Readers may already have noticed that my speaker and receiver reviews have begun name-checking a new reference signal source. It is a Micro Seiki BL-51 turntable. And it's a jewel. There isn't a single component in my rack that I don't respect and depend on. But the Micro Seiki I love-love-love. Let me tell you how and why I acquired it.
The weeks of carefully orchestrated of leaks and rumors surrounding Microsoft's iPod-like Zune have approached the viral intensity of an Apple product launch. Confirmation finally came in Billboard with the announcement of "a family of hardware and software products" by Chris Stephenson, general manager of marketing for MSN Entertainment Business. As rumored, the product will ape Apple by integrating a music player with software downloads. But it will also one-up the iPod by offering wi-fi for functions that will include downloading, purchasing, and exchanging songs with a limited number of other users. Not an original idea, but maybe a powerful one. Stephenson raised several other possibilities without confirming any of them: "The ability to connect the different devices is a key part of the strategy. Whether it's a portable media device, or a phone, or the Xbox or Media Center PC, the idea is you can access your entertainment from anywhere." The music industry, eager for "flexible" pricing, will be happy to release its foie-gras-engorged gut from the 99-cent corset imposed by Steve Jobs and iTunes. Not so pleased are the manufacturers and download services who have licensed Microsoft's PlaysForSure DRM. They are effectively frozen out of the new integrated Zune hardware/software environment. Prospects for Zune's survival? Send me one and I'll get back to you.
A Tokyo racetrack has become home to the world's largest large-screen video display. The screen is 218 feet wide (by 66 by 37). Judging from the picture, its ratio of width to height is way more than the standard 16:9 of DTV in general. Behind the display is Mitsubishi's Aurora Vision LED technology. Here LEDs are being used to produce the picture directly, though they're also creeping into consumer DLP displays as a substitute for the color wheel. The screen was installed in 35 pieces and cost $28 million. Apologies for the headline. Couldn't resist. A larger edit of the picture, and three others, are in the Galleries.
The other day Federal Express summoned me to the front of my building. What delight awaited? It was Onkyo's HT-S990THX. Some would call it the first THX-certified home theater in a box though the Onkyo and THX people prefer the term "integrated THX HT system." HTIB or not, all 143 pounds of it were literally in a box, one box, only 14 inches shorter (and five inches wider) than my refrigerator. My building has elevators, but there are five steps between the ground floor and the sidewalk. The FedEx guy and I stood on the curb staring at one another in dawning horror.
After extensive testing, I have finally found the ultimate power cable. It's from Mothra Research Unlimited. Their motto: "At Mothra, you won't get snake oil; you'll get the entire snake." While the Mothra Power Cord may be a bit pricey at $8899.95 per meter (one meter shown), doesn't this description excite the two-channel purist in you?: "Designed and engineered for proper frequency handling from the wall tap to your equipment, the Mothra Power Cord uses 0.0001 mm palladium wire in a helium atmosphere to carry high frequencies, 0.001 mm platinum wire in a xenon atmosphere to carry the upper midranges, 0.01 mm gold wire in an argon atmosphere to carry the lower mids, and 0.1 mm silver wire in highly reactive sulphur hexafluoride to carry the low frequencies. This is then shielded with over 700 Kg of 99.9999% copper, packed into a special neodymium-bismuth damping material, encapsulated in our specially bioengineered case, and irradiated with high intensity gamma rays from Three Mile Island reactor #2." No system would be complete without Ghidorah or Rhodan interconnects, not to mention Mothra's speaker cable. Here's the price list. Mothra's corporate philosophy is simple: "Our goal is to wrap the listener in an intense, passionate and lifelike embrace of sound at a price comparable to the US Navy's Trident Missile Program. The enormous soundstage and precise, realistic imaging of our products will bring out the beast in you and secure our comfortable retirement."
Do you want your HD video-on-demand and want it now? Meet MovieBeam. The system sends data through the PBS broadcast network to a special MovieBeam antenna and set-top box. Load up on bits, in either high- or standard-def, and then you have 24 hours to watch the movie. Disney has talked the rest of the studios (except Sony) into supporting the venture, four years in the making. You'll need an HDTV with HDMI input to receive movies in HD, and as an added bonus, the HDMI output upconverts SD to 720p. However, the box outputs component video only at 480p. Pricing per movie is $4.99 for new HD titles, $3.99 for new SD titles, $2.99 for old HD titles, and $1.99 for old SD titles. Box and activation fee cost a total of $230 after rebate. MovieBeam is now available in 29 cities.
Moviegoers in Japan will get a special treat when they see The New World starring Colin Farrell. Telecom company NTT will supply hardware that releases aromas from scented oils. According to Yuri Kageyama of AP: "A floral scent accompanies a love scene, while a mix of peppermint and rosemary is emitted during a tear-jerking scene. Joy is a citrus mix of orange and grapefruit, while anger is enhanced by a herb-like concoction with a hint of eucalyptus and tea tree." Variations of the technique date back to 1959 when Aroma-Rama delivered scent through the air-conditioning system during Behind the Great Wall. In 1960, Smell-o-Vision injected olfactory enhancements into the seating for Scent of Mystery. Most notorious was John Waters' Polyester (1981) with Odorama, a relatively low-tech scratch-and-sniff card that provided suggestions of flowers, pizza, glue, grass, and feces. Waters later exulted over having gotten audiences to "pay to smell..." the latter.
The file format that turned music distribution into free-for-all has acquired a watermark. Actually, a method of embedding digital rights management into MP3 is nearly two years old. But this latest wrinkle is not a thou-shalt-not anti-copying flag. It's more a method of identifying who has been doing what with downloads. A combination of psychoacoustic manipulation and spread-spectrum modulation makes the watermark inaudible to human ears, but it can be picked up by a watermark detector, and can survive both encode/decode processes and analog transmission. According to the Fraunhofer Institute, developer of both MP3 and the new watermark, "watermarking can provide a useful mechanism to track illicit copies or to attach property rights information to the multimedia content." Don't say I didn't warn you.
Which is more likely to corrupt America's youth: The temptation to steal copyrighted works? Or the temptation to shill for a trade association that fights consumer fair-use rights as fervently as it does overt piracy? Fifty-two thousand Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts in Southern California are about to face that moral dilemma. The Motion Picture Association of America has teamed with their leadership to offer "a curriculum designed to educate kids about copyright protection and change attitudes toward intellectual property theft." There will be five ways to earn the "respect copyrights" patch shown, to include grabbing dad's camcorder to make a public service announcement, or visiting a local studio to see people at work and their local economy in operation. The reward is an activity patch, not a merit badge, and therefore not a requirement for advancement.
Should the Motion Picture Association of America add a sixth rating? The current set of five includes G, for general audiences:
PG, parental guidance suggested; PG-13, parents strongly cautioned; R, restricted; and NC-17, no one 17 and
under admitted. Pressure is building to subdivide R into two new ratings, one for fleetingly racy material, and another (already informally known as
hard-R) for extremely graphic horror pics. There are precedents for subdivision and name changing. After all, before there were PG and PG-13,
there was a single M rating, for mature audiences. And X changed its name to NC-17 when the terms obscene and pornographic
became "legal terms for courts to decide," as the MPAA notes in its explanation of
ratings (a comic masterpiece of hairsplitting and equivocation). Now pressure is building from parent groups who feel, as Variety explains, that the current R "is too broad,
encompassing everything from a few swear words or brief flashes of nudity to repeated scenes of stomach-churning mutilation and
disembowelments." Hollywood is listening, but doesn't want to shove hard-R titles into NC-17 because exhibitors shun films in that ultimate category
almost completely and Blockbuster won't stock them at all. My suggestion: Rather than complicate the system with a sixth rating, keep the hard-R
material within R, and move soft-R material down into a broadened PG-13. The MPAA's rating guide already uses 306 words to describe PG-13
versus a mere 65 words to describe R. I say add another hundred words of fork-tongued bureaucratese to PG-13 and call it a day. (The illustration
is facetious, not a serious proposal.)
Will the pink Zune become the next collector's item? Apparently Microsoft gave 100 of them as gifts to the development team and sent another 100 into the holiday shopping mêlée to titillate consumers. Inevitably, one of the latter has ended up on Ebay. The pink Zune has inspired curiously heated commentary from folks who seem to have, um, issues with the color. Then again, Apple didn't catch hell for the pink iPod nano so maybe the real bias is merely garden-variety anti-Microsoftianism. I think the worst Microsoft can be accused of is me-too-ing. After all, in addition to the pink nano, there are many pink cell phones from LG, Motorola, Nokia, and Samsung. Pink just might be the new black.
My favorite LP-hunting story takes place in a Lower Manhattan store sometime in the 1980s. For several years I had been looking for The Compleat Dancing Master, a compilation of English Morris dance tunes charmingly mingled with spoken-word material. The only copy I'd ever seen was an unsealed one and I wanted a virgin sealed copy. So there I was in this record store, when a guy walked in and asked the manager if the very album I was seeking was in stock. The manager said yes and I went into a collector's frenzy. I had one advantage over the competing shopper--I knew what the jacket looked like, with its distinctive graphics against a hunter-green background. I began scanning the tops of the rows of LPs, looking for a slim stripe of hunter green. It took me less than a minute to find my prize, a sealed copy with a price sticker that read $2.49 (a lot less than online prices today). As I took it to the cashier, I made no attempt to lock eyes with my vanquished rival. Actually, I was half triumphant for my accomplishment and half embarrassed for my greed, if the truth be known. But I still remember that day whenever I see that hunter-green spine on my shelves. Perhaps we live in a better world now, a world where shoppers needn't compete for collectibles because downloads can reach vast numbers of people if the artist is lucky. But this item remains hard to find in any form--and downloads are never this much fun.
To hear the music industry talk, you'd think its sinking profits were entirely the result of little criminals downloading copyrighted material and going hee-hee-hee. A thousand adults beg to differ. Polled by Ipsos on behalf of Rolling Stone and the Associated Press, they attribute record-company woes to: illegal downloads (33 percent), competing forms of entertainment (29 percent), music getting worse (21 percent), and too-costly CDs (13 percent). In other words, fans say two-thirds of the industry's problems stem from market forces. At least three-quarters buy CDs at least occasionally, and the vast majority don't download anything, either legally or illegally. Among those who do download, 80 percent regard illicit peer-to-peer sharing as tantamount to stealing, though only 38 percent care. The most common way of hearing about new music is not the Internet (4 percent) but FM radio (55 percent). Click the external link for full poll results.
Today MusicGremlin started selling the first player to download without a PC and The Wall Street Journal has got hold of it. (We all can't be Walter Mossberg and Katherine Boehret.) The Gremlin downloads via wi-fi for 99 cents per song. You can also use a PC but it must be a Windows PC. For music sharing, it can even beam music from player to player, as long as both parties subscribe to MusicGremlin Direct for $14.99/month. The WSJ does describe a few DRM limitations: "you can't share certain kinds of songs, including legally obtained MP3 files that you transfer to the Gremlin from your computer." Also, while the player downloads from T-Mobile hotpots, it can't do some forms of PC-enabled wi-fi-ing. The player has a two-inch LCD, 8GB capacity, and sells for $299 from musicgremlin.com.
Looking for a way to get free music without being attacked by the Recording Industry Antichrist of America? Napster will keep you out of court with its "Free Download of the Day," which began last week. Each day will feature a different track, with initial sponsorship from Intel, which will push its Viiv technology for the next three months. Today's featured artists: Airpushers, with MoZella. The codec is good old DRM-free MP3 and tracks posted to the Napster Free Downloads page—gosh, how I love the sound of that—will remain up for a week. So plan at least one day a week to visit Napster and check out the free goodies. Oh, there's one catch: You'll have to register to get your free downloads and provide an email addresss. But you can opt out of emailings and needn't supply a credit-card number. Napster, for those who were literally born yesterday, was once the nexus of P2P file sharing on the net but has been reborn as a music-industry-sanctioned paid download service.