With the Holiday season approaching, we put down our thoughts on what we used this past year that was useful or fun in our home theaters. Lots of these aren’t things we have reviewed, but things we want in our home theater for ourselves, or things we want to own and test.
Author Archive | Chris Heinonen
We are currently working on an update to our $2,000 Home Theater Guide that is coming this week, but today we created the $5,000 Home Theater Guide. Putting this together really showed how good of a system you can get for this much today. You can have a reference quality display and a high-end audio system that will put most theaters to shame. There are really no sacrifices to be made here, and it’s a system that any of our reviewers could run for all of the gear we use.
In our first part of this series, we covered our room design and some of the issues we would have to overcome. We also painted the walls to be more ideal for a home theater environment and decided to install some wall shelving to hold media and equipment. This installment we are going to focus on installing that wall shelving and how it works out and then the selection of gear for the room. Continue Reading →
This summer we bought a house, which meant goodbye to the days of renting. With the housing market here being crazy, we were often forced to move to a new house as the owner would decide to cash in on the market and sell. I had gotten lucky with the past two houses we rented as both offered me large 12’x25’ basement rooms for a home theater. Despite the rather large headaches of getting gear into a basement, where narrow staircases can prevent large TVs from easily making the trip, they worked well for my work and personal enjoyment. Continue Reading →
The most exciting thing for me at CES 2015 was SlingTV. Here we had a TV provider that was actually looking forward instead of relying on a monopoly to get users. For $20 you got access to essential channels, including ESPN, that you could watch on almost any device. I could stream it to my Roku or FireTV when I’m in the living room, or watch on my laptop, a tablet, or smartphone. With no set top boxes to pay for, and no contracts, it seemed like a promising idea.
In my initial review I found that to be the case. Sure, I had a few quibbles with it, but am impressed. Now after having it for over a year, I have a better idea of what SlingTV is doing right and where they still need to improve. Continue Reading →
The UltraHD Premium TV standard was announced at the 2016 CES Show, but what does that mean? After years of pushing 4K and UltraHD at consumers, is UltraHD Premium yet another standard? If you’ve already bought an UltraHD TV, is it an UltraHD Premium TV or is this something that is already making your TV outdated? In many ways UltraHD Premium is what we’ve been waiting for once you understand what it is. Continue Reading →
In March 2016 we finally see the launch of the UltraHD Blu-ray player format with a $400 player from Samsung and titles from many studios. These UltraHD discs will likely be the best sources of UltraHD content at home. This new format offers 10-bits per pixel instead of the 8-bits of Blu-ray for better gradients and less banding, wider color gamuts that are closer to what you see in the movie theater, high dynamic range with brighter highlights that better represent real life, and better compression for a sharper image. Overall the format is a big step-up from Blu-ray which is the best physical media format available.
There are some things to look out for, though. One main point of contention is that many movies aren’t mastered in 4K for the theater, but have their master done at 2K resolution. What this means can differ from title to title. Some movies, like Mad Max: Fury Road, are shot at 2.8K resolution on an Arri Alexa camera, and then have their special effects done at 2K resolution. So this title on UltraHD Blu-ray will benefit from more bits-per-pixel, wider color gamuts, better compression, and possibly high dynamic range. However it is upscaled to 4K as it was never shot in 4K.
For a title like The Martian, it was shot in 4K but the final master is at 2K resolution so all the visual effects are likely that resolution. For the UltraHD Blu-ray, it looks like they are going back to the 4K master for creating the HDR effects but the special effects will still be 2K. So this title will have all the real world content in true 4K resolution, but the visual effects done at 2K resolution.
Finally we have Sicario, which is shot in 4K and has a 4K master. With far fewer special effects shots, it didn’t need to go down to 2K resolution so we will get true 4K all the way through.
The key thing is that these films will almost certainly look better on UltraHD Blu-ray than on traditional Blu-ray. They’ll have a wider color gamut to use, highlights that are spectacular, and less compression. However only some might take full advantage of the UltraHD resolution offered. We are going to attempt to keep track of this and update a chart with all the details on the announced titles. This way if you only want true 4K films, you can find those. If you just want to know what the original format is you can also find that, but this way you aren’t going into a purchase without being sure of what you are getting.
You will also need a TV that is an UltraHD Premium model to take full advantage of these features. If you simply have a 4K TV from a year or two ago, it might not support the wider color gamuts and high dynamic range features that UltraHD Blu-ray can offer. The TV will need to support HDMI 2.0a to understand the HDR content, and will need HDCP 2.2 copy protection to pass the image. If you are unsure if your TV supports this then you should check your manual or see if there is a firmware update available for it that might help. Most high-end TVs this year are UltraHD Premium certified, but it isn’t a guarantee.
You can also find the database in the Main Menu under Guides. It will be continually updated as we get more information from the studios on the features available in each title.
For the recent holiday season, Monoprice was kind enough to send over their new hybrid tube amp along with a pair of speakers and speaker cables. The hybrid tube amp features 15 watts of power with 25 watt peaks, an analog input along with a Bluetooth 4.0 input, and a front headphone output. The tube preamp stage gives you that classic tube sound that so many people still love. Continue Reading →
The honest truth is that when you cover CES, it’s about the people and not the products. We want to see what is new, but the real point of the show is to get to know the people behind the products. But that doesn’t look as interesting on the web as the products that are coming out, so we will talk about what was cool at CES this year, real product or not, and what we took away from the show starting with video.
The best display we saw at the show that we are going to see this year are the LG OLED displays. Virtually every other company, in their TV comparisons, were putting their TV up against the LG 65EF9500 from last year and talking about how their new TV is better. After all, if you’re the comparison point, you’re probably the leader now. The new models this year add better DCI gamut coverage (up to 99% from 86-88%), brighter HDR highlights, and supposedly better video processing to eliminate the black-flames issues from last year. In our viewing of the demo, we didn’t see any of the shadow crushing we saw in our review of the 55EG9100 last year.
Most importantly, you can get the B6 model and get the same image quality the more expensive OLED65E6P (currently $7,000) and G6 provide. You don’t get the ultra-stylish design, and you don’t get passive 3D, but most people probably don’t care. I don’t. I’d rather save my money for things that make a real different, like an UltraHD Blu-ray player to use for watching movies on it.
Speaking of UltraHD Blu-ray players, Samsung was showing them off in a back room (no pictures allowed there unfortunately), along with their top-of-the-line displays for this year. The main improvements are light output, now going past 1,000 nits on all SU models, and with a new filter that helps to prevent reflections. This led to a claimed 50% increase in native contrast, which would be a nice improvement on their LCD sets that were already quite good. In a demo comparing it to OLED the Samsung showed some benefits, but the scenes were using very bright material, with no dark areas, so it might be a small case where they do beat an OLED but not usually.
The most impressive thing from Samsung was their redone smart features. They’re trying to make it a unified experience where all your sources, from Netflix to your cable box, are treated the same. All your streaming services load when you start the TV, not when you start the app. This lets you see your most recent watched titles and start those instantly when browsing the interface, a nice improvement. It also integrates with your cable/satellite box so you can see your favorite channels and so on without launching that user interface. Connecting a device, in the demo case an XBox, automatically identifies it and adds it to the interface while letting the TV remote control it. It is a huge improvement in their SmartTV interface and the one that most people will take notice of compared to picture quality improvements. The demo was a bit choppy, as the software is still being tweaked, but it looked like the first interface that could challenge Roku.
Samsung was also showing their new UBD-K8500 UltraHD Blu-ray player in the demo room. Coming it at only $400, less than DVD and Blu-ray sold for new, it will be the first player that really lets you see what your UltraHD TV can do. Dual HDMI outputs, one is audio-only, let it work with people that don’t have HDCP 2.2 compatible receivers yet as well. The first UltraHD Blu-ray titles are now listing for $25-30 and include a standard Blu-ray copy making it relatively affordable to buy them and be ready for when you can watch UltraHD at home. I don’t even own an UltraHD display yet, which might have to change this year, but I’m going to pre-order one to be ready for when I do and to test them when they arrive.
Surprisingly Sony didn’t have an UltraHD Blu-ray player. They led the way with DVD and Blu-ray, so this is a real change for them. They also didn’t have any TVs on the show floor that really knocked your socks off, but did in a back room. Their demo TV used full array local dimming with over 1,000 zones of control compared to the 32 of the Vizio M-Series or 384 of the Vizio Reference Series. It can also do an eye-searing 4000 nits of brightness. The demo is incredibly impressive: perfect highlights with no blooming against a black background, but it was too bright. Perhaps that is how we see the real world, but I don’t want my eyes to hurt when watching a film. I’m sure Sony can scale it back to a more reasonably 1,500-2,000 nits if they produce it and then it would be cheaper to make as well. Of course, I’ve seen enough CES demo products from Sony to know this might never come out (see their OLED displays and Crystal LED) but if it does, it might be the OLED competitor we all want to see.
Panasonic only had a couple of TVs on the floor, one LCD and one OLED, but no details on when, or even if, they will come out in the USA. As the company we turned to as videophiles for so long, it’s shocking to see this.
TCL was showing off a 4K version of the Roku TV but without too many details. It wasn’t marked as an UltraHD Premium set, so it likely lacks the wider color gamut and HDR features that those sets have. A model that supports these features should be coming later this year, but for right now it just adds more pixels. I love the Roku TVs, and will probably add a 40” one for my wife’s office this month, but would suggest either getting a 1080p one or waiting for the HDR one. As with all TVs, we like better pixels, not just more pixels.
There were a few scattered short-throw or pico projectors, but no new home theater projectors really (not counting the incredibly expensive Wolf Cinema models here). TI was showing off their 4K projector tech, which I saw at CEDIA in October, and those shipping might shake-up the cost of those projectors later this year. But at CES TVs rule, and I expect OLED to continue to rule the high-end roost this year.
The problem with CES is often the focus on the high-end. For audio there were plenty of $20,000 speakers to hear but far fewer affordable models to listen to. The best speakers I heard for the price are the new Uni-Fi models from ELAC. I’m a big fan of the coherent drivers that they use, it’s part of why I bought speakers from KEF, and selling a $500 true 3-way speaker is a superb deal. Listening to demo material that Andrew Jones was playing they sounded much better than expected, and had bass you thought was coming from a subwoofer. Everyone that heard them, from Geoff Morrison with me to CNet and more, came away amazed with them. The UB5 bookshelf speakers are $500 a pair and coming in the April timeframe, with $1,000 towers and a center channel coming as well.
ELAC also showed early versions of some new electronics. Their $1,000 Roon server includes a $500 lifetime Roon license, and supports 3 audio endpoints. Two digital outputs (optical and coaxial) pair with two analog outputs to let you stream music to multiple sources at once. The real strength of Roon is it it’s metadata, letting you browse music as never before. Integration with Tidal makes it easy to browse your music collection as well as a huge online library as if they are the same thing and explore new titles easily. $1,000 is expensive compared to a $350 Sonos Connect, but it offers high-resolution audio support and multiple zones.
They also had a $500 integrated amp that was mind-blowing in the feature set. Analog and digital inputs, 100 watts per channel (Class D I believe), AirPlay, and a subwoofer output. However it will include software that when used with a mic (like this $20 model) lets you take measurements of your speakers and sub so it correctly calculates high-pass and low-pass filters with a correct crossover. That will provide integration between the two far beyond what anyone else does in the price range today. Combined with the Uni-Fi bookshelves and you have a two channel system for $1,000 that sounds incredible great. Oh, and this can even serve as a Roon Audio endpoint if you want a streaming system all around the house.
The best sound I heard, regardless of price, was in the Harman demo room. Using Revel speakers, new Mark Levinson electronics, and a VPI Prime turntable the system was incredible. Dynamic, but full of subtle details, it made me aspire to have something like that in my home one day. Kevin Voecks of Revel seemed to really be enjoying himself as he played DJ serving up track-after-track of music for us to listen to. I didn’t get to hear the VPI Prime, but hopefully I’ll get a chance to sample that at home soon.
One of the bigger releases at the show was the updated Technics 1200 turntable. Unfortunately for us it is coming in at closer to $4,000 than the $800 or so that prior model sold for. People loved the 1200 because it is rock solid and almost impossible to break. Audiophiles usually don’t pick direct drive over belt driven but many had a soft spot for the 1200. The new model has a brand new motor and certainly better performance, but with a huge increase in price tag. I heard it in their demo room and it sounded great, but at $4,000 you can get a huge number of other turntables that also sound great. I guess we’ll see how it does once it comes out but at the price I don’t think it’ll be the success we thought it might be.
Sony had a $600 turntable that includes a USB output with DSD support for digitizing your vinyl collection. The turntable itself looked decent enough, with 33 and 45 RPM support and easy setup for anti-skate compared to a few other models. However the DSD support it something I’m unsure about. Most audiophiles are going to want a higher-end turntable for ripping, or will refuse to rip to digital altogether. Younger people after a turntable probably have streaming support and most new titles also include digital downloads. There are older vinyl titles you might want to rip that you can’t buy, but that’s a much smaller target. Of course if it sounds good enough for the price, the USB support might just be a bonus most people don’t even care about.
Pro-ject was showing a vertical turntable, another idea I think is all style over substance. You’ll need extra tracking force for this to work right, and that’s going to lead to damaging your records more than usual. Who did have something nice to show off was MoFi. They had two new turntables that are coming this year for $1,000 and $1,800. For $1,200 you can get the $1,000 one with a $300 cart, and $2,000 gets you the $1,800 one with a $600 cart. 33 to 45 RPM speed changes are done with a belt swap, thankfully not located under the platter. They each include a dust cover as well which many turntables in this price range want $200-300 for. Hopefully we can give them a spin once they’re available to see how they are.
Paradigm was showing off their Concept loudspeaker which is finally going to be released later this year. It sounded wonderful, with very clean midrange and incredibly deep, impactful bass for the size, but also is going to cost close to $40,000 once it does come out. Room correction is great, and it is certainly an assault on the high-end, but it is something none of us will likely be able to afford in our lives.
Martin Logan also has a new $25,000 Renaissance ESL 15A with a 15” wide panel, 12” woofers with room correction, and multiple finishes available. They also had a new $4,000 ESL speaker that we should be able to review once it comes out this spring. Given how much I loved the $5,000 Theos speaker a few years back, I’m hopeful this will offer something close to the performance of it. Getting the listening location correct can be a small challenge, but it was worth it for the sound they offered.
Of course there was far more that I heard and saw at CES 2016, but nothing that stuck out as much as these items. Hopefully a few of these items will show up for review this year, and regardless we will be keeping track of them to see how they come out. You never know from CES if something is going to be great or not but these showed the most promise.
At Reference Home Theater we don’t do year end awards. We’d rather focus on the things we loved over the past year without being forced into categories. This year we saw TVs that were great, but no projectors that made us say wow. We also used gear that we didn’t review but still was something we would recommend. So the products that stood out to us this year. Continue Reading →