Wednesday, 13 January 2016

MUSINGS: 1st Week 2016, CES 2016, and Christmas Toys!

The first week of 2016 was quite busy in terms of getting back to work and the news feed... Let's just shoot the breeze and talk about a few things this for this post...

1. It has been fun reading about CES 2016. I've been monitoring the articles on The Verge. Mainstream broad coverage is good to see the trends heading our way. Overall, it looks like the push towards 4K TV continues with HDR being the buzz (audio industry should make note and try for some higher dynamic range, please).

Among the new VR products and Internet Of Things (hmmm... Not sure if I really want a Smart Fridge), the main audio news that so far has made it to the mainstream is the re-release of the Technics SL-1200 turntable. Clearly, at the asking price of US$4000, the "Grand Class" SL-1200G(AE) is not going to be heading to your local dance club spinning DJ vinyl any time soon! Clearly this is targeted at the affluent audiophile class. As you may know, I've been spinning LP with my Technics SL-1200 M3D for the last year and a half. The machine is built like a tank and I very much expect it to last a lifetime. If indeed the new SL-1200 street price ends up being even close to $4000, I suspect it's not going to make a dent in the used market at all!

I suspect that when vinyl gets elevated to the realm of a luxury item like the Technics, plus a ridiculous association by Sony that their PS-HX500 turntable is anything deserving of  "Hi-Res" status suggests that the vinyl awakening is in full swing and in the midst of being over hyped in the eyes of the general public (articles like this showing up already). The association with vinyl and high-resolution in the mainstream is particularly disturbing and at some point will trigger a backlash against the BS. As I have said before, there is a "cool" factor to vinyl because of it's material properties (physically tangible, size of artwork - great for talk shows when the host wants to show the album cover) and psychological retro coolness triggering nostalgia. But the idea of associating sound quality in the sense of "high-resolution fidelity" is clearly wrong - and the mainstream knows it. They just have to listen to a typical turntable playing a typical LP. Please Sony, don't do this and set yourself up for more ridicule.

Perhaps not surprising is the lack of talk about "High Resolution Audio" in the mainstream (discounting the audiophile press where they are limited to this stuff). Unlike last year with awards handed to MQA and hype around the new Walkmans and Pono, I'm guessing things have gotten pretty quiet this past year in terms of actual sales. (As I noted a few weeks back, it's not surprising when the current crop of music labelled as high-resolution is nothing but the same recycled mixes/masterings not truly deserving of larger digital 'containers'.)

2. Here's a BBC Radio 4 piece on sound quality. Clearly they get it. It touches on the importance of not using too much dynamic range compression in the studio. It doesn't pander to the vinyl hype. There's honest acknowledgement that hi-res audio is subtle and requires a good sound system... Not something we're going to hear walking around with portable players and headphones on, nor when driving in a car. Gee... No surprise.

3. A couple of toys I got over the last couple months into Christmas holidays:

Motorola Moto 360 2nd Gen:

That's my 42mm-sized smartwatch (there's also the larger 46mm version). You know it's the Gen 2 based on the watch 'nub' button placed at the 2 o'clock position. Based on standard Android Wear OS with decent selection of apps. Works well and generally trouble free. I got it to crash maybe once in the last month while installing something or switching apps. There's convenient Google voice command recognition, nice to be able to Shazam something while driving without taking out the phone, fitness tracking works though not a major feature I needed. The main feature is basically convenient access to texts and messages over the course of the day... Also easily glancing at E-mails to be alerted to more important ones. The inductive charging cradle is also very convenient. Basically I put it in the charger overnight while I have my phone charged. No problem with battery life - I usually still have ~40-50% at the end of the day with the "ambient" low-power black and white display on. My favourite watch face currently is Military Digital - convenient one-tap access to stopwatch and tons of indicators and customization.

I like the round "classic" watch face having received a number of complements and questions about the watch (probably because many folks are used to the typical rectangular Apple Watch). Note that these Android Wear watches do not have a built-in speaker (notifications come through as haptic feedback) so you're not going to be walking down the street making phone calls off the watch Dick Tracy-like. It does of course have a microphone built in to respond to voice commands / take dictation for messages.

So far I have not seen any "must have" apps for wearables like this so I would classify these smart watches as something "nice to have" rather than a technology born of true necessity.

Samsung Gear VR:

At ~US$100, assuming you have one of the newest generation Samsung phones (Galaxy S6, Note 5), this and other similar headsets (least expensive being the Amazon Cardboard) provides the VR experience for the mass consumer. When the USB connector is inserted and phone snapped in place, it detects the peripheral, and the screen is converted to a dual screen side-by-side landscape view which "feeds" each eye. The lenses in the headset provides the stereoscopic focus and there's a little knob up top to help with focus fine-adjustment. To the right of the headset is a 4-way touch direction pad as well as the "Back" button to get to the main Oculus screen, and convenient audio volume control:

How well does this work? Let's just say that I was impressed! As an early generation product, there are clearly some limitations... First the phone screen resolution isn't great so you can make out the Bayer mosaic array which adds some aliasing and color accuracy defects to the image (the optics also add a little bit of chromatic aberration when viewed off axis). This is one application where I can see the potential of a high-resolution 4K screen on a cell phone. Secondly, the touchpad interface works OK for basic interaction with the apps but of course a gamepad with physical buttons would be better (maybe something inexpensive like this). Better still and clearly the next step in interactivity would be position-sensing technologies like the "Rink" Samsung demo'ed at CES 2016.

Despite the shortcomings, it's the experience that counts and certainly for those who have not tried something like this, it is a powerful reminder of the importance of our visual perception in building the sense of reality! Sure, a high-fi sound system can provide an illusion of a concert hall but when you're immersed visually into a simulated space with good headphones on, the power of the experience is undeniable. Swimming undersea with the whales, dolphins, and stingrays in theBluVR was both exhilarating and at times freakishly frightening! It was a sweet treat to watch the animated short Rosebud. You can virtually strap into Ironman's suit with the Jarvis HUD in the first part of the Marvel Avengers 3D video demo. The 3D effect and sense of motion when running in Temple Run VR was also a lot of fun and surprisingly effective. Yum, yum... It feels like the tasty 3D VR treats are just beginning!

Now speaking of food and tasty treats, just a reminder for those who have not tried a VR headset to attempt initially with an empty stomach! I am a bit sensitive to first-person shooters and can usually handle about an hour at a time. The VR headset was reasonably comfortable and I found that most of the time, I can tolerate the VR effect better than FPS games because the head tracking was remarkably accurate (mild judder once awhile) and this helps orient the mind. However, in games like Temple Run VR which has a motion path "on rails", the vestibular-ocular mismatch can be extreme especially when mixed in with the multiaxial head tracking on top of the on-screen motion. When you purchase or download apps, the Oculus store does describe the tolerability of the title in the form of whether "most" people can handle the simulated motion.

I think there was general disappointment at CES when the Oculus Rift was unveiled with an MSRP of US$600. With that kind of steep pricing plus the need for a powerful PC to run the games/apps, I suspect the inexpensive headsets like these will be the primary mechanism of consumption for most of us who just want to do casual gaming and VR experience.


Now, let's get out of the VR world and into the real world to end off... I must say in has been an interesting week in the financial markets last week eh? Oil, currencies, monetary policy seem to be sending a message about the future and the macroeconomic environment we're heading towards; one likely of primarily deflationary forces leading us as societies to review key concepts like the meaning of "credit". The concept of wealth and value are all part of the "big picture" in life and will affect perceptions in all areas of society. Of course I usually don't write about this stuff other than brief suggestions of it like back in September 2014 since this isn't the focus for the blog. IMO, the audiophile world is full of luxury items (huh? $100,000 NOS DAC?) with an amazing amount of propaganda, half-truths, and gross misrepresentations. As such, I do not believe it will be spared when fundamental changes occur and we are faced with important questions like how we gauge "value".

In any event, 2016 promises to be an interesting and important year as this is of course also the year of an American presidential election.

Be safe out there, friends... Until next time, enjoy the music!


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  2. Android Wear. I like it but it's overpriced and not reliable enough. That said, it has potential if user pick up materializes. It's certainly not lacking devices. Cool stuff you can do - Google Keep is probably #1 for me. In addition you'll be able to control certain HTPC interfaces, and Squeezeboxes can be handled from your watch. In addition, make sure you download Watchmaker and and check out the outstanding free watch faces on the Google+ forum. You have at least 11,000 free watch faces to choose from and some are really advanced both functionally and graphically. Google Play is not needed.

    VR - a portable home cinema, not only am I excited with the development, but more significantly in the long run, so is my kid.

    As for the $100,000 AN DAC, well luxury items do not necessarily correspond to utility value, on the contrary. Silver transformers, why not. At least the audio quality won't deteriorate with oxidation.

    Your link to AudioStream also portrays the Acapella speakers with the ion tweeters. I've heard a pair and I've never ever heard reproduced cymbals sound more real. It was spooky.

    1. Edit: Google Play IS needed for Watchmaker, but not for the watch faces. 11,000 watch faces corresponds to 30 years with a new watch face every day, and the number and variation is growing every day.

    2. BTW with Watchmaker you can design your own! There are modules you can download, and you can utilize items from other designers by incorporating so called layers. How about an analog dB meter read out on your watch face. Luxury: one watch each arm - left and right channels ;-).

    3. Cool Gadget. Looks like you're really into this stuff as well :-).

      I'll definately give the Google Watchmaker app a try! Thanks for the tips.

    4. One more thing gadget, I understand where you're coming from with the luxury goods item side.

      Even though the asking price might be high, there is one issue with hi-fi gear... They're just not "investment vehicles". The hardware itself isn't really seen as works of art that would sell big at auction houses nor do the brands hold any special value unlike say a Hermes Birkin handbag. At best they might hold value. As such, I think the gear prices and companies I believe are just as vulnerable to shocks in the economy.

  3. RE: That Radio 4 program.

    When that chap started on about Steely Dan and MP3... I notice they never mentioned the bit-rate, no way that was 128 bit, I'd guess 98 or 64. What do you think, Archimago?

    1. Yup. No way that MP3 sample was 128kbps. I'd also guess 64kbps and at best 96kbps.

      For an Internet "radio" broadcast which is compressed itself, an actual 128kpbs playback should sound pretty good and hard to differentiate from an uncompressed stream.

  4. Addendum. Wow, cannot agree strongly enough with the conclusion of that R4 prog. Bloody well said!

    If you haven't listened to it yet, go and listen NOW!

  5. I am REALLY excited about VR, and even for me the first generation of VR products is a bit too expensive once things like high end PC requirements are taken into account, so I will be a second or third generation adopter. I really hope this does turn out to be a mass market technology to allow the tech to really flourish all around.

    1. I agree. Despite the hassle of a headset type setup, there is a lot of potential in VR!

      Over the last few weeks I've introduced more friends to the experience and even my parents (70's) could recognize the potential in the technology... Never fails to elicit "wow's" from them.

      Cost is certainly the issue and I can see this technology as a potential driver for lower cost but fast hardware. The question is of course adoption rate. Until there are "killer apps" though that taps into the potential, it might be a slow start...