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Essay

The Bigger Picture

He had squandered his life. Would a home theater save him?

September 26, 2004|Martin Booe | Martin Booe last wrote for the magazine about boosting his sex-appeal rating.

Here's how technologically backward I am: Until recently, I kept a hammer by my stereo, which was very old. In fact, I bought the stereo in college. And a fine stereo it was. Kenwood receiver, 100 watts. Mighty KLH speakers. Let me tell you, they don't make them like that anymore.

But a couple of years ago it started showing its age. It fritzed out. The wiring? A loose screw? Maybe it needed a new thingamajig. Unkind people said I should throw it away and buy a new one.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 17, 2004 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
A photo caption that accompanied the article "Seeing the Big Picture" (Home Design Issue, Sept. 26) incorrectly stated that the LG plasma screen was 71 inches. It is 60 inches.

"It's a perfectly good stereo," I would say.

"Yeah, but it doesn't work," people replied.

That's when I put the skeptics in their places. I'd pick up the hammer and give the receiver a couple of love taps. And voila! There was music. So what if the Kenwood looked like it had been left out in a hailstorm?

But even Muhammad Ali could take only so many hits to the head, and one day no amount of banging would bring the Kenwood to life. About the same time, I realized that the captains of industry had just cornered me into buying a DVD player, which I had assiduously resisted. Like a non-native invading species, DVDs had crowded out most of the VHS tapes at my neighborhood video store, so my choices were rapidly dwindling to a half a dozen Indian art films and a few Charlie Chaplin movies. Plus, my CD player had stopped working, and hammer therapy did no good.

I've never considered myself a technophobe--I don't know enough about technology to be afraid of it. But a few weeks ago, I went shopping for home electronics, and I became afraid. Very afraid.

I went to Fry's Electronics and discovered the revolutionary concept of the home theater. Who knew? Amid the din of several dozen competing surround-sound units, I had the startling realization that I was electronically deprived. I saw a young couple cuddling on a divan before a massive home theater setup, the centerpiece of which was a Mitsubishi LCD TV monitor as big as the outdoors. I felt happy for the couple. If they invested in this setup, their life together would be free of such pitfalls as communication and interaction, and they surely would live happily ever after.

By comparison I had squandered much of my life's prime with such empty activities as having dinner with close friends, going on dates, even taking yoga classes--when all the while I could have enveloped myself in a protective cocoon of digital satori. Now it all seemed empty. I needed a home theater of my own! It would be like turning my apartment into an SUV!

So I started shopping. First I had to figure out what kind of television to get. HDTV? Plasma? LCD?

DLP, which stands for digital light processor, is the latest technology, or so I was told. Does that mean the plasma screen is obsolete? What about all those poor college students who gave their plasma to create them? And furthermore, could I live without a 3-D digital comb feature, or is that indispensable? Then I noticed that the Toshiba 26HL83P LCD TV boasted a 1280-by-768 pixel resolution. Is that the video equivalent of 600 thread-count sheets? TiVo, DirecTV, "flat" versus "faux flat" versus "real flat"--these were Philips' offerings, and I had no idea what any of it meant, or if it mattered. I decided to move onto the audio phase.

The Onkyo HT-S670 (5.1-channel receiver, 100 watts, five satellite speakers, 150-watt subwoofer, Wide Range Amplifier Technology) seemed like a bargain at $349. Even though I had no idea what any of those specs meant, I was pretty sure they would move me a couple of squares closer to world domination.

The thing was, it would solve one feng shui problem but create another. At my house, I had a TV plugged into a cable box, and separate from it, a now-incomplete stereo rig. It took up a lot of space, and it was unsightly. With home theater, I could consolidate these elements into one unit. But there were two hitches. The darn thing had five speakers and a subwoofer. I guess that's the idea of surround sound. So what if I had to get rid of my bookshelves and most of my furniture?

But there was one other thing. Overwhelmed as I was, I had the presence of mind to ask a salesmen if I could plug my turntable into the Onkyo home theater.

"Turntable?"

"You know. Records. Vinyl."

He shook his head sadly. "No. You must have a separate receiver. There is no input for turntables."

"And separate speakers?"

"Well, yes."

My dream of consolidation went up in smoke. I could not live in a world where I could not play "Boom Boom Mancini" on vinyl.

At that moment, I was startled out of my ruminations by the sound of a monolithic high-definition television toppling off a shelf and crushing a young woman. I heard the shattering of glass and a hysterical scream followed by muffled whimpers. I rushed to the back of the store, about to heroically rip off my shirt for a tourniquet. But, of course, I was mistaken. It was that darn surround sound.

Nerves fraying, I bought a $25 DVD player, but discovered that my TV was too old for DVD. A $30 converter from Radio Shack took care of that. Then a friend, recently converted to home theater, gave me his stereo receiver. I don't know how it will hold up when the time comes to apply the hammer, but for now all is well in the kingdom.

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