Saturday, March 27, 2010

Home Theatre Update: Surrounds

I bought my surrounds tonight!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This is GREAT.

I was looking at a bunch of Paradigms but out of nowhere these B&W LM1's came up on Ebay, and at a really good price. They usually go for $175 each new (so $350-$400 for the pair), and the ratings online were really good (despite them not being made in England). The guy selling them was selling another B&W speaker and some McIntosh amps, so I know I am in good hands. $150 for the pair! A little pricier for surrounds than I was going to pay, but I was looking at some junk Sony ones, and some better Paradigm ones, coming in at at least $100, so this is pretty good to get these for $150.

Despite being tiny, they actually take up to 100W signal, which was unexpected. The reviews are really solid, and a lot of people said they paired them as rears with the 602S2 (which is what I am planning on doing!)

SO FRIGGIN EXCITING. I now have 3 things on the way: Sony BDP-S370 Blu-ray player, B&W LM1 surrounds, and a B&W LCR 60 center channel. This is awesome. The only things left to get are the L/R main speakers, and the amp. I've picked out the amp and I'm just waiting for it to go on sale, and the mains I need to get a reasonable price on Ebay before I flip the switch. Otherwise, I'm ready to frickin' rock!!

I was considering what I'd use to demo my system and test it out and tweak the speaker positioning. Immediately, the idea of buying the Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds Live at Radio City Music Hall concert Blu-ray came into mind. Something funny I read on Netflix tonight was a review for that specific concert film in Blu-ray (I know they have a SICK 5.1 recording of it):
"A must have for any blu-ray owner. Uncompressed audio and stunning visual presentation. Don't rent it, just go buy it. You WILL show off your system with this."
Hilarious... and so true. :)

Some helpful reviews:

So... hot. Love that the tweeter sticks out and they have their own grilles. So frickin' awesome.

With grille off

Cool swivel brackets

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Adobe invents magic

This is insane. This content-aware fill tool is a new feature in Photoshop CS4, and man it's like magic. The panoramic "extension" is particularly absurd... absolutely mindblowing!!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Buying a home theater? Read this :)

Well, a few weeks ago I didn't know frickin' ANYTHING about home theatres. Since then, I've been reading and researching like a madman, gathering all kinds of information about home theatre setups and intently reading articles, reviews, and trawling Ebay and Amazon like a fiend for hours on end. It's 1:23am now, I think tonight I've (only) been doing this for 5 hours. I did take a 30 min break to watch Colbert... but only watched him for 10 minutes so I could get back to reading. This is fun.

For those of you who finally upgraded to an HDTV, and finally joined Netflix, and finally threw out that damn painful futon and bought a new couch (or in my case, scored a free couch from your fantastic neighbour)... If you're a couple of years outta student life like me, love movies, and are finally getting the chance to work through that Netflix list... here's what I'm planning to get to move into the fancy world of bachelor-pad home theatre glory.

There are a TON of interconnected pieces, and most of it relies on whether or not you are planning on upgrading to Blu-Ray, actually. If you're spending enough money on fancy speakers, then I venture to say that recycling your old DVD player is probably a good idea, and getting Blu-Ray (and the slew of stuff that you need to get to support it) is probably a good way forwards.

First off: DVD vs Blu-Ray
  • If you have a TV over 40", then BluRay's resolution may be a good idea.
  • Upgrading to a speaker system means buying a receiver
    • Receivers can take your low-resolution DVD player's signal, and do a "1080p upconversion" on it, so it scales up to your HDTV resolution. Note that Receivers currently are not generally well reviewed at this functionality (read: Receivers suck huuuuge at upconversion, so you need a new DVD or Blu-Ray based upconverter.)
    • So there are 4 DVD/Movie-related options:
      • Keep your current non-upconverting DVD player, and live with the crappy upconversion through the receiver (nope, that's gonna suck)
      • Keep your current DVD player, feed audio and video signal separately to the receiver and the TV. This means you will need to change TV and receiver when you want to watch a movie (not the best setup)
      • Buy a DVD 1080p Unconverter DVD player for ~$60 so you can output to HDMI. HDMI is the one-cable connection that carries both audio and video at 1080p. (This method is too expensive for something I already basically have)
      • Buy a Blu-Ray player with Netflix Streaming (bingo!) More expensive, but ultimately should be worth the upgrade. I'm not totally sold on this whole 3D at home thing yet, and also I JUST bought a (non 3D-capable) HDTV last year, so I'm not too concerned about "future proofing" my components for 3D. So I don't need to buy a 3D BluRay player, I can just go for the cheapest reasonable one that also has Netflix Streaming Capability. I don't need WiFi 802.11N capability for streaming Netflix, since I am so Computer Science that I've wired a Cat-5 network cable through my walls and into my living room. Hard-wired streaming is MUCH better than wireless anyway, even Wireless-N I believe. Anyyyywaay, ultimately Sony's BDP-S370 ($160) should do the trick for my needs.
Next: What the heck is 5.1 vs 7.1?
  • You need to pick your Receiver first. That is the big amplifier dealie that parcels out the audio signals (from your Blu-Ray, or XBox, or TV signal, or whatever) and sends them out to your 5.1 surround sound speakers.
  • Note that 5.1 means "Fronts" left and right speakers, "Center Channel" the main center speaker that gets all the vocal tracks, "Rears or Surrounds", the 2 speakers at the back beside your couch on the walls or on stands, and finally the Subwoofer, which is for bass only and is optional, especially if you have people in an apartment under you!
  • 7.1 adds an extra 2 speakers at the top L/R rear, I believe. Most people think this is totally overkill for a small home theatre, and I agree. You can still buy a 7.1 receiver and only use it for 5.1 (or 5.0 even).
Now, Receiver time
  • CNet ( and Gizmodo ( both reviewed a the Pioneer VSX-1019AH-K as the best midrange receiver. It's a 7.1 Surround unit, and highly rated with some amazing features like an included iPod dock. This lets you plug your iPod Touch or iPhone into it, and then control the songs on the TV screen, while the audio is essentially "upconverted" through the Receiver and sent out to your badass speaker system. VERY nice feature.
  • The VSX-1019AH-K is pretty expensive, coming in at about $500 US. I (extensively, believe it or not, haha) read about their entire range, and was about to buy the cheaper, $300 5.1 VSX-819H-K. That seems ALMOST right... but just before deciding on it for sure I read a bunch more reviews and it's missing one feature that may prove to be pretty important - the "Cinema True 24fps" setting. This is a feature which tells the Receiver to send the HDMI Video signal directly through the receiver and to the TV without attempting to smooth the video or modify it. Most Blu-Ray players support this, and it's an attempt to send the video signal out in a way that is the closest match to what the film's director actually wanted to achieve. Some TVs offer this 60Hz thing now (mine actually has that) which tries to interpolate the frames so you get "smoother action sequeneces." Some people like it, some hate it... I am on team "Hate it". It makes things look cartoony and weird, and the first time I watched Transformers 2 (which has a LOT of fast camera movement in it), I couldn't figure out why it looked so weird on DVD... turns out I had that weird setting on. It's kinda crazy, I don't like the effect. Anyway... basically you don't want your receiver to screw with the video signal if you're intentionally setting your Blu-Ray player to output in "True 24fps". The 819 screws with it. The 919 and the 1019 do not. The 919 does not have "Analog Upscaling" like the 1019 does, but again, that's not the greatest quality anyway, and "Analog Upscaling" is only needed if you're using Component Video and not HDMI. This decision has already been squared away given the earlier Blu-Ray choice. :) Apparently the Nintendo Wii would benefit from this, so if you have that, maybe pay an extra $100 and get the 1019. But since my VHS collection isn't used all that often any more, I'm gonna just stick with the 919 (comes in at about $400). Note that Pioneer is JUST about to release the 2010 models, so I may end up buying the 920 (this year's model). Not much difference there, same price, but it uses the new HDMI 1.4 technology which is "3D capable" - so no major benefits really yet other than more "future proofing". I say go for the 919 (or 920).
  • Now that I am focused in on getting a Blu-Ray player, I now no longer need to worry about paying more for 1080p upconversion, cause I won't have any more analog sources. So the money I save on not getting a more expensive receiver, I'll spend on the upgrade price (~$100) to go from a new 1080p DVD Upconverter to a Blu-Ray player (which all have built in upconversion anyway)
  • I thought a Marantz or Yamaha or Denon or Onkyo or something would be much better, but features-wise and value-for-money-wise, this Pioneer system seems hard to beat.
  • Another thing to note is that if you're getting a Blu-Ray, don't be tempted by the fancy old MSRP $1600 Rotel receivers going on Ebay for $300. The sound would be sick, but they can't decode any of the new sound codecs, like dts HD Master Audio and Dolby True HD. These are the fancy new high-quality sound codecs that Blu-Ray discs store, and if you're spending lots of money on speakers then you definitely want to be able to make use of the excellent high-quality sound encoding that the 50Gb of storage on Blu-Ray offers over the (now "measly") 4.7Gb of storage on DVD.
Speakers, Speakers, Speakers
  • I spent a LOT of time on this.
  • Fluance (Canadian speaker company) is an interesting option.
    • Generally excellent reviews
    • Full 5.0 speaker set for $400 including delivery
    • Said to be one of the best values for money, if spending < $1000 for 5.0 speaker set
    • That IS my price range, but...
      • People upgrade, buy, sell a lot
  • Ebay is an excellent source for used electronics, and I can buy without hearing stuff first if I stick to reputable sellers and good brands
  • So... buying used Speakers on Ebay is really an absolute goldmine for excellent used stuff.
  • Most important speaker choice: L/R mains, Center Channel
  • Less important: L/R rears, Subwoofer
  • B&W (Bowers and Wilkens) is one of the best companies in the world for speakers, one of the oldest, most reputable, and highly respected by the audiophile community. I couldn't really afford a 5.1 set from them if buying new, but on Ebay I can get lucky and get something amazing.
  • I looked at a bunch of other options, and Paradigm (a Canadian company) seems like a good choice for the Surround speakers. My room is not well setup for those weird looking bipole surround speakers, so instead I am gonna get 2 more bookshelf speakers, and put them on speaker stands as my L/R rears.
Here's my plan

I think I've FINALLY locked down a plan as of tonight. I've been looking at speakers for a while, but this seems to be the way I am likely gonna go, barring any major new releases or better deals I find.

Front (iPod connector, switcher, phono jack)

Back (7.1 surround)

Sweet Netflix streaming action, and 1080 love.

Sorrento colour, I really love this one

The classic black and yellow one, also nice

Monitor with Stand

A pair of Anim Monitors from Ebay
  • Subwoofer
    • Will probably not get one for the moment
    • Living in an apartment building it's a bit hard to get away with thumping bass at your neighbours all evening, people on all sides of you would be annoyed.
    • The B&W 602's are supposed to have nice bass already, so that should hopefully do the trick.
    • I can always add this on later and re-calibrate my Receiver for it.

And that's why it would be WAY easier to just show up at Best Buy one afternoon, pull out your credit card, and spend $700 on a Sony HTIB (Home-Theatre-In-A-Box) system. This research took like 3 weeks, but ultimately I will only be spending a little more than that and I'll be getting a system that is WAY better and will last me for years and years, rather than an HTIB system that I'd have to recycle/chuck out in only a few years. This is gonna rock.

I feel many happy movie watching days are in my future.

If you, faithful reader, end up getting a home theatre system soon too... send me your thoughts or comments. This is all very interesting and it was really cool to learn all the (hundreds of) details required to make a decision. :)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Japan/SoKor Day 13: Videos

At the mall in Fukuoka - sweet New Balance "Rainbow Running" shoes, and some ferret animals

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Japan/SoKor Day 12: Miyajima and Hiroshima

December 22, 2009
Japan Trip Day 12: Miyajima and Hiroshima

Today I started off nice and early at about 8am, and got some laundry going, which I needed to do desperately. The WiFi was pretty sick, and nice to be able to send some email while having a coffee in the morning. I had a quick shower in the weird shower room, where you just sortof stand on the floor and grab the hip-height showerhead and try not to soak the whole room. Fortunately, at least, this time the bathing was solo and not in groups (oh, Japan). After that "debacle" I picked up my dry laundry and repacked my bags, finally getting ready to leave about 11ish. I headed off with a bunch of my new hostel buddies and hit up a grocery store first. I got this tasty marzipan/marmalade bun and some tomatoes. In true Jutan style, I tried another weird and unexplainable beverage, this time it was a gross "Apple Milk Tea" - two things that should never have been combined. Still fun though.

We jumped on the JR Train on the way to the island of Miyajima and ran into the older Australian couple from the hostel. We sat down in a big foreign group and a Japanese schoolboy was sitting beside me. I tried to share a Pocky with him (a chocolate Japanese cookie) and he responded with a series of unexpected emotions, ranging from disgust to concern to general nervousness. We laughed about that afterwards, though I was surprised to have such a strange reaction to my overt Canadian friendliness. I guess his parents taught him well never to take candy from a stranger?!

We then jumped onto the JR Ferry, which was included with my JR Rail Pass, which was pretty sweet. It was glorious from the get-go. As we were approaching the island, we saw an excellent view of the Red Torii gates in the water. On our arrival there were tons of baby deer and I took quite possibly the cutest photo ever taken... of a baby deer with a baby Japanese girl. So cute. There were some other amazing sights on Miyajima: the floating shrine, and a great walk through the trees. We then took a ropeway car and a 2nd cable car all the way to the top. I wandered that day with Steven from England, a great dude from the hostel who was keen to see the same things I wanted to see and then get back to Hiroshima. On top of the island, we ran into the "Canadians" Marissa and Alyssa (actually from Michigan, but sounded SO London, Ontario that we became best friends near-instantly) :) It was nice to see them and we had lunch (the food we bought previously at the market) while admiring the absolutely ridiculously amazing view.

There were a lot of monkey warning signs at the top of the mountain but no monkeys... or so we thought. We took some great photos of the view and then, low and behold... the monkeys!!!!!! So many monkeys!!!!!!!!!

The monkeys were totally friggin' INSANE. Absolutely off their rocker. They were loud, some seemed angry, and there were even some babies! (They were not loud or angry, but they looked tired... probably from all the noise their parents were making at each other and the tourists) :) Then came feeding time. I think I say "This is frickin' Animal Planet!" in the video I recorded. There was a swarm of monkeys and deer intermingled with the monkeys. Totally nuts.

We said bye to the nice Michigan girls and Steve and I headed back down the cable cars. Miyajima's "mascot" is the maple leaf, so I got a tasty maple-leaf shaped cake before getting back onto the ferry. We then headed straight back to the train, racing back into the city to try to catch the A-Bomb Dome museums before they closed. It was a bit tough to get back to Hiroshima in good time, but Miyajima was beautiful and totally worth the trek. We got to the A-Bomb Dome area just as Magic Hour was hitting and I got some great photos of the dome at roughly dusk-hour. We wandered through the Peace Park to find out that... the museum was CLOSED!!! Oh no!!! I was disappointed because I was really keen to see the exhibits and learn more, but we did manage to get into the other museum for the victims of Hiroshima, and it had some incredibly powerful exhibits.

There were some recordings of the actual victim stories and it was just horrifying... terrible. I was hoping to see "on the ground" details about what the residents actually went through that day, and learn more about what actually happened there. The exhibits were very moving and upsetting. I saw the famous Oppenheimer "Destroyer of worlds" quote, and it made me wonder if the politicians of the time thought through the practical results of the bombing. I had no idea of the terrible nature of the destruction - the temperature in Hiroshima at the time of the bomb rose to somewhere between 2000 and 3000 degrees celcius, causing burns to many people. The Nuclear fallout caused health problems for many many people, well after the explosion. These stories were graphic, upsetting, and very real. The museum did an incredible job of telling you the story for the memory of the survivors, and devoid of any political leaning.

Another notable part of the exhibit was that there was no blame aimed at the U.S. for the bombings. The exhibits said the Hiroshima Bomb was dropped "due to war" and "due to 'failed international policies'" - I thought this was a very strong viewpoint to take - essentially blaming their own government for not siding with the Allies in WW II, in a way blaming themselves for the destruction caused by the Atomic Bomb. It was very potent to see images of the A-Bomb Dome before the day of destruction, and compare it to the remains standing there in the modern day.

We left the museum and took some photos of the stark dome against the evening skyline, and with a building crane and a modern-day office building juxtaposed beside it. As I mentioned in my previous post, it was really powerful to see the A-Bomb Dome silhouetted against the night sky, and to contrast it with the modern bustle of an exciting, busy, Japanese city life. I'd be hard-pressed to think of another city that I've traveled to where the human spirit displays this kind of resilience.

After the emotional museum and photo trip, Steve and I headed back to the hostel where we ran into Dirk and Nadine again. The emotion of the afternoon reminded me of a conversation I had with Dirk the night before, and reminded me why I am so happy to be alive in these happy times. Dirk is from Germany, and while traveling he made good friends with an Englishman. The English guy said to him, "It was great to meet you, and crazy we are already such good friends... when our grandfathers were busy killing each other." Whew. There is a lot of emotion running through this city, and I was really happy I decided to visit. It seems to me that the other travelers here are also very keen to learn about the history of the city and what happened here only a mere 65 years ago.

It was getting late, and I was booked to stay in Fukuoka/Hakata in the evening, so I headed out and got to the Shinkansen station, heading towards Hakata. It was quick to get to the station but I was a bit tired and less adventurous-feeling, probably due to the 1-1-1-1-night per city traveling days I'd had over the past 3 or 4 nights in a row. At the station I wanted to just keep it easy, and order something simple... so I went to McDonalds. I got a "Juicy Chicken Agatougarashi" to try to keep it easy, and I totally screwed up the payment. I thought I had to order from one girl and pay the other girl, and I ended up standing at the front of the line with the poor cashier girl staring at me for like 20 seconds waiting for me to pay her. Oh man.

I got into Hakata, and headed to Guest House Kaine, which was highly recommended on TripAdvisor. I got in kinda late and my room was a cool tatami mat room, very cool and WAY more comfortable than the one in Morioka! There was no one in my room, I think it was about 9:30pm and everyone was already out at the bars or at dinner. I just checked my email and Skyped Mom and Dad. I talked to the guy running the hostel who was very nice, and then decided to wander a bit with my camera.

As expected, I ended up wandering a LOT. I was pretty tired but with such limited time everywhere I wanted to see as many sights as I could. I headed straight to the famed Oyafuko Street, the main party area. There were lots of clubs, but it seemed like you really needed a big group to go out anywhere - this is the drawback of traveling on your own (or arriving at 9pm at a new city and not meeting your new roommates for the night). So that was too bad, but it turned out I was too tired to do much more than wander and be in-awe of Japanese things. There were lots of stalls of street food... all with no English at all. I found one, finally, with English signs: "fried entrails", "pork soup", "crab", "octopus" - they may as well have said, "Not for Jutan-san!"

So, I just kept on walking. I saw a cool downtown area and wandered into a 24/7 bookstore which was cool. I ended up getting a Chicken sandwich at MosBurger (a safer, more Kosher version of what I could have bought in one of the stalls), and then headed back to the hostel. There I sent some more emails, and chatted with Hiroaki, one of my roommates for the evening who was Japanese. There was a big oversized world map in our room, and we chatted for ages about travel. He was very excited at where I had traveled and wanted to know all about it. We yapped for ages, he is traveling around the Japanese island of Kyushu and then to London, England for 1.5 months. After our chat, he said, "I have very much enjoyed our conversation!" "Me too!" I replied, and I gave him a business card -with 2 hands, of course. He said he'd create a Facebook account so we could chat. Japanese people are awesome!!

It was late, and I had such a busy day that I was so tired and went right to sleep. My 2 other roommates were still not back at 3am. I woke up in the morning and they were there, thank goodness for my earplugs I guess! I think I was so exhausted from the day, I probably still would have slept right through their late night drunken stumbles back into the dorm room. Whew, what a day. I love traveling.

Ticket gate to get a ferry ticket to the island of Miyajima

Leaving the dock

Excited for the day

Dirk and some friends I'd met the day before on the Shinkansen

Red Torii gates from the ferry boat


Other cool architecture on the island too

LOTS of very friendly deer on the island


Haha, this guy wasn't sure if he wanted to hang out

Me and the Torii gates

Sweet Miyajima awesomeness

baby deer + baby japanese person = Cute overload

Hilarious, this little girl was so excited about the deer. I think this deer was pretending to sleep, but would look up every little while

Sweet-ass pagoda

Floating temple... beauuuty!!

Possibly the nicest hotel on an island ever

Nice walk through the woods to the cable car track

Up we go!

Cable car #2

"Watch out for monkeys!"

Warning for the crazy monkeys: "We do not like to be stared at our eyes. If you do so, we are not responsible for what will happen"

Hungry monkeys

"We do not hope to be such a monkey" - a fat monkey?!

Magnificent views

Love itttt

The mountain tops that were linked by the cable car

Beautiful day for a hike

A ship on the water

Monkeys before they went crazy

A tourist looking up nervously at the monkeys, and the monkeys staring us down

Deer running just before the monkey feeding time

More deer running


Another pic of the "floating shrine"

Torii gates

Maple leafs are the official emblem/mascot of Miyajima, so lots of stuff is shaped like them. We got some maple leaf shaped cakes filled with red bean paste and custard.

We left Miyajima and got to the A-Bomb Dome just as the sun was setting.

"A stark reminder of the casualties of war"

A-Bomb Dome with B&W photo of it before the bomb

Hiroshima Peace Park

Memorial to the victims of Hiroshima

Peace Park at dusk

Children's Peace Memorial

We heard the heartbreaking story of Sadako Sasakia, a young girl who was only 2 years old when the bomb dropped, and developed Leukemia in the aftermath of the bomb. A Japanese saying says that a person who folds 1000 paper cranes is granted a wish. As the story goes, she died before she could make 1000 cranes. Children all over the world now remember her and the hope for peace in the world by folding cranes in her memory. There were many art pieces by elementary and high school students, all made out of many paper cranes.

A-Bomb dome and a photo of it from before the bomb

One of my favourite photos of the whole trip. See yesterday's blog post about first arriving in Hiroshima and seeing the A-Bomb dome for the first time, in the context of a busy metropolitan city. The contrast between the pain and suffering of the previous generation in Hiroshima as compared with the modern bustling city it has become was really something. I loved the juxtaposition of the dome, strongly reminding the city (and country) of it's complicated past... but at the same time, living in parallel with a fancy office building/hotel, and a construction tower. Life continues on, ever resilient.

Another couple of photos of the A-Bomb Dome

Such an interesting angle

And off to Fukuoka/Hakata! Arrived late in the evening to a cool tatami mat room. This time I remembered to take my sandals off first!

Canal in Fukuoka

Street vendors

Where the Wild Things Are poster in Japanese

Guest House Kaine, super awesome hostel

Hiroaki, one of my roommates for the evening in Fukuoka