Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The iPod and the Audiophile

The iPod and the Audiophile
February 21, 2006
By Loyd Case

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Being an audiophile is not easy these days.

To be fair, I'm not one of the "golden ears" set. You know the type—they can't stand to listen to music unless they're sitting in the stereo sweet spot, and the music is played from a vinyl record on a manual turntable with a moving coil cartridge, through their monoblock tube amplifiers and tube preamp. Call me a "silver ear" audiophile. I'm picky about speakers, and I can't listen to music with too much lossy compression for long periods of time. Most of my music is ripped using Microsoft's Windows Media Lossless format, but I have yet to find a portable media player that supports WMA Lossless playback. I can still recall the sheepish look on Phil O'Shaugnessy's face (Phil is the lead PR guy for Creative Labs) when I asked him if Creative's spiffy new Zen Vision:M would support WMA Lossless playback. The answer, alas, was no.

Recently, I lamented how little attention lossless playback had gotten in my commentary on Ten Failed Tech Trends for 2005. An alert reader noted in the ExtremeTech forum that Apple had started supporting a lossless codec, and even supported playback of Apple Lossless on iPods. So I naturally had to pick up a 60GB iPod and re-rip my CD collection using iTunes.

While the iPod and iTunes combination is certainly a potent one, I'm not quite in love with it the way our forum community manager Jim Lynch or senior technology analyst Jason Cross seem to be. For one thing, iTunes seems to be something of a straitjacket—easy to use, but you have to do it Apple's way. As I noted in my column Confessions of a Low GQ, I'm only an occasional user of portable media devices. Still, I have 50 gigabytes and some 2,800 music files ripped from my CD collection onto my PC in lossless playback format. I've been trying to figure out how to play that music on my various audio systems. One reason I haven't been much of an aficionado of digital music players is the lack of ability for these devices to play back losslessly encoded music. The iPod fixes that, but introduces some other problems of its own.

So here's the tale of my journey to get lossless compression into a portable music player as well as on all my audio systems. It turned out to be far more of a hassle than I thought it would be. Today's digital media landscape is Balkanized and heavily compartmentalized, partly because of copyright paranoia on the part of the studios and partly because of conflicting formats. All of this makes VHS versus Betamax wars of the 80's look like a romp in the park. Continued... Several years ago, we had our home wired with CAT5e, coax, and phone wire. At that time, I was thinking mostly about computers rather than home A/V gear. The home network currently looks like this:

* A D-Link DGL-4300, with full support for D-Link's 802.11g turbo wireless networking plus a four-port gigabit Ethernet
* Two Netgear 16-port fanless gigabit Ethernet switches
* CAT5e cabling through most of the house (two bedrooms, living room, two home offices), except my basement office/lab, which has CAT6.
* Coax through most of the house
* A Leviton patch panel in the basement, which allows me to easily reroute wiring. The two gigabit switches live there.

So it's a piece of cake to connect any PC or wireless Ethernet device. But all this assumes that the devices actually want to talk to each other. Computers? No problem. Consumer electronics gear? Not so easy. Let's take a look at the audio systems in the house.

Like most people, I didn't set up my audio and home theater systems in one grand enterprise. Rather, they grew incrementally. I have a total of three high-fidelity systems in the house, of varying ages and capabilities:

* An ancient (by modern standards) Technics A/V receiver that really just serves as a stereo driving a pair of bookshelf speakers. A 5-platter CD changer and cassette tape deck are normally attached.
* An Onkyo TX-NR900 receiver lives in the family room and is the main A/V receiver for the family home theater. A Yamaha DVD-S2300 DVD player and Dish Network 921 HD satellite box is attached to this, along with a 50-inch Samsung DLP rear-projection TV. The Onkyo receiver actually has an Ethernet port, but connectivity is limited to using Onkyo's proprietary Net-Tune software.
* In the office is my newest audio setup, which I often use to test out new gear and concepts. The newest member of the family is a Denon AVR-4306 A/V, receiver which also sports an Ethernet port. But the Denon is a universal plug-and-play device, and can connect to PCs using Windows Media Connect.

Not long ago, Roku Labs loaned me a Soundbridge M2000, which apparently is no longer available. But the internal electronics are the same as the M1000, with a larger display. The M2000 is a digital media adapter, which can connect to PCs and Internet radio. Like the Denon AVR-4306, the Soundbridge can be connected to Windows Media Connect to play back digital music. The Soundbridge can also connect to iTunes, provided you have sharing mode enabled in iTunes.

Now that you understand the electronics landscape, let's summarize the goals here:

* Goal 1: a portable media player that supports playback of audio files ripped in a mathematically lossless format
* Goal 2: the ability to play back the digital music on any audio system in my house, without compromising fidelity

This seems quite simple, on the surface. Continued... After getting the 60GB iPod, I installed iTunes and re-ripped my music. That's right, I now have two duplicate music libraries—one ripped with Apple Lossless and the other ripped with Windows Media Lossless. It sounds silly, but it turned out to be necessary. Initially, I just wanted the duplicate libraries to test various options, thinking I'd eventually settle on just one and nuke the other one. In the end, I'll probably keep both around for future testing.

Getting music from my PC to any of the aforementioned A/V receivers should have been simple, given the network connectivity in my house. But it wasn't. Let's run down each A/V setup to see what happened.

Technics SA-GX770
This particular A/V receiver is old enough that it lacks Dolby Digital support. But that's irrelevant for our purposes, because it's only used for stereo music playback. Prior to iPod/iTunes, getting digital music to play on the Technics was as easy as hooking up the Roku M2000. The Roku connected over Wi-Fi, and all I had to do was set up Wi-Fi security with the appropriate WEP key. At that point, the Roku connected over the LAN to Windows Media Connect.

As it turns out, the M2000 doesn't directly support Windows Media Lossless. But Windows Media Connect transcodes the files on-the-fly to PCM, so the result is uncompressed audio.

Roku advertises the M series as supporting iTunes, though the company is careful to say that it won't play back anything with a FairPlay DRM wrapper (in other words, anything from the iTunes Music Store). If you have AAC-encoded content that's not protected because you ripped it yourself, the M2000 can see an iTunes share and play music just fine. So I tried to play music encoded with Apple Lossless.

It looks like the company needs to add Apple Lossless support to its list of unsupported codecs. The M2000 will not play back anything encoded with Apple Lossless. Apparently, Roku's license is an old one, and the Lossless codec isn't grandfathered into the license. From reading between the lines, it seems that Apple is unwilling to license the Lossless codec. So I had to turn to another solution for playing back music encoded with Apple Lossless.

Chalk up another black mark in the "digital media balkanization" column.

Onkyo TX-NR900
The Onkyo shipped with an Ethernet port, but requires that you use its proprietary Net-Tune software on the PC to serve up content. The good news is that Net-Tune only indexes existing content, rather than making complete copies. The bad news is that it's buggy, doesn't always connect properly, and doesn't support WMA Lossless. And, of course, it can't see iTunes, even with sharing enabled. To be fair, this is an older model, and was one of the first A/V receivers to incorporate an Ethernet port. It's too bad, though, that Onkyo pursued a proprietary strategy. What about the iPod? As it turns out, Onkyo has a solution that even works with its older receivers—sort of. We'll discuss that in the next section.

Denon AVR-4306
I had high hopes for this receiver. It's not Denon's first attempt at building networking capability into a receiver, but it is the first sub-$2,000 (barely) unit to do so. On top of that, the Denon supports Windows Media Connect and is a uPnP device. In fact, it was very easy to set up and see the music files and WMA playlists on the server. Alas, when trying to play files encoded with WMA Lossless, all I saw was a "format error" message.

Luckily, the Denon directly supports the iPod with a connector. But for some reason, Denon didn't see fit to include the iPod connection cable inside the box with a $2,000 receiver. Instead, the cable is an additional $60 accessory. Once you get it hooked up, though, the Denon works with the iPod quite well. We'll talk more specifically about iPod support shortly.

Although the Denon supports connectivity to an iPod through a cable connection, it's incapable of seeing an iTunes share. Continued... So it looks like the nirvana of distributing music around my home network, plus having a portable music player that can play back music without using lossy compression, isn't so easy. (One note: You can always play back completely uncompressed music, for example, WAV files. But then you lose all the nifty tagging and other features that make digital music servers and players so convenient.)

There is one other solution: Connect the iPod directly to your audio system. In my particular case, I uncovered three ways to do this that work. One is actually universal, in that it will work with any of my A/V receivers, but it does have other limitations. The other two are proprietary, but worth a look.

One odd cosmetic point: All the iPod accessories we'll discuss are white. Even the simple cable Denon supplies to connect with the AVR-4306 is white. So are both of the docks mentioned below. Considering that both the receiver and my iPod are black, I find some this a little odd. After all, the docks will live most of the time in or around the A/V system, so you'd think cosmetically matching them to the components in the rack would be more likely than matching them with a music player that may or may not be white.

All these devices work with Apple's universal dock connector, so whether you have a 60GB iPod, a 2GB Nano or 4GB iPod Mini, you'll be able to connect to these products. But if you really want your music encoded and stored on your iPod with Apple Lossless, you'll need lots of capacity, so the 60GB iPod is probably the way to go.

So with that, let's jump into the three ways to connect your iPod to your home audio setup. Continued... The AVR-4306 Cable was by far the simplest way to connect an iPod to a home audio system, but it is also the most expensive. After all, you need a $2,000 receiver, plus an additional $60 cable.

The AVR-4306 has connectors on both the front panel (under a flip-down door) and on the back of the unit, for more permanent hookups. You can either connect the iPod directly with the cable or connect the cable to an Apple universal dock. The audio is shipped to the receiver via this cable, not over a mini-jack analog connection, which should yield better fidelity.

Once connected, you can control the iPod with the 4306's remote. This isn't as straightforward as it could be. First, you'll need to map the iPod to one of the input connections. In my case, I mapped it to VCR2. Once that's done, you get to relearn the remote functions. You would think that Denon would map the iPod transport controls to the remote control's transport controls. You would be wrong. Instead, they're mapped to the Enter/up/down/left/right navigation buttons on the center of the remote.

There are other oddities about the way Denon maps the remote control to iPod functionality. For example, if you want to set up shuffle play, you need to press the Tuner soft button on the remote's touch screen, then press the memory button. As Yoda might say, "Intuitive it is not."

Once you figure all that out, it works great. You even get your playlists and song info on your on-screen display, assuming you use one. Alas, you don't get album cover art.

Denon isn't the only manufacturer of A/V receivers doing direct iPod connectivity. Two of Pioneer's Elite line, the VSX-74TXVi and the VSX-72TXV have direct iPod connections, for example. Several other companies, including Denon and Harmon Kardon, are developing iPod docks for their product lines. Continued...

Product: Denon AVR-4306 iPod Cable
Company: Denon
Price: $60 check prices
Pros: Connects your iPod to a Denon AVR-4306; remotely control the iPod; track info shown on screen
Cons: Only currently works with the AVR-4306; no support for iPod video; weird remote control mapping
Summary: If you have a Denon AVR-4306 and an iPod, this is a must-have accessory.
Speaking of iPod docks for A/V receivers, Onkyo is shipping the DS-A1, a dock that works with Onkyo's proprietary R1 remote control connector.

Most Onkyo A/V receivers manufactured in the last few years have an R1 port, Onkyo's remote-control protocol. The R1 jack resembles a monophonic mini-jack, and connects to the back of the receiver. Current generation Onkyo receivers have "enhanced" iPod support, which means that their remote controls can handle a greater range of iPod functions. We have an older Onkyo TX-NR900 receiver, however, so we wanted to see just how well the older system would work with the iPod.

Connection was pretty easy. The cradle connects to inputs on the receiver, and has its own power brick, which enables charging of the iPod in use. A switch on the underside of the cradle allows you to select modes for iPod operation. The cradle can emulate tape deck, MiniDisc players and CD-R recorders. There's even an intriguing entry labeled "HDD," which isn't well documented.

On our older receiver, the DS-A1 worked fine, although the controls were somewhat limited, since we could only get the DS-A1 to work on this particular receiver when set to "Tape" mode. The iPod transport controls do map to the transport controls built into the remote control. But there seems to be a bug: Whenever you press the Skip Track button (which skips to the next song), the receiver goes into "Tape" mode, which means you can't hear the music. We worked around this by assigning a macro to one of the two macro buttons on the TX-NR900 remote control. The macro sends the command to skip the track, and then switches the tape recorder off.

Also, we couldn't get anything on our HDTV screen—no photos, no music title information. We assume that on a newer Onkyo receiver the DS-A1 offers better functionality. But even having basic functionality is pretty neat. Continued...

Product: Onkyo DS-A1 iPod Dock
Company: Onkyo
Price: $99 check prices
Pros: Works with a wide range of Onkyo A/V receivers; support for photos on newer Denon receivers.
Cons: Limited to basic iPod music playback on older receivers.
Summary: The DS-A1 is probably better suited for owners of more recent Onkyo receivers, but you still get basic music playback on older units.
Apple actually something called the "iPod AV connection kit." What this really consists of is a bundle of the iPod universal dock, a couple of cables and a USB charger. The connection to your audio gear is via a stereo mini-jack to RCA stereo plug. It may be a better deal than buying these individually, but high fidelity its not.

Enter Xitel, one of the many companies that's entered the iPod accessories fray. Xitel makes a number of audio accessory and cabling kits that enable PCs and A/V stacks to communicate with each other. The HiFi-Link for iPod is Xitel's latest accessory. Priced identically to Apple's AV connection kit, the Xitel unit offers a pair of gold-plated RCA connectors for audio out. On the other hand, the HiFi-Link only offers a composite video connection in place of Apple's S-video connector.

Connecting the HiFi-Link is fairly simple. You connect the supplied RCA audio cables to your A/V receiver and connect up the small power brick. Xitel does supply a mini-jack-to-RCA converter, if you want to connect to some output device, such as PC speakers, that only have mini-jack inputs. You can even watch video from the iPod to a TV connected to your A/V receiver, though the quality is pretty limited. The unit also supports SRS TruBass. This is a "bass enhancement" feature that may be fine for boom boxes, but if you're attaching this to a high-end audio system, turn this feature off.

The Xitel ships with a tiny remote that resembles a fat iPod shuffle. This has got to be one of the most frustrating remotes we've used. In an attempt to replicate the simplicity of the iPod, Xitel has shipped a highly de-featured remote control. It's easy to skip tracks or shift playlists, but you can't move to video or photo mode with the remote. What this remote really needs is a better set of transport controls. Also, the unit doesn't pipe song information over the video link: You have to squint at the tiny iPod screen to see what you're actually playing. Finally, if you do want to display photos or videos, you need to use the controls on the iPod itself, not the HiFi-Link's remote.

In the end, if what you really want is basic audio playback and you have your iPod close enough to read the screen, then the HiFi-Link for iPod may work for you. But be aware of its limitations. Continued...

Product: Xitel HiFi-Link for iPod
Company: Xitel
Price: $99 check prices
Pros: Charges the iPod; good audio playback quality.
Cons: Poor remote; no song info on screen; video and photos require using iPod controls directly.
Summary: For basic audio playback, the HiFi-Link for iPod works fine, but the product doesn't seem fully baked.
As we've seen, if you're enough of an audiophile to care about using lossless compression, then your options for getting your Apple Lossless or WMA Lossless encoded media onto both portable media devices and to your high-fidelity systems are limited. Apple wins by its de facto support of both lossless compression on the iPod hardware and its huge infrastructure of available accessories. Really, we've only scratched the surface, and we'll continue our quest for finding the best way to listen to our music anywhere, anyplace, and with the best fidelity.

Read more Audio articles on ExtremeTech.

There have been other players that supported lossless compression playback, such as Rio's ill-fated players, which supported the open-source FLAC compression scheme. But with companies like Creative Labs conceding the high end to Apple, there's not much for an audiophile to do but get an iPod.

We'd like to see Apple more liberally license Apple Lossless so that companies like Roku could add support for the format in their digital media adapters. And if Apple would start offering support for lossless encoding of downloadable music, we might actually buy some tunes from the iTunes store.

As for getting that music onto home A/V systems, it looks like the sneakernet approach of physically attaching the iPod to the A/V system via some accessory is the only way to go. The three products we checked out all have their merits. Certainly the Denon's tight integration with its remote is the best of the three, but the wonky transport control layout and the need to be locked to a Denon receiver is a pretty hefty downside. Onkyo has a good idea with the DS-A1, but its support of older systems, however well intentioned, is somewhat lacking. Finally, the Xitel HiFi-Link seems like a very good idea, but the implementation falls short.

So far, there's no perfect solution, so the quest continues.

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Copyright (c) 2006 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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