Why Don't They Love Us?

Regular readers of Home Theater have heard me espouse, maybe once or twice too often, my belief in a broad definition of what makes a home theater. At the risk of repeating myself, perhaps verbatim, it’s not about how many speakers you have, how expensive your electronics are, how big your screen is, or whether you own a front-projection system. Got a soundbar with a 40-inch LCD? That’s a home theater. If you’re listening to high-performance headphones while watching a movie or TV drama streamed to your computer monitor (and a lot of college students do just that), in my book that’s a home theater. If you’re paying even minimal attention to the sound in an attempt to have a more engaging experience; if whatever gear you’re using enables you to get more fully lost in the viewing experience than if you just plopped down in front of the TV, you’ve got a home theater.

There’s been a lot of talk lately in the consumer electronics industry about home theater becoming passé. One manufacturer told me recently that the mainstream media isn’t interested in reporting on our industry’s core products anymore, even those that are designed to appeal to a mass-market audience (such as soundbars). These days, if it’s not a gadget that fits in your pocket, an app you can run on your phone to stream something, or a pair of earphones with a celebrity tie-in, it’s just not news and not worth making noise about.

Why is that? Again, I’m repeating myself here, but I’ve never met a single person whose face didn’t light up when he or she sat in front of a big screen TV or projector and really heard a movie for the first time outside of a commercial cinema. HDTVs keep getting bigger and cheaper, while the speakers in them grow less adequate to convey what’s really in a movie or prime-time soundtrack. There has never been a greater need to spread the good gospel of home theater to our friends, family, and the general public, and there have never been more box systems, soundbars, powered speakers and other inexpensive solutions to fill the home theater needs of the non-enthusiast.

As a veteran CE journalist, I think the enthusiast trade press takes some blame here, along with everyone else responsible for promoting the concept of home theater: manufacturers, retailers, and our industry trade groups. There’s been little in the way of successful effort to discuss and demonstrate lower-end solutions that speak to the mass consumer, defined as inexpensive, easy to install, and simple to operate. Here at Home Theater, we give plenty of ink to high-performance gear but have tended to shy away from using our experienced eyes and ears to explore where the value lies among the cheap stuff.

If you’re a steady reader of our magazine or visitor to our Website, you may recognize some small signs of this changing. We’ve started out by adding a smattering of reviews of lower-end audio gear and TVs at HomeTheater.com, but in upcoming issues of our magazine we will also reintroduce soundbars after a hiatus, and we’ll be covering more inexpensive audio receivers as well. Our newest issue (September 2012), just hitting newsstands, features the first review of an all-in-one home-theater-in-a-box system we’ve run in quite a while.

Is this a sign that we’re going bottom-fishing and abandoning our enthusiast roots, or are done exploring the edges of high-end performance and that middle ground where most of our wallets live? Absolutely not. But if our philosophy is to be inclusive, to spread the gift of home theater far and wide, then I do believe we can and should be all things to all people on matters pertaining to home theater, as our name seems to suggest. We will continue to do the Ferraris while we nod to the Corollas, just like the car magazines and Websites do. And for every shopper who picks us up at the newsstand or visits our Website and ends up with a better sound system or a bigger TV they might not have purchased otherwise, I’m convinced a little bell will ring up in home theater heaven.

true audio's picture

This is a great subject.With the economy in the dump, there are more people worried about the price of gas.Real A/V enthusiasts are indeed a rare breed.I feel sorry for the many who never experience high fidelity music and movies in their own living rooms.

Traveler's picture

I used to have a fancy A/V 5.1 setup to go with my 60" Kuro Elite. Now I just have the side speakers that came with the TV, and I don't miss any of that stuff in the least.

Rob Sabin's picture
Traveler, you're one of the lucky ones by today's standards, as the separate speakers that came with the Pioneers are actually quite good, especially compared with the built-in rear- or down-firing speakers in most flatpanels today. You get decent dialogue reproduction and they actually have some noticeable dynamic range. But it's nothing like having a full blown system with surround sound, or any system at all with a subwoofer. Still, you've made the conscious choice to "downgrade" after experiencing a full theater system, and I have no doubt you'd miss aspects of that if and do something about it if you had unacceptably thin or amusical sound, or if you couldn't understand dialogue half the time. Unfortunately, many consumers take home their ultrathin TVs, sometimes placing them in large rooms that can't be adequately filled by the built-in amplification, and end letting that pass without even knowning they could greatly enhance their experience with modest investment. More often than not, installation and complexity of operation are the key deterrents...

willieconway's picture

I got started with a home-theater-in-a-box (actually went through two before I saw the light) and I'm sure a lot of people got into the experience that way. For me they're the low end, starter option but they're still home theater. The same goes for soundbars. Where I draw the line, and I've complained about this here in the comments section, is iDevices and stuff connected with iDevices, used for streaming MP3s. That's not home theater and there are a thousand sites reviewing those things. Look at CNET, it's practically all they do these days.

Your site has published a ton of great content the last several weeks and what you're describing in this post seems to be in line with what we've come to expect. If you have to go down a couple of hundred or thousand dollars per product in order to gain new readers, it's fine with me. I find the whole spectrum interesting.

michaelalanlittrell@yahoo.com's picture

There are lots of reasons for this. In no particular order except for the first on the list.

THE ECONOMY: Executive Summary - It sucks. Less disposable income.

I'm middle class. Taxes may be going up for me. I doubt my income is going up. I would like to get a second job, but hah - good luck with that.

The price of new gear: While some stuff is much less expensive when new - HDTVs and Bluray players, the cost of the partnering equipment is still expensive. Receiver capable of delivering descent sound powering descent speakers in a typical living room - expensive (just look at Denon and Marantz). Descent speakers - expensive (and you need a minimum of 5 for surround sound and up to 8 for 7.1, not including height channels). Have you seen sub prices lately? Do I want cheap crap to replace my Polk LSi speakers, Onkyo 2nd to the top of the line receiver, and Sony ES bluray player? No. Audiophiles consider what I have cheap crap anyway. I used to be one and came back to reality. I want descent stuff and I say this coming from separates. Again, economy sucks and less disposable income.

The price of cables. Speaker cable - anything other than normal monster cable is expensive. Have you seen Nordost pricing? WTF? Are these guys sane? Even sane for audiophile standards like Kimber is expensive for WIRE. Because I am an audiophile, I have a Shunyata power cable. Is it effective - Oh Yes. Was it cheap? No way. Thank goodness for HDMI - just need one cable for video and audio. Even HDMI cables can be expensive and you need one for each hi def source and to the TV. Have I tried cheap HDMI cables? Yes. Some totally suck and some get the job done, but nothing special. I am an enthusiast, so I bought some THX hdmi cables. Did they make a difference - yes. Are they expensive - relatively speaking, yes, for being made in China.

Pricing strategies of brick and mortar vs. internet sellers: You can not beat a brick and mortar store for setting up and demonstrating equipment to their potential. I have to drive 2 hours to get to a descent one and a specialty retailer is goinig to push a $2K sub on me. They stick to their retail pricing. Gone were the days when I could negotiate saving $50 on a pair of Klipsch (classic models) speakers. That says a lot. $59? That was a lot of money back when I was a teen. The midline Velodyne sub I want is going to cost me about $1K at my local brick and mortar store, which is a mass chain electronics store and could care less about doing a demo for me, but on Amazon I can get the same sub for less than $600 with free shipping and no sales tax. Do the math. Do we wonder why brickk and mortar stores fold?

The price of bluray discs. $34,99 for The Incredibles? Are you serious? $25+ for a new release bluray? No thanks. I will buy titles I don't have on bluray at sale prices or I will buy from Amazon or when a brick and mortar store has a sale. $25+ for a plastic disc made in Mexico? Get real.

The cost of replacing your library in bluray discs. See above.

Where to put all this stuff? WAF and you gotta run cables everywhere, plus live in the same space. Oh yeah, I can pay an AV installer to run cables in my wall, but this just adds to the cost.

Generation of cell phone addicts. Do you have a cell phone. Probably. Do your kids have a cell phone. Probably. I'm 43 and not a cell phone addict. The younger generation - addicts.

Lastly - the economy sucks. Food, mortgage, car payment, doctor bills, vacation with the family or new HT gear? Guess which one loses.

MatthewWeflen's picture

I'm definitely a cheapskate, too. But I disagree with you on Blu-Ray.

The prices you mention really only apply to Disney and Criterion releases. Most new-release BDs can be had for $20, and most are sold at $15 or so within a month. It really just takes scanning Amazon every now and again to snag the good deals.

Then, when you compare that $15-$20 to the price of movie tickets for two, it doesn't seem terribly expensive at all. And you can always sell it back to someone else if you end up not wanting the movie for your personal library.

I'm skipping Dark Knight Rises in the theater for instance, and am counting on a $15 to $20 BD purchase within a month of its release on the format. It saves me money and time, I can go take a leak or make a sandwich, and I can watch it as many times as I want.

This isn't even to mention options like Redbox and Netflix which can get you Blu-Rays for $1-2 apiece on a rental basis.

michaelalanlittrell@yahoo.com's picture

You have a point. Yes, you can get good deals on blurays. I recently splurged on the Bourne trilogy, Lion King, Fifth Element, Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions, and Legend of the Guardian Owls of Ga'Hoole. They were all on sale and Best Buy gave me $5 for each old DVD I did not want and traded in. It is possible to get a good deal on blurays. It seems as most of the movies I want, Thor for example, still cost +$20. Kung Fu Panda $20. I don't do online streaming. You pay for internet service, which nobody factors in, plus the movie. Have you tried streaming a movie in HD with multiple wireless users? Tough. I am a movie guy. I have tons of DVDs and a growing list of blurays. I remember the onslaught of DVDs when that format became mainstream. You could get a new release in Costco for less than $20 and you could see people snapping up DVDs like food. I don't see that with blurays. Just a piece of the answer is all I was trying to articulate. Dark Knight - good movie. Saw it in the theatre. A good theatre experience is tough to beat. Finding a GOOD theatre is tough too. I can choke down the cost of the movie ticket, but the prices of popcorn, other snacks, and drinks is just stupid.

Billy's picture

Okay, I've spent a lot (and I mean A LOT, per my wife) on gear in the past. Being in my fiftys, I remeber when AV gear was much more expensive as compared to today. Just look at some ads for stereo gear from the 70s, or an old Radio Shack catalog, things were expensive, they realy were. We didn't mind paying for it though, maybe because it was the only game in town, who knows? My point is that todays gear has never been cheaper. Of course the very best is, but most will not be able to buy that anyway. Even with todays economy, there is no excuse not to have a decent looking and sounding set up. My 18 year old son has a super stereo set up. He got a top of the line mid 70s Pioneer receiver from the dump(!) put 50 bucks of repairs into it and, wow, does that thing sound grand! He found old speaker boxes, put in new crossovers and cones from Parts Express, again, wow! Uses a turntable AND the media player off his computer with it, the best of both worlds. He figures that when he just gets out of college he will build speakers this way for a 5.1 set up and 3 or 400 bucks nets a nice entry level AV reciever, and a 1080P projector and screen is available for around a grand. That set up would blow away 95% of casual viewers. Look, we are not all Bill Gates, but almost all of us can get into this hobby at a modest entry level and be satisfied for years to come.

michaelalanlittrell@yahoo.com's picture

I think we are a different breed from the average consumer. I love this hobby. I really enjoy my set up. For my income, I spent a lot of money too after having spent a lot of money on separates (stereo). I sold the separates and bought my HT gear because I realized I was spending more time watching movies than listening to music. Yes, my Proceed amp, VTL preamp, Classe preamp, and B&W speakers were niche products and excelled at what they did. I would obsess over the sound, however and would roll tubes, tweak this, etc. I realized I was more concerned about tweaking than enjoying. HT changed that for me, which was a positive for me. However, I would love to have 5 old Mark Levinson 33 amps and TAD or Rockport speakers all around. That would be awesome! I think the point of the article was that unless the object being written about is a cell phone or app, it does not get press. I think my kids would rather text than watch a movie on our set up. Hopefully, that will change when they get out on their own.

Kris Deering's picture
I see a lot of comments here on prices and for the most part I agree. But there are great deals out there to be found. I buy A LOT of Blu-ray discs. And I've found that if you look for the great deals on Amazon, they can be found. Blu-ray.com has a great deals section that shows you the latest deals and where that price stacks up for the history of that disc. I use it all the time to find great deals on titles I've been wanting to pick up but not pay retail. It is extremely rare for me to pay over $20 for a title unless it is some uber edition, 3D, or something like Criterion. For cables bluejeanscable.com is a one stop value shop. Outstanding value and performance for a fraction of the cost of most cable vendors. Bettercables.com is also a go to for great performance for less. I think Home Theater as a hobby is certainly an expensive one but it can be affordable if you approach it right. Staying at the bleeding edge is going to cost. But pinching pennies when you make a big purchase costs in the long run too. How many people settle only to get the itch to replace and upgrade shortly after? I see it all the time. And in almost every instance the consumer would have actually saved money in the long run if they bought what they wanted the first time. They wouldn't be as pressed to upgrade or feel like they were compromising. Wait until its last years model and the price typically plummets. Look for used deals or B-stock. The reference projector I use in my theater right now I bought from an online retailer as a B-stock closeout with a full manufacturers warranty. It retailed for $13K new. I bought it a year later when the new models came out for under $3K!!! And I've been running it hard now for almost two years and I still can't find anything that I think tops it for a 2D picture. Don't lose hope, this is a hobby that can get the best of your checkbook, but with a little work and patience, it can still be an amazing hobby on a thrifty budget.