A/V Veteran

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Thomas J. Norton  |  Apr 06, 2021  |  3 comments
The big news story of last week wasn't out of Washington D.C., or about the current state of Covid, or who has just cancelled who or what, or even the new line of TVs ready to flood your local Costco, Sam's Club, Best Buy, or any number of other retailers. It involved a giant cargo ship, the Ever Given, getting stuck in the Suez canal with hundreds of other ships lined up behind it and unable to get through with their cargo. What's this have to do with home audio and video?
Thomas J. Norton  |  Mar 23, 2021  |  4 comments
Building your own speakers from scratch Is an activity I've written about before. But that first blog is now accessible only by delving deeply into our Wayback Time Machine, so a revisit to this intriguing audio subculture is worth a follow-up here. Read on to find out if you have what it takes to take on a DIY speaker project.
Thomas J. Norton  |  Mar 09, 2021  |  2 comments
The changes to how we watch media resulting from the closing of theaters due to the Covid-19 pandemic have been unprecedented. True, not all theaters are closed. Here in the wilds of Florida my local AMC has been open for some time. But its current slate of movies is hardly the stuff of dreams: Boogie, Chaos Walking, The Mauritanian (not The Mandalorian!), The Little Things, The Marksman, The Croods: A New Age, and Raya and the Last Dragon. The latter is the only one tempting me to break my year long hiatus from that theater's Dolby Vision and IMAX auditoriums, but not quite enough for me to do so even though I've now joined the few, the proud, and the vaccinated.

A whole spate of potential blockbusters have either been released to streaming or are being held over until the studios are confident that if they show them (in theaters) they will come.

Thomas J. Norton  |  Feb 23, 2021  |  3 comments
Anyone who has read any of my speaker reviews over the past few years knows that my current room has bass issues (the photo here is, sadly, NOT my room!!). Welcome me to the club; rooms without bass problems are few and far between. Only the obsessed worries about a peak at 30Hz, but erratic response higher in the bass, particularly in the 80 to 200Hz region, can have serious negative effects on the overall sound. To little response there can reduce a source's natural weight, particularly on large scale music or home theater effects. Too much and the bass sounds bloated.

Once you get above a certain frequency, usually between 200 and 500 Hz (known as the Schroeder frequency, after the physicist who first identified it and not the Peanuts character), the room's effect on the sound becomes less significant.

Thomas J. Norton  |  Feb 09, 2021  |  0 comments
When fishing around for a film to show on a movie night with friends, before Covid-19 rudely interrupted, I recommended The Court Jester. I had it on DVD, but I knew it looked good enough to satisfy non-critical viewers who likely also wouldn't be bothered by its 1950's mono sound. We passed on it that time around, but that old DVD has now taken its last spin. A spanking new Blu-ray of the film has just been released in a video transfer nothing short of stunning.

The movie was originally shot in VistaVision, a widescreen process used (mainly by Paramount) in the 1950's and 60's. It's long-since been dropped as a release format, but is sometimes employed for in-camera special effects created for non-VistaVision productions, particularly in the pre-CGI era. It was used, for example, in the creation of the effects for some of the early Star Wars and Star Trek films when CGI wasn't yet a thing.

Thomas J. Norton  |  Jan 26, 2021  |  3 comments
I recently bought a new car. It wasn't planned, though perhaps long overdue. Old Betsy...um Mazda...took it on herself to make a frontal run on a low curb at a high enough speed to rip into the oil pan and take out one of the engine mounts. No injuries to this or any other humans, nor any perceptible damage to the curb, but my insurance company decided that it was time to send my 15-year-old filly to pasture.

But, you ask, how does this apply to A/V gear. For starters, the latter tends to last a long time unless the winds blow, the ground shakes, a fire intrudes, or the crick rises.

Thomas J. Norton  |  Jan 12, 2021  |  8 comments
If you were under 10-years old in the early twenty-aughts you might never have experienced a TV series considered by many to be one of the best, if not the best, science fiction series ever produced for television. Yes, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica came along shortly after. Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis ran seemingly forever. And I risk permanent expulsion from the club if I don't mention everything Star Trek. There are others shows that have their fans as well. What, no love here for Lost or Game of Thrones (if we can include them in this category—sci-fi is often a big tent, to the dismay of purists). I love both of these in their own ways, but neither of them ended well.

One that did end well is my candidate for the best ever. Over the recent holidays I revisited the first season of Farscape on Blu-ray.

Thomas J. Norton  |  Dec 29, 2020  |  2 comments
A video projector has long been the gold standard for achieving the true theater experience at home. It still is, but there are limitations to projectors that can compromise the big screen experience with today’s best source material.

The relatively limited brightness a projector offers becomes more significant as the size of the screen and the demands of the source material increase. Unlike in the past, where the desire for ever bigger screens could be satisfied (more or less) even by a less than wallet-choking projector, HDR demands far more peak brightness than standard dynamic range...Flat screen TVs in jumbo sizes have become increasingly common lately, at prices far less intimidating than before. A decent LCD/LED, 85-inch 4K set can be had for under $3500.

Thomas J. Norton  |  Nov 17, 2020  |  4 comments
Anyone who has had more than a day’s exposure to home theater knows that the heart of any system is the A/V receiver or similar device(s). This doesn’t necessarily mean basic sound quality per se (more on that below). But it’s at the center of the system where everything comes together—the sources at its inputs and the speakers and room at its outputs. The A/V electronics can make or break any system with regard to its ultimate capabilities— its convenience in use, the number of channels it offers, its ergonomics, its features, and much more. It’s also the component that’s most likely to be overtaken by new developments, putting it behind the times even if it’s still functional. It might last a decade or more and still produce satisfying sound, but if things keep moving as fast they have in the recent past there could well be new features that eventually render it functionally obsolete. At least one manufacturer, NAD, builds its AVRs with removable modules for later upgrades, but even so there might be future developments beyond its reach. There’s no such thing as absolute future-proofing (if there were, the company offering it might well go out of business!).

But before you consider any of these things you’ll need to decide between a A/V receiver (AVR) or a preamp-processor (pre-pro)...

Thomas J. Norton  |  Nov 03, 2020  |  0 comments
The slipcover to the new release of the Back to the Future trilogy, just released on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray for the first time, refers to the threesome as the “most popular movie series of all time.” I’m not sure about that; the trilogies of The Lord of the Rings and the original Star Wars (episodes 4, 5, and 6 in George Lucas’ bizarre numbering system) might have something to say about that. But The Lord of the Rings is a long slog for some viewers, running over 10 hours in its extended versions. And Return of the Jedi, episode 6 of Star Wars, with its army of cuddly teddy bears (can you say merchandizing?) was too cutesy by half.

But both of the latter trilogies were essentially serious endeavors, their heroes battling evil. Back to the Future, on the other hand, is a tongue-in cheek romp.

Thomas J. Norton  |  Oct 20, 2020  |  11 comments
The other day I was fiddling with my car radio in an attempt to find an interesting station, not an easy exercise in my end of the woods. I landed on a real estate broadcast. I’m not in the market to buy or sell property, but I stayed with it rather than dial while driving. My car doesn’t have one of those all-singing, all dancing, voice activated in-car entertainment systems—”Alexa, play soft jazz.”

The subject being discussed was what sort of home improvements homeowners were investing in these days. In the current environment it may seem odd that some folks are putting in swimming pools, adding bedrooms, and remodeling here and there. But if it keeps contractors in business and their workers employed I’m happy for them. One question asked of the commentator was if these upgrades included an uptick in home theater installations. Given the current (non) status of commercial movie theaters, this seemed logical. The answer given, however, was a definite no. With the ability to now watch and listen on portable devices such as smart phones and tablets, the responder claimed that some current home theater owners are even converting their entertainment spaces to home offices or other more pressing needs. Yuck.

Thomas J. Norton  |  Oct 06, 2020  |  4 comments
Most sci-fi fans have their favorite genre films from each decade. The 1980s had more than their share of them. There would be plenty of votes for the second and third Star Wars releases: The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Star Trek TOS would also crash the party with perhaps the best sci-fi trilogy of all: The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, and The Voyage Home. There were one-shot candidates as well, including Aliens, Cocoon, Inner Space, War Games, Enemy Mine, and, of course, E.T.

Yes, the ‘80s were a good time for sci-fi. Even more amazing is the fact that most of these films used only physical (practical) effects; CGI was barely a buzzword. But two live-action films from the first half of the decade hinted at what was to come. Tron made an attempt at using computer generated images, though many of the effects were supplemented by animation. But it was another film from the ‘80s that more clearly pointed the way to the future: The Last Starfighter.

Thomas J. Norton  |  Sep 22, 2020  |  7 comments
I sort of expected it when I moved to Florida 5+ years ago, so when the eye of hurricane Sally struck about 100 miles west of here last week, it wasn’t really a surprise. It was Tuesday when the heavy rain started, and it continued through midday Wednesday. There was some wind, enough to drop a few trees within a mile of me, but heavy rain caused much of the damage. Over 20 inches fell in this area. They could have used that 20 inches on the west coast to kill the fires there; that’s something like eight years of rain at my former Los Angeles address! I hope no readers were seriously impacted by storms or wildfires on either side of the country.
Thomas J. Norton  |  Sep 01, 2020  |  3 comments
Outlaw Audio has been in the amplifier business for over 20 years. I reviewed their first entry, the 5-channel Model 750, in the late ‘90s for the long-departed Stereophile Guide to Home Theater. It’s still here, now serving to drive my four Atmos speakers with one channel to spare. Many Outlaw amps have passed under the bridge since then, with many (perhaps most) made by ATI in California, so I was intrigued when Outlaw sent me their latest 7-channel amp — the 7220 — to have a look and listen.
Thomas J. Norton  |  Aug 18, 2020  |  0 comments
Recently I completed one of my all too infrequent efforts to cull the herd of old magazines more than three years old; anything earlier worth finding is almost certainly available on-line. A few key older issues were kept for various reasons, and a complete set of the long-defunct Stereophile Guide to Home Theater is still hiding somewhere in the garage. But by accident I ran across my only remaining issue of Video Theater. Never heard of it? It was a magazine begun in the late ‘80s by J. Gordon Holt. Holt is best known as the founder of Stereophile magazine, which inspired a whole raft of competitors anxious to fill a pent-up demand for information on how equipment actually sounds, not just how it measures.

But Gordon was not only an audiophile. He was passionate about video as well in an era when home video hadn’t yet moved much beyond the 21-inch, CRT color TV. Video Theater was short lived, but was well served by Gordon’s unique observations and take-no-prisoners words. But the issue I found also had some pithy editorial observations about the road home audio had travelled, in Gordon’s estimation, and how this might predict the future of video beyond when these words were written, in mid-1990. Here they are:

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