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Taking FLAC: Pono reviews generally confirm FLAC purists are full of it, and so is Pono

So, it turns out I was wrong about Pono: the difference is not easy to hear. In fact, according to pretty much every review of the device, Pono provides no credible evidence of audible improvement over a smartphone when playing the same file, or even that Pono sounds appreciably better playing back FLAC versus a smartphone using high-bitrate (256Kbps) AAC. David Pogue even went so far as to conduct a blind test with well over a dozen people.

Make no mistake: Pono was developed by some very respected names in the audio industry, sporting components similar to those found in good portable headphone DAC/amplifier units. But instead of showing that a “proper” DAC/amp can noticeably improve the listening experience over an iPhone, Pogue’s test found that ordinary people, even when wearing some universally-lauded Sony monitoring headphones, simply couldn’t tell the difference between Pono FLACs and iTunes 256Kbps AACs.

This bodes poorly for portable amplifiers and DACs, but also supports the apparently unassailable truth that most people simply will not be able to observe an appreciable difference using FLAC versus high-res MP3s or AAC files. If they can, they’re probably telling themselves they can, or are simply conflating undesirable distortion (non-harmonic distortion increases at ultra-high sampling rates) with greater detail.

FLAC purists maintain that it is these higher sampling ceilings and greater bits rates which are responsible for the more pronounced “texture” and “feel” in music (cymbals are often cited, for no apparently good reason – almost all instruments produce ultrasonics). In fact, it is these higher sampling ceilings that expose even my audiophile-approved Onkyo TX8255 receiver-amp as unable to avoid audible distortion (that is, not true to the recording) at these supposedly inaudible ultrasonic frequencies. It’s unlikely the distortion would cause a truly noticeable effect on listening experience, but Pogue’s experiment supports the notion that such sounds in FLAC files might actually be undesirable – more people voiced a preference for the iPhone playing back 256Kbps AACs, rather than FLACs on the Pono.

If anything, Pogue’s test goes to show that, unsurprisingly, the world of digital audio has improved leaps and bounds from the early days when MP3 really was a dirty word and we were all trading crappily encoded CP rips on Kazaa and Napster. This tends to really be my theory anymore: audiophiles were among the first to explore the world of digital audio on the web, and they were around to experience the growing pains of that community. When a 96Kbps MP3 rip was what you downloaded because no one was ripping at 256 or 320, and the rips were sourced from old, scratched CDs read by cheap computer drives and then often compressed into oblivion.

I agree that, for a while there, the digital music industry really kind of was screwing the pooch on audio quality by leaving it to the bootleg community, and early streaming services like Pandora really did no one any favors, dipping down to a wretch-inducing 48Kbps on their mobile app at times. But Apple and the labels themselves started remedying this, and by the time the 128Kbps AAC became the de facto quality floor on the later iPods, we were probably already 90% there in terms of the listening experience.

With the iPhone, we saw a smartphone manufacturer pay attention to audio on a hardware level, and Apple remains the bar to meet in the mobile industry for audio hardware on a smartphone or tablet. They actually care about this stuff (let’s not forget they had 6 years to get it right in the iPod) – and Pogue’s test shows it pretty decisively. The fact that he was able to get away with this while driving a big set of Sony MDR7506 monitoring headphones is even more impressive, proving that mobile amplifiers have come a tremendously long way.

While I’ve generally understood the direction Neil Young and Pono were coming from – even if I disagree with some of the premise – I can’t help but agree with Pogue’s conclusion that Pono seems terribly misguided and reeks of the common snake-oily claims you find in the high-end audiophile world. It also proves that audiophiles will convince themselves of whatever they want, regardless of whether or not data controverting those views exists, and will continue to throw money at products catering to those beliefs because you can’t “really” hear the FLAC difference unless you have the budget (a pretentious argument at best).

Pogue also emphasizes what I’ve always said: focus on your equipment, not the files. The files are only going to be bad if you go out of your way to find ones that sound bad.

While I even find it mildly surprising few people preferred the Pono in Pogue’s study, I think it really does just go to the point that the engineers doing DAC and amplifier work on today’s modern smartphones and the related chipsets have figured out how to downsize and isolate those components very effectively. Is it so surprising that Apple, the world’s largest producer of MP3 players and high-end smartphones – that see vastly higher adoption rates in the music business – is creating an excellent audio experience on its products? I don’t think it’s exactly inconceivable, and Qualcomm seems to be doing a fine job, too.

While I would not go so far as to say standalone DACs and headphone amplifiers are without purpose, I will suggest that it generally seems safe to assume that a high-end smartphone is probably the best headphone DAC/amp in your home if you don’t own such dedicated products. I still believe a good DAC and amp are necessary with most laptops and PCs (I prefer Schiit’s Modi and Magni combo), because I’ve always noticed a very real difference with them on my desktop system.

Still, your best investment remains good headphones, and I can’t recommend Grado’s SR80e enough – they’re insanely good value for money. If you want something a little nicer, I really like the Blue Mo-Fis, whose active amplifier setup really do seem to make a difference to my ears when using a smartphone, since they’re of such a high impedance.

As for Pono, I’d suggest taking a pass: you’re supremely unlikely to notice the difference it provides, and FLAC albums simply aren’t worth the money unless you’re playing home music archivist. Put the money toward a good set of cans or studio monitor speakers – you’ll notice a far greater difference than any triangular prism can provide.

Review: Linus Roadster 8 Bicycle

When I was looking for my first bicycle in 4 years, I decided I wanted something that was not only dependable and well-equipped out of the box: I wanted something interesting. Linus Bikes, based in Venice, CA, is indeed interesting. The company has made its name building cruiser and hybrid bikes in a vintage European style, though with the convenience and reliability of modern components.

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Upright riding positions with curved handlebars, steel frames, and big, soft touring saddles have earned Linus a reputation for making some of the best leisurely rollers in the business right now, in both the cruiser and hybrid-commuter segments.

I settled on the Roadster 8, Linus’ top-of-the-line commuter-cruiser hybrid. At $869, the Roadster 8 is the second most-expensive bicycle Linus currently makes, with the new Libertine road bike being the company’s flagship product. The Roadster’s companion models, the Roadster Classic (a no-brake, fixed-gear bike) and Roadster Sport (3-speed hub) retail for $465 and $665, respectively – meaning the Roadster will cost you nearly double the price of the “base model” bike.

What do you get for your extra money?

The Roadster 8, as its name implies, possesses 8 speeds. The Roadster Sport has only 3, and the Roadster Classic is a fixed-gear. The 8 and the Sport both use Shimano Nexus internal hub transmissions as opposed to the more common derailleur systems, an increasingly popular choice in the hybrid segment.

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Compared to the entry-level Classic, both the Sport and 8 gain a set of Tekro R369 brakes (the classic, in true fixie fashion, has none), a 40lb rear rack, and front and rear painted steel fenders. Plus, of course, the hub transmissions.

The extra $205 over the Sport is largely accounted for by the 8-speed transmission, which is honestly most of what you’re paying for here. The Nexus 8 retails for a solid $100 more than the Nexus 3. The other difference is in the frame – the Roadster 8 has a full chromoly 4130 frame and fork. The Classic and Sport use generic high-tensile steel apart from the downtube, which is chromoly on all Roadsters.

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Chromoly steel is stronger than high-tensile steel, meaning you can build a frame of the same robustness with thinner tubes, resulting in a lighter bike. Linus likely does this to keep the weight of the Roadster 8 down, because the Nexus 8 hub is a hefty piece of gear. It weighs twice as much as the Nexus 3 setup, at around 4.5 lbs.

The Roadster 8, because of its use of chromoly, weighs in at 30lbs on a medium frame, 2 lbs less than a Roadster Sport of the same size, meaning that chromoly frame is shaving off a solid 4 lbs of heft. For $200 more, I’d argue you’re getting your money’s worth here.

For the record, steel framed bikes are much less common than they used to be thanks to the introduction of high-strength aluminum. Aluminum is much lighter than steel, basically as strong in most scenarios, and only a bit more expensive. Economies of scale have further trimmed the price difference between steel and aluminum, though steel bikes are definitely making a niche comeback.

The ride, generally

My last bike was a basic hybrid – an entry-level Trek FX 7.1 with an aluminum frame and 21 speeds on basic Shimano gear. Compared to what I remember of that bike, the Linus rides divinely. Bumps are absorbed readily by the steel frame, and the upright riding position with the curved handlebars makes maneuvering feel deliberate, precise, and smooth. I’d say a more traditional fitness hybrid might be more agile – though more twitchy – with straight handlebars, but I’m not darting in and out of traffic on this thing.

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Linus’ house-brand Elysian tires are built for quick cruising, with a simple and shallow radial tread that keep vibration and road noise very low. The Elysians are a welcome piece of gear in a market segment that is dominated by needlessly “rugged” tread patterns that just reduce grip and increase vibration on the road for the reason that “hybrid” bikes might, one day, see a surface other than pavement or concrete, even though most never do.

The downside to the Elysian is that, unfortunately, they’re very pricey for a hybrid tire, at $35 apiece. The upside is that they come in some really fun colors (white, black, black with gum wall, brown).

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The Nexus 8 is a bit of tossup for me. If you’ve ever used an internal hub transmission with more than a few speeds, you know they have some quirks – low gears can feel “grindy,” and high gears can produce grating sounds when over-torqued. These problems are especially apparent with a heavy rider, like me. Hopefully one day I’ll be light enough that these issues will go away, though from what I’ve read they’re benign and common.

Shifting the Nexus 8, though, is a breath of fresh air – you can go from 7 to 4 at a complete stop with no risk of damage to the hub, and the chain is essentially impossible to derail. This is huge when biking in a city with lots of lighted intersections and stop signs. The only downside to shifting is the shifter itself. It’s a twist-shift made of rubber, and when your hands get sweaty (as they inevitably do on leather grips), it can become difficult to shift, and the action isn’t nearly as mechanical and precise as I’d like.

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The brakes, frankly, aren’t great. They may need some tuning on my bike (not enough bite by my standard), and it may be my weight, but they’re extremely underwhelming. I may end up opting for some different pads, too, because the stock ones seem much too soft.

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The gear

I specifically chose Linus because they give their bikes with a high level of equipment out of the box. A bell, fenders, 40 lb rear rack, leather grips, and decent leatherette touring saddle are all standard. Though, I’ve since replaced the included seat with a Brooks B17 – an outstanding leather saddle that really is supremely comfortable.

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Linus also sells a dizzying array of accessories, many of which bear the Linus brand, including some of the best-looking bicycle storage systems made, in my opinion. I actually bought the Shopper bag when I picked up the bike, because it’s just brilliant. If you want something more intense, there’s the Market bag, which is basically a pannier.

The Shopper attaches to the rear rack with two rubberized hooks, and even includes a small padlock to secure it. It’s flat while empty, and stays that way thanks to a strip of Velcro along the bottom as well as the lid. Open it up, pull out the bottom, and then drop the hard plastic insert into the bottom of the bag. Toss in the groceries, close it up (or don’t), and off you go. At $80, it’s not cheap, but I love it. Because it can stay flat, it also makes a great alternative to a fanny pack or pipette bag for keeping your keys, phone, and wallet while biking.

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Linus Shopper bag – closed (left), open (right)

And as to practicality in terms of maintenance, the sealed 8-speed hub will also never get any sand, grime, or mud in it unless it’s totally engulfed in material, meaning no cleaning, and for me, no fears riding on the LA bike path along the coast. Aside from total immersion or snow, the hub is also waterproof.

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The Shopper’s included padlock, mounted to rear rack.

Should I be looking at this or something more road bike-ish? Less road-bikish?

This was my concern when I was considering the Roadster. Those 700x35c tires are meaty, though they have become more common on urban and commuter bikes these days. I’d say the choice between something like the Roadster 8 and a bike with more road “pedigree” comes down mostly to where you’re going to be riding it.

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If it’s going to be a trail queen and never see a city street apart from the smoothly-paved suburbs, I’d say go with a road bike, and preferably one with a derailleur system. You’ll be able to travel faster, farther, and with less effort. Nice derailleurs have better pedaling efficiency and are more robust than the internal hubs, though you can spring for Shimano’s high-end Alfine line of hubs if you really want one.

The same, I’d say, can be true if you live in a larger city with very good roads and your purpose is basically just commuting – if you’re not constantly riding over pavement cracks and dodging potholes, a road bike will pay dividends in performance.

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On the opposite end of the spectrum, some buyers are doubtless between considering a hybrid or a cruiser / Dutch-style town bike. If your bike is something you’re going to throw on a rack when you go camping or to the beach and not see much action otherwise, get a cruiser. They ride softer and are much less dodgy on loose surfaces, not to mention they’re a lot cheaper, too. If you want to get around town, though, I can’t recommend a cruiser. Some people like them – and I see many cruisers when I ride in west LA – but they’re terribly inefficient and a lot of work to pedal on even gentle inclines. If cost is the big driver for you, look at single or 3-speed town bikes before you look at cruisers.

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The one situation I’d recommend a cruiser (or something with cruiser-like tires) for transportation is if you have to go over cobbled, dirt, or brick roads on a regular basis. A sprung seat and fat, low-pressure tires will do wonders for your spine versus a comparatively much harder hybrid with a touring saddle.

Is it worth the money?

$869 is, frankly, what many people would consider to be an obscene cost for a bicycle that does not beg for a Lycra shopping spree. Granted, if you know much about bikes, you know that competition road bikes can easily dip into the $5,000-and-up range, so really, $869 is very much “entry-level” in the world of cycling. The Roadster 8 isn’t a cyclist’s bike, though – it’s far more casual than that, so $869 is probably expensive for people shopping in this category.

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Bell, yes, whistle, no.

Commuter bikes generally live in the $500-1200 price bracket, which puts the Roadster 8 smack in the middle of the segment. At the high end you have “hardcore” commuters like Trek’s CrossRip, and at the bottom a large selection of fixed-gear, 3-speed hub, and derailleur options, generally varying by perceived “seriousness.

A natural point of comparison for potential buyers is probably Trek’s Steel District at $769. It has a 9-speed Acera derailleur set, disc brakes (why), a touring saddle, alloy pedals, a Trek “custom steel” frame (AKA still not chromoly), leather-ish grips, color-matched fenders, and a front basket. It also has a more road-ish frame stance.

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With the Linus, I’d argue, you’re getting a – theoretically – nicer frame, a more commuter-friendly gearset, and a much, much better-looking bike. You also get a far more versatile rear rack as opposed to the basket on the Trek, though the price difference could be made up for by just buying a decent one and bolting it on to the District.

Considering the competition, I’m quite comfortable saying the Roadster 8 is priced very acceptably, especially considering Linus is a relatively boutique bike company. If Trek were to make an 8-speed hub and chromoly steel District, it would likely come in around $900-1000 based on their current pricing scheme. Linus is clearly making their business one of accessories – an amazing selection of bags, bells, lights, seats, grips, and house-brand tires are obviously the moneymakers. After all, I did shell out $80 for a Linus grocery bag, and I will shell out another $70 to Linus when it comes time to replace the tires.

As for my gear, I have a few items I recommend highly.

  • Bern’s Brentwood helmet – one of the best-looking helmets I’ve ever seen, and it comes in a ton of great colors.
  • Kryptonite Evolution Mini 5 U Lock – people buy locks that are too big for their bikes. This one is the perfect size for locking up to a pole or rack tightly, reducing the chance your lock will be subjected to a successful pry attack.
  • Brooks B17 Saddle – the most comfortable and attractive bike saddle you can buy, in my opinion. This is a great investment.

And if you live in southern California, you can actually buy the bike from Linus themselves – they operate a small store in Venice. If you purchase direct from Linus, they also assemble it at the Linus shop, which is certainly a benefit in my opinion. I’d rather have the guys who deal with these bikes and only these bikes every day be the ones who put mine together.

I also think it looks great in blue.

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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.

A (really, really late) review of John Carter

In a world where we’re constantly being bombarded with witty, character-driven sci-fi, superhero, and fantasy films, John Carter stands alone.

It’s not particularly clever. I think I chuckled once throughout the entire film, and it was fairly near the beginning. The dialogue isn’t especially thought-provoking – it’s actually quite simple. You have to remember, this movie was made for the whole “PG-13” family, something Disney absolutely nailed with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (well, until they beat it into the ground with unending sequels).

John Carter also eschews the modern trend of an intensely character-driven plot. John Carter himself is a moderately interesting and likable rogue with a dark backstory that Disney’s morality assurance department allows the film to only hint at, and this will almost certainly leave those expecting a darker, more gritty protagonist disappointed. My advice? Get over it.

Unlike almost every other film in this genre (or genres, I should say) presently, John Carter’s source material has no real (living) “cult following.” It’s based on a serialized novel published in 1917, and while the book, A Princess of Mars, certainly has its place in sci-fi / fantasy canon, most people today don’t know it. In fact, the author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ crowning achievement is Tarzan, leaving little room in modern memory for an earlier, less successful work. While many writers and directors claim the series as a source of inspiration, its fame has undoubtedly dwindled in recent decades. But this is part of what makes it great, in my mind: I had no idea just what I was getting into when I began watching it.

This also, unfortunately, was likely a big part of the reason for the film’s landmark commercial failure. In recent years, America has become obsessed with shamelessly nostalgic rehashes of well-known stories and characters. Whether it be long-standing comic superheroes (movies I am all too happy to see), modernly successful book franchises (which I am less happy to see, though Harry Potter grew on me), or questionable TV-sourced throwbacks (The Smurfs, Alvin and the Chipmunks), today it seems all we care about in popular film is what we liked as kids.

That means to attract an audience to a film in the sci-fi / fantasy genres, you either need to appeal to their sense of nostalgia or current pop culture obsessions. It’s an annoying and frustrating limitation. One that has, of course, produced great films. Under the guidance of Christopher Nolan, the Batman franchise is having its best, grittiest years. Iron Man, a hero that could barely be sold as a cartoon, has been absolutely brought to life by the charismatic Robert Downey Junior and a flotilla of clever writers. Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter. X-Men. Need I say more?

For a film with a less recognized brand to prosper, it seems to have been accepted at this point that it must be one of two things: cheap and deep, or flashy and stupidly simple. V for Vendetta, which was critically lauded, had a budget of just $54 million – compared to John Carter’s monumental $350 million. Just think about that – for the cost of John Carter, they could have made V for Vendetta 6 times. With money to spare for a few luxury yachts.

A big budget sci-fi / fantasy film means big expectations. And without a recognized “brand” to back it up, it has to have mass appeal (see: Avatar) and an expensive hype campaign (again, see: Avatar) behind it. Even if the movie isn’t that good (… Avatar).

John Carter has neither. It’s a story about a guy on Mars with some aliens wearing a leather, almost bondage-like apparatus on his chest, and nobody had any idea why they wanted to see this movie. It was shitty marketing, end of story. That’s what really killed this movie commercially, in my opinion.

Anyway, back on point: the movie. As I said, the main character, John Carter, isn’t particularly deep or developed. Nor is any other character in the film, for that matter. But that’s because this film is about telling a story (it goes for the decreasingly popular “narrative wrap” format). The story is full of anachronistic symbolism and metaphors (the civil war and turn of the century native american relations are rather indelicately shoved in your face), but they’re so dated that they don’t feel cheesy or preachy.

John Carter is also rife with character condensing, as is a necessity with book adaptations. It’s most notable when it comes to certain characters essential to the plot, but who have less need for screen time. The primary Martian antagonist, whose name is so forgettable I have, in fact, forgotten it, is utterly featureless. The true alien villain (spoiler alert), whose character is unnamed (he’s the bad guy from the first Sherlock Holmes), is full of ominous one-liners and shadowy intent. It’s enough to make you curious about what’s going to happen next, but he’s just there as a mechanism for advancing the plot more than anything (and to set up a sequel).

The thing is, though, I didn’t care. The story is simple, meanders only occasionally, and takes you on a journey through one of the first truly original-looking sci-fi / fantasy worlds I’ve seen in ages. It really is an amazing thing they’ve crafted, worthy of the Disney name adorning this film. Costumes, environments, aliens, ships – it all looks amazing – and original.

The film really doesn’t evoke much in terms of emotion, but that’s to be expected for something based on a sci-fantasy novel written at the turn of the century – it just wasn’t the style of the time. But the conclusion of John Carter will, without a doubt, shamelessly pull at your heartstrings and leave you yearning for a sequel (which has been announced – though funding is a big question-mark).

Part of me wants to see John Carter live to fight another day and round out Burroughs’ first three novels in the series. I crave to know what happens next.

But another part, perhaps just as big, wants it to end here, and leave this great film to stand on its own so that, years from now, hopefully, it will be rediscovered and cemented as the classic it deserves to be.

AT&T wants to make unlimited access deals with companies like Netflix, people bitch anyway

People hate wireless carriers in the United States. With a fiery passion. In fact, they’re the least-liked industry in the country, followed closely by big oil and cable/satellite providers. Considering how much money we give them, it’s not hard to understand why. Tiered data, for example, has absolutely enraged a lot of people.

AT&T has heard from many of its customers that tiered data basically makes it prohibitively expensive to do things like stream Netflix, YouTube, Spotify, etc. on a regular basis. And now it’s hearing from some of those companies, like Netflix, that they’d like this to change. So, AT&T wants to have companies like Netflix pay it in exchange for providing unlimited access to those services through its network.

http://www.androidpolice.com/2012/06/01/att-users-could-see-toll-free-data-plans-in-the-next-12-months-says-ceo-randall-stephenson/

Predictably, a great many people have drug out the “net neutrality” flag and started waving it frantically.

This isn’t a net neutrality issue in any technical sense – none whatsoever. The carrier is not prioritizing, blocking, throttling, or otherwise physically impeding your access to specific content. Sorry. Like many things in America, it’s a “I don’t want to pay more money for something I don’t think I should have to” issue.

If Netflix strikes a deal with AT&T, and decides it wants you to pay extra for mobile streaming on your phone, that’s Netflix’s choice – it has little to do with AT&T at that point, only in the sense that they’re financially incentivizing this for Netflix. Spotify already charges a premium for mobile access. Hell, Amazon requires you to buy a separate piece of hardware to stream Instant Video on a mobile device.

I think the scenario we’ll see unfold is pretty simple. These “value-added” bonuses on carriers will become incentives to subscribe, while services like Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify will start to specifically monetize and tier mobile subscriptions / access. Carriers will just be forced to compete for your business on a new level, and subscription-based services will want you to pay money to access them from your phone. We’re moving to a service-oriented world on the mobile web, and honestly, I don’t see a problem with it.

This “it’s the 1990’s internet all over again” garbage that keeps getting spewed is becoming tedious. This has nothing to do with the “open internet,” or the right to access information – it has to do with people doing what they always do: bitching about the prospect of paying more money for something they want.

Call me when AT&T starts redirecting you from Wikipedia to Bing, then we’ll talk about “net neutrality.” Until then, this is business as usual. Which is to say, business.

Musk and Dragons

It’s somewhat amazing to me that we’ve witnessed the first private spacecraft to go into orbit, dock with an orbital facility, and return successfully to earth.

http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/commercial/cargo/spacex_index.html

Sure, the US, Russia, and other national governments have managed this. They’ve been doing it for decades. And yes, NASA (and thus the US government) has provided around $500 million to make this a reality – but NASA didn’t design the rocket, or the capsule (even if many of its former engineers did). This is a completely new vehicle and propulsion system – designed from the ground up.

And SpaceX did it in 10 years. That’s astounding. From founding to full demonstration (minus human occupants), they did in a single decade what has taken countries like China many times longer than that to develop, and with a much better, more versatile end product.

Say what you will about Elon Musk, about the demise of the shuttle program – this is the future. I can think of no better use for NASA’s budget than seed funding and cargo contracts for an eccentric billionaire who wants to retire on Mars.

A Note On Audio Equalizers, Sound, And Android

H’ok – I’m going to put on my “sound snob” hat for a minute here, because I feel like a lot of people in the Android world are becoming obsessed with EQ’ing (equalizing) their phone and tablet audio, and that some of them are misinformed about what EQ is, its benefits, and what it does to sound.Equalizing your audio is just that – balancing it out. In a perfect world, where your house was made of egg crate foam and you had access to thousand-dollar plus speakers, EQ would never be necessary. Everything would pretty much sound right without any kind of adjustment (assuming your media sources are good, as well).

Ever notice how on your 5.1/7.1 surround setup in a large room makes it impossible to hear voices during movies unless you absolutely crank the volume? That’s what equalizing (or dynamic volume normalization) is for – it balances the speaker output to the space you’re in. If you had a $10,000 speaker layout, with speakers perfectly spaced and angled, you wouldn’t need EQ or normalization. But most of us don’t – so that’s why your stereo receiver has those awesome EQ settings – to adjust for the failings of the space, or for the inadequacies of the equipment given the space it’s in. You can also just use it for fun, or for various occasions (eg, more bass for music at a party).

Analog EQ was originally used for recording and live music / performances to make up for the differences and deficiencies of various environments (eg, amphitheaters, stadiums) and quickly made its way into consumer hi-fi equipment. You can still buy separate, basic graphic analog EQ hardware for your home stereo today.

But what about headphones?

This is where many people are applying EQ today, and it’s largely unnecessary.

First, EQ’ing should almost never be necessary in a headphone application. To say an equalizer is “required” for listening to music on your headphones is like saying you need to adjust your television’s color settings every time you change the channel. If you had a really horrible TV that absolutely could not display CNN (lots of red) after being adjusted for FOX News (lots of blue – funny, right?), there might be an exception.

That is to say, if you’re using $5-15 earbuds (or a phone/tablet with a really horrible headphone amp) then yes, EQ can enhance your listening experience when adjusted for particular genres, because your listening equipment is so bad that it’s probably distorting the crap out of whatever you’re listening to.

The other scenario is something like Pandora set to low quality but very high volume – think of it like a channel on an aerial that comes in ever-so-slightly fuzzy on a big 48″ CRT TV. By adjusting the sharpness, you could reduce the visibility of the interference. It was still there, and in no way was the actual interference lessened, your eyes just noticed it less. Alternatively, you could sit further away from the TV. Adjusting the EQ settings when listening to a really low quality audio file can trick your ears into believing it sounds more like it’s “supposed to.” But it’s still going to sound like crap. You can also, of course, just turn down the volume and achieve a similar effect, with the drawback of quieter sound.

What EQ is not is sound profiles to make your music sound “better.” Setting your EQ to “rock” when you listen to rock does not make the music sound “better.” It adjusts the levels such that, for the “genre” of rock according to whoever wrote the preset, your audio will place an increased emphasis on the frequency ranges that are most important on rock tracks, and de-emphasize, or leave neutral, those that are not.

How can a “rock” EQ preset work for AC/DC, U2, and The Beatles? It can’t. It has no fucking clue what you’re playing. In fact, The Beatles sound awful on most rock EQ settings, because the EQ preset is for much more modern (and loud) rock. No song exists that is perfectly shaped to that preset, because it’s modeled on averages.

Custom-setting your EQ to your headphones’ or device’s particular strengths and weaknesses should involve minute adjustments, if any, unless you’re using the garbage ones that came with said device, or something like Beats that over-amplify low frequencies.

The best way to improve the sound of your music? Buy better headphones (or speakers), and use local audio files of at least 192Kbps (128 even is probably fine, blind tests have shown). You can’t make a 12″ CRT TV from 1975 give the color of a 42″ OLED, and you can’t make $5 earbuds sound like a $100 pair of Klipsch, Shure, or Etymotic.

Otherwise, you’re just doing the audio equivalent of adjusting RGB / brightness / contrast levels – a custom arrangement or preset may look better to your eyes, but the same data is coming through regardless of what you change, you just see it differently. Equalization does not enhance sound – it shapes it.

Google’s Google+ “problem” isn’t a problem, even if Googlers say it is.

This is a link to an article by a former Google employee:

http://www.spencertipping.com/posts/2012.0530.why-i-left-google.html

In it, he has received notoriety specifically for his derision of Google+ as Google’s new focus, something other Google employees, current and former, have also complained about:

“I think Google+ is an effort that does not deserve the engineering minds at Google. This is mostly a personal bias. I see Google as solving legitimately difficult technological problems, not doing stupid things like cloning Facebook. Google, in my opinion, lost sight of what was important when they went down this rabbit hole.”

I’ll say I was among the first to make fun of Google+ when it came out – and I still think it has a long way to go. But it has also come a long way in a very short time.

The more I listen to Larry Page talk about the future of Google, of the web, and technology, the more I think those who criticize it just hate the idea that the web is becoming socially driven, instead of query/tool-driven.

It makes sense – Google has traditionally focused so hard on those products, and now people working on them (and being made to work on making Google+ work with them) feel like they’re being manipulated into a project they don’t care about, or want to have to think about.

But every single day the internet becomes more about the people and organizations you know and follow directing you to information you didn’t know you wanted. Social is a legitimate, technically difficult problem – in the sense that making it into something truly useful for all aspects of our use of the web is something no one has accomplished. Social is this giant mass of information about people and the things they do, places they go, their interactions, their friends – leveraging this information is the next “quantum leap” – it’s Web 3.0.

And that’s what Google is doing with Google+. Facebook will never share the user information it has with Google, so Google had to come up with something themselves. Google needs this information to push its existing products to the next generation. It’s the exact opposite of “losing sight of what’s important.” Google+ is the means – not the end. Google doesn’t want to be Facebook, it just wants to have the information Facebook does, because that information is unique, and it is invaluable to advancing the usefulness of Google’s core products.

Google, as it always has, is looking to the future. It seems this guy is stuck in a Google that was looking to a future that happens to be our present.

Warm Leftovers

I’m David. I write for AndroidPolice.com. This is my personal blog, so everything you read here probably wasn’t interesting or relevant enough to post there, but has been stewing around in my brain enough to want to commit it to text. Thrilling, I know.

This is the welcome post. I’m not sure if I’ll continue using this blog in the long-term, but hey, it’s Friday morning, news is slow, and I’m bored. So, join me for some warm leftovers. God, that tagline is horrible. I’ll never use it again, I just felt obligated to plug it for the first post.