Monthly Archives: August 2012

Buyer’s remorse meets Stockholm Syndrome: The Note 10.1 Fanboys Strike Back

Buyer’s remorse-come-Stockholm Syndrome. That’s how I’d describe the current mental state of the Note 10.1 owners rabidly refuting our review of that tablet, which I’ll admit, bashed it pretty hard. But that bashing was supported by substantive points and clearly demonstrated evidence – not some inherent desire to hate it. I know I’m just stirring up the hive here, but responding in the comments section of the review at this point is futile.

To me, asking the owner of an expensive product right after they purchase it if they like it is hands-down one of the least reliable ways to measure that product’s merits. Of course they like it. They just convinced themselves to drop $500 on it. Now, it’s getting mediocre to poor reviews across the board. And suddenly, they feel obligated to defend their newly-purchased, shiny object of desire that they decided to love the moment they hit the “submit order” button, or swiped their credit card at the checkout line.

I saw the same thing when the XOOM came out, and I saw the same thing happen when I bashed the Toshiba Thrive in my own review of it (it was a truly awful tablet). Hell, I saw owners vehemently defend the the DROID X2 in the comments section when we reviewed it, and that phone was a fucking disaster.

6 months from now, I’d like to see how many Note 10.1 owners are still willing to preach their gospel.

Hindsight is 20/20, as I’m sure anyone who bought a Verizon XOOM can tell you.

10″ Android Tablets Were A False Prophecy, Stop Yelling At Developers About App Support Please.

Everyone complaining that <insert app here> doesn’t look good on your 10″ tablet, blame Google.

You know who vouched for a landscape 10″ tablet they were afraid to call a Nexus, running a buggy, rushed tablet OS in 2011? Google.

You know who then, a year later, decided to completely change direction on what it thought was the ideal tablet, by going with a 7″ form factor and a portrait mode, phone-like UI? Google.

I can’t blame developers that never got on-board with optimizing their apps for a 10″ landscape tablet. If anything, the rapidity with which Google decided to do an about-face on its “vision” for tablets shows that it was probably a much better idea to wait before diving into Android tablet development.

Take a tablet-optimized app like Flixster, designed for 10.1″ Android tablets. You know how it looks in portrait mode on the Nexus 7? Terrible. It’s practically unreadable because the elements get all smooshed together. Because it was designed for landscape mode. How pissed do you think Flixster is that Google basically ditched landscape after all the obviously hard work that went into making this app?

I think the Nexus 7 is the right direction and form factor for Android tablets, because it is indescribably superior to the experience I’ve had on any one of a number of 10.1″ Android tablets I’ve used. It is just so, so much better.

If you bought a 10.1″ Android tablet, you bought into the bleeding-edge, and as sometimes happens when you buy bleeding-edge products, you got burned. That sucks, but don’t blame developers for not supporting a form factor that is now destined to become a niche in the market.

No, FLAC Does Not “Sound Better” – Here’s What It Actually Is And Why It’s Important

Lately, I have read more and more individuals preaching the sonic virtues of FLAC with literally no idea what they are talking about. They spout annoying, misleading drivel that has no basis in reality whatsoever. Let’s learn about FLAC, why it’s good, and why it isn’t, shall we?

What in the fuck is “FLAC”?

FLAC is an audio encoding format. It’s also a very good one for a number of reasons. FLAC is a “lossless” format, meaning none of the data from the source recording is compressed or removed (assuming you use the same bit depth [not the same thing as bit rate] and frequency range). This is inarguably a good thing. Lossless is the word of the year (or last 3) among audiophiles, but the implications of lossless have been twisted and manipulated in ways that are just not factually supported.

Why is FLAC awesome (and is it awesome)?

Yes, FLAC is awesome. Really, it is – as much as I am annoyed by FLAC purists, FLAC has a real place in the digital audio world that should not be overlooked.

You probably know of one other lossless audio format (even if you don’t know it’s lossless) called .WAV. Yep, that same, good ‘ol format that your Windows system sounds are encoded in (though that’s 8-bit and usually mono). WAV preserves 100% of audio information in 16-bit 44.1KHz stereo format when ripping audio from a CD.

FLAC is better than WAV for two reasons. First, it does everything WAV does (lossless audio), but in a much smaller package (WAV is extremely inefficient in its use of space). Second, it allows the use of more tags (including “illegal” tags in Windows) for marking files. That’s it. Otherwise, same juice, different label. WAV does have the advantage of being much more editing / DJ-friendly (all computers do native WAV decode, meaning less work for the CPU), but that’s not really relevant to what we’re talking about here.

This gets us to why FLAC is awesome. It’s all about preservation and archiving! FLAC uses less space than WAV, and allows more precise tagging, making it ideal as a long-term digital storage medium for audio. Many audiophiles – rightly – love FLAC for this reason.

This is why MP3’s are bad for archiving. MP3’s, unlike FLAC, have something of a poor generational half-life. You start with an MP3 rip of a CD – even at 256Kbps, you’ve already lost audio information – you can never get those bits back. That MP3 then gets sent to a friend of yours, who burns it on a CD. More data lost (probably a fair bit, too). Your friend loses the digital original, and re-rips the MP3 from the CD to give it to a friend – by now, there is a very noticeable loss in audio quality in the file. Errors and irregularities have started popping up, and in the strictly archival sense, the song is now basically worthless as a record of the original.

Why FLAC isn’t awesome (read: it’s not because it “sounds better”).

The reason most audiophiles like FLAC has very little to do with the actual quality of the audio. Saying you use FLAC because it “sounds better” is like saying you only drink your wine at 53.7 degrees Fahrenheit because that is the “best temperature.” To both people making such statements, I would have this to say: get over yourself. Not only is it objectively unsupported, it makes you look like kind of an asshole.

You store your audio in the most optimal format available because that means that whenever you do finally decide to make copies, burn CDs, or transcode it, you’re using the best source possible. You don’t buy a $100,000 wine cellar so your wine is at a 53.7 degree drinking temperature, you buy it so your wine lasts for many years – again, it’s all about preservation.

Yes, FLAC has the complete audio source, and from a strictly technical perspective, is qualitatively superior to even a 320Kbps MP3. However, anyone claiming to be able to consistently tell the difference between the two correctly in a true blind test is just lying. A properly encoded* 256Kbps MP3 or AAC is virtually indistinguishable from its FLAC counterpart in a “better vs. worse” sense even with very good audio equipment. People talk about hearing cymbals and “dense” music more authentically through FLAC because just they’re looking for a justification for their beliefs.

*Yes, there are bad MP3 encoders out there. Eg, old versions of LAME – and they do sound worse and are more error / artifact-prone.

Unless you’re using an audio setup that reaches into the thousands upon thousands of dollars, sorry, I just refuse to believe you can hear the difference unless you’ve got pitch-perfect ears or have spent years and years doing professional audio work and know exactly what to listen for. Even many of those people will tell you that, if the difference is there, it doesn’t matter – your ears aren’t an audio-measuring supercomputer, much like your tastebuds aren’t a mass spectrometer.

How many musicians and audio engineers do you see boasting about the sonic superiority of FLAC audio?

Basically none. Because they know that the difference between FLAC and high-bitrate MP3 or AAC is utterly irrelevant to 99.98% of what you hear in a recording. All of the stuff that matters – the studio, the ungodly-expensive recording equipment, microphones, amplifiers, the engineer on the soundboard, the technique of the recording artist, the headphones the engineer wears when he does the mix – these are immeasurably more important to sound quality than a file format. And then, the remaining 10% or so of what you hear comes down to what you play it through – the decoding equipment or CD player, the amplifier, the speaker or headphones.

The file format only matters in one situation: when it audibly distorts or degrades the recording. General consensus seems to be that this happens at or around 128Kbps when using MP3, but this greatly depends on your ears. Anything above that generally will not provide noticeable improvement for most people using most sound equipment. There are a sizable percentage of persons who may benefit from 192Kbps given their listening equipment or hearing, and an infinitesimal group that might hear a difference at 256Kbps or 320Kbps (though I tend to seriously doubt those people, that or they have extraordinary hearing).

Even if there are people out there who could hear the difference – legitimately – between FLAC and 320Kbps, common sense should tell you that you are almost definitely not one of those people. It should also tell you that the file format of your music is generally not very important unless you’re digitally archiving it, which is an entirely legitimate reason to use FLAC. But when it comes to what you hear?

The bottleneck is always your equipment.

Audio equipment is one of those things you can spend small fortunes on to get the “very best” products out there. And that’s because the very best products require expensive components and materials, extremely precise and specialized construction techniques, and levels of perfectionism in engineering that border on the absurd. And at that point, even if the end product is better, you reach a level of diminishing returns that make such investments unwise for most people (unless you have the money to burn).

Still, equipment is bar-none the best way to improve the quality of your sound. Equipment is like the engine and ignition components of your car – audio format is like the brand of gasoline you use. Sure, it can make a difference, but only if you go out of your way to actually use something that is bad. Otherwise, it’s insignificant in the larger scheme of things. Would you pay $0.20 more a gallon if Shell guaranteed its gas improved the power output of your car by 0.08%, and you had to go to a special gas station to get it? No – not unless you’re the lead engineer of an F1 team. That’s what lossless audio quality is – it’s the last little bit you can squeeze out of a near-perfect setup.

If you want your music to sound better, there are a few investments worth making. Buy an external USB audio decoder (aka a DAC) – it will reduce electrical interference (which your computer is full of) and sound noticeably better than a laptop or desktop motherboard’s built-in audio system. Next, buy a good headphone amplifier or, if you use speakers, a solid stereo amp. Here are my suggestions:

  • DAC: Schiit Modi 2 DAC – great value for money and no-frills performance. This will make a huge difference over your laptop or PC’s built-in DAC when paired with a decent amp, I promise. This is the new Modi 2, it offers increased compatibility (many Linux distros, Intel Chromebooks, OS X, Windows are all natively supported).
  • Amp: Schiit Magni 2 headphone amplifier – this is Schiit’s new version of the lauded Magni headphone amp, with plenty of power and an advanced gain stage. It’s reviewing excellently.
  • DAC/Amp combo: AUDIOQUEST Dragonfly DAC/amp combo – this will drive most headphones without a separate amplifier, and the Dragonfly has long been beloved by the audio community for its exceptional portability and sound. It’s an insanely good value.
  • Value DAC/amp option: FX-Audio DAC X6 – I use this at my desk. It’s a really great little headphone amplifier/DAC combo unit at a great price.

The most important equipment, of course, is that which emits the sound. If you’re looking at headphones and plan them for only home use, I can’t recommend Grado enough. Their SR-80 headphone (link) is relatively inexpensive (under $100), and while some people don’t like open back phones (they do not dampen environmental noise at all, and people will hear your music, too), you aren’t going to find better fidelity for the dollar, period. If you’re looking at earbuds, I personally like RHA’s MA750 (link). They’ve got great fidelity, lots of character (without being overbearing or too bassy), and I really love the way they fit. Here are a few headphone recommendations I can offer.

  • On-ear: Grado SR-80e – Grado’s most balanced entry-level phones are for serious home listening. They offer little isolation, but fidelity is extremely good (unmatched at this price, honestly) and balance is superb. These are hands-down my favorite headphones.
  • On-ear (budget): Koss PortaPro – everything that can be said about the PortaPros already has, they’re exceptional – easily the best headphone under $50 in existence.
  • Over-ear: Blue Lola – this is Blue Microphone’s second headphone. They sound outstanding, and are my favorite headphone to use with smartphones (whose built-in amps are quite weak).
  • Over-ear (budget): Sony MDR7506 – I wouldn’t call them a secret, but it seems to surprise many people that Sony never stopped making truly great headphones. The MDR7506 is a cult classic for a reason, and they’re a way better value than anything Sennheiser puts out near this price.
  • In-ear: RHA MA750 – the new RHA T10i is, in my opinion, overpriced and overtuned (way too bassy). The old MA750s offer a more balanced signature with a great accessory kit, awesome warranty, and extremely good fidelity for the price bracket.
  • In-ear (budget): RHA MA350 – the nice thing about the MA350s is while they do provide sound that belies their price point, they’re also tough, rugged, super comfortable, and very stylish. I still use mine as backup travel headphones.

If you’re looking for speakers and stereo amplifiers, I’m a little less familiar with this realm, but a good set of powered monitors (M-Audio’s entry-level set is well-loved) and a DAC (see – Schiit Modi or Dragonfly) is actually probably the best place for most folks to start.

And for god’s sake, don’t go listening to FLAC music if you do buy any of this stuff. It’s a waste of your time.

“Entry-level” Smartphones Are Useless Crap On Major US Carriers, Stop Giving Them Press

Having just read The Verge’s review of T-Mobile’s new myTouch phones on T-Mobile, I’m in a rant mood (when am I not, though?).

Let me offer up my thesis before this devolves into a lot of swearing: there is 100%, zero reason for any consumer on a major carrier paying for a full-on smartphone plan to buy a “budget,” “entry level,” or otherwise low-end phone. None.

Listen, everyone has heard the math behind this before. It doesn’t matter if you’re on T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T, or Sprint – they all lead to the same conclusion: buying a budget phone is moronic, you idiot.

Are you paying $100 a month for smartphone plan? Or only 70? It doesn’t matter. If you’re on a major US carrier, there is a 95% chance you’re using a 2-year contract upgrade cycle. That means that for two years, you’re giving that carrier that amount money each and every month. At $70 a month, that’s $1680 – at $100, it’s $2400 (let’s say $2000 for Verizon’s 20 month cycle). Holy shit – that’s a lot of money!

You know what doesn’t cost a lot of money? Your fucking phone. “But David, I don’t want to spend $200 on a new phone, money is money.” That doesn’t mean you have to buy a shitty phone (unless you’re on T-Mobile, apparently – because their selection is fucking awful).

Verizon Galaxy Nexus – $99 at Verizon – a fantastic reason not to buy a Pantech Marauder or LG Lucid. Hell, it’s free on Amazon.

HTC One X for AT&T – $99 in store, $79 on Amazon or at Costco. Great phone.

T-Mobile One S: $140 on Wirefly, new or upgrade (I have to say, of all carriers, T-Mo customers have it the fucking worst for good phones at a reasonable price).

Sprint Galaxy Nexus: $50 at Wirefly.

Hey look, I just found you 4 reasons, one for each major carrier, not to buy a god-awful shitpile budget phone. And you want to talk even more value for money? All these phones will get updated to Android 4.1 – probably even before you’re dead! No petition required.

But I don’t like big screens. I don’t need something that powerful. Guess what, if old-man-Twitter-abomination Senator Chuck Grassley decides he can handle an iPhone 4S, it’s time to man up. If I hear one more person who hasn’t actually held a Galaxy S III or One X say “it’s too big,” I’m going to make a collage out of the Google image results for “women using Galaxy Note” and shame people into getting with the god damn times.

Because you know what you’re doing? It’s like you’re walking onto a BMW lot planning to lease a car for 2 years, and the guy tells you that “for the same monthly lease price, with no additional fees on return” that you can have an M3 instead of a 320i (an even less premium version only outside the US) if you give him $1200 more up front (let’s ignore gas mileage). You’d have to be an idiot to pass that up, and that is what every single person buying a budget phone on a major US carrier with a 2-year agreement is doing. You’re giving up an M3 so you can save a comparatively small amount of money up front, and you end up with a shitty 4-banger luxury econobox.

Tl;dr – if you have enough money to pay for smartphone service on one of the “Big Four” carriers in the US for 2 years, you have enough money to buy a not-shitty phone. And if you don’t, you should probably head over to Metro PCS so that you can, you know, eat something other than instant noodles on a regular basis.

And that concludes this rant

The New iPhone, Same As The Old iPhone (Just Not In The Ways That Actually Matter)

Now, this is one post I really couldn’t put on Android Police, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about for a while. If you’ve been feeding at the iTrough, you probably have an idea where this is going. If not, check out this article (yeah yeah, it’s Gizmodo). Now, check out this one over at Business Insider by EIC Henry Blodget.

I’ve already heard Mr. Blodget’s sentiment echoed by a number of folks. Even I felt similarly about the iPhone 4S when it launched last year – that there just wasn’t enough change to get excited over. But, Apple’s brilliant Siri ad campaign featuring John Malkovich and Zooey Deschanel, along with the first launch availability of an iPhone outside of AT&T in the US, kept the steam going. The iPhone 4S, while it did not make quite the splash of the iPhone 4, has by all accounts been a great success for Apple.

And I think part of that is just because Apple is really good at letting the hype over its products reach the boiling point. But people tend to forget that there are two pots on the stove when it comes to iPhone anticipation. General Apple fans are always lusting over the next Apple product, that won’t change for the foreseeable future. And those people are important – they’re Apple’s on-the-ground product evangelists. They are the ones that get uninitiated friends and family on board with the iOS lifestyle; building out Apple’s customer base, getting people excited over the next iProduct.

While Johnny and his ilk are spreading the proverbial Apple-seed, though, Apple is waging its own hype campaign for the next iPhone. That campaign is the same as it was for the last iPhone, literally. A lot of it is Siri. Everybody knows about Siri, and at the same time everyone knows nothing about it. The vast majority of people know it’s “a way to talk to your phone.” As anyone familiar with Google’s latest incarnation of its own voice platform (or even Galaxy S III users) can tell you, this isn’t groundbreaking. But for those people who could really care less about following technology, it is revolutionary. In their imagination, at least. And that’s what matters, because it means all the people with Siri-less iPhone 4’s out there are absolutely dying to get their hands on it.

I actually think Apple planned it this way. The first iPhone was, let’s be real, something of an enthusiast’s tech toy. By the time the rest of the world heard about it, the iPhone 3G was ready to hit store shelves. That’s the iPhone that most middle-of-the-road consumers actually bought first. Those people were, by and large, locked in 2-year agreements, and their upgrade cycles ended around the launch of the iPhone 4.

The iPhone 4 was Apple’s big reboot of the entire device. It felt comfortable with the software (at least enough not to completely visually overhaul it), and decided that it was time to really focus on creating an iconic look that the company could build on for years to come. People went nuts – and for good reason. The iPhone 4’s display was miles ahead of anything else on the market, its camera is still very impressive, and the industrial design is impeccably tasteful.

I think this is the device that most iOS users in the US are currently holding, and their upgrade cycles are nearing an end. Last year, though, Apple unveiled the 4S. If you were a current iPhone 4 owner, there wasn’t a reason to shell out $600 just to get your hands on one (unless you have that sort of money to waste). The really big, huge thing that Apple unveiled wasn’t really the phone, though. Aside from geekery like a new processor, incrementally better camera, and a quicker modem for AT&T users, the phone was basically the same.

Siri, though, is what got the news. It’s what continues to get the news. People hear about Siri a lot. On TV, on the web, from their techy friends and coworkers – and guess what? They’re jealous. It doesn’t matter that comparable products exist. Apple has already created a brand cult around Siri that can’t be killed. That’s what will really get regular people to buy the new iPhone. I guarantee every Genius across the country will be ready to cut out the voice box of any person that asks them “Does the new iPhone have Siri?” by year’s end.

This is why Apple released Siri as a beta. It knew that, as a proportion of its customer base, 4S buyers were more likely to be enthusiasts, enterprises, and disposable income tech junkies as a whole. They would preach the virtues of Siri (if just to brag), and get everyone else excited, while acting as Apple’s giant lab rats.

Now, a horde of iPhone 4 users on Verizon who bought their devices in February 2011 will be hitting their 20th month in November (I fully expect a slightly “early upgrade” to be available), and almost every AT&T iPhone 4 owner will be eligible for an upgrade upon the new iPhone’s release.

They don’t really care about the bigger screen, a better camera, or a fancy new processor. They’re going to get home and talk to Siri and annoy the shit out of everyone in a 10 foot radius for the next week. By and large, these are the people that make up Apple’s bottom-line. And by now, Apple’s had a chance to refine and address many of the issues with Siri, making it (I refuse to anthropomorphize an application) smarter, faster, and more reliable for average people.

The visual differences with the new device will be sufficiently eye-catching such that no one will confuse a new iPhone for a 4 or 4S. The larger display and new backing design will be enough to ensure that skeptical but utterly tech-retarded consumers won’t think they’re just buying the same thing again.

Under the hood improvements will ensure that Apple retains a specification and real-world advantage in the arenas it cares about: battery life, photos, and display quality. And within 6 months, an Android phone that does most of those things better will probably come out. But by then, it’ll be too late.

To the skeptics, I’d say this: do you think BMW loyalists (people who lease every 3 years) really give a rat’s ass that the new 335i / 535i / 750i look pretty much the same as they have the last 8 years? Fuck no. As long as it has more horsepower, better gas mileage, and lets you plug in your new iPhone, it’s the best car in the world. Even if it isn’t.