Monday, October 31, 2011

Theater Thoughts: Making it Better

I haven't posted an update about the theater in quite some time. We have been enjoying our home theater with both new and old titles. The Roku has provided us with access to the Netflix streaming library, and we have been watching TV shows as well as movies. But I still feel like the room is only about 90% done. There are a handful of nagging little things that can make the space even better, and I obsess about these changes constantly

One item that has been on my list since we first started using the theater is automated lighting. I already know exactly what equipment I will buy and how I want it to operate. It is just a matter of making the purchases, installing the hardware, and enhancing the automation system. The remote will have a "start" or "warm up" button which will bring the lights up and turn on the disc changer (since it takes a terribly long time to start up). Once someone selects a movie and presses "play" the lights will be dimmed down very low as the other pieces of equipment are turned on and the appropriate disc is loaded. This will give a chance for the audience to settle in. The automation system can sense when the disc starts playing, and it will be set to turn the lights off completely when that happens. Originally I wanted the system to detect when the last chapter begins playing (in nearly every movie this is where the credits start) and bring the lights up to low. Although the automation knows what chapter is currently playing, it doesn't know how many chapter are in the current title. So unfortunately I won't be able to implement this last step unless I manually put chapter counts in the movie database. Still, having the lights automatically dim and turn off at the beginning of the movie will add a nice touch.

With the old DVD player I relied on a video processor in my receiver to upscale the 480 lines of resolution to the 1080 lines expected by the projector. One of the reasons I bought the Integra receiver was the reputation of its video processing, which is handled by a Reon chip. Now that I have a blu-ray changer, DVDs still need upscaling but blu-rays don't. Unfortunately, the changer itself is very ambitious about doing its own upscaling. By the time the signal reaches the receiver it is already 1080 lines. I have found no way to turn this feature off without ruining the quality of blu-rays at the same time. I have given this problem a great deal of thought, and gone through a number of possibilities, but I still have not found a solution with my existing equipment.

Another problem with the video quality is the limitations of the projector, a Panasonic AE-3000. Since I use a cinemascope screen, the system must project movies with a 1.78:1 ratio differently than those with a 2.35:1 (or 2.40:1) ratio. For the latter, the image must be wide enough to fill the width of the screen. But if I used the same settings for taller movies (1.78:1) then the image would spill over the top and bottom of the screen. The AE-3000 is capable of remembering multiple zoom and focus settings and it can automatically change between these two formats, provided that the projector is mounted low enough. Unfortunately in my theater if I mounted the projector low enough it would be directly over the heads of the second row. So it is too high to take full advantage of the projector's automatic zoom capabilities. When it rezooms part of the image literally moves off the screen. So I have had to compromise for 1.78:1 movies by changing the aspect ratio on the projector to a setting that electronically shrinks the image. The automation system takes care of this, but an aspect ratio change cannot always be done reliably, and sometimes the projector ends up with the wrong setting. I could attempt to solve this problem by replacing my projector mount with a longer one. This may impact the experience in the second row, but we rarely use that row anyway. I have also considered building a shelf on the back wall for the projector. This would help with the second row experience, but it would also require that I run new power and HDMI lines.

I believe that both of these problemsthe changer's overzealous upscaling and the projector's unfortunate placementcan be overcome with an external video processor. So now I am considering my options. I don't want to spend a large sum of money, but these processors tend to be expensive. I am currently looking at used Lumagen processors. They have the ability to trick the changer in to using a lower resolution. They can zoom and crop to arbitrary sizes. Best of all, they can be controlled remotely by my automation system. It would know if it is about to play a DVD or a blu-ray, and it would be able to tell the Lumagen to set the input size accordingly. The changer would see the setting and match its output to it, so I'm pretty certain that I can get the changer to stop using its internal scaler on DVDs. For the 1.78:1 problem I still won't be able to use the full resolution of the projector, but I will be able to use more of it, the automation system would be able to make the change reliably, and the Lumagen would do a far better job of rescaling than the projector can.

There are always new idea to incorporate in to the theater. During the winter months we keep the thermostat in the basement set low to conserve energy. I recently found a reasonably priced thermostat with a wireless ethernet interface that can be controlled by my automation system. Imagine if the "warm up" button also changed the thermostat setting (giving the phrase a much more literal meaning). It would be great to go downstairs to a warm theater. The system would also remember to set the temperature lower when the theater is turned "off", which is something that we usually seem to forget.

No comments: