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! :)