Monday, June 23, 2014

Wireless Music is Quality Music

Music is a big part of people’s lives but it has only been recently that it could be taken on-the-go in such a portable fashion. First came portable cassette players, followed by CD players, Walkman’s, then MP3 players and now the ubiquitous smartphone. But playing music at home will always sound better because the speakers are better — and bigger than what you can walk around with. But you don’t have to give up the convenience of placing them where you like because there’s wireless technology to use at home.

Streaming audio to speakers mostly fall into two categories: Bluetooth and WiFi. Bluetooth has the advantage of being able to connect at short range no matter whether the speaker is inside or outside, but the response of the audio (i.e., frequencies that are heard) is not of “CD quality”. This results from the audio files coming through the Bluetooth stream being MP3 and others of low resolution — they may sound okay when wearing inexpensive earbuds and being buffeted by surface noise out on the street or in the car or otherwise, but for sure they’re not giving you the “all” that the recording engineer put there. That’s not the fault of the speaker, since some companies have gone to the trouble to make a portable stereo Bluetooth speaker with high-end circuitry and audio response capabilities.

WiFi, however, makes for a better wireless experience because it is more stable than Bluetooth (on average) and also can covey audio without any loss of fidelity. This requires the use of the home network and the streaming of the audio does not put any drain on the other broadband functions that might be going on (such as downloading files or surfing the Internet). Additionally, in some cases the wireless speakers work to create their own secure wireless mesh network - utilizing a “bridge” device that integrates with the network and the speakers so as to facilitate whole-house coverage with no degradation of the audio signal.

Digital amplifiers are built into the speakers so as to provide a complete “package,” with the added benefit of there being no heat build-up to speak of. Of course the quality of the amplifier will play off of how much power it has, and how many speakers are in the chassis it shares. A one-speaker, one-amplifier speaker will provide a basic audio response, but today it’s more sensible to go with a speaker that has multiple digital amplifiers driving multiple speakers in the cabinet — the SONOS Play: 3 Wireless HiFi Player being an example with 3 amps/3 speakers. In this case, two mid-range drivers and a tweeter are also included, along with a bass radiator to improve on the sound — to create audiophile quality, which is the goal after all. And while this can replace the need for a subwoofer, should the listener feel assured with what he is hearing, the better response is to connect a wireless subwoofer into the overall music system. The results of doing this will be heard and since the placement can be against a wall, beneath a couch, etc., even if the sub is not as attractive as it should be it won’t matter. But any company making a quality wireless sub will also make it attractive enough to be placed where it can be looked at if desired.

These speakers can also be configured to be “smart,” and so can pick up Internet radio channels, connect with Pandora, Spotify, even function as a receiver for SiriusXM Internet Radio.
Another route allows the use of speakers that are already in place — using an amplification unit(basically a wireless amplifier) to receive the streaming music and then provide the power to drive the speakers. This wireless amplifier will usually also provide the means to connect to a subwoofer, which can only improve the stereo being outputted. What’s important is that the amp does not stint on what it provides to the speakers — just because it’s wireless doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have aggressive power or support audio formats that are “lossless” (i.e., not compressed to inhibit a full frequency response). There’s no reason it shouldn’t also support other functions such as being able to work with playlists or interact with other systems such as the Amazon Cloud Player, Stitcher, Rhapsody and others. But the important thing is that it provides audiophile quality, no matter what other features it might have folded into itself (being able to schedule music ahead of time is a worthwhile one, as well as it being able to function as an “alarm clock” and so turn itself on and begin playing at a predetermined time).  Also high on the list is that it should look good — why ruin the decor where it’s been placed in — and have a minimal impact on the room by having a loud fan or heating up during play-time.

As can be seen, having a wireless audio system does far more than just eliminate wires: it frees the home owner for arranging how and where the music he wants to hear is played. And does so without having to compromise on the quality.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014


A lot of people grumbled and complained when DVDs were first made available because they didn't want to have to go out and buy new copies of what they already had. But the grumbling stopped once they saw how much better the DVDs picture was than that of the videocassette. The same thing is happening now with people wondering why a 4K TV should be their next purchase -- after all they cost more than a 1080p HDTV.  And just as with the DVD, it's the resolution that's getting all the attention -- the 3840 x 2160 pixels exceeding those of a Full HD TV by a factor of 4. But there's more to what makes a 4K TV (or Ultra HD TV, as its being called) valuable. So lets check that out right now.

The most obvious difference between a HDTV and a 4K Ultra HD TV is the resolution. What this really means is that details and subtle nuances on the screen are visible -- they're not smoothed over. Because of the high resolution, the eye reacts to what it sees as being more realistic, more "true to life.” That’s a really good thing, because once the image reaches this level, the viewer accepts and becomes immersed in what is seen. This is due to being able to sit closer to the TV without the pixels losing their "tightness" or becoming blurry; you can almost stick your face right onto the screen (but shouldn’t).

A lot is made over whether the TV's picture is colorful, but the real question should be whether the colors only approach, not reproduce, the reality that the eye sees when looking. A 4K picture doesn't just have a lot of colors (billions in fact) to work with; it has an infinite amount of gradations to project of those colors, which are deeper and more rich and saturated than their 1080p cousins. What happens is that this all translates into textures and skin tones and the difference between light and dark not exhibiting any blockiness -- it's smooth sailing all the way. Contrast levels, which can "destroy" detail and muddy colors when misused, are now able to effectively enhance the images without any of the negative effects that can plague a HDTV. The 4K Ultra HD TV’s color "space" is so much broader than that of a 1080p HDTV that if you saw the same image on both, it'd be pretty obvious which TV was which.

Most TV now come 3D-equipped, but whether wearing active glasses with batteries or passive glasses using polarization, the three dimensionality comes with a price. In the case of passive, it's a loss of resolution and even with active screens there's “crosstalk” and a loss of brightness that must be compensate for (or just put up with). A 4K TV doesn't have any of these issues: it can utilize a passive (polarized) screen with high resolution being what is seen and none of the other problems just noted. It's because of all this that the "glasses free" 3D TVs that have been on the drawing boards and most recently are being shown are all employing 4K.

The Home Theater

Front projectors and on-wall screens could make a room in the home a dedicated viewing space, although not everyone could afford the cost or space required. So the march began to increase the size of the TV, something that became possible (and cost-effective) once the flat panel showed up. Now pretty much anywhere the flat panel goes becomes the "home theater." But comparing it to a movie theater, which is what a lot of people used to brag about, wasn't really true. It wasn't just that the size of the movie screen was big (remember, we're talking about the days when the 19" TV was king and home installation was sticking a set onto an end table), but the vibrancy of the picture at home couldn't compare. With a 4K TV, it can. Now the "home theater" truly competes with going to the movies and is also democratic because it doesn't discriminate against those who live in apartments. Everybody's space can now be a "home theater.”