2016 — 18 March: Friday

I await an email summons to grapple with a new toy of the sort that I generally understand rather better1 than most of the mysterious bits and pieces of gubbins that live inside my various PC cases. Step with me into my DeLorean for a moment!

Today's Rotel will be...

... my sixth A/V box in a line that now stretches back continuously to May 1988. Box #1 was the home brew switchbox cooked up by me and my (now, sadly) late chum Colin on Vanessa's kitchen table with the help of some fine Scotch and quite a few late nights. It worked beautifully for a decade hooked up to a great variety of kit — including my personal favourite: a magnificent Technics power amp (the one with two lovely large VU meters) that I'd brought along from Old Windsor in 1981. During the lifetime of this first switchbox, the world moved steadily on from composite video to Y-C and SCART, and from analogue stereo audio to multi-channel digital audio. It was becoming time for a change.

By 1998, my IBM shares had struggled back in "value" to the price I paid for them many years earlier. So — being thoroughly disenchanted by then with the idea of remaining a capitalist share-holder forever worrying about his "portfolio" — I sold the lot in one swell foop and re-invested the filthy lucre (for much greater long-term all-round family enjoyment, I might add!) in a then state-of-the-art £1600 Yamaha DSP-A1. It was a digital/analogue Jack of All Trades: pre-amp, surround sound processor, switchbox, power amp, ballast, room heater.

By April 2001 the Yamaha had bedded down nicely at the centre of my (some said "overly-complex") system...

My A/V system in April 2001

... and it remained firmly in place for 11 years. Now, of course, I note that the only survivors are a few of the interconnecting cables. (And most of those are in boxes cluttering up Junior's room.)

Facts? Who needs those?

I keep an eye on the ultimately Presidential, erm, "campaign" going on across the Pond. It utterly bemuses me. I'm not alone in that:

John Oliver's #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain campaign is both peerless and unprecedented. On HBO, Oliver checked Trump's facts, called Trump a "litigious serial liar," and dared him to sue. Also newish is the rhetoric of unreality, the insistence, chiefly by Democrats, that some politicians are incapable of perceiving the truth because they have an epistemological deficit: they no longer believe in evidence, or even in objective reality.

Jill Lepore in New Yorker

Shades of that wonderful chap Robert Maxwell. Of course, the more I read about Quantum theory, the less I (think I) believe in "objective reality". And I truly hate to contemplate the "fact" that my previous set of neighbours — the Pakistani doctors who insisted I need only read the Koran in its original language to understand everything — may have been right (on one strange level) about the non-existence of Free Will! Consciousness is enough to do your head in. Just thinking about it is enough to drive you nuts.

I shall stick to Vi

It's much more straightforward, and (I suspect) honest. Mind you, I've seen it described just hours ago as having "the user friendliness of a rabid rottweiler on acid after being fed one of your chillis".

As noon...

... thunders towards me, I'm just about to lose my music for a few minutes while I swap out the Audiolab pre-amp for its Rotel replacement. Report to follow, no doubt, in due course. [Pause] The first point to note is that, like its power amp sibling, this pre-amp provides not one, but two, annular blanking rings to be stuck carefully on to the way-too-bright blue light around the standby/power switch. This will (largely) prevent retina burn.

In the Good Old Days of analogue audio, one simply connected things up with bits of electric string, switched on the power, sat back, and enjoyed the soothing music. In this Brave New World of digital audio, each input must be assigned, identified, and configured as to type and desired decoding. Since the bizarre default choice seems to be Dolby Pro-Logic II and since my strong preference is for simple, pure stereo, I fear I have no choice but to refer to the manual. Except, of course, that lunch has priority.

A few minutes?

Cue the hollow laughter. Two and a half hours later, I'm finally enjoying superb two-channel PCM stereo all over the place (as it were) despite the best efforts of the Asian designers to force-feed me a diet of Dolby Pro-Logic (or far worse) at every turn. I've also disabused the thing of its expectations of finding 7.1 channels' worth of loudspeakers dotted around of varying size, distance from "sweet spot", frequency range, and amplitude-handling capability. But by far the worst part of the procedure for sheer bloody-minded aggravation caused by inept "Human Factors" and leading to consequent howls of frustrated bad language was the series of obfuscated hoops to be jumped each time just to label each input that I'm plugging stuff into with a shorthand English name.

The pre-amp came out about four years ago. Having read a few very negative reviews of its ability to switch between HDMI sources2 unobtrusively I've confirmed I'm treated to the "usual" irritating delay as the abominable HDCP protocol handshakes wend their way up and back down the signal chain. And sound takes about two seconds to return after the plasma screen is switched off (or on). But that's nothing new, frankly. And no matter how negative the reviews were on this point (which mostly afflicts inveterate channel hoppers), all the comments I've seen regarding the actual audio and video end results were unstinting in their praise.

There's no auto-equalisation for individual room characteristics; but since I gave up my decades-long pursuit of the "perfect" surround system back in May 2010 and now do all my listening in blissfully pure two-channel stereo mode this leaves me totally (forgive the pun) unfazed.

It sounds neutral and goes all the way up to "11" just as these things should. I'm delighted. [Pause] And I called back in (on the way over to Roger and Eileen) to Audio T to reassure them that I wouldn't be swapping it out again as the HDMI switching glitches don't bother me. [Pause] I'm typing this on BB Mk III while Skylark is playing a bunch of nice, loud music for me. I'd briefly considered dragging one of my CD players back down but the incremental effort of nipping out to the dining room to winkle out a CD each time just no longer appeals that much. A high-bit-rate MP3 sounds just as good.

What I did do was waste an hour scouring the available free-to-air satellite channels for any sign of NPR. Still, at least I know el cheapo little satellite receiver is still a going concern. And here's the final new arrangement:

My A/V system in March 2016

Quite a contrast.



1  Merely because of my longer exposure to it — nearly two decades longer, in fact.
2  There's very little I haven't seen or heard demonstrated for myself of the almost total ineptitude of the HDCP protocol in (in)action in the last eight years, trust me.