June 14, 2005

In This eNewsletter:
• Subwoofer Follies by Thomas J. Norton
• Infocomm 2005 by Scott Wilkinson
The X-Files Mythology Collection Volume 1: Abduction by Thomas J. Norton
• Epson/Texas Instruments Brouhaha by Scott Wilkinson

Subwoofer Follies

By Thomas J. Norton

Nothing in system setup is more controversial than positioning the subwoofer. "Don't put it in the corner," thunders one faction. "You can put it anywhere," drums another. "You'll get the most bass from a corner location," booms a third.

You can, of course, place a subwoofer just about anywhere. But unless you're very lucky, you won't get the best out of it by hiding it behind the philodendrons. Yes, bass is nondirectional up to a certain frequency. The latest research has shown that bass directionality becomes a non-issue somewhere just below 100Hz. But room resonances called standing waves, which vary in frequency, location, and intensity depending on the size and shape of the room, can make some locations far more desirable than others.

If you place the subwoofer it in a corner, it will excite all of the room's resonances. Some observers (me included) hold that this is not necessarily a bad thing. If the room is well-proportioned and the resonances well-distributed among the low frequencies, exciting them all does not necessarily produce a poor response. In fact, by making maximum use of the room's low-frequency reinforcement, you can reduce the subwoofer's gain, making its job easier and reducing the chance of overload and distortion.

But those who argue against corner placement aren't wrong. In many rooms, where one or more resonances stand out from the others, corner placement may well result in boomy bass. In this case, your best bet in any given room is to experiment. One technique that has worked well for some listeners is to place the subwoofer in the listening seat and at ear height (this might be a little tricky with a large sub!) and move around the room until you find a spot where the bass sounds uniform. If the subwoofer is going to be on the floor, as it usually is, make sure your ears are down there as well when you're listening for the best location. Then position the sub there. But however you do it, finding the best spot for a single subwoofer can be very much a trial-and-error proposition.

In the final analysis, it's just not possible to obtain optimum bass response at multiple listening positions from a single subwoofer in a typical domestic room. Research conducted by Todd Welti of Harman International has shown that the use of multiple subwoofers at certain specific room locations provides better, more consistent bass performance throughout the room than a single subwoofer no matter where it's positioned. The technique involves the use of four subs, positioned either midway along each wall (best) or in each room corner. Two subs on opposite walls, front and back, at the wall midpoints is said to be nearly as good. For a copy of the research paper, click here.

For many of us, however, a single sub that works well in the "sweet spot" is a reasonable compromise, assuming the bass balance is at least respectable elsewhere in the room. With a subwoofer of reasonable quality—flat response, low distortion, good bass extension, and high power-handling ability (the last characteristic is more important with soundtracks than music)—it's the room and how the sub(s) and main speakers are matched in level and positioned within the room that can make the difference between a good result and an acoustic nightmare. It is often beneficial to add a little low-frequency equalization to the mix as well, but that's a subject for another day.

In an ideal situation, you shouldn't be overtly aware of what the subwoofer is doing until it's called on to make a substantial contribution to the sound. Even then, it should never call attention to itself as a separate entity. But even in its more subtle moments, you may well become aware of its absence—if you turn it off!

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Infocomm 2005

By Scott Wilkinson

By all accounts, this year's Infocomm trade show, hosted by the International Communications Industries Association (ICIA) and held in Las Vegas June 4-10, broke all participation records. Preliminary registrations reached 25,240 this year compared with 22,894 total registrations last year, and 725 exhibitors represented a 12% increase over 2004, occupying 385,540 net square feet of exhibit and special-event space.

Much of this show is devoted to business presentation, digital signage, large-venue displays, and other professional applications, but there are also many announcements of interest to home theater buffs. This year, one of the most interesting was JVC's introduction of a red-laser, high-definition DVD player. The SRDVD-100U comes from JVC's Professional Products Company and is intended for the pro market to play MPEG-2 files generated by HDV camcorders as well as high-def Windows Media Video 9.

"The industry isn't going to wait for blue-laser players," says Tim Tokita, product marketing manager for JVC Professional Products Company. "The onslaught of high-definition programming brought about by HDV cameras and recorders demands a readily available disc playback system now."

Connection options include an Ethernet jack for IP networks, a front-panel USB 2.0 jack, a DVI output with HDCP, and component analog outputs for 780p and 1080i. It can also play standard definition DVDs and upconvert them to 720p or 1080i. The SRDVD-100U is expected to be available in September with a suggested retail price of $399. I want one, especially if Joe Kane releases Digital Video Essentials in high-def on a WMV9 disc.

Another important announcement was made by Texas Instruments, who revealed a new color-processing technology for single-chip DLP projectors called BrilliantColor. Among the features of this technology is the use of filter wheels with up to six different colors: red, green, blue, cyan, yellow, and magenta. BrilliantColor also incorporates new color-processing algorithms running on the DDP3020 Imaging ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit), which also includes embedded 2D keystone correction and picture-in-picture capabilities. The entire technology is said to improve the brightness of DLP displays by as much as 50% in the mid-tone regions.

Mitsubishi is the first manufacturer to introduce DLP projectors with BrilliantColor; they had four business-presentation models at Infocomm. They will also use it in their upcoming home theater models as well. The first will be the HC3000, which should be available toward the end of the year. I'm told it will have a 5-color filter wheel, with red, green, blue, cyan, and magenta segments. Look for a review as soon as we can get our hands on one.

Just before the show, Seiko Epson announced a new high-temperature polysilicon (HTPS) LCD panel for use in 3LCD projectors called Crystal Clear Fine. The new panel incorporates an inorganic alignment layer and is said to dramatically enhance aperture ratio (and thus brightness), black level (which, along with increased brightness, means greater contrast ratio), definition, and image quality. Crystal Clear Fine was demonstrated for the first time at Infocomm, and it will also be on display at CEATEC 2005 in Japan, October 5-8. It should appear in commercial products in 2006.

In other LCD news from the show, Sharp had lots of new projection and direct-view displays on hand. (Interestingly, a few of the new projectors were DLPs, including a couple of tiny portables.) Many were aimed at the presentation market, but the one that caught my eye was the 65-inch Aquos LCD TV, said to be the industry's largest. All Sharp LCD panels include backlights with an estimated lifespan of 60,000 hours, and they're field-replaceable, extending the life of the display almost indefinitely.

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The X-Files Mythology Collection Volume 1: Abduction

By Thomas J. Norton

David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson. Directed by various. Aspect ratio: 1.33:1. 681 minutes (4 discs). 1993-1995. Dolby Surround (English, Spanish), Stereo (French). 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. $39.98.

Picture 2.5*
Sound 3.0*
Program 3.5*

The Truth is Out There. But how do you get to it if you can Trust No One. This is the puzzle explored for nine seasons in the hit TV show, The X-Files.

FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) spent those nine seasons dashing around the country investigating humans with inhuman powers, mysterious happenings, creepy environments, and unexplained phenomena under the aegis of their FBI department, the X-Files. The show's playbook also seemed to demand that Mulder and Scully never conduct an investigation in the light of day, particularly when a nice, dark night or gloomy interior was handy.

But throughout the entire series, there was one ongoing plot thread that dominated nearly a third of the episodes: aliens (of the extraterrestrial variety) are here among us. And they have nefarious plans. Even worse, our government is in on it. Sinister plots are everywhere. One can't help but wonder if The X-Files spawned a whole new generation of conspiracy buffs who actually believe that this stuff—or worse—was actually happening all around them.

I always found the alien abduction-possession-conspiracy episodes the most intriguing of the series. So much so, in fact, that I was often frustrated when weeks went by while Mulder and Scully spun their wheels on the monster of the week, like a creepazoid mutant living in the sewers.

Finally, after releasing nine very expensive box sets encompassing the entire series, Fox (20th Century, not Mulder) is releasing more affordable DVD packages of four discs each. These are focused exclusively on the alien story arc. The first of these sets, including 15 episodes from seasons 1 through 3, is now available, and it's a must-see.

All the good stuff is here: extraterrestrials, abductions, shadowy government operatives, disappearing evidence, and, of course, characters either friendly (a few), elusive (more), or evil (all around us). The fans' favorite villain, the Cigarette Smoking Man, slithers his way through these episodes like a deadly viper.

The 1.33:1 images are relatively sharp. Graininess (probably by design) and video noise (probably not) turn up often, along with some MPEG artifacts—flaws that were probably a challenge to avoid given the dark, noirish photography. But the images are relatively crisp, and the shadow detail is good enough to let you follow what's going on in the pervasive gloom.

The Dolby Surround audio (not discrete 5.1) is surprisingly good, and certainly better than anyone is likely to have heard in the original broadcasts. The bass is full-bodied, though not of demonstration quality. The music has an atmospheric spaciousness. Pronounced surround effects are rare, but some episodes (notably "Paper Clip") are more impressively mixed than others. It would have been great if the filmmakers had used a more creative sound design, but there's still a lot here to enjoy.

The extras are relatively skimpy. A few episodes have commentary tracks from the directors, but they aren't very interesting. A documentary called "Threads of Mythology" on the fourth disc, however, provides a good summary of the story arc. It includes some interesting factoids about the production, but not much depth.

While rabid X-Philes will already have those expensive, full-season box sets (with a lot more in the special-features department), it's great to have this less pricey option for these superb episodes. This is one of those box sets where you sit down to watch one episode and end up watching four—or more! After viewing it, you'll be counting the days until August 2, when The X-Files Mythology Collection Volume 2: Black Oil will be released.

Epson/Texas Instruments Brouhaha

By Scott Wilkinson

It seems that Texas Instruments might have made some disparaging—and possibly inaccurate—claims in their promotional materials regarding the competition to their DLP projection technology, and Epson America, one of the world's leading makers of LCD projection technology, isn't happy about it. As a result, Epson filed a complaint with the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, the advertising industry's self-regulatory agency.

In the complaint, Epson claims that TI "makes false comparative claims that LCD technology is less reliable than DLP technology (1) in the abstract, without regard to the finished products in which the technologies are incorporated; (2) in front projectors generally; and (3) in rear-projection DLP TVs, compared to rear-projection LCD TVs and flat-panel LCD TVs." Among the specific TI claims cited in the complaint are that LCD displays "degrade" from heat and humidity, and they can become misaligned over time due to vibration.

According to Epson, these claims, which appear in TI television and Internet ads, are based on the results of two tests of front projectors sponsored by TI, with no other substantiation. Epson argues that the tests were conducted on a statistically insignificant number of projectors under TI's direction according to their own testing protocols (which subjected the projectors to extreme "torture-test" conditions not representative of a normal consumer environment), and TI evaluated and interpreted the data.

Finally, Epson asserts that if LCD projectors were susceptible to degradation from heat and other environmental factors, it is reasonable to expect that consumers of LCD-based products would be experiencing such degradation in the real world. However, TI has not cited any such experiences, and NAD recognizes that no evidence of a substantial number of such experiences actually exists. In any event, Epson holds the advertising claims cannot be supported by anecdotal evidence.

TI responded by saying that, while they respect NAD's role in helping advertisers adhere to proper standards, they declined to participate in the NAD forum, stating that their claims are fully substantiated and neither false nor misleading. Even so, in conjunction with a re-evaluation of their marketing objectives, they have decided to discontinue most of the claims challenged by Epson, with the exception of claims regarding a marked difference in picture reliability over time between LCD and DLP front data projectors.

NAD has decided to refer the matter to the Federal Trade Commission for possible law-enforcement action.

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