"Now I know why I hate home theater," a colleague once
said to me, after a particularly egregious series of home-theater demonstrations at a Consumer
Electronics Show. The fellow journalist, a dedicated two-channel music enthusiast, voiced a refrain that is
all too familiar in high-end audio circles -- namely, that music is a pure art form and home theater is merely glorified television at best, and an abomination at worst. At the time (1992), I had to agree; the demonstration
consisted of subjecting a group of audio writers to a series of the loudest and most violent five-minute clips from the loudest and most violent movies at
ear-splitting levels. The manufacturer was trying to impress us, but succeeded only in perpetuating the myth that home theater and high-quality
music reproduction are antithetically opposed.
I say "myth" because since that demonstration ten years ago, I’ve come
to believe that the difference between a good music system and a good home-theater system represents a false dichotomy. High-end audio
equipment is about getting closer to the artistic expression of composers and musicians. Home theater is (or should be) about getting closer to the artistic expression of filmmakers. The finer the technical quality of the presentation, the more deeply we can experience the artists’
intent -- whether musical or cinematic. HP himself embraced this ideal when he founded, in
1986, The Perfect Vision magazine.
Unfortunately, the home-theater industry at first did give us in the high
end plenty of reasons to abhor its intrusion into the world of music reproduction: gimmicky surround-sound modes; amusical, pant-rattling
subwoofer bass; excessive volume levels; and an aesthetic that valued impact over nuance. But with time and progress, it has become clearer that an
entire concept -- the pursuit of high-quality film reproduction in the home --
cannot be dismissed solely because of initial excesses of those who appealed to the lowest common denominator. Rather than viewing home
theater as a bastardization of audio, I’ve come to believe that home theater, when done right, is an
expansion of the high-end ethic -- one that forges an entirely new path for creating an immensely rewarding connection between
artist and audience.
This expansion has been made possible by the entry of true high-end audio
companies into the home-theater arena. These companies, driven by high-end ideals, create products that are faithful to the source, eschew gimmicks, and
don’t sacrifice musical performance for explosions and sound effects.
Moreover, home theater has been a boon to high-end audio in several
ways. First, the exploding market for home-theater equipment has kept many traditional two-channel companies in business, which, in turn, has
allowed them to continue offering two-channel products as well as multi-channel gear. Second, home theater causes many who once had a “stereo”
with loudspeakers in opposite corners of a room to set up their loudspeakers correctly, and for the first time, consider the spatial aspects of reproduced
music. Third, a decent-quality home theater that’s well set-up can become a vehicle for rediscovering the joys of music. I recently recommended the
Paradigm Atom multichannel loudspeaker system ($1,106 complete) to an “average Joe” friend. I ran into him a few weeks later, and the first thing he
said to me was that he and his wife now spend much more time listening to music and are happily rediscovering their CD collection. Multiply this scenario by tens of thousands, factor in upward mobility, and you have a recipe
not only for a robust high-end audio industry, but more importantly, the return of music to its rightfully prominent place in daily life.