Audiophile-quality micro system

One of the things I find I enjoy more and more as I get older is music. I never listened that much when I was younger, but now I find it’s a great escape. I discovered the bliss of in-ear monitors back in ’99 when I was traveling a LOT for work, and was using music to deal with the occasional bout of homesickness. My Etymotic ER4-S ‘phones were awesome even if they required an amplifier to get the best sound. It was ok – with a Creative Labs Jukebox, my HeadRoom amp and the Ety’s I was a happy camper.

Later on I got an iPod and later still I moved up to the Sure SE530 phones and no longer needed the amp. The sound & fit are stellar but with small children around the house wearing headphones that block a lot of sound isn’t a very good idea. A frustrated “help me!” call or crying child going unheard is not a good thing. Other than for running, headphones that don’t block sound just don’t make sense to me – if I’m going to hear background noise why not use speakers?

So I was trying to figure out how to put together a small, inexpensive, but nice sounding speaker system for the office and/or shop. I’ve got some old stereo equipment, but it’s a gigantic JVC multimedia receiver – about 18” deep. Not easy to find a home for. I also didn’t need the gazillion watts the old stereo was capable of. Heck, I probably wouldn’t need more than 5.

I thought about getting one of the iPod dock-plus-speakers appliances that a lot of folks are selling, but I don’t need portability and I wanted better sound quality and speaker placement.

After some thought and some reading I figured out that all I really needed was a dock for my iPod, a small amp, and some speakers. I have a set of old JBL 2500 book shelf speakers, and while not great they work for now. The dock was a small purchase at the Apple store. That left the amp.

I looked around a bit and after finding the Sonic Impact t-amp was getting rave reviews from audiophiles I got very interested – the thing is only $30 after all. Turns out that Sonic Impact developed a very cheap amp using a chip made originally for products like big-screen TVs. It is a special kind of amplifier circuit that’s very efficient and produces very little heat. The result is a small, inexpensive amp that has very good audio quality if not a lot of power – something like 10 watts per channel max, with about 6 being the limit for really good sound quality.

Unfortunately Sonic Impact realized the demand and improved the amp and raised the price. Others joined the fray with similar but better designs and the “Class T” audio amplifier market was born. There’s several models out there, and a few companies that offer kits. I think I will ultimately build on of the 41hz kits, but in the mean time I decided on the Trends Audio TA-10.1, which I bought from AudioMagus.com. The Trends is about twice the price of the latest version of the Sonic Impact amp, but it gets better reviews and the build quality (it’s in a metal case with high-quality connectors) was much better.

It’s pretty tiny and has only an LED and a knob on the front. It’s just a simple amp with 1 input and outputs for pair of speakers. Perfect.

So I have an iPod sitting in the dock, the dock connected to the amp which has its volume turned to max. I use the remote for the iPod to change volume, advance tracks, etc. The remote is small and simple and easy to replace if needed.

The sound is excellent at low volume and still pretty good with everything turned up. Something mentioned in every review of the amp was that speakers less efficient than 90db@1 watt would be disappointing and the JBLs are at ~86 so I will probably be replacing them soon. Still, for a system that takes up about as much space as a small alarm clock, and holds about 300 CD’s worth of music encoded in a lossless format, it’s pretty remarkable. If I need to move it to the patio or a different room it’s pretty portable.

Living with the iPhone iDrop

Susan got an iPhone first. She loves it more than any gadget she’s ever had. I have to admit I was jealous – really, I am the gadget master in the family and it didn’t seem right that she’d have a new gadget than I.

But I liked my Blackberry. It did almost everything I wanted, and it was a darn good phone to boot. Still, using the iphone convinced me that for portable internet there was nothing beating it. My resistance wavered and then completely collapsed.

I’ve had the phone for more than a month now, and while everyone and their brother has reviewed the thing I can’t pass up the chance to add my input.

So, how do you like it? Is a question you hear a lot when you use your iphone in public. Here’s my answer:

It’s like having the most beautiful, sexy girlfriend in the world, with the unfortunate habit of occasionally puking in your mouth when you kiss her.

What I love:

  • It’s a great little browser in your pocket. People bitch about it not having flash, but I don’t miss it.
  • Even if you have a poor connection (which is most of the time, see below) it will download voicemail so you can still get it.
  • It’s an iPod, albeit missing some features.
  • The screen seriously rivals paper. It’s that good.
  • The glass screen and overall build quality. No creaks, no fragility, just a solid gadget.
  • You Tube is far more fun than I ever thought it would be.
  • If you get a call while listening to music it will fade & pause the music when you answer, and unfade & restart the music when the call is over.
  • Even though it has no push email, IMAP email with Gmail is actually a better solution than Gmail on BlackBerry.

What I hate:

  • The iPhone hangs onto a call about as well as my 77-year old father hangs on to a greased pig. If you’re standing within site of a tower you have a chance. Otherwise, all bets are off.
  • That is, if you can get the call started in the first place. ATT seems to have simplified busy signals, disconnected number signals and call drops all into one “Call Failed” error on the phone.
  • The signal strength meter is more of an “estimated recent signal strength, sort of” meter. I’ve gotten and kept calls with one or even zero bars, and have also had calls drop unexpectedly with 5 bars. Go figure.
  • Bluetooth is a technology to be played with, not used. The relationship between my iPhone and my Jabra headset is more erratic than Brittany Spears relationship with reality. The two will spontaneously decide not to talk to each other and will need to be re-paired.
  • The glass screen provides zero tactile feedback, and is fairly picky about how hard you tap it before it considers it to be a “good” tap.
  • Occasionally my iPhone will take a nap like an old man dozing off in the middle of a story. Because you can’t tell this is happening until you’ve been tapping away at the screen trying to get it to work, when it wakes up there’s no telling where the game of iPhone roulette will end.
  • The iPod part of the phone doesn’t sync the skip count or last skipped data for songs. So, if you’re trying to make use of iTunes’ elaborate smart playlist feature to filter out songs you skipped through, you’re out of luck with the iPhone.
  • For whatever reason, my iPhone takes forever to find and connect to my home wifi network, and will never prompt me to connect.  It will often shows the signal strength as one bar, even when I’m standing next to my wireless access point. Other times it’s 5 bars on the other side of the house. This happens sometimes at other places.
  • Sometimes my iPhone will repeatedly and with great urgency ask me to connect to networks I don’t want to connect to.  We have wifi at work. It’s very locked-down and PDA’s are absolutely not allowed so I really don’t need my iPhone bugging me to connect. I really wish Apple would make an “ignore this network” feature, for places where there is wifi that for whatever reason will never be used.

Overall I like the device, but the relationship is love/hate.  That’s why I say it’s like having a fantastic girlfriend who barfs in your mouth – most of the time things are awesome, but when they go bad it’s such startling, frustrating experience it has me emotionally gagging on the phone.

Let’s hope the new iPhone 2.0 software coming in late June (I’m expecting late July) will tip the balance a bit.

Air Boss still the boss

I just got back from the Primir meeting in Portland, Oregon. Portland is a great city, with a nice transportation, reasonable prices, and the weather was even nice. The Primir meeting was enlightening as always, and it was nice to see everyone again. The travel to and from the meeting was less enjoyable, but I’m alive and these days that’s about the limit of what we expect. It was also a nice chance to play with luggage. ;-)

The trip got me thinking about bags again.

A long time ago I stopped carrying a briefcase at all. I had realized that I was mostly hauling a bunch of stuff to work that didn’t need to be there, and stuff back home that didn’t need to be their either. So I just stopped. Then after a while I missed having a few things with me, more than would fit in my pockets. So I started carrying a man-purse. I’ve owned many of these, and the last was a small messenger bag called the Timbuk2 Mini Metro. Then my job changed again, I started missing some paperwork at home, and I bought a Chrome small messenger bag as my Timbuk2 Mini Metro was too small for files. I like the Chrome, but it is really best suited to its intended purpose rather than an impromptu brief case. The metal seatbelt buckle in the front is probably very handy for messengers, but I just keep banging it into things. The size and shape are good, but I miss the small pockets in the Timbuk2.

So I’ve been thinking about getting a briefcase. Yes, I have a few but nothing mid-sized. I used to have a Land’s End canvas briefcase, but tossed it after it got ratty looking. I was not stiff enough anyway.

Then I went to Portland and took my Red Oxx Air Boss & Tom Bihn Brain Cell combination which worked as well as last time. Both did what I expected, and everything went fine. I’m finding that the more I use the Air Boss, the more I like it. Things fit well and the more I use the bag the more I realize the thought that went into not only the design but the precision of the dimensions. For example, if you find the cinch straps in the outer compartments aren’t long enough, you’ve got too much stuff in that compartment and it will bulge when you zip it. When the bag is over stuffed it’s hard to snap the handles together – another signal that the bag is too full, and you may have trouble sticking it in the overhead. You can stuff the bag past these warnings, and I’ve yet to be unable to get it to go where it needed to, but it’s an easier carry when it’s properly loaded. Also, if you’re going carry-on, it’s always good to be asking if you really need to be carrying this or that extra item.

But the fun of luggage is in the pursuit of the perfect solution, and so every time I travel I always thinking about how things could be done better. On this trip I identified the following:

  • I missed having various things with me while in flight, because everything was in the Air Boss, in the overhead. When I have my preferred aisle seat, and I’ve been fortunate enough to get space near my seat it’s no big deal to get up and get something, but I was in the middle on this trip. Note to self – book earlier!
  • I missed having some workout clothes which I couldn’t fit into
    the Air Boss because of the space taken by the computer.
  • The Air Boss gets heavy when my computer is in it. Add some paper, and it gets to be pretty uncomfortable. The Claw strap keeps it on the shoulder, but it’s not a happy shoulder.

So three more votes for a briefcase. I’ve looked at the Tumi Essential Brief, but at $300+ it’s pretty expensive. I’ve looked at Tom Bihn, but they don’t make a slim briefcase, only 6″ or wider. The shoulder straps attach on either side of the body, which tends to make a bag hard to open when it’s on my shoulder as it does with my Travel Pro case. I’ve checked out a few other bags at the local luggage store, but they’re all very fixated on things I just don’t want. Dedicated computer pockets, expandability, special snap-in accessory pouches all add cost without adding real usefulness or flexibility.

So I’m looking at Red Oxx’s “Slim-Line Padded Brief” – with other bags named “Air Boss”, “Gator” or “Benos”, it’s an oddly functional name – and I’ve all but decided to order it pending a few questions from Red Oxx. It looks like the right size, although it may be a bit full when my computer’s in it. Without the computer, how I’d carry it to work, it should be the right size. Not crazy about water bottle pockets, but I can live with them.

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Finally got the Air Boss

A long while ago I’d written about the Red Oxx Air Boss bag, and how I was lusting after it. I ordered their tote bag and travel basket and wrote about them, but couldn’t get myself to order the Air Boss.

I’m a bit of a luggage nut, so normally I would have popped for it easily. However, a distinct lack of travel combined with two young children at home put the damper on those kinds of purchases. Another thing that held me back was suits. I have to travel with them from time to time, I’d been brainwashed that they had to be folded up in some special apparatus made for the purpose. A suiter, or my roll aboard with the three-panel suit folding thingy. Surely just folding them up would turn them in to crepe paper, right? I’d read about the bundle method of packing, and even used it with casual clothes, but I just couldn’t accept doing it with formal wear.

Not so. On my last trip I took my roll aboard, but because I wore my blazer on the way there I took out the three-panel suit folding thingy and just had a basic suitcase. However, I ended up not wearing the blazer on the way back, so I just folded it like a shirt and stuck it in the case. Came out just fine. I became convinced that formal wear could be bundled.

Still have the kids (and love them dearly) but the travel has increased a bit so I’ve converted some little-used electronic items to new luggage – a saffron Air Boss.

Why saffron? First, I figure it is less likely to be stolen. A guy walking around an airport with a black bag is pretty invisible, but that same guy walking around with a bright yellow one is bound to get noticed. Second, sometimes, when I want to live like a civilized human being at my destination (meaning, with a pocket knife in my pocket) I will check a bag. As anyone with a small black roll-aboard knows, everyone has one. Bright yellow bags are much easier to spot at the luggage carousel.

Last but not least, if you’ve ever had that delightful conversation with those exceptionally relaxed and pleasant folks at the lost luggage counter, you’ve seen the diagram of various bags they show you to help you describe your bag so they can find it. You know, “My bag is just like bag ‘J’.” The difference between bag “J” and bags “K” and “I” is subtle changes in size and wheel placement – all bags are black. Yellow bags are a lot easier to describe, right? I mean, it’s yellow. They probably don’t even have to know what size it is or if it has wheels. Ok, maybe, just to ensure they don’t mistake it for a taxi. But I digress.

I don’t have it yet, but I’ve just gotten an email saying it’s shipped. I’m way too impatient a person to buy things by mail order, as I’m sure the overworked UPS Tracking server can attest.

I’ve got two trips coming up – one for the SCIP annual conference in New York City, which I’m really looking forward to, and another to somewhere else which I’m also looking forward to. I’ll explain more once my hosts give clearance. Anyway, it’s two opportunities to give this bag a workout, and I’m looking forward to it!

[UPDATE] It’s due on Monday, UPS says. First trip leaves 4/16, so all is well.