Mix tapes and cardboard stereos: six novel hi-fi gift ideas for the silly season

It’s nearly the end of November, which means it’s

a. time for the final blog post in our Be Entertained series, and

b. getting uncomfortably close to Christmas.

So let’s say you’ve already got your loved ones some rugs for the walls, a digital TV box, their favourite album on vinyl and a copy of Simon Sweetman’s On Song. What else can you get for the audio/visual/music/tv buff who has everything?

Here are some novel, hi-tech gift suggestions I’ve stumbled upon in the last couple of months:

 

USB mix tape

Nothing says “I like you” better than a good old-fashioned mix tape.

What’s that? Mix tapes are so 1990s? Not so fast, Alvin Toffler. These are mix tapes for the 21st Century: PC and Mac compatible cassette-shaped USB drives.

At 128mb they hold an average of 15 songs each – so you’ll have to do what we all had to do way back when and choose your playlist carefully. This is good; the lucky recipient should know every song was picked for a special reason, not receive a few thousand tracks because you had a few gigabytes to fill.

Once you have lovingly clicked and dragged your playlist onto the USB drive, use the accompanying stickers to personalise the tape (we recommend smileys and hearts), write the songs on the label, put it in the case and sneak it into his or her schoolbag between classes. You’re welcome.

 

TV flip-out mount

People often complain about the ‘trash’ they see on television. Hidden Vision has the solution: a TV mount that doubles as a picture frame. Perfect for those who can’t afford The Arts Channel.

Apart from being discreet and great space savers, these mounts are extremely flexible too. With the extended flip out mechanism you can watch your favourite show in bed all ergonomically friendly-like. Buy one for a friend and watch them flip out! (They can have that slogan for free.)

 

Cardboard Berlin Boombox

JFK once said “ich bin ein Berliner” – and now you can party like ein Berliner with this rather retro contraption. It’s an eighties-style boombox for your iPod/mp3 player/anything with a headphone jack.

It’s is extremely easy to assemble, sounds great and – as the shell is made entirely out of cardboard – it’ll rest lightly on your shoulder as you strut down the seitengasse.

 

Universal remotes

Logitech Harmony Universal Remote

The old universal remotes were almost as bulky as your TV set. Now Logitech has made one that looks much like a fancy new cell phone – except you can’t make a call on it. Actually, that makes it exactly like those fancy new cell phones.

The Logitech Harmony 1100i has a touch screen that makes it insanely easy to pick and choose which gadgets you wish to control, and in what order. It can control up to fifteen different devices – no more trying to pick the right remote from a police-style lineup.

This remote is compatible with 225,000 different audio/video/gaming machines, so unless you bought your stereo from a Sandy Island Sasquatch you’re probably going to be ok. At $499 this model costs about as much as a decent television; if you feel you can live without the touchscreen Logitech has cheaper versions for $39.90 upwards.

 

Bluetooth showerhead

Moxie bluetooth showerhead

Fact: some people should never, ever sing. Not even while alone in the shower. As one of those people I prefer to listen to music in the bathroom – but I’m sick and tired of being electrocuted in the process.

That’s where the new Kohler Moxie Showerhead comes in. It’ll play audio from any Bluetooth-enabled device – be it a smartphone or tablet – from a maximum of 32 feet away.

The shower pressure is great, and the wireless speaker will help keep you entertained for up to seven hours. What it can’t help you with are the resulting wrinkles and angry, unclean, flatmates.

 

Diversionary doormats

Now you’ve splashed out on all these gifts, and decided to keep them all for yourself, one of these tricky doormats will come in handy. Simply place it outside your front door and friends/family/shifty burglar types will never suspect a thing, other than to assume your neighbo(u)rs are American.

How about you: got any unique stocking fillers you’d like to share? Tell us about them in the comments or on Facebook – and be sure to enter our TV competition if you haven’t already.

A special thanks goes to everyone who helped with our Be Entertained series, especially Shane Taylor, Simon Sweetman and Paul Brislen. They are experts in their field and I for one learned a whole heap.

Next week we’ll be back to looking at something no expert can agree on – New Zealand’s real estate market.

Share frustration part 2: what to watch until your TV set catches up

In the last episode we looked at the problems with the file-sharing law, the root cause of illegal downloading (two words: justifiable impatience) and how Mediaworks, through Fast Four and other initiatives, is modernising our viewing habits.

Life is good if you’re a fan of yellow cartoon families or turncoat patriots. The rest of us law-abiding citizens, however, must continue to wait, and wait, and wait.

Is there another, still legal, way to watch our shows? We compiled a list of possible alternatives and sent them Paul Brislen’s way.

Paul’s response: “Of the options you identify only Quickflix is a true alternative. If you look at Apple TV in NZ you’ll find there’s no actual television in there, just movies. Same with Google TV, and the others (Hulu and Netflix in particular) are blocked from New Zealand use because technically they’re only supposed to be available in the US.”

He’s right, you know. At least these options provide some alternative entertainment while we await a truly flexible broadcasting model. And the nominees are:

Apple TV

“Round-the-clock access to endless entertainment” is Apple’s description of their service. The tiny little box links to a big selection of new release and older films to rent for 30 days. Once you press play the rental expires after 48 hours.

As Paul said, you can’t actually stream any TV on Apple TV with the exception of ice hockey (players’ strike permitting) and Major League Baseball (next year for sure, Mariners!).

If you’re after movies, YouTube, and iPad/iPod/iPhone content in 1080p HD, Apple TV is a great buy at $170.

Quickflix

For $14.99 a month Quickflix provides access to a big back catalogue of movies and some old BBC shows.

This is great if you want to rewatch Blackadder or Bob the Builder; not so flash if you’re after new stuff. On the plus side you can pay a little extra to watch films from the same day they’re released on DVD.

It’s some competition at least, and that’s always a good thing. Plus, if you’re on Orcon or Slingshot, watching them doesn’t count toward your data cap.

UPDATE: Just after pressing ‘Publish’, news that Quickflix is in big trouble hit the headlines. Share trading has been halted as the execs clash over the company’s future direction. It would be a real shame if it was to collapse, so fingers crossed. This NBR article outlines the issue and also looks at the pitfalls of TV content being tied up in exclusive deals.

TVNZ/TV3/Four On Demand/iSky

Network-provided services that lets you watch your shows, online, at a time of your choosing. Unless you want to watch it outside the specified time period.

In a big step forward, TVNZ has just announced their On Demand service will be available on Samsung Smart televisions by the end of the year and on mobiles and tablets in early 2013.

iTunes

An ‘oldie’ but still a goodie. Aside from a tonne of music, you can also rent or buy movies and download podcasts. Once again, though, good luck finding any television shows on there.

Dropping a bowling ball through your television set

Not particularly constructive, but it looks mighty therapeutic.

Is there anything else we can do? Anything at all?

“You can of course,” says Paul, “play silly buggers with DNS settings or set up a VPN tunnel to the US and pretend to have a US IP address to gain access – but I find that just prolongs the nonsense.

“The sooner they learn that we want the content and are willing to go out and get it the better.”

There lies the crux of this matter. When networks can broadcast live sport, and TV3 and Four can play some shows hours behind the States, there’s no reason why we should have to jump through hoops or break the law to see our shows, online, at a time that suits us.

Certain things will help speed this process along. Much faster broadband than we have now would be nice. Akamai’s State of the Internet report for the first quarter of 2012 has us ranked sixth in Asia-Pacific for average connection speed and 46th globally. We’re 10% faster than in 2011, and the Ultra-Fast Broadband scheme means the only way is up.

If the networks’ stranglehold was loosened maybe we’d see NetFlix and Hulu arrive here. Apple TV could start offering, oh I don’t know, TV shows, and Quickflix could further expand their range.

When announcing their mobile On Demand plans, TVNZ’s Tom Cotter said their aim was to “make it easier to watch TV than it is to steal it.” If TVNZ combined this with something like Fast Four, they may find themselves closer to this goal than anyone.

It is getting better, thanks to those who are fighting the good fight.

It just could be so much better still. If copyright holders are serious about protecting their intellectual property then they’ll change things up – and that will, over time, reverberate down the chain to us, the justifiably impatient consumers.

Share frustration: the state of television, and why people illegally download

pirate

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or on dial up, you would have heard of the Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Act (2011), aka “that pesky illegal downloading law”.

In short, get caught downloading or sharing copyrighted material three times and you’re in trouble.

The reality is more complicated. The account owner, in the eyes of the law, is culpable, even if it’s their child/customer/total stranger who did the deed. The onus of proof falls on the alleged offender, rather than the authorities as it would with any other law. This excellent op-ed from Juha Saarinen contains real life examples of both scenarios.

The $25 fee for copyright holders is supposed to reduce the number of frivolous charges against all and sundry, but the fact remains the law is a bit of a dog’s breakfast.

This is not an endorsement of illegal downloading. It’s unfair to take revenue from those who have created intellectual property – say, for example, Flight of the Conchords. It’s even unfair to take revenue from nonintellectual property, like, say, The Ridges.

The problem in New Zealand, in terms of television, is less an unwillingness to pay for content but more about a poor broadcasting model where people must wait months, sometimes longer, for content to make it over from the US and the UK.

For too long our broadcasters have drip-fed us shows at a time of their choosing (Chris Philpott’s frustration at this model makes for illuminating and fun reading).

Hey, they own the rights so what they do is up to them. It just isn’t compatible with 21st Century viewing habits. It’s about as clever as TV One removing Episodes from the air midway through the series.

Last September, TUANZ’s CEO Paul Brislen participated in an online chat about the file sharing law on the New Zealand Herald website. His replies diagnosed the problem nicely:

“There’s a wealth of good quality TV coming out of the US (and other places) that’s better than ever before and unfortunately it’s simply not made available in New Zealand in a timely fashion.

“Can you imagine if it was the rugby – the All Blacks playing Australia. It’s live in Australia, in the UK, South Africa and around the world but in New Zealand the TV network said “we’re going to screen that game at a later date, when we’re good and ready”… There would be a riot.”

If there is any one quote that should stick in your mind, it’s this:

“The problem isn’t that I want it for free – the problem is I want it now, but the rights holders’ business model doesn’t allow that.” [emphasis added]

Not much to ask for, surely?

We emailed Paul recently to see how he was feeling about things 14 months on. It’s safe to say his attitude remains unchanged.

“It’s not rocket science, is it? Customers want something in a timely fashion – they’ll get it without your help so why not give them that help… seems straightforward to me.”

So has anything improved over the last twelve months?

“I’m pleased to say since that interview the TV channels are getting a bit more clued up,” says Paul.

“We’ve got TV3 screening Homeland only hours after it airs in the US and FOUR has half a dozen shows that are shown as quickly as possible. I’m told the ratings for those four shows have increased noticeably since they did this.”

Mediaworks’ punctuality is paying dividends, and rightly so. I dare not ring any Homeland fans on a Monday night for fear of a reprisal attack.

This complements Four’s ‘Fast Four’ initiative well. This sees a number of shows screening within a week (sometimes even the same day) of the States. So if you like dysfunctional cartoon families, high school kids who randomly burst into song, or quirky girls acting all quirky-like while everyone gushes over how quirky she is, you know where to go.

The one ‘pitfall’, if you can call it that, is we are at the mercy of the US television schedule, described in The Guardian as roughly “as incomprehensible to a newcomer as a Rubik’s Cube is to a squirrel with a migraine.”

Long story short, the American networks take breaks for a. big sporting events and b. to screen their shows when the ratings will be highest (the “sweeps’ period). When they’re on break, our broadcasters dip into the archives. So really we’re no better or worse off than the States, except we don’t get free-to-air baseball.

So what else can you do if you want to be a good law-abiding citizen but want to get your TV fix now?

At the moment, not much. Part two, coming next week, will go through a few of the alternatives, though most of these are things to keep yourself occupied while the networks catch up.

Some of you can probably guess what they are. Share your thoughts, without penalty, below or over on Facebook.

Simon Sweetman on his new book, blogging and why vinyl is number one

As part of our ‘Be entertained’ series, I thought whom better to ask about the joy of vinyl (as explored in our previous post) than New Zealand’s most prolific music blogger Simon Sweetman.

Simon, who many of you will know from Blog on the Tracks, has also just become a first-time author. His new book On Song: Stories Behind New Zealand’s Pop Classics is on sale now.

Last week I flicked Simon some questions for the vinyl post and about his book. Exactly 24 minutes later I received so many great, insightful answers (to some mighty generic questions) I thought why not make an extra blog post out of it. Now I know how he manages to write at least five posts a week!

What is your new book about? What inspired you to write it?

I’ve written a book called On Song: Stories Behind New Zealand’s Pop Classics.

The big inspiration was the deadline! It was a commissioned book, I was asked to do it. But it’s something I really enjoyed, very much – as with any music writing – a labour of love.

The book tells the stories behind 30 of NZ’s best known/loved songs. But it’s very much a personal journey too and a personal selection.

There are some obvious chestnuts and some big surprises. It was hard to pick a list that reflected my tastes but would still, hopefully, mean something to anyone reading.

It’s a good book – I honestly feel I can say that. Because it became about so much more than just the music – it’s a cultural history, a social history of NZ. It looks at the politics of the time, our worldview reflected through various songwriters.

It was an amazing experience to be able to hear the stories firsthand and then to translate them, to add something of myself to them. I’m really proud of the book. Of course every NZ home should have a copy!

 

How did writing a book compare with the demands of writing a daily blog?

The book was very tough – I really experience writer’s block. Something I always thought was a convenient excuse or a myth. But I guess the idea that something was being committed to permanent record was daunting.

The blogs are there for people to look back to but it’s different – it’s very much a case, realistically, of refresh the next day, new topic. Maybe a few of the blog posts stick around because of the debate generated but most are forgotten quickly in much the same way that newspaper stories are.

So the book was a bigger effort in that sense. And I had to tighten up the way I wrote – a blog is very forgiving. You have regular readers that accept your style; it’s meant to be conversational.

I wanted the book to be conversational too but I guess more formal. I’m telling other people’s stories as much as I’m telling my own. With the blog it’s almost always my story.

I was stupid in that I wrote the blog every day while doing the book. I really should have cut down. But it’s done now and I am proud of the fact that I kept the blog going and I like to think that I kept the quality up – as best I could.

You’ll always have good days and bad and some topics you think will fly totally bomb. And often the throwaway ideas you’re a bit iffy about are the ones that take. It’s a guessing game – always. And I like that.

 

What turntable/AV setup do you use to listen to your records? Do you recommend any equipment or set up in particular?

I have a lovely Rega Planar 3 turntable, gifted to me – on long-term loan – from a very good friend. I think he was somewhat appalled at the very cheap and nasty all-in-one replica record player I was using.

That still sits in my study and I use it to play very old, scratched records. It works fine. But it’s not very good for the new LPs.

My stereo is nothing special – the turntable is nice. The stereo is a very old Denon amp/tape-player/CD player with JBL speakers. It’s from about 1991 I think. It goes well, still. And in a few years I’ll do an upgrade.

I’ve also got some Numark turntables – they will eventually be set up with a mixer for home DJing – and I have a couple of mini-systems around the house. A very dependable Sony 3-CD player in the office for CD reviewing. And a smaller Teac in the kitchen.

We’ve got a couple of iPod docking stations and I’ve set up some Logitech speakers to my computer since I now receive a lot of download codes and streaming albums for reviewing.

I’ve made this sound like I know what I’m talking about – but actually I had to go and check the brand-names of almost everything I’ve listed here. I would love to be a hi-fi snob but I lack the money required.

 

What, in your view, makes vinyl sound better than CDs and digital?

With vinyl you are hearing the warmth – it’s tactile too. You are hearing the music, rather than a bunch of code.

My main interest in vinyl is the experience – the idea of connecting with the music. It’s strange we now think that getting up to turnover an LP 20 minutes in is a pain in the ass. How easy have our lives become?

If the music just plays as background then you’re not really caring about it. Vinyl allows me to engage with the music – also I’ve enjoyed vinyl as an escape from reviewing.

I listen to a lot of CDs and MP3s for reviewing; it’s been nice to escape off into another room – to process music in a different way. Of course that backfired somewhat as I started a blog called The Vinyl Countdown where I document every album I listen to and the stories behind where I found the record and why I have it.

On Song Simon Sweetman

Are there any albums you would especially recommend listening to on a turntable rather than a CD or digital?

If I like an album – a new one, something I’ve reviewed or something I’m keen on hearing – I will generally seek it out on vinyl.

CDs just feel like work to me now – in that they’re a tool of my job. LPs are my actual collection now.

 

Your blog has been running for several years now – have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What advice would you give to fellow bloggers and aspiring writers?

There are nights when I take a lot longer to write something – and there are nights when I curse my own stupid rule of writing every weekday. But I don’t really suffer a block because I always find something to say.

It’s a big topic and there’s always something to write about. I enjoy going back to my collection for inspiration.

The block came with writing the book, as I said above. And that was really a case of how to approach it, I knew what to say – it was about finding the right way to say it. Like any first-time book writer my book has been a part of me, in some senses, for my whole life.

As for advice to fellow or potential bloggers – the key is to do it. Whatever it is that Woody Allen said about 80% of success is showing up. And the whole perspiration/inspiration idea.

Writing Blog On The Tracks every day makes me a writer. It gives me a deadline. And I have a platform, a forum. Now some days it even makes me a good writer. And other days it probably makes me a very bad writer – there’s a blessing and a cure behind writing so frequently.

But I had a lot of time off in my 20s. I dropped out and mucked around and talked a good fight. Now I’m very keen on showing up. On having something to say.

And I reckon that’s the best advice I can offer – if it is advice. It’s not curing cancer or changing the world in any way. But it’s helped me find out a lot about myself, and helped keep me happy.

And if it’s meant anything to anyone else in any way then I’m eternally grateful. I’m very lucky to have an audience, there are some very dedicated blog-readers along for the ride. And I thank them dearly.

Unbroken record: the modern and unexpected resurgence of vinyl

Some things never go out of fashion.

There was once a little boy who was obsessed with records. Not the sort handed out after too many Guinnesses – rather the 7-12 inch PVC discs that reach speeds of up to 78rpm.

This boy would spend hours by the turntable listening to Lennon and McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel, and Cheech and Chong. One day he hoped to buy his own record player and build his own record collection, likely ‘sourced’ from his parents when their backs were turned.

Then, in the late eighties, records fell from favour. Cassettes were smaller and easier to play in the car. Then compact discs sounded better than tapes and you could skip tracks with a push of a button. Finally the digital age meant music could be downloaded – properly or otherwise. Many people, parents included, gave away or threw out their collections.

Act in haste, repent at leisure. In 2008, a year that saw overall music sales drop 14 percent, sales of LPs in the US almost doubled from 990,000 to 1.88 million. The momentum has only picked up from there as the below graph shows.

Vinyl sales 1993-2012

While it’s still a niche market, vinyl is making up an increasingly large share of total music sales.

So why is vinyl back, and who’s buying it?

Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll witness a growing backlash against the ‘instantaneous society’ we live in. People are increasingly opting for the slower-paced, authentic experience of restaurants/cinemas/vinyl over the rushed, hollow feeling one can get from fast food/YouTube/mp3s.

Record buyers are people who want to touch the music as much as listen to it. They want to be able to admire the album artwork in all its glory and not as a jpeg on a computer screen. They appreciate the crackle and pop – although not the dreaded snap – that comes from owning and playing a record. And they don’t care if they have to listen to an entire side of music then get up and turn the thing over. Quite the opposite.

Sales figures suggest many of these folk are into a delightful mix of retro and indie. The Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road’ topped the vinyl charts for the last three years and in 2012 lies in third place behind Jack White and The Black Keys. Meanwhile, the digital world is dominated by lyrical magicians such as One Direction and Carly Rae Jepsen.

My chat with Shane Taylor on acoustics the other week got somewhat sidetracked by our mutual love of vinyl.  Shane, who has owned the same copy of ‘Band on the Run’ by Wings for almost 40 years, says record listening is also a visual and physical experience.

“Vinyl’s more than music, vinyl is touchy feely,” he says. “You have to get up, you have to put it on and turn it on. I think that’s probably 50% of the connection, and even if it’s scratchy, you don’t care –you’ve already worked hard to listen to the bloody thing.”

Beatles Abbey Road album

Record fans join a long queue for the latest vinyl reissues.

Many love the warm sound that comes from an LP and want to experience classic albums the way their parents did. Simon Sweetman, newly published author and prolific music blogger, is one such person.

In an email to Open2view Simon wrote: “I grew up with LPs and I think, in some way, my record collection is an attempt to honour and continue my parents’ record collection. They were silly and gave away a lot (most) of their records. All dad’s Beatles LPs.

“I salvaged what was left, mostly the material from the 1980s that I grew up with and then from there I grew the collection.”

Once driven underground, LPs are well and truly re-emerging.

“For a while,” says Simon, “it seemed that record collections were the exclusive domain of DJs and collector/trainspotter types. Now I have loads of friends turning to vinyl, starting collections.

“It’s fun. Listening to music and collecting music was always meant to be fun I thought – and there’s something special about thumbing through someone’s record collection. I always look through albums and books in someone’s home. That’s how I feel like I’m getting to know them.”

Simon’s advice to those wanting to get into – or back into – vinyl? “Get a good record collection while you can. Buy up the good stuff as you see it, when you can afford it. And then build up a decent-enough stereo. You can always upgrade your playing equipment later.

“Better to have the best music – sound is key, sure. But you can always fix that later. I’ve noted a lot of hi-fi buffs with amazing stereos and they sit and listen to Enya. No thanks.”

Simon had much more to say on records, audio gear, writing and his brand new book. But that, as they say, is another story. Actually, it will all be in our next blog on Thursday.

As for that little boy? This year he finally bought himself a cheap turntable and is building his collection with music old and new.

And how about you – have you discovered (or rediscovered) records? Or do you prefer CDs/downloading? Flick us your feedback below or over at our Facebook page.

The Great Digital Switchover: why we’re leaving analogue TV behind, and how to make the most of it

At midnight last night, Northern Ireland switched off its old analogue television network and joined the rest of the UK in going digital.

Did you know we’re following suit? Any West Coast and Hawkes Bay residents who weren’t aware found out the hard way last month. The rest of the country has some more time, with the upper North Island being the ones to switch off the lights on 1 December 2013.

For you, dear viewer, there are positive spinoffs in switching to Freeview or Sky. You get much clearer pictures than with the ol’ rabbit ears, access to many more channels and programmes, and a user-friendly on-screen TV guide.

With MySky you can also pause, rewind and record with the press of a couple of buttons. Even better, whenever the Kiwis play league against the Aussies you can switch to Ray Warren’s masterful commentary:

Remember: that’s Setup>Audio language>English alt.

Most importantly, the analogue network will be auctioned off and used to build awesome fourth generation cell phone networks. The 4G network is between 10-100 times faster than 3G – important in a world that’s switching more and more from computers to mobiles and tablets.

The economic benefit of the switchover and move to 4G? Anywhere between $1.1-2.4 billion over 20 years, according to a study by the Ministry of Economic Development.

Going Digital is the website with all the knowledge you need and then some. With most people clued up on the basics – 83 percent of New Zealand households have at least one digital set and of those, 91% know they do – the rest of this blog will seek to answer some of those questions you may not have thought to ask.

Got more than one TV?

Going Digital releases a quarterly report into how good their missionaries are at converting the masses. The May-July 2012 edition of Digital Tracker shows that while most households have switched over their main set, 36% of households with more than one have yet to digitalise the others.

If you want digital television on every set, every set needs to have digital television. You can always connect more than one set to a single box but then, if auntie wants to watch The View, then everyone has to watch The View. Sky customers with multiple sets may want Multiroom before they wind up redefining the term ‘nuclear family’.

Yessir, just don’t hurt us.

If you’re a Freeview subscriber you can hook your TVs up to the same box; however for the same reason you’ll probably prefer a separate receiver for each TV (provided they don’t already have Freeview built in).

Can you get special assistance?

That depends on your circumstances, funnily enough. The Government has funded a Target Assistance Package for those who are:

–       75 or older with a Community Services Card;

–       Receiving a Veteran’s Pension or Invalids’ Benefit; or

–       Former recipients of those benefits who transferred to New Zealand Superannuation upon turning 65.

This assistance will provide a set-top box for one TV, installation and training in using it.

Is this going to be expensive? Not really – Digital Tracker reckons 10% of households have people aged 75 or older, and 5% have people on Invalids’ Benefits. With just 14% of the nation yet to switch, it’s estimated it’ll cost the taxpayer between $12-18 million – not a bad price to help those facing the most barriers.

If you fall into one of those categories but have already made the switch, you can’t claim backdated help under this package. Just find something fun to watch and try not to think about it.

What should you do with your old TV?

Keep it – you don’t need a new TV set to get digital television.

If, however, you are marking this momentous occasion by purchasing a 70-inch plasma, recycle the old set rather than chuck it. Televisions and computer monitors contain aluminium, glass and copper, which can all be reused. They also have not so nice things like mercury, lead and barium that have no business in our landfills.

The Government – yep, them again – established the TV TakeBack programme to provide a home for these orphaned tellies. This scheme launched in Hawkes Bay and the West Coast on 1 October. If you live in either region, recycling your set is free until the 28th (hurry!) and after that the cost “will be kept as low as possible.” The scheme will be rolled out around the rest of the country alongside the switchover.

If you can’t wait that long, contact your local council or e-waste specialists to find out where you can dispose of your TV thoughtfully.

Anything else on your mind?

Got any other questions about the digital switchover you’d like answered? Going DigitalFreeview and Sky TV are all pretty thorough.

Or you can ask us in the comments below or on our Facebook page, as your humble blogger has learned almost all there is to know about this topic. We also know a thing or two about real estate photography. So go on, try and trip us up.

Getting your house acoustically correct: sound ideas for better audio


Almost everybody owns a television and/or stereo. Many people then attempt to enhance the sound by buying a home theatre system.

But how many of you are getting the best out of these pricey assets? A large screen plasma TV is useless if you have to keep adjusting the volume. A CD player is no good if it makes Jimi Hendrix sound like Jimmy Buffett.

Odds are it’s not your equipment to blame, but rather your room. Good acoustics are the key to getting your money’s worth from all that hi-fi gear. Many modern homes, with their low gib ceilings and large windows, are very acoustically unfriendly.

Acoustic expert and musician Shane Taylor, of Hamilton’s Sound and Picture Specialists, has a knack for explaining complex sound issues to technically illiterate folk like myself.

Shane Taylor

Shane Taylor

Shane witnessed first hand the decline in acoustic quality when playing live gigs. He looks back on the 1980s wistfully: “every pub was carpeted – you’re stuck to the floor because of the booze on the floor – there were heavy heavy curtains everywhere, and you could belt it out in there and it sounded great.”

The nineties, however, were a different story: “suddenly all the curtains disappeared, the carpet got ripped up for a polished concrete floor, and when you did a gig there it sounded terrible. You had everything turned right down, and you could hear the people more than yourself because everything’s amplified.”

To restore these venues to the good old days could cost publicans tens of thousands of dollars. Thankfully, with some creativity, the rest of us can fix our home acoustics for much less.

‘Soften’ the room

The worst sounding rooms are built from brick or plastered with gib. Shane describes gib as “your worst enemy, because it’s basically a thin piece of concrete nailed onto very thin pieces of wood. It’s a trampoline.” Wood itself is better because it has a “more natural tone.”

The most effective step you can take is softening the room. Get creative: audio waves will hit a brick wall hard – something known as ‘slap echo’ – but will sound far nicer if it instead bounces off a soft Mexican rug that’s been hung on the wall. This was, incidentally, all the rage back in the seventies.

Curtains, especially pleated ones, are also great. “Pleated curtains are your best friends,” says Shane, “the heavier the better. A mat on the floor if it’s concrete, a soft couch, maybe a few puffy pillows – they all make a big difference.”

What about a wooden table instead of glass? “No table!” Not even a coffee table? “A coffee table in the middle of the room is the worst thing you can do actually, because the sound ‘pings’ off it: it’s called ‘filter comb effect’ – it pings off it and comes up to you.”

Shane’s a realist however. “The first thing you learn in this game is ‘be practical’. I’ve got a recording studio – you can be stupid in a recording studio – but at home you have to just be practical.”

One customer’s wife used her veto power to keep their coffee table, so hubby simply threw a big woolly rug over the table whenever he wanted to listen to music. “The voice just sprung right out, it made a huge difference right away.”

Have the right speakers

Shane has seen many cases where people have opted for small, inconspicuous, unobtrusive wall speakers. The end result is a sound system that is neither seen nor heard unless turned up loud.

Castle floorstander speakers

These sound even nicer than they look

Floorstanders provide a more solid sound for those who are more interested in what speakers sound like rather than how they look. “The floorstander sounds great at very, very, very, very quiet volumes. Those things [wall speakers] only sound good if they’re loud. So it’s the opposite to what they’re actually aiming for.”

A set of good-looking floorstanders is a no-brainer; they will improve both the room’s aesthetics and acoustics.

Get your room in shape

If you are lucky enough to have a choice of potential living/listening rooms, go for the one that’s not simply a square box.

The acoustic room at Sound and Picture Specialists is not only rectangular but has wall supports and parts of the ceiling lower than the rest. This is good for sound, says Shane. “The more odd shapes the better, because all those random shapes are breaking up the reflections and scattering them in odd places, whereas if the room was just a cube with nothing in it then everything would be very uniform. It’d be like shutting yourself in a toilet and singing.”

It doesn’t have to be rocket science

As long as you soften those hard surfaces, have some decent floorstander speakers and a room that isn’t beyond redemption, you can transform it from a ‘slap echo chamber’ into a place where music and voices come to life, a site where you can hear something new and interesting with every listen.

Shane sounded a word of warning before I left: “It [acoustics] is a very, very intense subject, and there’s a lot of real strong opinions on it.” Many of those who feel strongest work out their acoustics using all sorts of formulae and instruments.

For us non-tech folk, says Shane, just try stuff. “If you do something and it sounds better you do it more; if it sounds worse you go back to square one and try something else.”

Do you have any suggestions for stuff to try? Let us know in the comments section or over at our Facebook page.

For more good info on acoustics check out Sound and Picture Specialists’ website, and you can listen to some of Shane’s own music at shanetaylor.co.nz.