Review #64: Samsung Galaxy Buds+ (4-month review) ★★★★✬



I left my previous post in a bit of a cliff-hanger but then things have changed a lot since then. One would imagine being stuck at home would offer better opportunities to engage in one's passion but quite the opposite turns out to be true. 2020 hasn't been an easy ride and no one could have seen what's coming, but that's the story of life, our life.

To pick up from where I left off nearly 4 months ago, I did pick up an alternative in the week following my previous post and the choice is reflected in the title of the post. You might recollect that it was a balance between price and quality for me and in that essence, the Buds+ hit it out of the park, provided you pick it up at the right price.

While even the renewed Jabra Elite 75t was priced at 10.3k INR ($138), I picked up the brand-new Buds+ at 8.5k INR ($114) and it is now priced even lower at 8.2k INR ($110). Granted you will have to find the means to pick it up from Samsung's corporate portal rather than the consumer one, but at that price, you can easily see why it makes a really compelling option. It is rare to have electronic items priced lower in India than in US, so it is good on Samsung to offer it at such a competitive price, albeit hidden from most consumers.


I picked up the blue variant simply on account of it not existing in the previous version. I am not particularly picky about colours, but this shade turns out to be quite "cool". There are new colour variants being released all the time, so you may have a personal preference but at release, this one was the only option if you didn't want to go with the non-colour black and white options.

The packaging is pretty standard by now for most true wireless earbuds but Samsung gets most of it right, starting with the USB Type-C support for the case. Speaking of the case, it is much smaller than what you might get with competitors and light at about 39g which was possible simply because Samsung managed to pack incredible battery life within the earbuds itself as against having multiple recharges provided by the case. 


There are 3 sizes of tips provided along with hooks and a Type-C cable. I had to go with the largest tips eventually to get a good fit and passive isolation, but it gets the job done. It may support one of the Comply foam tips if you prefer those, but I couldn't use my MA650 Wireless tips even though they were a much better fit, for the reason that the buds wouldn't fit in the case with those attached. A real bummer! Apart from the tips, the wingtips offer the extension required to lock the buds in place. I can see this to be a godsend for some people but it never worked for me. I get a snug fit in my right ear and a loose one in my left which irritates me to no end, but I guess you can't change your ears to suit devices and I wouldn't like to know about it if it's possible. Thankfully, the buds themselves are quite light at little over 6g as otherwise it would have been a hard time walking or running with them.


Going back to the point on battery life, the Buds+ boasts 11 hours of device battery life. That is a tall claim and one that I am inclined to believe based on anecdotal evidence as it is nigh impossible to have a 11-hour listening session. However, I went through a complete workday having the buds in ear or lying about and finished the day with 55% battery life with office calls and some music thrown in. The battery capacity figures are indicated above, and basic maths would indicate that the case offers a bit over a single charge, hence Samsung's claims of 22 hours listening time in total. 


The case itself has a multi-coloured charging indicator inside for the buds on the inside and the case on the outside which does a good job of indicating if the buds are being charged as well as the battery life of the case itself going from green to orange to red. Wireless charging support would also come in handy in case of emergencies if your phone happens to support the same which sadly isn't the case for my 7T.


One thing that has been consistent is Samsung's rate of updating the software which is good to see. The above screenshot on the left indicates the first update I downloaded straight out of the box and the second one indicates the latest update which happens to be the fourth one in 3 months since purchase, so a decent clip. A lot of the initial updates were focused on ambient noise and the latest ones have moved more towards stability. Even so, features have been added with time and the latest one is the seamless device connection, or at least the option to toggle it off which would come in handy when devices are fighting to take control over your buds, as is the case with Windows.


The "Labs" section is another one to access experimental features that Samsung feels is not ready for prime time. However, I found the edge double to be most useful, not for taping on the edge for volume control but rather the base of my ear and it works surprisingly well. The detection is done using the accelerometer, so it doesn't matter how you activate it. This gives rise to the possibility that some people might activate it by sudden ear movements, but it has been pretty flawless and convenient for me.



Continuing with the app interface, the above image is of the main page of the app and it gives an overview of all the available settings. The most visible change has been to the battery indicator where I have observed the battery life indicator being switched from displaying the individual level to a combined one. It is obvious that both buds may not have the same life based on connectivity and usage, so the individual bud display was better in that sense but I am pretty sure that a lot of people would have complained about the asymmetrical battery life as being a device issue and hence now we are probably looking at lower of the two battery lives which limits information as far as single bud usage is concerned. Unlike the 75t which uses a master-slave (leader-follower?) combination, the Buds+ is capable of being used independently and hence it is odder still that Samsung moved to a combined battery life indicator.

Apart from that there is a simple 6 preset equaliser present and I would have instead preferred at least a 5-band equaliser that is provided by Jabra. This limits the tweaking ability and I would assume a lot of people would go for the Bass boost option because this set is far from being as bass heavy as the Jabra Elite 75t. The other options are unlikely to be used much apart from probably the Touchpad one.


One might have expected more customization from a section dedicated to the Touchpad but only the touch and hold option is customizable out of which 'Ambient sound' is a must-have. Rest of the controls are pretty intuitive and doesn't take much time to getting used to. The Lock touchpad comes in handy when dozing off and I admit to making use of it a couple of times to good effect. Overall, having a capacitive touchpad is better than having to press physical buttons and +1 (see what I did there?) to Samsung for that.

I believe I have covered everything apart from the audio until now and a lot of people would chastise me for beating around the bush. However, sometimes it is best to keep the best for the last. To prevent any confusion, I am not talking about the audio being the best in its category but rather the best aspect of the device itself. It really holds up well for what it is. By that, I would like to clarify that it isn't at the same level as the Jabra Elite 75t but close to it. It can't punch bass to the same extent as the 75t and it has a smaller soundstage but otherwise the clarity is quite good. I am putting this in perspective of my use case which is using this on the move and in such instances, the higher audio quality doesn't matter much as I would altogether put down wireless buds if I am to enjoy the audio. Also, Samsung has significantly improved the microphone quality from its previous iteration by including 3 sets of it and it also does a good job when using the 'Ambient Noise' feature which I believe is a must-have for any TWS earbuds. On the flip side, the microphones are too sensitive and pick up the ambience to a great extent which is a shame as the passive isolation from the earbuds is quite good and the wearer is oblivious to the noise others complain about, unless 'Ambient Noise' is enabled in calls and even then you cannot do anything about it rather than apologise to the listener.

To address the elephant in the room, the Buds+ don't have any kind of aptX support. You will have to rely on AAC for most devices and that isn't a great option for Android. While the audio quality is still decent, the latency is atrocious for apps that are not tuned to synchronise the video as per the latency. Also, Windows does not support AAC and it means falling back on SBC which makes things even worse. Samsung's variable audio codec might be a good alternative to aptX but with it being limited to only Samsung devices, it isn't going to be a smooth ride for those who wish to use the Buds+ for everything. However, my use cases mainly involve music and watching video on apps that are designed to synchronise the video with the audio, so it hasn't been much of an issue. Also, while Spotify might sound poor with AAC and SBC, my music collection is mainly in FLAC and the AAC stream of it gets the job done when on the move.

To round it off, getting 90-95% of the performance of the 75t at just above 50% of the cost is too good to pass. You will lose the water and dust protection with the Buds+ only being classified as IPX2 and the audio quality is again a notch down from the 75t, but something that isn't going to be an issue when on the move. The battery life is phenomenal, and the look, feel and fit are much better than the 75t. It boils down to your use case and if it is about having a great set of wireless buds on the move, then this fits the bill perfectly. If you are someone transfixed with audio quality and active noise cancellation, this one isn't going to float your boat. But for the value conscious, there simply isn't a better option from a reputed company that cares to update its device beyond the initial purchase.

Review #63: Jabra Elite 75t True Wireless Earbuds (Amazon Renewed) ★★★★☆



This is the first time I purchased an Amazon Renewed product and trying out this service was at the back of my mind for quite some time. However, the primary reason was my lack of conviction in keeping the product and I didn't wish to create another open-box product just for the sake of it. The hesitation was borne out of the fact that I wasn't sure of the switch to True Wireless earbuds, with my RHA MA650 having served me well for over 2 years for my primary use case, which happens to be commute and office dreariness.

The item was priced at a 20% discount to the MRP of INR 14,999 which still seems a high price to pay considering the fact that you don't really know the condition of the product. With some bank discounts, I spent about 10.3k on the product, which was more palatable, but ideally the price should be around this mark anyway prior to any bank discounts.

The box was in fairly good condition but the signs of it being already being unboxed were pretty visible with the top cover being ripped off and the bottom being sealed with a fresh line of tape. Inside, all the contents were present as expected, though I later heard from the person doing the return pick-up that a lot of people tend to nick off the Type C cable, which does reduce my faith in humanity a bit. While the alternate tips were still sealed, the applied tips didn't look completely pristine and I took the precaution of cleaning them with rubbing alcohol. I am not sure about the reconditing checks touted on the Amazon website considering this and the fact that the buds were already on and displaying the low battery indicator on unboxing. The carry case had about 40% charge and in all it seems that the buds were at least used for a few days prior to return.


Coming to the product itself, the buds are quite light at about 5.5g each and didn't weigh heavy on the ear. The fit was quite good and the passive noise isolation was excellent, especially with music playing in the background. However, what takes the cake is the Hearthrough mode which allows ambient sound to stream in without much lag and is a godsend when walking around busy streets. It goes well with music at medium volume and made me realise that this is a feature I cannot do without on any true wireless earbuds.

Coming to the audio quality, the immediate thing that hits you is the bass. These earbuds are bass heavy by default but there is a way around it as the companion Jabra Sound+ app allows you to set a 5-band equaliser and turning down the base was my personal preference. Apart from that, the mids and the highs do well though I wouldn't say they were any better than the much cheaper MA650 wireless earphones I have been using on commute. That said, the quality is good for its size but then the sound stage is quite poor and is perhaps expected. The mics though are pretty good as borne by the passthrough and the call quality was more than passable. The battery life on the other hand wasn't exceptional and it would not be possible to go through a day without putting it in the case for charging when not using it.

At the end of the day (literally), I returned the earbuds primarily because it didn't seem to be worth its price in terms of audio quality. The convenience of it was undoubtedly remarkable but then that would apply to nearly all true wireless earbuds. I am not looking at ultimate sound quality because my use case for this is limited to commute, office and exercising. I prefer over-the-ear wired cans to this at my home when I really want to enjoy the music. My first experience of TWS earbuds has indicated that there is a specific use case for it, and I am certainly intent on picking up a pair soon, provided there is a better balance between the feature-set and the price.


Musing #68: Making the most of Audible trial


Listening to a book doesn't quite have the same panache as reading one, but sometimes it is the only option. While I am an avid fan of podcasts on long commutes, sometimes audio books can fill the void quite well. However, in case of audio books, for me, it is unabridged or nothing, which depending on the author's preference for brevity can extend to numerous hours; a significant investment of time whichever way you look at it.

Review #59: JBL Xtreme ★★★★½


My review of the Xgimi Z6 Polar mentioned my disappointment with the in-built Harman Kardon speakers, especially when in pursuit of the home theatre experience. Since then, I was on the lookout for options that would fill this specific void.

It was natural to first consider a sound bar. Here, I was looking at two extremes in terms of (limited) budget as well as sound quality. At one end of the spectrum was the Mi Soundbar. For the price of INR 4999 (USD 70), one can't go wrong, going by the spec sheet. However, it would be unfair to expect it to be anything apart from middling in terms of quality. At the other end of the budgetary spectrum, I was enamoured by the Yamaha YAS-108 selling for INR 18500 (USD 260). It would be my choice (along with the YAS-207, budget permitting), if I ever decide to go with a sound bar. However, an infrequently used projector setup and the awkward option of mounting a speaker below the projection screen led me to look for something more versatile...and portable.

Portability inevitably means switching focus to a category of speakers that one would casually term as "Bluetooth speakers". To make it clear upfront, I have never been a fan of Bluetooth codecs and iffy connectivity, but sometimes it is worth the convenience. In this case, the concern is somewhat alleviated by the fact there is also an Aux-In input present in most cases, though one has to forego advanced digital connectivity options like S/PDIF and HDMI-ARC. It is human to want everything in everything even though compromise is imminent.

With this frame of mind, I headed over to Amazon and as it happened, a Bose banner occupied the front page. The Soundlink Mini II became the object of my focus on account of its stellar reviews. However, the age of the product, accentuated by its archaic Bluetooth version of 3.0, a pretty lowish battery life by today's standard (10 hours) combined and a not-so-lowish price of INR 13000 (USD 183) stressed my little grey cells a bit more than I wished for. Also, keeping algorithmic trickery aside, there is no beating the quality constraints put forth by the physical dimensions of the product. This made me yearn for the Soundlink III, but unfortunately it isn't sold locally and the other products from the Bose range didn't fit my bill.

Venturing to other brands then, I came across my eventual purchase - the JBL Xtreme. In fact, it wasn't so straightforward as I went through numerous other options from Harman Kardon (Onyx Studio), Ultimate Ears (Megaboom), Marshall (Kilburn) and Sony (XB41). The focus in most cases seemed to be on waterproofing (as a poolside speaker), raucous lighting and mega-bass, all of which I was not particularly attuned to. NFC is another feature that gets mentioned a lot, but I can't see myself pairing devices to a speaker so frequently so as to necessitate its presence.

It was a review of the Soundlink III that led me to the JBL Xtreme as it was listed as an equivalent, if not a better option in the same price range. In case you are going by looks, then you wouldn't find anything distinguishable about the Xtreme compared to its smaller and cheaper siblings - Flip and Charge. In fact, it would be completely wrong to form your opinion about a brand based on a product alone, especially a cheaper one. Sound quality doesn't scale linearly with price and it is always a tight rope walk finding a balance between the two. In this case, I can only assure you that size does matter.

Even settling on the Xtreme wasn't without further complications. Considering the price I mentioned previously for the Mini II, one can only imagine a Soundlink III to come close to the USD 300 mark in INR, if it was sold locally. This meant I was staring at the outer realms of my budget. Luckily, with the JBL Xtreme 2 picking up the mantle in this price category, the Xtreme was relegated to a lower price tier, though still commanding a price of INR 15000 (USD 211). This brought me to my second consideration - whether the price difference to the Xtreme 2 is worth it. From the reviews I read, the difference in sound quality between the two is largely imperceptible and the main draw for it, as you can guess, is waterproofing. Pfft.

Would I have spent even INR 15000 on the Xtreme? Possibly no. The real clincher was that I managed to get it for INR 10800 (USD 152). It was quite a matter of luck, patience and persistence. I happened to find a single unit of Xtreme listed separately on Flipkart at the aforementioned low price and correctly postulated it to be an open box item, considering it had a delivery time of 11 days as against 2 days for one listed at the normal price. Listing an open-box product as a new one is deceitful, but it worked in my favour as I was able to avail of the 10-day replacement policy, but not without considerable haggling.

I mentioned the word "portable" previously in relation to Bluetooth speakers. In the case of the Xtreme, I'd rather use the word mentioned on the box - "transportable". It weighs over 2 kg, so calling it portable would be a stretch by any means. Conscious of this, JBL has thrown in a shoulder strap, though I suppose someone from the design team had a good laugh at it. However, having a multi-instrument, vocal Dholak hanging from the shoulder isn't as ludicrous as it may seem.

All that heft must account for something and in the case of the Xtreme, it does so in the form of 2 x 65mm woofers, 2 x 35mm tweeters and two thumping passive radiators with a rated power of 2 x 20W (Bi-amp). With specs, comes power consumption and in the case of the Xtreme, JBL provided an ample 37Wh (10000 mAh at 3.7V) Lithium-Ion battery which is rated to be good enough for 15 hours. On my first complete run on battery, I got about 15h 25m over Auxiliary and 2h 15m over Bluetooth, totalling a run time of 17h 40m. Of course, the battery life depends a lot on the volume, content as well as Bluetooth usage, so my figures are simply empirical. The battery also works as a power bank and the Xtreme features two USB-A ports that can cumulatively output 2A (1x2A or 2x1A) in addition to the charging, aux-in and a service port.


The Xtreme comes with a round-pin charger rated at 57W (19V 3A) which is an awful lot for a battery powered device. However, it ensures that the device gets fully charged within 3 hours (though the specs mention 3.5 hours). To my amusement, I found that the charger works with my Z6, so in effect I now have a charger redundancy, which is always appreciated, to a point. The battery life is indicated with the help of 5 LEDs on the front which is pretty vague and the device could have done with a battery percentage callout. Lastly, despite its age, it comes with Bluetooth 4.1 on board which is any time better than what's onboard with the similarly old Soundlink Mini II.

Moving on to the most pertinent aspect of the device, the sound. The thing that hits you in the face (specifically the ears) on your first playback is the bass (along with the vigorously vibrating radiators). If your first track happens to be a vocal one like mine was, then you would be justified in harbouring some doubts. However, even with overpowering bass, the width of the soundstage becomes evident and it is able to reproduce sound pleasantly across the spectrum. The bass tends to eat in to the mids for tracks that have even a modicum of it, though the treble is unblemished. This helps it as a party (and home theatre) speaker but not as a music one.

Thankfully, pressing the 'Bluetooth' and 'Volume -' buttons simultaneously for 10 seconds significantly flattens the frequency response and brings any vocal or instrumental track to life. What it actually does and why it isn't documented in the manual is beyond me. There are 30 volume steps present on the device itself when used independently but it links up to the phone volume levels on pairing. The speaker is plenty loud to fill up any mid to large sized room, though oddly, the volume over Aux is significantly lower than over Bluetooth. There is no official mention of any other codec support and going by the fact that Android always defaults to SBC on selection of any other codec, it seems that's the only supported codec. While I couldn't bear SBC on cheap Bluetooth headphones in the past, the sheer quality of the speaker makes it less of an issue, and one can always switch to good old Aux. Lastly, there is the 'JBL Connect' button to pair up additional compatible JBL devices with the Xtreme but I find no use for it in a home setting.

The app support for this device is pretty barebone. The 'JBL Music' app on iOS simply lists the songs from Apple Music and mentions AirPlay support. The "AirPlay" option is nothing more than the native iOS selection of a Bluetooth receiver, so is of no practical use. Having said that, playback of the same track on Apple Music is much better than Spotify, though it is mostly due to the impact of transcoding from AAC compared to Ogg Vorbis. The 'JBL Connect' app is a tad more useful in the sense that it is supposed to provide firmware update notifications, though I didn't get any and it is unlikely I ever will, considering the age of the product.

To conclude, if you can get the device for less than $160, then there is simply no better option available. Sound doesn't degrade with age (of the speaker, unfortunately not of the listener), so it still holds up well against the $300 Xtreme 2 in terms of quality but beats it in terms of value for money. In short, for a discounted price, the Xtreme is highly recommended.

Musing #50: Apple Music, Spotify and Amazon Music


Amazon launched its Music service in India earlier this week, so I thought I'd do a quick comparison of it with the other streaming services I have been using, Apple Music and Spotify. Before any one brings it up, I have trialled all the other music streaming services available locally in India (Gaana, Wynk, Saavn, Hungama) at one point or another and found them to disappointing in terms of quality and catalogue. Even Google Music didn't offer much to dislodge Apple when it launched in India, though it hit the mark with its pricing.

I didn't term this article as a review, since it isn't one. Since majority of my listening is done on the iPhone, now with my RHA MA650, Apple Music happens to be my preferred option. It offers the best integration with iOS (e.g. Siri) and has the best quality when streaming over Bluetooth. Spotify complements Apple Music really well with its cross-platform compatibility, track discovery and catalogue. On the other hand, I wouldn't really pay for Amazon Music if it existed as a separate subscription service but as yet another Prime membership perk, it is totally worth it.

I have briefly covered the features of each service in the table below along with the availability of various tracks at the time of writing this article. It should give a good idea of what each platform has to offer.


Review #50: RHA MA650 Wireless Earphones ★★★★☆

When wireless doesn't mean getting less! 


Bluetooth headsets have always been a matter of convenience for me rather than a technological evolution over wired headsets. For a long time, I preferred to use wired headsets whenever possible and took recourse to Bluetooth headsets when on the move. However, the abysmal performance of Bluetooth plug-in headsets like SBH54 and the Fiio BTR1 left me extremely disappointed and finally set me on course to finding a standalone wireless earphone.

Review #46: Fiio BTR1 (Bluetooth Amplifier with AK4376 DAC) ★★★☆☆ (Updated!)

A small device with big sound on a budget.
The removal of the headphone jack on phones is a recent phenomenon but I have been dilly-dallying with clip-on, stereo Bluetooth headsets for quite some time. The excuse for doing so was convenience, at the expense of sound quality. Without putting so much as a thought, I went with Sony in those days and hence my initial experience revolved around the MW-600 and SBH54. However, while the MW-600 was a solid device for its time, the SBH54 was a huge disappointment. Hence, Sony was never in consideration for my next device.

With the iPhone 7 being my primary device, I gave some thought to using a lightning connector device prior to considering other Bluetooth choices. The 1More Triple Driver was certainly at the top of the list but the price premium for the lightning version put it beyond the price range I was looking at. Another option was to go for a 3.5mm adapter and the i1 turned out to be the most prominent among the limited options available, but it didn't take much to understand that it didn't really offer a better value proposition compared to Apple's adapter. However, it was this visit to the Fiio site for the i1 that put me on course to the BTR1.

Review #42: Philips AZ-1852/98 Soudmachine

For someone born in the 80s, the nostalgia of using a cassette player once again is far too strong, especially if you have a collection collecting dust in a cabinet. In case it's not clear already, then the only reason I bought this player was to digitize the treasure trove of memories embedded in some of the cassettes, not the songs that can be found on streaming services but the self-recorded and obscure ones. However, on the practical front, this player was intended for my parents who wish to have an easy way of re-listening to their specific choice of music which includes regional ones that can't be found in a digital format anymore.

The unit is quite compact and meant to be portable, though at 2.8 kg, it is on par with bulky laptops. It has a collapsible handle up top and support for on-the-go usage through 6 R14 cells. It also comes with a remote, though its usage is mainly limited to controlling CD tracks and the recording functions. To go in to further details, I decided to breakup this review in to various pertinent sections. Since this is first and foremost a music player, I think I should start with the sound quality.

A. Sound Quality: The sound quality is definitely not something to write home about but once you temper your expectations for the price you are paying, it is certainly decent. It will not hold a candle to any home sound system nor can it fulfil the role of a party boom box. However, it can certainly form an integral part of your home entertainment setup, especially as an input source.

The 2 x 1W RMS speaker output is certainly loud enough to fill up a decent sized room and its quality should meet the expectation of any non-discerning listener. It comes with Dynamic Bass Boost (DBB) which I presume is primarily aimed at countering Sony's Mega Bass. Its difference can certainly be felt as it significantly boosts the lower frequencies and can enliven beat heavy music. However, at the same time it boosts the volume which unfortunately may be construed as a "better effect" by most. But that is definitely not the case for all genres of music as it significantly muddies up instrumental and vocal songs. Hence, I would advise judgement when using this setting as it will depend largely on personal preference.

Fortunately, the player comes with a Headphone jack at the back, so you can plug in a speaker system of preference or keep the tunes to yourself if you so desire and enjoy a much higher quality experience.

B. Input Sources: The input source is controlled using a sliding switch and has the following options:

B1. Tape: By default, the player is in the 'Tape' mode because it also happens to be the 'Off' mode. This intertwining of functions can cause some issues which I have described later in the 'Recording/Ripping section. However, the thing to note is that the tape has its own set of mechanical controls and hence is unaffected by the controls on the remote. Although all my cassettes are now decades old, they played quite well out of the box. At a time when we are used to skipping in discrete steps of 5 or 10 seconds, it was fun to use the analogue fast-forward/rewind functions once again. The rewinding/forwarding speed is much higher than the play function, which might be desirable considering that patience is a rarer virtue these days compared to when the cassette was invented.

B2. FM: Considering the fact that most high-end phones have dropped support for FM radio, having a FM player at home feels like a novelty. Having the mediumwave (MW) and shortwave (SW) options to go along with FM would have been cool but considering that the frequency of people tuning in to radio (see what I did there!) has declined, the practicality of not having them is understandable. Depending on how you see it, the presence of the old school manual tuner can be seen as a blessing or a curse. As with the manual volume controls, the inaccessibility of switching channels using a remote might be irksome for many. On the flip side, the unit has a rather long antenna which measures about 31 inches when extended and 9 inches when retracted to fit at the back of the player. This certainly ensures unparalleled coverage within the confines of the walls of the house.

B3. USB: A music player wouldn't be one if it didn't support MP3 files, so this one supports it too. Playback for 320 Kbps files work fine and it is supposed to have support for WMA v9, but other popular file formats like AAC are not supported. This mode can also be used to playback any recorded files, but the order of playback is such that is first plays the files stored directly on the pen drive followed by the ones stored in folders. While SD cards are not supported directly, even cheap card readers work fine with the device. As far as file formats go, FAT32 is the only logical option.

B4. CD: This is the top most option on the source switch but definitely not the last accessible input source (see next). Being a digital source, like USB, it can be controlled using the remote which is mainly limited to skipping tracks and pausing/stopping.

B5. Auxiliary: This option is not present on the source switch but is visible as "AU" on the display as soon as you connect the headphone jack of a device to the 'MP3-Link' switch at the back of the unit.

C. Recording/Ripping: Since this happens to be one of the USPs of this device and also the source of much discontentment among buyers who fail to get it to work properly.

On the face of it, the recording process is the same irrespective of the source.

a. Press the 'USB Rec' to the left of the display or the 'Rec' button on the remote to start recording

b. Press the 'Stop' button to the left of the display or on the remote to stop recording

However, the major source of confusion arises because of two aspects:

a. The actual recording begins 7 secs after the press of the button when the "RIP" symbol starts blinking on the display

b. The mechanical cassette controls are independent of the digital ones used for the recording

Thus, I feel the process needs to be further elucidated:

C1. Cassette digitization: This happens to be the trickiest of all due to the fact that the cassette player works independently of the digital controls present on the player as well as the remote. The method I found to be most convenient is as follows:

a. Play (FF/RW) the cassette till the beginning of a song and press the 'Pause' button on the cassette control panel. The player allows both the Play and the Pause button to be depressed at the same time.

b. Start the recording using the 'USB Rec' button on the player or 'Rec' button the remote and wait about 6 seconds.

c. Release the 'Pause' button on the cassette controls just as the 'RIP' symbol begins to flash. This indicates that the transfer of music from the tape to the USB device has started.

d. If you don't wish to separate tracks later, then stop the recording at the end of each track using the digital 'Stop' button to the left of the display or on the remote while simultaneously pressing the 'Pause' button on the cassette control panel. You have to repeat the procedure for each track on the cassette.

e. It is important to note that the 'Tape' and 'Off' modes are one and the same as far as the source switch is concerned. Hence, allowing the tape to auto stop results in the player being switched off immediately. This causes the file being written on the USB drive to be lost. Hence, you should make it a point to use the digital 'Stop' button whenever you wish the file to be written and this should be before the tape auto stops.

C2. CD Ripping/Copying: This is the most futile feature of the device since the resulting MP3 files are of only 128 Kbps constant bit rate. This works fine for cassettes as the quality is comparable but it is an abomination as far as CDs are concerned. Moreover, the ripping is being done in real time as against the faster speeds achievable on computer CD drives. The saving grace is that the 7-sec recording lag doesn't impact CD ripping as being a digital source, the player is able to hold the playback till the recording begins.

In case you are using a MP3/WMA CD, it simply copies the files to the USB drive which is again pointless since you can copy the files much faster on a PC. Also, for some strange reason it allows the CD to be ripped to a cassette. Figure that out!

C3. Radio recording: As with the CD, you can record to a pen drive or a cassette. However, you must remember that the actual recording will start 7 seconds after you press the recording button, so capturing something as you hear it is out of the question.

To sum it up, apart from digitizing of cassettes, the recording/ripping function isn't of much use due to the low quality (128 Kbps) and the 7-sec lag to the start of a recording. The recorded files are numerically organized in sub-folders within a 'RECORD' folder on the USB drive as 'CDREC_XX' for CD Ripping, 'COPY_XX' for CD Copying and 'LINE_IN' for cassette and radio recordings.

D. Price: I have kept Price as the last parameter because I think the device is totally worth it, as long as you are not paying the MRP of INR 5199. I purchased it for INR 4799 along with a 15% cashback offer on Amazon which puts it effectively at INR 4079. At that price, this device justifies its value in memories.

Musing #34: Shifting of personal music collection to Apple Music


Switching back to iOS 10.3.2 from the iOS 11 beta and having to go through my music library to download the tracks once again made me realize that my personal music collection isn't as well sorted as it should be. I had never committed myself to using Apple Music as my one stop music solution, having dabbled across other streaming service providers in the past. However, I finally bit the bullet as I found it to be the most convenient option for accessing my entire collection on the iPhone.

I should add that switching to Apple Music for all your music needs isn't the most seamless thing one can experience in the Apple ecosystem. One can also argue about the audio quality at 256 Kbps AAC, but that is subject to personal preference and doesn't perturb me too much. So, what does the experience of jumping with both feet in to Apple Music entail?

1. Tagging your offline collection

Irrespective of whether you use Apple Music, it is always a great idea to properly tag and organize all your personal music files. In the past, I have used MediaMonkey and MusicBee on the basis of their interfaces and they just about got the job done.

However, I found MusicBrainz Picard to be the best solution when tagging en masse. The scraper managed to match nearly 95% of my collection. For the unmatched ones, you can manually search for similar files or lookup online using the browser. In my case, I couldn't get the web tagging to work seamlessly, but that didn't matter much as the built-in search worked just fine.

The best thing is that you can easily choose the fields to be updated, including the artwork. Manual editing of the most obscure tracks is also pretty straightforward, though it requires additional effort on one's part. The benefit of this exercise is a well organized local collection that is easily accessible and recognizable across devices.

2. To the iCloud the music shall go

iTunes allows you to manually add up to 100,000 of your songs to the iCloud Music Library and access them on any device which accepts your Apple ID. The first thing you should know is that the files are converted to 256 Kbps AAC irrespective of your audio quality, something that may not be entirely desirable. Secondly, the upload process just doesn't work the way it should.

On Windows, I had multiple upload failures which was not easily detectable on iTunes since it didn't explicitly prompt about it. The failures are evident on rummaging through the 'Recently Added' list and finding out the ones with the "exclamation cloud" icons. I managed to re-upload some of these after multiple attempts, even as there was no obvious reason for the upload failure to begin with. Moreover, the synchronization on the iPhone manifested itself only when I toggled the 'iCloud Music Library' option from the Settings. Even then, there were a few files which hadn't uploaded to the cloud, evident by them being greyed out on the iPhone.

This entire process was certainly an exercise in frustration, but unfortunately the worst was yet to come.

3. iTunes Match - When reality doesn't meet expectations

Apple Music matches each uploaded track on the basis of its fingerprint and replaces it with an equivalent track from its catalogue. The point to keep in mind though is that all these replacement files are loaded with DRM that lock the files to your account and subscription. In my case, I have certain old tracks of suspect quality, so I didn't mind this exercise as I had a backup of my original files. Ideally, it is a good solution to ensuring consistent audio quality and would have been acceptable if it worked as it should, except that it doesn't.

The most egregious aspect is that the replacement track, although the same in name, can end up being a vastly different variant. I had many of my edits and remixes being replaced by completely unrelated versions which is infuriating to say the least. This meant combing through the collection once again and finding the right variant. How a 3-minute track can be replaced by a 7-minute extended version when in fact the original 3-minute variant is present on Apple Music is simply beyond me.

As you can determine by the above description, shifting your entire music collection to Apple Music isn't for the faint hearted. Apparently, Apple will allow FLAC to be used as well from the iCloud Drive which would be another disjointed process added to the mix. If you care for your music like I do, you might think it worthwhile to invest a substantial amount of time in this process, otherwise I can't really recommend it.

While accessibility and affordability are prime drivers for subscribing to such services, the flip side is that the more you use it for music discovery, the more you lock yourself in. You limit your exposure to music within the selected ecosystem and there is no easy means to migrate to another service. A time shall come when, for better or for worse,  you shall no longer have an offline music library and you wouldn't have to worry about uploading and conversion at all. But whether it makes your music experience any richer is highly debatable.

Musing #31: The Binaural Experience (Doctor Who Knock Knock)

I had encountered binaural aural audio before, not in the least in the BBC Click segment from a few months ago which I have linked to this post. However, I never experienced it in an immersive environment which I think is vital in truly appreciating this technology.

The mention of binaural audio once again in the most recent episode of BBC Click made me finally commit to experiencing it in an immersive setting. I am of course referring to the Knock Knock episode of Doctor Who.

At this point, I should state the disclaimer that I am not a Doctor Who fan. It is not because I detest it but the fact that I never got in to it. The most time I have spent on Doctor Who must be on Wikipedia where I had read about it a few years ago, just to understand what it is all about. Hence, I went in to this episode quite blind without much of a backstory to relate to.

I must say that even as a standalone watch, this episode was quite interesting. It is because it was in the vein of a "haunted mansion", something I can relate to quite easily with my interest in crime fiction. Rather than rely on jump scares, the episode focusses on the aural experience and rightly so, since it is the centrepiece of this episode. I guess my Sennheiser HD 598 SE contributed a lot to the enjoyment of it all.

This experience has certainly left me asking for more. I am pretty sure that BBC will come up with further episodes featuring this technology since they have invested more than 5 years in to it. At the same time, I think it is highly unrealistic to expect it to be mainstream. The additional effort of post-production sound mixing and the limited audience of headphone users might not make it economically viable to pursue this approach regularly, but it is nonetheless a peek in to the role that 3D sound will play along with VR in the near future.

Review #18: Sennheiser HD 598 SE

I assume that like most of my generation, the musical journey in the early years comprised of using the headphones that came with the Walkman, Discman and subsequently the Nokia phones. It's only in the past few years that I have taken to indulging myself in music at a perceived higher level. It has always been a conscious decision of mine to slowly move up the ladder. Hence, my progression has gone as follows:

Earphones: JVC Marshmallow -> Brainwavz M1 -> Sennheiser MX580 -> Sony MH1C -> Mi Pistons 2 -> Sennheiser Momentum IEM

Headphones: Sennheiser HD203 -> Sennheiser PX100-II -> Sennheiser HD598SE

My experience has subjectively gotten better with time, the Mi Pistons being the only regression (and perhaps the MX580 to a lesser extent). The thing with purchasing earphones/headphones online is that you never purchase it based on experience but rather than perception. There was a time when you could lust the headphones attached to a listening booth in a music store, but that is not an option anymore. So, you only have the words and videos of users and reviewers to go by for the most part, unless you happen to experience nirvana at an acquaintance's.

The thing with moving up the price ladder is that you are more or less assured of better music quality unless you are misled by marketing. Hence, knowing the price band and the desired aural experience, the only real contenders were Audio Technica M50x and the Sennheiser HD598 SE. I did consider the Bose Quiet Comfort 15 for a short time but realized from the user reviews that sound quality is not its forte. It may have the best active noise cancellation and is thereby a good choice to tune out whilst on public transport. However, no one's to blame but you, should the battery die out at the wrong time. Also, the noise cancellation effect is certainly not to everyone's comfort.

Both the M50x and HD598SE fulfilled my requirements for a neutral and natural sound as they hold some weight as reference headphones. I tend to have pretty long hearing sessions when gaming, playing music or videos and the M50x isn't touted as being the most comfortable to wear for extended periods. However, I can certainly attest to the comfort of the 598SE. It is light, well cushioned, has slightly tilting cups and covers the ear perfectly. The open back design ensures that the ears don't heat up which has been a concern for me from the time I used the HD203. Even the click of the jack on insertion is pretty satisfying. Also, the Amazon sale had the 598SE at an effective price of 7.2k as against 8.1k for the M50x, so my decision was made rather quickly, albeit judiciously. The special edition doesn't look quite as luxurious as the beige tainted normal edition but it comes with a more practical 1.2m 3.5mm cable with a twist mechanism that ensures a good lock.

I won't feign being an audiophile, but one thing I can attest to is that it is the best set of cans/earphones I have purchased to date for it beats the Sennheiser Momentum IEM that I use while on the move. I guess that was a given but experiencing the satisfaction personally matters a lot. It doesn't place emphasis on bass which is for the better as I am not accustomed to the genre of music that does and I have a sub-woofer system to quell that need, should it arise. The mids are well laid out and the treble holds well to Adele. What stands out is the soundstage because of the ease with which you can discern between the various instruments. The box itself describes this headphone best - "Natural Spatial Sound Experience". However, this comes at the expense of sound leakage and pretty much no isolation as a consequence of the open back design. This is only meant for places where you can be in control of your ambient noise, so it is firmly a stay-at-home affair.

The bottom line is that if your ears are pleasantly surprised after putting on a new set of headphones, then you know you have made the right decision, critics be damned.

Sundry #4: Excel Karaoke Player

My previous post on creating karaoke tracks got me thinking of creating a karaoke player and what better tool to use than the most interesting member of the Office family. I have used it mostly for boring purposes and a quite a few interesting ones which I shall unfortunately never be able to share.

Hence, this one is a fully open, quick and dirty take on fulfilling an idea. I usually like to focus on design and error handling when creating anything new, but I have given those a miss here, thereby following an engineer's ethos of "if it's working, it's done". It worked fine for me with the Groove Music player on Windows 10 along with a lyrics file (*.lrc) that I found on the web. I have posted this lyrics file (with some clean-up and synchronization) along with the Excel file, so you can feel free to try it out with the same track (not supplied, har har har) or indeed with any other.

The logic it follows is quite simple.
1. Locally store the MP3 path
2. Copy the contents of the lyrics file to the 'LRC' sheet
3. Extract the timing and lyrics from the contents (using only minutes and seconds here, so the player is not millisecond accurate)
4. On clicking of 'Start', open the MP3 file and start a counter using VBA that tracks the progress
5. Highlight the lyrics using conditional formatting by comparing the track progress with the timing of that specific line

If you like it or indeed re-use it, then just leave me a High Five.

Links:
1. Excel Karaoke Player     
2. Sample Lyrics File

Tutorial #7: Creating karaoke tracks (or removing vocals)


I came across an ad jingle recently and I so very wanted to remove the voice-over to enjoy the tune. So, I decided to dust off Audacity once again which I have used on and off for over a decade, mainly to create ringtones.

The process itself is quite simple. You simply have to open the track and apply 'Vocal Remover' from the 'Effect' menu. There are quite a few options available, but it is always best to start with the 'Simple (entire spectrum) option using the default settings and see how it goes. It is pertinent to note that it only works for centre-panned vocals i.e. ones in which the vocal is identical in the left and right channels and hence can be used to cancel each other out.

Apart from the default option, the other options include retaining or removing only some of the frequencies. Since the average human voice extends over 300-3000 Hz (using telecom standards over here), you can certainly filter it out. But, and a big but here is that you will also be removing the audio from instruments that are present in the same frequency range. So, while you may have a voiceless track, it will mostly sound a lot inferior to the original track.

Hence, as always, your mileage will most definitely vary depending on the track. So, take this primer for what its worth and have fun playing with your music tracks. 

Review #2: Mi In-ear Headphone (Pistons v2)




I had bought this pair to accompany my ageing SIII as the inline controls are a must for me when commuting. It was replacing the venerable Sony MH1C (working fine but for the controls) and thus had big shoes to fill.
Starting with the box, it was a delight to unpack the product and was orders of magnitude better than characterless sealed plastic packages (that would be the Sennheisers). It contained the expected 3 size ear buds as well as a simple, but effective shirt clip.

Coming to the product, the braided kevlar covering feels good and should stand the test of time, but I have my doubts over the split which seems to be the weakest link and might be the first to give away. The microphonics are not in the least bit annoying. The inline controls are standard fare and would work with any Android phone. However, the buttons lack tactile feedback and hence are not the easiest to press based on feel alone. Also, while I can understand the reason behind having the action button on the opposite side to the volume buttons, it is not a particularly easy arrangement as care needs to be taken to avoid inadvertent presses on the other side. The product also shows a lack of attention to detail by not including the 3-dot braille marking to distinguish the left from the right which I have always found convenient when putting on any earphone.

Turning attention to the audio, I can only draw a comparison to the MH1C which I have been using for a year until now. To compare the two, the Piston lacks quite a bit of bass and is a bit muddier. The high pitch sounds, while clear, don't seem to be particularly spread out and hence seem to lack a bit of detail. The mids connect the two quite well but is passable compared to the two ends. The soundstage seems good but is a bit narrower compared to the MH1C. With a good equalizer setting, it is quite possible to get a lot out of this pair.

To conclude, I am a tad disappointed with the performance, but it is only because I am coming from the MH1C, which to be fair cost me about double the amount (that too in a wholesale pack). This is hands down one of the best earphones (with inline controls) that you can find in the price range of 2k and may be a bit beyond. However, it would be an exaggeration to state that it wades the waters of quality earphones that cost 3 times or more. If you are someone who is simply looking for a solution beyond stock earphones, then this is your best. Worth every paisa.
Originally published on Amazon on 11th September 2014.