Home Media – Part 1 – The NAS build

This is all part of a series.

Part 2: The Setup

Part 3: The Rip

Part 4: OSMC/KODI/XBMC

Digital media and distribution is the way of the future. Netflix is doing it, iTunes is doing it, and Steam is doing it. These are three very successful examples of cloud based streaming and digital distribution services. There are many more I could have used as an example, but in my opinion these are the most successful ones out there and the most popular. While iTunes and Steam charge on a per episode or per item basis, Netflix charges a flat monthly fee for unlimited viewing. I prefer the Netflix model, unfortunately with Netflix you don’t get the content right away, instead it usually arrives after the season has ended or the Blu-Ray has been released. However Netflix does have original programming such as Daredevil, Trailer Park Boys, Lilihammer, Arrested Development, Hemlock Grove, and House of Cards. Still this requires an internet connection, and if you want to watch in Super HD a somewhat fast one at that.

netflix-logo

What if you own hundreds of DVDs, HDDVDs, and Blu-Rays as it is in my case. What if you could access this content instantly on your television and reproduce them in 1080P with high fidelity multi-channel sound, and even in 3D if you would like. Well if you have the time, money, and would like to learn something new this is all possible. That and you will also have the satisfaction of completing something cool. You could have an instant on, Movie, Television, and Music jukebox library that you can share through out your entire house.Lime_Tech_Logo

The goal here is to put together a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device which is capable of serving up the information to your network and the devices on it. These devices could include a smartphone, HTPC, or a laptop. As far as NAS devices go you have two options, either buy a ready made NAS from manufacturers such as QNAP, Synology, ASUSTOR, Drobo, NETGEAR, or if you have an old computer kicking around you can purchase a registration key for unRAID and build your own solution. The benefit of going with your own build is that you can expand it as you please and you can add hardware and hard drives as you go along. You would be future proofing by going with a custom build, as you can tailor it to your needs. It can grow with you as you require. The ready made NAS devices come in pre-configured sizes and they take a limited number of Hard Drives. One thing to note about unRAID, there are three levels of licensing for unRAID, Basic which supports 4 drives, Plus which supports up to 8 drives, and Pro which supports up to 25 drives. Prices are $29, $69 and $119 respectively.

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As a best practice, you always want to have a parity drive in your drive array. A parity drive is a Hard Drive in a RAID array to provide fault tolerance. This will ensure that is one of your drives fails all your data will be recoverable. If one of your drives does happen to fail you should immediately replace the parity drive and rebuild it. A good practice is to always have a spare drive on hand, or hot spare as some call it. Also when you are making the initial purchase and buying multiple drives of the same make for your array, another best practice is to buy drives from different stores. This way you can ensure that the drives came from different manufacturing lines and all of them will not fail at the same time. After all you’ll probably want to store your pictures, and home movies on this rig. Always have a hot spare ready to go, it’s an empty drive that sits in your array ready to be used if another one fails, this is important as it prevents any down time or a double drive failure.

unRAID is not a RAID array, hence the name. unRAID is an array of disks with a parity drive. The parity drive holds a bit sum of all the drives in the array, and if a single disks fails the parity can rebuild said failed disk. If two disks fail, then you are SOL. Having said this you will only lose the data on the failed disks, the rest will retain their data. This is why it is important to have a hot spare on hand at all times.

If you plan on going with a pre-built device might I recommend Synology or QNAP. In my opinion these are the most popular ones on the market and they both have good communities that are willing to help you out if you hit a wall with with any settings. Also they are one of the few NAS devices that have packages for SABnzbd, Sick Beard or Sonarr, and Couch Potato. I will not get into specifics of these applications but these are some of the more popular packages.docker-logo

As of Unraid version 6 most of the packages that you would require can be installed as a docker container. Docker is a sort of Virtual Machine that runs applications in a self contained package on top of an OS layer independent of the OS that the container is running on. I find this to be a better solution than the Unraid plugins in previous versions, however you can still opt in for plugins in Unraid 6 there just isn’t a lot of them. They’re a dying breed. I would strongly advise against plugins. Why? Well, I find that the plugins have a tendency to break too often, especially if a prerequisite is changed or altered on the server, or another plugin updates it’s version of a prerequisite. With docker this is not an issue as all the prerequisites are in the container itself, and migrating to a new version of unRAID will not break your applications. Docker is also OS agnostic, meaning the same docker container can run on Linux, Windows, and Unix operating system. If you want an idea of what kind of docker packages are available for Unraid 6 just head over to the Lime-Technology forum and have a look at some of the packages that the awesome developers have designed specifically for unRAID.

Another nice feature in unRAID is that it supports virtual machines via either XEN or KVM. In the final version of unRAID there is a possibility that XEN might be dropped in favour of KVM. KVM is native to the Linux kernel and allows for easy hardware I/O passthrough. I’m currently using KVM with the assistance of a couple of plugins. I’m running an Ubuntu server with murmur installed on it, but this might be punted in light of a developer creating a docker container for it. If you wish to run KVM on unRAID you’ll need to install the VM manager and the Libvirt plugin of the server. The instructions are available here in the second post. Or you can just grab them from here:

https://raw.githubusercontent.com/dmacias72/vmMan/master/vmMan.plg

https://raw.githubusercontent.com/dmacias72/virtMan/master/virtMan.plg

As for the hardware requirements, almost any computer will do, you’ll need a flash drive, a motherboard with some sata ports and some hard drives. Realistically you could be running unRAID on your laptop if you want to, but that would defeat the purpose. I would recommend at least a 4 core processor with 8 GB or RAM, less if you do not plan of creating any Virtual Machines and 4 Hard Drive slots.

As for other hardware I recommend the Supermicro AOC-SAS2LP-MV8 8 Channel 6GB/S SAS/SATA PCI-E SAS card, and the Norco RPC-4224 24 Bay Hot Swap SATA/SAS 4U Rackmount Server Case. If you already have a tower case then you could opt in for a 5 bay drive enclosure such as the Norco SS-500 5-bay SATA/SAS hot swap rack module. This bay enclosure fits 5 standard size Hard Drives and occupies 3 x 5.25″ bays in a case. It’s a perfect fit for the smaller size setups. If you do go the route of the Norco SS-500 bay and get a SAS card you will also need a Forward SAS to SATA breakout cable.

Yes you will spend money on something like this, however it will still be cheaper and more effective than purchasing a QNAP or Synology device. Having said this there are pros and cons to both.

An unRAID home build can be cheaper than the competition, you can upgrade it as you wish and you can do it slowly. With unRAID you can scale it up or down as you need it and it can be powerful enough to run VIrtual Machines. Unlike FreeNAS or others, unRAID is easier to setup than the competition. unRAID however is not a true RAID NAS. unRAID has an array of disks that can be of varying sizes provided the parity drive is as large or larger than the largest disk in the array. If more than one disk fail in the array the data on said disks is lost, but only data on the disks that failed.

With systems like QNAP and Synology they are ready out of the box, provided you insert some disk in them. These NAS systems are not as easily scalable, however some of them do offer expansions. They can provide greater fault tolerance. These systems can cost more than a mid range computer depending on the amount of bays that you require. The cost can be as much as $1000 for a 5 bay solution. Applications are very easy to install and configure you don’t need to be a tech wizard. These systems are small, quiet, and don’t draw a lot of power. You can hide one of these under your bed if you desire.

Both are good options however I’m here to guide you through some of the hurdles involved in getting an unRAID system off the ground.

Next: Part 2 – The Setup

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Harmony Smart Control, Touch, and Ultimate.

Mid way through 2013 Logitech introduced a new line of smart remotes. Harmony Touch, Harmony Smart Control, and Harmony Ultimate.

The harmony ultimate is a mixture of the Touch and Smart Control system. The Harmony Touch is an Infrared(IR) remote, with a 2.4″ LCD screen that can use gestures to change channels and control your devices. Then you have the Smart Control system, which includes a hard button remote that interacts with a hub via Radio Frequency(RF). The hub then blasts IR, and Bluetooth signals to devices. RF is only used for the remotes communication between them and the hub. Bluetooth is used for gaming systems such as the Wii U, PS3, and PS4. The hub also uses WiFi to connect to your home network and can be controlled with a smartphone by downloading the Harmony app from Google Play or iTunes. The hub is common between the Smart Control and Ultimate system. Also note worthy is that the Smart Control system can be upgraded with the Touch remote, giving you similar features to that of the Ultimate system. There are however subtle differences between the Touch remote and the one that comes with the Ultimate system. For instance, the touch remote is lacking haptic feedback, a tilt sensor, and it’s ergonomics and materials are slightly different. What does this mean, well the tilt sensor is used to wake the LCD up when you pick the remote up, and the lack of haptic feedback on the touch remote means that you will not get confirmation on your presses. Other than that the ergonomics and materlial on the back of the remote might just be preference.

Upgrade

If you decide to upgrade you Harmony Smart Control with the Harmony Touch it all has to be done online via http://www.myharmony.com. Harmony no longer includes a software application. Programming your activities is done via the website or the Harmony smartphone app. Activities is how you control your devices, for instance an Xbox activity might turn your TV to aspecific input, your receiver to a specific input, and finally turn on your Xbox. Also in the Xbox activity the directional button might be used to navigate the Xbox menus. Where as a Blu Ray activity, might turn on your TV to the same input as the Xbox activity, turn your receiver to a different input, and finally turn on your Blue Ray player. And in your Blu Ray activity the directional pad on the Harmony remote will control your player navigation instead. It’s all customizable, and after the automatic setup can be changed to your preferences.

To use the website you need either a Windows or OSx computer, as the site uses Microsoft Silverlight to get the interface going. Also when you decide to update the Smart Control system with the Touch remote, you will increase the device count form 8 to 15. By updating to the touch remote you will also gain the ability to control the devices via RF from the remote directly, that and you will also be able to access your AV device menus and low level features. Otherwise with Smart Control you will need to leverage the Harmony app and its touch interface to have the level of control you gain with the Touch or Ultimate systems.

www.MyHarmony.com

I found using the app to setup the hub very frustrating, everything I did I had to do twice, seems that the app had some connection issues. Eventually I did manage to connect the hub to the WiFi, update the firmware, and setup all the devices and activities through the app. The connection problems were only apparent when setting it up, creating the activities went rather smoothly. I would recommend connecting the hub to your PC and setting everything up via the myharmony.com website. You will save yourself a lot of trouble and aggravation. To do so you will need to create an account on the website.

The website provides you with a nice level of control, creating and editing activities, changing button assignments, adding granular setting to the activities, etc. A nice level of control which you might want to avoid on the touch interfaces.

Also to note that if you have a previous version of a Harmony remote, the activities from that remote can be transferred to your Smart Control, Touch or Ultimate devices. However if you have never had a harmony remote previously, with a library of 225,000+ devices it’s a breeze setting up your activities. I was able to add things such as a Samsung HD DVD player, and a Zune HD AV dock. This surprised me, but I guess the database of devices is growing bigger and bigger by the day. No codes for your device, no problem you can teach these systems your devices codes and button assignments. As previously stated the Smart Control remote uses RF to communicate with the hub, and the hub is doing all the IR blasting and communicating with the devices. That is for the Smart Control system only though as the Touch remote relies solely on IR when communicating with your devices, unless paired with a hub. Smart Control comes with one extra IR blaster where the Ultimate is equipped with two extras. IR is line of sight and sometimes can bounce off walls. For the Xbox One I found that it really does need to be line of sight otherwise it does not work. It all depends on your room and your surfaces.

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The remote that comes with Smart Control can only control six Activities. The 3 buttons on the top have two functions, short and long press. Upgrading to the Touch or Ultimate allows you an unlimited number of activities. This is where the touch screen really shines. Switching from one activity to the next switches off your active devices and turns on the devices you just selected. The remote buttons can also be customized to perform different tasks for specific activities, that is if you wish to get into the a more detailed setup. Again this is where the touch screen remote is far superior because you can access individual functions on each device with it.That’s not to say that you can not do this with the Smart Control system, but you will need a smartphone or tablet and the Harmony app to accomplish the same level of control as you would with Touch and Ultimate. With the app or touch screen remotes you also have gesture based browsing. Swiping, tapping, pressing, and a combination of the three gestures, all yield different results based on your activity and your activity device settings. For example you could swipe up and tap to change the channel, swipe to the right to fast forward, or swipe to the right and hold to skip forward… I think you get my drift.

As far as hub and IR blaster placement, you will have to play around with that. Some locations might work for you, others may not. Since IR is mostly line of sight, but can be bounced off walls with in reasonable distance, you might want to place it somewhere where it can see all the devices. Having said that the hub has 4 blasters inside it pointing in all 4 directions, and in addition to this you can plug in two extra blasters into the hub. Also this device is designed to work in cabinets with closed doors. Nice thing too is you can assign where the IR signal is coming from for each device via the Harmony website.

HubAssignments

Bluetooth can penetrate cabinets and walls to it really doesn’t matter where you place the hub for Bluetooth devices. Each time you make changes to the site/settings you need to sync your hub with the pc/site.

Logitech has created a very nice universal remote system. Fully featured and very comprehensive. Controlling everything is quite nice and convenient. If you’re somewhat technically inclined you should have no difficulty setting this up, if not you can always head over to their forums and ask a few questions or give their harmony support a call. Logitech has a dedicated line just for Harmony support I would suggest you leverage it to your benefit.

Happy couch surfing.

HTPC? Go with Linux, try and avoid Windows based HTPCs.

A year and a half ago I switched my media server from Windows to Linux, this opened my eyes. A lot of people are afraid of Linux, people are afraid of what they don’t understand. I was a bit skeptical at first, but having made the switch I would never go back to a Windows based machine. Also I wanted to state that this article is not put here to start a flame war. I’m a heavy Windows user, these are just some observations of mine.

Main_logo_3DMy server serves up all the media from 7 Hard Drives totalling about 14 Terabytes of storage. I use XBMC to view all that media in my home. For those of you not familiar with XBMC, first I must ask, “Where have you been?”. XBMC is an award-winning free and open source (GPL) software media player and entertainment hub that can be installed on Linux, OSX, Windows, iOS, and Android, featuring a 10-foot user interface for use with televisions and remote controls. It allows users to play and view most videos, music, podcasts, and other digital media files from local and network storage media and the internet. That bit is straight from the horses mouth. It is probably one of the most popular media players for home theatre enthusiasts. If you have multiple televisions in your home you can point XBMC to an SQL database and sync content across rooms. If you are half way into a movie and you decide to stop it, you can continue where you left off in another room. It’s a very feature filled and rich media centre environment.

In my main living room where I have my home theatre setup, I’ve been running XBMC on top of a Windows machine for quite some time now. It has been very unstable, and more often than not if I brought the PC out of suspended mode XBMC would crash to desktop. My main reason for running this on top of Windows was that I also wanted to browse the web while in the living room. Finally I got annoyed at all the crashes and hangups with Windows. I could have ran in on top of Ubuntu, but instead I opted for an embedded XBMC solution. I had a choice either XBMCbuntu or OpenElec. I decided to go with OpenElec, to me it seemed like to more logical choice of the two. OpenElec is XBMC built from the ground up, on top of a Linux kernel. It is designed for light and small embedded media players. XBMCbuntu is an XBMC distro built on top of the Ubuntu kernel. I wanted the one with less bloatware. OpenElec stands for open embedded Linux entertainment center.

openelec_logoOnce I installed OpenElec and setup all my sources in XBMC I moved on to the testing phase. I wanted to test a couple movies. I ran a test on a movie i recently watched on my Windows based XBMC. Same hardware but different software. I played the movie and immediately I noticed the sound was a little louder, so i dropped the volume a couple notches, and continued watching. Meanwhile this is all playing through a 5.1 surround sound setup, and DTS is being decoded on the receiver. While listening I noticed something nice but not that surprising. The dynamic ranges in the movie were clearer and being reproduced a little better. The new XBMC Frodo (v12) Audio Engine (AE) and the linux audio stack was handling the audio a lot better than the Windows equivalent. Then I immediately recalled an article I read about 6 months ago where an audio engineer discusses the merits and accuracy of the Linux audio stack over the competition such as Windows. I wish I could link to the article, it was an interesting read. I also recalled that Windows audio stack or API as of the Vista version was no longer controlled by the hardware manufacturers but by the kernel of the OS. Some say that since Vista you don’t have true hardware DirectSound, instead you have software WASAPI which does mandatory resampling and frequency cutoff, and doesn’t allow any hardware effects such as CMSS-3D. This lead to some back lash from a lot of people back then, both hardware manufacturers and end users. In the end the audio experience is just as important to me as the video experience. I still buy Blue Rays because of the uncompressed video and audio quality, after all a movie should be an audio visual experience.

linux-wallpaperIn the end I’m glad I switched the HTPC to Linux. There is a noticeable performance increase on the audio side and just a general performance increase due to the smaller OS overhead from Linux and OpenElec. As for the web browsing part on my HTPC that I mentioned earlier, I found a third party Opera Browser plugin for OpenElec. Also as a side note, if you’re using a Raspberry Pi for XBMC, there is a huge performance increase with OpenElec over Raspbmc.

Here is a little clarification of the Windows audio subsystem taken from the XBMC Wiki:

Since Vista SP1, Windows has two primary audio interfaces, DirectSound and Wasapi (Windows Audio Session Application Programming Interface). The latter was a replacement for XP’s Kernal Streaming mode.

DirectSound acts as a program-friendly middle layer between the program and the audio driver, which in turn speaks to the audio hardware. With DS, Windows controls the sample rate, channel layout and other details of the audio stream. Every program using sound passes it’s data to DS, which then resamples as required so it can mix audio streams from any program together with system sounds.

The advantages are that programs don’t need resampling code or other complexities, and any program can play sounds at the same time as others, or the same time as system sounds, because they are all mixed to one format.

The disadvantages are that other programs can play at the same time, and that a program’s output gets mixed to whatever the system’s settings are. This means the program cannnot control the sampling rate, channel count, format, etc. Even more important for this thread is that you cannot pass through encoded formats, as DS will not decode them and it would otherwise bit-mangle them, and there is a loss of sonic quality involved in the mixing and resampling.

Partly to allow for cleaner, uncompromised or encoded audio, and for low-latency requirements like mixing and recording, MS re-vamped their Kernal Streaming mode from XP and came up with WASAPI.

WASAPI itself has two modes, shared and exclusive. Shared mode is in many ways similar to DS, so I won’t cover it here.

WASAPI exclusive mode bypasses the mixing/resampling layers of DS, and allows the application to negotiate directly with the audio driver what format it wishes to present the data in. This often involves some back-and-forth depending on the format specified and the device’s capabilities. Once a format is agreed upon, the application decides how it will present the data stream.

The normal manner is in push mode – a buffer is created which the audio device draws from, and the application pushes as much data in as it can to keep that buffer full. To do this it must constantly monitor the levels in the buffer, with short “sleeps” in between to allow other threads to run.

WASAPI, and most modern sound devices, also support a “pull” or “event-driven” mode. In this mode two buffers are used. The application gives the audio driver a call-back address or function, fills one buffer and starts playback, then goes off to do other processing. It can forget about the data stream for a while. Whenever one of the two buffers is empty, the audio driver “calls you back”, and gives you the address of the empty buffer. You fill this and go your way again. Between the two buffers there is a ping-pong action: one is in use and draining, the other is full and ready. As soon as the first is emptied the buffers are switched, and you are called upon to fill the empty one. So audio data is being “pulled” from the application by the audio driver, as opposed to “pushed” by the application.

WASAPI data is passed-through as-is, which is why you must negotiate capabilities with the audio driver (i.e. it must be compatible with the format you want to send it as there is no DS between to convert it), and why encoded formats like DTS can reach the receiver unchanged for decoding there.

Because WASAPI performs no mixing or resampling, it is best used in the exclusive mode, and as a result the application gets the exclusive rights to the audio buffers, to the exclusion of all other sounds or players. WASAPI shared mode does allow this, but that’s not a common mode and not what we want for an HTPC. I myself have a dislike of Window’s cutesy system sounds happening at 110db

Hope some of you found today’s primer of use. Please pick up a scorecard from the desk and drop it in the big round “collection box” on your way out

Cheers, Damian

LG LA6900, a TV viewing pleasure.

Design:

When you first take this TV out of the box you can’t help but to be impressed visually, the lack of a bezel around the television and a mere depth of 1.3” is very appealing as it should be, this is the exact reaction LG promotes with their Cinema displays. Weighing in at 44.1 lbs without stand and 50.1 lbs with stand an average sized adult can set this unit up themselves. The LG logo at the bottom of the television lights up if you want it to, it can be controlled through the televisions menu and has 3 brightness settings. The logo can be set to power on when the television is off or on, or can be disabled completely.

The stand the television comes with is also very sleek, much like it’s closest competitor LG is using a similar TV stand design. It seems that sever TV manufacturers are opting for the wrap under TV stand look these days. The screen is a glossy finish, this concerned me at first as glossy TVs tend to reflect light in a room. However generally glossy finishes have better picture quality and as is with this television the screen diffuses bright lights and bulbs in the room that are reflected on the screen. This must be a coating placed on the screen by the manufacturer.

Picture Quality:

This is a 120Hz TV and comes equipped with passive 3D.

After running the picture wizard which LG provides in the menu of the television, I was ready to test the unit. The picture quality is stunning, the colours are nice and aren’t over saturated, the tones and balances are perfect and it was a treat for my eyes to watch Television and play video games on.

True motion leaves something to be desired, often times it creates a halo effect, that’s what some call it. What it is is artifacts, the television needs to process both frames and create a mid frame, this often results in errors or artifacts and creates the less than desirable effect around certain objects on screen.

The Passive 3D is a great. I have never considered owning a 3D TV set but LG changed my mind. This unit came with 6 pairs of glasses, but if you watch 3D movies in the theatre you can just take those glasses home and use them. Both the Theatre and this LG set use the same passive technology to display 3D. The glasses are passive so they do not need batteries, the ones included with the set are very light and very comfortable to wear. Downside to the Passive glasses is that it dims the picture a bit. However the 3D is very comfortable and easy on the eyes, unlike the movie theatre 3D, and the active glasses which some users report to have flicker. Test subjects “The Hobbit” and “Tron: Legacy” both look great in 3D on this television. And passive 3D accounts for 48% of total 3D TV panel shipments in 2013, up from 39% in 2011. http://goo.gl/r1RC07

LED+ means that this set is edge lit using LED and has the dimming feature, during really dark scenes I was able to notice the LEDs dim, this threw me off at first, it was a bit distracting at first. The local dimming feature can be turned down or up depending on the preference, that or disabled altogether.

Sound Quality:

This TV comes with 2.1 sound, it has a subwoofer built into it. I tested this TV with some music that I streamed from my DLNA server, the sound was rich and the low frequency reproduction was acceptable. If you’re having people over and you want to stream some music to this unit it does a decent job. Don’t expect much though.

I also ran a test of the built in sound system with a couple of Movies, here is where the sound system buckled a bit. A 5.1 Soundtrack was not meant to be this TVs forte. It wasn’t terrible, but as with any 5.1 soundtrack one should couple it with a 5.1 receiver.

The sound system has some presets and a sound optimizer. The sound optimizer depending if the television is wall mounted, or sitting on a stand, adjusts accordingly. It has three settings, Normal or disabled, Wall-Mount Type, and Stand Type.

Then you have your presets such as Movie, Music, Game, User… etc.

All in all the sound is decent for a Television set, a lot better than any other TV speakers I’ve heard.

The Remote:

The magic remote can be operated as a mouse, and it has voice search functionality.

The voice recognition software is very accurate.

Features:

Miracast is similar to Intel’s WiDi which this TV also supports, but essentially if your devices support it like an LG smart phone, one can display the screen of the phone on the television.

This technology uses wifi to send the signal from phone to the TV.

The Good:

Picture quality and the passive 3D is where this set really shines here. This years models also sport dual core processor, and side by side to the 2012 models the performance is very noticeable. The 2013 Smart TV sets are a lot more responsive to button presses and menu changes. ARC functionality.

The Bad:

The dimming can be sometimes noticeable in dark scenes. For the most part it does a good job and lets the blacks really shine on screen.

The menu layout is not very intuitive if one is not familiar with LGs Smart TV technology and the magic remote finding the input selection screen can be a little confusing for new users. An input button on the remote would be very welcomed. ARC does not pass 5.1+ sound from any device connected to the TVs other HDMI inputs, this only works for the Smart TV features embedded into the TV operating system.

Side Note:

Remember to turn on the Gaming Picture mode when playing video games on the television, it will dramatically cut down on the input lag by disabling some of the processing that goes on in the background.

Conclusion:

I’d give this TV 8 out of 10, this is a very sexy and sleek design. The picture quality is superb and one of the better screens I have experienced. Passive 3D is nice and really easy on the eyes.  Really good for gaming.

Keywords:

LG LA6900, Dual Core, Passive 3D, Cinema Screen, 120 Hz, Smart TV, Voice Search, Magic Remote, 2.1 Sound, DNLA Compliant

HDBase-T

I recently got my hands on an HDBase-T device.

Quoi?

HDBaseT supported by the HDBaseT Alliance, is a consumer electronic (CE) connectivity technology for transmission of uncompressed high-definition video (HD), audio, power, home networking, and some control signals, over a common cable with a standard connector.

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In this instance it is a single device which passes an HDMI signal over cat5e (Network Cable) up to 100 meters or 320 feet. Generally devices such as these go for about $200 – $500. So you can imagine how sceptical I was when I saw this nGear branded one for $140 CDN.

There were alternatives out there on Amazon for a lot cheaper, but they weren’t HDBase-T. Which means limited support, and it will not support 3D or DTS 7.1.

What do you get in the package? You get an input and output terminator, you get two power adapters for the terminators, and you get two IR transmitters/receivers. The IR transmitter/receivers are able to pass your remotes signal over the cat5 cable to your connected device.

Initially when I got this device I was worried about the connectivity, I could not get it to work. Then I decided to crimp a new cable. With the new cable in place I was able to watch a 3D movie in 5.1 surround from my PS3 in my bedroom on my home theatre in the living room.

This is not what I intended the device for. I wanted this for my Gaming PC which sits in the bedroom. Now I play my PC games with a controller in the Living room.

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Additionally to the HDBase-T device I had to get a super long USB 2.0 cable which also runs from the gaming PC to the living room. I have connected a USB hub to this cable and a MS Wireless controller adapter so I can play games with my 360 controller. Sports and adventure games. When it comes to first person shooters I play it at my desk on my 3 monitors, mouse, and keyboard. I have both options available.

Switching between the 3 monitors and the Living room is easy, with AMDs Catalyst profiles I either press Ctrl+Alt+F4 (Desk) or Ctrl+Alt+F5 (Living Room). You can set this up yourself with any key combination you desire. Here’s a little visual guide someone put together.

So that was part of the battle the next challenge came in when I was in the living room I could not start and close applications with my controller, I would have to go to the bedroom unplug the mouse and bring it into the living room. That kind of defeated the purpose of the entire convenience. This is where Xpadder came in. Xpadder alows me to setup my controller and map mouse movements and clicks to buttons and joysticks on the controller. I mapped the mouse to my right analog stick and left click to my right trigger. It was a safe bet that it would no interfere with any controls in games. If you play any games the right stick always translates to mouse movements and right trigger always translates to left mouse click on the PC. I was right it really doesn’t interfere much, having payed Tomb Raider and Fifa 12 on the big screen it works pretty well. Now you can download Xpadder from the official site with a donation, or you can find it for free on other sites. Up to you.

At one point the GF saw me playing Tomb Raider on the bis screen, and she was amazed at how realistic the graphics were “movie like” was her comment. I chuckled, because it totally justified my purchase and it reminded me of this.

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As far as lag goes in gaming, there isn’t any that I have noticed. It works very well and I’m happy with it. My next purchase might be a blue-tooth wireless mechanical keyboard to put in the living room that can connect to 9 different devices.

So there you have it HDBase-T by nGear is a very solid and reliable device. I played through Tomb Raider on it and it hasn’t given me any trouble. I supports up to HDMI 1.4 but without ARC support.

I give it a 9 out of 10.

Here is a quick spec sheet:

HDMI version ———————————————    High speed with 3D support
Support HDMI resolution—————–  1080P/1080i/720P/576P/576i/480P/480i
Support video color bit ——————————————  deep color 24bit/36bit
Support audio format———————————   LPCM/Dolby-AC3/DTS7.1/DSD
Input Video signal ————————————————————- 5.0Volts P-P
Output cable distance—————————————————————-  <=5m
Input cable distance——————————————————————- <=5m
Data transfer speed———————————————–  6.75Gbps-10.2Gbps
Operating Humidity range————————–   5 to 90%RH (No Condensation)
Operating Temperature range————————–    -15 to +55C° (5 to 131°F)
Power adapter format——————————-  Input AC(50Hz.60Hz) 100- 240V
Power  Supply———————————————————————–   DC 5V

Pioneer VSX-1123-K

New for 2013 is the VSX-1123-K flagship non Elite series receiver from Pioneer. Airplay, HTC connect, Push Play for Android from the iControlAV2013 app, DLNA, MHL, Pandora and Internet radio. And that’s just scratching the surface. It has a plethora of codecs it can play, lossless audio formats, upconverts sources to HDMI and 4K resolutions, Audio Return Channel and 3D capable. It has two HDMI zones, two Audio zones, 90 watts per channel for 8 ohm impedance speakers and 165 watts per channel for 6 ohm impedance speakers. I would take the wattage with a grain of salt however. This also has the A/B Class amplifiers.

IMG_20130512_151054

First before I begin I think I need to cover Pioneer MCACC a bit. MCACC stands for Multi-Channel Acoustic Calibration System, and it is a piece of software built into the receiver which optimizes the sound for your room. You plug in a mic that comes with the unit and set it up at ear level where you would sit and listen to your music, movies and other audio sources. It will adjust the system sound and generate the best acoustics and listening levels for your room. Your first run you want to run MCACC in Full Auto, ALL CH ADJ, with the following speaker settings, either Normal(SB/FH), Normal (SB/FW), or Speaker B. Unless you have THX speakers set that option to no. Also for the above setting you need to to have at least a 5.1 system. I set my receiver to Speaker B when I ran MCACC. After I ran MCACC and then I copied the results to all 6 memory slots, just so I can have a backup when tweaking the settings. Even though I copied the results I only adjusted the speaker distance and some of the levels on only the first memory slot. Also MCACC will let you know if you have the phase of the speakers crossed, positive going to negative instead of positive going to positive and negative going to negative.

IMG_20130512_151124

This receiver has really good ventilation, nice big gaps in the case for heat dissipation. It gives off a lot less heat then my previous unit. Buying an A/B class amplifier that was my biggest concern, that it will generate a lot of heat. Fortunately that is not the case here, you could potentially put something on top of it provided of course that it has enough clearance but I would advise against it. Unlike my previous receiver this one will not cook breakfast.

Crossover or X.Over frequency is the frequency at which the LFE channel or the .1 channel for the subwoofer gets cut off at. Anything above this frequency will not be sent to the subwoofer. Also, apparently when studios mix the soundtracks to accommodate those without subwoofers the LFE gets mixed to the other channels as well. How much I am not sure. When you set the subwoofer to Plus the receiver will ignore the X.Over and all bass will be sent to this channel. If you have set the front speakers to Large and the Sub to just Yes, the full range of the L+R channel will be sent to the Large speakers. For instance my front speakers have a fq response of 37Hz to 20kHz, the sub covers 37Hz to 200Hz, this means that if I have a X.Over of 80Hz and my speakers set to large, the L+R channel will not be cut off below 80Hz and these channels will receive the full spectrum of the soundtrack. The subwoofer however will only receive the LFE (.1) channel at 80Hz and below. LFE channel only goes up to about 120Hz, so why is 80Hz a popular cut off fq? Several reasons, the Dolby LFE is normally 80Hz and below, DTS contains only about 5% of the LFE between 80 – 120Hz and as far as human perception goes anything 80Hz and under becomes non directional to the human ear more or less. You can set your X.Over at 120Hz or rather 150Hz and get the full LFE track. Alternatively setting a crossover for small speakers will send fq’s above this cut off to the small speakers and anything below to the woofer. If you want some more reading in regards to this, pages 132 to 134 of the official MCACC thread on AVS Forum have more detail. http://www.avsforum.com/t/1112470/official-pioneer-mcacc-thread/3930

I think the biggest mistake people make when they buy this receiver is that they do not run the MCACC, they don’t read the Manual, and that they don’t know how to set the receiver to playback the soundtrack properly. Read the manual, there are a lot of settings on this receiver for a reason and going in blindly will only result in your frustration. Personally there are two settings you need to understand AUTO SURROUND, ALC, DIRECT and PURE DIRECT. Here what the Manual says about these. DIRECT – Plays back sound from the source with the least modification next to PURE DIRECT. With DIRECT, the only modifications added to PURE DIRECT playback are calibration of the sound field by the MCACC system and the Phase Control effect. PURE DIRECT – Plays back unmodified sound from source with only minimal digital treatment. Direct mode uses EQ and Standing Wave. Pure Direct does not. Pure Direct only uses the channel level and distance settings gathered from your calibration. ALC (Auto Level Control) is perfect for night viewing, with this setting all channels will output at the same level. AUTO SURROUND, as it specifies picks the best surround mode for you on the receiver.

I generally use Direct for all my listening needs as it applies the MCACC treatment in only a limited manner. I like the way it sounds, in movies it makes it sound lively. This is a subjective preference though. Compared to my AVR 2650 from Harman Kardon this receiver kicks ass. It does not have that boomy sound, and it balances the Highs, Mediums, and Lows quite nicely. Where as my H/K sounded kind of flat. After running MCACC on this Pioneer and tweaking the levels a bit afterwards I feel immersed in the movies. This device gives me that Theater sound experience that I did not know I was lacking with the H/K Avr 2650. Either way I am satisfied with the sound reproduction on this.

The iControlAV2013 app. I use an Android device the Nexus 4, and the app is a convenient way to browse my music library on my DLNA server and phone itself. The Push Player in the input section of the app tries to mimic the Airplay feature from iOS devices, it does a nice job. The Push Player has a nice layout and is very easy to use. Using the volume rocker on my phone will respectively turn the receiver’s volume up and down. When playing music via push player an icon appears in the status bar of the phone for quick and easy access. The fact that I can be lying on my bed and turn on my receiver via the app is very nice, then I can browse and push songs to it. Before you can do that the Network standby feature needs to be turned on in the menu. You can switch zones and sources with the app, control volume, switch inputs, change listening modes, change the balance, phase, emphasize the bass or treble, and many other features. It is a nice visual representation of the controls available for the receiver. Mostly I use the app for playing music, when I’m watching TV or Movies I reach for the remote. Also the App is free for both Android and iOS.

The DLNA server connectivity option is also great, I have a linux media server at home and this device connects to DLNA server perfectly. I use Plex Media Server. I love being able to stream my complete music library to the receiver and with this supporting lossless formats I don’t need to convert anything. One thing to note and I have found this a constant on the net, and even in my past personal experience windows DLNA server which is built into some of Microsoft products is less than stellar and has connectivity issues. Even if you get the device to see the server once that does not necessarily mean it will see it again. Take it from an IT guy, find yourself a third party applications like Plex, TVersity or Twonky. These applications are more reliable and are universal not proprietary to the manufacturer. Microsoft product only works well with microsoft product, avoid like the plague.

IMG_20130512_150852The remote has a ton of buttons, I like options, so the buttons are very welcome. Learn the remote and all it’s functions, it can be a quick and easy way to make changes on your receiver. Also it can be used as a universal remote, it is capable of learning other remote codes effectively eliminating a bluray player, TV remote, or any other IR remote. The remote feels very light and flimsy, however the button presses are very responsive and I like the receiver function button. For anyone with kids this prevents the little ones from making changes to the settings if they decide to pick up and play with the remote.

The OSD is not pretty by any means, but who cares it has to be functional. As far as I’m concerned I care about the functionality of the device and the quality of sound reproduction than a pretty interface.

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are available via adapters, unfortunately you have to buy them seperate. Personally I try not to use Wi-Fi where I can, most of my house is wired, I have two gigabit switches sitting in each room that has a TV and network capable devices. I only use Wi-Fi on my phone and laptop. So this receiver is wired. Bluetooth is very lossy, generally I stay away from streaming music via Bluetooth there is too much quality loss. Also it is very susceptible to interference, if you’re an audiophile this is probably not your cup of tea anyways. Now Pioneer says that it has some sort of tech that improves this, the only way I would consider Bluetooth as a streaming option is if the Bluetooth copied the entire digital file and buffered it in memory for playback. This is the only way that I can see the original file retaining it’s quality, unfortunately I can not find any information on the Pioneer Bluetooth streaming except that you require the Air Jam application for android to stream the songs to the Bluetooth device. Also the Pioneer devices are Apple friendly, including AirPlay and such.

With 7 HDMI inputs and analog source to HDMI and 4K up-scaling you can’t go wrong. It has a second HDMI Zone out, so you can have a different sources on two different TV’s add Zone B speakers and this thing is a sure winner. This device will allow HDMI pass through after it has been switched off. It will pass through the last source that was selected on the receiver before it was turned off.

moses-rtfm

Zone 2 functionality seems to be somewhat of a mystery to people when it comes to this unit. Don’t worry it was to me as well, but then I did a little digging or rather reading and got it going. Remember, RTFM. Either way it was a non issue after that. Settings for Zone 2 are as follows, in the receiver menu go to 4.System Setup – 4a.Manual SP Setup – 4a1.Speaker System and change to ZONE 2.
Then go to 4f.Other Setup – 4f7.Play ZONE Setup, set Play ZONE to ZONE 2. If you are using the secondary HDMI zone you will need to make changes to the HDZONE settings.

You are able to change the contrast, hue, saturation, etc… on this device. Just like the audio options there are many video adjustments that can be made.

ARC also supported on this receiver, unlike my previous receiver this time around it was pretty much plug and play. On the receiver you need to go to the Sytem Setup – HDMI Setup and turn Control On and ARC On. Once you do this you need to setup your TV on Samsungs it’s called AnyNet+ on LG SIMPLINK… etc. Each manufacturer has their own proprietary ame for the CEC control standard. I tested ARC with Netflix and the receiver was playing back the DD 5.1 soundtrack perfectly. For ARC to work in any setup one needs to user an HDMI 1.4 spec cable, see the chart below taken from Wikipedia.

HDMI version

1.0

1.1

1.2x

1.3

1.3x

1.4x

2.0

sRGB

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

YCbCr

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

8 channel LPCM, 192 kHz, 24-bit audio capability

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD video and audio at full resolution[F]

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Consumer Electronic Control (CEC)[G]

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

DVD-Audio support

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Super Audio CD (DSD) support[H]

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Deep color

No

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

xvYCC

No

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Auto lip-sync

No

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Dolby TrueHD bitstream capable

No

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

DTS-HD Master Audio bitstream capable

No

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Updated list of CEC commands[I]

No

No

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

3D over HDMI[142]

No

No

No

No

No

Yes

Yes

Ethernet channel

No

No

No

No

No

Yes

Yes

Audio return channel (ARC)

No

No

No

No

No

Yes

Yes

4K resolution support[143]

No

No

No

No

No

Yes

Yes

Two things, I read somewhere that ARC puts a strain on the HDMI board on the Receiver and that it is recommended to use the Optical instead. I don’t know how much truth that holds. I also want to add that I am no longer using the Geffen HDMI detective with this receiver, I do not get audio and video flicker anymore. If you’re wondering what that is just have a look see at my previous blog post “The device that saved my home theatre.”. It appears that it was the Harman Kardon receivers fault after all, poor HDMI boards.

A lot of people think that you should be able to plug and play something and it should sound amazing. Unfortunately this is the culture a lot of manufacturers are breeding, specifically Apple. I have to disagree. You are able to get away on this receiver by just running the Advanced MCACC and leave it at that, and the receiver will sound beautiful. However if you want the Maximum out of your experience I suggest you play with some of the sound options. Start with the basic stuff like levels and balance, then perhaps work your way up to adjusting the EQ and seeing what sounds the best for your environment and listening pleasure. One buys a receiver so they can get the best out of their home theatre, take some time and learn the functions if you don’t understand them, play with them see what they do to your sound reproduction.

I have to give a big shout out to the people of AVS Forum in the MCACC thread. While I was figuring out this receiver they were a huge help, and very knowledgeable. A lot of professionals and enthusiasts that have a passion for this stuff. If you ever have any questions about AV stuff I recommend navigating over there and asking some questions. Thanks

I give this receiver 8 out of 10, the instructions could have been much clearer and the X Over settings are very confusing to beginners. However the sound and connectivity of this unit are simply amazing.