THX hears the call of consumer electronics

The pioneering audio company founded by George Lucas is working on an entertainment system that automatically adjusts settings for optimum playback.Photos: Getting the THX thumbs-upVideo: Turning up the volume
Written by Greg Sandoval, Contributor
In 1983, Star Wars director George Lucas took aim at decrepit theater sound systems. Whirring air conditioners, fuzzy-sounding speakers and nearby noisy lobbies were obscuring his carefully crafted sound effects.

He founded the company THX to ensure that a theater's playback environment could reproduce sound the way filmmakers meant for a movie to be heard. Audiences loved him for it. More than two decades later, the pioneering company hopes that one of its new technologies, code-named Blackbird, will revamp consumer electronics in the same way.

THX wants to enable DVDs, CDs, video games and digital downloads to communicate with the hardware they play on. The technology embedded in the content will automatically adjust settings so that visual and audio playback is optimal, according to company executives.

Photos: Getting the TXH thumbs-up

As it approaches its 25th anniversary, THX is trying to redefine itself. In the mid-1980s, when those letters appeared on a film screen, moviegoers whooped and cheered. The logo was accompanied by the company's trademarked sound--the one that begins as a hum but rises to an earsplitting crescendo. THX symbolized Lucas, high tech, and thrilling cinematic journeys.

Jump forward and the pioneering audio company is confronted by a consolidating theater industry and entertainment sector jostled by digital technology. To keep up, THX has branched into new areas outside of the core business, which is certifying theater sound systems.

To make a go of Blackbird, THX executives acknowledge they must first convince Hollywood studios and electronics makers to sign on to a new format, and that's never an easy task.

"This is the most ambitious thing we've tried in a long time," said Robert Hewitt, the company's vice president of sales.

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Because Blackbird is still under development, the company isn't releasing details just yet. But management is essentially tackling the same problem that confronted Lucas when he founded THX. Instead of overhauling theaters, the company is trying to remake home entertainment centers. Consumers often buy expensive DVD players or computers, but few know anything about how to squeeze the best sound out of their gear.

When's the last time you adjusted the picture ratio or sound balance and tailored it for a specific movie?

Sound design
To understand how big a leap Blackbird is for THX, one has only to look at its roots. Despite the public's perception, THX was never a cutting-edge sound or recording system.

In the movie Aliens when Sigourney Weaver is face-to-face with the acid-blooded creature whose breathing sounds as if its coming from the next seat, or when Tom Hanks storms the beach at Normandy in Saving Private Ryan and the bullets sound as if they're whizzing past your head, the credit goes to James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, the respective filmmakers.

But THX made sure audiences heard every nuance.

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That's no small feat. At THX-certified theaters, the company's engineers have pored over the blueprints and helped design the building for maximum acoustic performance. To keep out noise from adjoining rooms or the lobby, each auditorium must be insulated by thick walls and carpet. Hard surfaces can cause unwanted reverberation.

Setting audio standards may not sound sexy, and doesn't exactly jibe with Lucas' space-age image, but the privately held company has been profitable for years, Hewitt said. THX's fee for certifying a theater ranges from $9,000 to $15,000 and more than 2,000 theaters worldwide are THX-certified, Hewitt said.

The company, which spun off five years ago from Lucasfilm, is banking that its reputation and expertise can help it compete in other sectors.

THX certifies car and home audio systems, video games, high-end televisions and home projectors, DVDs and recording studios and the company has met with some success. For example, CNET, the publisher of News.com, voted the THX II Certified Car Audio System the best of 2006.

The online edition of Wired magazine wrote in May that THX's system issued sounds "so pitch-perfect, you'll sit back and say, 'Hey, I've never heard that instrument in this song before.'"

Laurie Fincham, THX's chief scientist, highlighted some of the new business ventures during a tour of the company's headquarters on Wednesday.

In one room, Fincham showed off three plastic mushroom-shape computer speakers developed by THX and Razer, a maker of electronics and video game gear. The system, called the Mako 2.1, features two 100-watt desktop satellite speakers that aren't much larger than coffee mugs. Sandwiched inside are a midrange speaker and narrow tweeter. The midrange is pointed down, designed to reflect sound off the desktop.

The Mako 2.1, which goes on sale this fall and will retail for $299, is designed to distribute sound evenly throughout a room. This contrasts with most computer speakers, which tend to be built for listening from just a couple feet away.

The products are significant because they illustrate THX's attempt to take part in development rather than just giving products a thumbs up or thumbs down.

Getting involved early helps the company influence manufacturers to strike out and try new technologies and ideas. The sales pitch often means convincing electronic makers that offering a competitive price doesn't always mean sacrificing performance.

"If we don't say how it's possible, it isn't going to come from the normal manufacturing resources," Fincham said. "Most companies are outsourcing their (research and development) and relying on suppliers. The suppliers just respond to the requests of their customers. What we are saying is there may be another way."

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