Until recently Crotchety Man’s living room contained a TV, a video recorder and a conventional Teac Hi-Fi system consisting of an amplifier, a digital radio tuner, a CD player and a pair of speakers. The TV was a basic model but it had a good picture. The Hi-Fi system wasn’t that expensive but its KEF Q-Series loudspeakers meant that it lived up to its billing of ‘high fidelity’.
I listened to speakers by 5 or 6 different manufacturers when I bought the system some 12 or 13 years ago. Each pair had its own characteristic sound: brighter or warmer, fuller or brasher than the one before. Then, when the KEFs were switched in, something magic happened. It sounded as if there was nothing at all behind the silver fabric – no cones, no magnets, no wires, no baffles – nothing to impede the passage of the music. They were not loudspeakers, they were windows into a concert hall or studio. These were the ones for me.
I was very happy with the audio system but the whole set-up was generally lacking in features that might be considered essential in today’s Internet-connected, Wi-Fi capable, consumer electronics market. The TV measured 32 inches across the diagonal – not nearly big enough to impress visitors. The video recorder could only record one TV program at a time. And none of the boxes had any kind of network connection: no Ethernet, no Wi-Fi, no Bluetooth. As a result, the sound from the TV came only from the tiny, tinny speakers in the TV itself and there was no way to stream music from the computer to the Hi-Fi.
Then, about six months ago, when we switched on the video recorder and tried to add a TV programme to its schedule the whole screen went green and a message box popped up saying “Operation has stopped”. From the scrolling front panel display we deduced that the recorder was re-initialising; presumably, its internal computer processor had crashed and it was rebooting. We watched anxiously for a while but it recovered successfully. Having quickly established that it hadn’t lost any recordings and everything seemed to be working normally again we shrugged and forgot about it.
The green screen appeared again sporadically over the next few months. It was mildly annoying but we kinda got used to it. Eventually, though, when we had finished spending money on Christmas presents and recovered from the hectic festive season the green screen became more irksome. After some online research we replaced the video recorder with a similar but more up-to-date model.
The new recorder can record two TV programmes at once and it has two other functions we had never had before: it can play Blue-Ray discs and it supports DLNA. I had to google ‘DLNA’ to see what it means. Apparently, it stands for Digital Living Network Alliance, which is an organisation that develops and promotes a set of interoperability guidelines for digital devices. The guidelines cover Plug and Play protocols that enable multi-media devices to connect to each other and stream digital audio-visual information over a suitable data network.
Crotchety Man’s nose twitched as a thought bubbled up to the surface of his conscious mind. This might mean I can stream music from our computer in the study to the video recorder in the living room via the Wi-Fi. Wouldn’t that be nice? A little more research turned up a dozen or so DLNA apps that could be installed on the computer. I chose one called Plex; it’s free, has good reviews and runs on our iMac. The Plex app looks nice and it does a good job. The trouble is the video recorder plays through the TV whose tiny speakers strip every last ounce of life out of the music leaving it empty and withered like the desiccated corpse of a Dracula victim. So much for DLNA.
The disappointment of the DLNA experiment prompted me to re-assess our listening requirements. What we really needed was Hi-Fi sound from the TV and video recorder. In principle we could connect the audio output from the TV to the existing Hi-Fi system. But that would require running wires right across the living room. It would also mean switching on the Hi-Fi amplifier every time we wanted to watch a TV program or a DVD and we would hear voices from the speakers on the left of the room while watching action on the TV screen to the right. Somehow this didn’t seem entirely satisfactory.
The usual way to improve the sound from your TV these days is to buy a soundbar, so we looked at what is available both online and in the shops. There are many different models ranging in price from about £50 to well over £500. I knew I would not be satisfied with anything whose sound quality fell below that of my beloved KEF Q-Series speakers and, unfortunately, that meant a high-end model. It seemed a bit odd to spend that sort of money on a soundbar for a TV that itself didn’t cost much more than that and, anyway, the best soundbars were too long to fit on our furniture.
Changing tack again we turned our thoughts to home cinema systems. Most products in that category are designed for 5.1 surround sound and we didn’t want that. We didn’t have space for loudspeakers at the back of the room and we weren’t hankering for cinematic sound effects. I could only find one home cinema system that met our requirements: the Bose SoundTouch 220. (There is a similar Bose system at two-and-a-half times the price but that was beyond our budget.)
I first came across Bose products eons ago at a Hi-Fi show where they had their 901 speakers on demo. Not only did the speakers sound amazing but there were also reprints of an academic (but readable) paper on the stand. The paper claimed that it is possible to make a ‘perfect’ loudspeaker – one that exactly reproduces the input signal – but that it sounds utterly unmusical. It was that discovery that led to the design of the Bose 901s with their eight rear-facing drivers and two forward-facing. I have admired Bose products ever since.
If the SoundTouch 220 sounded good enough it could replace the old Hi-Fi completely. It doesn’t have a radio tuner but it does have Internet radio built in. It doesn’t have a CD player, either, but the new video recorder can do that. The SoundTouch does have a Wi-Fi transceiver unit through which smartphones, tablets and computers can stream audio and video. It can even be expanded into a multi-room system with the addition of further Wi-Fi-enabled gadgets. Perhaps this was what we were looking for.
Crotchety Man booked a demonstration at one of the nearest Bose dealers, although ‘near’ isn’t quite the right word – it was an hour’s drive up the motorway. Still, it gave us a chance to visit the famous Meadowhall shopping centre and browse around the shops there. What greater incentive can a man give his missus than the promise of a day-long shopping trip? So a week ago we went to Sheffield, we listened distractedly to the salesman, we listened intently to the demo equipment and we came home with a big cardboard box containing a Bose home cinema system.
The new kit has fulfilled all its promises. Compared with the KEF speakers it delivers slightly more detail and a much more exciting overall sound. I worry that it will seem too exciting at times but, so far, I’m loving it. It certainly enhanced the DVD version of Star Trek Insurrection when we watched it the other day. The best thing about it, though, is that it streams music from the computer without a hitch even when Mrs Crotchety’s iPad struggles with its Wi-Fi connection.
The other day I was alone in the house. Firing up the SoundTouch app on my iPhone I put my iTunes music on shuffle, settled back on the sofa and thought, “This is the life”. Some people want to sit in the sun all day in exotic locations, some are compelled to seek the excitement that comes from climbing mountains or jumping out of planes, but I am content to sit at home with a steady stream of my favourite music flowing through wires and wireless networks, rippling through the flimsy air, to fall gently on the ears and, like nectar, soothe the weary soul.
So, to celebrate my next step on the road to audio Nirvana, I have chosen This Is The Life from the album of the same name by Amy MacDonald. It’s just a simple pop song – the sort of thing any singer/songwriter worthy of the name might write. But the track isn’t just Amy’s voice and guitar. There’s a rhythm section of bass and drums that really rock; there’s a nice bit of piano in the background and subtle sounds of synths; a violin adds a little textural roughness; and Amy’s voice is multi-tracked to provide vocal harmonies. It’s a good song and a wonderfully balanced production. In fact, it’s just the track to bring out the strengths and weaknesses of a new sound system.