April 2011

See Jam Blues: Video, Sound & the Home Theater Experience

How smart TVs, projectors and other video gear can expand the jazz experience

I spent much of my youth sitting in the den listening to Miles and Bird and Mahavishnu Orchestra records through headphones. My family was often in the same room watching Happy Days and Three’s Company, but my eyes were shut tight. In my isolation, I might have missed some ’70s pop culture, but I wasn’t missing anything as a jazz fan. How times have changed! In 2011, if video isn’t a part of your jazz diet, you’re literally and figuratively ignoring a big part of the picture.

Of course, many great jazz performances can be found on cable/satellite TV, DVD and Blu-ray Disc. The Internet is also a major source of jazz video, through sources such as YouTube. If you’re not checking out some of this great material—for example, John Scofield’s New Morning: The Paris Concert (Inakustik) on Blu-ray or DVD, or videos of the likes of Trane and Monk on YouTube—your jazz explorations are incomplete.

THEORY CLASS

Just as playing jazz requires understanding of music theory, finding the right TV to add to your audio system demands a degree of technical understanding. Don’t worry, though: If you’re smart enough to know a saxophone from a clarinet, you have more than enough brainpower to pick out a great TV.

If, like most people, you decide on a flat-panel TV, you have a choice of two technologies: LCD and plasma. LCD TVs tend to be brighter than plasmas, an important consideration if you like to watch in a brightly lit room. In a dimly lit room, though, plasmas tend to look better than LCDs. It speaks volumes that all the professional TV reviewers I know prefer plasma, largely because plasma can deliver darker, deeper blacks. The latest LCD models using LED backlights—sometimes erroneously referred to as LED TVs—can come pretty close to plasma’s picture quality, though.

Flat-panel TVs are readily available in sizes up to 65 inches. The size you choose depends on your own taste, budget, the size of your room and the distance between your favorite chair and the screen. However, I’ve never known anyone who regretted stepping up to a larger screen size. Consider 42 inches a good minimum.

Serious video enthusiasts often opt for a home theater projector with a separate screen. Projectors give you huge pictures—from about 6 to 16 feet wide or even larger. Because you can hang the projector from the ceiling and mount the screen on the wall (or have it roll down automatically), a projector doesn’t take up any floor space. The downside is that you generally need to keep the lights dim or entirely off to get good contrast. (There are some screens, such as the Black Diamond II from Screen Innovations, that deliver excellent contrast even in a brightly lit room.) You also have to add your own audio system. You can spend a few hundred to a few hundred thousand dollars on a projector, but there’s one rule by which you must abide: Get one designed for home theater, not one designed for business presentations.

For the jazz-oriented viewer, most of the special features found on these TVs will be strictly optional. While 3D may seem all the rage, it’s still a long ways from becoming popular in the home—and personally, I’m not sure how much 3D would add to a Jim Hall concert video. One feature I do like is THX certification, available on flat-panel sets from LG and Panasonic. It’s also available in projectors such as the JVC DLA-X9, the Runco Q-750i and many other models from those brands. Put these video displays in THX mode and they’ll give you a studio-quality picture; all you need to adjust is brightness and contrast. To be fair, though, many other TVs can match or at least come close to this performance when in Movie mode (which is sometimes labeled Cinema or Theater).

INTERNET INVASION

One feature you should definitely consider is Internet connectivity, now available on most brands of flat-panel TVs. This feature goes by a variety of names, such as LG NetCast, Panasonic Viera Cast and Samsung Apps, but they all do essentially the same thing: access Internet-based services. The selection varies, but almost every Internet-enabled TV now offers at least YouTube, Netflix and Pandora. Video-on-demand services from Amazon, CinemaNow and VUDU are also common.

Of these, YouTube is the one that’s essential for jazz fans. It’s truly amazing what you’ll find there, and it’s so much more fun when you can enjoy the clips in your living room instead of alone in front of a computer. By now, many serious jazz fans have also tried the Pandora Internet Radio service. Pandora lets you create your own “stations” by naming artists or genres you dig, then serves up music it thinks you’ll like. By having Pandora on your TV—presumably connected to a high-quality audio system—you can get it off your desktop and into your living room.

Internet connectivity isn’t available on projectors, but projection fans can get the same capabilities by adding an Internet-capable Blu-ray Disc player; a streaming device such as Apple TV or the Roku digital video player; or videogame systems such as Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii.

ONE-NOTE SAMBA

While most of today’s TVs produce a pretty good picture, almost none deliver decent sound. As flat-panel TVs get thinner and thinner, the speaker drivers often must be shrunk to the size of a tenor sax reed in order to fit. The treble tends to be dull and lacking in detail; the midrange is usually coarse; the bass tends to be flabby and one-notey, if it’s there at all. Fortunately, there are easy workarounds.

There are a few TVs that give you satisfying sound. One is the Bose VideoWave, a 46-inch TV packed with speakers and capable of delivering a surprisingly good surround-sound effect. At $5,349, it’s pricey. A less-expensive alternative is Mitsubishi’s Unisen line, which feature arrays of 12 to 18 drivers along the front that can simulate surround sound. Add a small subwoofer and you have a simple yet effective mini-home-theater system that will do Elvin Jones’ kick drum justice. The 46-inch Unisen LT-46164 lists for just $1,799.

Another hassle-free solution is a soundbar, which we’ve discussed before—remember, that long, bar-shaped speaker designed to mount below a TV set. Most soundbars come with wireless subwoofers, and all can connect directly to your TV set’s audio output, so wiring is simple. Lower-priced soundbars, priced at $100 to $500, have amplifiers built in. Paradoxically, higher-priced soundbars above $800 or so usually require the use of a separate A/V receiver, but they tend to sound better, especially with voices. I’ve had good results with low-priced soundbars from Samsung, Sony and Vizio, and with higher-priced models from Atlantic Technology, B&W and Definitive Technology. Klipsch recently introduced a passive model, the Gallery G-42, that measures just 2.4 inches thick—perfect for use with super-slim flat-panel TVs.

Of course, the sky’s the limit when it comes to sound systems. It’s perfectly OK to use your favorite stereo system with your new TV, or to add a full 5.1- or 7.1-channel surround-sound system. It’s all up to your personal taste and the size of your room and bank account. But whether you’re watching a YouTube clip of Trane and Eric Dolphy ripping through “Impressions,” enjoying Jazz Icons’ Wes Montgomery: Live in ’65 on DVD or digging endless bebop on the Charlie Parker channel you set up on Pandora, you’ll find that adding TV to your audio system opens up a world of new jazz experiences.

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