Monday, October 29, 2007

Skullcandy "Smokin' Buds" Ink'd

What a terrible name for a consumer electronics company..."Skullcandy". What a horrid company logo...a SKULL! What ugly, blue, green headphones! I didn't expect much when I saw the "Ink'd" earbuds on sale at Staples yesterday (10/28/07) for 12.99! But I love earphones, and love finding a bargain, so I thought "what the hell".

The first thing I discovered was that the rubber tips that come fitted were perfect for my reason to try the two other sizes which were supplied. So I inserted the plug into my Sandisk Sansa E250 mp3 player, running a customized version of the Rockbox operating system (this version allowing "bookmarking" of MPEG video files, and allowing starting video files at any point simply by entering the time...other than that, it's pretty comparable to the current build of Rockbox. More coming on this player, and Rockbox firmware).

The first thing I noticed was that isolation is near total. It would be hard to hear someone standing next to you, even if they were SCREAMING! Time to listen to some music! First up, "Forget about it" from Alison Krauss....featuring her whisper-quiet voice at it's sweetest. I immediately noticed something quite different from the vast majority of earbuds...the midrange and highs sounded RIGHT! Voices didn't sound hollow, bloated, nasal, or any of those other nasty things that earbuds usually do to them. The timbre was pretty much spot-on! Highs were also clean and extended, without obvious emphasis or peaks! Then the song reached the chorus, Alison's voice soared, the bassline sank, and my jaw dropped. These 'phones are unbelievably full, and extended on the bottom-end...going clean to the "bass-ment". Yes they're on the "warm" side of neutral "down there", but not bloated or "one-note" in any way. Everything was clean as a whistle. WOW! I suddenly came to realize that these were among the best headphones or earphones I'd ever heard at ANY price...and that includes multi-megabuck Stax electrostatics, high-end Sennheisers, BeyerDynamics and others. I just heard more detail! A case in point was a tune from "Windham Hill Sampler '86" that I bought new during the Reagan Administration. I've listened to this disc countless times, but never noticed accents on snare drum on this one particular track ("Dolphins" by Mike Marshall). WOW! That's the very definition of high-end gear...allowing you to hear deeper into a recording, bringing you closer to the music. And this extra clarity wasn't the result of an over-accentuated, soon-to-be-fatiguing high end. Not on your life!

Are there faults? Of this, and every other audio product. But they're too few, and too small to mention. Ok...I'll mention one...left and right channels are not labeled. I labeled them by wrapping a piece of freezer tape around the cord of each channel at the dividing poing of the "Y", and color coding the one for right red, and left black with "Sharpie" pens. That's it. Buy the damn things! Hell, buy two pairs of 'em. I'm going back for a spare!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

I'm full of shit!

On at least one topic (others too, no doubt), I'm full of shit! The topic is the "best source of legal downloads". Earlier I enthused that it was "E Music", hands down. A month later I did as I always do...dropped my E-Music account, and moved on...this time to Yahoo Music Unlimited. They simply offered more of the artists I was interested in, and were a great fit for my Sandisk Sansa E250 and Archos GMini402 players.

Besides...with a little bit of software, ANY of these formats can be easily converted to unencrypted mp3. Not that I'd know from personal experience. Breaking DRM is against the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and a crime. Even if I paid for the content! What a great law! God bless the (recently departed) republican congress! ;)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

HD Entering the mainstream

Finally HD Radio is becoming more than just something for radio geeks, as it begins to be included in mainstream devices, at prices that people would pay for the device anyway, with or without HD Radio. A few examples below.

Insignia (Best Buy) shelf system with AM/FM, CD, MP3, WMA, AND HD Radio...just 150 bucks (a bargain with or without HD)

Sony High Quality Stereo Table Radio WITH HD (High end table radios are already established bestsellers for companies like Bose, Cambridge Soundworks, Tivoli, and PolkAudio).

Dual car stereo with HD for 89.99 (also plays cd, mp3, and wma...again, a great buy with or without HD)

These are MAINSTREAM products, at prices that people routinely pay for such devices. With more products like these, HD can't help but become mainstream, as more and more Americans discover they actually "already have it".

"Honey, this light that says "HD Radio" is on. I think it sounds better. What does that mean?"

Monday, October 15, 2007

HD Radio at Best Buy

Last week I was at Best Buy in Winston-Salem, NC, and they were playing a long message over the PA system extolling the virtues of HD quality audio (their term, not mine), new "hidden" channels that you can only get with an HD Radio (new music formats, more news, etc...the things we listen to radio for), and NO MONTHLY FEES, EVER!

It's about time they started promoting HD Radio like they mean it. The technology (for FM stations, I still have no experience with AM HD) works great. The sound is fantastic. And it truly has brought me programming I can't get anywhere else, even with a 5mbps broadband connection, and an XM subscription.

As for AM HD, I have yet to have anything "lock on" with my Accurian (Radio Shack) HD Radio, including WBT Charlotte (about 80 miles from my home). But when near Charlotte (Statesville, Hickory), I HAVE heard some low level noise on adjacent channels (to two Charlotte stations...1110AM, and 610AM). A friend says the 610AM signal in Charlotte is damaging reception of his analog-only 630AM licensed to Hickory, and I believe him. It's always been a challenge fitting a gallon (high quality audio) in a quart container (a 10khz AM channel). A challenge that stations HAVE been able to meet for many decades. But the extra bandwidth occupied by HD isn't "a gallon", but more like "ten gallons". And the little 10khz-wide AM channel just can't contain it, so it's "spilling over" onto 1st and 2nd adjacent channels. Drip, drip!

So AM HD causes interference to adjacent channels (apparently). And when it works correctly, digital coverage is a lot more restricted than analog (I have no trouble receiving WBT's analog signal!). How badly do we want digital to work in the mediumwave band? And are we allowing that desire to cloud our judgement? I'm a huge believer in digital technology, and that in the future all media (most of it, anyway...I still enjoy print on paper!) will be delivered as packets of data...binary code. What I'm questioning is whether THIS (AM HD) is the best way for AM stations to deliver those packets!

Vizio VX32L

In July my wife and I bought our first HDTV...a Vizio VX32L...599 at Sears. It's a 32" 720p panel (no need for more resolution in this size simply wouldn't see it). At first I had trouble getting decent black level. Finally, against my better judgement, I started experimenting with the automatic doo-dads under the "Advanced" menu. A combination of "black level extender", and "auto-luma" did the trick. Now there's plenty of contrast, and plenty of detail in dark scenes. Plus images really "pop" on over-the-air high-def material (we also put up a new Antennacraft antenna, with Winegard pre-amp, and Channelmaster rotor).

Reception in our deep-fringe location (80 miles from Charlotte NC, about 60 from Greensboro, 100 miles from Asheville and Greenville/Spartanburg) is great. I do wish the damn thing had a signal strength meter for aligning the antenna, however.

Now a couple of gripes. There are plenty of inputs, including two composite/S-Video, two component, one VGA, and two HDMI. I hooked up my new dvd recorder to HDMI, and was surprised at two findings. 1)-There is no aspect ratio control through HDMI. If the content is 4:3, and coming through HDMI, it gets "stretched"...period. Bummer. Still most feature films and primetime shows are widescreen. Then there's the BIG blow...images are just too damn dark through HDMI. Black level ("brightness") can't be raised enough to bring out detail in dark sequences. BIG F###ING BUMMER! Fortunately images through component inputs look great. I wish I could send 720p in through component, but my DVD recorder only allows 480p through this output. Not really a deal-breaker, as the TV seems to "upscale" just as well.

All in all, a great tv at a great price. Soon, more on my new DVD recorder...a Philips with ATSC digital tuner!