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  • Newsletter Issue #384

    April 9th, 2007

    A FEW SITE UPDATES

    As some of you have come to realize, I tend to tinker a lot with the site on which this newsletter is hosted. Most of it involves small formatting changes, but sometimes I swap features in and out to test their usefulness, and I do it with little or no advance notice.

    Take our Comments feature, for example. A few weeks ago, I added a feature that lets you subscribe to them on an article-by-article basis after you submit a post. So if someone answers your statement, you’ll learn about it via email, and you can return to the site to respond in kind. It’s not quite a message board, but it comes pretty close.

    To make it easier for you to post your comments, we have a “live” preview feature, where you see your message displayed fully formatted beneath the Leave Your Comment window as you type it.

    Just the other day, a new feature was added, which lets you edit your comments in place after they’re posted, just by clicking on the message (you’ll see it highlighted). The editing feature is set for a 60-minute time limit right now, but I can change that setting in a moment if you readers would like it configured for a longer period of time.

    While I can’t promise that I’ll implement every new feature you request — I’ll try. But remember that some of these add-ons and refinements can cause server slow-downs, so this site will take longer to load. And you don’t want that to happen, right?

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    Apple says that the quality of its forthcoming DRM-free iTunes music is “indistinguishable from the original recording,” with no qualifications whatever. By “original,” it would seem they are referring to the CD version and not to the master recording as mixed in the studio, for even a CD rarely approaches that, although it can come close.

    To put Apple’s claims to the test, I thought it would be a good idea to get some serious and critical listeners involved to evaluate the truth — or at least the truth according to Apple.

    So on this week’s all-star episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we once again entered “The David Biedny Zone,” as our Special Correspondent returned to put his “golden ears” to the test and judge the quality of AAC music files versus the original CD.

    In addition, noted author and commentator Kirk McElhearn provided a down-to-earth assessment of the meaning of the agreement between Apple and EMI to sell a higher-quality version of a music file free of DRM. Kirk also delivered his own listening test results and I’ll refer to this subject in more detail in this issue’s lead story.

    During the show, you also heard from Prosoft Engineering’s Greg Brewer about their newest version of Data Backup, and the rest of their growing product line.

    On The Paracast this week, David Biedny and I explored the strange tale of the mysterious “Starchild” with Lloyd Pye. Is this skull from an alien/human hybrid, a hoax, or some sort of strange deformity? Indeed, this is a story David and I don’t necessarily buy, but it’s nevertheless fascinating.

    You’ll also heard some frightening tales of hauntings from renowned ghost hunter Lorraine Warren. As you may recall, Lorraine was a key figure in the case on which the movie, “The Amityville Horror,” was based. But we found lots of other stories to talk to her about.

    ON THE MEANING OF THE PHRASE: “INDISTINGUISHABLE FROM THE ORIGINAL RECORDING”

    When Apple first debuted the iTunes Music Store — which dropped the “Music” label when movies were added — they made a very direct claim about the quality of the 128K AAC files they offered. They approached the quality of a CD, but that’s a claim that was quickly disputed by critical listeners everywhere.

    In turn, Apple eventually settled on a less-exaggerated phrase, “high quality.”

    To be fair, it may be true that, on a portable music player with inexpensive earphones, a car radio or a low-cost home audio system, you probably wouldn’t be able to detect much of an audible difference between the standard iTunes fare and a CD. That’s particularly true with today’s highly-compressed and noisy popular music, where audio quality plays the role of poor handmaiden to “talk power,” so it stands out on the radio.

    But if you take acoustic instruments, such as a piano or harpsichord, where the subtle nuances are difficult to reproduce even in uncompressed music, the audible differences may be painfully obvious. This is why so-called “golden ears” began to demand that Apple deliver something better.

    At the same time, the music industry wanted a two-tier pricing system for singles. You’d pay the regular 99 cents for older product, and a higher price for hits. Apple and EMI devised a smart solution that addressed several of the demands of both listeners and the music industry.

    So, indeed, there is a premium version of your music for which you’ll pay $1.29 a track. That satisfies the music industry’s demands for higher pricing. The pricing for albums, however, is reportedly unchanged. But that remains to be seen.

    For the benefit of consumers, the new premium versions are free of DRM and of much higher quality — 256K AAC. Remember, it doesn’t cost the music companies any extra to offer this alternative version, for which they get their share of that 30 cents additional price — or whatever it is in your country.

    Yes, it costs Apple a little more to host the larger files, but that shouldn’t be a significant factor.

    But it’s not the higher price or the freedom from copying restrictions that will attract many of you to the premium product. It’s the promise of higher quality sound, and there’s where a big question mark looms.

    Is it, as Apple claims “indistinguishable from the original recording,” which I presume to be a CD? For that claim to be correct, it would have to mean that all or most listeners, when comparing the two critically, will be unable to reliably hear audible differences.

    On The Tech Night Owl LIVE this week, I posed that very question to two of our guests. Author and commentator Kirk McElhearn is a classical music buff and has a good selection of high-quality earphones at his disposal. He declared that Apple’s claims about the audio quality of 256K AAC are correct. He could not reliably hear a difference between tracks encoded at that quality level and the CD originals, in a series of blind listening tests.

    David Biedny, a long-time musician and composer, in addition to his incredible digital content creation skills, is another golden ear I put to the test. He also used high-caliber earphones, although the test protocols weren’t quite as stringent. However, he said he could reliably hear slight differences on an acoustic piano recording between a premium AAC file and the CD source.

    In fairness to both David and Kirk, it may only be that you can hear those differences under certain conditions with very specific recordings. Most of the digital music catalog would otherwise meet Apple’s standard of being indistinguishable from the “original recording.”

    In deference to David’s acute hearing skills, I would offer a friendly suggestion to him and others who might want to pursue this further. You see, Kirk has the right idea about blind listening tests. If you cannot identify the source with your eyes, your mind is free to evaluate the sound quality without any predispositions entering into the picture.

    But I’d suggest a further requirement: Make sure that the volume levels are perfectly matched, to within .1 of a decibel. It’s possible the encoding might change volume levels, and thus the louder recording, even if only a shade louder, would seem to have greater clarity and detail. This is a common failing of anecdotal and uncontrolled listening tests, such as the ones conducted by some of those high-end audio magazines through the years.

    So in the end, the matter has probably not been put to rest. And it probably won’t be until a panel of listeners submit to a sustained double-blind test with matched levels, one that involves a cross-section of CDs and encoded variants.

    In the real world, however, it may not matter. A very subtle difference that only an astute listener can detect in a carefully-controlled environment may not be important to you in the real world. But that is your decision. As for me, these days I try to just enjoy the music, assuming the audio quality is decent, and really that’s what it’s there for, right?

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: VONAGE’S SHAKY FUTURE

    When I first heard about Vonage, I only had a casual knowledge of VoIP and its potential implications for the telecom industry. At the suggest of my friend (and a frequent guest on the tech show) Steve “Mr. Gadget” Kruschen, I invited one of the larger VoIP startups, Vonage, on the show, and I even set up a review account with them.

    In large part, the experience was reasonably favorable. Voice quality came pretty close to a conventional landline, although it could get flaky at times. But I was pleased with the fact that I could use my existing phones, and even make calls to Canada without paying extra. So I became a regular subscriber, and added a virtual number for another city and even a toll-free exchange.

    But Vonage had a few growing pains even then, before it became the number one independent VoIP provider in the U.S. The worst was the handling of phone menus. Sometimes the beeps wouldn’t “register,” even if I waited a second or two extra between the pressing of the buttons.

    Vonage’s customer service fixed the problem for a time, after several unproductive support requests. Finally, the problem returned, and by this time, it appeared they had outsourced most of their support lines, because I could never find anyone who had a passing ability to speak English, when I could connect at all. And that didn’t happen very often.

    So I switched to Packet8. No, not the perfect solution, but it’s a small company and they developed most of their technology in-house — for which they hold patents — so they aren’t facing the consequences of Verizon’s lawsuit with Vonage over patent infringement.

    I suppose when Vonage’s public offering misfired, you could see the handwriting on the wall. Despite rapid growth, the company was clearly headed for trouble.

    Now I don’t pretend to know the technical niceties of Vonage’s legal skirmish with Verizon. Unless an Appeals Court reaches a different decision, however, Vonage will be forced to pay millions to Verizon, plus royalties if they wish to continue to use the disputed technology.

    Since Vonage is hemorrhaging millions even without the legal fees, fines and potential royalty obligations, you have to wonder how long they can hold out.

    As of Friday afternoon, they dodged one bullet. They got a higher court to overturn a decision barring them from soliciting new customers. How long that’ll last is anyone’s guess, but when a company is so deeply embroiled in legal and financial turmoil, you wonder if it makes sense to do business with Vonage.

    Now I don’t want to put any company out of business, which has the awful effect of putting lots of people out of work. On the other hand, we all deserve reliable phone service, and when a company’s very ability to provide that service is at risk, it may just be the right time to bail and choose another provider.

    It’s not as if there are no alternatives, and some of them are even cheaper than Verizon.

    THE FINAL WORD

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

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis



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    4 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #384”

    1. Michael says:

      I’d be interested to know if doubling the bitrate will have an appreciable effect on battery life. That would be an important consideration for portable use. Apple’s advice certainly used to be, because of the caching, to use a low enough bitrate to keep filesizes below 9MB.

      Interestingly, Googling on this –

      ipod+%22battery+life%22+tests

      – and similar searches doesn’t turn up much. But I did find, what I didn’t know, but what, thinking about it, is not surprising: DRM reduces battery life. Apparently, Apple’s FairPlay can reduce battery life by around 8%, and Microsoft’s PlaysForSure by a catastrophic 25%:

      http://www.engadget.com/2006/03/16/is-drm-sucking-the-life-out-of-your-mp3-player/

      Most people at Hydrogen Audio, which seems to be _the_ place for audio discussion, seem to think that AAC using either Apple’s or Nero’s encoder with a variable bitrate of ~160 kbps gives a good quality/filesize trade-off. I think EMI’s new offer through Apple and others is a good one, and Steve sold it well (except for the place where he, as Kirk put it, waffled). But I doubt 256kbps (320kbps from “The Good, the Bad & the Queen” the first EMI outlet to sell DRM-free) files are optimal for current portables.

    2. I’d be interested to know if doubling the bitrate will have an appreciable effect on battery life. That would be an important consideration for portable use. Apple’s advice certainly used to be, because of the caching, to use a low enough bitrate to keep filesizes below 9MB.

      Interestingly, Googling on this –

      ipod “battery life” tests

      – and similar searches doesn’t turn up much. But I did find, what I didn’t know, but what, thinking about it, is not surprising: DRM reduces battery life. Apparently, Apple’s FairPlay can reduce battery life by around 8%, and Microsoft’s PlaysForSure by a catastrophic 25%:

      http://www.engadget.com/2006/03/16/is-drm-sucking-the-life-out-of-your-mp3-player/

      Most people at Hydrogen Audio, which seems to be _the_ place for audio discussion, seem to think that AAC using either Apple’s or Nero’s encoder with a variable bitrate of ~160 kbps gives a good quality/filesize trade-off. I think EMI’s new offer through Apple and others is a good one, and Steve sold it well (except for the place where he, as Kirk put it, waffled). But I doubt 256kbps (320kbps from “The Good, the Bad & the Queen” the first EMI outlet to sell DRM-free) files are optimal for current portables.

      The test referred to in your link is total nonsense. What they did was to test an AAC or WMA file encoded with DRM as compared to a plain MP3. That is NOT a valid test, as different codecs will require different amounts of power to do their thing. A real test is DRM versus DRM-free using the same codecs to see what the real difference is. I think you can see from the responses to that Engadget posting that a lot of people feel as I did, that the tests referenced, from CNET, were really of questionable value.

      In any case, It is a known fact that the iPod generally meets or exceeds claimed battery life in nearly all instances. Removal of the DRM layer is probably not going to change things sufficiently to be of concern, but without real tests, how can you be sure?

      Peace,
      Gene

    3. Michael says:

      I found the original article. It was by the late James Kim:

      http://reviews.cnet.com/4520-6450_7-6462771-1.html

      Not a controlled experiment, sure. I’d not go futher than that. And, of course, in real-world conditions the likely alternative to PlaysForSure WMA is not non-DRM WMA but MP3. What’s the alternative explanation, anyway? If WMA, even un-DRM’d is that much hungrier than MP3 (which I’ve a hard time believing), it’s of questionable value as a format at all.

      There’s little detail given. One assumes James used the same bitrates. Or, alternatively, to return to “real world” conditions, that he bought PlayForSure files at whatever is the usual bitrate stores sell them at and compared them with ripped MP3s at the bitrate people usually rip them at (128 kbps). But he doesn’t say.

      But I would be interested to know more about how many possible factors filesize affect battery life. And, as you say, that needs proper testing.

      I’ve noticed that with the announcement of higher bitrates for non-DRM EMI music that people are making all sorts of, mostly adjectival, claims about what they can or can’t hear. But maybe they are fooling themselves. This is something else that comes down to testing. How can one know without a rigorously-controlled blind test? AFAIK, there are no programs actually designed for ABX testing on the Mac.

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