Several things just happened to inspire this column. First, in the February issue, I wrote about the state of the art in 2005. Second, I ventured into a consumer audio store over the holidays (something I hardly ever do). Third, I went to a Super Bowl party featuring a consumer-grade home theater HD setup.
So, while I've recently been thinking about the audio-for-video biz, at the same time, I got an interesting and informative taste of consumer audio.
First off, the Super Bowl in HD was certainly a paradigm shift. I have a pretty good TV myself (as I'm sure I've mentioned before), and while I expected HD to be better, I didn't expect it to be quite so freakin' much better, if you know what I mean.
The quality of the picture was spectacular, and the assistance it gave to perceived sound quality was considerable. I'd heard the sound system before--an economy system with five small matched speakers and an OK, but not really convincing sub. Somehow, with the HD picture glowing benevolently at you, the sub becomes more convincing, the stereo strings and brass fills become really pretty sweet, the envelopment begins to feel pretty exciting and the whole thing works. Danged if it didn't work pretty well.
Suitably inspired, I decided to do some in-store investigation of what's really available. (The Super Bowl system was owned by an audio pro who doesn't qualify as a typical consumer in spite of his vigorous claims to the contrary.)
So, I headed down to my local consumer audio store, a Cambridge SoundWorks store in Nashua, N.H.
For those of you who don't know, Cambridge SoundWorks is an audio company specializing in low-cost, decent-quality loudspeakers and bundled systems. This particular store is a pleasant one, and one of the sales guys, Neal Demazure, served as a listening panelist for me some years back. So I took the liberty of asking him if I could interview him and take a listen to the range of stuff the store offers for home theater. I happily auditioned audio systems priced from approximately $500 to $5,000. We also talked about what customers seemed to want, their expectations, how happy they seemed with their purchases, and what problems they had.
WHAT I SAW AND HEARD
We watched, over and over, an action sequence from "Behind Enemy Lines," which rang out the various systems pretty well. The $500 system didn't give us a whole lot back. The sub basically sang one low note through its port; integration of the system was limited, and sonic detail even more limited. However, for $500 (including speakers and a receiver), it really did a lot.
As we went up through the price-points, several things happened. First, the subwoofer experience got a whole lot better pretty fast. Second, the center channel began to really come in and deliver voice and on-screen effects clearly. Third--and this surprised me--the surrounds began to be much more integrated and effective. By the time we got to the $5,000 system, the experience was really pretty reasonable and enjoyable, even by my lofty and elitist standards.
When you add HD video, these complete systems would cost between $2,000 and $10,000, which certainly has to cover the fat part of the bell curve. There's no reason you can't get a lot of enjoyment from any of these systems, particularly the pricier ones.
BUYING A SYSTEM
When the consumers plunk down their credit cards, they gets a pile of boxes neatly loaded in the back of their SUVs. They also get, according to Neal, a pep talk and fairly lengthy discussion of how to hook it together. This includes advice about getting HD service--many consumers, quite reasonably, don't know that they have to do this. It also includes how to place the TV and speakers, how to configure the receiver, how to troubleshoot the system, and a phone number to call when it all swerves south temporarily. This often includes an informally sketched layout plan.
The store offers in-home installation, but it is oriented more toward home sound/media systems--two guys for a one-hour minimum at $125 an hour. If you're buying a cheapish home theater, it seems a little rich and off-target. There is no prepared manual or DVD that Neal knows of or that the store uses other than a one-page guide from Onkyo for one of that company's products.
Neal noted that when the pep talk is not provided, it is almost a slam-dunk that the system is returned because the purchaser was not able to install it.
Neal also figures that a significant part of the store's home theater revenue comes from people who are turned off by the "low-touch" experience of the big discount chains, where the best you can hope for is a pile of boxes at checkout.
Unfortunately, there is no way to determine whether the final installation is correct, or how satisfied the customers are, except when they're really angry! Unfortunately, there's no money built into the system to ensure that the customer has installed a system correctly.
I'm surprised at how well the consumer audio business seems to be working. I'm a little surprised it's working at all. I know from personal experience--unrelated to Cambridge SoundWorks--that it is extremely difficult to get these consumer systems working correctly, due to a) the complexity of options, b) the extremely poor ergonomic design of the systems I've had to struggle with, and c) the poor quality of written instructions. I wouldn't be surprised if something like 50 percent of the home theaters out there were not set up correctly.
Nevertheless, when it works, it is really pretty spectacular. And here's where we can segue back to my Super Bowl experience. (Please note that I'm from Boston, and I was unduly pleased by how the game came out!) Primary topics of party conversation included the good sensory quality of the game coverage, the wide variables between the game, various commercials and teasers, and how truly awful the worst stuff was. A standard refrain around the salsa bowl was, "I never realized how poor standard TV was until I saw this."
Thanks for listening.