Superbowl Home Theater Tune-up!

Superbowl 2014 is Feb 2…the countdown is running! Get your system tweaked and peaked…tuned up for your Superbowl party this year! Make sure it’s looking and sounding its best with a Superbowl Tune-up package from Platinum Home Theaters.

It’s simple: contact us by email (email only, please!), we’ll set up an appointment. We’ll check everything out, make sure it’s all working right, fix simple problems (and tell you about any serious ones), do a basic once-over of sound and picture, all for $99! It’s everything you need to do except shop for junk food.

Package does not include Audyssey Pro calibration, ISF video calibration, or component repairs. Package includes up to 90 minutes of technician’s time on-site. Limited to customers within a 25 mile radius (email us to be sure you’re in!).

Will 4K (Ultra HD) Go The Way of 3D…and the Dodo?

You know, it’s hard to force change on people. They just don’t want it, even if it’s good. It took discontinuing analog TV in the USA to really get people to buy even modest 720p TVs, and about 20% of TV viewers still watch on standard def sets even today. The jump to “full” (implying there’s a half-full?) 1080p was more of a stumble, but the slow phase-out of lesser resolution panels did the job. Again, we took away the 1080i option, forced the change. Yes, people change, kicking and screaming all the way.

Then the 3D debacle. This time 3D stayed longer and stronger than any of its previous attempts, but in the end, those darned dark glasses finally were just way too much trouble to experience what little 3D content we had. And we did have at least some.

Soo….. Ultra HD, huh? Is it better? Sure, and mostly the improvement is actually visible, at least some of the time, to some viewers, no glasses required. Which is a funny thing to say in almost 2014. “No Glasses Required!” was the catch-phrase CinemaScope used when pitting their anamorphic wide-screen format against 3D in the 1950s. Guess who won. Actually, neither.  TV won.  But in theaters, anamorphic wide screen was the clear winner, though 3D gets points for persistence.

Again I say, Ultra HD, huh? Yes, I want it. I’ve seen it, it’s better in many ways, but oddly, dramatic resolution improvement isn’t one of them, because to see it you’d have to sit with your nose 3′ from your 50″ TV.  Here’s the deal: we don’t have any native Ultra HD content. None. Nada. Zip. There is 4K content around, but guess what? Not the same, and no perfect way to convert! The problem is, there are lots of flavors of 4K, all of which are 4K pixels wide, but with various heights. 4K wide doesn’t scale well at all to 3840 x 2160, even worse than 2K scales to 1920 x 1080. The cheat is, we’ll all see a cropped off version. Not a huge deal, but what on earth were they thinking?  Beats me, really it does. That little resolution conflict makes about as much sense as picking 16×9 for HDTV when movies everywhere were already 1.85:1 and 2.35:1.  Just dumb.   So no, we have no native Ultra HD at all. And we probably won’t.

Where do we get any Ultra HD content at all? So far, Sony can get you some if you buy one of their Ultra HD sets. The library is highly limited, though. There’s no broadcasting it. No cable stations can squeeze that kind of picture size into their bandwidth, and while YouTube, of all companies, has a 4K possibility, you’ll pay up for the computer hardware to see it. Pay up for YouTube? Seriously…pay anything for YouTube to force-feed you commercials so you can watch funny cat videos in 4K?  Ok, apologies to Freddie Wong.  But no, there’s not much content. Are we again in a cart vs. horse situation?

Not quite, my equestrian friends. You see, up-scaling content is something done every day by DVD and Blu-ray players connected to HD TVs, but showing a standard DVD. Works kinda good, right? Actually, a little too good. Scaled DVDs have fooled experts into thinking it was real HD. Scaling 1080p content from a Blue-ray to Ultra HD isn’t hard at all, and works quite well. You don’t get the advantage of real pixels with real detail, but the fake ones are really pretty much good enough for most people. But some of the Ultra HD magic is in its new color abilities, and it’s doubtful that any scaling will take advantage of that, even partially. There are other aspects to the Ultra HD picture improvement, but little point in discussing them here in depth, since you won’t really see any of them until real Ultra HD content is left crying in a basket at your front door.  And while you wait for that, scaled 1080p gets you the ability to project it even bigger, something we already know that less than 1% of home viewers would want to do, because they don’t have the room for a 180″ screen.

Nobody is in a position to answer the title question of this post. What we can say is, Ultra HD has the ability to improve 1080p content noticeably on larger displays, and without glasses. In that way, it has a leg up on 3D. And, it’s really another rung in the ladder, of which “Enhanced Definition” was one (remember those fuzzy days?) followed by 720p/1080i, 1080p, 1080p high refresh, and of course 1080p 3D, though I think someone sawed through that last rung. We step up to Ultra HD, but the ladder goes higher. 8K is out there, not in someones imagination, it’s really being done. And I’m afraid 3D hasn’t taken it’s last bow either.

Buy an Ultra HD display today and get at least some picture improvement of your existing 1080p, but don’t hold your breath for real Ultra HD content. And I wouldn’t pay up too hard, the ladder is, after all, still extending.

New EarSpace Headphone Store opens

While I’d love to slap some mortar on some bricks and do this in a physical retail space, I’m starting virtually instead.  EarSpace is my new Headphone Dreamstore filled with hand-picked tools to achieve personal audio nirvana.  I’ve leveraged Amazon’s amazing order-fullfilment and shipping capabilities and collected the best headphones, headphone amps, and even a few DMPs in a little virtual boutique.  Note that when you buy through us, you buy through Amazon, which means satisfaction guaranteed or you just return them to Amazon for full credit.  Not quite as good as an in-store audition, but pretty close for shopping in your pajamas.

Find it here, or go to Platinum Home Theaters and click through the “Stereo” or “2-Channel & Headphones” nav button.

“We’re making personal audio better…two ears at a time!”

The Subversive Subwoofer – or How to Save Bass

Subwoofers are usually the largest speaker in your collection, and the one speaker when played, on their own, sound just terrible. Yet, without a subwoofer, the typical home theater system lacks impact, rumble, and all the emotion that goes with it. Subwoofers are simply not optional anymore.

So what do I get? There are many questions that a subwoofer salesman (subwoofer salesman, really?) might ask you: How big is your room? How much bass do you like? How much do you want to spend? Do you have room for a big subwoofer box? Of these, “how big is your room” might be one of the most important. Little subs for little rooms, big subs for big rooms, right? Sort of, but it’s that room itself that we really need to know about.

See, with bass as low as that produced by a subwoofer, the sound waves are so huge that the room becomes part of the subwoofer system. It’s not avoidable, it’s life in acoustics.

Subwoofers occupy a lot of real estate in your room, so it’s not surprising that they share the three most important factors in buying real estate: Location, Location, and Location. A 2 million-dollar home built next to the city land-fill is still just a house by a land-fill, you can pretty much ignore that it’s $2 mil. A $5000 subwoofer in a bad location is just a subwoofer in a bad location, it could just as easily been a $500 subwoofer, and though the Sub Monster might play louder, neither will work well there.

Why so location-picky? Without going into a long and boring explanation, which you could google anyway if you can’t stand not knowing, those great big long bass waves the sub produces bounce around your room and actually interfere with themselves producing very uneven bass frequency response in different places in your room. The places you care about, the seats, included. What to do?

The easy way: move the sub! Move that big box right over to, and into your favorite seat. That’s right, let the sub have the money seat for a while. Connect it up and turn it on, and play something with good bass so the sub can do it’s thing. Now, drop to your hands and knees and go crawling around the room, listening to the bass as you go, and moving your head to locations that you’d consider putting the sub, and then some that you’d rather not. At some point you’ll find a spot or two where the bass is better, stronger, and smoother than other spots. That’s your sub’s new home, put it there, and it will happily provide your seat with the same kind of bass you just heard. Neat huh? Yup, the “subwoofer crawl” is free, and essential if you only have a single subwoofer.

“What? You mean I could have more than one sub?” Well, sure you can! In fact our friends at THX advocate no fewer than two subs, and we’d put a smile on their faces if you had three or four. No, they don’t get a sales cut, and having more subs isn’t all about having more bass, it’s about having better bass in more locations.

Remember from your crawling around on the floor, there were places where the bass sounded better, and others where it didn’t? If you have multiple subs in your room, they sort of fill in each other’s gaps. If one sub is weak at a particular bass frequency, others will take care of it. And that’s how you get really smooth, deep, and impressive bass.

I’ve been asked, given the need for many subs, is it better to have two or three smaller, less powerful subs, or one big monster? Again, it depends on location. In general, more is better, even if they aren’t quite as monstrous. Of course, more monsters is even better, but if you’ve pumped the oil well in your backyard dry and can’t afford four subs at $3500 each, you can get most of the way to your goal by buying four subs at one half to one quarter of the price for one monster sub. So yes, when we consider dollars, more less expensive subs are better than one gold-standard unit. You can do extremely well with a set of two, three or four M&K Sound SB12s, at $1200, for example.

What makes subs expensive? A subwoofer is essentially an motor that moves air. The lower the frequency, the more air the motor has to move. So, low frequency extension costs money. Also, the higher the sound volume, the more air the motor has to move, so high output costs money. Roll them together, and you get high volume at low frequency costing lots of money. Then we have to rock your world and throw in low distortion. Yes, you want to move air, but without distorting those bass waves while doing it. And THAT TOO costs money!

The desire to get high performance out of a sub at low cost moves us to look at creative engineering. Several manufacturers have tried to crack the size barrier, some have done pretty well. Sunfire (Bob Carver) has produced some impressive, yet tiny subs by designing special drivers, amplifiers and equalizers. Dr. Hsu makes some excellent low-cost subs by precision tuning ported boxes. Others manufacturers each have their area of focus. But getting THX Ultra2 Certification on a sub requires quite a bit of low frequency, high output, low distortion performance. Look for dollar signs after most THX subs.

Enter one of our favorite speaker designers, Ken Kreisel. Ken is the “K” in the venerable M&K speaker brand, and though he is no longer associated with that company M&K Sound’s product still carry Ken’s legacy. Ken is the pioneer of the concept of subwoofers in smaller rooms, having made the first tri-amplified, sub-reinforced studio monitor system for Walter Becker for the final mix of Steely Dan’s “Pretzel Logic” album in 1973. Ken’s audio timeline is here:

Yes, Ken has been at it again. His latest creation, Kreisel speakers and subwoofers, crack the price/performance barrier yet again. If you can call his DXD-808 subwoofer “entry level”, it would simply crush all other subs in it’s price class to tiny bits, and though not “cheap” at $1995, we think it’s a bargain given what it does at that price. But then, there’s the Kreisel DSD-12012, clearly a leader for, clean, deep extension, and high output bass. “Hey Ken! If one is good…”…yes, Ken suggests you stack them! Duo, Quattro, and Quattro-Quattro combinations get to to bass waves you could walk across the room on. They aren’t for everybody, and frankly, per our discussion, before you pony up $48K for a Quattro-Quattro, you might just get four DXD-12012s and spread them around the room. You can enter into Kreisel DXD-12012-land for $2995 (list…but call us!)

We’ll talk about calibrating your subwoofer(s) another time. That’s it for now, probably too much (as usual). As Ken Kreisel would, and does say, “Good Sound To You!”

We install a new Control System for Heil Trailer International

When Kenny Goodman in the IT department at Heil Trailer was designing a new corporate conference room AV system their Athens TN facility, he knew he needed to get all the equipment under control with a system simple enough that anyone could use it at any time without assistance from him or others in his IT department.  After considering his options with the larger control system companies, he settled on iRule for its flexibility and customization, along with excellent value.  He then called Platinum Home Theaters for programming and installation assistance.

We programmed the system with custom graphics while interacting with Kenny and his staff to fine-tune the operation for simplicity and flexibility.  The room had 3 70″ panel displays, one of which is a Sharp Smart Board electronic white board.  There is also a blue-ray player, an Xi3 computer, and a LifeSize video conferencing system, all under iRule control on several iPads.  Lights and thermostat control is also provided on the iPads.

Have a look at the screen shots!

IMG_0246 IMG_0248 IMG_0249

CEDIA News 2013 – 1 New Epson projectors sport Lotsa Lumens

Brightness in projector is, literally, the “hot” specification, right beside contrast ratio. While often misinterpreted or inflated, the brightness spec relates directly to how bright a picture you can project, especially in the lossy 3D modes.  But it’s not the only important feature, and Epson‘s new projector balance the hot and the important for a new set of high performance, high-value projectors.

Epson’s new projectors are bright, but add some extra features that even modest home theaters can benefit from. Their new “Ultrabright Pro Cinema” line has models at 6000, 5200, and 4000 lumens, 3D capability, and (at least on one unit) HDBaseT (thank you!). One model includes an internal anamorphic processor for 2.35 aspect ratio projection. This is a higher-end line.

In the realm of darker rooms and smaller wallets, Epson has their Pro Cinema 1080p units with active 3D support, Fujinon lenses, and 480Hz drive technology. A new feature that will appeal to hard-core film buffs is the Black and White Cinema mode targeted at viewing classic films. Also included is THX certification, and picture-in-picture functions. Models start at $2499 and top at $7499 MSRP

All available through Platinum of course.

IOS 7 and Platinum Control

To our customers with our Platinum Control system (built with iRule), Apple has released IOS 7, and you may have already received the update notice.  But please DO NOT update to IOS 7 yet!  While we expect no issues, it has not been fully tested with iRule, and we do not know what issues there may be.  Since your control system is “mission-critical”, we urge you to hold of until iRule’s development team has fully tested their app for compatibility and security.  We will advise here when the update is safe to do.

Power, Conditioning and Grounding

Grounding your Gear – Saving Your System

What’s so good about good ol’ Earth? Well, for one thing, it’s huge, and because we are usually attached to it, electrically it’s considered the largest pole of most circuits. A good many electrical signals and power sources are measured with reference to “Ground”. We talk about the safety of a good and solid “Ground” connection. But what is it, and why would I worry about “Ground” with my home theater system?

Taking a quick look at what “Ground” really means, we find that it can mean several different things within the same general principle, which is that the planet we live on is at a reasonably stable voltage potential, and is used as a reference in measuring other voltages. Take that idea and extend it to equipment of all kinds, and Ground now is an electrical connection made to the outer metal cabinet or housing of equipment to limit the exposure of higher voltages to users. If the case is grounded, and something carrying voltage breaks loose inside, it will contact the inside of the case, and that voltage is taken directly to ground, away from our tender hands.

For home theater and audio enthusiasts, ground has several special meanings. One is, the common connection of audio and video circuits, usually the outer shield of connectors and wires, and is usually attached to the chassis of equipment. And the chassis is usually connected, via a 3 wire cord, to the third pin of an electrical outlet. That third pin may have an actual ground wire attached to it that runs back to the breaker box. That wire may be part of the sheathed wire in your home (if your local codes don’t require conduit), or an individual wire run back to the breaker box. However, the ground connection to the breaker box could also be carried by the conduit and metallic junction boxes. This is not ideal, but acceptable from the viewpoint of the electrical code. From the breaker box, the ground connection finds its way to actual earth via a ground wire and ground electrode, usually a long copper rod driven into the earth near where the electrical service enters the building.

One of the things we as home theater owners worry about is damage to our expensive gear from electrical surges. So, we pay all of $15 at the hardware store for a surge-protected outlet strip, plug our stuff in and call it protected. Or, we pay up for a fancy “power conditioner” with blue lights on the front, perhaps even a volt meter, that’s supposed to scrub that dirty power clean, and slam the electrical door to any wayward in-bound surges. It would be nice if it were all that simple.

There are a lot of signals that would just love to get to solid ground somehow. AC power is one, but probably the biggest, nastiest and most common of all comes from the sky…lightning strikes. These things are hard to deal with because they are buzillions of volts and even a strike nearby, not directly to anything in our home, can cause our sensitive equipment to vaporize silicon junctions in nanoseconds  just from the electric field around the strike.

Taking a worst case of a direct strike to a power line feeding our house, that line (both wires of it) become momentarily energized to a voltage far higher than normal power, and with a burning desire to get to earth. Our normal power lines are purposely kept as far as possible from earth, and the things that stand between earth and the power lines are out gear, which make nice fast-blow fuses when hit with a lightning discharge. The only thing to be done is to offer that energy a much easier path to ground than through our gear, and an important part of that is a really good connection to ground. Think back to that ground rod some electrician pounded into the earth by your electrical drop, and imagine how good and solid that is. And now, think again. Not all ground electrodes actually provide good low resistance ground connections. In fact, some have shockingly high resistance (sorry!). What most ground electrodes have in common is that the owners have no idea if they are providing the best quality ground because the fact that they exist at all satisfies the electrical code, but nobody’s ever actually tested them. In lighting-prone areas like worst-case Florida, the likelihood of a good ground being required is quite high, but the conductivity of the ground itself may simply prevent that without special installation. The ground resistance of the electrode can (and should) be measured, and be as low as possible. Measuring ground resistance is also the only way to evaluate the primary ground connection, and how effective it might be.

So, assuming our ground rod has only a few ohms of resistance to ground, what gets that lighting strike energy to it and away from our gear? We need a good, low resistance path from the power line to ground…but that can’t exist because, well, that’s a short circuit, and nothing would work that way. The magic devices that exist in most surge protectors are MOVs (Metal Oxide Varistor) also known as a VDR (Voltage Dependent Resistor). These things are meant to be very poor conductors (insulators) up to a certain design voltage, then wam-o, the become like a dead short, shunting current caused by a high voltage spike away from protected equipment. Hopefully, the spike is short and moderate, but if not, the MOV/VDR will sacrifice itself, perhaps having protected the gear, perhaps not. That little red LED on your Home Depot power strip is meant to indicate that the MOV/VDR is operational.

Now, to fully understand the problem, consider the two basic types of surges. One is transverse, meaning they occur between the hot and neutral conductors of a power line. They are caused by switching large electrical loads like motors on and off, and can come from inside or outside the home. The second type of surge is “common mode”, or arriving at the device on both hot and neutral wires. These types of surges require two more MOV/VDRs for protection. Some common-mode surges can be quite high, thousands of volts. Then there’s the lightning strike, which goes beyond any of this.

What’s wrong with your surge protector? Perhaps a lot, if you consider that even expensive “power conditioners” require a really excellent ground for good protection, and probably aren’t getting it. An excellent ground is obtainable at the end of the ground wire that connects to the ground electrode, assuming low ground resistance. But, once we move away from the ground bus in the breaker box, the little 14ga wire, or steel conduit offers much less than ideal ground connection out at the equipment location.

So what to do? The only, and I mean ONLY reliable surge protection system for your home is the “whole house” surge protector installed at the breaker box, attached to the incoming electrical drop, and ending up at the ground rod. Nothing else works as well, and some token surge-protectors are basically worthless. Don’t let that $20,000 equipment replacement warranty fool you either. The fine print is usually not available, and once it is, you find out why those “insurance policies” are never paid out.

What about filters? In theory, the voltage surge that hits you is very short in nature, yet very high in voltage. What if we were able to filter off most of the high frequencies found on power lines with a big honking magnetic filter? Turns out, that does work within limits. The filter simply won’t pass high frequency energy, and that leaves MOVs down stream of it with much less to do.

What about the audible and visual benefits to squeaky clean power? You know, funny thing about AC power, nothing actually uses it directly. Every audio and video device, have takes that raw and nasty AC power, transforms it, rectifies it, filters it (yes, filters it), regulates it and the, finally, it’s smooth clean DC that can be used by the device. So lots of changes going on in the power supply that sits just past the power cord, and included in that power supply is an all-important filter. That filter, mostly a large capacitor, is there specifically to kill all noise on the rectified DC. Mostly that noise is 60Hz and 120Hz from the power line and rectifiers. Those are pretty low frequencies, and to deal with that the filters have to pretty much kill those frequencies and everything above. Job done, right? What about the high-efficiency “switching” power supplies? These are now very common, and work very well. They convert AC power line voltage to smooth clean DC using high-speed switching techniques. Those techniques by their very nature produce high frequency noise by the ton, and so they must have, and have extensive output filters. See where we’re going here? With filters on analog and switching power supplies in place by necessity and design, how on earth would slightly filtering the AC line do any better? It doesn’t, and claims of improved picture and sound are imaginary in all but the rarest cases.

“Now hold on there”, you say. “When I connect my computer to my DAC or AVR, I get this horrible noise, I’m sure it’s coming through the power!”. Well, sort of. Some computer power supplies, particularly the laptops and cheaper units in general, impress a rather substantial amount of noise on the ground connections, which may be shared by an audio device that references its audio signal to that ground. Adding a power conditioner with its noise filter will likely do nothing for two reasons. First, the filter is on the incoming line, and the noise generating power supply is on the opposite side of it, with its ground shared by audio gear. Second, many conditioners don’t bother filtering the ground anyway. There is a simple cure for this problem, but…well, not in this post.

So, what do we need most to protect our gear? I good low resistance ground electrode, and a whole-house surge protector. That’s it, that’s all, nothing more. If you want to add a power conditioner for aesthetics, voltage monitoring (why, exactly?) or power distribution within a cabinet or rack (perhaps the best argument for a power conditioner), that’s fine, but it won’t help your sound or picture, and won’t provide definitive surge protection for your gear.

As always, contact Platinum Home Theaters for grounding, and surge protection solutions.

This added final thought:  Local plug-in surge protectors are not without benefit, as a great many surges come from within the home, though these are typically less intense than those from outside.  Cascading surge protection (Main breaker panel > local plug strip) is not a bad idea at all.  The problem with the surge protector plug-strip or power conditioner is the tendency to rely on it alone.  Start with whole-house protection, then add the local plug strips, and you’ll be about as protected as you can be.  Don’t forget that even plug strips come in the surge-only version and the filter + surge protection version.  The latter costs more.

Ignore that $$$-equipment-replacment warranty.  They rarely pay out.

…and that’s why I hardly go to movies anymore

Just got back from “Jobs” on the big screen, AMC Yorktown.

The pre-movie ads and videos are projected using a low-resolution, dim, probably analog projector with rolling hum bars moving up the screen, soft focus, low contrast.  The sound was so sizzlingly bright I wanted to stick fingers in ears.

Then the curtains open, they kick on the big projector.  Rolling hum-bars are gone, it’s a few foot-lamberts brighter, but not much really.  Sharper for sure, but the illumination is very uneven, with a hot spot in the middle, dark corners, etc.  That’s just sloppy operation and poor maintenance.  The sound was left heavy, indication a mis-calibration of at least one channel level.  The dialog was dull, could be a production issue, but more likely calibration again.  And they never did quite get the house lights all the way out, so the blacks were dim orange, doubtful contrast hit even 500:1.  20 minutes of trailers and ads, at least.

And I have not one of those issues in my home theater…you probably don’t either.

So what was good?  The subwoofer response in the theater was almost barometric, really went low, but was probably out of cal.  Just a bit too much of a good thing.  The screen size was impressive.  The seats were comfortable.  And we had nearly a private showing.

A couple quick words about “Jobs”.  The personalities were most interesting, and the story was too, but there’s a lot of board-room talk and politics.  About 3/4 of the way through the movie Steve was just getting the axe from Apple, and I was wondering how on earth they would finish this up in 20 minutes.  Well, they didn’t finish in 20 minutes, and in fact didn’t finish the story at all, but the highlights were hit, and the physical resemblances were startling.  Worth a view, probably wait for it on iTuAmazoFlix.