More sock­ets please...

Sound + Image - - Edlines - Cheers, Jez Ford, Ed­i­tor

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.

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