Tidal: Lossless Music Streaming

I recently learned about a relatively new streaming music service out of Oslo, Norway called Tidal, which became available in the United Kingdom and the United States last October. Since my discovery, Tidal has garnished quite a bit of media attention. Last winter, rap mogul Jay Z and a bunch of his wealthy music pals (like Madonna) purchased Tidal.

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Why do I care about a new on-demand music service when there’s so many great ones already on the market? Spotify, Google Play Music, Rdio, Rhapsody, and Beats Music (the “Big Five”) all offer very compelling services priced at only $10 a month. In terms of cost, music discovery/radio service Pandora is even more attractive and available in both subscription and free, ad-supported versions. Songza, another music discovery service (owned by Google), is ad-free and available at no cost.

So why get excited about a new music streaming service?

iPod Era: Convenience vs. Fidelity

The iPod era forced music consumers to trade quality for convenience. It was great to have thousands of songs instantly available from our iPods and smartphones, but sucked because those songs were of low quality (typically 128 Kbps). For the luxury of a “listen anywhere” media format that allowed one to plug their mobile device into their car or listen when at the gym or the office, audio fidelity went down the toilet. Audiophiles lamented the state of hi-fidelity; some declared it dead.

For those who are curious about the technical details, most music streaming services—and all of the Big Five, in addition to Pandora and Songza—highly compress their audio stream to allow it to flow smoothly from their servers, through the internet, to your listening device.

These highly compressed, or “lossy” formats (which literally lose data during the compression/decompression cycle) are typically MP3 or AAC, which offer various levels of audio quality, even the best of which is fairly hobbled—at least when compared to compact discs. While some listeners don’t notice the difference, it’s significant on good equipment. Those with nice hi-fi systems and premium speakers certainly can tell the difference. Many audiophiles have shunned highly compressed, lossy services like Pandora and Songza in favor of CDs or vinyl.

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Tidal’s primary differentiator is that it streams in “lossless” CD quality. This means that no data is lost during the compression of the music on Tidal’s end and the decompression of it on your end.

The Big Five stream at a fairly respectable 320 Kbps. Tidal, however, streams at 1,411 Kbps (in the ALAC and FLAC formats). This is nearly 4.5 times more data per second to satisfy one’s craving for music fidelity.

But the big question is: Can you hear the difference? If you have only a moderately nice sound system, the answer is a resounding yes. If you have a high-end system, you’ll be blown away.

During my time using Tidal, I can honestly say I’ve never heard a higher quality or more reliable music streaming service. I still love Pandora and Songza, and had a great experience with Google Play Music back when I subscribed. But if you care about the fidelity of the music, Tidal is the best online stream that’s ever reached my ears. Period.

[For those who are curious, since “moderately nice sound system” and “high-end system” are fairly ambiguous labels, I have been listening on a Pioneer Elite VSC-53 receiver outputting to a set of B&W 703 tower speakers, which is fed internet bandwidth by a Netgear Powerline 500 + powerline adapter getting signal from a Netgear Nighthawk R7000 wi-fi router and an AT&T 18 Mbps internet connection.]

Mark Henninger, senior writer at AVS Forum, commented in a Facebook group for audiophiles on a budget, “You have a fan of Tidal right here. The quality and the selection are fantastic.” Henninger makes a good point; a good music streaming service, regardless of its fidelity, is nothing without a satisfying catalog of songs.

The Upside

In addition to its main selling point, lossless high-fidelity music streaming, Tidal also offers offline listening. Unlike some other services, songs saved to your local device for offline listening aren’t “dumbed down” in terms of fidelity. They retain their CD-level quality. This is especially nice for things like a subway commute, flight, or anywhere you don’t have an internet connection—or don’t want to eat into your mobile phone data plan.

Tidal’s ad-free format is also nice, but certainly expected at the service’s $20 a month cost. After all, even lower-fidelity, $10/month services like Spotify, Rdio, and Google Play Music are void of ads and commercials.

One way of getting Tidal’s high-quality music into your hi-fi or home theater system, if you’re streaming from an Apple device like a Mac computer, iPad, or iPhone, is AirPlay. I’ve been using AirPlay to stream from my iPad to my audio/video receivers, both of which have AirPlay built-in. I haven’t experienced a single dropout or buffering issue. Of course, I also have ample broadband at nearly 20 Mbps; Tidal recommends a minimum of 2 Mbps.

Tidal is also available on more than 40 platforms, including all major mobile operating systems, like Android and iOS, and all mainstream browsers, like Firefox and Chrome. There’s also a slick and seemingly bug-free iPad app.

Tidal even offers a radio feature, including an Artist Radio function, meaning you can use it for music discovery, just like Pandora or Songza. There’s also playlists, repeat, and shuffle, fairly standard features found on nearly all on-demand competitors. In addition, a favoriting feature called My Music lets users tag songs and albums they like for easy retrieval in the future.

Unfortunately, there’s no Chromecast support. However, my contact at the company tells me that one is in development. In the meantime, I’m loving the iPad app, which is very keenly and minimally styled. I think it looks better than the iPad apps for any of the other music streaming services I’ve used.

Now with Led Zeppelin

Tidal recently added the entire Led Zeppelin catalog to its already impressive song collection. It is the only high-fidelity streaming music service to feature the venerable ’60s and ’70s heavy metal superband, and one of only two streaming services overall (Spotify is the only 320 Kbps service to feature them).

I’m currently listening to the group’s pinnacle double-album Physical Graffiti. It sounds every bit as good as my compact disc version of the album. Now I can just swipe and tap on my iPad, activate AirPlay to my AV receiver, and I’m in business. No more digging for my CD. I don’t even have to get out of my easy chair.

The Downside

The primary disadvantage of Tidal is cost: This high-quality music streaming service is available only for twenty bucks a month. This is precisely twice the cost of the Big Five. Only Pandora, which offers a weaker 192 Kbps (the mobile app is only 128 Kbps), is available for $36 a year (or $4 per month). Songza, which streams at a fairly anemic 64 Kbps (or 1/22 of Tidal’s fidelity), is free.

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For those who prefer free, ad-supported services (like how Pandora offers both a gratis version featuring commercials and also a paid side that’s ad-free), Tidal will be a disappointment. There’s no free version. Personally, I think this is fine. Tidal is clearly positioning itself as a premium music service, both in terms of quality and price. You simply can’t get a Porsche 911 for the price of a Toyota Yaris.

Check It Out

Tidal features a catalog of 25 million songs. This is enough, according to the company, to listen for 140 straight years. It is a slightly larger catalog than many music streaming services, but not as large as some, like Rhapsody, which features 32 million songs.

In the end, Tidal is a welcome addition to the small, but growing, collection of lossless music streaming services. Hopefully the higher price won’t scare away students and those on a budget. It would be nice to see this service set a precedent and usher in a new era of lossless music streaming.

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Curt Robbins


[To understand more about streaming music, check out Streaming Music: The Types.]

[In response to my favorable comments regarding Tidal, I’ve received accusations on Facebook of being a troll. I currently hold no stock in or employment with Tidal, nor am I affiliated with or related to any of its shareholders or employees. I’m a technical writer, author, and consumer advocate who is officially reviewing the service.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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Songza & Pandora: Affordable Music Discovery

3d1I try to use a variety of streaming music services. Not simply because I write about consumer tech and home theater, but also because music streaming is such a dynamic and competitive space. Services are continually enhancing their features and expanding their song catalogs.

But my family keeps coming back to two services: Pandora and Songza. Pandora is one of the most popular music discovery services in the world. Songza, on the other hand, is relatively unknown. Both are also among the most affordable music services—Songza being free, while Pandora can be had ad-free for as little as $3 per month. Both also support Chromecast, important for listening on a real set of speakers or your comfortable living room home theater.

While I listen, commercial-free, to the Kenny Barron Trio on Songza’s Jazz for Reading station, enjoy my latest blog post (an excerpt from Home Theater for the Internet Age). And while you’re at it, check out some of the tunes on these great services.

After all, who wants to read in silence?

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Curt Robbins


Songza

Songza, owned by Google, is one of the lesser known and more unique music discovery services. It’s unusual due to how you select radio stations and the lack of paid subscriptions. While free with ads is your only option, the ads are pre-play video commercials and display banners only. From a listening perspective, there are no commercial interruptions. Songza doesn’t offer on-demand listening or locker storage, and supports only a wimpy bit rate of 64 Kbps. Chromecast support gives it an advantage over many otherwise more powerful services, especially among home theater owners.

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Like Pandora and iTunes Radio, Songza imposes skip limits. Overall, it’s an excellent music discovery service with a fresh look and youthful sense of humor. According to Chris Welch at The Verge, Songza is “a music streaming app that places a huge focus on curation and finding the right song for any moment.”

The “right song for any moment” involves Songza generating radio stations based on the time of day or your current situation or activity. For example, when logging into Songza, you’re met with a screen that reads something to the effect “It’s Sunday Late Morning, Play Music for:” that lists “Waking Up Happy,” “Drinking Gourmet Coffee,” “Recovering From Last Night,” and “Working Out.”

Because it’s free, Songza can be a nice alternative to your go-to full-blown on-demand service. It brags that its playlists are curated by a team of 50 experts from throughout the music industry, not computer algorithms. The fact that this free service features no audio ads (which its music-loving founders say “ruin the vibe”) gives it an edge over rivals iTunes Radio and Pandora’s free version.

When casting Songza with Chromecast, the service will display on your TV beautifully crafted screens containing basic song information, including high-resolution, original album artwork. The artwork looks great on a big display panel. These are without a doubt the most attractive song info screens I’ve seen, better than Pandora and Google Music when played via Chromecast, and a lot nicer than iTunes Radio ala Apple TV. While this might seem trivial, it’s great for home theater owners and takes advantage of your big display panel investment. Sometimes I launch Songza just so I can see those beautiful album covers on my widescreen TV! And now my kids actually know who Miles Davis is.

I strongly recommend checking out Songza—but only if you live in North America, the territory to which it’s limited (it’s one of the few services available in Canada). Now that it’s owned by Google, anticipate bit rates and other aspects of this service to improve or expand. There’s a reason Songza won PC Magazine’s Editor’s Choice for free music streaming service.

Pandora

Pandora, probably the most recognized music streaming service, has more than 75 million monthly listeners and 250 million registered users. Ironically, it’s also one of the most limited services in terms of functionality. Pandora popularized the “radio” listening format, streaming a constant flow of songs related to the name of a custom station. The ability to set it and forget it is one aspect of the service that makes it so popular. However, because this is a radio-only service, there’s no on-demand listening.

Pandora, Songza, Rdio, Rhapsody, and Google Music are currently the only music services to support Chromecast, a major consideration for any home theater owner who would rather listen to music produced by their living room speakers than suffer with the tinny, hollow sound produced by a tablet or laptop or mess with a hard connection from their mobile device to their AV receiver (if the receiver even supports it).

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While Pandora’s one million song catalog is significantly smaller than that of most rivals, it is expertly curated and leverages the Music Genome Project, something Pandora claims is the “most sophisticated taxonomy of musical information ever collected.” What this means for the average listener is that Pandora is very good at guessing which songs you’ll actually enjoy. After a bit of training (via thumbs up and thumbs down), Pandora does an uncanny job of choosing songs that you either have already heard and love or new songs that you somehow begin feeling like you can’t live without.

Pandora is available in both free and subscription-based accounts. Free accounts force you to endure audio and display ads, while the $36 per year and $4 per month paid accounts eliminate all commercials, boost the bit rate to 192 Kbps (but only on a PC running Pandora One or via Chromecast), and increase the number of permitted skips and thumbs down.

The biggest disadvantages of Pandora are relatively low bit rate, (especially on the free service), limited availability (only the United States, Australia, and New Zealand), and the repeat of songs due to the relatively small song catalog (more noticeable during longer listening sessions or for very niche stations).

Like Rhapsody, Pandora is also bundled into a significant number of consumer hardware products, such as smart TVs, Blu-ray players, video streaming boxes, and AV receivers (my Pioneer Elite receivers both integrate Pandora access directly into the input menu, as do my Blu-ray players and Panasonic TVs). Pandora is conspicuously absent from Apple TV, but only because Apple offers competing services in the form of iTunes Radio and Beats Music.

For those who reside within its limited global reach, Pandora is an excellent choice. You’re permitted up to 100 radio stations, so you can easily suit a number of listening scenarios and moods. The few bucks a month you toss at Pandora’s ad-free version will always feel like money well spent.

[What’s your favorite streaming music service? Why? Let me and my readers know in the comments below.]

[Also check out Streaming Music: The Types. If you like to drink coffee and listen to music when you read or do online research as much as I do, check out Improving Coffee.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Streaming Music: The Types

You don’t have to be into home theater or an audiophile to love music (when was the last time you met someone who wasn’t into some type of music?). Whether you’re streaming on your smartphone or home listening to a full complement of surround sound speakers, streaming music goes everywhere.music (3)

Cost? Free to $10 a month. So what are you waiting for? Get on the streaming music bandwagon and begin enjoying the world’s largest jukebox.

[If you don’t have time for a 1,100 word blog post and prefer a slideshow, check out Understanding Digital Music – Part 1.]

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Curt Robbins


There’s two primary types of streaming music: “Radio stations” and on-demand services. Radio stations include the uber-popular Pandora, as well as iTunes Radio and Songza. These companies offer a bare-bones service that plays continual music (perfect for background listening and office settings). On-demand services, such as Spotify, Beats Music, Tidal, and Rdio, are much more full-featured, offering the ability to play the song of your choice whenever you want. These services all currently charge $10 a month for access to a catalog of roughly 20 million+ songs.

Music Discovery / Radio Services

As the name implies, streaming radio involves creating a “radio station,” or channel, that automatically cranks out songs related to the name you choose (but doesn’t let you choose specific songs). It’s like an FM radio station, except it plays only the type of music you enjoy and doesn’t feature obnoxious DJs. For example, creating a Steely Dan radio station will pump out songs not only from the jazzy light rock duo, but also related artists like Boz Scaggs and Fleetwood Mac. Likewise, creating a Lorde station may stream pop songs from Imagine Dragons, Macklemore, and Lana Del Rey. Most services allow you to create radio stations based on a genre, song or album title, artist/band name, or era.

Pandora, Songza, iTunes Radio, and any service that provides a radio function, specialize in something called “music discovery.” If you like jazz and create a Miles Davis station, a streaming service will introduce you to other jazz artists, like Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins (artists with whom you may be unfamiliar).

On-Demand Services

“On-demand,” or “instant” music streaming is the ability to specify a particular song, album, or artist and immediately hear it. Combined with a large song catalog, these services are truly the world’s largest jukeboxes. Of course, as you’ve learned, there’s no guarantee that your favorite song is available from a particular service. But with a minimum of 20 million songs each, the major on-demand music streaming services have plenty to offer. Even if Rhapsody and Spotify don’t have your favorite Beatles or Metallica songs, what they do offer gives most users a feeling of solid value.

Don’t let the sheer volume of a catalog have too much sway over you. What matters is that it features most of the artists and songs that you want and are going to actually play (for example, some reviewers claim that Rdio is the best option if you’re into jazz and classical). When Beats Music debuted in January 2014, it criticized competing services for stuffing their catalogs with karaoke tracks and other obscure and unpopular songs simply to boost their numbers.

On-Demand Features

The major on-demand music services provide a standard set of functions to help you organize, revisit, and enjoy your favorite music genres, artists, albums, and songs. Playlists, music lockers, and offline listening all round out the power and convenience of any on-demand service.

Playlists

Playlists are simply lists of songs that you store on a music service. Playlists are nice for building a personally curated collection of songs that you can listen to at any time. You can continue to customize a playlist over time by adding, removing, or rearranging songs. Playlists are great for parties, cleaning around the house, or focusing on a single artist, genre, or time period. Most services allow you to shuffle a playlist to get a bit more variety, especially cool for large lists. Playlists are perfect for collecting current pop hits by a wide variety of artists or your favorite one-hit wonders from over the decades. With playlists, you no longer need to burn CDs or program your iPod to hear an exact song list.

Music Lockers

A relatively new feature of some on-demand streaming music services is a locker function that allows you to upload your own music. Unlike a peer-to-peer sharing scheme (like Napster from the old days), the files are available only to you (the “locker” analogy). Take my personal situation: I like Led Zeppelin, but, as you’ve learned, the group is available for on-demand streaming only on Spotify. I subscribe to Google Play Music and Pandora. What to do?

Despite the fact that I really like Spotify, I’m not going to switch from my current service just to get Led Zeppelin. I’d lose all my playlists, have to start from scratch at teaching a new service my preferences, and there’s no Chromecast support (something I use on a daily basis). Because I own most of Led Zeppelin’s catalog on CD and have already ripped them to 320 Kbps MP3s, I simply uploaded my entire collection to my music service’s locker. Now, when I log into Google Play Music, my personal Led Zeppelin collection is seamlessly woven into the other millions of titles from Google and available to me via all of its functions (radio, playlists, and on-demand).

This works so well that I also uploaded my AC/DC and Beatles collections, legally filling the gap of what’s not available due to artist refusals. Also, if you enjoy a few small local bands that sell homebrew CDs at their pub shows or music festivals, you can upload them to your locker, integrating their songs with your favorite service and giving them the presence of the big acts. For music lovers, the locker feature available from all major on-demand services is very practical—and something that’s commonly overlooked.

Offline Listening

All major on-demand music services offer a form of offline listening. This allows you to listen to your favorite songs and playlists when you lack an internet connection (handy for flights, subway rides, and your in-laws’ rural home). Most services allow you to download thousands of songs (that cannot be transferred to other devices or shared). For example, Google Play Music permits 20,000 songs to be “pinned” on your device. Thus, the only practical limit is the storage available on your smartphone or tablet. Of course, this is of marginal value to home theater owners.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Understanding Streaming Music

3d1The trend is clear: Sales of music on physical compact discs are steadily decreasing, while consumption of streaming music is increasing in a dramatic way. Even the growth of digital downloads, most popular from services like Apple’s iTunes and Amazon Music (formerly Amazon MP3), has slowed considerably. Consumers enjoy the convenience of music as a service, and are willing to pay between $4 and $10 a month to enjoy the world’s biggest jukebox.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 10: Streaming Music & Downloads from my book Home Theater for the Internet Age, available on Amazon Kindle. This is the first of a three-part series regarding streaming music and the popular services delivering it to consumers.

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Curt Robbins


This is an exciting time in terms of how entertainment content is packaged and sold to consumers. We’re in the middle of a titanic shift, from music-as-a-product to music-as-a-service. Instead of purchasing tunes on compact disc, consumers are increasingly choosing to obtain their musical entertainment from internet-based streaming services, such as Pandora and Spotify.

Even digital downloads, such as from iTunes, which decimated sales of compact discs, are being cannibalized by streaming music services. Consider that the sale of “digital singles” dropped 3% between 2012 and 2013, while music streaming increased 24% during the same period (according to Nielsen SoundScan). In 2013, digital downloads decreased 1% while streaming music grew by nearly 40% (according to the Recording Industry Association of America).

Renting vs. Buying Music

The economics of this shift are significant. You may be in the habit of purchasing music as albums on compact disc from a vendor such as Amazon or Walmart. Or maybe you prefer to buy your music one song at a time from iTunes or Rhapsody. Regardless of the method, it’s a model where you own the music, giving you the flexibility to burn it to a CD or listen offline, without an internet connection.

Music streaming services, however, are more like renting music. Or, rather, renting access to music. Services like Rdio and Beats Music offer catalogs comprised of tens of millions of songs. Think of them as the world’s largest jukeboxes, available on all of your devices—including your home theater.

Streaming vs. Downloading

songza for blog postWhen you purchase a song that you download, you’re copying the full song, as a single unit (a data file) from the internet to your computer. Streaming, on the contrary, is when you feed your mobile device or home theater a constant flow of digital data in the form of music or a movie. Most importantly, this data flow isn’t saved to your mobile device or AV receiver (minimizing the chance of piracy). In fact, this is the definition of “streaming.” YouTube, Netflix, and Pandora are good examples of streaming services. iTunes, Amazon Music, and HDtunes are examples of download services where you purchase, transfer, and store a song file on your computer.

Commercials & Artist Refusals

Streaming music is also a great way to avoid commercial interruptions. Subscription-based services offer ad-free entertainment in exchange for a monthly or annual fee. Some services, like Pandora and iTunes Radio, offer a free ad-supported version, as well as paid accounts that remove all commercials.

But it’s not all peaches and cream. Despite most services having deep catalogs of 16-30 million songs, don’t expect all artists and albums. Classic rock band Led Zeppelin, for example, is available only on Spotify, Songza, and Pandora. Pink Floyd prohibited its songs from being streamed by on-demand services until July 2013. The core works of Garth Brooks, the Beatles, AC/DC, Tool, Bob Seger, Metallica, and several other artists aren’t available on most streaming services.

Why Are Some Artists Unavailable?

Music services of all types must obtain legal rights to stream their song catalogs (obviously the intellectual property of thousands of other parties). This occurs through either the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) or via direct negotiations with record labels. The DMCA is a U.S. law that some other countries recognize. When companies such as Spotify, Apple, or Google negotiate directly with the major music labels (there are three in the United States), their deals involve restrictions, such as which artists are available for streaming and in which countries they can operate.

The DMCA

Two streaming services featured in this book, Pandora and Songza, rely on the DMCA. All others negotiate directly with music labels. While this gives DMCA-reliant streamers the luxury of playing any song they want—just like an FM radio station (terrestrial AM and FM also rely on the DMCA)—they’re restricted to offering their services only in countries that recognize the DMCA. Thus, Pandora is available in only three nations and Songza in only two (compare this to Google Play Music’s 68 countries served or Spotify’s 61).

pandora for blog postWhat does this mean in practical terms? That the bands that have withheld their songs from streaming distribution, such as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and AC/DC, can’t be heard on the major on-demand streaming services (outside of Spotify, which got exclusive rights to Led Zeppelin’s full catalog in late 2013).

If you really love Metallica, Bob Segar, or Tool and want to hear them on your on-demand streaming service, forget it. You’d have to use a radio type service like Pandora or Songza to, with luck, hear these bands, with zero control over the exact songs you hear or when you hear them. (See the Music Lockers section below for a neat and typically free solution to the problem of missing artists on nearly any music service.)

Digital Rights Management

Digital Rights Management, or DRM, is any form of copy protection applied to digital content, either streamed or disc-based. DRM can be found in many forms of digital media, including music and movies. Hollywood liberally employs DRM to protect movies from piracy, typically in the form of complex encryption. For most consumers, the result of DRM is not being able to copy a disc or a downloaded song or video. There are also more subtle results of DRM, such as preventing a laptop playing a streaming or Blu-ray-based movie from connecting to an external display panel via HDMI (the assumption is that there could be a recording device on the receiving end of the cable).

Most of the millions of songs available on iTunes are encrypted with DRM to prevent them from being freely shared. An increasing amount of modern video and audio, however, is DRM-free, a convenience feature that is purposefully marketed to consumers to win their favor. For example, music downloaded from the new high-resolution PonoMusic service contain no DRM, Amazon features no DRM in the MP3 songs it sells, and Apple is slowly converting its catalog to the DRM-free iTunes Plus format.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.