Apple’s iTunes now sells more music than any other retail outlet and CD sales are famously in decline, so you’d be forgiven if you thought nobody makes CD players any more – or at least nobody would be foolish to launch new ones. That's why I was somewhat delighted to read this press release: Parasound has just introduced a new CD player, the Zcd. This isn’t a CD player aimed at the mass market, but it isn’t targeting money-is-no-object audiophile snobs, either. It costs $400; mass market CD players start at $17.99 at Target, and audiophile brands can top $4,000. Instead, the Zcd is aimed at the custom installation market (the giveaway is that it is described as being “half rack width”).
Parasound apparently thinks there is a market for a high quality CD player where the home owner wants to insert a single disc and listen to it, as opposed to a hard drive-based music server. In other words, the Zcd is intended to be used for dedicated listening sessions, not strictly background music. In that sense, the Zcd is a throwback to the other physical music format with a focused use case – vinyl (though vinyl is explicitly "old school," and all the limitations of the format are typically celebrated as features). The Zcd has top of the line DACs and does fancy things with the volume control and analog converter power source to give installers something to talk about when justifying its cost. While the Zcd can also play back music from USB or a line in jack, it doesn't support dead music formats like SACD or DVD-Audio that few people today seem to even remember. It's a CD player. It plays CDs. It isn't something you're going to find in Best Buy, but it's nice to see someone thinks there's still a market niche left that calls for a dedicated optical disc player.
Gibson is looking to diversify away from musical instruments, and is buying Onkyo USA. Onkyo has been doing reasonably well in the shrinking A/V receiver market - I own an Onkyo NR3007 myself - but I just can't figure out why Gibson decided to invest in the incredibly challenged A/V industry rather than, say, ANYTHING ELSE. Here's the press release:
Gibson Buys Stake in Onkyo Japan and Majority Interest in Onkyo USA
Forms Strategic Alliance to Take Consumer Audio Experience to a New Level
Nashville, TN. January 04, 2012: As part of its continued diversification into the music and audio lifestyle arena, Gibson Guitar Corp., the world’s premier musical instrument manufacturer, today announced a strategic partnership with Onkyo Corporation, a worldwide leader in consumer audio. With a reputation of excellence for high quality audio equipment and home theater systems, Onkyo offers Gibson’s newly-formed Pro Audio Division substantial technology resources. Gibson will provide Onkyo with its marketing resources and expertise. The result will be an ability to deliver a far superior audio experience to the consumer who has become more and more used to hearing only inferior compressed music through inexpensive ear bud headsets.
Through this venture, Gibson will acquire a majority of Onkyo USA (Onkyo’s exclusive distributor for North America and a distributor for Central and South America) and become the second largest shareholder in Onkyo Corporation. Gibson will make a strategic investment in the company, and Gibson Chairman and CEO Henry Juszkiewicz will be given a position on the Onkyo board of directors. Likewise, Onkyo will invest in Gibson, and CEO and President Munenori Otsuki will take a position on the company’s Board of Directors. Together, the two entities will form a Hong Kong-based joint venture focusing on design and development of unparalleled consumer audio products. Through this alliance, Onkyo USA becomes the latest addition to the Gibson Pro Audio division, which already includes KRK, Cerwin-Vega! and Stanton.
“Onkyo makes some of the world’s best audio equipment, and this partnership will give Gibson the ability to bring a deeper and more enhanced audio experience to music lovers around the world,” says Juszkiewicz. “While people may be listening to more music, they are listening to it primarily in a severely compressed format. The aural disparity between a real system and compressed sound is vast, and as a result, they are simply not hearing tremendously rich sounds. With Onkyo, our goal is to bring the same exceptional experience artists demand in the studio to a larger consumer base.”
“This partnership has significant positive implications for Onkyo as we are always seeking ways of creating new value,” says Otsuki. “Gibson is a leading global company with a massive fan base, best-in-class products and superior marketing skills. Coming together in this way opens the door for amazing opportunities for both companies and, more importantly, fans of Onkyo and Gibson.”
All agreements are subject to Japanese regulatory clearance, negotiation of definitive agreements and financing approvals of lenders.
ABOUT GIBSON GUITAR CORP.
Gibson Guitar Corp. is known worldwide for producing classic models in every major style of fretted instrument, including acoustic and electric guitars, mandolins, and banjos. The Gibson Les Paul Guitar is the bestselling guitar of all time and is a tribute to the late, famed musician of the same name. Collectively, the Gibson Robot Guitar, Gibson Dark Fire, Gibson Dusk Tiger and the Gibson Firebird X represent the biggest advances in electric guitar design in more than 75 years. Through the Gibson Foundation, Gibson Guitar Corp. has become equally known for its philanthropic efforts on behalf of music, education, health and human services. Founded in 1894 in Kalamazoo, MI, and headquartered in Nashville, TN, since 1984, Gibson Guitar Corp.’s family of brands includes Epiphone, Cerwin-Vega!, Dobro, Kramer, Onkyo, KRK Systems, Steinberger, Tobias, Echoplex, Electar, Flatiron, Slingerland, Stanton, Valley Arts, Maestro, Oberheim, Baldwin, Sunshine Piano, Take Anywhere Technology, J&C Fischer, Chickering, Hamilton, Wurlitzer and Gibson Pro Audio. Visit Gibson’s website at www.gibson.com. Follow Gibson Guitar at www.facebook.com/gibsonguitar and www.twitter.com/gibsonguitar.
Since 1946 Onkyo has been passionately committed to developing audio products that deliver uncommon performance, quality and value. Bundling proprietary technologies and innovations with other sound-enhancing exclusives, Onkyo continues to created award winning products that are lauded by many of the industry leading audio publications. The company's philosophy is to deliver products that are superbly designed and built to a consistently outstanding standard of excellence. The results can be seen in the obviously high quality of any Onkyo-manufactured product, even before it is turned on. Visit Onkyo’s website at www.onkyousa.com. Follow Onkyo USA at www.facebook.com/OnkyoUSA.
Buy.com has the Belkin PureAV PF30 for a great price ($60). I have this unit's big brother (the PF60), and while I can't claim to hear any difference in the filtered electricity, a good quality 8 outlet surge protector usually costs a lot more than $60 (this unit originally retailed for $199).
Note: I get no kickback if you click on the link above. Consider this a public service announcement.
There is no indication of price or availability, so this "announcement" is almost comically vague, but it is interesting nonetheless. For the uninitiated, MHL is a standard that aims to simplify getting content from mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) while keeping the devices charged. The MHL folks were smart enough not to come up with their own unique connector/cable; instead it uses the HDMI or microHDMI connectors, and includes HDMI backwards compatibility. It looks like Onkyo's reciever will pop up windows showing you what content is available on the device, allowing you to easily push that content on to the TV. That doesn't seem like an earth-shattering innovation, but given the dearth of MHL-compliant televisions on the market - let alone installed in homes - it could be useful.
Of course, you'll need an MHL-capable phone as well. Here the news is good; there are only a handful of phones with MHL, but one of them is extremely popular, Samsung's Galaxy SII, and most of HTC's latest phones support it as well, including the EVO 3D at Sprint, Vivid at AT&T, Rezound at Verizon Wireless, and the Sensation at T-Mobile.
My Last Minute, Non-Obvious Holiday Gift Guide is now up over at Slashgear.com.
My son is here with me today and... he brought up Beats headphones. I was wondering if you’ve seen/have them and your thoughts. He’s sold on how “cool” they are but I’m curious if they’re all hype or not.
I get in a lot of headphones but hadn't gotten extended time on the beats until HP gave me a pair to test with its new TouchPad tablet (the TouchPad has a special Beats Audio mode. I tested it with the mode enabled and disabled, the difference is too subtle for most people to notice, but it’s a nice branding initiative).
The beats are certainly a style icon, and since most people seem to choose them based on looks I was surprised that the sound quality is quite good. The bass is excellent (boosted but still natural – a tough combination to pull off), the midrange and highs are fair, and there is only some lightly audible distortion in the midrange from the noise cancellation (all active noise cancelling headphones have some distortion, as quite literally that’s what noise cancellation is). They are closed over-ear headphones with mandatory noise cancellation – they don’t work without batteries, and there’s no way to turn the cancellation off. The noise cancellation itself is very good, though not as good as Bose's QuietComfort line.
Overall, I still prefer a good pair of passive in-ear headphones from etymotic, Shure, or Ultimate Ears – especially if you can get custom earpieces, though that usually means spending more than the $300 or so that the beats cost (except when it doesn't). Sennheiser makes slightly better sounding headphones at the same price, and Bose has better noise cancellation around the same price. However, the Sennheisers do not have have noise cancellation, and I think most people might still prefer the Beats for bass-heavy music regardless. (Disclaimer: I haven’t gotten in the new Bose QuietComforts for a full review, so I can’t say which has better overall audio, but the noise cancellation on the Bose is the best I’ve heard when I've tried them on at retail and in airports).
Bottom line: while the beats would not be my first recommendation for all types of listening, I can easily recommended them, and they are particularly good if you listen to a lot of hip-hop and dance. If you want the beats' style you can be comfortable that you aren’t throwing away your money on hype, as they do offer quite good sound overall.
CEPro has a new mini-article by Molly Gibson with four tips for selling custom installed home theater products to women, and Julie Jacobson links to an article of hers on the same subject.
Here's the summary:
Molly thinks that women need a soft sell based on listening to her needs and discovering how she thinks that the system will be used. She also rails against pushing features and future-proofing that goes beyond the buyer's needs, and pushes style as a critical part of the woman's buying criteria.
Julie thinks that this has nothing to do with selling to women and everything with not being a bad salesperson. Every man would like a system tailored to his actual needs, would prefer not being condescended to, and cares about style. Do this, and both men and women will be happier.
That is certainly true, but... a hard tech sell does seem to work on many men. Also - speaking from personal experience here - some men easily succumb to featuritis. (Not all. Some. And I agree with both writers that focusing on what the product needs - and just what the product needs - generally creates a better long term relationship with the product/vendor/service provider.) The emphasis on creating your sales pitch around design is also much stronger in Molly's pitch. In Molly's view, it isn't about whether the color matches or it's a nice minimalist design, but she suggests you start showing TVs by asking which bezel style they like and in-wall speakers by focusing on the type of grill weave. That's really quite different.
To borrow marketing from a (slightly) different industry, that's the difference between touting the BlackBerry Playbook for its dual-core processor and micro kernel architecture - while ensuring it ships in a beautifully understated thin case - and Apple touting the iPad 2 as "magical" and incredibly thin while also adding a dual core processor. One reason Apple has sold 25 million iPads and RIM has sold 500,000 PlayBooks is because Apple's marketing is aimed at women and men, and RIM's marketing uses the male-centric tech approach. Style-conscious men, to be sure, but manly men, who must have a micro kernel architecture in their tablet... whatever that is.
It certainly took them long enough, but Roku is finally graduating from online-only sales to retail. It wasn't doing too badly in the old business model - Roku's status as the least expensive and easiest streaming media box allowed it to rack up over a million units sold. Still, Roku always seemed something like a secret that only technically savvy people knew about - and that is not the target demographic for a product designed for simplicity. No, the ideal retail channel ought to be something like Target. Or Best Buy:
Roku XD player is available for purchase at Best Buy stores nationwide and at BestBuy.com. With up to 1080p HD streaming support, integrated 802.11n WiFi and Instant Replay the Roku XD offers unlimited entertainment choices and incredible value to customers. The Roku XD has a list price of $79.99 and is available at Best Buy stores and at BestBuy.com for purchase today. Roku players can also be found at other leading retail stores including BJ’s Wholesale Club, Fry’s Electronics and RadioShack.
Best Buy, Fry's, and the Shack. Well, the good news is that those stores are where a shopper goes if they want an inexpensive box to stream Netflix (or MLB or NBA or any of Roku's other content options). The bad news is that it won't reach consumers who don't know that they want an inexpensive box to stream Netflix (or MLB or NBA or any of Roku's other content options). Hopefully a successful run at Best Buy will get buyers at Target and Walmart interested, because their customers are who Roku should be chasing.
Great article in Dealerscope on how custom audio shops can prepare for the future by focusing more on headphone sales. Money quote:
"There are no new audiophiles entering our community any more," Abplanalp said. "For young people experiencing music, the art of building a stereo has lost its cachet. So selling headphones is a very important part of introducing music lovers to different performance levels..."
The article also notes that Monster's Dr. Dre Beats line is a key sales driver for this demographic, but oddly undersells the ability to properly demo in-ear headphones in-store.
I've been on the road pretty much since the beginning of the year - first at CES and then meetings, product launches, and more trade shows. Until I have a second to breathe, here's HomeTheaterREview's (no relation) nice write-up debunking CES myths.
Fred Kaplan is apparently writing for Slate now*, and he correctly points out that digital music often sounds terrible, either due to poor sampling or poor encoding. He recommends using an outboard DAC to correct the problem. It's a great suggestion for people who listen to music in one spot using high end speakers or headphones, but not at all practical for those who are mobile, using an MP3 player or a smartphone as their playback source. Aside from echoing his related note to bump up the encoding rate when you rip music or download higher quality encoded music in the first place, the best suggestion I can make for mobile music listening is to invest in higher quality headphones. My first pair of Shure e535's had an almost magical ability to smooth out ragged MP3s without losing any detail (as well they should for $499). When they broke on me, Shure shipped out a replacement pair, but the new model doesn't sound quite as exceptional to my ears in the MP3-magic area -- it is still a fantastically neutral pair of headphones with exceptionally clean mids and rich bass, but jagged highs due to MP3 encoding faults still sound jagged on my new pair. The drivers are supposed to be identical, so I'm not sure if I got lucky on the first pair or less lucky on the second (or that I am/was hearing things that weren't there. Also a possibility).
I love the Shures, but my headphones of choice these days are etymotic's flagship ER-4's, which are hardly new, but have been transformed by custom earpieces etymotic had made for me. The program, which I called out in my Holiday Gift Guide, is called CUSTOM•FIT, and costs $100 (in addition to the cost of headphones). If you care about comfort and noise isolation, it is worth every penny.
*UPDATE: Fred got in touch to point out that defense and foreign policy are actually his primary coverage areas - and he modestly left out the part where he won a Pulitzer on those subjects. I know him from his sideline as an A/V writer.
My Last Minute, Non-Obvious Holiday Gift Guide 2010 has been posted over at Slashgear.com and includes a Home Entertainment section.
First a bit of background: Kaleidescape is a high end media server vendor. They make boxes you have a custom installer put in one spot, which connect over a wired network to smaller boxes your installer connects to each TV and projector in your home. You - or your installer - copies all your DVDs onto the big box, and then you can watch all your movies anywhere in your home. Basically, it's Sonos for movies for rich people. How rich? Kaleidescape was actually the reason I instituted a policy not to review anything I could not reasonably afford. Years ago Kaleidescape offered me a full setup to review; I refused because I didn't want to take out an insurance policy on a loaner, and I didn't want to take out a second mortgage on the chance that I couldn't bear to return it. A full Kaleidescape system in those days easily topped $50,000. Prices have come way down, but most systems will still end up in the $20,000 range with installation.
I had good reason to fear wanting to keep a system. I have used Kaleidescape at trade shows and have been consistently impressed. It is fully babysitter proof and requires no technical knowledge to use whatsoever. As all the movies are ripped to the system's hard drive(s), movies start instantly. However, its one downfall is that until now it only supported DVDs, not Blu-ray discs. As many installations include equally expensive HD projectors, this is a real problem.
Kaleidescape's first stab at the problem was adding Blu-ray support to the M500 player - one of the small boxes you'd have near your TV. That certainly enables you to play a Blu-ray disc (both at that TV or anywhere else in the house), but it still requires physically handling the disc every time you want to watch a movie and it is not all that much better than a regular Blu-ray player from Sony or Samsung. The whole point of Kaleidescape is access to any movie you own instantly thoughout the house.
Kaleidescape is now selling a partial solution to the problem: you can rip Blu-ray discs to the hard drive in the server, and it will play off the server (which means you can include it compilation video playlists). However, to appease the copyright gods, Kaleidescape still has to physically verify that you own the Blu-ray disc before playing any of its sweet 1080p content. To do so, you'll need a media vault ($1500), the ugly box pictured on the right, which can hold up to 100 Blu-ray discs. You can add as many of these as you like, but each needs to be connected to an M-class player (like the M500). In short, Kaleidescape now allows Blu-rays to be treated just like DVDs, only there is a lot more complexity and kludginess involved. It's better than nothing, but it has to seriously pain Kaleidescape's management and engineering staff who have made simplicity and elegance a core part of the product's value proposition.
As if the iPhone/iPod touch/iPad family wasn't already encroaching on distributed audio and home automation control systems, Onkyo announced that its future A/V receivers will come with free iOS remote control apps. This is a good idea for Onkyo on several levels: it allows Onkyo to tap into Apple's marketing momentum, and gives it the ability to market a rich touchscreen remote control without having to add anything to the bill of materials for the receiver.
Of course, using a phone as a remote can be problematic - what happens when someone wants to use the system and you're on the phone or out of the house? Dedicating an iPod touch to remote control duty - especially if you invest in a charging dock so it stays charged and doesn't wander off - solves this problem, and gives retailers who carry both Onkyo and Apple products a nice add-on sale at time of purchase. Consumers may balk at the added price, but the truth is that Apple's component prices are so much lower than specialty A/V vendors that it would probably be cheaper for Onkyo to buy an iPod touch and include it in the box rather than try to build an equivalent product for use as a remote control.
The Nintendo cartdrige router should never have made it into the mix (it's awesome), but the rest of CE Pro's slideshow of consumer-submitted photos are hilarious. Custom installers, avert your eyes!
Wisdom Audio has figured out a way to properly demo its super-high end architectural (in-wall) speakers: it's offering "qualified" prospects a free trip to its Carson City, NV headquarters.
"Offer: Wisdom Audio will provide round trip transportation for a visit to our factory for someone with qualified interest in a large-scale Sage Series system. They will tour our factory with their dealer, meet the Wisdom Audio team and spend time in our sound room listening to their favorite music. (Limited to North America and must occur before January 31, 2011)"
I've never been there - or heard Wisdom Audio's speakers - but Google Maps says Carson City is near Reno. A couple of interesting points here:
Electronic House poses a terrific real world question: how do you set up a home theater with a projector in a room without the headroom (literally) to hang a projector from the ceiling? Too bad they don't spend much time walking through the different options and just describe the finished room (which placed the projector on a shelf at the back).
Looking for some good cheap speakers? Wiredforless.com bought up a cache of unloved (discontinued) "Carver TS-241S Home Theater On-Wall Speaker System" speakers, apparently part of a plasma-friendly HTIB system. A pair is just $69 (original price was $199/pair) plus $5 shipping, a deal good enough to be featured on sellout.woot.
These are slim, curved aluminum cases with a wonderfully simple (and included) mounting bracket. I bought a pair. At 89 db sensitivity they're easy to drive and play a few db louder than my reference speakers, they're a bit bright, and they require a subwoofer (like any speaker this size). Are they the best speakers I've auditioned? Hardly. I'm not even comfortable recommending them as main speakers without using something to tame the harshness (a tube amp would work wonders, but that would sort of defeat the whole budget nature of the deal). However, they are exceptionally clear, they play loud without distortion, and they look great. At this price, you aren't going to find comparable value, and they're absolutely perfect for adding surround, height, or width channels to an existing setup. I may have to buy another pair.
Update: just to clarify, the case is metal, the drivers are not. It has two 4.25" poly mids and a 1" silk dome tweeter per speaker. Also, the speaker terminals are recessed and do NOT accept banana plugs or heavy guage wire.
HomeTheaterREview (no relation) is reporting that high end speaker maker Thiel will stop selling exclusively through independent retailers and begin offering some of its entry level products on amazon.com (story here) and indeed, a quick amazon search for Thiel products shows in-walls from $900, and standalone speakers ranging from $1200 - $3,000. Founder Jim Thiel passed away in September, so I'm sure there are some who are saying that Jim must have said, "not over my dead body" and the company waited until that was literally true before making the move. I never interviewed Mr. Thiel, so I don't know what his attitudes or business plans were. However, the company's basic position is pretty simple: the market for high end speakers has always been limited, but audio enthusiasts are aging, the independent dealer channel is shriveling, the recession is tanking custom installers, and competitors are moving design and production to China to lower costs. It would appear that Thiel is suffering from the same maladies as Snell.
The move to a mainstream, online distribution channel like amazon is definitely risky, especially since Thiel didn't take the obvious step of first segmenting its products into distinct lines for the different channels. Thiel will have to sell enough volume on amazon to offset the fallout from angry independent dealers and custom installers. It's not clear if this is a desperation move -- i.e., Thiel's sales are down enough that anything sold online is a plus -- or if this is an attempt to position the company for growth as traditional channels are expected to continue shrinking over time, and the online channel continues to grow. In any case, simply sticking products from a relatively obscure brand up on amazon will not result in sales; Thiel will need to advertise and promote the products through the new channel. I haven't seen any new Thiel ads or promotions, have you?
Not sure where I was when this crossed the wire back in April, but I was saddened - but not surprised - to learn that D&M Holdings shut down both Snell and Escient.
Snell was a high end speaker brand without enough brand recognition. Selling $30,000 speakers in a recession is extremely hard. Selling $30,000 speakers from a brand that only involved enthusiasts have heard of is basically impossible, no matter how terrific they measure and sound (Snell was famous for rigorously achieving ridiculously flat frequency measurements).
I suspect that the recession did in Escient, which made well regarded music servers, as well. Sure, some of Escient's functionality made its way into Windows and iTunes over the years, but the general collapse of the custom installation business was the bigger culprit. That and the rise of Sonos, which is dead simple for regular consumers to install, and considerably less expensive than any custom solution.
The problem with 3DTV - aside from the glasses and the nausea and the total lack of content - is that you need to buy an entirely new equipment chain. It is not enough to replace your TV with a 3D capable set, you will also need a 3D-capable Blu-ray player, and - much to the delight of Monster Cable - you may actually need to upgrade your HDMI cables to handle the increased signal bandwidth. The typical HDMI connection in most devices today is 1.3b, but you'll need to upgrade to HDMI 1.4a for 3D.
This has implications for audio as well. If you want to get the best audio out of your 3D content, you'll need an A/V receiver (or processor and separate amplifier) to process the compressed digital signal, amplify it, and pass it along to your speakers. If your receiver - like nearly all on the market today - does not have HDMI 1.4a inputs, you will need to run a second digital audio cable from your Blu-ray player to the receiver - assuming that your Blu-ray player can simultaneously output video over HDMI and audio over coaxial or Toslink outputs. It probably can. Probably.
There are also an increasing number of 2D devices that connect to your television via HDMI, and most TVs and receivers have a paucity of HDMI inputs of any kind. I have 15 devices with HDMI outputs, including game consoles, digital set top boxes, digital camcorders and several smartphones.
With that background it is entirely unsurprising that electronics manufacturers are rushing to update their lines with new A/V receivers that have multiple HDMI 1.4a inputs. For example, Onkyo just announced three new receivers with 7 HDMI 1.4a inputs a piece, including the 9.2 channel TX-NR1008. Of course, this comes literally three days after I bought Onkyo's current generation receiver with 7 HDMI 1.3 inputs, the TX-NR3007 (pictured). Now, I knew that updated versions were bound to be introduced shortly, and, having sent back all my review units, I needed a new receiver now, not in June ...but I still feel a twinge of regret.
Note: the TX-NR1008 is technically a replacement for the TX-NR1007, not the NR3007 which I purchased. I'm sure the TX-NR3008 will be along shortly, along with a new TX-NR5008 flagship, which is bound to have 8 HDMI 1.4a inputs.
Just a quick note today: Sonos just started shipping a new software update that adds some new Internet radio options, crossfading between songs, some new language support, new alarm settings, and the ability to use two S5's as a stereo pair. None of the features is critical on its own (though the S5 stereo feature is quite cool; when everything is digital, you can do all sorts of neat things) but Sonos already built the best multi-room component system. I sent back my Sonos review system so I can't test this personally. Sigh.
With the Sonos gone, we've been using Logitech's Squeezebox Boom (OK; needs a better remote, the UI is just "OK," and the Sonos is better for multi-room use). The Squeezebox Touch just showed up, and I'll put that to the test once I get some speakers for it.
HomeTheaterReview - not HomeTheaterVIEW, which is what you're reading right now - has an interesting take on how the home theater sales environment has changed since the recession, and how to cope. It's partly a pitch for online advertising, partly a manifesto. Oddly enough, I agree with the advertising part, but he's missing a few pieces in the manifesto:
Here's one from the mailbag:
I’m thinking about upgrading my receiver. Currently I have a Denon AVR-987. It’s 3- 4 years old and does not have the current technology for blu ray. I’m thinking of going with a Sony STR-DA2400ES receiver. I have a 52” Sony XBR and a Sony BDP S-300 blu ray player. My speakers are Soundworks MC300 front/Soundworks original surrounds and JBL Northridge for the center. Any advice would be appreciated.
It really depends on why you think you need the upgrade, but I wouldn’t do it.
You’d be surprised, but your current receiver can handle Blu-ray just fine – rather than upgrade your receiver to a model that can decode Dolby TrueHD, you just have the Blu-ray player do the decoding and send the bitstream (PCM) on over to your receiver – it will sound the same whether the player does the decoding or the receiver. In fact, depending on which Blu-ray player you have, it may work that way by default. For example, Sony’s Playstation 3 can’t send unencoded TrueHD to a receiver, you have to go the PCM route (the newer Playstation 3 Slim can pass an unencoded signal, but, again, there should be no difference in the sound). In your specific case, the BDP-S300 can decode Dolby TrueHD, but only if you download a firmware update. You should be regularly updating your firmware anyway to ensure that newer discs play on it without incident.
So, is it worth upgrading your receiver? Your Denon has more power than the newer Sony, it has basic room correction by Audyssey, and it has plenty of inputs/outputs as long as you don’t need a lot of HDMI switching or video upscaling. While the Sony has all the latest audio decoders, it doesn’t have the most HDMI inputs, the best video upscaling, or the best room correction, so I’m not sure it’s enough of an upgrade even if those were your priorities.
Your biggest bang-for-buck audio upgrade would be to keep the Denon and upgrade your speakers. At the very least I’d get matching front speakers (either get another MC300 for the center or get another pair of JBL’s for front left/right) and a sub.
I'm off to Apple's Special Event tomorrow. Journalists who want to contact me for comments afterwards can call me at 201 658 7729 or email me at agreengart @ currentanalysis com.
Once Apple madness is behind us, more HTV posts are coming, including a post-CES wrap-up, VUDU review, and an end to my quest for an A/V receiver with enough HDMI inputs to serve as a test center.
Assuming that the sound quality is good - I have not heard a unit - the price seems reasonable ($599). Yamaha is probably thinking that this design will help space-challenged apartment dwellers, but there is another market segment worth exploring: parents of small children who don't want their kids stuffing Matchbox cars into a floor-level subwoofer port. I pulled 22 cars out of one of my subs in the playroom - the subs in my home theater all have floor-facing ports. On purpose.
Well, this is nice: some of us have felt like suckers, buying the same titles over and over as formats have shifted from VHS to letterbox VHS to laserdisc to DVD to special edition DVD to Blu-ray (and I probably missed a few format changes in there). If you've got a bunch of Warner DVDs and feel compelled to upgrade them to Blu-ray, check out this Warner Brothers site: http://www.dvd2blu.com/. You'll have to physically mail in your DVDs, and shipping charges apply if you have less than four to upgrade, but if you have four or more from the list of 55 titles, it should be about $8 per disc. Not free, but not bad, and a nice gesture to loyal customers.
On Tuesday, I, along with a handful of tech journalists, was invited to attend a briefing by Panasonic in New York to show off their latest line of plasma televisions. The emphasis was on the technical capabilities of Panasonic's plasma technology relative to the latest LCD with LED backlighting. Some things I learned:
I'm a bit backed up here at Home Theater View, both with posts (they're in my head but haven't quite made their way out of my head and onto the site) and with products to review. Logitech had sent over the Harmony 900 remote control just before it launched, but I first attempted to configure it last night.
The Harmony 900 is essentially an RF version of the IR-only Harmony One. In English, that means that the 900 is a universal remote control that looks nearly identical to another universal remote control in the Harmony line, but instead of just being able to control components line-of-site using infrared (IR), it can also control components that are hidden behind walls/doors/retractable screens using radio frequency (RF) commands that are relayed to the components with little IR blaster pods. The Harmony One lists for $249 (and sells for $182 on amazon) while the Harmony 900 lists for $399 (and sells for $315 on amazon). The added money also gets you a higher resolution touchscreen and a few extra buttons, but the two products look basically the same (a good thing, as I love the Harmony One's button layout), act basically the same (instead of controlling individual devices, the Harmony line is activity-based), and are set up using the same process (using an online database). The Harmony 900's value proposition is pretty simple: most infrared repeater systems cost a lot more than the $150 price delta, and some of them are fairly complicated, while the hallmark of Logitech's Harmony line is simplicity.
As I noted in last year's Holiday Gift Guide, I liked the Harmony One so much that I refused to wait for a review unit and instead simply bought one. I later added the Harmony PlayStation 3 adapter, a $60 add-on that seamlessly integrates the game console into a Harmony system (the PS3 uses Bluetooth, which sounds like a good idea but is completely incompatible with any universal remote control). I also have an infrared repeater system, the Microsmith Hot Link Pro that I am eager to replace with a more elegant and responsive solution (I should note that I can heartily recommend the Hot Link Pro; when all the wires and the receiver eye are placed properly, it works perfectly, and at just $67 on amazon, it is a stone cold bargain). The Harmony 900 should have been perfect.
I have been reviewing remote controls for a long time and have been following the Harmony line since before Intrigue launched it (and well before Logitech bought the company). One of the best things about the product is that setup is done entirely online, the online database grows as users add new devices, and upgrading to a new remote control is a simple matter of telling the online software what you just bought.
Except when it isn't. The first problem I had was that Logitech's site claims that there is no software to download for the Harmony 900. A CD is included in the package, but you always need to download the latest updates anyway, and I had intended to use a netbook to do the setup down in my home theater rather than run back and forth between my office and my home theater. This problem was just an annoyance, but an odd one.
The next problem - and one that only affects people upgrading from earlier Harmony remotes - is that you cannot upgrade from earlier Harmony remotes. Despite the fact that the software is identical and the remotes look nearly identical and they function in nearly identical ways, a new Harmony account is required to use the 900, which meant I needed to go back and log every component in the home theater and re-figure out how they are all connected, which inputs are required, etc. The process is straightforward, but it is a chore I would have gladly done without.
The next problem - and the one that simply stopped me cold - was that much of the work that went into getting the Harmony remote controls working with my components over the years seems to have vanished from Logitech's database. Not only do I need a new account, but apparently I need to re-teach Logitech that the monoprice switcher has more than five inputs, that the TiVo doesn't have a power button, and that I am using Logitech's own accessory to control the PS3. I don't have time to troubleshoot all of this - again - so for now I will continue using the Harmony One/Microsmith combination.
If you are coming to the unit without an existing Harmony account, most of my setup problems won't affect you - you would need to set up your system from scratch anyway. Nonetheless, I'm holding off recommending this product until I have the time and energy to get it working properly.
Monster introduced its first in-ear headphones, "turbine," in November 2008. They promised me review units right away (they actually gave out units at their CES press conference, but ran out), but I finally got them last month. At CEDIA last week, Monster announced an even higher end model, "turbine Pro," so I thought I'd better get this review out of the way before the new ones come.
I have to admit, I had really low expectations. Monster claims that the turbines are the best headphones on the market. However, Monster's CEO, Noel Lee, is given to hyperbole and self-congratulation - his press conferences are like revival meetings, complete with applause for minor things like swiveling HDMI adapters. (OK, those were pretty useful, but I'm a professional devices analyst, I'm not clapping like an idiot for your accessories, thank you very much.). My experience with mainstream brands' in-ear headphones has been mixed. Bose's $99 in-ear headphones are just plain awful (the best way to describe the sound is tepid; their over-the-ear noise canceling models are much better), while Apple's are pretty good (not as good as high end models, but a bargain at $79).
I took Monster at its word and tested the $149 turbines both against two similar priced products from Shure and etymotic (Shure's e3c's and etymotic's ER-4P, which are ~$179 each) and two with much higher price tags: Shure's SE530 (~$450), and Ultimate Ears triple.fi 10 pro (~$375).
The turbines have some issues, but overall they hold their own. Compared to my aging Shure e3c's the turbines sound richer and have better bass. They actually made the Shure's sound so thin that I wonder if the Shure's haven't held up to the abuse I've put them through over the years (lawn mowing, gyms, subways, buses, and planes). The etymotics stood up much better to the turbines, but the turbines sound a bit more dynamic, and appear to be more durable. One key that made comparison harder: it appears that the turbines have higher sensitivity than the etymotics. In other words, they play much louder. Louder sounds better (until you go deaf), and it can be hard to level match headphones precisely. Still, I did my best to A/B tracks at the same volume, and while the etymotics are terrific, the Monsters sounded livelier.
Where the turbines fall short is in noise isolation, functional design, and low bass. Shure's SE530's still stand out with the most neutral sound, tapered foam earplugs that do a much better job of blocking outside noise than Monster's flimsy plastic flanges, and a modular design that allows you to adapt the headphones to different cord lengths, microphones, and controls. Ultimate Ears triple.fi 10 pro has much better bass, a similar exciting sound as the turbines with less distortion, and tapered foam earplugs.
So are Monster's turbines [actual quote from their website:] "The World's Best Sounding In-Ear Headphones?" Hardly. But they are definitely one of the better choices at $149. If Monster throws in some foam earplugs in the package and creates a modular cord system, it will have a real winner.
I'll be out at CEDIA this year, but only for the press day and some show floor meetings. (I will also be available for press looking to cover major announcements from Apple and Motorola this week. Busy week!).
Look for a wrap-up post with CEDIA impressions by the end of the week.
A couple of weeks ago I asked how early adopter (and device analysts) with multiplying digital components could possibly connect them all.
Wondering what we've been up to in the Digital Home - Devices research group at Current Analysis? (No? Then now might be a good time to skip to the next post. Thanks anyway!)
Console price drops have dominated the past few weeks, but before that we wrote up a new connected HTIB system, Sonos' new controller, new distribution for VUDU, and a connected Blu-ray player (if you're sensing a theme, yes, our Digital Home coverage focuses on connected devices). Please note: the titles below link to reports behind the firewall for Current Analysis clients; journalists who would like access should contact me for complimentary access:
A reader asks: I’m thinking of having my Hi Def Sony XBR2 calibrated by Best Buy. Is this worth the $300.00 or not? Appreciate any advice.
Calibration was an absolute necessity back in the tube days, but with the advent of digital panels (plasma or LCD), getting – and keeping – settings accurate (or reasonably close) is much easier to do yourself. However, an installer can often get into service menus and offer finer level of control. Is that worth $300? If you’re a perfectionist watching movies, definitely. If you are a casual viewer watching reality TV shows, definitely not.
If you plan to go the full calibration route, make sure that the folks at Best Buy have ISF certification before you agree to anything; simply getting a tech to your house messing around with service menus can make things worse rather than better.
If you plan to calibrate your set yourself, you should buy one of the calibration DVDs on the market ($30 - $50); not only do they provide instructions on the different settings and how they interact, they are chock full of test patterns designed to make it much easier to see the differences as you make changes.
If none of that seems worth the hassle, at least page through the different settings your TV comes pre-programmed with. The "Vivid" setting is designed to stand out on a showroom floor in poor lighting, and it will burn your eyes (not literally - I hope) if you watch it that way at home. The "Cinema" or "Movie" mode is usually the most accurate. If that mode seems too dim, leave it there anyway and give yourself a few minutes to adjust your eyes to seeing subtle color differences again.
I was talking with Microsoft about the XBOX 360 earlier this week, and one of the things they said will drive consumers to their console vs. the competition is the integration of multiple features into Live, such as Netflix streaming, gaming, and other content. At Current Analysis our Digital Home service covers game consoles from the perspective of connected services; we treat a PS3, XBOX, or Wii like the fancy set top boxes (that not coincidentally also play games) that they have become. However, I thought we were a bit ahead of the curve - most consumers haven't fully embraced this vision yet. But when FedEx dropped off yet another box here this afternoon, I started thinking: how on Earth am I going to connect this? Is Microsoft right - will consumers buy a game console to access digital services simply because they're out of HDMI inputs on their TV?
Now I know that my situation is not something everyone faces, but how many devices can a consumer reasonably connect to a TV or even a sophisticated A/V receiver? I'm not sure there are enough inputs any more - even on flagship receivers - to connect all the possible devices an early adopter/TV nut might want to. (Some of these offer redundant functionality, but even then there are typically unique functions that could justify their purchase.) Here's a sample list:
I'm trying to integrate about eight or nine of those, and I'm not sure that there is a receiver on the planet that can handle more than about half that list.
I will be attending CEDIA this year, but I won't be hanging around for very long, so if you're a vendor who wants to meet me, please contact me ASAP. I'll be covering any Digital Home - Devices news for Current Analysis, and I should have posts here as well.
A few months back Logitech sent over their PS3 Harmony adapter, and I've had a half-finished review sitting in my Typepad queue ever since (it's the sort of device that you set it up once and then forget about - in a very good way). I'm going to get that done and posted soon so I can move on to today's news: the Harmony 900, which is what you get when you refine the Harmony One and add RF capabilities to control devices behind closed doors (or, in my case, behind a motorized screen). I recommended the Harmony One in last year's Holiday Gift Guide, and I have a Harmony 900 in for review and will post my impressions shortly.
I promise something more substantive in a different post ( <-- that's just a writing flourish. No actual promise is intended or implied), but I wanted to pass this along. I get press releases every day about companies introducing new products, changing management, or using technology. Many of them are incomprehensible - it's as if PR people speak a different language. Here's the headline from one that crossed my inbox this morning:
Leading Architectural Audio and Video Supplier Builds on FST GUI Technology
for New Streaming Media Product Line
Who? What? After reading the press release a couple of times I think I understand what's going on: SpeakerCraft is branching out from crafting speakers and is building a streaming media system (just the sort of thing I focus on in my Digital Home research service), presumably to get audio to their in-wall speakers. OK. But to do so, they needed a way to quickly create a user interface for their gadget, and they turned to FST.
Here's where things get silly. It seems that the folks at FST are either: 12 year old boys, refugees from movie production companies, or high. FST stands for Fluffy Spider Technologies. FST's flagship product is the FancyPants platform and its Ruthlessly Efficient runtime environment. What the hell?
That is all.
NHT (aka Now Hear This) has been a respected mid-tier speaker manufacturer based in the U.S. since 1986, but as the recession hit earlier this year, they chose to shut down product development and manufacturing, take some time off, and approach the market fresh. They weren't bankrupt - at least not yet - they just saw their distribution channel erode as independent dealers and custom installers went out of business, and their price points crept up to the point where they were out of line with economic realities. Some of this was driven by rising commodity prices, some by a disconnect with changing consumer priorities.
Somehow I missed this story. Anyway, after just a few months off, they're back.
They've shrunk their product line nearly in half, and are selling and distributing online-only. If this sounds similar to the Outlaw model, it is, only NHT isn't just selling direct, you can buy from amazon, Audio Advisor, OneCall, and a few others. This eliminates dealer reps, salespeople, and lots of shipping, so prices are down 20% as well. They're killing all print ads because the goal of print ads was to drive prospects to the dealers, though they will do online advertising because they need to drive sales somehow.
I'm in charge of Consumer Devices at Current Analysis, which is actually composed of two separate groups: Mobile Devices and Digital Home. I've been in charge of the devices portion of our Digital Home service since the beginning of this year, and while I intend to continue posting here about home theater, I thought I'd plug noteworthy Digital Home reports on this blog as well. This year's E3 (the electronic gaming show) crossed over both of my coverage areas. I stayed home this year - I'm on the road a lot as it is - but Bruce McGregor, our Senior Analyst, Digital Home was there live. This isn't a new console year, but there were multiple announcements around new services, and Bruce wrote up announcements from Microsoft and Sony, while I covered the PSPgo.
(The report links require paid access to Current Analysis' syndicated research service; journalists who need free access should contact me and we'll get an account set up for you.)
|E3 2009: Sony PSPgo Doesn't go Far Enough|
|E3 2009: Sony Offers More Movie and TV Show Downloads for Its PS3 and PSP Devices|
|E3 2009: Microsoft Shows Off Several Xbox 360 Upgrades to Embolden Its Place in the Living Room|
Yesterday's WSJ had an article (subscription required) on how regional consumer electronics stores are thriving despite the economy. The keys to success seem to be a) taking advantage of the demise of Circuit City, and b) the use of a trained, commissioned sales force. I can't help but point out that one big reason that Circuit City died was the move away from its own trained, commissioned sales force to lower paid, non-commissioned shift workers. Of course, Wal~Mart's spokesperson is quick to point out the flip side: many consumers are doing their research online and hate pushy commissioned retail salespeople.
The Journal doesn't talk about the smaller, specialty A/V retailer, but based solely on the number of local stores that have gone out of business over the past year (Rabson's, I'll miss you), that segment of the business isn't going to pick up any Circuit City leftovers. So how will the remaining stores survive? One way is to hold special events to drive traffic to the store. Frankly, I'm surprised this is the first time I'm seeing this: one of the local high end A/V stores is having three manufacturer reps come to do a dog-and-pony show (this link is to a similar past event) and is advertising it by buying email lists from one of the home theater magazines. Will this be enough? I hope so.
The New York Times is reporting that Vizio is getting out of the plasma TV business and focusing solely on LCD. That leaves only Samsung, LG, and Panasonic as plasma TV brands in the U.S., and both Samsung and LG have been shifting more of their lines to LCD. Vizio's rationale is clear: consumers prefer LCD. Why do consumers prefer LCD? Because it's the brighter technology on the showroom floor. Of course, the showroom floor is hardly representative of a consumer's home, and every expert agrees that plasma TVs offer better picture quality than LCD. I've yet to find any disagreement on this issue, even from manufacturers of LCD sets: plasma TVs have richer colors and better black levels, both of which factor into a better picture. LCD is brighter, which makes it... brighter.
So what's going on here? The showroom is different from the living room:
So, are consumers idiots? They're pushing a terrific, less expensive technology off the market in favor of one that's not bad, but costs more and isn't as good. Another way to look at it is that consumers aren't idiots at all - they're accurately evaluating the product in its retail environment. Either way, Vizio is smart. It's building what sells. Now, you would think that this is a pretty basic insight: consumers buy at retail, the retail environment favors technology A over B, therefore, to succeed, focus on technology A. It is basic, but apparently, it's not obvious. I can't tell you how many times I talk to my clients in the mobile device world who simply choose to ignore the retail distribution reality, and suffer becasue of it.
And when the TV broadcaster asks the MVP why he is celebrating, the MVP will respond, "because the God passed over the other team and took me out of this game with a strong arm."
Happy Super Bowl
Look, it's a great format, and I certainly try to rent Blu-ray (from Netflix) and buy Blu-ray discs in the rare cases where I'm buying. I'm even upgrading a few discs from DVD to Blu-ray: Groundhog Day is coming out on Blu-ray on January 27! We watch that one at least annually. When Star Wars comes out on Blu-ray, yeah, I'll buy it yet again even though the DVD is pristine. The thing is, even CNET admits that the only reason a consumer would buy Blu-ray is for picture quality, and, I'm sorry, that's not a good reason for most consumers to upgrade. Upsampled DVD looks very good on nearly any television - even big HDTV sets. Move to a projector/screen combination, and the difference becomes obvious -- which is why I'm renting/buying Blu-ray discs myelf -- but no matter how inexpensive 1080p projectors get, that's still a niche market because projectors require setup and light control. DVD player penetration is pretty high (80%), and there's just no reason to upgrade even when you add an HDTV to the equation.
As usual, I attended CES 2009 and spent a lot more time talking with mobile devices vendors (my day job) than home theater. This was a good strategy for anyone this year because the Palm pre stole the show, but there were still plenty of thin LCD TVs, 3D TV, mobile TV, and a few speakers and receivers sprinkled throughout the sprawling show floor. I didn't make it to the Hilton, where most of the high end audio was housed, at all. Still, it's hard to avoid home theater when you have to attend press conferences from Sony, Samsung, LG, Toshiba, etc. and walk the show floor.
After talking to the Dolby Mobile folks, I was pressed into sitting through a terrific demo of Dolby IIz, which adds a (derived, not native) height channel. I've been using Yamaha receivers for years that perform the same trick, so I could certainly appreciate the notion - Dolby seems to be going more for sound placement (i.e., making it sound like the helicopter is hovering above you), while Yamaha is intended for room augmentation (i.e., making it sound like your room is bigger). The 9 minute demo certainly sounded great, but if I listened to my own home theater at those volume levels I'd be deaf before the end of the movie.
I also saw the latest generation of DLP in both super-large format (Optoma's HD8200 projector) and small (TI-powered pico projectors for use with cellphones were everywhere). I stopped by the Optoma booth to see the pico projector, and stayed for a short demo of the HD8200 on a 2:35 screen in a completely dark room. They were playing a clip from I Am Legend, a movie I have only seen in projector demos, so I know the clip well. Contrast ratio and black levels were insanely good, but there was weird artifacting that appeared just before fast motion content that drove me crazy. It could be an issue with the setup, the source, or a bug in a preproduction demo unit, but if I had bought that system, I'd be returning it.
Finally, at the Sony press conference the swag was an eco-friendly bamboo fiber bag, which feels like silk and is apparently intended to be used (and reused) for grocery shopping. Or something. When I unpacked it after the show, I noticed that the care tag is unintentionally poetic and hilarious, a sort of bad translation haiku: