Lights in a Box? SG page 2

Movie Theaters Are To Home Theater As Live, Unamplified Music Is To Recorded Music:
There, I've said it. The analogy continues in how these art forms are perceived: in a public place vs the home. Live music and film presentations involve audiences; this is an integral part of the experience.

A film viewed in a theater is the "original"; the audience experiences the director's vision in its most direct form. Home Theater and audio-only experiences are far from their "audience-involved" counterparts. They share a detachment---the viewer/listener is removed from the scene. Home Theater advocates seem to derive immense pleasure from sitting in their underwear watching Terminator 2 in their Home Theaters---good for them! Some go so far as to boast of their absence from the real cinema; they don't like crowds or waiting in line. Poor babies.

The typical audiophile would be ashamed to admit that he or she rarely attends live concerts. Most Home Theater types won't own up to the fact that the cinema experience goes way beyond picture and sound-quality issues---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.

As Home Theater attempts a re-creation of the cinema experience, questions of picture and sound quality begin to resemble a Pandora's box. The picture that dominates Home Theater presentation falls far below its 35mm film counterpart (see Table 1). In the video world, bigger is certainly not better: brightness, sharpness, contrast, color depth---all deteriorate with size, yet the Home Theater model is projector-based. Though the Faroudja Line Doubler is a true high-end product, larger screen sizes remain the enemy of higher-quality images. And American high-end companies like Faroudja attempting to compete with the giant electronics companies face an uphill battle in the video arena.

There's more. You can't view a video full-frame, regardless of aspect ratio, without further degrading image quality; pure blacks in video are out of the question; edge sharpness and flare factor suffer in video relative to 35mm film. High-Definition TV (HDTV) is better, but 35mm film is still ahead. Home Theater's picture is a faint, fuzzy, distant second place to the real thing: 35mm film---its potential as a high-end medium remains faint.

Is Home Theater Sound High-End?
There's no practical way to compare film sound to Home Theater sound, but comparisons of LD to CD and LP proved quite illuminating. After all, the digital audio track on LD is the very foundation of Home Theater sound. Though it would seem a simple matter to transfer a film's soundtrack to laserdisc, a rather surprising situation emerged: soundtrack CDs and LPs always offered better sound than their LD counterparts. Our beloved 16-bit, 44.1k CD took all that its 12" silver cousin (LD) could throw at it, and the CD was triumphant.

I concentrated on music-related LDs for the most part in these comparisons, since the dramatic films' music is mixed in with dialog and effects, complicating the comparisons. I did listen to a selection of regular laserdisc hits such as The Mission and Taxi Driver; their sound was fairly unimpressive. I used my Theta Data II laserdisc/CD transport, and a Muse Model 2 D/A; digital playback was therefore identical for LDs and CDs. First up: the laserdisc/CD of The Juliet Letters, by Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet (Warner Bros. 6-38340, LD; 45180-2, CD). The sonic differences were tremendous---so much so that I believed that there must have been considerable remixing in the mastering of the laserdisc. However, this turned out to be a typical disparity between LD/CD. The CD was far more dynamic; Elvis's expressive vocals were far more alive. The laserdisc sounded quite homogeneous, with the top octave significantly rolled off. What little sense of space and dimensionality the LD contained was reduced compared to the CD. (The imaging was better on the laserdisc---just kidding.)