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I, Gearhead (Part 2: Mobile and Music)

In Part 2 of this post, I discuss my mobile tech (smartphones, tablets and such) as well as my music reproduction hardware. Part 1 (Hardware and Software) is here.

On the mobile front, I’m a happy iPhone 3GS user and have been for a while. It’s still a great device, and even though I’ve checked out the iPhone 4, I see no immediate need to upgrade. This is similar to what’s happening with my MacBook (discussed in the first part): the original technology is so well made that it lasts and lasts. A refreshing change from most electronics, and kudos to Apple for that. (It means that making disposable things isn’t the only way to be successful in hardware. I think to have proven that at the same time as becoming the second-largest US company by market capitalization may be Apple’s true historical significance.)

In terms of apps, here’s what sees the most usage on my iPhone (I am leaving out the experimental stuff, and the apps that I downloaded and never opened again but have been too lazy to delete). Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Evernote, Dropbox, Skype, Shazam, Apple Remote, WeatherEye, Kindle, XE Currency Converter, LogMeIn, Bump, Hipstamatic, Pano, Flickr and Starbucks (very useful when you’re in need of coffee). (I opted not to give you links for all of these. Just search your local version of the App Store and you’ll find them.)

I also have a first-gen iPad (16 GB, with 3G) kicking around. After the initial “oh wow” factor had worn off, I realized pretty quickly that this was no productivity tool. Despite my best efforts, I’ve found no reasonable way to write anything on it — note-taking or blogging aren’t really possible because the on-screen keyboard isn’t terribly compatible with my sausage fingers. And I know I could buy any number of keyboard contraptions for it — but that would sort of defeat the purpose of a tablet, wouldn’t it? It is, on the other hand, very handy for consuming information on the couch or in bed. I would like it to have a better browser than Safari (c’mon, let’s stop pretending that the complete lack of plugins, tabs and other trappings of modern browser-dom is somehow more than just laziness on Apple’s part). Finally, I like my iPad well enough but it’s not essential to my workflow. So I will not be rushing to my nearest Apple Store to get an iPad 2 anytime soon. Is there a pattern here…? I’m also quite happy with my iPhone 3GS which I’m not rushing to upgrade.

Apps on my iPod are more or less similar to those on the iPhone (see above), but I also use Reeder, Adobe Ideas and IA Writer.

Finally — and this segues nicely into the section about music reproduction hardware — I own two iPod Classics (not sure what the appropriate plural is here… iPods Classic? Classic iPods?), each with a 160 GB storage capacity. This is the best mobile music solution I’ve found if you want to be able to take a reasonable amount of music with you that’s been ripped at 320 Kbps or higher. I would certainly like to have a single, higher-capacity iPod, but I guess I’ll be waiting for a few more years. The rate at which flash memory is becoming cheaper seems to be slowing down, so I don’t imagine Apple will make a 500 GB iPhone available anytime soon. But I’m happy with my Classics. In fact, I’ve been thinking about stockpiling another couple of them just in case one breaks.

As for playing music back from my various computers, I have two primary setups that are worth discussing in some detail as they are the ‘culmination’ of a few years of evolution, research and (mostly) careful investment of not too much money.

I would consider myself less of a typical audiophile (I know people who will spend thousands of dollars on interconnect cables, and I’m not those people) and more of an ‘affordable audio enthusiast.’ I’m delighted by how the long tail economy has brought us an ever-evolving array of excellent audio equipment at the lower end of the spectrum, much of it designed and manufactured in China. Of course, the line between what sounds truly terrific and mediocre rubbish is pretty fine. Determining what’s what is only possible by spending considerable time reading online reviews and following discussion boards where other enthusiasts discuss their experiences.

My living room setup has been Cambridge Audio based for a number of years. I have had their lower-end Azur 340A integrated amplifier for a number of years now. While it doesn’t have a huge amount of power, my living room is quite small and it’s quick, analytical and musical — all great qualities. The amp is coupled to a pair of Totem Arros and a Totem Storm subwoofer. For a small space, I have yet to hear better speakers (well okay, ones that don’t cost 1000s of dollars more).

A delightful recent acquisition has rounded it out: a Cambridge Audio DACMagic. This has meant the difference between actually being able to use a laptop as a proper ‘source’ for my stereo and not. I had previously tried a number of different things: for a number of years I used a Squeezebox 3, which was fine until you really listen closely (it unfortunately has quite a few digital artifacts; I think this is because of the fundamentally unreliable nature of ‘streaming’ over a wireless network). I also tried the coaxial digital out on Apple’s AirPort Express, but that, too, had horrible audio artifacts (it’s possible that its analogue audio out is okay, I never tried that). The DACMagic sounds like a proper stereo component, has a full, musical line out and generally integrates very well with the rest of my system. It’s definitely a keeper, and a recommendation for anyone looking for an above-average way to connect a laptop’s USB port to a stereo.

In my home office, my Franken-PC (see the previous post) now plays its music back through a Beresford TC-7520 high resolution DAC. This is a fairly recent addition and has been the result of quite a few months of research — reading reviews, forums, and just generally following the market. I think there are now a number of similarly-priced devices available, but because I was specifically looking for a USB DAC with a good headphone amp and a variable line out (to connect to my active speakers), the Beresford really was the best choice in this price range. And speaking of speakers, I’ve discussed my choice of desktop speakers before: I am very pleased with the AudioEngine A2’s.

The Beresford has replaced an M-Audio Audiophile USB external sound card which has done respectable service over the years but whose drivers are unfortunately really rather poor and required restarting either the computer or the sound card with annoying regularity. It’s an okay device when it works, but it’s abundantly clear that the Beresford is significantly superior in terms of musicality, clarity, speed and sound stage, particularly with headphones.

My headphones of choice are two different Grado Labs models: the original SR-60 for portable use and the original SR-125 for use in my study. When out, I use an in-ear headset by Shure which has been consistently very good; nothing entirely outstanding but remarkably inoffensive with all kinds of music even on long flights.

And that’s about it. I will spare you more laborious discussions of things like digital cameras and TVs — both things I care for very little and as a result haven’t done too much thinking about.

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