|AppleTV - Take 2|
|Home Theater Media Servers Home Theater/Media Center PCs|
|Written by Andrew Robinson|
|Saturday, 01 November 2008|
Page 2 of 3
Music and Movies
Before I got into the evaluation tests, I set out some ground rules. For the purposes of testing the AppleTV, I used only iTunes-purchased material: music, movies and television. I know you can rip your own material at higher resolutions, but Apple is saying that iTunes and/or the AppleTV using iTunes is all consumers are going to need for all of their entertainment needs. So, I decided to test Apple’s claims and used only their material for the duration of this review.
Kicking things off with a quick music sample, I downloaded Coldplay’s latest, Viva la Vida (EMI), in iTunes’ own iTunes Plus format. iTunes Plus is Apple’s DRM free high-resolution format, as opposed to their otherwise low-quality 128 kbps standard downloads. Viva la Vida possesses a bit rate of 256 kbps, hardly DVD-A, but better nonetheless. On the track “Lost!,” the bass had good impact and definition, though it lacked weight and that visceral punch you get from the CD itself. There was noticeable spatial compression to the soundstage, making for a more wall-like presentation than an arching or staggered soundstage. The musical width suffered a little in this regard, too, keeping between the left and right speakers, although the center image, especially vocals, was impressive for a low-res file. Chris Martin’s vocals were rich, weighty and relatively clear at moderate volumes. When the volume went up and/or Martin began to sing with a bit more inflection, you could hear the limitations of the format’s encoding and bit rate. Overall, the track was listenable and non-fatiguing to the ears, but for critical listening and/or showcasing a system’s capabilities, I’d stick with the CD itself or with a better rip. When comparing my own ripped copy of the same album in Apple Lossless and AIFF encoding to the CD itself, I could detect little difference in sound quality through the AppleTV, so the sound quality of the AppleTV wasn’t entirely to blame – so was the source material coming from iTunes. This won’t be news to anyone in the audiophile or home theater space. However, for background music, iTunes-purchased material through the AppleTV works just fine.
Next, I bought the Discovery Channel presentation of When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions, Season 1 (Discovery). I have this entire program, six episodes, on my home DVR in HD and have seen it many times and the result is always the same: breathtaking. The HD program takes up a fair amount of space on my DVR, so I was stunned when the six-episode series purchased on iTunes was only a pitiful 3.36GB. The standard-definition widescreen image of the downloaded episode “The Explorers” didn’t come close to matching the quality of my Dish Network presentation of the same episode. However, in direct comparison to AppleTV’s first television offerings, like the short-lived NBC drama Raines that I spoke about in my first AppleTV review, the video quality has improved greatly. Gone is the overly pixilated and choppy video of the past, replaced with what I can only describe as close to DVD-quality standard definition. There was a touch of excess video noise in the lighter regions of the image, with a bit of macro blocking in the darks. When seen from a proper viewing distance, the anomalies were less apparent but were still present. Colors were mostly natural and possessed impressive range, making for more lifelike skin tones and textures, though not quite on par with a disc format and/or the HDTV presentation. Edge fidelity still seems to be the AppleTV’s Achilles heel, as the stark vertical lines of the Saturn Five rocket and instrument panels inside the craft were more an indication of technology and hardware than the real thing. Motion was relatively smooth and judder-free, though “jaggies” could be seen when the material was rife with vertical and horizontal contrasts like those I saw in the launch pad’s tower. Overall, these quibbles didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the program the way it did in my previous experience with Raines, but it didn’t hold a candle to the HDTV telecast. Sound-wise, for a stereo mix, there was little to write home about. Dialogue was intelligible, but large dramatic moments like the rockets firing were compressed and lacked focus and weight. Engaging my processor’s DSPs helped correct some of the sound’s shortcomings, but that wasn’t really the point and assumes too much of the average AppleTV user’s options.
I ended my time with the AppleTV Take 2 with an HD rental, Aliens Vs. Predator Requiem (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment) in HD, directly from my AppleTV. I should point out that you can only rent HD material from the AppleTV itself, which means it remains only on the AppleTV used for the purchase. You can rent SD material from a home computer, then transfer it to other AppleTVs, but HD material stays exclusively on the box used to make the purchase. Bummer. I was forced to watch AVP Requiem in my bedroom system on a Samsung 1080p LCD feeding a Denon receiver into Atlantic Technology in-walls. No slouch system, especially for a bedroom, but far from the reference Sony/Meridian rig in my main theater. Back to the film, the largely low-light image was impressive even in the 720p realm. The noise level dropped considerably and the black levels, while not quite as dimensional as, say, a Blu-ray disc, were far from vomit-inducing. There was still a hint of video compression in the overall color and grayscale tracking, as there didn’t appear to be as much depth in terms of number of colors to make for true, lifelike transitions and rendering, but it wasn’t off-putting. Skin tones were more lifelike and natural, with more depth and detail over the SD material, and were on par with good (not great) HD material. Highlights were rich, punchy and composed and edge fidelity appeared sharp and clear. For example, the interior of the Predators’ ship, while very dark, still possessed good amounts of information that showcased the creatures’ organic-inspired technology. During the pool scene, again, set late at night, the water looked like water and was free of pixilation and other digital artifacts. Truth be told, while it was only 720p, I wouldn’t turn up my nose at Apple’s HD offerings. In lieu of shelling out upwards of $30 for the Blu-ray disc, this represents a nice bargain and a good compromise between having the best and convenience.
Convenience is an interesting thing, which brings me to my final point. Unlike Apple’s first attempt at the AppleTV, Take 2 seems to be rooted more in reality, in that it’s not the end all be all solution for HD lovers. Instead, like iTunes music downloads, Apple’s philosophy seems to have changed to convenience, enjoyment and ultimately a lifestyle-enhancing product vs. a totally performance-driven machine. This isn’t to say the AppleTV won’t get there. Clearly, it has the ability to handle 1080p material and multi-channel audio, and Take 2 is a huge leap in the right direction, but like all things in the CE marketplace, it takes time. Only this time, Apple is finally headed in the right direction.