Thankfully, as you’ll discover in the following review, massive amounts of home theater misinformation is rampant, not only on the internet, but in different types of retailers as well.
I’ve been involved with audio/video for so long that I’m not sure I can recount the endless amounts of upgrades in home theater over the years. For quite a long time, Dolby® reigned king and the ability to match your big screen with what you hoped would be cinema sound was to just add a couple small speakers and a processor to your already awesome stereo and voi la you now have surround sound thanks to Pro-Logic. Unfortunately, that sound was from a 2 channel source, VHS, and wasn’t true surround, it was called matrix which meant steering sounds from the front to a little wrap around into the rear, but volume levels weren’t matched and it was hard to hear the separation because all the information came from the front anyway. The beginning of true home theater sound to rival your local Cineplex was AC-3 on laserdisc, which later became the more common nomenclature you use now, Dolby Digital. When that same format arrived on the tiny little CD sized disc that had twice the resolution of your VHS, and real surround sound, the home theater market exploded. It was no longer just a luxury for the wealthy; prices were in range for many households, and DVD players and big screen TV’s were flying off showroom floors with the new widescreen design and high definition capability. That was the arrival of the combination of true home theater sound and video without having to leave your house. All that was left was to convince your significant other that you had to have all those speakers.
Over time we’ve had VHS, ProLogic, AC-3, THX, DVD, Divx, DTS, 720p, D-Theater HD-VHS, HD-DVD, Dolby Digital 5.1, EX 6.1 and DTS-ES, 1080p, 7.1, Blu-ray, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD lossless audio, Dolby Atmos 7.2.4, UHD, 4K…..whew, and that list is nowhere near complete, but as you can see, there’s a lot of acronyms, so where does the average consumer go to sort it all out. Then it hit me, (figuratively not literally), what better way to find out than to grab a naïve friend who knows little about home theater, give him different scenarios to search the internet. At the same time, I would pose as an average consumer and head into the big box stores in Southern California to see if the “pros” could help me figure out what all of it means. With an evil grin and a maniacal laugh, I rubbed my hands together and got ready to storm the aisles. It was at this moment I realized people thought I was a bit “off” not because of what I was wearing (I’m a former bull riding cowboy), but because I appeared positively psychotic.
While I knew it would appear odd if I walked in with pen and pad of paper, I thought I could try putting technology to use by using an app to record my conversations. That way I could go home and listen to the actual conversation and transcribe the information. I used the RecNow app which continually moves recordings to DropBox to save space and used the mic from my RHA T20i headphones to capture the conversations on my iPhone 7 Plus. The following are real conversations I had at different stores or different sales reps on different days at the same stores, ranging from your average Big Box Store that sells everything under one roof, to smaller specialty brick and mortar stores. The store names have been excluded and the sales reps names changed to protect them from further embarrassment. Enjoy reading what at the time was pure torture for me, however, I can now listen to the recorded conversations again and laugh, really laugh because had I not recorded them, no one would have believed what I’m about to write.
With technology constantly changing as fast as sales reps at most stores, I decided to limit my friends’ internet search and my in-store questions to 2 areas; what is 4K/UHD, and what is Dolby Atmos. I visited all stores on a slow weekday so there was no excuse of being rushed or brushed off as a looky loo. I went in with no preconceived questions to ask, much like an average consumer, I intended to let the store educate and sell me, or at best my questions would come from all the descriptive plaques next to the TV’s themselves.
Big Box Store 1: I browse the aisles trying my best not to look like I want help, apparently too well because “the boys” kept right on having their conversation about who partied harder this past weekend. With a fake stumble and knocking off an info card, I could see them roll their eyes and one of them came over to me. “How can I help you?” asked Marc, never offering me his name or a handshake. “My neighbor just got one of these new 4K’s and says I just have to have one. His doesn’t look much better than mine, which is a 70” I recently bought. So I thought I would come down here to get more information cause he kept rattling off a bunch of terms I’ve never heard before.” Marc feigns polite laughter and walks me over to a mid-point Samsung 50”. I look right at him and say, “OK, so what’s all the fuss, yeah the picture is pretty but so was mine when using that perfect channel y’all have.” At this point Marc looks at me like I must need glasses but then proceeds to rattle off all the same acronyms I already told him I didn’t understand. “Whoa partner, slow down, OK what is HDR?” “It stands for High Definition Rang which means that this TV has 4x the resolution of your 70” 1080P when using all 4K equipment from start to finish. Meaning it’s recorded in 4K, studio mastered at 4K, you buy the 4K version and play it in your 4K player fed to your 4K TV.” Marc smiled proudly like he just gave a white paper report at M.I.T. (Unfortunately for Marc, HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and relates to the image’s contrast and color palette, not the image resolution.)
At this time I figured I wouldn’t pursue anymore explanations on other terms and just stick with HDR. “Well that makes sense, but then why doesn’t this TV look 4x better than mine?” “I wanted to start you with an entry level model so you could see how much size matters when watching 4K.” Hmm, first smart thing the kid has said yet, maybe there’s hope. About this time we arrive at the display of hot new tech from LG with OLED, Samsung with Quantum Dot, and Sony with X-Reality Pro, all of them looking fairly stunning. Marc turns to look at me and asks “is this more what you had in mind?” I had to admit it was, even I still get giddy looking at the incredible blacks and wide color gamut of OLED, but I remain calm and state “Yup, that seems to make more sense.” The conversation goes on for quite some time but I don’t dare venture into the difference between 4K and UHD, Dolby Vision, 8 vs 10/12 bit color, Rec 2020 and well, another store maybe.
Specialty Store 1: This place is so big, there’s a store within the store that caters to a more “high-end” consumer. So with enough 4K/UHD debauchery for one day, I decide to try out a sales rep with Dolby Atmos information. As I stroll into the store inside a store, it seems to be common place that employees hang out at the counters regaling their weekend conquests, however, this time one of them jumped up and ventured over to where I was pretending to ignore him. “Welcome to Specialty Store 1, my name is David, how may I help you….” I assumed he was waiting for my name so I obliged him, “Jeff” and didn’t say another word. I think my brain was still fried from Marc so I decided to let David take charge.
“What brings you here today?” “Oh I’m just roaming the store while my wife buys a new fridge.” “Well Jeff, is there anything that you’ve been wanting to see or hear that’s new on the market?” Dang, David is good so far at sales, it’ll all rest in his knowledge of product information. “Well yeah there is, we just bought a 70” Vizio from y’all and a receiver and Klipsch speakers. It looks and sounds great, but of course, there’s the old adage ‘one up the Joneses’ and my buddy across the street loves to do it. Anyway, he just bought one of the new 4K TV’s and a receiver that says Dolby Atmos but I don’t know anything about it, and all my neighbor knew was that it meant more speakers on top of the already room-swallowing 7.1 system he has. So what is it?” “Follow me Jeff and I’ll explain while we look and demo.”
“Dolby Atmos first started in movie theaters and based on the success and excitement of audio mixers, it quickly made it to home audio. Atmos is short for Atmosphere, meaning your whole room will become one huge audio atmosphere.” “Well, it pretty much already is, so what’s different besides the gimmick of having to buy more speakers.” Well, in addition to adding more speakers like you mentioned, those speakers will be height speakers for overhead sounds like airplanes, helicopters, rockets, heck just space so your ceiling disappears. But what gets me, and all of us working here, is that it’s not like typical surround in that it moves around from speaker to speaker, front to back in a linear fashion. It’s called object based surround which means the engineer can take any sound on or off the screen and put it in any speaker he wants, moving sounds all over the place. Imagine rain so real coming from above your head and then running down the side walls and puddling in front of you and hearing splashes. That’s what it’s all about. Ideally you add 4 more speakers and there’s a couple ways to do that. First please sit and close your eyes and listen to this rain demo from a system similar to yours.”
“OK, that’s like yours and now I add in the Atmos.” I smile knowing he isn’t using 5.1.2/4 but play along with him anyway. “Holy wow, that is unreal, it’s like being outside in the rain!” “OK, open your eyes Jeff. In fact, that wasn’t at all a system like yours; all that amazing surround came from this Yamaha sound bar right here. Now that you’ve heard how amazing even a basic set up can be, you can keep your eyes open, no more gimmicks ha-ha.” “Gimmick or not, that was pretty mind blowing, I can’t wait to hear it get better.” “Alright then, now I will play a system very much like yours, Klipsch speakers in 5.1 but if you come over and look at the front speakers, there is a little speaker that can be placed on top of your tower that fires up into the ceiling, and if you don’t have towers in the rear, there are options for your surrounds, but similar set up, speakers that fire into the ceiling. Ok, go ahead and sit and get ready for something truly mind blowing.” David then plays the Atmos helicopter demo which is pretty damn impressive, especially in a sound treated room with a Sony 4K projector and everything high end. For the demo, David used Marantz Separates.
OK back to reality, the demo ends. “What did you think of that one Jeff?” “That was as you said, mind blowing. You said there’s one more level; I don’t know how much better it can get than that.” “Well Jeff, there is one more but we don’t have it set up here because the difference is pretty minimal for the amount of work for the install. You will have to install 4 speakers in your ceiling, cutting holes in the roof, running wire around to the receiver, and so on, the cost can be pretty substantial so we here don’t recommend it but can recommend installers if that’s what you ultimately decide and we sell the speakers for it, but honestly, for the little gain, I wouldn’t do it.” “Well if you say it isn’t that big of a difference, I know I can live a little bit longer because my wife won’t kill me for cutting into the ceiling.” “So Jeff, is this something you want to take home right now and blow your neighbor away tonight after an easy install?” “No, like I said David, I’m here for a fridge, however I promise to be back for that very reason. Thank you so much for your time.”
So as you can tell, Big Box is a mixed bag of knowledge, information, current training, excitement by a sales rep, but I feel if I was a consumer, I would be leaving there more confused than I was before. I head home to check on the internet progress I’ve left in the not so capable hands of my Guinea pig, oops friend, Clark and allow my brain to readjust to having a regular conversation.
“So Clark, I see you’re still on the internet, is that for research or your twisted pleasure?” I had to duck as a binder came flying by my head. “What I’ve learned so far is written in that binder I should’ve hit you with.” In looking over the flow chart, he created a timeline, definitions, and a breakdown of what companies offer 100% of the current standard. “Clark, I’m actually impressed. So in the timeline, you look at the creation of consumer UHD, the creation of the consortium, and when each acronym fits in the timeline and then definitions of each acronym along the way. This is incredible, your day was far better than mine and it looks to me like you could write an article on the state of UHD progress.” “Jeff, if I had something else to throw at your head I would right now.” “What, why, I just complimented you.” “Because for each small amount of information listed that is correct, turn to the back of the binder and observe how many websites I had to go to for that correct information.”
“Clark, if you had to go to multiple websites for correct information, how did you know it was incorrect when you started the day not knowing any part of this?” “Because, when each site contradicts the last one and it goes on and on, I had to find the sites that did agree with each other on something and then keep whittling it down. That site you write for has by far the most accurate info out there, especially the new article that just posted about the ultimate HDR explanation by Brian Florian (click here for article). And then there’s the UHD continuing update by Chris Eberle (click here for article) and aside from a lot of forums where there’s some truth but a whole lot of misinformation I couldn’t take the time to weed through, I really only found one other site out there trying to stay as current as you are, and they have a cool video series on YouTube. However, anytime I wanted to verify that I finally reached the correct conclusion and information needed, all I had to do was run a quick search and verify it with Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity.”
Specialty Store 2: Thankfully just a short 15 minute drive from home was a high end specialty store where I was sure I could get all the correct information I was looking for, and have fun talking tech with another geek like me. Boy I couldn’t be further from the truth, so here we go again. As I walk in the 2 men at the counter have no desire to wager whose weekend was better, this place seemed all business, with one man doing what appeared to be inventory sheets, and the other on Quickbooks. Probably not the best thing to leave open at your front counter, but hey, it’s their business. One of them pops up and says hello, feel free to look around and if I had any questions to let either of them know. Hmm, low pressure sales, this is different. After a few minutes of me wandering around doing my best to appear confused, one of them finally approached to help. “Hello, I’m Yosuf, welcome.” “I’m Jeff, nice to meet you.” OK, pleasantries out of the way, let’s get down to business. “I’m looking to upgrade the family TV and I keep seeing ads and hearing about this UHD and 4K TV’s. Honestly I don’t know anything about it all.” Yosuf starts the conversation by politely letting me know UHD and 4K is essentially the same thing, that the new standard for television is Ultra High Definition, and 4K was part of that, as would be 8K in the coming years.
Yosuf then does something no one else has thus far, asks me what my needs are, space, sound, and so on to help narrow down to the right choice and he said then we will go over all those confusing terms. I wasn’t expecting this, so now I was gonna have to think fast. “We have a projector for mostly family movies, so a TV doesn’t need to be massive.” Yosuf asks about the room, I let him know it’s fairly large at 20×16 but the screen rolls down in front of the TV. He then asks what’s important to me when watching TV, and I said brightness, pure blacks like CRT, and accurate colors. I figured that should head him where I wanted him to go and it did.
He takes me to the LG and Samsung sitting side by side. He said “as you can see, LCD has come a very long way as far as blacks and he said the amazing colors you see are now all the confusing stuff you wanted to know about.” Yosuf goes on to explain HDR, WCG, 8 vs 10/12 bit, OLED vs LED LCD, and on and on. “So since this will be a primetime viewing TV, what kind of content is out there right now? Is it like early HD, when you watched something you would never watch just because it was in HD or is there content out there?” Yosuf let me know there is a little bit out there and it is gaining speed faster than early HD but right now the only way to watch the best 4K with HDR is to buy this player, and some of these movies (points to both).
This man knew his stuff, aside from leaving out Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, etc. until we got to the one question I finally stumped him on. “Yosuf what is this Dolby Vision I keep hearing about, is it 3D or something?” At this point I assumed anything he didn’t know he would ask or find out, but he blew it, he went off the cuff. “That format Mr. Jeff is part of a format war that lost. Are you familiar with format wars, such as HD-DVD vs Blu-ray, VHS vs Betamax, and so on? There’s so many, most people never hear of the other product by the time it hits market and the dust has settled. Well it is the same with Dolby Vision; they tried but should stay with sound “Yosuf, I can’t thank you enough for your time and helping me understand so many things I didn’t get. When I buy a UHD TV, I will be back here for the purchase.” I meant that in earnest, however, my next purchase is a 4K projector so it’ll be quite some time. (BTW, Dolby Vision is not a dead format and in fact has not come to market yet!)
Big Box Store 2: I decided to brave the weekend crowds at another Big Box Store knowing that this will be the time most consumers have to shop, so going in fully armed with no knowledge of anything, I decided to see what the masses have to go through. Every department I walked through had someone it seemed popped out of nowhere to ask if I needed help. Weaving around people who stop in the middle of aisles as if no one else shops there, and trying to avoid the scary salesman-in-the-box that keeps popping out, I finally made my way to audio/video. Why is it that in every store it is always the furthest location from the door? Anyway, it is so crowded that even trying to view one TV is like playing bumper cars as people move in and out of each one in a row and bump you out of the way, unknowingly of course, but never apologizing. I had just about reached my level of going postal when a gentleman about my age walked up and stood next to me for a while staring at the UHD I was staring at, and finally spoke, “Do you want to take this one home?” I looked over and laughed out loud when I realized he had a staff shirt on, he laughed as well, knowing I didn’t have a clue. Well ice broken, it was time to go to work. “Well I wouldn’t take this one home.” “Why not?” “Because while I think it looks incredible, the displays off to the side back and over to the left look infinitely superior. I assume that’s why it is over there and not up here embarrassing this expensive set.” “You my friend have a good eye, and yes this set does have an amazing picture, but side by side with the one over there you mentioned, the blacks look milky gray or off black at best.” “So why aside from the obvious, does that one get stuck over in ‘no one puts baby in a corner’ while this one sits front and center for all to buy?”
“Let’s walk and talk”, he says to me. I still don’t know his name and he has no tag. I reversed things,” I’m Jeff, and you are?” “Steve.” And that was all he said. We walked back over to baby’s corner and the displays I preferred. It was only then that he spoke, “Honest answer to your question, they pay more for display space, allocate us more products, and have a bigger name in the industry. The best doesn’t always win.” “I laughed and said well that was refreshingly honest.” So Steve and I talked for a bit longer and after picking his brain for a while, I could tell the jig was up. “You seem to know more answers to the questions you keep asking me all about”. Steve was so polite, sincerely honest, and just didn’t fit the mold of those around him, that I let on a bit what I was doing. I didn’t tell him I wrote for anyone, just that I was out trying to find out what the general knowledge of the current industry is. I think he could figure out the rest.
I then asked him how he ended up working at this Big Box when he was so much more knowledgeable than anyone here by a mile, he said “I am a passionate audiophile with a newfound love of video as it progresses to the level of high end 2 channel audio. This is a hobby, not a job, and I work during the week for the government, so on the weekends, I work here for money for my hobby and huge discounts on purchases.” “Steve, you have been a pleasure to meet, that’s for sure” and proceeded to tell him about my week. We talked for another hour or more about all things a/v until his manager came looking for him, he asked me if I was going to buy the TV today, lol, and with that, he was gone.
Going home was far more relaxing this time around, and I hoped Clark had the same success in his search for all things Atmos/DTS:X, and when he opened the door to his place, I could tell by his face I should not speak but listen. He ranted for about 10 mins about how today was so similar to the other day, and he couldn’t get why when there was so much less to it than UHD. I didn’t have an answer for him, except that anyone can post on the internet and make themselves a self-proclaimed expert or guru, and just because you write for a large newspaper or research department, again does not mean you’re an expert in the field. These guys tend to test and inspect all kinds of electronics, not just a/v, so staying current and keeping information relevant can be hard to do.
The one thing that does tend to send me over the edge is a writer that will outright say something like “I can’t hear any difference between 16/44.1 and 96/24” and then goes on to say that you don’t need to waste your money but his listed listening equipment is essentially a “high end” set of computer speakers. Really? Well of course you can’t hear a difference on that system.
I leave you, the reader with these thoughts; don’t do what I did, if you are at all educated, which as a reader of this site I can assume you’re far more informed than the average big box salesman, save yourself the potential headache. If you are looking for information on something on the internet, it’s still the Wild West and anything can be posted, and with a solid SEO, be the first search, so they must be an expert right? Stick with a source you know is reputable, a writer you trust, or members on forums you know for sure know what they are talking about. Good luck sifting through all of that, or you could just log in to Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity and get everything you need in one search.