Category Archives: Apple

Apple to release 24-bit tracks in iTunes?

Apple iTunesAudio blogs and magasines around the world are flowing over today with rumors that Apple may be offering 24-bit audio in iTunes in some yet to be specified future. Note the question mark in the title. We are talking rumors. This doesn’t make it less interesting, though, for many device vendors are dismissing the need for 24-bit audio referring to lack of material (are you listening Sonos?).

Whether you like iTunes or not, it is indisputably one of the major music platforms and when they do something, the others will have to follow to keep their place in the market. That is why I am tickled silly here; if Apple jumps on the wagon and their users can get HD content from iTunes this will force a change upon some of the more conservative hardware vendors. Not only that. It will force a change of their own hardware.

Truth be told, it is not Apple that spawned the rumor but record label chairman Jimmy Iovine who said this to CNN…

“We’ve gone back now at Universal, and we’re changing our pipes to 24 bit. And Apple has been great,” Iovine said. “We’re working with them and other digital services — download services — to change to 24 bit. And some of their electronic devices are going to be changed as well. So we have a long road ahead of us.”

So not directly from the horse’s mouth but a bell ringing for – oooh, the future – the future.

Linn DS does Apple

kinskydesktopThe latest upgrade for KinskyDesktop, the remote software for Linn DS, now works with Mac as well as Windows and additionally lets you play music from your iTunes libraries on your Linn DS. At the same time the Linn DS itself now supports Ogg Vorbis files in addition to the Flac support mandatory in these high-end circles. Where exactly iTunes fit in in these same circles, is an entirely different discussion: We have a music library consisting of thousands of Flac’ed CDs, a decent collection of native HD Flac files and a good handful of records bought through iTunes. As I see it, there are only two scenarios that warrant iTunes support in the Linn DS and that is if you rippped your entire collection with iTunes and don’t want to go through it again or if you bought the occasional CD in Apple’s music store. The first scenario is perfectly understandable. Re-ripping an entire collection is a daunting task and if the CDs are Red Book and saved as Apple Lossless, sound quality is unscathed anyway. It is merely a matter of convenience. Music bought through iTunes is DRM protected and will not play on the Linn anyway.

Now we really need Apple to get their fingers out and add support for 24-bit HD music so our Linns can have a something of proper nutritional value. It is, after all, at this elevation in the hifi-pyramid that Linn makes a difference.

Sonos releases controller for Apple iPad

sonosipadThe Sonos iPhone controller has received a bigger sibling for the Apple iPad. The iPhone / iPod Touch was a great remote control for the Sonos Multi-Room Music System in its own right but the bigger screen of the iPad is coolness apparent. Like its older, smaller brother the iPad controller is free to download from the Apple App Store.

Apple iTunes 10–or how nothing is ever a problem, part 2

Apple iTunesWhen Apple released iTunes 10 DAAP servers across the world went into silence. Many third party vendors started changing firmware but from Apple only silence. Now 2 weeks later Apple releases a n update for iTunes, solving the problem. The update will be automatically installed, if you have Apple Update activated.

Wireless iPod dock for Sonos


sonos-wireless-dock_w500Sonos today announced  a wireless dock for Apple iPod Touch and iPhone. The dock allows you to stream music from your iPod to Sonos devices across your home. Sonos already has an analog line-in that can be streamed. Adding the iPod lets you only wish for one extra thing and that is a streamable digital input. Couldn’t be far away, I am sure.

Apple iTunes 10–or how nothing is ever a problem

Apple iTunesApple released version 10 of their iTunes recently and immediately media sharing devices all over the world stopped serving sound bites to yearning ears. Not that Apple broke iTunes. Of course not. Don’t be daft! NAS drives across the globe committed collective suicide and stopped working. That’s what happened. Apple’s response to an immediate flooding of the support forums: complete silence.

The culprit is the daap protocol being used to communicate tracks from NAS drives to the iTunes players. The playlists show up like they always did but they contain no tracks. The bigger problem is, of course, that flashing a NAS drive with new firmware requires the drive to be in production or at least not very old, and that you are actually enough computer apt to actually perform the operation, let alone recognise the need. Apple scores pretty low on this one. Not for optimising the protocol or whatever they did to it, but for leaving a large group of users behind by not being backwards compatible. The very users they cater to with their zero administration products. A disappointed user at Apple’s support forum put it this way: “Yeah. Nothing ever appears to be their problem”.

This could be a good time for media player vendors to release a new cool player and push iTunes off the ledge. Most people would be more inclined to switch software solution than replacing their hardware, I’d wager. I know, I would.

Software rundown

There are several software media centers available that run on ordinary computers. Depending on your operating system, the choice is more or less broad, in terms of sound quality and features. This is an attempt to describe a four such solutions, all catering to different audiences.

There are a number of features that I have a hard time living without, but few are met by all four solutions:

  1. Lossless audio
  2. Remote control
  3. Remote playback
  4. Automated library management

The applications tested are these: Apple iTunes, Foobar2000, WinAmp and J. River Media Center. I will have a go at four other media players in a later article.

Apple iTunes 9

itunesIf you have an Apple product in your house, chances are you have iTunes installed as well. Products such as the iPod Touch, Apple TV and indeed the iPhone, pretty much need iTunes to stay in sync. Apple iTunes has many neat features and equally many annoying dittos.

One often foreseen feature of iTunes, is Airtunes. Airtunes is a communication protocol supported by Apple’s wireless access points, Airports, and by Apple TV. Airtunes lets iTunes detect devices through the Apple Bonjour service and stream music to these devices. Simply put, you can view Airtunes capable devices as remote speakers and select them instead of (or in addition to) your local PC speaker. It even lets you play a song on multiple locations simultaneously and, let’s not forget, in sync. It does not let you play different songs on different devices, at least not from one computer, and there is no way you can forcibly take over an Airport if it is already servicing another iTunes client. But at a very low cost, you can actually have a functional multi room system.

The user interface is sleek, as you would expect from Apple. It does, however, have some serious short comings. Having no tooltips whatsoever, you are forced to click everything to learn what it does. More importantly, you have to read a lengthy document, to learn the keyboard shortcuts.

In terms of recognised file formats, iTunes does not impress much but does support lossless audio through the Apple Lossless codec, which by the way, is also the format used to communicate with the Airtunes clients.

Remote control support in iTunes is excellent and terrible at the same time. The excellent part is the Remote App for the iPod Touch and iPhone. It is an App that looks exactly like the iTunes App but lets you connect to any running iTunes on your network and use it as it was on your phone, only playing the tracks on the computer or through Airtunes. That is pretty darn nifty. It works brilliantly and looks awesome. Remote controlling an iTunes client from another computer, however, is an entirely different matter. There are a few third party attempts but they are cumbersome and unintuitive.

ITunes maintains its own library of metadata and offers to maintain your actual files as well, if you so choose. There is not much to say about the library itself. If, for instance, you use smart playlists, it is rather responsive and works as it is supposed to. When running multiple clients, however, iTunes fails miserably. It is not possible to share your metadata on the network. All clients must import all files to their own libraries and maintaining metadata suddenly becomes tedious at best. Add to this that iTunes does not watch folders for changes, and you have a regular nightmare. A third party product called Itunes Folder Watch does wonders at doing exactly this – watching folders. The man behind this product, by the way, has a new thing brewing called Muso. Muso is a media database that first and foremost acts as a manager. It can stream music directly to Logitech Squeezebox, and play locally through WinAmp or iTunes.

To play music off the network, iTunes supports their DAAP protocol. This protocol lets an iTunes client share its media with other iTunes clients. In other words, you can have one iTunes have control of the media library and all the other clients simply get their information from there. One would imagine that the sharing issues mentioned above were eliminated then, but that is not the case. When iTunes connects to a peer or any other DAAP provider, such as a NAS drive, it shows the library as a list. You no longer have access to the user interface gems, such as cover flow and album grouping. With a DAAP client such as the open source initiative Firefly, it is possible to have some very smart playlists, though. But that is an entirely different discussion.

Score

3 out of 5 for good effort, albeit lacking in remote control and library management.

Foobar2000 v1.1

foobar2000This program has been around since 2002 but only recently went out of beta. It is the brain child of Peter Pawlowski, and sports some rather impressive specs.

Foobar2000 supports all major audio formats, including Flac. Due to a well documented SDK and its long existance, Foobar2000 has an impressive backlog of third party plugins adding to its modularity. It is this modular architecture that is the strength of Foobar2000 but it also its biggest shortcoming.

Like iTunes, Foobar2000 can be remote controlled through plugins. The program itself cannot remote control another instance and the plugins are rudimentary at best. As for remote playback there is no support at all. German Rogue Amoeba has a product called Airfoil, which allows well behaved audio applications to route their sound to Airtunes. A short delay makes the experience a little cumbersome, but it works quite well.

Foobar2000 has no library management per se. It scans the media files it is told to and caches the information locally. If you change metadata, the changes are committed at once and the relevant files are updated. Nonetheless, navigation is responsive and filtering occurs immediately. And then it watches… Foobar2000 can monitor an arbitrary number of music folders and updates its cache as soon as a file is touched. It is, in other words, definitely possible to have multiple Foobar2000 clients running, watching the same folders and have them update each other with no user interference. Add to this, a brilliant properties editor and you have not only an excellent media player but also one of the best ID3 tag editors on the market.

As I mentioned, modularity is not all good. In all its configurability, Foobar2000 can break the neck of most users through its options alone. Sifting through its Preferences dialog, can make most people sweat, and as if that was not all, the user interface can be configured in minute details through a Live Edit mode. If you have the tennacity Foobar2000 is a wonderful product, though, and definitely a recommended try.

Score

3 out of 5 for excellent library management and a gorgeous tag editor, but lacking in remoting.

WinAmp 5.58

winampWith almost 1½ decades on its bones WinAmp is the grand old man of media players. It wasn’t until 2007 and version 5.5 that the program became a true media center with album artwork and integrated library management. In its current incarnation, WinAmp is a potent player in its genre. It supports a multitude of audio formats, either generically or through plugins, including lossless audio in the form of Flac. Like Foobar2000, however, WinAmp suffers from too much going on and some visual setups that may be fitting a computer mainly used for programming rather than a dedicated media center.

The library manager included with WinAmp is good but not brilliant. You can manage your media inside the player and have it watch for folder changes, and that is that. Somewhat tucked away, however, is a library toolbox of sorts that lets you import libraries from iTunes, export the database or force a rescan of the files being monitored. That is nice.

There are a few remote control plugins for WinAmp but no indigenous support. As with Foobar2000 the plugins offer only rudimentary control. What you can get, however, is a plugin that adds support for Apple Airtunes. Once activated, you get access to your Airports from within WinAmp and can route your music there with only very little delay.

There is something called WinAmp Remote but that is not a remote control per se, but a system that allows you to play your own media files from a remote location, specifically a location outside your own, private network.

Score

4 out of 5 for Eric Milles Remote Speaker plugin and a robust player, lacking mostly in actual remote control.

J.River Media Center 15

jriverLike WinAmp J.River Media Center is a mature product that induces confidence. And like WinAmp it plays all sorts of media.

The user interface is well thought out and works equally well on a big ass touch screen or a small, discrete Mimo. And now to the big one: J.River Media Center can be remote controlled. It can remote control. It can serve. It can do stuff!

Set up a small, passively cooled PC near your stereo and give it good USB DAC to work with and a Mimo touch screen to operate it. Then multiply this with the number of stereos in your house. J.River Media Center comes with a server which runs on Windows. This you install on your Windows Home Server and on all your desktop computers you install the J.River Media Center client. You can now play music from your server at your desktop computers and/or your DIY media centers – and control it from anyone of them. Is that neat or what?

Unfortunately you cannot stream to Apple Airports unless you use Rogue Amoeba’s Airfoil. One day, perhaps, someone will write a plugin that lets you do it.

The library manager is complete. The properties editor matches that of Foobar2000 and in addition, J.River Media Center has a trick up its sleeve. If you edit a tag from a client, it can propagate those changes back to the server. Letting the server do all the managing means you don’t have to have more or less out of sync libraries scattered across your clients and you only send the information across your network you really need and thus save some bandwidth.

There are a few usability issues when connecting to other clients/servers that could do with a bit of polish. But that aside, J.River Media Center is a pretty nice product.

Score

4 out of 5 for a near perfect media player really lacking only Airtunes support.

Apple Airport Express

Apple Airport Express The Apple Airport Express is not new by a long shot, 6 years in fact, but it does sport a nice feature making it worth mentioning anyway, a feature I failed to mention when commenting on Apple TV: They act as a remote output through what Apple has aptly named Airtunes. You can select Airports and Apple TVs around the house when playing songs from iTunes and have them play through one or more simultaneously. What is more, it has a Toslink connector buried inside the miniscule output jack for a purely digital connection to your sound system, should it support it. Actually, the Toslink connector is much preferred over the analog output due to excessive and quite audible hum from the built-in power supply.

Apple Airport Express There are a few catches. You cannot kill a connection initiated by one computer from another, i.e. you cannot start your music from the computer in the office and then when you get to the kitchen, take a computer there and select another song. This can be a major hassle [to be very diplomatic] if you use more than a few computers. Also you are pretty much limited to playing music via iTunes. There are a few hacks out there allowing you to route sound from other applications to an Airport, such as Airfoil from Rogue Amoeba, but these tools are compromises. Particularly latency is a big issue, especially when watching video and routing the sound elsewhere. Applications competing for the Airtunes connection is another issue adding to the brew of annoyances. Having to manually kill a connection made by Airfoil to open one for iTunes is certainly not befitting my workflow.

Setting up an Airport is straight forward. With it comes a setup application that browses the network for Airports and lets you connect to whichever one you like and configure it. Should you have special needs in terms of authentication protocols or topologies it lets you handle that too, albeit considerably less elegantly.

The Apple Airport Express costs next to nothing so if you already use iTunes, this is a really cost efficient means to a distributed music system. Airtunes has some design flaws but works remarkably well considering.

Apple TV

Apple TV It just occurred to me that I had forgotten one of the major players in the field of digital media – Apple. Last year they canonballed their Apple TV into the arena and it really does deserve a mention.

The device is, as the name so subtly implies, primarily a video streamer. It can stream from internet services such as YouTube or movie rental services, as well as from an iTunes equipped computer. More interestingly, at least within this blog’s scope, is its audio support. While it doesn’t do Flac or Ogg-Vorbis, it does support Apple Lossless, which is just as good, if somewhat proprietary. In fact, B&W Music Club offer their recordings in Apple Lossless as well as Flac. Otherwise you will have to convert from other formats which can be excruciatingly tedious.

An obvious short coming, is that it requires an iTunes service to stream from. That means that it cannot stream from your average NAS disk, if any at all, but requires a computer be turned on somewhere. Making up for that it sports a 40GB or 160GB harddisk to hold tracks locally.

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