Archive for February, 2008

Daily Blog – Ross Jones – February 11, 2008: THE POLITICS OF HOME THEATER AND THE DISAPPEARING MIDDLE CLASS

Monday, February 11th, 2008

Has anyone else noticed a trend in the A/V industry that emphasizes the extreme ends of the market to the detriment of the “middle class,” those of us with neither 6 million dollar theaters nor the $200 home-theater-in-a-box? Maybe I have a skewed perspective as someone in the industry, but it seems that most of the press coverage and marketing push is focused on either entry-level products, or ultra high-end equipment that only a lucky few can afford.

It’s particularly interesting given the current presidential political campaign here in the U.S., where some are arguing that the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and those in the middle are getting squeezed out. It’s not too big a stretch to apply that analogy to the A/V world.

It wasn’t all that long ago where $10,000 was about the most one could think of paying for a pair of top-of-the-line speakers. Today, I can think of at least six quality speaker lines where ten grand will put you right in the middle of their product line-up. At the other extreme, “entry-level” used to mean a $300-400 receiver, to which you’d hook up a CD player, a tape deck, a VCR and a DVD player. Then you’d shop for speakers. Now folks grab their shiny new flat-panel displays and pick up an HTIB as an afterthought.

What about the middle class of the home theater world? There are some fantastic THX certified receivers you can get for $1,000, and great sounding 5.1 speaker systems for $2-3,000. We see plenty of them here at SECRETS, but are they selling? How about those $200 DVD players that score so well in our Benchmarks?

I don’t know if this trend is being driven by the manufacturers, by the marketplace (give them what they want), or maybe I’m just seeing something that isn’t there. But all I know is that, if elected, I pledge to provide all citizens a full range of home theater choices.

Daily Blog – Brian Florian – February 8, 2008: . . . BUT WHERE DOES THE CENTER CHANNEL SPEAKER GO?

Friday, February 8th, 2008

This past Christmas was a real water shed for LCD and Plasma flat panel TVs.  Of the bazillion people who brought one home last month, I wager about 99% of them did NOT hang it on the wall like the slick, colorful brochures would have us think is the norm.  Wall mounting an expensive 70 to 300lb piece of equipment is not like hanging a picture.  Its an undertaking.  And of those few who do brave it (or more likely, and most often wisely, get a professional to do so), even less go on to hide the wires in such a way as to make it all worth while.

No, most people brought their new TV home, slapped on the included stand, and plunked the thing right down where their old TV used to be:  On an AV rack/stand, or perhaps in the proverbial and woefully dated “entertainment center”, some even end up on an old hope chest.

The question is: Where does the center channel speaker go?

Chances are, it used to be happily perched on top of the ol’ faithful CRT TV which just got the boot.  That oh-so critical speaker has no place to go.

Sure, I’ve seen all the clever ideas.  Use a wall mount intended for a small CRT TV to float a big center speaker above the screen.  Put it on a short stand out in front of the screen.  Bah!  That’s no solution.  At least not for me.

I toyed with the concept of building some big cabinet around my TV for the sole purpose of accommodating the center channel speaker when I had a revelation I’d like to share….a speaker stand that fits behind a flat panel TV.

center channel speaker stand

Really, this is nothing more than a conventional speaker stand with with an “outrigger” base to it so that it can straddle the flat panel TVs own stand, and thus position the speaker RIGHT where it needs to be.  At first glance it seem ungainly, but watch what happens when the TV gets put in place.

center channel speaker stand with tv

Dim the lights, and it disappears completely.

Since this is such an adaptable design I wont share with you any details of my build except to say I used kiln dried knotty pine 2x4s, 2x6s, and 3/4″ plywood for the top, “screwed and glued” as the saying goes.  Overkill, but I wanted it that way.

On reflection, this concept makes so much sense to me its a wonder someone hasn’t come to market with one made of steel with nut-and-bolt assembly so that the stance, height, and even the forward to back position of the top plate is adjustable.

Then again, sometimes its nice to actually do something yourself.

Daily Blog – Piero Gabucci – February 7, 2008: MY LAB IS ALMOST AS BIG AS JJ’S.

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

I thought I’d let you all in on my audio “lab”, some might confuse it with a corner of my basement, but don’t let that mislead you. Although I use a couple of rooms, I particularly like this space despite slightly low ceilings at 7.5 ft. For me it’s fine, and I’m basically left alone.

all.jpg

Coming from me will be several reviews in the next month or so.

I’m very excited about the KEF Reference 205/2 full range speakers, as I’ve waited patiently for them to break in.

For those of you like JJ who donated your albums don’t despair, but dust off your turntable, perhaps find a new cartridge for it, vinyl is back, in a big way! Look for a review of the terrific Marantz TT 15S with the Clearaudio Virtuoso Ebony wood cartridge.

Look also for the “value” McIntosh MA6300, 100 wpc solid-state integrated! This unit will never leave my rack; it just looks great, sounds pretty good too.

mac.jpg

Down low you’ll see the amazing Torus power conditioner that’s reliably protected all this great gear. Cables from Wireworld and from Goertz will follow along as well.

So I hope you enjoy the new website as much as we do and have fun getting involved, ask questions, leave us your comments (mostly for Ross, he loves it) and happy home theater-ing! I know it’s not a word. I am off to listen to some high-res audio I just downloaded from Linn that I’m dying to hear!

Daily Blog – Colin Miller – February 6, 2008: WHY I’M LATE WITH THE JL AUDIO REVIEW . . . AND I MEAN REALLY, REALLY LATE

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008

It comes in part out of laziness, and it comes in part by simply the hurdles of life that get in the way of our comfortable, every day routine, of which product reviews and technical articles had inched into mine.

But, it also comes out of the awe of dealing with things on a scale too big to digest all at once.

My JL Audio Fathom 112 subwoofers article is WAY late.  I mean, everybody’s being really patient with me, but it WAY sucks that I haven’t published anything on them, because they are SO very, very, very nice, and I’m just in love with the little buggers.  I was on track to have something handed in by the end of ’07, but ever since on of those major life events took hold, (not loss of job, not death), it’s been a real climb just getting my letter blocks lined up in order faster than they get knocked down.

So, I was wondering, or perhaps rather hoping, if/that the readers might be okay with me doing a short blurb, in the time I can manage, more immediately than not, just covering the basics, background, rough design, and quick impressions with two-channel music.  I’ve generally found music, in my opinon, to be more demanding than movie applications when it comes to the more subtle qualitative subjective aspects of performance, and while these things can certainly pound to hold their own, where they shine is in their consistent composure, regardless of whisper or waterfall.  To get a true movie experience with them, I need the projector hung, the HDMI cable run, the surround channels mounted, and all of that.  None of those on the top of my To Do list.

I did begin to put humpty dumpty back together again, in earnest, as described in the previous feature article, though as soon as I got enough equipment together for two channel music listening, my motivation stalled just a little, rediscovering the wonders of really, really, really, superb, unbelievably good world of immacuately rendered ‘stereo’.  A few weeks of that, and BOOM, life event, and then, priorities, all of them, just got blown out the window.

Well, that’s my plan anyway.  The JL Audio Fathom 112 subwoofers deserve one hell of a writeup, and I am sorry that I don’t do them justice in a contiguous fashion.  But, I can’t put it off anymore.  I’ll give them the best I can.  It won’t be the best I’ve ever offered, but it’s the best I can offer, for now.

Yep, that’ll be it.

Daily Blog – John E. Johnson, Jr. – February 5, 2008: PROBLEMS WITH SCRATCHES ON HIGH DEFINITION DISCS ARE CAUSING DISC ERRORS WHEN TRYING TO PLAY THEM.

Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

Over the past few months, I have had increasing problems with playing high definition discs that I have rented. Here is a scan of the surface of a recent rental from Blockbuster by mail (The Hurricane – HD DVD). It would not play in the HD DVD player, nor would it play in our media server. I even washed it with soap and water (the scan photo is of the surface after I washed it). 

 scratched-hd-dvd-hurricane.jpg

Now, I have had SD (standard definition) DVDs that were as scratched up as this, but they played. Remember though, high def discs have tracks that are much closer together, and the pits are much smaller. So, a scratch or mark is much more likely to interfere with the laser reading the track. Looks like that is what is happening.

One would think that consumers would have the courtesy to take care when handling rental discs, but it appears they are not doing that. The marks on this disc seem to be far too many to have been put there by just one user, so I assume it is a series of careless people.

I used to get LPs from the library – after many people had checked them out and listened to them – and they had less scratches than these DVDs. So, it seems users think they don’t have to handle DVDs with care, because scratches don’t make any difference. Hello. Anyone home?

OK guys, we are going to be in a lot of trouble if everyone does not handle their rental discs carefully. Pull it out of the sleeve by the edges (I saw greasy fingerprints on the surface before I washed it), and handle it only by the edges. Do not lay it on a table recorded surface down. Do not slide it along the table when picking it up. Do not drop it on the floor. If you get a fingerprint on it, wash it in warm water with a little dish soap. Rinse it off and dry it with a paper towel, gently.

C’mon now, there are lots of people out there waiting for that disc after you watch it. Be careful!

I just got the replacement for that movie from Blockbuster, and if it is scratched too, I will be angry. You don’t want to see me when I am angry.

Daily Blog – Jason Serinus – February 4, 2008: ANALOG DISCOVERIES

Monday, February 4th, 2008

Just a few weeks back, when I was at CES, I was gifted with a SoundSmith “The Voice” phono cartridge. Blessed would be more like it. I can’t believe how this little baby has transformed the sound of my LPs.

First, a little background. While I had always listened to LPs, and in fact traveled around the country in my early twenties with boxes of prized vocal recordings, my first entrée into high-end audio was via the digital domain. If memory serves me right, my set-up at the time consisted of old Advent speakers connected with 12-gauge wire that sounded much better than lamp cord, a Pioneer or Kenwood receiver, a used Dual 1219 turntable with Shure cartridge that allowed me to play 78s, and Radio Shack-grade interconnects. The set-up was atrocious, but it served this low-income music lover okay.

Then I read that CDs promised perfect sound forever. After speaking with a friend who owned a recording studio in Chicago, I bought myself a Magnavox CD player. “It’s made by Philips,” he told me, “and sounds less harsh than the CD players coming out of Japan. I didn’t know why a CD player would sound harsh, but I had no reason not to trust him.”

Then I went out to a now defunct chain store and bough Aretha Franklin’s latest CD. Returning home, I put it on the player and heard sound so unrelentingly bright and piercing that I turned the thing off after struggling through two tracks. I promptly put the CD back in its “jewel” case – jewel my foot – and drove back to the dealer. “I want my money back,” I declared in irate tones. “If this is what CDs sound like, I want none of it!”

All well and good. But with no contact with audiophile publications or high-end dealerships, I didn’t know where to go from there. Slowly the speakers changed to used Spicas (set up incorrectly, of course), the cabling to huge Monster cable. Then, somewhere along the line, came the move to larger quarters, the new speakers, then the Theta Gen. V DAC, then better interconnects, finally a rack, then tube amplification, etc. etc. I felt I was on my way to fulfilling a long-held dream – a glorious soundsystem.

Despite Lord knows how much knowledge I had accumulated over the intervening years, not least by writing for the audiophile press, I stuck to digital because (a) I didn’t have the bucks to invest in a good analogue set-up, (b) I’d already invested so much in my excellent digital chain that I couldn’t imagine shifting gears, and (c) as a music critic, I was receiving free CDs galore on a daily basis.

Then came RMAF 2006. While blogging for Stereophile, I entered a raffle sponsored by Oakland-based distributor Musical Surroundings. Miraculously, I won. Although it was a little embarrassing to claim my prize with my editor watching, I ended up, thanks to some negotiation and a huge amount of generosity, with a Clearaudio turntable. The sound of the cartridge I was using – a godsend after the harshness of the Blue Point on my Dual – was absolutely lovely on top, but bass had mostly gone into hiding. It was great for song recitals, but unthinkable for full-range orchestral music. For the most part, the turntable sat there.

Then, a few months back, I had the extreme privilege of hanging with Steve Hoffman, Kevin Gray, Chad Kassem, and Don MacInnis at a Southern California mastering session for prized Blue Note jazz titles that are distributed by Chad’s Acoustic Sounds. Soon after I returned home, Chad began sending me test pressings. The 180 gm. Vinyl discs, which many collectors would kill for, sat unplayed as I focused on assignments.

Then came CES and “The Voice.” A week later, after a fellow member of the Bay Area Audiophile Society plus the folks at Musical Surroundings helped install the cartridge, I sat down to listen. I was and remain floored. The sound is extraordinary. I’ve listened to a lot of great digital recordings on my system, but I have never ever heard drums sound so realistic as on these Blue Note pressings. Even with an entry-level Clearaudio platter and arm rather than a $20,000 set-up, the Soundsmith “The Voice” is performing miracles.

(I should note that I’ve got some help from the solidity of a Symposium Platform, which really makes a difference under the turntable. Everything becomes more solid and substantial, with size and weight much closer to the real thing).

Once I get through the next 25 articles that are due in the next three days – well, I am exaggerating a bit – I’m eager to do more analogue listening. My neighbor José is a jazz aficionado. We are going to have a ball. This cartridge is something else.

Daily Blog – Ross Jones – February 1, 2008: OH, THE HUMANITY! A LITTLE PERSPECTIVE ON THE BLU RAY/HD DVD TUSSLE

Friday, February 1st, 2008

As we speak, the pundits are busily writing their obituaries for HD DVD. Cause of death: Warneritis. I never took sides, so tend to read the articles with a certain detached bemusement (perhaps less so than early adopters who plunked down $1,000 for a new Toshiba HD-XA2). For all I know, the reports of HD DVD’s demise may be greatly exaggerated. But as someone who has seen their share of technology format disputes, I fail to understand the martial analogies attached to the Blu Ray/HD DVD clash, complete with the moniker of a format “war,” and shameless propaganda. It might be really be the end this time, but if I had a dollar for every press release over the last two years saying that the “war was over,” well… I’d have a lot of dollars. And that’s just from the professional PR and media outlets. Online discussions became so intense that one forum had to temporarily shut down their HD media area due to posts that allegedly threatened physical violence. 

Putting aside for the moment that we’re discussing home theater and not real war (you know, where people get killed in large numbers), people seem to forget that Blu Ray and HD DVD are evolutionary rather than revolutionary products. The videotape recorders (Beta/VHS) gave consumers the ability to time-shift recordings for the first time.  DVD (which many don’t realize was another narrowly avoided format “war”) was the first digital video medium. It offered a tremendous increase in video quality, the ability to instantly skip to various chapters of a film, and was backwards compatible with the new and popular CD audio format.

HD physical media, on the other hand, was a hard sell from the beginning. Consumers need a hi-def display, which although rapidly becoming more popular are still in a minority of homes. Moreover, the increased video quality of HD media (particularly on smaller displays) is far less obvious to the casual observer than the difference between videotape and DVD (I can see the difference, but don’t count as a casual observer). Indeed, various reports show that a significant number of HDTV owners don’t actually receive HD programming, but still think they are watching hi-def.

So I have difficulty relating to the outrage, the emotions, the “war” analogies (although I have to admit that  Downfall parody video is pretty darn funny). Like most people, I wish that there weren’t two incompatible formats. But it’s not that big a deal. All those folks who bought Beta VCR’s, laserdisc, Minidisc and 8-track tape managed to survive. Heck, people are still having a spirited, yet respectful debate about whether vinyl sounds better than CD. So don’t get caught up in the hype. Five years from now, we’ll be having the same discussion about some new A/V technology with competing formats; it’s the nature of the industry. Enjoy the ride!

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