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"BIG PICTURE": DIGITAL THEATER AND LOUNGE BLOWS THEM
AWAY IN SEATTLE
Beneath Seattle's ultra-trendy El Gaucho steakhouse, down a grand terrazzo staircase, past the sweeping intricately carved oak bar... (Don't stop... You can order a drink later.) Head straight for the oversized, padded doors at the back of the room, because you've heard what's behind those doors... a digital theater with an 10-foot x 20-foot TV-screen and a Dolby AC-3 Surround Sound system that just may be the killer cinematic entertainment experience to be had anywhere.
Big Picture, a 3,800 square foot lounge and digital theater in the Belltown area of Seattle, is the creation of husband and wife team, Mark and Katie Stern, who are Programming Director and President, respectively, of the company. Opened in late May, Big Picture, according to Mark Stern, is the first "digital/internet theatre" of it's kind in the country. For image size and quality—delivered by a VistaGRAPHX 5000 DPL digital projector from Electrohome onto a AT Series Flexible MicroPerf screen from Stewart Film Screen, Inc.—and for sound quality—via DVD and nine loudspeakers, augmented by three subwoofers, all from Tannoy—there's probably not much to compare it to outside of a few high-end corporate presentation rooms and Hollywood screening rooms.
Certainly, Mark Stern's concept of a combination digital theater/upscale lounge has no real competition—not for many, many miles around.
So push open the padded doors, enter the theater... No matter where you sit, you enjoy excellent sight lines from 88 plush, luxury rockers with cup holders. (In the front row, you can rest your feet on ottoman.) A discreet waiter or waitress is happy to take your drink order. MandM's arrive in a decorative bowl, Twizzlers on a silver platter, and popcorn in a champagne bucket, accompanied by green and red hot sauce.
"Our corporate clients have been Boeing, MTV, The Fashion Group, ‘Almost Live' (the NBC TV show), and the Screen Actors' Guild," says Mark. "Rupert Murdock has been here to check out the room. Executives from HBO, Showtime, and BMG have also come in to take a look. Not bad," he adds, "for being open only five days."
For 23 years, Mark was the film buyer for one of the top first-run art film houses in the country: Wilmette Theater in Chicago (near Northwestern University), which he managed for his father. What precipitated the move from film to digital imaging? A combination of motivators. "I offered to buy my father's company from him so he could retire," he says. "But my father had no interest in living the life of a retiree. Secondly, both Katie and I were ready for a life-style change."
His "epiphany," as the puts it, laughing, came a little over a year ago when he realized that high-definition broadcast had arrived, and that digital projection systems were able to deliver a near-film quality image. "I thought: if I build a hip nightclub and theater, not only will I draw customers at night, but I could keep the theater booked in the daytime with corporate business."
As for the business decision to located in Seattle, Mark says: "Movie grosses per capita are often higher here than in New York City. I knew Seattle is where we wanted to be."
Sound and Picture
Mark began the selection process for his critical sound and digital projection equipment by interviewing dealers and manufacturers. Then he attended INFOCOM in Dallas. "I went to the shootout," he says, "where all the projectors are lined up and playing the exact same thing in sync. The Electrohome digital projector blew them all away. Then I went to the audio manufacturers' demo rooms... Tannoy had the best sound system I ever heard in my life. So I contacted both manufacturers."
The surround sound system
Behind the projection screen in the 35-foot x 50-foot theater space, are three Tannoy T300 loudspeakers for the Left-Center-Right channels. The T300 uses a 12" dual concentric driver capable of producing more than 131dB at full power. The surround speakers (left rear and right rear discrete channels) comprise three pairs of Tannoy i-12 full-range, dual concentric loudspeakers that can produce as much as 126dB with 45Hz to 21kHz frequency response. Two pairs of i-12's are installed on the side walls, and a single pair on the rear wall of the theater.
Two Tannoy B-950, dual 18" subwoofers are used for the dedicated ELF (Effects Low Frequency) channel, and a Tannoy B-475, single 18" sub for the center channel.
"People who think they know sound listen to the Tannoy system we installed in the theater," says Mark, "and they can not believe it. This sound system is jaw-dropping... I believe that sound is more than 50% of the high-definition theatrical experience. With the Tannoy system, I think we have the best sounding room of its size in the country. And I'm willing to prove it to anyone, anytime."
Pacific Pro Audio (Seattle) principal, Michael Gardner, helped with equipment specification for the theater and finished out the installation. With assistance from Puget Sound and Light's Kevin Sutherland, Gardner balanced the outputs of the six discrete channels of the surround system. Sutherland has been retained as audio/video consultant to Big Picture.
Straightforward audio chain
Audio signal for the system comes directly out of the DVD player for all channels. The audio chain is very straightforward, as follows: from the DVD player into a surround sound processor, to a BandK programmable switch box, to three Rane parametric EQ's for the L-R-C and discrete rear channels, to Tannoy TX-2 and TX-3 controller/crossovers, to four QSC 2400 amplifiers, terminating at the Tannoy controllers, which are part of the T300 and i-X speaker systems.
"We have an acoustically neutral space here," says Big Picture house engineer, "Spain" McMillen, "so I haven't felt the need to EQ the system except to compensate for the inevitable slight loss you get anytime you have sound cutting through a perforated screen. You need to make some adjustments to the high-end of the signal." "The clarity of the sound from this system is what impresses me most. It's hyper-real, so thick you could almost take a bite out of it... For music, it puts you really inside. For action flicks, it's the scariest thing I've ever heard. Not loud or ear-piercing, but menacing, life-threatening."
First and best
Clearly, Mark Stern likes being first and likes being best. Big Picture is such a cutting-edge concept, with the technology and style to back it up, that it's hard not to agree with Mark's claim to both for his venture. Why argue anyway? Just rock back and enjoy the digital picture and hair-raising Sonics.