Home Theaters Come of Age

A past and present look at the evolution of movie viewing at home.


Fairly standard a theater of 2004: a smallish TV tucked into a cabinet flanked by banks of audio and video equipment.

When was the concept of home theater first conceived? It depends on how you define it. Today, most theaters are comprised of a screen that measures at least 60 inches diagonally, get audio from seven speakers and a subwoofer and pull much of its content from the Internet. Look back 16 years ago, and the definition of a home theater was much different: In a 1995 issue of Electronic House, the Consumer Electronics Group of EIA (Electronic Industries Alliance) identified the components of a theater as a large screen (25 inches or larger), hifi stereo VCR, laserdisc player, audio/video receiver with surround-sound capabilities and four or more speakers. You’d be hard pressed to find a theater still spinning laserdiscs these days. We also spent a lot of time writing about ways to store physical media back then. Suggestions included building special cabinets for a collection of videotapes and later investing in a mega changer that could hold 400 or so discs. While many home theater enthusiasts have hung on to their collections, shelves crammed with discs are going by the wayside with consumer instead getting the entertainment from the Internet, which requires no physical storage space at all.

Another big change in home theaters is the way in which they are controlled. Twenty years ago, remote controls were quite unwieldy, cluttered with numerous buttons, and often requiring a dozen presses to get the system ready for movie night. Fast forward a few years, and one button can do it all. Plus, today, touchscreens are a common component of home theater remotes. Touchscreens make it possible to view a list of favorite channels, a library of movies stored in a media server or even a scene captured by a surveillance camera at the front door. Even better, the remotes can be programmed to operate other things besides the home theater. Lights, motorized shades and thermostats can be integrated into a movie-time setting, so that with one command, you can kick start the theater, dim the lights, close the shades and put the thermostat at its comfort setting. To do that 20 years ago would have required either a slew of individual controls or one very expensive control system.

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Here’s what Sandy Gross, president of Golden Ear, has to say about the evolution of home theater:

  • “The biggest success in the history of home technology is the marriage of audio and video, which gave us home theater.”
  • “Home theater is still evolving as we see larger and larger screens introduced and front projection becoming more affordable combined with better sounding audio.
  • The biggest flop in the history of home technology may be one that we are in the middle of right now: 3D TV.”

Today’s theater: Huge, sleek flat panel with nary an A/V component in sight.


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