I’m all about that bass, ’bout that bass, no treble..

.. except there’s a decent amount of treble in Apple’s new HomePod “smart” speaker.  But that bass!

The press has certainly not been wrong in stating that this is perhaps the best quality of speaker of the current generation of “smart” speakers.  The bass and response of the sound emanating from this tiny, yet tubby speaker definitely has put my now redundant Alexa-enabled Echo Plus to shame.

The fibre mesh is lovely to touch, it’s almost difficult not to walk past and give it a bit of a stroke..

Set-up was extremely easy – just plug it into the mains and then hold your iPhone (it must be an iOS device – forget buying one of these if you’re not heavily tied into the Apple iOS ecosystem) near the speaker.  Set-up begins on your iPhone and ends when Siri fires up and prompts you to try her out.

The biggest weakness of this speaker aside from no physical inputs or outputs, plus no Bluetooth support?  Siri.  It has yet to get any of my requests of songs or playlists right (I’m an Apple Music subscriber – albeit using the 6 months free subscription with EE at the moment – I’ll have to start paying again in April) – but I can AirPlay stuff directly from the phone without any bother.

However, what Siri can do is interact with my Philips Hue lights far more quickly via Apple’s HomeKit than Amazon’s Alexa ever could.  I have been extremely impressed with HomeKit’s performance on iOS and Siri so far.  While HomeKit support is still fairly limited within the “smart” devices industry – for example, British Gas’ Hive could REALLY benefit from such support – it does mean that for many devices would have to be refreshed in order support a specific chipset that HomeKit requires.  So we may not see Hive support for quite some time.

If you’re curious to know what’s going on inside the HomePod, this iFixit teardown will show you that it’s next to impossible for the average consumer to fix.

It’s funny how the music industry has changed over the past few decades.  When I was a kid growing up in North East London, I was over the moon with the hand-me-down Amstrad tower system which compromised of a turntable, an FM/AM radio/tuner, dual deck tape deck (Amstrad was famous for this).  I didn’t even have a CD player for quite some time.

Now we tend to subscribe (monthly or annually) to music services rather than paying for individual tracks or albums, listen on mobile phones or computers, or stream music to speakers.  While many people who take music seriously will still have an amplifier with built-in equaliser (another thing that the HomePod does away with – it’ll automatically “equalise” the music for you), a great many people will still be using these smart speakers in place of a traditional hi-fi set-up.

I’ve been a big fan of Apple’s audio products over the years.  I started off with a 3rd generation click wheel iPod and have made my way up to the iPhone X.  I’ve also bought three types of Beats headphones – the Beats Solo 3 wireless, the Beats EP and the granddaddy of them all, the Beats Studio 3 wireless – and perhaps my favourite of all – the AirPods.  None of these is cheap, and none are the absolute best in class, but I’ve always found a use for them (the Studio 3 wireless is ideal when the neighbours are doing late evening DIY, the Solo 3 for general computing use, the AirPods for daily commuting, and the EP for anything else (I originally bought it in Edinburgh when the Solo 3 unit suffered a charging problem and I had to send it to Apple for repair).

The joys of Tuvan Throat Singing

Though I subscribe to Apple Music, I still keep Spotify around (which has a free tier) for the Discover Weekly.  It’s recommended some decent tracks, and thanks to its latest recommendations I’ve discovered the joy that is Tuvan throat singing through the band Huun-Huur-Tu and their album, Sixty Horses in my Herd.

The following song was the one Spotify recommended to me:

They’ve toured a fair old way over the years, and you can find a number of their live shows on YouTube.  During my research, I also came across the band the Alash Ensemble, and the following TEDx talk introduces us to a song which really makes full use of throat singing – it’s quite ethereal!

Also, Spotify recommended me a lot of Balkan music.  It too is very good.  I particularly like this one:

Guardians of the Galaxy S8+ Vol. 2

Unfortunately, while I have genuinely liked the Galaxy S8+, I’m swapping it back for the iPhone 7 Plus.  The biggest issue I’ve found with the S8+ was the lack of Android Pay support in some apps which somehow worked with the OnePlus 3T (Starbucks, IIRC) and the Arriva Bus Ticket app keeps crashing with alarming regularity – and at the most inconvenient times.  Never happened with the OnePlus 3T.  Plus the size of the phone means that many apps can’t take full advantage of the screen size.  Yes, in time, this will change – especially as the LG 6 shares the same aspect ratio.  We’re going to see a lot more phones adapt this kind of size/ratio in the future.

So why not just stick with the OnePlus 3T?  Well, I think it’s a very fine phone, but the battery life just isn’t great.  It ran out of juice on one of my trips out of Edinburgh and I rely fairly heavily on the likes of Google Maps to get me around. It’s good enough for a backup phone, but I can’t say it’d be very good for a daily driver.  Especially if one is doing on-call.  And that reminds me – the Galaxy S8+ speaker isn’t that great – and I found myself missing on-call alerts.

So Apple it is.  I can’t say I shall be trying this again – two years in a trot with Android and Every. Single. Time. I come back to IOS.  That either says something about the strength Apple’s ecosystem, or how well iOS has been designed.  I don’t know.  Much of it is down to marketing, and to be fair to Samsung, they pulled off a very good campaign.  But has not been helped by the lack of the Gear 360 or the VR headset at the time of the S8’s launch either.

By heading back to iOS, I regain the ability to use iMessage again.  Many friends and family have this – and it’s particularly useful for those abroad.  Getting everybody on WhatsApp has been difficult.  I have other contacts on Skype.  So it’s all a bit fragmented.  Also Wi-Fi Calling.  The S8+ is not compatible with Three’s Wi-Fi Calling service at this time, so there’s that too.

There is a part of me that desperately wants to love and use Android full time, but there are too many inconsistencies.  Both in rolling out security updates (the Galaxy S8+ is still on April security updates), features (S8+ on version 7, the OnePlus 3T is on 7.1.1), and app performance.  iOS fixes many of these issues, and thus after the great swaparoos of 2016 and 2017, I declare iOS as the recommended mobile platform.

Now, I had a bet with somebody about all this, and I owe them a crate of Budweiser beer…

More HDMI inputs then there are in heaven..

My latest project is replacing my gaming set-up with a home cinema set-up.  I’ve pretty much given up on the Odeon Limitless pass.  I’ve spent a few weekends at home on call more than is perhaps absolutely necessary of late, plus when I am off-call, I spend the time going food shopping and running errands.  Oh, and let’s not forget the railway improvements which stops me getting to and from Guildford easily.

I’ve pretty much given up on the Odeon Limitless pass.  I’ve spent a few weekends at home on call more than is perhaps absolutely necessary of late, plus when I am off-call, I spend the time going food shopping and running errands.  Oh, and let’s not forget the railway improvements which stops me getting to and from Guildford easily.

So home cinema is what I’m aiming at.  So far I’ve replaced the Xbox One S and Sony RX100M4 with an Oppo UDP-203 UHD Blu-Ray player.  It’s certainly not cheap, but it’s currently the best player on the market.  Will hopefully last a good few years.  The firmware is regularly updated, plus the bonus is that their UK HQ is based in Norwich – specifically in an area I used to go through each day on my way to work.  The Oppo is a good choice for superb picture quality and sound, and Deadpool UHD/4K looked particularly good during testing.

The second component is the Pioneer VSX-S520D AV receiver.  I originally opted for the Denon AVR-X2300W, until I realised that the unit wouldn’t fit in my shelf space underneath the TV.  This is what happens when you order without measuring stuff first.  The Pioneer is much slimmer and is even smaller (in height) than the Blu-Ray player.  I’ve still had to re-arrange stuff  – moving the Virgin Media Tivo V6 box to just behind the TV (I can still see the status light).  The AV shelf now consists of the Oppo UDP-230, the 4th generation Apple TV and the Pioneer AV receiver.  The Tivo, Oppo, Apple TV and an HD Google Chromecast are all plugged into the receiver’s HDMI inputs.

Is is strange to buy an AV receiver without speakers?  Yes.  Yes it is.  The main reason was to buy it initially for HDMI switching, but giving me the option to add speakers at a later date.  I usually listen to the TV through wireless headphones to drown out the neighbours.  The Pioneer allows me to plug the headphone transmitter into the front of the unit and I’m able to listen to all devices through the receiver without any issues.  The best thing?  No lip sync issues at all.  But at some point I will buy speakers to give me full 5.1 surround sound (neighbours be damned).

Picture quality from the Pioneer is good.  It supports 4K passthrough and upscaling, and everything I’ve thrown at it has been fine.  The Tivo V6 has actually seen a substantial improvement!  I couldn’t use the 2160 Passthrough option directly through the LG TV for some reason – the signal would just drop – but through the Pioneer it’s working really well and has got rid of a lot of the jerky 4K playback I reported after initially getting the Tivo V6 set-up last month.

The Pioneer also supports DAB and FM radio, though I still have to get the aerial to work properly – so far I’m just getting static.  It also supports music streaming services such as TuneIn, Spotify, Pandora (not in the UK), TIDAL and all sorts of things.  It also has built in ChromeCast and AirPlay services – albeit for audio only.  At some point I’ll hook up the turntable and will likely add a CD player to the unit – there’s space to hook those up thanks to the myriad of connections at the back of the Pioneer.

From Breaking Bad’s prequel series, Better Call Saul – I dread to think what we’ll get in the next season..

In short – very happy with the current set-up.  It’s my first steps to proper home cinema.  It’s a shame my TV supports 4K, but not HDR.  This is the result of the film studios and electronic manufacturers failing to agree on things in a timely manner.  4K has had a troublesome birth, and continues to do so, but it’s getting better.  I doubt we’ll see 8K for quite some time given that 4K is still so new.

Meanwhile, did you know that movies used to ship on vinyl discs?  Watch this for a fascinating look into a video format of old…

 

iTunes & iTunes Extras: A viable alternative to physical media – at last!

One thing I love about buying movies and TV shows on physical media: the extras.  You usually get audio commentaries from the filmmakers along with little featurettes (and occasionally feature-length documentaries) about the making of the film.

But the problem with physical media is having to store it somewhere.  All those cases all add up.  And if higher definition versions come out later, you’ll have to replace the disk, packaging, etc.

Until recently, I had been put off of iTunes movies because I’ve a reasonable fear that the movie studios may pull the movie off the service at any time and remove my access to the movie.  After all, this DOES happen with iTunes music – if you buy a track or album and it’s no longer sold on iTunes, you won’t be able to download it again if you’ve removed the files to make room on your computer or device.

However, I think Apple (and the movie studios) treat movies & TV shows differently.  Given the size of HD movies, they can take up an enormous amount of space on a device.  And the Apple TV has limited storage (we’re talking about the 4th generation here).  So it makes sense that purchases remain in the cloud.   Thus I’m pretty certain that movies & TV shows bought on iTunes will remain a permanent fixture – and even if they don’t, I’m sure Apple would refund accordingly (although I shall bring this up again in another blog post about iTunes in-app subscriptions – what a mess THAT is!).

Anyway, one thing I have come to love with iTunes movies is iTunes Extras.  When movies first started being released with Extras, the offerings were not brilliant.  But more and more movies are being released with DVD/Blu-Ray quality features – and with audio commentaries.  The audio commentary thing is a HUGE deal.  Something that’s traditionally been limited to physical media is now being made available online (or offline if you download the movie to your computer or device).

Even Amazon Prime Video has jumped on the audio commentary bandwagon – offering a few of their TV shows with audio commentary.  It’s essentially a different title because the Amazon Prime Video platform doesn’t appear to offer multiple audio streams.  But it’s a start.  Netflix doesn’t offer ANY audio commentaries for any of their shows yet – so they’ve got some catching up to to.

But there is a downside to iTunes Extras.  They’re not available on iTunes TV shows.  If you buy a series or individual episodes, there are absolutely no extras whatsoever.  None.  Nada.  Kaput.  I hope Apple and the respective studios will put that right.  It’s essential, I think, to do this if Apple has any ambitions to make Apple TV a viable platform.

As for making backups of all the iTunes things – I use one of these, a Drobo.  Lovely device (on loan from work) – it offers full redundancy – up to two disks can fail at once and the data is okay.  But it’s a seriously noisy thing – and one of the disks (the second one from the bottom) is humming like mad.  So it’s on to take backups of my systems, then shut off.

Coming up next on my blog: iTunes subscriptions – is Apple passing the buck? and What movies to watch on iTunes, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in 2017.