Putting the hard in hardware

Is the complexity of modern AV hardware holding our hobby back from mass-market appeal?

Lots of people watch movies at home on large screens, but how many go to the lengths of adding an AV amplifier, a full-size loudspeaker package and a subwoofer or two? Very few, because despite TV sound quality going backwards for over a decade, proper home cinema audio is just not on most people’s radar.

Sitting in a contemplative fug, fuelled by leftover Christmas pudding and a half-pint of ruby port, I had an epiphany. I realised the single biggest reason for the niche-dom of home cinema, that one defining factor that has been turning off potential AV enthusiasts in their droves. The reason that I get stupendously frustrated before watching a movie. The reason very few people expand beyond 5.1-channel surround sound. The reason soundbars outsell traditional AV systems at a rate of around 50 to 1. And the very same reason that HCC readers are die-hard techies: home cinema is just too damn complicated.

I'm sure there will have been times when you have sat down with a Blu-ray and had picture and no sound, or visa versa. You dig into the menus for some clues, swap cables around, scroll through decode modes, unplug and reconnect HDMI leads and aimlessly press buttons on the remote control hoping for an answer. I usually get to a point of abject confusion, chucking my home cinema separates out of my window, before realising that one single little check box wasn’t ticked in a dark recess of the onscreen GUI. Grrrrrr.

Speaking Pacifically

Last week I parked myself on the sofa to take in Pacific Rim. First off I got no picture at all; I then realised I had set the HDMI output from my processor to the monitor not the projector. Then I experienced no sound. I switched functions on and off, scrolled through processing modes, popped up the OSD and changed everything from the speaker delays to the image on the home page. I even powered everything off and back on again, in the hope that the traditional PC fix would work. No. All I got was a message on the display that made no sense at all. Seriously: email me if you know what ‘Dial offset +4’ means.

I am not alone either. I had a telephone conversation recently with HCC's Editor, trying to jointly get his AV receiver to do what was required. Like all of these frustrations it was, of course, user error. The solution was plainly obvious – but only when you made the tenuous link between snippets of information on pages 34, 48, 109 and 115 of the manual.

All this occurs at a time when making technology simple has been the catalyst of success for the whole tablet phenomenon. A tap here, a swipe there, and all manner of things are possible with today's modern gadgets. On the other hand, your average AV addict is likely to spend his Saturday evenings on his knees with arms raised in the air like the poster art of Platoon, shouting 'Why? Why won’t you work! Why?'

So, dear manufacturers of AV equipment, it is time for change. From 2014 onwards, perhaps we could ditch the ‘Who can add the most features/have the biggest menu options’ philosophy, and concentrate on simplifying great AV performance. In that way home cinema might regain its mass-market appeal and I won’t have to buy new double-glazing. Again.

Are you watching more TV programmes than ever before?
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