EARS ON

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: May 01, 2006 2 comments
You order a DVD, then it's custom-made and shipped. That's the beauty of the new DVD on Demand service from Amazon, partnering with CustomFlix. Producers send DVD or tape masters, which are then placed on a secure server for ordering from the Amazon or CustomFlix sites. "Customers receive professional-quality DVDs in overwrapped, Amaray-style cases with full-color covers and lacquer-coated disc faces," says CustomFlix. There are two levels of distribution service: Independent Media Gateway for indies with fewer than 50 titles, and Enterprise Media Gateway for the big guns. The latter include NBC, PBS, A&E, the History Channel, and the Biography Channel. You'll be able to order Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show from NBC and Nova from PBS, among other announced titles. Current releases are standard-def but in the future CustomFlix will support HD DVD, Blu-ray, and WMV-HD DVD. On-demand distribution systems generally trade a greater manufacturing cost per copy for the flexibility of replicating one unit at a time, so they're most suitable for small projects, like DWL Video's lovely epic on the 17 Year Cicada. A parallel cottage industry has grown up around on-demand book printing, including both my home theater guide and my restaurant guide.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 13, 2007 0 comments
Hot on the heels of Wal-Mart Video Downloads, Amazon is looking to attract more customers to its Unbox service by teaming up with TiVo. Currently in beta, "Amazon Unbox on TiVo" would allow owners of Series2 or -3 TiVos to download and play Unbox videos. Sorry, Series1 and DirecTV TiVo owners can't participate. Besides the TiVo, you'll also need an Amazon account, and you'll need to link it to your TiVo account. A movie download will take anywhere from an hour (with broadband) to five hours (with dial-up). Your downloads will appear on the TiVo's now-playing list. They will not work with the TiVoToGo or multi-room features, but you can download to other devices using Unbox RemoteLoad. More details from Amazon or TiVo.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 13, 2007 4 comments
Just arrived is a long-awaited plan to subsidize digital-to-analog convertors for old TVs to be affected by the final switchover to digital television on February 17, 2009. Each household may request up to two $40 coupons from the National Telecommunications and Information Association. Congress allocated nearly a billion dollars for the program, though critics claim that's not enough, and another half-billion eventually may follow. That should take care of the 15.4 million households wholly dependent on broadcast TV. Also potentially affected would be cable subscribers plugging analog signals directly into their sets. They may have to get convertors from their operators. Affected households may request coupons starting on January 1, 2008 and no later than March 31, 2009 via mail, web, or toll-free number. While the coupons can be used only to buy convertors, there are other ways to make the transition to DTV. You might buy a recording device with an ATSC tuner. Or, of course, a new TV. See NTIA's consumer fact sheet and final ruling.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Dec 12, 2006 0 comments
The transition to digital television is finally complete. Yes, it's true. Analog signals have been banished from the airwaves. If you don't believe me, hop a plane to the Netherlands and see for yourself. The cutoff came between midnight and two a.m. Monday morning, affecting 74,000 of the country's 16 million viewers--most of the remainder get cable, with only token numbers of satellite and IPTV addicts. Broadcast-dependent Dutch viewers will have to pay $66.50 for a set-top box to adapt their analog sets to the new digital signals. However, the government will save $200 per year for each of them, making subsidies at least theoretically possible. Broadcaster Royal KPN NV paid to construct the DTV transmitters. It is obligated to keep broadcasting the three state channels but can charge $18.50 a month for a package of extra channels similar to cable. Belgium and Scandinavia will jump into the DTV pool in 2007, though the United States won't follow till 2009 (or never, if broadcasters get their way).
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Oct 03, 2006 0 comments
Ever wondered what's inside an iPod's inscrutably screwless design? There actually are people who pry these things open and look at every part, and some of them work for iSuppli's Teardown Analysis. Apple has reduced the "bill of materials" cost for the second-generation 4GB iPod nano from $89.97 to $72.24, according to iSuppli. Considering that the price has dropped from $249 to $199, that's only fair. Among the changes, the "system on chip" has been changed from a "semi custom" PortalPlayer PP5021 to a Samsung chip. And the latter includes a flash disk controller previously implemented in a separate part. The analysis leaves only one question unanswered: What would happen to the new nano if you put it through a washing machine? Details tomorrow.
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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 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: Feb 02, 2006 1 comments
Worried about taking your iPod out in the rain? You needn't if you're wearing the BlackCoat Work from Ohio-based Koyono. The "Made for iPod" jacket's five pockets include one for your iPod. You can manipulate the player through the Elektex five-button fabric interface, sourced from Eleksen, a five-layer laminate of conductive materials. It's light, flexible, durable, washable, and (the company says) superior to the hard touchpads, flexi-circuits, and polymer switches used in other products. The BlackCoat Work will be available in March or April and can be ordered direct for $179.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 28, 2007 0 comments
An unexpected legal snafu may have makers of music players and ripping software shelling out bigtime for MP3 or possibly even abandoning the popular audio codec. At the heart of the storm is Alcatel-Lucent, a networking-equipment company and heir to the legacy of Bell Labs. Alcatel claims that Bell brought two key patents to the table when Bell joined the Fraunhofer Institute of Germany and Thomson of France in developing the MP3 format as the audio soundtrack of the now-forgotten MPEG-1 video standard. This claim is a surefire money maker. Alcatel has already persuaded the federal district court of San Diego to hit Microsoft with $1.52 billion in damages for the use of MP3 in the Windows Media Player. That's half a percentage point of the value of all Windows PCs sold. Ironically, WMP didn't begin supporting MP3 till 2004 with Version 10; before that MP3 ripping was a third-party plug-in. Microsoft will appeal, arguing that one of the two disputed patents does not apply to WMP and the other was covered when Gates & Co. paid Fraunhofer $16 million to license MP3. Before you get all giggly and anti-Redmondian, consider the fact that iTunes also offers MP3 ripping, and that iTunes purchases in AAC account for only a tiny percentage of all iPod-stored content. If Steve Jobs wants to keep his gravy train rolling, he'll have to fork over too. As will every purchaser of every MP3-compatible product. Pray for Microsoft.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jan 03, 2014 4 comments
For some, tower speakers are an article of faith. Many audiophiles wouldn't consider going without them—either folded into a 5.1+ system or as a standalone two-channel system. For some of those listeners, owning a pair of towers is the right decision, and I wouldn't be foolhardy enough to try talking them out of it. But for others, floorstanding speakers are just one option among many, and not necessarily the best one. In some primary systems, smaller-scale monitors or satellites would be more appropriate; for some secondary systems, soundbars or standalone audio products make more sense. As I discussed in a previous blog, choice of speaker size depends on both needs and personalities.

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 12, 2007 1 comments
A new royalty structure approved by the federal Copyright Royalty Board has webcasters quaking. Formerly they paid the music industry's SoundExchange between 6 and 12 percent of their revenue. But under the new royalty structure, they'll pay $0.0008 to stream one song to one listener, rising to $0.0019 in 2010. That may not sound like much, but it would amount to 1.28 cents per listener per hour, more than estimated current ad revenue of 1.1 to 1.2 pennies per hour. And that's just for starters. Rates would continue to rise every year. More bad news for small webcasters: There would also be a minimum charge of $500 per year per channel. And the new rules don't apply to songwriter publishing royalties, potentially an additional expense. Whether all this will kill web radio as widely predicted remains to be seen. But the fledgling medium will certainly have to find a more lucrative business model if it wants to survive. So, a speculative question: Just how much would you be willing to pay for Internet radio?
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 13, 2008 1 comments
If you live anywhere near the Wedge Gallery in Asheville, North Carolina, check out the paintings of Ruth Whiting. She's every nerd's dream--a painter who finds inspiration in cables! Says Whiting: "My work can be seen as a product of my fascination with the sublimely ordinary. For some time now I have set myself the task of revealing the beauty and heroism of mundane objects. I think of my paintings as lenses through which insignificant items, usually thought of as nothing more than functional, can assume the roles of heroes. My paintings do not attempt the illustrative role of myth, and yet there is a level upon which a giant orange extension cord that writhes through the nave of a quiet church demands a mythic justification. Thus, rather than propose a narrative, I attempt to create a situation that calls for an explanation. Electrical cords are like the connective tissue of our technological lives yet most of the time all we do is trip over them. This is a show dedicated to glorifying the dreams of extension cords." See showrooms here and here. This page includes clickable larger images. All oil on paper, the paintings are for sale at prices ranging from $130-500.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 27, 2007 0 comments
Looking for a new way to get TV onto your PC? If you already subscribe to AT&T's next-generation U-verse service, you can also sign up for a free 14-day trial of OnTheGo. If you keep it, you'll pay an extra $10 month (over and above the usual U-verse cost) to access 30 channels from your PC. Mac users will not be pleased to hear that the service requires Windows XP, Internet Explorer, and the Windows Media Player. And the initial lineup may provoke further gripes: Fox News and Bloomberg but no CNN, Comedy Time but no Comedy Central. However, AT&T promises to add more channels as well as video on demand. OnTheGo is a joint venture with MobiTV, whose other activities include routing TV and XM channels to cell phones.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jan 18, 2006 7 comments
AT&T has snuck into the television-delivery market on silent cat feet. Without fanfare, the company formerly known as SBC has begun providing TV-over-IP service to a lucky handful in its hometown of San Antonio, Texas. Ironically, that's the same state where arch-rival Verizon has premiered its own television service. Unlike Verizon's capital-intensive all-fiber-optic approach, which extends fiber directly into the home, AT&T is building fiber only as far as "nodes" in the neighborhood, then compressing the signal into copper lines for the final leg of the journey. AT&T's initial offerings include 200 channels, including all the major networks, and some on-demand programming. This is a huge story and I'll get back to it as soon as I know more.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 29, 2006 0 comments
If you live in Naperville, Illinois and want telco TV as an alternative to cable and satellite providers, you're out of luck. AT&T has dropped the Chicago suburb like a bag of dirt. Naperville was willing to sign a franchise agreement that would have brought AT&T's Project Lightspeed—a combination of television, broadband, and telephone service—as long as all residents were eligible to subscribe to the service. AT&T walked away, an executive pouting: "Nowhere in this country has AT&T agreed to a build-out requirement." Then again: "We have an economic incentive to make the service as widely available as possible." But: "What we're not willing to do is make a commitment in 'x' number of months." However, AT&T actually did sign an agreement with nearby North Chicago to provide video service within 18 months. Confused? Here's the catch: that agreement doesn't specify next-generation Internet-based video. The folks in Naperville charged AT&T with making a scene in an attempt to strong-arm Congress into passing pending legislation providing telcos with a national franchise agreement that would end-run municipal governments. A Naperville council member commented: "We have some intellectual dishonesty taking place." See coverage in ArsTechnica and the Chicago Tribune. More tomorrow.

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