Seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark in a movie theater equipped for surround sound was a life changing experience for Frank White, custom-installation pioneer and recipient of the prestigious 2014 CEDIA Lifetime Achievement Award.
The year was 1981, and surround sound was still a novelty, available only in forward-looking venues willing to invest in the audio processing equipment and extra speakers required to put the audience in the middle of the action.
"It was completely transformative for me because the audio then became at least as important as the visual experience," White recalls. "The sound was deeply emotional compared with the visuals." To this day, White believes "great visuals cannot carry poor audio, but great audio can carry a grainy black-and-white picture."
A few years later, what we now know as "home theater" was born with the debut of multichannel audio/video receivers that had built-in Dolby surround processing and amplification. Although crude by today's digital standards, those early analog processors nonetheless allowed everyday folks to enjoy a more expansive movie sound experience that was not possible with a stereo pair of speakers.
By the mid-1980s White found himself in the middle of a budding home-technology industry fueled by a cadre of small, innovative companies dedicated to creating a new class of products that made it possible to move audio and video around the house. There were IR (infrared) repeaters for extending control of your AV components to other rooms, multichannel "whole-house" amplifiers and switchers, and a new kind of stealth speaker designed to be mounted flush in the wall.
"I recognized early on that we could repackage a commercial TV-distribution product so that it looked like a cable box," White recalls. "Televisions at that point were pretty ubiquitous - you could buy a Trinitron for your bedroom. The problem was that if you wanted to watch HBO in your bedroom, you needed a second cable box and a second subscription. In those days, we were starting on the pathway to the electronic home we have today."
These new product categories were the foundation of a "custom installation" business run by a new class of home electronics professionals. "A number of really smart, innovative people were traveling multiple, parallel journeys that converged in the late '80s," White explains, which gave rise to the concept of multi-zone audio/video and, ultimately, led to the formation of the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA) in 1989.
Looking at consumer home entertainment over the past couple of decades, what have been the most significant changes?
The move from analog TV to digital TV was a milestone. "And with it came more predictable fixed-pixel video displays," White says. "High-resolution displays are extremely unforgiving to crappy signals, so the changeover made content providers pay a lot more attention to quality.
"When I started in the business, your average cable company was supplying 16 or 17 channels. Today, the more channels the better, which is in direct conflict with picture quality. They have to decide, 'Do we want more content or higher-resolution pictures?' It's a limited pipe, although it's pretty darn good. Right now in the United States, something like 60 percent of all Internet traffic is carried on the same cable that carries all of your high-def TV channels. A single conductor is doing all that. Amazing."
White sees another milestone in the way we consume content compared with the heyday of VHS and laserdisc.
"It's radically different in that it's more individual," he observes. "You have the second-screen phenomenon - we all live that now. So the content I consume both on my near screen and on the large screen is much more personal. My wife and I cut the cord four years ago so we're an IP, off-air kind of family that [streams most of our TV and movies from the Internet]."
And then there's the sheer power of today's technology. "You have on your body the potential of accessing every piece of content ever created," White observes. "Think about that for a second. You have more capability in your pocket now than all of Stanford University had when the first Mac was delivered. And what that does is give you the ability to rigidly and radically filter to get the content you want. Why spend time watching something you don't want to watch?"
Shifting back to the audio side of home entertainment, White shares a family story about paying $20 a ticket to see Guardians of the Galaxy in IMAX 3D.
"I went in thinking IMAX 3D - this will be great - but it was a horrible audio experience," he says. "The thing is, with just a little bit of maintenance it could have been a wonderful experience. As we're leaving the theater, my wife says, 'It would have played better on our system at the house!' To think that today we can have a better entertainment experience at home than in a movie theater is crazy."
Words of Wisdom
As a long-time CEDIA instructor who has been training home technology professionals for years, White says he often starts class by asking, "'How many of you spend five or more hours a week trying to keep current in our industry?' And just about every hand goes up. Then I'll ask, 'How many of you are confident that you are current?' And not one hand goes up." That's how fast technology is moving today.
White's advice to consumers embarking on a home entertainment or automation project is simple: "Get a designer and integrator involved early. Have a conversation and get their perspective so you can see the possibilities." He continues, "Most people over-invest on the video display and under-invest on the audio. Get an integrator in there and he'll take the same budget and give you a much more rewarding experience.
"The consumer electronics industry tends to push individual components and bombard us with price: 'Buy this TV because it's $10 or $100 cheaper,'" White continues. "And yet you're going to have that thing on for 6 or 7 hours a day. Do you really want to save $10 and have a TV that is irritating? You live in a system, so each of those components is basically worthless on its own. What good is a Blu-ray player without a TV and audio? You need a community of stuff. It's not really in the consumer's best interest to buy that way. You don't want to park your car in a space you can't get out of. You want a system that is easy to comprehend and navigate but also flexible enough to absorb new devices."
What's on the horizon? White sees great promise in the new 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard approved earlier this year and expected to go mainstream in 2015. "Right now, bandwidth is limited, but this is going to give us a gigabit of potential for multiple simultaneous streams of HD, better wireless audio, and Internet connectivity that will support instantaneously gaming across continents," he says, pausing to add: "Today we have incredible video resolution, immersive sound, and it's all really affordable. From what I can tell, electronics are going to be on just about every single Christmas list. With so many choices and tons of smart young people creating new applications and products, it's a wonderful time to be alive."
To learn more about home entertainment and automation technology and what it can do for you, consult a CEDIA professional. Click here for a list of CEDIA-member home technology professionals in your area.