Oh, Bugger…

Victoria Wood has died. The news probably won’t mean much to most of you, but to me she was the laugh-out-loud, singing version of Alan Bennett. A brilliant writer and comedy performer. Beat me on the bottom with a Woman’s Weekly

Posted in Entertainment, Performing Arts, Television | Leave a comment

Media in the Home–The State of Play

I’ve written a couple of posts over the past six weeks about Hi-Fi and Home Cinema, and I thought it would be useful to document the current state of play here in the Witte Wand.

Six weeks ago, I was at the point where I had come to the conclusion that Microsoft has lost the plot when it comes to integrating Hi-Fi systems into the Windows ecosystem. I was still trying to decide between Plex and Emby as the basis for an all-in-one media handling system, and I had just come across the Roon music system.

Part of the problem is that trying to base Hi-Fi audio streaming on the open protocol UPnP or Apple’s proprietary AirPlay protocol is an exercise ultimately doomed to failure. Some of the reasons why this is so are documented in this thread on the Roon Community forum.

In addition, it is clear that handling music is not the focus of either Plex or Emby – their prime objective is on handling visual media: movies and TV.

With this in mind, I decided that the way forward was to use Roon as the basis for managing and playing music to Hi-Fi quality in the house, and select between either Plex or Emby as the basis for our Home Cinema.

Music

To my mind, Roon has two key strengths. The first is that the user experience is the best of all the music systems that I’ve ever tried. The second is its underlying audio streaming protocol, RAAT (Roon Advanced Audio Transport), which is far in advance of anything else out there for handling Hi-Fi quality streaming audio that I know of. RAAT is being adopted by audio hardware manufacturers into so-called “RoonReady” devices.

PI-DACSo I’ve put together a Raspberry Pi 3 with an IQaudIO Pi-DAC+ running the IQaudIO RoonReady software into a neat little enclosure from IQaudIO, and used it to connect Roon to my Quad 44 pre-amp. For a tad over €100, I’ve got an audiophile-quality network-connected DAC (Digital-to-Analogue Converter) delivering audio streams to my Hi-Fi system.

hifiberryI also wanted to connect Roon to the Denon AVR-3808 used in our home cinema system. This time, because the Denon has its own internal DAC, I wanted to feed the digital audio stream straight into one of the Denon’s coaxial digital inputs. So I assembled a Raspberry Pi 2 with a HiFiBerry Digi+ card into a HiFiBerry enclosure to give me a network-connected S/PDIF device; total cost: €83.

At the original time of writing this post, HiFiBerry didn’t have RoonReady software available, so originally I installed the open-source PiCorePlayer software onto the Raspberry Pi. Roon supports Squeezebox devices, so that both the Quad and the Denon systems were recognised as Roon endpoints in the network.

Roon 49

(note: the IQaudIO device is showing as “uncertified” because Roon haven’t released a Roon build since the device was approved in-house. Roon build 1.2 is expected in a few weeks, and then this warning will go away)

Addendum 19 April 2016: In mid-April, Roon Labs released version 1.2 of Roon. As part of the release, they introduced Roon Bridge – a software package that (according to Roon Labs):

…extends Roon’s audio playback capabilities to other devices or computers in your home.

After installing RoonBridge on a device, any audio hardware attached to that device is made available to your Roon install exactly as if Roon had direct access to to the audio hardware.

This enables you to place audio outputs anywhere in your home where you can connect an Ethernet cable or muster a decent WiFi signal, and makes it that much easier to separate the media server from your listening environment.

So then what I did was to install Raspbian on the Raspberry Pi with the HiFiBerry hardware, and download and install Roon Bridge onto it.

Now both the Raspberry Pi devices are recognised as true Roon endpoints, and I don’t need Squeezebox emulation any more.

Roon 62

Movies and TV

As I said at the outset, the choice for handling our movie and TV collections was between Plex and Emby. I’ve decided to go for Emby for the following, completely personal, reasons:

  • Even though the new generation of Home Theatre clients of both Plex and Emby are still in beta, that of Emby is already more mature and appears to be evolving faster. The Plex client is still very crude, and Plex’s UI Experience team are still sitting on the pot wondering what to do as far as I can see.
  • Emby has explicitly stated that their Home Theatre client is designed to be controlled by a simple six-button remote from the ground up. Plex has gone the mouse/keyboard route, with support of a remote seemingly added on as an afterthought (it didn’t work at all in early betas). Since I want to carry on using my trusty MCE Remote, the point is awarded to Emby. 

Unfortunately, neither Emby nor Plex have a clue when it comes to supporting and displaying photo collections. The photo library functions in both is embarrassingly bad. This is particularly surprising given that one of the founders of Plex is a keen photographer. It may well be that Plex will buck their ideas up and deliver a more rounded product in the future. If so, I’ll revisit my current decision at that time. Until then, my money has gone to support Emby for at least the following year.

Addendum 19 April 2016: Sigh, one of the dangers of using beta software is that things can break very easily. And so it has turned out with Emby. No sooner had I decided to go with Emby when versions of the server and the Home Theater client were released that didn’t work very well together, and which broke the Emby Windows app client as well. So I’ve gone back to Plex. Their server has been pretty solid over the last year or two whilst being upgraded, and the Plex Home Theater client is just about good enough to use.

The Music and Home Cinema Setup

As a result of all of the above, our current home network now looks like this:

Network Layout

All our media is held on the central server (with off-site backup), and can be viewed/played on any of the attached PCs/laptops/tablets. In addition the Home Cinema system can handle both visual and music media, whilst the Quad system delivers the best Hi-Fi musical experience.

Posted in Computers and Internet, Consumer Electronics, Entertainment, Music | 2 Comments

Losers

Nicholas Whyte, who lives and works in Brussels, gives his reaction to the terrorist attacks in Brussels yesterday. Go and read it – it’s worth it. A sample:

As with any awful event, there’s a temptation to grasp for easy explanations. I will give in to that temptation. It seems to my jaundiced eye that, dreadful as they were, yesterday’s attacks were botched. Maelbeek is actually the wrong metro station to attack – both Schuman, the stop before, and Arts-Loi, the stop after, would surely be much more attractive targets, being much busier intersections on the network (and also both recently renovated as prestige architectural projects). Only two of three planned explosions in the airport happened, the third attacker apparently losing his nerve and running away. To adopt a Trump-ism, these guys were losers.

This happened because they are losing. Less than a week ago, a major figure in the terror movement was arrested in Brussels; perhaps yesterday was revenge for his arrest, perhaps it was rushed into because they were afraid he would start talking (or knew that he already had). On the ground, their allies and sponsors are losing territory and resources in Syria and Iraq. I wrote a week ago about violence as story-telling, in the Irish context. This is an attempt to write a story about the weakness of our interconnected world, attacking places where people travel and meet, where many nationalities and cultures join together and build together.

It is a narrative that must not and will not win.

Amen to that.

Posted in News and politics, Society | Leave a comment

Nice Idea – Bad Execution

Microsoft announced the first version of their Microsoft Band – a combination of fitness device and smartwatch – back in October 2014. As a first iteration, it had a number of issues; for one thing, it was uncomfortable to wear.

Fast forward to October 2015, and Microsoft announced the second generation: the Microsoft Band 2. The design appeared to be much improved, so much so that I decided I would treat myself to one for Christmas. I bought it from Amazon UK, since Microsoft do not sell it in the Netherlands.

Since then I’ve been wearing it for 22 hours each day (it monitors my sleep patterns as well as monitoring my activities during my waking hours). I like it a lot. As well as tracking my workouts in the gym, it monitors my walking and biking activities, and will alert me to incoming emails, as well as acting as my wristwatch/stopwatch/timer. All the activity results are also uploaded into the Microsoft Health web site, where I can track progress (or otherwise) over time.

So the idea is brilliant, but, 3 months on, I became aware today of a fatal flaw in the design. I noticed that the rubber strap is developing a split about 1.5cms away from the display. There’s an internal metal lug extending from the display into the rubber band, and the split is developing where the end of the lug is.

20160320-1454-13

Researching online reveals that this is a common issue. Many people are experiencing the same thing. And Microsoft often seems to refuse replacement of the Band under warranty. They don’t accept it is a design issue.

I’ve sent an email into Amazon UK asking if they will replace what in my view is a clearly defective product, but I don’t hold out much hope. Black gaffer tape, here I come…

Once again Microsoft overpromises and under-delivers…

Addendum 21 March 2016: Well, I’m pleasantly surprised. Amazon responded to my email in less than 24 hours, and confirmed that if I return the Band, they will give me a refund.

I had said in my email that I have the Medium size band, and the Band is at its tightest position for a comfortable fit on my wrist. It seems to me that this might be the design flaw – perhaps the Small size band would not put the same stress on the rubber strap. The Amazon representative (Andrew) picked up on this, and arranged for a refund, rather than a replacement, and suggested that I order a Small size Band. So I’ve ordered this in the expectation that the refund will come through as promised.

Addendum 2, 31 March 2016: Well, Amazon has delivered on their promise. I’ve just had an email informing me that a full refund has been credited to my card account. I had rather expected the “trying to get blood out of a stone” treatment that is so prevalent these days, but contacts with Amazon customer service (in my case) have been speedy, polite, and delivered results. My flabber has been gasted.

Posted in Consumer Electronics | 1 Comment

“It’s Easier To Use…”

…oh, really?

Yes folks, once again I’m referring to the good people at Microsoft, in particular the team behind OneDrive. They’ve just announced “A simpler sharing experience at OneDrive.com”. According to them:

The new experience is, in a word, simple. We show the two most popular options for sharing right up front with big blue buttons that are easy to see and easy to hit. We use terms that are understandable to a wider range of users. We optimized for the common cases and present the rarely used options in less distracting ways. Basically, it’s not as messy.

What they didn’t say is that they have removed one option: the ability to shorten a link from two lines of gobbledygook down to a simple string of 7 or 8 characters. This was perfect for those people who needed to include links in printed documents.

Now they have to rely on people being able to type, without errors, something like https: //onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=6AA39937A982345B!10782&authkey=!AMBcijD6MBaGeF0&v=3&ithint=photo%2cjpg. Many email clients will also break these long links by splitting them over two lines so that they won’t work when clicked on.

Needless to say, there’s been a storm of protest about this removal. So much so that Microsoft has (I suspect rather shamefacedly) now added an update to the post:

We’re working on a new approach to shortening the sharing links that will better enhance our users’ experience. Unfortunately, we had to remove the current experience in preparation for the new one. We always keep the best interest of our users in mind so we appreciate your patience as we work this out. We expect to have it ready soon.

What is even more astounding is that Microsoft apparently tested this new experience on “28,000 real-world users”. One might wonder why on earth none of the 28,000 users picked up on this removal of a very convenient feature (or perhaps Microsoft didn’t bother to ask them about it). One might also wonder why Microsoft didn’t get the new approach to short links ready before rolling out the complete new experience to the world, but I suppose we should never underestimate Microsoft’s unerring ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Posted in Computers and Internet | 1 Comment

The Pursuit of Excellence or Excess?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my adventures in the world of Hi-Fi. With the discovery of Roon, I’ve rekindled my quest to listen to music, rather than have it as background noise. It’s also had the side effect of making me take a look at my current Hi-Fi equipment and wondering whether I should upgrade or tweak it.

Ever since I started my journey into the lands of Hi-Fi, back in 1968, I’ve been aware that there were esoteric areas, complete with warring tribes, contained within. Now, revisiting the subject some fifty years later, it seems that Hi-Fi has got more complex, rather than completely mapped out.

There are many more companies involved in the field now. When I started there were a few well-known names, now there are seemingly thousands that I’ve never heard of. The choice is overwhelming. I’m finding it very difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. Some decisions are easily made; for example, I don’t see myself plonking down £44,000 for an amplifier (the Dan D’Agostino Momentum Integrated Amplifier). Even if I had that sort of money lying around, I would be thinking twice or three times about it. And then there are the products which, to my mind, seem more associated with snake oil than science.

Connecting cables is the big area here. Some of the claims made for expensive cables seem, shall we say, somewhat over the top? But then, if you are going to pay $22,000 for a cable to connect one piece of equipment to another (the Skogrand Beethoven cable), you have to believe that it makes a difference. This reviewer (and his cat) clearly did, but me? I doubt it very much. I’d be asking for the guaranteed blind testing of all such claims, and even then I’d probably suck my teeth and say “thanks, but no thanks”.

As someone once said: ‘Although it is fully understood scientifically, the phenomenon of “gullibility” has been experienced by many audiophiles’.

With all this in mind, I looked at my current Quad 44 preamp + Quad 405 amp + Quad ESL 57 speakers, and wondered: upgrade or tweak?

My first port of call was Quad themselves. I see that they have introduced a new preamp/amp combo for the digital age: the Quad Artera. The product web page rather jarringly still gushes that it’s “coming soon for 2015” [since corrected, after I sent them an email to point it out]. That aside, it certainly looks good, and has very good specs. I took a look at the manual and noticed something missing: unlike the Quad 44 preamp, the Artera Play has no switched mains outlets. Those of us who use mains-powered loudspeakers (e.g. the Quad ESLs) like the convenience of being able to switch on the preamp, and everything else in the system gets powered up. Likewise for switching off. That convenience is gone with the Artera – it seems a step backwards to me, and something that seems to have been overlooked in the design. I wonder why?

I think at this stage, I’m leaning towards a tweak of my existing setup. Although I’ve now got the Quad system hooked into our HTPC so that I can play music from our music server through it, I think that I can improve the sound quality further. This coming week I hope to get a Pi-DAC+ from IQaudIO, and then I can re-use my spare Raspberry Pi 2 to build a Roon endpoint. I’ve run an ethernet cable into the cabinet housing the Quad system, and then I can connect the RPi2 + Pi-DAC+ (housed in a neat little box) up to the Quad 44. An upgrade that hasn’t cost an arm and a leg.

Addendum 1st March 2016: I emailed Quad to ask about the missing mains outlets, and got back the following from the Service Manager:

The Artera uses true standby function is this is why we did not place a mains outlet socket on either unit.  The mains outlet sockets on the 44 pre-amp were for other Quad units and not really designed for ESL’s switching on and off.

They may not have been really designed for that purpose, but I’d be prepared to bet that the majority of ESL owners used them that way…

Posted in Computers and Internet, Consumer Electronics, Music | 7 Comments

Google Pulls the Plug on Picasa

I see that Google has announced that it’s pulling the plug on its Picasa product; both the online service and the Windows application.

Frankly, I could care less about the online service, but I’m sorry to see that Google will no longer be supporting or developing the Picasa application for Windows. For a while, it was pretty good, supporting photo metadata standards more than many products on the market. Yes, there were issues with it, and bugfixes seemed to take forever to come through (if at all), but for many folks it was good enough.

I suppose we now know why those fixes were slow in coming, it seems obvious in hindsight that Google has had Picasa on the back burner for a while now. I note that the last major release was version 3.9, back in December 2011.

The nearest free equivalent to Picasa that I’ve seen is Microsoft’s Windows Photo Gallery, but I suspect that Picasa users jumping ship to that product will merely be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. The last major update to Photo Gallery was in 2012, and since then there has been deathly silence. I think that Microsoft has probably got Photo Gallery on the life-support machine, and their hands are hovering very close to the “off” switch.

As for me, I shall carry on quite happily using Idimager’s Photo Supreme to do my metadata management, and Adobe Lightroom for digital development and retouching.

Posted in Computers and Internet, Photography | 10 Comments