Behind the Curve

Dear Abby:

The other day I was invited over to a friend’s new house for coffee, and to check out his new home theater setup. It’s a charming little home, spotlessly kept. So when my friend recently got an important promotion and substantial raise at work, he celebrated by buying the home-theater setup of his dreams.

Abby, I was so shocked I just about sprayed my single-origin Sumatra! This system had been specified as “top of the line,” sold, delivered, and installed by America’s leading consumer electronics source, a national chain whose stores are all but ubiquitous in strip malls across the country. I name me no names, Abby, but do the colors blue and yellow mean anything to you?

The TV was stunning, a 65-inch 4K set with HDR and multi-zone local dimming, from a major Korean manufacturer whose name requires more than two letters. Standing four feet away, it’s pixel texture was invisible, and the cinematic effect of this quality and size was undeniably powerful. But it was mounted fully five feet up the wall -- perfect for a standing viewer -- on the long end of the room some 24 feet distant from the low sectional sofa at the other end. Worse, it was a curved screen -- and so was the soundbar affixed to its lower edge that was the audio core of this dream “home theater.”

Abby, a curved soundbar? Girl, WTF?

The installation was sanitary, and mechanically beyond criticism. But the surround speakers, little cubes exactly the size of a half-pint of Half’n’Half, were simply placed on side tables either end of the couch, where they fired, futilely, into your midriff. And at that distance the curved screen looked like a forlorn potato chip stuck up on the wall. To me, the sacrifice in apparent screen-width, and the visual distortion in the vertical plane from any viewing position even slightly off-center, were obvious. A little probing revealed that, while he’d cheerfully been up-sold to it, my friend had no concrete idea what HDR was, nor that its benefits are only available from suitable content (they’d not even suggested he add a UHD Bluray player), nor that all current broadcast or streaming sources are for all intents and purposes completely devoid of HDR.

In terms of tonal balance and output the curved soundbar was actually quite acceptable: announcers seemed a shade “honky,” but clarity and intelligibility were good. Stereo spread, while limited, was perfectly discernible from six feet, but all but undetectable from the distant listening/viewing position. And the “subwoofer,” a six-inch driver in a ported enclosure the size of a breadbox, was chuffing audibly away at 50 Hz from under the sofa.

Abby, here’s my dilemma: Do I explain that the curved screen at a commercial cinema is formed that way only to negate the pincushion effect of projecting an image over an angularly wide area, and that the curve radius is generally slightly greater than the full projection distance (which itself is about 1.25 to 3 times greater than the typical audience viewing distance), as opposed to the curved LCD's of about one-fourth of his room’s seating distance? So there is simply no rational reason to duplicate it on any self-illuminating screen? Do I point out that a curved screen stretches, and thus exacerbates, reflections from lamps or windows? Do I raise the idiocy of a curved soundbar, which shrinks the stereo separation -- already woefully inadequate when distant by nearly a first down -- by another few inches? That the surround speakers, pathetic though they are, would be far better mounted three or four feet higher? That any minimally competent installer would have suggested locating the whole system 90 degrees, across the shorter wall of the room, which was perfectly practicable and would have more than halved the viewing distance? And would have mounted the screen at eye-height rather than a neck-craning three feet higher? Or that the three or four thou’ my buddy undoubtedly spent (or financed) could have bought an equivalent flat screen -- possibly even an OLED -- and a decent 5.1-channel audio system with a sub capable of deep bass?

In short, do I speak up and jeopardize a valued friendship, or hold my peace and let my friend suffer this abomination? (He knows what I do for a living but did not solicit my advice, for reasons beyond my comprehension. Didn’t want to bug me? Feared I’d insist he spend more? I don’t know.) Abby, tell me what to do!

--Behind the Curve (not) in New Hampshire

Dear Behind the Curve:

I feel your pain. Yours is an unenviable position, but in such cases I always try to find the Gordian-knot solution. Your friend’s new home is undoubtedly well insured: can you tactfully determine if his policy includes lightning damage? Most do, so here’s your plan: on a moonless, windy night, sneak over there and cut the copper strap leading to the three-foot ground-spike most found at rural houses. Then, pray for rain.

Oh, and be sure to wear rubber soles. And let me know how it turns out


ryanchicoine's picture

Have you ever lived with a curved TV in a real-world environment? Your characterization of a curved screen TV is different than my own. In my case the curved screen actually eliminates the window glare in my living room (right side wall) in all of my viewing positions.

Decibel's picture

In the days of the electron tube the race was on to create flat screens as they reduce reflections and are more accurate. Sony famously came close managing to make screens vertically flat. Thankfully now we have flat screen LCDs,etc and the problem has been solved. Now the marketing guys and flexible screen manufacturers want to show off their new tech and presto: the have managed to devolve the perfect flat screen back to a curved one. When the masses come to their senses I'm sure we will all return to flat screens. I'm referring to home theater of course as there may be some merit to desktop gaming for a curved screen. Curved screens are geometrically inaccurate. End of story. If you were a surgeon, would you use a curved screen? Think about the consequences. Is your house mostly made up out of straight lines? Why would you want to look at a curved house? I like the fact that some things have curves but a TV is not one of them.

Daniel Kumin's picture
Obviously, every installation, situation, salesperson-customer interaction will be different. I've related just one specific instance, with a little (a very little!) poetic license for humor; everything factual is true and accurate. It is established fact that a curved screen will increase the spread of glare from a room-light reflecting directly. Similarly established is that reproducing (non-compensated) video will introduce geometric distortions, subtle though they may be depending on viewing distance and angle. (Throw up an old-fashioned CRT projector-convergence grid test-screen and view it from 35 degrees off-axis horiz plus 15 deg off vert, and then tell me there's no visible geo distortion.) And I clearly stated at the top of my story, this screen's image reproduction was stunning when viewed from a proper distance (short) and angle (none), which it absolutely is. I'm certainly not dissing Sammy; I own one myself, a 10-y.o. LCD that still looks terrific compared to any of the cheaper 50's avail today . Nor am I attacking any chain's hard-working staff. Mostly I am mourning the disappearance of the AV specialist retailer, in the better sort of which a customer could learn a great deal of accurate information and be assisted -- and, to be sure, in most cases gently guided, encouraged, and persuaded -- to make an informed buying decision. Life, however, is change; I understand. Pax. Everybody go vote!
eugovector's picture

So, are you still employed after your election day post from yesterday? I hope so; it took guts to write what you did. Take care.

Daniel Kumin's picture
Certainly not-- S&V's rulers are not quite so autocratic as all that! But thanks.
hk2000's picture

Great article. I agree, but if it were me, I'd leave it alone. Many times I found myself in the same situation, and every time I spoke up, I regretted it. If they're happy with what they got. I'd feign awe and admiration, unless it's a very, very close friend or relative, even then be prepared for negative reactions. I just wish you wouldn't use the Childish and vulgar "WTF" phrase- that does not belong in real journalism, I've been reading your reviews for a long time- since the Stereo Review days- you're better than that!