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The Audiophile

April 17, 2010

I began my journey into home theater with a love of music. I know, but I assure you, they can go hand in hand. Growing up as a kid in Oklahoma my main source of entertainment in junior high was to go the local high end stereo store. These were the days when two channel was multi-channel. I remember going down everyday after school to be an “intern”; meaning I dusted and swept just for the privilege of listening to and playing with  ultra high end gear. Back then a pair of Infinity IRS would set you back $30,000.00; about $200k today!

My first high end stereo wasn’t the belly button variety, you know, everybody’s got one. Those were the Pioneer with Advent speakers; all my friends had that set up. No, I wanted what I wanted. What truly sounded good to me. I loved music and the system had to reflect that. My first system was a Yamaha receiver      

and a pair of Norman Lab speakers. Never mind the turntable;   I had a very good friend sell me his for pennies on the dollar.

And not just because they were made in Oklahoma...

The turntable, OK a Gerrard, was adequate. But this system still sang in the most beautiful way. My journey had indeed commenced.

Fast forward to a new millennium. Music is “enjoyed” in compressed, limited range digital formats; mp3’s, ACC, and even streamed. But can it still excite? For some it’s not about the quality, but the quantity;  iPod’s having 75,000 songs for some, is the height of their experience. But storage is becoming less expensive every day;  we can now get a terabyte for less than 100 megs cost a few years ago! New (and not so new) lossless formats let us maintain the integrity of the music, and inexpensive data storage means we can, if we choose, have our cake and eat it too. Lot’s of music with the best possible playback performance.

And this is where the fun begins. Some of us are out growing our ear plugs, longing for something much better. And boy, can we have it. First, I recommend using he highest bit rates possible or formats such as FLAC, Apple Lossless, or MPEG-4 ALS, as these will make downloaded or recorded music sound its’ best.  Then, look long and hard at your stereo gear. Sony, with the  STR-DA1500ES offers a wonderful two channel stereo receiver (I know, redundant). This is extremely musical, has an unbelievable 5 year factory warranty; with a digital media port, you can easily add a Sony iPod dock.  Dock and receiver? Under $500. Then choose a pair of speakers to compliment the receiver on one hand, and that give you pleasure on the other. For warm, rich and inexpensive, the PSB Alpha’s are tremendous value at under $300.00 a pair! Stepping up, the ERA Design 5s or the Usher  S-520, and the new kid in town, the Episode 700 Series bookshelf; great sound, excellent value, and a lifetime warranty.

Well hello there...

While the Episode’s high gloss piano black finish doesn’t lend itself well to the theaters’ with very large (84″ and above) screens because of mirror like reflectivity, as a set of two channel music speakers, or flanking a gloss black flat panel TV they are superb.

Beyond the bookshelf recommendations we get into  floor standing tower speakers; but that is a story we’ll visit later, as well as explore separate components, or separates as they are called.

Once you’ve chosen the perfect music system, proper placement is key. I believe getting the most out of your investment requires tuning, much like a high performance car (without the insurance!). I love going into my clients homes and setting up a system; of course home theater set up is critical, but we want our music to sound good too. Sometimes we have rooms tailor made for optimum musical performance. But most of the times not. So how we set up a two channel system requires every bit as much skill as even the most elaborate home theater. But don’t let that spook you; it doesn’t have to be a chore, or expensive. It just needs to be done right.

The right system, set up properly, can even make streaming music, such as Rhapsody or Pandora, sound incredibly better.  I am having a blast listening to the Surf channel (very Quentin Tarantino) via Rhapsody on an inexpensive Peachtree Audio Decco integrated amp, powering a pair of  equally inexpensive Episode 500 series book shelf speakers. Unlike their big brothers the 700 Series, these could certainly benefit from a small and musically tight subwoofer for the lower depths. But this is streaming music, and it still sounds awesome! I’ll be blowing out the Peachtree very soon, and I will be replacing it with the more powerful Sony receiver. This will be a much less expensive solution, with a little more forward sound; the Peachtree after all has a vacuum tube (wonderfully old school) front end. The Sony ES (and I stress ES) however is very much an audiophile level performer.  But that’s why I own the toy store; so I can keep on playing.


They Were Once Pioneers

December 7, 2009

Anyone with a basic knowledge of TVs and video displays knows that Pioneer Elite TVs, and even their standard Pioneer line, (all Kuro) were by far and away the very best in performance from any company, in any format or technology.

The king is dead...

I may sound biased, but this was an opinion shared by every legitimate critic and reviewer in this industry; every magazine and online resource touted it’s superiority. Yes, this unsurpassed quality came with a steep price tag, but well worth it, as nothing came close.  But these economic times are indeed tough; Pioneer will cease production of these wonderful TV’s to focus on their audio line. My analogy to that is if Mercedes decided one day to stop making cars to focus on front end loaders. Regular Pioneer audio is value-centric, and the Elite line of receivers and Blu Ray players is very good. But it was truly their video that shined. The Sony XBR series strives for that perfection, and is half the price; so at least we will still be able to offer what is now considered the best in video.  But for those with unlimited budgets, there is much to be said for the Elites.

Pioneer had decided to take the very high end approach with their Elite line by introducing a $7,000.00 receiver, unfortunately ill-timed for this economy. And many critics believe at that price point you would be better off with separate components (a pre-amplifier processor paired with a dedicated amplifier), for less money. In our market, this high end receiver just wasn’t feasible; and I suspect, from the numbers sold, few markets were able to support this approach.Now, Pioneer has released to the public their decision to eliminate the Premier line, which is their version of Elite for cars. While a letter from Pioneer has assured their dealers that for now, Elite is here to stay, there is growing concern.  I do hope for the best. But unlike Yamaha, which has pianos, motorcycles and musical instruments to keep them going, or Sony, with cameras, TVs, computers and accessories, Pioneer is an audio company. Period. So their survival will be an uphill battle, to say the least. No one really expected Kenwood to leave the home audio market, but they did.

This will be the first time in 15 years I will not be renewing my dealer agreement with Pioneer, because at the end of the day, we must serve our client’s best interests.  For now, we will take a wait and see approach (ever the optimist, I am). And although Sony ES (Sony’s version of Elite)is our go to line for audio, I will miss Pioneer’s presence in our showroom. For their innovation, their support of the high end home theater enthusiast, and performance, I raise my glass.


Sleeping Giant

December 5, 2009

In this day and age, home theater audio seems like an afterthought. We’ve got our iPods, and the clock radio sounds good enough, right? But once and a while, from somewhere out of left field, somebody reminds us just how critical the audio is to enjoying a good movie. And our discovery comes from a company previously  known and respected for their architectural speakers (you know, in-wall, in-ceiling built-in). The Episode Home Theater line, for the money, is such a speaker.

Movie lover's dream

The first thing you may notice, is the rather odd looking long vertical device on the far right, That my friends, is a planar, or ribbon tweeter. Not the conventional round dome style we’re used to seeing. The advantage to this design, and one I am especially fond of, is the ability to give crystal clear clarity to dialog. And at the same time, there isn’t the harshness, or “brightness” some would expect, rather a warmer richness that dramatically adds realism to the film’s soundtrack. And of course that means it must do music with equal aplomb. Here’s what Gary Altunian has to say about these speakers in Widescreen Review magazine:

Overall, I found the Episode loudspeaker system very easy and enjoyable to listen to for long periods of time, with no listening fatigue. The planar magnetic drivers offer outstanding clarity with
music and movie sources. The Episode system makes an ideal choice for loudspeakers concealed behind a screen, recessed in a wall, or in an entertainment cabinet. They won’t be found on the glossy cover of a magazine, but will likely find a home where sound quality is the most important factor.”
Now the rear surrounds are a unique switchable dipole/bipole design. While THX recommends the dipole settings for rears, I prefer bipolar. The difference is with dipole, it’s more diffuse, with a less directional sound. Bipole on the other hand is more directional, a personal preference (must be from being a Mirage dealer)

Bipolar is not just a condition

I’ve had the system in my own home (and, even though they are a tremendous bargain, in my showroom’s flagship theater) for several months, and I can attest to their value, their musicality, and very important to me, their ability to enhance the cinematic experience. There are countless speakers at twice the price that quite frankly can’t hold a candle to the Episodes. Being a Klipsch dealer for many, many years, I can tell you the Episodes keep up with (and in some ways, out perform) the Klipsch THX Ultra II system that was previously in the same showroom theater they now occupy. So, what’s the big deal? The Episodes are less than half the price! Don’t get me wrong; the  THX Ultra II’s are the very best thing Klipsch has done for high-end home theaters in decades. But in today’s economy, we all need to be a little wiser, and factor value in with any purchase. And the Episodes offer the very best home theater experience for thousands and thousands less. And while we represent many speaker lines at Audio Visionaries, I can’t extol their virtues adequately enough. With the Episodes, I can design a complete 7.1 home theater, with a 1080p HD Sony SXRD projector, a 100″ fixed mount screen, a Blu Ray video player or a PS3, a Sony ES surround receiver, and still be less money than the Klipsch speakers alone! So, you could pretty much say we got values. And a system that absolutely ROCKS.

The Cinemaphile

November 21, 2009

This week, I had the privilege to view three great, classic movies, two in HD. The display for this event was the new Mitsubishi HC6800 3LCD 1080p projector. The movies were all  exceptional; first up, Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan in “The Professionals”.

I started here, because of an article on Lee Marvin in Cinema Retro A wonderful magazine, both in print and online. I had it recorded on my Dish Network DVR  from HDNet Movies. The movie, about a group of mercenaries hired by a wealthy cattle baron (Ralph Bellamy) to rescue his wife (Claudia Cardinale) from Mexican revolutionaries, is just plain fun. From 1966, it holds up very well, mostly to the strong cast.

Next up, and another Robert Ryan, Burt Lancaster starrer, Micheal Winner’s “Lawman”. With a little more age on both these characters (released in ’71), I found it to be a more somber, and quite possibly a better movie. Now this is the first movie to show off too much of the Mitsubishi’s s crystal clear HD performance. Every time Lee J. Cobb’s character was on the screen, I couldn’t get past his very hairy ears!

Finally, from Comcast and Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Beau Bridges in “The Landlord”. I loved this movie. Released in 1970 and directed by Hal Ashby, “The Landlord” captures the ugly side of bigotry while showing there is hope if we can get past our differences. This was the non-HD offering (SD) and it truly demonstrated the Silicone Optics HQV video processor’s strength in the HC6800. Beautifully up-scaling the SD picture, it certainly wasn’t HD, but it was a noticeable improvement.

Now along with these great movies, I watched football, TV (the X-Files, Millennium and La Femme Nikita on DVD) and live broadcast, both from Comcast and Dish Network. For just south of $2500.00, the Mitsubishi HC6800 is a very good value. But it’s strength lies in watching video (non-film) and sports; film was, well, not very film like. After properly calibrated, it was still  bright and very sharp, but lacked the color purity I strive for. If you are a hardcore movie buff like myself, I strongly recommend spending an extra $500.00 for the Sony VPL-HW15. Maybe it’s from owning studios, but Sony gets film reproduction in all their displays; in spades. But, for the money I still can recommend the HC6800.  And I wholeheartedly recommend all three movies.

Home Theater Heaven

November 7, 2009

I founded  Audio Visionaries in 1995 based on a cliché; Champagne tastes on a beer budget. Since then, we have had the privilege of installing thousands of home theaters, whole house audio systems and home automation. And every system represents value. Yeah, that’s what everyone says, and hopefully that’s what everyone strives for. But for me, it’s a passion. Heard the phrase “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”? That’s me; I go to work each day with Martin Scorcese, Cary Grant, Jennifer Garner, Matt Damon, well you get the idea. And music, it is so cool to sit down and just listen; a glass of wine, and Damien Rice, or total obscurity like Moby Grape; and rediscovering Big Star? Thirteen is so new millennial, but it’s from the seventies.

To say that I’m blessed would be an understatement; watching your favorite movie on a 102″ diagonal screen with phenomenal audiophile clarity is nothing short of awesome. And to do it everyday, I assure you, it never gets old. I hope through this blog to share my love of movies and music, hints on how to get the very most from your system, or how with our help you can get a theater of your own. In 15 years (and a dozen years before) I have sought out the very best in home theater equipment, acoustics, and design; but, and this is key, the greatest performance while still being affordable; sure everyone has their opinions, and we’re bound to spark discussion on what really is performance.

Currently, I feel the best projectors for the money come from a company known for their outstanding video, Sony. From a sub-$3k  1080p LCoS projector to what our industry critics and reviewers  hail as the finest projector for less than $20k, The VPL  VW85Sony vpl vw85 at less than $8k! Recently I watched the Blu Ray Hi-Def version of Steve McQueen’s “Bullitt” and it was incredible.

So kick back, pour a glass and enjoy…..