Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Does Meridian Even Have Competition Anymore?

I'm speaking specifically of vendors who are in the domain that is high-end digital audio and home theater. Seriously? Is there anyone left besides Meridian who has a comprehensive lineup, and who is committed to pushing digital audio as far as it will go?

As far as I know Meridian is the only company that is in the high-end Home Theater market place who isn't pandering exclusively to the custom installation market. Everyone else has gone *POOF!* or has become available exclusively to the home audio installers.

Even the Onkyo Integra line has disappeared from consumer audio stores and seems to be available only through installers, and I shudder to think of what getting their time to sell me a surround processor would be like. "Are you buying a new home or adding to a new one?" "Excuse me?" "How many rooms do you want touch sensitive remotes in?" "Huh?" "What home automation do you currently have?" "You mean like a garage door opener?" No, no thank you. I'd rather buy used just to save myself the experience.

OK, there ARE others selling home theater gear in the crossover domain, but they have limited products in this domain or they haven't released anything in years. So many wannabe's have come and gone. Halcro, Fostex, Sunfire, Carver. Where are they now? Lexicon is still around, but besides an Oppo based BluRay player have they released anything else? Do they even have an HDMI processor?

Like it or not it seems that most of the R&D money in high-end digital home theater has been sucked out of the market. What we need now is an open-source solution. We need innovation from enthusiasts who aren't willing to settle for what gets packaged up and sold to contractors and the masses as the best we can do. People who aren't threatened by patents or technology and who know that it's worth building something incredible together.

Before I go, there does seem to be one other company who has a shot, Cary Audio, but they aren't quite in the same place as Meridian. They are broader based, selling tubes and analog gear as well as A/V processors at a price range that is closer to what most non-bankers can afford. I will have to think about this. Maybe this is all perception in my head, but now that I get to the bottom of my own blog I'm not sure I agree with my thesis anymore. Suggestions?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Brands I miss and Brands I am Grateful For

Brands I miss:

* Tandberg - Not only a great FM Tuner, but amplifiers that really could control any speaker better than anything. And let's not forget their luscious reel to reel and cassette players.
* Nakamichi
* Threshold
* Kyocera as an audio brand.
* Snell while Peter Snell was alive.

Brands I am grateful are still with us:
* Conrad Johnson
* Audio Research
* JBL (love / hate relationship. How do you design an $11,000 speaker with $1000 worth of parts and still have to make it in Mexico to turn a profit? On the other hand, they sound soooo good....)
* Focal - Best performing, widest range of top value speakers in the business and terribly under appreciated in the US.
* Monitor Audio, though I liked them better as an undervalued bargain brand than as a high end manufacturer they are trying to become with the new Platinum line.
* dCS - Can't afford any of them, but I still wonder if anyone has bested their Ring DAC for sheer ingenuity of DAC technology.
* Meridian - For pushing the Digital envelope, sounding great and being such a bargain on Audiogon
* Analysis Plus
* Kimber Cable
* Cardas

The Audio Undead

I remember a long time ago on TV, perhaps the Twilight Zone, there was an episode where in a country home Grandpa had died but he was too stubborn to accept it so he kept showing up for meals, each time looking more and more disgusting. Only after he is surprised with a bag of black pepper and he sneezes his nose off does he finally accept the truth and die.

I've been thinking a lot about the fact that many of us have cherished brands from our past who passed away without any sort of ceremony or sometimes even notice. These days it seems that instead of the brand actually laying down and dying gracefully the web allows them go hang on long after they should have been acknowledged to be beyond hope. Which brings me to a few brands I've been looking at lately whom I wonder if they aren't doing just that.

As you may know, I am a huge fan of Theta Digital, though I believe that they have passed beyond this world and into the world of the past. Because of that I've been doing some online snooping of them. One thing I found that is new to me is that Morris Kessler, the person at the head of Amplifier Technologies, Inc. (ATI not to be confused with the graphics card manufacturer) also had started SAE a long time ago and that has ties to a company which we know know is dead but I really liked, Sumo.

Anyway, onto the undead. I took a look at the web presence of ATI and Theta Digital whom ATI acquired in November, 2007. If I look only at the web side of things it looks like ATI is done for. No new products in years, and all Theta has to show recently is a modified Oppo player becoming the flagship disk player. In the past I have rung the death bell for Theta Alone but now I must wonder if we should have been ringing it for ATI as well. Time will tell.

Along the same themes of death and resurrection is Miller and Kreisel, or MK Sound. As many may remember, they went belly up quite suddenly a while ago, but the original web address www.mksound.com now takes you to Ken Kreisel Professional Sound. Ken may have the web address, but not the brand, as MK Sound is now apparently under the management of the Dolphin group, with both Ken and Dolphin trying to claim the legacy of the professional movie monitoring business MK Sound had established. Good luck to both of them.

Also receiving honorable mention for not quite giving up is the reborn Threshold brand. I really had high hopes for them.

I shouldn't be so melancholy I suppose, it's just that I save my money for years and when I finally can afford what I want, they go under.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Gaim / Pidgin Sucks

Pidgin is a free multi-chat client. It used to be called GAIM. It is similar in intent to Trillian.

So, the quick review. My main reason for investigating it was that Trillian does not offer encrypted messaging outside of AOL, and that messaging is subject to relatively simple attacks.

So, on to Pidgin. After 30 minutes of screwing around with it, neither AOL nor Yahoo were connecting. Only MSN worked.

I'm very very happy to get rid of it.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Lexicon vs. Oppo Blu Ray Player

Stereophile ran a fairly decent article on the Oppo player and it's reincarnation under the Lexicon brand name. I nearly chocked. Not because the article was descent, they do that now and then, but because I had no idea Lexicon still existed! Hah!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Apple iPad - Two Comments

Two things you should know about the Apple iPad:

1. It has no USB adapter.

2. It doesn't support Adobe Flash, but I doubt Steve Job's explanation that it's too slow. The real reason they won't support flash is that the moment they do they open up the iPad to being a remote computing platform. Imagine what you could do if you could run programs on your Mac or Windows PC, but control it from your iPad, or what if you could purchase a service, allowing you to run any program from a cloud based application. This would break Apple's main goal in selling the iPad: To get money from every single application. That's where their real cashflow is coming from, not the hardware itself.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Next up, the Slingbox Pro-HD

I just purchased a Slingbox Pro-HD from a local Best Buy. In case you dont' know, this cute little device let's you turn either a video source or your CATV/Hi Def TV Antenna into a network resource.

Once plugged in and configured correctly it let's you watch your video sources (think Cable or Satellite box) from anywhere in the house or even around the world in HD assuming you have the bandwidth for it.

Unlike a lot of network appliances out which had completely inadequate cooling, the Slingbox has pretty good cooling thanks to the perforated panels on the front and back, along with vents under the feet which have enough spacing to actually allow air to get around the circuit board and up into the appliance. I thought I wouldn't have any issues with it, but after using it for a couple of days I noticed two things. First, that occasionally I'd have to power cycle the Slingbox to get it to work, and secondly that the underside of the box gets wickedly hot. Not only does this bode ill for the chips inside, it also means it's giving my DirecTV receiver excess heat. Time for a little investigation!

First, had to figure out how to disassemble the box. There are four screws which hold the entire thing in place, cleverly hidden underneath the rubber foot pads. Easy to do. You also have to take off the cosmetic metalic perforated grill on the back. It's no big loss to toss it. No one's ever going to see it and it just gets in the way of air flow. If you are careful though, i'm sure you can put it back on.

Four screws hold on the metalic shroud which seems to be to contain the EMI/RFI coming out of the box. Once you've taken that apart, you'll see something like this:

Overall a nice layout, but not a single heat sink in site. The good news is that Slingbox seems to have taken the high road, specifying higher temperature grade parts than they could have gotten away with, especially that TI chip in the middle.

That is a combination RISC/ARM chip and DSP designed specifically for video processing. At idle it reaches about 100F, but when transmitting video to your PC it runs at about 150F, or close to 85C, the upper limit of the standard issue chip. The temperature underneath that chip seems to be about 10-15 colder. So you can see why cooling this chip would be good for the Slingbox and anything beneath it. You may also notice big copper areas underneath the MOSFET devices. These are used to cool off the MOSFETS by transfering as much of the heat to the circuit board itself.

Something else I noticed. This box is never off. All the major IC's stay hot even when it's not doing anything. The coolest the TI chip ever got was around 100 degrees. As a result, I've decided to start off by adding some passive cooling. Using a combination of new Zalman RAM heatsinks and an old 80386 heat sink I took a first pass at cooling this beastie down. Below are the results.

That round black heatsink is probably complete overkill, but I will say that it's temperature now is about 30 degrees cooler than it was, and that the underside is cooler as well. You may also want to substitute the Swiftech VGA RAM coolers instead of the Zalman. They're copper, and about twice as tall which may give you a little better performance.

I'm not sure either solution alone satisfies me yet, and I have found an extra power supply. The generous people over at Slingbox have included a USB port on the back of the slingbox, for which I have no use for, except to attach a small 5V fan to! Muahahahahah. So, the next part of this project is to take a fan that originally went to a hard disk cooler, and attach it to the underside of the top panel, and power it through the USB port. If I can do that I know I can bring the CPU temp down from 120 to about 100 or less.