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.

The soundtrack to Marvel’s Doctor Strange is wonderful!

As a HUGE soundtrack fan & collector, I was so pleased when Marvel Entertainment released a track from the forthcoming movie, Doctor Strange.

I’m not familiar with the character or comic, but given the music I am so very much looking forward to going to see the film AND buying the soundtrack.  One of Michael Giacchino’s finest tracks.  Heck, one of the finest film soundtracks in ages.

Back when Stardust was filming, I cheekily asked Jane Goldman if it were possible to sit in on a recording session of the film’s soundtrack (composed by the excellent Ilan Eshkeri), but alas, wasn’t possible.  Having seen films being made firsthand, the one thing that keeps eluding me is that of watching a film score come together in front of my eyes (and ears, and shoulders, knees and toes – knees and toes).  Maybe one day..

Apple Music Redux: MUCH better now

Or: How Apple Got Its Groove Back

A while back I wrote off Apple Music as “buggier than a buggy thing in the land of insects” and gave up on it (and Apple) due to the sheer frustration of the thing (along with the bricked iPad Pro that stayed bricked until I spent £50 getting the blasted thing replaced at the nearest Apple Store in London).

Anyway, four months later I was curious to know if Apple finally got their act together after hearing that they were making substantial improvements to Apple Music in iOS 10.  Well, it turns out they have.  I think in part this is due to not having iTunes Match enabled.  iTunes Match allowed you to upload your music library to Apple’s servers and listen to your music on any device supporting iTunes.  Then Apple Music came along and mucked it up on a scale I can’t describe as it involves a large number of expletives in a row.

Without iTunes Match enabled, Apple Music actually works as intended.  I can listen to my complete music library from my Windows 10 PC, my work Mac and my (soon to be retired) Android phone running Apple Music – downloading tracks to the other devices for offline listening, if necessary.

There have been relatively few problems – the only big one has been with the release of iOS 10 in which Apple’s servers were under siege from everybody downloading the latest versions of iTunes (which provides a beautiful new and much-improved user interface) and iOS.  But now that everything’s calmed down again, Apple Music is a pleasure to use.  I’ve terminated my Spotify subscription and have gone back to Apple Music full time.

My musical tastes are eclectic, that's for sure!
My musical tastes are eclectic, that’s for sure!

Happy iPhone 7-mas everybody!

Today Tim Santa Cook will take to the stage to show us the brand new iPhone 7 and what it can do.

With Samsung announcing that the earliest it’ll be swapping out Note 7s with new models using batteries not made by its own manufacturing facility (apparently Samsung will be using a third party for the time being until they can bring it back in-house) on the 19th September, I’m tempted to hand back the phone, get my money back and just bite the bullet and buy the iPhone 7 Plus.

The Galaxy S7 Edge uses a Samsung manufactured battery, so I’m now quite nervous about keeping that one around.  Not that there’s been any reports of an S7 Edge exploding.  But it does make me wonder about Samsung’s confidence in its own manufacturing facilities.

Update: Another two Note 7 explosions – one in Australia, and another in the US.

But we’ll see.  Mr. Cook has seriously got to wow me with the iPhone 7 before I can make that decision.  If he does, then I’ll have to start making arrangements for the return of the Note 7 and selling the S7 Edge.  Fun!  If this is the competition, I might as well just stick with Apple..

How I love technology at times…

In other news, I’m trialling Apple Music again after a three-month absence.  Since then, Apple has rolled out two new iTunes updates (bear in mind I’m still using Windows 10), and have made a couple of changes to the backend logic with regards to Apple Music/iTunes Match.  I won’t touch iTunes Match again with a 50ft bargepole.  Why they’re still offering it given reports that they’ve essentially duplicated the functionality with Apple Music and removed DRM from uploaded non-Apple Music files when using multiple devices, is beyond me.

Apple Music is still a little buggy, even under Windows 10 and Android.  But Apple are slowly getting there. There are still issues with syncing, and I still see error 502s and similar when downloading quite a few files – but it’s much better than it was.  I’ll continue to experiment.