Engineering Conference Keynotes Home Theater Sound

by Andrew Morris~ April 24, 2006


The National Association of Broadcasters kicked off the NAB2006 Broadcast Engineering Conference on Sunday with a keynote speech by Tomlinson Holman, professor of Cinema-Television and Electrical Engineering at the University of Southern California.

Introduced by Lynn Claudy of the NAB, Holman discussed the expectations placed on broadcasters and emphasized the importance of surround sound and high-quality audio in a home theater system.

Industry Pioneer

Holman worked for Lucasfilms for 15 years and developed the THX sound system. In his introduction, Claudy said, "Literally billions of dollars of home consumer equipment carries Tom Holman's initials on the front panel - Tom Holman's Experiments or THX."

Holman's keynote was entitled, "How Home Theater Raises Expectations of Broadcasters," but he said during his talk that perhaps it should have been titled "...Expectations from Broadcasters" since home theater systems are beginning to raise consumer expectations.

Holman cited a number of studies and statistics that show how pervasive home theater is becoming in the U.S. home and how important audio is to those who choose to install home theater systems.

Holman answered the question, "What is Home Theater?" by using the definition currently offered by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). CEA defines home theater as a system with a greater than 27-inch diagonal display, a surround sound receiver and speakers. As of today about 35 percent of U.S. households are now equipped with home theater systems, said Holman.

Holman pointed out, "People who are designing sound and picture for the proverbial 13-inch or 19-inch television with a 3-inch speaker are surprised to find that 35 percent of households have a larger television display and some form of surround sound."

"For home theaters, when surveys are done, it turns out that movies are the killer app. In these surveys it is interesting that sound quality outranks video quality which probably comes as a surprise to most broadcast engineers."

He added, "Those who own these systems find they do more DVD and television viewing. The average first time system costs around $2,100 and it may be rather surprising that 35 percent of households have invested that much. Satisfaction with these systems is high according to surveys," said Holman.

Surround Difference

Holman referred to an MIT Braintree Shopping Mall survey that found that in comparisons between HD and SD video with surround sound and ordinary sound that consumers noticed in the following order: better sound, wider picture andsharper picture

"That's probably a little surprising considering where the bits go in high-definition television; they all go to the sharper picture, and yet better sound was the first thing noticed," said Holman.

Regarding video quality Holman said, "Perhaps we should reframe the question not into whether it's a sharper picture but the fact that the sharper picture permits a bigger display, one that is more involving and more engaging."

According to Holman, another survey shows that 75 percent of home theaters are equipped with 5.1 channels and approximately 70 percent of those surveyed say that upgrading sound was the most important feature of DVDs in a home theater environment.

Holman concluded, "Home theater raises expectations because people have bigger pictures with surround sound. The larger pictures show more detail and while the 16x9 aspect ratio is not yet digested into the marketplace, it will be. And better sound, especially 5.1 surround sound, helps."

© 2006 NAB