The Second Sense

When it comes to video, most audiophiles are insufferable snobs. These normally reasonable people, who are among the first to admit that great sound in a motion picture theater makes a great film much more enjoyable, nonetheless. scoff at the very idea of augmenting their own sound with images, or of trying to create the kind of audio-visual experience in their home that they routinely enjoy at the cinema. Doing that involves video, which they equate with TV, which they equate with LCD (footnote 1) dross. This is unfortunate, because visuals can enhance good sound, and good sound can do wonders for non-TV video programs like Hollywood motion pictures.

This issue of Stereophile debuts a new department: Video. It is a small department, occupying no more than a few pages per issue. To introduce this new department, I am going to talk about our reason for allowing this bold intrusion in to our hallowed high-end-audio pages.

We all know that listening to well-reproduced music by itself can be a delightful experience. Audio alone brings us the essence of the music—its sound—without irrelevant images and the the varied distractions of an audience: the coughs, the crinkling candy wrappers, the whispered conversations, rustling programs, and the overweight lady nearby radiating a miasma of cheap perfume. Audio is an art form unto itself, not necessarily better than, but very different from the real concert-hall experience. But just as a recording session allows for the control of acoustical phenomena, providing music without extraneous audio experiences; a well-made video recording of a musical event limits the visual presentation to those aspects that enhance the music. It is a different art form, having its own unique capability to please the senses.

So-called pop videos such as Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and Michael Nesmith's "Elephant Parts," and the manic mini-spectaculars used on MTV to promote record album sales, have established sight-with-sound as The New Music Medium for the Masses. But classical-music videos—of operas and concerts—have thus far not found acceptance by most "serious" music listeners. This would be okay if listeners had tried the A/V medium of music presentation, and found they didn't care for it; the fact is, however, that most have never experienced it and thus don't know what they're missing. What they're missing is the potential for greatly enhanced enjoyment.

For movie buffs, the wedding of high quality video with high-quality sound can offer even greater benefits. Few of us will deny that good sound in a movie theater enhances the impact of the film. Yet few realize how much better the average home audio system is than the average cinema sound system. Try to recall the last blockbuster film you saw in a theater, and the awesome low end that came off its soundtrack. If truth were known, that "awesome" bass actually had a lower limit of about 50Hz! That's right; 50Hz is the design cutoff frequency for aU but the most ambitious movie-theater sound systems:. And very few of the sound tracks themselves are even recorded to below 40Hz. (Those floorshaking rumblings in the film Earthquake were actually generated by the low pass-filtered output.of a pink-noise generator, and special Cerwin-Vega subwoofers had to be installed in the theaters where the film was shown. Some theaters were so unaccustomed to that kind of low end thauhey actually shed plaster onto the paying customers.)

And those sparkling movie-theater highs? Few such systems produce anything worth sniffing at above 5kHz! That's what audiophiles think of as "middle highs." Yet most modern film soundtracks are flat to around 10kHz, and some go well beyond that. That's hardly perfectionist-type high-end range, but it's a helluva lot better than most of us have ever heard in popcorn heaven.

But there are also ways in which cinema sound is better than most home audio. For one thing, it sounds bigger. A theater is a large performing space, with a typical reverb time approaching that of a concert hall, and for that reason the sound is usually mixed dry—with little reverb of its own. The theater space does the rest. At home, the film sound track sounds as dead as it actually is. That's called "fidelity to the recording," but it is not the way the recording is meant to be listened to.

Then there are the theatrical film's surround-sound effects, which seem to expand the action beyond the limits of the screen by producing certain effects from behind us. Both the proper theater sound and the surround sounds are usually missing from the home listening environment, but they need not be. We have ways...

Most Hollywood films released with stereo soundtracks for home viewing are actually encoded with the surround-sound information you hear in the theater. All it takes is a decoder and a couple of extra speakers and amps, and you get the surround effects in your home. When Indiana Jones is being pursued by angry natives, you hear their shouts approaching from behind you. Ambience synthesizers, which create the illusion of a reverberant space from dry recordings, have been available for years, and are particularly valuable in making film soundtracks sound the way they were intended to.

Many audiophiles argue that they will not try video with their sound because of the size disparity. They tend to think of video as a tiny picture, and conjure mental images of a grotesque conflict between this teensy image and the Cinemascope spaciousness of our reproduced sound. In fact this discrepancy often exists, and is one of the things that must be considered when adding images to sounds. Watching an automobile travel 14" across a screen when its audible image travels 8' between loudspeakers, is not only distracting but ludicrous. Yet even though audiophiles are far more aware of stereo-image directionality than the average theatergoer, even we tend to be more forgiving of imaging accuracy when our eyes can see the "sources" of the imaged sounds. The visual sense takes precedence over the aural, so even though all the dialogue in many films is mixed to occupy the center of the movie screen, we nevertheless "hear" it as coming from the person we see speaking on the screen.

But when the picture size and soundstage size correspond, and both are big, the effect can be stunningly realistic. That congruity is best accomplished via a large-screen video projection system, but there are other less costly and space-hogging ways of achieving the same result with a small screen.

As a serious audiophile, you already own half of what it takes (and possibly the most expensive half) to enjoy the benefits of a mixed-media home entertainment system. If you already own a videocassette or videodisc player, and haven't tried piping its audio through your system, you're in for a very pleasant shock when you try it for the first time. There is, for example, low end on many prerecorded videocassettes (and most TV broadcasts) that you've probably never been aware of. It is filtered out by the average TV speaker as effectively as if it went through a third-order Butterworth high-pass filter.

I'm not suggesting that Stereophile readers take up another hobby. What I am suggesting is that the addition of video to your audio system will open up a whole new world of sheer enjoyment to you. That's why we are starting a video department in Stereophile (footnote 2): to help you assemble an AV system that will give this kind of pleasure.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 1: Not Liquid-Crystal Display, but Lowest Common Denominator.

Footnote 2: Despite Gordon's advocacy for sound-with-images to be included in Stereophile's remit, the subject remained a minority interest, and soon after I became editor, I decided that the magazine should stick to music reproduction. Gordon experimented with publishing enthusiast video magazines in the form of Laser News and Videofax, but these titles eventually folded. It was only with the launch of Stereophile Guide to Home Theater (now a decade later that Gordon's call to arms in this essay bore fruit.—John Atkinson