The classical music industry is now providing a profusion of on-demand videos which you can watch over the Internet, many at very high audio quality. We’ve been featuring the Metropolitan Opera’s Met Opera on Demand and the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall for some while now; these have been joined by free offerings from the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. We expect many more to follow. There are also various Internet TV channels dedicated to classical music, and even a look around YouTube will show some quality classical music: for example, the Royal Academy of Music’s YouTube channel shows free streams of its students’ concerts, often conducted by big names.

Getting the right setup, however, can be tricky. It’s a bit like car ownership 50 years ago: the equipment was readily available and broadly affordable, but you needed a fair degree of knowledge about car mechanics. The quality of high definition (HD) picture and excellent sound means that you can get an exceptional concert-going experience in your living room – but there isn’t a “plug in and go” solution. Different people have different needs and wants, depending on budgets, numbers and sizes of rooms, mobility and what computing and audio/visual equipment they own.

First, get the right broadband

Be aware that HD video uses a lot of Internet bandwidth, so make sure you have a good enough Internet connection. The Berlin Phil and the Met both specify a minimum of 2 Mbps, but that’s a bare minumum: Berlin’s recommendation of 6 Mbps is the lowest you should go for.

Check out the real speed of your connection using one of the many available speed testers (I use speedtest.net, largely because I can remember the URL), and don’t be surprised if the speed comes out at half or less of what your provider advertised: their small print tends to allow them to get away with announcing numbers that are far higher than you see in practice. So to get 6 Mbps of real bandwidth, you’re likely to need a product rated at well over 12 Mbps. If you are sharing your connection over WiFi with roommates or kids, remember that they’re using bandwidth also: your 12 Mbps can be rapidly consumed by a couple of teenagers watching YouTube while exchanging music files. Multi-player online games (of the World of Warcaft variety) will also consume much bandwidth.

Make sure you test at different times of day, because your real broadband speed will vary, differently for different locations. In the UK, networks in residential areas are busy in the evenings. I’m told that it's the opposite in Eastern Europe, where a lot of Internet traffic comes from offices, so that daytimes are more congested.

The simple option – watching on your computer

Once you have a viable broadband setup, the simplest way of accessing on-demand video is by playing it on your computer (or iPad or other tablet – this article will use the word “device” to mean “whichever box is streaming the video"). All the major platforms have websites that work in most browsers, and if they use Flash (which doesn’t work on iPads), they usually have separate iPad apps.

By the way, if you’re watching catch-up TV or video on demand on your tablet, you’re part of a rising trend: the UK Ofcom’s 2013 report reckons that tablet ownership doubled in the preceding year, half of owners say they now couldn’t live without their tablet, and the share of video on demand requests from tablets quadrupled. And it’s not just the UK: Gothenburg Symphony’s Måns Pär Fogelberg reckons that over 60% of GSOPlay’s views come from tablets.

HDMI cable
HDMI cable
The video quality on most modern laptops and tablets is perfectly adequate for single user viewing, although screen sizes are small and viewing angles may be limited. The generally poor quality of built-in speakers can be overcome with little effort by plugging in a decent pair of headphones. But if you want a bigger picture or bigger and better sound, you’ll need to do more.

Hooking up to a TV

For most people, that “bigger screen” will be an existing wide screen TV in your living room. If it’s been bought later than around 2006, it’s extremely likely that it will have an HDMI input. If you have a modern laptop or tablet, it almost certainly has an HDMI output or an output for which you can buy an adapter. So buy the right HDMI cable, plug your device into the TV, figure out how to select the right HDMI input (which can, admittedly, be harder than it sounds) and you’re all set.

The snag of this approach is that the TV is probably at the other end of the room from your sofa, so you have to walk across the room to select what you’re watching, hit the pause button, etc. Wireless IR keyboards and mice don’t have enough range to reach the far end of most living rooms; Bluetooth keyboards and mice do, but you may still struggle to read small print on the screen.

AppleTV
AppleTV
If you’re in the Apple world, there’s a neat and not overly expensive solution to this called AppleTV. It’s a small £99 box ($99 in the US) which connects to the Internet and (via HDMI) to your TV. An Apple system called Airplay allows you to sit on your sofa with your iPad, iPhone or Macbook while the video streams through WiFi and the AppleTV box onto your TV. Robert Taussig, who has been installing high end a/vsystems in London for decades, now uses AppleTV as his standard solution for people who want to view Internet a/v material on their living room TV.

If you have an Android phone or tablet, Google has a product called Chromecast: a small “dongle” that plugs into your TV’s HDMI port and connects to your phone by WiFi, allowing you to stream your Android phone/tablet’s content to your TV in much the same way as Apple TV/Airplay. It’s a $35 device in the US and has been doing well; plans for a European release have not yet been announced.

Google Chromecast
Google Chromecast
According to US consultant Fred Ampel, high end installers there disagree: several strongly advised staying away from WiFi on grounds of transmission reliability, preferring a good wired connection. The same installers recommended staying away from Apple on grounds of audio quality.

Smart TVs and other boxes

If you don’t want to keep a computer in your living room, there’s a bewildering variety of available alternatives: it seems that the cost of a/v streaming hardware has become so low that manufacturers have been tempted to include it in many different sorts of box – whether or not it’s an obvious fit from the user’s viewpoint. The Berliner Philharmoniker have invested heavily in making sure that the Digital Concert Hall is available on a wide range of platforms: their director of online development Alexander McWilliam considers that a computer is “just about the worst device” to consume on-demand media.

In addition to the obvious categories of computers, smartphones and tablets, a search for a/v streaming capability will find it built into the following categories of box at least:

  • TV sets (dubbed “Smart TV”)

  • Blu-ray players

  • Games consoles

  • Dedicated “network receivers” (such as those made by Roku)

  • Set top boxes – the things that receive TV from your cable/satellite provider

  • A variety of audio-only units dubbed “Internet radio players”

Many of the more expensive TVs now being sold have “Smart TV” features, in other words, they have an Internet-connected computer built in to the TV. This sounds appealing, since it means that everything can live in the one box with a single remote control, but the promise has yet to be fulfilled, for two reasons.

Sony SmartTV screen
Sony SmartTV screen
Firstly, the current Smart TV platforms do not allow you to browse the Internet openly: rather, they have a series of “Apps” for specific services such as YouTube, Netflix, Vimeo, iPlayer, etc. Manufacturers such as Sony, Samsung, LG and Panasonic compete on the range of apps available on their particular platform. You’ll need to check whether the on-demand videos you’re hoping to watch are available on the Smart TV you’re thinking of buying.

Secondly, Smart TV user interfaces have been of variable quality: it’s more or less impossible for a stick remote control to approach the flexibility that you can achieve with a touch screen or a computer keyboard/mouse. Everyone I’ve asked about Smart TV sets agrees that the early units had truly atrocious user interfaces but that these are improving; some are optimistic about the pace of UI improvements, others consider that pace to be glacial.

Similar technology to that found in TVs is being built into Blu-ray players. These offer a low cost way in to video streaming, with “Internet ready” Blu-ray players costing $100 (£70) or less. The same big caveats apply as those about Smart TV platforms.

Dedicated “network streaming players” such as those from Roku have user interfaces better suited to finding and playing videos, but they still suffer from the lack of a general purpose browser.

In the developed economies, you’re probably receiving your TV from a cable or satellite provider, using a set-top box they’ve given you. These too are likely to offer you access to videos from a restricted set of publishers determined by the your provider’s commercial arrangements.

In contrast, the newer games consoles offer general purpose web browsers. If you own one of these, the chances are that you’ve connected it to your main TV, so you should be able to use it to access most streaming services. Of course, the user interface devices are designed principally for game playing, so you may find them less than perfect for seeking out video on demand.

How to decide?

For most, the decision of which device to use is going to be heavily influenced by what you have already. If you’ve invested a thousand hours into ripping your CD library onto a computer, you’re not going to be interested in solutions which require you to scrap it. You may own an expensive TV or feel a close personal attachment to your iPad. But setting aside these innumerable possibilities for now, here’s my own approach. By all means, feel free to choose differently as to what’s important.

First, the broadband connection. Assuming that it’s available, I’d like something that gives me at least 10 Mbps of real download speed, which probably means one labelled as 20 Mbps. I probably don’t need much more that this, so I wouldn’t pay a lot more for 40 or even 60 Mbps.

Next, I would rather have wired connection everywhere than submit to the vagaries of WiFi. Yes, modern WiFi should be capable of the bandwidth required for HD video. But there’s something incredibly reassuring about knowing that you have a real 100 Mbps all to yourself with no interference – which is what you get with a wired Ethernet connection. (Gigabit Ethernet, by the way, is overkill for these purposes).

Next, I want to use a device with a full Internet browser. Although an increasing number of the video providers I use have offerings on Smart TVs, Smart DVDs etc, I want the reassurance of being able to get at everything and control it all with something better than a stick remote. Since I don’t own or want to buy a games console, that means using a computer. My first choice of a computer is a Mac mini, a choice driven solely by the fact that it doesn’t have a noisy fan. Most modern laptops would be acceptable in this regard; most modern desktop PCs would not.

I use a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, which are reliable at the far end of the room. It’s not perfect, but I’m willing to put up with this in order to have the combination of a general purpose browser and a wired connection. If you want something on your lap and are happy to use WiFi, I would go for the iPad/AppleTV combination (an Android tablet/Chromecast combination sounds similar, though it’s not yet available in Europe so I haven’t tried it out).

Here's a table showing some pros and cons of the main options for a living room setup: to keep it short, I’ve used Apple product names and branding for computers and tablets; substitute Android/Windows alternatives as appropriate.

Name Pros Cons
Mac mini – wired Unrestricted choice of videos, can also be used for music library Using keyboard/mouse at opposite end of room can be annoying
Macbook – wired Unrestricted choice of videos, can also be used for music library Expensive. Need to get across room to operate it.
Macbook / AppleTV Unrestricted choice of videos, can also be used for music library, convenient to use on lap Expensive. Dependent on WiFi reliability. Dependent on laptop battery.
iPad / AppleTV Nearly unrestricted choice of videos (no Flash), can also be used for music library (subject to memory limits), convenient to use on lap Dependent on WiFi reliability. Dependent on iPad battery. iPad streaming can be less reliable than a full computer.
Smart TV Simplest hardware setup (only one box), avoids cost of extra computer/iPad Some or all videos you want may not be available. User interface for selection may be poor.
Smart Blu-ray Low cost Some or all videos you want may not be available. User interface for selection may be poor.

 

This article has covered the networking and video aspects. In the second article in this series, I’m going to talk about the choices for your audio setup, with a passing mention for the questions of remote control and multi-room access. Until then, I hope it’s been useful.

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