Join me, fellow seekers of motion-picture entertainment, for a quick therapy and primal scream session. We’ve been locked in our homes for months watching every dreg of streaming content, including a reality show about glass-blowing. Now we’re being told by our entertainment overlords that we can watch all our content at home all this year too! If this is how it’s going to be, then we need to have a talk. Because home theater technology Does. Not. Work.
Let’s play Mad Libs, shall we?
[Person or people] bought a new [entertainment system noun ] and it wouldn’t [verb]. After [duration] I was unable to fix it even though I have [duration] of experience working with stuff like this, but finally it got [adverb]. In the end we just learned to live with it.
If you’re me, the answers are “My saintly parents,” “Television,” “stay off after being turned off,” “four grueling hours,” “thirty years,” and “much worse and inexplicably vexing.”
This situation has been true for my entire life, and I’m an industry expert. I have measurement equipment and calibration tools and stuff; I read all the papers and attend all the nerd meetings where the industry decisions are made about how this equipment is supposed to work. I own multiple soldering irons and oscilloscopes and the like. If I were a doctor, I’d have a white lab coat and stethoscope and one of those funny round mirrors over my eye. I’m that kind of expert, and I’m here to tell you home entertainment tech is bad and getting worse.
But I am here this Super Bowl season to bring you a message of great joy: It’s not your fault! You didn’t buy the wrong thing, and you didn’t fail to read the correct websites or manuals. As an actual expert in this stuff, I am here to tell you: you couldn’t possibly have made it work. Because none of it works. And it’s only getting worse. So here’s hoping movie theaters survive and thrive, because otherwise we’ll all be trapped in this endless purgatory of black-level adjustment and moving-target HDMI standards.
I was at one of these nerd meetings, and the presenter asked the audience of about 600 industry experts a series of questions. First, he asked for a show of hands of who has a pretty good home theater (almost all hands went up—after all, nerds). Then he asked for a show of hands of who has a single remote control that can control their entire system (only about half the hands were still up). Then he asked “If a stranger came into your house and tried to watch TV on their own, would they be able to figure it out.” Only about five hands remained up, and I felt we had identified the pathological liars in our midst.
In my entire life, nothing in home theater tech has ever worked as advertised. In the olden days, when we just had a CRT television and an antenna, the worst problem was reception whilst vacuuming the carpet. As soon as we hooked up a stereo amplifier to have better sound, we headed down the slide to the current ridiculous situation.
Every effort to improve this has made things demonstrably worse. Remotes don’t work? Fine, let’s send commands up and down the HDMI line. HDMI is too limited? No problem, we’ll create five new HDMI standards. And for each of those different kinds of HDMI, we’ll use the exact same connector but (and here’s the devious part!) we’ll secretly make the insides of the cables different in a way no consumer will ever be able to figure out, so when they hook up a seemingly good cable the picture will get all glitchy. Want more dynamic range? Okey dokey, we’ll make not one, but FOUR different high-dynamic-range standards, some of which have fundamentally different understandings of what we’re even trying to accomplish here, and sometimes the HDMI cable will correctly identify the standard for the output device, but sometimes not, and even if it does, that device may not be able to decode it, in which case <shrug emoji> will happen.
The options you’re nominally given control over are no less vexing. For example, here’s a setting on my television:
Let me start by telling you that this is a pretty critical adjustment for good viewing. If set wrong, the image will have serious clipping or contrast issues. I know what it means, although I think it’s worded backward from the real technical issue. What it’s referring to is (obviously!) the 1941 decision that “black” in North America TVs would be represented by a 7.5% signal instead of the 0% everywhere else, and that this level shift persists in the digital age. What is the point of even having an “Auto” setting when it might not work, thus necessitating “Low” and “High” settings? In my book, that’s at least one setting too many. Oh, and by default, it’s wrong.
These sorts of settings are myriad. There are hundreds of such adjustments on every TV, and they do not (and cannot, in many cases) default to correct settings.
Every single new technology meant to make things better or easier has only made it worse. The push for system control over HDMI (HDMI CEC, which stands for “Consumer Electronics Control”) has made everything a disaster. This is the source of my parent’s woes (their TV turns on by itself whenever it likes), as their satellite receiver sometimes feels the need to command the entire system back on for no reason, and it has that power over CEC. It doesn’t work, none of these things work, and anyone who tells you they do is lying to you and should not be trusted.
I use a Logitech Harmony remote, which means that in theory I have a single remote to run everything. But as everyone who uses a universal remote knows, what it really means is that if you have N devices, a universal remote means you will have N+1 remotes on your sofa. And my TV’s remote has a cool interface where you can wave the remote around like a light-sabre to control things or scroll a wheel like a mouse. These seem cool, but mean that a universal remote basically never works because it can’t wave or scroll, it just has arrows and “enter.”
Picture levels are out of adjustment, sound comes out of the wrong place at the wrong level, dynamic range doesn’t properly adjust, systems don’t turn on and don’t turn off when needed. You wanted that sound to come out of your soundbar? Your TV’s designers are sure you really might want it to come out of the TV’s (terrible) speakers? Or maybe from a bluetooth thing across the room? Maybe from all places at once? We’ll just spin the Wheel of Audio Routing and find out where the sound will squirt out today.
This is why I am such an advocate of real movie theaters. When we want to watch a movie, who really wants to read up on black levels or audio standards and fiddle with five remotes? And who wants to sit next to someone who does? This is the sort of thing that should be outsourced. Every movie experience should not start with fiddling with all the knobs to get things to work. This is a huge distraction from the art of cinema.
I believe this is a real problem for the proposed streaming revolution, and one nobody talks about. Everyone thinks that their home theater problems are due to some mistake they’ve made or a simple misunderstanding. It’s admirable they’ve taken responsibility, I guess, but they’re mistaken. I have owned and seen exactly zero point zero home theaters that are in proper adjustment or function without annoyance. Everyone secretly loathes their own situation, and the loathing is much more widespread than people know. The problems are inherent in the technology design and decisions made at the nerd-meetings. It’s simply too complicated and simultaneously under-engineered. Every standard is half-baked, and every year brings multiple new standards. And the equipment manufacturers have a very strange idea about what the public wants. They are sure everyone wants more adjustments and fiddly knobs. I assure them we do not. We want things to simply work, and that heartfelt desire appears to be last on the list of manufacturer priorities.
In parting, let me share a top-tip regarding how I handled my parent’s poltergeist television. After hours of adjusting every possible HDMI and IR permutation on all the devices, I finally turned on the Apple HomeKit connectivity so that when the TV turns itself (and the amplifier and speakers at full volume) on in the middle of the night and wakes them up, they can simply shout at Siri to turn it off.
Isn’t technology wonderful?