How to get better sounding music

We’ve come a long way from those first horrible sounding MP3s from the Napster era, but many of us don’t realize that our digital audio has room for improvement.  I’m not one to get all teary eyed nostalgic for CDs or even vinyl, but we’ve traded sound quality for convenience on our mobile phones and iPods.  Don’t get me wrong – I’ll gladly take it this way as it allows me to listen to music everywhere.  But I’ll definitely accept better…

In a nutshell, MP3 and Apple’s AAC format assume people can’t hear all the music so it FLAC audio codecdoesn’t need to keep it all (therefore its ‘lossy’), and they’re often used with lower quality settings to save space.  There are lossless formats like FLAC that keep CD quality, but then there are those that argue CDs aren’t good enough either.

Of course there is something better – High Definition Audio (HD Audio).  HD Audio is becoming more available, and not just for the Beethoven set.  Many artists like Daft Punk and Green Day are available in full HD glory from places like HDTracks.  HD Audio sounds amazing – even with modest gear (see below).  HD Audio uses more data (more bits and higher sampling rates: bigger music files) to better reproduce the music.  FLAC, which can also handle more data, looks to be the most popular format for HD Audio.

My current setup uses my computer with a Digital to Audio Converter (DAC) connected by Cambridge Audio DAC MagicPlusUSB.  A decent DAC will make any music source sound better (even MP3s), but it’s required for the bit rates that HD Audio uses.  My Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus is an affordable DAC and sounds great.  It can also be used with headphones so you don’t need a full stereo system.

My next step is to find an affordable and convenient way to enjoy HD Audio all around my home until the Apples of the world make it ubiquitous for us all.  You can use streamers like Roku, but they don’t allow for full HD Audio streaming.  Of course there is audiophile grade equipment available, but my goal is to get HD Audio streaming from network storage at a modest price point.  I’ll update with my progress, but in the meantime for those interested I recommend you try listening to your current music through a DAC for improved sound quality and test out a favourite album in glorious HD too.

How to mostly drop your landline

Landline telephoneWe were like many families as we still had a landline, but almost exclusively used our mobiles.  We wanted to cut the cord and save money, but there were still a few hold outs that called us on our home number.

We decided to cut our home phone service but with a safety net of not giving up our old number completely.  There are services that allow you to move your home number to an Internet phone service.  We went with Fongo as it seemed the right combination of free and decent user reviews.  They will set you up for a one time $25 fee, and voice mail, caller ID and calling to major centres in Canada is freeCalling elsewhere and long distance is very reasonable, and there are other features at low cost if wanted.  I set up our account on my smartphone, and set my account to ring simultaneously on my wife’s smartphone as well.  Boom – ‘home phone’ no matter where we are.  People use it to save money on mobile phone minutes as well.  (Note that it will use your mobile data when you”re not on Wi-Fi though.)

What about quality you may ask.  Call quality is about as good as you’d expect from an Internet phone service.  Its not crystal clear, but very acceptable for free!  Also sometimes the calls don’t ring out as long and the caller ID isn’t perfect, but again acceptable in my books.  I’ve been using it for a couple months and besides being free, I really like the features and flexibility of the Internet phone service.  We don’t get or make many calls on that number, but its still there for us.  If you’re thinking of cutting your landline home phone, it might just be the step you want.

Mini Review: Sound City – Directed by Dave Grohl

The Sound City documentary from Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) is engaging – even if you’re not a music nerd. The journey is built around the Sound City studio’s Neve mixing console Grohl is buying before the studio is demolished. But its also about the people who recorded great albums there including Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Rick Springfield, Nirvana, and many more. Its fascinating to see the ups and downs of the studio told through conversations with the artists.

When the console is moved, Grohl hammers out an album with his musician cohorts, including Sir Paul McCartney showing how easily its done (if you’re Paul McCartney). Although we’re huge music fans, we expected this would be a self-absorbed, dry affair. It turned out to be much about what makes us human. Not bad for a rock guy’s doc. The film and soundtrack, Sound City – Real to Reel, are well worth a watch and listen. The film is currently the movie of the week on iTunes for $0.99 rental if you want to check it out there.

Five More Fav Home Tech Trends for Vancouver

As shown in our Five Fav Home Tech Trends for Vancouver posting, there are so many great tech trends for Vancouver home owners.  We though we’d run through five more of the exciting trends:

WeMo Switch1) WeMo – WeMo from Belkin is a good first baby step to home automation. WeMo
currently has four options: Switch, Switch+Motion, Motion and Baby. We’d started with the WeMo Switch as it can be used to replace those cumbersome mechanical timers, plus you can use your smartphone to turn stuff on and off at a whim. They are easy to setup and use. If you have or are about to have a baby, the WeMo Baby monitor is definitely worth checking out as well.

AirPlay2) Wireless music systems – For Vancouverites with iPhones, iPads or Macs, we’re huge fans of Apple’s AirPlay products to distribute music and media wirelessly around the home. Other manufacturers are also supporting the AirPlay standard including Bowers & Wilkins, Altec Lansing and Denon – some real quality choices available. Sonos also has excellent music systems. Simpleer can help make sense of this for you and your home to get you rocking out (or chilling when required) at the touch of a button.

Network Cam3) Network Cameras – The quality of network cameras is going up and the price is coming down. For cameras to keep an eye on your baby at nap time, your vacation home or even your pets antics while your out, companies like D-Link and Linksys have some great options. If you’re looking for a convenient method to check and talk with who’s at the front door regardless of whether you’re home or not, the DoorBot Doorbell with build in network camera may fit your bill.

Ceiling Speakers4) Built in Speakers – We’re huge fans of using in-ceiling and in-wall speakers to integrate music stylishly into Vancouver homes. They’re also great to use with Apple’s AirPlay products and for stealth home theatre systems. There are tons of choices at all price points including Polk Audio and B&W. If you’re looking for something distinctive, then Bang & Olufsen’s new build in speakers might be for you. Either way, Simpleer can help find the right speaker for your ears, aesthetics and budget

Phone Finder Apps5) Phone Finder Apps – It seems like every Vancouverite has a smartphone and tablet. But what happens when they go missing? Have no worries, as Apple has Find iPhone and there is Find My Phone for Android. Apple’s app is compatible with iPhone, iPads, iPods and even MacBooks. You can make it play a loud ring to find your device or to erase it if you think its stolen. Find My Phone covers your Android devices. These apps are very handy to keep a tab on your loved ones too if they are open to that. These apps are very powerful for elder care to help guard their independence, while still offering support when needed. Just remember to install the app and set it up now before you need it later!

OK let’s make it six, as we couldn’t resist including Car2Go:

Car2Go6) Car2Go – The need for owning multiple cars or any car at all is shrinking in Vancouver. With most homes here, parking is also getting tight. There are times when you just need a car for a quick trip though. This is where car shares and micro rentals are handy and affordable. One or our favourites is Car2Go. They have cool Smart cars and smartphone apps to help you find the cars parked around the city. You need to sign up for a membership, but after that its scan your card, go, and park it – you only pay for the time when you’re actually using the car.


Five Fav Home Tech Trends for Vancouver

At Simpleer we’re obviously big fans of simple, useful home technology that fits for Vancouverites, and we get particularly excited when things get to the price point where you don’t have to be a Monty Moneybags to afford these luxuries.  With no further ado, here are our current favourites:

Simple, smart thermostat1) Nest thermostat – Who knew a programmable thermostat could be so cool?  This thermostat learns as you use it, so you don’t have to actually figure out how to program the thing.  It also makes it really easy set your home to ‘away’ to save energy when you’re not around, and equally easy to use its smart phone app to heat things up as you’re heading home.

USB Outlet2) Wall outlets with USB outlets – Since USB has become the standard for charging devices, it’s handy that manufacturers are coming out with wall outlets with built in USB outlets.  This will help with clutter in our right sized Vancouver and lower mainland homes.  Many manufactures have them including Leviton and Cooper, but Newer Technology gets props, as it turns off the charger to save power when nothing is plugged in.

Philips hue3) Philips hue – These light bulbs allow the usual scheduling and control of your lights from your smartphone or tablet, but they also allow colour control!  Perhaps you just need to set the right mood that only colour control can do.  Fittingly you start with the Starter Kit that comes with the wireless bridge and then can add bulbs from there.

Cloud Storage4) Cloud storage – Cloud storage services have been around for quite a while now including Box, Google, iCloud, Dropbox and SkyDrive. You usually get some storage for free, and adding more storage is reasonably priced.  Microsoft’s SkyDrive gets extra points though, as it works seamlessly for files on Mac and Windows and all smartphones and tablets.  We’d like to see seamless automatic cloud backups, but we’ll come back to that in the future.

Solid State Hard Drive5) Solid State Drives – Computers are usually a part of the home experience, so its best to ensure your focus is on enjoying your music or video and not a Mac pinwheel or Windows hourglass.  Solid state hard drives like Crucial or Samsung have been around for a long time, but now they’re getting affordable for the rest of us who aren’t high end users.  They are a reasonable splurge that will greatly improve the speed of a new or existing computer.

These are some great ideas to consider, and we’ll keep our eyes out for more to keep you posted.