Archive for December, 2011

December 30, 2011

In-home wireless music streaming

My friends and I share a similar taste in music. That’s a problem. Especially come New Year’s eve. The reason is they all come armed with their iPods to DJ. There is invariably a race to pick the seat next to the iPod connected to the stereo, so each one can swap his iPod in and DJ…only till the seat is usurped during a break.

This year I decided to set up a system to beam music wirelessly so there are no more scuffles for the seat.

So here is what I had at home:

–       A Macbook Air (MBA)

–      WiFi router

–       An Apple TV

–       A regular stereo system

–       An LCD TV

–       An iPad

–       USB hard disk drive with my music

Neither my MBA nor my iPad had enough storage to hold my music. So it had to be an external drive.

So here’s what I did:

  1. Connected my external drive to my Macbook Air.
  2. Pointed iTunes on the Mac to the external hard drive (I preferred floola in the past)
  3. Enabled home sharing on my Mac
  4. Turned on my Apple TV connected to the TV. Enabled Airplay.
  5. On the iPad too I enabled home sharing though I am not sure this is required
  6. Connected the TV audio-out to my audio system. Couldn’t connect the optical out of the Apple TV as my stereo doesn’t support an optical input. The Apple TV is connected to TV via HDMI.
  7. Now turned the stereo on
  8. Voila! My iPad listed my entire library from my hard disk via my Mac. I airplayed songs via my iPad on to apple TV which in turn sent it to the TV and in turn sent it to the audio system.
  9. Complex but plays nice. Can’t complain about audio quality.

Only one problem though…it takes 5 seconds to switch songs. Bummer! But I wont let it dampen my excitement this New Year!

Happy New Year!

Update: I used the iPad only to search and airplay music videos from YouTube but used the iTunes playlists accessible from the apple TV most of the time. No time lag to switch songs.

December 29, 2011

Audio…the next big thing

While tablets & smart TVs got everyone’s attention this year two products rekindled my interest in audio

1. The ZVOX soundbar &

2. Hidden Radio companion speakers

One is trying to address the inconvenience of dealing with a clutter of wires and speakers in your living room and the other addresses mobility. Interestingly both of them are related smart TVs and tablets respectively.

ZVOX has been using psychoacoustic modeling to simulate surround sound with stereo speakers. If you think about it, you only have 2 ears and so even though you may have 5 speakers what matters is how the sound is perceived in the brain using your 2 ears.

Listen to this with your headset on and it will give you a feel for what I mean.
Of course in this case the content has been encoded with the right sound to produce this effect.

If you can simulate this effect, the number of speakers don’t matter. Why then would you need 5 speakers and a subwoofer (not to mention the 7.1 system) and all the complex wiring and placement that go with it?

Of course this is easier said than done given the complex signal processing and form factor limitations.

SoundBars have come a long way and are no longer being dubbed gimmicky. AuraSound,  announced in Nov 2011 that it shipped its one millionth TV soundbar in just over two years from initial product launch. The market for soundbars is growing at a fast clip with some analysts predicting over 100% year on year.

I came across ZVOX mentioned in more than one article over the last few months and was intrigued. While I have heard others I haven’t heard ZVOX so I can’t speak for the quality though it appears they have some good reviews including one from Stereophile calling it an “audiophile system”.

I heard a Philips soundbar recently and I have to say at $650 the soundbar’s audio quality was comparable to a more expensive 5-channel home theatre system.

With TVs getting slimmer and slimmer, from CRT to Plasma to LCD to LED and now OLED the real estate for speakers on TVs is shrinking rapidly to the point that they literally have to be split from the screen.

It has since become almost necessary to add external speakers for a decent experience. Another reason soundbars have become popular.

While I am sure ZVOX and the rest are not yet true audiophile quality they are extremely convenient and most importantly, good enough for many.

Soundbars need to generate about 100w of power to be of value. Generating this energy from small form factors can be quite the challenge.
Overcoming the algorithmic challenges and physical limitations of these speaker arrays to rival traditional systems will be the focus in 2012 because we all know there is a demand for them.

Ever since the iPod came out there has been a proliferation of speaker accessories including docks. However smartphones & tablets with a decent amount of storage (not to mention cloud based streaming services) have got consumers increasingly listening to music on their phones.

All these docks required you to place iPods on the dock. Selecting & changing tracks was a pain, as you had to be physically next to the dock. With Bluetooth technology being omnipresent on phones many of these docks will begin to support wireless control and playback. The earlier concern over the quality of Bluetooth audio is now fading with A2DP adoption.

I predict that we will see use of  Bluetooth over Apple’s Airplay because it covers a larger market

Unfortunately to get better quality sound the docks started getting larger and larger defeating the whole purpose of portability. Which is why the Hidden Radio‘s wireless speaker caught my attention with their unique design that increases the physical volume of the speaker as you “unscrew” it. The same action also increases the volume of the audio.

Bluetooth speakers have grown over 390% and still command only about 10% of the dock market leaving a lot of room for growth. The challenge once again is to deliver compelling sound & yet keep them portable.

Innovations in design, algorithms, materials and amplifier electronics will continue to address this growing market in 2012.

The biggest advantage audio has is that one can multitask while listening to music. With video you pretty much have to have dedicated time. Hence audio/music occupies more of your time than most other activity during the day.

No wonder Mary Meeker predicts that Audio will be BIG next year.