Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 9

3d1Today’s blog post is another excerpt from Home Theater for the Internet Age and covers more topics that often confuse both new and old hi-fi and home theater fans alike: Ethernet (hard wired, high-bandwidth computer and hi-fi gear networking), separates, and the role of a broadband internet router in a modern home theater.

The internet router is especially important for those who enjoy streaming media (like Pandora, Spotify, Netflix, and Hulu Plus) and have multiple mobile devices sucking down wi-fi.

  • Part 1: Volume and zero dB, updating firmware, 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 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

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Curt Robbins


Ethernet

From Chapter 3: Components

Ethernet is a standard for connecting computers and home theater components to your home network. Unlike wi-fi, which is a wireless communications standard, it is a wired scheme that operates over special cabling. Like its cousin wi-fi, Ethernet enables audio and video to be streamed from the internet or a part of your network to your home theater. In terms of audio and video components (specifically receivers, Blu-ray players, and streaming media boxes), Ethernet is a valuable feature that provides a better connection than wi-fi, but may involve more expensive installation of cabling in your home. (For more info, see the Ethernet section of the Connection Types chapter.)

ethernet-cablePersonally, I’d seriously consider skipping components that lack Ethernet. Why? Simply because it’s the best way to connect the pieces of your home theater to your local network and the internet, especially for streaming high-definition video. The media formats of today—and tomorrow—all flow more smoothly when transported via Ethernet instead of interference-prone wi-fi.

From Chapter 5: Connection Types

As you learned in the Components chapter, Ethernet is a wired connection technology from the computer networking world that is used in other types of components, such as home theater and home automation equipment. It supports relatively high speeds, has been around for decades, and is very reliable. Many, but not all, receivers and all major streaming media boxes feature Ethernet ports. This connectivity standard operates over special cabling called CAT5 and CAT6 (the current and most robust standard) and can reach lengths of more than 300 feet (100 meters).

Sometimes labeled “LAN” on a device’s back panel, Ethernet isn’t only reliable, it’s the fastest connection available. In a typical home network, Ethernet is roughly two to 20 times faster than wi-fi (when measuring real-world data throughput)! Although most components don’t take advantage of this speed, future standards—like true 4K video—will benefit from it. Another superiority over wi-fi is the lack of sensitivity to radio interference (such as from cordless phones and microwaves). In addition, Ethernet is much less prone to hacking or unwanted eavesdropping than wi-fi. Ethernet is simply the best connection option for computers and home theater equipment.

In most homes, wi-fi is obviously used by all mobile devices (iPod Touches, smartphones, tablets, and laptops). But your receiver never moves, so it doesn’t need the mobile flexibility provided by wi-fi. It does, however, need a fast, solid internet connection—and especially benefits from one that’s much more immune to interference and several magnitudes faster than its wi-fi cousin (helpful when streaming high resolution audio or video without interruptions or buffering).

For these reasons, I decided to connect my receiver and other home theater components to my home network (and the internet) using Ethernet. Because my components aren’t consuming wi-fi bandwidth, they aren’t competing with the mobile devices in my home. If you’ve already gone to the installation expense or invested DIY time to run CAT6 cable from your home’s internet router to your home theater components, there’s no reason to not supply Ethernet to all of your devices.

Splitting Ethernet with a Switch

Sharing a single cable drop with multiple home theater components can be done easily and inexpensively using an Ethernet switch. Similar to a USB hub, this device simply splits and manages the incoming Ethernet signal from a single cable into multiple feeds (some switches provide five ports, while others offer eight or more). There are a few speed standards supported by Ethernet switches. It’s recommended that you get the fastest possible switch to help future-proof your system. This would be a gigabit switch, which is very affordable, with entry-level models costing only about $35. With even higher definition TV right around the corner, data consumption will only increase exponentially.

ethernet switchA friend of mine was recently shopping for a receiver. He had been plugging his cable box and Blu-ray player directly into his TV. He purchased a Chromecast dongle, but his TV features only two HDMI ports, both of which were occupied. Thus, he was forced to purchase a receiver to accommodate his three HDMI inputs (of course, he’s pumping much better sound to his speakers in the process). Instead of paying more for a receiver that featured wi-fi—he was on a tight budget—we simply ensured that the receiver had an Ethernet port. This allowed him to save $120 by purchasing a model lacking wi-fi—while at the same time delivering a considerably faster and more reliable internet connection to his receiver.

For non-mobile devices and when practical, always choose Ethernet over wi-fi.

Separates

From Chapter 3: Components

One thing this book doesn’t deal with in detail is what in the audiophile world is called separates. These are specialty components that handle specific tasks within your home theater, primarily multichannel amplification or surround processing. These are both tasks assumed by a standard AV receiver, although typically—by audiophile standards—at a lower quality level than can be delivered by separates.

It’s hard to argue with the benefit of different power supplies and avoiding any electrical crossover or interference between separate components. It is, in both theory and actual listening reality, an approach that’s superior to that of integrated receivers. But, as with all areas of life, common sense should prevail. There are poor examples of separates on the market, as well as integrated receivers that produce incredible sound and video with robust power (and better value).

As you might guess, separates can get alarmingly expensive. If you want to research separates on your own, check out Anthem, Bryston, Classé, Emotiva, Integra, Marantz, NAD, Parasound, and Rotel. With the exception of Emotiva and (sometimes) NAD, get ready for sticker shock. Even Yamaha joined the game in 2014 with a $6,000 pre-processor and power amplifier pair.

If I was buying separates today, I’d probably go with Rotel, NAD, or Emotiva. I like Rotel’s Class D digital amps and its reputation for clean, refined audio with a wide soundstage. I love NAD’s understated grey matte finish and its legacy for audiophile-quality sound at all volume levels. I also enjoy Emotiva’s engineering philosophy and how the company throws tons of watts at its separates (although other companies offer classier, more refined component styling). The company’s wattage-per-dollar ratio is off the charts. Unlike most separates manufacturers, Emotiva’s prices won’t motivate your spouse to begin Googling ways to kill you in your sleep.

Broadband Internet Router

From Chapter 3: Components

I know, I know, this is a book about home theater, not computers. But with so many streaming services delivered to your home theater via the internet, having a weak router can be more frustration than pleasure. Dropouts when listening to streaming music and freezes for buffering while watching internet video aren’t any fun (somewhat destroying the suspension of disbelief during engaging movies). While problems like this can’t be completely avoided due to internet traffic and server hiccups (issues completely outside your control), they can sometimes be dramatically decreased with a good dual-band router.

Think of a high-end router as serving the role of an internet traffic cop who not only likes to increase the speed limit, but also optimizes your network for the increasingly media-based data pulled down by your increasingly device-filled household.

Wi-Fi Everywhere

Not convinced of the importance of wi-fi in your home? Consider that Roku uses wi-fi even in its remote controls, while Nest sells a wi-fi-enabled smoke detector to complement its wi-fi-based smart thermostat. There are even various models of door locks and LED light bulbs on the market that require wi-fi to configure and operate. From your display panel and AV receiver to your laptop or your child’s iPod Touch, the quality and reliability of your wi-fi connection has never been so important, affecting every member of your family—and even your guests who bring their own mobile devices.

netgear nighthawk r700Better router models provide several advantages, including stronger amplifiers and dedicated antennas to enhance signal strength, range, and overall data speed. Consider that YouTube and Netflix together make up more than 55% of the overall volume of data consumed on the internet. In other words, most of the data streamed online is video—and sometimes HD video in Dolby Digital surround sound. This video consumes a lot of bandwidth, more than any other type of data on your network or the internet.

Also consider that this data isn’t consumed in short bursts, like traditional computer-based internet use involving a web browser or mobile apps for social networks like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Watching a two-and-a-half hour movie on Netflix or Apple TV requires not only good bandwidth, but a data stream that’s consistently reliable. Now recognize that there might be two, or even three, simultaneous video streams from the internet entering your home at certain times of the day (such as after school or work, during the evening, or on weekends). This is when most readers begin to understand the sheer volume of media streaming that occurs in their home and the pivotal role played by their wi-fi router.

When you sign up for internet service, there’s a good chance that your ISP, or internet service provider, will provide you a combination modem/router that includes basic wi-fi capabilities. This is the device that is both bringing the internet into your home via coaxial, twisted pair (telephone), or fiber optic cabling and then, as a second step, wirelessly broadcasting it to your home via a wi-fi signal. Any internet-connected device in your home relies on your router for the upload and download of all data.

The Free One Sucks

For companies like AT&T, Cox, Comcast, and Time Warner to make money, they obviously must keep overhead as low as possible. This means that the modem/wi-fi router box they provide with their ISP accounts isn’t the best available. Not by a long shot. Regardless of the inherent quality of these freebies, they aren’t giving you the best experience possible. With so many mobile and home theater devices in your home demanding a robust and full-time wi-fi connection—and typically streaming bandwidth-hungry audio or video—the role of your router is more important than ever.

Buy Dual Band

First, be sure to purchase a wi-fi router that’s dual-band. This will include support for both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz devices, essentially putting them on different networks and boosting the bandwidth provided to all devices by helping prevent bottlenecks and streamlining data flows.

A benefit of a dual-band router is that you’re guaranteed to have the latest wi-fi standard, 802.11ac (sometimes called gigabit wi-fi). This gives you the fastest wireless connectivity, helping provide the best possible performance, especially with new devices that enter your household that probably support this standard. Routers from ASUS, Cisco, D-link, Linksys, and Netgear are recommended because of their quality, affordability, and long track records with consumers and enterprises.

Buying the best router possible for your home in 2014 is a $130-$280 endeavor. Check out the $200 Netgear Nighthawk R7000 (my personal pick and a PC Magazine’s Editors’ Choice, pictured above), the $130 ASUS RT-N65U or $220 RT-AC68U, or the $230 Linksys EA6900 (another PC Magazine Editors’ Choice recipient). Also consider the top-shelf $280 Linksys WRT1900AC. Another nice contender is the $175 TRENDnet TEW-818DRU (street prices will typically be lower on most models). Not chump change, but by the end of the operation you’ll know you have the fastest, most reliable, and most manageable wi-fi on the block.


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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Zealth Audio: Great American Speakers

3d1When I was doing research for one of my latest books, Home Theater for the Internet Age, I knew I couldn’t get lazy with the Speakers chapter. So I put a lot of time into the topic. In the process, I discovered some neat, small speaker companies.

Most of the experts I truly respect in the areas of hi-fi and home theater agree: You should put the bulk of your budget into speakers (for a wide variety of reasons that I won’t go into here).

One of the more unique and affable companies I encountered during my research was Zealth Audio. Based in San Diego, Zealth isn’t your father’s speaker. To learn more, enjoy the following excerpt from my book.

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Curt Robbins


Zealth Audio

If you’re one of those people who likes to talk about supporting the little guy, but ends up plunking down your hard-earned on speakers from a big international corporation, you might want to consider your options. Independent manufacturers, some of which are as small as one full-time craftsman working with one or two part-time assistants, are increasingly common. Fortunately, some of these little guys can also save you significant money while putting a hand-crafted speaker in your living room that’s actually attractive and sounds great.

One such option is Zealth Audio, a small operation in San Diego that hand-builds four models of multi-directional floor standing loudspeakers, all of which are designed to enhance surround sound—although they work well in stereo applications as well. Like Mirage, Pinnacle, and Axiom, Zealth stands out in the sometimes copycat world of direct-firing loudspeakers by offering a unique design that caters to the realities of modern surround sound.

What truly differentiates the speaker-design brainchild of company founder and sole full-time employee Kevin Nelson is the fact that it’s designed to work in a two-channel stereo sound system with as few as one—yes, that’s right, one—speaker. Zealth employs a patented Cross-Fire Imaging Technology, which comprises both front-firing and 45-degree up-firing Picture-002drivers. Zealth also sells a three-way speaker that adds a side-firing subwoofer.

Nelson claims that all of his configurations “enhance your existing surround sound-enabled investment and bring home theater sounds to breathtaking life,” referring to the experience as “multi-dimensional sound immersion.” Nelson is so confident in the immersive quality of his speakers, in fact, that he says you can replace a conventional five-speaker system with only two of his models. When I asked him if one could also avoid the expense of a subwoofer by going with his top-of-the-line side-firing Gold Series model, he said yes.

If you’re as curious about Zealth as me, check out the company’s entry-level ZAL-22 ($450 a pair), the midgrade ZAL-36T ($890 a pair), or the big daddy ZAL-DLX Gold Series, a 36-inch tall model featuring the aforementioned side-firing 10-inch subwoofer ($1,450 a pair). Nelson is also introducing a new faux leather finish ZAL36 Slimline model that will be priced at $980 a pair.

All Zealth speakers are made-to-order, hand-built from American materials, and available in more than a dozen beautiful wood finishes (a nice alternative to the trendy high-gloss piano finishes that are all the rave—and one advantage of Zealth’s small-scale fulfillment system). The company produces muscular models that, according to veteran audiophile reviewer Steve Guttenberg, sound as good as they look.

Check out Zealth. You’ll not only be supporting the little guy, but also getting a killer set of very affordable speakers. The ZAL-36T is what I plan to use in a new two-channel system dedicated to music.

[According to Molly Stillman at rAVe Publications, who interviewed Nelson for her blog in April 2014,Speaking with Kevin was truly a pleasure and an honor. He was extremely humble, very honest, funny, witty, and clearly very smart. I think the industry could use a few more Kevin Nelsons.” You can read Ms. Stillman’s blog post regarding Zealth Audio here.] 


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 8

3d1In the previous blog post, we discussed how the room in which you place your home theater (or two-channel audio system) can greatly affect the quality of the sound produced. In this post, let’s explore room correction and room dynamics (the size and shape of the room and the nature of the stuff in it).

  • Part 1: Volume and zero dB, updating firmware, 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 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 9: Ethernet, separates, and broadband internet routers

 

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Curt Robbins


Room Correction

Many AV receiver models, especially those manufactured within the past five to eight years, feature something called room correction (also called auto-calibration or automatic EQ). In a nutshell, room correction, as its name implies, makes small adjustments to the speaker outputs of the receiver based on your particular room layout in an effort to improve your sound—with a focus on surround sound and the combined effect of all of your speakers.

The task of room correction involves a small microphone that plugs into your AV receiver. The receiver produces a series of test tones from each individual speaker that are “heard” by the calibration microphone, which provides feedback to the receiver. The receiver uses this information in two ways. First, it adjusts the relative loudness of your speakers so they’re all producing sound at the same level (based on the position of the microphone during testing). Second, it attempts to determine how your specific room acoustics are affecting and harming the quality of the output of your speakers and applies equalization (EQ) to try to improve the situation.

Don’t downplay the importance of good room correction. “I didn’t realize how much better [music] could sound until I finally took the 30 minutes to run the [room correction] program. Wowza, what an experience! The surround channels seemed to come to life, and the bass response throughout the room was much more consistent and pleasing to the ears,” said David Vaughn in a receiver review for Sound & Vision magazine.

If your receiver doesn’t feature built-in room correction (many don’t, especially entry-level models), you can use a supplemental tune-up disc (a good example is Sound & Vision Home Theater Tune-Up, available for about $15 from resellers like Amazon). Most products of this type offer a comprehensive set of tests and tools to adjust and enhance both your audio and video, including speaker placement, sound levels, and other audio settings. Another, albeit more expensive, option is hiring a certified technician to calibrate your home theater (installers often offer this service).

Speaker Position & Room Dynamics

As you learned in the A Word About Your Room section of the Components chapter, it’s important to realize that the room in which your speakers reside has a dramatic effect on the quality of the sound produced by them. This includes the volume, clarity, and dynamic range perceived by you and your listeners. Rooms that provide too much sound wave reflection, or, conversely, too much sound absorption, will color the audio produced by any speaker. The shape of the room also heavily influences the path traveled by sound waves before they reach your ears, significantly influencing your perception of the sound.

The position of speakers is also critical and applies to both two-channel systems as well as 5.1 and larger surround configurations. Not only is the position of speakers relative to each other significant, but also their locations relative to the room and walls. Is your home theater environment fully enclosed? Partially open? Mostly open? What is the nature of the surfaces of the walls? The ceiling? Is the floor highly reflective ceramic tile, or a deep-pile sound-absorbing carpet? How dense is the furniture and decor in the room? These are all important considerations that go beyond the inherent quality of the speakers themselves.


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 7

3d1I’ve recently been experimenting with writing in different parts of my house. My wife and daughter were serial binge watching something on Netflix that I found distracting, so I took my laptop, iPad, and coffee and headed to the “Club Room,” the name my wife gave to the spare bedroom we turned into a second home theater.

Despite the fact that this room’s system isn’t as nice as that in the living room, it sounds better. In fact, I can barely describe it—especially for two-channel music. But I’m getting that itchy feeling of deja vu. Probably because I already wrote about this in Home Theater for the Internet Age. Enjoy the A Word About Your Room section below.

In the next blog post, I’ll share the Room Dynamics & Speaker Positioning section from the Speakers chapter.

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Curt Robbins


A Word About Your Room

We can talk about home theater components all we want, but how good yours sounds is highly dependent on your particular room. It’s size, the number and nature of the items filling it, and the surface characteristics of the ceiling, walls, and flooring—including the number of windows and amount of ambient light—all have a significant impact on your listening and viewing experience. For audio, it’s necessary to adjust your receiver and the output it provides to your speakers (something you learned about in the Room Correction section above). Don’t blow off doing a good room correction for your system. Equally important is speaker position and the direction in which they fire (point). To learn about speaker placement, see the Room Dynamics & Speaker Positioning section of the Speakers chapter.

Use Case: Room Dynamics

In 2013, I upgraded one home theater in my living room and installed a second from scratch in a spare bedroom (that serves as a dedicated theater, complete with theater lighting and a dorm fridge in the closet). The main living room system is nicer and involves better rear speakers and components. In fact, the only thing that’s consistent across both systems is the Blu-ray player (Pioneer Elite BDP-62FP units), Apple TV, and front speakers (comparable B&W mains and center channels). All other components are superior in the living room theater. The rec room, however, offers the advantage of being an entirely physically enclosed environment, and doing so within the relatively small space of a spare bedroom. It contains only a wall-mounted display panel, three-person sofa, and adult-size beanbag chair, with all components in a closable closet.

I have a friend who’s a big movie buff. He recently made a social visit to my house, the first time he had been exposed to these home theaters. We watched two modern feature-length movies, one in the spare bedroom and one in the living room. Each was a big-budget film on Blu-ray involving nice lossless surround sound and modern CGI effects. We cranked the volume during each movie (really utilizing the subwoofer in the living room system).

After my friend had watched both movies, I queried him regarding his perception of the sound quality of the respective experiences. He said the sound in the spare bedroom was better. This was despite the fact that the room lacks a subwoofer, has lower grade rear speakers, and the receiver features a lower-quality amplifier with slightly less power.

The lesson here: One of the biggest determinants of the quality of the sound produced by your particular home theater is the room in which it resides. Don’t get too focused on the role of components and the nuances of their pros, cons, and stats when the room in which you drop them plays such a pivotal role. Your environment may be inherently good or bad for a home theater. This also illustrates why you might not want to invest thousands of dollars on an upgrade that will provide marginal improvements to your audio and video quality.

Maybe the solution is simply to move the theater to a different room.


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.

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.

songza for blog post

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).

pandora for blog post

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.

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.

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.

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.

Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 1

3d1There’s quite a few topics in home theater that are confusing for the average consumer. From volume levels on modern AV receivers to firmware updates to distortion, these topics make the purchase, installation, and enjoyable use of home theater gear both intimidating and sometimes perplexing. In the next few posts, let’s clarify some of these issues.

The following is an excerpt from my new Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age. The other blog posts in this series are listed below:

  • 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 6: Closed-back vs. open-back around-ear headphones
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 8: Room correction, speaker position, and room dynamics
  • Part 9: Ethernet, component separates, and broadband internet routers

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Curt Robbins


Volume in a Zero dB World

The volume, or intensity, of sound produced by a receiver or amp is expressed in decibels, or dB. The “bel” part of the term is in honor of Alexander Graham Bell, because decibels, as a unit of measure, were developed to objectively determine audio levels on the earliest telephone networks (and you thought it was all about jet engines and 1970s rock concerts by The Who….).

What is confusing about decibel readouts on today’s receivers—and has been in practice for only about the past decade or so—is the zero dB system employed. It’s inherently counter-intuitive. Basically, on the dB scale, zero (0) represents the receiver’s loudest output (if you turned up the volume to the maximum possible). You’d obviously have to decrease the volume to enjoy it at a reasonable level. These enjoyable volumes occur in the negative numbers. A reasonable zone might be -32, or maybe -25 (depending on the input source and your room). But it will always be expressed as a negative number. Because we’re talking about negative numbers, smaller numbers (ignoring the negative sign) equal higher volume levels (-10 will be much louder than -35). And this is where the confusion arises.

pioneer av receiverThere is a logic to this scheme, however. In the past, when higher numbers equaled greater volumes, the settings were entirely arbitrary, with wide variations among receiver manufacturers. One company might demark 1 through 10 (one being the softest, 10 being the loudest), while another would get more granular, adopting a 1 through 20 or even 1 through 100 scale. It was the wild west. The problem was that there was no objective way for a receiver to display to its owner the volume at which it was producing sound.

Zero dB originated in the commercial broadcasting and recording industries. On your home theater’s receiver, think of 0 dB as the tipping point for distortion and where you may begin encountering things like “clipping” (jarring cuts and dropouts in the sound) and other signs that the receiver is operating beyond its capacity to provide clean sound. Depending on the quality of your receiver, you may experience distortion at a volume below 0 dB. But a good unit won’t begin distorting until this point (a valuable litmus test when researching your purchase).

The specific dB level indicated by a receiver is still somewhat subjective. In addition to your receiver, your speakers and the room in which they reside significantly influence the actual volume at which you hear the audio reproduced. Take this number displayed on your receiver lightly, realizing that -25 dB with your old speakers or on your neighbor’s system won’t sound exactly the same on yours (but it should be in the ballpark).


Updating Firmware

A hardware component’s firmware is simply updatable software stored on a chip in the device that controls certain features and functions. Because players are basically audio and video-focused computers dependent upon complex decoding and processing software, manufacturers often release firmware updates that expand or enhance the functionality of their units—or fix existing bugs. It’s a good idea to keep the firmware of your home theater devices, specifically your Blu-ray player and AV receiver, up-to-date (check manufacturer websites on a regular basis).

The biggest reason to update your Blu-ray player firmware is to ensure that it can properly play the latest movie releases. Hollywood is continually revising copy-protection standards in an effort to thwart piracy. Sometimes new protection schemes can’t be recognized by a particular player (especially older models)—resulting in a movie that won’t play. Instead of having to purchase a new Blu-ray player (a ludicrous proposition at which consumers would obviously balk), you simply need to update your firmware to match the latest copy-protection encryption standards of new-release movies.

oppo bdp-103Depending on whether your Blu-ray player is connected to the internet, there are a variety of ways firmware updates can be applied. If your player features internet connectivity, simply follow the manufacturer instructions to obtain and install the update files. If your player lacks connectivity, you can download the files from the manufacturer website using a Windows or Mac computer and copy them to a USB flash drive. The USB drive is then inserted into the player to begin the installation of the update.


Disadvantages of Blu-ray

The biggest disadvantage of the Blu-ray format is that some discs can take a while to load (up to a minute or two), depending on the speed and quality of your player. This wait is so much greater than for DVDs that, on some titles, new owners sometimes believe they’ve run into a bad disc or that their player has locked up. More expensive and newer Blu-ray players feature faster processing chips, decreasing your wait time as the disc content loads into the memory of your player. If load speed is a concern, remember to demo, demo, demo. (For you geeky types, the Blu-ray video format transfers data at roughly 40 Mbps, which is why you can’t yet stream an uncompressed Blu-ray video over your internet connection.)

Models known for their speedy load times include OPPO’s $500 BDP-103, its $1,200 105 model, and the $400 Pioneer Elite BDP-62FD. Personally, my first choice would be the BDP-103 (pictured above). Those on a budget might prefer the BDP-62FD, which is very comparable to the entry-level OPPO (but not quite as powerful or refined).


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.