It appears that the Vudu app for Apple TV4 is in the app store right now. My UltraViolet collection on the Apple TV – what a glorious day!
A note on objectivity: I chose to identify where I purchased some items in my setup in this article. I do not get kickbacks of any kind for my articles (I don’t even get ad revenue – WordPress does for the free use of the website.) I mention specific products and websites because as a home theater enthusiast I know how difficult it can be to solve certain problems and when I discover solutions I post them here just to be helpful to my fellow enthusiasts.
Mrs. Mindcrime was generous this holiday season…she bought yours truly a very nice multi-channel amp! (How did she know? It helps if you just email your spouse the Amazon Link!)
This is my brief review of the OSD MX-1260 Multi-Zone Amp. Currently selling for around $615.
The amp has 12 channels (6 stereo zones) at 40 Watts Per Channel and in short, it does exactly what it is designed to do. Hit the power button and six pairs of speakers get 40-watts per channel. This solves two big problems for people like me who enjoy having music pumped throughout the entire house.
The Problems I Needed to Solve:
Every time I open up some drywall in our home I pause to ask, “How can this allow me to have more speakers?”. As a result, we now have six separate speaker zones wired to a central location in our house. Each zone has a local volume dial that allows a person in a room with speakers to increase or decrease the volume in that location without affecting the other zones in the home. The problem was that the amplifier (An Onkyo TX-NR626 pushing 95 Watts per channel from Zone 2) was connected to a Series Resistor Type Speaker Switch. Obviously, connecting too many speakers to a single amplifier channel can cause problems with impedance which are damaging to both the amp and the speakers. The speaker switch with “protection” solves the impedance problem – but at a cost. Watts per channel diminish precipitously and speaker performance does too. Not to mention when using the local volume controls there was not much discretion in the volume levels – most of the time it would be hard to turn the volume down or up just a “little bit” and the volume controls would feel like they were all-or-nothing.
(There is a great website which explains the science behind this much better than I can and includes fantastic calculators for different multi-speaker wiring configurations – go check out this guy’s work at: Geoff the Grey Geek! I borrowed heavily from his explanation of the Series Resistor Type Speaker Switch in my analysis and used his calculator to get the results below.)
Using Geoff’s calculator you can see how an example 100 watts per channel becomes 11.6 when driving three pairs of speakers and 3.5 watts per channel when driving six pairs!
There was one other problem too: the speaker selector switch requires you to know which zone is which speaker number and the buttons to turn on Zone 2 on the Onkyo amp are tiny! On other amps the receiver’s remote is the only way to activate a second zone. This made it so my setup was not “Wife Proof”. Mrs. Mindcrime found it frustrating to locate the instruction sheet for the setup and as a result was not using the system at all (or was using me an “organic universal remote”!) Side note: There are people starving and fleeing war zones in the world – home audio issues are nice problems to have in comparison.
The OSD MX-1260 (and it’s kin):
A multi-channel amp seemed a logical solution to our distributed audio problems. Multi-channel amps can get incredibly expensive and while over $600 is nothing to sneeze at, the OSD MX-1260 seemed a reasonable way to solve the above problems. The amp cranks out 6 zones of sound at 40 watts per channel simultaneously. So far as I can tell there are two other amps that have nearly identical specs to the OSD MX-1260. They are the AudioSource AMP1200VS and the Dayton Audio MA1240a. The differences between these amplifiers seem to be almost exclusively cosmetic (I would not be surprised if they are all produced by a common manufacturer). I chose mine based upon what was on sale at Amazon Prime on the day of purchase. All of these models seem to offer the ability to adjust volume on the back panel by zone, select one of three input options by zone, and have block-style speaker connectors.
Making all of the audio connections took some patience, but was not inherently complicated. I can tell you that when you go to work with the tiny block connectors, it is super helpful to have a 1/8″ precision screwdriver. I started the job without one and it was worth my time to run to the corner hardware store and have the right tool for the job! The block connectors are fantastic for simplifying wiring and beat the heck out of the clip connectors you find on the back of most speaker switches.
The lights on the front panel are a bright blue and the unit is the standard width of audio equipment. The owners manual indicated not to block the top vents, but did not offer any specifics regarding ventilation requirements. As you can see from the picture below, I stacked my Onkyo receiver on top of the multi-channel amp which left approximately 1/2″ of ventilation space. I ran the amp for 10 hours straight running all six channels simultaneously and it did not appear to overheat.
My one complaint is about the brushed metal on the front panel. It is a dirt/dust/fingerprint magnet and I can tell that it is going to be a pain to keep clean. I wish they’d used an easier to maintain surface. They also need to include more specific details on maintenance in the owner’s manual. See the smears on the MX-1260 amp in the picture above? That was AFTER I tried to clean it! UGH! Untidy!
The “Wife Proof” Whole Home Audio Setup
In our case music is provided through an Apple TV 4 which outputs to an HDMI audio extractor ( I use this one: AGPTEK HDMI Audio Extractor) and connects the extractor’s RCA outputs to the BUS 1 input on the back of the amp. All zones have been set to get input from BUS 1. I started with most zones set to 50% volume, but then increased the power to approximately 75% volume for two of my zones which have larger speakers.
Here is a schematic that looks like a stoned kindergartner was set loose on MS Paint. It should however help if the above explanation was unclear.
Another tip: Use a “Smart Strip” to cut power to the multi-channel amp when your receiver is switched off ! I haven’t tested the auto-on feature of the MX-1260, but I prefer the smart strips because they turn off any controlled equipment cold. You can find them for around $35 online. I used the Smart Strip LCG-3M to kill power to my Xbox, multi-channel amp, xbox controller charger, and subwoofer every time the Onkyo receiver is turned off. The Apple TV and the HDMI audio extractor get power all the time (for Apple Homekit and it seems to mess with the audio extractor – not to mention CEC functionality – if the extractor is turned on and off.)
Another advantage of this setup is that if you are using a CEC compatible receiver, you can control the entire setup with the Apple TV 4’s remote. (I’m sure that this setup will work fine with any other kind of modern music streamer or source that you would prefer, I just happen to use the ATV4.) That means the whole home audio setup can be activated just by pressing the TV (or Home) button on the Apple TV 4’s remote. Additionally since the ATV4’s remote is Bluetooth based, the ATV does not need to stick out of the cabinet and the controller works regardless of where it is pointed. I have the ATV unit tucked into the cabinet pictured above behind the subwoofer.
The sound quality difference was noticeable when compared with the old setup. I do not claim to have a golden ear, but I did sell stereos for a number of years to pay for college and I think I know descent sound when I hear it. Nor, do I have the means to scientifically test for sound quality, but I can tell you that not only I noticed – but Mrs. Mindcrime did too! (That says something – she doesn’t share the same level of passion for home audio as I do.) Clearly pushing 40 watts per channel to speakers sounds clearer than pushing 3 to 12 watts per channel! If it passes the wife-test, you know you have a winner.
The OSD MX-1260 solved my two problems, poor sound from low wattage reaching my speakers and local volume control is now much more discreet. It also resulted in a much more user friendly home audio setup. I will update this post in the coming months if I have any difficulties with the equipment.
12/20/17 – System still works great! However I would reccomend using a different auido extractor that the one mentioned above. It works fine still, however if you have a newer TV and a 4k/HDR streamer, you will want to make sure that your audio extractor is HDMI 2.X and HDCP 2.2 complaint to take full advantage of HDR and 4K. My setup is largely 1080p and upgrading to 4K will require replacing the audio extractor.
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:
- Your music collection is in some form of Lossless Codec – FLAC, WMA-Lossless, ALAC.
- 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.
- You might own some 24-bit music – such as albums bought at HDTracks.
- 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.)
- 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:
- Stream my own lossless music collection from the cloud to any player I want (i.e. through OneDrive).
- Use my XBOX One to do home music playback in 24-bit audio.
- 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.
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.)
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:
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.
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.
After reading that Xbox Music had added a cloud based music locker service using OneDrive I decided to give it a quick test.
Due to my frustrations with the Xbox One, the loss (or at least the continued depreciation of…) Windows Media Center, I have switched over my music collection to work with Apple TV (and subsequently iOS on our new iPhones).
I have to say that our music experience at home has been pretty good after this shift. (The Remote App works great and if I am willing to listen to non-cd quality I can stream music directly from iCloud. The sound quality is noticeably better when streaming in loss-less directly from a PC running iTunes.)
Two years ago I ripped all of our CDs to loss-less FLAC files using DB Poweramp. From there I convert the FLAC files to either WMA Loss-less (when using XBOX/WMP) – or more recently AAC Loss-less. Some of our music is 24-bit purchased from HDTracks. The Apple TV downgrades HD (24-bit) music to 16-bit (CD Quality) automatically. My great hope for the XBOX One had been that it is capable of 24-bit playback via HDMI.
So here is what you actually read the article for. I test uploaded a 24-bit AAC Loss-less file (Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories – not that it matters…) and attempted to play it back with both the Windows 8.1 Xbox Music App and the Xbox Music browser player. Both gave me an error message stating that the music was not in a format that could be played back. The few specs from Microsoft that are on the Xbox Music / OneDrive website do state that AAC is supported AND that WMA Loss-less is supported. It does not make the claim that AAC Loss-less is supported. My small test seems to confirm that AAC Loss-less is not supported.
In my case this means converting my FLAC files to WMA Loss-less and then uploading them via OneDrive, if I want to use this service. If I knew that 24-bit audio was supported, it might be worth it.
That is, except for OneDrive’s major defect.
A while back I decided to backup all of our pictures and music to the cloud. Since I have an Office365 Subscription which comes with unlimited OneDrive storage – I decided to use OneDrive. It took a WEEK to upload our photo collection. (When uploading documents in a complex folder schema it went totally berserk – creating unreadable duplicates and nearly destroying my documents archive.)
Out of frustration I decided to try DropBox for cloud storage. It uploaded the same photo collection in 12 hours. My test upload of a single album to OneDrive today was also VERY slow. If Microsoft truly wants us to move our digital lives to OneDrive, they are going to have to fix their upload problem.
FLAC support would be super nice too. *AHEM*