One of the things that bothers me about being a reviewer as well as reviews in general, at least of AV components, is that too often they lack context. While some may say that is what measurements, graphs and what have you are for, the truth is there still isn’t real context because a) graphs and measurements can be fudged or exist (largely) in a theoretical environment (i.e. a lab) and b) you’re not in the reviewer’s home. Nor do you have the reviewer’s eyes or ears, as that would be weird. I’m not trying to suggest that all AV reviews are invalid, they’re not, but they should be used as jumping off points for one’s own personal exploration into a product or products. I never recommend that consumers buy based solely on my or anyone’s advice. You can be intrigued by what myself and others’ write, even use it to whittle down your options, but in the end you should trust your own eyes, ears and judgment. In my humble opinion at least.
Looking past the philosophical differences between myself and other writers as it pertains to what we write, there is another facet of context that I’d like to discuss. Too often in a review we reviewers like to proclaim products to be “close to the original” or “as the filmmaker intended”. I’ve always taken issue with these statements, sure they sound wonderful and make for great ad copy, but they’re often meritless as few (if any) writers have actually gone to the trouble to sit with those they’re crediting and ask¸ “is this what you intended.” I’m not suggesting that every writer with a blog (present company included) try and get face time with Spielberg in order to validate their claims as they’re more than likely going to come up woefully short, but there are ways to ensure that our statements aren’t comprised solely of baseless claims. Again, I can hear many of you saying “that’s what measurements are for.” Again, partially, but there’s more to it than that.
As writers it is our job to communicate information to the reader in a way he or she will find useful -not to mention understandable. Graphs and measurements may be unbiased and straightforward however few know how to interpret them in ways that make real world sense. A graph reaching down to 20Hz means nothing to a reader if they don’t understand that 20Hz (or lower) is the reason they feel their bowels moving inside their own body when an explosion rips across the screen during their favorite action flick. Or that a “mountain range” above say 100Hz on that same graph is the reason dialog sounds all “wonky” and unnatural. As a writer it is my job to interpret not only the graphs but what I hear and put it into words so that you can get a general understanding of what my personal experience must have been like. But what is the writer’s point of reference?
Here’s where trust comes into play. I’ve been writing reviews now for 10 years now, long before I became a filmmaker, and in those 10 years I’ve (hopefully) earned a reputation for being honest. I like to think that I am. However, I’m also human, not to mention a fan of all things tech. 100 percent objectivity isn’t possible as our own personal tastes do come into play from time to time. If a writer is honest they’ll disclose as much and you’ll read what they have to say accordingly. But back to a reviewer’s point of reference. For me this has taken the form of a great many products over the years -both audio and video. But never has my point of reference been the actual components used in the mastering process, or better yet, the components sound designers, editors and artists mix for.
Until now that is.
Four years ago I used a 5.1 consumer loudspeaker system in the Bowers & Wilkins CT700 Series in order to do final checks on my first film, April Showers. It wasn’t my original intention to use the CT setup in the mastering of my film, it just sort of worked out that way. I had the CT system installed for review, during which time myself, along with my lead sound designer and composer, received an invite to go hang with some of the sound guys involved with The Dark Knight. We got to listen to their mixes at length via the systems they were accustomed to. At the end of the evening I rushed home, threw on my advanced copy of the film on Blu-ray disc and found definite similarities between what I heard via the folks at Warner Brothers and what was being conveyed via the CT series loudspeakers. Were they equal? No, but there was enough of the same “essence” that the next day my sound guys came over to the house and we began incorporating the CT speakers into our workflow. When we did our final output, we found that the translation from the CT series components to that of the theatrical monitors -JBLs – was comparable, meaning we didn’t need to make any further adjustments. It should be noted that this mix was for the theatrical exhibition of April Showers and NOT for DVD or streaming as my team and I were not consulted on those mixes. I brought this up in my review of the CT series speakers and subsequently used the phrase “as the filmmaker intended” because, well, I was the filmmaker and, well, you get the idea.
Because I am constantly evolving and look to get better, both as a writer as well as a filmmaker, I’ve come to realize that context is exceedingly important. Not only for myself and my own edification but for you as well. This is why I’ve decided to add a few new products to my everyday arsenal as it pertains to my mastering/reviewing system. Given my past experience with Bowers & Wilkins, it should come as no surprise that I’ll be using their CT series speakers again, this time the slightly more refined CT800 Series opposed to the 700 Series I used some years ago. However, since so much time has passed since my last comparison between the 700s and true cinema monitors, I’ve acquired and am in the process of installing a full, commercial cinema, speaker system from JBL Pro. This system was previously installed (I’m told) in one of USC’s smaller theater/screening rooms and will consist of three 3677 monitors across the front with matching 8320 surround channels in a 5 speaker configuration. I’m working on acquiring a matching subwoofer in order to round out a full 5.1 setup. The CT800 Series speakers will be installed right alongside allowing for direct A/B comparisons as well as leaving room for a third, revolving setup. I’m not acquiring or installing such a setup so that others may follow suit and do the same, I actually don’t recommend it per se, as true cinema speakers are cumbersome, not to mention ugly and unruly unless dealt with properly. As a filmmaker, having such a setup will prove invaluable as my team and I will be able to take a mix from theatrical to consumer without leaving the room. It’s my goal to acquire a true, digital cinema projector as well so that I can do the same with video. While my desires to add true, professional grade, cinema components to my setup may stem from my filmmaking background, it should also prove fruitful when evaluating consumer AV components as I’ll be able to better compare just how well they (the consumer products) stack up to and/or recreate a real cinema experience in a home environment. If nothing else, we’ll all have a better point of reference going forward.
I thank you all for reading and until next time, take care and stay tuned…