Audio for Home Theater Presents New Challenges

Alert readers may recall that last month, I wrote about the state of audio for home theater, as observed from the retail showroom floor. I said it seemed unlikely that more than about half of home theater installations are hooked up and working correctly, considering poor documentation, no instructional materials and "low-touch" box-store discounters getting a big chunk of the business.

At the same time, these surround systems are sufficiently complex and variable, so they can be difficult to set up and keep under control. I tell you this from a great deal of ongoing personal experience working with surround sound in a studio designed for such work.


Therefore, I was interested and pleased to receive a Tweeter catalog in the mail that described a fairly comprehensive installation offer. The Tweeter program includes the sort of installation, setup and follow-up service needed to make these systems work reliably in peoples' homes.

As you probably know, Tweeter is a national chain of stores that has been devoted to mid- to hi-fi audio. In the current catalog, the company is described as specializing in "home and mobile entertainment."

In any case, right up at the front, the catalog makes a pitch that you probably need some consulting to get started. They offer a free in-home consultation and promise to provide a recommended system based on an individual site visit.

A proposal, based on the site visit, is prepared for an appropriate system and an installation. Tweeter says it does all installations using trained in-company personnel. After the installation is complete, the client receives a briefing on how to use the system.

Finally, a follow-up visit is scheduled several weeks later to work through any problems the client may have encountered and answer any questions that may come up.

I would guess, in such a case, that the resulting system would be installed correctly and would work most of the time (subject, of course, to the occasional and inevitable user errors and misunderstandings).

The bundled packages offered in this section of the catalog range from $8,000 to $18,000 (not including installation), and involve good if not absolutely stellar components.

Tweeter has staked out a nice bit of middle-class turf here. I hope the company does well with it. Furthermore, I hope other firms adopt similar strategies, because surround sound definitely ain't "plug 'n play."

Why does this matter to us? If our work is going to be successful in living rooms and dens, the end-user setup must be decently implemented. HD and surround sound are devilishly difficult to configure and no layperson can reasonably be expected to get it right, or to be able to judge whether it's right or not.

All this person can do is judge whether or not it sounds good. And if it isn't installed right, chances are it won't sound good. Naturally, we will be blamed. That's why it matters. Enough said.


I recently was asked to make a two-hour presentation at the 15th Annual Pro Video Show in Boston, based on the columns I have done for TV Technology covering the basics of audio for non-audio types. It was an interesting experience. The show is a pretty big one, with at least 50 exhibitors and maybe a thousand attendees. My workshop was one of two (out of 16) devoted to audio, and they charged $25 for it. About 25 people attended, which I thought was a good turnout.

About half the attendees already had some knowledge of and experience with audio and said they were taking the workshop to fill in gaps, and/or just because they were interested. The balance really seemed to be my target audience--video folks who find themselves stymied by the quirkiness and pervasive difficulties of audio when all they want to do is make a decent video.

In full crash course mode, I plowed through levels management, EQ, compression, reverb, stereo and surround sound in my allotted 110 minutes. It was too much for that amount of time.

When I was done, I felt that many of the attendees still needed a good deal more in the way of fundamental explanations. They weren't ready for surround sound, for instance, and they seemed pretty bewildered by compression, although some light bulbs went on when they realized it was the same as automatic gain control. Reverb and ambience also seemed to be a bit of a mystery. Concepts such as noise floor and clipping still seemed pretty fuzzy, and the notion of frequency response didn't get much past the "really shaky" level of comprehension.


There is a crying need for this sort of educational outreach. Audio remains a stepchild in the video production world--a stepchild that is not understood very well at all, and that presents serious problems for the video production community.

Meanwhile, the basics are not understood by video folks--I've come to feel, for instance, that I understand a good deal more about video, film, vision, light, sight and so on, than most of the participants in that session understood about audio. Hopefully, they knew more when they left than when they entered.

And why does this matter, you ask? Once again, if we can't get the basics right, the presentation to our beloved end users will suffer. In this case, we can't blame it on the cable company, the equipment manufacturers or the installers. In many respects and cases, we don't know what we're doing with audio, or how to control it. We need to learn more about it just to make the A/V convergence work properly.

Remember, it's a video world, and video is produced by, well, video folks. That's as it should be. However, they need to understand enough about audio to at least get audio converged with the video at a comparable level of production quality. That requires audio knowledge, craft and understanding, which are all still in pretty short supply in the video community.

Toward that end, my sponsor at the Boston event, the Parsons Center for Audio Studies, is looking for ways to put such an offering on the road for the video community--at least the Northeast, if not the country. If any of you would be interested in such an offering, contact Mark Parsons at We'll try to accommodate you!

Thanks for listening.

Dave Moulton