Category Archives: music

Music, music composing, sequencers, samplers, etc.

Bose SoundLink II review – gadget purchases are rarely 100% rational

Bose Soundlink Mobile Speaker II

I’ve went through a somewhat irrational journey last month that started with me completely dismissing the sound quality of the Bose Soundlink Mobile Speaker II — and ended with me shelling out $349 for the premium/leather edition and even starting a Spotify Premium subscription. While my cognitive dissonance is still fading, I thought I’d share the journey in case there are others out there looking for similar audio solutions.

It all started when a friend demoed his Bose SoundDock Portable in his appartment. That’s a relatively small sound dock for the iPhone, but it produced impressively rich sound quality. I already have a pretty sophisticated home cinema system in our living room that I’ve proudly owned for the last ten years, so I consider myself spoiled with very high fidelity audio at home. The only problem is that this system is limited to the living room. I don’t have any reasonable way of playing music anywhere else like the bedroom or in my office — other than cranking up the volume of the home cinema downstairs to insane levels. Seeing and hearing this SoundDock Portable system made me compelled by the basic idea of having a secondary sound system that I could use to enjoy music and radio when I wasn’t in the living room.

Inspired by the SoundDock Portable, I started to look for an equivalent sound system that wasn’t tied to Apple’s proprietary standards but used Bluetooth instead. The two Bluetooth speakers that kept coming up everywhere in online reviews described as the “best” portable speakers were the Bose Soundlink II and the Jawbone BIG Jambox. I read countless of reviews and I really didn’t like that both of these systems seemed to be optimized for size and weight, rather than sound quality. These speakers are actually quite expensive when you consider the limited fidelity they output, but what you’re paying for is the portability factor — including built-in battery, microscopic footprint, and rugged durability. Well, I wasn’t really looking for that at all — I wouldn’t mind a slightly larger system that wasn’t as portable, but was still “carryable” so I could move it across different rooms in our house.

The Samsung DA-E670. Better sound, less portable.

The Samsung DA-E670. Better sound, but less portable.

I then found systems like the Samsung DA-E670, which is in the same price range as the comparatively tiny Bluetooth speakers, but less portable and supposedly higher fidelity. However, the more I looked at those options, the more I started to actually like the idea of ultimate portability. My wife (who is surprisingly supportive when I have an urge to buy new gadgets — maybe because she knows that makes me more forgiving about her own shopping habits?) started to talk about how nice it would be to be able to bring a speaker like this with us on vacations. Also, there was something with the look of the Bose speaker that clicked with me on an emotional level already the first time I saw it — it reminds me of those old radios that people had in their garage or kitchen back in the days.

This isn't a particularly old radio, but it sure is beautiful. (Sony IFC-J40)

This radio isn’t old, but its beauty reminds me of one. (Sony IFC-J40)

So I decided to go to a store and test both the Soundlink II and the BIG Jambox — and I was immediately disappointed with both of them. Just like I had feared, they sounded great for their size, but ultimately nowhere near hifi quality. The salesman was quick to demo a larger machine that only supported Airplay (the Bose SoundLink Air) and it definitely sounded better but was out of question for me since I specifically wanted a Bluetooth speaker (Bluetooth is far more universal than Apple’s proprietary wifi solution and I have no plans to ever buy an iPhone). I got so upset about the fact that it was so hard to find something relatively portable that didn’t sound like crap and wasn’t coupled with Apple’s proprietary solutions that I had to post that rant about bluetooth speakers a month ago.

But even after being disappointed with the Bose Soundlink II in the store, there was still this emotional urge left in me that made me want to give it another try at home. After all, the speaker probably would sound better at home than in the large store where I tried it. And besides, Bose offers you to try their products out at home for 30 days, so I figured I had nothing to lose. So I brought one home and tested it without all the noise in a busy store — and yes, the difference was definitely noticeable, it sounded better. What’s more, when placing it close to a wall in the bedroom and putting on some music at a moderate volume level, the sound quality was what I’d call good enough. I enjoyed discovering new and old music via a trial of Spotify Premium, and after over two hours of listening, the best testament of the sound quality is that I sometimes forgot that I was playing it from a TINY battery-powered bluetooth speaker!

So let’s talk about sound quality. The soundstage is definitely limited/narrow, and just like many other reviews point out, it lacks a bit of clarity in the mids and treble. As I was experimenting with a trial of Spotify Premium for Android, I found that just increasing Spotify’s built-in 5-band equalizer to (0, 0, +1, +1, +1) made the sound just perfect for my taste. That said, I also noticed that the sound quality depends on the device you’re playing from too — if I stream audio from my MacBook Pro, the mids and treble sound clearer than when streaming from my Galaxy Note. Another thing I noticed is that the speaker sounds better if you step back a few meters and let it fill the whole room. If you stand too close to it (e.g. a meter or less), the stereo sound is rather narrow and directed — the sound feels more natural and wide/rich if you take a couple of steps back.

The bass? It’s incredible considering the size of the speaker. If you place it up against a wall, it’s boomy all the way down to around (I’m guessing) 50 Hz, but below that there’s nothing — definitely no subwoofer magic hiding in this book-sized speaker here, but still impressively deep bass. For certain genres like classical music, this speaker can sound almost as good as my home cinema system (though with a much narrower stereo sound). As I was enjoying some scores by Hans Zimmer (Inception movie soundtrack), I even forgot that I was playing it from the same speaker that I completely dismissed when testing it in the store. If you listen to house or pop, it’s easier to tell that compromises had to be made in order to make the speaker this small — but it still sounds good.

Waking up American style: radio and unhealthy but delicious food.

Let’s get real though: although I was never able to actually test the Samsung DA-E670 and similar systems, I’m pretty sure that those sound better than the tiny portable speaker I ended up buying. It’s just that as I went through this research journey, I started to actually like the idea of being able to bring the speaker with me to more places than just between the bedroom and home office. Case in point: I wrote the bulk of this blog post from a hotel room in San Francisco while listening to Swedish podcasts, thousands of miles from home!

As a side note, this speaker is also what made me decide to get Spotify Premium. As I was listening to music when testing this speaker, I started to really see the benefits of having access to almost all the music in the world. It even works while offline since you can use its download feature to store songs and play them when in flight mode. The combination of this Bose speaker and Spotify has changed the way both my wife and I listen to music and podcasts in very real ways. (The only problem is that I now have to come up with a solution for when at the gym, because using an mp3 player with actual mp3s suddenly feels very old and fiddly — does anyone know of a good Android-based music player that is tiny and lightweight?)

Btw, for those interested in the differences between the BIG Jambox and the Bose Soundlink II, my impression in the store was that the Jambox had a more even/flat EQ curve, while the Bose had slightly weaker treble but richer bass. With richer, I don’t just mean louder — the Bose seems capable of reproducing lower frequencies than the Jambox (i.e. like the Bose gets down to 40 Hz and the Jambox only to something like 60 Hz). The Bose sounded slightly better in my ears. The thing to keep in mind is that the slight loss in treble/clarity of the Bose can be fixed with a small tweak of the EQ of your phone/tablet/computer, but you can never get the same deep bass back in the Jambox since the frequency range just isn’t there. So for me, the choice was very simple, especially since the Bose is also about ten times more attractive (in my very subjective opinion).

The bottom line is that there are two ways of describing the Bose Soundlink II: it’s either OUT OF THIS WORLD, if you consider the small size and design of the speaker — or it’s simply “good enough” as a secondary sound system in your house if you close your eyes and judge it based on sound quality alone. Given the added benefit of portability that this form factor enables and the remarkably sleek design, the Bose Soundlink II really deserves the highest marks.

If you’re still not sure why you need this speaker, check out this awesome video that I found as I was downloading the internet to go through all reviews of it (yes, I’m still 100% a nerd in that sense).

Bluetooth speakers — grossly overpriced?

Took a day off today and spent some time researching bluetooth hi-fi, and I’ve got one big question that begs an answer: Why is one tiny little bluetooth speaker more expensive than a high-quality 2.1 speaker system coupled with a high-quality bluetooth receiver? This makes absolutely no sense to me, no matter how I look at it.

The so-called “BIG” Jambox. Photo cc by Gadgetmac.

Let’s take an example. If you search for popular bluetooth speakers that have reasonable sound quality, you’ll stumble across many reviews of either the Bose Soundlink II (from $299) or the so-called Jawbone BIG Jambox ($295). They generally get very positive reviews and are praised for their high quality sound for their small sizes. Let’s be clear about that, btw: these speakers are tiny. Maybe I’m getting old, but when I was in my 20’s, you’d have a hard time finding any stereo system where one of the speakers were as small as a “BIG” Jambox or a Bose Soundlink.

Now, for significantly less money than one of these tiny bluetooth speakers, you could get a high-quality 2.1 speaker system with built-in amp (e.g. the very powerful, though admittedly not so sleek Pioneer system priced at $145) and then plug in a small bluetooth receiver — the uPlay Puck is supposedly a great one (£60), but there are cheaper ones for around $30 too. You now have a bluetooth speaker system for roughly $200 that will sound significantly better than any $300 all-in-one bluetooth speaker currently on the market.

I tried both the BIG Jambox and the Soundlink II today and the sound was admittedly impressive given the size of the speakers, but these speakers just can’t compare even with an old Creative 2.1 computer speaker system I bought some ten years ago for around $75!

So why are these tiny (and tinny) bluetooth speakers so incredibly expensive for what they are? Is portability really that important to people? Or is it just the relative novelty of this all-in-one speaker form factor that makes people want to pay a premium for being able to carry the speaker around and to bring it with them on vacations? Don’t get me wrong — I too like the idea portability, but to a slightly lesser extent. I would like the ability to move the speaker between e.g. the bedroom and kitchen, and maybe even the patio on a hot summer day. But there are limits to how much I’m willing to sacrifice audio quality, and besides, I would have no problem carrying the speaker around even if it were 5x as heavy as one of these tiny speakers.

My specific needs would be something equally self-contained and simple as the Bose Soundlink II (meaning one single unit) but with significantly larger speakers built in. Something like a 4-5 kg heavy unit that I could still carry around from room to room but without the big sacrifice in sound quality. Battery would definitely be a bonus, but not a hard requirement. And please, no AirPlay or other nasty proprietary solutions — I’m perfectly happy with bluetooth as long as it has that 3.5mm input jack for those moments when I feel pickier about my fidelity. It should definitely support the apt-X protocol over bluetooth though — this was another thing I learned today: there are different types of bluetooth audio codecs and apt-X is much closer to CD quality, but is unfortunately still pretty rare in dedicated bluetooth speakers (neither the BIG Jambox nor the Bose Soundlink II has support for it, for example).

So basically, take a 2.1 sound system and a little bluetooth receiver and a little battery and put it all in one beautiful case. But here’s the catch: it shouldn’t cost much more than its tinier siblings, because frankly, the technology exists already and is, as I’ve already demonstrated, very inexpensive.

Is this all too much to ask for? Has anyone else gone through the same research and had the same questions as I have here? Is there a compromise out there that doesn’t come with pointless AirPlay support and proprietary iDevice docks that I’d never use? Are there any sound systems with bluetooth support that are reasonably portable but still prioritize sound quality and don’t cost a fortune? I’m not asking for a system that would rival my home cinema — just something that sounds good and is fairly portable (in the 1980’s sense). If you have any advice, please leave a comment in the comments section of this post!

Portable is a relative term after all. Photo cc by eeetthaannn.

Seven things about me

I am late to the game and I bet some people hoped this would all be over by now, but lo! men have become the tools of their tools.

I was proudly nominated by giants of the Internet age: Patrick Finch, Asa Dotzler, Mike Beltzner, Abdulkadir Topal, and almost, almost by Chris Hofmann. For that I am grateful. Now, on to the seven things:

1. My IRC nickname djst stands for my full name David Johan Sebastian Tenser. I started to use the acronym when I was 12 years old and a friend and I played with Deluxe Paint on the Amiga 500. I was a fan of Michael Jackson and was inspired by his company name MJJ Productions, so I created a logo for my fictional company DJST Productions. Here’s a wire-frame version of it (unfortunately the only one I have left after a tragic hard drive crash):

When I finally created an actual company in 2007, picking the name was easy. However, I have to say it doesn’t sound as nice when Swedish sales people call me up and ask if they’ve reached the company De Gee Ess Te Pro-duck-chens

2. I haven’t been at a hairdresser in over eight years. I cut my own hair, usually very frequently to maintain a constant length. Sometimes my mom cuts it when the back hair gets too uneven. I estimate that this has saved me about 1,280 Euros, or the equivalent of over six hundred juicy Double Double Animal Style burgers.

Every so often, the frequency drops noticeably.

3. I used to write my own music between 1995 and 1997 on a Roland W-30 workstation. Because I was writing techno/trance inspired music and there were no lyrics, naming the songs was not easy since I couldn’t really relate to anything but the feeling the songs gave me. One song, which marked an important milestone because it made use of my newly bought Alesis Quadraverb multi-effects unit to add reverb to some of the tracks, is called Incoming Enemy, to Patrick Finch’s great amusement! In late 1997, my mom brought a computer to our house which pushed my music making interest aside for another creative interest: software programming.

4. Between 1999 and 2002, my programming skills developed and I was successfully selling a shareware text editor called Texturizer. Originally, as with many other software projects, Texturizer was only created to scratch a personal itch, but I was encouraged by an online friend to start selling it online. The program got great reviews by ZD-Net, vnunet.com, and other websites, and it was featured in the UK magazine Windows Answers under “The best freeware and shareware tools ever!”

Here’s a part of a review in a magazine that made me very proud at the time: Run Texturizer, and we’re confident you’ll never use Notepad again. […] Texturizer is so ruthless it even features a walkthrough showing you how do do away with Notepad. Sounds like Microsoft has been beaten at its own game.” – PC Answers, August 1999

5. In 2007, I recorded a short video clip with Swedish TV host and celebrity Katarina Hultling. I met her randomly on a cruise over the Baltic sea and didn’t realize it was her until I asked her if she knew Katarina Hultling (probably subconsciously recognizing her) and getting her answer that I was looking right at her. I got very enthusiastic and insisted that we would shoot a parody of her actual commenting of the 2006 Olympic curling final when Sweden won the gold medal, and I would be the enthusiastic side-kick. To my pleasant surprise, she liked the idea!

I’ve proudly shared the epic video clip with most of my Swedish friends, but I won’t publish it along with my other videos on Facebook out of respect to a fellow celebrity. ;)

6. There is not a single physical sport I’m known to be good at. I was one of those kids who didn’t want to play football because I sucked at it, and as a result, I kept sucking at it. Today, I occasionally enjoy playing badminton and table tennis, but I am sure I will never be even remotely good at it.

7. I am, however, a somewhat decent singer. I’m known for cursing loudly about the (admittedly very addictive) game Sing Star because you don’t score well if you try to sing like the original singer in the song — instead, you get higher scores by singing like a bloody .mid file! You probably won’t hear me sing unless I’m drunk, by the way.

There you have it — my seven things! Now, the ancient rules of engagement:

  1. Link to your original tagger(s) and list these rules in your post.
  2. Share seven facts about yourself in the post.
  3. Tag seven people at the end of your post by leaving their names and the links to their blogs
  4. Let them know they’ve been tagged.

In alphabetical order, I hereby nominate:

  • Seth Bindernagel — Wake up, A.M! Liberate your seven things!
  • Stephen Donner — QA superstar, excellent writer, and great friend.
  • Justin Fitzhugh — The man that speaks so fast I can only hear half of what he says. I can’t wait to read some stories from him instead!
  • Chris Ilias — Half-Greek wedding crasher and SUMO team member.
  • Paul Kim — Shock us! I expect nothing less.
  • David Naylor — Journalist, photographer, and proud member of the Mozilla Eskilstuna community.
  • Doug Turner — As one of the first people that welcomed me when I joined Mozilla in September 2007, he immediately surprised me by being such a nice person.

Rosegarden progress

Despite the early frustrations with Rosegarden, I’ve actually made some significant progress. By reading the great but simple tutorial on UbuntuStudio on how to set up things like JACK in Ubuntu, I am now able to use Rosegarden with the included synth plugins to actually play .wav samples and sequence it to resemble something that a some people would call music. In other words, I’ve actually managed to do pretty much the same thing I used to do on my real synth (a Roland W-30). I recorded some of the samples of an old song I wrote ten years ago on the W-30, and sequenced them using similar sound effects (mostly reverbs and delays).

However, I’m sure there are easier ways of doing it, because I’m forced to use separate MIDI tracks (and synth plugins) for every sample .wav file I’m using. On the W-30, I could load several samples and assign them to different keys on the keyboard. Don’t know how that stuff works in Rosegarden. Also, I have yet to figure out how how to e.g. control the plugins through the sequencer (for example, dynamically change the cutoff frequency of a low-pass filter plugin), so everything is pretty static. In other words, the filter doesn’t change over time during playback, unless I do it manually while the song is playing. On the W-30, I could control the filter slope through MIDI instructions. If you’ve ever attempted to create techno/trance music, you know how important filters are. There’s hardly any song not making extensive use of them, or any other dynamic effect for that matter.

Anyway, I’d like to say thanks to the author of UbuntuStudio. If it wasn’t for the tutorials on that site, I would probably have given up and installed Reason instead.

Create music with Rosegarden in Linux? Impossible.

I’m annoyed. I’ve spent the whole evening tinkering with Rosegarden and after four hours I still haven’t managed to connect a MIDI note to a sound! Has anyone used this before? As a nerd, I feel insulted when I can’t master an application after so many hours of googling, configuring, and tweaking. I just want to learn very basic (or so I thought) things like selecting a number of wave files and play them as sounds on a virtual keyboard/synth, and specify the velocity, pitch, sustain, etc. on each note. It really shouldn’t be this hard to get the thing to work. I want something like Reason or FruityLoops, but on Linux.

I grew up with a Roland W-30 with a sampler/sequencer, built-in low-pass filters and an Alesis QuadraVerb Plus. That’s about what I want to do: play samples (.wav files) in a sequencer, and apply effects such as echo on them. Can Rosegarden do that? Then please tell me how because I’m completely lost!

In Rosegarden, I was able to create notes, define its velocity and stuff like that. In other words, I was able to use the sequencer. But I simply could not connect these notes to an actual sound, except for MIDI sounds such as “Grand Piano”, etc (which btw didn’t sound at all; completely mute). There was the possibility to load a sound wave by dropping it on a track, but that’s not what I want since the MIDI events were still disconnected from that sound file. What I want is to select a .wav file to be played using MIDI notes and events, with the ability to pass the sound through filters and effects that can be controlled through control events as well (to allow filters to change over time, for example). I read about synth plugins, but I couldn’t figure out how to load any. I tried to load one of the sample songs “Children”, but it complained about XSynth not being loaded. I’m suspecting this is part of the reason why I couldn’t get this to work.

Maybe I’m ignorant, but I thought most musicians did the same simple thing, at the very least: selected a good sound (drum, base, some flute, or whatever), played it using different notes using a sequencer, and then processed the sound through different effects (echo, filter, etc), but appearantly Rosegarden seems to deal with just sequencing MIDI events, then it’s up to plugins to actually generate any sounds from the notes played. Plugins that are hard to configure and are nowhere to be found. Just for the record, I have been reading up on Wikipedia about things like JACK, LADSPA, DSSI, and other relevant bits required to connect this Lego-like framework.

Looks like I’ll have to resort to Windows and proprietary software after all. :(