Jeremy Phan

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Buying a new television, despite the myriad of specifications, technologies, resolutions, and other factors, doesn’t have to be a bewildering quest. With the shuttering of plasma technology by Pioneer, Samsung, and others, the only remaining mainstream technology is LCD, which continually gets better and better. Virtually all mid-to-high-range LCD displays now use LED backlights (instead of CCFL), with either local or edge-lit dimming to enable deeper blacks and richer, brighter colours. 3D didn’t take off as manufacturers and studios wanted but has nonetheless, helped to improve performance by increasing refresh rates, colour gamut, and other specifications that are also used for 2D video. Starting off with resolution and ending with budget, the list of questions a consumer needs to ask is now much more succinct.

Edge-lit vs. Local Dimming

At their core, all LCD displays consist of a white backlight sitting behind an RGB (red, green, blue) LCD panel. The backlight shines light forward, while the LCD controls the passage of the backlight to illuminate each individual colour pixel. In older LCD displays, the backlight was often a single unit which could not vary its light output across the screen and more importantly, not turn off. This in turn, made it very difficult for older LCDs to deliver truly dark blacks, often displaying them as dark grey or blue.  One advantage of the now defunct plasma technology, by virtue of its process, was its ability to not illuminate individual pixels as needed. Advancements in LCD backlight technology, beyond moving to higher quality LED backlights, now include edge-lit and local dimming, splitting the backlight into multiple zones for more refined control.

The backlight, therefore, is now the one of the specifications that has the largest effect on picture quality. Edge-lit displays are the cheaper of the two versions and use backlights arranged around the edge of the display. Unfortunately, there are numerous edge-lit backlight configurations used by each manufacturer, with varying picture quality, depending on the price of the TV. If the edge-lit backlight is only along one edge, it effectively creates rows or columns of backlights. If more backlights are used, such as top/bottom, right/left, or all four sides, this increases the effective addressable backlights areas. The more precise the edge-lit backlight control, the darker the image can get, and the higher the resulting contrast and subsequent picture quality.

Backlights can further be refined by utilizing locally-dimmed backlights, which again split the screen into zones. Whereas edge-lit backlights controlled the lights emanating from the sides of the TV, locally dimmed backlights split the TV into blocks within the TV. Each of the resulting backlights is individually addressable and can vary its brightness for its specific sub-image. Vizio Canada, which recently launched in Canada on September 12th, uses a 36-zone locally-dimmed backlight in their M-Series HDTVs. This backlight consists of 4 rows split into 9 columns each, allowing each individual subsection to be controlled, resulting in better quality. This precise control is especially apparent with ultra-widescreen content as the empty top and bottom horizontal black bars are pitch black.

Many HDTVs are also coming pre-calibrated from the factory, ensuring viewers get the best picture quality possible. While many big-box stores will switch to a harsh, unnatural screen mode to make the TV stand out against a wall of other brightly lit TVs, the inclusion of calibrated or movie/film modes is putting quality over quantity.

Picture Resolution

HDTVs offer two native picture resolutions - 720p (1,280 x 720 pixels) or 1080p (1,920 x 1,080 pixels). If you’re purchasing a TV under 50”, there is no discernible visual difference between 720p and 1080p for viewers with normal eyesight sitting at an appropriate distance – it is only when purchasing larger sets (over 50”) that a difference can be seen.  So if budget is a constraint, consumers can save with a 720p set without worrying that they’re missing out on resolution.

Stepping up to larger HDTVs over 55”, which many consumers are now upgrading to, after making the switch to flat panels, 1080p is the resolution available on the majority of HDTVs under $3,000 CAD. 1080p displays are available from across all manufacturers’ ranges, from their entry-level sets all the way through their high-end sets. Pricing differences come into effect for differentiating features such as refresh rate (120 Hz, 240 Hz, etc.), smart/connected TV functionality (such as WiFi mirroring, built-in Netflix, YouTube, etc.), backlight technology (local dimming, edge-lit), size, and even shape (more below).

4K or UltraHD

The next step up from 1080p is 4K, or UltraHD (3,840 x 2,160 pixels). 4K televisions offer four times the resolution of 1080p (8,294,400 pixels versus 2,073,600 pixels) and change the line count from horizontal (1,080 lines) to vertical (3,840 lines). This change was also made so that empty black horizontal lines wouldn’t be counted in ultra-widescreen content (e.g. 21:9), instead only counting vertical lines which always have content.

4K televisions, with their increased pixel density, are typically only advantageous on very large sets (65” and larger) but are also useful in small sets for a different reason: the ability to sit closer to your television without losing image detail. As you move closer to your television, the individual pixels on a 1080p TV become more apparent, causing the image to lose detail, but with a 4K television, the higher pixel density due to the smaller pixels compensates for this effect. For those that doubt the need for increased resolution, while the shift from 1080p to 4K isn’t as visually drastic as the switch from standard definition to high definition years ago, it really is something that must be seen in person to appreciate. A visit to a local retailer with 4K televisions will drive this point home.

4K televisions currently command a 60 per cent (or more) premium versus their 1080p counterparts but as with all technology, this gap is narrowing quickly. A 50” Samsung UN50HU7000 4K TV can be found for approximately $1,700 CAD versus about $1,000 for a similar 1080p set from Samsung.

To connect these 4K television sets, HDMI has been updated to version 2.0 but fret not, most existing HDMI v1.4 cables, receivers, and other devices will support 4K up to 30 fps. The upgrade to HDMI v2.0 brings 60 fps, wider colour gamut, 32 audio channel support, and other features.

Native 4K content is still sparse but there are both digital media storage devices from Sony and Samsung, as well as online streaming services, including Netflix, which provide 4K content. Sony’s 4K movie and show library boasts over 200 titles, with each movie download consuming over 40GB. Movies purchased or rented are stored on Sony’s 2TB-equipped FMP-X1 4K Ultra HD Media Player. For online streaming services such as Netflix, utilizing the new HEVC codec, a broadband connection with a sustained minimum of 15 Mbps is required to stream 4K content such as House of Cards. Sites such as YouTube and Vimeo already support 4K streaming and services such as Amazon (unfortunately not yet available in Canada) are set to roll out their own 4K streaming offerings shortly. One very important thing to note with downloads and streaming is that with the huge amounts of data being transferred for 4K content, consumers should be especially aware of their monthly broadband traffic allotments if they do not have an unlimited plan. For those that prefer physical media, new triple-layered Blu-ray discs with a 100 GB capacity to support 4K content will arrive in 2015, allowing users to purchase 4K content instead of having to use their Internet connections.

As a stopgap measure until more native 4K content is available, all UltraHD TVs feature 4K upconversion, which interpolates lower resolution content for display on the UltraHD sets. This is done with varying degrees of quality but overall, the mainstream manufacturers (LG, Samsung, and Sony) do a decent job thanks to their experience with digital imaging and processing. On the other hand, UltraHD sets from off-brand manufacturers such as Seiki don’t do as well, often resulting in blocking, aliased images.

Jeremy Phan’s latest CANADA HiFi video focuses on helping you select a pair of headphones / earphones that are ideal for your listening needs.   After viewing the video, we encourage you to read our complete guide to buying headphones in the Headphone Buyer Guide, also written by Jeremy.

If you’re looking for specific headphone / earphone suggestions, please check out our sister website Guydster, the guy’s guide to everything - Audio Guide: Best Headphones / Earphones

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We live in an increasingly technology-filled world and while there’s more computing power in a modern smart phone than the spacecraft that landed on the moon, one area that’s been left out are our humble homes. Molded quartz countertops, engineered hardwood, and LED lightbulbs may take up aisles and aisles at your local home improvement store but it’s only recently that devices such as smart thermostats and smoke detectors, lighting control, and automation have started to garner interest from the average consumer.

Previously, home automation was economically inaccessible for many, costing tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of dollars and requiring specialized equipment, wiring, installers, and programmers. Vendors such as Crestron, Control 7, and Savant have a wide range of products that can control everything from motorized blinds to lights to climate control. Their systems also integrate with home theatres for multi-room audio and video control and distribution. Some readers may be familiar with the X10 system, a protocol from the mid-70s that is all but obsolete today. For this article, I’ll be taking the do-it-yourself approach with the various off-the-shelf systems now available.

Home automation is poised to take off this year due to a confluence of factors. First and foremost, Texas Instruments has released a $10 WiFi chip, making it incredibly cheap and easy for manufacturers to add wireless access (and therefore Internet connectivity) to practically any device. Alongside that, Bluetooth Low Energy (v4.0) is enabling wireless devices such as sensors to operate for years on a single coin cell battery (CR2032). Next, a whole slew of devices from established names such as Belkin and Philips aim to enable the smart home through mobile apps on users’ tablets and smart phones. Lastly, start-ups such as Securifi, Revolv, and SmartThings offer devices that support multiple protocols and eliminate complicated programming, utilizing smart phone and tablet apps which users are very familiar with.

When looking at home automation, most people think of controlling their lights, locks, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), and home entertainment. Logitech introduced the concept years ago with their line of Harmony programmable remotes which were capable of controlling the environment with its infrared commands when certain “activities” were selected. For example, if you had an infrared capable light switch, the Harmony could dim/turn off the lights, turn on your TV, and set the AV receiver to the correct input when you wanted to watch a movie - all with the press of a single button. Infrared, however, has a major disadvantage: it requires line of sight. To address this, a few competing wireless protocols emerged: X10, Insteon, Z-Wave, and Zigbee to name a few. Each has its advantages and disadvantages but they all have similar functionality. Today, Insteon and Z-Wave are the main competitors though this writer suspects that WiFi and Bluetooth Low Energy will quickly eat into their market share with their more commonplace, familiar, and ubiquitous protocols.

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The Belkin WeMo app, designed for iOS/Android smart phones and tablets, is used to control the whole range of WeMo devices.  The image on the top-middle shows a screenshot of the app’s main menu, which lists all of your WeMo devices and lets you control them.  The image on the top-right shows energy consumption information from the WeMo Insight Switch.

To get started with home automation in 2014, users no longer have to give up an arm and a leg, go through a custom installer, or even get an electrical permit (check with your local jurisdiction for specific requirements). Today’s offerings allow users to start small and add on as they go along. For as little as $50 and five minutes, you’re on your way to remotely controlling a light switch, lamp, or other device. These systems also do not have any recurring or monthly fees. With the barrier to entry so low, users can take a plunge without breaking their pocketbooks. As an owner of an automated home, I can tell you that once you enable your home like something out of the Jetsons, you’ll never want to go back. Depending on your requirements, budget, and ambitions, you really can connect, automate, and control practically everything in your home: lights, climate, security, audio/video, and much more, all without breaking the bank.

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Top: Belkin WeMo Smart LED Bulb ($39). Bottom: Belkin WeMo Switch ($49).

The easiest and most affordable system to get your feet wet with home automation is Belkin’s line of WeMo WiFi-enabled devices such as wall switches, wall plugs, light bulbs, motion sensors, and even a baby monitor which are available at many local retailers. Starting at $49, the Belkin WeMo Switch is a device that turns any outlet into a remotely controlled “smart” outlet. This allows you to remotely control lamps, fans and other devices of your choice. To get started, all you have to do is install the WeMo app on your smart phone (iOS or Android), plug the device into the wall, connect to the Switch over WiFi, and set it up. It takes less than 5 minutes and out of the box, the Belkin WeMo Switch is capable of being programmed from the mobile app with time-based rules such as when to turn on or off. Additionally, the WeMo line is “if this then that” (IFTTT)-compatible, a free Internet service that allows users to create “recipes” that perform actions based on triggers. IFTTT has a large number of Internet services and devices that can interact with the WeMo. For instance, a recipe could trigger an email to be sent through Gmail every time the WeMo Switch is turned on. As of writing, there are 82 different services/devices that are accessible through IFTTT: email, SMS, Craigslist, YouTube, Twitter, and many more. For $79, the WeMo Switch + Motion pack could allow a parent to detect when their children get home, turn on the light, and send an alert to their smart phone. For those users who know their way around a screwdriver and are looking to control a ceiling light fixture, the WeMo Wall Switch replaces a standard wall switch, enabling it to be controlled through the smart phone app. Simply shut off the power at the breaker and replace your existing 3-wire, single-pole switch and again, in less than 5 minutes, your track light or fixture is now controllable through your smart phone.  Then there is also the WeMo Insight Switch, which works just like the Switch mentioned above but can also send information about the plugged-in device’s energy usage directly to your smart phone or tablet.  Rounding out the WeMo line-up is a WeMo Smart LED Bulb ($39) which can be set to automatically respond to sunset/sunrise, turned on/off or dimmed, all from your smart phone.

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The Securifi Almond+ is a combination Internet router and home automation controller.

For those looking to take their automation setup further, you’ll have to look at a more advanced system such as those offered by Insteon, Z-Wave, or Zigbee. These protocols each use a proprietary wireless mesh network (as well as powerline communication for Insteon) but require a central control hub, which adds a slight expense. The advantage is that these more established home automation protocols have a huge assortment of devices available: motion/door sensors, water/leak sensors, multi-pole switches, HVAC control, energy monitoring, handheld remotes, and many others. With the wide variety of devices and protocols, users may have difficulty deciding between them. To address this, three companies have released devices which incorporate multiple radios. The Securifi Almond+ (www.securifi.com) is a combination Internet router and home automation controller.  At $120 it is a steal and comes with both Z-Wave and Zigbee support as well as the latest 802.11ac WiFi, 4 gigabit Ethernet ports, and two USB 3.0 ports. However, its most visible feature is the 3.5” screen that will be used to control and program it. The Revolv (www.revolv.com) is another consolidated home automation controller. While it lacks the Internet routing functionality and is almost triple the price ($299 USD) of the Almond+, it comes with seven different radios, ensuring maximum compatibility. The third option is by SmartThings, a Kickstarter project that ended in September 2012 and raised over $1.2M. The SmartThings $99 hub is fully integrated with IFTTT and has smart phone apps that offer extensive features and functionality including simplified programming through the app.

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The Revolv is a highly versatile home automation system that works with many different devices including the Sono multi-room music system, Philips Hue LED light bulbs, Belkin’s WeMo products, Yale and Kiwkset locks, just to mention a few.

For my own home, back in late 2012, I chose a Z-Wave setup operated by a VeraLite controller (from MiCasaVerde), which is slightly less user friendly than SmartThings but offers advanced programming capabilities. The VeraLite controls every light in my home as well as 3-pole switches and interfaces with my Canadian-made Ecobee Smart Thermostat (www.ecobee.com), a touchscreen-equipped, WiFi-enabled thermostat that has much more functionality than the Nest, which was recently acquired by Google for over $3 billion. My own system recently expanded with the addition of the also Canadian-made Piper (www.getpiper.com), a 1080p WiFi-connected home security camera which also supports Z-Wave. In a few weeks, door sensors and a smart lock (www.lockitron.com) will be joining the mix, rounding out my connected home. For a great example of the possibilities of modern home automation, search on YouTube for “voice-controlled home automation” and check out the video by Doug Gregory. Using less than $400 worth of equipment, he demonstrates how he can control lights, a TV, and a network media player, all with voice commands on an Android smart phone. One note for those looking to replace wall switches: check to ensure your fixture boxes are deep enough to accommodate the radio-equipped switches which are deeper than standard switches.

ecobee (Custom)Canadian-made Ecobee Smart Thermostat

Beyond the above-mentioned smart home controllers, there are now additional devices that can enhance your home. The latest and often easiest addition is a smart, connected thermostat, most famously the Nest - a thermostat designed by two former Apple engineers that learns your habits and adjusts your home’s temperature depending on input from a variety of variables such as your home’s age, outdoor temperature, energy costs, and other factors. Non-programmed or on “hold” thermostats waste energy by unnecessarily heating or cooling a home when occupants are not home. These devices address this by enabling users to better manage their HVAC usage, which can make up 40-60% of a monthly hydro bill.

Moving over to audio video, integration can be achieved with devices such as the $90 iTach Ethernet to IR adapter, a network-connected IR blaster that can be programmed and controlled via a smart phone app or by other 3rd party networked devices. By connecting the IR blaster to your home network, any other device on the network can send infrared commands via the iTach to your devices.

With the wide variety of devices and technologies now available, your home can adapt, communicate, and become an active part of your life. The ease of use and affordability of many of these systems means that for a small investment, you can quickly and easily enable your most used switches and devices to become smart. Never having to worry about lights being left on, the thermostat being set, or the door being unlocked are just some of the ways that home automation can enhance your home and bring peace of mind.

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HDTVs are an integral part of many consumers’ homes and with the recent switch to digital over-the-air broadcasting in Canada, back in September of 2011, many consumers now have access to free, high definition content (1080i) without needing to go through a satellite or cable provider. Thanks to the ever-decreasing price of HDTVs, coupled with the proliferation of high definition content via Blu-ray as well as online services such as the iTunes Store and Netflix, many consumers have ditched their standard definition displays and upgraded to 720p and 1080p capable sets to take advantage of all this crystal clear content.

As with most technology, things don’t stay the same for long and manufacturers have already started incorporating the next high(er) definition format into their offerings: 4K resolution. This new designation refers to vertical lines of resolution as opposed to horizontal lines as with previous designations (720p and 1080p refer to horizontal lines of resolution). This is due to all the different aspect ratios that each studio utilizes for their content (e.g. 16:9, 22:9) so instead of the varying lines of horizontal resolution, 4K refers to the fixed 4,096 lines of vertical resolution. When multiplied by the various horizontal resolutions, this gives more than four times the current pixels of today’s 1080p displays: 1080p displays contain 1,920 x 1,080 = 2,073,600 pixels; 4K displays contain up to 12,746,752 pixels (4,096 x 3,112).

First, a primer on resolutions and why 720p and 1080p are “high definition” as opposed to previous standard definition formats. While there are different methodologies and numbers thrown around, the general consensus is that to be “high definition” the screen must show an image where individual pixels are indistinguishable by the human eye (at an appropriate viewing distance). The average human being has 20/20 vision meaning that from 20’/6.09m away, they can read letters approximately 0.35”/8.8mm tall on an eye chart. Translating this to HDTVs, the required resolution to produce pixels that are small enough to be indistinguishable varies depending on the distance a viewer is seated from the HDTV as well as its size. At a viewing distance of 8’/2.4m, the average person cannot distinguish between pixels that are smaller than 0.065”/1.65mm.  This means that for displays 50” or smaller, 720p resolution is indistinguishable from 1080p resolution. Typically consumers are advised to sit at a viewing distance that is approximately 1.5 to 2.5 times the diagonal measurement of their screen. For example, for a 50” display, consumers would sit 75-125”/1.9-3.2m away. This is to prevent eye strain from the flickering image as well as to fill enough of the viewer’s field of vision with the image.  Higher resolutions only become necessary if viewers want to sit closer to their televisions or have larger screens (which have larger pixels). This limit to visual acuity can actually save consumers money since they don’t have to purchase a more expensive 1080p HDTV if an equivalent 720p set is available (for sizes smaller than 50” or viewers who prefer further viewing distances). 4K resolution will allow consumers to purchase smaller television sets while simultaneously sitting closer to the screen and still maintain the crystal clear image that many of us have become accustomed to.

As with any new format, there are both upsides and downsides. The most obvious downside is the need for a new 4K display. Initially, these television sets will command a premium over similarly sized 1080p displays but as always, the price difference will shrink as time progresses. Toshiba, LG and Sony have already shown off prototypes as well as production models (destined for Asia) in sizes ranging from 55” up to 84”, with both 2D and glasses-free 3D capabilities.

Sony and JVC have also both released 4K projectors for the home, allowing well-heeled consumers to bring the 4K movie theatre experience home. Sony’s VPL-VW1000ES 4K 3D-capable home projector has an MSRP of $25,000 USD, accepts all current 4K formats (except 4K 3D) and will upscale any non-4K content to 4K (including 1080p 3D). At CES 2012, Sony stated that over 10,000 movie theatres worldwide are utilizing their commercial 4K projectors and the number is increasing daily.

Fortunately, for some consumers, the only component they will need to upgrade to enjoy 4K content is their TV because much of their existing 1080p components may already support the new format. Any device that supports the latest HDMI v1.4 specification is already capable of either processing or at least passing through 4K resolution signals. This includes everything from HDMI cables to Blu-ray players to AV receivers. For example, Onkyo’s TX-NR809 receiver, which was released back in Q2 of 2011, includes a Marvell Qdeo video processor to upscale existing content to 4K and other manufacturers have also been quietly building in 4K support in anticipation for the upcoming format. When Sony announced the release of its 4K home projector, it also stated that the PlayStation 3 will be receiving a firmware update in the coming months to support output of 4K still images. YouTube also already supports 4K video files.

4K brings another advantage but this one won’t have immediate, discernible effects for consumers in the short term: movie studios won’t have to spend time and money downscaling or reformatting movie theatre content (much of which is already shot in 4K). This should eventually make its way to consumers via faster and hopefully cheaper Blu-ray releases. To get all this 4K content to consumers, physical media will be the only timely option due to the vast sizes of 4K content (up to 4x current 1080p content). Sony has been in talks with the Blu-ray Disc Association to finalize a standard for compressing and storing 4K content and hopes to be able to release the next Spider-man movie on disc in 4K (due out summer 2012). The existing Blu-ray format already supports up to 50GB on each side (dual layer) and the upcoming BD-XL format supports up to 128 GB on each side (quadruple layer) – though this disc format isn’t compatible with existing Blu-ray players.

For all the consumers who will complain about the inevitable re-release of titles, 4K resolution will likely be the last format for much of our existing content. A 4K scan of 35mm film (what 95% of movies are/were filmed on) will max out the resolution of the medium and any higher resolution will be superfluous. The only exceptions to this are IMAX and 70mm films, which would require an 8K resolution scan to fully capture the negative. (Less than 1% of movies are filmed in IMAX and 70mm film was discontinued in the 80s.)

4K is the unifying video format that will erase the line between what is shown in movie theatres and what is available in the home (eventually). It will allow users to purchase smaller screens with higher resolution for use in tighter spaces while hopefully ending the video format evolution for the foreseeable future.

The 4K TV discussion continues on the CANADA HiFi Forum here: http://canadahifi.com//forum/showthread.php?983-4K-TV-Benefits-and-do-you-really-need-one-4K-versus-1080p&p=7119#post7119

The home theatre is a focal point in many homes.  It’s a place where friends and family congregate to watch the latest blockbuster movies, catch up on the day’s events with a local newscast or listen to music.  As the last remnants of an analog existence, for better or worse, slowly fade away, a digital convergence is occurring.  Analog over-the-air TV broadcasts are already a thing of the past (they were phased out after August 2011) and analog TV cable service will be ending within the next year for most Canadian consumers.  Today the evolution of digital entertainment allows us to purchase or rent movies directly from our TV sets thanks to online streaming services, access news directly on the TV set via an online connection and listen to lossless music from a digital audio library in various zones around a home.  Along with this evolution come new features and functionality such as the ability to stream audio and video to any capable, connected device; universal remote control capability from a variety of different devices; and DVR-like functionality throughout the home.

Two of the key devices of this digital evolution are the smartphone and the tablet, devices now found in many Canadian homes. Smartphone penetration is now over 40 percent and tablet penetration is over 10 percent, with a close mix of Android and iOS devices.  Apple’s iPad still has a considerable lead in the tablet space while the mobile phone space is much more even. To facilitate and take advantage of consumers’ continued adoption of these easy-to-use touchscreen-based devices, many AV component manufacturers have released apps for these devices. Most of these apps are free and available on the various mobile platforms: Google’s Play Market, Apple’s App Store via iTunes, and even BlackBerry World for the PlayBook.

The main functionality of many of these apps is to allow users to use their mobile touchscreen devices to replace the remote control of the target device. Using a large, vivid, colour touchscreen is easier and more intuitive than searching for the appropriate button on a traditional remote – especially if that traditional remote is not backlit. Take a look at any modern AV receiver remote and you’ll quickly see the advantage of a touchscreen remote versus the dozens and dozens of tiny buttons on a traditional remote. Users who are familiar with other touchscreen or universal remote devices from Logitech, Marantz, Philips, Universal Electronics, and others can attest to the benefits of universal/programmable remotes – once they get them programmed (which can be a feat in and of itself). The best part is that these devices have steadily dropped in price with the Logitech Harmony One (touchscreen combined with traditional buttons) now selling for under $200 CAD.

Thanks to the adoption of tablets and smartphones, users now have another alternative to control their entertainment.  While not as full-fledged as a Logitech Harmony remote, most manufacturers of smart TVs, AV receivers and Blu-ray players now have free remote control apps available for download.  If your device was released in the past year and/or supports DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) connectivity (via WiFi or wired Ethernet), it most likely has an app available for your tablet or smartphone. These apps require your mobile device to be connected to the same [home] network as the AV device being controlled. For example, Samsung’s “Remote” app supports HDTVs released in 2010 with [email protected] and all 2011 HDTVs with AllShare as well as Blu-ray players/HTIBs with Smart Hub (D5300 and above, HTS D5000 and above). Sony’s “Remote” app supports HDTVs starting from the EX42 Series and above as well as Blu-ray players starting from the S370 and above. Panasonic’s “VIERA Remote” app supports DT/ST/GT30 Series HDTVs from 2011, among others, as well as the latest 2012 sets. LG’s “TV Remote” app supports 2011 LV37-, LV55-, LW55-, and LZ96-series HDTVs and above while its “Remote for Audio & Video Devices” app supports 3D Blu-ray and LG Cinema products released in 2011 and beyond. Suffice it to say, HDTV manufacturers have been keen to include apps for mobile platforms as they strive to push for connected, “smart” features and functionality.

What was once the realm of ultra-expensive custom home theatre and home automation systems from Crestron, Control4, AMX and others is now readily available to the everyday consumer. While your smartphone or tablet can’t yet control every system in your home, AV or otherwise, they are increasingly being used as the touchscreen-based interface for many home automation systems, forgoing the proprietary touchscreen controllers once offered.

When used with AV receivers, your smartphone or tablet goes beyond a glorified remote control.  Some manufacturers, such as Pioneer and Yamaha, offer features that allow the ability to create custom playlists and stream music directly from the device. Thanks to the popularity of Apple devices such as the iPod and iPhone, many receivers already offer digital connectivity via a USB/30-pin cable or a dock.  These allow users to playback their music through their home theatre system with full remote control capabilities and if you don’t have an iOS device, the USB port doubles as a receptacle for the ubiquitous USB memory stick, allowing music to be played directly off of it. The main added benefit of extracting audio in the digital domain from Apple devices, as opposed to using the analog headphone jack, is utilizing the higher-quality DAC (digital-to-analog converter) found inside the receiver instead of the DAC built into the Apple device.   That’s because Apple devices’ internal DACs typically fare rather poorly, fidelity-wise when compared to other portable music players.  As with HDTVs, all the major manufacturers have mobile apps.  Denon’s app supports AVR-991 and above receivers; Yamaha supports the RX-V2065 and above, HTR-8063 and above, RX-A1000 and above, RX-V671 and above, and more.  Onkyo, who was one of the earliest adopters of mobile apps, has support going back to its 2009 TX-NR807 and continues support through to the 2010 TX-NR708 and above, the 2011 TX-NR509 and above, and the 2012 TX-NR807 and above. A great trend for consumers is that these networked features are continually making their way into more mid-range and even entry-level receivers. The Yamaha RX-V671, a capable dual-zone, networked receiver was available for less than $500 CAD at the time of writing.

The other method that smartphones and tablets are connecting with audio devices is through short-range Bluetooth technology. Traditionally used on cellular phones to connect with a hands-free headset, Bluetooth technology has continued to evolve and is now capable of streaming high-bitrate stereo sound to compatible devices. This allows both iOS and non-iOS devices to wirelessly stream their music libraries to compatible audio components. iOS has its own version of wireless streaming, called AirPlay, for streaming audio and video content as well as metadata such as track information, time and artwork. Many receivers, dedicated iPod speaker docks, and other devices support AirPlay though its adoption is less widespread than the open-source DLNA protocol.
One other category of components that should definitely not be overlooked is dedicated digital media playback devices. These range from inexpensive clock-radio iPod docks to multi-zone Sonos systems, to dedicated decks sporting Burr Brown DACs. Various audio manufacturers offer dedicated smartphone and tablet apps to control music playback.  These include manufacturers such as Naim, with its NDS, NDX, and ND5 XS Series of “Network Players”; Bryston with its BDP-1 Digital Player coupled with the BDA-1 External DAC; PS Audio’s PerfectWave DAC II, Digital Link III, and Digital to Analog; and the Marantz NA7004 Network Audio Player. When coupled with an iTunes library, these apps will display cover art and lyrics, manage playlists, and much more.

Not to be left out, if the networked device supports DLNA, other compatible (non-mobile) devices can also stream and control playback. Chief among this are personal computers and laptops. One sticker that is now showing up on AV receivers is the “Windows 7 Ready” sticker meaning that the receiver can be controlled by and stream content from networked Windows 7 computers. Windows Media Player, which once was a program preinstalled but often neglected, was revamped in Windows 7 (and the upcoming Windows 8, an OS built around touchscreen input) and is now quite proficient at managing and streaming media content.

As with all innovations, there is one downside to using a remote control app instead of the dedicated remote control itself.  The mobile device must be “awoken from sleep” with the click of button and then unlocked with a slide or screen tap.  Then the app has to be located and launched.  These are all additional steps that aren’t required with a traditional remote.

Another category that has began embracing smartphones and tablets as control devices is the video gaming sector.  In June of 2012, Microsoft unveiled the Xbox SmartGlass app which will be released on various smartphone and tablet platforms later this year.  This app will provide gamers a whole new means of interacting with their video games and also allow users to navigate the Internet Explorer browser (soon to be released for the Xbox) with ease.  Imagine drawing up a play in EA SPORTS’ “Madden NFL” on your tablet and then watching it play out on your TV!

As we move forward, you can expect a greatly increasing number of devices that support remote control functionality via a downloadable app on your smartphone or tablet.  I predict that as an increasing number of consumers switch to digital content and online streaming services, more advanced versions of these apps will simply become the norm.  It seems that the future of home entertainment control lies with smartphones and tablets.  I for one, look forward to it!

When the first television sets arrived in the 1930s, they changed the way information and media were brought to the masses. For the first time, moving images, along with sound could be transmitted and viewed by consumers. Since then, the advent of satellite, cable and digital over-the-air technologies has allowed us to capture images on the other side of the world and display them on TVs everywhere with minimal delay.  This allowed the television to quickly become one of the focal points in the home. Fast-forward to the 21st century and the television finds itself competing with tablets, smartphones and computers.  This is despite the availability of personal video recorders (PVRs) which offer time/place-shifting, high-definition digital cable networks that offer hundreds of channels, and on-demand movie rentals the same day as the movie comes out on DVD or Blu-ray.  And that’s to name just a few features currently available.

Now, new “smart TVs” are hoping to lure consumers back in front of their sets by once again making the television the focal point of their media consumption.  Leading the pack in smart TV design are companies like Samsung, LG Electronics, Panasonic and Sony.  The heart of these smart, “connected” TVs is an active connection to the Internet, either through a wired network connection (Ethernet/RJ-45) or wirelessly (WiFi, either built into the TV or available through a dongle that the user can purchase and plug into the TV). These smart TVs utilize the user’s high-speed Internet connection to access streaming media sites; download new applications (or apps if you prefer); and provide up-to-the minute news, weather and other information such as social media feeds. Manufacturers hope that by making online media content accessible on consumers’ large, high-definition televisions, that users will spend more time in front of their televisions rather than with other devices. Some of these new smart TVs are not just “lean-back” devices (where users are just receiving/viewing content) - many are “lean-forward,” and include the ability to interact with the television through fully-functional, interactive apps, games and other content. A few of these televisions even include built-in webcams (or support separate add-ons) for online video-conferencing capabilities through popular free services such as Skype.

The most popular apps available for download on smart TVs are of course, media applications. These include apps that enable access to popular websites such as YouTube (72+ hours of user generated content is uploaded every minute to YouTube), Netflix and the Cineplex Movie app. Depending on the user’s geographical region, additional streaming media sites may be available such as Hulu, BBC and others. Unfortunately, not all sites are available in all countries due the each country’s specific licensing and copyright issues with the individual content providers. For example, Netflix USA has more content than Netflix Canada but the gap is slowly narrowing.  Other well-known media outlets such as CNN, Time Magazine, the Associated Press, ESPN, and others are also available. On the static side, popular applications include Flickr and Picasa for viewing photographs, turning the television into a giant slideshow.

Beyond media content, the latest smart TVs have dual-core processors that rival today’s leading-edge smartphones and include full web-browsing capabilities as well as application support. This turns the television into the equivalent of many users’ personal computers or tablets – especially those who use these types of devices primarily to access the web. To facilitate this added interaction, the traditional television remote has also gotten smarter. LG’s Wand remote for example, supplied with the company’s higher-end TVs, has a built-in gyroscope, allowing you to control a cursor on the screen by waving the remote in mid-air.  For a couple of TV model generations, Samsung included a full QWERTY (alphanumeric) keyboard on the backside of the remote.  Today, Samsung’s latest high-end sets include a new Smart Touch Controller which offers a touch pad instead of the full QWERTY keyboard.  These new remotes are also eschewing infrared technology, which requires line of sight to operate, for Bluetooth technology, which offers a longer range and does not require line of sight. Lastly, games are a popular category of applications for new smart TVs. Many popular games such as Rovio’s Angry Birds, Tetris, Poker, and others are available for download.

All these new, online features and applications may sound enticing but for many users, they won’t be enough of a push to upgrade their existing HDTVs just yet. If you’re happy with your current set but wish to add on these new features, there are a variety of inexpensive upgrade paths that will allow you to turn your “dumb” television set into a much smarter one.

The first two upgrade paths are to look for devices that also include these online, connected functions. For those that have yet to upgrade to Blu-ray, look for a Blu-ray player from manufacturers such as Samsung, LG, Toshiba, and Sony, that include online features. Users should carefully read the specifications if they are looking for a specific online functionality (such as YouTube, Netflix, or others) to ensure the specific Blu-ray player they choose supports that application. The second upgrade path can be through gaming consoles such as the Nintendo Wii (limited support), Microsoft Xbox 360 (requires Xbox LIVE membership), or Sony PlayStation 3, which by their very nature (requiring an online connection for online gaming), typically also support various online media sites and applications.

Another method is to purchase a media streamer. These small, set-top boxes’ main purpose is to play back media from either local (home networked) sources or from online streaming sites. Again, quite a few manufacturers ensure that there is a wide variety of devices to choose from. These include the Boxee Box, Western Digital TV Live, Asus O!PLAY, LG’s aptly named Smart TV Upgrader, Patriot Box Office, D-Link’s MovieNite Plus, and Sony’s Internet Player with Google TV, to just name a few. All of these devices are typically under $250 CAD (the cheapest is the Asus for $69 CAD).  The prices depend on connectivity options (Ethernet, WiFi, USB, HDMI, SPDIF/optical out, etc.), functionality (support for built-in or downloadable applications, media formats, and network capabilities), and their controller (simple remote versus a smarter remote with a QWERTY keyboard, which is essential for searching and inputting text). These media streaming boxes allow users to quickly give their older HDTVs access to all the latest online content by simply connecting an HDMI cable and a network cable (or WiFi) connection.  The best part is that they can be easily swapped out or moved to another television.

Out of all the above-mentioned media boxes, the Sony Internet Player with Google TV (also known as the NSZ-GS7) looks to have the most potential for two reasons - if licensing and other issues can be ironed out with both content providers and cable providers in Canada. Previously, Sony had released a Google TV product in the US and while it wasn’t a blockbuster hit, it brought a few new features that this writer believes will eventually be mainstream. The first is the ability to harness Google’s immense search powers, which allow the user to search anything and everything directly on their television. This includes local show times (and the ability to automatically program a compatible PVR), social media feeds, and immense databases such as the Internet Movie Database (www.IMDb.com), all from a single query field.  The results are shown on the screen, side-by-side with the live, associated content (Google TVs have a built-in picture-in-picture functionality, a feature that some TVs had in the 90s but that hasn’t found much use in this decade). Google TV’s second ability is the Android platform on which it is based. This open-source platform, while not as extensive as Apple’s iTunes marketplace, is the fastest growing smartphone platform, bringing along with it a plethora of applications. Sony’s Internet Player remote includes an integrated track-pad for easy access to the dashboard and maneuvering the cursor around, as well as a fully backlit QWERTY keyboard for quick alphanumeric input. The Sony Internet Player with Google TV was recently released and retails for $199.

For those looking to get the Android experience on their HDTVs without breaking the bank, there’s also Always Innovating’s simply-named “HDMI Dongle,” which plugs directly into an HDMI port.  It is only slightly larger than a USB memory stick but packs a processor and memory (hardware specifications haven’t been finalized at the time of this writing) and runs Android’s Ice Cream Sandwich operating system. This diminutive dongle has a full-fledged web browser, provides access to the Android Play Marketplace as well as streaming services such as Netflix.  It also has built-in WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity. The technology has been licensed to various third parties and should be hitting store shelves in time for the holidays. In the meantime, there are a slew of copycats with prices ranging from $49 to $99 depending on specifications.

“Smart TV” functionality is quickly becoming the new standard and will continue to grow with the expansion of online content. Many consumers are hoping that one day they’ll be able to ditch their pre-packaged cable services for customized, on-demand, streaming content and connected TVs will play a critical role in this – by accessing media from the Internet, instead of through traditional cable providers. Whether you’re looking for a brand new TV or simply looking to breathe some life into your existing set through a streaming set-top box, smart TV functionality is something that should be attractive to many consumers as it will open up your TV to everything the Internet has to offer.

HDTVs are now the norm in a vast majority of North American households but without the immersive sound to accompany that high-definition picture, you may as well be watching an old Charlie Chaplin movie (not that there’s anything wrong with such classics).

One of the reasons consumers still attend screenings at their local cinema is due to the massive, immersive sound experience available there. Everything from the faintest whisper to powerful explosions is rendered to give the moviegoer the feeling that they’re in the middle of the on-screen action. This experience can be brought home by investing in a quality surround sound system – one that doesn’t have to break the bank or take up your entire living room.

Many HDTV owners are tempted by the bundled theatre-in-a-box (HTIB) systems which offer a quick, one-stop purchase that includes everything to get the basic 5.1/7.1 surround sound setup. However what many consumers don’t realize is that these HTIB systems are typically severely limited in their performance and options. As this article will detail, their one-size-fits-all approach will often leave you wanting more but subsequently unable to upgrade due to the constraints and limitations of the components. This means that when you eventually want to upgrade the sound portion of your home theatre, you will likely end up having to replace both the receiver/amplifier/disc player (typically combined into a single box) and the speakers as well. By investing in a dedicated compact surround sound system and a separate receiver, the two components can be tailored to your individual preferences and budget, with room to grow and expand as needed.

HTIBs suffer from a myriad of constraints that limit their quality. Their surround speakers are typically low-quality, have limited range, and are made of cheaper plastics and materials. This leads to a small soundstage often filled with hollow, tinny sound that doesn’t complement what is happening on the screen. The “.1″ of the 5.1/7.1 is often accomplished by a passive (non-powered) subwoofer that strains to produce any meaningful bass. The result is what is called “one-note bass,” the booming, tone-deaf sound often heard emanating from modified vehicles. Bass is supposed to produce the deep, rumbling feeling when a truck rolls by or a jet fighter streaks overhead and while subwoofers do cover a narrower frequency range than surround or centre speakers, they should still produce different bass sounds instead of a single toneless thump. Lastly, these speakers are often specifically designed and tuned for the packaged receiver they connect to, sometimes with proprietary connectors, making upgrading them impossible and/or a waste of money since the source powering them won’t be able to fully utilize higher-quality replacement speakers.

Powering those inadequate speakers is a box that typically contains a Blu-ray/DVD player, an amplifier, and a decoder. While these sleek, all-in-one units may be sufficient for tiny, overpriced condos in downtown Vancouver or Toronto, their limited performance won’t be able to create a realistic, immersive sound experience in most rooms. Also, their limited connectivity and functionality means that they won’t be able to accommodate new inputs, online streaming services, and other devices consumers are finding themselves adding to their home theatre setups. Many of these all-in-one boxes lack inputs, either analog or HDMI (and therefore the ability to upscale non-HD content) and do not support higher-fidelity lossless codecs such as Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio. They also lack functions found in many new mid-range and even entry-level standalone AV receivers such as iPod connectivity, multi-zone capabilities, 3D compatibility, online and network streaming capabilities (such as DLNA).

Hopefully the breakdown above will have convinced you why these HTIBs are a shortcut better not taken. By investing in a separate AV receiver and speaker set, the audio portion of your home theatre experience will see a vast improvement in functionality, future-proofing, and most importantly, sound quality.

To start, perform an assessment of what you require in a home theatre receiver. This includes key specifications such as quantity and type of inputs/outputs (analog, digital, 3D support, 4K resolution support/passthrough, etc.), speaker support (5.1, 7.1, 9.2, etc.), connectivity (AirPlay, DLNA, Bluetooth, Ethernet/WiFi, Internet, iPod, satellite radio, etc.), and other features (multizone, automatic calibration, etc.). Most receivers should cover the core requirements of the average home theatre (surround sound output and video switching) so it’s features beyond those that are up to the individual user. The mainstream audio and video formats won’t see significant changes and adoption for the next few years so a full-featured receiver should last just as long. On the audio side, lossless audio codecs already support up to 8 channels at high bitrates. On the video side, 1080p is sufficient for the vast majority of home theatre spaces and new receivers will typically support 4K resolution pass-through for future-proofing your investment. To learn everything you should know before buying an AV receiver, please read our “AV Receiver Buyer’s Guide”.

Once you’ve selected your receiver, it’s now time to look at speakers. While several years ago, this would require researching and selecting different speakers for the front channels, centre, and surround channels, many manufacturers now offer high-quality surround packages targeted at the home theatre segment. These packages are available from recognized and respected speaker manufacturers such as Paradigm, Monitor Audio, Focal, Cambridge Audio, KEF, Definitive Technology and others. These manufacturers have taken the technology, design, and quality of their stereo speakers and adapted them into packages for the home theatre, ensuring that consumers get the audio quality they expect from such nameplates during their movie-viewing experience.

Let’s take a closer look at some of these higher quality speaker packages.

To start off the round-up let’s consider the Cambridge Audio Minx series of home cinema speakers. The three 5.1 surround speaker packages offered in the Minx series are the S215 ($899), S325 ($1,499) and S525 ($1,899). The S215 package includes five identical speakers, each equipped with a single 2.25″ driver, plus a 6.5″ 200 watt subwoofer. The next level up, the S325 package, adds a second 2.25″ longthrow woofer to each satellite and includes a larger 8″ 300 watt subwoofer. The top of the line S525 system uses the same satellites as the S325 but bundles in a massive 10″ 500 watt subwoofer. All of these speaker packages are available in high gloss black or white. The Minx series has the distinction of having the smallest speakers in this round-up. The single-driver satellites in the S215 are a diminutive 78mm x 78mm, which is shorter than a can of pop. www.cambridgeaudio.com

Paradigm has two 5.1 speaker system options in its lineup, catering to both small and larger budgets. The first is the Paradigm Cinema 100 CT 5.1 system which contains five Cinema 100 satellites and the Cinema Sub subwoofer (MSRP $1,099 for the set; or $329 for a pair of satellites, and $379 for the subwoofer). Each Cinema 100 satellite combines a 1″ tweeter and a 4″ bass/mid driver, while the Cinema Sub features an 8″ woofer powered by a 300 watt amplifier. For rooms that require more power, Paradigm offers multiple upgrade options. The satellites can be upgraded to the Cinema 200 model ($279 each) which features a second 4″ bass/mid driver, or for even more power, the Cinema 400 ($429 each) which features five drivers - two 4″ bass, two 4″ mid-bass, and one 1″ tweeter. For those tight on space, the front speakers can be replaced with the Cinema Trio ($599 each), which uses seven drivers to combine the left-centre-right channels into a single enclosure.

Paradigm’s second speaker system offers such a high level of performance that the company made it a part of its ‘Reference’ series of products. The Paradigm Reference MilleniaOne 5.0 speaker system ($1,349) consists of five identical 100 watt speakers, each combining a 1″ tweeter and a 4″ mid-bass driver. All of the mid-bass drivers utilize pure aluminum cones while the high-frequency drivers are filled with a ferromagnetic fluid to increase their power handling. The matching MilleniaSub subwoofer ($1,499) has a dual woofer bipolar design and a built-in 900 watt (peak)/300 watt RMS amplifier. This subwoofer’s design and compact form factor allow it to fit just about anywhere in the room, even under the couch, while always offering awesome bass performance. This system was reviewed by Suave Kajko, CANADA HiFi’s editor-in-chief, back in the June/July 2011 issue and he loved it so much, it has since become an integral part of his living room. The MilleniaOne speaker package is also available in a 2.0 configuration ($549) and a 3.0 configuration ($829). www.paradigm.com

Monitor Audio’s Apex series of compact, high quality home theatre speakers features two levels of satellites - the 100 watt A10 ($499) and the 200 watt A40 ($799). The smaller A10 satellite features a 1″ C-CAM gold dome tweeter and a 5.5″ C-CAM mid-bass driver. The A40 speaker contains the same 1″ gold dome tweeter but double the driver count. The bass frequencies are handled by the matching Apex series AW12 ($1,699), a 12″ 500 watt subwoofer. The speakers can be mixed and matched to suit your performance needs and budget – for example, four A10 speakers (for the front and surround channels) can be combined with the A40 as the centre channel. A more affordable 5.1 system can also be assembled by using the lower priced Monitor Audio Radius HD series subwoofer ($999). The Apex series speakers are nice and shallow, ensuring they don’t protrude too far from your walls, and sound anything but small. The A10s are 140 mm deep while the A40s are only 100 mm deep. www.monitoraudio.ca

Focal, the dream speaker brand of many audio enthusiasts, offers two lifestyle series of compact speakers which allow those with smaller rooms to experience a taste of the Focal sound. The first series goes under the name Sib & Co and offers a choice of two different satellites. The Sib ($475/pair) is a compact 2-way bass-reflex speaker which offers a 5″ Polyflex mid-bass driver and a 3/4″ mylar dome tweeter. Its larger sibling, the Sib XL ($450/each), is a 2-way bass-reflex LCR speaker which combines two of the same 5″ drivers as the Sib with a 3/4″ aluminium dome tweeter. Rounding out the series is the 8″ Cub 2 subwoofer ($550), powered by a 150 watt BASH amplifier. A 5.1 package, containing five Sib speakers and the Cub 2 subwoofer can be purchased for $999.

For something both visually and technologically different, look no further than the Focal Dôme series. The 100 watt Dôme satellite ($750/pair) is a 2-way speaker that houses a 4″ mid-bass polyglass cone woofer and a 1″ inverted dome tweeter, in Focal’s unique sealed dome design. While these speakers can be setup on a table or wall, their wide-range mount also allows them to be mounted on the ceiling. Accompanying the series and filling in the bottom end is the 8.3″ Dôme subwoofer ($850), powered by a 100 watt BASH amplifier. A 5.1-channel Dôme speaker package retails for $2,599. www.focal.com

Another speaker maker that offers a wide selection of attractively-styled, compact speaker systems is KEF. The company’s T series contains three systems: the T105 ($1,699), T205 ($1,999) and T305 ($2,499). These low profile speakers can be placed on stands or wall mounted. There is also the KHT series, which caters to a wider range of budgets, consisting of three 5.1-channel systems, the KHT1505 ($999), KHT2005K1 ($1,400) and KHT3005K2 ($2,000). The entry-level KHT1505 system contains five identical satellite speakers, each with a 2″ driver and 0.75″ tweeter, plus an 8″, 200 watt subwoofer. The flagship KHT3005K2 system contains four identical satellite speakers (each with KEF’s advanced 4.5″ Uni-Q driver array), a centre channel (with the same 4.5″ Uni-Q driver and dual 3″ woofers) as well as a 10″, 250-watt subwoofer. The Uni-Q driver design places the tweeter in the centre of the bass/midrange woofer. The result is sound that is dispersed evenly throughout the room, eliminating the “sweet spot” effect. www.kef.com

Topping up our round-up is Definitive Technology, a company that offers numerous respected compact speaker systems. For small rooms, you might want to consider the ProCinema 400 system ($699) which consists of four ProMonitor 400 satellites, the ProCenter 400 and the ProSub 400. If your room is larger than the average, Definitive Technology’s got you covered with its ProCinema 1000 ($1,899) system. This package includes four 200 watt ProMonitor 1000 satellites, each containing a 1″ tweeter, a 5.25″ mid-bass driver, and a 5.25″ bass driver; one 200 watt ProCenter 1000 centre channel containing a 1″ tweeter, two 4.5″ mid-bass drivers, and two 4.5″ bass drivers; and the ProSub 1000, a 300 watt 10″ subwoofer. The centre can also be upgraded to the ProCenter 2000, which boosts the power to 250 watts. Rounding out Definitive Technology’s compact speaker line-up is the high-end, ultra-flat Mythos XTR-50-based system (from $3,749), perfectly suited for use with flat panel TVs. www.definitivetech.com

With all these options, for both speaker sets and receivers, hopefully you’ll think twice about HTIBs and pass them over, instead opting for an independent, standalone receiver, along with a fuller-range, higher-quality speaker set. Your ears will thank you for it and your media will sound much closer to the way it was intended.

It’s been over five years since the first Blu-ray players hit the market and while improved technology, features and functionality have emerged, the core purpose of Blu-ray has remained unchanged - to provide the highest-quality picture and sound available.

While DVDs are limited to 4.5 GB of storage per layer (to a maximum of 2 layers per side), Blu-ray discs support 25 GB of storage per layer (also to a maximum of 2 layers per side). This increased storage space allows Blu-ray discs to store 1080p (1920 by 1080 pixel) high definition video and uncompressed, lossless surround sound audio. They also offer new, interactive features which are detailed below and support playback of previous-generation DVDs while simultaneously enhancing their lower picture quality through up-conversion.

3D Blu-ray Playback

The newest feature of Blu-ray technology is the support for 3D playback. Many movies are being released in 3D and a 3D-capable Blu-ray player and HDTV allow them to be played back so they look just like they did in the theatre. While 3D hasn’t caught on as fast as the Blu-ray format itself, most new Blu-ray players support the 3D format to ensure future compatibility. In the Aug/Sept 2011 issue, the various 3D technologies were explained in the “Three Approaches To 3D At Home” feature.  Since then, manufacturers have started collaborating to standardize and allow cross-brand compatibility of glasses, helping to reduce one of the hurdles to 3D adoption.

Blu-ray Player Features

Blu-ray players are still dropping in price and many are capable of other useful features that make them a crucial part of any home entertainment setup – even if you don’t have an extensive Blu-ray library yet. Most players are Internet-capable through either a wired Ethernet jack or WiFi (wireless) connectivity – either built-in or through an optional WiFi USB dongle. This connectivity allows them to access streaming media sites such as Netflix Canada and Pandora Radio and lets them install widgets and applications for connectivity to sites such as Facebook and CNN. Some manufacturers such as Samsung and LG have created an online space for their Internet-capable devices and offer additional (typically free) downloads to further enhance functionality. To make using these Internet applications easier, the remotes have also been enhanced with some manufacturers now including a full QWERTY keyboard on the backside, allowing easier web browsing and even email (through webmail services).

Network connectivity also allows these players to connect to a home network through the use of uPNP (Universal Plug and Play) and DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) and allows access to media files through Windows Media Centre, iTunes and other media-sharing applications. This includes music, photos and video files. This functionality makes it easy to watch digital media on a user’s HDTV without having to plug in a laptop or setup a separate home-theatre PC. However, when looking for file/media streaming functionality, users should ensure that the player supports the file formats they wish to stream. Some older Blu-ray players do not support MP4/MKV files, the preferred format for high-definition 720p/1080p content, as opposed to AVI which is used for standard-definition content (and previously available on “DivX” capable DVD players).

Some Blu-ray players also have USB ports for added connectivity, allowing users to plug in USB memory sticks or USB hard drives to view/playback the media stored within.

BonusView, BD-Live and Player Profiles

The other feature that distinguishes Blu-ray from DVD (that isn’t improvement in resolution and audio quality) is the inclusion of BonusView and BD-Live features. BonusView allows discs to include a simultaneous, secondary picture-in-picture stream but is not interactive. This is typically used for director/actor commentary or other information, such as storyboards, to augment the viewing experience. All Blu-ray players introduced after November 2007 support BonusView and are referred to as “Profile 1.1”-capable Blu-ray players. Less than a year later, BD-Live (also referred to as “Profile 2.0”-capable) was released, which finally made Blu-ray interactive with features such as downloadable games, live interactive web forums/chats, and other interactive online content. This new level of interactivity required that the Blu-ray player be connected to the Internet, whereas Profile 1.1 players did not need Internet connectivity. If Internet connectivity is not available or a BD-Live disc is played in an older player, the interactive features are not available but the movie is unaffected. Many Profile 1.1 players are firmware upgradeable to Profile 2.0 if they have an existing Ethernet port for the required Internet connectivity. The Sony PlayStation 3 is turning out to be the most future-proof Blu-ray device, having upgraded from Profile 1.1 through Profile 2.0 and employed firmware updates to support 3D playback. For an explanation of the older profiles, please visit http://canadahifi.com//index.php/Blu-raydvd-players/. All new Blu-ray players are Profile 2.0/BD-Live capable and if you are purchasing your first Blu-ray player, this is the minimum that should be considered.

Blu-ray Audio

On the audio front, Blu-ray players support a wide variety of formats, ensuring maximum compatibility with all the major audio codecs. The added capacity of Blu-ray discs also allows studios to record audio in one of two “lossless” formats: Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. These formats mean that the audio being decoded is bit-for-bit, exactly the same as they were recorded with no loss or alteration occurring between the recording (encoding) and playback (decoding). New Blu-ray players have on-board decoding of these lossless audio formats, enabling older AV receivers that don’t have support for the new lossless formats to receive an uncompressed, raw signal for playback. If your (newer) AV receiver does support these formats, the Blu-ray player can be setup to “bitstream” the encoded signal to the receiver for decoding. Whichever way you choose to use these lossless formats, whether the audio is decoded by the Blu-ray player or the receiver, the sound quality is not affected (since the codecs are lossless).

The lossless codecs produce a more accurate sound stage, clearer speech and significantly better audio details. This is especially noticeable when sounds move around the viewer from one surround speaker to another (for example ricocheting bullets). Numerous reviewers are swearing they’ll never go back to lossy audio after comparing compressed, lossy audio to their lossless streams across a multitude of genres.

Blu-ray Player Connections and Video Up-conversion

To ensure that all this crystal clear picture and sound get to your AV receiver and HDTV with as little distortion as possible, the preferred connectivity method is HDMI, a single cable that handles both audio and video and carries the digital signal without the need for conversion. All Blu-ray players introduced after January 2011 output 1080p video only through the HDMI connection, despite being equipped with analogue connections such as S-video (limited to 480i) or component video (limited to 1080i). In 2014, all analogue connections will be dropped completely. If the distance required to connect your HDMI components is less than 25 feet, most generic HDMI cables will suffice. For longer cable runs you should consider a brand-name cable. Many cable manufacturers will try to convince you that in order to send a 3D signal to your TV or AV receiver you will need an HDMI 1.4 cable. However our experience has shown that many older HDMI cables will do the job just fine.

While Blu-ray discs offer the best picture and sound, that doesn’t mean that you should rush out and upgrade your entire existing DVD library immediately – especially if you have high-quality mastered DVDs such as those from the Criterion collection. Most Blu-ray players will “up-convert” standard definition content to 1080p and while this won’t make your DVDs look like their equivalent Blu-rays, it is a far better alternative to watching 480i content on your 1080p HDTV. The Blu-ray players typically achieve this up-conversion by first de-interlacing the DVD video (since HDTVs scan progressively) and then scaling the image up to the full 1080p HD resolution. During the scaling process, further image processing is performed to sharpen and enhance the image – so that it is not just a blown up version – and to remove errors and artifacts introduced in the scaling process (moire, jagged edges, etc). There are a handful of manufacturers that create the (up-converting) video chipsets used in Blu-ray players: Silicon Image, Sigma Designs, Marvell and Genesis. Look for players equipped with Silicon Image chipsets as they are typically the most favoured, performing the best up-conversion without moire effects and superior artifact elimination (such as jagged edges). Silicon Image chipsets are used by a variety of manufacturers from Denon to Oppo to Samsung. In fact Silicon Image is becoming the leading video chipset maker, having recently acquired one of its competitors, Anchor Bay, another leading video chipset maker, at the beginning of this year.

SACD and DVD-Audio Playback

Lastly, some Blu-ray players, usually referred to as universal Blu-ray players, will also playback other disc formats such as SACD and DVD-Audio, eliminating the need for multiple devices. Super Audio CDs were introduced in 1999 and feature a 2.8224 Mhz sampling rate (compared to a regular CD’s 0.0441 Mhz) as well as a wider dynamic range of 120 dB (compared to 96 dB) and a frequency range of 20 Hz to 50 kHz (compared to 20 Hz to 20 kHz). In addition to 2-channel stereo playback, SACDs also support multi-channel playback. Practically all SACDs are dual-layer, containing a standard Audio CD layer readable by regular CD players as well as an SACD layer. As with most formats, SACD has a competitor, DVD-Audio. DVD-Audio also supports higher bitrates and sampling rates such as 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4 and 192 kHz at 16-, 20- and 24- bit depths. DVD-Audio also supports multiple channel configurations such as mono, stereo (+ subwoofer/.1), 3/3.1-channel, 4/4.1-channel, and 5.0/5.1 full surround, at the various bitrates.

In Conclusion

All of these features make Blu-ray an integral part of any home entertainment setup and with prices now below the $100 mark, upgrading to Blu-ray has never been easier. While most Blu-ray players now support Profile 2.0/BD-Live, the more expensive the player, the more functionality it will have. This includes features such as media streaming, Internet applications/widgets, on-board lossless audio decoding and other non-video related features. Until broadband Internet access and media streaming services get to a point (and price) where they become feasible, timely and effective to transmit 50GB of data, physical media such as Blu-ray will be around. And if you need another reason to upgrade, the complete Star Wars saga is now available on Blu-ray.

In-home 3D has been out for almost two years now and while it hasn’t made the in-roads that manufacturers had hoped, it is still a prominent part of most manufacturers’ offerings with additional models continuing to support the technology and constant improvements in picture quality. Most new home theatre receivers, Blu-ray players and other components, by default, include 3D support to ensure that if consumers do make the transition to 3D-capable content, they don’t have to upgrade, yet again.

3D content is also becoming more prolific with the release of numerous movies by major Hollywood studios such as the Green Hornet, TRON: Legacy and others. Two separate, dedicated 3D channels are also set to launch shortly, ensuring a steady stream of 3D content. For those that do not want to wait, a handful of consumer devices are now 3D-capable, allowing consumers to quickly and easily shoot their own images and video in 3D. These devices include everything from 3D-capable Android smartphones and tablets (by HTC and LG) to point-and-shoot cameras as well as camcorders from manufacturers such as Sony and Fuji. Fuji’s 3D point-and-shoot camera is even included with select LG 3D HDTVs to allow consumers to immediately create and enjoy 3D content out of the box.

3D continues to evolve and improve, giving consumers more options and even allowing certain sets to ditch the glasses altogether. The different technological approaches to 3D each have their pros and cons, which hopefully will narrow and/or be eliminated as technology improves, but currently, these differences force consumers to make a choice between them and subsequently lock themselves into one technology. The different technologies are explained and compared below.

Active 3D

The first 3D-capable HDTVs and projectors on the market employed “active shutter” technology to produce 3D. These sets create the 3D effect by simultaneously alternating the image shown while correspondingly alternately blacking out the lenses of the active shutter glasses worn by the viewer, allowing different images to be shown to each eye. The viewer’s brain then interprets the two slightly offset images shown to the left and right eyes as a 3D picture. The active shutter effect of the glasses happens very quickly and is imperceptible to the human eye. On a side note, approximately 10 percent of people cannot see 3D images produced by this artificial 3D technology.

The advantage of this methodology is that each eye receives the full 1080p resolution image, ensuring that all picture details are preserved. The disadvantages are that the glasses slightly darken the image due to the active shutters (though this is constantly getting better); the glasses are larger and heavier than simple passive 3D glasses (covered in the next section); the glasses are relatively expensive, costing $50 to $200 per pair; and the glasses are battery-powered and require charging. The flickering effect of the active shutter glasses can also cause nausea in certain viewers and some viewers cannot use the glasses for extended periods of time. Active shutter glasses from one manufacturer also cannot be used with another manufacturer’s displays. Third-party manufacturers have however stepped in and created glasses that can be used across different brands.

On the display side, the biggest disadvantage of active 3D displays is that since they alternate between displaying images for each eye, the effective refresh rate is halved, with half the frames going to the left eye and the other half going to the right eye. A 120 Hz refresh rate would therefore be effectively reduced to 60 Hz for each eye. This can lead to ghosting effects, crosstalk and motion-related image artifacts and is the reason why active 3D systems typically have higher refresh rates like 240 Hz (120 Hz for each eye).

Active 3D displays are available from all the major manufacturers such as Panasonic, Samsung, LG, Sony, Toshiba, Philips, Sharp, Vizio and Mitsubishi. Active 3D projectors are also available from most projector manufacturers including those that manufacture HDTVs as well as JVC, Acer, InFocus, and Optoma.

Passive 3D

The second, commercially available 3D technology utilizes passive 3D glasses. Passive 3D technology works by simultaneously displaying images for both eyes. These images then pass through a polarizing filter on the display, which alters the images into vertically and horizontally polarized images. The passive, polarized glasses then filter the incoming images, sending one image to each eye.

These are the same type of inexpensive glasses used in movie theatres. The main advantage of this technology is that the simple, plastic, polarized 3D glasses typically cost less than $20 a pair, with some going for as little as $2, making 3D viewing a much more affordable proposition for those with numerous viewers. The glasses are also much lighter, don’t house any electronics and therefore don’t require batteries. Traditional eye-wear manufacturers such as Oakley are also creating stylish eye-wear utilizing circularly polarized lenses, drawing from their experience with polarized sunglasses.

Another advantage of passive 3D technology is that because the glasses don’t use active shutters, there is no flickering which can cause some viewers headaches and nausea. The glasses also have less of an effect on brightness and colours of the image.
However, passive 3D is not without its disadvantages. The biggest one is that horizontal resolution is halved. This is because both images for the left and right are displayed simultaneously. Half the horizontal lines are used for the left eye and the other half are used for the right eye. This is why active 3D displays are touted as full HD while passive 3D displays are 540p (half of 1080p) or 360p (half of 720p). The second disadvantage is due to the polarization technology which limits the viewing angles of the image, both radially and vertically. The glasses (and therefore viewer) must maintain a level viewing angle with the display or else the vertical and horizontal polarization will not work. Deviation such as rotating the glasses will distort the image and disrupt the 3D picture. This means that the viewer cannot tilt their head and must maintain a straight view of the display. The second part of this limitation affects the vertical viewing angles of the display, with some displays being limited to as narrow a band as plus/minus 5 degrees vertically from the horizontal centre of the image.

These limitations are sure to diminish as passive 3D technology improves. Regular 2D displays with higher than 1080p resolution are already available and this should trickle down into passive 3D displays to address the halved resolution. Viewing angles should also improve as polarization filters become more refined.

Currently, passive 3D TVs are available from manufacturers such as LG, Philips and Toshiba. LG has also released an 3D LCD monitor for computing as well. These 3D displays are comparable in price to active 3D sets but with the advantage of lower-priced glasses. Only LG has a passive 3D projector (model CF3D) but at $10,999 USD, it is approximately 30% more expensive than similar active 3D projectors. It also requires a special silver projection screen to reflect the polarized images.

Glasses-free 3D


The latest type of 3D technology forgoes the need for glasses altogether. Similar to passive 3D displays, images for both eyes are displayed simultaneously but no polarization is used to separate the images. Instead, these displays use a physical vertical parallax barrier which directs the images to each eye. The barriers physically project two separate images with a slight separation, corresponding to each eye, allowing each eye to receive a unique image and thus creating the 3D effect.

These vertical parallax barriers are similar to the plastic rulers with vertical grooves which display a different image depending on the angle of the ruler but instead of changing the angle of the display, these barriers direct light to each eye.

Glasses-free 3D made its debut recently with the release of the Nintendo 3DS handheld gaming system. It uses a 3.5 inch 800 by 240 pixel screen to display 3D images. Similar to passive 3D, resolution is cut in half due to the simultaneous displaying of two images. In this case, vertical resolution is halved, producing an effective resolution of 400 by 240 pixel for each eye. Parallax barriers are also beginning to appear in dashboard displays in vehicles, allowing the driver to see the navigation and other driving information while allowing the passenger to watch a video or view other information.

The other disadvantage of glasses-free 3D is that due to the projection of the images by the parallax barrier, viewers must be in the projection area to view the 3D effect. The viewer cannot be outside the ideal projection area and must stay inside the “sweet spot”.

Currently, only LG and Vizio have released glasses-free 3D displays in North America while Toshiba has released them in Asia. These are the only three manufacturers creating displays for both types of technology (requiring 3D glasses and glasses-free 3D). There are currently no displays or projectors that combine these technologies.

LG has also released LCD computer monitors which try to deal with the limitation of the projection area by using the built-in webcam to track the user’s eyes to actively adjust the parallax barriers to optimally project the image to the viewer.

In Conclusion

Having viewed active displays from Samsung, Sony and Panasonic as well as passive displays from LG, I prefer active 3D displays due to the higher resolution and sharpness. The better viewing angles also allow for different seating and lying positions on the couch. The heavier active shutter glasses do make it more cumbersome and while I’ve never sat through more than a two-hour movie, they do start to feel more present after an extended period of time.

As 3D technology continues to improve and as more content becomes available, consumers will be more inclined to make the switch to 3D-capable HDTVs. The addition of 3D cameras/camcorders will help speed that along. As well, sports and gaming will continue to drive adoption and LG is actively promoting their passive 3D technology by providing it to sports bars and other venues. Watching a soccer, football or hockey game in 3D really does add another aspect to it and the cheap cost of passive glasses allows easy adoption. Even if consumers don’t purchase 3D displays strictly for watching 3D content, manufacturers are often putting the newest and best technologies into these displays, making them the best 2D-capable displays in their lineup (e.g. higher resolution, faster refresh rates). 3D is here to stay and hopefully will continue to make inroads into the consumer marketplace.

Tablets are currently at the forefront of the consumer electronics landscape. With a large majority of users doing their computing through websites such as webmail and social networking and simple productivity applications such as word processing, the combination of portability, ease of use and declining price is making tablets the must-have gadget of 2011. For many users, tablets are quickly replacing the traditional laptop and desktop. Indeed, when watching any sci-fi show, inhabitants of the future almost always interact through touch – buttons having gone the way of the dodo. Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs has declared 2011 the year of the iPad 2 but the slew of tablets currently available and soon to be released will definitely give it a run for its money.

2011 has already seen the release of Apple’s second-generation iPad, Research in Motion’s PlayBook, and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab. Other manufacturers such as Sony have also announced the fall release of their tablet devices.

The tablet craze was kick-started in April 2010 with the release of Apple’s iPad, which sold 300,000 units on launch day. Apple has since sold more than 15 million first-generation iPads and followed up with the iPad 2 in March of 2011. Estimates currently peg Apple’s market share of the tablet market at over 80%. The iPad’s ease of use, coupled with Apple’s ecosystem of iTunes and the App Store have made the device one of the best selling consumer electronic devices in recent history. Everyone from young children to the elderly are able to use the device with a minimal learning curve. That said, the one gripe that many users do have with Apple’s devices is the lack of Adobe Flash support, a staple of many websites for both video playback and interactivity.

Tablets are touchscreen devices that come in varying sizes from 5” to 10”. They can be for dedicated uses such as electronic book readers, home automation control or as a general computing device. Different manufacturers have included various features such as cellular (data), Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity; built-in camera(s), GPS capabilities, video/HDMI output, accelerometers and gyroscopes, magnetometers (compass), expandable memory and docking capabilities. Processing power, which according to Moore’s Law doubles every 18 to 24 months, has allowed these miniature, all-in-one devices to handle the majority of mainstream applications. The addition of dedicated graphics processors also allows these devices to play back high-definition video with some devices outputting via HDMI, making them ideal portable media devices.

Outside of Apple’s line of iPad devices, other manufacturers with the exception of Research in Motion, have all adopted Google’s open-source Android operating system for their tablets. Android is now the fastest growing mobile/portable operating system, recently surpassing 50 percent in the smartphone market. The widespread adoption of Android allows consumers to make an easy transition from smartphone to one of the many Android tablets that will be hitting the market in the upcoming months. This is similar to Apple users who are already familiar with their iPod Touch and iPhones. With the numerous tablets that are now available, manufacturers differentiate their offerings through design, customization of the operating system, and their own proprietary features such as Sony’s upcoming tablets, which feature PlayStation connectivity and infrared universal remote control capabilities.

While the majority of tablets will be used as computing devices, touchscreens have also replaced traditional control panels and remotes, notably, home theatre and home automation control systems.

In the home theatre environment, tablets have replaced older multi-button control panels and remotes, with sleek, wireless, customizable user interfaces similar to the familiar line of touchscreen universal remotes by Logitech. A variety of manufacturers such as HAI, Control4, Cinemar, Crestron, and others, have updated their existing product lines by adding their own touchscreen tablets or leveraging the increasing adoption of touchscreen smartphones by offering native applications for the Apple iPhone, iPod and iPad as well as Android devices. All the features expected of typical home theatre and automation systems such as pre-programmed activities, including turning on and setting your AV equipment to the proper settings, dimming the lights, closing blinds and lowering a projector screen, are now accessible through a touchscreen interface.

Currently, Canadian customers can purchase a wide variety of tablets from a handful of well-known companies. These tablets are typically available as standalone devices or cellular-data capable (3G) devices along with data plans through the various wireless providers.

The following mainstream devices are currently available in the Canadian market:

Outside of these manufacturers, there are a slew of Android tablets by various “no-name” manufacturers with price points below $300. These iPad clones, manufactured in Taiwan and China, have attractive prices but you do get what you pay for and consumers should look closely at the specifications before taking the plunge. These cheap tablets can be a good way to try out the tablet experience before purchasing a full-featured, laptop replacement. When considering one of these knock-offs, users should bypass any not running at least Android 2.1 or a processor less than 600 Mhz. These tablets are available from stores such as Tiger Direct, NCIX, Canada Computers and other local and online retailers.

As stated earlier, 2011 will see many companies playing catch-up to Apple, with a plethora of tablets set to hit the market throughout the summer and fall. Everyone from Acer to Lenovo (makers of the ThinkPad) to Vizio are set to release tablet devices ensuring consumers have a wide selection and difficult choice ahead of them. Existing players such as Samsung will also be releasing follow-ups and expanding their product line.

With all these new tablets, all running Android, consumers may be wondering what sets one device apart from another. While there isn’t much that can be done to the overall design of a tablet, it is each manufacturer’s choice of specifications and customization to Android that will set them apart. Asus’ recently released EEE Transformer has a keyboard dock that also contains a second battery, extending the tablet’s usage time to 16 hours and transforming it into a 10” laptop/netbook. Samsung is releasing 8.9” and 10.1” tablets which are thinner than Apple’s iPad 2 as well as a tablet with a sliding keyboard underneath. Acer is releasing a dual 14” all-touchscreen laptop while Sony is releasing a 9.4”, curved tablet as well as a clamshell tablet featuring 5.5” touchscreens on each side.

2011 is shaping up to be an exciting year for tablets and regardless of which operating system you prefer, which size is most convenient, or which manufacturer you’re loyal to, consumers will not be short on choice.