Nothing too serious this week. No Microsoft CEO succession, no Samsung $14B marketing budget exceeding Iceland's GDP, no Apple Doom. Just Holiday - or Cyber Monday - audio talk.
I used to listen to sound. Now I enjoy music. It started with explosives. I was lucky to be born at a time and place (an arch-communist suburb of post-war Paris) where a 9-year old kid could hopscotch to the drugstore around the corner and buy nitric, sulfuric, or hydrochloric acid, sulfur, potassium chlorate, hydrogen peroxide... and other fascinating wares – among which a flogger with short leather lashes I was also acquainted with. Imagine this in today's California...
After a minor eye-burn incident, I was firmly redirected towards electronics and started building crystal radios, rudimentary AM sets using a galena (lead sulfide) crystal.
My good fortune continued. In 1955, my parents decided to send their increasingly restive child to a Roman Catholic boarding school in Brittany. What awaited me there, besides a solid classical education, was a geeky Prefect of Discipline who had a passion for hobby electronics. After hours, I would go to his study to read Radio Plans and Le Haut-Parleur — the French equivalents of Nuts and Volts — and salivate over the first OC71 transistor that had just landed on his desk (amazingly, the transistor is still available). This was exciting: Fragile, noisy, power hungry vacuum tubes that required both high and low voltages were going to be replaced by transistors. Numerous, randomly successful projects followed: radios, mono and stereo amplifiers, hacked surplus walkie-talkies.
Years later, in June 1968, I landed a dream job launching HP's first desktop computer, the 9100A, on the French market. I distinctly recall the exultant feeling: After years of the psycho-social moratorium referred to in an earlier Monday Note, I had entered the industry I love to this day.
With more money, I was able to afford better turntables, tape decks, receivers, amplifiers and, above all, speakers. For a while I started to listen more to the sound they produced than to the music itself. The Lacanians have a phrase for the disease: Regressive Fixation On Partial Objects...
HP had installed an über-geek, Barney Oliver, as head of its Research organization, HP Labs. Adored for his giant intellect and free spirit, Oliver decided stereo amplifiers of the day (early 70's) were either expensive frauds or noisy trash. Or both. So he raided the HP parts bin and built us a real stereo amplifier. (The manual and schematics are lovingly preserved here.) Four hundred were built. I bought two, because you never know. This was a vastly "overbuilt" device that used high-precision gas chromatograph attenuators with .1dB steps as volume controls. (Most of us have trouble perceiving a 1dB difference.) The power supply had such enormous capacitors that the amplifier would keep "playing" for 25 seconds after it was turned off.
HP, the old, real HP, truly was technophile heaven.
As years passed, I became uncomfortable with the audio arms race, the amps that pushed out hundreds or even thousands of watts, the claims of ever-vanishing .1%, nay. .01% distortion levels, the speakers that cost tens of thousands of dollars. (The Rolls-Royce of audio equipment of the time was...McIntosh.)
A chance encounter with The Audio Critic helped me on the road to recovery. Peter Aczel, the magazine's publisher and main author is a determined Objectivist Audiophile, a camp that believes that "audio components and systems must pass rigorously conducted double-blind tests and meet specified performance requirements in order to validate the claims made by their proponents". Committed to debunking Subjectivists' claims of "philosophic absolutes" and ethereal nuance, Aczel has attracted the ire of high-end equipment makers who hate it when he proves that their oxygen-free copper cables with carefully aligned grains are no better than 12-gauge zip wire at 30 cents per foot.
(A helpful insight from Aczel: In an A/B audio comparison, the louder gear inevitably wins, so loudness needs to be carefully equalized. This "sounds" like the reason why, over the last two or three decades, wines have increased their alcohol concentration to 14% or more: In tastings, the stronger wine is almost always preferred.)
The real turning point from sound fetishism to music appreciation came in early 2002 when I bought an iMac G4 that came with two small but surprisingly good external loudspeakers:
They won't fill a concert hall, they can't compete with my old JBL speakers but coupled with iTunes, the iMac had become a pleasant stereo. (Due, of course, to the improvements in magnetic alloys such as neodymium compounds, more efficient Class D amplifiers, and... but I'll stop before I relapse.)
A decade later — and skipping the politically incorrect jokes about married men experiencing premature hearing impairment in the high-frequency region of the spectrum — I'm now able to focus on music and expect the reproduction equipment to stay out of the way, in both practical and auditory terms.
Today's "disk drives" are solid state and store hundreds of gigabytes; CDs and DVDs have all but disappeared; iPods, after a few years in the sun, have been absorbed into phones and tablets. (And we watch iTunes on the road to becoming Apple's Windows Vista.)
After years of experiment, I've come to a happy set of arrangements for enjoying music at home, at work, and on the go. Perhaps these will help your own entertainment. (Needless to say, I bought all the following – and many others – with my own money, and the Monday Note doesn't receive compensation of any kind.)
At home, I use a Bose Companion V desktop set-up. It consists of two pods, one on each side of the screen, plus a bass module anywhere under the desk. Bose's idea is to take your PC's output from a USB port and process it to add an illusion of depth/breadth when sitting at your desk. For me, it works. And the output is strong enough for a family/kitchen/dining room.
That said, I'm not fond of all Bose products. I find the smaller Companion units too bass-heavy, and I didn't like (and returned) their AirPlay speaker. As for the company's design sensibility, Amar Bose gave me the evil eye more than 15 years ago when I dared suggest that the industrial design of his Wave System could use updating (I was visiting his Framingham Mountain office with a "noted Silicon Valley electrics retailer"). The design hasn't changed and is selling well.
At the office, I followed advice from my old friends at Logitech and bought two Ultimate Ears Bluetooth speakers. With a (recently improved) smartphone app, they provide very good stereo sound. At $360/pair, the UE system costs about the same as the Companion V; what UE lacks in the Bose's power, it makes up for in portability. The only knock is that the mini-USB charging port is under the speaker's bottom — you have to turn it on its head to charge it..
Speaking of portability, Bose's Soundlink Mini, another testament to modern speaker and amplifier technology, fits in a bag or roll-aboard and shocks unprepared listeners with its clean, powerful sound and clean design. No discounts on Amazon, which we can attribute to Bose's unwavering price control and to the system's desirability.
I kept the best for last: Noise-reducing earphones. The premise is simple: A microphone captures ambient sound, embedded circuitry flips the waveform and adds it into the signal, thus canceling the background noise and allowing us to enjoy our music undisturbed. This is a consumer application of Bose's first noise-canceling headphones for aviation applications, still considered the domain's standard. A "pro" set cost about $1,000. Consumer versions are $300 or less.
To my ears, early models were disappointing, they introduced small levels of parasitic noise and featured indifferent music reproduction. Nonetheless, sales were strong.
Later models, from Bose and others, improved both music playback and noise cancelation, but still felt big, unwieldy. Again, a matter of personal preference.
Yielding to the friendly bedside manner of an Apple Store gent, I recently bought a pair of Bose QC 20i "noiseless" earphones (about $300). The earbuds are comfortable and so "skin-friendly" that you forget you're wearing them (I mention this because comfort will always trump quality). They're also more secure, less prone to falling out of your ears than are Apple's own devices.
Now, as I take my evening walk in the streets of Palo Alto enjoying the Bach Partitas, the street noise is barely a whisper, cars seem to glide by as they were all Teslas. For civility and safety, there's a button to defeat noise reduction, and the mandatory Pause for phone or street conversations. There are other nice details such as a spring-loaded clip for your shirt or lapel, or a dead-battery mode that still lets music — and noise — come through.
Next week, we'll return to more cosmic concerns.