Category Archives: retro

Ripping vinyl with the Plato home entertainment system

I am a tad conflicted when it comes to vinyl records. On the one hand, I have not seen convincing scientific evidence, or a properly conducted blind test, that demonstrates any reason why record replay is superior to digital, while there is plenty of evidence for the reverse. On the other hand, I put on a well-mastered record, and it is like magic, I am transported into the music in a way that my digital sources rarely achieve. Plus the sleeves are beautiful, and in the case of older recordings, a sense that this is the real thing and subsequent formats mere copies (even if they do sound better). Finally, sometimes missing or damaged master tapes, or the bad habits of the recording industry in compressing CD audio so that it is uniformly LOUD, mean that records sometimes really do sound better, despite the limitations of the format.

If you like the sound of records but the convenience and security against damage that digital offers, you might want to rip them. I have done this but would not describe it as easy. You have to play the record in the closest to ideal conditions you can manage – clean record, no dust accumulated on the stylus, high quality turntable and phono stage – while also recording the output through an analogue to digital converter (ADC). Then when done, you have to break the result into separate tracks and tag it correctly. There is software to assist this whole process, like Channel D’s Pure Vinyl, but it is never that quick and easy. There is also the question of how much to tinker with the results in the hope of improving it, via click removal and the like. Personally I tend to the view that most things risk making the sound worse, but there is certainly a case for it, especially with particularly intrusive scratches.

Last week I went to a demo of Plato, a system for ripping vinyl combined with an all-in-one home media playback solution. It comes from the Derby-based company Convert Technologies, formerly known as Entotem. The company has also launched the Red Dot recording service, through which you can get them to rip vinyl or even CDs on your behalf.

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The company showed me its top of the range unit, which is an all-in-one box for storing digital media as well as playing it, and includes a power amplifier which delivers, they say, 25W Class A amplification or 50W Class B. The idea of Class A/B amplification is not new so I am not sure whether there is any secret sauce in the Plato design; however the company also offers a Class B version at a considerably lower price.

The system runs Android customised for the purpose, with a touch screen. There is also a controller app which works best on Android but is also available for Apple iOS with “approx 70% of the functionality”. It includes an ESS Sabre 32 DAC and ADC. Inside is a beefy toroidal tranformer powering the various boards. Around the back is a generous set of inputs and outputs, including MM/MC phono input, 3 additional line inputs, 1 coax and 3 optical digital inputs, 2 optical digital outputs, 1 HDMI output, and 3 USB 2.0 ports.

The digital format can be set up to 24-bit/192 kHz.

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You can pay extra for SSD storage which is pretty pointless from a technical point of view (SSD is much faster, but a conventional hard drive easily fast enough for audio recordign and playback) but would lower the noise level slightly, though the fan is likely to be louder in any case.

Having all the controls functions driven by software enables plenty of features. You can change the phono input from moving coil to moving magnet, vary the capacitance and resistance,  and apply a rumble filter, for example.

Ripping vinyl is a matter of pressing a red button (hence the name of the ripping service). When the audio is played, there is an analogue chain for listening, I was told, but also a “parallel digital path” which captures a sample of the audio and sends it to Gracenote, an online tagging service, for recognition. If you are lucky, you will get the metadata and album artwork automatically retrieved. The system will also separate the tracks for you, taking most of the drudgery out of the ripping process. 

The system does not attempt any click or noise reduction. “We have looked at it, because we write all the software, but most people said ‘don’t do it’,” said Pete Eason, Customer Experience Manager. “It’s not a priority”.

You can export the files to USB storage, so you could do your own additional processing if you wanted. However there is an annoyance: the agreement with Gracenote prohibits the export of the album art. So if you export your files for playback on a phone, for example, you don’t get the art. That’s irritating and there is talk of switching to another metadata supplier to fix it.

The system will stream music from attached USB storage, or over the network using UPnP. I am not a fan of UPnP because it seems less amenable to search, and less reliable, than other systems such as Logitech Media Server, but it should work OK. Internet radio is also provided, via the TuneIn service.

However you cannot access Plato’s storage directly over the network. This makes me wonder if Plato’s engineers would have been better off using Linux rather than Android for their embedded OS, as that would make this trivial to implement.

There is no support for Spotify Connect, which is a shame. You can of course stream to the unit from a phone or laptop using a device such as Google ChromeCast but that is not the same thing, since the quality and consistency of the signal is limited by your phone.

The Red Dot ripping service sounds good for those with plenty of money and little time, especially as it includes a cleaning service, but it is expensive at £10.00 per album and a minimum quantity of 25. Note you could buy the CD for less in many cases.

There is also a limitation in terms of the playback equipment used. It would be too expensive to use a true high-end cartridge and stylus. Red Dot uses “a really decent Pro-Ject Debut Carbon turntable and Ortofon stylus,” according to the FAQ, though they talked about other possible turntables, but always mid-range. That may not equal the equipment you have at home.

I got to ask some awkward questions. Why would anyone want to rip their vinyl, when with Spotify or Apple Music you could just play it from internet?

“There’s a quality issue there,” said marketing guy Ben Timberley. Eason added, “and also you can backup your vinyl. It’s always going to be a pristine original.”

Well, it will not always be a pristine original, but it will always be the same as when it was ripped.

I asked a hypothetical question. Let’s say I submit my rather beaten-up copy of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, and as it happens Red Dot had just ripped someone else’s pristine copy of exactly the same album. Would they rip my scratched copy, or simply give me their existing rip? I would get my crackly one back, I was told. The other copy “belongs to someone else. We are sticking firmly on the side of the law on this one.”

I am not personally convinced that the law is so clear-cut. My records all say “unauthorised … copying of this record prohibited” and “all rights reserved”. On the one hand, there is the question of whether even personal format conversion of a record is strictly legal (though I cannot imagine anyone being pursued for it). On the other hand, since the record represents a personal license to enjoy that particular recording, I am not sure that whether you get back a copy of your record or someone else’s makes any difference.

Red Dot also offers to rip CDs, and here the argument seems even more ridiculous. Since ripping a CD with identical mastering results in an identical file, it would be absurd to re-rip when you already have the file in question. Are LPs any different, even though the imperfections of the format mean that every rip will vary slightly?

Next question: is there a paradox at the heart of this operation, which is that people who love records believe that the analogue chain sounds better than digital, so they are unlikely to want a digital copy? And if they do, why not just buy the digital version?

I got a somewhat garbled response. “That’s one argument but then this is essentially lossless, isn’t it?” said Eason. “You’re getting all the pops, the clicks, the whistles.”

“We’ve got the best DAC in the industry, which is the Sabre DAC,” added Timberley. “If you are going to convert it we’ve got the best piece of kit to do it.” Though I think he meant ADC rather than DAC.

I also suggested that retailers might prefer to buy their own Plato and offer a ripping service, rather than resell Red Dot. Dealers are “too busy” said Timberley, though they might look a a licensing restriction if it became an issue.

What I think

This is not a review and I have not had a chance to try this at home. If you seriously want to rip your vinyl (and I do think there could be good reasons, as I stated above, though hearing pristine pops and clicks is not one of them), then Plato looks like a convenient though expensive choice.

As an all-in-one hi-fi (just add speakers) Plato might also be good, though it looks expensive compared to, say, a NAS, a Raspberry Pi with a DAC, and a decent amplifier. It is hard to value these things without trying them out though.

In the end though, my instinct is that the best way to play records is to play records. I haven’t found record wear much of a problem, especially when you have a large collection.

So I am not sure that Plato is for me, though it does look nice and easy to use.

Table of recommended retail prices (including VAT)

  Vinyl ripping Phono Stage Pre Amp Power Amp
Class B
Power Amp
Class A
Price with
1TB HDD
Price with
2TB HDD
Price with
1TB SSD
Plato Lite Yes (with external
Phono stage)
No Yes No No £1899 £1999 £2539
Plato Pre Yes Yes Yes No No   £2400 £2940
Plato
Class B
Yes Yes Yes Yes No   £2999 £3539
Plato Class A Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes   £3999 £4539

Fun with amplifiers: classic Naim versus modern Yamaha integrated

Every year in an English country hotel near Melton Mowbray a strange but endearing event takes place.

Called variously the HiFi Wigwam Show (after the forum that runs it) or the Scalford HiFi Show (after the hotel where it takes place), this is a show where most of the exhibitors are enthusiasts rather than dealers, and the kit on show includes much that is old, unavailable or home-made – like these stacked Quad 57s from the Sixties.

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I turned up at Scalford with a simple experiment in mind. Take a classic pre-power amplifier from thirty years ago and compare it to a modern, budget, integrated amplifier. What kind of differences will be heard?

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The classic amplifier is a Naim 32.5 preamp powered by a Hi-Cap power supply, and a 250 power amplifier. Price back in 1984 in the region of £3500. The Naim was serviced around five years ago to replace old or failing electrolytic and tantalum capacitors.

The integrated is a Yamaha AS500 80w+80w amplifier currently on sale for around £230.

The source is a Logitech Media Server (Squeezebox Server) with a Squeezebox Touch modified to work with high resolution audio up to 24/192, and a Teac UD-H01 DAC. Speakers were Quad 11L, occasionally substituted with Linn Kans for a traditional Linn/Naim combination. A BK Electronics sub-woofer was on at a low level to supplement the bass.

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A QED MA19 switchbox was used to switch instantly between the two amplifiers. Naim NAC A4 cable was used throughout.

Disclaimer: this was not intended as a scientific investigation. Level matching was done by ear, and there were several aspects of the setup that were sub-optimal. The system was in a small hotel bedroom (as you can see by the headrest which forms the backdrop to the system) and thrown together quickly.

Still, the Naim amplifier is both highly regarded by many audiophiles, and also considered somewhat coloured, this failing more than mitigated by its pace and drive. The Yamaha won awards as a good budget amplifier but is not really anything special; however it has the benefit of modern electronics. These two amplifiers are very different both in age and (you would think) character.

A benefit of the setup was that both amplifiers were always on. Unless you knew the position of the switches and how they were wired, you could not tell which was playing. It was irresistible; when visitors asked which was playing I switched between them and said, you tell me.

Again, this was not science, and I have no tally of the results. Some visitors confidently identified the Naim and were correct, and an approximately equal number were incorrect. Some said they simply could not hear a difference, and two or three times I had to prove that the switchbox was working by twiddling the controls. A small boy who probably had the best hearing of all the visitors declared that there was no difference.

Note that I did reveal the identity of the amplifiers at regular intervals, so listeners typically listened sighted after listening blind.

Of those who expressed a preference, the Yamaha and Naim were each preferred equally often. Some said the Yamaha was slightly brighter (I agree with this).

There were two or three who expressed a strong preference for the Naim, but the consensus view was that the amplifiers sounded more alike than had been expected.

The sound was also pretty good. “I would be happy with either” was a common remark. I would have preferred to use high-end speakers, but the Quads proved delightfully transparent. Most visitors who heard both preferred the Quads to the Kans, which sounded thin and boxy in comparison, though I do wonder if after thirty years the crossover electronics in the Kans may need attention. It was easy to hear the difference between high quality and low quality sources. I used some of the high-resolution files which Linn kindly gave away as samples for Christmas 2013, along with other material.

A few reactions:

Tony L: The most amusing room for me was the Naim 32.5 / HiCap / 250 blind-test vs. the Yamaha AS500. That was great fun, and yes, I picked the AS500 as better. Twice. As did another ex-32.5/Hicap/250 owning friend. Ok it was through a nice easy to drive pair of Quad 11Ls, but you’d be amazed by how close they sounded!

YNWOAN: I heard the Yamaha/Naim demo and had no difficulty hearing a difference between the two with the Yamaha sounding rather ‘thin’ – even at the low levels used.

Pete the Feet: How cruel can a man be? Pitching a recently serviced Naim 32.5, Hicap and NAP250 against a paltry Yamaha £250 integrated. Not much difference but the Yamaha had the edge.

Some felt that the Naim was compromised by the stacking of the power supply and pre-amp on the power amp. There was no hum and I am sceptical of the difference moving them apart, or using acoustic tables, might have made; but of course it is possible. Another interesting thing to test would be the impact of the switchbox itself, though again I would be surprised if this is significant.

How much should you spend on an amplifier? Should all competent amplifiers sound the same? These are questions that interest me. I set up this experiment with no particular expectations, but the experience does make me wonder whether we worry too much about amplification, given that other parts of the audio chain introduce far more distortion (particularly transducers: microphones and loudspeakers).

A more rigorous experiment than mine came to similar conclusions:

How can it be possible that a basic system with such a price difference against the  reference” one, poorly placed, using the cheapest signal cables found, couldn’t be distinguished from the more expensive one?

And, most of it all, how come the cheap system was chosen by so many people as the best sounding of the two?

Shouldn’t the differences be so evident that it’d be a child’s game to pick the best?

Well, we think that each can reach to its own conclusion…

One further comment though. I love that Naim amplifier, and do not personally find something like the AS500 a satisfactory replacement, despite the convenience of a remote control. Is it just that the classic retro looks, high quality workmanship and solid construction convince my brain into hearing more convincing music reproduction, provided I know that it is playing? Or are there audio subtleties that cannot easily be recognised by quick switching?

Unfortunately the audio industry has such fear of blind testing that these questions are not investigated as often or as thoroughly as some of us would like.

Getting Windows 3.1 connected to the internet (in DOSBox of course)

What if, for historical reasons, you wanted to test early Windows internet software?

You would do well to run up DOSBox. Better still, the Megabuild version which includes an emulated NE2000 network card.

Then you install DOS and Windows 3.x. Not too difficult if you can find copies of the software.

What next? This is where I wasted a certain amount of time. I found this information:

Run ne2000.com 0×65 3 0×300 and winpkt 0×65 before starting Windows

I found ne2000.com from the above link, but where was winpkt? Eventually I found it in many-other-drivers.zip on crynwr.com.

I still was not up and running. Then it dawned on me that I needed WinPcap on the host PC for the NE2000 emulation to work.

Next, I took a look at the DOSBox configuration file, which for this build is dosbox-SVN_MB6.conf. Nothing will work until you edit this file, since you need to specify which real NIC DOSBox should use. By default it is set to “list”, which means you get a list of candidates when you start up DOSBox.

I use Windows 8 with Hyper-V virtual networking installed, which complicates matters. It was not obvious which NIC to use, since three of mine are distinguished in the list only by GUIDs. I got it right on the second attempt.

Now I was getting somewhere. I had already added the driver initialisation into autoexec.bat. I installed Trumpet winsock which is still for sale though you get 30 days trial.  You just have to configure it. No DHCP but not too difficult:

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Note that the values here are examples; yours will be different.

IP address: a valid, unused IP address on your internal network

DNS server: the same as used by the host PC

Domain suffix: optional, your internal domain

Vector: this must match the first argument you gave to ne2000.com, without the 0x

Netmask: same as you use on the host PC

Gateway: same as you use on the host PC

The other values I left at the default. Then you can try a ping to check that it works:

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Happy retro computing!

USB flash drives: a modern design canvas

USB flash drives were invented around 12 years ago. They soon became commonplace, so designers differentiate with creative designs. I have a drawer full of them and have picked out some that caught my eye.

I like the understated elegance of this Adobe stick.

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though for elegance perhaps this Kingston is the winner. Paperclip included so you get the scale:

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This Huawei stick pays homage to Rubik’s Cube:

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This Google man is a favourite:

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though for the full effect you have to plug him in:

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The designer of this Asus stick plays on the fact that they are sometimes called USB keys:

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This one from Supertooth is a fake music player or something:

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Marley goes for the natural wood effect of course:

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Finally a reminder of where we started. I am not sure of the date of this stick but I have not attended a Borland event for many years:

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It has an LED that lights when plugged in. But the real shocker is the size, shown on the back along with a rather obscure warning:

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Still, bearing in mind that a floppy disk was not normally bigger than 1.44MB, 16MB is not to be sniffed at.

I also suggest that the era of USB flash drives will soon pass. Apple does not support USB storage in iOS, other than to a limited extent for cameras, and just as CDs gave way to USB drives, the USB devices will be replaced by wireless transfer, either locally or via the internet. Some press releases now arrive with links to Dropbox folders. How sensible.

My tribute to Jack Tramiel, Commodore PET and the Atari ST

Jack (or Jacek) Tramiel has died at the age of 83. He was born in Poland, survived Auschwitz, and emigrated to the USA in 1947. He founded a typewriter import company called Commodore Business Machines, which transitioned into digital calculators and then a computer called the Commodore PET.

This was my first computer, which I acquired second hand.

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I had an external disk drive that was almost as large as the computer itself. There was a word processor called WordCraft that was rather good, though you could only fit a page of A4 into the 32K of RAM. A spreadsheet called VisiCalc that was excellent. And a database manager whose name I forget that was terrible.

The great thing about the PET was that you had to program it. BASIC was in ROM, and in essence when the computer started up it said to you “write some code.”

You could also get a book called The Pet Revealed which indexed every address and what it did. This was a computer you could actually understand.

Tramiel left Commodore in 1984, after a triumph with the bestselling Commodore 64. He acquired the video game company Atari from Warner Communications. In 1985 Atari released a 16-bit computer called the Atari ST, based on the Motorola 68000 CPU.

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Picture © Bill Bertram, 2006

The Atari ST was my second computer. At the time, the choice was between the Atari ST, the Commodore Amiga, the Apple Macintosh, or a PC.  The Mac was too expensive, and the PC was both expensive and looked out-of-date with its character-based user interface. The ST (or “Jackintosh”) won over the Amiga for my purposes (mainly word processing) thanks to its excellent high-resolution 640 x 400 mono monitor and low price. I was sold.

The ST proved a great choice. There were many superb applications, and ones which come to mind are Protext, Signum, Superbase, Notator, Calamus, Logistix, Degas, Neodesk; and for gaming Dungeon Master, Populous, Falcon and more. I still have it in the loft though I really should find a better home for it.

The ST was also well supported for programming. I used mainly GFA Basic and HiSoft C. There was also an innovative game creator called STOS.

Admittedly there was a touch of “held together with string and glue” about the ST which I suspect was to do with Tramiel’s personality and desire to prioritise bringing value to the mass market. That said, my 1040STE in the loft still works so I cannot complain.

I learned a lot and achieved a lot with Tramiel’s computers. Thank you Jack Tramiel.

A Lego Christmas Tree at St Pancras Station, London

I was passing through St Pancras station today and noticed a Lego Christmas tree. From a distance it does not really look like Lego:

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As you get closer, the construction is more noticeable:

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and if you look inside it, the tree illusion disappears and it just looks like a curious Lego construction in green and brown. Someone put a lot of work into this.

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Update: according to this article it is “the world’s largest Lego Christmas tree”, contains 600,000 bricks and 172 branches, and took two months to complete. Thanks to Peter Ibbotson for the link (see comment).

Why I miss pinball machines

I’m just back from Microsoft’s BUILD conference in Anaheim, California, where I had little time to do much other than attend sessions, write, eat and sleep (a little).

I did have a quick look round the exhibition though, and was pleased to find four pinball machines. Unfortunately I never got a go, except on one that proved to be slightly broken. Another was so broken that it was switched off.

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That’s one of the reasons you don’t see many pinball machines these days. They are high-maintenance, with many moving parts that get pounded constantly by one or more heavy silver balls, plus the occasional thump from the player as he bangs or shifts the machine just enough to affect the ball’s motion without causing, he hopes, a tilt.

Another reason for the game’s decline is that a good player can play for ages on a single quarter – or 50c, which seems to be the going rate now. It is a game of skill where accurate shooting gets you both long games and frequent extra balls and replays.

Neither of these characteristics is good for arcades, which like high income and low maintenance.

I love the game though. It offers tactile, physical pleasure that will never be captured by video simulations. The machines themselves are pure delight, every one different, often with gorgeous artwork and amazing gameplay with loops and tunnels and mini-play areas and fantastic contraptions that enable themselves if you get the right sequence of targets.

Most latter-day machines have a multi-ball mode, which is a lot of fun and surprisingly difficult. Watching several balls at once is a great deal harder than keeping your eye on just one.

I am not sure that pinball machines are made any more, though enthusiasts seem to be able to keep the old ones going. Sadly a lot of the machines you encounter in dusty corners of cafés and arcades are not in good order, the bumpers do not bump as they should, some features do not quite work, and they are disappointing.

The best one at BUILD was called Pirates of the Caribbean and seemed pretty good, though I never got a game.

Most of the time I have to make do with computer simulations. The best I have come across are the Pro Pinball series for the PC (don’t get the Xbox version which is a poor port). I was on a forum once with one of the developers, who explained how he hated scrolling on pinball simulations. I agree – how you can shoot accurately with the play area is scrolling all time? There is also an amazing open source project which lets you load actual machine ROMs for authentic simulation, though this is of uncertain legality.

I am more interested in simulations than pinball-ish games that you could never build. One of the great features of Pro Pinball is that you can go into a maintenance mode and tune it as you would a real machine.

Unfortunately none of these are anything like as much fun as the real thing, though they do save on quarters or your local equivalent.

Fixing Age of Empires 2 graphics in Windows 7

Age of Empires 2 is one of my favourite games, especially multi-player. Age of Empires 3 was better in some ways, worse in others; somehow it is not as much fun. One of the problems with version three is that the scenarios are more constrained; and the introduction of home cities and colonies changes the game in a radical and not altogether welcome manner.

The good news is that Age of Empires 2, also known as Age of Kings or with the expansion pack Age of Conquerors, still runs on Windows 7 – impressive for a game that was released ten years ago. The bad news is that the graphics are messed up. Here is how it looks:

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It’s playable, but that purple-stained sea and mottled grass is just not how it should be.

Fortunately there is a fix, and you can get Age of Empires 2 looking like this instead:

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The fix? Terminate the Explorer process. Here’s what you do:

1. Run Age of Empires 2
2. Press Ctrl-Alt-Delete and click Start Task Manager
3. Click the Processes tab, find explorer.exe, select and click End Process
4. Switch back to Age of Empires 2 with Alt-Tab

Presto! the graphics now work.

Once you are done playing, exit Age of Empires. If Task Manager is no longer running, press Ctrl-Alt-Delete to get it back. Then click Applications, New Task, and type Explorer in the dialog. Click OK and your taskbar and desktop will return.

The only remaining question: why does this work?

Note: kudos to TechSmith Snagit which was able to capture the screens successfully; the first two capture utilities I tried could not do so. I had to set DirectX as the input type and use a timed capture.