Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Fall of Cable (in our house)

The decision didn't come easily. It lurked and bubbled to the surface. Each time we contemplated the end of cable in our house we carefully and thoughtfully came up with reasons why we didn't need it anymore. They ranged from "It will save us money," to "All I watch is trash anyway," to the more common and oft used "There's six-billion channels and nothing on." Our friends, when surveyed, said similar things, but were more extreme: "We prefer to just sit around and talk about the day," or "Television is never as good as reading a book." Whether I believe those two proclamations is up for debate, nonetheless, we ultimately concluded that modern cable, as we know it, had to go.

I never had a show like many people I know had or have. We didn't subscribe to HBO or Showtime so "Entourage" or "Weeds" or pay-per-view boxing were never on our radar. We watched off-channels (non-network) and used the DVR more than we watched live. What we "taped" was the quintessential American garbage: "Real Housewives of...", anything with the words New and Jersey, the typical pop of "American Idol" and slightly higher brow of "Top Chef", "Househunters International" and "Project Runway." The last three aren't really trash, but why the couple from Montana didn't choose the house on the beach could throw "HI" into the dumb box quite easily. Onward.

Whenever you want out of something like cable or your phone contract, it's never a simple process. Dial the phone and reach India and suddenly a sweet deal has suddenly risen from the depths. "Wow, I see that we can give you three months free of HBO and Showtime," or "I can take five dollars off your monthly bill," are two knee-jerk responses from customer service. "No, I'm good" has been my comeback. Short, simple, to the point. Follow it with a "What do I need to do next" and things will go and did go the way I wanted it to. "Just take the equipment back to the local Time-Warner service center and that should be it." Easy enough. Done.

"So no cable? What are you going to do about soccer?" Good point. I pondered that dilemma prior to eliminating cable and thought there must be free streaming video somewhere. I searched and there was nothing viable, so I concluded that maybe I didn't need soccer. Maybe I should just catch the big games at a pub. Watch it with already-drunk English folk in a dingy, panel-walled dump, with tubed-televisions and smelly carpet... That could work, right?

I managed for a while, but the lure of Fox Soccer pulled me closer and closer until I couldn't stand it anymore. I plunked down the $10 per month for a subscription online, and have never regretted it. I watch it when I want and the schedule is phenomenal. We did the same with NetFlix. We were the earlybirds back when NetFlix only offered DVD's (which we didn't always watch) so we dropped it. Fast forward to now, and we decided to pay the $7.99 per month for streaming online. The figure we were at was $18 per month (soccer and NetFlix), far less than $130 we were paying for cable and internet combined. But there's more...

In order to get streaming in our room I bought the Sony Blu-Ray with built-in Wi-Fi for $129. To make it worthwhile I bumped-up our Internet connection to 30 megabytes per second, thus the Internet now runs $50 per month. In the living room, we had nothing, so we welcomed the Mac Mini on board for $520. The Mini mated with the Plasma now makes a gigantic computer, where we (drum roll) run the Internet, and of course NetFlix, Hulu, YouTube, etc.

On the surface it looks like a big, complicated cluster, but at the heart of it is choice programming. We watch what we want, when we want. NetFlix has opened our world to an endless (it seems) library of shows and mind-bending documentaries like ones on Origami and dumpster-diving. It has also given me my first, official show with "Breaking Bad." I love having a show, although I've motored through all the seasons available on NetFlix which led me to go the "Underworld" route of downloading season 4. That's another story. For now, our enemy known as cable television and the bill that comes with it is gone and looks to be out of out of our house forever. Unless, we can't stand not having "American Idol" in our world. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Mildly Obsessive Obsession With Sound

The aluminum-bodied
KEF's I recently replaced.
It didn't just happen over night. In fact I can go back 20-plus years to when the borderline OCD first occurred. The sound system was an all-in-one AM/FM with a turntable. The turntable I used for such classics as the Eagles "Hotel California," Rush's "2112" and all the offerings from KMET and KLOS on FM. I remember having the KLOS rainbow-like sticker pinned to my wall (my dad wasn't in to me sticking it to the wall), and the sheer size of the system. I can't recall where I got it, though it's likely my dad found it at work or in the trunk of a used Pontiac. He had a way with finding the most random of objects. At the time I futzed obsessively with the large dial, the same way a modern DJ tweaks a mouse on a MacBook Pro. I remember thinking "There must be a way of getting Jim Ladd's show to come in clearer." But these were the days before digital and satellite, so with hindsight my borderline obsession seems silly, but I tried everything for the sake of clarity.

Years later when I ventured to the San Fernando Valley to a stereo speaker factory outlet (near Rogers Sound Lab and Marantz) for a look at steep discounts, I happened upon two "left-side" speakers that were mammoth in size and sound and the price was in line with my budget. Sitting approximately 3 feet high with a 12-inch woofer and a handful of tweeters, this set was the ideal match for another of my dad's hand-me-downs, a monster Kenwood receiver that pumped 200-watts of fury. Because of my dad I know how to hook shit up. Strip the wires, twist them cleanly and cinch them in. These were the days when sound was based on power. There were no subwoofers or 5.1 or 7.1 or Dolby or a setting called "Concert Hall." It was two-channel madness with a turntable, a cassette and in some cases a reel-to-reel. It was post 8-track player and pre-CD. It was pure, raw, and violent. No remote or digital screens, just dials for volume, bass and treble. Rush, the Eagles, Van Halen and U2's "Boy" pushed through easily. It was instant gratification because you didn't have the option to mess with settings or distances of speakers– it was purity. These speakers followed me through college and though they were big and bulky in a tiny apartment in Chico, they were always assured of a spot in the corner, equal distance between the two and pointing out toward the peach couch.

Soon the advent of more complex stereo receivers, the CD (and the player), and smaller surround speakers came on to the market. They claimed to push the same air and sound as the old one's only refined because there were more. Slowly the hippies sold the gigantic JBL's and opted for the small, deceptive power of smaller and more. I went to five speakers from Cambridge Soundworks, a new receiver that could accommodate the volume, a Sony CD player (that I still have, but that has since been relegated to the garage), and an Infinity powered subwoofer hand-me-down from my dad. I assumed the sound was better though I found myself constantly comparing the Cambridge's to the big-daddies I sold at the garage sale. "They're great but I don't think they are as good," I remember thinking. There was something missing: maybe it was the speaker wire. Down I went to RadioShack in search of thicker wire. I may have fooled myself into thinking it was the solution, and to this day I am not certain thicker cable makes a difference, but at the time I was semi-convinced. The CD did bring a tighter sound, this is for certain. The clarity it brought compared to the cassette was, and likely is, the most monumental jump in sound that has ever occurred in music and the listening experience. I am convinced that even today the MP3-4/digital format doesn't compare to the CD. For me it loses a generation and subsequently (for me) loses quality.

I "lived" with the Cambridge speakers for several years until I happened upon some aluminum-bodied KEF's. Five to be exact and a powered subwoofer to match. My obsession with sound equals my obsession with research. For me, the value of the KEF's was right– and so I purchased them. Around the same time my obsession caused me to update the system that churned out the sound: the receiver and the CD (now DVD player). I was after both quality in sound for music and for movies. I wanted both in equal parts and felt like the system (through research) could distribute solid, clear and concise sound on both the music and movie platform.

However, research and the endless pages of the internet can play funny games with you. While it's helpful, it also creates what I call "Endless Research." This endlessness leads to insecurity in the choice or choices you may have made, whether one month or two-three years later. With this research I found a better system and better speakers were out there. First went the receiver for something miles ahead and then went the speakers for a set that dated back to the monster's I bought so long ago. They were RSL's and I recalled my father's set from so long ago. They were different than his, smaller in size but built in the San Fernando Valley and were as heavy as a truck and as robust as anything new and amazing. Two bookshelf's that I bought on eBay for next to nothing. Old-school construction and air-flow with a single robust woofer and a 2.5 inch tweeter, they were as pure as what I relegated to a box in the garage. They were power as I remembered and I was back in that space from so long ago. I cranked the Denon receiver to its limit and the RSL's seemed to whisper "Pssst, hey chump, is that all that piece of shit has to offer? My woofer barely has any 'scars.'" I used them for a while, but feared I was missing something transcendental in the ever-changing and evolution of speaker development.

Enter the modern KEF bookshelf speakers. According to my wife these were acquired under the darkness of night in some dark alley in some mysterious part of Los Angeles. They suddenly appeared on tall stands (because that's how they are supposed to be mounted, all wives!), bi-amped and full of hell-fire. A matching, unassuming subwoofer sat to the side out of site. It was the match I had been hoping for. Clarity and power, mated to the Denon receiver, the Onkyo DVD and the Mac Mini. I was now as modern as all get-up. In the moment. On the pulse. The point where I want to be. Giggling from me met rage from the wife. "She just doesn't understand" I told myself, tell myself, will always tell myself. I have a mildly obsessive obsession with sound.

"This is it" I tell her. She responds with a humph and a retort of "I don't believe it."