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:

I. AM. (G)ROOT!

In lieu of a lunch date last week (unfortunately my companion was not able to make it), I took myself to the cinema.  Despite not getting much use of the Odeon Limitless pass last year, I’ve nevertheless decided to renew (albeit paying monthly rather than one lump sum) as even if I can try to aim for two movies a month, it’s still ever so slightly cheaper than the full ticket price.

So I went and saw James Gunn’s Guardian of the Galaxy, Vol 2,  and I have to say I’ve never had such a great time at the cinema watching a movie.  It is a FUN film.   A fun, fun, film.  It never takes itself too seriously for the most part, but for even for the hardest of hearts, you’ll be shedding a tear by the end.  I have never laughed so hard at any film before – and the audience loved it too.  The gang are back – Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Baby Groot and Rocket Racoon – but this time they’re joined by Yondu and Mantis.   I’ll say nothing of the plot, other than it essentially picks up from the first film and explores Star Lord’s paternity.  The film is peppered throughout with a stonking soundtrack, picked out by Gunn himself, and the use of John Lennon’s Oh My Lord and Cat Steven’s Father & Son is just beautiful – as is the opening titles featuring ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky.  You’ll be wanting to download the full playlist from Apple Music (or Spotify) afterwards and play it over and over again.  A soundtrack selection like this hasn’t been this good since Harold & Maude (which made very heavy use of Cat Steven’s repertoire) – and of course the original Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 1.  James Gunn has said on social media that he’s aware of, and is trying to get UHD release of GotG Vol 2 – if so, this would mark the first Marvel Studios film to get one, and given how colourful and epic the cinematography is in this film – would be the right way to view the film at home.

Almost immediately afterwards I went and saw Alien: Covenant (or as my autocorrect likes to call it, Alien: Convenient!).  I know a lot of people didn’t enjoy Prometheus, but I liked it.  It’s nice to try and provide a back story to the origins of everything that’s happened up until the original 1979 Alien, and Alien: Covenant takes that further – but tries to get back to its horror roots.  We have chestbursters, backbusters, vomitbursters and all sorts in this one.  There are some very effective scares brought on by a wonderful sound mix.  I’m not a person to jump out my skin easily, but there were at least two points in the film I did so (as I’m sure did the audience, when they weren’t playing with their bloody mobile phones) – mainly due to the sound design.  If this film is going to win anything, it’ll be for sound design and VFX (by my former employers, MPC, of course).  Alien: Covenant is an intriguing film – and if you’re a fan of the original Alien I’d recommend it.  It doesn’t quite have the same impact (when you seen one chestbuster, you’ve seen them all), and the characters are definitely not the sharpest tools in the box.  But it makes for an entertaining 2 hours romping through the mythology of Alien and preparing us for the third and final prequel in the trilogy.  As a side note – it’s interesting that this film has been rated 15.  It features a fair amount of gore – but I suspect as technology has improved, audiences have become wiser to how things work and these things are just not as shocking or as bad as they seem back in the olden days of filmmaking.

On the home entertainment front, I watched A Monster Calls on iTunes.  It is a magnificent effort in storytelling – simply a beautiful, wonderful film.  Essentially it tells of a young boy who is being bullied at school and is being raised by his mother, who is dying of terminal cancer, summoning a monster – a walking and talking yew tree that comes to life.  The monster tells the boy that he will tell him three tales, but the boy must tell the monster a fourth tale, which is the nightmare the boy has been suffering from each night.  That nightmare is of a church and graveyard falling into a massive hole, with his mother holding on to her son for dear life.  This is, of course, a symbolism of the boy losing his mother to cancer.   A Monster Calls treats the subject matter very well indeed: how do you cope with the forthcoming loss of your mother?  It made me appreciate the 24 years I had with my mum before she passed away back in 2000.  It was maybe because of this that I cried – hard – throughout the film.

A Monster Calls treats the subject matter sensitively, and is well handled: how do you cope with the forthcoming loss of your mother?  It made me appreciate the 24 years I had with my mum before she passed away back in 2000.  It was maybe because of this that I cried – hard – throughout the film.  It brought up memories, and that as my mum started become ill and weaker, that I had to prepare for the inevitable.  That sort of thing was very hard – and the film serves as a reminder for that.

The tales that the monster (which is voiced and whose motion capture performance is by Liam Neeson) tells the boy are beautiful animations that resemble watercolours – traditional fairytales but with a bit of twist to them – and that forms a relevance in the boy’s life.  A Monster Calls combines fantasy and realism in such a natural manner that even you’ll forget what’s real and what’s not.  A beautiful film that deserves all the praise it can get.

And finally on to Passengers.  I had heard a lot about this film (none of it good).  But I very much enjoyed it.  It provides us with a big dilemma – if you were on a long voyage in which you had to be put into hibernation, but the system fails halfway until you get there, and you can’t go back under – what do you do?  You have to live the rest of your life on the ship.   This is the dilemma faced by Jim Preston, a passenger on the Avalon on the route to a new homeworld.  He’s woken up 90 years too early by a fault in his hibernation pod.  He’s the only human being around – the ship is fully automated (but due to damage caused by a meteor storm, various parts of the ship start to fall to bits).  His only companions are an android bartender (played by Martin Sheen), and the restaurant robots.  As he’s an engineer, he tries to figure out his situation – and tries to wake up the crew, but is prevented from doing so due to security barriers. After wondering through the hibernation bays (there are some 5,000 passengers in total) he comes across Aurora, a beautiful young woman.  He starts to think.  He’s all alone.  But if he was to wake somebody, it would essentially be condemning them to death – they wouldn’t reach their destination alive, and going back to Earth would result in the same fate.   I won’t go any further into the plot – but needless to say, it becomes a bit of a rollercoaster ride from that point onwards.  It’s a bit like Titanic in Space meets Pixar’s Wall-E (ironically Wall-E’s composer, Thomas Newman, also scores this film).  Enjoyable film.

Moving from iOS to Android, part one of many – moving to Samsung’s Galaxy S8+

As I await my Samsung Galaxy S8+ pre-order to arrive later next month, I have started planning the migration from iPhone’s iOS to the Galaxy’s Android OS.  Setting up a new phone always takes forever and a day, so getting prepared is always a good thing.

One thing that I love what Google have done is that the Play store remembers all previous purchases and downloads.  I had to use a special SMS application on Android (though I believe this is handled natively) to be able to trigger repeat SMS notifications – for when I’m on call.  I couldn’t remember what it was called, but I’ve just gone into my account at the Play store’s web site and found it (Textra, in case you’re interested).  The major advantage of accessing one’s previous accessed apps this way is that you can then install them via the web too!

I had considered switching from Apple Music to Spotify, but then remembered that Apple Music is also available on Android.  So I don’t need to make any changes to my subscription, nor do I need to ditch iTunes completely – which isn’t something I’m prepared to do.  I’m definitely keeping the Mac – it’s merely the phone and watch that are changing.

In terms of photos, I used to keep everything in the iCloud Photo Library.  My biggest worry was something happening at Apple that could have wiped the entire lot – so I’ve disabled the service, downgraded by iCloud storage, and intend to move everything over to Adobe Lightroom (which forms part of my Photoshop subscription) which has its own Android app for accessing photos.   To transfer to the Mac, I just need a USB-C to USB-C cable, and import them directly into Lightroom.  I’m so glad that Samsung have stuck with USB-C .

I don’t think there are specific apps that I use on iOS that aren’t available for Android.  The main issue may be that some apps look a bit odd on the Galaxy S8+’s longer display, but as Google is actively encouraging developers to adapt their apps to this format, we should start to see some truly attractive apps.

What I’m REALLY looking forward to, and what is pushing me most towards the S8+ is that I felt that with the Note 7 and the Galaxy S7 Edge, the cellular performance was far, far better than the iPhone 7 Plus.  It is no exaggeration to say that at times I find connectivity on the iPhone to be sluggish.  But it was never an issue with the Note 7, S7 Edge and even the Google Pixel.  Are Intel’s modems that much worse than Qualcomm’s?  I don’t know, but it sure feels like it.  When you’re out and about, you don’t want sluggish network performance.

Also: wireless charging.  I still have my fast wireless chargers and hope that they will work with the S8+.  They’re incredibly useful to have around.

The only downside, I guess, is that I’ll lose access to iMessage.  This messaging service from Apple allows two iPhone users to directly message each other without utilising the SMS network (or if one user is out of range of internet access, it will revert to SMS).  As most of the family are on WhatsApp, this will make things much easier – but there are still a few people I need to convert.

Other things that I hope to experience with the Galaxy S8+: Virtual Reality.  In the US, Samsung are bundling their VR headgear and controller along with a nice pair of good quality earphones as part of the pre-order deal.  In the UK?  Nope.  Nada.  Diddly squat.  But I’m sure that at some point I’ll get a chance to check it out. VR is the Next Big Thing(tm) and I would like to be a part of it.  The 360 4K video camera is certainly intriguing.  How I’d love to take that with me to Iceland in a few months time.

So lots to look forward to, and lots to do when I do get the kit (including then selling everything else to pay for it!), but I’m somebody who doesn’t stand still when it comes to technology.

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…