Dipping My Toe Into HI-FI Audio

Audiophiles exist in the world. You might have had a conversation with one of them. You can easily recognize an audiophile when they tell you how good music sounds on vinyl. I am not saying that I am an audiophile per se, but I see how someone gets there. This is my story.

Audiophile T-Shirt

With the stay-at-home order, I found myself looking for things to do around the house. I am doing my own yard work, starting a garden, and arranging things. I did notice stacks of CDs from my 90’s college days. Filter. Smashing Pumpkins. Nine Inch Nails. Tool. Christina Aguilera. For the past decade, I have been listening to music via MP3s or streaming services. Music has become background music in my life. Except for the Trolls soundtrack. I have heard the Trolls soundtrack on Amazon Echo for both movies probably 100 times. My son loves Daft Punk. We play the song One More Time, one more time frequently.

I wanted to listen to the CDs and I discovered that I have 3 devices in the house that play CDs: a CD drive in my PC, a disconnected Blu-ray player, and a Trolls themed CD player/radio. I got the “hug, sing, dance” player at the thrift store for my son which included the Frozen soundtrack disc in the player for $2.99.

The first CD that I listened to was Filter – Title of Record from 1999. I couldn’t believe how good it sounded coming out of my computer speakers. My ears have been listening to compressed, streaming audio for over 10 years. I started digging around the closet for a nice pair of headphones and tried my earbuds and a pair of AKG K240 Studio Monitors that I got as a gift. The earbuds were OK. The AKG headphones were worse. I expected a lot out of them, but they didn’t sound great. I turned to Google and search around for an hour and discovered that the AKG headphones have a high impedance of around 55 ohms and my computer doesn’t really support that. This finding led me to a number of high-fidelity audio forums. I learned about headphone amplifiers and digital-to-analog converters (DAC).

I decided to experiment and ease my boredom a bit. I bought a the SUCA Audio tube headphone amplifier that was recommended to me on one of the forums. I waited a couple of weeks to get it and built up the anticipation of plugging in my AKG headphones.

Wow. Wowzer. I could believe how good the music sounded. I enjoyed the warmth and overall tone. The SUCA Audio amp is arguably a low entry point into headphone amps. My research over a few days showed me how deep this rabbit hole goes. There is an endless supply of gadgets to elevate your audio experience.

Going next level. I kept reading mentions of other vacuum tubes to try. I learned about the RCA 6AK5 tubes to get even better sound. I found a pair of “new” tubes on eBay and tried those. eBay tip. “NOS” means New Old Stock. They don’t make vacuum tubes anymore so you have to find new, old tubes. You also want to find a matched pair. And, yes, I can hear a difference. Or, I am not admitting that I can’t hear a difference – that’s part of the audiophile’s code.

This is my first toe into the deep waters of HI-FI audio and the water feels great. I have been enjoying some old tunes and hearing things that I never heard before. Maybe one day, I will be the guy at the party telling you about my audio gear.

Will Windows 7 be better than Vista?

“Will Windows 7 be better than Vista?” is the wrong question to be asking. We should be asking, “Will Windows 7 be better than XP?”

Chris Hernandez of Microsoft posted on his blog, “One of the main goals with Windows 7 in general has been to be better than Vista.” Chris’ quote scares me. Being better than Vista is not what I am looking for. I want an OS that makes me want to upgrade from XP. XP has served me well and I want a clear upgrade path. What are the killer new features? What makes Win7 an “upgrade”?

I have been using Windows 7 on my laptop for a few months. I do like some UI improvements, but compared to XP it misses the mark. Compared to Vista, Win7 is better. Although, Win7 requires pretty good hardware to install where XP is able to install on my pieced together machines with parts 8-10 years old in some cases. I hope by the time Windows 7 is on the shelf, someone figures out that we are not looking for an upgrade from Vista, we are looking for a real upgrade to XP.

Fiber Optics Considerations

Fiber optic technology uses tiny strands of glass or plastic fibers to trap light allowing data to be carried extremely fast over long distances. Don’t look for any hype here, fiber delivers what it promises – speed, which enables high-speed internet, television services, and telephone communications. The technology is all around our lives and has been for quite some time. Recent advancements of fiber optics versus copper, reduction in deployment costs, and customer demand have brought fiber optic technology into the attention of everyone from consumers and technicians to engineers and managers alike.

Passive fiber optic technology is a key advancement allowing for fiber to be deployed in the last mile, which connects communication offices to consumers directly. For example, Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) uses passive amplifiers and splitters serving housing developments off of a single strand of fiber. In a copper-based scenario, each house would be connected with a pair of copper wires or networked together using coaxial cable. In either case, the distance and speeds are limited, which further restricts the carrier’s service offerings and competitiveness. Copper is also prone to interference from other cable pairs, radio services, and power lines causing high maintenance costs and degraded services.

Lasers, LED’s, amplifiers, fiber optic cable, light receivers and all of the components that allow fiber optic equipment to operate have become very inexpensive allowing for new products and technologies to be developed and offered to carriers, business, and consumers at low or similar costs. In new housing developments and office parks, establishing fiber optic technology will be the most advantageous deployment. As the copper local loop and backhaul networks age, fiber will also be present allowing for current and future service offerings to meet market demand and carrier requirements.

The need for speed has always been a driver in the communication markets. Besides the luxury of just speed, fiber optics in the minds of consumers bring about visions of fast internet, high-definition and interactive television, and mobile multimedia features. To the carriers, fiber optics offers a world converged to one technology, multiple service offerings, increased capacity at cellular sites, and minimized maintenance expenses. Inside business networks, fiber optics will be the connections that are made between routers and switches allowing for business to handle more clients, devices, and bandwidth-intensive services like Voice-over-IP (VoIP) and video conferencing.

The limitation of fiber optic technology exists only with each of us and those who will work on fiber systems. Fiber is just not installed and all of our visions come to a reality and all of our existing issues disappear. Proper design, installation, maintenance practices, and provisioning will be essential in the success of fiber optic deployments. For example, learning the proper way to clean a fiber optic connector is one skill that will mitigate several issues at communication offices, cell sites, office buildings, and residences. Engineers and managers will have to know which fiber solutions to consider and determining loss budgets while having an understanding of terminology and fiber optic technology concepts to make proper decisions. Technicians will be responsible for installation, maintenance, and provisioning as the technology spreads quickly through their networks and sites. Critical skills that require training and practice are splicing fiber optic cables, cleaning connectors, putting on new connectors, cable section replacement, and installation of cable between devices.

Fiber optic technology introduces new infrastructure, maintenance, and testing equipment to be installed and used properly. In the Local Area Network (LAN), routers and switches will have fiber optic connections to connect fiber optic cables, store cable slack, and Panduit to run cable through the premises. In restoration or installation practices, fusion splicers will be required to connect and repair fiber optic cables. Once the network is established, testing devices such as light and power meters, light generators, Optical Time Domain Reflectometers (OTDR), fiber optic scopes, and visual fault locators will be used to determine proper levels and faults.