EARS ON

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Sep 28, 2006 0 comments
Nearly lost amid the details of Apple's latest iPod launch a couple of weeks ago was something that will matter to fans of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and what old folks refer to as "side two" of the Beatles' Abbey Road. These classic-rock chestnuts consist of songs that flow together. But when you rip the CDs, iTunes separates the songs into separate tracks, and the iPod plays them with gaps. The gaps are brief but they interrupt the flow, destroy the mood. The solution? What Apple calls Gapless Playback is supported by iTunes 7 along with second-generation iPod nanos (shown, in new colors) and fifth-generation iPods. It will work with MP3 files as well as the AAC and Apple Lossless file formats. Use of the crossfade feature may interfere with Gapless Playback—see Apple's tutorial for details. Gapless Playback will also be a boon to classical music listeners. When the scherzo of Beethoven's Fifth gives way to the tumultuous final movement, there will be no jarring stop. The iPod has just gotten a little smarter.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Sep 27, 2006 0 comments
The rap against the video iPod is that the screen is too small for movie immersion or even music-video amusement. Well, it was only a matter of time until someone came up with a video docking station, and Viewsonic has done it. The Apple-authorized "made for iPod" ViewDock comes in sizes of 23 and 19 inches, suitable for desktop, dorm, or space-starved studio apartment. Viewsonic's press release does not disclose resolution, though iTunes video downloads max out at standard-def 640 by 480, so a livingroom-worthy high-def ViewDock remains just an aspiration. The ViewDock will hit Europe, Taiwan, and—yesss!—the United States in November (otherwise I wouldn't have bothered to report it). Price is yet to be determined.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Sep 26, 2006 2 comments
The engineers at Warner have been busy lately. Their latest quest: Why can't Blu-ray and HD DVD just get along? According to the NewScientist news service, Alan Bell and Lewis Ostrover have filed a patent for a disc that plays both of the nascent high-def formats as well as standard-def DVD. Getting the existing DVD format onto the disc was a cinch—it's simply the second side of a dual-sided disc. But how did they manage to get Blu-ray and HD DVD together onto the other layer? Two things worked in their favor. First, Blu-ray reads the disc at a relatively shallow 0.1mm, while HD DVD (like regular DVD) reads at a deeper 0.6mm. Second, they found a way to make the shallower Blu-ray layer act as a two-way mirror. It reflects enough light back to the laser to make the Blu-ray layer's data readable, but at the same time, lets through enough light to penetrate to the deeper HD DVD layer. Yet to be determined: How much will this three-format disc cost to manufacture? Will the hardware makers go for it, even assuming that the Blu-ray and HD DVD licensing powers allow them? And finally, and most crucial, will the studios and video retailers go for it? For the latter in particular, this could be the solution to the triple-inventory nightmare that threatens to strangle both Blu-ray and HD DVD.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Sep 25, 2006 0 comments
In the market battle between LCD and plasma displays, conventional wisdom holds that where they overlap, LCD will always cost more, and therefore plasma is the better value. But in July, the average street price of 40- to 44-inch LCDs fell below that of plasma for the first time, according to Pacific Media Associates. The market research firm's Flat Panel Display Tracking Service also found that LCD's market share went up four points, to 46 percent. Says VP Rosemary Abowd: "We've seen this repeatedly in the past. When the price of LCDs match or drop below the prices for plasma HDTVs of the same size, LCDs win. We expect that LCDs will account for the majority of unit sales in the 40- to 44-inch range soon." Plasma still has the advantage in black level and viewing angle, though it's more subject to the screen-door effect, and that big glass sandwich is heavier and thus a little harder to mount.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Sep 22, 2006 0 comments
Last week's announcement of Apple's new iPod line was a historic one. It was the first time a rival maker of music players has made Steve Jobs sweat in public. It was no accident that Jobs introduced a second-generation iPod nano with a capacity of 8GB and a price of $249, essentially doubling the capacity of the old 4GB nano for the same price. SanDisk, number two in the music-player market, has been selling an 8GB, $249.99 nano-killer for months. The Sansa e280 is not nearly as thin as the nano, though it does have a color LCD that's a half-inch taller, and it sounds equally good. I'd love to tell you more, but the blog-review that was slated to appear in this space today has been spirited off to the print magazine where it will appear in the December issue. Say, big spender, isn't it about time for you to finally subscribe? Come on, it's $12.97 a year, just over a buck an issue. It won't kill you.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Sep 21, 2006 0 comments
Polk Audio's acquisition by Directed Electronics is the latest in a series of shifts among the audio industry's rich assortment of stars. Directed—a power in mobile tech products, judging from its website—had already acquired Definitive Technology. In another noteworthy deal, Klipsch bought API, the Canadian giant whose brand names include Mirage, Energy, Athena, and Spherex. Klipsch is also the proud new owner of Jamo, the cool Danish brand. And all this comes on top of last year's sale of Boston Acoustics to D&M Holdings—a stable that already included Denon, Marantz, McIntosh, Snell, Escient, and RePlayTV—and NHT's move from the Rockford Corp. to the Vinci Group. Why are so many potent and prestigious brands changing hands? It feels as though some invisible hand were rearranging the constellations, and declining audio-component sales are the obvious suspect. But historically, major speaker brands (with the notable exception of Bose) have been sold and resold regularly, and all the brand names involved here are valuable ones that deserve fresh and vigorous marketing.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Sep 08, 2006 1 comments
If I needed further proof of your insanity, it's on the side of that box you just deposited on the pile in our bedroom.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Sep 07, 2006 0 comments
You know the folks at the Consumer Electronics Association are riled up when they send out a press release with a head like "Back to School with Baloney." The low-end luncheon meats in question are being packed into collegiate lunchboxes by the Recording Industry Antichrist of America (I have decided to make this a recurring reference) at campusdownloading.com. CEA, the media-activist group Public Knowledge, and the Computer and Communications Industry Association issued this joint communiqué laced with italic outrage: "The RIAA back to school message is 'Beware of anything free.' Ironically, it applies most aptly to the free 'educational' DVDs that RIAA is peddling to students and to the bogus legal advice on RIAA's 'Campus Downloading' website.... The 'FAQ' posted by the RIAA in support of its campaign dismisses the copyright law's Fair Use doctrine as applying only to productive or scholarly works. It suggests, contrary to explicit Supreme Court precedent, that Fair Use has no application to the home recording of entire works." The statement points out inconsistencies in the RIAA's stance on copying for personal use: "The RIAA's freeDVD...says that it is OK to make a CD copy for yourself, but is criminal to do so for a friend.... Where in the AHRA [Audio Home Recording Act of 1992], or in any court decision, does it say that purely personal recordings are legal, burning or emailing a single song for a friend or family member is criminal?"
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Sep 06, 2006 0 comments
David D. Holmes, inventor of what are now known as the SMPTE color bars, died recently at age 80. Holmes got his masters at MIT, worked on the first car transistor radio, and taught at the University of Nebraska before moving on in 1950 to RCA Labs in Princeton, New Jersey. In those days, RCA was not just a Franco-Chinese TV brand but a technology powerhouse. On arriving at RCA Labs, Holmes found "the people were using test signals from scanned slides which were dreadful, full of noise and other junk. Having nothing to do, I went back to my new lab and built an electronic test signal generator, now known as the Color Bar Generator. This was easy for me to do since I had designed and built a complete TV studio at U. of Nebraska and a lot of the stuff in the color bar generator was similar to parts of that. Well, my new device was a great hit; everybody wanted one so when my boss got back from vacation we were having six built in the model shop. They were big things, having fifty tubes and a bunch of adjustments in them." Sharing the 1953 patent with David Larky of RCA, Holmes remained at the lab for 25 years. His son John relates: "The picture above shows the spinnaker he had made for his sailboat. He set me afloat in a dinghy when I was about 12 to take that shot of the spinnaker flying in Chesapeake Bay." See VideoUniversity.com for Hal Landen's color bar tutorial, obit of Holmes, and followup, with correspondence from both father and son.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Sep 05, 2006 0 comments
If you wonder what the telcos will be like years from now, when they're raking in the cash from video services, get a load of the way they behaved last month. As soon as the Federal Communications Commission removed some regulatory charges from consumer DSL bills, BellSouth and Verizon quickly tried to add them back and pocket the cash. The deleted charges had gone into the Universal Service Fund, which was originally designed to subsidize phone service in rural areas, and later extended to nurture Internet access in schools. BellSouth DSL customers had paid $2.97 per month into the USF, while Verizon DSL customers had paid $1.25-2.83 (depending on speed of service), until the FCC reclassified DSL and eliminated the fees to give consumers a break. Thereupon BellSouth swiftly imposed a "regulatory cost recovery fee" of $2.97, while Verizon added a "supplier surcharge" of $1.20-2.70. This breathtakingly opportunistic pickpocketing of consumers, greasily interlarded with corporate doublespeak, so enraged FCC chair Kevin Martin that he instantly threatened to send official letters demanding an explanation. He didn't have to send them—BellSouth quickly backed off and Verizon followed a few days later. They've got a lot on their regulatory wish lists, with BellSouth awaiting approval for its absorption into AT&T, and all the telcos eagerly awaiting the replacement of municipal franchise agreements for video service with more relaxed federal and state regulation. If this is what they act like when they're on their best behavior, just imagine what they'll be like at their worst.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Sep 01, 2006 0 comments
Some of my happiest childhood memories involve a supermarket shopping cart and my mother (who has just turned 80). When I was still small enough, she'd place me in the shopping cart, roll me around the aisles, and occasionally give in to my pleading for animal crackers, though her own cookies were the best. When I got too big to sit in the steel cart, I started pushing it for her. That early consumer experience is about to change with the advent of the TV Kart. It's a colorful object that resembles a car equipped with a color liquid crystal display showing Barney and the Wiggles. The TV Kart is already deployed in 17 supermarket chains in the manufacturer's native New Zealand as well as in Australia and the United States. Within the U.S. it's hit 175 Meijer stores in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan. And it's about to roll into Wal-Marts in three states, according to National Public Radio. There is an upside here. If kids are distracted by TV, they might be less likely to beg for snacks loaded with sugar and toxic oils. The downside, as a disturbingly ecstatic mother told NPR: "Now Mom shops alone."
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 31, 2006 3 comments
"I love the sound of breaking glass," Nick Lowe once sang, and the Avdeco HR420 is just the TV stand for him. A member of the AV Science Forum relates: "I happened to be sitting in the next room, when I heard a tremendous crash. I thought that a plane had hit my house, and I ran into my bedroom to see what happened. The top shelf of the Avdeco stand EXPLODED sending shards of glass to every corner of my bedroom. Fortunately for me, I wasn't sleeping at the time, or I would have been hit by flying glass." The Panasonic 50PX500U plasma that had been sitting on the stand weighs 114 pounds, less than half of the stand's rated weight limit of 250. Neither Avdeco or the dealer that sold the stand, Threshold Concepts have responded to the consumer's complaints. The model is still listed on the Avdeco website. It's not on the Threshold Concepts site, though other Avdeco glass-rack models are, with the comment: "The simplistic lines are subdued, yet make a strong statement." Indeed. Other AVS members weighed in with useful pointers: (1) Tempered glass is designed to fragment into pebbles when broken, which is actually less scary than the angular shards of broken non-tempered glass. (2) It's been known to shatter in response to changes in temperature even when nothing is resting on it. (3) Manufacturers who make a quality product may disagree, but maybe glass of any type isn't the ideal material for a TV stand.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 30, 2006 0 comments
The lack of community-buildout requirements in a pending federal law has raised concerns that new TV services from AT&T and Verizon won't reach low-income households. Verizon defends its record: "We are already deploying our fiber-to-the-premises network and FiOS TV in many communities such as Irving, Texas, that have a mix of demographics or are simply not affluent," says spokesperson Sharon Cohen-Hagar. Shifting focus from income to ethnicity, figures from a variety of sources helpfully supplied by Verizon suggest that minorities are already lucrative customers for cable providers and are therefore equally attractive to nascent telco TV providers. One study cited is FOCUS: African-America from Horowitz Associates. It says African-American urban households buy $58.17 worth of cable services vs. the urban average of $54. Figures for digital cable and satellite services tell the same story. So if providers go where the money is, you just might see FiOS TV in the 'hood.
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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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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Aug 28, 2006 0 comments
To speed the entry of the telephone companies into the video-delivery business, Congress is in the midst of rewriting the franchising rules, substituting national for local authority. Conspicuously absent from the national franchise legislation soon to hit the Senate floor is any mention of "buildout"—that is, an explicit requirement that new video providers serve all homes in a locale. Instead the bill would require the FCC to gather information on patterns of deployment and make an annual report to Congress, flagging any patterns of discrimination. Would that relatively relaxed regulatory approach make it easy for telcos to ignore poor folk? Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg flatly denies it: "We have never engaged in redlining or cherry-picking, and we never will. It is a violation of federal law, and it runs counter to our 100-year legacy of great service to customers. Our deployment strategy speaks for itself. We are serving diverse communities in every state where we are building our FTTP network, and the cable industry's claim is yet another red herring aimed at stifling choice and competition." Media activists will be watching closely. To be continued tomorrow.

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