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FEATURE

 

HEAD

HOME CINEMA

 

INTRO

You’re going to be hearing a lot about home cinema from now on but what does it mean, what can it do for you, and is it worth having? We have the answers

 

COPY

We’re gradually becoming accustomed to the term ‘home cinema’ but what exactly does it mean? The average British living room has little in common with a movie theatre auditorium, and it takes an almighty stretch of the imagination to compare a 22-inch colour TV with a 60-foot cinema screen. Nevertheless it is possible to re-create at least some of the atmosphere of a visit to the movies in your own home. Just how far you go is up to you; if you want to go the whole hog you could always invite the neighbours in to chatter away when you’re watching a film, shout abuse at you and grind week-old hot-dogs into the carpet...

 

So how does it work? To answer that we have to look at the origins of home cinema. People have been installing big-screen and projection TVs in their living rooms for the past twenty years but home cinema as we know it today arose out of three key developments. The first was the introduction of the Dolby Stereo multi-channel stereo sound system on theatrically-released movies, it began with Star Wars in 1977; since them most major feature films have had Dolby Stereo soundtracks. The second major breakthrough was the almost simultaneous arrival of the VHS hi-fi stereo sound system and laserdisc, which both appeared in 1983. When movies are transferred to video and disc with their original soundtrack the signals that produce the Dolby surround sound end up on the tape or disc as well. The final piece in the jigsaw is  NICAM digital stereo. Since 1989 the BBC and ITV companies have started broadcasting TV programmes in stereo, more recently they’ve been joined by stereo satellite TV channels, and this has provided the much-needed change of attitude to the quality of TV sound, and created a market for stereo televisions.

 

Dolby Stereo remained little more than an interesting curiosity for several years, there were no domestic Dolby Surround decoders, but that changed during the late eighties when several affordable decoders hit the American market, and one or two even made it to the UK. Even so they only sold in small numbers to hi-fi enthusiasts and movie-buffs, who were prepared to go to the trouble and expense of installing extra amplifiers and speakers, but the snowball was rolling.    

 

From 1990 onwards an increasing number of Dolby Surround products were launched, including the first Dolby Pro-Logic decoders. Pro Logic is the name given to an advanced decoder system, closely related to the ones used in cinemas. The first generation of  Dolby Surround decoders used what is known as a ‘passive matrix’, to unscramble the surround-sound channel from the stereo soundtrack; this is fed to a pair of speakers behind the viewing position, literally bathing the viewer in a sea of sound. Pro-Logic decoders have an ‘active-matrix’, to separate out a fourth channel. This carries speech or dialogue, which is fed to a speaker placed in front of the TV screen. In cinemas this track is used to focus the audience’s attention on the screen, wherever they may be sitting in the auditorium.

 

Pro-Logic decoders can do a number of other tricks, including localising or directing sounds to one particular channel, this is often used to create an impression of movement; the Tomcat aircraft screaming overhead in the movie Top Gun have you diving for cover! Alternatively it can flood all four channels (right, left, rear surround and centre-front dialogue) with a single dominant sound, producing an almost subliminal effect, used by sound engineers to help create or emphasise an atmosphere or emotion. The patter of rainfall, heard through all speakers simultaneously, can have an audience reaching for their umbrellas...

 

That brings us more or less up to date, as far as current technology is concerned, but just around the corner there are a number of new developments that you might like to know about. The first is THX, a kind of supercharged Dolby Surround, (THX stands for Tomlinson Holman eXperiment -- he’s the chap who dreamt it up). It’s not so much a technology as a very tight set of specifications, drawn up by Lucasfilm in the USA (George ‘Star Wars’ Lucas’s company), that precisely defines the type and position of speakers, amplifiers and decoders. At the moment THX equipment is horribly expensive, and really only of interest to well-heeled buffs. A little further up the road there’s a raft of digitally-based surround-sound systems, lots of them in fact, and they’re all incompatible with one another, what a surprise! It’s going to take a while for them to sort themselves out and filter through to the domestic market so we needn’t bother about them just yet; you might come across one or more of them at the cinema over the next year or so, providing cinema owners are prepared to invest in the very expensive new equipment needed to show these movies.

 

Back down on planet Earth the question you’re probably asking is how do I go about getting a home cinema system? There’s several ways, but the first thing to do is get a big telly; surround sound simply doesn’t work on a small TVs, and by small we mean anything with a screen under 25-inches. The simplest route is to buy a TV with a built-in Dolby Surround decoder, there’s quite a few on the market now, and the beauty of them is they’re simple to install and you don’t need any extra boxes. The downside is price, the cheapest ones start at around £650. However, they all come complete with the extra speakers and cables, and provided you’ve got a stereo VCR as well, you can be enjoying pre-recorded movies in glorious surround sound within a few minutes of unpacking he box. Incidentally, surround sound signals are also carried on broadcast TV stereo sound systems, like NICAM, and the Wegner Panda 1 system used by most satellite channels. However, not all films are transmitted with the original stereo soundtrack, and so far only a handful of TV programmes have Dolby Surround encoded soundtracks -- look out for the ‘Double-D’ logo.

 

Toshiba were first into the market with a Dolby Surround TV, that was three years ago. Their early sets had passive decoders, most of their surround TV nowadays have Pro-Logic decoders. Hitachi brought out their first Pro-Logic ‘Cinema Sound’ sets last year, and they’ve since been joined by Ferguson, Grundig, JVC, Panasonic, Sony and Nokia, who are also launching a 16:9 widescreen PAL Plus set with Dolby Pro Logic. As far as wide-screen TVs are concerned the future is still unclear and we would caution anyone thinking about buying one to be aware that there’s not a lot of widescreen material around at the moment to watch on them, even one’s with PAL Plus decoders; stretching ‘letterboxed’ movies on tape or shown on TV results in a significant loss of picture quality. The PAL Plus system which produces very good high-res widescreen pictures looks promising, but so far only C4 and Granada have shown any interest in it. The BBC say they’re pursuing digital technologies and the other ITV companies remain non-committal.

 

If you’ve got a reasonably recent big screen TV and stereo VCR the alternative is to integrate them with your hi-fi, or start from scratch and get a Dolby-equipped hi-fi mini or midi system, there’s a lot of them about these days, starting at around £500. If you choose to integrate your current system you will either need to buy a stand-alone Dolby Pro-Logic decoder (£150 to £2000), or replace the existing amplifier with an AV amp, with a built-in Dolby decoder, (and usually a few more sound-enhancing gadgets as well). AV amps cost from £200, rising to well over £1500 for the really fancy ones. In either case you will also need at least two extra speakers, for the rear surround channels (they come supplied with AV systems), and a centre-front speaker as well. This is the only one that you need to be careful about. Rear surround channel speakers can be almost any half-decent bookshelf  type, the surround channel hasn’t got a particularly wide bandwidth. However, because the centre-front speaker needs to be placed close to the TV screen the magnet inside can cause colour ‘staining’ on the screen. By all means try an ordinary speaker first -- the TV will automatically eradicate the staining after a while -- but if it happens it’s a good idea to use a purpose-designed magnetically-shielded AV speaker, they cost from £30 upwards, or you could get a complete AV speaker package, these start at around £100.

 

If you’re really determined you might like to think about adding a sub-woofer to the system; most AV amps have suitable outputs, though some may require additional amplification. A sub-woofer is a must for action blockbusters, with plenty of gut-rumbling explosions to rattle the floorboards, and annoy the neighbours!

 

Dolby decoders built into VCRs and satellite receivers haven’t been a great success; neither location is entirely satisfactory and you will have to sacrifice flexibility one way or another. We suggest you go with the flow and stick to decoders in TVs, or hi-fi systems.

 

Finally, a word or two about surround sound and home video-movies, yes it is possible. Early in 1994 we came across a surround sound effects program for a PC, that generated 3-D sound effects, which could be processed by Dolby Surround decoders. These could be added to video movie soundtracks during post production or editing. We’ve been keeping tabs on the product, which was developed by a UK company, and was due to be launched last October. Since then the package,  now called Digital Surround Animator, is in the process of being sold to a US company. If the sale goes ahead it seems unlikely that it

will reach the UK much before the middle of 1995. Yes, we’ve heard it all before, so don’t hold your breath but we’ll keep you posted.

 

---end---

Ó  R. Maybury 1994 2010

FEATURE

 

HEAD

HOME CINEMA

 

INTRO

You’re going to be hearing a lot about home cinema from now on but what does it mean, what can it do for you, and is it worth having? We have the answers

 

COPY

We’re gradually becoming accustomed to the term ‘home cinema’ but what exactly does it mean? The average British living room has little in common with a movie theatre auditorium, and it takes an almighty stretch of the imagination to compare a 22-inch colour TV with a 60-foot cinema screen. Nevertheless it is possible to re-create at least some of the atmosphere of a visit to the movies in your own home. Just how far you go is up to you; if you want to go the whole hog you could always invite the neighbours in to chatter away when you’re watching a film, shout abuse at you and grind week-old hot-dogs into the carpet...

 

So how does it work? To answer that we have to look at the origins of home cinema. People have been installing big-screen and projection TVs in their living rooms for the past twenty years but home cinema as we know it today arose out of three key developments. The first was the introduction of the Dolby Stereo multi-channel stereo sound system on theatrically-released movies, it began with Star Wars in 1977; since them most major feature films have had Dolby Stereo soundtracks. The second major breakthrough was the almost simultaneous arrival of the VHS hi-fi stereo sound system and laserdisc, which both appeared in 1983. When movies are transferred to video and disc with their original soundtrack the signals that produce the Dolby surround sound end up on the tape or disc as well. The final piece in the jigsaw is  NICAM digital stereo. Since 1989 the BBC and ITV companies have started broadcasting TV programmes in stereo, more recently they’ve been joined by stereo satellite TV channels, and this has provided the much-needed change of attitude to the quality of TV sound, and created a market for stereo televisions.

 

Dolby Stereo remained little more than an interesting curiosity for several years, there were no domestic Dolby Surround decoders, but that changed during the late eighties when several affordable decoders hit the American market, and one or two even made it to the UK. Even so they only sold in small numbers to hi-fi enthusiasts and movie-buffs, who were prepared to go to the trouble and expense of installing extra amplifiers and speakers, but the snowball was rolling.    

 

From 1990 onwards an increasing number of Dolby Surround products were launched, including the first Dolby Pro-Logic decoders. Pro Logic is the name given to an advanced decoder system, closely related to the ones used in cinemas. The first generation of  Dolby Surround decoders used what is known as a ‘passive matrix’, to unscramble the surround-sound channel from the stereo soundtrack; this is fed to a pair of speakers behind the viewing position, literally bathing the viewer in a sea of sound. Pro-Logic decoders have an ‘active-matrix’, to separate out a fourth channel. This carries speech or dialogue, which is fed to a speaker placed in front of the TV screen. In cinemas this track is used to focus the audience’s attention on the screen, wherever they may be sitting in the auditorium.

 

Pro-Logic decoders can do a number of other tricks, including localising or directing sounds to one particular channel, this is often used to create an impression of movement; the Tomcat aircraft screaming overhead in the movie Top Gun have you diving for cover! Alternatively it can flood all four channels (right, left, rear surround and centre-front dialogue) with a single dominant sound, producing an almost subliminal effect, used by sound engineers to help create or emphasise an atmosphere or emotion. The patter of rainfall, heard through all speakers simultaneously, can have an audience reaching for their umbrellas...

 

That brings us more or less up to date, as far as current technology is concerned, but just around the corner there are a number of new developments that you might like to know about. The first is THX, a kind of supercharged Dolby Surround, (THX stands for Tomlinson Holman eXperiment -- he’s the chap who dreamt it up). It’s not so much a technology as a very tight set of specifications, drawn up by Lucasfilm in the USA (George ‘Star Wars’ Lucas’s company), that precisely defines the type and position of speakers, amplifiers and decoders. At the moment THX equipment is horribly expensive, and really only of interest to well-heeled buffs. A little further up the road there’s a raft of digitally-based surround-sound systems, lots of them in fact, and they’re all incompatible with one another, what a surprise! It’s going to take a while for them to sort themselves out and filter through to the domestic market so we needn’t bother about them just yet; you might come across one or more of them at the cinema over the next year or so, providing cinema owners are prepared to invest in the very expensive new equipment needed to show these movies.

 

Back down on planet Earth the question you’re probably asking is how do I go about getting a home cinema system? There’s several ways, but the first thing to do is get a big telly; surround sound simply doesn’t work on a small TVs, and by small we mean anything with a screen under 25-inches. The simplest route is to buy a TV with a built-in Dolby Surround decoder, there’s quite a few on the market now, and the beauty of them is they’re simple to install and you don’t need any extra boxes. The downside is price, the cheapest ones start at around £650. However, they all come complete with the extra speakers and cables, and provided you’ve got a stereo VCR as well, you can be enjoying pre-recorded movies in glorious surround sound within a few minutes of unpacking he box. Incidentally, surround sound signals are also carried on broadcast TV stereo sound systems, like NICAM, and the Wegner Panda 1 system used by most satellite channels. However, not all films are transmitted with the original stereo soundtrack, and so far only a handful of TV programmes have Dolby Surround encoded soundtracks -- look out for the ‘Double-D’ logo.

 

Toshiba were first into the market with a Dolby Surround TV, that was three years ago. Their early sets had passive decoders, most of their surround TV nowadays have Pro-Logic decoders. Hitachi brought out their first Pro-Logic ‘Cinema Sound’ sets last year, and they’ve since been joined by Ferguson, Grundig, JVC, Panasonic, Sony and Nokia, who are also launching a 16:9 widescreen PAL Plus set with Dolby Pro Logic. As far as wide-screen TVs are concerned the future is still unclear and we would caution anyone thinking about buying one to be aware that there’s not a lot of widescreen material around at the moment to watch on them, even one’s with PAL Plus decoders; stretching ‘letterboxed’ movies on tape or shown on TV results in a significant loss of picture quality. The PAL Plus system which produces very good high-res widescreen pictures looks promising, but so far only C4 and Granada have shown any interest in it. The BBC say they’re pursuing digital technologies and the other ITV companies remain non-committal.

 

If you’ve got a reasonably recent big screen TV and stereo VCR the alternative is to integrate them with your hi-fi, or start from scratch and get a Dolby-equipped hi-fi mini or midi system, there’s a lot of them about these days, starting at around £500. If you choose to integrate your current system you will either need to buy a stand-alone Dolby Pro-Logic decoder (£150 to £2000), or replace the existing amplifier with an AV amp, with a built-in Dolby decoder, (and usually a few more sound-enhancing gadgets as well). AV amps cost from £200, rising to well over £1500 for the really fancy ones. In either case you will also need at least two extra speakers, for the rear surround channels (they come supplied with AV systems), and a centre-front speaker as well. This is the only one that you need to be careful about. Rear surround channel speakers can be almost any half-decent bookshelf  type, the surround channel hasn’t got a particularly wide bandwidth. However, because the centre-front speaker needs to be placed close to the TV screen the magnet inside can cause colour ‘staining’ on the screen. By all means try an ordinary speaker first -- the TV will automatically eradicate the staining after a while -- but if it happens it’s a good idea to use a purpose-designed magnetically-shielded AV speaker, they cost from £30 upwards, or you could get a complete AV speaker package, these start at around £100.

 

If you’re really determined you might like to think about adding a sub-woofer to the system; most AV amps have suitable outputs, though some may require additional amplification. A sub-woofer is a must for action blockbusters, with plenty of gut-rumbling explosions to rattle the floorboards, and annoy the neighbours!

 

Dolby decoders built into VCRs and satellite receivers haven’t been a great success; neither location is entirely satisfactory and you will have to sacrifice flexibility one way or another. We suggest you go with the flow and stick to decoders in TVs, or hi-fi systems.

 

Finally, a word or two about surround sound and home video-movies, yes it is possible. Early in 1994 we came across a surround sound effects program for a PC, that generated 3-D sound effects, which could be processed by Dolby Surround decoders. These could be added to video movie soundtracks during post production or editing. We’ve been keeping tabs on the product, which was developed by a UK company, and was due to be launched last October. Since then the package,  now called Digital Surround Animator, is in the process of being sold to a US company. If the sale goes ahead it seems unlikely that it

will reach the UK much before the middle of 1995. Yes, we’ve heard it all before, so don’t hold your breath but we’ll keep you posted.

 

---end---

Ó  R. Maybury 1994 2010

 


 

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