April 2009

Visual Aids

Recent advances may turn music diehards on to home theater

Some music fans just hate movies. And after perusing a few of Hollywood’s recent tours de force, who among us would blame them? Still, it seems unfair to pamper your ears with Charles Lloyd’s latest while giving your eyes nothing to savor except a few liner notes.

If you’re not into home theater, you’re missing out on some fantastic entertainment. Most of us never got a chance to see Monk or Wes or Trane, but we can watch them on DVD any night we want. Almost every major jazz artist has at least one or two DVDs out; some have a dozen or more. It’s a darned shame to hear the soundtracks of these DVDs through the crummy speakers built into your TV—and the newer and slimmer your TV is, the crummier its speakers probably sound.

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B&W Panorama Soundbar show with TV and DVD player
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Sony VPL-VW70 Projector
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NAD T587 Blu-ray Player
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Anthem Statement D2 Audio/Video Processor

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Technophobes might object that home-theater systems are absurdly complex and ridiculously bad-sounding. Such protests aren’t without merit, but thanks to recent technological advances, those problems are fading. Modern home-theater systems can be as easy to set up and operate as any stereo. Some experts say that home-theater systems now match the sound quality of top high-end music systems. And a few beleaguered iconoclasts (your author included) insist they can be even better. After all, home-theater technology improves on a yearly basis; stereo audio technology doesn’t.

Join me on a brief tour of the latest goings-on in the world of home theater and see if you don’t agree.

Removing the Room

Like saxophones and flutes, rooms are resonators: They emphasize certain frequencies of sound and diminish others. No matter how good your audio system might be, the room will degrade its performance substantially. A really bad room could make even an avant-gardist like Anthony Braxton sound lifeless. For decades, engineers have fought this problem with graphic equalizers, but most audiophiles feel EQs create more problems than they solve. Fortunately, digital audio technology has finally come to the rescue.

The power of the digital signal processor (DSP) chips inside today’s surround-sound receivers has increased substantially in the last five years, and some audio companies are harnessing this extra processing horsepower to compensate for the effects of room acoustics. The process is simple: Plug an included microphone into the receiver, place the mic in your listening position, activate the receiver’s automatic room EQ mode, and leave the room for a few minutes. When you come back, the receiver will have automatically optimized the sound for your room. Because the processing is done in the digital domain, auto-EQ avoids many of the sonic problems that old-style analog equalizers introduced. It can even compensate for the flaws in your speakers. (Even the very best speakers aren’t perfect. Nope, not even yours. No matter what you paid for them.)

The leader in this field is Audyssey Laboratories, which has licensed its MultEQ technology to several big-name audio manufacturers, including Denon, Marantz, NAD and Onkyo. Some other companies, such as Anthem Electronics, Lexicon and Pioneer, have cooked up their own auto-EQ schemes.

Audio experts are still debating the merits of auto-EQ; some feel that a good acoustician or system designer can deliver better results. However, if you’re installing your system yourself (or if your professional installer isn’t an acoustics expert), auto-EQ will probably make your home-theater system sound so much better.

Groovin’ High

Most of today’s surround-sound receivers offer 7.1 channels of sound: front left, center and right, a subwoofer, and pairs of surround speakers in the sides and rear. But almost no one hooks up all four surround speakers. One audio industry executive recently told me that only 10 percent of his customers who own 7.1 receivers use all 7.1 channels. Rather than let those two extra channels go unused, Dolby Laboratories, the company most responsible for the change from 5.1 to 7.1, figured it was time to find a better use for them. After exhaustive experimentation with practically every conceivable speaker configuration, Dolby’s engineers came up with Pro Logic IIz, a scheme that adds two front height channels instead of (or in addition to) the two extra surround channels.

Dolby’s announcement of Pro Logic IIz at January’s Consumer Electronics Show met with both enthusiasm and derision. For me, the demo was way too brief to draw any conclusions, so I recently traveled to Dolby’s headquarters in San Francisco to get a better listen. I’ll confess that I wasn’t expecting to be impressed, and maybe they slipped something into my Diet Coke during lunch, but I came away thinking that Pro Logic IIz is the biggest advance in surround sound since 5.1.

Although it’s intended mainly for gaming, Pro Logic IIz delivers stunning results with both movies and music. When I switched on the height speakers, the sound really opened up. With concert recordings, PLIIz delivered the feel of a live venue, even though I was sitting in a listening lab no larger than a typical bedroom. When I went back to ordinary 5.1 or 7.1, the sound seemed to collapse.

Even stereo CDs can benefit from the PLIIz treatment. With simple recordings such as solo piano, PLIIz usually does little or nothing. With more reverberant recordings or larger ensembles, though, its effect is both dramatic and natural. Only ambient sounds emerge from the height speakers, so you don’t have to worry that you’ll hear Freddie Hubbard blaring at you from the ceiling.

Dolby says the height speakers should be installed at least three feet above your front left and right speakers. The same speaker you use for your surround channels should work just fine as a height speaker. In most living rooms, installing the two height speakers is easier than installing two more surround speakers all the way at the back of the room.

Ridicule the prospect of a 9.1-channel surround-sound system if you will, but take it from someone who’s heard it: Pro Logic IIz will be a huge hit with home-theater fans. Expect PLIIz-equipped receivers to debut this spring, starting with six models in the Onkyo line.

Belly Up to the Bar

Some audio-industry insiders have criticized Pro Logic IIz for adding unnecessary complexity to today’s already byzantine home-theater systems. But the speaker industry has a solution to the complication: the soundbar. Soundbars combine all the speakers in a surround system into a single cabinet. Just place a soundbar under your TV and your setup is done. No more cumbersome wire runs. No more complicated calibration.

Demanding home-theater enthusiasts might add “no more good sound” to that list, and two years ago, they’d have been right. But the entry of several respected audio brands into the soundbar market has changed things. Today’s best soundbars deliver such high fidelity and such a convincing surround-sound effect that installing a conventional 5.1 speaker system in a smaller space like a bedroom or a cozy den now seems silly.

Two of the best soundbars come from sister companies Polk Audio and Definitive Technology. Polk’s SurroundBar series and Definitive’s Mythos SSA line both use a technology called Stereo Dimensional Array, or SDA, which tricks your ears into thinking you’re hearing surround sound. The two brands employ separate engineering teams, so the products have their own distinct design and tonality, but both have won acclaim for their sound quality and simplicity. Neither will wow you with its stereo sound, but they provide surprisingly satisfying reproduction of soundtracks from concert DVDs and action movies.

Many other speaker companies are following suit, most notably the storied B&W brand, which will launch its $2,200 Panorama soundbar this spring. The Panorama’s aluminum chassis houses nine drivers and six digital amplifiers. Best of all, B&W says it doesn’t require a separate subwoofer, as most soundbars do.

You don’t necessarily have to spend thousands on a soundbar, though. Zvox Audio makes several nice-sounding models that sell for as little as $400. The company’s new $499 Z-Base 550 twists the soundbar concept a bit by placing all the speaker drivers in a 3-inch-high base that fits under your TV. It sounds gratifyingly full, thanks to its integral 5.25-inch woofer.

Power Projectors

Real home-theater aficionados will tell you that real home-theater begins with a front projector. Modern projectors deliver bright pictures even on screens measuring 10 feet across—and some look good even on a 15-foot screen. The image they deliver is more cinematic than any flat-panel TV can muster. However, until recently, a high-performance projector commanded a price of $20,000 or more, and required a lengthy and expensive professional calibration.

Last year saw the emergence of several affordably priced projectors that can easily fill a 10-foot screen with crisp, dazzlingly bright images. And while any front projector is considerably more complicated to install than a flat-panel TV, these demand only a cursory tweaking to produce a nearly perfect picture.

Two such standouts are Sony’s VPL-VW70 and JVC’s DLA-HD750. Both come in at a reasonable $7,999, and both use the same core display device: LCoS, or Liquid Crystal on Silicon, chips. (Each company has its own proprietary take on the technology.) Point either of these projectors at a high-quality screen, and after a half-hour or so of basic adjustments, you’ll be rewarded with a picture that’s so good you’ll wonder if it’s worth going to the movies anymore. Hell, cue up Robert Mugge’s awesome DVD documentary Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus, and staying out late for concerts might even start to lose its appeal.

Those who’d rather devote most of their budget to audio gear also have great options. On a smaller screen—say, seven or eight feet—the lower-priced projectors from such companies as Epson, Mitsubishi and Optoma can look pretty fantastic. Epson’s PowerLite Home Cinema lists for just $2,999, yet it throws a dazzlingly detailed 1080p picture. Its lens-shift feature makes it easy to set up even if you’ve never laid hands on a projector in your life.

Get the BluS

The high-definition Blu-ray Disc format got a rough start. First, it had to fight off the competing HD-DVD format, which finally went to its grave in early 2008. Then it suffered from seemingly constant changes in its technical standards; one reviewer I know joked that you have to update your Blu-ray player’s firmware for every new disc you buy.

But after a rocky debut, Blu-ray’s finally coming into its own. At long last, the technical standards seem to have settled into a firm set of rules that won’t be changing every year. The players have dropped below $200, and prices are expected to fall below $150 as more off-brand Chinese manufacturers enter the market.

Even most non-techies now know that Blu-ray delivers the sharpest picture available today. Most discs offer 1080p resolution, which is even better than you can get from digital TV broadcasts. What most people don’t know, though, is that Blu-ray is also the most high-resolution audio format you can buy. Producers can use the lossless audio technologies Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio to encode as many as eight tracks of 24-bit/96-kilohertz audio. (Compare that to 16-bit/44.1-kilohertz audio on CDs.) What you hear with both the Dolby and DTS technologies is a bit-for-bit recreation of what the engineers heard in the studio—there’s none of the fidelity loss you get with MP3 compression.

Only a few jazz Blu-ray titles are currently available, including discs from Pat Metheny, Chris Botti and Tony Bennett. The one that’s worth buying a Blu-ray player for is Legends of Jazz: Showcase, a collection of highlights from Ramsey Lewis’ PBS TV series. Some of the performances—most notably Jane Monheit and John Pizzarelli performing “Obsession”—have already become staple surround-sound demos.

Expect the list of jazz titles to grow as Blu-ray’s falling prices attract more buyers. And even if you exhaust the entire catalog of Blu-ray music titles, I promise that watching Iron Man on Blu-ray will blow away even the most Hollywood-hating music fan.

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