Future Shock, High-End Style

The future is rarely what anyone expects it to be. I still remember reading, as a child, predictions in Popular Science that everyone would have a personal helicopter by 1980. It never happened, though it sure seemed like a reasonable projection of events. Events, however, have their own agenda.

If one thing is certain about Home Theater, it's the reason for its growth. Listening to music is as noble a pastime as it ever was—if I didn't think so, then I'd find reviewing audio equipment a hollow exercise indeed. But the fact remains that we're most willing to spend money on that with which we spend serious time. A recent survey commissioned by Klipsch Loudspeakers found that more people—many Stereophile readers excepted, of course—spend more uninterrupted time watching movies than do listening to music. I mean music for music, not music as wallpaper. The average Joe or Jill, who would find sitting and listening in rapt attention to music without talking, reading, or knitting just a bit bizarre, finds watching a movie in relative quiet in a darkened room a perfectly normal thing to do. It must be social conditioning.

Have you ever played your audio system for a group of non-audiophile or non-music-oriented friends? If so, how long did it last before someone started talking? Do the same with a good Home Theater system, and chances are good that half of them will be trying to figure out how they can afford to buy one, too. This is why the Home Theater market is growing, and why no amount of wishful thinking will return us to the days when audio was king.

I don't agree, however, that top-quality audio is wasted in a Home Theater system. Though audio without video remains the best revealer of the best high-end gear—due both to its lack of a visual stimulus to distract us, and to superior program material—the difference between a first-class Home Theater system and the discount-store variety is immense, and every bit as important as the similar gap in audio-only equivalents.

I do agree with those who argue that surround-sound is a worthwhile enhancement of not only the audio/video experience, but the audio-only experience as well. The fact that it has not caught on until now has been primarily due to a shortage of suitable, genuine surround-sound program material, as well as to the added expense and complication required by a true Home Theater setup. The program side has been addressed (in the audio/video realm) by films, and is slowly being addressed in the audio-only world as well. The expense remains by far the most compelling obstacle—most audiophiles have limited resources and would rather buy two channels of good sound than five mediocre ones.

The challenge for the audio industry—and for high-end audio in particular—is to find a way to integrate smoothly into the audio/video experience. While I agree with Robert Harley and John Atkinson that having separate audio/video and high-end audio systems is probably the best way to go, it's also the least practical. The High End must assume that most people are not like John and Bob and will own just the one system in one room. I see the possible development of new products to cater to this market, in much the same way that CD generated a flurry of design activity. Aside from the inevitable processors, a wealth of new amplifiers and loudspeakers is sure to come. The number of multi-channel amplifiers is growing; Proceed and Acurus, for example, have already introduced three-channel amplifiers for the important front channels. A three-channel Levinson, Krell, or Audio Research can't be that far in the future. And if they're put on the same chassis and share the same power supply, three channels should not cost 50% more than two.

At the same time, the ultimate future of super-expensive products is less clear. Will Home Theater siphon off enough disposable income to dampen the high High End? Or will it make more people aware of the High End's existence, thus generating new customers for that market? I don't think anyone knows. But it seems likely that the market for affordable high-end gear will get a big boost from Home Theater as manufacturers get back to basic engineering—which always involves doing the best you can...for a price.

At the output end, Home Theater is bound to spark furious activity in loudspeakers and, finally, perhaps in the listening room as well. It will inspire us to think about things we've begun to take for granted—always a good thing. Even those who decry Home Theater and its offspring will benefit from the new directions in which they'll take us. The high-end audio hobby will change, and change is always resisted by the strongest adherents of the status quo. The challenge to audiophiles will be to keep up with the changes; the challenge to manufacturers will be to adjust to the new realities while not abandoning their ideals.

Is Home Theater the future of audio? Who knows? But I do know that it will make that future more interesting. The only thing we can know about the future is that, not only will it be different from today, it won't even be a linear projection of today. The future is literally unimaginable. Just remember those personal helicopters.—Thomas J. Norton

Footnote: As well as being one of Stereophile's two Consulting Technical Editors, Tom Norton is a major contributor to the Stereophile Guide to Home Theater, due to be published in early December. Edited by Lawrence B. Johnson, our Guide will contain reviews of more than 40 Home Theater audio and video components, and will enable every audiophile to set up a satisfying Home Theater system. Tom became editor of Stereophile Guide to Home Theater in 2000.