Author Archives: Tim

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.

Soundgarden’s Superunknown in DTS virtual 11.1 surround-sound: better than stereo for your mobile listening?

A&M/Universal has released Soundgarden’s classic 1994 Superunknown album in the DTS Headphone:X format, which offers 11.1 virtual surround sound through normal stereo headphones.

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Is such a thing possible? I am sceptical of the claims for 11.1 (11 discrete channels plus sub-woofer) though the DTS Headphone X demo app is most impressive, and you hear the surround effect clearly. When I first heard this demonstrated at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, it was so convincing that I took off my headphones to make sure that the sound was not really coming from speakers positioned around the studio.

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This demo is included in a new app developed for the 20th anniversary of Superunknown. The app is free. and also includes a free sample track in virtual 11.1, Spoonman.

If you want the full 16 track album in this format, it seems that you have to buy the Super Deluxe box: 4CD plus Blu-Ray at an extravagant price. This includes a voucher which lets you download the full album in the app. Note that the Blu-Ray also includes a 96/24 5.1 surround mix, so you can think of the app as a mobile version of the surround mix, though they are different: the credits say:

Surround sound mixes by Adam Kasper at Studio X, Seattle and Bob DeMaa at DTS, Calabasas, California.

The app offers four settings for listening: In Ear, On Ear, Over Ear, and unprocessed stereo. DTS knows what it is doing: with On Ear headphones, the On Ear setting sounded best and the In Ear setting muffled; with earbuds, the In Ear setting sounded best and the On Ear setting harsh.

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But how is the sound? The odd thing about the Headphone X system is that the spectacular demo raises expectations that actual music does not deliver; the surround illusion is less striking.

That said, there is a huge difference in sound between plain stereo and virtual surround. Unfortunately switching to virtual surround significantly raises the volume, making comparison more difficult, but the surround processing does open out the sound and make it more immersive. It is easier to pick out individual instruments. Bass is more accentuated.

It is not all in one direction though; the stereo sounds cleaner and less processed.

Still, I would personally choose to hear the DTS version. It is effective technology even though I cannot honestly say that it sounds like 11.1 surround sound. Producer Kasper is quoted though saying: “The experience Soundgarden’s fans will hear over headphones is identical to how I heard the mix in the studio when producing the surround sound version.” This could be a matter of which headphones you use, or he might be exaggerating.

I am less impressed with the app itself. Tracks are slow to load and I got occasional stuttering on an older iPad. The settings menu pops up repeatedly, rather than remembering your last setting. If you switch from the tracklist to the Player menu and back you get a momentary pause in the sound. The design is basic and it looks as if the app was put together quickly.

It is also obvious that having a separate app for every album is hopeless as a long-term strategy. Space is also an issue. The app with the album downloaded is 344MB and there is no provision for storing the music files anywhere other than in the iPad’s on-board storage. It is unfortunate that once downloaded, the surround mix is only available on that device; you cannot download for both iOS and Android with one voucher.

Overall I still like it, and would like to see more surround mixes released in this format. It may not be quite as good as the real thing, but it is vastly more convenient.

You can get the new app here, on Apple iOS or Android, and try it for yourself.

The Microsoft Apartment: full of screens and an uninvited cucumber

I visited Microsoft’s “Apartment” in London, billed as a chance to see “Dragon’s Den star Kelly Hoppen’s apartment in the heart of Covent Garden kitted out with the latest Microsoft technologies,” and to include a “deep dive discussion” on Microsoft’s latest developer announcements.

How do you kit out an apartment with the latest Microsoft technologies? Apparently, you stick an Xbox One and a couple of PC screens in the living area, and upstairs in the study (a mezzanine floor), a PC, a Surface (not 3 sadly), and a Windows phone connected to a big screen.

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There were certainly lots of screens, but nothing in the way of home automation, and after watching Microsoft presenters struggling to get the Xbox One to play the right kind of music, and later a shaky Skype demo, it is hard to enthuse over this particular setup.

For some reason, we were not shown any cool games on the Xbox One, nor cool apps on the Windows Phone other than the Cortana assistant which is not yet available in the UK. There was a demo of the new swipe keyboard in Windows 8.1 which inevitably saw the word “document” rendered as “cucumber”; a shame as I know from my own experience that this keyboard works very well, but demoing this kind of thing in public is only for the brave or the very well rehearsed.

We did see collaborative real-time editing on an Office document – not something home users generally do, but to be fair this was part of a business-oriented discussion which followed.

One feature which I had not previously been aware of was the ability of Skype on the Xbox One, in conjunction with Kinect, to follow the speaker around the room automatically. If you like pacing up and down while on Skype, this is a cool feature; perhaps it would be good for talking to excitable kids as well.

Takeaways? Let me put it like this. If you thought, perhaps, that the Xbox One has potential but feels (in software terms) not yet ready; or that Microsoft has no idea how to market to consumers; then there was nothing here that would change your mind.

As chance would have it, the Microsoft apartment is a few paces away from Apple’s huge Covent Garden store, and seeing the crowds eager to try the latest iDevices put the Microsoft event in perspective.

PS for another, more positive take on the event see this Neowin report.

Event report: Sony demonstrates the high-res audio HAP-Z1ES player at the Audio Lounge in London

I went along to the Audio Lounge in London to hear Sony’s Eric Kingdon (Senior European Technical Marketing Manager) and Mike Somerset (Product Marketing Manager) talk about high resolution audio and demonstrate the HAP-Z1ES player.

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The HAP-Z1ES costs £1,999 and plays both DSD (the format of SACD) and PCM formats, including DSDIFF,DSF,WAV,FLAC,ALAC,MP3 and ATRAC. PCM is up to 24-bit/192kHz and DSD up to double DSD (DSD 128). It was demonstrated with the Sony TA-A1E amplifier (also £1999) and the Crystal Cable Arabesque Mini loudspeakers which costs €12,999 (not sure of £ price) including the stands.

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This was a small event for customers and there were around 20 attending. Ruth Phypers at the Audio Lounge gave us a warm welcome and conveyed nothing other than enthusiasm for audio; no high-pressure sales here. The talk and demonstration took place in the basement listening room.

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High resolution audio is controversial, in that there is evidence that even CD quality (16-bit/44.1 kHz) is good enough to capture everything we can hear in normal music played at normal levels – see Monty Montgomery’s excellent technical explanation and accompanying videos for why – and I was interested to see how Sony is pitching high-res to its potential customers. I was also interested to see if it would broach the tricky subject of DSD vs PCM and whether there is any audible difference.

In this respect it was a curious event as you will see. One of the odd things was that little music was played, maybe 10 minutes out of a one and a half hour presentation.

Somerset kicked things off, explaining the battle between convenience and quality in music reproduction. “We’ve lost a lot in quality” he said, thanks to the popularity of MP3. So what does Sony mean by high-res? Anything beyond CD quality, he said, confusing the issue: is it MP3 that is limiting audio quality today, or CD?

“A lot of people out there think CD, that’s as good as it gets, nothing better, obviously we know that’s not true,” he said.

That said, he made the point that the Z1ES is not just designed for high-res, but to perform well with most formats and resolution. It has a DSEE (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) which supposedly improves the sound of lossy-compressed audio by “improving the spectrum” (according to the slide; I still have no idea what this means); and a DSD remastering engine that converts lossless PCM to double DSD on the fly (the PCM file remains as-is and it is not stored twice).

Why would you want to do that? I asked Kingdon later who said it was a matter of personal taste; you should take it home and try it. Personally I’m not sure why it should make any difference at all to the sound; you would have thought it would be audibly transparent if the double DSD encoding is doing its job, and if it does sound different it raises the question of whether the DSD conversion ends up colouring the sound; unless perhaps the DAC is more capable with DSD than with PCM. On this latter point Kingdon said no; the Burr-Brown DAC is excellent for PCM. DSD remastering is optional and you can easily enable or disable the feature.

Somerset also explained that the Z1ES does not stream music; it copies audio files to its own internal storage (1TB hard drive). However it can detect when music is added to a network location such as a NAS (Network Attached Storage) drive and copy it automatically. The reason it is copied and not streamed is to eliminate network latency, he said. If 1TB is not enough, you can attach a USB external drive, but this must be reformatted to Ext4 by the system, deleting any existing files.

The Ext4 limitation was a matter of some discussion and discontent among the audience. The Z1ES runs Linux internally, hence the requirement for Ext4, but Linux can mount other file formats successfully so a future firmware update will likely remove this limitation.

Kingdon then answered questions – would the unit go out of date quickly? No, it will have a long life, he promised. Why no video output? “It’s a pure audio product,” he said.

Eventually we got to a demo. Somerset kicked off by playing a Bob Dylan track, Blowing in the Wind (recorded in 1963) in three different formats. The first was 24-bit 88.2 kHz flac (I imagine derived from the DSD used for the SACD release, as conversions from SACD often end up as 24/88). The second was 256kpbs MP3. Finally, there was what he described as a “heavily compressed” MP3, though the exact resolution was not specified. All were derived from the same original source, we were told.

“For me, focusing on the vocals, you can really hear the difference in brightness,” said Somerset.

The odd thing was that (to my ears) the 24/88 version did indeed sound brighter and slightly louder than the MP3, which I find puzzling. I’m not aware of any technical reason why high resolution audio should sound any brighter (or tonally different) from CD or MP3. There was not a dramatic difference in overall quality from what little I could tell in the few seconds of music we heard, but I was not sure that the brighter sound was an improvement; Dylan can sound a little strident at times and the slightly mellower (and dare I say, more analogue-sounding) MP3 version could well be preferred.

We switched back and forth a couple of times, and then Somerset played the “heavily compressed” version. This sounded OK too, from what I could hear of it, which might explain why Somerset talked over it and stopped playing it quickly, saying how bad it was.

Next we heard a DSD download from Blue Coast records; it was Immediately Blessed by Keith Greeninger. This sounded superb, far better than the Dylan, though I doubt this was much to do with formats, but more because it was a modern recording made by a dedicated audiophile label. It was the best sound we heard.

Daft Punk followed, at 24/88.2, and then a 24/96 Linda Ronstadt track from 1983, and then a Nat King Cole song from 1957 in 16/44.1 format.

That was it for demos, if I remember right. What was notable to me was that Sony never demonstrated high-res vs CD quality, played only one DSD track, and used mostly older recordings. Some of these older recordings do indeed sound great, but I doubt it is the best way to demonstrate high resolution audio. If you attended the session as a high-res sceptic you would have heard nothing to change your mind.

Another odd thing was that we heard tracks there were available on SACD but played to us as PCM, most likely converted from the SACD source. Why did we not hear the DSD? It is probably do to with the difficulty all of us have in ripping SACD to audio files, which can only done (as far as I am aware) with a hacked PlayStation 3 with old firmware.

I asked Kingdon why Sony does not make its high-res products like the Z1ES more attractive by giving us the ability to rip SACD at best quality? The record companies would not like it, he said. “I’ve had this discussion so many times, I’ve got a big SACD collection, some of it isn’t available any more, I’m sorry, I don’t have an answer for you.”

Despite some frustration at the brevity and content of the demos, this was an enjoyable event with great hospitality from the Audio Lounge, some fascinating recollections from Kingdon of his time with Sony over many years, and a high level of warmth and friendliness all round.

Now if I were Sony I would use the best possible sources to show off high-res audio and the new player, and avoid misleading comparisons or doubtful technical statements. The fact is that many high-res sources, whether SACD, DVD Audio (which you can easily rip to a player like this) or downloads, do sound excellent, and for many that is more than enough to justify purchase.

Would a beautifully mastered CD or CD-quality download sound just as good? Possibly, and the fact that Sony did not attempt to demonstrate the difference, but compared high-res to MP3, lends support to the idea. If there really is a big difference, why not demonstrate it?

As for the Z1ES itself, I heard enough to know that it can sound very good indeed. It is disappointing that it has no surround sound capability, and no digital input so you could use it as an external DAC, but those are not show-stoppers. For myself I would be more inclined to invest in a standalone DAC, maybe one which is both DSD and PCM capable, but if you like simplicity, then a machine with its own storage, DAC, remote, and handy screen for album artwork does make sense.

On Microsoft Surface: premium hardware, declining vision

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Microsoft’s Panos Panay shows off Surface Pro 3

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 was launched yesterday, but the roots of Microsoft’s Surface project – the company’s first own-brand PC – go back a long way. There are three big issues which it attempts to tackle:

1. The PC OEM hardware ecosystem was (and to a large extent still is) stuck in a vicious loop of a price-sensitive market driving down prices and forcing vendors to skimp on design and materials, and to pre-install unwanted third-party applications that damage user experience. Most high-end users bought Macs instead. With Surface Microsoft breaks out of the loop with premium design and zero unwanted add-ons.

2. The tablet market. Windows 8 is designed for touch, at least in its “Metro” personality. But desktop apps need a keyboard and mouse. How do you combine the two without creating a twisty monster? Surface with its fold-back, tear-off keyboard cover is an elegant solution.

3. Fixing Windows. Users of today’s PCs live on a precipice. One false click and the adware and malware invades. Live in the “Metro” environment, or use an iPad, and that is unlikely to happen. Use Windows RT (Windows on ARM) and it is even less likely, since most malware cannot install.

Surface could not have happened without Windows 8. The efforts to make it work as a tablet would make no sense.

Now we have Surface 3. How is Microsoft doing?

I have followed Surface closely since its launch in September 2012. The models I know best are the original Surface RT, the second Surface RT called Surface 2, and the original Surface Pro, which is my machine of choice when travelling. A few observations.

There is plenty that I like (otherwise I would not use it so much). It really is slim and compact, and I would hate to go back to carrying a laptop everywhere. It is well-made and fairly robust, though the hinge on the keyboard covers is a weak point where the fabric can come unglued. The kickstand is handy, and one of my favourite configurations is Surface on its kickstand plus Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, with which I can be almost as productive as with a desktop (I do miss dual displays). I can also use the Surface successfully on my lap. In cramped aircraft seats it is not great but better than a laptop.

There are also annoyances. Only one USB port is a severe limitation and seems unnecessary, since there is room along the edge. For example, you plug in an external drive, now you cannot attach your camera. Not being able to upgrade the internal SSD is annoying, though I suppose inherent to the sealed design. Performance was poor on the original Surface RT, though Surface 2 is fine.

More annoying are the bugs. Sometimes the keyboard cover stops working; detaching and re-attaching usually but not always fixes it. Sometimes the wifi plays up and you have to disable and re-enable the wifi adapter in device manager. Another problem is power management, especially on Surface Pro (I gather that Pro 2 is better). You press power and it does not resume; or worse, you put it into your bag after pressing power off (which sends it to sleep), only to find later that it is heating your bag and wasting precious battery.

The key point here is this: Microsoft intended to make an appliance-like PC that, because of the synergy between first-party hardware and software, would be easy to maintain. It did not succeed, and even Surface RT is more troublesome to maintain than an iPad or Android tablet.

Microsoft also ran into user acceptance problems with Windows RT. Personally I like RT, I think I understand what Microsoft is (or was) trying to achieve, and with Surface specifically, I love the long battery life and easier (though this imperfect) maintenance that it offers. However, the apps are lacking, and Microsoft has so far failed to establish Windows as a tablet operating system like iOS and Android. People buy Windows to run Windows apps, they make little use of the Metro side, and for the most part Surface customers are those who would otherwise have bought laptops.

Incidentally, I have seen Surface RT used with success as a fool-proof portable machine for running Office and feel it deserved to do better, but the reality is that Microsoft has not persuaded the general public of its merits.

Another issue with Surface is the price. Given most Surface customers want the keyboard cover, which is integral to the concept, the cost is more than most laptops. But was Microsoft going for the premium market, or trying to compete with mass-market tablets? In reality, Surface is too expensive for the mass-market which is why its best success has been amongst high-end Windows users.

Surface Pro 3 and the launch that wasn’t

That brings me to Surface Pro 3. The intriguing aspect of yesterday’s launch is that it was rumoured to be for a new mini-sized Surface probably running Windows RT. Why else was the invite (which someone posted on Twitter) for a “small gathering”?

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Admittedly, it is a stretch to suppose that the Surface Mini was cancelled between the date the invitations were sent out (around four weeks ago I believe) and the date of the event. On the other hand, this is a time of change at Microsoft. The Nokia acquisition completed on  25th April, putting former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop in charge of devices. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has only been in place since February 4. While cancelling a major hardware launch at such short notice would be surprising, it is not quite impossible, and a report from Bloomberg to that effect seems plausible.

It is also well-known that Microsoft does not intend to continue with three mobile operating systems: Windows x86, Windows on ARM, and Windows Phone. Windows Phone and Windows RT will “merge”, though merge may just mean that one will be scrapped, and that it will not be Windows Phone.

The promised arrival of a touch-friendly Microsoft Office for Windows Phone and Windows 8 further will rob Windows RT of a key distinctive feature.

This does not mean that Microsoft will not complete in the growing market for small tablets. It means, rather, that a future small tablet from Microsoft will run the Windows Phone OS – which is what some of us thought Microsoft should have done in the first place. This is a company that sometimes takes the hardest (and most expensive) possible route to its destination – see also Xbox One.

Surface Pro 3 specs: a MacBook Air compete

Surface Pro 3 is a large-size Surface Pro. It has a 12 inch 2160×1440 screen, a pen, and a redesigned keyboard cover that has an additional magnetic strip which sticks to the tablet when used laptop-style, for greater stability.

The kickstand can now be used at any angle, supposedly without slipping.

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The weight is 800g making it lighter than a MacBook Air.

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though note that the MacBook Air has a keyboard built in.

Battery life is quoted as “up to 9 hours”. There is still only one USB port. Full specs are here.

The Surface Pro 3 looks like a nice device. In the UK it starts at £639 for an Intel i3 device with a tiny 64GB SSD (I am running out of space with 128GB). And don’t forget the cover which will be at least £110 on top (prices include VAT).

A sensible Core i5 with 256GB SSD and a Type 2 cover will be around £1200. Not a bad buy; though personally I am not sure about the larger size.

Note that Microsoft has now abandoned the 16:9 wide-screen format which characterised the original release of Windows 8, designed to work well with two apps side by side. Surface Pro 3 has a conventional 3:2 screen ration.

Declining vision

Microsoft’s Surface project had a bold vision to reinvent Windows hardware and to usher in a new, more secure era of Windows computing, where tablet apps worked in harmony with the classic desktop.

It was bold but it failed. A combination of flawed implementation, patchy distribution, high prices, and above all, lack of success in the Windows Store ecosystem, meant that Surface remained at ground level.

What we have now is, by all accounts, an attractive high-end Windows hybrid. Not a bad thing in itself, but far short of what was originally hoped.

Microsoft is moving on, building on its investment in Active Directory, Azure cloud, and Microsoft Office, to base its business on an any-device strategy. The market has forced its hand, but it is embracing this new world and (to my mind) looks like making a success of it. It does not depend on the success of Surface, so whether or not the company ends up with a flourishing PC business is now almost incidental.

Review: Velodyne vFree wireless headphones

Last month I took a look at Velodyne’s vLeve headphones. Now it is time to look at the similarly-styled vFree, a wireless model which sits a bit higher in the Velodyne range. The range, incidentally, looks like this, though the prices (taken from the Velodyne site) are the most you can pay and you will likely do quite a bit better.

  • vLeve on-ear headphones $199
  • vFree on-ear Bluetooth headphones $299
  • vQuiet over-ear noise cancelling Headphones $299
  • vBold over-ear Bluetooth headphones $349
  • vTrue Studio over-ear headphones $399

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In the smart glossy box you get the headphones, soft bag, cables for USB charging and for a wired audio connection (no microphone when wired), and a leaflet with a guide to pairing.

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There is no charger; you can use the USB port on a PC or one of the many USB chargers you likely have already.

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The headphones fold for portability and have various ports, LEDs and buttons. Under the left cup, you will find a battery status LED, the USB charging port, and a socket for wired audio.

The right cup sports most of the functions. There is volume up/down on the edge, and an LED function indicator and microphone on the bottom. The back of the cup is split to form three large buttons, one for Next/Previous, one for power and pairing, and one for play/pause/answer/end call.

Controls on on-ear devices always tend to be awkward, because you cannot see what you are doing. I like the generous size of the vFree controls, but finding which button to press is still tricky at first.

Pairing is a matter of holding down power until the device enters pairing mode. Fairly straightforward, though in my experience some devices pair more easily than others, and there is no clarity about whether you can pair to multiple devices. I believe you can, because the Nexus was able to reconnect after I paired to the Surface, but I had trouble the other way around and had to re-pair. The function LED is rather dim and hard to see.

The sound

You could say that the vFree is “like the vLeve but wireless”, but although the looks are similar they do not sound the same. Further, bear in mind that a wireless headset contains its own amplifier whereas with a wired set you are dependent on whatever comes with your device.

Perhaps for this reason, I found that the vFree sounded substantially different in the various configurations I tried. The best sound I got was when wired (there is a wired option using the supplied cable) and using a dedicated headphone amplifier: this gave rich bass, clean, clear and spacious sound.

Yet on the two mobile devices I tried, a Surface tablet and a Google Nexus tablet, the vFree sounded better wireless than wired. In fact, the wired option sounded bad in comparison, thinner and slightly distorted.

There is a logic behind this. Mobile devices often have poor audio amplifiers, and when you listen wired, that is what you get. In addition, I found with both these and with the vLeve that they are more than usually sensitive to amplifier quality. With the wireless option though, you are using the built-in amplifier that is specifically designed for the speakers in the vFree. Against that though, wired is a better electrical connection than Bluetooth, so it is a trade-off. Another factor is whether your mobile device supports the higher quality apt-x codec over Bluetooth; many do not, though the vFree does support it.

All of this makes it hard to state definitively how the vFree sounds; it will depend on your set-up. At their best they sound very good, though I doubt wired use with a dedicated amplifier will form typical usage for most. In the other configurations, I found them decent but not outstanding. The bass is particularly clean and tuneful, as you might expect from a supplier of sub-woofers, and the sound in general is refined, never brash or harsh, but lacking the spaciousness that characterises the very best audio.

Comfort is a personal thing; I found the vFree fine for an hour or two but would not want to wear them for longer; but they are soft and lightweight.

These are high quality headphones, though not good value at the full price listed on the Velodyne site. Fortunately you can get them elsewhere for considerably less, making them worth consideration.

Specifications

  • Frequency response: 20Hz – 20kHz
  • Impedance: 32 Ω
  • Range: Up to 10m
  • Sensitivity: 98 dB/1 kHz/1mW
  • Codecs: SBC, AAC, apt-X
  • Battery life: 100 hours standby, 10 hours talk and music, 1.5 hours recharge time