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Sound machines - John C. Kirk

Nov. 25th, 2012

06:40 pm - Sound machines

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Time for some more random reviews, based on stuff I've bought recently.

iPod shuffle

Back in August I bought an iPad. I'll post a proper review at some point, but in brief I'm quite happy with it - it's pretty good for reading books and comics. However, it's not very convenient for listening to podcasts: I wound up carrying it in my Brompton bag with the headphone cable coming out, so I felt a bit like a courier handcuffed to a briefcase. So, a couple of weeks later I bought an iPod. Two Apple devices within a month? I fear there is no hope for me now; go, leave me, save yourselves!

I mentioned podcasts in Feb 2010, specifically House to Astonish (comics reviews). I enjoyed listening to it, but I found that I'd wound up with a big backlog (similar to my piles of unread magazines). If I'm sitting at my computer, I may have music on in the background while I'm doing other things, but a podcast really needs my full attention. So, it makes sense to use my "dead time" for this, e.g. when I'm on the train during my daily commute.

There are various brands of mp3 players, and I do already have one that came free with a gym membership. However, that one wouldn't handle certain tracks, and I've never tried it with podcasts, so I've never really used it much. Looking at the Apple iPod range, they have four models: classic, touch, nano, and shuffle. The shuffle is the smallest and cheapest model (£40), and I don't need the extra features of the fancier models, so that's what I went for.

It was pretty simple to set this up: there's a USB adapter that plugs into the iPod's headphone socket. iTunes immediately recognised it, so I could then synch it. As I recall, by default it will try to synch music and podcasts, but I've unchecked the "Sync Music" box. I don't have enough room for all my music on the iPod (10 GB on my hard drive vs 2 GB on the iPod), and in fact I didn't originally have room for all the podcasts so I had to manually select the ones I wanted. I've now cleared enough of the backlog that I can tell it to synch all unplayed podcasts, and it's quite clever about that: whenever I connect the iPod to my computer, it will delete any that I've listened to completely, but it keeps them if I've only listened to part of them (e.g. the start).

The iPod has a slider control with three settings: off, "play sequentially", and "shuffle mode". I keep mine in sequential mode, but this brings up the only problem I have: it puts podcasts in reverse chronological order by default, i.e. the most recent broadcast will come first. I could skip one track back to get the oldest podcast (at the end of the list), but when it finished it would loop around to the start of the list to play the newest, so I'd have to skip back twice to get the second oldest, etc. I did some digging online, and found the solution at MacRumors: in iTunes, I checked the "Manually manage music" box, then I sorted the podcasts by release date. It remembers the "Manually manage music" setting, but each time I plug in the iPod it resets the order, so I have to go back and reorder the list. That's a nuisance, but I can live with it.

Because the device is so small, they've "overloaded" the controls, i.e. the same button can do different things. That can make it a bit fiddly to use. It came with a small instruction leaflet in the box, but I had to download the full manual to use it properly. For instance, there are buttons to skip track forward/back, and these also act as fast-forward/rewind if you hold them down for a few seconds before you release. That's useful if I get interrupted and miss a bit, since I don't want to start an hour long podcast from the beginning again. Similarly, there's a VoiceOver button you can press to identify the current track (e.g. "Episode 85"). According to the manual, you can press this twice to hear the battery status, but that just stopped the voiceover when I tried it. The solution is to press the button very quickly, a bit like double-clicking a mouse button.

The iPod says "Battery low" when appropriate, talking over the top of whatever else is playing. The initial battery charge lasted me for exactly 10 episodes (#57-66); it gave the first "low battery" warning just as the 10th podcast was finishing. The total time for those 10 is 12.4 hours, so that's reasonable. (The website says "Up to 15 hours audio playback".) The next full charge lasted me for another 10 episodes (#67-76), so it's consistent; this was 13.2 hours. After the "Battery low" warning, I was still able to finish the episode in progress; maybe another five minutes? I haven't tried draining the battery completely, but that may not be wise anyway, based on the little I know about "depth of discharge".

The website says that it will take three hours to recharge fully, with 80% charge after two hours. That sounds about right, based on my experience. I can recharge it through the USB cable (while I synch it with my computer) or I can connect the USB cable to the wall plug that came with my iPad; this doesn't seem to make any difference to the charging time. By contrast, it's much quicker to charge the iPad from a wall socket because it just gets a "trickle charge" from a computer. When I've finished, I use the "Eject" button inside iTunes, then I can safely unplug the cable without corrupting files.

Speaking of USB, the cable that comes with the iPod is about 7cm long. That works ok for me at the moment, since I have a USB extension cable for my IrDA adapter, but I wouldn't want to dangle the iPod from a USB socket. As an alternative, Apple sell a longer version of their cable (1 metre). The same problem applies if I use the power adapter that came with my iPad, unless I can position something else next to the power socket to rest the iPod on.

The back of the iPod is hinged, so that you can clip it onto a belt. However, I've found that it's a bit fiddly to squeeze the hinge without accidentally pressing any of the buttons on the front. So, it may be best to turn it off first, then clip it on, then turn it back on; the trade-off is that you then have to fiddle with the on/off slider when it's less accessible. When I turn on the iPod, it will automatically start playing if I'd left it in the middle of a track. However, it rewinds a few seconds first to give a brief recap, which is a nice touch.
Edit: If you hold down the play/pause button for a few seconds, that locks the controls, then you can squeeze the hinge without worrying about pressing buttons. Do the same thing to unlock the controls.

One day I was walking along and snagged the headphone cable on something, so the cable got yanked out of the iPod when it went taut. When I plugged it back in, I expected to have to rewind, but it had automatically paused (knowing that I couldn't hear anything). That's quite clever, so well done to Apple on implementing that feature.

I mentioned Transformers recently, and I started reading the new series after I heard about it in the podcast. (My podcast backlog is why I was "late" with the comics.) I've mentioned the relevant part of the episode (starting at 50m43s), but I had to use my computer to identify that. This iPod model doesn't have a display, so I can't see how far I am through a particular track. For a song, that doesn't matter, but for a podcast episode it might be nice to know how much time is remaining. For an audiobook, I'd like the equivalent of "flip ahead to see whether I can finish this chapter before I go to bed".

Speaking of audiobooks, I have mixed feelings on them. I have a couple of Star Trek books on CD ("Imzadi" and "Q in Law"), but in both cases I already had the paper book so I just bought them because I'd heard that the actors did a particularly good job. These came in quite handy after I had laser surgery on my eyes, since I could listen to them with my eyes closed. However, I don't really see the point in buying new books that way; it's cheaper and quicker for me to read them, e.g. as ebooks. Big Finish are a special case, since they do "original" audiobooks without a corresponding prose version, using the original TV cast. I may give their Stargate stories a try (the continuing adventures of Dr Zelenka and Walter the chevron guy), but I think I'll skip their Dr Who stuff (it looks a bit too continuity heavy for me).

Anyway, I'm happy with the iPod: it does what I want it to do, and I'm actually using it on a semi-regular basis. I've now caught up on 25 episodes from House to Astonish, so that leaves me with 12 to go (I'm about 6 months behind).

Bose QC 15 headphones

At about the same time I bought the iPod I needed new headphones. I've been using t.bone HD 880 for a while, but they developed problems where the sound was intermittently cutting out; on closer inspection, I saw that the wiring was loose where the cable joined the headphones.

The iPod came with its own headphones: these are the "ear bud" design, which go inside your ears. However, I'm not keen on them. When I was in Durham, I went along for a hearing test; it was free, and I thought it would be a nice ego boost to be told that I had perfect hearing. However, it turned out that I wasn't hearing as much as I should. I don't think I did any permanent damage, so hopefully I'm ok now, but the ear doctor (?) strongly advised me not to poke headphones into my ears. During the tests, I used padded headphones that fitted over my ears to block out background noise, and he said that he used the same design at home. So, that's what I've done since then. This means that I can keep the volume on a lower setting, which is better for my hearing and hopefully means that I'm not annoying other people by "leaking" music.

When I was at school, I wondered whether I could just play a blank cassette to block out the background noise of other boys in the dormitory without actually needing to hear my own music. Unfortunately, that doesn't work: I'd just get the hissing noise of the tape, and the headphones would simply be acting as earplugs. However, there are noise cancelling headphones which do achieve that goal.

In particular, I heard good things about the Bose Quiet Comfort 15 headphones. A quick glance at that page will tell you the biggest drawback: they cost £300! Amazon sell them for £250, but it's still a lot of money, considering that my old headphones cost under £25.

Fortunately, I'm now in a position where I can afford this, so I bought them. They need a AAA battery, and then there's a slider button to turn them on; this is much like wireless headphones, although these use a cable. As soon as I turned them on, I was very impressed: all the background noise in my flat went away. It's quite similar to what happens during a power cut: I don't really notice the background hum of appliances, fans, etc. until they stop.

How effective the headphones are depends on what the background noise is like. Generally, they do well with a constant noise but not so well with a variable noise. For instance, they're good at dealing with motorbike engines on the road outside. If I use a shredder, I can still hear that shredder quietly in the background (i.e. it's not completely cancelled out) but I don't need to crank up the volume to hear the iPod. It works pretty well on overground trains, and I can use the same volume level that I do at home; it's not quite so good on underground trains, particularly when I go through tunnels. The headphones don't cancel out speech at all, so (unfortunately) I still hear announcements at stations: "The next train at platform 13 will be ..." If I walk around, my footsteps cause some problems, but I think that's the vibration rather than the noise. In particular, when my heels hit the ground, I think that sends some kind of shockwave up my spine until it reaches the headphones. That's not really a problem if I'm pootling around the flat, just if I'm striding along outdoors.

The headphones come with two cables: one of them is specifically designed for Apple products and the other cable is for everything else. (There's also a separate aircraft adapter, but I haven't used that yet.) The Apple cable has a volume control about 8cm from the top of the cable, so I can use that as an alternative to the volume buttons on the iPod. I think that would mainly be useful if the iPod was inaccessible. For instance, the Brompton Oratory jacket includes "a zip-up valuables pocket with headphone port and cable loops". So, if you were wearing a jacket like that with the iPod zipped away out of sight, the control on the headphones would be easier to use. However, I can't see that control so I have to operate it by touch. I think the main benefit of these cables is that they can be replaced independently from the headphones; this would be useful if the wiring comes loose, like my old headphones.

The website says that the battery will last for 35 hours. That sounds about right, based on my experience, and it's roughly equivalent to three iPod charges. There isn't a low battery warning, or any way to check the current battery status, so you only know that the battery is running low when the sound starts cutting in and out. Be aware that when the battery runs out you can't hear anything at all; the headphones don't revert to "normal" mode (no noise cancellation).

The headphones are adjustable, which is useful if (like me) you have a big noggin. They also come with a hard case to carry them around in, which is quite useful: given how much they cost, I don't want to just chuck them in a bag. The ear/speaker bits pivot around to fit into a flat case, which is a good design. However, the headband bit needs to be pushed all the way in before they'll fit into the case. So, that means that I have to re-extend the headphones every time I take them out of the case, which is a minor irritation. The hard case includes a small zipped mesh bag, and I use that to store a spare AAA battery. I can also fit the iPod into there, but I normally leave it connected to the cable, i.e. coiled up in the middle of the case.

All in all, I'm happy with these. I know that the price will be a deal-breaker for lots of people, and I'd certainly advise you to try them out first if possible; if you see me in person, you're welcome to give mine a go. Still, if you can afford it, these are good quality.

Pure Twilight alarm clock

I've had a radio alarm clock for a few years, but it's recently been showing its age. The dials on the side (volume/tuning) were pretty fiddly to use, so it was difficult to make small adjustments, and I'd get static if I put my arm in the wrong place. This was an analogue unit, and I know that there are vague plans for a digital switchover, so I decided it was time to replace it, and I now have a Pure Twilight.

Right from the start, I was impressed: the display showed all the relevant information without configuration. For instance, it got the date and time from the radio signal, and I didn't have to change that when the clocks went back. Similarly, when I put it on the appropriate channel (Magic FM) it displayed the station name, and it often shows the details of the current song that's playing. These probably aren't new features, but they're new to me.

This clock has a light dome thing on top, and I've configured this to gradually get brighter for 30 minutes before the music comes on in the morning. In theory, this should be the equivalent of sunlight waking me up, so it won't be quite so jarring when the noise starts. In practice, I'm not sure how effective that is. However, it does also provide enough light for me to read in bed, so I haven't used my bedside lamp since I bought this. That in turn means that I can free up some space (and a power socket) by ditching the lamp.

The lamp controls take a bit of practice, because it's all done by resting your hand on top. (The surface doesn't get hot, unlike a normal light bulb!) You can adjust the brightness, and it alternates between increasing/decreasing: if you go too high, take your hand off, then put it back to go down a bit. However, you also put your hand on top to turn the light on and off. So, I kept doing the wrong thing at first. It's tricky to describe what the correct technique is, but I'd say it really comes down to confidence: if I put my whole hand on top (curved hand to match the curved surface) for about a second then that triggers it on and off. If I'm a bit more hesitant and keep my hand there for longer, it adjusts the brightness. This "light pressing" technique" also triggers the snooze alarm, so if I want to stay in bed I have to press once for snooze then a second time to turn off the light.

There are several different colours of light available, but I've stuck with basic white. However, one of the mood lighting options is amusing: you can have rotating colours, for a disco effect!

There are four alarms, each with their own schedule. This is quite useful, because I don't have to keep swapping it around. I have one for Mon-Fri (07:00), another for Sat-Sun (09:00), and a third that I use if I have to be up early. I'll then set the regular alarm for that day to "Skip once", set the third alarm to "Once only" and I only have to change the time on that third alarm. The first two alarms will then continue on their regular schedule the following day. I haven't bothered with the fourth alarm setting yet, but it may come in useful at some point.

There are options for plugging in other devices, e.g. so that it can play music from an iPod instead of the radio. I can see the benefit of that: if I hear adverts (or the really annoying "guess who's speaking" quiz) then I'm more likely to hit snooze. An 80s power ballad would really hit the spot there. However, it's not really practical for me at the moment while my iPod is full of podcasts.

As with the headphones, the main downside here is cost. If you go direct to Pure, they charge £140, but it's a bit cheaper from other retailers. I got it for £80 from Amazon; I feel a bit guilty about shopping there, based on their tax avoidance, but it's quite tempting when they're so much cheaper. Anyway, I'm happy with it. This is definitely better than the unit it replaced, and I use it every day. If I keep it for 4 years then that averages out at 5p/day, and hopefully it will last me longer than that.