Friday, 17 October 2008

Receivership

One of the interesting things I took from our recent trip to visit the family is the way the family has reacted to us. Overall, while we were definitely taken care of and looked after, especially by both of Dylan's grandmothers, you could also see that quickly enough life returns to its course and everyone's back to their normal way of doing things.
Our visit was no different to the procedure taking place post shopping for a new piece of clothing: at first there's the novelty factor, but quickly enough you're being taken for granted and maybe even cast aside in favor of newer things. The novelty wearing off was most visible when a relative we've stayed with asked us if we could babysit. Talk about feeling we got our money's worth for coming to pay the family a visit...
Top honors, at least for reliability and continuity, seem to go to the grandfathers. To one extent or another both showed as much interest in Dylan as I show the horoscope section of the paper, never bothering or seeming to be able to give us a hand with the maintenance tasks (feeding or taking care of its outputs), and only bothering to play around with Dylan when they had nothing better to do. That is, when there was no TV around.
It's important for me to stress at this point that these attitudes do not make me angry. Everyone is playing up to their evolutionary roles with exact precision, so who am I to ask them to change?
It's the TV that is at the core of the problem here. Despite the big differences between my Israeli family and Jo's English family, they are both united by their love affair to the TV. Both have TVs in their living rooms and in their bedrooms, both have the TVs on from the afternoon until they fall asleep, both subscribe to cable channels that provide 24 hours of continuous shit, and - this is where it hurts the most - both have the TV on at such loudness that no meaningful dialog is possible. It was as if our families are on drugs, and you could see it in action: we enter the home and within a few seconds some elusive hand is reaching the remote control to turn the TV on.
It's sad, so sad, it's a sad sad situation. And it's getting more and more absurd. Why can't we talk it over? Because it's so fucking loud, that's why.
I can come up with dozens of reasons for the sadness of the situation, but as time went by I noticed that the main hurting is the lack of music. Because the TV is on all of the time, music is off; and all three of us, including Dylan, were obviously missing out on music (you could see it by Dylan looking for every excuse possible to have himself a dance). Music's absence felt really weird in England in particular, since the family is even even professionally into music; them being able to live their life with music a total absentee was a major source of puzzlement.

Coming back home I was still traumatized by this music deprivation. It's not only our parents' places that didn't have music, it was also the hotels: they now seem to be into the habit of providing music channels through the TV, which is rather annoying because a TV that's on is always a distraction. That, and me not being a fan of headphones, meant we were very deprived.
Coming back home meant I had to face old problems. And the problems come down to this: I do have a good quality hi-fi setup, but because of wear and tear my 16 year old preamp only has one functioning input. This means that if you want to listen to something other than what's currently connected you have to play with wiring, which means that we left the DVD connected on 5.1 mode and just stopped using the hi-fi for anything else. Which is a bit of a waste; we were listening to music through an MP3 player connected to PC speakers instead of through proper hi-fi amplification connected to proper hi-fi speakers.
Something had to be done. I couldn't take it anymore.

So I've started doing my homework with regards to sorting things out. I could, theoretically, get myself a new processor and hold on to the amps I've got; the problem there was that a good processor that does justice to sound and also supports all the new lossless sound formats (e.g., Dolby HD) are stupidly expensive. As in, $4K or more. The more affordable alternative is to buy a receiver that does it all in one box but doesn't do it as well and also provides amplification which I don't need.
Then it happened again: the first shop I went to offered me this price I couldn't refuse on a receiver and we (or rather I, because Jo should not be blamed here) got it.
By all accounts, it's a good receiver. By receivers' accounts, it's excellent. That said, by audiophile accounts it is not as good as separates, and at least in the power amplification department I am losing some quality and power. More importantly, the dream I have had some fifteen to ten years ago of having my own audiophile quality hi-fi is effectively gone for good, because a receiver simply cannot do it as well as audiophile quality separates designed with the philosophy of producing the best sound with no compromises.
Dreams aside, the overall sound of my hi-fi setup did improve with the purchase of the receiver. There are two main reasons for that: First, in this day of everything being digitally processed, the ten to fifteen year old processors I have had are simply outgunned by the latest and greatest; they may be designed with audiophile philosophies, but they've been taken over by the latest technology.
Take, for example, my old digital to analog converter, a unit that takes the digital signal out of a CD player and changes it into an analog signal that can be amplified and heard through speakers: it was designed some fifteen years ago to use a separate external power supply so as to remove "noise" running through the electricity from the sound. It works really well and it has great sound, but it can't match the sound of the new receiver that has everything crammed into one box with as much noise contamination as possible.
The second reason for the improvement in sound is called Audyssey, and its the latest innovation in the field of home music reproduction. Audyssey is this scheme where you connect a microphone to your receiver, which in turn plays these sound pulses through your speakers. The signal the receiver gets back through the microphone tells it exactly what speaker setup you have, how loud each speaker is at your listening position, and how far each speaker is from your listening position. After all, our brains interpret the direction a sound is coming from through its level and the direction it comes from first, so if you were to avoid compensating for speaker distances and you were to sit at a typical home theater setup where the rear speakers are closer to you than the front ones, you would tend to hear the sounds as if they come from behind you. Usually, that is not the moviemaker's intention.
So far I have described a pretty ordinary home theater setup routine I was able to perform manually on my sixteen year old surround processor using a sound pressure level meter and a measuring tape. Audyssey does it for you automatically, but then again what's the big deal?
Well, the big deal is that Audyssey also listens to the frequency response of the sounds it captures back through its microphone, and through sophisticated equalization mechanisms made possible by contemporary digital processing power it is able to smooth the effects of your imperfect listening room. And that, my friends, is a very big deal.
I remember reading about similar attempts in the past, where audiophile magazine editors had people come to their houses with bucket loads of equipment and suitcases full of computing power to achieve similar goals through primitive parametric equalizers; now it's all done in inside your receiver, quickly and efficiently.
The effect Audyssey has on the smoothness on the sound is nothing short of incredible.

Naturally, you can't advance too far without encountering problems.
Given that our Mp3 player performs a crucial part of our music listening, it was the second device I connected to the new receiver. It worked well for a few second but once I touched it loud hums started coming out of the speakers and I had to disconnect it.
I had a look on the internet for advice and it talked about ground hums: basically, the earthing of the receiver is different to that of the MP3 player (due to the MP3 player being cheap crap), and the difference causes hums. So I quickly went out and bought a hum removing device on eBay for $15: it's a contraption that is commonly used in car stereos to remove the engine whine from the sound.
A day later I discussed the problem with the salesperson who sold me the receiver, and he said that from his experience this is usually a cable problem: because the small jack on the MP3 headphone output is so small, the cheaper cables don't bother connecting its earthing, hence the hums. I tried playing with the cables and it turned out he was right and the internet was misleading me; it was a cable issue.
After verifying that I went out and bought a used quality cable to connect my MP3 player to the new receiver on eBay (a landmark on its own as it was the first time I had bought a used item on eBay). Now that I'm using this new/used cable I can attest to the huge difference in the sound: MP3 music, which up until now I totally dismissed as shit sound that is only useful because of its comfort factor, now sounds great; it now gives CD sound a run for its money.
What a difference a cable can make!

I talked about sacrificing sound quality with the receiver, but I didn't talk about the main advantage of using a receiver: everything is connected to just one box that does it all for you, which means things are simple and easy to operate. In this day and age where I rarely sit and dedicate myself to music listening, something I would do on a daily basis once upon a time, earning comfort and paying with some potential quality loss is a good tradeoff.
One of the signs of maturing is being able to accept that everything in life has its shortcomings as well as its advantages.

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