Upgradeitis: Is It Worth It?

I received an e-mail recently from reader Francesco Tenti in Huntington, NY, politely complaining about the speed with which AV technology seems to be progressing.

“Back in the old days, when you purchased a good audio system, you were set for years to enjoy high-quality music,” he wrote. “You were not attacked by new technology and pushed to update your equipment every other day. With the digital revolution, it seems that whatever is new today is kind of outdated the minute you take your new gear home.”

He went on to say, “We went from 5.1-channel surround systems to 7.1, 7.2, 9.2, 11.2, and now Dolby Atmos systems, for which you need new electronics and speakers. Traditional HDTVs are becoming obsolete; the new 4K is here, but there are no products to view through it, so people will have to wait for new programming, buy new disc players, and so on. Is it really worth it? Is it really worth it to have a new technology where the human eye cannot see the difference? The list of new and evolving technology is endless, but does it really provide more visual and listening pleasure, or is it just self-serving?”

Lest you think Francesco comes at this as a reticent Scrooge unwilling to part with a few shekels to update his ’70s-era gear, he went on to describe a modern system any of us would be proud of, including a Cambridge Audio AV receiver, GoldenEar speakers mated with an SVS sub, an Oppo Blu-ray player, and a 50-inch Panasonic plasma TV. But having invested in that, I can perhaps understand his frustration and guess it might strike a chord among other readers.

There will always be something new around the corner.

It’s a fair question. We at Sound & Vision plead guilty to planting those seeds of upgradeitis, though we don’t automatically get behind every new thing the industry shoves down our throats. Until Atmos came along with its discrete, object-based height channels, we told readers not to bother with 9.1-channel and 11.1-channel systems; and until Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio came along with discrete 7.1-channel soundtracks, we said pretty much the same thing about 7.1- and 6.1-channel systems. We’ve not been boosters of curved TVs, nor fans of the poor-quality 3D playback that has plagued that technology since its introduction.

But it’s true that the advances seem to have accelerated in recent years, and we’ve come to accept that there will always be something new around the corner, often just after you’ve updated your system. So, is it worth it? The answer is always “sometimes,” but more often than not lately, it’s been “yes.” It’s worth it to have the experience I just had testing Panasonic’s top-of-the-line, 65-inch 4K television which, from 7 feet away, blew my socks off with its picture quality on a native 4K download of Men in Black 3.

It’s worth it to actually remodel your living room to accommodate Atmos ceiling speakers, as our own David Vaughn did (“Atmos Makeover: A Space Odyssey”, and to hear that bird in the Atmos “Amaze” trailer flap fully around your room above your head and have everyone in the family flip out at how cool it is. It is worth it to strap on a decent pair of headphones, plug them into a standalone asynchronous USB DAC, and hear for the first time what’s really in a well-mastered hi-res audio file.

Will there be other things coming up behind these technologies? No doubt. Will they be worth it? We don’t know yet. But for now, anyway, we’ve got plenty enough upgrades to keep us busy.

etrochez's picture

A great sound system will always sound good, no matter how old it is. 1080p is here to stay for a loooooooong time. You don't have to get Atmos if you don't want to, 5.1 will always be part of a movie soundtrack. Evolving technologies offer options, not frustration. It's nice to know that we can get something new and different when we are ready to upgrade. If you're constantly worrying about your equipment becoming absolute, you're missing the point of having a Home Theater. You're not enjoying what your investment has to offer. So, chill, sit back and enjoy your system.

tatonka's picture

Agreed. I think those that know what problem they're trying to solve to start with won't get too fussed by new features. I myself feel content with my 5.1 surround and don't feel any anxiety regarding all of the new technologies for watching movies. I am a little restless when it comes to basic music listening; when I see a great review for a new amp or set of speakers I get pretty darn curious. If I had more exposure to some of the different gear I'd probably be less jumpy as I might find comparisons to my own equipment not so dramatic, especially when one takes expense into consideration. For myself I think the restlessness of wondering if there is a better solution out there to be had is what gives me insecurity about my existing equipment...because I love the equipment itself and am curious. As far as actual listening pleasure, I suspect that most people that have bought halfway decent equipment in the last few decades don't have as much to fear as they suspect.

etrochez's picture

I meant to say obsolete, not absolute. Damn you auto correct!

Old Ben's picture

So long as the new formats are compatible with the old, you don't have to upgrade unless you want to. In other words, so long as Dolby Atmos soundtracks can still output a 5.1 surround, you don't have to upgrade. I am also a camera snob - digital SLRs have more upgrades than home theaters. One refrain there is that your existing camera doesn't all of a sudden start taking bad pictures because a newer model came out. Same here. If you are happy with your picture/sound quality, there is no need to upgrade.

andlee2k's picture

I have up to 9.1 speakers, but even most newest technology bluray, most comes with 5.1 whether DTS HD Master Audio or Dolby TrueHD. What's the point upgrading hardware when the software sound is still old fashioned 5.1, what newest format it comes in, bluray or dvd or even VCD?

David Vaughn's picture
We will see more and more Atmos (and DTS:X) titles in the coming months, but even they are backward compatible for 5.1 or 7.1 configurations. While I'm glad I upgraded to Atmos and would do it again, I can see why a lot of people won't and don't begrudge them for it.
andlee2k's picture

Although bluray is supposed to give much touted lossless sound, but not much titles comes in 7.1, 7.2 (all the new technology it's supposed to provide). But comes at a much higher price than dvd, that gives 5.1 sound. So why pay more for something not much different? It's those production companies that makes much money by giving us the same thing, touted as new technology by making us buy the same movie a few times.

David Vaughn's picture
5.1 Lossless (either TrueHD or DTS-MA) on Blu-ray is much better than 5.1 Dolby Digital on DVD. Throw in four times the video resolution and it's not even a fair fight...Blu-ray wins every single time (even with the price premium). If you have a small display and an inferior audio system (Costco special HTIB), then you probably will never notice the difference so save your money and buy the DVD, but if you use a front projector of 50+ inch display with a decent set of speakers, splurge for the Blu-ray.