Debate: Is showtime over for home cinema?

posted on Saturday, 23rd November 2013 by Steve May

AWE Europe  Karma-av  Habitech  Invision UK 

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Are consumers finally turning a deaf ear to 5.1 home cinema sound? Once the driving force behind home theatre installs, 5.1 surround no longer seems to excite the public the way it once did. It's now single enclosure speakers, be they wireless systems or soundbars, gaining all the traction. To learn more we invited representatives from AWE Europe, CEDIA, Invision UK, Habitech, Karma-AV, Yamaha and Sony to debate if the bubble really has burst for multi-channel cinema sound.

When it comes to home audio, wireless multi-room and soundbars seem to be driving the market. So is the custom install business finally moving away from 5.1?

Kris Hogg, CEDIA Vice Chair: "I think in general terms 5.1 used to be the target point for living rooms and home cinemas, I believe we have seen a shift away from 5.1 in both areas with sound bars taking revenue away in the living rooms and the dedicated home cinema now having as a minimum 7.1 systems installed. The phrase 5.1 still gets thrown around but it's almost like it now the definition of a multi-channel system rather than a definition of the actual set up."

Paul Mott, Sales Director at AWE Europe: "There's a big growth in sales of 65-inch plus screen sizes and the audio to match. The biggest business change is the way the content is delivered: streaming and catch up rather than disc-based. We've unfortunately seen the results of this already with retailers like HMV and Blockbuster disappearing from many towns…  

Chris Wray, Product Specialist, Yamaha: "For us, 5.1 home cinema and AV Receivers remain our bread and butter. We were the first company to make the surround processor as we understand it today; the DSP-1 was this all encompassing awe-inspiring product that everyone aspired to have. Over time we've become more sophisticated with it all, packing processing and power into just one box. Surround sound is still where the true home theatre lies. Speaking as the number 1 AV receiver brand in the UK market today (according to recent GFK statistics), we can see that people still want high quality surround audio. Our current CinemaDSP processing is second to none - all our CinemaDSP modes are based on real venues and places so you can be assured that what you're listening to is realistic, based on real data from a real situation and place. Ultimately, what this means is that you can make a room grow double in size by simply enabling a CinemaDSP mode!"

So are you saying home theatres are as desirable now as they once were?

Kris Hogg, CEDIA: "Actually I think they are more desirable now than ever before! Our enquiry rate has risen dramatically and we are seeing key drivers such as clients wanting the convenience and anonymity of their own cinema, sales of devices like Kaleidescape have been growing and these devices are helping add a level of convenience to these rooms. Our biggest opportunity is also coming with the introduction of 4k Ultra HD projectors so we will not only get new installation business but a great upgrade opportunity for existing installations."

Paul Mott, AWE Europe: "We think the big Smart TVs are the growth in this area, maybe at the expense of projection. But the experience is about more than just home cinema. It's games and a portal to online social media as well.

Timmi Thorsen, Sales Manager, Habitech: "It really depends on whether you're talking dedicated rooms or dovetailing cinema into day-to-day spaces like living rooms. Here the dominance of large, all-singing TVs and smart 3D soundbars have encouraged the market toward one-box solutions and away from traditional sat/sub setups, but we've found that the 'wow' factor of invisible in-wall/ceiling speakers, like those from Sonance, has given genuine discrete multi-channel sound a way to fight back. It really boils down to cost. If you want high quality sound and pictures - the real home cinema experience - in existing spaces or a dedicated room, you have to pay a little more. In our experience, the desire for luxury is still high."

Ian Severs, Karma-AV: "The benefits of a dedicated cinema space are well understood and in our experience there are customers prepared to pay a premium price for the likes of Synthesis systems, high performance screens and projectors. We don't detect a waning interest in the idea of high quality cinema sound and pictures, but not everyone has the space or budget for this, so you have to get ever more creative in getting sound to integrate with the room. A good example is the Cornered Audio range of triangular speakers, which although on-wall fit snugly into corners and wall-ceiling boundaries for a very discreet result…"

Mark Taylor, Business Manager, Invision UK: "Quality home cinema installations are still a major part any install and I would agree that the introduction of 4K UHD has only boosted this - a quality home cinema should be the showpiece of the install. We are still seeing significant growth in home cinemas, and with our unrivalled portfolio we can fill most of the requirements for a stunning experience. I believe the explosion of soundbars is largely due to the reduction in quality of TV speakers as the manufacturers strive to make the thinnest TV possible…"

But is the trend toward simple soundbars indicative of a growing lack of interest in multichannel audio?

Kris Hogg, CEDIA: "I think that we need to segregate the definition of home cinemas and home theatre before we answer this, the major branded electronics companies tend to market 5.1 systems as a 'home theatre' system and I think that in this market space then there has been a swing to soundbars, as these now offer an alternative to a consumer simply looking for a better sound in their living room. There's also been an upswing in these devices being installed in other rooms, so I feel that what we are seeing is another market sector for an audio improvement unit for secondary rooms rather than a swing to sound bars in general.

Paul Mott, AWE Europe: "Actually I think the huge market growth in sales of soundbar shows people really care about quality of sound. It's no bad thing! Certainly consumers want their flat panel TV to be ultra-thin and this makes it very difficult to deliver good quality audio. The soundbar has given multiples and department stores an easier way than ever to sell the sound upgrade with the TV. For custom installers, the soundbar is a simple solution for certain rooms where 5.1 is difficult to place and maybe a little overkill..."

Kris Hogg, CEDIA: "I really don't believe there is a lack of interest in multichannel home cinemas. We are seeing more and more enquiries for dedicated cinema or media rooms, all of which get specified with a multichannel audio system."

Kulwinder Singh Rai, Product Development Consultant, Onkyo: "I think most consumers have now understood that the advent of thin TVs invariably means relatively thin quality sound. It's seen as an inevitable compromise. As a solution to that, soundbars are conceptually easier to understand (and accommodate!) than full 5.1 systems so it's hardly surprising that they are seeing such strong sales growth."  

Mike Somerset, Product Marketing Manager HAV, Sony: "Customers do buy soundbars to improve TV audio, but that's definitely not the only reason. Consumers purchase soundbars separately from their TVs as well. Sometimes as an upgrade to an existing sound system, and other times as an all-round music system for living rooms. Many console games offer detailed and immersive soundtracks, so some consumers turn to products like soundbar products to get the most from their games."

Paul Mott, AWE Europe: "Ultimately, where it matters, the custom installer can deliver more functionality, It's why we continue to sell so many AV receivers, with easy to use remotes from URC and innovative speaker solutions like the KEF T series. A custom installer can always offer better sound and even more discrete audio options."  

Featured install image courtesy of Sphere Custom.

Also read:
Interview: AWE and the future of custom install

Industry roundtable: Top TV technology trends

Interview: Arcam and the art of custom install

Steve May

Steve is a veteran of the UK consumer electronics industry, having covered it for
various media outlets for more than 20 years.

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