2013 was the year that I finally decided to replace my ancient two channel sound system with a 5.1 channel home theater capable system. My old setup was very simple. A pair of ADS speakers that I had bought when I was in college (1981) and a Nakamichi receiver that I had bought shortly after I was married (1989 or so). I had other components, but most had been replaced with a cheap Blu-ray player that I “won” at a silent auction a few years back that played most of my CD’s. I still have a B&O turntable that is serviceable, but I rarely play my vinyl these days.
While I spent a good amount of time doing research on speakers and components, I spent time researching specs and features. This was old school – you buy the components with the right specs and decent amazon reviews and voila you get a great sounding system. I used to be an audio “snob” within the budget band that I could afford. I had thoughts of buying the Magnepan flat panel speakers that I had adored since Gene Hilton first introduced me to them as a freshman in college. Magnepan had a direct purchase arrangement for their “entry level” speakers that were wall mount, and I thought this would be great. The problem was they were 4 ohm and rather inefficient so normal volume listening could cause a normal amplifier to spontaneously combust. So I needed to spend some more coin on a powerful and capable receiver, which I did.
Having purchased the receiver, I was now free to purchase the speakers (right?). Well no, I realized in attempting to hook up the receiver that most of my interaction with the receiver setup function would be via OSD or On Screen Display. That required a TV capable of connecting to my receiver. I had intended to purchase the TV last, after I had the sound system in place. Old tv was a 10+ year old “tube” that only accepted antenna, cable and composite video inputs – new receiver was component or HDMI only. I learned that I couldn’t easily set the silly thing up without buying a TV; the manual only documented the OSD, not the 80 character LED display of the receiver itself.
After I bought the TV, I had to wait to purchase the speakers, because I had spent more than I had intended on the TV. So I continued my research on speakers. While I was researching, I found some less than flattering reviews of the “entry level” speakers that I was intending to buy. I had not heard them directly, but their much more expensive brethren and so was disappointed to learn that they were not as brilliant as the reviews and testimonials on the manufacturer’s website said.
Having already bought the receiver I was now back to looking for speakers – and I found there were several models or “systems” available from high quality and reputation makers that I could afford. Having finally settled on some KEF’s I found a deal at amazon for less than half price and ordered.
Here is the good part. Last Saturday, I wired the surround speakers and assembled the speaker stands and wired everything together. Then it was time to try to listen to a movie through the system and see how it sounded. Receiver came with Audyssey an auto-calibration program that “listens” to your system (you place a provided microphone in your listening location) and adjusts all the speakers. After a couple of false starts because I had used the wrong speaker outputs (there were dozens on the receiver) I got through the program.
When I played a movie through my Blu-ray player – it sounded fantastic. My project was a success!!!! But wait – we watch most of our movies on the TV via Netflix, and our cable box seems to always want to play as mono so when we watch “regular TV” it sounds flat.
I had to spend 30 or 40 minutes reading each of the TV and Cable box and Receiver manuals to figure out where I had got the settings messed up, and finding the appropriate menu options to “connect the boxes” logically in the way I wanted, so that they could also connect physically. All of these devices are so darned “feature rich” that to do anything requires a trip down menu boulevard and there are absolutely no controls on the front of the device except for an “off” switch so one is pretty much forced to use the On Screen Display to figure out what to do. Woe to you if you should lose or damage the manufacturers remote as then you would have no way to access the “special” buttons.
The user interface on these devices in most cases is pretty poor. Menu depth is somewhere between 3 and 6 levels. Organization of settings is rather arbitrary. Icons or visual representation of menu options is weak at best or completely incomprehensible at worst. What is worse is that the capabilities of each device, have branding from their manufacturer, so that even when the devices have compatible interfaces, it is virtually impossible to determine because even the user/owner manuals from the devices are completely unclear each referring to their own branded capabilities, not to any industry standard – even though there are industry standard interfaces.
Each device has a user manual that I downloaded as a pdf so I could search, and they refer to buttons on the remote control that are labeled often with 2 or 3 different labels, and have different uses and behaviors in different modes of operation.
I suppose that we all have experienced this at some level trying to connect up some combination of gadgets that were more or less designed to work together. At work I have been grinding away at an integration analysis project to determine if the accounting “metaphors” in several systems that need to share data with one another are semantically compatible enough to allow us to build some adapter or translator that will allow data to flow in support of the operations that are perpetrated on each connected system without materially changing the operational processes.
I submit that we will not know the real cost and feasibility of the adaptation until we have made it work. Just like no amount of manual reading on the devices I was trying to connect together in my family room would have revealed whether or not they would actually work together when connected, nor would I be able to discern which magic combination or sequence of remote button presses on which device would actually make it go.
In the end, I was able to make it work at home, and I am quite happy with the depth and sophistication of the interaction between devices. When connected appropriately, the remote control for one actually controls parts of the other through some HDMI magic, making operation relatively simple. But the configuration was a complete crap shoot – iterating through setting after setting until I got the right combination of settings across 2 devices to make them like each other enough to talk. My wife discovered that now when I turn the TV on, the receiver wants to turn on as well – so I still have some small operational challenges to work through.
And that is the way it is, iterating through one issue after another, until we get them all resolved. Often, the work to figure out whether it will work, or how long it will take is not that much less than actually making it work. In the end IT projects are not that different from this. All of the analysis that is done up front, to drive up the fidelity of estimates or to ensure viability of the end solution are insufficient to form a guarantee that we will LIKE the solution. They can prove what it will cost to produce a solution, and that said solution will be “effective” – but our satisfaction with the result will only come with iteration, with both the tuning of the solution, and the tuning of our operation to get value from it.