Technology

My JH-3A Journey Ends

So the latest news about the JH-3A broke a few days ago when JHAudio sent out an email update to their customers informing them of the latest developments. It seems that a patent that Jerry filed when he was operating Ultimate Ears finally went through, and so he is no longer able to use the active crossover design.

He has a clever solution, though. The original JH-3A design had the crossover in the digital domain, before even conversion to analog. This seems even better to me than the basic requirement for an active crossover: to have the crossover happen before the amplification. But what Jerry had to do in order to protect himself from UE is move the crossover into the earpiece, turning it back into a passive one.

So now, he’s still using 6 discrete channels (3 per side) of DAC and amplification, but instead of each being assigned a narrow band of the audio spectrum (which is supposed to increase driver control and dampening), all 6 channels output the full spectrum. The crossover (high-pass/low-pass filters) needed to separate the highs, mids, and lows is now in the earpiece.

Jerry says he can hear no sonic difference with this new approach.

But the big plus for this box still remains, thankfully for Jerry. Because he has the 6 discrete channels in the digital domain, he is able to calibrate the channels by adding tiny delays to make up for where the drivers are mounted in the earphones so that the waveform that exits the earphones has all the separate channels “in phase” with each other, adding coherency across the audio spectrum. This is really what gave the JH-3A the great leap in performance in the first place.

Apart from all the dropped features, though, the way in which JHAudio has communicated and treated their customers throughout this story has been bothersome. It took immense coercion to get updates out of them, with the juiciest of bits coming from leaked private correspondence. They gave a hard time getting refunds, ranging from complaining to outright refusing until they learned how they could be sued for it, without a product to ship. The latest evidence is this patent that Jerry filed himself, having been granted in January, that we haven’t heard anything about.

Folks evaluating this product should probably be looking at what it is and not what it is not, but for myself having been within the first 10 preorders, placed when Jerry first unveiled this thing at CanJam 2010 in Chicago, it’s been really interesting watching the feature list erode over the last year and a half.

In the end, I don’t think any one aspect of this journey could have deterred me all by itself, but when you add it all together, well.. it really adds up. Maybe if I was to find this product after release I could have jumped on board and loved it, but I really haven’t enjoyed watching and experiencing its development much — especially with the expectation that the product was going to ship in 1-3 weeks at all times. (Like basically since last November.) Peel feature after feature from what I thought I was paying for when I plunked down the cash, and the value this energy-sucking box has for me quickly diminishes.

Oh yeah — did I forget to mention that they took our money on day one? Consequently, it sure seems to me that they should be held to a transparency standard. Many have taken their refunds at various stages before me, but I’ve been serious about this device all along, staying the course through thick weather. I was mildly debating taking the refund recently until JH made it easy with the latest news about the great secret of the UE patent and the new design.

I think I summed it up on the forum:

I took my refund today because my original expectation of — having a breakthrough IEM system with a rust-color chassis, 24/192-capable DAC/DSP chip possibly capable of accepting flash updates, 3-way, active crossover, 20-hour battery life, absolutely silent background, and the ability to charge while listening, from a company who treats their customers with dignity and respect — wasn’t nearly met.

At the end of the day, the JHA folks are just operating the business the way they know how, and I’m sure they’re doing the best they can. This company is usually known for being friendly and easy to work with, so I can’t dismiss them completely for this experience alone. Maybe next time, Jerry.

Friday, October 14th, 2011 Audio, Reviews, Technology No Comments

My Sennheiser HD 25-1 II

I’ve been enjoying my Sennheiser HD 25-1 II for a month and a half now, and I wanted to share my thoughts on them. I’d been using my Audio-Technica ESW10JPN headphones a lot at the office because I like the ease of throwing them on and around the neck as I’m invariably interrupted. For this casual use case, I really appreciate the form factor of this type of small, supra-aural headphones. I also find these headphones to be extremely durable. I have no problem just throwing them in my bag whereas I need to be more careful with the ESW and its beautiful wooden cups.

One thing I really like is that the phones are so modular and user-serviceable. Perhaps in part related to how the HD 25 is 23 years old, you can buy every single piece separately. You can get replacement cables, ear cushions, cups, etc in many different colors. They also seem able to withstand much abuse without issue!

I ultimately decided that I was a fan of the blue accents on the Adidas-branded version over the straight black one. I’m not really an Adidas fan at all; I just like the blue. :) Yes, I could have gone crazy and bought a modded one or got the paints myself, but it would have been a bit more time or money than I wanted to invest. (Jfunk does some jaw-dropping work on these phones and others.)

The fit of these headphones on my head is very interesting to me. While my ESW10JPN clamp very lightly and have sort of stiffly-swiveling cups that make it possible to direct the pressure to the temples rather than the ear, the HD 25-1 II does what I feared the ESW’s would — clamp hard and non-discriminately over the whole ear. It doesn’t bother me nearly as much as I expected, though. I find the head clamp cozy on these phones and only after some time (maybe 1 hr+) does it begin to bother my ears a bit. Usually a little adjustment or couple-minute break is all that is needed. This nice, padded grip does give you really great isolation and I find the comfort surprisingly acceptable.

The HD 25-1 II is known for being a good choice for DJ’s and studio engineers. Apart from the left earcup flipping forward and back to allow one-ear monitoring, the sound quality is quite decent. When I compared Jude’s HD 25 vs his Beyerdynamic DT1350, the HD 25-1 II had a *much* more exciting sound with punchier bass. I was actually quite surprised. If you were purely after clarity of sound, the Beyers might do it for you, but when I casually tested these headphones, I found the Senns to sound hugely more appealing for the attributes that I wanted in them — fun sound and punchy bass with great clarity.

I still haven’t brought myself to let go of my Shure SRH750DJ for my mixing habit, though. The Shures have nice big cups that swivel to allow a quick preview of the next track while they’re around the neck, crooked-head style. I do just fine mixing with either pair, though.

Overall, I’m extremely pleased with these phones. They’re robust enough that I’m not afraid to throw them in a bag or get them a bit scratched up, and they sound good enough to satisfy my inner audiophile for the casual listening I intended them for. They’re not the cheapest of their class at around $200, but I feel they were worthy of the cost.

Saturday, July 30th, 2011 Audio, Reviews, Technology No Comments

My JHAudio JH-3A: Attempt #2

It’s been a while since I sent my JH-3A back to JHA for the second time. I wasn’t looking forward to writing this unfortunate update, but figured I should in order to keep current.

Given the loudness of the hiss the first time, the continued issues of other folks on the forum, and the speed with which JHA turned around on my amp had me somewhat pessimistic about what was headed back to me when I got the second shipment notification indicating the amp was on the way for round 2. I wasn’t sure if a firmware change could truly solve the noise floor problem. After fully charging it, flipping it on, and inserting the earphones, I heard almost the exact same somewhat headache-inducing buzz as the first time. I think it was a little reduced, but it was still loud enough to hear with even loud music if the specific frequencies were not adequately masked. The gain setting was still much too high.

Phoey.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, though. A couple folks on the forum report NO hiss at all! Had it not been for this testimonial, I might not have thought it possible with the hardware design.

On another note, when JHA reduced the gain enough that the noise cannot be heard, they found that a PCB (circuit board) change was needed in order to gain-match the analog level to the digital one. Someone pointed out that they’re not technically matching gain, but tweaking the analog one so they’re both “usable”. So, here’s hoping we’ll see a finished JH-3A in fewer weeks rather than more.

Edit: I just wanted to add to this pretty negative post that I still have every reason to believe that this product will ultimately be extremely satisfying. I can’t wait to enjoy the full effect of the 3A and share my experiences.

Saturday, July 30th, 2011 Audio, Reviews, Technology 3 Comments

My JHAudio JH-3A: Attempt #1

I didn't feel like taking a picture of my 3A, so here's Laslo's (warp08). His 3A was the first shipped to a customer.

So after long last, my JH-3A arrived from JHAudio. It landed on the 14th of June, just barely over a year since Jerry shared the demo of this amazing new twist on custom-molded IEM’s at CanJam in Chicago, IL. (I wrote a post about it then.) Originally slated for release in the fall of 2010, the inevitable delays and mixed signals from JHA turned the wait into long and confusing one. Today, though, I want to describe how things went when my JH-3A first arrived.

With the package opened, the first thing is to evaluate the fit. When I stuffed the phones in my ears, I immediately knew they were much too small, making it difficult to impossible to attain any kind of seal, let alone a good one. In speaking with Jerry, it seems that they let the impressions they took at CanJam sit for about 10 months before using them to make molds. Honestly, I’m pretty surprised they actually did this rather than reach out and ask me for new impressions. Well, no worry; they guarantee the fit.

Next, we turn to the amp. The shortcomings it has next to my expectations are several, but let’s start with the ones Jerry says he can fix for us. First, there is quite an audible hiss. Now I’m somewhat sensitive to hiss in amps and truly love it when I hear one with a perfectly black background — I’ve returned amps for hissing with my IEM’s before. This amp hissed much louder than I’ve ever heard an IEM hiss, and I was very surprised and frankly appalled at first given that this system was supposed to be tuned to the IEM’s.

Second, the range on the digital volume knob was downright silly. The very bottom cuts off the sound entirely as you would expect. When I hit the very first notch, the sound (when connected via USB) is somewhere in the moderate to loud range. This means that in order to listen comfortably, I would likely need to use this very first digital step and turn the volume down further in the digital domain — a no-no for those after absolute quality. The next few notches might be useful for serious rocking out, but the rest of the knob ranged from extremely loud to i’m-afraid-i’d-damage-the-earphones loud.

Thankfully, it sounds like both these related issues were purely an accident — something that, according to Jerry, the factory did to the firmware after he had “signed off” on it. They increased the gain, and it was missed in QA. I’ve just shipped everything plus fresh impressions back to them for adjustment.

Other Head-Fiers mentioned both of these issues — folks that did not seem to have the extreme gain issue that I did. And in following up with Jerry, it sounds like he is addressing them both further than just fixing the very broken parameters in my amp. He is lowering the noise floor further and tweaking the range on the volume knob further from his previous aim. I have high hopes that when my system returns, it will meet my expectations.

Just for posterity’s sake, allow me to enumerate the other, thankfully much less important differences between what was delivered and our expectations. I know a whole lot about the JH-3A project changed since last year such as the original DSP developer of questionable ethics bailing on the project, but here’s the list none-the-less.

  • Battery life went from the 20 hrs Jerry was aiming for at CanJam to 6-7.
  • The unit cannot be ran continuously: if you charge it (via USB) while using it, it will run for about 10 hours.
  • The max sampling rate of the DAC went from 192 to 96 kHz.
  • The “mic” feature (for pro use) means that if I hit the source select button one too many times, the earphones emit a very loud, high-pitched sound. I’m still a bit boggled that Jerry released a product that makes accidentally deafening yourself easy.
  • The “rust” color amp is no longer an option. The JH-3A is black.
  • The unit is incapable of accepting flash updates. The hopes of user-set EQ’s and other niceties are no more.
  • The JH-13 version is no longer available. Jerry decided it’s only worth making the JH-16 version.

Thankfully, just about none of those are going to impact my enjoyment of the 3A.

The JH-3A still holds immense promise in my mind. I still use my JH-13 all the time and am really looking forward to enjoying a well-functioning JH-3A. I think we’re on the cusp of seeing many very happy 3A customers, and JHA will earn much praise for this breakthrough product.

Saturday, June 25th, 2011 Audio, Reviews, Technology No Comments

My ZooGue Case for Motorola Xoom

I thought a video would be best to illustrate my tablet case: bonuses, downfalls, and all.

Monday, May 9th, 2011 Reviews, Technology No Comments

My Motorola Xoom

I’ve had my Motorola Xoom (wifi only) for just over a month now, and I’ve been really happy with it. Of course it’s still early days for the Android tablets, but I love it anyway. :) This is the first tablet available to offer Honeycomb, the version of Android aimed at tablets rather than phones. Of course with Android being open source, manufacturers were free to abuse it in any way that they please — including loading older versions of Android (designed for the small screens of phones) onto their tablets.

Honeycomb (Android 3.0) brings many usability improvements that make sense for tablets. Instead of the pull-down status bar that would hog the entire screen, there is now a pop-up system tray for info and notifications in the corner. Things like browsing apps, adding widgets, and switching between active applications are much more intuitive for the larger-screened platform. Additionally, there are extensions to the API called “fragments” that make implementing tablet-optimized functionality much easier for application developers.

I’m overall very happy with how the software end of things is progressing. We already have an almost reliable platform that works very nicely on a tablet. Android was already a very capable mobile OS, but Honeycomb just made it tablet-friendly. I can easily see past the few bugs and shortcomings in the software as I know this tablet was rushed to market, and progression both within third party apps and Android itself is happening rapidly. Also, I am very much looking forward to seeing the Honeycomb source code released as open source. This should give hackers and custom ROM makers a much better opportunity to sink their teeth into the code and do interesting things. (I do forgive the Android people for their restrictive policies here with the reasons given.)

Now let’s talk about the hardware. The Tegra chip makes animations and even serious, 3d games smooth as butter. Android’s task swapping means it makes very good use of the already very generous 1 GB of RAM in this tablet. 32 GB internal memory is also more than I need. It’s a good thing, too, because the microSD card slot is still a software update away from working. The cameras and GPS work great. The rear-firing stereo speakers sound fine enough. The headphone output sounds pretty good with my headphones. We have a white-only notification light on the front. *Shrug* at no vibration / haptic feedback. *Woot* at the battery lasting 2 full days of moderate use fairly easily.

My gripes about the hardware are three. First, the screen not very good at all in sunlight. The iPad, with its IPS screen, is a bit easier to see in sunlight. Ok, this one isn’t a huge deal; I can’t expect to have everything. It’s the latter two things that truly get under my skin since they were actually design decisions. Item number two is that the charger plug is about 1-2 mm in diameter. I combat this by being overly careful about not bumping the device while charging. There are already many reports of them breaking off, but at least Motorola seems to be just sending these users a free replacement charger. (No USB charging is also a drag, but I’m not too bothered.) I feel that the final gripe is the most ridiculous. The wake/sleep button is located on the rear of the tablet. Apart from it taking some new users upwards of 60 seconds to even find it, having the button on the back means one must pick the Xoom up off the table in order to turn it on or off. I use a case that can block the button, making it even more difficult to press. Tragically, it just seems that Moto barely missed the mark on having really great hardware.

I take these shortcomings (which I did weigh carefully pre-purchase) and the high price ($600) as the cost of being an early adopter. And still months later, the Xoom is still extremely competitive — especially with the issues ASUS is having with their Transformer, another very good looking Honeycomb tablet. So I would say I’m still very happy with my purchase, but at the same time very excited to see how both the hardware and the software progress.

My app selections are on my AppBrain page.

Sunday, May 8th, 2011 Reviews, Technology No Comments

My Rancilio Silvia

After owning two machines, I finally decided to take the whole espresso thing more seriously. After some research, I settled on a PID-modified Rancilio Silvia. The Silvia is really a machine made for use in the home, but it has commercial-grade parts. The portafilter is a heavy, 58mm one and the 12-ounce boiler is made of brass rather than aluminum as seen in cheaper machines. The Silvia seems to strike a very nice balance by combining great, pro-level features with a reasonable price.

The PID modification adds a module that allows its user to set the desired temperature, and the system continuously monitors the temperature by kicking the boiler heating element on and off in dynamic intervals, maintaining it to the degree. This is in contrast to the stock machine which has a giant, 30-40 degree dead-band in which it cycles as the boiler comes on until a bit too hot to pull a shot, then off until it’s much too cool to brew. Successful users have all learned the imperfect art of “temperature surfing” (aka “tickling the Silvia”) to find the right temperature ballpark before flipping the brew switch.

There are a bunch of variables that must be tightly controlled in order to prepare good espresso. The amount of coffee, the pressure applied when tamping, the temperature of the water, the duration of the shot, and of course the quality of the coffee itself all can have a profound effect on the result. The consistency and fineness of the grind is hugely important. A spinning blade grinder is out of the question since the size of the particles will vary so wildly.

I knew the grind was important. That’s why I had a burr grinder: the Baratza Maestro. But I soon realized that for best results, I really needed to upgrade from the apparently entry-level Maestro. By moving up to better grinders, one achieves a much more consistent grind. Much like a lens vs its camera, one can make hugely better shots with a high end grinder and a mediochre machine than in a crap grinder and a great machine.

So I decided to invest in a Vario burr grinder, also happening to be from Baratza. I’ve read really great things about this grinder, and indeed it lives up to expectations! The ceramic burrs keep cooler than the steel ones often used and they last 2-3 times longer, too. It also features programmable doses and extrememly fine-grained control over the grind coarseness.

Another interesting thing I learned was that cheap machines (like my first two) use a pressurized portafilter. This means that there is a valve under the basket that only opens when the proper amount of pressure is built up. With these, there is actually no reason to even tamp! By contrast, commercial style (non-pressurized) portafilters actually depend on the fineness of grind and tamp pressure (the coffee itself) for the appropriate amount of pressure to build up, so getting things right is much more a function of the barista’s skill. What you get for it, though, is potentially superior shots with milky smooth crema — shots from pressurized portafilters have what’s been referred to as fake crema that tends to disappear quickly.

I’ve been enjoying my new rig for about a month now, so I have a decent handle on making quality shots at this point. I’m really just loving owning this machine. The features of both the machine and grinder allow me to keep a great handle on most of the variables that make or break good shots, so the ones I pull are consistently delicious with great balance and thick, lasting crema. It truly puts the average cup of joe to shame.

Silvia & Vario

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011 Reviews, Technology No Comments

Android: Fine, Then Gimme the Features Without Root

With the Droid X coming out tomorrow, there’s quite a bit of attention being drawn to the fact that the fancy new Android phone is using the same encrypted bootloader as the Motorola Milestone, rendering it very difficult to crack. According to this post at androidpolice.com, the bootloader is using a “proprietary encrypted private key scheme” which pretty much requires any ROM you’re going to install has been blessed by Motorola.

This is totally lame.

I bought into the Android platform because it stands for openness and freedom. And really, they do a pretty darned good job at it still. But the fact is that there are some things that I’ve come to take for granted on my Droid because some hacker has enabled them.

My reasons for rooting are:

  • I can theme my phone UI
  • I can uninstall apps I don’t want (like Amazon MP3. WTF!)
  • I can turn off the LEDs behind the 4 main buttons under the screen (Seriously? I need root for this?)
  • I can overclock (even though I don’t really do it since FroYo)
  • I can tether (I basically never do this — no need.)

Why won’t the phone makers let me do these things?? The only one that could damage anyone on their end is tethering since the carriers actually want extra money for the feature. So restrict it!

I suppose one could cause damage by overclocking and stressing the phone too much… So add some kind of hardware indicator so it would be known if the phone was ever overclocked, and void the warranty if it was! They already do this for water damage!

I was happy not rooting for a long time, so (stock) Android does a good job of not making me feel restricted. I wholeheartedly agree with those who say the phones should all be unlocked and capable of installing custom ROMs like the developer-oriented Nexus One, but the realistic side of me is just asking for a little more flexibility in the stock offering. Why the heck not allow me to do some of these things to my phone??

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010 Software, Technology 4 Comments

JRummy’s FroYo Kangerade Rocks My Droid

For nine days now, I’ve had the pleasure of running the leaked Nexus One build of the highly-anticipated FroYo (2.2) release of Android in the form of the Cyan-themed version of JRummy’s FroYo Kangerade v1.0 (FRF57). I guess with a little modification, Cyanogen (whose rom Kangerade is based on) and JRummy can adapt a binary Nexus One build for the Droid. Kangerade v1.1 has since been released, and he is now beta-testing the next version, which will be built from the source code that Google just released through their AOSP (FRF83).

It’s excellent. Apart from the handful of nice-to-have features, FroYo’s new ability to run entirely with the JIT compiler means a real-world speed boost of 4-5 times, they say. It’s really quite a lot smoother all around: general transitions and effects, switching between apps, etc… It pretty much feels like a hardware upgrade to me. And if I’m not mistaken, I’m getting better battery life with FroYo, too!

I must say, I am very pleased with how well android is doing. Especially in the last few months, I’ve seen tons of sweet apps and mods, and hackers like Cyanogen and JRummy just keep pushing the limits.

And what’s funny is that even though there are some better-spec’d phones coming out now (Incredible, Evo 4G, Droid X), they all seem to have their flaws (weak battery, flimsy build, failing screen, *no keyboard?!*). I’m not even jealous of another phone yet!

Droid FTW!

Friday, June 25th, 2010 Software, Technology 2 Comments

Notion Ink Adam Tablet Update

I’m very happy to hear that the recent news of the Notion Ink Adam Android tablet being delayed (again) until November was not, in fact true. While we don’t have an actual release date, it’s implied that we may see it come to market within a couple months.

I’m very excited at the idea of having the same Android OS I enjoy on my phone on a tablet device. This is mainly because I think it will replace a laptop for couch computer use. I like having a different ergonomic experience at home, after using a traditional PC for so many hours at work. Actually, I already use the Droid for a lot of things, but the small screen is not best suited for a lot of reading.

I think reading is going to be something this tablet will suit best. Check out this video comparison of the Pixel Qi display (that the Notion Ink Adam will use) vs an iPad.

One of the main reasons I’m so psyched about a tablet like this vs an iPad is the fact that it is a computer by definition. Yes, one can run Android, Ubuntu Linux or Chrome OS on it, but I’m thinking more fundamental. For ages, we have had these machines we call computers. One could write some code and run their own programs on them, or procure said programs from a third party…… The fact that Apple wants to have so many ridiculous restrictions turns me off in a huge way. I prefer the freedom to use my hardware as I see fit.

Anyway, check out CrunchGear’s post for latest on the Notion Ink Adam.

Friday, June 11th, 2010 Computers, Technology No Comments

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