Brace yourself… a non-transport-related blog post.
A couple of years ago I bought a Yamaha surround sound setup, which has been fabulous. I’d single out the sound track on Mad Max Fury Road in particular; very immersive.
Heck, even later seasons of the West Wing had some subtle surround going on, adding to the viewing experience.
I’ve used it for music too, and it sounds great. I copied all my iTunes music onto a USB stick* which can plug into the front of the receiver. You can play tracks or albums by navigating through on the TV, or via a phone or iPad app. But it’s a bit clunky; it’s not really designed well for that, and it can’t fathom tracks within genres, nor play lists, and it certainly can’t do anything as fancy as random/shuffle play. (Hey Yamaha, how about an upgrade?)
You can play music from iTunes to it via Apple AirPlay, but that requires using a computer.
*By the way, I have iTunes configured to rip CDs as MP3s at the highest bitrate. I figure those files are more widely playable than any other format.
But I was still craving J+M’s Sonos system, particularly the idea of music playing in perfect sync around the house, preferably without wires everywhere.
I considered other cheaper options. Could I achieve the same with a few Google Chromecast Audio dongles? Perhaps, but it’d be messy. And other manufacturers have Sonos-like speakers (though the good ones aren’t really much cheaper).
Then a few weeks ago JB Hifi offered $50 off Sonos speakers, so I thought what the hell, I’ll go for it. I thought maybe I could splurge for a Play:1 (the smallest speaker, $299 less the $50 discount) and get a Connect (a little exhorbitant at $549) to sync music through to the Yamaha receiver and speakers.
Nagging doubt on the Sonos Connect: Sonos speakers have a fixed delay of 70ms (to allow them all time to sync), which is fine. And the Yamaha can be adjusted to delay, if it’s ahead. But if the Sonos is ahead, you’re stuffed. You can try switching the Yamaha to Direct Mode, but if it’s still behind, you’re still stuffed. No music sync. (I also vastly prefer the Sonos gear in black. The Connect is only available in white.)
Anyway, I got the Play:1 and tried it out. Very impressive. It thoroughly exceeded expectations. Great sound.
When the kids heard it, they thought the music was playing out of the Yamaha’s big speakers, not the tissue-box-sized Sonos speaker on the mantlepiece.
Which made me think: if the goal is multi-room music, why even bother getting the expensive Connect for a (possibly troubleprone) link to the Yamaha? Why not just buy another Play:1 for half the cost?
Ingenious. And of course the Play:1 can be moved around if ever required.
Meanwhile I’d been looking around at what secondhand dealer Cash Converters had in the way of Sonos gear. The Parkdale store had a Sonos Bridge, used to configure Sonos systems to use their own network instead of the WiFi. It’s the old model (the new one is called Boost, costing $149), but was only $29. Sold.
So now I can play synched music in the livingroom and kitchen, which in my small house, covers most of the common area of the house. And the speakers are small enough that I can move them around if needed.
Some people online reckon that there’s not much difference sound-quality-wise between the Play:1 and the larger Play:3. And I think I like the style of the 1 more than the 3 or 5.
For online radio, it’s not perfect, because it’s relying on good internet. Like the Pure radio I already had in the kitchen, it seems to be occasionally prone to dropouts if the home internet (Optus cable) is clogging up. (The Pure radio also does actual radio, including DAB+ digital radio, so I can flick it to Double J if BBC Radio 6 Music is playing up.)
I still think the Yamaha was a good choice for surround-sound movies. Sonos’s option (Playbar plus Sub plus speakers) is around three times the price, and it can’t do DTS sound. It’s also dependent on the TV being about to output a 5.1 signal, which some can’t.
My next step was going to be to put my home music collection on a shared drive that the Sonos can play, such as a Raspberry Pi set up as a NAS — but I checked and my cable modem/router has that feature. It’ll share anything plugged into the USB port. So I plugged the USB stick I’d been using in the Yamaha into the router instead, then told the Sonos where to find it… job done!
Of course, Sonos is one of those things like DSLR camera lenses… addictive… I’d be surprised if I don’t end up buying more gear at some stage. Hmm, one for my bedroom perhaps?
Star Wars episode seven is officially out today on DVD and Blu-ray, but I managed to buy it yesterday — some shops with a name starting with Big and ending in W jumped the gun, as did some with the initials J and B, apparently, though the large W establishment is selling it for $23 (on Blu-ray), which seemed like a pretty good price.
It had been available on iTunes and other digital services for some days, but I wanted the higher picture and sound quality of Blu-Rey. (iTunes can give me HD via my old iPad Mini, but I’ve found it actually drops frames during playback. Not so good.)
It sounds mucho-impressive on the Yamaha surround sound setup that I got in 2014, which I’m very very happy with. This unit does an awesome job with movies and TV, which was always the priority for me — that’s basically why I didn’t go with Sonos at the time; the cost for 5.1 would be about three times what I paid (thus unaffordable for me) and it is limited; for instance it doesn’t support DTS.
Back to the music
But this post is mostly about music.
The Yamaha unit can play my music collection via the network or just off a USB plugged into the front, and it sounds great. It also does online radio (via the vTuner service), which is very neat. I bought a separate Pure Flow One radio (digital/FM) for the kitchen, which also does online radio. Yay, BBC 6 Music!
The only thing my equipment doesn’t do is multi-room music, which systems like Sonos excel at. Yes, I can play BBC 6 in both rooms, but it’s not in sync, which would be handy in a smallish house where the living areas are all within earshot.
So yes, I still have Sonos envy. I regularly see it in action at M+J’s house, and recently I was over at another friend’s house and they have it too. Very nice.
What’s interesting is the emergence of the Google Chromecast Audio, a cousin to the original Google Chromecast (which is used for TVs). GCA, as I’ll call it for short, costs A$59 and brings Sonos-like features to old (active) speakers, and as of a December software update, this includes multi-room capabilities.
So GCA is a bit like a poor man’s Sonos Connect, which retails for A$549, providing much of the functionality at about a tenth the price… well, kind of, sort of.
But there are also other systems now available — more jumping on the Sonos bandwagon every few months it seems. So comparing them, we have (and I’m particularly interested in how much it costs to connect to older equipment):
- Sonos — the one to beat. Pricey, but very mature technology; they’ve been in this game longer than anybody else. Connection (Sonos Connect): $549, speakers from $299.
- Pure Jongo — cheaper than Sonos, but more obscure in Australia. Their technology is called “Caskeid” (pronounced Cascade) and apparently Onkyo has licenced it. Connection (Jongo A2) $149, speakers from $199.
- Denon’s Heos — same price range as Sonos, but the controller app gets poor reviews. Connection (Heos Link) $599 (it’s an amplifier as well, so more of an equivalent to the $749 Sonos Connect Amp), speakers from $379.
- Yamaha’s MusicCast — compatible with latest model Yamaha receivers, but not mine. Limited range of products otherwise, from $349. Interestingly, this review implies all of the components can connect to old equipment, but looking more deeply, it appears this means only if that equipment supports Bluetooth, which my 2-year-old receiver doesn’t. The newer version of the same receiver (RX-V479) has MusicCast built in.
- Samsung Sound — has a connection to old equipment called the “Multiroom Link mate” for $449, speakers from $299.
- Panasonic has equipment using the Qualcomm Allplay standard, which theoretically other manufacturers can all use… but Panasonic seem to be the only ones available in Australia, apart from the near-no-name brand Laser (which I’ve seen in Officeworks of all places) and one Medion product (sold by Aldi… occasionally). Panasonic’sConnection $279, speakers from $379.
- Harmon Kardon Omni+ — connector $229, speakers from $329. Seems to be getting poor reviews.
- Bose Soundtouch. The only connection option is the $799 amplifier (similar to the Sonos Connect Amp). Speakers from $299.
But here’s the interesting thing: some brands support Google Cast:
The catch? Google Cast on third party speakers doesn’t yet support multi-room. Google says:
We are working on adding Multi-room group playback support to all of our existing and upcoming audio devices with Google Cast built-in. This will allow you to group your Chromecast Audio devices and Google Cast speakers from different brands into one seamless experience. This feature will be rolled out to all Google Cast speakers throughout 2016.
I’d hate to fall victim to vapourware, so I think I’ll believe this when I see it.
Let’s face it, the technically best solution still seems to be Sonos. They’ve been in the game a long time, their tech is mature, and they’ve got a proven record for selling equipment that lasts, and is upgradeable over many years. If I want multi-room music, I could get a Sonos Connect and then gradually get a bunch of Sonos speakers for around the rest of the house. Cost for Connect plus a speaker is from about $850…
Or I could get a GCA for the Yamaha, another for the Pure Radio in the kitchen, costing $120, and then speakers with Google Cast for other rooms, if the promised upgrade comes through. Cost from about $370.
I’d also need to figure out where to serve local music from. I should check if my router has is NAS capable – some can happily serve up files on a USB stick plugged into the back.
GCA does have a possible flaw: it has problems with gapless music played from some sources… it seems MP3 or AAC format is okay but WAV or FLAC isn’t. (What’s gapless music? Playing consecutive tracks with no gap between them, so that songs that lead into one another like on side B of Abbey Road don’t have short silences between them. Wait, did I just say side B? Showing my age…)
Multi-room music is perhaps the ultimate in extravagant unnecessary lifestyle products for my home. I think I’ll hold off and see if Sonos decide to get a bit more price-competitive and bring the Connect down in price in response to Google Cast and/or see if Google Cast gets a firmware upgrade to properly handle gapless music, and to handle multi-room music on third-party speakers.
Has anybody gone down this road before me? What did you find?
- More reading: Multi-room audio: What is it and what are your options?
- Computerworld: Chromecast Audio revisited: 4 months with Google’s simple streaming solution
- Gizmodo: Chromecast Audio Review: A Cheap Way To Teach Your Old Speakers New, Wireless Tricks
- Ars: Sonos on the cheap: How Chromecast Audio breathes new life into old speakers
Ocean Colour Scene played last night at Max Watt’s (formerly known as the HiFi bar — I assume the current name is a pun about loud music, rather than being named after a person).
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve wanted to see them play live for decades, but this is their first tour of Australia.
The tickets were a Christmas present from Marita. We got there about 8:15… there was no sign of the support act “El Mariachi” — perhaps they’d been and gone. OCS was expected at 9:15. I bought myself a t-shirt and a drink and we found a good spot to stand.
I’d been warned it was a hot stuffy venue, which might not be pleasant after a hot day in Melbourne, but lining the walls were numerous air conditioners, and despite it being a sold-out gig, the heat wasn’t oppressive… at least for the audience.
They were clearly feeling it on stage though. Frontman Simon Fowler seemed to be suffering more than most, but didn’t seem to let it affect his performance. His voice doesn’t seem to have lost any of its power in 20 years.
In fact the whole band performed really well. Holy crap that Steve Cradock can play a guitar (he also plays in Paul Weller’s band). Drummer Oscar Harrison let loose with a short drum solo — I think it was on the end of You’ve Got It Bad. Bass player Raymond Meade, who joined the band last year, was more low-key (as bass players often are), but was great too.
While the band was terrific, the sound quality, I thought, wasn’t great. Maybe it was where we were standing, and/or my ears can’t handle the noise these days, but it seemed just a little too loud and distorted. Not that it stopped me enjoying it thoroughly, and singing my lungs out.
They started with their 1996 album Moseley Shoals in full. It was their second album, and their most successful — about half of the tracks ended up being included on their 2001 “best of” compilation, but even those that missed out are great — of those, I particularly like The Downstream, but I love some of the more well-known tracks such as The Circle, The Day We Caught The Train, and one I think is a masterpiece: One For The Road.
At the bar I’d overheard some English accents — it seemed a number of expats were in the audience, and whether they were Brits or locals, many people seemed to be singing along. Most of the songs are very singalongable.
Set list, via Facebook
After Moseley, they went on to some of their other songs, finishing up with Hundred Mile High City, with its killer riffs, which incredibly they seemed to play note-for-note, but faster than the original studio version.
Our first night in Australia on stage at Max Watts Melbourne pic.twitter.com/ygazLPBXEL
— Ocean Colour Scene (@OCSmusic) February 23, 2016
— Raymond Meade (@RaymondMeade82) February 23, 2016
A great night.
- Review of the Perth concert
Back in the day I watched the 1998 movie Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and liked it.
Then I watched the 2001 TV spin-off Lock Stock which was okay I guess (it was notable for having Martin Freeman in a couple of episodes, in one of his early roles).
But what really grabbed me was the theme music, an instrumental version of a song called July by Britpop band Ocean Colour Scene — possibly because another of their songs had been used as the movie’s theme song.
Ocean Colour Scene were pretty big in the UK, with their second album Moseley Shoals (1996) being possibly their best known and most successful. I’ve bought quite a few of their albums over the years, and they’re still going. But they never seem to have made it internationally.
I’m not sure I could name a favourite song; they’ve done some great ones, but one I will note as being thematically up my alley is Mechanical Wonder — as author Simon Fowler wrote: I wrote this walking the dog on the Grand Union Canal and it yearns for a time before the roar of the M40.
To my surprise, for the first time, they’re coming to Australia, as part of their tour marking twenty years since Moseley Shoals was released.
Marita found it first, and (spoiler alert) has bought me tickets for Christmas.
Honestly, I thought I’d have to try and make it to England to see them in person. Instead I’ll only have to make it into the city. How good is that?!
If you’re a closet OCS fan, or like the Britpop genre, book fast — the Perth show has already sold out.