Category: Audio gear


Look ma – my foobar has VU meters!

Much as I love the music flowing from my laptop into my amplifier, I found it hard to bring myself to like the cold, sterile interface of my computer’s audio player. That is until I found a way to add analog VU meters to my foobar2000 music player.

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The meters do not in any way enhance the sonic qualities of the music files being played on the laptop but they certainly look cool and add a nice sort-of-analog touch.

As with everything related to tweaking foobar, adding the VU meters to the player isn’t very straightforward but this page on head-fi.org explains how you can do it. Above all, have patience. The greatest strength of foobar – the capability to tweak it so it looks and sounds exactly the way you want it – is also one of its most frustrating aspects for those like me who are noobs when it comes to tech.

This page on head-fi has additional ways to customise the look of your foobar player. Happy skinning.

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If someone had told me a computer would be part of my music set-up just two years ago, I’d probably have laughed out loud, told the person he was nuts and politely showed him the door.

For far too long, using a computer for music has meant putting up with the god-awful and lifeless sound of MP3s, a lossy compression format that just sucks the life out of music. Here’s the thing – I have a whole bunch of MP3s on my smartphone to listen to when I’m on the move, and they sound just fine through my headphones.

But play those MP3s through an amplifier and bigger speakers, and they sound like total and unadulterated crap. The treble sizzles, the midrange has no life and the sound just tires my ears after a while.

The change occurred when I got my new laptop (a HP ProBook 4530s), which has an HDMI output, loaded some FLAC files on the hard disc (a mixture of 16-bit/44.1KHz tracks ripped from CDs and high-resolution 24-bit/96KHz tracks) and then hooked up the computer to my Denon A/V receiver. All of a sudden, the laptop has become my favourite platform for playing back music.

The next few weeks were spent trawling through various forums and websites to acquaint myself with the best way of getting the music from my computer to the speakers – or as the technically minded would put it, bit perfect playback.

I finally settled on Foobar as my music player for several reasons. Foobar isn’t exactly user-friendly but it’s eminently suitable for tweaking and it’s available for free. (There are other highly recommended music players out there but I’m really not keen on spending a whole bunch of money on them till I’ve figured out how I intend to integrate a computer into my music set-up.)

The sound? I’m not going to get into a lot of gobbledygook about soundstages and rhapsodise about dynamics but I do know when I hear a good set-up. For some unfathomable reason, some albums ripped to FLACs sound better played back through the computer than the original CDs (though my main CD player is a rather long-in-the-tooth Pioneer DV-S757A universal player) while the 24/96 high-resolution tracks are as good or better than the best vinyl albums in my collection.

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And I can use my smartphone as a remote control with the “foobar2000 controller” app (available for free with pesky advertisements or you could buy the pro version for less than $2 on Google Play). Keep in mind that the app uses your home wireless network to interface with your computer but it’s darned cool to be able to browse through all the music on your computer by categories such as album, artists or genre while bringing up the artwork of the album or track that’s currently playing on your smartphone.

As with using a computer for other tasks, some fundamental rules apply. If you couldn’t be bothered about sound quality and just like the convenience of using your computer to play music, go ahead and fill your hard disc with MP3s and don’t bother to read any further. If you want the finest possible sound, remember the basic rule: Garbage in, garbage out.

Foobar controller on my phone

Foobar controller on my phone

Start by ripping your CDs or vinyl LPs to FLAC files, which take up more space but offer better sound as they’re lossless files. Then download software like MP3Tag (it’s free) so that you can properly tag your files and add album art work – this is important if you want speedy and accurate access to your music library.

If you want the best possible sound, think about investing in a DAC (digital-to-analog converter) to squeeze the most out of those 1s and 0s. There’s a wide range of DACs out there, with prices ranging from less than $100 to several thousand dollars. Read the reviews available on the internet and choose according to your budget. However, it’s would help to get a DAC that accepts at least 24/96 through its USB input (even better if it can accept 24-bit/192KHz files – there are several websites that now offer 24/192 downloads).

Most important of all – backup, backup, backup. Computer files can get corrupted and believe me it’s no fun when that happens. I’m currently backing up all my music files on to blank DVDs and an external hard drive.

That’s brings us to the end of this first blog on integrating a computer into your music system but there will be more in the days to come.

Rocker Neil Young’s latest harangues against MP3s and his revelations about working with the late Steve Jobs on higher-fidelity digital audio have brought into sharp focus how people these days are willing to settle for truly crappy ways of listening to music.

I love the dozens of MP3s loaded on my phone that I listen to when I’m out for a walk or I’m stuck in an airport lounge waiting for a flight. But when I REALLY want to listen to music, I always turn to my collection of CDs and LPs.

Music was always a big part of our lives in my hometown of Shillong in northeast India and many friends played in bands. I had my first music system – a National Panasonic boombox – soon after leaving school. Within months, I grew tired of its thin, tinny sound and graduated to an Indian-made amplifier with a built-in cassette deck and three-way speakers.

The whole rig cost me the then grand sum of Rs 4,000 (a little more $300 at the exchange rate for those days). I sold the amplifier for a profit after using it for nearly a decade and I still have the speakers because they sound great.

Since then I’ve had about half a dozen CD players, various amplifiers (including a NAD, an Akai, a Denon and a Philips), two A/V receivers and different speakers (including a Yamaha sub/satellite surround set-up and vintage Celestion and Wharfedale speakers).

The point I’m trying to make? One could put together a pretty decent music system with separate components till about the early 1990s without wiping out the bank balance, but since then separates have virtually become unaffordable for young kids.

Want to know what I’m talking about? Go to the website of popular audio publications like Stereophile, Home Theater and Sound & Vision, and check the prices of components they regularly review. Almost nothing costs less than $1,000 and there are audio cables (yup cables, not even components) that cost hundreds of dollar. In this era of a global economic recession, who buys such stuff?

And when kids can’t afford such expensive stuff, they make do with what they can get. Which, in most cases, is an iPod or some other crappy portable music player hooked up to tiny speakers and a bunch of MP3s either downloaded off the internet or ripped from CDs with bit rates as low as 128 kbps. No one’s told them that MP3s with bit rates of 320 kbps sound better. When those same kids hear the same music on a system with separate components, they usually realise what they’re missing.

It’s actually pretty illuminating to go through what Neil Young says (here and here) about the latest trends in digital audio. “What everybody gets (on an MP3) is 5 percent of what we originally make in the studio…We live in the digital age, and unfortunately it’s degrading our music, not improving it,” he said.

Young claims a CD offers only 15 percent of the information contained in master recordings and what he and Jobs had discussed was developing a new device for high-resolution audio. Not entirely impossible if one considers gear like the Hifiman HM-801.

But there’s still hope for cheaper but good audio. I currently listen to music mostly on a system that comprises a Playstation 1 as a CD player (if you haven’t heard of the merits of the PS1 as a CD-spinner, head here and here), a decent turntable scrounged from a flea market for about five dollars, a Realistic SA-150 amplifier and vintage Wharfedale Denton 2 speakers. The set-up sounds terrific, and all the gear cost me a little more than $40.

There are guys like Steve Guttenberg, who regularly reviews and writes about good gear that doesn’t cost a fortune at his The Audiophiliac blog. And then there’s a whole world of pretty exciting Chinese-made amplifiers and DACs that have opened up the world of better sound to lots of people. So maybe there’s hope after all.

And for all you folks making gear that’s sold for thousands of dollars? All due respect and I know you have to feed your families, but I can tell you about a place where you can stuff it.

One of the first things I check when I’m buying a new mobile phone is its music player. My phone is usually used for Twitter, photography and making calls (of course) and sometimes for filing reports (given my day job is as a journalist). But I like having my favourite songs on the phone so that I have music when I’m on the road or whiling away the hours at places like airports.

When I traded in my trusty old Nokia 5800 XpressMusic (which had a pretty good music player), I decided to dip into the world of Android phones since I’m not really a big fan of all the i-gadgets (yeah, you know what I’m talking about).

Straight out of the box, my new Samsung Galaxy S2 was pretty impressive – very fast for surfing the net and updating Twitter even using 3G or Edge, a decent 8MP camera and lots of scope for tweaking thanks to scores of apps available on Android market.

For the first time, I didn’t even feel the need to swap the in-ear headphones that came with the S2 – unlike stock headphones supplied with most phones, they didn’t sound crappy. The stock music player in the S2, however, was another matter. Its performance was very ordinary and I kept feeling there was something missing. No amount of fooling around with the limited controls – just an equaliser and sound effects – seemed to have any effect.

The sound was thin and fatiguing after a while – too much treble and no slam, even though my phone was loaded only with MP3s ripped at 320 kbps. I knew the headphones weren’t the weak link as I had checked them with a stereo and they rocked.

So I decided to hit Google and look for players that I could install on the S2. And that’s where I ran into problems right away – there’s no dearth of websites that list 10 or 20 “best” music players for Android phones but the folks drawing up these lists seem to focus on all sorts of useless features instead of what should really count in a music player: audio quality.

Luckily, several music players for sale on the Android market have free trial versions that allow you to evaluate them for a limited period. Little more searching around and I zeroed in on the PowerAMP player because it seemed to have an impressive list of features and lots of scope for tweaking.

Within minutes of downloading the player and firing it up, I knew this was something special. Separate tone controls (with bass and treble), a 10-band equaliser with a pre-amp control and the ability to save custom presets, a mono switch (when
did you see that on a phone?), settings to pause the player when the headphones are disconnected and to resume playback when they’re plugged in again and tweaks to advance or rewind tracks by pressing the button on the headphone’s mic.

Heck, there’s even a control to display meta data like sample rate, bitrate and audio codec at the bottom of the screen. Of course, the player comes with stuff that’s standard on touch-screen phones, like changing tracks by swiping the album artwork. PowerAMP was clearly put together by someone who cared about audio quality and a practical set of usable controls.

Audio quality? PowerAMP blew me away with its sound even when the equaliser was disabled. I enabled just the tone controls, with both bass and treble set at the 12 o’clock position and was rewarded with a rich sound no matter what I threw at it – rock, jazz, country, dance or pop.

I mostly listen to classic rock and blues and most of these tracks sounded as if I was hearing them on a very good stereo set-up – the soundstage was clean and wide, with no distortion.

The highlight was a warm mid-range with nicely controlled but punchy bass on tracks like B B King’s “Hummingbird”, Bruce Springsteen’s “Lonesome Day” and “Gallows Pole” from Robert Plant and Jimmy Page’s “Unledded” album. The treble was nice and airy, with every hit on the cymbals coming through clearly without any of splashy sound that mars most MP3 players. Even when I turned up the volume to very high levels there wasn’t a hint of distortion.

Frank Sinatra’s “It Was A Very Good Year” is one of my favourite jazz songs and it felt like I was in the studio watching the Chairman of the Board laying down the track while Gordon Jenkins conducted the orchestra. From the oboe that opens the cut to the swelling strings, everything came across nice and clear, without ever being drowned out by that powerful voice.

Moby’s “Lift Me Up”, with its throbbing backbeat, made me feel like I was in a disco with a sound system with gazillion watts of power. Stereo separation was perfect when I played Eric Clapton’s live version of “Watch Yourself” – I had Robert Cray’s guitar in the right channel, Buddy Guy in the left channel and Clapton dead centre, with the licks from all three guitarists coming in loud and clear.

Not that everything’s perfect with PowerAMP though. It refused to display metadata from several MP3s even though all the tags registered perfectly with the Galaxy S2’s stock player. Even the album art on these files refused to register. PowerAMP has a feature to download missing album art from the art but this was only capable of grabbing some blurred images.

I was able to work around this by saving the needed album art in the phone’s image gallery and then selecting them via another PowerAMP feature.

Total cost for PowerAMP – a little more than five dollars. The quality of sound – priceless. Much recommended.

*Update: I’ve been playing around with the PowerAMP’s 10-band equaliser over the past few weeks and I think it allows greater control over the sound, especially when using your phone with different headphones. Besides, the headphone is better at controlling the bass, which can sometimes come across as exaggerated while using only the tone controls. Of course, if you opt to use to the equaliser, don’t forget to switch off the tone controls.

Getting a pair of good speakers is often the key to completing a killer stereo system. But that isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Besides ensuring that they’re a good fit with your amplifier, you have to make sure they can handle different types of music.

There are some speakers which are great at handling the deep bass found in dance tracks and electronic but sound absolutely dull and lifeless when called on to cope with the dynamic range of other genres like jazz.

In this post, I decided to come up with a small list of tracks drawn from various styles of music that can help you check out just how good a pair of speakers is. It’s always a good idea to take your own music along with you to a store to audition speakers or the amplifier you intend you buy.

1. “Irish Boy” from “Cal” by Mark Knopfler: A great track to check the dynamic range of a pair of speakers – begins with the gentle sound of a synth and cymbals before the Uilleann pipes, the rhythm section and Knopfler’s steel guitar kick in. The entire album is beautifully recorded with pristine sound.

2. “The Day You Went Away” from “Lily” by Wendy Matthews: Not an easy album to track down but this song with sparse instrumentation has a killer backbeat that will reduce most speakers to jelly. Most speakers give up while trying to cope with the huge bass drum sound that opens the track; add to that Matthews’ pristine vocals and an acoustic piano. Any speakers that pass the test with this track will be able to handle most types of music.

3. “Mustt Mustt” (Massive Attack remix) from “Mustt Mustt” by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: If you’re a dance music or hip hop enthusiast, this is the track to help you test speakers. Some amazing low frequencies as Nusrat’s qawwali meets the trip hop of Massive Attack. Also a great test for the speaker’s ability to handle vocals.

4.  “Mango” from “Breakfast In New Orleans Dinner in Timbuktu” by Bruce Cockburn: This track from the Canadian folk-rock guitarist’s lovingly recorded 1999 album is another great test for dynamic range and a speaker’s ability to handle a complex mix of sounds. There’s subtle drums and percussion, harmony vocals by Cockburn and Margo Timmins and an acoustic bass that snakes its way through the mix.

5. “Ganges Delta Blues” from “A Meeting By The River” by Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt: A pure analog recording with absolutely uncompressed sound. Just the sound of Cooder’s acoustic slide and Bhatt’s Mohan Veena though things can get very lively when the tablas and the dumbek kick in.

6. Any track from “Who’s Next” by The Who: If you’re a rock fan auditioning speakers, this is the album for you. Not a single duff track here. Great vocals, one of the world’s best rhythm sections and Pete Townshend’s guitar work. The 2003 deluxe edition of the album has the best sound and favourites include “Baba O’Reilly”, “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Bargain”, which features some of Keith Moon’s most propulsive drumming.

7. “Fly Me To The Moon” from “The End Of The World” by Julie London: This jazz standard has been performed by many great vocalists, but for me, London’s take is the definitive one. A great string arrangement and truly sultry vocals.

This list will be a work in progress and I’ll come back and add other tracks. In the meantime, you’re welcome to add your suggestions with other test tracks.

 

One of my earliest memories from my childhood is of sitting beside my family’s turntable, listening to the wondrous sounds that emerged from it as someone put on a record for me. Even in those days, the turntable we had – a HMV Calypso which looked like a small travelling case when shut – was rather dated and hardly hi-fi.

HMV Calypso turntable

The Calypso was an idler-drive mono turntable (not that I knew that then), hooked up to some sort of home-made amplifier rigged by a family friend and feeding a single full-range speaker that was sometimes put inside a wooden box, and sometimes affixed to the mouth of a ‘matka’ or earthenware pot, which my uncle claimed produced a nice, rich bass.

I don’t remember whether the matka really did anything for the sound of that primitive system.

But I do remember that my mother and I spent many happy afternoons during my winter breaks from school, playing our favourite records on the Calypso. We had eclectic tastes, and so it was Engelbert Humperdinck followed by the Beatles or Elvis Presley or those LPs with what would today be best described as “elevator music” or the latest hits from Bollywood movies.

Fast forward to my college days, and tapes were in. This was before India’s economic liberalisation and none of the international music majors released their catalogues in the country. Thanks to friends and pirates, I soon built up a collection of hundreds of tapes using the cash I earned from part-time jobs.

My friends and I often swapped tapes or made copies of albums we liked. Soon we were branching out, our musical tastes expanding to include blues and jazz. Those were the days when a listening session lasting several hours would encompass albums by Dire Straits, Cream, The Robert Cray Band and Wayne Shorter.

A matka similar to the one my uncle claimed made a great natural speaker

The larger and eclectic your collection of tapes, the more “cool” and “hip” you became among your group of friends. As the market opened up in the 1980s and CDs came in, we began collecting our favourite music on those little shiny plastic discs that they said would always sound perfect and last forever.

LPs fell by the wayside as we turned up our noses at the humble turntable. It was the digital age and we all wanted our 1s and 0s. Over the years, I kept trying to strike a balance between my limited resources and the best music system I could put together.

I progressed from my first CD player – a truly horrible BPL-Sanyo with loud, tinny sound – to a Philips multi-disc changer (which I still have packed away somewhere) to  finally settling on the humble Playstation 1 (hey, if experts like the ones at 6moons.com think it’s as good as a $6,000 CD player, who am I to argue).

All the while, I kept reading about the resurgence of vinyl, and how musicians like Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Metallica kept espousing vinyl. My reaction usually was: Yeah right, like who wants the pops and crackles, and the bother of changing belts and styluses and getting amplifiers with a phono stage?

Things changed when I began pottering around with audio-video gear and fixing things by myself, and came across a turntable in pretty good condition at a flea market. Paid the shop-owner Rs 900 (about $10) and brought the turntable home. Little bit of googling and I learnt how to adjust the weight on the tone-arm and set the stylus.

The turntable worked just fine and I dropped a Mario Lanza LP I’d bought the flea market on the platter, only to be greeted with a lot of pops and crackles. Next up was a Tony Bennett’s “Just One Of Those Things” LP, which was in very good condition and features tracks built around the singer and a bunch of top-notch drummers like Art Blakey and Chico Hamilton.

Tony Bennett's "Just One Of Those Things" LP

A few bars into the track “Let’s Begin” and boy, I knew I had never heard drums sound so good on any CD.

A few nights ago, I played an original pressing of Yes’ “Fragile” LP and the remastered CD of the same album for some friends, and they all agreed that the vinyl sounded better and richer despite the pops and crackles.

Thanks to the flea market, my record collection is already growing and I know where I’m headed next – a better turntable. Maybe I’ll get lucky one of these days and lay my hands on a Garrard or a Thorens somewhere!

A friend who liked the music system I’d put together using vintage components bought from a flea market decided to go down the same route, with a little help from me, of course.

So we hit the flea market one cold winter’s day and began scouring the shops that usually stock vintage audio equipment.

At the very first shop, we got lucky as I spotted a pair of speakers lying behind the counter. The speakers – a pair of Philips Type 22 RH 496 (a three-way model) made in Finland – looked fine except for a large chunk of wood missing from the top of one box.

The shop-owner had nothing to test the speakers with but we decided to take a chance anyway and picked them up for Rs 2,500 (about $29).

Sony TA-88 amplifier before being fixed up and polished

At another shop, I spotted an unusual looking amplifier lying beside a stack of VCRs. Turned out to be a Sony T-88. A perforated metal strip on top of the amplifier was badly dented but everything else looked fine. A little bit of haggling and we snagged it for Rs 1,800 ($21).

For CD playback, we picked up a Sony CDP-212 – a plain vanilla player which was in very good nick – for Rs 1,200 ($14). No remote or digital outputs but not a worry because my friend wanted to put together a very basic set-up.

My friend also wanted something to play back vinyl as her family had a large collection of records. I had earlier picked up a Aiwa PX-E855, a very basic fully automatic turntable with a built-in phono stage, for Rs 2,500 ($29). That would be used to complete the system.

Took the amplifier and speakers home and fired them up, using the Aiwa turntable as a source. Great sound right off but the volume controls of the amp sounded scratchy due to the built-up dirt.

Moreover, the speakers had plain white wires coming out of the box and there was no way to figure out the polarity. Luckily I had an Avia audio-video test DVD, and using the test to check whether speakers are in phase, I was able to figure out the polarity via my AV receiver.

The carpenter filling in the dents and cracks in the speakers

The next step was calling in my friendly neighbourhood carpenter to come in and fix the speakers and give them a fresh coat of polish. He filled in all the dents and scratches and soon had them looking gorgeous in a few hours. The wood panels of the amp got a fresh coat of polish too.

A few squirts of Philips contact cleaner got rid of the scratchy sounds of the volume control. The dented perforated metal strip (for ventilation) was straightened and glued back in.

Innards of the Philips speakers, check out the crossover

Next, I opened up the speakers and hooked up thicker wire to the crossover inside. (The original plan was to fit binding posts but that had to be ditched as the posts were not long enough to pass through the thick board on the back of the speaker.)

Hooked everything up and spun a CD. First impressions: a pretty good sounding system – nice warm mid-range, clean highs, adequate bass but definitely not the sort that’ll shake the room.

The system being tested at my work bench

System hooked up at my friend's place

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