Songza & Pandora: Affordable Music Discovery

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

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

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

After all, who wants to read in silence?

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Curt Robbins


Songza

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pandora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Apple TV: Best Media Streamer?

3d1[Updated August 6, 2015]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Curt Robbins

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


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

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

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.

Cutting the Cord

cord_small (1)It’s 2015, and most of us have at least heard the term cord cutters. They’re consumers who have chosen to cancel their cable or satellite TV service in favor of internet-based streaming media (or simply popping old school discs into their Blu-ray players).

About nine years ago, after struggling with Time Warner Cable for years—and the company spending literally thousand of dollars trenching new coaxial at our curb in an effort to remedy our digital cable woes—my family cut the cord. We’ve never looked back. We were paying about $90 a month. That equals roughly $10,000 in savings. Wow.

It was a relatively daring and unusual move a decade ago. Our motivation wasn’t simply to rid ourselves of the quality headaches we were experiencing with Time Warner, but also to alleviate the pain of commercials. Our children were young and we felt good about virtually eliminating their exposure to the incessant stream of ads that run on television. Admittedly, it would have been challenging if we had been big sports fans (today, services like MLB.TV and NFL Now help ease that pain).

It’s estimated that only 6.5% of Americans (about 20 million people) are cord cutters (according to Experian Marketing Services). While still small as a percentage, this rapidly growing market segment has caught the attention of some tech and media corporations. TiVo, for example, recently introduced a DVR aimed at cord cutters that will record shows for those lacking cable TV. Features of established entertainment channels, like HBO GO and Showtime Anytime—while they don’t cater specifically to cord cutters—help bridge the gap between conventional cable or satellite TV and the mobile device-toting cord cutter lifestyle.

In June 2014, the Leichtman Research Group reported that nearly half of U.S. households subscribe to Netflix, Hulu Plus, or Amazon Prime (or, as is often the case, a combination of these services). In 2010, this number was only 24%.

rock streaming stick

A study released by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) in 2014 supports these numbers. The organization claims that 45% of American households watch streaming video from the internet on their TVs. In 2013, it was only 28%. Something is trending, folks. While the CEA study revealed that only about five million American homes rely on internet TV exclusively, 10% of all TV-consuming households said they’re probably going to cancel their cable or satellite TV service in the next 10 months. Should Comcast, Cox, and AT&T be nervous?

More proof of this trend? In May 2014, The Verge reported that 500 of those ubiquitous Redbox kiosks we’re all so acclimated to seeing will disappear this year. Americans want to stream a significant portion of their entertainment content—regardless of whether they’re cord cutters or not.

Britain’s The Guardian recently surveyed North American cable and satellite TV customers who had chosen to cut the cord. A former Comcast customer in Marysville, California stated, “After a traumatizing series of bad customer service experiences, I decided I’d rather sit in a dark cave than give [Comcast] another dime. Not one regret.” A disgruntled former Shaw Communications customer from Alberta, Canada, said, “I didn’t want to be the person who stayed up until 2 a.m. watching the magic bullet blender commercial over and over and over again.” An ex-cable subscriber in St. Louis echoed this sentiment: “I have a busy life and sitting through commercials is something I am not interested in.”

One of the biggest complaints of consumers is paying for hundreds of channels on cable, but watching only a few. Advocates of TV reform have called for a la carte channel packages for years. A recent study by Nielsen reported that the average U.S. home receives 189 cable channels. And how many of those do they actually watch? Only 17 (that’s less than 9%). In addition, The Guardian survey revealed that only 3% of cord cutters would consider going back to cable if providers began offering a la carte pricing. The lack of a la carte is obviously only part of a much larger discontent.

fire tv stickBut let’s be fair: Cutting the cord doesn’t simply erase your cable bill. Consumers often are compelled to spend more for better internet bandwidth and a streaming video device or two (like a Roku or Apple TV) to compensate for their lack of cable or satellite service. There’s also subscription fees for services like Netflix and Hulu Plus and rental costs for iTunes or Vudu.

So let’s do some quick math. I got rid of Time Warner Cable at $90 a month and later subscribed to Netflix ($9 a month) and Hulu Plus ($8 a month). I spend $10-20 per month at my local Family Video store (because you can’t feed anything to your home theater better than a Blu-ray disc). A few times a month, my family also rents movies or TV episodes from Google Play Movies & TV or iTunes at $3-6 a pop. But we never spend $90 a month. And the commercial interruptions we tolerate are light (basically just Hulu Plus, which features far fewer than conventional TV).

No, cord cutting isn’t free. For that, you’ll need a rooftop or desktop antenna to pull in your local affiliate stations. But the value proposition of cord cutting is so great that it’s hard to ignore. The fact that it’s less expensive than cable and features few or no commercials makes cutting the cord an increasingly appealing alternative for middle class consumers.

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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.

Kevlar Woofers & Affordable Home Theater

3d1When I had to choose the backdrop photo for this blog, I instinctively opened the folder on my network storage device that contained my most recent photos. I had one I especially liked that I perceived to express the tone and flavor of this blog: The yellow Kevlar woofer from one of the B&W surround speakers in my living room.

I realized how small the world can be sometimes. The device on which I had archived and from which I was accessing this photo was one of the central topics of my latest ebook, Understanding Personal Data Security. But the content of the photo itself, the funky Kevlar woofer, was one of the many topics covered in two of my new books, Understanding Home Theater and Home Theater for the Internet Age. In all honesty, the purpose of this blog is to share ideas covered in this new series of books—available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Basically, this blog is a supplement (think of it as the free dessert that comes with your ebook meal). Which makes it ironic if you’re reading it standalone, but I’m glad it can work that way in this funky web 2.0 intellectual property economy.

About this time you might be asking “What’s so cool about yellow Kevlar woofer cones?” Well, first, they represent passion, commitment, and technical excellence. I know, that sounds dorky, but hear me out. They really do. Especially if we use objective metrics like money or time to measure the importance of a topic like home theater, which the yellow woofer obviously represents. Speakers featuring kevlar woofer cones, from companies like B&W and Noble Fidelity, are typically a tad better than your average variety.

If you’re a hobbyist, you put real money and plenty of time into your hobby. For my wife, it’s the springtime bonanza of gardening and flower landscaping that consumes a decent amount of money and tons of her time. For a buddy of mine in Colorado, it’s an expensive carbon fiber racing bicycle and race entry fees. For yet another friend in Texas, it’s cruising around the Gulf of Mexico in his 30-foot sailboat. In other words, most middle class consumers have one or more hobbies and, by definition, drop a considerable amount of disposable income into them.

Kevlar woofer in a B&W 705 speaker.

Kevlar woofer in a B&W 705 speaker

Another function of this blog is to lend transparency to my books. If you’re a real tech geek or connected consumer and want to dig deeper, this blog is the free value-add for my books. Because my entire book catalog must be updated bi-annually (based on the dynamic pace of the technical topics covered), this blog gives you an opportunity to provide feedback and maybe even influence the content of future editions.

Now, back to home theater.

One of the things that prompted me to publish Home Theater for the Internet Age and the subset, Understanding Home Theater, was the fact that consumers of all income levels can now enjoy quality big-ass display panels and real surround sound involving five or six speakers. Yes, there’s certainly a difference between a $2,500 home theater system and one costing ten times as much. But what can be purchased for between $2,000 and $15,000 is truly mind blowing. The convergence of computer, wireless networking, and home entertainment technologies—combined with the proliferation of media streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora—has resulted in price points and functionality that even the most optimistic home theater fan could not have imagined a decade ago.

In addition, the production quality of even mediocre television content and basically all films involves widescreen high-definition video and surround sound comprised of at least six separate audio channels, including a dedicated subwoofer feed that you can feel as much as hear. This, plus the affordability of popular media streaming services like iTunes, Google Play, and Rhapsody has resulted in a very consumer-friendly home theater market. This consumer-friendliness is in terms of both the raw capabilities of the receivers, Blu-ray players, and streaming media boxes that consumers are installing in their living rooms and also how bloody affordable even mid-grade examples of these product categories have become. Go entry-level and you’ll really blow your mind in terms of what you can get for your money in 2014.

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Curt Robbins

[See also Home Theater Basics, Home Theater: Surround Sound Basics, and Take My Remote, Please.]


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.

Chromecast for Christmas

Like a few million other tech geeks and home theater aficionados, I was one of the first people to purchase a Chromecast streaming media dongle from Google back in August 2013. For those of you unfamiliar, Chromecast, which is about the size of a Rubenesque USB flash drive, plugs into your home theater audio/video receiver or TV and allows you to use your mobile devices and computers to send internet-based streaming media (like movies, music, and games) to your TV and surround sound speakers.chromecast

At $35, Chromecast is a steal. Best of all, especially for families like mine, this groovy media streamer is platform agnostic. Your iOS-based iPhones and iPads and your Android smartphones and tablets can take equal advantage. In other words, you don’t have to worry about compatibility with your existing mobile devices and computers.

Success at Home

Having only a few months prior installed two new home theaters in my house, Chromecast perfectly complimented a family where everyone has at least one (and typically two) personal mobile devices and there’s an average of one PC per human—but where everyone also loves to sit in front of a big display panel and enjoys surround sound through real speakers (not the crappy ones built into your TV; they’re a joke). Every family member, on nearly a daily basis, began streaming music from Pandora and Songza and video from Netflix, iTunes, and Hulu Plus (some of which we could already do using Apple’s wi-fi-based AirPlay). All from our iPod Touches, iPads, iPhones, and Nexus 7 tablets, as well as our three Windows 7 laptops and a slick little Mac Mini. If the zombie apocalypse results in a shortage of silicon, looters will surely stop at my house on their way to Silicon Valley.

Having gained so much value from such an inexpensive and fun device, Chromecast obviously was at the top of my gift giving list for the 2013 holidays. Because of its incredible ease of use, I didn’t have to worry about whether the recipient was a techie. If he or she could plug the device into an HDMI port and install apps on a smartphone, they were basically in business.

The One that Worked

I gifted two Chromecasts, one each to two different friends (one in Ohio, the other in Colorado). My friend in Ohio, a single guy with no kids, instantly fell in love with his new media streamer, using it on a 23-inch computer monitor in his dining room to watch stuff on Netflix.

Once when I visited for dinner and drinks, we watched a James Bond movie on Netflix with the volume cranked. I was amazed that a $130 computer monitor and a $35 HDMI dongle—combined with the Samsung Galaxy smartphone already in my friend’s pocket—were able to produce such stellar (and portable) results. I might never walk on the moon, but I have at least seen home entertainment and media distribution reach this point of ease and amazing affordability.

The One that Didn’t

My other friend in Colorado, a married dude with three teenage daughters, never mentioned his Chromecast. We’ve been drinking pals for twenty years, so this wasn’t interpreted as rude. But I was curious as to how he was enjoying it or if he was even using it. After all, different strokes for different folks, and many homes aren’t quite as digitally enhanced as mine and those of other tech journalists.

christmas story blindIt turns out that my buddy wasn’t using his Chromecast. In fact, he hadn’t even installed it. I politely said my feelings weren’t hurt, but I was curious as to why he wasn’t. Turns out he wasn’t entirely sure what it did. Ok, fair enough. I explained the benefits, including the screen mirroring function introduced in the summer of 2014.

It was at this point in the conversation that I realized where the train jumped the tracks. A misperception on my part had resulted in me giving a strikingly inappropriate gift. However, in my defense, when considering my friend’s present, I knew he had a killer surround sound home theater (I had enjoyed big budget CGI-laden films like Transformers on it) and was a subscriber to Netflix. He also had several mobile devices floating around his house, including his daughter’s Nexus 7 tablet and five smartphones. He was perfectly outfitted to enjoy Chromecast.

Or so I thought.

Turns out his subscription to Netflix was for the disc-by-mail service, not the considerably more popular streaming option. And the role of Pandora in his life for streaming music was limited to the thousands of miles he logs on the road, in his car, as a sales dude visiting customers.

After discussing the topic for about five minutes, I realized that his family’s use of and dependence upon streaming media was 180 degrees opposite that of my house. I had truly made a poor choice by gifting my buddy in Colorado a Chromecast. It is gathering dust in a box in his basement—and probably will forever.

Simply because his family doesn’t consume streaming media. Unlike my household, they aren’t cord cutters. They subscribe to cable TV.

This will teach me to assume that a subscription to Netflix is for streaming. Even more ironic, my Colorado friend once subscribed to both the streaming side of Netflix as well as the by-mail disc service. He found that his family rarely used the streaming service, so he intelligently cancelled it. I originally subscribed to both sides of Netflix as well, but did the opposite: I nixed the disc service because the four people in my home were using only streaming (and tons of it).

Lessons Learned

Sometimes we become so entrenched in a particular digital or media consumption lifestyle that it’s difficult to understand that someone else—with a nearly identical technical infrastructure and demographic—might practice something very different. My friend’s reliance on physical discs over a broadband-based media streaming service had nothing to do with a lack of gear.

He has fast broadband, mobile devices, a killer surround sound home theater, and his family has an appetite for movies and TV shows. Unlike many, he gave streaming media a chance, and for a long time paid for a service from which he and his family gained almost no benefit, based purely on their particular lifestyle. He certainly isn’t a laggard or a Luddite. Like the rest of us, he simply doesn’t want to waste his money on products or services that provide him with little or no value.

Let’s chalk this one up to lessons learned (a $35 lesson, to be exact). But if you’re thinking of gifting someone a streaming media device for the holidays (like an Apple TV, one of those cool Roku boxes, a Chromecast, or maybe the game-friendly Amazon Fire TV), first learn if the intended recipient is even a consumer of streaming media in the first place. Just being a gadget freak, owning an iPad, or enjoying technology doesn’t necessarily mean that your gift of streaming media will be the one that keeps on giving.

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Curt Robbins

[See also Streaming Media Stick Wars and Apple TV: Best Media Streamer?]


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.