• Newsletter Issue #381

    March 19th, 2007


    I originally get into tech writing when I was working as a message board moderator over at AOL in the days when it was a Mac-friendly service, and that seems like a century ago the way things have changed since then.

    In a sense things have come full circle in one respect. You see, one of the most popular features of our paranormal radio show, The Paracast is — you guessed it — our discussion forums. It all started off rather slowly, as such things do. But a year later, and more and more of you listeners have dropped by to express your own points of view. Debates, in fact, have become hot and heavy at times, but most of you keep things under control, which is why just sitting back and reading the ongoing discussions can become so fascinating.

    As to the shows themselves: this week contactee Jim Sparks, author of “The Keepers,” returned to The Paracast to confront the questions he didn’t have time to answer during his first appearance. We can’t say that he convinced us, yet, of the authenticity of his experiences with “them,” but it was definitely an informative encounter.

    David Biedny and I also presented Rob Fitzgerald, host of the “Dead Science” radio show, who talked about life-after-death encounters and his ongoing investigations into the history and the motivations of serial killers. This was most definitely a different sort of discussion.

    On this week’s all-star episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, security expert and Mac networking pioneer Alan Oppenheimer, of Open Door Networks, delivered a blunt reality check about all the security fixes in the Mac OS 10.4.9 upgrade, and the confusion over Wi-Fi security.

    In addition, author and commentator Kirk McElhearn introduced you listeners to audio books, why you should use AAC (and no, it was not invented by Apple) and other fascinating subjects. And, with a new version of his flagship Stone Works software suite out, Stone Design’s Andrew Stone brought us up to date on the products and the history of the company.


    Over the years, whenever Apple is deemed to be among the beleaguered, the critics come up with some outlandish suggestions. One of the most foolish, as far as I’m concerned, is the ongoing call for Apple to stop building hardware and license the Mac operating system, so Apple competes head on with Microsoft.

    You see, they theorize that Apple cannot possibly compete with the $399 desktop, nor the $699 note-book, and is thus forever consigned to a minuscule portion of the PC market.

    Only it can’t really work that way in the real world, of which some of those critics don’t seem to be a part. You see, Apple’s income from its operating system sales is comparably small in the scheme of things. How many $129 upgrade kits would they have to sell to drive several billions of dollars in revenue?

    Quite a few indeed, far more than the number of Macs that Apple moves into the hands of users. Assuming that Apple has two or three percent of the worldwide PC market, even ten times that wouldn’t provide income parity.

    Now some might suggest that, if Apple really went head-on against Microsoft, it would succeed beyond our wildest expectations. After all, more and more people are fed up with Windows, with its unreliability, software conflicts and especially malware. They are ready for an alternative, and if they could install Mac OS X on their PC boxes, they’d switch in a minute. Just like that!

    Such romantic ideals simply don’t make sense, as much as you might wish it to occur. You see, Apple isn’t competing against the cheap PC. It hardly even makes sense for those who do play in the sandbox, because they have to sell huge amounts of hardware to eke out a profit. Even then, many of the lesser players have fallen by the wayside over the years.

    The real profits are made on the options that their customers choose when they click Customize at a company’s site. You can almost regard the entry-level boxes as loss leaders, or just enticements to suck you in, in the hope you’ll end up paying far more when you decide to add the features you really want.

    But let’s look a little closer at the Mac OS versus Windows situation: If you could buy Tiger, Leopard, or whatever, at your local electronics superstore, and it would run on most any recent PC box without special and unsupported hacks, what then? Would Apple clean up the market, and send Microsoft out to pasture?

    Well, it’s just not that simple. You see, Microsoft blows hundreds of millions — perhaps billions — of dollars on quality control to ensure compatibility with an endless amount of hardware combinations. That it manages to work fairly well in the real world is just amazing, because it’s so hard to do. Microsoft really has few controls over the way all those PC makers build their hardware.

    Then there are the home-brewed PCs that make the situation even more problematic.

    Now imagine if Apple had to add the infrastructure to make its operating system function with the very same hardware. Its overhead would go up tremendously, of course, but would it mean greater sales to recover that huge investment? Sure, Microsoft charges up to $399 for a retail, shrink-wrapped copy of Windows Vista Ultimate. But the fact is that most of its sales aren’t made that way. Instead, they sell most of their product on an OEM basis to the hardware makers directly, for a fraction of that price, by the tens of millions. That’s where the lion’s share of their operating system profits come.

    So would the PC user want to shell out an extra $129 for another operating system?

    Sure, such companies as Dell are said to be ready to offer Mac OS X preloaded on their computers. But if Apple took that approach, they’d have to offer the same discounts as Microsoft. In other words, instead of getting $129 for Mac OS X, the price might have to be cut to, say, $29 or even less per copy. Suddenly they’d have to sell many times more product to provide the revenue they earn now.

    More to the point, suddenly persuading a sizable portion of Windows users to switch to Mac OS X is far more difficult than a few hundred thousand or even a few million over a period of a year or two. Microsoft is supporting a deep and entrenched market that would find it extremely expensive to suddenly move to a new operating system. In other words, it’s indeed the impossible dream.

    That would be true even if they could install Mac OS X on the very same hardware. Forgetting the time it takes for installation, consider the cost of training, and the price of buying Mac versions of the software they use now, assuming it’s even available.

    Sure, Boot Camp is surely a possibility, but why switch operating systems in the first place if they still have to run Windows a fair amount of the time?

    So does it make sense for Apple to give up its totally integrated product line and embrace something new, something uncertain, and something that will probably never provide the same revenue possibilities? Not to me, but I suppose some people haven’t accepted the utterly illogical nature of such outlandish theories. So be it.


    When Apple first introduced the iTunes Store — or iTunes Music Store as it was known then — it touted the CD quality sound of its offerings. These days, Apple is rather more conservative in its claims, using the phrase “high-quality AAC songs.”

    I suppose that’s in contrast to “regular AAC strongs,” whatever that is supposed to mean. But there’s no pretense anymore that this is truly CD quality, although 128K AAC can sound pretty good in most situations. But if you’re a demanding listener, you might find the reproduction of, for example, acoustic piano, somewhat lacking.

    Indeed, if you have spent mega-thousands of dollars for an audio system, the flaws will seem even more obvious, although you don’t find such gear in too many homes these days. Too bad, because at one time, it was the ultimate goal of listeners of reproduced music to come as close as possible to the real thing — the holy grail.

    Nowadays, approaching the sound of live music doesn’t seem to be the cherished goal. It’s more important to being able to have music at your beck and call when you want to listen, even if it has to be done through a pair of $20 earphones.

    You know, I once read an interview with Paul McCartney in which he said he most liked to hear music on a car radio, even if the radio didn’t sound all that great. Saying that, there was something special about the sound of an old AM car radio in the days when that part of the broadcast band was actually used for music a great deal of the time.

    In fact, studio engineers would often mix their prospective hit recordings so they would sound just great on AM. If anything, the quality would actually suffer on more costly gear, where you’d sometimes hear the flaws and/or the tricks that were done to compensate for the deficiencies of the expected playback medium.

    I recall watching a veteran mastering engineer at work almost three decades ago, as he explained the things he had to do to allow a “hot” recording to sound decent on a cheap record player. In fact, they’d keep such gear at hand to make sure that masters would play without skipping. It was as much an art as a science, and getting great sound out of vinyl, considering its limitations, was no mean task.

    In our iPod generation, I wonder how many of you really care anymore. Apple chose 128K as the encoding rate as a decent compromise. The files don’t take an awfully long time to download, and sound quality is just good enough to please most listeners, so long as they aren’t hyper-critical. What’s more, most of the source material, mixed and homogenized to excise most distinguishing characteristics, wouldn’t benefit all that much if you listened with state-of-the-art gear.

    These days, I even wonder whether Apple would find much of an audience if it choose to sell lossless tracks; in other words, tracks that were audibly indistinguishable from the original CD.

    Indeed, as someone who enjoys superb sound when the right equipment is at hand, I have to mourn the loss of our search for audio’s holy grail.


    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc..

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    18 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #381”

    1. […] Story continued in this week’s Tech Night Owl Newsletter. […]

    2. Max says:

      “These days, I even wonder whether Apple would find much of an audience if it choose to sell lossless tracks; in other words, tracks that were audibly indistinguishable from the original CD.”

      The answer to your musing is YES and YES again. Think classical and jazz aficionados. I’ve bought about 1000 songs from iTunes, but only 1 or 2 of them are classical. If you regularly listen to challenging works by Beethoven, Mahler, Charlie Parker, you do notice mediocre sound quality and you will not accept it. The Philadelphia Orchestra sells recordings with the lossless FLAC codec. Apple could do the same if it wanted to boost its “serious music sales.”

      But there’s always been a lot of money in more portable, convenient formats that aren’t as high fidelity, esp. among younger listeners. My take is consumers–at least American ones–have swung on a pendulum between audio fidelity and listening convenience, esp. in terms of portability.

      If I recall correctly, the first mass-audience listening devices were somewhat luggable devices with a large speaker horn. You could wind them up with a crank and the player–“Victrola” was one popular model–would play music recorded on a cylinder and then later a disc.

      Eventually, more sophisticated players with turntables powered by electricity came into vogue. The music player became a piece of furniture, a status icon that showed your wealth as well as your good taste in music and decor. Clearly you couldn’t lug these things around anymore, but the sound was much better thanks to left and right speakers, some sort of amplifier.

      Then came another swing of the pendulum–portable turntables that mostly kids used to play the latest single on a “45” disc. Sound quality? Laughable. And then 10-15 years later (I’m guessing about the time lag, I’ll admit) came transistor radios. The sound out of tranistor radios sucked…but they fit in your palm and you could carry ’em around.

      Then around the 70s stereo equipment became a Big Deal. Expensive. Loud. Status symbols again–you were cool if you had an amp, pre-amp, tuner instead of one box doing it all.

      Even portability bowed to the pressure for better sound–hence the rise of boom boxes. Luggable when needed: bigger was usually better, although some comedians got laughs portraying pretentious guys staggering under the weight of a ginormous “ghetto blaster.”

      Then came the Walkman–better sound than a transistor radio thanks to advances in electronics and stereo headphones. The tape player let *you* determine what songs you’d hear.

      iTunes and iPods changed the delivery system of music, but once again we’ve accepted compromised sound quality for portability AND the ability to determine the playlist. That control of the playlist is VERY important, so much so that people are willing to buy iPods far more than other MP3 devices even though iPods don’t have radio tuners built in. Broadcast radio is so homogenous and fossilized that it doesn’t matter anymore–iTunes’ ease of use and the iPod’s elegant clickwheel carry the day.

      Eventually Apple will be pushed to improve the sound quality of its iTunes songs, esp. as the price of hard drive and RAM capacity plummets further and file size becomes less important.

    3. Ed Waldrup says:

      I too morn the loss of our search for audio’s holy grail. I am a supporter of the holy grail and hope that Apple will consider increasing the quality of it’s audio downloads. I bought $11 woth of downloads to discover that the quality doesn’t stand up on my audio system or for that fact my current state of the art Shure E 500 ear cans and Headroom Desktop Portable Amp and Home Module with the 60 gig iPod. All my music is from cds I own and it is on the iPod in AIFF format. The sound quality is such that at times I feel like I am in the control room of the recording studio. Maybe the masses are a____ when it comes to qality. A new opportunity presents itself in the future due to higher download speeds. Fios offers 5 or 15MBs per second download speed. With Apple preparing to allow HD content downloads (admittedly at high copression) perhaps the option will offered be for high quality audio downloads. I can only hope so. If you think I am a nut -new turntables are for sale at multiples of $10,000 and cartridges for multiple thousands. Check it out at acousticsounds.com and needledoctor.com.

    4. [Comment ID #1341 Will Be Quoted Here]

      Ah yes, a long, long time ago I listened to a $20,000 turntable as the dealer extolled the extraordinary advantages of his product, and the $40,000 sound system to which it was connected. In the end, it was just a record player with a lot of hype. There are extremes that aren’t holy grails, but excursions into fantasyland.


    5. al-Mahr Fuad says:

      I wonder how much of the 128k compromise was to protect CD sales back when those mattered.

      I would buy music from iTMS if it was 320k AAC. That’s what I rip my CDs at when I put them on my iPod for listening via Grado headphones (mmm, Grados). Damn near indistinguishable from the CD and half the size of Apple Lossless (if’n I remember’n right).

    6. Max says:

      [Comment ID #1343 Will Be Quoted Here]

      My guess is that Apple will be forced either by consumers or competition to offer higher-fidelity recordings within three years. The spread of broadband, the rise in drive storage capacities and the fall in storage prices are going to weaken the need for lossy compression formats like MP3 and AAC.

      Also, as it gets easier to connect an iPod to a good home or car stereo, people are going to say “…y’know, I was hoping for better sound quality. What about it, Apple?”

      It’ll happen, but probably at a higher per-song price. And yes, in response to Ed and Gene’s comments, it’s always a-ma-zing that people get suckered into spending thousands on home stereos. There has to be a happy medium between that craziness and accepting so-so 128 kbps recordings from Apple and others indefinitely.

    7. Gene, there’s an additional problem here: CD sound isn’t good enough, largely not because the format isn’t fine (although it does not offer enough resolution for real audiophile sound), but because digital mastering is increasingly inferior to analog mastering. In most cases, I can get better sound from 30-year old LPs than I can from the modern CD equivalents, largely because LPs had to be mastered properly (or else your stylus jumped a groove). Very few modern CDs are mastered properly.

      This 2-minute video is the clearest explanation of this problem that I’ve ever seen:


      Not only is AAC not up to the benchmark of CDs, CDs themselves aren’t up to audiophile standards. It’s a poor benchmark, in other words.

      Max, a long, long time ago in a … anyway, I was friends with the editor of The Audio Critic, which took a properly centrist approach to audio quality. If you have $5,000 available, you can get extraordinary sound. Above that, the law of diminishing returns sets in real fast. But you could also do pretty well for $1,000 and the differences may not be night-and-day unless you listen carefully — and have good source material.


    8. Wax Fire says:

      Gene, there’s an additional problem here: CD sound isn’t good enough, largely not because the format isn’t fine (although it does not offer enough resolution for real audiophile sound), but because digital mastering is increasingly inferior to analog mastering. In most cases, I can get better sound from 30-year old LPs than I can from the modern CD equivalents, largely because LPs had to be mastered properly (or else your stylus jumped a groove). Very few modern CDs are mastered properly.

      This 2-minute video is the clearest explanation of this problem that I’ve ever seen:


      Not only is AAC not up to the benchmark of CDs, CDs themselves aren’t up to audiophile standards. It’s a poor benchmark, in other words.

    9. I have personally witnessed the analog mastering process and hired mastering engineers when my wife did some studio-based singing. Some of those mastering engineers are well known in the industry, having worked on platinum recordings for major artists (such as Bob Ludwig).

      If you make a direct CD from an LP, you probably won’t hear the difference. You see, the LP is not a transparent medium by any means. Surface noise and other distortions combine to alter the output from the input to a substantial degree. Some of these alterations, however, are pleasing to the ear (which is where that LP is superior stuff largely comes from), whereas digital is more revealing of sloppiness in the recording chain. And there’s plenty of that.

      And, remember, even on the $20,000 turntable, a few playings and the LP deteriorates noticeably.


    10. Max says:

      That’s quite interesting, Gene. I remember talking computers with a friend about 13 years ago and he summed up the nerdy chatting quite nicely: “The computer you want is always going to cost $2500.”

      Nowadays of course, that’s just not so. I think the average PC sells for US $1300. But it makes me wonder where the point of budget-minded diminishing returns for audio equipment is TODAY. Your friend talked years ago about buying a $1000 rig that would please most ears and listening situations. My guess is that even with inflation that budget nirvana costs less these days. Here’s hoping anyhow–I need to buy a new receiver.

    11. Max, my friend at The Audio Critic once tested a cheap Pioneer receiver and found that it measured reasonably well within its power limitations, and sounded indistinguishable from models costing ten times as much.

      The key, of course, is power, and you should always get more than you need to drive the speaker system you have.


    12. Jim says:

      Back in the day (’70s through ’90s) when us hipsters all raced to have the best, most powerful audio equipment, I often wondered at the insane prices and insane equipment “innovations” that were constantly trumpeted. I have two criticisms of those times and the audiophiles who spent so much money:

      1) Trying to reproduce the live sound of real instruments in popular music is impossible, because the instruments are either not “real” (meaning they are completely electronic) or because the live sound is always translated by amplification equipment. What is it that one would be trying to reproduce with one’s insanely expensive home stereo system, then? Since the pop music sound is for all practical purposes artificial, it all comes down to a matter of taste and a few objective measures, such as distortion.

      2) My test of expensive stereo system fraud: Is it ever truly necessary to own a stereo system that is more expensive than the amplification and monitors used during the recording sessions? I don’t think so. I suspect that a home audio system should probably not cost more than a set of good, professional self-powered studio monitors. (I would compare just the cost of the amplifier and speakers in the home system, leaving out the CD player/turntable/tape decks, etc.) And from most of the gear catalogs I’ve seen, that cost is not astronomical.

    13. Ed Waldrup says:

      Let’s not forget those who have a taste for jazz and classical ( you know, classical: Elvis in the 60’s) (just kidding) and those of us baby boomers who have been left a modest trust by our depression era parents. Check out the the prices on Wilson Audio speakers and McIntosh hardware. There seems to be a few who can afford some of the best. I am saddened by the prospect of playing music on a theatre in a box but I understand that that is all some can afford. Once I too had to make do with Heathkits and mismatched speakers of unknnown origin. The love of music knows no budget. I do hold out hope that SACDs and DVD audio will carry us forward. I do agree that studio monitors are some indication of a reference. Some pop music is mixed on small speakers to sell the product on a car stereo. I am lucky enough to have the monitors that Lucas film and Abbey Road use. I think we have several audiences for music. The iTunes group, the old timers like me who have vinyl, tape, and compact disc, and a third group who can appreciate and justify the SACD and DVD audio as well as the best vinyl and cds of today and yesterday. I count myself amongst the latter two groups. I hope that iTunes will someday offer uncompressed audio so that we can purchase and download what might other wise be unavailable at any price… out of print music. Hopefully iTV or UTube will offer us what is long unavailable in video. Alas we are in the stone age of digital rights and bandwidth. I think this can and will change as long as technology advances and there is money to fund it. Long live SACD, DVD audio, HD, uncompressed audio, and the innovation and competition that makes it affordable and available. What if you could purchase or lease an uncompressed multi channel copy of the audio master as long as you could not sell it. Wow.

    14. There’s a lot of hype connected with home audio systems. This is one key reason why pricing can sometimes get out of sight, if you let certain magazines that exist to promote such gear influence you.


    15. Ed Waldrup says:

      Two points and I agree with Gene. Point one. if you can hear a diffenence and afford it, consider it. Point two. I personally approach some esoteric audio with humor. I am dumbfounded by the marketing of a $1,180 power cord to go between the equipment and the wall. The description of the attributes of the line cord are hilarous to me. Check it out at


      I have not personally auditioned this product and am amused that someone would go to such extremes. I have been an electonic technician trained in radar and computers. I am also an audiofool er audiophile within the limits of my hearing and wallet. My hearing is just fine thank you,

    16. Ed Waldrup says:

      This is 2011. Finally you can digitize vinyl at 24 bit 192khz and apply the RIAA curve thru software (Pure Vinyl software). You can read about how to optimize the room and speakers (“How to Get Better Sound”). If you are locked in to what you have been told, this book dispels some long held beliefs. It is based on thousands of room tunings done by the author. You can spend a lot of money and be unhappy otherwise.

      How does vinyl ripped with “Pure Vinyl” sound? To my ears it can be way better than a sometimes sloppily put together CD. CD technology is now 30 years old. CD makers seem to be trying to find out how loud they can make a CD in some cases. They are in fact still producing vinyl at shocking prices. The point is we have choices. If you only enjoy fast food then you will be very happy with what iTunes allows you to have today. If you want more there are hi def downloads etc. for a price. There are rumors that iTunes may offer hi res downloads in the future. That would let you get closer to the artists intent. Let your ears and your budget decide.

      • @Ed Waldrup, @Ed Waldrup, Let’s not forget that the original goal of “high fidelity” was to reproduce the sound of a live performance as much as possible, within the limits of a given state of technology. But many pop recordings are basically studio creations that do not exist otherwise. Even when a performer appears in person, there is also a ton of digital gear around to attempt to duplicate this artificial sound as much as possible.

        The question is whether analog and digital can, when done properly, duplicate the original recording. In that, digital is better. Analog, however, has its own innate distortions that many people find pleasing. It is smoother, and the background noise, however subtle, softens the excesses. But that’s not accuracy by any stretch of the imagination, even if you like it that way.


    17. Ed Waldrup says:

      If by digital we mean 16 bit 44kHz then I think we are not getting all the audio. At 24 bit 192 kHz we are, to my ears, getting pretty much all of it. Digital includes mp3 at 128k. That is the fast food version of digital. Analog has an infinite number of samples per unit of time. I am not saying that analog or digital is better. I am saying that digital as most know it, can fall far short of the original promise of “perfect sound forever”. My argument is with the bit rate and sampling rate of digital. It is an unmet promise for the masses as yet. For example DVD versus Blue-ray. Would you agree that Blu-ray can be far better than a DVD? They are both digital. All digital is not created equally. Nor is an analog cassette equal to an analog Studer or Ampex open reel recorder at 30 inches per second.

      Live performance too often is listening to an amplifier and sound system and undesirable acoustics. To label digital as superior without accounting for bit rate and sampling rate is to me generalizing. All digital is not equal and it it is just recently meeting it’s promise with high bit rate material becoming available thru download or otherwise. It is certainly not MP3 that is superior to all analog, and CDs can and do fall short due to bit rate and sampling rate. When I say analog I am including the master tapes for all music prior to 1980s and many since then.

      My father floored me when he informed me that AM radio stations use a class A amplifier to modulate the transmitter. They do. They have to. It was analog too. Nothing beats a class A power amplifier for purity. No, I do not have a class A power amplifier.

      My concern is that people will generalize and not do their homework. The man who spent $50,000 on a sound system and because he was unable to spend $500 to optimize it, sold it in frustration. I have been in recording studios as I used to sell Ampex Pro Audio recorders. By the way, I listen mostly to Classical and Jazz. Not much fiddling around in the studio with those.

      My goal is to digitize some of my vinyl the best it can be, 24/192 to preserve the sound on these vinyl only albums.

      I once worked with a man who said there are only two kinds of music. Country……..and Western.

      Thank heavens for our Macs. They can do 24/96 I understand.

      Thanks Gene, for letting me make a point or two. We agree.

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