Soundbar: What a word. I like it. It implies that audio-for-video can be simplified into an unprepossessing horizontal object. The Boston Acoustics TVee Model Two assumes that you'd rather have one speaker (and sub) than five (and sub). It also assumes you have a certain impatience with cables, and therefore sweetens the deal with a wireless link between soundbar and sub--though it still requires two power cords and two analog channels worth of cable between the soundbar and your signal sources. And it assumes you'll accept not 5.1 but 2.1 honest channels in its 1.1 sleek objects. No virtual-surround pretensions here.
I keep up with new surround-receiver features the way a CIA analyst monitors intel from dangerous nations. A lot of these things are just distractions from the fundamentals: dynamics, noise, etc. But I'm in love with the latest wrinkle in connectivity, the front-panel USB jack. At first I thought, yawn, a way to plug in your Windows PlaysForSure music player, as if you had such a thing. But you can also plug in a plain old USB drive. Think of this: You bump your 10 newest favorite songs to a flash drive, plug that sucker into the front panel, and use the remote to get the show rolling. If you have a whole drawer full of those things, each one can become a playlist. Better yet, why not get some use out of the external hard drive you use to protect your download collection from a deadly crash? Or better still, why not buy another external hard drive just for use with the receiver? I just paid $120 for a 500GB Iomega external drive to back up my backups (I'm careful that way). That's much less than the cost of a fancy hard-drive-based audio server. It's also just about what you'd pay for an add-on iPod dock. Kudos to Pioneer, which introduced me to the feature with the VSX-94TXH ($1600), and Integra, maker of the DTR-8.8 ($2400) I'm reviewing at the moment. Let's hope USB trickles down to less costly models.
What would happen if David Letterman came onstage to do his opening monologue but nothing came out of his mouth? What if the stars of the silver screen had to improvise all their dialogue--would someone like Tom Cruise even have a career? Now you may have an inkling of what TV and screenwriters contribute to popular entertainment. And that's why the strike of the Writers Guild of America matters. They're looking for a bigger cut of burgeoning DVD revenues and growing Internet revenues. Peopling the picket lines in New York this week were Seth Myers, the Weekend Update coanchor and head writer of Saturday Night Live, and his predecessor Tina Fey, now of 30 Rock. The most recent SNL telecast included a hilarious skit with Fred Armisen posing as an overpaid studio executive. Jay Leno has contributed a sound bite supporting his writers and Letterman describes the producers as "cowards, cutthroats, and weasels." But Jon Stewart of The Daily Show is really putting his money where his mouth is. He is personally paying the salaries of his writers for the duration of the strike. These folks know on which side their bread is buttered.
Recent ruminations over the contents of my rack have given short shrift to a major player. A disc player, in fact--the Integra DPS-10.5. It has long served as the main signal source in my reference system. Occasionally I make a note to that effect in reviews but I've never really done justice to the Integra. Let's remedy that now.
A problem was looming in the kitchen--aside from my rudimentary cooking skills and haphazard sanitary habits, that is. I found myself avoiding my kitchen system. The kitchen rig seemed like a good idea at the time. By combining a mass-market mini-system with a sat/sub set, and wall-mounting the satellites, I'd squeeze music into a tight L-shaped place where only radio had gone before. Anyway, I soon tired of the system's rudimentary and haphazard performance and it devolved into a glorified radio. After a decade I threw in the dish towel and replaced the radio function with, well, a radio. Then I set about brainstorming a new music system for the kitchen.
I'm nothing if not loyal to my reference gear. Google "fleischmann rotel rsx-1065" or "fleischmann paradigm studio 20" and you'll see what I mean--the latter alone brings up more than 900 links on this site and elsewhere. I continue to use, and implicitly recommend, these products because they sound great, combine the best traits of both real-world and high-end audio, and give my ears a stable and reliable benchmark against which to judge other things. When I tell speaker makers I use the Rotel, they breathe a sigh of relief. So do receiver makers, when I tell them I'm using the Paradigms. The reference pieces also like one another. Hearing them together recalibrates my ears between reviews. I wish I could listen to them more often.
Once a year I quietly go berserk updating my book Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems. Adding new content and revising old content forces me to review what I know about the subject, often prodding me into becoming better informed. And of course it gives me a chance to capture more of your hard-earned nickels and dimes. The 2008 Edition is number seven. It comes in a handsome cream cover and is now available from Amazon in both the U.S. and the U.K. As I often tell people, don't read it all at once or it'll make you violently ill. But this strapping little volume does make an excellent answer book for all the questions a non-engineer might have about how HDTV and surround sound really work. Knock yourself out!
Finally peace settles over the rack. I know what my Pioneer BDP-HD1 and Toshiba HD-A2 can and cannot do. Am I satisfied? It's great to know I'll have access to Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus, even converted to high-bit PCM, but irksome to realize that firsthand experience with both forms of DTS-HD at full res will lie in the future. And what about the future? At the recent CEDIA I saw players that move forward into new territory, offering bitstream outputs of the new surround codecs for decoding in a receiver. Pioneer introduced the second-gen BDP-95FD ($1000). Of Toshiba's three new third-gen players, only the HD-A35 ($399) outputs the bitstream, and I'm shocked, shocked! that the other two don't. The HD-A35 is also the only Toshiba with a full set of analog-outs. At CEDIA there were many compatible receivers from Denon, Integra, Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer, Yamaha, et al. Got one in the rack already, with another waiting in the wings, but how tantalizing it is to realize that the full surround capability that would transform my work as a reviewer is still two player swaps away--waiting for the next generation of rack attacks. In the meantime, I've never seen a better picture.
Is less of a good thing better? You're about to find out as Audioengine returns to these webpages with a smaller version of the previously reviewed Audioengine 5 powered speaker system. The new Audioengine 2 scales down the formidably chunky form factor of its larger sibling into something that won't dwarf your video monitor or earn dirty looks from boss or spouse.
The last blog detailed the Pioneer BDP-HD1 Blu-ray player's surround properties. What about the Toshiba HD-A2? Dolby's Craig Eggers kindly explained that the player does feature both lossless Dolby TrueHD and lossy Dolby Digital Plus decoding and playback. They are exported through the HDMI jacks as PCM, not as a bitstream, so decoding cannot be done in a surround receiver even if it does have a decoder. But the PCM should still sound good. If you were thinking of using analog jacks to feed surround to an HDMI-less legacy receiver, you're out of luck. The HD-A2 does not have a full set of surround analog outs (just a stereo pair) so it can't export the signal that way. But the translated-to-PCM signal is re-encoded as DTS and sent through the optical output, which also of course handles regular Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. On the DTS side, the news is not as good. The Toshiba site cites "Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD and DTS support for up to 5.1 channels (DTS HD support for DTS core only)." So full 7.1-channel goodness is not available for Dolby's two new babies. And DTS's two new babies are reduced to the resolution of old-style DTS.
In the three previous Rack Attacks I discussed getting, connecting, and updating Pioneer Blu-ray and Toshiba HD DVD players. Now what surround goodness can I get now that I've updated them? Let's start with the Pioneer. Just when I was girding myself to write a longwinded piece, half the information dropped into my lap in handy chart form. (For larger text size, see PDF or JPG.) One surprise, as the Pioneer product specialist explained: "The player
internally decodes DolbyTrueHD into PCM for transmission over HDMI. The
BDP-HD1 does not have HDMI 1.3 so it cannot send the bitstream over HDMI to
be decoded in the receiver." The same is true of Dolby Digital Plus. However, footnote 17 has some good news: Depending on the number of channels, the PCM sampling rate can be 48kHz, 96kHz, or 192kHz, presumably without compression. So even converted to PCM, the new codecs may produce audible improvements over the old ones. Alas, the situation is not so sunny for surround buffs eager to experience DTS-HD Master Audio and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio. Go down the left column five rows to DTS-HD. Footnote 15 has this bad news: "DTS sound is output." I discussed this with the DTS people and they agree with my suspicion that this means the thing being converted to PCM is not DTS-HD MA or DTS-HD HRA but the lower-resolution DTS core signal. Sigh. Now, what's the story with the Toshiba? Find out next week.
No sooner had the Toshiba HD-A2 HD DVD and Pioneer BDP-HD1 Blu-ray players hit my rack than I decided to update them. No point in struggling with buggy firmware when shiny new firmware is available, right? The Toshiba website says Firmware Update Version 2.2 "improves network connectivity for supporting the download of web-enabled network content associated with certain HD DVD discs, and also addresses certain disc playback and HDMI/DVI related issues identified by Toshiba." As a matter of fact, it said the same thing about version 2.1 (I ended up running both). It applies not only to my HD-A2 but also to the HD-XA2, HD-A20, HD-A2W, and HD-D2. Stringing my trusty super-long network cable from the router on my desk to the rack, I plugged it into the Toshiba and navigated to the maintenance menu (top picture). At the manual's request, I turned on DHCP and DNS, and told the machine I was using a cable modem, all of which was quite easy. I clicked through a few screens of end-user license agreement. Then I started the update and went away to make dinner. When I came back, the Toshiba was good to go. Then there was the Pioneer Blu-ray player. Firmware Version 3.40.1 brings Dolby TrueHD compatibility and of course that is a must-have. Though the player has an Ethernet jack, there's no way to simply plug in and run the update. Instead I downloaded a zip file from the Pioneer website to my IBM desktop PC, unzipped it, copied an ISO image file to DVD-R, and fed the disc to the player. The update showed up in one of the video menus (bottom picture). So what audio goodness would I get out of my two freshly updated players? Tune in next week.
Last weekend I took a Sunday afternoon stroll in Greenwich Village. I was wearing an "Upper West Side 10025" T-shirt to show the Lower Manhattanites who's boss. Following an excellent lunch of cold egg noodles at Mingala, as I strolled down Lafayette Street, I put on the Audio-Technica QuietPoint noise-canceling headphones. Traffic wasn't especially heavy, but you're never really free of internal-combustion noise in Manhattan, and as I hit the switch on the left can, I noticed the low-level hum just disappear, to be replaced by the NC circuit's acceptable low-level hiss. I started grooving on Oleg Kagan's and Sviatoslav Richter's expert performance of Beethoven's "Sonata No. 5 for Violin and Piano."
Last week I greeted the somewhat tardy arrival of Blu-ray and HD DVD to my rack. Happy happy joy joy, as Ren & Stimpy would say, but what to do about my reference receiver? My beloved Rotel RSX-1065 (and its seven-channel equivalent, the 1067) has no HDMI inputs. And regrettably, Rotel tells me it has no immediate plans to update its receiver line for HDMI. That means there's no way to get the new surround codecs into the receiver by a digital path at full resolution. As the magazine's audio editor, I am more than eager to hear lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. I'd also like to plumb the potential of the new & improved lossy formats, Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio. The only way to get them into the Rotel at full resolution was via the receiver's 5.1-channel analog inputs, relying on the player's built-in surround decoder. That took care of the Pioneer BDP-HD1 Blu-ray player, and I threw in a digital coaxial connection to continue feeding the receiver's old-style Dolby Digital and DTS decoders. But even if I'd been willing to swap six analog cables from player to player, the Toshiba HD-A2 HD DVD player has no 5.1 analog-outs! I had to settle for the digital optical interface, which handles the new codecs at reduced resolution as a backward-compatibility move. This introduced me to a quirk of Toshiba's HD DVD players, which is that they convert Dolby Digital Plus into PCM and then transcode it into DTS. Thus the optical connection lights up the DTS indicator on my receiver even when I'm not playing a DTS soundtrack. Having at least temporarily licked my connectivity problems, I set about upgrading the firmware in both players. Details next time.