R.I.P. Zune; we miss you…

It’s a shame. The Zune was one of the few good portable music players on the market.  With a superior D/A converter, and a unique interface, it sounded excellent and was easy to operate.

While looking at players recently, I notice that the field has shrunk significantly.  We needed another for the house. While there were a lot of players in the market, nowadays there are only a very small number of name-brand players.  (And we exclude @pple because…well, they’re @pple, and we don’t drink the KoolAid or pay double or triple for cheap technology stuck in the past, thank you very much.)  Of the remaining players, the only big players are Sony and Sandisk, who has dropped the “Sansa” name from their offerings.  Other “name” manufacturers are out there, like RCA, but those are really bottom-feeder players, limited in quality and durability.

Therein lies the problem.  Of Sony and Sandisk, their current products receive very poor reviews from users.  Sony’s high-res players do get higher ratings, but consider that they are of a far higher build quality, and a much greater cost.  For someone just wanting a basic digital player, their baseline offerings fail miserably.  Gone are the metal cases for plastic, and loading files is a chore.

Sandisk fares no better–their most recent Clip has lost features over the previous generation. There are also scattered reports of early product failures.

All that remains past that are the crappy, cheap chinese players. One particular style of player is a stolen design of the ipod nano.  The players are so lame that they only play back the inferior MP3 format, unable to handle even WMA or M4A (which are well-known formats that just about every other player can handle).

Here is where I’d really love to get a new Zune, but they are nonexistent, except for new old stock that some greed mongers are marking up for obscene prices.  The only choice left is the used market, and quality varies.  Prices sometimes hover around the same level, but the devil is in the details; units that are fundamentally flawed in one or more ways are priced nearly the same as clean, fully-operational units.  Buying online is a crap shoot too, as you don’t know what will show up in your mailbox.

So here I am, sitting with a newly-acquired Zune HD 16GB.  It’s used, but has recently been repaired.  A couple of minor dings, but the screen and back are nearly flawless.  It functions perfectly.  I own two other Zune players–the 120GB disk-based, and a 16GB “flash” version.  The Zune HD only has two buttons, and utilizes a touchscreen interface.  Playing with it for two minutes, I easily picked up on its operations.

It’s a shame Microsoft got out of the Zune business, as it really is a nice little player.  Sound quality is clean.  Syncing is easy to tackle with the Zune software (as opposed to itunes malware which takes over everything on your system greedily).  It will even sync wirelessly.  Bonus: it not only has an FM radio, it offers HD Radio, so that gives a few more programming options for radio listeners.

I have an opportunity to get the 32GB Zune as well, and I am almost tempted to take the plunge.  I use an old Android phone with the Poweramp player for playing music on the bike, which is a clumsy setup.  The only advantage is that it uses Bluetooth to stream to a Philips Shoqbox speaker, so I have no dangerous wires dangling.

It’s also a shame nobody bought or licensed the Zune name and design and ran with it.  In this era, with listeners getting into high-res players, it would be no stretch of the imagination to see a 128GB flash memory based Zune to hold lossless FLAC files.  The hardware sounds great and the interface is a joy to use.  A shame nobody else took it up.


Posted in Music | Leave a comment

The regional issues of vinyl

The Beatles 2012 stereo releases on 180 gram vinyl LPs were notoriously bad here in the US (pressed by Rainbo), whereas in the EU, they were as flawless as could be expected.

I witnessed this firsthand.  My first two purchases were Rubber Soul and Revolver, both US pressings, and they were both flawed.  “Eleanor Rigby” had visible mishandling scratches on it, halfway through the song.  On Rubber Soul, one of the tracks skipped.  Yes, skipped.  I thought we were past that, past the days of a three-pound tracking force and a stack of quarters taped to the headshell.  Both LPs had their share of ticks and pops as well.  Trash.  Thank you, Crapitol, for using Rainbo.

I then ordered Magical Mystery Tour and Past Masters from the UK.  Both were EU pressings.  Both were immaculate.  Nice cuttings, dead quiet vinyl, ruler flat.  No issues whatsoever.  I later ordered Hard Day’s Night and Help!, and while they were similarly flawless, shipping damage (via two separate packags) left both of them warped.

It was a few months later that a killer deal came up on Amazon UK for the stereo box, and I jumped at it.  The box set was shipped in a foam-lined cocoon, arrived perfect, and every record in that set played as flawlessly as my other EU pressings.

Sadly, pressing quality varies on both sides of the Atlantic.  I just had this issue with Depeche Mode reissues.  I purchased a few from the UK, which were pressed by Music On Vinyl.  All of them were like the EU Beatles pressings–flat, dead quiet (well yeah, silly, except for the music!), and perfect.  The one single title I bought in the US was a Rhino (Sire) release and sure enough, it’s warped and noisy.

Thanks, Rhino.

Strangely, other Rhino titles I’ve purchased in recent years have been of excellent quality, except for the first Black Sabbath LP which was terribly off-center on side two, and slightly off-center on side one, with some nasty no-fill issues on the lead-off track on side one.  That was easily replaced though, and my new copy is very nice.

Dire Straits?  I have Love Over Gold which is another Rhino pressing and, aside from it being on the bright side, it is nicely mastered and the pressing is excellent.  Yet, the reissue of On Every Street from the EU was pressed by GZ Vinyl, and is horrible.  Beautiful mastering by Chris Bellman, nice packaging, and the record is full of scratches.

Yes, scratches.

I first thought it was faulty vinyl, but there are very clear mishandling scratches and scuffs all over both records in the set.  The replacement set is no better–just mishandled and scratched in different places than the first set.

This is absolutely shameful.  And what an insult to Bellman!

This is one reason why I want to get my companion site, the Record Collector Guide, operational as soon as I can.  Someone needs to be a whistleblower and call attention to the good and the bad.  Both to help fellow collectors, and to hopefully raise awareness in the press, in social media, and especially at the record labels that are doing a good job…or a terrible job.

Until then, be mindful of how your new 180 gram records are pressed, and at which factories.  Trust me on this: if the better vinyl is overseas, spend extra and just order it.  The extra you spend offsets the frustration in dealing with shoddy pressings and nearly nonexistent support from the labels.

Posted in Music | Leave a comment

Power cables: do they matter?

I could always understand why interconnects in an audio system could make a difference. We are talking about very low-level signals, which can be easily influenced by the electrical characteristics of the wiring.  Resistance, capacitance, and even inductance play a part, not to mention shielding to reject noise.

In speaker cables, size matters–there are measurable losses, based on the amount of power a cable is handling.  Larger gauge speaker cables have less resistance than smaller cables, resistance turning that sound energy into heat, which is a loss of power.  If you ever want to experiment, go out and buy the absolute cheapest and thinnest speaker wire you can find, and substitute it in a good system.  Even a non-audiophile can hear the difference.

But, what about power cables?  This is where I start becoming the skeptic.

It’s true that a larger gauge power cable will allow more power to an amplifier without loss.  But beyond that, what sort of snake oil is at play here?  I know an audiophile who makes his own power cords from heavy gauge, rubber-jacketed cable you can buy at any large home improvement store, with good quality connectors on either end.  And his system is one of the best I’ve heard, including some of the most holographic imaging I’ve heard in an audiophile system. He uses these cables on both his power amplifiers, his preamps and his sources.

But what is there for me to be skeptical of?  Why are his relatively inexpensive cables so capable of providing such a good end results, such that a $1,500 power cable looks like a ridiculous purchase?  Let me break it down into the finer details.

Consider the following.  For low-level components, I could see an advantage to a power cable which might have some sort of shielding to it.  If it can bleed off stray EMI/RFI before it gets inside the component, that could be an advantage right there.  But as for the type of conductor…well, that doesn’t quite fly with me.  We’ll see why in a moment.

A power cable for a source component or preamp need not be some huge conductor either–it can be, but due to the amount of power passing through it, anything much larger than needed is a waste.

Let’s get down to the basics.

First of all, where does our power come from?  A power plant.  Likely dozens of miles away.  It passes through miles upon miles of cabling, and many transformers along the way.  Consider this electrical fact: a length of wire can more easily carry voltage (a difference in potential–the official definition) than it can carry current.  That is why voltage is delivered to the neighborhood as high as tens of thousands of volts, and transformers on the poles knock that down in various ways to the 120 volt/240 volt electricity we receive in our homes.

Within the home, the electricity enters via a service line, which connects to a circuit breaker panel.  From there, the electricity goes through one circuit breaker for each circuit in the home.  In the US, the electrical code calls for 14 gauge cabling for 15 amp circuits, and 12 gauge for 20 amp circuits.  Common electrical wiring is often called “Romex,” and is a trio of solid copper conductors: one hot, one neutral, and one a grounding wire.

Where does this wiring go?  It starts at the breaker panel and goes to one outlet.  Which is connected to another.  And then another.  That same circuit might also head up to the ceiling to power some overhead lighting.  Most circuits in a home have a series of outlets that are daisy-chained together, whether they be wall plugs, lighting, or other lines.  Some major appliances have their own dedicated circuits (ovens, electric dryers, central air conditioning units). For all others, it would be highly impractical, not to mention very expensive, to run an individual run of Romex to each individual outlet or lighting fixture in a home.

Those wall outlets in your listening room may be at the very end of one of those daisy-chains.

Every inch of Romex is a tiny loss of power.  Each connection point along the way is also a loss, and a point of failure.  Our outlets in the listening room could be a few feet from the circuit breaker, or could be as many as 50 or more feet away, depending on how many other outlets the same circuit is feeding.

And on the end of all this mayhem, we want to slap a $600 power cable??

Many audiophiles are able to run dedicated lines to their listening rooms, which is great!  If I could, I would run 10 gauge Romex to my listening room, directly from the breaker panel.  Not everybody has that luxury, though.  Even so, we’re talking about power that has traveled miles outside of our home, and many feet (or meters) inside the home…and applying something expensive to only a very tiny portion of that.

Silly, isn’t it?

Now, one last point.  Audio Research, the manufacturer of high-end preamplifiers and power amplifiers, recommends using the power cables provided with their equipment.  Supposedly the claim is that they have heard no benefit to changing (notice I didn’t say “upgrading”) the power cable.  Why is that?

The power coming into our homes (at least in the US) is 60 Hz AC.  Pretty much a sine wave.  It isn’t perfect, and it picks up all sorts of EMI/RFI along the way.  Yet, it is what it is.  Just about every component you own has a power supply section whose only task is to turn that 120 volts of AC (alternating current) into a constant and clean DC (direct current) power source.

Inside your power supply, the AC passes through a transformer to reduce (or sometimes increase) its voltage. It then passes through a full-wave bridge rectifier to “flip” the sine wave around.  Capacitors smooth out these “half sine waves”, and the higher the capacitance, the better.  (Capacitors are able to store energy, hence the ability to smooth out AC voltage.)  From there, the power often enters a voltage regulator or at the very least, passes through a zener diode circuit to maintain a constant output voltage; if the input voltage dips, the regulator increases its output to keep the voltage steady.  Additional capacitors and inductors (coils) are often used to filter out any additional noise and “garbage” that might pass through.

It goes without saying that a better designed power supply will provide the most pure DC output, the ideal being the constant voltage a battery would produce.

So, if all of this cruddy power coming into your component is so nicely filtered by its own internal power supply, why would a $1,000 power cable have any difference in sound from a throwaway $5 computer cable for, say, a source component that only draws a few watts?  Or, why would a home-brew power cable with 8 gauge strands not be any less a cable than a $600 power cable others might sell for a power amplifier?

It shouldn’t make a difference.  The power supply does the job of cleaning up the sound. I can see, as I mentioned earlier, where some sort of shielding to bleed off stray EMI/RFI would help–it reduces the work that the power supply has to do to clean up that power.  But aside from the “crud,” the only thing coming through a power cable is a 60 Hz AC signal of 120 volts!  That’s it.  No rocket science.  No magic.  Except for electric AC motors (which rely on the 60Hz frequency to determine their rotational speed), the power supply does not care what it gets.

This does, however, make me wonder about how well, or how poorly, power supplies can be designed.  Audio Research is confident enough to say that the power cables make no difference, making me think their power supplies have been adequately designed to handle any type of “garbage” that comes across the power line, to the point that it does not adversely affect the audio output.

My thoughts on this?  Putting a pricey power cable on a very tiny fraction of the entire link to the power station is not doing anything at all.  That wiring in your home is probably the cheapest the contractor could buy at the time.  The wiring outside the home is designed most for durability.  And we’re fussing over several hundred dollars to put some “bling” onto the end of all that?

I would also say that if there is a difference due to “crud” in the incoming power (EMI and RFI), that the component in question has a rather poorly designed power supply which can’t properly handle cleaning up that power.  The power cable in this case is reduced to the role an expensive Band-Aid to correct a component’s shortcomings.


I’ll leave it at this point for now.  When you look at the facts of 120 volt AC power coming into your home, expensive power cables make no sense whatsoever.  Whether it’s audible is up to what a person wants to hear, I guess.

For a power amplifier, I would say that using an 8 gauge power cord is as safe as it gets.  At worst, you should match what is in your walls–likely 14 gauge, sometime 12 gauge.  Should you ever rewire your listening room with 10 gauge wiring, that 8 gauge power cord still has more capacity, so it is good for future growth.  Cabling larger than 8 gauge gets unwieldy.  I’m not saying this size is a cure-all, but if you are the type to want to do things once, the right way, pick one size of power cable that will handle your system’s capabilities now and in the future.

As for source components? Sure, you can upgrade a bit from that stock cable that came with your component, but don’t go overboard.  Better connectors and wire of a known size and quality can only help.  Yet you can get that in a power cable under $100 or considerably less.  After hearing home-brew power cables in a system that surpassed most others I’ve heard, I can’t say I’d be missing anything by avoiding the high-priced “bling.”

Posted in Music

Record club LP pressings

While perusing numerous used vinyl listings, many say that record club versions sound just fine.

In my experience, I’m not buying it.

I’ve had my share of LPs I have purchased over the years.  The bulk of my record club LPs (which were accidentally purchased, or bought as placeholders) are from the 60s and 70s.  Once I got a couple of my purchases home and more closely examined them, I would notice something seemed “off.”

On a Verve LP, the label looked rather washed out, and the font was different.  Playing it back, the sound was a bit weak and noisy, lacking the detail I heard on other Verve LPs from the same era and artist.  I also noticed the catalog number was quite different; in fact, it seemed very similar to a Capitol catalog number.  Sure enough–Capitol had a record club back in the 60s.

An A&M LP from the 60s was likewise lacking.  The familiar tan color had a tint of olive green to it, a different font, and again, a Capitol catalog number.  It’s a shame the vinyl was in such great condition, since the sonics left a little to be desired.

On a mid 70s A&M LP, I found a sealed copy of one that had eluded me in good condition for many years.  I got it home and played it, and it had a really strange sonic characteristic to it.  Only then, on the label, did I notice a misleadingly tiny “CRC” buried in the label art.  Yep…Columbia Record Club.

To my knowledge, there is only one record club LP in my collection that sounds excellent, and that was likely due to the album being made in the digital era, as LPs were waning in popularity, and therefore there was no loss of fidelity.

So, what exactly was the problem with those record club releases?  The records were pretty much giveaways, and I can’t even remember if the artists ever saw a dime in sales of record club product.  So, the labels would send over a dub of an existing master tape for the club to use for pressing the vinyl.  Was it purposely degraded?  Only the engineers involved could tell us.  Yet, why would a record label send the best quality of an album to a club run by a competing label?  You’re right, they wouldn’t.

For that reason, I avoid record club pressings.  It is a crap shoot.  A few might sound good but in my experience, the majority I’ve purchased have been sonic turds.

Posted in Music | Leave a comment

Pioneer in-dash USB input does not sort files or folders

I was installing an unused Pioneer head unit in the Civic.  This Pioneer is the FH-X720BT.  I have a few dislikes of the player, such as the unintuitive menu system, and a display that is almost unreadable in daylight.  Despite that, I have been puzzled as to why it will not play my tagged WMA and MP3 files in the correct order.

It turns out that it follows the order of the files on the USB device. Even my older JVC can read the filenames and order the files accordingly.  This one?  No.  Lame.

I found a utility called DriveSort, however, which puts them all in the correct order.  It only took a few seconds to fix the order, and now everything seems to play back properly.  (Just remember to choose the option to “save” your new order.)

You would think that this player, being a few years newer than the JVC, would be able to handle reading a filename.  But, no.  They also want to gear the Pioneer to iphones and such, yet few people own those anymore since it is a minority platform out there.

As for the display…why do we need for an in-dash to have so many colors and other features? I would prefer a simple LCD, which can be viewed in direct sunlight and nicely backlit at night.

I am looking for a better in-dash at the moment but at least I ended up with a handy little tool for the arsenal.  As I might be getting an automotive upgrade within the next year, that system is built-in and will not have the ability to be replaced by an aftermarket head unit.  So, I am not inclined to buy any further in-dash units.

Posted in Music | Leave a comment