Powered by streaming's rise, home-entertainment technology marches on

ScreenerBlog

As the long, hot summer winds down, hopes rise for both a cool autumn and some heartwarming overall summer box-office figures. But a few clouds hover in this bright forecast: the continuing growth of streaming and the tidal wave of original productions to fill those pipes to the home. It’s certainly no warning but an alert that deserves attention, as reports have the streaming phenomenon already disrupting TV. 

Whether theatres are vulnerable seems remote and no one (the press, analysts, et al.) seems too intrigued by the question. Maybe that’s good news, but it also suggests complacency.

While summer box-office stats might clarify matters, so too might some input from other informed corners, one being high-end audiovisual retailer and small-screen booster Robert Zohn, founder/owner of Value Electronics, whose brick-and-mortar operations in wealthy Scarsdale, New York complements a mail-order website that sells nationally. In the big-screen corner is Dana Glazer, a serious film buff and family man (with three kids under 16), who is a Fairleigh Dickinson University film professor and indie filmmaker. (He’s currently in post on his feature A Case of Blue.) Furthering his big-screen cred, Glazer graduated from New York University’s Tisch Film School and won a Student Academy Award. Like many, he’s got the best in home-entertainment gear but remains an ardent cinemagoer.

Usually the summer’s CE (Consumer Electronics) Week in New York, an annual two-day event (tech even miniaturizes the seven-day week!) can be a great place to get a good sense of innovations coming home for film-fan consumers. This year, it took some pulling teeth (actually, landing an interview with Zohn) to learn what’s ahead, as the scaled-down 2018 CE Week was more weak than “week.”

The lapse was understandable though ironic, considering the ever-rising flood of entertainment content and new, innovative in-home products and capabilities. But this year, CE Week was challenged with new “show runners” finding their tradeshow legs in a new space—a sliver of Manhattan’s vast Javits Conference Center. The usually high “g-whiz” quotient of gadgets, gear, gizmos and occasional giveaways was down, including less hardware being shown off for home-entertainment enthusiasts.

Even gee-whiz news was spotty on the too-abbreviated home-entertainment panel “Beyond 4K: Improving TV Quality in the Golden Age of Broadband Video.” This had less to do with the shorter time allotted (the streaming phenom was hardly mentioned) and much to do with the fact that the major news came two years ago (reported in FJI) at the event when the remarkable 4K HDR-capable TV sets were only on the verge of coming to market.

But news these days (real, not fake) cannot be stopped!

Today, 4K HDR empowers most TV sets and, as this year’s panel cheered, is now the mainstream. 4K, also known as Ultra HD (UHD), denotes the high pixel count (3840 x 2160p, meaning “progressive”) that provides the stunning clarity and resolution. HDR or high dynamic range assures a higher quality of all those pixels—brighter, more authentic, and capable of a wider contrast range from white to black (and whiter whites and blacker blacks). HDR, whether HDR 10 or Dolby Vision, also allows for the startling possibility of a billion shades and the higher luminance that delivers the brighter picture.

Zohn explains the nitty-gritty of this and more as a “perfect storm” home-entertainment expert with both an intimate understanding of the home experience and where it might be going. He describes his main consumers as “enthusiasts (meaning both movie lovers and videophiles), hobbyists and, locally, Scarsdale residents who are usually looking for the best for their home-entertainment centers.” As a former systems engineer (“not a design engineer immersed in circuitry,” he clarifies), he knows what makes the hardware and software he sells tick.

The 4K HDR sets themselves come in two standards—the costlier but superior OLED TVs (a technology owned by LG and developed by Eastman Kodak!) and more popular, affordable LED panels. Right now, the higher-priced OLED TVs continue to deliver the highest-quality visuals, says Zohn. LG and Sony are the two OLED TV manufacturers for the U.S. market. Additionally, Samsung has something (cleverly) called QLED that is not OLED.

Screen size helps deliver the more immersive experience and with thinner panel bezels (those frames holding the glass screens), this allows for bigger screen areas and smaller overall footprints. The bezels have been getting thinner and thinner, notes Zohn, now at less than a one-quarter-inch thin. And bigger and bigger are the panel screens that can now go to 100 inches measured diagonally. In addition to these standalone panels, projection setups can be even larger, commonly 110 to 120 inches and can even exceed 200-inch diagonal screen size, says Zohn.

More good news for consumers is that most of the off-putting prices from just two years back have dipped. And the new sets have greatly improved built-in audio capability.

For even better sound, there are newer sound-bar models—some, says Zohn, with a dedicated center-channel speaker for adjusting voice levels. This amenity serves both the hearing-impaired and those of us who really care about dialogue. Voice levels can be raised without disturbing the integrity of other sound components like music or effects.

And these days, hearing goes both ways, as newer sets can now listen to us, taking and obeying our barked orders for on/off, channels changing, or even program search and selection. Such A.I.-enabled voice recognition is via Siri, Google Home or Alexa, which are either integrated into the TV hardware or recognized through the ubiquitous standalone devices where the voice recognition craze began.

Says Zohn, “The three premium TV manufacturers have integrated A.I. via voice control in all of the 2018 premium models. Its popularity among high-end consumers is growing very quickly and users are embracing and enjoying the convenience. I don’t think it will take over the need for a programmed remote control for the basic operations of the TV and integrated audio system, as the A.I. voice control is mainly targeted towards asking questions and finding content and not the everyday operations of the TV and audio system. Some people do not like to use A.I. due to privacy concerns.”

This expanded voice capability has made the TV even more of the hub of the home, Zohn observes, but voice-enhancement for TVs isn’t just a bonus for viewers, as it also facilitates use of other household functions by empowering other appliances and equipment. This is the so-called IoT (Internet of Things) realm, where action is generated through the Internet and the home network as it allows voice capabilities and other often A.I.-enabled non-voice Internet connectivity to do so much “home” work.

It’s no surprise that people need help with all this. So Zohn has been able to expand his own business by providing extra work for his technicians who make house calls to the tech-challenged masses.

Beyond so many changes and enhancements, there’s more on the horizon, Zohn reports. Another major improvement for the home front, even compared to two years ago, is that “there is so much more 4K HDR content available today, whether established broadcast and cable/satellite networks or Blu-ray discs or, most notably, from the streaming services like Amazon, Vudu, YouTube and Netflix and the rampage of other streamers coming to the party.”

Also new, he says, is the impact that AR—augmented reality—is and will be having in the home as its informational overlays of additional data for viewers can augment live programming, sports most notably.

And as soon as next year, LG will be rolling out a 4K HDR roll-up TV that will be a bezel-free set that can be easily concealed. Also coming in maybe a few years, Zohn adds, will be the “next high-resolution format of 8K Ultra HD-2 from LG, Samsung and Sony, which will mean sharper images. But I’m guessing this will be a relatively small TV upgrade compared to a breakthrough improvement like the advent of UHD [aka 4K] HDR.”

Asked where pricing for the home gear might be headed, Zohn responds, “I honestly don’t know what to expect for these consumer-electronics prices, but generally prices tend to go down as technology matures. It seems like the brands that will most likely be affected by tariffs are the TVs that are built and shipped from China. The three premium TV brands, LG, Samsung and Sony, are all assembled in Mexico for all of North and South America, but they use some Chinese parts [that might be impacted].”  

For the immediate future, the budget-minded will find a safe harbor of fine viewing among the value players like Vizio, Hisense, TCL and Westinghouse, all high-quality with lower price tags.

As a seller, Zohn isn’t focused on customer tastes in streaming programs but he says he has a strong sense (like most others) that the Netflix/Amazon/Hulu original series (made-fors and acquired from overseas) will continue to grow in popularity. And cable-born HBO (yes, a “legacy” programming supplier) thrives amidst the deluge from streaming newcomers through its HBO NOW and HBO GO streaming services that deliver in-home (or on-the-run) viewing.

And here’s a bulletin for the studios: In spite of talk these past years about a decline of DVD sales, Zohn offers that Blu-ray DVD players continue to be a popular item, as they are another way to enjoy 4K HDR playback. And the forecast is rosy as more and more titles in the format come into the marketplace. Further brightening this DVD picture is that now “there is a new fun thing—a Panasonic Blu-ray player that has Alexa, so you can ask the Blu-ray to turn on your TV. It is A.I.-empowered and has an affordable price [for many]. Other brands will follow.”

With the always-improving entertainment gear ever more the center of the home, Zohn keeps atop the progress of the 4K HDR panels with his annual store-sponsored “TV Shootout®” competitions for those curious about finding the best in-home viewing experience. These free, informal events bring consumers and professionals to Value Electronics in Scarsdale to judge the audio and visual attributes of the latest OLEDs and LEDs (there’s usually a setup of five or six TVs) in this unofficial a/v beauty contest. Zohn says that this year’s date is not yet firmed but is expected to be in mid-October. (E-mail info@valueelectronics.com for more information and to register.)

The question arising from all this that no one is touching is what impact might this flowering home-viewing paradise have on cinemagoing. It’s a question made tougher by the reality that as in-home viewing improves, so do the big-screen venues, as box-office figures attest. Credit that theatre stamina to the enduring appeal of a good movie in a vast space of enhanced amenities for an unbeatable shared, communal experience that only a crowd brings. Additionally, past film-going challenges from radio, TV, cable, VHS, DVDs, Blu-ray, live events and that knotty transition to digital suggest a continuing positive outlook.

As an understandable cheerleader for the “home” team, Zohn observes that the high-end screen quality theatres provide is now available in the home. But he reiterates, like so many, that “people need to escape the home for a crowd experience, especially when it unfolds in so many theatres that keep improving and delivering better experiences.”

As film guy Glazer puts it: “I still prefer going to theatres. I think films should be watched big. I prefer keeping the specialness to the experience, which means going out and viewing with an audience. The community feeling of experiencing a film, hearing others react, walking out of the theatre together—that's special. But I am old-school and also still like going to the library for DVDs.”

As for his FDU film students, he says, “I think they avoid the theatre due to cost. And they don’t use DVDs, as their computers no longer support that format. Streaming is how they digest their media. I discourage watching on their phones but believe that's what they mostly do.” Ouch!

An intriguing question (and also unanswerable for now) is: Considering the deluge of so much change and innovation, who or what might rule this flourishing home-entertainment ecosystem for the near future? The contenders are many—TV manufacturers, voice-recognition devices, streaming players or services, cable and broadband providers, maybe a virtual multichannel video programming distributor (a master bundler?) or maybe that genius who invents an all-in-one, easy-to-use "Swiss Army knife" device to control the whole home-entertainment enchilada, including searching, discovery and nano-speed accessing.

Zohn’s guess? “It will be content, because that will always be the most important draw to watching TV and listening to audio. And (forgive the salesman’s pitch) it’s the TV manufacturers that will make it continue to sizzle and bring you closer to the directors' artistic intent to dazzle the viewers and bring you into their magical fantasy world.”

Content, including from the streaming giants pouring more and more billions into it, continues to wear the king’s crown. But crowns today are more wobbly than ever as nervous media/entertainment titans, bent on control, wage their own game of thrones to rule the home kingdom and beyond.

So let’s all sit back and watch this show play out and do what the whole wide world should do: applaud the diversity, not fear it, whether we’re a/v insiders, film-industry professionals or movie fans. Or just good citizens.