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!

Automatic for the people

Those of you who read the blog regularly might know that it started in my university days in 1990, with a twice-weekly email called the “Toxic Custard Workshop Files“. You can still subscribe to it, via YahooGroups — it’s got about 650 members.

I never quite imagined when I sent the first edition that it would still be going 24 years later.

These days the email is mostly a compilation of my blog posts. But it’s been increasingly harder to find the time to compile it — as it includes pulling the posts off the web site and adapting them into something readable in plain text. The emails have become very sporadic.

I’ve got a solution to the email problem. Computers these days are smart, so I thought there must be a service out there that will compile an email from a blog via an RSS feed. And there is.

So, from next week, I’ll be trialling a service called MailChimp. It can compile an email from a blog’s RSS feed, which I’ll then perhaps fiddle with just a little, and forward to the mailing list via YahooGroups.

In the future I may change it to be fully automated, but that would involve moving the mailing list from YahooGroups to MailChimp. We’ll see.

The biggest visible change will be that from next week, the emails will come through weekly, and will be in HTML format. (Can everybody read that nowadays?) A link is included to a web copy if the email gets munged. Here’s what it looks like. I wouldn’t say it’s beautiful, but it’s readable.

Sample Toxic Custard email via MailChimp

Theoretically a plain text version is included, though indications are from what I’ve seen is that it’s not very readable. I’ll see what can be done about that if a large number of people need it.

Feedback very welcome — leave a comment below.

Daniel vs the ATM

My recollection is that Automatic Teller Machines used to be much simpler devices, and much faster. I’m sure back in the day I timed myself getting cash using the basic buttons and 1-2 line dot-matrix LED “display” they had back then and had it down to under 30 seconds.

These days ATMs are complex beasts with colour screens and animated ads, but the functionality to customers is almost the same as it was back then: put your card in, enter your PIN, do an enquiry (check your balance) or make a withdrawal, from account Savings, Cheque or Credit, enter the amount, then take your cash and card and let the next person have a go.

Each transaction takes waaaaaay longer than it used to. It’s not just the ads, the whole thing seems slower.

Bank of Melbourne ATM: frozen

So anyway, I sidled up to an ATM last night to get some cash. Slipped the card in, and as usual, the face of Jason the local bank manager popped up, with an invitation to contact him via the details on the receipt. (I never opt for receipts, and the ad is the same even when the ATM can’t print receipts, as it often can’t.)

Normally after a few seconds of Jason’s attentive stare, it then warns you to cover your hand as you enter the PIN… despite that Bank Of Melbourne ATMs all seem to have a built-in cover.

This time however, it got stuck on Jason. It had frozen up.

I gave it what seemed like a very generous period of time before I started punching buttons. Cancel, Clear, even that button to trigger the audio prompts through a headphone socket. No response.

Oh terrific.

After a minute or two, it was obviously not going to unfreeze, or give up the card. Jason’s invitation to ring him was still on the screen, but I obviously wouldn’t be getting the receipt with his phone number on it to actually do so… though it was around 6pm anyway; I doubt he’d still be at work.

So I found a (barely readable) enquiries phone number on the ATM and rang it. I thought at least if I can get the card cancelled before I walk away, nobody can use it if the ATM spits it out.

The bank’s hotline of course had an automatic menu wherein no option quite described the situation I was in. Was the card lost or stolen? Well, not really lost, since I knew it was in this ATM. Stolen? Again, only if you count the bank’s own automaton as having stolen it.

I chose the option that loosely approximated my situation, and after trying to tell the machine by way of the phone’s Hash button that I had no idea what my Access Number, Card Number or Access Password was, and some minutes on hold (everybody’s idea of fun), I then spoke to a guy who said he couldn’t help, and he transferred me.

All the while I was standing in front of the ATM blocking anybody else using it, hoping I didn’t look like a dunderhead who can’t use such a basic machine, or some kind of ATM-hog. Thankfully nobody else wanted it.

The lady I then got transferred to was able to help… at least, after making me answer some security questions (including my verbal password, though she never made clear if I had correctly guessed or not), she cancelled the card and ordered a replacement, and usefully also to connect one of my other cards with the bank to the account I had intended to access. I was able to withdraw cash from another ATM using the second card. Hey cool, maybe I don’t even need the replacement!

I also asked her if she wanted to know precisely which of her bank’s ATMs had gone kaputsky. No; she implied she knew already. Perhaps as its last gasp before freezing it sent a message back to base saying it had grabbed my card, and she was able to see that information.

Oddly, passing an hour or two later, the ATM appeared to be working again. Or perhaps it was a trap, lying in wait to lure another unsuspecting customer into giving up their card.

I’ll leave you with this snippet from Wikipedia:

Today the vast majority of ATMs worldwide use a Microsoft Windows operating system

Hmmm. That might explains a lot.

Wrestling with a new blog template

I’m wrestling with a new blog template at the moment. It’s kind of mostly working…ish, but there are still a few little issues, such as the main content doesn’t line up with the page header quite right.

But once the quirks have been fixed, the site should look better, particularly on mobile devices such as smart phones and iPads.

It also has a random picture at the top, just for a little variety.

Comments, or issues you might see most welcome! If you see a problem, please let me know the device, browser and version.

One conclusion: I find CSS to be a little like black magic.

Update 16/1/2014: Some more tweaks thanks to feedback. Have made the page wider, allowing bigger images (will now use 800 width Flickr setting). Memo to self: add class=”postpic” to avoid them going out of proportion when seen on smaller screens.

A case to keep my shiny new phone safe

My new Google Nexus 5 phone is going very nicely, thanks very much.

But I was pondering getting a case for it. The last thing I’d want is for it to be dropped and damaged.

Fortuitously, the good people at MobileZap asked me if there was a product on their site I’d like to review for them. Why yes! Thank you!

MobileZap stock lots of accessories for phones and other devices such as iPads, with everything sorted by manufacturer and model. Unlike some other sites I’ve looked at, they have quite a wide range, even for older models of phone such as ye olde HTC Desire S that I’ve just upgraded from, which is rather good if you’re wishing to hand it down to someone (it still works fine) but need a new case for it.

In the category of Nexus 5 cases, they list 83 different products.

I also like that MobileZap aren’t afraid to publish customer reviews on their site — even unfavourable ones.

I thought the Spigen SGP Ultra Hybrid for Google Nexus 5 – Black sounded good. Not that the name exactly rolls off the tongue, but it looked like the case I needed.

Nexus 5 phone without caseNexus 5 phone in case

One of the things I like about the Nexus 5 is that it looks good. This case attempts, with some success, not to mess with the look of the phone. It leaves the front alone, providing bumper protection around the edge, so unless it hits a sharp edge on the screen, you’re protected.

In fact it also comes with a screen protector, though I’m a little reluctant to fit it, given the phone itself comes with Gorilla Glass, which should make it pretty tough. (In fact the old HTC Desire S, which also has Gorilla Glass, managed to last two years without a noticeable scratch.) That said, I know these days good screen protectors are pretty good at not unduly affecting the touch of the touch screen, so I’ll give it a try at some stage.

The outside edge of the cover (eg the bumper) is rubbery plasticy stuff, which (like the phone itself, at least the black version) is easy to grip, so the chances of it slipping out of your hand are minimal.

The back of the cover is transparent plastic. This does detract a little from the rather nice natural look of the back of the phone, but it wouldn’t normally be facing that way, so I can live with that.

As you’d expect, there are gaps in the case to allow for the camera to work, as well as the power/USB. The Volume Up/Down and Power buttons are covered by rubbery stuff which changes the feel of them just a little bit, as well as making them more accessible because the case buttons are bigger than the phone buttons – no bad thing.

If there is one niggle, it’s this – the bigger Power button is now directly opposite the bigger Volume Down button, and if you’re used to holding the opposite side of the phone to press the Power, you may find yourself initially pressing the Volume Down instead. I found once I got get used to it, this didn’t cause me issues.

Other than that, this looks like a good, durable case, and I feel less nervous now that my beautiful new phone will succumb to some horrible damage on probably inevitable day that it gets dropped.Thumbs up!

Many thanks to MobileZap for sending me this cover.