Network Media Devices Archive

How do I see the state of play with network-based multiroom audio?

Definitive Technologies W-Series multiroom soundbar – an example of one of these network multiroom speakers

Increasingly everyone in the consumer audio-visual industry are releasing multiroom audio platforms that work across a small network to share audio content through your house.

This typically is used as a way for these vendors to “bind” most of their network-capable audio-video products having them serve as an endpoint for music around the house. For some manufacturers, this functionality is seen as a way to differentiate their consumer-electronics product ranges.

Key functions offered by most network-based multiroom audio platforms

Each unit in a network-based multiroom audio platform can be one of many AV device classes. These cam be: a speaker system that plays out the audio content; an adaptor device that plays the audio content through another sound system that has its own amplification and speakers; or a network-capable amplifier that connects to a set of speakers.

The adaptor devices are often promoted as a way to bring an existing hi-fi in to the context of a multiroom audio setup, but you could use computer speakers or a 1980s-era boombox for the same effect. Similarly, network-capable amplifiers may be seen as a way to get existing speakers as part of a multiroom audio setup.

There are different variations on the theme with soundbars that are connected to a TV, or receivers and stereo systems that are capable of acting in their own right as a sound system but can be part of these multiroom setups, or subwoofers that connect to the home network but exist to add some “kick” to the sound played by other speakers in the setup.

These work on the premise of the speakers existing on the same logical network of a “home / small-business” network setup. That is where

  • the network is connected to one router that typically gives it access to Internet service,
  • Wi-Fi wireless segments are set up according to the WPA-Personal (shared passphrase) arrangement
  • members of a network are not isolated and can easily discover each other
  • and you are not using a Web-based login page to use the network.

This Def Tech device is an “on-ramp” digital media adaptor for a network-based multiroom audio setup

The speakers can be set up as members of a logical group that typically represents a room, with the ability to have multiple logical speaker groups on the same logical network. Under normal operation, all speakers of that group play the same audio stream synchronously. As well, the hardware and software works together to avoid jitter and other problems associated with moving synchronous time-dependent audio content across packet-based networks.

Some platforms allow the creation of a multichannel group where a speaker or speakers play a channel of a stereo or multichannel soundmix. Here, you could have one speaker play the left channel of a stereo soundmix while another speaker plays the right channel of that stereo mix. This has led to the creation of surround-sound setups with a soundbar or surround-capable stereo receiver playing the front channels of a surround soundmix while wireless speakers look after the surround channels and low-frequency effects of that mix.

Let’s not forget that some systems have the ability to use certain speakers to handle particular frequency ranges of the audio stream. The obvious case is to bring in a wireless subwoofer to provide that bit of extra bass punch to the music. But it could be to use full-range speaker systems with improved bass response to complement speakers that don’t have that kind of bass response. In this case, the full-range speaker may be allow frequency-level adjustability and you could set things up so that it puts more of its power behind the bass while the other speakers provide stronger localised treble response.

Yamaha R-N402 Natural Sound Network Stereo Receiver press picture courtesy of Yamaha Australia

Yamaha R-N402 Network Stereo Receiver – a MusicCast-based example of a stereo component that cam stream its own sources to a network multiroom system or play content from an online or multiroom source

You can adjust the sound levels for each output device individually or adjust them all as a group, The individual approach can appeal to “party-mode” arrangements where different speakers are in different rooms and is of benefit where you can adjust the sound level on the device itself; but the group approach comes in handy with multiple speakers in one room such as a multichannel setup.

All of these setups use a mobile-platform app supplied by the platform vendor as the control surface. But some of them allow some form of elementary control like programme selection or sound-level adjustment through controls on the device or its remote control. Let’s not forget that an increasing number of these platforms are being supported by interfaces for one or more voice-driven home assistants so you can tell Amazon Alexa to adjust the volume or play a particular source through the system.

Most of these platforms allow a device to have integrated programme sources or input connections for external equipment and stream what’s playing through these sources or inputs through one or more other speakers. The applications put forward include to play the TV sound from a connected TV in the living room through a speaker in the kitchen or to have the music on a CD playing on the stereo system’s CD player coming through a speaker in the bedroom.

A party context for this feature could include connecting an audio adaptor with a line-level input to the DJ’s mixer output in parallel with his PA amplifier and speakers serving the dance-floor area. Then you “extend” the party sound that the DJ creates in to the other rooms using other wireless speakers / audio adaptors based on that same platform with each output device working at a level appropriate to the area each speaker or adaptor-equipped sound system is used in. Here, the multiroom audio setup can make it easy to provide “right-sized” amplification for other areas at the venue.

Denon HEOS wireless speakers

The Denon HEOS multiroom speakers – a typical example of network-based multiroom devices

Increasingly, most of these platforms are being geared towards taking advantage of your home network to reproduce master-grade audio content recorded at the different speakers. Initially this was to cater towards file-based audio content sourced from online “download-to-own” music storefronts who cater to audiophiles but is catering towards high-quality streaming-music services. It also is a way to stream audio content from analogue sources such as your vinyl record collection across your home network without losing sound quality in the process.

The current limitations with these systems

The multiroom-audio platforms are created by the audio-equipment manufacturers or, in some cases, the companies who are behind the hardware chipsets used in these devices. Only one platform, namely DTS PlayFi, is created by a company who isn’t developing particular chipsets or equipment.

Here, this leads effectively to balkanisation of the network-based multiroom audio marketplace where you have to be sure all your equipment is part of one platform for it to work correctly. You may be able to work around this problem through connecting one unit from one platform to another unit belonging to another platform using a line-level, digital or Bluetooth connection, then juggling between two different mobile-platform apps to control the system.

What needs to happen?

As this product function evolves, there needs to be room to improve.

Firstly, there needs to be the ability for one to establish a network-based multiroom setup using devices based on different platforms. This would require creating and maintaining industry-wide standards and specifications under an umbrella “multiroom AV platform” that all the manufacturers can implement, in a similar way to HDMI-CEC equipment control via HDMI. The Wi-Fi Alliance have taken steps towards this by developing Wi-Fi TimeSync as a standards-based approach towards achieving audio synchronisation across Wi-Fi-based devices. Qualcomm is wanting to push the AllPlay

It would also be about identifying and creating multichannel audio setups that can work appropriately. In the case of a stereo setup, this would require the speakers to have the same output level and frequency response for a proper stereo pair. A surround setup would work with speakers that are part of a “pair” in the Front, Surround or Back (7.1 setups) having the same output level and frequency response. To the same extent, it could be about adding a subwoofer to speakers that can only handle the middle and higher frequencies.

Manufacturers also have to underscore whether these systems can work across any network segment types present in a home network including handling networks that are comprised of multiple segments. This can cater to wireless networks implementing either an Ethernet or HomePlug wired backbone, or one of the newer distributed-Wi-Fi networks. A few multiroom audio platforms have achieved this goal through the supply of equipment, typically stereo systems and adaptor devices, that uses Ethernet connectivity as well as Wi-Fi connectivity.

There is also the issue of allowing for network-based multiroom audio setups to have a high number of endpoint devices even on a typical home network. Here it is about how much can be handled across the typical network’s bandwidth especially if the network and devices implement up-to-date high-bandwidth technology.

This is important if one considers implementing one or more multichannel groups or use wireless subwoofers in every group for that bit of extra bass. It also is important where someone may want to run two or more logical groups at once with each logical group running the same or a different local or online content source.

Some manufacturers may determine device limits based on the number of logical groups that can be created. But I would still like to do away with placing an artificial ceiling on how large one can have their multiroom audio setup, with the only limit being the effective bandwidth available to the home network.

Conclusion

The network-based multiroom audio technology is showing some signs of maturity but a lot more effort needs to take place to assure a level playing field for consumers who want to implement such setups.

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What is the new HEIF image file format about?

Apple iPad Pro 9.7 inch press picture courtesy of Apple

An iPhone or iPad running iOS 11 has native support for the HEIF image file format

A new image file format has started to surface over the last few years but it is based on a different approach to storing image files.

This file format, known as the HEIF or High Efficiency Image Format, is designed and managed by the MPEG group who have defined a lot of commonly-used video formats. It is being seen by some as the “still-image version of HEVC” with HEVC being the video codec used for 4K UHDTV video files. But it uses HEVC as the preferred codec for image files and will provide support for newer and better image codecs, including newer codecs offering lossless image compression in a similar vein to what FLAC offers for audio files.

Unlike JPEG and the other image files that have existed before it, HEIF is seen as a “container file” for multiple image and other objects rather than just one image file and some associated metadata. As well, the HEIF file format and the HEVC codec are designed to take advantage of today’s powerful computing hardware integrated in our devices.

The primary rule here for HEIF is that it is a container file format speci

Simple concept view of the HEIF image file format

fically for collections of still images. It is not really about replacing one of the video container file formats like MP4 or MKV which are specifically used primarily for video footage.

What will this mean?

One HEIF file could contain a collection of image files such as “mapping images” to improve image playback in certain situations. It can also contain the images taken during a “burst” shot where the camera takes a rapid sequence of images. This can also apply with image bracketing where you take a sequence of shots at different exposure, focus or other camera settings to identify an ideal image setup or create an advanced composite photograph.

This leads to HEIF dumping GIF as the carrier for animated images that are often provided on the Web. Here, you could use software to identify a sequence of images to be played like a video, including having them repeat in a loop thanks to the addition of in-file metadata. This emulates what the Apple Live Photos function was about with iOS and can allow users to create high-quality animations, cinemagraphs (still photos with a small discreet looping animation) or slide-shows in the one HEIF file.

HEIF uses the same codec associated with 4K UHDTV for digital photos

There is also the ability to store non-image objects like text, audio or video in an HEIF file along with the images which can lead to a lot of things. For example, you could set a smartphone to take a still and short video clip at the same time like with Apple Live Photos or you could have images with text or audio notes. On the other hand, you could attach “stamps”, text and emoji to a series of photos that will be sent as an email or message like what is often done with the “stories” features in some of the social networks. In some ways it could be seen as a way to package vector-graphics images with a “compatibility” or “preview” bitmap image.

The HEIF format will also support non-destructive metadata-based editing where this editing is carried out using metadata that describes rectangular crops or image rotations. This is so you could revise an edit at a later time or obtain another edit from the same master image.

It also leads to the use of “derived images” which are the results of one of these edits or image compositions like an HDR or stitched-together panorama image. These can be generated at the time the file is opened or can be created by the editing or image management software and inserted in the HEIF file with the original images. Such a concept could also extend to the rendering and creation of a video object that is inserted in the HEIF file.

HEIF makes better use of advanced photo options offered by advanced cameras

Here, having a derived image or video inserted in the HEIF file can benefit situations where the playback or server setup doesn’t have enough computing power to create an edit or composition of acceptable quality in an acceptable timeframe. Similarly, it could answer situations where the software used either at the production/editing, serving or playback devices does a superlative job of rendering the edits or compositions.

The file format even provides alternative viewing options for the same resource. For example, a user could see a wide-angle panorama image based on a series of shots as either a wide-aspect-ration image or a looping video sequence representing the camera panning across the scene.

What kind of support exists for the HEIF format?

At the moment, Apple’s iOS 11, tvOS 11 (Apple TV) and MacOS High Sierra provide native support for the HEIF format. The new iPhone and iPad provide hardware-level support for the HEVC codec that is part of this format and the iOS 11 platform along with the iCloud service provides inherent exporting of these images for email and other services not implementing this format.

Microsoft is intending to integrate HEIF in to Windows 10 from the Spring Creators Update onwards. As well, Google is intending to bake it in to the “P” version of Android which is their next feature version of that mobile platform.

As for dedicated devices like digital cameras, TVs and printers; there isn’t any native support for HEIF due to it being a relatively new image format. But most likely this will come about through newer devices or devices acquiring newer software.

Let’s not forget that newer image player and editing / management software that is continually maintained will be able to work with these files. The various online services like Dropbox, Apple iCloud or Facebook are or will be offering differing levels of HEIF image-file support the the evolution of their platform. Depending on the service, this will be to hold the files “as-is” or to export and display them in a “best-case” format.

There will be some compatibility issues with hardware and software that doesn’t support this format. This may be rectified with operating systems, image editing / management software or online services that offer HEIF file-conversion abilities. Such software will need to export particular images or derivative images in an HEIF file as a JPEG image for stills or a GIF, MP4 or QuickTime MOV file for timed sequences, animations and similar material.

In the context of DLNA-based media servers, it may be about a similar approach to an online service where the media server has to be able to export original or derived images from one of these files held on a NAS as a JPEG still image or a GIF or MP4 video file where appropriate.

Conclusion

As the container-based HEIF image format comes on to the scene as the possible replacement for JPEG and GIF image files, it could be about an image file format that shows promise for both the snapshooter or the advanced photographer.

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What is the “hybrid radio” concept all about?

Pure Sensia 200D Connect Internet radio

Pure Sensia 200D Connect Internet radio – a representative of the current trend towards the “hybrid radio” concept

There is some interest in the concept of “hybrid radio” as a possible trend to affect broadcast radio in the online era.

Regular readers of this site will have seen reviews that I have done of Internet radios. These are radios and audio equipment the can pull in audio content via Internet-radio streams and, in most cases, local broadcast radio delivered via FM, AM and/or DAB+ digital radio. This is in addition to access to various online audio services like Pandora or Spotify or DLNA-capable content hosts on your home network.

The Internet-radio streams may be programs only available via the Internet or simulcasts of radio content broadcast in the radio station’s broadcast area using the traditional methods. They are usually selected through a directory like TuneIn Radio, Radioline or vTuner and their appeal has been to allow access to radio content via devices that only have Internet connection like smartphones, or to provide access to “out-of-area” radio content. This latter factor has a strong appeal for expats, language learners or people with a soft spot for a particular city or country including those of us who like a particular radio talent or programme available in that area but not locally.

It is also being augmented through access to podcasts or on-demand audio through the various Internet-radio directories or through online audio services, with most of the broadcasters making their own podcasts or similar content that they produce.

But there are efforts being taken towards improving the user experience for this class of device, especially where a set is capable of receiving content through traditional broadcast radio and the Internet. The typical user experience is to provide Internet radio as its own “band” or “source” on these devices.

The RadioDNS organisation is behind these “hybrid radio” efforts as a way to make the traditional radio become relevant to the Millennial generation who lives by their iPhones. It is also bringing the Internet radio concept towards automotive use, especially in a simplified manner that keeps the driver’s hands on the wheel and eyes on the road as much as possible.

“Single-dial” tuning

One of the goals is to provide a “single dial” approach for locating radio stations. This is where you can see a list of local or overseas broadcasters and the set tunes in to that broadcast using the best method available for that broadcast.

Here, the set would choose the local broadcast medium if its radio tuner determines that the signal is strong enough for reliable reception, otherwise it would choose the Internet stream. It would also take advantage of the “follow this station” functionality in FM-RDS or DAB+ to choose the closest strongest transmitter for that station, something that would be important for national or regional radio networks with many transmitters or local stations that run infill transmitters to cover dead zones in their area..

There will be the ability to search for stations based on certain criteria like location, content genre, or station identifier, a feature that every one of us who uses a DAB/DAB+ digital, RDS-capable FM or Internet radio have benefited from. But this will be augmented by logo-driven browsing where the station’s familiar logo is shown on the set’s display or station logos appear as part of a station list.

The preset-station concept where you have access to your favourite stations at the touch of a button is augmented by the “single-dial” tuning process. Here, each preset-station space, represented by a button or menu list item, would point to a station and when you select that station, the set would choose the best method of receiving it whether broadcast or Internet.

It could then lead towards the idea of grouping radio station presets in order to suit particular users’ station preferences or occasion-based station lists. An example that comes to my mind where this feature would earn its keep is a close friend of mine who had regularly looked after some school children through the school holidays.

Here, the friend personally liked serious radio content like classical music or talk radio from the public-service radio stations. But when these children travelled with her, they listened to the local commercial (private) FM stations that ran pop music because they listened to these broadcasters when they are at home or in the car with their parents. In this situation, it could be feasible to allocate one preset group to the serious radio content and another to the popular-music stations, then call up this group when the children are travelling with the driver.

Such a feature will be considered highly relevant for automotive and portable receivers because these sets are more likely to move between different reception conditions. As well, it leads towards broadcasting and programming approaches that are totally independent of the medium that is being used to carry the broadcast programme.

A rich radio-listening experience

Once you are listening to your favourite programme, the “hybrid radio” experience will be about augmenting what you are listening to.

A news broadcast could be supplied with a written summary of the key items in that bulletin. Similarly, a weather report could benefit from visual information like a map or a chart that shows what the weather will be like over a time period. Even traffic reports could be augmented with maps that show where the traffic jams or closed-off roads are, giving you a fair idea of where possible rat-runs could be taken.

Talkback and other deep-reporting shows could benefit from links to online resources that are relevant to what is being talked about.  It could even be feasible to “throw” contact details like hotline numbers or studio lines to one’s smartphone using one or more methods like a QR code shown on the set’s display.

Let’s not forget that the “hybrid radio” concept can also be about gaining access to these kind of shows in an “on-demand” manner similar to podcasts. This could even allow a person who heard one of these shows to set things up so that future episodes of the show can be saved locally for listening at one’s convenience. If the station primarily syndicates this content from other producers like podcasters or content-producing organisations for their own broadcast, they could then use the “hybrid radio” arrangement to allow listeners to find the shows as on-demand material.

For music radio programmes, there would be the ability to show the details about the song or piece of music currently playing. Some vendors could take this further by implementing a Shazam-style “buy this” option for the current track in conjunction with one or more “download-to-own” music stores, or to replay the song through an “online jukebox” like Spotify.

There is the ability for advertising-driven radio stations to allow their advertisers and sponsors to offer more than the 30-second radio commercial. Here, they could provide weblinks to the advertiser’s online resources so listeners can act on the advertised offers. This can also extend to online couponing or the ability to book one’s place at a concert or music festival that an artist whose song is currently playing is performing at.

Conclusion

The “hybrid radio” concept could be about simplifying access to radio broadcasts in a media-independent manner then allowing listeners to get the best value out of them.

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Marantz answers Yamaha with a network CD player of their own

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Marantz ND-8006 network CD player press picture courtesy of Qualifi Pty. Ltd

Marantz’s higher-grade answer to Yamaha’s network CD players in the form of the ND-8006

Marantz UK

ND8006 Network CD Player

Product Page

My Comments

Previously, Yamaha identified a product class in the form of a full-width network CD player which can either play CDs on its own CD transport or network and Internet sources obtained via your home network.

This product has filled a market niche with people with a hi-fi system equipped with an amplifier or receiver that doesn’t have enough line-level inputs for a network media player and a regular CD player. As well, these CD players can allow a person who is upgrading or replacing a CD player to benefit from the extra network-audio-playback functionality by simply swapping out one device.

It was very similar to what had happened in the MiniDisc era of the late 1990s where Sony, Sharp, JVC, Marantz and others offered a CD/MiniDisc deck as part of their product lineup.. Here, these full-width units housed a single-disc or multi-disc CD player and an MD deck in the same housing and you could simply hook these units up to your amplifier’s or receiver’s tape loop for CD or MiniDisc playback or to record to the MiniDiscs. In some cases, I saw these units as effectively “modernising” old stereo equipment by allowing you to add CD and MD functionality in one action. They also appealed to music playout setups for churches, theatres and the like due to being able to occupy one input on the mixing desk for a regular CD or a MiniDisc which appealed for having pre-recorded material “ready to play”.

As well, it was also similar to the popular DVD/VHS combos where these units were a single box that only took up one input on your TV to be able to play DVDs or VHS videocassettes. In a lot of situations through the late 90s and early 2000s, these machines became the preferred way to add access to the new DVDs and the old videotapes when it was time to set up new TV equipment or replace a broken-down video recorder.

Subsequently Yamaha offered a follow-up model to the CD-N500 network CD player in the form of the CD-N301 which omitted USB connectivity but was “Wi-Fi ready”. It was also offered in the black finish as an alternative to the traditional silver finish to complement hi-fi setups that mostly have black-finished equipment.

This year, Marantz have answered Yamaha by offering a high-quality network CD player as part of this year’s hi-fi product lineup. It was as though they were following on the legacy of their CD/MD decks, especially the CM-6200. The ND-8006 offers the high-quality CD playback that Marantz is known for and this applies to regular CDs as well as file-based CDs full of MP3 or WMA audio files. There is also the ability to play from USB Mass-Storage devices with this unit handling all the common audio file types including FLAC.

But it can connect to your home network via Wi-Fi or Ethernet technology and uses this connection for a variety of applications. This includes access to Spotify, Amazon Music, TiDAL and Deezer “online jukeboxes”, and Internet radio via TuneIn Radio in the context of online audio services. You can stream audio content from your Apple devices or iTunes using AirPlay; but can play content held on your DLNA-capable NAS or media server. The Spotify functionality even supports Spotify Connect playback where a Spotify program tied to a Spotify Premium account can effectively become a controller with the music emanating from the Marantz network CD player.

There is some level of functionality as far as the Denon-Marantz HEOS multiroom system is concerned. At least you could set things up to stream a network or online source across multiple HEOS-capable speakers or amplifiers existing on your home network including the amplifier or speakers this CD player is connected to.

Marantz ND-8006 network CD player - rear panel - press picture courtesy of Qualifi Pty. Ltd.

Very comprehensive level of connectivity shown on the back panel

You can use the Marantz ND-8006 network CD player as a high-quality digital-analogue converter for SPDIF PCM sources connected via Toslink optical or RCA coaxial inputs, which would come in handy with a smart TV, set-top box, DVD/Blu-ray player or MiniDisc deck. Or it could serve as a “virtual sound card” for your computer thanks to a USB Type-B input. There is even the ability for this CD player to stream audio content from your Bluetooth-capable smartphone or other device.

The Marantz ND-8006 network CD player is another example of the hi-fi digital-audio equipment where the manufacturer has invested heavily in the playback sound path in both the digital and analogue domains. The digital-filtering job is looked after by the “Marantz Musical Digital Filtering” circuit which was a home-designed circuit optimised for music quality. Then the digital-analouge conversion job is looked after by a ESS9016 Sabre digital-analogue converter circuit.

Let’s not forget that this network CD player can play “master-grade” digital audio files from USB storage or your home network’s DLNA-capable NAS. It also includes the ability to enqueue any of these files for subsequent play when the current one is finished, similar to building up an “Active Queue List” on some MP3 players. It can also convert “master-grade” digital audio presented over an SPDIF digital audio link.

As far as connecting to your equipment is concerned, you have a fixed-level analogue line output along with a variable-level analogue line output. Marantz even suggested using the variable output as a “pre-out” for connecting directly to active speakers (think Bose Acoustimass or B&O Beolab speakers for example) or a power amplifier. There is also SPDIF digital outputs in coaxial and optical form for connecting to a home theatre receiver, digital-analogue converter or digital amplifier based primarily around discrete componentry.

There has also been some investment in the headphone amplifier which caters for those of us who use high-quality headphones for private listening. Like most other full-width hi-fi equipment, this will require the headphones to be equipped with the traditional 6.35mm stereo phone plug.

Although the Marantz ND-8006 network CD player has a price within “premium-equipment” territory, it is more about being able to answer this product class at the premium level. What would need to happen to build out the network CD player as a product class would be to have other value-priced hi-fi names offer these products as part of their lineup.

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TVs to work with Google Home and Amazon Alexa

Articles

LG’s 2018 TVs get faster and smarter with Google Assistant, Alexa | Engadget

LG 2018 TVs tap Google Assistant, Alexa for voice control | CNet

NVIDIA Shield to support Google Assistant | CNet (Video – Click or tap to play)

My Comments

A trend that is appearing for this year is to see Smart TVs equipped with the ability to work with Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. In this case, there will be a microphone integrated in the remote control or the TV set and Google Assistant will reply through the TV’s speakers. The Amazon Alexa Skill that some manufacturers will offer will have access to some but not all of the TV’s functionality through your Amazon Echo or Alexa-compatible device.

Initially Sony had rolled out an Android TV software update to enable Google Assistant to work on their Android-based Smart TVs, while they have an Amazon Alexa Skill in beta-testing.

Now LG are building in Google Assistant in to their webOS Smart TVs which will have access to the EPG as well as functions essential to watching TV. It will also have the same control path as Google Home when it comes to controlling your smart-home devices and if you run a Google Home smart speaker, you could ask Google Assistant to do things like turn on the TV or change channels without needing the TV’s remote. They are also offering an Amazon Alexa Skill for those of you using Amazon Echo but this will provide a limited level of control over your LG TV.

NVIDIA has answered the TV-ownership reality that TV sets aren’t necessarily disposable by rolling out the Google Assistant to their Shield Android TV games console. Here, you can add Google Home control to your existing TV along with the ability to ask questions of Google Assistant. This is facilitated with integral microphones in its game controllers and remote control and Google Assistant replies through the connected TV’s speakers.

This highlights the market reality that TVs and video peripherals will be required to work with one or more of the voice-driven home assistants whether as an endpoint or as a function set added on to the home-assistant platform.

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Video peripherals increasingly offering audio-output abilities

Article

XBox One games console press image courtesy Microsoft

Newer iterations of the XBox One to have connectivity for WISA-compliant speakers

Wireless speaker support could be coming to Xbox One consoles | Windows Central

My Comments

An increasing trend for video-peripheral devices like set-top boxes and games consoles is to offer an ability to connect speakers or headphones directly to these devices even though these devices are normally seen as video source devices. This goes against the conventional wisdom of a TV, soundbar and / or home-theatre receiver serving as the audio destination device for a home AV setup.

DLNA media directory provided by server PC

But what of Smart TVs being able to pass audio to these devices?

For example, Humax are offering a Bluetooth A2DP audio output on their premium PVRs so that the soundtrack from whatever you are watching on the PVR’s “current” tuner or hard disk can be fed through a Bluetooth headset or speaker. Just lately, Microsoft partnered up with the WISA Association to provide wireless-speaker output through WISA-compliant speakers from subsequent XBox games-console designs.

Let’s not forget that some soundbars and audio amplifiers are equipped with one HDMI-ARC connection for the TV and don’t add a video source to the home AV setup. The same situation also encompasses a large number of popularly-priced DVD and Blu-Ray home-theatre systems that only have one HDMI-ARC connection for the host TV as the only way to connect video equipment to these systems.

The limitation that is being shown up here is that you can’t stream the soundtrack of video content through the speakers or headphones connected through these devices’ Bluetooth or wireless-speaker outputs unless you are viewing the content hosted by the device itself. Or you may find it difficult to watch what you want yet hear it in the manner that suits the situation such as via headphones or a better speaker setup.

This is very similar to the old practice of connecting a video recorder’s audio output to a hi-fi amplifier to pipe the sound from either a TV broadcast or a videotape through the better-sounding hi-fi speakers.  There were even some video recorders that had their own headphone amplifiers or users simply connected them to hi-fi amplifiers or similar devices with integrated headphone outputs in order to add private or late-night listening abilities to that TV which wasn’t equipped with a headphone output. In that case, you only had access to the video recorder’s tuner or its tape transport through the hi-fi system with the video recorder offering some advantages over what was integrated in that old TV.

It may not be seen as a limitation except if a video peripheral connected to the TV or the TV’s own abilities provide content different to what is available in the “speaker-ability”-equipped video peripheral.

But what can be done to improve upon this reality would be for TV and video-peripheral manufacturers to answer this trend in an improved way.

Use of HDMI-ARC input functionality for host-TV audio

One way would be for the video-peripheral vendors who provide this kind of Bluetooth / WISA or similar “speaker output” ability to implement HDMI-ARC connectivity on their device’s HDMI output socket. It is very similar to the approach used by a popularly-priced DVD or Blu-Ray home-theatre system which only has one HDMI socket,

This means that if the device is connected to the ARC-capable HDMI socket on the TV, it can stream the sound from the TV’s own tuner, “connected-TV” functionality or video peripherals connected to the other HDMI inputs on the TV through this device’s “speaker output”.

Here, you may have to use the device’s controller to select “TV audio” to hear the sound associated with the TV’s sources through the Bluetooth speaker for example. But some TVs that implement this system properly may offer an “audio output” option on the audio menu so you can direct the sound to the audio-capable device by selecting that device rather than the TV’s internal speakers.

The TV to support multiple HDMI-ARC video peripherals

A TV could also implement HDMI-ARC across multiple HDMI sockets to cater for multiple video peripherals that support this functionality. It would come in to its own where different video peripherals use different connection methods for audio devices or you use a soundbar or home theatre setup equipped with a single HDMI connection alongside one of these video peripherals.

Here, you would have the ability to direct the sound to one or more of the HDMI-ARC devices instead of or in addition to the integral speakers.

The first application that one may think of would be to provide late-night private listening using a pair of Bluetooth headphones connected to a cable box, or to switch to WISA-capable speakers connected to a newer XBOX rather than hear the sound through the TV’s speakers. On the other hand, the setup could allow the concurrent operation of multiple audio outputs such as to use a Bluetooth headset connected via a cable box and run at an independent volume level for someone who is hard of hearing while everyone else in the room hears the TV content through the TV’s or home-theatre’s speakers.

In both situations, it would be desirable to hear whatever source is connected to the TV such as a Blu-Ray player or a network media player through the Bluetooth headphones connected via the Bluetooth-capable cable TV box.

How should the digital audio be delivered?

A question that can be raised is how the digital audio is to be delivered to the different HDMI-ARC devices.

This can affect whether to run a stereo or surround soundmix for the content’s soundtrack; whether the soundtrack should be delivered as a Dolby Digital / DTS bitstream that the HDMI-ARC audio device decodes or as a PCM bitstream already decoded by the TV or source video peripheral; or simply whether to stay within the “CD/DAT-quality” digital parameters (16 bit 44.1kHz or 48kHz sampling rate) or allow “master-grade” digital parameters (24 bit 96kHz or 192kHz sampling rate).

This situation may be determined by the destination audio device’s abilities such as whether it can decode Dolby Digital or DTS audio or if it can handle digital audio at “master-grade” bitrates. Similarly, it may also be about achieving a common specification for all of the connected devices, including whether and how to concurrently provide multiple audio streams for the same content such as to offer a two-channel soundmix and a multichannel soundmix.

This can lead to situations like supplying multiple soundmixes of a kind via HDMI-ARC in order to make situations like multilingual audio, audio description or selectable commentary work well for different viewers. Similarly, it could be feasible to offer a “surround via headphones” binaural soundmix like Dolby Headphone to Bluetooth headsets connected to a cable box while offering a full surround soundmix through a multiple-speaker home theatre setup.

Conclusion

What will eventually be raised is what can be achieved at a common baseline specification, including issues of processing power and HDMI bandwidth that the setup can handle. This is especially if a device like a games console or set-top box is working as a content source and audio sink while the TV works as an audio “hub”.

It is more so where we are expecting that flat-screen TV, especially one installed in a secondary lounge area, being required to become an AV hub for all of the video peripherals that are connected to it.

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Yamaha’s network-capable stereo receivers can play legacy sources through MusicCast network speakers

Articles – From the horse’s mouth

Yamaha R-N402 Natural Sound Network Stereo Receiver press picture courtesy of Yamaha Australia

Yamaha R-N402 Network Stereo Receiver – can even stream audio from sources connected to it into Yamaha MusicCast speakers

Yamaha

R-N602 Natural Sound Network Receiver (Product Page)

80W / channel 8 ohms 0.04% THD 20Hz-20kHz

(Analogue Inputs: 1 phono, 2 line-level, 2 tape loops; PCM Digital Inputs: 2 Coaxial, 2 Optical)

R-N402 Natural Sound Network Receiver (Product Page)

100W / channel 8 ohms 0.2% THD 40Hz-20kHz

(Analogue Inputs: 3 line-level, 1 tape loop; PCM Digital Inputs: 1 Coaxial, 1 Optical)

R-N303D Natural Sound Network Receiver (Product Page)

100W / channel 8 ohms 0.2% THD 40Hz-20kHz

Analogue Inputs: 3 line-level, 1 tape loop; PCM Digital Inputs: 1 Coaxial, 1 Optical

DAB+ tuner

My Comments

Previously, I had touched on the issue of availability of “full-width” network-capable stereo receivers that have the same expectations as the traditional hi-fi receiver that has been seen as the heart of many hi-fi systems. This was when I had called out the Onkyo TX-8050 network stereo receiver and the Yamaha R-N301 network stereo receiver.

Here I was focusing on people who value the idea of creating a hi-fi system that is about playing music rather than a home-theatre setup that is about showing what Hollywood has to offer. Situations that I think of include creating a formal lounge area where you want to focus your activity on entertaining guests, reading and playing or listening to music; or simply maintaining a separate home-entertainment system optimised for playing music.

Yamaha are still pushing through with stereo receivers that can connect to your home network. The latest examples are underscored with the R-N602, R-N402 and R-N303D Natural Sound Network Receivers which integrate the concept of the stereo receiver with the home network and multiroom audio thanks to the latest iteration of the Yamaha MusicCast network audio technology.

This technology that Yamaha implements in these receivers isn’t interlinked with any overarching multiroom network-audio standard adopted by many manufacturers. But they can also work with network audio sources like DLNA-capable media servers including NAS units, or online sources like Spotify or Pandora. Those of you who use an Apple device running iOS or a recent iteration of MacOS can also use these Yamaha receivers for your device’s audio output.

One of the features I am calling out is the ability to stream audio from a source device connected to these receivers to other Yamaha MusicCast devices. For example, in the case of the R-N602, you could start a record playing on the turntable connected to this receiver in the formal lounge room. Then you use the Yamaha MusicCast Controller app on your iOS or Android smartphone to hear that record through the Yamaha PLUS (WX-030) speaker in the kitchen.

Similarly, these receivers are implementing Bluetooth not just as a source but as an alternate output. For example, one could hear a local radio broadcast on the receiver’s integrated tuner through their Bluetooth headphones without the need to worry about the length of their headphone cord thanks to this functionality.

The Yamaha R-N602 does cater very well for legacy media by providing an integrated phono stage for a turntable equipped with a moving-magnet cartridge, as well as two tape loops which can come in handy if you still record to tapes or other media, including using a computer to archive old recordings. But the Yamaha R-N402 and R-N303D has its analogue inputs being line-level only with one tape loop.

At least Yamaha haven’t forgotten about the network-capable stereo receiver as a product class for devices that serve as a hi-fi system’s hub. Instead, they have made sure that there is a range of equipment that suits different needs and budgets, allowing us to consider how to build out that music system as we want.

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Companies now to support multiple voice-driven home assistants

Articles

Harman now has smart speakers for Alexa, Cortana and Google Assistant | Engadget

The Sonos smart speaker with microphone hits the FCC | The Verge

Sonos to announce new smart speaker on October 4th | The Verge

From the horse’s mouth

Harman

WHEN VOICE MEETS SOUND (Press Release)

Introducing JBL® LINK Series: Immersive JBL Sound Now Available with the Google Assistant (Press Release)

HARMAN introduces Harman Kardon Allure with Amazon Alexa to the Voice Activated Speaker Family (Press Release)

My Comments

Harman Allure smart speaker press image courtesy of Harman

Harman Allure smart speaker powered by Amazon Alexa

The Internationaler Funkaustellung trade show has been and gone but this time more manufacturers were premiering smart-speaker products based on either the Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant platforms.

One of these is the Sony LF-S50G speaker that looks like Apple’s Siri-based HomePod smart speaker but has an integrated display while Panasonic were also launching the GA10 which is a box-like smart speaker. Both of these speakers work with Google Assistant.

But a few companies have put their feet in multiple ponds by supporting two or more platforms. One way is to offer different models or product ranges that are based on different platforms. The other is to attempt to have the one smart speaker able to be set up to work on one of many platforms that the user chooses.

JBL Link smart speaker range press picture courtesy of Harman

JBL Link smart speaker range powered by Google Assistant

The former approach has been taken by Harman who have multiple names of respect in the hi-fi, sound-recording, PA and allied industries under their wings. Initially, they offered the Invoke smart speaker that is based on the Microsoft Cortana platform. Now the premiered the JBL Link range of smart speakers that work on the Google Assistant platform as well as offering the Harman-Kardon Allure smart speaker that is based on the Amazon Alexa platform.

Pioneer and Onkyo recently underwent a “Renault-Nissan” merger of their home audio and AV businesses and offered a few smart speaker models based on the different platforms. Here, Pioneer premiered the Smart Speaker F4 which is based on the Amazon Alexa platform while Onkyo launched the Smart Speaker G3 based on the Google Assistant platform while maintaining the Alexa-based VC-FLX1 smart speaker that was launched at CES 2017.

The latter approach has been taken by Sonos with their S13 prototype smart speaker that is intended to be released on October 4. Here, they put forward the idea of having the user to have this speaker work with Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant rather than being stuck with one platform. It is seen as a premium-level attack at the Apple HomePod which will be based on Siri.

The approach of a manufacturer supporting different voice-driven-assistant platforms like Alexa or Google Assistant in different product ranges may appeal to companies who see one of the platforms offer a particular premium-level cachet which can tie in with their premium product ranges. This is while a popular platform like Alexa or Google Assistant could end up being focused on to popularly-targeted products.

Compare this with the idea of having multiple platforms supported by the same smart-speaker or similar device. Here, it can appeal to TVs, hi-fi / home-theatre components and allied devices that are expected by customers to run for the long haul or with premium network speaker products.

Either trend could be support by many different manufacturers while the devices that you interact with for these platforms could end up being more than just the cylindrical benchtop speakers.

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Multiroom to be another common feature for smart speakers

Article

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

Amazon Echo – to become another online multiroom audio system

Amazon Echo multiroom audio not far off, report says | CNet

My Comments

A feature that is showing up with the “smart speakers” that are part of the various voice-driven home assistant platforms is the ability for multiple speakers of the same platform to work as a multiroom system. This is where the same content source can be played through multiple speakers of that same platform, including the ability to have multiple speakers or audio devices in a logical group representing, perhaps, a floor or an area of the house. This functionality is taking on the audio-content playback abilities like Spotify, TuneIn Radio, Tidal and others offered by the various voice-driven home assistant platforms

Google Home – already a multiroom audio system as well as a smart speaker

Google has already established it with their Home speakers and Chromecast-based audio connectivity devices. But Alexa are intending to join in by allowing you to play the same content source through multiple Echo speakers and to treat a group of speakers as a logical unit. Let’s not forget that while the market’s competitive, Apple and Microsoft won’t want to miss out on the idea of multiroom audio as part of their voice-activated home assistant platforms.

Similarly, Amazon have aligned their Alexa platform with DTS’s PlayFi multiroom audio platform which is pitched at the premium hi-fi market. They have a large number of the hi-fi names with them and are wanting to integrate full Alexa voice functionality in to their speakers and other audio devices.

There may be some feature possibilities that may end up in the product evolution for these smart-speaker platforms. One of these could be to set one or more pairs of speakers up as stereo pairs which can yield the improved separation when you listen to stereo content. Similarly, there could be the idea of creating a multiple-microphone array out of a group of speakers to make it easier for the voice-driven home assistant to understand you.

Who knows how hot the competition for the voice-driven home assistant that talks to you is going to be and whether this will mimic the home videocassette format wars of the early 80s?

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An Internet-connected laptop could replace the link van for location broadcasting

Article

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop

A laptop of the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming class could end up as today’s equivalent of an outside-broadcast link truck if the BBC has its way

BBC livestreaming Edinburgh festival from a laptop | CNet

From the horse’s mouth

BBC

IP Studio whitepaper

My Comments

If you watch news, sports, live concerts or similar content on TV, you will be seeing location broadcasting at work as they bring that footage to your screen.

Typically, a location broadcast that any TV studio does either required the use of video recordings that were transported to the studio before broadcast. Or they relied on a “link truck” which is a vehicle equipped with an antenna that beamed the location signal back to the studio using a microwave link if the idea is to allow the studio access to real-time vision. Some regular venues that are regular sources of content may implement a wired connection facilitated by a leased line between that venue and the studio.

Such setups have been limited by the amount of time required to locate the link truck and establish these radio links. This can also be limited through factors like weather or making sure of a line-of-sight connection to the studio’s link tower.

But the Internet and the size of computer technology has opened up the possibility of a laptop of the same or better calibre as the Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming I recently reviewed connected to a high-bandwidth Internet connection as an alternative to the traditional location broadcast setup, especially for shows directly streamed to the Internet. The technology which is called IP Studio is part of an effort that Auntie Beeb is taking towards implementing IP technology for TV-show production. In this context, it is about being able to use a mobile wireless network to interconnect the cameras to the laptops for location broadcasting.

Here, they are using the Edinburgh Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival to prove a setup based around laptops that are uplinking to the Internet via the same kind of technology used for Internet service. The editing software that is being used is primarily a Web-app which works in the browser rather than a standalone app. But it could allow for the link-van approach where a laptop is used to upload the edited vision to the broadcaster’s studio to be inserted in to the program.

Once it is proven, the BBC’s IP Studio technology which is based primarily on open-source tools, could be seen as beneficial for all sorts of broadcasters who want to save money and set-up / tear-down time on and see increased flexibility with their location work. For example, news-gathering teams could be able to set up and “go live” on that breaking event or press conference with a very short lead-time.

The same technology could open up affordable location-broadcasting technology to community broadcasters and specific-event Webcasters who place importance on cost-effective setups. Even organisations who have video-editing talent in their staff or volunteer collection could see this technology appeal to them.

What this is showing is that the Internet and cost-effective computer design is making big-time broadcasting and production technology more affordable.

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