Monday, September 29, 2014

Update Your Home Theater

It's an exciting time to be watching television - what with flat screen HDTVs and 4K Ultra HD TVs now available at affordable prices (not to mention that you can get a Curved TV, if going flat isn't desirable).

As the heart of a home theater, a big screen TV closer emulates "going to the movies": sitting in front and being enveloped in a high-resolution image filled with detail and sparkling with colors as real — if not more so — than the "real" world provides. But the other components of the home theater shouldn't be left out because they can be updated in ways to make the movie-going experience even more vivid and exciting.

Home Theater Audio
A great picture deserves great audio in the home theater, and there's more than one way to get it. Those looking to keep the room's decor uncluttered will find a sound bar an appropriate way to produce the audio for the room. Sound bars aren't just a pair of speakers (producing stereo) stuck inside a cabinet either; multiple speakers and electronics enable them to produce a surround sound effect from their front-facing location. This is done through various means that include psycho-acoustic trickery of the ears, along with actually "bouncing" the sound off walls to then impact the viewer from different points of their seated location.

Besides being slim and self-contained, a sound bar can also go up on the wall to compliment an already-mounted TV. Another advantage of sound bars is that they can come with a subwoofer which — due to the low frequencies produced — can be placed in a corner or otherwise unobtrusive location in the room. And since these subwoofers are wireless, there's no unsightly cables that have to go from the sound bar to them.

Another approach is to add a complete 5:1 audio system (this consists of L/R and center speakers, along with a pair of surrounds). The advantage of this is that a full surround sound audio system can be set up at once. These systems also include a receiver to power them, and a subwoofer and a Blu-ray player as well in some cases (also some feature wireless surrounds so as to eliminate having to run wires across the floor).

There's also a new audio technology called Dolby Atmos — it creates an even more immersive audio experience for the listener and is now being found in movie theaters. Think of it as even more "Surround" to surround sound. Atmos doesn't mean those speakers already in place in the home theater — a Left front and Right front with a center speaker and a pair of surround speakers — have to be replaced. But they do have to be augmented. First, though, the receiver must be able to decode the Atmos signal, and this can't be done through a firmware or other update to the existing receiver. An Atmos compatible receiver must be had and fortunately a number of audio receiver makers have stepped up to the plate. And of course these Atmos-compatible audio receivers have all the other features that the home theater expects as well: there's no giving up on using the receiver as a video switcher that can handle 4K as easily as a HD signal. Or not having Bluetooth for audio streaming from a favorite playlist on a smartphone or tablet. Or not having WiFi for Internet radio and other uses.

As noted, speakers don't have to be replaced but additional ones need to be added. These can be placed in the ceiling in the conventional manner by an installer, for example, who can also help with wall mounting a TV. But there's also Atmos-compatible speakers that can be added to the home theater's audio compliment which direct their sound "at" the ceiling and then back down to the listener.

A question might now pop up as to where the Atmos sound will be coming from — turns out that it can be included in existing Blu-ray discs to play on existing Blu-ray players. So the "how" becomes a non-issue, although having to get a Atmos-enabled movie will require that the disc purchased comes equipped with it.

Home Theater Video
The television needs to have a high-definition video signal sent to  it, and a cable box/satellite receiver or an external antenna will give it broadcast and/or cable TV channels to watch. There's also streaming capabilities and, depending on the TV, this can include being able to watch HD or 4K Ultra HD video (example: Netflix in 4K streaming, courtesy of the 4K converter built into a 4K Ultra HD TV). But for watching a high-definition movie — and having lots of them to choose from — nothing beats the convenience and dependability of a Blu-ray player which doesn't have to "share" bandwidth with others or depend on a remote server's functionality. Blu-ray players even provide the "Smart TV" features that TVs now offer and, if you like the interface of a particular TV manufacturer, it can be found in their Blu-ray player for your use.

And The Rest
Don't forget that getting comfortable in front of the TV with a favorite drink and some snacks is part of the "move theater experience" too. And this has the advantage of costing a LOT less than emptying your wallet at the snack bar. Plus you can get up for seconds without having to wait in line.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Is OLED In Your Future?

Everyone wants their TV picture to look as good as possible — with some finding perfection in a Sony TV, while another rightly will talk up the virtues of their Samsung models instead. But while getting that video signal onto the display that one sits in front of for watching requires a lot of electronics, certain basic inner technologies contribute to making a great picture. But when someone extolls the virtues of OLED, scratching the head is pretty much the results that most people come away with.

OLED (organic light-emitting diodes) operate in a different manner than that of LCD and Plasma TVs — basically it uses electricity to generate red, green and blue which together becomes the picture. With the ability to “turn off” a pixel to create the color black better than others, an OLED display doesn’t in turn have to compromise by being thicker or more energy-thirsty than other display technologies. That all sounds good on the surface, right?

Turns out that it’s even more good than that. It’s what you see that counts and the quality of the colors are many times more than impressive to the eye. Colors are immensely lifelike and when combined with a high-resolution image attract the eye and hold its attention. This is aided by an inherent level of brightness greater in comparison to that of non-OLED displays. But like most things, seeing is believing.

So we were at the Century City store, where LG’s 55” Curved 1080 Smart OLED TV was on display. That the screen was curved added to the appeal — the chassis is clean and straightforward — as did the webOS interface. But it’s the picture that draws all the attention — frankly, it’s gorgeous. The colors are incredibly rich and the blacks deep: the overall view dramatic. Plus it’s compelling to the point that you lose your perspective of time: the 10 minutes of standing there staring pretty much seemed to fly by. And if you think this view spoils you, just try (as we did) bringing up a HD photo — going back to viewing it on another display will seem weak in comparison. We should add that those digital cameras that feature an OLED view finder find favor with their users because of its qualities.

The time spent at the store also gave us time to fawn over Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S, because it features a OLED display also (called here, Super AMOLED). The high-resolution screen of a tablet might be smaller than that of a TV (obviously), but the addition of OLED technology brings the same benefits as that found on the bigger TV screen. In fact on a tablet, having the ability to slim it down becomes more of an issue, since one never holds a 55” TV on one’s lap over (any) an extended period of time. But the real benefit comes from the colors that the tablet is able to exhibit; the combination of brilliant whites and inky blacks making a greater impact on a small screen. Strip away the “bells & whistles” and the hype surrounding one company’s claims made against their competitors and the simple fact remains that an OLED screen just provides a color accurate view that is heavy on the joy.

It’s a fact that there aren’t dozens of manufacturers making OLED screens for home consumer viewing, and so this impacts the price. But humans are visual creatures at the end of the day and it’s what you see and how you feel about what you see that counts. OLED is real and a reality to consider when making a viewing choice. And that’s not hype.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Music Throughout Your Home - Go Wireless

Imagine coming home and having music greet you at the door. Or play when you go over to sit in your favorite chair. Or follow you from room to room. Having your music under intimate control used to require professionals running cables through walls and installing speakers of their choice — not yours — to convey the audio. Besides being expensive and time-consuming, the whole process left out apartment dwellers and condo owners who weren’t allowed to have invasive processes applied to their walls.

Portable speakers changed all that — at its simplest, you can sit a powered Bluetooth speaker on a table in the den or on a counter in the kitchen and send music to it from your smartphone or tablet. But that only gives you one-to-one control over what is being played. For music throughout your home that is being played from quality speakers, you need to go wireless. This means you can stream different music in different rooms or listen to the same song in all of them. And have this kind of control over your music library (i.e., iTunes) from a computer or smartphone/tablet as well as control Internet radio stations and other online audio venues.

Plus the setup for all this can be done DIY (Do-It-Yourself), with all aspects under user control; what speakers to get; where to place them; how to use them. And having lots of technical knowledge is not one of the requirements, because the technologies in place take care of the heavy lifting.

Speakers to Get
Wireless speakers come in varying sizes and configurations — matching that of those typical used in home theater setups. This means that you can get single speakers in groups for creating a Left and Right stereo front sound stage, a Soundbar to work with a television, and a Wireless subwoofer to give you the deep bass that makes everything sound more impressive. Nor should we forget amplification of the speakers themselves; some come with their own amplifier built in, while a stand-alone amp can provide power as well.

Where to Place The Speakers
Unlike wired speakers, placement of wireless speakers is an open book. This is due to the speakers not being confined by cables attached to them, or even to size restriction. But don’t mis-think that a compact wireless cabinet just shoves a tiny speaker inside: most of the Speakers are of HiFi quality, with woofers and tweeters inside for the mid-range, along with bass radiators in some cases to aid in crating the lower range audio frequencies. Plus some have multiple speakers working hard inside. While placing speakers on stands is always an established and sensible option, so too is the option for direct placement on walls in a manner akin to hanging a picture frame or a flat screen TV (but on a much smaller scale of course). This is taken care of by having mounting brackets that tilt and swing. And of course simple placement where a speaker is put on a table isn’t something to be frowned on either. In other words, whatever works for the space the speaker is to go in is the answer to respond to.

How To Use the Speakers
Wireless speakers have a distinct advantage today of there being smartphones/tablets which can employ apps for controlling them. But we’re not discounting computer control either. Either way, control over the wireless speakers can be done individually or in groups (obviously having the speakers all from the same company removes any problematic control issues). The speakers are using the WiFi home network that is already serving as the gateway for online, with proprietary technologies built in to take “hold” of the network’s airwaves and modulate it as needed over the speakers. None of this requires altering the home network, buying a new/different kind of router or being forced to increase the bandwidth that is already in play. To paraphrase that “i” company, the wireless speaker systems “just work.”

The final point to make is that having wireless speakers allows for the listener to take control over their music, what is being played and where. But even bigger than that is that the intimidation factor is gone — a person can go ahead and get wireless speakers and set it up to enjoy. The gap between “wanting” to have music throughout the home and “doing it” has been bridged. That doesn’t mean that professional installers are something to sneeze at. But it does mean for the DIY audio-desiring person that there’s something to feel pretty good about.

Monday, September 08, 2014

What’s Great About HDTV

Television has been around for a long time, but it took the advent of “digital” to mix with 21st Century technology for unprecedented strides in image quality. Flat panel TVs became — and still are — immensely popular when it comes to sitting and watching, and there’s a good reason for that aside from the appearance of large screens for the home that weigh barely a fraction of a TV tube model. There’s never been a better time to enjoy high-definition viewing on a HDTV. The reasons why involve the personal control that the viewer now has over the HDTV, combined with the strict control provided by the digital technologies themselves.

The Colors
No one would argue that a black and white TV is superior to one that has color, but there’s more things going on behind a great picture than being able to say “I like the red,” or “The sky looks more blue than when I look out the window.” HDTVs offer variable control over color through simple, but effective controls called Contrast and Color Temperature. Contrast, we all know, differentiates between light/dark and helps an image to “pop” out. Conversely though, it can also inhibit detail and “blur” image areas so that they are not at their high-definition best, or let you “see” into dark or shaded areas. Adjusting the contrast to one’s personal preference is always best, but there’s no harm in using either the default that the TV maker provides, or just “nudging” the contrast up/down a bit to see how it looks. Color temperature, meanwhile, affects the overall image and, at its simplest can be described as making the overall picture’s coloring look “warm” or “cold” or “ruddy” (my term) or the default middle-of-the-road where whites approach Tide-cleaned quality and blacks manage to remind one of walking in the woods on a summer evening after the sun has gone down. Again a personal preference holds here, as not all will agree on which color temperature looks best. It’s fair to say that changing it as the picture being viewed dictates makes more sense than just leaving it at one setting all the time — but then there are those who prefer a “warm” picture, so go for it!  That this form of overall control is available on the HDTV is powerful — use it wisely and enjoy.

Even and Overall Brightness
Looking at a screen where a section near one edge of the screen or the other is dimmer than the rest of the picture isn’t natural — at least as far as the brain wants it to be. HDTVs once had issues with “projecting” an evenly lit and bright picture on the display, and had to use varying methods and technologies to get around it. That’s old-hat today: not only do the latest HDTVs possess brilliantly lit displays, but there are those that have been certified for image clarity and other feature-sets that impact the image (think: THX). Don’t be put off or confused by the various lighting schemes TV makers employ. Just remember, seeing is believing, so take a look at what the TV maker is offering and not at the specs (at least to start). If it looks good to you, it is.

As noted in the introduction, digital is the big thing. Because digital TV signals aren’t analogue, ghosting and interference issues are a thing of the past. Video signals coming in from cable boxes, satellite receivers or video source devices (i.e., Blu-ray players) are able to provide that much wanted, stable 1080p video signal that is translated into a high-definition picture you can watch (that includes streaming too). Combined with the digital technology featured inside the HDTV, it’s one great picture that is being projected for viewing (whether the movie, TV show, etc., is worth watching is up to the viewer of course). Considering that nothing is perfect — people’s eyes degrade over time, prescription glasses don’t get updated as often as they should, and all the other viewing issues that occur on a personal level — that 1080p video image is just plain amazing to watch. And of course the price for a large screen (as in 55” or greater) is so affordable that it’s almost a crime not to “jump” up to the largest size possible when it’s time to bring your new HDTV “friend” home.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Dolby Atmos —The Next Thing in Home Audio

Ever accidentally hit “Mute” on the TV while watching a movie? Suddenly what you’re seeing loses much of its impact. That’s because the audio, be in voices, music, or background sounds all play a part in creating the total atmosphere for the viewer. Movie theaters were quick to focus in on this, making sound an important part of the theater-goers overall experience.

For those watching at home, emulating the movie theaters means more than just having a big TV to look at; the audio being listened to must be enhanced also. So this gave rise to sound bars and multiple speaker setups that could take advantage of 5.1 sound: a front left and right speaker with a center channel between them, accompanied by two surround speakers (left and right) along with a subwoofer. Next came additional audio channels, for example, 7.1, which added more speakers to further enhance the audio.

But if the goal is to create an “atmosphere of sound” to engulf the viewer, then Dolby Atmos could very well be the answer. And you don’t have to go to a movie theater in order to experience it either — it’s coming to your home theater right now.

Dolby Atmos operates on the principle of control: the audio that’s being listened to isn’t a hodgepodge as its placement in “space” and how it “moves” around the audience is totally under the filmmaker’s control. So what you hear at home is the same as what you hear in the theater. To have this kind of control over the audio, multiple speakers need to be used, and these speakers need to be at various locations in the room — this includes placing them overhead. Independent speaker control means a layered effect that duplicates the audio reality of life in a dynamic and organic manner that is natural to the listener. This is due to Dolby Atmos behaving by looking at sound not as audio streams but as objects: so if a car horn is blaring, this sound is crafted so that it is heard as it would be in real life. On the technical side of things, Dolby Atmos automatically generates optimum soundtracks for movie theaters with 5.1/7.1-channel setups and scales up to the number of speakers available (up to 64 independent speaker outputs). This same technology plays its part where the home theater is concerned as Dolby Atmos looks at how many speakers are there so as to utilize them effectively.

Let’s set up a Dolby Atmos home theater. To begin, we don’t have to throw out our existing speakers — good — but we will have to augment them. So we have our 5.1 audio system which consists of front left and right speaker and a center channel. We also have a set of surround speakers to our left and right, and these are placed so as to be about even with our ears as we sit to watch (in general, surrounds can not be “ahead” of the listeners if they are to be effective). A subwoofer for deep bass sits in a corner.

But now comes more speakers. One way to do this is by installing speakers in the ceiling. It’s an efficient way to do this — requiring professionals of course to do the install. But it’s not the only way, which is good for apartment renters and those who aren’t allowed to treat their ceilings in an invasive manner. Sound can be “bounced” off the ceiling. There are Dolby Atmos-compatible speakers which can take the place of the front Left/Right speakers: they have front firing speakers as well as upward-firing speakers, all in the same cabinet. There are also Dolby Atmos-compatible speakers designed to be placed on top of the front L/R; these speakers are send their audio upwards only — having it reflected off the ceiling and then directed back down to those in the home theater.