3D is now so “dead” that it doesn’t even show up in the Nielsens.

Yes, I know, beating a dead 3D horse again, but I saw this story and thought it was less of a comment, more of an underscore.   The short version: too much trouble, not enough benefit.

Yes, we knew that didn’t we?  So what did we REALLY get out of 3D home video products?  We got really great 2D!  At CEDIA in September Epson introduced a couple of new projectors.  Even their reps openly said, “Yea, it comes with a couple of pairs of glasses, you can keep then in a drawer and watch great 2D.”  All that R&D to get 3D to happen resulted in brighter, sharper 2D, and at lower cost.  It pushed the tech forward, and we win.

3D is always something I think I should love, but really hate, at least in movies and video.  I love the antique Stereoscope cards and viewers, and I’ve shot tons of 3D stills, but for me it doesn’t work for video or film beyond the obvious novelty, and that novelty is usually so obvious that it rips you out of the narrative.

3D has been raising its head in about a 15-20 year cycle, and always lowers it again.  This time it’s lasted longer and more content was produced than at any other time, by a very large margin.  But the audiences didn’t embrace it enough to make it really a win.  It’s a novelty still, and while it’s better than ever, it’s still just that.  So let’s go enjoy some really great 2D on those 3D displays, and save the glasses for eBay.





Disturbed by Distributing Ultra HD Video

If the Disc is Dead, then so is everything else!

First, welcome to the new location of the Blog.  Please update your bookmarks, etc.

So now we have Ultra HD, the old 4K. Looks like it’s not going away very soon. And so for, manufacturers have been working on the “easy” part – the display. Yes, that’s a lot of pixels, but those pixels are at the end of the food chain. Once lit up, that’s pretty much it until our eyes get involved. What comes before the display? HDMI, true, but that’s a done deal. The AVR, yes, also a done deal. How do we handle the content? Blue-ray Disc is now just a bit small, so we need a disc with more capacity…again. Or do we? Discs are so 2011. Perhaps the disc can just vanish now, and we’ll be media-free.

Not so fast there Babbage. Remember raw 4K is not just twice the data of 1080p, it’s more like 4X the data. How hard is it to get 1080p over your DSL right now?

Let’s look at some data rates. Raw 2K video used in production lumbers along at 1.8Gbps, while 4K used in production flies at 3.8Gbps. Either version gets hammered down to 40Mbps for Blue-ray, and way below that for any of the 1080p-capable streaming services that need to squirt it down a less than 6Mbps pipe to your home. Our home has the Elite Uverse service that “maxes out” at 20Mbps (read: never actually hits it), but even that seems slow on occasion because of net traffic, swamped servers, and all sorts of other excuses.  Even Youtube bogs down way too often. Barring an order of magnitude leap in bandwidth (not very darn likely) 4K would have to stream into that same little pipe too. And that would mean even more deft bit-rate reduction and compression than is now used for 1080p, which we already see as inferior to the relatively massive 40Mbps coming off BD.

Not a pretty picture, is it? In fact, how the heck…

Scaling to the rescue! Remember back when, before we had HD-DVD and BD to fight it out, we had DVDs and scaling players? Remember how much better a DVD looked when properly scaled to 1080i or 1080p? It’s still going on full blast.  Our current disc players and and better AVRs all scale video. Turns out, the more raw information a scaler a has to chew on and the less it has to do, the better the results. Scaling 480p to 1080p is a 6X scale with very little initial information, but scaling 1080p to 4K/Ultra HD is only a 4X scale, assuming identical frame rates and color depth, and there’s a lot of detail there to begin with. And, given the artifacts will be visibly smaller, the scaling to 4K should look more than adequate for most people.

In fact, a little reality check, if you sit at a recommended distance to your 1080p screen, the resolution is limited by visual acuity, your ability to see detail, already. Ultra HD will move that distance even closer to the screen, which for many will be just too close.

We can and do have Ultra HD now in scaled 1080p. We’re ready! And BD wins, of course, as the raw material for scaling, though no doubt the streamers will do it too albeit with less to chew on. We’re probably not getting real 4K into our Internet pipes any time soon. But I welcome the ISPs of the world to prove me wrong…quickly.

Are You Ready For Ultra HD?

Is anyone?  Ultra HD is, as of now, the new Official name for what we’ve been calling 4K, which, technically was wrong anyway.  4K is shy of actual 4000 horizontal pixels by about 4%.  Anyway…who cares? It’s now “Ultra HD” which is defined as a minimum of 3840 X 2160.  And that leaves room for technical growth and improvement.  But the problem is, the name doesn’t.  Lets say, for example, we want to market 8K, which is already being manufactured as display pieces. What do we call that?  Ultra HD II?  Super Ultra HD? Fantastic Ultra HD? Ultra Ultra HD?  See what I mean?

Look, there’s no end to this.  I saw a recent Tweet that cynically stated he was holding out for 100K video.  Now that seems unnecessary…now, but so did 4K just a year ago. At one time 1080p was “unnecessary” (actually still is in some cases).  So can we say that there’s no need for 8K at home? Nope.  How about 16K?  Give ’em time.

I applaud the effort to name 4K, and Ultra HD is good for marketing.  But it’s short sighed, and while open-ended on the specs side, all that does is add market confusion.  And we’ve got none of that, right?

Keep the Cabinet Cool

AV gear isn’t always the most pretty thing in the room.  Well, perhaps to guys it is, but if we’re honest with ourselves, big black rectangular boxes just aren’t all that great looking.  The obvious solution is to stuff it all in a cabinet and close the door.  That keeps all the gear and wiring inside, but it also keeps heat inside too.  Many devices generate a certain amount of heat even when not doing much.  The typical AVR when turned on is a mini space heater, even if it’s not playing loud at all.

When you put your hand on top of a piece of equipment and feel it warm, think of the temperature of the air in side the unit, then think of the temperature of the components giving off that heat, then think of the temperature of the inside of a power transistor that’s causing that heat sink to warm up like that.  Yow, that’s going to be toasty.  Temperature rise is normal, but if you put even a piece of paper or a magazine on top of your AVR, the internal temperature will spike.  So what are we doing putting that stuff in a cabinet?  Well, not quite as bad as duct-taping all it’s vent holes, but not exactly cooling it either.

Most AV equipment is designed to cool by convection.  Warm air rises out of the top drawing cool air in through the bottom, sides or back.  We can assist that convection by giving the warm air in a cabinet an out.  Cabinets with open backs do that of course, but some built-ins don’t have open backs, and we need to think about providing a vent near the top to let heat out.  As that warm air rises, it needs to be replaced or it will just sort of hang in there, so we also need vents down low to let cool air in.

Sometimes, it’s not possible to get good convection cooling in a small enclosed space.  Enter air movers, fans and blowers.  The goal here is to move as much air as possible while making as little sound as possible.  The two are almost opposite.  The faster a fan goes, the more noise it makes, and the more air it moves, right?  Sort of.  These days some companies have made a science out of moving air quietly.  The driving industry is computers, where things do get a bit torrid on the inside, but noisy fans are so early 2000s. A fan’s ability to move air is measured in cubic feet per minute, CFM.  A fan’s noise level is measured in dBA, which is Decibels, with an A weighting curve.  There’s a bit more too it.  The typical dBA figure is measured at a distance of 1 meter from the fan, and the scale is actually the SPL or Sound Pressure Level scale where zero is the threshold of hearing.  So, a 30dBA fan is pretty noisy, while a 20dBA fan sounds about half as loud, and a 10dBA fan is very quiet.

Computer fans are where the cool action is.  Some of these may take a little inginuity to adapt to AV cooling.  Here are some quiet fan suppliers:

Quiet PC
Acoustic Computer
End PC Noise

There are also products made specifically for cooling AV racks:

Middle Atlantic Products
Cool Components
The Cooler Guys

Your task is to find the largest CFM figure with the smallest dBA figure.  Have fun with that.  But realize that heat hurts, and getting rid of it actively will extend the life of your gear.  Even a very low CFM, quiet fan will make a huge difference over passive convection cooling.  You can even put a couple of quiet fans directly on top of your AVR if you like.

Moving air also moves dust, so don’t forget the possibility of a bit of air filter media on the inlet holes to keep things cleaner, and every six months or so, clean things out.

I the end cool gear lasts longer.  A small investment in cooling now will help you stretch equipment life as long as possible.

Investing in Home Theater Gear?

Investing in Home Theater Gear?

Crazy? Sort of.  There must certainly be better things to invest in.  Like real estate…oops, nope.  How about gold?  Not bad.  How about the stock market in general?  Wouldn’t you rather take a rollercoaster ride?  Home Theater gear?  In that context, not really all that bad.

In order of life expectancy, here’s how I see it:

1. Speakers.  Live long, prosper, sound good. If you got a great set of speakers 20 years ago, you’d like still have a great set of speakers.  I personally have a pair of Large Advent speakers purchased in 1973.  Yes, I’ve replaced drivers, foam surrounds, etc., several times, but I still have them, and still like them, though they aren’t in every day use.  If you bought a great THX Home Theater system when it arrived on the scene, it would still be a great THX Home Theater system.  Nothing else in this list can say that.  Invest well in speakers, they’ll server you for decades.

2. Wiring, installed or not.  The most expensive of all wire you should buy is HDMI cable, and that’s because of what it is.  However, it’s not necessarily expensive.  If you bought high-speed HDMI cable a few years back, it would still work on all current HDMI standards, save perhaps the Ethernet function, but nobody’s really implemented that anyway.  I almost placed HDMI cables much farther down the list, though, because frankly, HDMI is dumb.  Yes, I know, single-cable solution, built-in copy protection, yadda yadda.  Look, the darn stuff is expensive, and if you need anything over 15 feet, it’s the size and flexibility of garden hose.  Stuff that into an entry-level receiver, shove it back onto a shelf, and snap! you break the HDMI connector in the receiver.  Nice design.  Hopefully there will be a better alternative in the next 5 years or so.  I’m not saying what…but I fully expect it.  Speaker wire, on the other hand, will last a lifetime.  12ga copper wire, nothing works better.  Barring damage from the outside world, speaker wires should last 100 years.  Probably shoulda put them in the #1 position!

3. Receivers and audio gear.  While no where near as long-lived as speakers, receivers, specifically AVRs don’t often die young either.  Mostly what happens is technology changes, and features are added, so the new stuff is more attractive and upgrades are made.  Truth be told, not much of what’s new results in an audible improvement, though.  A receiver is about a 5 to 10 year investment, mostly because you’ll want new tech.

4. Disc players.  Ah, the compact disc.  Thirty years old and not going all that strong.  Ah the DVD.  Pushing 17 years, and well on the way to obsolescence.  If you bought a DVD player 17 years ago, you’ve replaced it already.  Probably several times.  My first was a Pioneer, expensive, purchased because it could decode 5.1 channel Dolby Digital soundtracks.  It’s long gone, been replaced about 3 times.  A physical disc player, ANY disc player, is about a 3-5 year investment, and the need for it will probably be less as time goes on, not greater.  Media players, servers, on-demand and streaming, it all points to the end of physical media, and the end of disc players at some point.  Probably not completely for another couple of decades, but it’s coming. In any case, a disc player is clearly not the place to sink a buzillion dollars expecting to be set for a long time.  I like the $500 – $1000 players a lot, but the average Joe will be perfectly served with a $150 Blue-Ray player…for 3-5 years.  If you bought a brande-new HD-DVD player a few years ago…move to last place. Sorry.

5. Display devices, TVs, Projectors.  You want to really spend a lot of money on a terrible investment? Sink it into the newest, latest, greatest display, and in 3 years it’s performance is old-hat, and something superior will cost half as much.  Remember the 50″ Plasma TV of 2005?  It was $3500, and displayed a razor-dull 1080i or 720p, and didn’t even have a real resolution that matched anything.  Today’s 50″ Plasma is under $1000, 1080p, and probably has some “smarts” in it.  A good 1080p projector of even 5 years back was $4000, dim, and had poor bulb life.  Bright back then started at $4000, and excellent began at $20,000.  Today a respectably bright 1080p projector can be had for just over $1000, and really good stuff just over $2000.  Excellent starts at $3000.  Thanks to the pseudo-demand for 3D capability, projectors today are brighter and better than ever on 2D.  You can take the two free pairs of glasses and put them in a drawer, and just enjoy the fantastic 2D.  Not 5 years ago 1080p came at a premium.  Now 1080p is standard, and 4K is a premium, with the first projectors pricing at $10,000 and up.  But hang on, wait…don’t go anywhere…there’s already 8K!  Oh darn!  See what I mean? The pragmatic route is to get a good 1080p projector now, plan to upgrade in 5 years to whatever.  For TVs and flat-screens, if you can live with an LED/LCD, and there are some nice ones, it may take to 7 years.  They are still getting better, though.  Plasma still wins in many ways, and often looks better for the same price point.  No more life-span issues with plasma, and despite its predicted demise a few years ago, it’s still here.  Probably not forever, but a good value now, which means more smiles per gallon. LED/LCD is the low-cost way to go, but if you want really good pix out of it, the Sharp Elite series will still set you back over 3000 beans.  Watch for equally good pix for half that in the next 2 years.

There you go.  Invest away.  One more thing, most of us Pros spend an inordinate amount of time keeping up on gear.  We read, listen, test, install, uninstall, return, exchange, reinstall all sorts of stuff.  If you buy from a custom installer, we have more hands on than anyone else.  Trust our recommendation, and get personal service to boot.

Calibrating to “Life”

Listening to the Home Theater Geeks Podcast #129 recently brought to mind the issues involved in calibration.  Calibration, defined, has the elements of quantitative measurement, and comparison to some known standard of reference to verify accuracy.  When we talk about calibrating our video projector, for example, we have standards (i.e. D65) to target, and the degree of calibration is sometimes stated as the amount of deviation from that standard.  The goal of color calibration would seem to be matching color rendition all through the production and exhibition chain. 
Audio calibration might, on the surface, seem to lack standards.  We don’t have a “D65” as such in the audio world.  However, the film industry has had for many decades a standard response for large theaters and dubbing stages.  While not appropriate for small home-sized rooms, there can be a correction applied to material mixed in the large “X-Curve” theater that helps retain the original tonal balance in smaller rooms.  See the blog post on Re-EQ from 4/1/11.  And recent research has shown a clear preference for a particular response curve for home listening rooms and home theaters.  Oddly, it’s not flat, but then professionals have know for decades that “flat” in small rooms and studios doesn’t sound quite right.  It’s a subject on it’s own, we’ll do it another time.
During the Podcast, a discussion was opened about the parallels of video calibration to that of audio calibration.  The guest mentioned that a friend of his recently had his ears tested by an audiologist, and had obtained the resulting data in the form of a chart.  The guest suggested that the data on the curve be used to create a compensation curve that would essentially equalize the system to compensate for  the somewhat failing hearing response of his middle-aged friend.  I cringed at this idea, and it prompted this post. 
In any video or audio calibration there is a target result, something that has meaning, a standard that is used in industry.  That standard is there so that displays and audio systems anywhere can accurately reproduce the original video and sound the creators intended.  But going deeper, video and audio systems must seem intrinsically right, or natural.  They should not be radically different from the ultimate reference: Life and the world around us.  When they are, the look or sound colored, and we perceive them to be wrong.  This is a rather large generalization, as there is some subjectivity as to what “right’’ is, but a statistically significant population segment would have no problems  thinking a TV looked “accurate” if it was calibrated closely to the D65 standard, and a sound system were calibrated such that it matched a specific target curve. 
Notice that in these calibration concepts there is no compensating for sensory deficiency of audience members.  While it would be possible to build in a correction for someone who had an insensitivity to a particular color, or a deficiency in high frequency hearing, building that compensation into a sound or video system would result in a system that looked and sounded wrong, even to the persons with the deficiency.  Why?  Because the global reference they know better than any other is life and the world around them. 
Building a hearing compensation curve into a sound system would be wrong, as that system would contrast too greatly with life.  Building a color correction into a video display to compensate for a visual deficiency would be equally wrong for the same reason.
The ultimate reference will always be the average stimulus we are exposed to, and that will always be life in the world around us.  We can correct  a hearing deficiency with a hearing aid, and that is accepted because it’s always active.  It literally applies the correction curve to “life in the world around us”.  Our goal as those interested in calibration is to make our sound and picture be able to present believable and acceptable images and sounds that do not differ radically from what we see and hear every day.  That would be the ultimate goal of any calibration.

CD – 30 Years for “Perfect Sound Forever”

Well, perhaps they exaggerated a tad.  But in October of 1982 having a disc with digital audio on it that you could play even more conveniently than a record was a really big deal.  Several months earlier the CD was broadcast on radio for the first time by WFMT Chicago.  I had the privilege of witnessing that event first hand, as I was at the time an engineer for that station.  What we take for granted today…pop in the CD, hit play…music…well, it wasn’t quite that simple on June 8, 1982.  The Summer CES was in full swing, and that afternoon a handful of Sony engineers arrived, toting a battery of test equipment and two copies of their new prototype of the CDP-101 player.  The benched the first one and tried to get it to cooperate, but it wasn’t a great day for technology, at least not that piece of it.  The second player was brought out, tested, massaged, tweaked, coaxed, and finally faired better, and we set about to interface what was to be a $900 consumer CD player to our professional console.  That was actually the easy part.  Getting a CD to play on cue without skipping, sticking, or just not playing at all, that was the hard part.  But it worked, the CD premiered, and thousands across the country (WFMT was carried on cable systems in 38 states) heard the sound of digital audio for the second time.  The first was a few days earlier when we broadcast recordings made using the Sony PCM-F1 digital audio system with a Betamax VCR.

We got phone calls!  Local calls were expected, but people listening over the satellite were calling too.  They heard the difference, liked it, and let us know.   We kind of knew history was being made, at least, we had that sense.  It wasn’t until the following week with the story broke in Billboard that we had a true sense of what we’d all be part of.

And here we are today, 30 years after the consumer debut of the CD.  Where does it stand?  Still around, sure, but rapidly fading into the sunset.  Now, 30 years may seem a long time, but records are still around, even a bit stronger recently, and they would be well over 100 years old.  Yes, the CD eclipsed vinyl, and now digital downloaded files have eclipsed the CD.  Time marches on.  But the take-away is, today’s Blue-Ray player will still play a CD, and any digital disc player we can forsee in the future will likely also be able to play a CD.  That’s not something you could say of a turntable…playing a CD on a turntable was fools work.  And now we rip the audio off a CD, apply error correction and concealment to it during the process, and end up with a digital file that is technically better (more error free) than what is read directly off a CD.  And it all happens at 17X play speed!  Not bad, for a 30 year old audio format!

Who knows what the future holds.  Audio only listening is now dominated by iPods and its ilk, and we have, simultaneously, the introduction of high resolution audio (192KHz/24bit, and so on) and the proliferation of highly bit-rate reduced .mp3 and .AAC files.  The two run in polar opposite directions, yet co-exist on the computer or media server.

Will the CD die?  Probably, but it will be a very slow death that won’t really ever be totally final, so long as there are disc drives around.  The audio on them can and should be preserved in another manner, as some 30 year old CDs are already crumbling into unplayable obscurity.  But clearly, what the CD did was push us toward all-digital recoding and playback, which pushed us to even faster to personal and portable players, and iPods, and …well, here are.

Thanks be to Sony and Philips for their work to make the CD a reality.  Many readers won’t remember cassettes, open real tape, and black vinyl, or at least may romanticize those formats.  For those of us who grew up with them, the CD and digital recording was a long awaited blessing.  The analog problems, noise, distortion, dropouts, pops, clicks, scratches, flutter, wow, head alignment and potential permanent damage by slightly rough handling helped many of us embrace the new methods.  So regardless of what you may thing of vintage analog audio, digital audio is here to stay, and the CD was the continent-sized stepping stone that got us to where we are now.

Posting comments to this blog

While I appreciate and encourage everyone to comment on the blog posts, and will add the comments to the blog if appropriate, if the comment contains a link to a website, it will be deleted.  I intend this blog to be a source of information, not an opportunity to poach traffic to another web site, especially if that site is clearly a competitor! Good grief, how desperate do you have to be?

And that would be why comments are moderated.  Thanks for understanding.