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February 2009
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Fun With Bits And Bytes
My journey in discovering computer and Internet music.
Article by Nels Ferre
Click here to e-mail reviewer


  It started 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.

SqueezeboxFellow 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.


The Slippery Slope
As physical CDs were boxed in preparation for their trip to our air-conditioned storage unit, Leslie became happier and happier. Then, I hit a snag: one of the discs in the Beatles' Anthology series refused to rip, no matter what I did. It played fine in both the Dell and the JoLida CD player, but steadfastly refused to rip. I cleaned and re cleaned the disc. Nothing. Then the light bulb finally went off. I grabbed a blank CDR and ripped the disc in Leslie's MacBook to its internal hard drive, using iTunes (with error correction mode enabled.) I then burned the CDR from that. I took the newly burned disc to the Dell and it worked like a charm.

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.


Music In The Car
Later, when the factory CD changer died in my aging BMW, I could not rationalize replacing it- it was far too expensive. The idea of listening to the limited FM offerings in Orlando held less than zero appeal for me. I drive nearly 30,000 miles annually commuting from home in the city to my job in a neighboring county. Millions of music lovers had made the iPod the de facto standard of portable music players, so I began scouring the refurbished section of the Apple Store for an iPod Classic. The offerings from the refurbished section offer the same warranty as new units, "as new" appearance and operation, at varying levels of savings. It was then that I discovered that the iPod Touch could serve double duty as a remote control for my iTunes library at home- too cool! One day, a 8GB iPod Touch appeared on the site at a price I was willing to pay. Models offered and prices change- be patient but be prepared to pounce if something you want becomes available. Quantities are limited- sometimes very limited. Along with an adaptor, the iPod Touch worked well in my car, and changing music was easy- connect it to the Dell, delete what I was tired of listening to from the iPod Touch, and replace it with new music. It was certainly far more convenient than the trunk mounted CD changer.

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.


With the Dell tethered to the audio system, I found myself surfing the web and writing reviews on the MacBook. Earlier this year, when KECES sent a couple of their DACs to me for review, I found I could only get acceptable results from their USB model when used with the MacBook. With the Dell, it was noisy. The Dell was getting more use than ever, but (in computer terms) it was getting long in the tooth. Research on a suitable replacement ensued in earnest. After using the MacBook, and learning that iTunes for PC is not bit perfect, the scales started to tip. The thought alone invaded my thoughts at every turn. When Microsoft discontinued XP in favor of Vista, the scales tipped further yet. I used Microsoft Vista Ultimate for a few days when it was first introduced and absolutely hated it.

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.


Web Based Music
Let me get this out of the way… music streamed from the web can be quite acceptable. I prefer it to the vast majority of FM broadcasts I have heard, regardless of the quality of the tuner. Yes, streamed music is MP3 quality of varying levels, but as long as I listen to 128k or higher streams, I am quite satisfied. I can hear the retort from some of you even as I write this sentence. It is true that FM, in its purest form, outperforms streamed music. Even then, one must have a good quality tuner, a high quality antenna, and be within approximately 35 miles of the broadcasting tower. Preferably, there are no large structures between the tower and the antenna, otherwise multi-path distortion becomes a very real issue. This puts city dwellers like me at a disadvantage. The worst problem with FM does not lie with technology; rather it lies with heavy-handed engineers. In an effort to reach more listeners (and raise their advertising revenue) engineers raise the volume of their broadcasts by squeezing the dynamic range (and thus life) out of the music. Streamed music does not suffer from this, as the web based music providers can reach anyone with a computer who chooses to listen. I contend that, sound wise, streamed music is actually superior to broadcasted music. Variety wise, it is not even close to a fair fight.

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.


Last.fmI mentioned iTunes Radio earlier. iTunes radio offers plenty of variety and is easy to use. I used it all the time until discovering UK-based Last.fm. Last.fm is a free downloadable program that goes hand in hand with iTunes. Once downloaded, it reads the metadata in the computer's iTunes library to determine what songs reside on your hard drive. Then it plays those songs in a random fashion very much like iTunes itself can, but with a twist: it may play the same song and the same artist, but a different version of the song you already own. As I write this sentence, I am listening to Alice Cooper's "Under My Wheels", the opening track from his 1971 release Killer. Last.fm decided, however, to give me a live version, one that I do not own. It makes for a fresh way to listen. Another thing that Last.fm offers is the ability to listen to other users libraries. For example, if you want to listen to my library, all you would need is my user name, and you can listen to my library in the same random fashion already described.

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.


The iPod Touch/iPhone 3G Music Machine
Just as computer based audio started innocently, so did the introduction of the iPhone 3G into our lives. Leslie's brother bought the first generation iPhone, at a cost neither one of us was willing to pay. A pretty neat device though, even to someone like me who absolutely hates cellular phones. When the better performing and much lower priced iPhone 3G was introduced this past summer, I knew that it would not be long before She Who Loves All Things Apple would have to have one. And so it came to be.

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."


Max is a free downloadable program that all music loving Mac users will want. Along with bit perfect ripping, it quickly and easily converts file types from one format to another. My favorite place to download music these days is HD Tracks. The site is well thought out and it is easy to make selections and download purchases. They offer both true CD Quality as well as 24-bit/96kHz high resolution downloads. The high resolution downloads are in FLAC files, which, remember, iTunes cannot play. (When is Apple going to add this capability to iTunes? It should be simple enough.)  OK, rant over. Max allows the downloaded FLAC files to be converted to whatever file format chosen (in my case AIFF.) The converted files can then be automatically added to the iTunes library. There is not much more to say here- it is simple, works well, and the converted files sound great.


A Little Something For The Analog Lover
With all this talk about computers and portables, what about LPs? Audacity is a free program for Mac and PC that can be downloaded to help transfer your vinyl treasures to hard drive. I previously owned a Marantz CDR-630 CD Recorder that I used to make transfers of LPs for listening in my car. The Marantz died some years back, and I missed the ability of listening to my vinyl favorites away from home. There is a learning curve, but the program has good online documentation. It is really as simple or complicated as the end user chooses. For recording, connect a cable with a pair of RCA males on one end to either the "tape out" jacks on your preamplifier or receiver, and connect the other end (usually 1/8-inch mini stereo) to the "line in" on your computer. Alternatively, you could do what I do, go straight from an external phono stage to the computer. You will be able to hear what you are recording (in real time) whichever way you decide to do it.

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.


One Final Thought
DroboBackups: do them! It is not a question of if a hard drive will fail, but when. After studying my options, I decided on a Drobo. While the current generation is $499, the previous generation on closeout at select resellers is $349 (drives not included.) Yes, it is a bit pricey but this is a pretty slick device. It is a case that holds up to four hard drives of any capacity you choose (mine has three 750GB drives and one 500GB drive.) If a drive fills up, slide it out (no tools required) and slide in a new one. The Drobo takes care of the data automatically. Think of a fully automated RAID array that can use any size hard drive (they do not have to match) and you have the right idea. It is easy to set up (less than fifteen minutes) and works totally in the background. It can even protect data if two of the four hard drives were to fail. Just replace each failed drive one at a time (assuming two fail) wait for the light to turn green, and replace the other failed drive. If it has a problem, it will send an alert by email. The only complaint I have is fan noise- the first generation models can get a bit loud. I plan to move it into a closet in the rear of our home and access it through our wireless network. Another project for another day, as right now I am going to go listen to some music.














































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