Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 7

3d1I’ve recently been experimenting with writing in different parts of my house. My wife and daughter were serial binge watching something on Netflix that I found distracting, so I took my laptop, iPad, and coffee and headed to the “Club Room,” the name my wife gave to the spare bedroom we turned into a second home theater.

Despite the fact that this room’s system isn’t as nice as that in the living room, it sounds better. In fact, I can barely describe it—especially for two-channel music. But I’m getting that itchy feeling of deja vu. Probably because I already wrote about this in Home Theater for the Internet Age. Enjoy the A Word About Your Room section below.

In the next blog post, I’ll share the Room Dynamics & Speaker Positioning section from the Speakers chapter.

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Curt Robbins


A Word About Your Room

We can talk about home theater components all we want, but how good yours sounds is highly dependent on your particular room. It’s size, the number and nature of the items filling it, and the surface characteristics of the ceiling, walls, and flooring—including the number of windows and amount of ambient light—all have a significant impact on your listening and viewing experience. For audio, it’s necessary to adjust your receiver and the output it provides to your speakers (something you learned about in the Room Correction section above). Don’t blow off doing a good room correction for your system. Equally important is speaker position and the direction in which they fire (point). To learn about speaker placement, see the Room Dynamics & Speaker Positioning section of the Speakers chapter.

Use Case: Room Dynamics

In 2013, I upgraded one home theater in my living room and installed a second from scratch in a spare bedroom (that serves as a dedicated theater, complete with theater lighting and a dorm fridge in the closet). The main living room system is nicer and involves better rear speakers and components. In fact, the only thing that’s consistent across both systems is the Blu-ray player (Pioneer Elite BDP-62FP units), Apple TV, and front speakers (comparable B&W mains and center channels). All other components are superior in the living room theater. The rec room, however, offers the advantage of being an entirely physically enclosed environment, and doing so within the relatively small space of a spare bedroom. It contains only a wall-mounted display panel, three-person sofa, and adult-size beanbag chair, with all components in a closable closet.

I have a friend who’s a big movie buff. He recently made a social visit to my house, the first time he had been exposed to these home theaters. We watched two modern feature-length movies, one in the spare bedroom and one in the living room. Each was a big-budget film on Blu-ray involving nice lossless surround sound and modern CGI effects. We cranked the volume during each movie (really utilizing the subwoofer in the living room system).

After my friend had watched both movies, I queried him regarding his perception of the sound quality of the respective experiences. He said the sound in the spare bedroom was better. This was despite the fact that the room lacks a subwoofer, has lower grade rear speakers, and the receiver features a lower-quality amplifier with slightly less power.

The lesson here: One of the biggest determinants of the quality of the sound produced by your particular home theater is the room in which it resides. Don’t get too focused on the role of components and the nuances of their pros, cons, and stats when the room in which you drop them plays such a pivotal role. Your environment may be inherently good or bad for a home theater. This also illustrates why you might not want to invest thousands of dollars on an upgrade that will provide marginal improvements to your audio and video quality.

Maybe the solution is simply to move the theater to a different room.


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.

Understanding Headphone Amps

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[Updated September 9, 2015]

It’s challenging to discuss a home theater category like headphone amps and remain within the practical—and financial—bounds of middle class consumers. Many home theater owners have never even heard of this gear category, let alone own such a component.

However, the value of headphone amps, for people who truly love great sound, can’t be disputed. The good news is that many companies, like Schiit Audio and others, produce affordable hardware that can dramatically improve the quality of your sound when you’re wearing your cans and enjoying your favorite album (or movie).

The following is an excerpt from my book Home Theater for the Internet Age, from Chapter 9: Headphones.

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Curt Robbins


Headphone Amps

Headphone amplifiers are probably the single most misunderstood area of audio entertainment (if you’ve even heard of this tech). Infamous for being expensive toys owned by audiophiles, they are a relatively uncommon device within a home theater. What does a headphone amp do? Simply put, it’s an output from your receiver that re-amplifies the signal to improve the sound produced by your headphones.

In most receivers, even high-end models, the built-in headphone amp is a super-cheap afterthought. Audiophiles and music enthusiasts claim that, if you have a good pair of headphones, you’re cheating yourself by not getting at least an entry-level headphone amp to bring out their potential. “Using a dedicated headphone amplifier will step up the performance of any home theater to an entirely new level,” Frank Iacone, a 35-year industry veteran known for his heartfelt Twitter feed and reviews on headfi.org, told me in an interview. Because most middle class consumers have never used a headphone amp—and very possibly never listened to high-end headphones—it’s one of those situations where people simply don’t know what they’re missing.

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Prices for headphone amps range from $60 to $16,000. That’s right, if you have a large pile of money and are wondering what to do with it, you can purchase 3,200 copies of this book or a headphone amp that costs more than an entry-level Toyota. The kids can walk, get the amp!

Tube, Solid State, & Hybrid

There are two primary technologies employed in building headphone amps: Analog vacuum tubes and digital solid-state circuitry. Vacuum tubes are way old school; some audiophiles collect antique tubes that are more than 50 years old. Solid-state amps, which involve digital processing and circuitry, are typically less expensive than their tube-based brethren and feature a more accurate, less “warm” sound. The third type of headphone amp, called a hybrid, merges these two technologies, theoretically offering the best of both worlds. Good applications of this approach achieve this, while poor executions fail to sufficiently exploit each type’s advantages.

Audiophiles Divided

The audiophile community is divided regarding which approach, tube or solid state, provides nicer sound. In reality, each type offers distinct pros and cons and is implemented in a wide variety of quality levels by different manufacturers. In the end, the model best for you is determined more by your wallet than your feelings regarding the warmth, intimacy, or accuracy of a particular model’s amplification technology.

However, one typically doesn’t spend the kind of money we’re talking about on headphones and headphone amplifiers and not appreciate the nuances of high-end audio. For many, the differences in sound quality between comparable quality tube and solid-state amps is significant (another religious war among audiophiles). My own opinion, quite frankly, is that I appreciate the lower cost of solid-state amps while also somewhat desiring the more accurate sound reproduction and efficiency that they deliver (which I also prefer in my AV receivers). But this certainly doesn’t mean that solid state is better. It’s simply my personal take on the matter (and my wallet’s influence).

From a sound perspective, I’d rather have a $1,200 Woo Audio WA2 tube amp (pictured below) than a $120 Vali solid-state model from Schiit Audio. However, this reflects a desire for a high-end amp, not a disdain for digital amps, preference for tube amps, or any leaning toward Woo Audio over Schiit (both of which are great companies offering models you should seriously consider). My budget—and the quality of my headphones—dictates that my purchase will probably involve a cold aluminum solid-state Schiit Audio Asgard 2 for $250 (the “practical” model for which I continue to lust).

Woo Audio WA2 for blog

Pros & Cons

One disadvantage of tube amps is that they can require up to 10 minutes to heat up in preparation for use. This is an old school characteristic indeed, and about the most retro electronic wait period of our modern drive-thru, microwaving, Twitter filled world. Fans of tube tech, however, swear it’s worth the patience and dollars (and boast of the romantic glow provided by their vacuum tubes—probably especially nice during the holidays).

An advantage of solid-state amps is a reduction in background noise. Some audiophiles actually prefer an elevated background noise level, especially for live performances or fully analog productions. One advantage of solid-state amps that doesn’t really touch home theater applications is mobility. Some models are designed to accompany a mobile device, offering small size, battery power, and significant improvements in audio quality compared to the anemic default output of mobile gadgets (especially when paired with good headphones).

Upgradable Tubes

A neat feature of vacuum tube amps for hobbyists is the fact that you can swap out—and thus, upgrade, within certain technical limits—the tubes. Some hyper-hobbyists even keep two or three sets of tubes, reserving each for a particular type of music. Many replacement tubes are relatively inexpensive (Schiit Audio sells a set of four tubes for its $350 Valhalla model that runs $40). While the cost of the initial amp itself might be somewhat hefty, the expense of playing hobbyist with different tubes—or replacing units that have burned out—can be manageable and fun.

Reputable Brands & Models

What is more important than whether a headphone amp employs vacuum tubes or solid-state circuitry is its sound quality, period. Companies such as Woo Audio (USA), HiFiMAN (USA), Bryston (Canada), OPPO (China), and Schiit Audio (USA) offer a wide range of both tube and digital amps.

Woo Audio manufactures expensive tube-based models featuring exquisite hand-crafted build quality and leading edge design that are made in New York City. Ranging in price from $550 to $16,000, Woo offers some of the best (and most attractively designed) tube amps money can buy. If you’re sweet on their products but on a budget, consider the $600 WA3 or $700 WA6.

Schiit Audio, headquartered in California, produces beautifully sculpted aluminum amps. Most of their models are solid state, but they also offer a couple hybrid and tube models. Schiit amps perform like Canadian and American models costing several times more. It’s relatively small product line, priced between $100 and $750, are all American made from American parts (Schiit even has face-to-face relationships with its local vendors). The company provides what reviewers cite as excellent and personalized customer service.

Shiit Audio Valhalla for blog

Premium Blu-ray player manufacturer OPPO in 2014 released a $1,200 solid-state headphone amp that has received rave reviews. The audiophile-quality OPPO HA-1 features an attractive display that compliments the unit’s leading edge features (it can even simulate those sexy analog VU meters from way back when). Like other OPPO products, the HA-1 is controllable via the OPPO Remote Control App for mobile devices.

“The hardware inside the HA-1 are some of the beefiest I’ve seen in a headphone amp. It looks like a barely scaled down loudspeaker amp,” said Geoffrey Morrison when reviewing the model for Forbes. Reviewer John E. Johnson, Jr., writing for hometheaterhifi.com, added, “And, wow! What a sound. Built like a tank, and gets as hot as a tank in the Sahara due to its Class A output.”

If you want to check out entry-level tube-based headphone amplification on a budget, look into the Bravo Audio V2, a $70 ($55 street price) single-tube amp. “It’s a nice little tube amplifier in its own right for those of us who want to experiment with that highly desired ‘tube sound’ without paying the exorbitant rates many tube amps cost,” said an amateur reviewer on Head-Fi.org.


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.

Take My Remote, Please

3d1Today’s blog post is an excerpt from my new ebook Home Theater for the Internet Age. I used an amazingly sophisticated logic to select this chapter: It’s the shortest in the book.

Remote controls have always confounded consumers. Personally, I can’t wait to have wi-fi-connected remotes floating around my house. Hopefully the next generation of Apple TV, the particular streaming media box I have in my home theaters, will take a hint from Roku and jump on the wi-fi remote bandwagon. Cause IR sucks; it’s so 20th century. Even better: Just let me control everything in my home with my smartphone and tablet.

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Curt Robbins


From Chapter 13: Remote Control

Remote Control

Consumers have always misunderstood and hated remote controls for their home electronics. As a culture, we seem to exhibit a collective disdain for these small communications devices, cursing them because their batteries are dead, the blast doesn’t reach the receiving device, they lack backlighting (of course I watch my movies in the dark, you corporate dolts), or they’re just too difficult to configure and operate. Ask any consumer: Remotes, as bundled with components, are a necessary evil that suck. So what can be done to alleviate our collective misery?

There have been some major improvements in this space during the past few years. First, programmable and universal remotes (those that can control multiple components in your home theater) have become more powerful and user friendly. Second, slick dedicated remotes for products like Apple TV and Roku streaming boxes have illustrated that the application of minimalistic, intuitive industrial design and powerful, leading-edge technology can make remotes something that you actually enjoy using. Third, special apps that you install on your mobile devices have become available that allow you to use your handy smartphone or tablet to control hardware components and media streaming services.

IR vs. Wi-fi

Most remote controls communicate with their devices using an infrared (IR) beam of light. But IR requires a direct line-of-sight, making the use of devices that incorporate it a pain. This is especially so in room environments where you’re trying to control home theater components that reside behind you or are obstructed by a cabinet or closet door. Newer remotes are beginning to drop IR in favor of a radio frequency like wi-fi, which is finally common enough in homes to serve this role. Likewise, remotes are also adopting Bluetooth, although this reduces their effective range to 15-30 feet (fine for most environments, but obviously not larger rooms). With wi-fi, the only limitation is that the controlling device is on the same wi-fi network, not that it’s within a particular radius or eye shot.

roku 3The Roku 3 streaming video box proves the advantages of wi-fi over old school IR. While most remotes are relatively cheap items bundled with home theater components, small improvements like the adoption of wi-fi connectivity have a real impact on increasing convenience for consumers. In a few years, the bones of IR blasting remote controls will reside in the dinosaur graveyard, with manufacturers leveraging ubiquitous wi-fi and Bluetooth technologies to avoid line-of-sight requirements and offer other enhancements.

Of course, the topic of component-supplied remote controls is made moot when consumers use existing wi-fi-based mobile devices to control their home theater components. Chromecast, an ever-growing collection of Miracast-enabled devices, and Apple’s AirPlay give you full functionality from the device that’s already in your hand or on your coffee table: Your smartphone or tablet.

Mobile Devices

As echoed throughout this book, one of the best features of modern home theater is that you can leverage your existing mobile devices to control your components and the entertainment that flows through them. Not taking advantage of this capability relegates you to the torture of bundled remotes with their confusing interfaces, crappy IR, and lack of ergonomics. Another option is a universal remote, but we’ll get to that later.

Streaming Media Devices

apple tv for blogStreaming media devices like Chromecast, Roku, and Apple TV are designed to work hand-in-hand with your mobile devices, allowing you to utilize apps that support them. For video, this includes apps for services like Crackle, Google Play Movies and TV, Hulu Plus, Netflix, Vudu, and YouTube. For music services, this covers the apps from Pandora, Google Play Music, iTunes and iTunes Radio, Rdio, Rhapsody, and Songza. Services with new or updated apps that support one of these media devices are announced nearly every week.

Another role for your mobile device as a remote control is with Apple AirPlay, whether it’s bundled into your receiver or comes to your home theater via Apple TV. However, AirPlay works only with apps that support it. Plus, some older Apple gadgets aren’t fully supported.

AV Receiver Control Apps

Several companies that produce home theater components offer free remote control apps for both Android and iOS mobile platforms. Use of these apps gives your mobile devices a whole new life as an integral part of your home theater. Such companies include Anthem, Denon, Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer (and Pioneer Elite), Sony, and Yamaha. Using your existing smartphone or tablet to control your home theater components gives you a superior interface, an easy-to-read backlit touch screen, and more ready access. The only caveat is that most home theater components with support for such apps require some form of network connectivity—such as wi-fi, Ethernet (see my blog post The Case for Home Theater Ethernet), or bluetooth.

[See also Home Theater Basics.]


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.

The Case for Home Theater Ethernet

3d1Most middle class homes have multiple mobile devices floating around. From iPod Touches to smartphones, tablets, and laptops, the average family has quite a few gadgets relying on its wi-fi wireless connectivity to get to the internet and consume social media and streaming content like video and music.

Many consumers don’t realize that there’s an alternative to wi-fi called Ethernet. Ethernet is a hardwired technology, meaning there’s nothing wireless about it.

To use Ethernet, you must run a special cable from your internet router (where the broadband enters your home) to any Ethernet-connected equipment you wish to receive wired bandwidth. A networking technology that evolved within the computer world, Ethernet has been around for decades. In its current implementation, it’s extremely fast and reliable. It operates over special cabling called CAT5 or CAT6. Compared to wi-fi, Ethernet is considerably faster and more stable. Baby monitors, cordless phones, garage door openers, and microwave ovens all compete for the most common variety of wi-fi on the same 2.4 GHz frequency. Because it’s hardwired, Ethernet lacks the sensitivity to radio frequency interference that plagues wi-fi.

Wi-Fi For Mobile Only

Thus, with bandwidth and reliability being so much better with Ethernet, why is everyone using wi-fi for devices that don’t demand it? Wi-fi should be considered an optimal connectivity option for mobile devices only. Smartphones and tablets that need to move about, tether-free, are why wi-fi was created and has become so popular. We’re simply over utilizing this cool wireless tech due to its low cost and super-simple implementation (and who doesn’t like a lack of obnoxious cables?). Companies selling us stuff love to tout wireless. If wireless data is the path of least resistance, consumers are going to accept what is often the default communications method. Even my Nest thermostat uses wi-fi to upload data to the cloud and allow me to control it from any mobile device.

The vulnerabilities of wi-fi really wouldn’t be such a big deal if everyone wasn’t sucking down so much high-definition video (sometimes with a six-channel surround sound audio track). The irony is that we’re taking the most frail connection technology, wi-fi, and taxing it with the most robust and “heavy” data there is, high-definition video.

The good news about Ethernet is that you might not need to purchase new equipment to take advantage of it. Newer AV receivers and Blu-ray players, as well as streaming media boxes like Apple TV, Roku, and Amazon Fire TV, all feature an Ethernet port (often labeled “LAN,” for Local Area Network). Your internet router necessarily supports Ethernet. All major media streamers, with the exception of Chromecast (which is wi-fi only), support Ethernet. If your receiver and Blu-ray player do also, it’s a compelling reason to run Ethernet to all of these devices in your home theater.

ethernet switchIt should be noted that you (or your installer) will be running a single CAT6 cable from your internet router to your home theater equipment. However, if you’re like me, you have between two and four devices that need an internet feed, not one. How does a single CAT6 cable accommodate multiple devices on the receiving end? Simple, with a device called an Ethernet switch, also referred to as a gigabit switch (ensure that you purchase one that supports gigabit data speeds).

Ethernet Switches

An Ethernet switch simply takes a single input (from your router, possibly on the other side of your house) and splits it into multiple outputs (similar to a USB hub). Fortunately, these devices are affordable, with prices beginning at $35. You can provide bandwidth to as many devices as the switch has ports (models are available that provide between three and eight ports, on average).

Many people have non-mobile, stationary devices that are being fed wi-fi. Good examples include AV receivers, Blu-ray players, smart TVs, and desktop PCs. In my Kindle books Home Theater for the Internet Age and the shorter version, Understanding Home Theater, I make a case for choosing Ethernet over wi-fi whenever possible. If a device isn’t mobile, give it Ethernet. Period.

One big benefit to getting most or all of your non-mobile devices on Ethernet instead of wi-fi is freeing wi-fi bandwidth for the mobile devices that really need it. Most people are consuming streaming media, specifically high-definition video, on mobile devices of all shapes and sizes. They need all the bandwidth they can get. Taking a bandwidth-hungry Netflix video stream and moving it from wi-fi to Ethernet frees tons of wireless bandwidth for iPhones and Nexus tablets (which are probably also sucking down their own high-definition video).

If you’re tired of your video buffering on Hulu Plus or the image on your display panel freezing when you’re watching Vudu or Crackle, segmenting your home network bandwidth between wi-fi and Ethernet may be just the ticket to alleviating your headaches. Just like how the car traffic on a multi-lane freeway will flow most smoothly if the vehicles are roughly equally distributed among the lanes, home networks that segment bandwidth consumption to avoid competition as much as possible will result in far fewer technical glitches and less frustration. The last time you want to encounter problems is when you’re trying to enjoy your entertainment, not play junior network admin and troubleshoot your router at 10:30 pm after three beers.

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While you’re at it, you might want to consider purchasing a high-end internet router, something that could dramatically improve both your wi-fi and your Ethernet (a good example, and my personal choice, is the Netgear Nighthawk R7000 for about $200, pictured here). Modern “dual band” routers include not one, but two networks, each operating at a completely different frequency (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz). This provides you with considerably more bandwidth and segments your devices into logical, device-appropriate networks (older devices that support only 2.4 GHz obviously reside there; newer gadgets that can do 5 GHz always should). Maybe I’ll write a future blog post about the benefits of upgrading to a top shelf router (some models can even automate your backups).

The Potential Downside

The only problem with adopting Ethernet connectivity for your home theater is that it might not sit right beside your internet router. Thus, you (or an installer) may need to make some cable runs and install some face plates to facilitate the jump from wi-fi to Ethernet (costing you some money).

Back in 2013, when I was installing a new home theater in a spare bedroom and upgrading an existing theater in the living room, I paid a few hundred dollars to a professional installer to bring CAT6 cabling from my upstairs data closet (tucked nicely in a laundry room) to my downstairs living room media cabinet. The installer wasn’t simply an electrician, but instead a small firm that specialized in security systems and high-end home theaters. They knew what they were doing. Which is good, because they ran into tons of headaches related to the layout and construction of my house, which required them to be tenacious and creative.

So yes, making the leap from wi-fi to Ethernet may cost you a few bucks. One nice aspect is that much home theater equipment comes Ethernet-ready (but not all; buyer beware). Newer models are more likely to feature support for Ethernet. If a manufacturer is going to charge extra for something, it will typically be wi-fi and Bluetooth. My Pioneer Elite receiver, for example, lacks wi-fi, but Pioneer will sell me a ridiculously overpriced wi-fi dongle for $130. I’d rather give that money to a pro installer and forever rid myself of the need to primitively provide bandwidth to my home theater using wi-fi.

As I discuss in my book Home Theater for the Internet Age, there is a middle-ground option when it comes to providing bandwidth to non-mobile devices in your home called a powerline adapter. While not as fast or reliable as Ethernet, powerline adapters are brother and sister pairs that plug into power outlets (one beside your router, the other beside the devices you wish to feed broadband) to deliver a relatively fast internet signal. Powerline adapters are cost effective (typically under $100) and very easy to install. They’re plug-and-play and almost never require attention. I use a powerline adapter to deliver broadband to my upstairs home theater and have experienced smooth streaming from Netflix, Hulu Plus, and YouTube.

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Curt Robbins


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.

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.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Plasma

3d1[On October 28, LG announced that it is ending plasma display panel production. As you will learn below, LG was the last major manufacturer of plasma displays. Thus, this announcement effectively kills plasma display tech as we know it. Let’s hope OLED prices fall quickly for those who are in the market for a new TV.]


In early 2014, Panasonic—the Japanese manufacturer of what many reviewers and consumers considered to be the best collection of plasma display panels on the market—announced that it would cease production of these videophile-satisfying models. In official press releases, the company said this move would allow it to focus on 4K (Ultra HD), advanced LED designs, and next-generation OLED. The company cited low demand for plasma models and a need to refocus resources on future standards.

This was the 2:00 am last call at the home theater hobbyist’s saloon. Hard core videophiles quickly revamped their upgrade plans, examining their budgets and trying to decide if they wanted to purchase one final brand new Panasonic plasma TV before none were left to be had.

Later, in July 2014, Samsung announced that it would also cease production of plasma displays, similarly citing low demand and a desire to focus its resources in other areas. LG, the last man standing and lone producer of plasma panels, at the time said in official statements that it would continue to produce plasma sets “as long as there is a demand.” I see. Well, it just so happens that a couple of months earlier, in May, president of LG Electronics Japan, Lee Gyu-hong, explained in an interview with a Japanese news outlet that the company might stop making plasma TVs altogether if sales continued to slump.

This is the sad reality of the marketplace. Unfortunately, home theater hobbyists and quality-sensitive movie buffs—the type of folks who typically would choose a plasma display over its technically inferior LED cousin—aren’t the majority of the market. Despite their liberal spending habits for items like home theater receivers and widescreen display panels, this demographic was simply too small a slice of the pie to influence the few remaining manufacturers of plasma displays to continue production.

In the spring of 2013, I purchased two Panasonic plasma units, a 50-inch model and a 60-incher. They were 2012 models on which I got a killer end-of-model-year deal at one of Best Buy’s Magnolia stores. I’m extremely happy with these units, whether they’re playing streaming video from Netflix or true 1080 content from a Blu-ray disc. After only a year-and-a-half of ownership, and with a viable catalog of readily available 4K content still more theory than reality, I’m not yet compelled to replace either of these TVs.

plasma display panelWhile I’m sad to see plasma depart retailer showrooms, I also know—from the technology industry and Silicon Valley culture overall—that it’s just a matter of time until something becomes affordable that blows away both LED and plasma. And that technology would be OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode, or Organic LED).

OLED sets can be amazingly thin. We’re talking 4 mm thin, like the spine of a magazine! When it comes to video, OLED models feature better everything. Black levels, refresh rates, color uniformity, off-angle viewing, color saturation…you name it, it’s better on OLED. These models can also produce a nearly infinite contrast ratio (if you want to see this with your own eyes, take a look at one of the OLED-equipped smartphones from LG, HTC, or Samsung). OLED is simply the next step in the evolution of home entertainment display technology. I can’t wait to fill my house with OLEDs. (If you want to learn more about OLED and how it stacks up to other display options, including front projection, check out Home Theater for the Internet Age.)

Of course, nobody in the middle class is going to be filling their homes with OLED display panels until the costs come down. Originally priced at close to $20,000, Samsung and LG are currently selling OLED sets for $10,000 for a 55-incher and $7,000 for a curved 55-inch model, respectively (ironically, LG’s flat 55-inch OLED model is more expensive at $10,000). LG also sells a 65-inch 4K curved (yuck) OLED model for $12,000 retail. This is the first 4K OLED model to break the 55-inch barrier. (It’s been very difficult for manufacturers to produce mass quantities of defect-free, larger-size OLED panels. This explains why the display tech was introduced in devices featuring the smallest, most easily manufactured screens: Smartphones.)

Slowly, but surely—especially as more 4K content becomes available and manufacturing processes improve yields—4K OLED models will come down in price. Just like the chicken and the egg, baby step by baby step, OLED models will become more affordable. For a short period, 1080 OLED models will be offered at very enticing prices. However, I recommend that you forego these killer deals for a true 4K OLED TV that will future-proof you for years to come. It’s going to be a long time before an affordable technology superior to OLED emerges and a resolution greater than 4K becomes standard.

Why no 4K plasma models? Unfortunately, the marriage of Ultra HD and plasma is, from a practical, profit-making manufacturing perspective, very difficult. In a nutshell, it’s cost-prohibitive for companies like Panasonic, Sony, LG, and Samsung to produce plasma sets at the higher resolution of 4K. In fact, 4K is the primary reason that every manufacturer is abandoning plasma production. 4K is their mantra—and plasma doesn’t go there.

Yes, cry a tear for resolution-impaired plasma tech and, if you’re so inclined, sob over the loss of your favorite Panasonic or Samsung model. But don’t fear a lack of innovation among display manufacturers or a slowdown in the evolution of consumer display technology. As long as you have a 1080 plasma (or LED) TV that makes you happy for the next three to five years, hold out for a 4K OLED panel in the size you want. Don’t jump on a 4K LED set, which is really just a half-baked bridge technology intended to help keep display panel manufacturers funded until 4K OLED TVs—the ultimate destination, in my humble opinion—become affordable and go mass market. And when that happens, OLED will make all other display technologies obsolete.

See ya, plasma. It was great knowin’ ya. But don’t fret for me. OLED and I are going to get along great. We just can’t afford to live in the same neighborhood right now.

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Curt Robbins

[Originally published August 23; updated November 9.]

[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.

Chromecast for Christmas

Like a few million other tech geeks and home theater aficionados, I was one of the first people to purchase a Chromecast streaming media dongle from Google back in August 2013. For those of you unfamiliar, Chromecast, which is about the size of a Rubenesque USB flash drive, plugs into your home theater audio/video receiver or TV and allows you to use your mobile devices and computers to send internet-based streaming media (like movies, music, and games) to your TV and surround sound speakers.chromecast

At $35, Chromecast is a steal. Best of all, especially for families like mine, this groovy media streamer is platform agnostic. Your iOS-based iPhones and iPads and your Android smartphones and tablets can take equal advantage. In other words, you don’t have to worry about compatibility with your existing mobile devices and computers.

Success at Home

Having only a few months prior installed two new home theaters in my house, Chromecast perfectly complimented a family where everyone has at least one (and typically two) personal mobile devices and there’s an average of one PC per human—but where everyone also loves to sit in front of a big display panel and enjoys surround sound through real speakers (not the crappy ones built into your TV; they’re a joke). Every family member, on nearly a daily basis, began streaming music from Pandora and Songza and video from Netflix, iTunes, and Hulu Plus (some of which we could already do using Apple’s wi-fi-based AirPlay). All from our iPod Touches, iPads, iPhones, and Nexus 7 tablets, as well as our three Windows 7 laptops and a slick little Mac Mini. If the zombie apocalypse results in a shortage of silicon, looters will surely stop at my house on their way to Silicon Valley.

Having gained so much value from such an inexpensive and fun device, Chromecast obviously was at the top of my gift giving list for the 2013 holidays. Because of its incredible ease of use, I didn’t have to worry about whether the recipient was a techie. If he or she could plug the device into an HDMI port and install apps on a smartphone, they were basically in business.

The One that Worked

I gifted two Chromecasts, one each to two different friends (one in Ohio, the other in Colorado). My friend in Ohio, a single guy with no kids, instantly fell in love with his new media streamer, using it on a 23-inch computer monitor in his dining room to watch stuff on Netflix.

Once when I visited for dinner and drinks, we watched a James Bond movie on Netflix with the volume cranked. I was amazed that a $130 computer monitor and a $35 HDMI dongle—combined with the Samsung Galaxy smartphone already in my friend’s pocket—were able to produce such stellar (and portable) results. I might never walk on the moon, but I have at least seen home entertainment and media distribution reach this point of ease and amazing affordability.

The One that Didn’t

My other friend in Colorado, a married dude with three teenage daughters, never mentioned his Chromecast. We’ve been drinking pals for twenty years, so this wasn’t interpreted as rude. But I was curious as to how he was enjoying it or if he was even using it. After all, different strokes for different folks, and many homes aren’t quite as digitally enhanced as mine and those of other tech journalists.

christmas story blindIt turns out that my buddy wasn’t using his Chromecast. In fact, he hadn’t even installed it. I politely said my feelings weren’t hurt, but I was curious as to why he wasn’t. Turns out he wasn’t entirely sure what it did. Ok, fair enough. I explained the benefits, including the screen mirroring function introduced in the summer of 2014.

It was at this point in the conversation that I realized where the train jumped the tracks. A misperception on my part had resulted in me giving a strikingly inappropriate gift. However, in my defense, when considering my friend’s present, I knew he had a killer surround sound home theater (I had enjoyed big budget CGI-laden films like Transformers on it) and was a subscriber to Netflix. He also had several mobile devices floating around his house, including his daughter’s Nexus 7 tablet and five smartphones. He was perfectly outfitted to enjoy Chromecast.

Or so I thought.

Turns out his subscription to Netflix was for the disc-by-mail service, not the considerably more popular streaming option. And the role of Pandora in his life for streaming music was limited to the thousands of miles he logs on the road, in his car, as a sales dude visiting customers.

After discussing the topic for about five minutes, I realized that his family’s use of and dependence upon streaming media was 180 degrees opposite that of my house. I had truly made a poor choice by gifting my buddy in Colorado a Chromecast. It is gathering dust in a box in his basement—and probably will forever.

Simply because his family doesn’t consume streaming media. Unlike my household, they aren’t cord cutters. They subscribe to cable TV.

This will teach me to assume that a subscription to Netflix is for streaming. Even more ironic, my Colorado friend once subscribed to both the streaming side of Netflix as well as the by-mail disc service. He found that his family rarely used the streaming service, so he intelligently cancelled it. I originally subscribed to both sides of Netflix as well, but did the opposite: I nixed the disc service because the four people in my home were using only streaming (and tons of it).

Lessons Learned

Sometimes we become so entrenched in a particular digital or media consumption lifestyle that it’s difficult to understand that someone else—with a nearly identical technical infrastructure and demographic—might practice something very different. My friend’s reliance on physical discs over a broadband-based media streaming service had nothing to do with a lack of gear.

He has fast broadband, mobile devices, a killer surround sound home theater, and his family has an appetite for movies and TV shows. Unlike many, he gave streaming media a chance, and for a long time paid for a service from which he and his family gained almost no benefit, based purely on their particular lifestyle. He certainly isn’t a laggard or a Luddite. Like the rest of us, he simply doesn’t want to waste his money on products or services that provide him with little or no value.

Let’s chalk this one up to lessons learned (a $35 lesson, to be exact). But if you’re thinking of gifting someone a streaming media device for the holidays (like an Apple TV, one of those cool Roku boxes, a Chromecast, or maybe the game-friendly Amazon Fire TV), first learn if the intended recipient is even a consumer of streaming media in the first place. Just being a gadget freak, owning an iPad, or enjoying technology doesn’t necessarily mean that your gift of streaming media will be the one that keeps on giving.

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Curt Robbins

[See also Streaming Media Stick Wars and Apple TV: Best Media Streamer?]


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.