Daily Blog – John E. Johnson, Jr. – February 23, 2008: BLACK LEVELS? I WILL SHOW YOU BLACK LEVELS!

I went to a movie theater today, for the first time in a long while. I usually wait until the movies come out on DVD. But, I just had to go see No Country for Old Men.

My home theater is better than the Cineplex by a long shot. I have told people this, and they agree when they come over to watch movies at my home.

What I have referred to in the past was image sharpness and sound quality. Image sharpness because the Cineplex projects the films using anamorphic lenses,  and some sharpness loss occurs with this process. My sound system is also better because I have my surround speakers in the rear where they belong, and the Cineplex has them all along the side to be able to give surround sound to a huge audience. I use amplifiers that have quite a bit of bias into Class A. The Cineplex does not do that.

But, today, I paid attention to the black level. I haven’t worried about that in previous theater visits because it was before black levels were such a big issue in flat panel TVs (like I said, I haven’t gone to the Cineplex in a LONG time). In those days, we were all so excited to even see flat panel displays, we didn’t criticise them for this detail (and they were pretty bad).

What I noticed was that the black level on the Cineplex screen was actually worse than any of the LCD or Plasma HDTVs that we have tested or have seen at TV stores in the last year. This is because (1) the illumination for a theatric presentation is in the thousands of watts.  It is very, very bright. (2) the black areas on film are not completely opaque to light. They are dark, but not totally so. If you hold a piece of film that has been completely exposed to light and developed, up to even a low wattage conventional incandescent bulb, you can easily see the bulb through the film.

This particular Cineplex is very new, having been constructed in the last two years. So, it’s not because of old optics or old screens, or anything like that.

My point? With the latest crop of flat panel HDTV displays, we are seeing black levels that are far better than we have ever had at the Cineplex. I don’t think that the director’s intent when making the movie, is that we see a very dark gray in the deep shadows of a dark scene. So, the home theater now has the potential to deliver a superior visual experience. This is especially so when I consider that I also noted that the Cineplex image was not quite as sharp in detail as current 1,920×1,080 HD displays when movies are being shown on them.

It was also not as good as my 720p DLP projector that has two bulbs to give me a calibrated image with about 1,800 lumens, let alone some of the other projectors we have reviewed that really are tuned to deliver spectacular black levels.

Perhaps this is one more reason producers are going forward with more 3D films, like Journey to the Center of the Earth that I saw being advertised in the lobby of the theater today, for release mid-2008. We can’t watch those at home . . .  yet.

3 Responses to “Daily Blog – John E. Johnson, Jr. – February 23, 2008: BLACK LEVELS? I WILL SHOW YOU BLACK LEVELS!”

  1. Wonderboy Says:

    You seem to have a very “negative” view of film, but keep in mind that 99.99% of all motion pictures are still shot on film, Its funny that your probably one of those guys that insists that new releases on vinyl sound better than digital, even though the original recordings and mix-downs are done on digital consoles. Film still blows away digital video for one simple reason…dynamic range, do the math. You would need a camera capable of capturing in real-time 24bits per color to even come close to the exposure range of film, the very best in the state of the art right now is 10bit D5, and that’s with 4-4-4 color space compression.

  2. John Johnson Says:

    There is no question that film is still superior to digital in some respects, including dynamic range, but what I am referring to is just the black levels that are seen at commercial theaters. They are not nearly as black as the blacks on a modern HDTV display or front projector.

    As to the vinyl vs. CD, I am a fan of SACD at this point. I haven’t owned a turntable in nearly 20 years.

  3. Kieran Says:

    Maybe it’s because I go to the theater more often than you (apparently) do, but I’ve been saying this for YEARS. Black levels at the theater are mediocre at best. But I don’t use this as a reason to disparage the cineplex, instead I’ve used it as a reason to try to tell people not to be so obsessed with black levels at home.

    “Film-like” is one of the highest praises reviewers and consumers alike can and do bestow upon TV’s or video processors (be they in a disc player, a tv, a receiver, or standalone). If “film-like” is our reference, then we’re wasting our time and money fretting over black levels and resolution in our home TVs.

    To my eye, the biggest factor in picture quality is video processing. I hate seeing video processing artifacts, be they pixellation or combing, or CUE blurring, or whathaveyou. This is part of why I love the reviews from Secrets, because you guys have a good history of paying attention to and trying to quantify video processing, whereas most other sites focus on black levels, and leave video processing to qualitative statements like “crisp, sharp, window-like, 3D, blah, blah, blah.”

    Don’t get me wrong, black levels are important, I recently bought a 50″ plasma, and between the two models I could afford, the black level was the thing that made the difference. But give me a set with poor video processing and great black levels, or one with medium blacks but top-notch processing, and I’ll go with the latter. “Medium blacks” on a modern hdtv is probably still way better than what you get at the local cineplex. I’ll tell you what, when I walk out of the theater from a film like “Batman Returns” (very dark) I don’t hear people complaining about how washed out the dark scenes were! :-)

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