So what takes our number one spot? The humble Digital Versatile Disc – a format that was first shown in 1995, hit shelves in 1997, and is still going strong today. DVD’s impact simply cannot be understated. It took the idea of digital delivery of movies, found in specialist AV setups courtesy of Laserdisc, and democratized it. Flipping the disc halfway through a movie was soon on the way out, the packaging was no longer unwieldy and prices plummeted. And for the non-techie population, DVD replaced the quality-starved, user-unfriendly VHS, introducing sharper images and cinematic surround sound. DVD collections – including TV boxsets – rapidly sprung up all over the country. And none of us have yet thrown them out.
Dolby Digital 5.1
Discrete domestic surround sound was born in 1995 with the introduction of Dolby Digital/AC3 and we’ve never looked back. Adding in a second surround channel and a dedicated LFE track (compared to the previous matrix-based Dolby Surround format) turned film mixes into pure immersive, thundering bliss. And with Hollywood fully behind the concept (it kicked things off theatrically and in style with Batman Returns in 1992) there’s never been a shortage of software, fi rst with Laserdisc then DVD and beyond. Since then DTS has joined the party, and channel numbers have been upped to 7.1 and more. Is home cinema even home cinema without multichannel audio? The short answer is ‘no’.
Gone but not forgotten – plasma TVs were on the wishlist of all AV fans from their 1997 UK debut with Fujitsu’s PDS4201E-H right up to their retirement last year. Initially not necessarily because they off ered the biggest screen size (rear-projection sets were hitting 50in+ when 42in was the biggest PDP size), but because they catered for wall-mounting. Screen sizes eventually grew to monstrous (150in, anyone?) and picture quality improved dramatically from the first-gen screens, with plasma’s strengths versus LCD (greater contrast ratio, better viewing angle, retained motion resolution and lack of backlight irregularities) being realised. Screen burn? Merely an occupational hazard. And then came Pioneer’s Kuro – a majestic TV range so in tune with the demands of film fans that many argue it’s never been bettered.
Yes, we know that TiVo was the originator of the hard drive-based PVR, but satcaster Sky brought the concept to the masses with its debut Sky+ set-top box in 2002. First-gen models packed a whopping 40GB HDD allowing you to archive no more than around 10 movies – capacity these days is 2TB. There’s more than one-touch recording to celebrate here, however. Back in 2006, hi-def transmission was added to the Sky feature roster. Movies! Sports! Unparalleled picture quality! It was enough to make you ascend a ladder and see where a dish could be installed on your house. This, indeed, is where Sky earns it spot in our pantheon of innovation – its Sky+HD platform has never been anything less than forward-thinking, be it with 3D, pay-per-view, catch-up TV or Sky Go.
Sony PlayStation 3
The third iteration of Sony’s gaming console did so much more than allow joystick junkies to play Gran Turismo – it acted as a home entertainment hub that appealed to forward-thinking AV hedz and proved remarkably adept at rising to new challenges during its eight-year lifespan. As an example, the PS3 was the first Blu-ray player that HCC ever tested, bringing HD disc playback to our home cinemas before any other brand. And a few years later, when consumers were told they would have to upgrade their BD deck to support 3D formats, all the PS3 required was a firmware update. Add in its other features – SACD support, disc ripping, DLNA networking – and the console looks like even more of a genuine technological powerhouse.
The new boy on the format block, Ultra HD (or 4K if you want) is yet to mature into a game changer, but it surely will. By the beginning of next year there will be VOD, disc and IPTV options available to UHD screen owners, relegating 1080p to the AV attic. This tech isn’t new, though – studios have been mastering fi lms at 4K resolution for years. It’s the opportunity to experience pixel-perfect iterations of movie classics that has us champing at the bit. And standing in UHD’s favour is the hardware support – compatible TVs now range in size from 40 in to 85 in. If you don’t own one, you soon will.
How do you introduce someone to the wonderful world of home cinema? Give them everything they need (expect the display, admittedly) in one box and slap an enticing price tag on it. This is the brilliance of all-in-one home cinema systems, combining a player, amplifier and speaker setup into a small scale package. During the DVD boom around the turn of the century, such systems were everywhere and flying off shelves, acting as that first rung on the ladder to AV nirvana. Blu-ray-based packages still provide the same function in 2015, but soundbars have certainly stolen their thunder.
Where would we be without Blu-ray? Watching HD DVD probably… Okay, format wars aside, Blu-ray has been the focal point of our hobby for almost a decade, introducing a step-up in image quality over previous formats that’s so obvious you’d need to have your eyes shut to not notice. Yes, we all can reel off some of the format’s foibles (from region-coding and slow loading times to missing titles and profile upgrades) but you can’t argue with its visual charms. And the rapid price erosion of BD hardware since those fi rst-gen players of 2006 means anyone can afford to own a deck.
The undoubted success story of the video-on-demand generation, streaming giant Netflix – we’re repeatedly told – has ‘changed the way we watch TV’. While this is certainly true for many when it comes to series programming (not so much with movies, let’s be honest – the catalogue is somewhat limited), it’s Netfl ix’s innovative nature that appeals the most to us. The company that started life as a DVD-rental-by-post operation introduced its streaming only subscription in 2010, and has since led the industry in terms of hi-def and 5.1 audio provision, proving that video-on-demand doesn’t have to be an AV quality dead zone. Furthermore, Netflix became the first avenue for 4K TV owners in the UK to stream native UHD content and is soon to add HDR (High Dynamic Range) to its tech roster.
These days we’re used to the idea of a hemispherical soundfield thanks to the Dolby Atmos and Auro3D formats, but audio marque Yamaha has a good claim to being an early forerunner to these next-gen experiences – it was including presence channel outputs and the associated DSP in its home theatre receivers back when Atmos was unheard of. And no model was more revolutionary than 2008’s DSP-Z11 fl agship. This 11-channel behemoth allowed for a 7.1 system to be run with two front height speakers and two rear height speakers, creating (as we said in our review back then) ‘a three-dimensional space that far transcends actual room boundaries.’ And you could get it in a gold finish, too.