31 December 2008

The iPod Touch: Yes, It Is All That

My parents gave my wife and I an iPod Touch for Christmas. I've been jonesing for one, but if I'd known how utterly cool they were, I would have done something rash months ago. Yes, I know, I know, I was just arguing a couple of weeks ago that iPods are not all that. What can I say. I've been Touched.

But in fact, an iPod Touch is not just a DAP, a lowly audio player. Sure it plays audio and it sounds good. It sounds almost as good as my incredible $14 Sansa Clip, which is saying something. But I can't imagine anyone buying it just to play music. It has much more in common with my Dash smartphone than my Clip. It is, of course, just an iPhone minus the phone. That makes it part PDA, part PMP (personal media player), part netbook, and a whole lot of eye candy. But why exactly am I geeking out?

Wireless: I got a Dell PDA several years ago that did wireless, and it blew my mind. For about 10 minutes. Then I realized it was too slow and the screen too small for it to be really usable. Same with my Dash. But the Touch has a screen just large enough to effectively browse, even if you have to squint a bit at tiny type. And the new 2G's faster 533MHz processor kicks things along pretty snappily. But one question: Where's the wireless sync?

Apps: The built-in apps are not that great, given the Touch's typical uses. They're leftovers from the iPhone. But I've just started sampling some 3rd-party apps and they some hold real promise. The most important one to me is a good reader, and Stanza is far better than any reader I have used on my other devices. I'm just waiting for a proper Adobe Reader for pdfs, which must be in the works. Even if it's no Kindle, the Touch is still a highly usable palmtop e-book reader. And games rock. Again, the Touch is no PSP, but already it is proving to be a fairly competent gaming platform. I'm this close to getting SimCity . . .

iTunes Store: I hate the iTunes software, I hate DRM-managed music, but the iTunes store is brilliant. I'll still never buy music from Apple, but they sure make it easy. I will buy applications and videos, and wow is that easy too. But what really rules are podcasts—no other player is even half as easy to catch podcasts with. As I've said before, Apple owns the market first and foremost because of iTunes, and it is very well integrated into the Touch.

Movies: Again, the large screen and snappy CPU make this a very capable movie player. It leaves my iPod Video in the dust. I fully expect to watch movies on this baby, and enjoy them. That, for me, is epochal.

Oh yeah, music: Cover flow and album art is gorgeous. The interface is slick. The sound is good, almost even great. It falls short of the warmth, roundness and detail of the Sansas, and has nothing like the Sony's booty, but it may just sound as good as any iPod ever made.

So, movies, books, music and a capable web browser, all in a device the size of a calculator. What's not to like? I'll pick at just three nits.

First, I'm disappointed that Apple has not done more to take advantage of the 2G Touch's great power and graphics during playback. No VU meters, no AV plugins, nothing but static album art, if your album has it. (If not, you get a homely stock logo screen.) This may be a powersaving measure, but you're idleing a racecar. I'm sure some 3rd party will amp this up if Apple doesn't.

Second, Apple really sticks it to you for storage. The $70 jump from 8gb to 16gb is a racket, given that an 8gb SD card is $15 retail. Really, I just flat want a microSD slot, like the Sansas and most smartphones. But Apple is effectively marketing from a monopoly, so it will never happen.

Finally, the Touch is brilliant for stationary listening, but its design just does not work well for active use, since you have to be looking at it to change tracks, etc. Apple went part way in addressing this problem when they added the external volume control to the 2G Touch. But inherent design limitations will always make it a less than ideal player for on-the-move listening. But for that they'll sell you a Nano or Shuffle.

I could grumble more, but that does not change the fact that the Touch is a watershed product. Again Apple breaks out with a product that almost creates a new segment. With the price drop, it owns its price point. They'll sell a zillion. I just can't wait to see what they come up with next.


As if Microsoft was not having a hard enough time marketing its (quite good) Zune player, at precisely 12:01AM today, a firmware bug crashed every Zune 30gb player on the planet. This caused some considerable panic, choking Zune help boards and, one might guess, a few Microsoft support lines. Apparently, a bug relating to leap years turned owners' Zunes into expensive bricks, with no remedy except to wait until the battery dies and 24 hours has expired. These Zunes will recommense operation on Jan. 1 of their own accord, with a fix against future beginning-of-leap-year crashes in the works. Parallels to Y2K have prompted a similar naming for this event.

30 December 2008

This Little Piggy

The source of the piggy headphone amp has been found. It did not start life as a piggy amp at all, but as a $1.00 LED flashlight that may be found on a popular bargain hunters haunt, DealExtreme. The owner apparently converted it into a headphone amp himself. Even cooler! [Addendum: I've found out the amp inside is that cheap-fi favorite, the FiiO E3.]

29 December 2008

Best Albums of '08: Blitzen Trapper - Furr

Like Fleet Foxes, Blitzen Trapper's Furr owns much in places to the folk rock of Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Now, I have some fondness for Young and Dylan, and I appreciate their unique genius (in fact, I'll celebrate Young's in another post). But I never expected to find this current wave of nouveau folk-pop to be so appealing. I confess, it is. This album did not make it onto all the "Best of" lists, but it probably should have. I especially like the title track, which sounds amazing Dylanesque, from lyrics to vocal style to song structure, but neverthess is fresh and very fetching. But not to mislead, most of the tracks are more retro-rock and folk rock than folk. As evident from the very first track, comparisons with the Grateful Dead are fair enough.

27 December 2008

Best Albums of '08: Fleet Foxes

This eponymous album was high on a number of lists, and I think rightly so. The Seattle quintet Fleet Foxes gives the impression that that they have drawn on Appalachian folk music (they reference the Blue Ridge Mountains several times), though I suspect rather that they have just captured wonderfully the spirit of traditional music. But the result is pop enough not to be simply folk, even if it is in places extremely folky pop. And withal very beautiful. This song, "White Winter Hymnal," starts off with straight-up folk harmonies which turn into a catchy bit of 60ish jangle pop. Spare, fresh, and utterly gorgeous. It made it onto Time's Top 10 Songs of '08 list, wedged in between Lil' Wayne (blech) and the Jonas Brothers (ewww).

21 December 2008

Eat Fiber, Pump Iron

NYT has two good articles out that vindicate yet again two of my primary principals of good health. The first article reports findings that diabetics on a low glycemic index (GI) diet have a lower instance of heart disease than those on the standard whole grain (higher GI) diet, among other health benefits. I've been convinced for some time that the best diet for weight control and optimal health is a low GI diet. The second article reports findings that, "People with more lean muscle mass may have an advantage when it comes to fighting cancer," and may even have lower risk for some cancers. This I had not heard, but again, I know maintaining lean muscle mass as we age is critical to remaining healthy and vigorous. Exhibit A: Jack Lalanne at 90!

20 December 2008

Workers Paradise

Something I whipped up for my door at work to express my feelings about our new offices. Workers unite!

Which Buds for You?

The earbuds that came with your player may suit you fine, but for most people they are far from ideal, for two reasons.

The first problem is sound quality. The basic Apple Earphones ("iBuds") are truly poor, and the old upgrade Apple In-Ear Headphones ("olives") were not much better (though the new two-driver olives are reported to be very good). To be fair, most bundled earphones are very cheap and have poor sound. An exception would be the Sony MDR-EX82 earphones that come with new high-end Sony DAPs, which sound great and are very comfortable.

The second problem is, in fact, comfort. There are three basic types of earphones. Almost all bundled earphones are earbuds, which insert into the concha ridge of the outer ears. Most people find them uncomfortable and their sound quality is uniformly poor. The alternative is earphones that insert into the ear canal, variously called ear canal headphones, in-ear monitors (IEMs) or canalphones. There is some confusion in terminology, so I will simply call them all IEMs. These provide much better sound quality than earbuds, block out much more outside noise, and are very comfortable. No buds for you. These are the 'phones to own.

Off-the-shelf IEMs come in a variety of styles and ear tip designs. The most common have rather large, round silicone tips with single flanges that nestle just in the entrance of the ear canal. There are also similar, shallow-insert foam tips that some listeners prefer. They function about the same. But some high-end IEMs have duo- or tri-flange tips than insert deeper into the ear canal. These block much more outside noise, but not everyone finds them comfortable.

Foam tips (above) and single-flange silicone tips (below)

Custom IEMs are an entirely different creature. First you must visit an audiologist and have a cast made of the inside of your ear. Then a custom plastic IEM is made from that cast that fits your ear perfectly, blocking a maximum of outside noise and positioning the speaker driver perfectly for optimal sound quality. Custom IEMs are used for on-stage sound monitoring by musicians, but are now also becoming increasingly popular among audio enthusiasts. While they can cost more than $1000, over and above the ear casting, low- and mid-priced offerings by companies like LiveWires and FREQ (review) are starting to appear.

L-R: Custom IEM, tri-flange deep insertion IEMs, and single-flange shallow insertion IEMs

In the works: Earphone and headphone reviews.

18 December 2008

iPod = The Borg

It is both amazing and frightening how iPods have come to completely dominate the digital audio player (DAP) market. The iPod's market share has in fact fallen, from 92% in 2004 to somewhere in the mid-80th percentile today, but that still means that Apple's competitors are fighting over table scraps. In fairness, Apple probably deserves the crown on the basis of innovation, design, and ease of use, though its real stranglehold on the market has been by virtue of iTunes, the first and richest digital music marketplace.

But it is perhaps striking that audiophiles are often, if not usually, found using alternative DAPs. Many own a stack of players, and most own iPods, but they are often not preferred. Why is that?

• Value — Most head-fiers do not regard Apple as a good value, for reasons I will explain below. But it is a plain fact that, like all things Apple, you pay a premium simply for owning an iPod. It is the price of stylish design and brand prestige. And if you want to use iTunes, of course you have no other choice. Head-fiers do not use iTunes (see below), are not uniformly impressed by iPod features, and do not regard looks and brand as an overriding consideration. And purely in terms of cost, in a risky or hard use circumstance, I'd rather lose or break or have stolen a less expensive DAP than my iPod video, especially since a $15 player can sound as good or better.

• Image — Speaking of brand, there is also perhaps a tiny bit of sniffy protest in using a non-Apple DAP. iPods are sometimes seen as belly-button players for the unwashed masses, and are not technically the best. A favorite commercial review site for alternative DAPs is pointedly called anythingbutipod.com.

• Sound Quality — Most iPods have average to poor sound quality, a vital issue for head-fiers. It varies substantially from model to model, and the progression and regression is not linear, or connected to the size, expense, etc., of the model. So, for example, the original (G1) iPod shuffle, the size of a pack of chewing gum, has very good sound while the newest, largest 120gb iPod classic has poor sound. There are of course design reasons for this (that's another post), but it is a fact that Apple has never marketed its players on the basis of sound quality. And it's shrewed not to, in their position: Why invite criticism on such a concrete point? Best stick to intangibles like look, feel and style. Besides, most Pod People use nothing but their standard issue iBuds, which would make any player sound awful, so apparently sound fidelity is a non-issue for most customers. The good news is the the latest (G4) iPod nano and (G2) iPod touch have greatly improved sound quality, perhaps the best yet for a stock iPod. But alas, a humble Sandisk Sansa Clip (I just bought one for $14) sounds as good or better than the latest iPod touch. Sound quality is important to Sandisk.

• Competetive Edge — Other DAP makers work hard to compete with Apple by beating them in price, features and audio quality. This makes them highly attractive to head-fiers. My modest Sansa e250 ($30 for a refurb) is basically like a 2gb nano, but surpasses the nano in price (and how!) as well as features. It has an FM radio tuner, a microSD expansion slot, user-replaceable battery, voice recorder, supports enthusiast audio file formats like flac and ogg, and has better sound quality than my $250 iPod video.

• Customization — Many serious head-fiers modify iPods to improve their sound quality, with a line-out dock and even (if you have some serious lettuce) hi-fi hardware mods from Red Wine Audio. But one thing you cannot do, at least with more recent iPod models, is install new player firmware on your iPod, since Apple encrypts their ROMs. Open source firmware like Rockbox (Wiki article) provides user-customizable GUIs, expanded audio file formats, games and other applications, DSP effects like crossfeed, on-the-fly playlists, and a vast number of other custom features.

Rockbox theme Freestate

The Rockbox theme "Freestate":
notice how much information
can be displayed on a
nano-sized Play screen

• Alternatives to iTunes — Alternative DAPs often work with "all-you-can-eat" music subscription services like Rhapsody, which many music enthusiasts love. But beyond that, iTunes is not liked or used by head-fiers for at least two major reasons. First, most iTunes songs are encrypted with digital rights management (DRM) code, meaning you cannot play them on alternative DAPs and only on a limited number of computers. And, you have to use iTunes to manage and play your music. iTunes files are not truly purchased, but rather rented (licensed) with restrictive terms of usage, and they may expire with a nasty computer or account glitch, or at some arbitrary future date. That really could happen, and actually did happen with Microsoft customers who bought music under their old music service. MS has turned off their DRM servers and any music purchased will now be unusable if you wish to move it to another computer. In addition, standard iTunes tracks are of low quality (128 kbps AAC) compared to high-bitrate mp3s or lossless (CD quality) audio. These issues have been partly corrected by Apple, at least for part of its catalog. iTunes Plus tracks are DRM free and higher bitrate (256 kbps AAC), but still in Apple's proprietary format. The great majority of audiophiles prefer to buy and rip CDs to their players, giving them substantive ownership and complete freedom in determining music file quality and player platform. They also do not like being tethered to iTunes, to play and manage their music libraries. iTunes is a love it or hate it application, and for the PC, there are certainly better players.

No, iPods are not evil, but they are not necessarily the be-all, end-all of portable music players. Go read some reviews on anythingbutipod.com and see what you may be missing.

17 December 2008

Nice Elbow

'Tis the season for top ten lists, including top tens albums of the year. The lists are heavily skewed towards pop and alt-rock lite (not exactly my thing), but I've been going through the lists and sampling what I can to see if there are any real gems. While not prominent on the lists, the latest album by the British band Elbow has received critical praise, and I like it a lot. Here is a vid of the second track, a beautiful video for a beautiful song.

Elbow - 'The Bones Of You'

16 December 2008

Head-Fi Ahoy!

Today is a first excursion into my latest hobby, head-fi. Head-Fi (upper-case) is the name of an audiophile forum, but head-fi (lower case) also refers more generally to headphone and digital audio player (DAP) audiophilia.

(Definitions: An audiophile, says Wikipedia, "is an audio reproduction enthusiast, who typically listens to music on high-end audio electronics. Audiophiles try to listen to music at a quality level that is as close to the original performance as possible." Audiophilia is therefore the love of hi-fidelity audio.)

The slogan of the Head-Fi forum is, "Welcome to Head-Fi, sorry about your wallet." Audiophiles can spend ghastly amounts of money on audio equipment (like, $600 for a one meter interconnect cable). Traditional audiophilia is centered on full-size speakers, amps, transports, etc., needed to fill a room with hi-fi music, and that much top-shelf gear is naturally quite spendy. Fortunately, filling just two ears with hi-fidelity sound costs dramatically less, and headphones can produce incredible audio. In fact, some traditional audiophiles are putting their stereo towers into storage and moving to headphones entirely.

Of course head-fiers can spend a lot in the quest for perfect audio, but in fact, surprisingly good sound can be had very cheaply. There is even a name for this, cheap-fi, and looking for great budget sound is a fun pursuit in itself. It also happens to suit my wallet, so cheap-fi is where I'm starting.

So, look forward to future excursuses on head-fi, cheap-fi, and all things hi-fidelity. And apologies in advance if I ruin the simple enjoyment of your iPod for you.

Now, a few beauty shots of some great portable music rigs from Head-Fi:

A brilliant cheap-fi rig: A Sansa Clip ($20) plugged into a FiiO E3 headphone amp ($8) with stylish Sennheiser MX90 earphones ($25)

I have no idea how it sounds, but the owner wins style points for this piggy amp

A superb sounding rig, even unamped: A Cowon D2 with a set of LiveWires in-ear monitors (IEMs) custom molded to the owner's ears. Owned by a 14 year-old . . .

A couple grand in high-end solid-state headphone amps. I'd be happy enough just with that little Hornet.

06 December 2008

The Passing of a Folk Icon

I cannot say that I was a big fan or knew much of her music, but I recall the first time I came across a performance of Odetta. It was singularly striking. She was a very important folk singer in the 50s and 60s, influencing such later icons as Dylan, Joplin and Springsteen. The New York Times published nice tributes in both print and video (login probably required). This YouTube clip is the exact performance that first struck me, I think from Scorcese's documentary on Bob Dylan, No Direction Home. More clips may be found on the tribute at the Daily Kos in the almost 400 comments. (Sheesh, why doesn't my blog get that many hits?)

Odetta - Water Boy

04 December 2008

Esperanza Spalding

It's not often that I discover a new artist whom I find really compelling. I love bass, of course, and love "classic" chanteuse vocal jazz, a la Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughn, and more recently, Diana Krall. Esperanza Spalding is regarded as a prodigy, one of the youngest professors ever at Berklee (which I just visited in Boston), and her debut solo album has been highly praised. She does not consider herslef a singer, but she both sings and plays bass wonderfully. Here is a vid with some clips of her performing and an interview.