Diablog: Snakes! Snakes!

Behind the rack again? It worries me when you squat back there for half an hour and your face turns red.

I can't help it. This is my job. Granted, my job could be easier if more of these products had the latest interfaces. The two culprits here are analog multichannel audio and component video.

Yawn. Wake me when this is over.

I'm the one who needs a nap. Every time I review a surround receiver I have to connect my projector to the receiver with three component video cables. Each component video signal source is another three connections. And then there are the six analog audio interconnects that go between the receiver and my universal disc player.

EEEK! Snakes! Snakes! Now, me, I live in a simple iPod world. I attach my headphones and I'm done. Maybe if I'm ambitious I dock the thing in something like that cute iPod Hi-Fi system you just reviewed. Why do you bother with these stupid, big, heavy components and all these cables? Your life could be a whole lot easier.

Yeah, but how big is the screen on your iPod? Does it surround you with sound? How much bass do you get out of it? When the action picks up on my 72-inch-wide Stewart Firehawk and movie sound effects start pouring out the sub, you get as excited as anyone.

Granted. Your home theater system is a turn-on once it's up and running. But I personally find all these cables a total turn-off. Why can't there just be one cable that connects everything?

Actually it exists. It's called HDMI. I think that stands for High Definition Multimedia Interface.

Well, why don't you use that instead?

Believe me, I live for the day. But there are so many versions of HDMI, from the original 1.0 to the forthcoming 1.3, and compliance varies from product to product. Carrying both audio and video signals in one cable was the basic idea from the get-go. But the initial version carried only video and stereo audio...

...yeah, yeah, and if it isn't surround, it isn't home theater.

Except at Steve Guttenberg's house.

Who he?

He's a colleague of mine, an acknowledged master at reviewing surround gear, but he'll be the first to tell you home theater can work fine in stereo.

I wish I were living with him.

Anyway, HDMI is still rarely used to carry surround signals, and even with video signals there are some issues. My other major headache is this bunch of analog interconnects. I could connect the disc player to the receiver with just one digital optical or coaxial cable, but if I did that, we'd miss out on all those cool surround effects on SACDs. Like the alarm clocks going off on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon in all five speakers. HDMI might take care of that someday and another interface called 1394 would take care of it now. But 1394 is still relatively rare in surround receivers. At least the more affordable ones.

All this seems unbelievably perverse. Why weren't these fancy audio formats designed with uncompromised digital connections that deliver all the goods in the first place? Why don't manufacturers put them in as soon as they become available?

What initially slowed the evolution of high-res interfaces more than anything was the need for digital rights management. Let's face it, people steal stuff. Did you pay for everything on that iPod of yours?


What keeps entertainment industry executives awake at night is the possibility that if they offer better quality, HDTV and high-res surround, someone will copy it and pass it around. So while the copy-protect issues were being worked out, early generations of SACD and DVD-Audio players passed their best-sounding soundtracks—you know, the ones we upgraded our player to get—only through the analog outputs. There you have my six-serpent nightmare. The digital interfaces are gaining acceptance. Eventually they'll make it through the product development cycle and trickle down from top-line products to more affordable ones. At least, I hope so. SACD and DVD-Audio may not be popular enough to drive the change but things will get really interesting when next-gen formats like HD DVD and Blu-ray start delivering next-gen surround codecs from Dolby and DTS. In the meantime, I struggle and my face turns red.

It seems to me that you've waited too long for the fix. Why do you even bother to review equipment that's arguably obsolete? Don't you realize that whatever you go through, it's even worse for readers who don't have your experience and have to pay for their cables?

So what are you suggesting? That I just refuse to review anything that's hard to hook up? Now that's an idea. Hmmm...

Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater. His other book, Happy Pig's Hot 100 New York Restaurants, is now a free resource on the web.

John Pritchard's picture

What I don't understand about interconects is why everyone dint switch to a single fiber optic loop ten years ago. Fiber has near unlimited capacity, has next to no degradation, and is relativly cheap.

Mark's picture

The problem isn't bandwidth. It has more to do with content security and signal protocols.

CharlyD's picture

Mark, I think you accurately nailed one of the major failings of the CE industry. As clearly demonstrated by the success of the iPod, consumers are not interested in complex systems but will flock to products that offer simplicity and convenience. I am certain that a home entertainment system in which all devices are interconnected over a single wire would be a winner in the marketplace. The technology exists today with firewire or HDMI. DRM can easily be supported over either of these protocols.

OxuCRoYETG's picture

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