innocently enough when Leslie and I were dating. She spied my Windows XP
equipped Dell laptop with the same level of suspicion and distain as I viewed
her Mac Mini running Tiger. On the rare occasions that we needed to use each
other's computers, frustration ensued: "How the hell do you make this thing
work? All I need to do is "X", why is it such a pain in the ass?" To each of us,
of course, our own computers were easy to operate. But put me on her Mac, and I
was a mess. Looking back, it was not all that
bad. Just as learning any new skill, there is a learning curve, and it takes a
little time. And so it went.
After we were married, the dual operating systems soldiered on. A portable made more sense for her job, so she switched to an Intel based Macbook. We purchased a small condo in the city, and one day as I walked in the door I knew things were going to change. Our living room did not look exactly like the usual living room- it took on the appearance of a demonstration room of a stereo store, except we had far more CDs and LPs. They took up two walls. It didn't bother me, but I knew she was being patient. Something had to give.
Fellow Enjoy the Music.com reviewer and good friend Scott Faller had switched to PC based audio some years back, relegating his beloved Ah! Tjoeb CD player to backup duties. He raved that his Squeezebox (with Boulder modifications) not only sounded better than the Ah! Tjoeb, but it changed the way he listened to music. I resisted. It could not be so. Additionally, I didn't see any value to his solution. Let us see -- buy a Squeezebox for $300, which according to many sources is "mid-fi" in stock form, and sink multiples of the cost of the unit itself into modifications. On top of that, there came the endless debate of which version of Squeezebox software sounded best. And a computer is still needed to use it. Nope, not for me — I want to listen to music. I do not want to be constantly messing with my computer to do so.
Initially, I ended up checking out PC based audio on the cheap. I used a 500GB external USB hard drive connected to the Dell for storage. I tried Foobar and JRiver Media Center as my playback program. (I prefer JRiver Media Center.) I made sure to bypass XP's kmixer. Exact Audio Copy took care of ripping duties, ensuring a bit perfect FLAC rip. The Dell fed a Trends UD 10.1 S/PDIF convertor, the signal from that feeding an Entec Number Cruncher 205.2 DAC. Scott was right, it did change the way I listened to music. I found that I was listening to music more, and I was also listening to a greater variety of music. But did it sound better than my JoLida JD-100A CD player? I am still not sure. Different is not necessarily better. There was another issue as well: occasional but persistent dropouts during playback. No adjustment I made totally resolved the problem. Researching this, I found the problem is common with Dell laptops.
While I was doing that, I checked out iTunes a bit. The GUI is certainly appealing. iTunes radio is a plus as well- hundreds of streams of all types of musical genres, many in 128k or 192k resolution. The next morning, I downloaded iTunes for PC onto the Dell, and re ripped a few CDs to run a comparison test. I could not believe what I was hearing. I switched back and forth between JRiver Media Center, Foobar, and iTunes, this time for Leslie making sure not to give any indication as to which was which. Both of us preferred iTunes hands down. I learned something that day -- everything I "know" is wrong- and that there are great differences in playback programs, far more than, say, switching interconnect or speaker cables. The dropout problem also totally disappeared. While I had to re rip everything, as iTunes cannot read FLAC files, I was slowly becoming an Apple convert.
In The Car
Not only did the remote program work well at home, but I could also surf the web and read (and reply) to email. Setup was a snap. The iPod Touch is a nifty device. It was not until much later that I discovered that I did not take into account all the musical enjoyment that the iPod Touch has to offer. Read on.
I still needed Windows for a program that my office uses. When I discovered that Apple's Leopard operating system would allow me to use Windows (in a separate partition) on an Intel based Apple computer, my mind was made up. Back online to the Apple Store I went. I watched models and prices for months, eventually selecting a refurbished black MacBook this past September. It has been a joy to use, completely trouble free, and, being bit perfect, sounds great. While I do other activities with it, it is used as my digital music server 90 percent of the time. The more cool things I discover, the higher that number goes.
Some high quality FM broadcasts still exist, but they are in the minority. PBS broadcasts come to mind, but there is an issue. It seems that every time, without fail, when they broadcast something I really want to listen to, it is constantly interrupted by a fund drive. If they actually played what I really like all year long, maybe I would send them a few more bucks… or simply find what I want, many times commercial free, from the web.
My favorite function of Last.fm is "My Neighborhood." After examining the contents of the iTunes library, it will make an educated guess as to what other music I may enjoy. It may play a song that own by an artist that I do not have, or it may play a song that I do not own, by an artist I have in my library. Additionally, will play other artists that are completely new to me. My Neighborhood will also list listeners whose musical tastes similar to mine, and gives me the ability to listen to their collections. These are great ways to discover new music.
One can also select artists and hear that artist as well as related artists. As an example, I told my brother about Last.fm. To say he likes the program is an understatement. He is a heavy iTunes user at his office. Lately, he has been on a Procol Harum jag, so he entered the band's name into the program. It will play a song from the Procol Harum first, then other bands that the program believes to be similar. The selected artist will come back around every ten songs or so. If you love a song that comes up, you can hit the "Love It" icon and it will be added to your regular music mix (called My Radio Station.) If a song comes around that you hate, you can use the "Ban" icon to ban it form future playback. On the other hand if you really love something that is playing, the program has links to both Amazon.com as well as the iTunes store so you can purchase the CD (or download it.) If you decide to try it (and you really should) be patient. When I first started using it, it seemed that every other song was either Devo or Barenaked Ladies. Apparently, digesting the metadata from large collections takes time. The program gets better and better the more it is used.
iPod Touch/iPhone 3G Music Machine
We were paying our bills not long after when it dawned on me that if I had one as well, and we went on the "family plan" we would actually spend less per month for cellular service than we were presently spending. But I did not want to spend $200 on another phone, no matter how cool it was. Did I mention that I hate cellular phones? If my job did not require one, I would not have one at all. Then I remembered my iPod Touch, as well as Leslie's unused iPod Nano. If I sold them, it would fund the purchase of another iPhone 3G. When I mentioned to a couple of people at the office that I was thinking of putting them on eBay, they were sold within minutes. Who knew the market for used mint condition iPods was so hot?
I was instantly comfortable with it. Friends at work wanted to check it out. As one of them was watching a You Tube video while standing in the parking lot, I had an idea. If the iPhone will stream video, it should be easy to stream music, as the bandwidth requirement is much lower. I checked the App Store (where iPod Touch and iPhone users can download applications) and that's where I discovered WunderRadio. WunderRadio is program that allows the user to search and play from more than 20,000 radio stations from around the world. It costs a whopping six bucks (for the program- there is no monthly subscription cost) and works very well. iPhone 3G users can listen to WunderRadio anywhere they have a 3G phone signal, or can listen to it through a wireless network connection. iPod Touch users are limited to the wireless network connection.
That night, as I was driving home from work (listening to Canada's "Macca Radio- Beatles and Friends") I was thinking that WunderRadio would be great to have at home to compliment Last FM. When I got home, I connected the iPhone to the Macbook, thinking that I could transfer the program and use it within iTunes. It was a no go-while the program automatically backs up within iTunes, it is not accessible from within iTunes. That's when I spied the iPhone 3G's 1/8-inch mini stereo headphone jack and immediately went digging into my box o' wires and connectors. I came up with a 1/8-inch Stereo to Female RCA adaptor along with a three-foot pair of Belkin Pure AV RCA cables. I connected the iPhone 3G to my preamplifier and gave it a go. While it does not sound nearly as good as my Macbook/KECES DA-131 DAC combo, it wasn't bad at all, although for best results, stick to battery power. When connected to the Macbook via USB to supply power to the iPhone 3G, some noise did find its way through to the speakers. Leslie loves the 1980's Alternative Channel." I enjoy KPIG Radio from Watsonville, California. The saying within her family when it comes to me is "It's all about the music."
Little Something For The Analog Lover
Straight up, I prefer this free program used on the MacBook to the Marantz. Why do I prefer this to a standalone recorder? It is more versatile. I have the ability to remove "clicks" and "pops" from the recording. I can use the built in High Pass filter to remove signal below any frequency I choose (which for me is 20 Hz.) I can use the built in Parametric or Graphic Equalizer if I choose to do so (I don't. It has an excellent adjustable noise filter. It is also simple to separate albums down to separate tracks after recording is complete. With the Marantz, track markers had to be added during recording, making it impossible to do other activities while recording was in progress. If I want to get really hardcore, I can (and have) make 24-bit/96kHz copies of my vinyl, although I cannot say I hear any major difference between that and 16/44 in this application. I am sure the limiting factor is the MacBook's sound card, as high resolution files downloaded from HD Tracks sound superior. Also, those of you who want to try this should be aware that 24-bit/96kHz files will not play on any iPod.