A few years ago, two of the most intriguing products reviewed by the SoundStage! Network were the Logitech (formerly Slim Devices) Squeezebox network music player and its big brother, the Transporter. By making it easy to stream digital audio files from computer networks to audio systems, these and other music servers have changed the way many audiophiles listen to music. These days, it’s rare to find a home-entertainment system without the capability for computer networking, and network music players are no longer rarities. Some makers of high-end audio gear now produce network music players as well -- Linn has stopped making CD players altogether, to concentrate its efforts on their DS line of digital streaming players.
In the computer industry, technological advances come thick and fast; media players that play audio and video files are now widely available, often for less than $100, and many of them can play high-definition video and high-resolution audio files. One of the most popular such players is the Western Digital WD TV Live. Its already-low price of $149 USD is often discounted; I was interested to see how such an inexpensive media player would perform in a high-quality audio/video system.
The first thing I noticed about Western Digital’s WD TV Live was its size. At only 4.875”W x 1.625”H x 3.875”D, it’s smaller than most desktop external hard drives, and only a little larger than most portable external hard drives. The TV Live has an Ethernet port but lacks built-in WiFi, though it can be used with a USB WiFi adapter (not included). Its two USB ports can be used to connect hard or thumb drives formatted with the FAT or NTFS file systems, for the storage of media content. Output options include HDMI, TosLink optical audio, and nonstandard component and composite video, along with analog audio outputs on 1/8” jacks with adapter cables (provided). A wall-wart power supply and a small remote control are included.
The front-panel display indicates the TV Live’s power status and connection of USB devices. The player is passively cooled (no fan noise), and its tininess makes it unobtrusive.
What doesn’t it do?
The appeal of the WD TV Live is in the wide variety of audio and video file formats it can play. Although I didn’t try all of them, it supports these video formats: AVI (Xvid, AVC, MPEG1/2/4), MPG/MPEG, VOB, MKV (h.264, x.264, AVC, MPEG1/2/4), TS/TP/M2T (MPEG1/2/4, AVC, VC-1), MP4/MOV (MPEG4, h.264), M2TS, and WMV9 (VC-1). Also supported are these audio formats: MP3, WAV/PCM/LPCM, WMA, AAC, FLAC, MKA, AIF/AIFF, OGG, Dolby Digital, and DTS.
The TV Live will also display picture files in the GIF, BMP, JPG, TIF/TIFF, and PNG formats. It has limited access to Internet media services, including Pandora and Live365 Internet Radio, Flickr image and video hosting, and the ubiquitous YouTube.
The user interface is fairly basic. Files on USB drives can be sorted by folder, filename, and date, or by various types of metadata for audio files (artist, album, genre, etc.); the TV Live also supports playlists. Album art can be displayed if available, and thumbnails can be generated for video and picture files. Although the interface is fairly rudimentary, it’s generally informative and intuitive to use, and the graphics look clean and professional.
I didn’t use the WD TV Live with a WiFi adapter, but connected it to my home network via an Ethernet cable. It had no trouble finding shared network folders and media servers, and played back both standard- and high-resolution audio files and hi-def video files with no problems. I did most of my auditioning using an external USB hard drive connected directly to the TV Live.
The TV Live was connected to an Anthem Statement D2 A/V processor via HDMI for both audio and video, and TosLink for audio only. I didn’t test any of its analog outputs. The main components of my review system were a Paradigm Reference Signature v.3 surround speaker system comprising S6 v.3 mains, a C3 v.3 center, ADP3 v.3 surrounds, and a Sub 1 subwoofer; Bel Canto e.One REF1000 and eVo6 power amplifiers; and a 1080p, 56” JVC RPTV. Cables were by Analysis Plus and DH Labs; power cords and power conditioners were from Essential Sound Products, Zero Surge, and Blue Circle Audio.
I connected the WD TV Live to my home network and watched a few YouTube videos of typical quality for that site; i.e., barely watchable on my 56” RPTV. Some 720p material on YouTube was better, but it still looked somewhat soft and lacking in overall quality. Entering search terms on the onscreen keyboard with the navigation keys was also slow and tedious, making it a chore to access YouTube this way. I also listened to some Internet Radio via Live365, and found the sound quality similar to that of AM radio, and sufficient only for background listening. I wasn’t able to access the Pandora radio service because my ISP was recognized as originating in Canada.
As expected, I was able to watch many types of standard-def video files -- AVI, MPG, WMV, VOB -- but my main interest was in playing back hi-def video. The TV Live had no problem playing all of the hi-def 720p and 1080p MKV and M2TS files, encoded with H.264 and WMV VC-1, that I had on hand. In fact, an uncompressed 1080p M2TS file ripped from the Blu-ray edition of Inglourious Basterds looked and sounded spectacular on my 56” RPTV: I could see no difference in video quality between the Blu-ray and the file I’d ripped from it. Small details were visible in Shosanna’s mirrored reflection as she prepared to unleash her assassination plot against the Nazi high command in her theater. The darkened background in that room was pitch-black in places, with shadows and gradations of light visible in others. Her blood-red fingernails and makeup looked lusciously real.
The sound wasn’t quite as good as with the Blu-ray, but was still excellent. This probably had something to do with the fact that while the TV Live identified the soundtrack as DTS-HD Master Audio, it would output only DTS core at 1.5Mbps. Bass was still very deep and powerful on David Bowie’s “Putting Out the Fire,” from the film Inglorious Basterds, but a little less defined. There was also a slight loss in soundstage depth and imaging. The closing credits of Slumdog Millionaire feature a delightful Bollywood dance number to the song “Jai Ho.” The deep, wide soundstage of this scene was slightly reduced through the TV Live as it played the soundtrack in DTS core from a MKV file, and the imaging of voices and percussion was not as sharp compared to the Blu-ray.
Even playing back 720p MKV files ripped from Blu-rays and compressed by a factor of three to four times down to 8GB looked and sounded very good. Although the picture was a little soft when compared to the original Blu-rays -- to be expected, due to the increased compression and scaling to the lower 720p resolution -- the picture was still pleasing, and vastly preferable to standard-def DVDs. For example, The Bourne Ultimatum lacked a little detail, especially in dimly lit scenes, but was still highly watchable, and the 1.5Mbps DTS core soundtrack sounded spectacularly holographic.
As much as I loved being able to access dozens of hi-def movies instantly from hard disk with the WD TV Live, there were a couple of operational limitations that I found frustrating. The first was that the TV Live’s video output resolution had to be set manually, or automatically by detecting the resolution of the display device. This meant that if the resolution of the source file differed from the output resolution, the TV Live would automatically scale it to match. I would have preferred a Source Direct mode; that way, the video signal could be output in its native resolution, and any scaling could be performed by an outboard video processor, such as the one built into my Anthem Statement D2.
There was also a lack of a Goto function; a specific point in a video file could be accessed only by fast-forwarding or fast-reversing to it. For example, if a video file had no chapter stops, it took roughly four minutes to scan through an hour-long portion of the file. Fortunately, the TV Live remembers if a video file has been stopped during play, and returns to that point when play is resumed, even after powering down. Still, the lack of a Goto function quickly became irritating.
I was quite satisfied with the WD TV Live’s quality of playback of movies from hi-rez video files, but was less enthusiastic about its reproduction of audio files. Most of my music collection is now in the form of FLAC files; playing these, the TV Live didn’t sound as transparent as I would have liked. Bass on “Queen of the Supermarket,” from Bruce Springsteen’s Working on a Dream (CD, Columbia 88697413552), was slightly indistinct, and there was a touch of nasality to his voice in “The Wrestler.” There was a big, rich sound to Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster (Deluxe Edition) (CD, Streamline 0602527210360), the driving beat present throughout. I just wish it had been tighter so that I could have more easily followed the modulation of the bass. Overall, the sound of the TV Live with audio files was good but not great. There was a gratifying fullness to the sound, but not without some loss of detail and transparency.
The TV Live was capable of playing 24-bit/96kHz stereo FLAC and WAV files, but the frequency of the digital output was reduced to 48kHz. Additionally, hi-rez multichannel WAV files were played only as two-channel signals, and hi-rez multichannel FLAC files couldn’t be played at all. If you’re looking for something with which to play hi-rez audio files, the WD TV Live is less than ideal.
Compared to the Oppo BDP-83 universal Blu-ray player and the Sony PlayStation 3, the WD TV Live offered many advantages in the playback of video files -- such as its support for the NTFS file system, which permits files larger than the 4GB limit imposed by the FAT file system used by the BDP-83 and PS3. Another advantage was the TV Live’s ability to play a much wider variety of file formats. The BDP-83 and PS3 can play only a few types of media files, and are thus not well suited to being used as media players.
The TV Live reproduced hi-rez video files nearly as well as did the BDP-83. Although it sounded very good with film soundtracks, there was more definition in the bass when I used the BDP-83 to play an MKV file of the 1.5Mbps DTS soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. There was also a greater sense of space in the cavernous mines of Moria during the battle with the Balrog. However, between the BDP-83 and the TV Live, the picture quality of this 1080p file was indistinguishable.
Playing FLAC and WAV audio files was not the TV Live’s strong suit. The Trends Audio UD-10.1 USB converter that I use to send S/PDIF digital audio from my laptop computer to my Anthem D2 A/V processor was clearly superior in this regard. Peter Gabriel’s voice on his Scratch My Back (CD, Real World 180030000178) sounded faintly congested in comparison. Although the piano and strings on “The Power of the Heart” sounded quite clear, they simply sounded more realistic through the UD-10.1. There was also a solidity and power to the piano’s lower registers that was lacking with the TV Live.
At a street price of just over $100, Western Digital’s WD TV Live offers plenty of versatility in the number of audio and video file formats it can play, in addition to its network streaming capabilities. It does have some limitations when playing audio files, such as its inability to output 24/96 digital audio, and a less transparent sound than more expensive, high-quality digital audio sources.
If you need an inexpensive media player to play hi-def video files, the WD TV Live is a good choice. If you’re looking for something to play audio files through a high-end system, I suggest you look elsewhere.
. . . Roger Kanno
Western Digital WD TV Live Media Player
Price: $149 USD.
Warranty: One year, limited.
20511 Lake Forest Drive
Lake Forest, CA 92630-7741
Phone: (800) 275-4932