Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Golden Age of PC Gaming

We are currently well on our way to what I believe is the "golden age" of PC gaming.  Between the lackluster latest generation consoles, being required to pay to play online on both Xbox One and PS4, and the comparatively low price of Steam games, many former console-only folks that I know have either switched or are planning to switch to a gaming PC.  There is also the fact that it doesn't cost much more than $500 to get a machine that will outperform both the Xbox One and PS4 consoles graphically, and PC's can be used for day to day computing tasks, unlike a console.

The two most common factors that hold people back from switching over to a PC gaming machine from a console is the initial cost, and often times the technical aspects.  The initial cost of a PC is always going to be more than the initial cost of a console.  I would argue that an Nvidia GTX 950 or AMD R7 370 would be a good "low-end" starting point for graphics in a gaming machine, and both hover around the $150 dollar price range.  That's nearly half the cost of a console in it's entirety, for just the graphics card.  Pair that up with a quad-core CPU, a 1TB traditional mechanical drive, 8GB of RAM, a decent motherboard in an average case and you are looking at the $450 to $600 dollar price range.  That kind of a price tag kind of turns people off when they simply think of the machine as "just for games," like a console.  But when you realize that you can do schoolwork, create programs, write papers, browse the web, stream videos, listen to music, load up any Windows or Linux operating system that you want, the PC becomes much more appealing, because it's a multi-use device and thus becomes worth the investment.

The technical aspects of gaming on a PC also turn people off.  While not nearly as difficult as it once was to run games on a PC since the advent of Steam, you do occasionally run into a bug here or there, an older game that won't run that necessitates fiddling around with a config. file of some kind or messing around with compatibility settings.  On a console, it's just plug and play.  Most people have the technical know-how to solve problems such as these, but for the incredibly computer illiterate crowd who just want their games to open, run, and close flawlessly every time, the PC platform presents a problem.  It's getting better, but it will never be perfect.  I always encourage people to take time to learn about the platform and how to troubleshoot.  Being able to gain knowledge about the PC and the operating system to troubleshoot issues will help with troubleshooting further problems in the future.

The aforementioned two issues are becoming less and less of a problem, as people are becoming increasingly fed up with consoles high games and media costs, pay to play systems, and not so impressive graphics and CPU horsepower.  While older consoles such as the N64, PS2, and GameCube will always have a place in my heart, no systems newer than the 360/ PS3 era consoles interest me in the slightest.  More and more people are becoming disenchanted with the new consoles, thus the latest surge in PC gaming.  In addition, I feel more people are interested in building their own gaming machine, as people have finally realized that it's really not very difficult to do so.  You just have to do a little bit of research and match up the parts.  The customizability and modularity of a gaming PC are also incentives.  You build a PC and it runs games fine for three to four years, but you begin to realize that you can't run the latest games on the higher settings at reasonable frame-rates.  What do you do? Upgrade your graphics card, or turn down your settings slightly.  You don't have to necessarily purchase an entirely new system just to play the latest games.  In addition, no other platform on the planet has backwards compatibility that stretches as far back as the PC.  I still play DOS games on mine... MechWarrior 2 has a special place in my heart.

Steam, for better or worse, has really paved the way for former console-only gamers to switch over to a Windows or Linux based gaming system.  With games frequently being discounted 50 to 75%, acquiring playable media on the PC requires far less cash on hand.  Some would jokingly argue that you won't have any spare money on hand after spending it all to build or purchase the machine in the first place, but even I had enough money after building my somewhat expensive FX-8350, GTX 770 system a few years ago, to grab a few "older" games on the cheap, such as Just Cause 2.  These games, plus being able to play some of my old DOS favorites, held me over until I got enough money to get some newer triple-A titles.  While I haven't actually crunched the math and it's mostly just a hunch, I would say that a reasonably priced gaming PC will pay for itself over the long run, between the lower cost games and accessories in general, and not being forced to have to pay to play online.

The culmination of these factors have resulted in an awesome increase in the amount of people gaming on PC's.  I do think that we are currently headed back to the 1997-2002 peak of gaming PC use, and are entering another "Golden Age" of PC gaming.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Substantially Increase the Security of your Mac

Privacy, or the lack thereof, as well as electronic data security has become an increasing concern for many computer users.  The fact of the matter is that the majority of computer users store vast amounts of personal data on a computer, that if opened by the wrong hands, could cause a great deal of trouble.  In addition to the NSA's unrelenting mass-surveillance programs, which are a blatant invasion of privacy, anything that you search on the internet can be tracked, traced back to your computer's unique IP address, and thus directly to you.  While the NSA seems to be content to sit on incredibly massive amounts of collected data for now, I am incredibly disturbed by the notion that any activity you have performed on your computer can potentially be used against you, no matter the original intent.  You may feel that what I am writing is somewhat sensationalistic and "tin-foil hat" in nature, however many cyber-security experts and internet rights advocates will agree that this is a serious and contentious privacy issue.  Let's discuss ways to protect your locally stored data on your Mac, prevent a user with physical access from bypassing or replacing your password, and remain as anonymous as possible online.

The first rule of protecting sensitive data on your computer is to always know where it is, and who has access to it at all times.  No matter what security measures put in place, an individual with enough technical knowledge, and time, can usually bypass most of these countermeasures. Our goal, is to make this as absolutely difficult as possible.  With a combination of security efforts, only an extremely advanced computer user with a very long amount of time with unobstructed physical access to your machine will be able to access any of your data.

Let's start off with the basics.  I am going to assume you are at least using a still supported version of OS X on your Mac (10.9 Mavericks or higher). You of course, want to set up a password to protect access to your administrator account.  For maximum protection, create a password at least ten to twelve characters long, with at least one capital letter, number, and symbol.  Create something truly unique, that won't be guessable by anyone.  During my time fixing computers and removing passwords as part of my job, I have come across countless bad passwords, that are easily cracked. "Password," "P@ssw0rd," "123456," and "654321" don't make for good passwords.  Neither does passwords that are based from personal information that someone could glean, such as your date of birth, husbands/ wife's name, girlfriend/ boyfriends name, last name, your pet, or where you were born.  Also, while you are at it, delete the "Guest" account if it is enabled, by going into Users & Groups in System Preferences.  In the Security and Privacy section of System Preferences, be sure to require a password immediately after sleep or screen saver begins, and setup a screen saver or have the computer lock after a specified amount of time while not in use.

FileVault in OS X 10.11
The next step is to encrypt your hard disk or SSD by enabling "File Vault."  This is once again located in the Security & Privacy section of System Preferences under the "FileVault" tab.  Once enabled, the system encrypts the entirety of the disk with 256-bit AES encryption.  This process can take awhile to complete, depending on the speed of your computer and the amount of data stored on the drive. The data on the disk is decrypted by entering your login password while you use the machine, and re-encrypted every time the computer, locks, logs out, goes to sleep, or shuts down.  Be sure to absolutely have your login password committed to memory before enabling FileVault, as your data will essentially be left in an encrypted state without the password, and you won't have access.  If you have a newer Mac, you have the benefit of added security, as most newer Mac laptops use either proprietary or not as widely used standards for connecting the SSD to the machine, such as custom PCI-E connections or M.2 connections.  Someone with prolonged physical access to your machine could theoretically unscrew your laptop and remove the storage drive, but they would have to deal with the often proprietary nature of the storage drive, and still break the 256-bit encryption.  Seem's Apple's proprietary ways can be difficult on everyone.

Next step is to enable an "Open Firmware Password." This prevents an unauthorized person from booting to an external disk that can be used to crack your passwords and encryption, and from booting into Super User mode, which opens a super-user or admin level terminal that can be exploited to remove your pre-existing password or remove your account entirely.  The "Open Firmware Password" essentially requires the input of another password to do anything other than boot to your already password protected and encrypted account.  For added security, I recommend choosing an entirely different password or a variation of your login password when setting up the Open Firmware Password.  While the methodology for setting this added layer of security is a bit more complex than the aforementioned procedures, it is still relatively straight forward.  Either boot into your Mac's built-in recovery partition, or create a bootable OS X installer disk to boot off of.  Once inside the recovery, choose "Open Firmware Password" from the "Utilities" drop-down menu.  This is another case of absolutely, DO NOT forget your password.  If you have a newer Mac such as an Air, Retina Pro, or the new MacBook, there is no way to reset your Open Firmware Password aside from going to the Apple store if you forget it (and you will have to provide evidence that you are the original computer user to get the password lifted.)

Firewall settings in OS X 10.11
Now that we have prevented an unauthorized individual from booting to anything other than your Mac's startup disk, it's time to delve into your Mac's wireless and network security settings.  In Security & Privacy, make sure that your firewall is enabled. Click on "Firewall Options" and enable "Stealth Mode" in order to hide your Mac's existence on a network.  Back in the Firewall tab, click the "Advanced" button on the bottom-right hand corner and check "Require an administrator password to access system-wide preferences."  Always click the lock in the bottom left-hand corner to require your login password to make any changes to settings in System Preferences.

Now for online anonymity.  A paid VPN is the best way to remain as anonymous as possible when surfing the web.  I have tried free VPN's, and they simply are not reliable and require a decent amount of fiddling in System Preferences.  Private Internet Access offers extremely reasonable prices, and integrates perfectly with OS X.  A VPN routes your web traffic through a protected tunnel and through several different servers.  It also encrypts your traffic with selectable 128-bit or 256-bit AES encryption, and obfuscates your computers original IP address with an anonymous one. This makes it much more difficult for ISP's and government surveillance agencies to ascertain the type of data being sent to and received from your computer, as well as the location of your machine geographically. All they see is undeterminable data that's encrypted.  Keep in mind however, that the NSA essentially pioneered electronic data encryption, and they can certainly break it given enough of an inclination to do so.  A VPN still add's a substantial privacy blanket to your online activity however, and has the added benefit of encrypting all of your web traffic if enabled, which is handy when you are surfing on unprotected public wifi.  In addition to a VPN, you can also opt to use the Tor browser for Mac, which routes all of your searches and web content viewed on the browser through the Tor network.  The NSA has proven that it has the ability to de-anonymize Tor users, but combining Tor and a VPN would make de-anonymization relatively tricky.  The only downside of Tor is that it significantly slows down your connection, and is not suitable for P2P situations or downloads, but rather light browsing and reading.

Through a combination of these methods and software, you have created a very resilient and hard to crack system that protects your data and your online anonymity.  Of course, no computer system and security is infallible, but your Mac will certainly be far more secure than the average computer.  The good news is that OS X is a UNIX based operating system and thus has far less virus and infection issue's than a Windows machine.  There is still antivirus software available for the Mac, my two favorite being Malwarebytes for Mac and Avast! Mac Security.  I would recommend both if you are concerned about the rare possibility of getting a serious infection.  Both are free, Avast will actively protect your system from infections and has added paid features such as security browser plug-ins to redirect you away from phising and virus infected websites.  Malwarebytes is a removal tool for removing viruses, malware, and trojans that may have crept onto your system. Avast has virus removal tools as well. I personally keep both on my system, but in my twelve years of using a Mac, have never once gotten a virus on my system.

The first line of defense is always to be careful about what you download and the sites you visit, as well as restricting physical access of your machine to people you don't trust. Also, don't ignore those OS X security updates for too long. If you have a Mac laptop with all of the aforementioned security steps put in place, you can rest assured that it's highly unlikely that your personal data is in peril if it's lost or stolen.  Furthermore, if your Mac is tied to an iCloud account, you can track it's location via GPS, and assuming it's connected to the internet, remotely wipe the machine or lock it with a 6-pin passcode (creating a lock over a lock over a lock, at this point!).  Using these methods, your Mac can become an extremely well protected system that you can feel safe storing personal or customer data on.  Through the combined use of these methods, you will have essentially "Fort-Knoxified" your Mac.

Private Internet Access Website
OS X Daily: Set Firmware Password

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7 Review

The ATH-MSR7's represent a premium headphone offering from Audio-Techncia, designed to compete with headphones such as the Sony MDR-1R's.  Upon first glance, the MSR7's have a much sleeker and more aesthetically pleasing look than Audio-Technica's popular studio monitor headphones, such as the ATH-M50X's.  The partially metal construction, and overall sleeker look is designed to appeal to consumers looking for form and function.  With a full retail price tag of $250 dollars, can the MSR7's compete?

My review unit happened to be the black accented with blue variety, designated as the ATH-MSR7BK.  Two other color options are available, a black and gunmetal grey model.  The headphones shipped with three detachable cables, plain 1.2 and 3.0 meter cables and another 1.2 meter cable with a smartphone compatible in-line remote and microphone.  The microphone quality is more than adequate, which is to be expected coming from a company that also produces professional microphones. Both of the shorter length cables have one L-shaped termination point, whereas the longer 3.0 meter cable has a standard straight termination point. The headphones also shipped with a fairly standard cloth carrying case, similar to the one included with the ATH-M50X's, but larger and constructed from a softer cloth & leather material.  Unfortunately, the cable quality left some to be desired.  The cables were adequate, but relatively thin and particularly rubbery.  I wish that Audio-Techncia had used the thicker shielded cables found on their studio monitor headphones here.

The ATH-MSR7's are constructed from a combination of plastic, aluminum and magnesium.  This provides a substantial increase in build quality over the already solid ATH-M50X's, which are constructed entirely from plastic.  In short, the ATH-MSR7's feel and look like a $250 dollar headphone should, solid, durable, and sleek. The ear cups feature glossy and chrome chamfered edges, similar to the iPhone 5S and iPad Air Apple devices. The issue with the level of build quality however, is that the MSR7's are particularly heavy.  Weighing in at 290 grams, that's a fairly substantial weight to be placing atop your head for long periods of time.

The weight issue partially contributes to the lack of overall comfort.  First and foremost, they clamp just a bit too tightly onto your head.  There is a little bit too much pressure on the ears, and far too much pressure on the top of the head.  After about an hour, it feels like you put your head in a vice clamp.  Despite the quite nice and generously padded ear pads, the comfort of the headphones overall was lacking.  Audio-Technica definitely needs to tone down the excessive clamping force with these headphones.  My ATH-M50X's were comparatively much more comfortable.  If you wear glasses, you definitely want to look at some of Audio-Technica's different offerings or possibly even the Sony MDR-1R's, as these become even more uncomfortable with glasses by jamming the frames into the side of your head.

The MSR7's are closed back headphones, with 45mm neodymium drivers (same size as the M50X drivers). Audio-Technica brands them as "True Motion Drivers," that deliver "Hi-Res Audio reproduction."  The MSR7's are classified under Audio Technica's "Sonic Pro" line of headphones.  Audio Technica also claims that their headphone are engineered with a complex "Multi-layer Air Damping" technology that improves the sound quality and audio clarity.

At first listen, I noticed how nicely controlled the bass response was on the MSR7's.  When compared to the ATH-M50X's, the MSR7's have far less boomy and less overbearing bass.  In addition, the soundstage is impressive for a closed back headphone, likely courtesy of the ports or "stainless steel mesh resistors" used in the construction of the headphones.  Depth and musical layers are more easily distinguished with the MSR7's when compared to similar closed backed headphones.  The midrange is nicely represented and mostly avoids the recessed nature of other Audio-Technica headphones, namely the ATH-M50X's.  The upper ranges are crisp and detailed, but do have a tendency to occasionally slip into that all too familiar harshness and sibilance in certain tracks, with hi-hats often sounding just a bit too sharp and piercing.  Overall, I would say that the sound quality is the high point of the headphones.  I would describe the sound signature as relatively uninspired & unexciting, however.  The bass, while detailed and controlled, is almost feeble compared to the rest of the frequency range.  I think that just a tad bit more bass here would really round out the sound of the headphones, assuming that it's present controlled and detailed nature could be preserved.  I suppose that the MSR7's are striving for a more accurate representation of the audio, as opposed to being "exiting," and boosting certain frequencies such as the bass.  This is a commendable attribute, however they still don't achieve the level of accuracy that trusted and proven studio monitors like the Sony MDR-7506's and Sennheiser HD 280 Pro's do.  In this regard, the MSR7's are sort of in the middle ground: not as exciting as less accurate headphones, but not as accurate as a true studio monitor headphone.

The Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7's are nicely constructed headphones built from high grade materials, and while they produce sound that commits no major sins, they fail to deliver in the comfort area. My opinion of them is a bit mixed, as they are fantastically well built but simply disappoint or do not impress in other areas.

CLICK HERE for Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7 Product Page
CLICK HERE for Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7 Amazon Product Page

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Logitech M510 Wireless Mouse Review

The M510 is a mid-priced wireless mouse from Logitech that I personally purchased for use with my laptop when I am on the go.  I wanted something reasonably priced that was full-sized, had a few additional buttons, great battery life, and a minimum of a 1,000-dpi sensor that I could use for light gaming and video editing on my laptop.  The Logitech M510 delivers on all of these points, and has thus far proved to work well for my usage.

Logitech M510 wireless mouse
The M510 is a full-sized mouse, not one of those   dinky mini-mice that I see a lot of people using with their laptops on the go.  I am used to a full-sized, relatively ergonomic mouse at home (I use a CM Storm Inferno for my primary at-home wired mouse) and after using that mouse I can't bear going back to something as small and non-ergonomic as those mini-mice.  Speaking of non-ergonomic, my previous mouse for use on the go was a spare Apple Magic Mouse that I had lying around.  In many areas Apple makes great products.  Mice however, is not one of them.  The Magic Mouse utilized a slow 800-dpi sensor and is extremely non-ergonomic.  I use a palm grip with my mice, and the Magic Mouse doesn't doesn't really allow for such a grip by design.  It also uses bluetooth to wirelessly connect to my laptop, which is all fine and good (and many prefer this method of connectivity) however, bluetooth wireless devices seem to burn through battery power far faster than non-bluetooth wireless devices in my experience.  Enter the M510.  It's a full-size mouse in an ergonomic shape.  While it's not quite as large as my CM Storm Inferno, it's big enough to be comfortable to use for hours on end.  There is no disputing Logitech's "full-size" description. I would say that I have medium sized hands, and I can palm grip this mouse quite comfortably.

Left-hand side forward/backward buttons
The textured rubberized material on the sides (where the thumb and pinky finger typically rest) is also a nice design choice, as it feels like thick, quality rubber material that isn't going to wear off after a year (like my at-home mouse). The remaining portions of the mouse are constructed from dark grey and silver glossy plastic, that somehow manages to remain glossy and not become a fingerprint magnet.  The overall weight of the mouse is fairly light (around .06 oz), even with the added weight of the batteries.  While I prefer a somewhat weighty mouse in general, for on the go it's fine and weighs around what my wired at-home mouse weighs anyway.

The M510 connects wireless to your device using an extremely small USB "unifying receiver."  It is called a unifying receiver because you can connect multiple wireless Logitech devices to one receiver, negating the need for having multiple receivers for each wireless device plugged into your computer, taking up all your free USB ports.  You could, for example, connect both your wireless Logitech mouse and keyboard to one receiver.  The receiver is extremely small, and barely protrudes out from the USB port it is inserted into.  This is a nice design, as you can essentially leave the receiver in your laptop's USB port and forget about it, as it's so small you don't need to remove it when sliding your laptop into a bag, for example.  If you don't want to keep the receiver permanently attached to your laptop, there is an area where you can store the receiver inside the mouse itself, right next to the batteries.  A caveat of the receiver is that in my testing it does not have nearly the range that my bluetooth wireless Apple Magic Mouse did.  Despite this, the mouse will operate flawlessly if used within any reasonable radius of the receiver.  Another obvious downside is that the receiver method uses up a USB port, and for us USB starved Mac laptop users, that leaves us with only one remaining USB port. The upshot of the whole use of the USB receiver is that the connectivity method uses substantially less power than connecting via bluetooth.   Logitech claims that the M510 gets two years of battery life, which is incredible compared to the few months (with light usage) my previous bluetooth mouse got.  The M510 takes two standard AA batteries, and comes preinstalled with two quality Duracell's which is really nice to see.

The M510 has an on/off switch located on the underside of the mouse, and the mouse reconnects to the computer extremely quickly after being turned back on.  You also don't have to worry about draining your battery power when leaving the mouse in the on position, as the M510 appears to go into some kind of low power state when in "on" mode, but not in use.  You really can just pop two batteries in this thing and forget about it.

M510 underside
Left and right click feel is great, with nice tactile feedback and a highly audible click.  There are a total of seven buttons on the mouse.  Obviously left and right click, forward and backward buttons on the lefthand side of the mouse, and the scroll wheel, which can be depressed downward or moved left or right for horizontal scrolling. (Note: I didn't include the vertical scrolling action of the scroll wheel as a button).  All of the buttons feel solid and have good tactile feedback, although the forward and backward buttons on the lefthand side of the mouse do feel a tad bit mushy (but still let out and audible click when fully depressed, nonetheless).  I love the inclusion of the left and right horizontal scrolling action achieved by moving the scroll wheel left or right, it really helps when navigating sideways through webpages that are too large for a smaller laptop screen.  Scroll wheel feel is good, and it is the "notched" feeling wheel that most mice use and is not completely linear.

The mouse uses a laser sensor, with a resolution of 1,000-dpi.  Overall tracking is pretty good, and seems relatively smooth.  It's still not as smooth or jitter-free as the much higher DPI optical sensor in my CM Storm Inferno, but that's somewhat to be expected.  I noticed that when moving to the extreme or outside of the M510's 10-meter operating range that the tracking quality significantly worsened, with more cursor jitter and laggy performance.  If you find that tracking is less than ideal with this mouse, make sure you are using it within the appropriate range of the receiver.  When inside the appropriate range, the tracking substantially improved and was far better than the tracking I was used too with my previous wireless mouse.  There is a little bit of cursor jitter upon setting the mouse back down on whatever surface you are using it on.  If you are the "slide and lift" type of mouse user, you may find this slightly irritating.  I pick my mouse up frequently and place it back down on my mouse pad when tracking, and I quickly became used to the little stutter the cursor has when using the mouse this way.  It's an extremely small cursor movement, but noticeable nonetheless.  In addition, this mouse does not work with very light surfaces, glass or granite countertops.  It does work with the darker wood grain color of my desk however.  I would recommend using a mouse pad if your desk or tracking area isn't on the darker side.  Other than these few minor issues, the mouse does track very well, and performs more than adequately for the current price of around $25 to $30 dollars. (The full retail price is $40 dollars, according to Logitech's website)

If you are looking for a reasonably priced full-size wireless use for use with your laptop on-the-go, or even if you want something permanent for your desktop that won't break the bank, the Logitech M510 should definitely enter into your considerations.  With two year battery life, quality buttons, a solid build and good tracking, the M510 is definitely a high quality peripheral that should last for years.

Thanks for reading!

CLICK HERE for Logitech M510 Product Page

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Sony MDR-7506's revisited and a note on equalization

Five years after purchasing my first good pair of headphones, I want to revisit the Sony MDR-7506's and talk about why I believe they are still a fantastic pair of headphones.  The 7506's really kicked off my whole interest in headphones and audio as a whole, and was the primary reason I started blogging about headphones. I also want to touch on the topic of equalization and using an equalizer to change the sound of a pair of headphones.

Sony MDR-7506
Since their original purchase in 2010, my Sony MDR-7506's have been haphazardly tossed in many backpacks, dropped, sat on, accompanied me on road trips and vacation destinations that could only be reached by plane, and been around my neck as I walked through the hallways of my High School, which always resulted in strange looks from passerby's.  The 7506's were first introduced in 1991, and were based off of the design of the V6's that were introduced in 1985.  They do have a dated look to them, which I personally like.  No one expects something that looks as plain, boring, simple and somewhat "retro" to sound very good.  It's always a nice surprise for people who listen to them for the first time.

They are exceedingly tough and durable headphones, and are extremely simple in their construction making them easy to fix if need be.  Over the years, the hinges have become a bit squeaky, a small squirt of WD-40 remedied the problem and they are back to near new.  The sound quality hasn't suffered over the years, despite accidentally leaving them plugged into an amplifier that's volume level was set at several times higher than it should have been.  In all honestly, I think a lesser headphone would have blown a driver if put in the same situation.  Five years later, the 7506's are battle-scarred.  They have small dents and scrapes and areas of rubbed away paint.  They still work flawlessly, and I believe they will continue to work flawlessly for years to come.  You can really beat on these headphones and they will continue to keep chugging away.  The only issue is with the ear pads, which if you read any review about the V6's or 7506's, the ear pads do deteriorate relatively fast depending on a host of factors.  Third party replacement pads are cheap and easy to come by however.

The 7506's are studio headphones, and as such are designed to pick up and uncover flaws in a track.  They are mostly very neutral, with very pronounced treble that some find to be harsh and somewhat sibilant. This assessment is relatively accurate, I do find that in certain tracks, the treble is harsh enough to make listening to them fatiguing.  The bass on the other hand is my absolute favorite quality about the 7506's.  It's extremely well controlled, with incredible extension into the extreme low and upper bass ranges.  It's really some of the best bass reproduction I have heard in a headphone, even when compared to headphones several time's it's cost, and thats another thing about the 7506's, they are dirt cheap for what you get.  The bass is clean, with absolutely no muddiness or booming.  The midrange is nicely represented as well, and is not recessed like many competing products (such as the Audio- Technica ATH-M50X's).

Circling back to the somewhat sibilant and harsh treble, how is it that I can listen to the 7506's for hours on end without getting tired of the sometimes fatiguing treble? Well, pretty much all music players have this nifty thing called an equalizer, and audio elitists will always tell you to never use one.  Their reasoning is mixed, but it usually has to with audio elitists not being able to stand the concept of modifying the sound of the original track or the naturally produced sound coming from your headphones (god forbid). For some reason it's ok to use a tube amplifier which purposely colors the sound, but not use an EQ which essentially does the same thing. I do use an equalizer when I am listening to the 7506's for enjoyment purposes and leave them unequalized when I am trying to find flaws in a track.  When you lower the treble of the 7506's to cut down on some of the harshness and give the bass frequencies and ever so slight boost, you can really get the 7506's to sing.  This significantly warms up the headphone and still retains all of the aspects that make the 7506's so good such as the fantastic bass response.  You have to do subtractive equalization however, as the 7506's are extremely sensitive when it comes to distortion, as they are purpose built to uncover such issues in tracks.

7506 connector plugged into Objective 2
In all honesty, I don't understand the adversity towards equalization.  Many of the same people who feel that equalization is bad use tube amplifiers which sole purpose is to color the sound.  Equalizations sole purpose is to change the sound as well, and the distinction between the end result of both is minimal.  Do whatever sounds best to you, whether that be unequalized, equalized or a fancy and incredibly expensive tube amplifier.  

As far as the 7506's are concerned, they are still being manufactured and sold, Sony discontinued them for all of a month before continuing them again in response to the incredible demand for both the V6's and 7506's.  If you wan't insanely durable headphones that sound good for a low price, and you like the treble spike or are willing to use an equalizer, the V6's and 7506's are a fantastic choice.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

On Apple and the Macintosh (and why, despite the hate, I use a MacBook Pro)

This is (obviously) an off-topic post!

DISCLAIMER: I use OS X and my MacBook as my daily driver machine for getting some work done, but I also use a variety of other companies software, OS’s and hardware.

This is also a sort-of commentary on the sometimes hilarious and often heated social tension that occurs between people of different OS’s, because in the world of computer enthusiasts, its not our nationalities that define us… but our operating systems! 

Reasons I like Macs (and sometimes Apple in general):

1.) UNIX based OS.
  • Similar in many ways to Linux, but in my experience far more stable.
  • Just as solid as a programming platform as Linux (I am awaiting a flood of diehard Linux naysayers yelling at me after this one).
  • (Advantage over Windows) having a real package manager (home-brew) it’s not preinstalled, but easy to get and use (use the command-line Luke!) Note: Windows 10 may have remedied this situation, but I would still argue that OS X/ Linux is the goto for most programmers, unless you singularly use Visual Studio.
  • Having a REAL terminal with BASH! (or anything else that you choose, such as zsh for example) I am looking at you, Windows! (get iTerm 2 for Mac if you want an “even better than Linux’s built in terminal" terminal).  Command prompt kinda blows.
  • Automator enables easy automation of functions on Mac’s, plus allows you to do some “hacks” such as light menubar/ dark dock. Shameless plug: I made a YouTube video about that if you want to check that out.
2.) Similar UNIX-like foundation as Linux but with far more application support.
  • They don’t make Microsoft Office for Linux unfortunately :(
  • No Adobe Photoshop either (but there is always GIMP.  I love GIMP, and you can get that on everything!)
  • No Final Cut Pro, or Adobe Premiere...
  • Or Logic Pro...
  • Or Adobe Auditions...
  • Starting to see what I mean?  I mean, you could run some of this stuff in Linux under Wine, but thats a hassle, and who wants a hassle? (plus application performance and all kinds of nasty incompatibility stuff comes into play when you start running things in Wine)
  • Don’t get me wrong, I commend Linux’s open source model and I use Linux distro’s on occasion, but for video, music and writing work, you are far better off with a Mac or a Windows machine.
  • Linux people always give me recommendations for equivalent versions of software that can't be found for Linux, but it's never quite as good.
  • Want something where you can program with ease like in Linux, where you can edit video and create music with ease and can get work done with ease like you can in Windows? OS X does all this stuff pretty damn well!
3.) Mac functions, such as:
  • Spotlight. Command + Space opens search, start typing and next thing you know you’ve found the file, folder, or application you want, all in an instant.
  • Disk utility (not as good as Linux disk utilities, but far superior to Windows disk management, which has remained unchanged since the dawn of man).
  • Indexing file system for super fast file searches (you don’t have to watch a dog wag it’s tail for hours as you wait, twiddling your thumbs as your hard drive grinds away… ok, that was Windows XP and that might be a bit unfair) but still.  Searches in OS X seem to work faster overall than in Windows.
  • Ubuntu-like system preferences pane, which is a billion times easier to use than Window’s Control Panel (with Control Panel you dig, and you dig, and you dig, and you never find the setting you need changed until you consult the all powerful, all-knowing Google)
4.) Mac’s pre-packaged software.
"I am the findey finder, I can find anything, you can
run Windows but you cannot hide from the ghost
in the machine."
  • iMovie is far superior to Windows movie maker in every conceivable way (let’s be real, Windows Movie Maker kinda sucks)
  • iTunes (I happen to like it, although I know its a controversial application, the Mac version operates much better than the Windows version) if you don’t like it, get something else! VOX is pretty good.
  • GarageBand (who doesn’t like to have fun with music? Surprisingly versatile software for being free).
  • iWork suite, it's better than Libre office in my experience, and just as free!
  • Apple Maps.  It won’t get you lost in the middle of an Australian desert anymore like it used too!
  • If you hate QuickTime (which pretty much everyone on planet earth does) get the Mac version of VLC!
  • iCal is pretty fantastic, and will sync nicely with your Google calendar if you have one.
  • Apple’s App Store updating process for updating your applications is a billion times better than Windows update ("why the fuck did my machine restart for no reason? Ahhh… Windows update").
5.) OS X and iOS play very nicely together (Emperor Sideous’s voice: it’s all gone according to Tim Cooks design…)
  • Being able to now call and receive calls on your laptop from iPhone AND Android users (and “dumb phone” users)
  • Being able to get texts pushed to your computer and text people from your computer if you have an iPhone, to not only iPhones but Android users now as well (and once again, let us not forget our “dumb phone” brethren.  How do they survive without constant Facebook and Twitter access? and thousands of annoying notifications?)
  • Android phones are supported just fine on Macs.  Android file transfer is an OS X application that allows you to browse your Android phone/ tablets files on your Mac, just as you would in Linux/ Windows (this is just an irritating common misconception people have about the state of Google/ Apple relations, that you can’t access your Android phone on a Mac)
6.) MacBook trackpads are the best, bar-none.
  • Even my Apple hating friends say so!
  • For the last time, we DO have the ability to right click!
  • Also, you can change the reverse scrolling thing, by meandering into system preferences.  All my purely Windows users freak out when they try to scroll on my Mac.
  • They have glass on them. Who would have thought that would be much better than plastic?
  • Our trackpads are so good, we don’t need finger smudges all over our screens to use our computers! (enter angry Windows 8.1 touchscreen laptop users)
7.) If you want a powerful portable laptop that also gets best in class battery life, look no further.
  • What other machine do you know with a quad-core i7 that gets 10 hours of battery life in such a small package?
  • Ok, I am sure that there is another machine that someone can provide a link too somewhere.  Still, they are undoubtedly at the top of their class for battery longevity and performance.
8.) Macs look sexy.
  • Ok, this isn’t really a legitimate good point I guess.  It’s also extremely superficial.  But Sir Jony Ive has a penchant for using aluminum (or alu-min-ee-um) in the products he designs, and it does look damn good.  It has the added benefit of being awesome for heat dissipation as well, and its highly recyclable! (NOTE: this may or may not have been included to anger specific types of people)
  • You see, Mac’s are like the proud, blue-eyed, blonde haired, aryan race of comp… alright, maybe I shouldn’t keep going with that.
9.) They can be used by your arthritic grandma, or your Pizza Hut eating, Mountain Dew downing programmer or power user.
  • Macs are easier than other computers to use for the less computationally inclined.  Why? Because they have fewer issues overall.  No need to get your grandma to drink calming teas, such as “Missing Driver Mint,” “Crashytime Chamomile,” “Pomegranate Patience,” or “Raspberry Restart” when a Windows related problem crops up. (yeah, I stole that from an older Apple ad)
  • As far as programming and being a "power user" myself, I find that one can still accomplish great things through terminal in OS X.  Keyboard shortcuts still exist, so I still don’t get what people mean when they say “Macs aren’t designed for power users.”  Sometimes the phrase “power user” to me just sounds like “I want to make operating my computer needlessly complicated to impress other people who make operating their computer needlessly complicated as well.”
10.) Viruses, viruses, viruses, viruses. Oh, and toolbars. Everyone hates toolbars.
  • Mac’s don’t get nearly as many viruses as Windows.  You’ve all heard it a million times.  Neither does Linux.  The majority of viruses are simply designed to infiltrate Windows operating systems, and not less commonly used UNIX based OS’s such as Mac and Linux. Infiltration of Mac and Linux OS’s is still a problem, but just far less common.  Why? Because far less people use OS X and Linux than Windows.  Despite this, adoption of OS X and Linux is continuing to increase, making Mac and Linux machine’s an increasing target more and more every year.  No OS is infallible, but OS X does provide easy to use security options to help protect yourself, and yeah, it gets less viruses than Windows.  Also, I never have a problem with electronically inept people installing stupid toolbars in OS X, like what frequently happens in Windows.
11.) OS X doesn’t let you do something? You feel “locked in” by Apple?  You feel the oppressive hand of Steve Jobs and the monolithically evil corporate monstrosity that is Apple, forcing you to do things their way?
  • They may be “evil,” but at least they don’t sell as much of your information to the NSA that Google likely does.
  • There is likely an Automator hack or a third party application that will allow you to do what you want (you would be surprised how many workarounds people have found for things in OS X if you simply do a bit of Googling).
  • Us programmer types usually find workarounds anyway.
  • "This is how some people view Apple,
    and I always find it somewhat hilarious."
  • Yes, there are some things that you just simply can’t change, but we will get into that later, as we move into...

Reasons I don’t like Macs (and sometimes Apple in general):

1.) They are damned expensive.
  • It’s a fact of life, good things come at a price.  But Apple’s unwillingness to create even one “budget device” prevents many people from experiencing how great OS X is as an operating system.
  • You are paying an "Apple tax."  However, considering the customer service and the pre-packaged free applications, and if you look closely at the hardware, you will start to notice it’s not as much of a tax as you initially thought. Seriously guys, compare a Windows machine with the same spec CPU, battery life, backlit keyboard, high-res screen, graphics, form factor/ size etc. in the ultrabook segment, Its usually only marginally less expensive, if not the same price.  Obviously, some decked out, RGB colored MSI gaming laptop is going to have higher specs for around the same cost.  It’s also going to weigh close to a ton of bricks, and be about as thick as six MacBook’s stacked on top of each other with about two hours of battery life.  You have to compare within the same product segments. 
  • Never buy a brand new model Mac.  The price ALWAYS comes down in the second or third generation product, and there are usually substantial improvements in later generation models.
2.) You will get shit from everyone for using one.
  • Could the Windows PC gamers and Linux elitists please chill out about it? Please, for just two seconds!
  • You are being a true hipster, sitting in Starbucks with your MacBook Air, sipping a double Pumpkin Spice Latte crossed with a Carmel Machiatto with an extra shot, or some other ridiculous Starbucks nonsense, when I whiny neck-bearded Linux elitist enters.  What’s the first thing he is going to complain about? Likely your hipster clothes and lack of a neckbeard, and then, your MacBook.  He later goes home to his $400 dollar HP and opens a sub-reddit where he writes a five paragraph long dicertatcion on the finer points of why Mac’s suck, simultaneously rejecting any and all logical arguments for why people willingly pay more for something that suits their needs more than the $400 dollar HP he believes everyone should own.  Why? Because it works for him, and if he likes his $400 dollar HP, and he hates your MacBook, you should hate your MacBook and like his $400 HP.  Remember, if you have the MacBook, you are the elitist!
  • Ok, so I get it.  There are diehard Mac users out there. They are annoying, and I used to be one.  They are irritating, because they often give other non-Mac users crap.  It definitely gets old for both sides being perpetually told that what you bought sucks.  We have gay rights now in this country, now its as if we need to fight for computer brand rights as well.  Yeah guys, it’s gotten to that level.
  • When did Windows, Linux, and Apple become religions anyway?
3.) Apple can sometime be slow to implement new features.
  • They are often slow to bring features to OS X/ iOS that have been around for years on other systems.  Still no window snapping in OS X, Apple? Really? There are pretty good 3rd party window snap applications for Mac, but they come at a $2 to $8 dollar additional cost.
  • My belief is that they want to see if it works on other people’s stuff first, and THEN they implement it.  When they do implement these new features, it usually works out pretty well.  Like everything though, sometimes they totally screw it up at first (Apple Maps comes to mind)
  • Yep, Apple has copied Google and Microsoft.  Yep, Google and Microsoft have copied Apple.  Its a cyclical cycle of blatantly ripping each other off.  Thats how the industry works.
4.) Lack of I/O (or weird I/O choices)
13-inch MacBook Pro Retina I/O
  • We all know that the new MacBook only has one USB port for EVERYTHING, and honestly, it’s pretty stupid.  But I could also take more than two USB ports on my MacBook Pro, please Apple?
  • Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt thunderbolt thunderbolt.  Thunderbolt.  Apple really likes Thunderbolt.
  • I just thank the computer lords that they finally put a full size, no strings attached HDMI port on the Retina MacBook Pros.
5.) None of their laptops have numpads.
  • Or delete, home, end keys etc.
  • Us programmers just have to deal with it.  (Thats why I plug mine into my external mechanical keyboard when it’s at my desk)
  • Not having a number pad makes sense on the 13-inch laptops (with that small of a footprint, how would they fit it?) but on the 15-inch models (and when they were making 17-inch notebooks?) not so much.
6.) The battery situation.
  • Mac laptops get best in class battery life.  The problem is that in order to achieve this, Apple had to utilize every last millimeter of free internal space inside the laptop.  This means that after 1,000 to 1,500 battery cycles (however many years that takes) you will be presented with a choice (cough cough, Matrix reference, cough, cough).  Pay $300 dollars for a battery replacement, or get a new laptop.  The battery is simply not user serviceable, unless you are extremely confident with your battery removal and de-glueing and re-glueing skills.  Thankfully, 1,000 cycles should at least last you 5 to 6 years, and 1,000 cycles is only when the battery drops to less than 75% of it’s original capacity.  My old heavily 2009 MacBook Pro is under 1,000 battery cycles at 756 battery cycles and it's 6 years old (and still in use).
Apple wireless Magic Mouse which
"magically" destroys your hand.
7.) Form over function as well as some security flaws.
  • Their portable devices and laptops aren’t bad, but ever try to use an Apple magic mouse? If you like hand cramps, then this is the mouse for you.
  • Its slightly disappointing that the company that brought the mouse into the mainstream, makes some of the worst mice. And yes, I know they “stole” the original mouse idea from Xerox.
  • As far as security concerns, Google Super-User mode hack and then get back to me.
  • The Super-User exploit can be easily fixed by initiating an open firmware password however.
8.) Accessories are damned expensive.
  • You got your brand new MacBook Pro with Retina display.  You spent $1,300 dollars on it.  You want to use it at home and at work.  The unit came with one power brick and charging cord, but you want to buy another for work.  You just ponied up for the $1,300 dollar MacBook, now it’s time to pony up another $80 dollars for an additional power adapter.  Now you are giving more of your hard earned money to the Cookster.
  • A lightning to USB cable for your iPhone is $20 bucks… (not to mention, those cables totally suck)
  • A magic mouse will cost you $70…
  • Starting to see the picture?
  • Moral of the story: find highly rated non-Apple accessories, if it all possible.
9.) Multi-monitor support is not as good as Windows and Linux.
  • I don’t know what else to say about this one, other than I have weird bugs, glitches and issues occasionally with my Mac hooked up to two other monitors, that I don’t have with my Windows 8.1 PC that is also hooked up to the two same monitors.
10.) They used to be, and maybe still are kinda dickish.
  • Patent trolling come to mind?
  • We all now that they exploit Chinese workers.  So does Microsoft, Samsung and all the other ones (lets be real guys, lots of companies use Foxconn parts).  It is also a societal problem in China, and while Apple definitely participates in a large way, it is a problem with a HUGE portion of the manufacturing industry.
  • They have become less concerned with freaking out over rectangular shaped phones as of late, which is nice to see.
11.) Recent slight decline in software quality.
  • I have been using Mac’s since the 10.3 days (when cat names were still a thing and “El Capitan” wasn’t) and while OS X is still fantastic, it does have more bugs as of late, which annoys me.
  • I still find OS X to be more bug free and stable than Windows and even Linux, which makes total and complete sense when you look at how Apple has to design an OS that can run on a handful of devices, as opposed to Windows/ Linux which has to be designed for infinite variations of possible hardware.
12.) Did I mention that people will eternally hate you for using one?
  • Like seriously, ridiculously, completely and entirely want to murder you for using one?

I hope you enjoyed reading my off-topic non-headphone related article.  Be sure to leave a comment down below if you have one!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Mayflower CMOY Portable Review

CMOY portable
The Mayflower Electronics CMOY portable headphone amplifier brings Objective 2 sound quality to a small and portable package.  Housed in a similar (but significantly smaller) nondescript brushed aluminum enclosure to the Objective 2, the CMOY portable is a no frills mini headphone amplifier for use on the go and everywhere in between.

According to Mayflower's website, the CMOY portable was designed in accordance with many of the audio philosophies used in the Objective 2.  The CMOY portable uses the same 4556 OP-amp found in the Objective 2, an OP-amp that is designed for driving headphones and also has the added benefit of not draining too much power for a portable device.  The CMOY is equipped with a 280mAh battery which allows for 8 to 10 hours of battery life off of a single charge.  Using 32 and 64 Ohm impedance headphones, I verified the 8 to 10 hour battery life claim in testing, typically averaging around nine hours of playtime before a recharge was required (at sustained loud volume levels).

Rear I/O
In terms of build quality, the CMOY portable is as solid as they come.  As I mentioned earlier, the enclosure is constructed entirely from thick aluminum, with brushed aluminum on the back and the front.  The rear of the unit provides a standard 3.5mm input and 15v power input. The volume knob, green power LED, and 3.5mm headphone output are located on the front of the unit.  There is an internal two-stage gain switch located on the inside of the device, configured for 2x and 4x gain respectively.  According to Mayflowers website, an adjustable gain switch will be made available on the CMOY at a later date.  Either way, being such as simple device, it's not too difficult to open up the amplifier to adjust the gain.  On-the-fly gain switching is not really an option yet, however.  The CMOY portable ships with a spare 9v rechargeable battery, as well as four rubber feet that can be affixed to the bottom of the amplifier, which is definitely a nice addition.  You will have to buy the 15v DC power adapter separately for an additional $10 if you don't have one lying around already.

While switching between listening to the new CMOY portable and my Objective 2, I found it nearly impossible to discern a difference in sound quality between the two with both plugged into power.  Despite a less complex, and different internal design, the CMOY portable really does sound just like an Objective 2 but in a smaller and more portable package.  While the Objective 2 does provide considerably more power, and can subsequently drive higher impedance headphones with more ease, most of my headphones are relatively low impedance making the power difference between the two amps almost imperceptible.  Either way, the CMOY portable dishes out far more power than any standard MP3 player, smartphone or tablet can produce.  There are certain advantages to having this extra power, even in $100 to $150 dollar low-impedance headphones such as the Audio- Technica ATH-M50X's, Sony MDR-7506's and Sennheiser HD 280 Pro's that I used extensively in my testing.  Some of the standard outputs on smartphones and tablets can be surprisingly bad.  When switching from these standard mobile device outputs to a quality amplifier like the Mayflower CMOY portable, you may notice an overall increase in resolution and detail as well as tighter, more accurate, and overall cleaner bass response.  I did notice a slight but perceptible improvement in overall sound quality when using the CMOY portable with my headphones, as opposed to directly plugging into my iPhone 5's output.  The CMOY portable obviously also provides the added benefit of driving low to medium impedance range headphones to earsplitting volumes.  You will never find yourself complaining about your music not being loud enough ever again!  In short, the CMOY portable cleaned up the audio from my mobile devices and helped more prominently display details in my music that were either unnoticeable or greatly subdued when using just purely my iPhone or Nexus 7's onboard amplifier circuit.  While I am sure that the CMOY portable provides a greater benefit to higher impedance and less modestly priced headphones, it did provide a tangible benefit to my (relatively) inexpensive sets of headphones.

In short, it is ultimately up to you to decide if a portable amplifier is worth it for your specific listening needs and for the headphones that you plan on using with the amplifier.  I can however certify that the CMOY portable does everything a portable amplifier should, increase the overall quality of the sound being sent to your headphones and providing a substantial power boost over the standard output of your mobile device.  The CMOY portable is built as solid as they come, and is a simplistic and full-proof way to get a better and more powerful sound out of your mobile device.

CLICK HERE for Mayflower Electronics CMOY Portable Product Page

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Monday, July 20, 2015

Bravo Audio Ocean Tube Amplifier

Bravo Audio is a small Chinese startup that deals primarily with budget oriented and simple vacuum tube powered amplifiers for headphones. Most of Bravo Audio's amplifier lineup looks more like homemade DIY amplifiers than a production line from a company, a design aesthetic that I personally like for it's uniqueness. The Ocean currently represents Bravo Audio's top of the line headphone amp, and unlike Bravo Audio's other amplifiers, the Ocean is housed in a beautiful blue and black brushed aluminum enclosure.

The Ocean is a mini-valve class A tube amplifier that utilizes a Shu Guang 12AU7 tube which is essentially a pre-amp tube. It's 100% tube, as there is no integrated op-amp circuit.  The Ocean has 30dB of set gain, and a 20 Ohm output impedance.  Being a tube amplifier naturally make's the output impedance relatively high.  It's small footprint is a nice addition as it takes up minimal desk space and you can also see from the picture that internally, it is a fairly simple design.

While the striking blue color of the brushed aluminum enclosure is disagreeable to some, I think that it looks very nice and gives the amp a unique flair.  It stands out from the rest of the plain black hardware on my desk.  The unit ships with a power brick, cord, and the amplifier itself.  No other accessories are provided.  The only other thing I wish Bravo Audio included were some rubber feet to tack onto the bottom of the amplifier.  As it is, no rubber feet are provided or preinstalled, making the Ocean prone to sliding around on a desk.  I ended up adding my own rubber feet to raise the amplifier off my desk (which also aids in heat dissipation) and prevents the amplifier from moving around on my desk.  It is extremely easy to find and purchase your own rubber feet for very cheap, however it would be a nice inclusion to just have them shipped with the unit and I can't imagine it costing Bravo Audio much to include them.

Connectivity is not a problem with the Ocean, as the rear of the unit provides an RCA style L/R line in and line out, as well as a traditional 3.5mm input in addition to the power input.  The line out allows the Ocean to act as a preamplifier, an aspect of the Ocean I utilized extensively during my testing.  With the 12AU7 vacuum tube being in essence a preamp tube, the Bravo Audio Ocean worked quite nicely as a preamplifier for my speaker system.  Front I/O includes a nice on/off flip switch, a 6.3mm headphone output and a 3.5mm headphone output as well as a silver brushed aluminum volume knob. The amplifier does not output sound on both headphone outputs simultaneously, it's either one or the other. An extremely bright red power LED is also located on the front of the unit and the amount of light it produces could definitely be reduced. The Shu Guang 12AU7 tube protrudes from the top of the unit, and is protected by a silver metal bar.  As far as build quality is concerned, the Ocean is a very solidly built amplifier that looks and feels the part.

The Ocean is clearly designed to dissipate some of its heat by essentially utilizing the aluminum chassis as a giant heatsink.  Because of this, the surface of the Ocean does get noticeably hot during operation, thanks in part to the tube itself which emits a generous amount of heat in addition to the mosfets used inside the amplifier.  Anyone who has used a vacuum tube amplifier before won't be surprised, but to the uninitiated it can be slightly alarming. Just know that it is normal for this amplifier to run rather hot.

The Bravo Audio Ocean definitely provides that extra oomph of power to your headphones that any decent headphone amplifier should provide.  The gain is set at 30dB which doesn't make it a great fit for super sensitive IEM's and just generally sensitive headphones.  The noise floor with sensitive headphones is also noticeably high, so this amp is simply not suited for these types of headphones.  That being said, the Ocean is a very powerful headphone amp and can drive high impedance headphones with relative ease.

Rear I/O
The Ocean is much more neutral and balanced than many other vacuum tube amplifiers I have tried.  Some vacuum tube amplifiers tend to add too much warmth and distortion to the sound.  The  Ocean remains relatively clear and precise.  It does add noticeable warmth over something like my solid-state Objective 2 amplifier, which is extremely neutral (which is it's primary reason for being my benchmark amplifier).  It's interesting that this amplifier, despite being tube powered, remains only slightly colored in it's sound reproduction.  Reading online, it was indicated to me that a more warm sound can be achieved by replacing the stock Shu Guang 12AU7 tube with an Elector-Harmonix, Genalex Gold Lion, Telefunken, or Mullard 12AU7 tube.  Each tube has slightly different characteristics, so you will just have to do some research before purchasing a non-stock tube.  While some other reviews have criticized the performance of the included Shu Guang tube, it suits my needs and I have no problems with it sonically.  At some point in the future, I hope to acquire a few different 12AU7 tubes to try in the Ocean, but for now I am overall satisfied with the stock tube's performance.  The Ocean helped fill out the mid range in some of my headphones that are known for being particularly lacking in the mid range frequencies.  It also helped to really let the upper ranges sing out without becoming too harsh.  Depending on your headphones, your mileage may vary, but in most cases the Ocean did a good job.  With a good pair of headphones, guitar driven rock music sounds spectacular with this amp.  Those of you using discerning mastering and monitoring headphones may run into trouble with the Ocean however.  In select songs, my notoriously discerning Sony MDR-7506's picked up some upper frequency distortion.  Replaying these same songs on the Ocean with my ATH-M50X's and various other headphones did not reproduce the same results.  In short, monitoring headphones probably shouldn't be used with a budget tube amplifier anyway.  Distortion is an inherit part of any vacuum tube powered amplifier, and extremely discerning headphones will pick up on that in an often times not so pleasant way.

If you are dead set on going the vacuum tube route as opposed to solid state and you want to stick to a reasonable price, the Bravo Audio Ocean is a fantastic choice.   While the Bravo Audio Ocean sounds absolutely fantastic with many headphones, just be aware that certain headphones will pick up some of that tube distortion, and if you are using sensitive IEM's you should be looking at something in the solid-state amplifier realm.

CLICK HERE for Bravo Audio Ocean Product Page
CLICK HERE for Bravo Audio Ocean Amazon Product Page

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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Best of RUSH Live (A List of Favorite Live Tracks)

Photo taken @ The Pepsi Center in Denver, CO for
the Rush R40 tour on July 11th, 2015 "Roll the Bones"
was being played.
Below I have listed a definitive compilation/ playlist I put together as a direct result of my unnatural obsession with Rush, their musicality and their incredible live performances. This compilation contains what I believe to be some of the very best live recordings of various different tracks, handpicked from the many different Rush live album releases. This compilation/ playlist contains (in my view) a roughly proportional amount of new and old material. I enjoy listening to Rush’s newer material just as much as their old material.

Having just recently seen Rush in concert for their 40th anniversary R40 tour, I was compelled to try and recreate the concert sound as much as possible. While nothing I own can achieve that true rock concert sound, I can at least get relatively close. I have been listening to Rush's live albums much more than their studio releases as of late, and I decided to create a playlist that contains the best songs from their live performances.

The live recordings in this compilation/ playlist come from the following live albums:

All the World’s a Stage (Live) [Remastered] {released September 29, 1976}
Exit… Stage Left (Live) [Remastered] {released October, 1981}
Chronicles [Remastered] (which contains four live recordings) {released September 4, 1990}
Rush In Rio (Live) {released January 27, 2004}
R30 (Live) {released November 18, 2005}
Snakes & Arrows: Live {released April 12, 2008}
Clockwork Angels Tour (Live) {released November 15, 2013}

Note: This playlist was created in iTunes. In order to smooth out the transitions between the songs (due to their live recorded nature) it is important to enable “Crossfade Songs” in iTunes preferences, under “Playback.”

I set the crossfade slider all of the way to the leftmost position. Fine tuning the slider will likely result in better transitions between songs, however some transitions will naturally be awkward, especially when bouncing from “R30” to “Exit Stage Left” for example. Not using crossfade at all however, naturally makes song transitions very abrupt.

Light show for "Spirit of Radio" @ The Pepsi Center in
Denver, CO on July 11th, 2015.
I ordered the compilation/ playlist with more regard towards a concert-like order of songs than a playlist where songs transition better together. However, I did try to group parts of the compilation/ playlist together by naturally progressing songs from the same live album (like Caravan, Clockwork, Anarchist, Carnies, Wreckers from the Clockwork Tour album) in other words, how that portion of the live album was originally ordered.

For those who don’t use iTunes, I know that most computer based media players have a crossfade option, or something similarly named but identical in function.

Due to the disparity in some of the recordings age, it may be necessary to boost the volume of the older recordings to reach the volume level or the newer recordings. I boosted the volume of “Exit Stage Left” and “Chronicles” tracks by around 45% (again, basing this off of iTunes).

I am constantly reordering this playlist. It seems like no matter what combination, it’s never just quite right. Obviously the order of the songs is highly subjective, but I feel that the current order works fairly well. I will likely continue to tweak it, and perhaps add additional songs. Any suggestions for better flow or less abrupt transitions are welcome.

The compilation is as follows:

1.) R30 – Overture – R30 (Live)
2.) Earthshine – R30 (Live)
3.) Animate – R30 (Live)
4.) Mystic Rhythms – R30 (Live)

5.) Caravan – Clockwork Angels Tour (Live)
6.) Clockwork Angels – Clockwork Angels Tour (Live)
7.) The Anarchist – Clockwork Angels Tour (Live)
8.) Carnies – Clockwork Angels Tour (Live)
9.) The Wreckers – Clockwork Angels Tour (Live)

10.) Roll The Bones – R30 (Live)
11.) Subdivisions – R30 (Live)
12.) Limelight – R30 (Live)

13.) Far Cry – Clockwork Angels Tour (Live)

14.) The Main Monkey Business (Live) – Snakes & Arrows: Live

15.) The Analog Kid – Clockwork Angels Tour (Live)
16.) Grand Designs – Clockwork Angels Tour (Live)
17.) The Body Electric – Clockwork Angels Tour (Live)
18.) Territories – Clockwork Angels Tour (Live)

19.) Force Ten – R30 (Live)

20.) Distant Early Warning – Snakes & Arrows: Live

21.) Leave That Thing Alone – Rush In Rio (Live)

22.) Wish Them Well – Clockwork Angels Tour (Live)
23.) Seven Cities of Gold – Clockwork Angels Tour (Live)
24.) The Percussor [I] Binary Love Theme [II] Steambanger’s Ball [drum solo] – Clockwork Angels Tour (Live)
25.) Red Sector A – Clockwork Angels Tour (Live)
26.) YYZ – Clockworks Angels Tour (Live)
27.) The Garden – Clockwork Angels Tour (Live)

28.) Ghost Rider – Rush In Rio (Live)

29.) Jacob’s Ladder – Exit… Stage Left (Live) [Remastered]
30.) The Trees – Exit… Stage Left (Live) [Remastered]

31.) Natural Science – Snakes & Arrows: Live

32.) Red Barchetta (Live) – Exit… Stage Left (Live) [Remastered]

33.) Digital Man – Snakes & Arrows: Live
34.) A Passage to Bangkok – Snakes & Arrows: Live

35.) Tom Sawyer – Exit… Stage Left (Live) [Remastered]
36.) The Spirit of Radio – Exit… Stage Left (Live) [Remastered]
37.) Xanadu (Live) – Exit… Stage Left (Live) [Remastered]

38.) 2112 – R30 (Live)

39.) What You’re Doing [Live] – Chronicles (Remastered)

40.) Anthem (Live) – All the World’s a Stage (Live) [Remastered]

41.) Working Man – R30 (Live)

Approx. total runtime: 4 hours, 9 minutes

(for importing this playlist into iTunes, you will need to have the identical songs in your library)

CLICK HERE for the iTunes playlist text file

R40 photos that I took @ The Pepsi Center in Denver, CO:

"Growing up it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass production zone

Nowhere is the dreamer
Or the misfit so alone"

"Some will sell their dreams for small desires
Or lose the race to rats
Get caught in ticking traps
And start to dream of somewhere
To relax their restless flight

Somewhere out of a memory
Of lighted streets on quiet nights"

- Excerpts from Subdivisions

R40 concert videos I took: