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.
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
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.
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?
Once upon a time, not so many years ago, you’d press a button, maybe turn a dial, drop a needle carefully onto a platter, and music would come out of both speakers. Now the cry is heard across the nation: “Did you change the TV again? I just want to watch a DVD!” Then a scream and the sound of a remote bouncing off a glass coffee table.
Component, composite, HDMI, optical, digital coax – it’s hard to imagine that an Atari was once a complicated thing to get running through a TV. Understanding which inputs are best for which kind of content, and why you’re wasting the talents of your Blu-ray player by not using its HDMI output, remains the domain of the tech-nerd.
Here at least is a problem on the verge of a solution. HDMI has done much to simplify home cinema and audio, squirting as it does both audio and video through a single cable. Digital means as long as you don’t wrap it in actual magnets, the signal remains pure and clean and noise-free. And the notched design means you can only stick in the port the right way up.
Take care though, because they keep upgrading HDMI. The latest iteration adds support for 3D content – don’t ever read about how it does this though or your brain will melt. The point is that if you’re used to running your Blu-ray though your AV receiver, just adding in a 3D TV won’t necessarily give you 3D – you may have to upgrade receiver and HDMI cable too.
That’s the down side of digital, the upgrades. But at least you won’t have to learn a whole new colour-coded cabling system. And you never need to find out why the red-green-blue component cables are labelled on your TV as ‘YPbPr’.
Remotes. How did we end up with so many of them in our lives? My first TV had a remote: it was called my sister, and it responded to voice commands and occasional chocolate-coated almonds. Now though, one of the best pieces of home-making advice you can give to someone who lives with a home entertainment enthusiast is “buy a coffee table with little drawers”.
TV remote, AV receiver remote, Telstra T-Box remote, Boxee Box remote, and controllers for your preferred games console. Or consoles. Those little drawers are pretty full, and you can never find the exact remote you need.
And woe-betide if you lose one of those remotes. The T-Box, for instance, has precisely zero buttons on the box itself, rendering it useless without the little (really little) remote. Got kids? Keep the remotes out of reach of yoghurty hands too, because they ain’t splash proof.
Universal remotes were big in the 1990s, but only had to control two or three devices – tops. The 21st Century equivalent added programmability, 15,000-device databases and touchscreens, but having to sit with the remote pointed at the TV for five or six seconds while everything took its turn to be bathed in IR was beyond most grannies.
There’s an emerging solution to all this though, and it’s called your mobile phone. Many manufacturers – Pioneer springs to mind, for instance – have created iPhone apps (Android apps are on the way too) that control various devices via Bluetooth or even WiFi. Switching control of devices may soon be as simple as tapping different icons.
Though it would be good to see a standard emerge that means pressing power on your Blu-ray player turns on the TV, the receiver, and sets all inputs appropriately. That already exists to some extent with HDMI’s Consumer Electronics Control, but that only works if all your devices are the same brand. And where’s the fun in that?
The confusing hardware just isn’t enough, apparently. Content – the very stuff you watch and listen to – has also become increasingly variegated and baffling. Variegated? Yes, because the same thing can appear in many different forms.
Let’s take Doctor Who. You can watch him on TV, buy the DVDs, the Blu-ray, stream him off the web via ABC iView, watch him over on the BBC, rent him via one of several online streaming services, even buy him on iTunes. You can watch the tardis materialise via two kinds of spinning disc, via hard drive, a thumb drive, or waft it across the air on a WiFi connection.
And it won’t look the same on all these formats. Blu-ray will be crisp and intense, DVD typical, and the online forms will all be compressed to some degree.
The worst thing you can do with a big expensive home theatre system is just sit there watching standard definition TV broadcasts and DVDs. You won’t even know what you’re missing, because your AV Receiver and TV will both upsample this content to 1080p. It won’t look as good as a native Blu-ray, but will you – 21 inch CRT still steaming in the garage – be able to tell the difference?
The plethora of formats assaults your brain’s decision-making centres from every possible direction. This one has better picture, this one better sound. This one is optimised for distribution online. This has been resampled so it plays on an iPhone. And so on.
The good news here is that almost every format is now very, very watchable. If you’re getting better colour and clarity than you’ve ever seen before, why worry that your TV can do even more?
As broadband internet speeds improve, and the screen pixel density of portable devices increases (in line with and beyond Apple’s Retina display on iPhone), the mix of formats should thin out somewhat. Most devices will play 1080p video, and compression algorithms and other nerdomythopoeia will fade into the background. Let the embedded six-core CPU handle that.
This has already happened with music, to an extent. Every playback device has – compared to 20th Century tech – a quality DAC and lots of storage. So make sure you rip those CDs at ‘lossless’ quality, okay?
We may be reaching a plateau of standards. Maybe. Every new TV worth buying now does 1080p and has a digital receiver built in. Portable devices are insanely powerful and can play any format. The chance of being saddled with $5000 worth of kit that’s too sparsely-featured to even be sold any more is decreasing. Maybe.
We keep saying maybe because the home entertainment industry – and consumer electronics in a wider sense – has just spent 15 years making big, big bucks on the back of technological change and advancement. Why upgrade your perfectly good 720p TV? Because now you can get a 1080p TV, and for $1000 less than your old TV cost! Sure, it’s still another $3000 off your home equity, but look at all those vertical lines!
The point is, the industry is unlikely to switch sales tracks. A cynical observer might say, though, that the new features of the last year or so are becoming increasingly, shall we say, discretionary? HD was a revelation, 3D is a luxury. A flat panel TV gave you back valuable floor space in your tiny flat, but does it really need to go on Facebook too?
New gadgets, new features, new tech, it’s all good fun and it’s the lifeblood of this website. But just because they introduce a radically new technology every year doesn’t mean you necessarily need to change your once-a-decade buying habits. Remember: early adopters get the bragging rights, but the leapfroggers get the cheap, well-designed and fully featured kit. Just ask anyone who paid $24,000 for a 40 inch plasma in 1997. Shudder.