Category Archives: audio

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Review: Eminent EM7195 HD media player

The EM7195 is an HD media player from the Dutch company Eminent.

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But what is an HD Media Player? In this case, it is a box that connects to your TV and home network. It is a self-contained media center whose functions include:

  • Play and record free-to-view digital broadcasts and pause live TV
  • Play a wide range of video and audio media from an internal or external hard drive or over the network
  • View images from attached devices or from the card reader
  • Play YouTube videos or other internet media from sites including Flickr, Picassa and blip.tv
  • Download files from internet newsgroups and BitTorrent sites

The EM7195 supports 1080p video output, hence the “HD” designation. It has a twin DVB-T tuner, so you can play one channel and record another simultaneously. This works with Freeview in the UK, but note that Freeview HD, which is gradually being rolled out, requires DVB-T2 so is not compatible with the EM7195.

Eminent says the EM7195 is based on the “next-generation RT1183DD+ processor.” I presume this is the RTD1183 which is not currently listed on the Realtek site though as this post observes it is referenced on the DivX site as being certified in May 2009, making “next-generation” a stretch, especially as players with the latest RTD1185 chipset are already appearing from other manufacturers.

Note that the review unit was supplied with a 3.5″ 1TB SATA internal hard drive; however this is optional though recommended. Currently a 1TB drive costs from around £45.00.

Unpacking and setting up

Opening the packaging reveals a black box along with a remote and a substantial collection of cables.

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The unit feels well made and is backed by a five year warranty. It has a small fan but this is quiet and I did not find it audible in normal use. The hard drive is fitted by opening a flap in the side, and slots in without screws. Cables supplied include HDMI, optical SPDIF, USB 3.0 and SATA. There is also an internal antenna though unless you happen to have a particularly strong TV signal I doubt you would want to use it. Batteries for the backlit remote are included.

For the test I connected an external antenna. I connected the EM7195 to an HD TV with the HDMI cable. I connected a surround sound home theatre receiver with the optical cable. I also connected it to my network using a wired connection. If you want to use wifi, you need an optional USB wifi adapter. Eminent’s EM4576 is recommended; I do not know if other brands might also work. This is the back of the unit:

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Note that it has one USB 3.0 port and two USB 2.0 ports on the back. There is also a card reader slot and a further USB 2.0 port on the side. The ethernet port is only 100Mb, presumably because of the older Realtek chipset.

In order to complete the setup, I went into setup to scan for TV channels. This was successful and enabled an EPG (Electronic Program Guide) from which I could browse channels and schedule recordings.

I also set up an UPNP server on my network, and ripped some DVDs, in order to test some of the other features. More on this below.

The software

Ah, the software. I am not sure exactly what the Eminent runs, but I would bet that it runs on Linux and that it was not developed entirely by Eminent. A clue is it includes a primitive web browser with a “web portal” menu option that directs you to a Chinese site. Overall the software is functional but rough and ready compared to what you may be used to from Apple, Sony or Microsoft.

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The main screen is a menu with options for Movies, Music, Photo, TV, Internet, Document and Setup. There is an option to have the EM7195 start up with this menu, or go straight into TV mode. You can decorate the menu background by applying a theme, but the ones supplied soon gave me a headache so I reverted to plain black.

Navigating the menus is mostly straightforward, though it can be tedious. The EM7195 does not seem to do any indexing of the content, so you have to navigate to it. For example, if you go to Movies, you can choose HDD, then the folder or subfolder you want, then select the video file you want to play.

A strong point of the EM7195 is its support for a wide range of formats. Supported video formats include AVCHD, H.264, VC-1, MPEG 1-4, TS, ISO and MOV. Supported audio formats include AAC, PCM, DTS and Ogg Vorbis.

If you are on a Windows network, you can use SAMBA, a Linux utility that lets you use Windows networking protocols with Linux. This works both to and from the EM7195, so you can play files that are on shared network folders, and also use the EM7195 as a NAS (Network Attached Storage) drive for your PCs. This is also useful if you want to copy a DVD you have ripped on a PC. That said, the fastest way to copy files is over USB 3.0, if you have a PC equipped with a USB 3.0 port.

Some of the menu options are perplexing. If you select DVD on the Movie menu, for example, the unit just declares “No loader,” presumably because there is no physical DVD drive present. The software is not fully documented by the supplied manual, though most of it is self-explanatory, especially if you are used to playing with Linux and media center software.

Eminent has announced a new user interface for its software which looks more attractive, though whether it is really easier and quicker to navigate is an open question. This will be made available as a free update.

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Performance

The picture quality of digital TV is good but slightly over-saturated; I suspect this can be fixed by tweaking settings on the TV, or on the EM7195, or both. I scheduled a TV recording to the hard drive and this worked well.

I have a substantial collection of FLAC files, ripped from CD, which I normally play using a Squeezebox. I could play these by navigated to them over the network, but for easier access I downloaded Asset UPnP from the excellent illustrate site, and ran this on a PC to publish the FLAC collection. You can also use Windows Media Player as a UPnP server, but this does not work with FLAC.

I tried the EM7195’s Internet Media support, with mixed results. It has an application for playing YouTube videos. You can search YouTube, then select a result with the remote and click OK to play. However, not all videos would play, and those that did not play showed no error, just did nothing. Performance was fine on the the ones that did play OK.

I ripped some DVDs in various formats. The easiest approach is to create an ISO image from a DVD; these play fine on the EM7195. They tend to be large files, but with a 1TB drive there is plenty of room. One annoyance is that to get surround sound you have to set the audio output to RAW (pass-through), which means that the EM7195 volume control does not work. I then found that YouTube was silent and had to set the audio output back to LPCM.

I have some audio files in high-res formats, in other words more than the 16 bit / 44 Khz of standard CD. These played fine, but were downsampled to 16-bit, even when played directly from the EM7195 hard drive. I could get the EM7195 to output 16/48 but that was the maximum. I regard this as a minor point, but if you are an audio enthusiast who wants to play high res files at the maximum resolution, this is probably not the unit for you.

Ripping DVD and Blu-Ray discs

One of the attractions of the EM7195 is that you can potentially put all your DVDs in a box out of the way, and play them from the internal hard drive.

The complication is that to do this you have to rip them. DVD ripping software is a jungle, mainly because most commercial discs are encrypted, and although it is well know how to decrypt them, it may not be legal. Essentially you can choose from a plethora of open source tools which need to be combined in the right sequence and with the right arguments for you to get what you want; or more user-friendly software which is usually paid-for and from companies which do not admit to any geographical address or phone number on their websites; or software proclaimed as FREE on a myriad of sites which may or may not do what you want and might be accompanied by unwelcome malware guests.

That is a shame since ripping a DVD to a file is convenient not only for media centers like this one, but also for mobile devices like Apple’s iPad which do not include DVD drives.

Presuming you do find a way to rip your DVDs, they play fine on the EM7195 as long as the encryption has been removed. You can also play unprotected Blue-Ray ISO images, though the EM7195 does not support their Java menus.

Other features

The EM7195 also has built in BitTorrent software. I did not try this though I did have a look. You can manage torrent downloads through the remote and TV, or from a web user interface called Neighbor Web

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There is a web browser as mentioned above, but I found it unusable. There is a slide show feature for photos.

Verdict

I enjoyed using the Eminent 7195. Playing and recording digital TV is easy and convenient, and I liked being able to play DVD ISOs from the hard drive. SAMBA support is a great feature, ensuring that the 7195 plays nicely with a Windows network. Support for FLAC audio is also welcome. The unit seems well-made, has a generous set of ports, runs quietly, and is unobtrusive.

That said, if you want to do more than time-shifting digital TV this product is best suited to enthusiasts who can get to grips with ripping DVDs, cope with inconveniences like switching the SPDIF output between RAW and LPCM to get the best from different sources, and put up with the quirky software. I will be interested to see the updated firmware when it arrives; it might be worth waiting for this before buying.

Lack of Gigabit ethernet is a disappointment, as is the need for an add-on USB device for wifi support.

For UK users, it is a shame that there is no support for BBC iPlayer or the catch-up services from Channel 4 (4oD) and ITV (ITV Player). The EM7195 fails to take advantage from its internet connectivity. Yes there is BitTorrent support and access to YouTube and Flickr, but this could be much better. Social networking support is completely absent.

It seems to me that the future of media center boxes is in software that is not only highly usable, but also extensible with downloadable apps. I would also like to see a companion app for iPhone or Android, as this approach has more potential than a traditional infra-red remote.

The challenge for Eminent is to improve its software to make better use of the hardware.

Review: Jabra Wave Bluetooth headset and why you need A2DP

The Jabra Wave Bluetooth headset is a handy device that clips over one ear to give hands-free calling. The device comes with a small power adaptor, though it also charges through USB using the supplied cable. There are also a couple of microphone windshields and a spare ear gel.

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The Wave has an on-off button, a volume control, a status display showing battery and Bluetooth connection information, and an answer-end button at the tip of the microphone boom.

I charged it up and established a connection with an Apple iPhone 4 with no issues. Call quality was good. I was also able to use voice control, by squeezing the answer-end button and holding until it gives a short beep. The results were dire – I never know who the iPhone will try to call when I say “Call <name>” – but I blame this on the iPhone rather than the Wave. Maybe I have the wrong kind of voice.

You can mute or unmute a call by pressing both volume up and down simultaneously. You can also do call on hold by pressing the answer-end button during a call, and then pressing it again to switch between calls, provided your phone supports this feature.

The Wave can be paired and connected to two devices simultaneously, handy if you have two phones in use.

There are a couple of things I like about the Wave. It has an unusual design, with the ear gel protruding sideways from the speaker, but it is actually easy to fit and comfortable, perhaps more so than the Plantronics  Voyager Pro which I reviewed recently.

Another plus is the position of the buttons. If you are wearing your headset, you have to find the buttons by feel. In the case of the Wave, the one button you will need constantly is answer-end, and sticking this on the end of the microphone boom makes it easy to find and use.

On the negative side, I do not feel the sound quality is quite the equal of the Voyager Pro. It is also annoying that if you play music on the iPhone, it comes out of the iPhone speaker, not the headset. The reason is that the Wave lacks support for the A2DP (Advances Audio Distribution Profile), the Bluetooth spec which supports high quality music audio.

Jabra says the Wave is particularly good at wind noise reduction. I was not able to test this, and have not personally found this a problem with Bluetooth headsets, but if you encounter this frequently the Wave could be worth a look.

The Wave is cheaper than the Voyager Pro+ (you need the + version for A2dP). Typical prices on Amazon.co.uk are currently around £40.00 for the Wave and around £50 for the Voyager Pro+.

Still, if you do not care about listening to music you may prefer the Wave. It does the job nicely, and I do like its handy answer-end button.

Manufactuer’s specs:

  • Talk time 6 hours
  • Standby 8 days
  • Range 10 meters

 

Why Spotify should stick to streaming, not copy iTunes

Today Spotify announced iPod support. Essentially it has reverse-engineered enough of the Apple iPod’s protocols to let you connect an iPod and sync a Spotify playlist to it.

The catch: in order to sync a playlist you have to buy MP3s for all the tracks it includes.

Spotify has great software and I love the service, though sadly it is now crippled for free users. It already supports smartphone users through an offline feature, combined with a mobile app, though this requires a premium account.

The new model is different. Instead of being an offline cache for streamed music, it is old-style MP3 purchase. In fact, the promotional video presents the new feature in simple terms: you can now purchase and download your Spotify playlist.

So what is Spotify now? A streaming service, or a download service? Was the crippling of the free service done with this in mind, to push users towards MP3 purchase? Is this another symptom of music industry pressure? Will Spotify further cripple its streaming service, to promote download purchases?

Personally I have little interest in yet another MP3 download option. For iPod or iPhone users, Apple iTunes wins on usability and integration, Amazon MP3 on price.

I have great interest in subscription though. Spotify has been liberating in this respect. Want to play something? Just search and play, instantly. That is what Spotify does so well. It should stick with it, rather than moving back into the download era.

First encounter with Spotify sixth play bar – but what is the reason?

When I fired up Spotify today I was greeted by this large banner:

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Free listening has gone, unless you are happy not to have repeat listens. After five times, that’s it.

I sacrificially endured playing Winchester Cathedral by The New Vaudeville band five times over. I discovered that simply starting a track does not seem to count. On the sixth attempt to play the full track though, I got a slightly modified version of the above banner, and then a message along the top of the Spotify app:

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As a point of interest, this particular track is on a large number of different compilations of 60’s compilations. Spotify seems to consider each appearance a different track. So I was able to endure a sixth play of the track by picking a different compilation.

Why has Spotify made this unpopular change? The suggestion in the official blog post is that it was forced upon the company, either by financial necessity or the insistence of the music industry:

It’s vital that we continue offering an on-demand free service to you and millions more like you, but to make that possible we have to put some limits in place going forward.

There are over 9000 (mostly negative) comments post, but as far as I can tell no further official comment there.

Spotify’s chief content officer Ken Parks was available for interview and quoted by various sources; for example he told the Reg:

We’ve shown that the model is doing extremely well, but as things stand we need to tweak the service to ensure everyone has access to legal music in the long term.

Similar tone, but still no hard information. As for CEO and founder Daniel Ek he tweeted:

Things are not always what they seem…

which if it means anything means “watch this space” I guess.

The affect of the change is easy to predict. There will be more subscribers, but fewer users. Spotify will be less attractive to advertisers, but will get additional subscription income. Since it is still a good deal with the basic subscription, I would expect income to increase overall, but that is only a hunch.

I like Spotify’s performance and usability. The one thing I have against it is the annoying tendency of tracks to disappear suddenly. I played Paul Simon’s latest, So Beautiful or So What, on the service and enjoyed it. Then the next day it had disappeared. Even subscribers to the unlimited service do not get everything, only those tracks which the various rights holders permit.

Logitech’s Squeezebox app for iPhone and iPad: nice to have but a missed opportunity

Logitech has released a Squeezebox control app for iPhone and iPad, to match an existing app for Android.

I am a Squeezebox fan. The system is excellent for multi-room – just put a Squeezebox player in any room where you want music, put it on your home network (usually wifi), and it finds your music collection. You can get a player like the Touch, which I reviewed here, or an all-in-one unit like the Boom, which I reviewed here. I rip CDs to FLAC using dbPowerAmp. Squeezebox does multi-room properly, in that each player can play something different, and the sound quality is generally excellent. Internet radio is also available, and there is no need to have a separate tuner.

That said, the appeal of Squeezebox is limited by the techie nature of the product, especially the software. When Logitech acquired Slimdevices in 2006, I thought we might see a new focus on ease of use, but it has not really happened. Apple does this better, making it hard for Squeezebox to compete with iTunes and Airport Express or Apple TV, even though the Squeezebox system is more open and superior in some ways.

There are multiple ways to control a Squeezebox player. You can use a remote to navigate the display on the player, whether the simple but bold display on a Classic, or the graphical colour display on a Touch. You can use touch control on a Touch screen. You can use a web browser on a PC, Mac or any machine on the network. Or you use an app such as SqueezePlay on a PC, or third party apps like iPeng on iOS, or Squeezepad on an iPad.

All these methods work, but in general the web browser is the most feature-rich and good if you are sitting at a desk, while the apps are better if you have a suitable device like an iPhone, iPad, or Android smartphone. The remotes work, but you need to be close enough to read the display and navigation can be fiddly.

An iPhone app is ideal though, so it is great news that Logitech has now released an official app for the iPhone. It is free, and unless you already have iPeng a must-have for Squeezebox users who have an iPhone. Apps are better than a remote for all sorts of reasons:

  • No need to point at an infra-red receptor
  • No need to read a distant display
  • Album artwork on the remote
  • More features conveniently available

I downloaded the new app and ran it. The first thing you have to do is to log into Mysqueezebox.com, Logitech’s internet service. In fact, the impression you get is that you cannot use the app without logging on. I am not sure if there is any way round this, but it seems odd to me. Presuming you are using a local Squeezebox server, why require log-on to an internet service?

I already have a Mysqueezebox account though, so I logged on, whereupon the various players we have around the house appeared for selection. Once selected, I get a menu similar to that on a physical player or on SqueezePlay:

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If I click My Music, I can navigate using the usual range of options, including Artists, Albums, Genres, New Music (which means recently added) or my favourite, Random Mix. Just selected an album is not enough to play it, but shows the tracks; tapping the first track starts it playing. Eventually you will get the Now Playing screen, which you can also access by pressing the musical note icon on the Home screen.

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Perhaps I am fussy, but I am not happy with this screen. As you can see, the album artwork is overlaid with text and controls, and although a progress bar can be shown or hidden by tapping, the other controls seem immoveable, which means you cannot see the full artwork.

My other complaint is that the user interface, while familiar to those who already know Squeezebox, lacks the usability you expect from an iPhone app. Operating it takes too many taps. Take search, for example. You want to find a different song, so you tap Back to get the Home screen, then Search. Type something in, then click Search. The next screen then asks whether you want to search in My Music or Internet Radio. You tap My Music, and still get no results, just a list that says Artists, Albums, Songs, Playlists. You tap Songs, and now you finally get a results list. Tap a song to play.

Personally I think search is such a critical function that it should be available directly from the Now Playing screen; and that it should be smart enough to look for matches anywhere it can and present some top matches immediately.

Another annoyance is that you cannot actually play a song through the iPhone itself. This is such an obvious feature that I cannot understand why Logitech has not implemented it; it would enable your Squeezebox music collection for personal listening on a device. Perhaps Logitech imagines that it is protecting sales of its players, when in fact it is just undermining the appeal of the system.

Well, it is free, I like the Squeezebox system, and the app is useful, so perhaps I am complaining too much. It is frustrating though, because with a little investment in software Logitech could bring its excellent features to a broader group of users.

Spotify is now less free but still a better deal than Apple iTunes

Spotify’s Daniel Ek has announced restrictions to Spotify’s free edition:

  • Users will be able to play any track for free up to 5 times only
  • Total listening time for free users will be limited to 10 hours per month

The changes are presented as a necessity:

It’s vital that we continue offering an on-demand free service … but to make that possible we have to put some limits in place going forward.

You can easily escape the restrictions by subscribing to the unlimited service at £4.99 per month (or equivalent in your currency), or the Premium service at £9.99. Unlimited offers music without advertisements, while premium includes mobile and offline music, and a higher bitrate of 320 kbps.

While it is a shame to see free Spotify become less attractive, the free and premium services are well priced. For the cost of one album per month you can play anything on Spotify’s service as often as you like. The main downside is that there are gaps in what is available. Over time, my guess is that either Spotify will win the argument and the business, and those gaps will be filled; or of course it may fail.

Spotify’s problem is that it has to pay even for the music that is streamed for free. That is always a difficult business model, and it seems that advertising is not enough to pay for it at the rates the music companies require.

If the restrictions result in a surge of new paid subscriptions, this may even work out well for the company, though the service is still not available in the USA.

Personally I think Spotify is inherently a better deal than iTunes downloads, for example, which offer an unlimited license but only on a track by track basis and with no resale value. Anyone who still buys music is likely to spend less with Spotify, and to get more choice. The subscription model is the only one that makes sense in the internet era.

At the same time, I can understand why the music companies want to maintain a high price for streamed music. They are playing a high-risk game though, since by making legal music more expensive and adding friction, they make illegal music more attractive.

For example, there is now more incentive for a user to record a favourite track during one of their five free listens, and never pay for it again; or to get the tracks they want from a friend’s ripped CD – both actions that are untraceable.

Does HDCD make CDs sound worse?

HDCD stands for High Definition Compatible Digital and was developed by Pacific Microsonics, a company acquired by Microsoft in 2000. HDCD encodes the signal on a standard CD in such a way that when decoded it has extended dynamic range and supposedly lower distortion – it is claimed to provide the near-equivalent to 20 bit audio despite the fact that CD is 16-bit.

The snag with HDCD is that not all players decode it. The idea is that HDCD is relatively benign in this respect, and HDCD-encoded CDs still sound good when played back without decoding.

Now audio engineer Steve Hoffman, who specialises in remastering classic CDs for maximum fidelity, says that HDCD actually makes CDs sound worse:

It degrades the sound and it bugs me. I’ve tried everything, every way and it just diminishes the fidelity.

Stephen Marsh, of Stephen Marsh Mastering, who works with Hoffman, adds:

In the interest of giving the HDCD system the fairest of all shakes, I again today ran our completed Bad Co. master through it D to D in 2 additional configurations. First I took our fully prepped, edited 24 bit/44.1 out of converter aes through the HDCD box, outputting 16/44.1 HDCD. Second – I took our 24/88.2 captures and ran those through the box to 16/44.1 HDCD. In both instances we found the HDCD box to be at least as detrimental to the sound as we heard while A to D’ing with it Friday – if not more! In particular – I listened to the HDCD encoded material in un-decoded fashion so I could get a sense of what most consumers are going to hear. Even through the best converters in the room the results were very unsettling: Namely – there was a dip at around 8K the took all the snap and sparkle out of the snare and deflated the air out of the tracks. Engaging the decoding circuits and monitoring through the HDCD D to A’s lent an overall ‘generic’ feel to the sound – it sounded fine, don’t get me wrong – but it didn’t sound special and was certainly not an improvement.

The HDCD concept has always bothered me as well. It is fixing a problem that does not need fixing: neither distortion, nor dynamic range is an issue with standard 16/44 CDs. The fact that not all CDs will be decoded correctly is a worry. Finally, any processing risks degrading the sound, and other things being equal the straightest path is the best.

I recall discovering back in the days of compact cassette that recording and playback with Dolby switched off generally sounded best, even though tape hiss on a cassette was a real problem that did need fixing.

Even if Hoffman and Marsh are wrong, and HDCD does sound better when properly decoded, the fact that it often is not properly decoded is good reason to steer clear.

Now that CDs are commonly ripped to a music server HDCD encoding is still problematic. Illustrate’s dBpoweramp has a decoder that creates a 24-bit file from HDCD-encoded CDs.

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Review: Lenco iPD-4500 portable iPod dock–zip up your sounds

Today’s gadget is an iPod travel dock with a few distinctive features. The Lenco iPD-4500 zips up to look like a sturdy travel bag; though at 250 x 180 x 80mm it is on the bulky side.

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It is not really a bag, but unzips to form an iPod dock in the base with speakers in the top.

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Although  it looks as if there are four speaker drivers it seems only the lower pair are active. The top panel is ported for better bass extension.

The unit has a built-in rechargeable NiMH battery which claims up to 8 hours of playback from a full charge. A mains adaptor is supplied. If mains power is on, then when seated in the dock, the iPod or iPhone charges, but not when on battery.

Along with the iPod dock there is a standard mini-jack input for non-Apple devices or smaller iPods. Controls on the device itself are limited to on-off and volume, but a compartment on the base unit opens to reveal a tiny remote, secured in a clip, with on-off, play-pause, track forward and back, and volume.

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Lenco also supplies a short mini-jack cable. I would have preferred a longer cable, since the short one will be awkward if you want to connect, say, a laptop for playing a movie; but of course you can use your own cable.

Sound quality

So how does it sound? Contrary to what I had expected from the advertised “bass boost”, this is not a particularly bass-heavy or boomy unit but has a pleasantly balanced sound. It is important to set your expectations. No, the iPD-4500 does not sound as good as docks geared more for home use, that are heavier, larger and more expensive. Compare it to the tiny speaker in an iPhone though, and it is a massive improvement. I rate it one of the better-sounding travel docks I have tried. It is worth experimenting with position too; you can get a weightier sound by positioning the dock near a wall or in a corner. As with any audio device, I recommend hearing it before purchase if possible.

According to the rather uninformative specifications there are 2 x 3W speakers, though without qualification 3W does not mean much. What you really want to know is how loud it goes; and the answer is loud enough for enjoying music in a hotel room or a small tent; but not loud enough if you really want to rock out or drown out significant background noise.

Design and appearance

It has to be said, this is not a beautiful device. A colleague said it looks like a toasted sandwich maker; and I see her point. It does not bother me because I care more about the convenience and the sound, but it is a factor.

I also noticed that the hinged panel which gives access to the front compartment tends to catch when you try to close it so needs to be operated with care.

On the plus side, when zipped up the iPD-4500 does feel securely protected from knocks and bumps, and I would be more confident about subjecting this to the rough and tumble of travel luggage than with most portable speakers.

A flaw is that the mains adaptor does not fit in the pouch, but has to be carried separately. Further, if you were camping rather than in a hotel, it might not be easy to recharge. A car adaptor would be worth considering.

Value for money

The iPD-4500 is on offer for around £75.00 which is at the upper end of the price range for a portable iPod dock. Then again, it sounds good, includes a rechargeable battery and a remote, and has a particularly robust integrated case.

It still strikes me as a premium price; and bear in mind that the Logitech Rechargeable Speaker S315i, for example, claims up to 20 hours playback, though with no remote, and plays somewhat louder. The S315i is nominally more expensive, but seems widely discounted to below the price of the iPD-4500.

What might swing it is if you particularly like the sound quality, or if the strong packaging suits your travelling lifestyle.

 

Amazon introduces its cloud player – but Spotify makes more sense

Amazon has introduced its Cloud Drive and Cloud Player. Cloud Drive offers 5GB of online storage free, with further storage available for a fee. For example, an additional 15GB costs $20 per year, and you can have a full 1000GB for $1000 per year.

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Having said that, a note in the FAQ says that:

The 5 GB free storage plan is available to all Amazon.com customers, however further upgrades to the storage plan are currently unavailable in the following countries

where the list is of countries in Europe including the UK.

The Cloud Drive looks nicely implemented except that there is no provision as far as I can tell for sharing. It is an odd omission, unless Amazon sees Cloud Drive as mainly for storing personal music and media purchases and wishes to discourage breach of copyright, so I am guessing this is the case. This does make rivals like Microsoft’s SkyDrive more interesting for general cloud storage though, particularly as you get 25GB free with SkyDrive.

So on to the Cloud Player. There are two versions, a web player that is part of Cloud Drive, and an Android player which is part of the Amazon MP3 application. My first attempt at using the web player failed – US customers only:

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However, when I uploaded some MP3 files to the Cloud Drive they played fine in the Cloud Player:

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I tried the Android player briefly. It worked well with MP3s already on my device, but I have not yet attempted to sign into the Cloud Drive.

There is no player for Apple iOS and when I visited the site in mobile Safari even the web player did not appear, though this may be another UK/USA issue.

Naturally Amazon is encouraging use of Cloud Drive and Cloud Player with its MP3 store. The idea is that you no longer need bother to download MP3 files. Just store them in Cloud Drive, and play them wherever you are, though download remains an option either on purchase or later from the Cloud Drive.

A few observations. Cloud Drive is a welcome feature, though it is nothing new and crippled by lack of sharing capability. Other applications built on Amazon S3 cloud storage do include the ability to share files.

Cloud Player enhances the Amazon MP3 store and I suppose is worth having, though I am sceptical about this model of music purchase. Once you have moved the focus of music storage from local drives to the cloud, and playback from the local network to cloud streaming, then a subscription model that offers everything available on the service makes more sense. This is what Spotify does successfully, though I appreciate that not all music is available on Spotify, and that some countries including the USA cannot use it.

I wonder what happens when you store an MP3 purchase in Cloud Drive? Does Amazon really store a separate copy for every user, or does it simply link to its master copy so that it appears to be in your personal space? The latter would save storage space; and the idea shows that technically it might not be difficult for Amazon to transition from a model based on individual track purchase to one based on all-you-can-hear subscription.

Agreeing this with the music labels and making financial sense of such a deal is another matter; but I hope that this new Cloud Player is a step in that direction.

Review: Plantronics Voyager Pro UC v2 – go hands free everywhere

Today’s gadget is a Bluetooth headset, the Plantronics Voyager Pro UC v2. This little guy fits snugly in your ear and provides hands-free calls with your mobile or PC softphone. The UC stands for Unified Communications; and indeed, once I had plugged in the supplied Bluetooth adapter, which is pre-paired with the headset, my Microsoft Lync client automatically picked it up. It also works well with Skype.

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While that sounds simple, there are actually a fair number of features packed into this device. Some are more successful than others, but it is high quality and thoughtfully put together, right down to the unobtrusive magnetic closure on the padded case.

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Not shown in the picture above, the set also includes a few foam ear tip covers, which are comfortable but tricky to fit, and a mains adapter for charging when there is no suitable PC or laptop to hand.

I have to say that the fit of this headset is excellent: once in place you soon forget about it, and it feels secure and stable. Having wrestled with numerous more awkward headset designs over the years, this is not something I take for granted.

Now a few details. The headset has several controls: volume up and down on the top of the ear clip, power button near the bottom of the ear clip (above the micro USB charging port), and a call button at the ear end of the microphone stalk, in effect on top of the ear pad. These buttons have multiple functions depending on the state of the device and how you press them, so there is a bit of a learning process. For example, pressing and holding both volume buttons when music is playing pauses or resumes the music. Pressing and holding both volume buttons during a call mutes or unmutes the microphone.

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Much of the time you will be pressing these buttons while the headset is on, so you need to feel your way, as it were. How easy you find this will vary from one person to another. I found the volume buttons natural and easy to use, partly because if you rest your thumb on the bottom of the unit, you can easily squeeze the buttons at the top. The power button is a bit harder to find and use, but that does not matter too much because you would most likely take the headset off to use it, though it does speak the remaining talk time if you tap it and this can be handy.

I was less happy with the call button. If you are wearing the headset, and a call comes in, you have to tap this to answer. You can also use two taps to call back the last number, and tap and hold to use voice dialling on your mobile. I found the call button awkward to press and insufficiently tactile, though I am sure this improves with practice.

By way of mitigation, the Voyager has an auto-answer feature. A sensor in the device detects whether or not you are wearing it, and if you put the headset on when a call comes in, it will auto-answer.

The sensor also pauses music automatically when you remove the headset, and restarts when you put them back on.

If you pair the Voyager with an iPhone, you get a useful battery meter at the top right of the screen.

I found the Voyager rather good for listening to music. The quality is fine considering that it is mono. Of course it lacks the immersive sound and quality of stereo headphones; but that is the point – you would use the Voyager when you want private background music while still being in touch with what is going on around you. It is easy to carry on a conversation, for example, while music is playing.

I tried the voice dialling. This is a great idea in principle, since you can initiate a call without ever touching your mobile. First you have to press and hold the call button for two seconds, which is a little awkward as mentioned above. After a pause the Voyager beeps, and you can then speak a name to call. If you are lucky and it is found successfully, the Voyager reads the name to you, and if there are multiple numbers you can specify which one to call. If you are unlucky and your mobile starts calling the wrong person, a single tap on the call button ends the call.

I had some success with this, though it is a bit of an adventure. The key is patience. Once you have spoken the name, there is a wait of several seconds, at least with the iPhone, before anything happens.

PC Software

If you have a PC, you can install the Plantronics software to control your Voyager. The software is downloaded from the Plantronics site. You get a battery monitor that sits in the notification area:

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and a control panel that reports the detail of your device model and firmware, and offers a number of settings.

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Once again, the Voyager earns its UC designation by letting you automatically set your presence status when the device is worn or removed, though I struggled to find a setting for this that made sense for me personally.

One nice feature is that the Voyager integrates with PC media players as well as softphones, though some of my favourite media players are missing from the list.

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If you are a Mac user it seems you are less well served by software, though Bluetooth audio still works, and note that the Voyager integrates well with the Apple iPhone.

The Voyager Pro UC copes with both a PC and a mobile connected simultaneously – that is one of the things you are paying extra for – but I found that some details could get confused. For example, the iPhone got into an state where it could not play music though the Voyager until I disconnected the PC.

Extras

The Voyager is expensive for a Bluetooth headset, but is particularly well equipped. The case is well made and has a belt clip as well as a little pocket for the USB Bluetooth adapter. The mains adapter has an LED to indicate the charging state. The Bluetooth adapter has an LED to show whether the headset is connected, and flashes while data is being transmitted.

Conclusion

Overall I am impressed with both the quality and the range of features in the Voyager Pro. It works well alongside Microsoft Lync, for which it is optimized, and in my view it works even better as a headset for an iPhone or other smartphone.

Note though that if you do not need the Unified Communications features or the USB Bluetooth adapter, then the older Voyager Pro + model is less than half the price. However this model lacks the Smart Sensor of the Pro UC v2.

My main gripe is with the awkward call button. Personally I’d like to see this repositioned next to the volume buttons for easier access.

It is also worth noting that even six hours talk time, which you get from a full charge, soon disappears if you play background music, so charging can be a bit of a nuisance.

Nevertheless, using a device like this shows that it really is not necessary to juggle with a handset just to take a phone call; and if you can get voice dialling to work, you can keep the mobile out of sight until you need it for something important like browsing the web or, well, playing a game.