While reviewing the Onkyo TX-SR806 receiver ($1099) I did some to-ing and fro-ing with the THX and Audyssey people regarding THX Loudness Plus and Audyssey Dynamic EQ. These new loudness corrections operate in roughly the same territory--but in a different manner. Their common goal is to compensate for sonic losses that occur naturally at lower volume levels. As volume drops, the frequency response of human hearing changes. Loudness Plus and Dynamic EQ both tackle this problem by adjusting channel levels and frequency response. But beyond that, there are differences between them, and I asked the THX and Audyssey people to be specific about those differences. Here's what they said.
Jon Johansen strikes again. As a teen, the now 22-year-old Norwegian became notorious for hacking the CSS digital rights management associated with the DVD format. His latest project is to open up tightly guarded ecosystem of Apple's iPod and iTunes Store by hacking Apple's FairPlay DRM. To that end he's cofounded DoubleTwist Ventures with partner Monique Farantzos. They plan to license their technology to manufacturers and download services, as Farantzos explained to news.com, with two aims: "One is to enable other online stores to wrap their content with FairPlay so that it works on the iPod.... We also plan to allow competing devices play iTunes content." No doubt Apple will litigate fiercely to protect its highly profitable closed system. But the music industry, long uncomfortable with Apple's rigid pricing, has been praying for something like this to happen. And several European governments have been quietly or not so quietly demanding it.
21st Century Vinyl is better described by its subtitle: Michael Fremer's Practical Guide to Turntable Set-Up. The heart of the program is a series of segments in which Fremer turns three uncrated turntables into functional music machines. Along the way he encounters problems but keeps his cool. In so doing he sets a good example for 21st-century vinyl neophytes who are attracted to the musicality of vinyl but intimidated by the mystic art of getting a complex mechanical device up and running and sounding its very best.
Consumers are buying more DVDs this year—but are also buying fewer fresh movie titles. That's what the folks at NPD's VideoWatch are saying. Sales of new DVDs rose seven percent during the first quarter of 2006. However, only nine percent of consumers said they intended to buy DVDs of movies running in theaters during the first five months of 2006, down from 11 percent in the same period of 2005. Maybe Hollywood needs to make better films. Overall, says NPD, for the year ending in April 2006: "47 percent of all videos were rented, 30 percent were purchased from a store, 15 percent were from subscription services, eight percent from pay-per-view (PPV) or video-on-demand (VOD) services and one percent was downloaded directly from the Web."
The news that EMI will sell no-DRM downloads through iTunes couldn't have come at a better time. Music downloads are growing but not fast enough to offset sinking CD sales. Electronic libertarians assert that digital rights management is a big part of the problem, because it balkanizes the music-player world, preventing iTunes purchases from playing on non-iPods. Steve Jobs flew to London especially to join EMI in announcing that the big label's entire catalogue will become available in AAC, the iPod's favored file format, without DRM, and at 256 kilobits per second, which should provide higher quality than either MP3 at the same data rate or standard iTunes downloads at 128kbps. You'll have to pay a premium price of $1.29 per track. And if your music player doesn't do AAC, you're out of luck. However, EMI will cover those bases by selling through other download services in MP3 and WMA. For law-abiding music lovers, this is great news. Note, however, that this move is more a breakthrough in marketing than in law. EMI and Apple aren't saying you can copy anything anywhere. But it would be fair to interpret this as tacit recognition of reality--the beginning of the end of the criminalizing of fair use. It has been at least several months in the making, following the anti-DRM manifesto of Jobs and small-scale experimentation by EMI. No word on when the Beatles catalogue will become legally downloadable. Yet.
The new TiVo Series3 is HD-capable, CableCARD-savvy, and limited to "35 hours of HD goodness," note the folks at Engadget HD. And so a tutorial on the new
Engadget offshoot walks you through the process of upgrading the drive with lots of pictures (and some assistance from DealDataBase and TiVoCommunity). The
proccess is part physical, part typing into a character-based BIOS interface. Be warned that you'll need a TORX 10 screwdriver and there's some real danger from opening up any product with a power supply (so don't do it, our lawyers would no doubt advise). If you're not suicidal, or mechanically inclined, or the memory of DOS gives you nightmares, WeakKnees
will do the upgrade for you, replacing the 250GB TiVo drive with 750GB. But it doesn't hurt to watch, does it? Engadget HD has been running for a few months and worth regular visits.
By a 3-2 vote, the Federal Communications Commission's Republican majority voted yesterday to supplant local regulation of television delivery services with their own rules. The move is expected to speed the entry of Verizon, AT&T, and other telcos into the turf of cable and satellite providers. Congress had been about to enact legislation with new video franchising rules until the regime change of the November elections. Now Democrats like Reps. Ed Markey (D-MA, new chair of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet) and John Dingell (D-MI, new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee) are pledging to take a close look at the FCC action in 2007. Along with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, other local-government associations, and various media watchdogs, they question whether the FCC had the statutory authority to change the rules. FCC chair Kevin Martin says telco TV will increase competition and lower rates for consumers, pointing to his agency's 2005 study on cable rates, which showed they had increased 93 percent over the previous decade. Not so, says Harold Feld of the Media Access Project: "The other guy just gradually raises his price...rather than having the higher price come down to the competitor's level." Overshadowing the cost issue is the equal-access issue: Can the telcos be counted on to "build out" to every home in a community under the new rules, as the old framework of local franchising and regulation had required them to do? The telcos have their own good cop, bad cop routine going on this subject. There's your hot topic for the New Year.
Stepping up its anti-obscenity campaign, the Federal Communications Commission is asking broadcasters for tapes of live sporting events. Government employees are going to sift through them just to make sure an athlete, coach, or spectator hasn't spoken the f-word or some other weapon of mass corruption. This does not sit well with broadcasters who have added on-field mics and in-car cameras to give viewers more of a you-are-there feeling. "It looks like they want to end live broadcast TV," one anonymous TV executive told The Hollywood Reporter. The latest federal obscenity law imposes fines of as much as $325,000 per violation, a tenfold increase from the former law. It remains unclear how this would affect President Bush, who signed the anti-pottymouth law and then went off to a summit full of world leaders and uttered the s-word into an open mic.
A draft report circulating at the Federal Communications Commission claims Congress can regulate violent television content without violating the First Amendment. Interesting fact: Under the Constitution, it is the Supreme Court, not the FCC, that makes such judgments. According to chairperson Kevin Martin, "there is strong evidence that shows violent media can have an impact on children's behavior and there are some things that can be done about it." Sitting alongside Martin, a Republican, was ranking Democrat Michael Copps: "This is not a red state or a blue state issue," he said. Of the remaining three commissioners, one sides with Martin and Copps, and the other two haven't officially taken a position, giving the pro-censorship bloc a potential 3-2 majority. Even Tony Soprano may not be safe from these guys. Martin wants to exert influence on the cable and satellite networks as well. On the bright side, he wants to do it by giving consumers a chance to buy channels "a la carte," an idea the cable industry has long opposed.
If you wonder what the telcos will be like years from now, when they're raking in the cash from video services, get a load of the way they behaved last month. As soon as the Federal Communications Commission removed some regulatory charges from consumer DSL bills, BellSouth and Verizon quickly tried to add them back and pocket the cash. The deleted charges had gone into the Universal Service Fund, which was originally designed to subsidize phone service in rural areas, and later extended to nurture Internet access in schools. BellSouth DSL customers had paid $2.97 per month into the USF, while Verizon DSL customers had paid $1.25-2.83 (depending on speed of service), until the FCC reclassified DSL and eliminated the fees to give consumers a break. Thereupon BellSouth swiftly imposed a "regulatory cost recovery fee" of $2.97, while Verizon added a "supplier surcharge" of $1.20-2.70. This breathtakingly opportunistic pickpocketing of consumers, greasily interlarded with corporate doublespeak, so enraged FCC chair Kevin Martin that he instantly threatened to send official letters demanding an explanation. He didn't have to send them—BellSouth quickly backed off and Verizon followed a few days later. They've got a lot on their regulatory wish lists, with BellSouth awaiting approval for its absorption into AT&T, and all the telcos eagerly awaiting the replacement of municipal franchise agreements for video service with more relaxed federal and state regulation. If this is what they act like when they're on their best behavior, just imagine what they'll be like at their worst.
Soon to be announced in Congress is new legislation that would strip the fair-use rights of consumers to the bone. And maybe beyond. c|net's News.com got a look at the draft bill crafted by the Bush administration and Congress and it's not pretty. Under the Intellectual Property Protection Act of 2006, just trying to infringe a copyright would become a federal crime. Existing law that makes it illegal to distribute hardware or software that circumvent anti-copy systems would expand to punish anyone who makes, exports, imports, obtains control of, or possesses such tools. Wiretaps, forfeitures, and seizure of records—including server logs—are part of the package. My favorite part is the provision that would permit copyright prosecutions even in cases where the work is not registered with the U.S. copyright office. The existing DMCA has had some unintended consequences but its successor promises to be far worse. This bill isn't about mass piracy, which is amply covered under existing law (and prosecutions). It's about you. The bill will first surface in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property, chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), though the official sponsor will be James Sensenbrenner (R-WI, pictured), chair of the Judiciary Committee. Does someone on this list represent your congressional district?
Ford, General Motors, and Mazda will add iPod capability to their fall lineups. That will bring the iPod's automotive penetration to a mind-boggling 70 percent according to Apple. GM is adding the iPod link to all 56 models of car and truck. That doesn't mean it'll be free, though. GM will charge $160 plus installation. Even so, it's easy to imagine carmakers in a hypercompetitive "zero percent financing, cash back" environment offering free iPods as well as the link. The player will live in the glove compartment, where it will both play and charge. In other iPod news, regarding the hardware/software interoperability issue that's been simmering in Europe, Apple has responded to a challenge from Norway's consumer protection agency, whose spokesperson said: "Apple has shown a willingness for change and dialogue.... We remain at odds over the most important things." The freshest Apple news, which emerged just yesterday, is a new Mac Pro workstation. It's still not the killer HTPC Mac admirers (and others) have long awaited but who knows what Jobs may have on his to-do list.
This blog has a new name. What was formerly the Diablog has become From the Edge. The new name fits in more neatly with Maureen Jenson’s From the Top and Geoffrey Morrison’s From the Lab. It also signals a change in content. Starting this week, short news items will start appearing in this space several times a week. Now you’ll have an excuse to stop by more often. The news briefs will join the short reviews that have been appearing every third week. The longer, quirkier, dual-voiced Diablog commentaries, my labors of love, will continue at the rate of about one a month. So there you have the new format: news, reviews, and commentaries. Or as it says in the subhead, dispatches, demos, and diablogs. Please visit and comment often.
This is the 300th blog to be posted in this space. It won't be the last, but thanks to our spiffy redesign, my news stories will move from here to another part of the website. You'll find them under HT News, right below the Buyer's Guides, and you needn't even scroll down, because the section lies "above the fold," to borrow some old newspaper talk. I'll continue posting to HT News from Monday through Friday barring holidays, trade shows, and other predictable interruptions. And Darryl Wilkinson will continue to write news and product items in his always readable and enjoyable style. The two-voiced diablogs and reviews of small audio products will continue in this "From the Edge" blog and eventually I may find something equally self-indulgent to add to them. So please look for me in HT News on weekdays and check this space for non-news goodies every few weeks. Thanks for all your comments and encouragement.
Annoyed because that Rhapsody purchase won't work on your iPod? You'd love the new copyright law about to be enacted in France. Legal downloads would be required to operate on all devices, and consumers would be allowed to defeat DRM while making file conversions. Unauthorized downloads would still be illegal, carrying a file of 38 euros, and the penalties for selling illegal file-sharing software would be really stiff, at 300,000 euros or three years in jail. Prompted by France's need to bring itself into compliance with new EU copyright regulations, the law is getting attention because it's more unabashedly pro-consumer than bills being mulled in other EU nations. An earlier bill that would have legalized file sharing for a flat monthly fee has been dropped.