Home theaters are playing to bigger crowds

September 20, 1992|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Universal Press Syndicate

'Fess up. Given a choice, you'd rather stretch out on you sofa and watch a movie at home than in a theater. You are not alone.

Sixty-seven percent of the American public prefers taking in a film at home, according to the Electronics Industry Association, a trade organization that includes manufacturers of consumer electronics and telecommunications.

This continuing trend has spawned new ideas in design and technology from both the electronics and furniture industries, seeking to give the consumers everything they want in the home theater.

In the mid-'80s, furniture manufacturers hid the television and electronics equipment in massive armoires. A pull-out shelf held the television set, and cutouts were strategically positioned for wiring so that cords could be kept out of sight. The armoire wasn't a bad solution, but was certainly limited in storage and style.

Since then, not only have televisions become bigger, but there are many more components needed for the true home-theater experience. Still, although video and sound equipment have become more sophisticated with additional component parts, home-theater setups have actually been simplified for the consumer.

And while home theater still is a pricey ticket, the costs are coming down, just as they have for computers, fax machines and video cameras. Once a fixture only in sports bars and wealthy homes, the big screen television complete with surround sound has become a status symbol for the American family.

"In the '80s we used to call them media rooms," said Russ Herschelmann, a custom installer based in California's trendy, upscale Marin County. " 'Media room' connotes something flashy, with lots of TVs, boxes and wires that require an engineering degree to learn how to use.

" 'Home theater' is two wonderful words, suggesting staying at home in a place that's comfortable and secure, and an exciting space that is emotionally involving."

But it is not only the jargon that has changed. The larger televisions with more auxiliary components require our readdressing the "housing issue."

Until recently, those who could afford to build their home theaters housed their televisions and accessories in custom-designed cabinets. State-of-the-art components were tucked into exquisite cabinetry often crafted from exotic woods and other materials. Such installations often cost upward of $20,000.

Consumer enthusiasm

Enormous consumer enthusiasm convinced electronics and furniture manufacturers that home theaters should not be elitist. Well-known manufacturers such as Bang & Olufsen, Mitsubishi and Yamaha are among those who have begun to package the components needed to simulate the visual and acoustical experience of the big screen in your own home. And they've made the systems more affordable and user-friendly.

If you are considering a home theater, a big-screen television, from 31 inches to 120 inches in size, is the star. The television may be the standard direct view, which holds a single CRT (cathode ray tube); rear projection, in which three CRTs project the image on a mirror behind the screen; or front projection, in which the CRTs are located in front. Its supporting cast of basics includes external sources of video programming, such as videocassette recorders and laser disc players, and front and rear speakers in addition to a center channel. Satellite speakers and subwoofer systems also can be included for better sound distribution throughout the room and for stronger bass.

There are different kinds and brands of surround sound. The kind the moviemakers use is Dolby, and the sounds are embedded in the film's track. Standard Dolby surround decodes those signals. Dolby ProLogic also decodes the film's dialogue for the center channel, and fixes it front center.

Dolby ProLogic makes the biggest difference in sound. It consists of four separate channels, each designed to replicate the multidimensional sound reproduction of a movie theater, from dialogue to music to special effects.

Along with sound options come design options. In a custom installation by HiFi Sales of Mesa, Ariz., for example, tall black speakers that complement the design of the room disappear into the floor at the touch of a switch. The television is also incorporated into the room's structure and is slightly recessed into the wall behind it.

Other electronics manufacturers are going a step further and designing televisions that can be built right into the wall. Bruce Huber, a vice president for the Zenith Electronics Corp., noted that home builders are offering built-in projection televisions as an alternative to fireplaces. They can install them for less money, and they get more use.

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