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EARS ON

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jun 13, 2007 2 comments
The iPod has a way of erasing all boundaries between itself and the rest of your life. Why shouldn't you be able to listen to it through your home theater system? After all, some people do use their iPods more than their whirring disc players--though as an audio snob, I'm obligated to point out that uncompressed CDs sound better than compressed file formats (and SACDs can sound better than CDs). To test the product, I found another use for it. Still, the iPod has become the way many people organize their music consumption, and the people's voice must be heard. That's why some surround receivers have optional iPod docks. And for those that don't, there's a veritable army of docking devices like DLO's Homedock Deluxe.
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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: Oct 09, 2006 2 comments
Starting last week, I've been trying to explain the new Dolby and DTS surround codecs little by little. The reason each camp is hawking two new codecs for HD DVD and Blu-ray is that one is lossless (Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio) and the other is lossy (Dolby Digital Plus, DTS-HD High Resolution Audio). Lossless codecs reconstruct the original signal without discarding data; lossy ones use perceptual coding to discard the least important data, achieving greater efficiency in a limited bit bucket. Together these formats represent the first qualitative step forward for surround sound since the ill-fated debuts of DVD-Audio and SACD. High-res surround is baaack! Here are the basics on Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, and how they're supported in BD and HD DVD. DTS devotes a whole new website to the two new DTS-HD codecs including heaven-sent wiring diagrams. Has anyone mentioned to you that DTS Encore is simply a rebranding of DTS 5.1 and DTS-ES 6.1? You'll find it only on software packaging. There, I'm glad we've had this little talk.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Oct 06, 2006 5 comments
Memo to early adopters of HD DVD and Blu-ray: HDMI 1.3 will support every surround codec in the Dolby and DTS stables. How I wish I could leave it at that. However, only DTS-HD Master Audio requires the full monty of HDMI 1.3, which is a good thing, since HDMI 1.3 isn't here yet. Because HD DVD and Blu-ray players have surround decoders, panners, and mixers built in, lowly HDMI 1.1 or 1.2 will transfer decoded signals for Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio. In fact, even the player's 7.1-channel analog-outs will support all these new surround goodies at full resolution. Using the old-fashioned digital coaxial or optical outs will down-res the signal to Dolby Digital at 640kbps or DTS at 768kbps. There you go. Knock yourself out. I'll continue milking this thing Monday.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Apr 18, 2006 2 comments
Yesterday's item about the dumping of CDs reminded me of a bit of future-proofing I masterminded awhile ago. I'd just set up some new CD shelves but was already dreading the day when my 2400-disc storage capacity would finally run out. So I bought four jumbo CaseLogic CD wallets. Each one holds 264 discs—or half that many if I decide to keep the booklets alongside the discs—so eventually my least significant thousand discs will find new homes there. The mere thought of dumping several shopping bags full of jewelboxes in the plastics-recycling bin brings a smile to my face. Since then CaseLogic has introduced an even bigger model holding 320 discs.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jan 24, 2007 0 comments
How much of your download dollar goes to the record companies? They have finally been forced to reveal this "trade secret" to a federal court. And it was their own ongoing litigation against consumers that triggered the confession. The Recording Industry Antichrist of America sued Marie Lindor, as it has done with hundreds of other people, based on information seized via another lawsuit from her Internet access provider. The RIAA demanded $750 per song, but Lindor's attorney argued that damages should be capped lower, and linked to the wholesale price per song. RIAA lawyers begged the judge not to make them divulge the magic number--but finally were forced to admit that the rumored 70 cents per track was "in the correct range." The information will no doubt prove useful to other attorneys, like the ones defending other RIAA-lawsuit victims, not to mention those representing recording artists.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Oct 17, 2008 53 comments
While reviewing the Onkyo TX-SR806 receiver ($1099) I did some to-ing and fro-ing with the THX and Audyssey people regarding THX Loudness Plus and Audyssey Dynamic EQ. These new loudness corrections operate in roughly the same territory--but in a different manner. Their common goal is to compensate for sonic losses that occur naturally at lower volume levels. As volume drops, the frequency response of human hearing changes. Loudness Plus and Dynamic EQ both tackle this problem by adjusting channel levels and frequency response. But beyond that, there are differences between them, and I asked the THX and Audyssey people to be specific about those differences. Here's what they said.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Nov 16, 2006 0 comments
Jon Johansen strikes again. As a teen, the now 22-year-old Norwegian became notorious for hacking the CSS digital rights management associated with the DVD format. His latest project is to open up tightly guarded ecosystem of Apple's iPod and iTunes Store by hacking Apple's FairPlay DRM. To that end he's cofounded DoubleTwist Ventures with partner Monique Farantzos. They plan to license their technology to manufacturers and download services, as Farantzos explained to news.com, with two aims: "One is to enable other online stores to wrap their content with FairPlay so that it works on the iPod.... We also plan to allow competing devices play iTunes content." No doubt Apple will litigate fiercely to protect its highly profitable closed system. But the music industry, long uncomfortable with Apple's rigid pricing, has been praying for something like this to happen. And several European governments have been quietly or not so quietly demanding it.
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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: Jul 20, 2006 2 comments
Consumers are buying more DVDs this year—but are also buying fewer fresh movie titles. That's what the folks at NPD's VideoWatch are saying. Sales of new DVDs rose seven percent during the first quarter of 2006. However, only nine percent of consumers said they intended to buy DVDs of movies running in theaters during the first five months of 2006, down from 11 percent in the same period of 2005. Maybe Hollywood needs to make better films. Overall, says NPD, for the year ending in April 2006: "47 percent of all videos were rented, 30 percent were purchased from a store, 15 percent were from subscription services, eight percent from pay-per-view (PPV) or video-on-demand (VOD) services and one percent was downloaded directly from the Web."
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Apr 02, 2007 0 comments
The news that EMI will sell no-DRM downloads through iTunes couldn't have come at a better time. Music downloads are growing but not fast enough to offset sinking CD sales. Electronic libertarians assert that digital rights management is a big part of the problem, because it balkanizes the music-player world, preventing iTunes purchases from playing on non-iPods. Steve Jobs flew to London especially to join EMI in announcing that the big label's entire catalogue will become available in AAC, the iPod's favored file format, without DRM, and at 256 kilobits per second, which should provide higher quality than either MP3 at the same data rate or standard iTunes downloads at 128kbps. You'll have to pay a premium price of $1.29 per track. And if your music player doesn't do AAC, you're out of luck. However, EMI will cover those bases by selling through other download services in MP3 and WMA. For law-abiding music lovers, this is great news. Note, however, that this move is more a breakthrough in marketing than in law. EMI and Apple aren't saying you can copy anything anywhere. But it would be fair to interpret this as tacit recognition of reality--the beginning of the end of the criminalizing of fair use. It has been at least several months in the making, following the anti-DRM manifesto of Jobs and small-scale experimentation by EMI. No word on when the Beatles catalogue will become legally downloadable. Yet.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Oct 26, 2006 0 comments
The new TiVo Series3 is HD-capable, CableCARD-savvy, and limited to "35 hours of HD goodness," note the folks at Engadget HD. And so a tutorial on the new Engadget offshoot walks you through the process of upgrading the drive with lots of pictures (and some assistance from DealDataBase and TiVoCommunity). The proccess is part physical, part typing into a character-based BIOS interface. Be warned that you'll need a TORX 10 screwdriver and there's some real danger from opening up any product with a power supply (so don't do it, our lawyers would no doubt advise). If you're not suicidal, or mechanically inclined, or the memory of DOS gives you nightmares, WeakKnees will do the upgrade for you, replacing the 250GB TiVo drive with 750GB. But it doesn't hurt to watch, does it? Engadget HD has been running for a few months and worth regular visits.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Dec 21, 2006 0 comments
By a 3-2 vote, the Federal Communications Commission's Republican majority voted yesterday to supplant local regulation of television delivery services with their own rules. The move is expected to speed the entry of Verizon, AT&T, and other telcos into the turf of cable and satellite providers. Congress had been about to enact legislation with new video franchising rules until the regime change of the November elections. Now Democrats like Reps. Ed Markey (D-MA, new chair of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet) and John Dingell (D-MI, new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee) are pledging to take a close look at the FCC action in 2007. Along with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, other local-government associations, and various media watchdogs, they question whether the FCC had the statutory authority to change the rules. FCC chair Kevin Martin says telco TV will increase competition and lower rates for consumers, pointing to his agency's 2005 study on cable rates, which showed they had increased 93 percent over the previous decade. Not so, says Harold Feld of the Media Access Project: "The other guy just gradually raises his price...rather than having the higher price come down to the competitor's level." Overshadowing the cost issue is the equal-access issue: Can the telcos be counted on to "build out" to every home in a community under the new rules, as the old framework of local franchising and regulation had required them to do? The telcos have their own good cop, bad cop routine going on this subject. There's your hot topic for the New Year.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Jul 25, 2006 2 comments
Stepping up its anti-obscenity campaign, the Federal Communications Commission is asking broadcasters for tapes of live sporting events. Government employees are going to sift through them just to make sure an athlete, coach, or spectator hasn't spoken the f-word or some other weapon of mass corruption. This does not sit well with broadcasters who have added on-field mics and in-car cameras to give viewers more of a you-are-there feeling. "It looks like they want to end live broadcast TV," one anonymous TV executive told The Hollywood Reporter. The latest federal obscenity law imposes fines of as much as $325,000 per violation, a tenfold increase from the former law. It remains unclear how this would affect President Bush, who signed the anti-pottymouth law and then went off to a summit full of world leaders and uttered the s-word into an open mic.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 21, 2007 0 comments
A draft report circulating at the Federal Communications Commission claims Congress can regulate violent television content without violating the First Amendment. Interesting fact: Under the Constitution, it is the Supreme Court, not the FCC, that makes such judgments. According to chairperson Kevin Martin, "there is strong evidence that shows violent media can have an impact on children's behavior and there are some things that can be done about it." Sitting alongside Martin, a Republican, was ranking Democrat Michael Copps: "This is not a red state or a blue state issue," he said. Of the remaining three commissioners, one sides with Martin and Copps, and the other two haven't officially taken a position, giving the pro-censorship bloc a potential 3-2 majority. Even Tony Soprano may not be safe from these guys. Martin wants to exert influence on the cable and satellite networks as well. On the bright side, he wants to do it by giving consumers a chance to buy channels "a la carte," an idea the cable industry has long opposed.

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