Tag Archives: Pandora

The Sweet Sound of My Echo

This is going to be a quickie. I’ve got some more in-depth articles planned for the near future (such as my first few weeks with Apple CarPlay, among other things), but  I wanted to share a simple pleasure I recently discovered.

I’ve been studying for recertification, and music helps my mind focus. But if it has lyrics or too intense a tempo, I can get distracted. The best fit for me, personally, is classical music. Knowing that Amazon has a pretty good selection, I figured I’d put my still-pretty-new Echo to the test, and I asked her, “Play me some Classical Music.” And boy, did she.

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Amazon Prime Music. Click the image to visit their page.

As I type this, I’m listening to the “Classical Focus” station on Amazon Prime Music. The link may only work if you’re a Prime member, so here’s a link for a free Prime trial:

Try Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial

Two things struck me, listening to this sweet, lilting music (sorry, classical fans: no crashing cymbals or blasting trumpets on this station): the built-in speaker of my Echo Dot sounds great; and Amazon Music doesn’t have commercials.

Connect the Dot

As you may recall, I had originally intended to connect my Amazon Echo Dot to my more robust home theater sound system, via bluetooth. After all, the Dot comes equipped of notoriously the weakest built-in speaker of the Echo line. But as you may also recall, I ended up disconnecting Dot from my home theater when I upgraded to an A/V Receiver with built-in audio streaming from Pandora and Sirius XM. So I really only used the built-in speaker on my Dot for playing Jeopardy! J!6 Alexa. Music wasn’t part of my plan.

 

 

But when I decided to try out this Classical Focus station, I discovered how much clearer the tiny speaker was than any tabletop AM/FM radio. And by keeping the music coming out of a small speaker in the corner of my living room, I averted the audio overload I would have gotten listening to music on my surround-sound system. After all, I just wanted some light, unobtrusive background music. And that’s exactly what I got.

Less Talk, More– Well, Not “Rock”…

The other revelation was that the music never stopped for station identification, commercials, or even to pause between songs to let me know what I had been listening to. Because that’s what Shazam is for.

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I’ve grown accustomed to commercial interruptions, listening to the free versions of Spotify and Pandora. With my subscription to Sirius XM satellite radio, it’s true I don’t get “commercials” in the traditional sense. Instead, I hear ads for other XM stations, as well as commentary by their on-air talent. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a ploy to eventually unveil “XM Plus,” with nothing but music. It’s an aspect Amazon has perfected, that I wouldn’t mind seeing other services, well, Echo.

One last thing: when listening to Classical Focus on the Echo, whenever I have to pause playback, I can command Alexa with my voice. Since I’ve changed her wake word to “Computer,” it makes me feel just that much more like Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

Hey, when the music moves you…

As I keep saying, “the future is now…” ■

My New Sound System’s Got Me Surrounded

I recently picked up the new 3D Blu-ray Disc of Marvel’s Doctor Strange. It’s a great presentation of an audio-visual spectacle, and one of the few movies in my collection that really “pops” in 3D. Sadly, upon first viewing, I discovered that my sound system wasn’t able to deliver the complete experience.

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Pretty wild, right? And that’s just the BOX! (Source: BestBuy.com)

Last month,  I mentioned my Sony STR-DG820 surround-sound receiver. It’s been the centerpiece of my home theater for the better part of a decade, and it handled everything I threw at it… until I went 3D.

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A good receiver… just not good enough, anymore.

Ironically, the 3D TV fad may be on the way out; but in the here and now, I’ve got some movies (and I’ll pick up the occasional new title like Doctor Strange) that take advantage of that format. My 3D TV, a 55” Sony flatscreen, displays 3D video flawlessly. The problem only comes when you want to hear the movie.

Doctor Strange was encoded with 7.1-channel DTS-HDMA audio. When connected to a capable sound system, the disc has audio to play out the front left, center, and front right; and surround left, back left, surround right, and back right speakers, with a healthy .1 “LFE” channel for the subwoofer. However, if the receiver doesn’t support DTS-HDMA, it will downmix the audio to standard 2.0 stereo, out the front left and right speakers only. This is what happened to me.

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The DTS-HDMA logo. Click it to visit the DTS “At Home” website.

Wowed by the visuals, I made it through almost the entire movie before realizing that only the front speakers were engaged. I don’t have 7 surround speakers, but the 5.1 setup I do have should be substantial enough to provide an enjoyable immersive audio experience. I tested the surrounds by switching the movie to its Dolby Digital 5.1 French audio track. While, admittedly, Stephen Strange’s initial trip into the Astral Plane is no less impressive en Français, I was going to need to improve my setup if I wanted to experience anything with proper surround-sound in my native tongue.

Deciding it was high time for an upgrade, I looked at my local electronics retailer’s selection, and I narrowed it down to two higher-spec receivers: one from Sony, and one from Denon.

I was leaning toward the Sony STR-DN1070 because of two factors: the first being a not-entirely-rational sense of brand loyalty; and the second being that, due to the aforementioned brand loyalty, I would be connecting this new receiver to a Sony BD player and a Sony TV.

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The Sony STR-DN1070. Source: AVProductReviews.com, click photo for their review.

But then I compared it to the Denon AVR-S920W. They were the same price and each boasted 7.2 channel surround sound. The first big difference I could see was that the Sony offered a healthy six HDMI inputs (to contrast, my STR-DG820 only offered four); but the Denon included a whopping EIGHT HDMI ports (seven in back, one in front). The other big difference I could find was the Sony’s lack of DTS support. This may be an oversight on the part of Sony marketing, but I didn’t want to take the risk of buying a not-inexpensive piece of equipment in the hopes that it supports Doctor Strange’s DTS-HDMA audio as an unadvertised feature.

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The Denon AVR-S920W. Source: GearOpen.com, click photo for their review.

So I took the plunge and bought the Denon. Setup was relatively painless, and all five of my speakers and the sub connected without incident. Connecting it to my TV was even easier than its predecessor. Both TV and receiver now supported the one-cable ARC standard, so I could hook up a single HDMI cable between them and know that all video signals (from any one of eight potential sources, remember) would make it to the TV. Over the very same cable, the audio from one of my TV’s built-in sources like Amazon or Netflix would make it, in full surround-sound glory, out of all the speakers in my home theater.

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HDMI.org’s diagram showing the Audio Return Channel (ARC) connection between receiver and TV. Click it for their page on this and other combinations.

Once I hooked up my BD player to the Denon receiver, I wasted no time going straight to Doctor Strange‘s Chapter Five, “Open Your Eye,” (see below) to see how it would handle the 3D picture and surround-sound audio. I was legitimately concerned that the receiver would detect that I didn’t have all seven speakers plugged in—only five, remember—and therefore would downmix to 2.0 stereo. I’m happy to report that it gave me the benefit of the doubt and played as much of the rear audio as I could support, for a truly enjoyable “behind you” sound experience.

NOTE: The above YouTube clip is just to show which scene I played. This format does not do the scene justice. If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend viewing it in 3D and surround-sound.

One additional feature that the Denon includes is built-in wifi with Pandora internet radio. Since I could listen to Pandora directly from the receiver now, I could disengage my Amazon Echo from the home theater, rendering my Echo adventure from February  essentially redundant. I boxed up the bluetooth adapter and TP-Link Smart Plug and returned them, since I wouldn’t need them anymore.

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The Denon receiver’s “Online Music” screen. If I still had a SiriusXM Radio account, I could listen to that, too. Source: Denon.com

See, sometimes my tech sagas leave me with fewer gadgets at the end! ◼︎

How I Heard My Echo

As I write this week’s post, I’m listening to Pandora Radio via my new Amazon Echo Dot. It’s that rare modern gadget that has no video display (unless I bring up the Alexa app on my iPhone or iPad), so audio quality is made even that much more essential. It was with this in mind that I decided to hook my Echo Dot up to my powerful home theater sound system… and made more work for myself, in the process.

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Connect the Dot, la la la. (Source: Amazon.com, click the image to order.)

Unlike its big siblings the Echo and the Tap, the Dot doesn’t have a very powerful built-in speaker. When Alexa (the Amazon AI assistant in the Echo) speaks to me, I can hear her just fine; but when I want to listen to music, the overall effect is underwhelming. Luckily, the Dot supports bluetooth, so beaming the audio signal to a powerful speaker system is a piece of cake. Unfortunately, my older Sony receiver doesn’t have bluetooth built in, so I needed to pick up a device to add bluetooth to my sound system.

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The Sony STR-DG820. It’s a great receiver; it just doesn’t do bluetooth. (Source: Engadget.com, click image to order from Amazon.)

Logitech makes such a device, their compact Bluetooth Audio Receiver. It plugs into a wall outlet for power, and includes a cable to connect it either to a 3.5 millimeter stereo jack, or to red and white RCA stereo jacks. I ended up using a separate red/white stereo cable set (sold separately) to go from the Logitech adapter to my Sony receiver. Once I programmed my Logitech Harmony remote to switch on the receiver and change its input to the port with the bluetooth adapter, I was able to vocally command Alexa to do the same job without my having to pick up my remote control. She ably flipped on my Sony receiver and had it switch to the proper input, leaving everything else off. The bluetooth adapter was already on (there really isn’t an “on/off” switch on that device), so playback proceeded to stream through my speakers flawlessly.

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Logitech’s Bluetooth Audio Receiver. It’s actually quite small, measuring only 0.88″ tall by 2.00″ wide by 2.25″ deep. (Source: Logitech.com, click image to order from Amazon.)

The problems only began when I turned my stereo off.

You see, when you tell Alexa to connect via bluetooth, she’s more than happy to do so. Unfortunately, asking her to switch away from bluetooth is a more challenging proposition. Since the Logitech box never turns off, it remains in a “ready to pair” mode even if a device like my Echo Dot leaves it. Alexa then sees there’s a bluetooth device out there looking to pair, and, helpful as always, she re-pairs with it. Except in this scenario, my receiver is now off, so I can’t hear Alexa through the external speakers; and since she’s using bluetooth, her internal speaker is off, too. This makes any further communication with her impossible until I turn the receiver back on. But sometimes I just want a weather forecast or a news brief, and stuff like that just doesn’t need to come out in high fidelity stereo!

The challenge I faced was how to turn the Logitech bluetooth box off so Alexa would revert to her internal speaker for non-musical conversation. Luckily, as with so many problems in my life, there was a solution, in the form of new technology. Enter TP-Link’s Smart Plug.

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TP-Link’s HS100 Smart Plug. Make sure you have room for it on your power strip or wall outlet–it’s a space hog! (Source: TP-Link.com, click image to order from Amazon.)

If I couldn’t tell Alexa to turn off the Logitech bluetooth adapter directly, then I would have to have her cut the power to it, via TP-Link’s HS100 Smart Plug. TP-Link advertises Alexa compatibility:

Amazon Echo Voice Control – Amazon Echo (sold separately) lets you control devices connected to the Smart Plugs just using your voice.

Indeed, once I had configured the Smart Plug to join my home network, I added the “Skill” (Echo’s answer to an app) for TP-Link devices in its “Kasa” service, and Alexa had no difficulty turning the Smart Plug on and off with a well-placed vocal command.

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The TP-Link Kasa app in action, controlling their Smart Plug. (Source: eBuyer.com)

With my Logitech bluetooth adapter now plugged in via this Smart Plug, I hypothesized that when I would tell Alexa to turn that Smart Plug off, that would cut off her bluetooth conduit to the external speakers. I put that hypothesis to the test, asking her to turn off the Smart Plug. She gamely did as I said, and the last thing I heard her say out of the external speakers was the compliant “okay.” After seeing that the Smart Plug was now in the “off” mode and that the Logitech bluetooth adapter was fully off, I asked Alexa if she was still there. “Yes, I’m here. I listen once I hear the wake word,” she emitted cheerfully and clearly… out of her built-in speaker, once again.

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A small selection of the many Skills available for Alexa to learn. (Source: AFTVNews.com, click image for their article on Alexa’s Skills.)

I made sure to establish a “group” command to turn on power to the bluetooth adapter, while simultaneously turning on the Sony receiver (via my Harmony remote, another Echo “Skill”) and setting it to the correct input. I called this group “Audio Only,” so all I needed to do was call out, “Alexa, turn on Audio Only.” It’s fun watching the relevant devices switch on and fall in line, like something out of a futuristic movie. In fact, it’s so “sci-fi,” that I was compelled to take advantage of the Echo’s optional alternate “wake word.” Amazon designed the Echo to respond to other words, in case, for instance, you have somebody named “Alexa” also living in your home. The alternate wake words are “Amazon,” “Echo,” and my personal geeky favorite: “Computer.”

I haven’t risked playing a Star Trek episode in Alexa’s presence yet. She hasn’t learned to distinguish my voice from the TV, yet.

Fun fact: if you call out, “Computer: Earl Grey, hot,” she’ll pick from a series of responses incorporating the concept of the Starship Enterprise‘s replicator. Alas, no tea for now; but there is a gadget…

For now, I’m happy with the result of my experimentation. Followers of this blog know how rarely my tech setups work out as planned the first time. It’s true, I would have preferred Alexa to stay off bluetooth when I ask her—thus not requiring an extra device—but this is a satisfactory compromise.

Besides, what other gadgets do you know of that will sing to you on command?