EARS ON

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Apr 04, 2006 1 comments
Downloads for movie collectors—as opposed to renters—are finally happening in a big way. Warner-owned Movielink, until now just a download-rental service, now offers 300 titles for download-ownership from six major studios. CinemaNow offers another 75 titles worth of ownable bits from three studios. Pricing, unfortunately, is actually higher than Amazon disc purchases, but hey, it's a start. The coolest permutation—alas, for Brits only—is Download to Own from Universal Pictures and Lovefilm. For one price you get two downloads, one for a PC and one for a portable media player—plus a hard-copy disc—all for one admittedly stratospheric price. Even if none of these schemes appeals to you now, it's clear that movie downloads are now a viable option for library builders, and it's only a matter of time before they go high-def. Blu-what?
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Apr 03, 2006 4 comments
The maker of the world's most deliriously successful music player offers these words of advice: "If you expose your ears to excessive sound pressure, you can harm those small hair cells in your ears." Whether this has anything to do with the class-action lawsuit filed in Louisiana alleging hearing damage from iPods is, of course, just so much irresponsible speculation. According to my colleagues at Stereophile, a recent poll indicates hearing loss among the young is a real problem. What is certain is that Apple has announced a firmware upgrade that sets a top volume level deemed safe with Apple's supplied iPod earbuds and other products with similar sensitivity ratings.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 31, 2006 0 comments
Why are component audio sales lagging portables? "More than 56 percent of potential audio buyers say they have never even heard what they'd consider a great sounding audio system," says a press release from the Consumer Electronics Association. For those of us who have both heard and felt soul-stirring sound, that is nothing short of horrific. "The good news for retailers is that many consumers are leaving the door of opportunity cracked open through their willingness to interact with a sales person and to receive a demonstration of better audio equipment," says Sean Wargo, CEA's director of industry analysis. CEA recently released a training DVD for dealers, "The Specialty Audio/Video Difference," showing how to conduct effective demos and supply good customer service. If you're a consumer, as opposed to a dealer, maybe it's time to walk into an a/v specialty store and say "play me something good!" It just might change your life. To find a store in your area with some real class, click here. (Today's poster boy is Tycho the Wonder Dog, courtesy of www.nomoon.org.)
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 30, 2006 2 comments
High-performance audio's long, slow decline is officially a crisis. The latest figures from the Consumer Electronics Association say that portable audio devices now outsell components—"for the first time in history," as This Week In Consumer Electronics reported. Put portable, home, and car audio together and the audio industry grew a total of 29 percent in 2005. But that includes an 85 percent hike in sales of portables, four percent growth in car audio, and a decline of 16 percent in the good-sounding stuff that sits on your rack, if you still have a rack. You can blame paradigm shifts, generational changes, i-everything, blabbity blabbity blah, but there's a smoking gun here, and I'll talk about it tomorrow.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 29, 2006 0 comments
Read the fine print on some DVD and CD releases and you'll see the phrase CarbonNeutral. What's that? CarbonNeutral, formerly known as Future Forests, has convinced a variety of manufacturers to offset the CO2 emissions caused in the making of plastics by paying landowners to plant trees. Celebrity enthusiasts include Atomic Kitten, Beth Orton, Coldplay, Pink Floyd, and the Rolling Stones—not to mention Gwyneth Paltrow and Leonardo DiCaprio. Unfortunately, critics of the scheme say that the company is just selling the carbon rights for trees that would have been planted anyway. Still worse, Mike Mason of Climate Care told The Times of London: "When Mick Jagger's trees die in 50 years' time, they will release the CO2 they have been storing at a time when the situation is likely to be more critical." You know what the road to hell is paved with. Bit of a heartbreaker, isn't it?
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 28, 2006 2 comments
Apple Computer doesn't like France's pending copyright reform. Though widely viewed as a blow against the binding of iTunes purchases to iPods—horreur!—the law actually would require all downloads to be compatible with all devices. An Apple spokesperson equated this with "state-sponsored piracy," and your federal government has chimed in with cabinet-level agreement: "Any time that we believe that intellectual property rights are being violated, we need to speak up and in this case, the company is taking the initiative," Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told CNBC. What makes the situation so ironic is that just a few years ago, the same federal government (well, almost the same) was energetically litigating against Microsoft for binding Internet Explorer to Windows. In similar spirit, the European Union is about to hit Microsoft with a big fine for binding the Windows Media Player to the OS. Since no one else is asking the question, I will: Why should there be one antitrust standard for Microsoft and a totally different one for Apple? The French, at least, are proposing to level the playing field in an increasingly lucrative download market.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 27, 2006 1 comments
Initial Blu-ray and HD DVD titles won't support the managed-copy feature, according to a report from PC World. The interim agreement on content-security features that will allow hardware and software to hit the street this spring won't support the flag that would let users make a legit backup copy, transfer content to a media player, or move it around a home network. This temporary lack of functionality may not be a dealbreaker for early adopters. In fact, managed copy is just a future option that would allow the studios to give users some flexibility. Even when it eventually does become available, that doesn't necessarily mean it'll be used. But I thought you'd like to know.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 24, 2006 2 comments
"I got a lotta time for otters," someone sang recently. What a coincidence that I happen to be reviewing the OtterBox case for the iPod nano.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 23, 2006 1 comments
Seeking to lure back declining audiences, theater owners may be about to silence blabbering cell phone users by jamming their phones. "I don't know what's going on with consumers that they have to talk on phones in the middle of theaters," the president of the National Association of Theater Owners told a conference, and really, don't desperate times call for desperate measures? Churches in Mexico already jam phones, albeit in defiance of Mexican law. Our own feckless feds also forbid it, and if the subject came up, regulators would probably cock an ear for valuable advice from the wireless industry. But cutting the inane chatter just might increase the quality of the moviegoing experience—along with digitizing projection, easing off on abusive volume levels, and banning Tom Cruise from the screen forever.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 22, 2006 0 comments
That's the slogan of IPac, a pro-consumer group. They want the folks in Congress to know exactly what they're doing when they limit fair use of popular products. The impetus for the campaign was a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the latest version of the broadcast flag bill. Eighty-year-old Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) announced that his daughters had given him an iPod and he was having great fun listening to his favorite albums on it. This changed the tone of the hearing as Stevens and Sen. John Sununu (R-NH) grilled lobbyists on both sides of the issue, including Mitch Bainwol of the RIAA and Gary Shapiro of CEA. To date the campaign has raised enough to buy 12 iPods. They'll come preloaded with a commentary, for senatorial edification, by legal heavyweight Lawrence Lessig on "balanced copyright." Come on, people, there are still 88 senators left!
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 21, 2006 3 comments
The legislative silly season is barely underway but this year promises a bumper crop of whoppers. Arguably the biggest mistake about to be written into law is a national franchise agreement for telcos muscling their way into the video-delivery biz. Cable companies have to win municipal franchises that bring in money for local governments and give consumers at least an indirect stick with which to beat slovenly cable operators. They are also required to serve all paying households in their service areas. Now the telcos can compete with cable companies while remaining blissfully free of the local regulation that encourages your local cable op to serve every neighborhood and keep his nose clean. If you think your cable company is arrogant, wait till you've got one wire coming into your home from a company that doesn't have to play by the rules, be it AT&T or Verizon. The cable industry is crying foul, and let's face it, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Give due consideration to this heated position paper from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 20, 2006 1 comments
Pope Benedict XVI is now an iPod owner. According to the Catholic News Service, employees of Vatican Radio honored the pontiff's first visit to their premises by giving him a nano inscribed on the back, "To His Holiness, Benedict XVI." The pope accepted the gift saying, "computer technology is the future." The iPod—in white, appropriately enough—is loaded with Vatican Radio programming, including a documentary on the life of St. Thomas a Becket, and music, including the works of Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky. The iPod will allow the pope to enjoy Vatican Radio's daily podcasts, which are offered in eight languages.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 17, 2006 3 comments
Initial Blu-ray titles from Sony-owned studios will not include a down-res flag that would cripple older HDTVs. For months videophiles have been complaining bitterly that the bizarrely named Image Constraint Token would give studios the option of reducing analog component video output from high- to standard-definition. Sony, at least, has decided not to use the ICT. Though the decision certainly is not binding on other studios, Sony deserves a pat on the back for showing leadership. And it's comforting to know that you can put Sony software into a Sony Blu-ray player and see a full 1920 by 1080 pixels on your first-generation Sony HDTV.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 16, 2006 4 comments
Annoyed because that Rhapsody purchase won't work on your iPod? You'd love the new copyright law about to be enacted in France. Legal downloads would be required to operate on all devices, and consumers would be allowed to defeat DRM while making file conversions. Unauthorized downloads would still be illegal, carrying a file of 38 euros, and the penalties for selling illegal file-sharing software would be really stiff, at 300,000 euros or three years in jail. Prompted by France's need to bring itself into compliance with new EU copyright regulations, the law is getting attention because it's more unabashedly pro-consumer than bills being mulled in other EU nations. An earlier bill that would have legalized file sharing for a flat monthly fee has been dropped.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 15, 2006 2 comments
A successful format needs both hardware and software. Unfortunately for HD DVD, the software expected for the format's official March 28 launch date has just turned to vaporware. Warner Home Video announced that titles won't make it to the church on time due to unnamed technical problems. The delay may be only a week or two—"we just don't know." One possible explanation would be a delay with the content security system used, in some form, by both HD DVD and Blu-ray. The rumor mill said it hadn't gotten completed on time. A subsequent report said an interim agreement would let both formats move forward. And now—well, who knows? Though Paramount and Universal have also announced HD DVD titles, they’ve never provided a hard date. How this will affect Blu-ray's May 23 software launch remains unclear. Oh, one more thing—Disney is hinting it may support both formats, which would be welcome news in the HD DVD camp.

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