Options for Thin Home Theater Receivers

My friend Dan lives in New York and he mentioned the other day that he wouldn’t mind a more minimal home theater receiver since his apartment doesn't have all that much room to begin with:

I currently have an insanely complicated home theater setup that takes up half my closet, connected by a rat’s nest of cables that I dare not touch lest I inexplicably lose the left audio channel on my Blu-ray player. It’s ridiculous, it’s completely overkill for my needs, and did I mention it takes up half my closet? My tiny, Manhattan-sized closet?


My home theater receiver is huge. Massive. It’s 10” tall, 20” deep, weighs 800 lbs, and probably draws more power than our air conditioner. Despite its long list of capabilities, it has but two jobs that are of any use to me: 1) switch between my various components, and 2) make things loud.


And so, I find myself looking for a replacement. Something small. Something elegant. Something that does what I need, and nothing more. […]

As I rather enjoy home theater stuff, I thought I’d try to come up with a few options for him.

What I soon discovered is that there aren’t many products in this category. Granted, you’d have several options if all you had needed was 2-channel (stereo) amplification. (I suppose they’re catering to systems that one might place on a bookshelf or the like.) On the other hand, when catering to a home theater, a receiver needs a separate amplifier for each of (at least) five channels; those extra amplifiers alone take up more space. In addition, it seems that there isn’t much demand for “bookshelf” home theaters and so multi-channel receivers typically use amplifiers that are beefy enough to fill medium-to-large rooms. (And beefier amplifiers take up yet more room.)

Nonetheless, I did find a handful of options that I thought might work for Dan. I didn’t come across a single perfect product—for instance, some were small, but had a lot of buttons, while others were relatively larger but had few buttons— but I think there’re some promising options here.

I decided to use the Outlaw Audio 1050 in my bedroom (a 70 Wpc receiver) as a baseline for comparison. It’s served me well for many years, but more importantly for this discussion, its size and weight seemed to be fairly representative of an average receiver:

  • Width: 17 3/16"
  • Height: 6 1/8"
  • Depth: 14 5/16"
  • Weight: 36.3 lbs

Sherwood R-904N NetBoxx

  • Width: 17" (1% narrower than baseline)
  • Height: 2 7/8" (53% shorter)
  • Depth: 12" (16% shallower)
  • Weight: 10.3 lbs (72% lighter)
  • Power: 100 Wpc × 7 channels
  • Price: About $440

This receiver is clearly the leader in size (or lack thereof). While not the narrowest or the lightest of the bunch—those honors would fall to the Yamaha—this one is the shortest (height) and shallowest (depth). Unfortunately, though, this receiver has some design drawbacks that might be deal breakers for some:

The first complaint that I must mention is a styling issue related to the front display of the NetBoxx. The front of the unit is covered with very bright blue LEDs. During the day these LEDs are fairly innocuous; however placed in a dark room, they become extremely distracting. I don’t understand why Sherwood would put a dimmer option on the unit that only dims some of the LEDs. Because of this I would recommend placing the NetBoxx in a location out of sight, which is a shame as it’s otherwise an attractive unit. […]

Yamaha neoHD YMC-500

  • Width: 11 3/4" (32% narrower than baseline)
  • Height: 3 5/8" (41% shorter)
  • Depth: 12 3/8" (13% shallower)
  • Weight: 7.9 lbs (78% lighter)
  • Power: 35~50? Wpc × 5 channels (I had a hard time confirming the power output.)
  • Price: About $180

This is a pretty darn small receiver. It’s the narrowest (width) and lightest (weight) of the bunch, and even though the Sherwood beats it on height and depth, the Yamaha is only 3/4" taller and 3/8" deeper. This receiver also has the fewest front-panel buttons: 2 (volume knob & power button).

Oddly enough, I had some trouble confirming this receiver’s power output; the specifications I was able to find weren’t all that explicit in this regard, but the unit appears to either have 35 or 50 Wpc as best as I can figure.

If this type of minimalism were of interest, the YMC-500’s bigger brother, the YMC-700, might also be worth considering. Both models allow you to play music from your home network, but the YMC-700 (which goes for about $500) has built-in WiFi (rather than just an Ethernet port). Plus, Yamaha also offers an iPhone app that can control one’s YMC-700. (The app communicates over WiFi and so it works with the YMC-700 but not the YMC-500.)

Marantz NR1501

  • Width: 17 3/8" (1% wider than baseline)
  • Height: 4 3/16" (31% shorter)
  • Depth: 14 1/2" (1% deeper)
  • Weight: 19 lbs (48% lighter)
  • Power: 50 Wpc × 7 channels
  • Price: About $400

The Marantz may be the most traditional of the receivers here. While its dimensions might not be as low as the other receivers here, its height is only 9/16" taller than the next-shorest model (the Yamaha) and 1 5/6" taller than the shortest (the Sherwood). Even then, it’s still about 1/3 shorter than a standard receiver and about half the weight.

Even if the Marantz might not seem as impressive as the others when it comes to size, it does have a few things going for it. For one thing, its back panel includes 2 optical inputs (and 2 coax digital inputs). Granted, Dan mentioned only needing a single optical input (which the Sherwood and Yamaha have), although I can’t help but wonder if that second input might potentially come in handy if Dan were to ever get another device such as an X-Box or a TiVo.

Another potential advantage of the Marantz is its pedigree. Marantz is owned by D&M Holdings, a company that also owns Denon, McIntosh, and a few other brands. I’m not saying that Yamaha is a slouch—although I have my suspicions about Sherwood—but Marantz is a brand that’s known for its attention to detail and build quality. I would expect any of their equipment to last for many years.

Additional Thoughts

There may not be a clear winner here, but there may be a receiver that’s best for you depending on the features that you value most.

I would only consider the Sherwood if sheer size is your utmost concern. It’s not the lightest of the bunch, but it’s definitely the shortest. On the other hand, I’m a bit skeeved out by its build quality—if they’re already screwed up the blue LEDs across the front, how much else might be sub-par?

For most people, I think it comes down to the Yamaha and the Marantz. On one hand, the Yamaha is the cheaper of the two ($180 vs. $400), but on the other hand, the YMC-700 (which goes for $500) seems like a justifiable step-up considering that model’s WiFi streaming (née Ethernet) and iPhone app support. So, depending on which Yamaha model you’d be putting up against the Marantz, it could be a toss-up between those two brands on price.

What I think it comes down to is size & minimalism vs. capability & pedigree. The Yamaha is certainly the smaller overall and its front facia—with just two buttons—is also sparser. Still, the Marantz has a few more inputs (which may come in handy if you get more devices) and it also has a clear 50 Wpc × 7 channels. (The Yamaha’s specifications were somewhat unclear, but it appears to have either 35 or 50 Wpc. Even so, that’s across 5 channels rather than the Marantz’ 7.)

If I were in Dan’s shoes, I might lean toward the Marantz. All the same, the Yamaha would not be a bad choice either.

New JL Audio Subwoofers

Trunk View of the Subwoofers

I first upgraded my car audio in 2002, primarily to get Sirius satellite radio, but also as a step up from the factory audio system. The system worked very nicely until about a fortnight ago when one of the channels in my amp died. And, since it had been about five years since I had bought it, the amp was well out of warranty.

Since I had to buy a new amp anyway, I told myself that I may as well upgrade my subwoofers as well (hey, why not?). Though my previous subwoofers, a pair of 10" MB Quart subs, had served me well, I had always hoped for a little more bass extension. So, after doing a bit of research, I picked up a pair of 12" JL Audio 12W3v3 subs. In my old configuration, I was running my MB Quart subs off a multichannel amp — not to worry, it was a 5-channel amp — but I figured that I'd go for a separate amp for the subwoofer this time. So, I picked up JL Audio’s 500/1 monoblock amp for that.

I just had the new gear yesterday and, as a whole, I’m very pleased with it. It certainly has the bass extension that I was looking for. Depending on how you look at it, it’s almost too much of a good thing — after driving around town for a bit this afternoon, all the while listening to Sirius at normal volume levels, I noticed when I got home that my ears were ringing a little bit. Feh. My best guess is that it may not have seemed as loud as it actually was since the frequencies were so low. Either way, the last thing I want to lose it my hearing, so I’ll be adjusting that straight away.

PS The lighting in the shot above may look a bit weird, but rest assured that I don't have a sodium vapor lamp in my trunk. (Those are the ugly yellow/orange lamps commonly seen around parking lots and the like.) Rather, the sun had already started to set (I took that picture with a 13 second exposure around 6:30 p.m.) and, while I was able to correct the color balance for the exterior sunlight, that meant that the incandescent light within my trunk was going to look a little exaggerated.

Update 2007-02-19: I took my Radio Shack sound level meter (similar to this one, but an older iteration) out to the car to look into my volume issues yesterday. That particular meter has both “Fast” and “Slow” response modes that control how fast the needle moves. The “Slow” mode is good for getting an average sound level, but I set it to “Fast” in this case so that I could get differentiate the second-by-second sound levels within songs.

I turned my key to the “Accessories” mode and then chose a Sirius radio station that was playing a song that I liked. As it turned out — listening at ordinary volume levels — the normal parts of songs were around 70–72 dB. When the bass started to come in, though, I could see fraction-of-a-second spikes of up to 95 dB. Well, yikes, that would kinda explain the ringing in my ears from the other day.

I soon went about reducing the subwoofer gain and ended up on what happened to be its lowest setting. From there, I took some more measurements and found that bass-heavy musical phrases were only reaching into the lower 80s (whew). I may do some more adjustments later (if only to see if I can further level the frequency response), but at least my hearing should be safe for now.

Ripping NPR to MP3 for an iPod

I bought an iPod Photo just before Thanksgiving and I’ve been enjoying it ever since. I bought it primarily for the gym and for traveling, and it’s worked well for both of those. However, I thought the sessions on the elliptical machine might be more fun with some news or a talk show to listen to.

I listen to NPR in the car anyway and have often wished that I could time shift their shows (a “TiVo for radio”, if you will). Of course, none of their shows are available in MP3 format (well, except for On The Media). I was aware that many NPR stations offered MP3 streams off their websites, but I still didn’t have a way to record and schedule recordings.

After some searching, I discovered Streamripper, a command line utility that records MP3 streams. I then found PublicRadioFan.com which lists the MP3 streams for hundreds of NPR stations. Putting those together, I’ve been able to record NPR as MP3s and, with some scheduling, grab individual shows for my iPod.. Here’re the steps which I went through, in case you wanted to try this on your own. I run this on my PC but this process may be adaptable to other platforms as well (in particular, I’m pretty sure Linux or FreeBSD could be made to work).

  1. First, download the latest version of Streamripper and extract the zip to a directory of your choice (I put mine in “C:\Program Files\Internet\Streamripper\”).

  2. Then, load up PublicRadioFan and set your time zone and, if you like, you can set some other preferences as well. But, be sure to set your time zone — if you don’t, none of this will work.

  3. After that, it’s time to start looking for programs which you’d like to record. So, head over to the Schedule Grid: Advanced Options page. Here’re the settings which I’d recommend:

    • What time? — choose the “starting at” radio button along with “6 hours”. Then, it’s just a matter of choosing a day and time which is kinda close to a program which you’d like to record. So, for Morning Edition, you could choose 5:00am; or, for Marketplace, you could try 2:00pm (keeping in mind that those represent 5:00-11:00am and 2:00-8:00pm, respectively).

    • What Stations? — you could leave this at the default or you may find that setting it to “USA” (assuming you live in the USA) may yield more relevant results (since Europe probably doesn’t have many NPR affiliate stations).

    • What audio formats? — since Streamripper can only grok mp3s, you should uncheck all of these except for “mp3”.

    • What programs? — feel free to narrow this down but “all programs” is probably fine to start; you can always narrow it down later if you end up with too many results.

    • Display format — I find that the “grid” is easiest to work with.

  4. After all that, click on “display listings” to get a list. Look through the programs to find one which you’d like to record and, once you’ve found one, right click on the lightning-bolt icon next to it (the Winamp logo) and choose “Save Link As” to save the link to your local drive. Yeah, this may seem a bit weird, but those links only point to a playlist and we need the URI for the actual mp3 stream.

  5. At this point, it may be helpful to open up a text editor to make a few notes. Anyhow, once you’ve downloaded the playlist file (which should have the extension “m3u”), open that file in another text editor window and copy the path in there to your “notes” text file. Then, going back to your web browser, make a note of these attributes from the show which you’d like to record:

    • Its name
    • Its starting time
    • The recording time, in seconds (which would be 60 x the time in minutes)
  6. Now it’s time to build the batch file (we’re almost there!). Open a third text editor window and enter these two lines:

    • C:\path\to\streamripper.exe http://servername.net:12200 -a D:\path\to\name-of-the-show.mp3 -s -l 7200 -o
    • del D:\path\to\*.cue

    Of course, the “\path\to\” bits represent your respective paths for streamripper and the path you’d like to use for the mp3 file. And, servername.net is the server which you extracted from the .m3u file earlier. The port “12200” is just hypothetical — use whichever port was listed in the m3u file (which may be a different number or there may be none at all). And, you'll also need to specify the time length to record (in seconds) which is the “7200” above.

    So, what’s the “del” statement in there? Well, “.cue” files are a meta-file which are created through the mp3 extraction process; but, they’re useless for our purposes. So, deleting them just makes for less hard drive clutter.

    And, if you’re curious, here’s what each of those parameters do:

    • -a: this records the mp3 to a single file. Without this, Streamripper may try to rip the show into several separate files (which could be useful if you’re ripping an Internet radio station, but not really for public radio).

    • -s: this prevents Steamripper from creating a directory for each stream. I find it easier to just sort the files on my own afterwards.
    • -l: as mentioned above, this specified the length of time to record, in seconds.

    • -o: this tells Streamripper to overwrite tracks in the destination directory. I find this handy since I only really want the most current episode of (say) Morning Edition at any given time.

  7. That’s it for the batch file, so just save it with a “.bat” filename, such as morning-edition.bat or marketplace.bat.

  8. Just two more steps left: scheduling (this one) and id3 tags (the next one). Now that you have a batch file set up, it’s just a matter of telling your OS to run that file at the program’s starting time. To do that, go to Control Panel -> Scheduled Tasks and choose Add Scheduled Task. You can probably figure out the scheduling from here — you choose the batch file which you just created and set it to run at the program’s start time.

  9. At this point, you’re all set to record mp3 streams from NPR but they’ll probably have weak (if any) id3 information in there (which is the data inside an mp3 file that describes the artist name and track number, among other things).

    So, after each time a file is downloaded (or at least just before you sync those files with your iPod), you’ll need to add its id3 information. For that, I prefer to use Mp3tag (which is free). And, here’s the naming scheme which I like to use:

    • Title: the show’s name, such as “Morning Edition”

    • Artist: “NPR”, which ensures that all my public radio mp3s are grouped together

    • Album: the date, in YYYY-MM-DD format. This way, after selecting the Genre and then Artist on my iPod, I can select a date and see all shows from that day.

    • Track: I generally choose a number the chronological sequence of the shows for that day, so that they’ll play back in the same order in my iPod. So, Morning Edition might be “01” followed by Day to Day (“02”) and Marketplace (“03”).

    • Genre: I’ve set all of my NPR recordings to “Public Radio” for the genre.

So, that’s how you can set up Streamripper to record MP3s from NPR. I know it may look like a lot of steps, but it's not too hard once you get into it. And, if it doesn’t record what you’re expecting, you may find it helpful to try setting your recording time to five seconds or so (temporarily), and then running the batch file manually; that way, you can see whether it’s recording the right station or even whether it’s recording at all. Or, if you get stuck, leave a comment and I’ll try to help out.

iPod Mini Could Play Oggs…

As I search for a portable audio player with Ogg support, I’ve long relied upon the VorbisHardware page in the Xiph wiki. And, though it’s updated regularly, it often lacks depth in its snippets. But, I’ve recently discovered DAPReview.com (Digital-Audio-Player Review), which redirects to AustinV.com (the DAPReview author’s primary domain).

I’m a bit surprised that I hadn’t come across it before (and, thinking about it for a moment, I'm not quite sure how I found it in the first place). In any case, it’s a bit like “Slashdot for mp3 players” — Austin links to articles such as player reviews and news of a new players.

Recently, he linked to this Gizmodo interview with Rio audio engineer Hugo Fiennes. Most interestingly, they discussed the chips in the iPod. And, according to Hugo, though the regular iPods simply don’t have the horsepower to play Oggs, the iPod minis have a newer processor and could conceivably be programmed for Ogg support:

The Rio Karma (developed here, in Cambridge UK) uses a PP5003 CPU. It plays OGG (and FLAC and MP3 and WMA). […]

The 5020 is based on the 5003, and so has the cache bug fixed. It’s capable of playing OGG with 25% or less hit on power (depending how much optimisation is done). I would suspect the 5020 will find its way into the next iPod [it's already in the iPod Mini], as it’s cheaper and integrates both the firewire MAC and the USB2 mac/phy blocks which are separate chips on the gen3. […]

An iPod with Ogg support would probably be the best of both worlds — patent-unencumbered Ogg support along with Apple’s UI expertise. But, I don't really see Apple going through the effort; after all, iPods already play MP3s and Apple wouldn’t want to shift focus from its proprietary AAC format.

Update 06/05: Monty from Xiph.org posted a comment on Slashdot about this where he asserts that iPods really do have the horsepower to play Oggs after all. Still, I don't think I’m going to hold my breath for Ogg support on iPods :-/.

New Portable Ogg Players from iRiver

Reading over the hardware section of the [Ogg] Vorbis wiki, I’ve discovered that iRiver is due to release some new portable Ogg players this month. Sure, there are other Ogg players available, but I haven’t found any with native OSX support — until now. In addition to the Mac support, these new portables have some other nifty features:

  • Uses 1 AA battery, for 40 hrs claimed battery life
  • FM radio with timer-based recordings
  • Firmware upgradable

So, why am I jazzed about Oggs? Well, in addition to their higher sound quality at a given bitrate, Oggs also have the advantage of being patent-free — patent-encumbered mp3s could have their license changed at any time. And, since none of my own music is digitized yet, I’m not locked into a format for music already on my hard drive.

So far, the Craft 2 (as they call it) looks like a decent player. But, I’m a bit torn by its flash-based storage. Though the product isn’t widely available at online retailers yet, it is listed in iRiver’s online store and the 1 GB model has a list price of $400 (gulp). For that price I could get a 20 GB iPod!

Maybe I wouldn’t mind paying such a premium for flash if there were distinct benefits over a hard drive-based player. Normally, flash-based players would be less prone to skipping (since they can’t skip) but, from what I’ve heard, hard drive-based players are rugged enough that they hardly skip in the first place. Really, it looks like battery life would be its main benefit. And I’m just not sure whether that's enough to justify its price. Or… are there any other flash benefits of which I’m not aware?