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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Simplify, man!

Saw a pretty good movie tonight, a French thriller starring Jean Reno called "Les Rivieres Pourpres."  The soundtrack was very good, and I thought that the director had a Hitchcockian eye.  Fun.  At one point, Reno is crossing a stone bridge over a fast-moving stream, and a dog is barking in the distance.  For a moment, I fell out of imagination mode into critical analysis mode and thought:

"Probably none of the noises I am hearing out of our home theater right now were recorded when this scene was shot.  Even the dog isn't real."

Later on in the film there are gunshots, a car chase and an avalanche.  All movie magic, or at least foley artist magic.  Everything sounded pretty good.  We have a decent home theater set up, A Marantz 6003 AVR, Pioneer Elite DVD player and Pioneer BluRay player (the slowest freaking machine in the universe) Paradigm Monitor series speakers and a Martin Logan sub.  We have a number of concert Blurays, and I enjoy watching them.  Therein is the key term- watching them.  They sound very nice, but I don't use the home theater set up to listen to music.  I am blessed enough to have the luxury to get up, go into an entirely different room, and listen to equipment optomised to do one thing- play music in good old-fashioned 2 channel stereo (or mono, if I'd like or the recording calls for it).

The way a system is set up for movies, and the compromises that go into preamplifiers and amplifiers (or multi-format disc players) set up for doing surround sound applications never hit me as being conducive to high-quality stereo.  Without writing a thesis, nor covering ground covered ad nauseum in the industry publications, I think that the reasons for this are quite simple.  First, a good HiFi should be designed for accuracy and realism.  Despite what advertisers tell you, that is neither necessary nor is it desireable for movies and movie sound.  Movies are meant to either wow you with their sound (think "Avatar") or weave sounds into the visual storytelling experience.  What the hell does a phaser sound like anyway?  Remember the "Alien" movie ad: "In space, no one can hear you scream."  Guess what, in space no one can hear ANYTHING.  No air, no sound.  That cool TIE fighter noise?  Never hear it.  But movies aren't about realism in that way- even some documentaries.  Let's look at a specific example:

My personal reference BluRay is the last Bond film, "Quantum of Solace."  At the beginning of the fim there is a car chase scene where a number of automatic weapons are used, including a light machine gun that appears to me to be an 5.56mm FN SAW.  It's a great car chase, fast, exciting and the machine gun sounds like thunder when it fires, a rapid succesion of booms punctuated by brass casings rattling off of car interiors, rounds puncturing sheet metal  and glass shattering.  The subwoofer is rocking the whole time.  Very cool, but not at all what the weapon sounds like in real life.  A version of that weapon is used by the United States military and I have been in training exercises at the USMC Officer Candidates' School where a SAW has been fired (once suddenly, in the dark from very close by.  If I hadn't been hugging the ground already I would have caught some serious air, it surprised me so much). It has the sound of  a series of sharp, piercing, metallic cracks, in super-fast succession, and you should be wearing hearing protection if you are nearby or you will be sorry.  The metallic sound of the bolt moving in the action is also not inconsiderable.  What there is not is anything that is likely to make your subwoofer break a sweat.  No thunder, no boom.  Of course, if the weapon is fired indoors you have the echoing effect, but any system capable of producing such a noise at realistic volumes would probably cost tens of thousands of dollars and kill many a tweeter, all the while punishing your electric bill.   Bottom line is, movies is fake, and the machines that reproduce their soundtracks don't have to be accurate, they just have to reproduce movie noises efficiently and in a pleasing fashion. I also heard 81mm mortar fire on a range and no movie explosion I have ever heard is even remotely similar.  Anyone who lives in the Bellport, NY area who was home the morning Grucci Fireworks blew up can tell you that.  Does the home theater gear have to be incapable of reproducing music accurately?  No, of course not, and I'll bet many mega-buck systems do both just fine.  If however, you are designing to a budget and know your audience wants bang for their buck and is happy with uber-compressed MP3 files for music listening (ugh), why waste corporate funds on doing both?

So what I'm saying is, stop using your AVR to listen to your favorite live jazz, vocal or classical music recordings (I leave most rock, dance, electronica, goth and rap out because they fall mostly into the category of movie noises as well.  I may also be leaving some rap out for the reason that I can't/won't stretch my personal definition of music far enough to include it.)  Thursday night we had a good example of why this is a recommended course of action.  D. scored a vintage Denon PMA-720 integrated amplifier (2 channel only) for $40, and running an Onkyo C-S5VL SACD player through it made his Wharfedales sound like new speakers.  And his Pioneer Elite AVR is no slouch in the sound department, either- but this 20 year-old Denon SMOKED the AVR.  We listened until midnight and I was mighty impressed. I have some more specific thoughts, but I want to bug D. for a picture and some more info, so more on this topic in the very near future.

Did I mention the GX9 had to go back AGAIN?  But good news- the evening it came back I was listening to some solo piano and I heard a post-tone ringing in the mid-range area, so I called up In House Repair and they had me bring it back in.  (That same day- how's THAT for service?  I'm telling you they are the best.  If you need vintage stuff looked at, call those folks.  See the link on the right.  They are super nice and super good at what they do).  Anyway, at first there seemed to be no replicating what I heard (see my previous post for the cateorization of dead/dying audio gear)- it scoped okay and seemed normal, but shortly thereafter, they discovered there is an issue at low levels- notch distortion, I think?  So a resistor somewhere is to be replaced.  Whew! I thought she was a goner!  Only noticeable at low levels- see?  I don't ALWAYS sit around playing Achilles' Last Stand at levels that could sterilize frogs!


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