Musing #50: Apple Music, Spotify and Amazon Music


Amazon launched its Music service in India earlier this week, so I thought I'd do a quick comparison of it with the other streaming services I have been using, Apple Music and Spotify. Before any one brings it up, I have trialled all the other music streaming services available locally in India (Gaana, Wynk, Saavn, Hungama) at one point or another and found them to disappointing in terms of quality and catalogue. Even Google Music didn't offer much to dislodge Apple when it launched in India, though it hit the mark with its pricing.

I didn't term this article as a review, since it isn't one. Since majority of my listening is done on the iPhone, now with my RHA MA650, Apple Music happens to be my preferred option. It offers the best integration with iOS (e.g. Siri) and has the best quality when streaming over Bluetooth. Spotify complements Apple Music really well with its cross-platform compatibility, track discovery and catalogue. On the other hand, I wouldn't really pay for Amazon Music if it existed as a separate subscription service but as yet another Prime membership perk, it is totally worth it.

I have briefly covered the features of each service in the table below along with the availability of various tracks at the time of writing this article. It should give a good idea of what each platform has to offer.


Review #50: RHA MA650 Wireless Earphones ★★★★☆

When wireless doesn't mean getting less! 


Bluetooth headsets have always been a matter of convenience for me rather than a technological evolution over wired headsets. For a long time, I preferred to use wired headsets whenever possible and took recourse to Bluetooth headsets when on the move. However, the abysmal performance of Bluetooth plug-in headsets like SBH54 and the Fiio BTR1 left me extremely disappointed and finally set me on course to finding a standalone wireless earphone.

Review #46: Fiio BTR1 (Bluetooth Amplifier with AK4376 DAC) ★★★☆☆ (Updated!)

A small device with big sound on a budget.
The removal of the headphone jack on phones is a recent phenomenon but I have been dilly-dallying with clip-on, stereo Bluetooth headsets for quite some time. The excuse for doing so was convenience, at the expense of sound quality. Without putting so much as a thought, I went with Sony in those days and hence my initial experience revolved around the MW-600 and SBH54. However, while the MW-600 was a solid device for its time, the SBH54 was a huge disappointment. Hence, Sony was never in consideration for my next device.

With the iPhone 7 being my primary device, I gave some thought to using a lightning connector device prior to considering other Bluetooth choices. The 1More Triple Driver was certainly at the top of the list but the price premium for the lightning version put it beyond the price range I was looking at. Another option was to go for a 3.5mm adapter and the i1 turned out to be the most prominent among the limited options available, but it didn't take much to understand that it didn't really offer a better value proposition compared to Apple's adapter. However, it was this visit to the Fiio site for the i1 that put me on course to the BTR1.

Review #42: Philips AZ-1852/98 Soudmachine

For someone born in the 80s, the nostalgia of using a cassette player once again is far too strong, especially if you have a collection collecting dust in a cabinet. In case it's not clear already, then the only reason I bought this player was to digitize the treasure trove of memories embedded in some of the cassettes, not the songs that can be found on streaming services but the self-recorded and obscure ones. However, on the practical front, this player was intended for my parents who wish to have an easy way of re-listening to their specific choice of music which includes regional ones that can't be found in a digital format anymore.

The unit is quite compact and meant to be portable, though at 2.8 kg, it is on par with bulky laptops. It has a collapsible handle up top and support for on-the-go usage through 6 R14 cells. It also comes with a remote, though its usage is mainly limited to controlling CD tracks and the recording functions. To go in to further details, I decided to breakup this review in to various pertinent sections. Since this is first and foremost a music player, I think I should start with the sound quality.

A. Sound Quality: The sound quality is definitely not something to write home about but once you temper your expectations for the price you are paying, it is certainly decent. It will not hold a candle to any home sound system nor can it fulfil the role of a party boom box. However, it can certainly form an integral part of your home entertainment setup, especially as an input source.

The 2 x 1W RMS speaker output is certainly loud enough to fill up a decent sized room and its quality should meet the expectation of any non-discerning listener. It comes with Dynamic Bass Boost (DBB) which I presume is primarily aimed at countering Sony's Mega Bass. Its difference can certainly be felt as it significantly boosts the lower frequencies and can enliven beat heavy music. However, at the same time it boosts the volume which unfortunately may be construed as a "better effect" by most. But that is definitely not the case for all genres of music as it significantly muddies up instrumental and vocal songs. Hence, I would advise judgement when using this setting as it will depend largely on personal preference.

Fortunately, the player comes with a Headphone jack at the back, so you can plug in a speaker system of preference or keep the tunes to yourself if you so desire and enjoy a much higher quality experience.

B. Input Sources: The input source is controlled using a sliding switch and has the following options:

B1. Tape: By default, the player is in the 'Tape' mode because it also happens to be the 'Off' mode. This intertwining of functions can cause some issues which I have described later in the 'Recording/Ripping section. However, the thing to note is that the tape has its own set of mechanical controls and hence is unaffected by the controls on the remote. Although all my cassettes are now decades old, they played quite well out of the box. At a time when we are used to skipping in discrete steps of 5 or 10 seconds, it was fun to use the analogue fast-forward/rewind functions once again. The rewinding/forwarding speed is much higher than the play function, which might be desirable considering that patience is a rarer virtue these days compared to when the cassette was invented.

B2. FM: Considering the fact that most high-end phones have dropped support for FM radio, having a FM player at home feels like a novelty. Having the mediumwave (MW) and shortwave (SW) options to go along with FM would have been cool but considering that the frequency of people tuning in to radio (see what I did there!) has declined, the practicality of not having them is understandable. Depending on how you see it, the presence of the old school manual tuner can be seen as a blessing or a curse. As with the manual volume controls, the inaccessibility of switching channels using a remote might be irksome for many. On the flip side, the unit has a rather long antenna which measures about 31 inches when extended and 9 inches when retracted to fit at the back of the player. This certainly ensures unparalleled coverage within the confines of the walls of the house.

B3. USB: A music player wouldn't be one if it didn't support MP3 files, so this one supports it too. Playback for 320 Kbps files work fine and it is supposed to have support for WMA v9, but other popular file formats like AAC are not supported. This mode can also be used to playback any recorded files, but the order of playback is such that is first plays the files stored directly on the pen drive followed by the ones stored in folders. While SD cards are not supported directly, even cheap card readers work fine with the device. As far as file formats go, FAT32 is the only logical option.

B4. CD: This is the top most option on the source switch but definitely not the last accessible input source (see next). Being a digital source, like USB, it can be controlled using the remote which is mainly limited to skipping tracks and pausing/stopping.

B5. Auxiliary: This option is not present on the source switch but is visible as "AU" on the display as soon as you connect the headphone jack of a device to the 'MP3-Link' switch at the back of the unit.

C. Recording/Ripping: Since this happens to be one of the USPs of this device and also the source of much discontentment among buyers who fail to get it to work properly.

On the face of it, the recording process is the same irrespective of the source.

a. Press the 'USB Rec' to the left of the display or the 'Rec' button on the remote to start recording

b. Press the 'Stop' button to the left of the display or on the remote to stop recording

However, the major source of confusion arises because of two aspects:

a. The actual recording begins 7 secs after the press of the button when the "RIP" symbol starts blinking on the display

b. The mechanical cassette controls are independent of the digital ones used for the recording

Thus, I feel the process needs to be further elucidated:

C1. Cassette digitization: This happens to be the trickiest of all due to the fact that the cassette player works independently of the digital controls present on the player as well as the remote. The method I found to be most convenient is as follows:

a. Play (FF/RW) the cassette till the beginning of a song and press the 'Pause' button on the cassette control panel. The player allows both the Play and the Pause button to be depressed at the same time.

b. Start the recording using the 'USB Rec' button on the player or 'Rec' button the remote and wait about 6 seconds.

c. Release the 'Pause' button on the cassette controls just as the 'RIP' symbol begins to flash. This indicates that the transfer of music from the tape to the USB device has started.

d. If you don't wish to separate tracks later, then stop the recording at the end of each track using the digital 'Stop' button to the left of the display or on the remote while simultaneously pressing the 'Pause' button on the cassette control panel. You have to repeat the procedure for each track on the cassette.

e. It is important to note that the 'Tape' and 'Off' modes are one and the same as far as the source switch is concerned. Hence, allowing the tape to auto stop results in the player being switched off immediately. This causes the file being written on the USB drive to be lost. Hence, you should make it a point to use the digital 'Stop' button whenever you wish the file to be written and this should be before the tape auto stops.

C2. CD Ripping/Copying: This is the most futile feature of the device since the resulting MP3 files are of only 128 Kbps constant bit rate. This works fine for cassettes as the quality is comparable but it is an abomination as far as CDs are concerned. Moreover, the ripping is being done in real time as against the faster speeds achievable on computer CD drives. The saving grace is that the 7-sec recording lag doesn't impact CD ripping as being a digital source, the player is able to hold the playback till the recording begins.

In case you are using a MP3/WMA CD, it simply copies the files to the USB drive which is again pointless since you can copy the files much faster on a PC. Also, for some strange reason it allows the CD to be ripped to a cassette. Figure that out!

C3. Radio recording: As with the CD, you can record to a pen drive or a cassette. However, you must remember that the actual recording will start 7 seconds after you press the recording button, so capturing something as you hear it is out of the question.

To sum it up, apart from digitizing of cassettes, the recording/ripping function isn't of much use due to the low quality (128 Kbps) and the 7-sec lag to the start of a recording. The recorded files are numerically organized in sub-folders within a 'RECORD' folder on the USB drive as 'CDREC_XX' for CD Ripping, 'COPY_XX' for CD Copying and 'LINE_IN' for cassette and radio recordings.

D. Price: I have kept Price as the last parameter because I think the device is totally worth it, as long as you are not paying the MRP of INR 5199. I purchased it for INR 4799 along with a 15% cashback offer on Amazon which puts it effectively at INR 4079. At that price, this device justifies its value in memories.

Musing #34: Shifting of personal music collection to Apple Music


Switching back to iOS 10.3.2 from the iOS 11 beta and having to go through my music library to download the tracks once again made me realize that my personal music collection isn't as well sorted as it should be. I had never committed myself to using Apple Music as my one stop music solution, having dabbled across other streaming service providers in the past. However, I finally bit the bullet as I found it to be the most convenient option for accessing my entire collection on the iPhone.

I should add that switching to Apple Music for all your music needs isn't the most seamless thing one can experience in the Apple ecosystem. One can also argue about the audio quality at 256 Kbps AAC, but that is subject to personal preference and doesn't perturb me too much. So, what does the experience of jumping with both feet in to Apple Music entail?

1. Tagging your offline collection

Irrespective of whether you use Apple Music, it is always a great idea to properly tag and organize all your personal music files. In the past, I have used MediaMonkey and MusicBee on the basis of their interfaces and they just about got the job done.

However, I found MusicBrainz Picard to be the best solution when tagging en masse. The scraper managed to match nearly 95% of my collection. For the unmatched ones, you can manually search for similar files or lookup online using the browser. In my case, I couldn't get the web tagging to work seamlessly, but that didn't matter much as the built-in search worked just fine.

The best thing is that you can easily choose the fields to be updated, including the artwork. Manual editing of the most obscure tracks is also pretty straightforward, though it requires additional effort on one's part. The benefit of this exercise is a well organized local collection that is easily accessible and recognizable across devices.

2. To the iCloud the music shall go

iTunes allows you to manually add up to 100,000 of your songs to the iCloud Music Library and access them on any device which accepts your Apple ID. The first thing you should know is that the files are converted to 256 Kbps AAC irrespective of your audio quality, something that may not be entirely desirable. Secondly, the upload process just doesn't work the way it should.

On Windows, I had multiple upload failures which was not easily detectable on iTunes since it didn't explicitly prompt about it. The failures are evident on rummaging through the 'Recently Added' list and finding out the ones with the "exclamation cloud" icons. I managed to re-upload some of these after multiple attempts, even as there was no obvious reason for the upload failure to begin with. Moreover, the synchronization on the iPhone manifested itself only when I toggled the 'iCloud Music Library' option from the Settings. Even then, there were a few files which hadn't uploaded to the cloud, evident by them being greyed out on the iPhone.

This entire process was certainly an exercise in frustration, but unfortunately the worst was yet to come.

3. iTunes Match - When reality doesn't meet expectations

Apple Music matches each uploaded track on the basis of its fingerprint and replaces it with an equivalent track from its catalogue. The point to keep in mind though is that all these replacement files are loaded with DRM that lock the files to your account and subscription. In my case, I have certain old tracks of suspect quality, so I didn't mind this exercise as I had a backup of my original files. Ideally, it is a good solution to ensuring consistent audio quality and would have been acceptable if it worked as it should, except that it doesn't.

The most egregious aspect is that the replacement track, although the same in name, can end up being a vastly different variant. I had many of my edits and remixes being replaced by completely unrelated versions which is infuriating to say the least. This meant combing through the collection once again and finding the right variant. How a 3-minute track can be replaced by a 7-minute extended version when in fact the original 3-minute variant is present on Apple Music is simply beyond me.

As you can determine by the above description, shifting your entire music collection to Apple Music isn't for the faint hearted. Apparently, Apple will allow FLAC to be used as well from the iCloud Drive which would be another disjointed process added to the mix. If you care for your music like I do, you might think it worthwhile to invest a substantial amount of time in this process, otherwise I can't really recommend it.

While accessibility and affordability are prime drivers for subscribing to such services, the flip side is that the more you use it for music discovery, the more you lock yourself in. You limit your exposure to music within the selected ecosystem and there is no easy means to migrate to another service. A time shall come when, for better or for worse,  you shall no longer have an offline music library and you wouldn't have to worry about uploading and conversion at all. But whether it makes your music experience any richer is highly debatable.

Musing #31: The Binaural Experience (Doctor Who Knock Knock)

I had encountered binaural aural audio before, not in the least in the BBC Click segment from a few months ago which I have linked to this post. However, I never experienced it in an immersive environment which I think is vital in truly appreciating this technology.

The mention of binaural audio once again in the most recent episode of BBC Click made me finally commit to experiencing it in an immersive setting. I am of course referring to the Knock Knock episode of Doctor Who.

At this point, I should state the disclaimer that I am not a Doctor Who fan. It is not because I detest it but the fact that I never got in to it. The most time I have spent on Doctor Who must be on Wikipedia where I had read about it a few years ago, just to understand what it is all about. Hence, I went in to this episode quite blind without much of a backstory to relate to.

I must say that even as a standalone watch, this episode was quite interesting. It is because it was in the vein of a "haunted mansion", something I can relate to quite easily with my interest in crime fiction. Rather than rely on jump scares, the episode focusses on the aural experience and rightly so, since it is the centrepiece of this episode. I guess my Sennheiser HD 598 SE contributed a lot to the enjoyment of it all.

This experience has certainly left me asking for more. I am pretty sure that BBC will come up with further episodes featuring this technology since they have invested more than 5 years in to it. At the same time, I think it is highly unrealistic to expect it to be mainstream. The additional effort of post-production sound mixing and the limited audience of headphone users might not make it economically viable to pursue this approach regularly, but it is nonetheless a peek in to the role that 3D sound will play along with VR in the near future.

Review #18: Sennheiser HD 598 SE

I assume that like most of my generation, the musical journey in the early years comprised of using the headphones that came with the Walkman, Discman and subsequently the Nokia phones. It's only in the past few years that I have taken to indulging myself in music at a perceived higher level. It has always been a conscious decision of mine to slowly move up the ladder. Hence, my progression has gone as follows:

Earphones: JVC Marshmallow -> Brainwavz M1 -> Sennheiser MX580 -> Sony MH1C -> Mi Pistons 2 -> Sennheiser Momentum IEM

Headphones: Sennheiser HD203 -> Sennheiser PX100-II -> Sennheiser HD598SE

My experience has subjectively gotten better with time, the Mi Pistons being the only regression (and perhaps the MX580 to a lesser extent). The thing with purchasing earphones/headphones online is that you never purchase it based on experience but rather than perception. There was a time when you could lust the headphones attached to a listening booth in a music store, but that is not an option anymore. So, you only have the words and videos of users and reviewers to go by for the most part, unless you happen to experience nirvana at an acquaintance's.

The thing with moving up the price ladder is that you are more or less assured of better music quality unless you are misled by marketing. Hence, knowing the price band and the desired aural experience, the only real contenders were Audio Technica M50x and the Sennheiser HD598 SE. I did consider the Bose Quiet Comfort 15 for a short time but realized from the user reviews that sound quality is not its forte. It may have the best active noise cancellation and is thereby a good choice to tune out whilst on public transport. However, no one's to blame but you, should the battery die out at the wrong time. Also, the noise cancellation effect is certainly not to everyone's comfort.

Both the M50x and HD598SE fulfilled my requirements for a neutral and natural sound as they hold some weight as reference headphones. I tend to have pretty long hearing sessions when gaming, playing music or videos and the M50x isn't touted as being the most comfortable to wear for extended periods. However, I can certainly attest to the comfort of the 598SE. It is light, well cushioned, has slightly tilting cups and covers the ear perfectly. The open back design ensures that the ears don't heat up which has been a concern for me from the time I used the HD203. Even the click of the jack on insertion is pretty satisfying. Also, the Amazon sale had the 598SE at an effective price of 7.2k as against 8.1k for the M50x, so my decision was made rather quickly, albeit judiciously. The special edition doesn't look quite as luxurious as the beige tainted normal edition but it comes with a more practical 1.2m 3.5mm cable with a twist mechanism that ensures a good lock.

I won't feign being an audiophile, but one thing I can attest to is that it is the best set of cans/earphones I have purchased to date for it beats the Sennheiser Momentum IEM that I use while on the move. I guess that was a given but experiencing the satisfaction personally matters a lot. It doesn't place emphasis on bass which is for the better as I am not accustomed to the genre of music that does and I have a sub-woofer system to quell that need, should it arise. The mids are well laid out and the treble holds well to Adele. What stands out is the soundstage because of the ease with which you can discern between the various instruments. The box itself describes this headphone best - "Natural Spatial Sound Experience". However, this comes at the expense of sound leakage and pretty much no isolation as a consequence of the open back design. This is only meant for places where you can be in control of your ambient noise, so it is firmly a stay-at-home affair.

The bottom line is that if your ears are pleasantly surprised after putting on a new set of headphones, then you know you have made the right decision, critics be damned.