I’ve been into home theater a very long time. I built my first one before there even was such a term as Home Theater. We had a “theater in our home”, actually in my parents basement. I had a 70″ wide screen, retractable and hung from the ceiling at the end of the room. I had wiring for two speakers (yes, I made stereo soundtracks!), and projected anamorphic movies that I shot myself. The screen could be adjusted in height for my 2:1 aspect ratio, and was actually a pretty impressive image given my source medium: 8mm film! All of that was in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Last night my wife and I had a sudden urge for the retro experience, and decided to watch a movie the old way: on film. To provide at least some justification for such a foolhardy enterprise, let me say that we both deal in antiques, and that means we also collect things. I currently own four movie projectors, two 8mm and two 16mm machines, and before there was such a thing as a DVD we collected old TV shows on 16mm film, and have several features as well. I still have a small tripod screen, but the home theater in the basement is a thing of the past. So, last night we went retro and watched a feature on 16mm film.
The experience was a reminder of sorts, that we live in a marvelous age where everything is easy. A big, bright HD picture is actually easy to get. Loading a disc in a player is simple, streaming on Apple TV simpler yet, and the typical home theater 5.1 surround system rivals those found in many theaters. But tonight, we ignored all of that and went retro.
I hauled out my prize projector, a Bell and Howell Filmosound 202 that I picked up on an antique pick in Michigan a number of years ago. It was actually my second 16mm projector, but it’s a work of industrial design and engineering from 1955. And it weighs a ton. I had to find a place to put it so I could project to the screen and we could still sit at watch. That turned out to be a challenge. Our room isn’t’ arranged for a machine that large. But I found a place for it, set it up, threaded up a test film, turn on the amp and waited for the tubes to warm up, then flipped the motor switch and followed with the lamp, and the beast began to move film. I had picture, but no sound. It seems the exciter lamp wasn’t working. The exciter lamp is a small dim bulb that supplies the light with which to read the optical soundtrack. No exciter lamp, no sound. The bulb itself appeared to be good, it just wouldn’t light, so I moved on to my other projector, a Singer Graphlex model from the 1960s.
Filmosound 202 like mine, the picture is of an optical sound only model, mine does optical and magnetic with recording:
The Graphlex is a simpler machine to operate, but a but not nearly so elegant when it comes to the design. But it worked, there was picture and sound both, and at the same time. Our feature was on three 1200ft reels, which meant the first task was to determine which reels to lace up in what order, as the reels weren’t marked. My first guess was a good one, and we were almost ready, but for a bit of jostling of the projection angle, image size on screen, focus etc. Ok, more than a bit. The alignment of any home theater video projector to a screen today is actually easier.
Within a minute of starting the film, I recognized a severe problem. The speaker built into the Graphlex projector did produce sound, but with the noisy clattering of the projector, we had a hard time hearing dialog, and that speaker was of course behind us. I hunted down a speaker and some speaker wire, and quickly rigged it all up so we had a speaker a few feet from our faces in front of us, but the audio quality was really not good. It had all sorts of problems: poor fidelity, flutter and wow (speed variations), and noise. Of course, all optical soundtracks on 16mm film are mono with a maximum frequency response of an optimistic 8KHz, and the brief flirtation the medium had with stereo ended before any capable projectors were produced. The sound was as good as it could get.
So, how was the image in the home theater of 1968? Big, it filled our 50″ screen, and bright, but even when focused well enough to see film grain, the image was soft, and disappointing to our HD-trained eyes. The film itself was an older print, sadly faded to pink, with scratches, dirt and splices, typical of a well shown older print. And as to presentation, our viewing was interrupted every 30 minutes or so with a reel change. I didn’t bother rewinding each reel, that would have been so great an interruption as to ruin any hope of continuity. Instead I simply placed the empty supply reel into the take-up position and loaded the next reel. In under a minute, we were on to the next 30 minute segment.
Handling the film was a very physical experience. The reels are large and heavy, the film had to be threaded into the projector, and the projector’s controls adjusted for forward operation, and refocussed each time a reel was changed. And the projector noise was an incredible din. Such is the case without having a dedicated projection booth to contain projector clatter.
We are very spoiled viewers in 2014. We nit-pick about contrast ratios, color gamut, 1080p vs 4K, plasma vs LED/LCD, DLP vs LCD vs Laser, 5.1 sound vs 7.1, 9.1, 11.2, and more. But in the end, we get an amazing picture from equipment with almost no acoustic noise. The media, if any, is light and easy to handle. It’s all a very easy to manage experience, especially in light of the home theater of 1968. It turns out, “retro” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We enjoyed our movie and re-living the old technology, but it was a chore to accomplish, and outside of the novelty, a bit disappointing in the end. We will probably do it again, but somehow the experience helped us to appreciate even more the home theater of 2014.
Ever find yourself watching too much TV? You know how it started: innocently watching a good show, then staying tuned for the next show…then the next…and the next…then channel surfing, to find something better only to settle for something slightly less abhorrent. And, before you know it, you’ve watched TV for hours, during which only perhaps the first 30 minutes or so (less when you subtract commercials) was your choice. Perhaps slightly more was worth watching, but you ended up expending time doing something that in the end had little entertainment benefit.
And that’s exactly how I’ve come to feel about on-line forums. I’ve participated in several over the years, and while each has its own focus and literally, its own personality, very little is of any true benefit or value. Mostly, like average TV, it just occupies time. Lots of time.
It seems forums all start with the premise of sharing ideas and viewpoints, or the quest for information. Questions are asked, opinions given, then controversy creeps in, and soon two or more groups begin to polarize on the same issues over and over. Often, it ends up as a series of arguments between the same two or so people. Or at least so it goes in the male-dominated AV forums.
In Audio and Video forums, the same topics that seem to come up often, repeatedly, and as if they were fresh each time. Things like power cords making an audible or visible improvement, cables and wire in general having a huge sonic or visual impact to the point of justifying expending hundreds of dollars per foot on the exotics. Tubes vs Transistors vs Integrated Circuits, Digital vs Analog, Vinyl vs anything digital, one codec’s virtues over another, Mac vs PC, iDevices vs anything else. Then there’s the newbies asking for opinions, “What speakers should I buy?”, “Which headphone amplifier should I get for my XYZ headphones?”, all followed by an exhaustive list of their amassed componentry. Or, my favorite phrasing of late, “Which <any type of gadget> “pairs best with <any other gadget>? Pairing. The term floated to the surface a decade or so ago in relation to food and wine, became hip, and how is applied to audio and video gear and the stuff it mates with.
Now, some of this may seem valid, and actually, many newbie questions are. I have no problem helping the newcomer, in fact, outside of forums, it’s sort of a personal mission. But that’s where things get weird. Even the well-intentioned poster is often unknowingly in front of a firing squad with other agenda. A questions is asked, a contributor offers valid information, then someone living in an alternate reality takes shots at what are really basic scientific principles, usually with a derogatory statement about science as being wrong, evil, inept, or undeveloped. “There are things in this world science cannot explain!” goes the mantra. And sure, there are many things in that class, but that doesn’t mean that the void opened by the lack of scientific explanation must be filled by mythology either. Or a simple question degenerates into a series of lengthy posts replete with references, graphics, photos and links to substantiate the posters position. This is counters with more lengthy references, graphics, photos and links to support the opposing viewpoint. And inside of 15 posts, what started as a simple question and answer has crumbed into endless bickering, posturing, and proofs of masculinity.
Anyway, for those intrepid enough to delve deeply into on-line forums, you have been warned. There is good and accurate information there, which usually…usually, rises to the top. But there is a lot of mythology and hocus-pocus too, some of which is highly attractive. The attraction often is the air of superiority. “I can hear things that cannot be measured!” is where it sometimes starts. Then, “Changing my 6′ power cord lifted the veil from my audio!” is where it goes. AVS Forum founder David Bott once said on a podcast interview that there is a “dark side to the AVS forum” (my quote is from memory, apologies if it’s not verbatim). That dark side is filled with egotists with an ego to stroke, those with deep seated inferiority complexes who must…must win every skirmish, and those with a short fuse, not willing to abide even one slightly naive post. Yes, it’s pretty dark sometimes. Enough said, proceed with caution.
Some forums have high ideals, even proclaiming “Christian Values”, yet they collapse in their application of them. Others barely tolerate the hard-nosed scientist who demands statically valid data as evidence, cordoning these “types” to their own sub-forum. But in the end, forums are the people involved. Forums seem to attract certain times and repel others. A forum devoted to high-end audio will verbally repel anyone who tries to bring a measure of grounded reality to bear. And the nuts-and-bolts technologist forum will crush any mythologist to a fine auto-drip grind. The odd thing is, if you are of like mind with others, there’s very little interesting debate. If you are at odds with others, it gets brutal.
All in all, there is good information in the forum, but to filter through and find it may not be the most expedient way to self educate. Google, unfortunately, will pop up forum posts, many completely un-authoritative. Either way, the good ol’ Info-Super-Highway can often become clogged and mired with sewage. Unfortunately, the more forceful the opinion, the more it’s seen as authoritative, but forcefulness and truth are two mutually exclusive qualities, and one does not go hand in hand with the other. Those noble enough to try to put the train wreck back on the tracks have a very steep climb. Those battles can go on for pages, and in then end the only people listening are those in combat.
I, for my part, left all forum activity behind some time ago, and am using that time for more productive ventures. I’ll leave the ideas and concepts, myths and legends, facts and fiction to sort themselves out.
And, I’m sure, for better or worse, richer or poorer, bloodshed and tears, they will.