Contact us
Close contact box

The evolution of home theater

Crutchfield's take

If '70s-era movie fans could have time-traveled to the present day, they'd have been astonished by the picture and sound quality available in today's movie theaters and home theaters. It's been a long road, with home theater gear sometimes trailing and sometimes surpassing the movie theater experience.

Until well into the 1970s, movie theater sound was mono. Dolby® Stereo was introduced in 1975 and had its real breakthrough with the release of Star Wars in 1977.

In the space allotted for the conventional mono track were two soundtracks that could carry not only left and right channel information, but also, by means of a matrix encoding process, a third, center-screen channel, plus a fourth surround channel for ambient sound and special effects.

If you're old enough, you might remember big-budget films released throughout the '70s and '80s with the tag line "70mm and 6-track Dolby Stereo" splashed across posters and newspaper ads. Those films represented the state-of-the-art movie theater experience of that period.

Home theater introduced at Crutchfield

When Bill Crutchfield started this company in 1974, and for the first several years of our existence, Crutchfield was strictly a car stereo retailer. In fact, until the early '80s, our catalogs said "Car Stereo Buyer's Guide" in big letters right on the cover.

Our Winter/Spring 1981 catalog featured a few pages of home audio rack systems and portables, but it wasn't until a couple of years later, after the introduction of HiFi stereo VCRs and stereo TV broadcasts, that we began to put home audio and video together in a serious way.

Our Winter/Spring 1983 catalog introduced the concept of a then cutting-edge entertainment system we called "The Pleasure Center." The components included "a high resolution 19" color TV, a stereo VCR, a stereo video disc player, an AM/FM stereo receiver" and a few other audio items like a turntable. The entire system could be purchased for about $3,400 back then (over $7,600 in today's dollars).

As our home audio/video buyer, Jim Richardson, wrote at the time, "No home should be without its own pleasure center."

old Crutchfield catalog page featuring an early home theater concept

What a concept! Alas, we neglected to trademark "The Pleasure Center."

If our '70s-era time-travelers took a tour of today's Crutchfield website, they'd find TVs with screens up to 98", and 4K or even 8K screen resolution, as well as 4K digital projectors. And home theater receivers with the power and processing to handle up to a dozen speakers, including side, rear, and overhead effects speakers, plus one or two subwoofers.

These technologies create a home theater experience that rivals or even surpasses typical movie theaters, in every way but size. Getting to today's amazing picture and sound quality took time, and the innovations often came in fits and starts rather than a smooth power glide.

The TV/projector side of home theater didn't see many major changes until the late '90s, so we'll focus first on what was happening with audio/video sources.

Home theater audio (1983 - 1992)

Although Dolby® Surround was introduced in theaters in the mid-'70s, it took nearly a decade for surround sound to become viable for home theater. The introduction of HiFi stereo VCRs enabled a leap in sound quality. Mono VCRs had frequency response of 70-10,000 Hz, while HiFi VCRs provided full 20-20,000 Hz response.

An early surround sound receiver.

Make no mistake. The text on the front of this receiver proudly screams SURROUND!

Looking at one of our 1987 catalogs, we had only one A/V receiver with built-in Dolby Surround decoding. We also offered stand-alone Dolby processors that could be added to existing systems to create surround sound. Dolby Surround was a 4-channel system: right and left fronts, a center channel for dialogue, and a single surround channel that was split and sent to a pair of surround speakers.

Launched in 1987, Dolby Pro Logic wasn't a different surround sound format, but rather an improved method for processing existing Dolby soundtracks. A Pro Logic decoder used "steering logic" to raise and lower the volume of each channel independently, providing more precise placement of dialogue, music, and effects.

Dolby Digital — A surround sound breakthrough

Dolby Surround and Pro Logic were analog audio technologies that tried to make the most of two matrixed channels of sound — four channels of sound squeezed into two channels, then unfolded by the processor during playback.

As its name suggests, Dolby Digital employs digital audio to create surround sound with six separate or "discrete" channels — front right, left, and center, independent right and left surrounds, plus an LFE (low-frequency effects) channel to feed a subwoofer.

This system provided a huge improvement in overall sound quality, with much higher signal-to-noise and channel separation, as well as much more precise placement of sounds. This "5.1-channel" configuration is still the most popular surround sound setup.

In 1992, Batman Returns was the first theatrical movie released in Dolby Digital. Although Dolby Digital soundtracks eventually found their way to home theater via laserdiscs, the format didn't really take off until the launch of DVD in 1997.

Dolby Digital was the standard audio format for DVD. The first Dolby Digital components were stand-alone processors that had to be connected to an A/V receiver. Receivers with built-in Dolby Digital processing quickly followed.

Old catalog scan

In 1996 we created The Crutchfield Audio-Video Reference. It combined a wealth of A/V system hook-up info and diagrams with hundreds of color-coded CableLabels, plus a detailed guide to speaker placement and acoustic room treatment.

DVD arrives, and watching movies at home would never be the same

The biggest home theater news in 1997 was the introduction of DVD discs and players. DVDs not only provided a higher resolution picture (720 x 480 pixels) but also featured 5.1-channel digital surround sound on most titles via Dolby® Digital and/or DTS. DVD's picture was twice as sharp as VHS tape and sharper than laserdisc — the reference-quality source at the time.

A DVD could fit a 2-hour movie on a single disc side, and when you were finished watching a movie, you didn't have to rewind it! In the early days of DVD, the discs weren't easy to find or buy, so Crutchfield carried a selection of a few hundred titles.

old catalog scan

The introduction of DVD in 1997 remains one of the most important technological innovations for home theater. It provided crystal-clear digital picture and sound, and it was more convenient to use than the analog videotape and laserdisc formats it replaced.

In 1999, two DVD-based high-resolution audio formats were introduced: DVD-Audio and SACD (Super Audio CD). Although many DVD-Audio and SACD discs were in stereo, these were the first formats since quadraphonic to attempt to bring multichannel surround music into the home. DVD-Audio only lasted for a few years, but SACD is still around today, although interest in the format is mostly limited to the audiophile community.

The high definition era arrives

Although it took the better part of a decade to roll out, the transition to digital TV broadcasts in the U.S., and especially HD broadcasts, really raised the bar for TV picture quality. The first limited HDTV broadcasts began in 1996 on a few pioneering TV stations, like WRAL in Raleigh, NC. By 1999 the station was broadcasting CBS's nightly primetime lineup in HD.

The mandatory nationwide transition from analog to digital TV broadcasts was a unique event for both the broadcasting and consumer electronics industries. A change of that magnitude takes time, and the final deadline for all of the nation's TV stations to fully switch to digital and shut off their analog signals didn't arrive until June 2009.

For the first few years of the HD transition, Crutchfield still sold more conventional tube (CRT) TVs than the newfangled flat-panel plasma and LCD TVs. Those early flat-panel TVs were super expensive, with picture quality that outperformed tube TVs in some ways, but was unimpressive by today's standards.

old catalog scan

In the early years of the transition to digital HDTV, Crutchfield's catalogs and website were among the most dependable sources of accurate, in-depth information.

I can remember attending a Consumer Electronics Show in the late 90s, and seeing $25,000 50" plasma TVs that looked pretty bad. The picture was pixilated and suffered from lots of other artifacts. Barely watchable compared to even the cheapest TVs available today.

It may have been at that same CES that I saw my first great-looking over-the-air HDTV broadcast. The demo was run by video guru Joe Kane, and it featured a live 720p broadcast of one of ABC's morning shows, projected on a screen using a tweaked-out CRT projector. The clarity, color, and overall realism were simply breathtaking. I still remember it vividly.

High-definition discs: HD DVD and Blu-ray

The next real home theater breakthrough came with yet another format war. This time the combatants were HD DVD, introduced in April 2006 and backed by a consortium of hardware and content providers led by Toshiba and Warner Media, versus the Sony-backed Blu-ray Disc, introduced in June 2006.

old catalog scan

HD DVD and Blu-ray were the first high-definition disc formats for watching movies at home.

Both HD DVD and Blu-ray could store much more information than a DVD, due to having smaller data pits on the disc and using a blue laser with a tighter beam. Both formats offered reference-quality picture — full HD 1080p — and terrific sound quality extending up to 7.1 channels of lossless compressed audio via Dolby® TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.

Having lost the Beta/VHS videotape format war years earlier, Sony was determined not to lose the battle of the high-def disc. This time they prevailed, and Blu-ray is still going strong today. HD DVD's brief life ended in 2008.

One challenge with all this high-definition goodness was, how to get these incredibly high-quality, high-bandwidth signals from the Blu-ray player to a TV and/or A/V receiver. No analog connections could support those high data rates. The answer was HDMI.

old catalog scan

HDMI connections on TVs, projectors, disc players, set-top boxes, etc. made it possible to send high-resolution video and multichannel audio over a single cable.

The HDMI standard was introduced in 2002. Initially, this all-digital, copy-protected, single-cable connection was designed to carry DVD picture and sound, but its capabilities expanded over the years to meet the needs of higher-resolution video and audio formats.

HDMI cables are still essential for connecting home theater gear. The newest HDMI version — 2.1 — is designed to handle 8K video.

The rise of high-definition TVs and projectors

We've looked at developments on the sound side of home theater, and discussed several of the key sources, moving from broadcasts to tapes to discs. Now it's TV's turn. Although TVs and projectors lagged in the transition to digital high-definition entertainment, the past twenty years have brought an incredible transformation of the home viewing experience.

Up until the late '90s, TVs were entirely based on CRT (cathode-ray tube) technology. That was true whether it was the single large picture tube in a TV, or the separate red, green, and blue CRT "guns" of front- and rear-projection displays.

CRTs were capable of producing beautiful high-def images, but they could get expensive, even for screen sizes that seem small by today's standards. And CRT-based projection systems were large, heavy, and often required regular maintenance.

The early 2000s was a period of seismic shifts in TVs, accompanied by much confusion in the marketplace. TV shoppers could still find conventional non-HD tube TVs alongside super-thin flat-panel TVs based on plasma or LCD display technology. Besides finally fulfilling the sci-fi cliche of a TV you could hang on a wall, the shift to digital display technologies offered picture quality advantages, too.

Shopping for a TV became an exercise in deciphering an alphabet soup of terms and technologies, many of which have disappeared over the years. In these early years of HDTV, Crutchfield's catalogs and website were dependable sources of clear, accurate explanations of the various options available.

  • Conventional tube TVs: 330-line vertical screen resolution
  • EDTVs (Enhanced-Definition TVs): 480p screen resolution
  • HDTV-Ready TVs: 720p or 1080i screen resolution, but no built-in tuner for HD broadcasts
  • HDTVs: 720p or 1080i screen resolution with built-in tuner for over-the-air HD broadcasts

Flipping through a catalog from 2003, our TV mix was still equally split between models with the conventional squarish 4:3 aspect ratio, and the HD-oriented widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio. The most common HD-compatible input on these sets was analog component video, although a few also featured DVI, a large multi-pin digital connector that was a precursor to HDMI.

And, oh yeah, the prices! This same 2003 catalog featured a 29" Samsung LCD HDTV for $5,000, and a 43" Pioneer plasma for $8,000. In the following years, the prices of flat-panel TVs dropped significantly, to the point where they outsold CRT TVs in 2007.

HDTV was the "law of the land" after the official analog signal shut-off in 2009, and that, along with the earlier launch of high-definition Blu-ray discs, ushered in the era of high-definition home theater that brought the home viewing experience much closer to a movie theater experience.

Old Crutchfield catalog page featuring a rear projection TV.

Interior decorator's nightmare: a giant, floor-space-hogging projection TV cabinet.

As "direct view" TVs improved by leaps and bounds, so did front- and rear-projection displays. They also abandoned CRT technology in favor of digital "microdisplays" — postage-stamp-sized imaging chips with up to two million pixels, capable of showing 1080 HD signals at full resolution. These chips used LCD, DLP (Digital Light Processing), or LCoS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon) display technology.

Although rear-projection TVs of this period offered similar picture quality to LCD and plasma TVs, they were still relatively bulky and definitely couldn't match the slender, decor-friendly design of flat-panel models. That led to rear-projection TVs being phased out around 2012.

But front projectors saw a surge in popularity, as compact, lightweight HD-capable models at reasonable prices were introduced. This new generation of digital projectors also didn't require professional installation and upkeep.

At this point, "full HD 1080p" — the highest-quality form of HD — was the standard for displays, as well as movie content on Blu-ray.

The 4K era closes the gap between movie theater and home theater

After several years during which high-definition displays, playback devices, and content flourished, the first 4K Ultra HD TVs arrived in 2013. 4K TVs offered four times the picture detail of Full HD 1080p. A 1080p TV's screen has a little over 2 million pixels, while a 4K screen has around 8.3 million. 4K pictures typically look more detailed and dimensional.

LG 84LM9600 4K TV

LG's 84" 84LM9600 arrived in the fall of 2013 — the first 4K Ultra HD TV available in the U.S.

At launch, there was no 4K content to watch on these gorgeous new screens. And in a break with previous format introductions, the first 4K content to be widely available came from web streaming services, primarily Netflix® and Amazon Instant Video. The ability to watch high-quality 4K content using the TV's built-in apps got people hooked on 4K.

Sony 4K projector

A projector shows off 4K picture detail better than any flat-panel TV because the screen can be so much bigger.

Projectors got into the 4K act as well. There were models from Sony that delivered true native 4K resolution, as well as projectors that used clever "pixel-shifting" technologies to provide a picture that looked nearly as sharp as 4K using 1080p image chips. While the prices of 4K TVs dropped quickly, 4K projectors continued to be relatively pricey.

OLED: A compelling new display technology for flat-screen TVs

The other major TV-related news from 2013 was the introduction of the first large TVs using OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) display technology. Although Sony had produced an 11" OLED TV in 2008, it seemed like more of a proof of concept than a practical product. But the fall of 2013 brought 55" OLED HDTVs from both Samsung and LG, featuring curved screens and $10,000+ price tags.

Old Crutchfield catalog page showing OLED TV

Best picture ever? That's what we said when the first big-screen OLED TV arrived on the scene.

Samsung's costly, complicated OLED manufacturing process caused them to exit that business quickly, leaving LG as the sole OLED maker. Today, you'll find a few other brands of OLED TV available, but the actual OLED panels are still manufactured only by LG.

OLED's standout picture quality featured extraordinarily deep blacks and remarkable picture contrast. OLED models quickly earned a reputation for providing the best picture quality available. That reputation was enhanced with LG's introduction of 4K OLED TVs in 2015.

HDR gives TV picture quality a major boost

By 2016, 4K was solidly established, paving the way for the significant picture quality enhancements of HDR (High Dynamic Range) technology. Watching HDR-encoded content on an HDR-capable TV provided picture contrast and color that exceeded what you could see in a movie theater. Even today, HDR hasn't come to movie theaters yet.

Both Netflix and Amazon added HDR to most of their 4K shows and movies. And videophiles got some great news when 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray players and discs launched later in 2016.

High Dynamic Range

Watching HDR-encoded content on an HDR-capable TV can provide picture contrast and color that exceeds what you'll see in a movie theater.

Dolby Atmos adds a new dimension to home theater sound

The most recent advance in home theater sound happened in 2014, with the introduction of Dolby Atmos, which had only recently been introduced in select movie theaters. That was followed by the launch of the similar DTS:X format in 2015.

Where previous surround sound formats like Dolby Digital assigned sounds to certain channels, Dolby Atmos and DTS:X are described as "object-oriented" formats. That's a more flexible and precise approach that lets filmmakers assign a sound to a place, with a special emphasis on locating sounds overhead.

2014 catalog cover

Dolby Atmos allows for much more precise placement of surround sound effects, including overhead.

To re-create overhead sound effects in a home theater, you need either ceiling-mounted speakers or special Atmos speakers that bounce the sounds off your ceiling. Your receiver or A/V pre-pro will need to have Atmos decoding, and you'll need to find some Atmos-enhanced content. There are some titles on Netflix with Atmos, and you can also find soundtracks on some 4K and regular Blu-ray discs.

The 8K TV era begins in 2019

Without much build-up or fanfare, Samsung launched the world's first series of 8K QLED TVs in the Spring of 2019. Sony followed with a pair of LED-LCD models, including a ginormous 98" set! And LG plans to introduce an 8K OLED TV sometime later this year.

Samsung 8K TV

Are you an early adopter? Rejoice. You can be the first one in the neighborhood to own an 8K TV.

The evolution of home theater continues. So stay tuned to Crutchfield for honest, accurate info on the latest innovations.

Last updated 7/11/2019