Wednesday, January 31, 2007

harman kardon avr245 review

So, I've had my Harman Kardon AVR 245 7.1 Channel Audio/Video Receiver hooked up for just shy of two weeks now, and my ears haven't stopped smiling since they heard the first sounds it pushed through my speakers.

Last year, I picked up the Harman Kardon HKTS 14 6-Piece Loudspeaker System and have been quite pleased with the sound they produce. Oh, what a difference a receiver makes.

Now, this isn't to say the Yamaha HTR-5140 it replaced was bad. However, it is to say that the HK AVR245 is very, very good.

The last time I remember being so conscious of a sound upgrade was when I replaced the standard-issue head unit in my Honda Accord with an Alpine head unit. After picking up my car from the install shop, I sat in the parking lot a good 20 minutes with my mouth agape marveling at the quality of sound.

Flash forward a decade, and the Harman Kardon is having a similar effect on me. I know it doesn't make much sense, but the quiet pieces of songs are actually quieter, and that's what makes the difference in the listening experience. I didn't notice, until hooking up the AVR245, how much noise had been coming through the system to pollute the music I was listening to.

I can get into the technical mumbo-jumbo in a future post, but for now, here are the highlights:
  • This is one hefty piece of equipment: all 30 pounds of it. And it's worth every ounce.
  • The front of the receiver is beautifully designed with a simple interface: one big wheel to control the volume and a slim line of buttons in a row. Functional simplicity, and the lights are all cool blue.
  • There's not an inch of the back of the receiver that's not set up for an input or an output of some kind. I'm almost embarassed at how few cords I have running through the system (for now). I'm confident that'll change over time.
  • The included EZset calibration tool is too cool. It's a mic that you put where you plan to do the majority of your listening from, and the receiver calibrates the output level of all speakers to deliver perfect sound to exactly that point of the room (whether you live in a cavern or a padded cell). Sweet.
  • Lots of room for upgrades to the system, including the Bridge for my iPod and adding an additional two speakers to upgrade to 7.1 sound.
  • The receiver does a great job of outputting Dolby II sound from an analog input.
  • Amazon has it for a great price (compared to Best Buy or Fry's), and you can get it for the same price at the link above.
  • All the speaker knobs on the back of the receiver are color-coded to match the wires included with the HKTS 14 system. No more crossed wires.
The minor complaints that I've uncovered so far:
  • There's built-in HDMI switcher for video only, and the AVR245 processes the sound through hard-wired default inputs, one a digital optical, the other a digital co-axial. This is fine if your two pieces of HDMI equipment output via the same media. Unfortunately for me, my HR20 HD DVR and my Mac Mini both have digital optical outs only, so I can't use the built-in HDMI switcher (no sound) and am stuck using the manual HDMI switcher. see Feb 10 post (above) for the good news update!
  • The remote for the AVR245 has over 70 buttons, and some of them are multi-function buttons. I use a grand total of 7 buttons. 90% too many buttons for my tastes.
  • There's still so much to learn about the receiver, I feel like I've only scratched the surface of possible uses.
Until I do learn more, I'll just keep enjoying these sounds that are comparable to the high-def images coming out of the TV. nice.

studying swedish for my trip

I'm excited to be going to Stockholm for a meeting at the beginning of March. I'm nervous that I won't know the language (other than what I've picked up at IKEA).

Finding resources on the web that provide "useful phrases" is very hit or miss. So glad to see franksyard uploaded lots of video so I can study the Swedish Chef in action!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

is 9C really the best seat on your flight?

When booking a flight I'm not one to leave airplane seat selection to chance. Maybe it's the long legs. Or the overwhelming urge to actually be able to see my laptop's screen while working in that sleek cubicle in the sky.

I've found a cool little site where you can find the best seats on an upcoming flight by using the Seat Scorecard.

The site promises that "[their] airplane comfort guides consider factors such as seat width, seat pitch, seat plan, seat configuration, and legroom to determine overall seating comfort. [They] have reviewed the seat maps / seating charts of all featured plans and also consider feedback of frequent travelers on major American and International airlines."

After poking around looking at airplanes I spent most of my 50k miles flying on last year, it seems their reviews are pretty darn accurate.

collaboration and user information recommendations

This past week has been a whirl of serendipitous and convergent reading recommendations.

Could be I'm more receptive to suggestions for reading material because I'm looking at a transatlantic flight in March that'll outlast my MacBook Pro battery life by a multiple of five.

So, I've just placed my Amazon order for the following, and I don't know if I'll be able to wait until the plane ride before cracking the spines:
Can't wait to tuck into these. If you follow the links above, you may find that Amazon bundles the first two on the list together for additional savings.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Dimming those HR20 blues (lights, that is)

I was studying the DirecTV HR20 DVR user manual over the weekend to try to find out how to get the best quality sound out of it and into my new Harman Kardon AVR245 (this is the subject of a forthcoming post, and a preview is: WOOHOO! It's here!).

Tucked in amongst all the not-so-friendly troubleshooting tips was this little gem:
To dim those blindingly bright blue lights on the "light wheel" on the front of the HR20, simply press both the left AND right arrows on either side of the wheel at the same time. The light intensity of the wheel will cycle through varying levels of dimness, eventually turning off completely. I count four cycles of brightness.
Needless to say, after causing our living room carpet to fade from the intensity of the status lights (I'm only partly kidding), they're now as dim as they can be without not lighting up at all.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

they should call it american DENIAL

Now that I'm fast-forwarding through my DVR's collection of shows from the sixth season of American Idol, I've finally come to understand why I'm so fascinated by these lead-off cattle-call shows yet so very uninterested in the subsequent "you made it to Hollywood!" shows that eventually winnow the pool down to the winner. My fascination comes from realizing I sit watching, mouth agape, at how deep in denial the lionshare of these contestants manage to live.

This season's opening cattle-calls in Minneapolis and Seattle have illustrated like no others just how powerfully (painfully?) an individual's denial can separate them from reality. It seems like the worse the auditioning singer, the more adamant they are that everyone else just can't appreciate how superbly talented they are. Now, I'm no expert in spotting singing talent, but even I know when I hear folks that, to put it plainly, sing real bad. Equipped with this knowledge, I can also spot when a given "talent" (methinks) doth protest too much at being told they're awful.

And that's what makes the cattle call shows that open each season of American Idol so very much fun for me. It's an illustration over and over and over just how delusional these kids are that they possess some kind of singing talent. If only they'd expend a similar amount of energy opening their minds to feedback and redirection, they might become something. Alas and alack they don't: they're in heavy denial, and seemingly happily so.

And like every other season but the first, I'll quit watching AI once they convene the contestants in Hollywood (dawg!). It's at this stage that the talent consistently acts in diva-like ways to sabotage their own futures, and I think that's even worse than fate befallen those in denial who never made it out of the first round.

(thank goodness the HR20 seems to be recording the shows as intended... fingers crossed)

Monday, January 08, 2007

parallels install on mac mini

Six and a half months after blogging about Parallels software being released for the Mac (to rave reviews), I finally installed it yesterday on our Mac Mini.

The process was rather painless: it took all of 20 minutes to do the actual install (from opening the shrink wrap on the software box to hitting the "done" button). The Mac Mini itself acts as our AV center (holds approx 40GB of iTunes songs and acts as our primary DVD player) using the Toshiba 42HP66 as a 42" HD monitor. The Mini has access to the internet via wireless connection through an Apple AirPort Express.

So, Parallels, in "easy install" mode, claimed an 8GB partition (half the remaining free space on the hard drive) for itself, and I successfully installed WinXP in that partition. I'd used the WinXP install CD that came with our dearly departed Gateway PC, and I have 30 days to get a new authorization code to get full functionality. I'd forgotten just how confusing the Windows install could be and am glad I don't have to do that again anytime soon. Given my past difficulties getting Windows to properly install on a PC (or three), I was pleasantly surprised at the error-free install on the Mac!

Why do I bother to run Windows on our Mac? So that we could install Microsoft Money 2006 and manage our finances. I've done some research and it seems true that the available mac osx personal finance software available leaves a lot to be desired, especially if you've been spoiled enough to use either Quicken or Money on a PC. Having Money installed on our Mac Mini will allow both Mel and I to manage our finances (instead of having the files on one of our laptops). Of course, "access to" doesn't mean "regularly uses." But we'll see how well it goes.

Money was a breeze to install, and after 20 minutes of setup, all our accounts had been configured and the last 90 days of transactions had been successfully imported. No hiccups with the Parallels WinXP accessing the internet (which was a worry pre-install). All in all, very pleased with the experience.

Get your copy of Parallels software on Amazon.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

my technical quest: 100 day update

I posted last fall about my technical quest, and updated the experience a few weeks later.

Now we've had our new HDTV/DVR/Mac Mini setup for 100 days, and here's my report card on the performance:
  • HD programming and the DirecTV HR-20 HD DVR. The HD television experience is still a dream. But, as I've been blogging here, I've been entirely too inconvenienced by the bugs infecting the DirecTV HR-20's performance to leave me anywhere close to satisfied with this experience. The HR-20 has been so unreliable that I've taken to programming the old Standard Definition TiVo to record the same programs as backup. The DirecTV folks don't quite seem to understand that a satisfied customer doesn't set aside time to reboot their equipment (losing 10 minutes of live TV) when they plan to watch live TV. And by no means does a satisfied customer think it's acceptable that the DVR "lost" programs it was set to record. I don't record twelve weeks of Amazing Race only to have the DVR fail to record the finale due to a "known issue." Perhaps I'm spoiled by the fact we own a TiVo series one DVR that has never (I mean never) failed us once. If only the TiVo Series Three was reported to be just as reliable as the one, I'd quickly make the switch. Seems we're all on the bleeding edge of HD DVR technology. I feel bad for folks who don't have a technical inclination like I do (the DirecTV help forum is crawling with them, btw). grade: C- (down from a B- 90 days ago)
  • Plasma as Mac Mini monitor. I got the Wireless Mighty Mouse and the Wireless Keyboard (both are Bluetooth devices), and the setup is working great. Still using the analog switch to go back and forth between DVR and Mac Mini, but we've grown used to it. Given the TV's 42" size, I can sit at the dining room table fifteen feet away with the keyboard and mouse on my place mat and use the TV as my monitor when I forget to bring home the power adapter for my MacBook Pro. The Mini recognizes our Toshiba 42HP66 TV as a monitor in the setup, so the picture is sharp and clear and lossless. Well, the only nit I have to pick is that it looks like there's a 15 pixel band that's hidden from top and bottom of the display. Not enough to compromise functionality, but I can't see the bottom of the icons in my dock. Oh, and a bonus to the HD tv as monitor: we now iChat with folks via the big screen TV instead of huddling around a small laptop monitor. grade: A- (from an incomplete 90 days ago)
  • Mac Mini as music source. Still haven't bought a new optical cable to improve sound quality from the Mac Mini to the Receiver, but that's because I'm still waiting for the Harman Kardon to come in. Amazon notified me that it was backordered and then notified me a couple weeks later that they no longer had any units to sell. So I've ordered a Harman Kardon AVR 245 (due in four weeks) and will get the optical once that's come in (no sense doing it on the Yamaha at this point). I'll admit it's great having all my iTunes available on the Mini... and as a super-duper Laserium-laced flashback bonus, I turn on the iTunes Visualizer and put it on full-screen mode to get a high-def stoner special on the Toshiba. While I should really keep this at incomplete, I'm giving it a grade on the current setup (with the Yamaha HTR-5140) expecting it to get better with the HK hooked up. grade: B (from an incomplete 90 days ago)
  • Mac Mini as DVD player. This has continued to be the high point of the experience. I've had no problems using the Mini as our primary DVD player. grade:(steady from a A+ 90 days ago)
So what's left to do? Not that I'm in any hurry, but I could see the following items happening in the next year or so:
  • Hook up our new Canon Pixma 530 printer to our Airport network so we can print from any computer in the house
  • As mentioned above, acquire and install the HK AVR 245 receiver. It's a 7.1 receiver, so I'd be interested in getting another 2 speakers for 7.1 sound (or sending the signal to speakers to be installed above our patio out back)
  • Change the HDMI switcher to be an automatic switcher instead of a manual one.
  • Get out of the DirecTV HR-20 contract and get into a TiVo Series 3
  • Consolidate the four remotes controlling the system into one multi-function remote
  • Permanently install our rear surround speakers instead of having them on stands that we move into place when it's a movie night and then "store" at the front of the room all other times

save time calling DirecTV technical support

Bookmark this entry if you want to cut ten minutes off each call to DirecTV Technical Support.
Call 1-800-695-9251. At the prompt use PIN 1337 (see update below)
Why am I sharing? Well, with tonight's call, I've now spent over ten hours of my life on the phone with DirecTV.

Up until now, I've always called their published 800‑824‑9081 number and had to navigate the IVR system to sit in the queue waiting for a Customer Service Rep to tell me they need to transfer me to Technical Support so I can wait in yet another queue.

After I got the standard "you'll need to reboot your receiver" solution to my latest problem, I asked how to get directly to Technical Support instead of having to wait for the transfer from the main line. And that's how I got the number above.

I wonder if their choice of "LEET" as the PIN was intentional?

Of course, if it's not tech support you need, follow the workaround published by the folks over at the GetHuman database. (HINT: don't respond to the IVR request to say "yes"... don't press or say anything)

UPDATE (3/3/07): The PIN they give out only lasts five days so bloggers like me can't give everyone the workaround. Since I'm still pissed at the way I was treated on today's call, I'll share with you the PIN good for the next five days. It's 1537