Sunday, May 20, 2012

Downsizing The Entertainment Gear

As per my previous post from sometime back in the dark ages, we are remodeling our kitchen.  In fact, we are almost done, and the results are great.  But, of course, once you start something like this, you discover a slew of other things that need doing.

This post is (I think) the first in an ongoing series of posts about a very specific problem... making a big, ugly, but reasonably nice entertainment system much smaller and nicer, without blowing the budget too far out of the water.

For that to make any sense, you first need some background.

I was an audiophile at one point in my life.  While I never spent thousands of dollars on most of my gear, I own reasonably nice stuff that dates back to the audio equivalent of the Cretaceous period: aka the 1980's and 90's.

Well, that over simplifies, because not everything I have from then still functions or is used.  I long ago gave up entirely on vinyl.  (Why it is making a come back I have no idea.)  I never wanted or liked tubes either.  (Distortion is distortion.  If you like the way your tube amp sounds, that's fine with me, but I don't really care about it.  Solid state amps might sound a tiny bit different than tube amps - particularly when pushed hard - but at my age, and with my ears - the idea that I will hear any difference is laughable.)  Tape is dead, too.

Digital is the way to go, and I remember the days when people were happy to buy albums that were recorded on digital masters.  Now no one talks about that era... and everyone who cares about high fidelity is doing vinyl and tube amps and (maybe) putting green marker on the edges of their CDs (Google that one if you're too young or your brain is failing an you no longer remember it. is a good place to start.) and other things I think are bogus.  Just give me reasonable quality gear and simple lamp cord to connect the speakers.  That's all I want.  (No, really.  Anyone buying high end speaker wires, power cables, or power conditioner boxes is being ripped off.  A fool and his money, you know.)

Anyway, despite going digital, life is more complicated now, particularly in the area of video, which isn't something I have had to mess too much, but that is changing.

Enough rambling.  Here's what we had in the big pile of entertainment gear when the kitchen remodel started:
  • A Rotel receiver.  About 100 watts per channel (only 2 channels).  Irritation: stand by mode (rather than being totally off) and an annoying pop that is emitted to the speakers when you first power it up from being fully off.  It's done that since it was new, alas.
  • A Marantz 5 disk CD changer.  (I have chewed through and spit out so much Sony gear, particularly CD players that whine after a year or two, that I will never, ever, buy anything made by Sony.  That is irrational of me, I know, but I simply won't go there.  Every single thing I  have bought that was made by them has irritated me in a big way, except a phone answering machine that we finally ditched because we wanted to avoid the tape.  Yes, really.)
  • An LG blu ray player.
  • A Philips DVD player.  (We keep this only because somewhere in our DVD collection there is one disk that causes the blu ray player to choke.  Everyone tells me I am crazy and that should never happen, but it does.  The problem is that we don't know which disk it is now.  We might just ditch the DVD player and the problematic disk when we find it, but that hasn't happened yet.)
  • A Nintendo Wii.  We are not big gamers, but some of what is available for this machine is fun.
  • A Philips 32" somewhat high def CRT TV.  1080i was the best it could do.
  • A Sanza Fuze mp3 player.  (I have a long standing hatred of all things Apple because they have hacked me off in a manner similar to Sony, as mentioned above.  I don't buy Apple gear as a result, and thus will not and do not own and ipod or an iphone.)  For the Fuze I also have a dock sort of thing that will let me connect it (via 3.5mm or RCA jacks) to a stereo device.
  • A pair of KEF 105/3 speakers.  These were the biggest single investment in anything audio related in my life.
Note that I have spared you the ancient separate integrated amp, the separate tuner, the turntable, and the cassette player.  All junk now, and all gone (or going).  And you can learn more than you want to about me by noting that I never bought a separate pre-amp and power amp(s).  Could have.  Didn't.  Money has always had better uses for me.

So, the first thing that happened during the remodel is that we had to move entirely out of the upstairs for a week while floors were being refinished.  That meant that the TV had to move too, and being a CRT it was big, heavy, and did not fit on top of the dresser in the bedroom.  Too deep to go there, and there was nowhere else to put it.  That meant we got rid of it and replaced it with a Samsung 40" LED TV.  Low end Samsung... this isn't expensive stuff... I think it cost $600 or something.  Cheap in the modern world.  Amusingly, though, the Samsung has a very narrow bezel, and the old CRT had a very wide bezel.  As a result the new TV is only about 1" wider and 1" taller than the old one, but increases the viewing area substantially.

We are happy with the new TV, which has worked, looked, and sounded just fine (to us) so far.

Next up, the floor refinishing ended, and we moved things back upstairs.  Very quickly we determined that things had to change up there.  (Remember, we're tearing up the world, and change is a given.)  The first thing that was obvious to us was that the TV had to be wall mounted so we could get rid of the TV cabinet that had been under the old CRT.

I researched for a while and selected a Cheetah mount that gives me 26" of extension, so I can move it a fair distance, and mounted up the TV on it.  Not bad, but now the sound quality is poor.  Dialog in movies is hard to make out.  (Note, we aren't running the sound through the stereo... just using the speakers in the TV.)  It turns out that when the TV was on a stand and sitting on a dresser or TV cabinet, it sounded good, but when hung from a wall mount nothing deflects the sound towards the listener, and the net result is less than ideal.  Grrrr.

In addition to that problem, the KEF speakers, while they sound wonderful, are way too frigging big for us anymore.  We barely use the stereo as such, and having those huge things taking up floor space and looking gigantic is just not what we want.

Time to downsize.

The first step was to do a ton of digging, looking for ways to simplify life.

Every manufacturer has moved to HDMI these days, which I guess makes sense, but neither the Wii nor the old DVD player have HDMI outputs.  Now, depending on the choices we make as we go forward, the DVD player could just disappear, but the Wii we'd like to keep.  That means making it cooperate with the new TV setup, however that works, and that is something of a challenge if we put an AV receiver in the mix.  (Most AV receivers that cost less than, say, Greece, don't do video upscaling or convert non-HDMI inputs to go out over the HDMI cable. So you wind up connecting everything from the source to the receiver, and again from the receiver to the TV, creating a rats nest of wires and having to tell the TV to change input sources every time you change input sources on the receiver.  PITA.)

Looking at this logically, the first problem was the Wii.  How to make it talk simply is step one, and today, finally, I found a cheap answer.  I hope.  There is a Chinese company named Lenking that makes inexpensive video conversion equipment.  Among other things they make this Wii to HDMI converter.  It plugs into the back of your Wii and gives you an HDMI port.  No power supply, nothing funny, just convert the composite video and RCA audio outputs of the Wii into HDMI, and upscaling to 720p or 1080p.    Reviews on Amazon vary about how well this works and how well made the device is (or isn't), but for the $21 I just paid, I will give it a try.  (Most amusing are the reviews from people saying that the converter from company X failed, so they tried one from company Y. They are all clearly made by just one original source, folks:  Lenking in China.  The US distributors merely silk screen on a logo and sell the things.  Get a grip.)

Anyway, assuming that Wii converter works when it arrives, then the next step will be to replace the guts of the world.  At the moment I am leaning towards replacing nearly the entire setup (receiver, speakers, blu ray and DVD players) and going with this blu ray AV receiver from Harmon Kardon.  This would do everything we need and has AUX inputs for the CD changer and mp3 player, so it may be the answer.

If we go that way I also need three adjustable shelves on the wall below the TV mount, but that is trivia.  I'd need to arrange to attach the center channel speaker to the TV mount, which should be possible, I guess, and wall mount the left and right channels.  The entire thing is much smaller than the current setup, and should be much nicer to look at, while still having reasonably good sound quality and all the features we need.

I think.

But one step at a time.  First we try the Wii adapter to see if I can make it work, which means I can avoid AV receivers which to video upscaling, which is good.  Then I reassess the world and see where things stand.

If anyone reading this has any comments please feel free to leave them.  I know I am out of my depth here, and any information is appreciated.