Lately I’ve taken a huge liking to music and music-related gadgets. I’ve always liked music of course as I don’t actually live in a cave (although according to Peter Griffin it was the cavemen who first discovered music by accident, see here), but this fixation I have has taken me to new heights. And along the way burned some holes in my pocket.
It all started when my flatmate and I invited some friends over for chow at our place one night. I knew it would be pretty boring if we didn’t have music on so I brought my laptop out to play some tunes. A couple of tracks later though, my collection ran out of Top 40s stuff (which the crowd was more into), so I turned to my Xbox for help.
Now the Xbox is amazing. You can play games on it (yeah, really) and use it as a DVD player, but beyond that you can actually also use it to play music from Zune’s online music library, among other other features. Zune, for the benefit of the Apple fanboys and fangirls out there, is Microsoft’s answer to iTunes. But the good thing about Zune is this service called Zune Pass - it allows you to stream and play unlimited amounts of music from its huge catalogue on your Xbox. And since my telly actually has built-in stereo surround sound, it was perfect.
Zune Pass isn’t free - it costs around 10 bucks per month to subscribe. For first time users though, it offers free 30 day trial so I didn’t think twice. I really enjoyed it and kept using it for the remaining 30 days, but when the trial period lapsed I didn’t sign up. I wasn’t always at home to maximise the subscription I was going to pay for, so I decided it wasn’t for me.
A couple of months later, I got myself a Nokia Lumia 800 phone - which I’m bonkers about at the moment. This phone is really worth the buzz it’s creating, and while it works best with a Windows PC, you’ll be happy to know you can also sync it with a Mac. So my music on iTunes were easily synced to my phone. As I got into music more and more, I realised my song collection was abysmal. Since I moved to Australia I also had been going to bars and clubs more often than before (because the party vibe here in Down Under is something elsel!) so I get more exposed to fresh, just-released tracks. If only I had an app on my phone that will let me listen to a wide variety of music for free.
Lo and behold, the Lumia 800 does just that.
Aside from having the ability to play FM radio, built into a Nokia Lumia phone is a music app called Nokia Music that also lets you stream and listen to Nokia’s mix internet radio, with channels like latest mix, new releases, global charts, celebrity mixes, party mixes and much more. Needless to say, it’s best to have an unlimited data subscription for your phone so you don’t have to limit your listening sessions. But in case your data subscription doesn’t allow you that, and also if your internet connection is as slow as a one legged on dog on a tranquilizer, you can also actually save your mix for offline use so that you don’t have to be connected to the internet while listening to music. The sound quality isn’t bad either. In general internet radio will always play second rate to actual digital audio file but hey, that’s a trade off I’m willing to make. As long as I use an amplifier. Which I’ll talk about a bit later.
I like mixes because you get to discover new songs every time. You’re not limited to the songs that you already have on your device. On times when I want to play specific music though, it’s always good to have music stored locally on your phone for quick play. But I’m tired of having to search the net and download songs, so eventually I subscribed to Zune Pass. Zune Pass, in addition to letting you stream unlimited music, also actually allows you to download the songs to your phone. Unlimited songs. Yes. The catch is that I don’t “own” the music, so I can’t share the music file to another person or use the file outside Zune (like if I wanted to add the music to a video presentation). For that I’d just have to download the music file from the internet. However, I can access the music I downloaded on my Lumia phone, on my Xbox, and on my work PC - all through syncing. Microsoft has also recently announced that in the coming months, Zune Pass will be rebranded into “Xbox Music” (codename Woodstock), which will enable accessing music across all systems, including the mac. Double points!
To complement my hippie candy-colored phone, I bought a pair of bluetooth in-ear stereophones. This is a cool gadget for people on the go. The flat square-ish tab is a bluetooth receiver, which you can connect wirelessly to any phone (not just Nokia). This allows me to keep my phone in my pocket and just clip the receiver to my clothes for mobility.
Earphones are good, but one thing I’ve always wanted to do is to be able to listen to music while in the shower or while in the kitchen. My laptop speakers wouldn’t reach all the way, so I though the best solution is to get wireless speakers. I scoured the net and when I saw this video, I was sold:
This little monster has amazing bass that fills my entire room, thanks to a subwoofer at the back of the speaker which actually lets out air. I’ve never heard of a better wireless speaker. It blasts music in 360-degrees direction, plus upward to the ceiling which lets sound bounce off to the ground, filling the room with concentrated music. Being wireless and lightweight, it can be brought to picnics and camping and the like - a really cool gadget to bring around when you travel. I got a black one, because if I got it in cyan that’s already pushing it. If you plan to get one though, you should get it in white - very sexy.
Recently I started looking into how I can improve sound quality when using portable music players -especially for mobile phones because they lack the size and power of a full stereo system. That research led me to portable headphone amplifiers.
Portable amplifiers are these cool little devices that allow higher volumes without sound distortion (or minimal if you over-amplify the sound) and that also usually pack a built-in equalizer to get you that awesome bass or treble effect, on top of what your headphone can already do. The one I got is a Fiio E6, which is flat and small (see the photo above) and can be easily slipped into my pocket. It looks classy being glossy and all-black with silver accents. The others I found on the net are bulky and aren’t exactly pleasing to the eyes. Basically you connect this to your portable player or phone and to your headphone using a short cable. The difference with using an amplifier is astounding. You wouldn’t believe such a small thing can pack a punch. I tried it with my Nokia Lumia and iPhone (yes I have two phones, but only because one is provided by work), and the results are just amazing. Once you use an amplifier you can never go back. Without it, regular earphones sound too canned and tinny for me. I’ve been officially converted, hallelujah.
My only beef is that sometimes, I get some interference from my mobile phone. But thank goodness it doesn’t happen all the time and it’s not really loud - when music is playing you wouldn’t hear it at all. I think other more expensive amplifiers have less or no interference.
As I continued this journey to music madness I realised I could not do without a decent pair of real, no-nonsense headphones. My amplifier can only take me halfway. I admit that I may also have been influenced by recent pop culture - these days headphones are back in the rage. Blame it on Monster Beats by Dr. Dre - I think this heavily overpriced set of cans have created the hype for professional and quality sounding headphones in this generation. They make very handsome looking headphones, I give them that.
However I did not get a Beats headphone. From all the research I’ve done, people in the know are against this brand about 90% of the time despite its commercial success in the general consumer market, mainly because the quality doesn’t match the cost. By itself it’s a very good set of headphones of course, but with the money you spend to get your hands on these, you can easily get others that are more superior in quality. Plus it overemphasizes bass. Now I love bass especially because I am into dance and house music, but overemphasizing it will make it sound not really ideal for tracks that are not meant to be too bass-y. What I really wanted was a pair of cans that is accurate, meaning, I am listening to the exact same sound that the artist had originally intended to produce in the music studio, including just the right amount of bass. I wanted to be able to hear and make out all the instruments played in the track.
For this reason, I got an Audio Technica ATH-M50.
This is a DJ headphone and is used for sound monitoring - definitely not the average all-purpose cans. It has over-ear cups, meaning they fully enclose your ears for maximum comfort. I’m still getting used to wearing large headphones though, especially with the clamping force and the weight. By all accounts these cans actually rate very high in comfort- better than Beats even, but I guess I’m still adjusting especially coming from years of using just earphones.
The raves on this M50 are all high, and the best thing about it is it costs about 60% of the price of Beats although sound quality is (arguably) more superior. I cannot personally vouch for that since I’ve never had Beats but this appears to be the general consensus among serious music aficionados. When I first put them on and listened to sound from my mac, I can confirm what people say - you would be able to hear distinct instruments and voices on some music that you didn’t know were there when you were using regular earphones. I played I Can Only Imagine by David Guetta and I was blown away.
I am by no measure an audiophile - those people are way too serious about their music. I’m more of an enthusiast really at this point. But who knows where this journey will lead me.
Because already I’m fantasizing about being a DJ in a club. <Insert snicker here.>