More Audio

Ever since the MLB trade deadline last week I’ve been meaning to write about all the moves the Red Sox made and my impressions of them. But, I think I will save that for the next episode of the podcast because I’m sure a discussion with Mr. Fish will be more interesting than a simple list of names and teams.

So, instead I’m going to write more about audio stuff. Previously I discussed analog versus digital audio and specifically the Pono player and what a waste of money it is – even so the Kickstarter got 18,220 people to donate $6,225,254. To sum that post up: the fallacy of “analog is always better than digital” is great for people who don’t understand that math does work.1 And just like with coffee – one of my other obsessions – it’s the source that makes the most difference. If you have stale beans, or badly mixed and mastered music, it doesn’t matter what equipment you use to enjoy it; it is going to be crap.

I am not going to continue that rant. If you want to waste your money on vynyl and stupidly expensive audiophile equipment you go right ahead. I waste money on stuff, too.

This post is about my audio setup and why I selected the gear I have. From file to ears this is my entire audio equipment chain.

Sources

The primary source for music in my office is my Mac Mini. It isn’t anything special for a modern machine: 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7, 16 GB RAM, almost 64 GB of music on the Fusion Drive (which works perfectly, by the way). And I am pretty diligent about keeping the OS and iTunes up to date.

When I listen to podcasts they’re playing on my iPhone or iPad and running through a switchable RCA box that I’ll talk about shortly. But for music, which is the primary focus of this post, I use my Mac. The reason for that is the digital-to-analog processing…

Digital To Analog Processing

You have to turn those files into an analog signal to hear them.

This is almost certainly the least necessary part of my audio equipment, but I have it so I use it. The Mac probably outputs audio just fine but instead of using the audio out (headphone jack) on the Mac I have a Meridian Explorer DAC plugged into the Mac via USB. I paid too much for it, sure, but the output does sound clean and I have no complaints about it’s function. That said, if I were to buy one today I would get the Schiit Modi DAC: it’s 1/3 the price and matches my other Schiit equipment. Hell, I may buy one of those before long anyway…

Amplification

From the Explorer the – now analog – signal goes over regular old RCA cable2 through a Schiit Sys Passive Preamp to a Schiit Asgard 2 headphone amplifier. Why this amp? Well, it sounds excellent for one. Before this I was using a regular old stereo receiver and no matter what I heard tons of noise. Didn’t matter what headphones I used. Didn’t matter if there was a signal coming in. If the amp was on there was noise. It was that analog noise you get on a lot of old recordings before Dolby. And as I got better headphones it became more noticable and more annoying.

The Asgard 2 has no noise. None. If I hit pause on iTunes there is no audible sound coming through the headphones. None. I can hear nothing at all in my headphones. For $250 I have an amplifier that produces no noise and sounds absolutely incredible. It’s a damn good deal, in my opinion.

The other thing about the Asgard 2 that made me get it over the cheaper Magni and Vali models is that it also has RCA outputs. So I can run the signal to that (crap) receiver to power my speakers if I don’t want to listen through headphones. From that original post:

I have a pretty inexpensive receiver, the Onkyo TX–8255 that powers my old, but still decent Sony speakers. I think the speakers came with a home theater system I got about fifteen years ago. They still sound great.

Yes. They did sound pretty good. But, I did upgrade them a bit.3 I took out the stock drivers and put in these tweeters and these midrange drivers. And I glued some sound absorbing foam in the cabinets, also. They sound pretty damn good now.

I mentioned the Sys Preamp above. I’m using that to switch between the RCA-headphone jack cable that I plug into the iPad/iPhone and the Mac. So: imputs to Sys to Asgard 2. Yes, it is pretty expensive for a RCA switch at $50 but if you’ve ever searched for a RCA switch online you know they’re all shit. This one works perfectly and looks great on my desk next to the Asgard 2.

Getting in my ear holes

I already talked about my speakers with the receiver. This is about my headphones. Previously:

I have two sets of headphones. A pair of decent closed ones, the Sennheiser HD 380 Pro headphones that I got last year on Black Friday for almost half-off. And a set of Grado SR80i’s. The 380’s are higher audio quality and more accurate. I hear everything in them. I have the recording of Ralph Kirshbaum playing Bach’s Cello Suites and you can hear him breathing on stage through the 380’s. The Grado’s aren’t quite as accurate as that but they have a warm, rich sound that I really like. And they were my first high end phones so there is some sentimental value there, too. I end up using the 380’s more often. They also get used for recording the podcast because they don’t bleed audio into my mic.

Throw all of that out. I put the Grado’s on the shelf and gave the Sennheiser’s to my Dad.4 I used a fairly big chunk of this year’s tax refund to splurge and buy myself some higher end headphones. After literally weeks of researching different brands and models I bought a pair of Beyerdynamic T 70 headphones. And, yes, as I’ve joked about on the podcast, they are probably worth more than my sixteen year old car, but man are they worth every penny.

They sound truly amazing. And for really well-recorded, well-mixed tracks (see all of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours) they sound like you are in the studio during the sessions. They are accurate and musical. However, I do find that with these it really depends on the quality of the recording. Crap recordings sound more crap. Good recordings sound even better. Truly, I cannot say enough for how great these headphones sound.

And being mostly metal construction they feel like they’ll last forever (they had better). Most importantly, being a glasses-wearer, they are just about the only headphones that are comfortable on my head for more than ten or twenty minutes. I have worn them for four to five hours straight and felt perfectly comfortable.

Bonus: They’re closed headphones so I can use them when recording the podcast. Mr. Fish sounds super nice in them.

Well?

My last post on audio told you not to spend money on equipment that won’t make any real difference in the quality of the music you listen to. This time I’m saying if you’re going to spend money spend it where it will make a difference.

Should you go out and buy a DAC and headphone amp and high-end German headphones? Well… No, probably not. I sit here in this office for eight hours a day listening to music and podcasts while I work. If you did that day after day for years you might be anal about the quality of the audio that goes into your ears, too. Most people aren’t going to care enough about the difference in sound to go to those lengths. They’d be able to tell that my setup is better, but they wouldn’t be willing to spend the money to get there. That’s reasonable.

But, if you are like me and want to get the most out of your audio collection you could do much worse than grabbing a decent DAC and headphone amp and some quality headphones. I think you would get more out of that than buying a turntable and a bunch of vynyl. Start with some good headphones. Then see if you might want to upgrade to a good amp. Then maybe a DAC if you are feeling audiophile-ey after that.

Great sound can be had without spending money for nothing.

Notes:

  1. I will link, again, to this great video about digital sampling and why it's as good actually better in many ways than analog.

  2. I usually buy Hosa cables. Why? Because I like the colors they come in. Any decent RCA cable is going to work fine. Please don't buy dumb audiophile cables.

  3. Quite a lot, actually...

  4. He listens to the podcast with them. Seriously.

Fireworks

We went to the county fairgrounds last night to see the July 4th fireworks...

The fairgrounds are across the road from my high school, home of the State Champion Skyhawks!!

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I took a couple of photos before the sun went down...

Once it got dark it was fireworks time. For a small, local fireworks show it was pretty good.

This was my first time trying to shoot fireworks – I got some hints from this site – but I think I did a pretty good job.

I used my tripod and remote shutter release. The camera was on bulb mode so I could manually control the shutter. I used my prime 28mm lens at ƒ/16 and focus at infinity. I just used the first couple of bursts to get the framing right and locked down the tripod and shot in 1-2 second exposures.

It was a little tricky to get the timing right. The best shots were those where I opened the shutter right before the firework exploded and closed just before it reached it's largest size in the sky. On a lot of them I just got lucky, of course.

I also should say that the fireworks photos below are almost completely untouched. The only corrections are the lens profile fix – fixes the distortion in the wide angle lens – and a little bit of sharpening. I haven't messed with exposure, color, or even cropping.

Next time I think I'll try shooting vertical to get more of the sky in frame and either move further back or invest in that Sigma 20mm wide angle I have my eye on...

Here are the good fireworks shots in a gallery:


Update: If you would like to see the high res versions of all of these fireworks photos my flickr album is here.

WWDC News for Normals

Yesterday Tim Cook gave1 the keynote presentation for the 2014 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference. I’m not a developer, and 99.9% of the readers of this site aren’t either so here’s the stuff that’s important for us ‘normals’.

OS X Yosemite

The newest OS will be called Yosemite – you know, a place in California that people other than surfers have heard of – and it will be released this Fall for free. You can sign up for the open beta program and put it on your Mac before then but, as I said on the podcast it’s probably not a good idea to put an OS beta on any machine you need to rely on.

A lot of UI elements – icons, buttons, menu bars, etc. – have been redesigned to look more modern and more like what we have gotten used to with iOS. And these designs seem to be getting much better reactions than the first designs of iOS 7. They’re not very jarring and seem intuitively functional.

Spotlight, which I’ll bet very few people actually use, is getting an upgrade to make it more like quick-launch apps like Alfred and Quicksilver. From Wired’s WWDC Keynote summary:

With Spotlight, you can now tap the magnifying glass to pull up a larger search bar in the center of the screen. From there you can search and open apps, pull up reminders and calendar events, or search information on Wikipedia or the web. Maps is also accessible from Spotlight—you can search for sushi, get map information, results from Yelp, and more. If you search for a movie, it gives you movie location and ticket information when applicable, as well as information about availability in the iTunes Store.

I don’t know if many more people will use it but it does show that Apple, much as they did with Sherlock, pays attention to how third-party developers provide OS-like tweaks and, right-or-wrong, incorporates those features into the official OS.

The best news for OS X, in my opinion is built-in support for DuckDuckGo in Safari search. Now you can use a search engine that doesn’t track you (ahem, Google) as the default search in Safari without jumping through hoops. Safari itself is getting some under-the-hood improvements, too, that will be transparent to most users.

iOS 8

There are lots of cool improvements coming this fall with iOS 8. Like Yosemite it is going to be free. If recent history is any indication it will come out right around the same time Apple debuts new iPhones.

I am really excited about actionable, interactive notifications. No longer will swiping on an alert just take you to the alerting app. You can actually respond to a text, like a Facebook post you’re tagged in, and, though they didn’t show it on stage, hopefully favorite or reply to Twitter mentions.

Mail on iPhone and iPad is getting some good updates. Swiping on messages to flag, mark unread, etc., is a nice improvement that third-party apps have had for some time. And the ability to minimize a draft email to look at other messages is going to be very useful, especially since message threading doesn’t always work the way we would like it to.

The iOS keyboard is getting a predictive text feature called Quicktype. And it’s very smart. Also from Wired:

Heavy typers will also enjoy iOS 8. A new keyboard feature called Quicktype, which supports predictive typing selections, lets you type “faster than ever before.” If someone asks you, “Do you want to go for dinner or a movie?” Your reply gives you options to select automatically, including “dinner” and “a movie,” so you can reply in a snap. This is great—Android and Windows Phone have been far more advanced in this respect than iOS. Apple also says that your typing is kept private—none of your keystrokes leave the device.

By far the iOS feature set I’m most looking foward to is the improvements to Messages. Now you can name message threads (no longer are they just titled with a list of who is in the conversation) and participants can be added and removed from threads. And if you’re in a thread that you don’t necessarily want to get out of but you don’t want constant notifications for you can mark it “Do Not Disturb”. Messages also supports quick audio and video messages and received audio/photo/video data will “autodestruct” after a while (unless you save them) so they don’t take up space on your device.

The iOS photos app is getting enhanced search so you can find that certain photo you took last year more quickly. And the Photos.app editing is getting enhanced with easier to use lighting and color adjustments. Edits will be persistent across all of your Apple devices but they are also non-destructive. Apple didn’t make photo storage free as some thought they should, but they’ve updated the pricing to be very affordable. Up to 5GB iCloud is still free. For 20GB you will pay just $1 a month and to go up to 200GB is just $3.99 a month. So, just take all the photos you want and don’t worry about dropping $12 a year to do it.

Other Stuff

Apple announced Extensions. This is a way for applications to share data and services. The most important part of this for most people is that apps will be able to have a presence in the sharing menu and in Notification Center as widgets.

HomeKit, HealthKit, CloudKit, Metal, Swift. Right now these are mostly for developers so they can start making apps that take advantage of these new technologies, but it won’t be long before you see more apps for automating your home, tracking your health status, and other apps and games that use these protocols.

Bottom Line

OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 will be out, for free, this Fall. Get them then. Don’t try to put beta software on any device you need to rely on. And the new developer technologies and tools that were announced this week will start being implemented in third-party apps soon, as well.

Some Links to Read

Apple - iOS 8 - Overview

Apple - OS X Yosemite - Overview

Apple Debuts OS X Yosemite, iOS 8, and Tons of New Developer Tools | WIRED

OS X Yosemite Overview – MacStories

iOS 8: Our Complete Overview and First Impressions – MacStories

Notes:

  1. Well, he presided over it. It was the Craig Federighi show.

Irr Con Pod Logos

We have a brand, spanking new logo for Irrational Confidence! I thought it might be interesting to take a look back at the logos we've used for the podcast.

I actually can't find a copy of our first logo, but it's not really worth showing anyway. It was just the name on a solid background... I think.

Here is the first real logo we did, us and puppies! This might look like a photo shoot from Breaking Bad with our heads on Bryan Cranston's and Aaron Paul's bodies, but nope. It's us and puppies.

This one was a blast. Man we loved that scooter.

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And here is our latest logo. As we stated on the latest episode this is a photo from our early days and not at all a photo of Eddie Vedder and Jeff Ament with our heads photoshopped on. Those were good days back then.

GOAL!!!

I missed Beatrix's first two soccer games because they were postponed (thanks, climate change) due to stupid weather.

But Erin was there with my camera to document her first game...

This weekend I was off of work and got to go see her Saturday morning game. And it was AWESOME.

She played hard, had a great time, and even scored three (3!) goals. Here are some pics from the game:

I didn't get any video or photos of Beatrix's first ever soccer goal – I was much too busy yelling – but here's a decent vid of her kicking in, playing defense and assisting Jillian with one of her goals.

And here you can see that I stopped cheering just long enough to take a pretty crap photo of Beatrix's third goal during the game:

On Digital Audio and Wasting Money

Maybe I just don’t get it.

I have a pretty decent “Hi-Fi” system. All of my digital music is on my Mac, upgraded to the highest quality with iTunes Match1. The fanciest part of my system is a DAC – the Meridian Explorer – that sits between the Mac and my amplifier. It’s just a nicer, external sound card that decodes the digital files and outputs analog audio.

From there I have a pretty inexpensive receiver, the Onkyo TX–8255 that powers my old, but still decent Sony speakers. I think the speakers came with a home theater system I got about fifteen years ago. They still sound great.

I have two sets of headphones. A pair of decent closed ones, the Sennheiser HD 380 Pro headphones that I got last year on Black Friday for almost half-off. And a set of Grado SR80i’s. The 380’s are higher audio quality and more accurate. I hear everything in them. I have the recording of Ralph Kirshbaum playing Bach’s Cello Suites and you can hear him breathing on stage through the 380’s. The Grado’s aren’t quite as accurate as that but they have a warm, rich sound that I really like. And they were my first high end phones so there is some sentimental value there, too. I end up using the 380’s more often. They also get used for recording the podcast because they don’t bleed audio into my mic.

So, from iTunes to the sound output of the Explorer everything is digital. After that I have low- to mid-range audio gear getting sound in my ear holes. I’m sure purist audiophiles would find a great deal to dislike in this system, but to me it all sounds amazing. Really.

That’s why I think maybe I just don’t get it. Because there is a Kickstarter project for a new audio player that’s supposedly going to let you listen to music the way the musicians intended. You see, all of the music I have is ruined because it’s in a digital format. My music has been sampled and digitized and, apparently, adulterated to the point that the difference between what the musician played and what I hear is dramatic.

This audio player, Pono, has the self-proclaimed mission “to provide the best possible listening experience of your favorite music.” It’s being headed up by aging rocker Neil Young. It claims to bring you music much closer to what the artist intended than an mp3. Young, in the Kickstarter video even compares mp3 files to listening to music underwater. And, from an interview with MTV News (quoted here) he said:

“I’m finding that I have a little bit of trouble with the quality of the sound of music today,” Young said. “I don’t like it. It just makes me angry. Not the quality of the music, but we’re in the 21st century and we have the worst sound that we’ve ever had. It’s worse than a 78 [rpm record]. Where are our geniuses? What happened?” Young argued that MP3s feature only 5 percent of the data from an original master file, which he sees as a major problem.

Ok. Time for some reality2.

Neil Young. I love his music. I’ve heard he’s a great guy. But the man is approaching seventy years old and he has been abusing his ears with ridicuously loud live rock music since he was sixteen. He may hear a difference between the mp3 files he derides and his magical 192kHz files but the reality is that he isn’t a very good judge of sound quality and he isn’t comparing apples to apples.

Sampling rates3. Young and Pono are proclaiming that 192 is a magic number that’s closest to the analog music that the artists intended – let’s ignore for now that the vast majority of musicians today record digitally. Ok. Great. Do the dupes backers watching the Kickstarter video know what that number even means? In case you don’t, 192kHz refers to how many times per second the audio was sampled while being digitized. In this case 192,000,000 times. That is a lot of samples per second. And it sure does seem like 192 is better than the 44.1 that CD’s have.

All things being equal, sure, higher sampling rates mean more of the original information is “preserved” in the digital file. But there are a couple of realities here that might not be obvious.

First, there is a pretty good reason the people engineering the compact disc in the 1980’s chose 44.1kHz. The upper limit of human hearing is roughly 20kHz. Sound waves with a higher frequency than that just don’t register in your ears unless you’re a labrador. Most people can’t hear anywhere near that well. And our hearing degrades as we age. The ringtone for teens that adults can’t hear that was popular a few years ago4 was only 17kHz and I couldn’t even hear it then. So, when they were figuring out how to digitize music for compact disc the engineers took the upper limit of human hearing, doubled it, and added some more head room. There is actually some evidence that the ultra high sampling rates can cause audible overtones that actually make the final audio sound worse.

Secondly, there is the act of sampling itself - encoding and decoding the files. I don’t fully grok all of the math for it not being an audio engineer or a physicist but my understanding is that the way the sampling works there is virtually no audible information lost in digitizing audio files. Please take the time to watch this surprisingly fascinating video for a really good demonstration of what’s going on with sampling at different frequencies and bitrates. And for getting clean files without noise there is no contest. Digital beats analog hands down.

There is another pesky reality about sampling frequency that doesn’t get mentioned. Quality of the source material. I’m not saying that all the old music we listen to suffers from poor recording but surely a lot of it wasn’t recorded under ideal circumstances. Not every band had access to Abbey Road or Sound City. If the source material wasn’t recorded perfectly, or mastered well, or the analog recordings have deteriorated before being digitized it doesn’t matter how many times per second it’s sampled. Crap in, crap out.

This has all been a long, rant-y, way to say one thing. Sure, you can spend $400 on a music player for super-high-quality music files that are as good as digital music can get. And you can pay a lot of money to upgrade your library of music because none of your music is sampled at that rate. And you can fill up your hard drive with it because those files are enormous compared to the mp3 and AAC files you have now. You can do all of that.

You can also buy a $10,000 headphone amp, a set of $4,450 headphones and grab some $21,000 cables.

But will you notice any difference at all?

Reality and cold physics say no, probably not.

A Lot of Links You Should Check Out:

Some reading material on Pono – Marco.org

Kirkville | What’s the Point of Pono? And Why Are Pono’s Numbers Bogus?

Kirkville | Music, Not Sound: Why High-Resolution Music Is a Marketing Ploy

The Emperor’s New Sampling Rate – Are CDs Actually Good Enough?

D/A and A/D | Digital Show and Tell (Monty Montgomery @ xiph.org) - YouTube

24/192 Music Downloads are Very Silly Indeed | xiph.org

Can you tell a difference? | mp3ornot.com

Notes:

  1. It's pretty easy to do, actually. Complete instructions here.

  2. Backed up by, you know, physics.

  3. I am not even going to get into bit rate. I'm no audio engineer.

  4. I have no idea if it's still used, obvs.