Monthly Archives: January 2011

AVI preparing a successor to the ADM 9.1 – the floorstanding ADM 40

AVI is a small British hi-fi manufacturer who advocate active loudspeakers; its AVI 9.1 (recently lightly revised as the AVI 9T) is widely liked for its clean uncoloured sound and lack of clutter – all you need is a digital source. However the 9T lacks grunt and until now the recommended solution has been the companion subwoofer, which adds a substantial £800 to the cost. The 9T is £1125 so that is not far short of £2000 for the pair, making the value for money less impressive.

Now the company is preparing an all-in-one successor to the 9.1 – the floorstanding, 3-way active ADM 40. From what we know so far:

750 watt per-channel RMS amplification
3-way active crossover
8 inputs
Remote control

It will be possible to fine-tune the bass via the remote control; there will also be a companion iPhone app.

How much? According to AVI man Ashley James “under £3000 definitely, hopefully £2500”.

Hitherto AVI has been opposed to full-range loudspeakers, claiming that smaller two-way loudspeakers supplemented by a subwoofer is a better solution. Why the change of heart?

We don’t like typical three way lower crossovers because they are in the middle of the most music. Even  phase perfect ones are still reversing it and back again!!

However we’ve found that you get 95% of the intermod reduction by crossing over at 100 Hhz, a noticeable increase in clarity and dynamic range and the bass can be adjusted to suit rooms and program material, in this instance by remote, which isn’t possible with an old fashioned three way. And there’s an LFE input, so it’s a win win situation in a comparatively small speaker because we can use a Sub driver and not one for a three way.

says James.

On the face of it the ADM 40 will be better value than the ADM 9T plus subwoofer, as well as more convenient; one fewer box has to be a good thing. Then again, can AVI really deliver something as good as the 9T but with full range? The proof will be in the hearing.

There is a review of the ADM 9.1, similar to the 9T, here.

Update – oh dear:

We can’t get the performance from a floor stander and they cost disproportionately more for limited demand, so we’ve dropped the idea.

seems to be the latest news.

Surround sound 5.1 headphones–why and why not. Roccat Kave reviewed

There is something counter-intuitive about 5.1 headphones. Headphones just look so stereo. Can you really create the surround sound illusion with the speakers so close to the ears?

It turns out you can, or at least sufficiently so to make these Kave 5.1 headphones from Roccat a satisfying product. They are intended primarily as gaming headphones, which explains the attached microphone, though it could be handy for Skype calls and other such uses as well. Another common use is for movies, where surround sound adds to the drama and sense of immersion. They are not really intended for music; but I found them pretty good for that as well.

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What you get is a set of closed-back headphones with a relatively fat cable and an inline control box. The cable has four two-channel mini-jacks, one each for front pair, center and subwoofer, read pair, and microphone input, as well as a USB connector which supplies power and enables communication between the control box and the PC. You can flip open a panel on the control box to reveal channel sliders and to switch between “game” and “movies”.

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Installation is a matter of plugging the cables into your sound card and a USB port. You need a 5.1 sound card, since there is no decoder in the Kave. Another point of interest: the volume control and mute on the control box directly control the volume and mute on the PC, but the 5.1 balance controls operate on the signal after it is received from the sound care; at least, that is what I observed on my test system.

The plugs are colour-coded; I also found the Windows 7 5.1 configuration utility handy for checking that I had the connections right.

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There is a CD in the box but it does not contain any drivers as none is necessary. It does have a 5.1 demo video and a manual.

I tried the Kave with a variety of game, movie and music DVDs. In general I was impressed; but it is important to set expectations. I am a fan of Sennheiser headphones and use the high-end HD600 as well as a variety of cheaper sets. In comparison with the Sennheiser models the Kave is enjoyable but unrefined, and for listening in stereo a traditional set of headphones is probably what you want.

Equally, if you have a full home cinema setup and sit in the sweet spot with carefully-positioned loudspeakers and a proper sub, the Kave cannot compete favourably.

The point though is that such a setup is both expensive and often impractical; sometimes you need to listen privately or in another room.

In this context, and given a 5.1 mix, the Kave has real advantages, even for music. It is curious. I played with the sliders to compare the sound of the front and rear channels, and found that the positional difference is subtle and hard to detect. If you play a 5.1 mix with the Kave though, and then play the same downmixed to stereo, the sound is flat in comparison, in ways that even the purer hi-fi sound of something like the HD600 cannot altogether compensate for.

The benefit of true 5.1 sound is sometimes apparent in details that you can more easily hear, and sometimes a matter of a more three-dimensional sound.

The sub in the Kave is puny compared to a real one, but does add some grunt to games and movies. Confusingly, Rokkat also calls this a “Vibration unit” which lets them say that the Kave has “adjustable vibration” – all this means is that you can vary the level of the sub channel as you would expect. There is no additional vibration unit.

It is a compromise, and if possible you should try to hear the Kave in comparison with a high quality stereo set before making a decision; or ideally have both so that you can choose the best option for a particular title.

The Kave is on the heavy side but comfortable to wear. It has a blue neon light at the headphone end of the microphone stalk, and another which lights up when the microphone is muted; this is meant to look stylish and futuristic though will not appeal if your tastes are more towards the understated.

The Kave folds for convenience though it is hardly worth it as they are still somewhat bulky. The multiple connections and awkward control box make the Kave best suited for semi-permanent installation in a desktop PC, rather than something you would use on your travels.

Given its suitability for gaming, it is a shame that the Kave cannot be used easily with an Xbox 360 or PS3, though with adaptors you should be able to get it working, remote volume aside. It should work fine with a Mac though, if you have a suitable soundcard.

I do not mean to be negative. I was pleased with the Kave, which offers an excellent listening experience, recommended for games for movies and enjoyable for music as well.

Summary

Good points: Comfortable headphones that offer a taste of real 5.1 sound; well made and high quality.

Bad points: Multiple connections and floating control box can be inconvenient.

Summary: Real 5.1 sound headphones and most enjoyable, though less refined than stereo sets at a similar price level.

Spotify everywhere: now on Logitech Squeezebox as well as Sonos, Smartphones

Spotify, the music streaming service, has announced a partnership with Logitech to enable subscribers to play music via Squeezebox. Logitech already has a partnership with Napster for a similar service, but Spotify is winning in terms of usability, ubiquity and mind share.

It follows a similar agreement last September between Spotify and Sonos, a Squeezbox rival. The company has also announced support for Windows Phone 7, which joins Apple iPhone/iPad, Google Android, and Nokia Symbian among supported smartphones.

Spotify is available for free on a PC or Mac, but supported by advertising, making it like a commercial radio station where you choose the music. However only paying subscribers get the benefit of using the service from these other platforms.

In my view streaming is the future of mainstream music distribution, so I see this as significant. Why pay for downloads, when you can choose from a vast catalogue and play what you want when you want?

The main snag with Spotify is that some artists are not available on the service, and some countries (including the USA) cannot get Spotify. Still, if it builds a big enough customer base, the music industry may find it cannot do without the service.

Xbox Kinect has sold 8 million since launch, and is driving more controller-free features

At CES in Las Vegas today, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced that Microsoft has sold 8 million Kinect sensor devices since its launch late last year.

He also announced an AvatarKinect feature for Xbox Live subscribers, which enables your avatar to mimic your movements and expressions, and controller-free selection of movies from Netflix and Hulu as well as the Zune marketplace, using gestures and voice.

I got Kinect at launch and have mixed feelings about it. It has not had much use because the games we have so far are not particularly exciting.

The device itself is exciting though; and given its rapid adoption it seems reasonable to expect that the next batch of games will be more compelling.

The evidence is that the controller-free concept has caught people’s imagination. It has also done something important for the Xbox: rescued it from the niche of hardcore first-person shooters in which it was to some extent trapped.

2010 a bad year for UK music sales as CDs decline and paid-for downloads fail to compensate

The BPI has reported figures for 2010 music sales in the UK. In brief, digital (download) album sales increased from 16.1m to 21m (+4.9m); but CD sales declined from 112.5m to 98.5m (-14m).

To be fair, the “singles” market – that is, individual tracks downloaded – rose from 152.7m to 161.8m (+9.1m). If an album contains on average 12 tracks, that would be roughly equivalent to another 0.75m albums. CD single sales are tiny at 1.9m.

Overall it is still a significant decline. What is most worrying for the industry is that CD sales still dominate – there were 4.5 times as many CD albums sold as digital. Anyone can see that the CD market is in severe decline. Shops that stock back-catalogue in depth have disappeared from many high streets, leaving this market to online retailers like Amazon.

The BPI says piracy is the core problem:

Despite unprecedented demand for music, and strong innovation offering consumers new ways to access music online, legal downloads are unable to offset the decline in CD sales because they are dwarfed by illegal competition.

While this may be true up to a point, another way of looking at it is that technology is making the old purchase model for music obsolete. Digital music is so easy to acquire and share that it is hard to persuade people to pay per-track or per-album. It is also a rather poor deal for the purchaser, in that they get no resale rights or tangible goods.

The BPI does not mention it; but another thing I see frequently is where someone buys a CD, rips it to their hard drive, and then sells the CD on. This also costs the industry a sale.

Old-style piracy is a problem too. The market for Beatles Remasters box sets was badly damaged by far east copies, available in bulk for a fraction of the price. There is no easy way for a customer buying online to know whether or not they are getting the real thing.

Instead, the business model that makes sense is a subscription like that offered by Spotify. There is no pretence that users own the music they listen to: rather, they play what they like where they like, choosing from a vast online catalogue.

Apple seems resistant to the idea though, which is understandable since it does so well with its existing iTunes store. And even if subscriptions do catch on, there is no guarantee that the revenue will equal that of the old days of the CD.

Those days will never return though; and the industry should get behind the streaming model as it is so good for their customers. It also has the advantage that they keep paying, whereas people tend to stop buying music once they feel they have enough.

See also: Mark Mulligan’s post about the death of physical media products.