What About Us? Post-Holiday Gift Ideas to Give Ourselves

January 2012

GiftsAnother holiday season rolled around and we joyfully gave gifts to everyone in sight, all the while hoping for that one little audiophile or videophile sparkler. Did your family choose another tie or pair of socks instead of that nifty new Krell Evolution preamp and amp ($90,000) that you really wanted? I thought I’d propose a few things that should make even the most omnivorous audio/videophile deliriously happy. Now, while I’d love to go ahead and recommend the Krell Evolutions, and maybe even add some Magico Q5 speakers, etc., unfortunately the economy still sucks, so I’ll keep these purchases under $500 -- and for most of them, way under.

Over the last four decades, it’s become de rigueur for audio critics to place hand over heart and swear fealty to live music. But this year, I’ve derived more joy from solitary musical pursuits than ever before. Don’t get me wrong -- I heard some great concerts in 2011. The transcendent tone of Anne Akiko Meyers performing Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.1 on her 1697 "Molitor" Stradivarius made me float off into a reverie. And hearing Harry Allen’s oh-so-smooth tenor sax swinging along with the great Freddie Cole in the acoustic ambience of Feinstein’s in New York City was as good as contemporary jazz gets.

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Roku 2 and Hulu Plus: Time to Finally Cut the Cable?

November 2011

Roku 2Hulu, Vudu, Roku -- they all sound alike. That damn u at the end is not helpful but obfuscational. How are we supposed to remember which does what? For those who need to know, here are the differences.

Hulu is a repository of thousands of old and new TV shows. They also offer films, though many were either made for TV or are silly soft-core porn (what comedian Bill Hicks used to call “hairy bobbin’ man-ass flicks”). Their service is available through a number of outlets, including Roku. Vudu is an on-demand site for watching films, usually through a Sony PlayStation 3, a computer, an iPad, or certain Blu-ray players. Roku is a box that uses the Internet to bring in various “channels,” some free, some for a onetime or a monthly fee.

Roku’s new second-generation miniature players are called “streaming players” and include the LT ($49.99 USD), HD ($59.99), XD ($79.99), and XS ($99.99). The LT and HD can do only 720p. The XD moves to 1080p. And the XS adds a remote control that can be used for gaming, a full copy of the video game Angry Birds, and USB and Ethernet ports (the other three models are wireless). Each Roku 2 model measures about 3”W x 1”H x 3”D and weighs a mere 3 ounces. I connected the Roku 2 XD using a Silver Serpent HDMI cable, which was stiff enough to suspend the Roku in mid-air. I anchored it to the shelf by placing atop it an artsy piece of stone.

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Marantz AV7005 A/V Processor: The New Middleweight Champ

September 2011

Marantz AV7005Reviewers' ChoiceIn the past six years I’ve been an unqualified champion of Integra’s top-of-the-line preamplifier-processors: Very few other makes could beat their prices, and even fewer could beat the Integras’ performance. But Marantz’s new AV7005 is a thought-provoking component that had me trying to specifically identify what was most important to me in a pre-pro.

Each of us has different criteria for judging home-theater equipment. Too often, reviewers leave their biases -- we all have them -- to be discovered only by reading between the lines. Moving away from Integra is such a sea-change for me that I wanted to be crystal clear about why I would do it. So here are my biases.

In a preamplifier-processor or audio/video receiver, I want:

1. Up-to-date connectivity

2. All current audio codecs

3. Enough switching capability to handle all of my components

4. Multiple zones to which I can send any signal

5. Attractive casework

6. A setup program that’s easy enough for someone who hates dealing with complex electronics, yet offers enough depth that a professional can wrest the best possible performance within each audio or video parameter

7. Capacity to work with various networking schemes for playing my stored music and video files, and to integrate with various purveyors of online media

8. An intuitive operating system

9. Clear and accurate sound at realistic levels

10. Truthful-sounding room-correction software

11. The ability to accurately reproduce video images

12. A fair price

13. Dependability

14. Quick and helpful technical support

15. Easily upgraded without costing a fortune

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Wisdom Audio Sage Series SCS Powered Subwoofer

August 2011

Wisdom Audio Sage Series SCSThe first speakers with high-end pretensions that I ever owned were the Magneplanar Tympani 1Ds, bought at a hippie place in Dallas called Hungry Ear (you can imagine their logo). The Maggies measured 6’H x 4’W x 1”D and made great bass down to about 40Hz, after which they disappeared from action. The manager of Hungry Ear loved the 1Ds, but he was also a bass fan. Taking an idea from Bud Fried’s IMF Professional Monitor, he loaded two KEF oval woofers into a stout transmission line and suddenly had the quickest, deepest bass imaginable. Granted, building the folded transmission line into a subwoofer box was a feat bordering on engineering genius, but his speakers magically brought that 20-40Hz octave seamlessly into play. At 40Hz, the manager’s sub needed only about 1W to make 100dB at 1m, but he drove it a lot harder than that by using an Audio Research D-150 power amplifier. It made absolute thunder -- something like 120dB at 25Hz. There was one small problem: They were huge. He should have called them the EarQuakes. 

But people didn’t buy subwoofers in those days. Finally, he focused on designing and building a stereo pair of speakers, each of which had a woofer system almost as good as his subwoofer, and which he matched to a half dozen or so planar magnetic panels. Then, like most speaker designers, he kept changing them and changing them. If he’d just stuck with his EarQuake sub, he could still be selling them.

Anyway, I couldn’t afford the EarQuake. For that last octave of low bass, I would have had to pay about $7000, which today would be equivalent to about $25,000. Yeowchhh! So I followed the received wisdom of the time: If I could position my main speakers at the precisely correct angles in the perfect locations, I would magically unlock the bottom octave. It’s hard to disprove such a statement -- thus my hundreds of hours spent on knees and elbows, shoving my speakers into different places, tilting them to just the perfect cant. Do you see why I’m such a fan of Audyssey’s room-equalization software? 

I tell you all this ancient history because the subject of today’s communiqué, Wisdom Audio’s Sage Series SCS powered subwoofer ($4000 USD), is the first sub that I’ve used that reminds me of the EarQuake. 

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Oppo Digital Does It Again: The BDP-93 Blu-ray Player

June 2011

Reviewers' ChoiceHow to run a company: a modest proposal

Oppo BDP-93Oppo Digital is a fascinating company that should serve as a model for how to run a business in these ever-changing times. In my other job, of writing about wine and food, I see so many companies doing things exactly the wrong way that having the opportunity to watch Oppo gives me a little bit of professional joy. 

To help you understand why Oppo’s philosophy is so successful in the audio/video business, here are two examples of how to fail in the wine business. A glance at these numbers will quickly reveal the genius of Oppo’s strategy. 

The posh price strategy: attack the high end

Wine company A is owned by a successful physician who is tired of medicine and loves drinking wine. He (this type of financial brinksmanship is almost exclusively a male pursuit) invests $1 million in establishing a small, 20-acre vineyard, another million to build a tiny but functional winery, and a third million to build a flash tasting room that his other doctor friends will ooh and ah over. Five years or so later, if he’s lucky, he’ll start to get about 2500 pounds of grapes per acre. That will give him 3000 cases, or 36,000 bottles. The basic costs for bottles, corks, and labels for 36,000 bottles run just under $75,000. The annual debt retirement on $3 million is about $300,000, with another $150,000 in annual operating costs. That means that just the basic costs of filling each of those 36,000 bottles with wine is $14.58. Add 30% for marketing, and the per-bottle price jumps to $19. Add the profits to the distributor and the retail store, and you end up with a minimum shelf cost of $54 per bottle. If the winemaker wants to make $10 profit on each bottle, the shelf cost jumps to $80. 

But who will pay the luxury price of $80 for a bottle of unknown wine? The doctor and his overpaid PR firm will pursue reviewers with a vengeance trying to get someone to write that his wine is a bargain at $80. But I, one of those reviewers, got calls from ten other wineries that day (as I do every day) with “bargain” $80 wines. Which is how we end up with a doctor who, after five years of effort, has poured $5.25 million down the drain. He’s probably now divorced, with a winery he’s trying to sell to another silly doctor, and still stuck working in a job he’s sick of for the rest of his life. 

Lest you think this an uncommon tale, I assure you: Based on my 15 years of writing about wine, it happens at least five times more often than do the establishments of successful wineries. We call our doctor and his friends “gentlemen farmers.” It’s the winemakers’ version of a very old joke: How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? Start with a large fortune.

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Directors Making Classic Films Today: Darren Aronofsky

May 2011

To fans of the Big Bang: So you’ve assembled this incredible home theater and now you’re looking for movies to watch. You’ve done the big explosions and the death-defying race scenes. You’ve seen the 3D stuff come flying off your screen. You’ve shown your buddies the close-up collisions from NFL Films. The whole "big bang," "oh my God!" school of filmmaking holds no more surprises and is now, frankly, boring.

To rabid fans of Turner Classic Movies: You’ve seen the complete works of the great directors John Ford, Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, and Billy Wilder. Your primary love is for Alfred Hitchcock, not only for his sense of mystery, but for his films’ kinky, psychosexual undercurrents. And you’re certain that no one is making good movies anymore.

I’d like to unite these two disparate strands of today’s film market by introducing you to Darren Aronofsky.

Almost everyone has heard of at least one of Aronofsky’s films, though ticket sales for most of them have been criminally low. The director’s five feature-length films are Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008), and Black Swan (2010). Each of Aronofsky’s movies features the intensity sought by Big Bang fans, but accomplishes its powerful effect by building the tension and raising the stakes. PiImagine James Bond’s poor body making its way through torture, car wrecks, gunshots, stabbings, beatings, explosions, falls, and unending sex -- but none of it really matters, because we know that our hero will live to star in the next Bond flick. Aronofsky provides far more crushing stimuli -- he pushes his heroes and heroines into places where they must make wrenching decisions that could result in the loss of their minds or their lives.

Aronofsky’s first feature-length film, Pi (the title is actually π), is a philosophical, mystical, science-fiction thriller beautifully filmed in black and white for less than $100,000. Despite that paltry budget, it’s hardly a cheap film. It’s about Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette), a man who’s quite smart -- in many ways, like some of Aronofsky’s Harvard classmates. He’s locked himself away in a computer lab, where he slaves away at his theory that he can convert all of nature -- as in God -- into a mathematical formula. Soon, representatives of both Wall Street and organized religion come calling, trying to beg, borrow, buy, or steal his work. The depth of Cohen’s thought is also the depth of his potential for losing his mind, and that’s where the film’s tension is rooted. Which would you choose: enlightened insanity or intolerant sanity? The grainy black-and-white photography adds to the sense of impending doom, and it all adds up to something a lot scarier than a car chase.

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Anthem MRX 700 A/V Receiver

April 2011

Reviewers' ChoiceAnthem MRX 700The world of high-end home-theater processors and receivers has been moving along at sweeping speed, often whipped from behind by HDMI, the fight for supremacy between Dolby and DTS, and, oh yes, the little issue of profits. Companies like Onkyo, Marantz, Pioneer, Denon, and Yamaha have been launching new products annually, telling us with each new iteration that we can’t live without the new model’s features, and that the model we bought last year is now destined for the local landfill.

This dizzying race to the Shangri-La of home-theater perfection has been such a challenging competition that only the big-bank-account Japanese companies have been able to stay in the fight. Time after time, we’ve seen the companies that produce the truly high-end products just give up on the marketplace. Some just stopped making them, or froze their production on outdated technology (anyone still prefer component video to HDMI?). Great makers I depended on for years for my own system -- I’m thinking mainly of the Jeff Rowland Design Group, and any company run by Nelson Pass -- just avoided the concept altogether.

The folks at Anthem have been almost singular in holding the torch for upscale, high-end home-theater products. They’ve played the annual upgrade game almost as exhaustively as have the big Japanese companies. By planning ahead and successfully predicting the direction the industry would take, they’ve been able to create whole series of receivers, ranging in price from $999 to $1999, that have an impressive percentage of the sound quality and convenience of their category champ, the Anthem Statement D2v A/V processor ($8500 USD). How do they do it? Like those bright people who designed the Sony PlayStation 3 with enough horsepower to make it through several years of updates, the Anthem engineers made their processors with enough computer power to implement their own version of automatic room correction from the very start.

When Anthem developed their new juggernaut receiver program, they were able to include the same proprietary Anthem Room Correction (ARC) system already included in all iterations of their processors. In my opinion, properly implemented room-correction software has a greater influence on the final sound of a home-theater receiver than any amplification, be it preamp or power amp -- assuming, of course, we start with sufficiently powered, well-designed amplification.

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Looking for the Ultimate Source: Part Two

March 2011

Last month I began my search for the ultimate in high-fidelity recordings online, and examined several companies that offer downloads of truly spectacular quality. This month, my search continues . . .

iTrax: www.itrax.com

itrax.comThe motto at iTrax is "We don’t have millions of low-fidelity tracks but we do have the best-sounding ones." They also have something you won’t see elsewhere: You can choose from as many as 17 different formats, ranging from two-channel 192kbps stereo MP3s to 24-bit/96kHz PCM audio in 5.1-channel sound with a choice of an audience perspective or the illusion of sitting right on stage among the musicians.

Because iTrax believes that analog recordings are inferior, they carry only performances that are digitally recorded at or above 24-bit/88.2kHz. They work with a number of labels, but the main one is AIX Records, most of whose releases are recorded in the hall at The Colburn School, in Los Angeles.

I had a lively discussion about all things musical with Dominic Robelotto, AIX’s senior audio engineer and associate producer. As some of you may know, AIX’s philosophy is pretty specific: "The way that we record and produce music is a very pure process," Robelotto said. "We choose amazingly high-quality microphones, preamplifiers, A/D converters, and the music is captured at 24-bits/96kHz. From there it stays in the digital domain until it reaches the end user’s DAC. This gives us pure, transparent sound."

Why not 24/192 or 32/384?

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Looking for the Ultimate Source: Part One

February 2011

Although the death of the Compact Disc has been widely predicted, most people -- even rabid audiophiles -- still get their music from CDs. The real fringe element are the vinyl junkies, and thanks to their never-ending proselytizing, vinyl sales are actually growing. (The sole item on my teenage nephew’s Christmas list was “Vinyl!”)

You can spend some significant change on a CD player or phono system. In our sister journals SoundStage! Hi-Fi and Ultra Audio, we often report on CD players costing over $5000, and occasionally over $10,000. And the price of a turntable-tonearm-cartridge-phono-stage combo can easily top $100,000. Raise your hand if you think one of these exotic pieces of audio art can make it possible for an LP or a 16-bit/44.1kHz CD to smoke a high-definition file of at least 24-bit/96kHz resolution, played from a digital download via computer. My hand is still down.

In the last few months I’ve really drilled down on the sounds of hi-def recordings, spending time with most of the best labels: 2L, AIX, Gimell, HDtracks, iTrax, Linn, Naim. Each has its strengths, but all are obsessed with providing sound that mirrors the master tape -- and when the label has supervised the recording sessions themselves, they’ve fixated on getting the master tape’s sound to be as clear as arctic ice water.

The CD has been a commercial reality since 1983, and while early it was promoted (by Sony) as embodying “perfect sound forever,” it has also long been denigrated by some audiophiles as unlistenable. The vinyl brigade has been worse, describing the CD and digital recording in scatological terms.

The truth is somewhere in between. The current thinking amongst serious audiophiles is that the CD’s 16-bit/44.1kHz digital sound just won’t cut it. Instead, the consensus seems to be that a 24-bit word length and a 192kHz sampling rate are sufficient to keep the noise and distortion lower than the inherent capabilities of the playback equipment. Still, there are some who believe that too much data is never enough, and are pushing for 32/384 recording and playback.

Most people who buy digital downloads usually buy compressed files (usually MP3) at bit rates of 128 to 320kbps, but most often at 256kbps. I’ve never been a CD apologist and I won’t start now, but when music lovers choose MP3 for its portability, low price, and instant gratification, regardless of sound quality, CDs start to look pretty good.

But with the appearance of multiple websites offering digital downloads of files that sound clearly better than CDs, those of us who care about sound can trudge forward into a musical future that will sound better than the past. For a while, it looked as if we’d be doomed to crappy-sounding 128kbps AAC files from the iTunes Store. Here are a few stores that offer a happier future.

Linn Records: www.linnrecords.com

LinnRecords.comLinn Records won Gramophone magazine’s Label of the Year award in 2010 -- a high honor indeed. After spending some time with a large assortment of Linn recordings, I understand why. Even back in the beginning of Linn the (vinyl) record company produced shockingly clear, amazingly present recordings. These days, Linn still makes magic with the jazz musings of Claire Martin and Carol Kidd. They even stray into prime electronica with William Orbit. But their meat and potatoes are recordings of classical music.

I was blown away by John Butt and the Dunedin Consort’s recording of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor (Linn CKD-354), available in seven different versions. Now, I’m just as sad as the next person about the loss of the local record store, but how on earth could any of them afford to stock seven different versions of a single classical recording? Linn can because it’s a cloud store. I chose the versions with the lowest and highest resolutions: 320kbps MP3 ($11) and 24/192 Studio Master ($27).

The sound of the MP3 was startlingly good. Butt conducts the closing section, Dona Nobis Pacem, with unusual fire and momentum for a text about peace. But he also conveys a romantic feeling guaranteed to choke up even those who think themselves inured to Bach’s charms. The MP3 version is so good that, had it come on a CD, I would have been more than happy -- $11 is thus a bargain.

The 24/192 Studio Master recording is definitely better. The air around the instruments and singers is more apparent, and the decays of sounds seem like the real thing. Is it worth more than twice the price? Well, how much did you spend on your sound system? If you’re enough of a tweaker to have bought nice cables, then spending an extra $16 to have this marvelous-sounding recording should be a no-brainer.

The other question: How much data-storage capacity do you have? The Studio Master in FLAC format is huge, about 18 times the size of the 320kbps MP3. If you have a 2GB iPod Shuffle and are using Apple’s crapalicious headphones, don’t bother with the Studio Master. If you have 20TB of storage and a $10,000 system, you’d be crazy not to get it. Linn offers the 24/192 Studio Master version in both FLAC and WMA formats. Pick FLAC -- it’s an open source and likely to live. WMA, probably, but who knows?

Linn also distributes a couple dozen other labels, all of which seem to follow Linn’s dictum of preserving the actual sound of the event without glossing over or romanticizing it. My favorite is Just Music, whose roster includes Jon Hopkins and Digitonal. Hopkins’ Opalescent (TAO006), which costs $24 in its 24/44.1 version, reminds me of Global Communication’s 76:14, which I consider the pinnacle of electronica.

I corresponded with Jim Collinson, digital manager of LinnRecords.com, to find out more about Linn’s philosophy and what’s happening at the label -- such as, how many customers buy hi-def downloads? “Currently, over 80% of our customers pick the Studio Master downloads,” Collinson said, “and many customers who start with MP3 or CD quality end up moving up to Studio Master quality, too.”

Evidently, the public is also getting the message about FLAC: “Most of our customers choose FLAC. As an open-source technology, we believe that this is the best way to store and future-proof a valuable music collection. The tagging and metadata possibilities for FLAC are amazing too.” In fact, Linn intends to offer new and interesting tagging opportunities for their classical buyers. Collinson wouldn’t give details, other than to say it would be soon.

Asked about the future, Collinson said that Linn believes in 24/192. It’s easy to understand why. Storage is getting cheaper and bandwidth is opening up, which leaves only the issue of cost. Like every other download service, Linn charges a supply-and-demand-based premium for hi-def recordings. Just as the prices of Blu-ray Discs have dropped to just above DVD's because of the lower manufacturing costs made possible by increasing sales. Likewise, as soon as everyone else has figured out a way to market 24/192 files, their prices will be more in line with those of CDs and MP3s.

Linn is one of the few companies that offers the entire chain, from recordings to speakers, and they take great pride in doing their job well. As Collinson said, “championing high quality in every part of the chain, from performance right through to reproduction in the home, is the goal.”

Naim Label: www.naimlabel.com

NaimLabel.comI first heard the impact a Naim component could make on a system’s sound some 25 years ago. The Nait integrated amplifier had no right to sound as good as it did. It was small, underpowered (I thought), and its visually apparent value bore no relation to its cost. But it sure did sound good. And though the folks at Naim would be the first to tell you that their goal is to create a listening experience that “is not about ‘bass’ or ‘treble’ or ‘stereo image,’ but about forgetting the illusion of reproduction and connecting with the music,” I would tell you that I heard the magic whenever the music included a plucked double bass. The woodiness of that sound, the impact in my chest, the pure sense of reality -- it all made me come to attention. Yes, the whole sound was glorious, but the bass . . . Well it’s like asking if you prefer the pancakes or the syrup. I want it all.

While Naim might quarrel with my fixation on the low end, see if you don’t agree. One of their main artists is the legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden, who for 50 years has anchored an amazing variety of recordings, from the most avant-garde to anachronistic hoedown country twang to seductive, heart-on-sleeve soft jazz. Naim offers a series of duo recordings Haden made for them between 1997 and 2007 with Italian guitarist Antonio Forcione and pianists Chris Anderson and John Taylor. Each is beautifully recorded, and played with the depth of feeling and effortless expertise that come from years of playing before audiences and, more important, with other talented musicians.

Haden’s standout Naim recording is his disc with Anderson, None but the Lonely Heart (naimcd22), which costs $27.99 in 24/96 FLAC or WAV format. Anderson, who died in 2008, was a New York City player who was mostly unknown in his own town. A debilitating illness prevented him from spending the time in clubs required for a jazz player to reach a certain level of fame, but to his cohorts he was a legend. Anderson had the ability to toss off romantic lines that Fred Hersch would envy, and season them with an occasional funky touch à la Thelonious Monk. Haden’s playing roots the tempo and key changes, giving Anderson room to open up. The sound includes close miking for Haden, a medium-distance perspective for Anderson, and lots of room ambience. Check out “It Never Entered My Mind” to hear what a combined century of experience can bring to a recording.

Simon Drake, general manager of Naim’s recording division, explained their strategy: “Our approach is to handpick the music we love, music that we feel represents our passion for sonic perfection as much as creative quality,” he says. “Excessive dynamic compression kills the life and soul of a recording, and there is too much of it in modern production techniques. The ‘loudness war’ is spoiling dynamics. Excessive compression (especially the lazy digital kind) and making things loud for loudness’s sake is not a theory we subscribe to.”

Even Naim’s MP3s sound great. It turns out they rip them themselves, using the engine from the Naim Audio HDX. Like Linn, Naim offers a choice of seven formats (LP, CD, MP3, 16/44.1 WAV, 16/44.1 FLAC, 26/96 WAV, 24/96 FLAC), but over 70% of their downloads are 24/96. Asked about FLAC vs. WAV, Drake replied, “We are now confident in saying [that FLAC files] are both audibly and technically lossless.”

Drake says that, unfortunately, most consumers still don’t know what “24-bit/96kHz” means. In fact, Drake says that “awareness of the capabilities of 24/96 is not widespread enough in the music industry, let alone amongst the listeners! Even worse, quality-concerned artists are also becoming rarer! If the artist doesn’t have a passion for pure sound, then their music is unlikely to be given the same level of attention in sonic production. You would be surprised how many studios are still recording in 16-bit around the world! The sad thing is, the artists (and the record companies!) do not know any better.”

My belief has always been that a properly tuned analog tape deck that can record on 2” tape at 30ips is about as good as any recording medium gets. Since Drake has access to so much top-drawer equipment and his own master tapes, I asked if he agreed. “When it comes to music, I myself prefer to listen intently with my ears, and not with numbers alone. Ultimately, if the music isn’t recorded well in the first instance, it will not matter at all how you choose to listen to it! Digital is getting better and better, and provides an accessible easy solution for the modern music consumer, and the sooner we can get people listening to better-than-MP3 quality . . . the better!”

Also like Linn, Naim makes a complete line of high-end audio equipment, so I wasn’t surprised to hear Drake’s idea of home music-reproduction nirvana: “If I had to recommend one way to listen to our digital music, it would be through a reference-spec two-channel Naim system with the new Naim NDX as digital source, with a NaimDAC, via a uPnP share of our 24/96 music on a networked computer or storage device, in a big comfy chair with a glass of fine wine.”

Sounds good to me.

Next month: Part Two.

. . . Wes Marshall
wesm@soundstagenetwork.com

Logitech Revue: One Tool to Rule Them All

December 2010

201012_revue1_300wrclogosm_noyearOne Tool to rule them all, One Tool to find them,
One Tool to bring them all and in the HT darkness bind them
In the Land of My Home Theater where the Shadows used to lie.

My apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien, but that’s what I thought when I first used the new Logitech Revue, the tool that finally makes sense of Google TV. Suddenly, we’ve taken a very big step forward in the everlasting war to integrate all the things people like to do at home. (Well, most of them.) At least I didn’t title this the Revue Review.

Google TV, in case you’re out of the loop, is software from the Google megalabs that is a frontal attack on Microsoft Windows 7 and anything else that’s intended to be a ubiquitous, all-encompassing computer operating system; i.e., one that will work with everything else in our lives that uses something like a computer (phones, tablets, appliances, cars, games, etc.). Whichever company wins that race to convergence will be quite powerful. Of course, governments generally don’t like to see so much power concentrated in a single area, unless it’s their own halls, but that’s another issue.

While Google has done a good job of jabbing away at Microsoft’s hegemony, when Google TV was announced, most pundits just scratched their heads and asked, "Why?" The Revue begins to make sense of the notion.

The Logitech Revue ($300 USD) is a two-piece system comprising an attractive gloss-black box and a lightweight but full-size keyboard that includes a mouse pad. Also integrated into it is Harmony remote-control technology. The Revue can control a TV, DVR, and home-theater preamplifier-processor or receiver.

The system is simplicity itself. All it requires is an HDMI cable in and another out, plus a wired or a wireless link to a broadband Internet connection. Setup takes just a few minutes and is brainlessly easy, unless you run into a problem with Internet connectivity (I didn’t), in which case you’d have to get some numbers from your network.

Logitech’s One Tool to rule them all ambitions had already driven them to buy Harmony. But they still needed some magic, and found it in agreements with Google TV and DISH Network (see later). The former provides a gateway to cloud computing, the latter two-way integration with all of DISH’s entertainment options, thus rescuing the Revue from the simple TV-plus-Web paradigm that has been widely rejected by consumers.

In fact, we don’t yet know what the Revue will ultimately be capable of because it’s an open-platform architecture. That means that app developers now have a new playground to gambol about in. It’s probably safe to say that none of us knows what the Revue’s best use will be even six months from now.

Despite Google’s generosity in developing and offering to us useful software for free, some pundits like to examine even the cheek teeth of gift horses. The New York Times’ David Pogue, a man usually as reliable as winter in December, missed the point of both Google TV and the Logitech Revue. He wrote, in the November 17th Times, that "The point of all this is to bring Web videos to your TV set." He went on to point out that "no matter how many times the industry tries to cram Web+TV down our throats, the masses just don’t swallow." Pogue even complained about the $300 price tag, dismissing the Revue as "steeply priced."

201012_revue2_300hI like Pogue’s writing very much, but we don’t see eye-to-eye on this. Here’s why I think the Logitech Revue is one of the great bargains in home theater.

A nice example: My dear wife got me an iPhone for Christmas. Of all the things it can do, its second most commonly used feature (after making and receiving phone calls) is one we never expected. I keep it beside us when we watch TV because of all the times we look at each other with a question that could be easily answered by using the iPhone to do a Google search. Where have we seen an actor before? What other movies has this director made? In what year did Astaire and Rogers part ways? How old was Miles Davis when he appeared in Scrooged? Anything.

I do the same in the morning when we read the paper. Gosh, honey, that’s interesting news about the Tuamotu Archipelago. Where is that again? Google Maps to the rescue. That damn Joe Scarborough must be lying. What was the repayment from GM? Let’s check CNBC. Such questions may seem trivial, but once you get used to having immediate answers, a lot more questions start to occur to you.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could find a simpler way of finding those answers? No matter how much I like the iPhone as a phone, its Internet capabilities will forever be stunted by the size of its screen and the slowness of using its keyboard. Couldn’t we have a handy keyboard that we could just type the question into and get an answer right there on the TV? Without stopping whatever’s on TV? Without having to turn off the TV or switch inputs on the receiver? Just type away and find the answer?

But wait -- what if my question about Miles generated an automatic search for any TV program with him in it that would be available during the next ten days? How about if you could then set the DVR to record the show with a single press of a button? Even better, what if the device also checked for Davis recordings on my DISH DVR and the honkin’ big hard drive attached to it? Wait! What if it checked my music collection for any and all recordings by Miles? What if it did all these things immediately, without my even having to formulate a question?

Interested yet?

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Have you ever seen the wealth of Miles Davis clips on YouTube? Wouldn’t it be nice if we also got an automatic search for his videos there? Or maybe the question about Astaire and Rogers turned up a showing of Top Hat on Turner Classic Movies. Can’t remember which channel TCM is on? Just type TCM and it gives you a link straight away.

We all know the promise of picture-in-picture (PIP). It’s great for Sundays, when we might want to follow two games on two different channels at the same time. But that’s two of the same medium. What if you want to watch some hoops, maybe Boston vs. Miami. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to check stats on your fantasy team at the same time you’re watching the game?

And one last thing: Can we find a tool that’s so simple to use that the most technologically challenged person in your household could operate it with impunity?

The combo of the new Logitech Revue with Google TV and a DISH DVR hits all these targets with ease, and many more.

My wife is a good example. She often loves the TVs I review, but always hates learning how to operate them. Once she memorizes a remote control, she doesn’t want to have to learn another. She took one look at the Revue, and I immediately recognized her expression: Oh, no, not another thing to learn. But three days later she was insisting that I buy the Revue. She even asked me to mention to all technophobic spouses out there that the little time it takes to learn how to operate the Revue is time well spent. Now I don’t have to look for the keyboard. I just have to find Emily -- it will be with her. What’s more, she wants me to get a second one so I won’t bother her by occasionally asking to borrow it.

Here’s an interesting concept. While writing this article, my computer massively crashed. My wife was using her computer, so that left me without. Brainstorm! I used the Logitech Revue and Google Docs and was writing again in no time. Do we even need computers? I think there might be a few workarounds that would make them obsolete.

Is the Revue perfect? The Times’ David Pogue stated that the Revue is potentially "interesting to technophiles, but it’s not for average people," and that it "takes an enormous step in the wrong direction: toward complexity."

I entirely disagree. The best technology is simple to operate and keeps its complexity out of the spotlight. That doesn’t mean the technology itself isn’t complex. It means that the complexity is there for anyone bold enough to want to plunge below the surface.

In the world of music, the best synthesizers come with thousands of presets. These sounds are often designed by top musicians who have a scientist’s knowledge of how they work and an artist’s ear for beauty. Most buyers never go beyond the presets because they’re stone-simple to use and perfectly usable. On the other hand, artists are often interested in inventing their own block-rockin’ beats, and the tools are there.

Some sports cars offer transmissions that can act like a manual or an automatic, such as Ferrari’s road killer, the 599 GTB Fiorano F1. With its 0-62mph acceleration of a mere 3.3 seconds, top speed of 202mph, and V-12 engine, is it too complicated? Well, my mother-in-law could go get a gallon of milk in one, though she probably wouldn’t be testing its limits. It has crazy-powerful and complex technology, but it’s very simple to use. The $300 Revue is not in the same technological class as a $750,000 Ferrari, but you get the point: external simplicity, internal sophistication.

201012_revue4_300wBeyond all this, Logitech is upping the ante with the TV Cam ($150), an HD device for having a video conversation with anyone else who has a webcam. I know, boring -- everyone can do that. But here’s the fun difference: Each caller can tune in to a TV show, then make the phone call, and they can watch the show together. Think of what Brett Favre could have set up! More important, the TV Cam allows separated loved ones to spend some time enjoying together whatever entertainment drives their fancy. And Logitech informs me that the cost per minute, even for a connection to a far-off land like New Zealand, is $Zero.

DISH adds to the stake its Sling Adapter ($99), which connects you to TV Everywhere. It hooks into the DISH DVR and makes anything stored or playing on the DVR available to you anywhere in the world. All you need is a 3G or WiFi signal.

The Revue can also handle other wireless devices, which frees up your USB ports. You can even use your iPhone or Android to control it. Nor should those of you worry who don’t have a DISH DVR (my choice among all the possibilities). The Revue works with most any cable or satellite box. (They have a list on their website; check your model.) What you lose by using a box other than DISH’s is a little time. DISH is so integrated that many tasks can be accomplished with a single keystroke; other boxes might make you go through two or three strokes to complete the same task.

Within moments of installing the Revue, Emily and I were sold. The first thing to grab me was its range. We live in a big, spread-out Texas house, and no matter where I went in it, the Revue’s keyboard maintained a strong connection to the base station. The commands are easy to learn, and whoever designed the GUI has a brilliant sense of adornment without overstatement. Everything is easy to find, and once you feel confident about what you want and don’t want, you can edit out unneeded buttons or categories.

Do we really need all this? It’s not as if plenty of entertainment options aren’t already available to us. But I don’t think the Revue should be looked at as a mere entertainment option. Instead, it’s a seamless way to integrate all of our entertainment options.

One night, rather than just cozy in with a movie, Emily and I decided to search out anything we could find about Beat Generation icon Neal Cassady, and especially the years he spent with author and Merry Prankster Ken Kesey. We read, watched, listened. A lot of what we found came from YouTube, but we also found photos, articles, book excerpts -- even a link to a very nice documentary, The Jazz Baroness. The story of Pannonica Rothschild (aka Nica), this was a serendipitous finding -- not the greatest film ever made, but one I’m so happy to have seen. I wouldn’t have found it without the Revue and Google TV.

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Then we went to on to some of our favorite jazz singers, folks who are unfortunately somewhat unknown to the general public -- which was what made finding all the clips of Mark Murphy, Blossom Dearie, and Jackie & Roy so much fun. I even found an obscurity from the 1980s that I loved then but hadn’t seen in years. In fact, the (apparently) fourth-generation low-speed VHS-sourced copy video of "What About Me" by the Moving Pictures looked just as bad now via YouTube over a top-quality JVC projector as the original version had looked back in 1981, watching MTV broadcast from the wretched OnTV over my decidedly low-def big-screen Sony 7220 projector. It was so nostalgic.

Speaking of Sony, they’re hedging their bets. Up till now, their PlayStation 3 has been my favorite media integrator. But now they’re offering a TV and a Blu-ray player with the Google TV technology. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Google TV fitted into the PS3 sooner rather than later.

In any case, we’re finally getting the opportunity to easily integrate all media. The Logitech Revue makes possible the ultimate couch potato scenario: Push the little magnifying-glass button, type in whatever grabs you, and away you go down the rabbit hole of breathtaking multimedia convergence.

For $300, and given the joy it delivers, the Revue is a steal -- and the perfect Christmas gift. If I seem a little breathless in my excitement, regular readers will know that I’ve been barnstorming for just such a device for ten years now -- a device that makes possible control, throughout the entire house, of every form of media we have. Finally, it’s here.

. . . Wes Marshall
wesm@soundstagenetwork.com

Model: Logitech Revue
Price: $300 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

Logitech Inc.
6505 Kaiser Drive
Fremont, CA 94555
Phone: (800) 231-7717
Fax: (510) 713-4780

Website: www.logitech.com

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