Monday, October 26, 2009

The Future of High End Home Theater

There are two directions I see coming, one you probably know about, the other you do not.

The first is PC based sources. The idea of having an audio appliance will come and go, with perhaps some hold outs, but most vendors going to a pure PC based solution. Sorry Apple, you'll probably be left out because of your insistence of all hardware coming from you. Vendors will be looking for PC's because they already read all the software. DVD/Blue-Ray/Internet Radio, and anything else that happens there will be cheap readers for on the PC. Now, some will take the PC accessory route, like USB DAC's, but more sophisticated, either by offering PC cards or perhaps by using custom outboard processors like E-MU uses.

The second, not so obvious trend will be hyper modularization. Companies with the know how and money to spend will realize that the only way to keep delivering the best solutions, and the most flexible solutions will be tiny modules that can be plugged into a virtual network, all of which can be PC configured and driven.

Imagine if you will a rack mountable chassis that accepts 1 to 12 cards, each of which can be a processing card or an output card. That these cards can handle audio or video. That you control how things are routed via a PC based configuration program that allows you drag and drop these cards into your own custom audio / video processing chain. Further, because the system is so modular, and the PC is just a commodity item you end up paying no more than say a couple of hundred dollars more than a mid-range Onkyo or Pioneer processor.

Also imagine that multiple chassis are linked via a simple network cable, and that output cards are all optically isolated from the network, and master clocks and FIFO buffers are all near the target outputs.

After this there may be another open vs. closed platforms battle. Some companies will have entirely closed systems, and others will publish their spec's out to the world to design accessories for. Wouldn't it be great if you could say, get your DAC's from Benchmark, but then buy whatever room EQ you chose? Or have just one media storage appliance in your entire house, and then pick and choose which rooms get what type of playback? Does your half bathroom really need 9.1 channels of 24/192 dCS ring DAC's to play the morning news while you browse yet another lame ass review for magic stones to put on top of your amplifiers? Those companies who have the most confidence in their products will take the open source approach. Those who feel they have a lot to loose if people can pick and choose will go closed. They'll come up with bogus stories about tight integration and better user experience, blah blah blah.

What made me think of this? Perhaps it comes from my obsessively watching for news from Theta, and their unwillingness to start a new platform paradigm instead of trying to upgrade the Casablanca. While they seem to be making noises about releasing an HDMI card in our lifetimes, what I see absent that everyone is going to ask about next is the room correction software. Mind you, I'm an absorber/diffuser sort of guy but the latest generation of acoustics processing software looks really sweet to me. What good is it, people will ask, for an aging platform to add all the latest HDMI audio formats if they can't also integrate it with the latest generation digital processors? When the Casablanca can't help you get room eq, internet radio, or download the latest 24/96 track is it really anything more than a rack of DAC's already?

I don't know what Theta, Meridian, dCS or Halcro will do next, but I do think that when the economy perks back up the high end will once again reconsider the home theater market and be looking for some completely new completely outrageous product platforms, and I believe that those who don't go into making the PC a complete home theater platform will look towards networking and hyper modularity as the next logical places to be. I also wonder how long it will take for smart stereophiles who also happen to be industrial and electrical engineers to start their own open source home theater platforms. Also, my guess is that some smart video only companies are probably already thinking this way and we may see entries from them competing for the real high end space sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

If only I could upgrade the Stereophile cover

I'm constantly amused by Stephen Mejias' blog over at Stereophile. In particular the self congratulatory postings they have been making about their covers lately, especially since they are so damn boring they literally put me to sleep. When I get a copy I have to quickly turn the cover so I don't collapse in a narcoleptic fit before I get to any of the articles.

Seriously Stephen, you put out a magazine cover that is exactly like every other cover Sterepohile has published in the last thee years and you want to crow over you choice of border color? Wow, that's just delusional. Do you think that covering up a couple of letters on the end of "Stereophile" makes you edgy? Or was it your daring choice of plum for the border? Give us a break, please! What I think you guys do over there is have a pair of dice. One has colors on it, from which you'll pick the border color, the other which side of the speaker you'll take the cover photo from. You wake up, roll them and that's what you go with, then get all giggly like a school girl if you do something clever, but please don't' tell me that took you more than an hour. Yes, I am including the time it takes to unpack the speaker and take the picture in your single back drop. Come on, splurge a little, rent a cat or a backdrop or something. How about a pug? No, how about a plant on top of those Wilson's from last week? A nice fern growing out of the top of them would be nice. You really want to shock me? Put a mezzo soprano on the cover.

What is it with you sick fascination with sterile hardware and page after page of technical data on the performance of a new DAC? Puhleese. Talk about repetitive. I am glad you are doing it, really, but page after page? What a total waste of valuable space.

Theta HDMI A Year Later

In September of 2008 Theta Digital announced HDMI support for the Casablanca III. I just wanted to say it's a full year later and I haven't yet seen any evidence any HDMI product has ever shipped to a customer from Theta Digital, and December is not looking any better.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Meridian - That's What I'm Talking About

So about one month after I suggested that Theta Digital was amongst the living dead, and suggested that they should have built an out-board adapter instead of completely re-working the Casablanca cashcow from the ground up, Meridian introduces a product along exactly the lines I was suggesting, for about $3,000 meridian owners of several different processors can purchase the HD621 and upgrade to full HDMI.

They could probably sell 3x as many if they could make it work with Casablanca's instead! Hah!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

NHT changes it's name to NDY!

For Not Dead Yet! Hahah.

Speaker Manufacturer Now Hear This has announced they are back in business, and plan to re-launch themselves as an Internet only company.

If you like a lot of presence, efficiency and volume, NHT are your speakers.

Sadly, I've never heard a pair of NHT's I liked, or felt were natural on anything other than brassy big band jazz or rock and roll.

Good luck to them just the same!


Saturday, May 30, 2009

The New York Citty Ballet's "Romeo + Juliet"

I was only able to watch Peter Martin's "Romeo + Juliet" on television. Most of it in HD via WGBH, the rest through a lower res version sent out via DirecTV. Both versions suffered from a maddening tick on the right channel.

I could kvetch a full pages worth, but here it is in a few sentences. The best dancing happens well before the interlude. The lead's are entirely believable, but I'm afraid there's just not enough pretty dancing, and most of the group dancing scenes were choreographed "loosely." What I mean is that most group dance numbers were very individualized. It would have been nice to see this fine troupe doing at least a couple of really tightly synchronized pieces.

If you love ballet for ballet's sake, this R&J will leave you feeling like you just had Chinese food. Full, yet hungry. On the other hand, if you are looking for an experience that will sate your hunger for drama and moves at a good clip, this may be just the ticket!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Theta: We're not dead yet!

Finally we see 1 piece of evidence from Theta that they're not dead yet and are actually doing something customer facing. The Theta Digital website has been completely redone, though there's precious little new useful content in it.

Even if they manage to revive the brand, I think any current Theta owner is going to be better served by selling their current units and getting other processors if BluRay is your thing. Whatever business Theta gets in their next product cycle will probably be built on entirely new customer base. I hope their ready to start from scratch.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Why BD-Live Sucks

BD Live sucks for several reasons. First, it's almost impossible for developers to stop upgrading "features" they want to offer, that means that while your BD player may work today it may not tomorrow. Second, it delays release of movies previously released on DVD. Third, honestly, I want as LITTLE computing in my appliances as possible. I don't want my fridge to run Windows CE, I don't want Windows in my car, or Linux in my DVD player or toaster oven.

Why? Because I want them to just work. I stick a movie in, and it should play. The only features I really care about are the resolution of the sound and video, compatability with my surround hardware and the usual forward/backward/scene selection controls. I don't want it to go online and check for updates, I don't want to conference with the same jack-asses that are busy twittering CNN what they think of octuplets, and I don't want to come home one day to find that an upgrade that happened while I was at work suddenly is preventing some disks from working. Also, I was really disapointed in reviews of early players which seem to indicate that they just didn't have the horsepower to play movies correctly, or that some movies didn't have the bandwidth necessary to create a seamless experience. For heaven's sake, stop wasting useless time on features I can't possibly care about and focus on as broad a range of movies being BD ready as possible. It's been 8 years since the release of the Fellowship of the Ring and it's still only on DVD, but in the mean time every crap action movie that's come out has gone straight to BD. Ugh!

E-MU 1616m PCI with Hi Resolution Music Follow Up

I've been playing around with Hi Rez digital files lately, and have had a chance to revisit the pros and cons of the E-MU 1616m which is my desktop PC's audio interface.

If you read Stereophile you might have noticed the very positive reviews they just gave the Bryston BCD-1 CD player. It turns out that the E-MU 1616m and the Bryston share DAC's, both use the CS4398. So, this bodes well for fans of the E-MU seeing it as a cheap, high-end DAC for your PC.

Of course, there are significant differences. As far as I can tell, the E-MU does no oversampling and uses rather conventional JRC op-amps while the Bryston oversamples uses a discrete output section.

As I may have mentioned before, the 1616m is definitely NOT designed to be a consumer friendly sound card. You need to know what you are doing, and how to route the signals in to the right jacks. If you are really familiar with mixers, and audio production, this is all a no-brainer. If your a musicphile living on the cheap, it's a bit frustrating. Another negative is that you may be forced to constantly re-start your PatchMix session (the virtual mixer that comes with the 1616m) when you change source program OR even between songs. Let me explain.

The 1616m and it's driver software will not do any sample rate conversion except for 44.1 kHz <--> 48.0 kHz. All sounds have to match the PatchMix sample rate. Under Windows XP, this means that the basic computer sounds won't play at all except in 44.1kHz/48 kHz modes. It also means that to play music that mixes tracks with different sample rates you'll have to either get a player which does smaple rate conversion OR restart PatchMix in between songs. This also seems to mean that some DVD players may not work unless you go back down to 44.1 kHz/48 kHz.

There is a crazy, crazy work around to all of this however. If you have a built in sound card, you can use it for your Windows and DVD sounds. Use a mini-jack to pull the singnal out of your soundcard and back into the E-MU pod as a new source. Yes, it's hokey, but hey, that's all low rez stuff anyway.

On the plus side though, one thing you can do better on the E-MU than you can with any other PC or even home audio choice is set up compressors for late night viewing. The current fad of recording voices as soft as possible and EVERY Foley effect as loud as possible makes this especially useful. I can watch Harry Potter late at night while my partner is sleeping in the next room, saving the house shaking for more reasonable hours.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

R.I.P. Theta Digital

July 5, 2009 Update: Since this post is up so high on Google searches for "Theta Digital" I want to send you to the latest notes here: Theta: We're Not Dead Yet! complete with a comment from Theta, and my own reply.

Theta Digital, one of the early innovators in digital music and cinema reproduction for the home is hereby presumed dead. The death seems to have occured sometime between an announcement in November, 2007 that it had been acquired by Amplifier Technologies Inc. and now. Since that time Theta's website ceased all updates and no new products have shipped.

That's not really the first nail in the coffin. Loyal Theta owners have been complaining for years that Theta failed to do two things. One was provide an upgrade path to the Casanova for the Dolby Digital EX/dts ES 7.1 formats (which I personally believe were a HUGE waste of money, and could have been easily fixed with outboard adapters) but another more serious problem was the lack of HDMI support of any kind. As you probably remember HDMI ready TV sets started appearing in 2003. Six years later in 2009 all Theta can muster is non-demonstrated HDMI backplate for the Theta Casablanca as seen in this Stereophile blog. What this means is that customers who have bought the most expensive cinema processor available in part because of promised upgrade paths can't even get the latest BluRay audio formats (DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD) to play in their native modes. However, I've read somewhere that the next Casanova Upgrade is going to be around $3,000 to $5,000. Excuse me? For about the price you can go and buy a new Cary Audio 11a and 11v combo, then throw them away in 3 years when the next standards are available.

Look, I don't know for sure if Theta has turned the lights out or not, but at this point I will say that ATI has failed to capitalize on it's investment in Theta, and missed shipping products in time to stay alive and keep their loyal base happy. For all intents and purposes, the value of the asset (Theta Digital) has probably gone down to near zero. All the Theta owners have have better options from other vendors. I'm just surprised ATI hasn't figured this out yet.

Now, here's my armchair quarter-backing. What Theta should have done was done what Cary did. Put together an outboard video processor which pulled the audio out of the HDMI signal, and into existing Casablanca's. I'm sure that what is killing them is the major redesign of the guts of the Casanova they are attempting today. My guess is that they ran into one of the classic engineering mistakes. They forgot how much time had actually gone into getting the first Casablanca done right, and they underestimated how much work the new layout was going to take. Now they're 80% done with a difficult design and they can't back out, and they can't go forward, so they wait until some one points at the elephant in the room and decides to either reinvent the brand, or turns out the lights. At the same time, Cary is in a much better situation. They have completely overshadowed what even the promised Casablanca could do for significantly less. The one missing feature is the ability to pick your own DAC's, and if Cary really gets into it, they could do that too with digital outputs and a six shooter like external volume control.

Again, ALL this is speculation. However, it fits known patterns of death marches. Some one prove me wrong! :)

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Parts ConneXion and Counterfeits

According to an article in Stereophile I read today, The Lotus Group is accusing Parts ConneXion of selling counterfeit parts, and negotiating in bad faith. Let me add my two cents. I've been using Parts Connexion for years and have found them utterly reliable and helpful, and never had a problem with a suspected counterfeit part. However,

One of the things that seems to have led Joseph to accuse Chris of negotiating in bad faith was the early advertising of the Oyaide power connectors. Unfortunately, this is a problem they've had for YEARS. Parts ConneXion regularly pre-announces products that never materialize. If you don't believe me just click on the link to the pcXaudio line. They've been announcing they were developing new products along the Assemblage/Sonic Frontiers since I've been doing business with them. I've also seen announcements for Elna silk capacitors come and go, with no actual product ever appearing. I think that if Chris Johnson was actually a counterfeiter, he'd have bought some caps from Korea and labelled them as Elna's. Easy enough to do. However, he isn't. What he is is overly optimistic about just how wide the gap between what he wants to do and what he can do.

So, to Joseph Cohen, your right, Chris does bite off more than he can chew, but that is all he is probably guilty of. I don't believe that Chris would either knowingly acquire counterfeits, or resell them, and I also don't believe that he is the kind of person who would negotiate in bad faith with you or anyone else. As a rep of audio products myself (long ago) I can totally see myself doing just what he did, meaning no harm to anyone.

To Chris Johnson, get those products out the door man! The iPod/PC audio revolution would love to have your products.