Category Archives: apple

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

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.

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.

Thirty years of mainly not the Mac

It’s Mac anniversary time: 30 years since the first Macintosh (with 128K RAM) in 1984 – January 24th according to Wikipedia; Apple’s beautiful timeline is rather sketchy when it comes to details like actual dates or specs.

My first personal computer though was a hand-me-down Commodore PET 4032 with only 32K of RAM, which pre-dated the Mac by about 4 years (though not by the time I got hold of it).

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The PET was fun because it was small enough that you could learn almost everything there was to know about it though a book called The PET Revealed that listed every address and what it did. I had a word processor called Wordcraft that was excellent, provided you could live with only having one page in memory at a time; a spreadsheet called VisiCalc that was even better; and a database that was so bad that I forget its name. You could also play Space Invaders using a character-based screen; the missiles were double-dagger (ǂ)characters.

The small company that I was a little involved with at the time migrated to Macs almost as soon as they were available so I had some contact with them early on. The defining moment in my personal computer history though was when I needed to buy a new machine for a college course. What would it be?

If all the choices had cost the same, I would have purchased a Mac. My second choice, since this was a machine for work, would have been a PC clone. Both were expensive enough that I did not seriously consider them.

Instead, I bought a Jackintosh, sorry an Atari ST, with a mono 640 x 200 monitor and a second disk drive. It had the GEM graphical user interface, 512K RAM, a Motorola 68000 CPU, and built-in MIDI ports making it popular with musicians.

The ST exceeded expectations. Despite being mainly perceived as a games machine, there were some excellent applications. I settled on Protext and later That’s Write for word processing, Signum for desktop publishing, Logistix for spreadsheets, Superbase for database, the wonderful Notator for messing around with MIDI and music notation, and did some programming with GFA Basic and HiSoft C.

If I had had a Mac or PC, I would have benefited from a wider choice of business applications, but lost out on the gaming side (which I could not entirely resist). The ST had some quirks but most things could be achieved, and the effort was illuminating in the sense of learning how computers and software tick.

Despite the Mac-like UI of the Atari ST, my sense was that most Atari owners migrated to the PC, partly perhaps for cost reasons, and partly because of the PC’s culture of “do anything you want” which was more like that of the ST. The PC’s strength in business also made it a better choice in some areas, like database work.

I was also doing increasing amounts of IT journalism, and moving from ST Format to PC Format to Personal Computer World kept me mainly in the PC camp.

For many years though I have found it important to keep up with the Mac, as well as using it for testing, and have had a series of machines. I now have my desktop set up so I can switch easily between PC and Mac. I enjoy visiting it from time to time but I am not tempted to live there. It is no more productive for me than a PC, and Microsoft Office works better on a PC in my experience (no surprise) which is a factor. I miss some favourite utilities like Live Writer, dBpoweramp, and Foobar 2000.

That said, I recognise the advantages of the Mac for many users, in terms of usability, design, and fewer annoyances than Windows. Developers benefit from a UNIX-like operating system that works better with open source tools. There is still a price premium, but not to the extent there was when I picked an Atari ST instead.

Happy Anniversary Apple.

Bang & Olufsen Essence simplifies home audio – as long as you have the right smartphone

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Bang & Olufsen’s Tue Mantoni shows the new Essence controller

By how much can you simplify home audio? Long-established Danish company Bang & Olufsen reckons that the essentials are play, pause, volume, next and previous. The Essence controller is designed for wall mounting, or there is a tabletop version, and has just these functions. The goal is to make listening to music as easy as turning on the light. The company demonstrated the new system at the 2014 CES in Las Vegas.

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Other functions, such as choosing what music to play, are considered “Advanced.”

The brains of the system are in the controller box, which supports Apple AirPlay streaming, DLNA streaming, Spotify, QPlay, and internet radio. DLNA support means you could use it with other systems such as Logitech Media Server (formerly Squeezebox server) .

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The rear view shows the connections:

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You control the box via an app BeoMusic, which runs on Apple iOS or Google Android. I asked whether you could use a web browser if you happened not to have an iOS or Android device, and was told no. Windows Phone users, this is not for you. Box and remote together cost $995.

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Another part of B&O’s drive for simplicity is wireless speaker connections. The company is supporting a standard called WiSA which delivers up to 24/96 digital audio for up to 8 channels. Naturally this only works with powered speakers, so each one still needs a mains cable. You can use speakers that lack WiSA support by purchasing a receiver ($265 or £165) for each one.

The demo system we heard at CES included Beolab 18 active loudspeakers and a Beolab 19 subwoofer, both running wireless with WiSA. At $6,590 for the main pair and $3,395 for the subwoofer, this was not a cheap system.

I thought it looked lovely, but my face fell when the music started playing. The sound was decent but not the most natural I have heard, and I felt there was a trace of harshness at loud volume.

I doubt the sound quality is a limitation of WiSA: I visited the WiSA demonstration later on at CES and it sounded fine. I will add that the demonstration was brief and it is possible that in another room or with some tweaking the system would sound as good as it looks; but first impressions were disappointing.

Qobuz lossless streaming and hi-res downloads available in the UK

The French music streaming and download service Qobuz went live in the UK this month.

Qobuz has some distinctive characteristics. One is that unlike most music services (including Apple iTunes, Amazon MP3, Spotify and Xbox Music) Qobuz offers an option for uncompressed music both for streaming and download. For streaming, you can choose 16/44 CD quality, while downloads are available up to 24 bits/176.4 kHz.

High resolutions like 24/176 appeal to audiophiles even though the audible benefit from them as a music delivery format may be hard to discern. See 24/192 Music Downloads … and why they make no sense. Getting true uncompressed CD quality is easier to defend; while it may still be hard to distinguish from MP3 at a high bitrate, at least it removes any anxiety that perhaps you may be missing the last degree of fidelity.

Despite the technical doubts, better-than-CD downloads may still be worth it, if they have a superior mastering or come from a better source. This seems to be the case for some of the selections on HDtracks, for example.

One complaint I have heard about some sites offering high resolution downloads is that some of the offerings are not what they appear to be, and may be upsampled from a lower resolution. This is the audio equivalent of padding a parcel with bubblewrap, and strikes me as bad practice even if you cannot hear the difference. Qobuz says it does no such thing:

Les albums vendus par Qobuz en qualité “Qobuz Studio Masters” nous sont fournis par les labels directement. Ils ne sont pas ré-encodés depuis des SACD et nous garantissons leur provenance directe. Nous nous interdisons, pour faire grossir plus vite cette offre, les tripatouillages suspects.

which roughly translates to

The albums sold by Qobuz ‘Qobuz Studio Masters’ are provided directly by the labels. They are not re-encoded from the SACD and we guarantee their direct origin. We refuse to accelerate the growth of our catalogue by accepting suspicious upsamples.

It strikes me as odd that Qobuz insist that their hi-res downloads are “not re-encoded from SACD” but that its highest resolution is 24/176.4 which is what you get if you convert an SACD to PCM, rather than 24/192 which is the logical format for audio captured directly to PCM.

Qobuz has mobile apps for Android and iOS, but not Windows Phone. There is a Windows 8 store app, but I could not find it, perhaps for regional reasons. There is also integration with Sonos home streaming equipment.

I had a quick look and signed up for a 7-day trial. If I want to subscribe, a Premium subscription (MP3) costs £9.99 per month, and a Hi-Fi subscription (16/44) is £19.99 per month.

Navigating the Qobuz site and applications is entertaining, and I was bounced regularly between UK and French sites, sometimes encountering other languages such as Dutch.

I installed the Windows desktop app is fine when it works, though a few searches seems to make it crash on my system. I soon found gaps in the selection available too. Most of David Bowie’s catalogue is missing, so too Led Zeppelin and The Beatles. You will not go short of music though; there are hundreds of thousands of tracks.

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I also tried downloading. I installed the downloader, despite a confusing link in English and French that said “you are going to install the version for Macintosh.”

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The downloader quietly downloads your selections in the background, just as well for those large 24/176 selections.

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If you hate the idea of lossy compression, or want high-resolution downloads, Qobuz is worth a look. It would be good though if the site were less confusing for English users.

You can subscribe to Qobuz here.

Microsoft Surface 2: still a hard sell at retail

I am a fan of Microsoft’s Surface 2; but looking at the display at Dixons in Heathrow’s Terminal 3 it is obvious that Microsoft has work to do in terms of retail presence.

There are no clues here as to why anyone might want to buy a Surface, and no indication that Surface 2 runs anything other than standard Windows 8, other than the two letters RT which you can read on the spec summary.

Windows RT is both better and worse than Windows on Intel. It is worse because you cannot install new desktop applications, but it is better because it is locked down and less likely to suffer from viruses or annoying OEM add-ons and customisations that usually result in a worse user experience.

Why did Microsoft not come up with a distinctive brand name for RT, such as AppWindows or StoreWindows or WinBook? I am open to negotiation should Microsoft wish to use one of my brand ideas :-)

Surface 2 has excellent performance, Microsoft Office is bundled including Outlook (though without the ability to run Visual Basic macros), and it is expandable using Micro SD cards or USB 3.0 devices, all features I miss when using an Apple iPad.

I do use the desktop a lot on Surface 2. Simple applications like Paint and Notepad are useful especially since they have, you know, cool resizable and overlapping windows so you can have multiple applications on view.

The Apple iPad is better displayed and I am sure its greater prominence is more than justified by relative sales.

 

7 types of Windows 8 users and non-users

When I was in Seattle earlier this month I visited the Microsoft Store in Bellevue. I nearly bought a Nokia Lumia 1020, but also observed an enthusiastic salesperson showing off Surface 2 (a pre-launch demo unit) to an older customer. She watched patiently while he showed how it handled pictures, SkyDrive, Office, Email, Facebook and more. At the end she said. “I don’t need any of that. Show me your cheapest laptop.”

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Yes, it’s tough for Microsoft. The incident got me thinking about computer users today and whether or not they are in the market for Windows 8 (or the forthcoming Windows 8.1).

Here is a light-hearted at some categories of users. And yes, I think I have met all of them. For those that are saying no, what would change their minds?

1. The Apple fan.

Switched to Mac from Windows XP around 2007. Has Mac, iPhone, iPad. So much easier, no anti-virus nags, boots quicker, less annoying, always works smoothly. Occasionally runs a Windows app on Parallels but nothing non-nuclear would persuade them to switch back.

Buying Windows 8? No.

2. The Enterprise admin.

In latter stages of migration from Windows XP to Windows 7. Still a few XP machines running awkward apps or run by awkward people. Last holdouts should be gone by year end. Job done, won’t even think about another migration for 3-5 years. Next focus is on BYOD (Bring your own device); will be mostly iPhones and iPads with the occasional Android or Windows 8 tablet.

Buying Windows 8? Mostly no.

3. The older Windows user

Son thinks a Mac would be better, but Windows works fine, is well understood, and does all that is needed. No desire to upgrade but when PC conks out will look for the most familiar looking machine at a good price. Would prefer Windows 7 but may be forced into Windows 8 if those are the only machines on offer.

Buying Windows 8? Maybe reluctantly.

4. The PC guy

This is the guy who understands PCs back to front. Never saw the point of Macs, overpriced, fewer apps, and little different in functionality. First thing to do with a new PC is either spend 3 hours removing all the crapware, or reinstall Windows from scratch. The Windows 8 user interface took some adjustment at first but fine with it now, likes the slightly better performance, and even uses a few Metro apps on the Surface Pro tablet.

Buying Windows 8? Yes, best Windows yet.

5. The tablet family

Used to update the family PC every few years, but mum got an iPad, son got an Android tablet, then dad went Android too, and now they spend so much time doing email, games, web browsing, YouTube, Facebook and BBC iPlayer on the tablets that the PC gets little use. It’s still handy for household accounts but it won’t be replaced unless it breaks.

Buying Windows 8? Not soon, and maybe not ever.

6. The tried it once never again person

It was embarrassing. Used Windows for years, then a friend brought over a Windows 8 laptop. Clicked on desktop, but with no Start button how do you run anything? Clicked around, right-clicked, pressed ESC, pressed Ctrl-Alt-Del, but nothing doing. Friend was laughing. Now the sight of Windows 8 evokes a chill shudder. Never, just never.

Buying Windows 8? No way.

7. The “Make it like 7” person

Windows 8? No problem, it’s just like 7 really. Installed Start8, got the Start menu back, set it to boot to desktop, set file associations for PDF and images to desktop apps, and never sees the Metro environment.

Buying Windows 8? Kind-of, but will never run a Metro app.