Zealth Audio: Employing Homeless Veterans

If you’re like me, little things sometimes frustrate you. Maybe the kids left the cap off the soda again and it went flat. Or your spouse put a small scratch in the bumper of your sports car. Possibly the cat left you a present in a remote corner of a spare bedroom….

Then you learn about someone like Kevin Nelson and it puts everything in perspective. Nelson (about whom I’ve written previously), is the founder and owner of Zealth Audio, a small speaker company based in San Diego. He’s an eternal optimist who puts his money where his mouth is—literally—and does business a little differently.

zealth audioNelson is very open about the rough times he’s experienced in his life. After returning from his military service in the U.S. Navy, he spent years in homelessness in San Diego. Despite the hardship of living in shelters and on the street, it was during this time that his dream of designing and selling his own high-fidelity speakers took shape.

Fast forward to 2015. Nelson is now happily occupied designing new and affordable speaker models and with the effort of growing his fledgling company.

If that was the end of the story, it would be inspirational enough. But Nelson believes in giving back. Plus, he knows, first hand, the plight of homeless vets who have given so much for their country, only to face hardship and challenges after returning home. Hardship and challenges that, too often, lead to substance abuse, poor health, and even an early grave.

Thus, he hatched a plan. Nelson’s company, which hand-builds each set of speakers in a wide variety of beautiful wood finishes to the specifications of his customers, employs homeless veterans. For each set of speakers ordered, Zealth Audio temporarily hires one or two homeless vets at his small shop in Southern California.

During an interview, Nelson was frank with me about his inspiration for hiring vets to build his unique speakers. “I got the idea while on the streets, watching my fellow veterans just fall apart. Sometimes I would find them dead; it happened three times to me. So I made up my mind, right then, that I would not quit ’til I could do my part and help some veterans,” he said.

“I know how it is, so I can talk with them very easily. I can help them with resources they don’t know about. San Diego is a beautiful place, but it’s money hungry, so it really doesn’t have good places for the homeless. That stuff you see on TV about shelters is staged…they are a living hell,” he told me.

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When asked about how he selects homeless vets to help him, Nelson responded, “The veterans I help have to be in a program with the VA [U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs] or in a shelter trying to get life back on track. I help those that are getting something done. I know several still on the river, where I stayed when I was homeless. I will bring them in as long as they are sober—ya still gotta be tough.”

Nelson said he is frustrated by how both veterans and the homeless are treated in the United States. He’s critical of what he perceives to be the hypocrisy of many who claim to help the homeless or support veterans. “Don’t tell me how much you support them. Show me,” he said from his shop.

Nelson’s company wasn’t around when I was shopping for the speakers that populate my two home theaters. If it were, I would have seriously considered purchasing from Zealth simply to avoid padding the bonus of a CEO who probably wouldn’t have been employing military veterans down on their luck to build me audiophile-quality speakers.

The next time you’re feeling sorry for yourself, remember Kevin Nelson and Zealth Audio. Remember the homeless vets who are being given another lease on life by one of their own who, by the miracle of his own determination and hard work, has managed to escape a life on the street.

That man is now giving back, not only by selling killer speakers that satisfy audiophiles like me, but—more important—by helping others to rehabilitate themselves.

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Curt Robbins

[Kevin Nelson can be reached at zealthinfo@aol.com.]


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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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.

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.

In Defense of Compact Discs

We’re in the middle of a retro resurgence in the world of high-fidelity music. Vinyl LP sales—even at $20-25 a pop—are surging. According to RadioTimes, vinyl sales in the UK in 2014 have been higher than at any point in the last 18 years. In the U.S, the statistics are even more dramatic.

Said RadioTimes of vinyl in the UK, “Sales have been driven primarily by the Arctic Monkeys, Jack White, and Pink Floyd—with Oasis, Status Quo, and David Bowie also contributing to the impressive figures.”

We must remember that this is regarding the UK market, not the U.S. However, substitute Foo Fighters for any of the artists listed above—with the exception of Jack White—and you get the picture in the States. Vinyl LP sales are higher than they’ve been in decades. They’re greater, in fact, than they’ve been for the majority of the reign of compact discs over vinyl LPs and cassette tapes.DSC_1805 - retouched

According to Wikipedia, “‘Vinyl revival’ is a term being used by the media and listeners of music to describe the renewed interest and increased sales of vinyl records, or gramophone records, that has been taking place in the Western world since the year 2006. The analogue format made of polyvinyl chloride had been the main vehicle for the commercial distribution of pop music from the 1950s until the 1980s and 1990s, when they were replaced by the compact disc.”

I think I expressed my sentiments on this topic as objectively as possible in the Retro Resurgence section of my full-length book Home Theater for the Internet Age. “Today, more retro hipsters are embracing what many consider to be the ultimate in home theater fidelity, vinyl, than at any time in the 30 years since digital compact discs took over. In 2013, Amazon announced that its vinyl music sales were up 745% since 2008.”

More from the book: “Analog vinyl LPs, while several times more expensive than their CD counterparts (similar in price to high-resolution digital music formats like SACD and Blu-ray Audio), offer the finest fidelity money can buy (as well as some old-school analog vulnerabilities that don’t plague modern digital formats).”

Those old-school vulnerabilities are a’ plenty. Vinyl is a frail format, one that’s prone to many problems. Vinyl scratches with little effort and is a willing victim when it comes to static cling. If the needle on your turntable gets hosed, you could damage any record you play.

The entire vinyl food chain, from record groove to needle to cartridge to tonearm to spinning platter, is fraught with fragility and prone to easy damage. Can you say wow and flutter? You’ve probably never heard of or suffered either, because these fidelity-busting turntable problems don’t plague compact discs.

However, unlike most other formats, vinyl delivers what many audiophiles believe is among the best possible fidelity (although much of this is marketing and hype). And clearly, by objective standards of frequency ranges and all those impressive numbers in the world of kHz, it’s among the best (along with high-resolution digital formats, like 32/384 PCM and any 24/192 recording).

I love vinyl. I’m really satisfied to see it survive where other music formats—like 8-track, reel-to-reel, Sony’s MiniDisc, and others—died. But in this celebration of our friend vinyl, let’s pause and consider why music on compact disc rapidly overtook the LP format during the 1980s.

First, CDs are mobile. No, not as mobile as an iPod Shuffle or even a smartphone, but it’s easy to bring along enough music for a very long road trip. While most cars for the past decade or so have featured CD players, LP is a format that doesn’t allow vehicular playback. It’s why people initially purchased home cassette player/recorders; they wanted to make tapes of their albums so they could go mobile and hear them in their car or running with their Walkman.

Second—and probably most important—CDs lack the snaps, crackle, and pops of vinyl LPs. CDs also offer markedly better and perceptible fidelity than cassette tapes. I believe it was the lack of mobility paired with the extremely fragile nature of vinyl, combined with the sonic imperfections of a physical needle being dragged along a groove in high-end plastic, that basically killed the vinyl LP as a mass-market music medium.

I also like that CDs, unlike vinyl, don’t deteriorate just a little with each play. They can also be duplicated–“bitperfectly,” as stated by my acquaintance Frederic Van–with zero loss of quality. A thousand times over. Forever and ever. No, I don’t condone piracy. But if I’ve legally purchased music, in any format or on any media, I want to be able to copy it, for any device and any use, as many times as I desire–with no degradation in fidelity. Not possible with vinyl.

In addition, compact discs provide much better sound quality than the average song downloaded from Amazon or iTunes and played via Bluetooth from your smartphone to your car’s stereo. Bluetooth is inherently low-fidelity. It was designed for the communications of computer printers and pointing devices, not good sound.

In addition, CDs can tolerate much higher temps than vinyl. While the nearly microscopic grooves in vinyl can begin to distort or melt at as low as 200 degrees F (93 C), compact discs can tolerate up to 600 degrees F (315 C). I also don’t need to own special cleaning accessories for my compact discs. I can rid my discs of any nasty stuff with nothing more than warm water and a cotton cloth (avoid products like paper towels and tissue, which can scratch). However, if properly cared for, compact discs rarely require attention or cleaning.

A quick reality check: On Amazon.com, Jack White’s Lazaretto album is $8 as a collection of lossy MP3s (the lowest sonic fidelity), $9.50 on compact disc (middle of the pack in terms of sound quality), and $23 on vinyl (the greatest fidelity possible). Apparently, one gets what one pays for in terms of fidelity.

Compact disc sales in the United States peaked way back in 2000. Since then, the market for music has been consumed by lower fidelity formats from iTunes and Amazon and, more recently, streaming music services like Pandora, iTunes Radio, and Spotify. However, in gaining the convenience of very portable digital downloads or streaming services, we lost fidelity (CDs also deliver much better sound than streaming music).

Yes, there’s nothing as retro sexy or hipster high-end as a good turntable playing a clean record into ample amplification. But as old as it is, the compact disc format does it all while completely avoiding the snaps, crackles, and pops of legacy LPs. This includes the ability to rip original-quality lossless WAV files from CDs (or run-of-the-mill MP3s; your choice).

You can then take these ripped files and play them over your home network using something called DLNA. Store the files on any computer in your home and, using average internet routers and affordable Blu-ray players connected via wi-fi or Ethernet cabling, listen to them on your home theater (or any other device connected to your network, including your mobile gadgets).

Compact discs, I would argue, offer the best compromise between mobility, durability, fidelity, and price. Dollar for dollar, there’s no music format in existence that’s more practical and affordable.

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Curt Robbins

[How do you purchase and consume your music? Share your preferences in the comments below. Thanks to Mark Henninger at AVS Forum for his feedback.]


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.

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 Headphone Amps

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[Updated September 9, 2015]

It’s challenging to discuss a home theater category like headphone amps and remain within the practical—and financial—bounds of middle class consumers. Many home theater owners have never even heard of this gear category, let alone own such a component.

However, the value of headphone amps, for people who truly love great sound, can’t be disputed. The good news is that many companies, like Schiit Audio and others, produce affordable hardware that can dramatically improve the quality of your sound when you’re wearing your cans and enjoying your favorite album (or movie).

The following is an excerpt from my book Home Theater for the Internet Age, from Chapter 9: Headphones.

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Curt Robbins


Headphone Amps

Headphone amplifiers are probably the single most misunderstood area of audio entertainment (if you’ve even heard of this tech). Infamous for being expensive toys owned by audiophiles, they are a relatively uncommon device within a home theater. What does a headphone amp do? Simply put, it’s an output from your receiver that re-amplifies the signal to improve the sound produced by your headphones.

In most receivers, even high-end models, the built-in headphone amp is a super-cheap afterthought. Audiophiles and music enthusiasts claim that, if you have a good pair of headphones, you’re cheating yourself by not getting at least an entry-level headphone amp to bring out their potential. “Using a dedicated headphone amplifier will step up the performance of any home theater to an entirely new level,” Frank Iacone, a 35-year industry veteran known for his heartfelt Twitter feed and reviews on headfi.org, told me in an interview. Because most middle class consumers have never used a headphone amp—and very possibly never listened to high-end headphones—it’s one of those situations where people simply don’t know what they’re missing.

OPPO HA-1 headphone amp for twitter - 2

Prices for headphone amps range from $60 to $16,000. That’s right, if you have a large pile of money and are wondering what to do with it, you can purchase 3,200 copies of this book or a headphone amp that costs more than an entry-level Toyota. The kids can walk, get the amp!

Tube, Solid State, & Hybrid

There are two primary technologies employed in building headphone amps: Analog vacuum tubes and digital solid-state circuitry. Vacuum tubes are way old school; some audiophiles collect antique tubes that are more than 50 years old. Solid-state amps, which involve digital processing and circuitry, are typically less expensive than their tube-based brethren and feature a more accurate, less “warm” sound. The third type of headphone amp, called a hybrid, merges these two technologies, theoretically offering the best of both worlds. Good applications of this approach achieve this, while poor executions fail to sufficiently exploit each type’s advantages.

Audiophiles Divided

The audiophile community is divided regarding which approach, tube or solid state, provides nicer sound. In reality, each type offers distinct pros and cons and is implemented in a wide variety of quality levels by different manufacturers. In the end, the model best for you is determined more by your wallet than your feelings regarding the warmth, intimacy, or accuracy of a particular model’s amplification technology.

However, one typically doesn’t spend the kind of money we’re talking about on headphones and headphone amplifiers and not appreciate the nuances of high-end audio. For many, the differences in sound quality between comparable quality tube and solid-state amps is significant (another religious war among audiophiles). My own opinion, quite frankly, is that I appreciate the lower cost of solid-state amps while also somewhat desiring the more accurate sound reproduction and efficiency that they deliver (which I also prefer in my AV receivers). But this certainly doesn’t mean that solid state is better. It’s simply my personal take on the matter (and my wallet’s influence).

From a sound perspective, I’d rather have a $1,200 Woo Audio WA2 tube amp (pictured below) than a $120 Vali solid-state model from Schiit Audio. However, this reflects a desire for a high-end amp, not a disdain for digital amps, preference for tube amps, or any leaning toward Woo Audio over Schiit (both of which are great companies offering models you should seriously consider). My budget—and the quality of my headphones—dictates that my purchase will probably involve a cold aluminum solid-state Schiit Audio Asgard 2 for $250 (the “practical” model for which I continue to lust).

Woo Audio WA2 for blog

Pros & Cons

One disadvantage of tube amps is that they can require up to 10 minutes to heat up in preparation for use. This is an old school characteristic indeed, and about the most retro electronic wait period of our modern drive-thru, microwaving, Twitter filled world. Fans of tube tech, however, swear it’s worth the patience and dollars (and boast of the romantic glow provided by their vacuum tubes—probably especially nice during the holidays).

An advantage of solid-state amps is a reduction in background noise. Some audiophiles actually prefer an elevated background noise level, especially for live performances or fully analog productions. One advantage of solid-state amps that doesn’t really touch home theater applications is mobility. Some models are designed to accompany a mobile device, offering small size, battery power, and significant improvements in audio quality compared to the anemic default output of mobile gadgets (especially when paired with good headphones).

Upgradable Tubes

A neat feature of vacuum tube amps for hobbyists is the fact that you can swap out—and thus, upgrade, within certain technical limits—the tubes. Some hyper-hobbyists even keep two or three sets of tubes, reserving each for a particular type of music. Many replacement tubes are relatively inexpensive (Schiit Audio sells a set of four tubes for its $350 Valhalla model that runs $40). While the cost of the initial amp itself might be somewhat hefty, the expense of playing hobbyist with different tubes—or replacing units that have burned out—can be manageable and fun.

Reputable Brands & Models

What is more important than whether a headphone amp employs vacuum tubes or solid-state circuitry is its sound quality, period. Companies such as Woo Audio (USA), HiFiMAN (USA), Bryston (Canada), OPPO (China), and Schiit Audio (USA) offer a wide range of both tube and digital amps.

Woo Audio manufactures expensive tube-based models featuring exquisite hand-crafted build quality and leading edge design that are made in New York City. Ranging in price from $550 to $16,000, Woo offers some of the best (and most attractively designed) tube amps money can buy. If you’re sweet on their products but on a budget, consider the $600 WA3 or $700 WA6.

Schiit Audio, headquartered in California, produces beautifully sculpted aluminum amps. Most of their models are solid state, but they also offer a couple hybrid and tube models. Schiit amps perform like Canadian and American models costing several times more. It’s relatively small product line, priced between $100 and $750, are all American made from American parts (Schiit even has face-to-face relationships with its local vendors). The company provides what reviewers cite as excellent and personalized customer service.

Shiit Audio Valhalla for blog

Premium Blu-ray player manufacturer OPPO in 2014 released a $1,200 solid-state headphone amp that has received rave reviews. The audiophile-quality OPPO HA-1 features an attractive display that compliments the unit’s leading edge features (it can even simulate those sexy analog VU meters from way back when). Like other OPPO products, the HA-1 is controllable via the OPPO Remote Control App for mobile devices.

“The hardware inside the HA-1 are some of the beefiest I’ve seen in a headphone amp. It looks like a barely scaled down loudspeaker amp,” said Geoffrey Morrison when reviewing the model for Forbes. Reviewer John E. Johnson, Jr., writing for hometheaterhifi.com, added, “And, wow! What a sound. Built like a tank, and gets as hot as a tank in the Sahara due to its Class A output.”

If you want to check out entry-level tube-based headphone amplification on a budget, look into the Bravo Audio V2, a $70 ($55 street price) single-tube amp. “It’s a nice little tube amplifier in its own right for those of us who want to experiment with that highly desired ‘tube sound’ without paying the exorbitant rates many tube amps cost,” said an amateur reviewer on Head-Fi.org.


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.

The Case for Spotify: Serendipity

3d1I remember when I was a teenager, listening to music on my stereo system, typically using old school over-the-ear headphones so I could crank the volume without gaining the attention of my parents. Of course, I also loved those two bookshelf speakers with the cool blue rubber baffles around the woofers (that I could never really properly exercise if my parents were home).

Playing popular albums from the time, like Breakfast in America by Supertramp or Led Zeppelin IV, I used to wonder: How many others in the world are playing this song right now? After all, I couldn’t be the only person listening to The Logical Song or Black Dog. The world is a big place with billions of people and common cultural trends, but how much serendipity is there, really?

Spotify, one of the leading music streaming services on the internet, is about to find out—at least among its own subscribers. The service recently promoted a cool possible feature called Serendipity. It’s a map that indicates, graphically, when two people listen to the same song at the same time. What defines “the same time”? The system is so strict that users must click Play within one-tenth of a second of each other to qualify and be listed. It can show one listener in Rio de Janeiro and another in Cleveland.

Amazingly, coincidental songs occur roughly 10 times per second on Spotify! Wow. It’s pretty darn cool. You even get to hear a small clip from the common song before it moves on to the next musical coincidence. If that kind of activity is occurring on Spotify alone, imagine the kinds of numbers that would be revealed by the entire music streaming industry. And then understand that the industry is in its infancy.

Spotify, like Pandora and Netflix, has reams and reams of big data from its tens of millions of subscribers to help it better understand their preferences (and the market for streaming music). According to Kyle McDonald, Spotify’s official “Media Artist in Residence” and the creator of Serendipity, “Twenty-five to fifty million people are listening to music at any moment,” on Spotify, adding that “ten to twenty thousand songs are started every second!”

I don’t typically encourage readers to leave my site to consume outside media, but to fully appreciate Serendipity, you simply need to see it in action. Note that the video demo to which that link leads isn’t real-time. It’s simply a recording of Serendipity from earlier this year. If it starts driving you (or your significant other) crazy, you can mute the audio.

serendipity for twitterEven cooler: If you hear a song you really like and want more than the brief slice you get with Serendipity, just pause the video in the upper left corner. Spotify is a music service, after all. Serendipity is a crazy carousel of sonic spasticity; it’s like an international jukebox gone awry that lets you put things on hold to indulge in a full song. After a few cups of coffee, I really love it.

Ten to twenty thousand songs are started every second on Spotify. Wow. Those are some amazing stats. Talk about using big data. These stats—and the savvy mining and analysis thereof—point to a new generation of intelligence and understanding regarding consumer behavior, social patterns, and possibly even the roots of why things go viral or trend. Add a few super computers with some slick, gopher-like algorithms to the mix and companies like Spotify will be mining their data for gold (they already are, of course). The insight regarding their customers will be so deep that they’ll know more about them than their subscribers will know about themselves—at least in terms of streaming music online.

And that’s not creepy, like the NSA. That’s cool. It’s called giving me the songs I want. Netflix is doing it with TV shows and movies. Why shouldn’t major music streamers like Spotify analyze their data to give subscribers the best experience possible?

McDonald is obviously thinking about the future. He considers Serendipity to be a grand experiment (the tech is available in real time only on the internal Spotify network). “Imagine if we could have ‘tangled sessions’ or an app that would pair you up with someone so you could listen to the same song at the same time,” he said.

Some groovy ideas. It would be nice to see Spotify—and the streaming music space overall—leverage some of these more advanced potential features of social media and big data. Let’s get beyond Tweeting or posting to Facebook the current song we happen to be listening to. It’s stupid, narcissistic, and largely irrelevant information (even for close friends).

I personally have accounts with Google Play Music and Pandora, both of which I love. But every time I hear about one of these cool features of Spotify, I always get envious and sometimes even fantasize about switching. Spotify simply does some really cool things and seems to take a different approach. Maybe it’s because they’re Swedish. I don’t know. But whatever they’re doing, it’s working and they’re definitely thinking outside the box.

Maybe even outside Pandora’s box.

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Curt Robbins


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.