How I (almost) succeeded in getting an Echo to work well with my soundbar — and all my other components

My wife asserts that, should I die first, she will get rid of almost all the audio-video and computer equipment we now own. It’s not that she doesn’t enjoy using the equipment. She does. It’s just that she believes it will be hopeless for her to maintain the plethora of technology without my assistance.

I’m sympathetic. We currently have three TVs. Each is connected to a TiVo device, an Apple TV, a Blu-ray (or DVD) player and some sort of speaker/amplifier. Each TV setup also has its own Harmony Remote. Meanwhile, our office houses three Macs, two printers, a document scanner and a label printer. My wife and I each have our own iPhone; we share an iPad Pro. There are three Amazon Echo devices scattered about our home. Our initial foray into the world of smart home devices includes a Ring doorbell and a Nest webcam. And all of this is tied together via a complex network that employs both Wi-Fi and Ethernet.

One consequence of all of this complexity is that, anytime we add or replace a component, it may trigger a cascade of unintended and undesired consequences that can take days — or even weeks — to fully resolve.

That’s exactly what happened a few months ago — when I embarked on an “adventure” triggered by my admiration for the Amazon Echo. With the Echo linked to my Spotify account, I could speak to Alexa from almost anywhere on our main floor, request a music selection (such as “Alexa, play the Hamilton original Broadway cast album” or “Alexa, play music by Little Big Town”) and within seconds the requested music would begin. Incredible! Literally without lifting a finger, I had access to almost every recorded song in existence.

There was only one problem: the inferior quality of the sound. Don’t get me wrong. The original Amazon Echo produces surprisingly good audio for its size — better than almost any comparable small or portable speaker. But sitting just a few feet away from the Echo, connected to my TV, were a Yamaha soundbar and subwoofer capable of far better sound. I was already occasionally using the soundbar for music — via the Apple TV. But that arrangement couldn’t duplicate the “magic” of the Echo’s always-ready voice recognition.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” I mused, “if I could use the Amazon Echo for music selections and have the audio play from the soundbar? I could have my cake and it eat it too, as it were.” It sounded simple enough to do. [Spoiler alert: It’s significantly less simple than it sounds.]

A tale of two Echos and two soundbars

The first thing I realized is that the original Echo cannot connect out to a speaker — neither via a Bluetooth nor a wired connection. To do this, you need the Echo Dot. In fact, the Dot almost requires an external speaker for music (as its small internal speaker is far too weak). So I bought an Echo Dot.

I could have connected the Dot to my soundbar via a wired connection. But I quickly dismissed this as impractical. The dealbreaker was that a wired connection totally disables the Dot’s internal speaker. This meant that I couldn’t hear any audio from the Dot — unless the Yamaha was turned on and the proper input selected (which it most often would not be). In other words, when the sound bar was off, I couldn’t use Alexa for any non-music tasks, such as asking for a weather report or setting a timer.

Connecting the Dot to the soundbar via Bluetooth seemed to offer a better chance of success — except for one thing: my 11-year-old Yamaha YSP-800 soundbar did not support Bluetooth. To use Bluetooth, I would need to get a new soundbar! I had been thinking about getting a new one anyway, for other reasons. This pushed me over the edge. After weeks of internal debate, I settled on a Yamaha YAS-706. It comes with Yamaha’s MusicCast — which provides Bluetooth, AirPlay, Wi-Fi and Internet audio options — all with access via an iOS app. The soundbar also supports every physical connection I might want (multiple HDMI ports, optical audio and coaxial audio). Quite impressive!

It took a day or two to get the new soundbar comfortably connected to all my other devices. It mostly went smoothly except for a glitch with the Harmony Remote: the remote would not reliably turn off the soundbar when doing so as part of a auto-sequence of turning off multiple devices. Consulting with Logitech, we eventually determined that the cause was the HDMI-CEC feature on the Yamaha. Disabling the option got things working pretty much as I wanted. I was now ready to make the Bluetooth connection from the Echo Dot to the new soundbar.

Initial tests of the setup were promising. The Dot was capable of turning the Yamaha on and connecting to it via a voice command — even if the speaker was presently off. And, unlike with the wired connection, there was no Input selection switching to worry about. It all just worked. And, if the Bluetooth connection was lost, the Dot would default back to its internal speaker. This was all great.

Unfortunately, a few problems persisted. First and foremost, although the setup usually worked as just described, it would fail on occasion. The causes were typically obscure — usually involving a failure to make the correct Dot-to-Yamaha Bluetooth connection. There were also occasional temporary sound dropouts. And, a couple of times, the Echo started playing music through its own speaker while I was watching TV, for no apparent reason! Without near 100% reliability, I was reluctant to commit to the Echo setup.

Second, the sound quality of the Bluetooth connection (although obviously a big improvement over any Echo speakers) was noticeably inferior to what the new soundbar was otherwise capable of producing (which I assumed was due to the sound compression used when sending music over Bluetooth). Third, the volume control on the Echo does not affect the volume setting on the Yamaha; they are separate and independent. This can require making manual adjustments to both devices to achieve a desired volume level. Ultimately, for all of these reasons, I began to consider other possible ways to use the soundbar for music.

The AirPlay and Wi-Fi alternatives

For selecting and playing music in a way similar to using Alexa, an obvious second choice is the iPhone. I could connect to the Yamaha from my iPhone via Bluetooth (which I ignored, deciding that this method belonged to the Echo), via AirPlay or via app-specific options (notably Spotify Connect — which employs a high-audio quality Wi-Fi connection). I soon settled on Spotify Connect as my preferred choice. With this, after a one time setup, I could launch the Spotify app on my iPhone and almost instantly select and play music through the soundbar. The sound quality was also superior to the Bluetooth connection.

The biggest disadvantage to Spotify Connect (and it’s a huge one) is that I can’t use voice commands to make requests. Not only can’t I request a song selection via voice, but I can’t request to pause or skip songs — as I can easily do with Alexa. An app called Melody claims to solve these issues, but it really doesn’t. As an alternative, I experimented with using Siri to control Apple Music/iTunes over AirPlay — but couldn’t get this to work to my satisfaction. The foremost problem here is that Siri sucks at this task. Too often, I had to tap an option on the iPhone screen to complete a voice request, defeating the hands-free ideal. And Siri was far worse than Alexa at correctly interpreting my requests.

However, both of these iPhone options are more convenient than my “old” method of going from my Mac to the Apple TV, as they connect directly to the soundbar, avoiding the need to turn on the television and the Apple TV. [I also like that I can set iTunes on my Mac to simultaneously play music on my Mac and directly on the Yamaha — mimicking a multi-room audio system.]

Bottom line

As of now, when listening to music, I most often use the iPhone-Spotify-Yamaha connection. It results in high quality sound with very good convenience. Or, if I want to listen to playlists in my iTunes Library, I’ll make an AirPlay connection directly from my iPhone to the Yamaha. Still, they are both a bit disappointing. My initial goal was to combine the Alexa voice interface with the Yamaha soundbar. No iPhone option is a 100% substitute for Alexa.

That’s why I continue to experiment with using the Dot-Yamaha Bluetooth connection. Most recently, by making the Yamaha the only device to which the Echo Dot is paired, I have improved the setup’s reliability. So I have begun to use it more often. As a bonus, I recently discovered that, after starting to play music from Spotify over the Echo, I can launch the Spotify app on my iPhone and modify what will play from the Echo.

[As a side note, Yamaha has announced that, sometime this fall, “MusicCast products will receive a free firmware update enabling control using Amazon’s Alexa voice service.” While I’m not exactly certain what this means, I am guessing it will permit things such as modifying the Yamaha’s volume, inputs and sound modes. But if that’s all it does, it will not significantly alter the capabilities covered here.]

All of this remains a work in progress. A final decision on a “permanent” setup may be weeks or months away. The simple truth is that the original Amazon Echo remains unmatched for its ability to instantly and reliably play music via a voice command — with decent (although not exceptional) sound quality. Nothing else I’ve tried entirely duplicates that magic. But I’m getting close.

Posted in A/V equipment, Apple Inc, Entertainment, iOS, iPhone, Mac, Technology | 1 Comment

Trump’s Fake News Conference

It’s ironic that, at his first news conference as President-elect, Donald J. Trump lashed out at various news media, especially CNN and BuzzFeed, accusing them of being “fake news.” BuzzFeed earned the additional distinction of being castigated as a “failing pile of garbage.” The irony is that Trump’s unjustified and unwarranted attacks against the media and the intelligence community revealed him to be biggest purveyor of fake news of anyone in the room.

Fake news is when you promote a story as fact that you know, or should know, is false. And you do so for political or financial gain. That is exactly what Trump did, years ago, when he contended that Obama’s birth certificate was a forgery and that Obama was not really born in the United States. There was no evidence to support this claim. It was solidly debunked at the time — and even Trump now admits it is not true.

While Trump’s original claim can qualify as “fake news,” the label would not apply to news sources that report his claim — as long as they note the lack of evidence behind the assertion. If this were not the case, then every news media in the country would qualify as fake news — as they all reported on Trump’s assertion. It was Trump and similarly unscrupulous blogs, by continuing to promote the phony story as true — in the face of all evidence to the contrary — who were the guilty parties here.

Returning to the present, the same logic applies to CNN, BuzzFeed and other sources that disclosed the existence of a document which purports to contain damaging information Russia has on Trump — while correctly noting the information contained in the document is unverified. This is not fake news! Because I believe this distinction is so critical, I want to go through the logic in step-by-step detail:

• The document, as described in the previous paragraph, exists. Therefore, claiming it exists is not a falsehood. Ergo, the claim is not fake news.

• The intelligence community (IC) briefed Trump about the existence of such a document. Although there was some initial uncertainty about whether the briefing took place, it has now been clearly confirmed. Thus, any media claiming that such a briefing occurred is not disseminating fake news. Even when there was uncertainty, there was no sense that the reporting was part of a deliberate attempt to mislead the public.

• The controversial document contains supposed information Russia has concerning Donald Trump. No one — no matter what side of the political fence they are on — disputes this. The only question in dispute is the truth of the allegations in the document. So…reporting that the document contains these allegations is not fake news.

• The allegations are, by all accounts, unverified. Part or all of the information in the document may be false. To suggest that the document’s findings represent established fact would be perpetrating “fake news.” But that’s not what CNN or BuzzFeed did. They clearly acknowledged the dubious nature of the information. Once again: Reporting the details of a possible hoax is not the same as perpetrating a hoax.

• BuzzFeed, unlike almost all other media, not only reported the existence of the document but posted its actual content — revealing details of the damaging claims. As it turns out, many other news organizations were already familiar with this material, having been given the document months before. However, they had refrained from going public with the story precisely because the information could not be verified. Was it a poor journalistic decision for BuzzFeed to publish potentially damaging unverified claims — possibly undeservedly harming Trump’s reputation? Probably so — although the standard for the “public’s right to know” is certainly different for the President than for an “ordinary citizen.”

Regardless, the posted information was, in fact, the actual content of the document. BuzzFeed did not invent the document. As long as they clearly indicated that the information was unverified, it is not fake news.

But, while we’re here, let’s consider the other side of this coin. At this point, the actual truth of many of the allegations remains unknown. Some may be false but others may be accurate. While Trump asserts they are all false (which is the origin of his “fake news” mischaracterization), others (including reputable people in the intelligence community) have reason to believe a significant portion of the material may turn out to be true. If so, this would obliterate any claims of fake news here.

• Was there a political motivation behind going public with this story? Possibly. But so what? That is an entirely separate issue. For example, as we all now know, Wikileaks, during the presidential campaign, released a series of documents obtained from the hacking of the DNC. By all accounts, the hacking and release of the information was politically motivated, designed to hurt Hillary Clinton’s election chances. That didn’t make it “fake news.” To the contrary, the leaked information appeared to be entirely accurate.

• It’s additionally worth noting that Trump accused the intelligence community of leaking this Russia/Trump story. Although we still don’t know the details of how the story was leaked, we do know that the original document was not an intelligence document, was not a classified document and was in the possession of many news sources prior to the intelligence briefing last week. Thus, it is entirely plausible that the intelligence community had nothing to do with the leak of the document. To accuse these organizations of doing so, with such assurance and with no evidence, is not only unjustified, it is edging dangerously close to promoting fake news.

Summing it all up, the real culprit at Trump’s “fake news conference” was neither CNN nor BuzzFeed — nor the FBI or the the CIA. It was Trump himself.

“What’s the big deal here?,” you may ask. Why does correctly assigning the “fake news” label matter so much? It matters a great deal. When Trump points a finger at a CNN reporter and unfairly castigates the news organization, it blurs the distinction not only between what is and isn’t fake news but between what is and isn’t true in general. It encourages false equivalences between legitimate news sites and the true promoters of fake news. It makes it that much harder for average citizens to disentangle fact from fiction and that much easier to get away with lies. And that is exactly what a demagogue would hope to accomplish.

When a person in power in government shamefully discredits a legitimate news source — falsely painting it with a brush of fake news —  it amounts to a form of censorship. To the extent that the false claim is accepted by the public, it shuts down the voice of the news source — and offers an implied threat to all other media that might similarly challenge the government. In the end, the only beneficiary of such action is the demagogue himself. It is in all of our interests to not let this happen!

Posted in Media, Politics | 2 Comments

What a surprise! Trump supporters still support Trump

After months of cheering Trump’s assertions that the Russians had nothing to do with hacking the DNC during the election, even the most ardent of Trump’s supporters are now beginning to acknowledge that maybe the Russians were behind the hacking after all. And that it was done in an effort to promote Trump’s chances of victory. Apparently, even with their blinders on, they could not totally dismiss the findings of the intelligence report released Friday.

But don’t get ready to get off your chair and applaud. Nothing has really changed.

On the surface, the revelations should not present a problem for Trump or his supporters. After all, Trump had nothing directly to do with the hacking (other than perhaps behaving in a way that made him more likable to Putin). And even if it could be proven that Clinton would have won the election had the hacking not taken place (which can never be proven anyway), it doesn’t make Trump’s victory illegitimate. A lot of things might have shifted the election results had they been different. This is just one of them. Such speculation certainly won’t cause the results to be overturned. Trump won and remains the winner. End of story.

And yet…much like Trump himself…his supporters seem so threatened by the potential political implications of these findings…that they feel compelled to discredit the findings in any way they can. Even when such efforts make no sense. As cited in this New York Times article, Trump’s supporters are crying “sour grapes” and “bunch of crybabies.” I’m sorry, but who exactly is the crybaby here? Is the implication that the entire U.S. intelligence community is under the control of the Democratic party — and that the Democrats are thus behind the report? Even for paranoid-leaning conservatives, that seems a stretch.

It doesn’t stop there. As the headline of the article indicates, the shift has gone from “the Russians didn’t do it” to “who cares if they did?” Or, as one person interviewed said of the Russian interference, “If that’s what it took, I’m glad they did it.”

The lack of self-insight reflected by these comments is sadly disturbing (although not at all surprising given what we know from prior coverage). For one thing, its hypocrisy violates the golden rule of politics (as I covered in the previous posting here). That is, let’s imagine that Clinton had won the election due to Russian hacking directed against Trump. Would these same people still be saying “Big deal” and “Who cares”? If your answer is anywhere in the vicinity of “yes,” there’s a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

The Trump supporters’ reactions also show a strangely cavalier attitude to what amounts to a foreign government’s intrusion into our essential democratic processes — a reaction that would seem to be at odds with typical right wing conservative positions. Apparently, if some fact negatively impacts Trump, denying or trivializing the fact trumps all other considerations.

Finally, a minor gripe: The New York Times article in question, which quoted conservatives in Louisiana and Indiana, was on today’s front page, above the fold. Why? This is hardly news anymore. I’m not against hearing the conservative viewpoint. In fact, I want to know what it is. But we’ve seen variations of this article over and over — for months. It’s now about as interesting as discovering that progressives in California and Massachusetts have a starkly different view. We’re not learning anything new. Trump supporters will filter any information they get so that it still winds up favoring Trump. We get it. Enough already. Their myopia doesn’t deserve to keep getting this much attention.

Posted in Media, Politics | 1 Comment

Democrats vs. Republicans: “The Chicago Way”

When it comes to politics, as in other aspects of my life, I do my best to avoid being hypocritical. In particular, I try to follow the golden rule of political debate: Do not criticize your opponent for doing something that, if the situation were reversed, you would support.

For example, I was against the attempts to get Electoral College electors pledged to Trump to change their vote — primarily because I knew that, if the situation were reversed, I would consider it wrong for Clinton electors to switch. No matter how strongly I feel Trump is a terrible choice for President, he won the election — and that should be respected without resorting to gimmicks to attempt to reverse the outcome.

Still, it can be hard to live by this admonition consistently. I am not always successful. And even when I believe I am succeeding, my opponents sometimes interpret events to suggest I am not. A possibility here could be my criticism of the plethora of lies that emanate from Trump’s mouth. Opponents might argue that Democrats, especially Hillary Clinton, lie with equal frequency. I might counter that this is a false equivalence, that non-partisan evidence indicates that Trump is in a category by himself in this regard. In the end, my opponents may remain unconvinced. But at least I know I tried to follow the rule.

Unfortunately, in Washington, politicians too often ignore the golden rule cavalierly and with impunity. This is true for both Democrats and Republicans. But I believe Republicans do it far more often and more egregiously — almost contemptuously so.

And, in Washington, it’s not just a matter of debating points. Decisions often translate into actions. The recent example that most stands out for me here is the GOP’s refusal to allow any consideration of Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. This was an unprecedented action. And the GOP’s rationale for their action (that it was too close to the presidential election to have a vote) was not only without merit, it was clearly a violation of the golden rule. It’s 100% certain, that if the situation were reversed, the Republicans would be crying foul. Big time.

It gets worse. Back in October, when it looked almost certain that Clinton would win, Republicans began seriously floating the idea that they would block anyone and everyone that Clinton might nominate. As the linked article stated: Whenever “Republicans have run up against some norm that restricts them from doing what they’d like, {they say} to themselves, ‘Well, why don’t we just violate this norm? There’s no law against it.’ {In such cases,} Republicans calculated that the ultimate political effect of violating the norms would be negligible. That calculation has turned out to be largely correct.”

Indeed! It certainly worked out well for them with the Garland non-confirmation.

All of this has forced me to reconsider my adherence to the golden rule. The problem with trying to stick to the rule is that, if your opponents make absolutely no effort to do the same (as is the ongoing situation in Washington), you keep winding up on the losing end. It’s like taking your fists to a fight where “no weapons” had been the norm — and finding your opponent with a gun. You get killed. And if there is no cost for wielding a metaphorical “gun,” there is a clear incentive for politicians to continue to do so. At some point, for survival, you have to reconsider your reticence.

You can stick with the high ground (“When they go low, we go high,” as Michelle Obama said). But that assumes there is at least a chance for some ultimate reward by doing so. Such has not been the case in Washington in recent years. As most evident by Trump’s victory, the low ground has been having immense success.

That’s why I am now strongly considering supporting Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s stance to potentially block Trump’s Supreme Court nominees. And it’s also why, although I have been consistently against the Senate’s current filibuster rules, I will not object to their use here. {Lacking any sense of irony, Mitch McConnell has warned that Americans “will not tolerate” this blocking.}

It’s similarly why I support Obama’s advice that Democrats not work with Republicans to replace Obamacare with something that is distinctly worse.

I would not advocate doing anything illegal — nor employing outright deception or lying. But aside from that, my position will be that, once the GOP has “violated the norms” on some issue, it’s fair game for the Democrats to do so as well. Hypocrisy be damned!

I’m not enthusiastic about going in this direction. I know Democrats will get heavily criticized (just as the Republicans have been). And Republicans will do their best to portray themselves as the innocent aggrieved party. But, in the current uber-divisive environment, I don’t see a better alternative.

And I know this doesn’t offer much hope for a more positive, less obstructionist government going forward. But we haven’t been heading in that direction anyway. It will take both sides working together to change the direction of government. One side can’t do it flying solo. Maybe having both sides down in the muck will finally be the spark to ignite a turn-around. I can hope.

Beyond that, all I can do is work to oppose the Trump agenda via every legal avenue that is available.*

In the end, I am reminded of the classic scene from The Untouchables (see below) where Sean Connery gives advice to Kevin Costner (playing Elliot Ness) as to how to “get Capone.” Politically speaking, I’m thinking it’s time for me to adopt “the Chicago Way.”

* For those interested in how best to “resist the Trump agenda,” I highly recommend the guide available at Indivisble.

Posted in Media, Politics | 1 Comment