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.

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.

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 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.

Blu-ray Players: More Than Discs

3d1When researching my book Home Theater for the Internet Age, one of the most significant things I recognized was the versatility and power of the latest generation of Blu-ray players. We think of them as simply playback mechanisms for physical discs. Which is understandable, considering that’s how CD and DVD players worked. In reality, however, modern Blu-ray players offer so much more. Especially if you’re a technology-embracing, mobile device-toting, wi-fi connected person or family.

Backward compatibility has always been a strength of much consumer technology. Microsoft Windows and Apple’s OS X will run software designed for significantly older versions of their respective operating systems. Likewise, Blu-ray players can handle nearly all previous generations and standards, including CDs for music, DVDs for movies, and discs featuring any type of media burned on your computer.

What most consumers either don’t understand or simply don’t utilize is the fact that physical discs are only one of three avenues for getting media into your Blu-ray player—and pumping through your surround sound speakers and widescreen display panel.

The other methods? USB flash drives and any type of network connectivity.

Most Blu-ray players feature a USB port on either the front or, less conveniently, the back of the unit. This allows you to copy music, photos, and videos from a computer or network storage device to a flash drive and plug it into your player. Although primitive in some respects (this used to be called sneakernet in the computer world), this is a valid way to get media files from a computer or storage device in your house to your home theater.

The third method, network connectivity, requires either wi-fi or Ethernet. In this case, your Blu-ray player is simply connecting to another computer or storage device in your home to gain access to media files. Sometimes this involves a dedicated media streaming technology, like DLNA (a capability that must be built into your Blu-ray player). This is my favorite method. Many people have thousands of family photos and songs residing on a computer or network storage device in their home. Using either a hard-wired Ethernet or wi-fi connection to your Blu-ray player, you can have access to them all. You can run photo slideshows, choose from among hundreds of ripped music albums, or play family videos (or those purchased online).

oppo bdp-103Yet, despite this capability, most consumers never do more than drop shiny discs in their Blu-ray players. What a waste! In theory, these folks are getting only one-third the functionality and value out of their players.

The very best content you can pump through your home theater—in terms of fidelity and quality—is a Blu-ray disc. They offer the most crisp video and the very best audio. Hands down. But ignoring the sometimes voluminous personal media many of us have and continue to accumulate (regardless of the technical quality of that media) is leaving dollars and fun on the table. So check your Blu-ray player. Does it feature a USB port? An Ethernet port? Does it have wi-fi built-in? If so, you could be accessing your archive of family/personal media on a regular basis.

So remember, as Kyle from South Park would say, we learned something today. Most Blu-ray players can receive input from sources other than the disc tray. Archived media is great for simple preservation and passing on our legacy to our children and grandchildren. But not utilizing that media for our personal enjoyment and the enrichment of our family is, well, wrong. You saved it for a reason, right? I’d argue that the media you preserve isn’t just for future generations, but also for the enjoyment of you and yours right now.

Now where did I put that flash drive?

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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.