An unlikely turn of events

I’m having dinner the other night at Emma’s Pizza in Cambridge, Ma. Funny place, college hangout featuring thin-crust pizza, mis-matched chairs, and the geekiest collage of 20-something nerds (everyone of them paying by credit card) I had seen in a long time. The service has been described as “Kafka-esque”–it’s not, it’s just incompetent, but pleasant enough for being so. The service gave me plenty of time to listen to the tunes they were playing, which were pretty good. The first tune that really caught my ear was one I had heard before, but I had no idea what it was. I thought maybe it was some remix of a 60s tune. It had this great refrain of “no, no, no”, sung way behind the beat. Who is this? I Googled on my Blackerry, “Who sings that song that goes no, no, no?” What an age we live in. A few hits down, Google confirmed what I had sort of suspected, it’s the Amy Winehouse song, “Rehab”.

Now, I had seen pictures of Amy–who hasn’t?–and heard about all the brouhaha about her Grammy wins. Let’s just say, I was not predisposed to like her. The music, however, completely won me over, and the CD was waiting for me when I got home Friday night. Dipping into the rest of the album, there are some fine moments and at least a few insanely great lyrics, “What kind of fuckery is this / you made me miss the Slick Rick gig!”

I don’t know if it’s a function of our age or my age, but derivative pop music no longer bothers me, I actually really like it. My favorite bands of the last few years would have had me sneering back in my teens: Interpol is a Joy Division ripoff, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs rip everybody off, The Whigs singer in the post below is an amalgam of Neil Young and Thurston Moore. So What? As Donald “Duck” Dunn famously said, “If the shit fits, wear it!”

Notes on the new Home Theatre

I spent spare moments this summer researching the state of the art in home theatre, reading endless forum posts, product reviews and spec sheets. The end result is that by early September, I had replaced every single element in the home theatre setup. Not a single cable from the old system remains. After two months with the whole system together, here are some thoughts (a bit technical at times).

Media Player: Sony Playstation 3. One of the first steps was to cast a vote in the latest format war: Blu-ray disc (BD) vs. HD DVD. My take is that Blu-ray will win. Blu-ray has the better technology with twice the native storage capacity as HD DVD. Plus, Blu-ray has more studio support. Having made that choice, the ps3 becomes the perfect option for a BD player. Prices all around have come down a bit since the summer, but at that time, the ps3 was one of the least expensive BD players around. It’s essentially a media player with a gaming system thrown in. We’re not big gamers, but I did spend a two-week break from work playing Oblivion IV almost non-stop.

AV Receiver: Sony STR-DA3300ES. I probably spent the most time researching AV receivers, which is maybe the most FUD-ridden part of the home theatre world at the moment. The selection criteria boil down to these points: sound quality, power, HDMI support, format support, useability.

Sony is not generally thought of as a manufacturer of high-end audio equipment. Initially, I was leaning heavily towards Onkyo and Denon. In the end, I decided to audition the Sony ES-series at home, and was pleased enough with the sound to keep the unit. This receiver delivers 100W per channel, which seems like a lot, but, in practice, is about right for my relatively small viewing space.

HDMI is the current single-cable digital interconnect of choice. Passing audio and video on a single cable is a great step towards reducing cable clutter. The key is that the AV receiver should have enough HDMI inputs to accommodate all of your input devices, and can then connect with your display device using a single HDMI interconnect. The 3300 has three HDMI inputs, which seems to be plenty for me, and can take a BD player, a DVR and still have an open slot. Where the FUD (fear, uncertainty & doubt) starts to creep in is the HDMI version. Only the latest version of HDMI, 1.3a, will pass the latest audio codecs (Dolby TruHD, DTS HD Master Audio) in their native bitsream format, allowing the receiver, rather than the player to do the decoding. This fact has a lot of people confused, but for the moment, it is inconsequential, since there is currently no player available, nor any content that will allow this kind of setup. As it happens, the 3300 is HDMI 1.3a.

Format support ties in with the HDMI issue. It’s really not much of a matter of concern, since it is the role of the player to decode the formats. The decoded audio is then passed to the receiver in a multi-channel linear PCM format. Moreover, it seems that the emerging high-definition audio format of choice is straight multi-channel LPCM, which requires no decoding whatsoever. Being a sound guy, I have been absolutely thrilled with some of the sound environments that are coming out of this system now, thanks to non-compressed LPCM (usually 48/24).

Useability is much more of an issue for a multi-channel AV receiver than for a simple two-channel stereo. In addition to all the various formats and processing available, the AV receiver acts as a digital hub, interconnecting all the input and output devices. For theses reasons, it’s important to be able to quickly manoeuvre and make changes. Sony is actually a leader here, and has the same nicely-designed Xross-bar menu system in its current crop of players, receivers & display devices. This is one advantage of having an all-Sony system.

Display Device: Sony KDL-46XBR4. Two big choices to make here: screen size and LCD vs. plasma. Until very recently, plasma was the clear choice for picture quality, but the latest LCD panels have mostly caught up, and offer a few advantages. LCD offers incredible sharpness, a bright picture in both daylight and darkened room settings, with almost the same level of deep, rich blacks as plasmas. One crucial factor for me was 24p support, which keeps the frame rate at a stable 24 frames per second throughout the entire chain from filming to authoring to playback. DVD and broadcast television must go through contortions to convert the frame rate from 24 fps to NTSC color televsion’s native 29.97 fps. This is all obviated by 24p support. The end result when watching a BD, for example, is that you see the exact frame sequence that was put on film. This is huge. The XBR4 does another neat trick: in addition to supporting a 120 Hz refresh rate, it will actually interpolate extra frames to give a surreal smoothness to the picture. This is quite useless and distracting for filmed content, but looks phenomenal on some HD TV broadcasts, especially sports.

As for screen size, nothing is too big when you are watching a film, but when the set is off, you don’t want to dwarf the room. 46 inches is, for us, a good middle ground. The XBR4’s attractive floating glass design also helps. Overall, this is an excellent, though not perfect set. The screen is not uniform and will not display a perfectly black background, there is some splotchiness. From time to time, there are picture artifacts, but these are minimal on well-authored content.

Speakers: KEF KHT-3005. These are beautifully designed, great sounding speakers. Not much else to say. The subwoofer, in particular, is a work of art, and has enough power to blast open a steel door, or at least really, really annoy your neighbors.

HT Furniture: BDI Cielo 9324. This piece does a nice job of holding everything in an attractive, not-quite-but-almost-furniture-quality design. But why is the back covered? This makes cabling more of a chore than it needs to be.

Overall thoughts: when you put it all together, it works! BDs look and sound incredible. DVDs run the gamut from almost great quality to rather disappointing. It’s surprising how much variation there is in the quality of DVD authoring. Newer DVD titles tend to be mastered in HD and this makes a big difference. So far, all of the Criterion edition DVDs I’ve viewed are quite good, which is a relief. But is the picture still has a way to go, the sound is about as good as I want to get in a noisy midtown apartment.

Race Day!

Someone on the teevee just said that this is the best day in New York, and I agree! The elite women are now off, and it’s an especially exciting women’s field. Jelena Prokopcuka has the chance to become the first woman since the legendary Grete Waitz to win New York three times in a row. Paula Radcliffe, candidate for all-time-greatest woman marathoner and current world record holder, is back after a two-year break from marathoning after giving birth to a daughter. Paula had a stunning victory in New York following her complete meltdown in the 2004 Olympics, the only marathon she has ever lost. Catherine the great is in the field. My own elite woman is going to start in another 15 minutes–next year, I vow, I’m going to join her.

UPDATE: It seems like Paula, just before the start, turned to the other women and said “see ya!” She’s been dominating from the start and after 7 miles has a 47″ lead on Jelena. Only Gete Wami is with her. If this were anyone other than Paula, you might think it was a bad move. But this is Paula. She’s here to run today, and she is going to win.

UPDATE II: The men ran mile 7 in 4:27. I will never, if I gave my life over to training, run anywhere near a single 4:27 mile, let alone run one and go on to finish a marathon. Incredible. Paula’s nod is back. Apparently, Wami is her nemesis and if she can hang on with Paula to the end, she can definitely out-sprint her. This could be a classic in the making. As the women are nearing Manhattan, I’m off to the course.

UPDATE III: Just saw my hero, Paula, live for the first time. Didn’t see her in 2004 because I was running. Wow. Just wow. Paula is in the park now, and Wami is hanging there right with her. Stunning!

UPDATE IV: PAULA WINS!!! A legendary race! Wami pressed and took the lead for a few yards just before Columbus Circle. And Paula just stomped on her. In 20 feet, she retook the lead and Wami acquiesced.

UPDATE V: Just saw N at mile 16, and she looks good. Where is J, her running partner??? Picked up the traditional celebratory champ on the way to Central Park.

FINAL: N finishes her fifth consecutive NYC marathon in 4:27:39. Bravissima!

Sex Pistols on Ferguson

The performance was as great as the previous night’s gig was lame. Due in large part, no doubt, to the friendlier environment. Lydon is no Leno fan either, apparently, as he revealed in a fun interview alongside a flu-ridden Steve Jones. The band looked good (even Glenn), Lydon was appropriately ridiculous, and fat is the new slim.

Sex Pistols on Leno

Managed to sit through the last 30 minutes of Leno, a personal record, to catch the Pistols. Apparently, the band is back promo-ing their appearance on the latest edition of “Guitar Hero” a video game for kids who would rather not practice pentatonic scales. They ran through “Anarchy in the UK”. Jones flubbed his solo, Lydon couldn’t remember when to interject “In the City!”, so did it three times just to be safe. Cook was fine, and the big news is, Glenn Matlock–the Brian Jones of the Sex Pistols– is back on bass. Matlock, you may recall, always cringed at the forced rhyme of “anti-Christ” and anarchist”. Then again, he washed his feet excessively, so we’re none of us perfect. Lydon did ask “when are we getting out of Iraq?” but was otherwise tame. He had none of the sneering misanthropy evinced in, say, the interview he did way back when with the recently late Tom Snyder. God knows Leno deserves to be on theĀ  receiving end of that sneer more than Snyder ever did.

Hey, they stole my iPod!

The funny thing is, I have been biding my time for many, many months waiting for enough AMEX points to accumulate to pay for a really, really good set of noise-blocking phones. As you all know, the iPod earbuds are criminally, criminally incompetent, not to mention dangerous to use during air travel, since they invite cranking to counter their inherent crapitude. The Bose noise-cancelling headphones are de riguer for frequent flyers of a certain age. But they are, like all Bose products, not all they’re cracked up to be. While I have to admit, the phase-inversion soundwave cancellation is a neat trick, no one who cares about audio integrity would permit all that mucking around with the signal path. Not to mention another severe problem–noise cancelling headphones are designed to block out engine noise, not the wailing baby three rows back, or the inane conversation across the aisle. Shure has a much better approach; very simply, the earphones have noise-blocking foam surrounding them. They are equal parts ear-plug and ear-phone. Somehow, they manage to cram three drivers into that little package: a high-frequency “tweeter” and two low-frequency “woofers”. How do they sound? That’s easy, they sound like all good speakers sound: accurate. Dare I say, worth the 500 bucks. I enjoyed them for a whole week. Now, someone else is enjoying them, along with the iPod they nicked out of my hotel room in St. Louis yesterday. Gotta love that mid-western hospitality!