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AUDIOPHILE AUDITION - web magazine for music, audio & home theater
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March 17, 2004

Home Theater Growth - Home theater has become the Big Thing in home electronics due to a number of factors: the proliferation of DVD players (the most successful home electronics in history), the availability of easy-to-set-up surround speaker systems, attractive larger screens using new technology coming down in price, and the wider availability of hi-def TV from satellite dish, cable and over the air. 30 percent of U.S. households have some sort of home theater system now and close to five percent of new homes are being constructed with a dedicated built-in home theater room. There has risen a whole industry of associated products, such as reclining leather seating with cup holders, custom cabinetry, special lights to guide viewers in the dark, automatic hidden screens for frontal video projectors, framed movie posters for the walls, low-frequency transducers to mount on chairs and sofas for added impact. The original four-channel Dolby Surround audio system has grown to 5.1, 6.1 and 7.1 channels/speakers - with more probably to come to more fully immerse users in better movie sound reproduction than they could get in any theater. It used to be that 27-inch was considered the minimum for a home theater experience, but now experts are recommending 55 inches or larger.

Home Theater Happenings - The networks greatly expanded their HDTV programming this season, with CBS offering the most. Much of prime-time evening telecasts are now HDTV. In major cities there are considerable opportunities for free HD with an old-fashioned rooftop antenna. The amount of HD offered by satellite providers DirecTV and DISH Network has been increased, and a new satellite service, VOOM, has more exclusive HD channels than those two combined. Cable TV services have finally gotten on the HD bandwagon and some of the larger ones are offering HD options in larger cities. (However both satellite and cable HD feeds are data-reduced - but not as drastically as they compress standard TV.) Price competition is increasing as Wal-Mart and other discount retailers are beginning to sell DTV products. Mitsubishi made a deal with Best Boy to offer their big-screen HDTV sets. Consumers have gone nuts over the big-screen, hang-on-the-wall plasma and LCD TVs, even though with recent price drops they are still luxury items. The inexpensive home-theater-in-a-box systems, some of which now offer the components as well as all the speakers, have made home theater more accessible to more consumers (though with generally compromised audio).

Videotape & Optical Disc Recorders - Since HD DVDs seem to be a couple years off - with the possibility of another format war as well as a medium limited to only playback as result of copyright concerns - JVC resurrected the hoary VHS format (which never compared to Betamax in the first place) to record and play back HDTV programming. It actually has a higher bit rate and capacity than either broadcast HDTV or the competing HD DVD proposals, and about 60 feature films have been released in the D-VHS videotape format.

The VHS VCR is biting the dust in the standard NTSC area due to the incursion of first Personal Video Recorders such as TiVo and RePlay and prices now falling on DVD recorders. Computer users led the way with DVD burners due to their much higher storage capacity than CD-Rs. But now many manufacturers have DVD recorder/players with even easier-to-use timer-recording setup than VCRs had. While blank DVD-Rs are cheaper and will play on most modern DVD players, those using DVD burners for time-shifting programs will want to re-use erasable discs, and unfortunately there is a dizzying variety of different non-compatible formats in this area. Plain old DVD players have broken the $100 barrier, and combo DVD/VHS VCR recorders are a recent hot item (the DVD side is playback only, of course). A more lavish combo is the three-way TV/DVD/VCR such as the Toshiba reviewed here this month. Lastly, the hi-res audio format war is being offered a truce by a growing number of manufacturers coming out with universal disc players at both ends of pricing structure which all (even those which may not sound so good on one or the other of the hi-res formats) provide excellent DVD video playback.

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