Sunday, March 18, 2018

Speaker wars

Of course there is no war at all, except that which has been in my head over which speakers to use in our office. I have switched between having a HomePod in the office to having my Harman Kardons in there... and back and forth a number of times.

Most recently, we have one HomePod in the living room, one in the bedroom, and the Harman Kardons in the office. This has been working rather well. Shawna has been using the HomePods in the bedroom and living room and enjoying them.

So today I was doing some "audio tests" and came to another decision (a similar thing happened the last time I did audio tests). For those who don't know, these audio tests are what we refer to around here as "music appreciation hour". That happens on occasion when I am left unsupervised for more than an hour or two.

Anyway, my conclusion today was... while the Harmon Kardons might outcrank the HomePod... there are more things to consider.

Perhaps the Harman Kardons are superior. I don't even really know for sure. I do know that all the feedback I've read about the HomePod talks about the excellent sound. Even the people who don't like it say it sounds great. So I simply might be mistaken in thinking the Harman Kardons sound better. I honestly suspect that is true. I mean how could a $150 set of speakers outperform a $350 one that by all accounts is "great sounding for the price"?

So my decision... is to double-down. I am going to buy a third HomePod to use in the office. We will essentially have one in each room of the house. My OCD likes things being uniform. Three matching speakers. Yay! And Siri in every room to control our HomeKit devices.

So the Harman Kardons are back in the box in the garage where they will likely stay. If they are truly the better-sounding speakers... then oh well. Regardless of which speakers actually sound better, I am fully determined at this point that the HomePod will suffice. It may not be true hi-fi, but it's "good-enough-fi".

I did a similar thing when I shed my $2,000 front room stereo in favor of a sound bar. Being content with less is a good thing. And if I can't crank the HomePod loud enough so the neighbors can hear it, well that's ok. I probably shouldn't be doing that anyway right?

Thursday, February 22, 2018

More HomePod fun...

HomePod on a yoga block

Get ready to laugh. This will undoubtedly cause you to chuckle.

So... bought the HomePod right? Had it for a few days. Liked it. Not sure it was better-sounding than my Harman Kardon speakers but figured I'd keep it anyway.

A couple nights later, had a few beers, and did a bunch of comparison testing between the two speaker systems.

That night, I initiated a return of the HomePod. The next day I took it to FedEx and shipped it back.

Then I came to some realizations (which I will detail below). Last weekend I happened to be near the Apple Store in Bridgeport Village. So I went and picked up another HomePod before the return on my first one had even processed.

So here are the realizations...

  • It's probably better not to test out speaker systems while under the influence. Because anything with booming bass sounds good.
  • It's probably better not to test with Metallica when my normal listening material is classical music.
  • Loud sound doesn't equal good sound.
  • Bass-heavy sound doesn't equal good sound either.

One of the reasons for some of these conclusions, was some research I was doing into "studio monitor" type speakers. I have a set of well-rated studio monitors that make good PC speakers. Come to find out my Harman Kardon 2.1 system is also well-rated. So I was trying to decide which to use (since I had returned my HomePod).

Studio monitor speakers attempt to reproduce recordings the way they were recorded without adding "color" to the sound. This can honestly result in some boring listening. Because there isn't much bass and the sound is relatively flat. But it's a more "honest" reproduction of the recording.

Then there are the 2.1 style systems. Which can produce some pretty good bass. But my feeling is... the 2.1 system definitely does color the sound. And while it sounds way better when cranking up Metallica after a few beers, it's probably not "quality" sound.

That's when I concluded that the Apple HomePod is probably a great speaker for me and the type of music I typically listen to. Will the Harman Kardons outcrank it while playing bass-heavy rock? Sure. But the HomePod probably produces better quality and more accurate sound.

BTW, what you see in the picture is my HomePod elevated on a "yoga block". I have no idea what yoga blocks are used for. But an audio guy said the HomePod sounds better when elevated a bit and recommended them.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

HomePod impressions

IMG 0119
The picture above shows my Apple HomePod that arrived yesterday. It is intended to replace the Harman Kardon SoundSticks shown below. The HomePod has no wired connections (except for power). It's designed to respond to voice commands (via Siri). One can also stream to it from any Airplay-capable device.

The HomePod has very nice sound. Certainly it is a technological marvel for it's small size. For years we've seen a number of small bluetooth speakers on the market that have significantly better sound output than their small size would suggest they should. I have a couple from Sony that I like pretty well. I also had an expensive one from Harman Kardon before I returned it and got my SoundSticks.

For years I have used a number of 2.1 systems like the Harman Kardon SoundSticks shown above connected to various things (usually a PC or a TV). A 2.1 system is a basically an amplified speaker system with two primary speakers and one sub-woofer. I've been pretty impressed with a number of these, and I think it's a great budget solution for many folks.

I think that one cannot expect to match the sound volume or crankability of a decent 2.1 system with a single speaker like the HomePod. However the HomePod does have several things going for it. First, the sound quality is exceptional. Second, it's entirely omnidirectional. There is no front or back and therefore no real "sweet spot" that one needs to be in. It literally tunes itself to your room and it's placement in it. Third, it has an always-listening personal assistant (Siri). This is particularly nice since most of our lighting is HomeKit compatible. Controlling the lights with voice commands is kinda cool.

So while the HomePod doesn't crank as loud as my other speakers... it looks cool, and it sounds cool. Plus I'm an Apple fan. So there is that. Being an Apple fan means I have a predisposition to liking/preferring Apple products. I make no apologies for that. And in the case of the HomePod, my decision whether or not to keep it might be more difficult if it were not a fancy new Apple product. That does kind of tilt the scales for me. I won't lie, being an Apple fan is fun. And yes, I am keeping it.

I'm going to add this link to a really great reddit article/review on their audiophile subreddit. Seems that this guy thinks Apple totally nailed it. And he has the evidence to prove it.

I will also add a link to a great YouTube piece on the HomePod. This one is entertaining.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

I should be a tech reviewer

I've been on the fence regarding the new Apple HomePod. For those who don't know, it's Apple's new Siri-powered digital assistant speaker. It went on sale last Friday for pre-order. And will be delivered beginning Feb 9th.

One of the things I've started doing is watching a fair amount of tech reviewers on YouTube. It's quite a niche for those guys. And it's pretty high paying for a number of them. We're talking about people that have to form companies and hire employees to get to the level of video production that is expected. It can be a good place to listen to reviews and things.

Today I was listening to a guy who's YouTube channel I subscribe to. And he was saying how bad this new speaker sucks. Shortly after listening to his review (he hadn't actually seen one yet)... I went ahead and ordered one. Just like any respectable Apple fan would do.

I commented on his video. And he responded. We both agreed that a small single speaker like this would most likely not have as good of sound quality as a good 2.1 setup. He says "you can't skirt the laws of physics". But from everything I hear, it's the stand-out excellent sound quality that sets this speaker apart from it's competition.

While people are comparing it to the Amazon Echo and the Google Home smart speakers, it's really out of their league. It features like six separate tweeters each with their own dedicated amplifier. It is powered by the same powerful chip that runs their iPhones. And it essentially senses the proportions of the room it's in... and it's position in that room w/regard to walls... and adjusts it's sound output accordingly. Bang and Olufsen has a speaker with similar smarts that retails for about $10,000.

So we'll see how it does against my 2.1 setup I have in our office at home. Luckily Apple has a no-questions-asked return policy. So this is essentially a trial.

Apple Homepod

Monday, January 22, 2018

So much for that

My last blog entry explained how I was downsizing my computer gear. I had sold my iMac, my MacBook, and my iPad. All to be replaced by a newer MacBook.

The reasons for doing this are a little difficult to explain. First of all... I have a bit of a computer habit. I spend most my time in front of one, both at work and at home. I've been fighting this off and on for years (unsuccessfully I might add). Second, because my iMac was my best device (by a long shot), I spent most my free time basically chained to my desk where it sits, as opposed to using my other (more mobile) devices away from my desk.

I've actually gone to great lengths in the past to help curb my technology habit. I went so far as to go without internet at home. I figured I could take my laptop to where there was public wifi when I wanted to use the net. I suppose that was a little extreme. And it wasn't because the of the cost either. It was because I felt it would be better for me not to have access at home. Something to literally force myself to do other things. Well, like most of my other attempts, that was short-lived.

With my latest downsizing I guess I kinda thought that the move to having the MacBook as my only computer would help free me from my desk. I would be completely mobile and free to geek out from anywhere.

This sounded attractive. But in reality, even after successfully getting rid of all my other gear... I still pretty much spent all my time at my desk. I went so far as to run my MacBook in closed-cover mode... with an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

That's when it occurred to me. I actually paid a premium for this MacBook in two ways. One, it's super small size and portability made it cost more. And two, there was also a significant performance sacrifice involved in getting it that small. Essentially, while a desktop machine was the most suitable tool for what I was doing, instead I was using an underpowered and overpriced laptop for a purpose it was not intended for.

Of course when I realized this, it kinda torqued me off. There were a few different times where I swapped back and forth between using the external monitor, keyboard, and mouse... and just using the MacBook as a normal laptop. While the external monitor, keyboard, and mouse gave me the best functionality. They caused me to miss out on the MacBook's best selling point, which is the super high quality of it's hardware.

Ok, I'll acknowledge that this is definitely a first-world type of problem. But (luckily) my life is so boring that I am always trying to figure out ways to optimize my little existence.

After the above realizations, I started thinking iMac once again. I toyed with the idea of buying an iMac and selling my MacBook. I figure I could use my iPad for anything mobile (yes, I bought another iPad). But I do believe that I could be deemed certifiable if I were to sell my new MacBook only three months after purchasing it.

I did order a new iMac. I'm typing this on it now. This time I did a custom-build with an SSD instead of a fusion drive. It's quite a bit quicker.

So this "experiment" in downsizing was a little expensive. However in the end, I ended up upgrading my MacBook, my iPad, and my iMac to newer models that were all significantly better than what they replaced.

My wife had a bit of wisdom. She said that perhaps I should just accept the fact that I like computers and stop trying to fight it. Hmmm...

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Gear trading

Wow. I just finished over two weeks of selling a lot of my tech gear, partially just to trade it for more. This has been a long time in coming. In buying stuff... I suffer from "mission creep" where I keep adding more and more. At some point I need to clear out the excess and do a bit of a reset.

I sold my 27" 5K iMac, iPad Air 2, early-2015 MacBook, 4 pairs of headphones, and 2 headphone amps. I used eBay for the bigger-ticket items and Craigslist for the lower-value ones.

To replace this stuff, I bought a new 2017 MacBook. Essentially, the new MacBook is replacing my iMac, iPad and old MacBook. My old headphones and headphone amps had already been replaced by a couple pair of Apple AirPods.

My wife and I also swapped out our Series 0 Apple Watches for the latest Series 3 w/LTE. And I did a scheduled phone upgrade from the iPhone 6S Plus to the iPhone 8 Plus. (my wife is holding out for the iPhone X)

I also sprung for a Nintendo Switch and a few games. We have a Wii U that has been obsoleted. For now we're keeping both. The Switch goes in my office.

This all pretty much happened with no money out of pocket. I've been really wanting to downsize my gear for a long time. I finally did it. In spite of the fact that I believe everyone I know would have probably advised me against it. And yes, when you sell used items you certainly take a hit. But Apple stuff has pretty good resale value. And some money for the old stuff is better than no money.

Of course the biggest change for me is getting used to the 12" screen on the MacBook compared to the gorgeous 27" 5K screen that I had on the iMac. But part of the goal here was to decrease the role that computers have in my life. Yes, having a computer is a fact of life. But I have decided that I wish to embrace a form of "minimalism" to where these things don't have more of a role than they need to.

I also think that having my only computer able to go anywhere with me is a bit liberating. No longer will I feel tied to my desk because I feel compelled to "enjoy" my desktop computer. The highest level of functionality I have is now completely mobile. I didn't really use my old MacBook that much because it was always a compromise when compared to the iMac that was sitting right there on my desk. It's now no longer a matter of choosing. I have one iOS device and one macOS device. Problem solved.

First-world problems... yeah sorry. Although it's a big change to my little world.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Well that didn't last long

A couple months ago I bought a wireless speaker from Harman/Kardon called the Onyx. That speaker has now failed on me. I am beyond the refund window, so Harman/Kardon was going to replace it. Well, honestly I wasn't that impressed. So I had another idea.

After I'd initially ordered that speaker, I noticed that Harman/Kardon is still selling the Soundsticks 2.1 setup (pictured below). I used to have a set like these when I bought my first Mac back in 2002. So there is some sense of nostalgia. 

The Soundsticks happened to be exactly the same price as the Onyx. So I talked them into sending me the Soundsticks to replace the failed Onyx. Yes, it's possible they chose style over substance. But I believe this 2.1 setup will out-perform the Onyx.