Monthly Archives: May 2014

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

On Microsoft Surface: premium hardware, declining vision

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Microsoft’s Panos Panay shows off Surface Pro 3

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 was launched yesterday, but the roots of Microsoft’s Surface project – the company’s first own-brand PC – go back a long way. There are three big issues which it attempts to tackle:

1. The PC OEM hardware ecosystem was (and to a large extent still is) stuck in a vicious loop of a price-sensitive market driving down prices and forcing vendors to skimp on design and materials, and to pre-install unwanted third-party applications that damage user experience. Most high-end users bought Macs instead. With Surface Microsoft breaks out of the loop with premium design and zero unwanted add-ons.

2. The tablet market. Windows 8 is designed for touch, at least in its “Metro” personality. But desktop apps need a keyboard and mouse. How do you combine the two without creating a twisty monster? Surface with its fold-back, tear-off keyboard cover is an elegant solution.

3. Fixing Windows. Users of today’s PCs live on a precipice. One false click and the adware and malware invades. Live in the “Metro” environment, or use an iPad, and that is unlikely to happen. Use Windows RT (Windows on ARM) and it is even less likely, since most malware cannot install.

Surface could not have happened without Windows 8. The efforts to make it work as a tablet would make no sense.

Now we have Surface 3. How is Microsoft doing?

I have followed Surface closely since its launch in September 2012. The models I know best are the original Surface RT, the second Surface RT called Surface 2, and the original Surface Pro, which is my machine of choice when travelling. A few observations.

There is plenty that I like (otherwise I would not use it so much). It really is slim and compact, and I would hate to go back to carrying a laptop everywhere. It is well-made and fairly robust, though the hinge on the keyboard covers is a weak point where the fabric can come unglued. The kickstand is handy, and one of my favourite configurations is Surface on its kickstand plus Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, with which I can be almost as productive as with a desktop (I do miss dual displays). I can also use the Surface successfully on my lap. In cramped aircraft seats it is not great but better than a laptop.

There are also annoyances. Only one USB port is a severe limitation and seems unnecessary, since there is room along the edge. For example, you plug in an external drive, now you cannot attach your camera. Not being able to upgrade the internal SSD is annoying, though I suppose inherent to the sealed design. Performance was poor on the original Surface RT, though Surface 2 is fine.

More annoying are the bugs. Sometimes the keyboard cover stops working; detaching and re-attaching usually but not always fixes it. Sometimes the wifi plays up and you have to disable and re-enable the wifi adapter in device manager. Another problem is power management, especially on Surface Pro (I gather that Pro 2 is better). You press power and it does not resume; or worse, you put it into your bag after pressing power off (which sends it to sleep), only to find later that it is heating your bag and wasting precious battery.

The key point here is this: Microsoft intended to make an appliance-like PC that, because of the synergy between first-party hardware and software, would be easy to maintain. It did not succeed, and even Surface RT is more troublesome to maintain than an iPad or Android tablet.

Microsoft also ran into user acceptance problems with Windows RT. Personally I like RT, I think I understand what Microsoft is (or was) trying to achieve, and with Surface specifically, I love the long battery life and easier (though this imperfect) maintenance that it offers. However, the apps are lacking, and Microsoft has so far failed to establish Windows as a tablet operating system like iOS and Android. People buy Windows to run Windows apps, they make little use of the Metro side, and for the most part Surface customers are those who would otherwise have bought laptops.

Incidentally, I have seen Surface RT used with success as a fool-proof portable machine for running Office and feel it deserved to do better, but the reality is that Microsoft has not persuaded the general public of its merits.

Another issue with Surface is the price. Given most Surface customers want the keyboard cover, which is integral to the concept, the cost is more than most laptops. But was Microsoft going for the premium market, or trying to compete with mass-market tablets? In reality, Surface is too expensive for the mass-market which is why its best success has been amongst high-end Windows users.

Surface Pro 3 and the launch that wasn’t

That brings me to Surface Pro 3. The intriguing aspect of yesterday’s launch is that it was rumoured to be for a new mini-sized Surface probably running Windows RT. Why else was the invite (which someone posted on Twitter) for a “small gathering”?

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Admittedly, it is a stretch to suppose that the Surface Mini was cancelled between the date the invitations were sent out (around four weeks ago I believe) and the date of the event. On the other hand, this is a time of change at Microsoft. The Nokia acquisition completed on  25th April, putting former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop in charge of devices. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has only been in place since February 4. While cancelling a major hardware launch at such short notice would be surprising, it is not quite impossible, and a report from Bloomberg to that effect seems plausible.

It is also well-known that Microsoft does not intend to continue with three mobile operating systems: Windows x86, Windows on ARM, and Windows Phone. Windows Phone and Windows RT will “merge”, though merge may just mean that one will be scrapped, and that it will not be Windows Phone.

The promised arrival of a touch-friendly Microsoft Office for Windows Phone and Windows 8 further will rob Windows RT of a key distinctive feature.

This does not mean that Microsoft will not complete in the growing market for small tablets. It means, rather, that a future small tablet from Microsoft will run the Windows Phone OS – which is what some of us thought Microsoft should have done in the first place. This is a company that sometimes takes the hardest (and most expensive) possible route to its destination – see also Xbox One.

Surface Pro 3 specs: a MacBook Air compete

Surface Pro 3 is a large-size Surface Pro. It has a 12 inch 2160×1440 screen, a pen, and a redesigned keyboard cover that has an additional magnetic strip which sticks to the tablet when used laptop-style, for greater stability.

The kickstand can now be used at any angle, supposedly without slipping.

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The weight is 800g making it lighter than a MacBook Air.

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though note that the MacBook Air has a keyboard built in.

Battery life is quoted as “up to 9 hours”. There is still only one USB port. Full specs are here.

The Surface Pro 3 looks like a nice device. In the UK it starts at £639 for an Intel i3 device with a tiny 64GB SSD (I am running out of space with 128GB). And don’t forget the cover which will be at least £110 on top (prices include VAT).

A sensible Core i5 with 256GB SSD and a Type 2 cover will be around £1200. Not a bad buy; though personally I am not sure about the larger size.

Note that Microsoft has now abandoned the 16:9 wide-screen format which characterised the original release of Windows 8, designed to work well with two apps side by side. Surface Pro 3 has a conventional 3:2 screen ration.

Declining vision

Microsoft’s Surface project had a bold vision to reinvent Windows hardware and to usher in a new, more secure era of Windows computing, where tablet apps worked in harmony with the classic desktop.

It was bold but it failed. A combination of flawed implementation, patchy distribution, high prices, and above all, lack of success in the Windows Store ecosystem, meant that Surface remained at ground level.

What we have now is, by all accounts, an attractive high-end Windows hybrid. Not a bad thing in itself, but far short of what was originally hoped.

Microsoft is moving on, building on its investment in Active Directory, Azure cloud, and Microsoft Office, to base its business on an any-device strategy. The market has forced its hand, but it is embracing this new world and (to my mind) looks like making a success of it. It does not depend on the success of Surface, so whether or not the company ends up with a flourishing PC business is now almost incidental.

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

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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.

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

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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

Acer’s R7 the most twisty Windows 8 tablet/laptop yet

What is the name for a laptop that is also a tablet? A tabtop? Or perhaps a tabletop, which is a good way to describe Acer’s R7. The hinge (called “Ezel”) swings up to become a stalk supporting the tablet, raising it above the table.

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What is the value of this configuration? Maybe you can think of something?

The thinking here (if I have it right) is that you can get the screen closer to your eyes than would be possible with a normal laptop. In other words, the flat table-top is not the normal use, but rather a tilt towards you but raised above the keyboard, if you see what I mean.

Alternatively, there is a backwards configuration which, I was told, is for presentations. The keyboard is your side, while the screen points into the room.

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Of course, you won’t actually be able to see the screen yourself but that is a small detail versus the great view afforded to your audience. I am being a little unfair – the idea I think is that you sit screen-side too, and control it by touch.

You can also fold the screen flat to make a standard fat tablet configuration.

Failing that, there is a keyboard-only mode – note, no trackpad on view.

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This is to avoid hitting the trackpad by mistake, apparently. Or if you really want a trackpad, you can have it, but note that it is behind the keyboard:

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A bit odd? Let’s just say, different.

Close the lid, and looks like just another laptop.

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For more information on the R7 see here.

Review: Power Cover for Microsoft Surface tablets

I took advantage of a recent US trip to purchase a Surface Power Cover, at the Microsoft Store in Bellevue, near Seattle.

The concept is simple: you get an external battery integrated into a Surface keyboard cover. The keyboard is similar to the second version of the Type Cover, though curiously without backlighting other than a caps lock indicator. The keys are mechanical which for most people means you can type faster than on the alternative Touch cover, though it is less elegant when considered as a cover rather than as a keyboard.

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The trackpad is the same on all three second edition covers, which is to say, not good. The problem is not the trackpad itself, but the mouse buttons, which are NOT mechanical keys (they were on the first edition Type Cove). Given that you need to press and hold a mouse key for some operations, having a physical click on the trackpad buttons is particularly useful and much missed. Another annoyance is that you cannot disable tap to click, which means some mis-clicks are inevitable, though on the flip side it is easier to tap to click than to use the fiddly mouse buttons.

Having said that it is the same, I have noticed that the trackpad on the Power Cover seems a bit smoother and better behaved than the one on the Type Cover 2. This could be sample variation, or that it is new, or that Microsoft has slightly tweaked the internal design.

As you would expect, the Power Cover is heavier and more substantial than the Type Cover, though I find you notice the weight more than the bulk. Even with the Power Cover, it is still smaller and neater than a laptop. The extra rigidity is a benefit in some scenarios, such as when the keyboard protrudes over the edge of a table. The fabric hinge, which is a weak point in the design of all the Surface covers, seems to be the same on the Power Cover and I fear this may cause problems as the device wears, since the extra weight will put more strain on this hinge.

As with the other keyboard covers, if you fold it back under the tablet, the keys are disabled. In this mode the Power Cover is purely an external battery.

I used the cover with the original Surface Pro (it is compatible with all the models other than the original Surface RT). I understand that a firmware update is needed for the power cover to work; if so, it installed seamlessly though I did need to restart after connecting the keyboard for the first time. Everything worked as expected. If you click the battery icon in the notification area you can see the status of both batteries and which is charging, if you are plugged in; generally one one charges at a time.

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I boarded my flight and noticed that the Surface is smart enough to use the external battery first, and then the internal, presumably on the basis that you might want to remove the keyboard and use the Surface in pure tablet mode.

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It is impossible to be precise about how much extra time you get from the Power Cover, since it depends how you use the machine. It is a big benefit on the original Surface Pro which has rather poor battery life; extended battery life is perhaps the biggest real-world difference between the Surface Pro and the Surface Pro 2. Subjectively I have doubled the battery life on my year-old Surface Pro, which for me makes the difference between running out of battery fairly often, and hardly ever.

The Power Cover costs $199, which is expensive considering that you can get an entire spare Android tablet or Amazon Kindle Fire for less; but put in the context of the equally over-priced Type Cover, which costs $129, you can argue that it is not that much extra to pay. Prices from third-party sites will likely be lower once availability improves.

If you need it, you need it; and this must be the best way to extend the battery life of a Surface tablet.

The Surface keyboard covers are not perfect, and I still sometimes see an annoying fault where the mouse pointer or keys stop responding and you have to jiggle the connection or tap the screen a few times to get it back (I am sure this is a driver issue rather than a poor physical connection). Still, I put up with a few irritations because the Surface gives me full Windows in a more convenient and portable form factor than a laptop, and there is more right than wrong with the overall design.

Summary:

  • If you already have a keyboard and your Surface lasts as long as you need – forget it.
  • If you have a Surface that runs out of power with annoying frequency (probably a Surface Pro 1), this is worth it despite the high price.
  • If you don’t have a keyboard (for example, you are buying a new Surface) then this is worth the extra cost over the Type keyboard.