EARS ON

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 25, 2006 2 comments
Stepping up its anti-obscenity campaign, the Federal Communications Commission is asking broadcasters for tapes of live sporting events. Government employees are going to sift through them just to make sure an athlete, coach, or spectator hasn't spoken the f-word or some other weapon of mass corruption. This does not sit well with broadcasters who have added on-field mics and in-car cameras to give viewers more of a you-are-there feeling. "It looks like they want to end live broadcast TV," one anonymous TV executive told The Hollywood Reporter. The latest federal obscenity law imposes fines of as much as $325,000 per violation, a tenfold increase from the former law. It remains unclear how this would affect President Bush, who signed the anti-pottymouth law and then went off to a summit full of world leaders and uttered the s-word into an open mic.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 24, 2006 1 comments
Gracenote, the leading music metadata provider—for the iPod, no less—has cut a deal with music publishers to deliver lyrics in digital form. The company says possible applications include digital music retailers, mobile providers, search engines, music portals, and of course music players and servers. The prospect of seeing the words to a song scrolling down your MP3 player screen is an appealing and timely one. Once listeners could read lyrics in giant LP gatefolds or CD booklets. But even in the heyday of those formats, that wasn't always a given, and in the age of downloads, lyrics have been relegated to unauthorized websites (which may soon see a crackdown). So Gracenote's move is progress. But in a music industry where artists don't always get their fair share, how much can a songwriter expect to get paid if her lyrics are licensed as a new product? Emails on this subject to Gracenote and Gracenote's publicist went unanswered.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 21, 2006 0 comments
What's in a name? Logitech bills this iPod accessory as a set of "portable speakers," not a "system." That makes it smaller than such other iPod-compatible notables as the Bose SoundDock, Klipsch iGroove, and Apple's own Hi-Fi. It also signals a reduction in pricing, features, and expectations. The mm50 doesn't try to blow you away. It just provides an intravenous feed of music to keep you from going bonkers. In that respect it should not be underestimated.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 20, 2006 2 comments
Consumers are buying more DVDs this year—but are also buying fewer fresh movie titles. That's what the folks at NPD's VideoWatch are saying. Sales of new DVDs rose seven percent during the first quarter of 2006. However, only nine percent of consumers said they intended to buy DVDs of movies running in theaters during the first five months of 2006, down from 11 percent in the same period of 2005. Maybe Hollywood needs to make better films. Overall, says NPD, for the year ending in April 2006: "47 percent of all videos were rented, 30 percent were purchased from a store, 15 percent were from subscription services, eight percent from pay-per-view (PPV) or video-on-demand (VOD) services and one percent was downloaded directly from the Web."
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 19, 2006 1 comments
Students at Cornell, Purdue, George Washington University, and other schools won't download music from university-approved services even if it's free, according to The Wall Street Journal. These and other schools began offering free (often meaning subsidized) downloads to prevent illegal downloads from attracting lawsuits and choking servers. But these experiments have flunked for several reasons. Onerous DRM restrictions are often attached. For instance, the download may be free, but transferring to a music player or burning a CD may not be. At Cornell, students lost interest in Napster when they discovered they'd lose the right to use their downloads upon graduating. The non-iTunes services have also met resistance from iPod and/or Mac users, the latter an estimated 20 percent of the student population.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 18, 2006 5 comments
HD DVD has adopted a Thomson-developed technology that would insert simulated film grain into high-def movie releases. The problem: Digital video compression codecs tend to lose the natural grain in film-based cinematography. The, um, uh, solution: "Thomson has come up with a way that allows the film grain to be put back, or at least simulated, into the movie after it's been compressed and decompressed," says Gavin Shutz of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. Film Grain Technology™ will appear in two HD DVD players from Toshiba and one from RCA. It has also found its way into Sonic Solutions HD DVD production tools. So even if you shun the fakery in players, it will still find its way into at least some movie titles. OK, I haven't seen it yet, but isn't fake film grain the aesthetic equivalent of artificial edge enhancement? What ever happened to the idea of reproducing the source as accurately as possible?
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 17, 2006 1 comments
CableLabs is working up a new version of the OpenCable Application Platform, according to Cable Digital News. OCAP is the R&D program that gave birth to the CableCARD. The new Version 1.1 would support IP-based video and multimedia streams. That would give the cable ops a leg up in their coming struggle against the telcos, especially AT&T, which is rolling out IP video delivery. OCAP 1.1 would also mesh with mobile applications to be launched this fall by Sprint, Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, and Advance/Newhouse. It would support home networking, switched broadcast, advanced graphics, and other goodies. And it would allow cable companies to more easily insert commercials into VOD programming (yippee). The technology would likely take the form of a new set-top box. Whether it would migrate directly into television sets is up to the TV makers, but for the moment, they're not thrilled with the outcome of the existing CableCARD agreement.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 13, 2006 3 comments
CableLabs, the cable industry's development arm, has certified the first multi-streaming CableCARD. The hip new Motorola M-Card "enables consumers of retail set-top boxes and integrated digital television sets to watch and/or record their programming from multiple simultaneous tuners using a single CableCARD (e.g., handling picture-in-picture or simultaneous watch-and-record of multiple digital video channels)," according to a CableLabs press release. The M-Card is backward-compatible with existing unidirectional CableCARD sets and boxes, and will support only a single stream when used that way—but when paired with an M-Card compatible product, it will do all its new multi-streaming tricks. How far the M-Card will get in TVs (as opposed to set-top boxes) is debatable given the sorry state of the existing CableCard standard. Major cable operators will deploy it within a few months, says CableLabs. Talk to yours for details.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 12, 2006 0 comments
Were you hoping that the CableCARD standard would enable you to ditch your cable box? Four years after cable operators and TV makers signed the historic CableCARD agreement, many consumers are still running into problems, according to FCC filings from the warring cable operators and TV makers. Each side blames the other for the snafus. And they're both worsening the problem: The initial standard is unidirectional, meaning no video-on-demand without the box, so some cable operators are obstructing CableCARD adoption by failing to support it at the head end. But the ever price-conscious TV makers aren't helping by eliminating CableCARD compatibility from their lines and walking away from the problem. For years the conventional wisdom has been that a VOD-capable bidirectional standard would someday heal all wounds. But the video-delivery landscape is changing and now CableLabs, the industry's R&D arm, is approaching digital cable readiness from some new angles. I'll report on them over the next few days.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 11, 2006 1 comments
On-demand movie viewers are happy to pay an extra dollar to avoid ads. And they prefer conventional to convergent delivery media. Those are the conclusions of a DIGDIA survey. It grappled with two questions at once. Given a tradeoff between advertising and price, how would viewers prefer their movies: with ads for a buck less, or without ads for a buck more? Also, what on-demand (or on-demand-ish) delivery medium would they prefer: TV, PC, or DVD? Here are the results:
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 10, 2006 0 comments
Freedb, a key player in open-source CD databases, has succumbed to tensions among its founders. The site is still up but its future is uncertain. If you didn't already know, CD databases provide metadata lookup services to the likes of iTunes and the Windows Media Player, enabling them to display artist, song, album, genre, etc. Without them your iPod would not be nearly as versatile at organizing music. The grandpappy of them all was CDDB, founded in 1993 as a volunteer-driven project. When CDDB went commercial in 2000 as Gracenote, Freedb and other groups split off to maintain their own open-source databases on a nonprofit basis. The open-source services appear most often in PC-based software including rippers, taggers, and players other than iTunes and WMP. Freedb is also used by AudioReQuest, a consumer-level high-end server product. Freedb is survived by Musicbrainz, another open-source database. The biggest commercial databases are All Music Guide's LASSO (used by Windows Media Player and MusicMatch) and the category-leading Gracenote (used by iTunes).
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 07, 2006 3 comments
The other day Federal Express summoned me to the front of my building. What delight awaited? It was Onkyo's HT-S990THX. Some would call it the first THX-certified home theater in a box though the Onkyo and THX people prefer the term "integrated THX HT system." HTIB or not, all 143 pounds of it were literally in a box, one box, only 14 inches shorter (and five inches wider) than my refrigerator. My building has elevators, but there are five steps between the ground floor and the sidewalk. The FedEx guy and I stood on the curb staring at one another in dawning horror.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 06, 2006 4 comments
A major label will soon offer European customers three different tiers of CD releases, each with its own distinctive type of packaging. Universal Music Group announced that top releases will get a deluxe box (über-jewelbox? treasure chest?) potentially featuring bonus DVD, extra tracks, expanded notes, and other attractions. Mid-tier releases will get "super jewelboxes," a with round corners, stronger hinges, and heavier build quality. They sound a lot like the boxes already used for SACDs. Bottom-tier releases will get cardboard sleeves, though I'm not sure if that means a Digipak-like package (paper gatefold enclosing plastic spindle) or an all-cardboard "wallet" type. A competing budget label, Brilliant Classics, has had great success with wallets, marketing cheaply packaged but delightful boxed sets up to and including the now legendary 160-CD Bach Edition. Pricing for the Universal tiers will be €19.99, €14.99, and €9.99 respectively. As of this morning, a euro costs $1.28, so none of the tiers is cheap by American standards, though there's no telling what will happen if Universal brings the scheme across the Atlantic. Why this, why now? "We can grow the CD market," said a Universal executive—or at least, "slow its decline."
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 05, 2006 2 comments
The French senate and national assembly have voted to approve a copyright law revision that ostensibly requires music players and downloads to be interoperable across all platforms. At least, that is the way mainstream media are reporting the story. Inexplicably described as a defeat for Apple—which is grimly determined to keep iTunes purchases playable only on the iPod—the compromise nonetheless contains enough wiggle room to undermine its main premise: (1) If record companies agree that iTunes downloads must not play on other devices, Apple's Fairplay DRM will stand as is. (2) Rivals seeking to make iTunes downloads playable on their own hardware must first prove to a French regulatory agency that there will be no conflict with Apple patents or other rights. These two loopholes will ensure that iTunes downloads and iPods will remain joined at the hip. Of course the law isn't specifically about Apple. The same loopholes apply to any would-be monopolist seeking to bind hardware and software together. Apple just happens to be the most successful one. However, Jobs will have to keep looking over his shoulder. The interoperability movement is also rising in Scandinavia, Britain, and Poland.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 30, 2006 25 comments
21st Century Vinyl is better described by its subtitle: Michael Fremer's Practical Guide to Turntable Set-Up. The heart of the program is a series of segments in which Fremer turns three uncrated turntables into functional music machines. Along the way he encounters problems but keeps his cool. In so doing he sets a good example for 21st-century vinyl neophytes who are attracted to the musicality of vinyl but intimidated by the mystic art of getting a complex mechanical device up and running and sounding its very best.

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