Bob Fairbairn

I am re-thinking my portable computing environment of carrying and iPad Pro and a MacBook and moving to one of the new Microsoft Surface Pro devices. Thinking, thinking, thinking?

I sent my HomePods back!

I have __never__ sent a product back to Apple. This decision was predicated on several things.

  1. The audio quality is “interesting”,… Apple has created a sound that I describe as uncomfortable. Too much bottom, not enough detail, not enough middle.
  2. The integration with Apple services is very weak and it does not work in a multiple person household.
  3. Apple Music works well and I cannot fault it for what it is. The integration with Homepod is very good. I do not need Apple Music except for this.
  4. The controls and configuration of HomePod in the Apple Home App is just plain odd. It kind of works but needs a LOT of UI work.
  5. The AI domains are very limited on the HomePod rendering it neutered and less than useful.
  6. Little things are annoying such as the inability to control Alarm volume or type. The whole timer and alarm controls, weird.
  7. Yes I know that almost all of this is software but I have less patience than I used to.
  8. I have a VERY GOOD system to listen to and I do not need the HomePod for “performance listening”

So a bit more narrative is needed here. First on home automation. I have rather simple needs that HomePod did not enhance. I have shared calendars and shared task lists that it could not address or manage well. I have simple lighting automation that only requires occasional intervention and the is very little need for additional features that the HomePod might bring.

I do not want to be overly critical about the audio quality of the HomePod. In my office, the bedroom and when you are a bit further away from it the sound is actually very very good. I have a long term relationship with high quality audio reproduction and Apple has really done a good job on this thing. It does stuff that almost any other all-in-one audio component does not do; room correction, streaming, and more. For a whole lot of Apple’s target market this is a great 1.0 product.

A lot of energy went into this thing. A single audio component that can play streaming music at this reproduction quality and cost is a good value proposition. IF YOU ARE IN THE APPLE ECOSYSTEM. I would like to add an additional caveat that you are a single person household. This is almost frictionless for delivering music.

I have seen a lot of talk on the tech-blogs about use cases that they think the HomePod can fill including using the HomePod with your TV. I do not see that as valuable and it really speaks to the fact that most modern TVs have TERRIBLE audio. Some sort of sound bar system would be a better value. Now Apple could do the Dolby decoding and stereo pairs and surround simulation with all that computing power. But without an optical input from the TV the application to this modality is weak.

Siri “AI” and voice control

I am all in on Apple computing products. I use an iMac for my main computer, Mac Laptops, iPad, iPhone, Watch, Apple TV, and more.. The way the systems work hand in hand and the overall systems design is a head and shoulders above just about anything else. When Apple bought Siri a lot of us were excited to have Apple work through the privacy and availability. And the progress on Siri has been laudable. Apple is not moving fast enough for the tech press and they talk and write a lot about what Siri can do. The voice response system on the HomePod is nothing short of amazing. The music can be blaring away and I can talk in a quiet voice and it hears me just fine. The issue is what it can do with what it hears. The press is brutal in it’s evaluation of the HomePod on this functionality. If I ask it to play the Beatles it will do that. Now if you have 10 variants of something from the Grateful Dead I am pretty sure you will run into issues.

This whole thing is a very powerful integration of Computers and Audio. This is one implementation of the future of Voice First interaction technology. More of this will be in our future. Organizing and delivering the right track out of 40 million is a daunting task. This is a good start.

Finally some notes on Information Security

I assume that many who read this are walking around with some sort of mobile device on their pocket all the time. So we are all carrying around a potential “wireless bug”. Introducing another device into our homes that has a microphone and an internet connection does not necessarily increase our security risk, although it has a possibility higher potential to be attacked and compromised.

So if you have a networked device with a microphone it is a potential bug. The switch on top of an Amazon echo is a software driven push button that tells the computer to turn on the red light and turn off the microphone system in some manner. The HomePod has a voice command to turn off listening which is again software. The HomePod has no visual indication that the device is in a not-listening state. As these are software switches it is possible that they could be compromised. I would think that with Apple the risk might be lower as they are very vocal about their controls in this space.

Now the real meat of the problem is in intent. Apple intends the voice to control and input data. They appear to have no incentive to monetize your voice or keep data around. Their differential privacy system appears to be robust.

Amazon sells the Echo devices to keep you in their system and to keep you buying from them. Their system does use cloud based technologies and the voice information in one form or another is available to them. You can see on their App or on the website the voice information about what you asked or told the device. There may be more exposure here but it is hard to validate.

Google has a different motivation in this. They want you to GIVE them data about you that they can use to sell to advertisers to target you. Now they do that by inference but it does feel more intrusive or creepy to see the ads hitting you after a search. The knowledge about YOU is the product that Google sells to their customers.

Microsoft is a new player to this game and their Cortana software is now appearing in devices like the HomePod. I have no experience with this hardware or how Microsoft implements their software stack. I am suspect of their motivations. Windows 10 bothers me a lot! I find their security statements to be cryptic.

In the end I jumped too fast assuming that Apple did what I want them do to and I was disappointed.

I am back to using the Amazon Echo devices in my home. They provide a service that I currently want including voice activated music playback although not at the quality level of the HomePod. The Echo devices are “just good enough” to listen to. AKA “radio”

—RJF

Well that is a bout 1300 words, sorry not quite a “micro” blog post.

How come saying “Hey Siri” to the HomePod seems Hard compared to “Alexa” on the Amazon Echo?

HomePod vs my Performance Listening system!

I have setup one of the HomePods in my Living Room along with the “real” stereo. This is a TOTALY UNFAIR comparision. We are looking at a ~15K$ system vs $350. I do my testing with Roon controling all of the equipment. I have a simple level meter app I can use to set the levels pretty well.

I have been listening to a wide range of music from Bach to Led Zepplin. Ochestral to single guitar. While my time has been shorter than I would like I am very happy with what I hear. The HomePod really does hold its own. It does not have the soundstage presented by the main system but it is really impressive. It lacks a lot of the really detailed information that the main system provides and the audio response appears to be tailored to what I would call a bit “throaty” sound. I am sure that this is an Apple design choice and I would call the sound “pleasant and comfortable”. Voices are very clear and there is a stage laid out by the speaker that is amazing.

Around the corner from the Living Room is the kitchen and eating area. This is a pretty open floor plan so the sound travels. I sit at the table and switch betwen the HomePod and the main system using my iPad. The sound from the HomePod is really amazing sitting there. You do not expect the stereo sound stage; just music and you are well rewarded.

I will discuss this a bit further in another blog post covering more of the voice control and other functionality.

Note: I am all in the Apple hardware. I use the Apple tri-fecta every day. Mac/iPad/iPhone….. This should be a no-brainer REALLY

–RJF

iPad keyboard research

The Brydge 12.9 keyboard for iPad makes it hard to swipe up!

HomePod getting started

Getting setup in the bedroom, family room, and office. I have removed the Echo and the two Echo Dots from the system! Our main use for the speakers is music in the background. We use Apple reminders for shared lists so that is cool. Yes Siri is “limited” but really we are low users of that.

Triplets in the house.. Time for Alexa to leave…

Nautilus arrives!

One of the speaker systems I have wanted to test was the B&W Nautilus 804. I was very fortunate to acquire a pair and they have stayed in the system ever since.

I can dream about things like B&W 804 D1 or D2 or even to the Aerial Acoustics 7T’s or 6T’s The N804 are a sort of Goldilocks speaker for me. They surprise me very regularly and any changes or improvements I make to the rest of the system are heard loud and clear.

Down the road something else may come along but these are keepers.

—RJF

A new digital front end

Much of my music is now file based and I wanted to “build it my way” to get that music data into the the DAC. I decided to place a dedicated computer in system to mange the music and not have to support the underlying OS on a regular basis (Windows or macOS). I looked at the Melco-Audio and several others. I looked at building my own computers. Nothing seemed to fit my desire for simplicity until I came upon the Sonore microRendu and the Small Green Computer Sonic Transporter i5.

This gives me my standard system of playback using ROON and the ability to test other systems as I please. Removing the older MacMini from the system and putting the NAA in place is yet another win in system performance. And a really big one at that. There is a lot packed into this change and will need extended discussion in the future. This change is both sonically significant and design significant!

 

NOTE: from future me,.. the MacMini did not sound as good as it could. Hold that thought for now!

Brooklyn in Chicago

I have been using the Arcam rDAC and I was reasonably happy with the performance but not the features. As I discussed before finding a DAC has been a big research project for me. There are so many and they all seem to have dramatically different features and price points. It is impossible for any of the local stores to actually keep a wide variety of DACs on display. So off to the audio corners of the internet to figure this out.

Some of the features I am interested in are:

  • DSD playback
  • Balanced and unbalanced outputs
  • MQA
  • Software or hardware upgradeable
  • I like the additional inputs on the Arcam rDAC
  • DC power input for upgradeable power supplies
  • Not ungodly expensive!!

In late 2015 Mytek Digital came out with a new DAC called the Brooklyn DAC. It seemed to match all my wants and more:

  • Balanced Headphone amp
  • Pre-amp
  • Digital and analog volume control
  • Phono stage
  • Balanced outputs
  • Three digital inputs
  • IR Remote for the basics.

After studying the reviews I decided to acquire one for the system. There are a few oddities in use like switching inputs is a little weird from the front panel but it is ok from the Apple remote that they include with the DAC.

Over all this is a GREAT improvement to the system. While the Arcam rDAC is very good the Brooklyn DAC is great and going forward may just replace the pre-amp in the system.

This new class of DAC/front end is kind of interesting. I know that there are compromises in this kind of design but the quality of the Brooklyn is very high.

I will have more comments over time on this one!

—RJF

Another “side trip” that had a great ending

I am always looking improvements to the stereo system and in May of 2017 I found a pair of Thiel CS1.6 speakers to audition. These little floor standing speakers are a marvel and handily outdid the B&W Matrix 805’s. They have more bottom end and they are more precise with a much bigger sound stage! So they went into the system.

There is a “small” issue with the 1.6s; the front is covered with cloth and tapered back. One of my cats thought they were new scratching posts, ARGGHHH!! So some 1/8 masonite shields had to be improvised. Whew!

Saved by the Saber Saw.

—RJF

 

PS if you look closely in the picture you might see what my next audio post is about!!!

The DAC

DAC research is an exercise in fun, confusion, learning, money, time, etc… I had started this system setup with a borrowed Bluesound PowerNode 2 which is a sort of all-in-one digital stereo system. So when I got the analog pre and power amps I only had my Chord Mojo for the system. While I am very happy with the Mojo it is a battery operated device and there are issues like battery drain keeping it working well in a stereo system.

During the DACs research I found a used Arcam rDAC. Arcam has a good history with DACs that this is no exception . They have newer versions and it did not tick all the boxes but it is a very good addition to the system!

After the rDAC was setup I did some testing of USB cables and it showed that the link between the “computer” and the DAC are very important to the sound quality. Testing between a generic USB cable, Hardwired USB and Transparent Performance USB cables. I picked the Transparent Performance USB. Jitter and the like are nasty little buggers . The TAL cable helped with some of my imaging issues and with bass performance. But I feel that it did the most improvement in the upper midrange with female vocal and the strings in some classical recordings. This is a place where there is a lot of research and I have not scratched the surface here. I have learned a lot but there is a lot more to understand.

The Mojo and the rDAC are worthy competitors but the rDAC wins the contest in the system as it is AC powered. It sounds very good and the price was right so I get my headphone listening system back.

My DAC story has a couple more chapters but as of January of 2017 the Arcam rDAC was the main digital driver in the system with the Mac Mini still serving music! There are ways I can improve sound here and that will come over time.

Audio Side Trip

Every now and then we take little side journeys and one of mine was this lovely little amplifier from the 1990’s the Pass ALEPH 3. What an interesting full Class A amplifier. I puts out around 20 watts per channel and sounds so great. But it draws about 240 watts all the time and needs an hour or more to get up to sound quality speed. It was a fun few days to listen to but it did not fit into a “family” stereo set design.

Dorthy and the Tornado

Welcome to the Whirlwinds of Change phase! Let me tell you Dorthy’s house spinning on the top of the tornado is not too far away from the feeling I have today. Thankfully there are no flying monkeys or “dream flowers” in my story.

I brought the system home with an older Monster Cable power system as protection and filtering. One of the early tests was to put a loaner Transparent Powerbank P2 on the system at the wall with the Monster Cable still in the system. There is was more bass and the imaging started to improve. Now we were cooking with gas! So to improve the power quality and thus the sound I ordered a Transparent Powerbank P6.

Sunday Bloody Sunday

Fast forward to a Sunday evening when I was working at my computer in my basement office and my son was playing a game on his computer when we heard this rather pronounced 60 cycle buzzing sound. That is NOT good! The circuit breaker for the furnace was buzzing madly when the furnace kicked into high fan. You could feel as well as hear the breaker buzzing, ouch! So rocking the breaker a bit the buzzing diminished. But it took a trained person to actually fix the problem. Over time the wiring in the circuit panel had loosened some of the connections. Seventeen breakers needed tightening and five neutral lines needed the same treatment including two that were physically loose.

The next day I went to listen to the system to start evaluating a possible cable change… The world had flipped, the sound was better on the “before” test, I had changed nothing and the system sound changed, WAIT I did change something; one of the loose wires was on the living room circuit where the stereo is. JAW DROP TIME! Everything matters, Everything!

The whirlwind continued with power cables. The Rotel gear has IEC connections so I am able to work there to improve sound. The P6 Power conditioner is first and there upgraded Transparent cables on the Power Amp and on the Pre-amp. Note that this testing was so obvious I never had to complete the ABAB loop. “A” was good “B” was better than “A” by a noticeable amount. So in the long run there will be money spent on power cables!

During the discussion around electrical power and the issues with the panel in my home I also implemented another small change in the system. I changed the electrical wall outlet that the system is plugged into, replacing it with a Hubbell hospital grade duplex outlet. One of the best $18 I have ever spent! YES it does sound better. The contacts are broader the copper is better and the spring system is stronger for better contact. It works! I am still holding off on one more electrical change that I will talk about next time.

Those are some of the basics. We can talk about High Frequency (HF) interference, time/phase distortion and a lot more.

The system is pretty stable now. I can play music from LP, CD and digital files. I have the ability to purchase and play Tidal Streaming. It is now a “performance listening” music system. Is this audio nirvana? No! But wow it sounds pretty good.

— RJF

My: ”New Headphones” turned into a stereo,…

In the fall of 2016 year I started thinking more about music I wanted to upgrade my headphones. But what I really needed was to bring the family back to listening! With a little help and a PUSH from a good friend I started re-discovering my passion for music listening out loud. So this is the start of the story.

I brought home a pair of used B&W Matrix 805 speakers and the beginnings of a replacement home listening system.

The first order of business was to assemble the B&W speaker stands which requires filling them with sand. So with flurries in the air, off to the grandkids sandbox for some spare sand. Yes I replaced it in the spring for the grand kids.

Then a little blue-tack on the stands to keep the speakers safely stuck to the stands so the people and the cats do not knock them off!

Next there is the matter of the jumpers on the back of the speakers. B&W ships them with these metal straps that do not sound as good as stranded copper wire jumpers. So a quick change to remove the straps…

While looking for a specific preamp and power amp to put on my system we started listening to a borrowed Bluesound Powernode 2. There is a lot of flexibility of music sources with the Powernode 2 but it really did not take the sound to where I wanted it to be. The family did have our first taste of real listening in several years.

Audio Consultants found a used Rotel RC-1070 Pre-amp and RB-1582 power amp for me. I installed them in the system and then things started to get real interesting.

I also setup a MacMini as a music player/server in the system and used my Chord MOJO as the DAC. With ROON software and an iPad as a controller we had digital music. The Phillips GA-212 urntable got a little tune-up and we have Analog! The family can now sit down and listen to streaming music and more!

Taking stock; MacMini was using our wireless network and my Chord MOJO was in the system using a generic USB cable.…. I had the digital music source working. Now what can I do to improve it?

— RJF

An Accelerated Audiophile Journey

I have been re-inventing my home stereo system with one simple goal: “Performance Listening” — re-introducing sit down listening our my home!

This is a journey of accelerated discovery and observations of the physics of everything in the playback chain of music in my living room. This is a systems design problem with computers, networks, music formats, turntables, DACs, amplifiers, speakers, cables and more. This is a “passion” or “obsession”; getting it right-where-I-want-it. In the end we have a system that feel very enjoyable to listen to and “is easy to operate”. We have LP’s, CD’s and a digital front end to enhance and expand our listening world.

Just for fun — a little history

This journey actually started in the 1960’s when I really started listening to music. The time of reel to reel tape recording, 8 track tapes, and WLS AM radio. There are many memories; From lugging my 4 track reel to reel tape deck with my Koss Pro-4AA headphones on vacation to installing an 8 track tape player in the family car. I can fast forward to my first classical music concert given by the Vienna Philharmonic. Then on to a simple listening system with a Phillips GA212 turntable, Sony integrated amplifier and B&O speakers. Listening to Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon, wow..

Fast forward to the 1980s and my first serious performance listening music system. A set of Thiel CS3 speakers, a Bryston 3B power amplifier, an Apt Holman pre-amp, and a Tanberg 3015 CD player with MIT Music Hose speaker cables and Interlink Reference A interconnects.

On to the 1990’s working in a semi-open office system of corporate America, headphones and music are a survival skill. Over time my hobby listening migrated to mostly on headphones and that both isolated me at work but from the rest of the family at home.

In 2014 I sold the “old” music listening system and installed SONOS around the house for more casual listening. SONOS is wonderful as a provider of music all around the house. But being a hobbyist at heart I need to play with the system. I learned that you should never beta test software on your home primary music system unless you live alone! I learned that even SONOS is too complex for casual listening because in 2016 the SONOS was system was totally displaced by the Amazon Echo for simple casual music in a couple of rooms. Just ask Alexa and you have music, the weather or a kitchen timer..

As good as SONOS is, it is not is a performance listening system. With casual background music being played on the Amazon Echo the SONOS was not being used…..

And that is where the story begins.

—RJF

Security Sunday: Three issues of the week!

Over the past few days Apple has had three software security issues. One each on iOS, macOS and HomeKit. While the actual details of the issues do not matter to my discussion they are all in the infrastructure of equipment that I use. While there is a lot of reaction and speculation about the problems that beset Apple I want to use this as a lesson in computing safety. Just in case,….

First and foremost you have to have a good backup strategy from which to recover possible lost data. It is good to extract data from the internal formats of a system. So using something like iMazing. Which can move data in and out of your i”devices” and much more. You can also extract data into standard formats!

You can backup your iCloud files to an external drive or other locations.

Creating a bootable image of your Mac using Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper gives you that extra backup of your computer for emergencies. I do this weekly with the primary Macs in my control. This is in parallel to the Time Machine backup that runs all the time. Another use for the image backups is to backup to a second drive and take that drive offsite to say a bank safe deposit box or a family members home that is not too close!

Using a service like Backblaze to create a cloud backup of your computer is a valuable addition to your system security plan.

Automating your iOS device backups to Apple iCloud is the simplest way to ensure that data on your device is somewhere you will NOT forget to manage.

So in case of data loss, software issues, equipment theft, and more. Backup often and offsite!

RJF

Moon!

We have been getting some early moon rise times here in Illinois and while out walking the other day I grabbed this one.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Olympus EM1 MKII 300mm f4 + MC14 ISO 1000 F11 1/1250 Handheld

 

And another one taken at night….

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

MacDrifter: The Mac Still Feels Like Home

A very interesting post of how he is using the iPad and the Mac.

www.macdrifter.com/2017/11/t…

-rjf

macOS High Sierra 'root' security bug

11/29/17 Apple has released Security update 2017-01 to patch this defect; update your machines!

 

Updates with more info from 9 to 5 Mac.

 

https://9to5mac.com/2017/11/28/how-to-set-root-password/

 


Linking from iMORE.COM

https://www.imore.com/macos-has-root-bug

Quote from Apple:

“We are working on a software update to address this issue,” an Apple spokesperson told iMore. “In the meantime, setting a root password prevents unauthorized access to your Mac. To enable the Root User and set a password, please follow the instructions here: https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT204012. If a Root User is already enabled, to ensure a blank password is not set, please follow the instructions from the ‘Change the root password’ section.”

 

-rjf