Friday, 1 November 2013

Digital Audio SD to HD





Digital Audio SD to HD
An honest look into what problems I’m facing
By Martin Pearman

Ok guys, as you know I recently purchased a pair of Bowers & Wilkins In Ear Monitors (IEM) and I found the reviews online to all point to one troubling conclusion. Even though they were great they tended to be bass crazy, here are what some reviews said:

“And bass. Wheelbarrows of bass. At times it’s great, providing depth and detail you won’t find in any rival; but with some tracks it’s simply too much, drowning the rest of the track and making us feel like we’re sat in a boy-racer’s souped-up XR3i.” - What Hifi Magazine

“Moving back to comments on the bass some might be initially confused by the rather bold bass presence. In some cases it feels as if the bass frequencies need to be tamed in so that the overall composition has a more polished and articulated focus.” - The Pro Audio Web Blog

In my own review I found this to be partly true, the C5’s do have an abundance of bass and sometimes this is detriment to the overall listening experience. But I only had this experience with the iPhone, when playing the same music through and Arcam amp with an Arcam CD as the source the C5’s performed beyond what they are capable of with the iPhone, putting the weak link as the source not the IEM’s.

This got me wondering what could be the cause of this issue, it clearly isn't the IEM’s so is it the iPhone? or maybe the audio source itself?

So I’ve decided to try and find out what it could be and what I could do to get the best from these headphones while out and about and I’ve found some interesting things, and it paints an interesting picture of the whole digital audio marketplace and also the manufactures of our audio equipment.

Now I'm presuming that B&W tested their headphones with a variety of components to make sure sound was acceptable across a wide range of products on the market. I also presume they tested iPhone, iPod and iPads as this would be the main target for such a premium priced pair of IEM’s like the C5’s. Based on my basic tests (I’m not an audio engineer but I have sensitive ears) I find it hard to believe that B&W would push out something with such poor bass control and dynamic timing.

So I decided to try one CD knowing it was recorded with care and also knowing it has very high levels of low frequencies, it also mixes Classical and electronic elements so has a wide range of sounds. This CD was Tron Legacy soundtrack by Daft Punk. I decided to use my Macbook Pro running OSX 10.9 and it uses Intel HD Audio.

First up was the MP3 320kbps. It sounds ridiculously booming so much so the small sounds of sheet music being turned and breaths from the orchestra were lost and the midrange got so muddy it was a dog to listen to.

Next was the CD directly played via VLC, as predicted it was a sheer delight to play and all the small and delicate sounds were there, bass was controlled and the mids and highs were never swamped by anything else. The headphones also showed a nice sense of space and pacing that was lost in the MP3 version. The problems arose then as in parts it was too bright and bass was lost entirely, I put this down to VLC and tried Quicktime, low and behold the audio settled down and became solid again, one thing I did notice was the noise reduction used and this seemed odd. I then tried Track 5 and I can clearly hear noise reduction kicking in, this was audible in three stages 1. zero noise before play was pressed, 2. play was pressed and noise levels were high, 3. music started and noise was then cut down, but this was causing some audio loss. At the end of the track you can hear the audio noise being cut again down to a whisper then a ‘click’ and total silence.

This suggests that the Intel HD audio is playing around with sound levels but to what benefit or cost to the audio reproduction. Clearly this is not good and very distracting. So playing CD through a Mac is not going to work.

Ok so on to an AIFF rip of the CD. I did this using XLD to ensure the best quality I could get and as its an uncompressed file the size compared is relative.

The MP3’s took up 141.1MB of space while the uncompressed AIFF’s took up 622.9MB.
So why the AIFF over say FLAC? Well for me as much as I love my music I don’t want to have to use different players and streaming software to play the damn stuff. I want to be able to use my Apple TV and stream my music if needed for example AIFF -> iTunes -> Stream -> Apple TV -> HDMI -> Sony TV -> Analogue Out -> HiFi -> Speakers -> Ears. This is a long way for data to travel and its going to get messy on its trip but most of the time I don’t care and its not critical I have the best audio.  But when I do decide to listen I prefer the CD or Vinyl but this isn't always practical so a digital file as close to will do. AIFF is supported more on the Mac through iTunes and will be playable on my many devices and FLAC won’t, not because its a poor codec but because Apple wont bloody support it.

I can say now that out of the tests I’ve done so far the AIFF sounds great and is a fantastic compromise when using my Mac to play sound, its clear and doesn't seem like it employs much if any noise reduction when playing back files. Bass is under control and doesn't overwhelm the rest of the frequencies and mids are clear and seem well balanced, the highs do seem a tad bright so maybe iTunes is boosting this as its used to playing MP3’s that might be missing this data and is resulting in this slightly over bright reproduction.

The MP3’s being played in iTunes do sound poor and clearly are missing something, so is it worth the space and time to rip to a lossless file like AIFF? If your a critical person and want to get the best from your CD’s then yes, if you’re tight for space and use mediocre audio equipment then no. iTunes or Intel HD audio is boosting the MP3 conversion so should help it sound like its better than it is. To some people ears this will be fine and you can go on knowing that it sounds ok, but if you’ve just ripped your CD collection and sold the CD’s and you’ve not done it as an AIFF or FLAC then oops!

So what does this mean for the headphones and the reviews done by these respected publications? Well I can’t say for certain but its evident that they haven’t tested them in every way possible and maybe they didn't need to as most people who use these IEM’s maybe playing low quality MP3s and their review fits what people will hear, this then makes the publication seem accurate and people will listen to them again in the future ensuring sales of said publications. At the same time though they are masking a problem for HD audio lovers that companies like B&W are clearly providing excellent products but their potential is being stopped by what can only be described as inferior audio source such as an Apple or Intel product designed for the masses.

Now I cant say at this time if outputting a digital source and doing the conversion on an external DAC will help, I presume it does as a lot of people who audition HD audio use them. I’ll let you know about this once I get a DAC that can do this for me.


My statements are all subjective to my own ears and I’m sure that others will have a different opinion. I may also be advised I’m going about my HD audio quest in the wrong way. Unlike video however sound is a much tricker concept to sell and perceive and music makers, audio hardware makers and software developers have a long and difficult road to go down if they want to have the public listening to HD audio.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Bowers & Wilkins C5
Review By Martin Pearman

Part 1: What to buy?
When looking for a pair of headphones I don’t really pay much attention to how a pair looks in terms of logos, size or glitzy colours. I look for functional design power ratings and pedigree. I’ve owned a fair few pairs of headphones from Shure, Grado to cheap Sony. One thing that while listening to my favourite music is how each pair adds and detracts from each song.

So in my opinion what makes a good pair of headphones and what makes a great pair? Well if you can get something that is comfortable and can be worn for a couple of hours without causing your ears or surrounding area to ache, or make your neck ache from being heavy, couple this with lovely well balanced sound or various sources (you don’t want a pair that sounds garbage on an iPod but sounds great on your home HiFi only).

The above statement may sound obvious (pardon the pun) but it can be tricky to get the balance just right. Now some people will just be happy with the ear pods they got free with their iPhone / iPod and this is just fine because they will probably be listening to poor quality streams or low quality encoded MP3’s. If this is you then this review may not be for you but you may want to keep reading to see what spending a little more money on a decent pair of headphones can do.


So the reason I decided to purchase the Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) C5 in-ear monitors (IEM’s) is because I was using a pair of RHA MA450 and while for £40 they sounded stella and had great build on the body of the phones the 3.5mm jack plug decided to break laving me with intermittent sound problems. Now I could have settled for another pair but I was brought up with the old adage “You get what you pay for” and I have found this to be mostly true in life. I also don’t abuse things I buy and I tend to have things a long time so after having the RHA’s for less than a year and only using them for maybe 30 hours of listening, having them break left a sour taste and I decided to spend a little more money.

 I wanted to find a pair of Shure IEM’s but I also didn't want to have to spend a full day looking around. Well I’m glad to report I didn't and the first place I visited, the Trinity Apple Store Leeds was the last place I visited, they stocked a huge range of Can’s and IEM’s ranging from cheap and nasty to the more exotic. After looking at what was on offer I found two pairs of phones both at £150 the NAD Viso HP20 IEM and B&W C5 IEM. Both have in-line volume and mic and both looked interesting.


After looking at the packaging and using my iPhone to check what people had to say I chose the B&W over the NAD, simply because the NAD’s were not reviewed much. Now the B&W had some once reviews but nothing that suggested they were the best of the best, I was a little worried about style over substance but I know B&W build some of the best loudspeakers in the world and their history and pedigree helped alleviate any fears I had.

Part 2: Packaging & unboxing
The B&W’s come in a very attractive and quite heavy card box that has a magnetic front flap that opens and reveals a small window showing the headphones in all their glory. There is some basic information on the outside of the box, sadly some info I always look for was missing, this is the frequency and impedance details. I always look for this and it helps in deciding if they will match your equipment at home or in your pocket, but as B&W make a great iPod dock I didn't think they would make a product that wouldn't play nice with an iPod or iPhone.


Opening the box your greeted by a separate box/enclosure that has a material tag you pull on sliding the insides from the heavy card outer. siting atop another heavy card box is a moulded plastic holder for the headphones and you can tell that they have aimed this at the Apple lover as its got a very similar look and sensation when opening your new headphones. Under the plastic lid are two other back boxes made from thin card, a word of warning when pulling these out. Be very careful as  its easy to tear the pull tags as its a very tight fit. The smaller box houses the booklets containing your usual guarantee and marketing fluff. Nothing worthy of note. The bigger of the two boxes hold your faux sued carry case and inside this are the spare silicone tips.


Be careful when removing the headphones from the plastic holder as its a bit finickity and you don’t want to damage your new shiny IEM’s. Overall the packaging is nice and good change from what is usually a dull experience, you can defiantly tell you hold a product from a premium company. If Apple ever wanted to team up with an audio company to work on headphones or other audio projects they should team up with B&W as they both have a acute eye for detail and quality.

Part 3: Fit and finish
So what about the IEM’s themselves? Well I have to mention the weight, being made from tungsten these are no featherweights, the weight only adds to the quality feel but I was a little worried they maybe too heavy for my ears to cope with and lead to pressure pain. On the side you have the Bowers & Wilkins moniker in case you were worried people wouldn't know you had a high-end pair of IEM’s in. Speaking of which the one thing you do notice when these are in situ is the large round metal cap like area on the end, this is made from micro perforated material allowing the driver to breathe like an open-backed can. This is designed to give a more open and specious sound.

Another striking thing you may have notice so far from the images used in this review are the looped wire over the top of each bud. This is an odd looking thing to behold and really sits in an awkward juxtaposition to what is a generally clean design. Its also a little bit of genius as this wire sits inside your ear and acts as part of the whole to make sure they are seated inside your ears correctly, they  also adjust to make sure a perfect fitment. So far I’ve found this to be generally comfortable but after a very long time 3 hours or so it does become a little sore, but pull them out and give your ears a rest and you’ll be fine, I guess after a while you’ll get used to them. One thing this will help with is the flexing of the cable and stop it from breaking at the top near the bud (hopefully).


The cable is also a nice thing to behold as is thin and flexible, so wont be prone to kinking in a specific place and lead to breaking the wire inside. The 3.5mm jack on the end looks like a professionally finished banana plug of a high end speaker cable. Also attached to the top of the wire on the left hand side is the volume control and mic. It’s a simple affair and nothing special, it works and looks part of the package.


One thing I had read from web reviews are that the silicone ear pieces were prone to tearing due to being made from two types of silicone, a stiff black centre that attaches to the bud and a clear outer that goes into your ear canal. apparently where the seam is they tear here and a quite costly to replace. I found that the best way to get around this is to unfold the clear outer and take hold of the back part and pull straight out without wobbling them or moving side to side etc, they should just pull off and this has worked for me while trying the different sizes.

The overall feel is that these are built with the same care and dedication as their loudspeakers and should last quite some time.

Part 4: Wall of sound

So the part allot of you have been waiting for, how do they sound? Well this is a mixed and delicate subject. For one we all love a different sound some like clear crisp mids other like sharp yet delicate highs and some like thunderous deep bass. It’s difficult to find a loudspeaker that can get all three spot on let alone a pair of IEM’s.

These IEM’s don’t disappoint when paired with HiFi but lack when paired with an iPhone. Before you go an head off to another review let me explain. As I type this review I’m sat with the C5’s attached to an Arcam Alpha 8 amp with an Arcam Alpha 7 CD. I’ve listened to Alison Krauss & Union Station - Paper Airplane, The Very Best of Fleetwood Mac 2 CD & now The Orb Metallic Spheres. These IEM’s are beyond outstanding, they are considerate and delicate with intricate guitars and vocals but bombastic when fed deep bass electronic or otherwise, these can dig as deep as the best closed back cans but be as light and airy as the best pair of Grado’s.

They truly are a sonic treat. 

So what goes wrong when paired with an iPhone? Well they seem to get bogged down and loose that special fidelity they shine with when on the Arcam. They get muddy in the mids and the highs seem to be cut off and the bass seems to come to the forefront and take control.

I haven’t had the chance to try a dedicated headphone amp (portable or otherwise) but I think this could make a difference when using a source like the iPhone or iPod. Now it may sound like I’m being overly critical of these headphones and maybe I am but you’d expect when looking at a product from B&W, nothing but specific & thorough judgment is worthy of such a company and not doing it this way would be an injustice to such a great pear of IEM’s.

Now don’t get me wrong I’ve heard worse performances from phones more expensive and only the most critical ears would be picky and disregard such a great sound. I’ll still use these are my daily walkabout pair and that is saying something.

Other aspects of these IEM’s is the external noise is kept to a very minimum, plus I have a very delicate ears and the sound leaked from outside might not be heard by others. The mic works well and the conversation I had on my iPhone was heard by the other party just fine, and the voice of said person to me was very clear and much better than the earpiece of the phone itself.

Part 5: Conclusion
So what can I say to sum up these In Ear Monitors? Well if paired with a full HiFi (possibly with a portable amp) they really shine and across the board they don’t disappoint. Not to my ears anyway. The problem lies with their intended job, providing sound to someone out and about rather than in a recliner at home. In this respect they falter slightly and could have been a little better. Its not that they are horrid, far from it. I don’t know what changes B&W could make to remedy this slight bass overdose when coupled with inferior hardware but I’d like to hear their improvements. Plus we have to remember one thing here. This is B&W’s first foray into the IEM’s market and if I were Shure, Logitech or Sennheiser who are the market leaders for IEM’s I’d be worried.

If you want a pair of IEM’s that are going to give you an un-skewed sound when attached to home equipment then these are for you, if your looking for a dedicated pair just for iPhone/iPod only listening and you’re not going to use a portable amp then I’d look at the class leaders as for the money you may get a more rounded sound.

Disclaimer: The images used in this review are from B&W's own site, I didn't hotlink to the images to stop bandwidth issues for them. For more info please visit their site at www.bowers-wilkins.co.uk I've also uploaded a PDF version of this review here.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Fuji X-E1 & XPro 1 Firmware (Also XF Lens Firmware)

Its time people to fire up your internets and visit the Fuji website as the firmware is out and downloadable.

Focus peaking works a treat and works with full manual lenses which is great. The firmware for the 18-55 coupled with the new firmware for the body makes for a lot snappier combination but its still slower than some other cameras, especially at the long end of the zoom.

Have a great day and get updating.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Midnight Stroll

I havent uploaded may photos recently as I've been busy. But I have had a chance to rework an image and I thought you might like to see it.


Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Fuji firmware bonanza.

It's a great time to be a Fuji X owner. First two sets of Firmware are to be released in the coming months. The first is already been detailed and outed. These are for the X-E1 and XPro1.

Firmware V1.06 for X-E1 & V2.05 for X Pro1


The following information is taken from the X-E1 download page for version 1.06

  • "1Operability is improved to change settings easier and quicker by "single-hand".
    • "Focus Frame Selection" option is added to "Fn" (function) button.
    • "One more "Fn" function (No.2) is added to the down key of the "Selector".
  • In the "Fn BUTTON" on the SHOOTING MENU, selection of "Fn BUTTON" or "▼SELECTOR" is added. The default setting of the added Fn function (No.2) is "Focus Frame Selection".
  • 2Function to enable "Command dial" to control aperture setting for XF lens without an aperture ring is added.
    This function is for the XF27mmF2.8 and XC16-50mmF3.5-5.6 OIS which don't have an aperture ring. On the Shooting Mode, "APERTURE SETTING" is added and one of "AUTO+MANUAL", "AUTO" and "MANUAL" can be selected.
    For detail of how to operate, please refer to the operation manual "Before Using This Product" bundled with above lenses.

  • The "APERTURE SETTING" will be newly appeared, but it is not selectable unless either XF27mmF2.8 or XC16-50mmF3.5-5.6 OIS is attached to a camera."


The next firmware is going to add focus peaking for manual focus and also is supposed to speed up AF across all lenses. This is supposed to hit around the 23 July. So fire up your web browser of choice and get downloading.

In other news the XM1 has also been shown and it looks fantastic. I'd love to try it out, but alas I don't have the cash at the moment.

    Tuesday, 18 June 2013

    Fuji X-E1 with Helios Viewfinder

    Fuji X-E1 with Helios Viewfinder by Martin Pearman
    The viewfinder is the Mk2 from Helios with 35mm, 85mm & 135mm markings. It's pretty much useless on the Fuji as its off centre and has a cropped censor so depending on the lens it's never going to be exact. I bought this for my rangefinders for better framing. I just wish Fuji would bring a hotshoe OVF with digital overlay out for the X-E1. Surly it can't be hard to do.

    Friday, 14 June 2013

    Fuji X-E1 Review


    Fuji X-E1 Review
    By Martin Pearman

    Introduction

    I was in the market for a new camera and found that what ever was on offer was either too expensive (I'm looking at you Leica) or too much like a DSLR. I own a Canon 400D and never bothered buying any expensive lenses for it as I found that I didn't use it that much and couldn't get inspired to just shoot. It eventually found it way to the corner of the room unused.

    However I was browsing the “show off your latest purchase” section of GTPLanet.net and someone had purchased the Fuji X Pro 1 and I fell in love. The look of the camera drew my attention, simple and retro but also modern and elegant. I quickly did some research and found plenty of reviews and also details on its sister camera the X-E1. After reading, reading and more reading I decided that the newer X-E1 was the camera for me.

    I purchased the Fuji from Dale Photographic in Leeds. The were friendly and let me have a look before putting the plastic in to the chip and pin machine. I picked up a spare battery as I had heard that once you were 350-ish shots in then the battery would be out of juice and would need charging. Along with a new SD card and circular PL filter I had an X-E1 and Kit 18mm-55mm OIS lens. The anticipation of using the camera was overwhelming.

    First Impressions / Handling

    Clicking the lens into place, putting the battery and SD card in and switching on the Fuji for the first time was a great experience, the tactile and friendly feel of the Fuji in my hands felt homely and as though this camera was made just for me. The only other time you get this feeling is with an Apple product and I think this is the highest comment I can give to Fuji. They have found a balance that is just the right side of form and function.

    The above comments don't mean that this is a perfect camera, but its definitely closer to the bulky and unwieldy Canon. As said above the Fuji makes me want to go out and shoot, it slows me down and makes me think about what I’m taking. Handling the Fuji also makes sense and is easy to get to the controls you need the most, all the dials and buttons are in places easy to reach. There are a few problems and what seem like missed opportunities on Fuji's part. The compensation dial is easy to knock and could be a little bit stiffer, also when using the F button Fuji could have used the jog wheel to scroll through the sections.

    Fuji could have made the rubber around the EVF better, by allowing its removal so I could use a cup eyepiece. But other than those few gripes I find the Fuji an ergonomic friendly bit of kit. All the buttons on the back are placed nicely and I like the fact that the AE-l / AF-L and Q buttons have been angled away from the thumb rest and not straight on, this stops then from being knocked by said thumb. The Macro button is easy to press by big thumbs, but thankfully Fuji allow this to be locked out to stop this from happening, this is done by pressing and holding the “Menu Ok” for a few seconds.

    Menus Functions

    The menus of the Fuji are simple and consist of four menu systems Q, Main Menu, Drive Menu and Function Menu. First the main menu is split into “Shooting Menu” and “Set-Up” these contain everything needed from the date and time to formatting in the set-up and ISO to shoot without lens options in the shooting menu. The Q menu as the moniker suggests its a quick menu that contains a selection of options that maybe needed more readily and offers them in a 4X4 grid. The function button serves as a quick selection for one user chosen operation, I have mine set to ISO.

    Last is the drive button found on the left side of the camera back and it’s a strange choice for Fuji to put these options here but here you will find eight options “Single shot, continuous 3 & 6 fps, AE bracketing, ISO bracketing, film simulation bracketing, dynamic range bracketing, panorama mode & movie mode”

    Fuji seem to have put a lot of thought in to what pro-amature & pro photographers want. Some may see the panorama and film simulation modes as gimmicks but as they work and do a good enough job why not have them.

    Image Quality

    So the proof is in the pudding as they say and when it comes to the Fuji X-E1 and its APS-C XTrans sensor its proves that Fuji spent their time and money well while developing this new light capturing beast. The detail you can drag form this camera is astounding and the low light performance is nothing to scoff at either.

    I’ve noticed though if I purposefully under expose a shot then bring back the light in Adobe Camera RAW or other RAW processing software the files can contain allot of grain. Now I say grin rather than noise and this is what it is, if you want a film like quality with your shots (something digital has a hard time replicating) then the Fuji is a camera to look at. Also the X-E1’s colours are nothing short of Fuji-like even when the simulation of film isn't being used the straight base tones look great.

    Now the OOC (Out Of Camera) JPEGS are excellent so if you don’t want to shoot RAW then this is fine. When shooting RAW though you may need to boost the colour a little as the files do seem a little dull.

    Final Thoughts

    Is the Fuji a camera for you? I guess if you are reading this review then you maybe considering one. Its definitely worth considering, the EVF is fantastic but does lag in low light. AF can be slow but only on occasions and again in low light. Image quality is fantastic and counter to the performance of the EVF and AF in low light the images are great, even at relatively high ISO’s.

    The camera works well with legacy lenses and the amount of adapters out now you have a huge range to choose from. Fuji have also put a lot of effort in to the glass they are supplying the X-Pro 1 and X-E1 users and are tack sharp and speedy too. Operation is nice and quiet and lends the Fuji to a stealthy street shooter (alternatives are the X100 & X100s).

    If you are  in the market for a great camera with DSLR crushing abilities, light, compact with interchangeable lenses then the Fuji should be a serious contender for your money. Get yourself to a dealer and have a play.


    I hope you enjoyed the small look at the Fuji X-E1, if you think this maybe useful to a friend then pass on the link. If you want to leave a comment then please do. Enjoy your photography with whatever you use and happy snapping.

    Tuesday, 4 June 2013

    Flower & Bokeh

    flower by Martin Pearman
    flower, a photo by Martin Pearman on Flickr.

    The Pentacon 50mm F1.8 affords some lovely round balls of light. Some prefer thier bokeh smooth, well I love mine busy and interesting. If I can get swirly also I'm a happy chap.

    What bokeh do you like? Leave a comment and let me know.

    Friday, 31 May 2013

    Shots From Today Using A Pentacon 50mm F1.8

    Not the sharpest lens wide but does have a unique look. Also some swirly bokeh if done correctly.

    Fly 'N' Web It Doesn't Smell Sun Bathing 2Eye bobby Bokeh Golden Flower Having A Rest Library Entrance MG Midget

    Monday, 27 May 2013

    Saturday, 25 May 2013

    Friday, 24 May 2013

    Gilbert The Lhasa

    Gilbert The Lhasa by Martin Pearman

    Lhasa Apso Named Gilbert

    Pinterest

    Well I've added Pinterest to my list of social sites to keep up to date. I guess its just a couple of clicks on the mouse to add stuff to it, but I've I'm serious about blogging and photography then I guess it's a must.

    You can find my Pinterest boards here


    A Post here wouldn't be any good if I didn't post my latest images.


    zorki in hand i spy birds

    Sunday, 19 May 2013

    Assorted Edits

    watch and wait 

    trollied 

    dominant 

    canal loch 

    brooding landscape 
    Click the Panoramas to take you to the Lightbox version on Flickr
    Panorama YSP 2013

    Panorama YSP 2013