Posted by: htguys | April 16, 2015

Podcast #683: Panasonic Home Automation

Today’s Show:

Panasonic Home Automation

Panasonic may not make plasma TVs anymore, forgive us for not being over that, but it still hurts. But they have jumped into the Home Automation game with a system they’re calling thePanasonic Home Network System. We got a chance to check out two of the bundles they have available to get you up and running quickly, the Home Monitoring & Control Kit (Buy Now $249.95) and the Home Surveillance System (Buy now $299.95).

Setup

We chose to setup the Home Monitoring & Control Kit first. The kit includes the control Hub, a smart plug, two window/door sensors, a motion sensor and a digital cordless phone. Setup is pretty easy, especially for the included devices. It takes a bit of time, but it isn’t complicated. Once you have the hub connected to the app on your mobile phone, each device has its own installation guide to help get that device installed and configured.

Adding the included devices is very simple. If you already have them installed when you plug in and setup the hub, the initial installation wizard will add them to your system automatically. If not, or if you decide to add additional devices to your system, it’s as easy as using the app to tell the hub to look for the device and pressing the ‘add device’ button on the smart device itself. Discounting the time it takes to connect a sensor to a wall, windows or door, adding new devices takes seconds.

Like plasma TV, Panasonic has also been in the telephone business for a long time. They have a solid history with both corded and cordless phones and business phone systems. Leveraging that expertise, the hub and the compatible home automation devices actually use radio waves to communicate. They use DECT 6.0 (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) that runs in the 1.92-1.93 GHz band. The same thing your cordless phone may use.

The Russell house where we tested the gear no longer has a landline at all, so we weren’t able to test any potential interaction issues between existing cordless phones and the Panasonic Home Network System. And we also weren’t able to test the system’s use of the home phone line for additional automation functionality. While you don’t need a landline, it if you want the system to call you when the alarm is tripped, you’ll need one.

For maximum coverage and noise-free communications, Panasonic recommends you place your hub at a convenient, high and central location with no obstructions between the devices and the hub in an indoor environment, which obviously isn’t practical. It should also be placed away from electronic appliances such as TVs, radios, personal computers, wireless devices or other phones.  The wireless range of each device in the system is approximately 160 feet or 50 meters indoors.

As far as range and installation goes, we would periodically see delay between when we  clicked a button in the app and the action fired, like a light turning on or off. We never had a delay for automatic actions like turning on a light due to a motion sensor or camera. It feels like the issues could have been more smartphone or app related, or maybe even WiFi to hub to DECT conversion related, but we couldn’t tell for sure. But it didn’t feel like we had any issues with commands due to the range of the devices from the hub or the placement of the hub during testing.

Automation

Once you have all your devices installed and added to the hub, you can begin to automate them. Automation is all done through the smartphone app. It is very easy to do, but also quite rudimentary. Of course you can manually turn lights on or off, or you can set a scheduled (time-based) on/off trigger, a sensor based trigger or both, but only one of each. So the lights can automatically turn on at a set time, off at a set time, and/or on based on a sensor (door opens when you get home), but that’s it.

You cannot setup activity groups in the smartphone app currently. Each device gets its own Smart Control settings and has to be configured independently. You can set multiple devices to trigger on the same event, so it feels like you have them grouped, but there isn’t a notion of groups or scenes for devices. There is an all on and all off button for the lights, and you can configure what happens when you arm the system for Stay or Away.

The system includes high level actions to Arm or Disarm the entire system, much like a security system, but Panasonic is careful to point out that their equipment isn’t designed for security, but for surveillance. When armed, the windows and door sensors are put in an alert mode, armed for Stay the motion sensor is ignored, armed for Away the motion sensor is also put into alert mode. If triggered, the hub will play an alarm tone. It isn’t very loud, but you can hear it if you’re in the same room or closeby.

Without a landline we couldn’t get the system to remotely notify us of any activity. You should be able to get alerts on your phone if you’re connected to the local Wifi, but we couldn’t get that to happen. When connecting remotely, the app will automatically disconnect if you aren’t using it, probably to conserve battery life. But if you don’t have an active connection to the hub, we don’t imagine you could get alerts on your phone – even if you had it working with a steady connection via local wifi.

Home Surveillance System

The Home Surveillance System includes a hub and two cameras, one for indoor and one for outdoor.  Of course you can use the outdoor camera inside if you want to, but not vice versa. The outdoor camera is waterproof; both have night vision capabilities to allow you to see things in very low light conditions. Once added to your system, the cameras can also function as motion detectors to enable or disable other actions in the system.

Camera quality is quite good. We couldn’t see a difference in the quality or lag between being connected to the hub on the local Wifi or connecting to it over the Internet. We even tried over 3G and it still worked great. While viewing the camera you get picture and sound. You can press a button to speak through the camera to communicate with whoever is on the other end, which is pretty cool. The low light feature actually works quite well. We were able to monitor rooms at night that were otherwise pitch black.

Use

Using the Panasonic system is super easy. It isn’t wildly configurable, so use is limited, which makes it really easy. As with anything in life, the more you can do with it, the more complicated it must be to support that functionality. If you limit functionality, you can keep things very simple. The hub can be accessed remotely, which is awesome. Ours worked for remote access out of the box, no special configuration required. If it doesn’t work for you, there are advanced settings like port forwarding to get it working. Only one device can be connected to it at a time, either locally or remotely.

Let’s say you want to turn a light on, and leave it on for 5 minutes, when you open the front door. Totally doable. Let’s say you only want to do that at certain times of the day, because turning the lights on in full daylight is silly, not doable. Let’s say you want to turn your landscaping lights outside on at a set time in the evening and have them turn off a couple hours later. Totally doable. Let’s say you want to do it automatically at dusk, not doable. Or you want to do it in the morning and at night, also not doable. Simple tasks are very easy, but this ease limits how customizable the system is.

The Future

While the Panasonic system is easy, it is limited both in automation capabilities and devices. Because they don’t use an industry standard automation protocol like Z-Wave, you have to buy Panasonic devices. That wouldn’t be a huge deal if they had all the devices you need, but they are pretty limited right now. The most obvious missing device from what they have and what they’ve announced or are contemplating is a wall switch. So if you have any built-in lighting, like porch lights, can lights, track lights, a chandelier or a ceiling fan, you can’t automate those. LED bulbs could help there, but without the ability to group devices, that could get quite cumbersome.

And dimmers. Gotta have dimmers for the home theater.

Panasonic has announced a few accessories that will be available later this year:

  • Water Leak Sensor – June
  • Glass Break Sensor – June
  • Indoor Siren – due 2nd half of 2015
  • Battery Box – due 2nd half of 2015
  • Key Pad – due 2nd half of 2015
  • Key Fob – due 2nd half of 2015

And here are a few more that they are considering:

  • Outdoor LED Light
  • Outdoor Weather Sensor
  • Garage Door Opener
  • Smoke/CO Sensor
  • Thermostat
  • LED Bulb

We’d love to see Panasonic work on some bridging technology to allow their system to communicate with other systems like those that support Insteon, Z-Wave or ZigBee. This would allow those of us with existing automation equipment to use the Panasonic gear without having to maintain two independent systems. It would also get past the hurdle of the missing automated wall switch.

If you haven’t started automating yet, the Panasonic is really easy.  Basic, but really easy.

Download Episode #683

Posted by: htguys | April 9, 2015

Podcast #682: Next Generation Broadcast TV

Today’s Show:

Next Generation Broadcast TV

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) have their year meeting in Las Vegas in the Spring every year. When we worked for Sony Pictures we would get excited about going and demonstrating the gear we were developing as well as seeing what other companies were showing off. It was not quite as hectic as CES but it was still a great time. Nowadays we are a little more focused on what we take away from the NAB show. In particular of interest this year is the ATSC 3.0 specification.  This year there will be some demos of the technology.

Layered Division Multiplexing

This technology will cram more data into a single channel. Think of this as a bus traveling down the road where the road is the channel on your tuner. You can only get one lane of busses through that road. But what if now you had a double decker bus. On that same road you have doubled the data coming through to you. Its not as simple as just adding levels to the bus. Imaging a three level bus trying to go under an over pass. The main takeaway is that this technology will enable you to get UHD over the air while using only one channel.

HEVC H.265

Compression is key to getting UHD content to you. Right now ATSC uses mpeg 2 and Blu-ray uses mpeg 4. With mp4 you get about a doubling of the data as you do with mp2. If you look at the current ATSC spec, television stations are transmitting streams of anywhere between 10 and 18 Mbps in mp2. You can get the same quality mp4 picture with streams of about 5 to 9 Mbps. And if you are using H.265 that drops to about 2.5 to 4.5 Mbps. But rather than give us current quality in less space, the goal is to give us better than Blu-ray quality picture and sound in the same spectrum (channel).  The National Engineering Center for DTV from Shanghai, China will be demonstrating  a full-chain Ultra HD TV system, which includes a UHD TV presentation system, as well as realtime UHD TV encoding, broadcasting, receiving and decoding.

Targeted Ads, Better EPG, and Interactivity

A US company will be showing off interactivity and rich media that won’t require a second screen like a tablet or phone. Broadcasters will be able to insert local ads more easily and the EPG gets a makeover. Broadcasters will be able to transmit HTML 5 applications that will support voting and polling. Now you’ll be able to vote for your favorite performer on whatever talent show you are watching right from your TVs remote.

Object Based Surround

We’re quite happy that its not too late to add this to the ATSC 3.0 spec. There are three competing standards to bring three dimensional sound into your living room. Of course you would expect Dolby’s Atmos and DTS’s DTS:X. But there is also one from Qualcomm and Technicolor. They are testing 60 sound tracks with each of the three systems.

When is it all going to Happen?

There is still plenty of time to enjoy your ATSC 2.0 TV. The specification won’t be finalized until 2016 and then it will take years before the broadcasters and manufacturers have equipment ready to accept OTA UHD. Look for there to be a brief period where you will be able to buy an external UHD tuner. We wonder if they will provide vouchers to buy UHD to HDTV converters.

Download Episode #682

Today’s Show:

Logitech Harmony Ultimate Remote and Hub

If memory serves, the very first product review we ever did on the HDTV Podcast was a very early Harmony remote.  Back in the days before Harmony was acquired by Logitech. Before the touchscreen models came out. But the remote was revolutionary in how simple it made it for anyone to control even a complex home theater with a single remote, and often just a single button.

Continuing in the tradition of changing the game for home theater enthusiasts, the newest member of the Harmony family, the Logitech Harmony Ultimate Remote and Hub ($334) is the next generation of what Harmony started several years ago. As a side note, we paid $299 for it at Amazon when we bought it, so the price fluctuates. If you wait a little while, it could come back down.

About the remote

From the Manufacturer:

  • One remote easily controls entertainment devices plus connected lights, locks, thermostats, blinds, sensors, and more
  • Intuitive color touch screen: Simply swipe and tap to control channels, movies, 50 customizable channel Favorites and home automation devices such as Philips hue lights or Nest Learning Thermostat
  • Harmony app turns iOS or Android smartphones or tablets into a second, personal universal remote control
  • The Harmony Home Hub lets you control devices in closed cabinets
  • Simple setup on computer or mobile app for control of 15 home entertainment devices and unlimited home automation devices: Works with over 270,000 devices, including your TV, satellite or cable box, Blu-ray player, Apple TV, Roku, Sonos, game consoles, Philips hue lights and more.

Setup

Getting the remote up and running is pretty simple. Getting it dialed in to exactly what you want takes a bit more time. The remote itself, just like the iOS or Android app, doesn’t send any commands directly to your devices. It sends the command to the Hub and the hub relays the commands to your devices. So to get started you plug in the remote to start it charging, plug in the Hub and position its two included IR blasters to transmit to your home theater devices. That step takes about a minute.

 Next step is to download the app to your smartphone or tablet. Once you have it installed, the real setup begins. If you’re used to programming harmony remotes, you can skip the app step and program it directly with your computer. Or if your smartphone or tablet doesn’t have bluetooth. But we went the new user route and did it all through the app, for the full experience. The app itself is very clean, simple and intuitive.

First step is to connect the app to your Hub using bluetooth. When the app prompts, you press a button on the back of the hub to pair the devices. Once paired, you can connect the Hub to your home wifi network. After you get the Hub on wifi, you’re ready to start doing the real programming. This step took a couple minutes, but mostly waiting for devices to connect.

When the hub connects to wifi, it will automatically discover a bunch of compatible devices and make them available for you to control. Ours found a few Sonos players, and a few streaming boxes like the Fire TV. That was pretty cool, but not what we needed to setup the home theater, so we left them alone and manually added our receiver, tuner box, blu-ray player and projector. All of the devices were instantly recognized. That took another couple minutes.

If you’ve ever programmed a universal remote, you know that the next step is activities. The app does a good job of walking you through a step by step wizard to configure each device for the various activities like Watch TV, Watch a Movie, Listen to Music, etc. In many cases, you’d be done after this step. We have more complicated HDMI issues, so we had to do some fine tuning, but all told, it took about 15-20 minutes to get up and running using the app to program the remote.

Performance

The Ultimate remote has the same form factor as overall usage style as the Harmony Touch Universal Remote ($178) we reviewed a couple years ago.  The remote maintains a few hard buttons, but really wants you to drive with the touch screen.  It feels nice, but has some shortcomings on usability. For full details on the remote itself, read our review of the Touch fromEpisode 554. It’s a great remote, but not perfect.

The addition of the Hub is really great for some use cases. Removing the requirement for line of sight to the devices eliminates issues you may have if you want to store your equipment in a cabinet, have a coffee table in the way, or constantly have people walking in front of you when you’re trying to use the remote. It really cuts down on the number of times you have to hit the help button. We liked that quite a bit.

The app worked pretty well, but we found that it had issues at times connecting to the Hub. It would search the wifi network for the presence of the Hub and report that it was missing. We had to manually reconnect them several times. This somewhat diminished the usefulness of the app. It would have been nice if they fell back to bluetooth, but we never saw that happen, nor do we know if its even a possibility. When connected, the app was a pretty cool quick way to control the theater.

Automation

Perhaps the biggest differentiator about the Ultimate Remote and Hub is the ability to also control home automation devices. To do this with most home theater remotes you have to buy an IR module for your automation system, program the IR module to control the devices and teach your remote how to send the correct IR codes. All doable, but all very rigid and sometimes very painful. With the Harmony Hub you get a lot of this built right in.

 The Hub supports a multitude of wifi based devices such as those from from Nest, Lutron, August, pēq and more.  They claim support for 270,000 devices from more than 6,000 brands but it isn’t clear how many of those are home theater components and how many are home automation devices. A yet-to-be released add on module call the Harmony Home Hub Extender will allow for even more automation possibilities by connecting the Hub to ZigBee and Z-Wave Plus devices.

But the Hub isn’t designed to be a true automation hub.  One big catch, for example, is that it currently isn’t possible to access the Hub from the Internet. You could probably cobble your own VPN system together to allow you to get to it, but it wouldn’t be trivial. This drastically reduces the effectiveness of the Hub as an automation device. Having control of your home: lights, door locks, leak sensors, from anywhere in the world is a key feature. Without it you can do some cool things to augment the home theater experience, but it isn’t a very robust automation hub.

The Hub also doesn’t provide the automated programming with timers, triggers, and scenes that you need from a true automation server or Hub.  So let’s not bill it as something it isn’t, it’s a cool home theater remote that can also control some of your automated devices. You won’t use it to control your automation, but you can use it to make adjustments, like dimming the lights when you hit play, or adjusting the thermostat if the room gets too hot.

We tested the remote at Braden’s house and he’s all Insteon all the time. He has an IR module, but we know that works, so we didn’t take the time to get it up and running. So if the Hub controls some devices you have, or you can adjust what devices you plan to purchase to align with what the Hub supports, it could work well as in interface into your automation equipment. If not, you’re out of luck.

Conclusion

As a concept, the Harmony Ultimate Remote and Hub is awesome. Taken as its component parts, it’s cool, but perhaps not the next big thing.  Removing line of sight is perhaps its biggest selling feature. After that, if you have the lights that it works with, being able to dim and brighten lights as part of the home theater experience is pretty compelling. It’s a great remote, not the best Harmony has ever made, but not bad either.

Download Episode #681

Posted by: htguys | March 26, 2015

Podcast #680: Wireless Surrounds that Work

Today’s Show:

Wireless Surrounds that Work!

We have been on a quest to find a wireless surround solution that not only works but works well! Maybe its because we live in a noisy home or neighborhood but we have not found a solution that has worked well. Either we would get static or in many cases we got nothing. Our last ditch effort took a product that worked with laptops and mp3 players and adapted it to work with our AVR.

The centerpiece of the solution is the Audioengine W3 Wireless Adapter (Buy Now $149). The W3 can process USB audio up to 16 bits/48KHz with no compression. However, for our application we used the analog audio input via a 3.5mm minijack which should be just fine for a surround application.

For use in a home theater application you would take the surround left and right preouts and hook them up to an RCA to 3.5mm minijack cable. If your receiver has a USB input you could connect the W3 to that and you would have power.

In our case we had neither. To get audio to the transmitter we used an adapter to convert speaker outputs to RCA (Rockford Fosgate RF-HLC High Level Speaker Signal to Low Level RCA Adapter $17.50) and then we used the RCA to 3.5mm adapter cable. The W3 includes a power adapter for either the transmitter or receiver. We used it for the transmitter.

The final connection to the Cerwin Vega VE5Ms requires an amplifier and the W3 receiver. The amplifier we decided to use is the Audioengine N22 (Buy Now $199) for two reasons. One, its has great specs! Two, it has a powered USB port to plug the W3 receiver unit into.

  • Power output – 22W RMS / 40W peak per channel (AES)
  • THD+N – <0.02% at all power settings
  • Frequency response – 20Hz-22kHz ±1dB
  • SNR – >95dB A-weighted

We could have gone with a much less expensive amp, and you can too to save the some money, but we felt the power and quality of the amp was worth it on our application. An alternative amp costing about $175 less that you could substitute is the Kinter 12V 2 CH Mini Digital Audio Power Amplifier (Buy Now $10.50) but then you would also need to use an adapter to provide USB power for the W3 receiver.

Performance

One word, success!! Ara’s wife had been giving him grief about having the surround speakers in the room just sitting there not making sound. The ultimatum was given, either get the speakers doing something or get them out of the room. This was the solution that not only got sound coming through the speakers but did so cleanly. The W3 has been transmitting sound to the surrounds for about four weeks now. There has not been one pop, click, or hiss in that entire time. And this is in an environment that has seen no less than three other wireless solutions fail miserably.

Another complaint some have with wireless solutions is that it may affect the wifi performance in your home. In the same period no one has complained about spotty wifi or sluggish performance. At one point Ara thought that some of the issues he experienced with Cox Communications cable may have been a result of the the W3 interfering with his wifi. the good news is that after changing his DNS servers those issues have been cleared up and all is good.

Final Thoughts

If you have invested a lot of money in your speakers and are in a position where you can’t run speaker wire to your surrounds, we recommend this exact solution. The N22 can provide enough clean power with little distortion which will put a smile on your face each time something blows up or flies over your head. If you need something that works but just don’t want to invest a lot of money, swap out the amp with a lower cost model and you’ll still be happy when you hear something fly over your head!

Download Episode #680

Posted by: htguys | March 19, 2015

Podcast #679: Speaker Terminology

Today’s Show:

Speaker Terminology

Ara has recently started a new hobby of building his own speakers at home. In the course of building them, talking about them and creating videos to show how he does it, we realized there quite a few speaker terms and some tech jargon we may throw around that not everyone is familiar with. Some of you may know this inside and out, for others it’ll be a refresher and for some, parts of this may be brand new, but we’ve compiled a glossary of sorts, based on some prior episodes and some new stuff, to make sure we’re all in on the conversation when talking about speakers.

Frequency Response

Measures the range of audible frequencies a speaker reproduces across the entire audio spectrum. This spec helps you assemble a set of speakers that allow you to hear everything you’re supposed to. The general rule of thumb is that we humans, with young, undamaged eardrums, can hear really low sounds down to 20 Hz all the way up to really high-pitch, piercing sound at 20 kHz. Many argue that the highest and lowest frequencies are less important because the human ear doesn’t hear them as well – and for some of us, not at all.  But for the lower range, it may not be as important to hear it as it is to feel it.

Driver

The scientific name for a speaker, or a loudspeaker, is an electroacoustic transducer. The transducer converts an electrical signal into the sound you hear when watching movies or listening to music. The individual transducers themselves are often referred to as drivers. The term speaker and driver can sometimes be used interchangeably. The word speaker is also used to describe a set of drivers in an enclosure – the speakers you buy at the store, online or in some cases, build at home. There are three basic types of drivers: tweeter, midrange and woofer.

  • Tweeter – A tweeter is a driver designed to produce high audio frequencies (typically 2,000 Hz to 20 kHz).
  • Midrange – Midrange drivers, sometimes called “squawkers,” are designed to reproduce the frequency range from approximately 300–5000 Hz.
  • Woofer – A woofer is the driver designed to produce the lowest frequency sound, typically from 20 Hz to 1000 Hz.
  • Full Range – A full-range driver is designed to reproduces as much of the audible frequency range as possible.

Larger speakers tend to cover a wider range of frequencies, which is why you typically want larger speakers for your front and center channels.  You can get away with smaller speakers in the surround channels because the sound there doesn’t tend to be as dynamic as the front of the room.  Although some very large speakers will cover the lowest end of the spectrum, down to 20 Hz, most home theater speakers don’t go that low, so you need a subwoofer to fill that gap. Without the really the low end frequencies, a home theater tends to lack punch and the audio doesn’t feel as full.

Crossover

The Crossover is an electrical filter that could be a high-pass, low-pass or band-pass filter. It is used to divide the audible frequency spectrum (20 Hz – 20 kHz). Since most loudspeaker drivers are incapable of reproducing the entire audio spectrum, the crossover is used to make sure the correct frequencies are sent to the drivers that are built to reproduce a particular sound range. Without a crossover every driver would be sent the entire frequency range, resulting in muddied and sub-optimal audio experience.

Porting

A port in a speaker cabinet is a hole or vent that allows air to escape from inside the enclosure. A speaker without a port is referred to as a sealed enclosure, where no air is supposed to escape from inside. This design yields a more accurate response and produces a speaker with a bit more punch. A ported enclosure is more difficult to design, it requires a more scientific approach, and they tend to be larger than sealed cabinets. But a ported subwoofer allows for extended bass response, resulting in deeper bass and a stronger physical impact: you can feel the rumble.  Ported speakers are also more efficient. They increase the bass output of a speaker by around 3 dB, and that cuts the power requirements for your amplifier in half. More on that in a moment…

Decibel

Decibels, or dBs, are a measurement of sound level. Our ears detect changes in volume in a non-linear fashion. A decibel is a logarithmic scale of loudness. A difference of 1 decibel is an almost imperceptible change in volume. It takes about 3 dB for most humans to hear a difference and 10 decibels is perceived by the listener as a doubling of volume. On your receiver or amplifier when you go from -15 dB to -5 dB the sound volume hitting your ears is doubled. As a side note, it takes a doubling of wattage in your amp for an increase of 3 dB. That’s why paying an extra $200 for the next model up just because it is 125W instead of 100W is a waste of money. Provided, of course, that’s the only additional feature.

Sensitivity

This is the spec we use routinely to rank speakers when purley going by paper, not by sound.  If you’re doing your homework on Amazon or another online retailer, keep an eye out for sensitivity.  It gives you an idea of how efficient a speaker is; in other words, how hard it is going to make your receiver or amplifier work to play back those explosions you want to hear louder than you probably should.  What it really measures is how loud the speaker will play when given a standard test input and measured at a specific distance,  typically 1 meter.

As you can imagine, when fed the same test signal, the louder a speaker will play, the more efficient it is.  So sensitivity is a measure of the speaker’s volume, expressed (as volume often is) in decibels. The higher the number, the higher the efficiency and the better your speaker will perform.  Your receiver or amplifier won’t have to work as hard to produce the same volume level. Typical numbers are in the mid to high 80s; anything over 90 is considered excellent. Sensitivity won’t tell you how good a speaker sounds, but it will tell you how easy it will be to crank it up.

Impedance

This is another measurement, like sensitivity, that is of no value when it comes to the pure audio quality of the speaker, but it can help guide some buying decisions.  Where sensitivity tells you how hard the amplifier needs to work to produce a particular volume level, impedance tells you how much strain the speaker itself puts on your amplifier.  Most speakers are rated at 8 ohms, and most receiver specs are quoted assuming an 8 ohm speaker load. The lower the impedance number, the more strain, so if you come across a sweet pair of 4 or 6 ohm speakers, you’ll need to make sure your receiver can handle them.

Also keep in mind that impedance is something you can influence if you decide to add more speakers to your home theater. You can’t simply add more speakers to the same channel. When you do, you change the overall load or impedance for that amplifier channel. Adding a second speaker to a channel, when connected in parallel, will actually cut the impedance in half, so instead of the amplifier working to run one 8 ohm speaker, it now has to work as if it is connected to one 4 ohm speaker. This could have a negative impact on your amp. Connecting speakers in series, however, actually has the opposite impact, but that may be too deep a discussion for this episode. Bottom line, make sure you know what you’re doing if you decide to add multiple speakers to the same surround sound channel.

Power Handling

This tells you the maximum amount of power you can run into a speaker without damaging it. To be honest, the spec is somewhat useless. A 200 watt per channel amplifier will rarely, if ever, run at the full 200 watts to each channel.  If you tried it, you’d probably have blood coming from your ears before your speakers, that may be rated for 100 or 125 max watts per channel, would give out or blow.  The 180 watt or 200 watt receiver is probably going to be a higher quality item than a 50 or 80 watt unit, so even though the smaller ones will never have the chance to ruin your speakers, they won’t sound as good either. Use common sense and you should be just fine.

Download Episode #679

Posted by: htguys | March 12, 2015

Podcast #678: Review: Mohu Channels

Today’s Show:

Mohu Channels

Last year we saw a cool Kickstarter project called Mohu Channels. According to the project description you would be able to:

Create your own TV Channel Guide as a mash-up of streaming apps, websites & broadcast TV with Mohu Channels. We’re making TV fun again!

The project has been completed and is now available through the Mohu website for $150. Being that we have had great experiences with every Mohu product we have reviewed in the past we were quite excited to get our hands on the device and put it through its paces.

Features

  • Combine all your favorite programming on a single source
  • Arrange your channels in any order: Kids channels. Sports stations. Streaming movies. Web sites for photos, stocks or weather. Local TV stations. You decide.
  • Use a real keyboard or smart device to type in movie names, web addresses, email or any other text. No more on-screen keyboards!

Setup

Physical setup is trivial, connect your antenna, HDMI, Ethernet (if you are using the device wired), and power. Next turn it on and select the HDMI input on your TV and follow the onscreen instructions. You are given the option to train the Mohu remote to work with your TV. If you have a Samsung TV it works out of the box.

We skipped this step and moved on to selecting our time zone and language preferences followed by joining our wifi network. The last part of the setup was scanning for channels. The tuner is quite good and found more channels than the TV’s tuner did. Once the channels have been found you can delete channels that you have no interest in or you can change the order that they appear in your guide.

The basic setup takes about ten to fifteen minutes, add five more for a firmware update, and you can start watching right away. But there is much more to Mohu Channels than simply watching over the air HDTV. Next up we added apps through the Google Play store. There are so many that you can add but we stuck with Netflix and Hulu and a few network apps. You can also add web pages but honestly we can’t think of a reason why you would want to. Once we added all the apps and channels we organized them in the guide based on our favorites. It takes a little time but once you have them organized the way you want it makes using the device simple and easy.

Performance

This was hit and miss for us. As we said above the tuner is quite good. it picks up channels that out HDTV didn’t and would stay locked even with a weak signal. Using the ARC channel of the HDTV we were even able to get Dolby Digital audio. But lip sync issues would pop up from time to time. Changing the channel away and back usually fixed the issue.  The picture quality was outstanding!

Then we watched Netflix and were not happy with the picture quality. Its hard to tell if that is an issue with the Mohu Channels device or the Netflix application. The navigation within the app was quirky, using the D-pad for navigation was problematic. For instance you could not select episodes. The only way we were able to do so was with the pointer. The top it off the audio was only stereo. Compared to the Netflix app on the TV, Amazon Fire, or AppleTV, the device did not compare favorably.

Then we checked out Hulu+ and found video to be slightly better but in all the experience was not much better than the Netflix app.

The user interface took a little getting used to but after a little time it was acceptable. The remote’s pointer/mouse function frustrated us at first. To make the selection with it you need to press SEL and try not to move the remote. It took a little practice but as soon as we mastered it we were able to select anything we pointed at. It is nice having a full keyboard to make surfing and adding content easier. The pointer makes navigating around the various apps and GUI elements easier as well. Everything works as advertised but it just didn’t seem to flow nicely.

After speaking with the Mohu people we learned that the company is getting a lot of feedback and is paying attention to it. They will be releasing a Firmware update to fix a couple of issues in the next few days. They tell us they are committed to making the product easy and fun to use.  They are also working on the Netflix experience but admit some of the issues we experienced may be out of their control.

Mohu One

Mohu One is a web content aggregator that finds videos from Youtube, Vevo, Fox Sports, and more and presents them in a single interface grouped by category.  This is a web service so you can use the site with or without the device. We used the pointer to navigate this device because the D-Pad navigation had a few quirks.

DVR

Right now there is no DVR function available. The device does have a USB port that will allow for this capability in the future. Mohu wants to keep this a no cost to use device so they are trying to work the TV Guide issues associated with such a product. More info on this in the future.

Conclusion

Mohu Channels has the right idea but still needs a little work. There is a lot of potential in this little device. We’ll check back with it in a few months so see how it is progressing. Mohu Channels  may end up being the cord cutters Swiss Army Knife in the near future.

Download Episode #678

Today’s Show:

Enter the HT Guys 10 Year Anniversary Contest

Get your own HT Guys swag (well, shirts at least)

VidiPath Technology from DLNA

What is the worst part about subscription television service? Ask ten people and you may get a few different answers, but odds are a few of them would agree on the cost of the service. Not just the service, but all the additional fees, especially the fees to have a set top box in the rooms where you want to watch TV.  Can it really cost the provider that much more to let you watch in a second room? You’re already paying for the service.

The DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) is hoping their new VidiPath technology will make that easier on you. The plan for VidiPath is to let you view all of your pay TV content on multiple TVs throughout your home without the need to rent additional set-top boxes for each room. DLNA technology is certified and available on over four billion devices worldwide. Many of us have been using it for years to stream content, movies and music, from computers or network drives to TVs and other connected devices.

The addition of VidiPath technology opens up the possibilities of what you can stream over your DLNA connections.  According to DLNA executive director Donna Moore, “with the addition of VidiPath, DLNA has expanded its ecosystem to include the secure delivery of subscription-TV content.” So you can stream pretty much anything now, from movies stored on your video server to live content from your cable provider, to any certified device in your home.

The technology will work over wired and wireless network connections (using WiFi), so you’ll be able to play content on wireless devices like tablets and smartphones in addition to TVs, game consoles, computers and other set top boxes. We’re hearing that the first VidiPath certified devices should come to market this quarter, so we should start to see them pop up later this month. Of course you’ll need a VidiPath certified device from your provider, but after that you can add any VidiPath certified playback device to get the content in any room you want.

Of course the initiative is led by the DLNA, but it has some pretty solid logos backing it as well. Providers Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications are in with both feet and have already committed to having VidiPath enabled set-top boxes or gateways available to their subscribers. Sony, Samsung and Broadcom are onboard as well. So we’d expect to see a smattering of televisions, tablets and other devices hitting the shelves soon.

A single VidiPath certified set-top box or gateway from a traditional pay TV provider like your cable company, or satellite provider will stream all the content you pay for, including High Definition content, over WiFi. So if you have a VidiPath certified device that can get on WiFI, that device instantly becomes a live TV viewer. Providers and manufacturers are working together to provide a consistent usage experience across all devices, including access to the program guide and, we’re hoping, all recorded DVR content, although we haven’t seen that stated anywhere.

No word on whether you’ll be able to pause or rewind live TV from a VidiPath player.  Also not sure if you’ll be able to initiate recordings. Also no word on how many devices will be able to stream simultaneously – how many rooms can be watching TV at the same time. We’re certain this information will come to light as devices start to hit the market.

If VidiPath players are fully functional, just like you get from your provider’s multi-room boxes in a whole house DVR setup, the technology could be a game changer. No more multi-room DVRs, just a standard DVR from any provider that would support VidiPath and you’d be responsible for adding your own playback devices to connect to it. Pay TV providers would have to find other features to differentiate on. That’s exciting.

Download Episode #677

Today’s Show:

UHD Blu-ray

Many of you either have or will soon have a new UHD TV that will be begging you to throw some UHD content at it. Right now you can stream UHD content from Netflix and Amazon but while good, its not nearly as good as you can get from disc. There aren’t any discs, or players, out there that can support UHD. But there will be in the near future. The Blu-ray Disc Association has released a new specification that may help you justify the purchase of a shiny new UHD TV. So what do the new players and disc give you?

Better Color

Simply put, the new specification allows your TV to display more colors than your current HDTV. You probably are thinking that your TV already does a good job with this but it can only display about 30% of what your eye can see. The new specification will display about 75%. At this writing we don’t know of UHD TV that supports this spec nor do we know when we will see content that does. But its nice to know that your player will be ready when the content is there!

High Dynamic Range (HDR)

If you have a relatively new smartphone you may have heard of this term. On your phone your camera takes two (or more) shots of the same image, one with the darkest exposure and one with the lightest. Then it combines the best of the images to create one that shows great detail in all areas, nothing washed out and blacks looking black. This will provide depth and greater contrast on screen.

10-bit

Bottom line on this one is that it makes better color and HDR possible.

Higher Frame Rates

Until Hollywood shoots at 60 frames a second, think of this as future proofing the standard. This will help 3D as well.

Better Compression

There is a lot of data that needs to be stored on a disc for 4K so a more efficient way of compressing it is required. That’s where H.265 comes into play. The High Efficiency Video Codec (HVEC) is twice as efficient as H.264 (mpeg4). As a side note, HVEC is what makes streaming 4K from Netflix and Amazon possible at 7 to 10Mbps. Now imagine how good it would be at a little more than 100Mbps. Yes it will be a while before streaming catches up to fixed media.

Larger Capacity

All those bits need to be stored someplace. The new discs will have capacities of 66GB or 100GB

Audio

TBD

Interview – Gary Yacoubian President of SVS Speakers

From the SVS Website:

SVS was founded in 1998 by four audiophile/engineers who noted that customers were paying too much for lackluster subwoofer performance because of a manufacturing to sales process that was stacked against the consumer. The conventional model, where just good enough subs were sold at high markups did a disservice to customers who wanted great audio experiences but didn’t have unlimited funds.

To fix a broken system, SVS pioneered a disruptive, future-facing model by investing heavily in product engineering and performance and reducing operational costs by selling direct to its customers over the Internet. Customers could demo world-class subwoofers and speakers in their homes exactly where the products would be installed, allowing them to make the most informed purchase decision possible, without risk. This strategy allowed SVS to establish a global presence and continues to earn acclaim from professional and amateur reviewers, in forums, and at audio shows, while continuing to grow retail and direct distribution.

Download Episode #676

Posted by: htguys | February 19, 2015

Podcast #675: Sling TV Review

Today’s Show:

Sling TV Review

The idea of cutting the cord, removing your reliance on Cable or Satellite to provide the hundreds of channels you rarely watch, has been a pipe dream for many of us. Sure, for those close enough to a transmitter, an over the air antenna really helps fill the void. Netflix and Hulu are great as well. But if you like to watch a lot of TV, you’re still left wanting. Until now. Sling TV may actually be the answer.

You’re right, Sling TV isn’t really cutting the cord. It’s just swapping one TV service for another. But it does allow you to trade in a bill of $80 or $120 or more per month for only $20 a month. So you haven’t cut the cord, but you’ve slimmed it down quite a bit. It’s like the cord on Zumba or P90X.

What is Sling TV?

According to the website, “Sling is the way TV should be. It’s watching the season finale of your favorite show the moment it airs. It’s the latest episodes of your favorite shows and hot new movies on-demand. It’s ESPN, TNT, Adult Swim, and more without the cable company…With Sling TV, there’s no commitment, no installation, and no crazy miscellaneous fees. Just great TV for only $20/mo. Cancel anytime online.”

Bottom line, Sling TV is Live and On Demand television over your Internet connection. Whatever your friends with Cable or Satellite are watching, you can watch at the same time. The base $20 package includes 15 channels:

  • ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, Food Network, Travel Channel, HGTV, El Rey, Adult Swim, Maker, Disney, ABC Family, Cartoon Network, CNN, Galavision

For an additional $5/mo, the optional Sports Extra package adds 9 more channels

  • ESPNEWS, ESPNU, SEC Network, ESPN Bases Loaded, ESPN Buzzer Beater, ESPN Goal Line, Universal Sports, Univision Deportes, beIN Sports

Also for an additional $5/mo, the optional Kids Extra package adds 5 more channels

  • Disney Junior, Disney XD, Boomerang, Baby TV, Duck TV

And for yet another $5/mo, you can opt for the News & Info Extra package for 4 more channels:

  • Cooking Channel, DIY Network, Bloomberg, HLN

And it’s more than just channels. You also have the freedom to watch on whatever device suits you, or is most convenient at the time. If you want to watch on a TV in your home theater or a secondary room in the house, you can put a Sling TV app on your Amazon Fire TV or Fire Stick, Roku, and coming soon, Xbox and Nexus Player. The Apple TV requires the use of the iOS app for Sling TV with Airplay. If you want to watch on the go, add the app to your iOS or Android device. Or for ultimate flexibility, just install the player on your Windows or Mac computer or laptop.

Performance

The streaming quality of Sling TV is pretty good.  Coming from the company that practically invented place-shifting, you’d think they have some solid history with streaming video quality, and it shows. The video when watched over a high bandwidth connection looked great. Sharp and crisp. They support Dolby Digital 5.1 as well, so you can get some surround sound from the TV connected devices.

Content looked great on a high bandwidth connection including WiFi, only a few stutters occasionally. Things were a bit more hit or miss over 4G – but mostly hit. Our first test over 4G was terrible. Granted it was Sprint 4G, but it was really bad, nearly unwatchable. Ara, being the more methodical of the two of us demanded a recount. Testing over Verizon and AT&T 4G was actually very good. Further tests over Sprint 4G also yielded much better results.

When things were bad over 4G, video would come in sporadically but spent more time stuck on a random frame or a blank screen than actually streaming TV. It is obvious to most, but as you would expect, the quality of the stream is totally dependent on the quality of the data connection. Sling TV is more than capable of looking really good on a phone or tablet over 4G, but if your connection is spotty, the video will reflect that. No streaming technology can overcome a really bad data connection.

Then there are the limitations in the service. For one, you can only watch one thing at a time. So if you have a couple devices in your home that can connect to Sling TV, they’ll all be watching the same thing – or you’ll have to get multiple accounts. Which somewhat defeats the purpose of the $20/month.

Most channels do not provide the ability to pause, rewind or fast forward live television. A few others like HGTV, Food Network, Travel Channel, and a couple others do. On those channels skipping back or forwards is a bit slow since the stream needs to rebuffer. Often the skip buttons didn’t work at all. It would just stutter for a second and start back up right where you were before.  You are better of dragging the timeline slider and moving forward once enough of the stream has buffered.

So while getting TV over the Internet is super cool, and super high tech, handicapping the essentials we’ve all come to love in the DVR is like going a decade back in time. To a time before DVRs and the freedom to stop anything for a snack break or skip commercials. Some channels allow you to watch previously aired shows as if you had recorded them. Some channels don’t have that ability, probably due to the contracts they have with the owners of the syndicated shows.

The user interface is pretty easy to use, although it is a bit quirky and takes some getting used to. But the overall usage patterns are the same for any device, so once you figure it out on one, you’ll have it nailed on any.  We can envision some pretty major usability changes over the next few months as they gather feedback from real users, but it isn’t bad, just…different.

Conclusion

All in all, the Sling TV service is a a great idea, but it may not be the next big thing quite yet.  For a secondary TV in your home that doesn’t have a coax connection, or maybe for a college student, it could be really cool.  As a replacement for your Cable or Satellite service, and especially if you use a DVR, it’ll probably come up a bit short at least at this point in time.

Download Episode #675

Today’s Show:

Dayton Audio XRA25 Wireless Rear Channel Amplifier

Since the beginning of this podcast we have been on the lookout for a product that will wirelessly transmit audio from your receiver to the surround speakers. To date there have been a few that sort of got the job done. To be fair, a lot depends on where your live. In areas that do not have a lot of interference you have a much better chance of success with most products. In areas where home are right on top of each other, or have a lot of wireless devices you may be better off running cable.

About six months ago I (Ara) went through the process of finding a product that would get me a 5.1 system in my master bedroom via wireless surround speakers. I tried three products all of which failed miserably. Again, it may have been because the environment has a lot of interference but the bottom line was no joy on the wireless solution. I had resolved myself to running cable to my speakers. Because of the layout of my bedroom I would need about 100 feet of speaker wire and speaker hiding channels (Wiremold C110 White Cordmate Kit) to run cables along the baseboards. The actual surround speakers are only about 15 feet away from the receiver but require a path along the baseboard that pretty much run the entire perimeter of the bedroom. Since I had to move all the furniture to snake the cable I had put off the project instead enjoying a 3.1 system. Then I found the Dayton Audio XRA25 Wireless Amplifier (Buy Now $99) and decided to give it one more shot.

Features:

  • Subwoofer channel for placement of a powered subwoofer at the rear of the room
  • 25 watts per channel output power at 4 ohms, 12.5 watts at 8 ohms
  • 2.4 GHz transmission band with 34 transmitting channels
  • Transmitting range up to 100 ft.
  • Adjustable output level for achieving proper volume balance

Setup:

Connect the transmitter to the receiver surround speaker outputs with either RCA or speaker cable. The receiver we used did not have pre-outs so we used speaker wire. On the receiver side you connect the speakers via speaker wire. If you made the subwoofer connection then you connect the subwoofer out to the subwoofer via RCA cable. Power on both units and you are good to go! To pair the devices you simultaneously press and hold the “M” button on both the receiver and transmitter. The LED on the front of the units will blink green and blue. When they are both blue they have found an open frequency on the 2.4 GHz spectrum.

Performance:

Or lack or performance as it were. The issues I had started right out of the gate. I could not get the units to sync. The receiver would show a solid blue LED but the transmitter never would. The manual says to make sure there is a signal so I put a test tone on the surround channels. I even disconnected the speaker cable running from the AVR to the wireless transmitter and connected directly into a speaker to make sure there was a tone.

Next, thinking that there could be interference, I turned off my wifi and cordless phone and tried again. Still nothing! The next morning I called customer support and verified that I did everything as I should. In the end I decided to send the unit back.

Apartment dwellers would be ideal candidates for a product like this, but that environment is even noisier than living in a tract home. I have one last hope but its expensive. I am going to use a couple of devices from Audioengine and see if I can get this to work.

The system will consist of an Audioengine W3 Wireless Audio Adapter (Buy Now $149) which is primarily for sending music from your PC to some powered speakers but can definitely work for this application. On the speaker side I will use the Audioengine N22 desktop amplifier (Buy Now $199) to bring the speakers to life. The N22 has a USB port so it can power the receiver side of the W3 without need of a power adapter. Like I said its on the expensive side but I know it will work because we reviewed the W3 with great success a couple of years ago.

Download Episode #674

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