Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer and SiriusXM all come with access to over 30 million songs. Deezer and Tidal have the largest libraries with over 50 million, but Spotify has far more subscribers in part due to its broader compatibility with devices.
Only Tidal and Deezer offer lossless uncompressed audio. Pandora delivers the lowest resolution at 192Kbpb, while Apple Music and Amazon Music cap out at 256Kbps. The rest can stream at 320Kbps.
Pro tip: Spotify does not stream at 320Kbps as a default. You’ll need to change quality to ‘Very high’ and ensure ‘Normalize volume’ is turned off (normalization reduces dynamic range on certain tracks by compressing them.)
Pandora is the king of recommendation algorithms. The others all come with curated playlists updated on at least a weekly basis. Slacker Radio has particularly well-curated stations and playlists. Spotify shines with shareable user-built playlists, but their recommendations often lock you into a genre. Apple Music promotes more cross-genre exploration and has more obscure and live tracks to stumble upon.
Pro tip: In Pandora you can view every song you’ve ever liked by channel (even in the free version.) You can then create an IFTTT recipe that automatically adds these songs to a playlist on Spotify.
Tidal offers some great long-form editorial pieces, while Slacker and SiriusXM include live talk and sports channels. Most streaming services now include podcasts, though in our opinion Spotify navigates them most intuitively. (Apple Music doesn’t directly include them, but iTunes – which integrates tightly – does.) Amazon Music is the weakest in this category, though Prime Membership does come with podcasts and audiobooks.
While Amazon Music won’t let you upload your own audio files, Apple Music, Google Play Music and Spotify will. Apple Music is particularly smooth at integrating your local without uploading them thanks to their iTunes integration. If you do upload them, iTunes Match is a great way to clean up your meta-data. For those outside of the Apple ecosystem, Media Monkey is a solid tool to make sure your songs are properly tagged and the right album art is downloaded.
Pro tip: Lossless collections stored on a computer need the right DAC (digital-to-audio converter) to send the full file to your speaker system. Audioquest’s DragonFly USB DAC is the best solution we’ve found for under $100.
Sonos has the most powerful interface for managing multiple streaming services for two reasons:
Cross-platform search: Its single search bar will show relevant results from all your services in real time.
Playlists: Sonos lets you combine tracks from your local library and various streaming services onto a single playlist.
You can also stream directly to a Sonos speaker from within the Spotify App, and more recently from within Apple Music.
A growing number of smart speakers are integrating Google Assistant and Alexa, both of which integrate tightly with their own music services (Google Play Music and Amazon Music.) They also support specific commands on Spotify.
Spotify offers its own (very capable) voice control feature in its App. Finally, Siri (and therefore HomePod) works beautifully with Apple Music, but not with Spotify.
Sonos is also adept at handling and switching between multiple inputs. Putting on a record will automatically trigger Sonos to switch to the correct input (unless you’re currently streaming, in which case you can manually switch inputs from the App.) You will also be able to listen to your records from every wirelessly connected Sonos speaker in your home.
Bonus: As of this month Sonos now lets you set max volumes by speaker, allowing you to hand over controls to guests without fear of upsetting your neighbors.
Yesterday we were thrilled to have hosted over 100 members of the Architecture & Design community at the Savant Experience Center in Soho for a day of education, entertainment and networking. With courses by Lutron, Savant, Seura, Leon, Sonos and Seura we were able to issue 223 CEUs to the A&D community in a relaxed and engaging environment. A big thanks to all of the presenters and attendees. Looking forward to next year’s AIA Summit
The four DIY voice platforms trying to permeate the home currently are:
Benefits: Controls more third-party devices than any other platform, and integrates cleanly with Amazon shopping. It also recognizes different voices and adjusts to the behavior of each user.
Challenges: Prone to mistakes, struggles to execute multiple commands in a row and is barely available on your smartphone.
Conclusion: While Amazon’s platform is the most broadly compatible, the control it provides is relatively shallow. Combined with weak speech recognition, Alexa tends to disappoint beyond basic needs.
Benefits: Recognizes natural language better than any other, and handles multiple command strings impressively. Like Alexa, it recognizes multiple voice profiles.
Challenges: Integrates with far fewer devices than Alexa, and requires a slightly more cumbersome wake word (“OK Google…”)
Conclusion: While behind Alexa in its breadth of compatibility, Google Assistant still integrates with the most sought-after products (Nest, Hue, Sonos), and controls them more intuitively than any other platform thanks to its natural speech recognition.
Benefits: Thoughtfully integrates with Apple products (especially Apple TV), as well as the limited number of HomeKit-compatible devices.
Challenges: Integrates poorly outside of the Apple ecosystem, limits users to a single voice profile, and struggles to execute multiple command strings.
Conclusion: The obvious choice for the Apple loyalist, Siri’s mediocre performance becomes almost unusable when trying to integrate products outside of Apple.
Benefits: Recognizes natural language second only to Google, and handles multiple command strings beautifully.
Challenges: Integrates with far fewer devices than Alexa, and comes built into far fewer products than Alexa or Google Assistant.
Conclusion: A surprisingly capable platform despite being the least known of the group, Bixby becomes a sensible option for owners of newer Samsung appliances and/or TVs, with which it integrates smoothly.
Typical Use Cases
Google Assistant, Siri and Bixby are all available in their own powerful speaker (Home Max, HomePod and Galaxy Home respectively), while Alexa comes in a variety of weaker-performing speakers. However, Alexa is built directly into SONOS, the leaders in wireless audio (Google Assistant is expected to follow suit by end of 2018.)
Bixby has a long-term partnership with Spotify that promises deeper integration than the competition, while the rest favor their own music streaming services (Apple Music, Amazon Music and Google Play Music.) However, Apple is the only platform that really tries to lock you into its music service.
Alexa and Google Assistant integrate with their own streaming dongles (Fire TV and Chromecast), but Google prevents YouTube from natively working on Fire TV while Amazon prevents Prime Video from working natively on Chromecast. Otherwise, they offer the same Apps (Netflix, HBO GO, etc.)
Siri wins by integrating with Apple TV, which is the superior streaming device thanks to its smooth control and intuitive cross-App search.
Bixby is a built-in feature in 2018 Samsung Smart TVs, eliminating the need for a separate device altogether. It also overlays search results (TV shows, Spotify, weather) without obstructing what you’re currently watching.
While Alexa integrates with the most third-party brands, all four platforms integrate with DIY leaders Philips Hue and Lutron Caseta.
More advanced systems for lighting, shading and the rest of the home should be controlled by a smarthome platform. All leading smarthome platforms can now trigger scenes and make adjustments using Alexa and Google Assistant.
Just For Your Home
While the platforms discussed above try to tackle voice for every application, Josh AI’s singular goal is to master home control. This comes with a few advantages:
Natural language recognition – Since other platforms are listening for every command possible, they require very specific phrasing to categorize and identify your request, rejecting minor variations. Josh AI only cares about your home, allowing more leniency in how you phrase things (“Turn the lights up” = “Make it brighter” = “Lights brighter.“)
Context awareness – Saying “turn the lights on” in the bedroom shouldn’t turn on the whole home. Asking for The Beatles should assume you’re asking for music. Playing ‘Mad Men’ should assume you’d like to resume where you leftoff last time. Josh AI’s limited focus allows them to accomplish this contextual awareness more elegantly than other platforms.
Privacy flexibility – Josh AI can be switched into conversation mode where it listens to everything you say, allowing you to think out loud as you control your home without constantly using the wake word. Conversely, your privacy can be tightened up with a mode that listens after the wake word but saves nothing to its servers.
Thanks to Alex Capecelatro (CEO of Josh AI) for sitting down with us.
When we sat down with lighting expert Gary Gordon, he pointed out 3 common issues in homes and offices:
1. The wrong quantity of light.
2. The space is over-fixtured.
3. There is too much glare.
Here are some important concepts to be aware of before designing your next space:
Watts vs Lumens
Watts measure power consumption. Lumens measure brightness.
After phasing out power-hungry incandescent bulbs, the two popular choices are compact fluorescent (CFL) and light-emitting diode (LED.) LEDs can put out more lumens using fewer watts. They also last longer and emit less heat.
The warmness or coolness of white light, measured in Kelvin.
Warm Light: Anything below 3,500K begins to have a yellowish appearance. This has a calming effect, likely due to our evolutionary attraction to fire.
Cool light: Anything above 3,500K begins to have a bluish appearance. Great for focus but terrible for rest, as it controls your circadian clock by reducing melatonin.
CFLs used to provide a warmer, more natural temperature than LED. This is no longer the case as LEDs can be tuned to simulate CFLs, and even adjust throughout the day for a natural feel at all times.
Illuminance vs Luminance
Illuminance measures how much light falls onto a surface. Luminance measures how brightly that light reflects off of the surface.
Lighting designers measure lumens per square foot (often referred to as lux or foot-candles) to determine ideal brightness around a room. Ideal illuminance is determined by a space’s purpose, while attention to luminance can help avoid glare and its debilitating effects.
How accurately a light reveals the various colors around the room. Comparing how colors are perceived when illuminated by your light source versus a natural light source like the sun, accuracy is rated on a scale of 1 – 100. This is called the Color Rendering Index (CRI.)
Both fluorescent and LED bulbs vary in CRI from low 60s to high 90s. Lights closer to 60 can appear different from each other even out of the same box. We recommend using lights with a CRI above 90.
Our Visit to Ketra
With dozens of patents and a remarkable approach to LED lighting, we wanted to check out Ketra as soon as possible to see what all the hype was about. Watch the video to see our experience.
The standard for data, every new version gets better at transmitting more of it with less interference. Manufacturers must abide by these standards so that everything works together.
Cat5e: The standard of the early 2000s, and the current cheapest way to get up to 1 Gbps of bandwidth (less after 55 meters.)
Cat6: 10x faster at 10 Gbps, but dwindles after only 37 meters.
Cat6a: Extends that 10 Gbps to a reliable 100 meters.
Cat7: 10x faster again at 100 Gbps, but bandwidth drops off after 15 meters and it has one glaring flaw: There is still no industry standard for it. Manufacturers aren’t using Cat7 and another standard might come along before they adopt.
Category cables are backward compatible and use the lowest common denominator of the devices they connect. Speed is limited by the weakest component in your system.
The future of data uses pulses of light instead of waves. Benefits over category cable include immunity to electromagnetic interference, improved security, and the ability to travel much longer distances.
Downsides include price and its inability to carry power (category cable can run power along with data to minimize clutter around many of your devices.)
While fiber is the best choice for future proofing, it’s also the best for 4K video over 100 feet. Anything shy of fiber will compress the color sampling to a noticeable degree.
The current standard for carrying video, audio and basic control short distances across a single wire. It’s not reliable beyond 15 feet (you can find 50 feet high end options with varying levels of reliability), which is why we find it in home theater setups where all components are right next to the TV.
A work-around here is to use a balun or network extender, which converts the HDMI signal to a category cable which you run at a longer distance. Then you convert it back to HDMI at the other end.
Coaxial (RG6 / RCA)
Mostly found between your wall and the cable box, RG6 connections are problematic but exist because your cable company needs to encrypt the content they deliver for copyright protection.
RG6 is not relevant for TV connections anymore unless you want to use the built-in over air antenna, but we still use RG6 for extending digital audio connections (S/PDIF) and sending line level analog audio to devices like subwoofers and powered speakers.
RCA cables are also technically coaxial cables, and still the standard for unbalanced analog audio sources, like turntables.
Optical / TOSLINK
TOSLINK is a specific type of fiber cable for audio only. Most songs are delivered digitally yet amplifiers are inherently analog, so the signal has to get converted somewhere. Unfortunately most devices do not convert it well. To keep your signal digital until it reaches a digital audio converter (usually called DAC for short) that knows what it’s doing, optical is a smart interconnect.
The connections between amp and speakers, their effect on sound has been the subject of great debate. We do know that thicker gauge cable will move power better over longer distances (we avoid going over 150 feet in general.) We also know that you need to have high quality components for the speaker cable to have any audible impact at all.
We use 14/4 speaker cable as a standard for all in-wall and in-ceiling speaker runs. 14 stands for the gauge and 4 is the amount of conductors.
Lighting & Shading
These systems require proprietary cables that run two conductors for power, as well as two conductors for communication. Explore more about Lighting & Shading, or get in touch with us with questions.
This month we’re thrilled to announce the addition of Michael Dye to our team as our new Architect Specialist. Michael has racked up over a decade of experience with Magnolia as a Project Manager, System Designer and Consultation Agent for end users and trade professionals.
Our Architect Specialist role demands a tricky combination of technical prowess and relationship management; A resource who can add real tangible value to the Architects and Designers we interface with on our projects. After meeting Michael it was clear that his passion for the industry, sharpness and absence of ego made him a fit for our culture. However it was his mock AIA Presentation that affirmed Architect Specialist as the ideal role in which to apply his talents.
Michael is well-versed and formally trained in many of our key brand partners (Lutron, McIntosh Labs, Bowers & Wilkins, Control4.) More importantly, he shares Cloud9’s philosophy on technology: Excitement over it’s potential, balanced with a healthy dose of practicality; A bridge between the bleeding edge and everyday life.
Also, we can nerd out with him on speakers and control interfaces. He’ll fit right in.