I hope Pebble has a Plan B

First, Here is a look at one of these watches in action.

With the trio of Android Wear releases last week, and a looming Apple iWatch (or a hack/official version of the aforementioned to use iOS) I just can’t see the Pebble watch lasting another 6 months without a major upgrade in terms of capabilities.. I didn’t like the steel’s look and I must say the Moto360 looks great…

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Testing some medium-to-high-end headphones in San Francisco…

This week I spent some time in SF because of GoogleIO. I thought while I was here I would compare some of the higher end headphones on sale at retail outlets against my customs.

The idea here is that I just assume what I have is good, and unless I really audition a lot of good headphones/earbuds I may well not know what I may be missing. There are a lot of outlets in SF that have a wide range of ‘phones they’ll actually let you audition, including some in-ears.

All in all, I aimed for some of the more well-respected headphones and picked out a few high end ones which were available here to test:

Shure SE846 earbuds – ($999)

B&W C5s ($179)

B&W P5 ($299)

B&W P7 ($399)

Sennheiser Momentum ($349)

All the “Beats” at the Apple Store… ($199-$399)

Parrot Zik ($399)

(I must admit I avoided the Bose quiet comfort headphones.)

I still think that the B&W C5 is the best value for money at a fraction of the cost of some of the on- or over-ears, with what sounds to me like a much more linear frequency response across the board. The others either sounded like the bass was muddying the entire sound, or was not nearly “punchy” enough.

I expected the Shures to be a lot better than they are for the price, but I suspect a good seal was the issue here – though this brings up the question as to whether you can get a reliable seal with in-ears that are not custom….

Of the over ears, I think the Parrot Zik headphones actually did the best job of the sound signature I liked, though because of the bluetooth there is some clipping/static as they start playing. Not sure how they do on battery or for long periods.

That said, I really don’t know how the comfort of these headphones is longer term – I played the exact same track on all of them, and so only spent 3 or 4 minutes with each… comfort over longer periods I am sure is a big question.

All in all, this renews my faith that my JHAudio 13s are, by far, the best sounding headphones I have ever managed to listen to…

Ill have to find a high-end place to audition the likes of the Audeze LCD-3 or Sennheiser HD 800… each hundreds moe than the 13s, and not nearly as portable…

 

Why I am very happy Apple bought Beats

If you follow my posts and/or know me, you probably know that for the past five or so years I have been very interested in high-end mobile audio gear. I have posted a lot about In-Ear monitors here, and have gone so far as to set up a CEntrance HiFi-M8 wiki here.

IEMs are my preferred headphones, and the HiFi-M8 is a portable DAC/AMP for making the sound coming from an iOS device as good as it can be, before hitting the IEMS.

For some perspective, my mobile audio “rig” which I attach to my iPhone contains a pair of JH Audio 13 pro in-ear monitors ($1299 customized) and the Centrance HiFi-M8 ($699) if you don’t get them on special or second hand. I care about music quality.

My Rig

Neil Young introduced Pono a while back and ran a successful kickstarted to get his new baby off the ground. What it amounts to is a new device that does high quality (Hopefully close enough to the HiFi-M8) but also has storage on board. The pitch behind Pono was that it was new and revolutionary and would liberate music from it’s crappy, compressed format.

I think Neil has been clearly smoking too much still… his “revolutionary format” is FLAC, which has been around for years, and his “revolutionary player” has basically also available for years (dozens of hi-def DACs or even the Astrell and Kern series.)

This re-introduces yet another thing to carry around, which has no connectivity to recommendation engines, online services etc (which help me find more good music).

Smoking, I tell you…. smoking.

I have been lamenting the fact that Apple is still shipping their devices with not-quite-good-enough electronics and horrific, but better-than-any-other-in-the-box buds… if they would just make an audiophile version of an iPhone…. but that’ll never happen because its too narrow a market…

Then Apple announced the purchase of Beats and I was horrified. Everyone knows Beats are overpriced and mediocre at best… and now Apple has solidified the fact that they aim at worse-than-average!

But then last night I took the time to watch the entire Jimmy Iovine/Eddy Cue on Re/code interview. I must say I am excited about where Apple will be in 2-3 years.

Why I am jazzed:

  • Apple just spent a lot of money (3B) to improve Music on their platform. They’re serious.
  • They bought people with “Ears” who can listen critically and help Apple’s engineers make their hardware sound better.
  • They bought a discovery service run by true professionals -  people who know music.

So, for the vast majority of users out there this will hopefully lead in a year or three to a new line of Macs, iDevices and iTunes which will significantly improve the DACs etc, and provide a much better way to discover new music.

Apple is clearly looking to innovate around the Music experience. Good for us.

Pretty sure Iovine and his boys don’t listen on Beats…. and pretty sure they’ll push for the entire music delivery from encoding to sound-waves to suck a hell of a lot less… 3B less.

 

You can see my thoughts being picked apart by some Audiophiles here on Head-Fi.org… until the thread is moved ;-)

 

Withings finally ships my “pulse band”…

Behold, my original watch band idea I posted to Withings on Facebook Nov 8, 2013:

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 and their final product:

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Two ordered….

 

 

Finally! The near-perfect custom cable set for your custom in-ear monitors.

I own a set of JH Audio 13Pro custom in-ear monitors. These are high-end headphones which sound amazing and will set you back $1000 if you don’t get them on special ;-)

Over the course of owning these, I have come to realize just how much not only file quality (128k 256k 320k MP3 vs AAC etc) but also equipment and cable quality matter. I have honed my portable system to the point that I have a great sounding system – JHAs driven by a Centrance HiFi-M8 DAC, fed by my iPhone/iPad.

But…

If I want to be able to use my JHAs with an iPhone, and use volume controls and Mic for regular calls, then I have a big problem. The cables that are available to plug into an iPhone are bad. bad.

You may have seen an earlier post I made about trying to connect my JH Audio 13 Pro CIEMs to an iPhone cable successfully… The result of which is a cable that didn’t do particularly well either.

I had a few custom cables made by a guy in China, and those, too, were bad. I even went so far as to write an iOS App which would detect a proper Mic module on a cable, since three of his cables actually didn’t work with a Mic.

I also hacked a set of Ultimate Ear cables… which have reversed polarity, which butchers the sound stage…

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So it seems to me that the only way of getting the full quality from my setup is to have interchangeable cables. A set for when I want to listen to high fidelity music, and a set for when I am using a direct connect to my iPhone… sacrificing quality for a Mic control.

The snafu here is that to do this, I would have to plug/unplug the connectors that connect directly to the IEM. The connectors have two pins and stay put through basic friction… which means the more you plug/unplug them, the more they become loose. Im talking 5 or 6 plug/unplug cycles before a cable starts to literally wiggle itself loose.

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After a lot of custom cables, I finally found Moon-Audio. (Actually, I finally spent time to learn more about what they did instead of dismissing “high end cables” as voodoo and a way to extract money from me)

Moon Audio makes a Silver Dragon (and many other cables)  for various headphones, including JH IEMs. If you use one of these cables with your existing system, I have to say, that it sounds fantastic. It makes about as much difference as plugging in an external DAC like the Centrance HiFi-M8. Really.

What mae me order it, however, was  that these cables can be ordered with a Male miniXLR connector allowing you to switch out what you actually connect your headphones/monitors to. In my case I have a balanced RSA cable and a “regular” stereo minijack:

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First prototype interchangeable iPhone Cable:

Now the only thing I need is an “iPhone control” cable. What I did was to go out and buy the components I needed to mock one of these up. A female MiniXLR with 4 pins, an iPhone minijack (TRRS Minijack) and the old Mic remote pod I removed from the official JH Audio iPhone cable. (Yes, I have tried a LOT of iPhone cables)

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The result is a working prototype, shown above.

Next, I contacted Drew at Moon Audio to make me a proper one of these using the fantastic cable found in the Silver Dragons, with not only great components and construction (silver cables, silver solder, high-quality XLR etc etc) with no iPhone control actually connected, since they don’t usually do it.

The connections look like this under the hood:

InterconnectDiagram

I had to find an iPhone mic control to attach to the end. As it turns out a few of the vendors seem to use the same module. (Ultimte ears, Beats and a few others) The easiest way to source one of them is Amazon – search for a Beats replacement iPhone cable. It also does make a difference which pins are connected to which pins in the control, as there must be some diodes in there, so its important to use a multimeter to note what is what. Luckily the Beats control snaps off easily…

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Drew from Moon Audio made me my custom cable, and I soldered the iPhone control to it, and added a clip for the cable, resulting in a complete, high-quality iPhone cable:

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Impressions to follow….

IETF does not come to consensus on WebRTC MTI Codec

Well…. we had hoped there would be closure today, but alas, the big brains on the block did their best US-Politics impressions instead and managed not to come to consensus on which codec should be mandated to implement in WebRTC today.

Stay tuned for the next round…

Huge news in WebRTC/Video: Cisco open-sources, gives away free H.264

Cisco H.264 is open source and free

Just head of the November IETF meeting where the decision on which codec should be mandatory to implement in WebRTC, Cisco Systems’ Rowan Trollope has announced that Cisco will “provide an open source distribution of H.264 and do so while not passing on licensing costs to other parties” which opens up the ability for browser manufacturers to embed Cisco’s own H.264 code into their WebRTC browser stacks free of charge.

(There has been some work to show the true costs of H.264 licensing, and suffice to say, it has not been free up to this point. Estimates pin the cost to implement it in browsers for realtime communications at around $0.10 per browser. )

Cisco’s Michael Enescu, Cisco’s CTO of Open Source Initiatives actually let the ct out of the bag at 7am EST today, but few noticed.

What this means?

This essentially means that the way is cleared for the IETF to choose Cisco’s open source H.264 codec as “the standard” for HTML5 based native browser real time vide communications. The main pushback against choosing H.264 as the standard, and rather picking Google’s VP8 has come from those who have issues with licensing cost. Now a non-issue.

What this means for you is that the HTML5 real-time video codec likely to land in your favorite browser will be able to talk natively to the vast majority of other video, telepresence systems, surveillance systems and more in existence today, including those of Cisco… No plugins required.

What that means is that there is no longer an unfair advantage for thick apps like Skype. If Facebook.com or Salesforce.com can do as good a live real-time bi-directional video stream as Skype, why bother fire up Skype when all it has in addition is a contact list… whereas Facebook has your social graph and Salesforce has all your sales data?

In fairness, this still needs to be voted on by the IETF, which will likely happen by November 8th.

More background

WebRTC is a free, open project that enables web browsers with Real-Time Communications (RTC) capabilities via simple Javascript APIs. Take a look at a video diving into WebRTC here It is likely to be a huge disruptor in the communications industry.

The WebRTC standards are being driven at the IETF (protocol level) and W3C (javascript api level), and both these groups are open and encourage participation of all interested parties…

Currently there are two competing standards for the must implement video codec: H.264 and VP8

If H.264 is made mandatory:

  • Users of web browsers will be able to interoperate natively with existing h.264 capable devices’ video streams.
  • Hardware acceleration of H.264 in graphics chipsets can be leveraged to improve quality and battery life
  • Browser makers may need to secure H.264 licenses to implement the codec, but they would know they are legally compliant

The big news here is that the third bullet of this list is now gone and is not a factor, which is HUGE news. 

If only VP8 is mandatory:

  • WebRTC will not directly interoperate with just about any of the existing video clients and hardware that existing video providers and other telecomm companies make (which are based on H.264)
  • Transcoders will need to be deployed at cost and cause more complexity and hairpinning
  • Google is giving VP8 away for free to all including browser makaers
  • There are still some potential outstanding patent disputes (notably from Nokia) against VP8, leaving browser makers open to potential legal action

But which one is “better”?
This is the heart of the conversation. The proponents of VP8 claim better performance of up to 10%, whereas proponents of H.264 show better results in their tests. Baselines and compression parameters will be tweaked by both… but I think on average performance of both will ultimately be similar enough to make this a wash. Whats more material is interoperability and licensing.

See IETF draft proposing H.264 be mandatory       See IETF draft proposing VP8 be mandatory


It is in the best interest of almost every single existing video user out there that H.264 be a MTI codec in this standard. Google’s own webrtc.org site doesnt even mention it. (They are pushing VP8)

 

What about iOS support?

If you read the FAQ on the Cisco open264.org site you’ll notice that iOS is explicitly omitted since Apple does not allow code to be installed at runtime. A few have panicked at this, but its highly likely that if H.264 is standardized upon for WebRTC that Apple will simply use their existing H.264 libraries which are used in FaceTime and light up the functionality in Safari anyway. In fact its likely then that Safari will be the only .264 browser on iOS thats actually hardware accelerated (Apple does not allow any other companies access to H.264 hardware acceleration on the platforms)

 

Jonathan Rosenberg’s Email to the IETF WebRTC working group mailer:

I’d like to make an announcement material to the conversations around MTI video codecs in rtcweb.

Cisco is announcing today that we will take our H.264 implementation, and open source it under BSD license terms. Development and maintenance will be overseen by a board from industry and the open source community.  Furthermore, we will provide a binary form suitable for inclusion in applications across a number of different operating systems (Windows, MacOS, Linux x86, Linux ARM and Android ARM), and make this binary module available for download from the Internet. We will not pass on our MPEG-LA licensing costs for this module, and based on the current licensing environment, this will effectively make H.264 free for use on supported platforms.

We believe that this contribution to the community can help address the concerns many have raised around selection of H.264 as MTI. I firmly believe that with H.264 we can achieve maximal interoperability and now, do it with open source and for free (well, at least for others – its not free for Cisco J)

More information on the open source project can be found at http://www.openh264.org, which is sparse now but more coming soon.

Thx,

Jonathan R.

Jonathan Rosenberg, PhD

VP, CTO Collaboration

Cisco Systems

jdrosen@cisco.com

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