EARS ON

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Sep 19, 2007 113 comments
Is less of a good thing better? You're about to find out as Audioengine returns to these webpages with a smaller version of the previously reviewed Audioengine 5 powered speaker system. The new Audioengine 2 scales down the formidably chunky form factor of its larger sibling into something that won't dwarf your video monitor or earn dirty looks from boss or spouse.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Sep 12, 2007 3 comments
The last blog detailed the Pioneer BDP-HD1 Blu-ray player's surround properties. What about the Toshiba HD-A2? Dolby's Craig Eggers kindly explained that the player does feature both lossless Dolby TrueHD and lossy Dolby Digital Plus decoding and playback. They are exported through the HDMI jacks as PCM, not as a bitstream, so decoding cannot be done in a surround receiver even if it does have a decoder. But the PCM should still sound good. If you were thinking of using analog jacks to feed surround to an HDMI-less legacy receiver, you're out of luck. The HD-A2 does not have a full set of surround analog outs (just a stereo pair) so it can't export the signal that way. But the translated-to-PCM signal is re-encoded as DTS and sent through the optical output, which also of course handles regular Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. On the DTS side, the news is not as good. The Toshiba site cites "Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD and DTS support for up to 5.1 channels (DTS HD support for DTS core only)." So full 7.1-channel goodness is not available for Dolby's two new babies. And DTS's two new babies are reduced to the resolution of old-style DTS.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Sep 04, 2007 0 comments
In the three previous Rack Attacks I discussed getting, connecting, and updating Pioneer Blu-ray and Toshiba HD DVD players. Now what surround goodness can I get now that I've updated them? Let's start with the Pioneer. Just when I was girding myself to write a longwinded piece, half the information dropped into my lap in handy chart form. (For larger text size, see PDF or JPG.) One surprise, as the Pioneer product specialist explained: "The player internally decodes DolbyTrueHD into PCM for transmission over HDMI. The BDP-HD1 does not have HDMI 1.3 so it cannot send the bitstream over HDMI to be decoded in the receiver." The same is true of Dolby Digital Plus. However, footnote 17 has some good news: Depending on the number of channels, the PCM sampling rate can be 48kHz, 96kHz, or 192kHz, presumably without compression. So even converted to PCM, the new codecs may produce audible improvements over the old ones. Alas, the situation is not so sunny for surround buffs eager to experience DTS-HD Master Audio and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio. Go down the left column five rows to DTS-HD. Footnote 15 has this bad news: "DTS sound is output." I discussed this with the DTS people and they agree with my suspicion that this means the thing being converted to PCM is not DTS-HD MA or DTS-HD HRA but the lower-resolution DTS core signal. Sigh. Now, what's the story with the Toshiba? Find out next week.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 29, 2007 4 comments
No sooner had the Toshiba HD-A2 HD DVD and Pioneer BDP-HD1 Blu-ray players hit my rack than I decided to update them. No point in struggling with buggy firmware when shiny new firmware is available, right? The Toshiba website says Firmware Update Version 2.2 "improves network connectivity for supporting the download of web-enabled network content associated with certain HD DVD discs, and also addresses certain disc playback and HDMI/DVI related issues identified by Toshiba." As a matter of fact, it said the same thing about version 2.1 (I ended up running both). It applies not only to my HD-A2 but also to the HD-XA2, HD-A20, HD-A2W, and HD-D2. Stringing my trusty super-long network cable from the router on my desk to the rack, I plugged it into the Toshiba and navigated to the maintenance menu (top picture). At the manual's request, I turned on DHCP and DNS, and told the machine I was using a cable modem, all of which was quite easy. I clicked through a few screens of end-user license agreement. Then I started the update and went away to make dinner. When I came back, the Toshiba was good to go. Then there was the Pioneer Blu-ray player. Firmware Version 3.40.1 brings Dolby TrueHD compatibility and of course that is a must-have. Though the player has an Ethernet jack, there's no way to simply plug in and run the update. Instead I downloaded a zip file from the Pioneer website to my IBM desktop PC, unzipped it, copied an ISO image file to DVD-R, and fed the disc to the player. The update showed up in one of the video menus (bottom picture). So what audio goodness would I get out of my two freshly updated players? Tune in next week.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 22, 2007 3 comments
Last weekend I took a Sunday afternoon stroll in Greenwich Village. I was wearing an "Upper West Side 10025" T-shirt to show the Lower Manhattanites who's boss. Following an excellent lunch of cold egg noodles at Mingala, as I strolled down Lafayette Street, I put on the Audio-Technica QuietPoint noise-canceling headphones. Traffic wasn't especially heavy, but you're never really free of internal-combustion noise in Manhattan, and as I hit the switch on the left can, I noticed the low-level hum just disappear, to be replaced by the NC circuit's acceptable low-level hiss. I started grooving on Oleg Kagan's and Sviatoslav Richter's expert performance of Beethoven's "Sonata No. 5 for Violin and Piano."
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 15, 2007 1 comments
Last week I greeted the somewhat tardy arrival of Blu-ray and HD DVD to my rack. Happy happy joy joy, as Ren & Stimpy would say, but what to do about my reference receiver? My beloved Rotel RSX-1065 (and its seven-channel equivalent, the 1067) has no HDMI inputs. And regrettably, Rotel tells me it has no immediate plans to update its receiver line for HDMI. That means there's no way to get the new surround codecs into the receiver by a digital path at full resolution. As the magazine's audio editor, I am more than eager to hear lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. I'd also like to plumb the potential of the new & improved lossy formats, Dolby Digital Plus and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio. The only way to get them into the Rotel at full resolution was via the receiver's 5.1-channel analog inputs, relying on the player's built-in surround decoder. That took care of the Pioneer BDP-HD1 Blu-ray player, and I threw in a digital coaxial connection to continue feeding the receiver's old-style Dolby Digital and DTS decoders. But even if I'd been willing to swap six analog cables from player to player, the Toshiba HD-A2 HD DVD player has no 5.1 analog-outs! I had to settle for the digital optical interface, which handles the new codecs at reduced resolution as a backward-compatibility move. This introduced me to a quirk of Toshiba's HD DVD players, which is that they convert Dolby Digital Plus into PCM and then transcode it into DTS. Thus the optical connection lights up the DTS indicator on my receiver even when I'm not playing a DTS soundtrack. Having at least temporarily licked my connectivity problems, I set about upgrading the firmware in both players. Details next time.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 08, 2007 0 comments
After more than a year of relentless lobbying, I've finally both HD DVD and Blu-ray players in my rack. Since my home/office cave is but a minor outpost of the Home Theater Magazine empire, this took a fair amount of begging and pleading. Thanks to Toshiba for the second-generation HD-A2, and to Pioneer--by way of video editor Geoff Morrison--for the BDP-HD1. I installed them on the shelf that sits between my receiver slots, with the Rotel RSX-1065 above and various guest receivers below. Naturally I the first thing I wanted was to see video in each format. Would my Sharp LC-32D4U 32-inch LCD HDTV (768p) and LG RL-JA20 LCD front-projector (720p) deliver pictures that would justify adding new HD signal sources to the rack? Even with the Sharp's sometimes iffy conversion to its native resolution of 768p? The answer was yes, and how. But the real impetus--as if amazing picture quality weren't enough--was the new ability of the new formats to deliver next-generation surround codecs, both lossless and lossy. I'm talking about you, Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus, and you, DTS-HD Master Audio and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio. Every future reviewed receiver with HDMI 1.3 capability will get a chance to strut its stuff with the new surround technologies. But what about my reference receiver, which has no HDMI? This is what we in the business call a cliffhanger. See you next week.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 01, 2007 0 comments
This chiming electronic music is pretty. But why do we have to listen to it every night at bedtime?
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 25, 2007 5 comments
What size would you like your iPod-compatible speakers to be? Do you want Baby Bear, Mama Bear, or Papa Bear? Sierra Sound's iN STUDIO 5.0 fits into the middle category, as a monitor-sized pair of speakers with an iPod dock atop the left one. The review sample came in festive high-gloss Ferrari red, pleasing me no end, though you can have basic black or boring old traditional iPod white if you prefer.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 18, 2007 2 comments
Are Apple's new higher-fidelity downloads worth their premium prices? No, says a recording engineer writing for the Sci Fi Tech blog. Critic Leslie Shapiro downloaded 20 songs from iTunes Plus at 256 kilobits per second and compared them to 128kbps versions (both using Apple's favored AAC codec). "I bought into the idea that the difference would be drastic, or at least noticeable," Shapiro writes. "I spent hours listening, switching from 128 to 256 and back, straining to hear something--anything--different about the tracks. My critical listening skills are pretty good, but this was pushing the limit. To be fair, there were differences, but they were subtle. For example, on David Bowie's 'Space Oddity,' the high-end clarity was a bit more pronounced on the 256-kbps version, and on KT Tunstell's 'Other Side of The World,' the guitars were slightly more detailed. It would've been extremely hard to distinguish had I not been switching instantly from one format to the other." True, Shapiro might have reached different conclusions if comparing MP3s at the same data rate--or compressed files to lossless ones. But considering what Apple's charging for these higher-bit-rate downloads, the winner (at least for people who care about sound quality) may be the dear old CD. After all, you can rip it to any codec you like, and even change your mind in the future. Mmmm, my bulging CD shelves are sure lookin' good!
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 11, 2007 0 comments
The world is well supplied with iPod-compatible micro-systems. Unfortunately, many of them don't look so good. An exception is Sonic Impact's curvaceous T24.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 27, 2007 0 comments
It's summer. The trees are in leaf. That means I can't see the river any more.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 20, 2007 2 comments
In a Diablog about my pianistic hero Sviatoslav Richter, I ended by wishing aloud for the re-release of an 18-disc boxed set Philips originally issued about 15 years ago. Following up with an email, I got this response from Ken of the Decca Music Group: "I'm happy to confirm that all Decca and Philips's Richter recordings are due to be re-released over the coming months, and you'll be able to read about them, with US release date information, on the iClassics site." The first three freshly released two-disc sets entitled Richter: The Master celebrate his command of Beethoven and Mozart, with a third volume of Scriabin, Prokoviev, and Shostakovich and presumably more on the way. The packaging is nothing special but it's great to see this material becoming widely available again. The reissue series will cover both the Philips and Decca catalogues, including (I hope) Richter's late-in-life examinations of Haydn. And it will give a new generation of listeners a chance to buy recordings sold until now only in used form by ripoff artists. Some of the Philips "authorized recordings" titles, issued separately from the box, command secondhand prices as high as $60--and the box itself goes for up to $2000. Me happy boy.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 13, 2007 2 comments
The iPod has a way of erasing all boundaries between itself and the rest of your life. Why shouldn't you be able to listen to it through your home theater system? After all, some people do use their iPods more than their whirring disc players--though as an audio snob, I'm obligated to point out that uncompressed CDs sound better than compressed file formats (and SACDs can sound better than CDs). To test the product, I found another use for it. Still, the iPod has become the way many people organize their music consumption, and the people's voice must be heard. That's why some surround receivers have optional iPod docks. And for those that don't, there's a veritable army of docking devices like DLO's Homedock Deluxe.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 06, 2007 59 comments
Recently I've begun configuring some review systems to eliminate the horizontal center speaker in favor of a matching left/center/right array. The specific weakness of horizontal centers lies in their dual woofers. They bring on an effect called lobing--that is, sum-and-cancellation effects that cause uneven response at the listening position. However, my preference for identically matched speakers across the front is causing consternation to some readers, especially concerning placement.

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