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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a small fortune at technology to realise that: Hi-Fi, computers, mobile phones, whatever are usually somewhere close to out of date before you’ve taken them out of the box.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!

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On the Box

3rd March 2008 • Dave

Some personal blogs are more occasional than others. Certainly has been less frequent of late. Like many floggers, I do not always have the inclination to blog. Either, nothing blogworthy happens, I am too busy, get out of the blogging routine or I just can’t be bothered! I’m not going to promise to blog more. If I’m not blogging it is probably because I’m zonked in front of the TV rather than blogging! That said, I have a few minutes to share a couple of TV related bits and pieces.

I was recently prevented from paying my licence fee online as apparently the TV licensing database cannot cope with the fact that some blind people receive correspondence in Braille and the address for the Braille transcription is different from one’s home address. Ah well half an hour on the phone later and I’m all set to pick up the remote.

For the record, I am not opposed to the licence fee, although the criteria for who should pay it seems somewhat arbitrary when one considers the volume of BBC content available online free from outside the UK. Moreover, the advent of the very excellent BBC iPlayer allowing one to catch up with programs for the past 7 days would seem to indicate that anyone in the UK with an internet connection (not just a television) would also be liable for the licence fee?

Incidentally, 3 years ago, Geoff Shang, Jeff Haris and I came up with something slightly similar to the iPlayer for ACB Radio. Great to see that the ACB Radio Replay service is still going strong:

ACB Radio Replay.

Anyway, When I inadvertently stumble across a a wrist slittingly depressing episode of BBC One’s primetime soap EastEnders, the tacky tastic game show serving warm up for the National Lottery, or yet another episode of the Weakest Link, I am left wondering what the hell the BBC is playing at with our licence payers’ money?

That said, generally I am supportive of the licence fee. When one considers the breadth and depth of the BBC’s output. It is difficult to imagine any other broadcaster in the world commissioning a comparable range of content. And good on ya BBC for telling those greedy Ausies to stick it when Channel Ten hiked up the price for Neighbours. I’m sure the good folk of Erinsborough will be just fine along side Home and Away, on the UK’s Channel Five. Isn’t Five owned by RTL now anyway?

Back on the Beeb, lately I have been delighted by the return to our screens by the larger than life character DCI Gene Hunt in the Life on Mars spin-off Ashes to Ashes. Proceeded on Thursdays by the marvellously morose Grantly Budgen in that hopelessly optimistic of all school dramas Waterloo road.

I have recently enjoyed Tropic of Capricorn concluding this past weekend on BBC Two. Following Equator this is Simon Reeve’s second televised travel log circumnavigating the globe. He’s no Palin but that’s probably a good thing is it allows the audience to focus on the place rather than the presenter.

Moving away from the Beeb, if you like your TV travel a bit more gritty then Dave Gorman’s America Unchained is well worth a watch. Now available on DVD and being repeated on FilmFour and probably available on 4OD although I’ve not checked.

Speaking of grit. Channel 4’s Shameless is well into it’s fifth series and still well worth a giggle. Although for me Shameless has lost some of it’s original charm. Frank and the other characters on the Chatsworth Estate have gone a bit preachy, and they are making a bit too much use of fantasy reality sequences which always put me in mind of the movie version of Billy Liar.

Glad to report: Ashes to Ashes, Waterloo Road, Tropic of Capricorn and Shameless are all audio described. Which is more than can be said for any of the films playing at the Worcester Odian! And if the blogs are to be believed AD is coming soon to an iPlayer near you!

Next time on…

Hrrors of Hotpoint,

Nws from the Preston front,

My little sister’s getting married!

All the best.

Categories: Opinion, TV
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BBC Programme Credit Sequence petition

22nd May 2007 • Dave

Possibly futile but worth registering one’s disgust!

Few broadcasters have done more than the BBC to set standards by which others are measured. However, this latest set of guidelines from auntie to homogenise TV credits sequences seems a tad over the top?

The credits, as well as providing important and appropriate attribution information about the people who made TV productions possible, are in many cases a natural pause allowing one to sit back, enjoy the show’s theme music reflect on the programme past. While I do not have sufficient eye sight to read the credits for my favourite TV shows, I can recollect countless examples from over the years where programme makers and writers have come up with original ways to express ideas around the end credits. Some of these have been hilarious, thought-provoking and even moving.

One of the most seminal moments in British sitcom history was the moving sequence at the end of Blackadder series IV, which if I have correctly understood the new requirements, would not be possible in the future?

Does all this bollocks apply to repeats too?

Categories: Opinion, TV
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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
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Blind young Things – Channel 4

27th April 2007 • Dave

Note to self, must not prejudge Channel 4 documentary on young people who are blind. Probably safer to avoid it like the plague!

I am really trying extremely hard to remain optimistic about this documentary. I can’t help dreading it though and that is not because like one of the featured students in the Channel 4 show I too was suspended from the RNCB. Prob not best to go into the reasons why at this stage. Safe to say it was not big and was not clever. Although pretty funny depending on your perspective.

The programme to go out at 9PM on Monday may actually leave viewers with the cutting edge impression that blind people may actually be having sex? My goodness Ray Charles would turn in his grave! What’s the world coming to!

Seriously though, are people with disabilities just overly sensitive about tv documentaries like this? What sort of documentary would we really be happy with? Do blind people need/want a documentary at all? What actually was the original purpose of the programme? Is it to educate the public about disability? Is it meant to be car-crash TV to entertain the curious? Is it to promote a positive image of disability? In which case why not have some positive role models who are disabled as characters on Hollyoaks or presenting on T4?

Oh so many questions and too few answers. However “heart-warming” and Animal Hospital-like the documentary turns out to be, I am sure that plenty of blind people will be tuning in to find out which stereotype is being portrayed this time. Yes, against my better judgement, I will probably end up being one of them.

I sincerely hope I am proved completely wrong!!!

Categories: Opinion, TV
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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
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Jeremy Bowen: The man in the middle – Independent

11th December 2006 • Dave

Anyone who watches BBC TV news will recognise Bowen. I am sure I remember something about my sister going to school with his sister. anyway, that aside, he is a well respected journalist, and even if the Independent are plugging his book, this piece provides some food for thought on the subject of war reporting and is definitely worth a read.

Categories: TV
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Lost Lost – DigitalSpy

1st November 2006 • Dave

Will be interesting to see if Sky audio describe series 3 of Lost following the campaign which reversed the Channel 4 decision earlier this year.

Categories: TV
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Sky launch Easy Grip remote – DigitalSpy

14th August 2006 • Dave

Unofficial sources at Sky tell me that this product has been in development for over a year. In view of the fact that the existing Sky remote already has a rubber backing and large rubbery buttons and is pretty easy to hold and use, it will be interesting to see how much demand there is for the new Easy Grip remote. Come on Sky, does your market research tell you that the best thing you can do for the disabled community is create an Easy Grip remote control? Such remotes probably already exist and can probably be configured to emulate the Sky handset. So is there really a need for this new handset?

Clearly there is a shortage of ideas at Sky, so I have created a list of my own. All of these suggestions would not be costly to implement, and could make a huge difference to disabled customers of Sky.

1. Offering a choice of colour schemes and font sizes for the onscreen EPG would be useful for partially sighted people.

2. An automatic onscreen indicator for availability of subtitling would be useful for someone with hearing loss.

3. A more flexible time-out period could provide someone with dexterity issues with a longer period for keying in channel numbers.

4. Make the Sky Plus live pause feature free to people with reading difficulties.

5. An audio indicator to go along side the low battery and programme reminder alerts.

A decent software engineer could probably achieve most of the above using the existing platform inside a couple of months. It is weather or not the political will exists at Sky to make these things a reality.

Making the EPG talk, clearly that is a bigger project which may require new hardware and not something anyone seriously expects over night. but we can live in hope.

Categories: TV
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