Deep in my basement lies the land of lost technology.
Turn on the light, walk down the stairs, and you will find the remnants of a lost entertainment era: old 45 records with a big hole in the middle, plastic turntables, eight-track tapes, black-and-white TVs, reel-to-reel recorders, Beta VCRs and, last but not least, a quad-stereo system.
This assortment of nostalgic junk is ready for garage sale heaven. And I'm ready for the next generation of home entertainment. I'll pay any price and make any sacrifice to buy the latest newfangled gizmo that brings me the joy of sitting in my living room with a beer and popcorn while listening to music or watching videos.
My only problem is that I'm always a technological generation behind. As soon as I buy Beta, the world turns to VHS. I get an eight-track, and cassettes are in season. It's maddening and expensive to get caught in a time of change in entertainment technology -- which brings us to 1999.
This year everything is changing, and changing fast, in home entertainment. Hang on to your wallets and get ready to rock, because we are entering a brave new world of sound, video and information. All you need to enter this world is money, lots of it.
The home entertainment revolution can be summed up in one word: digital. That word keeps popping up in the alphabet-soup codes for such products as DVD, HDTV and DDS. All you need to know about these strange-sounding names is that the D stands for digital.
Basically, digital is electronic technology that generates, stores and processes data. Digital greatly improves sound and picture quality by transmitting more data at a faster pace. Before digital, analog was the main technology used to transmit electronic data.
Here's a way to understand the difference between digital and analog. Think of moving 4,000 people on a highway that can carry only 1,000 cars. Analog would offer only one person per car; digital accommodates four. Digital moves more information at a faster pace.
I learned about all this during the recent Christmas season when I ventured out to buy a stereo. I thought I'd go into the electronics store and say, "Give me a stereo."
The guy behind the counter says, "Do you want your analog, digital, pro-logic, DTS or Dolby Digital?"
I say, "What in the heck are you talking about?"
He says, "I've got to know your needs, so you can use it with your DVD and HDTV."
I say, "What about my BVDs?"
This is the kind of thing you have to know these days when you want to buy a machine to listen to music. The stereo receiver you buy is a vital part of your system, because today, sound is as important as video. All because of DVDs.
The hottest-selling electronics item in years is DVD, digital versatile (or video) disc. DVDs came out in March 1997, and have sold nearly 1.5 million units. Christmas was boom time for DVDs, which gave Furbys a run in the must-have gift department.
DVD players play a compact disc that is just like an audio CD, only this one has video as well as sound. DVD players, which can also play audio CDs, cost around $300 to $500.
DVDs provide high-resolution video and audio and also multiple-language soundtracks, the choice of regular or wide-screen images, camera angles, additional footage, interviews with cast members and other bells and whistles.
In addition to DVD, there is the Divx format. Divx is sold primarily in Circuit City stores and plays discs in a DVD player. The discs cost around $5 for two viewings in a 48-hour period. Essentially it's like renting a video, but you never have to return them. There is another charge to play them again. DVD far outsells Divx, and DVD players with Divx cost about $100 more.
Digital technology allows DVDs to hold more information and produce a picture about twice as good as a VHS machine. DVD movies cost around $15 to $30 and are expected eventually to outsell VHS.
It's not just the picture that sells DVD, but also sound. That's why the audio receiver and speakers are so important. I wound up buying a Dolby Digital receiver, which offers six-channel digital sound (different sounds coming from six speakers), like a theater. That means you need five speakers (left, center, right, right surround and left surround, and a subwoofer, which brings out the bass).
Surround speakers are usually smaller than the others and bring out nuances and other sounds, like when the world blows up on Bruce Willis in "Armageddon." That's the kind of stuff people like me are willing to pay to hear.
Other options in receivers: Dolby pro-logic is four-channel analog, featuring left, center, right and surround sound. DTS: six-channel digital, with left, center, right, right surround, left surround, low frequency effects.
You can spend thousands for a receiver and speakers. I spent around $600, which was good enough for my needs and budget. I bought Dolby Digital because that is the standard sound for all DVD players.
Digital sound will also be the primary audio system for High Definition Television (HDTV), which began last year and is expected to be the standard in the next few years. Digital audio also applies to Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) TV and Digital Cable TV, and Digital Video Cassette (DVC) and Digital Audio Broadcast (DAB).
The big one, though, is HDTV, which will use digital video and audio signals to totally change broadcast television.
Right now, the cheapest HDTV sets sell for about $3,000. That's nearly a 50 percent decline from about six months ago, but still far too expensive for the average consumer. That's why, out of the 27 million TV sets sold in the United States last year, only about 13,000 were HDTV models.
"Digital television must be affordable if consumers are going to embrace it," Susan Ness, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, said recently at a convention of broadcasters. And that's the problem. Until the price comes down, we're going to have to settle for our old analog TVs.
Despite that reality, after I bought my new digital sound system, I figured it was time for a new television. Unable to afford HDTV, I settled for a 32-inch set with a couple of S-jacks on the back.
What is an S-jack? It's a little circle that fits the round-shaped plug for a DVD player. Unlike VCRs, DVDs do not use the so-called RCA plugs that go from video to your VCR video. Instead, the DVD video jack goes to an S-jack on the TV or receiver.
Of course, in the land of home entertainment technology, nothing is simple.
Then there are flat-screen televisions, with digital filters, that cost around $2,000 to $2,500. Digital cameras and digital VCRs hook up to computers and don't need film or videotape. Compact disc recorders are available to record your own CDs, and sell for around $600.
Today some compact disc players can hold 300 audio CDs, which is like having a jukebox at home. Sony makes a Minidisc recorder, featuring recordable CDs about half the size of the standard compact disc; it sells for around $400.
After I buy all this stuff, everything will change again with the next technological revolution. That's why I'm worried. I'm running out of room in the basement.