Lights in a Box? Letters

Letters in response appeared in the April 1996 issue of Stereophile:

What's Wrong With This Picture?
Steve Guttenberg proves exactly nothing by comparing Home Theater sound with that of CDs and LPs ("Lights in a Box?," January 1996). As Guttenberg himself indicated, the comparison should be between film sound and Home Theater sound. As to laserdisc sound being inferior to that of CD and LP, I would certainly expect that; the sound on the laserdisc has been drastically manipulated and distorted (for artistic effect), while that of the CD and LP almost certainly is derived from sources several generations closer to the original.

In addition, Guttenberg bases his preference for the theater experience on idyllic conditions that are rarely found in real life. In real life, the moviegoer has to put up with compromised, "one-size-fits-all" screens used for all movies, regardless of the aspect ratio in which they were intended to be shown. Ditto, the distraction of the second version of the movie thrown upon the ceiling as a reflection from the screen. In real life, midway through the opening credits, I have had to search the aisles of the complex for a projectionist to switch to the right lens; after I found him and he corrected the error (which made all the objects on the screen look like tall, thin beanpoles), his comment was, "You'd think somebody would have noticed by now; it's been this way all along."

Contrary to Guttenberg's assertion " the cinema, the left/center/right speakers are all behind the screen," I have found this to be true in only a minute portion of the multichannel movies I have seen, from Fantasia and The Robe onward. In the old days, the usual setup was an Altec-Lansing Voice of the Theater three-way horn speaker behind the screen and box speakers mounted on the wall flanking the screen. More recently, it tends toward three-box speakers, inferior to what I have at home, mounted along the front wall somewhere near the ceiling.

The sound is further degraded by soundtracks from other movies leaking into adjacent theaters. If you're trying to lose yourself in Merchant Ivory in one theater, it's hard to ignore the Rambo/Die Hard/Terminator ordnance leaking in from the next.

Guttenberg has a higher regard for audiences than I do, saying: "In a real theater, the crowd's tears and joys are communally felt. The interaction of the audience and the film is a living, breathing 'effect' that Home Theater can never approach." My own experience is that audiences are noisy, inconsiderate, selfish, and rude. They carry on a running commentary, explain the picture---usually incorrectly---to each other, talk to the screen, eat noisily, and frequently make me wonder why they have paid seven-point-five bucks or so to see something to which they pay so little attention. Further, as audiences---fortunately---become more intercultural, they respond in different ways; for example, dramatic situations to which one culture responds with rapt silence elicits tension-relieving chuckles and giggles from those from a different culture.

Guttenberg's scorn is misdirected when he claims my ilk stays away from movie houses because we "don't like crowds or waiting in line. Poor babies." I, for one, stay away because I find the inappropriate behavior of audiences distracting.

Besides which, if we're going to hold up the theoretical motion picture as the ultimate technology, we first have to face up to one crucial issue: How come, after 100 years, they still can't keep the wheels on the stage coach from turning backwards?
---Paul A. Alter, Hyattsville, MD

Lights In a Box?
Both Steve Guttenberg and Joel Silver made some interesting points in their "Lights in a Box?" exchange (January '96, p.120).
Guttenberg raises the tired complaint of Home Theater "killing" high-end audio. The logic behind this eludes me. Most people for whom television is the primary source of home entertainment are not potential converts to high-end audio, regardless of the availability of Home Theater. High-end audio, the hobby, like any cultish special interest, is inherently self-limiting: there are a limited number of people it will attract. Period. High-end audio, the industry, is perfectly healthy. The fact that it isn't growing exponentially doesn't mean it's dying---an industry serving a "sliver" market is healthy if it can sustain a steady state. (Incidentally, I don't know which companies he is referring to, but in my experience a "small" high-end company has three or four employees, a "large" one 15 or 20.)

As to whether manufacturers and dealers are "selling out" by pandering to the Home Theater crowd, well, they are in business to make and sell products, aren't they? Dealers who proselytize about what people ought to want instead of supplying what they do want are traveling the short road to the unemployment office. New converts to high-end audio will come in through the side door of Home Theater. People are going into hi-fi shops who haven't set foot in an electronics store in 20 years. There's nothing to worry about.

But that's no endorsement of television, the instrument or the institution: Guttenberg (and Steve Andrus in the January "Letters," pp.23-25) is dead-on accurate in his dismissal of NTSC video as a mid-fi format compared to film. The smaller the screen, the better the video image. What's wrong with this picture? Affordable, mass-market High Definition Television is still a long way off. But Joel Silver is right, too: one day video will probably equal film as a visual medium. The marketing and engineering momentum behind it guarantees that. But at present even a mediocre movie theater is several orders of magnitude better than Home Theater.

Is the primary purpose of Home Theater really the enjoyment of movies at home? Why does no one discuss the absurd cost:benefit ratio of Home Theater? A good Home Theater system, not the absolute cutting-edge, but reasonably high-end, is $20,000 to $50,000. That's a lot of movie tickets! You could go to thousands of movies for the cost of a typical Home Theater. And not just at your local shopping mall's popcorn-strewn multiplex. The experience of seeing a film in a beautiful, sumptuous old theater (the Fox in Atlanta, the Paramount in Oakland) is something that can't be duplicated at home at any price. A few months ago I saw the fully restored Lawrence of Arabia at the Paramount---an evening that included a raffle, an organist, some old newsreels and cartoons, and a classic epic film on a truly wide screen, all of it enjoyed from a big cushy comfortable seat. The cost? $5. That's an entertainment value.

As one who has installed and serviced more Home Theaters than I care to remember, I have to say that I've never understood the desire of people to have all that stuff in their homes. To my way of thinking, all anyone needs to enjoy movies at home is a decent TV, a decent VCR, a modest integrated amp, and a pair of good bookshelf speakers. A laserdisc player is a nice option if you want a bit better picture and sound. But a projector mounted in the ceiling and big, bloated, bombastic surround-sound? Spielberg's dinosaurs stomping through your living room? Yuck. Home Theater is just a huge tasteless exercise in conspicuous consumption.

Just my opinion, of course. If all that money were being spent for the sake of great films, I might not complain. But I know it isn't. Home Theaters are sold to upper-middle-class folks so they stay abreast in the status race and so they can enjoy larger-than-life sitcoms, soap operas, and infomercials. God help us.-
--Barry Willis, Mill Valley, CA