Turn any headphones into bluetooth wireless headphones for $20

There are few things as unpleasant in life as getting a headphone cable snagged on a doorknob. Or the corner of a table. Or the watch of a total stranger passing me on the sidewalk.  Because the cable runs the length of my body, from the earbuds on my head to the phone in my pants pocket, it’s way too easy for it to get caught on just about anything, and it’s a truly jarring experience every time it happens.

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Pocket Casts vs. Downcasts: Which is the superior podcast app?

I’ve been using Pocket Casts as my main podcast-listening app since the beginning of the year. (You can read my original review here.) The main advantage Pocket Casts has over Apple’s own podcast app?  Greater ability to organize podcasts.  For example, I like having a listview of only podcast episodes that have been both downloaded (i.e. not-to-be-streamed) and are unplayed.  Pocket Cast can do that.  Apple’s podcasting app can’t.

IMG_0684Pocket Casts does have one annoying quirk, though. The app’s filters are a great way to view your preferred podcasts, but they lack “continuous play” (i.e. when one podcast ends, the next one on the list automatically begins).  To get that, you have to manually add episodes to a separate playlist.  It would be better if filters and playlists were the same thing.

(Note: The app does offer a couple other ways to “build a queue,” but none of them are ideal solutions.)

This might not seem like a big deal, but I hate it when I’m driving and the podcast I’m listening to ends, only to be followed by dead silence.  The last thing I want to do while behind the wheel of a car is mess with my iPhone.  It might not happen often since the average podcast is about an hour long, but it happens enough that I figured it’s time to give another app a chance.

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That app:  Downcast.  Let’s take a look at how it compares to Pocket Casts.

Like Pocket Casts, Downcast has a little red icon with two curved lines.
Like Pocket Casts, Downcast currently costs $2.99.
Like Pocket Casts, Downcast is extremely customizable when it comes to automatically filtering out (or in) podcast episodes.
Unlike Pocket Casts?  Downcast does its filtering right in playlists.

Downcast must be my new default podcast player, right?  Not so fast.  Let’s look at them side-by-side.

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How to listen to your Smart TV’s Apps in surround sound

A couple weeks ago, I talked about how A/V receivers are avoidable if you really don’t want one.

This post is for the rest of us — the people who love our surround sound and like having a quality A/V receiver, but we also have a smart TV with cool apps of its own.  If you’re like me, all your components (Blu-Ray player, game system, cable box, etc) plug into the A/V receiver, which sends the video to your HDTV while sending the audio to your external speakers. That means the apps built-in to the HDTV aren’t connected to your good surround sound speakers. The apps have to use the crappy speakers built into your TV. What’s a sound-loving techie to do?

Have no fear. There is hope.

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A digital audio out port.

The good news is that if your TV has built-in apps then it also probably has a “digital audio out” port (see photo). Most brands have been including digital audio ports on their HDTVs for years, so even older sets should have one. Bonus points if your digital audio port can send out a full Dolby Digital 5.1 signal (refer to your TV’s manual for any possible limitations on its digital audio port).

Note #1: These methods are good for getting any sound off your HDTV and back to your receiver.  For example, your HDTV may have an over-the-air antenna built-in that you like to use.

Note #2: When using your TV’s digital audio out port, you’ll also want to set your TV so that it will send out a “fixed” audio signal even when the TV’s internal speakers are muted and/or turned off (as they should be).  See your TV’s manual for this. There’s usually a menu setting for this.

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An analog audio out port.

Note #3: If your TV does not have any kind of digital audio port — and you’ve really, really looked for it — it might still have analog audio outputs (see photo). These can work too, but the sound won’t be as good. And if you’re really desperate, you can use your TV’s headphone jack to get audio back to your receiver, but you can forget about any kind surround sound at this point.

Method #1: Treat your TV as a separate audio component

Simply plug your TV’s audio-out into an empty input on your receiver (preferably one set aside just for audio, like the CD input.) When you use your TV’s built-in apps, just set the receiver to that input.

The upside: You can do this with just about any receiver, even a really old one.
The downside: It’s a pretty crappy solution. You won’t be able to use the TV apps concurrent with video from your cable box or blu-ray player. You will only be able to see video provided by the apps themselves. For Netflix and the like, that’s not such a problem, but for others, it might be.

This method is okay if you have a newer TV but an older receiver.  This is also the method to try if your TV does not have a digital audio out port. (If you only have a headphone jack, use a headphone-to-RCA adapter to connect it to an empty analog input on your receiver — no surround sound, but it should still be better than your TV’s built-in speakers.)

All the methods below are preferable to this one, if possible.

Method #2: Use your receiver’s “TV” input port.

If you have a new-ish receiver, it may have a port set aside specially to receive audio from your TV.

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Note the digital audio jack labeled “Optical (TV)” in the center of the picture.

This port should play nicely with your Smart TV. I say “should” only because every manufacturer has their own idea of how things ought to work.

Method #3 Use an assignable digital audio port on the receiver.

Look to see if your receiver has at least one audio port labeled “assignable.”

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This receiver has two assignable ports. Most receivers only have one, but one is all you need.

If so, you’re in luck. This is my preferred way to get sound from a Smart TV. Again, you’ll need your manual to see exactly how it’s meant to be used (and how to set it up), but the basic gist is this:  Connect your TV’s audio-out port to an “assignable” port on the receiver.  You then set your receiver so that whenever you switch to a particular HMDI input, instead of using audio supplied by the HDMI cable, it’ll use the audio from this port instead (which comes from the TV).

Note:  If you connect your TV to the receiver via component cables (and not HDMI), this method might not work.

Real life example:  On the receiver in my family room, I noticed that there’s an assignable digital audio port that goes with the SAT/CATV HDMI input.  I plugged the digital audio output from the TV into that port.   The sound from my DirecTV box now travels via HDMI through the receiver to the TV… and then that sound keeps traveling back into the receiver.  When I’m watching TV, the audio doesn’t sound any different.  But because the sound is technically coming from the TV and not directly from the DirecTV box, whenever I load up the Netflix app built-in into the TV, that sound plays through the speakers, too.  Make sense?

Method 4: Be the first person in America to actually use your receiver’s Audio Return Channel (ARC)

Technically, the most current HDMI standard comes with the ability retrieve sound from your TV automatically. It’s called ARC. If you have both a relatively new TV and a relatively new receiver, this could be your best (and easiest) option.

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Note the letters “ARC” on the HDMI-out port.

The set-up is dead simple: If you have both a TV and a receiver that supports ARC, a single HDMI cable between them can send information bidirectionally.  In other words: It can send video from the receiver to the TV, but it can also send audio from the TV to the receiver. No special set-up required. Just one cable.

Receivers with this ability will have the word “ARC” next to its TV output.  HDTVs with this ability will have the word “ARC” next to one of its inputs.

Not only is ARC intended to send audio signals from your TV back to your receiver, but it’s also — theoretically — able to send remote commands, too, though I haven’t been able to test this ability myself. At the least, you’ll probably need a TV and receiver made by the same company, and the company will have to make sure to include the necessary firmware that’ll make this happen. If I were you, I’d be happy just getting the audio to work right.

Note: ARC functionality isn’t limited to TVs and receivers. Some soundbars feature the specification, too.

Also worth noting: Older HDMI cables might not work with ARC. If both your TV and Receiver support ARC and but things aren’t working, you might want to try a new HDMI cable.

If your TV’s digital audio port only sends out a stereo signal (as many do), ARC could be a way to get full 5.1 channel surround sound back to your receiver.

ARC is supposed to kick in automatically once the TV and receiver sense each other, but it wouldn’t hurt to keep your TV and receiver manuals handy. This is a relatively new standard, which means some companies might be implementing it differently. (i.e. You might have to go into the menus and turn the feature on.)

For further reading about ARC, you can check out this piece at HDGuru.

So there you go. Four ways to get sound from your Smart TV back to your receiver. Bon chance.

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UPDATED MARCH 27, 2017 —  If, after reading this, you think you might need a receiver, here’s some I think represent a good value. All are under $500 (as of this writing) and all feature ARC (mentioned above). 

 

Do you really need an A/V receiver?

The short answer is “no.”

The long answer is “hell no.”

Look, if you have a dedicated home theater space with 5 or more separate speakers, then, yeah, you’ll need something to control them.  But you already know who you are and you aren’t reading this.  If that is you and you are reading this, then stop.  You do need an A/V receiver or something like it.  This post is for people who landed here after typing “Do I really need an A/V receiver?” into a search bar.  To you, the answer is: Only if you want one.  It’s not a requirement for good sound these days.

Why wouldn’t you want an A/V Receiver?

Three reasons: Added complexity, cost, and feature redundancy.

The added complexity is evident every time you try to tell someone else how to watch TV:  Turn on the TV, then turn on the receiver, then set the TV to video input 1 and the receiver to SAT/CAB, oh, and then make sure the cable box is turned on, and remember, if you want to control the volume don’t use the TV remote!  Why does simply watching TV have to be that complicated? Sure, you can get a universal remote that might streamline the process, but they aren’t perfect.  Even a top-of-the-line smart remote can be problematic it gets out of sync with your equipment (for example, if the remote thinks a component is on when it’s really off).  The only true way to simplify the experience — and increase the reliability of universal remotes — is to reduce the number of overall components.

The cost is evident in the amount of money you’ll be missing from your pocket.

The redundancy is evident in the other features you probably don’t need.  For example, a lot of receivers now come with Apps built-in (Pandora, Netflix, etc.). Sounds great, except chances are you have those same apps also in a different component.  Do you really need Netflix on your TV, Blu-Ray player, Apple TV, smart phone and your receiver?

So why would you want one?

1. As mentioned, you want true surround sound.

2. You like listening to the radio.

3. You have more video components than your TV has inputs.

What are the alternatives?  

As TVs gets thinner and slicker, the built-in speakers gets worse and worse (or, at least, it seems like they do).  You really don’t want to rely on your TV’s built-in speakers for movie watching, which means you will want some sort of sound system, just not one that requires an A/V receiver for power.  I’m a big fan of soundbars for this very reason.

NOTE: If you are perfectly content with the sound from your TVs speakers, and you just need a device that can switch between your many components — cable box, blu-ray player, game system, etc. — you can just get an HDMI switcher.

If the idea of a soundbar intrigues you, consider doing what too few people do these days — plug all your components directly into your TV’s multitude of inputs. Then use your TV’s “digital audio out” port to send the audio from your TV to the soundbar.  And that’s it.  Every time you change inputs on your TV, the soundbar will automatically keep up.

Even better: You can get a soundbar that will automatically power up when your TV turns on, meaning you never have to worry about turning it on or off.

You can then simply program your cable or satellite box’s remote to adjust the Soundbar’s volume instead of your TV’s, eliminating the need for a universal remote (for TV watching, at least).

Note:  If your TV allows you to turn off the internal speakers completely, do it.  That way you never have to worry about accidentally hearing sound from both the TV’s speakers and the soundbar. Many newer HDTVs have that option.  If yours does, then it also probably has the option to send a “fixed” audio signal to the soundbar, meaning no matter what the TV volume is set at, the soundbar will still get the signal it needs.  Ideally, you want a set-up where the TV’s speakers are off completely and the only way to control the volume is from the soundbar.

Another option: Find a Blu-Ray player with HDMI inputs.

They’re rare, but they do exist.  Being able to use your Blu-Ray player as an HDMI switcher can streamline the number of components in your home theater, which is always a good one thing. Two more situations where you might want one:

1) If your HDTV doesn’t have “discreet” inputs.

“Discreet inputs” means that each input on the TV has it’s own separate remote code to switch to it.  That’s very handy for universal remotes.  For example, let’s say your cable box is input 1 and your Blu-Ray is input 4.  With discreet inputs, your universal remote only has to send one command to switch from “CABLE” to “BLU-RAY” and vice versa.  The chances of messing up are rare.  But if your TV doesn’t have discreet inputs, then that means you can’t switch from input 1 to input 4 without cycling through inputs 2 and 3.  And to get from 4 to 1, you have to cycle through 5, 6, etc, all the way back to 1.  In other words — the universal remote has to virtually send many button presses to accomplish one task, which is very prone to errors. If you like the idea of pressing a single button and letting the remote do all the work, you really need a TV (or other device) with discreet inputs.

2) If your HDTV is already mounted to the wall.

If your TV is already mounted to the wall, you might not not have access to the TV’s inputs or you might not want to string new cables in front of the wall.  For example, I have a TV in my house that was mounted with just a single HDMI cable built into the wall (for the best aesthetics).  The idea was to use that single, hidden HDMI cable to connect the TV to a receiver, and just use the receiver to switch between the other components.  But to make things easier for my wife, I ultimately decided not to put a receiver in this room.  So then what?

I could’ve just gotten an HDMI switcher, but then I stumbled across the Samsung BD-E6500.  It’s a Blu-Ray player with two HDMI inputs.  Perfect.  I plugged the BD player into the TV using the HDMI cable that’s strung through the wall.  Then I simply plugged the DirecTV box into the BD player.  Even better, the BD player has what’s called an “HDMI pass-through signal.”  That means whenever the BD player is turned off, the DirecTV signal automatically “passes through” it to the TV.  Switching between components is as easy as turning the BD player on and off (on when I need Blu-Ray, off when I need DirecTV).  I only have the BD player and a DirectTV box hooked up to this TV, so I didn’t even need the 2nd HDMI input. (Though I might use it in the future for an Apple TV.  At the moment, the Blu-Ray player has all the “smart functions” I need, like Netflix.)

FYI: In addition to the Samsung I mentioned, Oppo also makes high-end Blu-Ray players with multiple inputs, like this one and this one.

So there you go… Thanks to an ever-improving stable of soundbars and other devices, if you don’t want the hassle or complexity of a receiver, you really don’t need one.

UPDATE APRIL 22, 2017

Looking for a soundbar that can also supply true surround sound? This one from Vizio could fit the bill:

Note: The surround speakers require their own power supply, which could restrict their placement around the room. Also: It doesn’t have HDMI inputs, so your TV would need enough inputs to handle all your components.

If you can live without “true” surround sound, a soundbar at the top of my wish list is this one from Yamaha:

It’s simulated surround sound rivals many multi-speaker set-ups and it has 4 HDMI inputs, so you can plug a range of components directly into the soundbar (much like you would an AV receiver). It’s super-pricey though, hence it being on my “wish list” and not “in my living room.”

A more reasonably priced soundbar that can act as an HDMI switcher is this one from Harman Kardon:

It also has 4 HDMI inputs, and is marked down a great deal because it’s a slightly older model.

Are there cheaper soundbars to be found with both good sound and at least 4 HDMI inputs? I’ll keep my eye for some, and add them here…


Looking for other home theater equipment? Don’t forget to check out Amazon’s TV & Video deals.

So you want to listen to music throughout your whole home…

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So you want to listen to music throughout your whole house/apartment/condo/etc…

The good news: It’s never been easier.

The bad news: It’s never been more confusing.

It used to be simple: if you wanted to wire your whole house for audio, that’s exactly what you did — you wired your whole house for audio.  Now, wires are entirely optional (if not still preferred, see below).

Here are some of your options, ranging from cheapest to not-so-cheapest:

1.  Just wear earbuds.  For ten bucks, you can get a pair of perfectly fine earbuds at your local drug store.  Plug ’em into your favorite portable audio device and, boom, you’ve got music wherever you go.  You can even take the music OUT of the house!  The only downside? The inherent danger of walking around with a loose cable dangling from your neck.  Get it snagged on a doorknob and you can snap your head off.  Also, sharing music is tough if you don’t have a great singing voice.

2.  Embrace Bluetooth.  For less than $50, you can get a Belkin Bluetooth Receiver that plugs into any stereo and wham-o, you can wirelessly beam audio from your iOS/Android device to whatever sound system you already have.  The downside?  This isn’t a solution for sharing the same audio throughout multiple rooms (not a strongpoint for Bluetooth), so it doesn’t exactly qualify as a “whole home” experience.  But if your smartphone is  your main music listening device, this is a great way to get the music onto your stereo without  spending (at least) twice as much to get a new stereo just because it has bluetooth built-in.

3. Embrace Airplay.  Airplay is very different from Bluetooth.  It’s Apple’s standard for wirelessly sharing audio (and video) across multiple devices.  The chief benefit over Bluetooth?  You CAN share the same audio source across multiple rooms at the same time.  From any iOS device (or computer), you can send music to any room(s) with an Airplay compatible device.  The set-up is super easy — you just need to make sure all the devices are on the same home network.  That’s it.  Great for parties.  The downside?  If you don’t already have a Mac or an iOS device, you’ll probably have to get one.  Sidenote: An Apple TV is a great way to share music from your iOS device (or Mac) to your TV’s speakers.

4. Sonos! A few Sonos devices can create a wireless blanket of sound across your home using neither Bluetooth nor Airplay.  What is Sonos?  Click here for a better summation than I could ever provide. Sonos is now the go-to system for distributing audio throughout people’s home, from non-tech savvy folk who seek simplicity to high-end customers planning to shell out tens of thousands of dollars on their media rooms.  How does it manage to fit both niches?  Because it’s currently the only game in town for what it does.  It’s also very flexible.  You can go crazy and spend thousands of dollars for ultimate customization, or you can keep it simple and still do some cool stuff for $500 or less.

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The Sonos iPad App allows for tremendous, user-friendly customization.

Every device that Sonos makes comes with the ability to talk to other Sonos devices.  They also come with their own built-in software to access your favorite internet radio options (Pandora, Spotify, Amazon Cloud Player, etc.).  That means set-up is minimal.  You literally plug them in, turn them on, then use your tablet/computer/phone to tell it what you want to listen to.  If you own two or more Sonos devices (up to 36, I believe), they’ll form their own invisible network you never have to deal with.  If you already have a home with speakers wired into the walls, you can buy a Sonos Amp for each speaker set and let Sonos do all the heavy lifting, connecting all the rooms together.  There’s no need for a receiver of any kind, unless you really want one (like if you want to share audio from a home theater).  For most people, the combination of Pandora, various internet radio stations, and whatever music they have on their own devices is enough, and Sonos can handle all that on it’s own.

If you don’t have any speakers already wired throughout your home, that’s not a problem.  Most of Sonos’s products are speaker systems with connectivity baked in.  You can easily place one on a bookshelf or kitchen counter without drawing any undue attention. Their cheapest HiFi music player starts at $300, though, which is more expensive than comparable Airplay-compatible sound systems.

My overall recommendation?  If you’re starting from scratch and have the money, wiring speakers is still the classiest thing to do.  And it’s actually not that expensive these days. Just don’t let the installer try to upsell you on speakers.  That’s the biggest cost.  Speakers for a kitchen or a dining room don’t need to be terribly expensive because the rooms themselves aren’t built for sound.  No point in splurging on high end speakers if you’ll never hear the difference due to acoustics.  If you’re good at following directions, you might even be able to install speakers yourself.  Pulling wire through an attic or crawlspace is easier than it sounds.  When I first moved into my house, I hired custom installers, but after watching them I realized: “Hey, I can do that!”  And then I did.  Pulling wire through a crawlspace under my house might be dirty work, but it’s free!  Anyways, once the speakers are installed, whatever closet (or cabinet) houses the ends of the cables is where the Sonos Amps will go.  A typical set-up is one amp per speaker set per room.   If you have the money and/or time, it’ll be well worth it.

If you don’t have that kind of money, you can always skimp.  You can get a multi-zone receiver and use that to control the various sets of speakers wired throughout your home.  For example, to control three separate zones with Sonos, you’d need $1500 in Amps.  A 3-zone receiver should be available for less than a $1000.  The receiver might not come with all the internet connectivity of the Sonos system (especially at that price point), but chances are you already have at least one device in your house that can access Pandora and/or your digital music collection.  Just hook that computer/ipod/whatever up to the receiver and your ears will never know the difference. (The trade-offs are in the area of flexibility and convenience.)  Or you can do what I did: Use fewer Amps.  Instead of having one Amp to power the speakers in the front yard and another Amp to power the speakers in the backyard, I just have a single Amp marked “outside.”

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This closet contains all the Sonos equipment you need to run the audio for an entire house.

If wiring speakers throughout your house sounds like a hassle or isn’t an option, then I’d recommend looking at what you already have, then building a sound system around those.  For example, if you already have an iPhone, iPad, or Mac, then just get an Apple TV ($99) for any room where you have a TV and an Airplay compatible stereo for any room that doesn’t. And if you’re an Android/Windows user… then I’d still recommend going the Airplay route.  For example, here’s a cool primer on three apps that’ll allow Android and Windows users to utilize Airplay.

Before you do anything, though, I’d just ask this… WHY do you want the ability to listen to music throughout your whole home at the same time?  If you entertain a lot, then, sure, spend the money and make it happen.  But, seriously, if this is just to listen to music while you do housework, then just buy a pair of good headphones.  Or even earbuds.

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Products mentioned in this post:




Always check the cables

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Today I had to go over to a client’s house to check out his Sonos system.  According to the client, it hasn’t been working properly for a couple weeks, ever since the system tried updating itself.  I could see none of his Sonos devices were able to access the internet, so I thought maybe there was some IP-address shenanigans going on. (Without getting too technical, I thought that two or more devices on the network might be sharing the same network address, and that was causing the system to freak out. It happens.)

I figured a good place to start was just unplugging every device on the network, then plugging them in one-by-one.  If the router is confused by wrongly-assigned IP addresses, this generally takes care of it.  The process took about 15 minutes.  The end result:  Every device on the network worked just fine, except the Sonos system.  Darn.

But the Sonos Controller was giving me a very specific error message.  So that’s good.  Error messages might scare most people, but they shouldn’t.  The more specific the error message, the more specific the fix.  This is where Google (or Bing) can be a lifesaver.  The error message sent me to a specific section on the Sonos help site.  So I figured it couldn’t hurt to follow their advice on how to remedy the situation.  I was wrong.  It hurt a lot.  Another 1/2 hour was gone.  Thanks, Sonos!

So then I decided to take a look at the home network itself.  I noticed that all his wireless routers (it’s a big house, so he had several) were running out-dated software.  So I updated them.  Another 15 minutes went by, but it still didn’t fix anything.

So then I finally did what I should’ve done when I first got there — on a hunch, I swapped out a single ethernet cable that was connecting the main Sonos device to the router.  And that did the fix.

Do ethernet cables go bad that often? No. 7 times out of 10, a network problem will be software related.  And if it is hardware related, it’ll be a device that’s gone bad, not the cable.  Even bad cables have a better failure rate than even the most reliable electronics.

But this time it WAS the cable.  And the next time I have less than an hour to troubleshoot someone’s network problem, you better believe the first thing I’m going to do is swap out all the cables.

Ideal use for a small binder clip…

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Earbuds are notoriously fickle creatures.  They get tangled way too easily, and when they get tangled too much, the internal wiring can suffer.  Sure, you can keep winding them back up in the case they came in, but that’s not so handy if you’re on-the-go a lot.  You can also invest in something like this, but but I’m not a fan of buying something you can do yourself for free.  Also, I’ve tried those solutions — they don’t save you any time, and you still have to wrap your earbuds tightly, which can damage them.

My quick and easy and cheap fix?  Just use a small binder clip.

Lightly loop the earbuds around your hand, secure them with a binder clip and that’s it.  No tangling.  Easy-peasy.

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