Last month, I received a call inviting me to examine a couple of showcase home cinema rooms situated inside the reverentially titled ‘Manor House Estate’ in Buckinghamshire near London, exclusively for Home Theater Forum. The showrooms are known collectively as the ‘London Experience Center’ and form part of the UK arm of a Florida-based organization, Absolute Ultimate AV (AUAV), who have set up an operation to cater to an exclusive clientele for the design and installation of superlative home cinemas around the world. Not only does AUAV deliver its bespoke experiences to the rich and famous direct, they act as distributors of some of the most high-end kit available on the market. The company has also recently entered into an agreement with a US-based manufacturer to distribute a new projector to the residential market which, according to AUAV, outperforms all other video displays and will revolutionize the home AV industry. It won’t be cheap, but HTF has been promised an early scoop, so watch this space.
The Manor is located not far from the small town of Beaconsfield and is buried within pleasant leafy suburb territory just west of London. After meeting Nigel, co-CEO of AUAV, in the estate’s magnificent driveway, he led me to a wing of the house accommodating a vast and lofty chandeliered ballroom, which can double up for any number of corporate or leisure activities. Most pressing for my visit, though, was the opportunity to explore the company’s two AV rooms hidden inside this same section of the home. Dropping down a couple of lush carpeted stairs near the entrance to the ballroom, we turned right into The Media Room, a retrofitted standard living room sized space which has been designed by AUAV to be what Nigel calls the “ultimate TV and gaming room.”
The Media Room
That the company bandies around the adjective ‘ultimate’ like it’s going out of fashion is done so with good reason, because most of what is on display here is precisely that. The Media Room houses a 13.4.7 Dolby Atmos audio system with electronics by Lyngdorf and an array of 20 x MP300 loudspeakers by M&K Sound. As well as four M&K X12 subwoofers stacked in two corner-placed towers to the left and right of an 85” Sony ZG9 display, the front LCR soundstage is comprised of what is described as a “phantom line source” with identical MP300 monitors placed above and below the screen. The single row of seats in the room is therefore the only beneficiary of a precisely focused LCR image trained on the axis of the audience’s ears; a row of listeners forward or rearward would not enjoy that same virtual image. The setup is thus optimized for any situation where a non-acoustically transparent video display is deployed. (AUAV originally consulted screen manufacturers – including Sony and Samsung – in the hope of constructing a modular LED video wall, but it was quickly apparent at the time that there were both price and performance shortcomings associated with all solutions on offer. This is bound to change in the future.)
The electronics rack mounted in a luxurious solid oak cabinet at the back of the room brandishes a Lyngdorf MP-60 processor (with custom DSP) and RoomPerfect room correction (plus Steinway custom ‘voicings’), as well as 10 x Lyngdorf SDA-2400 digital stereo amplifiers. The additional channels in the room making up the 13.4.7 configuration, while far exceeding the maximum 16 channel outputs on the MP-60 (including two front soundstage width speakers), are niftily brought about by AUAV’s own ingenious DSP tinkering, or its “secret sauce” as Nigel puts it. This is all part of what the company believes is key to offering its customers an experience, rather than simply a run-of-the-mill AV installation. Meanwhile, source devices consist of Oppo 203 and Panasonic DP-UB9000 4K Blu-ray players, Roku Premiere for streaming duties, Sky Q satellite TV box, Playstation 4 PRO, and XBOX One X Scorpio Edition.
As if the equipment in The Media Room were not enough to plant one’s jaw firmly on the floor, there are a host of exquisite features decking the room’s environmental architecture. In-room lighting is provided by Gradus, the boffins responsible for the space-age electric blue borders found in Dolby Cinemas and IMAX halls. Nigel also painstakingly tested fifty light-rejecting black wall covering materials before settling on the “least reflective fabric in the world” while jointly identifying the inkiest carpet on the market, all to improve video performance and a sense of immersion. Due to the efficacy of Lyngdorf’s RoomPerfect acoustical treatment mitigating properties, there is precious little in the way of bass traps or diffusers, but AUAV applies a fabric walling material by Quiet Interiors straight onto the concrete substructure, and a fiber optic star field with shooting stars by Wiedamark adorns the ceiling, the latter purely for aesthetics. The room is, however, totally silenced with a pro-grade and sound-proofed recording studio door, and zero measurable extraneous noise. System control is courtesy of a custom modified Control4 setup, all managed via a dockable iPad and iPhone app.
After plonking me firmly down into one of his irresistibly comfortable black leather chairs, Nigel dialed up a number of music tracks gleaned from his own hi-res catalog. Even after letting the Lyngdorf scale up two-channel sources to fill the entire speaker array, vocals were still delightfully precision-placed, rounded and full-sounding, as if the performers were in front of us, and confirming that his phantom line source concept is surely unassailable. Guitar strings were plucked with exacting attack superseded by gently receding resonances, while both vertical and horizontal imaging and soundstage depth were nothing short of impeccable.
The Dolby Atmos ‘Amaze’ trailer caused me to hallucinate that cool drops of rain were actually landing on my face and arm, the first time I have experienced such an effect in any home theater demo. A run-through of several chapters from the disc also exhibited the devastating effect of the bass derived from the stacked M&K subs which, while never overblown or misplaced, consumed the room with enough power to not only shake my chair, but cause me immediately to ask Nigel if he had installed D-BOX seats – to which the answer was ‘no’. We reviewed the huge crane shot for the Live Aid scene in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) where the camera enters the stadium and swoops down into the crowd. The effect was to engulf us entirely in the throng as the shrieks and applause whooshed steadily up the side walls and through the overheads. It’s hard to imagine that the performance here can be improved upon, but The Media Room is merely an appetizer…
Dedicated Home Theater
Not far from the entrance to The Media Room is a staircase lined with US one-sheet movie posters leading down to the Dedicated Home Theater. This new build sits within its own steel and concrete frame inside an excavated hole in the ground. So, no expense spared, and if the neighbors needed any assurance that they will not hear bass leakage emanating from the AUAV dedicated cinema (there’s no one living close enough anyway), they’ve certainly got it here. As you step across the threshold and into the space, the first impression is that you are inside your own mini commercial theater. Two rows of luxury seating sit on layered platforms running down a seemingly steep rake, which in turn gives the impression that you are viewing a massive screen at the end of a sizeable professional cinema. Stairs and dais edges provide blue LED guide lights to prevent slipping in the dark and, given that the room includes Nigel’s custom-selected light-absorbent black paneling on all surfaces, there is a very real chance that could happen. (Even when the working lights are on in the theater, you cannot see the outline of vertical sidewall pillars draped in the material.) Furthermore, guests are treated to a 16.5ft-wide piece of vector artwork over the screen depicting a Toy Story image by artist Andrew Timbs which imitates a projected picture due to clever illumination by Anthony Juer Lighting.
As expected, there is a certain amount of commonality between The Media Room and the Dedicated Theater. The theater also uses the exquisite neon-blue lighting fixtures from Gradus, the trademark silencing door and associated unmeasurable noise floor, and of course the aforementioned black wall material and carpets. However, all the AV equipment here is located within a separate room to the auditorium, while the projector itself has its own centered port glass on the rear wall made of a completely non-reflective glass by Edmund Optics.
Unlike the Lyngdorf/M&K combo of The Media Room, the theater sports a Steinway & Sons 9.8.4 Dolby Atmos audio system with five IW-66s (LCR plus widths), a 10ft-high stack of Steinway LS Boundary Woofers (totalling 16 x 12-inch drivers) positioned in the front left and right corners of the room either side of the screen. Sidewall surrounds and rear surrounds comprise Steinway IW26Vs, and IC26s are deployed for the immersive top layer fronts and rears. The entire array is controlled and powered by a Steinway P200 processor, six Steinway A2 digital 4-channel amplifiers and one A1 digital 2-channel amplifier. Naturally, Steinway Lyngdorf’s RoomPerfect room correction and Nigel’s custom-programmed ‘voicings’ tweak the audio performance for the specific space.
AUAV’s chosen beamer is the JVC RS3000/NX9 combined with a professionally calibrated Lumagen PRO video processor operating HDR frame-by-frame dynamic tone-mapping (DTM) and supporting automated aspect ratio detection. The 15ft-wide 2.065:1 aspect ratio constant image area (CIA) projection screen from DT Screens features 4-way automated masking and is fashioned from ATWow acoustically transparent D65 woven screen material. Sources in the beautifully organized equipment rack include Pioneer UDP-LX800, OPPO 205 and Panasonic DP-UB9000 4K UHD Blu-ray players, a ROKU Premiere and SKY Q box.
To kick off a near three-hour session, which passed in what seemed like minutes, Nigel pulled up some sub-mp3 quality audio of club tracks on YouTube to illustrate the sheer power and musicality of the Steinway system. Even with such potentially troublesome source material, the Steinway’s intelligent algorithms prove their worth by ascribing logical enhancements to sub-standard sources. The club tracks we sampled were upscaled to fill every speaker in the soundstage and transformed the room into an almighty floor-thumping Ibiza disco. We also referenced some of the hi-res files we checked out in The Media Room and the increase in articulation of vocals and instrumentation provided by the Steinway were further evident in this larger environment.
The 4K Blu-ray of Life (2017) in the sequence where the airlock is released to eject the marauding alien into outer space blasted the room with such a vivid hurricane of air, it required holding onto the chair arms. As debris flew past the listener, you could track each dislodged item of spaceship material swirling up and down the length and height of the room, while an earthquake of low frequency rumble underscored the entire scene. The opening of Apocalypse Now (1979) on 4K with Dolby Atmos not only isolated each distorted helicopter blade striking the air, but Jim Morrison’s vocal in ‘The End’ appeared to travel forward in the mix as a separate entity providing extraordinary soundstage depth in the front axis.
The JVC projector produced a gloriously cinematic image on-screen, exemplified by the first race of Ready Player One (2018), where a myriad of accurate colors and deep contrast achieved an almost IMAX-like immersive experience. The bar brawl scene and subsequent underground cavern face-off on the 4K disc of Alita: Battle Angel (2019) also displayed how competently the JVC can reproduce almost reference blacks juxtaposed with peak bright highlights for an enormously satisfying HDR experience. All the while, the environmental darkness provided by the light-absorbent room treatment further enhanced the image.
I’m not sure when I will be in the market for a Steinway audio system or a dedicated subterranean home theater, but just having the opportunity to geek out for a day at AUAV’s state-of-the-art facility was nothing short of bliss. Whether you are in the process of seeking out top-of-the-range kit or the kind of experience Nigel and his team can offer, you might want to keep tabs on what his company will be doing in the future. It’s always good to stay abreast of what’s possible. We will look forward to reporting on this intriguing company’s developments in the months ahead.