Moving AV Gear to the Basement

Posted by mitch on January 04, 2014
audio, home

When I bought my house in Boston, I gutted most of it and did extensive rewiring, including speaker wires in the living room. Recently, I had a large built-in cabinet/bookcase built for the living room and had to move some of those wires and outlets in preparation for it. Since the electricians had to come out anyway, I decided to move all my AV components into the basement. The goal was just to have the TV, speakers, and subwoofer in the living room.

There are now 5 drops down to the basement for the surround speakers. I soldered RCA keystone jacks onto one of the old speaker drops for the subwoofer–the only place I could find solderable keystone RCA jacks was, strangely enough, Radio Shack (for 57 cents each). Behind the TV, I had the electricians pull 8 new Cat6 drops and a single HDMI cable. I also had the electricians run two 15 amp dead runs that go into a 2-gang box and terminate in AC inlets (male connectors) so that the TV and sub in the living room are plugged into the same surge protection system as the basement, thus avoiding any ground loop issues, and also eliminating the need for surge protectors in the living room for this gear.

Four of the Cat6 drops terminate at the AV shelving. I planned to use 2 of these for serial and IR lines and 2 are held for spares in case of future video-over-Cat6 or other needs. The other four Cat6 lines run to the basement patch panel. Of course, some of these could also be patched back to the AV shelves if needed for uses other than Ethernet.

I’m using a cheap IR repeater from Amazon to control the components from my Harmony remote. This works fine with my Onkyo receiver, HDMI switch, Apple TV, and Roku. It doesn’t work with my Oppo bluray player–apparently there’s something different about the IR pulse Oppo uses, and I couldn’t figure out which general repeaters would work from various forum posts. Fortunately, Oppo sells their own IR repeater system for about $25, and I’ve modified it to run over Cat6 as well. This means I have two IR sensors hidden under the TV that plug into 1/8″ mono jacks in the wall using Leviton keystone modules.

The Playstation 4 and Wii use Bluetooth controllers, which work fine through the floor. Nothing fancy was needed to extend these. It turns out that the Wii sensor bar is an “IR flashlight”–the bar itself doesn’t send any data to the Wii. So I bought one with a USB connector on it so it can plug into any USB power supply. (The original Wii bar had weird 3-tooth screws and I didn’t want to tear it up.)

I also finally got around to building a 12v trigger solution for my amplifier–my 7 yr old Onkyo receiver doesn’t have a 12v trigger for the main zone, but a 10v wall wart plugged into the Onkyo does the trick, now that I’ve soldered a 1/8″ mono plug onto the end and plugged it into the Outlaw amp. (My front speakers are 4 ohm and the Onkyo would probably overheat trying to drive them.)

The final missing piece was a volume display. I missed knowing what the volume was on the receiver, the selected input, and the listening mode, so I built a simple serial device that plugs into the Onkyo’s serial port over Cat6 cables. I have a 20×2 large screen display that queries the Onkyo for status a few times a second (powered by Arduino–firmware code is here). Muting, powered off, volume, listening mode (e.g., THX, Stereo, Pure Audio…) are displayed, as well as the input source. My next step is to add a second serial interface to the display so that I can query the Oppo and show time into the disc, playing state, etc. (Many newer receivers support their serial protocols over Ethernet, albeit at a higher standby power usage, and as far as I can tell, Oppo has not opened up their Ethernet protocol, though their serial protocol is well documented.) The enclosure is a rather ugly, but works for the moment until I build something better:

Note that another option is just to buy a receiver/pre-amp that puts the volume out over HDMI. My receiver is older and leaves the HDMI signal unmolested. Most modern gear will just put the volume up on the screen, but my next processor is going to be a big purchase, and this was a lot cheaper for now.

I did make a few mistakes:

  • The quad coming off the inlets should have been a 4-gang (8 outlets).
  • I almost only had 4 Cat6 drops behind the entertainment center, mostly due to the length of Cat6 cable I had on hand. Happily my electrician went and bought another 1000 ft spool and said, “Mitch, what do you really want?”
  • I probably should have run a second HDMI cable, just in case I ever need it.
  • The 8 Cat6 cables, a coax line (in case I ever want another sub or need a coax line), and the HDMI cable all go into a 3-gang box in the living room. This is a bit tight for this many wires, especially when one of the Cat6 lines splits into two 1/8″ connectors.
  • Not really a mistake, but if you’re doing this and buying new shelving for the rack, buy shelves with wheels. I am just using an old shelf I already had, but wheels would be very handy.

If you have a small living room with a basement or closet nearby, this might be a good way to go if you don’t want to get rid of AV components. With more room to keep things organized, more air flow around the electronics, I’m really happy with how this turned out. Since the bluray player is in the basement, the DVD and blurays are now in the basement, and this has freed up ~50 linear feet of shelving upstairs. (I’ve ripped a lot of my movies, but it’s a pain and I haven’t done them all.)

And best of all, there is now a lot less crap in the living room.

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Sennheiser RS220 vs Sennheiser RS180

Posted by mitch on May 13, 2013

Almost two years ago, I wrote a post comparing the Sennheiser RS180 headphones to my really old Sony IR wireless headphones. It was an easy post to write; the RS 180s were the best thing happening for wireless headphones at the time, as far as I know.

In March 2012, Sennheiser released their first wireless headphones that they segment in their audiophile line-up. Until that time, the audiophile models were the HD 518, 558, 598, 600, 650, 800 (and now, the new 700 model comes in between the 650 and 800 at $1,000). The new RS 220 model has been out for a year and has received positive reviews by media publications, but horrible reviews on Amazon and in forum discussions due to serious signal drop out issues. I didn’t buy them for a while, fearing those issues were real.

But in a moment of frustration with the RS 180s, I took the plunge (and Amazon has a good return policy). The drop outs were in fact real and serious. Thanks to a post over on, I learned one fellow had changed his wifi network to use Channel 11, which I did as well–and mostly that has solved the drop outs for me.

So if you can solve the signal drops, how are these headphones?

They are fantastic–These are the best wireless headphones on the market. Do they have the same sound quality as my HD 800 rig? No, but at $600, they are a quarter of the price of my HD 800 set-up, weigh less, and have no wire to the headphones. The main frustration I had with the RS 180s ($280–$320 street price) is that piano and classical music are quite muddy in them. The 180s seem to be better suited for watching TV and listening to modern pop music than anything with fine detail–and for what they are good at, they are great. But the RS 220s are much better, with the drawbacks of shorter range, less battery life, and the darned wireless signal issues.

For me, the trade off is worth it as long as the wireless issues remain infrequent. There’s a lot that goes on in the 2.4 GHz range–WiFi, Bluetooth, cordless mice, microwave ovens–so I remain a bit apprehensive about it. After listening to the 220s, I can say that the 180s experience signal drops as well–they are more subtle and less irritating. The RS 180 signal drop is like a record skipping vs the RS 220 that feels like an empty second or two lapse on a cell phone.

Physically, the headphones are much more comfortable than the 180s. The padding is thicker, the headband isn’t as “crushing”. Beware that the headphones are open, meaning they are not for private listening. The other perk of the 220s is that the base has audio output, which let me get rid of a switchbox to pick headphones or my M-audio BX5 D2 speakers on my desk. I use a Belkin remote-controlled power strip to turn the M-audios on and off, so this has simplified my desk a little bit. I also like that the RS 220 base is easy to turn on/off with one hand–the 180 base is very lightweight and the buttons require a firm push.

I am using my 220s with an AudioEngine D1 DAC ($180). It probably doesn’t do the 220s justice, but it’s small and has a volume control on it, which is nice. I don’t feel I have enough room on my desk for a something much larger. I have 2 ft AudioQuest cables connecting the DAC to the RS 220 base, which seems fine. The 220 base also has optical input, but I like having the volume control on the AudioEngine unit, so I intend to keep using it, rather than connect the computer’s optical out directly to the 220 base.

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Stop Hating on Bose?

Posted by mitch on February 14, 2013

Sennheiser PXC-350 (left) and Bose QC-15 (right).

For years I’ve been fascinated by the hate against Bose products. Bose must be really bad to get all the negative reviews, right? Search any electronics forum or Amazon reviews, and you’ll find thousands of people frothing about how much Bose sucks.

In December 2009, I wanted a cheap pair of computer speakers for my office in California. I didn’t need anything fancy and I didn’t want a subwoofer. I went to Fry’s and the only 2-speaker system they had for a reasonable price was the Bose Companion 2 speakers for $100. Sighing, I bought them.

They weren’t super awesome. In fact, they were pretty muddy. I gave them a negative review on Amazon. However, they were $100 and small. At this point they sit in the closet; I have a pair of M-Audio BX5 D2s on my desk, which take up significantly more room and sacrifice a lot of usability. They are plugged into a cheap AudioEngines DAC/amp, which means the whole system cost four times the Bose Companion 2s. (Update: After I posted this, I remembered that when I moved the Bose Companion 2’s to my office in Boston, they sounded a lot better–the acoustics in my California office were crap, I suppose.)

Fast-forward to the middle of 2011, I decided to get rid of my stereo separates in the bedroom. My cleaners were always moving the speakers, disconnecting the speakers, and the whole system took up a lot of room. With some reluctance, I bought a Bose Wave radio/CD player–I couldn’t find anything that I liked the looks of better than the Bose at any price point. There are competing products for less money, but they look like crap. I wanted something that looked good.

It’s an expensive box–$500 for a radio, CD player, amp, and speakers. If you listen to the Wave within 2 feet of the unit, it is indeed “bass-y” and “boom-y.” But if you listen to it across the room, it sounds great! I really love my Bose Wave system.

Back in 2009, since I “knew” that Bose sucked, I bought the Sennheiser PXC-350 headphones for air travel. The modern model is the Sennheiser PXC-450, which run $350 on Amazon as of this writing. Recently I had misplaced the Sennheiser headphones and I bought the Bose QuietComfort 15 headphones from the local Apple Store.

I could not believe how good the Bose QuietComforts are. I suspect they have a bit of a low-pass filter in them–they are not accurate as, say, a pair of Sennheiser HD 800s. But I don’t care about accuracy for noise-canceling headphones! I don’t want to hear engine noise, fan noise, or people talking when I am wearing these. Without sound playing, the Bose headphones are dead silent in my office with a bit of desk fan noise. The Sennheiser PXC-350s pass a bit of that noise through and introduce some hiss that is often an artifact of cheaper noise-canceling headphones.

The cord on the Sennheiser ‘phones is much nicer and has a volume control. The Bose came with two cords, one without controls and one with an Apple remote. The Apple remote works fine with my iPhone 4S, but with my current-generation iPod Nano, it introduces feedback noise that is unacceptable. That’s a serious issue, either with my iPod or the headphones.

However, armed with better silence, smaller size, and lighter weight, the Bose headphones are a clear winner.

So if you’ve been avoiding Bose because you’ve heard they suck, maybe take another look. If you’re looking for accurate listening, you’ll note that I said above none of these Bose products produce accurate sound to my ear. Personally, I don’t need accurate listening for my bedroom, riding the train, flying in a plane, or to hear that Skype is ringing.

Some photos:

The Bose headphones are quite a bit smaller.

Comparing the cup size. The Bose headphones are tighter on the ear, but not to the point it is uncomfortable.

7.0 oz vs 10.0 oz

Despite being a Sennheiser fan, I can say that the Bose QC 15s are quite a better buy for the typical noise-canceling applications.

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Sony MDR-DS3000 vs Sennheiser RS 180: Wireless Headphones Compared

Posted by mitch on July 16, 2011
audio, hardware

Back in December 2005, I received a pair of Sony MDR-DS3000 headphones for Christmas. I reviewed them on Amazon, giving them 5/5 stars. I used them for years and never had any problems with them–they are comfortable, have good range, and the strange proprietary batteries still work great.

However, the audio quality of the Sonys was at best fair and I wanted something a little more. In order to achieve acceptable audio quality with them, an amplifier is needed and the user should keep the volume on the headphones themselves no more than 50-60% up. Even with these tweaks, the audio quality is just acceptable–it’s not fantastic.

So in July 2011, I bought the Sennheiser RS 180 headphones. I’ve been a Sennheiser fan for a while now; I also own the Sennheiser PXC 350 noise canceling headphones and the Sennheiser HD800 headphones.

The audio quality of the Sennheisers is much better than that of the Sony. The other nice feature is a line output that enables plugging amplified speakers or another downstream device into the headphones.

Where Sennheiser misses compared to the Sony is the amount of micromanagement required by the user. There is a power button on the base to start transmitting to the headphones. This is stupid; if the headphones are lifted from the base, that should be an implicit ‘on’ operation. There is also a power button on the headphones themselves. The way the Sony headphones work is that the power button is embedded into the head adjustment, such that putting on the headphones causes the headphones to turn on. Brilliant, and I assume Sony has a patent on this design–but Sennheiser needs their own technique to accomplish the same. If you were reading closely, you realized that the Sony has no power buttons the user has to turn on while the Sennheiser has two power buttons. On the bright side, Sennheiser uses standard NiMH AAA batteries and includes a pair with the headphones. The base is also a little nicer styling-wise.

The other major difference is transmission technology. The Sony is infrared, so line-of-sight is required. The advantage is that there’s no chance of cordless phone or other RF interference. The RS-180 is radio. Both transmit a digital stream; the RS-180 claims to transmit lossless 44.1 khz 16 bit audio to the headphones. I am not sure what the Sony is transmitting, though I’d be impressed if it is transmitting such a wide stream of data over IR. The Sony can take an S/PDIF optical input and provide simulated surround sound. I never used this feature and cannot comment on it.

The other contender worth looking at is the Sony MDRDS6500 — it has a modern stand like the Sennheiser and uses RF instead of IR. If it matches the Sennheiser sound quality with some of the conveniences of no power buttons, that would be a clear winner. I am skeptical on the audio quality front, but it is possible.

I will write more on this when I’ve had a chance to live with the RS 180 headphones more.