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My Digital Music

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

When I decided to have Riptopia rip my entire CD collection, I had to decide which audio file format to use.  I talked this over with Kurt Beyer, the former CEO of Riptopia, who wrote this excellent article on 7 Facts Audiophiles Need to Know About Digital Music.  It’s a couple of years old, but still very useful for getting an overview of different audio formats. I had two distinct goals for my digital music:

1) A CD quality backup of my entire CD collection

2) A format I could use on an iPod or other portable music player

After much deliberation I decided to use FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) for my CD quality backup and 320 Kbps MP3 for my mobile music.  For the backup copy the other obvious choices were WMA Lossless (Windows Media Audio Lossless) or ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec).  I decided to go with FLAC since it was an open standard not tied to any particular company.  22 years after buying my first CD, I am still buying CDs and in many cases listening to my original CDs.  If I had chosen an audio format in the 80s that was only supported by one company I have sincere doubts that I would still be able to play my music as easily today as I am with my CDs.  I have little doubt that Apple and Microsoft will still be around 22 years from now and probably still promoting their own high quality audio formats.  Nonetheless, I decided to bet on FLAC as an open losssless standard that would still be around.  I’d welcome comments on this posting on what lossless formats you think will be around over the next couple of decades?

Since the iPod is capable of playing MP3s, I chose 320 Kbps MP3 as the standard for my mobile music collection.  Of course, I could have gone with AAC, which is the Apple standard preferred by iTunes, but once again I didn’t want my music collection tied to one company’s hardware.  320 kbps is the highest possible bitrate for MP3s.  It’s said to be difficult to tell the difference between a 320 kbps MP3 and a CD, even when played through a high end sound system.  On my stereo, playing the same song on CD and 320 Kbps MP3, I can immediately tell which is which and this is even when connecting my iPod through my Yamaha YDS-11 dock playing through the “Compressed Music Enhancer” setting on my Yamaha RX-V2700.

Simple Tech Pininfarina  Portable Hard Drive

Simple Tech Pininfarina Portable Hard Drive

I purchased the goregous cherry red Simpletech 320 GB, Pininfarina portable hard drive to store all my digital music.  I wasn’t previously familiar with Pininfarina, but it turns out they’ve done a lot of design for Ferrari over the years.

My First iPod

Friday, July 31st, 2009

With SD card based music phones, first the Ericsson T39M and then the Treo 650 with Pocket Tunes, I was a late adopter of the iPod.  I didn’t want to have to carry anything other than my phone now that my Palm, cell phone, and music player were finally fully integrated.  Furthermore, I like the sound quality from CDs and I was still daunted by the task of ripping 600 CDs.

I’d been following a growing market for outsourced CD ripping and in particular two vendors, Riptopia and Ripdigital.  They both charged $0.99 per CD for ripping the cost for my whole collection seemed excessive, and I monitored the companies’ sites hoping for a price drop.  (These two companies would later merge in 2006.)   At CES 2008, I randomly bumped into Kurt Beyer, the CEO of Riptopia, and told him I’d been following his company and really wanted to use their service. 

Apple iPod Classiic

Apple iPod Classiic

With a way to finally rip my entire CD collection, I was now in the market for an iPod with enough capacity to hold my entire music collection and settled on the Black 160 GB Classic model.  It’s currently 95 GB full so I have some good headroom for acquiring more music over the coming years.  Unfortunately, you can’t get the 160 GB model any more since Apple standardized on the “One Size Fits All” 120 GB hard drive Classic.

The Treo 650 and Pocket Tunes

Friday, July 31st, 2009

I’d been a long time fan of the Palm OS back to my days carrying a Palm 3 all the way through my Palm m505.  I’d been patiently waiting for there to a really cool Palm OS based GSM phone.  I was very excited by the launch of  the Treo 600 in 2003, but disappointed that it had no Bluetooth and you couldn’t swap out the battery for added talk time.  I decided  to wait for the next model and finally was able to stop carrying two devices, a cell phone and a Palm, in 2004 when I bought the Treo 650.

Treo 650

Treo 650

This really was a great smartphone and with Pocket Tunes it became a great music-playing smartphone.  It did have a major drawback in that the headphone jack wasn’t recessed from the chassis of the unit and I ended up with a short in one of the wires in the jack, giving me only one channel of sound to the headphones.  I was able to have it repaired once and the second time I had that problem I found an inexpensive used model on Craigslist.

With my preferred Palm OS on a Smartphone with a great music player, I really didn’t take much notice of the launch of the first iPhone.  While this phone was bulkier than the original iPhone it had two key advantages:

1) You could swap out the battery for a charged one when your battery died.

2) It had a real physical keyboard.

My First Music Phone

Friday, July 31st, 2009
Ericsson T39m

Ericsson T39m

I was living in France in 2002 and was shopping for a small tri-band phone that I could easily carry along with my Palm m505.  There were still no reasonable GSM phones running the Palm OS.   I opted for an Ericsson (pre Sony Ericsson) T39M.

Ericsson Handsfree/MP3 Player

Ericsson Handsfree/MP3 Player

I was delighted when I found that there was a combination handsfree headset/MP3 Player kit that had the feature I’d dreamed of 5 years earlier.  I could listen to music and if I got a call I could take it on the headset and when the call was over the music would start up right where it’d left off.  I guess it wasn’t a very successful accessory because I found it on clearance for 20 Euros reduced from 70.  This was my first MP3 player and suddenly I had the need to start ripping tracks off of the close to 600 CDs I owned at this point. Needless to say that was a daunting task and so I started just ripping a few of my favorite tracks, storing them on 512 MB SD cards that the player read, and deferring the project of ripping my entire CD collection.

The Ericsson mobile phone/music player combo was a mobile music product, but it had the draw back that it wasn’t very practical because of the way the MP3 player attached to the phone.  The slightest bump and the two pegs that connected the music player to the phone would come undone causing the music player to separate from the phone and stop playing.  The Ericsson’s tiny battery also had difficulty supporting much music playback and talk time.

An Early Idea for a Music-enabled Smartphone

Thursday, July 30th, 2009
Between 1997 and 1999 I frequently commuted from San Francisco to Mountain View by train.  At that time in addition to my laptop I carried a “pouch” (ok manpurse) that contained my Sprint Qualcomm cell phone, my Palm 3, and my portable CD player.  
After missing a call from my girlfriend one day on the way home after work because the music playing through my headphones made it impossible to hear the phone ring, I pondered why the Palm Pilot, the cellphone, and the discman couldn’t be integrated?  I had the idea for the feature where if you got a call it would alert you and lower the volume of the call.  You could decide whether to take the call and if you took it the music would stop and start up again where you left off after the call was over.

I had to wait 5 years before I saw a smartly integrated cell phone, Palm Pilot, and music player that included this feature.


Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Discmen were cool, but on a whole they were never really as convenient as walkmen.  The early discmen that I remember were big and skipped a lot.  Over time the Sony engineers once again got the player down to be only slightly larger than the disc itself, which was quite an accomplishment. 

Sony Portable CD Player

Sony Portable CD Player

They also added memories of several seconds so that there was a delay between what was being played and what the laser was reading.  This gave the discman a chance to try rereading the disc if it skipped during playback.

Discmen certainly sounded great and there was that convenience of hitting a button to jump right to any track or programming a custom play order of a disc.  But even with all their advances, Discmen were still larger than Walkmen, prone to skipping, and less practical for running or other exercise.  Spinning the discs at between 200 and 500 RPM, depending on what part of the disc they were reading, also seemed to drain the AA batteries much faster than simply winding the rollers for a cassette.

My First Car and its Stereo

Thursday, July 30th, 2009
My First Car

My First Car

I bought my first car, a Saturn SL1, in 1993.  The car was practical and no frills, although I did go with the 5 speed manual so at least I had to shift to try to get as much power as possible out of the 4 Cylinder engine, but I had big plans for the stereo system.

At that time CD changers were state of the art.  There were two major manufacturers, Sony which sold 10 disc models and Pioneer who sold 6 disc changers.  Ever the Sony brand loyalist since my early days of “Sony envy,” I convinced my step-mother to buy me a Sony cassette head unit and 10 disc changer as a birthday present. 

Since I was living in Miami at the time and had seen car stereo after car stereo stollen from my step-mother’s car in New York, I opted for a head unit with a removable faceplate.  I became religious about always taking the faceplate with me whenever I parked the car.  Little did I know that a few months later the car itself would be stolen!

One morning in 1994 I went to get in my car parked right in front of my apartment on 12th and Meridian in Miami Beach.   The car was not where I had left it the night before and there was no reason it should have been towed.  I called the police and gave them the plate number and asked if they had it.  They did not and it was now certain that the car must’ve been stolen.

Anyone who’s ever had a car stolen knows what a feeling of violation it is and although fully insured, I was really down.  I called my boss and told him I wouldn’t be coming into work that day.  I had a good excuse…my car had been stolen.  When I hung up the phone I looked down at the counter where I put my keys and wallet and saw the removable faceplate in its plastic case.  I laughed to myself for a minute taking some consolation in the fact that whoever stole my car was crusing around without any tunes!

About a week later I got a call from the Hollywood, Florida police telling me they’d recovered my car.  Hollywood was a good hour’s drive from my home in South Beach and I enlisted a friend to drive me up to see what had become of my car.  We arrived at the address they’d given me, which was a gas station.  I had prepared myself for the worst, thinking the car would be banged up, the seats torn out, certainly the CD changer from the trunk would be gone.

What I discovered was that the car looked mostly fine.  There was damage to the driver’s side lock where they’d broken in, and the ignition which they’d forced, and there were cigarette butts in the ashtray and that awful smell of cigarette smoke.  All in all I felt pretty lucky.  Then I saw that the speaker grill was missing from the driver’s side door and my heart sank.  But on further investigation I found that the speaker was still there.  Great, I thought, now I’m going to have to order a speaker grill from the Saturn dealership.

I’d talked to the clerk at the gas station who’d called in the plate number to the police after a couple of teenagers left the car after giving him all the change and dollar bills they could scrounge up, less than $3, to put gas in my Saturn.  He said that after giving him the money they’d looked around at the outside of the car and then disappeared.

I put the key in the ignition to see if the car would start and discovered that the gas gauge read empty, much lower than I’d ever seen it.  I reached down to the left of the driver’s seat to release the gas tank cover, and discovered my missing speaker grill!  It all became clear.  The thieves couldn’t figure out how to open the gas tank to put gas in my car, got nervous, and fled. 

I don’t remember if I brought the removable faceplate with me and listened to music on my way back home, but I was delighted to have my car and its killer soundsystem back.  As a product, the CD changer was great, but I found myself leaving the same 10 discs in the car all the time and only swapping them when going on a long roadtrip or when I couldn’t stand to listen to any of them any more. 

Sony CD Changer and Removable Faceplate

Sony CD Changer and Removable Faceplate

I kept that car stereo when I sold that car, thinking I’d put it in another car, but I didn’t buy another car for three years after selling that one and technology moves so quickly that it was outdated by the time that I did.   I should really put this up on Ebay now that I’ve just taken this picture.  It’s a Sony CDX-U303 CD changer and a XR C8200 cassette head unit.  Anyone want them for a fair price?

Mix Tapes

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

With a growing CD collection, I like many people in my age group got into making mix tapes in the 1990s.  At one point I even had some great Mac software for making cassette labels on my computer.  I’d make mix tapes for friends, new girlfriends, for roadtrips, really for any occasion.  Maxell XLIIS (90 min or preferably 100 min) tapes were my medium of choice.

Maxell XLIIS

Maxell XLIIS

When I first read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and discovered Rob Fleming, the main character’s obsession with making mix tapes for every occasion and the rules he followed for making those tapes, I thought that the book was somehow based on my life.  I also really liked the concept of Top 5 songs for different life events.  By the way I think the book is better than the movie, although John Cusack, Jack Black, et al. did a great job bringing the London set book into a Chicago based environment.  There was also a Broadway show that I saw in preview, but I just read that it closed after fourteen shows.

The Compact Disc

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009
Compact Disc Digital Audio

Compact Disc Digital Audio

I purchased my first compact disc in 1987 after my good friend Erik Peters, whose father worked for Philips in New Jersey, demoed his CD player for me and played some of his first approximately 20 CDs in his collection.  I remember he had Dire Straits’ Love Over Gold and a couple of other Dire Straits’ CDs.  I was already a fan of the Brothers in Arms album, but I began a lifelong obsession with the guitar work of Mark Knopfler after hearing Erik play his Dire Straits CDs that day.

It was probably only a few days later when I picked up Dire Straits’ Communique at the Music Cellar in Princeton, NJ.  I didn’t even have a CD player to play it on, but I wanted to hear more Dire Straits and after hearing my first compact discs I couldn’t imagine buying recorded music in any other format. 

I remember articles in stereo magazines of the time debating  whether a true audiophile could tell the difference between vinyl and CD.  CDs sounded great to me at the time, were a lot eaiser to carry than records, and offered the huge convenience of allowing me to jump right to the desired song or create a programmable play order.  Today there’s been a resurgence of vinyl and I must admit that on a good stereo vinyl does sometimes have a “warmer” sound to it than CDs, but 22 years after hearing my first CD, CDs are still my preferred medium for non-mobile music.  

A little later in 1987 I did buy a JVC CD player and a few years later I upgraded to a Sony 5-Disc carousel changer that I kept for 12 years.  When I was in college in the late 80’s and early 90’s I joined BMG and CBS music clubs and delighted as 12 CDs arrived in my college mailbox for a penny.  I met the purchase requirements for the clubs and got out and my CD collection grew ever larger.

The Walkman and the Mobile Music Revolution

Monday, July 27th, 2009

The biggest revolution in mobile music was the introduction of the Sony Walkman and the wide range of knock-offs by other brands that it spawned.  No sooner did I write that than I decided to Google it in search of validation by others of the claim.  Result number one from earlier this month was “Sony Walkman named top music invention of last 50yrs“. 

I remember my first walkman was a cheap knockoff FM tuner only.  I bought it at the local drugstore for $30, which was a lot of money for me at the time.  I brought it home proud of my new toy and showed it to my brother and father.  I remember my father putting it on and listening to it and saying in a disapproving really loud voice because he couldn’t hear himself, “It’s like you’re in your own world.”  The headphones broke from heavy usage after less than a week and I returned it for a full refund and set out in search of a more sturdy model. 

Sanyo Portable Cassette Players 

Sanyo Portable Cassette Players

Sanyo Portable Cassette Players




The next mobile music player I bought was a Sanyo M5550 (picture far right).  I would’ve preferred a real Sony Walkman, but I remember it being significantly more expensive and I was still just a kid.  As much as I liked my Sanyo portable cassette player, the Sony being out of my price range created “Sony envy” and over the next several years Sony continued to do a great job introducing new features and making their Walkmen smaller and smaller.

I also remember an add-on accessory I bought for my Sanyo, which was shaped like a cassette and featured an FM tuner with a dial on the front. 

Making a small walkman that also included an FM tuner seemed to be something of a challenge for all the manufacturers.  At the time my dream product was a small Sony Walkman that could also record directly from a built in FM tuner.  I sacrificed on the recording capability and got a Sony Walkman when I bought the WMF-10 in 1983.  This was a true marvel in engineering.  Only slightly larger than a cassette itself, the WMF-10 also included an FM radio and ran on only one AA battery.  I think I paid $129, which was really a lot of money at the time.  A quick search on E-Bay doesn’t find many of these around any more, one that is broken for $9.99 and one in mint condition for $299.99.  I forgot to mention that in addition to being small this Walkman also sounded amazing.

Sony Walkman wm-f10