EARS ON

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 13, 2008 1 comments
I was dozing through a commercial break in the 10 o'clock news when I heard something that woke me right up. It was the "Prelude No. 1 in C Major" from Book I of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, the Rosetta Stone of western music. The experience was akin to finding a fifty dollar bill in the street, which incidentally also happened to me recently. What advertiser would be brilliant enough to feed Johann Sebastian Bach to an unsuspecting TV audience? None other than McDonald's, promoting its Angus Third-Pounder. This über-burger can be purchased in three varieties: with lettuce and tomato, with bacon and cheese, or with Swiss and mushrooms. The ad--which I swear I've seen before, but with a less elevating soundtrack--shows an average guy who takes his first bite of a Third-Pounder and is so transported that he tries to push his chair back from the table, to savor the golden (-arched) moment, only to find the chair's bolted to the floor, so he settles for a sip from his giant drink. I'd have run out into the street and bought an Angus Third-Pounder immediately, just this once, were it not for the seeded bun. I don't eat whole sesame seeds. Anyway, there you have it, an odd alliance between the nation's most notorious gristle pusher and a composer who had a direct line to God. And I have no complaints about this. Far from it. Will wonders never cease.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Nov 06, 2006 0 comments
Windows Vista launches November 30 to corporate customers and January 30 to consumers. Will the next version of Windows become the next big thing in high-end audio circles? There certainly are some interesting features listed in this tutorial from the Windows Vista Team Blog. For instance, bass management applies in both forward (LFE sent from main to sub channels) and reverse ("mapped back into the main channels"). There's "loudness equalization" to maintain even volume levels among different sources. "Speaker fill" seems to be the Microsofting of Dolby Pro Logic II though whether it will work equally as well remains to be seen (in my experience, nothing works as well as DPLII). Perhaps most ambitious, Vista will have its own "room correction" circuit, using microphone input to tweak delay, frequency response, and gain. "This technology works differently than similar features in high-end receivers since it better accounts for the way the human ear processes sound," says product manager Nick White. We'll see about that! While we're puckering up for Microsoft, check out Gizmodo's Happy Birthday, Windows XP. Five years old and still faithfully serving 400 million users.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Nov 02, 2006 0 comments
Would you like to fling HDTV around your living room without wires? Seven major names in consumer electronics have banded together to do just that with the forthcoming WirelessHD standard, according to TWICE. They want to transmit high-def signals up to 32 feet using the 60GHz frequency band, also used by the military, universities, and offices. Up to 7GHz of that band would support simultaneous streaming of three 1080p signals. There would be no compression—at least, none in addition to the usual MPEG-2 and other HD codecs—so there would be no compromise in picture quality, in contrast to current low-bandwidth wireless video schemes. Look for WirelessHD in HDTVs, of course, but also in DVD players and adapters for set-top boxes. The WirelessHD Consortium includes LG, Matsushita, NEC, Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba plus newcomer SiBEAM, the startup providing the underlying technology. The spec will be finalized in 2007 with products to follow in 2008. For updates, hit the official site.
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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: Dec 18, 2006 0 comments
A music store dating from the age of the wax cylinder is threatened with closure in Cardiff, the capitol of Wales. Spillers was founded in 1894 and has survived the 78, the LP, the 45, and the CD (and still sells all but one of those formats). In fact, even in the new era of downloads, the beloved shop has been holding its own. What's threatening to engulf it is not technological, but economic, change. Efforts to attract investment to the city have succeeded a little too well, with two giant shopping developments opening up near Spillers. If the landlord follows through on his threat to raise the rent, owner Nick Todd--who left his secure bank job 31 years ago for a job at the shop--will have to close. Petitions are flying around. One has attracted signatures from half of the Welsh National Assembly (would that our own Congress were so hip) and another has garnered 2000 other signers. Says Todd: "If it all goes belly-up we've had a great time. I'd still rather own Spillers than Virgin." (Click here and scroll halfway down for Wes Phillips' tribute to Tower Records. I had no idea that the hundreds of $2 classical LPs I'd bought at the Tower Annex were stocked by "Analog George" Stanwick.)
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Nov 07, 2006 1 comments
You may not realize it, but space on your rack is valuable, and having gotten a slot, certain parties are determined to multi-task as much as possible. One of them is Microsoft. Starting on November 22 the behemoth of Redmond will start bringing TV and movies—including high-def material—to the Xbox 360 gaming console with content from CBS, MTV, Paramount, Turner, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), and Warner. Some content will be download-to-own, some download-to-rent. Prices were not announced. TV stuff will include condensed NASCAR races, UFC's "most intense fights," and from CBS: episodes of CSI, Jericho, Numb3rs, and remastered Star Trek. Not many movie titles were announced except for Warner's The Matrix, Superman Returns, and Batman Forever. More content listed here, press release here.
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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: 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: Nov 14, 2007 2 comments
I keep up with new surround-receiver features the way a CIA analyst monitors intel from dangerous nations. A lot of these things are just distractions from the fundamentals: dynamics, noise, etc. But I'm in love with the latest wrinkle in connectivity, the front-panel USB jack. At first I thought, yawn, a way to plug in your Windows PlaysForSure music player, as if you had such a thing. But you can also plug in a plain old USB drive. Think of this: You bump your 10 newest favorite songs to a flash drive, plug that sucker into the front panel, and use the remote to get the show rolling. If you have a whole drawer full of those things, each one can become a playlist. Better yet, why not get some use out of the external hard drive you use to protect your download collection from a deadly crash? Or better still, why not buy another external hard drive just for use with the receiver? I just paid $120 for a 500GB Iomega external drive to back up my backups (I'm careful that way). That's much less than the cost of a fancy hard-drive-based audio server. It's also just about what you'd pay for an add-on iPod dock. Kudos to Pioneer, which introduced me to the feature with the VSX-94TXH ($1600), and Integra, maker of the DTR-8.8 ($2400) I'm reviewing at the moment. Let's hope USB trickles down to less costly models.
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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: Oct 24, 2006 0 comments
I told you so. Google's acquisition of YouTube has gotten a lot of attention for its $1.65 billion pricetag. But that's not the end of the story. Chapter two of the YouTube saga will be an elaborate dance with copyright laws—and holders. Stephen Colbert's comic diatribe ("the way I see it, you owe me $700 million") is only the tip of the iceberg. There will be purges, of course, including 30,000 items deleted at the demand of the the Japan Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers. YouTube had quietly started changing its business model a month before the acquisition by signing a deal with Warner Music that will allow revenue sharing for music clips, even those, um, unofficially uploaded by fans. There's a new concept: file sharing retroactively made legal! The rapprochement may be traced back to February when Saturday Night Live aired a rap parody featuring Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell called "Lazy Sunday: Chronicles of Narnia." Reports Business Week: "NBC asked YouTube to pull the video down, and YouTube complied. However, after the clip showed up on YouTube, Saturday Night Live's ratings ballooned, says Gerry Kaufhold, an analyst with consultancy In-Stat. In the end, NBC decided to make even more programming available to the site." YouTube's graceful transition from copyright outlaw to media darling may become an influential model—but only for as long as it can ride on the magic carpet of net neutrality. That rug may get pulled from under us at any moment. Will chapter three of the YouTube story be about its death on the information superhighway?
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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: Aug 16, 2006 2 comments
More information has emerged about Microsoft's forthcoming Zune music player, thanks to my colleagues at This Week In Consumer Electronics, who always have their ears to the ground on the retail scene. The company has been briefing retailers and TWICE have been prying out morsels of information about Redmond's supposed iPod-killer. Here are the details (I would rather slit my wrists than say deets):
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Oct 02, 2006 0 comments
When we last discussed Zune, plucky little Microsoft was getting ready to take on mean monolithic Apple with an iPod-really-wannabe but details were scarce. They got less scarce last week with the announcement that the 30GB player, at $249.99, would cost almost exactly the same as the new 30GB iPod video, at $249. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the 80GB iPod video may better serve a large library at just a hundred bucks more. But the iPod doesn't let you wirelessly share tracks with another user. The DRM catch? Three plays for three days, then the play privilege expires unless you pay. Another thing you won't get in the iPod/iTunes ecosystem is an all-you-can-eat monthly subscription like the Zune Pass, $14.99/month. Like some wacky city-state, Microsoft even has its own currency—Microsoft Points—described as "a stored value system that can be redeemed at a growing number of online stores, including the Xbox Live Marketplace." A track costs 79 Microsoft Points, at 80 to the dollar. Zune accessories include home, car, and travel packs at $79-99 with various cables, adapters, and things. Among many single-packaged accessories are the Zune Premium Earphones ($39.99) which, the 'softie site assures us, "produce superior sound." Finally, if you've had your heart set on a brown player, Zune's got one, along with black and white. Actually, it doesn't look bad. For more details, see the press release. Zune's D-Day is November 14. Wish it luck. Or not. Really, it's up to you.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Nov 13, 2006 0 comments
Microsoft's Zune goes on sale tomorrow. It may already be getting the attention of consumers, according a survey by ABI Research. Of 1725 teens and adults queried, most of those planning to buy a new music player in the next year would consider Zune. That includes 59 percent of non-iPod player owners and--shock!--58 percent of iPod owners. Only 15 percent of iPod owners said they were "not very likely" or "not at all likely" to choose Zune. "Our conclusion is that iPod users don't display the same passionate loyalty to iPods that Macintosh users have historically shown for their Apple products," says analyst Steve Wilson. The press release does not mention Microsoft sponsorship though it admits that respondents were shown a photo and description of Zune before answering. In other Zune news, Microsoft is discontinuing its MSN Music Store in favor of the new Zune Marketplace (full-sized screen shot here. And in a surprise announcement, Microsoft announced it would pay a hardware royalty of more than a buck per player to the Universal Music Group—home of U2 and Jay-Z—in addition to a software royalty for every download. Zune has attracted mixed reviews in The New York Times (a free read if you register), The Wall Street Journal and a brief hands-on assessment in Wired News.

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