Monday, 14 May 2012

The Point in 5.1

A few people have asked about our AV setup. So I thought I'd share some notes here. As anyone who has thrown a small fortune at technology will know only too well: Hi-Fi, computers, mobile phones, whatever are usually somewhere close to out of date before you've taken them out of the box. and with this in mind, if I were buying my home cinema today I may choose differently. In general, factors we considered, which you really should right down before you start looking: budget, environment, lifestyle requirements, source components and the genres and formats of music and video content you intend playing. Environment, we started with our living room 20ft by 10ft. Our Emma (my wife for anyone not paying attention) wanted the speakers to aesthetically blend in with our natural oak tables and other furnishings. TV must go on the wall, to replace our beloved Sony Vega CRT which stuck out in to the room. It's difficult to put speakers at the sides of our viewing area, but we can mount speakers on the back wall. Viewing habits: regular standard definition tv plus Sky's 5.1 movies and sport. DVD collection is mostly stereo TV series and the occasional 5.1 movie. And as we have a 3-year-old, Disney's finest releases, now on Blueray with lossless Dolby True HD in 7.1 channel goodness. Music listening includes a wide variety of material stored on our NAS in MP3 or Flac, plus our CDs which are pop, jazz or acoustic. 7.1 would be 2 speakers too far for my wife. And given that little else other than blueray offers 7.1, 5.1 would be plenty for us. In summary we were in the market for a system which would strike a good balance between a dazzling 5.1 home cinema for movies and sport, also a respectable stereo performer for serious music listening. The other specialist requirement worth mentioning separately, is the fact that AV Receivers are becoming increasingly complex, and I wanted to have a screen reader accessible App so I could access the interface from the iThing. Lots of AV Receivers do this now, so worth searching the Apple App Store for the brand's of any AV Recievers on your short list. 1. AV Receiver = Onkyo TXNR 809. The AV Reciever is the beating heart of your home cinema. No shortage of reviews online extolling the virtues of this beasty. I bagged my for £700, and imho pound for pound you can't do much better under a grand. The big thing which no one tells you when moving from integrated stereo amps to AV receivers is they are usually physically much larger, a good deal heavier and run significantly warmer requiring greater cooling, in my case necessitating a new rack. The big change currently in AV Receivers is the integration of networking features. You can play digital content directly: from your NAS, streaming services such as Napster and Internet Radio etc. and depending on model, you can remote control from your web browser or smartphone. So you'll see modern AV receivers described as network receivers. I also auditioned: Denon DHT 1912, Onkyo 609 and seriously considered Cambridge Audio 650R, Marantz SR6004, a slew of other Denons and the budget busting Arcam AVR400. Onkyo came out on top for me because it sounded most awesome with my movies and music collection, and I could drive most of it's features with a range of apps. If I have any gripes it would be the physical size, at around 44 CM square and 20 CM high plus clearance for cooling. Oh and the lack of Airplay meaning I have to plug the iPhone in to the front USB port. Highly irrelevant, but I did get a warm fuzzy feeling from the fact that Onkyo have recently sponsored Braille essay writing competitions in Europe and North America. 2. Display = Panasonic VT30 50 inch. Panasonic have now replaced with the VT50. I liked this TV for: connectivity including LAN and USB, deep Blacks and aesthetics. It's very sleek having no plastic bevel round the screen edge, like having a huge iPad on the wall. Negatives include: price, Plasmas not as bright as LCD, and possible slightly over specified with Free Sat and Freeview support which we never use, and 3D which most people agree is still pointless. We've also not made much use of the embedded apps for: YouTube, Skype and BBC iPlayer. I have a lengthy short list of other TVs from Samsung and Sony which were ruled out for various reasons. We managed to blag a Blueray player and wall bracket in with our TV. And the nice man from the shop came round to help install it. Happy with the TV as a package but if I were starting from scratch I'd possibly go for a slightly less ambitious panel. The only thing a display needs to do well is show content, everything else is just nice to have. If you decide to wall mount anything, do your homework. I know very bright people hear in Worcester who saw their pride and joy smashed on their living room floor because they got the wall mounting wrong. The key thing is having many screws which drive deep in to supporting joists or even masonry. Don't expect to hang anything more than 1 or 2kg directly off plasterboard because the weight will just sheer down the wall. My tv bracket is on at least 8 screws which go through the plasterboard and right in to joists, and I lifted my own 95KG weight on the bracket before I dared put the tv up their. A note about the VT50 and the other 2012 models from Panasonic sporting the Voice Guidance feature. For anyone with enough tech savvy to use the internet, tv now and next info plus 7-day listings are easy to come by. Voice Guidance will only be really useful to me when it speaks Red Button services and Video on Demand including apps like iPlayer. My disappointment at buying Panasonic too early and not having one of the 2012 models was short lived. Good on Panny for making talking listings happen, but anyone who is prepared to buy a premium tv for this feature, really expects much much more than simply TV listings to be spoken allowed. 3. Speakers = Monitor Audio Silver Series. RX6 left and right, RX Centre, RXW12 sub woofer and RXFX surround. Auditioned Monitor Audio Bronze BX series which didn't have quite enough sparkle for direct 2 channel music listening. I also tried the Monitor Audio Radius speakers for surround but found them to sound crisp but a bit metallic. So bit the bullet and again blew the budget by going for the Silver series. Bi-wired the RX6 left and right for music listening, and wall mounted the RXFX speakers. I stopped short of RX8 with it's extra base driver because I was going for a big sub and RX8 plus RXW12 in my room seemed like overkill. A word on woofers. Sub woofers reproduce low frequency sounds. The "cross over" is the point where the sub rolls off and your other speakers take over. Lots of debate about where to have your cross over set, I like it quite low so you only really hear the sub when something really goes boom! And that's the point for me, the sub is about creating ultra low frequency vibrations which you feel in your legs rather than hear with your ears. Your other speakers will take care of base guitar solos and other general low frequency work. a sub too far in the corner of your room can sound too boomy, so some positional experimentation may be required. Very low frequencies at loud volumes travel a hell of a long way and will be felt by your neighbours. A bit like when a heavy truck goes passed your house. So get a great sub, but don't become a complete arse with it. The other thing no one tells you is that 60 percent of a movie's sound track comes through the centre speaker. and that's the way it should be. The actors are on the screen and you expect most of the dialog to be heard from that part of the room. So don't skimp on the centre speaker either. 4. Configuration. Getting those speakers positioned, AV receiver and display correctly calibrated, even all the cables in the right sockets can all be a ball ache and take ages. We decided to pay a little bit more and get everything from a small local supplier. This meant they were prepared to throw in a professional installation. And the man from the shop visits my house if I ask nicely. In Conclusion - yes I'm smarting a bit from the stupendously large bill. But our system gives us hours of enjoyment and makes us all smile. As a family wee are all wowed by the production values in Toy Story or Cars in lossless Dolby True HD. Emma can hear Buble's swing band sounding punchy and superb in stereo. And I can have the next best thing to going to the match, live football in 5.1 with the croud all around me. The point in 5.1 is not having all speakers blasting the same singnal. 5.1 is about creating immersive experiences generated by different sounds coming from different parts of the room. If a well mixed movie playing on some carefully selected and configured kit doesn't blow your head back or make you go "wow" then you'd be better spending your money elsewhere. If sound effect zinging around your room makes your pulse race then it's time to go audition some kit!

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Review Cate Cody Salty Dogs Band at our wedding

Cate you really made our dreams come true! The sound track for our big day
will stay with us for the rest of our lives. Thank you!

Emma and I married on 16 July, and music played a big part in our day. Our
evening reception for 110 guests was held in the dining room of a 16th
century country house near Worcester. The music would need to fill the room,
but not dominate. We wanted a high quality swing band who would bring a
touch of class to proceedings, and still be sufficiently lively to get
people up dancing. We wanted some songs that people would recognise, but not
be cheesy or predictable.

We asked around the performers we knew. We spent countless hours searching
online. We even tried to assemble our own group of talented musicians. We
were starting to feel frustrated that all the music acts we had auditioned
were either too rocky, avant-garde, or simply not good enough to meet our
high expectations. Then, somehow we stumbled on Cate's web site, and knew
instantly that she was the one.

Cate Cody and the Salty Dogs band are every bit as good in real life as they
sound on her show reel. From the moment we first contacted Cate we felt we
were in safe hands. If Cate doesn't reply to your email immediately, the
chances are she's performing or travelling to another gig. So leave it a
couple of days. Cate will pay close attention to all your requirements, and
will get back to you.

Cate worked with us to select a song for our first dance, and was even
willing to consider learning additional numbers, as she was keen to expand
her already impressive repertoire.

Cate is the true professional and will think of everything. The band arrived
nearly 2 hours before the performance to set up. And even when they started
tuning up they sounded completely fresh. An extraordinary achievement as
they'd just landed back from a jazz festival in Denmark. Don't trust any
band who doesn't make sure you have sufficient space, power outlets, and
allows sufficient time for setup and tuning.

Cate put us at ease and remained serenely calm, encouraging our other guests
to join us, as we giggled our way through our first dance. The American song
book is much more extensive than the over-played standards you usually hear
at weddings. As well as performing swing favourites you know and love, Cate
will introduce you to some real undiscovered treasures. The Salty Dog's 3 45
minute sets included tracks in a range of tempos both familiar and
unfamiliar. The volume of the band and vocals were loud enough to cut
through the crowd noise without making conversation difficult. And by the
end of the evening the dance floor was full with guests young and old having
a fantastic time.

Following our wedding, Many guests, and even staff at the venue, commented
on how wonderful the band was. And asked how we'd found Cate. Make no
mistake, Cate will give your event an extra degree of style and
sophistication you didn't think possible.

Cate you helped make our wedding day truly magical. Your performance was the
perfect honeymoon preparation, where we danced the nights away aboard
Cunard's Queen Mary II.

A thousand thanks.

Visit Cate's website at:

Dave and Emma Williams

Comments from Cate Cody:

"Wow, I'm really were the perfect clients! The thought
that has gone into writing this is so kind and I'm obviously delighted
and also very proud that you were so pleased with the band. I shall forward
your comments onto the others

We truly enjoyed your wedding because there was such a great atmosphere
from the start and everyone made us feel very welcome. We're really glad we
were part of your special day

Thank you again

Cate xxx"

Friday, 26 August 2011

Multimedia message

The great bank holiday get away.--
This Orange Multi Media Message was sent wirefree from an Orange MMS
phone. If you would like to reply, please either text, phone or send
a photo message to the sender directly by using the phone number listed
in the sender's address. To learn more about Orange's Multi Media
Messaging Service, find us on the Web at

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Resurrecting my Blog

A couple of people have asked if I would blog about the preparations for my
wedding coming up in July. No problem I said, until I came to do it!

I decided to try and use my Blogger blog which had lay almost dormant for a
couple of years. Back in the day between 2004 and 2009 I had been publishing
from Blogger via FTP to my ISP who were hosting the files along with this
domain. It turns out that the Google owned Blogger stopped publishing via
FTP last year. And PlusNet, in their wisdom, had taken my website down for
no better reason than I changed broadband package. It turns out that my new
tariff only includes a meagre 25MB web space. Or something equally
laughable. And in spite of a FAQ commitment that legacy customer web space
allocations would be protected for anyone moving to a new package, they took
it down anyway. After numerous emails and phone calls I decided it was time
to move on.

The good news was that my blogger account was still active, and all my posts
remained intact. The DNS records for my domain could be altered which meant
I was no longer reliant on PlusNet to host the content. Although I prob need
to move the domain permanently.

So, the vagaries of internal and external style sheets not withstanding,
here we are. Back up and running I think.

Apologies if things look a little weird for a bit. If feeds etc don't
function as expected, I am working on it. And if you have any expertise in
this area and think you can help then give us a shout.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Testing testing 1-2-3

Tap tap. Is this thing still working?

Friday, 16 April 2010

My Memories of Torsten Brand and the Evolution of TalksAlong with thousands of other people who are blind, I was recently stunned to learn of the unti

Along with thousands of other people who are blind, I was recently stunned to learn of the untimely death of Torsten Brand, the Product Manager for the Talks screen reader, a mobile phone app which has transformed the way people who are blind think about and use mobile technology.

Today, national organisations such as RNIB publish fact sheets detailing the range of solutions available for blind mobile phone users. But a decade ago before Talks there really was very little a blind person could do with a mobile phone other than make and receive calls. For some users this was adequate. However, for Torsten and many other people who are blind, not being able to fully participate in the mobile revolution was unacceptable. With the help of his friend and talented developer Marcus Groeber, Torsten set about tackling the problem.

Most Talks users probably do not realise the number and complexity of the
technical challenges with which Torsten and Marcus were confronted in those early days. How to manage TTS output so that it did not interfere with the phone's audio system? How to keep the Talks system requirements low enough in order that the screen reader would run comfortably with limited storage and processing power? How to keep Talks efficient enough so as not to make the other applications on the phone sluggish and unusable? How to hook the phone’s user interface and convey the content to the user in an efficient meaningful manner? Torsten's deep understanding of these requirements was instrumental in helping solve these and many other technical problems. These solutions remain some of Talks' greatest assets.

When I first heard about Talks 7 or 8 years ago, or Talks as it was known then, my expectations were relatively low. No one had previously put a screen reader on an off-the-shelf mobile phone handset, while at the same time
preserve the phone's original user interface. The received wisdom at the
time seemed to be that a mobile phone screen reader was an unrealistic unachievable fantasy. Torsten dared to dream, decided it was possible, and he and Marcus made it happen.

The apparent elegance of Talks is its simplicity. You don't learn how to use Talks; you learn how to use the phone on which Talks is running. Any great assistive technology becomes transparent to the user, allowing him or her to focus on accomplishing the task in hand. Few people really understood this as well as Torsten. With Talks, the vast majority of common tasks should be carried out in almost exactly the same way a sighted user would perform them. This means the main stream phone help and support remains relevant, and on those occasions when a sighted friend or family member needs to use your phone for what ever reason, the assistive technology does not have to be switched off.

I first tried a demo of Talks on a very trusting friend's Nokia 6600 phone in a student bedsit in 2003. Within the hour I was contacting my network provider to place my order for a Talks compatible handset. Those early versions were far from perfect, but right away I was able to do all the things my friends were doing with there mobile phones: send and receive text messages, work with contacts and eventually browse the web.

Talks is one of those products that after you have been using it for a couple of days you wonder how you ever lived without it. It was not long before Talks became the first piece of assistive Technology I use in the morning, and the last one I use at night, not to mention many many times in between.

Within a few days of getting Talks I was being contacted by blind people who wanted to know more about this Talks software about which I was so excited. I have lost count of the number of Talks installations I have done for people. But like many blind people at the time, I truly believed that Talks represented a massive step in to the future.

Torsten was a regular at the Sight Village assistive technology exhibitions in the UK. I had to meet the man who had put a voice inside my phone. I remember waiting in a long line of people eager to meet Torsten. It seemed to take forever to reach the front, not least because the queue was so long, but also because Torsten was taking the time to patiently answer questions from enthusiastic users.

On meeting Torsten in person, I found him to be a gentle giant of a man with a deep rich voice and distinctive booming laugh. Torsten was clearly proud of Talks but always willing to pay close attention to feedback from users. Torsten was not afraid of constructive criticism. Years later, I was to learn first hand about Torsten’s no compromise commitment to quality, and his persistent efforts to get the very best from developers.

One of my favourite Torsten mantras is “the user guide is the specification”.

Torsten’s generosity with his time lead to my recording several interviews with him for ACB Radio.

Torsten probably never really knew just how many lives were touched by his work. Talks users can be found in dozens of countries around the world. And countless blind people without the means to purchase a full Talks licence simply use the Talks ten minute demo.

When I joined Dolphin in 2006, Talks was one of the products I was raving about. A year later Torsten, Steve Palmer (Dolphin’s Chairman) and I met over a curry in Birmingham as Dolphin began talking seriously about collaborating on Talks for Windows Mobile. Eventually contracts were signed and Talks for WM became available through the Verizon in the US.

For the past two years, rarely has a week gone by when I have not had either phone or email communication with Torsten. I will continue to learn from Torsten’s work, miss our weekly meetings, Torsten’s attention to detail, but most importantly Torsten’s unwavering refusal to ever give up fighting for the best possible user experience.

Thank you Torsten. May your legacy live on.

To read more tributes to Torsten from around the world visit the Book of Condolence at:

For more information about the Talks software visit:

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Arlo chillin in his highchair. Get those feet off the table!

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Arlo in his new activity center.

Sunny Saturday by the Severn

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Arlo 10/06/2009

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