Category Archives: multimedia

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Apple to Linn Records: you can’t use Apple lossless

Alongside Apple’s well-known reluctance to allow others to use its FairPlay DRM, the company now appears to be refusing permission for others to use its Apple Lossless file format.

Although some people are content with the 128kbps lossy compression of standard iTunes store downloads, they do not satisfy audiophiles. Linn is a hi-fi company with its own record label, and is now offering digital downloads at a quality even higher than that of CD.

Linn wants to support Mac customers, but it isn’t easy. iTunes does not support commonly used codecs like FLAC or WMA lossless. Apple lossless is the obvious choice, but Linn’s Martin Dalgleish tell me that Apple will not allow it. There is also an AAC lossless*, but according to Dalgleish iTunes will only play the lossy portion of the file. Linn is now investigating WAV, which is uncompressed.

These little battles may seem unimportant, but let’s bear in mind that Apple, like Microsoft, wants to be at the center of the digital home. Undoubtedly Apple would prefer users of its hardware to buy their music from the iTunes music store rather than from independents like Linn. Controlling the formats that its hardware and software supports is a way of keeping that loop tightly controlled.

I’ll add that while I welcome Linn’s initiative in making available lossless, DRM-free music downloads at better than CD quality, there are plenty of problems when it comes to playback. If you are not careful, you may find that Windows or your soundcard’s drivers are resampling your audio anyway.

*Note: Although Dalgleish used the term “AAC lossless” such a thing does not exist (see comments to this post). However there is a project called MPEG-4 Audio Scalable Lossless Coding – see here and here, which is perhaps what he meant.

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Linn Records offers lossless, DRM-free 24-bit downloads

Regular readers will know that I am an enthusiast for digital downloads, but not the lossy-compressed, DRM-encumbered items on offer from iTunes or similar sites.

I was therefore interested to see that Linn Records is now offering audiophile downloads. Linn is a tiny label, but the brand is well known in hi-fi circles thanks to the famous Linn Sondek turntable and other high-end products. The label has put out some excellent recordings, such as albums by the Blue Nile and the jazz singer Carol Kidd, as well as classical music.

Linn is now offering digital downloads from its site. These include MP3, lossless WMA in CD quality, and perhaps most interesting, a “Studio Master” file which is also lossless WMA, but at a higher bitrate.

The various formats available are described here. Here’s a snippet:

This download is offered for those who desire the best sound possible. The quality is identical to that of an SACD. The format will be dependent on the actual recording method we used originally. No DSD files are offered as it is not possible to play them back on a PC so an equivalent PCM format is offered. These files offer true “studio quality” and are what was used by Linn to produce the production version of our CD releases. Be sure to check compatibility with your PC sound card etc before you download a file and note that large amounts of storage space are required for each track.

Why not AAC? Linn notes:

We wanted to offer lossless AAC too, but have been unable to get the rights to do this.*

Well why not FLAC then? Still, this is a step forward, especially as no DRM is attached to the files.

The tricky aspect is actually playing the highest resolution files. They can be played in Windows Media Player, but obviously can’t be burned to a CD at full quality. You can back them up to a DVD, but not play them. Still, these are lossless files, so with a bit of effort it must be possible to create DVD audio disks and even get them onto Macs and iPods.

Here are typical prices, this example being the Brahms Clarinet Quintet:

Actual CD: £15.00

Studio Master (24-bit lossless WMA): £18.00

CD quality (16-bit lossless WMA): £11.00

MP3 (320kbps): £9.00

£18.00 for a “Studio Master” is expensive, but for what you are getting it strikes me as fair value.

Will this initiative be wrecked by piracy, or provide valuable new business for Linn? I don’t know; but it seems to be that piracy cannot get a lot worse than it already is. I hope it proves successful.

PS: interesting comment here on why Linn is not using DRM:

For now we have decided not to use any form of Digital Rights Management. This is because there are no commercially available systems that are platform independent and also because the only currently available system from Microsoft does not deliver a service level that we think you would expect to get. If in the future a suitable system is developed then we may decide to use it.

*I’ve now clarified with with Linn. Rights for AAC are not a problem; it’s Apple Lossless that is the difficulty.

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Living with Vista Ultimate in the digital home

Now that Bill Gates has got people talking about Xbox 360 in the digital home, here’s a brief reflection on a month living with Vista Ultimate hooked up to an Xbox 360.

In truth we threw out the VHS video recorder a while back. In its place I stuck a PC running plain XP but including a DigiTV card and connected to the internet. I also ripped a bunch of CDs to the hard drive and connected the Creative Audigy soundcard to the home hi-fi. It all worked well, though the family found working with the DigiTV software fiddly. Wiring it up was complex, and there was an irritating hum from the PC, though not really noticeable when actually watching TV or listening to music.

That was then. When Vista went RTM in December I installed it on the same PC, dual booting with XP in case it didn’t work. I found a beta Media Center (BDA) driver for the DigiTV card, and another beta driver for the Creative Audigy. Then I moved the PC out of the living room, but still connected to the internet. We now use Media Center through the Xbox 360.

This means no more annoying PC hum. Media Center via the Xbox 360 looks almost the same as it does on the PC itself – large, chunky user interface for using with a remote from 10 feet back, TV guide with easy scheduling of TV recordings, access to all the ripped CDs,  and a few extras like the ability to view photos and videos.

Pros and cons

Here’s what we like. The Media Center UI is a big hit. In moments and without tuition the younger generation figured out how to record every future episode of Dennis the Menace, something they had never achieved with the DigiTV software (a true measure of usability). Another great feature is the ability to play any of your digital music while playing a game on the 360.

The whole set-up is a radical improvement on the bad old days of VHS and CDs. It changes home entertainment for the better.

Here’s what we don’t like. First, while Media Center improves on the old DigiTV software in the key area of usability, it lacks some of its features. In particular, DigiTV can record one channel while you view another, which Media Center cannot do unless you install a second card. This is not too bad in practice, since you can watch a channel on the TV’s built-in receiver while recording another on Media Center.

Moving the PC out of the living room is good – less clutter, less hum – but I miss the ability to browse the web. I gather this feature might come to the 360 at some future date.

The Xbox 360 universal remote is handy for Media Center, but it doesn’t work with the TV and in any case I’ve come to dislike infra-red. Just as wireless console controllers have replaced wired, it’s time to get rid of infra-red and use RF. Come to that, why not use TCP/IP and have a bit of intelligent two-way communication in those remotes?

And then there are the gremlins. Not too severe, and perhaps it’s the cost of living the beta driver life, though it’s hard to say. One of the oddities is that when you browse the music library the first time after a reboot, it only shows a fraction of its contents. They gradually repopulate over the next ten minutes.

On the PC, sometimes when you select an album it takes several minutes before it actually starts to play.

We also get a typically cryptic Windows Media Player error from time to time. The error dialog appears, but doesn’t seem to cause any problems.

Creative Labs is causing alarm with its Vista driver support. Here’s the dialog I’ve seen for the last couple of days:

The bad news: when you go along to Creative’s site to download an updated driver, there isn’t one. The web site says “TBA”. There’s no indication of when, or reassurance that the sound won’t just die next week.

Note that most of the above problems don’t affect the 360 side of things. That’s the advantage of consoles: fixed hardware, single vendor, solid drivers. Apple knows this too.

One other problem which did impact both the 360 and the PC. On one occasion, the TV card just stopped working. You could select a channel, but saw a blank screen. The fix was to re-do the TV settings for Media Center. Beta problem with the DigiTV driver? Maybe, maybe not, but annoying.

Finally, the complexity of setting this lot up in the home remains a worry. A lot of things have to be right: home network with ethernet or fast wi-fi; TV aerial perhaps with signal booster; various cables between TV/360/hi-fi. Don’t misunderstand me: it’s no problem for an enthusiast. However it is a lot to take on for someone who just wants to bring home a box and plug it in. I hope smart retailers will offer a home setup service for Vista/360 combos and perform it competently.

A few grumbles then, but … it’s great. We don’t want to go back.

The loudness wars: why many CDs sound bad

It’s tough being an audiophile. Once upon a time, there were LPs. They could sound good, but suffered from surface noise, scratches, wear and tear, and inner groove distortion. Enter the CD. Perfect sound forever, said Philips. It fixed all the aforementioned defects.

Trouble is, to some ears there were CDs that didn’t sound as good as the LPs they replaced. Various theories were put forward as to why that might be the case. Some claimed that 16 digital bits were insufficient. Others said that early CDs were being made from LP cutting masters, which sound artifically bright to compensate for limitations of vinyl, or that engineers could not kick bad LP-based habits. The answer was to wait for improved remasters.

Twenty-five years on from the arrival of CD, and remasters are abundant. And guess what: audiophiles are now seeking out those early CDs, saying how much better they sound. Others are digging out their old LPs. It’s all to escape a recent, insidious trend in digital mastering, often called the loudness wars, but more accurately described as excessive compression.

Compression is a technique for reducing the dynamic range of a piece of music by boosting the quieter passages and perhaps limiting or clipping the louder passages. The result is that the music sounds louder when played with the same settings as less compressed music. That doesn’t mean it is actually played louder, as listeners simply turn down the volume to compensate. Unfortunately excessive compression also robs the music of its detail and makes it sound unnatural. This is the reason many of today’s hits sound worse than recordings made thirty years ago and released on LP. Along with the public’s appetite for lossy-compressed audio such as that sold by Apple’s iTunes music store, it’s enough to drive audiophiles to despair.

A picture paints a thousand words so … here’s the wave form in Audacity (an excellent freeware sound file editor) for the Who’s classic Pinball Wizard, as it appeared on a 1990 CD from the audiophile label Mobile Fidelity:

 

In 2004 Tommy was remastered for a deluxe edition. The image below shows the same song, same mix, but it sounds louder. That’s partly because the audio engineer has maxed out the volume available on a CD (not in itself a bad thing), but also because the sound is more compressed. The waveform is tending more towards a solid block with straight edges top and bottom. Still, this level of compression is mild as you will see in a moment.

What follows is a much worse example. It’s McFly and the band’s recent single Star Girl. I’ve noticed that highly compressed/loud mastering is common on material aimed at a young pop audience. Other examples I’m aware of are CDs from Lily Allen and from the Arctic Monkeys. The straight edges likely indicate clipping of the louder sounds as well as boosting of the quieter ones. 

This doesn’t apply to next illustration, which is even more severe. It’s the song Pablo Picasso from David Bowie’s 2003 CD Reality. Even looking at these images is enough to make your ears hurt.

Let me emphasize: if you purchase an overly compressed CD, there is nothing you can do to fix it. Turning the volume up and down, or fiddling with an equalizer, will do nothing to restore the detail or fix the unnatural sound.

Why I am writing here on a subject that has been well covered elsewhere? Simply because I feel strongly about it; these over-compressed CDs are sub-standard products.

It’s unlikely that the average person will recognize the problem for what it is. The effect is more subtle; the sound is fatiguing and the CD will likely be played less frequently; fewer copies will be bought.

I’m doing my bit to publicize the issue. As awareness is raised, there must be some chance that the industry will moderate its practice and that standards will improve.

Links:

Youtube video with excellent visual and audio explanation – view this if you don’t get the point yet

Discussion of the above on Steve Hoffman’s audio forum – Hoffman is a respected mastering engineer

Wikipedia article on The Loudness War

Complaint from despairing David Bowie fan

Article: Everything louder than everything else

Article: Imperfect sound forever

Barry Diament: Declaring an end to the loudness wars – an audio engineer’s perspective

The backward march of iPod/MP3 devices

I was astonished to read of how the iLink dock brings digital output to iPod – at a price of $2000 or so. Nearly three years ago I purchased an iRiver H140 for around the same cost as an iPod, but with additional features including built-in digital i/o, mic input with adjustable gain, and direct recording to either MP3 or lossless WAV. I still use the device today – it’s ideal for recording interviews as well as portable music – but when it wears out it may not be easy to replace. Even today, most devices lack these audiophile features or provide them only through expensive and inconvenient add-ons. Lossless recording and digital i/o are hard to find anywhere. Even iRiver’s own range has gone backwards, with nothing comparable currently available.

I’m not sure of all reasons for this, but a big factor is Apple. The dominant iPod may be great on usability and small size, but rich features don’t fit with Apple’s minimalist philosophy. You might think that would give an opportunity to other vendors, but in many cases they seem content to follow rather than innovate.

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The best and worst of Vista multimedia

A friend called on Christmas day. She was away from home and had forgotten to set the video to record a couple of TV programmes. We’re testing Vista media center, so it was a matter of going to Vista’s TV guide, scrolling to the programmes she wanted, and selecting Record. What about the transfer to DVD? Next day, I selected Recorded TV, and scrolled through the recordings, each of which has a preview image. When I found the right one, I clicked on it and noticed that Burn CD/DVD was one of the menu choices. So I stuck a blank DVD -R in the drive, clicked Burn CD/DVD, and a while later (quite a long while) it was done. Tested the DVD in a standalone DVD player and it worked fine. I don’t miss VHS one bit.

Now have a read of Peter Gutmann’s Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection. Gutmann is a security specialist who describes himself as a professional paranoid, which perhaps explains the tone of the piece – he calls Vista’s content protection a “suicide note”. I doubt he is correct in all his conclusions, but nevertheless it shines a fascinating spotlight on this aspect of Windows Vista.

It has always been possible to make unlicensed copies of media such as music and film, but in the pre-digital world it was inconvenient and always involved some loss of quality. Personal computers changed all that, particularly when combined with the cheap storage which we now have in abundance. This is bad news for industries that depend on selling this content rather than giving it away. Hence Vista tries to put media back into its uncopyable box, so that once again you have to purchase the official item.

A single pinprick is enough to burst a balloon, no matter how airtight the rest of it is. Similarly, to protect media you have to protect every link in the chain, from digital source to final output. Vista calls this the Protected Media Path; read the MSDN article here. The system is intricate and complex, and as Gutmann notes there are undesirable implications. The Protected Environment (PE) relies on “trusted components” such as drivers, codecs and content processors. Each component must therefore be signed by Microsoft after a verification process. But what if a bug or design flaw has slipped through, allowing content to be pirated (a pinprick)? Then the component can be “revoked”, which means some hardware or feature in your system will no longer work properly. Content publishers can even specify that their content will not play if a component known to be unsafe is present, by checking against a revocation list.

Ideally, a revoked component will be replaced by an automatically downloaded update. However, Microsoft’s document on the subject acknowledges that this may not always be the case:

In rare cases, an updated version of the component may not be available, for example, the company that implemented the component has gone out of business. If the component is not essential, the PE can work around the issue by not loading the component. If the component is essential, the application is provided with a URL that directs the user to a Web page that has information on the issue.

That might mean no more protected content for you unless you actually replaced the hardware with something else for which trusted components exist. I presume however that you would still be able to play unprotected content. Still, this would be a severe outcome if, for example, you had a large collection of HD-DVD movies that you played on the system.

It is understandable if hardware vendors such as ATI are unenthusiastic about all this. They have to do the work of creating suitable hardware and drivers, but the beneficiaries are the owners of the protected content.

Several obvious questions come to mind:

  • Will this really work? Such a complex system must be vulnerable to the efforts of determined hackers, as other DRM schemes have been in the past.
  • When playing protected content, what are the performance implications?
  • How about when playing unprotected content ? What, if any, is the performance impact of all this content protection then? Perhaps there is none. It strikes me though that there could be unwanted side-effects.

The existence of this DRM edifice also impacts all of us as consumers. When we purchase content, we’d like to be able to play it on as many devices as possible: home stereo, wireless streaming around the house, computers, portable devices. Technology is at last enabling this freedom, but now technology is also taking it away.

I’ll come back to where I started. Whether Vista content protection stands or falls will depend on the user experience. If it is good, as with my DVD burning from media center, then consumers will forgive a lot, to the frustration of anti-DRM advocates. That’s why Apple gets away with the iTunes store/iPod lock-in. If it is bad, this will damage Vista and Microsoft.

Update

Interesting thread here on audio processing in Vista. Here’s what Amir Majidimehr, digital media VP at Microsoft, has to say about DRM in Vista audio (and referring specifically to Gutmann’s piece):

The writer unfortunately, is misinformed about the Vista content protection capabilities. Yes, it is true that Vista has a substantially upgraded *infrastructure* for content protection. However, its usage is optional and no application is forced to use it. To wit, current HD DVD/BD players do not use any of it and as such, are only subject to provisions of copy protection for those formats (namely, AACS). Ditto for any third-party application that you may run on Vista. As long as they don’t call the new facilities, they run as they did always.

So for all practial purposes, Vista and XP behave the same wrt to playback of digital media.

Vista does allow new applications to provide a new level of robustness against attacks should they wish to provide this level of content protection. That may enable them to get access to content that would not be available otherwise (think HD downloads near Theater release window). As this feature required core operating system changes, we incorporated them into Vista. As with all new facilities, it may be years before they are taken advantage of.

That’s reassuring with respect to my third question above.

Vista Media Center: remarkably good

This is one of several notes on testing Windows Vista final version in various scenarios.

One of these is Media Center. This is an alternate, simplified user interface to your TV and other media content, intended to be operated with a remote rather than mouse and keyboard. In XP days this was offered as a separate, dedicated version of Windows, but now it is part of Vista Ultimate. A side-effect handy for journalists and others who run multi-purpose networks is that Media Center PCs can be joined to a Windows domain.

The tricky part of Media Center is the prerequisites. Ideally, you need:

  • A PC in your living room or wherever you prefer to watch TV*
  • A wide-screen TV with a high-resolution screen (eg LCD TV)
  • This PC also connected to broadband internet
  • This PC also connected to a hi-fi or equipped with very high-quality PC speakers
  • This PC also quiet enough not to be annoying when in stand-by
  • A TV card with BDA (Broadcast Driver Architecture) driver
  • The special Media Center remote

I tested Vista on a home-assembled machine which more or less conforms to the above. The soundcard is a Creative Audigy Platinum ZS; the TV card is a Nebula DigiTV, for which there are beta BDA drivers. I’ve been using this for a while with XP and Nebula’s own TV software.

Vista RTM went on as a clean install in its own partition. Next, I had to download the beta Vista drivers from Creative, and the beta BDA drivers from Nebula. This is the Vista life right now: the OS may be finished, but the third-party drivers are far from done. The Creative drivers actually time-out in January. Nevertheless, after a restart or two I was able to setup Media Center and successfully scan for TV channels. I also pointed the media library to a folder of ripped CDs in MP3 format. Media Center downloaded a TV guide and also found artwork for most of the ripped CDs, making for a polished presentation.

Overall, Media Center is a delight to use. The UI is easy to navigate, though scrolling through lists can be ponderous. Shortcuts to important screens like “My music” and “Live TV” work well, and the reassuring big green button always brings you back to the media center home screen. It really is not too geeky, provided that everything works as it should. Browsing through the guide works great, recording programs is a snap, and so is browsing and playing your ripped CD library (or, I presume, “plays for sure” downloads, though I don’t have any).

Not sure yet how Zune fits in here.

A neat touch is that you can play games with the remote. For example, the new 3D chess game works beautifully played from 10 feet back.

Microsoft has built in some interesting download options, most of which don’t seem to be enabled yet. A link to an online store got me a page not found error. Clearly the foundations are in place for a complete integrated home entertainment system based on download rather than purchased CDs or DVDs.

But does everything work perfectly? Not quite. From time to time yesterday I got “Unknown Audio error” with an error code, though it seemed to be harmless. The system has problems waking from sleep, and on one occasion the audio went silent. Another issue is that occasionally Media Center starts continually flashing, making it unusable, and there is no way (that I’ve found) to stop it other than to restart the application.

Are these errors the fault of Vista, or Media Center, or third-party beta drivers? My guess is mostly the last of these; but it still tarnishes the overall experience.

So how do non-geeks get this lot set up and working? The best way is to buy a complete Media Center system with the software pre-installed, and then to have an expert come to your home and set it all up. That’s expensive. Plus, can you trust the cheaper OEM PC vendors not to mess things up with sub-standard hardware, dodgy drivers, noisy fans, and third-party foistware that wrecks Microsoft’s carefully-designed user experience?

By contrast I imagine Apple will come into this space with a couple of boxes that plug in and just work. However it will likely be more expensive and will tie in to iTunes and iPod with Apple’s lock-in DRM. Of course Vista is DRM-laden as well, though at least Microsoft will license its DRM to third-parties. Note however that Media Center works fine with unprotected MP3s and standard CDs and DVDs – and no doubt Apple’s system will as well.

Time will tell who wins, or whether both get a decent market share. And there is also Sony to come. In the meantime, and despite the hassles, I’m impressed with Media Center so far.

*Note on Media Center Extenders

You can avoid the requirement for a PC in your living room by using a Media Center Extender instead. This could be an XBox 360 or a dedicated hardware device, hopefully smaller and quieter than a typical PC. A Media Center Extender has most of the same features as Media Center, a bit like a remote desktop to your Media Center PC. You can have multiple Extenders for a single Media Center PC. You need a fast network (802.11b won’t cut it), and you still need to be able to connect a TV aerial (or cable TV) to the Media Center PC, which could be a problem in some homes.

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Customer complains about iTunes DRM, gets refund

When Anthony Marrian purchased the comprehensive Bob Dylan “digital box” from Apple’s iTunes music store, which retails for a not insignificant £169.99, he was looking forward to playing it both at home and when out and about with his iRiver H340 music player. He was disappointed to discover that the files were “not recognized” by his player and complained to Apple.

I told them that at no point during the sales process was there any indication that the download would only work on an iPod. They replied that all their sales were non-refundable.

He persisted.

This resulted in “My name is Patrick and I will be assisting you. I understand that you are unhappy about not getting a refund for your Bob Dylan album. I know that can be frustrating”. Patrick then invited me to leave feedback on a web page which states “Comments will be read but not replied to”. After I’d suggested to Patrick that leaving additional feedback was likely to be a waste of time given that he had already replied to the only feedback I wished to leave, I got an email from Sam who said that in this one, exceptional, case s/he was prepared to refund me.

Kudos to Apple for the refund, which surprises me. I doubt it was legally required, since the iTunes small print includes all sorts of restrictions. But Marrian’s experience illustrates the DRM problem: many customers of online music stores have an expectation that they can make full personal use of what they buy, when the reality is different.

Even without the DRM Marrian would have problems, since the iRiver device does not support the AAC codec. He could have burned the tracks to CD and ripped them back as MP3 (with loss of quality); or he could have used unauthorised DRM-stripping software to remove the DRM and then converted them using a utility, again with loss of quality. Apparently Apple’s customer service folk did not propose either solution, and I agree with them: if you spend £169.99 on music you don’t expect to have to jump through hoops to play it.

The situation seems almost hopeless. If Microsoft prosper with Zune, then the world gets yet another lock-in DRM scheme to contend with; yet even that may be better for the consumer than a continuing lack of effective competition for iTunes/iPod.

The irony is that pirates who freely exchange copyright MP3 or even non-lossy Flac music files are getting a better product than the law abiding folk who are willing to buy legal downloads.

The best hope is that either anti-trust regulators like the Norwegian Consumer Ombudsman force Apple and others to give consumers a better deal; or that potential customers like Anthony Marrian simply refuse to buy on the terms currently offered.

I’m also in the latter camp. In fact, the latest iTunes music store appears to be blocked by my firewall; I get this:

I’m in no hurry to get it fixed.

Update

Frank Shaw says  phones will beat the iPod. Maybe. Three things though:

1. We haven’t seen the Apple phone yet.

2. The telecom companies may have the hardware, but have not yet matched the iTunes music store to win download purchases.

3. Integration. Apple does a great job of integrating internet store/PC or Mac/iPod; and is bringing the home TV into the loop as well. Oh yes, and all those iPod docks fitted in cars these days. To win you need to match the whole ecosystem, not just a part.

 

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