Shazam for your TV: Hands-on with Gracenote

CNET takes a hands-on look at the Gracenote service found on select Sony 2011 TVs, which can identify music in much the same way as the Shazam app.

TrackID on new 2011 Sony TVs can identify music from any source. Sarah Tew/CNET

One of the most impressive smartphone/tablet apps is Shazam, which can identify seemingly any song played within the range of your phone's microphone. Now the same functionality is available on Sony's 2011 Internet connected TVs, and we took it for a spin on the KDL-46EX720.

The service, which Sony is branded TrackID, relies on a "fingerprinting" technology powered by Gracenote--a company formerly known as CDDB and bought by Sony in 2008. The way it works is simple: anytime you hear a song or snippet of music on your TV, you can hit the "TrackID" button to attempt to identify it. After about five seconds of displaying a search dialog, a notification appears indicating whether the search was successful or not. If so, you're presented with a list of possible tracks.

In our experience that list was accurate and successful on numerous relatively popular songs sung by original artists, but more obscure songs or covers tripped it up.

Positive results often included variations on the same song--for example five different versions of "2012" by Jay Sean on a video countdown on the Fuse channel. Sometimes different searches of the same song would yield different results--the opening credits of "Labyrinth," for example, gave us two results (both correct: David Bowie's "Underground," sited as from the movie soundtrack and from "Best of Bowie" compilation) the first time and one result the second.

Quick snippets from commercials also worked for the most part--a Victoria's secret ad exposed Lykke Li's "Get Some" as its soundtrack based on a few seconds of music. We were also surprised when it found a song buried in the background, with no audible words, of a scene from One Tree Hill ("Cats in Heat" by The Honorary Title).

We appreciated that TrackID worked from any source, whether HDMI from our satellite box or Blu-ray player, or streaming video from Netflix, YouTube, or others. Once we clicked through to the results page to launch the full app, however, the video stream quit--apparently the TV doesn't have the horsepower to run both Netflix/YouTube and Gracenote simultaneously. We were able to resume Netflix streaming afterward as usual, but we wish it weren't necessary to restart.

We also hit a bug or two when using the service within streaming services like Netflix. At times, the "searching" dialog box on the lower right wouldn't disappear on its own. And at one point after we clicked through to a positive result, instead of showing the results list we were shunted back to the Netflix menu.

We also encountered quite a few instances when no results were found. Twice during an episode of "Weeds" on Netflix the service failed to identify one song ("Jesus" by Page France) no matter how many times we tried; and it failed to find another ("Your Rocky Spine" by Great Lake Swimmers) the first couple times we tried, although it succeeded eventually. On a YouTube video it failed (How To Dress Well's "Suicide Dream 2"), although on a less obscure track (Lupe Fiasco's "The Coolest") it succeeded. On the other hand, a values.com ad featuring a Kelly Clarkson cover stumped it badly, creating different results (Hanna Linblad and Italian Sushi) on all four occasions (to be fair, Shazam also failed to ID this song over the TV's speakers).

Once it finds the song, the service lists album cover art and track lists, and provides the option to "search apps" or add the result to the TV's internal list of bookmarks. Choosing the search option calls up another choice--"Cross Service Search" or "Video Search"--and we found both disappointing. The former searches for the artist name or song title across Sony's Bravia Internet Video services (excluding Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, and Amazon VOD, unfortunately), whereas the latter looks up the artist on Gracenote's new video search service--a sort of "IMDB lite" that gives brief biographical information and not much more.

There's currently no way to buy the music or add it to a playlist within Sony's Qriocity Unlimited music service or another music service (like Rhapsody). We spoke to Gracenote CTO Ty Roberts, who said that the company plans to add these kinds of integrated services in the future. When we asked whether there was any hardware limitation preventing the app from appearing on other platforms (like Samsung's Smart TV or Panasonic's VieraConnect, for example), he mentioned that Sony had to tweak its hardware to route audio to the TV's processing for analysis--a tweak that might not be available on other TVs. He also hinted that a similar fingerprinting service for video was on the horizon.

It's worth noting that Gracenote is available on LG Blu-ray's players, namely the BD590 and the BD690, but when we tested the former player the service searched only disc-based media, not streaming services.

Overall, despite its hiccups and occasional failures, we really liked the ability to identify music quickly and conveniently with the push of a button. It's kind of addicting. Among the numerous me-too apps found on modern TVs, Gracenote stands out as one of the more useful and unique.

(Thanks to Josh Goldman for suggesting searches.)

 

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