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Electronic Entertainment Systems

Modern entertainment systems can make your yacht sing.

October 4, 2007
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Not too many years ago, a television aboard a yacht was considered quite extraordinary. Today, budgets for incredibly sophisticated onboard theater and sound systems can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars without raising an eyebrow.

Even those who view their yachts as getaways from the audio-visual clutter of everyday life find themselves poring over catalogs and options lists to select the latest in entertainment systems. “It’s just for the resale value”, they like to say, but in fact, they rather fancy the idea of enjoying concert-quality background music or viewing the latest movies on theater-size screens.

Modern entertainment systems have become so complicated that the advice I heard most often while researching this story was, “Hire an expert”. The sheer complexity of today’s onboard systems has spawned a new breed of cyber-geek: the systems-integration specialist. If you’re not prepared to confidently discuss questions such as “Can ATSC tuners decode encrypted QAM signals?” or “Do I need a port-of-deployment device?” then an expert should implement your system.

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As you would an interior designer, you should call in the systems integrator at the start of your yacht project. After all, not only must you have the right wiring running throughout the yacht (a good entertainment system takes a lot of cable), but someone needs to consider objectives ranging from achieving flawless sound (windows on yachts are a sound-reflecting nightmare) to ensuring each piece of the system is accessible for service.

But whether you are planning for a 50-footer or a megayacht, you should understand where onboard entertainment systems are today and where they’re going tomorrow.

Televisions are the most visible symbol of the brave new world of onboard entertainment-the word “plasma has joined “anchor and “bilge in the realm of nautical lingo. But hang on to your flat screens, folks, because even newer types of video displays are on the horizon.

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Note that I didn’t call them “televisions, because the receiver and tuning function of your classic cathode-ray TV set has been separated from the big flat screens now called displays. Some conventional TVs have screens that are literally flat, but this high-tech discussion will focus on displays that are both flat and ultra-thin.

Flat screens are a blessing to yachts of all sizes, because they occupy less space than the bulky boxes that once consumed space in our living rooms. A thin plasma display can hang on a bulkhead like a piece of artwork, or can pop up from a normal-size cabinet.

Sony has debuted the XBR line of plasma displays. Pushing the size envelope is the new 61-inch XBR, which uses Sony’s proprietary WEGA system. (WEGA incorporates advanced digital circuitry to maximize the video from any incoming source.) With removable speakers and a floating screen, the XBR is simplified for use aboard yachts.

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But breadth is just one selling point for plasma displays, and the PureVision display from Pioneer, available in 50- and 43-inch models, claims a breathtaking 1 billion colors.

Now appearing with frequency aboard yachts are liquid crystal displays (LCDs), which improve on plasma in several ways. They are thinner and lighter, which makes them easier to install. They also have higher contrast, greater screen brightness, and most important, they are more visible in bright areas. They also last longer than plasma displays, and if images are left on screen for long periods, LCDs won’t be damaged.

The newly introduced Sharp Aquos wide-screen LCDs not only have exceptional brightness, but they offer true 170-degree viewing angles for flexibility aboard yachts. Sharp offers displays up to 37 inches, but sources at the company said considerably larger displays will be available in the near future.

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Another new entry in the LCD war is Audiovox, a company with six new LCDs, including a 30-inch wide-view unit with built-in speakers. For stateroom use, Audiovox also offers LCDs in screen sizes from 12 to 20 inches.

Next up the food chain of video gear are projection systems. Rear projection has been a Super Bowl necessity in homes for decades because it provides high-quality images and a super-large screen at a reasonable price. From a yachting standpoint, though, rear projection grabs too much floor space.

A better approach is front projection, which is essentially a miniaturized version of the systems used in movie theaters. A projector is installed, often as a swing-down unit from the overhead, and the size of your screen is limited only by the space available.

Front projectors were once costly, but units using new computer-based technology such as the DLP (Digital Light Processing) chip from Texas Instruments, are now competitive with plasma displays and LCDs. A second emerging technology is the liquid-crystal-on-silicon (LCOS) projector, such as the one from JVC. Both systems are likely to appear on yachts soon.

But even the best picture is wasted without good sound. “Surround sound is a misused and misunderstood term, but it is descriptive of a common goal for high-end audio/video systems: The sound should put you in the middle of the action. Audio has its own terminology, starting with 2.0, which describes normal stereo with left and right channels. If you’re watching Top Gun, for example, you’ll hear a jet approach from the left and depart from the right. 5.1 provides five channels for surround sound with five speakers and a subwoofer, which allow the sound of Top Gun to envelop you on the front and sides. Next is 6.1, which has an additional rear channel for true surround sound. A number of DVDs have 6.1 encoding, so the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park rattle the walls, and some manufacturers offer 7.1, which splits the rear speaker into two channels.

Taking full advantage of the sound available both by satellite and DVD, Pioneer has created the VSX-2012, a seven-channel, 100-watt digital audio/video receiver that allows better control over the theater experience and, according to Pioneer, raises multi-channel music and movies to the next level.

There has been a subtle shift in onboard sound systems, partially as the result of a maturing market but due mostly to evolving technology. Just as college students once based their stereo purchases on the biggest speakers they could afford, yacht owners also chose big boxy speakers to showcase their stereo investment. This thinking was underscored by audio experts, who believed that the only good sound was one coming from a box.

Today, the essence of a good onboard audio system is “heard but not seen. Sophisticated yacht owners are keeping quality sound but eliminating the clutter of bulky speaker boxes with in-wall systems and unobtrusive speakers. Sonance’s Extreme in-wall speakers, for example, offer incredible sound quality and are so waterproof they can be used in a sauna. The company’s Ellipse speaker, installed in your yacht’s overhead, provides surround sound even for listeners who are against a wall.

Of course, all the segments of a serious audio/visual system are interlocking; the “garbage in, garbage out rule is in effect. To do justice to sophisticated entertainment systems, most yachts now rely on digital satellite signals. The simplest satellite tracking systems rely on compass-driven antennae, but these are really only suitable for quiet anchorages.

Even with satellite reception, a good DVD player is essential. DVD players can range from simple single-disk players to sophisticated systems that store hundreds of movies. At the cutting edge of the digital-disk-player realm is the Linn Unidisk 1.1, which not only handles a variety of disk formats, but boasts precise optical processing that should deliver great sound and video.

While modern televisions accept high-definition input, DVDs predate high-definition television (HDTV), so they don’t provide true high definition. DVDs aren’t dead by a long shot, but you can expect new systems in the not-too-distant future.

One of these, D-VHS, seems like a throwback to the old low-quality VHS cassettes that were largely replaced by DVDs. This may be the revenge of videotape, however, because D-VHS cassettes can play and record in HDTV format, providing the highest-quality images available. Not many movies are yet available in this format, but the systems are beginning to appear on yachts. The downside of D-VHS is that it brings back the stowage problems of bulky tape cartridges. With the Federal Communications Commission pushing for all-digital broadcasting by 2006, there will likely be a shift toward HDTV systems such as D-VHS.

When considering an onboard entertainment system, a yacht owner faces a number of hurdles; as one audio/video expert noted, “the difficulties are appalling. Think of your favorite movie theater, which has soft walls that don’t reflect sound, carefully angled architecture to focus sound, and darkness that makes color pop off the screen. Then consider a yacht, with hardwood bulkheads and sound-reflecting glass, not to mention the dazzle from reflected sunlight, and you’ll understand the problems. Unless you can set aside a media room to recreate a theater, you’ll have to accept some compromises.

Before you sit down to plan your onboard entertainment system, give careful thought to what you really want. If your need is soft background music, that should be reflected in the system you install. If you want theater-quality movies, that’s another choice.

Plan carefully, choose equipment with an eye to emerging technologies, and you’ll have onboard entertainment that fits your needs, whether you plan to spend $5,000 or $500,000.

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