best movie setup with Uniti Atom?

I've just purchased a Uniti Atom to replace an aging home theater setup, and am taking the opportunity to reconsider how I watch (and listen to) movies, especially those I have on Blu-Ray. In addition to the Atom I currently have a Sharp Aquos TV; a 2011 Mac Mini that's been acting as a home server; an Xbox One; a 4th-gen Apple TV; and a 2009ish Panasonic Blu-Ray player that probably cost like $200 at the time. Each device runs HDMI out to the TV, which then runs optical to the Atom.

To date, I've been watching Blu-Rays on the Xbox. I'm going to guess that's less than optimal from a video/audio standpoint, but I'd love to hear if others disagree. (Certainly I've seen it freeze from time to time.) I could switch over to the Panasonic, but I'm guessing that won't be much better since it's pretty old. I could invest in a nicer player, but it seems like I'd be spending a lot of money on a precision mechanism designed to optimize an inefficient method of delivering digital files—presumably better to just rip the Blu-Rays and deliver them from a hard drive. I don't have a ton of movies, so a straight-up rip without compression seems fine.

But then, how to deliver the files to the TV and Atom? This is where I start to get confused:

  • In ripping the movies, which audio tracks matter?
  • Once I've got the movie as a file, seems like the most straightforward thing to do is just connect the Mac Mini to the TV and watch via VLC. Works fine, but not a great lean-back experience.
  • I've looked briefly at Kodi for improving the experience, and it seems a bit better but not ideal—a little cumbersome and the remote options aren't great. But I'm presuming that from an audio/video experience it's also close to ideal?
  • I've also looked at Plex, which lets me interact via the more TV-centric Apple TV (Mini as server), and generally has a better UI. But I notice that at least on iOS clients, it's transcoding the audio as it plays. I don't know enough to know if that represents a loss of quality, but it seems at least like an unnecessary step and is hard on the poor little Mini. But I can't figure out how to avoid it.

I haven't investigated the ins and outs of the Xbox as client yet; and I'm not averse to buying more hardware, but not sure I need to. Ultimately I'm going for the best video/audio experience, combined with a smooth UI when operated from the couch. (No mouse/keyboard for sure, and phone-based remotes aren't my favorite.)

Any and all advice is welcome.

Thanks!

 

Original Post

Hello,

I don't yet have any naim products, but I have an atom on order (I'm being given a due date of Feb atm for a HDMI one). I'm also moving from 5.1 to stereo and have been running my denon amp in 2.1 for a few months now in prep. I have a cheap sony bluray and an appletv plugged into my LG tv and I have some apps o the tv itself which seem to work well.

I'm sure the optical connection will work fine, though I'd investigate getting the HDMI card for your atom if you don't have one. This should allow a level of comms (HDMI-CEC) between the TV and atom so when you turn the TV on, the atom will come automatically and set input to the audio return channel (ARC) from the TV, and the TV remote should control volume on the atom instead of the TV. The fact that the atom comes with a HDMI port was a complete show-stealer for me because of this.

For movie watching, I usually use netflix and amazon prime on the telly, but I also have a plex server running with the app on the TV as well. I also have the apps on my appletv.

To your questions

1. that would depend on the film and your preferences but I imagine most people would go for the best one. 7.1 truehd or whatever. Unless there's a dedicated stereo track just take the best one, it'll get downmixed to stereo by the source device anyway (see below)

2. That would work but as you say, not very intuitive. I've used both kodi and plex and found them generally excellent. If your TV has a DLNA client, then you could always run a upnp server and let the TV get your content that way, but then you have to be confident that your TV can deal with any codecs in your files.

3. for kodi, you could always get something like an amazon firestick or roku and install kodi (or plex) on that. it should have a better remote. Also, if everything supports HDMI-CEC then you'll probably be able to use your TV remote to control kodi and plex. (I don't think macs support CEC sadly)

4. I personally like and use plex for videos files. I use the app for my TV while it's supported. if it goes out of support then I have the app for my appletv as well. The ios client may well be transcoding, but you should be able to see what it's transcoding from and to in the server webpage. Generally with plex, if the client supports that audio or video codec then it'll send it through as-is. If the client does not support the codec then it'll transcode one or both. Video transcoding is hard work though any modern CPU should be fine with it. Audio transcoding I doubt would seriously tax any cpu from the last 10 years. Appletv's have relatively restricted codec support which might be why the audio is being transcoded.

For audio, I'd suggest using a uPNP server. your atom supports almost every codec anyway so doesn't need the transcoding, and you'd probably like to use the naim app rather than the plex or kodi apps. as it happens, plex runs a DLNA server as well so the naim app would be able to see your audio served up there, but I just use minimserver which is free and more focused on audio.

A couple of notes.

the appletv is a lovely device but it might not be ideal for audio as I believe the audio output is fixed at 48khz, so any other frequency would be scaled to that. the atom will play everything natively.

secondly, for films, you should expect to lose a bit of bass, even if you're augmenting stereo speakers with a subwoofer. this is due to the downmixing process and I've got to say, I think it's a bad design decision back in the history of surround sound. Let me explain.

think about a 5.1 film soundtrack; 5 full bandwidth tracks (L, R, C, SL, SR) and a limited bandwidth LFE track. Note that the LFE track is not designed to be a dedicated subwoofer track, though it is usually taken care of by the sub. When your DVD/Bluray sends a 5.1 (or 7.1 or atmos, whatever) track to your AV receiver it will look at it's speaker configuration and route the audio appropriately. If you have a 5.1 speaker setup then what usually happens is that it routes the LFE channel, and all the audio under (say) 80hz from the other 5 channels to the sub.

If your DVD player is connected to a stereo amp via phono's (or dgital to a stereo dac) then the DVD player itself must create a stereo mix to send to the amp. There are default rules for how to create this and the audio track engineer can influence that process too. The rears are usually mixed into the front on either side at a reduced volume and the centre channel split to LR with some processing. the LFE track though is just dropped. It is not mixed into the stereo downmix by a source at all. The reason for this is that the LFE channel is actually mixed at and can go 10db higher than the other channels, and is designed for ultra low frequencies. There was a concern that if they mixed this into the stereo mix that speakers not capable of going down to 20hz (which is almost *all* of them, very few speakers can hit 20hz at a reasonable volume, I can think of one off the top of my head) might suffer damage from being over driven.  Also, many people watch films using their TV speakers which can barely hit 100hz, never mind 20.

This argument sounds sensible until you find out how an AV receiver configured for stereo works, which is that it performs a stereo downmix like the source, but it knows what speakers you've got. If you've not got a sub then it'll includes the LFE channel on any speakers defined as "large", thus supposedly risking your speakers.

So what is the practical effect of losing this LFE channel? that varies from film to film. the LFE channel is as it says, an "effects" channel. The content there should also be on the main channels in some form but you may lose some ultra low slam. The reason I say "may" is because the 5 main channels are all full frequency. a mixing engineer can and sometimes do choose not make use of an LFE channel at all and put it all in the 5 channels, in which case, you'll lose nothing. More commonly though, you'll still hear the explosion and get all the details, but it won't rock the room as it would have done with an AV receiver which can control the downmix process.

Interestingly, you don't get this problem on the Arcam SR250 stereo amp because although it is only a 2 channel device, it has a dolby and dts decoder built in and dedicated connections for subwoofers, (and room correction as it happens) so it can control the downmix process and make sure you keep all the slam.

Hope this helps a bit.

 

Thanks David for the comprehensive reply. Some additional thoughts and questions in response:

  1. I wonder if my original assumption is actually a good one: Do I gain quality finding a source for view Blu-Rays other than the Xbox? I've now done some side-by-side comparison between the actual Blu-Ray in the Xbox and the ripped version in Kodi, and I'm not sure how much difference there is. The motion might be a little smoother in Kodi, the picture a little less grainy, but I could also be fooling myself.
  2. I doubt my TV has a DLNA client or, for that matter, an anything client; it's a 46" Sharp Aquos from 2007. Similarly, no HDMI-CEC as far as I can tell, so I'm not sure to what extent it'd be able to control or power on another device.
  3. You mention installing Plex or Kodi on a Fire stick or Roku. How does that work? Am I basically turning it into a Linux box, or does it install on top of the Fire's own OS?
  4. I can confirm that with the Mac Plex client no transcoding occurs, but with Xbox, iOS, or tvOS, it's transcoding. This raises a bunch of questions for me: (a) How do I know whether it's transcoding audio, video, or both? (b) Does transcoding involve a loss of quality? (c) Is there a way to do a one-time, lossless conversion to the relevant audio/video codecs for my client(s) so it's not transcoding in real time?
  5. I also tried using VLC's Apple TV client with Plex's uPnP server to see what would happen, but VLC doesn't see the relevant content and I can't figure out how to enable that.
  6. I don't know much about sample rate but have yet to see the Atom report anything coming in at something other than 48kHz—Xbox, Apple TV, or Mac. Can you elaborate on what factors one needs to consider in this area?
  7. Thanks for the explanation about the LFE channel. Makes sense. I presume, from the fact that you're going 2-channel with an Atom rather than an SR250, that you've concluded it's not a huge deal?

 

Evening!

1. I think it's an "it depends". I think video sources are a lot better than they used to be, especially for HD/4k content where the flaws are a lot smaller. you could spend a lot of money for a marginal increase in video quality. I use a cheap sony bluray player for the few occasions when I bust out a bluray. I don't currently think it's worth it to me anyway.

2. that's a shame. I find HDMI-CEC and ARC to be useful things. good excuse to buy a new tv?

3. well, bear in mind that fire sticks basically run a heavily modified version of android (which ultimately is linux as it happens). when you "hack" a firestick, you're allowing it to side-load and run an android app, here plex or kodi. so you're just installing an app on top of the current OS. of course, if you go for a roku streaming stick or one of their other players then there's no hacking needed. plex would just be in the roku store.

4. you should be able to see this in the "now playing" section in the plex server interface. hover the mouse over the icon showing the item you're playing and it should tell you what's being transcoded to what if anything. looking at my server and playing a file on my iphone, I see it saying:

Converting

Video  Transcoding MPEG4 to H264

Audio  Transcoding AC3 to AAC

Transcoding will involve some loss of quality with video, especially if it's transcoding "down" to a lower bitrate which is a plex feature for clients on the other end of the internet. I'd say that audio transcoding has the potential to be better, especially if it's going from one lossless codec to another, ALAC to WAV for example should be bitperfect. I currently do this using minimserver as my denon claims it supports alac, but doesn't. 

5. I'm not at my appletv at the moment, but I've tried it with VLC on my iphone and it works fine. make sure you're looking in the section marked "local network" and wait for the plex server to show up. obviously make sure you'r one the same local network

6. I don't have much experience of the Xbox I'm afraid. I had a classic some years ago which I used to play project gothamand I ran XBMC on it (well before it was renamed kodi) so I don't know about that. The appletv is I believe locked into 48khz but the mac can change it's output. Sadly, it doesn't change automatically, you've got to go and change it. IIRC, open up applications/utilities and find the midi setup app. in there, you can change the output bit-width and frequency and the mac will then make all audio output at that rate. Some mac audio players will change this for you as you load up different files though.

7. The big arcam has it's own challenges, one being that it's based on a receiver chassis and thus is huge. I do like that you get the full LFE channel with it, but I rather fancied the idea of an atom so there you go.

 

oh, I forgot..

4. Yes, you can do a one-time transcode. for video files I always used a tool called handbrake. it has presets for apple devices but you can set up your own. the video convert may not be lossless but there aren't any common lossless video codecs. pretty much all video is lossy as otherwise it would take up an unholy amount of data. However doing it beforehand and letting it take as long as it needs to is going to produce better results than transcoding on the fly.

5. you may need to turn plex's DLNA server on, I don't know if it's on by default. it's in the server under DLNA funnily enough

Quiet a few people, myself included, have had problems with HDMI to the Atom. Sometimes it doesn't work at all, sometimes it does. Whether or not it starts up automatically when the TV is turned on is hit and miss. And lip-sync is way out, despite my best efforts to adjust it on both the TV and the Atom. Naim are aware of the issues, and may be able to fix them, but I suspect it will not be easy.

As I understand it, the atom (or any uniti I suppose) will only accept HDMI-CEC commands (such as power on/off) when it has the HDMI input selected, hence you've got to set it to the HDMI input before you switch it off if you want it to come on with the TV. it also does no automatic input switching due to CEC either. While I've not had issues with lipsync, I had quite a lot of problems with the HDMI input locking onto the audio from the TV, sometimes having to switch inputs or turn it off several times to get it to pick up.

for me, HDMI functionality was critical, so sadly the unit has gone back and I need to find something else instead

David, what do you mean by  "locking onto the audio from the TV?"

I've been wondering about getting the HDMI card for the Atom (and perhaps it sounds like I should wait, but...) As previously mentioned, my TV is too old to support HDMI-CEC. Will it at least be able to turn on the Atom and/or switch it to the TV input when I turn on the TV?

Also, returning to the original topic:

  • While it seems there's no way to go through Plex and its iOS/Xbox/AppleTV apps without transcoding a ripped Blu-Ray, the VLC apps on all those devices can play the movie without transcoding just fine. So that's probably my solution for now. The experience isn't ideal, in part because of the unnecessary level of folder hierarchy (Videos > Movies > All Movies > By Title) Plex chooses to expose, but it's perhaps not such a big deal. I have vague dreams of monkeying around in the VLC or Plex codebase to address it, or filing a bug with Plex to include VLC's codecs in their app, but anyway it works.
  • And of course that also gives me a DLNA server that the Atom can talk to for music—though again with that annoying folder hierarchy.

 

CEC has been around for some time now, so it's worth checking if your TV does support it. I think that with Sharp's it was called "aquos link", but it's basically CEC. If your TV doesn't support CEC then it might not support ARC in which case, the HDMI port would be of little use to you I think. 

If your TV does have CEC and ARC support, then you can plug the atom into the TV's HMDI-ARC port (it should be labelled as such) and set the atom to it's HDMI input, config the TV to output audio via ARC and it should work. but the atom will only listen to CEC commands if it's set to the HDMI input. so if it was set to internet radio when you turned it off, then turning the TV on won't turn it on too or switch the inputs. If it was set to the HDMI input when you switched it off, then turning the TV on would turn the atom on. I found the HDMI support to be quite buggy though and frequently it would be set to the HDMI input, but just say "no input signal". Naim told me that they have a big update coming in march to fix a number of HDMI issues, but it wouldn't provide HDMI input switching, which is what I wanted.

Of course, if your TV doesn't support ARC or CEC, then just use an optical cable from the TV to the atom, select that input and use the volume control on the atom. I have no reason to believe that it's not reliable, but I never used it.

HTH

 

I'm 90% confident my TV doesn't have CEC / Aquos Link. Or at least I wasn't able to find any evidence that it does—and it's from 2007, so pretty old in TV years. The setup I have now is exactly what you described: optical out from TV to Atom. It works well generally, though occasionally one or both speakers will cut out. (I just filed a report of that with Naim.)

But what I was hoping is that when I turn on the TV, the Naim will input-switch automatically to HDMI so I can avoid fiddling with extra remotes. Sounds like even with a new TV (or another amp, for that matter) that's not going to be possible, which means potentially upgrading my universal remote to one that supports something other than IR.

That behaviour where the TV switches on and switches inputs on the amp is exactly what I wanted the HDMI equipped atom to do, and exactly what my 7 year old denon receiver already does very reliably! the atom will do remote switch on and react to the tv remote's volume presses, but it won't switch from other inputs. Naim have no plans to implement HDMI input switching as, to use their words, "it is not simply a soundbar and as such it is expected for it to behave as an audio system and not a soundbar". Even though the airplay functionality already performs auto-input switching...

as far as I know, there are no universal remotes that will control the atom. the factory remote is based on the zigbeee RF protocol and even if you had a zigbee remote, how would you learn the codes? AFAIK, logitech sell a home automation hub for their harmony remotes which supports zwave and zigbee, but I don't think it's available for sale in the UK and it's designed to control home automation products. It would need supplier support and Naim have no plans to do this either (I asked).

as I stated in another thread, as a streaming amp, I think it's an excellent product. as a HDMI device, I think it's poor. which is a shame, but I'm sure that Naim know their market.

David Haworth posted:

but I'm sure that Naim know their market.

I wouldn't be so quick to let Naim off. A better solution would be for Naim to allow the owner, the purchaser, to decide whether they want input switching on HDMI, and set a menu option as they prefer.  Their 'not a soundbar' comment is a bit pompous and not in tune with the market in any way. Why bother with the HDMI card at all in that case..just for volume control?  Come on Naim!

SB955i posted:

I wouldn't be so quick to let Naim off. A better solution would be for Naim to allow the owner, the purchaser, to decide whether they want input switching on HDMI, and set a menu option as they prefer.  Their 'not a soundbar' comment is a bit pompous and not in tune with the market in any way. Why bother with the HDMI card at all in that case..just for volume control?  Come on Naim!

well, that comment of mine was more directed at the forum users really. I'm a newbie here and very much at the lower end of money spent. I don't want to annoy people who have been fans of the brand for years with my unwanted opinions (unusual on the internet I know). I'm probably not Naim's key demographic and as Naim have survived for quite a while, they *should* know what their users want.

I actually agree with you and thought that Phil's comment was snobbish and elitist. I gave him a somewhat robust but polite response to which I got no answer. While the atom is not a soundbar, by giving the device a HDMI-ARC port and CEC support, they're asking it to do the same job as a soundbar. I don't have a dedicated media room, and my hifi has to serve the needs of my family as well as me. I pointed out that these devices are already very configurable and adding this as a configurable item would be fine. Even the promise that they would implement it in the coming months would probably have been sufficient for me. They said that they probably could do this but had no plans to do so.

Phil also said that this kind of auto input switching would not be consistent with the operation of the rest of the device. I pointed out that this is exactly how the airplay protocol works. As soon as you start playing a track via airplay, the atom immediately switches to the airplay input, and even allows the iPhone to control the volume.

Of course, all this could be worked round if the atom included an IR sensor, so I could program input switching with a universal remote, but that option is not open either as it uses a zigbee remote.

However, it's their company and their decision as to how these products work. I have opinions, but I'm not a popular brand of hifi sold in shops throughout the UK. All I can do is ask for what I want, and if they're not going to do it, then I must vote with my feet, which I did. I returned the atom as being not fit for my purpose.

Interestingly, Naim support kept trying to tell me that there would be an update in March which would help. I had to point out that if they're not going to fix my big ticket issue, then these patches don't matter, and only put me in a worse position regarding taking it back.

I don't think you need to worry about offending anyone here as such. You were a customer as much as anyone and you had a voice here. Naim presumably did, set the forum up to solicit and support interaction with their most engaged customers..  Hopefully they listen and realize their fallibilities with grace, as any good company does.  To ignore such a creative, engaged, seasoned and thoughtful user experience group would be a huge mistake on their part.  I understand a feature backlog/prioritization/investment bottleneck, but I can't fathom an outright closed mindedness.

SB955i posted:

Hopefully they listen and realize their fallibilities with grace, as any good company does.  To ignore such a creative, engaged, seasoned and thoughtful user experience group would be a huge mistake on their part. 

While in an ideal world, I agree with you, I can't help but chuckle at this.. I'm also have some Meridian kit and I think it's been more than a decade since they took the slightest bit of notice of the hitchhikers forum..

Actually, what I have found a touch annoying is that apparently I'm the only person in the whole world (well, not quite, but you know) to have spotted the problems here. I do my homework and have read every single review of these devices that's available either online or in print. Not a single one mentioned anything about HDMI functionality apart from the fact it had some.

I spoke to the staff of three hifi/av shops about the new uniti's and none of them had even connected a TV to the them. When I explained how I expected it to work, they all agreed that what I said sounded sensible, but none had tried it. I know there's a lot of kit on the market, but this new range of uniti's is fairly important and the HDMI function is a new and very interesting element that can and should bring in a whole new bunch of users. 

As these devices add complexity, I'm disappointed that seasoned reviewers are limiting their views to the audio quality and not how the thing actually works..

I'm with you David. I have an Atom with the HDMI board (which I installed after purchase since it wasn't available in HDMI at first in Canada) and am somewhat disappointed in the HDMI implementation. The sound is great, I use Airplay and Spotify Connect without a hitch. I luckily haven't had the issue that some other users have had with audio dropping out after a period of time when using the HDMI port.

However I have the same frustrations that the Atom does not automatically switch on when the last input used is anything other than HDMI.

The biggest issue I have with the Atom is that I have to power cycle it every time I want to use HDMI. It seems that the CEC and ARC protocols are working properly as the Atom turns on with the power of the TV (when HDMI is that last used input) but it does not produce any sound until it is power cycled. The TV thinks that the Atom is producing sound as it is passing volume control to the Atom, and that is even reflected on the Atoms display, but there is no audio until the Atom is turn off and back on. Then it will work perfectly but this is quite frustrating, especially for other people that use the system.

Hopefully a future software patch will take care of this...

SB955i posted:

I get the same results as you.  Everyone, please ensure you're putting in a feature request in through the support option on the app. The more requests they get, I would think the better.

Well, the HDMI auto-switching stuff is feature request to help them understand that when they decide to add a HDMI port with ARC and CEC support, that sets up expectations of how the product will behave and that many people will desire that behaviour no matter what Naim think is right and proper.

The requirement for frequent power cycles to lock onto the ARC signal is just bugs and should be reported as such.

This is all so annoying as any £300 Japanese receiver has this stuff nailed!

I still have a dedicated AVR amp but I feed my Atom via analogue in from AVR preouts for L/R so I can get benefit of the Atom for music and still have 5.1 for movies as the AVR drives the rest of the 5.1. All works great for me. My TV is quite old but still has a really good picture so I still need the AV for input switching for all my sources as I have a few as no ARC on my TV. Use Plex for all my own stuff and Neflix, Amazon or Google for everything else  all this runs from my Nvidia Shield TV. Also have Virgin TiVO for regular TV and two consoles. Never touch discs for video any more.

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