Thinking again about hi-fi

One of my long-term objectives is to update my sound system.

My current system is a mix of devices collected over many years.

  • The horrible old brown Sanyo speakers I’ve had since I was a teenager, which originally came with a Sanyo DC J3K receiver and turntable (click through for some photos of what this looked like… some still survive to this day, obviously — though my speakers are bigger and I think browner than that). I think I paid about $120 secondhand for it in about 1986 — it replaced a white plastic turntable I’d had previously which was probably from the 70s — not sure, but that one was old enough that it could play 78s.
  • A Technics SA-EX300 receiver that I think I got in the mid-90s when the Sanyo amplifier died. At that point the turntable had to be ditched too, but I’d started switching to compact discs in 1988 after buying a CD player, so it was no big deal. The receiver theoretically does Dolby Pro-logic surround sound, but I’ve never used it for that, and I assume it’s not compatible with modern surround sound encoding.
  • Most of my music plays off my nine-year-old 40 gigabyte iPod, plugged via an iPod dock and 3.5mm cable into the back of the receiver. Combined, these three devices put out a reasonable sound for a small room/house. The sound quality isn’t half bad, but certainly isn’t as crisp as newer, better systems.

Old brown speakers

The wish list:

  • Newer, better equipment will mean better sound quality.
  • It’d be great to have surround sound, particularly for TV/movies. I pondered this some years ago but didn’t act on it.
  • It’d be nice to have reliable radio, including digital radio such as Double-J. The receiver is of course analogue only, and the reception is pretty poor, as it has no proper aerial, and nowhere convenient to put it.
  • Playing music and/or radio in the kitchen (without blasting it all around the house) would be a good bonus.

Sonos – very impressive

I’m quite enamoured of the new Sonos system that J+M have just got at their place. (It’s what has inspired this post.)

You can buy speakers of various types, and scatter them around your house. They are smart — they must have little computers inside them. Together they form a wireless network of their own and play music in sync between them. They can interface to your LAN and play the media collection on your computer(s) or a NAS drive, and you can control them using an app for iOS or Android, and play music directly from those devices too. And they can play internet radio stations, including the online versions of all the local stations.

Sonos make various sizes of speaker, and some of them can be plugged into other hifi gear… for instance their soundbar can be connected to a TV with optical audio out. Their Play5 large speaker has analogue audio in, for older devices. Speakers can be paired to provide stereo — some of the larger versions have stereo within the one speaker, but this is obviously limited. You can combine a soundbar, a sub-woofer and two smaller speakers to form a surround 5.1 setup.

It’s all very neat, if a little pricey (though not in the grand scheme of quality hifi equipment). But you can buy bits and bobs gradually and build it up.

Some of the Sonos gear is available through Commonwealth credit card and Qantas Frequent Flyer points — I have heaps of the former (enough to get a Play:5 or a couple of Play:1s), and a small amount of the latter.

Niggling doubt: will all their stuff keep running and be supported in 20+ years time like my current old speakers, which keep just working? They seem heavily dependent on compatibility with a home network, and handheld devices, as well as software maintenance from Sonos themselves.

What to get?

It’d be lovely if there was a surround sound setup made by one of the reputable brands that was expandable like the Sonos system is.

A surround setup with Sonos gear would be extremely expensive (about $1700 just to get the basics — though $700 of that could be got on points), and for me that’s probably a higher priority than cool networked music and internet radio. There are a few rather nice home theatre kits that do similar things, such as from Yamaha — but these aren’t as smart and expandable into the rest of the house later.

When I say surround sound is a priority… well, as much as any of this is a priority of course… all this stuff is the very definition of discretionary, unnecessary spending.

What I love about my blog is I can post on topics I know not too much about, and have all sorts of informed people commenting with good advice and ideas. So, no pressure, but over to you!

Update Monday 25/8

Some more thoughts over the weekend (with thanks to all those commenting):

I’ve been thinking about Sonos vs a Yamaha home theatre package, one of the ones with networking capability, so either option will play from a NAS or internet radio.

Sonos, eg Playbar and speakers in the livingroom, other speakers elsewhere:

  • Closed eco-system, makes it easy to select hardware, but harder to break away from it later
  • Great for multi-room which is so very cool, not so good for surround/theatre (no DTS, for instance, and more expensive). I have checked – my TV will output the 5.1 signal via the Optical Out which the Sonos Playbar needs.
  • Can be much more easily expanded later
  • Can easily temporarily move speakers around, eg have two Play1s for surround with the Playbar, but move them to the backyard for a party
  • Does it phone home? Would a Sonos system keep working if the company went bust? This may sound alarmist, but I’m pondering if the system will keep running 10, 20 years in the future. Maybe I should ask on the Sonos forum about this.
  • Sonos devices use a fair bit of juice even when inactive/on standby. The playbar alone uses 13 watts when not doing anything.
  • Hmm, it seems Jongo is a Sonos competitor. Probably similar issues.

Home theatre package in the livingroom with AirPlay, internet radio, controller app etc:

  • Better surround for the money, will handle DTS soundtracks
  • Less good on multi-room. Even the setups which handle Zone 2/Zone B are really tied to one additional room, not many.
  • Still get the coolness of a mobile/iPad app to control, play from music library etc
  • Wires around the place
  • Not tied to one manufacturer. Can upgrade individual components later
  • Uses far less juice when on standby.

I’m leaning towards the latter option, perhaps complemented by a DAB radio for the kitchen, for instance for playing Double J. Are there some good ones that might also have network capabilities? Or is that getting back to the Sonos gear and internet radio? Some might at least have bluetooth — eg Pure have some of these, for instance the Pure Contour, though of course it couldn’t be in sync with the livingroom setup.

If only home theatre setups had a way of broadcasting to remote speakers elsewhere in the house. Is there a device that will do that? Or do you have to wire everything up? Or you could use Sonos gear to hook into that I suppose.

So many options!

Music: best derivatives and best angry songs

Some best ofs in my current favourite lists.

Best derivatives

While most of the music on my favourites list are original compositions, here are some cover versions and songs that sample others that I currently like a lot:

Something For Kate — Born To Run — I almost like this more than Springsteen’s original.

P Diddy with Jimmy Page — Come With Me — samples Led Zep’s Kashmir. Not the sort of creation I’d normally like, but I do.

The Gaslight Anthem — Baba O’Riley — this is really quite good. Incidentally, I read over the weekend that Meha Baba also inspired Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry Be Happy — a far more annoying song.

Spiderbait — Black Betty — in particular the iTunes Originals recording, which rocks harder and longer than the album version.

Best angry songs

Some angry songs from my list:

Area 7 — Second Class Citizen — angry yoof.

Lily Allen — F$%# You — apparently about George W Bush

The Tenants — You Shit Me To Tears

Faith No More’s Epic is a bit of a grumpy song, rather than an angry song. I seem to recall The Datsuns’ MF From Hell would go well here.

What others are out there?

Another old obscure music video clip: Jellyfish “New Mistake” (1993) – and a new one

An obscure music video from 1993, twenty years ago. I caught this video on Rage one night, and got into the band Jellyfish from there.

I’m not even sure quite why I like it. The quirky music video (it was never clear enough on VHS, but it is here — all the band’s shots are obviously filmed backwards), the Queen-like harmonies, the wierdo lyrics. Dunno, but I was listening again to the album (“Spilt Milk”) again last week, and I still like it.

(I can see I’ve mentioned this song a couple of times before)

I didn’t know another song on the album also got a video: The Ghost At Number One. Sadly I don’t think that song is as catchy, and I guess neither did the public… after this album (their second) the band split-up.

No, here’s a better (new) recommendation: an excellent song for anybody who has stood in Bunnings and felt a little inept… Billy Bragg’s new one, “Handyman Blues”.

Obscure songs: JC001: Never Again

20 odd years ago, when I was into music videos (and television in general), I used to regularly record (yes, on VHS) a few hours of Rage on a Friday and/or Saturday night, and watch it the next day.

I’d categorise each song as a 1, 2 or 3. 1s I would copy onto another tape for keeping — a kind of Rage mix-tape. 2s I would watch once. 3s I would spin through.

One much-loved but long-forgotten song that I’ve just encountered is JC001′s “Never Again”.

(Once again WordPress is playing up. If it decides again to remove the embedded clip, it’s here.)

Apart from the good anti-racism, pro-mixed-race message (something I can relate to), the fast-paced lyrics made it ripe for parody in our family: “I intend to defend my blender ’til the end!”

The song has been hailed in some circles as “One of the best, most underrated uk hip hop singles ever.”

And it also apparently samples The Specials, so you’ve gotta like that.

JC001′s real name is Jonathan Pandy, and he’s still around apparently, for instance on Twitter. I wonder if he still has the crazy eyes.

My retro iPod

I just realised my iPod is nearly nine years old. That’s an age in the world of computers and electronics… does that make it a retro item?

My iPod

It’s a third-generation iPod, back from before they had silly features like apps, movie playback, and colour screens… And yes, it’s still going strong, though admittedly most of its use is at home in its cradle, playing music into the stereo.

And yeah, the ear phones aren’t in such good shape, which is why I’m not using them currently.