Streaming

Hamilton

Hamilton

I honestly can’t tell you how watching Hamilton from the comforts of my media room compares to seeing it live. I’d never seen the show before this weekend. On those rare occasions when the touring company made it within driving distance, my wife and I agreed we couldn’t afford to pay upwards of two grand for an evening’s entertainment.

 

We have, however, enjoyed quite a few streaming plays since the lockdown began earlier this year—most notably, the National Theatre at Home’s presentation of Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, as well as 

the live arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar starring Tim Minchin. And I can tell you without hesitation that Hamilton is nothing like those productions.

 

During the first few minutes of the Disney+ stream, your brain can’t help but wonder: Am I watching theater or am I watching cinema? The answer is yes and no. It’s both. It’s neither. It’s like experiencing a play from the viewpoint of Mister Mxyzptlk, the impish multidimensional nemesis of Superman from the silliest comic books of that series. Sometimes you’re in the audience. Sometimes you’re onstage. Sometimes you’re hanging from the rafters. And somehow or another, it all just makes sense in the moment.

 

Honestly, though, by the end of the first number, you start to forget all of this artifice. You forget the nearly flawless 

HAMILTON AT A GLANCE

The show that reinvented musical theater gets diverted from its planned Summer 2021 release in movie theaters and bows on Disney+ instead. 

 

PICTURE     

A nearly flawless Dolby Vision video presentation.

 

SOUND

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is expansive and inventive, but a little too reverberant, making it difficult to understand some of the performers.

Dolby Vision video presentation and its gorgeous contrasts, its impossible mix of warm, earthen hues and dazzling primary-colored lighting. You even stop noticing that its only real visual flaw is the lack of absolute darkness in the shadows.

 

Your mind stops trying to make sense of the expansive and inventive Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which mixes not only audience reactions into the surround channels but also some of the catchy soundtrack instrumentation and sound effects. After giving myself over to Hamilton, the only conscious observation I had about the soundtrack is that there’s a little bit too much of the room in the mix at times, which makes it difficult to understand some performers, especially Daveed Diggs in his rapid-fire-rapping turn as the Marquis de Lafayette. (I also had to crank the volume up to 5dB above reference listening levels due to the relative quietness of the overall mix, but that was an easy fix.)

 

Once you stop focusing on the technical, what’s left is pure experience. As I said, it’s not quite theater and it’s not quite cinema, but this seamless patchwork of several different live performances recorded at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 

Manhattan in June of 2016 works as its own thing.

 

And it may not quite compare with seeing the show live (again, I don’t know in this case), but what this time capsule does is allow you to appreciate not only the performances, but also the brilliance of the set design and choreography. There’s a reason Hamilton is the biggest cultural phenomenon of the past decade—the Elvis, Beatles, and Star Wars of its era—despite the fact that so few 

people have seen it until now. Just like all of those touchstones, Hamilton looks forward and back at the same time. It not only brings musical theater kicking and screaming out of the past, mixing traditional show tunes (good ones!) with hip-hop, R&B, and soul; it also brings the past kicking and screaming into the present, making the foundation of our country and the hard 

work of governing it relatable in the most inventive ways.

 

Make no mistake about it: Hamilton isn’t attempting to be a historically accurate biography of our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. Instead, it’s about what his story means to us now. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton is a myth. Then again, so is the American dream. The beauty of this stage production, though—and the recording of it captured for 

posterity—is that it makes us believe in both myths. Or at least want to believe in them.

 

A lot has been written about what it means that this version of Hamilton went straight to streaming more than a year before its intended commercial-cinema run. About how it makes up in some small way for the lack of live theater at the moment. I really don’t have anything to add to that conversation. What did occur to me as the closing credits rolled is that this release also democratizes the show, putting it in front of an audience that couldn’t afford to see Hamilton if it were playing next door tomorrow.

 

I can’t help but think, with a devious twinkle in my eye, that this is a delightfully dangerous thing. Hamilton is revolutionary in more ways than one. It inspires the sort of patriotism (not nationalism, not jingoism, but genuinely transformative, thoughtful patriotism) that the power brokers of American politics don’t want most of us feeling.

 

Will most people settling into their comfy couches and loading up Disney+ see it this way? Almost certainly not. Most will merely be dazzled by the entertainment, and that’s fine. Hamilton is a hell of a show, and this time-capsule recording turns it into a home cinema experience unlike anything you’ve ever seen on any screen.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Musician Eliot Lewis on Doing Livestreams Right

Musician Eliot Lewis on Doing Livestreams Right

As a Hall & Oates and Live from Daryl’s House band member and a multi-instrumentalist who frequently takes his solo act on tour, Eliot Lewis suddenly found himself with nowhere to perform when the world came to a hard stop in March. Like many musicians, he soon embraced livestreaming as a virtual alternative. But, unlike many musicians, he decided to offer his fans a more satisfying experience by bringing his streams as close to the level of studio recording as possible—a laudable effort that deserved a closer look.

—Michael Gaughn

How many Facebook livestreams have you done over the past couple of months?

I’ve been doing them once a week on Wednesday. so it would probably be around eight so far. A lot of people are doing them almost every day—three or four a week. I wanted to make them a little more special than that. Quality over quantity.

 

What are you doing to mix it up a little?

The cool thing about doing a livestream, and one of the reasons so many of us musicians have turned to them, is that it gives us something to focus on. Like with any live show, I work up new arrangements for songs, I’ll take requests. I write my own music. Some weeks I’ll do full backing tracks where it can have all the instrumentation around me, and then other weeks I’ll break it down to an acoustic show.

 

Also, because I’m a multi-instrumentalist, I do something where I’m playing guitar and singing, and I’m also playing drums with my feet. It’s an electronic drum kit I’ve come up with and programmed so everything can be live and spontaneous. I can 

change from one thing to the other on the drop of a dime.

 

On one of your streams, someone asked about the drums and I thought you were joking when you responded that you were playing them with your feet.

There are a few blues guys who will play steel, string, and acoustic guitar, and also play these snare 

Musician Eliot Lewis on Doing Livestreams Right

drums or a kick drum, and it’s very, very basic. I expanded that idea into my musical universe and came up with a way of doing it with drum samples and trigger pads. They’re electronic trigger pads but with real heads on them and real kick pedals so it feels like I’m playing a real bass drum. I’ve programmed it where I can have a kick and a snare I can change per song. If I want to do a ballad, I can have a softer sound. I’ve programmed a crash cymbal where I’m hitting the kick drum at a higher velocity.

 

If I’m not mistaken, you perform most or all of the parts on your solo albums.

Yeah, everything is done by me. The only thing I’ll add is some extra background vocals from people.

 

So you’d already had a lot of practice before you jumped into streaming.

Well, yeah, since I was 10 years old. So that’s a few years.

 

Given how many people are relying on performance online now, it seems like it’s on a lot of musicians’ shoulders to move beyond iPhones in portrait mode. Have you seen other people trying to up the quality of their performances or 

trying to innovate a little with how they’re presenting?

When people started to focus on livestreams back in March, most of them were just using an iPhone, which there’s nothing wrong with that. But a lot of them were just using the built-in microphone and, depending on the internet connection or their data streaming, the sound could be really not good. And a lot were using the selfie side of the camera, which would flip the image and make a right-handed player look like they were playing lefty. And often the lighting wasn’t great.

 

So I just thought, “If I’m going to do this, I want to do it properly.” I literally started with my iPhone as well—iPhone 10, which has got a really decent camera on it. But instead of using the selfie one, I realized it would be much better to use the back-facing camera, which has higher resolution.

 

And I didn’t want to rely on the audio from the phone. I have a Yamaha mixer that’s iOS compatible, so I run everything directly and try to make it a really quality experience. I’m upgrading everything as we speak. I’ve got a GoPro Hero 8.

I also have a pretty good quality Panasonic Lumix DSLR camera with a nice Zeiss lens, which I’m incorporating for some of the stuff.

 

There’s a bit of a learning curve in going from a basic livestream to actually shooting video with proper studio lighting and that. But I had a little bit of an edge because I do a lot of photography to start with.

 

Acoustically, it looks like you’re miking pretty closely so the room isn’t having a lot of influence.

You’re absolutely right. I’m in an apartment, so I don’t have a ton of space. I’ve got full carpeting and I have some sound treatment I have up just for recording purposes, so it’s pretty dry. But I can control that with a little reverb or compression in my mixer as I’m doing it. It definitely is more studio-like than some of the stuff on livestreams where you hear a ton of the room, which can be distracting, obviously.

 

Were you doing professional recording in that space before all this happened?

Yeah. I’m such a self-sufficient musician—I write and record everything myself—so wherever I live, I end up setting up a home studio. I’ve been doing it all of my life since way back with multitrack cassette players. I don’t need a ton of room. I’m sort of a minimalist in that way. Everything I do in my apartment is record-studio quality, so that just transfers right over to the stuff I’ve been doing in the livestreams.

Was Live from Daryl’s House another form of preparation for all this?

Absolutely. I’ve been very, very fortunate because I’m the only musician, aside from Daryl, who’s been on every episode, all 90 of them. So that undoubtedly helped me with my own little livestreams and video performances, although the level is 

completely different. We started Live from Daryl’s House with a very small, very meager production and then it grew very quickly.

 

Are there any specific streams or videos you’ve seen lately you could point to as particularly good or interesting examples?

There are. Obviously, some of the artists have their pick of good production. I’ve seen stuff Keith Urban is doing, and Grace Potter, and, oh God, Allen Stone. Allen did Live from Daryl’s House and he was deep into video to begin with. So when he needed to do livestreaming, it was really properly done. I think he’s probably using OBS and multiple high-def cameras. So he’s really got it going on.

 

A good friend of mine, a great guitar player named Johnny A, is doing a morning livestream on Facebook five days a week. He’s not so much concerned with the video quality. But one of the positive things is that he’s getting a lot more people to interact with him. So sometimes it’s not all about the quality; it’s really about the content and how you present yourself and what you’re saying and who you get involved.

 

You have a new video out inspired by the current situation. Is there anything about its genesis you’d like to talk about?

I happened to be separated from somebody I love during the start of 

Musician Eliot Lewis on Doing Livestreams Right

this. The last physical show I did was at Madison Square Garden with Hall and Oates, and that was late February. I was out in the audience with her and friends and it was only two or three weeks later that New York just blew up. So long story short, she went back into the healthcare system so I haven’t seen her in a couple of months. That’s really where that song came about. I thought it’s something a lot of people can relate to because a lot of them have been separated from their children or from their parents in nursing homes.

Do you see all of this permanently changing how musicians are going to be thinking about performance?

I do. One of the positive aspects is that because these streams are live, musicians are going to become more conscious of upping their performance game. Since you can have tens of thousands of people getting onto your livestreams, you’ve got to make sure you’re prepared and your performance is right, because you can’t go back and fix stuff. That takes us back to more of the golden era of record-making and music-making where it was all performance. People didn’t have Pro Tools and digital workstations to cut and paste and fix and auto tune things.

 

And I think that when we do get back to a more normal situation where we can play live again, a lot of us are going to incorporate what we’ve been doing now. I know I will, because I really enjoy this part of it. It’s forced me to dive even further into livestreaming and video, and I’m learning a lot through the process.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Who’s Doing Livestreams Right?

Ben Folds takes requests—and gives piano lessons to kids—while stuck in Australia.

The audience for livestreams has exploded in recent weeks as people have exhausted their options for more traditional mainstream entertainment and musicians and other performers have embraced online performance as the best near-term solution for engaging their fans. I talked to acoustic designer Steve Haas about who’s doing a good job of broadcasting from the internet and what musicians can do to up the sonic quality of their streams.

—Michael Gaughn

Thanks to the boom in livestreams, a lot of people are being exposed for the first time to the idea of famous musicians doing intimate performances, but you’ve been aware of and helping to arrange home performances for a while now, right?

Yes. I’ve been very passionate about promoting house concerts, and have been creating private concert venues in people’s homes for a long time. Before the pandemic, hosts of house concerts were putting on monthly shows with some really great 

artists. It was just amazing, the quality and caliber of musicians you got to see several feet from you in someone’s living room. They would clear out the furniture, put 50 people in there on some loose chairs, and have a suggested donation of 15 to 20 dollars per person.

 

But of course now that can’t exist for a while in any environment, commercial or private—hopefully not as long as everybody’s predicting. Certainly when Mozart did his house concerts in the palace, he didn’t have to deal with a pandemic, and certainly didn’t have the internet to be able to convey his music to the masses. But people do now, and it’s amazing how many performers have jumped on this. They understand that the only way they can keep their music and their talents alive in the minds of their fans and the general public is through online presentations.

 

Whether it’s prerecorded videos or live streaming, some bands will go to great lengths to individually record their parts and overdub the video. And then somebody will put it together through video editing software and create a pretty amazing production.

 


In general, what is the level of quality you’ve been coming across over the past couple of months, from an acoustics perspective?

Most people are just finding a room in their home or their apartment—sometimes the bathroom, which everybody thinks has great acoustics. But that’s a little iffy—sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not. It can also be their kitchen, their living room, wherever they can set up an iPhone or a simple microphone. That’s the bare bones.

Performers are realizing they need to use this vehicle to get their music out there. And some are realizing they have to rise above the tide and separate themselves from the masses.

 

I get dozens of livestreams every day on my Facebook and other feeds, but I just don’t have time to listen to all of them. And that doesn’t even include the highly produced streams, like the Together at Home concert with Lady Gaga, Elton John, and others. So there has to be a way for artists—not just musicians, but actors and dancers, too—to convey their craft. But they have to step up the production. And the thing is, the ones I’ve seen do that haven’t had to spend thousands of dollars.

 

It’s really about thinking, “OK, what can I do to create an environment that will give me something better than what sounds like a typical living room? How can I get a little better balance? How can I get some good audio equipment? What do I need to do 

to make sure my video and audio are in sync?” I’ve seen some videos that were out of sync, which is very annoying.

 

They also need to think about lighting. How many people are doing livestreams with a window behind them? I’m not a lighting designer, but Lighting 101 tells us don’t have a window behind you.

 

 

I realize it’s difficult to advise people on acoustics from a distance, but is there any general advice you could give? For instance, they should probably take a moment to listen to the room they’re thinking of using and get a sense of its sonic characteristics.

Most normal rooms—living rooms, kitchens, bathrooms—don’t have a neutral sound, but tend to sound very colored. Bathrooms usually have an excessively bright sound because you’re dealing with porcelain and plaster and other hard surfaces with nothing to absorb it. Kitchens can sound like that too because they don’t have any soft furnishings, so they tend to emphasize the higher frequencies.

 

Living rooms, family rooms, and dens can have a very midrange boomy sound because you typically have all of the low-end sound sucked out—that is, absorbed—by the windows and the thin sheetrock and plaster. The high end can also be muffled by some of the furnishings, especially if you have carpet or area rugs.

 

And that’s really indicative of what I’m hearing on a lot on livestreams—that midrange honkiness that’s left once the highs and the lows are sucked out. It’s better to simply try to soak up or absorb some of that sound. I joke about it, but bringing every pillow and blanket in your house or apartment into the room while you’re recording will actually make a difference. But it depends. If you have a huge living room, just having three or four pillows is not going to do it.

 

If you want to take it to the next level, you can buy or make 

A BRIEF SAMPLING OF STREAMS
Steve Haas on High-Quality Livestreams

Brad Paisley and special guests perform
in real time on Facebook 

The Doobie Brothers perform a video
sync-up of “Black Water”

Steve Haas on High-Quality Livestreams

Singer Maysa Leak (of Incognito fame)

your own acoustical panels. It’s pretty easy, getting some insulation boards, which are typically about one or two inches thick, and wrapping fabric around them. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but it certainly can be very effective.

 

As a practitioner and somebody who designs spaces to sound fantastic, I don’t typically advocate the DIY approach to acoustical treatment. But, my goodness, in this situation we’re in, why not get something that will improve your recordings, improve your livestreaming, and set yourself apart a bit for a modest cost?

 

 

I know there are a lot of variables, but in general, should they be using smaller spaces?

It really does depend on what a space is giving you sonically. It’s all about the balance. Does it sound neutral? You can get a large space that has enough furnishings and other things to create that neutral sound, and have the added benefit of giving 

you a really nice visual backdrop, too.

 

There’s this thing going around the internet, a father and daughter out of Utah—Shaw, I think is their last name. They’ve gotten millions of hits for the songs they sing together. They sound wonderful and they’re in a very nice, voluminous living room. And yet you don’t hear excessive reverberation or other imbalanced sound because they seem to have paid attention to their room’s acoustics.

One option is to create the performance in two parts. I’ve heard people say they’ve recorded their audio literally in a closet to get the best sound possible and then dubbed it on the video. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you’re trying to get high-quality sound and visuals. They may not always go hand in hand.

 

 

I don’t want to go too far into the weeds, but how much impact does microphone selection or placement have on all this?

If they’re recording the audio and video at the same time and their space isn’t perfect, it makes a huge difference. There are professional artists where you can see they’re using closely held wireless or wired mics. And if you don’t have a balanced room, that allows the sound to be picked up much better without getting too much of the room. You want to make sure you have the best-quality microphone you can find with what you have to work with. You also want to make sure the mic’s control pattern is fairly narrow so it’s not picking up too much of the area around you.

 

 

I realize no one can know the future for sure, but where would like to see all of this go from here?

It’s great that during these difficult times people are still keeping that sensation of live music. We’ve been witnessing what I call the one-to-many type of presentations, whether it’s a single artist or band delivering a song or a performance or the big 

production concerts such as Together at Home. The Metropolitan Opera just did one. And I heard of a hip-hop artist who actually did one on Fortnite, a gaming platform. So everybody’s finding unique ways to deliver that one-to-many experience.

 

I do think the next step, as this continues, is that homeowners who can afford it will say, “You 

know what? I want a private concert.” Even if they have to do it on the big screen in their home theater and have Elton John or another type of artist use two-way communication where the performer can hear them applaud and they can interact in conversation between songs, ask questions, or whatever. That way they can react to the performance in a one-to-one or one-to-a-family or small-group situation.

 

I look forward to that happening because it really is amazing when you can have that experience with an artist. If they can’t physically be in the same room with you, then get the next best thing and have them be on Zoom or another stable platform. Have that same type of experience and same type of two-way communications instead of one-way. Feel the intimacy of the performance.

Steve Haas is the Principal Consultant of SH Acoustics, with offices in the NYC & LA
areas. He has been a leading acoustic and audio design & calibration expert for more
than 25 years in high-end spaces ranging from home theaters, studios, and live music
rooms to major museums and performance venues.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

The Best of Tiny Desk

The Best of Tiny Desk

Given how quickly people are burning through entertainment at home right now, we’re hoping to open up some new avenues to explore by highlighting less mainstream content that’s readily available online and will look and sound great on a luxury entertainment system. First up is Dennis Burger’s quick tour of some of the most intriguing musical performances from NPR’s acclaimed Tiny Desk series.

—ed. 

 

 

I guess I just assumed that NPR’s Tiny Desk would be one of the first casualties of the pandemic. After all, this long-running series—in which artists and bands cram behind the desk of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen and jam their hearts out—doesn’t quite work in this era of social distancing. Turns out, though, like most things these days, Tiny Desk just reinvented

itself as Tiny Desk (Home), with artists from around the world and across all musical genres shooting intimate little shows from the comforts of their own living rooms or garages. I stumbled upon this almost by accident, when the latest Tiny Desk (Home) concert, by nuevo flamenco/rock duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, popped up on my YouTube homepage.

 

If you’re not already hip to Tiny Desk, you’re in for a treat, since over 

the past 12 years more than 800 of these mini concerts have been recorded and uploaded to YouTube. And there really is something for everyone, whether your musical tastes lean more toward roots and folk or rap and rock.

Part of the fun, though, is that since each concert typically runs less than 15 minutes, it’s easy to step outside your comfort zone and explore music you may have not been drawn to otherwise. That’s how I discovered what would end up being one of my favorite bands, Buke and Gass. (Now known as Buke & Gase to make the pronunciation a little easier to grok, I guess.) The duo’s 2011 turn at the tiny desk remains one of my favorites to this day.

If you’re looking for something a little more traditional, check out the amazing 2016 performance by Tedeschi Trucks Band. I’ve seen Derek Trucks live more times than I care to count (starting when he was just a wee 16-year-old playing honkytonks here in Alabama), but I’ve never heard him or his band sound better than this. The controlled environment and lack of screaming crowds put the focus right where it belongs—on the music and the performance.

Speaking of sounding great, if there’s any single Tiny Desk concert that makes the case for listening in a proper media room or home theater instead of hunching over your phone or laptop, that would be Andrew Bird’s incredible show, also from 2016. The performance is stunning, but it’s the recording quality that really makes this one a standout. It’s punchy, dynamic, in-your-face, and incredibly detailed. I’ve seen Bird in concert nearly a dozen times now, 

and I’ve never enjoyed this level of clarity and intimacy in person.

Another fantastic-sounding fav is the 2018 performance by jazz/hip hop/R&B-fusion supergroup The Midnight Hour, formed by Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest and composer Adrian Younge (whom you may know from his work on the Luke Cage score). There’s not much to say about this one other than turn down your lights, turn up your sound system, open up your favorite bottle of wine or cognac, and get ready to groove.

I mentioned above that stepping outside your comfort zone is one of the best things about Tiny Desk. But the series is also at its best when it pushes the performers themselves out of their comfort zones. Take the 2016 performance by Blue Man Group, for example. A cramped little office space is probably the last place you’d expect to see this performance-art group playing their percussive contraptions these days, but this set is every bit as weird and wonderful as any of the 

stadium shows I’ve seen them play over the past couple decades, mostly due to the ways the group is forced to adapt to such an intimate environment.

 

Again, that’s just a tiny taste of what’s available behind the tiny desk, and if you’re a longtime fan of the series, I’ve almost certainly left off 15 or 20 of your favorites. And if you’re new to the series, consider this as more of a jumping-off point for your own exploration than a definitive best-of list.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Kanopy is a Big Tent for Free Movies

Kanopy is a Big Tent for Free Movies

I am a congenital tightwad, yet I shell out a significant amount of money each year for subscription video-streaming services. The usual suspects show up on my credit card statements: Amazon Prime Video (as part of my annual Amazon Prime $119 subscription), Netflix ($15.99/month), and HBO ($14.99/month). In an unusually weak moment last June (albeit one I haven’t yet regretted), I signed up for a Mubi yearly subscription that set me back $95.58.

 

Despite well over $500 disappearing from my bank account over the course of a year, my go-to source for streaming movies (and other video content) hasn’t cost me a dime since I discovered it about eight months ago. I’m not talking about one of the more prominent, ad-supported services like Tubi—the self-proclaimed “world’s largest free ad-supported video on demand 

(AVOD) service”—or Pluto TV, the ad-supported streaming TV/VOD service. Instead, I’ve become enamored of Kanopy, a free service that’s mostly streamed under the radar of most cord-cutters.

 

Kanopy describes itself as “a video-

Kanopy is a Big Tent for Free Movies

streaming platform dedicated to thoughtful and thought-provoking films” that was founded in 2008 “to provide academic institutions with essential films that foster learning and conversation.”

 

That was great as long as you were a student or faculty member at a participating university or college. Three years ago, though, Kanopy began offering its services to public libraries, a move that enabled anyone with a library card at a participating library to stream selections from Kanopy’s impressive collection of films and videos. Kanopy’s reach is pretty remarkable, too.

 

I must admit that when I read that Kanopy specializes in “thoughtful and thought-provoking films . . . that foster learning and conversation,” I assumed they meant either “boring as hell” or “incomprehensible high-concept art” flicks. Of course, one man’s cinematic gold is another man’s cure for insomnia. In this case, however, there’s enough variety among Kanopy’s 30,000-plus titles that you’d have to be the most contrarian, irritable, and thoroughly unlovable person on the planet (no offense intended for those of you who happen to fit that description) not to find something worth watching in the selections obtained from Kanopy’s 12,000-plus filmmaker and supplier partners. Some of the more recognizable of these partners include The Criterion Collection, Kino Lorber, Paramount, PBS, Film Movement, Oscilloscope Laboratories, and A24.

 

There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Movie

Although using Kanopy doesn’t cost anything directly, either in subscription fees or time spent watching advertisements, it isn’t really free. Your ability to use it is funded by the academic institution you’re associated with or your local public library.

 

“Just as libraries purchase books for their patrons to borrow,” the folks at Kanopy helpfully explain, “they also offer a variety of digital resources. Kanopy can provide its viewers with free access because the public library or university covers the associated costs, allowing patrons to watch for free, with no advertisements.” As a result, not just anyone with internet access 

can log into Kanopy and start streaming movies for free. You have to have a valid library membership with a participating public or institutional library.

 

Not every public library offers access to Kanopy as part of its digital services. In my case, I live near the county line that separates two public library systems. I’m a member of both thanks to reciprocal agreements among a handful of the regional libraries in my state, but only one of these two

a sampling of Kanopy’s film collections

(click on the images to enlarge)

systems offers Kanopy. (Both, on the other hand, do offer Hoopla, a digital service with fewer movies—a little more than 10,000 last time I checked—but Hoopla also includes access to music, audiobooks, ebooks, and comics.) Kanopy says its service is available in more than 4,000 libraries worldwide with more than 45 million public library patrons potentially able to stream titles from its collection.

 

Getting Credit Where Credit is Due

In addition to the library membership requirement, there are two other aspects related to using Kanopy that potentially limit its overall appeal. One is that Kanopy is a streaming-only service. Unlike Amazon Video, Netflix, and even Hoopla, it doesn’t offer downloads for offline viewing.

 

The other drawback is that some libraries may limit the number of videos a user can watch each month. Kanopy says this number will vary by library, but in my case, the limit is six plays/month. I’ve found other libraries that offer only four plays and some that allow eight per month.

 

The play credits reset at midnight on the first day of each calendar month. Unfortunately, unused play credits do not roll over into the following month. A play credit is deducted from your account once the video you’ve selected has played for five seconds (yikes!). After that, you have 72 hours to finish watching the video or, for that matter, watch it in its entirety as many times as you can fit into the 72-hour timespan without being charged for an additional credit.

 

There is one workaround for the play-credit limit, and it’s totally legit to use. When you create an account with Kanopy, you can link it to memberships from more than one library. That way, if you use all of your play credits from one library, you can switch to the next linked membership and begin using those play credits. I don’t have that luxury. My daughter, on the other hand, can use her access to our local public library as well as the library at the university where she goes to school.

Kanopy is a Big Tent for Free Movies
Kanopy is a Big Tent for Free Movies

Although my interest in Kanopy primarily involves its movie streaming library, it also offers over 6,200 educational titles from The Great Courses—plus an extensive collection of children’s titles, called Kanopy Kids. You can access the titles in either group without being charged any play credits.

 

Speaking of access, Kanopy makes it easy to access its service. In addition to streaming titles via a web browser on your computer, it has mobile apps for iOS and Android devices, as well as Amazon Fire tablets. There are also Kanopy apps for TV devices, including Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Samsung Smart TV, Roku, and Chromecast.

 

Free Isn’t Even the Best Part

As I mentioned at the outset, my inner penny-pincher is what initially drew my attention to Kanopy. But if I were to make a list of all the things I like about the service, the fact that it’s free would be near the bottom.

 

For some reason—and this is entirely subjective—I am quite fond of the interface. In many respects, it’s not that much different from the look and feel of the Netflix and Amazon Prime Video interfaces. Kanopy’s, however, is more subdued (much like, dare I say it, a library), whereas navigating the others is more akin to dodging salespeople as you wander through a big-box store.

 

I especially appreciate the fact that Kanopy’s “Browse by Subjects” page is unadorned and straightforward, with none of the incessantly blinking “Watch Me!” banners or the prominent placement of each service’s exclusive content. I’ve also found that the selections offered under the “Related videos” and “People who watched this also watched” tabs are much more appealing than the suggestions I usually get from Amazon or Netflix—so much so that my watchlist of movies on Kanopy continues to grow faster than I’m able to enjoy them. (I’m up to 216 at the moment, but I always end up adding two or three movies for each one I watch.)

Kanopy is a Big Tent for Free Movies

Kanopy’s theatrical selection, while not being as wide as Amazon’s or Netflix’s (ever-shrinking) options when it comes to standard box-office fare, is first-rate if you’re a fan of silent movies, classics, foreign, or independent films. Just as a quick example, the latest searches I did came up with 50 releases from The Criterion Collection, nearly 950 from Kino Lorber, 86 from A24, and 152 from Samuel Goldwyn Films. Since Kanopy’s catalog covers over 100 years of filmmaking, the picture quality will vary. Many of the early titles are remastered, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Metropolis (the meticulously restored 149-minute original-length version as well as 1984’s color-tinted, 84-minute reconstruction Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis that includes a most unfortunate MTV-era pop soundtrack). Other films, including many of the selections from the DEFA Film Library’s collection of East German films, are unaltered from the original source and will exhibit scratches and other flaws.

 

OK, So It Isn’t for Everyone

For most people, Kanopy won’t replace all of their other streaming services. For folks without library (public or academic) memberships, it won’t even be an option. Anyone who regularly streams more than one movie a week will likely exhaust their available play credits before the end of each month. Fans who like to binge-watch sitcoms won’t find much to watch. (Although there is an episode of “Screenwriting 101” from The Great Courses called “The Sitcom: The Simpsons” available—and viewing it doesn’t count against your play credits, either.) I can tell you that I use Kanopy often enough that I’ve moved it to the top of the list of apps on my Roku Ultra’s home screen.

 

One final note about the hidden costs behind Kanopy. I know next to nothing about the economics of libraries. Nor do I know virtually anything about the way the various movie-industry players, especially the independents, make (or lose) money. Kanopy says that “On average, over 50% of the revenue collected from public libraries and academic institutions is paid to the independent film market through royalties.” To me, that sounds fantastic. But evidently, the cost to the libraries of providing Kanopy to their patrons is not insignificant. If you’re interested in the gritty economic underbelly of the Kanopy/Public Library/Academia ecosystem, check out Chris Cagle’s “Kanopy: Not Just Like Netflix, and Not Free” post from May 2019 at Film Quarterly.

Darryl Wilkinson

During his 33 years of tenure in the consumer-electronics industry, Darryl Wilkinson
has made a career out of saying things that sound like they could be true about topics
he knows next to nothing about. He is currently Editor-at-Large for
Sound & Vision, and
sometimes writes things that can be read—if you have nothing else to do—elsewhere.
His biggest accomplishment to date has been making a very fashionable Faraday
cage hoodie.

How to Train Your YouTube

How to Train Your YouTube

When my wife and I cut the cord around this time last year, we both went into the process expecting very little change in terms of our viewing habits. We had Hulu and CBS All Access. We had Netlix and Amazon Prime. We were already looking toward Disney+ on the horizon. Best I could tell, practically every traditional broadcast show we still cared to watch would be 

covered by our streaming-media subscriptions for something like 30% of the cost of the most basic satellite package. And with better picture quality to boot.

 

Fast-forward to 2020, and we’ve landed in a place I don’t think either of us would have ever predicted. While we still check in on a few of our favorite broadcast shows (one fewer now that The Good Place has ended its brilliant run), that old tether to traditional media unravels more and more every week.

 

So much so that if you take movies out of the equation, a full 60% of the TV we watch comes from YouTube, of all places.

 

Before you jump to any conclusions about cat videos shot on mobile phones or “Gangnam Style” (is that still a thing?), a few caveats are in order. My wife and I aren’t crowded around a laptop playing whack-a-mole with a mouse or trackpad. We’re watching YouTube on the same home entertainment system where we watch our Kaleidescape movie server. That means, of course, relying on a good video streamer. (Roku in our case, since none of the other major streamers support YouTube in its highest-quality 4K/HDR output.)

 

We’re also not zipping through a never-ending stream of three- or four-minute short-attention-span clips, either. I’ve talked at length already about our love of Critical Role, each episode of which runs about as long as your average Lord of the Rings movie (Extended Editions, of course). Another of our favorite channels as of late is Baumgartner Restoration, which features in-depth painting restorations, 

presented in 4K, performed by one of the foremost private conservation studios in the US. Julian Baumgartner’s videos often run upwards of 40 minutes each, and are often offered in two forms: One with narration and one aimed at the ASMR crowd, with little more by way of audio accompaniment than the subtle sounds of scraping and brushing.

Perhaps more importantly, though, my wife and I are not slave to YouTube’s willy-nilly recommendation algorithms. In fact, although it’s taken us the better part of a year now, we’ve actually trained YouTube to work for us, serving up content that suits our particular interests to the exclusion of nearly everything else. As eclectic as our proclivities are, that’s no easy task, but as a buddy of mine recently mused when he dropped by to hang out for the afternoon, “YouTube has got you two weirdos figured out. How?!”

 

He’s absolutely correct in his assessment. Scroll my YouTube feed on the big screen and you’re likely to see silly sports mockumentaries starring a cast of colorful marbles flanked by Irish people trying American food for the first time on one side and noob-friendly music theory on the other.

 

For every episode of Adam Savage’s Tested, there’s a lecture by Noam Chomsky or an old episode of Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Jr. or a rumination about the intersection of classical mythology and folklore with Dungeons & Dragons.

 

And if you’re thinking to yourself, “Eeesh, what a scattershot feed of videos! That’s exactly the sort of mess that has turned me off of YouTube thus far,” recognize that this hodgepodge is a stew of my own making. That’s exactly what I want my YouTube page to look like: A balanced mix of intelligent politics, fine art, comic book art, D&D, video games, 1970s and ’80s toys, engineering, and adorable frivolity. And no doubt your feed would look a little erratic to me if you spent the time to train it. That’s exactly the point. In terms of customization to one’s unique preferences, there simply aren’t any other streaming-video platforms that hold a candle to YouTube.

 

But back to my buddy’s most important question: “How?!” It’s simple, really. And it boils down to two words you’re probably sick of hearing if you’ve spent any appreciable amount of time in the new media landscape: Like and subscribe.

 

My wife and I have separate logins on our YouTube Roku app. We have spent ages now carefully curating a list of 

Baumgartner Restoration

What Makes This Song Great?

From the Drawing Board w/Dael Kingsmill

Biffa Plays Indie Games

channels to which we each subscribe. There is some overlap, of course, because we’re an old married couple. But what I’ve noticed is that every difference in our respective subscription lists is reflected in substantial differences in our homepages. What’s more, the relationships between our subscribed channels also seem to have a significant influence on what we’re recommended.

 

It seems to me that there’s some pretty sophisticated calculus going on here. Whereas Netflix seems to offer up recommendations along the lines of, “87% of people who watched what you just watched also watched this other thing,” YouTube’s thinking seems to involve a little more triangulation: “If you subscribe to A and B, maybe you’ll like C?” If not, YouTube eventually gives up and tries more of a “If you like X and Y, maybe Z?” approach.

 

My wife, on the other hand, seems to be getting equations more along the lines of “A + X = Purple.” Old married couple though we may be, her brain is still a mystery to me at times. In fact, it often feels like YouTube has her figured out better than I do.

 

In other words, YouTube’s recommendation algorithms appear to me to be an order of magnitude more sophisticated than those of Netflix. And you could argue that this is because YouTube isn’t spending hundreds of millions of dollars creating new movies and TV shows it must force down the throats of mass audiences in order to justify its investments and hang onto your subscription fees. You could also just as easily argue that YouTube is using this intimate model of your personality to serve you with more relevant ads, which Netflix doesn’t have to worry about. But, for whatever reason, YouTube has allowed my wife and me to hand-craft media portals that genuinely speak to our unique personal tastes.

Quantum OLED

So, if you’ve dabbled with YouTube in your home media system and found it to be a largely disconnected torrent of seemingly unrelated clips of little interest to you, do what we’ve done and spend a little time training it. There’s a wealth of reference-quality home theater demos on the service, but what’s more, there’s a ton of entertaining (and even informative) content the likes of which you’ll never find on more traditional service providers like broadcast television or even Netflix.

 

Spend some time teaching YouTube who you are, and you may just find that it completely changes the way you watch TV.

 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

How to Get Audiophile-Quality Streaming

How to Get Audiophile-Quality Streaming

There are many ways to listen to high-quality, great-sounding music but not everyone knows about the multitude of wonderful options that are readily available these days. Some of you well might be enjoying the resurgence of vinyl and turntables. I am certainly into those (always have been!), and yet I am also a fan of high-resolution surround sound music from Blu-ray, SACD, and DVD Audio discs!

 

Curiously, in these 21st Century times, downloads are fast becoming retro technology, especially as high-quality dedicated, computer-driven streaming audio services have become a strongly viable option for many listeners.

 

And I’m not talking about just pulling up some random advertising-riddled audio-videos on YouTube, which often are quite awful sounding with no information as to what you are hearing. A lot of people do this. In fact, YouTube has grown so popular

for music listening that Billboard is now counting it in their tracking of the album charts.

 

It’s a thing, as they say . . . But, you know, tinny sounding monaural AM radio was also once a thing.

 

We can do better than that, fidelity-wise!   

 

I’ve tried several of the popular modern internet streaming services. While Spotify gets points for its sheer volume of titles, to my ear it has never sounded particularly good nor especially high fidelity. Fortunately, there are some real fine genuinely “HiFi” alternatives. For the past couple of years, 

I’ve had access to two of the premier high-resolution, subscription-based streaming-media services, which deliver fidelity at a minimum of CD quality and often much much higher: Tidal and Qobuz.

 

These are especially good when you stream music in their respective high-resolution formats: MQA (aka Master Quality Audio) and Hi-Res. Both services offer thousands of albums new and old to stream. Any albums in Tidal’s catalog marked with an “M” have the potential to play back in higher 24-bit depth, many at 96 kHz and higher resolution. I reviewed one title

streaming at 352.8 kHz that sounded fantastic!

 

The upsides to Tidal and Qobuz are many, but there are some crucial connections you’ll need to make to get the most out of these services. While your installer can likely help you integrate streaming into your current sound system, here are some of the basics you’ll want to understand.

 

First and foremost, you will probably need a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) to 

help integrate music streaming into your home entertainment system from a computer or mobile device. The DAC essentially handles the quite significant processing muscle your computer would otherwise be required to do in order to deliver high-resolution audio to your system. In a loose sense, MQA is to high-resolution internet streaming as DTS and Dolby are to surround sound, compacting large audio files for delivery to you that get unpacked when decoded locally in your home. 

 

If you want to stream in MQA format, make sure your DAC is compatible. Alternately, if you don’t want to bother with a DAC and a computer, there are very cool new stand-alone products on the market that may be more appealing. Last year at a preview event here in San Francisco, I heard (and reported on) NAD’s M10 systema beautiful-looking piece of modern hardware designed purely for streaming.

How to Get Audiophile-Quality Streaming

NAD’s M10 BluOS streaming amplifier

How to Get Audiophile-Quality Streaming

Mytek’s Brooklyn Bridge streamer/DAC/preamp

When using these systems on a day-to-day basis, it is important to understand that Tidal requires a bit more finesse to use, settings-wise, so you might want to ask your installer to help you dial that in. If you don’t want to mess around with the settings, Qobuz is probably the easiest one-click solution. Just hit Play, and the DAC recognizes the “Hi-Res” album you have chosen and plays the music. 

 

There are trade-offs. When comparing identical albums on each platform, there are some sonic differences you might notice. To my ear, most times the MQA versions on Tidal tend to sound best—something to do with how it handles the music and presents it to you sounds more appealing to my ear. Again, this also depends largely on a variety of variables, including the quality of your DAC, the pedigree of the recordings the streaming services received from the music labels, how the music was transferred to digital for streaming purposes, and what resolution files were provided to the service for streaming. That is another discussion for the future and a reason to look for my reviews here and on Audiophile Review.

 

Streaming services can be a rabbit-hole adventure as you compare the sonic differences between titles—many times, you’ll find an album in both CD and high-resolution versions on these services, so it can be fun to compare and contrast.

 

Basic use of each service is easy: Just search for titles you want to play and then mark them as “favorites” if you want to add them to “your” collections. You can also build playlists, which are fun and handy.

 

So, what recordings should you stream? In the weeks and months ahead, I’ll try to make recommendations of cool albums to check out. Most everything you might want to hear is up there, from Abba to Zappa, quite literally! 

 

Happy streaming!

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound+Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

The Mandalorian: More Than Just Star Wars

The Mandalorian: More Than Just Star Wars

If you haven’t already seen Season One of The Mandalorian on Disney+, it stands to reason that you’re simply not interested. You may even be sick of hearing about it altogether, given that it’s the only thing in 2019 that managed to out-meme that crazy woman from Real Housewives yelling at a cat eating salad.

 

Here’s the thing, though: While much of the discussion about The Mandalorian has centered on its adorable baby-alien McGuffin or the show’s ties to the larger Star Wars universe, or even on its everything-old-is-new-again weekly release 

schedule, there hasn’t been an awful lot of talk about whether it is actually good. Not as a Star Wars TV series. Not as a lore drop about one of the franchise’s most beloved and mysterious factions. Not even as a small plank in the bridge between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, chronologically speaking. But as, you know, just a TV show. A thing that exists in and of itself, independent of the fanatical fanbase or larger mythology.

 

The last time I wrote about the series, five episodes into its eight-episode run, I withheld judgment on that matter. Now that we’re a few days past the first-season finale, and I’ve had a chance to watch the season again from front to back, 

I wanted to step back and take off my Star Wars scholar hat and discuss the show on its own terms (not an easy task, since I once defeated the president of the Star Wars Fan Club in a trivia contest and still have the prize to prove it).

 

The Mandalorian is the love child of Jon Favreau, a name you definitely know, and Dave Filoni, who may be unfamiliar if you’re not a big Star Wars fan. In short, Filoni was half of the creative driving force behind The Clone Wars, one of the best TV series of the past 20 years, but also one of the most criminally underrated, likely because it was animated.

 

That aside, though, there’s one massive difference between The Clone Wars and The Mandalorian: The former assumed you were deeply invested in Star Wars lore and wanted to know more; the latter seems more interested in deconstructing the elements that made the original Star Wars trilogy such a cultural phenomenon and reassembling them into something new. Something that both pays homage and reinvents.

 

You don’t have to know much about George Lucas’s space opera/fantasy to know that this means going back to the wells of both Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone, the former of which influenced the latter and both of which inspired Star Wars in very different ways. Since The Mandalorian isn’t about a larger civilization-spanning conflict, Favreau and Filoni leave other influences—like The Dam Busters and Tora! Tora! Tora!—on the table and bring in some new inspiration, namely Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s epic Japanese comic-book serial Lone Wolf and Cub and the film adaptations it spawned.

The Mandalorian: More Than Just Star Wars

The beauty of Favreau and Filoni’s new pastiche is that you really don’t need to know any of that to enjoy it. Nor do you have to know that the show’s producers have eschewed CGI as much as possible by going back and developing new techniques for photographing and compositing spacecraft models that are very much inspired by the techniques of ILM circa 1976 to 1983. Without knowing any of that, you can just feel it. There’s this wonderful mix of the familiar and the foreign that drives this series.

 

And that’s true of everything, down to Ludwig Göransson’s incredible score, which may be my favorite thing about The Mandalorian. Instead of aping John Williams’ iconic themes, as so many other composers have done when playing around in ancillary Star Wars projects, Göransson gives us something new that isn’t really new at all. Squint at it from one direction and

there’s an undeniable Eastern influence to the tones, the textures, the overall structure of the music. Step back and look at it from another angle, and it could just as easily have accompanied any of the misadventures of the Man with No Name.

 

As with Williams, Göransson also sprinkles in the flavor of Holst and the spice of Stravinsky 

from time to time, but—at the risk of sounding repetitive—it’s the way he combines these influences, along with his own unique aesthetic, that results in something new and compelling that still feels familiar, even if you can’t quite put your finger on exactly why.

 

I hinted above that The Mandalorian doesn’t attempt to bite off more than it can chew, namely in the way that it doesn’t attempt to mash up every classic work of cinema or serial that inspired the original Star Wars, and that’s as true thematically as it is narratively and stylistically. There really isn’t much here by way of spiritual rumination. The mystical is treated as a mystery, and doesn’t play heavily into the meaning of the series.

 

Then again, it can take a while to really figure out what fundamental ideas the show is attempting to play around with, in large part due to its very episodic structure. In crafting this season, Favreau and Filoni seem intent upon letting the writers and directors of each 33- to 49-minute episode create their own little narratives, reminiscent in ways of David Carradine’s Kung Fu from the mid-1970s. And it isn’t until the very end that one episode really connects to the next and a larger story arc begins to congeal.

 

Taken as a whole, it’s not difficult to see a very simple thematic through-line woven into this collection of eight largely disconnected episodes: A tale of principles, of honor, of cultural (or familial) baggage, and of redemption—all themes that resonate within the larger Star Wars mythology, but that work just fine on their own.

 

Technically speaking, The Mandalorian is beautifully shot and honestly looks even more cinematic than its $15-million-per-episode budget would lead you to suspect. There has been some controversy over the fact that the show doesn’t make use of the expanded dynamic range or larger color gamut afforded by its Dolby Vision (or HDR10, depending on your device) presentation. Gleaming specular highlights are nowhere to be found, and the lower end of the value scale can be a bit flat. I’m guessing this was largely an aesthetic choice, as it does give the show a somewhat “classic” look, especially in comparison to other contemporary series that do make more obvious use of HDR.

 

I hesitate to accuse Disney+ of being dishonest in presenting The Mandalorian’s non-HDR cinematography in an HDR container, though, and that mostly boils down to a little-discussed advantage of our new home video standards in the era of higher-efficiency, lower-bitrate streaming: The minimization of video artifacts.

The Mandalorian: More Than Just Star Wars

On a lark, I disabled the HDR capabilities of my Roku Ultra and spot-checked an early episode, just to see what differences might pop up. In terms of color purity, shadow detail, overall brightness and so forth, any differences were hard to spot. But without the benefit of 10- (or 12-) bit color, large expanses of clear, pale sky were occasionally rendered like sun-bleached sticks of Fruit Stripe gum, with blatant banding stretching from one side of the screen to the other. Say what you will about the series’ overall flat color palette and lack of value extremes, but simply packing it in a Dolby Vision box does keep visual distractions of that sort to a bare minimum.

 

As for the audio, you’ll definitely want to enjoy The Mandalorian on the best sound system you can. One evening, whilst hanging out at a friend’s house, someone floated the idea of watching the most recent episode, which I agreed to despite having just watched it the evening prior. To be frank, I found it a lackluster experience mostly due to my buddy’s inexpensive soundbar. And it wasn’t really the explosions or gunfire that left me wanting more (although the sound mix does them justice); it was the presentation of Göransson’s score. There’s a dynamic drive to his musical accompaniment, as well as a rich blend of timbres and textures, that simply demands to be heard by way of a well-calibrated, well-installed, full-range surround sound system.

 

But should you give it a chance to shine in your home theater or media room even if you care little for George Lucas’s galaxy far, far away? I daresay yes. At its heart, The Mandalorian is a delightful bushidō/gunslinger mashup that nods at fans quite frequently, but also quite slyly, such that you’re likely to be completely unaware of any allusions or references you’ll almost certainly miss if you’re not a franchise devotee, at least once you get past the first ten minutes of the first episode (the only place where blatant fan service really rears its ugly head).

 

Taken as a whole, it definitely does stand on its own, despite its tenuous connections to the larger mythology, despite its heavy nods to works of classic cinema and television, and (perhaps most importantly) despite the fact that everyone else on your Facebook newsfeed won’t stop memeing the hell out of the series’ most heartfelt moments or most quotable dialogue.

 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

2019: The Year in Streaming

2019: The Year in Streaming

It might feel like the words “streaming” and “cord cutting” have dominated content conversations for the past few years, but once the dust has settled from the streaming vs. cable vs. disc conflict, 2019 will stand out as maybe the most important year in the shift toward the dominance of streaming content. Many of us still love our discs, but with the exponential

improvements in streaming quality over the past couple years, the end is nigh. The year in streaming wasn’t all highlights, but the bumps in the road look to be remnants of an aging past and not trends of what’s to come.

 

End of the Old Guard?

For decades, HBO was at the forefront of cutting-edge content with shows like The Sopranos, Deadwood, Veep, and Game of Thrones. But it was Thrones that brought some controversy to the premium cable network at the beginning of the year. The quality of the stream for one of its most anticipated episodes, “The Long Night,” was downright disgraceful. Blame was thrown at the director, the cinematographer, and even the audience, for not properly setting up their TVs. But when it comes down to it, the fault lay primarily with HBO. The network’s antiquated compression algorithm coupled with millions of people trying to watch the show at the same time led to an atrocious viewing experience.

 

While that whole fiasco became fodder for anyone looking for a reason to denounce the rise of streaming, people did learn how to improve their home viewing, and there are plenty of services that do streaming right. If anything, it shone a bright light on the deficiencies of HBO and the other cable services when it comes to providing high-quality content delivery. Hopefully HBO will improve with the release of HBO Max, the streaming service launching early next year from WarnerMedia. It has to, really, because there’s a new kid on the block.

 

The Disney Juggernaut

Right around the same time HBO was failing at “The Long Night,” Disney rocked the streaming world by announcing that its new service, Disney+, would only be $6.99 a month. And deals soon appeared that let you get the service for around $4 a month if you paid for three years up front (which I did). Compared to the competition, the price was surprisingly low for the expected content being provided.

 

What exactly we’d be getting, and at what quality, wasn’t fully known until Disney+ finally launched in November. Many titles are being offered in 4K HDR, including almost all of the Star Wars movies which, until then, had been capped at 1080p. (The two Star Wars titles that had previously been released on disc in 4K HDR—The Last Jedi and Solo—aren’t available yet on Disney+.)

 

The launch had its problems, namely that a lot of people couldn’t log on to their authentication servers and were left waiting for traffic to calm down and a fix to be deployed. But once that was resolved, we were all able to revel in the incredible content, like The Mandalorian, which is being released at one episode per week and not the drop-it-all-at-once-and-binge structure Netflix and Amazon Prime have followed. The Disney+ interface is also better than what other streaming services offer, and provides a good model for the others to follow—which they likely will in response.

 

Moving Away From Theaters

Toward the end of 2018, Netflix made some waves when it released a few of its films (like Roma and Bird Box) in movie theaters first, primarily to be considered for the Academy Awards, which require a minimum theatrical release of seven days. But the movies were only in the theaters from one to three weeks before they showed up on Netflix for subscribers to stream to their heart’s delight. The theaters weren’t pleased and voiced their dissent, but it blew over relatively quickly because the films, while they were awards contenders and included some incredible talent, didn’t have household names.

 

That changed this November when Netflix released Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman after only a month in theaters. Many major theater chains in both the U.S. and Europe refused to play the movie, and because of that it didn’t make anywhere near the money it could have with a traditional theatrical release. But that also was never Netflix’ intention.

 

There is still something to the shared experience of seeing a movie in a theater and the magic it can evoke. Just recently, I had the option of seeing Rise of Skywalker in a movie theater on opening weekend or staying home and watching it a screener copy. I chose to complete the 42-year journey in the theater with a group of strangers I didn’t know but was connected to through Star Wars nonetheless. But my motivation to spend the money and leave the house is dwindling when I have a perfectly good home theater and high enough bandwidth to stream a 4K HDR movie with Dolby Atmos through any number of streaming services.

 

On to 2020

The immediate future for streaming could be very interesting. There will be even 

more services coming online in 2020, including the aforementioned HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s Peacock. The problem is, the existing network services are still locked into 1080p. If they paid attention to their competitors at all in 2019, hopefully they’ll realize it’s time to step up their game.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Streaming and Censorship

Streaming and Censorship

The other evening, my wife and I concluded our holiday binge of the Harry Potter franchise on Vudu when I noticed something that up to that point hadn’t really caught my eye—the presence of an option labeled “Common Sense Media.” Upon closer inspection, the presence of Common Sense Media revealed a deeper—dare I say darker—revelation: The presence of the service Clearplay.

 

Clearplay (aka Vidangel) is aimed at “wholesome families” whereby for a fee you—a presumably God-fearing parent—can enjoy content of seemingly any ilk distilled down so as not to offend your delicate sensibilities. In the case of Harry Potter, that means you can watch the film or films without any “snogging” or “longing looks” (I’m not joking), as well as the usual “dark and intense” moments.

 

A side note: One of the items Common Sense Media and Clearplay look out for and rate is whether a film has any implicit consumerism within it. I point this out because, at least on Vudu, this rating falls just below where Vudu, a subsidiary of WalMart, attempts to sell you Harry Potter toys via a special box labeled “Related Products.”

 

But I digress.

 

By enabling Clearplay (or what Vudu calls “Family Play”), the film you’ve chosen—in this instance, Harry freakin’ Potter—is shown edited to remove any and all instances of what Common Sense Media and Clearplay have deemed inappropriate. While some form of editing for content has been with us since the dawn of television, these edits have largely been relegated to gruesome violence, gratuitous sex, and profanity—all of which are common knowledge and even in some cases 

Censorship and Streaming

democratically voted on by representatives. That is to say, we know what words are not allowed to be said on TV, and we know what type of sex or violence doesn’t fly in primetime. While I could go off on even these acts of censorship, they’re known quantities and something we all sort of just accept.

 

But who decides on the edits put forth by Clearplay?

 

This is where it gets really murky, for both Clearplay/ Vidangel and Common Sense Media give little in the way of transparency. They’re like the Borg, really, in that they appear to be a collective of

values-conscious parents just trying to “save” children from the horrors of violence, sex, and commercialism. What the services do divulge—proudly—are the names of the organizations that donate a lot of money to them, such as Amazon, WalMart, and The Gates Foundation. They also share their goals or mission bullet points, among which you will find gems along the lines of supporting and electing like-minded officials in government who align with their views and values. What. The. F**k.

 

Both companies claim to be anti-censorship, that they’re but providing a service to help parents shield their childrens’ eyes from the horrors of Hollywood, but c’mon. The messaging on their respective websites is very clear: It’s a big, bad world out there, parents are simply out-matched, and they need Common Sense Media and Clearplay to step in and help be their savior to keep their kids’ eyes and hearts pure . .  for the Lord.

 

The fact that so many companies—media companies at that—have signed off on this arbitrary form of subscription-based censorship is worrying. Moreover, it would appear filmmakers such as writers and directors have seemingly no say over whether their content can be altered by these services, since the content is typically owned by the studios or corporations and not the filmmakers themselves.

 

I’m confident there are supporters who will say that viewers, even parents themselves, have a choice whether or not to enable these filters, and that it’s all about choice—to which I say, screw that. Films are art; they are acts of expression and communication put forth by an individual or small group of individuals. Even box-office juggernauts like Harry Potter are art, despite their commercial appeal and ancillary merchandising reach. And when you censor art, for whatever reason, you’re venturing into very, very murky waters, waters we’ve attempted to traverse throughout history only to discover the destination we arrive at was never where we thought we would end up.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a photographer and videographer by trade, working on commercial
and branding projects all over the US. He has served as a managing editor and
freelance journalist in the AV space for nearly 20 years, writing technical articles,
product reviews, and guest speaking on behalf of several notable brands at functions
around the world.