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Whatever (Again) 


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
November 12, 2012

This year's installment of "Whatever" will focus on stereo equipment. I recently celebrated the sixth birthday's of my two Roku Soundbridges, models M1000 and M2000, both purchased as floor models from Tweeter before the upscale electronics chain bit the big one. Both Soundbridges have been powered on almost continuously for their six-year stint with me and had a similar duty cycle in their year as floor samples in the local Tweeter store. Miraculously (knock on wood), both still work great (and I am listening to KSWD on the M1000 as I write this). When I bought them I knew of their tendency for pre-mature death, which is likely accelerated by the fact that they power their displays even when in standby mode. (Like most twenty-first century electronics, unplugging them is the only way to power them off fully.) Indeed, my big project of 2012 was aimed at paving the way for their retirement ahead of their inevitable death, but, as I will relate below, still both remain in service and indispensable.

My big stereo upgrade of last year (2011) was the acquisition of a Yamaha RX-A2000 receiver from Newegg at an amazingly low price because it was being replaced by the not significantly better RX-A2010 during the dog days of summer. The A2000 was a replacement for a Yamaha RX-V661 receiver that was fine when I got it a few years ago, but technology had quickly rendered it obsolescent. The A2000 had all the HDMI inputs (eight) I expect to need for some time as well as two simultaneous HDMI outputs. It also has Ethernet and claims to support a wide range of net-based services, including, SiriusXM internet radio, Napster, Rhapsody, vTuner, and Pandora. The version of Napster supported by the receiver was not the cheapo version to which I subscribed; however, when Rhapsody swallowed Napster a few months after I bought the receiver, I got a teaser full-fledged Rhapsody subscription. This turned out to be the receiver's killer app for me. Now, without any other equipment, like a PC that was necessary for my stripped-down Napster subscription, I had direct access to a vast musical library for around $100/year. With an iPad (and now, even better, a Nexus 7), I can use the Yamaha's receiver app to zip through that library once I mastered its bizarre, dynamic hierarchical structure. (Direct search through the app or a web interface is not supported and direct search via normal remote is quite tedious.) The holes in Rhapsody's library are not nearly as glaring as those that were in Napster's, but there are some notable holes nonetheless.

The success of the last year's receiver upgrade led to my upgrading my other two stereo receivers this year, well ahead of the normal replacement schedule. With only one exception that was driven by aesthetic considerations (the so-called "spousal acceptance factor"), all of my stereo upgrades have been of the trickle-down variety. The new equipment, like the A2000, starts in my study's system, moves first into the family room, and then into the master bedroom. Being able to get to web services, such as Rhapsody, from anywhere in the house and use a phone and/or pad and/or PC to control was not something that I wanted to wait ten  years to implement. So when the Yamaha's least expensive web-capable 2011 model, the RX-V671, was discontinued this summer, I snapped two of them up. Time was of the essence here, because the 2012 line of Yamaha receivers were all missing most of their web services (though Yamaha is said to be making progress on implementing them as part of their infrequent firmware updates). Even though the V671s are far less powerful and have many fewer bells and whistles than the older A2000, they sound great, too. Indeed, the thread running through all online reviews of Yamaha receivers is that, whatever shortcomings (perceived or real) that they may have, they all "sound great." It seems odd to me that their effect on the sound is so noticeable, placebo effect notwithstanding, given that receivers are popularly believed to have minimal effect on sound quality (except under unusual circumstances). Possibly, Yamaha's vast experience as a music company, something its mass-market competitors (Marantz, Denon, Onkyo, Harman Kardon, NAD, Sony, etc.) lack, is at work here.

The fly in Yamaha's audio ointment is SiriusXM internet radio. I go back almost as long with this service (XM in its pre-merger days) as I do with the Soundbridges. Other than that I still like some of its music programming (e.g., Richard Blade on First Wave and Casey Kasem's AT 40 on 70s on 7) to the point of near-addiction, I have nothing good to say about SiriusXM. The direct-from-satellite version of the service has sound quality that started as mid-fi and has since sunk well below. The internet radio version generally has improved over time as its bandwidth, unlike that of its satellite equivalent, has increased and various intermittent sound problems have been fixed. Unforunately, once or twice a year the internet service undergoes a radical reformating that renders it incompatible with any nonstandard method of receiving the signal, which apparently includes via a Yamaha receiver.

This means that for a month or two out of every year I either do without the service other than in my car or resort to some kludge to get it. Currently, I am in kludge mode because an early October "upgrade" to the service has knocked out Yamaha service, but has left the chewing-gum-and-bailing-wire approach I use to route SiriusXM's "legacy streams" to the Soundbridge intact. The Soundbridge is actually well-suited to receiving home-network "rebroadcasts" of streams, while the Yamaha can only do so when networked in just the right way. Yamaha is supposedly working with SiriusXM to resolve the current problem with their internet radio, but I am not holding my breath.

The periodic disruptions to SiriusXM internet radio do have an upside; they provide the impetus to see what else is out there. I discovered that my standard mindless soft-rock background music SiriusXM's "The Bridge" has a workable alternative in the form of (SCR). SCR has a somewhat deeper playlist than The Bridge and sound quality that requires good headphones to discern the shortcomings of MP3 relative to WMA at 128 kbps. The only downside with SCR is that it is popular enough that it can be impossible to open a stream from time to time. Like SiriusXM, SCR has no commercials and no annoying DJs. (I have never understood why SiriusXM's First Wave channel employs "Madison," who has this punk, poseur, sounds-and-acts-like-Kennedy-but-isn't thing of being intentionally obnoxious in the extreme.)

Surprisingly, Yamaha's receivers are lacking were it comes to digital signal processing (DSP), a field that the company pioneered. It was only this year that I found any practical use for their gimmicky custom "soundfields." It turns out that many of the cleaner recordings of Grateful Dead concerts came directly from the soundboards that take the music from the instruments and microphones before it goes to the venue's speakers. The relatively high quality of soundboard sound is offset by the fact that it lacks the venue's ambience, something Yamaha's soundfields simulate quite nicely. For non-spatial sound adjustments, Izotope's discontinued OzoneMP blows away anything that the Yamaha can do. The problem is that OzoneMP only works with music that can be piped through Winamp running on a Windows XP/Vista/7 PC. The limits the use of OzoneMP to one's own music and to those internet streams that can be directly tapped into without a proprietary interface, which is fewer and fewer of them as time passes. Izotope does a big business in music production, so perhaps someday their capabilities will be "appified" into home sound systems.

The bottom line is that streaming music has come a long way in six years. There is vastly more content as well as ways to access it. Sound quality has improved some, but not nearly as much as it could have if bitrates of 256kbps were uncommon instead of virtually unknown. DLNA has been a big help, allowing home music servers, such as Windows Media Player and Tversity on the PC, to facilitate access both to one's own music library and outside streams.

After I return from my customary two-month winter hiatus, I will shift my focus from audio to video and look at the frightening regularities in the content and quality of television series.

Copyright 2012 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to