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  • Newsletter Issue #940

    December 4th, 2017

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    It’s fascinating to see how Apple’s entrance in a product category can change things so drastically. So for the longest period, we heard that smartwatches were the next great thing. There were models from a crowd-funded startup, Pebble, and such entrants as Samsung Galaxy Gear.

    As with digital music players, smartphones and tablets, Apple seemed late to the party, very late.

    That takes us to this weekend’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, featuring J.D. Levite, senior editor of Thrifter.com. Thrifter is a consumer site focused on tracking hot deals on tech and other products, special holiday promotions, etc. This discussion focused on finding the best deals for the holidays, including top grade 4K TVs and the key features that will maximize your enjoyment. Gene and J.D. also discussed the top gaming consoles, media streamers, such as Apple TV and Roku, Bluetooth speakers, and even drones and gear for the connected home. You also heard why Gene remains skeptical about the Internet of Things.

    But when it came to smartwatches, J.D. said it was yesterday’s news. Few are really interested in them anymore. When you look at recent sales estimates, however, it appears that such wearables may not have gained much traction, except for one product, the Apple Watch. Despite all the skepticism, Apple claims double-digit sales increases in recent quarters. Industry analysts are reporting that the Apple Watch Series 3 is proving to be more popular than originally expected.

    Apple won’t reveal actual sales, except in generalities because the actual results are buried in the Other Products category. Will that ever change? Maybe if the Apple Watch really takes off and hits a critical mass. Maybe never. I do see more and more people wearing them in my travels, however.

    In a special encore segment, you also heard from Jeff Gamet, Managing Editor for The Mac Observer. In pop culture mode, Jeff mentioned The Shadow before moving to a pair of Fox TV genre shows, “The Orville,” a sci-fi series reminiscent of Star Trek with comedic elements, and “Gotham,” the Batman prequel. After Jeff admitted he hasn’t kept up on the super hero shows on The CW, he explained how he got up early in the morning to place an order for an iPhone X at AT&T’s site. Although he said he appears to have been successful in placing that order, it appeared there might be glitches in AT&T’s ordering system. After a brief discussion about the iPhone X’s most controversial features, such as the “notch,” the conversation moved to the future of the Mac mini. Just what sort of upgrade is Apple working on? Will it offer more powerful components to make it more suitable for use as a web server or a low-cost workstation? Does the delay in updating a product last refreshed in 2014 mean that Apple is working on a major redesign?

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present a special episode featuring a “great debate” on the merits of the extraterrestrial theory for UFOs. It’s the prevailing theory, that we are being visited by beings from other planets. Does that theory hold up, or are there other valid possibilities as the source of the UFOs?What about hidden civilizations on Earth, other dimensions? You’ll hear about the ins and outs of the evidence and the issues that cause some to doubt that ET is here. The possibilities are vigorously debated by four long-time UFO researchers who are regulars in our forums, featuring Thomas R Morrison, Robert Brandstetter (forum name: Burnt State), Jason (forum name: marduk) and Mike Jones (forum name: mike).

    APPLE AND HOME AUDIO

    Once upon a time, I had a fairly sophisticated stereo sound system, worth well over ten thousand dollars. It consisted of a set of classic flat panel ribbon speakers, the Carver Amazing Platinum, in piano black, and several components bearing the Carver and Sunfire labels. The preamplifier even had tubes in it, so call me retro.

    Alas, I sold it all in 2006 when I needed to raise cash. But I had reached the point where I seldom listened to it anyway. I spent more time listening to stuff on my TV set; I had a Bose home theater sound system in those days. True, the audio quality didn’t come close to matching that Carver/Sunfire system, but there was the added benefit of convenience. The main system was placed in the living room, and the family and I didn’t spend a whole lot of time there.

    Since the advent of digital audio, and the amazing and unpredictable success of the original Apple iPod, more and more people listen to music on tiny ear buds. Some will spend money on higher quality gear, perhaps a full-sized set of earphones. But for traveling about, convenience rates above audio quality.

    Of course, there is always your car’s audio system, and they have become much better in recent years. If you spend a lot of time driving from place to place, you might be pleased at how good they can be. For long trips, pairing it with your iPhone, the ultimate iPod, can give you access to up to millions of songs.

    While Apple builds premium gear, it has not established a reputation for creating products with superior audio quality. Even the 2014 purchase of Beats Electronics for $3 billion didn’t convey the impression that Apple cared about high-quality audio. Beats headphones were legendary for bloated bass.

    Indeed, the purchase was regarded as controversial. What did Apple stand to gain from buying a maker of overpriced headphones of questionable quality? Well, there was always the streaming services later rebranded as Apple Music.

    Did the Beats acquisition result in improved sound quality for Apple gear? Well, I suppose recent iPhones, iPads and Macs can play louder without distortion. But you’d hardly call the audio rich and full. Even Apple’s best selling AirPods aren’t delivering state-of-the-art audio either, although they excel in other categories, such as the tiny size and the seamless integration with the Apple ecosystem.

    That takes us to the HomePod, a smart speaker system, powered by Siri, which was supposed to debut this month for $349. It has since been postponed until early in 2018.

    Ever since the first rumors about the HomePod appeared, the tech media has been working overtime comparing it to the Amazon Echo, low-priced speakers that use the Alexa personal assistant to accept commands and make it easier to buy stuff from the world’s largest online retailer.

    Indeed, there have been privacy concerns that focus on the Echo, and the competing Google Assistant speakers hearing too much and making use of that data to learn which ads to send you.

    Apple? Well, isn’t Siri inferior to the other digital assistants because of Apple’s policy of protecting our personal information? Indeed, the updated Siri that debuted in iOS 11, which uses machine learning to improve its ability to understand tour commands, was compared unfairly to the competition from Amazon and Google even before it was released.

    Despite sales estimates that are far below blowout, the Echo is regarded by the tech media as a huge success and the industry leader. Apple’s HomePod is dismissed as overpriced, even though only a small number of journalists have actually heard them, and then only for a brief period of time.

    But what is HomePod anyway? Is it all about home automation, or, perish forbid, listening to music?

    Few would argue that the audio quality of even the most expensive Echo is nowhere near state-of-the-art. It’s mostly about the digital assistant and not loudspeakers. True, the second generation Echo has pretensions of improved audio quality, with support for Dolby processing, although the specs don’t say which Dolby format is actually being used. Amazon also claims “crisp vocals and dynamic bass response,” but what level of audio quality can you expect in a gadget that lists for $100?

    The specs of the Echo and the Echo Plus, listing for just under $150, mention a single 2.5-inch woofer and a tweeter. Not terribly impressive.

    An article from AppleInsider’s Daniel Eran Dilger touts the “real” purpose of the HomePod, that it’s more about paving the way for the next generation of home audio rather than providing just another digital assistant.

    According to Daniel, “HomePod uses a 4-inch driver with an incredible 20 mm excursion—possible because of dynamic modeling. This lets it create larger sound with far less distortion than a typical speaker. It also uses six microphones and seven beamforming tweeters to model the size and shape of the room and develop sound tuned specifically for its setting, canceling out echo and beamforming detection of your voice over playing music, all powered by Apple’s custom A8 Application Processor. This isn’t just a Bluetooth speaker with Siri.”

    I wouldn’t for a moment expect audio quality to exceed that of those huge Carver Amazings that I used to own. That system offered scintillating highs and thundering bass, but it required loads of power to deliver the goods. But Apple is strongly emphasizing the “amazing” sound of the HomePod in its promotional materials.

    The ability of the HomePod to tailor itself to your listening environment is impressive if true. If you recall the placement considerations of traditional loudspeakers, you’ll appreciate not having to waste time finding the ideal positioning for Apple’s forthcoming smart speaker system.

    And the digital assistant?

    As Daniel suggests, HomePod is very much about home audio. The other features are described in a section entitled, “Listen to what else it can do.” That’s where you learn about the capabilities of its Siri home assistant, and its ability to work with Apple’s HomeKit to manage home automation.

    Above all, however, it’s about home audio. Indeed, I would love to see what my old friend, Bob Carver, who designed those Amazing loudspeakers and loads of traditional audio gear, thinks about HomePod.

    Indeed, one of Bob’s early inventions, Sonic Holography, a precursor to Dolby surround sound, may well have been an inspiration for the sort of sonic processing that paved the way for the HomePod and other speakers that can tailor themselves to one’s listening environment.

    To be sure, I don’t expect HomePod to be capable of replacing my long-departed stereo system. But I’m getting more and more curious about trying them out. Maybe it’s time for me to start putting spare change in a bottle to see how much cash I can raise in the next few months.

    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
    Sales and Marketing: Andy Schopick
    Worldwide Licensing: Sharon Jarvis



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    7 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #940”

    1. dfs says:

      When all is said and done the Home Pod is going to be a monophonic speaker, right? Put two of them in the same room and you’ll still have a room containing two monophonic speakers, right? Maybe the sound will be “richer” or whatever the official claim is, but it will still be monophonic. There will be no realistic reproduction of the sound stage of the original recording venue. The drums won’t be distinctly to the left of the piano and even if it temporarily gives that illusion the placement won’t be stable and fixed. I’m old enough to remember the days when stereo was first introduced, back in the late 1950’s (the first time I heard it was when two New York radio stations broadcast the same concert and you were supposed to have two table radios, one tuned to each station, to get the stereo effect, and I remember how magical it was to hear a realistic sound stage for the same time — after I heard it once I never wanted to go back). Why exactly do I want to take a trip to something that, when you strip off all the varnish, seems like it’s going to be a jazzed-up return to audio technology as it existed at about the time of the Korean War?

      And it won’t be able to handle Face Time Audio either. I have the idea that if you gave me eight hundred bucks and told me to go out and buy a pair of speakers I could integrate into my Mac ecology I could come back with something one hell of a lot nicer. And more modern. Sonos, anyone?

      • Until or unless you actually have a chance hear one, I wouldn’t make too many assumptions. Remember, even from two speaker systems, stereo is an illusion.

        Peace,
        Gene

      • immovableobject says:

        I have a nice hifi setup in the living room which is great for critical listening. I don’t see the home Pod as a replacement for that. But many people seem happy with less-than-audiophile-quality equipment, having become accustomed to cheap computer speakers, $10 ear buds, tiny portable bluetooth speakers with 1″ woofers, and at most, a sound bar to upgrade their flat screen TV.

        In these days of omnipresent streaming audio, with millions of songs available to serve as background music, it seems like people don’t have friends over expressly to listen to each other’s new record album acquisitions. We no longer gather around the Hi-Fi and listen with rapt attention. So in this new world, perhaps the Home Pod has a place.

        I think that people who make do with middling sound quality are missing out, but what can we do about it? While its true that someone technically astute can put together a better sounding stereo system for about the price of a pair of Home Pods, I do see the attraction of just plugging one in and quickly having access to Apple music with voice command capability, then over time adding additional Home Pods for other rooms to create a whole house solution.

        • Again, only a small number of tech journalists have any idea what the HomePod sounds like, and then only for a brief period. Does it come close to more expensive gear? I don’t know.

          Peace,
          Gene

    2. Joe S says:

      Carver is a very very fine high fidelity engineer. I had a great sound system using equipment he designed for a previous company. Its neat that you know him. I read a very extensive interview a while back.

    3. Dick Koenig says:

      Audio has been an amazing mess at Apple since the beginning.

      Not long before Steve Jobs left the company, he had occasion to meet one of the biggest audio charlatans – a guy named Tomlinson Holman. And that’s saying a lot in a business filled with ignorant hype (think Noel Lee/Monster Cable) and inept engineering. Holman is the king of the latter – his contribution to the cinema business, “THX”, was eventually abandoned as fundamentally wrong. So bad is cinema sound even today that the Standards gatekeepers, the SMPTE, found the Standards wrong in an extensive engineering report published by them in 2015. Dr. Floyd Toole, the well-known leader in acoustics and audio (last at Harman), famously said of Holman and cinema audio “it’s like no Standards have ever been written”.

      Holman, originally contracted by Jobs to put audio on his then-under-construction yacht, talked himself into a position at Apple. Because he was a “Steve hire”, no one has dared sent this guy to the unemployment line where he belongs. He’s just sowed chaos in the audio engineering group at Apple since coming there, and it’s unsurprising that the “Home Pod” has been the result.

      I urge anyone interested in home audio to read the current version of Dr. Toole’s book on the subject.

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