Editor's Note: Each Friday, High-Def Digest's own HD Advisor will answer a new round of questions from our readers. If you have home theater questions you need answered, send an email to HDanswers@gmail.com.
Answers by Joshua Zyber
Large vs. Small Speakers
Q: It's not unusual to see the automatic calibration feature of receivers end up considering a large speaker as "small," and then apply the crossover frequency to the signals of the corresponding channel. Actually, as far as I know, there is a line of thought that states that every speaker should be considered "small" because, whichever the speaker is, the subwoofer can reproduce better bass. And I'm not sure about that, but I think I read that the THX standard agrees with this statement. That led me to think the following: If the speakers should always be considered small, why then, in the audio track, do the studios record bass sounds directed to the speakers? Don't the movie industry people think that some bass sounds could indeed be reproduced by the speakers? It seems the movie industry has one idea on the subject, and the home theater industry another.
A: As I'm sure you're aware, the "Large" and "Small" settings in the receiver don't just refer to the physical size of the speakers. They're actually meant to gauge whether the speakers can reproduce the full frequency range of an audio track, down to the lowest bass registers. To accomplish that, you generally need large woofers and a lot of power to drive them. Hence this usually only happens in physically large loudspeakers. However, it's perfectly possible to have big speakers that cannot reproduce the full bass range either, and thus should not be considered "Large." The vast majority of home theater speakers are not full-range, and should be defined as "Small."
So, why then do movie sound mixers still place so much bass activity in the main speakers rather than moving it all to the .1 channel? Well, most movie soundtracks are mixed primarily with the theatrical release in mind. To give you a more detailed answer straight from the horse's mouth, I solicited advice from Marc Fishman, a Hollywood sound mixer with an extensive and impressive resumé of films he's worked on. Here is what he had to say:
MF: This isn't one idea vs. the other... because they are two different venues. Since the goal is translation, these differing 'ideas' on the subject achieve the desired results.
Theatrical sound systems are always at least 2-way (and some 3-way) designs, meaning they are all bi-amped and have plenty of power to drive the cabinets. On my stage, each main channel consists of high-end driver on a horn enclosure for the high end on top of a cabinet of 4 x 15" drivers. They are both separately fed by their own 1,000 Watt amps… plenty of power. Even though we are talking about smaller spaces, most home theater setups (and speakers for that matter) don't have that kind of power in them. And even if they do, it rarely comes in the form of bi-amplification.
It's a matter of translating what we have the ability to do (large SPL and frequency reproduction across our main channels) into a home environment (accurate SPL and frequency reproduction using what is available) by using the amplification more wisely.
Pillarbox Bars – Black vs. Gray
Q: I have a Sharp Aquos television, a Pioneer Elite DVD player, a Panasonic Blu-ray player, and an Onkyo receiver. I have contacted each of these manufacturers with this question and they have all said they have no idea what the problem is (if it is a problem). When I play a full screen film on my Pioneer DVD player, the side bars are black. On the Panasonic Blu-ray player, the side bars are a kind of cream color. Is there some way to make sure the side bars are only black?
A: First, let's be clear and define "full screen" movies as those with a 4:3 aspect ratio, which should be displayed in the center of your 16:9 screen with pillarbox bars. The term "full screen" is a bit of a misnomer that goes back to the days before HDTV. The term continues to be used, even though a 4:3 picture will obviously not fill a 16:9 screen without stretching or distortion.
Are these movies you're watching all on DVD, or are you comparing the same movie on DVD and Blu-ray? I'm going to assume that you're watching the same DVD on two different machines.
"Full screen" DVDs are natively encoded in a 4:3 shape. Any pillarbox bars you see are created by either the DVD player or your TV. If either of your players has a Pillarbox (or "Squeeze") mode, the player itself generates those bars. My best guess here is that your Pioneer DVD player has a Pillarbox mode. When you watch DVDs on that machine, your TV should be set for 16:9 aspect ratio, and the player does the pillarboxing. Those pillarbox bars it creates are black in color.
Meanwhile, your Panasonic Blu-ray player probably doesn't have its own Pillarbox mode. (I'm not sure about current models, but the older Panasonic BD players I've owned did not). In this case, when you play a 4:3 DVD in the machine, your TV will have to be set for its own 4:3 mode. And, when that happens, the TV generates gray bars.
Unfortunately, many HDTVs are designed to generate gray pillarbox bars rather than black. The reasoning behind this is that gray is supposedly less likely to cause image burn-in. Some TVs will allow you to adjust the color of the pillarbox bars, but many others will not. Most viewers find the gray very distracting.
If your DVD picture quality is otherwise the same other than this issue, I'd recommend just watching 4:3 DVDs in the Pioneer player. But if you're unhappy with the quality of that machine, you may want to invest in a new Blu-ray player that has the pillarbox feature.
Blu-ray Quality Control
Q: In light of the recent audio issues with the 'Saving Private Ryan' Blu-ray, I was curious if you had any insight into how something so major could make it to retail. Is no one reviewing the master before replication?
A: Somebody at either the studio or the production facility screwed up. I honestly think it's as simple as that. Mistakes sometimes happen, even major ones. At least, in this case, the studio has acknowledged the problem and issued a recall.
Compare Paramount's response to this issue to the way that Magnolia has treated 'Let the Right One In' on Blu-ray. Initial copies of that disc were authored with a simplified English subtitle translation that many fans objected to. When complaints came in, the studio agreed to include the original theatrical subtitle translation on future pressings. That sounds like a good thing. The problem is that they never recalled the old disc, and the new copies use the same UPC. The only way to tell the difference is to look at the fine print on the back of the case. Consumers ordering from online retailers have no way of knowing which version they'll get. And the updated copies still seem to be in short supply even in brick & mortar stores.
The HD Advisor knows many things, but he doesn't know everything. Some questions are best answered with a consensus of opinions from our readers. If you can help to answer the following question, please post your response in our forum thread linked at the end of this article. Your advice and opinions matter too!
Blu-ray Players with Wi-Fi
Q: I need to buy a Blu-ray player for a friend and he is interested in streaming Netflix. However, his TV is a million miles away from his router. Have you know of any specific players that handle wi-fi streaming better than others? My PS3 handles it superbly, but I don't think a PS3 is in his cards.
Check back soon for another round of answers. Keep those questions coming.
Joshua Zyber's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this site, its owners or employees.