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O.K. Truth is, I don't know EXACTLY how many theatres I've actually done. When I started Front Row Cinema in 1988, general accounting was not the top priority. A few years later the IRS convinced me it should be higher on the list. Since then, two hard disc crashes have also taken a toll on the precision of the count. Still, as of April, 2009, the number of installations could conservatively be pegged at somewhere north of 900. Now add another year and something called "editorial license" (a term journalists hide behind when they want to make stuff up) and I've got to be very close to 1,000 installs, plus or minus.

The only systems I count are the ones I have designed (hardware), sourced, installed and calibrated myself, which means I have been a firsthand witness to several unmistakably trends and customer behaviors over the past 2+ decades. Someone once told me that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, so in that belief, I thought I would share a few observations with those who may be on the brink of H.T. design/construction, in the hopes that you might short-cut the process and/or avoid some potholes. Here goes.

#1 Angry Clients - Perhaps the first thing I noticed, way back in the beginning, was that shortly after I completed customer training and handed over the remote, most all my clients were mad. Yup, they were mad that they had waited as long as they did to pull the trigger on the Home Theatre investment. Like many things in life, you don't know what you're missing until you experience it firsthand. In a previous life I learned that the best assurance of satisfied customers is to set relatively modest expectations and then over-deliver against them. Although a little easier in the early days (how hard was it to beat VHS tape), it remains a fairly easy challenge. Five years ago I used to tell clients that if we threw enough money at the project, we could rival the local twelve-plex for overall movie experience. Today I say we can easily beat the Bijou with plenty of change left over.

#2 Fear of Obsolescence - This one has been a constant for as long as I can remember. Maybe it was born of the computer experience. By the time you get your home computer work station hooked up with the fastest CPU, biggest hard drive, best looking monitor and all the latest peripherals, you spot an ad in Sunday's paper for a similar system, but 20% faster and 10% cheaper. One could make an argument that the same is true in Theatreland, and to a degree you might be right. I DO tell clients that by the time we spec a system and get it installed that there is a reasonable chance we might swap out one "box" or another if we were just sitting down today. After all, there is so much processing going on in Today's systems, both audio and video, they are very much tied to the same compute technology employed in home computing. But I do see one compelling difference - opportunity forgone! That's the cost of waiting for a "lull" in the performance/$ metric. Said differently, there is Sooo Much good content available now (HD primetime, BD movies, BD concerts) that if you sit out for a few months waiting for a step-function increase in value, you will never catch up. I think I have learned to be a bit picky, yet I have 3 full DVRs and over 200 shrink-wrapped movies to attest that I can't consume as fast as I can acquire good content. Message - Jump in now and start enjoying. Upgrades from time to time are just part of the game, just like your computer, except THIS world is much more rewarding! (If not yet convinced, re-read #1).

#3 Teach Them Well - Long ago, in the aforementioned previous life, I did some research on decision making theory. Net, net, I concluded that very average people tend to make very good decisions when armed with enough facts. I find this is particularly true in the Home Theatre arena. This stuff is a long way from Rocket Science, but the degree of hype employed by leading Industry suppliers and the fact that we use what seems to be intentionally confusing terms (the brightness control adjusts the black level - huh? - what?) means that most everyone is in need of a bit of education to sort this all out. That need has roughly doubled in the last year or so. The New York Times once opined "Teenage angst is nothing. To understand real pain, consider the grown man trying to buy a big screen TV". I insist on subjecting potential clients to Terry's version of Home Theatre 101. It insures at least a base level of understanding, (hopefully) builds my credibility and causes the client to focus on what's most important. Also, out of those conversations comes the very true notion that even more important than specific model #s of pieces and parts, is the skill with which they are integrated, calibrated and menu optimized for overall ease of use.

#4 Size Matters - uh...in the display arena, at least. There has been an undeniable quest for larger screen diagonals from the beginning. Larger screens are more enveloping. Replicating the Commercial Theatre in the living room has always been the goal of Home Theatre. Aided by decreasing price points, we have seen the "sweet spot" of flat panels go from less that 40" to 42, 50, 55, 58, 60, 65 and now we have an 85" panel from Panasonic that competes favorably with similarly priced projector/screen combos. In recent years we have seen HUGE quality gains in the under $10K projector category, opening up the option of 100" screens and larger to the "average" homeowner.

#5 The Ol' Digital Transition - Many folks don't realize that the transition to digital television is actually well over a decade old. For many, the final "push" to purchase an HDTV was not the FCC cut-off date for analog transmission, it was, instead, the solid emergence of the BD (Blu-Ray Disc) player. Now, the leverage in the new display was doubled from simply broadcast prime-time to movies - the REAL motivation for a Home Theatre. This was big for the CE community because the double-whammy of clients seeing larger screens and higher resolution for the first time forever changed their standards. Now, Speedvision didn't look so good in standard definition. This has taken outboard video processing from the prevue of top decile tinkerer to near mainstream, thereby placing even more pressure on #3, education.

#6 Nesting - Finally, there is another trend that is, I think, a good thing. I have seen lots of people invest in Home Theatre for a variety of reasons. The top two have to be "Status Symbol" and "True Videophile" , you know, the folks who simply want to render the Director's Art as best as it can be in their own home. There is yet another growing category of client who see Home Theatre as a way of bringing the family back together. Sadly, for most, the family dinner table is a thing of the past. There seem to be far too many distractions now-a-days. But if little Johnny can gather his friends on Friday night, and Suzie hers on Saturday night in the Family Theatre, a nearly guaranteed good time will be had by all and Mom and Dad will know where their kids are and what they are doing ... and maybe, just maybe they can have a quiet night of their own - maybe Tuesday night - late - in the back row!

Posted by Terry Paullin, May 6, 2010 8:06 AM

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About Terry Paullin

After 25+ years as a Silicon Valley Executive, most recently as President and C.O.O. of Crosscheck, Mr. Paullin decided to follow his passion to the emerging Home Theatre industry. In 1994 he formed Front Row Cinema to design, build and calibrate Home Theaters for private residences. Nearly 600 theaters later, he remains engaged in the Industry in the following ways.

Builds dedicated (single purpose) Home Theaters and "Theatre Environments" (rooms used for other purposes as well).

Teaches Imaging Science and other courses for the Imaging Science Foundation. Mr. Paullin has taught CEDIA accredited classes to the installation community at both AVAD and ADI.

Consults to Industry on the topic of Imaging Science (Pioneer, Optima, In-Focus and several others under non-disclosure). Mr. Paullin has served on the Board of two companies and the Advisory committee of two others.

Has written articles/product reviews for major industry publications, including Widescreen Review, The Perfect Vision, The Ultimate Guide to A/V, WIRED magazine and CEPro and has maintained a monthly column (One Installer's Opinion) in Widescreen Review for the past eight years.

Mr. Paullin has a B.S.E.E. degree from Long Beach State University and performs ISF monitor calibrations for private individuals.

Mr. Paullin also maintains 3 theaters in his home for testing, comparison, performance verification, and reference viewing.