May 03, 2020


I’ve been an audio buff all my life. I built my first stereo amplifier–with tubes!–while I was in high school. I’ve got the home theater with surround sound and two subwoofers and a kilowatt of amplification. So I’m the last guy to compromise when it comes to portable audio.

In all the reviews I’ve done for PC Magazine, I’ve learned that many a slick-performing digital audio player has serious sonic flaws. I’ve also found that headphones and earbuds have a major effect on the quality of your listening experience. Yet virtually every other reviewer just downloads his favorite tunes and says. “Cool!” if the unit makes music, and goes on to complain about the computer-side software or the belt clip.

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Posted by machrone at 06:48 PM | Comments (17)

April 21, 2020

Charts, Graphs, and Tools

What are those weird charts? How do I read them? What do they mean? Is this really necessary? People have been asking, so here are the answers.

I take audio testing very seriously, and fortunately, PC-based tools can make the testing economical. I've had to build some specialized equipment, however, to analyze the sound coming from the earbuds and to properly test the audio performance of digital audio players under load.

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Posted by machrone at 08:46 PM | Comments (0)

September 14, 2010

iPod nano

Barely larger than the shuffle, the iPod nano packs the same 4 gigabytes as the original mini, but it's flash, not hard disk. The screen is color, it shows pictures, but you already know all that. The real question: How does it sound?

In terms of overall frequency response and lack of distortion, it's right up there with the very best players. In terms of bass response, it's the second-best player I've ever heard or tested.

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Posted by machrone at 09:34 PM | Comments (7)

May 27, 2010

Sony EX71

It's not fair. Why do these in-canal phones have such sweet bass but leave something to be desired at the higher frequencies? And why the anomalies in testing/listening?

In a head-to-head (heh) comparison with the Etymotic ER6i, the EX71s sounded richer and deeper in the bass, but that's not how my instrumentation saw it. It told me that the Etymotics went deeper and had flatter frequency response. Time for a closer look.

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Posted by machrone at 10:30 AM | Comments (7)

May 26, 2010

4th-generation iPod

What can you say about the world's most popular digital audio player? How about, "It could be better."

The 4th-generation iPod is the player that all others are compared to for ease of use, style, and substance. It's more than just an audio player; it's a platform, with hundreds of accessories and add-ons to tailor it to your needs. While other manufacturers have added FM radios, recording, and other features to grab just a bit of the iPod's market share, Apple has resolutely held to its music-only stance. (The iPod photo is a different model, aimed at a different user.)

The iPod's audio performance should be as iconic as everything else about it. Unfortunately, it's not as consistently wonderful as the rest of the player.

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Posted by machrone at 01:36 PM | Comments (3)

May 25, 2010

Archos PMA430

Calling the Archos PMA430 a digital audio player is like calling a Swiss Army knife a can opener. It's all that, but it's much more, too. In addition to digital audio, the PMA430 also does video and is a photo viewer. It records line in or microphone, and records video, complete with a timer to catch your favorite show or movie. It also has a fairly functional PDA, and the color screen is touch-sensitive, with handwriting input and a pop-up keyboard. It's also a USB host, so you can download pictures from your digital camera.

And if that weren't enough, it has built-in WiFi and an Opera browser, so you can download new songs, check the news, and do your email while you're sitting in Starbucks! But this is the Serious Personal Audio site, and if the PMA430 didn't do great audio, I wouldn't be talking about it--or at least not in such positive terms.

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Posted by machrone at 08:13 AM | Comments (3)

May 23, 2010

Etymotic ER6i

That's et-ee-MOE-tic, not etty-mottic, and the ER6i is Etymotic's most popular model, retuned with greater sensitivity and better low bass performance for the iPod and its ilk, which tend to have lower output than CD players and less oomph in the bass. But low-impedance earphones like the ER6i have, and as you'll see, can cause their own problems with bass.

In-canal earphones like the ER6i have two jobs: deliver good sound and seal out noise. People generally agree that in-canal phones do a better job than earbuds, but how well do they isolate you from outside noise?

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Posted by machrone at 06:04 PM | Comments (2)

May 20, 2010

Creative Zen Micro

Audio geeks love to hate the Creative Zen Micro.

"It doesn’t look serious enough. White plastic bathtub case? Lollipop face colors—nine of them? Pulsating fiber optic rim light? I mean, come on!"

Get over it.

The Zen Micro is a solid little player with some interesting features. It also has some sonic flaws, but oddly enough, they’re self-healing. I like the touch interface, but it's an acquired taste. Some people hate it. Some people hate the iPod touch wheel, too.

The Zen Micro has the same problem as many other players--very good audio performance when the EQ is off; some nasty distortion when it's on. But when you turn on Smart Volume...

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Posted by machrone at 09:34 PM | Comments (4)

iPod mini 6GB

A new hard drive, 50 percent larger. New colors. Better battery life. New audio performance? The original iPod mini caused quite a stir when it was introduced, but the audio performance, especially in the bass, left something to be desired.

Actually, it left a lot to be desired.

Audio enthusiasts complained about the bass response right from the outset, even as people snapped up minis by the millions. Hey, I've got one. And I don't regret it one bit. Weak bass or not, it's been the source of many hours of listening pleasure. The 6GB version of the mini gave Apple the opportunity to right some wrongs, as well as take aluminum anodizing to new heights. The question is, did they?

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Posted by machrone at 09:34 PM | Comments (0)

May 19, 2010

Sennheiser PX100

If you don't care about blocking out noise or about the embarrassment of sound leakage--or if you just like the unconfined feel of open-backed headphones, the Sennheiser PX100s are the best lightweight headphones I've yet found. And at $49, they won't break the bank.

The two-inch foam pads sit lightly on your ears, and the phones weigh a mere 3 ounces--easy to carry and easy to wear. They also fold to a convenient size and have a rugged, if complicated, case. But the real story is the audio performance.

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Posted by machrone at 10:52 PM | Comments (0)

May 18, 2010

Gateway MP3 Photo Jukebox

Gateway's MP3 Photo Jukebox has excellent audio quality. Surprised? I was. With no background in personal audio devices, Gateway pulled this one out of a hat. It looks a little plastic-y, but don't let appearances deceive you--this is a fine performer that will fill your ears with good music. This latest version is 6GB, up from 4GB.

The Photo Jukebox, as the name implies, also displays photos, but with a 128 by 128 pixel screen, you have to ask yourself why. The color screen is easy to read when the backlight is on, however. More important, I think, than viewing photos is the ability to connect to digital cameras that are USB mass storage devices and dump their contents to its hard disk.

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Posted by machrone at 11:04 PM | Comments (0)

May 17, 2010

Bass Performance in Digital Audio Players

This article is a companion to my column, "Shuffle's Got a Secret" in PC Magazine.

It's an attempt to quantify the performance differences among several digital audio players. While all have essentially flat (or flat-enough) frequency response with sine wave sweep tones and less than 0.1% THD at 1KHz, there are audible differences when driving professional headphones or self-powered studio monitors. All can drive a standard set of earbuds (in this case, the standard Apple earbuds) to 100+dB in-canal loudness using a rock test track that fills virtually the entire audible spectrum with a constant din.

Most of the difference is in the bass response, but little differences are discernible from one unit to the next with a 40Hz sine wave (roughly low E on the electric bass). After performing many different tests, I came up with the following test tracks, which I loaded onto each of the players:

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Posted by machrone at 08:41 PM | Comments (2)