Monday, December 20, 2010

Monday, December 13, 2010

HiFi ... from a computer

The biggest dis-service to music fidelity in the last twenty years has been the development of the all conquering iPod, or virtually any other .mp3 player and nasty, cheap earbuds.

It's a pity because the digital domain holds the key to the finest musical playback. True, some players can handle more accurate codecs such as .flac and .ogg, but the norm means people don't know how real music sounds through nice yet not necessarily very expensive equipment.

Anyway, I have been playing with digital reproduction from my computer to my hifi, producing quality at the very least comparable to CD, and often very much better.

D-Link DNS-323
All of my music is now stored - mostly in lossless format - on my home network using a Network Attached Storage - NAS - device, in my case a D-Link DNS-323 with 2x1Tb in a RAID1 configuration. I'll deal with how to run a NAS device and how to prepare music files in another article.

The device is used to serve music to my laptop via WiFi. So far I've found WiFi to be perfectly adequate to serve audio files. It may be better to use a wired network connection if you intend to use video files.

Media Monkey
Currently, I am using Media Monkey Gold to handle my music files. It seems to sort and organise thousands of files well and it can also handle my PodCasts fairly efficiently. The main problem with MM is that it doesn't handle Internet Radio very well. In fact although it can handle IR streams it has no functionality to organise or store IR stations.
Media Monkey audio settings
MM can be set up to output digital audio data in a fairly flexible way. At the moment I am experimenting with two means of exporting digital data.

USB soundcard/S-PDIF output and
direct USB output from laptop
Firstly, direct from a USB port into the DacMagic which shows up as a soundcard when it's connected via a USB cable. I am also using a Turtle Beach Audio  Advantage USB soundcard to stream data to the DacMagic using S-PDIF via a toslink cable, basically optical fibre.

Rear of DacMagic
The back of the DacMagic shows the interconnects - from top to bottom - power / USB input / toslink S-PDIF input / CD S-PDIF input / RCA line out to amplifier.

I am also trying to get this laptop to output S-PDIF directly. I understand it's possible to do this by tapping the audio output of the S-Video connection. I have a cable adapter which should be able to do this, but despite being able to configure the laptop to produce an S-PDIF stream - it shows in the windows sound configuration complete with working sound level graphic I haven't managed to find out where it comes out of the computer, to use a technical term ...

Options I have which work consist of the following:

Media Monkey digital output : ASIO and waveOUT. I think the ASIO output codec is the superior, but waveOUT handles gapless playback. I haven't found a means of delivering gapless through ASIO. I'm not certain it's even possible. Anyway, the difference between ASIO and waveOUT is miniscule, if it even exists, so currently I'm sticking with waveOUT.

Output device : I currently have the choice of two. Direct USB output to the DacMagic or S-PDIF via the Turtle Beach soundcard. Direct output gives a sampling rate of 44.1kbps, identical to a CD. Using S-PDIF the output rises to 48kbps. I'm not certain if this is a true rate or whether the Turtle Beach upsamples from 44.1kbps to 48kbps. These rates are, as I understand it, the maximum which can be achieved via a USB port, hence my interest in direct S-PDIF. The DacMagic should be able to handle up to 96kbps, but it's feasible to double even that for near perfect reproduction.

Optical output on USB
To be honest, it is very difficult to discern any difference whichever combination of codecs and devices are used up to the point of the DacMagic. Far greater differences result by adjusting the digital filters - not at all like tone controls on an amplifier - and the phase of the digital signal. Nor can I give any individual characteristic to interconnecting cables whether they are optical fibre, USB or digital audio. Sorry expensive hifi cable manufacturers.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Keeping Warm pt2 - Core Warmth
Having previously covered extremities - hands and feet - I'm going to take a moment looking at how to keep your body warm. Actually, not so much keeping warm, because cycling at a reasonable rate is going to warm you up, but more accurately, stopping getting cold.

Any garment needs to maintain a careful balance between insulating you from the elements and stopping you becoming too hot, or at least too sweaty and thus reducing the effectiveness of the insulation.

Again, one of the most important properties of any garment, apart from breathability, is the ability to stop wind passing through the fabric and taking away heat. There are a number of fabrics which will do this to some degree or another, so make wind-stopping ability high on your agenda when making a purchase.

Currently, I wear a Gore Tool jacket. It has a few nice features; the breast pocket is mesh lined so it's possible to let a controlled amount of cool air enter if things do start to warm up on those hills. Similarly, there are zipable vents under the armpits which also allow cooling without a howling gale blasting into your chest.

I have a jacket from Assos which has similar properties. When worn with a thermal base layer it's hard to believe such a thin covering can be so warm and comfortable.

Almost all the properties which apply to your torso also apply to your legs with the added criterion of mobility. Some riders wear knickers - as they are known in the US - or plusses elsewhere, with long socks to cover the gap between the shoe and the cuff of the garment.

If you are tall, plusses often terminate just below the knee so are to a large extent not practical, at least to the extent of keeping you warm. Most riders go with full-length tights. Whichever you choose, winter is what bibs were made for, keeping the area around the lower back and kidneys warm.

The best tights comprise of a wind-stopper layer as well as a thermal lining. Make sure they're not too snug. You need to maintain a layer of air to maintain warmth.

Lastly, don't forget your head and ears. Most modern cycling helmets are designed to let the wind whistle through and keep your head cool ... fine for the summer. However, you can lose a substantial amount of heat through your head as well as risk nipping your ears if they're not protected, due to wind-chill.

I use a couple of items, depending on the weather; a fine fleece cap which also covers my ears, and a wind-stopper skull cap if it looks like rain.

Most helmets will accommodate a cap worn underneath, although my most expensive helmet will not, because higher-end helmets tend to be more accurately sized, as opposed to the universal fit. I tend to use a universal helmet in the winter to be more comfortable. It also means I don't feel so bad about strapping lights and sticking conspicuity stuff on it. leaving my super-cool summer helmet pristine ... If you insist on cycling through blizzards and sub-zero temperatures - degrees C that is - consider a balaclava or bandit mask to protect your face.

Cycling makes particular demands on winter apparel. There's a world of difference between stuff that's suitable for, say, running and cycling ... about 15mph of wind-chill for a start. So get down to your LBS - local bike shop - get some advice and get the right stuff. It's not cheap, but believe me, when push comes to shove you'll not regret a single penny spent on top-class gear.
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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Prick Up Your Ears ...

... as Joe Orton once said, or, I think that's what he said.

Anyway, here are a few links to stuff that have caught my ears lately:

The Music Parlour - - links to mostly old, mostly out of copyright music which has been transferred to .flac or .wav for free.

This only applies to music which has never been issued digitally, but rather transcribed from LP, tape and FM. There's also a 78rpm archive.

Everybody knows the BBC is quite possibly the greatest broadcasting/news/media organisation in the world, right? And so it should be for what it costs.

Yet, lurking within the US' National Public Radio - NPR - which shamefully has to beg for money every few weeks or so, are three of the best radio programmes in the world. Follow links below to download podcasts from these shows;

This American Life - podcast - this show features anything, from a kid preparing for their first day at school to travelling with a National Guardsman on patrol in Afghanistan, all contained in the richest aural landscape and the minimum of commentary. Probably the highest production values of any documentary radio show in the world.

A Prairie Home Companion - podcast - A genuine old-fashioned radio variety show, recorded live, on stage, around the USA, featuring comedy, drama, music, chat and just about anything else that could possibly come across on radio, all held together by Garrison Keillor, a gentleman who could truely be said to have a great face for radio ...

Radiolab - podcast - two geeky sort of guys shooting the breeze about science and technology ... yes ... that's it? Well, then it all starts ... Who needs pictures???
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My Ideal Retail Emporium ...

... existed about 100 years ago.

Bicycles and hifi ... all that's missing is a Bass hand-pump.
click on image

Monday, December 06, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Different ...

... Or at least a topic I haven't touched on for quite a while. But the nasty cold weather is back so once again I get the urge to listen to music.

Most of the hifi equipment I've collected over the years has been in the cellar, in boxes, gathering dust when it really needs to be listened to and cherished.

So with a view to setting up some sort of permanent set up, I've bird's nested up the essential components - minus the record turntable - on the coffee table. And it works ... and how. Okay, it's not "audiophile", whatever that is, and thank goodness for that, but a means of making nice music sound nice. Of course, by nice music, I mean music I like, and by sounding nice I mean, sounding like I think it ought to sound. What's wrong with that?

This is the hub of it. At the moment the system consists of two digital audio input devices, a Little Dot CDP_I disc transport - not a CD player - and my Dell Inspiron 1420 laptop. These are switched through a Cambridge DacMagic through to a Marantz PM6003 integrated amp which handles the Quad 11L2 speakers. Sennheiser HD580 headphones are driven by a Little Dot MkIII valve amp.
Here you can see the resulting cable matrix. The CDP_1 (centre) outputs raw numbers only to the DacMagic (right) via a ChunkyCables' s-pdif cable (grey). You can also see a toslink cable running from my laptop into the back of the DacMagic. I'm playing with the laptop output at the moment.

I am also trying a direct usb connection, but the toslink enables me to try a s-pdif connection from the computer using a TurtleBeach USB sound card which produces the maximum bitrate from a USB source - 48kbps - as opposed to the 44.1kbps rate from a vanilla usb socket. The Inspiron can also be persuaded to produce a true s-pdif output via its S-Video socket, but I need to investigate pin-outs and stuff before I can either source or make my own adaptor,

The analogue output from the DacMagic is taken care of by a pair of ChunkyCables' phono cables (black).

The Marantz handles output from the DacMagic, directing the power amp to the Quads via Chord Carnival speaker connects and tapping the line source through to the Little Dot head amp for headphone listening via QED Silver Spiral connects.

Virtually all my music collection has been ripped via a lossless codec to my music server. I also have a few very high bitrate files but until I figure out true s-pdif from the laptop it will be hard to tell if it's of any benefit.

Access and delivery is via my laptop using MediaMonkey. Currently, I'm playing with output methods, including waveOut and ASIO. ASIO seems superior, but can't handle gapless and since a lot of my music has this demand I'm currently using waveOut.
In the next few updates I'll cover some of this stuff in greater detail and in addition how to rip CDs perfectly using Exact Audio Copy and run a music file server.

Lastly, a quick word about cables or, if you like, audio interconnects. There is a load of rubbish spoken/written on this topic, and you could spend more than the cost of all the components in this system on just one pair of wires - and then some ... IMHO so long as you get well made connects made from good components you'll never hear any difference from mega-expensive "audiophile" cords. If you can hear the difference, then I'm delighted for you, the more so since there is a million dollar prize available for anyone who can tell an exotic connect from a mundane plain and simple cable ... go get ;-)

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Still on Warm Feet ...

I recently read an article in some old codgers' bike forum which mentioned in passing a plausible contributor to cold feet; cleats, and in particular the mountain bike SPD type cleat which is all metal and thus a good conductor of heat, unfortunately, away from your already thermally challenged tootsies.

Road cleats tend to be made of better insulated plastic material, but more especially don't have a built-in heat-sink, technically known as the nut, placed just under the ball of your foot just soaking away that precious warmth, through the cleat bolts to the outside. You can see the nut in the component diagram to the right. It's that plate of metal, placed inside the shoe, that the cleats bolt into.

So, as well as sealing up all those purposeful air ducts in your shoe for the winter, you might want to consider a thin layer of insulating material over the cleat nut in your shoe. Just don't pack your shoe out too much ...
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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Season's Greetings ...

From Linda and myself ... oh, and a special friend ...

Personalize funny videos and birthday eCards at JibJab!