Jim Austin

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Jim Austin  |  Jul 17, 2018  |  71 comments
It's after 5pm on Wednesday, and I'm finishing up the listening part of my review of Apple's wireless speaker, the HomePod ($349). On a whim, I've just asked Siri to play me some drinking songs.

I mention this because the HomePod's "smart" features—its integration with Siri and the Apple Music streaming service—is a big part of its appeal. In its natural element, the HomePod provides a way of accessing music that, although as old as our century, to me is still new and unfamiliar: Forget your hoary music collection, your Rolling Stones and Beethoven. Decide what kind of music you want to hear—a genre or a mood—then leave the choice to Siri and her algorithmic minions.

Jim Austin  |  Jun 19, 2018  |  45 comments
Photos: Jim Austin

I'm sitting in a rented Nissan just off Highway 61—yes, that Highway 61—looking out at a Shell station through the bug-stained windshield and across a litter-strewn, not-yet-planted cotton field. It's late March, and I've just left Clarksdale, Mississippi, on my way to Memphis. Leaving Clarksdale made me thoughtful, so I've pulled over to jot down a few notes.

Jim Austin  |  Jun 12, 2018  |  66 comments
It's not surprising that many people, like me, love nice cameras and good stereo gear. In my worse moments, I attribute this to mere consumerism: We love expensive stuff and the thrill of buying something new, whether for reproducing music or creating visual images. In my better moments, it's clear to me that there's more than that to this common taste for audio and photography, and more to the hobby of so-called perfectionist audio.
Jim Austin  |  May 29, 2018  |  14 comments
In the March 2018 issue, Art Dudley admired the sound quality of Ayre Acoustics' KX-5 Twenty preamplifier, but didn't love some of its operational aspects. I've staged this Follow-Up as a putative face-off between the Ayre and my current reference preamplifier, the PS Audio BHK Signature, which I reviewed in the June 2017 issue.
Jim Austin  |  May 17, 2018  |  159 comments
The right thing at the wrong time is the wrong thing.—Joshua Harris

The sampling theory formulated by Claude Shannon in the late 1940s had a key requirement: The signal to be sampled must be band-limited—that is, it must have an absolute upper-frequency limit. With that single constraint, Shannon's work yields a remarkable result: If you sample at twice that rate—two samples per period for the highest frequency the signal contains—you can reproduce that signal perfectly. Perfectly. That result set the foundation for digital audio, right up to the present. Cue the music.

Jim Austin  |  Apr 19, 2018  |  47 comments
In an article published in the March 2018 Stereophile, I wrote that critics have been attacking MQA, the audio codec developed by J. Robert Stuart and Peter Craven, by accusing it of being lossy. The critics are right: MQA is, in fact, a lossy codec—that is, not all of the data in the original recording are recovered when played back via MQA—though in a clever and innocuous way. For MQA's critics, though, that's not the point: They use lossy mainly for its negative emotional associations: When audiophiles hear lossy, they think MP3.
Jim Austin  |  Feb 13, 2018  |  173 comments
When you come to a fork in the road, take it.—Yogi Berra

Over one busy week in 1986, Karlheinz Brandenburg laid the foundation of a technology that a few years later would upend the record business. Brandenburg, a PhD student in electrical engineering at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg, was figuring out how to code digital music efficiently enough that it could be delivered over digital telephone lines. A patent examiner had concluded that what the application proposed was impossible, so over a week of late nights, Brandenburg produced the proof of concept and more. It was another decade before the technology—MPEG-2 level III, more commonly known as MP3—would find its true home, the Internet.

Jim Austin  |  Jan 06, 2018  |  27 comments
Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature's delight.—Marcus Aurelius

Master Quality Authenticated (MQA), the audio codec from industry veterans Bob Stuart and Peter Craven, rests on two pillars: improved time-domain behavior, which is said to improve sound quality and what MQA Ltd. calls "audio origami," which yields reduced file size (for downloads) and data rate (for streaming). Last month I took a first peek at those time-domain issues, examining the impulse response of MQA's "upsampling renderer," the output side of this analog-to-analog system (footnote 1). This month I take a first look at the second pillar: MQA's approach to data-rate reduction. In particular, I'll consider critics' claims that MQA is a "lossy" codec.

Jim Austin  |  Jan 04, 2018  |  14 comments
Phrases like high fidelity and perfectionist audio suggest a central norm to which all things audio should aspire. Not a bad idea, in some ways, but if you look at the wide variety of loudspeakers out there that people love, from the old-school Auditorium 23s to the high-tech KEFs and Vivids, it can be hard to figure out what they all have in common.
Jim Austin  |  Dec 29, 2017  |  53 comments
A recent post on Roon's forums drew my attention to an apparently new category at Apple Music, Apple's streaming service. The post pointed to an Apple Music page listing music curated by the ECM music label. After ECM "Playlists," "New and Noteworthy," and "Recent Releases" is a section labeled "High-Resolution Masters."

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