the itjerk

my adventures with technology

Category Archives: New Product

hifiberry dac+ pro

Now that I’m committing to Roon as a music server, I’d thought it would be nice to take a look at my streaming hardware. I like the idea of using my preamp’s analog stage, because it has a great analog stage; I can also output directly from my computer (where my music resides) via optical or USB. So rather than spending money on a Bluesound or Auralic device, I think I’ll go DIY.

The old Squeezebox 3 is of course a cherished relic, and in the living room it will sit forever. I also have a Chromecast Audio there, both connected to a Schiit Modi 2 DAC. In the man cave, I have plenty of options. Roon is very good at dealing with heterogeneous outputs; it recognized most every device on my network. But I am looking for a dedicated device, because, well, just because. I had an old Hifiberry DAC running PiCorePlayer – a very worthy software package – from the days when Raspberry Pi’s didn’t have the “+”. Yep, that’s the one to upgrade.
RoonHifiDac
The good thing about Hifiberry is that they are Roon Ready partner, and have their own Roon Bridge image for their hardware devices. I decided on the DAC Pro +, which adds “integrated dual-domain low-jitter clocks and gold-plated RCA connectors.” Coupled with a new Raspberry Pi 3+ board, I was completely surprised at what a musical player it was: crisp, detailed and very easy on the ears, it’s an absolute delight to listen to.

Hacker note: It’s easy enough to ssh into the Hifiberry/Roon Ready image. Touch a file named “ssh” into the bootloader partition, then login with the user “pi” and password “hifiberry”. Oddly enough, if you do an apt-update/distupgrade, the thing shows up a little differently in Roon’s audio settings (see below image). Why do this? I can think of a couple reasons, including doing updates, turning off HDMI output (/opt/vc/bin/tvservice -o) and of course, changing the default password. Is the Hifiberry/Roon image any better than using a standard Raspbian image with Roon’s Bridge installer script? Maybe I’ll ask Hifiberry.
Hifiberry

I went cheap on the acrylic case, which unfortunately snapped when I went to put heatsinks on the rPi, so I’ll be upgrading to the metal case shortly. Also, I’m going to upgrade to a low noise switching power supply, because that’s really the last thing to do get the best sound from the Hifiberry/rPi combo. Or spend $$$ on a linear power supply!

All-in-all, a very impressive digital streaming device for under $100.

On the web:
HiFiBerry DAC+ Pro | HiFiBerry

roon labs

Roon is paid software. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about Roon. Roon is software for managing and accessing your disk-based music library. There is a server aka “core” element, as well as “endpoint” apps for (nearly) every OS, including Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, etc. Some like to think of it as a component of your audio system, albeit one of the software variety.

roon

Why use Roon? I have to admit a directory tree isn’t the most elegant way to view ones digital music library. And that’s what Roon does: it scans your digital music, applies rich content – pictures, text, weblinks, etc – and puts it all together for a paid subscription-like experience. It even fills in the blanks on missing artwork, etc. I don’t use Spotify or iTunes, but Roon provides a very similar interface.

I installed RoonServer on my linux box with ease. When I ran the “easy install” script (remember to chmod +x first), it alerted me that I needed cifs-utils installed first. That corrected, the script downloaded and installed the server software, and set itself up as a service. But that’s it as far as linux goes. It’s a headless game, no native app, no web interface, from here on out I’m off to my phone or computer to control my music.

On the Roon app for Android, I logged into my Roon account and gave them my credit card number. Viola! it all worked. I then setup a music “zone” (an odd choice of word), which is an audio player. I was a bit shocked by how many appeared: my Pixel 2 phone, the (four) audio outputs from my linux box, Roon Bridge which I installed on a new RaspberryPi (more later), all my Chromecast devices, and lo and behold, my Squeezebox3 and Squeezelite players. In order to use the latter, one must enable Squeezebox support AND stop the LMS (Squeezebox) server. Once you select something to play, you can then choose where – including simultaneously – to play it.

I’ll write up another post as after a week or so of my free 14 day trial, but initial thoughts are mostly positive. It is a great interface, and it brings the whole digital music experience up a level. However, I really am disappointed there is no native linux app, and I still haven’t figured out how to add my own rich content, other than pictures to artists and albums to the library. (Hey, of course I’d like to add my Strawberry Bricks reviews to my collection!) The Android interface could sure use refinement (separate player from config mode, easier access to artists) but I suppose this is a forever work in progress.

Screenshot (Aug 22, 2018 5_10_04 AM)

Roon all sounds fine, and it all looks great; the question however is simple: is it worth $119 per year, let alone $499 per lifetime?

On the web:
Roon Labs

aries mini vs node 2 | roon

Two very popular streaming devices, one from Auralic, the latter from NAD/PSB affiliate Bluesound, are very tempting to purchase at $499. While neither have displays, they have all the guts of a good streamer, perhaps an update to my decades old Squeezebox, or better version of my Hifiberry Pi. I’m a bigger fan of streaming every day, because, it sounds just as good if not better than CDs, and is so, so convenient. Plus, playing music directly from my computer is getting… passé?

But there are some downsides to these streamers: Foremost, no display; to get visual, I’d have to spend more money. Also, each of these players has a serious fault: The Aries Mini has no native Android app, while the Node 2 doesn’t support UPnP/MiniDLNA. Sure, I could fork of some $$$ for a Roon Core, which both support, but I’m not sold on that either. I’d like to use an existing music server (UPnP, Logitech), and I have only Android devices in my home.

I’ll admit, Roon is tempting. At $499 for a lifetime license, it could be the future of my streaming server. Or at least, another one. It supports Linux, it’s got a good UI, combining the rich content of the web to file names and folders. But wouldn’t it be even cooler if I could pull up my music collection via Roon on my TV and use that as an interface, instead of a little phone screen? Tell me it’s so Roon, and I might sign up!

On the web:
Node 2
aries mini
Roon Labs

bios, baby

I know that everyone hates updates, especially that ultra-pesky 1709 Creators update for Windows 10. But you gotta do them, just like exercising, dieting, eating healthy, etc. Please remember when an update says “DO NOT POWER OFF YOUR COMPUTER” it really means it.

Currently most every “modern” computer needs to have its BIOS updated for those also-pesky chip Spectre/Meltdown vulnerabilities. Most computer manufacturers and motherboard companies have Windows software that helps you perform a BIOS update. Apple calls these firmware, and handles the updates for you via the App Store. Just remember, these updates should be done attended, so that’s more for the itjerk to do!

google home mini

I went to Microcenter with my family to pick up a couple flash cards (free with coupon) and as soon as we walked in, we were greeted by an end-cap of Google Home Minis. A well-positioned salesperson said “I think they are still on sale for $29.95.” One of my daughters, armed with Xmas money, immediately grabbed one and started pleading with me to allow her to purchase it (she’s only 10 years old).

With out much banter, I acquiesced to both the purchase and her intended location: her bedroom. Second, older daughter also ponied up. Mind you, I sold my Google Home over the holidays because a) I just never got used to the idea that she was always listening to ALL our first floor conversations, and b) I can perform the same commands on my phone – “Okay Google, play Syd Barrett” – and send them to Chromecast Audio.
Google-Home-Mini

Not much larger than a hamburger, the Google Home Mini is quite a bargain at $29.95. According to the web, that’s just about Google’s cost for the thing. Both daughters have Nexus phones (one part of the Fi plan, the younger wifi only), so once home, they quickly downloaded the Google Home app and we began setting them up. The Mini offers my daughters a couple of things that I like: all the music they’d ever want (with a linked Spotify account), an alarm clock, and interaction with voice technology. Let’s face it, in a decade or so, our houses will have voice-controlled access to computer technology in every room. It’s such and amazing and convenient interface: “what’s the weather” or “what’s 56 times 27?” It’s also a single solution for the clock radio and the bluetooth speaker (though I wish it had a time display).

I have to admit, I kinda wanted to buy one myself, but, alas, the sale ended, and so did my desire for it. For now…

google pixel 2

With $250 off — $150 trade-in on my “warranty repaired” Nexus 5X plus $100 discount for being a Google Fi subscriber — I couldn’t resist upgrading to the Pixel 2. It’s the same size as the 5X, and honestly, not much different other than the price tag. Excellent battery life and 64GB of storage popped out instantly, as did the “swipe up” home screen, but what I like the most about it is that it’s the purest Android experience yet. And it’s not repaired. 😉

no phone

I was at a Xmas party the other afternoon, and after taking my just-over-two-year-old phone out of my front breast pocket, noticed that it was not on. I tried to turn it on, but nothing. No battery? When I got home a few hours later, I plugged it into multiple chargers, went into recovery mode, cleared the cache, tried a factory reset, but same result: wouldn’t start. I chatted Google Fi (my carrier), was transferred twice, then eventually talked to LG, the manufacturer of the LGH790, aka Nexus 5X.

Long story short, it stopped working, stuck in some kind of infinite reboot. LG offered to repair the phone for free (cross-fingers). I then went to their specific website for repairs, filled out everything (including IMEI), went back to Google to get a proof-of-purchase, printed out that and the Fedex label, and have been slowly watching it traverse its way to Texas via ground service. Estimated 8-10 business days for the repair. Over the Xmas holiday, too.

No phone and no camera. Only a computer at home and a computer at work. How do I check my Fitbit? How do I get text messages? What about that ongoing thread about the next “sniding” (record listening event)? What about my Facebook friends? How do I show off my kids’ pix?

Oh first world problems. Sure, it’s liberating not getting work email 24/7 or habitually checking my phone for… well, because that’s what we now do.

I feel anxious, though, like something’s missing. How long can this go on? Evidently much longer…

UPDATE: I received the phone back on Friday 12/22 (using Fedex’s Ship Manager to have it delivered to a local Fedex/Kinko’s). No cost to me and a perfectly new-looking phone.

LG

Oppo BVD-103

Yep, time to get into Blu-ray. This was mostly precipitated by the imminent arrival of a new Gentle Giant compilation, Three Piece Suite, which features 5.1 remixes of tracks from their first three records. The Oppo BVD-103 had been on my radar for a long time… so long, that it was discontinued in favor of the newer UDP-203. But the newer model doesn’t support older formats like HDCD and VCD, so I was off to find the older model.

As much as I thought it could be found for less than the newer model ($550 MSRP), the reality was that I really couldn’t find one. However, Amazon did have a few listed as “Warehouse Deals,” so purchased one for $430 that was listed in “very good” condition. I figured if it didn’t turn out OK, I would simply return it – the beauty of dealing with Amazon!

I received the player with Prime shipping the following day. It was complete with the exception of a manual (which I downloaded from the Oppo website), and the battery contacts on the remote needed a little scrubbing. Otherwise, it was in top condition, and immediately upon connecting the player to my (wired) network, it set opon upgrading its firmware — definitely a good sign. I disabled HDCD decoding on the Oppo to get those discs to play right, and went pretty much default on the other settings for the player.

In addition to providing me Blu-ray capabilities, the UDP-103 is definitely a step up from my previous Oppo universal player, which I purchased about 9 years prior. It sounds better, especially the analog output from the Oppo (which I run through my stereo system), and this funky issue I had with the output volume between digital and HDMI appears to have vanished.

record cleaning

If you didn’t know, I’ve got a lot of albums, the earliest of which I started collecting in the early 1970s. They’ve been through a lot – teenage years, moves, and many of them were bought used. As I catalog them on discogs.com, I’ve been looking at each and every one. Most look pretty good; very good plus or even mint minus; others, not so much: finger prints, dust and who knows what! A record is made of polyvinyl chloride – PVC. It’s pretty hardy stuff, most modern plumbing is made of it. The grooves are more fragile, and once scratched, scuffed, etc, it cannot be undone. Yet anything that gets into those grooves that makes for a less than perfect playing experience can be rectified with proper cleaning. But please have realistic expectations about $3.00 records from Salvation Army. You can’t undue wear to vinyl – scratches and scuffs are permanent – dirt and dust are not.

Now let’s talk about money. If one had unlimited resources, they could just buy a better copy of an album. Or a $5000 ultrasonic record cleaner. Or even pay someone to clean their records. But I didn’t spend 40 years collecting records just to replace them; that wear and tear is my wear and tear, and those records and all they’ve been through are part of my story. And cleaning them, is my work.

The best way to clean records is by using a wet solution and then vacuuming it dry. Record cleaning machines start at about $500, and go up, though the Record Doctor V is only $200. A product like Spinclean handles the washing part, but not the drying; microfiber clothes are okay, but they don’t provide the “lift” that vacuuming does.

The $29 Vinyl Vac is not only one of the least expensive ways to get into vacuuming records, it’s also one of the best! It’s a PVC tube that attaches to the end of a shop vac, and over the spindle on a turntable. The tube has a slot cut into it, with felt around the edge that rides over the vinyl – pictures speak a thousand words, so here it is:
6183536_1
One can absolutely shine in all their obsessive-compulsive glory when talking cleaning habits; my record cleaning regime may not be yours, but if you’ve made it this far, you must be interested. Make no mistake, ideally, I’d prefer to never clean a record. If it was purchased new and handled properly, there shouldn’t be any need to. But my records are road-hardened. It’s time to clean!

The solution: Guess what’s the most effective cleaning chemical in the world? Water! Yep, all the other stuff – surfactants – just help water do its job. I use a 3:1 mix of distilled water and 91% isopropyl alcohol as the base, and add a minute amount of Dawn dishwashing liquid, and Photoflo, a Kodak “wetting” agent, which helps the water spread across the vinyl as well as aide in drying. Isopropyl Alcohol is a solvent for cutting grease, aka finger prints, and dries quickly. While some consider this controversial, it’s diluted, and PVC is thermally bonded. Plus, it’s only on the record for a few minutes at most.

The tools: I use a flat paint brush to scrub the records on my lazy susan, and a 4″ sponge brush to rinse the records. The Vinyl Vac and a shop vac dry the records. After vacuuming, I let them air dry for a short while, before I return them into the sleeve.

The process: Here’s the video.

The result? The records that needed cleaning are now clean. It’s mostly a one and done process, as I don’t expect them to get dirty again. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but these are my records, scratches, scuffs and all.