Category: Network Media Devices

Qobuz now in Australasia

Qobuz logo courtesy of QobuzArticle

Hi-fi music streaming service Qobuz launches in Australia (themusicnetwork.com)

Qobuz hi-res audio streaming service lands in Australia and New Zealand | TechRadar

From the horse’s mouth

Qobuz

Qobuz launches high-resolution streaming and download platform in Australia, New Zealand, and Northern Europe | Press Room

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My Comments

Qobuz is a music service that was founded in France in 2007. This service offers sobscription-based music streaming and transactional download-to-own music purchasing but offers these services with Hi-Fi-grade sound. It had existed in Europe for a long time and since 2020, Australians and New Zealanders can use this service to stream or purchase high-quality music.

Here, the music is available using lossless streaming and file formats with CD-quality audio as a baseline and the option for master-grade audio. There is also the ability to download a PDF copy of the album’s liner notes which typically will have lyrics for an album’s songs or a biography and discography in the case of a artist-specific compilation.

The Studio Premium subscription costs AUD$24.99 per month or AUD$229.99 per year which offers up to “master-grade” streaming quality. There is also a more expensive Studio Sublime+ subscription tier costing AUD$299.99 per year which gives you a discounts for “download-to-own” music tracks that you purchase.

There are native clients for Windows, Mac OS, Android and iOS along with the ability to interact with Qobuz through the Web. The Android and iOS apps allow streaming of Qobuz audio through the Apple AirPlay or Google Cast (Chromecast) to endpoint devices compatible with these protocols. Issues that were raised include the desktop apps for Windows and Mac OS regular computers not being available through the operating systems’ native app stores. This may be of issue where the app stores are preferred by some users as a software update path.

Naim Uniti Atom and Uniti Core

Qobuz can work with Naim equipment

As far as other devices are concerned, there is support for Sonos speakers and some network-capable hi-fi equipment, usually some of the premium hi-fi brands like Sony, Yamaha, Linn or Naim. But none of the popular games consoles, smart speakers or smart TVs don’t support Qobuz yet in a native manner.

But the omission of synchronous lyrics or music videos on Qobuz is more about focusing this service to music listening.  This is similar to how most of us would be listening to our music whether on packaged media like vinyl or CD; or as file-based audio and we either want it in the background or to concentrate on the actual music.

There will still be calls for interlinking Qobuz, Deezer and Tidal with music-recognition services or the Shazam or Soundhound kind so people who hear songs on the radio for example can bring them up on these high-quality services. Similarly, there will be the need to make curated playlists available across multiple platforms through the use of a standard datatype and export / import abilities.

At least Qobuz is coming to the fore as a high-quality file-based audio service that offers both a subscription-based streaming approach and a transactional download-to-own approach for your music.

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How could CD-quality lossless audio be marketed when it comes to streaming

Sony MAP-S1 network CD receiver

A strong direction for music streaming services is to offer CD-quality sound for all of their library at least

Apple, Amazon and Spotify are lining up or have lined up hi-fi-grade service tiers as part of their audio-streaming services. It is in response to Tidal and Deezer already offering this kind of sound quality for a long time along with the fear of other boutique audio-streaming services setting up shop and focusing on high-quality audio.

Now there is something interesting happening here regarding hi-fi-grade streaming. Here, Apple is having a CD-grade lossless-audio service as part of their standard premium subscription while making sure all music available to their Apple Music streaming service is CD-quality.

So how could these streaming music services compete effectively yet serve those of us who value high quality sound from those online music jukebox services that we use?

What are these hi-fi-grade digital audio services about?

Spotify Windows 10 Store port

This will be something that is expected of Spotify at least

The hi-fi-grade service tiers typically offer a sound quality similar to that of a standard audio CD that you are playing on your CD player, with the same digital-audio specifications i.e. 44.1 kHz sampling rate and 16-bit samples representing stereo sound. Some of these services may offer some content at 48 kHz sampling rate that was specified for the original DAT audio tapes and may be used as a workflow standard for digital radio and TV.

In the same way that a regular audio CD stores the audio content in the original uncompressed PCM form, these hi-fi-grade streaming services use a lossless data-compression form similar to the FLAC audio filetype to transmit the sound while preserving the sound quality. That is equivalent to how a ZIP “file-of-files” works in compressing and binding together data from multiple files.

CD-grade digital audio was adopted during the late 1980s as the benchmark for high-quality sound reproduction in the consumer space. As well, the DAT tapes that recorded 16-bit PCM audio at 44.1 or 48 kHz sampling rates were considered the two-channel recording standard for project studios and similar professional audio content-creation workflows. It is although MiniDisc which used a lossy audio codec caught on in the UK and Japan for personal audio applications.

Some of these services offer extras like surround-sound or object-based audio soundmixes or supply the audio at “master-grade” specifications like 96 or 192 kHz sampling rates or 24 or more bits per sample. But these are best enjoyed on equipment that would properly reproduce the sound held therein to expectations. This is while most good audio equipment engineered since the 1970s was engineered to work capably with the audio CD as its pinnacle.

The provision of these hi-fi-grade services is having appeal thanks to telcos and ISPs offering increased bandwidth and data allowances for fixed and mobile broadband Internet services. This is more so in markets where there is increased competition for the customer’s fixed or mobile Internet service dollar.

As well, there is a highly-competitive market war going on between Bose, Apple and Sony at least for high-quality active-noise-cancelling Bluetooth headsets with the possibility of other headset manufacturers joining in this market war. This is something very close to the late-1970s Receiver Wars where hi-fi companies were vying with each other for the best hi-fi stereo receivers for one’s hi-fi system and increasing value for money in that product class.

Here, a streaming music service that befits these high-quality in-ear or over-the-head headsets could show what they are capable of when it comes to sound reproduction while on the road.

Let’s not forget that Apple and others are working on power-efficient hi-fi-grade digital-analogue-converter circuitry for laptops, tablets, smartphones and other portable audio endpoint devices. Then hi-fi-grade digital-analogue-conversion circuitry that connects to USB or Apple devices is being offered by nearly every hi-fi name under the sun whether as a separate box or as part of the functionality set that a hi-fi component or stereo system would offer.

Current limitations with enjoying hi-fi-grade audio on the move

There are limitations with this kind of service offering, especially with the use of Bluetooth Classic streaming to headphones or automotive infotainment setups from mobile devices. At the moment, it is being preferred that a wired connection, whether via a traditional analogue headphone cable or via an external digital-analogue converter box, is used to run the sound to a pair of good-quality headphones while “on the road”.

Similarly, Apple’s and Google’s smartphone-automotive-integration platforms need to be able to support use of these hi-fi-grade audio services properly so you can benefit from this class of sound when you are at the wheel of your car.

What could be done?

One step that can be taken by many music-streaming services is to create a service-level distinction between CD-quality stereo lossless audio service and create a higher-grade extra-cost audio services that focus on “master-grade” or multichannel soundmixes.  Here, most of us like our music in stereo sound and see CD quality sound as the pinnacle with equipment engineered to that calibre. This is while the esoteric audiophiles would invest in equipment and services that can handle master-grade audio or multichannel soundmixes.

The music services could them move towards offering the CD-quality stereo lossless sound as the audio quality for the standard paid service subscription. That includes moving the service’s music library towards that kind of quality. The user would need to have the ability to enable and disable the CD-quality lossless stereo sound on a device-by-device basis perhaps to cater for smartphone use or limited bandwidth.

Where a music service offers transactional “download-to-own” music, the recordings could be offered at CD quality stereo as lossless files. There could be the ability to provide a complementary download of previously-purchased material as the CD-quality stereo lossless files.

At the moment, there are a number of open-frame and proprietary paths that are able to use a home network to transmit CD-quality or master-quality lossless digital audio from a computing device or streaming audio service to audio endpoint devices within the home. But there needs to be more done to support mobile and portable setups where one is likely to hear audio files while out and about.

The Bluetooth SIG could investigate how CD-quality lossless audio can be sent wirelessly between devices using the various audio profiles that they oversee. This is more so as Bluetooth is used primarily to send multimedia audio from a smartphone or tablet to speakers, headphones or home and car audio equipment. Here, it could be based on their Bluetooth LE Audio specification which is being used to revise the Bluetooth multimedia audio use case effectively.

Similarly, the use of USB-C as a “digital audio path” from a computing device to an audio-output device needs to be encouraged. This would come in to its own with connecting to audio devices or systems that have highly-strung digital-analogue conversion circuitry which can come in to its own with high-quality audio streaming services.

In the automotive context, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto which are used to provide integrated smartphone-dashboard functionality could be improved to provide lossless audio transfer between the smartphone and the car’s infotainment system. This may be valued as a differentiator that can be applied to premium car-audio setups.

Once there are a list of standard protocols adopted for streaming lossless hi-fi grade stereo sound to headsets and automotive setups and that support wired and wireless connectivity, this could make proper CD-quality stereo sound more relevant on the road.

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IKEA’s latest Symfonisk speaker is in the form of wall-art

IKEA SYMFONISK picture-frame speaker press image courtesy of IKEA

IKEA’s latest SYMFONISK speaker – as a piece of wall art or on the table

Articles

IKEA and Sonos built a speaker into a piece of wall art | Engadget

Ikea and Sonos’ new $199 picture frame speaker goes on sale July 15 – CNET

From the horse’s mouth

IKEA

IKEA introduces new SYMFONISK picture frame WiFi speaker (Press Release)

My Comments

IKEA have added another speaker to their Sonos-based SYMFONISK multi-room speaker lineup, continuing their idea of an affordable path to the Sonos network multi-room audio platform. These work in the same way as Sonos speakers and you can establish a Sonos-based multi-room audio setup based on a mix of Sonos or IKEA SYMFONISK speakers and use your home network’s Wi-Fi segment to transmit the sound.

The previous SYMFONISK speakers came in the form of a traditional bookshelf speaker and a table lamp. But this latest product has been described as appearing in the form of a picture frame but you have to use IKEA’s decorative art panels for these speakers. Here, it is more about the front of these speakers serving as the speaker grille that allows the sound to come out.

These speakers are able to be mounted on a wall or can stand on a table. But the framework and legs that allows them to stand on a table is designed to allow them to reproduce sound without adding extra vibration or noise to that sound as what is expected for a speaker enclosure.

There are hardware buttons on the IKEA SYMFONISK wall-art speakers to adjust the volume and start or stop the music with. But you use the Sonos mobile-platform apps or desktop software to choose what you want to hear through these speaker.

It is expected for IKEA to sell the SYMFONISK wall-art speakers for US$199 each with replacement wall-art fronts for US$20 each. But it will be interesting to hear whether these speakers can displace the SONOS One when it comes to sound quality

From what I have seen, it seems like IKEA have bothered to stay on with the Sonos-driven SYMFONISK network multiroom audio platform if they have bothered to design and market another SYMFONISK speaker. But it could mean that people who use the Sonos multiroom audio platform could be buying these IKEA speakers to build out their setup in a cost-effective manner.

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Apple to implement eARC on their upcoming Apple TV 4K

Articles

Apple TV 4th Generation press picture courtesy of Apple

The Apple TV set-top box – part of a HomePod / AirPlay enhanced audio setup for online video content – and now to stream TV sound

Apple TV 4K can use HDMI eARC to play any TV audio on your HomePod | Engadget

Apple TV 4K supports ARC and eARC – perfect for your HomePod – Techno Stalking

Apple Working on eARC Support for Newly Announced 2021 Apple TV 4K | iPhone in Canada Blog

Previous coverage on set-top box / smart-speaker integration and HDMI-ARC setups

Apple, Google and Amazon create home theatre setups around their platforms

Video peripherals increasingly offering audio-output abilities

Philips and DTS implement full network multiroom audio functionality in a TV set

My Comments

Apple’s up-and-coming Apple TV 4K is to capitalise on the idea of using set-top and smart-speaker platforms to provide enhanced stereo sound or home theatre setups that they, Google and Amazon are dabbling in.

Here, it is about using the smart speakers as a means to play the sound from video content streamed through the Apple TV, Amazon Fire or Google Chromecast with Google TV set-top devices. This is about either using a pair of like smart speakers to provide increased stereo separation for the video content’s sound. As well, it can be about using a smart speaker for remote listening to the video content’s sound.

As well, there have been approaches towards having various video peripherals offer their own audio output abilities usually for their own sources along with soundbars and the like implementing HDMI-ARC to play TV audio through their own speakers, In some cases, some of the soundbars that are part of network multiroom speaker platforms have the ability to stream sound from the TV to one or more remote speakers.

The next direction for set-top-box and smart speaker platforms

The next direction for set-top-box and smart speaker platforms

But Apple is bridging their Apple-TV/AirPlay/HomePod set-top and smart-speaker platform with HDMI-ARC technology including the eARC revision to do more. This time, it is to allow a user to stream audio from the TV’s own sources such as the broadcast-TV tuner to Apple HomePod speakers. This can be about remotely listening to a sports call or 24-hour TV news channel via a HomePod speeaker or using a pair of HomePod speakers to have better stereo separation for your favourite TV shows.

At the moment, this is intended to work with the original HomePod speakers rather than the HomePod Mini, with this causing confusion in the press as Apple is discontinuing the original HomePod speakers. The question that will come up is whether this kind of setup will apply to other AirPlay-compatible devices connected to your Apple TV 4K set-top box, including an AirPlay-based multiroom setup which your Apple TV device is part of.

This could have Amazon and Google looking towards ARC / eARC support for their set-top devices with the idea of playing TV audio via their Echo or Home / Assistant smart-speaker products.

As I mentioned in my article about video peripherals offering audio-output abilities, there will be the issue of using HDMI-ARC and HDMI-eARC more for delivering TV audio to these devices and how that can be improved upon. For example, I would see a requirement for an “any-HDMI-socket” approach to ARC/eARC connection rather than connecting the ARC-capable audio peripheral to one particular HDMI socket. Similarly, a TV may have to support streaming TV-show sound to multiple HDMI-ARC ports concurrently as well as passing PCM or bitstream audio streams representing surround sound to multiple HDMI-ARC ports.

But I am surprised that Apple supports HDMI-ARC with their Apple TV 4K device and HomePod smart speaker setup which would facilitate access to traditional broadcast TV via their equipment. That may be considered “out of touch” by some of the trendy Apple fanbois who aren’t necessarily in to the traditional way of consuming TV content. But I do see this as a significant trend in bringing traditional TV to smart-speaker platforms especially where a company owns a set-top media player platform and a smart-speaker platform.

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A USB-C hub may take your Chromecast with Google Play further

Article

You can do more with your Chromecast with Google TV if you use a USB-C hub or dock that offers Power Delivery pass-through

Use a USB-C Hub to Upgrade Your Chromecast With Google TV (gizmodo.com)

My Comments

The Google Chromecast with Google TV device is actually an Android TV set-top box which has a lot of what Android can offer.

This includes being able to work with external peripherals thanks to device class support for some peripheral types that are connected via USB. It is thanks to Android TV having class drivers built in to the operating system in order to support these peripheral types.

What do I need?

USB-C hub must have Power Delivery pass-through connection

Dell WD19TB Thunderbolt dock product image courtesy of Dell

USB-C hubs and docks can be used to expand your Google Chromecast with Google TV set-top device

The USB-C hub or dock must have at least one USB-C port set up for Power-Delivery pass-through connectivity. This connection arrangement, which may be known as “Charge-through”, passes power from a USB-C PD charger to the host computing device that is connected to the upstream connection. This is in addition to providing power to the hub itself and any USB bus-powered peripherals connected to that hub.

USB PD-compliant charger with at least 45 watts power output

The USB charger that came with your Chromecast with Google Play device would not be able to power anything beyond the Chromecast device itself. This is because it is rated just for that device.

Rather you use a USB-PD compliant charger that offers at least 45 watts output and is something you would get with most of today’s ultraportable laptops that just use this connection. Using a USB-PD charger offering 65W or more may give you more flexibility especially if you are dealing with USB mass-storage devices or Webcams.

You may find that some if not most business-grade USB-C hubs and docks have their own power-supply arrangement and can provide power to the host computer in a USB Power-Delivery compliant manner. That is typically to provide power to an ultraportable laptop that is connected to these docks. These can be used without the need of a separate charger to connect to these hubs or docks – you just use the hub’s actual power supply and associated transformer to power your Chromecast setup.

What can I do?

Play multimedia files held on USB mass-storage devices

If the USB hard drive, memory key or other mass-storage device (including memory cards in a memory-card reader) is formatted to FAT32, you may be able to view or play image, audio or video files held on that storage.

You may have to use a higher-powered USB PD charger if you are dealing with something like a portable hard disk or SSD. As for apps, software like VLC media player that can navigate the Android directory tree can work for finding content. There are also file managers available to the Android TV platform so you can see what is there on the storage devices.

A question that can be easily raised is whether this Android-TV-based Chromecast can support USB mass-storage devices that represent themselves as multiple volumes in one physical device. It is a situation that will come true with multi-slot memory-card readers, USB devices that have internal and external storage or USB storage devices partitioned in to multiple logical volumes.

Similarly, Android TV would need to support exFAT and the other open-source ext-based file systems in order to handle the high-capacity mass-storage devices as they should be handled.

Use of keyboards and mice as input devices

Connecting a USB keyboard or mouse, including a wireless one that uses a USB receiver dongle, provides an alternative input method for your Chromecast with Google TV.

For example, a keyboard can avoid the need to “hunt and peck” with your remote control when logging in to something like Netflix. This can also apply if you make heavy use of the search functionality within your favourite video-on-demand platforms. It can even apply if you are using an Android-TV-optimised Web browser to work the Web on the big screen.

This may even encourage Google to see Android TV as a viable TV-based gaming platform especially if they provide device-level support for wired or wireless games controllers be it USB Human Interface Device class controllers or device-specific support for XBox or PlayStation controllers. It also can lead to the creation of Android-TV-based hardware that has real gaming performance along with games that can take advantage of this performance.

To the same extent, Android TV support for USB-MIDI music devices could open up support for music-based applications and games on that platform. This could be ranging from music-based games through computer-based music training apps to music performance software.

Chromecast with Google TV as a group videophone

You can connect a Webcam to the USB-C hub so you can run this device as a group videophone. But you may find that some Webcams do need a bit more power and will need a stronger USB-PD charger on your setup.

As for software, Google’s Duo is the only videocall platform capable of supporting Android TV with the proper 10-foot “lean-back” user experience. You do need the app to be open and in the foreground when you are expecting a videocall on the Duo platform.

Google needs to encourage software developers who have videoconferencing software for the Android platform to write in Android TV support with the “lean-back” user experience. This could then have any TV or set-top device based on the Android TV / Google TV platform work well as a group videophone.

Infact Skype should reinstigate support for TV-based videocalling after they had many group videophone clients written for various smart-TV platforms.

More reliable Internet connectivity for your Chromecast

An increasing number of USB-C hubs are being equipped with Ethernet ports, primarily so that you can connect that ultraportable laptop to an Ethernet or HomePlug powerline network segment.

Let’s not forget that Google offered an Ethernet adaptor for their previous Chromecasts so these devices can be run from a more stable wired network segment. But they omitted an official Ethernet adaptor for the Chromecast with Google TV as part of its official aftermarket accessories lineup.

But the Ethernet connection on a USB-C hub is also available to the Google Chromecast with Google TV. It would be useful as a means to bring a reliable wired network connection to this device, especially if your home is wired for Ethernet, you have a HomePlug powerline network setup or your TV is next to your home network’s router.

Conclusion

Once you have USB-C hubs and docks that support common standard device classes for their internal connections or allow connection of peripherals honouring standard device classes, this could make Internet-of-Things and similar devices become very capable.

But these setups show a few glaring weaknesses within the Android TV ecosystem like lack of support for high-capacity file systems. It can be a chance for Google to take the Android TV platform further and turn it in to a highly-flexible large-screen set-top platform.

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Spotify to add hi-fi streaming to its music service

Articles Spotify HiFi person image courtesy of Spotify

Spotify finally adds one of its most-requested features – Android Authority

Spotify Will Launch a HiFi Streaming Tier Later This Year | Gizmodo Australia

From the horse’s mouth

Spotify

Five Things to Know About Spotify HiFi (Press Release)

Video – Click or tap to play on YouTube

My Comments

Cambridge Audio / Rega hi-fi system

Now Spotify is to offer a streaming music service fit to play through hi-fi equipment

Initially Tidal offered a subscription-driven music streaming service that had a sound quality fit for high-end audio equipment. Deezer had followed up with a similar service catering to that same market. Subsequently Amazon launched a service tier to their streaming music service that offers this same hi-fi sound.

Here, it wasn’t just appealing to hi-fi enthusiasts who have the premium high-quality audio gear to appreciate this sound quality but to musicians who wanted their listeners to hear their music at its best.

Now Spotify has come on board by working towards a hi-fi-grade music service tier. This is especially as most of us use Spotify as our “go-to” online music jukebox service. It will use lossless audio streaming technology to yield CD/DAT-quality sound from this service.

There is an intent to have it work on any Spotify endpoint including Spotify Connect devices. It is because a significant number of hi-fi components that have network-media playback functionality provide support for Spotify Connect.

Spotify has an intent to have it start to roll out by the end of this year and there may be questions about whether Spotify software or Spotify-Connect-enabled firmware needs to be updated to support this functionality. Of course you would need to use Spotify HiFi with equipment and connection types that answers the call of reproducing high-quality sound. It may even push Sony, Bose, B&O and Apple to consider how the Bluetooth setup involving their high-end Bluetooth active-noise-cancelling headsets can work with this service on any smartphone.

There will be questions about how Spotify HiFi will be priced and whether all of Spotify’s library will be available at the CD-quality sound that this tier will offer. Some reckon that a subscription to this tier will be between US$15-US$20 per month similar to what Tidal and Amazon are charging for their hi-fi level services. But they may look at ways to undercut Tidal and Amazon whether through a cheaper deal or offering more than what they both offer for their hi-fi-grade streaming services.

I also see this as a chance for Apple and Google to bring through high-quality-audio streaming services as part of the audio-streaming packages if they don’t want to be left behind. This will be important for Apple especially if they don’t want to lose their image as courting the premium “status-symbol” end of the technology market.

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Apple, Google and Amazon create home theatre setups around their platforms




Apple Amazon Google (coming soon)
Set-top device Apple TV (tvOS 11 or newer) Fire TV Stick
Fire TV Cube (2nd Generation or newer)
Chromecast with Google TV
Audio Devices HomePod or
AirPlay-compliant audio devices
Echo (2nd Generation), Echo Dot (3rd Generation) or newer Echo smart speaker devices Nest Audio smart speakers
Apple TV 4th Generation press picture courtesy of Apple

The Apple TV set-top box – part of a HomePod / AirPlay enhanced audio setup for online video content

Apple, Amazon and Google have or are establishing audio-video platforms based around their smart speaker and set-top devices. This is in order to allow you to stream the audio content from video you are watching through their companion audio devices.

The idea with these setups is to “gang” the platform-based set-top box and the speakers together to provide improved TV sound for online services like Netflix. Some like Amazon describe this approach as home theatre but what happens is that if you have a pair of like speakers ganged with the set-top device, you have stereo sound with increased separation at least. It is based around these companies building it to their platforms the ability for users to have two like speakers in one room set up as a stereo pair for that same goal. Amazon’s setup also allows you to use their Echo Sub subwoofer module to improve the bass response of their setup.

Amazon Echo press image courtesy of Amazon

These new Amazon Echo speakers can work as part of an enhanced-audio setup for the Amazon Fire TV set-top platform

It is in addition to being able to stream the sound from an online video source you are watching using these set-top devices to a smart speaker of the same platform for remote listening.

The current limitation with these setups is that they only work with online sources provided by the set-top device that is the hub of the setup. This is because neither of these devices support HDMI-ARC functionality in any way, which allows sound from the TV’s own tuner or video peripherals connected to the TV to be played via a compliant audio device.

These companies who are part of the Silicon Valley establishment see the fashionable way to watch TV content is to use online video-on-demand services facilitated by their own set-top devices. But some user classes would benefit from HDMI-ARC support in many ways.

For example, the TV’s own tuner is still relevant in UK, Europe, Oceania and some other countries due to these areas still placing value on free-to-air broadcast TV. This is centred around the ingrained experience of switching between channels using the TV’s own remote control with the attendant quick response when you change channels. It is also becoming relevant to North America as cord-cutting picks up steam amongst young people and they look towards the TV’s own tuner alongside an indoor antenna to pick up local TV services for current news or local sport.

Google to have Chromecast with Google TV work with their Nest Audio speakers at least

As well, some users maintain the use of other video-peripheral devices with their TVs. This will apply to people who play games on their TV using a computer or games console, watch content on packaged media like DVDs, use PVR devices to record TV content or subscribe to traditional pay TV that uses a set-top box.

It will be interesting to see whether this operating concept regarding set-top devices and smart speakers that is driven by Apple, Google and Amazon will be developed further. Here this could exist in the form of set-top devices and platforms that are engineered further for things like HDMI-ARC or surround sound.

There will also be the question about whether these setups will ever displace soundbars or fully-fledged home-theatre setups for improved TV sound. On the other hand, they could be placed as a platform-driven entry-level approach for this same goal.

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Sonos speakers to work with GE home appliances

Article

GE fridge and stove press image courtesy of GE Appliances

Network-capable GE appliances will be able to interlink with the Sonos multiroom audio platform for audio notification purposes

Sonos’ Speakers Can Now Work With General Electric’s Appliances | UberGizmo

GE teams with Sonos to let your smart appliances talk back | SlashGear

From the horse’s mouth

GE Appliances

GE APPLIANCES BRINGS SMART HOME NOTIFICATIONS TO SONOS SPEAKERS TO DELIVER AN INTEGRATED SMART HOME EXPERIENCE (Press Release)

My Comments

Two companies have been able to build a smart-home partnership with their products and platforms without needing the blessing of Amazon, Apple or Google.

Here, Sonos who have a multiroom audio platform for their speakers and for the IKEA Symfonisk speaker range, has partnered with GE Appliances to provide some sort of smart-appliance functionality.

This will initially work appliances that are part of the GE Appliances SmartHQ building-supplied appliance platform but will work across all GE appliances that can connect to your home network. At the moment it may apply to GE-branded appliances available within North America or based on North American designs but adapted for local conditions. That is with fridges with ice-makers capable of turning large “whiskey-friendly” ice blocks, or ovens capable of roasting a large Thanksgiving-size turkey.

The functionality that will appear is to use the Sonos speakers for audio-notification purposes such as alerting users that, for example, the washing machine, clothes dryer or dishwasher has completed its cycle or the oven that you have set to preheat is up to temperature. It understands the nature of most “white goods” other than refrigeration where they are used to complete a process like washing clothes or dishes.

The classic example that most households face is a washing machine (and perhaps a clothes dryer) being used to process a large multiple-load run of laundry. Here the householder will want to know when the current cycle is finished so they can have the next load going with a minimum of delay.

What is being conceived here is that a multiroom audio platform can tie in with appliances without the need for either of these devices to work with a smart-speaker platform. Rather it is about the consumer-AV platform serving as a sentinel role for the appliances or fulfilling some other role in relation to them.

For these setups to work effectively, the industry needs to work towards using platforms like Open Connectivity Foundation and implement a device-class-level approach to integrating devices within the smart home. It then avoids certain vendors, usually Silicon Valley heavyweights, becoming gatekeepers when it comes to having devices work with each other in the smart-home context.

It then avoids the need for device vendors to strike deals with each other in order and implement particular software hooks to have any sense of interoperability within the smart home.

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Facebook Portal TV converts your TV in to a group Zoom videophone

Facebook Portal TV group videophone press picture courtesy of Facebook

Facebook Portal TV

Article

You can now watch Netflix on your Facebook Portal TV | CNet

Netflix Comes to Facebook’s Portal TV Video Device, Along With Zoom | Variety

From the horse’s mouth

Facebook

Bringing Netflix, Zoom, and More Features to Portal (Blog Post)

Bringing Netflix, Zoom and More Features to Portal (Press Release)

Portal TV (Product Page with opportunity to order)

My Comments

Facebook’s Portal TV is a set-top box with built-in Webcam that is part of Facebook’s Portal smart-display platform. The platform has shown an increase in takeup thanks to us staying home due to the COVID-19 coronavirus plague.

This device is acquiring access to more of the video-on-demand services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Sling TV and Showtime. As well, newer Facebook Portal TV devices will come with remote controls that have one-touch access to the video-on-demand services. You may find that if you even bought a replacement remote control for your Portal TV device, it will come with these extra buttons. I see the Facebook Portal TV as an attempt for another of the Silicon Valley big names to have a set-top device based around their core online-services platform and offering the video content services that “every man and his dog” wants.

But the feature that has a strong appeal to me is the Facebook Portal TV turning your TV in to a large-screen group videophone. This initially works with Facebook’s messaging platforms – Messenger and WhatsApp and you have to bind it to your account on either of these services. You can bind the Portal TV to multiple Facebook / Messenger and WhatsApp accounts to make and take calls from these accounts. But it is being extended to Zoom along with some business-grade videoconferencing platforms, with a notable absence of Microsoft’s platforms i.e. Skype and Microsoft Teams which do have a significant user base.

Here, it will legitimise the idea of your household joining in to a long-distance videocall and being able to see the participants on the end of the line on the big screen without squinting. A classic example of this could be Thanksgiving or Christmas and you want to have your family chat with your relatives that are located a long distance away so the distant relatives can be in on the celebrations.

The Portal platform even has the camera and sound self-adjust to follow the action or to encompass more people coming in to view, This is very much a reality as more people crowd in to and join that long-distance videocall. As well, it could be seen as a direction to have video watch parties like what Sling TV is proposing come to your big-screen TV.

The Portal TV set-top box assures users of their privacy by having a hardware switch to enable and disable the camera and microphones. As well, there is a physical camera shutter so the user can mask the camera out. It is also compliant with HDMI-CEC operation thus allowing for one-touch call answering where the TV (and audio peripherals if connected) will come on and select the appropriate input when you answer a Portal videocall. For older people who would benefit from this device, this behaviour means that they only need to press one button on the Portal’s remote to answer that videocall.

What needs to happen is for Google, Amazon, Apple and others to work towards introducing group videophone devices that can work with a regular TV and use the common videoconferencing platforms. This can be through Wehcam accessories that work with existing set-top devices that they have designed and made available or newer set-top devices that have integrated Webcam functionality or support for such accessories. They would have to work with videoconferencing platforms that are popular at work and at home.

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Google answers Apple TV with their own set-top box

Article

Google announces new Chromecast with the new Google TV interface | The Verge

From the horse’s mouth

Google

Our best Chromecast yet, now with Google TV (Blog Post)

Chromecast with Google TV (Product Page with opportunity to order)

Chromecast with Google TV (product video) – Click or tap to play in YouTube

My Comments

The Apple TV has ruled the roost as an add-on set-top box that ties in tightly with their MacOS and iOS platforms. Here, this set-top box has access to an app store with the native-client apps for the main online video content services amongst other things. This is in addition to being an audio-video AirPlay destination for streaming content from your iOS device, Mac regular computer or iTunes software.

You have to have your Apple TV bound to your Apple ID account (of which many such accounts can be bound to the same device) but you can control it using its remote control. This can be either the Siri Remote which is a Bluetooth voice remote with trackpad operation or the classic Apple TV remote which is a simpler infrared D-pad remote. You also had the ability to install native client apps for the popular video-on-demand services, while it existed as a front-end for Apple’s iTunes transaction-based video-on-demand service.

Newer iterations can be bought that can offer 4K UHDTV video and all the newer tvOS-based Apple TV devices use HDMI-CEC control, allowing you to press any button on the Apple TV remote to cause your TV to come on and switch over to the input the Apple TV is connected to.

But those of us who use the Android platform weren’t sure of any add-on set-top device that works properly with our phones or tablets. There are some TVs that run Android TV and some set-top boxes do work this platform but you need to be sure they aren’t running the mobile Android operating system rather than Android TV. As well, some of these Android TV set-tops run an “operator-tier” variant of that platform which may limit access to the Google Play app store for Android TV apps.

Or you would simply use a Google Chromecast device or a smart TV or set-top device that fully supports the Chromecast (Google Cast) streaming protocol and stream video content from your Android device to your TV using that device. This would have you keeping you Android device on while you were viewing the content and being aware of its battery status.

Now Google have offered their latest Chromecast device which is really a Google TV / Android TV set-top box rather than just a Chromecast-protocol audio-video endpoint, dependent on your smartphone. This device, called the Chromecast with Google TV, has its own remote control which is a Bluetooth / infra-red remote voice remote, along with an Android TV operating environment and Google Play app store. 

This device also provides a unified content-search experience so you can search for a title and it will show you if it exists in any video services you subscribe to as well as offering you the ability to view it through Google’s Play Store’s transaction-driven video-on-demand service. The voice remote also allows you to search for content using your voice and Google Assistant.

The Google Chromecast with Google TV will require you to bind it to your Google account. But I am not sure whether this device offers multiple-account support to cater for multiple-adult households.

It has a USB-C connection that is primarily used for power-supply purposes but Google is wanting to see it used as a data connection for supplementary peripherals. The use they initially have in mind is an Ethernet adaptor similar to an Ethernet-equipped USB-C hub that implements USB Power Delivery Charge-through (pass-through) support.  But it could be a chance for Google to supply and support a companion Webcam as a way to purpose this device as a group videophone.

At least for Android users, Google has done the right thing towards having an add-on set-top device that is a known quantity which provides smart TV functionality.

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