EARS ON

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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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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 29, 2006 3 comments
"Unlike pressed original CDs, burned CDs have a relatively short life span of between two to five years, depending on the quality of the CD," said Kurt Gerecke, a storage expert at IBM's German outpost, in an interview with Computerworld. Closer to two for off-brand cheapies, he added. Other estimates vary. I regularly use a CD-R of test tracks burned in 1999. Whatever their validity may be, these warnings apply only to dye-based recordable CDs. Prerecorded CDs are more durable (if they weren't there'd be riots) though no one really knows how long they will last. More bad news: Hard drives are also vulnerable. Their Achilles heel is the disc bearing, a mechanical part that wears out over time. Magnetic tape can last 30 to 100 years, according to Gerecke, though I recall some audiocassettes that didn't last a decade. Fortunately there's a hot new medium that freezes music forever in unchanging grooves of black plastic. The disc is read with a diamond stylus suspended in a web of magnets and can last a lifetime (or more) if treated carefully. It plays on all devices in the format, completely free of DRM. This format of the future is called VINYL. See tomorrow's blog for more details!
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 28, 2006 0 comments
As a longtime gizmo critic, I was fascinated by a scathing commentary on my tribe by Mr. Media Coverage (I'm not sure who that is) of GameDaily.com. Working for advertiser-supported specialty media has its limitations. And while many of us do a great job within those limitations, others may recognize themselves in Mr. MC's "7 Reasons Why Questionable Facts Go Unchallenged." The two that caught my fancy are: "We sometimes want to believe the questionable facts." Just like little kids. Still worse: "The lies make better stories." OK, I'll cop to it. At least where this blog is concerned, I'll fix on any idea that makes a pretty paragraph. But I'll have to watch my step!
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 27, 2006 2 comments
Do these Sharp MP3/WMA/FM players look ugly to you? That's what the good folks at Engadget said when they picked up this new product announcement from Akihabara News. For my own part, I think the Sharps look pretty spiffy. And where can you find an iPod all in shiny red, huh, huh, huh? Well, all right then. It's clear the Sharp folks were determined to avoid looking like another iPod-wannabe and I'd say they succeeded handsomely. The player is available in three colors and two capacities (512 for the MP-B200 and 1GB for the MP-B300) but only in Japan. Come on, Sharp, let us have 'em.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 26, 2006 0 comments
Radio pioneer Reginald Aubrey Fessenden should be more widely celebrated for his place in media history, argue the folks at Tivoli Audio in their "100 Years of Broadcast" campaign (complete with free shirt and emblazoned SongBook radio for freeloading members of the press like myself). On Christmas Eve 1906, nearly a century ago, the Canadian became first person to broadcast music and speech over the airwaves. Marconi is often celebrated as the father of radio but telegraphy was his actual innovation. He was not the first to transmit music or even speech—he transmitted the letter S in Morse code. Fessenden's idea was to transmit music and speech as continuous waves. Edison listened to the idea and laughed it off so Fessenden pursued it alone. Since there were no radio receivers then except for ships at sea, the first-ever music broadcast went out from the coast of Massachusetts to ships in the Atlantic, as Fessenden played a Haydn recording and his own violin. Tivoli and a handful of tech historians assert that this broadcast became the basis for radio, television soundtracks and (if one overlooks the later leap from analog to digital) even music downloading. After all, Fessenden was the first guy to move music and speech from point A to point B without using a disc, a cable, or some other physical object. Tivoli's latest new product is the iYiYi, another iPod-docking compact system, and I hope to get one in for review when it becomes available in the fall for $299.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 23, 2006 0 comments
"Where am I supposed to put the center speaker" is a question increasingly asked by new owners of flat-panel sets like say, oh, Panasonic plasmas. Above the screen? Below the screen? No, to the sides, insists Panasonic, but the company proposes going beyond the usual "phantom center" surround-processing solution. The idea is to keep the center as a discrete channel but move the drivers into the left and right speakers. Each tower has a separate enclosure to hold the center-channel drivers, as you can see on the righthand side of this speaker, which I denuded before anyone could stop me. See more pictures and details from yesterday's Panasonic press event in the Gallery.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 22, 2006 1 comments
Netflix is eyeing the movie-download market, according to Variety. Eric Besner, VP for original programming, told a movie- and TV-production conference in LA that a new service would download movies overnight into a proprietary set-top box. Pricing may be the same as existing subscription fees for hard copies by post. Though scrapping with Blockbuster to shore up its existing business, Netflix sees the writing on the wall (and the profits in the rack). Various services are already bidding to replace videodisc rental. One of them, Movielink, is reportedly up for sale. The 800-pound gorillas are Verizon and AT&T, whose set-top boxes may ultimately become ubiquitous for movie downloads and dozens of other uses—but only if they cut the right deals with Hollywood. If Netflix wants a piece of the movie-download pie, it'll have to move fast. Besner said the service may begin before year-end.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 21, 2006 0 comments
Meet AVCHD, the latest disc format from Sony and Panasonic. No, they're not throwing another body into the moshpit that currently includes Blu-ray, HD DVD, and a few others. AVCHD will be a camcorder format that records 1080i or 720p images using existing DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, and DVD-RAM media. Panasonic will also use it to record onto SD memory cards. The AVC in AVCHD is the MPEG-4 AVC video compression standard, also known as H.264. This highly efficient codec is the presumed heir to MPEG-2. It's already being used by DirecTV to transmit high-def signals and will also be supported in Blu-ray and HD DVD. No word yet on availability of AVCHD products.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 20, 2006 1 comments
A product as wildly successful as the iPod inevitably produces a few bad Apples. Anecdotal evidence of consumer unhappiness like this British newspaper report are common. Then again, so is evidence of consumer happiness, as in my torture test of an iPod case—the nano inside it survived repeated abuse. The only reports that should be taken seriously are those involving enough people to be statistically meaningful. That's why this survey from MacInTouch is compelling, if not exactly conclusive. It covers more than 4000 users and nearly 9000 iPods in the field. Please note that the methodology is loose. Among other things, it doesn't factor in time, and you know everything fails eventually. The good news for nano owners is that flash-based players, not surprisingly, are more reliable. In fact I'm rather pleased to discover my 2GB nano is twice as reliable as the 4GB (now I can stop feeling inferior). The bad news is that hard-drive players are more failure-prone, though the newer video models do quite well. The good news about the bad news is that the hard drive may be not dead but merely disconnected. For safety reasons, our lawyers would probably have me add, have a qualified service person do the work.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 19, 2006 3 comments
Do you want your home fed with the highest bandwidth for HDTV, Internet service, and telephone? Then you want this. It's an optical network terminal, it goes with Verizon's fiber-optic FiOS service, and the company has begun installing them in 14 states (seven with video delivery service) as part of a nationwide rollout that will take many years. Not that I'm their publicist or anything—as a matter of fact, I'm a former Verizon customer—but no other company has set itself such an ambitious task. AT&T is Verizon's leading competitor, but that system is a hybrid of copper and fiber, while Verizon brings fiber right up to the wall of your house. Of all the digital pipes that might feed your home, a pure fiber-optic system is the most capacious. This particular wall belongs to a demo house at Verizon's R&D and network facility in Waltham Massachusetts. For more details and plenty of pictures see the Gallery.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 16, 2006 0 comments
Oh so carefully selected reporters swarmed the Samsung Experience store at New York's Time Warner Center to get a first hands-on experience with the BD-P100. The player took one minute to warm up by my pocket watch (vs. a reported three for Toshiba's HD DVD player). Picture quality on a Samsung 61-inch DLP projector was stunning, showing every hair and pore on Guy Pearce's stubbly face in Memento, and maintaining that degree of detail when accompanied by moderate subject or camera motion. Resolution softened when I turned off the projector's DNIe video processing though rapid motion also became smoother. On the whole I found it jolly convincing. Once you've seen 1080p at a high data rate, you'll never want to go back, at least on those releases that are true 1080p (as opposed to line-doubled fakes). Incidentally, there is no truth to the widely blogged (though not here!) rumor that the Samsung player will be delayed to late summer in the U.S.—the delay will be in the U.K. Delays have been confirmed for Sony and Pioneer players but Samsung expects to hit the scheduled June 25 release date.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 15, 2006 2 comments
Bose product demos always come with a dash of entertainment. At last week's New York press demo for the QuietComfort 3 headphones, hapless reporters entered the room to find a mannequin wearing a pair of large Bose headphones, only to see the earpieces whipped off to reveal the newer, smaller model. The QuietComfort 3 is the third generation of Bose noise-canceling headphones. They cover the ear without enclosing it. They're the first noise-canceling headphones to use a rechargable battery, a 20-hour lithium ion type, and the charger is a cute earcup-shaped object with flip-down prongs that plug into the wall without a cable. A $39 accessory cable allows users to switch between cell phone and music. Check bose.com to see if your phone is compatible. The demo in New York actually used a Nokia cell phone with MP3 files at 192kbps. The headphones were accurate enough to reveal smeary compression artifacts—no surprise to me, since I already use the original QuietComfort 1, as well as the non-NC TriPort, and thought highly enough of the former to have the earpads renovated when they wore out. If you want full-sized cans, the QuietComfort 2 remains in the line for $299, but the new QuietComfort 3 sells for $349 and is available from the Bose site as of today.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 14, 2006 2 comments
Today MusicGremlin started selling the first player to download without a PC and The Wall Street Journal has got hold of it. (We all can't be Walter Mossberg and Katherine Boehret.) The Gremlin downloads via wi-fi for 99 cents per song. You can also use a PC but it must be a Windows PC. For music sharing, it can even beam music from player to player, as long as both parties subscribe to MusicGremlin Direct for $14.99/month. The WSJ does describe a few DRM limitations: "you can't share certain kinds of songs, including legally obtained MP3 files that you transfer to the Gremlin from your computer." Also, while the player downloads from T-Mobile hotpots, it can't do some forms of PC-enabled wi-fi-ing. The player has a two-inch LCD, 8GB capacity, and sells for $299 from musicgremlin.com.

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