Thorax Concrete Hifi Unit

Concrete has always been a popular product, but it’s not what you think of for display purposes – marble and solid wood come more readily to mind. Increasingly, designers are turning to this relatively cheap material with some very attractive polished concrete artifacts and recently I saw a lovely kitchen worktop in the material.

In this mode there is Thorax by Kompatibel Design, a modular hifi unit in concrete.

Thorax Concrete Hifi Unit from Kompatibel Design

Concrete is a good choice for a hifi unit, as the high density and consequent mass makes it less vulnerable to vibration. Of course this is only still an issue if you listen to vinyl records: if you’ve gone all digital, it’s not really a concern. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty impressive piece of furniture and while the aesthetics may not suit everyone, it certainly makes a statement.

The are three basic modules, “O”, “C” and “E” which can be joined to make the desired configuration. The picture above shows and “OEO” config and there are more shots on the website. In a nice touch, the concrete can be coloured to match a particular decor.

Price on application. Promotional video below.

(My German isn’t what it should be so apologies for any mistakes in translation.)

Do We Still Need to Own Music?

I own a lot of music.  Well, the real truth is that it’s mine and that of my wife and kids, but all told it adds up to just over 95 GB.  The music collection started off with albums and cassettes when I was a kid, but later on those were all replaced by CD, and I traded in the albums, with the exception of a few rare bootlegs and imports that are sitting in a storage room collecting dust.  Later still, the CD’s were ripped to MP3 and also traded in and, since then, all purchases of music have been of the digital persuasion.  Time, and formats, march on.

Today all of our music resides on an external hard drive hooked to a home theater PC and backed up by CrashPlan and Google Music.  I use an Android smartphone as my MP3 Player, but it doesn’t actually have any music stored on it.  Every song we own can be streamed by the Google Music player but, the truth is, I almost never use it.  I work from home and I listen to something almost continuously but, the music we own just isn’t a part of my day because it just doesn’t command the importance it did before the digital era.

These days I listen to a lot of podcasts and, for that, I use Beyond Pod, but I also still listen to a lot of music.  I pay for a subscription to Pandora One and I have used many of my favorite artists to create stations so that I don’t need to scroll through that massive collection to find them – they just pop up and play, along with the music of other related artists.  It’s better this way.  Sure, I still bookmark a really good song thinking maybe I will buy it later, but honestly…I don’t.

Every once in a while the mood strikes me to hear a particular song but, for that, there are an untold number of sources, including Spotify, Grooveshark, YouTube, etc.  There are many others, but those three alone can provide almost any song you can imagine, even the most obscure tunes from your youth are there.

So, the question is, do we really still need to own music?  With the ability to play almost anything, anytime and create streaming stations that are tailored to our tastes, do we still have the need to buy songs, even in a digital format?  I may still be in the minority, but my answer is a resounding no.  The world is moving on and there are now better, more efficient ways.

Image: Player of Vinyl Disks by BigStock

Sharkfin Self-Molding Earbuds

Custom-fit earbuds and headphones can be scarily expensive because the price often includes high quality sound drivers as well as the custom moulding. Advanced MP3 Players have come up with a product that solves this problem by adding a molding to already-owned earbuds – the Sharkfin Self-Molding Earbuds.

Sharkfin Self-Molding Earbuds Retail Pack

Inside the somewhat Spock-esque package are two small pots of self-molding silicone that when mixed together will set in about 5 mins. There’s a choice of two colours at the time of purchase, white or gray.

Silicone Pots

The idea is that you mix the silicone together, wrap a small roll of the material round the outer part of the earbuds, pop the earbuds in your ears, then knead the silicone into the auricle (or pinna) of the ear, before leaving to set. Here’s a video of the process.

Once set, you have a pair of earbuds or headphones customised perfectly to your ears that stay in place even when you are working out.

Naturally in the interests of research for the readers of GNC, I used the Sharkfins on a pair of Sennheiser earbuds. There’s sufficient molding material to do three fittings, so if the first one doesn’t work out, you get a second chance….which you’ll probably need. On the first one, I didn’t get sufficient coverage on the earbud itself and the molding came away from the earbud. The second time I was more successful.

Here’s a picture of my earbuds with the molding in place. I admit it’s not that pretty and it would have looked better with white earbuds but they definitely stay in your ear. I never knew my ear was so wiggly!

Ear Moldings

Another tip from the fitting would be to keep them in your ears a bit longer that the suggested 5 mins. The silicone was still quite soft at 5 mins, but had firmed up nicely by 10 mins. Leave for a few hours to make sure it really sets.

Any downsides? Depends on your point of view….I think I might be too self-conscious to wear these in any circumstances other than at the gym or running. Putting in the expanded earbuds takes a little getting used to, but once they were in, they were in. Finally, the silicone didn’t stick to my earbuds which meant that the moulding was easy to remove when I wanted my earbuds back to normal. That may be a positive or negative.

The Sharkfin Self-Molding Earbuds cost just £4.99, which I think is a good deal. If you try them out and don’t like them, you aren’t out a lot of money. Similarly, if you break your headphones at the gym, it’s not going to cost much to replace them.

Overall, a good idea at an excellent price that suffers aesthetically but if function wins out over form, these are for you.

Disclosure – the Sharkfin Self-Molding Earbuds were provided free of charge by Advanced MP3 Players.

TuneIn Radio App Broadcasting Outside Lands Music Festival All Weekend

iPhone Screenshot 1

TuneIn Radio, the popular app for iOS and Android is streaming the big Outside Lands Music Festival live from San Francisco all of this weekend.  The app is free from the Google Play Store and $0.99 from the iTunes Store.  TuneIn Radio was also available briefly from the new Windows Store on Windows 8 before being pulled for unknown reasons (I was lucky enough to grab a copy), although unsubstantiated rumors say it will be a Windows RT-only app in the future.

As for Outside Lands, the festival kicked off yesterday and runs through tomorrow.  The lineup includes Metallica, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, the Foo Fighters. Norah Jones, Of Monsters and Men, and many other artists.  The show gets under way at noon and runs into the night each day so there is still plenty to hear.  You can see the schedule of performances as well as listen to replays of acts you may have missed by visiting the festival’s web site.

 

BTR006 Bluetooth Audio Receiver Review

BTR006 Bluetooth ReceiverA2DP Bluetooth rarely comes as standard in cars except on prestige marques, but most new vehicles at least come with a 3.5 mm audio socket on the audio system for plugging-in mp3 players. If you want a quick and cheap way to upgrade the car’s audio to Bluetooth, take a look at he BTR006 Bluetooth Stereo Receiver.

The BTR006 is a small plastic rectangle just a few millimetres deep (45 x 33 x 8 mm). It has only one button for on/off, an activity LED, a DC power socket and a 3.5 mm audio jack on the end of short lead. It’s a doddle to use: charge up, connect the jack into the 3.5 mm audio socket, pair with smartphone and starting playing music from your smartphone through the audio system. Simples!

Audio quality is perfectly acceptable given that it’s Bluetooth anyway and the receiver successfully paired with every device I tried it with. The receiver supports both Bluetooth 2.1 with both A2DP and AVRCP.

There’s an internal battery that’s good for 12 hours according to the spec, which is probably about right based on my experience. I get a whole week of podcast listening which means somewhere over ten hours based on weekly commute and other travel. Contrary to some reviews, it is possible to charge and use the device at the same time. The confusion arises as connecting the charger does turn off the BTR006, but turning it back on again lets the receiver charge and play at the same time.

One of the best features is that it automatically powers off when the Bluetooth connection is lost for a few minutes so the battery doesn’t run down when the car is parked and not in use. Obviously the receiver has to be turned back on, but that takes seconds to do.

BTR006 Installed in Car with Velcro

Unless there’s a convenient nook or cranny in your vehicle, the BTR006 will hang down from the audio socket, especially as the lead isn’t very long. Of course, the easy solution is to use Velcro, with a small strip on the back of the BTR006 with a matching strip on the dashboard. The BTR006 can be easily detached for charging at home or in the office via the supplied USB charging cable. Here’s what it looks like installed in my car….yes, I probably should have cleaned the dash before taking the picture.

Note that the BTR006 does not have a microphone so it’s not possible to use it for hands-free calls but regardless this is an excellent buy to play music through your car’s audio system via Bluetooth.

Available from Amazon for around £15 or $28 – just search for BTR006. Disclaimer – I bought this device personally.

FiiO E6 Headphone Amplifier Review

The FiiO E6 is small headphone amplifier designed to improve the listening experience from personal music players and smartphones. With a couple of equalisation settings, the E6 can enhance the bass range to counteract the high-frequency tendencies of digital compression.

FiiO E6 in Retail Packaging

In the box, there’s the E6 itself, two clips for attaching the E6 to clothing, a USB charging cable and two stereo 3.5 mm cables, 12 cm and 75 cm. For hooking up iDevices, an Apple connector-to-3.5 mm jack is available to buy. There’s also a small instruction manual.

FiiO E6 Contents

The E6 is 40 x 40 x 9 mm, approximately the size of an Apple Nano. The main features are a mini-USB port for charging, two 3.5 mm stereo sockets (one in, one out), a volume rocker and an on/off slider. There’s a small LED on one side, but until the E6 is powered up, you might mistake it for a reset hole.

The E6 is quite light as the case is plastic. Coincidentally, the finish was a good match for from my Sansa  player and could easily be mistaken as a complementary accessory, but clearly that feature depends on your particular mp3 player!

Sliding up the on/off switch turns the E6 on, with a blue LED illuminating the silver corner. The volume rocker switch turns the volume up and down and as this is an amplifier, it’s possible to exceed the volume of the original device, so mind your ears. The battery life is given as around 10 hours which would be in line with my experience of the E6.

On the back, there’s a small pinhole LED showing the equalisation – off, red, blue and lilac. Each further upwards push of the on/off switch steps through to next setting. According to the manual, the four settings are equalisation off, 3 dB boost, 6 dB boost and -3 dB boost, i.e. reduction, but the effects are more subtle than simply amping up or amping down.

Generally, the equalisation boosted the bass while reducing the treble and while my personal preference was for the first setting, both were very acceptable. The equalisation was done well, in that while the balance of frequencies was being adjusted, the clarity was still there. Although reduced in significance, the higher frequencies weren’t muddied and the overall impression was of greater warmth.

A small amount of background hiss was only noticeable between tracks when using the earbuds in quiet surroundings. When using over-the-ear headphones, it couldn’t be detected.

Currently priced at £18.99 from Advanced MP3 Players, the E6 is an inexpensive personal amplifier. It might have a budget price but the E6 punches above its weight, counteracting the tinniness of digitally compressed sound with depth and feeling.

Most of testing was carried out with Sennheiser CX-300 earbuds, Sennheiser eH1430 headphones and a Sansa e250 mp3 player.

Thanks to Advanced MP3 Players for the loan of the E6.

Music Service MOG Moves Down Under

Music service MOG, which is quickly becoming a real competitor for Rdio, Spotify, Last.FM and others, has finally launched their service in the land down under.  Australian music fans will now have access to all of the MOG library and, if they have Telstra, they get a nice bonus thrown in.

This is MOG’s first move outside of the U.S. and they have partnered with Telstra for the occasion.  That’s important because Australia has some pretty serious bandwidth caps in place.  The partnership allows them to become the “exclusive provider of on-demand subscription music”.  More important was this little tidbit included in the announcement – “Though we’re available to all Australian listeners, Telstra customers enjoy unmetered streaming and downloading, meaning music played from mobile devices will not affect user data plans.”

MOG will offer all Ausies a free two week trial.  After that, users can enjoy unlimited ad-free service for $6.99 per month for basic service and $11.99 for the premium plan which adds mobile support for iOS, Android and Sonos.

Amazon Cloud Player App Finally Available for iOS

Amazon Cloud Player has been available for Android devices since it launched, but today Amazon announced that the music app is now available for iPad and iPhone.  That’s great news for iOS owners, especially given that the other big player in this field, Google Music, is also not available for Apple’s mobile platform.

Amazon Cloud Player offers 5 GB of free storage for your MP3’s.  Customers can not only store the music they purchase through the Amazon MP3 Store, but also upload their existing music to the service.  Additional storage is available at tiered rates, which are pretty reasonably priced.  New users can sign up for the service over at Amazon.  The app is available now through the iTunes Store.  The app is free for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch and requires iOS 4.3 or higher.  Amazon Cloud Player is also available for Android and on the web.

iPhone and iPod touch

TEDxBelfast 2012

TEDxBelfastAt TEDxBelfast last night I was inspired by the stories of individuals who passionately believed in an idea and then made that idea a reality. From working with autistic children to building a new arts centre, these people all made a difference. Presented in Titanic Belfast in front of the replica of the famous staircase, it was an unforgettable evening.

Titanic Staircase

As with all TED conferences, the presentations will be posted on-line but that will take a week or two before they are ready. In  the meantime, these are the speakers, their stories and how they made a difference.

David Maxwell of Tyrone Timberframes presented his work with Habitat for Humanity in building highly energy-efficient homes that have no central heating. The significant cost of fossil fuel-based energy can be a big factor in poverty and these homes can save the inhabitants over £1000 per year.

Maureen Murphy, Director of Aurion Learning, grabbed attention with the headline that 70% of training was wasted and proposed an innovative way of providing effective training using the acronym ASSAULT. One of the best bits was that of story-based approach that hooked the learner and got them more emotionally involved.

Fransuer Makula grew up in the slums of Kenya but is now a teacher in a prestigious school in Northern Ireland. Describing the harsh reality of existence as a street child, where death is commonplace, he related how the children dared to dream big. In the midst of utter poverty, these children wanted to grow up as doctors, nurses and lawyers. Fransuer established “Jengana” to help orphans, street children and schools in West Kenya.

Colleen Hardwick, billed as an urban geographer and serial entrepreneur from Vancouver, laid out the loss of personal engagement in democracy. The statistics she presented on the fall of voter turnout over the past few decades were shocking. To counteract the anonymous global nature of the web, she’s developed PlaceSpeak, a community-based website that lets local people be authenticated as stakeholders in local issues without necessarily giving up that anonymity.

Next was an absolute gem…acoustic guitar duo Declan McKerr and Andy Toman, aka Gypsy’s Wish, serenaded TEDxBelfast, equipped with a brand-new George Lowden guitar. His guitars are world-famous with owners such as Eric Clapton and Mike Oldfield. Sublime.

Following a musical theme, Chris Blake, Principal Horn with the Ulster Orchestra, talked about the work he’d done with autistic children and the therapeutic value of music. The results were truly ground-breaking, increasing the evidence between autism and musicality.

Dr Nigel Hart took us all on a trip to the peaks and Mt Everest in particular in his talk on Mountains, Medicine and Mantras. Clearly a keen mountaineer, he combined his medical training with his passion to investigate the effects of hypoxia on humans at altitude. During his climb to the top of the world, he had to rescue another climber who had collapsed. Apt for many shared endeavours, his response to the famous climbing question was not, “Because it’s there” but rather, “It’s not the height or the distance, it’s the people you travel with.”

Anne McReynolds, CEO of the Belfast Metropolitan Arts Centre, had TEDxBelfast captivated by her struggle to get a world-class arts centre built in Belfast. Starting in 1996 and finally opening in 2012, it’s an amazing story of architects and artists (“good clients get good buildings”), buildings and space. If you want to build an arts centre, Anne should be the first person you talk to.

Colin Williams of Sixteen South tackled the “Can’t Do” attitude that has often afflicted Northern Ireland with a great story of “Can Do” success. It’s likely that you’ll never have heard of Sixteen South, a children’s TV production company but if you have kids under five you’ll have heard of Sesame Tree, Big City Park, Pajanimals, and Big & Small. Working with the BBC and The Jim Henson Company, Sixteen South produces these great TV programmes here in Northern Ireland. Fantastic.
Colin’s business plan was pretty clever too. “Do some good, make some money, have some fun.” Good advice for anyone.

Chris Horn completed the speaker line-up with his inspiration for Dublin’s Science Gallery, an exhibition space that takes a creative and artistic approach to the presentation of science and related issues. By taking the traditional remit of a science museum and combining it with the changing presentation of an art gallery, the Science Gallery is an innovation in itself that has proved tremendously successful. So much so that Google recently awarded the Science Gallery $1m to setup other Galleries around the world.

Overall, it was a great evening, with inspirational speakers in a fantastic setting. Thanks also to Davy Sims and Gary Burnett and Mark Finlay for organising #TEDxBelfast.

The Counting Crows Bring Their Music to BitTorrent

Underwater Sunshine (or what we did on our summer vacation)

The popular rock band Counting Crows are going BitTorrent.  The band has made four songs off of their latest release available for free download in an effort to attract new fans.  The album, titled Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation), was released last month and features15 tracks.  In a departure from their past, the Crows have made this CD a collection of all cover songs.

The BitTorrent release features not only the audio files, but also liner notes, and artwork from the album.  Frontman Adam Duritz, during an interview with Mashable,  said “I don’t know how I didn’t think of this earlier — it’s the most obvious thing in the world since BitTorrent has such a huge global reach.  It’s not just about getting music to the people who would buy it anyway — even though that is, of course, very good — the hardest thing to do is make new fans.”

Kudos to the Counting Crows for taking this route and seeing the benefits that many, or most, artists and labels seem to be clueless about.  Getting their music out there for people to hear is the first step towards gaining new avenues of revenue.  Some fans may elect to buy the CD’s, but even those who don’t will perhaps spend money on a concert ticket or, at the least, promote the band to other listeners.

This approach may seem like a no-brainer for established stars who already have fans looking for their material, but it is a bit tougher for the unknown artists who want to get noticed.  However, this may generate the publicity to get more bands to take this approach, and there are some great success stories from those who have taken the free approach early – just ask Jonathan Coulton or the guys from OK Go.