Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Sadness of THX

Contrary to common belief, THX is not a sound format. THX is a set of certification standards. It's like a seal of approval stating that a particular auditorium will meet or exceed a number of measurable criteria. In theory (and perhaps in the early days), this is a terrific idea. In realty however, I've found that THX theatres provide no guarantee of quality.

For example, THX specifications require that no auditorium noise be audible from other auditoriums, yet I have been in numerous THX certified theatres and heard sound from neighboring screens.

I've also been in a THX auditorium (UA Galaxy in SF) where there surround channels were reversed. The THX trailer featureing Pixar's robot repairman played, and when the robot flew to the back left, he was audible from the back right, and vice versa.

It's interesting that the THX website discusses the importance of sightlines on a page showing diagrams of seats placed directly in front of each another. (Source) I would have thought that better sightlines would be achieved by staggering seats so that each is placed behind the gap between two seats in the row ahead.

THX touts that moviegoers will get an optimal presentation in a THX theatre, but after the auditorium is constructed and the licensing fee is collected, there doesn't seem to be any follow-up to ensure that the equipment us used properly. I have seen many poor presentations in THX auditoriums. Most notably was a screening with no sound at all during the THX trailer. Laughter broke out when "The Audience is Listening" appeared.

THX seems to have abandoned its altruistic mandate of improving the cinema experience, to rely only on marketing its brand name and "deep note" sound demo. How else can you explain the THX certification of cropped images on pan & scan VHS tapes? Do they truly reproduce the filmmaker's vision?

I wonder if there is an inherent conflict of interest between the stated objective of THX and its financial realities. If a customer (a cinema) fails in some way, THX can revoke their license, but I imagine they would cease to get paid their licensing fees.


Craig said...

There was a time, circa 1990, when I would only patronize THX certified theaters. But the THX name has outlived its meaningfulness. When second run theaters sport digital multichannel sound... sightline issues vanished with stadium seating. Sound presentation is adaquate usually only failing because it is too loud if anything. Picture and print quality continues to be hit or miss (which in spite of previous misgivings digital presentation will eventually fix the print portion of the problem.)

When THX meant a vastly superior sound experience coupled with above average presentation I would even pay extra for a theater with the moniker but in todays movie marketplace the difference is to slight to be bothered with.

Anonymous said...

THX sound system is a sound system enhancement and major improvement to any film. One such cinema world’s famous Empire Leicester square boasts a staggering 56KW and state of the art JBL sound system making the Empire Leicester square the most power screen in the whole of Europe.

Anonymous said...

Oodles of power and quotable names don't necessarily mean good-sounding sound. It is a big call for a cinema to provide "hi-fi" sound at a high volume, such as larger auditoriums require. In the latter case, high pressure sound levels can only be provided by PA type transducers, especially for the mid-range and high frequencies. Thus, while names such as JBL are presented in the guise of "quality", the result in practice is not high-fidelity, but harsh to the ear. While this may be acceptable at a rock-concert, it is not desirable in a cinema. Bottom line is to wait for your movie to be screening at a smaller venue where the sound system is better-tailored to the room and where high SPL is not a requirement.