Home Theater: The User Interface Conundrum

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Home Theater: The User Interface Conundrum

As the editor of a magazine (Playback: playback.avguide.com) that focuses on home theater as one of its central themes, I’ve got to admit that one of the questions that keeps me up late at night is this one:

Why aren’t the joys of home theater more broadly pursued?

In informal polls of friends, neighbors, relatives and office mates the answer I’ve come up with points toward two or perhaps three related problems (or at least perceived problems). 

Cost: Full-on home theater systems are awfully expensive, aren’t they?

  1. Complexity: Home theater rigs involve too much gear and wires running all over the place; who needs that?
  2. Confusion: Even if I had a system, I’d never be able to figure it out. Those remote controls and user interface menus look like they came out of ‘mission control’ at NASA.

In future blogs I’ll talk about home theater’s cost and complexity issues, but for now I’d like to focus in on that third problem spot: confusing user interfaces. They say the first step towards solving a problem is admitting that you have one, so let’s draw a deep breath and say it right out loud:

The remote controls and onscreen user interfaces for many (perhaps most) home theater components are too complex and convoluted for their own good.

In fact, they’re so complex that they can baffle and/or turn off most normal mortals, more than a few self-proclaimed A/V “experts,” and even a good number of theoretically well-qualified custom installers. Not good. If you think I’m making this up or being overly dramatic, then let me share a few anecdotes.

Being an “industry insider” doesn’t necessarily help: Not too long ago had dinner with a technical support specialist for a major A/V company (one with roots in the high-end audio world), during which he shared some sobering—and strictly off-the-record—“war stories” (which is why I’m not giving you the company’s name). The support specialist described being on support calls with dealer’s technicians and asking basic questions such as, “what speaker size and distance settings are you using?” The scary part is that some of those technicians actually replied, “Size and distance settings? What are those, and how would I go about adjusting them?” My point: confusion occurs not only at the consumer level, but at the professional level, too.

Even A/V veterans can be stumped: Some months back I had an eye-opening conversation with a veteran A/V reviewer who was stumped by the user interface of an A/V receiver under review. He called me, sounding very distraught, and basically said, “I’ve tried everything I know how to do, and I can’t get this thing to work.” I could relate to his frustration. The poor fellow had tons of experience (more than 200 A/V receiver reviews to his credit), yet was in this instance tripped up by the fact that a few critical but arcane details were buried in the deepest, darkest, least obvious fine-print recesses of the user’s manual.

Eventually, I downloaded a copy of the manual, did some creative troubleshooting (and, um, “forensic” manual reading), and helped get the reviewer back on track. But it suddenly hit me: if it took an A/V editor who actually likes to read manuals (heaven help me, but it’s true) and a veteran reviewer a conference call plus maybe a man-hour of effort to get a receiver working, what are the odds that a first-time buyer would have success? And realistically, what are the odds that that buyer would be patient enough to read through a manual written in techno-babble-ese with contents organized by a guy who probably designs brain-buster puzzles as a sideline?

Technophobia isn’t the problem: A relative of mine asked for advice on a good, high-performance, low-cost AVR to buy and I gave him some input. In fact, once he settled on the model he wanted to buy, I even arranged to give him some hands-on set-up training to show him how the automated speaker/room EQ setup procedures for his new AVR would work. My intent was to familiarize him with the processes so that they wouldn’t seem foreign or scary.

Several weeks after my relative received his AVR, I did a check-in call to see how things were going. He reported that, before taking the plunge and setting up his system, he decided to do a quick read-through of the manual to review procedures. But instead of achieving success, he found the manual so daunting and confusing that he more or less gave up and decided to use the system primarily as a stereo rig. To this day his surround channel speakers remain boxed up and are sitting in a closet unused!

Is this a classic case of technophobia in action? No way. My relative is a retired aerospace engineer whose instrument designs have flown successfully in U.S., NATO, and Israeli military aircraft. In short, when it comes to technology the man has definitely ‘got game’ and he is no stranger to solving complex problems. Even so, the user interface (and manual) of his new AVR perplexed him in ways that design specs for frighteningly complex aircraft instruments never did. What’s wrong with this picture?

A/V Aficionados Demand Features & Functions Galore,
But the Rest of Us Need Clarity & Simplicity


If you follow some of the A/V specialty sites online, you’ll quickly discern that high-level A/V mavens have an almost perverse gift for asking about obscure “corner case” applications, and for demanding that equipment be flexible enough to handle those applications. And manufacturers—ever looking for marketable new features and functions to tout—are happy to oblige. But here’s the rub.
 

A product flexible enough to satisfy the A/V cognoscenti will often—as a matter of course—be too complex for normal mortals to use or enjoy.

None of this, sadly, has much to do with how components actually perform—that is, how they look and sound when playing movies or multichannel music. The problems I’m talking about all have to do with the hurdles people have to jump before they ever get to the fun part of home theater.

A note about our illustration photographs: We include photos of the remote controls and setup menus of three very good products: NAD’s M55 Masters Series universal player, Sony’s BDP-S550 Blu-ray player, and Yamaha’s RX-V3900 A/V receiver. Even where the components provide controls that address similar issues, the button layouts on the remotes and onscreen menu layouts are very, very different. Now imagine how confusing (and daunting) all that “diversity” might seem to a newcomer trying to get his/her components to play well together—or to play at all…

A possible solution: why not standardize set-up and basic playback controls across the industry?

 

Right now, home theater component manufacturers are is in roughly the same position that makers of CD players (and before that, makers of cassette decks) were in back in the bad old days before we had standardized markings for Play, Pause, Track Forward, Track Backward controls, etc. If you can remember back that far (and man am I ever dating myself in mentioning the distant past), then you may remember how frustrating the situation could be; you knew what you wanted a component to do, but not how to get the component to do it. The same situation occurs with certain AVRs and disc players today, only multiplied by layers of complexity. What’s the answer? Industry standards, that’s what.

Realistically, all AVRs require set-up procedures, so why not standardize set-up and basic playback menus to look something like this:

SET UP

  • Speakers System (setting up your speakers)
  • Playback Functions (setting up your receiver/controller to play the various types of material you want to listen to or to watch. Note that this is a function-centric way to tackle the age-old problem of configuring “inputs.”)
  • Customize (use this as a catch-all for various manufacturer-specific custom set-up options)

PLAYBACK

  • Choose Material (instead of choosing inputs as is now the norm, let’s focus on what really matters—the material we want to play. Note that this approach let’s us take into account the fact that certain components—universal disc players, for example—behave very differently depending on the type of material being played).
  • Choose Sound Options (choose from among basic sound options)
    • Stereo
    • Industry Standard Surround Sound Options (Dolby, DTS, THX, perhaps Circle Surround)
    • Proprietary Sound Options (use this as a catch all for various manufacturer-specific customization options).
  • Make On-The-Fly Adjustments
    • Volume/Mute
    • Adjust Channel Levels
    • Adjust Tonal Balance (tone controls)

These are just some very rough ideas that could, no doubt, be improved upon if an industry-wide consortium put its collective brainpower to the task. But my point is that we would all benefit if certain basic, everybody’s-got-to-do-‘em tasks were handled the same way across all brands of gear. After a time, then, home theater experts and newcomers alike would have a comfortable, shared, working knowledge of how to operate home theater gear—at least at a level sufficient to get high-quality movie and music playback going, which is what this sport is all about.  

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