2015 Year in Review - Home Theater Forum and Systems - HomeTheaterShack.com

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post #1 of 4 Old 01-06-16, 07:29 PM Thread Starter
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Todd Anderson
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2015 Year in Review

Dust kicked-up by the Holidays has finally settled and a New Year has opened its arms. If you’re thoughts are anything like mine, then you can certainly relate to my unbridled excitement over the A/V tech possibilities that await us in 2016. The theme of last year's 2014 Year in Review was one of major change. That might sound rather generic, but enthusiasts truly experienced a flood of newness across the industry. We witnessed the final blows to plasma’s reign, OLED’s continued push toward sustainable market life, Quantum Dot fascination, the rise of 4K UHD and HDMI 2.0, and promises of future 4K content. We also tasted Dolby’s version of immersive sound. Heading into 2015, I was fairly convinced we’d experience a revisionary year where those changes were merely tweaked, fine-tuned, and made more readily available in new models. While that was largely true, we certainly had a few surprises along the way. With that, let’s take a trip down recent memory lane with a 2015 post-game wrap-up, Year in Review style.

An Unnoticed Discontinuation
When was the last time you watched a movie stored on a Betamax cassette? Coming from a family that foolishly chose Betamax over VHS, the very name “Betamax” brings back a flood of childhood memories. My older brother, who at the time was the tech geek of the family, convinced my parents to pay more for a Sony Betamax, shunning the obviously inferior VHS format. It was smooth sailing until content became nearly impossible to find. The largest Washington D.C. area rental chain (Erols) slowly phased-out support for Sony’s darling and forced us to join a much smaller Mom and Pop shop that, amazingly, had nearly every movie – new and old – on the format. It was a great find until the store was raided and shutdown for violating copyright laws. It turns out their plethora of Betamax titles were acquired by illegally copying movies from VHS releases.

That marked the end of our VHS holdout.

Before I digress further, let me explain the inspiration for kicking-off this Year in Review with a tech of time’s past. Late last year, Sony announced it will discontinue manufacturing Betamax cassettes. If you’re scratching your head and wondering how or why demand for the format has survived this long, then join the club. So consider this warning served: As of March 2016 you’ll no longer be able to buy new Sony Betamax cassettes. Stock up.

Rebirth of the Receiver
Prior to 2015, the receiver market was largely stagnant. With both 4K video and immersive sound on the horizon, 2014’s crop of receivers was far from future proof and nearly impossible to recommend. While some 2014 receivers shipped with HDMI 2.0 compliance, all of them lacked HDCP 2.2 copyright compatibility (for 4K content) and many missed immersive sound coverage. During early 2015 we began to see AV receivers that offered HDMI 2.0, HDCP 2.2, and nine channels of amplification. By year’s end, there were numerous models offering those features in addition to immediate support of Dolby Atmos and future DTS:X decoding capability. Unfortunately, AVRs with full 11.1 Dolby Atmos support were largely flagship models, all requiring at least two channels of outboard amplification to run a full (four) array of presence channels.

Yamaha's RX-A3050 offers 11.2 Atmos compatability.

The good news is that owners of 2015 receivers should have most – if not all – of their bases covered for years to come. This year, I suspect we’ll see a trickle down of 11.1 performance to cheaper models paired with DTS:X shipping complete and ready to go.

Immersive Audio Drops Anchor
Immersive audio has turned into one of the biggest home theater advancements in recent memory. If you’ve been curious about testing the waters, then take my advice and jump in; object based audio offers an experience that’s simply invigorating. Dolby Atmos finished 2015 as the biggest player in the immersive audio world with a catalog of 22 Blu-ray movies, and we’re certain to see that number explode in the New Year. While many manufacturers shipped AV receivers with DTS:X upgradability, the codec remained vaporware until mid-December when Denon announced it would be the first to release a DTS:X firmware upgrade in early 2016. This rollout will slowly happen and is 100-percent manufacturer dependent, so check directly with your manufacturer for firmware update information.

If you’re not familiar with immersive audio, it’s a technology that allows sound mixers to utilize an array of front, side, rear and ceiling channel speakers to place sounds in a specified location of space using metadata encoded in the audio track. The latest crop of AV receivers can decode the metadata and apply it to the number of speakers you have deployed in your home theater room. While some movies feature voices and sounds that appear to come from directly overhead, I’ve noticed the effect’s primary impact to be one of stretching the front soundstage upward. In some cases the effect is subtle, but it's noticeable. There are quite a few standout Atmos demo discs, including John Wick and Gravity (Diamond Luxe).

One of the biggest stumbling blocks, aside from a cost investment, is the necessity of two to four presence channels. Quite a few manufacturers sell add-on speaker modules that sit on existing speakers and reflect sound off the ceiling, but they have severe limitations when it comes to mid and low frequency content (high frequency sounds are much easier to bounce). That means your best bet is to install full-range in-ceiling speakers or the new wall and ceiling modules offered by companies such as XTZ Sound and SVS. Before you install anything, make sure you read my THX/Atmos update article from last year. I personally used the guidelines for speaker placement contained in that article and have been more than pleased with the results.

There is a third player in the immersive sound realm: Auro Technologies. Auro-3D's approach to sound differs from Dolby and DTS’s object-oriented attack, relying on sound layers and (at most) one overhead Voice of God channel. Unfortunately, Auro's speaker array requirements do not match those needed for Dolby Atmos. I had an opportunity to demo Auro-3D at CEDIA and was absolutely floored by the experience. In fact, I believe that demo session outperformed any of the Atmos material I’ve heard to date. That being said, the company is having a tough time cracking the US market. Auro-3D can be found on some higher-end gear, but is largely absent from nearly all standard brands. According to my discussions with Auro, the company’s presence in Europe and Asia is extraordinarily healthy and it’s hoping to further penetrate the US market in 2016. Can they encroach on territory historically held by DTS and Dolby? Only time will tell.

John Wick is one of the top Atmos encodes released to date.

Pixel City
Our video universe has been completely turned on its head. Several years ago, 1080p technology appeared to be reaching full stride and the industry was looking to inject new selling points. It’s widely agreed that 3D was a rather large “swing and miss” in that regard. Yes, it’s still lingering, but it has been more than overshadowed by the arrival of another selling point: 4K UHD. The market value of 4K is rather large for manufacturers because it’s a glitzy and new, but what most consumers fail to realize is that the millions of extra pixels offered by 4K have a negligible impact when considering standard screen sizes and normal seating distances. Folks, it’s a simple matter of the physical capabilities of the human eye. Of course, you can see a difference if you stand within a few feet of a 4K display, but that alone isn’t enough to drop several thousand dollars replacing older 1080p sets (yet). Last year we saw a drop in available 1080p models in larger (50-inch and up) screen sizes and are likely to see that trend continue in 2016. On the projector side, most manufacturers have 4K projectors in the pipeline, but they remained a rarity for most of 2015. Of the larger mid-priced manufacturers, Sony led the pack by releasing several 4K models; JVC continues to lean on its non-4K e-shift technology.

So, where does this leave us?

It turns out that two piggyback 4K techs, High Dynamic Range and Wide Color Gamut, are primed to be the stars of the show going forward. Both of these technologies began to bubble to the surface in 2015. They’re not available on all 4K UHD televisions and projectors, so make sure you do your homework before making a purchase.

LG and its OLED televisions are primed to lead the pack for years to come.

High Dynamic Range (otherwise known as HDR), refers to a newly available brightness range that allows for greater detail to be seen within the darkest and brightest of images. The effect is quite striking. I had an opportunity to see HDR material on televisions at Value Electronics’ Television Shootout and projectors at CEDIA, and believe it will be a powerful selling point as content becomes available. There’s no industry wide HDR standard at the moment, so it remains unclear if there will be compatibility issues across manufacturers over the next several years. Hopefully the industry will settle on a single standard (such as Dolby Vision) sooner rather than later.

Wide Color Gamut refers to a move from the current HDTV color space (Rec. 709) to a larger color space known as Digital Cinema or P3. This larger color space is already used in commercial cinemas and has been confirmed as a specification on forthcoming UHD Blu-ray players. Paired with the move to P3 is the inclusion of 10-bit color encoding which essentially allows for much larger color palate gradations and smoother color transitions within an image. Goodbye banding!

I believe both HDR and Wide Color Gamut will be relegated to top-end televisions in 2016, and suggest that buyers consider HDR to be a "must have feature" going forward.

Blu-ray Upgrade
The biggest news in the Blu-ray world occurred when Panasonic showed an Ultra HD Blu-ray player prototype at CES 2015. As the year progressed the Ultra HD Blu-ray specification was finalized, as were new disc packaging and label guidelines. By the end of the year, Samsung also revealed a player of its own. The biggest surprise was the lack of Ultra HD Blu-ray equipment for gift-hungry holiday shoppers. As of now, we expect gear and content to begin trickling-out in the early stages of 2016.

OLED Dominates
2015 was a big year for OLED’s largest cheerleader (and only current manufacturer), LG Electronics. Despite some minor dark scene picture performance hiccups on early year models, LG appears to have a world-beater technology on its hands with performance characteristics that LCD televisions can’t touch. If OLED were Holly Holm, then LCD would most certainly be an exhausted Rhonda Rousey hitting the mat. This isn’t to say that LCD technology is bad or yesterday’s news…I left Robert Zohn’s Flatpanel Shootout event thoroughly impressed by Sony’s LCD entry and even remarked in my post-Shootout article that I felt the company’s model should have eked-out a victory. But, at the end of the day, LG’s OLEDs are drop-dead gorgeous and word from the inside indicates that they have corrected dark scene issues.

Panasonic has been largely invisible in the television scene since dropping plasma. But, they showed signs of a revival by announcing late year intentions to develop an OLED display. When? We don’t know. Perhaps we’ll hear from them as 2016 progresses. Hopefully they’ll be successful sooner than later and an OLED market competition will develop.

Aside from what we know, there is something of an unknown looming in the shadows. Last November a professor at Arizona State University unveiled the world’s first white laser, which might be able to produce up to 70-percent more color on a television screen. Of course, this is all early conjecture, but just goes to show that there might be something better at the end of the rainbow.

The Wrap
I know I speak for the rest of the Home Theater Shack staff, when I say "thank you" to all of our members and social media followers. We have so many fantastic members that add value to the community and everyone’s continued participation on the website is truly appreciated. Our social media presence continues to grow and seems to pick-up steam each and every week. If you’re not following us on Facebook or Twitter, please take a moment to do so!

On a personal note, it’s been be a pleasure creating site content for another year, and I certainly appreciate everyone that takes the time to both read and comment on the topics I throw your way. I’m sure that sentiment is shared by our core of great product reviewers (Wayne Myers, Peter Loeser, Jim Wilson, Dennis Young, and Mike Edwards); we are lucky to have them sharing their expertise and analysis with the community on a monthly basis. Also, kudos to a fantastic moderator team that keeps this train on its tracks.

Please take a moment to click on our sponsor links and checkout their amazing offerings. GIK Acoustics, SVS, and Power Sound Audio all released fantastic new products during 2015, and Oppo and miniDSP continue to be market leaders.

We have exciting changes planned for HTS in 2016, some of which should be revealed soon!

Happy New Year!

Image Credits: Home Theater Shack, Yamaha, Lionsgate Films, LG Electronics, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
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post #2 of 4 Old 01-06-16, 10:24 PM
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Re: 2015 Year in Review

Happy new year Todd. I'm sure I speak for many when I say thank you for your contributions, and insights. You are a great team member. I look forward to the new changes.

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post #3 of 4 Old 01-07-16, 04:52 AM
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Re: 2015 Year in Review

Excellent summery of 2015! I enjoyed reading your report.

Thanks for all you do here and wishing you and HTS a great 2016 and far beyond!


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post #4 of 4 Old 01-07-16, 09:45 AM Thread Starter
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Todd Anderson
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Thanks guys, appreciate the comments! ;-)

I'd like add: Mike Edwards... HTS's movie guru... Wow! He is truly amazing and his opinions and views are always spot on. Really enjoyed another year of Mike's view of the Blu-ray scene.
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