The Future of Home Theater: A Manifesto
There’s been a lively exchange in these pages lately about the rise of high-end media rooms and what impact that could have on dedicated home theaters. So I wanted to take a moment to explain the Roundtable’s position in this debate—not as an effort to guide, let alone stifle, the discussion but to encourage an even more vigorous debate.
There’s a tsunami forming that could have as much impact as the iPod on how people experience entertainment—and we’re not just talking home entertainment here but all forms of entertainment everywhere. And it’s being formed by the largely chance convergence of the widespread acceptance of 4K, increased awareness of beyond-5.1-channel surround sound formats like Atmos, the surging popularity of streaming (fueled in part by the marked decline in quality of Hollywood films), and, maybe more important than any of these, increased bandwidth and its wider distribution.
But there’s another big factor—maybe the biggest: Gender. Tech used to be an almost exclusively male domain. Those days are gone—forever. Everybody not only uses but feels comfortable with smartphones, tablets, and myriad other forms of extremely sophisticated lifestyle tech. And hardly anybody looks under the hood anymore—digital makes that almost irrelevant.
But it’s not just a girl/guy thing. Anybody old enough to grasp the concept of a reboot realizes the potential of both contemporary and future tech, and feels comfortable swimming in that stream.
That means they want their tech to be a natural, and preferably effortless, extension of how they live their lives. That means the days of the man cave—with its connotations of a forbidding space, unusable by anybody but its overlord—are numbered.
But that does not portend the demise of home theater, whose best days probably lie ahead.
The contemporary dynamic goes something like this: Almost everybody has a media-room system, even if it’s as rudimentary as an Internet-enabled TV. Incredibly sophisticated tech like 4K HDR and Atmos is becoming more and more affordable, and thus more and more pervasive.
Almost everybody wants the best home-entertainment experience their budgets can handle—and for an increasing number of people, that means being able to cobble together a system that can rival what they find at the local multiplex. But they also want to integrate that high-end entertainment experience into the flow of their day-to-day family life.
Thus the rapid rise of the media room.
But almost everybody knows a media room isn’t the ultimate at-home experience. And it’s part of the American DNA to keep pushing for something better (although that part of our heritage has taken a hell of a beating lately).
Bottom line: A dedicated theater room will always be the ultimate home-entertainment experience, and no media room will ever be able to make that claim.
But, to survive, home theaters can’t continue to be shrines devoted exclusively to moviewatching. (Like the male domination of tech, those days are gone forever.) They also have to be the ultimate gaming experience—and live-concert experience and streaming experience, and ultimate form of whatever entertainment any member of the family can find to throw at it.
In other words, home theaters have to shed their reputation as tomb-like retreats dominated by all kinds of intimidating technology and learn to embrace all forms of entertainment, and every member of the family.
There is no doubt the herd is being culled, quickly, efficiently, and without remorse. Multiplexes and other inferior venues and forms of playback probably don’t stand a chance. But four things will likely survive: Media rooms, event theaters, drive-ins, and home theaters. Why? Because each, in its way, makes the experience of entertainment something special.
But of these four, only a dedicated home theater can offer the ultimate experience, because only a dedicated home theater allows you to hold all the distractions of day-to-day life at bay, allowing you to focus all your attention on the optimally reproduced and calibrated picture and sound. Even the most tweaked-out state-of-the-art event theaters can’t match that.
And theater rooms will always have the edge over media rooms because everybody yearns to enjoy the best entertainment in the best possible way. And the only thing that can consistently deliver that experience is a home theater.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and