Skip to Content


The Point in 5.1

14th May 2012 • Dave

To answer some questions about our home cinema, here are some rambling about: how we chose our equipment, how it’s setup and what we get out of it.

You don’t have to throw a small fortune at technology to realise that: Hi-Fi, computers, mobile phones, whatever are usually somewhere close to out of date before you’ve taken them out of the box. And with this in mind, if I were buying our home cinema today I would choose differently. So just decide how much you want to spend and when you want your system. No point worrying about everything that may be lurking around the corner.

Some of the factors we considered included: budget, environment, source formats, genres and technical support. What factors are important to you?

Budget – This was to be a big present to ourselves. We had some very generous family and friends give us cash when we married. And as parents at home most evenings, this was our version of wild. Remember your money needs to buy all the cabling and fixtures and fittings. You are not just buying the shiny boxes. You want to leave a couple of quid for actual content. After all, what’s the point if you have no beautifully produced media to enjoy?

Environment – we started with measuring our living room. Mrs W wanted the speakers to blend in with our lovely oak tables. It was also high time to replace our beloved Sony Vega CRT which stuck out hideously from the wall. Windows make it difficult to put speakers to the side of our viewing area. But we can mount speakers behind our sofa. So be realistic about what is achievable in your space.

Source materials included: Sky TV movies and sport, DVD collection, and as we have a 3-year-old, Disney’s finest on Blue ray with lossless Dolby True HD in 7.1 channel goodness. We also like to listen to music stored on our NAS in MP3 or Flac. Our favourite CDs are mostly pop, jazz or acoustic. What do you actually listen to and watch the most?

Technical support – while the best deals can usually be had online, the expense and potential complexity of the system justified taking our business more locally. We could not find a way to have Amazon prices and amazing local customer service. So we tried supporting our guy down the road. You need a plan B if it all stops working.

With all this in mind, we found ourselves in the market for a system which would strike a good balance between a dazzling 5.1 home cinema for movies and sport, also a respectable stereo performer for serious music listening. All within our few K ring-fenced for the project. Where are you prepared to make compromises? Which factors are more important to you?

The other specialist requirement worth mentioning separately, is the fact that AV Receivers are becoming increasingly complex, and I wanted to have a screen reader accessible App so I could operate the interface from the iPhone. Lots of AV Receivers do this now, so worth searching your Smartphone’s Apple App Store for the brands of any AV Receivers on your short list.

The AV Receiver is the beating heart of your home cinema. Our AV Receiver is the Onkyo TXNR 809. No shortage of online reviews for this one. The big thing which no one tells you when moving from integrated stereo amps to AV receivers is they are usually physically much larger, a good deal heavier and run significantly warmer requiring greater cooling, in my case necessitating a new rack. The big change in the 2010 2011 AV Receivers was the integration of networking features. You can play digital content directly: from your NAS, streaming services such as Napster and Internet Radio etc. and depending on model, you can remote control from your web browser or smartphone. So you’ll see modern AV receivers described as network receivers. I also auditioned: Denon DHT 1912, Onkyo 609 and seriously considered Cambridge Audio 650R, Marantz SR6004 and a slew of other Denons. Sadly had to rule out the budget busting Arcam AVR400. Onkyo came out on top for us in the sub £800 price range because it sounded punchy and warm with movies and just about held its own with Emma’s Michael Bublé collection. A big win was the fact that I can drive most of its features with a range of apps. If I have any gripes it would be the physical size, at around 44 CM square and 20 CM high plus clearance for cooling. Oh and the lack of Airplay meaning I have to plug the iPhone in to the front USB port. Will need a dock.

I did get a warm fuzzy feeling from the fact that Onkyo have recently sponsored Braille essay writing competitions in Europe and North America.

Our new TV is the Panasonic VT30 50 inch plasma panel. I liked the connectivity including LAN and USB, deep Blacks and aesthetics. It feels very sleek having no plastic bevel round the screen edge, like having a huge iPad on the wall. Negatives include: price, not as bright as LCD, and over specified with Free Sat and Freeview support which we never use, and 3D which is still pointless for most content. We’ve also not made much use of the embedded apps for: YouTube, Skype and BBC iPlayer. I have a lengthy short list of other TVs from Samsung and Sony which were ruled out for various reasons. We managed to blag a Blue ray player and wall bracket in with our TV. And the nice man from the shop came round to help install it. Happy with the TV as a package but if I was starting from scratch I’d possibly go for a slightly less ambitious panel. The only thing a display needs to do well is show content, everything else is just nice to have.

If you decide to wall mount anything, do your homework. I know very bright people who saw their pride and joy smashed on their living room floor because they got the wall mounting wrong. Have many screws driving deep in to supporting joists or even masonry. Don’t expect to hang anything more than 1 or 2kg directly off plasterboard because the weight will just sheer down the wall. My TV bracket is on at least 8 screws which go through the plasterboard and right in to joists, and I lifted my own 90KG weight on the bracket before I dared put the TV up there.

A note about the VT50 and the other 2012 models from Panasonic sporting the Voice Guidance feature. For anyone with enough tech savvy to use the internet, TV now and next info plus 7-day listings are easy to come by. Voice Guidance will only be really useful to me when it speaks Red Button services and Video on Demand including apps like iPlayer. My disappointment at buying Panasonic too early and not having one of the 2012 models was short lived. Good on Panny for making talking listings happen, but anyone who is prepared to buy a premium TV for this feature, really expects much more than simply TV listings to be spoken allowed. Don’t you?

Speakers are Monitor Audio Silver Series. RX6 left and right, RX Centre, RXW12 sub-woofer and RXFX surround. Auditioned Monitor Audio Bronze BX series which didn’t have quite enough sparkle for direct 2 channel music listening. I also tried the Monitor Audio Radius speakers for surround but found them to sound crisp but a bit metallic. So bit the bullet and again blew the budget by going for the Silver series. Bi-wired the RX6 left and right for music listening and wall mounted the RXFX speakers. I stopped short of RX8 with its extra base driver because I was going for a big sub and RX8 plus RXW12 in my room seemed like overkill. If you are splashing out on speakers, what is going to rock it for you in your room with your music?

A word on woofers. Sub woofers reproduce low frequency sounds. The “cross over” is the point where the sub rolls off and your other speakers take over. Lots of debate about where to have your cross over set, I like it quite low so you only really feel the sub when something really goes boom! And that’s the point, the sub is about creating ultra low frequency vibrations which you feel in your legs rather than hear with your ears. Your other speakers will take care of bass guitar solos and other general low frequency work. a sub too far in the corner of your room can boom too much, so some positional experimentation may be required. Very low frequencies at loud volumes travel a hell of a long way and will be felt by your neighbours. A bit like when a heavy truck goes passed your house. So get a great sub, but don’t become a complete arse with it. He says. 

The other thing no one tells you about surround sound, 60 percent of a movie’s sound track comes through the centre speaker. and that’s the way it should be. The actors are on the screen and you expect most of the dialog to be heard from that part of the room. So don’t skimp on the centre speaker either.

Configuration – Getting those speakers positioned, AV receiver and display correctly calibrated, even all the cables in the right sockets can all be a ball ache and take ages. As mentioned somewhere above, we decided to pay a little bit more and get everything from a local supplier. This meant they were prepared to help with installation. And the man from the shop used to visit my house if I asked nicely.

In Conclusion – yes I’m smarting a bit from the stupendously large bill. But our system gives us hours of enjoyment and makes us all smile. As a family we are all wowed by the production values in Toy Story or Cars in lossless Dolby True HD. Emma can hear Buble’s swing band sounding punchy and superb in stereo. And I can have the next best thing to going to the match, live football in 5.1 with the crowd all around me.

I had to make some compromises. Audiophile stereo listening being the main one. But how often do I get to do that these days anyway. Maybe that is a separate project for when I have more time.

The point in 5.1 is not having all speakers blasting the same signal. 5.1 is about creating immersive experiences generated by different sounds coming from different parts of the room. If a well-mixed movie playing on some carefully selected and configured kit doesn’t blow your head back or make you go “wow” then you’d be better spending your money elsewhere. If sound effect zinging around your room makes your pulse race then it’s time to go audition some kit!

Comments Off on The Point in 5.1

My Memories of Torsten Brand and the Evolution of Talks

16th April 2010 • Dave

The Talks screen reader transformed the way blind people think about and use mobile phones. so, along with thousands of others, I was stunned to learn of the untimely death of Torsten Brand, the Talks Product Manager.

Today, the likes of RNIB publish fact sheets detailing the range of solutions available for blind mobile phone users. But a decade ago before Talks there really was very little a blind person could do with a mobile phone other than make and receive calls. For some users this was adequate. However, for Torsten and many other people who are blind, not being able to fully participate in the mobile revolution was unacceptable. With the help of his friend and talented developer Marcus Groeber, Torsten set about tackling the problem.

Most Talks users probably do not realise the number and complexity of the technical challenges with which Torsten and Marcus were confronted in those early days. How to manage speech output so that it did not interfere with the phone’s audio system? How to keep the Talks system requirements low enough in order that the screen reader would run comfortably with limited storage and processing power? How to keep Talks efficient enough so as not to make the other applications on the phone sluggish and unusable? How to hook the phone’s user interface and convey the content to the user in an efficient meaningful manner? Torsten’s deep understanding of these requirements was instrumental in helping solve these and many other technical problems. These solutions remain some of Talks’ greatest assets.

When I first heard about Talks 7 or 8 years ago, or Talx as it was known then, my expectations were relatively low. No one had previously put a screen reader on an off-the-shelf mobile phone handset, while at the same time preserve the phone’s original user interface. The received wisdom at the time seemed to be that a mobile phone screen reader was an unrealistic unachievable fantasy. Torsten dared to dream, decided it was possible, and he and Marcus made it happen.

The elegance of Talks is its simplicity. You don’t learn how to use Talks; you learn how to use the phone on which Talks is running. Great assistive technologies become transparent to the user, allowing him or her to focus on accomplishing the task in hand. Few people really understood this as well as Torsten. With Talks, the vast majority of common tasks are achieved in almost exactly the same way a sighted user would perform them. This means the main stream phone help and support remains relevant, and on those occasions when a sighted friend or family member needs to use your phone for what ever reason, the assistive technology does not have to be switched off.

I first tried a demo of Talks on a trusting friend’s Nokia 6600 phone in a student bedsit in 2003. Within the hour I was contacting my network provider to place my order for a Talks compatible handset. Those early versions were far from perfect, but right away I was able to do all the things my friends were doing with there mobile phones: send and receive text messages, work with contacts and eventually browse the web.

Talks is one of those products that after you have been using it for a couple of days you wonder how you ever lived without it. It was not long before Talks became the first piece of assistive Technology I use in the morning, and the last one I use at night, not to mention many many times in between.

Within a few days of getting Talks I was being contacted by blind people who wanted to know more about this Talks software about which I was so excited. I have lost count of the number of Talks installations I have done for people. But like many blind people at the time, I truly believed that Talks represented a massive step in to the future.

Torsten was a regular at the Sight Village assistive technology exhibitions in the UK. I had to meet the man who had put a voice inside my phone. I remember waiting in a long line of people eager to meet Torsten. It seemed to take forever to reach the front, not least because the line was so long, but also because Torsten was taking the time to patiently answer questions from enthusiastic users.

On meeting Torsten in person, I found him to be a gentle giant of a man with a deep rich voice and distinctive booming laugh. Torsten was clearly proud of Talks but always willing to pay close attention to feedback from users. Torsten was not afraid of constructive criticism. Years later, I was to learn first hand about Torsten’s no compromise commitment to quality, and his persistent efforts to get the very best from developers.

One of my favourite Torsten mantras is “the user guide is the specification”.

Torsten’s generosity with his time lead to my recording several interviews with him for ACB Radio’s Main Menu – a technology show that I presented and produced for a number of years before working for Dolphin.

Torsten probably never really knew just how many lives were touched by his work. Talks users can be found in dozens of countries around the world. And countless blind people without the means to purchase a full Talks licence simply use the Talks ten minute demo.

When I joined Dolphin in 2006, Talks was one of the products I was raving about. A year later Torsten, Steve Palmer (Dolphin’s Chairman) and I met over a curry in Birmingham as Dolphin began talking seriously about collaborating on Talks for Windows Mobile. Eventually contracts were signed and Talks for WM became available through Verizon in the US.

For the past two years, rarely has a week gone by when I have not had either phone or email communication with Torsten. I will continue to learn from Torsten’s work, miss our weekly meetings, Torsten’s attention to detail, but most importantly Torsten’s unwavering refusal to ever give up fighting for the best possible user experience.

Thank you Torsten. May your legacy live on.

Comments Off on My Memories of Torsten Brand and the Evolution of Talks
Comments Off on “What’s new, WCAG 2.0, and current issues” by Shawn Henry from W3C WAI

Transforming Lives

11th July 2007 • Dave

Hope everyone out there in Internet land is doing well? A few of you have asked why I have not blogged here in a while. Well I guess I have been busy trying to prove the theory that if you have a life you have no time for blogging! So guess my life is on hold for a few minutes while I quickly post something here.

June was pretty manic with lots going on at work. Some of which I can talk about, some of which I cannot. Dolphin’s screen reader for Windows Mobile Smartphones, Smart Hal, seems to be doing very well with plenty of interest from many quarters. Thank you all. During the final week in June I went to London as part of Dolphin’s participation in Transforming Lives, an event hosted by Microsoft in Westminster. As well as presenting Smart Hal to the great and the good including Anne McGuire, Minister for Disabled People, for part of the day I sat on a panel which explored where we are and where we are heading with assistive technology.

During the Transforming Lives debate, there was some criticism from a leading blindness charity here in the UK to the effect that the Windows environment accessed with screen reader software means that blind users are restricted to consuming and processing information thus relegating blind people to the less affluent end of the economic spectrum. As a screen reader user I take issue with this position which does not seem entirely logical in the context of assistive technology and the information age. So, eh hem, needless to say yours truly chimed in to challenge this gloomy prognosis.

It is true to say many blind people in a wide range of fields, requiring computer access or not, are more likely to be denied the economic opportunities available to sighted peers. It is also true to say that Microsoft Windows the operating system running the majority of modern computers has very limited screen access software built-in. Moreover, comprehensive and powerful screen reading software is absolutely essential in order that a blind person can make effective use of a Windows PC and to get on in an increasing number of careers requiring basic levels of computer literacy. However, the relationship between Microsoft and a rich ecosystem of assistive technology manufacturers actually works to break down rather than perpetuate economic inequality between blind and sighted people by delivering highly effective and targeted products which often meet and in many cases exceed the needs of blind computer users. The screen reader industry is small and the products are often not perfect. However, compared with twelve to fifteen years ago when the received wisdom seemed to be that access to Windows and the web were not really viable propositions for a blind person, in reality we have come a very long way.

Microsoft Windows enables assistive technology developers to utilise a range of frameworks and techniques enabling specialist targeted tightly-focused screen reading and screen magnification solutions to be created for use by people who are blind or partially sighted. Screen reader developer techniques made possible by Windows include but are not limited to: API hooking, MSAA, UI Automation, Document Object Models, Video Chaining, Mirror Drivers, etc. While some of these techniques have better support than others, and while some of these approaches may require a higher degree of creativity amongst developers than others. The practical upshot is that Windows users can choose from any one of half a dozen free and premium highly effective customisable screen readers providing comprehensive Braille and speech output for a vast array of applications used in a wide variety of professional and domestic scenarios.

Many transactions which previously relied on having access to sighted assistance or a transcription service can now, with appropriate technology and training, be successfully completed independently by someone who is blind at the same time as sighted peers without additional cost or reliance on a sighted intermediary. Moreover, this independence can enhance one’s confidence privacy and dignity potentially reducing physical barriers to education and employment.

Absolutely greater accessibility and usability in Windows can potentially improve the experience for everyone, not just those who traditionally have been disabled by inaccessible interfaces. However, the past decade has shown that by working in partnership with assistive technology specialists who have the requisite experience and expertise from working directly with users Microsoft are stimulating an environment where tailored solutions specifically designed to meet the needs of otherwise disabled users can flurrish.

The first tenant of universal design is to recognise the diversity amongst users. Can an operating system developer, even one as omnipotent as Microsoft, realistically continue to support the broad range of specialist hardware such as Braille displays and speech synthesisers used by blind people, accommodate the differences and preferences amongst screen reader users, continually release assistive technology updates to keep pace with new applications and emerging web trends, as well as provide appropriate levels of training and support to educate users relying on speech and Braille output?

To me as an assistive technology user, at least for now it seems appropriate that Microsoft should continue to promote innovation and choice in the assistive technology arena by providing a platform and infrastructure on which customisable assistive technology solutions are built in order to meet the needs of this diverse user community.

Consuming and processing information is a means by which an individual can acquire education, experience, skills which are ultimately marketable commodities. When funded along side appropriate training and as part of a balanced programme including Braille literacy, screen reading software products providing access to Windows applications and the internet can substancially enhance the education, independence and economic mobility of blind and partially sighted people by providing a gateway resulting in widening participation in a knowledge economy.

There is not a mortgage repayment goes buy when I do not think of those teachers in school who tought me how to read Braille, how to type and use a computer. Thank you Miss King, Mrs Duffy and Mr Irvine.

I certainly do not wish to underestimate the significant assistive technology challenges which lie ahead. There is a lot to do with Web 2.0, and in the area of set-top-boxes hardly anyone has even begun to scratch the surface. At the same time one should not underestimate the achievements to date and Microsoft are now more aware of the needs of assistive technology users more so than at any point in the past.

Categories: Disability, Opinion, Technology
Comments Off on Transforming Lives

RNIB digital tv questionnaire

15th May 2007 • Dave

If you have ever experienced difficulties seeing the menus on digital TV set top boxes in the UK then it may be worth your while helping the RNIB in their quest to gather more information and formulate policy on this issue.

Categories: Disability, Technology, TV
Comments Off on RNIB digital tv questionnaire

Two people arrested for using unsecured WiFi! –

18th April 2007 • Dave

This is outrageous. I partially support the comment:

“… if you configure your network for “open Access” you ask for everything you get. Your effectivly making your network public and calling people who log into it criminal is no different than the police going after listners of pirate radio stations. The one at fault is the person running the open network its their broadcast …”

Although the difference is that listeners to pirate radio do not have direct access to the transmitor.

another comment which caught my attention:

“… using unsecured wifi is perfectly normal practice
nowadays for city flat dwellers.”

Whether or not any of this is legal is a question for the ass … I mean law. But the can is open.

Categories: Technology
Comments Off on Two people arrested for using unsecured WiFi! –
Comments Off on PlusNet just wants to be loved again – Register

IBM Tool reads web video for blind – ZDNet

19th March 2007 • Dave

While the ZDNet headline may be slightly misleading, this technology from IBM certainly sounds worth checking out. If I get chance I’ll follow this up at CSUN this week.

Now it’s off to bed with me as my taxi to the airport lieves in 8 hours. Ouch!

Oh and if you’re not already reading, Dolphin have got me doing the blogging thing over at the Smart Hal mini site which is covering the progress of the newest screen reader for mobile phones! Now you’re phones really talking!

If you are heading to CSUN this week then I hope to see you there.

Nighty night.

Categories: Technology
Comments Off on IBM Tool reads web video for blind – ZDNet
Comments Off on Is e-democracy now a reality? – BBC

Orange to launch broadband TV in UK –

24th February 2007 • Dave

I have previously whinged at great length on this blog about telcos and media companies diversifying in new areas and the seemingly detrimental affect that often has on existing core services. I remember a time when if you had a problem with Orange the customer service representative would at least make some attempt to own the issue, give you their first name, call you back etc. And if they couldn’t solve the problem they’d escalate it up the chain of command so eventually one would end up speaking with someone who knew what they were talking about.

Orange currently has a promotion where if you are subscribe to a mobile phone service plan costing more than £30 per month Orange will bundle home broadband internet access without any additional charge. I have a qualifying mobile phone service plan with Orange and I recently called to enquire about the details of the broadband offer. One of the main reasons I have stayed with my existing internet service provider PlusNet is due to the ISP’s extras particularly inclusive hosting facilities. I have a couple of domains hosted with PlusNet, and several email boxes. PlusNet also provide PHP and MySQL services which I do not use as much as I would like but it is reassuring to know that they are there should I need them. My call to Orange was to establish if any hosting facilities were available with Orange broadband. I needn’t have wasted my time calling Orange, no one seemed to have a clue what I was talking about.

So when the Orange TV service comes to sets in the UK the very best of luck if you have any technical enquiries.

Categories: Technology, TV
Comments Off on Orange to launch broadband TV in UK –