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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.

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.

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