Author Archives: Tim

Future of music: files are over says WME music boss (or, why Apple bought Beats)

In February at the music industry conference Midem in Cannes, Marc Geiger of  WME (William Morris Endeavor), which represents artists across all media platforms, gave a keynote about the future of music. Geiger is head of the music department.

It is from six months ago but only just caught my ear.

Gieger argues that the streaming model – as found in Spotify, YouTube, Pandora and so on – is the future business model of music distribution. File download – as found in Apple iTunes, Amazon MP3, Google Play and elsewhere – is complex for the user to manage, limits selection, and full of annoyances like format incompatibilities or device memory filling up.

With unusual optimism, Gieger says that a subscription-based future will enable a boom in music industry revenue. The music server provider model “will dwarf old music industry numbers”, he says.

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Who will win the streaming wars? Although it is smaller players like Spotify and MOG that have disrupted the file download model, Gieger says that giant platforms with over 500 million customers will dominate the next decade. He mentions Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, Netflix, Google, Yahoo, Pandora, Apple iTunes, Baidu, Android (note that Google appears three times in this list).

Why will revenue increase? Subscriptions start cheap and go up, says Gieger. “Once people have the subscription needle in the arm, it’s very hard to get out, and prices go up.” He envisages premium subscriptions offering offline mode, better quality, extra amounts per family member, access to different mixes and live recordings.

The implication for the music industry, he says, is that it is necessary to get 100% behind the streaming model. It is where consumers are going, he says, and if you are not there you will miss out. “We’ve got to get out of the way, we’ve got to support it.” Just as with the introduction of CDs, it enables the business to sell its back catalogue yet again.

A further implication is that metadata is a big deal. In a streaming world, just as in in any other form of music distribution, enabling discovery is critical to success. Labels should be working hard on metadata clean-up.

Gieger does see some future for physical media such as CD and DVD, if there is a strong value-add in the form of books and artwork.

You can see this happening as increasing numbers of expensive super-deluxe packages turn up, complete with books and other paraphernalia. For example, Pink Floyd’s back catalogue was reissued in “Immersion” boxes at high prices; the Wish you were Here package includes 9 coasters, a scarf and three marbles.

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This sort of thing becomes more difficult though as consumers lose the disc habit. If I want to play a VHS video I have to get the machine down from the loft; CD, DVD and Blu-Ray are likely to go the same way.

Geiger’s analysis makes a lot of sense, though his projected future revenues seem to me over-optimistic. People love free, and there is plenty of free out there now, so converting those accustomed to playing what they want from YouTube to a subscription will not be easy.

That is a business argument though. From a technical perspective, the growth of streaming and decline of file download does seem inevitable to me (and has done for a while).

Listen to the talk, and it seems obvious that this is why Apple purchased Beats in May 2014. Beats offers a streaming music subscription service, unlike iTunes which uses a download model.

Why Apple needed to spend out on Beats rather than developing its own streaming technology as an evolution of iTunes remains puzzling though.

Finally, Gieger notes the need to “put out great music. After we all have access to all the music in the world, the quality bar goes up.” That is one statement that is not controversial.

Here is the complete video:

Review: Vibe FLI Over headphones with “Extreme bass”

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Can you get true bass from headphones? Arguably not quite, since you can feel real bass in your chest, whereas with headphones the air simply is not moving. You can still get the sound right, and that is the promise of Vibe’s Fli-over headphones with “extreme bass”.

This promise caught my interest, since bass quality (or its lack) is one of the biggest differentiators between live and recorded music. I dislike bloated, mushy bass; but I do want to hear the full frequencies, whether it is the tuneful plucking of a double bass in a jazz group, or the pounding drum sounds in rock or rap. Listening at home you often miss out, partly because of lower volume levels, and partly because most systems do not do bass well.

But do the Fli-overs deliver?

I put on the Fli-overs with some trepidation. Was I going to hear pumped-up bass that wrecks the musical balance? Fortunately I did not. The sound is slightly warm and tilted a little towards the low-end, but it is also sweet and tuneful. Where is the extreme bass though?

The answer is that it depends what you play. I happened to put on “No more I love you’s” by Annie Lennox and heard for the first time the deep bass in the slow beat in the opening part of the song. Hmm, I thought, perhaps there is something in the claims.

I sought out some rap and electronica that shows off bass performance, by artists like Psyph Morrison, The Dream, and Bassotronic. If this kind of music is your bag, and you don’t want your headphones to make the bass toned-down and polite, you will find the Fli-overs do a better job than most.

On the Miles Davis track So What, from Kind of Blue, you can follow the bass line easily, without it being overwhelming.

Overall the sound is above average for headphones at this price level. I find them enjoyable for any kind of music, though better for rock and jazz than for classical, where I find the sound a little closed-in and lacking in clarity and detail compared to the best I have heard, but still decent.

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I am not so sure about the comfort though. The earpads are soft but the earcups rather ungenerous in size for an over-ear design, making it hard to find a comfortable position (of course this kind of thing varies from person to person). The headband is lined with a firm rubbery material that feels somewhat hard. The grip of the headphones is tighter than most, though will likely looosen over time. If you wear glasses as I do, this again makes them less comfortable. They are not the worst I have worn, but if comfort is a priority I would suggest looking elsewhere, or at least trying them out before purchase.

The cable is just over 1.5m (though it says 1.0m on the box), enough for most environments, and is a flat style that is somewhat resistant to tangling. There is a microphone and call/answer button in the cord, so you can use these as a headset for a mobile phone, or for voice over IP calls on a tablet. I found this worked well on a Nexus Android tablet.

The headphones have a closed back and noise isolation is good in both directions. They also fold, though no bag is supplied, and would be quite suitable for use in flight.

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if you want to enjoy music where deep bass is central to the experience, these cans will deliver where most do not.

More information on the Vibe site here.

When Windows 8 will not boot: the Automatic Repair disaster

“My PC won’t boot” – never good news, but even worse when there is no backup.

The system was Windows 8. One day, the user restarted his PC and instead of rebooting, it went into Automatic Repair.

Automatic Repair would chug for a bit and then say:

Automatic Repair couldn’t repair your PC. Press “Advanced options” to try other options to repair your PC, or “Shut down” to turn off your PC.

Log file: D:\Windows\System32\Logfiles\Srt\SrtTrail.txt

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Advanced options includes the recovery console, a command-line for troubleshooting with a few useful commands and access to files. There is also an option to Refresh or reset your PC, and access to System Restore which lets you return to a configuration restore point.

System Restore can be a lifesaver but in this case had been mysteriously disabled. Advanced start-up options like Safe Mode simply triggered Automatic Repair again.

Choosing Exit and continue to Windows 8.1 triggers a reboot, and you can guess what happens next … Automatic Repair.

You also have options to Refresh or Reset your PC.

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Refresh your PC is largely a disaster. It preserves data but zaps applications and other settings. You will have to spend ages updating Windows to get it current, including the update to Windows 8.1 if you originally had Windows 8. You may need to find your installation media if you have any, in cases where there is no recovery partition. You then have the task of trying to get your applications reinstalled, which means finding setup files, convincing vendors that you should be allowed to re-activate and so on. At best it is time-consuming, at worst you will never get all your applications back.

Reset your PC is worse. It aims to restore your PC to factory settings. Your data will be zapped as well as the applications.

You can also reinstall Windows from setup media. Unfortunately Windows can no longer do a repair install, preserving settings, unless you start it from within the operating system you are repairing. If Windows will not boot, that is impossible.

Summary: it is much better to persuade Windows to boot one more time. However if every reboot simply cycles back to Automatic Repair and another failure, it is frustrating. What next?

The answer, it turned out in this case, was to look at the logfile. There was only one problem listed in SrtTrail.txt:

Root cause found:
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Boot critical file d:\windows\system32\drivers\vsock.sys is corrupt.

Repair action: File repair
Result: Failed. Error code =  0×2
Time taken = 12218 ms

I looked up vsock.sys. It is a VMware file, not even part of the operating system. How can this be so critical that Windows refuses to boot?

I deleted vsock.sys using the recovery console. Windows started perfectly, without even an error message, other than rolling back a failed Windows update.

Next, I uninstalled an old vmware player, using control panel. Everything was fine.

The Automatic Repair problem

If your PC is trapped in the Automatic Repair loop, and you have no working backup, you are in trouble. Why, then, is the wizard so limited? In this case, for example, the “boot critical file” was from a third-party; the wizard just needed to have some logic that says, maybe it is worth trying to boot without it, at least one time.

Finally, if this happens to you, I recommend looking at the logs. It is the only way to get real information about what it going wrong. In some cases you may need to boot into the recovery console from installation media, but if your hard drive is working at all, it should be possible to view those files.

Asus bets on everything with new UK product launches for Android, Google Chromebook and Microsoft Windows

Asus unveiled its Winter 2014 UK range at an event in London yesterday. It is an extensive range covering most bases, including Android tablets, Windows 8 hybrids, Google Chromebooks, and Android smartphones.

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Asus never fails to impress with its innovative ideas – like the Padfone, a phone which docks into a tablet – though not all the ideas win over the public, and we did not hear about any new Padfones yesterday.

The company’s other strength though is to crank out well-made products at a competitive price, and this aspect remains prominent. There was nothing cutting-edge on show last night, but plenty of designs that score favourably in terms of what you get for the money.

At a glance:

  • Chromebook C200 dual-proc Intel N2830 laptop 12″ display £199.99 and C300 13″ display £239.99
  • MeMO Pad Android tablets ME176C 7″ £119 and 8″ ME181 (with faster Z3580 2.3 GHz quad-core processor) £169
  • Transformer Pad TF103C Android tablet with mobile keyboard dock (ie a tear-off keyboard) £239
  • Two FonePad 7″ Android phablets: tablets with phone functionality, LTE in the ME372CL at £129.99  and 3G in the ME175CG at £199.99.
  • Three Zenfone 3G Android phones, 4″ at £99.99, 5″ at £149.99 and 6″ at £249.99.
  • Transformer Book T200 and T300 joining the T100 (10.1″ display) as Windows 8 hybrids with tear-off keyboards. The T200 has an 11.6″ display and the T300 a 13.3″ display and processors from Core i3 to Core i7 – no longer just a budget range. The T200 starts at £349.
  • Transformer Book Flip Windows 8.1 laptops with fold-back touch screens so you can use them as fat tablets. 13.3″ or 15.6″ screens, various prices according to configuration starting with a Core 13 at £449.
  • G750 gaming laptops from £999.99 to £1799.99 with Core i7 processors and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 800M GPUs.
  • G550JK Gaming Notebook with Core i7 and GTX 850M GPU from £899.99.

Unfortunately the press event was held in a darkened room useless for photography or close inspection of the devices. A few points to note though.

The T100 is, according to Asus, the world’s bestselling Windows hybrid. This does not surprise me since with 11 hr battery life and full Windows 8 with Office pre-installed it ticks a lot of boxes. I prefer the tear-off keyboard concept to complex flip designs that never make satisfactory tablets. The T100 now seems to be the base model in a full range of Windows hybrids.

On the phone side, it is odd that Asus did not announce any operator deals and seems to be focused on the sim-free market.

How good are the Zenfones? This is not a review, but I had a quick play with the models on display. They are not high-end devices, but nor do they feel cheap. IPS+ (in-plane switching) displays give a wide viewing angle. Gorilla Glass 3 protects the screen; the promo video talks about a 30m drop test which I do not believe for a moment*. The touch screens are meant to be responsive when wearing gloves. The camera has a five-element lens with F/2.0 aperture, a low-light mode, and “time rewind” which records images before you tap. A “Smart remove” feature removes moving objects from your picture. You also get “Zen UI” on top of Android; I generally prefer stock Android but the vendors want to differentiate and it seems not to get in the way too much.

Just another phone then; but looks good value.

As it happens, I saw another Asus display as I arrived in London, at St Pancras station.

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The stand, devoted mainly to the T100, was far from bustling. This might be related to the profile of Windows these days; or it might reflect the fact that the Asus brand, for all the company’s efforts, is associated more with good honest value than something you stop to look at on the way to work.

For more details see the Asus site or have a look in the likes of John Lewis or Currys/ PC World.

*On the drop test, Asus says: “This is a drop test for the Gorilla glass, and is dropping a metal ball on to a pane of it that is clamped down, not actually a drop of the phone itself.”

Do you need the new Raspberry Pi B+?

An updated Raspberry Pi board was released earlier this month, and the kind folk at Element 14 sent me one to review.

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The Raspberry Pi is a complete low-power computer which needs only a case, an SD card, and a standard USB power source to start doing real work. It is ideal for learning projects, home automation, practical applications like running a media server or client, or anything you can think of.

It is a little over two years since the first Pi was shipped in April 2012. The progress is a little confusing: the first model was the B, followed by the A in early 2013, a cut-down model with a single USB port and no Ethernet.

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The new model has the same Broadcom BCM2835 SoC as all the other Pi models. The CPU is a 700 MHz ARM 1176JZ-F.

So what is new? The highlights:

  • 4 USB 2.0 ports
  • The dedicated composite video port has been removed and is now shared with the audio jack, requiring an adaptor
  • The power draw is now 600 mA up to 1.8A at 5v, making it both lower power and higher power (when necessary) than the model B (750 mA up to 1.2A at 5v). The USB ports can supply a little more power, making most self-powered external hard drives usable, for example.
  • The SD card slot has been replaced by a micro SD card slot, a good move (all my SD cards are in fact micro SD cards with adaptors, which is common).
  • The GPIO (General Purpose Input Output) connector now has 40 pins rather than 26. The first 26 pins are the same as before, for compatibility.
  • The price is the same as for the B

There are a few other changes which I noticed. One is that the LEDs have been moved. On the B, there are 5 LEDs which are together on the bottom right corner of the board: ACT (SD card access), PWR, FDX (Duplex LAN), LNK (Activity LAN) and 100 (100Mbit LAN connected). The B+ has two LEDs in the opposite corner, ACT and PWR, and two more LEDs on the LAN port itself. Personally I prefer the old arrangement.

The audio output is improved, according to Pi inventor Eben Upton, thanks to a “dedicated low-noise power supply.” Raspberry Pi Engineer jdb adds that  “The output impedance and buffering for the audio port has been improved and the maximum output amplitude has been increased (~1.25V pk-pk).” However one blogger measured the output and considered no better (or slightly worse).

Since the layout of the board has changed, a B+ Pi will not fit in your old model B case. I bought a new case but I don’t recommend this one:

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This is a push-fit case and even thought the board is held down by tabs, it moves and rattles slightly. I also worry about the case tabs breaking if you open it repeatedly. The tab that you need to press to open the case is sited by the micro SD slot, and that is another mistake, since it presses against the board making it hard to reopen after the Pi is fitted. There is also too much space below card slot so you can easily post your card into the case rather than into the slot if you are careless. Finally, I don’t like the way the top of the case slopes down, reducing the space above the GPIO at its shallow point.

I wish I had seen this Cyntech case which looks miles better, for a similar low price, though I haven’t actually tried it. I do like the idea of an optional spacer which lets you increase the case height to fit add-on boards.

Finally, a few notes on operation. If you have existing micro SD cards running on the B, they might or might not work on the B+. I use piCorePlayer as a streaming audio client, for which it is excellent, but my existing image would not boot on the B+.  Following a tip elsewhere, I installed the latest piCorePlayer download on the B, updated it to version 1.16A using the web UI, and it then worked on the B+.

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I had no such problems with the standard Raspbian distro which worked fine on the B+.

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So do you need the B+? If you have not yet tried a Pi, give it a try, it is fabulous. If you already have a B, then you will find some nice improvements but nothing dramatic – though the extra USB ports in particular are most welcome.

More information is on the Element14 site or of course the official site.

Review: Kingston HyperX Cloud headset, excellent sound and comfort

Beautifully packaged and presented (strong inner box with outer sleeve) this gaming headset has a real premium feel to it, further enhanced by a high-quality drawstring bag which includes an outer pocket to store the heap of supplied cables and adaptors.

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What is a “gaming headset”? Essentially, simply including a microphone is enough for some, though you might expect a gaming headset to be tilted towards a more exciting presentation with deep bass and sharp treble. Personally I favour a neutral presentation since getting an exciting sound is the job of those producing and mastering the audio for the game, not the headset, though an extended frequency response is needed. Fortunately the HyperX Cloud gets this mostly right, which is why it is decent for music as well as games.

“You are now on the way to the ultimate gaming experience,” proclaims the letter on the inner box (though that is all the documentation I could find, save what is printed on the outside of the box itself – you can download a manual from the HyperX site if you want).

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But is the claim justified?

Despite the futuristic brand name, this is a traditional over-ear closed-back headset with analogue-only connections. This means you have a jack plug for the headphones and a second jack plug for the microphone. There is also an adapter that combines them to form the four-way jack used by smartphones, tablets, and PlayStation 4. A further cable lets you add an in-line control box with passive volume control, call/answer button and microphone mute. The closed back design means good noise isolation and less disturbance for others in the same room.

Analogue connections are essential for smartphone use, but on a PC it means you are reliant on the quality of the audio out and mic in on the soundcard. The microphone input is often a weak point. You can avoid this by using a USB headset, so don’t get this unless you are confident of the quality of your soundcard. Further, with an analogue headset there are no whizzy virtual effects, no great loss in my opinion.

Here is what you get in the box:

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  • Adapter for smartphones and tablets
  • 1m extension cable with inline control box
  • 2m extension cable
  • Aeroplane adapter (for old-style aeroplane seats)
  • Detachable microphone
  • Generous drawstring bag
  • A pair of spare earpads, with a fabric finish in place of the smooth finish on the pre-fitted earpads. Both are comfortable.

The main cable is braided, as is the control box extension, but the other cables are not braided, which is odd.

If you use all the cables you end up with a 4m cable. If you want to use the control box, you end up with a 2m cable. Too long is better than too short, but you might find it getting in the way.

It is a tiny detail, but I would have liked colour coding on the floating jack sockets, to match the colour coding on the plugs. The sockets are marked if you look closely but it is easy to connect them wrong.

Another slight nit is that the socket for the detachable microphone has a small cover that I will probably lose. I would prefer this to be a hinged flap.

The control box is OK but not up to the standard of the rest of the kit.

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The microphone mute button is stiff and awkward, and the volume control feels cheap. Both worked fine though.

The good news is that sound quality is exceptional. There is a real three-dimensionality to the sound, which together with extended frequency response (15Hz to 25,000 Hz is claimed) makes for a great experience.

Compared to the very best (and generally more expensive) headphones the HyperX is slightly coarse, and the tone is slightly weighted towards the bass, but I find the headset fine for music (especially pop/rock; they are less suitable for classical) as well as gaming, and for the money this is one of the best I have heard.

The headset is comfortable enough that I can happily wear them for a long session, whether gaming or music.

The microphone is also reasonable quality, with a high enough output for my PC soundcard to get decent volume though with some hiss. It is good enough for uses like Skype, dictation software and so on as well as gaming.

Overall I recommend this headset, if you are looking for an analogue rather than a USB connection. It is well made, well presented, and ticks the two most important boxes: comfort and sound quality.

More details on the HyperX site here.

Review: Sony SRS-X9 high-resolution network music player

Sony’s top of the range wireless speaker grabbed my attention because it is not just a Bluetooth and Apple AirPlay speaker, but also the entry-level device in Sony’s push for high resolution audio, billed as better than CD quality. Get all the ducks in line, and you can play DSD (the format of SACD) downloads directly through this device, or high-resolution PCM at up to 32-bit/192kHz. It has the speaker technology to go with it too: sub-woofer for deep bass (within the limitations of a small box), and super tweeters for extended high frequencies up to a rumoured 40kHz, though I cannot find detailed specification from Sony. Note that this is well beyond what humans can hear.

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In the box you get the wireless speaker, remote, polishing cloth, mains cable, two odd little sticks which, it turns out, are tools for removing the front grille, and a couple of short leaflets in multiple languages.

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The remote has functions for power, input selection (Network, Bluetooth, USB-A, USB-B or analogue audio in), volume, mute, play/pause and skip.

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This unit is flexible to the point of confusion. Here are the ways you can play back music:

  • Apple AirPlay: play from iTunes over an wired or wireless network using Apple’s proprietary protocol.
  • Bluetooth from Bluetooth-enabled devices such as smartphones or tablets. Uses A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Protocol) for best quality.
  • From a DLNA-compliant music server on your network. Sony’s free Media Go will do, but there are quite a few of these around.
  • Audio in using an old-fashioned 3.5mm jack cable.
  • Direct attached USB storage. I had limited success with this, but did manage to play some FLAC files from a USB stick. It is designed for just a few files.
  • Direct USB connection to a PC or Mac. In this mode the unit is a USB DAC. This is how you get the very best quality.

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Supported formats are MP3, AAC, WMA, WAV, FLAC, and DSD via USB after firmware update. ALAC (Apple lossless) is not listed, but an Apple lossless file I created played fine from a USB stick, from which I conclude that it supports that too.

So how is the out of box experience? The first thing you notice is that this thing is heavy – 4.6kg. Despite its relatively small size (about 430 x 133 x 125mm) it is not all that portable; I mean, you can move it about if you like, but as well as the weight there is no handle and it should be moved with care; it is also mains-only.

The introductory manual gives you several ways to get started. It covers only wi-fi connection; if you want to use a wired network, Bluetooth or USB connection, you are referred to the online manual here. Otherwise, you are offered instructions for iOS, Android, PC or Mac. I have a Sony Xperia (Android) smartphone so I took that option; possibly a mistake.

I tried to follow the setup guide. I have a Sony Xperia (Android) smartphone. I downloaded the recommended SongPal app and successfully paired the phone with the speaker with NFC (tap to connect). The app prompted me to enter my home wifi password, but I was not successful; it just did not want to connect and kept on prompting me. I got hold of an iPhone, tried SongPal on that and was able to connect. Odd.

Once up and running it was time to play some music. I was able to play direct from the phone (Bluetooth streaming) without any problem. My results with DLNA were mixed. I have Logitech Media Server on the network which supports DLNA. Bizarrely, this usually shows up as a source when using the Android SongPal, but not when using the iOS SongPal. It worked at first, but then I started getting “Playback failed”. I had better luck with Windows Media Player over DLNA, and also Sony’s own Media Go.

That said, even when it is working I don’t much like the DLNA option. There is no search option and if you have a lot of music you do endless scrolling. This seems to be a feature of DLNA rather than the fault of SongPal, and a reason why it will never catch up with iTunes/AirPlay or Sonos.

SongPal also supports various apps such as Tunein (internet radio), Music Unlimited and Deezer. You can also add apps such as Google Play. This is a tad confusing though. Tunein seems to be built-in; you can select a radio station, play, turn off your smartphone and it keeps going. Choose Google Play though and it plays over Bluetooth from your phone; disconnect the phone and the music stops.

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Since Tunein appears to be baked it, it is a shame that you cannot use the radio from the remote without needing SongPal.

If SongPal is not working for you, or if you have a non-supported phone such as Windows Phone, you can connect over the network. The manual suggests that you do a direct connection to a PC using an Ethernet cable, in which case the unit will likely show up in a web browser on 169.254.1.1. However if you connect the Ethernet cable to a switch (such as a socket on the back of your broadband router) it will show up on whatever IP number is allocated by the router; you can find it by looking at DHCP allocations, a bit tricky. There is also a WPS button for instant connection if your wireless router supports it (mine is disabled for security reasons).

Wireless configuration through a web browser, once you get there, is really easy. You can even set a fixed IP address if you want. However, the browser configuration does NOT give access to all the features of the unit; it is mainly for network configuration. The SongPal app has additional settings, including EQ, a setting called ClearAudio+ which does who knows what, and DSEE HX which is meant to enhance lossy audio files such as MP3. That’s unfortunate; not everyone uses iOS or Android. That said, SongPal is not much fun to use anyway so you are not missing too much.

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Once the unit was up and running I tried a few other modes. I ran up Apple iTunes and tried AirPlay, which works great, though with the usual AirPlay annoyance of a pause when connecting. When using AirPlay, you can use the pause, next and back buttons on the supplied remote. These don’t work in all modes, another point of confusion.

What about playing high resolution music or DSD? I was excited about this possibility so keen to get it working. I even have some DSD downloads to try. Discovering how was a bit of an adventure. You need to do two things.

First, update the firmware, by connecting over wifi and using the otherwise undocumented update button on top of the unit (check Sony’s site for full instructions). You need at least firmware 2.05.2.01.

Second, find and install the Hi-Res Audio Player for PC or Mac on Sony’s site. Third, get a USB cable (not supplied) and connect it to a PC.

The downloads to get this working are here.

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I was rewarded with excellent sound quality, though the audio player software is basic. On my DSD downloads I could see, for example, 2.8MHzs DSF indicated, and the configuration offered “DSD Native”, so I believe this thing really is a DSD DAC (though who knows, it may convert to PCM internally).

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Once connected in this way, you can also set it as the output for other audio software such as Foobar 2000 or iTunes.

The sound

What of the sound though? The SRS-X9 has seven speakers: 1 sub-woofer, two midrange, two tweeters and two super-tweeters. This means you get mono for the lowest frequencies, but that it not really a disadvantage as low frequencies are not directional and you don’t get much stereo image with this box anyway.

In addition, there are two passive bass radiators.

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As you would expect from a unit at this price (nearly £600 in the UK) and with some audiophile pretensions, the sound is very good. In its class – as a single box wireless speaker – it may be the best I’ve heard. It easily beat a Squeezebox Boom, sounding both bigger and cleaner. I also thought it had the edge over an Audyssey Lower East Side Audio Dock Air, which is another AirPlay speaker with good sound, though the Audyssey offers deeper bass.

The SRS-X9 does go relatively deep though, and the bass is clean whereas the Audyssey tends to boom a little.

The sound is not faultless though. It is a touch bright and can get a little strident at higher volumes. Vocals can have slightly exaggerated sibilance. Stereo imaging, as mentioned above, is poor, thanks to the close proximity of left and right speakers. The sound is exceptionally clean, which is hardly a fault, but worth noting if you like to get down and boogie; you might find the SRS-09 overly clinical.

These are reasons why the SRS-09 will not replace a traditional home stereo for me. I also like having separate speakers either side of my PC screen, so this is not perfect for that role.

HOWEVER as a minimalist and good-looking single box speaker this is excellent; perfect for a sitting room if you do not want the clutter of a traditional home stereo, or for somewhere else round the house where you want high quality music.

The sound over USB is best, and ideally I would suggest parking a Mac Mini or similar small computer next to it and using it that way. On the other hand, AirPlay also works well and in conjunction with Apple’s Remote app this is a convenient solution. Bluetooth can be handy too.

A few other notes. Sony has gone for an understated design, and the buttons on top of the unit are completely flat and in fact mostly invisible unless you hover your hand close by – it uses a proximity sensor. Clever, but easy to hit a button by accident if you are repositioning the device.

The appearance is glossy black, looks nice but gets dusty easily. Sony supplies a little black cloth for polishing. Unfortunately the super tweeters on top are surrounded with a slightly sticky area which attracts dust and is hard to clean; this might bother you if you are meticulous about such things.

The front grille can be removed with two supplied magnetic tools; Sony says this give a “more dynamic sound” though the difference is not great.

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It is a shame that there is no audio output port, neither for headphones, nor for external speakers. You cannot use this as a DAC for another stereo system, for example.

An S/PDIF optical digital input would also be handy, as this is more universally compatible than USB for wired digital input.

Other weak points are the fiddly setup, reliance on a mobile app for some settings, general unreliability of DLNA, and some problems which mysteriously disappear when you turn off and on again (with so many input options it is not surprising that the Sony gets confused sometimes).

Conclusion? There is a ton of technology packed into this box and it does sound good. I like the option to play back native DSD even though it is all a bit mad; it is doubtful that the inaudible higher frequencies really make any difference, and there are compromises elsewhere such as the mono sub-woofer and limited stereo image that more than outweigh any benefit from high-resolution (a controversial subject). Never mind though; Sony has taken trouble over the sound and it shows.

Good points

  • Flexible streaming options
  • High quality sound, exceptionally clean
  • Compact, minimalist design
  • Smooth AirPlay support
  • Support for hi-res PCM and DSD audio files when connected via USB

Bad points

  • Dependence on iOS or Android apps for some features, no support for Windows Phone
  • No headphone socket
  • No audio output for connection to other hi-fi kit
  • No S/PDIF optical digital input
  • Limited stereo image and sound too bright on some material

Specifications

  • Size: 430x133x125mm
  • Weight: 4.6Kg
  • Power consumption: 50w
  • Power output: unknown though Amazon quotes “154w”
  • Frequency response: Sony quotes “45Hz to 40kHz”.
  • Drive units: 1 sub-woofer, 2 passive bass radiators, 2 midrange units, 2 tweeters, 2 super-tweeters
  • Streaming support: Bluetooth audio, AirPlay, DLNA

A tale of two Lumias: snaps on a Lumia 630 versus a Lumia 1020

I spent a morning in Oxford taking some snaps and thought it would be fun to compare what a budget Windows Smartphone – the new Nokia Lumia 630 – can do versus the king of photography smartphones, the Nokia Lumia 1020.

Note this is not intended as a fair comparison; the 1020 costs around four times as much as the 630. It does show what you are giving up if you use a budget smartphone for all your snaps. In each case, you can click the image to see the full resolution.

Here is the Bodleian Library on the 630:

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and on the 1020, using the 5MP version (the 1020 also stores a high res version of each image):

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Next, Pembroke College on the 630:

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and on the 1020:

 

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Some flowers at the corner of Pembroke’s Chapel Quad, on the 630:

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and on the 1020:

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The difference is more telling if you zoom in. Here is a detail taken from a picture of Broad Street on the 630:

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and on the 1020:

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What about the high-res versions of the Lumia 1020 snaps? Here is a picture of Oxford’s “Bridge of Sighs”:

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Let’s zoom in to look at the sculpture on the bridge. This is from the 5MP version, which I’ve enlarged slightly:

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Here is the same section taken from the high-res 34MP image:

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I consider the improvement well worthwhile; it does pay to hang on to those high-res images for the pictures you most value.

I snapped this on the 630 too; here is the same zoomed-in and enlarged section:

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Ouch!

Conclusion? The camera on the Lumia 630 is not too bad – for a cheap smartphone. The Lumia 1020 is something special and I am grateful to Nokia for delivering a smartphone with a camera good enough that I can leave a standalone camera out of my bag – noting that I am not a photographer, just a traveller who takes pictures. I have not used a tripod on any of the above; from my perspective, coping with camera shake is one of the characteristics I need in whatever camera I use.

Review: Nokia Lumia 630 – a lot of smartphone for the money

Microsoft/Nokia has released the Lumia 630 Windows Phone in the UK. It is notable for two reasons:

  • The first phone on sale with Windows Phone 8.1 installed
  • A budget contender with a full range of features at around £100. For example, o2.co.uk offer it for £99.99 with a “Pay & Go” tariff from £10.00 monthly. Amazon.co.uk is currently offering it sim-free for £128.29.

The quick summary:

  • 4.5″ 854×480 LCD screen
  • 5MP rear camera
  • 512MB RAM
  • 8GB storage
  • MicroSD slot supporting up to 128GB
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 quad-core 1.2 GHz processor
  • Bluetooth 4.0, wi-fi, WCDMA,GSM,A-GPS etc
  • 1830 mAh removable battery

What is missing? Among the compromises here, there is no front-facing camera, the only sensor is an accelerometer, the screen resolution is poor compared to a high-end smartphone, and there is no dedicated camera button.

The older Lumia 625 has some features missing on the 630, including a camera button, LED Flash, ambient light sensor and proximity sensor, Nokia’s “super sensitive touch” screen, and LTE. The 625 is a similar price, so if those features matter to you it might be a better buy, though you have to put up with the older and slower S4 processor.

The Lumia 630 does support Nokia’s SensorCore feature, which lets apps like Health & Fitness (pre-installed) track movement through an API without consuming much power.

The lack of a camera button or Flash is disappointing, considering Nokia’s reputation as a brand good for photography.

Out of the box

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The Lumia 630 is a basic package. No headset is included, presumably on the grounds that you likely have one already, though buying one separately is inexpensive. There is a mains charger; you probably have one of these already too, but it might not be optimal for this particular device, which may be why Nokia chose to prioritise this over the headset.

In order to fit the SIM, you pop the phone out of its shell; it feels if anything a bit too easy, though the phone shows no sign of falling apart accidentally so far.

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The software of course is Windows Phone 8.1, with several nice improvements including a notification screen accessed by swiping down from the top. This works even from the lock screen, and gives immediate access to the camera, which may explain why the button is missing. I still miss the button though.

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Cortana, the virtual personal assistant currently in beta, is not yet present in the UK. You can enable Cortana with a bit of effort by changing your language and region, but it is not recommended other than for temporary experimentation.

I hit one problem in setup. The automatic date and time setting does not work, at least not with my carrier (Three). This in turn broke some other features including SkyDrive and Exchange/Office 365 email, until I set it manually. The manual setting is not brilliant though, since when I turned the set off and on again, it came up with a setting from several days ago. This looks like a software bug so I hope it will be fixed soon.

Here is the home screen pretty much out of the box, though I have connected it to Exchange:

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This is NOT how I prefer to set up my home screen on a Windows phone. Normally I reduce all the tiles to the smallest size other than the phone icon, which I have large so I can hit it as easily as possible. This fits more icons on the screen and gets rid of the annoying People live tile animations. This is, of course, a matter of personal preference.

The apps prominent above the fold include PhotoBeamer, which lets you show pictures on a friend’s Windows Phone (a cool app), LINE which is a messaging app, and the excellent HERE maps and Nokia Camera.

Scroll down and you get Facebook, Skype, HERE Drive, Nokia Mix Radio, OneDrive, calendar and several more.

A word about apps

I do not intend this to be another reviews of a Windows Phone which say, “great phone but the apps are lacking.” It is true to the extent that Windows Phone lacks the great support with iOS and Android get in terms of apps. Windows Phone owners have to put up with seeing “available for iOS and Android” for apps which they might  otherwise like to install, and with apps that are less well maintained or up to date than those for the two more popular platforms.

Clearly, the way to fix this is for lots more people to buy Windows Phones. Therefore, not to buy a Windows Phone because of the app shortage merely perpetuates the problem.

But how bad is it? The answer will be different depending which apps matter to you; but there are a couple of reasons why it is not, in my opinion, all that bad.

One is that Microsoft has its own platform, putting it in a stronger position than say, Blackberry or even Apple (if iOS were not already popular). The Microsoft platform includes maps and driving (Nokia), search (Bing), messaging (Skype), email and cloud documents (Office 365) and online storage (OneDrive).

Second, the Windows app store is not as moribund as the Windows 8 app store. There are decent apps in most categories and support from third parties like Spotify, WhatsApp, Instagram or the BBC is improving.

If you love Google, this is unlikely to be the phone for you, since it seems almost to go out of its way not to support Windows Phone.

On the other hand, there are Windows Phone apps which I miss on other platforms, including Nokia Camera, HERE Drive, and the built-in email and calendar apps.

It is a factor, but not a showstopper.

Lumia 630 in use

My experience of using the 630 is mainly positive. Performance is great; the phone is fast and responsive. Battery life is good too:

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Note that the Battery Saver is off by default, but I prefer having it come on automatically as needed.

Battery life is nothing special if you use the phone intensively, such as to watch a video or play a game, but when it on standby it is better than previous Windows phones I have tried.

The camera is better than I had expected, given the annoyances mentioned above. For casual snaps it is up to the mark you would expect from a budget smartphone.

This is not PureView though; do not expect the same quality as on Nokia’s high-end phones. See here for some comparative snaps.

Audio on the Lumia 630 sounds fine when played with a high quality headset. I played the same track on the 630, the Lumia 1020, and from a PC via a dedicated headphone amplifer. Possibly the 630 sounds slightly thin compared to the more expensive setups, but the earbuds or headphones you use will likely make the most difference.

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Health and Fitness tracking, using the Bing app, is fun and saves having to manage a separate device like a Fitbit.

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I have yet to catch out the 630 on performance. Youtube videos and BBC iPlayer played smoothly.

The display is on the dull side but no enough to spoil the experience. However I did notice grey marks (presumably shadows of the glue that holds the screen on) at the top of the screen, visible on light backgrounds, which is a slight annoyance.

Conclusion

The Lumia 630 is a budget smartphone with a lot to offer. There are just a few annoyances: features missing that were present on the 625, slightly dull screen, and some signs of cost-cutting. These are small blemishes though when you consider what you do get for a modest outlay.

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Review: Sonocent Audio Notetaker, making sense of recorded interviews and meetings

Why bother taking written notes, when you can simply record the audio of a meeting or interview and listen to it later? I do this a lot, but it is problematic. You end up with an MP3 which has all the info within it, but with no quick way to find a half-remembered statement. Of course you can transcribe everything, or get it transcribed, but that is not quick; it will likely take longer than the original event if you want to transcribe it all, and even selective transcription is a slow process. You can get better at this, and I have formed a habit of noting times when I hear something which I am likely to refer to later, but standard audio players (such as Foobar 2000 or iTunes) are designed for music and not great for this kind of work.

There is also an annoying problem with application focus if you want to transcribe a recording. You have Word open, you have your recording open in Foobar, but to control Foobar you have to switch focus away from Word, which means you cannot type until you focus back. There are utilities around to overcome this – my solution was to write my own Word macro which can pause and rewind a recording with keyboard shortcuts – but it is another issue to fix.

Sonocent Audio Notetaker is an application for Windows or Mac dedicated to making sense of speech recordings. Audio Notetaker lets you create documents which include audio, text and images. If you have an existing audio recording, you can import it into a new Audio Notetaker documnent and start to work with it. The audio is copied into the document, rather than being added as a reference, so these documents tend to be large, a little larger than the original.

The primary feature is the the way recordings are visualised and navigated. When you import a recording, it shows as a series of bars in a large panel, rather than the single horizontal scrolling view that most audio players present. Each bar represents a phrase, determined by Audio Notetaker according to pauses in the speech. This is not altogether reliable since speakers may pause mid-phrase, but you can split or merge bars if needed. The length of each bar varies according to the content, but typically seems to be around 3-15 seconds. You navigate the recording by clicking on the bars, and annotate it by assigning colours to bars according to your own scheme, such as blue for a potential quote, or brown for “boring, skip this”.

If you are transcribing, you can type into either to two text panes, one of which is called Reference and the other just Text. When you are typing in one of these panes, you can use keyboard shortcuts to control the audio, such as Ctrl+Space for play/pause, Ctrl+\ to skip back, and Ctrl+/ to skip forward. The Reference and Text panes are functionally identical, but let you keep two different types of notes with one recording. There is also an image pane, which can include images, PDFs or PowerPoint presentations.

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How do you synchronise your notes or transcription with the audio to which it relates? Audio Notetaker does not do this automatically, but does allow you to insert section breaks which split the document into vertical sections. You can create these breaks with keyboard shortcuts. I would prefer it if Audio Notetaker automatically set hotlinks so that I could tell exactly what audio was playing when I made a note, but sections are nevertheless useful.

For example, if you have an interview, a logical approach would be to make each question and each answer a section. Then you can easily navigate to the answer you want.

You can use background colouring to further distinguish between sections.

A common problem with audio recordings is that they are at too low a level. Audio Notetaker has its own volume control which can boost the volume beyond what is possible with the Windows volume control.

There is also a noise cancellation button, to remove the dreaded hiss.

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Advanced features

Those are the basics; but Audio Notetaker has a few other capabilities.

One idea is that you might want to record the content of an online conference. For this purpose, you can record from any of your input or output devices (it might seem strange to record from an output device, but this is the equivalent of a “what you hear” setting).

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This approach is further supported by the ability to capture a screen and insert it into the document. When you choose the screen capture tool, you get a moveable, resizeable frame that you position over the area you want to capture.

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Another scenario is that you want to create a simple video with a PowerPoint slide show and an audio voiceover. You can do this by importing the PowerPoint and recording your speech, then choosing Export Audio and Images as Video (MP4 or WMV).

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You can also export the text and images in RTF format (suitable for most word processors).

Internally, Audio Notetaker uses Opus Audio Encoding which is an internet standard.

You can also have Audio Notetaker read back text to you using the Windows text to speech engine (I am not sure how this works on a Mac).

Final words

The best feature of Audio Notetaker is the way it lets you navigate an audio file. It is quicker to click on a bar in the panel than using a horizontal scroller or noting the time and going to that point.

The sections work OK but I would personally like some way of embedding notes that are hotlinked to points in the audio with a finer granularity than sections.

I am not sure of the value of features like importing PowerPoint slides, adding audio, and exporting as a video, when PowerPoint itself has support for narrations and export to video. I would prefer it if the developers focused on the core proposition in Audio Notetaker: making it easy to index, annotate and navigate speech recordings.

I would also like to see integration with a transcription service. Automated transcription would be great but does not usually work well with typical field recordings; more realistically, perhaps Sonocent could integrate with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk or another service where humans will transcribe your recording for a fee.

Nevertheless, Audio Notetaker is nicely designed software that addresses a poorly-served niche; well worth consideration for journalists, students, secretaries, takers of minutes, or anyone who uses audio recordings as part of their workflow.

You can find Audio Notetaker on the Sonocent site, and obtain it as a free trial, or by subscription for a period, or with a perpetual licence. For example, six months for an individual license is £29.99; a perpetual licence is £95.99 (including VAT).

It is available for PC or Mac.