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THX: What WON'T You Certify?

Posted on December 28, 2010 at 3:55 PM

It’s December, so that means I’m wading through the stack of December dated magazines in the heaping pile next to my desk, and the one that has slowly struggled its way to the top of the angry, growing pile is the December issue of Home Theater. Even though Home Theater is the biggest rival to my benevolent benefactor, Sound + Vision, and even though I should probably hate it and all that it stands for, I don’t. Truth is, I still enjoy reading their mag every bit as much now as I did before I joined this business and started writing – and cashing checks – from their biggest competitor. I also still dig and respect that they are plugging away at 12 issues a year, while my S+V is a far leaner, chiseled, toned and cut-up 8. Picture Home Theater as being the pre-fight Rocky Balboa from Rocky I; slogging down big glasses of raw eggs and wearing grey sweets and S+V being that sinewy and rib-pokey and concentration camp looking Christian Bale from The Fighter. But, after 15 rounds of surviving the print-recession, both fighters are still standing, bloodied, sweating, leaning in against each other and saying, "Oh, yes! There WILL be a rematch."

 

And there are parts that I especially love about HT. First, they used to have this really thick paper and a wider cut to its jib, and even though that’s gone the way of USB heated coffee mugs for the staff, I love reading HT’s back page. Somehow, they snagged ex-Mystery Science Theater writer, Michael J Nelson, and he churns out what might be the best back page going in the biz (at least until S+V gets on the trolley and moves my column to the back that is...) His writing is often biting and witty and dancing on the razor’s edge of snark, as he expertly weaves in phrases like “supernatural torpidity” and “nerve tonic or an herbal tincture, suspension, or unguent.” While always entertaining, it is even occasionally helpful, and it is the first thing I turn to.

 

My second reason for reading HT is to see what my personal solar system’s black hole, Darryl Wilkinson, has written about that month. Darryl and I often cover the same types of gear – frequently reviewing the exact same pieces – so I carefully scour and scrutinize each line of his prose as I look for any flaws or weakness or the misplaced usage of the Harvard comma or a questionable semi-colon placement. Any chink in the Wilkinson armor where I can say, “A ha! I knew it! Darryl never even took that out of the box! He clearly just rehashed the press release, and then kept the unit for himself! Likely selling it on eBay to turn a quick buck to fuel that huge compound he lives on. That smarmy bastard!” (Sadly, the cruel truth is that I never find such things, as Darryl’s writing is, in fact, also often biting and witty and nearly always helpful. Plus, Darryl has a way of writing where you can also almost always count on finding that one glaring sentence or phrase that is destined to be used in the company’s national ad campaign; a small “Darryl Wilkinson, Home Theater Magazine” tagline forever razzing me at every turn. Part of what makes Darryl such a great foil is that his game is indeed up to the task. Though I do hope he actually does steal my “4-Skin” suggested quote for his upcoming Control4 review, though it’s chance of national syndication is likely to be 4-naught.)

 

So, enough of that. Back on to the point of this blog. So, I’m reading the December issue of Home Theater and I come to Mark Fleischmann’s review on page 64 of the Onkyo HT-S9300THX integrated system. Now, Mark has once confided in me that he occasionally hordes rolls – and rolls – of toilet paper in great abundance, so I know him to be a trustworthy journalist. But the part that catches my eye of Mark’s story is a sentence in his second graf: “THX I/S Plus is a version of THX certification, scaled down for smaller rooms and closer seating distances.”

 

My first thought was, “Oh, Jesus! Here they go again! Those guys will certify anything.”

 

This is the kind of thing that I don’t even mention to my CTA partner, Al. When presented with any opportunity to rail against, and go into a full-on verbal Holy War tirade on George Lucas – even though he doesn’t really have anything to do with THX any longer, except for having his personal assistant stamp the “For Deposit Only” stamps on the dividend and royalty checks – Al can be counted on to proclaim great personal and emotional distress and vehemently declare, “They’ve sold out! It’s just more of George all over again. Doing the same thing! Grabbing for the money! Raping my childhood memories over and over just to make an extra buck! Are you happy, George? Are, you happy?!”

 

First, I think we all know that George is indeed pretty damn happy. His ranch is totally sick and has one of the finest cinemas in the entire world. And in that cinema is a seat known simply as, “George’s seat.” Also, he has a lifetime supply of comfy flannel shirts to wear and he can close his eyes and dream up Star Wars episodes VII, VIII and IX any old damn time he feels like it. And guess what? Every edition is the Special Edition and no one bitches or blogs or Rotten Tomatoes about it! He can also call up ILM and ask them to set aside some rendering time to rework an Even Specialer Edition of Jedi; the one where Boba doesn’t scream when falling into the Sarlaac pit. So, yes, I think we can safely table the discussion on George’s happiness quotient.

 

The thing is, when THX started their licensing program, there was one thing; there was just THX. And either you got certified or you didn’t. And since the goal of the program was the replicate as closely as possible the audio and video experience chain from the director to the theater to your home, getting certified meant meeting a pretty stringent set of standards and performance criteria that generally only the topest-of-notch gear – the biggest, baddest amps, the most processorey of processors, costly, studio-monitor type speakers, and big, ugly, alien-artifact cube subwoofers whose weight compressed cement slab flooring – could muster.

 

(Note, I might be playing fast-and-lose with the order of some of these things here. If you want an accurate history of exactly what came first and when it came, go to THX.com or Wikipedia or something.)

 

Then they started certifying media like Laser Discs and VCR tapes and DVD discs. Which makes sense; THX was involved in the upstream quality control of the movie’s release, making sure that the proper steps were taken to get from the director’s vision to the home screen. Things like color correction and telecine and proper audio stems and,,,well, I’m sure it was a lot of things. Plus it got you the THX Deep Note trailer, so there was that.

 

Then they changed THX electronics’ certification into two things, Ultra and Select. Which, OK, made some since. Select was not meant for smaller rooms – or smaller men whose system just didn’t have the cojones to be called Ultra – where you didn’t need to meet the same audio outputs demands. In a smaller space where you were seated nearer the speakers, you could scale back the requirements needed, meaning smaller speakers, smaller amps, smaller budgets, and now people with less than cinema-sized rooms could still have a THX-certified product.

 

Then they started certifying video. Which, OK, TVs need to be certified, so, yeah, that’s cool. Then it was projectors, and, all right, yeah, if you’re gonna have a video certification, you probably should certify front projectors.

 

Now we have a 3D certification, audio and video calibrators are certified, audio and video cables are certified,  computer speakers and car audio systems can get certified, and now this latest category; I/S Plus, which I’m *guessing* stands for “Integrated System Plus Speakers.”

 

So, has THX sold out? Will they certify anything? Should they? Does the brand have any meaning left to it?

 

Well, I definitely think they have changed – widely b-r-o-a-d-e-n-e-d – their business model, but that doesn’t necessarily mean selling out. They won’t certify anything; I’ve still yet to see a coffee machine that has received the approval. (Though, spoiler, if there was a THX certified coffee machine, I’m already considering buying it. With a precise 15 BAR of pressure and a perfect 195 degree temp and the ideal extraction time. That coffee would kick ass!) And I think the brand still has a lot of cache and value. Here’s my thinking.

 

No matter what the category, big, small, cheap, expensive, car, home, cube, sphere, Darryl W or John S, there is something that makes it better. Guess which one of US is certified. Here’s a hint...



 

Something that makes that product be all the bestest it can be. Small will never be big, sphere will never be cube, Wilkinson will never be Sciacca, but what is it that makes it the best damn small sphere it can be? How do you compare the performance to other big cubes? And this is where THX comes in and provides a needed service. Kind of like Good Housekeeping. If it has the THX seal, you know that it has met a certain level of expected performance in a given category. Will a THX certified I/S Plus system ever perform like a THX Ultra 2 system? No. Will it outperform a non I/S Plus certified in-a-box system? Probably. But at least you know that the certified system has the chops to stand with head held high amidst other similar systems.

 

Based on that, here are some other products I’d like to see THX certify:

 

Headphones: This is a vastly growing product segment that has widely varying prices and performances. Why not a THX certified headphone? I’d like them to rate sound isolation, and bass response and comfort, and cord noise, and cable twist.

 

Cell phones: Wouldn’t you like your cell phone to have a better speaker so you could actually hear people when you’re talking? How about a set of standards for the built-in camera, or its predictive texting or actual cell reception. Look, I don’t know what the exact criteria would be here, but THX would and that’s what’s important.

 

Digital Cameras: I’m on my fourth camera. I buy them, I bring them home, I keep them for 89 days, and then I return them to Sam’s Club and try again. Do you think I like living like this? No. It’s awful. Always checking over your shoulder to see if the return police are coming, or waking up in a cold sweat wondering if you have miscounted a 31 day month and you are really over the 90 day return limit. But, if I had a way of knowing that a camera was fast on the click, able to take non-blurry photos, took good macro shots, worked well in low-light conditions, was easy to upload images, etc. Then I could buy a camera and have a ceremonial receipt burning send off to Valhalla.

 

Remote Controls: The remote is the piece you actually interact with to use your system, so why not have a set of ergonomic standards for this crucial component? Button size. Battery life. Screen resolution. Ability to take a punch. A THX certified remote would have it all.

 

Soundbars: Look, I don’t generally like these things any more than you do (PS: We don’t like soundbars. They are often the bastard, red-headed stepchild of the home cinema world). But, even though we eschew them to the ranks of under-overpass living, there is the time and place where a soundbar is just the thing. Like a bedroom or office system or when getting wire to the back of the room just isn’t possible. So, if we are forced to live in a world where we might have to interact with a soundbar, I want to know that I’m using one that actually does its job. And then I want a THX stamp on it.

 

Laptops: Again, why not? Think of all the things that make a laptop good; speed benchmarks, screen resolution, speaker quality, battery life, a Web-cam that doesn't make you look like you're sending back a message from the future...these things are all screaming for a certification. Also, I’d like to throw in a few new performance criteria, like time to inevitable slow-down bloat, resistance to Nigerian prince scams, the ability to make you look cool and un-poindextery when working next to some nubile beauty in an airplane lounge and instead of scorching hot air that blows like a fire dragon onto my supple inner-thigh a cooling, soothing balm that makes me want to hold the computer in my lap even hours after my work is done.

 

For a list of the items that THX actually DOES currently certify, follow this link.

Categories: December 2010, Electronics, Rants

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