EARS ON

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: May 04, 2006 2 comments
Blu-ray's official launch will be delayed from May 23 to June 20, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Prerecorded discs will be lying in wait by the original launch date. But Sony Pictures is holding them back to coordinate with the launch of Samsung's BD-1000 player. Samsung reported in April that the player was hung up on "compatibility testing." Sony's own BDP-S1 is not scheduled to come out until July, according to the Blu-ray website, though sonystyle.com is taking pre-orders for it. HD DVD got a lot of bad publicity for its stuttering launch. Looks like the shoe is on the other foot now, eh? Being a format war correspondent is fun!
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 20, 2009 2 comments
My first Blu-ray player--but not, I swear, my last--is a Pioneer Elite BDP-HD1. It's a first-generation model and therefore showing its age. Lately it has been having trouble loading new movie titles. I wondered if it were simply obsolete and muttered aggrievedly about planned obsolescence and standards that are really not standardized. Old CD players still play new CDs--why shouldn't an old Blu-ray player play new BDs? While I was screening movies for an audio review, the player surprised me by flashing a bright red onscreen message demanding a firmware update. This was the first time I'd seen such a message. The last time I did this, for 2007's Version 3.40.1, the process required me to download a zip file, copy it to DVD-R, and put the disc in the player. But for the up-to-the-minute Version 3.88, the process required only the player's ethernet connection, a download direct into the player, and a little remote button pressing. Ten minutes later I was done, and the Pioneer played the disc it had previously rejected, plunging me into the world of Mark Wahlberg action movies. It still downconverted DTS-HD Master Audio to DTS Core, but at least I wouldn't have to exchange unplayable discs at the local Blockbuster. I mention this for the benefit of Blu-ray early adopters who may be having trouble loading discs--the latest firmware upgrade may help.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 06, 2007 2 comments
Sales of Blu-ray titles have decisively pulled ahead of HD DVD sales. Nielsen VideoScan figures for the week ended February 18 gave Blu-ray a 65 percent share of the market. HD DVD had been faster out of the gate and had maintained its initial sales lead throughout most of 2006. But Blu-ray made its move shortly after Christmas, buoyed by sales of Sony PlayStation3 game consoles. Blu-ray also has more titles print, at 179 vs. 163, though that's a pittance compared to regular DVD and several video download services. The format war is still on and both formats are still struggling for survival. Progress has come in the form of combi players and lower hardware prices. Chin up, high-def disc lovers.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Oct 20, 2006 0 comments
Buying a fancy CD rack may seem counterintuitive in the iPod era. After, even a drop-dead-gorgeous piece of industrial design like the Boltz CD600X2 still takes up space. Isn't it more elegant to rip everything and dump your discs?
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Oct 03, 2007 1 comments
Once a year I quietly go berserk updating my book Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems. Adding new content and revising old content forces me to review what I know about the subject, often prodding me into becoming better informed. And of course it gives me a chance to capture more of your hard-earned nickels and dimes. The 2008 Edition is number seven. It comes in a handsome cream cover and is now available from Amazon in both the U.S. and the U.K. As I often tell people, don't read it all at once or it'll make you violently ill. But this strapping little volume does make an excellent answer book for all the questions a non-engineer might have about how HDTV and surround sound really work. Knock yourself out!
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Oct 05, 2006 1 comments
If you hate the vulture's nest of ridiculously expensive cables lurking behind your rack, relief is spelled with four letters: HDMI. Someday signal sources will connect with just one HDMI cable. However, depending on what audio formats you want your system to support, you may have to seek out specific versions of HDMI. Having just nailed this for the next edition of my book (not out yet, to appear on Amazon sometime in the next 30 days) I might as well give you this little cheat sheet:
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Oct 01, 2008 5 comments
Time for an annual act of self-promotion. Every year, usually around October 1, my book Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems goes into a new edition. This year's edition is the eighth, cover date 2009, ISBN 9781932732108, and is easily distinguished by its pale blue cover, which replaces last year's off-white. Annually refreshing the book gives me a chance to review and expand what I know about home theater technology as well as bring readers up to date. This year's big news is the DTV transition, scheduled for February 2009, which is mentioned throughout the book. The most poignant aspect of the update was pruning out a lot of material about HD DVD, leaving only one fat graf of historical summary. HDMI got some attention as I flagged the latest versions and added more material about the distinction between Category 1 and Category 2 HDMI cables. Before long, I'll be taking the page layout I've recently labored over and stripping it down to a pictureless Word file, typing new material into the book over the next year for the following edition. Practical Home Theater is the only book on the subject to get this kind of ongoing attention. If you buy it, I hope it serves you well. Annual act of self-promotion completed.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 15, 2006 2 comments
Bose product demos always come with a dash of entertainment. At last week's New York press demo for the QuietComfort 3 headphones, hapless reporters entered the room to find a mannequin wearing a pair of large Bose headphones, only to see the earpieces whipped off to reveal the newer, smaller model. The QuietComfort 3 is the third generation of Bose noise-canceling headphones. They cover the ear without enclosing it. They're the first noise-canceling headphones to use a rechargable battery, a 20-hour lithium ion type, and the charger is a cute earcup-shaped object with flip-down prongs that plug into the wall without a cable. A $39 accessory cable allows users to switch between cell phone and music. Check bose.com to see if your phone is compatible. The demo in New York actually used a Nokia cell phone with MP3 files at 192kbps. The headphones were accurate enough to reveal smeary compression artifacts—no surprise to me, since I already use the original QuietComfort 1, as well as the non-NC TriPort, and thought highly enough of the former to have the earpads renovated when they wore out. If you want full-sized cans, the QuietComfort 2 remains in the line for $299, but the new QuietComfort 3 sells for $349 and is available from the Bose site as of today.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Dec 19, 2007 3 comments
Soundbar: What a word. I like it. It implies that audio-for-video can be simplified into an unprepossessing horizontal object. The Boston Acoustics TVee Model Two assumes that you'd rather have one speaker (and sub) than five (and sub). It also assumes you have a certain impatience with cables, and therefore sweetens the deal with a wireless link between soundbar and sub--though it still requires two power cords and two analog channels worth of cable between the soundbar and your signal sources. And it assumes you'll accept not 5.1 but 2.1 honest channels in its 1.1 sleek objects. No virtual-surround pretensions here.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jan 17, 2007 0 comments
The battle over the broadcast flag resumes, with the reintroduction of S.256 (the Perform Act) by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Joseph Biden (D-DE), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Last year it died in committee. Apparently, however, this is going to be an annual occurrence until the entertainment industry and its proxies in Congress get their way. The ostensible aim is to prevent cherrypick recording of satellite, cable, or Internet broadcasts. You could still record by time slot or station, but the bill is widely viewed as a Trojan horse for digital rights management and more draconian future restrictions. As before, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Consumer Electronics Association are leading the loyal opposition. Also up in arms is Sen. John Sununu (R-NH) who has introduced legislation of his own to prevent the Federal Communications Commission from hoisting the flag without even a figleaf of legislation.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 21, 2006 3 comments
The legislative silly season is barely underway but this year promises a bumper crop of whoppers. Arguably the biggest mistake about to be written into law is a national franchise agreement for telcos muscling their way into the video-delivery biz. Cable companies have to win municipal franchises that bring in money for local governments and give consumers at least an indirect stick with which to beat slovenly cable operators. They are also required to serve all paying households in their service areas. Now the telcos can compete with cable companies while remaining blissfully free of the local regulation that encourages your local cable op to serve every neighborhood and keep his nose clean. If you think your cable company is arrogant, wait till you've got one wire coming into your home from a company that doesn't have to play by the rules, be it AT&T or Verizon. The cable industry is crying foul, and let's face it, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Give due consideration to this heated position paper from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 12, 2006 0 comments
Were you hoping that the CableCARD standard would enable you to ditch your cable box? Four years after cable operators and TV makers signed the historic CableCARD agreement, many consumers are still running into problems, according to FCC filings from the warring cable operators and TV makers. Each side blames the other for the snafus. And they're both worsening the problem: The initial standard is unidirectional, meaning no video-on-demand without the box, so some cable operators are obstructing CableCARD adoption by failing to support it at the head end. But the ever price-conscious TV makers aren't helping by eliminating CableCARD compatibility from their lines and walking away from the problem. For years the conventional wisdom has been that a VOD-capable bidirectional standard would someday heal all wounds. But the video-delivery landscape is changing and now CableLabs, the industry's R&D arm, is approaching digital cable readiness from some new angles. I'll report on them over the next few days.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 17, 2006 1 comments
CableLabs is working up a new version of the OpenCable Application Platform, according to Cable Digital News. OCAP is the R&D program that gave birth to the CableCARD. The new Version 1.1 would support IP-based video and multimedia streams. That would give the cable ops a leg up in their coming struggle against the telcos, especially AT&T, which is rolling out IP video delivery. OCAP 1.1 would also mesh with mobile applications to be launched this fall by Sprint, Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, and Advance/Newhouse. It would support home networking, switched broadcast, advanced graphics, and other goodies. And it would allow cable companies to more easily insert commercials into VOD programming (yippee). The technology would likely take the form of a new set-top box. Whether it would migrate directly into television sets is up to the TV makers, but for the moment, they're not thrilled with the outcome of the existing CableCARD agreement.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: May 22, 2006 4 comments
Lost amid the hype surrounding the Blu-ray format is the story of its environmental impact. And guess what? Blu-ray wears a white hat. In the process of cutting the manufacturing steps down from twelve to five, the new "phase transition mastering" process also eliminates several toxic chemicals. Only one remains, a developing fluid, and it's recirculated back into the production process. Blu-ray also requires less utility use, both energy and water. What makes this especially interesting is that the HD DVD people make a big deal of the fact that their format uses the same manufacturing techniques as existing DVD—toxicity and all. Whether consumers would care is debatable, but if they don't, they should. These details emerged during a press tour of the Sony DADC plant in Terre Haute, Indiana, where we all donned clean-room smocks, shower caps, and booties (blue, of course) and saw copies of Hitch running down the production line. Oh, and the packaging (blue, of course) has a redesigned spindle that releases the disc with one easy touch, so you'll use less energy (swearing) and water (sweating) when getting the disc out of the box.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Dec 14, 2006 0 comments
Does your loved one own a Creative Labs Zen music player and look longingly at shop windows full of "Made for iPod" docking systems? Well, just in time for the holiday season, Cambridge SoundWorks comes to the rescue with the PlayDock Zen. It recharges the player and runs on AC or, gulp, eight C batteries (note to CSW: think rechargable next time). It's also got a line-input to accommodate any other kind of music player, 480 by 640 video output, telescoping antenna for radio-equipped players, and--miraculous!--a handle. If you're looking for an alternative, Creative Labs offers its own TravelDock Zen Micro and many other Zen accessories. Think differently! Oh, and the PlayDock will also support iPods starting in January with the PlayDock i. In either case, the price is $199.

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