I Say It's Video!

A couple of months back (March 1993, p.7), I wrote that as far as I was concerned, video was television dressed up in fancy dress, thus there was no place for coverage of the medium in Stereophile. As the magazine's founder, J. Gordon Holt, has been a committed videophile for many years, I sat back and awaited a reaction from him. One was not long coming. I am running his response as this month's "As We See It" feature.—John Atkinson

I believe JA's March "As We See It," explaining why Stereophile has no plans to cover video, was wrongheaded. Sure, some of our readers may consider video antithetical to audio, but enjoying movies at home, and wanting to enjoy them as much as possible, is not really different from doing the same things with music.

I agree with John that audio without pictures gives the imagination more freedom to visualize whatever the listener deems appropriate, but I cannot agree that this is always a good thing. Radio drama—sadly, long extinct in literal-minded America—works superbly without visual images, particularly when the listener is invited to imagine things that are impossible (or prohibitively costly) to show, even on a movie screen. (Does anyone out there remember Stan Freberg's vanilla ice-cream mountain with the cherry on top?) Opera without images can be effective too, if it is specially recorded for the ears alone. (The Culshaw/Solti Wagner Ring cycle, for example.) But with a real-life opera or ballet production, with its opulent sets and choreographed staging, sound is only a part of the whole; without visuals, the production loses much of its brilliance and intent. And a live stadium rock concert without its onstage antics is just another less-than-studio-quality rock recording. But I do agree with JA about most other kinds of non-staged music, like orchestra concerts. These are fun to watch once, but with repeated viewing the visuals pall much faster than do repetitions of the music alone.

For someone who enjoys movies as I do, however, home video is a blessing. Except for rare art theater screenings and butchered commercial-ridden showings on late-night TV, the vast majority of history's worthwhile films are simply not available for viewing except on home video [or cable—Ed.], which forces one to choose between seeing them with a mediocre picture or not seeing them at all. Home-video sound, though, is often much better than you'll hear in most movie houses, and even though the NTSC picture is nowhere near as sharp or detailed as 35mm film, even that compromised presentation is in some respects better than you'll get in theaters. Many theaters run their projectors at reduced brightness (to extend projection lamp life) and haven't repaired or upgraded their sound systems in 10 years.

Yes, our NTSC video system is primitive, and abysmally unequal to the growing demand for "film quality," but dismissing video out of hand because of its visible flaws and artifacts strikes me as ludicrous! How can any long-time audiophile, who learned years ago to ignore LP's ticks, pops, and swishes, possibly keep a straight face while complaining about video scanning lines? At least they're constant and unchanging, which makes them a lot easier to overlook than the randomness of surface noise.

And where would sound reproduction be today if music lovers had turned their backs on it in the early 1900s because it wasn't detailed enough or didn't sound enough like the real thing? There wasn't much "there" to be heard from early reproduced sound, either. NTSC video's loss of the fine details that were present in the original film is only a visual analog of what early recordings did to music, and should be viewed as a technological challenge rather than a defeat accompli. Even with its limited-fi picture, there's often a lot more "there" in a video image than JA seems to realize; it just doesn't happen to be detail-type thereness. For those who appreciate the filmmaker's art, and even for many who don't, repeated viewings of movies allow us to "see" things we never noticed before, like throwaway bits of background action, visual puns, celebrity cameos, and unusual lighting, sets, and cinematography.

Nonetheless, I don't believe video as we know it today will ever become a participatory "tweak" hobby like audio. To begin with, and unlike audio, there's hardly anything which defines video image quality that cannot be measured. The video display that measures according to the book will always look the most like the original film, and that's all there is to it. Tweaking can only make matters worse.

And how much is there to tweak, anyway? To the video purist, who insists that the image should replicate the original film as closely as possible (just as the audio purist cites the sound of "the real thing" as his reference), there ain't much to tweak. For starters, though, all monitors have at least five picture controls affecting gray scale (darks and lights), color presentation, and apparent sharpness, and these usually need to be adjusted for each program. That's five user tweaks right off the bat. And since most consumer monitors do both gray scale and color rendition rather badly, it may be impossible to optimize the picture. The best that can be done is to achieve an acceptable set of compromises. This does not, however, deter the compulsive perfectionist from spending half the duration of a film trying to get the sky the right shade of blue without skin tones turning green.

A really good monitor—and in video today, that means professional or industrial quality—can be pulled into proper adjustment by measurement (footnote 1), after which it will give you the best view you can get of the source program material you're watching. If skin tones on some movies are then greenish or magenta-ish, it won't be the fault of the monitor. (Does this sound like the prototypical "accurate" audio system that reproduces the recording the way it is, warts and all, and is generally despised by the audiophile community because it doesn't sound "musical"?)

A major difference between high-performance loudspeakers and high-performance video monitors is that, the better the monitor, the less tweaking it requires. It's supposed to be properly set up and then left strictly alone. If you insist, you can tweak the skin tone of the occasional film that needs it, but when that movie is over, a punch of the Reset button restores everything to its calibration settings. If you still have a hankering to tweak, you can experiment with high-priced video interconnects and perhaps even convince yourself that they make a difference. Or, you can perform the mother of all tweaks: You can upgrade a video component to a better one. But there's not much else you can do with that Mercedes-priced video system except watch movies on it. This is not the stuff of which hobbies are made!

The technology exists, though, to make video a tweaker's delight. Digital processing allows professional colorists—the people who transfer films to video for home distribution—to manipulate a video image in ways that are impossible with film. For example, any color can be made more intense or more washed-out without affecting any other colors in the scene. You can zoom in on the picture, or you can skew the gray scale so as to stretch or shrink highlight or lowlight contrasts (to give a wider range of dark grays, for example). Inevitably, this technology will start to become available to the consumer, opening a vast new world of possibilities for defiling the image. Compulsive tweakers may then spend an entire 2-hour film "improving" each scene, and be able to later say that, yes, they saw the movie but they don't remember what it was about.

All this will be roundly condemned by those narrow-minded souls who believe the filmmaker's intentions are worth respecting, while the videophile community will split down the middle between objectivists, who will insist that only a properly calibrated monitor can provide the highest quality, and subjectivists, who will find a distorted image to be "more pleasing." Each camp will lavish scorn and ridicule upon the other, and the argument will continue until video reproduction reaches unsurpassable perfection, at which time it will be immediately superseded by something else, and that will be an end to it.

There is really no fundamental difference between the appreciation of visual fidelity and of audible fidelity. Apart from the fact that music justifies audio and film justifies video, both fields tend to attract the same kind of people: idealistic perfectionists who believe the original presentation of their favored art form is worth trying to reproduce properly. But video is a much more social pastime than audio. In audio, there is only one "sweet spot" from which to hear the best soundstaging and the least-colored sound, and guests who want to enjoy the host's system to the fullest must take turns occupying it. A well-designed Home Theater sound system, on the other hand, has a wide area of optimal listening seats, none of which may provide the soundstage presentation of a good audio system's sweet spot. This is one reason we now have the ongoing debate as to whether it is possible for the same audio system to equally serve both video and audio-only sources. (The fact that none has yet succeeded doesn't necessarily prove it is impossible.)

It was audio, not video, that created the "Home Theater" craze in the first place. Now that it's happened, I think the audio community has some obligation not to turn its back in scorn as though Home Theater were a bastard child. Of course, home video came first, and was already a multimillion-dollar cassette rental business before the public learned that the surround-sound effects that wow them in the theaters are hidden in the soundtracks of practically every big-budget stereo-sound film, requiring only a decoder and another two amplifier/speaker channels to enjoy them at home. But the audio industry never spurned its opportunity to sell stereo equipment to video viewers who cared nothing for music and just wanted better movie sound than their TV speakers could provide. Once the demand for surround-sound was there, manufacturers were even more delighted to sell another stereo amp, a couple more speakers, and a decoder to the same kind of people who had shunned quadraphonic sound during the 1970s because all it had to offer was greater realism. Thus was born "Home Theater."

Surround-sound and widely spaced front speakers (as opposed to the built-ins in TV sets) expanded the audible field, but also resulted in the size disparity JA alluded to. The obvious solution—a wider screen—created the current growing demand for projection monitors, which in turn revealed for all to see just how bad our antediluvian NTSC system was. This led to the current interest in high-definition TV (still in the future) and its stopgap substitutes like line doublers, edge sharpeners (footnote 2), and ever-more-ambitious sound systems. All this can cost big bucks—so big that few people can afford a high-end audio system and a high-performance video system, even if they have the space. Enough people have opted for Home Theater, I believe, to have contributed heavily to high-end audio's market slump in recent years.

But video coverage in Stereophile? While I certainly don't think we should be publishing in-depth five-page reviews of monitors and laserdisc players, I don't see the point of pretending that video doesn't exist. I can only guess how many of our readers are "into" video, but I don't think it makes sense for Stereophile to treat them like unpersons. Yes, there are already several magazines devoted to the needs of videophiles, and one of them, The Perfect Vision, is very good at what it does. But a desire to watch movies with as filmlike a picture as the state of the art allows doth not a videophile make, and the video magazines cover the field in far greater depth (and complexity) than is needed, or even wanted, by someone who just wishes to know what's going on in video and how to make wise buying choices. If Stereophile devoted space to video, it might even show that audiophiles aren't insufferable snobs after all!—J. Gordon Holt

JGH makes a good case, but the fact remains that there is no connection between someone wanting to listen to music with as high a sound quality as possible and having similar aspirations when watching movies in the home. Given that Stereophile has insufficient space to cover high-end audio in the depth that it would like, to devote even a handful of our precious pages to a peripheral subject is counterproductive. (The reason we don't cover in-car audio is similar, for which it could be argued that there is a greater connection with home audio.)

Nevertheless, if you, gentle reader, are interested in high-quality video, then I recommend you explore the specialist magazines covering that subject, The Perfect Vision and Widescreen Review, for example. And if you want to read what JGH has to say about video, get hold of a copy of his Video Home Theater magazine (footnote 4). What Stereophile has covered and will continue to cover is how to obtain high-quality sound for a Home Theater system, something into which JGH went in some detail in his review of the Snell THX 500 loudspeaker system in December 1992 (Vol.15 No.12, p.63), and which PWM touched on in "The Ground Floor" in March '93 (Vol.16 No.3). I have found that adding high-quality sound—it doesn't even have to be surround-sound—to even quite a modest TV enriches the experience immeasurably.—John Atkinson

Footnote 1: Well, almost. One performance parameter—the color of screen "gray"—is most accurately set by eye, using a precision visual comparator. The visual acuity to use it properly is an acquired skill. Some other things, like color saturation and hue (tint), can also be calibrated pretty accurately by eye, using a special blue viewing filter, but again, this demands some expertise.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 2: Edge sharpening increases the apparent focus of "hard" image transitions, like the outlines of objects, giving an impression of greater picture detail. Fine detail (resolution) is not improved, though, because it isn't present in the video signal source to begin with.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 3: Published somewhat irregularly by Video Home Theater, Boulder, CO 80303. [VHT ceased publication in 1994.—Ed.] Please note that there is no commercial connection between VHT and Stereophile.—John Atkinson