Hi-resolution audio is here at last!

If you are an audiophile or music enthusiast, you “listen” to the music while others merely “hear” it. That means your aural senses are tuned to carefully discern between the ordinary and high resolution audio. While listening to a track on a music system, you’re likely to notice that the deep bass notes or the crisp highs are missing. And like me, you’ll invest in a lot of audio gear before being truly satisfied.

While there has been a lot of progress in display technology with HDTV, Ultra HD and now 4K technologies, I haven’t seen much happening on the audio front. What we have witnessed rather, is the integration of PC connectivity (wired and wireless) technologies with audio receivers — HDMI, USB, BlueTooth and Wi-Fi connectivity is now built into Pioneer, Harmon and Onkyo receivers, for instance. Even car audio systems have evolved a lot, and now include all these connectivity options, plus larger LCD screens.

But the hard disk component was always missing, or was rare in home audio systems. We also had to contend with hooking up our laptops and phones to home audio receivers via the headphone jack — or buy expensive media streamers that accommodated hard disks. You couldn’t plug your hard disk into older DVD players with USB ports because those ports didn’t supply power.

And we music enthusiasts were never happy listening to compressed MP3 songs — the fidelity was always missing, even at higher bit rates.

Sony introduces hi-resolution

500GB Hi-Res Music Player System

500GB Hi-Res Music Player System

So I was pleased to discover that Sony has launched hi-resolution audio.

The product range includes HDD audio player systems (with in-built receiver), USB DAC amplifier, receivers, hi-res speakers and premium speakers.

These products are also tied to online services such as HDtrack.com, ProStudio Masters, Super HiRez, Blue Coat Records, iTrax, and Native DSD Music. More on these later. First let’s try to understand the new format and then take a closer look at Sony’s products.

Hi-res format

The big claim is that the audio quality offered by hi-res audio surpasses CD or MP3. I cannot confirm that at this moment, as I am yet to review these systems. From what I’ve read so far, the new format is  “lossless digital”, meaning you’ll hear something that’s very close to the original; it would be like actually sitting in a recording studio or in a concert hall, watching a live performance. Back in 1982, they said the same thing for CDs too, but then audiophiles discovered that something was missing, and went back to vinyl.

There are various lossless formats and you would have heard about FLAC and Wave. But there are others like AFLAC, AIFF, DSD (DFF) and DSD (DSF).

The  new Sony systems are based on the DSD (Direct Stream Digital), a 1-bit professional format. DSD (DFF) is used in studios for recording and mastering super audio CDs. The DSD (DSF) format is the PC version that’s used to burn files on DVDs. I am betting that by next year, we will see the proliferation of this standard on PCs, and online music stores like iTunes will also offer music in this format (though it might take a bit longer with Apple).


Sony Hi-Res Speakers

Sony Hi-Res Speakers

Now let’s take a tour of the various hi-res products on offer from Sony. You will soon see similar stuff from the likes of Pioneer, Panasonic, Toshiba, Harmon, Denon and others.

Sony’s new hi-res audio products include HDD Audio Player Systems, USB DAC Amplifiers, Receivers, hi-resolution speakers and premium headphones.

If you’ve read this far in my post, you are surely keen to know more about the Sony Hi-Res Audio products.  Here’s the official website.

Go get ’em!



A tribute to Dr. Bose

Dr. Amar G. Bose, the founder of Bose Corporation passed away last week at the age of 83 years. And here is a tribute to the man who will be fondly remembered as an inventor and teacher.

imagesBose is indeed one of the most respected audio brands in the world; you will observe the iconic Bose speaker at airports, stadiums, malls, hotels, convention centers, and numerous institutions around the world. Bose is a name that every self-respecting home audio enthusiast would like to associate with. In my college years, I dreamt of owning a pair of Bose speakers; since I couldn’t afford these, I’d put Bose stickers on my home made units! Bose systems were expensive and exclusively for the affluent or the professional. And understandably so. Dr. Amar Bose was spending millions on research, and much of it was self-funded (till today, the company staunchly refuses to go public). However, much has changed in recent years — Bose music systems and headphones are more affordable than ever, and within reach of every consumer. You could get a pair of Bose noise cancelling headphones in India for as little as Rs 8,000 (plus taxes), and a Bose music system with an built-in iPod dock for Rs 15,000 (plus taxes). That’s considerably low compared to the earlier Bose 901 series, which today sells on eBay for $1,398 a pair.

Applying scientific principles and investing heavily in research along the years, Bose proved that “big sound” need not necessarily come from “big systems”. Bose sold the popular 901 Series direct reflecting speakers in the early seventies. These speakers had multiple drivers (cones) facing in all directions. Another model (the 2201) had 22 small mid-range omni-directional drivers. Some drivers were carefully mounted to face backwards, to throw the sound back into the wall — so that sound was reflected of wall surfaces and projected forward. With this direct reflecting technique you could get big sound, even in a small room! No speaker manufacturer had tried this before.

The Bose Wave Systems were hugely popular in the 80s and 90s. The unit offered big sound from a small package and was far more than a bedside clock-radio set. If you were to rip open one of these units you’d see a maze of air-filled pipes that essential magnify the sound. Bose Wave Systems are still sold today and have a CD player or a multiple CD changer unit.

And who can forget the Bose AcoustiMass speakers that brought home theatre sound into the home. With a compact bass module that could be hidden away, and a set of small cube or satellite speakers, Bose again proved that big sound can also come from small packages.

Later Bose came out with portable music systems such as the L1 that was popular with DJs. And today we have Bose SoundLink, Bluetooth enabled speakers and the Bose SoundDock for consumers.

Bose also made pioneering technology for car stereos. Some may recall the launch of a Bose stereo system at the 2007 auto show in Geneva. The new Bose system offered stereo sound, navigation and hands-free calling. And this system later won a Telematics Award for the “Best Storage Solution for In-Car Environment. This equipment is standard on premium automobile brands and models.

Active noise cancelling headphones are now popular with air travelers. Many commercial airlines provide Bose headsets in business class. But these special headsets were first used by airplane pilots, space shuttle pilots and the military. The battery powered headsets generate a signal that is a mirror image of the ambient noise — think of it as a counter signal to neutralize the effect of outside sounds. So the listener hears only the music or just silence.

But Dr. Bose also wanted to apply his knowledge to other areas, besides sound. For instance, the automotive division at Bose Corporation used scientific principles to create a Suspension System for automobiles. You can see a demo of this system on YouTube.

Dr. Bose was not just an inventor. He has long been associated with the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), where he has been teaching for the past 45 years. Many of his students swear that Dr. Bose was one of the best teachers they ever had.

And you may have read in recent news reports that Dr. Bose donated a majority of the company’s non-voting shares to MIT.

The world will remember Dr. Amar G. Bose as an inventor who created high quality solutions that let us fully appreciated our music or sound. In that sense, Dr. Bose created something special for us, much like famous inventors and scientists such as Thomas Edison, Wright Brothers, James Watt and Graham Bell.

Thank you Dr. Bose.

Record phone conversations


As a journalist I frequently engage in telephonic interviews with industry executives, some in countries as far away as the US  and Australia. They either dial me or I need to dial in to a pre-arranged conference call session. Call bridge details such as toll-free numbers, pass codes and the call time (local) are sent to me in advance. These discussions are usually technical in nature so I often record such calls using my cell phone or a tape recorder. I am sure you will need to do the same and I offer some options in this article.

Firstly, let me tackle the legalities. Is it illegal to record a phone conversation without the other party’s consent? I might as well ask: Is it illegal to shoot candid photos of people on the street without their consent? While I am unaware of any Indian law that forbids one to do so (photos, video or audio recording), I think this is really a matter of ethics and privacy. It’s better to inform the other party in advance that you will be recording the conversation. Take their consent and offer them the option to make comments “off the record”.  Well, you could record on the sly, but if the other party becomes aware, they are likely to protest angrily and terminate the call. Phones like the Nokia E-series beep every 20 seconds when you use the default sound recorder, so the other party knows that the call is being recorded. Of course, there’s a way round this, but more on this later.

Now, on to the options and the “how-to” instructions. The simplest way to record a phone conversation is to use a speaker phone. Place your sound recording device (dictaphone) near the phone’s speaker. If the recording device is a digital dictaphone or a mobile phone, do not place it too near the phone’s speaker, as it might cause some electro-magnetic disturbance (remember how that screen image on your old analog monitor danced wildly when your ringing cell phone was placed too near?)

A Telephone Adaptor

A Telephone Adaptor

The second method is to use a telephone recording adaptor. This useful accessory is included in some digital recorder kits (insist on it). It can also be bought from a shop on Mumbai’s Lamington Road or equivalent. It’s a small device with an RJ-11 telephone plug at one end, one or two telephone sockets at the other end and a cable with a 3.5 mm headphone plug. Unplug the telephone from its wall socket and plug it into the telephone adaptor. The plug on the telephone adaptor goes into the wall socket and the headphone plug from the device goes into the ‘Mic’ or ‘Line-in’ socket in your recording device. When the phone rings, lift up the receiver and press the ‘Record’ button on the recorder.

The third option is the sound recorder in your mobile phone. But there is a problem. Some phones beep every 20 seconds while recording and that can be annoying. The way round this is third-part software like Total Recall recorder from Killer Software. Download and install on your phone. No more beeps.

Finally, a word about sound file formats and transcribing. While the Nokia phones record in the common Wav/wave format (playable in Windows Media Player) Sony Ericsson phones record in the proprietary AMR (Adaptive Multi-rate) format. So after you transfer the sound files to the PC you will need to encode these to MP3 or Wav formats that are recognized by your audio player software. This file conversion can be done using the encoder in your CD burning software (Nero) or with some third-party shareware such as QuickMediaConverter. You could also download an AMR player and play the files (natively) without the need to encode to MP3.

Lastly, a word about transcribing. This is the most difficult part!

It can take as much as 2 – 3 hours to transcribe a one-hour interview, word-to-word. Tip: Listen to the full recording once (make notes) and keep an eye on the stop watch or counter in the media player. Note down the time for certain segments in the conversation that you’d like to transcribe. It’s like watching the time counter on a DVD player and noting down the reading for certain scenes so that you’d like to recall later.

It would certainly help to jot notes during the phone conversation. Note down key terms and phrases, just in case these aren’t discernable from the audio track while transcribing.

And, do start transcribing immediately after the phone interview (while it’s all fresh in your human memory).

Luckily my Mom did not have to go through all this at work. She took the easier way out and learned Pitman shorthand!

Low-cost iPod docks?

I am on the look out for a low-cost iPod dock to hook up my Nano to the home entertainment system in the living room. There are some fancy docks that double up as alarm clock radios or portable stereos, but I prefer something simple. Onkyo for instance, offers a simple dock to connect iPod to its receivers. Just a simple base unit with RCA/Phono connectors (and possibly a built-in charger).
Low-cost iPod chargers (for A/C mains) are available in retail outlets, so I don’t see why they can’t make a low-cost dock.
I continue to search and will keep you posted.
—Brian Pereira

Noise canceling headphones become affordable

Noise canceling headphones can block out more than 80 percent of ambient noise, so that you hear just the music. These are great for listening to music on airplanes, buses, trains or trams. Bose and Sennheiser make some great NC headphones but at Rs 15,000 or more these products were beyond reach for most of us.

But that’s set to change.

Yesterday I was pleasantly surprised to find a Philips active noise canceling headphone at the eZone retail store in Mumbai. I am referring to the Philips SHN 9500/00 and it costs just Rs 6,000.

Philips SHN 9500/00

Philips SHN 9500/00

Last month I received a press release from Sony announcing the launch of its low-cost NC headphone. The Sony MDR-NC7 costs Rs 4,490. The technology site Tech2.com has reviewed this product.

Other headphones in this category: Creative Aurvana X-Fi and Logitech PN 980409-091.

What’s next? Well, I am hoping that manufactureres of value-based products, notably iBall and Intex latch on to this trend and offer NC headphones at even lower prices.

If you find these prices too high then settle for in-ear, noise isolation (passive noise canceling) ear buds. Personally I detest these as they are uncomfortable and I am wary about having voice coils hammering so near my precious ear drums.

Tip: When buying NC headphones ensure that the set you choose is foldable and comes with a nice carrying case. Also ask where the battery is stored (external unit?).