gently down the stream

Sources for music and video content have grown greatly over the last few years. Traditional music media such as CD and AM/FM radio have been eclipsed by digital radio (XM, Rhapsody), Cable and Satellite music, internet downloads, and audio streaming.

For some of these sources, full integration into your home entertainment plans may have limitations:
• Many Cable and Satellite TV providers offer a wide range of digital music choices. But navigating them efficiently may require a video display—not so practical for audio-only systems.
• Dedicated music servers (based on computer hard drives) have largely been replaced by iPODs and other personal digital devices. Navigating these small devices may be easier if they are integrated with a video display. Not all docking stations provide a video link.
• Streaming and on-line music purchases have dramatically undercut CD sales. But for some music genres with less exposure —like classical and jazz—discs remains relatively strong.
• SACD (Super Audio CD) and DVD-Audio were supposed to change the world of music, but never really took off. Selections are thin, and players hard to find.
• LPs and other pre-CD formats have manual controls, and can’t easily be integrated into automated systems.
• Turntables require a phono input, which is no longer available on most surround receivers, but accessory phono pre-amps are available.

Current video choices include: Blu-Ray discs, DVD, Cable TV and Satellite programming plus pay-per view TV, video streaming from Netflix and other sources, as well as downloads from internet sites.

Audio Sources:
• CD
• Digital Radio
• Streaming
• Cable Music
• Downloads
Legacy Audio:
• Vinyl
• Reel-to-reel

Important considerations:

• Most Blu-ray players will also play CDs and DVDs. The better ones will even up-convert DVD content to near high definition quality. Some can also stream Netflix and other web-based providers. Players that do all of these things vastly simplify system integration and use.
• DVDs made for non-US markets may be incompatible with DVD or Blu-ray players sold domestically. Be careful if you buy discs on the internet.
• Most people rent (rather than buy) the cable TV or Satellite box, so they can’t choose the specific model supplied. Some older models (especially with built-in DVR) run very hot, and can’t easily be (fully) turned off. These boxes may cause heat problems. The newest boxes run cooler, but many of the old ones are still in circulation and remain a problem. Look for the power rating on the back near the power plug. If it’s 500 watts or more, it will need lots of ventilation.
• For VCRs and legacy tapes: replacement players are hard to find, and the tape in the cassette becomes brittle with time. Recommendation: transcribe important VCR tapes now onto DVDs— before they become too brittle to play.

As the number of sources in a system increases, integration becomes more complex, and the parts become more difficult to use—unless a universal control system is added. Also, surround receivers may lack enough inputs (of the right type) to hook up all the sources. For ease of use, simplify whenever feasible.

Internet media resources are vast, inexpensive, and relatively convenient to use. Because the content is invariably compressed to save bandwidth and storage space, it cannot deliver highest quality images and sound. For a TV re-run on your tablet, this probably won’t matter. But for a large panel TV or projector, the quality difference between a compressed download and a Blu-ray disc can be dramatic.

Recommendation: match the bandwidth of the source with the quality of the video display (or audio system). With content quality, there’s no free lunch.

Video Sources:
• Cable TV
• Satellite TV
• Streaming

Legacy Video:
• Betamax