Home Theater, Music, or Both?

I've watched from the sidelines with great interest the recent debate in this column over Home Theater (footnote 1) At one extreme is the suggestion that Stereophile begin reviewing video and Home Theater products. The other end of the spectrum was best expressed by John Atkinson at Stereophile's 1993 High-End Hi-Fi Show in San Francisco. Hearing the booming bass overflow of a Home Theater demonstration blasting down a hallway, he said, "They've brought televisions to our hi-fi show!"

In addition to being a music lover and audio purist, I also happen to appreciate film as an art form. Because I like movies, it would seem natural to want a Home Theater system. But are Home Theater and high-quality music playback inherently at odds with each other, or can they coexist in harmony?

I've just installed a Home Theater and have some insights into these questions (footnote 2). First, Home Theater is terrific. A large-screen monitor, Dolby Pro Logic decoder, subwoofer, and surround speakers greatly enhance the experience of watching movies at home. Moreover, by owning certain films on laserdisc, you can get the "director's cut" version and see the film as the director intended. Owning a film also allows you to watch it repeatedly and appreciate it on a different level each time. Some films need to be seen many times for a full understanding of the artistic intent. Without question, Home Theater is a boon to the film aficionado.

But I wouldn't want to listen to music through the Home Theater system. I'm firmly convinced that the requirements of good video soundtrack playback are opposed to high-quality, music-only reproduction. You just don't seem to be able to get good sound from a Home Theater system. One expensive Home Theater loudspeaker system, JBL's Synthesis One, even has a second set of drivers and a front-panel switch for selecting sound for film or music. Moreover, putting a large direct-view monitor or rear-projection television between the loudspeakers destroys imaging. This is the reason my enthusiasm for Home Theater is limited to those installations in which the Home Theater is separate from the music system—including use of a different room. The compromises involved are too high a price to pay for having a single system for both music and video (footnote 3).

As much as I like watching good movies, however, the experience is without question a step below pure music-listening. I find music much more engaging, compelling, and rewarding than film, no matter how good the movie is or how well it's presented technically. If I had to choose between never seeing another film and never hearing another piece of music, I wouldn't hesitate to forgo movies in favor of music.

This commitment to music is reflected in my attitude toward my music and my Home Theater system: When I make even a small improvement in my music system, I get excited by it—the musical significance of that difference is meaningful to me. But when I upgrade the Home Theater, the difference isn't as significant. I don't care nearly as much about sound for video as I do about sound in my listening room. All I want from a Home Theater sound system is some surrounds, bass extension, and clear dialog. My requirements for a music playback system are far more stringent.

Part of the reason sound quality is much more important for music is that audio for visual images has an intent completely different from that for audio for music playback. Sound becomes subsidiary to image. The qualities in reproduced sound that we value as audiophiles are unimportant in Home Theater. Instead of delicacy, nuance, correct timbre, and realistic spatial presentation, Home Theater tends to go for bashing the viewer over the head with volume and bass.

Unfortunately, many critics of Home Theater have had their impressions shaped not by watching one of their favorite movies at home with a good Home Theater system, but by a relentless series of mind-numbing, five-minute demonstrations at CES. These demos use ridiculous amounts of booming bass and absurdly loud playback levels to try to beat it into you that Home Theater is "good." The sound quality of these demonstrations is often a travesty by audiophile standards, with hard, brittle, metallic timbres that make one physically cringe. The sound effects are so jacked up beyond any reality that it assaults the senses. When Arnold Schwarzenegger cocks his shotgun in Terminator 2 (a CES demo favorite), it sounds like the shotgun is being fired. No wonder many audio purists think Home Theater is a perversion of audio playback.

But why is the mass market embracing Home Theater? The first reason is for the qualities I described earlier: Movie-watching is more enjoyable with a Home Theater system. But there may be an underlying force at work here. I believe that the commercial success of Home Theater is in large part due to pure music-listening being less involving than it once was. Listeners are being driven to seek visual stimulation to compensate for what's been lost in music.

The recording and playback of music is vastly different from what it was 20 or more years ago. Think of the recording and playback technology of the past: very simple tubed consoles; simple microphone techniques; groups and orchestras live in the studio; few or no overdubs; and LP playback. That has all been replaced by horrible-sounding recording consoles (with literally hundreds of transformers and cheap op-amps in the signal path); performances that are edited, overdubbed, and multi-tracked to death; drum machines rather than drummers; over-close microphone placement; digital recording; poor engineering practices in transferring analog to digital; CD playback; and dome tweeters that mostly sound bright, hard, and ragged. How involving can music be with hard-sounding, over-bright digital recordings played back on cheap CD players and bright loudspeakers?

It's no wonder that pure music-listening is being pushed aside by the masses in favor of visual stimulation (footnote 4).

So where does this leave the audiophile and music lover who likes film? My advice is to add a second, much cheaper audio system to your television—and don't mix it with your hi-fi. Buy a Japanese Dolby Pro Logic receiver for $400 and a moderately priced set of video loudspeakers, and forget about it. Don't get into trying different cables or tweaks—the differences don't matter.

Save your money and efforts for something really important—music.

Footnote 1: See "As We See It," March, June, and August '93; and "Letters," May, June, July, August, and September '93, and in this issue.

Footnote 2: The system is: a Sony 46" XBR rear-projection television, Panasonic LX-1000 laserdisc player, Marantz AV500 Dolby Pro Logic preamp, five Marantz MA500 THX power amps, and the NHT VT-1 tower and VT-1C video loudspeaker system with the NHT SW2P powered subwoofer. Cable is the $1.50/foot AudioQuest F-4. The Home Theater is in the living room, completely separate from my listening room.

Footnote 3: There's one exception: the Cello system. Every time I've heard it, it sounded terrific on both music and video soundtracks.

Footnote 4: Anyone who thinks today's recordings are vastly better than those made in the 1950s should listen to Keith Johnson's 1957 (!) recording of the Red Norvo Quintet, recently released on Reference Recordings RR-CD8.