The Home Theatre Experience: An Introduction

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Home theatre has come a long way since the days of hooking up a Dolby Surround processor to your stereo receiver and HiFi VCR. Maybe you were such an enthusiast in the late 80s that you bought a Laserdisc player. If you did, you got to experience 400 lines of video resolution, as opposed to the 250 lines typical of VHS. Not only that, but you were probably the first to experience AC-3 sound, that we now commonly refer to as Dolby Digital.

In 1993, Jurassic Park came out on Laserdisc with DTS audio. Yet, it was so unfeasible for the average movie buff to recreate the movie theatre experience in their home that many of us subjected ourselves to the Eaton’s Centre multiplex. I myself had the displeasure of watching Mrs. Doubtfire there that year.

We still had great neighbourhood movie theatres in Toronto. But, in the late 90s one by one the historic cinemas slowly started to succumb to the suburban inspired megaplexes with their multiple curved screens, standard Dolby Digital and THX sound as well as stadium seating. The York and Eglinton theatres became “event” spaces, the Uptown was demolished (killing an exchange student in the process), and the atmospheric Runnymede became a Chapters book store! (I still hold contempt for Famous Players and Chapters for that one).

It was around this time, when suburban megaplexes were going up and theatre etiquette was going out the window, that the DVD video format was going boffo.

In the early 90s Sony and Toshiba lead consortiums were working on competing high capacity optical disc formats (sound familiar? They’re doing it again with blue laser discs). It seemed like they were headed into a Beta/VHS style format war. Luckily common sense prevailed and both parties agreed on a unified format.

In 1996 the DVD Forum, which was established to oversee standardization of the DVD format as well as other aspects including sound, approved version 1.0 of the DVD format.

By early 1997 the first DVD titles hit the shelves in North America. The appeal of the DVD was undeniable. The 480 lines of horizontal resolution were almost double that of what we were used to with VHS, multi channel digital audio in the form of Dolby Digital or DTS meant that we could immerse ourselves in a movie’s soundtrack. The size and durability of the disc itself was much more consumer friendly than the unwieldy and delicate Laserdisc. Initially videophiles scoffed at the compression artifacts of the digital video and touted the superiority of the analog video of their laserdiscs, but as transfer and playback technology have improved, these concerns have been mostly put to rest.

Unlike Laserdisc, the price of DVD players was initially not beyond the reach of many movie aficionados, that, coupled with the single format and its performance virtues as well as the added value of bonus features and multiple sound tracks, lead the DVD to become an immediate success. By 1999 the DVD was being hailed as the most successful consumer electronics product ever. In its first 3 years, the DVD had outsold the VCRs by a margin of 5-1 and CDs 4-1.

In 2002 DVD sales were still growing at more than 100% over the previous year. Of course this trend has cooled considerably, to about 23% last year and quite possibly to single digits this year. The impact the DVD has had is undeniable. Hollywood studios now generally count on DVD sales to help movies break even – or fatten profits. In 2003, 8 million copies of Finding Nemo were sold the first day the video was released, 90% of which were DVDs. Don’t worry, those 800,000 luddites who bought VHS copies will soon find fewer and fewer major retailers carrying VHS.

The DVD’s influence extends to the realm of Television. Networks and producers are realizing huge profits by releasing their TV shows on DVD. Seinfeld alone sold 4 million copies of the first 3 seasons last Christmas. The power of DVD sales was emphatically demonstrated by The Family Guy. Sales of this animated show were so strong that Fox decided it was in its best financial interest to bring the series back with new episodes. A new cartoon, American Dad, by the same creator is also airing on Fox’s Sunday night lineup.

Although the current rise in the popularity of home theatre systems has much to with the DVD, there are other factors to be taken into account.

There was a time when the only economically feasible display option was direct view CRT, and if you wanted a display of 40 inches or more you had to buy a rear projection CRT. Big screens had an undeniable ‘wow’ factor but the reality is that regular broadcast television did not look very good on these displays. Feeding them a progressive scan DVD picture did much to improve the overall viewing experience but rear projection CRTs still had their flaws. Not the least of which were their space requirements.

In the past 5 years, two major developments have given a boost to the home theatre market. The first is the arrival of high definition television. After years of being told that it was on the way, it’s finally here. Major networks are starting to broadcast HDTV signals over the air and some cable channels like PBS broadcast almost exclusively in HD. It’s been a long time coming but it looks like HDTV was worth the wait.

The arrival of HD has coincided nicely with the increased affordability and thus popularity of new display technology. Even though Plasma and LCD technologies have been around for decades, it has not been until the last 5 years that they have matured enough for consumer acceptance. Prices have been dropping and screen sizes have been increasing over the past few years.

With DLP and LCD, rear projection has also experienced a renaissance. Although not as sexy as flat panels, these displays offer bigger than CRT screen sizes with footprints a fraction of the size.

Bigger screens and improving display technologies have no doubt made it much easier for many of us to stay home on cold rainy November nights instead of braving the elements and heading to the pub.

So far we have covered the revolutionary DVD and bigger better televisions, but to complete the holy trinity of the home theatre we need sound. How important is sound? Mute the sound and watch Jaws. Where’s the suspense? Where’s the tension?

As was mentioned earlier, Dolby Digital (AC-3) and DTS have been around since the early 90s. Thanks to the DVD, we have been able to bring multi channel theatre-style audio to our homes in a convenient, damage resistant package. Even though many larger television sets now include small built-in subwoofers you are truly missing out if a DVD player and a big screen TV is the extent of your home theatre.

To extract the full potential of a movie’s soundtrack you need a Dolby Digital or DTS decoder. Many DVD players have a decoder built-in but generally this task is left to the receiver. Most commonly the digital soundtrack has been encoded in a 5.1 channel format. Centre, front left/right and rear left/right channels, bring much more accuracy, flexibility and ambiance to the sound experience over stereo. There is also the Low Frequency Effects (LFE) channel for a dedicated subwoofer that adds to the drama. Initially some of the drama might involve running around the room scrambling to take down rattling picture frames, but once you’re settled in the added bass provides a powerful, more theatre like experience.

There is a wide range of options when considering home theatres. At the higher end of the spectrum you can have a front projector (be it LCD, DLP or the venerable CRT) and a retracting screen, with over half a dozen speakers surrounding you, hooked up to thousand dollar amplifiers and processors while trained monkeys bring popcorn to your theatre style seats.

At a more modest end and completely acceptable level, all you need to enjoy a Saturday night at the movies is a television, DVD player, Dolby Digital receiver, 5 speakers and a subwoofer. This can all be had with budgets ranging from $500 to $2000 (not including the TV). Home-Theatre-In-A-Box packages have become an inexpensive and very popular way of entering and enjoying the home theatre experience. These are technophobe friendly appliances that require minimal experience to set up. What you get in ease of set up, you are more than likely compromising in quality and/or flexibility. With a slight increase in budget and time familiarizing yourself with home theatre concepts you can enjoy a much improved movie watching experience.

With many people now making the switch and investing in a widescreen television it is becoming easier to justify skipping a trip to the megaplex and waiting for it to come out on DVD.

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