We decided to update our home entertainment system for the first time in a while. I can highly recommend Sony LCD HDTVs. We also switched from DirecTV to Charter Cable to get local HD broadcast channels. Being sick in bed for a few days last week, I had plenty of opportunity to check it out. This week we're also setting up a networked digital media receiver and ripping our CD collection.
Full (long) review of everything after the jump...
HDTV and the Sony LCD
HDTV on the Sony LCD is awesome. There's not a lot of content, though, and some stuff that is broadcast in HD isn't really. Some of the best HD is the nature and travelogue programming on Discovery Channel HD. The HDNet channels have some great original programming and HD movies. Universal HD has popular TV shows, movies, and sports. TNT HD is good because it has Law and Order and ER in HD. This makes the Mrs. happy.
The local channels have some nice network HDTV broadcasts, but most of the local content such as news and does not appear to be true HD. WBIR has the best quality, followed by WATE. WVLT doesn't even seem to be trying, and their local content looks worse on HDTV than on standard TV. NBC shows on WBIR such as Law and Order, Friday Night Lights, and Studio 60 look great. For fans of late night talk and entertainment, the Jay Leno and David Letterman shows have excellent HD picture and sound. For the sports fans, football and basketball on ESPN HD look great, too.
Based on my observations, HD picture quality is hit or miss depending on a number of factors. A lot of it seems to depend on whether the original source is recorded using true HDTV cameras, or for movies if it is a good transfer from film. Many programs on HD channels are not originally from HD sources, so they don't look much better than SD pictures. TNT also stretches some 4:3 format shows to fit 16:9 HD format, which is stupid if you ask me. Jumping back and forth from 480p/4:3 standard format to 1080I/16:9 HD format for commercials can sometimes be annoying. And for some broadcasters it must be a manual process, because they sometimes forget and leave it in 4:3 format for a few minutes after a commercial. Not sure if this is at the network or local, but it's amusing.
The Charter HD package has 14 HD channels (HDNet, HDNet Movies, TNT HD, ESPN HD, Universal HD, Discovery HD Theater, HBO HDTV-East, Showtime HDTV-East, Cinemax HDTV-East, WBIR-DT/NBC, WETP-DT/PBS, WTNZ-DT/FOX, WATE-DT/ABC, and WVLT-DT/CBS). The movie channels are "premium" add-ons. Comcast appears to have a somewhat more limited lineup of HD channels, but does have HD movies on demand which Charter does not have.
DirecTV has about the same, with some different selections but no local HD channels in our area. Dish Network has the most, with 30 HD channels including HGTV and Food Network, which I wish Charter would add, but also no local HD channels. DirecTV and Dish Network also both offer HD pay per views, which Charter does not have.
Standard definition TV looks better on the LCD TV for the most part, but it also reveals flaws in crummy sources making some programs actually look worse on LCD. On Charter, most of the analog channels look pretty good (HGTV, Food Network, Bravo), and all of the digital channels including premium movie channels have excellent standard definition picture quality if the source is good. Another nice thing about LCD is the wide viewing angle and the bright, high-contrast picture with no screen reflection which makes it watchable in a brightly light room, even with the shades open and the room full of sunlight.
Some standard definition DVDs look pretty good on the LCD, but they are obviously not HD format. We will wait until the HD DVD v. Blu-ray standard gets sorted out and prices come down and HD DVDs are available at Blockbuster before thinking about upgrading the DVD player. And, because HD DVDs are the only currently available 1080p source, we saved a few bucks and got a 1080i TV. I can't imagine how 1080p could look that much better than 1080i, and I'm sure 1080p HD/Blu-Ray DVDs will look awesome on a 1080i TV. But we have a couple of more weeks to change our mind.
Tip: When shopping for an HDTV, it's hard to judge picture quality in the stores. For example, at Circuit City they have dozens of TVs all run off one DirecTV HD receiver, with the signal presumably being sent through repeaters and amplifiers. This is not the optimum setup. Differences in settings are also a huge factor, and you need to customize the settings for your viewing environment to get the best picture quality. Do your research, and buy from a reseller who will let you try it out and return it if it doesn't perform as expected in your environment.
Charter Moxi HD DVR
The Charter Moxi-powered DVR is OK, but it has one serious flaw: you can't record by time. So if you tell it to record all first run Daily Shows, you get the ones that run at the regular 11:00 slot, the ones that re-run at 2 AM, and the ones that re-run the next day at 11 AM and so on, and pretty soon your hard drive is filled up and your menu is cluttered with dozens of Daily Shows. With DirecTV and Tivo you can set it to just record Comedy Central at 11 PM M-F, thus eliminating the problem (except Daily Show doesn't run on Friday so you get whatever they run instead). This is a serious flaw in the Moxi software design.
The slot machine style spinning content interface is goofy, too, and there's no grid style listing to easily see what's on at any given time. These are minor annoyances compared to the lack of timer recording, though. There are some other cool features such as games and photo albums, and some features that are disabled or not supported by Charter (such as MP3 jukebox and PC connection). The photo album feature is weak. It stretches and distorts photos and it doesn't have features such as random sequencing or transitions. I asked the cable guy if they had any other HD DVR boxes and he said not right now but they may be getting rid of the Moxi boxes. He didn't elaborate.
Digital audio receiver and migration from CDs
On the digital audio front, I have decided to rip all my CDs to an external USB hard drive (with a second drive for backup) and play music on the hi-fi using a "digital media receiver".
I first tried the D-Link MediaLounge. I was interested in it because it also has HD TV support that would also show photo slideshows. I don't expect I'll have much HD or any other TV on my PC, but I wanted to see the photo playback. It's OK, but you have to run it in 480p mode or it stretches and distorts the photos (like the Moxi) to fit a 16:9 screen. It also converts JPG to a TV signal, with a loss of quality. It also does not have random play or transitions.
I also found out the MediaLounge won't play lossless audio formats other than WAV. But the fatal flaw is that it only plays albums in alphabetical order by song title instead of original CD track order. This is just stupid, and it's a deal breaker for me. You can circumvent this by making a playlist for every album, but that's ridiculous. It's a pretty nice box otherwise, and with a few more software revisions it might be an OK solution.
Next I considered the Slimdevices Squeezebox 3 and the Roku Labs Soundbridge M1001. In researching the two players, I learned that the Squeezebox requires you to run the company's Slimserver software, and that it's not compatible with standard servers. The Roku Soundbridge works with all standard servers such as Windows Media Player Shared Media, ITunes, MusicMatch, and the open source Firefly server among others (including, ironically, Slimserver). Plus, you can get the Roku Soundbridge at Best Buy.
I also learned that receivers play lossless formats by having the server software transcode them on the fly, sometimes to a lower quality format. Apparently the Windows Media Player server has an option for the client to request a bitstream and the software simply decompresses the file and sends it in digital PCM format without any downgraded transcoding. The Roku Soundbridge supports this option, and (like the Squeezebox) has digital outputs (optical or coax) to send it on to your digital-capable AV receiver for high-quality decoding. The Squeezebox Slimserver also has this option, and apparently has more control over how the transcoding works, so you can convert to a lossy format such as MP3 if you are running over wi-fi or otherwise have limited bandwidth.
Tip: if you are planning to use a lossless format for CD-like quality playback you will probably need wired Ethernet v. wi-fi.
At first I thought about ripping my CDs to compressed, high-bit-rate MP3 or WMA, but after some playing around I could definitely hear a difference in sound quality. I researched the various lossless formats, and the two most popular standards appear to be FLAC and Windows Media Audio Lossless.
Both FLAC and WMA Lossless are, well, lossless formats, meaning they are bit for bit digital copies of the original CD. So if you change your mind or something better comes along later, it's a fairly easy process to convert either format to another. The only other lossless format I considered is WAV, but there is no compression (so the files are huge) and there is no standard for tagging content (artist, album, genre, etc.). Bonus, both FLAC and WMA-L compress the files to about half the size of a WAV file.
FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) is an open source standard, and the ripper of choice appears to be EAC (Exact Audio Copy). I played around with FLAC and EAC. EAC is powerful software, but you need a lot of technical know how to get it setup correctly. FLAC is a widely supported standard, and most but not all servers and media players support it.
After some research, I settled on the WMA Lossless format, mainly because of convenience and ease of use of the Windows Media Player ripper/server software. I chose the Roku Soundbridge M1001 media player because it supports WMA Lossless and works with a variety of servers. I will initially use WMP Shared Media server, again because of its ease of use. There is also third-party software to control the Soundbridge playback from any PC on the network. (Slimserver for the Squeezebox has this functionality built in via its web interface.)
Setting up the Soundbridge on a wired Ethernet network was simple. I plugged it in, answered a couple of questions, and it was up and running in less than five minutes out of the box. It's probably a little more complicated on a wireless network. Once it's attached to the network, the Soundbridge shows up in your "My Network" UpNp device list (on XP SP2), and you can double-click its icon to open a web interface to adjust the Soundbridge settings.
Setting up the Windows Media Player Shared Media is just as simple. (I recommend upgrading to WMP 11, which has the server built in.) You tell it to "share media", authorize the Soundbridge player which automatically shows up in the list of players, and tell it which folders to share.
Ripping CDs to the WMP library has turned out to be a lot less painful than I expected. WMP has a setting to "automatically rip when CD is inserted." You start up WMP, set this option, and start feeding it CDs. It automatically starts ripping, looks up the CD in its online CD database to get the album and song titles, tags, etc., and downloads the album cover art. When it's finished, it automatically ejects the CD and you just feed it another. I stack about 50 at a time on my desk and keep feeding it while I work or surf the internet.
It takes about three to six minutes per CD. I started a couple of days ago, and at the rate I'm going I should be through ripping approx. 600 CDs in a few more days, depending on how much time I spend at the computer. So far I have ripped 265 CDs, using up 78GB of space on my $99 external 200GB USB hard drive.
Important tip: In the Windows Media Player "devices" menu, select your CD or DVD drive and check the "use error correction" option. This is off by default, and I had dropouts in the first few CDs I ripped. It slows things down a little, especially on a scratched or dirty CD, but I haven't noticed any problems since setting this option (I'm also not listening to every CD as I rip it, so time will tell.) Other ripping softwares have a similar option, usually called something like "secure mode".
Also, there is an option in the WMP rip settings to "copy protect music". This is off by default, but verify and make sure it is off or you will have big time problems if you need to move your library to another PC or if the generated "licenses" get lost or corrupted.
For more info on formats, playback devices, ripping software, etc., the Hydrogenaudio Forums are a great place to start.
This new setup replaces my trusty old Sony 200 and 400 CD changers which are daisy-chained together and controlled by a circa 1995 Slink-E box attached to a notebook PC running the Slink-E CD Jukebox software. It still works, but unfortunately the company has gone out of business and the software (and its interfaces to online CD and album art databases) are no longer supported.
This new setup is faster, more flexible, and a lot easier to use. Plus I can control the player from any PC on the network using free (donationware) remote control software. I also get back a bunch of space in my media cabinet when I retire the CD changers. My biggest problem now is putting all these CDs back in their jewel cases, which fortunately are stored in mostly alphabetical order.
On playing photo slideshows to the Sony LCD TV, I have given up on using any networked devices for now. But, the TV has a VGA input, and I can connect a notebook directly to it and play slideshows using the excellent (and free) Irfanview software or Windows Media Player. I have learned, however, that older video cards do not allow you to adjust the output resolution to match the LCD, which is 1920 X 1080.
But I have a newer notebook with a "wide screen" format monitor, and it's video adapter automatically sensed the TVs resolution and adjusted itself accordingly. The Mrs. is using it right now as a database server for some software testing, but I'm hoping she'll let me use it for displaying photo slideshows when she's done with that project. I hooked it up briefly to test it, and the output was truly amazing. It's like looking at a huge framed color print of your photos. I suppose you could also get a wireless keyboard/mouse and setup the ultimate couch-based AV remote control/web browser. But that's another project for another day.
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