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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Magic and Myth of THX

Anyone who goes to the movies is aware of THX, but not many people are actually aware of what it is and what the logo means in relation to a theater. THX is owned by LucasFilm and the brainchild of former LucasFilm chief scientist Tomlinson Holman (my friend and mentor), who is now a professor at USC and is the man that coined the phrase "5.1" surround sound. Tom is good at coining names that stick, and in fact, THX stands for Tomlinson Holman eXperiment.

So what is it? It used to be that movies theaters varied a huge amount in audio playback quality. A movie that sounded great in one theater would sound like it was coming out of a tin can in another because there was no real standard for playback quality. This came to George Lucas' attention upon the release of Star Wars, which was a very sound-heavy movie with a great score and lots of sound effects. As they followed the release of the film across the country, Lucas and his production team were frequently appalled at how many theaters had an inferior audio playback system and how bad their movie would sound as a result. If all theaters sounded equally as bad, you could compensate for that. But if the quality was hit or miss, that was a problem.

As a result, Holman came up with THX, which is a standard for playback quality between theaters, in 1983 before the release of Return of the Jedi. A theater that is THX-certified meets a minimum level of acoustic and electronic playback quality. Only speakers and amplifiers that meet the required quality level are certified, and only those pieces can be used in the playback chain. As a result, the overall playback quality of movie theaters has gotten dramatically better, and any theater that has the THX logo ensures the highest playback standard available.

Soon the THX company found that the market for theaters to upgrade had saturated, and being a company in search of profits, began licensing the concept for home screening rooms, and in 2005, home theaters, and this is where you have to scratch your head and think, "Is this really needed?"

For the most part, a THX certified home theater is more for the videophile with more money than sense, looking for bragging rights with his friends. Any gear that is THX-approved is a lot more expensive than the same piece that's not certified, even though there's little difference between the two. It would be nice if a home theater can be built to THX acoustic standards, but the majority of the time this isn't possible, except in the case of new construction, and that defeats the purpose of spending the extra dough on certified gear right there. And the chance of a room staying calibrated after your wife buys a new couch or moves the furniture around are just about nil. And, let's face it - most high-end home theaters don't scrimp on gear and sound pretty good anyway.

For theaters, which have their share of problems because they're larger and have more people to deal with, it's certainly the way to go. For the home, I'd probably pass if my money was on the line.

By the way, Tom Holman never received a dime for his invention.

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