Monthly Archives: September 2013

Dear audio industry, fix mastering before bothering with high resolution

The audiophile world (small niche though it is) is buzzing with a renewed interest in high resolution audio, now to be known as HRA.

See, for example, Why the Time is Right for High-Res Audio, or Sony’s new Hi-Res USB DAC System for PC Audio, or Gramophone on At last high-resolution audio is about to go mainstream, or Mark Fleischmann on CD Quality Is Not High-Res Audio:

True HRA is not a subtle improvement. With the best software and hardware, a good recording, and good listening conditions, it is about as subtle as being whacked with a mallet, and I mean that in a good way. It is an eye opener. In lieu of “is that all there is?” you think “wow, listen to what I’ve been missing!” … The Compact Disc format is many good things but high-res it is not. It has a bit depth of 16 and a sampling rate of 44.1 kHz. In other words, it processes a string of 16 zeroes and ones 44,100 times per second. Digitally speaking, this is a case of arrested development dating back to the early 1980s. We can do better now.

As an audio enthusiast, I would love this to be true. But it is not. Fleischmann appears to be ignorant of the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem, which suggests that the 16-bit/44.1 kHz CD format can exactly reproduce an analogue sound wave from 20–22,050 Hz and with a dynamic range (difference between quietest and loudest signal) of better than 90Db.

Yes there are some ifs and buts, and if CD had been invented today it would probably have used a higher resolution of say 24-bit/96 Khz which gives more headroom and opportunity for processing the sound without degradation; but nevertheless, CD is more than good enough for human hearing. Anyone who draws graphs of stair steps, or compares CD audio vs HRA to VHS or DVD vs Blu-Ray, is being seriously misleading.

Yes, Sony, you are a disgrace. What is this chart meant to show?

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If shows that DACs output a bumpy signal it is simply false. If it purports to show that high-res reproduces an analogue original more accurately within the normal audible range of 20-20,000 Hz it is false too.

As an aside, what non-technical reader would guess that those huge stair steps for “CD” are 1/44,100th of a second apart?

The Meyer-Moran test, in which a high-res original was converted to CD quality and then compared with the original under blind conditions (nobody could reliably tell the difference), has never been debunked, nor has anyone conducted a similar experiment with different results as far as I am aware.

You can also conduct your own experiments, as I have. Download some samples from SoundKeeper Recordings or Linn. Take the highest resolution version, and convert it to CD format. Then upsample the CD quality version back to the high-resolution format. You now have two high-res files, but one is no better than CD quality. Can you hear the difference? I’ve yet to find someone who can.

Read this article on 24/192 Music Downloads … and why they make no sense and watch the referenced video for more on this subject.

Still, audio is a mysterious thing, and maybe in the right conditions, with the right equipment, there is some slight difference or improvement.

What I am sure of, is that it will be nowhere near as great as the improvement we could get if CDs were sensibly mastered. Thanks to the loudness wars, few CDs come close to the audio quality of which they are capable. Here is a track for a CD from the 80s which sounds wonderful, Tracy Chapman’s debut, viewed as a waveform in Adobe Audition:

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And here is a track from Elton John’s latest, The Diving Board:

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This everything louder than everything else effect means that the sound is more fatiguing and yes, lower fidelity, than it should be; and The Diving Board is far from the worst example (in fact, it is fairly good by today’s standards).

It is not really the fault of recording engineers. In many cases they hate it too. Rather, it is the dread of artists and labels that their sales may suffer if a recording is quieter (when the volume control is at the same level) than someone else’s.

Credit to Apple which is addressing this to some extent with its Mastered for iTunes initiative:

Many artists and producers feel that louder is better. The trend for louder music has resulted in both ardent fans of high volumes and backlash from audiophiles, a
controversy known as “the loudness wars.” This is solely an issue with music. Movies, for example, have very detailed standards for the final mastering volume of a film’s
soundtrack. The music world doesn’t have any such standard, and in recent years the de facto process has been to make masters as loud as possible. While some feel that overly
loud mastering ruins music by not giving it room to breathe, others feel that the aesthetic of loudness can be an appropriate artistic choice for particular songs or
albums.

Analog masters traditionally have volume levels set as high as possible, just shy of oversaturation, to improve the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). With digital masters, the goal
is to achieve the highest gain possible without losing information about the original file due to clipping.

With digital files, there’s a limit to how loud you can make a track: 0dBFS. Trying to increase a track’s overall loudness beyond this point results in distortion caused by
clipping and a loss in dynamic range. The quietest parts of a song increase in volume, yet the louder parts don’t gain loudness due to the upper limits of the digital format.
Although iTunes doesn’t reject files for a specific number of clips, tracks which have audible clipping will not be badged or marketed as Mastered for iTunes.

Back to my original point: what is the point of messing around with the doubtful benefits of HRA, if the obvious and easily audible problem of excessive dynamic compression is not addressed first?

None at all. The audio industry should stop trying to mislead its customers by appealing to the human instinct that bigger numbers must mean better sound, and instead get behind some standards for digital music that will improve the sound we get from all formats.

Fixing a slow Lenovo laptop

Here is a problem I’ve not seen before. A Lenovo Thinkpad E530 laptop running Windows 7, which after working fine for months developed a critical problem. On start up the user would see the network icon in the notification area (bottom right) show a busy icon or a red cross. No network connectivity, and the machine almost unusable.

After around 20 to 25 minutes the network sprang into life and everything was fine, until the next reboot when the problem repeated.

I fixed several errors in the event log to no avail. The problem persisted.

Went into msconfig and did the usual trick of disabling all non-Microsoft services and startup items. Everything worked fine. Laptop booted quickly and connected to the network.

What was the culprit? Trial, error and instinct eventually narrowed it down to an Intel service: Bluetooth Device Monitor. If enabled, 25 minute boot. If disabled, two minute boot.

I updated the Intel Bluetooth driver, a substantial 300MB download. This fixed it. I noticed that the updated Bluetooth Device Monitor now says it is from Motorola:

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I understand it was always provided by Motorola but previously signed by Intel.

Posted here in case others run into this issue.

Update: this seems to be a common problem. It seems that a recent Microsoft update is incompatible with some versions of the Bluetooth driver. See here for discussion on the HP support forums, where it has occurred with the HP Probook 4540s and others.

As noted in the comments, I used Lenovo’s system update utility to grab the more recent “Motorola” driver. It shows there as an optional update.

Fix screen dimming unexpectedly in Windows 8

Symptom: you are working away on your laptop or tablet, and suddenly the screen dims. Moments later, it brightens. Annoying and distracting.

The reason is the ambient light sensor. Someone thought it would be smart if the brightness of the screen varied according to the level of ambient light. If the room is more dimly lit, your screen does not need to be so bright. Microsoft’s Surface Pro, for example, has this enabled by default.

The idea is reasonable, but the implementation is lacking. Instead of the brightness gradually varying so you do not notice it, it dims and brightens like a mad thing.

You can fix this in Windows 8 through the power options – no it is not in display options so don’t bother looking there.

If you have a battery/mains icon in the notification area in the task bar, you can right-click and choose Power Options. Otherwise, open Control Panel (desktop version), and search for Power options.

Now click Change plan settings for the currently selected power plan.

Then click Change advanced plan settings.

Now scroll down to Display and expand the tree.

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The setting you want is Enable adaptive brightness. You can set this separately for mains and battery power. It does slightly extend battery life, so you might want to leave it On for battery and Off for when plugged in.

Then click Apply and close the dialog.

Samsung takes over Times Square, New York City, for Galaxy Note 3

Samsung is launching the next Galaxy Note, its stylus-equipped phablet, at IFA in Berlin and Times Square, New York City.

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I am here for another event but who knows, might get a sneak look at the new Galaxy later.

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I am not keen on styluses but do like the idea of a converged device that does phone, tablet and notebook-like productivity all in one.

A great big phone: Samsung Galaxy Mega review

How big can a phone go? Samsung seems to be testing the limits with the 6.3″ Samsung Galaxy Mega. How big is that? Here it is laid over a paperback book:

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In fact, open the book, and the Galaxy Mega proves to be almost exactly the size of the printed area on the page, suggesting that this would make an excellent e-reader. I installed Amazon Kindle and so it does, though the screen is a little too glossy and the battery life too short for perfection.

Hold it to your ear though, and the Mega is big enough to feel faintly ridiculous, outside of places like San Francisco where daft-looking gadgets are the norm. That said, it is slim and smooth in the hands – maybe a bit too silky, it would be easy for it to slip out of your hands – so carries its bulk with good grace.

If you are constantly on the phone, and do not use a headset, the Mega is unlikely to be for you. Still, for many of us voice calls are a long way down the list of reasons for carrying a smartphone. Internet, games, email, text messaging and photography may well be higher.

What about writing and spreadsheeting? I got out my favourite Logitech Bluetooth keyboard, installed OfficeSuite Pro from Mobile Systems Inc, and started to type.

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I can get real work done on this; but I am unlikely to choose to do so. In fact, the screen size is not the problem. There are other issues. One is that the Galaxy Mega should be supplied with a prop-up cover or stand, since for functions like word processing with a keyboard, or watching YouTube or BBC iPlayer, it is best stood up on its side. Another is that the Android OS and its applications seem primarily designed for touch. The on-screen keyboard seems to pop-up even when not required, though ESC usually dismisses it, and getting at the formatting controls is just a bit awkward.

I also found that I could easily out-type OfficeSuite Pro on the Mega. I thought this might be an OS issue, but Infraware’s Polaris Office (which comes free for download with the Mega) is better in this respect, though less good overall than OfficeSuite Pro.

As a productivity device then, the Mega is not quite there and I will still want to take a Surface RT or some other suitable device on the road. It does work though, which has some appeal, and note that these Office suites also work well as viewers for Microsoft Office formats.

The hardware

Open the box, and you will see that, other than size, there is little else notable. Mine came with a 4GB SD card included.

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The device feels solid and well-made. The audio and headset jack is on the top edge, volume rocker on the left, and power on the right. On the front, at the base, is the home button. There are also soft buttons to its right and left for Menu and Back. These are backlit, but the backlight is usually off, which means you have to remind yourself at first that they really are there. I am not sure why Samsung does not put a little etching to indicate their presence.

The screen is great, though I would prefer less gloss, but it is bright and responsive so no real complaint.

The camera is decent but unspectacular. Good enough that most users will be happy, but not good enough to attract photo enthusiasts.

Battery life is decent, though not outstanding. 24 hours of normal usage will be fine, but over two days you will likely need a charge.

One thing worth emphasising: the Galaxy Mega may be bigger than the S4, but it is less powerful. The S4 has a quad-core 1.9GHz chipset, 13MP rear camera, 16GB memory, 1920×1080 resolution, and so it goes on. You are going to buy the Mega over the S4 for only two reasons: price, or because you really want that big screen.

Software

The Galaxy Mega runs Android 4.2 Jelly Bean with Samsung’s TouchWiz interface. I doubt anyone will have trouble with basic navigation, but it fails to delight.

One of its notable features is called Multi-Window. This runs as a pull-out application launcher, by default docked to the left of the screen. Here is the tab, which annoyingly obscures some text:

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and here it is pulled out:

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If you perform the right gestures with the right apps (not all of them work) you can get two apps running side by side by pulling them out from the bar:

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The vertical bar lets you resize the apps freely.

I think this whole thing is a mistake. While having two apps to view seems useful, even the Mega’s screen is not large enough to make it work with desktop-style convenience, and Android apps are designed for full-screen use. Nor do I like the bar as an alternative app launcher; it is unnecessary and gets in the way. This is another example of an OEM trying to improve an OS and making it worse. It is not too bad though, as you can easily disable it (drag down from the top and tap Multi-Window so it fades).

Incidentally, I had trouble getting a screenshot of the multi-window bar. The normal approach failed as touching any button makes it retreat. I used the deprecated DDMS in the ADK (Android Developer Kit). This required finding the Developer Options on the device. Bizarrely, you enable Developer Options by repeatedly tapping Build number in About Device. Odd.

Samsung store and apps

In its effort to make its devices distinct from other Android devices, Samsung is building its own ecosystem, including the Samsung app store which is prominent in the default configuration.

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What is the value for the user in this, given that the official Google Play store is also available? None, other than that it is good that Google has some competition. That said, this is where you can get Polaris Office for free, which is worth having.

Similar examples of duplication versus Google’s ecosystem are evident elsewhere, for example Samsung’s ChatOn versus Google Talk (now Google+ Hangout), though ChatOn does not do voice or video; and Samsung cloud backup versus Google’s cloud backup. For example, photo backup to Samsung’s cloud (once you register) is on by default; but this feature is also available in Google+, for Google’s cloud.

Overall this is confusing for the user and I am not sure how this game ends. It contributes to a sense that Android remains messy and disorganised versus Apple iOS or even Windows Phone, though in compensation it has wonderful functionality.

Samsung Air View is an attempt to bring the benefits of mouse hover to a touch interface by detecting the finger over the screen. For example, you can preview an email message.

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Plenty of potential here; though I found it unreliable. I still have not got magnification in web pages to work, despite turning this on in settings.

WatchOn lets you control your TV via an app that shows what is on. This worked for me though it feels like solving a problem I do not have.

The Music app isupports DLNA; but while it detected my Logitech Media Server I had trouble playing anything without stuttering.

Summary

There is a lot packed into the Mega and I have not done it justice above, but picked out some highlights. It is highly capable; but I hesitate to recommend it unless the combination of a large screen and a smartphone is perfect for you; if you do lots of web browsing, email and YouTube, but not many phone calls, or if your eyesight is such that having everything a bit larger is an advantage, it could be just the thing.

The disappointment is that Samsung has not made more sense of the large screen. The Multi-Window feature is not good, and in the end it just feels like a big phone. The fact that its spec is well behind that of the Galaxy S4 is another disadvantage.

The Galaxy Mega also exhibits the Samsung/Android problem of duplicated functionality, contributing to a user experience that is less tidy and more confusing than it needs to be.

Personally I am hopeful for the day when a single device will simplify my life and I will no longer have to carry phone, camera and tablet or laptop. This one does not get me there; but maybe with a bit more refinement a future iteration will.

Technical summary

  • Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean)
  • 6.3″ 1280 x 720 LCD screen
  • USB 2.0
  • MicroSD slot
  • MHL support (enables HDMI out from USB port)
  • GPS and GLONASS
  • 720p video supports MPEG4, H.263, H.264, VC1, WMV7 etc.
  • Cameras: 8 megapixel rear, 1.9 megapixel front, LED Flash
  • Video recording up to 30fps
  • Audio support including MP3,AAC,WMA,FLAC,OGG etc.
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 with Krait 1.7GHz dual core CPU and Adreno 305 GPU
  • Comms: FDD LTE, HSPA-PLUS,HSDPA,HSUPA,EDGE,GPRS,FDD LTE,802.11 a/b/g/n/ac,Bluetooth 4.0 LE,NFC
  • RAM: 1.5GB
  • Storage: 8GB on board
  • 3200mAh battery
  • Size: 167.6 x 88 x 8mm
  • Weight: 199g

Acknowledgement: thanks to Phones4u for loan of the review sample.