Understanding Home Theater Speakers: Part 1

3d1I’m continually reminded of how those of us who consider ourselves home theater enthusiasts often forget that many of those around us don’t get into it like we do. Recently, I had a couple of non-enthusiasts remind me that they didn’t understand woofers and Blu-ray players. Which is great, because that’s the business I’m in: Teaching regular middle class people about confusing consumer tech.

Speakers are arguably the most important part of any home theater setup. They’re certainly where one should invest the bulk of one’s money. You’ll keep good speakers a lot longer than any other home theater gear, especially AV receivers, disc players, and streaming media boxes.

The following is an excerpt from my Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age. In the next blog post, we’ll discuss the all-important center channel (which carries the bulk of the spoken dialog of the actors in a TV show or movie) and the booming low-frequency subwoofer—thus rounding out the basic speaker positions in a six speaker, 5.1 home theater surround sound configuration.

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Curt Robbins


Dynamic Loudspeakers & Drivers

The most common type of speaker, from a technical perspective, is the dynamic loudspeaker. The term “speaker” can mean a few things, but is generally a reference to a single unit, in the form of a box-like enclosure, that contains one or more drivers. Drivers feature a cone (visible from the front of the speaker) made from a variety of materials—cheap ones being paperboard and nice ones being Kevlar or metal (typically aluminum or titanium). Behind the cone resides a mechanism involving a coil (sometimes called a voice coil) and a magnet. This coil, magnet, and cone-based driver is responsible for the extreme weight of good speakers (generally speaking, higher-quality speakers are heavier because they feature larger, more powerful magnets in their drivers).

Woofers & Tweeters

Dynamic loudspeakers feature the familiar and onomatopoeic woofer and tweeter combination, where the woofer carries the low and maybe some mid-range frequencies and the tweeter projects the high-end sounds. The most basic loudspeakers feature a single driver, whereas more sophisticated models include multiple woofers and midrange drivers, a powerful tweeter, and maybe even one or two acoustic resonance ports. Technically, with the exception of resonance ports, these are all “drivers,” or coil/magnet/cone devices capable of emitting sound. Thus, a speaker with a woofer, midrange, and tweeter has three drivers.

Form Factors

Each type of speaker that composes a full surround system plays a particular role in creating an immersive audio environment and dealing with particular types of sounds that are projected from specific areas of your room. These different roles manifest themselves in distinctly unique form factors, from the tall floor standing models flanking your display panel to the lone center channel that carries mostly movie dialog.

Floor Standing

Floor standing speakers, also called “mains” or “towers,” are typically the largest in your home theater and play a prominent role in delivering the impact of action movies and music. They carry the lion’s share of the sound in a surround mix, and are sometimes the only source of sound if you’re playing a stereo music CD (and don’t apply a special DSP field to turn it into artificial, or matrixed, surround).

Floor standing speakers are the bridge between the old world of “stereo systems” and the new world of surround sound. You’ll inevitably want to use your home theater to listen to music. If you’re really into music and, for example, you’re going to spend 50-80% of your time listening to it, and only the minority watching TV or movies, it makes sense to invest most of your speaker budget on the best towers possible. This may involve even going a bit downmarket for your rear speakers (but it’s highly advised that your three front speakers are from the same series). As you’ve learned, some people skip the subwoofer entirely so they can afford the best possible floor standing models while pursuing their dream stereo system.

Bookshelf / Surround

What are sometimes called “bookshelf” speakers (in a two-channel stereo configuration) are often labeled “surrounds” in a home theater. They’re basically junior models of the large floor standing models. They’re not necessarily lower quality; they simply feature less power and fewer drivers than their floor standing big brothers.

There are two options for the rear speakers in your surround system: Standard front-firing bookshelf speakers or dedicated multi-directional models. Dedicated surrounds create a more immersive effect. The design you choose depends on your personal tastes and room dynamics. Both good and bad examples of each approach are readily available. It’s more important to get a quality speaker with a wide frequency response and low distortion than to labor over the differences between these two designs.

You already know that you should purchase your surround speakers from the same series as your mains. Speakers from different series, and especially different manufacturers, can feature tonal discrepancies (different timbre) that will degrade the quality of your audio. A mismatched set also won’t look as nice sitting in your living room. That said, it’s sometimes better to have good speakers from different series than lousy units from the same line. Utilizing speakers from different series or manufacturers isn’t a cardinal sin and won’t necessarily produce bad sound; it’s simply not optimal.

If your home theater resides in a relatively small room or you’re on a tight budget, one option is to use robust bookshelf speakers for your mains also. While this may decrease your music listening pleasure (particularly at higher volumes), it will still sound good for movies if you purchase nice models, especially those that hit relatively low frequencies. Down the road, when you have the cash for proper floor standing mains, you can demote those front bookshelf speakers to center surrounds in a 7.1 system. (Often, the home theater of your dreams is not a matter of having a pile of cash to blow at one time, but rather being patient, planning intelligently, and building your system over years.)


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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Streaming Media Stick Wars

3d1It began in August 2013 when Google introduced the Chromecast. A small, Rubenesque HDMI dongle that allows you to stream music and video to your TV or home theater, the $35 Chromecast was an instant hit. This groovy petite player allows popular media services like Pandora, YouTube, and Netflix to easily be sent to your home theater from any Android or Apple smartphone or tablet—and even laptops and desktop computers.

Then, in the spring of 2014, Roku introduced the $49 Streaming Stick, a slick little purple dongle that, like Chromecast, plugs into a TV or AV receiver’s HDMI port to bring you music and video streaming from the internet. Roku likes to tout how its dongle is “perfect for wall mounted TVs”; as are all of these svelt mini-streamers. Although slightly more expensive than its competition from Google, Roku’s streaming stick offers a dedicated remote control and so many more channels it isn’t even funny (like, um, 1,700 more, something Roku fans love).

Recently, the market for these mini-streamers got more crowded when Amazon announced the Fire TV Stick, the $39 dongle that falls between Chromecast and Roku in terms of price. Like Roku’s Streaming Stick, it features a nice, ergonomic remote. Unlike its competitors, Amazon sells a $40 game controller for the Fire TV Stick that allows you to play more than 200 different games. If you’re a casual gamer (as opposed to someone who needs an Xbox or Playstation to engage in their favorite first-person shoot out), the Fire TV Stick, with optional game controller, is a unique solution. It’s also pretty much the least expensive way—at $70 total—to get gaming into your living room.

rock streaming stickFor the most part, these inexpensive media streaming devices are more similar than different. They all plug into HDMI ports and require a dedicated power supply (they can’t get their juice from the HDMI port), so you’ll need a spare outlet around your TV or home theater gear. They all use wi-fi to ride on your broadband connection and suck down their audio or video stream from the internet. And they all offer major streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, and a handful of streaming music services.

One thing all three of these streaming dongles have in common is being the little brothers to full-fledged “set-top box” media streamers from each company. Google’s new Nexus Player, the Roku 3, and Amazon Fire TV, all priced at $99, take streaming media to the next level, offering more robust features and functionality. Apple is the standout in offering a similar ($99) set-top streamer called Apple TV, but no HDMI dongle variant. One of the biggest advantages of these full-fledged media streamers—with the glaring and inexcusable exception of Google’s new Nexus Player—is their ability to connect to your home network and the internet via Ethernet hard cabling, eliminating the interference and connectivity problems inherent in wi-fi.

Google’s Chromecast is the odd man out in terms of bundling no dedicated remote. Not that there isn’t one: It’s your mobile device. Because this trend-setting device is platform agnostic, it matters not if you use an iPhone, Android smartphone, Samsung tablet, or the venerable iPad. Any Android or Apple smartphone or tablet works with Chromecast.

chromecastBut let’s be realistic, it’s all about the content. As sexy as the candy wrapper might be, what we really care about is the chocolate. Roku’s Streaming Stick offers all 1,800+ channels that its more robust sibling Roku devices deliver. This is, hands down, the largest selection of content offered by any company selling streaming devices. If you’re one of those consumers who blows away the average four hours of television programming consumption per day and desires the largest availability of channels possible: Stop reading this, look up the Roku Streaming Stick on Amazon, and click Add to Cart.

However, this plethora of channels isn’t all peaches and cream. Roku’s lineup offers hundreds of arguably crappy and often obscure channels, many of which are foreign language-based. According to PC Magazine’s review, “…individual channels are still a mish-mash and many aren’t integrated into the search feature, so you have to wade through a lot of things you might not want.” However, Roku wins the agnostic award for not twisting your arm to rent or purchase content from a particular ecosystem, unlike Amazon’s Fire TV Stick.

Speaking of the Fire TV Stick: This newcomer is perfect if you’re a subscriber to Amazon Prime and love to get your entertainment from Prime Instant Video. Like Apple TV, both Apple and Amazon do their best to push you into their respective iTunes and Prime Instant Video ecosystems.

fire tv stickGoogle’s Chromecast differs in terms of channel availability. Instead of serving up a canned set of channels, Google has created a platform on which other media streaming services can jump in if they choose. Thus, the Netflix and Hulu Plus mobile apps have been updated to support Chromecast. When running these apps, you simply tap the Chromecast icon and, voila, you’re watching it on your TV or home theater. The only problem—especially compared to Roku and Amazon—is that only about 35 streaming apps currently support Chromecast. However, if you’re like my cord cutting family and consume most of your entertainment from Netflix, Hulu Plus, Crackle, and Pandora, these major services all support Chromecast (in addition to Watch ESPN, HBO GO, Songza for music, Vevo for music videos, and, of course, iTunes wannabe Google Play Movies & TV).

So there you have it. Unfortunately, the game-friendly Fire TV Stick won’t be available until January 2015, so forget Santa leaving you one in your stocking (smooth timing, Amazon; what are you smoking out there in Seattle?). It’s nice to see the market for uber-affordable streaming media devices getting competitive and catering to different entertainment ecosystems.

And it’s only going to get better.

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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.

Home Theater: Surround Sound Basics

3d1Today’s blog post continues our look at home theater, following yesterday’s Home Theater Basics. Below you’ll find an excerpt from my new book, Home Theater for the Internet Age, regarding surround sound. Most people understand that surround sound involves a speaker arrangement in your living room or dedicated home theater that “surrounds” you (duh).

This is a pretty radical departure from the common arrangement to which most of us (unless you’re a millennial) are acclimated: Sound that emanates from in front of us—typically from the display device, the TV, itself. The old method of projecting sound from the display was rife with deficiencies. First, the speakers built into even the best, most expensive, TVs suck. Period. There’s no physical room in a relatively thin panel for real speakers.

Modern home theater has introduced a more complex audio arrangement in which dedicated, much higher quality, speakers are positioned to the sides or even behind viewers. Because the sound is being projected from locations other than the display panel and is generated by real speakers, surround sound is the cornerstone of true home theater. However, because there’s so many types of surround sound arrangements, the topic can quickly become confusing for non-enthusiasts or those new to home entertainment.

Today we’ll address surround sound configurations. These are the physical layouts of speakers and the logical dispersion of audio channels from TV shows and movies. What’s 5.1? What do the “5” and the “1” mean? Why does your buddy at the office lust for 9.1? Read on to eliminate your confusion.

Also check out Home Theater: More Surround Sound and Home Theater: Surround Sound Formats.

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Curt Robbins


Surround Sound Configurations

As you’ve learned, there are several different physical configuration standards for surround sound, ranging from five to twelve speakers (and sometimes more). Arrangement shorthand is indicated by a decimal number, such as 5.1. This indicates five surround speakers and a single subwoofer. The number of subwoofers is always indicated to the right of the decimal (5.x). A 5.1 AV receiver is capable of outputting to a maximum of five speakers and a single subwoofer. A high-end 9.2 receiver, on the other hand, is capable of driving nine speakers and two subwoofers. If a friend says she has a 6.1 system, you know she has seven speakers total and that one of them is a sub. While uncommon, it’s possible that someone might have, for example, a 5.3 system, in which they have a basic surround complement and three subs (yes, some videophiles install multiple subwoofers).

You’ve already learned the basic role of a subwoofer, or “sub.” In surround sound, the sub carries the LFE, or Low Frequency Effects, channel. Most movies and some TV programming feature an LFE channel (identified as such on your AV receiver). Capable of emitting ultra-low frequencies below 80 Hz, subwoofers are as much about what you feel as what you hear. This low frequency speaker plays in the zone where sound goes from audible to tactile. If a movie indicates that it features “x.1 audio,” it means there’s a dedicated LFE channel (regardless of whether you have a subwoofer to bring this channel to wall-shaking life).

Typically, surround configurations range from 2.0 to 11.2. The most common config is 5.1 (although 2.1, while not providing any surround effect, is also very common). Try not to get surround envy. 9.1 and 11.1 systems are very rare and, arguably, complete overkill for the average consumer. Also, relatively few films and basically no TV shows are encoded in a standard above 7.1 (although this is rapidly changing). Thus, even if you had a fancy 9.1 system, a small percentage of the content you consumed would support it, making it a very expensive upgrade. (I have a 5.1 system and rarely lust for the two additional rear speakers of a 7.1 configuration. If I was going to upgrade, based on the size and layout of my living room, I’d probably never go beyond a 6.1 layout.)

It should be noted that all of these surround configurations are backward compatible, meaning that a 7.1 or 9.1 soundtrack will play just fine on a 5.1 system (or even a 2.0 system) or via headphones. That’s part of the magic of Dolby and DTS and modern home theater receivers.

2.1 & 5.1

Because this book defines home theater as having a minimum of five speakers, a 2.1 setup involving three speakers (two mains and a sub, with no rears) isn’t covered in detail. This type of configuration includes soundbars (see the Soundbars & Theater-in-a-Box section of the Speakers chapter for more info). While this setup doesn’t provide “surround” sound, it can—with even basic equipment—greatly enhance your time with music, TV, movies, and games. It will perform remarkably better than your TV speakers (those built into even high-end display panels are basically an afterthought, producing really crappy sound).

5.1 systems involve two mains (typically floor standing models, but sometimes bookshelf units), a center channel, two rear surrounds (called the left side surround and right side surround), and a subwoofer. Sometimes consumers opt to skip the subwoofer to save money (or because they underestimate the effect it will have during Blu-ray movies). Most videophiles consider 5.1 the entry-level setup for true home theater. If your AV receiver supports 7.1 speaker outputs, a 5.1 system gives you room to grow; simply purchase two additional speakers and you’re in business. While your front three speakers should always be from the same series to ensure timbre-matching, it’s less important for your rear and side surrounds to be from the same line (but still preferable for a variety of reasons).

6.1 & 7.1

Moving up the ladder, more complex surround configurations are 6.1 and 7.1. These involve one or two additional rear speakers, positioned directly behind the viewers, called the left back surround and right back surround—not to be confused with the left side surround and right side surround positions in a 5.1 or larger system. Should you go the extra mile and install one or two extra speakers between your existing surround positions? If you’re a big movie buff and your room is large enough to justify it, maybe. You won’t have trouble finding movies to fill this many speakers; most films today deliver a minimum of 7.1 surround audio channels (even some high-res music albums feature a 6.1 surround mix).

Remember that your AV receiver must support the number of speakers to which you want to expand. If you have a receiver capable of only 5.1, you’ll not only have to purchase one or two additional back surround speakers, but also a new receiver (as you’ve learned, this isn’t cheap, especially if the unit produces clean, robust amplification).

9.1 & 11.1

The average home theater owner probably shouldn’t pursue a 9.1 or larger surround sound configuration. However, it’s important to know one’s options. For very large rooms—or hyper-hobbyists who are pursuing the most realistically surrounding audio environment possible—one of the layouts involving more speakers than a 7.1 system might be appropriate. Of course, it will cost you. You’ll either have to increase your speaker budget or downgrade the quality of your candidates. Those additional speakers—especially if they match your other models—don’t come cheap.

A 9.1 system adds front height channels to the mix (the left height and right height positions), giving—as the name indicates—a taller and seemingly wider front soundstage than a 5.1 or 7.1 system can deliver. 9.1 is the first standard to address the expansion of the front soundstage (whereas 7.1 adds audio imaging to the rear area). Not only would you need to purchase additional speakers to satisfy the needs of a 9.1 system, but you’ll probably need to upgrade your AV receiver to handle the additional amps and terminals. And it hardly makes sense to upgrade without pursuing a few more watts or maybe going Class D. Cha ching.

An 11.1 system goes even further by adding left wide and right wide speakers, positioned at roughly 60 degrees from a forward-facing viewing position (to the left and right of the front height speakers, but closer to the central seating position). This setup results in seven front and four rear speakers. While relatively few movies have been released in 11.1, some of these leading edge films include Rise of the Guardians, Man of Steel, The Croods, Elysium, Turbo, Ender’s Game, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, and How to Train Your Dragon 2.


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 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?).

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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.

Understanding TV Aspect Ratios

3d1Many of you probably purchased or received as a gift a display panel TV this holiday season. Welcome to the 21st century. Of all my tech gadgets, my Panasonic plasma displays are among my favorite. Regardless of whether you have an LED, plasma, or OLED display (lucky dork), you need to understand aspect ratios and letterboxing.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 6: Display Panels / TV, from my Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age.

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Curt Robbins


A TV’s aspect ratio is a comparison of the width and height of the picture displayed. Why is this a concern when this book doesn’t unnecessarily delve into technical matters? Because there’s consequences to a mismatch between the aspect ratio of your display device and that of the content you’re viewing.

Old TVs used to sport an aspect ratio of 4:3, the origins of which date back to 1909 with the standardization of 35mm film in cinema and the emergence of Hollywood. A 4:3 aspect ratio meant that TVs were four units wide and three units tall (regardless of the overall size of the display). This worked well back in the days when TVs displayed only over-the-air content, nearly all of which was broadcast in 4:3—meaning the aspect ratio of the content precisely matched that of everyone’s display unit. Ah, the good ol’ days. Things have gotten a bit more complicated in terms of the aspect ratios supported by both Hollywood and display manufacturers.

Aspect ratios can be expressed as either ratios or decimals. The “standard,” or non-widescreen aspect ratio of 4:3 from the old glass tube TV days, can be expressed as 1.33 (or 1.33:1, a “decimal ratio”). This means that the display is 1.33 units wide and one unit tall (decimal aspect ratios always assume a height of one unit). The common 16:9 aspect ratio, for example, is a decimal of 1.78 (again, shorthand for 1.78:1). Most modern movies are produced from 1.85 (just a smidge wider than 16:9) to 2.33, 2.39 (often indicated as 2.40), and sometimes even ultra-wide 2.59.

Letterboxing

Preserving the aspect ratio of any content wider than 1.78:1 (16:9), when displayed on a 16:9 display panel, results in letterboxing—the black bars above and below the video. The letterboxing necessary for 1.85 format films is so slight that many consumers simply don’t notice it. It is easily perceived in films that are 2.33 or wider. Conversely, vertical letterboxing, or pillarboxing, is employed when 4:3 content, which is more narrow, is displayed on a 16:9 TV.

Pan & Scan

Pre-digital TV stations that broadcasted widescreen films (originally intended for commercial cinemas) back when everyone had 4:3 aspect ratio TVs sometimes employed letterboxing to preserve the original aspect ratio of the film. More commonly, however, movie studios engaged in pan-and-scan, a process of applying a 4:3 aspect crop to a widescreen or even ultra-widescreen film (thousands of which feature aspects ratios in excess of 21:9, or 2.33).

plasma display panelAs you can imagine, this pan-and-scan process discarded sometimes significant amounts of the movie display, severely bastardizing the intentions of thousands of movie directors and producers. Why? Simply because people wanted to watch widescreen content intended for movie theaters on their non-widescreen home TVs. Back in the day, when most people viewed tons of Hollywood films on their small and fuzzy TVs, they rarely saw what directors intended. On the rare occasions when letterboxing was employed, the image was too small on a common 19-inch TV for comfortable viewing from regular seating positions. No wonder grandma was into knitting, grandpa worked on motorcycles, and the words “home” and “theater” never found themselves in the same sentence.

Aspect Ratio Evolution

Aspect ratios have evolved within the worlds of display devices (TVs and movie theaters) and content producers (Hollywood) at a variety of competing and typically confusing ratios. At the most narrow, this includes the original silent films at 1.33, or 4:3 (1909-1937). This was, as you might have guessed, the aspect ratio that was adopted by consumer televisions that persisted until after the turn of the century; such old school TVs can still be found in some homes.

Other popular aspect ratios included 1.37 (Academy Ratio, beginning in 1937), 2.59 (Cinerama, from 1952 to 1974), 2.35 (CinemaScope, launched in 1953), 1.85 (VistaVision in 1954, nearly identical to today’s 1.78, or 16:9), 2.20 (Todd AO and Super Panavision 70, beginning in 1955), and the ultra-wide 2.76 (a format called MGM 65 that was around from 1957 to 1966). Why all the widescreen format introductions in the 1950s? It was Hollywood’s way of competing with 4:3 television programming, which was keeping people at home and out of movie theaters.

Since 2009, the majority of TVs sold have been 16:9, with all current television programming produced in this aspect ratio (some older content featured on Netflix and other services is in 4:3, revealed by the vertical letterboxing on widescreen TVs). Modern cinema differentiates itself with wider-than-16:9 aspect ratios produced at a few different levels.

The most popular cinematic aspect ratios today are 1.85 (almost perfectly suited to 1.78 widescreen TVs) and 2.39. 2.39 is the widest film format in common use today; it looks best in movie theaters, where it can fill the screen. Thus, by owning a widescreen TV, you can view both movies and TV shows as they were intended—it just might involve a bit of letterboxing.

[See also Goodbye Yellow Brick Plasma.]


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.

Power Conditioning: Red Headed Stepchild

3d1Today’s blog post is an excerpt from my new book Home Theater for the Internet Age,  available on Amazon Kindle. The following is pulled from Chapter 3: Components.

In 2014, more people than ever own a home theater, regardless of the cost or sophistication. Whether it’s just a cable TV set-top box and game console attached to a small TV with two small speakers or a full complement of expensive components feeding their output to a 70-inch display and eight or 10 big surround sound units, we love our home theaters. And curse them when they don’t work or suffer a failure.

What most of us don’t do is properly protect our relatively delicate components. Enter power conditioners. They’re no mere power strip. Read on to learn how to protect all of your expensive home theater gear.

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Curt Robbins


Power Conditioning

The most neglected—as in not installed—component of home theater is a good power conditioner. The power delivered to the average home is relatively dirty, thus requiring this “conditioning.” Unlike surge protectors (power strips), power conditioners (sometimes called “line conditioners”) regulate the voltage of the power they receive. In short, these devices take dirty power and make it clean, removing spikes and noise, the elements that slowly kill electronic devices such as home theater equipment. Think of the purchase of a power conditioner as an insurance policy that helps prevent power-related problems, which typically cause small levels of damage that accumulate over time. Most consumers have no clue that long-term dirty power is the culprit behind many electronic malfunctions and failures.

apc_line-rA good example of an inexpensive power conditioner, and the model I use throughout both of my home theaters, is the APC Line-R. Available in both 600- and 1200-volt varieties, the higher-capacity model can be had for as little as $48 on Amazon.

If you have a high-end home theater and want an equally high-end power conditioner, check out Canadian Torus Power. Their top-shelf units, which incorporate high-quality Toroidal transformers, can’t be beat—and will set you back a couple of thousand dollars. But this is the Rolls Royce of power conditioning. If you want the best and have the coin, these units are the bomb.

It’s a good idea to use power conditioners on all of your expensive electronic equipment, including computers.

Protecting Wall-mounted TVs

If you have a wall-mounted TV that’s too far from your receiver to plug into the receiver’s power conditioner, there’s a good chance that space limitations will prevent you from installing a conditioner in the wall behind the panel. However, there is room for a basic surge suppressor. While not as good as a power conditioner, a surge suppressor will help prevent spikes and brown outs from damaging your beautiful TV. I personally use the $30 Rocketfish 4-outlet model on both of my TVs, which tucks safely and discretely behind wall-mounted panels. You’ll completely forget it’s even there—but it won’t forget to protect your expensive TV.


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.

Cutting the Cord

cord_small (1)It’s 2015, and most of us have at least heard the term cord cutters. They’re consumers who have chosen to cancel their cable or satellite TV service in favor of internet-based streaming media (or simply popping old school discs into their Blu-ray players).

About nine years ago, after struggling with Time Warner Cable for years—and the company spending literally thousand of dollars trenching new coaxial at our curb in an effort to remedy our digital cable woes—my family cut the cord. We’ve never looked back. We were paying about $90 a month. That equals roughly $10,000 in savings. Wow.

It was a relatively daring and unusual move a decade ago. Our motivation wasn’t simply to rid ourselves of the quality headaches we were experiencing with Time Warner, but also to alleviate the pain of commercials. Our children were young and we felt good about virtually eliminating their exposure to the incessant stream of ads that run on television. Admittedly, it would have been challenging if we had been big sports fans (today, services like MLB.TV and NFL Now help ease that pain).

It’s estimated that only 6.5% of Americans (about 20 million people) are cord cutters (according to Experian Marketing Services). While still small as a percentage, this rapidly growing market segment has caught the attention of some tech and media corporations. TiVo, for example, recently introduced a DVR aimed at cord cutters that will record shows for those lacking cable TV. Features of established entertainment channels, like HBO GO and Showtime Anytime—while they don’t cater specifically to cord cutters—help bridge the gap between conventional cable or satellite TV and the mobile device-toting cord cutter lifestyle.

In June 2014, the Leichtman Research Group reported that nearly half of U.S. households subscribe to Netflix, Hulu Plus, or Amazon Prime (or, as is often the case, a combination of these services). In 2010, this number was only 24%.

rock streaming stick

A study released by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) in 2014 supports these numbers. The organization claims that 45% of American households watch streaming video from the internet on their TVs. In 2013, it was only 28%. Something is trending, folks. While the CEA study revealed that only about five million American homes rely on internet TV exclusively, 10% of all TV-consuming households said they’re probably going to cancel their cable or satellite TV service in the next 10 months. Should Comcast, Cox, and AT&T be nervous?

More proof of this trend? In May 2014, The Verge reported that 500 of those ubiquitous Redbox kiosks we’re all so acclimated to seeing will disappear this year. Americans want to stream a significant portion of their entertainment content—regardless of whether they’re cord cutters or not.

Britain’s The Guardian recently surveyed North American cable and satellite TV customers who had chosen to cut the cord. A former Comcast customer in Marysville, California stated, “After a traumatizing series of bad customer service experiences, I decided I’d rather sit in a dark cave than give [Comcast] another dime. Not one regret.” A disgruntled former Shaw Communications customer from Alberta, Canada, said, “I didn’t want to be the person who stayed up until 2 a.m. watching the magic bullet blender commercial over and over and over again.” An ex-cable subscriber in St. Louis echoed this sentiment: “I have a busy life and sitting through commercials is something I am not interested in.”

One of the biggest complaints of consumers is paying for hundreds of channels on cable, but watching only a few. Advocates of TV reform have called for a la carte channel packages for years. A recent study by Nielsen reported that the average U.S. home receives 189 cable channels. And how many of those do they actually watch? Only 17 (that’s less than 9%). In addition, The Guardian survey revealed that only 3% of cord cutters would consider going back to cable if providers began offering a la carte pricing. The lack of a la carte is obviously only part of a much larger discontent.

fire tv stickBut let’s be fair: Cutting the cord doesn’t simply erase your cable bill. Consumers often are compelled to spend more for better internet bandwidth and a streaming video device or two (like a Roku or Apple TV) to compensate for their lack of cable or satellite service. There’s also subscription fees for services like Netflix and Hulu Plus and rental costs for iTunes or Vudu.

So let’s do some quick math. I got rid of Time Warner Cable at $90 a month and later subscribed to Netflix ($9 a month) and Hulu Plus ($8 a month). I spend $10-20 per month at my local Family Video store (because you can’t feed anything to your home theater better than a Blu-ray disc). A few times a month, my family also rents movies or TV episodes from Google Play Movies & TV or iTunes at $3-6 a pop. But we never spend $90 a month. And the commercial interruptions we tolerate are light (basically just Hulu Plus, which features far fewer than conventional TV).

No, cord cutting isn’t free. For that, you’ll need a rooftop or desktop antenna to pull in your local affiliate stations. But the value proposition of cord cutting is so great that it’s hard to ignore. The fact that it’s less expensive than cable and features few or no commercials makes cutting the cord an increasingly appealing alternative for middle class consumers.

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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.

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.