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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
May 2000

Theater at Home?

Few people know that before my interest in high-end audio blossomed -- and led to me eventually writing for and editing SoundStage! -- I was into home theater. That's right. I had multiple speakers, a surround-sound processor, a subwoofer, a hi-fi VCR and a laserdisc player -- oh, and five channels of amplification. I also had a large laserdisc collection that I eventually sold off -- along with all of the equipment -- just at the right time. Why did I get out of home theater? While I enjoyed watching movies at home, the convenience of it, home-theater never interested me as much as two-channel audio. Yes, I love music and listen to as much as I can, but I also love movies. In the end, it was the experience of high-end audio that attracted me, and this, I still find, can't be fully replicated via home theater.

Yes, this deserves more explanation, especially because my thinking on the subject is cut and dried for me. First of all, home theater doesn't, and never has, enhanced the movie-watching experience for me. Yes, there are some movies that take full advantage of the multiple channels, and especially the subwoofer, but even here the system is on parade. In these cases, home theater is like watching someone's over-stimulated child doing cartwheels and shouting "Look at me!" My high-end-audio system is more participatory -- it draws me in, even with the musical equivalent of a blockbuster movie. So while it is often my job to write about the exact placement of the banjo player on a bluegrass CD, my system doesn't make this a primary concern -- I do. I can readily sit back and relax into what I hear, close my eyes (which heightens involvement) and let the music wash over me.

Another reason two-channel audio is more interesting to me than home theater is that seeing a movie in an honest-to-God movie theater is always better -- unless the theater is truly wretched. I've experienced many home-theater demonstrations and none of these matches the theaters in my town, especially the newer ones with larger screens and stadium seating. This has much to do with what I see -- there still is no match for film -- but the atmosphere is not the same either. And I won't even go into the math for the more logical argument of how many movie tickets you can buy for the price of a good home-theater setup.

But, you say, listening to live music is always better than hearing it reproduced. This is true in terms of sound, but not in terms of performance. Some live concerts, even of well-known acts, don't live up to the recordings made of these same people. And, of course, there are always those recordings that are now historical documents because you will never hear them or portions of them performed live again -- like Sgt. Pepper's, Kind of Blue, a Reiner-conducted symphony. Recorded music lives only through the equipment it's played on, and until someone opens a music theater in which CDs and LPs are reproduced in state-of-the-art sound for patrons (which may not be a bad idea), we'll be listening to our discs at home.

I'm not about to say that I will never own a home-theater system again. I own a DVD player now, although it sees much more use in my audio system than connected to my TV, and multichannel music software may mandate that I take the plunge again in the not-too-distant future. But even so, I won't find such a system any easier to house or set up than a current home-theater system -- finding good placement for two speakers is hard enough. And even once there is sufficient multichannel software available for play on such a system, I bet the extra channels will get the kind of extraneous workout they do now with movies -- lots of booms, bangs and flying objects swirling among the speakers. Sad. Give me Elvis Costello's My Aim is True or The Modern Jazz Quartet's Django (on JVC XRCD, of course) in my darkened basement any day.

...Marc Mickelson

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