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Saturday November 8 2003

The reason

why I'm so quiet at the moment is that I'm using a twitchy alpha/beta of Blog. So twitchy, in fact, that it does not elegantly cope with links. Rather than go through the pain of reinstalling a previous version I'm giving it a day or two for the problem to be fixed. Sorry about that. Normal service will be resumed a.s.a.p.


Posted at 4:58 pm by Jim Woods

Thursday November 6 2003



Posted at 2:13 pm by Jim Woods

Wednesday November 5 2003

Oh yes

and don't blow yourself up or self-immolate today while playing with your fireworks.

Posted at 12:11 pm by Jim Woods

Ooh, what a lot of technological developments

Well, two new developments in the last 24 hours or so. First is that there is a new early beta of Blog out, in which I'm writing this and which you can get from Fahim's site - referenced permanently from the "powered by Blog" button at top right here.

Second is that due to being pretty well served by Sevenoaks HiFi and by extensive bashing of my already wilting plastic my home entertainment shrine in the living room has taken another large leap upwards. I'll probably just explain that by updating the electronica page on this site when I get time. Suffice it to say that things have dramatically improved on the audio quality front.

I'm off for my lunch...

Posted at 12:03 pm by Jim Woods

Tuesday November 4 2003

This week's latest rant about consumer electronics

Bloody hell it's boring being favourable about things. I mean, all day every day we experience the modern world's nauseating attempts to put a gloss on things which are simply unsatisfactory. The power of positive thinking is that it makes you a bit less morose about the possible outcomes of events and situations over which you have little or no control. The power of positive thinking should NOT be that it allows you to excuse all kinds of little everyday failures and cop-outs and immoralities by denying that they are bad or that they have bad consequences. Convincing yourself that your cancer may leave you alone is positive thinking, as is thinking that the weather may improve tomorrow. Convincing yourself that your shite hifi is good because it's as good as most people's or most of what you see in Comet is not positive thinking; it's self-deception and intellectual dishonesty. I'm a firm believer in the adage that it's not getting what you want but wanting what you've got. But let's not take it as a recommendation to give up trying to get what you want wherever practical. I don't think that the phrase was coined to recommend that people take whatever default, easy route is available to them and then smugly be fine with the consequences. Choices are empowering, and effort toward discovering what choices are open empowers too.

Hifi, or I should say the process of enjoying recorded music, is a funny old interest. Anyone who cares about music enough to put together a good hifi and install it in accordance with the manufacturer's recommendations is likely to be branded a deviant or bore of some kind. Fair enough, people who strive for anything better than the common herd have always had this cross to bear. But where's the logic? I mean, who buys a car without driving it? Who buys a guitar without playing it? But virtually everyone buys hifi without listening to it. You don't have to be some sort of nutter to arrange it properly on a rack, use decent interconnects and place your speakers on stands in correct relation to your listening position. You just have to not be a deaf donkey. Hifi costs real money, and requires a bit of care to do its job. That's the bottom line.

Do yourself a favour, and stay out of electrical superstores when you're buying the stuff. Get down to somewhere you can do some proper critical listening before you buy - by which I mean in a demonstration room rather than on a shop floor crowded with washing-machine purchasing saddos.

I've heard some prize stuff in my time spent lurking around consumer electronics, but I think the most dispiriting is the common statement along the lines of "I don't want to be bothered with all that demo and comparison stuff since I can't tell the difference anyway, and in any case a dedicated hifi dealer is going to try and make me spend a lot more money than I want to". Let's take this bit by bit.

Why are you buying a hifi? You could get a ghetto-blaster from Argos for twenty quid, after all. Do that, and drink the change - or give it to Amnesty or something. Oh, they sound tinny. Well then, you can tell the difference. And with a tiny bit of encouragement, you can tell much more subtle differences. You can develop preferences for the sound of one component over another. You can quite possibly save yourself from costly mistakes. I grant that if you're going to trog off home and put one speaker on the floor in the corner and the other behind the sofa, or wire the whole lot up with the free crap cables that came in the box or something then you might not find the whole business of auditioning vital. But you've bought at least one mag on the topic and read it haven't you? I mean, we all know that time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.

Let's assume that you've done a bit more than just imagine that the whole complex business of acoustics applies to other people or nutters. Read What HiFi's bit in the back about putting a system together and siting it correctly, and heave a sigh of relief that this painless process will cost three quid and take an hour including the trip to the newsagent. Most education is hard-won over a long time. How to put a hifi together is trivial in this regard because others have nutted it out. Yes you need speaker stands, yes you need a rack for it, yes you need decent cables. Ignore these three principles and you will not get what you've paid for in terms of performance. Really.

You wouldn't buy shoes and wear the left one on your right foot and vice-versa. So why wouldn't you site your speakers correctly in this regard, or get them in phase? You don't put the telly where you can't see it; you need line of sight to it. So why would you put your speakers where you don't have line of hearing to them? Why would you buy stereo and put the speakers two feet apart to minimize the effect? Why would you think that the bit in the front of the manual for all small speakers stressing the necessity for proper stands doesn't apply to you? Why would you connect it all up with rubbish cable that came free? How's the delicate signal supposed to get from one unit to another - magic? People do all this all the time; they spend a bit of money on some decent gear and then set it up to sound like rubbish gear. They "save" on stands and cables and in the process they rip themselves off. It doesn't need an avaricious salesman. Just stick it on the corner on the floor or an MFI unit and do the job yourself.

Power stuff up and leave it that way. Think what your car runs like when it's cold. That's what your hifi sounds like when it's cold. It all sounds a hell of a lot better when it's been running for half an hour or more, and may even take a few hours to stabilize. So don't turn it off - there's no point. Sat at idle it will use no power to speak of, and it'll be warmed up enough to at least sound reasonable from when you want to begin listening to music. In fact much equipment only turns off the display and the output when it's in standby, thereby forcing the ignorant to keep it all nicely warm and voltage-stable. And most faults occur at power-up because of voltage surges and temperature-related stress. All electronics are far happier kept on than turned on and off. Trust me - it's true. So leave your hifi powered up, and it'll sound better uch of the time and probably last longer. And no, I don't suppose it'll burn your house down.

Next, who's going to "make" you spend more than you wanted to? Get your ears around some proper hifi and you may want to spend more than you can afford, but that's not really a fault on the part of the dealer is it? I mean, if you are so lacking in character and self-confidence that the thought of saying to someone who is effectively employed by you and other customers "I don't want to spend that much" causes you to sweat, then you shouldn't be in any kind of shop. You should be saving for some therapy.

And lastly, although I'd recommend that you at least read what reviews you can get your hands on when contemplating a particular item, be aware that it's all pretty subjective. No two reviews will reach identical conclusions, and your own conclusions may be different again. Don't think that the trick is to just buy a load of well-reviewed stuff at the cheapest dealer that sells it and hook it up and hey presto. Listen and compare.

Now go to it.

In a related vein, here are a couple of other gripes:

First, video recorders where once you have hooked up a SCART (and what idiot thought that a connector which can barely stay in its socket under the weight and stiffness of its cable was such a good idea?) access to all other connectors like the line outs and aerial coax is obscured by it. I have three videos from different manufacturers, and they all suffer from this to some degree. Get real, manufacturers.

Secondly, pricing of DVD players in Richer Sounds and Sevenoaks HiFi and Video to name but two. What's the problem? This: Richer's have two prices for most of their units - one for the multi-region version, displayed in smaller print, and one for the standard R2 version. Punter sees good price, asks to buy, is told that only multi-region version is in stock. I deal with Richer's a lot, and they never seem to have any of the lower-priced versions, which are functionally indistinguishable to anyone who only buys UK DVDs or rents them here; virtually everyone, in other words. So the end result is that the prices are not as good as you think, although this is far from clear from most of the ads. Underhand, and silly. And in any case why spend up to thirty quid more for a multi-region unit when the hack to enable this feature is almost certainly available on the web and will usually just be a matter of pressing a few buttons on the handset. I recommend that if you really need to play discs from other regions you do your research first on the web and simply buy a unit which is well-reviewed and has such a hack publicly available. If you find that it's still cheaper to get the player you want from Richer's then fair enough, do that. But it may not be, so beware. The higher multi-region version's price, as far as Richer's is concerned, is the one you'll end up paying in reality.

Sevenoaks do the same, although I haven't checked and it's entirely possible that they at least stock the stuff they advertise; any trip to Richer's will rapidly show that they seldom have even half the stuff they advertise. But what Sevenoaks do, and this is arguably even more misleading, is have a "pricing policy". This gem of customer care means that they advise you to tell the manager if you can find something that they sell for less dosh elsewhere; note that there is no promise to do anything about matching it, making the whole thing a charade. Also, it has to be somewhere with an equivalent level of service, whatever that means. I presume therefore that their "pricing policy" basically means that you can haggle as much as you like, but you may or may not get anywhere by so doing. Which is what any sensible person would do anyway. So the policy is to let the customer behave like a normal human being. Hooray!

Now in case anyone was thinking otherwise, I quite like Sevenoaks. The service is pretty good, and the premises and demo rooms are pretty salubrious. It is in fact a proper hifi dealer, so fair play. Their prices on the other hand are equal to or higher than the guide (presumably r.r.p.) prices in What HiFi, which seems a bit steep given that you'd never really expect to pay that in the real world. Sure, Richer's are woefully short on variety and their stocking levels are a joke, but all the staff I've dealt with have been friendly and helpful, even if they don't necessarily know a lot. They'll exchange stuff and sometimes even do refunds without making a fuss, they do those killer cheap-as-you-like extended warranties and they will do demos in a demo room. If all you want is fairly low-end stuff, you probably won't screw up too badly by going there.

And if Sevenoaks simply said that they knew their onions back to front and offered a pleasant environment in which you could unhurriedly assess a lot of nice gear covering a range from budget to high end but that as a result they were not going to be the absolute cheapest I'd have no problem with that. So let's forget the meaningless pricing policy then, eh guys?

Posted at 3:32 am by Jim Woods

Home Cinema

Feeding my nasty little addictions by scouring the web for home cinema-related stuff, I came across this rather endearing site. I like it for several reasons. The guy doesn't go on and on about specific gear at the expense of general advice, it's well written for a novice to read and there's an excellent and comprehensive links section. Links of course are what the web is all about. Why write out a load of information which can trivially be found elsewhere? This, incidentally, is why I never got around to writing my own "beginner's guide to home cinema". In the end it seemed pointless with so many good resources already out there. Having said that, if I find what I did do cowering in some dark corner of my capacious array of hard drives I may bung it in the anorexic "things I've written" section.

It's not that I don't write much; it's that I don't publish it unless I'm really happy that it's as good as it can be. And I never am.

Anyway, look at the guy's unintimidating site if you want a gentle introduction to home cinema. It doesn't start with "have a lot more space and money than is ever likely".

Posted at 1:11 am by Jim Woods

Monday November 3 2003

Apex Photos

Found a site here with a lot of nice photographs, taken in pretty much all over the world. These are a cut above the average; check out "Misty winter morning, Magdalene Bridge, Oxford", locals, to bring back memories of lurching into the drink due to severe over-refreshment...

Posted at 9:55 pm by Jim Woods

Pioneer, gods of A/V

My recent purchase of What Hi*Fi? Sound and Vision mag has been interesting. I buy the mag once a year or so, chiefly just to get the current prices and recommendations, and see that Pioneer have quietly become the boss men for DVD players and to some extent A/V amplifiers. In fact, the next bit of kit I buy will be a Pioneer DVD player, I think it's the 565A or something. Anyway, it's the one that does all CD formats - surround ones included. And it's less than 200 quid, which seems a steal for something that obviates about a million other boxes; obviously I'll keep running my Trichord for creaky old ordinary CD.

Seems Pioneer make a TiVo unit with a built in DVD burner. Excuse me while I adjust my dress. Actually, excuse me while I can't afford it. But I'm impressed that such a creature exists in the current climate of extreme copyright protection. It's a neat thing, so I confidently expect the authorities to ban or cripple it.

It would be nice to think that the music and film industries might wake up one day and think "hey, we're peddling a lot of sad shite at ridiculous prices and that's why people aren't buying it", but I for one am not holding my breath. It's more likely they'll just continue to dick around with increasingly inconvenient and deleterious copy protection methods and keep churning out turgid, derivative r'n'b (which was proper music when I were a lad) and making endless sequels to things and repackaging them and doing tons of Colombian marching powder (you do you bastards, I've seen you). I mean, if you're going to charge twenty quid for a DVD and everyone knows that later they'll be able to get a "special edition" version for the same dosh, and indeed will eventually be able to get the Special Edition in HMV or Virgin for a fiver or so, who in their right minds is going to keep paying up early on in the "product lifecycle"?

Well, those without the benefit of a classical education I suppose.

Mind you, my command of ancient languages is bad enough to place me on the fringes of that category and I'm not mug enough.

So these jokers really are having the proverbial laugh.

I suspect that most consumers of films and albums are like me. If I think that something is good, I'll buy it. I'm not saying I'm a paragon of virtue in this regard, but I can't think of any media I possess that gets appreciated regularly (short of a few videotapes done from the TV) that I didn't pay for. I want the sleeve, I want the proper thing. Most of us do, and spend what we're able to on these media.

But few people buy crap, and by and large it's probably not because they're copying it instead.

Posted at 3:16 am by Jim Woods

Web Exhibits
Another one of those sites which brings together a ton of interesting stuff which you'd otherwise probably never think to search for. At the moment, calendars through the ages is fascinating; the Bogus Science section is nice too. In fact, it's all nice. Which is nice. Have a nice long look.
Posted at 12:55 am by Jim Woods

Sunday November 2 2003

The quest

for total knowledge of the Roland VS880EX hard disc recorder continues to occupy most of my time...

Posted at 5:25 pm by Jim Woods

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