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April 20, 2004

Universal Remote and More

I've owned a Marantz RC5000i universal remote for about four years now. I originally purchased it to control my PHAST distributed audio system. However, I rarely used the remote in this way, since we have PHAST control panels in most of the rooms in the house. I've been meaning to use the remote in a different capacity, but never really found the time to reprogram it. I'm happy to say that I've successfully reprogrammed it to control some of the components I repurposed from my home theater upgrades.

Since I upgraded my receiver, I moved the old Sony ES receiver into my computer room, which also doubles as a TV and console gaming room. We already had a nice Broyhill armoire in the room, so I placed the receiver, DVD, cable box and (ancient) hi-fi VCR in the cabinet below the TV. I used a Xantech IR blink emitter/receiver set to control the components without having to open up the cabinet doors, giving it a very clean appearance. I also picked up a set of Polk Audio home theater speakers and subwoofer at Fry's, completing the setup. Because I didn't want to have 5 remotes laying around at all times, I decided to use the RC5000i to control all of the components.

The RC5000i has a reputation for being cumbersome to program and complex to use. Admittedly, the capabilities of the remote can be overwhelming. But, I found that reading through the manual thoroughly (imagine that!) helped a great deal, and explained the basics of programming the device quite well. There are essentially two steps to programming the remote: 1.) teaching the remote the IR codes for all of your devices and 2.) using the RCEdit software to customize the interface. Once I came to that realization, it was a snap to get all my devices programmed and set up to my liking. Even my wife, who is absolutely terrified of remotes, was able to use the remote without any instruction.

While I have the basic functionality complete, I'd like refine the interface further. There are some great ideas over at Remote Central, with templates, graphics and macros available for anyone to download. Check it out if you're interested.

April 19, 2004

HDTV - finally!

With my new receiver's flexible video switching capabilities, I finally have an easy way to implement HDTV in my media room. My TV only has two HD inputs, so it was previously cumbersome to hook up more than two component video inputs to the TV. My DVD player uses component video, and I like to have the flexibility to hook up my GameCube and Playstation2 to the big screen for those games that implement progressive-scan output. I felt like I really wasn't using my TV to the fullest without an HD receiver.

Fortunately, Time-Warner offers an HDTV-capable digital converter box for the same price as their standard digital converter. Since we already had a digital converter in that room (primarily for whole-house audio through our PHAST system), it was a no-brainer. Installation was fairly uneventful, although I did have to call TW support to get my box to activate the first time. There aren't a ton of channels - three local, five PBS iterations, Discovery HD and Fox HD. You can also get HD.net and a few others for a fee, but I decided it wasn't really worth it since we don't watch a ton of TV. The HD content varies among the stations. ABC seems to have a fair amount of 1080i content, while the others upconvert 480i signals to HD. We've enjoyed Discovery HD the most, as they have a significant amount of 1080i content, which really shines on my TV. My only complaint is the lack of NBC programming in HD. There's some sort of rift between the local NBC affiliate and Time-Warner, so it's anyone's guess when we'll see NBC content in HD. Unfortunately, the few shows we do watch (Law & Order, ER) are on NBC. Other than that, I like the HD content thus far. I'm looking forward to more channels (like History Channel, Animal Planet etc.) adding HD content in the future.

New Toys

For the past few months I have been considering upgrading some of my home theater components to stay current with technology. Specifically, I wanted to upgrade my receiver and DVD player. My current receiver (Sony STR-DA333ES) and DVD player (Toshiba SD-9100) were decent, but they lacked some of the features and technologies found in more recent products. I really wanted a DVD player that could handle more disc formats, especially DVD-A and Super Audio CD. From the receiver standpoint, I wanted more control over my video sources, since my Sony receiver was fairly limited from that standpoint.

After spending a great deal of time researching the subject, I decided to go with Denon for both components. Denon have been receiving excellent reviews on their mid-range and high-end products, so they seemed like a good choice. Originally, I had planned to purchase Denon's AVR-4802R receiver. However, its considerable size would have required extensive modification to my media racks. So, I opted for the Denon AVR-3805 receiver instead. It turns out that thefeature set of the 3805 was significantly better than the 4802R, which I will detail later. For the DVD player, I chose the Denon DVD-2900 Universal DVD/CD player.

Both items arrived from Crutchfield a few weeks ago. I could have purchased both products locally at Ultimate Electronics, but I have always been satisfied with Crutchfield. They have good prices, free shipping and installation support if one requires it. Plus, they were running a 10% off special, saving me a couple hundred bucks.

Setting up the receiver was very slick. Everything can be done via an on-screed display (OSD), assuming you have the receiver hooked up to your TV (I did). You can assign ports, set your crossover frequency, set speaker size and location and more through this interface. It makes things VERY easy and painless. The AVR-3805 also has a component video switch that upconverts any video signal, regardless of input type (composite, S-Video etc.) to component output. The switch also automatically changes video sources on the fly, so you don't have to fumble around with matching audio and video sources. The receiver also comes with an easy-to-use universal remote with learning and macro functionality.

However, the most amazing feature of the AVR-3805 is the Auto Room Setup. If you place the optional omnidirectional microphone at the listening position, the receiver will calculate the optimal speaker distances and volumes for that position. No guesswork is required. The feature alone is worth the price, in my opinion. With my previous receiver, I had spent countless hours tweaking my room parameters to get the right sound balance and never quite got it right. Now, my media room has impressive equalization. Coupled with the higher accuracy of the Denon receiver, DVDs sound amazing now.

While not as feature-rich as the receiver, my new DVD player is no slouch. Its color fidelity and picture accuracy is markedly improved over the Toshiba (which is still a good player - one of the first progressive-scan models). I can more easily distinguish between an average digital transfer and a really good one. I really like the player's ability to play pretty much any disc format. So far, I've tried DVD (duh), DVD-A, CD, VCD, SVCD and DVD+R without a hitch. The player will also read MP3s from CD-Rs, which is a nice touch. I haven't tried SACD yet, as I don't have any SACD discs yet. I also don't have the analog 5.1 outputs hooked up, so I can't listen to DVD-A or SACD natively yet.

Overall, I am extremely happy with the purchase. Not only am I enjoying the performance of the two products, but I am also very impressed with the build quality of both. They both have a robust, weighty feel to them, with a solidity that really emphasizes the high quality.