A Unique Privilege
We lovers of performance-grade a/v systems are in a very unique position, due primarily to the fact that the manner in which we experience media is markedly more detailed on systems with deliberate audio and visual enhancements. Any dedicated system—be it a $50 Home Theater In a Box or a $50,000 high-end setup—will offer an experience that far surpasses the standard television speakers. Gaming generally provides a uniquely satisfying experience to home theater enthusiasts because it offers exposure to wholly dynamic, object-based sound mixes--a truly ear opening experience to be sure.
As time has progressed, video game systems have morphed into complete media juggernauts. 2005 saw the birth of the game console as a media machine and manufacturers of high performance gaming systems have been advancing that concept ever since. The two current high performance game consoles are the Microsoft Xbox One and the Sony PlayStation 4. Although I own both systems, this is a review of the Xbox One—for no other reason than the fact that it is the superior machine for integration into a home theater setup.
The Xbox One is essentially a mid-grade gaming computer with some proprietary tweaks. Technically, it's nothing special; however, as we watch emerging technologies become mainstream, it's important to note that technology by itself is useless without innovative implementation. The Xbox One does have quite a few innovative uses of existing and emerging technologies, as well some less-than-exciting implementations of existing technology.
Utilizing an AMD 8-core processor (1.75Ghz) and an ATI Radeon graphical processing unit (GPU), the Xbox One is able to handle games at 1080p (1920x1080 resolution) with ease. The frame rate of these games vary between 30 frames per second (fps) and 60 frames per second (fps). It is, however, important not to use frame rate as the sole factor in quality determination.
The Xbox One is infrared (IR) controllable, unlike the PlayStation 4 which cannot be controlled by IR or Bluetooth remotes. This means that it can be integrated comfortably with a home theater system and controlled via a universal remote. Users of universal remotes like iRule will relish in the customizable control possibilities.
Having used its predecessor--the Xbox 360--for years, setting up the Xbox One was very straightforward, which is to say, the setup experience is no different from setting up any other addition to your system. The basics: power, connectivity, and a/v, are the only requirements to get started.
Well, not the only requirements...
There is also the giant elephant in the room known as Kinect. Microsoft's implementation of Kinect in the Xbox One is actually quite effective [more in this later]. The motion controls are quite responsive, and while I'm not sure there's a place for motion controls in gaming, there's definitely a place for voice control. The Kinect has a direct, proprietary connection on the rear of the Xbox One unit and lights up with a slightly muted Xbox logo when powered on.
Once the hardware is connected, the next step is to power on the unit and connect to your network. Once a network connection is established, you will either transfer your existing gamer tag from your Xbox 360 or you create a new gamer tag and you're ready to dive into all the system has to offer.
Features and Use
The Xbox One is capable of 2D Blu Ray disc playback via a seamlessly integrated Blu Ray application. Playback of Blu Ray discs is almost flawless and offers perhaps 90% of the performance I get from my reference Oppo BDP-105D. Blu Ray playback, however, only scratch the surface of the capabilities of the Xbox One. Thanks to the Xbox "App Store," users can enjoy a broad range of applications from media powerhouses like Hulu Plus to niche favorites like Machinima. Every supported streaming service is first downloaded from the app store and is thereafter available on the system itself.
The voice control integration made possible by Kinect plays a major role in the superb application experience and has changed the way I enjoy my media. Users can open apps by verbally prefacing the app name with "Xbox go to." For instance, if a user wants to access Hulu Plus, he or she simply says the words "Xbox go to Hulu Plus," and the system will launch Hulu Plus immediately from the home screen. If the user is in another app, the system will put that activity in stasis and switch to the Hulu Plus application. When watching media, uttering "Xbox Play," "Xbox Pause," and other transport commands will execute those commands. Just a warning: the Xbox will not detect your voice if your media is being played back at reference volume. Trust me; I've tried.
When directly comparing the Xbox One to the Sony PlayStation 4, it became quite clear that the two systems were deliberately designed to move in two different directions, with the former veering toward media dominance and the latter veering toward a gaming. That being said, the Xbox One provides a very satisfying gaming experience. The Xbox One controller has a very comfortable feel to it. Anyone who has used an Xbox 360 controller will be right at home. Microsoft claims that a plethora of changes have been made to the controller; however, in my hands, it feels only slightly different during use. Oft-times, I forgot I was playing Xbox One and just felt like I was playing "an Xbox."
The a/v experience available from video games is simply astounding, which is not surprising given the extremely high production budgets baselined by the production studios. For example, Call of Duty: Ghosts is, by far, the best experience I've had on the Xbox One. The graphics weren't groundbreaking, but they were solid and stutter-free. Every skyline, jungle, and building was artfully and impressively reproduced. The sound conveyed over HDMI is crystal clear and the channels are clearly defined. This is as much a testament to the advances in game design and production values as it is a testament of the Xbox One's ability to deliver a truly outstanding A/V treat with the right source material.
Since the days of the Sega Genesis, I have been a dedicated gamer. As my passion for home theater has grown, I have been quite pleased that the gaming systems are able to deliver experiences that scale to each individual's system. The Xbox One is more a spectacular glimpse into the future of media playback than it is a glimpse into the future of gaming. With that said, as an overall device, the Xbox One provides a spectacular end-to-end experience for any end-user fortunate enough to own one.
Speakers: Triad Platinum LCRs
Subwoofer: Dual (2) Seaton Submersive HP+
Pre/Pro: Theta Digital Casablanca 3-HD Home Cinema Controller
Amplifiers: Emotiva XPR-1 Monoblocks
Display: Panasonic ST130
System Control: iRule Pro