Posts Tagged ‘Technology’

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Favorite movies – everybody has some. Mine include Almost Famous, American Beauty, Billy Jack, Casablanca, Grease, Rear Window, Serenity, Some Like It Hot, the Bourne trilogy and last year’s big-screen Veronica Mars flick, among others. A few are stone-cold classics. Others – some might call them mediocre or even dreck. But, so what? I enjoy them.

Beyond the Sea, the 2004 Kevin Spacey film about Bobby Darin, is yet another favorite. It’s flawed, for sure – and something I may never have seen save for my mother-in-law, who loves going to the movies. As a result, for a time last decade, we did just that. In this particular instance, the film before had been a bore – a French film that should have been called Ennui. Ennui Part II was next on the docket – if my mother-in-law had her way, that is. Diane, however, suggested we see the new Kevin Spacey movie instead as a way of placating me.

Understand, all I knew about Darin at the time was “Splish Splash” and “Dream Lover”; and only from hearing them on Happy Days and Michael St. Johns’ Saturday night oldies show in the mid-to-late 1970s. Darin made his mark, of course, when he graduated from pop ’n’ roll to “Mack the Knife” and became an adult-contemporary/supper-club performer with a knack for making every song he sang his. That’s how I describe him now, mind you. In December 2004, however, when presented with the option of seeing Beyond the Sea, I simply figured: It’s Spacey. Non-French. Why not?

Suffice it to say, the movie proved to be a revelation. Spacey’s performance led me to buy the soundtrack, and then an actual Darin best-of, which in turn led to various live sets and studio albums. The movie also led, indirectly, to more than just Darin. Prior, I gave short shrift to the supper-club musicians of yore – I was a kid of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, after all, raised on rock, pop, country, folk, R&B and soul. I’d been led to believe that Darin and what (I mistakenly thought) he represented just weren’t cool.

Beyond the Sea taught me that I was wrong.

That’s a rather long-winded introduction to this next bit: One day, while browsing Bobby Darin CDs on Amazon, I noticed a Peggy Lee collection listed under the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…” recommendations. I made a mental note, moved on. I’d seen her name from time to time, as most of a certain age have, and was familiar with her classic “Fever”…

…but that was it.

A year-or-so later – yes, that’s how long it can take me to pull the trigger on a purchase (I am great at not making up my mind) – I plunked down $33 for the 4-CD Singles Collection. The sales price was too good to pass up.

My short-and-simple review of the set, then and now: There aren’t enough superlatives to describe it. At her best, regardless of genre (and the collection veers from big band to swing to late-‘60s/early ‘70s adult contemporary), she’s living the lyrics as she sings them – happy, sad, sensual, world-weary, what have you. Over time, the set led to other Peggy Lee albums, both on CD and iTunes and/or Amazon downloads – especially the latter, due to Amazon’s (at the time) frequent sales. One download, from Amazon, was her collaboration with legendary jazz pianist George Shearing, Beauty and the Beat! At $2.99, it was a steal; and it quickly became my second favorite Peggy Lee set, with only the sultry Black Coffee ranking ahead of it.

Those were the days, I hasten to add, when I couldn’t discern a difference between CD-quality and downloads – not because of my ears, but my speakers. Most of my listening, then and now, comes here, at my desk – and my desktop computer speakers at the time, while decent, just weren’t good enough. CDs, downloads and YouTube videos sounded the same; and because I made mix CDs from what was on my computer for the car, what I heard on my car’s speakers sounded as good (or bad, depending on how one looks at it). It wasn’t until I upgraded the speakers in 2010, after a year-plus of deliberating, that I realized how foolish I’d been.

The thousands of CDs that I’d encoded at 256kbps and 320kbps became a figurative albatross around my neck. Mind you, the sound is akin to FM radio – decent, if somewhat distant and thin. And the albums and songs I’d bought at those bit-rates were… a sign of my ignorance. That’s why, in 2010, I began encoding everything as ALAC (the Apple equivalent of FLAC). Sure, they took up more room – but the sonic results were more than worth that (small) sacrifice.

Well, last night, thanks to a birthday gift (certificate) from my friend Luanne a few weeks back, I downloaded Beauty and the Beat! from HDTracks.com in full 24-bit, 192kHz glory – that means the master tape (or close equivalent) was encoded into digital at those settings and, for download purposes, not dumbed down to 16-bit/44.1kHz CD settings (or worse). I.e., it’s as close to the original as possible. I loaded the album onto my Pono Player and…wow. Just wow. The Amazon download sounds decent – like I said above, akin to FM radio. The high-res download, on the other hand, sounds like Peggy Lee is singing in my ear.

The set, I should mention, is billed as live, but is actually a studio set with the applause spliced in. Shearing and band have some wondrous instrumentals – especially “Mambo in Miami” and “Isn’t It Romantic”; Shearing’s piano reverberates as if you’re in the room with him, and the percussion…have I said “wow”? Check out the bass run on “Satin Doll.” The reason for purchasing it, though, is Peggy Lee. Her vocals are beyond belief. “Do I Love You,” “I Lost My Sugar in Salt Lake City,” “Blue Prelude,” “Always True to You in My Fashion” and “There’ll Be Another Spring” sound – well, I already said it’s like she’s singing in your ear. If you close your eyes, you’ll swear that’s the case.

It makes me yearn to hear Black Coffee – both the album and title track – in high-resolution.

And, listening to “Blue Prelude” as I type, I realize that I have none other than Kevin Spacey – and my mother-in-law, of all people – to thank for introducing me to Peggy Lee. If not for her penchant for movies, and Spacey’s decision to make Beyond the Sea, I never would have discovered Bobby Darin and, through him (and Amazon), Peggy Lee. And if not for Peggy Lee, my discovery of Melody Gardot – her modern-day heir, in my opinion – might not have happened.

The point of this too-long post? Don’t discount the decades that came before one’s birth; nor genres of music you assume you’ll dislike. There are too many good sounds to be enjoyed; and history to be learned.

Oh – and the Pono Store needs gift certificates.

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It’s been a quite some time since I wrote about the Pono Player and high-def audio. Given that Pono founder – and music legend – Neil Young made news a week-or-so ago when he yanked his music from all the streaming services due to his dismay over their poor audio quality, I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss it again.

First, as I think I wrote in my initial take on the device, I am not an audiophile. I appreciate good sound, but own mid-tier most things; and am quite content listening to music via my THX-certified Logitech desktop computer speakers here in my home office. They sound good, to my ears, though never quite as good as when I have the Pono Player plugged into them. Our downstairs sound system, a 15-year-old (or so) Phillips mini-system, does a good job, too, though never as good as when I have the Pono Player plugged into it. And the sound system in my Honda Civic is, I think, quite good – though never as good as when I have the Pono Player plugged into the aux jack.

The last halves of those last three sentences say it all.

I have decent headphones, as well, that I occasionally make use of – but I have a love/hate affair with headphones as a whole, so listen with them less often. Sometimes, at work, I pull them out and plug them into my Pono Player – and the sound is much, much better than what I experienced on my iPhone 5.

Right now, I’m listening to Elite Hotel by Emmylou Harris – 24-bit, 192kHz – in my home office via my THX-certified Logitech speakers. The best way I can describe the difference between it – or any well-mastered high-def recording – and, say, an MP3, ACC, OGG or whatever format the streaming services use – can be summed up in one word: space. The instruments and vocals aren’t smushed together into an unholy alliance, but instead possess distinct tonalities that one can easily distinguish. The subtle shadings of Emmy’s vocal delivery in, for example, “Here, There and Everywhere” are audible. It’s akin to listening in the same room as one’s speakers vs. listening to them from another room. You can still make out the melody, instruments and vocals in the latter instance, but the sound is nowhere near as clear as the former.

That said, the gap between high-def audio and CD-quality (16-bit, 44.1kHz) isn’t quite as wide. High-res material, which can range from 24-bit, 44.1kHz to 24-bit, 192kHz and up, sounds a tad sharper and deeper, but – to borrow an analogy from another technology – it’s somewhat akin to the difference between 720p and 1080p on an HD TV, I think, or even 1080p and ultra-HD. The additional pixels only matter the closer one sits to the TV. I say “somewhat akin” because, as I said at the outset, the difference in sound quality is noticeable – but it’s not a dramatic difference. (Admittedly, part of my conclusion may have to do with my mid-tier equipment; and my unwillingness to deal with headphones on a regular basis. I do plan, at some juncture, to upgrade the former.)

Where the Pono Player shines, however, is in its DAC, which makes everything it plays sound better. First Aid Kit’s 16-bit, 44.1kHZ rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America,” for instance, sounds heavenly. (It’s available in the Pono Music Store, I should mention.) Their harmonies aren’t quite as lush as they are on the songs found on the 24-bit/44.1kHz Stay Gold, but the difference isn’t as stark as between MP3 (or equivalent) and CD-quality or higher.

All that said, do I recommend the Pono Player? For a casual music fan, no. But for anyone who loves music, still buys CDs and rips them into lossless FLAC or ALAC files, yes. Even if you never buy a high-resolution song or album, you’ll appreciate the sonic difference. And if you do take the plunge, whether at the Pono Music Store or any of its competitors, such as HDTracks, you’ll appreciate the difference all the more. I can’t imagine not having mine.

I hesitate to say that the Pono Player makes one feel the music, but it does. It’s not the live experience distilled into a portable container, mind you, but – at its best – it’s the studio experience. When listening to Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, for example, you feel like you’re in the room with them.

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These past few weeks I’ve immersed myself in alternate universes: Fringe, which I’m re-watching, and The Gilmore Girls, which is brand-new to me. One of the things that amuses me about the latter is Lorelei’s stream-of-consciousness/beat-like patter; another is Rory’s friend Lane’s music obsession. In between watching those shows, well, there’ve been the usual suspects: Covert Affairs, Homeland, The Big Bang Theory and Once Upon a Time, plus the occasional Law & Order rerun.

There’s also been plenty of music.

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Back in March, I signed on as a backer of Neil Young’s Pono Kickstarter campaign, pledging for one of the limited-edition Neil Young & Crazy Horse-branded players. “Pono,” for those who don’t know, is Hawaiian for righteous; and the player is definitely that. I wrote a rather long and convoluted post about it, but decided to nix it and start again, beginning with the description from the Pono page:

“The PonoPlayer transports you to a sublime musical experience, from the most delicate passages of a string quartet to the thunderous power of a heavy metal band. This portable audio player uses circuitry taken straight from Ayre’s own top-of-the-line products, costing tens of thousands of dollars, for unparalleled sound quality and unrivaled listening pleasure. Pono supports playback of high-fidelity audio of up to 192kHz/24 bit resolution.”

It’s an audiophile’s version of an iPod, essentially.

Now, some audiophiles will tell you that, long before the shift to MP3s and AACs, digital distilled the warmth out of music. I disagree. A well-mastered CD sounds as good to my ears as vinyl ever did. Natalie Merchant’s self-titled album from this year is a good example. The sound is warm and spacious – phenomenal, actually. But in the early days of CDs, an assortment of variables iced the sound – not all the time, mind you, but often enough. The use of production masters meant for vinyl, for one, resulted in what might best be called “mimeographed audio.” The music was faint, thin and flat, not full and well-rounded. Another variable: nth-generation masters, which – just like nth-generation cassette copies –  sported degraded sound. There are also stories (and they may well be urban legends) of record companies, in those early years, of using cassettes as the source for some CDs in their mad rush to get product out the door.

By the time that was sorted out, the early- to mid-1990s, another variable was introduced: loudness. The volume was pushed to the max in the mastering process, resulting in clipped highs and lows. Dynamic range went out the window, in other words. (See this excellent explanation on CDmasteringservices.com for more information.)

To shift gears for a second: Store-bought MP3s and AACs are generally encoded at 256kbps. That a CD is 1411kbps, consumers are told (often by one another), is beside the point. Compression algorithms ensure that we’ll hear a faithful representation of the source material. So an MP3 or AAC of a subpar track is going to sound equally lousy. Conversely, a great-sounding CD that’s been encoded into MP3s or AAC will, in many instances, sound “good enough.” Almost everyone multitasks these days, after all, and for many people the music is pushed to the background when doing so. I see it in my office, where many folks, including me, often have headphones on while focused on their work; and, at least with me, I’m often so focused that I don’t even hear the music.

But for serious listening “good enough” isn’t good enough. FLAC and the Apple lossless equivalent, ALAC, have always been the way to go. Until now.

In an A-B test pitting the PonoPlayer against my iPhone 5, using my mid-tier Logitech desktop computer speakers and standard-def FLAC and ALAC (Apple Lossless) files of Rumer’s “Dangerous,” “Sam” and “I Am Blessed” (from her new Into Colour album), Pono delivered a wider and deeper soundscape. The music is more visceral, immediate and – dare I say it? – warm; and her luscious vocals are whipped-cream rich. The same’s true when listening with my mid-tier Bose headphones. That’s due, no doubt, to the Pono’s singular focus on audio; unlike a smart phone, it need not be all things to all people.

A quick comparison to my MacBook Pro with the same files, however, reveals a negligible difference. If I wasn’t the one hitting stop and start, I likely wouldn’t have known which was which.

Where the Pono has the edge: Its ability to handle high-resolution audio. That means 24 bit and up to 192kHz vs. the iPhone’s CD-quality 16 bit/44.1kHz limitation and the MacBook’s native 24 bit/96kHz support. Theoretically speaking, the high-resolution files should be akin to the original studio masters, with no limits on the highs or lows, and no compression.

It’s been said (and proven) that humans can’t hear all the additional frequencies included in high-resolution tracks, and I am one who believes in science. But there is a difference. The deluxe Paul McCartney reissues, which I’ve religiously purchased since they began in 2010, come with 24 bit, 96kHz “unlimited” downloads in addition to the physical CDs. The opening tracks of the high-res Venus & Mars reveals a slightly richer, well-rounded sound – that’s evident via listening on my MacBook, but on the PonoPlayer they sound even better. And the same result is had when comparing the 24 bit, 192kHz version of Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Psychedelic Pill, which came with the player, to my Apple Lossless version.

Comparing the high-resolution tracks to MP3s of the same source material, however, is akin to comparing day to night. Joni Mitchell’s Blue is a sheer revelation; you hear the vibrato of the plucked guitar strings. It’s magical. And Dusty Springfield’s classic Dusty in Memphis conjures the smell of new vinyl.

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At present, the biggest issue I’ve had hasn’t been the player or its sound, but the PonoMusic ecosystem. The software is somewhat clunky, especially for one coming from iTunes or Windows Media Player; and the store, though well stocked of standard-resolution content, lacks much of the same high-resolution material that can be had elsewhere (HDTracks.com) – and is a tad overpriced. I expect both to change in the coming months, however, as more people sign on.

Oh, and one more thing: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere rocks. It’s the best version of that classic (one of my Top 10 albums of all time) I’ve ever heard.

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Did you know that my hometown of Hatboro, Pa.,  was serviced by two phone companies in 1908? Bell Telephone oversaw everything east of York Road while the Keystone Telephone and Telegraph handled everything to the west. And interoperability between the services was non-existent – for folks with Bell to call folks with Keystone they needed a Keystone phone (and vice versa). As a result, many businesses kept phones from both companies on the premises.

That’s one of many neat factoids I discovered in the Images of America book Hatboro, a terrific stroll down history lane that I received for Christmas.

The times have changed, and are ever-changing: This week my niece Paige turns 18. If my math is right, that means she was born in 1995, the same year that ordinary folks began logging onto the Internet en masse. Prior to that, proprietary services like AOLCompuServe and Prodigy existed and, similar to 1908 Hatboro, to send an e-mail to a pal meant that he or she needed to be on the same service. There could be limits on top of that, too. In 1991, for example, Prodigy began charging users 25 cents an e-mail after 30 missives a month.

Granted, my history of the Internet is nowhere near complete – see this Wikipedia entry for something more thorough. But the growth and use of the ‘Net was the first thing I thought of when contemplating how day-to-day life has changed since Paige’s birth. This past week I was felled by a virulent flu, for instance, but was still able to go to work – as I’ve done on other occasions, I telecommuted into the office. For me, that means sitting at my computer in my den beside a window that overlooks a squirrel-populated tree. On Friday I noticed two squirrels grooming each other – something I’d never seen before. Curious if it was a new phenomenon, I performed a quick Internet search that led to a rather voluminous page on all things gray squirrel. The little critters do indeed groom one another, it turns out, especially during winter. In mere minutes I confirmed something that 18 years ago would have entailed a library trip.

Here’s another change: when I left for Happy Valley in 1985 to complete my college education, I brought along a small boombox and maybe 10 percent of my music collection – a few dozen pre-recorded and homemade cassettes. The cream of the crop, if you will, of a collection that I painstakingly curated through trips to the Hatboro Music Shop, Memory Lane Records in Horsham and Third Street Jazz in Philadelphia. Contrast that to today, when I’d be able to cart all of the 4,441 albums that make up my and Diane’s current collection on an external hard drive (I encoded everything we had a few years back, and now routinely rip everything we buy) – or simply rely on Spotify. Anyone can amass an instantly incredible and deep music collection, these days, without leaving one’s home or spending much money. (As Irv Homer used to say, it boggles the mind.)

Cell phones were around in 1995, of course. Mulder on The X-Files had one. But all they were good for were making and receiving calls. How quaint, huh? Now, they’re used for everything but calls – texting came into vogue in the late ‘90s, and the advent of 3G a few years later made surfing the ‘net while on the go commonplace. Hand-in-hand with that: Facebook. I access it more often than not on my desktop computer, but now our friends and family know about our weekend getaways to B&N, concerts and dinners out due to the “check-in” feature.