Saturday, December 15, 2007

Quick Mancave Update

I'm going to be on the road for the next 2 weeks so I wanted to post a quick update on my progress. I just got in the Onkyo TX-SR805 receiver. I did a test this morning with all speakers connected and audio over coax from my Denon 2930CI player. The test was a resounding success! I didn't do any setting of delays or levels. I spun a few CDs and tried both 2-channel and 5-channel listening modes. The DTS:Neo6 Music sounded pretty good. I may experiment more with the different DSP surround modes once everything is in place in the new room. Onkyo's menu and setup routine is much easier than Denon's. The manual is also better by a large factor. It only took me a few minutes to setup bi-amping and assign the digital input. Onkyo's remote is also far better than the weird unit that comes with the Denon 3806. Eventually though, I'll be running everything in the mancave with a Harmony 890.

I also pre-ordered the Samsung BD-UP5000 from Crutchfield. I heard just last night that one person received a ship notice from Crutchfield on this player so I expect mine soon. All information I have so far confirms that it will output 1080p/24 on both HDDVD and BluRay. It also bitstreams all the new lossless audio codecs for decoding by an appropriate receiver. In my case, the Onkyo fills that task. If you want, it will decode all lossless formats and output them over HDMI or analog if you have an older receiver or processor.

I've been following a thread on AVS about the new Panasonic commercial plasma, the 50" PF10UK. This set will accept 1080p/24 and display it at a 48hz refresh rate. What this means is judder-free images from HD and BluRay discs encoded at 1080p/24. When I add the Lumagen video processor, I'll be able to do this with standard DVDs as well. I'll input 1080i/60 and have the Lumagen do inverse-telecine deinterlacing for 1080p/24 output.

Things are coming along quite nicely and I expect to have some more pictures to post soon. Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Mancave Progress Report

I have reached my goal of completing the basics of the room by Thanksgiving. I had already finished the painting before my last post. The next step was to install the flooring. My plan is twofold: reduce bass resonance from the floor which is completely unsupported and keep sound out of the living room below. I accomplished this with 3 different material layers. First, a heavy plastic layer to create an air barrier and protect the nice hardwood floor from the next layer, rock board. I had originally thought I'd use sheetrock but when I saw the rockboard, I went for that. It's far heavier and denser than sheetrock. It's designed to be used as the walls in a bathroom. It comes in 3 x 5 sheets. You'll want a friend to help you get it home, each sheet weighs about 40 pounds! It's easily scored and broken to be fit into place. For the cuts around the radiator feet, I used a masonry wheel on my circular saw. On top of the rock board went a layer of OSB plywood. This is to keep furniture feet from crumbling the rockboard through the carpet. I finished off with carpet and pad. Below, you can see the layers. This edge is by the door into the room. I'll be trimming it with wood before the room's done.

My next task was the accoustical treatments. I did a fair amount of research on this subject. There are many companies that sell panels in every shape and size but they aren't cheap. I decided to build my own. I bought my material from ATS Accoustics. They sell all the raw materials you'll need. I got 2 cases of Roxul Rockboard 60 (6, 2 x 4 foot sheets per case). This material is rigid and reasonably lightweight yet very dense. It has a density of 6 pounds per cubic foot. It's comparable to Owens-Corning 705 but about half the cost. I also got 15 yards of burlap and some 3M spray adhesive. The panels were pretty easy to make. I cut 8, 2 x 2 foot pieces for the walls. The material cuts very easily with a sharp kitchen knife. The burlap just glues on and wraps around the back. I didn't use any frames. I hung them on the wall with a few screws to cradle them. You can't attach anything to the Roxul itself, it's too fragile. The screws are under the corners of each diamond shape.

As you can see in the photos, I also covered the windows. The panels fit in via friction. No hardware was required. I put a large enough panel on the bottom of each window that if I wish to install a window AC unit, I can just remove the panel. Once I had the window panels in place, the room really sounded great. It's quite something to just stand in the room and talk. I feel like I have a new piece of gear. I can't wait to have electronics in there!

My recliners are on the way from the Theater Seat Store. I went for the Charlize model. There will be 2 chairs with a common center armrest, black leather of course. I've also got the hardware I need to build a 36-inch flexi-rack. You can see a great article about that here. Thanks to Jeremy Brown for his great article, pics and most importantly, McMaster-Carr part numbers! I will have pics and articles about all the upcoming builds; the flexi-rack, plasma stand and surround speaker stands. Also, stay tuned for gear and lighting updates. Panasonic has just come out with a new commercial plasma that I have my eye on. I'm also still waiting for that Samsung Duo player. The latest rumors have shipping January 15th. My lighting will consist of some floor standing fixtures and an Ideal-Lume bias light behind the TV from Cinema Quest.
Lastly, I am now a Lumagen dealer so one of their fine products will be going in this room. A complete review will be coming soon. Please stay tuned for all updates. Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

I'm Building a Mancave!

Yes, the time has come to build a room of my very own. I have a very nice setup in the living room currently but my thirst for high performance has left me wanting more. Here is a picture of my present setup:

It's hard to see the gear in this photo so here's a list:

  • Samsung DLP TV, HL-R5067W (50")
  • Denon AVR-3806 Receiver
  • Denon DVD-2930CI Universal Disc Player
  • Scientific Atlanta 8300HD Cable DVR
  • Axiom M60 towers and VP150 center (not pictured: EP350 sub and QS8 surrounds)

It's all installed on a bench I built with a friend. It's great for movies but not so great for music. The main reason being the speakers are too close together and too high. I put them up on the bench to help clear the furniture. You can see the upholstered chair on the right side of the picture. This chair blocks the woofers in the right channel. This rig is in a corner which is less than ideal. Plus, there is a large opening to my dining room on the left and an open doorway in the rear. Sound absorption isn't bad with the upholstered furniture and a large carpet. Also, because I live in a duplex, I can't really run the sound at reference levels. I finally then got the OK from my wife to turn our unused bedroom upstairs into a dedicated theater room.

Here is my blank canvas:

This room is approximately 12'x12' with an 8' 6" ceiling. Not quite a cube luckily! The color on the walls is graphite with just a little bit of shine. I just painted it. I wanted a matte finish but the dark paints from Lowe's all had this finish. It's OK though since I'll be putting up sound absorbing panels and completely covering the windows. There will be carpet too, of course. A ceiling fan will replace the current fixture and I will be building a radiator cover to hide that eyesore. My first order of business will be the floor. This room is directly above the living room and I want to keep sound from going through the floor. To that end, I'm installing a layer of rock board and a layer of OSB under the carpet. This should provide sufficient mass to keep my music and movies from traveling into the room below. This room is also opposite the shared wall in my duplex so high volume won't be a problem for the neighbors.
Here is the proposed gear list:
  • Onkyo TX-SR805 Receiver
  • Samsung BD-UP5000 HD/BluRay Player
  • Axiom M60, VP150, QS8, EP350 surround speaker system
  • Panasonic TH50-PZ700U 50" plasma TV

I'm also planning more home-built furniture to hold all these goodies. I'll be building a flexi-rack for the gear and stands for the surround speakers and the TV. I'll finish it all off with a pair of theater recliners in leather of course. I'll control it all with another Harmony 890 like I use downstairs. Despite my less than glowing review of this unit, the latest software and firmware seems to be working perfectly. I haven't had to press the Help button in several months. Another piece of gear I hope to add to all this is a Lumagen video processor. I'm currently in the application phase of becoming a dealer for their products. They represent the ideal solution for an ISF calibrator. ISF in a box if you will. A Lumagen offers complete control over color, grayscale, gamma, geometry and even signal timing. And they do this for far less than competing units from Pixel Magic or DVDO. I'm really excited to be able to offer these products. When I get a few in, I'll be sure to post a complete review.

Please come back soon over the next few weeks as the mancave evolves. I'll post pictures and a blow-by-blow as the room moves toward completion. Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Samsung LN-T4665F LCD Calibration

This 46" LCD is part of Samsung's latest line of excellent LCD panels. It is full 1080p of course with a plethora of features. The bezel is a thin piano black and a tabletop stand is included. This panel is well-suited for a 5-10 foot viewing distance and would fit right into a small to medium-sized viewing room.

Calibration of this set was a pleasure as all the necessary adjustments can be made in the user menu. The first step is to engage the Movie Mode. This picture mode opens all the extra adjustments and gives you complete control over image enhancements. There are full controls for white balance and gamma which is quite rare in consumer TVs. Several of the picture enhancement features had interesting results when adjusted. I started with Pluge patterns to set brightness and contrast. I immediately noticed floating black levels. This was defeated by turning off Black Adjust. Once this was done, the TV had perfect DC restoration with no change in black level as the Average Picture Level (APL) increased. When viewing white Pluge patterns, I noticed as the Contrast control was adjusted, the color shifted quite noticeably. This was solved by turning off Dynamic Contrast. I also lowered the Backlight control and set the Color Tone to Warm2.

Color decoding was excellent using the Auto colorspace and turning off xvYCC. This is an extended colorspace that does not conform to any standards currently in use. It will make colors appear blown-out and unnaturally saturated. Measurements showed it to be somewhere between Rec. 709 and the Wide Gamut appearing on some newer TVs. White balance was adjusted to within 200k of D65 with a perfect 2.2 gamma. This LCD has the best gamma and black levels of any LCD I've calibrated to date. I achieved a minimum black level of .028 fL, excellent performance.

The final result was almost a plasma-like image. Color accuracy and saturation were excellent and dynamic range was greatly improved over what I started with. Since this TV is capable of excellent light output and has an anti-glare screen, I would recommend it for rooms without light control. It competes very well with daylight and other in-room light sources. Viewing angle is also above-average for an LCD. I have seen this TV for sale under $2500, a superb value. With the steep drop in flat panel prices over the last year or so, an LCD or plasma is now within reach of many more people. Given the vast adjustability and superb image quality of this display, I would not hesitate to put it in my top 5 recommendations.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Etymotic ER-4P In-Ear Monitors

I had long resisted buying an iPod. As a classical music aficionado, I value quality above all else and I just didn't feel the iPod would live up to my expectations of an audio component. I finally caved when I began a new exercise program that pretty much demanded some form of entertainment to get me through. I went for the 80gb video iPod (of course after a few months, there's a 160gb for the same price). After much research, I knew I would need some quality headphones, not the el cheapo earbuds Apple includes. I settled on the Etymotic ER-4P as the best price/performance in-ear monitors. I needed the isolation from the sounds of my Nordic Track and something that wouldn't slide around on my sweaty head like full-size cans. I did try a few workouts with some Sennheiser 280 Pros and I thought my ears would melt after only 30 minutes! By the way, there are also the ER-4S monitors. These are designed for connection to a headphone amplifier or in-home audio system. There are more difficult to drive and are therefore not suitable for use with portable devices. The P can be converted to the S with the addition of a $60 cable from Etymotic that changes their impedance. If you want to use the S with an iPod, it is recommended to use a headphone amp like the ones available from Headroom. I have read the sound quality with this setup is even better but it's not for the faint of wallet. A cheap headphone amp will run you about $200. Of course if you have the means...

I purchased the ER-4Ps from Amazon a few months ago for $175. This is far better than their $299 MSRP. They arrived promptly as everything from Amazon usually does. Included in a very nice plastic case were the monitors, extra filters with tool, and 2 kinds of earplugs, rubber and foam. The rubber ones are very easy to insert but the seal is a matter of luck depending on the shape and depth of your ear canal. This is very important. If you don't get a good seal with these monitors, the sound quality is poor at best. You also need to get them in as far as possible to enjoy their full frequency response. As a popular magazine says, "You don't wear them so much as implant them." I installed the foam tips. These have a small tube protruding from one end. This the end that goes in the ear. They are made of the same memory foam material as regular earplugs. You roll them between your fingers, insert, and wait for them to expand inside the ear canal. I used them this way for over 2 months and loved them. They are very comfortable and the sound quality is simply amazing. There is a level of detail in recordings that simply cannot be heard in a listening room setting. I can hear musicians breathing and shifting in their chairs. On one of my old Solti/Chicago Beethoven recordings, I can actually hear a telephone ring backstage! Podcasts take on a whole new feel as the voices really are in your head!

After awhile, I began to explore the prospect of custom earmolds. Etymotic recommends several labs that will make these for you. As I am near New York City, I contacted
Scientific Plastics and arranged a time to have my ear impressions taken. This involves a technician filling your ear canal with a green substance that hardens in about 5 minutes and is then removed. The result is a perfect representation of you entire ear canal. I had no idea it was so deep! A week later, my molds arrived in the mail. They were bored out specifically for the ER-4Ps. It took me a few tries to really fit them properly and get used to them. After a few days I am completely accustomed to them. Let me tell you, the sound quality took quite a leap. The bass response is now stupendously good rather than merely excellent. I can actually feel the lower instruments in my head. The seal and sound isolation is also much improved. Only the loudest sounds can penetrate now. I can't wait to try these on a bus or plane trip. Another tip for top sound quality: save your music in Apple's lossless format. Compression will destroy the transparency, dynamic range and soundstage of any classical recording. My CD collection is smaller than average. I fit about 50 hours of music into 20gb using lossless. Now that a 160gb iPod is available, there really is no reason to compress your music. Pictured below are the monitors sporting their somewhat eerie looking ear molds. Thanks for reading and enjoy your listening!

Monday, October 01, 2007

Panasonic TH-37PX60U Plasma Calibration

Another Panasonic so soon! I guess calibrations go in phases. For awhile it was Sonys. This plasma panel is a bit older than the 700U I wrote about recently. My client has had it about a year and he was ready to unlock its full potential. This 37" TV is a nice size for those of you who have an entertainment center or AV cabinet. It fits comfortably in or on many different types of furniture. If you want a TV that doesn't draw attention to itself, this panel is an excellent choice.

Since this is a 720p (1024x768 native) display, I set my pattern generator for this resolution. I also set the cable box and upconverting DVD player in the client's system for these resolutions. It is always best to feed a display its native format whenever possible to minimize any video processing done by the set. Color primaries measured a bit oversaturated for green and red and near-perfect for blue, typical of Panasonic plasmas. Interestingly, this client had the color temp set to a warmer than D65 level. Most people are accustomed to a bluish tint on their TVs and set the color temp to normal or even cool. This is the first client I've had who actually had become accustomed to a too-warm white balance. I also noticed a fair amount of noise in the various test patterns I displayed. Unlike the 700U, the sharpness control did not help this condition.

After doing rough settings in the user menu, I entered service to adjust white balance, and black/white levels. This was tricky at first as going into service sets the TV to Vivid mode. I was fortunately able to toggle between user and service to force the TV into Cinema mode. Cinema is the only mode that allows different settings for each input. The other modes have global settings. Once I set the Cinema mode, white balance was easily adjusted to within 100k of D65. Setting black level in service also allowed me a much finer adjustment than the user menu. Exiting service, I immediately noticed a huge reduction in noise. The multi-burst patterns were now very clean and sharp. Obviously, color adjustments on this set have quite an effect on overall noise levels. As with the 700U, the noise reduction controls in user had no visible effect. The only other adjustment required was to reduce the color and tint controls a bit to compensate for the oversaturated green and red primaries. My trusty CA-6X analyzer came through once again to help me align the decoder more accurately than I could using filters. To my knowledge, no other colorimeter has this feature. It allows me to adjust the color and tint controls to align the decoder to the measured primaries rather than the reference. This is far more precise than filters which only work if the primaries are correct and you're calibrating a CRT.

As usual, my client and I checked out some content when I was finished. Discovery HD over a Cablevision feed looked stunning (I really love plasmas for HD!). The color resolution was so much better than before. My client commented that he could really see an increased color palette. There's nothing like lifting the veil of image inaccuracy and seeing what the content creator intended rather than what the television's manufacturer intended. Raiders of the Lost Ark from a Sony upconverting DVD player looked great too. This THX-certified transfer is an excellent reference for any player or display. The clarity of this DVD release is matched by few other titles. Now that we're on the eve of having all our movies in hi-def, it's still gratifying to see standard-def DVD done so well.

Just like the 700U I reported on recently, this TV is a top candidate for calibration. The client and I were very happy with the results. He considered it well worth the price and I considered it well worth my time. A properly calibrated plasma is probably the closest we can get to the venerable CRT in terms of dynamic range, contrast ratio and color saturation. I do suggest viewing plasmas in a light-controlled room. Reflections from lights and windows can be seen on the glass screen. The image is plenty bright enough however, to compete with indirect light sources. As my client had his panel in a cabinet, he solved the problem of light reflection quite nicely.

Another happy customer, thanks for reading!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Axiom Epic 60 Loudspeaker Review

I'll answer the first question right off: yes, Axiom is one of those internet-only speaker companies. They're based in Canada. Like other Canadian speaker makers (PSB for example), Axiom has access to the National Research Institute. This well-equipped lab provides the best in test equipment to help manufacturers design the best possible products. I first learned of Axiom by reading reviews on the Audioholics website. I spent a lot of time over the past 6 months researching and listening to many brands of speakers. As a classical music lover, accuracy was of paramount importance to me. Axiom is one of the few companies that publishes detailed graphs of all their models online. I was also fortunate to find a local man who had the exact setup I was considering in his theater. After spending an afternoon spinning CDs and DVDs on his excellent setup, I made my decision. I placed my order online and 2 weeks later, the speakers showed up from DHL. All pieces were in perfect condition. Packaging was quite robust and secure. Axiom has a 30-day refund policy if you wish to return the speakers for any reason. They also cover any damage incurred in shipping. In fact, the man who demoed his speakers for me said they replaced a surround speaker he had damaged himself at no charge! All Axiom products carry a 5-year warranty. The system consists of 2 M60 tower speakers, 37" tall, driven by 2 6.5" aluminum woofers, a 5.25" aluminum midrange and a 1" aluminum dome tweeter. There are 2 ports on the back and one on the front. The 27" wide VP150 center channel uses 3 of the same 5.25" midranges and 2 of the same 1" tweeters. They are arranged in a TMMMT layout. This is unusual compared to other center channel speakers but there are definite benefits which I will talk about later. It is a sealed design. The QS8 surrounds are a sealed quad-pole design employing upward and downward firing 5.25" midranges and 2 1" tweeters arrayed at a 45-degree angle. The EP350 subwoofer employs a front-firing 12" aluminum driver and 200-watt amplifier. It is front ported.

My room is a bit unusual in that I have the couch and the TV in opposite corners. I placed the 37" tall M60 towers on a low TV bench I built myself. This placed the tweeters about 4" above ear level. For movie and TV sound, this is not a problem. For music, I would like to have the tweeters lower. I plan to solve this problem by building a seperate media room in an unused bedroom. More on my future mancave plans soon, stay tuned! Anyway, back to reality. I placed the center channel in a box I have suspended over my 50" TV. The sub was placed to the side firing at the seating area. The surrounds were wall-mounted. They are far from ideally placed but more on that later. All speakers were wired with 12-gauge cable and compression-style banana plugs from Bluejeans Cable. The mains were bi-amped. The sub was connected with a high-quality Belden cable also from Bluejeans. Crossovers were set at 60hz for the mains, 100hz for the center and 110hz for the surrounds. Channel levels were set with my trusty Radio Shack SPL meter. I did go +2db on the center and -2db on the sub after watching several movies.

Since the bulk of my listening is movies, I concentrated on that for the first few weeks. Let me tell you, if you haven't had a quality sound system for movie watching before, you don't know what you're missing! Even this system, which is far from expensive, blows away any movie theater I've ever been in. Mind you, most movie theaters are not calibrated properly at all. Often, subs or dialog channels are missing or set too low or too high. The last movie I saw in a theater, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was painful to sit through. The dialog was OK but the mains and subs were so loud they approached distortion. I was physically exhausted when I left the theater. With a quality home theater system such as the Axiom Epic 60, you can finally hear a movie soundtrack the way it was meant to be heard in all its detail and ambience. And as my room is far from ideal, I can only imagine how much better it will be in a properly sound-treated room. (Mancave, more to come!) The center channel's unusual design placing the tweeters on the ends, really came to the fore. The sound field for dialog was far wider than traditional centers that place the tweeter in the middle. Plus, the Axiom's tweeters are less affected by the output of the midranges since they are only bordered on one side by other drivers. The surrounds as I said before, are very forgiving of placement. THX spec calls for surrounds mounted on the sides of the seating area, above ear level. Mine are to the side and to the rear. They are also mounted at 90-degrees to one another. Even with this huge compromise, the surround envelope is superb. Panning effects really do make you jump and the sound field is truly 3-dimensional. My favorite track so far is the movie Pan's Labyrinth. The scenes during rainstorms and gunbattles are just incredible. If you watch this movie, be sure to engage the DTS track, it's a little beefier.

This system cost me just over $2500 delivered. Coupled with the excellent Denon AVR3806 receiver and DVD 2930CI disc player, my in-home theater experience has improved by a huge factor. These are truly long-term speakers. Receivers and disc players are in a constant state of flux but good loudspeakers can last a lifetime. Unless I have to fill a significantly bigger space with sound, I can't imagine a better matched system. Axiom does have a larger tower model and 2 more sub upgrades should I feel the need, but I don't! My next upgrade will be the Mancave. I plan to buy another identical system from Axiom and install it in a dedicated, acoustically treated room. Stay tuned for that as I plan to document the entire process of building this room. Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Denon AVR-3806 Review

A few months ago I was finally able to upgrade my audio system to something more worthy of my excellent Samsung DLP display. I had muddled through for about 2 years with *gasp* a Home Theater in a Box from Sony. This system wasn't total crap but since installing the new gear, it's now gracing a landfill. For years I read the advice on various websites saying you should spend at least as much or more on audio as you do on video. OK but that's really hard to do. Of course you want the rockin' display with the most pixels, the biggest screen, you know the drill. It's what guys do. Well after installing this receiver and a 5.1 speaker setup from Axiom Audio, I can see the importance of this advice. Speaking of Axiom, I'll review the speakers and sub (M60s, VP150, QS8 and EP350) next week.

I purchased the receiver as well as a Denon DVD 2930CI from Crutchfield. You can read my review of the DVD player here. I highly recommend Crutchfield as a dealer. Their customer service is outstanding. The electronics arrived in a few days double boxed with generous amounts of peanuts. There was absolutely no damage to the Denon cartons. Crutchfield has a generous return policy and excellent support.

Setting up the unit was fairly straightforward. I'll tell you right now, the manual is terrible. The important information is there but you have to look for it. My advice with any Denon product: read the manual thoroughly before you install. This receiver like most modern multi-channel AVRs has many many options and features. You owe it to yourself to explore everything beforehand so you can get maximum performance from your gear. My main tower speakers are bi-amp capable so I wired them up as such, making sure to remove the jumper between the 2 pairs of binding posts. It doesn't matter which amp powers which drivers. Enter the setup menu and set the surround back amps to power the mains. After setting delays for the various speaker distances, I pulled out my trusty Radio Shack SPL meter to set levels. Using the test tones, I set levels for all channels to a reference volume of 80dB. I set the bass management as follows: front speakers set to small, 60hz crossover, center set to small, 100hz crossover, surrounds set to small, 110hz crossover. This gave the flattest frequency response when measuring frequency sweeps from the Digital Video Essentials audio tests. The only change I made after the fact was dropping the sub 3db. The Radio Shack meter is less accurate at low frequencies so this was as expected. Convenience features are all there such as auto-detect of audio track types, renaming of inputs and assignment of digital inputs. You might notice I've said nothing about the Audyssey auto calibration feature of this receiver. I actually bought this particular unit because of that function. I have every intention of at least trying the room correction in the future. I've just been so amazed and pleased with the sound the way it is, I haven't actually tried it out yet! My room is a bit challenging as well. I live on a fairly busy road. It would be nearly impossible to run the auto setup without a car driving by during the process. Perhaps if I did it late at night... If at some point I engage the Audyssey function, I will post an article about it.

Once all options were set, I checked my Denon Link connection from the DVD2930CI and fired up Casino Royale. Unfortunately, I heard nothing. OK, check connections, check setup, check DVD player (which I had already been using with my old audio setup). There was no light for Denon link evident on the player's front panel, hmm. I pulled out a generic CAT5 cable I had in my office and replaced the Denon cable that had shipped with my DVD player. Guess what? It worked just fine. Swell, Denon's supplied cable (which costs $45 by the way) was a dud and my free CAT5 cable that a friend made up for me worked perfectly. I had wondered if Denon Link was standard CAT5 and now I had my answer. If you want to install your player more than 6 feet from your receiver, you can with regular CAT5 for a few cents a foot. You do want the Denon Link by the way because it will support Direct Stream Digital transmission from SACDs. There is no other player in this price range that will do this. I believe the Oppo players will output PCM over HDMI from SACDs but not DSD. (was that a geeky sentence or what?) All other SACD players require you to use the multi-channel analog outputs. I also recommend using the IR in/out jacks if you have either IR blasters or some type of RF receiver for your remote. It beats sticking those pesky IR emitters to the front of your gear. In fact, I discovered the IR jack on my Scientific Atlanta 8300HD cable DVR actually works! I now have an IR emitter only on my TV. This is a much cleaner-looking and reliable way to control your components.

Sound quality? Let's just say... holy $@#&! The opening scene in Casino Royale starts with a guy riding up an elevator. The LFE effects are simply amazing. Then as he is confronted by James Bond, the scene flashes back to a fight in a bathroom. The bodies slamming through toilet stalls and other high-impact effects are simply breathtaking. Later during the now-famous chase scene, Bond drives a front-loader through a fence and a pile of iron pipe. The slam of this effect simply knocked my socks off! This is only the first day mind you. I have had this system in place for almost 3 months now and I can say I've never enjoyed movies and TV more. Even broadcast content is hugely improved. By default, this receiver will use Dolby Pro Logic II or DTS Neo6 to pipe all soundtracks into 5.1. This is done very well as you don't really notice the extra channels unless you switch back to straight 2 channel listening. My advice, let the DSPs do their thing, they work really well.

Music listening is equally amazing. For this, I engage the Denon's PureDirect mode. Even though the manual says this is only for analog sources, it still works with anything coming over the Denon Link connection. There was a small but noticeable improvement in the sound stage and the overall transparency of the music. (if you play Redbook CDs, they will play 2-channel whether you use PureDirect or not) I am strictly a classical buff so it's really easy to hear even the subtlest changes when you're trying new gear. I used SACDs of the San Francisco Symphony playing Mahler's 5th Symphony and the Kirov Orchestra playing Shostakovich's 5th and 9th Symphonies. I love multi-channel music and this setup really shone in this capacity. I'll expand on that more in next week's Axiom speaker review.

I believe this model is now being replaced by the AVR3808CI. From my research, it seems to the be the same receiver with the addition of HDMI 1.3a and decoding of Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio. If these formats are not a factor, the 3806 is $300 cheaper so grab one while you can. I can tell you I am extremely happy with this unit and plan to use it for the forseeable future.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Panasonic TH50-PZ700U Calibration

I had an opportunity this past week to calibrate this latest Panasonic plasma. The PZ700U is 1080p with 2 HDMI inputs and a slot for an SD memory card to display photos. This display is not only one of the best plasma panels available today, it is also by far the best value. The only brand at this level is the Pioneer Elite line and you'll pay more than double the price for the same screen size.

There are 4 picture modes available, Standard, Vivid, Cinema and Custom. Only the Custom setting allows different settings per input. Selecting the Warm color temp got me within striking distance of D65. One interesting thing I learned concerned video noise reduction. There are 3 controls that address noise reduction and none of them seemed to affect the image at all. I was viewing 1080i multi-burst patterns and even though the 1-pixel pattern was rendered perfectly, I could see just a bit of noise around it. I finally removed the noise by turning up the Sharpness a few clicks from off. In fact, the Sharpness control at full blast didn't introduce any ringing in the image. My conclusion is that Sharpness on this TV affects noise and not edge enhancement. Another factor is the HDSize control. There are 2 options. Number 2 combined with Normal Aspect will give a 1:1 pixel map. The first option introduces about 3% overscan which is in spec but it breaks up the 1 pixel multi-burst. Bottom line, the sharpest and cleanest image comes in the 1:1 pixel mode.

Grayscale tracking showed a Delta C* error of 5-13 before calibration and under 1 after adjustments were made in service. I was also able to improve gamma and black levels by working the sub-brightness adjustment. I noticed when adjusting Brightness in the user menu that there would be a certain point where the gamma curve would change visibly on one side or the other of a particular number. Just below this point was the sweet spot for the final Brightness setting. After exiting service, I loaded a few Blu-Ray titles into the client's PS3 for some real content analysis. The first thing we noticed is there was still some downward room to be had in black levels. I settled on another 3 clicks lower on both the PS3 and the SA8300HD cable box sources. Like the majority of consumer displays, the black levels float somewhat depending on the average light level of the image. The adjustments made in service greatly reduced this tendency. For example; before calibration the darkest Pluge pattern would actually change after a few seconds. The lighter bar would at first be visible then disappear. After calibration, the pattern remained stable. The change in different light output levels also had less of an effect on black level. Even though this set is decent before calibration, this improvement alone is worth doing a full calibration.

The color-related aspects of the picture were excellent all around. Primaries are dead on for blue and slightly over-saturated for red and green. This is not visible in content. A slight lowering of the Color control aligned the decoder fairly well. Using my Progressive Labs CA6X allowed me to adjust the Tint to correct secondary color errors with respect to the measured primaries. This is much more accurate than using filters. Filters are only useful if they match the displays actual primaries and this is quite rare.

In conclusion, I would rate this as one of the finest HDTVs I have calibrated to date. It's the closest in dynamic range and clarity to the legendary Sony XBR960 CRT, my benchmark. Given the amazing price point of this TV (around $2500), there is no better value to be had, period. There is certainly no 50-inch LCD of any decent quality that sells for as little. And I have yet to encounter an LCD that can reproduce the blacks this TV can. I was so impressed with this display that I'll be adding one to my own theater in the coming months.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Logitech Harmony 890 Remote Control Review

I purchased the Harmony 890 a few months ago after programming one for a client. I was impressed with its ease of setup. I was especially interested in its Smart State feature that remembers the input and power states of your components. This is very helpful when a ccomponent doesn't support discreet commands for power and input. Many products lack discreet code support, most notably cable and satellite boxes.

The reason I haven't written about this product until now is I wanted to give myself time to thoroughly learn all its secrets before forming an opinion. The truth is, it's easy to do a basic setup but troubleshooting is less than intuitive. You begin by installing the included CD to your computer. You can use the front end software provided or log in via the Logitech website. Either way, you have to install the CD. The web front end is much faster however. Use the CD to create your account, then log in from the Harmony website. The software runs through a setup wizard to configure the remote. Logitech's IR code database is the largest in the business, over 170,000 components. In the unlikely event you have something that's not there, you can learn the codes from the factory remote. The wizard walks you through Activity setup where you program how things are to be turned on and set for different functions like Watch TV, Watch DVD, Listen to CDs, etcetera. You can also create custom buttons for each activity with labels shown in the LCD screen. There are 8 buttons available and multiple screens if you have more than 8 custom buttons. You can also set any hard button on the remote for any function from any component in the activity. Once you've programmed everything, it's time to update the remote via USB. Here's where I have a major complaint. The 890 includes a Remote Extender which supports RF control and sends the IR codes to the components via stick-on emitters. Every time you update the remote, you also have to update the extender. You can't have it plugged in the wall when you do this. This is a colossal pain especially when first programming since you'll want to tweak your setup at least a few times.

Once I had things working the way I wanted, the Harmony worked well for a few weeks. Then I started having trouble with Activity startup. Components would not always turn on or switch to the right input. This seemed to be random. It's like each component would take its turn not coming on. One positive here is the remote's Help key. If something unexpected happens, press help and answer the questions on the remote's screen. Usually, it will fix itself and you'll be back in business. To address this, I adjusted the various delays for each component. You can adjust the power on delay, input delay, inter-key delay and inter-device delay. Tweaking the inter-device delay seemed to fix the problem although it still happens occasionally.

Another major issue I have with this product is the ever-changing software. Logitech frequently updates both the front-end software and the remote firmware. Usually this results in some problems being fixed, new problems being created, some features added and some features removed. For several weeks, the Favorite Channel feature was disabled for no apparent reason. I can't imagine why Logitech can't stabilize this package and stop messing with it.

The bottom line with this product: for the price, it can't be beat. No other universal remote offers this level of functionality for less than $300. I like the physical design. I like the software interface. I don't like the random and unexpected glitches. I don't like the frequent software updates. I don't like having to unplug the extender every time I want to update. I want to love this remote. If Logitech would stop messing with it, I think I could. I do plan to keep using it. I can't justify dropping 3 or 4 times the money on something better.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Denon DVD-2930CI Review

I spend so much time helping clients with their cool AV toys that I sometimes forget to satisfy my own needs for nifty new gear. To alleviate this, I've recently made a major upgrade to my theater: a shiny new Denon 2930CI DVD player! I had been using a no frills progressive-scan Sony player for about a year or so while wondering what to do about new formats and the dropping price of quality video processing. When Denon announced the inclusion of the HQV Reon chip in their new player, I knew where my AV dollars would be going next. Thanks to Crutchfield, I've now had this player sitting in my rack for about 2 months.

As with all Denon products, this player is built like a tank. It weighs 17 pounds and stands just over 4 inches tall. It occupies a full 17 inches of rack width and 16 inches of depth. I connected it to my Samsung 50-inch DLP with a Bluejeans Cable HDMI cable. I'm currently running the audio through an optical cable to a Sony receiver but soon I will be utilizing the Denon Link connection with a Denon AVR-3806. I set the HDMI format to RGB and 720p to match the native resolution of my display.

My first order of business was to pop in the GetGray calibration DVD and view a few test patterns. Since my Samsung TVs color management settings and white point (adjusted in service) are global, my primaries, secondaries and grayscale tracking were already calibrated. It’s good to know I can get consistent results from HDMI or component inputs on this set. I tweaked the black and white level settings to resolve the pluge and ramps patterns properly. Since this player offers image positioning controls, I centered the picture using an overscan pattern.

I couldn't wait a moment longer to run through the HQV torture-test disc so in it went. Needless to say, it aced every test. I honestly don't know what the differences are between the Reon and Realta chips are (the Realta is found in the Denon DVD-3930CI and 5910 players), but it would seem that for a mere $849, I had achieved video processing quality previously found only in players costing far more.

Moving on to actual content: I picked some of my worst quality DVDs to try like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Babylon 5. No, they didn't look like HD but dynamic range was hugely improved. There was absolutely no trace of jaggies anywhere! I really looked hard too! Once I put in high-quality DVDs like Lost or James Bond Ultimate Edition the image was simply stunning. It truly approached a high-quality HD feed. In fact, I would rate it higher than some HD content I've seen on DirectTV. Color and dynamic range are simply in a new league with this player. And did I mention the sound? My current speaker system is far from state-of-the-art and I heard an immediate difference. Imaging and clarity were much improved. I can't wait to run some SACDs through this thing! That will have to wait until I've installed my new Axiom speaker system. Stay tuned for that in about a month. One footnote on Denon Link: besides the HQV chip, Denon Link is the other big reason to choose this player. This is the only non-Sony product that I know of that will play SACDs over an all-digital connection. Paired with Denon's AVR3806 receiver, this player will send all sound formats digitally. My system now has no analog sound interconnects whatsoever!

I know many people are waiting to see the results of the format war before buying a new disc player. I almost did myself. I finally reasoned that eventually, there would be players that could read both formats as well as standard DVDs and all types of music CDs. There has already been a press release about a decoder chip that reads both HD and BluRay and LG Electronics is currently advertising a player that incorporates it. I feel it's only a matter of time before Denon releases players that read every currently available optical disc with HQV processing and SACD over Denon Link. When that happens, I'll be upgrading. For now, I am thrilled with my 2930CI. To beat this level of image and sound quality, you would have to spend at least three times as much money. There will be support and demand for standard DVD for years to come. Why not enjoy them with the best player you can afford?

Monday, January 08, 2007

Sony KDL-40V2500 LCD Calibration

This is Sony's least expensive 1080p LCD TV. It retails for $500 less than the next model up XBR. The extra dough gets you another HDMI input (3 versus 2) and a few more image enhancement features. Otherwise, it's the same panel and backlight. The 40-inch TV I calibrated is perfect for a bedroom or small den. With the high-resolution image, the ideal viewing distance is about 6-7 feet.

After beginning with the basic pluge patterns to set brightness and contrast, I then turned to the backlight control. With all the LCDs I've done so far, the best black level detail is to be found with the backlight turned to the Minimum setting. There is still plenty of light at the high end and daytime viewing is fine. In fact, I calibrated this panel in a fairly bright room with a large side window. I always recommend against using the Day/Night sensor. This feature changes the backlight levels depending on the ambient light. Sounds great in theory but in practice, the change is far too drastic resulting in very washed out blacks.

On to the service menu: I got a nice surprise here. Sony service menus are usually a collection of binary codes and very terse abbreviations. I always go in with reams of notes from my colleagues. This set is too new however so I didn't have quite as much backup as I would have liked. Wouldn't you know it, Sony decided to include a clear, graphical menu with clearly labeled controls for grayscale, image positioning and other features. I was able to achieve a Delta C* under 1.0 from 30 to 90 IRE with humps to 1.6 at 20 and 100 IRE. This is an extremely accurate grayscale tracking result. These settings were global for all inputs.

Returning to the user menu, color controls were left at defaults as the gamut and decoding were quite good. The green primary read as oversaturated but this was not evident in actual content. The best gamma (2.1) was achieved with the gamma control turned off. All other Advanced Video menu items were turned off except Black Corrector which was left at Low. The TV resolved a 1080i multi-burst pattern perfectly without any help from image enhancement settings.

The resulting image was very smooth and life-like. Details in DVDs played on the client's Oppo were crisp in both bright and dark scenes. Color and clarity from the 8300HD cable box were excellent on high-quality feeds like PBS and INDHD. All in all, the set was quite responsive to ISF calibration. It responded favorably and rewarded my efforts with an extremely accurate and clear picture. If you're looking to save a bit of cash over an XBR, the V2500 is the TV for you.