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Home Entertainment: Two in a Million

Ken Kessler

Most early adopters, people who installed home cinemas a decade or more before DVD and high-definition television, are now finding that their setups are not aging well. VHS tape, laser disc, and even CDs are past their primes.

In addition, the past two years have witnessed one of the greatest leaps in screen and projector technology, greatly improving reliability and picture quality. Perhaps one of the least obvious changes is integration, or convergence, through technologies such as USB, FireWire, and Bluetooth. These advances, while a boon to homeowners, have rendered most 10-year-old theaters beyond updating. However, two Aspen-area businessmen have taken measures to ensure that their custom home cinemas will remain on the cutting edge for years to come.

One space belongs to a music lover who happens to have a matchless theater, and the other is a multimedia showcase in which the owner can relax even without playing a movie or a CD. Both theaters feature a who’s who list of equipment that was engineered and installed by E/S/C. And both deliver movie-viewing experiences far exceeding any commercial cinema.

The most significant similarity between the two is that all of the design and component choices were made with the goal of keeping to a minimum future construction and gear upgrades. “Both of these rooms have evolved over time,” says Anson Fogel, chief operating and technical officer at E/S/C, referring to some programming and equipment that has been added for distributed audio and automation. “Ultimately, the most important thing to engineer is flexibility. In both these systems, we have had to make no physical or architectural changes because when the spaces were designed, we carefully considered the physical future flexibility.” For example, in most installations, acoustic treatments are not easily adaptable because they are wrapped in fabric and applied to the wall. “In our systems, the fabric is the wall.”

Paint It Black
“How would you like to hear a really special Grand SLAMM installation?” Peter McGrath, the director of sales for Wilson Audio, understands the come-on is one no audiophile or videophile can decline. E/S/C created the theater, and I ask Fogel for a tour of another room the company completed. The day is filled with audio and video demonstrations at not one, but two $1 million home theaters. The first home, a steel, stone, aluminum, and glass behemoth perched on Red Mountain, offers breathtaking views of Aspen, the Rockies, and ski lifts. Inside, the caliber of art is evidence that the owner is a serious collector of contemporary works and photography. I step forward to take a closer look, and an alarm sounds. McGrath explains that the alarm screeches when someone steps within three feet of the finer pieces.

The theater is designed for perfect viewing and flawless sound reproductions, but it is also comfortable and welcoming, with plenty of cushions for lounging. For optimal acoustics, the walls are angled toward the screen, and the floor slopes downward in broad steps. The Digital Projection Lightning 6SX projector, enclosed in a chamber that keeps its noise at bay,  fires at a custom Stewart Microperf screen just under 14 feet wide.

The homeowner knew exactly what he wanted: a state-of-the-art reproduction space for music and movies, in that order. Aesthetics were secondary to performance in almost every respect, says Fogel. Aside from a ribbed wooden light fixture running the length of the ceiling, the room is entirely black, and it is almost as dead sonically as an anechoic chamber (a room where loudspeakers are tested). For reproducing sound, it means listeners hear only what emanates from the speakers, not what has bounced off the walls.

Every piece of equipment was chosen to suit the room and has been fine-tuned to match the sonic and visual conditions. “The performance components were of paramount concern, rather than the aesthetics or ease of use,” says McGrath. “No compromises were made in pursuit of the highest visual and sonic performance. The projector and the screen are unsurpassable in visual quality.”

The key to designing a theater and music system that will not go out of date, says McGrath, is to spare no expense on the components that are least likely to change. For example, the speakers have been upgraded, but they are original to the room. The Mark Levinson No. 33 amplifiers still “remain pretty much state-of-the-art.”

McGrath helped design the original system, and acoustics expert Keith Yates decided on the wall surface and room design, which remain mostly the same, save for some acoustical treatments behind the fabric. “The core of the system is mid-1990s,” Fogel says, “but it has been continuously refined to encompass new developments.” Those changes include advancements in music access and storage, such as hard-drive technology.

The Wilson speakers, the original reason for my visit, enjoy good company. The all-Wilson speaker array of three Grand SLAMMs across the front and four WATT Puppies for surround sound is driven by the No. 33s (in the front), four No. 20.5s (for the surrounds), and a No. 23 (for the rear). E/S/C recently added two Wilson WATCH Dog subwoofers. The mix also includes a Goldmund Studietto turntable with an SME arm, and a Meridian 861 processor.

In a room that seats 16, measures 32 feet long and 22 feet wide, and houses a phalanx of massive speakers, you expect more than a reduced-scale reproduction of a music event. With thoroughbred installations such as this, scale ceases to be an issue. The sound fills the room without seeming larger-than-life. After all, there is a difference between merely playing loudly and reproducing the sound as closely as possible to what it sounded like when it was created. McGrath showed how smoothly the system could move from bombastic feature films such as U-571 to orchestral and pop music, including arrangements recorded by McGrath, who is also a recording engineer. “That’s truly rare, that any system can reproduce such various types of sound and still be pleasing to hear,” he says. “It’s a complex challenge.” We enjoy the music as if it were the actual live event.

As we watch the scene of the recording session in the dustbowl radio station in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? we hear how the system produces music within a movie. The sound textures enhance the viewing experience with realism far beyond what passes for exceptional in most home theaters. Also, the superb handling of dialogue is a blessing for listeners (like me) who find that many actors are prone to mumbling. Fogel notes my satisfaction, explaining, “The client demands the best at all times, regardless of cost.”

Gold Standard
The second system is preceded by its own folk legend. We arrive at a stark contemporary home and take in the view from the driveway, which is large enough for about 10 vehicles. With typical understatement McGrath says, “You’re standing on the listening room.” Pause. “No, seriously. The owner spent $1 million just to blow a hole in the mountainside to house the home theater.”

When this theater was constructed a couple of years ago, the school of thought was that home theaters should resemble miniature movie houses from a particular era. Fogel, though, prefers to design and engineer a more versatile and comfortable space so that the components are neither hidden (by making a speaker look like a Grecian urn, for instance) nor visually overwhelming. “People are meant to use these rooms, not just look at them,” he says.

The decor in this theater—or lounge, more accurately—is the opposite of the other’s in almost every way. With its shades of gold and yellow, it seems so bright and alive that a Vegas-style floor show could begin at any moment. The sculptural aspects, especially the cast-iron leaf-and-vine-etched grates on the walls, demand attention. The walls are constructed of contrasting sections of wood panels and backlit screens, and a closer examination reveals the wood is undulating rather than flat. “The goal here was comfort, with performance a close second,” says Fogel, adding that the room was designed to feel like a forest. “Aesthetics and comfort were of primary concern.” The homeowner wanted the best playback for movies and television, and music was secondary.

This room is newer than the first one and therefore able to take advantage of modern, upgradeable software products that Fogel predicts will result in far fewer changes in the future. So far, only the projector and processor have been replaced. The current system includes a Digital Projection Lighting 6SX DLP projector and Faroudja DVP-3000 upconverter with E/S/C modifications, and a Meridian 861 A/V control unit with a full bank of upgrades, including analog audio input, composite and S-video input, and balanced analog audio output. The processor feeds three Cello Reference amps, four Cello Duet 350s, and six Bryston 7B-ST monoblock power amps, which drive a trio of Cello Grand Master speakers that produce sound from the front. Eight Cello Legends handle sound from the sides and surround. Not until viewing an explosion in U-571 did I notice something special below. Four Velodyne HGS-18 powered subwoofers pump up the bass, and 16 Bag End subwoofers and eight Crown CE 2000 amplifiers under the floor provide palpable rumbling.

Again, this system is expected to stand the test of time in large part because of the Cello speakers and amplifiers. “It starts with the choice of speaker,” says McGrath. “Loudspeakers don’t go through revolution and lots of change. Speakers are constantly undergoing a kind of quiet evolution, so nothing tomorrow will make them obsolete.”

On the other hand, electronics, such as projectors, processors, preamps, and software servers, McGrath says, are the components that change the most. “A speaker is like the car body, and the amp is the motor. Those two items don’t change. The best of what’s available today shouldn’t have to be out of date for at least a decade.”

Fogel offers a slightly different explanation as to why the theaters have not become dated. “Systems at this level,” he says, “must be subject to thousands and thousands of hours of engineering, design, and coordination. The equipment matters, but the most important thing is the team of humans that designs and builds it.”

Cineastes may still insist that the only authentic way to watch a movie is in a huge hall with 500 or more strangers rustling candy wrappers. But once you become accustomed to this level of equipment in a room this size, you will never again desire the inside of a public movie house. Even if you have to move a mountain to get it.

E/S/C, 970.925.1700, www.escusa.com

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