Tidal: Lossless Music Streaming

I recently learned about a relatively new streaming music service out of Oslo, Norway called Tidal, which became available in the United Kingdom and the United States last October. Since my discovery, Tidal has garnished quite a bit of media attention. Last winter, rap mogul Jay Z and a bunch of his wealthy music pals (like Madonna) purchased Tidal.

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Why do I care about a new on-demand music service when there’s so many great ones already on the market? Spotify, Google Play Music, Rdio, Rhapsody, and Beats Music (the “Big Five”) all offer very compelling services priced at only $10 a month. In terms of cost, music discovery/radio service Pandora is even more attractive and available in both subscription and free, ad-supported versions. Songza, another music discovery service (owned by Google), is ad-free and available at no cost.

So why get excited about a new music streaming service?

iPod Era: Convenience vs. Fidelity

The iPod era forced music consumers to trade quality for convenience. It was great to have thousands of songs instantly available from our iPods and smartphones, but sucked because those songs were of low quality (typically 128 Kbps). For the luxury of a “listen anywhere” media format that allowed one to plug their mobile device into their car or listen when at the gym or the office, audio fidelity went down the toilet. Audiophiles lamented the state of hi-fidelity; some declared it dead.

For those who are curious about the technical details, most music streaming services—and all of the Big Five, in addition to Pandora and Songza—highly compress their audio stream to allow it to flow smoothly from their servers, through the internet, to your listening device.

These highly compressed, or “lossy” formats (which literally lose data during the compression/decompression cycle) are typically MP3 or AAC, which offer various levels of audio quality, even the best of which is fairly hobbled—at least when compared to compact discs. While some listeners don’t notice the difference, it’s significant on good equipment. Those with nice hi-fi systems and premium speakers certainly can tell the difference. Many audiophiles have shunned highly compressed, lossy services like Pandora and Songza in favor of CDs or vinyl.

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Tidal’s primary differentiator is that it streams in “lossless” CD quality. This means that no data is lost during the compression of the music on Tidal’s end and the decompression of it on your end.

The Big Five stream at a fairly respectable 320 Kbps. Tidal, however, streams at 1,411 Kbps (in the ALAC and FLAC formats). This is nearly 4.5 times more data per second to satisfy one’s craving for music fidelity.

But the big question is: Can you hear the difference? If you have only a moderately nice sound system, the answer is a resounding yes. If you have a high-end system, you’ll be blown away.

During my time using Tidal, I can honestly say I’ve never heard a higher quality or more reliable music streaming service. I still love Pandora and Songza, and had a great experience with Google Play Music back when I subscribed. But if you care about the fidelity of the music, Tidal is the best online stream that’s ever reached my ears. Period.

[For those who are curious, since “moderately nice sound system” and “high-end system” are fairly ambiguous labels, I have been listening on a Pioneer Elite VSC-53 receiver outputting to a set of B&W 703 tower speakers, which is fed internet bandwidth by a Netgear Powerline 500 + powerline adapter getting signal from a Netgear Nighthawk R7000 wi-fi router and an AT&T 18 Mbps internet connection.]

Mark Henninger, senior writer at AVS Forum, commented in a Facebook group for audiophiles on a budget, “You have a fan of Tidal right here. The quality and the selection are fantastic.” Henninger makes a good point; a good music streaming service, regardless of its fidelity, is nothing without a satisfying catalog of songs.

The Upside

In addition to its main selling point, lossless high-fidelity music streaming, Tidal also offers offline listening. Unlike some other services, songs saved to your local device for offline listening aren’t “dumbed down” in terms of fidelity. They retain their CD-level quality. This is especially nice for things like a subway commute, flight, or anywhere you don’t have an internet connection—or don’t want to eat into your mobile phone data plan.

Tidal’s ad-free format is also nice, but certainly expected at the service’s $20 a month cost. After all, even lower-fidelity, $10/month services like Spotify, Rdio, and Google Play Music are void of ads and commercials.

One way of getting Tidal’s high-quality music into your hi-fi or home theater system, if you’re streaming from an Apple device like a Mac computer, iPad, or iPhone, is AirPlay. I’ve been using AirPlay to stream from my iPad to my audio/video receivers, both of which have AirPlay built-in. I haven’t experienced a single dropout or buffering issue. Of course, I also have ample broadband at nearly 20 Mbps; Tidal recommends a minimum of 2 Mbps.

Tidal is also available on more than 40 platforms, including all major mobile operating systems, like Android and iOS, and all mainstream browsers, like Firefox and Chrome. There’s also a slick and seemingly bug-free iPad app.

Tidal even offers a radio feature, including an Artist Radio function, meaning you can use it for music discovery, just like Pandora or Songza. There’s also playlists, repeat, and shuffle, fairly standard features found on nearly all on-demand competitors. In addition, a favoriting feature called My Music lets users tag songs and albums they like for easy retrieval in the future.

Unfortunately, there’s no Chromecast support. However, my contact at the company tells me that one is in development. In the meantime, I’m loving the iPad app, which is very keenly and minimally styled. I think it looks better than the iPad apps for any of the other music streaming services I’ve used.

Now with Led Zeppelin

Tidal recently added the entire Led Zeppelin catalog to its already impressive song collection. It is the only high-fidelity streaming music service to feature the venerable ’60s and ’70s heavy metal superband, and one of only two streaming services overall (Spotify is the only 320 Kbps service to feature them).

I’m currently listening to the group’s pinnacle double-album Physical Graffiti. It sounds every bit as good as my compact disc version of the album. Now I can just swipe and tap on my iPad, activate AirPlay to my AV receiver, and I’m in business. No more digging for my CD. I don’t even have to get out of my easy chair.

The Downside

The primary disadvantage of Tidal is cost: This high-quality music streaming service is available only for twenty bucks a month. This is precisely twice the cost of the Big Five. Only Pandora, which offers a weaker 192 Kbps (the mobile app is only 128 Kbps), is available for $36 a year (or $4 per month). Songza, which streams at a fairly anemic 64 Kbps (or 1/22 of Tidal’s fidelity), is free.

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For those who prefer free, ad-supported services (like how Pandora offers both a gratis version featuring commercials and also a paid side that’s ad-free), Tidal will be a disappointment. There’s no free version. Personally, I think this is fine. Tidal is clearly positioning itself as a premium music service, both in terms of quality and price. You simply can’t get a Porsche 911 for the price of a Toyota Yaris.

Check It Out

Tidal features a catalog of 25 million songs. This is enough, according to the company, to listen for 140 straight years. It is a slightly larger catalog than many music streaming services, but not as large as some, like Rhapsody, which features 32 million songs.

In the end, Tidal is a welcome addition to the small, but growing, collection of lossless music streaming services. Hopefully the higher price won’t scare away students and those on a budget. It would be nice to see this service set a precedent and usher in a new era of lossless music streaming.

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Curt Robbins


[To understand more about streaming music, check out Streaming Music: The Types.]

[In response to my favorable comments regarding Tidal, I’ve received accusations on Facebook of being a troll. I currently hold no stock in or employment with Tidal, nor am I affiliated with or related to any of its shareholders or employees. I’m a technical writer, author, and consumer advocate who is officially reviewing the service.]


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.

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

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

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

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

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

Pandora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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.

Streaming Music: The Types

You don’t have to be into home theater or an audiophile to love music (when was the last time you met someone who wasn’t into some type of music?). Whether you’re streaming on your smartphone or home listening to a full complement of surround sound speakers, streaming music goes everywhere.music (3)

Cost? Free to $10 a month. So what are you waiting for? Get on the streaming music bandwagon and begin enjoying the world’s largest jukebox.

[If you don’t have time for a 1,100 word blog post and prefer a slideshow, check out Understanding Digital Music – Part 1.]

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Curt Robbins


There’s two primary types of streaming music: “Radio stations” and on-demand services. Radio stations include the uber-popular Pandora, as well as iTunes Radio and Songza. These companies offer a bare-bones service that plays continual music (perfect for background listening and office settings). On-demand services, such as Spotify, Beats Music, Tidal, and Rdio, are much more full-featured, offering the ability to play the song of your choice whenever you want. These services all currently charge $10 a month for access to a catalog of roughly 20 million+ songs.

Music Discovery / Radio Services

As the name implies, streaming radio involves creating a “radio station,” or channel, that automatically cranks out songs related to the name you choose (but doesn’t let you choose specific songs). It’s like an FM radio station, except it plays only the type of music you enjoy and doesn’t feature obnoxious DJs. For example, creating a Steely Dan radio station will pump out songs not only from the jazzy light rock duo, but also related artists like Boz Scaggs and Fleetwood Mac. Likewise, creating a Lorde station may stream pop songs from Imagine Dragons, Macklemore, and Lana Del Rey. Most services allow you to create radio stations based on a genre, song or album title, artist/band name, or era.

Pandora, Songza, iTunes Radio, and any service that provides a radio function, specialize in something called “music discovery.” If you like jazz and create a Miles Davis station, a streaming service will introduce you to other jazz artists, like Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins (artists with whom you may be unfamiliar).

On-Demand Services

“On-demand,” or “instant” music streaming is the ability to specify a particular song, album, or artist and immediately hear it. Combined with a large song catalog, these services are truly the world’s largest jukeboxes. Of course, as you’ve learned, there’s no guarantee that your favorite song is available from a particular service. But with a minimum of 20 million songs each, the major on-demand music streaming services have plenty to offer. Even if Rhapsody and Spotify don’t have your favorite Beatles or Metallica songs, what they do offer gives most users a feeling of solid value.

Don’t let the sheer volume of a catalog have too much sway over you. What matters is that it features most of the artists and songs that you want and are going to actually play (for example, some reviewers claim that Rdio is the best option if you’re into jazz and classical). When Beats Music debuted in January 2014, it criticized competing services for stuffing their catalogs with karaoke tracks and other obscure and unpopular songs simply to boost their numbers.

On-Demand Features

The major on-demand music services provide a standard set of functions to help you organize, revisit, and enjoy your favorite music genres, artists, albums, and songs. Playlists, music lockers, and offline listening all round out the power and convenience of any on-demand service.

Playlists

Playlists are simply lists of songs that you store on a music service. Playlists are nice for building a personally curated collection of songs that you can listen to at any time. You can continue to customize a playlist over time by adding, removing, or rearranging songs. Playlists are great for parties, cleaning around the house, or focusing on a single artist, genre, or time period. Most services allow you to shuffle a playlist to get a bit more variety, especially cool for large lists. Playlists are perfect for collecting current pop hits by a wide variety of artists or your favorite one-hit wonders from over the decades. With playlists, you no longer need to burn CDs or program your iPod to hear an exact song list.

Music Lockers

A relatively new feature of some on-demand streaming music services is a locker function that allows you to upload your own music. Unlike a peer-to-peer sharing scheme (like Napster from the old days), the files are available only to you (the “locker” analogy). Take my personal situation: I like Led Zeppelin, but, as you’ve learned, the group is available for on-demand streaming only on Spotify. I subscribe to Google Play Music and Pandora. What to do?

Despite the fact that I really like Spotify, I’m not going to switch from my current service just to get Led Zeppelin. I’d lose all my playlists, have to start from scratch at teaching a new service my preferences, and there’s no Chromecast support (something I use on a daily basis). Because I own most of Led Zeppelin’s catalog on CD and have already ripped them to 320 Kbps MP3s, I simply uploaded my entire collection to my music service’s locker. Now, when I log into Google Play Music, my personal Led Zeppelin collection is seamlessly woven into the other millions of titles from Google and available to me via all of its functions (radio, playlists, and on-demand).

This works so well that I also uploaded my AC/DC and Beatles collections, legally filling the gap of what’s not available due to artist refusals. Also, if you enjoy a few small local bands that sell homebrew CDs at their pub shows or music festivals, you can upload them to your locker, integrating their songs with your favorite service and giving them the presence of the big acts. For music lovers, the locker feature available from all major on-demand services is very practical—and something that’s commonly overlooked.

Offline Listening

All major on-demand music services offer a form of offline listening. This allows you to listen to your favorite songs and playlists when you lack an internet connection (handy for flights, subway rides, and your in-laws’ rural home). Most services allow you to download thousands of songs (that cannot be transferred to other devices or shared). For example, Google Play Music permits 20,000 songs to be “pinned” on your device. Thus, the only practical limit is the storage available on your smartphone or tablet. Of course, this is of marginal value to home theater owners.


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.

Home Theater Basics

3d1The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2: Home Theater Basics from my new book Home Theater for the Internet Age. This book isn’t for audiophiles or videophiles. If you’re an average middle class person who doesn’t know much about this topic, you outnumber the “experts” and home theater nerds by about 10,000 to 1.

I’ve always enjoyed helping people understand and embrace modern technology. In the case of home theater, this tech can bring together families in front of a big display panel for a new movie release on a shiny little disc—or, increasingly, streamed from the internet. You can enjoy family photos, MP3 songs, or home videos stored on a computer that resides nearly anywhere on your wi-fi network. All using nothing more than a decent Blu-ray player (playing discs covers only one-third the functionality of modern Blu-ray players, as you can learn here).

If nothing else, please understand that you can enjoy full surround sound, high-definition video, and all the glory of modern home theater on any budget. The most common misperception of home theater is that it’s too expensive and you can’t afford it.

But you can. Trust me.

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Curt Robbins


As consumers, we’re in the middle of multiple transition periods within the home electronics and entertainment industries. These changes are in the form of rapid advances in both hardware and services. It’s no longer uncommon for one to have a 60-inch display panel hanging in their living room, to be one of the 50 million people who watch movies and TV shows on Netflix, or to be among the 76 million consumers who listen to music on Pandora each month. These don’t constitute early adopter status in today’s world of home entertainment.

Since Apple introduced its iconic iPod line of portable music players in 2001, the human race has been slowly transitioning from entertaining itself by purchasing physical media, like optical discs, to instead downloading songs from iTunes or streaming movies or TV from services like Hulu or Vudu. Today the average consumer has more home entertainment options than ever—along with a more detailed and potentially confusing array of technologies and media sources.

What Defines Home Theater?

Let’s define a few things. First, a home theater isn’t mobile. It’s not a laptop with a set of headphones (even if the laptop features a Blu-ray player). Home theater is four basic components:

  • Display panel
  • Audio/video receiver
  • Blu-ray player
  • Five+ specialized speakers

These are the elements necessary for full-on home theater and how it’s defined in this book. Anything short of these elements doesn’t cut it in terms of home “theater.” While it could be argued that a set top box for bringing audio and video content into your home theater is a necessity, some cord cutters are perfectly happy with physical discs from Redbox, the Neflix disc-by-mail service, or a local video store.

One of the most common configurations for consuming TV programming and movies is a display panel TV with two input devices: A Blu-ray player and a cable/satellite set-top box (using only the speakers on the TV). Maybe there’s a game console or DVR thrown in the mix. But this also isn’t home theater (where’s the audio/video receiver and rear surround speakers?).

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Connecting Components

In the past, the task of connecting home theater components was confusing. Different components connected with different standards and there were separate connections for audio and video. For the layperson, connecting components was a headache and typically resulted in either a frustratingly botched job, professional installation (planned or unplanned), or scouring web-based forums desperately seeking help from others. Today it’s different. Now it’s all a single standard that transports both audio and video, and does it in Blu-ray-quality high definition: HDMI. Say it with me: H-D-M-I. It’s all you need to know.

Surround Sound

In terms of audio, the difference between a “stereo system” and a “home theater” is surround sound, which has been relatively common for well over a decade. Without a collection of surround sound speakers, home theater can’t exist. Today, a significant portion of broadcast and cable TV programming—and nearly all movies produced in the past decade—are delivered with a six-channel or greater audio mix that requires a surround speaker configuration and compatible audio/video receiver to be fully appreciated.

Discrete Channels

Surround sound isn’t just about adding more speakers in your living room. It’s about discrete channels of audio information coming from specific locations within your listening environment. In other words, the producers of a TV show or movie can purposefully make, say, the voices of the characters come from the speaker directly below your TV, where they’ll be the most realistic.

Meanwhile, background noises—such as barking dogs, slamming doors, and guns firing—can be directed to the rear speakers. The ability of content producers to utilize between five and twelve speakers in your living room, in a predictable arrangement, is why affordable home theater systems now rival the experience of going to a movie theater (and why commercial theater chains have to install football field-size screens with vibrating chairs just to get our attention).

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Content Services

Content services that deliver streaming audio, video, and even games to your living room home theater have proliferated like crazy during the past few years. What’s interesting is that most people have labeled this the evolution of the internet, not home theater.

It’s all convoluted today, part computer and part stereo system. We’re in the middle of the convergence of computing/internet technologies and the hardware, software, and standards on which video and audio are affordably reproduced in the home. Home theater simply does not live up to its potential without the internet and broadband connectivity. Netflix, YouTube, HBO Now, Pandora, Hulu Plus, Spotify, iTunes, and other internet-based services offer more content than you can ever consume. While your local liquor store might not sell you bourbon on Sunday, online streaming services are available on-demand, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


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 Streaming Music

3d1The trend is clear: Sales of music on physical compact discs are steadily decreasing, while consumption of streaming music is increasing in a dramatic way. Even the growth of digital downloads, most popular from services like Apple’s iTunes and Amazon Music (formerly Amazon MP3), has slowed considerably. Consumers enjoy the convenience of music as a service, and are willing to pay between $4 and $10 a month to enjoy the world’s biggest jukebox.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 10: Streaming Music & Downloads from my book Home Theater for the Internet Age, available on Amazon Kindle. This is the first of a three-part series regarding streaming music and the popular services delivering it to consumers.

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Curt Robbins


This is an exciting time in terms of how entertainment content is packaged and sold to consumers. We’re in the middle of a titanic shift, from music-as-a-product to music-as-a-service. Instead of purchasing tunes on compact disc, consumers are increasingly choosing to obtain their musical entertainment from internet-based streaming services, such as Pandora and Spotify.

Even digital downloads, such as from iTunes, which decimated sales of compact discs, are being cannibalized by streaming music services. Consider that the sale of “digital singles” dropped 3% between 2012 and 2013, while music streaming increased 24% during the same period (according to Nielsen SoundScan). In 2013, digital downloads decreased 1% while streaming music grew by nearly 40% (according to the Recording Industry Association of America).

Renting vs. Buying Music

The economics of this shift are significant. You may be in the habit of purchasing music as albums on compact disc from a vendor such as Amazon or Walmart. Or maybe you prefer to buy your music one song at a time from iTunes or Rhapsody. Regardless of the method, it’s a model where you own the music, giving you the flexibility to burn it to a CD or listen offline, without an internet connection.

Music streaming services, however, are more like renting music. Or, rather, renting access to music. Services like Rdio and Beats Music offer catalogs comprised of tens of millions of songs. Think of them as the world’s largest jukeboxes, available on all of your devices—including your home theater.

Streaming vs. Downloading

songza for blog postWhen you purchase a song that you download, you’re copying the full song, as a single unit (a data file) from the internet to your computer. Streaming, on the contrary, is when you feed your mobile device or home theater a constant flow of digital data in the form of music or a movie. Most importantly, this data flow isn’t saved to your mobile device or AV receiver (minimizing the chance of piracy). In fact, this is the definition of “streaming.” YouTube, Netflix, and Pandora are good examples of streaming services. iTunes, Amazon Music, and HDtunes are examples of download services where you purchase, transfer, and store a song file on your computer.

Commercials & Artist Refusals

Streaming music is also a great way to avoid commercial interruptions. Subscription-based services offer ad-free entertainment in exchange for a monthly or annual fee. Some services, like Pandora and iTunes Radio, offer a free ad-supported version, as well as paid accounts that remove all commercials.

But it’s not all peaches and cream. Despite most services having deep catalogs of 16-30 million songs, don’t expect all artists and albums. Classic rock band Led Zeppelin, for example, is available only on Spotify, Songza, and Pandora. Pink Floyd prohibited its songs from being streamed by on-demand services until July 2013. The core works of Garth Brooks, the Beatles, AC/DC, Tool, Bob Seger, Metallica, and several other artists aren’t available on most streaming services.

Why Are Some Artists Unavailable?

Music services of all types must obtain legal rights to stream their song catalogs (obviously the intellectual property of thousands of other parties). This occurs through either the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) or via direct negotiations with record labels. The DMCA is a U.S. law that some other countries recognize. When companies such as Spotify, Apple, or Google negotiate directly with the major music labels (there are three in the United States), their deals involve restrictions, such as which artists are available for streaming and in which countries they can operate.

The DMCA

Two streaming services featured in this book, Pandora and Songza, rely on the DMCA. All others negotiate directly with music labels. While this gives DMCA-reliant streamers the luxury of playing any song they want—just like an FM radio station (terrestrial AM and FM also rely on the DMCA)—they’re restricted to offering their services only in countries that recognize the DMCA. Thus, Pandora is available in only three nations and Songza in only two (compare this to Google Play Music’s 68 countries served or Spotify’s 61).

pandora for blog postWhat does this mean in practical terms? That the bands that have withheld their songs from streaming distribution, such as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and AC/DC, can’t be heard on the major on-demand streaming services (outside of Spotify, which got exclusive rights to Led Zeppelin’s full catalog in late 2013).

If you really love Metallica, Bob Segar, or Tool and want to hear them on your on-demand streaming service, forget it. You’d have to use a radio type service like Pandora or Songza to, with luck, hear these bands, with zero control over the exact songs you hear or when you hear them. (See the Music Lockers section below for a neat and typically free solution to the problem of missing artists on nearly any music service.)

Digital Rights Management

Digital Rights Management, or DRM, is any form of copy protection applied to digital content, either streamed or disc-based. DRM can be found in many forms of digital media, including music and movies. Hollywood liberally employs DRM to protect movies from piracy, typically in the form of complex encryption. For most consumers, the result of DRM is not being able to copy a disc or a downloaded song or video. There are also more subtle results of DRM, such as preventing a laptop playing a streaming or Blu-ray-based movie from connecting to an external display panel via HDMI (the assumption is that there could be a recording device on the receiving end of the cable).

Most of the millions of songs available on iTunes are encrypted with DRM to prevent them from being freely shared. An increasing amount of modern video and audio, however, is DRM-free, a convenience feature that is purposefully marketed to consumers to win their favor. For example, music downloaded from the new high-resolution PonoMusic service contain no DRM, Amazon features no DRM in the MP3 songs it sells, and Apple is slowly converting its catalog to the DRM-free iTunes Plus format.


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.

Gene Simmons: Confused Luddite

Gene Simmons, the bombastic and outspoken bassist and sometimes lead singer of ’70s supergroup Kiss, recently conducted a short interview with Esquire magazine. In it, he claims that “Rock [music] is finally dead.”

Wow. While chart-topping Foo Fighters and thousands of other current—and relatively successful—rock bands are politely disagreeing, it’s the logic behind Simmons’ words that really defies intelligence, not the statement itself.

And who—or rather, what—does Simmons blame for the death of rock music? Technology.

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In particular, file-sharing. “My sense is that file-sharing started in predominantly white, middle- and upper-middle-class young people who were native-born, who felt they were entitled to have something for free, because that’s what they were used to,” he told the magazine. I’m sure no immigrant kids ever used Napster or ripped a CD from the library or a friend. Simmons is ignorantly—or stupidly, depending on your perspective—blaming a technology, file-sharing, for acts of piracy committed by humans. People’s potential sense of entitlement pertains very little to the particular mechanisms employed to satisfy that perception.

The 65-year-old former rock star isn’t only a big bag of crazy, but also seemingly can’t link cause and effect or understand how technology is actually more help than hindrance. Just because today’s music scene is different than in his roughly forty years ago heyday, Simmons somehow thinks it’s all gone to hell. Gene, things change. Today it’s a different world (and not just because we have really crappy reality TV shows). You might want to get used to it, dude.

Yes, CD sales are in the toilet. But bands have typically made more from touring than the sale of physical media (the Beatles being one major exception, but it’s only because they had a disdain for touring). From both small garage bands you’ve never heard of to big acts like Lorde, Taylor Swift, and Macklemore, the bulk of their income typically is derived from performing live, not selling shiny discs.

During the interview (which was conducted by his son Nick; no conflict of interest there), Simmons states: “If you believe in capitalism—and I’m a firm believer in free-market capitalism—then that other model is chaos. It destroys the structure.” What structure? The music industry model from the 1970s and ’80s? Pre-Pandora? Pandora and Spotify are chaos? Really. And here for all these years I thought they were pretty cool companies that increased convenience for consumers while giving exposure to old and new bands alike.

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Yes, the theft of intellectual property is a bad thing, but it’s something in which the vast majority of Americans don’t engage. Napster has been gone since 2002. For 12 years, there have been almost no popular-with-the-masses file-sharing services or schemes available. Litigation by the Recording Industry Association of America ensured that (and good for them; intellectual property theft is bad for producers and the economy alike).

“I am so sad that the next 15-year-old kid in a garage someplace in Saint Paul, that plugs into his Marshall and wants to turn it up to ten, will not have anywhere near the same opportunity that I did,” laments Simmons to his son/interviewer. Wait a second. Today, teens (or anyone) who wants to produce music, paintings, interviews, poetry, writing, fan fiction, videos—literally any form of art—has a plethora of outlets for both their core work and the promotion thereof.

Podcasts on iTunes, videos on YouTube, opinion pieces on blogs, and streaming music from a web site or dedicated service are all readily available—and typically free—for Simmons’ hypothetical Minnesota-based garage band teen to publish the results of his creative impulses.

I don’t know about Simmons, but when I was a kid, one had to beg the owner of the local pub or music venue for a chance to play on a sparsely attended Tuesday evening. Promoting one’s work outside a few small venues or one’s local area was extremely challenging. Today, people in Tokyo or Sydney can effortlessly listen to music from kids in Vancouver or El Paso (regardless of whether any money is made off the relationship).

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Hmmm, let’s see. Napster was released in 1999, 15 years ago. How many good rock bands have come up—and prospered—during the past almost two decades? Foo Fighters, Imagine Dragons, Breaking Benjamin, Rise Against, Linkin Park, and dozens of others don’t count? Simmons said he could identify only two “iconic” rock bands: Nirvana and Tame Impala. Gene, you’ve forgotten to take your medication again, haven’t you?

But wait, it gets better. In an October 2013 interview with Scotland-based Team Rock Radio (only 11 months prior to the Esquire interview), Simmons contradicted his most recent statements, claiming that Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s famous frontman who committed suicide in 1994, was no icon. “Kurt Cobain—no, that’s one or two records, that’s not enough,” he said. With flip flopping like that, Simmons should run for Congress. Of course, during the same interview, with no sense of sarcasm or humor, he called the internet “a fascinating experiment.”

Gene “God of Thunder” Simmons seems to be confusing file-sharing with music streaming. I have two music-loving teenage daughters. When I queried them, neither had even heard of Napster and both were unfamiliar with BitTorrent—used mostly to steal movies and TV episodes like Game of Thrones, not illegally download music.

While I would disagree that streaming services are killing opportunities for new bands, that’s the core argument. Not whether yesterday’s file-sharing craze is responsible for the state of rock music (which isn’t as dire as Simmons claims; just ask Dave Grohl).

Gene, give up the ignorant technology bashing and go back to doing what you do best: Selling Kiss-themed lunch boxes and biting a blood pill on stage in those ridiculous high-heeled boots you apparently stole from Elton John’s basement.

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Curt Robbins


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

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

The Case for Spotify: Serendipity

3d1I remember when I was a teenager, listening to music on my stereo system, typically using old school over-the-ear headphones so I could crank the volume without gaining the attention of my parents. Of course, I also loved those two bookshelf speakers with the cool blue rubber baffles around the woofers (that I could never really properly exercise if my parents were home).

Playing popular albums from the time, like Breakfast in America by Supertramp or Led Zeppelin IV, I used to wonder: How many others in the world are playing this song right now? After all, I couldn’t be the only person listening to The Logical Song or Black Dog. The world is a big place with billions of people and common cultural trends, but how much serendipity is there, really?

Spotify, one of the leading music streaming services on the internet, is about to find out—at least among its own subscribers. The service recently promoted a cool possible feature called Serendipity. It’s a map that indicates, graphically, when two people listen to the same song at the same time. What defines “the same time”? The system is so strict that users must click Play within one-tenth of a second of each other to qualify and be listed. It can show one listener in Rio de Janeiro and another in Cleveland.

Amazingly, coincidental songs occur roughly 10 times per second on Spotify! Wow. It’s pretty darn cool. You even get to hear a small clip from the common song before it moves on to the next musical coincidence. If that kind of activity is occurring on Spotify alone, imagine the kinds of numbers that would be revealed by the entire music streaming industry. And then understand that the industry is in its infancy.

Spotify, like Pandora and Netflix, has reams and reams of big data from its tens of millions of subscribers to help it better understand their preferences (and the market for streaming music). According to Kyle McDonald, Spotify’s official “Media Artist in Residence” and the creator of Serendipity, “Twenty-five to fifty million people are listening to music at any moment,” on Spotify, adding that “ten to twenty thousand songs are started every second!”

I don’t typically encourage readers to leave my site to consume outside media, but to fully appreciate Serendipity, you simply need to see it in action. Note that the video demo to which that link leads isn’t real-time. It’s simply a recording of Serendipity from earlier this year. If it starts driving you (or your significant other) crazy, you can mute the audio.

serendipity for twitterEven cooler: If you hear a song you really like and want more than the brief slice you get with Serendipity, just pause the video in the upper left corner. Spotify is a music service, after all. Serendipity is a crazy carousel of sonic spasticity; it’s like an international jukebox gone awry that lets you put things on hold to indulge in a full song. After a few cups of coffee, I really love it.

Ten to twenty thousand songs are started every second on Spotify. Wow. Those are some amazing stats. Talk about using big data. These stats—and the savvy mining and analysis thereof—point to a new generation of intelligence and understanding regarding consumer behavior, social patterns, and possibly even the roots of why things go viral or trend. Add a few super computers with some slick, gopher-like algorithms to the mix and companies like Spotify will be mining their data for gold (they already are, of course). The insight regarding their customers will be so deep that they’ll know more about them than their subscribers will know about themselves—at least in terms of streaming music online.

And that’s not creepy, like the NSA. That’s cool. It’s called giving me the songs I want. Netflix is doing it with TV shows and movies. Why shouldn’t major music streamers like Spotify analyze their data to give subscribers the best experience possible?

McDonald is obviously thinking about the future. He considers Serendipity to be a grand experiment (the tech is available in real time only on the internal Spotify network). “Imagine if we could have ‘tangled sessions’ or an app that would pair you up with someone so you could listen to the same song at the same time,” he said.

Some groovy ideas. It would be nice to see Spotify—and the streaming music space overall—leverage some of these more advanced potential features of social media and big data. Let’s get beyond Tweeting or posting to Facebook the current song we happen to be listening to. It’s stupid, narcissistic, and largely irrelevant information (even for close friends).

I personally have accounts with Google Play Music and Pandora, both of which I love. But every time I hear about one of these cool features of Spotify, I always get envious and sometimes even fantasize about switching. Spotify simply does some really cool things and seems to take a different approach. Maybe it’s because they’re Swedish. I don’t know. But whatever they’re doing, it’s working and they’re definitely thinking outside the box.

Maybe even outside Pandora’s box.

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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.