Competitor for the Worst User Experience

Two announcements at the annual CES show last week highlighted how much of a screwed up mess the world of home theater is. Thanks to fueding by Sony and Toshiba over incompatible high-definition DVD formats (Blueray and HD-DVD) consumers have been left with an expensive choice to make, potentially sinking hundreds, even thousands of dollars into a dead-end solution.

LG announced a player that could handle both formats, at $1200. And Warner Brothers of all people announced a type of disc that can be dual-encoded, with one format on one side, and the other on the flip. (Read)

This is just the tip of the iceberg of the complexity and uncertainty that awaits anyone wading into the home theater waters. I’ve started doing this in the last couple of months after years of 2-channel stereo listening, and it’s a horrible experience. I’m a fairly tech-savvy person, but it’s been overwhelming trying to understand all the intricacies of the various components and formats.

In a search for more information I came across the very comprehensive AVS Forums, but these only brought up more layers of technicalities. Here’s an excerpt from a typical post:

  1. X-over settings. Can the speaker cross over settings be set differently per each channel? Example: front @ 60, center @ 80, surrounds @100
  2. HD and Blue Ray DVD HDMI audio. I do not understand if any post processing is done on the 5.1 Lossless PCM channels from these players. Will DD PLIIx or THX 7.1 apply to these? What are the limitations?
  3. Will this unit pass a 1080P video stream via HDMI unadulterated?
  4. If I have a 1080P video stream going through the unit with HDMI to my display device, how does the OSD and Set up menu display?

To the uninitiated, most of this is gobbledegook. Even if you understand the acronyms it’s hard work to plough through it all.

This is just a ridiculous state of affairs. No-one should be expected to understand all this crap that only engineers and programmers should deal with on a day-to-day basis. It’s like exposing the intricacies of engine fuel management systems in cars to car buyers. In fact it’s worse, because home theater involves multiple manufacturers, components and formats that are mutually dependent on one another, and which the customer has to self-assemble into a system that works, like multi-thousand dollar lego blocks.

It’s no wonder that “home theaters in a box” are so popular - they provide a reasonable experience of choosing and setting-up, albeit at a significant expense in performance. Or for people with large budgets, hiring a consultant to select and install the system for them is the way to get around the confusion.

The manufactuers aren’t doing themselves or their customers any favors right now. They do little to explain the intricacies and even less to simply the creation of a system. From a technical point of view they may make excellent products, but from a systems and user experience point of view they flat out suck.

Unfortunately the home theater magazines don’t help much here - they are as filled with geeks into the terminology and tech as the manufacturers, and do little to help out the true novice enter the field.

Until this whole cluster you-know-what gets sorted out, quality home theater is going to remain a niche confined to the wealthy and the extremely persistent.