Saturday, December 22, 2007


Below is a clip of Robert Plant paying tribute to Jimmy Page. Here I am completely ready to write Robert off as a completely selfish, pompous ass and then he does something like this. It chocked me up a bit.

An unexpected twist

For those of you who haven't heard Robert Plant (of Led Zeppelin fame) and Alison Krauss (a famous blue grass singer) have done an album together. Robert's motto has always been, "ever onward" which has earned him my respect. After Zeppelin he could have easily cashed in on the success by sticking with what he knew, but he decided to take risks. Some albums have been better than others but none of them have sounded the same.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Getting music OFF an iPod

On of the major problems of using Apple lossless files or WAVE files is their substantially larger size compared to MP3 or smaller AAC files. While encoding music to an iPod it may be common to run out of space on the internal hard drive of a the computer. Sometimes buying a bigger hard drive isn’t possible. When this occurs one option would be to change iTunes preferences so that music could be deleted off of the computer’s hard drive without being removed from the iPod. This would be a fine solution for music that the user would never want to remove from the iPod. However, if the user ever needs these music files again having to re-encode them every time they are needed would be a painful process. Apple could easily allow music to be moved back from the iPod to iTunes. This would naturally make record company executives concerned with music piracy less interested in licensing their content to the iTunes store. Therefore Apple has been forced to disabled this ability. There are a number of third party products that will allow the user to copy files from their iPods back into iTunes. EphPod is one such product, and it happens to be free.

Monday, November 19, 2007

DIY music server

Recently I've been thinking a lot about building my own music server. With my recent purchase of a Hitachi H31000U 1 TB hard drive for the bargain price of $199 , I'm one step closer. This weekend I tried the PS Audio Digital Link III DAC which has a USB digital input. The PS Audio offers the ability to upsample the digital data to 96kHz or 192kHz. When upsampling the USB input to 192 kHz every couple of minutes there was a strange occurrence. There was a temporary drop in volume and a very slight interruption of the music, which lasted fractions of a second. Switching the unit to 96kHz solved this issue but also didn't offer quite the same sound quality.

A shootout between the PS audio and my current DAC, the Theta DSP Pro Basic III ended with the Theta coming out on top. So now the HagUsb from Hagerman Tehnology looks will be how I get my current DAC digital information from my future server project. At between $119 to $139 depending on whether one chooses the SPIDF or the AES/EBU, it seems like a bargain. Add to the affordable price a 30 trial period is it seems like a great opportunity. Of course the ideal solution would be a sound card that would have a digital output, however nearly all of those are toslink which is unacceptable for high end applications.

My current vision for the finished music server would be using a Windows XP based PC using iTunes playing WAV files. Apple lossless probably won't be used because even though the files are smaller and there is a mountain of evidence that they have the exact same data as a WAV file after being uncompressed it is a proprietary. If I change to other programs or buy a server a couple of years from now I don't want to have to re burn my music collection. Foobar2000 as an organizational interface also seems popular some more research into that might be warranted. Many use Exact Audio Copy to import music so some reading on that is also probably in order.
Getting better sound from a computer running Windows XP using iTunes is easier than you think. The following changes in total caused a profound increase in sound quality of the 1/8th inch analog out jack of my lap top. Windows XP Setting changes:

After right clicking on the volume control in the tool bar make sure that the “wave” volume control is at maximum and that the balance is in the middle. Both setting are implemented in the digital domain degrade the sound if used. Volume is reduced by reducing the resolution. 1bit of resolution is lost for every 6db of attenuation applied with a digital volume control. Also make sure that you press the advanced button and un click the “1 mic boost” setting. It raised the noise floor dramatically. Going into the “Sound Effect Manage” via the control pannel and making sure that there isn’t any EQ being done there is also advisable. On the “S/PDIF-Out” tab change the sampling rate from 48KHz to 44.1KHz. The bit conversion done by this setting when it is at the 48KHz setting destroys the sense of space as well as reducing tonality in the bass and destroying micro dynamics.

To stop windows sounds from interrupting the music go to the control panel select “Sound and Audio Devices” then to the “Sounds” tab. Under “Sound schemes select “No Sounds” and press the “Apply” and “Ok” buttons.

Changes in iTunes:

If iTunes is the player that will be used to interface with the music library make sure to turn the “Sound Enhancer” and “Sound Check” features off. “Sound Enhancer” boosts the high frequencies and also exaggerates left/right separation. Thus if we want a true representation of the audio this box should be unchecked. The “Sound Enhancer” does nothing more than add dynamic compression in an attempt to reduce the volume difference between songs when in random mode. It goes without saying that compressing dynamics changes the sound and is therefore inherently less accurate, hence undesirable. To turn these features off go to the “Edit” tab, select “Preferences”, then the “Playback tab and make sure that both the “Sound Enhancer” and “Sound Check” boxes are not checked. Also make sure that the volume on iTunes is set to it’s maximum setting because again this is another digital volume control that reduces volume by reducing resolution.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Treating music with repect

The debate of digital vs. analog still rages on. I’m pretty much neutral. Either can be very, very good if done well, though they rarely are even done adequately. Instead of worrying about whether something is digital or analog let’s start demanding better quality of both. I’ve been fortunate enough to hear direct dubs to CD off of analog master tapes and they kill what is available to us on commercial CD’s.

I believe that one of the most damaging changes to music that is perpetrated by the record industry is dynamic compression. Dynamic compression is the reduction of the volume difference between the loudest and the softest sounds on a recording. Record companies feel that an album or song that is consistently louder will “punch” through other songs on the radio, thus increasing sales. However, other record companies are doing the same, thus it has become an arms race of sorts. The losers of this arms race aren’t the record companies but us, the music buying public. We are forced to suffer music that is uninteresting and uninvolving to listen to, a relentless assault on our senses. Removing dynamics can destroy the nuances is the tone or volume of a singer’s performance, taking away one of the tools in their arsenal to convey emotion to the listener. This removal of nuance also affects every other musical instrument. For the most part Classical and Jazz haven’t befallen this same fate as they don’t rely on air play for sales.

However, we the consumer are not blameless in all of this. Not only do we buy these flawed recordings, many of us do further damage by knowingly or unknowingly digitally compressing the music when we add them to our portable music players. This compression is a different, but far more insidious manipulation. Instead of reducing detail it is obliterated. Information that is judged to be “inaudible” or “unimportant” is simply disguarded in an effort to save space. In effect, many are saying that they are will to sacrifice quality for an increase in quantity.

Unfortunately, Apple is contributing to this wholesale reduction in quality. The iPod isn’t the problem, it’s a tool that can either be used or misused. However the iTunes store sells music at one of the lowest bit rates possible, setting the bar disappointingly low. The iTunes software is also complicit in the affront to music lovers. Out of the box the setting to the software is optimized to maximize storage space, effectively minimizing sound quality. Changing these settings is fairly straight forward. Go to the “Edit” pull down menu, then select “Preferences” from there go to “Advanced” tab and select the “Importing” tab and select either the “Apple Lossless encoder” or “Wav.” Wav is an exact bit for bit copy of the CD. To reduce the space of the files but without losing sound quality select the “Apple Lossless encoder.” It is purported to reduce the file size by half without a loss in sound quality. In practice the new file is slightly larger than half, but tests have shown that when uncompressed for playback it is in fact bit perfect. The only down side of apple lossless files is that they can only be played by iTunes and iPods.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

To the Extreme

Many audiophiles lovingly tweak their prized audio systems. To the layman many of these adjustments may seem a bit extreme. I'm pretty open minded when it comes to trying the newest hot tweak. But the owner of this system was so completely out of tweaking ideas he took a decidedly spiritual turn. Note the Buddha between the speakers.

Hey, whatever works.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

One of the founding fathers. . .

In the clip below Noel Lee of Monster Cable speaks about the beginning of a whole new product category. Along with Bill Lowe of Audioquest they started a revolution.

Monday, February 12, 2007

. . . and so it begins

My recently acquired turntable is home. The turntable pictured above is not mine, but another Thorens TD124 II with an SME 3009 tonearm. I have cleaned the ‘table up a bit. Right now the motor isn't running but there is some vibrations, hopefully it just needs cleaned and lubed. The tonearm is in a fairly dilapidated state. Having it restored may prove a long and costly endeavor. Parts availability for the turntable shouldn't be a problem, but finding someone with the expertise might prove difficult. The tonearm is the opposite story. Someone with the expertise is readily available within my circle of connections, but parts may be a problem. I'm hoping for the restoration project to come in under $500, I've set a ceiling of $700.

The Thorens TD124 has a number of features that make it unique. In additon to offering the common speeds of 33 1/3 and 45 RPM speeds. It also offers is the fairly obscure 78 RPM speed, then something that almost no turntable offers 16 RPM speed. The last speed was used for sales training discs, as well as radio show transcription discs. These adjustments are made using the switch at the bottom left of the unit. On top of the switch is a knob that can be used to fine tune the speed for those with perfect pitch. A built in strobe disc (located under the window in the front middle of the table) assists when tweaking the speed.

Leveling this or any other turntable is of the up most importance for best performance. To assist the user in this task the Thorens offers a built in bubble level (located bottom right) and three threaded posts (one can be seen under the level).

There are two other small, but thoughtful touches on this classic. The first it the lever located on the left of the platter which allow the platter to be raised so the motor does not need to be turned off to switch records. This was done to reduce wear on the motor. The second small detail is the built in 45 RPM adapter built into the center of the platter. When not in use it is flat with the rest of the platter. When needed a simple clockwise twist raises it, when it’s no longer needed a counter clockwise twist lowers it again. No chance of losing this baby!

Monday, January 29, 2007

Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free!

This is a Thorens Reference turntable, which went into production in 1979. The Reference tipped the scales at roughly 180 lbs. It's hard to believe that they were building turntables like this nearly 30 years ago!

Recently I came into a vintage turntable and tonearm that will need some restoration. Not the Thorens Reference pictured above, but something really special none the less. So the search for free resources on the internet has begun. The Analog Dept. and Vnyl Engine both have lots of free owners manuals and other information on turntables and tonearms from years gone by. Most of the restoration work will be done by other because of the delicacy of the tasks and the knowledge necessary. I will try to document the process with photos as it progresses.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

I do believe a little housekeeping is in order.

Lately my system has started to sound a bit dull on the top end, dynamics had become a bit lacking, a bit slow, and the bass a bit tubby. I was having to turn the system up louder than usual to get it to spring to life. This is particularly odd because one of the strengths of my system is that it usually performs equally well regardless of volume. After trying a couple of other things to clean up the sound of the system it dawned on me that the Martin Logan CLS speakers hadn't been vacuumed in months. The head of Martin Logan's service department recommends that the electrostatic panels of ALL of their models be vacuumed roughly twice a year. Being a bit of an obsessive compulsive audio geek it usually gets done monthly. The past couple of months it hasn't gotten done. WOW, a quick vacuuming of these speakers does work wonders! The bass is again articulate, with great pitch definition. Drums have regained their dynamic snap. The high frequencies have also come out to play as well. The detail in tambourines is remarkable.

The vacuum that I use for this purpose (Yes I use a specific vacuum, sue me) is very similar to one that Target is offering on line. Click on the picture if you are interested in purchasing one. It is extremely affordable at less than $30. For electrostatic speaker owners this very well might be the best $30 tweak out there.