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.

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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.

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

curtsig2 - trans
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.