Buying a fancy CD rack may seem counterintuitive in the iPod era. After, even a drop-dead-gorgeous piece of industrial design like the Boltz CD600X2 still takes up space. Isn't it more elegant to rip everything and dump your discs?
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!
If you hate the vulture's nest of ridiculously expensive cables lurking behind your rack, relief is spelled with four letters: HDMI. Someday signal sources will connect with just one HDMI cable. However, depending on what audio formats you want your system to support, you may have to seek out specific versions of HDMI. Having just nailed this for the next edition of my book (not out yet, to appear on Amazon sometime in the next 30 days) I might as well give you this little cheat sheet:
Time for an annual act of self-promotion. Every year, usually around October 1, my book Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems goes into a new edition. This year's edition is the eighth, cover date 2009, ISBN 9781932732108, and is easily distinguished by its pale blue cover, which replaces last year's off-white. Annually refreshing the book gives me a chance to review and expand what I know about home theater technology as well as bring readers up to date. This year's big news is the DTV transition, scheduled for February 2009, which is mentioned throughout the book. The most poignant aspect of the update was pruning out a lot of material about HD DVD, leaving only one fat graf of historical summary. HDMI got some attention as I flagged the latest versions and added more material about the distinction between Category 1 and Category 2 HDMI cables. Before long, I'll be taking the page layout I've recently labored over and stripping it down to a pictureless Word file, typing new material into the book over the next year for the following edition. Practical Home Theater is the only book on the subject to get this kind of ongoing attention. If you buy it, I hope it serves you well. Annual act of self-promotion completed.
Bose product demos always come with a dash of entertainment. At last week's New York press demo for the QuietComfort 3 headphones, hapless reporters entered the room to find a mannequin wearing a pair of large Bose headphones, only to see the earpieces whipped off to reveal the newer, smaller model. The QuietComfort 3 is the third generation of Bose noise-canceling headphones. They cover the ear without enclosing it. They're the first noise-canceling headphones to use a rechargable battery, a 20-hour lithium ion type, and the charger is a cute earcup-shaped object with flip-down prongs that plug into the wall without a cable. A $39 accessory cable allows users to switch between cell phone and music. Check bose.com to see if your phone is compatible. The demo in New York actually used a Nokia cell phone with MP3 files at 192kbps. The headphones were accurate enough to reveal smeary compression artifacts—no surprise to me, since I already use the original QuietComfort 1, as well as the non-NC TriPort, and thought highly enough of the former to have the earpads renovated when they wore out. If you want full-sized cans, the QuietComfort 2 remains in the line for $299, but the new QuietComfort 3 sells for $349 and is available from the Bose site as of today.
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.
The battle over the broadcast flag resumes, with the reintroduction of S.256 (the Perform Act) by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Joseph Biden (D-DE), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Last year it died in committee. Apparently, however, this is going to be an annual occurrence until the entertainment industry and its proxies in Congress get their way. The ostensible aim is to prevent cherrypick recording of satellite, cable, or Internet broadcasts. You could still record by time slot or station, but the bill is widely viewed as a Trojan horse for digital rights management and more draconian future restrictions. As before, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Consumer Electronics Association are leading the loyal opposition. Also up in arms is Sen. John Sununu (R-NH) who has introduced legislation of his own to prevent the Federal Communications Commission from hoisting the flag without even a figleaf of legislation.
The legislative silly season is barely underway but this year promises a bumper crop of whoppers. Arguably the biggest mistake about to be written into law is a national franchise agreement for telcos muscling their way into the video-delivery biz. Cable companies have to win municipal franchises that bring in money for local governments and give consumers at least an indirect stick with which to beat slovenly cable operators. They are also required to serve all paying households in their service areas. Now the telcos can compete with cable companies while remaining blissfully free of the local regulation that encourages your local cable op to serve every neighborhood and keep his nose clean. If you think your cable company is arrogant, wait till you've got one wire coming into your home from a company that doesn't have to play by the rules, be it AT&T or Verizon. The cable industry is crying foul, and let's face it, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Give due consideration to this heated position paper from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
Were you hoping that the CableCARD standard would enable you to ditch your cable box? Four years after cable operators and TV makers signed the historic CableCARD agreement, many consumers are still running into problems, according to FCC filings from the warring cable operators and TV makers. Each side blames the other for the snafus. And they're both worsening the problem: The initial standard is unidirectional, meaning no video-on-demand without the box, so some cable operators are obstructing CableCARD adoption by failing to support it at the head end. But the ever price-conscious TV makers aren't helping by eliminating CableCARD compatibility from their lines and walking away from the problem. For years the conventional wisdom has been that a VOD-capable bidirectional standard would someday heal all wounds. But the video-delivery landscape is changing and now CableLabs, the industry's R&D arm, is approaching digital cable readiness from some new angles. I'll report on them over the next few days.
CableLabs is working up a new version of the OpenCable Application Platform, according to Cable Digital News. OCAP is the R&D program that gave birth to the CableCARD. The new Version 1.1 would support IP-based video and multimedia streams. That would give the cable ops a leg up in their coming struggle against the telcos, especially AT&T, which is rolling out IP video delivery. OCAP 1.1 would also mesh with mobile applications to be launched this fall by Sprint, Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, and Advance/Newhouse. It would support home networking, switched broadcast, advanced graphics, and other goodies. And it would allow cable companies to more easily insert commercials into VOD programming (yippee). The technology would likely take the form of a new set-top box. Whether it would migrate directly into television sets is up to the TV makers, but for the moment, they're not thrilled with the outcome of the existing CableCARD agreement.
Lost amid the hype surrounding the Blu-ray format is the story of its environmental impact. And guess what? Blu-ray wears a white hat. In the process of cutting the manufacturing steps down from twelve to five, the new "phase transition mastering" process also eliminates several toxic chemicals. Only one remains, a developing fluid, and it's recirculated back into the production process. Blu-ray also requires less utility use, both energy and water. What makes this especially interesting is that the HD DVD people make a big deal of the fact that their format uses the same manufacturing techniques as existing DVD—toxicity and all. Whether consumers would care is debatable, but if they don't, they should. These details emerged during a press tour of the Sony DADC plant in Terre Haute, Indiana, where we all donned clean-room smocks, shower caps, and booties (blue, of course) and saw copies of Hitch running down the production line. Oh, and the packaging (blue, of course) has a redesigned spindle that releases the disc with one easy touch, so you'll use less energy (swearing) and water (sweating) when getting the disc out of the box.
Does your loved one own a Creative Labs Zen music player and look longingly at shop windows full of "Made for iPod" docking systems? Well, just in time for the holiday season, Cambridge SoundWorks comes to the rescue with the PlayDock Zen. It recharges the player and runs on AC or, gulp, eight C batteries (note to CSW: think rechargable next time). It's also got a line-input to accommodate any other kind of music player, 480 by 640 video output, telescoping antenna for radio-equipped players, and--miraculous!--a handle. If you're looking for an alternative, Creative Labs offers its own TravelDock Zen Micro and many other Zen accessories. Think differently! Oh, and the PlayDock will also support iPods starting in January with the PlayDock i. In either case, the price is $199.
Somewhere back in the dusty corridors of time, in a house in New Jersey, a child found an old radio in the basement. It was a Sears Silvertone with a dark brown plastic chassis. No FM, just AM, and therefore not of much interest to the increasingly music-aware child. But he--oh, all right, I--was fascinated by the tubes inside. Unlike all the other radios in the house, which immediately started blaring when turned on, this one took time to warm up. When ready to play, its single speaker emitted a rich tone. Not exactly a silver tone. More of a chocolate tone. But I did love it, and was sorry when it suddenly disappeared from the house, as so many artifacts of my childhood did in those days.
Which would you prefer: To buy a new PC with Windows Vista, or go on using your iPod? You can't have both unless you're extremely careful. Apple Computer--oops! sorry! Apple Inc.--has issued an advisory with a couple of warnings. First, when ejecting your iPod from a Vista-loaded PC, use the eject command in iTunes, not the one in the Vista system tray. Otherwise the PC "may corrupt your iPod," Apple says. Other potential problems: Songs purchased on iTunes may not play in the iTunes software, and since the DRM-wrapped tracks won't play in any other software, that means they won't play, period. Contacts and calendars won't sync. And adjustments can't be made to some settings. Apple explains and offers a patch, but you might want to wait for the next full version of iTunes ("available in the next few weeks") before letting iTunes and Vista butt heads.
Interesting piece by Wired columnist Leander Kahney on the iPod's steady rise to acceptance as a hi-fi audio device. But I think he oversells his point when he says the iPod has audiophiles "spinning in their soundproof graves." He also oversimplifies, asserting that "to purists, only old-fashioned vinyl platters cut it." This stereotype (pun intended) ignores a whole universe of digital audio developments such as SACD and DVD-Audio, great concert videos in lossy surround formats, and the use of Dolby Pro Logic II to coax surround out of stereo source material (whether from CD, WAV, MP3, AAC, or none of the above). Speaking as an audiophile, I find these things just as interesting as my LP collection or, for that matter, my iPod. The biggest problem with high-performance audio, according to 56 percent of consumers in one survey, is that not enough of them have heard it.