|Home Theater Media Servers Home Theater/Media Center PCs|
|Written by Andrew Robinson|
|Sunday, 01 April 2007|
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Movies And Music
I decided to kick things off with a little music. I must point out the Apple TV’s interface is brilliant and extremely easy to use. However, like Front Row, it lacks the ability to jump ahead in your playlists by hitting hot keys. With a couple thousand CDs at my disposal, I opted for one closer to the As, since I didn’t feel like scrolling for days with the Apple TV’s stupid remote. I started with Barenaked Ladies’ Gordon (Sire/London/Rhino) and the track “Brian Wilson.” When streaming Apple lossless quality to the Apple TV, the sound was decent. By no means was it equal to the CD itself, for the highs were rolled off and the bass sounded compressed and lacked air, although the midrange was fairly competent. The vocals were slightly more pronounced and didn’t quite have the weight you’d get through a better CD player, but for what it was, it was good. The soundstage was decidedly flat and failed to extend beyond the speakers’ boundaries, despite their bi-polar design. I would have to say that the Apple TV’s presentation of two-channel music would have to be reserved for casual or background listening. It is very good for this – however, so is my iPod. Frankly, upon further comparison, I found the sound of the Apple TV for this track to be nearly identical to my older iPod in terms of sound quality. Moving onto the track “Wrap Your Arms Around Me,” it was more of the same. All of the elements were present, but they always sounded a bit reproduced, never really stepping up to the line between the recorded event and tricking my ear into thinking I was hearing something more or less live. Again, the vocals stood out from the rest of the musical elements and held rather firm in the center of the soundstage. The guitars had a very slight metallic or digital sound to them and lacked the air along the frets that you’d hear in even the most budget of players. The bass lacked ultimate weight and extension and also lost a bit of its control during the moderately complex passages. Once again, the soundstage is what suffered most, as it disappeared abruptly at the speakers’ edges.
I switched gears and cued up Craig David’s debut album Born To Do It (Atlantic). On the opening track, “Fill Me In,” the music was excessively digital-sounding. Now, this particular album isn’t the greatest in terms of recording quality, but it’s the type of music that will find its way onto a great number of iPods, so I felt it a good selection to test the Apple TV’s capabilities. Again, this disc was ripped using Apple’s own lossless codec, but I must say something was definitely lost. The treble sounded unmistakably Casio-like and rolled off so violently I thought there might have been something wrong in my office with the file. Sadly, no such dilemma existed. The bass was one-dimensional and sounded as if it had taken a few too many swigs of Slim Fast. To be fair, I did switch out the HDMI connection for the Apple TV’s analog audio outs and found there to be some minor improvement overall in terms of richness and air. However, upon doing so, the sound became slightly vaguer. Ultimately, the sound quality of the Apple TV is an exercise in compromise. Again, my trusty iPod, loaded with the same file, produced similar if not better results.
Content with two-channel music, I proceeded on to multi-channel music – oh, wait, no multi-channel music here. To add insult to injury, Apple iTunes is currently pushing U2’s Rattle and Hum for download at $9.99 a pop. For that money, I can buy the DVD with its multi-channel audio tracks and enjoy U2 the way I’ve always wanted. Oh, and I can make a copy for my iPod via a little program called Handbrake, which is free. I don’t really see the value in iTunes’ video downloading the way others seem to do.
I downloaded a few television shows from iTunes, which were free, as well as made a few of my own MPEG-4 transfers, to test the Apple TV’s video presentation. I started with the new NBC television show Raines, starring Jeff Goldblum. If actors today fear the unforgiving lens of high-definition video, they’d better be mortified at the quality of iTunes downloaded video played back on high-definition plasma. I mean, seriously, this is a joke, right? Apple TV is touted as the missing link between your computer, more specifically your iTunes media library, and your widescreen television. Well, my friends, the quality of iTunes video is a link that should remain missing. If I wanted to stare at an impressionist painting, I’d buy a coffee table book. I don’t want to view it on my high-definition plasma. The image quality is as compressed as YouTube, with sound to match. Jeff Goldblum’s face was seemingly made up of four large peach colored polygons, ala early Playstation 1 games like Battle Arena Toshiden. The compression didn’t stop there. The blacks were comprised of what appeared to be dimly-colored Legos and the detail was nonexistent. The video looked the way you’d expect low-resolution video to look after blowing it up times 60. Every flaw that is apparent in the small playback screen of my iPod Video became magnified tenfold. Honestly, I don’t know who Apple thinks they’re fooling. If you’re one of those who believe the video quality isn’t half-bad, I have a number for a laser eye treatment place I’d love to share with you. If the show Raines is any indication of video quality, things were not about to get better.
Moving to what I hoped would be higher-quality video, I ripped my Superbit copy of Panic Room (Columbia) to MPEG-4, using the freeware Handbreak, and set up the video settings to the maximum Apple TV and iTunes would allow. Keep in mind I can playback raw TS DVD files just fine on my Mac Mini using Front Row, so the quality is there, it just isn’t there on iTunes or Apple TV. Panic Room was marginally better than Raines, but it was still plagued with a lot of the same video compression artifacts. The dark scenes, of which Panic Room has many, were unwatchable. There was zero separation between the actors and their surroundings. It was as if I was watching a film in a theater after the picture had gone out. When the lights finally did turn on, the image was rife with excessive pixilation and blooming. Motion artifacts were abundantly clear, as was the Apple TV’s complete lack of accurate color tracking. Skin tones looked as if Apple had just made them up on the fly. It was as if the software saw that the image was predominantly green and decided to just go ahead and run with that, making the actors more or less look like The Incredible Hulk. The sound was abysmal at best and completely lacked detail and composure.
All in all, the Apple TV’s video quality is limited by the minuscule screen and resolution of Apple’s own iPod Video, which, I’m sorry to say, is about the size of a fingernail and not a widescreen television, let alone a high-definition one. I think Apple has this sales ploy ass-backwards, and I can only hope consumers are smart enough not to fall for it. I cannot in good conscience recommend that anyone turn to iTunes for viable video content, much less encourage you to play that video back on anything larger than an iPod. It’s that bad.