If you want unendingly inky blacks and crisp colors converging with your retinas while quietly whispered conversations toy with your eardrums – only for bullets to pew-pew past your whole head every which way but loose – then you can't be thinking about things using trite terms such as "practical" or "remotely affordable".
No, what you need is either this $380,000 proposition from LG and Bang & Olufsen, (yes, that's 36 high-end B&O drivers working in harmony with a 136-inch LG micro-LED TV) or any of the three outrageously high-end home theater systems I've had the pleasure of experiencing and am about to share with you.
I never promised affordability or even availability for mere mortals, valued reader. This is the realm of the fantastical – showcases of what movie viewing can be in your wildest dreams! Isn't your local movie theater a haven of escapism; a place you visit to forget your troubles and just get happy (sad, scared, riled, educated or inspired) for a few glorious hours?
So, why upset ourselves with the sordid topic of the check any more than to calmly acknowledge the few scant and often vague six- or seven-figure sums I'll mention, then move right along to the next gorgeously expensive idea? Think of it as perusing the manual without having to actually talk to the dealer.
Dolby Soho (London, UK)
Like the Maserati that sports 21 speakers, a 70-seat Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision home theater to call your own may seem a bit much – a level of frivolity akin to viewing the devil in disguise. I disagree, as I went to great lengths to explain upon visiting this bijou and elite Central London picture house to watch Elvis, the fantastic Baz Luhrmann romp.
Dolby Soho was designed in collaboration with specialist Munro Acoustics and, according to the professional audio news site Fast-and-Wide, this home theater includes 36 JBL speakers – 26 dedicated to surround-sound. Other equipment includes a Christie 4K digital projector, Kinoton film projector, 28 stereo Crown amplifiers and a Dolby Lake EQ system.
Dolby's full Atmos system uses up to 64 loudspeaker tracks, and in this venue there are drivers along the side walls and behind you, plus a pair of subwoofers for low frequency content actually suspended from the ceiling, five loudspeakers behind the screen (a central one and two either side) plus two rows of speakers running along the ceiling from the rear of the theatre to the screen for that overhead sound – thanks to Ben Shirley for this extra information.
The cushion-like silence as you go into this room is actually quite striking and is testament to the extensive acoustic treatment; no corners have been cut here. Simply put, it is as perfect a neutral listening environment as I've experienced to date. One of TechRadar's long-term contributors and an esteemed member of the audio press, Steve May, has a special seat he earmarks in this theater. Sit here at your peril – and I don't blame him.
The basis of the mix is a 9.1 system – so known territory to sound engineers and mixers – but there are also up to 128 active audio objects which can be flown anywhere around the speaker setup and are added on top. See? Madness. But incredible, beautiful madness.
According to chartered surveyors Kingfisher Associates, it took 28 weeks to refurbish and fit out the existing Grade 2 listed building in London's Soho Square and the entire project cost a reported £3.2 million.
Anyone want to give my humble London apartment the Ray Dolby professional screening room treatment? I've no room for the Atmos Genelec mixing suite as well, but I'd be so grateful for a super-souped up movie room. My need to return to Dolby's room is like a hunka hunka burnin' love…
Perlisten/Dirac home theater, High End (Munich, Germany)
Reader, I have heard the most high-performing and immersive home theater demo ever delivered at High End Munich and 20 minutes in that dark, speaker-and-screen-filled room wasn't long enough. If you want my full appraisal, you'll find it in the missive I called "Whoever said money can't buy happiness never had a Perlisten/Dirac home theater", but for a potted description of what you could have, read on.
The 15-seat demo room, designed to showcase the extensive talents of three different firms' expertise, combined the intelligence of the new Dirac Live Active Room Treatment software with StormAudio’s powerful ISP Elite MK3 Immersive Sound Processor and a THX Certified Dominus home theater-quality Perlisten 11.7.6 surround sound system.
The speakers? That'd be Perlisten's premium S Series In-Wall Speakers and seven (seven!) subwoofers from its acclaimed D Series. Swedish audio pioneer Dirac (famed most recently for its Dolby partnership in OnePlus' most recent earbuds and in-car audio, but that's just for starters) teamed up with luxury audio heavyweights StormAudio and Perlisten to create this custom-built home theater room and to experience it was to feel each firm roar – even in a room devoid of an enclosed ceiling, at a temporary trade show.
The StormAudio ISP Elite MK3 Immersive Sound Processor featured in this setup provides up to 24 channels of decoding and upmixing for the most sought-after immersive surround formats, including Auro-3D, Dolby Atmos, DTS:X Pro, and IMAX Enhanced, while also offering 32 channels of post-processing, the most advanced version of Dirac Live, and the state-of-the-art StormAudio Expert Bass Management.
In this jointly-delivered custom home theater, jet engines propelled me and afterburners rumbled the seat beneath me as Maverick (aka Pete Mitchell, aka Tom Cruise) swerved his F/A-18E Super Hornet through the most difficult mission he's ever attempted, in Top Gun Maverick.
Then, we were soaring through the Pandora skies as Lo'ak tries to help out during the invasion of his home, gripping tightly to his Ikran in Avatar: The Way of Water.
Photos don't do it justice. The Perlisten speakers, while stunning, are largely built into the walls – you're not supposed to see them; it's all about the movie. And this home theater room is one of the best I've ever had the pleasure of sitting in.
Pricing? It's hard to put a solid figure on it all because installation costs and other variables will of course come into play. But when you consider that a single pair of Perlisten's S7t speakers come in at $15,990 / £16,000 / around AU$24,000, it's certainly more expensive than any of the best home theater systems of 2023 in our roundup.
Suffice to say again (and if the good people at Dolby turn me down), I'm going to need one of my own.
L-Acoustics L-ISA Highgate (London, UK)
This is immersive, but tastefully done, Atmos at its most otherworldly best. I've been a fan of L-Acoustics for several years; the company makes some of the best audio products for the discerning listener out there. You know the huge banana-like black speaker arrays you see suspended at gigs? That's an L-Acoustics innovation.
To put what L-Acoustics is doing with Atmos into context, most traditional Dolby Atmos home theater systems feature a 5.1.4 configuration, aka a central channel speaker in front of the listener, two either side of that but further out, and two behind the listener (all angled in to face the 'sweet-spot'), plus a subwoofer, and four overheard speakers.
L-Acoustics' Ocean showroom in Highgate, London, is a majestic 18.1.12 system, comprising 18 of the company's celebrated Syva speakers, no fewer than 25 subs holding down the low end, and 12 overheads. It's a total of 45 talented speakers, and up to 55,000 watts of power.
I recently listened to Porcupine Tree's latest album, CLOSURE/CONTINUATION on this incredibly immersive and talented Ocean system, but while working on TechRadar's sister publication, What Hi-Fi? I also spent time enjoying the L-ISA Island proposition in that same space, a 3m by 4.2m rotating and speaker-filled sofa including "Bubble Deck" physical music source and a descending screen (compatible with Dolby Atmos and DTS:X formats) to watch an excerpt from the Los Angeles musical experience, Cages. It's intense – like Terry Gilliam's Monty Python animations meets grime music – and as the sound ensconces you, the jagged visuals are accompanied by actual shakes of the Island.
To get granular, in its fullest configuration, the Island is equipped with 13 concert grade front speakers, five rear speakers and five overhead speakers. Axial symmetry tech favoured by recording studios has been harnessed by L-ISA engineers here, promising transparent and precise listening.
Two subwoofers, located at the rear of the Island, are equipped with transducers set in an ultra-rigid cabinet – crafted in beech. Two large laminar vents extend the playback of the lowest frequencies into the infra-low range without distortion. Below 20Hz, the vibrations palpable through the Island add that physical sensation, blurring the sensorial boundaries between hearing and feeling (see my Sonic Lamb "eargasm" headphones feature for a fuller explanation on this).
The L-ISA Player sends digital audio signals to control circuits located at the heads of the 24 amplifiers, each of which promises to deliver 1 kW of power – a total of 24,000W of amplification.
Prices? Island starts at around €358,700 (so around $385k, £308k or AU$600,500 – visit L-ISA for more information) but that really is a baseline figure and if you want it, you must expect additional costs and installation fees.
Can the speakers used in L-Acoustics' bigger Ocean be fitted in your home? Of course they can, and you don't have to spring for the full 48-strong Ocean package either – much as I would need to have it all. Prices for L-Acoustics' S-Series Syva 2.0 package (comprising two Syva speakers, two Syva Low, one LA4X amplified controller) start at €18,510 – not including installation or VAT.
If you love music and want a new experience in immersive audio done right, I urge you to find a Pitchblack Playback event near you and go along. And if you're a Londoner who wants to check out L-Acoustics Ocean or the aforementioned Island, the company hosts regular evening listening sessions, so keep your ear to the ground on that too. I promise you'll be glad you did.