Lights in a Box?

"Without content, television is nothing more than lights in a box."
---Edward R. Murrow.

Steve Guttenberg---Con
Steve Guttenberg has been a projectionist for 21 years, working in movie theaters and (from 1984 to 88) at WPIX-TV in New York City. He has 15 years' high-end retail experience at Sound by Singer, also in New York, and since 1988 has served as a producer for Chesky Records.

The high-end community is a tiny, fragile island---albeit an influential one---in the vast consumer electronics/entertainment world. This island was left mostly undisturbed by the larger outside world until the early 1990s, when Home Theater became the new cause célèbre of the electronics biz. This market has grown so quickly that it may endanger music-only systems, which I believe are what the overwhelming majority of Stereophile readers enjoy on a regular (daily) basis.

Because I believe that the goals of Home Theater and the High End are mutually exclusive, I pose these questions: Can they coexist in the same community? Do the retailers and manufacturers who cater to the high-end market wish to accommodate a mid-fi approach to sound quality? Will those manufacturers of high-end equipment who lower their sights to address the Home Theater market find their high-end customer base losing interest in their products? Do they really believe Home Theater is the only way to increase sales?

My position is not against Home Theater per se; it's that the High End can prosper on its own terms. The word on the street is that Home Theater is booming; most high-end dealers I spoke to claim 50% of their 1995 sales were in some way Home Theater-related.

The High End is a quest for the unobtainable: to create the perfect illusion of live music in the home. Home Theater strives to re-create the cinema experience at home, but this effort is considerably hampered by the NTSC video standard (footnote 1). Most videophiles believe that the digital soundtrack on laserdiscs is of CD sound quality; in practice, it's far below CD standards. I performed some LD/CD/LP comparisons that produced a serious indictment of Home Theater's sound quality. Home Theater is a mid-fi picture and sound medium. Yes, it can be fun, but it's not High End.

Home Theater (the marriage of audio and video) is a cancer that endangers the High End and all it has worked to achieve. My concern is that small audio companies (average size: 15-20 employees) will divert their precious R&D away from what should be their first priority: the quest to transport the listener back to the recording session.

We've come a long way, but the goal of creating an illusion of real musicians performing between our (two!) speakers remains elusive. To now redirect our attention to a lower-resolution format (AC-3, DTS, or MPEG-1 and -2) is to abandon the notion of creating the "perfect illusion" of music in the home. I don't understand why anyone who's experienced the sheer musical pleasure of a great high-end system would accept the crude mid-fi of even a top Home Theater setup. Yes sir, cheap thrills abound: explosions, dinosaur feet pounding away, spacecraft swooping overhead---all synthesized effects designed to rattle your eardrums. Visceral, you bet---but close your eyes and listen to how real it sounds. It's in no way comparable to a decent LP or CD enjoyed over a good high-end system.

Footnote 1: Consumer high-definition video is at least 6 to 8 years in the future.