Tech

Voice Control: Awesome or Awful?

Voice Control: Awesome or Awful?

If your name happens to be Alexa—as was the name of my waitress the other day—you have my sympathies. (If your name is OK Google, you probably don’t need sympathy. You need a good family therapist.) You can’t blame your parents for naming you Alexa—unless you were born after Amazon introduced the Echo in 2014.

How could anyone have predicted how absurdly popular Amazon’s Alexa voice-control service would become? Four years ago, I never imagined there’d be such a superfluity of smart devices that are “Compatible with Alexa”—thermostats, ceiling fans, robot vacuum cleaners, light switches, microwave ovens, dishwashers, humidifiers/essential-oil diffusers, washers and dryers, door locks, salt shakers, and I’m not even close to being finished yet.

 

I think I can predict that, unlike 3D, voice control isn’t going to be a fad that quickly loses its popularity and then, as the years pass, barely clings to life as a glossed-over line item on a features/specification list. I have my doubts about the staying power of an Alexa-compatible smart salt dispenser with built-in mood lighting and Bluetooth speaker (and, no, I’m not making that up). But I’m positive that, in general, voice control is here to stay.

Voice Control: Awesome or Awful?

the SMALT smart salt dispenser

Voice-recognition technology will continue to improve, and the entire virtual assistant experience will get better—whether you’re using Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, or an up-and-coming open-source voice assistant like Mycroft AI. While that’s all fine and dandy, it doesn’t mean that everything is all right and nifty. Although we’re not the only creatures on this planet

that use tools, our species definitely relies on tools more than any of the others. I imagine one of our distant ancestors, an industrious Australopithecus afarensis dude, bashed a rock (or somebody’s head) with another rock, turned to the guy next to him, and grunted, “Always use the right tool for the right job.” Closer to our time, another person—

most likely a Minoan or a Roman—uttered the maxim, “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” (As far as “Don’t be a tool” goes, I have no idea when that pithy nugget of advice became a thing.)

 

As magical as it may seem, voice control is nothing more than one more tool in our technology toolbox. It’s in there next to the infrared remote control, the joystick, the smartphone app, and the Star Wars Talking Darth Vader Clapper. It’s a good tool, 

too. But because it’s new, there’s an irresistible urge for companies to include voice-control capabilities in devices that have no need for them—even when voice control makes using the gadget more difficult. That’s the sort of user experience that can turn a person against voice control in general, especially if it’s the user’s first exposure to it.

 

I understand the urge to incorporate voice control into everything. I’ve had a relatively good experience with the Alexa devices (mostly Echoes), and it can easily fool you into thinking of it as the Swiss Army Knife of user interfaces. A couple of frustratingly one-sided “conversations” with Alexa—involving not waking up, not understanding a command, being told “Hmmm, I’m not sure right now,” getting a response to a totally random request, and having Alexa respond to the TV—will quickly disabuse you of that notion. (One time I asked Alexa to play “The world’s most relaxing song”—and, yes, there is such a thing. Alexa’s response was to play a long recording of a vuvuzela at max volume.)

 

Although voice control is a great tool for many tasks, it’s not the right tool for every job. It’s not even the right tool for most jobs. Sometimes it’s easier to use an app on your phone. At other times, it’s by far more intuitive and faster to use a remote control. Sometimes, shockingly, it’s actually best to use the buttons on the front panel.

 

Rather than a being a one-size-fits-all tool, voice control is more of a hammer whose usefulness is limited to working with “nails” made up of very specific words and phrases that are recognized by the controller. No matter how good 

natural-language processing eventually becomes, there will always be tasks for which it will be easier, faster, or less aggravating to accomplish by some manner other than speaking.

 

Voice control is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it.

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.

Art Walls: The Next Big Thing?

Art Walls: The Next Big Thing?

Refik Anadol’s data sculpture Melting Memories

This all started as a side conversation with Cory Reistad, the head of SAV Digital Environments in Bozeman, Montana. We were discussing emerging trends in luxury home entertainment, and Cory mentioned that his company is getting an increasing number of requests for video-wall installations so people can display unique, commissioned works of video art

in their homes.

 

Intrigued, I reached out to a number of people I trust to know a lot more about something like this than I do. Some of them were well aware of, and up to speed on, the whole “art wall” thing and excited about the possibilities. Some of them had no idea what I was talking about. That suggested that this is a bona fide trend that hasn’t yet achieved broad awareness even among the luxury-tech cognoscenti.

 

What follows can’t really be called an introduction to art walls—it’s more like some random notes pointing in their general direction. But I wanted to send out an early missive as I do my due diligence and we, as a site, begin to wrap our arms around the phenomenon.

 

It would probably be a good idea to show you what I’m talking about. A bunch of website loops and Vimeo clips obviously can’t begin to convey the impact of these installations, but they can at least give you a taste of what they’re all about.

First up, a projector-driven installation Barco did at the the Carrières de Lumières, a quarry-based exhibition space in Provence, France. (Early evidence suggests Barco has been largely responsible for defining, promoting, and facilitating the art-wall category—but we’ll circle back to all that in later posts.)

Art Walls: The Next Big Thing?

Next, two works by Refik Anadol. I was steered to these by Barco Residential managing director Tim Sinnaeve, who has been tremendously generous and patient about addressing my ignorant queries and bringing me up to speed. The first is Melting Memories, a 20 x 16.7-foot LED video wall of “data sculptures” based on brain-wave activity associated with memory:

The second is “Wind of Boston,” a series of video paintings that feed off from a one-year set of meteorological data gleaned from Logan Airport:

Art walls seem to be catching on for a number of reasons. Projectors are brighter, projection screens are better at rejecting ambient light, and technology like MicroLED is taking hold that will allow you to create practically any size screen out of flat-panel video displays. Also, people are finally starting to think of video screens less as eyesores and more as design opportunities. Third—although this might just be wishful thinking on my part—the proliferation of content via streaming might be creating genre burnout, causing people to reject cookie-cutter mass-market diversions for more meaningful work. Or maybe they’re just taking video works more seriously as art.

 

Tim Sinnaeve discourages using the phrase “art wall,” by the way, in favor of “Architectural Digital Canvas,” while referring to the content itself as “New Media Art.” I can see the need for the more accurate nomenclature—there’s no reason, for instance, why you can’t have video images on the ceiling or the floor as well as the wall—but “art wall” seems like the more intuitive term, at least as we begin to explore the trend.

 

Tim pointed out something that was kind of an epiphany for me, since it suggests that these installations are part of a larger paradigm shift in luxury tech. Art walls deliberately try to avoid the connotations of the 16:9 aspect ratio, which we associate with computer monitors, movies, TV shows, and gaming, so the viewer will more readily embrace the art work on its own terms. The idea of freeing screens from the tyranny of the proscenium could clear the way for other innovative tech-driven art/entertainment experiences in the home, again, helping to break the stranglehold of mass-produced genre-driven melodrama. It could also finally provide a way for architects and designers, who tend to look askance at the man cave and its descendants, to embrace cutting-edge video tech in the home.

 

Like I said—just a bunch of random notes as we begin to look into a development well worth checking out.

Michael Gaughn

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 Old-Fashioned Clicker Gets a Facelift

The Old-Fashioned Clicker Gets a Facelift

the Savant Pro Remote remote control

Despite all the advances in home technology, I still like channel surfing—the old-fashioned way—by pressing buttons on a handheld remote control. It’s mindless work. Just keep pressing to scroll through the guide and pop into a program when something catches my eye.

 

A remote control might seem a bit behind the times when an Amazon Echo speaker is standing there listening to your every beck and call, but I like my trusty couch companion. I don’t need to get up from my comfy seat or shout at some inanimate

object. I can just lay back and peck at a few buttons. I know my remote “hears” me. As for that smart speaker, like a petulant teenager, it seems to ignore me no matter how much I yell.

 

Remote controls are more than just channel-surfing tools, though. They’ve gotten pretty darn sophisticated and smart over the years. Besides busting them out when you want to find a movie on Netflix, you can peer at their built-in touchscreens to see and control what’s happening throughout your home.

 

Sometimes, you can teach the remote a few new simple

tricks. But if you’d like to press its buttons to operate lights, thermostats, AV equipment, security systems, garage-door openers, and a host of other devices, it’s best to get a professional integrator involved. He has the expertise to outfit your home with all the components necessary for complete, easy control. He’ll also likely recommend that you use wall-mounted

keypads, touchscreens, and your voice to supervise systems around your home. These methods are sexy and sophisticated, but the familiarity of a handheld remote can’t be beat.

 

With the help of a home-technology integrator, each button on the remote can be configured to dispatch multiple commands to multiple devices. This “one press does it all” command is commonly referred to as a macro, and it’s amazingly simple yet powerful.  A button labeled “Movie Time,” for example, could be programmed to dim the lights, close the motorized shades, and lock the front door. In

The Old-Fashioned Clicker Gets a Facelift

the Logitech Harmony Elite remote control

seconds, with a bowl of popcorn in your lap, you’ve transformed your living room into a cinema. 

 

Other scenarios can unfold with ease in other areas of your home. “Bedtime” can adjust the thermostats, close the blinds, lock the doors, and set the security system. “Entertain” can turn on your favorite jazz playlist, activate patio lights, and set the lights to showcase artwork on the walls . . . or whatever your heart desires.

 

That’s the beauty of a smart remote that works with other smart devices: The sky is the limit as to what you can do. Heck, you can even use the remote’s built-in screen to see who’s knocking at the front door, peruse your music library, see the current weather report, or monitor the status of your security system. And instead of yelling at a voice-enabled device to turn off the hallway lights or lower the volume of your music system, you can use your “indoor voice” to launch verbal commands through the remote’s built-in microphone. Take that, Alexa!

Lisa Montgomery

With more than 20 years under her belt covering all things electronic for the home, Lisa
Montgomery 
has developed a knack for knowing what types of products and systems
make sense for homeowners looking to update their abodes. When she’s not exploring
innovative ways to introduce technology into homes, Lisa breaks away from the electronics
world on a bike, kayak, or a towel on the beach.

Tube-Based Home Theater–Why Not?

Tube-Based Home Theater--Why Not?

the Zen Ultra 5.1-channel preamplifier

Many audiophiles love tube gear. So why do we almost never see or hear about tube-based home theater systems? If tubes sound so luxuriously great, why aren’t they more common in home entertainment installations?

 

Multichannel-friendly tube products do exist. Decware makes a multichannel tube preamp— the Zen Ultra, a $2,995 six-channel unit that accommodates up to four program sources. Butler Audio offers its five-channel TDB 5150 tube power amplifier ($2,995) and three-channel TDB 3150 (price currently unavailable). For a program source, there are the

Tube-Based Home Theater--Why Not?

ModWright Instruments modifications of the Oppo BDP-105 (shown at left), BDP-105D, and UDP-205 Blu-ray players ($2,495 for the base modification only; user must supply player). Note that the players themselves are discontinued—you’ll have to search to find one.

Not exactly a big list.

 

In fact, I couldn’t find any other tube Blu-ray players or multichannel preamps other than out-of-production ModWright mods of other models—the Fosgate Audionics FAP V1 preamp/processor and the Conrad-Johnson MET-1 multichannel preamp. (If

readers know of any other products, please let me know.) There are also Samsung components that have tubes in their amplifiers, but they’re home-theater-in-a-box systems, not luxury AV products.

 

On the other hand, there is a plethora of tube amplifiers (in addition to the Butler Audio models) that could be used in a home theater system. In a 5.1 system, for example, 

Tube-Based Home Theater--Why Not?

the tubes in Samsung’s HT-H7750 home-theater-in-a-box system

you could employ stereo amps for the main and the surround channels and a mono or bridged stereo amp for the center channel. Or use five separate mono amps. (This is assuming a powered subwoofer in the system; a passive subwoofer would require another amp to drive it.)

 

So—other than tube amplifiers, there’s an obvious lack of tube home theater components.

 

Also, to use a multichannel tube preamp, you’d want to pair it with a source component with discrete (separate) multichannel audio outputs. You guessed it—there aren’t many around. Other than the ModWright/BDP-105, BDP-105D, and UDP-205 (and other models they’ve offered over the years), there are only a few other (solid-state) Blu-ray players with such outputs, 

like the highly regarded Ultra HD Panasonic DP-UB9000 or the Denon Professional DN-500BD MK II, recommended by Decware head honcho Steve Deckert. (You could use an HDMI-to-multichannel analog converter box with a Blu-ray player or other A/V source without multichannel analog outputs, but such a kludge would almost certainly degrade the sound.)

 

What about those tube amps? There are plenty available. But you’d have to use amps that are powerful enough for home theater, which limits the range of choices. Just picture a phalanx of big, hot, heavy, energy-sucking amps in your home-entertainment room—maybe not something that

would fit into your living environment. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, tube components do require some attention and maintenance.

 

But the main reason tube-based home theater systems are rare is that there’s almost no demand for them. As Stereophile’s Kal Rubinson noted, “There are too few people to make tube home theater components a viable market for manufacturers. Even 10 years ago, when we were in what we might call a ‘golden age’ of home theater popularity, it was hard to find such components or customers who wanted them.”

 

Based on my experience over decades of going to countless audio shows, dealers, and homes, I agree. And there are those who would say, “Why bother? Tubes don’t sound any better than solid-state.”

 

That said, having a tube home theater system is more than just some outrageous idea dreamed up by the editor and myself.

 

While not wanting to reveal sales figures, Decware told me the company sells several of its six-channel tube preamps each year. And between 2010 and 2019, ModWright has sold an average of 100 tube Blu-ray players each year (in addition to

other tube and hybrid components). That’s hundreds of listeners—maybe not McDonald’s numbers, but proof that there are enthusiasts out there who prize tube home theater sound. (How many home theater systems have tube amps? As of now, I don’t have an estimate, if one is even available.)

 

Also, although they’re not multichannel, there are countless stereo tube CD players, DACs (digital-to-analog 

converters), and even phono stages that could be incorporated into home entertainment systems, the $2,999 PrimaLuna Prologue Classic CD player (shown above) being just one example.

 

In fact, there are some who feel you don’t even need multichannel to enjoy spacious home theater sound. A well-set-up 2-channel or 2.1-channel system (two speakers and a subwoofer) can offer a compelling listening experience, maybe even fooling listeners into thinking they’re hearing surround sound. And there’s a wide variety of tube stereo components out there with which to create such a system.

 

Certainly, most people are going to go with a standard home-entertainment installation. Yet if you want to experience some sonic tube flavor in your system, it might be an uncommon option—but it’s a viable one.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Getting Into Vinyl? Find Yourself an Expert

Getting Into Vinyl? Find Yourself an Expert

Photo by Ivan Boban from Pexels

Listening to a luxury turntable can be a sublime musical experience. However, actually buying an ultimate record-playback setup can be daunting, especially if you don’t know who to turn to for advice. There are so many choices for turntables, tonearms, phono cartridges, and electronics . . . where to begin?

The short answer: Rely on an expert.

 

The obvious first place to look is a good specialist audio/video retailer, custom installation firm, or systems integration company. You want companies that sell and install high-end turntables and are knowledgeable about these things. (Luxury turntables require expert setup.)

 

Do a search, and you’ll find that some dealers focus on home audio and video, while other companies lean toward home automation, business, and corporate services, and may not even have turntables on their line card. Traditional “stereo stores” (boy, does that sound dated, but do a Google search and they’ll come up) will likely be your best bet, but don’t rule out others without checking. Stirling Trayle of the consulting company Audio Systems Optimized notes, “The consumer/dealer relationship is vital. Find a good dealer and stick with them.”

 

See if the potential dealer carries reputable brands. Ones you can expect to find at a dealer who’s on top of his game

include Brinkmann, Clearaudio, Linn, McIntosh, SME, Tech DAS, and VPI.

 

Even if you don’t know a platter from a pizza you should be prepared with as much knowledge as possible. As the old Syms clothing store commercials used to say, “An educated consumer is our best customer.”

 

Good articles about buying turntables can be found online at Engadget, CNET and Make Use Of. Although these tend to focus on lower- and mid-priced models rather than ne plus ultra gear, they’re good reading. For articles about and reviews of ultimate-performance gear, check out some of the websites listed in the “Sites & Sound” sidebar below.

And if you feel up to some old-school book-length reading, I highly recommend two volumes, both written in a clear, non-intimidating style. The Complete Guide to High-End Audio by Robert Harley, editor of The Absolute Sound, contains a wealth of information on turntables (and every other type of audio component). It’s available from Amazon, HiFiBooks.com, and other outlets. The Friendly Audio Guide by veteran A/V writer Mark Fleischmann is exactly that, filled with useful material about turntables and everything audio. You can buy it from Amazon, Quiet River Press, and elsewhere.

 

As for online and Facebook forums and discussion groups, you’ll need to keep things in perspective. Audiophiles tend to be opinionated, with adherents and detractors for analog vs. digital, tubes vs. solid-state, and every conceivable audio-related topic, with no consensus on what’s “best.” That said, reading posts, some from honest-to-goodness audio-industry experts who are friendly and generous with advice, can be extremely informative.

 

However . . . there’s also an epidemic of misinformation online. Without getting 

into the sociological “why,” it’s well-known that social media sites are filled with people posting uninformed and rude comments. Sadly, audio forums and discussion groups aren’t immune. Beware of self-styled “experts” who are anything but, not to mention the flat-out trolls. If the poster is inflammatory, dogmatic, condescending, seems to have an agenda, or all of the above, those are the typical tells of someone to ignore.

Once you feel like you’ve identified some potential places to buy your dream turntable setup, go and take a listen. Buying a high-performance, luxury turntable-based audio system is not unlike buying a sports car—and can cost as much, all told. So you’ll want to be as comfortable with your audio dealer as you are with your car dealer.

 

Check out a variety of turntables. This is important: Ask the dealer to take you through the process of actually playing a record—putting it on the platter, cueing up the tonearm/cartridge, and so on. Playing a record without damaging the disc or the turntable takes a little practice. And you’ll want some instruction in how to maintain your gear over time. Bring some good-sounding records you’re familiar with so you’ll have a consistent point of reference as you check out different models (see “A Newbie’s List of Reference Discs”).

 

 A great turntable setup should sound astoundingly lifelike, detailed and dynamic with an almost tangible presence to vocals and instruments. It should absolutely, completely, utterly blow you away.

 

Oh, and one more suggestion . . .

 

If you can, attend an audio show! If you’ve never been to one, you’ll be dazzled by the variety of turntables and audio gear to listen to. They’re a wonderful opportunity to meet the designers and manufacturers first-hand, along with hundreds of enthusiasts. They’re also tremendous fun! With more and more audio shows happening around the country—like AXPONA (Chicago), Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 

Getting Into Vinyl? Find Yourself an Expert

A NEWBIE’S LIST OF REFERENCE DISCS

If you already have some albums you’re well familiar with, bring those along when you go to audition a turntable. But if you’re looking for a place to start, you can’t go wrong with these classic choices:

 

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (Mobile Fidelity re-issue)

The Eagles, Hotel California

Diana Krall, All for You

Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon

Shelby Lynne, Just a Little Lovin’ 

Cecile McLorin, WomanChild

(Denver), Capital Audiofest (Rockville, MD), the Florida Audio Expo (Tampa), the California Audio Show (Oakland), The Home Entertainment Show (Long Beach, CA), and the New York Audio Show (Manhattan)—not to mention international shows, you can find one just about anywhere.

 

There’s no one “right” way to buy a vinyl playback setup. While the opinions of an expert will be invaluable, ultimately, you should buy what makes you (and your fellow listeners) happy.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

I Don’t Watch Specs–I Watch Content

I Don't Watch Specs--I Watch Content

Over on my YouTube channel, I am reminded daily by viewers about things I’ve said in the past, and how they (the royal they) believe them to be untrue. Among the most “provocative” things I’ve said recently on my channel has to do with streaming video. I actually cannot recall in what video I said this, but I made a comment to the effect of, the best video available today is on streaming.

 

Now, this little throwaway line was but a single sentiment found within a 20-minute-long video. But it has caused some consternation among my viewers. Mainly, they continue to be up in arms over it because, well, specifications as they relate to

physical media say otherwise. To which I reply . . . I don’t care. I don’t watch specs, I watch content. I take in story, craft, and the complete picture. From which I conclude, the best overall video experiences are on streaming.

 

Never mind the fact that I’ve taken part in countless blind A/B tests that pit physical media against streaming, and never mind that the results are never conclusive with respect to physical media’s “dominance.” What about sound, you ask? Same story. I’ve even matrixed a 2.0 mix to 7.1 and had a room full of golden ears believe they were listening to a Dolby TrueHD track. How can that be? I turned the volume up 6dB over the actual Dolby TrueHD demo. They perceived the heightened volume as clarity, when it was just an underhanded trick that I knew would work.

 

You know when I care about specifications? I care about specs when it comes time to capture said story, because that is something as a creative I have control over. But of the specs of your lowly playback medium I care not, because I had to come to grips with reality a long time ago—the reality that no matter what format you choose to believe is best, you’re still only getting a small percentage of what was actually captured or created.

 

Oh but Andrew, I can hear you start to say—“but” nothing. Because specifications fail to take into account the more important factor when it comes to entertainment, what you actually enjoy watching. Physical media is but a parrot to what is happening elsewhere in entertainment —for example what you’ve already seen in theaters. Whereas streaming is largely giving you a never-before-seen

experience, of which you have nothing to compare it to other than itself. Do you like Stranger Things on Netflix? Great, me too. Tell me how Stranger Things on Netflix doesn’t look great all things considered? I’ll wait.

 

I am not anti physical media, for I know for a lot of you it is still the best way to consume higher-quality content because you may not have blazin’ fast Internet. But to reduce everything you see or hear to specs is so shortsighted and kind of an insult to the creators. Moreover, the real-world data simply doesn’t support the commonly thrown-about notion that physical media is “better.” Convenience may have opened the door for streaming to become mainstream, but make no mistake, if it didn’t look as good as it does now, no way would anyone continue to pay for it. No, it is the better format—specs be damned—because it’s where the more interesting storytelling is occurring now. It also just so happens to look and sound damn good doing it.

 

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.

The Religion Surrounding AV Gear

The Religion Surrounding AV Gear

It all started with a Sony OLED 4K/UltraHD display, one with Sony’s own AcousticSurface tech. That display, despite being visually brilliant, also was among the first that sounded audibly brilliant, all things considered. Was it as good an aural experience as having discrete loudspeakers? No, but it did rival the performance of most of today’s mainstream soundbars. The display was important to me in my evolution as an enthusiast because, for the first time, a display—a single piece of tech—served as an all-in-one home entertainment solution.

 

All-in-one solutions are nothing new to specialty AV or hi-fi. Many would likely argue that integrated amplifiers are all-inclusive. While I would largely agree, integrated amps still require the end user to have speakers, source components (in most cases), and a display, whereas the Sony required, well, a power cord. The 75-inch display—which is plenty big for an immersive

home theater experience by the way—was all that was required in order to enjoy my favorite films, new and old, via streaming. Oh, and it was “smart,” meaning anyone with vocal cords could operate it to its fullest potential.

 

I cannot stress what an eye-opening experience living with that particular display was. As good as its sound was on its own, I knew there was room for it to improve through the use of third-party speakers. Enter the Bowers & Wilkins Formation Duo. Not wanting to turn this into a Formation Duo review, what you need to know is this: These are lifestyle, powered speakers designed to work within Bowers & Wilkins’ own ecosystem, but are also compatible with the latest variations of AirPlay and Bluetooth.

While most displays have Bluetooth capability, and can be paired with Bluetooth-enabled speakers, the Sony’s Bluetooth controls allow for finer adjustments typically reserved for AV receivers and processors. It’s because of this that I was able to enjoy a truly seamless sound experience between the Sony and the Formation Duo. No delays. No hiccups. Just quality sound sans any and all cabling apart from power cables.

 

It was jaw-dropping, partially because it sounded brilliant but also because the whole setup experience was largely automated. The biggest decision I had to make was where to set the speakers themselves. This ease of use, lack of

clutter, and resulting fantastic performance was so impactful that my wife even noticed. Some months later, and this setup remains a staple in our home, and one she comments on daily.

 

Unfortunately, enthusiasts online are less enthusiastic about this setup and its implications—proving, once again, that despite all of our technological advances, we worship at the altar of gear rather than absolute performance. And that’s the truth, for I would put the Formation Duo/

The Religion Surrounding AV Gear

Bowers & Wilkins’ Formation Duo speakers

Sony combo up against any similarly priced setup and then some, and am willing to bet that most folks would actually prefer the sound of the Duos over traditional speakers, so long as they didn’t know what products they were listening to.

 

And that is the larger issue—one I know I’ve raised in other articles on this site—that as interest in specialty AV dwindles, are the hobby’s own supporters to blame? Because wireless and powered tech is being designed at a breakneck pace to give future generations products that they themselves feel comfortable with, and that speak to them. Problem is, these same products, like the Formation Duos, need current enthusiasts to adopt them as well, which isn’t happening. Powered, wireless, or smart products aren’t bad, or incapable of terrific performance; they’re just fighting against nearly 50 years of “tradition”, tradition that has become borderline religion for some. And it would seem that cutting ties with cables and excess equipment for many is akin to cutting ties with the Almighty Himself.

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.

A Brief Introduction to Tube Electronics

The history of tube audio components parallels that of vinyl records over the past 40 years, so in my mind it’s sort of appropriate that tubes and vinyl often go together among audiophiles.

 

By the early 1970s, tube gear was becoming obsolete, supplanted by smaller, more efficient wonder-of-the-Space Age transistors and solid-state audio components. But many audiophiles and music lovers found the sound of early solid-state harsh, spatially flat, even awful. Yet while tubes flickered out of mainstream consumer electronics, they enjoyed a high-end audio revival in the 1970s, still going strong. Today a wealth of tube gear exists, most of it in the high-end luxury realm.

With the advent of the digital Compact Disc in 1982, records were written off—literally, among the mainstream audio press—as a dying format. After all, CDs offered “Perfect Sound Forever.” But critical listeners rejected the sound of early digital, like that of solid-state gear, as harsh, flat and sometimes awful. Some CDs and CD players certainly were. Many audiophiles clung to the analog sound of vinyl, and still do.

 

Thanks to some very talented designers, engineers, and manufacturers, digital audio has improved dramatically. High-resolution audio formats and better D/A (digital to analog) converters are just two examples. In fact, a large contingent of audio professionals will tell you “Game over. Tube components and record players are hopelessly outmoded.”

 

Not so fast.

 

The fact—not wishful audiophile longing, but fact—is that vacuum-tube components have a major presence in high-

end audio, as do turntables, and it’s common knowledge that vinyl is enjoying a major renaissance. Many people who prefer tubes also like to listen to vinyl.

 

Why? Is it because tubes and vinyl really do sound better? Or is it nostalgia—the desire to transport, via one’s music system, back to a simpler, more fondly remembered time as heard through the aural equivalent of rose-colored glasses? Maybe it’s the fun factor of basking in the glow of those tubes (they look really cool in the dark!), watching the record spinning, and holding the record jacket in your hands as you admire the artwork and read the liner notes.

 

(An aside—I listen to everything from old mono LPs to hi-res streaming audio. I’ve heard superb digital and solid-state, and those formats have practical and engineering advantages. That said, there will always be a special place in my heart for tubes and vinyl.)

 

Good tube gear can sound incredibly good, with superb tonal richness, body, detail, and spaciousness. If you equate measurements with fidelity, some tube gear in fact measures very well. On the other hand, detractors will say that “tube warmth” is just an inaccurate coloration or harmonic distortion. (Some people like to run digital audio through tubes to “warm up” the sound, but I’ll leave that aside for now.)

 

There are practical considerations. Tubes generate heat and use more electricity. Tube audio components tend to skew expensive—vacuum tubes cost a lot more than transistors and integrated circuits, they use other expensive parts, and building them is labor-intensive. Tube gear can weigh a lot.

 

Tube amps come in many varieties. There are under-10-watt single-ended-triode Class A designs like the Audio Nirvana 300B ($1,650) and behemoths like the VTL Siegfried Series II Reference monoblock ($75,000/pair). Careful speaker 

matching will be necessary, especially with lower-powered amps. (There are also hybrid audio components that incorporate both tubes and solid-state, to combine the advantages of both.)

 

Tube electronics require commitment—the tubes eventually need to be changed, though they can last many years, and some tube amps need periodic user attention. Solid-state gear is set-and-forget by comparison. If you’re thinking of going tube, talk to your dealer, read reviews, and do your homework.

 

To bring turntables, which I discussed in my previous article, into the discussion: Although vinyl has its drawbacks (bass limitations, inner-groove distortion, etc.), a high-end record-playback system can sound wonderful. And there are those who insist analog does sound better than digital, especially through tubes. Complementary colorations or better fidelity? The debate rages.

 

Arguments—er, debates—on sound quality aside, there’s definitely a funky cool nostalgic vibe to tube components and turntables. They look retro and give you classic analog sound. Vintage pieces from Marantz, McIntosh, Quad, Western Electric, Garrard, Thorens and others are from a bygone era—and prized by many audiophiles. (And are also going up in value.)

 

A friend of mine wanted a tube/vinyl setup specifically to listen old-school style to

music as it sounded back in the day as he looks out onto a lakeside sunset and cues up an album on the stereo. You’re just not going to get that vibe scrolling through a computer playlist.

 

In that sense, tubes and turntables very much go together. As far as I’m concerned, it’s fun just to be around them. Playing an old record on a tube/vinyl system gives a strong connection with the past. It’s like listening through a time machine. (Try it. You’ll feel it.) Listening to contemporary albums also sounds great.

 

Writers give a lot of blah blah blah lip service to the experience—but really, that’s what listening to music is all about. It should be fun, involving, emotional. Tube audio gear, turntables, and records offer an intriguing path toward getting you there. Maybe it’s a path you’d like to take.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Luxury Can Be Invisible

Luxury Can Be Invisible

For many people, luxury and beauty are inseparable. Whether we’re talking about an Aston Martin sports car, a TAG Heuer watch, or even a Sub-Zero refrigerator, part of what makes it a luxury item is the beautiful design. It’s something people like to look at and show off.

 

In the world of high-end home cinema, luxury can certainly be beautiful. You may choose to assemble a system that gorgeously melds form and function—maybe a set of Focal or Sonus Faber speakers, a rack full of McIntosh’s cool retro-

looking electronics, and ornate lighting fixtures and shades that demand to be seen.

 

For some people, though, the ultimate luxury is a home media system that’s completely invisible and doesn’t detract from the home’s decor. A system that guests would never know existed—until the press of a button brings it to life to deliver a high-performance experience. If that sounds appealing, the good news is that today’s custom market offers plenty of ways to achieve invisible luxury.

 

Of course, audio is the easiest to hide. Gear racks can be tucked away in closets, wires can be run through walls, and there’s an endless array of in-wall and in-ceiling speakers from which to choose. The quality of in-wall speakers has improved greatly over the past 10 years; they’re no longer relegated to providing background music. Speakers from companies like Triad, Wisdom Audio, and Pro Audio

Luxury Can Be Invisible

Sonance’s Invisible Series in-wall speakers (also shown in the illustration at the top of the page)

Technology really can deliver audio- or theaterphile performance from within the walls.

 

And hey, if the average in-wall speaker is still too visible for your tastes, consider a truly invisible model, where you can’t even see a bezel or speaker grille. This is a growing category and now includes offerings from the likes of Sonance, Monitor Audio, Stealth Acoustics, and Nakymatone.

 

“Invisible” video products require a bit more creativity—or at least a bit more expense during the installation process. If you’re going the front-projection route, it’s common to install a projector in an automated cabinet that can lower from the ceiling,

and motorized drop-down screens are readily available.

 

If you’re thinking you can’t use front projection outside of a dedicated theater room, think again. These days, you can find projector/screen combos that work very well in a brighter room, and screen manufacturers like Screen Innovations even have creative drop-down screen solutions that hide in your window frame.

 

Where you really have to get creative is if you want a TV instead of a projector. Sure, smaller TVs can be hidden in cabinets, even automated ones where the TV rises up from within the cabinet itself. But it’s a lot more difficult to hide a 65- or 75-inch (or bigger!) screen. You may have to settle for a creative disguise, and technological advancements are helping this along. Back at CES, LG showed off a rollable 65-inch OLED TV that disappears down into a modern-looking cabinet. It’s supposed to come out this year, and we’ll see if LG offers announces larger screen sizes down the road.

 

MicroLED, which consists of smaller individual panels that can be combined in all shapes and sizes to form a TV, is also promising. It’s not invisible per se, but there are ways to creatively blend the panels into your wall design and perhaps use them as artwork when they aren’t functioning together as a TV.

 

In the meantime, another way to disguise your TV is to go with something like Samsung’s The Frame, which looks more like an art frame than a TV and displays art of your choosing when it’s in standby mode. Lots of TVs can show 

art as a screen saver, but The Frame does it more thoughtfully, keeping the power use low while automatically adjusting the screen’s appearance to suit your room’s lighting conditions.

 

The final piece of the puzzle is the home automation system that makes the invisible visible, transforming your everyday living space into your luxury home theater. Some dimmable lights. Blackout window shades (which, by the way, don’t have to be black—they can be quite lovely). And a controller to handle it all. A stack of remotes is hardly invisible, but all the major home-automation companies, from Control4 to Crestron to Savant, can put advanced control into an iPad or tablet that looks like every other tablet lying around your house right now. You can also integrate that control into subtle but stylish (and fully customizable) on-wall keypads. To your visitors, it’s just another switch on your wall, scarcely worth noticing.

 

As Lisa Montgomery said in her recent piece “Techorating—It’s a Thing,” the best way to achieve the perfect blend of technology and design is to get your interior designer and home technology team working together, on the same page, from the start. Creating a completely invisible home media system may take a bit more planning, a bit more expense, and a bit more patience, but the result will be a luxury that’s well worth the wait.

—Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.

Who Does Content Delivery Right?

Earlier this year, we did a quick guide to all the various sources of video entertainment, prioritized by the quality of presentation from worst to best. In light of recent developments, though—the Game of Thrones debacle, the discovery that not all steaming devices deliver the same quality, and the emergence of services like YouTube as providers of exceptional content—we thought it would be a good time to revisit the most common methods of accessing movies and TV shows with an eye toward not just the quality of presentation but also the quality of content they provide. Because those two criteria don’t always align. As the general public recently found out (the hard way, unfortunately), some of the most enticing content is being delivered in less-than-enticing ways.

 

 

Cable & Satellite

DELIVERY  Really starting to show their age

CONTENT  Offer some cutting-edge programming, but without being able to show it to its best advantage

You could argue we’re living in a golden age of television, at least in terms of writing, directing, acting, and cinematography. Game of Thrones (minus the last season or two), ChernobylBillions, and American Gods are all beautifully-crafted fare. But the creators of these shows tend to suffer from “Cable Channel Syndrome,” often biting off more than their delivery platforms can chew. As such their efforts can look downright terrible.

 

Unfortunately, that poor presentation can follow these shows from broadcast to streaming, since so many premium cable networks offer online apps based on technology that’s not quite as outdated as cable and satellite, but close enough. At the very least, they all seem to be stuck in the cable-delivery mentality, mostly broadcasting their shows in HD, not Ultra HD (aka 4K), aside from the rare (and much later) release on UHD Blu-ray and/or Kaleidescape. Simply put, a lot of what’s being created for cable these days deserves a much better presentation than what it’s getting.

 

 

Internet TV

DELIVERY Slightly better than satellite or cable

CONTENT  Virtually identical to cable or satellite

Services like PlayStation Vue, Sling TV, and DirecTV Now, which attempt to replicate the experience of cable and satellite via the internet, and use cloud servers instead of hard drives for DVR storage, also tend to have the same content as satellite and cable. The delivery quality is generally a little better, although not always, since most of these services rely on outdated compression codecs and generally offer little or no 4K programming.

 

As for the quality of the content, it’s basically what you’d find on cable or satellite, with the same advantages and disadvantages. Most of these services provide the basics, like TNT, TBS, FX, USA, etc., but also let you add a subscription for HBO, Showtime, and other premium offerings for about the same upcharge you’d see on your monthly cable bill.

 

 

Over-the-Air Broadcast TV

DELIVERY  Pretty darn good—but we’re talking HD, not 4K

CONTENT  What you’d expect from broadcast networks

The tried-and-true TV antenna is making a comeback, especially with cord cutters, and in some markets it gives you access to potentially dozens of free channels offering programming from the major broadcast networks as well as some local shows you can’t get anywhere else.

 

These broadcasts almost always look better than cable, satellite, or internet TV because they’re less compressed. The quality of content, though, really depends on where you live. But chances are good that no matter your locale, you can access The Good Place—one of the most innovative and intelligent shows you can findvia an antenna of one sort or another.

 

 

Standalone Studio Streaming Apps

DELIVERY  Good enough HD for now—but the Disney+ service could help change that for the better

CONTENT  All over the place—but that should improve, too

The streaming marketplace is growing at an unsustainable rate, with new services popping up on a regular basis, dangling the promise of exclusive content in front of potential viewers for an extra however-many bucks per month. Some of these shows are actually quite good, like Doom Patrol from DC Universe and Star Trek: Discovery from CBS All Access. Unfortunately, for now, such services are mostly limited to HD, with outdated video codecs, and many offer stereo sound at best.

Who Does Content Delivery Right?

That will change quite a bit when Disney+ launches later this year. With a movie library including Disney Classics, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and more, this will likely be the No. 1 must-have streaming service for most families. Disney is also developing a ton of new app-exclusive shows for the platform, like The Mandalorian (Star Wars—shown above) and Loki (Marvel), and the company has promised to deliver applicable content in 4K with HDR.

 

 

Hulu

DELIVERY  HD at the moment—although they might decide to offer 4K again

CONTENT  Some standout original shows like The Handmaid’s Tale

In addition to providing on-demand access to a good number of broadcast and cable TV shows, Hulu actually has some excellent original programming, headlined by The Handmaid’s Tale. But the quality of presentation doesn’t stack up against bigger streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. For about two years, Hulu quietly offered some of their shows (including The Handmaid’s Tale) in 4K, but just as quietly removed all support for 4K last year. There have been some hints they might offer 4K again, but as of now there’s no official timeline for that to happen.

 

In other words, if you ignore the handful of compelling originals, most people should probably look at Hulu as a replacement for cable or satellite (unless you’re a sports fan). The good news is, the picture and sound are vastly better than what you’re likely to get from Comcast or Dish Network. But that’s a pretty low bar, to be honest.

 

 

YouTube

DELIVERY  Can be first-rate—but how many vloggers do you really want to see in 4K HDR?

CONTENT  Only as good as the people producing & posting it—but a lot of it is innovative & excellent

Once the bastion of cat videos and puerile vlogs, these days YouTube sort of breaks all molds of content creation and delivery. Yes, you can buy or rent major studio movies and TV shows there, but the real appeal is that anyone can create 

content for the site. In any form. At any quality. And as such, it’s a wild and wonderful mixed bag.

 

You’ll find innovative programming like Critical Role, alongside goofy (but utterly watchable) larks like Jelle’s Marble Runsstuff the likes of which you just won’t find anywhere else. There’s also wholly entertaining but undeniably educational programming like Smarter Every Day and Physics Girl. And while it’s true that some amateur content creators still upload videos that look like they were shot on a potato, many of the best of them have adopted high-quality prosumer gear that makes their clips look as good as anything you’ll see anywhere else.

 

Really, only the top-tier streaming platforms like Vudu, Netflix, and Amazon look better than what YouTube is capable of at its best, mostly because the service’s owner, Google, is blazing trails in terms of compression codecs. YouTube is also one of the very few providers already offering up content in 8K-and-greater resolutions. And it’s home to some of the most stunning 4K/HDR AV demos you’ll find anywhere.

 

 

Amazon Prime Video

DELIVERY  Has a ways to go to catch up with Netflix

CONTENT  Has a ways to go to catch up with Netflix

Amazon is, in many ways, playing catch-up to the streaming leader, Netflix. But you could argue that, at least with the quality of their original shows, they’re not far behind. The past couple years have seen an influx of stellar content like The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselTransparent, and HomecomingAnd with a billion-dollar-plus Lord of the Rings-inspired TV series in the works, the company’s commitment to being taken seriously as a major content creator is undeniable.

 

Unfortunately, Amazon’s support for Dolby Vision and Atmos for its own content is extremely limited, and the Prime Video search engine is atrocious via any device other than Amazon’s own Fire TV. Somebody (who has hopefully been fired) decided it was a good idea to list 4K versions separately from HD, and oftentimes the 4K versions don’t even show up in searches within the app.

 

In other words, at its best Amazon Prime may look as good as what you’re getting from the average Netflix original these days. But finding new content to watch can be a struggle, and finding it in the best available quality can be a snipe hunt.

 

 

Netflix

DELIVERY  Unmatched for a provider of original content

CONTENT  Nobody does it better when it comes to fresh takes on existing genres

Netflix is really leading the way when it comes to delivering top-notch video programming with high-quality picture and sound. The service is spending gobs of money to produce some of the most critically-acclaimed movies and series, most of which can’t be viewed anywhere else, like Roma, Our Planet, and Stranger Things, just to name a few. And as we discussed in a recent episode of the Cineluxe Hour podcast, Netflix has also developed a reputation for taking more creative risks than other content creators, which likely plays some role in the buzz that surrounds so many of its originals.

 

What many people may not realize is that, although Netflix is known for giving writers and directors a long creative leash, the service has some of the most stringent audio and video quality standards around. 4K and HDR (including Dolby Vision) are the norm for any new movies and shows, and the service even offers a decent smattering of titles in Dolby Atmos. What’s more, it recently introduced adaptive studio-quality sound that’s only available to viewers with surround sound or Atmos systems—just one example of the company’s commitment to audiovisual excellence. Granted, the quality of presentation can depend on how you’re accessing the app. But apart from UHD Blu-ray discs or Kaleidescape, Netflix is at the top of the quality mountain for presentation, and arguably for content.

 

 

Vudu & iTunes

DELIVERY  Consistently excellent

CONTENT  No original programming—traditional Hollywood fare instead

Vudu and iTunes don’t create original content—at least not 

yet—but they do offer access to a gigantic catalog of movies and TV shows from most of the major studios. Also, unlike most streaming services, they work primarily on an à la carte purchase model, meaning you don’t pay a monthly fee, but rather pick and choose what you buy or rent (an option Amazon also dabbles in).

 

Both Vudu and iTunes give you the option of downloading movies, but most people simply stream them in real time. If you have a decent-enough internet connection, they can deliver quality on par with Netflix (meaning nearly as good as discs), and both offer tons of movies in 4K/HDR with Dolby Atmos sound.

 

These services do have a very Hollywood-driven mindset, though, so expect to see very traditional offerings, with the latest Hollywood blockbusters put in front of you on a regular basis. Whether or not that floats your boat is entirely subjective, of course.

 

 

UHD Blu-ray & Kaleidescape

DELIVERY  Unrivaled

CONTENT  No original programming, but extremely deep catalogs

While the very best streaming services like Netflix and Vudu may be pushing audio and video quality to the point of diminishing returns, UHD Blu-ray discs (if you have a lot of free shelf space) and Kaleidescape downloads (if you’re done with discs) are still the only way to ensure the absolute best in compromise-free audio and video presentation. Streaming at its best gets close, but for some, “close” just isn’t good enough.

 

Both Blu-ray and Kaleidescape mostly serve to deliver major-studio content. But Kaleidescape in particular makes it very easy to find the best of this content thanks to its curated collections. Want to buy all of 2019’s Golden Globe nominees? They’re just a single click-and-a-download away. The Kaleidescape store also has nearly 80 of AFI’s Top 100 Movies of all time, and nearly 75 years’ worth of Best Picture Oscar winners. Frankly, none of the streaming services comes anywhere close to that. What’s more, Kaleidescape’s innovative user interface makes it easier than ever to find exactly the right movie to scratch your current itch, even if you’re not sure what that itch is.

John Higgins & Dennis Burger

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.

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.