Archives For Audio

The Boxes of the Year

Dave Zatz —  December 3, 2010

All Around
Our second annual ‘boxes of the year’ column doesn’t dramatically differ from the 2009 edition. Which is somewhat surprising given how quickly the tech sector iterates and innovates. And my favorite all around box is still the Xbox 360 ($199). It’s been redesigned for 2010 with a sleeker, home theater-friendly form and color (black) that hopefully contains more reliable and intelligently designed hardware. ESPN3 is also new for ’10, rounding out a nice selection of content offerings including Netflix and Zune HD video rentals. Additionally, the 360 is quite capable in handling local media playback – via USB, LAN, and as a Media Center extender. Last, but not least, Xbox Live is the best online gaming solution. As long as you’re prepared to fork over $50-$60 a year for access (also required for Netflix, etc).

Having said all that, Sony’s seriously closed the gap in recent months and I can also recommend the PS3 ($299). New this year are native Netflix access, Hulu Plus, and Vudu HD video on demand. The PS3 also has decent local media playback capabilities (USB, DLNA) but, of course, what sets it apart from the Xbox is its built-in Blu-ray drive – and Sony’s done a good job keeping that functionality current and competitive through software updates.

Online Video Streamer
In the more traditional (if we can call it that) digital media device category, top honors once again go to Roku. It’s the little box that could. Featuring perhaps the broadest array of online streaming options. Although you may only care about the biggies like Netflix, Pandora, Amazon VOD, Hulu Plus, YouTube, and NHL. If local media playback is your priority, Roku is the wrong solution. But for everyone else the inexpensive Roku seems like a no brainer for at least one room/television. Roku refreshed their lineup in 2010 and most folks would be best served by the middle unit ($80), which includes the new, more fully functional remote and 802.11n over the lower end unit ($60). Given the current state of USB video playback, you can probably skip the $100 model… unless you intend to share your Flip video on the HDTV. (Roku’s offering free shipping through the 5th if you’re ready to join in or pick up a second.)

Local Media Playback
For a budget device with solid local playback capabilities, I’m still fond of the WDTV Live Plus ($130). And, not only will it play your rips, it pipes in the likes of Netflix, YouTube, and Pandora. But, if you’ve got a little more money to spend and are willing to take a flyer, the D-Link Boxee Box ($200) is worth a look. I’ve got a lot of confidence in Avner and the rest of the Boxee team to carefully walk that line to meet our needs while appeasing the studios. Of course, at Boxee’s price point, you’re getting close to a more flexible and powerful small form factor computer. But along with those additional capabilities comes additional complexity. Continue Reading…

The folks behind doubleTwist have been providing an easy way to sync media with an Android device for a while. But up until now you’ve had to plug your phone into your computer using a USB cable to sync data, perhaps taking the whole “iTunes for Android” thing a bit too far. In order to transfer files over a USB connection, you also had to mount your phone’s SD card, which meant that you couldn’t always run apps installed on the SD card while syncing your phone.

Now, doubleTwist has launched a new app called AirSync which eliminates the need for cables.

Here’s how it works. You download the latest version of doubleTwist for your Mac or PC and run it. Then install doubleTwist on your Android phone and either click the AirSync icon to upgrade or download AirSync from the Market. Read the rest of this entry »

Sonos Heading Into Home Theater?!

Dave Zatz —  November 30, 2010


While there are a number of wireless home theater surround sound solutions out there, most are hobbled by line-of-sight requirements and still only manage passable auditory performance. So I’d welcome higher-end and more thoughtfully designed competition from an upcoming Sonos solution. And while we don’t know exactly what’s in the works at this point, it seems obvious something is currently under development given this Sonos job opening:

Sonos is looking for a successful, experienced home entertainment product leader to help us re-invent home theater sound for the digital age. We are looking for someone with a passion for home theater sound who wants to drive new concepts into a shipping reality.If you are passionate about music and movies, you’ll quickly see that this is a tremendous opportunity to shape the future of connected home entertainment.

(via CEPro)

I’m not sure why I hadn’t previously tested this but, while traveling Internationally over the long Thanksgiving weekend, I confirmed what we probably all knew — most US-based content is inaccessible from abroad. Hulu Plus, Netflix, Pandora, and Slacker threw regional restriction error messages from their respective iPhone apps. Additionally, an iTunes movie rental download I started in the US and completed in Europe vanished from my device entirely.

However, on the audio front, two services helped get me through the trip: Slacker’s cached stations, which I’d loaded up on prior to travel, and surprisingly XM Sirius streamed just fine. In terms of video, while I don’t speak the language, the German equivalent of Home Shopping Network or QVC proved to be far more entertaining than anticipated.

Like so many products we cover these days, the new Veebeam ($100 – $130) attempts to facilitate the piping of web video and local media to our televisions. However, unlike Intel’s Wireless Display (WiDi) technology, Veebeam is mostly agnostic – in terms of both hardware and operating system.

The Veebeam solution consists of two components: a small USB stick that wirelessly transmits AV from a computer to a larger receiver/set-top that you connect (preferably over HDMI) to your television. The model I looked at handles digital audio and 1080p content. However, you’ll want to review hardware specs carefully… two Core 2 Duo laptops I tested on provided slightly different experiences. A 2.0Ghz model with 3GB of memory produced some dropped frames/stuttering when running Flash content fullscreen, while a 2.4Ghz model with 4GB of memory ran pretty darn smooth all things considered – as you can see in my video above. (The computers also house different graphics cards, but I don’t have that info handy at the moment.)

Setup and operation is mostly a straight forward affair… Load up the Windows or OS X software and the Veebeam service runs. Pop-in the USB stick that automagically links to the Veebeam receiver. Once everything’s up and running, inserting the USB stick triggers laptop audio and video to be intercepted and passed along to the Veebeam receiver in what’s referred to as screencasting mode. Audio is also kindly muted on the host machine. Additionally, Veebeam can natively pipe select video files (think rips or home movies) straight to the television without any chrome in the video play-to mode – leaving your laptop free for additional tasks. The Veebeam receiver houses the USB antenna when not in use, and inserting it puts Veebeam into standby.

Like WiDi and similar solutions of this nature, Veebeam is partially hobbled in not providing a remote control. Then again, their assumption is that your computer is the remote. And, given the capabilities of their wireless technology (WUSB), they expect us to keep a laptop in the same room. During screencasting I couldn’t simply force the video to stretch or match the television’s resolution, resulting in black bars – perhaps a minor annoyance and something that I imagine could be better handled through a software update. Also, be aware, the OS X streaming software isn’t quite as reliable as Veebeam’s Windows variants at the moment. So if you run a purely Mac household, I might suggest holding off on a purchase for the time being.

Click to enlarge:

Like any dutiful Apple fanboy, I grabbed today’s iPhone and Apple TV software updates. One of the top selling points is AirPlay — new functionality designed to facilitate shipping a variety of multimedia around the home. And my initial reaction isn’t entirely positive. The concept is awesome, and something we’ve discussed here at length since first announced. But the current execution, at least in relation to Apple TV ($99), leaves a lot to be desired. Here’s how Apple describes AirPlay on the ATV:

With AirPlay, you can stream it all from your iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, too. So if you feel like watching a movie you have on one of your devices, you don’t need to rent or buy it again. Just tap to start playing content on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, then tap again to instantly stream whatever you’re watching — or listening to — directly to Apple TV.

After a short amount of time attempting to beam content from iPhone to HDTV via AppleTV, I can tell you the “whatever” is a gross exaggeration. I’ve yet to successfully relay video from any third party apps (like Hulu), although the occasional app can pass along the audio half of the feed – which is of pretty limited value. It’s unclear if I have all the wrong apps or if this functionality needs to be enabled by developers. Perhaps it’s just not ready for primetime. Regardless, the simplest and most effective solution is for Apple to launch a full-on Apple TV app store.

On the audio front, I had good luck with AirPlay piping third party app content (like Slacker) to Apple TV. Although, the music just starts playing — there’s no real Apple TV visual cues as to what’s going on. Related, not all audio apps will display the uninspired AirPlay icon to initiate (or stop) playback. For example, when I launched the XM app, audio began playing through Apple TV. I’m not entirely certain why, perhaps it inherited the previous app’s AirPlay setting. And it wasn’t immediately clear where/how to stop it. As it turns out, I had the volume bar (that houses the AirPlay toggle) hidden which I dug up in the settings. Of course, at the end of the day, I have little interest in streaming music through my video-centric gear. Which is why I’m hopeful we’ll see some interesting networked AirPlay-capable speaker systems in the near future.

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One of the key new features in iOS 4.2 for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad is the ability to stream media from a mobile device to an Apple TV set-top-box. There’s just one problem: out of the box the Apple TV doesn’t support that feature. That’s why Apple is rolling out an updated for the Apple TV today at the same time as it’s pushing out iOS 4.2 to users.

Apple TV 4.1 supports AirPlay which lets users stream photos, music, and video over a home network.

According to MacWorld, the new Apple TV also includes a feature called VoiceOver. This makes it easier for visually impaired people to use the Apple TV, as it reads menus and other information out loud to you. MacWorld shot a video of VoiceOver in action, which you can check out above.

This post republished from Mobiputing.

That “exciting announcement” “that you’ll never forget”? Apple finally negotiated rights to distribute the Beatles on iTunes. Something I find forgettable and not exactly exciting. But maybe I’m just a cranky whipper snapper whose needs were met when Metallica went digital in 2006.

Regardless, this “news” will surely go mainstream and I fully expect my mom will catch it on television tonight or in the paper tomorrow. Like many of her generation, she’s a Beatles fan. And, as an iPod owner, she might be interested in making a purchase. However, I take issue with $1.29 iTunes track pricing when distribution costs are effectively zero. Nothing to print, ship, or store. Yet I wouldn’t want Mom to feel nostalgic but left out.

So I ordered her a compilation CD of 27 Beatles tracks from Amazon for 8 bucks. She’ll get it Thursday and, thanks to the aforementioned iTunes, will have no problem ripping the music and syncing it to her nano.