You want your home theater to be just that: as close to a commercial movie theater, only in your home. It’s been said that 50 percent of the movie experience is the audio part, and if you’ve ever set up a booming surround-sound system even on a small TV you know how true that is.
Audio simply enhances any realism that the director is trying to depict, but it’s not always easily translated into a home system. Getting sound to accurately represent where it should feel like it’s coming from visually onscreen is a constant challenge for audio manufacturers, not to mention custom electronics professionals who work on further calibrating systems to optimize the audio and video presentation.
British manufacturer Meridian recently updated its active loudspeaker products—specifically the powerful DSP7200 series—with technology called “Center Elevation” toward this aim of realistic presentation. I had the good fortune of hearing it in action last week and can report that it definitely adds to the presentation and as a whole provides a compelling audio piece to the home theater story.
Meridian’s Ken Forsythe took me through a demonstration that included an audio-only track, two film clips as well as a concert clip (at my behest), noting that the company’s vaunted Bob Stuart, who holds a doctorate in psychoacoustics, painstakingly engineered the technology to help overcome the usual compromises that can occur in home theater.
While commercial theaters ordinarily place the front, left and center speakers behind the screen, this is done less so on the home theater front—though we have seen plenty of beautiful installations that do include acoustically transparent screens that can be used for behind-screen loudspeaker placement. Of course, in Meridian’s case, the speakers are really eye candy, too, and their dealers are less likely to move them out of sight ... so that means typical placement would be that the front left and right channels are to the side of the screen and the center channel winds up below the screen.
So how does that create a realistic image, especially if the center speaker is the one usually doing the heavy lifting with the majority of a movie’s dialog?
That’s the struggle, and when you factor in that most people would also be using their Meridian systems for straight-up music playback, too, the company needed to make sure realistic imaging carried over into that arena as well.
“We’ve been working on this for three years, rethinking how systems are integrated and used at home,” says Forsythe. “We want uncompromised performance, but how can we deliver the acoustics and imaging not only across the screen, but do so out of floorstanding speakers? Pyschoacoustically, shifting the audio image above the physical location of the speakers is a process that affects the center channel, but also involves using the left and right for the image as things move around the screen.”
For music, Forsythe used an old Buddy Holly track “True Love Ways” to demonstrate the added “height” of the two-channel audio, which Meridian’s setup spread throughout a 5.0-channel setup with the DSP7200 series models as the fronts. He played the track, turning the technology on and off and then on again to show the subtle differences. I have to say they are subtle, but I did get a better sense of Holly’s stage presence, almost like he was standing there (as opposed to the singing coming from a foot above the floor like the speaker was situated) and thus illustrating Forsythe’s point the second time the Center Elevation was turned on.
Still, I wasn’t really sold on the Center Elevation, and really the overall impact of Meridian’s upgraded imaging, until we started putting video to the audio. We began with the Pixar short One Man Band and then moved on to a poker scene from Casino Royale, neither of which I’d previously seen.
On both, with some good demo pointers from Forsythe in terms of what to look for particularly (if you don’t have a professional integrator doing this for you while you’re shopping for home theater systems, you should because it can highlight aspects you may otherwise miss) the imaging was utterly impressive. On the first clip, we had things like the audio following a bird as it zoomed up and off the screen; a rolling coin rattling across cobblestone and down into a sewer; the two band guys thumping their hands against different parts of their torso to show the little girl they didn’t have money to spare ... and every time the audio was spot on in matching the visual.
The same effect played out during the Casino Royale scene, in which the multimillion poker pot piles up for gripping drama—with subtler audio highlights than the usual James Bond bullets and explosives fest that might ordinarily be used to demo surround-sound imaging. No, here it was effects like hearing the cards being laid out on the felt, exactly where it was taking place onscreen, and hearing the villain flip his poker chips between his fingers that helped build up the anticipation.
Then I had Forsythe play the Sting-led rendition of his “Seven Days” from the great Chris Botti Live in Boston Blu-ray for something I was more familiar with. As it had with the movie and animation clips, the concert clip proved very effective at showing the Center Elevation and imaging of the DSP7200s. As the footage showed Sting singing from several vantage points onstage, the audio never strayed from the visual, while other instruments also appeared precise.
I’m no engineer, but this psychoacoustics business is easier said than done, I’m guessing, and Meridian seems to have taken at least one more step toward making that Hollywood magic more believable for both our eyes and ears.
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Arlen writes about home technology installations and product news and reviews for electronichouse.com
and Electronic House magazine.