Rooms with a view
A look inside the new home theater revolution and today’s hi-fi peacocks
I am a symptom.
While I’ve been able to dodge the gaudiest aspects of affluence—flashy cars, super-computers, lawn ornaments—I have been snared by one techno-fever cutting a path through this entertainment-mad culture.
Since VCRs were born, an industry has grown on desires like mine to bring home what only a movie house can provide. We have wanted the flicker and roar of movies at home to be as easy to enjoy as popping in a CD or picking up a book.
But the process has been stunted. No one would confuse a VHS tape of Lawrence of Arabia with David Lean’s epic on screen or misinterpret Singing in the Rain‘s notes tinkling from their TV speakers with the lush orchestrations they remember from movie houses long past.
But that’s all changed. In the last few years home theaters have been a reality and not just a Circuit City marketing peg. So what are they?
“Recreating a motion picture experience as close to the way the producers intended it to be,” says Dave Maurer, owner of Chico’s Sounds by Dave.
In a lot of ways, the home theater industry is the latest extension of the American appetite for more. But it also feeds on an older, more nuanced cultural romance with a shaft of machine-made lighting that paints a thousand worlds on a blank screen. Now you can have the El Rey in your living room.
Should you care?
When it comes to paying money for a home theater system, the question isn’t, “Do you like gadgets?” The question is, “Do you like movies?” If so, here are the broad strokes on getting you your own.
Home theaters are made up of three parts: A digital video disc (DVD) player, a sound system, and something to make a picture.
Let there be thunder
Why get a sound system when every TV has speakers?
Explains Norman Smeltzer of Professional Audio Systems, which specializes in custom audio installations and support, “A hi-fi system consists of two channels, left and right, whereas a home theater system can have as many as seven channels. The most common format is Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, which consists of your main left and right, your center channel, your surround left and right and your subwoofer. Each speaker has its own dedicated channel of sound.”
The more speakers with dedicated sound, the more realistic and three-dimensional the movie experience. There are two routes to go: the cookie-cutter “home theater in a box,” which typically has a DVD player and six tiny speakers, or buying sound components (amplifier, six speakers and a stand-alone DVD player) on their own. That’s more expensive, but it sounds a lot better.
As Maurer, whose store specializes in mid- to high-end audio and video equipment, says, “A lot of people know they need something, but don’t know what. They buy these theaters-in-a-box systems, which is kind of like buying a one-type-fits-all car. It’s best to fit the system to the room you have.”
When shopping for home theater sound systems, you’ll find a lot of the vocabulary centers on explosions: booms that rattle the windows and clink the china. But beyond the usual techno-machismo is a medium that, like theater films, can transport viewers out of their homes.
“Take a movie like Sleepless in Seattle,” says Smeltzer. “If you’re watching it on your television, and it’s raining in the film, you can see it’s raining but you can’t really hear it. It comes out as background noise. With Dolby Digital, you can hear the individual raindrops hitting the window. It sounds real. You can close your eyes, and you’re there. That’s how realistic the sound is. It makes all the movies better.”
Twenty-five years ago it was hi-fi peacocks, eager to strut their latest technological plumage, who would invite friends to listen to the new Led Zeppelin record, maybe not because they loved Zeppelin, but because the album was recorded in hi-fi and would really show off the new sound system. Now, they get a home theater and The Fast and the Furious.
Smeltzer has seen that strain in some customers and observes it this way: “[Today] you’ve got your 18- to 24-year-olds who want nice sounds in their cars, and you’ve got your 30-somethings who want to have the system at home. It’s guys most of the time, but I’ve seen a lot of times where the wife will go out and do the research and then talk her husband into buying it.”
A lot of the aesthetic drive in home theaters comes from wives trying to keep their husband’s passions from sprouting wires and cables along the walls like ivy, Smeltzer says.
“To someone who’s really into their house and the way it looks, like my wife is, it thrills them to be able to control how their system looks,” he says.
Let there be lighting
For getting a pretty picture, there are several routes: big TVs, which range from $900-$5,000, high-definition TVs (HDTV) with rectangular, theater style screens, which range from $1,000-$20,000, and new, lightweight video projectors from $2,000 and up.
While big TVs have been around for years, and HDTVs are amped-up versions of familiar TV technology (though no local stations plan to broadcast HDTV signals for years), video projectors give the most movie-like image, shaft of light and all. What’s more, while it could cost $4,500 for a 65-inch big screen, spending that money on a projector will get you a screen as big as the Pageant’s.
“We’ve been selling projectors for 17 years,” Dave says. “They were all tube based and weighed between 150 and 180 pounds and were a real bear to locate. They were about $4,500. Now for $4,500, or even less, you can buy a five-pound liquid-crystal-display projector. … You can fling one of those down on your coffee table and be watching a movie in five minutes.”
How far can the spending symptoms progress if left funded but untreated?
Says Dave, “I’ve had some customers who’ve spent $12,000 on the TV set or the video projectors. Then the audio side of that is $5,000 to $6,000, so we’re up to $15 or $16 thousand.”
Well, let’s not go crazy.