Taking home theatre and media room surround sound to the next level

 

Auro 3D home theatre and media room soundSurround sound adds a lot to the experience in a home theatre or media room. Without it, even the biggest and best screen leaves us wanting more. It’s amazing what a great job even a 5.1 system does to help immerse us into another cinematic world. This is done basically with one level (height) of audio. Now, Auro-3D and Dolby Atmos want us to rethink the standard in surround sound by adding height information to really immerse us into another world.

This basically boils down to more speakers, but it literally adds a another dimension to the sound. Most of us are using 5.1 or 7.1 speaker systems where all the speakers are targeted to be at ear level – front right, centre and left speakers with two or four side/back speakers (and the .1 is the subwoofer). The idea is that sound can be more realistic if there is height information. This makes sense, as our ears are capable of differentiating sounds from different levels.

An Auro-3D system would ideally create three levels of sound: surround layer, height layer and top layer (“Voice of God” layer). The surround layer is basically what’s used already with systems like 5.1 and 7.1, and is augmented with height layer(s). Auro-3D has two speaker formats for smaller rooms: 9.1 using two layers and 10.1 with three layers. For larger rooms they recommend: 11.1 and 13.1 – both with three layers. Speaker locations are prescribed, such as the 13.1 diagram below.

Auro 13.1 speaker layout

Dolby’s Atmos is similar with various speaker layouts and height channels, but they have thought of it in a novel way. All that sound information is recorded for a three dimensional space using up to 128 audio tracks. Then the Atmos AV receiver takes it all in and calculates what sounds come out of which speaker based on your particular room’s speaker layout. If you think its complicated, it is, but you can just let the Atmos AV receiver’s brains take care of the tough thinking. In terms of speaker configurations, your can choose a system with five speakers ear height and two speakers overhead to as many as 24 speakers ear level and 10 overhead. So far it looks like Atmos is leading the race with more Blu-ray titles and AV receivers at various price levels on the market.

Ceiling speakers add height information to home theatres and media rooms

Although there is a bit of a format war going on, it shouldn’t be like it was with the Beta vs. VHS and Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD battles. Hopefully the industry has learned it doesn’t do anybody good to make consumers gamble on an unproven format. Sides want to be the standard of choice, but they’re playing nice with each other so far. DTS recently also threw their hat in the ring with DTS:X, so we’ll have to see if it gains traction. Ideally you’ll be able to pick up a AV receiver that will support any of these formats. As mentioned, early results seem to be siding with Atmos, but time will tell. Either way, you should consider these audio formats for your next home theatre or media room.

Clearing up some 4K TV jargon confusion

 

HDMI with HDCP 2.2

We just discussed how prolific Ultra HD 4K TVs were at this year’s CES. Ultra HD or UHD 4K TVs are the next generation of TVs that everyone will be using sooner or later. The problem is that during this transition period not all of today’s 4K TVs will work with future cable set-top-boxes, disc players, etc. The issue comes down to two major pieces of home tech TV jargon: HDMI and HDCP.

We’ll start with HDMI. People may know HDMI as the cable to plug things like an Apple TV or cable box into TVs. The full story though is that HDMI is a standard that defines how a device like a cable box will talk with a TV. Its really a two-way conversation. In the old days it was a one way conversation: a TV cable just sent information using electrical signals to a TV. HDMI still uses electrical signals (in the form of digital data), but information goes both ways, e.g. TV resolution and control info. Since there are so many details that need to be agreed on, industry folks have created standards like ‘HDMI 1.4′ or ‘HDMI 2.0’. If manufacturer’s gear honours the standard’s rules, it can talk to each other usingHDMI cable HDMI. At this point you may be asking what does all this have to 4K TVs? Well, since there is so much data needed for those crystal clear 4K TVs, you’ll need at least HDMI 2.0 for things to work. HDMI 2.0 is the current top HDMI version, and any TV, cable box, AV receiver, etc. has to be at least HDMI 2.0 compatible if you want it to work with 4K TV content.

Ready to move on to HDCP? HDCP is High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection and is a type of digital copy protection. This is a tool to protect TV shows and movies from digital pirates and other content copiers. Movie studios and manufactures have agreed that devices like cable boxes, AV receivers, TVs, etc. must be HDCP compliant, or content will not play properly. As with any arms race, the weapons must be updated. For 4K TV, the agreed level of protection is currently HDCP 2.2. This means that any 4K TV must be HDCP 2.2 to work properly with 4K content.

What all this boils down to is that for 4K UltraHD, any TV or TV device you buy has to be at least HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 compatible. If not, its quite possible that they won’t work together. Shockingly, not all 4K TVs, 4K AV receivers, and such are both HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 compatible. This could mean anything from a lower than expected picture quality or a sad, empty black screen. Either way its extremely annoying when you think that you’re buying the latest and greatest technology. Hopefully this helps you understand the issues (and jargon), as the better equipped we all are, the better the home tech experience is for everyone.

How to choose your karaoke system

A good microphone like the Shure BLX24-PG58 should be used for karaoke

Karaoke has a strong following in Vancouver, and many people are looking for a custom system to show off their karaoke talents in their own home. There are many paths and budgets to get a solution that works for you, but you’ll need to think about the basics.

One of the first decisions to make is if you want to use your media room or home theatre’s speakers. You can save some money by not buying another set of speakers, but speakers often take a lot of abuse from karaoke. Mishaps like dropped microphones or speaker feedback are really hard on speakers, especially the tweeters. Regular speakers can be extremely well made, but are designed for ’safe’ recorded sound. Dedicated karaoke or professional grade speakers are better suited to handle awkward, accidental sounds. The money ‘saved’ on a separate set of karaoke speakers can easily be consumed fixing blown speakers!

Once you have your speakers figured out, you need to choose a mixer type. It mixes the music and the microphone vocals together. The basic choices are a combined mixer and amplifier in one, or separate mixer and amplifier. If you are leveraging a media room or home theatre system, then you just need a mixer. Depending on your budget, its often easy to get caught up wanting a higher-end professional mixer as it promises better sound quality. A prosumer or professional level mixer often comes with a lot more settings and knobs. These can make a system overwhelming and hard to use, so be careful to choose a system that matches your knowledge. A couple of mixer features to look out for are DA2200PRO Karaoke mixernumber of microphones inputs and pitch control (changes the karaoke music to match your preferred singing pitch).

Speaking of karaoke music, there are two basic ways to get your tunes: disc players or digital juke box type devices. Using a DVD or Blu-ray player and karaoke discs can be affordable, but it requires more manual effort to change songs. A higher-end solution digital juke box has hundreds of songs built in and can be updated when new songs are available. They are often easy to search, and most allow for tablets to control, so singers can take their time searching for just the right song. Although these can come loaded with amazing number of songs INANDON KV800SH Karaoke media player(Chinese, English, etc.), your latest, favourite pop song may not be there, so you’ll have to wait until its available and your system can be updated.

The last major pieces of the karaoke puzzle are microphones. Microphones start from very reasonably priced all the way up to professional grades if your budget allows. It all depends on the actual microphone element (the part that captures your voice). Manufactures are clear to denote which element the microphone uses and therefore the sound quality of the microphone. The curveball is when you want to go with a wireless microphone system. For a given microphone element, a decent wireless system can add around $200 to microphone. Depending on your budget, you may need to decide if sound quality or freedom of wires is more important to you.

If karaoke is your thing, then there’s a solution out there for you from basic to high-end. Before putting together your system, spend time figuring out what features work best for your style, room and budget.  Happy singing!

All about that bass

Room bass modesBass is a big part of the sound of a media room or home theatre. Not only does it provide the boom in movies, it fills in the low end of music. A home system must be correctly set up to get its full impact.

Many rooms may work with a single subwoofer. For the most part your ear and brain can’t tell where bass is coming from, so people often cram the subwoofer into a convenient corner. This doesn’t aways work though, as bass frequencies can be heard at different volumes in different places in the room. Yes, subwoofer placement can be very complicated.

Most of us don’t think of it, but sound reflects off of walls. (Think about echoes in an unfurnished room.) Since bass consists of low notes with long wavelengths, it can align with seating distances (feel free to catch up on your physics here). Bass sound waves interfere with their own reflections to make standing waves or room modes with nodes (low points) and anti-nodes (high points). The cool (or annoying) thing is that if you’re sitting where there is a node, you may not hear bass no matter how loud you turn up your system. In other spots its boomy. This depends on room dimensions (length, width and height). If your setup has seating in nodes, it can be very frustrating. One way to attack this is to sound wavelengthput the subwoofer on your chair or couch, and crawl to where you want to put your subwoofer. If you can hear bass at where you’ve crawled, then you’re OK to put the subwoofer there. Depending on the room and sub location, its possible that people hear much different levels of bass (here’s more info if interested).

home theatre or media room bassIn some rooms it may be easy to move the subwoofer if it doesn’t sound right, but when designing a sound system you should plan ahead to avoid issues. Run through some calculations (example calculator) to understand where the bass nodes and anti-nodes are located. You can make sure the bass nodes are not where people sit. If you have a large or strangely shaped room, or particular tastes in bass, then you may need to add more subwoofers. This will help smooth out the sound level throughout your room. Its extremely important if you’re using in-wall subwoofers to plan this out, as you can’t just move it when it doesn’t sound right.

People may not notice issues with their bass as they’re lucky that their room works well enough for them. Its great when everything works by default. But if you’re creating an entertainment space, then you want to think this through beforehand or get some help. This way you can get the bass pumping just right.

Home Automation Bonanza

Home Automation Control

You’ve probably noticed that just about everyone and their high tech dog has home automation products now. Products like Nest Thermostat, WeMo and Hue offer great functionality, but usually require their own app for control. Its much preferred to have simple, unified control for all your home automation products. There are three general categories of such solutions: do-it-yourself, basic control systems and full custom control solutions.

For the do-it-yourself types, there are options like Vera and Homeseer. These offer flexibility to automate nearly anything, but you need to have deep tech knowledge and understanding. For example, you need to understand physical limitations such as how close devices need to be to talk to each other. You will also need to spend a considerable amount of time and effort to get things going, so ensure that you’re the sort that will enjoy the journey if you go that route.

If you want something more ready to use out of the box, you can Logitech Harmony Ultimate Homechoose a basic control product like the Harmony Ultimate Home. The Harmony Ultimate Home builds on their AV universal remote systems and adds compatible home automation product control (e.g. Nest Thermostat, Lutron Caseta lighting, or Kwikset Kevo). It allows up to 15 devices and has decent control options. This product area will grow, and it will be interesting to watch as Apple, Google and Samsung hit their strides in this space.

Perhaps you want it all now – home automation with lighting, temperature and easy entertainment control. A professionally installed custom system can provide it all in a simple and convenient solution. There is the spectrum of custom solutions from modest to high end, so don’t think that they’re just for millionaires.

Home automation can be an incremental investment. You can start with a simple solution or just a room, e.g. media room, that can be expanded on later. Target simplicity, but don’t go too basic and paint yourself into a corner without an upgrade path. Regardless if you do it yourself or have an installer help out, you’ll make your home a little smarter and more convenient and comfortable. Happy home automating!

Video streaming and audio streaming vs. data usage caps

Netflix internet streaming service for home theatre and media roomsMany of us use streaming video and music to media rooms, home theatres and music systems. A lot of people have chosen to cut tradition services like cable TV because streaming covers their needs at a lower cost. If you stream content, watch your usage and be careful to not burn through your home and mobile internet plan data caps. It depends on the application (e.g. Netflix or Spotify) and the devices (e.g. HDTV, smartphone or tablet), but here are some guidelines.

First you should be aware of what your home and mobile internet plans offers for data usage caps. You should check with your provider (e.g. Shaw and Telus for home), but we can look at examples for a common home limit: 250GB / month and mobile limit: 1 GB / month.

Applications like Netflix and Spotify have settings to adjust bandwidth use vs. the quality. The table below shows approximate hours you can expect for one stream (e.g. one of your TVs). You can calculate similar numbers for your data usage cap and multiple streams depending on your use.

data usage for home theatre, media room and home audio internet streaming In short, for home streaming, light users should be fine and heavy users should watch their usage during the month to avoid bill shock. For your mobile data, be very careful, as you can use up your allotment fairly quickly. Be especially careful when traveling, as roaming charges can be extremely nasty. Also watch out if your provider decides to lower limits or if they don’t increase them over time based on natural data use growth.  Look at your monthly bill periodically, and consider changing companies if you find a better deal.

Streaming internet content is great for choice, convenience and price. With a little effort, you can ensure you have the right internet plan to match your needs and avoid overage charges.

From surveillance to watching pets – choosing a network camera

Dropcam network camera

Perhaps you want to keep an eye on your place or just want to know what your cat is up to while you’re out. This can be easily done with network cameras. These cameras connect to your home network and allow you to easily monitor video and audio over the internet. Devices vary from basic cameras to ones with more advanced features.

If you’re looking for a basic network camera, there there are many available from networking companies like D-Link andNetwork Cam TRENDnet. They usually run $100 or less and offer decent video quality with access in and outside your home using mobile apps and web browsers. Most can connect over Wi-Fi or can be wired, but consider your Wi-Fi coverage if you’re planning to rely on Wi-Fi to get a good experience. Wi-Fi is likely the way to go if you plan to move the camera around your home (to spy on Fluffy in various rooms).

Higher priced network cameras may include Axis dome camerafeatures like night vision or pan and tilt. There are also weather resistance models available for use outdoors. If you’re looking for high quality video, then there are options from companies like Axis. You also have to consider viewing angles if you have a particular area to cover.

If video recording is a hot feature for you, its a good idea to go with a product focused on that. Products like Dropcam make set up and recording video in the cloud easy for those who aren’t software engineers. Note that these services require a monthly or yearly subscription costs. Dropcam also provide email and text alerts when it detects motion, etc. Another option is to choose a system that includes a digital video recorder for your camera’s video if you wish to avoid cloud services.

If security is your concern, then there are solutions available from security providers that are tied into a monitored security system. Of course, network cameras can be integrated with your lighting and AV control into a control system like RTI’s to provide a simple user experience.

There are many choices, so first decide what you need – if you Toonces the catare looking to keep an eye on your pet, then maybe a basic network camera is all that is required. If you’re looking for something more in the surveillance vein, then you will need to think through required features, software and subscription costs. We never want to deprive someone of checking in on their cat Toonces, so let us know if you need a hand.

Retrofit your retro – lighting automation doesn’t have to be boring

Retrofit orange vintage lamp with lighting automation

A fun aspect of lighting automation is that you don’t have to sacrifice your style for functionality. You’re not just stuck with pot lights – you can use your favourite table and floor lamps too. Light control can be used in both new builds and existing homes, and it covers the whole gamut of home design. To get started, all you need is your imagination.

There are many solutions from do-it-yourself systems like WeMo, Philips Hue and INSTEON, or custom installer products like Lutron’s RadioRA2. Solutions include switches, receptacles and light bulbs that match the decor of your home. This gives you flexibility to use not only floor and table lamps, but also ceiling installed fixtures and pot lights.

INNSTEON lighting automation

There is a full range of functionality too. You can have standalone sensors like Lutron’s occupancy/vacancy switches, or deeper functionality like scheduling, mood setting and automated lighting to greet you when you arrive at your home. Lutron occupancy switchIf you’re looking for the more involved functions, you can include a controller like RTI’s XP6 to be the brains. If you’re taking that step, you can expand it to work in concert with window coverings, entertainment systems like music and home theaters, and more. This also plays into smartphone apps for full control when you’re away from home.

Start with a list of desired functions from simple timers and occupancy – to scheduling – to whole home integration. This will help you narrow down available products that match your requirements. If you need some help, feel free to contact us for some assistance.

RTI's XP6 control processor

How many speakers does my home theatre or media room need?

5.1 Surround Sound

OK you’ve reviewed your TV speaker options and decided your media room or home theatre needs separate speakers. There are many different audio formats advertised: 5.1, 7.1, 9.2, 7.1.2, etc, etc. – its enough to make your head spin. Although more home theatre speakers usually offer a more realistic ‘sound-scape’, its also good to look from the perspective of what will work in your space and budget.

First lets see what those numbers mean. For 5.1, the ‘5′ is the number of speakers and the ‘.1′ is the low frequency sound effects (LFE), i.e. subwoofer. For 5 speakers, you have a centre channel speaker for sounds like dialogue, left & right front speakers, and left & right surround speakers (sound behind you). For the new Dolby Atmos formats like 7.1.2 the extra .2 on the end is for overhead speakers. Regardless of format, sound is recorded so every speaker has its own information with unique sound from each. This is how you hear directional sounds like cars roaring by in movies. Some AV receivers also may state 7.2 or 9.2, but the ‘.2′ is just denoting that you can connect two subwoofers (e.g. for serious setups or larger rooms). Although there are many formats, the most common ones are 5.1 (diagram above) & 7.1 (diagram below).  Note that us humans can’t tell where low frequency sounds are coming from, so the subwoofer can be put in various locations.

7.1 surround sound

Now that you’ve got your head wrapped around this, what should you do for your room? Of course that depends on individual situations, but in general, most people get great milage out of a good 5.1 setup. For smaller rooms or for aesthetics, systems can be very unassuming using in-wall or in-ceiling speakers and a hidden subwoofer. If you’re a really demanding videophile or are building a dedicated home theatre, then you should definitely look into a 7.1 or bigger setup. More speakers may be ‘better’, but a system right-sized for your home and budget is best.

The big screen

Stewart Filmscreen Stealth

Last time we reviewed what to look for in a media room or home theatre projector, but that is literally only half the picture. Some people may use a white-ish wall or paint a wall with special ‘screen’ paint, but this will have mixed results. To get the full benefit of your projector, you should use a proper screen for your room.

The first thing to decide is screen size and format. Screen size will be a balance of your room dimensions and preference Masked screenversus the projector’s capability. The format will be dictated by the content you usually watch. For example, if you watch mostly HDTV (16:9) content, you should get a 16:9 screen. The down side is that other content, e.g. CinemaScope (2.35:1), will not have the screen masked with the black frame properly. Automatic masking systems that adjust for the format are a consideration for folks who watch different formats and are demanding with their viewing experience.

The next thing you should settle on is the style of screen. Screens can be fixed frame or roll up (or down). A fixed frame screen is simply a screen stretched on a frame that is permanently on your wall. A roll up screen allows you to roll up your screen when not in use. The screen can roll up into a box that is on your wall or below your ceiling. If you want to get fancier, there are screens that roll up into the ceiling and essentially disappear. These screens can be automatic a la James Bond style too. You can also get screens that come out of the floor (or ground when used in a pool area). Either way, make sure the roll away screen has a quality tensioning system, as a screen that isn’t flat is no fun to watch.

Once you have settled on style of screen, you’ll need to determine which screen surface material works for your space. Surface material is usually advertised in Gain and Half Gain Viewing Angle. Gain is the amount of light that is reflected (1.0 for a white surface). In very general terms, white coloured screens are for a room like a dedicated home theatre where there is no ambient light. Grey coloured screens, like Stewart Filmscreen’s Tiburon, have material that is suited in media type rooms where there’s ambient light. This is where the viewing angle comes into play, as the trade off on material and gain is that brightness and colour changes when you’re off centre to Stewart Filmscreen Tiburonthe screen. If you’re big into 3D content, you’ll also need to keep that in mind as well because different material is better suited for 3D viewing. Manufactures use many surface materials to balance gain and viewing angle for various viewing conditions from dark rooms to bright auditoriums, so you have lots of options.

Another option to consider is a perforated screen. Perforated screens allow you to put the speakers behind the screen to allow the sound to come through the screen right from the image. A good perforated screen will not degrade picture quality and will be practically acoustically transparent. Of course, you’ll need to put speakers in the wall or build a special baffle wall to house the speakers.

There are enough options to make your head spin, but this overview should get you started. With a bit of research and understanding of your needs and your room’s specifics, you can narrow down your search quite quickly. From there, you can take the time to ensure proper projector and screen placement to avoid projection path issues and unnecessary adjustments like keystone. Once you’ve put together the right system, you should be set for a thrilling and immersive viewing experience.