• Newsletter Issue #282

    April 25th, 2005

    THIS WEEK’S MAC NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    Time to turn the page. On Thursday, we completed our last show, at least under the name Mac Night Owl LIVE. Effective with our April 28th show, it’s The Tech Night Owl LIVE, a name Grayson and I think is more appropriate to the kind of shows we’ve done. So far, you readers (and listeners) agree that the title change is apt.

    Beginning with our April 21st show, we began a month of iPod shuffles. What do I mean? Well, assuming we have a winner each week, a total of four iPod shuffles will be given away. You’ll have to listen to the archive of the show to learn about the first contest, where you’ll hear a short sound clip from a movie and be asked to name both the actor and the movie. Your entry has to be received at the address mentioned on the show by noon, April 28th, and we’ll pick a winner at random from correct entries.

    The show also had four guests, starting off with noted computer industry analyst Joe Wilcox of JupiterResearch. Next up was Jon S. von Tetzchner, CEO and Co-Founder of Opera Software, revealing the latest about the recently released beta of Opera 8.0 for the Mac. Shannon Jean of TechRestore came aboard to explain how to tell whether you should repair or replace your iPod and our final hour included a visit to the always-entertaining “David Biedny Zone.”

    On April 28th, TidBITS publisher Adam Engst will be on hand as we observe the 15th anniversary of his publication. More guests will be announced shortly.

    If you haven’t heard the show, be sure to visit The Tech Night Owl LIVE Web site to listen to our archives. Enjoy.

    APPLE AND THE PRESS: PLAYING THE MEDIA GAME

    I remember when I sat in a small meeting room at the Macworld Expo in January 2000. Earlier that day, Steve Jobs demonstrated the Aqua interface for Mac OS X during his keynote. I felt I had a 1,001 questions, but I was only granted 20 minutes with a product manager, who spent most of the session delivering an upbeat monologue about the long-awaited industrial strength system upgrade.

    To say he was cautious would be charitable. The computer used for the demonstration was hidden beneath a long tablecloth, and I was strictly forbidden from pulling it aside, even for a moment, to find out what was being used. Sure, I was tempted, but I also knew that, in my quest to scoop the competition, I would never, ever, be invited to another Apple media briefing. Weighing the pros and the cons, I decided to sit back and play the game.

    I let the product manager go through his spiel, and I only interrupted at proper break points to ask a few questions, not expecting much of a response. I did press him on one issue, though, the expected performance on a first generation iMac. He said it would be “good,” and, at the time, claimed Mac OS X would only require 64MB of RAM. Yeah, sure.

    Later that year, when the Public Beta arrived, I began to think that that product manager was using a prototype Power Mac with a lot more CPU power than anything actually available to the public. On that machine, the system actually seemed fast.

    Now hindsight tells us that the product manager was either spinning, or simply didn’t know. Perhaps Apple truly believed performance and memory requirements would be precisely as claimed. Or maybe not. But I’d rather not accuse the company of lying, or even exaggerating. Perhaps it was just wishful thinking.

    When you attend a private press session with Apple executives, you know it’s not so much a question and answer session as a sales pitch. The presentation is carefully rehearsed, but I love the chance to interrupt and suggest that I’ve already seen the keynote, so can we move on? And those executives know that I know the routine, so they usually acquiesce and let me turn it into a real interview, but I’m never allowed to tape the proceedings for later broadcast. Too bad, because I think they’d acquit themselves well on the air, and they do sound less like salespeople than on the usual interview, at least in those casual surroundings.

    As you know, Steve Jobs keeps his crew on a tight leash, and you can only push the frontiers just so much before you hit a brick wall. They know what they cannot tell you, and we know it too. Yes, I ask the expected questions, but I get the usual no comment or the standard disclaimer that they “can’t comment on future products.”

    Or at least future products that are not part of that day’s marketing plan. In this environment, a new operating system upgrade will be rolled out over an extended period of time, or at least extended for Apple. But new hardware and software has to be ready for release before you learn about it, aside from the Mac rumor sites of course.

    In my past life as a broadcast journalist, I would ask the probing questions over and over again, pushing and prodding until I got a glimmer of the truth, or what I perceived to be the truth. But those interviews were with government officials whose decisions might affect our health and welfare. So I was just doing my job. When it comes to private industry, particularly a company that only makes retail consumer electronics, the issues are far less critical. As I said, you just play the game.

    Does playing the game mean selling out? Of course not! But it does mean there are obvious constraints about the sort of information you can get out of a company before the door shuts tight. You have to find other ways to serve your readers, and that doesn’t mean taking $15,000 spiffs as a certain TV technology “reporter” has allegedly done. And, yes, Apple was one of the companies to pay, because it knows how to play the game and what’s has to be done to get attention.

    What if you decide not to play the game? Well, that depends on what you do. If you solicit “dirt” about a company, you will, in this environment, risk a lawsuit if that dirt falls into the category of a “trade secret.” Don’t think Apple is the only company that would call out the legal eagles under these circumstances; it just gets the most notoriety, or whatever you choose to call it, when it happens.

    So what’s left? Well, fair reviews of those new products and of the company’s activities in general. Here at The Mac Night Owl, we’ve been able to find plenty to talk about for nearly five-and-a-half years, and there’s still no dearth of material. If you’re into rumors, don’t look for them here, except when they’re worth a passing comment.

    Is it all a game? That depends on your approach. I like to label what we do news and commentary, and perhaps, on occasion, there may even be a little entertainment value.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: SURROUND SOUND FROM TWO SPEAKERS

    When you have a big screen and great sound, and the picture is in focus, the movie theater experience is unparalleled. You aren’t just watching a movie, you are experiencing it, immersed in a sound found that puts you right into the midst of the action. But that assumes your neighborhood multiplex has a proper respect for picture and sound quality, and that’s not always the case.

    Reproducing the same experience at the home is possible, but it takes a bit of work. For one thing, you’ll want a large, widescreen TV, preferably HD to take advantage of the best possible picture quality. That takes you halfway there. But the second half, the sound system, is a lot more difficult to handle. You can’t just throw money at the solution.

    Now there are a number of fine home theater systems out there; so many, in fact, the choice is almost mind-boggling. The simplest configuration puts three speakers in front, one at the left and right of the set, and the third, in the center, above or below the TV. That center channel is critical, because it’s necessary for pinpoint localization of dialogue. Two more speakers are situated at the rear, and a subwoofer is used for the really low notes. This is referred to as a 5.1 system. There are also 6.1 and 7.1 layouts, but they are just extensions of the 5.1 scheme, so I’ll set them aside.

    Now you can imagine the complexities here, and the potential spousal objections to being surrounded by speaker cables. The other issue is balancing the system, which, depending on the model you buy, may be a royal pain, or nearly seamless. It’s not just balancing the front speakers, but making sure the rears are set to the proper levels, which can be a lot more complicated, since it depends on the size and shape of your listening room, the location of those speakers and other factors. The subwoofer is usually easier to place, because you just want to keep it from overwhelming the sound, and you can usually stick it behind a sofa, a chair, or even the TV.

    All the home theater systems I know about have some way to calibrate the system. If the setup scheme requires a lot of work on your part, you may just want to pay extra to have have your local electronics retailer sort things out. Some systems even provide automatic calibration, which starts by putting a mic in your listening area, and using that as the “ears” to allow for proper adjustment.

    Now maybe you don’t want the cable clutter; I’ll ignore the wireless alternatives, since they usually don’t sound very good. Maybe you don’t want to bother with rear speakers, because of room layout, interior decoration considerations, cable clutter and so forth. Do you have a choice if you really want a true surround sound experience? The answer is yes, though you may have to lower your expectations a bit.

    That takes us to the Bose 3·2·1 Series II DVD Home Entertainment System, and that’s a mouthful. It consists of two speakers, a subwoofer and a media center, which includes a progressive scan DVD player and AM/FM radio, plus a remote and various and sundry hookup cables. The basic version costs $999, with a pair of speakers bearing the nomenclature “Articulated Array.” For another $300, you get a similar system with “Gemstone speaker arrays,” which are much smaller, and can supposedly play louder, although I didn’t have a chance to try the two side by side. The unit I tested was a GS system.

    The Bose 3·2·1 uses fancy audio processing legerdemain to simulate the effect of a standard 5.1 surround sound system. It works with regular DVDs, HDTV, and even simulates a surround sound effect with standard TV and CDs.

    Now I’m not going to spend any time listing specifications, such as the amount of power, frequency response and all the rest. It’s not because I’m not interested. The real reason is that Bose seldom provides such information for its consumer products. Some detractors of Bose products feel the company is afraid to deliver those specs, but it’s also true that the audio signal is specially tailored to the speakers, so the readings are probably otherwise meaningless. In addition, measuring loudspeakers is a complicated process, and results are apt to vary from room to room and by one of many testing scenarios. In the end, it’s the sound quality that matters in an integrated system of this sort.

    Installing a 3·2·1 is ultra simple. The satellite speakers plug directly into the subwoofer, which, in turn, is connected via another cable to the media center. The simple hookup instructions in the manual explain how to connect your TV, cable or satellite receiver and VCR and, in minutes, you’re ready to power up. If you’re not into reading manuals, there’s also an instruction CD, which includes audio and video tracks to test your installation.

    The main thing lacking here is the high-end connector found on today’s HD sets, which include DVI and HDMI. The former is essentially identical to the DVI connection between your Mac and a digital LCD display. The latter connection scheme puts the audio and digital video in one cable. Either way, you’ll want to use these connections for optimum picture quality. I got around this shortcoming by feeding my satellite receiver’s high definition video signal direct to the test Samsung rear-projection TV; the audio, of course, went to the Bose media center.

    So how does it sound? Well, the first encounter was promising, but voices and bass tones were a little thick. The TV is located in the corner of our master bedroom room, pointing at an angle to the listening area. At first, I put the subwoofer fairly close to the corner adjacent to the bathroom and there were enough “sympathetic vibrations” to provide a little too much sound reinforcement. I moved the subwoofer away from that side wall, and things cleared up considerably.

    Bose systems are known for a characteristically warm sound. Both vocals and music are smooth and pleasing. The 3·2·1 GS II’s sound quality didn’t deviate from that motif. The subwoofer may not not be able to reproduce the lowest notes on a pipe organ with any discernible authority, but you have to be realistic. Subwoofers that can do that often cost a lot more than the entire 3·2·1 system. But the bass was quite solid and, when I watched a special-effects filled action movie, appropriately thundering without overwhelming the senses.

    But is it surround sound? Well, it comes pretty close. Dialog was properly located, and I could definitely hear sounds from the side of the room. At times, I actually heard background ambiance and other effects from the rear. It’s an illusion, of course, but one close enough that you will seldom yearn for the real thing. I was also able to crank up the level real high without hearing audible distortion. Now if you’re used to playing hard rock at full blast in a large room, you may begin to hit the limits of this system, but for normal listening, you’ll be pleased as punch.

    DVD picture quality was comparable to a separate player, and AM and FM reception was surprisingly good. Indeed, I was able to receive most of my favorite stations without having to fiddle much with antenna positioning.

    Are you a candidate for a Bose® 3·2·1 GS II? Well, $1299 may seem a bit much, when you can buy a regular 5.1 home theater setup at your local electronics emporium for less. But from a standpoint of convenience, simplicity and easy installation, the Bose may indeed be your cup of tea. Why not listen to one and see if you agree?

    Note: Some companies, such as Yamaha, now have systems that come in a single unit, and also promise to deliver a close approximation of real surround sound. Prices are generally in line with a Bose 3·2·1, but you still need to pay extra for a decent subwoofer and a DVD player. And maybe it’s just a little too much convenience, but I may put one of these products to the test in a future column.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Mac Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis



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