Home Theater – Useful Add-ons
Since I’m posting this blog in late November and we are now in the holiday shopping season, the focus of this blog is on a few useful accessories/devices for a home theater system. I’m not talking about projectors or screens, or even AV receivers. Rather, I’m talking about a few items the new or exiting home theater owner might want to have on their wish list.
Programmable/Learning Remote Controls
There is already an overview of programmable remote controls (Click HERE) on the Projector Reviews web site. While there are quite a few manufacturers of very low cost remotes that are sold as universal remotes, that permit you to control several different devices, my focus here is about more capable remotes that allow to control your home theater as an integrated system, and not just control the individual components within that system. Logitech makes what is perhaps the most popular line of such remotes and I will use their remotes as an example of a relatively low-to-moderate cost solution for controlling your home theater system. These Logitech remotes are sold under the HarmonyTM product name (their web site is HERE). While there are some really low cost Harmony remotes being sold, the current models capable of controlling a modest home theater system start at just under $80 MSRP (e.g., Model 650). More complex home theater systems require a higher-end model, such as the popular “Harmony OneTM” ($199 SRP), pictured below.
The Harmony remotes are programmed on your computer (PC or MAC) using Logitech software (provided with some remotes or can be downloaded from the Logitech web site) that connects via the internet to the Logitech-Harmony site. This on-line service includes a data base of the remote commands for vast array of electronic devices. In the event your home theater system includes a device (or specific command) that is not in the Logitech data base then, with your Harmony remote connected via USB to your PC or MAC, you can record the commands from your device’s original infrared remote control.
Using the Logitech Harmony program installed on a PC or MAC you first select and install the remote command set for each of your devices (those equipped with a remote control) that make up your home theater system. In most cases your devices will already be listed in the Logitech’s online data base and if not there may be a very similar model listed which uses the same remote commands. For example, if you have recently purchased a new model of Blu-ray Disc player, it probably will use the same remote commands as the prior year’s model. In case a compatible device is not found, then you will need to take the time to learn the essential remote commands from the device’s original remote. While the lower-end Harmony model 650 supports a maximum of 5 devices, the higher-end models (e.g. as the Harmony One, the Model 900 and Model 1100) support up to 15 devices.
Once the commands have been added for each of the electronic devices that make up your system, you can then create what Logitech calls “Activities”. Activities can be defined for such things as “Watch TV”, “Play Movie”, “Listen to FM”, or whatever else you decide. For each activity you define which devices within your system are used and how each device is configured. For example let’s assume for the “Watch TV” activity your home theater uses a Cable TV set-top-box connected via HDMI to a AV Receiver and the output from the AV Receiver is connected via HDMI to a video projector. For this example you would use your Harmony remote to select “Watch TV” and the remote would send the commands to turn on your Cable TV box, AV Receiver (AVR) and Projector and to selected the correct HDMI input for the AV Receiver, and the correct HDMI input selected for the projector. In this simple example the Harmony remote will need to send a series of commands to each the cable TV box, the AVR and to the projector. For your part, you only need to use the Logitech program on your computer to identify the required system configuration for each activity.
There are a number of things that can make the required operation of the Harmony remote more complex. One complexity that the Harmony remote automatically deals with is going directly from one activity to another, such as from watching a movie using your Blu-ray Disc player as the source device then going to the previously described “Watch TV” activity. In this case the projector and AVR are already turned on, but the Harmony must send the commands to select the correct HDMI input on the AVR and perhaps also a different HDMI input on the projector. Also when transitioning between these two different activities the Blu-ray Disc player’s power should be turned off and the power for the cable box needs to be turned on.
Additional complications may arise as the result of limitations of the available remote control commands that can be accepted by some electronic devices. One such issue is if you have one or more devices that have only a single toggle remote command that alternates the power on or off rather than having individual discrete commands for power on and for power off. The Harmony will attempt to keep track if the device is already on or off when it is called upon to either turn a device on or off, but a single missed command between the remote and the device can get the remote and the device out of sync. This is not a potential issue unique to Harmony remotes as this can be an issue with any programmable remote providing system-level control. A similar issue can arise when a device, such as an AV receiver or a projector, lacks discrete remote commands to select the specific signal input. In some cases where the original remote supplied with the electronic device lacks separate buttons for power on vs. power off and/or for each signal input, the component itself may actually accept discrete inputs. As a result it is not unusual for the Harmony data base to include additional discrete remote commands beyond what is supported by the device’s original remote.
With the Harmony remotes, when an activity is created the Logitech software on the computer will assign functions to the remote’s buttons and also assign functions to the “soft buttons” (i.e., displayed on the LCD screen of the remote). You will normally want to modify several of these to better suit how you want to control your system so that frequently used functions can be easily accessed. This reassignment of functions to the remote’s buttons is easily accomplished via your computer using the Logitech software.
Once you have used the Logitech software tool to define your configuration to include all devices and all desired activities you can save your configuration (saved on Logitech’s server) and to then download the configuration into your remote (connected to your PC or MAC via a USB cable).
I’ve used more than half a dozen different models of Harmony remotes over the past 6 years and generally have found that over the first couple of weeks of use I will usually find a few things that need to be either corrected or additional commands that would be useful to add. The Logitech approach makes it relatively easy to implement the desired changes to an existing configuration.
Video Image Enhancer
In Art’s recent reviews of the Sony VPL-HW50ES and the Epson Home Cinema 5020UB he describes each of these projectors feature to digitally process the video to create the appearance of a increased details in the projected image. Sony calls their detail enhancement function “Reality Creation” while Epson’s detail enhancement function is called “Super Resolution”. Both the Sony and Epson detail enhancement functions are far more effective than the simple sharpness control found on virtually all TVs for the past few decades. Art found the Sony approach more effective than Epson’s when he wrote:
“True, Epson has Super-Resolution – it’s in the game, but Sony is far more effective. Sony’s raised the bar If you use Reality creation in modest doses (20-35 is about all I’ll use out of 100), it does produce what seems to be a sharper, crisper image.”
There is now a modestly priced add-on video processor box that offers a very sophisticated detail enhancement capability that can be used with any modern 1080p projector. The DarbeeVision Darblet is a nifty little single purpose video processor that is capable of increasing the apparent details and contrast for the areas of the image exhibiting fine structures/textures.
The Darblet has a MSRP of under $350 and is capable of providing a subjective improvement to the image details, especially if the connected projector already produces a high quality 1080p image. A few months ago I had about an hour to evaluate a Darblet connected to the superb Sony VPL-VW1000ES projector (with the Sony doing its own 1080p to 4K upscaling for display). The input source was a Blu-ray Disc and I observed the Darblet’s ability to provide detail enhancement in both 2D and 3D modes. For some scenes the effect of the Darblet was not so obvious while in other scenes where there were very fine details or textures present (such as the details visible in a person’s hair or the visible texture of the clothing worn by the actors) the effect of the Darblet was much more obvious. The Darblet lets the user set the level of detail enhancement and a setting in the range of 40 to 45 seems to produce improvements to the perceived details without introducing noticeable noise or other objectionable processing artifacts. Several Darblet owners that are lucky enough to also own a Sony VW1000 have reported success in using the Darblet (with the above suggested setting) in combination with the projector’s Reality Creation feature (when the Reality Creation is set to provide a only modest level of enhancement). The Darblet is a relatively low cost home theater addition capable of making images from your 1080p projector look even better.
Simplifying the Transition to 3D
If you are replacing (or have recently replaced) your video projector with a model that supports 3D, then you may run into one of the more common issues for home theater owners. This is the lack of 3D support by the existing electronic devices in the video signal path. While all but the lest expensive entry-level AV Receivers (AVRs) now incorporate HDMI 1.4 inputs/output and will at least pass-through 3D signals, older HDMI equipped AVRs and Preamps/Processors (Pre/Pro) typically had HDMI 1.2 or 1.3 inputs which do not generally support 3D signals. Since Blu-ray 3D is the highest quality source of 3D, this is also the most important 3D source for most home theater owners. There are now several available Blu-ray 3D players featuring dual HDMI outputs that are intended to offer a work around for those situations where the home theater system has a perfectly good AVR or Pre/Pro that has HDMI 1.3 (or 1.3a) inputs. With this type of Blu-ray 3D player one HDMI output can be connected directly to a 3D capable video projector and the player’s second HDMI output is then connected to a HDMI input on the older generation AVR or Pre/Pro (e.g., with HDMI 1.3 inputs). With this setup the 3D video signal is sent from the Blu-ray player to the projector via a HDMI 1.4 connection and the audio signal is simultaneously sent to the AVR using the HDMI format supported by that AVR (e.g, HDMI 1.3).
Panasonic offers their model DMP-BDT320 player ($199 MSRP) and their flagship model DMP-BDT500 ($349 MSRP). Sony offers their model BDP-S790 ($249 MSRP) while Samsung offers their model BD-E6500 ($229 MSRP) player. Oppo, a long favorite among home theater enthusiasts, offers their new models BDP-103 ($499 MSRP) and the BDP-105 ($1199 MSRP). Any of the above players offers a simplified transition path for enabling 3D without the expense of replacing your HDMI equipped AVR or Preamp/Processor.
A few of the above Blu-ray player models go even further toward accommodating older AVRs and Pre/Pro devices by also including discrete 7.1 channel analog outputs. Such Blu-ray players can be used with older AVRs and Pre/Pros that have an external 7.1 (or 5.1) analog input but lack HDMI inputs, or only have pre- ver. 1.3 HDMI inputs and does not offer decoding of the lossless audio formats found on most Blu-ray discs. Blu-ray disc players with this feature include the Panasonic DMP-BDT500 and both Oppo models listed above.
The other consideration with making the transition to 3D is the type of HDMI cables being used. All HDMI cables are now classified as either “standard speed” or “high speed.” HDMI cables certified as “high speed” should have the bandwidth to support the demands of 3D including the link from the Blu-ray 3D player to an AVR or to a 3D capable video projector. However, that does not mean that certain cables classified as standard speed will not be able to support 3D. Generally when you are upgrading to 3D you wait to see if your existing HDMI cables actually work with the new equipment. However, you should only purchase HDMI cables certified as “high speed” for any new HDMI cables needed to connect up new devices in your system. If an existing HDMI cable does not have sufficient bandwidth to support 3D, then you typically will see either “sparklies” (random noise) in the projected 3D image or simply a blank screen, perhaps with a “no signal” on-screen message being displayed. When doing a system upgrade, it’s handy to have one or two high speed HDMI cables on hand so you can replace the exiting cables one at a time to find which one(s) is not able to support the extra bandwidth requirements of the 3D signal.