Summer of Sound

Once or twice a year, I try to take on a project around the house and bring it to a full 80% completion before abandoning for a few years.  In this case, I decided to install some sound around the home.  It was frustrating me to not be able to listen to my favorite music around the home (without dragging around gear), particularly when experiencing nice whole-home audio solutions at some friends’ homes.  The big problem is that there are very few good audio systems for retrofit installations.  For anyone building a new home, my advice is this:  run wire.  Run wire like copper is on the path of incandescent light bulbs.   I’m not one to run 8 or 12 CAT6 drops to every wall, but at least 2, plus speaker wire, RG6, etc., would make sense.  Think about wall outlets, think about in wall/ceiling speakers, think about wall panel controls.  Even if you don’t complete the build out, having the cable in the wall makes life so much easier down the road. I ruled out Logitech Squeezebox and any AirPlay devices (few that there are) pretty quickly.  (And yes, I get that Airplay is Apple and I work for Microsoft).   AirPlay is really too limited, and Squeezebox just not exactly what I was looking for and in many reviews I read, seemed to come up short with limitations. And then after reviewing a few systems, I decided to try the Sonos solution.   Sonos is retrofit friendly (wireless) but also hardwire capable.    They have a variety of units: all-in-one speakers, amplified units to drive your own speakers, and unamplified units to provide line in/out into an existing AV receiver.   While the devices aren’t cheap ($300/$400 for their all-in-one speakers, $500 for an amplified controller) it’s certainly cheaper than most big names in whole-home audio, like NuVo.  So first up:  the Office.  In the office I decided on a pair of Play:3 units, configured in a stereo configuration: I purposefully left some items like a deck of cards, picture frame, and my C9 guy in the shot to give some contrast as to their size.  While pricey as a pair, the sound is among the best in class and, by the time you price out decent bookshelf speakers, an amp, etc., you’re certainly not any cheaper.  Of course, what’s missing from this configuration is a controller, which can be their stand-alone control, tablet/iPod controller, or desktop computer. This setup is similar to what I did in the living room, except because it’s a big larger of a space, I used a pair of Play:5 units which are slightly larger than the Play:3. The Play:5 have a bit richer bass and can fill even a large room fairly easily. While I’m impressed with the Play:3, the Play:5 really shines in larger spaces. Rounding out the install was a Sonos ZP90 feeding the home theater system (a Pioneer 1018-AH-K receiver). The ZP90 has a line-in, as well, so the output of the system is fed back into the ZP90. The idea here is that you can take programming – like a football game – and stream it to any other zone. I also had 2 problem areas to solve, both of them outdoors.  The screened-in porch is a nice, confined area, but needed all-weather speakers and creative wiring.  I needed 12 gauge cable due to the length (wiring it to a Sonos ZP120 inside), and the cable had to be in-wall rated, yet outdoor (UV) resistant, and direct burial rated.  That’s a tall order, but I found some at OSD.   Typically I’d buy most of my cable from Monoprice, but their cable is in-wall rated only.  The cable is dauntingly large as you’d expect with 12 gauge.  I punched a hole near my previous projects (low voltage lighting and outdoor power in the other conduit), and started snaking the cable under the house to the living room. Outside, the best place to run the cable was behind the gutter (pictures on right).  You can’t really see it unless close, and it blends nicely.  The rest of the wire was easily concealed under some trim, so I brought it inside the porch to a pair of Definitive Technology AW550.    (I had auditioned some Klipsch speakers as well, and while I love Klipsch, I felt the Definitive were a better buy. There’s one more problem, though, and that’s the outdoor patio.  I struggled with this area for some time because it’s not acoustically friendly (no area outside is, really, but this was particularly challenging).  There is no location for a set of speakers that would give a good sound stage (even considering rock speakers), and even all-weather speakers would get hammered in the elements.   I wasn’t sure what to do, and then I stumbled on the Soundcast Outcast.    As one reviewer wrote, the design reminded them of a diaper genie so it won’t win cool-looking design awards, but on the other hand, understated is refreshing.  The Outcast is a wireless speaker and has received some fantastic reviews.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to plunk down the relatively high price tag without trying it to see if it would work with Sonos (primary concern was wifi interference).   I decided to reach out to the company, and ended up on the phone with Mal Hollombe, Soundcast President (small company or not, it’s pretty impressive to land on the phone with the president).   Because the CEDIA conference was imminent (though it was last week as I write this), I got a chance to hear what the company was planning and their excitement around the conference.   I don’t recall exactly how Mal put it, but essentially he remarked how there are a lot of companies that haven’t done wireless well, leading to a perception that wireless audio was second class.    I explained my setup and concerns, and was hoping there’d be a dealer that had a unit I could audition or possibly receive a review unit.   Unfortunately not, but he offered a unit I could buy (full disclaimer: at a discount) and return it if I wasn’t happy.  He promised I’d be impressed.  The Friday before Labor Day weekend, I received the massive box containing the Outcast (this thing is huge) and began to unpack.  I love the fact that it’s weather resistant, has a battery, and is wireless (optionally).  Most important, though, was how it sounded.  I’m an enthusiast but no audiophile.  I have money invested in gear that would make some consumers gasp but most audiophiles laugh.   I can’t tell the difference between FLAC and good MP3s, but can’t bear to listen to built-in TV speakers, if that gives you a frame of reference as to my expectations. So how does the Outcast sound?  Really, really good.  The 8” woofer provides great bass outdoors, and the circular design sounds great as it creates a very open soundstage.   As another reviewer pointed out, it provides great range despite not having tweeters. I do have a problem, though, and that’s with the wireless range.   Virtually every review I’ve read lauds the Outcast sound quality and wireless range, but the latter eludes me.   Up to 150’ inside and 300’ outside according to spec, I was initially finding more like 15’ inside and 25’ through the window to the patio before I started experiencing breakup.  Something wasn’t right. I ‘get’ all this wireless stuff of course, so began reconfiguring my access points and Sonos system to try to be as separate as possible and leave some channels clear for the Outcast.   My Sonos is, except for 1 unit, hard wired.  Most of these devices all live in the 2.4ghz spectrum, and unfortunately, most channels overlap quite a bit.    After some fiddling and relocation, I was able to find a sweet spot for the Outcast transmitter (called the iCast), but this has two problems:  the Sonos ZP90 that was feeding it can no longer do so because it was located in another room (which means another ZP90 is needed), and the range, while better than my first attempt, isn’t great. I’m continuing to try and diagnose.   As far as I know, I’ve removed all possible sources of interference.  I don’t blame Soundcast – I believe it can likely work GREAT but in my case, I can’t quite get the range I’d like.   Whether it’s the Sonos creating ambient RF noise, AC ducts in the ceiling, or just the environment being less than ideal, I’m not sure. This is ultimately the bane of wireless – companies like Soundcast and Sonos have solved the quality issue.  Wireless continues to be hit or miss for streaming and there’s only so much unregulated spectrum, and while I can solidly recommend the Outcast as a great sounding speaker, I’d encourage anyone considering it to audition or buy from a place with a return policy in the event the wireless doesn’t work out. As for Sonos, I have no problem recommending it – although I have had no problems with the wireless, most of my units are hardwired so I’d recommend, for wireless users, an evaluation before committing.  One unique feature of Sonos is Sonosnet, a proprietary mesh protocol.  While it operates over the same wireless frequencies, the mesh means each device becomes a repeater, able to overcome most interference issues.

Windows Phone 7 App Roundup for 10/25

Ah, closer to launch and more apps in the marketplace than a single byte could hold!   This is my personal look at what’s hot and what’s not in the phone marketplace.   Surely I’ll miss a few things but hopefully will catch them next time. What’s Hot: Netflix (Entertainment), free Really not much more to say, is there?  Browse titles, view your instant queue, play back, etc.  It’s clean and simple.  What I haven’t done is tried to use this over 3G while in a moving car, as we all know streaming can be painful in these situations.  I did try 3G streaming while in downtown Atlanta (where I typically have excellent 3G coverage) and it worked great.  If the phone had video out, this would be incredible. Cocktail Flow (Lifestyle), $2.99 (no trial) This is simply the best app to date for mixed drinks/cocktails on the phone.  Functionality is all you could want:  you can look up drinks a number of ways, and even select what you have in your cabinet and it will tell you what drinks you can make.  The graphics are beautiful … negatives:  it doesn’t have a trial, and doesn’t seem to support themes.  Magic Black Ball (Entertainment), free This is one of the 5 8-ball apps already in the marketplace.   Virtually none of them have trials, and this one is free but ad supported.  This one seems to be the nicest one of the group, and the graphics are decent/authentic and the answers are what you’d expect (for example, one of the other 8-balls only gives you yes/no answers).  Sudoku! (by SideJob / Games), $0.99 (has trial) This is my favorite Sudoku game on the phone, with “Sudoku” by Reflection IT coming in second.  Both are capable, but Sudoku! seemed more natural to play, supports zoom and different puzzle sizes.  Both have a trial, so check them out and see which one you like better. What’s Not: I actually decided to erase this part because I felt calling out the shops doing what I consider “lame development” will be obvious over time and I didn’t want to give them free publicity.   One approach a shop has taken has been to charge 99 cents for some lame app and offer no trial, so there is no way to review the app unless you purchase it.  The developer has purchased their own app, and leaves it 5 stars pretending to be a real customer.   Those going by ratings alone and not realizing it may purchase a lame app.  In these cases, I think developers deliberately don’t put in a trial to avoid a flood of poor ratings. In fairness, many developers are responding to questions others have left, and since there isn’t an option to leave “no rating", you’re kind of stuck.   I and others have done that, but hopefully we make it clear that it’s the developer responding to comments.  But that’s not what I’m talking about – I’m specifically referring to shill / fake reviews by the developer, like, “This app is AWESOME!  It ROXXX!! A+++++ … clearly the best in the marketplace today!” … c’mon.   It’s almost amusing to look at the same user leave the same glowing feedback for all the apps their “company” puts out there. Conclusion:  check out the reviews.  If there is no trial and no (or limited) feedback, realize you are rolling the dice.

Windows Phone 7 App Roundup for 10/18

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, here’s what is catching my eye this week in the phone Marketplace: Shazam (Music & Video), Free Sample a few seconds of a tune, and Shazam uploads and parses what tune you’re listening to.   Pretty cool.  I’ll be honest, I’m much more interested in this technically than practically, wondering how the algorithms work, fuzzy matching, etc.   Practically speaking, I would get a lot more use out this if radios didn’t do the “song ID” thing that is prevalent in most modern radios.   Since it’s free, it’s a must download. Flight Control (Games/Strategy, Xbox Live), $4.99 (has trial) Lots of fun!  You basically pilot an onslaught of aircraft and drag them to a landing strip.  The game is surprisingly fun – but, what I like most about it is that it feels like it’s made for the phone – the touch interface is great.   While it is upgraded from the iPhone version to contain achievements, the $5 price tag seems a bit high. BowlingXX (Games/Sports & Racing), $1.99 (has trial) The first bowling game for WP7.  What I really like about the game is the controls.  You can swipe your finger to set a ball path that determines trajectory/power/spin, or use the accelerometer and bowl “Wii-style.”   This game would be a lot of fun to have online multiplayer, however for the price tag that’s not too feasible.  OpenTable (Lifestyle), Free Great way to pick a restaurant last minute.  Not too much in my local area, but I live in the sticks so I didn’t expect much.  Nice, clean interface. The Eye (Games/Puzzle), $0.99 (has trial) Built by ‘softie Michael Hawker, a VERY tough puzzle game.  :26 seconds is my best time, but it was purely accidental.  The game has gotten a few criticisms of being too tough, but then again, so is the Rubik’s Cube.  Essentially the game contains two outer rings that change color when you tap the inner ring.  The idea is to rotate and change the colors until they are all the same solid color.  It took me a little while to get how the game works, but I like the simplicity. BluesBox (Music & Video), $1.29 (no trial) This app has two strikes out of the box:  no trial, and a (at first glance) vanilla interface.  The single screenshot doesn’t help much.  But, to see this in action, see this YouTube video.    Looks cool!   Think Guitar Hero with a bit more musical control.   I think it’s worth the price of admission and seems like a lot of fun, but Mat needs to offer a trial and, since I’m sure this will sell pretty well, use the first couple hundred bucks to hire a designer :) Drum Machine (Entertainment), $0.99 (has trial) This app and BluesBox can team up!  Actually, while Drum Machine isn’t quite as engrossing (IMHO) as BluesBox, DiNoGames nailed the interface and options, and was wise to include a trial.  It’s pretty fun!   Next time you want to nail someone with a “Ba-da-dum” you can either use my app (SqueakBox) or, drum it out yourself with Drum Machine.

Gaming Console Round-up III

In my last few posts on the subject, I took a look at the XBOX 360 and the PS3.   This post will focus on the Nintendo Wii.I've been playing computer games since I was a wee lad.  Since the days of Zork and Baseball on the TRS-80, game development has focused primarily on graphics, audio, and gameplay ... and often in that order.  It's mind boggling to me that you can play a game like hockey or football that looks, to the casual observer, like the real deal.Not surprisingly, then, console evolution has focused around the technology that can bring the better graphics and sound -- better CPUs, better graphic processors, more RAM.  As for gameplay -- well, that formula really hasn't changed in a long time.  And that's what makes the Wii interesting.  It took the idea of gameplay in a different direction, focused primarily on the motion controller and unique input devices ranging from Wii Fit to steering wheels.The first time you play with a Wii, it's like a breath of fresh air because it is _interesting_.   When I got the console, I also picked up Tiger Woods golf, and it's unique to play a golf game by swinging your arm instead of using a controller.  Likewise, bowling is interesting because it's similar to bowling in real life -- a game without this type of motion would be too boring.  Again, this is what makes the Wii so interesting.  If you've never played one before, you've likely heard the hype and so the experience will be a bit more expected when you pick up a controller for the first time.  And just to show I'm not talking as a shill without really owning these things, the picture here is from my "media cabinet" ... all three consoles, as they exist today in my home.And this, my friends, is where the experience ends.  Play a round of golf with Tiger, bowl a 240, etc., and then you'll be done.   I'm going to sound harsh here, but I feel that while the Wii is innovative and _interesting_ (there's that word again), it is completely and utterly overhyped and I wouldn't even truly consider it a gaming console per-se -- perhaps an "game device" would be more accurate.The bottom line is that the motion sensing controls, while innovative, don't carry the system.  Here's why:First, while I agree that graphics and sound are less important when compared to gameplay, there's clearly a line somewhere otherwise we'd all still be playing Zork.  The Wii has a max output of 480p ... and it looks pretty poor most of the time.  (The best I can do, after tinkering, is run component out of the Wii into the Pioneer VSX-1018AH-K and it's upscaled via a fairly decent Faroudja scaler to a Mitsubishi 73" TV.)  While my mom/aunt/grandma may not think it looks that bad, flip over to a blu-ray concert like Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds at 1080P, mastered for hi-def in terms of both video and audio, then flip back to the Wii.  You will begin weeping.The video and graphics, at least on my equipment and to my eyes and ears, is a constant reminder of how far our technology has progressed in everything else.  While my gaming collection contains Tiger Woods and the included Wii Sports, I don't see it growing beyond that.  When the motion controller works well, it's a lot of fun.  But when it doesn't, it's frustrating and takes you out of the moment.  These factors make the experience just not that engrossing.   It reminds me of when I first tried a VR-based game, where you'd don the helmet and suit, and step into a cage. The online component is about what you'd expect, but because there is no hard drive and the Wii's DVD player cannot play DVD movies, there's not a lot of compelling roles the Wii can fill.While the game library has filled out nicely, there's pretty much no chance a cross-platform game would be better on the Wii.  When you narrow down the collection of exclusive games on the Wii and cross reference their review scores on Metacritic, I'm not really sure how anyone couldn't agree that the system isn't overhyped.  The Wii is attractively priced so that's a plus, and it's a bit better suited for kids given the Nintendo brand.  But otherwise, color me (in glorious 480p resolution) unimpressed.

Gaming Console Round-up II

In my last post on the topic (some time ago!) I talked about what I like in the various gaming consoles on the market -- Sony PS3, Xbox 360, and Nintendo Wii.  In this post, I thought I'd share my impressions on the PS3.One of the riskier moves Sony made with the PS3 was including a blu-ray player built into the console.  If I remember correctly, this held up the launch of the console and also contributes to the console cost quite a bit, and it's a decision that I thought was a mistake.  Although opinions on this will differ, the delay of the PS3 and the higher cost compared to the Xbox 360 hurt (and continues to hurt) the PS3's market share. The inclusion of a blu-ray player as a necessity is debatable.  We're starting to see more games that consume a larger footprint than DVD-9 can hold.  Word on the street has it that games like MGS4 required a dual layer blu-ray disc (50gb!) due to the sheer size of the game.   Clearly, even on DVD-9, a game that size would be cumbersome -- I figure a reasonable cut-off point is 3 DVDs before overly-aggravating the end-user, but really more than 1 can  be irritating.  From a business perspective, was the inclusion of blu-ray, at the cost of so much time and expense, worth it?  I'll let you decide.However, because blu-ray won the high-def format wars relatively quickly, Sony caught a huge break and the PS3 was, at the time, simply one of the best blu-ray players you can get.  It used to be that it was also the cheapest, but that's no longer the case as some blu-ray players are coming in a bit cheaper.  Even so, because the PS3 is sold either at a loss and near manufacturing cost, it's a compelling player for the cost.  Indeed, I've run into a few people who bought a PS3 for home theater high-def usage alone.  And, in my case, that was what led me to purchase.  Almost a year ago, Walmart ran a special that offered $100 off any blu-ray player, including the PS3, which brought the base model price to $299.The jury is still out on whether or not a blu-ray player will find itself to the Xbox 360 as either a stand-alone player or integrated.  I personally feel it's a worthwhile add-on and certainly hope we pursue it.What may be a pro or con is the fact that everything is integrated.  No power brick, no external HD-DVD or blu-ray drive, no external wifi module.  If you need all of those things (well, the power brick is obviously non-negotiable), it's great the PS3 has them.  However, I don't need a blu-ray player in most rooms of my house, nor wireless.   Because I can pick up a 360 Arcade for under $200, it's an easy add on for media extending, movies/Netflix watching, and basic gameplay.  As for downloadable games, I didn't realize how good I had it on Xbox Live Arcade until I loaded up PSN.  First, PSN has a few wonderful games for sure -- PixelJunk Eden, Monsters, Flow, and a couple of others are outstanding.  But, the PSN UI is a bit utilitarian and few games, percentage-wise, offer demos; if I'm not mistaken, every game on Xbox Live Arcade offers a playable demo.   It's an exercise in frustration to browse around and find an interesting looking game, only to find out it's purchase only, or, at best, has only a trailer available.  Achievements on the 360 has been a tremendous success, and Sony has just recently brought that concept to the PS3 as "trophies."  The problem is that, currently, very few games support trophies, but we'll see where this ends up in another year or so.   This is a concept that Xbox Live got right out of the gate by ensuring demos and achievements are available across the board.  While better than nothing, it's a bit "too little, too late" in this area.Also, as a developer and one with some business experience, I think not having mandatory demos for downloadable games is a mistake.  Some have tried to argue that it's too much work for the developers -- if that's the case, then the SDK (which I haven't seen for the PS3) is incomplete.   Ideally, it should be very minimal effort to include demo functionality.One of the biggest pros to the online experience, however, is that it's completely free, as opposed to a silver (free) or gold (paid) membership on the Xbox.  This is a good value add to the system and one that proponents for the system often point out.  However, feature-wise, it's not as expansive as Xbox Live.   So which is better?  From a consumer point of view, it depends.  For me, personally, I'd rather pony up the $3/mo for a better service.   If you're the type who never plays online, you're not going to want to pay for a service you don't use.From a business perspective, the decision to make online play completely free is one Sony either regrets, will regret, or will change down the road.  Building a large, scalable, online ecosystem cannot be sustained by console sales alone (or without subscriber contribution).  It will either continue to fall further behind (one recent feature, called "Home," has been notoriously delayed month after month), or need to be supplemented by extensive advertising.   Because I wasn't interested in hearing how many subscribers each system claims to have, I looked at the number of online players at any given moment in Call of Duty 4, and Xbox Live typically had double or so the numbers.  Hardly scientific but a good enough for me, if I'm choosing which console to buy a game for.Media experiences is going to be equally divisive.  Both have similar features that are implemented quite differently, and I won't claim one is better than the other.  You simply have to look at them, try them, and decide for yourself.   For example, the PS3 does offer video rentals/purchases, however, I found it to be fairly expensive, and I'd never buy a movie in this fashion.  In contrast, the Xbox offers Netflix -- which won't typically have new releases, requires a monthly subscription to Netflix, and requires a Gold subscription.  Music-wise, if you have a Windows PC or event better a Windows Media Center PC, I think the 360 takes the prize for extending music.   The Media Center extender on the Xbox offers the same UI you'd get on the PC, so it's a bit richer than a folder structure.  If you have music that Windows PC can play (including DRM'd music) the extender can generally play it, which is nice especially for subscription-based services like Zune pass.As a blu-ray player, the PS3 is great.  Because the firmware is easily updatable, it's easy to handle the current formats without much problem, including DTS-MA and Dolby TrueHD over HDMI, and of course Dolby Digtial and stereo over optical.   One point of confusion I initially had was that my receiver was not reporting a TrueHD signal, despite selecting that on the disc's setup menu.  It turns out that the PS3 cannot technically send TrueHD or DTS-MA over HDMI via bitstream, however, it is capable of decoding these formats directly, and then sending the channels via PCM to the receiver.  It's the same information, so there's no loss of signal.By far, my favorite thing about the PS3 is that it is quiet.  While a standalone blu-ray player would be quieter, there's no denying that it's much quieter than the Xbox.  I like quiet.  Both the cooling fan and the drive ... it's refreshing.  At the very least, the Xbox added a new feature to do local installs for games to at least silence the disc spin noise.Now, let me get into what annoys me about the PS3.  First thing: charging controllers.   No swappable batteries, not as easy to do play and charge.   The default cables are about 3 feet.  The plug is a mini-USB: a standard, yes, but not as friendly as plugging in controllers and batteries.  The second thing that annoys me are the touch-sensitive buttons on the front of the console: a decision to favor cool technology over function.  With the unit on the side, hitting eject or even power is just a guess of sliding your finger on the panel.Moving up the ladder to extreme frustration is the lack of an IR port for remotes.  Defenders of this correctly point out the limitations of IR, "bluetooth is the future," blah, blah, blah.  Fine -- in theory, bluetooth is great -- no line of sight, etc.  But, say goodbye to support for universal remotes and the like.  Sony should have included both.  This would be like putting in Wireless N support with no backward compatibility for G and B, and justify it by saying it's the future.   So, you're stuck using either the controller as a remote, or Sony's blu-ray controller.  Neither of which is all that elegant particularly if you use a Harmony or other universal remote.  (There are some very expensive solutions our there to do IR to bluetooth conversions.)Last, and this one simply adds to the previous, the PS3 power options are frustrating.  The BD remote has no power on or off switch, but rather any button press on the remote turns on the PS3.  This sounds flexible until any magazine sitting on your coffee table happens to brush the remote... "beep!"  And of course, it doesn't need line of sight, so truly any slight button press turns it on.  This might be somewhat tolerable if there was a button on the remote to turn it off.  But there isn't.  If you want to turn off via the remote or pad, you have to navigate the on-screen menu and select it, and then confirm the action.  Or, you can hold the PS button for 3 seconds, then select X, X to power off and again to confirm.  It won't be long until people simply memorize the button sequences.  Epic fail on Sony's part.If it sounds like I'm pretty hard on the PS3, it's because I am.  While many of these hardware issues are minor, they are frustrating oversights.  However, I'd love to get my 360 this quiet.  If you're an online gamer, there's no question in my subjective viewpoint that the 360 is the better console.  If you want a blu-ray player with the occasional game play, the PS3 may be the better choice.  From a media point of view, this will be largely dependent on your home network -- if you have the capability to run a Media Center on Vista/XP, it's hard to not feel the extender capabilities of the 360 are a huge value add; and whether or not a Netflix or video rental from PSN is a better (or useful) feature will be up for each person to decide based on their preferences.Next time, I'll look at the Wii.

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