Friday, May 22, 2009

Corel's WinDVD 9 Plus--is more really better?

"G.I.G.O." is a pearl of wisdom I've heard from engineers my entire three and a half decades in radio. In other words..."garbage in, garbage out".

In audiophile circles, this sentiment is expressed something like this: information that's not picked up at the source can't be reproduced at the speakers. If it's not picked up by the microphone (phono pickup, tape head, recording device), then it's lost...forever.

In motion pictures and television, this could be extrapolated to something like "if the camera doesn't capture it, you can't see it on the screen!" It seems obvious enough. But no more! A fascinating area of perceptual science has suddenly, over the last couple of years, yielded startling fruit. We CAN now see more detail than was captured on the original film (or tape, or disc), and even more startling, we CAN see moving images with greater MOTION resolution that was captured by the camera. Don't believe me? I DON'T BLAME YOU! But I challenge you to try a trial version of "WinDVD 9 Plus" from Corel on your favorite film-based, standard definition dvd, with "All2HD" enabled, and "Digital Natural Motion" set to "Best Quality". Suddenly detail that you didn't think was there "SNAPS" into sharp relief...the "magic" of truly excellent "upscaling" (converting the 720 x 480 lines of a DVD into up to 1920 x 1080, or "1080p" resolution") YES it works, and makes standard "def" material look damn close to that shot in "High Def".

But amazing as the increased apparent resolution is, it's the extra resolution of MOTION made possible by the "Digital Natural Motion" that will likely make your jaw drop, as it did mine. We're all used to the "look" of film...and it can be quite glamorous in it's beauty. But the film "look" also includes artifact-ridden motion "judder" caused by the low frame-rate of only 24 frames per second. Live TV, or programming originating on videotape has always had smoother-looking motion, because the frame-rate for video sources is 30 frames per second (actually 29.970, but 30 is close enough for our sake). So why not just run film cameras at 30 frames per second? Well, there's the installed base of projection equipment that runs only at 24 fps. But more than that, people are used to the look of film, and many think the motion artifacts give film extra "character".

So what does WinDVD's "Digital Natural Motion" do? It takes the 24 frames of film-based material, and creates EXTRA frames, up to the refresh-rate of your monitor. If your monitor is set at 60hz (as most are these days), that's an extra 36 frames-per-second. These extra frames are generated "on-the-fly". WinDVD looks at where objects are in one "real" film frame, and the next "real" frame, then creates extra frames at evenly-spaced distances between the two. In other words, you actually see increased motion resolution that WAS NOT captured by the camera. The startling thing is, IT LOOKS REAL! ALL motion on-screen looks SO MUCH SMOOTHER! Is it accurate? HELL NO! And as a purist, you'll have to wrestle with this, as I did. Somehow the "judder" of 24fps film contributes to our distance from what we see reminds the brain "this is not real, it's a movie". Remove this restruction, let motion flow (apparently) as freely as in real life, and "HOLY SHIT BATMAN", the results are, well, STARTLING!

Is there a price to be paid for tinkering with our movies in this way? As Sarah Palin might say, "YOU BETCHA!" Sometimes there are artifacts. Somteimes the smooth motion will "stutter" for a fraction of a second (this is rare). And the technology is REALLY "caught with it's pants down" on material that's SUPPOSED to be "jumpy"...such as sudden slow-motion scenes in films, where the frame rate drops to just a couple of frames per second. "Digital Natural Motion" can go quite insane trying to make what essentially is intended to look like a series of stills look "smooth". Usually these artifacts are obvious only in direct comparison, but they're certainly there. Big deal. It's not perfect!

Using these enhancements in WinDVD will result in your looking at films in an entirely new way. Cinematographers will likely be outrated, as will film purists. But I'll bet even they would find this technology addictive in the long-run. It brings the viewer closer to what was in front of the lens, though not necessarily closer to what was intended to be captured on film. I know in my heart that what I'm seeing on my screen doesn't look at all like what the director and cinematographer saw on theirs. And usually I just don't care.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

RadioTime Red Button

I am a radio addict. I've worked in radio for 35 years, but I've listened my whole life. There are certain programs I JUST CAN'T MISS! And for the last couple of years, I've never had to. Because I leave Radiotime's "Red Button" running in the background all the time.

Radiotime's "Red Button" knows when my favorite shows are on, and captures them to my computer's hard drive. So I NEVER miss "A Prarie Home Companions", "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me", "Mountain Stage", "Whadya' know?", "The Tech Guy" with Leo Laporte, or other tech shows by people like Kim Komando and Dave Graveline.

I've tried other recording programs like "Replay AV" from Applian Technologies and "Total Recorder". Both are excellent at certain tasks, but both are far more complicated to set up than "Red Button". Which increases the likelihood that I'll miss my shows. And both are much bigger "resource hogs", so I wouldn't dare leave them running all the time...which also increases the likelihood that I WILL MISS MY SHOWS! Or I would. But with "Red Button" running, I NEVER miss a show. It's the best 29.95 I ever spent. If you're a dedicated program listener, you simply must try this software! There's even a free trial.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Overclock your EEEPC

I have just successfully "hacked" my Asus EEEPC 4G. Actually it's the latest of several "hacks"...I've managed to install XP Service Pack 3, despite the fact that it doesn't officially "fit" the 4GB internal memory. I did this by (another hack) moving Windows Temp files to the 8GB SDHC card that's permanently installed in the card slot.

Wishing to watch Netflix movies on my EEE, I also moved the temp files for Internet Explorer to my SDHC card (Netflix streaming movies require GIGABYTES of temp room for "buffering").

One of my complaints about the EEE has been that, as delivered, it really doesn't have enough power for flash-based video sites like Hulu...which makes "videos" look more like a slide show (it can, however, play most any video FILE...avi, wmv, mov). Which explains my latest "hack". I downloaded a utility called "EEECTL" from

NOTE: OVERCLOCKING IS POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS...especially if overdone and without the precautions discussed, and VOIDS YOUR WARRANTY! OVERCLOCKING CAN TURN YOUR COMPUTER INTO A PAPERWEIGHT! The faint of heart should stop reading NOW!

EEECTL is an executable program, which will need to be started every time you use it. A good thing, as you don't want to overclock your "little buddy" when reading e-mail, or "surfing"...that's just running the battery down quickly for no good reason. Once started, right-clicking the icon in the task bar allows you to adjust the clock speed to "stock" (601mhz), "medium" (828mhz), and "Full" (900mhz...the actual rated speed of the EEE's Celeron processor). Other adjustments are "FAN" (set to "100 percent" when overclocking!), and "Screen Brightness" (this can REALLY brighten the the cost of lots more battery drain!)

To verify that EEECTL was actually doing what it claimed, I downloaded CPU-Z from This is a great utility, allowing you to read clock speed, and MANY OTHER parameters of your system! First I measured the clock speed without EEECTL, and it measured exactly 601mhz. With EEECTL set to "FULL" the clock speed was 900mnz, as claimed! (Allow your system a few seconds for changes to take effect).

At the 900mhz speed, Flash video was "smooth as buttery on hot toast"! Everything else was snappier as well. But the bottom of my EEE ran noticably warmer, so I turned the fan up to 100 percent, and recommend you NEVER overclock without taking this precaution.

This "hack" gives such a performance advantage, that I can't imagine why any technically-minded EEE user wouldn't keep EEECTL handy on their system to use when you need that little extra "kick-in-the-pants" that only "more power" can provide!

Got any other useful "hacks" for your EEE? TELL ME PLEASE!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Fiio E5 portable headphone amplifier

A music lover who's also a gadget lover will eventually stumble onto the substantial niche market of headphone amplifiers. YES, the observant among us will note that your receiver, mp3 player, and even laptop already have headphone amps built in, so what's the point? The point is that the headphone amps in these devices are often either of dubious quality, or inadequate for driving high impedance headphones (more than 100 ohms), or difficult to drive ones (lower than 85db sensitivity). There's one other benefit. Relieved of the chore of driving headphones, the battery in your portable device will last longer.

Companies like Headroom ( ), Antique Sound Lab ( ), and Musical Fidelity ( ), Grado Labs ( ) and others have created and nurtured a cottage industry manufacturing headphone amplifiers for some time now. Headroom can be credited with more or less creating the PORTABLE headphone amplifier market. I have their first portable amp, the Airhead, and it's a great little product. Koss also makes an inexpensive model with a built-in equalizer, the EQ 50 (^ac^EQ50 ). While not without faults, one wouldn't expect it to be for the (about) twenty bucks it sells for. It sounds good, and can add "oomph" to, for instance, my portable cd player which has a headphone output that's quite anemic.

Then there's Fiio, a Chinese company that specializes in portable audio devices with tons of value for the money. Their first headphone amp, the E3 didn't have a volume control! The one under review here DOES ( ) have a volume control. It also has a defeatable bass boost (NON-defeatable in the either love all that bass, or you don't!), very nice feeling controls...three of them: power, bass boost on and off, as well as the volume control, which is "stepped" via an up/down rocker, NOT adjusted with a rotary potentiomete. The headphone output completes the top panel. On the bottom, there's a line input (connect to the line or headphone output on your device), and a miniature USB connector for recharging the built-in Lithium-Ion battery. On the side there's a permanently attached "belt clip". And other than the company logo, that's it.

The package contains the amplifier, two input cables (long and short), the USB cable (for battery charging), and the instructions. That's it. So let's get to does this thing sound? Well, it does what an amplifier SHOULD do. At low volumes, and with efficient headphones, very little. If your 'phones need some extra bottom, then the bass-boost adds it, without lots of mid-bass "boom". But if you have difficult-to-drive 'phones, like my Sennheiser HD-580s, then things get interesting. These 300 ohm phones are among the most difficult to drive on the market. Most portable devices can't get them above a whisper. The Fiio E5 CAN drive them to a decent level (!), and the bass bosst gives some much-needed "slam" in the bottom two octaves (not THAT much...these ain't "rock 'n roll" cans!) A real improvement for portable listening. Bravo! Still, this wouldn't be MY choice for portable listening...I'd like a little bit more "slam" on the bottom, and the ability to go just prehaps another three to five db louder. Still this makes these phones quite usable with portable devices...which surprised me!

Next up was my much easier to drive Bose on-ear headphones. While these are so sensitive that my Sansa View can drive them to uncomfortable levels on it's own, I was interested to see if the Fiio did anything useful. It did! The highs seemed a tad "smoother" (if the Bose 'phones have a fult, it's perhaps a tad bit too much "sizzle" in the upper mids, which the Fiio smoothed out). Cool! The difference was subtle, but there. The bass boost added more low-end "slam" as well, but since this isn't an area where the Bose 'phones need help, I quickly switched it back off. The ultimate volume available was quite a bit higher with the Fiio than straight out of my Sansa...which I tested by VERY QUICKLY advancing the volume WAY TOO HIGH! Still, with the Bose at least, this is of little importance to anyone not desiring premature hearing loss!

Finally out came the V-Moda "Bass Freq" earbuds. These were the most sensitive of the bunch, and hence needed extra amplification the least. The Fiio didn't really add anything useful...these phones are already a little "over-cooked" in the bass, they definitely didn't benefit from the bass boost! Again I noted a slight "softening" or "smoothing" of the upper mids and highs, but since the V-Modas are a bit recessed in this range anyway, I sure wouldn't buy the amp just for this (if these are your "buds" of choice). My conclusion: if you use very sensitive earbuds (and most fall into that category), you really can do without a headphone amp!

Conclusion: the E5 DOES what it claims! It has the surprising ability to drive even difficult 'phones to useful levels, it DOES add extra available volume (though often not needed0, and it DOES smooth-over the rough edges if your 'phones are a tad too aggressive "on top". Think "tube sweetness". That's right...this thing reminds me of a tube amp. And I mean that in a gOOD WAY!

And did I mention this thing is TINY (see pictures at the Fiio web site). It almost gets lost in a shirt pocket!

Recommendation: JUST BUY IT! I've saved the best for last...this baby is less than 30 (US) dollars INCLUDING SHIPPING! It adds no noise, distortion, or other "nasties" to the audio, and can be quite useful in the situations cited above. Again, JUST BUY THE THING! You won't regret it!

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Who says great vocal sound has to be expensive?

Great vocal sound needn't be expensive. In fact, it's shocking how inexpensive it's getting. Take microphones, for instance. Quality large-diaphragm condenser mics used to cost hundreds, or even thousands of dollars. Today there are truly excellent models for under 150 dollars...sometimes well under.

Take my new favorite, the NADY SCM-960. It has a 1" gold-sputtered diaphragm, switchable polar patterns (omni and cardioid), and a built-in 10db pad. That's the "nuts and bolts". The bottom line is, this thing sounds GREAT! It's warm and full on the bottom, with no "boom" on male voices, and crisp and present in the midrange and highs. This one really "cuts" through a dense mix...just what I need for voiceover work, and producing my radio show "Saving the 70s"

Next in my vocal chain is the ART Studio MP tube microphone preamp. It has a built-in limiter. Tweaked judiciously, this thing gives your voice that extra "something"...fullness, body, and 'punch'. Don't take my word for it, go to the above website and hear how my voice sounds through it! These are dynamite products, priced VERY affordably!

Are their problems? OF COURSE! Judicious adjustment of mic gain is necessary to avoid noise. The mic itself doesn't come with ANY attachment to mount it to a stand...UNFORGIVABLE with a mic that's designed EXCLUSIVELY for stand mounting. And spider shock-mount costs about 20 bucks (I got mine from Musicians Friend, where I bought the mic and preamp). And you'll need a good windscreen. That's it. THOSE ARE THE ONLY RESTRICTIONS TO THESE INCREDIBLY AFFORDABLE PRODUCTS! So if you have a studio for music, a radio broadcast, podcast, whatever, you simply must check these products out! YOU'RE WELCOME!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

New favorite headphones/Bose hater no more!

To say I've been a Bose hater for a long time is a slight exaggeration. I don't "hate" Bose. I just hate the direct/reflecting principle as applied to speakers. The goal of speaker systems SHOULD BE to present what's on the recording, in as linear and phase-coherent a manner as possible. Any "ambience" heard should be that of the original recording venue (or in the case of pop music, that chosen by the producer and artist(s)), NOT added randomly by the room! Bouncing sounds randomly off walls may sound pleasant. But it is the antithesis of HIGH FIDELITY!  That pleasant "warm glow", that pleasing homogenous sound IS AN INACCURACY, and not being on the original recording, IS NOT TRUE TO THE ARTISTIC VISION OF THOSE WHO MADE THE RECORDING!

Alright, that's my case against Bose. Now why I've fallen in love with one of their products. For my 50th(!!!) birthday, I received a pair of the Bose on-ear headphones. Now I've been a headphone junkie since about the age of 12, when I first patched a set of (very cheap) 'phones to my parents' Magnavox console stereo, and heard that amazing, engulfing panorama of sound for the first time. It still makes me smile! It's why, I'm embarrassed to admit, I became an early addict of "easy listening" music...the best sound on early FM stereo radio came from those "elevator music" stations, and it was magnificent!

At age 15 I got my first radio job, and have spent hours a day with headphones ever since. And I've been through a ton of them...from Koss to Sennheiser, moving coil to electrostatic, closed back to "open aire". There are many that I've enjoyed (many more that I've despised), but NEVER have I heard anything as startling as the clarity of these Bose headphones. With most headphones, there's an adjustment period. It takes time to get used to the particular colorations of each new design, until I train myself to listen through the flaws, and simply enjoy the music. Not so with the Bose headphones. 

The first time I heard them, they simply sounded RIGHT. No adjustment period was necessary. The bass is FULLY extended (down to the very "bassment"...a 20hz tone will rattle your grey matter!). The midrange is delightfully smooth, and uncolored. Highs are crisp, clear, and without undue emphasis to any sliver of the spectrum. THAT is why they sounded "right" to begin with. No strange "cupped hands" (around ears) coloration in the midrange, typical of so many closed-back headphones. No low bass rolloff, as typical of most lightweight, open-back headphones. EVERYTHING IS THERE, and in proper proportion.

That's what struck me in the beginning, but not what keeps me grinning. THAT (stupid grin on my face) comes from the ability of these 'phones to lay bare hidden details in recordings I've heard dozens, or even hundreds of times...resulting in new listening pleasure from even VERY familiar recordings! THAT makes the 160+ dollar investment seem like a steal! These things are simply marvelous.

So now for the first time in my adult life, when I visit an electronics store, I walk right past the display of headphones. I AM NOT INTERESTED IN OWNING ANY OTHER 'PHONES! For a headphone junkie like me, with shelves and drawers full of Sonys, Beyerdynamics, Sennheisers, and Koss'es, that is quite a statement! Thank you Robin (my lovely wife!) Your love is the greatest gift of all. But second, is those freakin' Bose headphones!

Now, that Bose Wave Music system looks like a pretty damn nice audio system for a small room, like a bedroom! ;)

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Asus EeePC--what a great gadget!

A couple of weeks ago I bought an Asus EeePC

What a great gadget! I wanted one when they first came out with a custom version of Linux last fall, but I held off. However, when a version with XP pre-installed became available, the EeePC went from an amazingly cute "geek toy", to a useful tool. Yes it's under-powered by the standards of today's full size/full price "fire breathing" dual-core monsters. It's STARVED for storage space, as well. A 28 dollar 8GB SDHC card from New Egg fixed that. So there are limitations. But it can do more than 90 percent of what I ask of a computer. It even works well at capturing video (from the built-in webcam) at 30fps (using Windows Movie Maker).

More on my experiences later with this wonderful gadget, er...useful tool.