Thirty years after it first boomed into theaters with its iconic, ear-splitting crescendo, THX remains a bit of an enigma for most of the public. We conducted an informal survey of some of our tech-aware (but not necessarily tech-savvy) acquaintances, asking if they knew what THX was or what it did. Answers involved everything from “TH-who?” to “That company that has the cool-sounding trailers before movies.” Some managed to get a little closer, suggesting that THX was the best sound format – closer, but not quite right.
There’s a lot going on behind the company besides trailers and shiny badges, though. While THX doesn’t make the stuff you see and hear, it does a lot of things that, directly and indirectly, make what you see and hear better. Because THX works its magic from behind the scenes, few people understand how or why THX does what it does. That’s a bit unfortunate, since much of THX’s little-known work is just plain cool.
Lately, the company has started to become a lot less bashful. Last month, THX released its Tune-Up app for iOS devices – the first actual product the company has ever made. The app lets people connect their iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch to their TV or projector and perform a basic but effective TV calibration using a series of test patterns and pictures. It even provides some basic audio tests and clips of its best trailers to show off your system. In short, it was a really well thought-out product, and a pleasant surprise from the company.
Over the course of a few discussions with THX about its new app, we got the distinct impression (read: THX dropped little hints) that the company was poised to enter the consumer market in a way it never had before – that Tune-Up was just a little appetizer for what would be a prix fixe menu of audio awesomeness.
We spent some time with THX discussing its plans for the future, but to better appreciate where the company is going, it helps to first understand where it’s been.
One of George Lucas’ better ideas
THX was born in the early 1980’s when George Lucas – the creator (and some say destroyer) of the Star Wars franchise – decided he wanted to ensure Return of the Jedi looked and sounded exactly as he intended it to, in as many theaters as possible. Tomlinson Holman, an audio engineer and technical director for Lucasfilm at the time, was assigned the task of making that happen.
… anything that could potentially pull a viewer out of the magic of the film needed to be mitigated.
Holman was apparently dismayed when he surveyed the state of theaters at the time. Most of these cinemas hadn’t seen any updates since World War II. Images looked shoddy and the sound was terrible. All the work and money that Hollywood poured into making movies look and sound amazing was being lost – nay, obliterated – in these dilapidated theaters. Holman’s mission suddenly had a clear focus: Make the movie-going experience as good as it can possibly be; let people see and hear films as the directors intended them to be seen and heard.
Holman set about developing a set of standards that would deal with most of the issues plaguing those aging theaters. While Holman couldn’t do anything about obnoxious people and sticky floors, he could develop a plan to address other problems such as outside noise bleeding in, inside noise generated by environmental controls, excessive reverb, inadequate sound, poor image brightness, poor viewing angles and so forth. In short, anything that could potentially pull a viewer out of the magic of the film needed to be mitigated. The resulting set of standards was referred to as THX – a hybrid of Tom Holman eXperiment and Lucas’ feature-length directorial debut, THX1138.
THX’s home invasion
Over the next ten years or so, THX refined its standards to a remarkably granular level – a process that continues to this day – and began folding those standards into its theater-certification program. Colloquialisms like “raising the bar” and “kicking it up a notch” don’t adequately describe the direction THX was taking the movie-going experience at the time. It was writing the handbook on reproduction of video and sound. THX researchers dealt with everything from how many speakers were needed per cubic foot of space, to how many degrees Kelvin colors needed to measure in order for a picture to be considered accurate. Even if you see movies in a non THX-certified theater today, you still have THX to thank for the quality of picture and sound you experience, because the company showed the world just how good the movie experience could be. Once it had, standards began to skyrocket across the board.
But changing the way people saw movies at the theater wasn’t enough for THX. In a bid for total global domination (we might be exaggerating a little), THX began work on an entirely new program centered around home theater equipment certification. This was a tricky proposition because home theaters are a far cry from commercial theaters where everything from the picture, to the sound, to the size of the space is much bigger. THX had to figure out how to ensure that the big theater experience would get delivered in the home. So, it built a home theater at its facilities, armed it with a bevy of extremely advanced electronics, and got to researching.
“We created a specification for performance and developed software for the post-processing side that helped translate the cinema experience to the home experience through a modification of the actual movie track sound.” said John Dahl, senior fellow and Director of Education at THX.
Dahl has been at THX since 1987 and was a big part of taking the company’s cinema program and rolling it into consumer-level product. He clarified that THX didn’t try to start telling manufacturers how to make their gear.
“They flocked around right away and said: OK, how can we get on this bandwagon?” said Dahl. “And we said, well you have to meet these requirements. We’ll help you, and we’ll work with you, but it’s all about the performance. You decide how to do it, and we’ll test it…” But just by setting a performance standard, THX indirectly encouraged consumer electronics makers to up their game.
But THX’s move into consumer products has been an uphill battle. THX badges were initially found on more expensive equipment, and the prohibitive cost was a turn-off for budget-minded buyers. Plus, many receivers sounded great without THX’s processing. To this day, “Is THX worth it?” remains one of the more commonly asked questions in AV forums.
Many don’t see THX certification as necessary because there are plenty of high-quality sound equipment options – such as AV receivers and speakers – that sound excellent without THX certification. Some even exceed THX standards but don’t seek certification. But THX never saw itself as an insurance policy for excellence, nor have its efforts been aimed at creating a sound signature that people liked more. “It was about an accurate translation [of the original material], as opposed to someone liking it more or liking it less,” said Dahl. “You can’t write a spec for, ‘We like it.’”
Getting into the picture
Audio is not the singular focus of THX’s home theater certification program. THX also certifies display technology including LCD and plasma TVs as well as projectors, though it has not been quite as successful with its video campaign as it has with its audio division . THX certified some very highly rated TVs over the past few years, including the Panasonic VT25 and LG PX950 plasmas from 2010, the LG LW9500, PZ950/750 and LW9800, and the Sharp Elite Pro-60X5FD, all from 2011. But’s that’s not a lot, and since then – aside for THX’s recent certification of Sharp’s 4K/Ultra HD TV – pickins for THX-certified displays have been slim.
I asked THX’s Senior Director of Business Development at THX Chris Golson, why that was, and as he explained, the direction of our conversation began an interesting segue into THX’s plans for the future.
“What we have found as our business has evolved is that the market has changed drastically from what it was years ago,” said Golson. “One of the things we’ve seen is that this higher standard is developing a limited market, in terms of people accepting a lot of different qualities of content for a lot of different reasons.”
No longer will THX be a sidekick to better-known brands as a shiny badge on a piece of some other company’s electronics.
In other words: There aren’t a whole lot of people buying ridiculously expensive TVs, even if they are the cream of the crop. Society is trending toward a state in which technology comes to them, not the other way around. So, rather than stubbornly toe an elitist line and drag consumers to them, THX has decided to meet the consumer where they want to be.
“What we’re doing and where we’re headed is to look at this reality of a shift. The shift really has been from a dedicated cinema room where 500 people sit there and see the best of what a director can do, toward [an attitude] of acceptable quality in an ecosystem. You’ve probably seen the ad by AT&T where they go from room to room and see the same movie on several displays and devices – this pictures what’s happening in the world, and we are adapting to that.” Golson said.
“Instead of thinking of us as THX certification, think of it as THX certification that falls under a new umbrella,” continued Golson. “We’re thinking of it as THX lifestyle.”
To that end, THX has been quietly developing patents and buying technology. Recently it bought a color-management technology called Cinespace, a company with assets it intends to use to help it break into lifestyle products, though how exactly it will do that is being kept under wraps. The company has also forged a partnership with a startup called eyeIO – the technology that powers Netflix’s instant streaming service – which could lead to THX’s involvement in high-quality streaming video feeds.
It may all sound pretty nebulous at this point, but one thing was made clear during our conversation with THX: It has the aspirations, resources and drive to become a part of the modern tech lifestyle. No longer will THX be a sidekick to better-known brands as a shiny badge on a piece of some other company’s electronics. Soon it will be creating products under its own name. This new direction is probably a far cry from what George Lucas had in mind when he gave Tom Holman his marching orders back in the 1980s, but it is an essential move if the company is to stay relevant in an age where YouTube is far more popular than Blu-ray and high-definition TV. Indeed, the consumer must be quality’s destination if quality is ever to be embraced by a new generation.
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