Category Archives: audio

Review: Vibe FLI Over headphones with “Extreme bass”

image

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

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

But do the Fli-overs deliver?

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

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

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

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

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

image

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

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

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

image

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

More information on the Vibe site here.

Do you need the new Raspberry Pi B+?

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

image

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

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

image

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

So what is new? The highlights:

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

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

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

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

image

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

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

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

image

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

image

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

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

Review: Kingston HyperX Cloud headset, excellent sound and comfort

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

image

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).

image

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:

image

  • 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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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).

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

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

image

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.

image

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

image

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

Keep your CDs and DVDs: how the UK copyright law is changing but still does not make sense

The UK copyright law is changing in June 2014. The details of the changes are here. There is also a simplified Guidance for Consumers [PDF] document.

One of the reasons for the changes is to allow format-shifting, such as ripping CDs or DVDs to a smartphone, MP3 player, home media server, or cloud storage.

The changes will mean that you will be able to copy a book or film you have purchased for one device onto another without infringing copyright.

says the consumer guidance. However, the law does not allow making copies for friends or family, nor making copies of media acquired illegally.

You will be permitted to make personal copies to any device that you own, or a personal online storage medium, such as a private cloud. However, it will be illegal to give other people access to the copies you have made, including, for example, by allowing a friend to access your personal cloud storage.

Sensible; but note this provision:

Am I able to give away or resell media, such as CDs, that I have made personal copies from?
Yes, but you will infringe copyright if you retain any personal copies that you have made. Therefore, if you wish to give away or sell a CD you should first delete any personal copies you have made from it.

The actual legislation says:

The rights conferred by this Chapter in a recording are infringed if an individual transfers a personal copy of the recording to another person (otherwise than on a private and temporary basis), except where the transfer is authorised by the rights owner.

The intent of the law seems to be that you must keep your physical CDs and DVDs safely in the loft after ripping them, if you want to stay the right side of the law. What about destroying the media (rather than passing it on)? You would think that might be OK but the document does not say.

In the old world you could buy a record, CD or DVD and store it in the living room for everyone at home to enjoy. You could lend a DVD to a friend, during which time she could play it but not you, and then get it back and enjoy it again. Even with the new provisions, it is still hard for the law to cover what is normal in the new digital world.

For example, the focus on the new legislation is on individual rights. I cannot see anything covering the common and normal scenario of a media server in the home accessible by the whole family. If anything, the new law implies that this is not OK: the legislation specifies that the format-shifted copy “is made for the individual’s private use.” The guidance makes a point of including family among those who are not allowed copies:

Creators have a right to be paid for their work, so the law will not allow people to get content for free by copying from friends and family.

Is merely playing content different from copying it? Maybe, maybe not. If you can play it, you do not need to copy it, and you are forbidden from allowing others access to your private media in cloud storage, such as Amazon or Google cloud players.

I am not saying that a shared home iTunes or Squeezebox library is not allowed, as it also seems to me that the intent of the law is to allow normal activities like this, but it looks like a grey area to me.

Another tricky area is copy protection. Copy protection, such as DVD or Blu-ray encryption, is allowed, but only if it is does not prevent the kind of fair use backup and format-shifting described above. If your format-shifting is prevented by copy protection, you can complain to the Secretary of State who will ask the vendor to ensure:

that the owner or exclusive licensee of that copyright work makes available to the complainant or the class of individuals represented by the complainant the means of benefiting from section 28B to the extent necessary to benefit from that section.

where 28B is the clause which gives these new rights. What might be sufficient? What about a downloadable compressed MP4 video or MP3 music, for your copy-protected Blu-ray, would that do? That is not much of a backup for a 4K video.

While it is good to see UK copyright law beginning to catch up with reality, it will continue to be imperfect as well as impossible to enforce. There are now three common forms of private media licensing:

  • Physical media – the license travels with the media. For example CD, DVD, Blu-Ray
  • Individual downloads – a personal license to specific files. For example, iTunes, Amazon MP3
  • All-you-can-eat subscriptions. For example, Spotify.

The third of these makes most sense in the digital era and will I believe come to dominate. Framing legislation that works sensibly for all three cases, while protecting common-sense rights, is all-but impossible.

Review: Velodyne vLeve on-ear headphones

Velodyne is best known for its fine range of sub-woofers, but the company also makes a range of headphones, of which the vLeve is towards the bottom of the range.

image

The headphones are supplied in a smart glossy box with the reassuring words “High performance headphones” on the front. I am not sure what the name signifies though the word Leve means “Live” in some languages so it perhaps hints at enjoying life – what better way than listening to music through high quality cans?

image

Inside the box are the headphones, a handy bag, and a 3.5mm jack cable. There is no adaptor for a 1/4″ jack socket; a shame though these are easily optainable elsewhere. The headphones fold for portability.

image

The vLeve is lightweight and feels even a little flimsy though it seems well made. The design is the on-ear type. I found that careful positioning of the pads on your ears is essential for the best sound; it is surprising how much difference is made by a small change in position.

Velodyne is keen to sell you add-on skins to give a more colourful appearance.

image

Since you may well be out and about wearing these the appearance is important and a matter of taste; personally I am happy without a skin as I care mainly about the sound, but these distinctive skins will appeal to many.

So how is the sound? It seems too obvious: but as you would expect from a sub-woofer company, the bass is exemplary. At first I thought the sound was a little bass-heavy, but comparison with other headphones does not bear this out. Rather, the bass is particularly tight and tuneful so you pay it more attention.

I played the excellent SACD We Get Requests by the Oscar Peterson Trio and the sound of Ray Brown’s double bass is a delight with a clean and natural sound.

The sound is relaxed, even slightly recessed, and may not appeal if you prefer a more analytical or exciting presentation. Swapping to my reference Sennheiser HD600s showed that the vLeve is not the last word in clarity or openness, but it was not disgraced and its compromises are easy to live with.

I did find the sound substantially better when using a headphone amplifier rather than an iPad or Nexus tablet (two that I tried). While this is not surprising in one sense, others are more tolerant of lesser amplification.

One annoyance: the cord at 130mm or just over 4 feet was too short for my liking, but again you can easily get a replacement if needed.

Note that Velodyne also make a similar wireless model, the vFree, which is reviewed separately.

A good choice especially for acoustic music and for use with high quality sources.

Price is $219 though available from around $130 if you scout around. UK prices to follow.

Published specifications:

  • Driver size: 34mm
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz – 20 kHz
  • Sensitivity: 98 dB/1Khz/1mW
  • Impedance: 32 Ω

Neil Young’s Pono: an advance in digital music?

Thanks to the just-launched Kickstarter project, there are now firm technical details for Neil Young’s curious Pono project, which aims to solve what the musician sees as the loss of audio quality caused by the transition to digital music:

“Pono” is Hawaiian for righteous. What righteous means to our founder Neil Young is honoring the artist’s intention, and the soul of music. That’s why he’s been on a quest, for a few years now, to revive the magic that has been squeezed out of digital music. In the process of making music more convenient – easier to download, and more portable – we have sacrificed the emotional impact that only higher quality music can deliver.

There is a lot about emotion and the spirit of music in the pitch; but ultimately while music is art, audio is technology. What is the technology in Pono and can it deliver something markedly better than we have already?

Pono has several components. The first is a portable player:

  • 64GB on-board storage and 64GB SD card
  • 8 hour rechargeable battery
  • Software for PC and Mac to transfer songs
  • Two stereo output jack sockets, one for headphones, and one a line-out for connection to a home hi-fi system
  • Ability to play FLAC, ALAC, WAV, MP3, AIFF and AAC at resolutions (at least for FLAC) of up to 192Khz/24-bit. 

The Pono player will cost around $400.00, though early Kickstarter backers can pre-order for $200 (all sold now) or $300.00.

There will also be a Pono music store “supported by all major labels and their growing catalogues of high quality digital music”. The record companies will set their own prices, but high-res (24/96 and higher) music is expected to cost between $14.99 and $24.99 per album. Individual songs will also be available.

Here is the key question: will you hear the difference. Here is what the pitch says:

Yes. We are confident that you will hear the difference. We’re even more confident you will feel it. Everyone who’s ever heard PonoMusic will tell you that the difference is surprising and dramatic. Especially when they listen to music that they know well – their favorite music. They’re amazed by how much better the music sounds – and astonished at how much detail they didn’t realize was missing compared to the original. They tell us that not only do they hear the difference; they feel it in their body, in their soul.

Count me sceptical. There are two ways in which Pono can sound better than what you use at the moment to play music – which for many of us is a smartphone, a CD ripped to a hard drive and played from a PC, Mac or iPod, or streamed to a device like a Sonos or Squeezebox.

One is though superior electronics. Pono is designed by Ayre Acoustics, a high end audio company, and you can expect a Pono to sound good; but there is no reason to think it will sound better than many other DACs and pre-amplifiers available today. As a dedicated audio device it should sound better than the average smartphone; but Apple for one has always cared about audio quality so I would not count on a dramatic improvement.

The second is through higher resolution sources. This is a controversial area, and the Kickstarter pitch is misleading:

On the “low end” of higher resolution music (CD lossless, 16 bit/44.1kHz), PonoMusic files have about 6 times more musical information than a typical mp3. With ultra-high quality resolution recordings (24 bit/192kHz), the difference between a PonoMusic digital file and an mp3 is about 30 times more data from which your player reconstructs the “song”.

We need to examine what is meant by “musical information” in the above. The Pono blurb makes the assumption that more data must mean better sound. However, just because a CD “lossless” file is six times the size of an MP3 file does not mean it sounds six times better. Listening tests show that by the time you get to say 320kbps MP3, most people find it hard to hear the difference, because the lossy formats like MP3 and AAC are designed to discard data that we cannot hear.

What about 24/96 or 24/192 versus CD format (16/44)? Advocates will tell you that they hear a big difference, but the science of this is obscure; see 24/192 downloads and why they make no sense for an explanation, complete with accompanying videos that spell this out. Most listening tests that I am aware of have failed to detect an audible difference from resolutions above CD format. Even so, audio is subtle and complex enough that it would be brave to say there is never any audible improvement above 16/44; but if it exists, it is subtle and not the obvious difference that the Pono folk claim.

The irritation here is that digital music often does sound bad, but not because of limitations in the audio format. Rather, it is the modern engineering trend of whacking up the loudness so that the dynamic range and sense of space in the music is lost – which seems close to what Neil Young is complaining about. The solution to this is not primarily in high resolution formats, but in doing a better job in mastering.

Why then do so many well known names in music praise the Pono sound so highly?

While I would like to think that this is because of a technical breakthough, I suspect it is more to do with comparing excellent mastering from a good source to a typical over-loud CD or MP3 file, than anything revolutionary in Pono itself. If you have a high-resolution track that sounds great, try downsampling it to 16/44 and comparing it to that, before concluding that it is the format itself that provides the superior sound.

The highest distortion in the audio chain is in the transducers, speakers and microphones, and not in the digital storage, conversion and amplification.

The Pono Kickstarter has already raised $550,000 of its $800,000 goal which looks promising. Even if the high resolution aspect makes little sense, it is likely that the Pono music store will offer some great sounding digital music so the project will not be a complete dead loss.

That said, who is going to want Pono when a tiny music player, or just using your smartphone, is so much more convenient? Only a dedicated few. This, combined with the lack of any real technical breakthrough, means that Pono will likely stumble in the market, despite its good intentions.

Within the crazy audiophile world we are also going to hear voices saying, “you should have used DSD”, a alternative way of encoding high-resolution audio, as found in SACD disks.