channel monitor, and a PS110B subwoofer that will deliver pro-quality sound at about $1500! The great thing about the Tannoys is their efficiency, meaning you don't need a high-powered amp or receiver to drive them to ear-shattering levels. Even 50 watts per channel should be more than adequate to cause significant hearing loss if you crank up the volume.

For those who only want the very best, you could opt for a set of Mackie active monitors along with their HRS120 powered subwoofer and easily knock the plaster off your neighbor's walls. For greater devastation, move up to the earth-shaking (and I am not kidding here) HRS150. Naturally, as you might expect, Sweetwater stocks many different systems that would be perfect for almost any home theater setup, whatever your personal budget.

One word of caution: From personal experience, I can tell you that getting the biggest, baddest subwoofer you can afford may not always deliver the bass you expect. My current home theater setup is in a large, oddly-shaped living room. While it looks wonderful, it literally sucks up all the bass. I have to crank my subwoofer up to relatively high levels to achieve the necessary bass response for a killer home theater demo. If I happen to step into the kitchen for a quick snack, I am always astounded by just how loud the bass is. For my listening environment, I now know that a better bet would have been to invest in two smaller subwoofers, placed in strategic locations where the low frequencies would be better spread throughout the room, thereby reinforcing the overall bass response. Live and learn.

To complement the sound, you'll probably want to eventually add a large screen TV (if you don't already have one). Plasma TVs are hot, but still expensive (and a lot heavier than you think). Rear-projection sets are now thinner and more affordable and are still your best bet. Be careful here, as you want to be certain that whatever your choice of monitors may be, it is truly HD-ready.

HD stands for high definition, which translates to a picture with a minimum horizontal resolution of 720p (the "p" stands for progressive scan) or 1080i (with the "i" indicating an interlaced picture). Some monitors are being sold as ED or Extended Definition, which is not the same thing! If you're not sure what all that means and want more information, let me know and we can cover this (and any other home theater question you might have) in greater detail either in another online column or in the Tech Notes Online Forum. Home theaters and surround sound are going to be huge in the next few years. Don't get left behind!

Before I go, I'd like to ask that whenever possible, you send your questions to me via my Forum on the Sweetwater Web site. You guys requested it, so I want to put it to good use. I answer a whole lot of individual e-mail and I think that by posting in the forum, more people will benefit from the exchange of information, particularly as so many of you have written me with interesting - and often challenging - questions. Naturally, I will always answer any private e-mail sent to either address below, but I think it's way more fun if we share!

TECH NOTES ONLINE (The Appendices). While "The Lord of the Rings" has been made into three films, and was initially published in three separate volumes ("The Fellowship of the Ring" in 1954, "The Two Towers" in 1955 and "The Return of the King" in 1956), it is actually a single novel consisting of six books plus the appendices. It was broken into three parts by the original publisher in Great Britain, mainly due to post-WWII paper shortages, but that tradition has more or less stuck with it, though you can now purchase the book as a single volume.

Certainly it would have been impossible to craft such an elaborate storyline into a single film without sacrificing an enormous amount of characterization and many plot points. Indeed, several important details were cut from the theatrical versions to bring each movie in at just over three hours, though these will all be restored in the final DVD versions.

In 1965, the novel in its entirety made it into print in the U.S., though in an unauthorized edition that was rife with errors. Still, it eventually gained a huge following among the emerging "flower power" population, who saw many anti-establishment, counter-culture themes in its 1,000+ pages, whether they were there or not. Eventually, U.S. publisher, Ballantine Books, released an author-approved version of the work in 1966, which served only to increase its popularity, though it was not without its own share of errors, including many misspellings.

But then the world moved on. With everything that happened in America during the 1960s and early 70s, the book had to take a back seat to real world events. Its author, J.R.R. Tolkien, died in 1973, and his son, Christopher, decided to work from his father's original manuscript and continue to fix errors well into 1974, though it was not until 1987 that a final, error-free edition finally appeared on bookshelves in the U.S., thereby attracting a whole new generation of readers who fell under its spell.

And now, with the third and final chapter of the film version onscreen across the country (and around the world), it seems that yet another generation has discovered yet again that the author created something more than a simple fantasy tale of hobbits, wizards and kings. Sales of the book have skyrocketed over the past three years and I feel certain that the work will continue to attract new readers well into this new century.

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