Columbia House Shutting Down for Good

Columbia House logoAdd this to the, “I had no idea that was even still around” file. Mail-order media company Columbia House is finally shutting down for good. I guess this is another win for digital media and another loss for lovers of physical media. I’m also guessing that a person’s familiarity with Columbia House and its ubiquitous “12 Records or Tapes for $1.00” will have a direct connection to that person’s age. Regardless, Columbia House billed itself as a “music club.” Customers would get reeled in by an initial offer that seemed too good to be true. From there, they’d be obligated to remain a member of the club for a couple years. During that period, they were required to buy a certain number of albums in order to fulfill their obligation to the club. Alternatively, they could just let Columbia House mail them one album per month, chosen by Columbia House, based on its understanding of that customer’s music preferences. If customers were happy with Columbia House’s monthly selections, they could then mail back a voucher with payment enclosed. If they didn’t want the record/tape/CD Columbia House chose, they could write “Return to Sender” on the cardboard mailer and return it to the company’s Terre Haute, IN processing center.

Considering the proliferation of monthly subscription services now dominating the Internet, Columbia House was arguably ahead of its time. Of course, this business model leads to some consternation among consumers, as it’s really predicated on getting them to sign up once and then forget about those monthly charges as they rack up. In its time, I knew plenty of people who’d signed up for Columbia House and they’d always be frustrated when that next piece of media came in the mail and they had to decide what to do with it.

Columbia House was best known for its role as a music seller. But over the years, it had also gotten into a  similar monthly service for DVD’s. And it was that iconic music division that went first, having been shuttered in 2010. The company managed to hang on for another five years in the movie/TV show selling business. But the increased adoption of digital audio and video streaming ultimately sent Columbia House’s parent company into bankruptcy. Looks like it’s time to say goodbye to another relic of the pre-digital era.

This Is My Jam is (sorta) Shutting Down

This Is My Jam logoMusic discovery and social sharing site This Is My Jam is shutting down. But the site won’t completely disappear from the Internet. From an e-mail sent today to This Is My Jam users:

Well, this is a tough one to send. After four years, more than two million jams, and assessing many options, we’ve decided to archive Jam in September.

And:

Instead of going offline, the site will become a read-only archive of all the music shared between 2011–2015. So no posting, but you’ll be able to browse profiles, play jams, and of course download all your data!

The developers behind This Is My Jam explained their reasoning for this decision in-depth on their blog. It’s pretty simple, really. They found that running This Is My Jam was fun but that it didn’t really have anything else to do or anywhere else to go.

I’ll admit that I hadn’t used the site myself in well over a year. It’s a cool concept, as it forces users to share one song they’re enjoying in the moment, as opposed to a playlist or an album. This single-track focus is a good idea in today’s attention-deprived world. This Is My Jam features all of the usual social following/sharing features, making it easy to find and connect with others that carry like-minded musical tastes. But the interface is kinda wonky and it’s only able to pull tracks from sources that don’t carry DRM. So, it’s library is limited. Still, the idea has some merit. Perhaps another group of code-savvy music fans will build a better system that’ll pick up where This Is My Jam left off.

Apple Announces Apple Music at WWDC 2015

After months of speculation following their acquisition of Beats, Apple has announced its own streaming music service.

1433792824-apple-musicAt yesterday’s WWDC keynote, Eddy Cue (Apple’s VP of Internet Software and Services) introduced Apple Music, “a revolutionary streaming service” that gives users access to a collection of over 30 million songs right from their iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac, or Android phone. Users can also access their ripped CDs and previous iTunes purchases.

In addition to creating their own playlists, users have access to a variety of curated playlists from noted entertainment personalities. Apple has hired an impressive team of DJs, musicians, and other experts in the field to curate exclusive playlists to fit any mood, genre, or situation. In addition to human curation, you can explore Apple Music using Siri. Ask anything, from “play me songs by The Cure” to “play the greatest hits of 1993”.

Apple also launched Beats 1, a 24/7 live music radio station broadcast to over 100 countries, with programming by DJ Zane Lowe in Los Angeles, Ebro Darden in New York, and Julie Adenuga in London. In addition to a curated selection of songs, Beats 1 will offer exclusive interviews, guest stars, and news on the latest and greatest in music and music culture.

Apple Music Radio, a new and improved version of iTunes Radio, allows users to create custom stations based on their favorite songs or artists to discover other tunes that fit their taste. And in other news that’s sure to delight music lovers, with membership there is no limit to how many songs you can skip– yay!

In a move that’s somewhat surprising given the failure of 2010’s iTunes Ping, Apple is launching a new social network feature called iTunes Connect. With Connect, artists can share lyrics, photos, videos, and exclusive sneak peaks with their fans. Fans can follow their favorite artists, comment and like posts, and share content with friends via iMessage, Facebook, Twitter, and email.

Apple Music launches on June 30 in over 100 countries. Users can try it out with a free 3-month trial, after which the service is $9.99/month, making it an attractive competitor to the equally-priced Spotify. Users can also opt for a family plan, which gives access to up to 6 family members (iCloud Family Sharing required) for $14.99/month.

The Most Popular Musical Keys according to Spotify

Spotify logoThere are many complaints about digital music. Some say its audio quality doesn’t measure up to analog sources like vinyl records. Others contend that ever-expanding digital divide has been causing the once thriving music industry to eat itself, leaving many artists out in the cold. For better or worse, music has become more and more digitized in recent years. Seems like it was only yesterday that Spotify was making a splash with its U.S. launch. Since then, a number of services have popped up to challenge its dominance in the space. But Spotify is still holding strong as a favored music consumption platform.

Spotify has over 30 million songs in its catalog. One good thing about having all of those songs in one place is it creates large data sets that can then be scrutinized to find specific patterns. In this case, one industrious analyst surveyed all of the songs that the service has to offer to see which musical keys are used most frequently. Here’s a rundown of the top ten of the 24 total keys:

  • G Major – 10.7%
  • C Major – 10.2%
  • D Major – 8.7%
  • A Major – 6.1%
  • C# Major – 6.1%
  • F Major – 5.3%
  • A minor – 4.8%
  • G# Major – 4.3%
  • E minor – 4.2%
  • B minor – 4.2%

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Line 6 brings Amplifi Remote app to Apple Watch

Line 6 logoLine 6 is a musical instrument and audio equipment manufacturer that’s been a real industry innovator for nearly two decades. I bought my first Line 6 guitar amp back in 2001 and have been hooked on the company’s products ever since. At this point, it’d be a neck-and-neck battle between Line 6 and Apple as far as which company has made a bigger dent in my overall net worth.

One thing that Line 6 has done recently that’s really intriguing is the development of “remote” apps that work wirelessly with its various products. The first of these connected-app lines is the Amplifi guitar amp/smart speaker system.  Amplifi was designed to bridge the gap between practicing at home and jamming with other musicians. At home, the Amplifi could be used as a speaker for entertainment systems. At the rehearsal space, Amplifi also works as a full-power electric guitar amp.

Amplifi is also the first Line 6 product to use a remote app to control different features of the device. The app originally launched for Android and iOS, running both on iPhone and iPad. Now, Line 6 has brought its Amplifi Remote app to Apple Watch:

The new AMPLIFi Remote v2.11 update enables guitar players to control and access guitar tones via Apple Watch. Guitarists can now access tones, control levels, search the Line 6 Tone Cloud, and use the tuner, right from their wrist. AMPLIFi Remote works with the entire AMPLIFi family, and provides guitarists with unprecedented control over every aspect of their guitar tone and effects.

Amplifi Remote features such as Tuner, MyTones and master/instrument level controls will be accessibly directly on the Apple Watch version of the app. Users will also be able to do a “dictation search” of Line 6’s Tone Cloud service, which will allow them to use vocal requests to search thru guitar tones saved to Line 6’s cloud service. Tones can then be quickly loaded onto an Amplifi device for immediate use.

It’s great to see Line 6’s continued development of things like the Amplifi Remote App. The company has also started rolling out other products that work with similar apps. I’m definitely excited to see what else Line 6 comes up with this year.

Sennheiser Headphones at Gadget Show Live

Sennheiser_aiAt Gadget Show Live, I had the chance to chat with Michael from Sennheiser about their current headphone range including the Urbanites and the latest iteration in their classic Momentum series. The second generation Momentum M2 maintains the original’s high fidelity while improving the headphones’ comfort. The Momentum Wireless is ideal for the traveller with Sennheiser’s active noise-cancellation technology, NoiseGard, and the AptX codec for high definition wireless transmission.

Having previously reviewed the Momentum On-Ears and being extremely impressed with the audio, I imagine the over-ear version is even better.

Momentum M2

 

 

Line 6 Releases new G70 Digital Wireless System

Line 6 logoAs a performing musician, it can be a real drag to have to deal with an instrument cable hanging off behind you on stage. You never know for sure if that cord is going to get tangled up in a weird way, potentially damaging your gear (or maybe even you!). Also, cables can be limiting in terms of mobility. Because sometimes, you just want to get out into the crowd and get up close with your audience during a show. Fortunately, modern music makers have access to wireless transmitters that can fix both of these problems. And audio equipment/musical instrument manufacturer Line 6 has just released the most advanced guitar wireless system ever, the Relay G70.

The G70 supports multiple transmitters so musicians can instantly switch between instruments. Each transmitter features a locking 1/4” input that allows guitarists to plug right in without requiring any special cables or adapters. User-programmable presets on the receiver enable performers to control each instrument’s signal routing, levels and more, with the single press of a footswitch. For example, guitarists can route an electric guitar to an amp via one of two assignable 1/4″ outputs, and an acoustic guitar to the PA system through the assignable XLR output. A dedicated always-on 1/4″ tuner output is also provided, in addition to a built-in tuner. And to preserve battery life in multi-instrument setups, the new intelligent sleep mode allows you to leave all your transmitters on with minimal battery drain while connected to the instruments you’re not actively playing.

Relay G70 provides the lowest latency of any digital wireless system, coming in at under 1.5ms. A custom-designed radio with four calibrated internal antennas delivers a lossless 24-bit digital signal and a wide dynamic range of over 120dB. The G70 also never compresses the signal, providing guitarists with the purest possible audio quality. Performers will enjoy 8+ hours of battery life with standard AA batteries, plus up to 70 hours of standby time thanks to the intelligent sleep mode. The Relay system features a rugged but familiar stompbox-style form factor that integrates easily with an existing guitar pedalboard.

Relay G70 is available now for purchase from most audio gear/musical instrument vendors. One receiver and transmitter retails for $699.99 and additional Relay TB516G transmitters are priced at $279.99 each.

Bose Soundlink Color Bluetooth Speaker Review

bose soundlink colorI’ve been playing around with the Bose Soundlink Color Bluetooth Speaker and, truth be told, I think I’m in love.

The Soundlink Color packs an incredible punch despite its compact design. It weighs only 1.25 pounds, making it the perfect audio solution for travel and everyday use. The upright, rounded design allows for crisp, clear sound that projects throughout the room. While it doesn’t beat the quality of higher-grade professional speakers, the Soundlink Color is perfect for the average music lover, with exceptional sound quality considering that it connects via Bluetooth.

Pairing your smartphone, tablet, or computer with the Soundlink Color couldn’t be easier. Just turn on the speaker and it will begin searching for nearby Bluetooth devices within a 30-foot range. When it pops up as an available connection on your device, just hit connect and you’re good to go. The speaker will guide you through the process with voice prompts so you’ll be connected in no time. The Soundlink Color can connect to up to two Bluetooth devices at a time, so you can easily switch between different sources of audio. In addition, the speaker remembers the last eight devices it’s been paired with to make connecting even easier.

The Soundlink Color’s rechargable lithium ion battery boasts an impressive 8-hour battery life, so you’ll get plenty of listening time before its time to charge up. This makes it the perfect choice for camping, traveling, or casual listening wherever you are. You can charge the speaker using the included wall adapter or via USB.

True to its name, the Soundlink Color comes in an assortment of colors: red, mint, blue, white, and black. I bought the black model, and it is quite attractive. One of the first things I noticed when trying it out is just how sturdy this little speaker is– you can feel the durability. The durable rubber casing protects it against dust, dirt, and damage, without compromising on style or performance.

You can purchase the Soundlink Color for $129.95 on the Bose website or at an electronics retailer near you.

IK Multimedia’s iRig 2 is Here for On-The-Go Music Production

iRig 2One of the more remarkable developments that’s happened in the post-iOS world is the rise of hardware and software that allows an iPad or iPhone user to create high-quality multitrack audio. One of the pioneers in this mobile recording technology is IK Multimedia. The company kicked things off with its simple but effective iRig, an adapter that connected to an iOS device’s headphone port and allowed users to plug in instruments like guitars and then use those instruments to interact with a wide range of apps.

Now IK Multimedia has upped the game with the release of its iRig 2. It improves on its predecessor by providing better sound quality and more universal compatibility. It does this while maintaining the convenience and ease-of-use that have made it a staple piece of gear for many musicians.

Like the first iRig, the new iRig 2 plugs directly into the headphone jack input of a mobile device. It lets musicians send an instrument signal to apps, such as IK’s AmpliTube, while also providing on-board output for real-time monitoring. Unlike the original iRig, the new model comes with a built-in gain control. This means that it can be customized to always provide the best sound, no matter what type of guitar, bass or line-level instrument or device is used.

[Read more…]

Creative Sound Blaster E1 Portable Amplifier Review

Creative Logo

Creative products always induce a little nostalgia with me as the Creative Sound Blaster Pro was the first ever upgrade that I bought for my PC. Looking back from today and the state of digital audio, it’s hard to imagine that most PCs only went “beep” back in the late 1980s and early 90s. Once I’d installed the SB Pro, I had glorious multichannel stereo sound, and incredibly, Wing Commander II had speech. Look it up kids.

Creative E1 Box

Returning to the 21st century, on review here is the Creative Sound Blaster E1 Portable Headphone Amplifier, a battery-powered amplifier supporting high impedance headphones, combined with a USB DAC sound card. In other words the E1 lets you used studio-quality 600 ohm headphones with smartphones, tablets, laptops or desktops. Pretty much anything with a 3.5 mm socket or a USB port and it works fine with lower impedance headphones, so let’s take a look.

What’s in the box? Simply, everything that you need to get going in the scenarios outlined above. There’s the E1 amplifier itself plus two bright red cables; a 4 pole (TRRS) 3.5 mm jack audio lead and a USB to micro-USB cable. The first cable is needed for tablets and smartphone listening and the second when using the E1 as a sound card (DAC). Bring your own headphones though.

Creative Sound Blaster E1

There’s a hint of red detailing on the E1 too but you have to look pretty hard to see it. Of course, there’s assorted instructions, warranty and disposal leaflets too.

Creative Sound Blaster E1

Glancing over the amplifier itself, the E1 is a lightweight plastic unit with a clothing or belt clip on the back. One end takes the music audio inputs, either digital via micro-USB or analogue through a 3.5 mm audio socket. The other end has the two 3.5 mm audio sockets, one for a set of headphones and one for a microphone or second set of ‘phones. On the side, there’s a power switch, a volume slider, a multi-function button and a small LED.

Creative Sound Blaster E1

Enough of what it looks like….what does it sound like? Pretty good actually. I used the E1 in both configurations, first taking an input from a smartphone or tablet and in this instance I was using a Nexus 9 tablet and a OnePlus One smartphone, both with high bit rate mp3s and Spotify. I’m not a total audio geek, so I don’t actually have any high impedance headphones so the testing was done using Sennheiser earbuds and recent edition 414 headphones (the ones with the yellow earpads).

Listening to the E1, there’s no dramatic difference from the source but it does tend to ameliorate the worst aspects of compressed digital audio, reducing the high frequency tinniness and giving it a slightly warmer feel. It particularly worked well with Spotify and other low-bit music sources, smoothing out the treble.

If worn conveniently, the E1 has a built-in microphone to enable hands-free calling. Call comes in, press the multi-function button, take the call. Callers reported that they could hear me well as long as the E1 was close. Clipped to my shirt was fine.

Using the E1 as a sound card is simply a case of plugging in the E1 to a spare USB port via the red cable. I tested with a Windows 8.1 Toshiba laptop, an 8.1 HP tablet via a dock and a Samsung Chromebook, and in all cases it worked out of the box. In this configuration, the presentation of the sound was good and generally superior to the audio provided by the laptop or tablet, especially when listening to Spotify.

Generally, background hiss was kept to a minimum and was only noticeable in the earbuds when I went looking for it, e.g. by putting the source volume down low and increasing the volume on the E1. With the source volume at a normal level there’s no problem and is unlikely to be noticeable with on-ear headphones.

In case anyone is wondering, it’s not possible to use the E1 as a mixer with two sources. Plugging in a 3.5 mm audio jack disconnects the micro-USB input. Sorry.

The E1 works well out of the box, but where it delivers in spades is with the full driver and app package which is downloaded from Creative’s web site. Once installed the software gives tons of extra controls over the E1, in particular allowing the audio response to be customised.

SB Studio

One of the best features is the equaliser which adjusts the frequency response. There are a bunch of presets with the usual suspects from classical to pop and rock, and its also customisable to personal preference. I liked this.

SB Studio

Overall, the E1 portable amplifier does what sets out to do, making compressed audio sound better, whether from an analogue 3.5 mm source or a digital USB connection. The extensive range of features from hands-free calling to audio equalisation is impressive and for those people who live in their headphones, it’s worth considering. The RRP is £39.95 in the UK or $49.99 in the USA.

Thanks to Creative for the loan of the review unit.