More sockets please...
Arcam’s large but impressive SR250 stereo receiver enthused us this issue not only with its sound quality, but for the way it addresses the mess that can surround the average TV system in the home. As video sources have proliferated, and HDMI dongles become more ubiquitous, we have arrived at an impasse where we are likely to have far more HDMI cables heading for the TV than any TV can actually handle.
And that’s only half the problem, since we assume that all good readers of Sound+Image will be using an external sound system rather than the dismal built-in sound of today’s superslim TVs. So if you are using the TV as your HDMI connections hub, you’re probably reduced to taking the audio output from the TV’s optical socket — these are notoriously unreliable — or from a minijack analogue audio output, which is likely to be served by the cheapest circuitry and components the TV company could get away with. This is not the best path to beautiful AV sound.
Of course if you’re using a proper AV receiver and an attached set of surround speakers, then you probably have all the HDMI inputs you need, and simply splendid sound. Good on you. But it’s no secret that the modern Australian open-plan lounge space is increasingly unfriendly to a decent surround speaker set-up. We’re delighted to see growth in dedicated home cinema rooms, in installs like the one this issue from West Coast Hi-Fi Midland (see p86) and in new-build homes that offer ‘entertainment rooms’ as standard or extra options. At the same time it’s no secret that ever fewer multichannel AV receivers are being used in the family lounge with the main household TV.
Instead we’ve seen soundbars take over in this space. This is a shame. Impressive as the very best of these can be, the majority are pretty feeble, and often still poor performers with music. And since music is a big part of movies too, saying that a soundbar is poor with music really means it’s just outright inaccurate all over. Furthermore, many soundbars just take the audio signal from the TV via optical or analogue again, with the same problems as before. Those soundbars that do offer HDMI inputs rarely have more than two or three — we’re back to the connections issue again.
So what we really need is a modern stereo audio amplifier which has loads of HDMI inputs. Then it can make the best of the original digital audio from the video sources while forwarding on the video to your TV, and playing sound through your choice of stereo speakers either side of your TV. If you want extra movie depth, add a subwoofer.
Hence our delight when setting up the Arcam SR250 and realising that’s exactly what it offers.
Happily, the HDMI socketry used for the Arcam’s ins and outs is already fully 4K compliant, as this issue we celebrate the arrival (slow in coming as it was) of Ultra HD Blu-ray. The boxes for the UHD Blu-ray discs themselves are black, their contents carry High Dynamic Range and Wide Color Gamut information, and since large numbers of us have bought 4K televisions without having anything much to watch on them, the arrival of the first UHD players should be cause for celebration. As Stephen Dawson notes in his review of Samsung’s UBD-K8500, the first player to arrive Down Under, it’s an additional delight to see an RRP of $599 on a first-generation player of a new format — the first Blu-ray players were $1800 or more, the first DVD players $1500. And that was, of course, a while ago.
Why so? Well, with streaming threatening to wipe out the optical disc market entirely at some not unforeseeable time, the relatively low pricing may be deliberate, to encourage early adoption and secure the longterm survival of this Ultra High Definition format. In Australia it’s got a better chance than most, since an embarrassingly small proportion of our populace can access the high internet speeds required to stream 4K material... it’s also worth remembering that although 4K streams may have the full Ultra HD resolution, there are plenty of other ways the signals get compressed as they come through the tubes to your streaming box or TV. With Ultra HD Blu-ray, you get it pure.
As this new format finally arrives, the old format of vinyl continues its delightful survival, and we were thrilled to spend a happy month with Rega’s nearly all-new Planar 3 turntable spinning our black stuff. Its visit coincided with a local record fair, where an outlay of $120 or so saw us loading more vinyl into the car than we could comfortably carry. Despite the prices of mainly $5 and $10, most of the LPs looked so clean we suspect the various vendors had already put them through a cleaning machine; we repeated the cleaning process anyway, and so far haven’t found a dud disc in there. The days of dirt-cheap bins of vinyl in charity shops are over, of course, but CDs and DVDs have taken their place, both in stores and online — I’m currently trying to break a habit of Saturday morning DVD shopping in bed via the internet, with eBay and other sites sending me packets of DVDs and standard Blu-rays to the door at $5 a pop and free postage. Happiness.
Media, then, is cheap today. Good hi-fi and high-quality AV costs a little more, and it most certainly should not be purchased on the internet, as you should listen to check you like what it does to your media before you buy it! But with these two ends of the chain brought together, we are surely experiencing the best of old and new technologies combined at a level of quality, versatility and variety never before enjoyed. We just need somewhere to plug all those cables.