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1.28.2009

Medusa 5.1 Headphone Testing w/ Various Sound Cards

Since I got my Medusa 5.1 headset, I've tested them with a few different sound cards.

Realtek HD
Motherboard integrated audio on my Gigabyte P35 motherboard.  Sounded ok, but very low bass response, not enough power to drive the vibrate feature in the subwoofers.  Rear channels sounded very tinny.  Speed-Link's response when I reported the problem.  "this is a Problem of your Onboard Soundcard, this is not the best for the Medusa Headset. Please try it on a PCI Soundcard like Creative the the Sound should be better."

Sound Blaster Live! 24-bit
Next I pulled my old Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live! 24-bit out of the parts bin in the garage.  This was the card I was using before I built the P35 system, as my previous motherboard only had AC97 audio.  Speaking subjectively, I think this card sounds a little better.  Signal from the card was stronger, I didn't have to crank the volume as high to get the same level out of the earphones.  I think the sound was slightly better on the whole, and bass was a little stronger, but still not really punchy.  Rear channels sounded a tad better, but were still a little hallow, but not as tinny as on the Realktek HD.  The Vista drivers for the SB Live didn't seem to have many features, and didn't let me set up a crossover point or do bass redirection.  I think this driver was a courtesy effort from Creative to support legacy users, but they really provide the minimum features.

Creative Labs X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Edition
These were on sale for $99 at Best Buy, which is the same price as the Xtreme Gamer version.  So I went ahead and bit the bullet.  (My gaming PC is also my Vista Media Center HTPC, so I wasn't really too disappointed to upgrade the audio on it anyway)  One warning, this card is a little chunky because of the RFI shield box over it.  I could not get it to fit in the PCIe slot above my video card.  I had to put it in my middle slots, and I got a little nervous that it would restrict the hot air leaving my 9800GT.  It doesn't seem to be causing issues so far.  Out of the box, this sounded better than the previous two cards, but once I applied the driver settings that Speed-Link recommends, it sounds phenomenal.  The trick with the Medusa 5.1 is to set all the drivers to the smaller size in the THX speaker setup, enable bass redirection, and set the crossover point to 200Hz.  Turn off CMSS-3D.  Once you get the settings on the remote tuned the way you like them, this combo sounds awesome, and the bass has enough punch to rattle your teeth. 

I guess the lesson learned here is that if you're going to buy high end speakers or headphones, you probably need to support them with a decent sound card.  You can probably get by with a lesser card than the X-Fi titanium, but I have to say that the Creative drivers have a lot of support for tweaking the sound exactly the way you need it.

1.26.2009

KARR Returns to Knight Rider

This week's episode of the new 2008 Knight Rider series gave us the return of a classic villain from my childhood, KARR. 
I know fans of the new show had been eagerly awaiting the full reveal of the new KARR design.  There was a lot of speculation regarding what kind of car he would be, and what the "exoskeleton" design would look like.  The exoskeleton mode was revealed earlier this season in a schematic view, but it was pretty hard to see details. 
Well, here are some screen grabs from Episode 12.  Spoilers ahead.
KARR2008
KARR's vehicle mode revealed to be the same as KITT, just like the original.  KARR has the amber scanner bar like the second design used for the original series.
KARR2008botform
KARR's exoskeleton mode is revealed.
KARR2008Torres_HelmetKARR2008Torres_Merged 
KARR forces Torres to act as his new pilot.  He refers to this process as "becoming one".  It is implied that KARR is able to overpower the driver's mind.
KARR2008hooked
I heard a lot of people complaining that KARR was too easily defeated and were surprised that Torres wasn't exploded in the fight.  I agree the fight should have taken longer, but watching the scene again, it makes more sense.  KITT harpoons KARR's cockpit.  The grapple opens inside the compartment with Torres, when KITT passes KARR he rips the cockpit cover and chest armor off.  This screenshot shows how Torres fell free / or was pulled out, I couldn't tell which.  Either way, if you watch, KARR has his insides exposed and no pilot when KITT turbo boots through his chest.  

I think the point of this episode was to give us a quick sampling of the new version of KARR.  I'm sure he'll get rebuilt.  Remember how banged up KITT is at the end of the episode and how quickly he's able to heal using his nanotech systems.
(All images in this post are screen grabs from the show.  All images and characters are the property of NBC and the show's creators. )

1.22.2009

Realtek HD vs the Medusa 5.1

I got the Medusa 5.1's hooked up. Sound is good, surround is fun. I'm not entirely happy with the rear channels. I know they're a smaller driver, but they sound completely tinny. Gunfire goes "crack crack" instead of "pow pow". I played around with the Realtek HD driver control panel and got a little more bass and a semi-satisfying sound out of them. I've read forum posts of X-fi users having the same problem and being able to fix it. I'm experimenting right now with a different audio card to see if it's just a problem with cheap integrated sound. My Gigabyte GA-P35-DS3L has the Realtek HD audio built in. I went ahead and dug out my old Sound Blaster Live! 24-bit from the garage and hooked it up. I thinkt he sound quality already seems better. Maybe the SB just has hotter outputs, but I'm finding more bass. The back channels are still a little flatter than the front, but I'm not hearing the sharpness that bothered me before.

I'm going to try to get some Left 4 Dead multiplayer or BioShock on tonight to test the Sound Blaster.

If the better card does make a huge difference, I think I'm going to be shopping for a Xonar or X-Fi in the near future.

1.21.2009

Speed-Link Medusa 5.1 Headphone Unboxing Pics

My new 5.1 headset arrived from the UK today.  Here are pics from the unboxing ceremony.

The box was double wrapped in bubble wrap and a waterproof bag. The airtight bag must have concerned border security, because the box had been flagged to be X-Ray scanned. 

I was a little concerned at first, because the paperwork in the invoice pouch smelled like cigarette smoke.  I was going to be PO'ed if the box and headphones smelled like smoke.  Luckily, it was only the shipping receipt that stunk.  I'm guessing the shipping person must smoke in their office.  Everything inside the plastic bag was fine.

Medusa-USA shipped via FedEx International Priority for only $15. The box came in 2 days once it shipped.  I ordered on Friday afternoon and had the package by 3PM on Tuesday.

photo (3)

Mmmmm, bubble wrap.  We'll save that for later popping enjoyment. 

photo (2)

Oh no kids, we can't play with our headphones yet, there's another very sturdy inner box.

photo (1)

I was pretty surprised to see the fancy inner packaging.  Classy. 
The preamplifier / stand is under the manual on the left.
The white box on the right contains the US power adapter.  There is a black box under the headphone tray that contains all the cables and a European power adapter.

photo

 

I had the headphones set up in about 10 minutes, including crawling under my desk to find an open outlet and setting up the outputs in the Gigabyte audio control panel.  I plan to tweak my settings for a week or so and then post a full review with more pictures.

1.18.2009

Plantronics GameCom 777 Headset Review

So I promised a review on the GameCom 777's I was using last week.

The short version:  They're awesome stereo headphones for gaming, and the mic quality is good.
For surround there may be better options.

The GameCom 777's are circumaural 'phones, so they're big, and they set around your ear instead of on it.  Even though they're large, they're not heavy, and being circumaural they don't put too much pressure on your ears, so they're comfortable for extended use.  Unlike many circumaural headphones, these are not closed-air 'phones. They're open air, they have vents in the earpieces that let room noise in. This means you don't end up shouting while you're wearing them, and you can hear people around you. I like this feature, because it meant I could hear if my daughter woke up in the next room, or if my cel phone was buzzing. This may bug some people who want to shut out the world when they're gaming. These headphones have a noise cancelling mic that sounds good. It swings up into a indentation in the headband when not in use.
The mic sounds fine, and all my friends said that in-game the voice quality was good.  The mic does have noise-cancellation, so it doesn't pick up a lot of background noise.  

The GameCom 777's big selling feature is that they ship with a Dolby Headphone USB audio interface. If you're not familiar with Dolby Headphone. It's a technology to mix 5.1 sources down for use in headphones. Here is the catch. Dolby Headphone doesn't require dedicated hardware. Any headphones can be used with it. The problem is that many games support settings to downmix their audio in the Dolby Headphone format. The dongle that ships with the GameCom 777 is supposed to take 5.1 Surround or Stereo sources and process them into Dolby Headphone. Obviously upmixing Stereo into pseudo-surround is not going to give a real surround experience. Mixing 5.1 down into Dolby Headphone acutally works. I was skeptical at first, but once you give Dolby Headphone material a listen, it's a pretty good effect. The catch is that without dedicated rear channels, you really never get the impression that the sound is really behind you. I listened to the official Dolby Demos, and my general impression was that the "rear channel" effects are just panned very far left and right in the speakers.  My brain could translate this into a rear effect in game, but it was more of an active decision on my part to know that when I heard an effect panned this way that something was behind me.  I guess what I'm trying to say was that the effect wasn't totally natural.  I took a little thinking about it to register what I was supposed to hear.

If you are considering the GameCom777's for surround usage, listen to these pre-mixed Dolby Heaphone demo's here.  Since the encoding is already done, you can hear the effect on regular headphones.  This is what your games will sound like using the USB adapter. 

I will say that these headphones sound great.  The mids and high-end are crystal clear.  Bass response is good, but these phones don't have a dedicated sub for a "thump" effect.  Still they easily sounded as good as some of the nicer headphones I've used in this price range.  I played some music from my iTunes library (iTunes Plus higher bitrate songs) and they sounded much better than on my desktop speakers or my cheaper Logitech headset. I have no hesitation on recommending these headphones based on sound or build quality.

One more thing to consider, the USB adapter included in the GameCom can only deliver audio at 16-bit 44.1 or 48k sample rates.  If you have a high quality sound card, you may want to buy headphones without the USB support so you can plug directly into your sound card. 

My biggest hang up with these headphones is that for $100, I don't feel the surround effect was convincing enough.  My recommendation depends on your specific need. 

  • If you don't care about surround, buy the GameCom 377, it's the same headphone set, but without the Dolby Headphone USB adapter.  It only costs about $40-50 and uses your existing headphone jacks.  If your games support Dolby Headphone processing in the game engine, you won't need the adapter anyway.  I've also heard good things about the Yamaha CM500.
  • If you do need surround, then your $100 would be better spent on a pair of headphones with real multiple drivers in each earphone.  Cheaper options are available from Zalman, nicer headsets are available in Speed-Link's Medusa series and Razer's Barracuda.  I personally decided to exchange the GameCom 777 and have ordered a Medusa 5.1 home editon package.  I'm hoping for the best and will give them a review once I've had a chance to use them for a while. 


1.14.2009

Moving to Apple Mail, (Mail.app)

My work computer was switched over to OS 10.5 a couple of days ago.  We migrated from an older 3rd party e-mail client to Apple Mail, aka Mail.app.  I've been digging on the web for some good lifehacks & GTD methods for the new client.  Unfortunately, it seems that most people are using third party addins like MailTags to add some functionality, and in the corperate environment, I'm not allowed to purchase or add new software to the machine.  So far I've found SmartFolders to be the best thing to help me get organized.  I used these examples from 43Folders to get started: http://www.43folders.com/2007/04/23/mail-smart-folders

I think it's going to take a few more days to get my feet back under me on the new client.  I have a lot of habits that were organized around the old client, which had very poor search capabilities, and some non-standard hotkeys.  I guess I must unlearn what I have learned. 

I am caught back up to Inbox Zero though...so that's good.  I just need to process through the pile of items that have collected in my actionable items folders during the switchover. 

1.12.2009

New Gaming Headphones, GameCom 777

I picked up some new gaming headphones yesterday. I debated dropping much money on them, but I realized that I log quite a few of my gaming hours wearing heaphones lately, so they might be a worthwhile purchase. I used to do all my PC listening on a set of Creative Labs 2.1 speakers, but now I have a 2-yr old in the house who has to go to bed early, and I can't be waking her up with scary noises from Left 4 Dead. I also play a lot of TF2 and L4D and use voice chat in both.
So I headed off to Best Buy and after a half hour researching the offerings on my iPhone, I picked up the Plantronics GameCom 777 headset.

I gave it whirl last night. I hooked it up using the USB dongle audio interface, and put them through their paces. MP3's sounded good. The Dolby Heaphone effect sounds nice. I noticed that the stereo field sounds "wider" than before, and that the seperation of the instruments sounded clearer on these 'phones than my old Logitec headset. Highs are crisper, and the drivers are better, so they have good bass response. I really just noticed that the midtones didn't sound muddy on these like they did on the other USB headset.

I played a little Left4Dead and TF2, but didn't have a chance to really critically listen to the environmental noises to see if I could tell a huge difference. I know the sound quality was better, but I really want to do some critical listening and see what I think of the "headphone surround" effect. Stereo positioning has been very helpful in L4D, and I want to see if having the Dolby interface makes things better. Yes, I'm aware these aren't a true multi-driver surround headset, but if I want true surround, I'll use my desktop speakers.

I'm going to compare these to my other USB headset, and a pair of Audio-Technica headphones that I have. I'll write a full review as I have time.

1.07.2009

Macrumors live feed Hacked during 2009 Macworld Keynote

I was watching MacRumors live coverage of the Macworld 2009 Keynote yesterday. I'm guessing they were doing their posts via some kind of e-mail or SMS post system. It looks like someone, possibly some of the pranksters over at 4Chan figured out the posting system and were feeding their own fake news into the system so it displayed in the feed just like the legit posts.
MacRumors caught on pretty quick, probably within 5 minutes or so, and when they realized they couldn't stop it, they shut the feed down and redirected MacRumorsLive back to the MacWorld homepage, and then later back to MacRumors.com. While the hackers were exploiting the page, they managed to post that Steve Jobs had just died, and drop a few links into the feed.

I did manage to grab a screenshot just before MacRumors shut down the feed and put the redirect up:
(click for larger version)

JakeBrown.TV also got a screenshot just after my own, but before the feed was shut down.
the hackers got a little more out of hand before MacRumors Live pulled the plug. Screenshot courtesy of Jake:

1.02.2009

Blu-Ray Audio Crackle

I got a Blu-ray player for Christmas, a Sony BDP-S350. Everything seemed to be working fine, but I noticed that the audio didn't sound great. Last night we watched "Wanted", and the auction sequences were almost unwatchable because of a frequent crackle or static noise that was happening on top of all the louder effects. I spend a while fiddling with all of the settings on the player before I figured it out.

I was routing audio from the Blu-Ray player to my LG TV via HDMI. This is the first HDMI device I've owned. I guess I assumed that as long as my settings were right on the TV and player, that the TV would pass digital audio out of it's optical output to my Sony surround receiver. Well...I was only partially right. What I didn't realize is that the TV can only output Stereo PCM on the optical port. It isn't capable of passing surround. So what was happening was that the TV was receiving surround from the Blu-ray player, the TV has it's speakers turned off in the options, because I use the receiver for everything. The TV then apparently sends out a Dolby Pro Logic II stereo signal over optical. This downmixing was causing the noise. I'm guessing it was either phase cancellation between the right, left, and center channels, when they mixed, or the subwoofer effect trying to be mixed down into stereo. The fix I found was to hook the Blu-Ray player's digital audio output direct to the receiver via coaxial cable. I then went into the audio options on the player and set Coax instead of HDMI as the preferred audio output. Now everything works right and the audio sounds great. I'm pretty sure the noise I was hearing was supposed to be the subwoofer effects, but they were coming across the front channels of my surround speakers.