I can count, on one hand, the number of times that we’ve ventured to an actual movie theater post-kids. The disinterest is actually a confluence of a number of factors: trouble finding a few hours of uninterrupted, child-free time; the rise of miniseries in the golden age of television; the lack of variety in big blockbuster films; the increasing quality of consumer video/audio equipment that makes movies less of an event. With the pandemic, some movie studios have decided to nix theater exclusivity entirely this year, which handily removes one of a handful of remaining reasons to head to the cinema1.
As the next-generation consoles launch—well, theoretically, since it’s still impossible to get one right now—I took it as an opportunity to upgrade the home theater setup. Our living room TV was a lower-end Vizio model, even when we bought it 6+ years ago; it was a main-of-the-mill LCD with basic HD capabilities. Audio-wise, the television was paired with a soundbar and subwoofer combo, which produced a reasonable 2.1 stereo sound that was a couple notches above what the TV could produce with its teeny speakers but nothing remarkable. In fact, although the soundbar actually refused to turn on about 2 months ago, the family didn’t skip a beat2 since they had the TV’s volume control turned up anyway.
With the advent of consumer electronics, audio-video standards seem to go through these upgrade cycles every couple of years, coincidentally aligning with hardware upgrade cycles. If a modern LCD screen can last for more than 7 years being on 24/7 and realistically over a decade on less aggressive use, the goal of television manufacturers is to entice its customers with bigger, brighter screens and better sound halfway through its products’ lifespan. And like other electronics beholden to this constant drum of improvement, there are only so many leaps you can make in quality and value before approaching rapidly diminishing returns; with 4K screens already getting close to cinema-level screen resolutions, we already have 8K screens available, and apparently there’s a 16K display standard as well for those with 20/10 vision perusing 100” screens.
Translated into early 2021, this seems to be a reasonably future-proof set of standards to adopt when buying new equipment:
- 4K resolution. 4K (UHD) is the next step up in picture clarity from 1080p HD, and I see it more available now various streaming services, though the best quality is still with UHD Blu-ray disks.
- Dolby Vision HDR. There’s apparently a couple of HDR standards out there, and of those, Dolby Vision adds more metadata and in theory a better picture. Again, I’m seeing it crop up in streaming services for the latest shows, so support is gradually improving.
- Dolby Atmos. On the audio front, the emergent and increasingly popular standard is Dolby Atmos, which adds separate audio tracks overhead and goes beyond the legacy 5.1 or even 7.1 standards.
- eARC. The ARC standard allows for AV components to communicate with each other over HDMI cables, and in particular lets the TV control its accompanying sound system; eARC is an extended version of the protocol embedded in the HDMI 2.1 standard that allows for the higher bitrate Dolby Atmos audio channels.
In addition to the above standards, I’ve noticed that newer TVs are building more sophisticated operating systems, with app stores full of streaming services that themselves have proliferated these past few years. Their inclusion raises the age-old question of integrated vs. modular—media streaming devices are cheaper than full TVs and allow for more frequent upgrades, but apps built into the TV itself work better with the rest of the TV’s functions.
So with all that, I ended up going with an LG CX OLED television set, coupled with a Sonos Arc soundbar plus subwoofer and rear surround speakers. Compared to the last time I set up a home theater, this combination is remarkably simple and wire-free; much of the configuration is done via mobile/embedded apps that streamline the setup process, and Sonos in particular does a great job minimalizing wires3.
Makes for immersive nature documentary viewing.
I mean, it’s really hard to recreate cinema-level popcorn at home.↩
I also learned that the ergonomics—how easy it is to turn everything on—matters much more when it’s more than just me enjoying the setup.↩
I still have 16 gauge speaker wire, a splicing clamp, and wall tacks and covers in the closet, from the last time I strung speaker wire along the floorboards.↩