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Hi-fi

Loving and hating the Popcorn Hour

On 28, Aug 2008 | 4 Comments | In Hi-fi, User Experience | By Ryan Feeley

The Popcorn Hour A-100 is a wholly remarkable media player that I have been enjoying for the past few months. It plays just about any digital format you can throw at it, including 1080p video. But what’s most remarkable about the Popcorn Hour is its price — $179 USD + shipping.

I will state up front that, as an interface designer, I find the UI to be as terrible as any DVD player I’ve ever used. And if you’re as prone to configuration problems as I am, there isn’t any documentation to speak of, so you are left to the mercy of their chaotic forums.

Once running, the device, which can house its own hard drive and stream content from over the network, plays media incredibly well and improves with each firmware upgrade. If it’s connected to the internet, firmware updates are easily applied from the admin interface.

Also built into the device is a Torrent client, and as of the latest firmware upgrade, a Linux-based Usenet client called NZBget.

Recently the Popcorn Hour people released the A-110 which costs $35 more but addresses most of the firmware concerns I had with the A-100. Surprisingly it fails to add gigabit ethernet. Guys, why cheap out?

Radiolab’s genius made my brain pee its pants

On 03, Apr 2008 | One Comment | In Hi-fi, iPod | By Ryan Feeley

rl_mainlogo.gifIt’s strange for a science-themed radio show to evoke both memories of Radiohead and Stereolab, but WNYC’s Radiolab does just that. Like those bands, Radiolab is both cerebral and sonic. Imagine if a band like The Books produced a radio show with a mandate to dissect the human condition. Thanks to the convenience of modern technology, this show which airs locally in New York on Fridays at 3pm on 93.9 FM, is also available as a Podcast.

I have been listening to it during my 25-minute commute to Idée for a few weeks and it is pure mind-bending genius. Scientific streams of consciousness flow beautifully along singular themes like Deception or Laughter. As if the content of the show was not engaging enough, the sound construction is dizzying. Field recordings scrambled with interviews, narrative, musical punctuations all serving the show’s theme beautifully. Seriously, you have to listen to this podcast. And because it’s such a sonic experience, I really do recommend grabbing the best pair of headphones you can get your hands on to best enjoy the ride.

Wi-Fi hi-fi Chronicles

On 24, Jan 2008 | 4 Comments | In Apple, Hi-fi, iPod | By Ryan Feeley

I have been obsessing about the the latest and greatest digital music hardware and software possibilities for a while. Here’s a condensed version of my findings.

What’s the best sound system for playing MP3s?

a5n.jpgI have heard these in person, and can confidently claim that for both iPods, computer playback or any audio really, you won’t find a bigger bang for your buck than the AudioEngine A5 speakers. Designed by a team of former Apple, Gibson and Alesis audio experts, the A5 speakers have all the qualities of a great bookshelf speaker, but have an amplifier built right into them. Maybe Steve with throw out his iPod Hi-fi and get a pair of these.

Though the team originally set out to create speakers for sound mixing professionals, they quickly realized that with tuning, and extras like a USB port to keep MP3 players charged, their speakers would be the best system available. It’s an interesting story and the reviews are piling up.

If you’re in Toronto, Audio Oasis on Queen East has them for $389 (which is $60 less than Computer Systems Centre).

Should I be using the iPod headphone jack to send audio to the speakers?

pdlousb-demo.jpgNot really. Technically, the headphone jack is intended for headphones, not sending sound to a stereo. To get the best sound you would need a line-level signal, which is less powerful than a headphone signal. Apple sells [docks](http://store.apple.com/1-800-MY-APPLE/WebObjects/AppleStore?productLearnMore=MB125G/A ) for the iPod that provide a line-level signal, but even though they claim to be universal, they don’t work out-of-the-box with every iPod out there.

A more compact, compatible and economical solution is the SendStation Line Out USB. With one of these, you can keep your A5’s happy with a line-level signal, and your iPod charged via USB.

Can I play my iTunes on a sound system in another room?

a5_b_6_275w.jpgYes, and using the Multiple Speaker option in iTunes, you can even play the same music in multiple rooms. Probably the most affordable option is Apple’s AirPort Express. It’s been around a few years now and is for sale second-hand often for as low as $40. It works natively with iTunes and there’s software available called Airfoil that lets you send sound from any running application on your Mac. A nice design feature of the A5 speaker is that the AirPort express cradles right onto the back of one of the speakers, and also plug in for power.

Does the AirPort Express provide hi-fi grade sound?

Good question. Yes, and no. The device has it’s own built in digital-to-analog converter (DAC) which is rumored to be okay, but not great. Luckily you can even get a digital signal out of it which Stereophile magazine says allows it to assume a respectable role in a true high-end audio system. All you need is a TOSLINK cable and mini-adapter. Pretty smart.

d1-01.jpgOnce you do, and only if you really want to get fancy, take a look at Hong Kong exceptionally well thought-out iBasso D1.

This incredible little device which can optionally be powered by battery can serve a variety of functions.

Inputs:

  1. Digital optical (TOSLINK from AirPort Express, DVD player or maybe even your computer)
  2. USB (from your computer)
  3. Digital coax (from an older DVD or CD player)
  4. Analog minijack (like from the iPod)

Outputs:

  1. Headphone (big ones that an iPod is too weak to handle)
  2. Analog minijack (a stereo, or powered speakers)

So you can take a digital signal from basically any source and and play it through headphones too big for the iPod, or go right into speakers like the A5s. You can even use it along with the iPods line out to drive stubborn headphones too.

Can I use my iPhone/iPod Touch to play music from my Mac upstairs on the A5 speakers downstairs?

remotebuddy_splash1000_en.jpgYes, thanks to one of the coolest pieces of shareware for sale today, Remote Buddy. It runs on your Mac and makes it browseable on the web, specifically designed for Safari on the iPhone/iPod Touch.

I have been a Remote Buddy user for some time, while I don’t yet have an iPhone (oligopoly anyone?) I have been using it to power the normally useless white remote that comes bundled with Macs. It actually makes the little clicker quite handy. The iPhone functionality was just thrown into it, although I think they should have created a separate product line.

Do MP3s sound good enough?

Definitely not for a system like this. 🙂

Music is Here, if here is Latvia

On 23, Jan 2008 | One Comment | In Hi-fi, iPod | By Ryan Feeley

musicishere.gifI made my first music purchase on Zunior. It was Sandro Perri’s excellent album Tiny Mirrors. Experience went smoothly and I highly recommend it.

I have a tenuous familial connection to banjo maestro Jayme Stone and desperately needed a digital version of his latest album The Utmost after having heard some tracks online. Zunior does not carry this album so I looked elsewhere.

Loosely connected to indie music store CD Baby, I came across a Latvian site called Music is Here. The site lacks a solid design, Paypal and contact information and that almost kept me away from making the purchase. I’m glad I was not deterred. It’s a great album and downloaded nicely in FLAC format, although they provide downloads in more formats than I can list. I have converted it to Apple Lossless and it’s taking up a sizeable chunk of my 4B Nano.

UPDATE: As expected a $10.63 charge for the album appeared on my credit card statement.