June 6th, 2011
I have yet to see a decent-length review of these speakers yet so I thought I should get one up before the Web is flooded with them, though perhaps this is enough of a boutique item that won’t actually happen anyway. We’ll see.
What is the Ascend Acoustics Sierra-1 NrT?
It’s a speaker you cannot actually buy right now, but will be able to perhaps sometime soon. Essentially, it is an upgraded version of the highly-regarded Sierra-1. Ascend has allowed owners of the Sierra-1 to upgrade before the Sierra-1 NrT is made available. I am one such owner so I did the upgrade.
The original Sierra-1 is a very, very good speaker for the money. I posted some initial reactions to the speakers not too long after I got them. Since that post I’d done some shopping around while I was still in my 30-day return window. Local dealers aren’t abundant anymore and those that are around are scattered to the four winds here. I went with a friend of mine and we listened to some other speakers, then came back to my house and ran the same music through the Sierra-1s. We listened to the Focal Chorus 706V and the Paradigm Studio 20. On my own, I also listened to the B&W 685 and the B&W CM1. Frankly, the Sierra-1 is a markedly better speaker than all of these. The Focals were, IMO, absolutely awful with no midrange whatsoever. The B&W 685s have a very congested midrange. After I had heard them I found a review that said it much better than I could: they are like listening to music with a heavy beige quilt draped between you and the music. I couldn’t agree more. I liked the CM1s better than the 685s, but they just have no bass at all, which didn’t cut it for me. The only thing that came close was the Paradigm Studio 20s, which only somewhat close. Bass on the 20s is very good, but still not quite as tight and controlled as the Sierra-1s. The Sierras image better and have a cleaner midrange. The only thing I liked better on the Paradigms was the very top end. The metal domes give the tweeters more sizzle, though in the case of the Studio 20s it might be too much of a good thing and I found them a little harsh with violins. And, of course, the Paradigms are more expensive.
The friend I took with me to listen to the Focals and Paradigms, when he heard the Sierra-1s, almost immediately said “do not send these back—nothing we heard today was even close.” Well, I thought the Paradigms were vaguely close, at least at the high end.
My father, who currently has a lovely Sonus Faber setup, also concurred that he’d never heard anything like the Sierra-1s in their price range. He still likes his Fabers better, of course, but it’s not like that’s the same price class.
Anyway, the point I’m trying to convey here is that the “vanilla” Sierra-1 is an excellent speaker for the price. I really, really liked them, with only a minor quibble about high-frequency performance.
How Is the NrT Different?
There are two differences between the original Sierra-1 and the NrT version. First, the NrT uses a different tweeter. The original tweeter was made by SEAS of Norway, and so is the new one. The new one uses a much lighter but more powerful neodymium magnet in a “ring” configuration. (“NrT” stands for “neodymium ring tweeter.”) The tweeter housing is the same size so the new tweeter simply drops into place.
However, it would be pure foolishness to put a new tweeter, with different performance characteristics, into a speaker and just be done with it. The crossover also had to change—and change it certainly did. Check out the picture of the two crossovers (old one on the left, click to embiggen):
The new crossovers are supporting some serious caps and loops.
So, what is the new tech supposed to do? The primary thing I was looking for is more sparkle at the top end. The soft dome tweeters on the original Sierra-a are just a smidge too smooth for me, even in cases where I wanted them to be more edgy. Note that was I was looking for was not simply a more forward presentation. I tend to dislike overly forward sound; for example, I don’t care for Grado headphones because of this. I just wanted, and was promised, more overall crispness on the high end. The manufacturer described the difference like this:
This new tweeter is fast, delicate and with loads of top-end air. It is the perfect solution for those that like the advantages of a soft dome but yet miss some of the positive aspects of a metal dome.
The upgraded tweeter is sharper and quicker, there is a noticeable improvement in attack and decay, such that instruments have more *snap* to them, a more concise impact. For example, with cymbals, the impact is clearly more defined with more delicacy and shimmer.
I should mention that there is a lot more to this new tweeter than frequency response improvements. Improved damping, better transient accuracy, higher power handling, better cooling and lower distortion — but I feel the most obvious way to visualize the improvement is to simply compare the response measurements.
And those are exactly the kind of things that I wanted, so I took the plunge and plunked down for the upgrade.
Ascend gave two options for the upgrade: ship the speakers back to them and have them do it, or have the parts shipped to you and do it yourself. I chose the latter option. The upgrade was easy to to do, requiring pretty much just a screwdriver and a small wrench, and the nice folks at Ascend provided both paper and video instructions on doing the upgrade. I was a little paranoid doing the first one and it took me probably 25 minutes. With better familiarity and working with less paranoia, I did the second in between 10 and 15 minutes. These times do not count the time to wipe down the speakers afterward, as I have the high-gloss finish and I managed to cover them in fingerprints, which I just couldn’t leave.
Did the NrT Deliver?
In a word, yes. The NrT setup not only provides the desired sparkle at the high end, rendering cymbals with appropriate sizzle, but it has opened up the speakers even further. The soundstage is wider and imaging overall even better, which I’m not sure I would have thought possible for speakers that already excelled in these areas. There is additional clarity starting in the upper midrange, making female vocals even more airy and compelling.
Some specific thoughts based on my Audio Test Mix:
* Cymbals, cymbals, cymbals. This is what I was really looking for, and it came through in spades. Marked improvements in “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” “Oasis,” and “Root Beer.” This was the only thing I thought the metal-domed Paradigms did better than the Sierra-1, and now the crown here goes back to Ascend. Absolutely nailed it here, though I wasn’t terribly surprised because this is what was promised.
* The place where the NrT most surprised me was the acoustic guitar, particularly the Rodrigo y Gabriela piece “Hanuman.” The additional crispness and detail was probably most felt, and most impressive, here. The NrT upgrade improved not only the high end, but the midrange as well, quite significantly. Anecdote time: my younger brother is not much of an audiophile. Not in the sense that he can’t discriminate better from worse, but in the sense that he almost never feels that the level of improvement justifies the expense. (He’s got more of our mother’s skinflinty leanings than I ever did.) Anyway, he knows RyG’s work very well (he was the one who got me into them) and when I played “Hanuman” for him on these he was just blown away. This was the first time I have ever seen my brother visibly impressed by audio equipment. He’s a tough audience, and he was really floored, and this was the track that really did it.
* As noted, female vocals are improved as well. This was very clear on “Il Pleure” though it didn’t seem to make quite as much of a difference with Tori Amos on “Precious Things.”
* Electric guitar on “Stinkfist” was also much improved, much more aggressive-sounding, more in-your-face, which I’m pretty sure is Tool’s goal there. The improvement was less noticeable with the Cult’s “Wild Flower” probably because it’s not as good a recording, so YMMV here.
* The violin-oriented classical (“Summer” and “Concerto for 2 Violins”) didn’t improve as much as some of the other material. The wider soundstage is nice and it feels like there’s more “air” with these speakers, and the imaging is improved, and all of these things are most definitely better—it simply made somewhat less difference here than elsewhere. I think the slightly more forward presentation offset the other gains just a little bit, though overall I would still say these tracks sounded better, just not as much better as some of the others.
Overall, I’d have to say I’m definitely very happy with the upgrade.
To be fair, I should note that the speakers are now somewhat more forward overall. For example, they do not contain the screech of a violin’s highest notes quite as well. However, this effect is not pronounced. The frequency response graph for these speakers is still remarkably flat, but where there was a small (maybe ~2.5 dB) dip in high-end response (around 3kHz), it’s now flatter in that region and actually shows a spike at very high frequencies (25kHz, but I’m sure I’m deaf at that frequency anyway). The additional detail and resolution can punish bad recordings, though it doesn’t always. The place where I’ve most noticed this is mediocre 1980s recordings that use drum machines in place of real cymbals. While real cymbals sound much better, bad fake cymbals actually sound slightly worse by virtue of it being more obvious that they’re fake. This doesn’t seem to be a problem with more recent drum machines; for example, Underworld sounds just fine.
This is, on balance, a small price to pay for the overall upgrade in sound quality. My friend who had been speaker shopping with me before came down to listen to the upgraded speakers, and he agreed that they were both slightly more forward but overall even more amazing. As far as I’m concerned, the NrT has upgraded the speaker from “excellent” to “superlative,” as it rectified my only previous quibble with the sound. Now, this does make the speakers overall somewhat more expensive, but for me it was definitely worth it. If you own Sierra-1s and you’re already perfectly happy with the top end and absolutely do not want to mess with the overall balance of the speaker, the NrT upgrade may not be for you. If, however, you want more sizzle, an even wider soundstage and even better imaging (and don’t mind an ever-so-slightly more forward speaker), then the NrT is definitely the way to go.
This is not HT, this is strictly two-channel music. This is my study, which is the home of my primary computer setup. Music is mostly lossless (ALAC) fed from the optical out on my Mac Pro into the outboard DAC built into a HeadRoom Desktop headphone amplifier, which routes the RCA outs to a NAD C740 receiver. This is obviously not super high-end or anything, but it’s definitely a cut above standard Best Buy-grade fare. I do have some tracks at 256 kbps VBR AAC/MP3 (stuff bought through the iTunes store or Amazon MP3), but I avoid those for critical listening.
February 21st, 2011
A friend of mine asked for this recently, so I thought I’d provide it on the blog. When I want to audition or evaluate audio equipment or settings, I use a playlist that I burn specifically for that purpose. Here’s what’s on that playlist and what I listen for. (Note that I have all these on CD, and so these are uncompressed when testing or listening at home—links are for convenience, I don’t recommend testing with compressed music.)
1. Art of Noise, “Il Pleure (At the Turn of the Century)”
from The Seduction of Claude Debussy, 1999
This is a slightly weird track, in that it mixes spoken word, acoustic piano, drum machines, opera, and of course AON synth. Looking for clear differentiation of instruments, but mostly for how the the female opera vocals are handled. Unnatural mids make this sound poor.
2. Nine Inch Nails, “Into the Void”
from The Fragile (disc 2), 1999
I actually stopped in an audio shop one day on a whim, and didn’t have the older version of my test mix with me, and the sales guy demo’d with this track. The important part is the intro, which starts with a high-end, well, I’m not sure what it is—almost a squeak, then something xylophone-sounding, then adds cello, then acoustic guitar, then some light percussion, then the full force kicks in. I’m listening for the clarity of the instruments in the early stuff, which is quiet, and the force when more stuff kicks in.
3. Tool, “Stinkfist”
from Ænima, 1996
4. The Cult, “Wild Flower”
from Electric, 1987
A good audio setup needs to sound good when the electric guitars attack. The Tool recording is an excellent recording, The Cult recording is less so and is useful for seeing how things handle slightly less clean-sounding guitars. On a bad setup this will just devolve into distortion and little else. (Sorry no link on the Tool track. Come on, Tool, get it together and get on Amazon or iTunes.)
5. Tears for Fears, “Start of the Breakdown”
from The Hurting, 1983
There’s a lot of left-right panning in this track, so anything that impacts channel separation shows up immediately here. Obviously, this is not so much an issue with headphones, but if you don’t get the sense of something moving back and forth in space, something is definitely amiss.
6. Michael Hedges, “Breakfast in the Field”
from Live on the Double Planet, 1987
This is acoustic guitar originally recorded live on digital equipment. Different guitar strings should be distinct, and some ambient sounds (e.g., foot taps) are evident on better equipment.
7. Rodrigo y Gabriela, “Hanuman”
from 11:11, 2009
The latest addition. This is acoustic guitar as well as the last track, but sounds almost nothing at all like it. Not only are RyG absolutely fabulous and this album especially excellent, but it’s also a terrific recording. (Yes, I’m running out of superlatives.) You should be able to separate the two guitars very distinctly, and the percussion should not sound like drums when you listen carefully, because of course it isn’t, it’s Gabriela drumming with her hand on the guitar—and that’s what it should sound like.
8. George Winston, “Spring Creek”
from Summer, 1991
This is an acoustic piano piece which runs through a pretty thorough range of the 88 keys. Keys should sound distinct and be identifiable in chords when not struck perfectly in synch, which of course real human players do. Bass keys should sound natural, high keys shouldn’t sound harsh, mids should not get lost.
9. Vivaldi, “Summer (presto)”
from Janine Jansen’s The Four Seasons, 2004 (CD layer from SACD mastering)
Classical makes different demands than the rock/techno/acoustic on the rest of this list, and this is a good piece, heavy on different strings. Viola should be distinct from both violin and cello, the cello bits should be moving without being overwhelming. Setups that are too bass-heavy (equalized for rock/techno) don’t sound right here. Setups which are too bright can make the violins sound screechy. This is a pristine recording and flaws are quickly evident.
10. Bach, “Concerto for 2 Violins, Strings and Continuo in D minor, BWV. 1043: I. Vivace”
from Hilary Hahn & the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, Bach Concertos, 2002 (CD layer from SACD mastering)
I’m a sucker for violins, particularly in testing audio. Bad setups make it sound screechy, particularly Miss Hahn’s particular style. (Some might say her poor fingering, but I think on good equipment it sounds just fine.) Violins here should sound like, well, violins. This is another outstanding recording and can sound very close to lifelike on good equipment.
11. The Power Station, “Some Like It Hot”
from The Power Station, 1985
Listening almost entirely to Tony Thompson’s slamming drum intro to this song. If it doesn’t slam, the bass needs work. This is not a particularly great recording, but it doesn’t need to be for what it’s trying to deliver. Big toms and bass drums, that’s what you’re after here. (Please ignore the Duran Duran lineage here. This is about Tony Thompson’s drum work, OK?)
12. Underworld, “Little Speaker”
from A Hundred Days Off, 2002
Very bass-heavy electronica. Weak bass really shows here, should get that dance-club ”thump“ in full force. This is synthesized bass, so it will and should sound different from the slams in the previous track.
13. Thomas Newman, “Root Beer”
from American Beauty Score, 2000
If you’ve seen the movie, the is from the bit where Kevin Spacey has one of his waking dreams about Mena Suvari, this one while he’s getting her a root beer from the fridge. Lots of cymbal transients to test the treble response, and well as some really low bass rumbling; this gets down around 20-25 Hz, so if whatever equipment you’re listening to doesn’t really rumble, your bass extension isn’t good enough. (Sorry no link. Amazon has the CD version…)
14. Shadowfax, “Oasis”
from The Odd Get Even, 1990 (track also appears on Pure Shadowfax)
This is also a fully-digital recording with a mix of strange instruments and traditional rock instruments. I find Paiste cymbals to have slightly different timbre (don’t ask me to describe it) from other cymbals (not better, just different), and that should be evident as they are mixed very prominently here. The high whistle (or whatever it is) should also not be shrill. There’s a lot going on here—be sure all instruments sound distinct.
15. Tori Amos, “Precious Things”
from Little Earthquakes, 1991
I find Tori’s voice is sometimes difficult to reproduce well, and this is a good test for it. Good mix of acoustic piano, drum, and electric guitar. When the guitar kicks in on the line ”I want to smash the faces“ right around 1:50 into the track, it should be very involving but not overwhelming. If the setup is too forward, the guitar there will overwhelm the vocals, which is bad.
16. The Police, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”
from Ghost in the Machine, 1981
You wouldn’t think a Police track would ask much of your setup, but this one does because Stewart Copeland does some really great cymbal work here which isn’t mixed super prominently (not like the Shadowfax track). If the setup has much mid- or bass-push, they tend to get lost, which is bad. I have yet to hear this sound right through MP3 compression, either. (In general, that’s where MP3-style compression bothers me the most—cymbals never sound natural.)
17. Propaganda, “Strength to Dream”
from A Secret Wish, 1985 (CD layer from SACD mastering)
This is a fully-digital recording which has a thunderstorm in it. If you’re in a an audio shop and turn this way up, people should start looking out the windows for rain. Seriously.
18. Pink Floyd, “The Happiest Days of Our Lives”
from The Wall, 1977
This is in here just for fun. The first time I heard this track after I had put in new speakers and an amp in my car, I had The Wall in and had really stopped paying attention to it, then suddenly I found myself looking for a helicopter. Took me a second to realize it wasn’t really a helicopter, it was my stereo. Always trying to reproduce that.
Yes, this is a pretty wide range of stuff. If you can find something on which everything here sounds really good… buy it!
September 1st, 2010
Because this’ll be too long for a tweet…
I don’t really care that much about iPods since I own an iPhone 4 already. Bummer to see the Classic go, though, as it’s nice to actually have enough storage space for all your music. I keep one in the car for this reason.
New versions of iOS look good. HDR photos are interesting, we’ll see how that actually plays out.
• Streaming only. WTF? One of the things I dislike about my current AppleTV is that my computer has to be on and awake for people in the house to watch movies that we already own. Solved with aTV Flash and an external hard disk, but I suspect it’ll be a while before the new Apple TV is hacked to match that, if at all.
• Same stupid-simple remote.
• No apps? Apple just released a device that cannot connect to the App Store revenue stream? Really? Weird.
• Support for 30fps 720p. You know, like what a Flip or even an iPhone 4 produce, that a current Apple TV cannot play.
• 99 cent TV show rentals. Top Gear in HD, right? Right?
• Unit price. Even with the obvious flaws, for $100 I might get one anyway.
And then there’s the unknowns created by this. For instance, the status of the Apple TV I currently own is now in question. Will Apple continue to support it? Do I get Netflix on it now? 99-cent shows? Some information on this would be nice, and while this is not the thing you expect to hear in a keynote, I would like to know this stuff.
Next unknown: what’s actually running on the new Apple TV? Is it iOS or MacOS? I’m pretty sure my existing AppleTV run MacOS underneath. If the new one runs iOS, where are the apps? If not, will it still be as dog-slow as the current one?
June 14th, 2010
About a week ago, my new Ascend Acoustics Sierra-1 speakers arrived and I had a chance to set them up. I have 30 days to decide if I like them, as Ascend is an Internet retailer and it’s hard to get to audition a pair. Here are my thoughts after about a week or so of listening (noting that I was out of town for about half of that week):
First and foremost, these are highly detailed speakers. Because my younger son was a light sleeper as an infant/toddler, I got pretty into headphones for a while. While headphones have their issues, the one thing decent headphones give you, much better than a great many speakers, is detail. These speakers, right out of the box, deliver headphone-like detail. This is far and away the most impressive thing about these speakers across the entire frequency range.
The best anecdote I can give is that my wife, not exactly an audiophile, walked in while I was listening. I asked if there was anything she wanted to hear, and she chose Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” a song our kids love and that she’s heard many, many times. After it was mostly done, she looked at me and said “There is more to this song than I realized.” Yes, she was hearing details she had simply never heard before.
I’m used to metal (or at least poly) tweeters; the Sierra-1s use soft-domed tweeters. There’s a certain zing you can only get from metal tweeters, but of course there’s often a cost of some harshness or fatigue. The Sierra-1 tweeters do an outstanding job of providing detail and wonderful imaging and soundstage, and without the fatigue. They’re very smooth, and handle music that other speakers hiss out as sibilance very well. They are not, however, quite as sharp as the harder-material tweeters that I’m used to, which is both good and bad. It’s like all the really sharp bits of the music have been rounded off. I’m not sure if it’s more accurate (probably for some things and not others), but it’s definitely different.
The place where these deliver the strongest performance is violins. Violins are, in my opinion, one of the hardest instruments to reproduce well, particularly in the higher part of their range. A lot of speakers (and headphones) turn even well-played violins into a screechy mess, or at least generate more screech than what I would expect to hear live. The Sierra-1s are, so far, absolutely magnificent at reproducing violins. If I keep them, they will almost certainly end up costing me money, as I’ll have to invest in more violin music. Darn.
The one downside of all this fabulous detail is that the Sierra-1s reveal flaws pretty effectively. Bad recordings and bad compression are made evident quickly. I don’t have a lot of music that suffers from bad compression, but there are a few 128 kbps tracks in my library, and they tend to stand out through the Sierra-1s. My previous speakers provided slightly less detail, of course, but were a little more forgiving as a result.
This is where these speakers really, really shine. Vocals sound liquid smooth, and all the nuance (for singers that have any—I’ll admit I like some that don’t) is present. Whatever was done in the crossover for these speakers was done really well, because with most two-ways, there’s an audible dip in response where the drivers cross over (sometimes somewhere in the vocal range, yuck). I don’t hear it at all in these speakers, much to my amazement. Middle piano notes are crisp and clear, and electric guitars in this range have great punch. But it’s really the vocals that shine. My wife commented that “Freddy sounds awesome” on these, referring of course to Queen’s Freddy Mercury. It’s almost enough to make me an opera fan… well, not really, that would require the proverbial “act of god,” but that fact that I even thought it is a testament to how well the Sierra-1s do vocals.
OK, let’s be clear: these are bookshelf speakers with 5.25” drivers. My thought going in was “How much bass could they possibly deliver?” Well, so far more than I thought. The bass is far better than I could have imagined from speakers (and drivers) of this size. It’s tight and clear and without a doubt the best bass I’ve ever heard from a bookshelf speaker without help from a sub. They do a great job of generating sound like a floorstander while still being bookshelf-sized. I’m generally pretty skeptical about claims in marketing copy, but maybe there really is something to the bamboo construction. That or there’s some serious mojo in the drivers. Or both.
Now, while bass clarity and volume are good, the bass extension is not quite as good as the speakers they replaced; I expect this is due to the physical size limitations, but they definitely do not go as low. On the other hand, very little music really taps hard into that frequency range. My test track for bass extension is “Root Beer” from the American Beauty soundtrack, which has significant signal in the 25-40 Hz range, and the Sierra-1s don’t get much of it. However, I don’t think many bookshelf speakers do much better.
Of course, the trendy thing with bookshelves these days is to add a subwoofer. Frankly, I’ve never been a huge fan of subwoofers for music (though of course they’re integral in home theater) and these go low enough for most music that I will only very rarely miss the lowest bass extension.
I ordered these in the “light cherry” finish because that’s what I thought would go best with the other wood in my study. It didn’t hurt that Ascend had that finish on sale for $160 off around the time I was planning on ordering them anyway. Anyway, not to put too fine a point on it, these are simply gorgeous. They’re made out of bamboo, not MDF, and the finish is light enough that you can see the grain of the bamboo. The finish itself is like glass, a really beautiful shine. The down side of this is that fingerprints are instantly visible; thoughtfully, the speakers come with a pair of white fabric gloves so you can handle them without leaving too many. Here, check out the pic:
My meager photo skills and cheap camera simply do not do justice to them, but as you can see, the finish is high-gloss—the reflection of the blinds behind the speakers is pretty clear even in this photo.
Also, you can see some CDs on the shelf on the right for a size comparison. Oh, that’s a Sanus SF30 stand that it’s on, by the way.
The Verdict So Far
Generally, I’m pretty impressed. Overall I like the Sierra-1s, but there is some adjustment. I have some tinkering to do yet, and lots more listening as well. The tinkering is that as you can see from the picture, these are pretty close to the wall/window, and the Sierra-1s are rear-ported. I think the overall tonal balance might be a little bit off as a result and the bass maybe a smidge boomier than optimal because of the placement. Ascend has specially-designed foam plugs to use in the rear ports for difficult placements, and I’m certainly going to give those a try once I get used to how they sound without the plugs.
However, even without the tinkering, as I said, I am so far pretty impressed with these, particularly for an $800 bookshelf speaker. During my 30-day trial I plan to also go out and audition some other speakers: Paradigm Studio 20, B&W 685, KEF iQ30 and maybe even the Klipsch RB-81, though I’m generally not a huge Klipsch fan. My home theater rig is PSBs, but right now PSB doesn’t seem to make anything in the right size/price range. These other speakers will really have to show me something to get me to send the Sierra-1s back; I will be particularly astonished if I find a rival in reproducing violins, but I’m going in with an open mind since I haven’t heard the others yet, and those are all generally favorably-reviewed speakers as well. So, while I’m impressed, I’m willing to be even more impressed by something else, though I’m not counting on it.
This is my study, which is the home of my primary computer setup. Music is a mix of 256 kbps VBR AAC/MP3 (stuff bought through the iTunes store or Amazon MP3) and uncompressed. This is fed from the optical out on my Mac Pro into the outboard DAC built into a HeadRoom Desktop headphone amplifier, which routes the RCA outs to a NAD C740 receiver. This is obviously not super high-end or anything, but it’s definitely a cut above standard Best Buy-grade fare.
This is only for the deeply interested reader; I put it last because it’s only marginally relevant to the review. Anyway, 20 years ago, almost to the month, my uncle gave me a pair of speakers that he built himself. He’s pretty serious about it and these are not just some slapped-together boxes. They were three-way speakers with Audax TW010E1 tweeters, 8” woofers, and a midrange with specs I don’t remember. These were highly capable speakers that served me well. However, since we moved into a new house in 2006, I’ve been less happy with them as my study (where they lived) is a cozy 10’ 4” by 11” with a substantial portion of that meager space taken over by bookcases. That is, the room is a little tight for them. I’ve wanted something smaller—like bigger bookshelf speakers on stands—ever since we moved in to this house. Space issues also mean that a subwoofer is not a realistic option.
The real problem, however, is that the speakers started to fail. In particular, the woofer surrounds were literally disintegrating:
Yep, time for new speakers. 20 years of good sound for free, though, is nothing to sneeze at!
May 30th, 2009
One of the serious drawbacks of blu-ray is that it’s exceedingly difficult to rip a blu-ray disc into a form usable on, say, an iPod or AppleTV (not that an AppleTV can actually handle 1080p, but that’s a separate problem). Blu-ray folks understand this limitation, and so some blu-ray movies come with a “digital copy,” which generally is a DRM-protected MP4 movie file.
When buying blu-ray discs for movies I don’t have, I’ve tried to to steer toward those with a digital copy included. However, some movies apparently include a digital copy even though this isn’t made explicit. In particular, the copy of the The Matrix that I picked up on blu-ray includes a digital copy, even though it doesn’t say so.
The Matrix was the first DVD that I owned, and was arguably the “killer app” that really launched DVD in the first place. I’ve ripped it many times at different sizes and bitrates; this is the movie I used to use to see how much playing with the dimensions and bitrates of the rip affected the picture quality. So, of course, I have a ripped version on my hard disk for watching on the AppleTV. So I thought I’d take a look at how it compared to the digital copy which came with the blu-ray.
First, some information on the the files: the rip was done using Handbrake 0.9.3, 63% quality, full-size loose anamorphic. The resulting file is 2.77 GB, 838 x 352 pixels. The digital copy is 1.59 GB, 853 x 354 pixels. So the digital copy is a much smaller file, but some of that is due to the fact that the ripped file has the full Dolby AC3 5.1 audio in it, while the digital copy has only a stereo AAC track. Still, the video-only part of the ripped version is about 2 GB, so it is running at a higher bitrate.
But how do the results compare? Actually the difference is quite striking right as soon as you see the Warner Bros. logo: digital copy and ripped. The colors in the digital copy are obviously much more saturated.
However, the ripped version appears to be a little sharper than the digital copy, at least on rendering text. I suspect that this is a result of the higher bitrate in the ripped version.
A great illustration of the difference between the two can be seen in this shot of Trinity: ripped vs. digital copy. The colors are much different and the digital copy shows some banding (particularly around the flashlight on the right), which again might be a bitrate issue. (Note that this is less visible when it’s moving video).
OK, so last one, not in the Matrix, but in the “real world:” ripped vs. digital copy. As per the other, the ripped one shows more detail, but the colors are a bit different; perhaps slightly better in the digital copy.
So, you can judge for yourself if the digital copy is acceptable. My take is that it’s OK for how I’ll actually use it; that is, primarily on my iPhone. I won’t watch it on the AppleTV since in my living room I can watch it in blu-ray, and the BD is absolutely fantastic. Now, when I travel I sometimes hook up my iPhone to a TV, but that’s at best with s-video, so the slight loss in detail and lack of 5.1 audio is acceptable, and the smaller file size is welcome. Overall, I’m happy with the digital copy and now I really wish all blu-ray discs came with one.
May 4th, 2009
The problem with Twitter is that I post stuff there that should also be blogged… So, a bunch of quick hits:
• I’ve been thinking about getting a netbook. Based on specs, since the Dell Mini 10 supports a hi-res (720p) display and a six-cell battery, it looks perfect—except for one extremely major detail: it can’t be hackintosh’d. Total bummer. So, I either need to settle for a Mini 9, which seems too small, go for an MSI Wind, or wait for whatever thing Apple has up its sleeve. We’ll see how long it takes Apple to pull the trigger on whatever that is…
• I’ve almost completely given up on Facebook because of Twitter. Why? Because Twitter is lightweight and the mobile clients are just as good, if not better than, the Web client. (I use twitterfon on my phone and Canary on the desktop, both are free.) FB seems like work every time I log on, but Twitter is so lightweight that it’s just easy.
• I’m finally going blu-ray with the Oppo BDP-83. No, it’s not for sale publicly yet, but I tried to get on the beta program and wasn’t selected, so my consolation prize is getting to order it prior to its public release. This will be my first foray into blu-ray, but I’m a long-time Oppo fan, as the home DVD player is has been an Oppo DV-981HD for quite some time. I’ll post a review on it after I’ve gotten to play with it for a while. It should come in time for next weekend, so don’t expect to hear much of anything from me for a while once it gets here. The TV might now be the weak link in the chain…
February 22nd, 2009
My brother recently emailed me this question, and I thought I’d share my answer:
Are there any wireless surround speakers that don’t completely suck? I don’t need something great, but just want to avoid triumphant crapitude.
Unless something has changed dramatically in the last couple years:
(a) There aren’t really “wireless” speakers in the first place, and
(b) They all still mostly suck, in principle, unless you’re willing to blow serious coin, and even then they aren’t going to be as good as decent wired speakers.
It turns out this is a more complicated thing to accomplish than you might think. Remember, to drive a speaker, you need two things:
1. Analog audio signal
2. Amplification for said signal
Getting an analog signal to a speaker not using a wire means you have to either use some kind of analog broadcast like RF, which will be crappy from a noise perspective, or something digital—newer systems use Bluetooth, I believe. While this will preserve the signal, this has two implications:  Your receiver either needs to send a digital signal to the speaker, which your current receiver doesn’t do (though some new ones designed specifically to work with wireless speakers will), or you hook your receiver up to a transmitter which has an analog-to-digital chip (ADC) inside, and probably not a good one unless the system is very expensive.  Something in the speaker has to covert back to analog. This means each speaker needs its own digital-to-analog conversion (DAC) circuitry, which again will either be expensive or suck (choose only one option).
Then, once you have an analog signal, you need to amplify it before running it through the actual drivers. This means each “speaker” also has to contain an amp, which requires power, meaning… wires. You’ll need to run a power cord to each speaker. Also, there is no such thing as a good power supply that is also small, meaning the amp part, to be any good, can’t be little. The upshot of this is that you’ll need somewhat big surrounds which require plugs. (The actual amp inside the speaker can be reasonably small if it’s a digital amp, but I bet whatever $200 option Sony has instead uses the worst analog amp in the known universe, but at least it’s a small one.)
So, every wireless speaker will need: signal receiver, DAC, amp (requiring power), and then drivers, and the thing that takes what would normally be your speaker out needs an ADC and a transmitter. That’s a lot of components, and doing all of these pieces reasonably well can’t be especially cheap. Or rather, if it is cheap, that means that there is a lot of opportunity for really crappy components, which doesn’t bode well for sound quality.
The other problem here is that all of these steps take a little bit of time, meaning you’re probably going to have phase lag. That is, the sound coming out of your surrounds won’t be in phase with the sound coming out of your wired fronts, center, and sub. You might be able to mitigate this a little by setting appropriate channel delays all around, but that’s a tricky calibration problem. Newer and more expensive receivers will do this for you (they come with microphones that you move around and the system sends test signals to ensure good calibration), but I suspect you don’t have one that does.
Thus, a lot of reputable speaker companies won’t even bother trying to do this; your entry-level audiophile companies like Paradigm, B&W, Mirage, etc. don’t. Of course, I’m sure all the mass-market companies (e.g., Sony, Panasonic) have such things, but I’d be stunned if they don’t all produce triumphant crapitude, as you so colorfully put it (great turn of phrase, by the way).
It’s probably easier to just hide the wires.
November 8th, 2008
I have an Oppo DVD player which I like a lot, but it turns out I hardly ever use it anymore now that I have an AppleTV. I just rip the movies and watch them on that instead. Every once in a while, we’ll rent a hi-def movie from iTunes, which looks terrific. And, of course, I’ve been thinking about going hi-def in the home theater more seriously. First, I was waiting for the HD vs. Blu-ray war to shake out, and that’s done. I figured when that happened the price on Blu-ray players and discs would start to come down. Well, it mostly hasn’t. The players have come down a little, but not much. I got to thinking about it again a while back when Oppo showed off their upcoming Blu-ray player. I figured I’d just wait for that.
But now I’m not so sure. With player prices still not great and disc prices still double that of DVDs, some are now saying that Blu-ray is dead. There are some compelling points there. Really, if the cost of Blu-ray discs isn’t going to come down to being only a few dollars more than DVDs, how can Blu-ray succeed? Yes, Blu-ray looks better than even upscaled DVDs, but not enough better to justify that cost for most people. Based on the argument there, it doesn’t look like disc costs are coming down anytime soon.
So now I’m not so sure. I’m not really a big gamer, but a PS3 would give me Blu-ray and even if Blu-ray tanks, at least I can play games on it. Of course, I’m not much of a gamer, so I’m not sure about the appeal. Or do I just wait for the Oppo, which will at least be a fantastic upscaling DVD player as well? Or just wait six months and see what, if anything, is happening in the blu-ray market? (And if I do that, what do I ask for for xmas?)
It’s a quandary. An entirely insignificant one, to be sure, but hey, maybe someone with a PS3 can comment on how it performs as a blu-ray player. Is it comparable to a stand-alone player? I would ask how it performs as an upscaling DVD player, but I’m not sure I care anymore…
May 6th, 2008
I got a pair of these for Xmas and I’ve used them quite a lot, so it’s well past time for a review.
First, why Senn MX75s? Well, I know earbuds aren’t really the best choice in terms of sound quality, but I find that the convenience factor is sometimes too much to overcome. So, for couple years, every time I headed to the gym or out do do work in the yard, I had my Sony E888s in my ears. The E888s are excellent earbuds (you know, for earbuds), but my pair were literally falling apart. Not the foamies—I have a small stockpile of replacement foamies—but the actual housings are starting to come apart. I don’t think they’re designed to handle sweat.
The MX75s are “sport” earbuds and are supposedly designed explicitly to handle this kind of thing. So how are they?
The differences between different ear buds are not, in my experience, as big as the differences in comfort between different full-size headphones. That said, there are differences. The MX75s have this interesting thing they call “twist-and-fit;” basically, there’s an extension above where the bud goes in your ear canal. This seems weird at first, but it’s actually great—it really does hold the bud in place, which is particularly important when doing something active. The MX75s come with different size outer rings on the buds as well as two different sizes for the twist-and-fit pads, so these should work well for a range of ear sizes.
The cable is extra sturdy and somewhat stiff. It comes with a little rubberish semi-rigid plastic pouch for storage. Frankly, I’d much prefer a winder like the one that came with the older MX400s.
This is, of course, the main concern, and I’ll admit that I was a actually a bit surprised here. I didn’t expect much from these; basically, I was expecting these to be sweat-proof MX400s. Happily, they’re better than that. They have both more and clearer bass than the MX400s. Now, they’re still earbuds, so there’s a limit to bass, but these have pretty decent bass performance for earbuds on that score. The highs are also cleaner than the MX400s. Mids are also improved; definitely less murky than the MX400s. That is, the MX75s are better across-the-board than the MX400s. That’s as it should be, since these are more expensive.
So, how do they stack up against my long-time earbuds of choice, the E888s? Here, they’re not quite as good—but they’re closer than I expected. The E888s have a small advantage on the highs—a bit more sparkle, as it were—and the bass is better-defined on the E888s. The mids on the two are very comparable. Again, I’d give the edge to the E888s, but again, the margin is smaller than I would have guessed beforehand. The E888s are better—noticeably—but the MX75s are at least playing in, well, certainly not the same ballpark, but at least one that’s vaguely nearby.
If nothing else, the MX75s are certainly good workout earbuds for $35 (that’s the current U.S. price on Amazon).
Yes, I miss the improved sound quality of the E888s, but I have to say, in the gym, I miss it less than I might have thought. I guess that may be in part because I watch more movies now (hooray for video out on the iPod) and spend less time just listening to music. That is, I don’t listen to these buds under the most demanding conditions—which is really the whole point of earbuds in the first place. If I’m listening critically in a quiet environment, I’m going to be listening to speakers or full-sized cans anyway. For sweat-heavy on-the-go places for under $40, the MX75s certainly fit the bill for me.
March 21st, 2008
Somewhat unintendedly, I recently acquired an Apple TV (for this story, see the postscript). As a UI guy and a long-time Apple guy, what do I think?
First, there is no way I would have considered this before the 2.0 update. Having a device designed to work with a home theater which didn’t natively understand 5.1-channel digital audio is a failure out of the gate. But, with the 2.0 version and the magic that is HandBrake, one can digitize DVDs with full 5.1 audio and stream them across the home network quite nicely. (And yay for MetaX also for tagging.)
So, my initial impressions. I suspect that some of the things I don’t like are actually fixable, but these are my initial impressions after having the thing for a week:
• The whole idea of having your whole audio and video library available all the time at the home theater—the main purpose of the thing—is Way Cool. I’m sure there are other gizmos which provide this basic functionality (more or less), so I’m mostly going to comment on things which are either especially good or which particularly need work.
• Basic setup is incredibly easy, even for an Apple product. Plug in the relevant cables (and supporting full HDMI means a single cable from the Apple TV to the receiver), input a five-digit code into iTunes on the main home machine, and that’s it; it just works. Now, I have CAT5 ethernet wiring in my house so there was no wireless to set up, but still, that’s not bad.
• More advanced configuration, however, could be better. I really want to change the order in which things are sync’d with the ATV. It’ll let you put photos on first, which is good, but I’d like to give music priority over movies and TV shows. I’d also like for there to be some way to exclude things in my iTunes library from showing up on the ATV; because now I have two versions of most movies in my library (a low-bitrate stereo version for my iPod and a high-bitrate 5.1 version for the ATV), I’d like to not see doubles of everything on the ATV. Similarly, on the ATV, I’d like to be able to have more organizational control, such as sorting my own movies into categories rather than having one enormous list.
• One thing I didn’t think I’d like nearly as much as I do is using the ATV for photos. We recently took the kids to DisneyWorld and I immediately sync’d the photos to the ATV and we all sat around looking at the new pics. This really is a great way to look at photos.
• The simplicity of the Apple remote is great and all that, but I find that I’d like more controls. I control my home theater with a Logitech Harmony 550 (and it knows the ATV remote codes, which is nice) and I’d like to be able to make use of more buttons. In particular, I’d like to be able to navigate the huge lists with numeric keys rather than having to scroll forever. Also, entering text using this remote is an exercise in annoyance. (As my brother pointed out, this is hardly surprising; after all, this is the company of the single-button mouse.)
There’s one kind of goofy unintended consequence of Apple using the same remote for everything, too. I often have my laptop out in the living room, and I’m constantly having to quit FrontRow which has been launched by me navigating the Apple TV. Kind of annoying, actually.
• We haven’t rented a movie (yet), so I can’t comment on that, though the UI for doing so is certainly clean and easy. They’re a little pricey, but the fact that some titles are in HD is good, and I don’t think we’ll rent that many. In fact, because of this we just dumped our movie channels, and I bet we spend less on rentals than we did on those. It’s nice that the high-res format war is over, but Blu-Ray players are still way more expensive than they should be so I’m not willing to go there just yet. Frankly, I might not be for quite some time if HD rentals are so easy and if the library expands.
• If you think YouTube videos look bad on your computer, you really don’t want to see how awful they look on a big screen HDTV. Jaggy hell.
Overall, I’d give the Apple TV something in the B/B+ range. It’s good but there’s definitely room for improvement.
So, why an Apple TV now? First, the timing is good, as the 2.0 ATV is now out, the 0.9.2 release of HandBrake understands 5.1 audio in a way that works with ATV, and the new version of Airfoil also now supports Apple TV. The main reason, however, is that my A/V receiver (an old NAD T751) kind of gave up the ghost and I wanted something which offered at least some protection against future changes in digital formats, so I went with the Denon 3808CI. (The protection against future format changes is that the 3808 has an ethernet jack and can download new firmware to itself quite easily.) In order for the warranty to be valid, of course, one has to buy from an “authorized dealer.” This is stupid, as of course the “authorized dealers” basically don’t offer discounts. However, one of them was running a promo and offering a free 40G Apple TV in lieu of a discount, so I went with that. A nice excuse, really.