EARS ON

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: May 26, 2006 7 comments
The explosion of flat-panel and microdisplays has multiplied the number of manufacturers and products on the market. Unfortunately this happy profusion leaves a performance gap on the audio side. My Sharp AQUOS LCD HDTV has excellent speakers—by TV-speaker standards—but I don't depend on them for movies. And the sound on a typical no-name LCD set is simply wretched for any content, even sitcoms. So what do you do when you've uncrated your new display only to discover that the other half of the home theater equation is a shaping up to be a big zero?
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: May 25, 2006 1 comments
Interesting piece by Wired columnist Leander Kahney on the iPod's steady rise to acceptance as a hi-fi audio device. But I think he oversells his point when he says the iPod has audiophiles "spinning in their soundproof graves." He also oversimplifies, asserting that "to purists, only old-fashioned vinyl platters cut it." This stereotype (pun intended) ignores a whole universe of digital audio developments such as SACD and DVD-Audio, great concert videos in lossy surround formats, and the use of Dolby Pro Logic II to coax surround out of stereo source material (whether from CD, WAV, MP3, AAC, or none of the above). Speaking as an audiophile, I find these things just as interesting as my LP collection or, for that matter, my iPod. The biggest problem with high-performance audio, according to 56 percent of consumers in one survey, is that not enough of them have heard it.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: May 24, 2006 0 comments
Samsung showed off its first LED-driven DLP model yesterday at a press briefing in New York. The 56-inch HL-S5679W ($4199) replaces the arc lamp and color wheel used in conventional DLP rear-projectors (left) with light-emitting diodes (right). This provides longer lamp life (20,000 hours), more uniform performance over the lifetime of the set, quicker turn-on, quieter operation, no color-wheel "rainbow effect," and as an environmental bonus, toxic mercury has been eliminated from the design. The only catch is that the light engine (optics) are left over from last year's lamp-based sets, and that won't change until the next model-year, though what I saw showed impressive smoothness and uniformity of brightness. Also shown were new plasmas using an anti-glare scheme combining a blue backcoating on the glass with a brown matrix between pixels. The picture was watchable, with what subjectively appeared to be very good black level, even with direct light pouring in the window of the fancy hotel. Finally, would you like your iPod to sing through your TV? You can do just that with LCD-HDTVs in the 92 Series (46, 40, and 32 inches starting at $2199). An RS232 port connects the music player, Apple or Samsung (the iPod requires an optional $40 adapter cable). Then you can navigate music files onscreen through the TV's remote.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: May 23, 2006 2 comments
Titles in the Blu-ray and HD DVD formats will not use the image constraint token until at least 2010, according to a rumor reported in the German media and picked up by ArsTechnica.com. Videophiles had feared that studios would use the ICT, a down-resolution flag, to cut high-def signals down to standard-def signals through the analog three-plug component video connection, the only HD input on early-generation HDTVs. Most of the studios had already agreed to avoid using the ICT for an indefinite period, but this latest rumor—if true—extends that decision to 2010, and possibly 2012. That should give a little breathing room to early adopters eyeing Blu-ray and HD DVD. Another possible reason for the move: Some PS3 and Xbox 360 gear lacks HDMI, the Hollywood-approved HD interface.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: May 22, 2006 4 comments
Lost amid the hype surrounding the Blu-ray format is the story of its environmental impact. And guess what? Blu-ray wears a white hat. In the process of cutting the manufacturing steps down from twelve to five, the new "phase transition mastering" process also eliminates several toxic chemicals. Only one remains, a developing fluid, and it's recirculated back into the production process. Blu-ray also requires less utility use, both energy and water. What makes this especially interesting is that the HD DVD people make a big deal of the fact that their format uses the same manufacturing techniques as existing DVD—toxicity and all. Whether consumers would care is debatable, but if they don't, they should. These details emerged during a press tour of the Sony DADC plant in Terre Haute, Indiana, where we all donned clean-room smocks, shower caps, and booties (blue, of course) and saw copies of Hitch running down the production line. Oh, and the packaging (blue, of course) has a redesigned spindle that releases the disc with one easy touch, so you'll use less energy (swearing) and water (sweating) when getting the disc out of the box.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: May 19, 2006 2 comments
The Recording Industry Association of America, better known as the antichrist, is suing XM Satellite Radio for "massive copyright infringement." XM plays 160,000 different songs a month for its 6.5 million subscribers and the RIAA wants $150,000 for each song copied. In the background is the real story: The music industry has been in negotiations with both major satellite operators over payment of royalties, and while Sirius has cut a deal, XM has not. In its defense, XM says it's already the single biggest payer of royalties to the labels. The Consumer Electronics Association has issued a definitive rebuttal to the suit. Another source of heat is Senate bill 2644, a.k.a. the Perform Act, which would prohibit satellite services from allowing programmed downloading of individual songs, even though songs currently are not digitally transferable from the devices that record them (and any analog output from any device can be recorded anyhow). According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Perform Act would also require webcasters to substitute DRM streaming technology for the MP3 streaming many of them use.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: May 18, 2006 1 comments
Creative Labs has sued Apple Computer alleging that the iPod violates a patent granted for the Creative Zen player. Patent number 6,928,433 describes itself as "a method, performed by software executing on the processor of a portable music playback device, that automatically files tracks according to hierarchical structure of categories to organize tracks in a logical order. A user interface is utilized to change the hierarchy, view track names, and select tracks for playback or other operations." To iPod fans, that is tantamount to patenting the human body. You've got two arms and two legs? Busted! The patent was filed on January 5, 2001 but not granted until August 9, 2005. The first-generation iPod made its debut on October 23, 2001, a few months after the filing. "We will pursue all manufacturers that use the same navigation system," vows Creative's CEO Sim Wong Hoo.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: May 17, 2006 2 comments
Doesn't the world sometimes seem unbearably noisy? The best advice I can give you is this: Stick it in your ear! I'm talking about Mack's Pillow Soft Earplugs. Made of silicon gel, they mold themselves to the shape of your outer ear canal and cut noise by 22 decibels. That's better than any model of noise-canceling headphones. With a few days of practice you'll get used to gently pushing them into the ear just enough to cover the opening. Getting used to the sound of your footsteps traveling up your spine (BONK, BONK, BONK) takes longer. And I must admit that eating while wearing plugs sounds like a horror movie. But I am no longer willing to walk out on the road-rage-possessed streets of New York City without them. I also find them comforting on buses, subways, planes, and even in airports—a siren at the Newark Airport security checkpoint once practically brought me to my knees. What will other people think when they see you with plugs in your ears? Who cares? Give up a little dignity and baby your ears. They're the most irreplacable components in your system.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: May 16, 2006 2 comments
Are you about to bring your iPod to San Francisco, Oakland, or the Bay Area? Then don't forget to download Bay Area Rapid Transit information before you leave home. In addition to the BART system map, you'll also get schedules, station information, and email warnings whenever the system changes. The map will work only on iPods with color displays and iTunes 4.7 or later. For skeds and stations you'll need a display (color or B&W) plus the Notes feature. BART also offers a PDA QuickPlanner for the Palm OS and Pocket PC and a Wireless QuickPlanner for web-enabled mobile devices. For other cities, check out isubwaymaps.com (formerly ipodsubwaymaps.com before Apple's lawyers sent a nastygram). The enthusiast-fueled site has maps of Berlin, Bilbao, Boston, Chicago, Hong Kong, London, LA, Lyon, Melbourne, Milan, Montreal, NYC, Paris, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, Seoul, Singapore, Tokyo, Toronto, Vancouver, and Washington DC. Paypal donations appreciated but not compulsory.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: May 15, 2006 1 comments
Listeners who claim to detect audible differences in digital interconnects may be equally fascinated by this report from a British CD-R distributor. Among other things, it includes useful descriptions of how CD-Rs and CD-RWs (and recordable DVDs) actually work. A brief quote hardly does justice to the more subjective details presented but here's a dose: "Whilst colorations in sound may be evident between differing brands, it's fair to say that only very poor 'B grade' un-named CD-R media are likely to cause offence to the ears.... So yes, there may be slight differences in the sound of one brand or specification over another; but it should be remembered that the real issue, the most likely problem area, is going to be playback compatibility rather than sound." Speed kills: "Reported effects of high-speed (say, 6x or higher), recordings in apparent sound are loss of fullness in the bottom-end and a meddling of the stereo image," though the BBC "found no appreciable sound difference when recording between 1x and 4x (but no faster)." Note that the source is STRL, U.K. distributor of TDK, Philips, and Neato products, and exercise your own judgment accordingly.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: May 12, 2006 2 comments
The HDMI interface promises to deliver high-def video and surround through one wire. But this potential garden of electronic delights is more a desert of frustration for anyone whose DVD player won't talk to a newly purchased HDTV. How to protect yourself? One thing to look for is Simplay certification from Simplay Labs, a subsidiary of Silicon Image, a major player (though not the only one) in the development of HDMI. There is of course a Simplay website and the featured products page lists a dozen Mitsubishi LCD panels and DLP projectors, four Thomson DLP rears, and a lone Sanyo 32-inch CRT. Covering mainly the HDCP content security system, Simplay may not be the final word in HDMI compatibility—among other things, it doesn't cover all potential audio-related issues—but it's a good start.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: May 11, 2006 1 comments
Teens love vinyl, says a Canadian researcher. A Ph.D. candidate who interviewed them for his dissertation found they love analog sound, respond to the visuals of big LP jackets, get a kick out of older music, and like all collectors, enjoy the thrill of the hunt. Surface noise? ¡No problemo! Their "active involvement in negotiating the pops, skips and crackles endemic to most second-hand records" was cited as part of the experience. And then there's rebellion, of course, something that every generation of kids is good at: "Through their retrogressive tastes and practices, these youth effectively disrupt the music industry's efforts to define and regulate their consumer identities," said the researcher, David Hayes. His findings were published in the Feb. 2006 issue of Popular Music and Society (though the text is not online).
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: May 10, 2006 1 comments
OK, let's tote up the recent wins for Steve Jobs. The trademark lawsuit from the Beatles is history. The music labels have renewed their 99-cent download arrangement with iTunes, amid much grumbling, even after Steve rejected their demand for variable pricing. The French parliament may be backing off its legislative requirement that iTunes downloads play on non-Apple devices. Disney is paying $7.4 billion for Pixar, of which Steve owns more than half, and he's got a seat on the board of directors, presumably alongside Mickey. The iPod is dominating the audio industry. Intel-driven Macs are being positioned for higher sales. Microsoft just can't seem to get its act together for the next generation of Windows. And whether or not Jobs ever gets to beat Bill Gates, he's already beaten an even meaner adversary, pancreatic cancer (God bless). I'll bet there aren't even any widows in his sock drawer.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: May 09, 2006 0 comments
Warner Bros. will distribute movies and TV shows through BitTorrent, essentially adapting a technology developed for file sharing to legal use. BitTorrent's "file swarming" technique does not download entire files from a central server. Instead it assembles a piece of content using bits from several other computers in an ad hoc network. The company's first step toward respectability came last year, when it removed illegal movie content and links from its site at the, uh, ah, request of the Motion Picture Association of America. Soon you'll be able to file-swarm new movie titles on the same date as the DVD release (price not announced) or TV shows for a buck. The download may either sit on your hard drive temporarily, for a single use, or be backed up to a DVD, though it would still play only on the PC that recorded it. Whether the rules will evolve is uncertain, and no one's given a start date, but the concept seems promising. The studios are already dipping their toes in other forms of digital home distribution.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: May 08, 2006 0 comments
Contrary to an earlier report, it looks as though France won't become the first nation to demand interoperability in music downloads and portable devices. A laudable copyright law revision has been not only watered down but totally negated. Among the key changes, the words translatable as "open standard" have been changed to "protected copy." If you're an attorney fluent in French, take a look at the proposed amendments from the Commission des Affaires culturelles. The committee's handiwork is already being cited as a victory for Apple, which had bitterly condemned the bill's original wording as "state-sponsored piracy" and a mortal threat to iTunes. The resistance is still resisting—see eucd.info and stopdrm.info—but the prospects for consumer-friendly legislation have deteriorated. The French senate is expected to vote by mid-month.

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