Monthly Archives: January 2014

Hope for Squeezebox as Raspberry Pi becomes a streaming player

Now that Logitech has near-abandoned the Squeezebox (the one remaining player is the UE Smart Radio, and even that is not quite a Squeezebox client unless you download different firmware), existing users may be concerned for the future of the system.

Squeezebox consists of free server software which runs on a PC or NAS (Network Attached Storage) device, while the players are supplied by Logitech and controlled by a web app or smartphone/tablet app. Although more fiddly to set up than rivals like Sonos, Squeezebox is a strong choice for multi-room audio at a modest choice, and its community has come up with solutions such as support for high-resolution audio.

The latest community innovation is a project to make a Raspberry Pi into a Squeezebox client. piCorePlayer is delivered as an image file which you can write to an SD card. Pop the card into a Raspberry Pi, supply power, and it is ready to go – meaning that you need no longer worry about getting hold of a Squeezebox player.

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The OS is the MicroCore version of Tiny Core Linux, and the player is Triode’s Squeezelite.

I gave this a try. It was almost very easy: my Pi booted successfully from the piCorePlayer image and was immediately recognised by my Logitech Media Server. The player supports output to the built-in audio jack, or HDMI, or a USB DAC, or an add-on DAC for the Raspberry Pi called HifiBerry.

I am using a USB DAC (Teac UD-H01) which requires a little extra configuration. I logged in to the piCorePlayer using Putty, and typed picoreplayer to display the configuration menu:

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Configuring a USB DAC is a matter of getting a list of available ALSA devices and setting the output accordingly.

It worked, but oddly I found that FLAC in 16/44.1 format played with crackling and distortion. 24-bit files played perfectly.

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The only solution I have found (though it sounds counter-intuitive) is to force output to 16-bit by adding –a 40::16 to the Squeezelite arguments. Everything now plays nicely, though limited to 16-bit – you are unlikely to notice much difference but it is a compromise.

If you try piCorePlayer, here are a few tips.

Log in with user: tc pwd: nosoup4u

The Squeezelite executable is stored at:

/mnt/mmcblk0p2/tce

and the settings scripts are in

/usr/local/sbin/settings_menu.sh

If you need to edit the configuration without the script, you can use vi, which is the only pre-installed editor I have found. Quick start with vi:

  • Type i to enter edit mode
  • Press ESC to enter command mode
  • Quit without saving by typing :q!
  • Save and quit by typing :wq

There are plenty of vi tutorials out there if you need to know more!

Finally, note that this version of Linux runs in RAM. If you make changes they will not persist unless you create a “backup” with

/usr/bin/filetool.sh –b

This is also an option in the picoreplayer menu, and must be used if you want your changes to survive.

Thirty years of mainly not the Mac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Anniversary Apple.

Review: Om Audio INEARPEACE ear buds. Superb sound

Ear buds are massively popular, but most do not sound that good. Tinny bass and splashy treble is nothing unusual. They can sound good though. At CES I heard a couple of true high-end in-ear headsets, Shure’s SE 846 ($999) and Audiofly’s AF180 ($549); I especially liked the AF180 and wrote about it here.

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But how about Om’s INEARPEACE at a mere $149? No, they are not the equal of the AF180s, but at one third the price they are delightful, musical, smooth, clear and with actual bass.

Om Audio is a company with some personality – “listening to music should be a sacred experience,” says the website, and that is reflected in the packaging, with the ear buds embedded in the side of a foam inner container.

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You get a set of ear buds with an inline controller and microphone for a smartphone, a smart zipped bag, and a packet of ear tips in various sizes.

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The ear buds themselves have a distinctive design, with a cylindrical body. The cable is flat and supposedly hard to tangle.

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Within each ear bud are two drivers, a balanced armature driver for treble and mid-range, and a 10mm coiled driver for bass.

The INEARPEACE ear buds are aimed at those in search of better audio quality than the average in-ear headset, and they deliver. Listen to these and you will not want to go back to the set that came free with your phone. There is adequate treble, but no sign of the shrillness that characterises so many ear buds. The bass is not overpowering, but it is clean and reasonably extended, making music more balanced, rhythmic and enjoyable.

I am not going to get too carried away; these are not the last word in sound quality. There are others to consider in the price range $75 – $150. These are more than decent though, and their musical sound and elegant construction wins them a recommendation.

Review: Audio-Technica SonicFuel ATH-CKX5iS ear buds

At CES Audio-Technica showed off its new range of ear buds, sorry “in-ear headphones”, including this budget SonicFuel ATH-CKX5iS model, at a recommended price of $49.95 and including an in-line mic, answer button and volume control for use with smartphones. While towards the low-end, it is by no means the cheapest in the Audio-Technica range, which starts at just $14.95 for the ATH-CLR100.

The distinctive feature of the SonicFuel range is the C-tip earpieces which have a short curved arm that fits snugly in the ear. The ear tips also rotate so that they angle themselves to the shape of your ear. The result is an exceptionally snug fit, and ear buds that are less likely to fall out when you are on the go. Three sizes of C-tips and four sizes of ear tips are supplied. It does pay to take some time selecting the right size, and journalists attending CES were fortunate to have assistance from an expert fitter.

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The truth is that the sound you hear from ear buds does vary substantially according to how snugly they fit, and while not everyone can get a personal fitting at CES, it is essential to fit them correctly to get the best results. Fitting the tips to the ear buds is slightly fiddly, but you only have to do this once.

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The in-line controller has a sliding volume control (a mixed blessing as you can accidentally slide it down and wonder where the volume has gone), a microphone and an answer button.

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The headset is supplied with a handy bag for your headset and the spare gels.

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So how do they sound? The biggest problem is that bass is lacking and the sound overall is thin. Slight sibilance can be annoying on some material. Tonally they are bright rather than warm, though not unpleasantly so. The best thing I can say is that they are inoffensive.

The specifications show an amazing frequency response of 15-22,000 Hz which is hard to reconcile with the puny bass, but since no +/- dB range is shown I guess this does not mean much.

Summary: I love the C-tips and the snug, strong fit; but the sound is a let-down. Possibly going a little further up the SonifFuel range would be worthwhile, though these are the only ones I have heard.

Results for Nokia’s last quarter with Windows Phone: slightly worse than flat? Over to you Microsoft

Nokia has released its fourth quarter results for 2013. They make odd reading because of the division into “Continuing operations” and “Discontinued operations”, the latter including the mobile phone business which has been acquired by Microsoft. This tends to cloud the key point of interest for some of us, which is how Windows Phone is faring in the market.

The answer seems to be that sales slightly declined, though it is not clear. Here is what we know.

Mobile phone revenue overall declined by 29% year on year and by 5% quarter on quarter, for the quarter ending December 2013.

Nokia states in its report:

The year-on-year decline in discontinued operations net sales in the fourth quarter 2013 was primarily due to lower Mobile Phones net sales and, to a lesser extent, lower Smart Devices net sales. Our Mobile Phones net sales were affected by competitive industry dynamics, including intense smartphone competition at increasingly lower price points and intense competition at the low end of our product portfolio. Our Smart Devices net sales were affected by competitive industry dynamics including the strong momentum of competing smartphone platforms, as well as our portfolio transition from Symbian products to Lumia products.

Disappointing; though in mitigation Lumia (ie Windows Phone) sales volume in 2013 overall is said to be double that in 2012.

We do know that much of Lumia’s success is thanks to the introduction of low-end devices such as the Lumia 520. That has been good for building market share, but not so good for app sales or mind share – on the assumption that that purchasers of high-end devices are more likely to spend on apps, and that aspirational devices have a greater influence on mind share than cheap ones.

That does mean though that units might have gone up even though revenue has fallen.

Still, the results do put a dampener on the theory that Windows Phone is taking off at last.

This is a moment of transition following the Microsoft acquisition. Microsoft has not got a good track record with acquisitions, and the Danger/Kin disaster is hard to forget, but Nokia comes with an influential executive (Stephen Elop) and common sense would suggest that the team which created excellent devices like the Lumia 1020, and which was able to engineer strong budget offerings like the 520, should be kept together as far as possible. Or will it be dragged into the mire of Microsoft’s notorious internal politics? Over to you Microsoft.

Update: it is now reported that Lumia sold 8.2m devices in Q4, down from 8.8m in Q3 but up from 4.4m in the same quarter 2012.

Review: Turtle Beach z300 headset. Super flexible, shame about the sound

The Turtle Beach Z300 is a super flexible gaming headset, with wired and wireless connections, Dolby 7.1 virtual surround sound, and extra features like switchable dynamic range compression. It is primarily for PC gaming, but also works with Mac (no Dolby surround) and with any Bluetooth-compatible device – which means almost any smartphone or tablet. You can also use the wire to plug it into any device with a 3.5mm audio jack.

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In the box you get the headset, detachable microphone, USB cable, jack cable, USB transceiver, and some documents including a note about having to download the Dolby 7.1 drivers. I still recommend downloading the online manual, which is more detailed than anything in the box.

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A few more details on the three ways to connect:

Wireless via a USB transceiver. This is the preferred method for a PC. The USB transceiver is pre-paired and indicates via an LED whether or not the headset is connected.

Traditional wire. A jack cable is supplied which connects to the left earcup and has a standard four-way 3.5mm jack on the other end, suitable for a phone or tablet. In wired mode you still need to charge the headset and have it powered on.

Bluetooth. You can pair with up to two devices. The right earcup has Bluetooth volume controls, and a Bluetooth button for answering, rejecting and ending calls.

The actual headset seems sturdily made and features a fabric-covered headband and earpads. The material feels slightly coarse at first, and the earcups are slightly on the small side, but in practice I found the comfort reasonable.

The microphone is on a flexible boom and is detachable. You can also swing it up above the left earcup to get it out of the way.

You charge the Z300 via a mini USB port on the right earcup, which annoyingly is the old type, not the slightly smaller one now found on most phones and tablets. A cable is supplied, though it is too short to reach from the floor to your headset if you are wearing it, and in my case too short even to reach from the front panel of my PC. You might want to get a longer cable if you expect to charge while wearing. Play time is specified at 15 hours.

An annoyance: there is no indication of remaining charge.

How about the other controls? There are several:

Power on/off on the left earcup and easy to find by feel. The headset automatically powers off after 5 minutes of inactivity.

Master volume on left earcup.

Mic monitor volume on left earcup. This controls how much sound from the mic is fed back to your. It does not affect the volume heard on the other side.

Tone on left earcup: cycles through 4 “game modes”. These are Flat, Bass boost, Treble boost, and Bass and Treble boost. I generally used the Flat mode for this review.

Dynamic Range Compression on left earcup: raises the volume of quiet sounds. The effect seems minimal to me.

Bluetooth controls on right earcup: as mentioned above.

If you use the USB transceiver and a Windows PC you can insteall a Dolby 7.1 driver. Note: these are stereo headphones, but when used with this driver they support Dolby’s virtual surround system. You enable this by going into the Windows sound properties dialog (eg right-click the speaker icon and choose Playback Devices), then showing the properties dialog for the Turtle Beach speakers. A surround sound tab then lets you enable “Dolby Headphone”. You can also choose between two modes: Music or Movie.

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Enabling Dolby Headphone makes a substantial difference to the sound. It is distinctly louder, and the sound seems to fill out more. On games with true surround sound, the virtual sound should mean that you get spatial clues about the source of an explosion or footstep, for example, though you need to make sure the game is set to output in surround sound.

I tried this and reckon it works a bit. It is not as good as a headset I tried that really did have multiple speakers. My big gripe though is that if you enable Dolby Headphone, it messes up true stereo, for example on music. You no longer hear the mix as intended.

This would not matter too much if it were easy to switch Dolby Headphone on and off, but it is a hassle to go into Windows sound controls every time. I would like to see more effort go into usability.

How about the sound quality? Here is my second big gripe about this headset. The sound is not great, with anaemic bass and a nothing special in the mid-range or treble. For gaming it is not too bad, and I did find the audio atmospheric if you can live without much bass thunder, but for music they are not good enough.

The microphone quality is fine. I tried the headset with Dragon Dictate, just to check the quality, and got high accuracy of transcription which is a good sign.

In summary, the flexibility is exceptional, the build quality is fine, but the sound is lacking. Personally I would not use these as my main headset because I do both gaming and music listening; but if your main use is gaming they would be OK.

Price is around $170 or £170 (better value in the USA it seems).

Naim’s Statement: no compromise home audio

I was fortunate to hear Naim’s Statement amplifier, currently a prototype subject to final tuning before release in July, at the CES exhibition in Las Vegas.

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Statement is actually two amplifiers, the NAC S1 pre-amplifer and the NAP S1 mono power amplifiers. In the above picture you can see them standing together as three large vertical boxes, the slimmer pre-amp and the power amps on either side. Each amplifier is also divided horizontally, with the power supply below and the amplifier electronics above.

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I do not have confirmation of the price but believe it will be around £150,000 for a set.

My quick comment is this. The sound is huge and has the qualities Naim aficionados love: muscular, etched, authoritative. Naim is often considered to have a house sound dating back to its earliest electronics in the eighties, and the Statement continues that tradition.

I did not think the sound was flawless though. Rhythm and percussion was stunning, but whether it is the most natural sound I am not so sure. Can Statement do sweet and delicate? Bear in mind though that I only had a short listen and that some fine-tuning remains.

Naim says the sound is without compromise, and Statement will only appeal to those who are not only wealthy, but share that attitude, building their living space, or at least their music listening space, around the electronics, rather than having it blend into the furniture Bang & Olufsen style.

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

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

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

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

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

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The rear view shows the connections:

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

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

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

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

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

High end earbuds impress at CES 2014–especially Audiofly’s top model

I have heard a couple of high-end earbuds here at CES 2014 in Las Vegas. One was Shure’s SE 846. Great sound, but then you would expect that at $999.

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I was impressed by the extended bass and clarity of the 846’s and they should be on your shortlist if you are looking for the very best in earbuds. They sport four microdrivers including what Shure calls a “true subwoofer.” Frequency range 15Hz-20kHz.

On the other hand, when I heard Audiofly’s AF180 at a mere $549 I thought, hmm, I wonder if I could afford these?

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In other words, the AF180 struck me as exceptional rather than merely excellent. Part of the secret, I suspect, is their close fit into the ear. It is hard to explain, but you fit them with the cable dropping behind your head and over the ear, and the shaped housing fills more of your ear than the average earbud.

The AF180 includes four armature drivers in each earbud. Frequency range 15Hz-25kHz.

I listened briefly to both recent and older recordings. Even the Beach Boys California Girls, which I would not describe as a hi-fi recording, sounded as clear as I have heard it – and I mean clear, not artificially boosted in the treble.

I am researching hi-res audio here at CES, and these earbuds reminded me that for all the fuss about audio resolution and formats, the speaker is the source of most distortion in the audio chain.

Every ear is different and earbuds are a particularly personal area of audio. I head the AF180s the day after the SE 846 so was not able to compare them side by side or on the same musical material; perhaps if I did, I would change my preference.

Nevertheless, I like to post about products that particularly impress me, and the AF180 is one such.

Here comes Steam Machine: a quick look

At CES in Las Vegas I got a first look at Valve’s Steam Machine. This Brix Pro model comes from Gigabyte and will cost $499 for bare bones – no RAM or storage.

I was surprised by how small the thing is – quite cheap-looking in fact, especially when compared to something like Microsoft’s Xbox One which is large and sleek, and costs a similar amount (though smaller is good in most ways).

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Next to it you can see the controller, which gives you an idea of the scale.

Ports on the back are hdmi, DisplayPort (better quality), Ethernet and 2 more USB 3.0.

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and on the front, two USB and an audio socket (supports digital as well as analogue).

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Power is on top.

What counts though is the spec. Core i5 4570R (an i7 is also available), Intel Iris Pro 5200 graphics with 128MB ED RAM, wifi included. Max RAM is 16GB. It’s going to cost at least $100 –$150 extra to make it a working box.

Intel showed the Brix Pro driving a large display at 1080p.

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However, I was told that the little box has enough power to drive a 4K display as well as a second display at 1080p. In principle, you could have a Steam Machine with 3 4K displays for the perfect setup; Intel said that its Iris Pro 5200 is capable of this though not in this particular configuration.

Running Linux (SteamOS) and tapping into the huge Steam community and app store, Steam Machine is one to watch.