In the last few months I’ve become a fan of Rick Beato’s YouTube channel. I appreciate his “What Makes This Song Great” videos and his lessons about music theory. When his “Audiophile or Audio-Fooled? How Good Are Your Ears?” video was suggested to me by the algo, I watched it and was disappointed by one of its premises: that hi-res or lossless audio files don’t need to be sold because 320kbps (kilobits per second) MP3 files sound great and double-blind listening tests have proved it.

I’ve been listening to digital music for a few decades now, and I know that the MP3 and AAC encoders of the last decade are excellent. I listen to lossy-encoded files regularly and don’t worry that I’m missing any details. However, as more of my music purchasing becomes digital (I own lots of shiny discs), I don’t want my choices to be limited to formats that aren’t flexible. Purchasing lossy-encoded music is a push into a corner.

MP3 and AAC are well-supported formats; let’s assume they are universal and will be supported forever. I will concede that for the sake of this argument. However, what I won’t concede is that if I want to squeeze a lot of lossy-encoded music onto a limited amount of storage, I’ve got a problem. Let’s say I’ve purchased a lot of iTunes Plus (256kbps AAC) or high-bitrate MP3s. I know that the quality of 128kbps AACs and MP3s is fine for my listening. I also know that if I transcode my lossy-encoded files to a lower bitrate, there is a much greater chance of losing details and quality than if I transcoded from a lossless file.

I choose 16-bit, 44.1 kHz (CD-quality) or higher FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) as my preferred music archival and listening format. I transcode to AAC or MP3 as required to move music to portable devices. Well-mastered CD-quality audio sounds great; I don’t hear a different with higher-resolution formats of the same mastering. However, some record labels release hi-res recordings (or vinyl) with greater dynamic range than they release on CD, so I will seek those out for music I really care about. As a consumer of music, I should be given the freedom to make an informed choice as to whether I want to buy lossy, lossless, or hi-res formats.

If a baker refused to sell you an unsliced loaf of bread, wouldn’t that seem hostile? I appreciate sites like Bandcamp that allow the artist to offer and the customer to choose lossy or lossless formats without penalty. It would be great if all digital music vendors and artists felt this way.

I recently purchased my first dedicated headphone amplifier: a FiiO E10 USB DAC. I found that FiiO had a vendor forum on, and FiiO representatives were gathering feedback about a new guitar headphone amp they were developing. When they offered to ship review units to guitarists, I took them up on the offer. Full disclosure before we get any further: FiiO has provided this review unit to me at no cost.  I’d like it even if it wasn’t free, and would buy it to keep it.

The FiiO G01 Guitar Headphone Amplifier

The FiiO G01 Guitar Headphone Amplifier on my small mixing board,

The FiiO G01 is a small, metal box (70 x 47 x 23 mm) with 3mm headphone and “aux in” jacks, a USB Micro-B connector for charging (USB-A-to-USB-Micro-B cable is included), a power switch, and three dials for Drive, Tone, and Volume. It features a pop-out 6mm instrument jack that, when retracted, fits snugly in a recessed area. It has an LED that indicates power and/or charging state.  There are black silicone bands around it that act as bumpers, and another set of red bands was included in the package.

The G01 is powered by an internal battery that’s charged over a powered USB connection. I plugged the included USB cable into an Apple AC adapter to charge the G01. I’ve used the unit for about 1.5 hours and haven’t had to recharge it yet.

I’m primarily a bass player, so I first tried the G01 with my Fender Geddy Lee Jazz Bass. I usually play through a SansAmp Bass Driver DI with a little overdrive; I found the Drive control on the G01 to be a bit powerful on the bass.  I only used it a little bit.  The Tone control acted on the higher frequencies; I dialed it in to about halfway.  Unfortunately, there are no numbers on the dials – they would be useful as one might use the G01 with different guitars or want to practice with different settings for multiple types of music.  The adjustments must be made by ear alone.  The sound I got out of a pair of connected Sennheiser HD203 headphones was pleasing, and I practiced for a while, forgetting that I wasn’t playing through an amp or DI.

I connected the Aux In to two audio sources for testing: a Google Cr-48 Chromebook playing songs from Google Music, and a iPod Nano.  There are no controls on the G01 for that input, so level-setting must be done on the source.  It was easy to dial in a nice blend of bass guitar with the music for practicing.  I practiced along with songs for about 30 minutes at a time during the review, and didn’t ever feel uncomfortable with the sound.

My father-in-law brought over a guitar he built with neck and bridge Carvin “Allan Holdsworth” pickups, and I used the G01 with it.  The guitar had all the pickup mode selections available, so I was able to play in many different modes (single-coil, double-coil, neck only, etc.).  I thought the clean sound was impeccable.  I’m not an electric guitarist (when I play guitar, it’s acoustic), but I cranked up the Drive setting to the max to see what kind of a sound I could get out of the G01.  It was a pretty pleasing overdrive with a bit of distortion that sounded neat cranking out some of the metal riffs I know.  I can see electric guitarists liking the G01’s sound.

In summary: I’ve never been in the guitar headphone amp market, but now I see the utility of the devices.  I recommend you check out the FiiO G01 before you buy anything else.  I’ll be incorporating headphones into my practice regimen now, which should allow me to practice at odd times where it’s not practical to play thorough my amp.  I can also see it being useful for the traveling musician to use during downtime.

Check out my set of G01 pics out on Flickr.

I cross posted this at Head-Fi.

The 2012 NFL season kicks off soon! Please join me and others from the Brutal Deluxe Football League on Yahoo’s Fantasy Football games!

Fantasy Football: The BDFL Experimental League
I reset all the scoring to defaults this year, no bonuses, and added just PPR to the scoring. Draft date and type will be set later, but will be on or before Tuesday, September 4th.
League ID: 688316
Password: brutal

Pro Football Pick ‘Em: BDFL and Friends
Straight-up picks, no spread, drop your worst week (or a week that you forget to pick). Pick through the playoffs.
Group ID: 33565
Password: brutal

Survival Football: BDFL and Friends
Pick one game per week; each team can only be picked once per season. Three strikes and you’re out. Pick through the playoffs.
Group ID: 15451
Password: brutal

The BDFL is gearing up for our draft and the 2012 season! Visit us at New podcasts coming soon!

Both Dell and HP released their first wave of servers based on the new dual-socket Intel Xeon E5 series last week.  Dell is calling their new servers “12th generation”, and HP is calling theirs “Gen8″ (generation eight).  After reviewing both vendors’ offerings, my initial take is that Dell is raising the bar in terms of storage density and features, and HP is matching some of Dell’s recent gains in system manageability.

With their previous generation of servers, Dell lagged behind HP’s internal hot-plug disk capabilities.  The Dell PowerEdge R710 2U server could only hold up to 8 2.5” (small form factor, or “SFF”) drives, but HP had an option to insert up to 16 in their ProLiant DL380 G7.  The Dell PowerEdge T710 server could only hold up to 16 SFF drives, but HP’s ProLiant DL370 G6 could hold up to 24.  My team at work ended up choosing the DL370 G6 in many cases for applications like file servers, SQL servers, and backup servers because of the large number of local disks.  External disk enclosures from either vendor are very expensive.  With their 12th-generation servers, Dell has increased the internal storage capabilities of their servers significantly.  The PowerEdge R620 can hold up to 10 SFF drives.  The PowerEdge R720 can now hold 8 or 16 SFF drives (with a two-controller 8 + 8 split-backplane option), and has added a 2U PowerEdge R720xd model that can hold up to 14 3.5″ (large form factor, or “LFF”)drives or 26 SFF drives.  The PowerEdge T620 (replacing the T610 and T710 models) can hold up to 32 SFF drives.  On some server models, Dell also has added the capability to address up to 4 of the hot-plug bays directly with PCI Express (PCIe) buses, which work with PCIe SSD (solid state disk) hot-plug disk options for high-performance workloads.  They also carry a feature on their PERC RAID controllers called CacheCade which allows the controller to use SAS SSDs as additional read/write cache.

HP’s new servers break little new ground in the storage area compared to the models the Gen8 servers are replacing.  The ProLiant DL360p Gen8 (1U rackmount server) maxes out at 8 SFF drives (same as G7), the DL380p Gen8 (2U rackmount) can hold up to 16 SFF drives (same as G7), and the ML350p Gen8 (a 5U tower/rack server similar to the Dell T620) can hold up to 24 SFF drives (same as DL370 G6).  HP doesn’t have an answer for the PCIe SSDs or CacheCade feature that Dell offers.  Both of the new-generation Dell PERC and HP Smart Array RAID controllers have flash-backed write cache (FBWC) as a standard feature: HP had this when their previous generation controllers launched; Dell added the feature after launch.  HP has 1GB and 2GB FBWC options on their new Smart Array P421 controller; Dell shows only 512MB and 1GB options on the new PERC H710.

Both vendors’ servers have similar processor/memory options at launch.  All the servers I’ve referenced here can hold up to two 8-core CPUs and have 24 DIMM slots for RAM at sizes of 2 to 32GB (maximum 768GB RAM).  Other servers that use the Xeon E5 CPUs in a 4-socket configuration are due to come out later this year and will have even greater memory capacity.  Memory now runs at up to 1600MHz and the lowest-speed configuration (when many DIMM sockets are populated) is 1066MHz (up from 800MHz in the Xeon 5600-based configurations).

With their previous generation of servers, Dell added a new Lifecycle Controller that provided a bootable, GUI environment for maintaining servers independently of the installed OS.  HP appears to be trying to match this feature with their new “iLO Management Engine”.  I’m looking forward to seeing how this works.  Both vendors have evolved their lifecycle management over the last few years to be a lot more OS-agnostic, relying on Linux-based boot environments to provide easy-to-use system management/update tools.

Both vendors are driving up their feature sets, but I think Dell is poised to be a leader in direct-attached storage applications.  I will have to review the systems management offerings from both vendors to see if they’re truly getting more similar.

For the past few years I’ve usually bought CDs that are “special edition” or have bonus material. I have also bought DVD-Audio discs to get 5.1 mixes (mainly Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree stuff). These formats get archived as tagged FLAC files on my home server. FLAC is my lossless codec of choice because it is an open specification, supports a wide range of resolutions and channels, has good metadata support, and is supported by a wide range of software. I don’t currently own any FLAC playback hardware, but that’s not critical to me. I play back FLACs on the computer using Foobar2000. It’s also my main ripper/converter and librarian. The only gap it has for me is that it doesn’t support writing album art metadata natively. I use either Album Art Downloader, MP3tag, or iTunes for that. Speaking of metadata, in addition to the essential metadata, I make use of album artist, disc number, and ReplayGain tags.

When I buy music online, I prefer to buy FLACs. I also prefer to buy music that has moderate dynamic range. I’ve found that I enjoy music that has a ReplayGain value of -8dB or less the most. When I see ReplayGain values at or above -10dB, I usually have a bias against the mastering, which probably used at least some brickwall limiting to produce such a high volume. Unfortunately ReplayGain values aren’t a primary specification prior to purchasing music, so I usually have to purchase on reputation. I probably shouldn’t display ReplayGain values in my primary view on Foobar2000, but I do. It’s mainly to make sure the files are tagged with it, but like I said, it does color my anticipation of the music.

My FLACs get transcoded to LAME MP3 v2 (~190kbps) for normal playback, which could be on the computer, an iPod or iPhone, or to an Airport Express via Airplay. If I’m at a computer that has access to my FLAC archives and Foobar2000, I’ll listen to those.

I rarely purchase iTunes Plus (256kbps AAC) or MP3 files (190kbps or better), but when I do it’s with the expectation that I will not transcode them into another lossy codec or to the same codec at a different bitrate. I will burn them to CDs with a note like “from AAC” or “from MP3” to let myself know not to rip the CD later expecting a lossless copy of the original. Sometimes if I’m using a playback device that’s storage-constrained, I will transcode down to AAC or MP3 at ~128kbps. These files aren’t anything I would archive – they’re for playback only.

Speaking of burning CDs, I do burn discs to listen to stuff in the car with a little more quality than just plugging my iPod or iPhone into the aux jack. Like many, I have quite a few CD playback systems around the house and at work. One little quirk I have is that I like to write CD-TEXT on my burns; my car stereo and a few of the players I use support displaying that info. When I burn CDs, I don’t apply ReplayGain or any volume processing. I burn CDs with Nero, CD Architect (rarely, if I want to do some limited mastering, crossfades, or track adjustments), or Foobar2000 (if I don’t want to write CD-TEXT).

Can’t wait for 12/12/12!

Bermuda Cruise, Pt. 4 podcast

Bermuda Cruise, Pt. 3 podcast

Bermuda Cruise, Pt. 2 podcast