Every new venture needs to start somewhere. Although I may not be the only voice you hear around here, this web site is my personal project. I figure that the best place to begin is by telling you who I am and why I hopefully have some credibility writing about the topics this blog covers.
I started my journey with home theater in the early 1990s. As a teenager, I dreamed of becoming a famous director who’d make huge blockbuster movies and win Oscars. I went to the theater as often as possible, and voraciously consumed hundreds of movies on VHS, the dominant home video format at that time. In fact, for most people, VHS tapes and cable TV were basically the only sources available to watch movies at home. I had a 20″ CRT tube television (4:3 aspect ratio, of course) in my bedroom, and I’d sit in front of it for hours every day, studying camera angles and teaching myself the basics of film grammar.
In college, I majored in the film program and made a bunch of student shorts of varying quality, all shot on 16mm. (This was before digital cameras were a realistic option.) I hand-spliced reels of film and edited together my little masterpieces about the profound ennui of being an 18-year-old movie nerd on a Steenbeck. Unfortunately, what those four years really taught me was that I enjoyed watching and studying movies a lot more than I enjoyed making them. By the time I left, I’d become disillusioned with the idea of pursuing filmmaking as a career.
However, college also introduced me to the wonders of the Laserdisc video format. I had the world’s easiest work-study job in the university’s media lab, where I was surrounded with dozens of TVs, VCRs, and not one but two Laserdisc players that almost never got checked out for use by any of the professors. The job entailed a minimal amount of work and a lot of free time to sit and watch movies.
Although the LD format had been available since the late 1970s, it was an expensive and extremely niche item with negligible awareness in the public consciousness of the time. In fact, before college, I’d never even heard of it. While cumbersome and low resolution by modern standards, it was actually a very advanced product for the day, with a video image literally twice the quality of VHS. Those 12″ discs also pioneered a number of home video features we take for granted today, such as digital audio, chapter skipping, alternate audio tracks, and supplementary bonus features. Most importantly, the majority of movies released on Laserdisc were letterboxed to their original theatrical aspect ratios, not panned-and-scanned to fill the TV screen. It was a revelation for me. I became obsessed with the format and rented two discs every single weekday from a shop within walking distance of campus, then spent my evenings watching movies at work. Honestly, that experience taught me more about filmmaking than any of the classes I attended.
After graduation, my future wife bought me a Laserdisc player as a birthday gift, an entry-level Pioneer CLD-S201. It was a no-frills model that required me to manually flip the disc at every side change (an LD could only hold a maximum of one hour of video per disc side), but I was in video heaven. Once I got a real paying job, I started collecting Laserdiscs en masse, acquiring several hundred over time. Before long, I realized that a good video source was only the beginning of the equation, and I would also need a better display to watch the discs on.
Thus began what would become an all-consuming quest to make a home theater in our tiny apartment. For the first attempt, I bought a massive 27″ television that I could barely fit into the back seat of our car, plus a surround sound package of tiny cube speakers that I set on end tables on either side of the living room couch. I eventually upgraded the Laserdisc player through several more advanced models (with automatic side change!) until spending more money than I care to admit importing a top-of-the-line Pioneer HLD-X9 from Japan.
Notably, my love of the LD format also spurred me into my first steps of becoming a home theater writer. I built a fan site called Laserdisc Forever where I wrote about the format and reviewed movies and discs. Sadly, the original site is no longer available on the internet, but I’ve collected most of the articles in the Archive section here. (A Facebook group later borrowed the name, but has no affiliation with my work.)
The DVD Revolution and the Growth of a Home Theater Obsession
As entrenched as I was in my support for the format, it became painfully evident by the late 1990s that Laserdisc’s days were numbered. The shop I’d rented discs from saw the writing on the wall and boarded up its windows at the mere announcement that DVD was coming, a good year before that format even hit retail. I resisted at first, with legitimate reservations. The first wave of DVDs had serious quality issues and many were inferior to their Laserdisc counterparts. Nonetheless, for most consumers, DVD was still a quantum leap improvement over the VHS they knew, and the convenience of it (CD-sized discs! No need for side changes!) was admittedly far better than LD. In seemingly no time at all, Laserdisc withered and died, while DVD ushered in a huge home video boom that swept over the world.
To my relief, DVD ironed out most of its initial quality issues soon enough and proved to be a legitimately evolved product. My first professional writing gig was reviewing movies and discs at the now-defunct DVDFile.com. For a while, the site was one of the most prominent voices on the internet covering the burgeoning home video scene. I can’t take much credit for that; I was just one person working there, but those were heady times.
During my days at that site, I realized that my clunky CRT television just wasn’t getting the most out of DVD’s potential. True HDTVs were still out of my price range, so I considered buying a so-called EDTV (an “Enhanced Definition” 480p television with a 16:9 screen), but the market was dominated by cumbersome rear-projection models that were too impractical for my tiny apartment. I was flummoxed for a solution until a friend educated me on the benefits of using a digital projector. After doing some research, I purchased an NEC LT-240, a business-class XGA resolution model that had a reputation in home theater circles for doing a good job at projecting movies. I tacked some screen material to my wall and was astounded at the results. I couldn’t believe that such a tiny box could produce a huge picture – bigger than any TV I could afford – in the confines of a cramped apartment bedroom. And the quality was good too! It blew my mind.
That little NEC opened up a world of possibilities to me. I started upgrading my sound system and building a real home theater in earnest, or as close as I could come to one in that small space. The NEC gave way to a series of new projectors from 720p to 1080p resolution, until I settled into a love affair with the JVC D-ILA line that continues to this day.
The Great High-Def Format War
I eventually left DVDFile after it was sold to new corporate owners who didn’t have any idea how to run the place. I moved over to DVDTalk.com for a few years, during which time high-definition media exploded onto the scene with two competing video formats: HD DVD, primarily backed by Toshiba and Microsoft; and Blu-ray, primarily backed by Sony. I was an early adopter of both formats and purchased very expensive players for each on their respective launch days.
To be blunt, the Blu-ray launch was very nearly a disaster. The only player available for the first six months of the format’s life was a crappy Samsung model with non-defeatable Digital Noise Reduction active at all times, half of the format’s promised features (such as internet connectivity or Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD lossless audio support) weren’t available for another product generation, and the first wave of discs had mostly lousy video quality with no bonus features carried over from DVD. In comparison, HD DVD came across as a much more polished and finalized product. However, its specs on paper didn’t sound as impressive, the Toshiba players had a tendency to be glitchy, and the format didn’t have support from as many Hollywood studios as Blu-ray did.
For the little more than a year it lasted, the High-Def Format War was a very messy affair, with nasty corporate politics and deceptive business practices on both sides, which spilled over into highly partisan and vitriolic fan bases that sniped at each other on internet forums. I left DVDTalk and transitioned to HighDefDigest.com to cover the fracas. I was one of the rare voices at the time who saw merits in both formats and espoused a stance of product neutrality. To my mind, if the consumer market could accept multiple competing video game consoles, each with its share of exclusive titles, why couldn’t the same apply to movies on high-definition disc? For this, I was widely shouted down, labeled a “Toshiba shill,” and falsely accused of taking bribes. Never once did I accept one penny from either side, and I paid for every piece of equipment I used out of my own pocket. The animosity was so bitter that, to this day, I continue to run into people who still hold grudges that I ever said anything nice about HD DVD.
The format war came to an abrupt end in early 2008 when Warner Bros. pulled its support for HD DVD. Toshiba threw in the towel shortly afterward, leaving Blu-ray with sole ownership of the high-def video market. Thankfully, the format evolved past its early growing pains and matured into a genuinely exceptional product. I currently own well over a thousand titles on Blu-ray disc and treasure them greatly.
To 4K, Streaming, and Beyond
After the fallout from the format war settled down, I continued on at High-Def Digest reviewing Blu-ray discs and answering reader questions in a weekly column called HD Advisor. For a couple years, I also contributed articles and reviews to Home Theater Magazine (which later merged with Sound & Vision after I left) for print publication. Still, High-Def Digest was my primary home for over a dozen years. In 2010, I founded The Bonus View, a blog where I wrote and edited home theater-related content daily for just shy of a decade.
My life underwent a number of significant changes during that time. The wife and I bought a house with enough basement space for me to build a dedicated home theater room with total light control. Though the project was not without its setbacks (some heartbreaking), I invested a lot of money in it and made every effort to do it right, including soundproofing the room, buying a quality screen, and mounting a projector from the ceiling. While I have been very happy with the space, I also feel like it will never really be finished. I’ve upgraded my equipment several times over and installed an elaborate Dolby Atmos sound system with a ridiculous number of speakers beaming from every possible angle. My latest projector is a JVC DLA-NX7 with 4K resolution and High Dynamic Range video. It produces a truly incredible image.
I also had a couple of kids, who quickly overtook any free time I may have once had available. I now have two young boys that I’ve been trying (not always successfully) to introduce to my love of movies.
A brutal budget cut forced me to leave High-Def Digest at the end of 2019, after which I joined Primetimer.com to write about television topics. That work was good, but not terribly frequent. I’ve missed the blog format, which forced me to write every day, overcoming my inclination toward procrastination. I’ve also lacked an outlet to talk about movies, electronics, and other home theater topics with which I’m obsessed.
So here we are, at a new site of my own founding. As I explained in the Mission Statement post, this is a personal endeavor that I expect to start small. Readers who know my previous work may find some repetition at first. My intention is to build a knowledge base of articles about home theater that will hopefully be useful to both beginners starting with flat panels and soundbars or advanced users with high-end equipment and custom-built media rooms. We’ll also talk plenty about movies and TV, and probably venture off into other topics of interest to myself and friends. Once the site has found its footing and settled in for a while, I’ll try to gauge what works best here and what doesn’t.
[In case anyone is puzzled by the image at the top of this post, it comes from a scene in the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, chosen only because it’s a fun movie about writing.]
One thought on “An Introduction… Which Kind of Turned into a Memoir”
I was living in airports and hotels during the laserdisc era and so missed it.
It is a great time to be a movie collector, something I did not expect from the 21st century. Or that classic TV shot on 35mm would be available in such never before seen quality.
It is also the twilight time of physical media and perhaps even cinema itself as we knew it; the long form movie as a self-contained story.