Diablog: HTiB in Paradise

Venice: La Serenissima, and serene it is. Gondolas ply the blue-green waters of the canals while thundering water-buses hop round the exterior of the islands in a blue-grey lagoon kissed by Adriatic sea air. Tourists cheerfully lose themselves in a maze of quiet pollution-free streets. Unleashed dogs walk themselves, tails wagging. Workers patiently replace wooden piles under sinking buildings while old folks haul lightweight shopping carts over pedestrian bridges. People are gentle and tolerant in this 1250-year-old former nation-state, and that's a good thing—because there you are, in a supermarket, aiming your digital camera at home theater gear. I could have killed you.

Sorry. I was so tickled to see a stack of HT-in-a-box systems in a supermarket.

That's because you live in Manhattan where all the supermarkets languish in a 1970s time warp. Still, when we stopped by the local Billa to provision the mini-bar at lower prices, I was as amazed as you were by the towering heaps of pig's knuckles and nice cheeses and three-dollar wines. Did you know billa means bag in Italian? And that they charged us five euro cents for each of those yellow grocery bags?

Those thrifty Europeans. Looks as though they're not averse to saving money on home theater too. The Amstrad DXS2000 "Sistema Home Theatre" went for 70 euros. At an exchange rate of $1.18 for one euro that comes to about $82, a pretty rock-bottom price even for a "2.1-Canali" system. And just look at these features:

  • Compatibile con MPEG4-3.11/4.xx/5.xx/Xvid/Pro/
  • Compatibile con DVD/VCD/CD/MP3/JPEG
  • Dolby Digital Out
  • Uscita Scart/AV/S-Video
  • Display Blue Lcd You know none of that means anything to me.

    North American techies will recognize half of it. The top line refers to video compression systems used in Europe. SCART stands for Syndicat Francais des Constructeurs d'Appareils Radio et Television—that's the interface that connects TVs to signal sources in the European PAL TV standard.

    Wow, you mean the Italians are PALs with the French?

    Sigh. Amstrad was among the first companies to market a PC. Nowadays it makes European satellite boxes and videophones and has a Hong Kong based wing that markets low-end a/v gear in various parts of the world. What's remarkable is that its HTiBs are selling not just in Italian supermarkets but in Venetian ones—Venice, of course, being the world's largest car-free city.

    So how are those big boxes getting home?

    Exactly what I was wondering. They're too big for the little canvas shopping carts people drag through the streets.

    I think the answer must be something along the lines of: "Giuseppe! Tear your lazy ass away from the PlayStation. Mama wants you to bring home a 2.1-canali system."

    Giuseppe might well answer: "Oh, mama, can't we just have it delivered?" After all, vigorous men hauling freight in boats and barrows are as common a sight as the elderly with their shopping carts.

    You think a videogame-addicted Italian juvenile would balk at bringing home a sub? I beg to differ. Shudder.

    Anyway, every time we visited Billa, the pile of Amstrads got smaller. And the solitary 14-inch TV selling for 75 euros disappeared. Not as much action in the stack of 40-euro stereo mini-systems.

    Well, every souvenir shop and produce market had one already. Gosh, I loved Venice. Most relaxing place we've ever visited.

    Some people would call it a backwater. To me it was a rational and civilized landscape, built consistently on a human scale. Beauty everywhere. Addictive calmness. Peace. I wonder if any high-end home theater systems lurk in the palazzos along the Grand Canal?

    Seeing a crew wrestle a 65-inch plasma out of a boat would be quite a sight. Fishing for an excuse to go back?

    You bet. I'd live there if I could.

    Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater. For links to the latest edition, visit www.quietriverpress.com.

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