Every era has its gizmo, from the transistor radio of the beach-blanket generation to the fax of the fun-transaction Reagan years. But for the ’90s, this brave new age of consolidation and unity, the hot tech fad isn’t one gadget but a concept bringing together a variety of entertainment devices. In the stores, where its sales are now growing faster than any other category of electronics, it’s called home theater.
The idea is simple: to bring the thrills of the movie house into your house, with big, sharp video screens and full, all-enveloping sound systems. That’s nothing new — Hollywood bigs have considered a personal screening room a status symbol since the ’20s — but making the home theater accessible to mainstream America is sheer ’90s. As baby boomers ease into middle age, three times as many people say they’d rather watch a movie at home than go out to see one. Those homebodies are old enough to afford a whole home theater now — and electronics manufacturers are delighted to pitch a profitable category of goods at a time when sales of low-end VCRs and TV sets have leveled off.
”There’s a movement of paying more attention to the home, as you can see from the home-theater phenomenon,” says Paul Goldberger, culture editor of The New York Times. ”It represents an increase in a kind of cocooning effect, a tendency to take the home seriously as a place to do something that used to be done in a more public place.”
Of course, nobody thinks home theaters will completely replace public ones. ”It’s just that the function of the movie theater is changing,” according to David Marc, a visiting professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and author of Prime Time, Prime Movers, to be published this month by Little, Brown. ”Where once its function was to deliver drama to classes that could otherwise not see it, now it’s a place for young people to get out of their parents’ house. For adults it’s also a date — live theater is [more than $25] per ticket, and so somewhere between live theater and a walk in the park is something you can do for $7.”
Technologically, the distance between home and public theaters is rapidly narrowing. Remember what a theatrical thrill it was the first time you heard those spaceships roar overhead in Star Wars and Close Encounters? The Dolby Stereo circuitry responsible for that wizardry can be approximated by a $15 microchip incorporated into inexpensive home-audio components. With upgraded sound and a high-quality TV, there’s no need to put up with the shabby conditions increasingly common in today’s multiplexes: sound that’s too loud or inde-cipherably low, and a dim or out-of-focus picture on the screen.
So, what equipment do you need to turn your living room into a home theater? Less than you might think. Even if you can afford only the first of the following, you’re on your way to having your own private one-plex.
* Start with stereo At the very least, you’ll need a VCR labeled ”Hi-Fi.” But check your machine — many VCR owners have this feature without realizing it. Hook your VCR’s stereo outputs up to your existing audio system or to a TV set with stereo speakers, and everything you watch will suddenly seem more vivid. That’s because Hi-Fi VCRs deliver the audio clarity, frequency range, and distinct left and right channels you can’t get from conventional VCRs. (Hi-Fi sound is also a prerequisite for more elaborate home-theater audio processing.)
If you yearn for a razor-sharp picture that holds up better on big-screen TVs than tapes or broadcasts do, as well as CD-quality digital sound, start watching laserdiscs. A basic combination laserdisc/compact disc player, or ”combi-player,”goes for as little as $400 at discount stores. Pioneer’s CLD-3090, about $1,200, can play both sides of a laserdisc without your having to flip it over. Of course, the laserdiscs themselves add mightily to the cost, since they’re priced at an average of $35 and few video stores rent them.
* Surround yourself with sound The two stereo tracks on most major tape and disc releases actually contain two additional sound channels. To hear all four, you need not only extra speakers but also a special audio receiver that decodes these extra channels and amplifies them. The dominant decoding technology, found in audio-video receivers such as Onkyo’s $850 TX-SV70PRO, is Dolby Laboratories’ Dolby Surround Pro Logic. It gives you three sound channels in the front of the room — left, right, and a center channel that makes dialogue appear to emerge directly from the screen no matter where you sit. The fourth, or ”surround” channel,is what really captivates home-theater fans. Typically coming from a pair of speakers at the rear of a viewing room, the ”surround” channel contains mood-setting background sound, such as Apocalypse Now‘s jungle noises and throbbing helicopters.
If you don’t want to replace a receiver you already have, you can supplement it and your speakers with a kit like AudioSource’s 4001 system. At $500, this budget-priced ”surround” sound in a box is composed of a decoder, center and rear speakers, and all the wire that you need. ”It’s a great bargain,” says Ron Goldberg, video columnist for New York Newsday. ”The separation [of different sound channels] is as good as much more expensive systems that I have heard.”
* Bump up to a big picture If you’ve clung to your trusty 19-inch television, you’ll be amazed at how vivid today’s larger screens are. At a screen size of 27 inches (measured diagonally), a magisterial sense of sheer visual scale takes over, as in RCA’s $879 F27228ET. If you like watching wide-screen movies letterboxed, it’s best to opt for at least the current upper limit in conventional, curved-glass picture tubes of 35 inches. If you care to think still bigger,you can try a flat-screen, three- to five-foot, rear-projection console such as the Mitsubishi VS-5017S ($3,699), with a 50-inch screen.
* Or rip out the walls Here’s where true mania kicks in. Want a ceiling-mounted video projector with a separate screen? Speakers set into your wall? If your tastes are that exotic but you don’t want to do it yourself, the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association trade group, based in Palos Hills, Ill., can refer you to a pro. And to conjure up the decor of old movie palaces, Theatre Design Associates of Brooklyn sells prefab in-home movie- theater shells, complete with lights that dim and a motorized curtain. For only $14,000, you too can get a piece of the Roxy.