Defining The A/V Enthusiast

In recent months we've received a number of letters at Home Theater complaining about our coverage of the new 3D video technology and of the Web-streaming capabilities appearing in everything from TVs to Blu-ray players to set-top boxes. Most of our video reviews now have a dedicated section describing 3D performance and a short discussion of what content is available on each product's streaming platform. Some readers who are skeptical or not interested in these new part-time features think we shouldn't be wasting their time by writing about them, while others have defended us and acknowledged our obligation to report on any significant new features and assess their performance. Other readers seem to be upset with our almost exclusive reviewing of 3D-capable displays, a necessary by-product of the fact that 3D is a feature now of pretty much all the HDTVs in the mid-to-upper price bracket where we typically focus our reviews. These happen to be the better 2D sets and the ones we'd recommend in any circumstance. Our view is that, if you don't like the 3D part, you can always not watch it. But, unless there's some good reason, it doesn't make sense to review poorer performing products just so we can recommend something that doesn't have the premium pricetag of 3D attached to it.

I find the letters expressing skepticism and disinterest in 3D and streaming fair and reasonable. But some of the mail from the complainers has smacked of a surprising Luddite fear or distaste of new technology. We even received a letter recently from one reader who's still watching standard-def on a CRT display and suggested he'd not only like to see us dispense with reviews of 3D products, but wouldn't mind seeing more reviews of "non-Blu-ray" disc players, which I took to mean that, in an ideal world, he'd have us using our limited editorial space to review $39 commodity DVD players.

All of this got me wondering about the range and passions of the hobbyists who read our magazine. Home Theater is an enthusiast publication, but how, exactly, do you define an A/V enthusiast? Is it about how much you spend on your gear? I don't really think so. Is it about always having the latest, cutting-edge technology in your system and being a so-called "early adopter?" For some people, their old gear is enough, and I don't begrudge them that if they watch it and enjoy it. But I would have supposed that you wouldn't be reading HT if you didn't have a fascination and interest in home theater technology and enjoy at least reading about the latest developments. Frankly, I was a little stunned to find we have readers who can be openly scornful of our coverage of new technical advancements, even those that hold no interest for them personally.

For the sake of what I admit is a purely semantic discussion, let's take the example of three hypothetical guys. The first has a theater system that gives him many hours of pleasure but is terribly outdated by today's standards: maybe a straight-up DVD player, an old standard-definition CRT set like the reader I mentioned above, perhaps a receiver that tops out with Dolby Pro Logic surround decoding (pre-Dolby Digital), and a compact sub/satellite speaker system that won't rattle the house but sounds just fine. Guy 1 enjoys reading about all the new gear and pines for a better system with the latest advancements for the enhanced experience he knows it'll bring, but for whatever reason—financial resources, limited space, a cranky spouse—he just can't have it right now.

Guy 2 has exactly the same system. He also enjoys reading about the new gear and all the new advancements, and understands completely that people more passionate about home theater may want the newer/better stuff. But his system is honestly enough for him because he has other interests and his passion in this area simply has a limit.

Now, let's take Guy 3 with the very same system. Like Guys 1 and 2, he spends many hours enjoying movies and music on his home theater and he's perfectly satisified with what he's got. But when he reads the A/V magazines, he doesn't really get why anyone needs to upgrade to a high-definition display, or a Blu-ray player, or a receiver that decodes DTS-HD Master Audio, much less gear that has streaming or 3D capabilities. Maybe it even upsets him a little bit that Home Theater keeps reviewing all this new stuff — more of it every issue, in fact, and fewer and fewer components like the ones he still owns. Until, finally, he feels the need to write in and complain about it. And yet, he keeps reading the magazine. Why? It's a magazine whose stated mission is to report on the latest gear and technology. I mean, that's what we do.

So I ask now, are all these guys A/V or home theater enthusiasts? Same aging, budget system, same amount of play time and pleasure from their gear. They all read Home Theater regularly. But they have very different attitudes. The first two guys feel a geninue passion for the gear, even if only one of them has a real desire to pursue the ultimate home theater for himself.

But what about Guy 3? Can you define yourself as an enthusiast if you're not just merely skeptical or uninterested, but genuinely unenthusiastic or even downright hostile to the march of technology that is so much a part of this hobby?

Just a thought...

akak's picture

It's patently unrealistic to expect technology to stop developing, manufacturers to stop offering new technologies in their latest products and you to stop covering that technology -- especially when the home theater experience is changing so rapidly and we as consumers need someone to help us make sense of it all.

When I read the haters' letters, I'm struck by how clueless they are -- how little they understand new home theater technology and its benefits -- how easy their allegations are to repudiate. and how misplaced their anger is. I suppose nobody likes being well behind the technology curve, but to rail against them strikes me as being silly and self-centered.

By the way, to the writer who wanted HT to cover DVD players, did you ever stop to think that a "quality" DVD player is unmarketable these days -- for what it would cost to build and sell that unit, one might as well buy a Blu-ray player and get all the extra features.

Jarod Reddig's picture

Welcome Rob Sabin to Home Theater mag! Lookin forward to you as the new editor with your custom install experience which I feel was a bit lacking in the past in the magazine. I can't believe what some of these people are saying in there letters. They actually think its a bad thing and waste of time to cover the newest and most state-of-the-art gear? These are the same people that are just now getting microwaves in their homes. To me an enthusiast keeps up on all the new advancements in A/V gear, some more than others. If you got the A/V bug how can you not drool over awesome new technology and gear? It always seems that people are more likely to take the time to send a complaint then to send congrats. Personally I think Home Theater magazine is wonderful and I would condone the publication if you didn't keep up with and review the latest and greatest gear. Just keep up the good work and all of us enthusiasts will stay happy. And as far as 3D goes, I believe to each is own. But if you have not experienced 3D done right than do not knock it until you try it. I personally love 3D when its done right.

EWL5's picture

The writer who felt DVD players are good enough reminds me of a SNL skit where an older guy (played by Dana Carvey) reminisced by saying something like "In my day, we didn't have these fancy shmancy 3D TV's! We shared a wooden loop that we rolled down the street with a stick and we LIKED IT!" Anyone reading HT Magazine should be looking forward to the latest and greatest. If I want a piece of nostalgia, I'll hit eBay, Audiogon, or some other similar site for equipment from "back in the day."

I currently do not care for 3D myself. However, I have the freedom to bypass that section of the review w/o affecting my enjoyment of the magazine. Eventually I will have to get a new TV and 3D will probably be standard by then. At that point, I will have extreme interest in the 3D portion of the review as well as any 3D benchmark discs that'll be out there.

david.yurik's picture

After reading your opening Rob I felt the need to reply and give you some insight. I have no idea who your typical subscriber is but can describe myself in effor to assist. Maybe some others will follow suit?

I would say I fit one of the molds described in your "view from the street" prologue. I'm a typical hard working middle class American who loves his home theater. I had some Bang and Olufsen speakers driven by Rotel amplifiers a few years ago (like 15). I was fortunate enough to buy a new home in 98 and pre-wire my living room with 7.1. Jump ahead a few years to a relocation move, kids, minivan and an interior design decision maker (besides my kingly whims) and I am forced into a different style home theater.

It has to conform to my living room / family room, be small enough to meet the bosses approval, and cost effective to not break the bank. For sound I run a Pioneer VSX-820 out to an Energy classic 5.1 sub / sat system. The display is a Sony 46" HX 3D lcd tv sourced from a Sony BDP-S470. Daily television viewing is Direct TV. It all got connected with the cheapest online parts I could find ( I have less than $3,000 in the whole system and I drilled every hole and pulled every wire to make it look pretty.

In no way does it pound like the dedicated B&O / Rotel / Paradigm / PSB stuff now tucked under the stairs neatly in the original boxes but.... I would say my family loves it just as much as I loved the higher end without interruption. It has added a whole movie watching enjoyment to our limited family time that is worth way more than the dollars it took to put it in.

I will never buy a $5,000 plus amp or $10,000 plus pair of speakers so most of those reviews are completely useless to me. I wish the majority of your reviews were on products under $1,000 like the Vizio soundbar and the Cambridge speaker system. I would send you pics of my home theater but its far too below the standard of $25K and up dedicated rooms. I would like to see something like this show up once in awhile, a regular living room that many of use use as our "theater". On the other hand for $12 bucks a year I wont complain. I will continue to subscribe until you go the way of Thanks for the blog!!

David Yurik

Rob Sabin's picture
My thanks to all of you for your comments. I received some notes via email as well, including one that defended Guy 3 as an enthusiast, but pointed out that he's just disgruntled. Interesting thought: everybody changes, and we grow in and out of habits and hobbies throughout life. Maybe Guy 3 is someone who still fancies himself an A/V enthusiast for now, but truth be told is on his way out. He's likes his theater, but he's lost his interest. Fair enough...

On the matter of 3D, I have to say that I'm only slowly being won over to it myself, in part because of demos I've seen of 3D front projection systems, where I find the technology less fatiguing to my eyes, more natural, and more engaging than on flat panels. It goes to Jarod's comment about seeing it done right. But even on a flat-panel, I'm starting to feel like it's a feature I could watch occassionally with the right movie (i.e., Avatar).

David, I thought your perspective is probably not unlike that of a lot of our readers, and I appreciate that you enjoy reading the magazine even though you're not lusting after every piece of high end gear we report on. I really don't think that having or even wanting an expensive or fancy system is a requirement of enjoying this hobby, and in your case, it's a matter of been there, done that, and as long as I can curl up with the family and enjoy a movie night my home theater is performing to my specs. It's even okay to want more reviews of affordable components that fall within your budget. One of the great things about Home Theater is that we really do have the leeway to do a $10,000 Blu-ray player and a $528 speaker system in the same issue. Ultimately some people may look at the BD player and be amused and outraged at the price, while others will read the review and have to have it. Ditto for the speakers. We'll continue to do a mix of high end, midrange, and entry level gear going forward, though I'd like to do a little less aspirational high end gear and more bread and butter stuff a serious enthusiast, but one on a budget, can find real value in.



prbookworm's picture

As a retiree on a fixed income, I am not likely going to upgrade to 3D or blue ray because BD disks are still higher priced than DVD's.That does not mean I don't like to read about the new technology.

satkinsn's picture

I promised myself I wouldn't jump in this thread, because no matter what I write, it's gonna come off as old and cranky.

But I can't resist, so here goes.

I think what Rob is seeing from technology nay-sayers is (are?) two things:

1 - a certain amount of exhaustion with ht technology. We had just gotten done pushing out to Blu-ray, 1080 tvs, lossless encoding for surround sound, when along came 3D.

2 - HT's uncritical coverage of the above. I followed HT's reporting very carefully in the early years of blu-ray, of high def and 3D and it all tended to follow the same pattern:

- This is amazing, if you're an early adapter don't wait.

- This is now the early mainstream, so everybody should be jumping on board.

- Yep, there were really problems during steps 1 and 2. Thank god we're past that point.

I saw no serious effort on HT's part to write about what drove the hardware manufacturers, studios, etc. to push for 3D when they did.

More generally, HT doesn't do a good job of telling me how to enjoy/get more out of the equipment I have. Let's say I'm running a legacy AV receiver and a 40 inch, 720p tv. Should I upgrade to blu-ray? If I don't, what am I missing? What's the best way to integrate a turntable into an HT set-up? Should I be building a separate music server or using an htpc? Speaking of which, htpcs seem to be going away. What's the state of the art there? Should I still be thinking in terms of one?

I could keep going, but won't.

Finally, a question: the magazine has often had pictures of current movies (new releases to blu ray) on its cover. Do the studios pay for those placements, either directly or in trade for other advertising?

And if so, has that been acknowledged in the past? Should you post a regular disclaimer if that's the case?


Scott Atkinson
Watertown NY

EWL5's picture

Scott (satkinsn),

You are not coming off "old and cranky" but very cynical. During the format wars b/w Blu-ray and HD-DVD, I don't recall any publication in their right minds recommending everyone to jump in. I do recall comments about superiority of the picture and sound quality, which all tend to be true unless you don't own equipment that can help differentiate (ie. 20" screen or micro satellite speakers).

Speaking of not owning the right equipment, some of the reviewers have given cautionary disclaimers about what to expect from certain products. I'm pretty sure some of the reviews of finer speakers have given the caveat of "clean amplification." If you need further "reality checks", you can always hit the forums (ie. AVSforum, etc.) and converse with real customers who have the product in their homes.

Why are you picking on the placement of movies on the cover? Are we not discussing a magazine called Home THEATER? What do you think drives this hobby? Tone down the cynicism please!

satkinsn's picture least not intentionally.

I probably didn't do a good job of making the point I'm chasing.

You're correct, of course, that you can go through HT issues from 2005-2009 and find occasional cautionary notes.

What I'm trying to get to (using 3D as an example) is this:

3D was very little mentioned in HT until about the time of 'Avatar,' which makes sense.

What doesn't make sense (at least to me) was HT's failure thereafter to take even a mildly neutral look at the technology and how ready it was - and whether the industry, which was struggling with both slow blu-ray uptake and a flattening of replacement tv sales was pushing tech that wasn't ready for prime time. I'm doing this from memory, but I believe HT went more than a year without noting there was no common, agreed on standard for 3D.

Likewise, while there are mentions of potential eyestrain issues the magazine hasn't done a takeout on the subject, unless it's very recent.

My point is this: if you're going to cover the home theater scene, cover it as journalists. There's nothing wrong with being enthusiastic, interested and in sympathy with the idea of home theater - you wouldn't want to hire someone who doesn't care about the subject - but please, subject the larger claims of the industry to scrutiny.

Example (again, picking on 3d): a takeout on how popular 3D is or isn't. Interview dealers, people who have it and people who don't.

My other point is this: the world of two channel audio has its own obsessions, but one very good thing about it is a respect for older gear, and an interest in working with it. Is home theater fundamentally different? Do you just throw out what doesn't have the latest codecs or resolution? My guess is that a subset of HT folks don't have the money or urge to do that, but do want to stay engaged.

Finally, I wasn't picking on movie placement. I was asking a question, not to play 'gotcha' (I honestly don't know how it works) but to say "If you're getting paid for this, as a reader I want to know." Here's why: a magazine's cover is a reflection of what the editors think is most important or interesting or best for a given month. If that judgment is superseded, even a little bit, by commercial placement, knowing the commercial considerations helps me make a better decision about how seriously to take the cover.

EWL5, asking questions and being skeptical is not the same thing as cynicism. I don't assume everything about ht is bad, or that change is bad or that the magazine is bad. What I do want is to see all of the above get better, as I'm sure you do too.

Scott A.