Songza & Pandora: Affordable Music Discovery

3d1I try to use a variety of streaming music services. Not simply because I write about consumer tech and home theater, but also because music streaming is such a dynamic and competitive space. Services are continually enhancing their features and expanding their song catalogs.

But my family keeps coming back to two services: Pandora and Songza. Pandora is one of the most popular music discovery services in the world. Songza, on the other hand, is relatively unknown. Both are also among the most affordable music services—Songza being free, while Pandora can be had ad-free for as little as $3 per month. Both also support Chromecast, important for listening on a real set of speakers or your comfortable living room home theater.

While I listen, commercial-free, to the Kenny Barron Trio on Songza’s Jazz for Reading station, enjoy my latest blog post (an excerpt from Home Theater for the Internet Age). And while you’re at it, check out some of the tunes on these great services.

After all, who wants to read in silence?

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Curt Robbins


Songza

Songza, owned by Google, is one of the lesser known and more unique music discovery services. It’s unusual due to how you select radio stations and the lack of paid subscriptions. While free with ads is your only option, the ads are pre-play video commercials and display banners only. From a listening perspective, there are no commercial interruptions. Songza doesn’t offer on-demand listening or locker storage, and supports only a wimpy bit rate of 64 Kbps. Chromecast support gives it an advantage over many otherwise more powerful services, especially among home theater owners.

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Like Pandora and iTunes Radio, Songza imposes skip limits. Overall, it’s an excellent music discovery service with a fresh look and youthful sense of humor. According to Chris Welch at The Verge, Songza is “a music streaming app that places a huge focus on curation and finding the right song for any moment.”

The “right song for any moment” involves Songza generating radio stations based on the time of day or your current situation or activity. For example, when logging into Songza, you’re met with a screen that reads something to the effect “It’s Sunday Late Morning, Play Music for:” that lists “Waking Up Happy,” “Drinking Gourmet Coffee,” “Recovering From Last Night,” and “Working Out.”

Because it’s free, Songza can be a nice alternative to your go-to full-blown on-demand service. It brags that its playlists are curated by a team of 50 experts from throughout the music industry, not computer algorithms. The fact that this free service features no audio ads (which its music-loving founders say “ruin the vibe”) gives it an edge over rivals iTunes Radio and Pandora’s free version.

When casting Songza with Chromecast, the service will display on your TV beautifully crafted screens containing basic song information, including high-resolution, original album artwork. The artwork looks great on a big display panel. These are without a doubt the most attractive song info screens I’ve seen, better than Pandora and Google Music when played via Chromecast, and a lot nicer than iTunes Radio ala Apple TV. While this might seem trivial, it’s great for home theater owners and takes advantage of your big display panel investment. Sometimes I launch Songza just so I can see those beautiful album covers on my widescreen TV! And now my kids actually know who Miles Davis is.

I strongly recommend checking out Songza—but only if you live in North America, the territory to which it’s limited (it’s one of the few services available in Canada). Now that it’s owned by Google, anticipate bit rates and other aspects of this service to improve or expand. There’s a reason Songza won PC Magazine’s Editor’s Choice for free music streaming service.

Pandora

Pandora, probably the most recognized music streaming service, has more than 75 million monthly listeners and 250 million registered users. Ironically, it’s also one of the most limited services in terms of functionality. Pandora popularized the “radio” listening format, streaming a constant flow of songs related to the name of a custom station. The ability to set it and forget it is one aspect of the service that makes it so popular. However, because this is a radio-only service, there’s no on-demand listening.

Pandora, Songza, Rdio, Rhapsody, and Google Music are currently the only music services to support Chromecast, a major consideration for any home theater owner who would rather listen to music produced by their living room speakers than suffer with the tinny, hollow sound produced by a tablet or laptop or mess with a hard connection from their mobile device to their AV receiver (if the receiver even supports it).

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While Pandora’s one million song catalog is significantly smaller than that of most rivals, it is expertly curated and leverages the Music Genome Project, something Pandora claims is the “most sophisticated taxonomy of musical information ever collected.” What this means for the average listener is that Pandora is very good at guessing which songs you’ll actually enjoy. After a bit of training (via thumbs up and thumbs down), Pandora does an uncanny job of choosing songs that you either have already heard and love or new songs that you somehow begin feeling like you can’t live without.

Pandora is available in both free and subscription-based accounts. Free accounts force you to endure audio and display ads, while the $36 per year and $4 per month paid accounts eliminate all commercials, boost the bit rate to 192 Kbps (but only on a PC running Pandora One or via Chromecast), and increase the number of permitted skips and thumbs down.

The biggest disadvantages of Pandora are relatively low bit rate, (especially on the free service), limited availability (only the United States, Australia, and New Zealand), and the repeat of songs due to the relatively small song catalog (more noticeable during longer listening sessions or for very niche stations).

Like Rhapsody, Pandora is also bundled into a significant number of consumer hardware products, such as smart TVs, Blu-ray players, video streaming boxes, and AV receivers (my Pioneer Elite receivers both integrate Pandora access directly into the input menu, as do my Blu-ray players and Panasonic TVs). Pandora is conspicuously absent from Apple TV, but only because Apple offers competing services in the form of iTunes Radio and Beats Music.

For those who reside within its limited global reach, Pandora is an excellent choice. You’re permitted up to 100 radio stations, so you can easily suit a number of listening scenarios and moods. The few bucks a month you toss at Pandora’s ad-free version will always feel like money well spent.

[What’s your favorite streaming music service? Why? Let me and my readers know in the comments below.]

[Also check out Streaming Music: The Types. If you like to drink coffee and listen to music when you read or do online research as much as I do, check out Improving Coffee.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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In Defense of Compact Discs

We’re in the middle of a retro resurgence in the world of high-fidelity music. Vinyl LP sales—even at $20-25 a pop—are surging. According to RadioTimes, vinyl sales in the UK in 2014 have been higher than at any point in the last 18 years. In the U.S, the statistics are even more dramatic.

Said RadioTimes of vinyl in the UK, “Sales have been driven primarily by the Arctic Monkeys, Jack White, and Pink Floyd—with Oasis, Status Quo, and David Bowie also contributing to the impressive figures.”

We must remember that this is regarding the UK market, not the U.S. However, substitute Foo Fighters for any of the artists listed above—with the exception of Jack White—and you get the picture in the States. Vinyl LP sales are higher than they’ve been in decades. They’re greater, in fact, than they’ve been for the majority of the reign of compact discs over vinyl LPs and cassette tapes.DSC_1805 - retouched

According to Wikipedia, “‘Vinyl revival’ is a term being used by the media and listeners of music to describe the renewed interest and increased sales of vinyl records, or gramophone records, that has been taking place in the Western world since the year 2006. The analogue format made of polyvinyl chloride had been the main vehicle for the commercial distribution of pop music from the 1950s until the 1980s and 1990s, when they were replaced by the compact disc.”

I think I expressed my sentiments on this topic as objectively as possible in the Retro Resurgence section of my full-length book Home Theater for the Internet Age. “Today, more retro hipsters are embracing what many consider to be the ultimate in home theater fidelity, vinyl, than at any time in the 30 years since digital compact discs took over. In 2013, Amazon announced that its vinyl music sales were up 745% since 2008.”

More from the book: “Analog vinyl LPs, while several times more expensive than their CD counterparts (similar in price to high-resolution digital music formats like SACD and Blu-ray Audio), offer the finest fidelity money can buy (as well as some old-school analog vulnerabilities that don’t plague modern digital formats).”

Those old-school vulnerabilities are a’ plenty. Vinyl is a frail format, one that’s prone to many problems. Vinyl scratches with little effort and is a willing victim when it comes to static cling. If the needle on your turntable gets hosed, you could damage any record you play.

The entire vinyl food chain, from record groove to needle to cartridge to tonearm to spinning platter, is fraught with fragility and prone to easy damage. Can you say wow and flutter? You’ve probably never heard of or suffered either, because these fidelity-busting turntable problems don’t plague compact discs.

However, unlike most other formats, vinyl delivers what many audiophiles believe is among the best possible fidelity (although much of this is marketing and hype). And clearly, by objective standards of frequency ranges and all those impressive numbers in the world of kHz, it’s among the best (along with high-resolution digital formats, like 32/384 PCM and any 24/192 recording).

I love vinyl. I’m really satisfied to see it survive where other music formats—like 8-track, reel-to-reel, Sony’s MiniDisc, and others—died. But in this celebration of our friend vinyl, let’s pause and consider why music on compact disc rapidly overtook the LP format during the 1980s.

First, CDs are mobile. No, not as mobile as an iPod Shuffle or even a smartphone, but it’s easy to bring along enough music for a very long road trip. While most cars for the past decade or so have featured CD players, LP is a format that doesn’t allow vehicular playback. It’s why people initially purchased home cassette player/recorders; they wanted to make tapes of their albums so they could go mobile and hear them in their car or running with their Walkman.

Second—and probably most important—CDs lack the snaps, crackle, and pops of vinyl LPs. CDs also offer markedly better and perceptible fidelity than cassette tapes. I believe it was the lack of mobility paired with the extremely fragile nature of vinyl, combined with the sonic imperfections of a physical needle being dragged along a groove in high-end plastic, that basically killed the vinyl LP as a mass-market music medium.

I also like that CDs, unlike vinyl, don’t deteriorate just a little with each play. They can also be duplicated–“bitperfectly,” as stated by my acquaintance Frederic Van–with zero loss of quality. A thousand times over. Forever and ever. No, I don’t condone piracy. But if I’ve legally purchased music, in any format or on any media, I want to be able to copy it, for any device and any use, as many times as I desire–with no degradation in fidelity. Not possible with vinyl.

In addition, compact discs provide much better sound quality than the average song downloaded from Amazon or iTunes and played via Bluetooth from your smartphone to your car’s stereo. Bluetooth is inherently low-fidelity. It was designed for the communications of computer printers and pointing devices, not good sound.

In addition, CDs can tolerate much higher temps than vinyl. While the nearly microscopic grooves in vinyl can begin to distort or melt at as low as 200 degrees F (93 C), compact discs can tolerate up to 600 degrees F (315 C). I also don’t need to own special cleaning accessories for my compact discs. I can rid my discs of any nasty stuff with nothing more than warm water and a cotton cloth (avoid products like paper towels and tissue, which can scratch). However, if properly cared for, compact discs rarely require attention or cleaning.

A quick reality check: On Amazon.com, Jack White’s Lazaretto album is $8 as a collection of lossy MP3s (the lowest sonic fidelity), $9.50 on compact disc (middle of the pack in terms of sound quality), and $23 on vinyl (the greatest fidelity possible). Apparently, one gets what one pays for in terms of fidelity.

Compact disc sales in the United States peaked way back in 2000. Since then, the market for music has been consumed by lower fidelity formats from iTunes and Amazon and, more recently, streaming music services like Pandora, iTunes Radio, and Spotify. However, in gaining the convenience of very portable digital downloads or streaming services, we lost fidelity (CDs also deliver much better sound than streaming music).

Yes, there’s nothing as retro sexy or hipster high-end as a good turntable playing a clean record into ample amplification. But as old as it is, the compact disc format does it all while completely avoiding the snaps, crackles, and pops of legacy LPs. This includes the ability to rip original-quality lossless WAV files from CDs (or run-of-the-mill MP3s; your choice).

You can then take these ripped files and play them over your home network using something called DLNA. Store the files on any computer in your home and, using average internet routers and affordable Blu-ray players connected via wi-fi or Ethernet cabling, listen to them on your home theater (or any other device connected to your network, including your mobile gadgets).

Compact discs, I would argue, offer the best compromise between mobility, durability, fidelity, and price. Dollar for dollar, there’s no music format in existence that’s more practical and affordable.

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Curt Robbins

[How do you purchase and consume your music? Share your preferences in the comments below. Thanks to Mark Henninger at AVS Forum for his feedback.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Higher Ed & Corporate Thinking – Part 2

OhioStateUniversityThanks to my colleague Brett Tipton for his contribution to today’s blog post. Brett is a writer, teacher, and public speaker. He brings a great in-the-trenches perspective to the topic of higher education, how well it prepares students for the real world of corporate America, and how corporations themselves—and IT departments, in particular—approach recruitment and the positioning of new hires.

This post began organically enough: Brett published a post to his blog, to which I commented. It went from there.

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Curt Robbins


It’s best to read Part 1 of this dialog before continuing….

Curt

“Good point regarding dissonant voices, Brett.

I’m not necessarily a fan of big corporations. However, in their defense, some rules do need to be established and enforced for the cohesive management of tens of thousands of employees. I often wonder how a big corporation with 50,000+ employees can pull it off. How does Foxconn (the infamous Taiwanese manufacturer that makes many Apple products), with 1.3 million employees, do it? Then again, I’m really digressing, because higher education isn’t really a part of that equation. But someday it will be.

After robotic and fully automated (i.e. nearly humanless) manufacturing takes over (and can do the job even cheaper than China’s pseudo slave labor), everyone in both China and the U.S. will need higher education to obtain a job. Certainly to get on a career track. With little need for blue collar manufacturing labor, high school students will realize they have two options: Pursue higher education or try to get one of the few well-paying trade positions. But most high school graduates will need to pursue higher education to avoid low-paying jobs or unemployment. Many would criticize me and say that we’re already there.

But I digress, Brett. I agree that corporations, the primary benefactors of higher education (other than students themselves), focus mostly on recruitment from our institutions of higher education, not the educational process itself. There are exceptions to this, of course. But the trend—the big picture—is that corporations are concerned with getting the most qualified graduates before their competition.

This has been an area on which IT, specifically, has focused in recent years, due largely to a shortage of qualified software developers, network engineers, and other technical skills. This is one reason why corporate IT imports so many of these skills from India (aside from reducing overhead because this imported talent costs less). When working within the IT departments of several Fortune 500 companies, many of my managers were out-of-office on a regular basis, manning a recruitment desk at a local college campus. The IT departments of smart companies are putting real resources into recruitment.

It begs the question: Should there be two “stages” to a student’s higher education? One in which the student obtains a “real world” education in the area they’ve chosen and another in cultural literacy, like classic literature, history, and philosophy? In other words, how important is cultural literacy versus the hard skills necessary for a particular profession?

I know…this debate could go on forever. I should write 600 page novels, with an approach like this. But I think it all comes down to the fact that corporations, entities that are continually monitoring their overhead expenses and driving from the bottom line, don’t want the expense of being a bigger part of higher education. They have no motivation to help the average student better prepare for the realities of corporate life because they can cherry pick from the best graduates.

Meanwhile, universities are intelligently spending more time focusing on educational curricula that are better at real world prep (like software development, nursing, and video production). Unfortunately, this is often at the expense of cultural literacy and soft sciences like psychology and writing (there’s only so many hours in the day, after all).

Nothing more than food for thought. But something that all of us—children, students, parents, and employees—should take seriously.”


Brett

“I’m not sure of the benefit of cultural literacy, at least in our current system. Most of those classes are required courses and students get through them (pass the test, write the paper, read the book, whatever). But since they are just going through the motions, they really don’t retain much—if any. Trying to teach them Shakespeare doesn’t work until they want to learn Shakespeare. Until that point, they will find a way to play the game. But then, it’s just a game, and learning isn’t the prime objective.

In terms of recruiting IT, I think most corporations recruit because most of the upper management doesn’t have a clue how to run the systems. And they don’t have a clue how to set up an environment where people can learn, grow, and keep up with technical trends. They would rather hire the cog they need as opposed to going through the hassle of growing from within.

They end up hiring people with technical skills, but without the skills to interface with real people. Those people then design machines and software that don’t interface well with real people. It becomes a huge perpetuating circle—people don’t understand the technology, hire someone who understands the technology (but not how to make it user friendly), and more counter-intuitive machines and software enter the market. Then there are more people that don’t understand the technology.

In terms of business, the real question is what kind of employees do they want? Do companies want people good at conforming and following systems that other people design? In that case, that’s what our higher education system produces. Or do companies want creative people who can design new systems, think in new ways, and challenge the status quo?

If that’s what they want, they won’t find it graduating from college.”


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, check out his car-themed articles on CarNewsCafe, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Higher Ed & Corporate Thinking – Part 1

OhioStateUniversityThanks to my colleague Brett Tipton for his contribution to today’s blog post. Brett is a writer, teacher, and public speaker. He brings a great in-the-trenches perspective to the topic of higher education, how well it prepares students for the real world of corporate America, and how corporations themselves—and IT departments, in particular—approach recruitment and the positioning of new hires.

This post began organically enough: Brett published a post to his blog, to which I commented. It went from there.

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Curt Robbins


The End of the Term

by Brett Tipton

I just finished teaching another term. I don’t know how many times I heard the phrase, “I’m so glad this term is over.” To me, this is shocking. It’s not shocking because I lack understanding. I feel the same way. What shocks me is that learning is a normal, natural process. So, why has the college system turned it into such a burden? Why have we created a system that leads to burnout?

As I step back and think about this question, my answer is that the system is not primarily concerned about teaching or personal growth. The main point of the system is to teach someone to be an employee. But, if the system that’s training them to be an employee leads to caustic burnout, I have to wonder if the jobs we’re preparing people for are going to be jobs they love.

Another thing I have to question is the whole promise of education being a gateway to good jobs. Colleges provide few good jobs for their employees. If they don’t even supply their employees with good jobs, can we expect them to help students find good positions?

The sad part is that all this introspection will soon fade. Next week I will be eating turkey and won’t give my job a second thought. Soon the next term will roll around and the grind will continue. Some students and instructors will come and go, but the system will continue—masticating people in its wake. It’s a broken system and I’ve lost hope it will change.


Curt

“Good perspective, Brett. It brings into focus the very purpose of higher education. It also illustrates the difference between purpose and function. Is the purpose of college to help one gain employment after graduation, but the function to provide education, knowledge, and cultural and literary enrichment?

I have a buddy who I met at Ohio State University when I was a freshman and he was a senior. I used to help him edit his papers for his Masters; we’ve been friends for 30 years. He’s worked in higher ed his entire life. He recently posted a cartoon to Facebook in which a young man returns a diploma to his college admissions office, saying “In lieu of repaying my student loans, I’m returning this. It didn’t work.” While the cartoon is obviously a political statement regarding the state of student loans and the sluggish hiring economy, I perceived it to also be a powerful comment regarding the value of a diploma.

Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal (with Elon Musk) and Silicon Valley luminary, has established the Thiel Fellowship. This fellowship gives 24 young people (age 20 or younger) $100,000 each for a two-year period to (temporarily, in theory) drop out of college and work with a network of 100 Silicon Valley mentors. Given the status of Thiel and his prestigious fellowship, it receives applications from students at Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, among others.

Thiel’s fellowship brings to light several important questions. Is the experience young people receive when working with mentors who are older, successful professionals more beneficial than the formal education they receive at their respective educational institutions? Should this simply be considered a supplement to the students’ formal education? How many of them will achieve a level of business success—like college dropouts Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg (both from Harvard), Ellen DeGeneres, Ted Turner, Steve Jobs, and Oprah—that convinces them to abandon their nascent higher ed studies?

Not easy questions to answer. I’m personally pro-higher ed and will work hard to convince my teenage daughters to pursue at least a Masters degree and preferably a Ph.D. But Thiel’s fellowship—and the dropout habits of so many extremely successful and world-changing luminaries of Silicon Valley and Hollywood—do cause one to wonder if college is really the best path.”


Brett

“I sometimes wonder if the whole push for a college education by employers is that they simply don’t want to pay to train people. Since they aren’t paying, there is no concern for how inefficient the system is. I also wonder how many employers simply want someone who has already proven they can conform. While many companies clamor for creativity, they often tend to squash dissonant voices.”


Continue to Part 2


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 6

3d1This post is part of my series of blog posts and slideshows regarding topics of common confusion in home theater. In this post, I cover the difference between closed back and open back around-ear headphones.

  • Part 1: Volume and zero dB, updating firmware, Blu-ray disadvantage
  • Part 2: Speaker resistance, analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • Part 3: PCM vs. bitstream, Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion
  • Part 4: THX certification, DLNA network access, and distortion and THD
  • Part 5: HDMI (including cable length and controversial expensive cables)
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 8: Room correction, speaker position, and more room dynamics
  • Part 9: Ethernet, component separates, broadband internet router

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Curt Robbins


Two Types of Around-ear Headphones

There are two types of around-ear headphones: Open back and closed back (or simply “open” and “closed”). Each type offers distinct pros and cons, making it a game of matching the correct type to your particular preferences and listening environment(s).

Closed headphones are best for noisy environments, where you can’t afford to bother others, or if you want a more intimate, “in your head” listening experience. Open headphones typically provide the best sound possible. If you’re a home theater owner who is also an armchair audiophile, this is the type toward which you should gravitate. This design offers a much wider soundstage than closed headphones (their biggest advantage) and don’t suffer the heat buildup of some closed models. If you purchase some of your favorite albums in a high-resolution format like SACD or DVD-Audio or as a vinyl LP, open-back headphones are beckoning to you.

There are also open-back and closed-back models of on-ear headphones (with Grado being one of the best examples of a high-quality open-back, on-ear brand). However, on-ear models are obviously inherently less sound isolating than around-ear types. Thus, many closed-back on-ear models do a relatively poor job of separating your ears from the outside world (but sometimes a good job of dissipating heat from your ears).

Open Back

Because open-back headphones leak sound and offer very little (and sometimes zero) sound isolation, they can be bad for two reasons. They’re rude to those around you, but also ruin your experience by tainting it with local conversations and ambient noise. This is why these models are best positioned as a part of your home theater, never leaving your living room or den. Closed-back headphones are much more common than open back (and are often less expensive). In a perfect world, you’d own a nice pair of each type, pulling out a particular model when the situation was most appropriate.

Some of the best models of open-back headphones—many within an affordable range—are produced by Beyerdynamic and Sennheiser. Notable models from Sennheiser range in price from the HD 518 at $130 to the HD 598 at $250 (street price $180) to the universally loved HD 600 at $400. Beyerdynamic offers models ranging in price from under $100 to several hundred, including the DTX 710 ($80), DTX 910 ($100), and DT 440 ($210). If you want to spend a bit more, the company also makes the DT 990 ($400) and T 90 ($680), topping out with the $1,400 T 1.

Other good models of open-back phones include the Shure SRH1440 Pro at $300 and SRH1840 at $700 ($500 street price). If you have deep pockets or want to frustrate your spouse, consider the universally lauded and ultra-pricey Audeze (“Aw-deh-zee”) LCD3 for $2,000. If that’s not quite good enough (or expensive enough) for you, consider the Stax SR-009 at a divorce-summoning $4,500. Yikes. The SR-009 makes Sennheiser’s best open-back model, the $1,500 HD 800, look cheap.

Closed Back

Also called “sealed” headphones, closed-back types are, unlike their open-backed siblings, great for being in public or noisy environments. Closed-back units, along with in-ear models, are among the best at noise isolation. Whether they’re preventing the noise around you from tainting your audio or protecting those around you from your poor taste in music, closed-back headphones typically do the job with practicality, good fidelity, and sometimes great value.

Sennheiser offers closed-back headphones ranging in price from $35 to $300, include the $300 Momentum and $200 ($140 street price) HD 380 Pro. Other recommended models include the $400 B&W P7, the award-winning $300 PSB M4U 1, the AKG K 550 for $240, and the Beyerdynamic DT 660 for $250. Also consider the T 70, Beyerdynamic’s most expensive closed-back model at $600.

Of note is Skullcandy. While not the first name to come to mind when audiophiles think of headphones, this company is on a rampage producing models that perform well at loud volumes and often feature enhanced bass. Many professional headphone reviewers and journalists believe the $150 Aviator and $330 Mix Master are two of the finest closed-back headphones in their respective price categories (if you don’t mind their lack of transparency).

I’ve had both closed-back and open-back models that I’ve really loved—but only within their respective intended environments. There are many great closed-back headphones available, some of which are almost amazingly reasonably priced. Two of my favorites are the previously mentioned Sennheiser HD 380 Pro and the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 (and M50x). Both sound great, are relatively transparent (providing natural, unbiased sound reproduction), and are excellent values. Many models costing much more don’t sound as good.

[Also check out Understanding Headphone Amps.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Ello in Real Life

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[Updated August 25, 2015]

Back in early October, I wrote a blog post regarding the hip new social network Ello. Based out of Vermont, this unique digital gathering place boasts an ad-free social environment and never sells user data to outside parties. Ello feels so strongly about this that it has published an anti-establishment Manifesto that begins with the line “Your social network is owned by advertisers.” It’s obviously a very different approach to social media than Facebook or LinkedIn.

Another unique feature of Ello: It’s currently invite only. If a friend doesn’t share one of their invites with you, you’re SOL. For those who haven’t received an invite, this is obviously somewhat of a deal killer—a dynamic that doesn’t exist on most social networks. Kik, Vine, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, tumblr, LinkedIn, Pinterest…they’re all begging people to join. Ello, on the other hand (and for the time being), is purposefully limiting its user population.

It sometimes appears—although this is a gross overstatement—as if Ello is mostly neck-bearded bohemians, attractive rock climbers, and alternative lifestylers.

I finally received an invite from a fellow author friend and jumped on a few days ago. I can attest to the fact that Ello isn’t for everyone. But for those who will enjoy it, they’ll probably really love it.

Artsy & Design Oriented

Ello is incredibly artsy and design-oriented. And I’m not limiting this description to the Ello site itself. After you gain membership and begin using the Discover feature to find new “Friends” (who you simply follow; you don’t need their permission), you quickly get the feeling that the majority of Ello’s users are designers, photographers, and artists of one variety or another.

It sometimes appears—although this is a gross overstatement—as if Ello is mostly neck-bearded bohemians, attractive rock climbers, and alternative lifestylers who live in hipster cities like Portland, Denver, San Francisco, and Austin.

You also perceive a culture that’s intelligent, talented, possibly pretentious, and absolutely creative. If nothing else, most Ello members have an appreciation for leading edge design (I can see Apple executives enjoying Ello). Personally, I perceive this service to be populated by both successful and starving artists, cord cutters, nature lovers, and folks who are obsessed with art and photography.

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Ello is receiving mixed reviews from actual members. A simple search of the hashtag #ello on Twitter reveals everything from affinity to indifference to recommendations of abandonment.

Worth the Effort?

“I have Ello now, but I don’t see the point, unless you’re an artsy type and like to share images” said one member. Another queried, “Ok, fess up. How many of you joined Ello and have completely forgotten about it?”

Of course, there’s those who absolutely adore this quirky new service. “So in love with Ello,” said one. Another opined, “I got an invitation to Ello—it’s restored my faith in the potential of social media.” Regarding the site’s layout, one member said, “Minimalism is the most appealing design these days. Kudos to being the bare minimum.”

Another member proclaimed the site’s potential greatness: “I made the leap. With a few tweaks, Ello could be huge.” Considering that it’s still in beta, those tweaks are inevitable. Ello’s success, however, certainly isn’t.

Some opinions regarding Ello are philosophical: “Simple, beautiful & ad-free. Is this how social networks should be?” However, the network’s minimal design is actually perceived by some to be overdone.

“I’ve realised it’s too plain to hold my attention,” said one, while another quipped, “Just signed up to Ello—is the user interface supposed to be so borked?”

With so many new members, there are those intelligent souls who are waiting to get some time under their belts before declaring if Ello is worthy of being a part of their daily diet of social media. Said one newbie, “No opinions made up yet of Ello, but already amused that their Help page…is titled ‘WTF.'” Said another, “Just got invited to join Ello. I don’t know how to feel about this.”

Tasha James, a 20-something entrepreneur from Pennsylvania, confessed, “My first impression is that it’s overly simplistic. I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to be doing there.” Jon Fahrner, an IT executive from San Francisco and another new member, facetiously summed up Ello’s culture: “Just guessing Ello, the new invite-only social network, is for creatives and designers. Just a guess…”

You May Dig It

Whether you would enjoy Ello really depends on how much disposable time you have for social media and to what extent you appreciate art and alternative culture overall. It’s kind of like tree-hugging granola culture meets Silicon Valley geekdome meets the art scenes of L.A., New York, and London.

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I doubt many will be dumping Facebook for Ello. In a way, that’s good. It means Ello is its own thing. While some in the media have dubbed this new, exclusive network the “Facebook killer,” that’s really an overly simplistic and ignorant label. It’s a totally different thing.

The only element Ello and Facebook seem to have in common is that they’re both social networks and they both allow you to have friends. Beyond that, they’re as different as a Ford F-250 pickup truck and a Porsche 911 sports car. Ello did finally mimic the “Like” feature with its own heart shaped “Love” button, which functions more as a bookmarking feature.

I’m glad Ello is around. It’s clearly a rebellious challenge to the internet’s status quo. Thankfully, it’s also a good hangout for those who hate ads, have an appreciation for art, design, and photography, or simply want to take the path less traveled.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Cold Storage & Personal Data: Tick, Tick, Tick


[Updated on September 29, 2015]

[This post is a hopeless plug for my new book Understanding Personal Data Security. It’s said that there are two high-level categories of emotional exploitation within most advertising: Greed and fear. In this post, I exploit fear.]


 

I write a lot about electric vehicles, home theater, and personal data security. My grandmother always told me to do what I know. There’s a reason I’m not teaching you how to replace the tranny in your Ford F-150 or giving you advice for that Sunday casserole.

In personal data security, I try to write about topics that center around the real world. Strong passwords, data backup, centralized data storage. That type of thing. The areas of data archival and backup are especially fun. So simple in theory, yet so neglected and difficult in practice. The majority of us (well over 50%) never—as in never—backup our data. It’s truly mind blowing.

nfc chips in hands

Yet here we are, a culture that totes sleek smartphones and tablets and captures almost exclusively digital photos and video. Instead of going to Walgreens to develop old school film, we upload JPEG images from our mobile devices directly to cloud-based social media like Facebook, Instagram, and Flickr. All while our kids indulge in Kik, Snapchat, Vine, and stuff we’ve never heard of.

Middle class Americans create a lot of data; more and more every day. As an increasing number of us acquire highly capable mobile devices, we automatically begin snapping high-resolution photos and capturing high-definition video—along with meta data like location and people tagging. Just more ones and zeroes. We throw our files up in the cloud, sync with a local computer, or simply ignore our increasingly large treasure trove of digital delights. What was once expensive and somewhat rare is now cheap and plentiful. In the old days, no middle class consumer could afford 100,000 print photos or dozens of hours of home movies.

Now I have those thousands of photos and hundreds of videos sitting on a $200 NAS device on my home network. Amazing. We’re all curators and archivists today, whether we realize it or not.

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Once, back in ’06 or so, I had a hard drive crash on a server computer in my home. Just so happens that server was storing all of my family photos. I shipped it to a special recovery service in Atlanta. But they delivered sad news: It was toast. Unrecoverable. 16 years of family photos down the crapper. Gone.

Forever.

Fortunately, I had a backup. The problem? It was five months old. So yes, I recovered nearly 16 years worth of precious heirloom family photos, videos, and personal data files. The term “relief” doesn’t begin to explain how I felt. But I was still kicking myself for having lost nearly half a year’s worth of digital data.

I’m a picture fiend. We used to be called shutter bugs (back when most cameras featured physical shutters). I love to take tons of casual, unplanned photos on nearly a daily basis. For some people, five months of photos isn’t much. For me, it was thousands of shots and a chunk of the lives of my daughters that I’ll never retrieve. As in never.

A valuable lesson, to say the least. Now you know why I preach about offsite backups and redundant data. Because what happened to me happens to most people. Except most people lose everything.

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I recently joined the artsy no-ads social network Ello. I’m really enjoying the wealth of photography, art, sculptures, 3D-printed objects, poetry, and writing. But the reality is that the vast majority of this creative expression is stored digitally. Statistically, roughly half of this data will eventually be lost to digital devastation. A hard drive will crash. A laptop will be stolen. A fire or flood will occur. Nasty crap. But it happens every day.

And the data will go “poof.” Forever lost. Notice how I keep saying “forever” in terms of lost data and “never” in terms of how often people backup that precious data?

securityWith my head in this mode of OCD data protection, a recent article in Ars Technica naturally caught my attention. A Dutch entrepreneur, Martijn Wismeijer (@twiet), had an NFC (Near Field Communication) chip implanted in each hand. The purpose? To securely store data.

Ironically, this is called “cold storage.” Because of the NFC, this data isn’t static. Using any of dozens of common smartphones or tablets on the market that feature NFC capabilities, this man can update the data stored on the chips in his hands.

Pretty damn cool. Now, I realize a lot of you are getting squeamish at the prospect of having radio frequency-capable memory chips implanted in your body. Can’t say I blame you there (although I think I’d be willing to do this).

But squeamishness aside, why is cold storage so cool? Because it partially deals with the issue of “offsite” backup. Remember 9/11? Remember all the companies that went bankrupt after the physical devastation? Know why most of them went under? They lost all of their customer data. And they lost all of their customer data because their backups were stored onsite.

Cold storage solves this problem. To a certain extent. It’s an interesting model, one where the data resides wherever you happen to be. Home, office, coffee shop, a friend’s house, driving down the 404. Now, I do want to clarify that this man is storing Bitcoin data and the small (2 x 12 millimeters) capsules injected between his thumb and index finger contain very little information. It’s basically just a few bank account numbers. Then again, a photo is just a few (million) pixels with location markers and color assignments.

We all know how this story ends. Storage capacities in all forms of modern media have expanded at an exponential rate. Eventually, these small flesh-injected capsules will sport enough storage to backup all of your personal photos and videos. At which time you’ll have yet another backup option and opportunity to safely archive your precious personal data.

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Until we all get these flesh-based flash drives, however, we still have an ever-increasing volume of valuable personal data that is lost on a daily basis. To date, roughly one-third of computers have crashed and lost all of their data; as in, this has already happened! So, once again, I must reiterate my personal mantra of offsite backup. Weekly, monthly…whatever. You know your habits. I’m not going to tell you how frequently to backup your data. You’re an adult. You wear big girl and big boy pants.

However, what I will tell you: If you don’t make two backup copies of those special memories of your kids, pets, and special events and get them offsite, you’ll eventually lose them. It’s statistically inevitable. Look at the clock on your smartphone or watch and take note of the second hand.

It’s counting down to digital disaster. Tick, tick, tick. Goodbye data. Au revoir precious memories.

The digital demons are coming to get you.

For the time being, you can avoid getting a data capsule stored in your hand. But if you blow off multiple backup copies of your personal data—one of which goes offsite—you won’t avoid losing all of your photos and videos.

Just sayin’.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 5

3d1This post is part of my series of blog posts and slideshows regarding topics of common confusion in home theater. In this post, I cover HDMI, including the issue of cable length and the controversial value of expensive cables.

  • Part 1: Volume and zero dB, updating firmware, Blu-ray disadvantage
  • Part 2: Speaker resistance, analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • Part 3: PCM vs. bitstream, Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion
  • Part 4: THX certification, DLNA network access, and distortion and THD
  • Part 6: Closed-back vs. open-back around-ear headphones
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 8: Room correction, speaker position, and more room dynamics
  • Part 9: Ethernet, component separates, and broadband internet routers

Thanks for reading. Don’t forget to leave a comment if you have questions or feedback.

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Curt Robbins


HDMI

HDMI, the acronym for High Definition Multimedia Interface, has finally replaced a variety of older connection standards in home theater (and computers). Even the most barebones entry-level TVs and receivers feature at least a couple of HDMI ports. It’s now a fully ubiquitous standard that’s going to be around for a long time. The greatest attributes of HDMI are that it is fully digital, carries both high-resolution audio and high-definition video on a single cable, and allows you to connect mobile devices like camcorders and smartphones to your home theater.

There are two types of HDMI cables: Standard and high-speed. Standard is capable of lower-quality (interlaced) 1080 video, while high-speed varieties provide you with the full quality of which Blu-ray discs are capable. Always purchase a high speed type, preferably one that supports 3D and something called Audio Return Channel.

Covers All Components

Old school analog connection standards, such as S-Video, composite audio/video, and component video are now dinosaurs, their bones scattered across the same wasteland as TV-top rabbit ear antennas and cassette tape decks. The fact that nearly all home theater components can be connected via HDMI makes things much easier. HDMI makes things so simple, in fact, that your biggest challenge becomes ensuring that you have cables of the proper length (so you don’t, for example, come up two feet short of what’s necessary to connect your receiver to your TV). Home theater is a lot nicer when the length of your cables, and not their type and expense, is your biggest concern.

Cable Length Limits

HDMI cables were originally developed to not exceed roughly 16 feet in length. The three foot (one meter) interconnects used to input Blu-ray players and set-top boxes to receivers aren’t a concern here. However, it’s not uncommon for a display panel TV to be on the other side of the room from the AV receiver feeding it. This is certainly an option that should be available to you when you’re planning or upgrading your home theater. However, this type of arrangement requires a long HDMI cable to be run through the walls or floor.

Lengths greater than 20 or 30 feet can, under the right conditions, produce undesirable results, such as no picture or an image that suddenly disappears. This is determined largely by the quality of the equipment connected to the HDMI cable, namely the receiver and display panel. Properly implemented HDMI ports that support the latest HDMI standard (obviously possible only on newer equipment) are more capable than those found on lower quality, older equipment.

There are two solutions for long HDMI cable lengths. First, you can purchase a hardware device that acts as an HDMI signal booster. An example is the Spectrum Electronics DSR-701 Digital Signal Restorer. This $280 device is well-reviewed and said to do an excellent job with cable lengths up to 100 feet. Second, you can convert HDMI cable to CAT6 cable using a special converter box or adapter, with the majority of your cable run in the form of CAT6. When the cable reaches your TV, it must be converted back to HDMI using a similar sister device. This allows lengths of up to 100 feet to be achieved with no video performance degradation. One reputable converter box set is the $140 Ethereal Home Theater CS-HDC5EXTD, which supports up to 90 foot (30 meter) cable runs.

If you’ve already installed a long HDMI cable in your floor, walls, or ceiling, you probably don’t want to endure the expense and hassle of installing an additional CAT6 cable. Thus, for many consumers with existing HDMI cable runs, something like the Spectrum Electronics Digital Signal Restorer will be the most straightforward solution—and possibly the least expensive when professional cable installation costs are taken into account. For new installations, I’d recommend running both high-speed HDMI and CAT6 cable, giving yourself the option of whichever solution most appeals to you (and further future-proofing your home theater). When possible and practical, a set of $60 to $150 HDMI-to-CAT6 and CAT6-to-HDMI conversion adapters is certainly more cost effective than a roughly $300 HDMI signal booster (saving you money for your speaker budget).

Are Expensive HDMI Cables Worth It?

All high-speed HDMI cables are the same. Let me say it again: All high-speed HDMI cables are the same! For the most part (at distances under 20 feet or so), an $8 cable performs just like a $200 cable. I know, it sounds like a conspiracy. But the fact remains that an expensive cable offers almost zero improvement over a cheap model (as long as it’s a high-speed type). You simply want to avoid crappy cables featuring poor build quality and little insulation (such as the two-for-$5 specials at your local discount store).

Don’t let a big box electronics store convince you that an expensive gold-plated HDMI cable is necessary for a quality home theater experience. Profit margins are highest on accessories like cables, cases, cleaning accessories, and spare batteries. Ironically, big box electronics retailers make the least profit on big ticket items like speakers, receivers, and Blu-ray players, so they try to make it up with accessories like cables. Salespeople argue, “If you spent all this money on your equipment, why shortchange your investment with cheap cables?” While this is great logic, and an argument frequently employed, it’s simply false in the case of HDMI.

In fact, the very nature of HDMI, which is a fully digital signal, means that it’s either nearly perfect or there’s no picture whatsoever. Unlike the old over-the-air analog broadcasts of the past, there’s no in-between where a fully digital video signal can degrade with snow or static, but still be viewable. Video and audio carried via HDMI is either there or it isn’t.

When I last upgraded my home theater, Best Buy tried to convince me to purchase several short HDMI interconnect cables costing about $85 each. An $8 cable from Amazon provided me with the same quality. Still not convinced? Check out the blog article Why All HDMI Cables Are The Same by Geoffrey Morrison of CNET.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Understanding Home Theater Speakers: Part 2

3d1Speakers are arguably the most important part of any home theater setup. They’re certainly where one should invest the bulk of one’s money. You’ll keep good speakers a lot longer than any other home theater gear, especially AV receivers, disc players, and streaming media boxes.

Also check out the previous blog post, Understanding Home Theater Speakers: Part 1. The following is an excerpt from my Amazon Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age.

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Curt Robbins


Center Channel

The center channel, as you’ve already learned, is dedicated to TV and movie dialog (it’s nice to hear the sound coming from where a character’s mouth appears) and enhancing the overall immersive quality of music emanating from the speakers facing you. As mentioned, it’s highly advised that your center is from the same series as your front mains. More powerful center channels feature more drivers. Thus, a basic config might be a single midrange or full-range driver, while a more sophisticated example would feature a couple of woofers, one or more midrange drivers, a tweeter, and maybe even ports.

It should be noted that most high-resolution surround sound music formats, such as SACD, and DVD-Audio, all give music publishers the ability to record a center channel as part of a song or album. (See the Disc-Based Music chapter for more information regarding these high-resolution music formats.) Center channel speakers range in cost from under $100 to several thousand.

Subwoofer

As you’ve already learned, a subwoofer is simply a speaker dedicated to the lowest audio frequencies, which you can literally feel in addition to hear. If you really want to shake the house or wake the neighbors, a large, powerful sub can do it. Barry White should have owned a sub company.

A sub is unique in that, unlike your other speakers, it’s a powered unit (300 to 800 watts is common). Don’t dismiss the capabilities of a high-quality 10, 12, or even 15-inch subwoofer. For movies especially, it will become one of your favorite speakers (and something you’ll want to turn down when the kids are asleep).

Omnidirectional

The subwoofer is also unusual among other speakers in that it’s mostly omnidirectional, meaning where it resides in the room and where it’s pointed (the direction in which it fires) are much less important than with your other speakers. This is nice for tucking it discretely behind a sofa or under an end table. Some models, like the uniquely slim $1,400 Paradigm MilleniaSub and the $2,000 REL Habitat1, are specifically designed for narrow spaces, such as under a sofa.

Most subwoofers feature a digital amp. While models with Class A/B analog amps are available, they’re less common. Incorporating a digital amp allows a model to be smaller, consume less energy, and perform with greater efficiency. Just to confuse things, there are also hybrid varieties that employ both analog and digital circuitry at a variety of prices and quality levels. Like other speakers, some subs feature relief ports, a nice addition because ported subs can produce greater output. Subs that aren’t ported are called sealed (just like headphones). The PB series from SVS is a good example, featuring models with between one and three ports each, priced from $500 to $2,000.

Driver Configs & Second Helpings

Like regular floor standing and surround speakers, subwoofers can feature one or more drivers that fire in a variety of directions. The most common configuration is side firing (like my 10-inch, 500-watt, single-driver sealed B&W ASW700) or down firing (like the 10-inch, 150-watt REL T-5). Klipsch’s best sub, part of its Palladium Series, features two 12” drivers powered by 1000 watts that are side firing and 90 degrees separated (this sub is arguably overkill for most rooms). The majority of subs feature a single side-firing driver that’s between 10 and 15 inches in diameter and commonly powered by 500 watts.

As you’ve learned, some home theater hobbyists add a second sub to their home theater, creating a more balanced low frequency experience with even greater impact. However, in dual-sub environments, placement is critical; typically, you don’t simply stack them on top of each other. The debate between one big sub or a couple of smaller units will never cease in the audiophile world. In the end, it’s determined by your room and budget.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Understanding Home Theater Speakers: Part 1

3d1I’m continually reminded of how those of us who consider ourselves home theater enthusiasts often forget that many of those around us don’t get into it like we do. Recently, I had a couple of non-enthusiasts remind me that they didn’t understand woofers and Blu-ray players. Which is great, because that’s the business I’m in: Teaching regular middle class people about confusing consumer tech.

Speakers are arguably the most important part of any home theater setup. They’re certainly where one should invest the bulk of one’s money. You’ll keep good speakers a lot longer than any other home theater gear, especially AV receivers, disc players, and streaming media boxes.

The following is an excerpt from my Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age. In the next blog post, we’ll discuss the all-important center channel (which carries the bulk of the spoken dialog of the actors in a TV show or movie) and the booming low-frequency subwoofer—thus rounding out the basic speaker positions in a six speaker, 5.1 home theater surround sound configuration.

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Curt Robbins


Dynamic Loudspeakers & Drivers

The most common type of speaker, from a technical perspective, is the dynamic loudspeaker. The term “speaker” can mean a few things, but is generally a reference to a single unit, in the form of a box-like enclosure, that contains one or more drivers. Drivers feature a cone (visible from the front of the speaker) made from a variety of materials—cheap ones being paperboard and nice ones being Kevlar or metal (typically aluminum or titanium). Behind the cone resides a mechanism involving a coil (sometimes called a voice coil) and a magnet. This coil, magnet, and cone-based driver is responsible for the extreme weight of good speakers (generally speaking, higher-quality speakers are heavier because they feature larger, more powerful magnets in their drivers).

Woofers & Tweeters

Dynamic loudspeakers feature the familiar and onomatopoeic woofer and tweeter combination, where the woofer carries the low and maybe some mid-range frequencies and the tweeter projects the high-end sounds. The most basic loudspeakers feature a single driver, whereas more sophisticated models include multiple woofers and midrange drivers, a powerful tweeter, and maybe even one or two acoustic resonance ports. Technically, with the exception of resonance ports, these are all “drivers,” or coil/magnet/cone devices capable of emitting sound. Thus, a speaker with a woofer, midrange, and tweeter has three drivers.

Form Factors

Each type of speaker that composes a full surround system plays a particular role in creating an immersive audio environment and dealing with particular types of sounds that are projected from specific areas of your room. These different roles manifest themselves in distinctly unique form factors, from the tall floor standing models flanking your display panel to the lone center channel that carries mostly movie dialog.

Floor Standing

Floor standing speakers, also called “mains” or “towers,” are typically the largest in your home theater and play a prominent role in delivering the impact of action movies and music. They carry the lion’s share of the sound in a surround mix, and are sometimes the only source of sound if you’re playing a stereo music CD (and don’t apply a special DSP field to turn it into artificial, or matrixed, surround).

Floor standing speakers are the bridge between the old world of “stereo systems” and the new world of surround sound. You’ll inevitably want to use your home theater to listen to music. If you’re really into music and, for example, you’re going to spend 50-80% of your time listening to it, and only the minority watching TV or movies, it makes sense to invest most of your speaker budget on the best towers possible. This may involve even going a bit downmarket for your rear speakers (but it’s highly advised that your three front speakers are from the same series). As you’ve learned, some people skip the subwoofer entirely so they can afford the best possible floor standing models while pursuing their dream stereo system.

Bookshelf / Surround

What are sometimes called “bookshelf” speakers (in a two-channel stereo configuration) are often labeled “surrounds” in a home theater. They’re basically junior models of the large floor standing models. They’re not necessarily lower quality; they simply feature less power and fewer drivers than their floor standing big brothers.

There are two options for the rear speakers in your surround system: Standard front-firing bookshelf speakers or dedicated multi-directional models. Dedicated surrounds create a more immersive effect. The design you choose depends on your personal tastes and room dynamics. Both good and bad examples of each approach are readily available. It’s more important to get a quality speaker with a wide frequency response and low distortion than to labor over the differences between these two designs.

You already know that you should purchase your surround speakers from the same series as your mains. Speakers from different series, and especially different manufacturers, can feature tonal discrepancies (different timbre) that will degrade the quality of your audio. A mismatched set also won’t look as nice sitting in your living room. That said, it’s sometimes better to have good speakers from different series than lousy units from the same line. Utilizing speakers from different series or manufacturers isn’t a cardinal sin and won’t necessarily produce bad sound; it’s simply not optimal.

If your home theater resides in a relatively small room or you’re on a tight budget, one option is to use robust bookshelf speakers for your mains also. While this may decrease your music listening pleasure (particularly at higher volumes), it will still sound good for movies if you purchase nice models, especially those that hit relatively low frequencies. Down the road, when you have the cash for proper floor standing mains, you can demote those front bookshelf speakers to center surrounds in a 7.1 system. (Often, the home theater of your dreams is not a matter of having a pile of cash to blow at one time, but rather being patient, planning intelligently, and building your system over years.)


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Streaming Media Stick Wars

3d1It began in August 2013 when Google introduced the Chromecast. A small, Rubenesque HDMI dongle that allows you to stream music and video to your TV or home theater, the $35 Chromecast was an instant hit. This groovy petite player allows popular media services like Pandora, YouTube, and Netflix to easily be sent to your home theater from any Android or Apple smartphone or tablet—and even laptops and desktop computers.

Then, in the spring of 2014, Roku introduced the $49 Streaming Stick, a slick little purple dongle that, like Chromecast, plugs into a TV or AV receiver’s HDMI port to bring you music and video streaming from the internet. Roku likes to tout how its dongle is “perfect for wall mounted TVs”; as are all of these svelt mini-streamers. Although slightly more expensive than its competition from Google, Roku’s streaming stick offers a dedicated remote control and so many more channels it isn’t even funny (like, um, 1,700 more, something Roku fans love).

Recently, the market for these mini-streamers got more crowded when Amazon announced the Fire TV Stick, the $39 dongle that falls between Chromecast and Roku in terms of price. Like Roku’s Streaming Stick, it features a nice, ergonomic remote. Unlike its competitors, Amazon sells a $40 game controller for the Fire TV Stick that allows you to play more than 200 different games. If you’re a casual gamer (as opposed to someone who needs an Xbox or Playstation to engage in their favorite first-person shoot out), the Fire TV Stick, with optional game controller, is a unique solution. It’s also pretty much the least expensive way—at $70 total—to get gaming into your living room.

rock streaming stickFor the most part, these inexpensive media streaming devices are more similar than different. They all plug into HDMI ports and require a dedicated power supply (they can’t get their juice from the HDMI port), so you’ll need a spare outlet around your TV or home theater gear. They all use wi-fi to ride on your broadband connection and suck down their audio or video stream from the internet. And they all offer major streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, and a handful of streaming music services.

One thing all three of these streaming dongles have in common is being the little brothers to full-fledged “set-top box” media streamers from each company. Google’s new Nexus Player, the Roku 3, and Amazon Fire TV, all priced at $99, take streaming media to the next level, offering more robust features and functionality. Apple is the standout in offering a similar ($99) set-top streamer called Apple TV, but no HDMI dongle variant. One of the biggest advantages of these full-fledged media streamers—with the glaring and inexcusable exception of Google’s new Nexus Player—is their ability to connect to your home network and the internet via Ethernet hard cabling, eliminating the interference and connectivity problems inherent in wi-fi.

Google’s Chromecast is the odd man out in terms of bundling no dedicated remote. Not that there isn’t one: It’s your mobile device. Because this trend-setting device is platform agnostic, it matters not if you use an iPhone, Android smartphone, Samsung tablet, or the venerable iPad. Any Android or Apple smartphone or tablet works with Chromecast.

chromecastBut let’s be realistic, it’s all about the content. As sexy as the candy wrapper might be, what we really care about is the chocolate. Roku’s Streaming Stick offers all 1,800+ channels that its more robust sibling Roku devices deliver. This is, hands down, the largest selection of content offered by any company selling streaming devices. If you’re one of those consumers who blows away the average four hours of television programming consumption per day and desires the largest availability of channels possible: Stop reading this, look up the Roku Streaming Stick on Amazon, and click Add to Cart.

However, this plethora of channels isn’t all peaches and cream. Roku’s lineup offers hundreds of arguably crappy and often obscure channels, many of which are foreign language-based. According to PC Magazine’s review, “…individual channels are still a mish-mash and many aren’t integrated into the search feature, so you have to wade through a lot of things you might not want.” However, Roku wins the agnostic award for not twisting your arm to rent or purchase content from a particular ecosystem, unlike Amazon’s Fire TV Stick.

Speaking of the Fire TV Stick: This newcomer is perfect if you’re a subscriber to Amazon Prime and love to get your entertainment from Prime Instant Video. Like Apple TV, both Apple and Amazon do their best to push you into their respective iTunes and Prime Instant Video ecosystems.

fire tv stickGoogle’s Chromecast differs in terms of channel availability. Instead of serving up a canned set of channels, Google has created a platform on which other media streaming services can jump in if they choose. Thus, the Netflix and Hulu Plus mobile apps have been updated to support Chromecast. When running these apps, you simply tap the Chromecast icon and, voila, you’re watching it on your TV or home theater. The only problem—especially compared to Roku and Amazon—is that only about 35 streaming apps currently support Chromecast. However, if you’re like my cord cutting family and consume most of your entertainment from Netflix, Hulu Plus, Crackle, and Pandora, these major services all support Chromecast (in addition to Watch ESPN, HBO GO, Songza for music, Vevo for music videos, and, of course, iTunes wannabe Google Play Movies & TV).

So there you have it. Unfortunately, the game-friendly Fire TV Stick won’t be available until January 2015, so forget Santa leaving you one in your stocking (smooth timing, Amazon; what are you smoking out there in Seattle?). It’s nice to see the market for uber-affordable streaming media devices getting competitive and catering to different entertainment ecosystems.

And it’s only going to get better.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 4

3d1As part of my series of blog posts and slideshows regarding topics of common confusion in home theater, below I cover THX certification, DLNA network access, and distortion and THD. This series features excerpts from my new Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age.

  • Part 1: Volume in a zero dB world, updating firmware, and the disadvantages of Blu-ray
  • Part 2: Speaker resistance and analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • Part 3: PCM vs. bitstream and Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion
  • Part 5: HDMI (including cable length and controversial expensive cables)
  • Part 6: Closed-back vs. open-back around-ear headphones
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 8: Room correction, speaker position, and more room dynamics
  • Part 9: Ethernet, component separates, and broadband internet routers

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Curt Robbins


THX Certification

THX is a collection of audio and video certifications for both commercial cinema (movie theaters) and home theater environments. THX was born at Lucasfilm Studios in the early 1980s, when George Lucas was producing Return of the Jedi, and gained its name from Lucas’ first feature film, THX 1138. Lucas was concerned that the fidelity and overall experience he was creating in his studio wasn’t being translated into commercial cinemas. The first THX certifications were granted to movie theaters, not home theater components.

THX offers several different types of certifications, including those for amplifiers and display panels. To obtain THX certification, a particular component model must pass 200 tests. While THX certification doesn’t guarantee you’ll like the image produced by a display or the sound flowing out of an amplifier, it does ensure a solid performance level. Buying THX-certified equipment helps you get reliable mid to top-tier components with respect to quality and performance. It has little to do with price, however. Products at several different costs may feature the THX logo. It is, however, more common on higher-end, more expensive components.

THX has also released an app for Apple and Android devices that helps calibrate your home theater’s video and audio. For more information regarding home theater calibration, see the Room Calibration section below and the Room Dynamics & Positioning section of the Speakers chapter.

DLNA Local Network Access

DLNA, or the Digital Living Network Alliance, is a communications protocol that works over both wi-fi and Ethernet that allows a variety of media files, such as family photos, music files (including high-resolution varieties), and videos to be streamed from one device to another on a local area network (or LAN). In home theater, DLNA is typically implemented in audio/video receivers and Blu-ray players and accesses a storage device or computer elsewhere on your local network.

Not only must your receiver or Blu-ray player support DLNA, but the device on your network—on which the media files are stored and from which you want to access them—must also include this protocol. This “sending” device on your network could be a personal computer (running Windows 7/8 or Mac OS X), a network storage device (officially called a NAS, or Network Access Storage), or even a top-shelf router with an attached flash drive or USB hard drive. As long as the two devices have a valid connection, enough bandwidth, and DLNA, you can begin routing photos, music, and video from your home network to your receiver or Blu-ray player, using your big display panel and listening to audio and music through your living room speakers.

However, simply because you can use DLNA to get a particular media file from a PC or storage device on your network to your audio/video receiver or Blu-ray player doesn’t mean the receiving device can necessarily decode it. For example, if you have a bunch of high-resolution music files in AIFF format stored on your network, but your receiver (or Blu-ray player) isn’t capable of decoding the AIFF format, DLNA won’t help. DLNA includes no decoding logic or special software for this purpose. It is merely a way for two devices on a home network to recognize each other and stream media files from one to the other.

Distortion & THD

All home theater components produce a certain amount of distortion, something that damages the quality of the sound but, at low and even moderate levels, typically can’t be perceived. This distortion is measured as THD, or Total Harmonic Distortion. In the case of an amplifier, THD is a measurement of the comparison of the receiver’s input and output signals (revealing how much the unit’s amp distorted the audio signal).

Instead of burying you in percentages and decimals, simply realize that lower THD is better. Any reputable brand of AV receiver, Blu-ray player, or speaker, however, will typically exhibit so little THD that it isn’t noticed (except at maybe the loudest volumes). This is true of models at all costs. According to Gary Altunian at Stereos.about.com, “In reality, total harmonic distortion is hardly perceptible to the human ear. Every component adds some level of distortion, but most distortion is insignificant and small differences in specifications between components mean nothing.”

Note that THD becomes worse as volume increases. Most THD ratings for receivers are based on the unit’s full output, or greatest volume (0 db, as you’ll learn below). As a rule of thumb, simply ensure that a receiver’s THD rating is below 1% (typical THD ratings on good receivers are far lower, falling between 0.03% and 0.08%, but measuring techniques vary and are sometimes heavily influenced by a component manufacturer’s marketing department). THD is just one measure of the quality of an amplifier or speaker. If you’re shopping for reputable receiver models, THD shouldn’t typically be an issue that influences your purchasing decision.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 3

3d1As part of my mini-series of blog posts and Slideshare slideshows regarding topics of common confusion in home theater, below I cover PCM vs. bitstream and Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion.

This series features excerpts from my new Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age.

  • Part 1: Volume in a zero dB world, updating firmware, and the disadvantages of Blu-ray
  • Part 2: Speaker resistance and analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • Part 4: THX certification, DLNA network access, and distortion and THD
  • Part 5: HDMI (including cable length and controversial expensive cables)
  • Part 6: Closed-back vs. open-back around-ear headphones
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 8: Room correction, speaker position, and more room dynamics
  • Part 9: Ethernet, component separates, and broadband internet routers

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Curt Robbins


Upscaling / Upconversion

As you’ve already learned, DVDs feature a video resolution of 480 horizontal lines. When compared to Blu-ray’s 1080 lines, DVDs seem pretty wimpy. But if you have a large (and expensive) DVD collection, you probably don’t want to simply trash or sell them. Re-purchasing your collection is frustrating and expensive. Damn you, double-edged pace of technology!

Most Blu-ray players (and many AV receivers) automatically apply something called upscaling, or upconversion (both terms are used interchangeably) to DVDs in an effort to make them 1) fit on a 1080 TV, so they’re not displayed as a little box in the center of the display panel, and 2) appear to be higher resolution than they actually are (by simulating 1080).

In a nutshell, this means the Blu-ray player analyzes the video content of a DVD and adds more lines, creating a pseudo-1080 image. While upconverted 480 video doesn’t look as good as the native 1080 display of Blu-ray content (with 1080 unique lines, featuring none of the pixel redundancy that comes with upscaling), it does look better than standard 480. In terms of the end result, upconversion for video is akin to matrixed surround sound for audio: It’s all about optimizing legacy media formats on modern-generation equipment. (To learn more about matrixed and discrete surround sound formats, see the Surround Sound chapter.)

The quality of upconversion is determined entirely by your equipment (the hardware and software running within it; see the Video Processing section below for more info). Better Blu-ray players do a superior job of upscaling than their less-expensive siblings. The $300-$600 players offered by companies like Denon, OPPO, Onkyo, Pioneer Elite, and Marantz will do a considerably nicer job of upconversion than an entry-level $80 Sony or Samsung unit (which aren’t the best suited for home theater environments).

A standard definition DVD will never look better than when upconverted on a home theater with a decent Blu-ray player. So what’s your takeaway? Don’t sell those old DVDs on Craigslist or relegate them to a dusty box in a closet! If you’re willing to tolerate the slight decrease in quality between upscaled DVDs and native Blu-ray content (which many people don’t even perceive), upconversion can help you avoid rebuying your DVD movie collection. Also consider that the majority of discs available from your local video rental store or library—even in 2014—are DVDs, not Blu-rays.

Real-World Upscaling

One study claims that 39% of viewers can’t tell the difference between standard-definition video (480 lines of resolution, as featured on DVDs and old camcorders) and high-definition content (1080 on Blu-ray discs or streamed via a service like Netflix). If this is even marginally true, an even greater percentage of consumers will be oblivious to the difference between an upscaled DVD featuring “fake” 1080 resolution and a Blu-ray disc producing the real thing. If you’re one of them, keep your eyes peeled for those grocery store bargain bins full of clearance DVDs. (Your local brick-and-mortar video store—if your community still has one—is another great source of discounted new and used DVDs.)

Video Processing

Your Blu-ray player’s video processing is handled by a dedicated computer chip (or set of chips) and special software stored on it. Many manufacturers utilize fairly generic, average processing chips—which don’t always produce the best results, especially when upscaling DVDs to 1080 resolution. More potent models feature special leading edge video processing technologies licensed from third-party companies, such as Marvell’s Qdeo and Silicon Image’s VRS ClearView.

Many popular Blu-ray models, including those from Cambridge Audio, OPPO, Onkyo, and Pioneer Elite, feature Qdeo processing. Note that there are several generations of Qdeo, so one from three years ago won’t be as good as what’s shipping on current models. OPPO’s top Darbee models feature VRS ClearView video processing and upscaling.

PCM vs. Bitstream

If you’re connecting your Blu-ray player to your receiver via HDMI, there are two options for how data is sent from the player to the receiver. The first, PCM (Pulse-code Modulation,  sometimes called LPCM), is when your Blu-ray player performs all decoding of the compressed audio on the disc (a variant of either Dolby or DTS). In this scheme, the fully decoded audio is sent to your receiver, then passed along to your speakers. Many receivers allow you to select PCM output from the same menu from which you choose DLP sound fields (and will indicate the mode by displaying “PCM” on the front panel).

Bitstream, on the other hand, means your Blu-ray player does the opposite, performing no decoding of the compressed audio of the disc, instead sending along the raw, encoded bitstream to your receiver, where the decoding takes place. In this case, the receiver will display the exact encoding method employed by the disc (Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio, for example). The only disadvantage of bitstream is that any “secondary audio,” such as commentaries and other supplemental features of Blu-ray, will be lost. If you ever use these features, you obviously should lean on PCM.

Typically, both methods work equally well and, in practical applications, it doesn’t really matter which you employ. However, if you had a much nicer (and newer) Blu-ray player than receiver, you might choose to have it do the heavy lifting to improve the quality of the audio pumped into your speakers. If both your Blu-ray player and receiver are of relatively equal capability and age, the difference between these two schemes will almost certainly be negligible.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 2

3d1As part of my mini-series of blog posts regarding topics of common confusion in home theater, below I cover speaker resistance and analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers. This series features excerpts from my new Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age.

  • Part 1: Volume in a zero dB world, updating firmware, and the disadvantages of Blu-ray
  • Part 3: PCM vs. bitstream and Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion
  • Part 4: THX certification, DLNA network access, and distortion and THD
  • Part 5: HDMI (including cable length and controversial expensive cables)
  • Part 6: Closed-back vs. open-back around-ear headphones
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 8: Room correction, speaker position, and more room dynamics
  • Part 9: Ethernet, component separates, and broadband internet routers

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Curt Robbins


Speaker Resistance: 4 ohm vs. 8 ohm

When it comes to amplification wattage, the general rule is that more is better. But, as mentioned, the clarity and lack of distortion of the audio and video produced by any receiver is as important as the sheer power level. While bigger is typically better, the proper receiver selection involves knowing the speakers you’re getting. In terms of power and electrical current, there are two types of speakers: 4 ohm and 8 ohm. In a nutshell, 4 ohm speakers require less power than their 8 ohm siblings. Technically, 4 ohm speakers feature lower resistance, allowing more electrical current from your amplifier to flow through them.

When researching and shopping for AV receivers, you may find amplification power quoted as two different wattage numbers, one when paired with 4 ohm speakers (the higher figure) and another for 8 ohm models. If a manufacturer or reviewer quotes only one number, it’s traditionally the lower wattage, reflecting the case of driving more common 8 ohm speakers. Beware: Don’t read the higher 4 ohms wattage number and mistake it for the 8 ohm figure. This could convince you that you were purchasing much more power than you were actually getting, possibly allowing your speakers to lag and not reach their full potential.

To get an idea of the difference in power output from an amplifier when powering 4 ohm and 8 ohm speakers, consider that an average 125-watt amp (receiver) when pushing 8 ohm speakers will provide roughly 200 watts when connected to a lower impedance speaker of only 4 ohm. If your speaker selection includes 8 ohm models, you’ll want to investigate if your AV receiver candidates will sufficiently power your particular high-resistance choice. This is an area where personal testimonials—taken with a grain of salt and easily found on YouTube and web forums—are a great way to learn from the mistakes and successes of others.

Generally, especially if you have 8 ohm speakers, you want 100 or more watts per channel (but, again, this is highly dependent on your particular speakers and their specs). Although this book doesn’t delve into the nuances of volts, amps, and watts, it should be noted that multi-channel amplifiers that provide audio to at least five speakers in your home theater pump more watts per channel when driving only a stereo, or two-channel arrangement (the available power is simply spread over fewer channels). Thus, your research project becomes even more complex, because receivers show different performance levels when operating in five channels (movies) or two channels (music and much TV programming). Are you listening to a Led Zeppelin CD or watching The LEGO Movie on Blu-ray? And at what volume? Your receiver, when paired with your speakers, should provide enough clean power to be good at both.

Note that some digital amps can’t power 4 ohm speakers, going only as low as 6 ohm. Carefully compare the specs of the speakers and receiver you choose to power them to ensure that you won’t run into any roadblocks (or have to fall back on a reseller’s return policy).

Digital vs. Analog Amps

Just as display technology is rapidly advancing, with OLED and 4K on the horizon, so too are other areas of home theater technology, specifically receivers and amplifiers. AV receivers have traditionally included analog amplifiers, called Class A/B amps, a technology in use for the past few decades. When digital amps, called Class D, first appeared, their expense put them out of the reach of the average consumer. Pioneer Elite’s first receiver featuring a digital amp, in 2008 (only six years ago), was $7,000.

Like all technology, this highly efficient binary amplification has become much more affordable and begun appearing in receivers priced under $1,500 (sometimes with sub-$1,000 street prices). Digital amplification basically does more with less, minimizing power consumption while producing more accurate, robust amplification when necessary. The advantages of digital amps are especially apparent at louder volumes and when the unit is being taxed, delivering in the neighborhood of 80-90% efficiency. This means that 80-90% of the energy consumed by the digital amp is converted into more powerful sound produced by your speakers (compare this with Class A/B analog amps that, while often producing stellar sonic performance, average 30-60% efficiency). However, preference between Class A/B and Class D digital amps is subjective. Not everyone prefers digital amps.

If Tesla is the next step in the evolution of the automobile, then Class D is the new species in the evolution of affordable home theater amplification. While there will always be those who prefer old school analog (sometimes really old school, as in the case of expensive retro tube amps), digital power processing is the wave of the future. Many who complain about performance issues will be pleasantly surprised with the high-quality and affordable models that will pour onto the market during the next decade.

However, you need to remember: There’s a lot more to a receiver than its amplifier class. As you’ll hear echoed throughout this book, I’d rather have a receiver featuring a really good Class A/B amp than one with a mediocre Class D type. The quality of the audio produced by a receiver when paired with your particular speakers—not whether it features analog or digital amplification—is the real issue.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Apple TV: Best Media Streamer?

3d1[Updated August 6, 2015]

The market for streaming media devices has, quite favorably, become somewhat crowded in the past year. Apple TV, Roku’s lineup, Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast, and Google’s new Nexus Player all vie for the dollars of both cord cutters and cable subscribers alike.

Macworld UK reviewed the now $69 Apple TV in the summer of 2014. It’s biggest criticism: “Not much content.” When I first purchased my two Apple TV units in the spring of 2013, the service offered roughly 25 streaming services—some requiring subscriptions (like Netflix and Hulu Plus), some requiring a cable or satellite TV account (the Disney channels, for example), and some free (Sony’s ad-supported Crackle, among others).

Today, Apple TV offers 74 channels—including Google’s YouTube, Vimeo, the new HBO NOW, and more specialized stuff like Bloomberg TV for financial news, Vevo for music videos, and even Yahoo’s Flickr for crowdsourced photos (which can even serve as a source for Apple TV’s screen saver, a very groovy feature indeed).

If you don’t own an Apple TV, but checked out the channel lineup a year or two ago, you’ll be pleased to know that it now provides several channels from mainstream TV that were previously absent. These include ABC, CNBC, Smithsonian Channel, Fox Now, and Britain’s Sky News—all of which require no cable/sat TV subscription (but you’re also getting canned episodes and segments, not a live stream). Many channels, however, require old school TV service and a login to watch on Apple’s venerable streaming box. These include Disney’s multiple offerings, PBS and PBS Kids, FX Now (famous for featuring every episode of The Simpsons), reality-leaning A&E, and grandpa’s favorite, the History channel.

There’s also access to top-tier “premium” services from the cable/sat TV world, including HBO GO, Showtime Anytime, and Disney’s ESPN. Even with basic cable, these avenues for high-quality entertainment will serve only to taunt you from Apple TV’s navigation menu. Slowly, but surely—in its own very purposeful fashion—Apple continues to offer more channels and expand the offerings of its industry-leading set-top streamer.

And then there’s the other big ecosystem-driven box: Amazon Fire TV. Like Apple’s offering, this same-price ($99) media streamer caters to people who subscribe to Amazon Prime and utilize the company’s Prime Instant Video (one of the best options for folks who don’t want Netflix, or to supplement it, and have no desire to watch stuff from iTunes). Fire TV offers some features absent from Apple TV, like a more intelligent remote, but also continually pushes users into Amazon’s ecosystem for rentals and purchases of music, movies, and TV episodes.

apple tv for blogRoku’s various streaming devices—it sells four (priced at $49-99); more than any competitor—are the agnostic “do everything” media muscle residing in the middle. Roku’s website legitimately boasts “Over 1000 more channels than Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, or Chromecast.” Roku has definitely differentiated itself from Apple’s minimalist channel lineup. For those who watch a ton of TV (especially cord cutters) and want the widest selection of channels available—including a boatload of obscure, arguably crappy, and fringy foreign language programming—Roku is the hands-down winner in the streaming media box wars.

One of the most appealing features of Apple TV is support for AirPlay, Apple’s wi-fi-enabled media casting tech. Built into all of the company’s mobile gadgets and computers, AirPlay allows you to send music and video to your TV or home theater with the tap of an icon (said CNET in August: “AirPlay is just awesome”). Some AV receivers, like many from Yamaha, Denon, and Pioneer Elite, already have AirPlay built into them. For most consumers, however, Apple TV is a great way to AirPlay-enable your display panel and surround sound speakers. But, again, this will be appealing only for those with multiple iOS and OS X devices already in use.

And let’s not forget Apple TV’s slim and sleek aluminum remote control. While it might sound trivial, the remote is a critical element of any media streamer. It’s the part you touch, toss on the ottoman, and sometimes curse. But Apple has some work to do in this department. Its remote supports only infrared (IR; a beam of light), not a radio frequency like Bluetooth or wi-fi. This means you have to point it at the small black Apple TV puck sitting next to your TV or AV receiver. This is a huge pain for many, like me, who have a TV mounted on a wall opposite their home theater gear and must point the remote behind them. Both the top shelf Roku 3 and Amazon Fire TV feature radio frequency-based remotes. Unlike Fire TV’s offering, the Apple TV remote also doesn’t support voice navigation and search.

roku 3The “match” between a consumer’s lifestyle or preferences and a media streaming device should depend most on one’s existing (or planned) digital ecosystem. If you have several of Apple’s iOS mobile devices floating around your home, Apple TV makes sense. If you don’t—and enjoy Amazon’s Prime Instant Video, for example—it probably doesn’t. Apple is obviously catering to its huge installed base of tablets, smartphones, and computers.

Who gains the most from Apple TV? Consumers who use iTunes to consume music, movies, and TV episodes, people who love to groove to Beats Music for on-demand songs or enjoy iTunes Radio for Pandora-like music discovery, and those who can’t do without their beloved iPads, iPhones, and other iDevices.

Quite honestly, those who simply suck down tons of Netflix and Hulu Plus, and own few or no Apple devices, can gain equal benefit from nearly any streaming media box. Personally, I’d recommend the Roku 3, unless you’re really into Amazon’s ecosystem and you’re a lightweight gamer, in which case the Fire TV is probably most appealing.

Don’t make the mistake of pigeonholing Apple TV into a corner appropriate only for fanboys. I’m an Apple fan, but not a fanboy. With two iPads, a Mac Mini, and several iPod Touches floating around my house, Apple TV simply works. The intuitive navigation, slick interface, and Apple’s minimalistic DNA shine through. If you’re a fan of Apple’s design and approach to all things digital, you’ll feel right at home with this premium media streaming device.

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Curt Robbins

[For more of my opinions regarding Apple, check out Back to Apple and Apple vs. Google: Where Focus Meets Buckshot.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.