Multi-room music (and Star Wars)

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.

Cheapie wireless speakers

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?

Oh oh la la: Ocean Colour Scene live

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.

OCS

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.

Ocean Colour Scene playing in Melbourne, 23/2/2016

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.

Ocean Colour Scene - Melbourne set list (via "Cornton Thornholders" on Facebook)
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.

A great night.

Hi fi part 2: the kitchen radio

After buying the new livingroom hi-fi, my thinking was I want a device for the kitchen that does DAB+ for digital radio (eg music such as Double-J without relying on the vagaries of the internet connection) and can also do AirPlay (eg for music from iTunes on the Mac).

Devices that do both DAB+ and AirPlay in one kitchen-sized unit seem to be extremely scarce. The only one I’ve found was sold by Panasonic back in 2012: the SC-HC57DB, which also plays CDs. You can’t buy these new now, but you can find them secondhand and refurbished. That particular model had mixed reviews.

Okay then, what about concentrating on DAB, but also with network access to stream music via protocols other than AirPlay?

Pure do some nice radios. I looked through reviews and compared models — whose names are very confusing. I particularly like the one done up as a Marshall amp… with a Volume knob that goes up to 11.

I went out looking for Pure radios in the shops at lunchtime.

Pure radio

The Pure web site has a store locator which they might as well shut down (at least temporarily), as its data is hopelessly inaccurate. It says Big W and Target stock their products. I couldn’t find any. (In fact Target has moved to their own in-house hi-fi gear. Hmmm yeah… probably not the ultimate in high fidelity. $99 Target soundbar, anybody?)

It says Myer and DJs stock them too. This seemed more likely, but neither had any on display. It listed a store called Volume in Melbourne Central, which has closed.

The store locator doesn’t list Dick Smith, yet they did have some of their radios on display at their Emporium store, and happily in a spot where you could play around and listen to them. JB Hifi is listed, and do have them, but only a couple of models. Ditto Harvey Norman.

After researching the various models, I ended up deciding on the Pure One Flow, which gets good reviews — What Hi-Fi gave it 5 stars and the only down side they listed in the summary was it was “not the sexiest-looking radio we’ve ever seen”.

Given the lack of retailers stocking it, I looked online — a mob called WebRadios in Melbourne, who mysteriously only sell four products, had the best price. It arrived within a day or two.

Pure One Flow radio

Pure appear to have some skilled designers in product development — taking a leaf from Apple’s book, even the box was beautiful.

Pure radio upgradingOnce plugged-in and running, the radio wanted to patch itself when it was fired up, which I found amusing. Once done, it’s worked well, and is excellent for music from the kitchen, though it can go loud enough to be heard from most of my small house. Mono, but a good quality sound (to my unqualified ear).

Because I’m a geek, I deliberately got a model with network capabilities, though I haven’t fully explored them yet — beyond controlling it with my mobile phone, including piping music into it from the phone, and testing out streaming from a couple of exotic overseas radio stations. Neato.

If I really desperately want AirPlay, it does have an input, so I can add an AirPort Express. What I find more appealing through is that, if I get severe Sonos-envy, it can be part of a Jongo network of synced speakers (Pure’s probably not-quite-as-advanced version of Sonos), which can link through to an existing stereo via the Jongo A2 adaptor.

All in all though, I’m liking this new radio.

The other thing I’ve discovered while looking through the digital radio broadcasts is that I probably prefer the dinosaur music on Triple M Classic to Double-J.

The new toy

In Parks and Recreation they celebrate an annual Treat Yo’self day. Mine was last week. I took my birthday and the next day off work.

After much pondering, I bought a new home theatre setup.

The new hifi: Yamaha YHT-4910

I’d spent way too much time pondering what I was going to buy. For a while I considered buying into the Sonos system — having seen J’s setup, it’s really very impressive. The multi-room stuff is very neat and it sounds great. I almost went down the same path, but what finally steered me away from it was:

  • surround-sound for watching TV/movies was a priority, not multi-room music, and doing 5.1 with Sonos costs a fortune; and
  • you’re a little bit at the mercy of the Sonos company and its software updates — recent changes for instance have made it unusable for iPad 1 owners

So call me a luddite, but the old-fashioned receiver and speakers is for me for now. Having looked at the various models and decided that Yamaha might know what they’re doing more than most — they’ve been in business since 1887, and everyone I’ve known with their gear seems happy with it. (By the way, did you know their logo is three tuning forks?)

So I looked at the various models and decided that by cashing in credit card points, and knowing that my aim is to make this a once-a-decade (if that) purchase, I could just about afford a model going under the snappy name of the YHT-4910AU.

It’s a 5.1 surround speaker set (including underdog subwoofer plus a receiver that’s got neato network capabilities — it’s able to play songs from iTunes or shared drives, as well as internet radio, and can be controlled (and play music from) iDevices and Android phones and tablets.

Searching around I found it’s not too hard to get for about $100 less than the RRP of $1099. But I decided initially to go into The Good Guys in Brighton to play around with it. It sounded good.

The salesbloke got chatting. He confirmed my suspicion that soundbars can be quite effective for surround sound, but not in a room with lots of big open doorways… like my livingroom. He also said the wooden-cased speakers in this set sound better than the plastic ones in the cheaper ones. Sounds plausible.

I was on the verge of walking away to think about it overnight when he said he could get me a good price on it. How good? About $200 off RRP (and their advertised price), or $100 cheaper than the cheapest online price I’d seen.

These salesblokes are good. He haggled for me. I was sold. And he didn’t even try and sell me an extended warranty, nor did he (in line with their old “Pay less, pay cash” slogan) ask me to go and get cash instead of paying by credit card.

He helped me load it in the shop, but it comes it a box so big and heavy that I needed to wait for help to arrive home to unload it from the car.

The box features a green couch (which wasn’t included, if you were wondering) and their slogan “Powered by music”. Wait. So music from the hi-fi is powered by music? Had they invented some kind of hi-fi perpetual motion music machine?

The new hifi box

It turns out, no, it needs to be plugged into the mains like other systems.

It took my second day off to get it all set up — including a trip to Jaycar to get an optical audio cable, an extra HDMI cable and a set of wire-strippers, which made life easier.

To make it all fit in the cabinet, the VCR is being banished into a cupboard, only to come out when actually needed (which probably in practice means keeping it for another 5 years unused, then chucking it out.)

There’s an unbelievable amount of dust that gathers in the hifi cabinet. Perhaps if I get a new one, it should have doors.

Once the new setup was all running I spent some time trying out various music, DVDs and Blu-ray to check out the sound. It sounds great — a huge improvement over the old system.

I’ve got both the Blu-ray player and the DVD player hooked up, as only the latter is multi-region, and we have a few out-of-region DVDs from the bad old days when some stuff wasn’t available locally.

I’ve installed the app on my Android phone and the iPad, and that seems to work well.

It’s got AirPlay, so I can play music out of iTunes, which is nifty. Theoretically you can also play music off an iPod via the USB port, but it appears my iPod is too ancient for that. Well, my current iPod. [grin]

I’m still figuring out the multitude of controls, but so far I’m very happy with it.

I’ll leave you with this explanation of some hi-fi terminology, from Smith And Jones:

…and some questions:

1. Does anybody want some horrible old brown speakers and an old (but good) Technics receiver? I feel a Freecycle post coming on.

2. Lip sync is an issue with some setups, given picture processing in the TV takes more time than audio processing in the receiver. For now I’ve flicked the TV to Game Mode, which puts things back in sync but reduces the picture quality. I assume it’s generally better to use the audio delay feature of the Receiver? But wouldn’t I still need to turn that off and switch the TV back into Game Mode when playing games (with the Wii U signal via the Receiver)?

3. As I’m pondering a supplementary purchase to get radio and music into the kitchen (yes, I do have Sonos envy), does anybody know of a compact DAB radio which also does AirPlay? And if I set iTunes to Airplay to multiple devices, will they be in sync, or annoyingly just out of whack?

Updates: Edited the questions a bit.

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?