What they need to fix about home entertainment

A home entertainment consumer electronics enthusiast. Who’d be one? Who’d dedicate that serious chunk of disposable income to endless upgrades, complicated setups, a house full of wires, power points groaning under the weight of dozens of ‘kettle plugs’, and worst of all, that nagging suspicion that no matter how good or pleasing the entertainment experience, there’s always a better bit of kit out there, a few more dollars to spend, a couple more features to bolt on.

When everything comes together just right, a really well set up home entertainment system is a thing of beauty. It’s a miracle of the modern age, really, that you can sit down, press a few buttons, and let beautiful crisp images and music flow across your brain. But do we really have to go through all this pain to get those few perfect moments?

For every amazing new product, there are stories of hellish installations, lost remotes, baffling extra features and six-month redundancy cycles. Let’s take a look at the problems, and see if we can’t come up with a few solutions.

The screen

Something happened to our TVs around 2003. Before then, it was a simple matter of buy the best and biggest CRT you could afford, and enjoy a single colour standard. Well, since the early 1980s, at least.

But that 20-odd years of stability fell apart with the introduction of flat panels. You had to choose between LCD and plasma, between size and brightness. Then there was the upgrade to progressive scan, then 720p, 1080i and now finally we seem to have settled on 1080p as the top-level standard. But wait! Here comes 3D… and quad HD is on the way too!

Every time you spend serious cash on a TV (or even a projector), a far superior and cheaper device comes along 12–18 months later. Sony – well known for high prices – now charges less than $5000 for a 55 inch LCD roughly a nothingth thick, with 3D capability.

And you just know that today’s 3D technology will be replaced by something brighter, better and less prone to giving you a headache, probably within two years. And what’s this about Peter Jackson filming The Hobbit at 48Hz? And what’s a
5K projector?

The thing is though, if you’re still using a 36 inch 720p plasma from 2004, you’re watching a TV immeasurably superior to the battered old 21 inch CRT most Australian adults grew up with. For 25 years, we peered at the fishbowl. Anything is better than that.

Yes, there will always be a better TV. But don’t compare your next purchase with a presumed model of the future. Compare it with what you’re upgrading from.

The surround

Is audio half your home entertainment experience, or is it more? Depends how much you like music, we suppose. Again, like display technology, home audio spent 40 years iterating stereo (quadraphonic doesn’t count) and then suddenly exploded into 5.1, 6.1, 7.1… hey, did you hear about this guy with 12.1? More speakers! More speakers!

Again, making an upgrade from stereo to basic surround is a real ear-opener. But it sure does fill up your house with cords. It’s strange to think that past generations never had to consider gouging holes in the wall to run cables up through the roof space to the perfect position on the back wall. Maybe hardcore audiophiles did, but not ordinary suburban folk. And nobody rocking out to the Village People on an eight-track was fooled into paying $300 for a cable scientifically no better than a $50 equivalent. Though they were fooled into listening to eight-track.

Once a good multi-speaker system is set up, it’s good. Until you trip over a cable, or a pet chews it. Cables are the bane of the modern system, really. They tangle, they trap dust, they lead to hours of painstaking checking and rechecking when one speaker stops working… or is the AV receiver not sending the signal out properly? Or did your device manufacturer release a firmware update that stops your receiver interpolating a stereo signal into 5.1?

Wireless rear speakers have been around for a while now, though it’s hard to find them on really high-end systems. That’s because the cable from amp to speaker is necessarily an analog connection, so very vulnerable to wireless interference. Or how about DACs in the base of each speaker? Of course the audiophiles wouldn’t like that…

Finally there’s the question of how many speakers to have. And that really depends on how seriously you take your Hollywood blockbusters. Because the central question is this: apart from the inevitable concert exception, are the movies that support eight channel surround natively, really worth watching?