The Next Track, Episode #171 – Vintage Audio Gear

While there are lots of reasons to opt for minimal audio equipment, for some people there is an enduring allure for vintage stereo amps and receivers from the hi-fi heydays of the 1970s. The time when audio gear had knobs and dials and VU meters, like the fins and grilles on 1950s cars. We discuss our lust for those baroque audio devices of yore.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

Sonos Really Sucks at Communication

Sonos has again gone back on a controversial decision they made, but this time it’s too late for a lot of people.

Late last year, Sonos announced a “Trade Up program,” whereby people with certain older devices could trade them in for a 30% discount. They wouldn’t physically send them to Sonos, who didn’t want to be bothered recycling them; they would be responsible for recycling them themselves. And they couldn’t keep them, because they would be bricked after 21 days.

The company was roundly criticized for creating e-waste. The goal, which we didn’t know at the time, was to get customers to upgrade from devices that would later be classified as “obsolete,” and that wouldn’t receive software updates.

Well, the company has changed their tune on both of these controversial moves. First, they walked back the original claim about obsolete devices, saying now that they will find a way for them to still be used, and that they are changing the policy of bricking older devices, according to The Verge.

In this case, you’ll get the 30% discount, and your older device will still work. So you can recycle it if you wish, or, I’m sure many people will keep the older devices, or give them away. Some may also sell them, and if you think that you can buy an older Sonos device cheaply, then use it to get the 30% discount on a newer device, be careful. I’m sure the company is keeping track of the serial numbers of devices used for the discount. It’s worth noting that Sonos’ support document about recycle mode does not yet specify this change.

I feel bad for Sonos. They had a great reputation in audio and tech circles, and they’ve blown it by not thinking carefully about what they should have known were two controversial decisions. They should hire some PR people to help them not make similar mistakes again.

How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 24: Ethernet

So here we are again, with yet another magical hardware device to make music sound better. This one is an Ethernet switch; it’s what you use to, for example, connect to a router then connect a bunch of Ethernet cables, with then connect to other devices. They could be computers, wi-fi access points, other switches, or even audio equipment. Some receivers and amplifiers have Ethernet jacks to received digital audio.

First, a brief primer about Ethernet. It’s a technology used to send data over cables, and most networking uses TCP/IP, very robust protocol that has been around for decades, and has been standardized. It is what runs the internet and most networking. A Wikipedia article explains the main element of Ethernet that makes it so robust:

Systems communicating over Ethernet divide a stream of data into shorter pieces called frames. Each frame contains source and destination addresses, and error-checking data so that damaged frames can be detected and discarded; most often, higher-layer protocols trigger retransmission of lost frames.

The bit about error-checking data and retransmission of frames is what’s important. You see, unlike analog data – think of an old TV where you get your signal over the air, and there can be static – each frame, or unit of data, which can be from 64 bytes to 1518 bytes, is checksummed before it is sent, then after it is received. If the checksums don’t match, the frames are resent.

This is very important. Let’s say you’re reading this article on a computer connected via Ethernet to your router. Upstream from there, the router gets data from a series of network devices, from your local exchange, from other switches, finally from the original server sending you data. If data correction is not used, it’s possible that some data gets corrupted during transmission, and you might lose some of it, or some might be garbled. In which case, you would be reading some random sequence of characters instead of what I’ve written; or some of the words and sentences would be missing.

So think about how that works with music. When you send music from a server – be it Apple Music, Spotify, or your own computer – it is sent the same way. Your hardware devices don’t know that it’s music; they only know that it’s frames of data that has to perfectly match what was sent. If not, it is resent. This happens very quickly, and data is buffered to allow for resent frames to catch up and be correctly reassembled. I’m simplifying a bit, but you can be certain that, with working hardware, the data sent is exactly the same as the data received.

Anyway, back to our hardware hawker. According to the venerable What-HiFi:

The Chord Company has relaunched a Great British brand to front its audio electronics business, English Electric, and has demoed its first product – a hi-fi grade network switch.

Beyond the question of whether this product serves any purpose, this company is capitalizing on a recent trend in the UK, among a certain demographic, of wanting “great British brands,” and “blue passports.” (Search the term “gammon” on Google.)

So, what is this device?

English Electric announced the device at the Bristol Hi-Fi Show with claims that the English Electric 8switch can act as a filter for streamed audio to remove unwanted noise which regular computer industry-made switches and routers never consider.

Let’s highlight the magical thinking above:

unwanted noise which regular computer industry-made switches and routers never consider

They are saying that there is “unwanted noise” on network hardware, and that “regular computer industry-made switches and routers never consider.” Let’s think about this. When Netflix streams 4K video, do you think they “never consider” “unwanted noise?” Or that banks, for example, don’t care about noise that could cause data loss or corruption?

Actually, they don’t, because it doesn’t exist. Ethernet, and the protocols it uses, don’t have “noise.” They have 1s and 0s, and error checking, and retransmission, to ensure that the data sent matches the data received. It’s true that you can have cables that malfunction; when that happens, they simply don’t work, because there are too many errors to correct. (You can see this if you ever have a bad HDMI cable; it’s a mess, with lots of artifacts and pixelation.)

But, says the magazine:

The 8switch will come with its own unique power supply and feature better separation with the idea of “making nastier sounding tracks better”.

Now this is something different. Not the bit about “making nastier sounding tracks better,” which is just marketing copy written by someone who didn’t attend much school, but having it’s own “unique power supply” could make a difference to noise; at least the noise that you hear if you put your ear really close to the device. Because while a bad power supply could create a hum, or ground loop, in an amplifier, it will not do anything to an Ethernet switch. If the power works, the data is sent and received. It doesn’t matter if there’s a hum, or if the power is “dirty” as people in the audio fantasyland like to say. If the cables aren’t broken, the data is sent correctly. If the cables are broken, then there’s too many frames that aren’t received correctly, and data won’t flow. It’s not like data comes through looking like this:

Gur 8fjvgpu jvyy pbzr jvgu vgf bja havdhr cbjre fhccyl naq srngher orggre frcnengvba jvgu gur vqrn bs “znxvat anfgvre fbhaqvat genpxf orggre”.

Oh, and it costs £400. You can get an 8-port Ethernet switch for about £21 on Amazon.

But back to the brand. This is, apparently, a truly great British brand:

English Electric was originally founded in 1918 in the armistice of the First World War by amalgamating five companies which had been used in the war effort to manufacture munitions, armaments and aeroplanes. It became defunct in 1968 after some notable successes including the English Electric trains and the supersonic English Electric Lightning jet.

And as the article ends:

Expect to hear from English Electric later in the year.

I shall hold my breath.

How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 23: Playing CDs

It’s been more than a year since I published the last article in this series. I reached the point where so much of what I was seeing was just repeats of topics I had already covered that it didn’t seem worthwhile to post anything new.

Until today.

In an article on the illustrious Wut Hi-Fi? site, we are informed of 9 hi-fi tricks you might not believe affect sound quality (but they do). There is actually one good idea in the article, and that is to listen in the dark. Light, and even color, can affect what you hear. Your hearing is more acute in a dark or low-light environment. And this one even gets some scientific backing, from “chief scientist for Dolby Laboratories, Dr. Poppy Crum.”

But the last idea in the article, for those who have made it past the first eight, which are mostly bogus, is about “Playing CDs from the beginning.”

So, how come a CD sounds better if you stop it and then press play, rather than playing it from pause? Because, dear readers, we can assure you they do.

We haven’t heard a definitive explanation. Nevertheless, in our experience doing things this way just sounds that bit better.

Try it out for yourself with a favourite album on CD. You’ll soon see that we’re not crazy. We just love bicycle inner tubes, little stands for our cables, pitch black rooms and very, very late nights…

And, it bears repeating: what matters is what you hear, so if you can’t hear the difference, save yourself a whole load of trouble and money. But if you do find yourself with some tinkering time, why not give the above a try.

I don’t even know where to begin. How about with that bit where the journalist hasn’t “heard a definitive explanation?” Or, “we assure you they do?”

Thanks, Wut Hi-Fi? Onward and upward.

So long, Sonos: Meet the open-source audio system that will never die – ZDNet

Until the introduction of smart streaming devices made by Sonos (and others, such as the Amazon Echo, the Google Home, and the Apple HomePod) high-fidelity speakers were investments that were expected to last many years and could be transferred from amplifier to amplifier should the technology change.

On the heels of this recent Sonos imbroglio, I believe it is time to reconsider whether we should continue to have these fully-integrated speaker devices, which include all of the logic and high-fidelity components in a single box. The electronic waste generated by this discarded equipment when they reach the end of their support lifetimes is not only environmentally irresponsible but also financially taxing on the consumer who has to replace these devices periodically.

I believe a solution to this problem exists, but it will require a fundamental change in how manufacturers like Sonos, Amazon, and Google approach building their equipment in the future.

The change starts with a new device and an open-source project, which I am tentatively calling “AudioPiLe.”

This is a key element to understanding the anger among Sonos users at the company’s announcement last week about certain products being made obsolete. These are products that last a long time, and it’s only recently that speakers have become computerized, putting these lifespans in danger. I can’t imagine that the open-source idea that the author expresses here would be any more popular than, say, Linux on the desktop, but it makes a lot of sense.

Source: So long, Sonos: Meet the open-source audio system that will never die | ZDNet

Sonos will stop providing software updates for its oldest products in May – The Verge

In May, Sonos will stop providing software updates for its oldest products, and they’ll no longer receive any new features. The decision impacts “legacy” devices that are currently part of the company’s trade-up program, including all Sonos Zone Players, the Connect and Connect:Amp, the first-generation Play:5, the CR200 controller, and the Bridge.

“Without new software updates, access to services and overall functionality of your sound system will eventually be disrupted, particularly as partners evolve their technology,” Sonos warned in a blog post today. The company says customers can choose to either keep using these products after support ends — they should continue functioning in the near-term — or replace them with a modern Sonos product at a discount.

Platform obsolescence. While individual devices would continue to work even without software updates, the fact that they integrate into a platform makes this impossible.

I think Sonos is offering users a fair deal, with 30% discounts for upgrades. But it still feels wrong. You can use a 50-year old stereo receiver but you can no longer use something that’s just over 10 years old. (To be fair, though, the Play:5, which is the first speaker that is end of life, does have an aux in jack, so you can run audio from some other network bridge into it.)

Update: It’s worth noting that there is a lot of ire among Sonos users. I follow a Facebook group, and there are a lot of people who bought devices just a year ago that are affected. I also heard from someone on Twitter who had hard-wired a bunch of Sonos stuff in a house, juts five years ago, and it will all be affected. In that case, I update what I said just above; this isn’t a fair deal, this is a catalyst for a class-action lawsuit.

I wonder if this decision is simply because Sonos doesn’t want to do the necessary software development to keep older devices working, or if they can’t. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more about this soon. Sonos users tend to be quite vocal in their appreciation for the company, and that appreciation has quickly changed to anger.

Oh, while I’m at it, I have a bunch of Sonos stuff and I use it only with AirPlay, but the company still doesn’t support music libraries over 60,000 tracks (if you point the Sonos app at a folder containing your music files). Yet in practice, this number is much smaller. When I tried – about five years ago – it only managed to see about 40,000 tracks. This is because a lot of my music library is classical, and has a lot of metadata. The library size is limited by the amount of text that can be stored in a database, and with classical music, you can use fewer tracks because the metadata is often larger. Seriously.

Source: Sonos will stop providing software updates for its oldest products in May – The Verge

HomePod vs. Sonos One Stereo Pair Comparison

I’ve had a HomePod since it was first released in early 2018. It sounds okay, but there are a number of issues with it. As I said in my review, “sometimes this speaker sounds really great, sometimes it really doesn’t.” And the biggest problem for me was this:

What the HomePod needs, of course, is user access to settings like an equalizer, as you have in iTunes or on an iOS device. Not to the broader DSP algorithm, but to the tone sculpting that makes some music sound too bassy, or, at times, too trebly.

A few months later, I got a second HomePod to combine them into a stereo pair to use in my bedroom. Using two standalone speakers in a stereo pair is practical: you save the space you would need for an amplifier, and you don’t need to run speaker wire to them (you do need to plug both into AC power, of course).

In late 2018, I bought a Sonos One, which is similar in size to the HomePod, but is much less expensive. It turned out that the Sonos One sounded better overall than the HomePod.

So the next step was to buy a second Sonos One and set it up in a stereo pair. I did so recently, taking advantage of post-Christmas sales, and I purchased the less expensive Sonos One SL, which does not have a microphone so does not support Alexa or Google Assistant. I don’t use Alexa, nor do I use Siri on my HomePods, and if you have a stereo pair, you don’t need both Sonos Ones to have microphones anyway.

Note that a pair of HomePods costs $598, and a pair of Sonos One SLs costs $329.

So, it was time to set up the Sonos Ones in a stereo pair in my bedroom and compare them. I placed each one on the same shelf as a HomePod, a few inches away. In the Music app, I set the volume for each pair to approximately what was audibly the same level; the Sonos One is a bit louder, so I lowered its volume until it sounded about the same. (“Bedroom” below is the HomePod stereo pair.)

Bedroom

You can switch from one AirPlay device to another by tapping the AirPlay icon at the bottom of the Music window, and I switched back and forth, starting with my Kirk’s Audio Test Tracks playlist on Apple Music. This is a playlist of music that I am very familiar with, which I use when testing new audio equipment. (I listened to more than just what’s in the playlist, but I started with that.)

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Sonos Recycling Program Just Creates Waste

Trashing your old electronics is bad for the planet—a big reason why you might’ve noticed tech companies push sustainability programs in recent years. Sonos recently joined the recycle brigade in October, launching its Trade Up hardware upgrade program that gives users discounts if they “responsibly recycle older products.” It’s a good idea in theory. The problem is that to take part, users have to brick their speakers, rendering them useless for resale or refurbishment.

This is just stupid.

In reality, they’re not offering a discount for people who recycle products; they’re just offering a discount so people can get newer products, and so they can sell more. It’s a loyalty discount.

Earlier this year, I bought a new pair of speakers, and the manufacturer, KEF, had a promotion: you could trade in any old speakers to get a 20% discount. I had an old pair of speakers, worth much less than the 20% I could save. I bought them from a fairly large audio-video chain here in the UK, over the phone, and asked about how I send them my old speakers. The person told me they didn’t care; I could keep them. It was just a discount, nothing more. If I had brought them into one of their stores they would take them and recycle them, but I had the feeling that it was more of a bother to them than anything else.

If manufacturers want to discount their stuff, they should stop this pretend recycling, unless they can do it right. (Such as Apple does, for example.)

Source: Sonos Recycling Program Just Creates Waste

The Next Track, Episode #159 – Has Lossless and High-Resolution Audio Finally Come to the Masses?

Amazon announced a new lossless and high-resolution music streaming service. Has high-res music finally come to everyone? We talk with Chris Connaker, of Audiophile Style, to try to understand Amazon’s logic.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

The Problems with Apple’s HomePods

Apple released the HomePod in February, 2018, and the device has never seemed to catch on. There have been strong rumors recently about a HomePod 2 coming next year. But there are lots of problems with the HomePod, which Apple needs to address.

The HomePod is expensive. At $349, the price at launch, it was overpriced; at $299, its current price, it’s still not a good value. The HomePod costs $100 more than the Sonos One, which is a comparable, and some would say better speaker. (I think the Sonos One sounds better than the HomePod.) Apple was clearly targeting its core market, people willing to pay more for better products, but this isn’t a product that people are willing to pay more for, apparently.

The HomePod doesn’t have a clear use. Is it a Siri device, or is it speaker that provides “consistent high-definition sound?” If it’s the former, then Apple is trying to sell this to people who already have at least one Siri-capable device. If it’s the latter, well, Apple’s crack marketing team came out with lots of great adjectives, but the overall opinion among audiophiles is that it’s meh.

The HomePod doesn’t sound that good. Don’t get me wrong: it sounds fine, but not good enough. It’s better than pretty many Bluetooth speakers, but it doesn’t sound as good as it should for the price. It has a default sound signature that is very bass-heavy, which is not to everyone’s taste. And there are no EQ controls (as you have with Sonos speakers, for example), meaning that you need to adjust the sound on a device that you stream from, such as an iPhone. If you interact directly with the HomePod, then you can’t make any adjustments to the sound. And, one more issue with a stereo pair: you can’t adjust the balance. It’s not always easy to get two speakers positioned exactly where you want them so you are in the sweet spot. (To quote Chris Connaker, from his review on Audiophile Style: “Don’t fool yourself into thinking this is an audiophile product. It’s a me too voice control product that happens to play audio.”)

The HomePod’s fancy technology is wasted. Apple touts the HomePod’s ability to adapt to any location. “Equipped with spatial awareness, HomePod automatically tunes itself to give you optimal sound — wherever it’s placed.” This may be true, but it’s a mono speaker; the only adjustments it’s going to make are to the tone of the music, and, perhaps, to the output of the various tweeters (there are seven, in a circle). Apple has an animation on its website showing what the HomePod does, but what does this even mean? It’s a mono speaker.

Homepod

The HomePod is unreliable. To Apple’s credit, the HomePod can hear you say “Hey, Siri,” even with music playing loudly; that’s pretty impressive. But set up HomePods in a stereo pair and be prepared to reset them regularly. After a while, the stereo pair stops working, and music comes out if just one speaker. Sometimes you can simply split the stereo pair and re-create it, but I’ve had to fully reset my two HomePods several times. This could be the fault of the HomePod’s software, or of Apple’s Home app, but it’s not reliable.

The HomePod’s design is mistaken. Who am I to question Jony Ive, right? But think about it: a speaker is generally directional. You point it to where you want the music to be heard. There are exceptions, of course. You may want one in the middle of a room, in which case the HomePod’s seven tweeters in a circle around the base of the device make sense. Sort of. Because you don’t put tweeters at the base of a speaker; ideally, tweeters should be at the level of your ears, because high frequency waves are smaller. Try it at home. Sit next to your speakers, and then stand up; you’ll hear a drop in the high end. In my bedroom, where I have a stereo pair of HomePods, I had to put them on a higher shelf than I would have wanted so I can hear music correctly in bed.

Apple tried to do too much with the HomePod. The company was falling behind in the smart speaker market, but they should have realized that they already have that market cornered: just say “Hey, Siri” to your iPhone (or Apple Watch, or iPad, or Mac…) And while their adaptive audio technology is impressive, it fails by not allowing users to choose the type of sound they want. By prioritizing the bass-heavy sound of rap and hip-hop music – the genre they push most in Apple Music – they created speakers that many people find unpalatable.

And they forgot one thing that might have sold more HomePods: you can’t send audio from a Mac to a stereo pair of HomePods. You can send music from iTunes, but not system audio. So if someone wants to use a pair of HomePods on their desk, as computer speakers, they can’t. Here’s an image from Reddit, showing how it would look:

Imac homepod

There are two problems. The first is that this is only usable with iTunes; you can’t stream audio from, say, QuickTime Player if you want to watch a video, or from Safari if you’re watching or listening to something on YouTube. And see where the tweeters are, there at the bottom of the speakers? That will not sound good in this sort of setup.

Apple should have done the necessary to sell the HomePod as computer speakers, but the design is wrong; even with speaker stands, the tweeters at the bottom mean you would need very tall stands to balanced good sound from that distance.

In any case, the market decides for products like this. The HomePod just seems like it wasn’t thought out for real-world usage. It has powerful technology, which is wasted, and its price is way above what people want to pay.

Apple continues:

With two HomePod speakers set up as a stereo pair, this soundstage gets even wider, delivering room-filling sound that is more spacious than a traditional stereo pair from a speaker that’s just under 7-inches tall. Using spatial awareness to sense their location in the room, each HomePod automatically adjusts the audio to sound great wherever it is placed and sound great together, using an Apple-designed wireless peer-to-peer direct link to communicate with each other and play music completely in sync.

This suggests that the “spatial awareness” is used to control which tweeters send audio. The HomePod knows it’s, say, a foot from a wall, and can tell that the other HomePod is at a certain direction, allowing it to figure out which way is intended to be the front. This probably doesn’t work if you set two HomePods, say, at ends of a table in the center of a room.