Friday, November 18, 2005

Saving Power - 200 Watts at a time

I was a bit shocked to learn how expensive our electricity bills are - around $130 per month! I'll have to ask my roommate how many kiloWatt-hours that is.

So today I took a quick survey around the apartment and measured how much power is consumed by our 24/7 devices (Andrew has a Watt-meter handy. Doesn't everyone?).

The refrigerator was off the scale or nearly so - 725W. It tripped the meter's shut off circuit/fuse. However that reading is misleading because the fridge isnt always actively cooling itself. When it's idle it should drop to nearly zero.

The three computers that are always running (Webserver, DB server, and HDTV machine) range from 50W to 125W, rising with computing ability (and therefore number of cooling fans). The networking components (DSL modem, router, and gigabit Ethernet switch) add another 75W.

The stereo system burns a big 150W when in "Standby". Switching it on and firing up the amp doesn't add much above that, maybe 200W max.

The stereo and the HD machine are the most tempting power conservation targets.

There's really no need to have the stereo on "Standby" mode 24/7. I slid the power bar up towards the front so it can easily be toggled on/off. The TV, satellite receiver, etc are plugged into a different power bar so they still function without the stereo. Keeping the stereo completely switched off when not in use saves us a lot: 109.5kWh per month.

Next up was the HD machine. It's used to record HDTV programs that are broadcast over the air. So it can put itself to sleep if it wants to, but it has to be able to wake itself up for its scheduled events.

Using Windows' built-in power management I set the machine to "Sleep" itself after a specified number of minutes. Power consumption dropped from 100W to 50W. To the outside world the computer seems off - the fans and hard drives are completely powered down.

I thought I'd tried this before and failed, but this time the machine woke itself up for a scheduled recording and everything worked flawlessly (perhaps the test was back when it had the old Dell motherboard). And it's smart enough to remain active when an application like the HD recorder or Winamp are running.

Waking up (whether it's for a scheduled event or if you tap the keyboard) only takes about five seconds and it comes back up to where you were before. Pretty nice! Having the computer put itself in sleep mode will save us another 36.5kWh of energy each month.

Now this spin up/spin down isn't ideal for the hard drives. They're designed to spin 24/7. Bringing them up and down will wear them out faster, but I don't know if it dramatically reduces their lifespan (four years instead of five years?).

"Sleep" won't work for my Webserver or DB server - those machines field Website requests at all hours of the day and would kill themselves trying to sleep and wake after each request.

Anyway, conserving 200W - 146kWh each month - isn't too shabby. I would guess that's 10-15% of our total power consumption each month!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Trying out a new living room configuration

I've been slowly coming to terms with the fact that my couch just isn't all that comfortable. It just doesn't give enough lumbar support and makes you sit in a bit of a slouch. Its two-cushion design makes it especially bad when you want to sit in the middle - the preferred audio listening position (so as to be perfectly situated between the main left/right speakers).

So Andrew and I, mostly on a whim, decided to try rearranging our living room to get the couch out of the way and move in our more comfortable chairs. The result, I think, is an improvement:

The couch ended up against the side wall that we had always under-utilized. The real key was that the computer was pulled out and moved to the far corner next to our breakfast table (kind of tucked under the kitchen bar/countertop). That gave us enough room to back John's recliner into position alongside the two POÄNGs.

Andrew's monster subwoofer is still back against the rear wall, but it's got more room to breathe now that it isn't in a valley behind the couch. We'll see if that makes much of a sonic difference.

Eventually we'll have both bar stools along the back wall for faux stadium seating.

Cabling still needs to cross the room but it's reduced from nine lines down to six. The bigger pain is getting a gigabit network cable to the computer in its new spot. I think I'm going to drop a line out of my bedroom window and into the kitchen window. It sounds a little silly but I already have our HD antenna line routing from the roof into my bedroom window, so there's a precedent...

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Audiophilia: Audiophile-grade sound from Winamp? Update

After more testing this afternoon (makes for an enjoyable lunch hour!) I've confirmed that the ASIO output for Winamp is better than the standard DirectSound S/PDIF out.

The difference isn't huge. It's really quite subtle, at least as auditioned on my roommate's Paradigm Active 20s (with Proceed PAV/PDSD decoder).

There's just a shade more detail, particularly in sharper sounds with aggressive attacks. A finger snap, for instance, will sound more three dimensional with the ASIO output whereas over DirectSound it is less striking and less sharply defined.

The difference may also depend on your particular sound card. My M-Audio Delta Audiophile 2496 is supposed to be an intro-level pro sound card (meaning it's much better than the norm but isn't crazy expensive). Perhaps a SoundBlaster Crap-o-la 2000 will exhibit a much bigger difference.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Audiophilia: The Audio Upgrade Bug Strikes, pt 1

I'm not sure what triggered it, but I'm in the middle of kicking my audio gear up to the next level. Or maybe the next five levels.

Ever since hearing my former roommate's SACD (Super Audio CD) player on his excellent system I've known I'd have to get one eventually. SACDs look like regular CDs but they have very little else in common. It would take too long to explain it, but basically a good SACD doesn't just sound better than a good CD, it sounds remarkable, striking, and uber-realistic.

Thanks to the wonders of eBay and thanks to Sony discontinuing their flagship player from 2003, I will soon be the owner of a Sony DVP-NS999ES.

What used to retail for $1000 can now be had used for under $450. Crazy.

Now if only I had some speakers to go with it...

Stay tuned for Part Two.

Audiophilia: The Audio Upgrade Bug Strikes, pt 2

It was only a matter of time, but it seems the time has come. I previously acquired some fantastic used Proceed gear at an astonishing price. I had this incredible amp and no speakers for it to drive!

I've been researching speakers for a couple months on-and-off and finally went out and auditioned the front-runners this past weekend. My main interest right now is a high end pair of left/right mains that can be mated with a good center channel for movies and 5.1 music.

The contenders:
- Paradigm Studio 100, Studio 60
- Thiel 2.3, 1.6
- Revel F32
- B&W 603 S3, B&W 704, 703

Test material:
- "Serenity" Soundtrack
- James Taylor - Greatest Hits
- Mary Chapin Carpenter - State of the Heart, Stones in the Road
- Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition

There's a bit of a wide range in cost here - $2000/pair up to $4000/pair. But the used market tends to equalize matters if necessary.

B&W 703: So very pretty
The first speakers I auditioned were the B&W 703s. They were my front-runner on paper and have by far the best looks of all the speakers under consideration. I tried to not let the gorgeous woodwork and sloping cabinet design and cool yellow Kevlar woofer cone bias me.

But the 703s are more than just pretty. They sounded incredible. Not very stout at the low end, but they seemed quite accurate down there - a fair trade off as far as I'm concerned. Especially since a subwoofer will almost always be filling in the deepest bottom end anyway.

It was the midrange that completely stunned me - such clarity, definition, and accuracy! The high end was equally detailed without being overly crisp or bright. Some people have complained about brightness in this speaker, but I think they're pairing it with inferior amps.

The Serenity soundtrack CD is a detailed, lively recording of a much higher quality than I would have expected. Tracks 3 and 4 particularly emphasize the 703s strengths in the midrange. They became part of my standard test material package. Mary Chapin Carpenter's a capella intro to "Why Walk When You Can Fly" was a marvel.

I also listened to the matching HTM7 center channel running by itself with Cate Blanchett's intro to Fellowship of the Ring. I had to ask the sales guy if a subwoofer was on - he smiled and said "no".

The HTM7 was much fuller than expected, detailed in the mids and highs without any harshness or brightness. My quick listen led me to believe it completely capable in its job as the crucial center speaker for movies.

I tried out the 704, the 703's smaller companion in the 700 series. There was no comparison. The 704 was decent but it immediately fell short of its big brother. It was much less lively, less involving, dynamics were more muted.

The Thiel 1.6 was next. No comparison here either. They were obviously not on the same par as the B&W 703s. Oddly the staging was much wider than the 703s but as a consequence James Taylor's voice on "Fire and Rain" was much less coherent and dispersed, whereas on the 703s you can almost reach out and touch James Taylor in front of you. This is likely highly dependent on speaker placement/alignment so I wouldn't dwell on it too much.

I'm sure the Thiel 2.3s would offer a more suitable challenge. Tragically I no longer have my former roommate's 2.3s to compare against nor do I particularly remember their sound.

I then took a trip over to Fairfax and Beverly to try out the Paradigms. The Studio 100s were respectable though not exhilirating. Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Never Had It So Good" is a torture test of brightness in the recording and these speakers emphasized the brightness even more. Each guitar strike of the taught, metal strings clicked painfully, ruining any possible enjoyment.

This dealer also had the B&W 703s sitting next to the Paradigms. To refresh my memory we plugged the 703s in and tried the same test material. Within the first four notes or so of "Fire And Rain" I knew the B&Ws were the obvious winner. The sales guy was trying to conceal his smile at how big a difference there was but we both basically just shook our heads and chuckled. Adios Paradigm.

Next up was the Revel F32s. They offered big, bountiful bass - much more than any of the others I auditioned. Surprisingly I felt the midrange to be a bit thin, though perhaps only in comparison to the extremely strong deep bass. Detail was also good but not as gripping and thrilling as the 703s. I don't think our listening room was the best though - I doubt that the acoustic treatment fully made up for the rather small size of the room.

I found the F32s to just not really be my taste. My roommate loved the strong bass but it was too much for me. I felt it clouded over the more interesting midrange and upper range. Then again I'm not much used to speakers that can go deep like that. At $4k per pair I just couldn't claim that I liked them $1000 more than the 703s. Maybe if the Revels were $1000 cheaper than the 703s, but certainly not the other way around.

The sales guy at this place dragged us into his PMC listening room and we auditioned a pair of utterly uninteresting floor standers. They failed the Mary Chapin Carpenter brightness test - I think there was blood dripping out of my ears from the piercing brightness.

So despite not auditioning the Thiel 2.3s I was more than happy to choose the B&W 703s. I realize that I wanted to like them so one could fault my objectivity. But at the same time I don't think anyone could find fault with my choice. These are very good speakers.

I found a used pair on with a matching HTM7 center channel for $2800 (list price new is $3k + $750). They're in the gorgeous Rosenut veneer shown in the pictures above. Drool. I just hope they arrive before I leave for my Thanksgiving vacation to Chicago.

To round out the system I've got my eye on a set of used B&W 602 Series 3s for direct radiating surrounds. The 602 S3 is their largest bookshelf in the line down from the 700 series. The 600s share enough in common with the 700 series that they should match well enough. And the 602 S3 is no slouch either - the word "bookshelf" is a bit of a misnomer for this 23lb speaker that stands 19" tall.

Anyway once it all arrives, I should really be just about finished with any big purchases for the next couple of years! And should be pretty well set. The only thing I'll be missing is a subwoofer which is probably the easiest item to add down the road.

I'm dying to get it all here and finally unleash my amp!

Audiophilia: Audiophile-grade sound from Winamp? Maybe.

This will only be of interest to audiophile tech geeks, but for those of us that care about such things...

In theory a PC should be able to act as an ideal CD transport, transmitting a perfect PCM bitstream to an external decoder. Unfortunately in default operation computer sound cards output filtered and modified PCM, degrading the quality of the original audio. Windows itself jumps in and adds a layer of muck to the proceedings.

So there are two tasks involved: 1.) capture a perfect bitstream off a CD and 2.) transmit that bitstream unmolested to your high-end decoder.

Collect the following ingredients:

- An audiophile-grade CD or a good hybrid SACD.
- Exact Audio Copy (aka EAC).
- FLAC - Free Lossless Audio Codec.
- Winamp 5.x.
- Japanese ASIO Winamp 5 plugin (out_asio.dll).
- ASIO-enabled sound card with SPDIF out and updated drivers.
- Digital audio or composite video cable for the SPDIF line.

You must have a sound card that supports ASIO (I think most do nowadays). I got this to work with my M-Audio Delta Audiophile 2496.

Why use FLAC? It does its job - lossless compression on the order of a 2:1 ratio - and does it quickly. It's open source and license-free so you don't have to worry about a proprietary format that might disappear at the whim or bankruptcy of a company. And the developers have adopted a common framework with Vorbis, the open source group that develops the OGG alternative to MP3 compression. Perhaps as a result FLAC files have full tagging support in Winamp.

Set up EAC to encode FLAC files as described here:

Rip your audiophile-grade CD to FLAC.

Copy the in_flac.dll from the FLAC distribution to your Winamp plugins directory.

Launch Winamp and you'll be able to play back the FLAC files (you might want to set a file association for *.flac files to Winamp so Windows knows what to do when you double-click on one).

Part 1 complete! Your soundcard is probably already sending PCM out over its SPDIF connection. But for now it's crappy PCM. You know there's processing on it if the Winamp or Windows volume controls affect the output.

Now we use the ASIO interface and the Japanese ASIO plugin for Winamp to bypass the normal processing that happens in Windows.

Follow these Stereophile directions to install and configure the Winamp ASIO plugin (your own soundcard will replace the "Echo" references in this guide):

Restart Winamp.

In theory this is all it takes. However, I had the additional difficulty of working through the M-Audio patchbay router configuration. On my Delta Audiophile 2496 the correct settings were:

note: ASIO-ed Winamp audio came through the "WaveOut 1/2" input.
  • Make sure the "Master Volume" and mixer level for "WaveOut 1/2" are at maximum gain on the Monitor Mixer tab.
  • Set the "WavOut S/PDIF" mixer level to nothing or mute it to prevent Windows sound effects from being relayed through to your decoder.
  • On the Patchbay/Router tab set "H/W Out SPDIF" to "Monitor Mixer".
  • On the S/PDIF tab check the Advanced Settings and make sure Data Type is set to "Audio".

Now you should have line-level PCM out to your decoder that is completely unmolested by Windows or any other software. In theory. Windows is certainly cut out of the loop - try adjusting your volume through the Windows control panel, it won't do a thing to your PCM signal - but your sound card may still be altering the PCM.

The fact that the M-Audio Monitor Mixer gives you gain control and will happily mix in standard Windows audio if you adjust the "WavOut S/PDIF" mixer level means the sound card will alter your PCM if you want it to. Hopefully with the gain at max (0.0dB) and the other channels muted the signal goes through unmolested. There's no easy way for me to tell.

The FLAC-Winamp-ASIO method sounds very, very good. Initial casual tests sound at least as good as our current CD transport (a Pioneer Laserdisc player via TOSLINK). I'll do more rigorous A/B tests once my new speakers arrive.

Bonus: If your portable digital audio player supports OGG (like my iRiver iFP-395T), grab the latest version of Oggdrop. You can drag and drop FLAC files into it and it'll output compressed OGG versions.

One last note - using the right cable (a digital audio cable or composite video cable) makes a big difference. We were previously sending PCM over an analog audio cable and it sounded terrible. Everything sounded like it was poorly or just-adequately compressed. Once we switched to a proper digital audio cable there was a marked increase in clarity. Analog audio cables are out of the specifications for running digital audio signals. Don't do it!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Book Notes: "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde, most well-known as a comedic and devilish playwright, is a miscreant. He was highly critical of British society - being an Irishman he was an outsider, though he called London his home until his exile (yes, exile! I told you he was a troublemaker).

He's a miscreant because he's willfully subversive to society. He wants to tantalize and corrupt people with his perversions, all while making logical justfications. And as far as literature is concerned, there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. Dorian Gray is read and studied to this day not because it is a brilliant piece of fiction. It stays in the public consciousness because of its perceived audacity and willingness to explore the darker side of humanity.

Wilde doesn't care if you're turned on or off by Dorian Gray. If Gray's deviant misdeeds excite you, so much the better you nasty critter, you. If they disgust and horrify you, even better you uptight, close-minded Puritan. Wilde will be happy with either. The only thing that would upset him is if you didn't have much of a strong opinion at all.

I didn't have much of a strong opinion at all. I found Dorian Gray to be a tease - a promise to descend into real darkness and debauchery that is never really fulfilled. Yes there is some darkness but, though it may have been shocking in its time, it really fails to evoke the visceral, shocking impact that was intended. The modern play and film "Quills" does a much better job of gleefully assaulting civil society.

This is likely due to the cleansing and censoring that happened at publication. The novel is already rife with homoerotic implications and innuendoes (Wilde himself was gay), but it never dives into them in any real manner. Wilde probably wanted to scandalize London with glorious, decadent homoeroticism of a scale never before heard of in polite society. But his own internal censor and the actual censors of the day forced him to keep things tame. It's a shame. Dorian Gray would have been a much stronger, bolder novel for it.

Wilde's style and approach, taken out of the context of its day, is just bearable. His Lord Henry character is a tiresome, endless stream of bold statements and opinions that are never explored. The introduction to my edition of Dorian Gray discusses at length Wilde's personal influences that led to his creation of Lord Henry, among others. One can read Lord Henry with an eye on Wilde and appreciate the games Wilde was playing in his own mind. But on the surface, without that context, Lord Henry is just insufferable.

This can be said of much of the novel - especially the ridiculous Chapter XI that lists out ad nauseum (or more appropriately ad infinitum) Dorian Gray's new interests and the items he's acquired for study and appreciation. In the introduction the Wilde scholar explains why this chapter exists and what it is in reference to (and even where Wilde lifted verbatim passages from other texts). The explanation helps, but still does not justify that chapter's existence.

I would not recommend The Picture of Dorian Gray. The story is fine fodder for salacious adaptations, movies, etc. But the novel itself just isn't really worth the effort. Luckily it's a modest read at just over five hours.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Book Notes: "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen

I'm very happy to report that I was shocked by how enjoyable and accessible this book is. Austen has an impressively modern sense of wit and slyness that seems incompatible with our notions of proper 19th century England.

Austen and her protagonist, Elizabeth, are very intelligent and perceptive and she assumes the same of her readers. When Elizabeth's bemused, sarcastic father states that one of his "favorites" is a man of terrible manners it's understood that he means this in jest - that he favors this man only for the amusement this buffoon provides. Austen does not explain the joke nor does she have to, she trusts that her readers will catch on to her charming wit with the same ease as her Elizabeth.

The language and grammar Austen employs is certainly a bit challenging by today's standards. Certain words have fallen far out of favor in today's English (unless you use "disapprobation", one of Austen's favorites) but it's the proper grammar and sentence structure that can provide the biggest stumbling block. It's nowhere near as difficult as reading Shakespeare, but it does take a bit of adjustment.

However, once adjusted you begin to appreciate Austen's glorious command of the language. She is impeccably precise (she would impress any attorney), but her style is never boring or tedious. Her astute observations, her incredible wit, and the clarity with which she communicates all combine to form passages that make one marvel. At its most superficial level her old English grammar could appear stuffy and overly prim and proper, but by the second page it should be immediately obvious that this novel is entirely modern in its sensibilities.

Her writing particularly thrilled me because I instantly found in Austen a kindred spirit to my own love of precision in language coupled with wit and gently sarcastic humor. And through Austen's creation of Elizabeth I found a similarity to my own logical, reasoned approach for preventing one's emotions from getting too far ahead of oneself. And when Elizabeth silently observes the social interactions and faux pas of her friends and family, I find in her misgivings a great similarity to how my own would be in such a situation.

Pride and Prejudice is a shockingly enjoyable novel. At its core it is a love story that is more convincing and more successful than anything Hollywood could hope to attempt. It does get a little slow somewhere in the second half, but it never becomes a chore to read and is well worth the investment.

With a bit of focus I was able to finish it in just over eight hours (yes, I'm timing everything I read so I may gauge how much of or how little of a commitment a book might be). That can easily be spread out over the course of a week or even over an ambitious single weekend.

On deck: "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Book Notes: "Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett

Godot is the highly regarded absurdist short play by Samuel Beckett. Originally written in French (Beckett apparently spent most of his adult life in Paris) and no doubt inspired by Camus and Sartre, Godot uses slapstick, low-brow silliness to vaguely articulate sophisticated philosophical thought. Unusual combination, eh?

The two main characters could easily be Laurel and Hardy. They really are low-brow. The comedy isn't exactly funny. Just completely absurd (and not in a Jim Carrey kind of way). It's the kind of work that can only be looked at from a broad view, from a distance because its surface level is all nonsense.

While I'm sure there have been many a dissertation on Godot and Beckett, I'll boil it down to one paragraph:

Man is ridiculous. Man understands so little. We loathe each other but depend on each other. We have no idea why we do what we do, but we persist against all odds to keep doing it. Answers to our questions always seem so near, but are never delivered. We are fools and we'll never be anything but fools. The combination of foolishness and persistence are laughable but also oddly admirable - only a fool can persevere like a fool, and this we do remarkably well.

It's a short two-hour read, but it'll be days, weeks, years, never before the light turns on. And while it's absurd, it definitely isn't really all that funny so don't expect too much jaunty entertainment with your damning/praising of the foibles of man.

Book Notes: "The Old Man and the Sea" by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway's style is a bit curious to me. In high school we read some of his Spanish Civil War articles where he was reporting from the front lines. But his reports weren't dry AP-style journalism. He was always telling a story. And for some reason he told it in second person perspective - "you see this", "you do that".

These articles were presumably true accounts but they were an odd blend of storytelling and journalism. They had an expressive, engaging narrative but at the same time were slightly detached and clinical. They reflected a talented storyteller who was probably a big stickler for rigorous, accurate details.

Upon re-reading The Old Man and the Sea I was surprised to find much the same style in this purely fictional account. Hemmingway is no doubt an excellent storyteller but he still maintains an odd, detached quality to his narrative. He lets you inside the thoughts of Santiago, his old fisherman, but you're not exactly hearing Santiago's thoughts. You're getting Hemingway's clinical documentation of those thoughts.'s editorial review for Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" describes his style as consisting of "famously plain declarative sentences".

Everything he presents is through two screens: Events and ideas are conveyed first through the character's perspective and then translated by Hemmingway as he reports them to his reader. Hemingway is always present in the story, always delivering the story to the reader. Surely this happens to some degree in all writing but Hemingway is such an odd fit with Santiago that Hemingway's presence is much more pronounced.

Overall The Old Man and the Sea offers a lot to think about and is efficiently delivered (only takes about two or two and a half hours to read). I can see why this his a high school English class mainstay.