Even though I cut my journalistic teeth mixing metaphors for assorted home electronics magazines, it’s been a while since I’ve written a home theater product review. And yes, this will be cross-posted at the PJ Lifestyle blog, where it’s more suited, but veteran readers might enjoy the intro, for a flashback of how we early home theater junkies got our first taste of home media — incredibly addictive first taste, if far from free.
I distinctly remember two mile markers on the road to my obsession with home theater. The first was a 1987 article in Billboard magazine exploring the continuing popularity, against all odds, of the 12-inch laser disc format with movie collectors. The article mentioned an obscure California firm called “The Criterion Collection” that was selling Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey in something called a “letterboxed” format, which would allow seeing the entire frame of those magnificently photographed widescreen movies on a home television set, instead of the “panned and scanned” version, which cut off the sides of the frame. It also mentioned the superiority of the laser disc format compared to fuzzy VHS tapes, and that laser disc allowed for such ancillary items as directors’ commentaries on auxiliary audio channels, behind the scenes still photos, trailers, deleted scenes, and other fun pieces of memorabilia.
This sounded pretty darn awesome. Shortly thereafter, I purchased my first laser disc player, the predecessor to the DVD, which wouldn’t arrive in stores for another decade. At its best, the picture and sound quality of laser discs blew VHS away, and I was quickly hooked. Particularly when I stumbled over a nearby video store that rented laser discs.
The second mile maker arrived two years later. That’s when I walked out of the B. Dalton Bookstore in New Jersey’s Burlington Mall holding a copy of the second issue of Audio/Video Interiors, the magazine that put the words “home theater” on the map. It was essentially Architectural Digest meets Stereo Review, with photo layout after photo layout filled with sophisticated audio and video components beautifully photographed in stunning home settings, including some of the first dedicated home theaters that were designed to look like the classic movie palaces of the 1930s, such as Theo Kalomirakis’ Roxy Theater, a knockout design built in the basement of his Brooklyn Brownstone. (Kalomirakis would go on to make a living as a home theater designer, producing works for extremely well-heeled clients that make his initial Roxy look positively modest by comparison.)
I gravitated more to the media rooms the magazine featured than the dedicated home theaters. Media rooms were rooms designed for a variety of media consumption — music, TV, movies, concert videos, with the electronics tastefully combined into some of sort attractive cabinetry or hidden into the wall. Maybe because my father had a custom built-in unit installed in his basement in 1969 to house his stereo equipment and a small portion of his enormous (3000+) collection of jazz and big band records. Adding video and surround sound to that concept seemed like a natural to me.
I’ve kept most of the issues from Audio/Video Interiors’ initial run; I was immensely proud to have written a few articles for the magazine in the late 1990s. In retrospect, it’s fun to look back at the first issues of AVI, and realize how much technology has progressed since then. HD video replaced “Never Twice the Same Color” low-def analog TV. VHS is all but extinct. Dolby Pro-Logic, the first consumer surround sound format has been upgraded to first Dolby 5.1 and now Dolby 7.1 and beyond. CDs have been rendered increasingly anathema, particularly for casual listening, by MP3s. The laser disc was replaced 15 years ago by the DVD, which has now been supplanted by Blu-Ray, and increasingly, by streaming high-definition movies, such as those offered by Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.
Welcome to 2013
Apologies for burying the lede, but this brings us to one of Pioneer’s newest A/V receivers, the Pioneer Elite SC-75. The first Pioneer receiver I owned was the classic Pioneer VSX-D1S of 1990, one of the first receivers designed with what we now call home theater in mind, with as much emphasis on controlling video components as the CD player, the tape deck and the record player. Since then, Pioneer has been upgrading the electronics of their units to keep pace with changing world of home theater technology. I purchased the SC-75 to replace my Pioneer Elite VSX-72TXV, which was built in 2006. With six years passed, and the proliferation of streaming video set-top boxes such as the Roku (which we reviewed last year), the addition of LAN and wireless networking technology to many Blu-Ray players, the popularization of Androids and iPods/iPads as music and video devices, and the standardization of the HDMI format to connect video components, the SC-75 is a very different beast compared to the previous generation of Pioneer Elite receivers.
The differences aren’t immediately apparent at first glance; the only thing that initially sets the unit apart from its predecessors is its brushed metal finish, instead of the smooth piano black styling of older Pioneer Elite models (Pioneer has apparently also permanently retired the beautiful rosewood-veneered side panels of the first generation of Elite models, which is a pity; on the other hand, perhaps they simply don’t want to be raided by the lumber fascists, ala Gibson.)