Theater Up and Running

The last couple months saw some real progress on my home theater. Most of the work was wrapped up several months ago, but I have been slow to post information on the blog thinking I could get more done before making any kind of “big reveal” on here. Well nuts to that, it’s time to just throw some pictures up.

Shortly after my last post we were able to wrap up sheetrock work around the rack location. After that things progressed quickly with soldering the last of the wall plates and mounting speakers.

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Paint quickly followed. I chose a blue gray Sherwin Williams color called “Web Gray” (sw7075). To my surprise, and delight, I found the color to be much richer, with more green hues than the paint sample originally led me to believe. The rack itself was an incredibly tight squeeze, but manageable with the help of a few shims. I may place a smoked out glass door in front of it in time or possibly some trimwork, but for now I think it is fine.

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With speakers mounted and connected we splurged on an IKEA Kivik sectional sofa over the holidays. The covers are Dansbo Red and are removable and washable. Unfortunately, IKEA stopped making this particular color of cover so I had to purchase several more for future seating in a second row . Eventually, I hope to build an eight inch tall riser with a second Kivik sofa directly behind the first sectional in the front. With the riser and second sofa on hold, I decided on using some director chairs from Pier 1 Imports for the interim.

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Finally we were able to add a Subwoofer from GoldenEar Technology as well as some basic Control4 automation. However, I’ll save details on both of those for separate posts. As of today the equipment list is as follows:

140 inch 2.35 aspect ratio CinemaScope dimension painted screen
3 Mackie HR824 MK2 speakers at left, center , right
2 Mackie HR624 MK2 speakers at surround left and right
GoldenEar Forcefield 5 subwoofer
JVC DLA-RS20U projector
Onkyo PR-SC5508 pre-amp/processor.
Pioneer BDP-51FD Blu-Ray player
Pioneer CLD-79 Laserdisc player
Channelmaster CM-7000 / DTVpal over-the-air DVR
Control4 HC300 automation controller
Araknis Networks rack mount switch

And because of my love for all old formats, especially real celluloid, an Ampro Stylist 16mm Projector as well as a Bell and Howell 122LR 8mm projector (I’m sure there is a whole post just on film collecting and the projectors as well). 

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I certainly don’t consider the room to be finished, but it is usable. Future plans include a front stage with an acoustically transparent screen which hides all of the speakers. A riser, and sofa for the second row. Finally, a bar table with benches in the far rear. Progress on the theater room will be slow, but hopefully I can go in to more depth on each improvement in the future.

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The Fall of Cinerama and the Redemption of 70mm In the Twin Cities

Did you guys know that on top of being a major film tech geek, that I also minored in history. Yeah, so here is a local history lesson steeped in film nerdery.

In 1962 the Cooper Cinerama opened in St. Louis Park. Many call it the “Grandaddy” of IMAX, and all luxury theaters. Originally designed to project the three strip Cinerama process, it would later be used to showcase 5 perf 70mm, as well as 35mm films. The 100 foot wide screen was curved to accomodate the three projectors needed for Cinerama and to provide an immersive effect. So spectacular was the Cooper that it hosted the Hollywood Premier of the disaster movie Airport, filmed at the nearby Minneapolis International Airport.

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As time passed the grandeur of the theater began to fade. Less money was put in to maintenance and updates.  Large single screen theaters fell out of popularity with theater owners who favored smaller screen multiplexes. An addition was added to the Cooper of two smaller screens called the “Cooper Cameo”. The Cooper would soon come to be owned by United Artists Theater Group who also owned the Cineplex Odeon Chain of theaters. Cineplex Odeon would soon open a 12 screen multiplex only a mile away stiking the fatal blow to the theater.

In January 1991, the Cooper would show its last film, Dances With Wolves. By October it would meet the wrecking ball. Several years later her sister theater the Indian Hills Cooper Theater in Omaha Nebraska would meet the same fate despite vocal efforts to save her from the community, and even Siskel and Ebert. Today an Olive Garden sits on her grave (I won’t eat there).

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This left a sour taste in my mouth for the Willow Creek Cineplex Odeon. If ever a theater deserved a steaming bag of poop on the doorstep that was the theater. To my amazement redemption would follow. One day I found myself eating Chineese next door, and to my suprise the Willow Creek 12 had changed ownership and was showing some old catolog movies and not just new releases. After checking their facebook I realized they hosted a great number of non mainstream screenings. Not only that, they had one of the last remaining 70mm projectors in the Twin Cities. How could I stay mad?

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Long after nearly every theater in the state converted to digital.  Muller Families Willow Creek 12 would go on to screen one of only ten 5-perf 70mm prints of Interstellar in existence. And possibly the only new 70mm print in the midwest screened since the Coopers demise in the early 90’s. They even went as far as to post several cool videos about the 70mm Interstellar print on Youtube.

Clearly, no longer being owned by Cineplex Odeon, but rather the Muller family, the Willow Creek 12, and it’s projectionist have shown a passion for traditional celluloid and traditional film, and for that they should be commended. Perhaps, it is fitting as some much needed redemption for the loss of the Cooper all those years ago.

What spurred this long rant? Well I had thought Interstellar would be the last new movie I ever saw on film, let alone 70mm. Not so! Quentin Tarantino is looking to distribute 70mm film prints of the Hateful Eight, and I just pray that Willow Creek get’s one. I will definately leave my home theater for it.

“LieMAX” and the End of Celluloid

Home Theater Nerd loves film! See, I just made Sister Claire, my eighth grade English teacher upset by referring to myself in the third person in an effort to put special emphasis on this point. Also, I’m not talking about “movies in general” here, I mean actual film. So, I’ll say it again in another way “Home Theater Nerd loves celluloid”. It may be easy to think that I’m easily swept up in all this new technology but the truth is that cinema as we have known it for the past 100 years is changing, and not necessarily for the better. So I figured I would take this post to share a few bits of trivia and history on film as a means of exhibition and talk about where we are headed.

First off, film has been around for a long time. Most folks don’t realize how dangerous and complex film projection was prior to the second World War. At that time, almost all 35 film was produced on nitrate film stock which had a similar kind of chemical composition as nitroglycerin. The film itself was highly flammable, so much in fact, that it will burn under water! On top of that projectors didn’t use xenon lamps, they had carbon arc lamps. A carbon arc lamp is essentially a welding torch burning away at a couple thousand degrees to produce light. All of this, mere inches away from the nitrate film stock. Now projectionists were highly trained union professionals, and projectors had some safeguards built in as well. On top of this, the projection booth was fire lined, the portholes had fire shutters, and the booth even had an escape hatch! The hope is that if it started on fire, they could seal up the booth and save the rest of the theater. There was a good reason why you never yelled “fire” in a crowded theater, and if you want to see a realistic example of this danger watch the movie “Cinema Paradisio”.

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Early 20th century film projection booth designed for Nitrate film.

Granted they refined film stocks, they created new processes to introduce color, increase visual fidelity and produce multi-channel surround sound. I won’t hit on all of that in this post. Needless to say, we saw things like 3-strip Technicolor, 65mm Todd-AO, Vistavision. Now, I’m probably not the guy to give a history lesson on all of this technology, but it is fascinating in my opinion. Maybe I can throw up some links in a later post.

The take away here, is that until recently, and still in many ways, film surpasses digital in some areas of performance. With the exception of a handful or brand new cameras, film had a much greater dynamic range. This is in reference to the amount of steps you have between light and dark. I have also read that 35mm film is roughly the equivalent of 6000 horizontal lines of resolution or “6K” digital resolution, when it leaves the camera. When projected, 35mm film still has the capability of being close to 4K in horizontal resolution (although it rarely does anymore). Now 70mm IMAX film would leave the camera with the equivalent of 18,000 lines of horizontal resolution and was projected at a resolution equivalent of roughly 12,000 lines or 12K! So in terms of resolution we are close to being able to offer a descent replacement to 35mm projection with 4K resolution displays now. But with true 70mm IMAX, nothing else exists that comes near it in terms of resolution or fidelity. Newer is not necessarily better.

So this brings the discussion to IMAX. First of all, true IMAX as we grew up knowing it is awesome. It is the pinnacle of film technology. IMAX essentially took standard Kodak 5 perf 70mm film stock(perferations being the amount of sprocket holes used to advance the film per frame), rotated it 90 degrees so it goes through the camera and projector horizontally, using 15 perforations per frame (which is why it is often referred to as 15 perf 70mm). This gave each frame much more picture information allowing IMAX to push screen sizes up to seven stories high while maintaining incredible clarity.

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The problem is that IMAX originally had a pretty small target market for many years. Using just a handful of cameras they created only museum documentaries for years. However as the amount of IMAX theaters grew they found the need to diversify in to Hollywood movies to cover rising costs of prints. A single IMAX film print costs as much as a new car, and 3D doubles the price.

Soon IMAX found itself in the digital cinema exhibition business as well. These IMAX theaters were not the 15-perf 70mm monsters that we saw built in the 80’s but just very large theaters within your typical multiplex They were differentiated from normal theaters by stadium seating, very bright digital projection and powerful sound. My first time seeing one was for the 2009 Star Trek reboot and I was actually very impressed. It did offer several advantages over the 35mm screens near my home. No film jutter, no dust, no worn prints, incredible brightness. I still think they are an excellent way to watch a new movie in a theatrical setting. It however was not the same IMAX experience I remember as a child. In short, it wasn’t nearly large enough.

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IMAX at your local Cineplex vs. traditional 70mm IMAX

So as of today, IMAX has a mix of digital IMAX theaters with smaller screens as well as their less common traditional large format 15-perf 70mm theaters. My only gripe is that IMAX never differentiated them in name or advertising. Growing frustration over this difference caused many on the net to refer to these smaller IMAX screens as “LieMax”. I once heard that they responded to this criticism in stating that referring to the small theaters as having “digital” in the name may give the impression to many theater goers that they are better than the traditional large format 70mm theaters. I think that is actually a fair point, so I cut them some slack.

The sad news is that IMAX will soon be replacing the 15-perf 70mm projectors on even their biggest screens with digital projection. Industry folks have stated that the new digital projectors will be brighter as they utilize laser based projectors rather than a xenon lamp. They are also quick to point out that once a film is edited digitally it is essentially stripped of any resolution above 4K anyway. So this transition probably won’t result in a major loss in quality. Infact in some ways it may be better. Unfortunately it still relies on 4K projectors, with nearly the same resolution as what can be filmed on a GoPro4 and shown right now in your living room. So admittedly, I’m cautious, and yet very curious to see the result. Personally I think digital camera technology is advancing much faster than our exhibition technology in terms of resolution and color reproduction.

Unfortunately, when the last film based IMAX projector is carted away we will really see the end of film based projection in theaters. It will be the end of the era, as nearly all 35mm theaters in the United States have already made the conversion to digital.

So with that, I tell you go out and see Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar on a large screen 15-perf 70mm IMAX screen. It was shot on film, it is in 2D, the screen will be massive. Digital technologies will continue to improve but I for one am eager to see this pinnacle of film technology shown one last time, in 2D no less! I’m hoping to remember it as a benchmark to which all future technology releases can be compared to.

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Get Ready To Have A LOT of Dolby Atmos Thrown At You!

Well its official. I don’t post enough. Being a new home owner has not helped this, and despite that, a lot of it has to do with the lack of exciting news in terms of new technology advances coming from the manufacturers. However, this last week the Consumer Electronic Design and Installation Association (CEDIA for short) had their big industry show. So we are finally able to get a glimpse at some things coming in real products. Products you can actually buy.

One of the biggest things happening right now is this push for Dolby Atmos in the home. In fact, Atmos is the only thing the industry bloggers seem to be talking about right now! Now I know I blogged about Dolby Atmos a few months back, and at that time it was mainly geared at large commercial cinemas; but now we are finally seeing it pushed out of the theater and at the consumer. CEDIA was the first place we have seen demos of this technology geared towards the home.

To be honest, up until now Atmos has not excited me much, but (oddly) a lot of these other skeptical “industry guys” of whom I follow have been really impressed by it. Frankly, I have no idea of what to make of Dolby Atmos yet. I haven’t heard it, and to my embarrassment, I have to admit that I have not seen anything in an Atmos theater as of now. This is mainly due to the fact that Minnesota only recently gained a single Atmos Theater in Saint Louis Park.

So real quick, I’ll give a low down on what I know for details on Atmos for the home. Now as I explained previously, the main thing about Atmos is that you gain overhead sound, and that the mix engineer chooses a point in 3D space of where he wants a sound to come from, and then the equipment figures out how to put it there. This is opposed to an engineer figuring out which speaker to make the sound based upon his speaker set-up in the studio.

So, what do you need for all this? Mainly you will need a new receiver or pre/amp processor. The real brains of all of this will be based in the receiver. Surprisingly, you DO NOT need a new Blu-Ray player. Existing Blu-Ray players should pass through the meta data needed for these new receivers to de-code Atmos.  You need a minimum of seven channels of surround sound. Apparently, Dolby Atmos could be activated on these new receivers even with only an existing full 7 channel speaker set up, with no ceiling speakers. Ideally you want to add speakers that have the ability to reproduce overhead sound. This can be done two ways, ceiling speakers, or floor speakers that also bounce the sound back down off of the ceiling as illustrated below.

Dolby Atmos enabled speakers that include both traditional forward-firing speakers and upward-firing speakers in one speaker cabinet. You will also be able to purchase Dolby Atmos enabled speaker modules. These include only the upward-firing speakers. You can put the modules on top of your current speakers or on another nearby surface.

Dolby Atmos enabled speakers that include both traditional forward-firing speakers and upward-firing speakers in one speaker cabinet. You will also be able to purchase Dolby Atmos enabled speaker modules. These include only the upward-firing speakers. You can put the modules on top of your current speakers or on another nearby surface.

Overhead ceiling speakers are used for overhead object based audio.

Overhead ceiling speakers are used for overhead object based audio.

Like the cinema based Atmos system, the home system will be scalable in size, in that you can build it with as little as seven speakers or as many as 34 speakers! Infact, Atmos could be as many as 24 floor based speakers and 10 overhead speakers. Dolby claims some manufacturer is going to release a 32 channel receiver shortly! By the Power of Greyskull!

So there you have it, that is most of the Atmos news. I don’t know what to make of it honestly. It’s getting to be technical to the point where you would have to be Professor Frink to keep up with it. I honestly think that its complexity and sheer size could scare off consumers. However, I think its really cool that you can essentially get the technology in a “home theater in a box” on one end of the spectrum, and that someone else is coming up with a 32 channel receiver on the end of the spectrum. So, I’m eager to hear it in the theater, and I’m also eager to hear what a solid home demo sounds like. I hope to be able to make some comparisons and then report back.

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Stay tuned for another post shortly, It will have two of my favorite things.. projectors and lasers…. lasers….. Sweet.

Recent Movies that Really Excite?

Time to shake things up a little bit here on the blog. I know most of my blog postings are all gear related, but “home theater” goes well beyond gear. Without the movies themselves the whole thing just becomes kind of a hollow pursuit. So today I kinda wanted to talk about current trends in movies and possibly get some feedback from friends.

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So in the great words of Peter Griffin “You know what really grinds my gears… movies today”. I’m looking on IMDB right now at a list of upcoming releases for something that excites me. Something that I may actually buy on disc, or even crazier yet, get me to spend money on a ticket to watch it in the theater. Not much! Has my taste in film just become more narrow? I used to watch anything when I was younger. Now I bet I watch maybe 10 new releases a year… at best.

So I’ll ask, what recent releases or upcoming releases excite you?

I’ll just throw out a few recent releases as well as some upcoming ones that have me excited.

Fury – in summary, Brad Pitt, Sherman tank, WWII. Have yet to see this one, looks really cool.

Interstellar – Cristopher Nolan directs film that is about first attempt at interstellar travel through warping space. Comes out in a few months and I have no idea what to expect, sure to be gorgeous and very cool.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – I still haven’t seen the latest installment from Wes Anderson. Very high on my current “watch list”.

Snowpiercer – What you need to know is that the last remnants of society on a plane that circles the Earth on a train in a perpetual winter, the the folks stuck in the back get ticked. Just watched this, and was very pleased with what I think is a welcome departure from the typical Hollywood comic book action movie.

The Monuments Men – Yet to see this one. A bunch of Museum guys get together at the end of WWII to gather up artwork stolen by Nazis.

Godzilla – Yeaah, as a lover of old campy “B movies” and old sci-fi I really need to at least sit down and give it a shot. I thought the last one was aweful, so the bar is low.

Unfortunately, I’m starting to think my taste in movie continues to narrow as I age. For instance I’m really lukewarm on comic book movies as of late. I love original ideas in that regard. I’m also not a big horror guy, at least not modern horror. I have a list of serious movies I need to watch as well; but I find myself just not making time for it. One example would be “12 Years A Slave.” I know it has excellent, and moving content based in history, that should be given my time. I just find it takes emotional effort to fire it up, effort that I just don’t always want to muster.

So, I’m curious what your excited for? Do you think made for television mini series and shows like Game of Thrones, or the Walking Dead pulls you away from the time you would have gave to watching traditional film? How about independent cinema? I think digital film-making and distribution could easily upset the traditional Hollywood model when it comes to anything that isn’t a major blockbuster. Have you seen any great independent movies that received very little marketing?

 

 

Real Progress on my Theater!

Finally, an update on my quest in to the depth of the darkest of man-caves on a journey to build my own home theater. We made some real progress on Sunday running wire for roughly 80% of the necessary speakers and gear. I know a lot more about good home theater design than I do about physically getting cable from point A to point B, but I did have help, and in the end I learned a lot.

In a nutshell we managed to pull cable from the rack location to the front of the room near the screen location for left, center, right, sub1 and sub2. From there, we managed to get power and cable to two rear speaker locations as well as the projector. You may wonder about “Dolby height speakers” or some ceiling speakers for the new Dolby Atmos format. The reality is that I want to run cable to all of my rear speakers and look at how much bulk cable I have left before I commit to any height channels up front. Additional, ceiling speakers in the recommended Dolby Atmos locations would be exceedingly difficult to get wire to. Doable, but a whole days project.

Ok, pics.. and more details than you care for….

Here is almost all of the wiring coming in to the location where the rack will sit.

Here is almost all of the wiring coming in to the location where the rack will sit.

Finding a route to the front of the room was a real trick as the stair case is in the way. At first we thought we would follow an HVAC duct on the opposite side of the closet and stair, however that turned out to be a dead end. We ended up going over the top of the HVAC duct to the bathroom taking a left and going over the top of the ceiling of the laundry room. Figuring that out was literally an hour and a half of head scratching, putting holes in things I probably didn’t need to, and playing with a glow rod. By the way, if you want to run cable buy a glow rod (a tool now on my “wishlist”).

Once we had the route figured out, we then sent a line of coax that came pre-marked for length in terms of footage out of the box back to the rack. With a length of roughly 75 feet, we measured out a bunch of cable lengths for each speaker location to run and then taped it all together to the other end of the rod to make the run back out to the rack in one shot.

Here we are measuring out the lengths of each cable needed to go to the front of the room.

Here we are measuring out the lengths of each cable needed to go to the front of the room.

Finally made it to the front of the room. The four gang box will be on the wall behind and to the side of the screen itself. The screen sits in front of an exterior wall and it wasn’t worth the hassle of pulling the cabling in to that wall space. This essentially will be in an alcove behind the screen you’ll never see any of the cabling that comes out from this location.

Wall connection box for Left,Center, Right, Sub1 and Sub2.

Wall connection box for Left,Center, Right, Sub1 and Sub2.

 

The back side of the same box for anyone curious.

The back side of the same box for anyone curious.

The rear speakers offered up a different challenge. For the left surround, we had to cut a small hole near the top of the wall to run the glow rod through back to the rack, above the ceiling sheetrock, as well as to feed cable downward past the wall header to where the two gang box would sit in the wall. So, as as you can see I have some drywall repair to do, otherwise I could just cover it up with a blank wall plate.

This box should sit mainly behind the rear left speaker on the wall. Unusual in home theaters, it contains both electrical power and a choice of two types of audio connections (balanced XLR, and regular speaker cable). The unused audio connection will just stay wrapped up in the box and can be switched out with a different faceplate at later time if wanted.

This box should sit mainly behind the rear left speaker on the wall. Unusual in home theaters, it contains both electrical power and a choice of two types of audio connections (balanced XLR, and regular speaker cable). The unused audio connection will just stay wrapped up in the box and can be switched out with a different faceplate at later time if wanted.

After the rear speakers boxes were wired, we focused on getting power and HDMI to the projector location. We also hung the projector to double check the geometry and see how much play we had with the zoom for that location. You can really see how low the ceiling is in this picture. You will definitely will make a shadow if you stand up a couple feet in front of the main seating position. I wish I had a taller ceiling, but it is what it is.

Just testing on the wall for now. In the future a screen will sit roughly where the black taped line is.

Just testing on the wall for now. In the future a screen will sit roughly where the black taped line is.

Anyway, I still have a lot of work left. Unlike most home theaters, my wall plates use XLR connections typically found in musician/pro audio applications and they all need to be soldered to complete the connection. The terminated XLR cable ends at the rack location need to be soldered too. Guess I’m going to have to get better at soldering! I really need to get the rear surrounds in, and have a pro figure out how to get the outlets at the rack location on a separate breaker. The system is close to usable now, but only then can I call the wiring “complete”.

More to follow, hopefully updates come a bit quicker now.

Get Ready for Dolby Atmos for the Home

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Hey friends, I have not blogged enough lately, but that has to change now that we are getting settled in to our new home. Some big news from Dolby today in the home theater world was just what I needed to get me back on here.

Dolby just anounced that they are bringing their Dolby Atmos technology to the home. Now don’t get your panties in a bunch thinking everything you own just became immediately obsolete. I think the way surround sound is currently encoded on discs will hang around for pretty much the foreseeable future. Details on how this tech will be implemented in the home are a little fuzzy, but we do know that the idea is to add the ability to have overhead sound effects. I guess this means utilizing two more speaker modules up front or two more in your ceiling.

Two front ceiling speakers, or two more height speakers, in my opinion is a pretty lackluster feature when it comes to selling a big receiver upgrade. We have something like this already with Audyssey DSX, and Dolby Pro Logic IIZ now. So I’m eager to see how Dolby’s marketing department plays this news as a marked improvement to consumers.

That said, this consumer announcement really doesn’t make any reference to what Dolby Atmos is really about. For that, you need to poke your head inside an actual movie theater. Dolby Atmos in the theater setting is a surround sound system that utilizes anywhere between five channels of audio and 64 channels of audio. The cinema systems often have two lines of speakers left and right that run from the front of the theater to the rear. A small theater would never run all 64 speakers, it may only need 15 speakers given its size. A theater like the Seattle Cinerama would be perfect for a full 64 channel audio system. The critical concept is that the system is able to be scaled to the size of the room.

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With that in mind, what really differentiates Dolby Atmos is how the movies are mixed. Sound effects are placed in to a three dimensional space rather than a combination of channels. Then the computer that is playing it back determines which speakers best place that sound in the theater space. So in theory your five channel system at home is being given the same data as the 64 channel system at the Cinerama, just your receiver is trying to figure out how to replicate that sound in your space utilizing far less speakers. The need to create separate mixes for 5.1 or 7.1 at home, and what they play in the theater is no longer needed. A mixer just tells the computer where the sound should be. So in theory you should be able to play the Dolby Atmos track over a regular 5.1 system at home.

The real question is if it will have a better sounding mix in terms of using the entire surround space? Or is all that fancy work lost when you lose the massive array of speakers? I have no idea yet. The key take away here is that the playback hardware does all the work on figuring out which channels to use for a given sound. That concept probably will be lost in today announcement, but it is pretty cool, and I love anything that closes the gap between what you get at your local Cineplex and what you get at home.