As a broadcast-basic cable subscriber, I'm entitled to receive unencrypted cable channels through my Sharp LCD HDTV's QAM tuner, including the HD-capable digital versions of the New York area's over-the-air stations. Imagine my dismay when the local Fox and CW affiliates abruptly disappeared from the digital channel lineup a couple of months ago. Going back to their wishy-washy 4:3 analog versions was downright painful.
My first Blu-ray player--but not, I swear, my last--is a Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1. It's a first-generation model and therefore showing its age. Lately it has been having trouble loading new movie titles. I wondered if it were simply obsolete and muttered aggrievedly about planned obsolescence and standards that are really not standardized. Old CD players still play new CDs--why shouldn't an old Blu-ray player play new BDs? While I was screening movies for an audio review, the player surprised me by flashing a bright red onscreen message demanding a firmware update. This was the first time I'd seen such a message. The last time I did this, for 2007's Version 3.40.1, the process required me to download a zip file, copy it to DVD-R, and put the disc in the player. But for the up-to-the-minute Version 3.88, the process required only the player's ethernet connection, a download direct into the player, and a little remote button pressing. Ten minutes later I was done, and the Pioneer played the disc it had previously rejected, plunging me into the world of Mark Wahlberg action movies. It still downconverted DTS-HD Master Audio to DTS Core, but at least I wouldn't have to exchange unplayable discs at the local Blockbuster. I mention this for the benefit of Blu-ray early adopters who may be having trouble loading discs--the latest firmware upgrade may help.
What did the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show tell us about the future of CES and our industry in general? That was the question on everyone's lips. When asked "how are you," I cheerfully answered: "employed." This never failed to bring a smile. CES 2009 was hardly a failure. While it did not draw the 147,000 people of 2008, it still mustered 110,000, according to a press release from the Consumer Electronics Association. That is not too shabby by any standard. On the magazine's audio beat, I found fewer audio exhibits in the South Hall, but more at the Venetian, so seeing stuff and blogging about it kept me busy.
Since the advent of the iPod, the stature of portable audio products has risen. Still, some taboos have remained unbroken. You can make audiophile-approved choices in what you load into your player, what headgear you plug into it, and even what iPod docks and iPod-friendly systems into which you plug it. But the notion that a portable audio system might approach the go-anywhere versatility of the iPod itself has languished. Oh, there are good ones, and some are even rechargeable, but they're still more for briefcase or knapsack than for purse or cargo-pants pocket. That may change thanks to what soundmatters calls the foxL personal audiophile speaker.
While reviewing the Onkyo TX-SR806 receiver ($1099) I did some to-ing and fro-ing with the THX and Audyssey people regarding THX Loudness Plus and Audyssey Dynamic EQ. These new loudness corrections operate in roughly the same territory--but in a different manner. Their common goal is to compensate for sonic losses that occur naturally at lower volume levels. As volume drops, the frequency response of human hearing changes. Loudness Plus and Dynamic EQ both tackle this problem by adjusting channel levels and frequency response. But beyond that, there are differences between them, and I asked the THX and Audyssey people to be specific about those differences. Here's what they said.
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.
I've been to CEDIA EXPOs in Dallas, New Orleans, a few in Indianapolis, and the last three in Denver. I'll never forget walking the mist-shrouded streets of the French Quarter, of course, and Indy is underrated. But by far the best venue has been Denver. The downtown area is set up with most major hotels within walking distance of both the convention center and amenities in and around the 16th Street Mall. For both work and play, Denver has been the ideal place to attend a convention, and I'm truly going to miss it. So...
I was too woozy after CEDIA 2008 to deliver my final show blog. Anyway, I like to take an annual stand on what was the best thing I heard at the show--after all, people at the show are always asking me. The answer, hands down, was Pioneer's EX Series Reference Class Architectural Speakers.
Don't you just love this bright new Blu-ray world we're living in? To celebrate the great transition, the studios now have hip high-def copyright warnings. This one came from Warner's 10,000 BC. Notice the forceful graphics, the festive colors, the 4:3 aspect ratio. The rounded screen corners that remind me of a 1950s B&W Magnavox--the first TV I remember, delivery medium for countless episodes of Captain Kangaroo. Best of all, it stays onscreen a real long time, and is invulnerable to the track-skip and fast-forward keys, so you have plenty of time to meditate on 5 YEARS IN FEDERAL PRISON before your evening entertainment. That'll stop those bootleggers and analog-hole deviants from stealing our precious bodily fluids! Uh, I mean our intellectual property. Or perhaps the studios are just as tone-deaf as ever, wasting the time of law-abiding Blu-ray renters and purchasers to send a message to other people who are impervious to copyright warnings. For the record, I have no intention of ever bootlegging a Blu-ray disc. But all those moments spent watching dopey copyright warnings add up. Couldn't they be shortened to three seconds, or made skippable, to really celebrate a new age of great HD entertainment? I want my life back.
Any takers for the world's greatest music collection? Paul Mawhinney has been collecting for 60 years, amassing a three million items, but is selling due to age, health, and financial problems. An appraiser says the library is worth $50 million, though Paul is willing to settle for $3 million. That's just a dollar a record. The collection includes LPs, CDs, EPs, 45s, and 78s and right now they're sitting in a climate-controlled warehouse waiting for a buyer. Mawhinney would prefer to sell to a museum, library, university, or foundation which would keep the collection intact, though he adds, the new owner is "free to do as you please." If you'd like to check the contents, there's an online database.
If you live anywhere near the Wedge Gallery in Asheville, North Carolina, check out the paintings of Ruth Whiting. She's every nerd's dream--a painter who finds inspiration in cables! Says Whiting: "My work can be seen as a product of my fascination with the sublimely ordinary. For some time now I have set myself the task of revealing the beauty and heroism of mundane objects. I think of my paintings as lenses through which insignificant items, usually thought of as nothing more than functional, can assume the roles of heroes. My paintings do not attempt the illustrative role of myth, and yet there is a level upon which a giant orange extension cord that writhes through the nave of a quiet church demands a mythic justification. Thus, rather than propose a narrative, I attempt to create a situation that calls for an explanation. Electrical cords are like the connective tissue of our technological lives yet most of the time all we do is trip over them. This is a show dedicated to glorifying the dreams of extension cords." See showrooms here and here. This page includes clickable larger images. All oil on paper, the paintings are for sale at prices ranging from $130-500.
My boss Shane Buettner has been taking the heat recently for eliminating our product review rating system. In addition to the comments on his blog of last week, he's also been reading a torrent of opinion in the magazine's regular stream of reader mail. When Shane notes that he dropped the ratings with the "complete support of HT’s staff," that definitely includes me. I had been trying to persuade my editors to kill the ratings long before Shane took over.
This sleek spherical satellite/subwoofer set has actually been reviewed in the print counterpart of this website. But Kevin Hunt's review is not on the site itself. So here are my impressions of the Mod1, Orb Audio's lowest-priced speaker package.
The description in the headline above is Klipsch's, not mine. I usually refer to this kind of product as earbuds. But Klipsch is allergic to that term for arcane technical reasons explained in this FAQ. So headphones these wispy transducers are.
Sonoro is a German audio manufacturer. The company recently commissioned a survey on the listening habits of 560 consumers. Thirty-nine percent of them named FM radio as their number one audio entertainment source, beating iPods and other MP3 players at 23 percent. That was interesting, but when I visited the Sonoro site, I found something even more interesting: the Cubo system.