Archive

Music Movies and TV

MICROSOFT HAS JUST SCREWED OVER SOME OF ITS CUSTOMERS!

I’ve had a rough draft of a review for the Xbox One’s digital tuner sitting in my drafts folder for over a year now.  I just never got around to finishing the article, and at a certain point it seemed logical to just wait and review both the tuner and the DVR when the promised DVR features are enabled in 2016 (presumably after E3 next week.)  Well today it was announced that Microsoft is abandoning their plans for the XBOX  ONE to have a DVR.  And I am pretty frickin’ angry at them over it.

For fans of Windows Media Center, things have been a bit grim for a while.  WMC has been ignored, become buggy, and finally the word came down from Redmond that Windows Media Center would be no more.  Regular readers also know that I was TERRIBLY DISSAPOINTED by the multimedia features of the Xbox One when it came out in 2013.  Of course, that assumes that this site has anything resembling a ‘regular reader’.

For a while, it looked like Microsoft had a few plans that will restore to the Xbox One some of the features of the Xbox360 when used with Media Center.  Streaming my music library (after it has been uploaded to OneDrive) and supposedly supporting FLAC after Windows 10’s release looked like promising improvements – but never lived up to their potential in my own testing .  Dolby Digital has been added to Blu-Ray playback and now there is the ability to watch live television – so gee-whiz the XB1 finally does the job of $65 blu-ray player and a $15 HDTV antenna.  Not bad for my initial $499 investment on day one.  Then in 2015 Microsoft promised us that the Xbox One will get DVR functionality within the next year.  Even a die hard WMC fan such as myself would have had to admit that having DVR right on the console would have been a big plus over the old server-client design that was used with WMC and the Xbox360.

As soon as the promised DVR was announced I went out and purchased the TV Tuner.  It is a usb tuner from Hauppauge that retails for roughly $60.  (Yes, it was stupid of me to buy something in anticipation of a future functionality.  I know – but I was excited.

Gee - it's been a while since we had live TV...is Lassie still on the air?

Gee – it’s been a while since we had live TV…is Lassie still on the air?

Nonetheless, I picked one up and decided to give it a test run.  My enthusiasm for the tuner stemmed from the promise that if the XB1 added DVR, then it would become the only streaming device that can do live TV, Amazon Prime, HBO, HULU and Netflix.  (For a meager $300 more than it’s closest rivals – the Apple TV and the Roku.)  Fortunately, I didn’t spend the extra $99 for another external hard drive which Microsoft specified would be necessary to enable the DVR features.

The tuner sets up easily and does deliver a good live picture.  I’ve used it twice, to watch the Superbowl.  Other than that – without a DVR –  it is a paperweight.

I have been a Microsoft fanboy for years, but this may be the last straw for me.  The Xbox One is a descent gaming machine, but is only as good for home theater use as a $40 Roku streaming stick.  Quite frankly, I’m not even super impressed with the games anymore and have been spending more time on Steam than Xbox Live.  I think that a Steam Link may be in my future and Microsoft will have to work pretty damn hard to get my loyalty back.

Microsoft – the hardware is there, the tuner is there, the OTA programming guides are there – why won’t you finish the job??  This was a promised feature and some of us spent money on the tuner.  Personally, I feel they ought to initiate a refund program to allow people to get some kind of credit for their old tuners (or their new paperweights – either way you want to look at it).

So in the final analysis – the Xbox One digital tuner is a DON’T BUY item.  Without the DVR features, it is no better than a cheap HDTV antenna.

 

Advertisements

 

Groove - CopyVS apple - Copy

I have experimented extensively with lossless audio and the Groove Music service.  Then I got curious, how does the streaming audio compare between both services?

Normally, to compare streaming audio quality in a scientifically valid manner the streaming audio files would need to be compared using identical equipment – except that type of experiment contains an inherent fallacy when it comes to music streaming.

These days when you purchase a service or a piece of equipment you are buying into a digital ecosystem.  Usually, when combining services and devices, there are benefits (both tangible and intangible) to being monogamous to one ecosystem.  Have an android phone?  Then google Music will work more smoothly than other music providers.  The same goes for Apple and Microsoft.

So I did my audio test in my home theater and compared the audio quality of Groove Music playing though the XBOX One vs Apple Music playing on an Apple TV 3.

All other equipment stayed the same – reasonably high end equipment, nothing too crazy expensive – after all running a free blog where you discuss electronics and rant against gun owners isn’t very lucrative!  (Boston Acoustics Tower Speakers, Onkyo Receiver, Golden Ear Force Field subwoofer). In both cases the devices were streaming uncompressed HDMI and the sound settings on the amplifier were identical.

It was no contest.  The Apple TV streaming from Apple Music’s sound quality blew away the Xbox One streaming from Groove Music.  It wasn’t even close.  Heck – even Mrs. Mindcrime could tell the difference and described the sound of the music from Groove on the Xbox One as “muffled and muddy”.

This is by no means a scientific test, however if you are considering shelling out for Groove Music – and as a Microsoft fanboy I hate to say this – you should probably give Apple Music a listen first.

This is going to be an article that is only of interest to a very obscure subset of music listeners…and you should only read on if you meet the following criteria:

  1. Your music collection is in some form of Lossless Codec – FLAC, WMA-Lossless, ALAC.
  2. You want to stream lossless audio from your OneDrive account to your phone – and you don’t care about data consumption – OR you want lossless at home and want to stream the same collection of music to a mobile device using the same set of playlists.
  3. You might own some 24-bit music – such as albums bought at HDTracks.
  4. You actually think there is a difference between a high-quality mp3 and lossless or HD Audio. (Dear Commenters – I don’t want to wade into this debate, even if it is for the placebo effect – just let us audio snobs be happy playing with our toys.)
  5. If pushed, you are willing to batch convert your FLAC files to WMA-Lossless or whatever format necessary to achieve your audio happiness dreams.

With the launch of Windows 10 and Groove Music I had some hope that there might finally be a music streaming option that allowed me to do the following:

  1. Stream my own lossless music collection from the cloud to any player I want (i.e. through OneDrive).
  2. Use my XBOX One to do home music playback in 24-bit audio.
  3. Have the same playlists on my home PC, iPhone (or any mobile device), and the XBOX One.

Since Windows Media Center has been depreciated (and has become buggy as heck), I have switched our home music setup to use iTunes and the Apple TV 3.  I discuss that here in an earlier article where I test if OneDrive would work with Apple Lossless Audio.

Before converting my entire FLAC collection to WMA-Lossless I decided to do some testing first.  I uploaded the following Albums to OneDrive (via Windows 10).  None of the albums have any kind of DRM or Copy Protection in their files that would interfere with playback.

 

Table

Let’s be clear here: I have never ever made any claims to possess good taste in music.

All of these albums play fine in the Groove Desktop application.  I do want to note here that the upload times for OneDrive do seem to have improved (albeit anecdotally) since my last test.  And it is important to mention that – as one reader commented in a previous article – Windows 10 natively supports FLAC.  YEA!  Microsoft has also claimed that Groove would stream WMA Lossless and that it would play back the file just like it is in your cloud drive. (Click Here for the page that I clipped the following caption from. Note: on my PC the link would not work with Chrome, but would on the new Windows 10 Edge browser.)

Bitrateclaim

The image above is from Microsoft’s website.

To ensure that the files had plenty of time to be recognized and found on whatever systems they needed – I waited until the albums showed up in both the Groove web app and the iPhone app.  That is where the first disappointment happened.  Sorry Shakira, neither the web app nor the iPhone app can even SEE a FLAC file album.  Again, MSFT never explicitly claimed that the Groove Web App nor the iPhone app would support FLAC.  However, I was hoping that the inclusion of FLAC in Windows 10 would signal the desire to allow that file format to permeate the rest of the Windows ecosystem.  The fact that the web application does not include FLAC support is a sign that ecosystem wide FLAC support may have been wishful thinking on my part.

I then used the web app to play songs from the three WMA-Lossless albums.

Bad news there, the 24-bit albums would not play –at all – either of them – and the web app generates the following error:

GrooveError

D-OH!

The 16-bit lossless (Def Leppard’s Hysteria) played just fine in the Groove Web app.  I cannot vouch for the quality (especially given my desktop’s speakers) – but it played.

Next I tried the iPhone app.  My original plan for this article was to test to see if the music was truly being streamed in lossless audio.  I was planning to use this method (CLICK LINK HERE) to determine if the file was being down-sampled.  However my experiment ended up testing something much more basic.  Does the Groove mobile app play lossless music AT ALL?

Again, like the web application the Groove iPhone app would not open a 24bit 88mhz song (WMA Lossless) and did not recognize FLAC files.

It did open and begin to play standard 16bit 44mhz files in WMA Lossless.  My first test was with the song “Hysteria” from the Def Leppard album.  The song is 40.8MB on the disc.  It played half of the song and then mysteriously restarted.  It would not play the entire song – even a second listen.  Since I had already reset my cellular data counter, I checked it and the phone had downloaded over cellular a total of 9.6MB.

To make sure that it wasn’t a corrupted file, I tried another song: “Don’t Shoot Shotgun”  – 31.8MB on Disc.  Again it hiccupped and repeated before the song was over.  Twice.

I’d say the Groove app only poured only one-third of a cup of sugar on me…get it?  C’mon!  I love puns!!

I then turned on Wifi to see if it would work better with a faster data connection.  The problem of not playing an entire song persisted.

At this point discovering if Groove is providing lossless streaming was moot.  It wouldn’t stream an entire song to my mobile device.

That being said there is a potential confounding variable here.  Maybe it’s my iPhone.  If anyone else has experimented with Lossless WMA on the iPhone or Android apps – PLEASE leave a helpful comment below.

To be thorough, I tried one more thing.  I went to my basement movie room, where my XBOX One lives and tried the Groove Music app.  It did not see the FLAC Shakira album – but I am hoping that will change with the November Update, when the XBONE gets Windows 10.  It did however, play all of the WMA Lossless files in their entirety and it sounded good!  I do not have the technical wherewithal to test whether I was getting the full 24-bit HD Audio experience, nor did I do any side by side comparisons with other sources (such as an HTPC or Apple TV in the same room)– but it sounded good.

At this point, I feel that the Groove music system is improving, but still has some hurdles to overcome.  Honestly, I don’t care much whether a music locker service streams to my mobile device in lossless audio.  Cars and my gym headphones are not ideal listening environments and so the quality improvement would be unnoticeable (it may be anyway) – not to mention that 24bit albums are a HUGE amount of data to stream to a phone.  At home however, it would be nice to know that I am getting the best audio experience that my equipment can deliver, and in good faith I do believe that the Xbox One is now capable of streaming 24bit HD audio to a home sound system.  Ideally, I would like to have one set of playlists on a single service that would sync between my home lossless audio and my mobile experience.

Apple’s iCloud/iTunes Match does this fairly well with some limits.  Through iTunes match it delivers to my mobile device lossy audio versions from my music collection.  However, at home (where the audio quality arguably matters more), it can stream lossless from the PC to the Apple TV3.  That lossless audio, however, is limited to and down sampled to 16bit playback.

A few more random thoughts and responses:

Why not use TIDAL?

Simple – no Apple TV or XBOX app and I don’t want to Airplay to my Apple TV – it seems to introduce too many connections and variables for me to believe I’m getting top quality sound.  Plus, what about the 24-bit audio in my collection?  An Apple TV or XBOX app would probably have me look to Tidal as the simplest solution.

Dude, you put a lot of thought into this – and you probably can’t hear the difference over using Spotify or any other music service.

Yup, but like I said – even if it is the placebo effect, it makes me happy to think that I am getting the best music experience I can.  When I do side by side testing with my friends using an MP3 and a 24bit – 88khz versions of the same song on my best stereo equipment most of them can guess correctly which is which.  That being said, here is a well-researched article that savagely and completely dismantles arguments for HD Audio (LINK).  My argument for lossless and HD Audio is not really that it sounds better, but that it – maybe through marketing or placebo effect – it makes me happier to have cool toys and cool audio files.

What Next?

I’m going to wait for two developments that I hope will move one of the two ecosystems (Apple or Groove) closer to my dream goal of one-streaming-setup-to-rule them all.

Development One – in November the new Xbox One update will occur and may add FLAC support since it is based in Windows 10.  (Its getting a DVR – which I am eager to test!).  Maybe in that time the Groove mobile app will get fixes to allow more reliable playback for lossless audio (WMA or FLAC).  Windows 10 would also allow for Tidal to easily build an app for the Xbox One.

Development Two – Apple TV 4 will be announced in September.  Maybe it will support 24bit audio?  Reportedly they are working on a TV solution for cord cutters and the development language is supposedly going to allow for more open app development (so Tidal could develop an app for the ATV too.)

As I learn more on this topic I will update this post.

I don’t think that the major theater chains decided not to show the movie “The Interview” because they are afraid of North Korea.

 

I think they decided to pull the movie because they are afraid of the armed American gun nuts who might show up to see it.

 

Think about it.  Every jingoistic lunatic with multiple firearms would show up at the movies to “protect” their fellow movie goers from the North Koreans.  Then an Asian guy walks in to see a movie and BLAM – some dipshit in a cowboy hat starts shooting!

Then the next gun nut shoots at the first gun nut but misses (because these guys are nearly as good of a shot as their childish fantasies make them think they are), and so on and so forth.

It’s a blood bath – and North Korea didn’t have to do anything.

If I were in charge of a theater chain, that would be the scenario on my mind.  Of course our media – ever afraid of the NRA – would never mention this possibility, obvious as it is.

 

Now, that being said I think SONY should release the movie for free to everyone on earth.  (Via streaming and even broadcast television).  That would make this the most watched movie in human history…and stick it to North Korea, who apparently doesn’t want us to watch the film.  Everyone would be safe in their homes and North Korea would loose.

This is going to be a really short review:

Stop reading my blog and go buy this album.

WOW.  All I can say is ...WOW!

WOW. All I can say is …WOW!

Seriously, it’s that amazing.

If you don’t love this album by the time you hit the fourth track, then go to your doctor and have your ears checked.

I thought Within Temptation had peaked with The Heart of Everything and the live Black Symphony Albums.  Turns out I was completely wrong.

I liked The Unforgiving, but felt that the story overtook the music.  Later on, I even went through the trouble to have a copy of the Q-Music sessions sent to the USA.  On that album they did a number of cover tunes, and you can hear how some of the music they covered has influenced their progression as a band in Hydra.

In this album there are a mix of different styles from metal, to rap-mix, to ballad and they all seem to work!  I suppose that is the reason for naming the album ‘Hydra’ – a mythical creature with many heads.  Four of the ten tracks are collaborations and each one brings a new twist to the Within Temptation sound.  I never thought I’d appreciate rap mixed in with my Symphonic Metal – but they pulled it off and it works great!

If you haven’t managed to obtain a copy of the Q-Music Sessions, then be sure to buy the deluxe version of Hydra (Link Above).  It contains four of the cover tunes from the Q-Music Sessions.

Hopefully, they will announce a tour of the United States sometime soon.

Now, if you will excuse me I’m going to post this hastily-written blog post and get back to rocking out to this frakin’ amazing album!

 

 

25 -years old and still the gold standard for Anti-Establishment thinking-man's metal!

25 -years old and still the gold standard for Anti-Establishment thinking-man’s metal!

Last week I attended the Queensryche concert in Denver at the Gothic Theater.  It was the Queensryche version with Geoff Tate but none of the other members of the band.  I went with an old buddy from High School who has actually played the same venue when he was the lead guitarist of a local Denver band.  We both thought that the show was pretty good (they played Operation Mindcrime end-to-end along with a few songs from Empire).  Operation: Mindcrime is my all-time favorite alum and hearing Tate sing it was pleasantly nostalgic.  My musician-buddy felt that the new lineup executed the album faithfully and we both agreed that we got our money’s worth from the show.

You may or may not know this, but there are now two Queensryche’s.  One has Geoff Tate but not the rest of the band (Queensryche 1.x), and the other (Queensryche 2.0) is fronted by a very Tate-sounding lead singer.  Queensryche 1.x released “Frequency Unknown” – one of the worst albums I’ve heard from any band, much less Queensryche.  Conversely, Queensryche 2.0 released “Queensryche” which is the best Queensryche Album since 1994’s Promised Land. (I’ve reviewed this album and expressed my disgust with Frequency Unknown here.)

As I stood listening to Operation: Mindcrime live I had a thought occur to me.  “This is good enough.”  As a matter of fact even if no original members of Queensryche were there I’d have been happy enough.

This next question might seem out-of-nowhere…but I will come back to Queensryche in a second.

Have you ever seen Trans-Siberian Orchestra live?

A few years ago my wife bought me tickets to TSO for my birthday – which is near the holidays.  We saw them in a massive arena venue and for the first half of the show (which is dominated by Religiosity) I was wondering “Why the hell am I here?” (After all, I’m an Atheist.)  Then the second half of the show was all instrumental and was one of the most fun-filled metal-eque performances I have ever seen!  Flames spewing out of the floor, lights, hair flying, electric guitar solos…It was awesome!  I went in barely knowing who TSO was, and I left a fan.

I did a little reading on TSO and discovered that there is not ONE Trans-Siberian Orchestra, there are MANY.  That is how they are able to play so many cities so near the holidays.  They have essentially cloned themselves.

Here it comes…

Queensryche should do the same.  The status quo of two Queensryche’s is not only sustainable, but might even be desirable for the fans.

What if being “Queensryche” didn’t refer to 5 individuals, but a set of artistic and musical guidelines.  Maybe it could be defined as: Guitar-driven, progressive metal, that makes you think.  Maybe there doesn’t need to be restrictions on future studio projects, but just a sharing of the past catalog of music.  When I was at the concert and looked around the Gothic Theater it appeared that everyone knew the words to every song.  None of them were there to hear something new…and a majority had T-shirts from tours gone by.  It was interesting to note that not a single song was played from Geoff Tate’s despicably bad album “Frequency Unknown”.

What if a state of two competing Queensryches was the new norm and they both competed to produce better product?

I’m perfectly content to see different people on stage than the people who produced a studio album, provided both are quality.

protest

I’m sure this is what the reaction to my blog entry will look like. “And the masses rose up in revolt demanding GIVE US A MEDIA CENTER APP!”

Just a thought here…I get a good amount of traffic on this site looking for things to do with Windows Media Center and the Xbox One.

A WMC app would be pretty easy to develop for the XBONE since it is simply a remote desktop connection (and the XBONE runs Windows 8) – heck my Android Phone now has an official Microsoft Remote Desktop app.

If you are one of the many WMC users who would like to see an app developed for the XBONE then please take a second and send Microsoft an email:

https://support.microsoft.com/contactus/emailcontact.aspx?scid=sw;en;1539

It can’t hurt to try, right?

Or you can just participate in a ridiculously unscientific poll: