Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 5

3d1This post is part of my series of blog posts and slideshows regarding topics of common confusion in home theater. In this post, I cover HDMI, including the issue of cable length and the controversial value of expensive cables.

  • Part 1: Volume and zero dB, updating firmware, Blu-ray disadvantage
  • Part 2: Speaker resistance, analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • Part 3: PCM vs. bitstream, Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion
  • Part 4: THX certification, DLNA network access, and distortion and THD
  • Part 6: Closed-back vs. open-back around-ear headphones
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 8: Room correction, speaker position, and more room dynamics
  • Part 9: Ethernet, component separates, and broadband internet routers

Thanks for reading. Don’t forget to leave a comment if you have questions or feedback.

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Curt Robbins


HDMI

HDMI, the acronym for High Definition Multimedia Interface, has finally replaced a variety of older connection standards in home theater (and computers). Even the most barebones entry-level TVs and receivers feature at least a couple of HDMI ports. It’s now a fully ubiquitous standard that’s going to be around for a long time. The greatest attributes of HDMI are that it is fully digital, carries both high-resolution audio and high-definition video on a single cable, and allows you to connect mobile devices like camcorders and smartphones to your home theater.

There are two types of HDMI cables: Standard and high-speed. Standard is capable of lower-quality (interlaced) 1080 video, while high-speed varieties provide you with the full quality of which Blu-ray discs are capable. Always purchase a high speed type, preferably one that supports 3D and something called Audio Return Channel.

Covers All Components

Old school analog connection standards, such as S-Video, composite audio/video, and component video are now dinosaurs, their bones scattered across the same wasteland as TV-top rabbit ear antennas and cassette tape decks. The fact that nearly all home theater components can be connected via HDMI makes things much easier. HDMI makes things so simple, in fact, that your biggest challenge becomes ensuring that you have cables of the proper length (so you don’t, for example, come up two feet short of what’s necessary to connect your receiver to your TV). Home theater is a lot nicer when the length of your cables, and not their type and expense, is your biggest concern.

Cable Length Limits

HDMI cables were originally developed to not exceed roughly 16 feet in length. The three foot (one meter) interconnects used to input Blu-ray players and set-top boxes to receivers aren’t a concern here. However, it’s not uncommon for a display panel TV to be on the other side of the room from the AV receiver feeding it. This is certainly an option that should be available to you when you’re planning or upgrading your home theater. However, this type of arrangement requires a long HDMI cable to be run through the walls or floor.

Lengths greater than 20 or 30 feet can, under the right conditions, produce undesirable results, such as no picture or an image that suddenly disappears. This is determined largely by the quality of the equipment connected to the HDMI cable, namely the receiver and display panel. Properly implemented HDMI ports that support the latest HDMI standard (obviously possible only on newer equipment) are more capable than those found on lower quality, older equipment.

There are two solutions for long HDMI cable lengths. First, you can purchase a hardware device that acts as an HDMI signal booster. An example is the Spectrum Electronics DSR-701 Digital Signal Restorer. This $280 device is well-reviewed and said to do an excellent job with cable lengths up to 100 feet. Second, you can convert HDMI cable to CAT6 cable using a special converter box or adapter, with the majority of your cable run in the form of CAT6. When the cable reaches your TV, it must be converted back to HDMI using a similar sister device. This allows lengths of up to 100 feet to be achieved with no video performance degradation. One reputable converter box set is the $140 Ethereal Home Theater CS-HDC5EXTD, which supports up to 90 foot (30 meter) cable runs.

If you’ve already installed a long HDMI cable in your floor, walls, or ceiling, you probably don’t want to endure the expense and hassle of installing an additional CAT6 cable. Thus, for many consumers with existing HDMI cable runs, something like the Spectrum Electronics Digital Signal Restorer will be the most straightforward solution—and possibly the least expensive when professional cable installation costs are taken into account. For new installations, I’d recommend running both high-speed HDMI and CAT6 cable, giving yourself the option of whichever solution most appeals to you (and further future-proofing your home theater). When possible and practical, a set of $60 to $150 HDMI-to-CAT6 and CAT6-to-HDMI conversion adapters is certainly more cost effective than a roughly $300 HDMI signal booster (saving you money for your speaker budget).

Are Expensive HDMI Cables Worth It?

All high-speed HDMI cables are the same. Let me say it again: All high-speed HDMI cables are the same! For the most part (at distances under 20 feet or so), an $8 cable performs just like a $200 cable. I know, it sounds like a conspiracy. But the fact remains that an expensive cable offers almost zero improvement over a cheap model (as long as it’s a high-speed type). You simply want to avoid crappy cables featuring poor build quality and little insulation (such as the two-for-$5 specials at your local discount store).

Don’t let a big box electronics store convince you that an expensive gold-plated HDMI cable is necessary for a quality home theater experience. Profit margins are highest on accessories like cables, cases, cleaning accessories, and spare batteries. Ironically, big box electronics retailers make the least profit on big ticket items like speakers, receivers, and Blu-ray players, so they try to make it up with accessories like cables. Salespeople argue, “If you spent all this money on your equipment, why shortchange your investment with cheap cables?” While this is great logic, and an argument frequently employed, it’s simply false in the case of HDMI.

In fact, the very nature of HDMI, which is a fully digital signal, means that it’s either nearly perfect or there’s no picture whatsoever. Unlike the old over-the-air analog broadcasts of the past, there’s no in-between where a fully digital video signal can degrade with snow or static, but still be viewable. Video and audio carried via HDMI is either there or it isn’t.

When I last upgraded my home theater, Best Buy tried to convince me to purchase several short HDMI interconnect cables costing about $85 each. An $8 cable from Amazon provided me with the same quality. Still not convinced? Check out the blog article Why All HDMI Cables Are The Same by Geoffrey Morrison of CNET.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 3

3d1As part of my mini-series of blog posts and Slideshare slideshows regarding topics of common confusion in home theater, below I cover PCM vs. bitstream and Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion.

This series features excerpts from my new Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age.

  • Part 1: Volume in a zero dB world, updating firmware, and the disadvantages of Blu-ray
  • Part 2: Speaker resistance and analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • Part 4: THX certification, DLNA network access, and distortion and THD
  • Part 5: HDMI (including cable length and controversial expensive cables)
  • Part 6: Closed-back vs. open-back around-ear headphones
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 8: Room correction, speaker position, and more room dynamics
  • Part 9: Ethernet, component separates, and broadband internet routers

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Curt Robbins


Upscaling / Upconversion

As you’ve already learned, DVDs feature a video resolution of 480 horizontal lines. When compared to Blu-ray’s 1080 lines, DVDs seem pretty wimpy. But if you have a large (and expensive) DVD collection, you probably don’t want to simply trash or sell them. Re-purchasing your collection is frustrating and expensive. Damn you, double-edged pace of technology!

Most Blu-ray players (and many AV receivers) automatically apply something called upscaling, or upconversion (both terms are used interchangeably) to DVDs in an effort to make them 1) fit on a 1080 TV, so they’re not displayed as a little box in the center of the display panel, and 2) appear to be higher resolution than they actually are (by simulating 1080).

In a nutshell, this means the Blu-ray player analyzes the video content of a DVD and adds more lines, creating a pseudo-1080 image. While upconverted 480 video doesn’t look as good as the native 1080 display of Blu-ray content (with 1080 unique lines, featuring none of the pixel redundancy that comes with upscaling), it does look better than standard 480. In terms of the end result, upconversion for video is akin to matrixed surround sound for audio: It’s all about optimizing legacy media formats on modern-generation equipment. (To learn more about matrixed and discrete surround sound formats, see the Surround Sound chapter.)

The quality of upconversion is determined entirely by your equipment (the hardware and software running within it; see the Video Processing section below for more info). Better Blu-ray players do a superior job of upscaling than their less-expensive siblings. The $300-$600 players offered by companies like Denon, OPPO, Onkyo, Pioneer Elite, and Marantz will do a considerably nicer job of upconversion than an entry-level $80 Sony or Samsung unit (which aren’t the best suited for home theater environments).

A standard definition DVD will never look better than when upconverted on a home theater with a decent Blu-ray player. So what’s your takeaway? Don’t sell those old DVDs on Craigslist or relegate them to a dusty box in a closet! If you’re willing to tolerate the slight decrease in quality between upscaled DVDs and native Blu-ray content (which many people don’t even perceive), upconversion can help you avoid rebuying your DVD movie collection. Also consider that the majority of discs available from your local video rental store or library—even in 2014—are DVDs, not Blu-rays.

Real-World Upscaling

One study claims that 39% of viewers can’t tell the difference between standard-definition video (480 lines of resolution, as featured on DVDs and old camcorders) and high-definition content (1080 on Blu-ray discs or streamed via a service like Netflix). If this is even marginally true, an even greater percentage of consumers will be oblivious to the difference between an upscaled DVD featuring “fake” 1080 resolution and a Blu-ray disc producing the real thing. If you’re one of them, keep your eyes peeled for those grocery store bargain bins full of clearance DVDs. (Your local brick-and-mortar video store—if your community still has one—is another great source of discounted new and used DVDs.)

Video Processing

Your Blu-ray player’s video processing is handled by a dedicated computer chip (or set of chips) and special software stored on it. Many manufacturers utilize fairly generic, average processing chips—which don’t always produce the best results, especially when upscaling DVDs to 1080 resolution. More potent models feature special leading edge video processing technologies licensed from third-party companies, such as Marvell’s Qdeo and Silicon Image’s VRS ClearView.

Many popular Blu-ray models, including those from Cambridge Audio, OPPO, Onkyo, and Pioneer Elite, feature Qdeo processing. Note that there are several generations of Qdeo, so one from three years ago won’t be as good as what’s shipping on current models. OPPO’s top Darbee models feature VRS ClearView video processing and upscaling.

PCM vs. Bitstream

If you’re connecting your Blu-ray player to your receiver via HDMI, there are two options for how data is sent from the player to the receiver. The first, PCM (Pulse-code Modulation,  sometimes called LPCM), is when your Blu-ray player performs all decoding of the compressed audio on the disc (a variant of either Dolby or DTS). In this scheme, the fully decoded audio is sent to your receiver, then passed along to your speakers. Many receivers allow you to select PCM output from the same menu from which you choose DLP sound fields (and will indicate the mode by displaying “PCM” on the front panel).

Bitstream, on the other hand, means your Blu-ray player does the opposite, performing no decoding of the compressed audio of the disc, instead sending along the raw, encoded bitstream to your receiver, where the decoding takes place. In this case, the receiver will display the exact encoding method employed by the disc (Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio, for example). The only disadvantage of bitstream is that any “secondary audio,” such as commentaries and other supplemental features of Blu-ray, will be lost. If you ever use these features, you obviously should lean on PCM.

Typically, both methods work equally well and, in practical applications, it doesn’t really matter which you employ. However, if you had a much nicer (and newer) Blu-ray player than receiver, you might choose to have it do the heavy lifting to improve the quality of the audio pumped into your speakers. If both your Blu-ray player and receiver are of relatively equal capability and age, the difference between these two schemes will almost certainly be negligible.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 1

3d1There’s quite a few topics in home theater that are confusing for the average consumer. From volume levels on modern AV receivers to firmware updates to distortion, these topics make the purchase, installation, and enjoyable use of home theater gear both intimidating and sometimes perplexing. In the next few posts, let’s clarify some of these issues.

The following is an excerpt from my new Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age. The other blog posts in this series are listed below:

  • Part 2: Speaker resistance, analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • Part 3: PCM vs. bitstream, Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion
  • Part 4: THX certification, DLNA network access, and distortion and THD
  • Part 5: HDMI (including cable length and controversial expensive cables)
  • Part 6: Closed-back vs. open-back around-ear headphones
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 8: Room correction, speaker position, and room dynamics
  • Part 9: Ethernet, component separates, and broadband internet routers

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Curt Robbins


Volume in a Zero dB World

The volume, or intensity, of sound produced by a receiver or amp is expressed in decibels, or dB. The “bel” part of the term is in honor of Alexander Graham Bell, because decibels, as a unit of measure, were developed to objectively determine audio levels on the earliest telephone networks (and you thought it was all about jet engines and 1970s rock concerts by The Who….).

What is confusing about decibel readouts on today’s receivers—and has been in practice for only about the past decade or so—is the zero dB system employed. It’s inherently counter-intuitive. Basically, on the dB scale, zero (0) represents the receiver’s loudest output (if you turned up the volume to the maximum possible). You’d obviously have to decrease the volume to enjoy it at a reasonable level. These enjoyable volumes occur in the negative numbers. A reasonable zone might be -32, or maybe -25 (depending on the input source and your room). But it will always be expressed as a negative number. Because we’re talking about negative numbers, smaller numbers (ignoring the negative sign) equal higher volume levels (-10 will be much louder than -35). And this is where the confusion arises.

pioneer av receiverThere is a logic to this scheme, however. In the past, when higher numbers equaled greater volumes, the settings were entirely arbitrary, with wide variations among receiver manufacturers. One company might demark 1 through 10 (one being the softest, 10 being the loudest), while another would get more granular, adopting a 1 through 20 or even 1 through 100 scale. It was the wild west. The problem was that there was no objective way for a receiver to display to its owner the volume at which it was producing sound.

Zero dB originated in the commercial broadcasting and recording industries. On your home theater’s receiver, think of 0 dB as the tipping point for distortion and where you may begin encountering things like “clipping” (jarring cuts and dropouts in the sound) and other signs that the receiver is operating beyond its capacity to provide clean sound. Depending on the quality of your receiver, you may experience distortion at a volume below 0 dB. But a good unit won’t begin distorting until this point (a valuable litmus test when researching your purchase).

The specific dB level indicated by a receiver is still somewhat subjective. In addition to your receiver, your speakers and the room in which they reside significantly influence the actual volume at which you hear the audio reproduced. Take this number displayed on your receiver lightly, realizing that -25 dB with your old speakers or on your neighbor’s system won’t sound exactly the same on yours (but it should be in the ballpark).


Updating Firmware

A hardware component’s firmware is simply updatable software stored on a chip in the device that controls certain features and functions. Because players are basically audio and video-focused computers dependent upon complex decoding and processing software, manufacturers often release firmware updates that expand or enhance the functionality of their units—or fix existing bugs. It’s a good idea to keep the firmware of your home theater devices, specifically your Blu-ray player and AV receiver, up-to-date (check manufacturer websites on a regular basis).

The biggest reason to update your Blu-ray player firmware is to ensure that it can properly play the latest movie releases. Hollywood is continually revising copy-protection standards in an effort to thwart piracy. Sometimes new protection schemes can’t be recognized by a particular player (especially older models)—resulting in a movie that won’t play. Instead of having to purchase a new Blu-ray player (a ludicrous proposition at which consumers would obviously balk), you simply need to update your firmware to match the latest copy-protection encryption standards of new-release movies.

oppo bdp-103Depending on whether your Blu-ray player is connected to the internet, there are a variety of ways firmware updates can be applied. If your player features internet connectivity, simply follow the manufacturer instructions to obtain and install the update files. If your player lacks connectivity, you can download the files from the manufacturer website using a Windows or Mac computer and copy them to a USB flash drive. The USB drive is then inserted into the player to begin the installation of the update.


Disadvantages of Blu-ray

The biggest disadvantage of the Blu-ray format is that some discs can take a while to load (up to a minute or two), depending on the speed and quality of your player. This wait is so much greater than for DVDs that, on some titles, new owners sometimes believe they’ve run into a bad disc or that their player has locked up. More expensive and newer Blu-ray players feature faster processing chips, decreasing your wait time as the disc content loads into the memory of your player. If load speed is a concern, remember to demo, demo, demo. (For you geeky types, the Blu-ray video format transfers data at roughly 40 Mbps, which is why you can’t yet stream an uncompressed Blu-ray video over your internet connection.)

Models known for their speedy load times include OPPO’s $500 BDP-103, its $1,200 105 model, and the $400 Pioneer Elite BDP-62FD. Personally, my first choice would be the BDP-103 (pictured above). Those on a budget might prefer the BDP-62FD, which is very comparable to the entry-level OPPO (but not quite as powerful or refined).


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Home Theater: More Surround Sound

3d1Today’s blog post is another excerpt from my new Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age. It further explores home theater surround sound (also check out Home Theater: Surround Sound Basics), diving into discrete vs. matrixed audio and lossy vs. lossless compression—topics that continue to confuse both casual fans and enthusiasts alike.

Also check out Surround Sound Basics and Surround Sound Formats.

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Curt Robbins


Standardized System

Surround sound isn’t merely a speaker arrangement for your living room, but rather a standardized system by which content producers can compose, or “encode,” their content so that consumers, with the proper equipment, can decode it to simulate a more realistic, immersive audio environment. The intent of surround sound is to create audio that radiates from all around the seating positions of the viewers, while giving content producers the ability to specify from which of those speakers a particular sound or audio stream is projected.

While basic surround sound involves three speakers in front and two in back, more sophisticated systems employ between eight and 12 speakers. The more speakers involved, the more immersive and “surrounding” the sound becomes (and, relatively speaking, the more expensive the speaker system and receiver).

Discrete vs. Matrixed Surround

This book strives to avoid the overly technical and speak in plain English. However, it’s helpful to understand the difference between discrete and matrixed surround sound formats. Discrete surround involves sound information that’s specific, or dedicated to, particular channels and speaker positions (and fully independent of other channels). Thus, if a movie features a 5.1 soundtrack, it means the producers recorded and mixed six separate sound channels, each intended for a particular speaker position in your living room.

dolby logo

Matrixed surround, on the other hand, involves your receiver producing sound information for six or more speakers that’s derived from a two-channel (stereo) signal. While not as good as discrete formats, matrixed surround can take standard stereo and make it pretty amazing—depending on the quality of your system. Assume you’re watching an old episode of Law & Order on cable TV and it’s encoded in stereo. If your AV receiver features a matrixed surround sound format, such as Dolby Pro Logic II or DTS Neo:6 (nearly all models for the past several years do), you can apply it to the stereo signal to direct sound to the other speakers in your home theater, not just the mains.

If a film or TV program features an audio mix that’s designed for surround sound, it will offer discrete channels. Dialog will be directed to the center channel, background noise like traffic, the din of a crowd, and sirens will come from the rear speakers, and the non-speech sounds and primary action will be directed to the main speakers. Because so much legacy content—be it music, TV episodes, or movies—features audio encoded in only stereo, you’ll find great benefit in applying matrixed surround filters to take advantage of those other speakers sitting in your living room. This is especially true for those who consume mostly TV content.

Lossy vs. Lossless Compression

When the audio portion of a video is created, it’s digitally compressed to make it smaller. Reducing the size of the data helps it stream smoothly from an internet video service (like Netflix) or fit on an optical disc (DVD or Blu-ray). However, there are different types of compression that impact the quality of the sound produced by any equipment, especially nicer systems.

Lossy Compression

Traditionally, data compression for audio has been lossy. This means that, during the compression of the audio, some information is lost—resulting in less data to play back. In a nutshell, less data equals lower sound fidelity. Different compression schemes produce distinct results in terms of sound quality. Overall, lossy compression is viewed as a bad thing. Music in MP3 (MPEG Audio Layer III) and AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) formats are good examples of lossy compression standards (and avoided by audiophiles). All music sold on standard compact discs (in CDDA format; see the Disc-Based Music chapter for more info) involves lossy compression (although of significantly higher fidelity than MP3 or AAC).

Lossless Compression

Lossless compression, on the other hand, is, well, lossless. It reproduces the original audio bit-for-bit, with no reduction in data or quality whatsoever (any decrease in fidelity reflects a deficiency in your equipment, not the audio itself). If you know an audio source is lossless, you don’t really need to learn anything else (except maybe the encoding standard employed to ensure that you can decode it on your particular Blu-ray player or AV receiver).

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The downside of lossless compression is that it results in significantly larger files than lossy schemes. This is why lossless audio is currently available only on high-capacity optical disc formats (like Blu-ray, which sports six times the storage of a DVD), but not in the form of internet streaming, where even the fastest broadband connections typically lack the bandwidth to support such high bit rates. Examples of lossless audio include Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio (both covered below). There are also internet-based download services that sell lossless music files in popular formats like FLAC and AIFF (higher quality than even regular music CDs, let alone MP3s).

Compression Levels / Bit Rate

Content compressed in a lossy format can be encoded at a variety of quality levels (measured in “bit rate” or bits per second, and sometimes called “compression levels”). For example, a 128 Kbps (kilobit per second) MP3 of Jessie’s Girl by Rick Springfield won’t sound as good as a 320 Kbps MP3 version. The 320 Kbps file contains nearly three times the data of the 128 Kbps version, enhancing the sound quality.

This is one reason that Blu-ray discs are so popular. While the video quality of Blu-ray (1080 lines of resolution) is certainly better than that of DVD, the audio improvement is even greater. Currently, there is no better sound that you can pump through your home theater than the lossless audio track of a Blu-ray movie or lossless music files like FLAC. (When it comes to audio only, there are also high-end music formats such as SACD, DVD-Audio, and Blu-ray Audio, which are covered in the Disc-Based Music chapter.)

Based on Standards

To clarify how this compression/decompression cycle works, it’s important to understand that content producers must encode their audio to a particular standard (like a United Nations interpreter choosing a language in which to speak). As you’ll learn below, for movies, this is typically a format from Dolby or DTS. Encoding makes files smaller for transport or distribution, regardless of whether it’s lossy or lossless. Your receiver or Blu-ray player incorporates a bunch of decoders. When you play a DVD or Blu-ray disc, the receiver applies the proper decoder, basically reassembling the audio data. In this respect, your AV receiver is just a specialized computer. (Some people will tell you that the audio on a Blu-ray movie is uncompressed, which isn’t necessarily true. Typically it’s compressed, but sometimes it isn’t. Even compressed, Blu-ray involves a lossless scheme.)

No Guarantees

It’s important to note that, simply because an audio source involves a lossless compression format, this doesn’t guarantee high-end fidelity. Technically, lossless compression simply means that the file reproduced by your playback equipment exactly matches the original, before it was compressed. If the original music file was of low quality to begin with (many movies and much music are poorly mastered or recorded in less-than-optimal live venues or studio environments), the best lossless format won’t make it sound good.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Home Theater Basics

3d1The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2: Home Theater Basics from my new book Home Theater for the Internet Age. This book isn’t for audiophiles or videophiles. If you’re an average middle class person who doesn’t know much about this topic, you outnumber the “experts” and home theater nerds by about 10,000 to 1.

I’ve always enjoyed helping people understand and embrace modern technology. In the case of home theater, this tech can bring together families in front of a big display panel for a new movie release on a shiny little disc—or, increasingly, streamed from the internet. You can enjoy family photos, MP3 songs, or home videos stored on a computer that resides nearly anywhere on your wi-fi network. All using nothing more than a decent Blu-ray player (playing discs covers only one-third the functionality of modern Blu-ray players, as you can learn here).

If nothing else, please understand that you can enjoy full surround sound, high-definition video, and all the glory of modern home theater on any budget. The most common misperception of home theater is that it’s too expensive and you can’t afford it.

But you can. Trust me.

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Curt Robbins


As consumers, we’re in the middle of multiple transition periods within the home electronics and entertainment industries. These changes are in the form of rapid advances in both hardware and services. It’s no longer uncommon for one to have a 60-inch display panel hanging in their living room, to be one of the 50 million people who watch movies and TV shows on Netflix, or to be among the 76 million consumers who listen to music on Pandora each month. These don’t constitute early adopter status in today’s world of home entertainment.

Since Apple introduced its iconic iPod line of portable music players in 2001, the human race has been slowly transitioning from entertaining itself by purchasing physical media, like optical discs, to instead downloading songs from iTunes or streaming movies or TV from services like Hulu or Vudu. Today the average consumer has more home entertainment options than ever—along with a more detailed and potentially confusing array of technologies and media sources.

What Defines Home Theater?

Let’s define a few things. First, a home theater isn’t mobile. It’s not a laptop with a set of headphones (even if the laptop features a Blu-ray player). Home theater is four basic components:

  • Display panel
  • Audio/video receiver
  • Blu-ray player
  • Five+ specialized speakers

These are the elements necessary for full-on home theater and how it’s defined in this book. Anything short of these elements doesn’t cut it in terms of home “theater.” While it could be argued that a set top box for bringing audio and video content into your home theater is a necessity, some cord cutters are perfectly happy with physical discs from Redbox, the Neflix disc-by-mail service, or a local video store.

One of the most common configurations for consuming TV programming and movies is a display panel TV with two input devices: A Blu-ray player and a cable/satellite set-top box (using only the speakers on the TV). Maybe there’s a game console or DVR thrown in the mix. But this also isn’t home theater (where’s the audio/video receiver and rear surround speakers?).

pioneer av receiver

Connecting Components

In the past, the task of connecting home theater components was confusing. Different components connected with different standards and there were separate connections for audio and video. For the layperson, connecting components was a headache and typically resulted in either a frustratingly botched job, professional installation (planned or unplanned), or scouring web-based forums desperately seeking help from others. Today it’s different. Now it’s all a single standard that transports both audio and video, and does it in Blu-ray-quality high definition: HDMI. Say it with me: H-D-M-I. It’s all you need to know.

Surround Sound

In terms of audio, the difference between a “stereo system” and a “home theater” is surround sound, which has been relatively common for well over a decade. Without a collection of surround sound speakers, home theater can’t exist. Today, a significant portion of broadcast and cable TV programming—and nearly all movies produced in the past decade—are delivered with a six-channel or greater audio mix that requires a surround speaker configuration and compatible audio/video receiver to be fully appreciated.

Discrete Channels

Surround sound isn’t just about adding more speakers in your living room. It’s about discrete channels of audio information coming from specific locations within your listening environment. In other words, the producers of a TV show or movie can purposefully make, say, the voices of the characters come from the speaker directly below your TV, where they’ll be the most realistic.

Meanwhile, background noises—such as barking dogs, slamming doors, and guns firing—can be directed to the rear speakers. The ability of content producers to utilize between five and twelve speakers in your living room, in a predictable arrangement, is why affordable home theater systems now rival the experience of going to a movie theater (and why commercial theater chains have to install football field-size screens with vibrating chairs just to get our attention).

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Content Services

Content services that deliver streaming audio, video, and even games to your living room home theater have proliferated like crazy during the past few years. What’s interesting is that most people have labeled this the evolution of the internet, not home theater.

It’s all convoluted today, part computer and part stereo system. We’re in the middle of the convergence of computing/internet technologies and the hardware, software, and standards on which video and audio are affordably reproduced in the home. Home theater simply does not live up to its potential without the internet and broadband connectivity. Netflix, YouTube, HBO Now, Pandora, Hulu Plus, Spotify, iTunes, and other internet-based services offer more content than you can ever consume. While your local liquor store might not sell you bourbon on Sunday, online streaming services are available on-demand, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Blu-ray Players: More Than Discs

3d1When researching my book Home Theater for the Internet Age, one of the most significant things I recognized was the versatility and power of the latest generation of Blu-ray players. We think of them as simply playback mechanisms for physical discs. Which is understandable, considering that’s how CD and DVD players worked. In reality, however, modern Blu-ray players offer so much more. Especially if you’re a technology-embracing, mobile device-toting, wi-fi connected person or family.

Backward compatibility has always been a strength of much consumer technology. Microsoft Windows and Apple’s OS X will run software designed for significantly older versions of their respective operating systems. Likewise, Blu-ray players can handle nearly all previous generations and standards, including CDs for music, DVDs for movies, and discs featuring any type of media burned on your computer.

What most consumers either don’t understand or simply don’t utilize is the fact that physical discs are only one of three avenues for getting media into your Blu-ray player—and pumping through your surround sound speakers and widescreen display panel.

The other methods? USB flash drives and any type of network connectivity.

Most Blu-ray players feature a USB port on either the front or, less conveniently, the back of the unit. This allows you to copy music, photos, and videos from a computer or network storage device to a flash drive and plug it into your player. Although primitive in some respects (this used to be called sneakernet in the computer world), this is a valid way to get media files from a computer or storage device in your house to your home theater.

The third method, network connectivity, requires either wi-fi or Ethernet. In this case, your Blu-ray player is simply connecting to another computer or storage device in your home to gain access to media files. Sometimes this involves a dedicated media streaming technology, like DLNA (a capability that must be built into your Blu-ray player). This is my favorite method. Many people have thousands of family photos and songs residing on a computer or network storage device in their home. Using either a hard-wired Ethernet or wi-fi connection to your Blu-ray player, you can have access to them all. You can run photo slideshows, choose from among hundreds of ripped music albums, or play family videos (or those purchased online).

oppo bdp-103Yet, despite this capability, most consumers never do more than drop shiny discs in their Blu-ray players. What a waste! In theory, these folks are getting only one-third the functionality and value out of their players.

The very best content you can pump through your home theater—in terms of fidelity and quality—is a Blu-ray disc. They offer the most crisp video and the very best audio. Hands down. But ignoring the sometimes voluminous personal media many of us have and continue to accumulate (regardless of the technical quality of that media) is leaving dollars and fun on the table. So check your Blu-ray player. Does it feature a USB port? An Ethernet port? Does it have wi-fi built-in? If so, you could be accessing your archive of family/personal media on a regular basis.

So remember, as Kyle from South Park would say, we learned something today. Most Blu-ray players can receive input from sources other than the disc tray. Archived media is great for simple preservation and passing on our legacy to our children and grandchildren. But not utilizing that media for our personal enjoyment and the enrichment of our family is, well, wrong. You saved it for a reason, right? I’d argue that the media you preserve isn’t just for future generations, but also for the enjoyment of you and yours right now.

Now where did I put that flash drive?

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Kevlar Woofers & Affordable Home Theater

3d1When I had to choose the backdrop photo for this blog, I instinctively opened the folder on my network storage device that contained my most recent photos. I had one I especially liked that I perceived to express the tone and flavor of this blog: The yellow Kevlar woofer from one of the B&W surround speakers in my living room.

I realized how small the world can be sometimes. The device on which I had archived and from which I was accessing this photo was one of the central topics of my latest ebook, Understanding Personal Data Security. But the content of the photo itself, the funky Kevlar woofer, was one of the many topics covered in two of my new books, Understanding Home Theater and Home Theater for the Internet Age. In all honesty, the purpose of this blog is to share ideas covered in this new series of books—available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Basically, this blog is a supplement (think of it as the free dessert that comes with your ebook meal). Which makes it ironic if you’re reading it standalone, but I’m glad it can work that way in this funky web 2.0 intellectual property economy.

About this time you might be asking “What’s so cool about yellow Kevlar woofer cones?” Well, first, they represent passion, commitment, and technical excellence. I know, that sounds dorky, but hear me out. They really do. Especially if we use objective metrics like money or time to measure the importance of a topic like home theater, which the yellow woofer obviously represents. Speakers featuring kevlar woofer cones, from companies like B&W and Noble Fidelity, are typically a tad better than your average variety.

If you’re a hobbyist, you put real money and plenty of time into your hobby. For my wife, it’s the springtime bonanza of gardening and flower landscaping that consumes a decent amount of money and tons of her time. For a buddy of mine in Colorado, it’s an expensive carbon fiber racing bicycle and race entry fees. For yet another friend in Texas, it’s cruising around the Gulf of Mexico in his 30-foot sailboat. In other words, most middle class consumers have one or more hobbies and, by definition, drop a considerable amount of disposable income into them.

Kevlar woofer in a B&W 705 speaker.

Kevlar woofer in a B&W 705 speaker

Another function of this blog is to lend transparency to my books. If you’re a real tech geek or connected consumer and want to dig deeper, this blog is the free value-add for my books. Because my entire book catalog must be updated bi-annually (based on the dynamic pace of the technical topics covered), this blog gives you an opportunity to provide feedback and maybe even influence the content of future editions.

Now, back to home theater.

One of the things that prompted me to publish Home Theater for the Internet Age and the subset, Understanding Home Theater, was the fact that consumers of all income levels can now enjoy quality big-ass display panels and real surround sound involving five or six speakers. Yes, there’s certainly a difference between a $2,500 home theater system and one costing ten times as much. But what can be purchased for between $2,000 and $15,000 is truly mind blowing. The convergence of computer, wireless networking, and home entertainment technologies—combined with the proliferation of media streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora—has resulted in price points and functionality that even the most optimistic home theater fan could not have imagined a decade ago.

In addition, the production quality of even mediocre television content and basically all films involves widescreen high-definition video and surround sound comprised of at least six separate audio channels, including a dedicated subwoofer feed that you can feel as much as hear. This, plus the affordability of popular media streaming services like iTunes, Google Play, and Rhapsody has resulted in a very consumer-friendly home theater market. This consumer-friendliness is in terms of both the raw capabilities of the receivers, Blu-ray players, and streaming media boxes that consumers are installing in their living rooms and also how bloody affordable even mid-grade examples of these product categories have become. Go entry-level and you’ll really blow your mind in terms of what you can get for your money in 2014.

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Curt Robbins

[See also Home Theater Basics, Home Theater: Surround Sound Basics, and Take My Remote, Please.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.