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home theatre

What is "home theatre"?


 Recreating the cinema experience in our own home is nothing new, it's been around for many decades, and something I've been doing since around 1982, albeit in stereo back then, and then later on with the emergence of surround sound processors and adding more loudspeakers. But what are we actually chasing? What are we trying to replicate at home? In my opinion, any notion that the cinema going experience can be fully replaced by a domestic home theatre system is an extremely tall order, bordering on impossible. Why?

There are a number of differences between a cinema and a home theatre system, but there's one major difference between a cinema and your home that dictates that reproducing the cinema experience in home is impossible - and that's the vast difference between the size of these two very different spaces. Cinemas accommodate as many people as possible to achieve profitability, so need hundreds of seats, making a cinema room very large. The acoustic differences between these two size rooms are huge, regardless of how well the cinema interior has been designed. Your living room, or even a dedicated cinema room, is tiny by comparison, and its acoustics will be far easier to manage. One up for home theatre.

This difference in size leads to two more big differences between commercial and domestic cinemas - one is the audio system. In order to fill such a large space, cinemas generally use large, horn loaded speakers and ported subwoofers to achieve a high output level, needed to efficiently fill that large space. Ultimate fidelity is secondary to this requirement. Sure, you can install (smaller) horn loaded speakers at home to try and emulate this, but they generally need a larger space than the average living room to work well in - a 4m square space means you're sitting way too close to this type of speaker. There's also limiters and protection circuitry needed for cinema amplification in order to protect it during loud scenes - the last thing a theatre needs is to regularly close down an auditorium to have amplification (or even speakers) replaced or repaired! Circuitry of this type affects sound quality. Another point for your home theatre, based on quality.

The other difference the room size creates is the screen. The screen in a cinema has to be viewable from a wide angle and be seen from everywhere in the room. So it's huge. And in IMAX theatres, it pretty much fills the whole front wall. Depending where you sit, a theatre screen will (and in my opinion, should) fill your field of vision, which will help draw you into the movie. A domestic 55" or 65" TV might well be "big", but it doesn't fill your field of vision - this is the main reason why I've always felt that 3D is a cinema experience rather than a domestic one - for 3D to be convincing, it has to fill your field of vision for you to feel immersed. So this point goes to the cinema, despite a good modern 1080p or 4K TV looking much better as far as picture quality goes. 

So all is looking good for home theatre, right? Not quite. As good as any home theatre can be, it cannot replace the actual "experience" of watching a movie in a proper theatre with hundreds of other cinema goers, sharing the fun and scares of film together. Another aspect is one of size with regards to real life. One film which illustrates this is Godzilla: King Of Monsters. I initially watched this in an IMAX theatre, and whatever you think about the film, it was a fantastic experience. These monsters looked as big as they should, and the accompanying sound was suitably "big" too. Telling a friend about how good this film was, I got him to sit down and view it on his system, based around a 55" TV using the excellent looking 4K Bluray. Although he was impressed, I was sitting there underwhelmed. Not because of his system, which is very well set up, but the film lost so much because of the small screen. For home use, a projector really is needed to bridge the cinema/home system gap, and there are some excellent 4K home theatre projectors out there that will do this, albeit at a price. Even a 1080p projector, or the many "faux" 4K projectors will be good enough to create a better experience.

From a sound point of view, the experience was better, as domestic home theatre electronics don't need to play as loud to fill a living room, and can easily annoy the neighbours. Bass is deeper, more controlled, dialogue more realistic, better effects placement, surround effects more holographic - a home system can really put you in the middle of the action, and not have to rely on outright volume to achieve it, or to impress.

While I appreciate the phrase "home theatre" has become a standard thing, one thing I disagree with is when home theatre is pitched as either a replacement for commercial cinemas, or that it recreates the sound of a commercial cinema. You cannot properly recreate a commercial cinema in the confines of a domestic space, for reasons mentioned above, unless you happen to have a commercial cinema sized space to do so - but then, you'd be looking at quite different equipment to fill it. What you can accurately create though is the sound of the system that sound engineers use to mix and master these movies with. Mixing and mastering is done in a sound suite that is more akin to the size of a large living room/domestic home theatre system. It is this system that these sound engineers mix the sound so that the viewer can hear everything clearly, and place surround effects precisely to achieve a believable sound field to fool the viewer into thinking they're in the sound space of what's going on on the screen.


And let's not forget that these systems don't use digital room correction, but there will be an element of physical room treatment using absorbing panels etc to help minimise any major issues. You can only mix and master with true, unadulterated sound coming from the loudspeakers - how can you properly do so with a digitally altered sound to begin with?

So rather than trying to recreate the unachievable, why not recreate the achievable?

modern capabilities

Other than TV broadcasts, my initial movie viewing was on Betamax, viewing in mono via the 21" TV speaker. VCRs had a resolution of roughly 334x480 pixel resolution, which is the sort of resolution that early mobile phones had in the 90s! Despite bringing a whole new experience to home movie viewing with video rental, this format was still a universe away from the resolution captured by film based movie cameras of the time (pre digital), as was DVD when it appeared around 1996, which basically quadrupled VHS resolution, but was heavily compressed. Bluray followed around a decade later, and we can now enjoy 4K resolution from UHD Bluray, which is now one of the resolution standards of digital cinema.

I remember going to dirty, smoky cinemas during the late 70s when you only got stereo, if you were lucky. Most cinemas were moving into Dolby Surround during the early 80s, with Dolby Digital following during the 90s. Whereas home systems were always playing catch-up to movie theatres, we currently have the luxury of being able to enjoy the same sound formats used to accompany modern movies (Dolby Atmos, dtsX etc), sound formats that still aren't even available in all cinemas yet (many are still one step behind due to costs). We also have the ability to view movies in the resolution they were shot (4K), despite there being a little bit more compression on a domestic disc than the hard drives now used to show movies in theatres.


Streaming services now tempt us with "4K" movies that have "Dolby Atmos" audio, like you're getting something special, but sadly, despite these modern specs, they've taken film quality back 20 years in my opinion, having the same base sound and picture bit rates as DVD. These streams, while convenient, are noticeably poorer looking and sounding compared to a far less compressed 4K UHD Bluray disc. Maybe one day we'll be able to stream in the same quality as  4K Bluray disc, but until then, the digital stream will always be compressed for hassle free streaming and reduced customer complaints.

With more and more people moving to convenient streaming services for their movie viewing at home, the future of physical media is under threat - why would movie studios pay to have discs pressed, packaging made, and ship them to physical stores when they can just host the film on a server and take your money online? As well as getting you to pay them on a monthly basis for the rest of your life?! Once physical media disappears, we will all lose our choice to watch the best possible quality available, as well as severely limiting our choice. We will also lose our option of being able to actually own our favourite movies - buying a movie from an online streaming service doesn't guarantee your right to own it for the rest of your life, and usually just grants you access to it.

Now has never been a better time to enjoy movies in such quality in the comfort of your own home. Don't lose it!.

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