July 1, 2004My Dream of Convergence About two years ago, everyone was talking airily about convergence. The proliferation of information technologies, it was said, would mean your TV would also serve as your telephone, your telephone would double as your stereo, your stereo would do your taxes, and your refrigerator would display your e-mail. Needless to say, my refrigerator still just keeps things cold, my TV shows TV shows, and my toaster toasts toast. I wont get into what my woodchuck does, but its not my taxes. Ah, well, precognition is an inexact art.
About a year ago, I noticed a strange thing. If I popped a CD into the CD-ROM reader of my computer and played it, it sounded terrible. But if I ripped the CD (using Exact Audio Copy, a shareware program designed for the accurate transfer of music CD data) onto my hard drive and played it from there, the sound was amazingly good. Im talking about an ordinary pair of Cambridge computer speakers with no subwoofer, and a ho-hum soundcard (the Avance AC97). These little speakers, positioned to either side of my desk, produced a focused, vivid, fleshy image in space with a wide soundstage, good detail, and startling realism.
What was happening here? I first concluded that a computer CD-ROM reader is a terrible CD transport. This is probably because it drops bits, makes reading errors on the fly, and has significant jitter (uneven spacing of the bits in time). Second, I decided that a hard drive makes a great CD "transport." As long as a reasonably accurate version of the musical data is stored (as an uncompressed WAV file, of course), then the hard drive drops no bits, makes no reading errors, and has vanishingly low jitter.
Even if your CPU is busy doing ten other things while playing music in the background, the CPUs clock speed is more than enough to spit out 44,100 bits of musical info per second. Todays CPU clock speeds run at 2-3GHz, which is 2-3 billion processing steps per second.
I have since come to the realization that the difficult and expensive way to get accurate CD reproduction is to invest in a precision-tolerance, vibration-damped, multiply error-corrected, clock-synchronized transport. The easy and cheap way is to rip the data to a hard drive or a RAM-type buffer and play it from there. Some CD-player manufacturers seem to agree. I read a statement from one of the better-known manufacturers the other day that he would no longer be making conventional players but would soon be going with a rip-and-internal-buffer scheme instead.
Which brings me back to the issue of convergence. After my computer CD epiphany, I began to have a fantasy that one day I would set up a computer as my home entertainment server. The computer would store all my CDs (uncompressed or losslessly compressed) in its capacious hard drive, as well as all my digital movies (I dont keep many of these). The computer monitor would be a high-brightness video projector that would throw an enormous, gorgeous image onto the specially treated front wall of my living room, on which I could read e-mail through my Internet connection from my couch in broad daylight.
Each time I put a CD in the computers single, multifunctional drive (CD read/write, DVD read/write, and yes, Mr. Sony, DVD-Audio read/write and SACD read/write), the computer would instantly identify the disc, download the cover-art and track-title information, and begin ripping the contents to the internal drive. If I pressed Play, I could simultaneously get playback from the hard drive. Eventually, all my CDs, or at least all the ones I actually listen to, would end up in digital form on my drive, and I could set them up in playlists for different occasions. (How about "Soothing Selections," preset to come on as I walk in the door from work?) Same goes for the other formats, and no more #$*%& broken jewel cases on the floor.
For multichannel sound, there would be 5.1- and 7.1-channel soundcards that could decode and output the signals in analog to my power amplifiers and surround speakers.
For high-end two-channel sound, I would have the FireWire connection on the soundcard deliver data to my FireWire-enabled dCS upsampler-DAC combo, which would then pass the signal to an AVTAC Pasiphae attenuator. This would be connected via its serial port to the computer, allowing volume control from my keyboard or computer remote. The same idea could be applied if I wanted high-end multichannel -- port the data from the computer to a Lexicon or other dedicated high-end outboard processor, and thence to the amps and speakers.
The possibilities are multifarious. My computer HT center could act as a music and video server for systems in other parts of the house -- perhaps wirelessly. It could control my furnace and lights. With Internet cameras and motion detectors, I could give new meaning to the phrase monitored alarm system. Add a microphone, and my Internet connection could be set up to allow videoconferencing on the big screen with my friend (who would have a compatible/similar setup) on Easter Island. And no long-distance charges, thank you very much.
That was about the extent of my fantasy. So imagine my surprise when I learned of the new Gateway FMC-901X, currently sold out and stalled in production. This and a number of other "Media PC" units from other computer manufacturers (Dell, HP, Toshiba, and ZT Group come to mind) offer, in essence, the functionality described above, with a nifty TiVo-esque ability to record video broadcasts to memory on the fly through the XP Media Edition of Microsofts Windows. This allows you to pause, rewind, and fast-forward broadcasts that youre watching in real time from your content provider of choice (antenna, cable, or satellite).
Video, and probably audio, quality are still an issue, but the word is that the Gateway FMC-901X comes close enough for love to the current state of the video art. Also, the 901X looks like an audio component rather than a beige box, and has three nifty user-interface devices: a remote, a compact wireless keyboard, and an "air mouse" that can be used on a surface or in the air by virtue of internal motion sensors.
Forget Internet toasters. Convergence is here now, and its being perpetrated by Men Who Do Not Sleep With Record Executives. Go Bill go.
Ultra Audio is part of the SoundStage! Network.