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Home Entertainment 2002 Hi-Fi and Home Theater Event

The Big Carrot Review
By Rick Becker
Click here to e-mail Reviewer


  Earlier this year the Montreal Festival Son & Image was a carrot that sped my recovery after a life threatening hospitalization in February. Similarly, the Home Entertainment show was my way of avoiding anxiety over the elective surgery that would follow shortly after my return from New York. Now, three weeks post-operative, I'm here to tell you I had a lot of fun (at the show).

In the larger picture, a week before my initial hospitalization, my wife and I moved from our small townhouse into a modest home that includes not only a primo listening room for me, but also a separate family room that can be set up for home theater. This led me to pay a lot more attention to home theater than I have in the past, so that's where I'll start.

 

Home Theater: Video

To DLP or not to DLP is not the question.
Whether 'tis nobler to dim the lights, is.

In spite of more than thirty years of experience in film and video production, I am still on the steeper part of the learning curve in home theater. With the rapid development of playback technology in recent years, it is a constantly moving target. Still, several products jumped out and grabbed serious attention from me. I skipped the megabuck systems because if I had enough money to afford them, I wouldn't be wasting my time watching movies at home--I'd be going to international film festivals.

The InFocus Screenplay 110 at $4,999 comes to the home theater arena from a company with an established foothold in the professional business market. It is a dual mode 1 chip DLP projector with a resolution of 800 by 600 in 4:3 mode and 848 by 480 in enhanced widescreen or anamorphic mode. You can feed this projector almost anything, including your PC or Macintosh. HDTV goes in, but only the standard resolution listed above, comes out. Nonetheless, with a 1.2 zoom lens and keystone correction, this is about as good as it gets at this price point. NAD electronics and PSB speakers rounded out the presentation in this system that cost about $10K. I expect a true home installation would sound and look much improved. A simulated home theater was actually created inside a much larger room, leaving lots of standing room in the back and on the periphery--great for visitors to the room, but not optimal for the presentation.

If you need to go cheaper, Plus Vision Corp. of America was blowing out their original Piano HE-3100 for $2,699 with the introduction of their new Piano HE-3200 at $3,299, which adds a zoom lens and presumably some other goodies. The 0.7" chip is home for half a million pixels. It accepts HDTV and some computer signals, but does not give true HD image. Still, it is great for DVDs, and until HDTV really comes along, this may be the best bargain in town.

The Sharp HV Z9000 DLP projector with its built in line doubler, at $10,000, will project a beautiful image with an HDTV source, and an improved image from DVD as well. (See Matt Tulini's review). I believe you can also feed your PC into it if shooting the Internet curl is your sport. If you've got the bucks to burn, it is a great product, but until the circus really comes to town, you might want to consider one of the above units. Who knows what the price of a true HDTV projector might be when HDTV becomes more commonplace?

The Italian firm Sim Selco showed two DLP projectors worth mentioning. At $15K they had a million-mirror 16:9 chip model, and at $8,500 they had a 400,000 mirror 16:9 chip. The more expensive unit was obviously the brighter of the two. The lens adjusts vertically, and also compensates for keystoning. As handsome as these units are, I learned that about 98% of all video projectors are ceiling mounted.

On the direct view front, there are more widescreen models coming along, but what really popped open my eyes was Samsung's new Tantus HDTV monitor using DLP technology. The HLM507W (50") and HLM437W (43") were both in the 16:9 format at $4,499 and $3,999, respectively. With a contrast ratio of 1000:1, and nearly a million pixels on the DLP chip, the images were bright and crisp allowing viewing in a normally lit room. I noticed only very slight beaming as I knelt down below the direct line of sight--but nothing in comparison with what one experiences with rear-screen projectors. Off axis viewing was on a par with flat screen TVs and plasma screens. Size wise, these guys are less than 16" deep, so you cant hang them on the wall, but they are slim in comparison with CRT TVs, which are typically 22 to 26" deep. At 80 lbs for the 50" model, this is something Linda and I could team up on if we had to move it. As well as being HDTV ready, with PIP, you can plug in your PC and surf the net while you watch the game. Be very careful next time you visit your local big box electronics retailer. I have a feeling these things will be flying out the door. Step aside!

On the plasma/LCD front, the only thing that caught my attention was Samsung's 24" wide-screen model that will accept HDTV and PC, and can be mounted on the ceiling, say above a bed, for the truly decadent or the unfortunately immobile. This set won the "Best of Innovations" Award at the 2002 CES. I didn't catch the price on this one, but in general, I find these flat panel screens overpriced, unless you have a specific application that requires their slim design.

 

Home Theater: Surround Sound

Don't skip this segment. 
Several rooms also segue in relevance to traditional stereo. 
You've been warned!

Basically I'm a two channel kind of guy: sex on the right, rock 'n roll on the left, with bicycling, xc skiing, and mountain hiking on my LFE channel. But I've traveled a bit, and all the hieroglyphs I've seen have said that surround sound is coming. If you haven't already, NOW is the time to start doing your homework. The way I look at it, if I start with a modest home theater, I will simultaneously please my wife, and learn something along the way. Then, possibly by the time DVD-A and SACD actually become meaningful formats, I can choose to transform my big rig--or not!

Phillips had a very instructive display in one half of a rather large room (maybe 15' by 30' overall). They had a surround sound rig costing about $9,000 with five full-range Mordaunt Short speakers, a Sunfire sub and a higher end Denon receiver. For a casual set-up with no room treatments, it sounded pretty good. Then the host switched over to a $2,000 rig with small gloss black AR satellite speakers sitting atop the Mordaunt Shorts, with a modestly priced sub and an inexpensive Philips receiver. Not as good as the first rig, it wasn't all that bad, either. For the $7,000 difference I started to think about upgrading the sub and buying DLP. For movies for the wife, maybe not all at once, this could be doable, I thought. The operative word here is "doable". All the high tech megabuck equipment becomes irrelevant if I can't afford, or justify the expense. Which leads me to the next room.

Is $200,000 for an MBL surround sound system affordable?
I went in anyway. Like a lot of companies, they were showing off their big guns in a small metropolis of gloss black with shiny gold trim. Their style has become a cliché. Most people are unaware that they also make more reasonably priced products, though still quite expensive, and that they are available in silver finish, which I find much more approachable. What impressed me here was their MBL 1011 Analog Multi-channel Audio Processor (A-MAP), at $5000, which takes 2-channel signals and converts them to 5.1 signals in the analog domain, without any loss of signal information. Yes, you read that correctly: analog. With their 360 degree radiating speakers, this system was very satisfying, indeed. No weird musicians jumping out of the back corners at you.

Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer took their music back to the studio and re-mastered it to DVD-A. Their music is a natural for surround sound. It came out sounding pretty much like what most people probably imagined as they listened under the influence of drugs back in the '70s. For creative musicians, the baton carried by musicians in the four-track tape era of the '60s is waiting to be picked up. For more traditional musicians (and listeners), who need or prefer the stage to be out in front of the audience, both SACD and DVD-A can do that, too--not to leave out the MBL processor, or Dolby Pro Logic II, or other digital schemes that spatialize two-channel into a surround experience. I believe this presentation took place in a room with the Martin Logan speakers. I've heard this speaker in surround applications at a couple of shows, and one private home, and I've never felt it to be completely successful. Perhaps with the wall mounted or in-wall models it achieves more precise imaging, but I've yet to hear such an installation.

The Gallo Acoustics room had a reasonable presentation for surround sound applications. Their two ball and a pop-can design is one of the most creative looking speakers on the market for contemporary room settings. Acoustically, they sound reasonable for the money, though lack some air and finesse at the top end. And while their sub woofers may not be the biggest, baddest boys on the block, they fit the decor. With two, or three or four speaker balls at the sides and the rear of home theater (thinking 7.1, here), you have a reasonably priced, relatively inconspicuous, and very stylish presentation. The hard part is picking which color you want. The Arcam AVR-200 surround receiver in this room is a unit that deserves closer scrutiny. A Marantz DVD player acted as the source for music.

Albert Von Schweikert has been quite busy in recent years with numerous designs that have garnered critical acclaim on the Internet and in smaller journal reviews. (Check out the archives of Enjoy the Music.com™ for one of them). As the owner of VR-4s, I've taken a personal interest in the evolution of his efforts. His small room had maybe a half dozen seats, was dimly lit, and had 5 VR5-HSE speakers in the corners and front-center positions. Rumor has it that there were two subwoofers in there, too, but I didn't notice them. They were running a 6 channel digital master tape through a rack of Spectron amps, Von Schweikert speaker cables, Cardas interconnects, and a 135 lb. Paul Garner power supply (?)! Maybe, if you were in the right seat, it worked, but I wasn't sitting there. The room was packed. Nonetheless, it was apparent that the speakers themselves were pretty good, but five large speakers in a small hotel room? At $12,000/pr for the HSE upgrade that includes fancy parts in the crossover and wire that is superior to the $8,500 standard model, you have to wonder what they were thinking.

Von Schweikert room revisited. As fate has had it on numerous occasions, I happened to be at the right place at the right time near the very end of the show on Sunday. The hosts called a time out and crudely re-patched the system into stereo, without even bothering to relocate the speakers. A group of six or eight of us got a precious glimpse of what these speakers can really do. Even though I was off axis from the centerline, I could tell these speakers were something very special. They had a familiar voicing, but were way better than my trusty VR-4s in almost every aspect. Not only was the box-less midrange of the VR-4s carried over into the finely finished all wood cabinets of the VR-5, but it sounded box-less top to bottom. The sad part is most people only got to hear these speakers in the surround sound configuration. And unfortunately, this is not a speaker that is widely available for audition. Are a handful of parts and some upgraded wire worth the extra $3,500? If not, the standard version must be a heck of a bargain!

Sanibel Sound erred in the opposite direction, but suffered less. They had a wonderful system with the Piega P5 Ltd. speakers encircling dozens of chairs in a much larger room. Still, the speakers were well off the walls, precluding much of the reflective sound that makes a surround sound system seamless. It was easy to identify the location of the speakers in the room with my eyes closed. But perhaps because of the wide separation of the speakers, it was also easy to tell how good these speakers would be in a two-channel system. The sound of the individual speaker was consistent with the excellence I have heard from the larger models in Montreal in the past two years. Yet the speaker was physically different. Where the P10 and it's larger sibling are traditional, finely finished boxes in gloss black, the P5 is more of a, dare I say, lute-shape tower in a silver finish. (I can see the legions of Sonus Faber faithful amassing at the Swiss border at this very moment)! Again, at $8,425/pr. for the P5 LTD, or even only $4,125/pr for the standard P5, one has to question the wisdom of full range expensive speakers at each corner for surround sound. 

While the high end seems to be groping for a successful audible solution to this question, Polk seemed to already have it figured out. I've short changed these guys in past years, but this year I made amends and sat through their surround sound presentation, complete with video projection. I have to give them credit. They had the right size system in the right size room. Once I moved back from the front row to the middle of the seating area, the sound integrated nicely. Location can be just as important with surround as it is with two channels--sometimes more so. Their LSiFX surround speaker ($529 each) can change from dipole to bipole with the flip of a switch. Neat. But before I give them too much credit, let me mention that the electronics driving the system were several classes above what might typically be used with such modestly priced speakers.

The guy who really had his act together was Peter Lyngdorf, the driving force at TacT. His RCS 2.0 digital equalizer/preamp took the Stereophile 2001 Amplification Product of the Year award. I remember sitting in a room at the CES show in Chicago about 10 years ago, trying to perceive differences in an early attempt at electronic room correction. They wanted me to spend thousands of dollars for what?! Years later, I still kept dropping into rooms professing viable room correction, perceiving only modest differences. My interest in TacT began when he first introduced his digital amplifier. I remember it sounding pretty good the first time I heard it, taking a digital feed right from a CD transport, I believe. In recent years it's been fun to see the TacT system grow with digital room correction and now, with surround sound and their own speakers, specially designed to handle the dynamic range and transient speed of their amps. The transparency is astounding--right up there with the best I've heard. But with the Tact system, you don't get a "sweet spot"--you get a "sweet room". Nor is it really "sweet". It is more like "being there". You can't ignore the music. I sat well off center, and never felt a need to get a better seat. It was, by far, the best I've ever heard his room sounding. While it was not cheap--leading edge technology seldom is--it was way less than other cost-no-objection rooms. The cosmetics of his gear, while handsomely designed, are strictly no-nonsense, so you're not paying extra for image. A complete surround sound system totaled about $45K, but was offered at a show package price of $33,000. For the stereo inclined among us, it is also available in smaller configurations. ($27,000 list; $19,500 show package). Even these prices could probably be shaved a good bit if you could live without deep bass. Just add your favorite digital turntable and go!

At the other end of the price spectrum we find the all in one box approach. Sony had a unit that I didn't see, but which is pictured on one of Steve's photo pages, at $200?!!! We're talking DVD player, decoders, and amplifiers--all in one box.

Linn had their one box home theater on active display. It goes for $3K, and was so popular that other visitors had stolen all the literature before I finally got there. I sat and watched a world war of some kind, listening to a system of modestly (appropriately) price speakers. (Trikan center, $795; Ninka, L&R, $1,500/pr; Katan, surrounds, $995/pr; and maybe a Sizmik sub, $1,700). It was all well balanced and well thought out. Like other one-box solutions, it is for the person that doesn't have the time or inclination to maximize his or her own personal system. In 12-Step circles, they might regard this approach as "turning it over to your higher power", whom I presume gets to drive the Aston Martin with the Linn 12-speaker audio system that was parked beside the home theater display. As attracted to this approach as I might be, I can't help but wonder what havoc sticky fingers of our 3-year-old grandson might wreak. All your eggs are in one basket and it's not like you can push kids into the kitchen oven like they did in the old days.

Sharp had a spiffy little package that had 25 wpc digital amps that drove a set of B&W speakers quite nicely. Actually, this may have been a two-box unit, each the size of hardbound book--still pretty small. In fact this may have been a two-channel audio only system. My notes are vague and suggest it might be in the $1,700-$1,800 range. This unit was actually a spin-off of their very expensive digital integrated amp, which was on silent display. The photos I've seen of this amp do not convey the quality and sophistication of visual design that it conveys in person. I'll try and clarify this in the future.

 

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