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 #37: Revisiting the Bitcoin Frenzy

I always thought that I was a bit late to the uptake of Bitcoins when I made my first purchase in 2015, having read about it for a long time as a technology enthusiast. However, I never imagined that the real frenzy would come much later. Along with it, comes the regret of immediately selling off the miniscule number of bitcoins I had purchased. Perhaps the bigger regret should be of not purchasing more of it and just letting it sit idle. If I remember it right, bitcoins were around the $300 mark at that time and what else would have ever provided a 10x return in less than 2 years?

While regrets live and die with the sole purpose of being detrimental, my purpose then was served which was understanding the workings of it. Of course, it came with the added benefit of arbitrage for back then the merchants that accepted it had a lower rate for BTC than for USD when converted from my local currency. My focus and hope for bitcoins was that it would be an effective alternate payment channel. Unfortunately, recent developments have shown it to not be the case.

Throughout this year, bitcoin has been in the news for all the wrong reasons which culminated in the forking of the currency earlier this month. It was this event that made me revisit bitcoins. What is now truly evident is that bitcoin has passed the point of no return in terms of being a viable alternate currency. Rather, it has become an instrument of speculation and greed. Merchant adoption has diminished with the passing of the day as the long waiting times and high transaction fees have made it the antithesis of what an ideal payment instrument should be. The only ones really vested in it are hoarders and miners who continue to thrive with each executed transaction.

For some, it would still make sense to purchase bitcoins even today, despite the fact that it saw a swing of 40-60% just in the past month (or may be because of it). A scarce resource will see appreciation in time as long as the want is there; want since no one really needs it at the moment. The association of idealism, freedom and anarchy with bitcoins has long passed. Now it is only about greed and nothing else. This is precisely the reason why I don't wish to purchase bitcoins again. However, I still see a transactional value for it since the world needs better cross-border instrument than PayPal.

This also gave me a reason to login to my years-old accounts in Indian bitcoin exchanges and see how they have fared over time.

1. Zebpay: The reasons why I had registered for it in the first place were its accessibility on the mobile, purchase price lock-in and vendor offers. Unfortunately, none of it seems to be of any value at the moment. While the main attraction in terms of purchase price protection has been discarded, it would have mattered if I could access my account in the first place. Despite contacting customer service, they haven't been able to unblock my account for over a week. The unblocking from the app fails to work as the SMS is never received (probably being sent from a number on the TRAI DND list) and the call option leads to an app error. While "caveat emptor" applies to any purchase, it seems to be particularly relevant here when you also consider the non-transparent fees and high purchase/withdrawal limitations. Definitely, a no-go for me.

2. Unocoin: You can never be too careful and in my case, it meant having to get 2FA disabled on my account, having long deleted it from my Authy accounts list. The call from customer care came within 24 hours which was a good sign considering that most wallet credits used to take a significantly long time. However, I would put this down to the fact that I did it when bitcoin trading was suspended for the fork and the customer service might not have had anything better to do. The big change that I was looking forward to was the support for PayUMoney which I hoped would finally enable me to bypass the frustrating wait for the amount to be credited to the wallet. Unfortunately, my spirits were dampened the moment I saw the 1.9% transaction fee. It just lobs the ball in my court once again and I can't simply figure out a better use case for considering Unocoin over other options.

3. Coinsecure: Since I only intend to use bitcoins for transactions, time is of the essence considering the volatility of bitcoin. In that respect, coinsecure performs really well even though it doesn't have the same accessibility due to lack of an app. The Material Design interface gets in the way more often than not, especially when there are notifications flying all over the screen like the persistent one about the fork and subsequent closure. However, my deposit through IMPS was registered in a matter of minutes and subsequent withdrawal of the same amount was executed during working hours. The real trouble was finding the matching order volume which in the least was for a few thousand bucks. I remember that in the past I could place a buy order without a matching order volume hoping for it to be fulfilled some time later, but that doesn't seem to be the case anymore. Despite this, I prefer it over the other exchanges.

There are other references that I came across such as bitxoxo but I can't be bothered to test them out for as I said before I am out of the bitcoin bubble for good. It certainly feels odd to not be part of something that is going to appreciate monetarily but then it is a matter of principle and belief, the belief that bitcoin could have been a low-cost, global payment channel. The soaring prices have tilted the scale against currency arbitrage; the high transaction fees would put PayPal to shame and the transaction times are nothing to write home about. Thus, bitcoin has become analogous to gold as a hoarder's asset, only difference being its wild swings lending it to immense speculation. Bitcoin's relative anonymity has tilted more in favour of the dark side rather than the envisaged utopia of freedom and invisible borders.

Bitcoin's lasting legacy would be the blockchain which still has a significant potential in having a real-world impact. Bitcoin itself is now no more than a game of timing and pricing, leaving the scope for the rise of a true nationless currency that is without its pitfalls.

Musing #32: Milk Online (Sarda Farms)

Ordering milk online directly from the farm isn't as preposterous now as it would have been half a decade back. With the digital revolution having superseded the white revolution, it was simply a matter of time. When I received a pamphlet from Sarda Farms about direct to home delivery, I couldn't resist subscribing to it. I would like to think of myself as a digital pioneer of sorts, having jumped straight in to every digital service on inception. After all, I can't imagine many Indians purchasing stuff online in the past century and yet I started off purchasing online at a time when there wasn't much digital infrastructure to speak of in this country.

Most of the times, when I receive a pamphlet with a phone number on it, I expect a sparse, showcase online presence. Hence, I was presently surprised to see a fully equipped online ordering portal on the website. Moreover, there are decently designed Android and iOS apps available in the respective stores that allow you to adjust every aspect of your subscription, from delivery planning to delivery mode and renewals. It is not to say that there aren't any design or functionality issues. For example, the dashboard giving an overview of the remaining quantity on the website is sadly missing on the iOS app whose Home tab is simply a replication of the menu options. Similarly, the option to enter a promo code is missing from the app which shows a lack of anticipation for future offers. But it is very encouraging to see such a robust digital presence from a nascent service fulfilling basic requirements.

The true test of a service comes up when something unexpected occurs and demands flexibility from the provider. This happened to me when I inadvertently set a schedule (6 litres/week) which accounted for 27 litres over a 30 calendar day period, thereby omitting me from taking advantage of their free offer of 30 litres for new users (which required a minimum order of 30 litres). As I had already made the payment, I regretted at having missed out on the offer. However, on contacting their customer care, I was surprised to get a fully empathetic response whereby they sent me a link to pay for the remaining 3 litres, following which I had a total of 60 litres credited to my account. Speaking of customer care, I received a response within a couple of hours over email, app and within a minute over the phone.

I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised considering that there are so many turnkey IT solutions available now-a-days. For example, I can see that their payment services are being offered by EBS on account of which it looks professional from the get-go. Even then, this is an exception rather than a rule. Too many products and services launch with a shoddy implementation which leaves a poor first and consequently last impression.

Having spoken of the digital presence, I now await the physical delivery of the goods which is slated to start a fortnight later. 15 days is a long lead time but I suppose that is excusable, for last-mile logistics is always a difficult proposition. It is certainly not a cheap proposition at Rs. 90/litre, though the new user offer softens the blow by bringing it more or less on par with market prices. To add to the bargain, I managed to get free samples of all their curd offerings along with my first milk delivery which should allow me to form a better opinion of the brand as a whole. Till then, I can only hope that the milk is of the same ilk as the digital setup.