the itjerk

my adventures with technology

Tag Archives: digital

this is beep

Just before the holidays I received Beep, a $99 music streaming device. It’s a very simple thing, whose purpose is to provide wireless streaming capability to dumb systems, like a pair of powered speakers, stereo system, boom box, well, just about anything that has an audio input that accepts either 3.5mm analog or digital optical output. I especially like that last part, digital. The Beep runs on 5VDC, sports a metallic finish and consists of a large multifunction knob (start/pause/skip/stop/volume) and some cool flashing lights.

It’s controlled by an app, available on either Android or iOS, that also helps you setup the player on your network. When I first got it, Beep was pretty limited. I could play either Spotify or Pandora, or in my case, neither (because I don’t use either service), though it now also supports SomaFM radio. Okay, it’s still pretty limited. No support for Google Play, Amazon Music, that iTunes thingy, etc.
Screenshot_2015-03-09-17-01-40
Recently however, Beep have added support for DLNA music servers. This is great news, because I can now play all the music on my local media server via the Beep. In order for me to do so, I first installed MiniDLNA software on my Ubuntu box using apt-get, manually edited the config file to get it setup, and opened a few ports in my computer’s firewall, 8200 TCP and 1900 UDP to let MiniDLNA out. It would have been easier if the Beep would just connect to my Squeezebox Server (aka LMS), but it’s just not there, yet…

It would also be better if Beep were a little more stable, and transparent. Throughout the day it randomly lights up “smiley face” (looking for network connection) and “sun shining” (all lights glowing, who knows what this means). That’s ultimately going to be the hard sell on Beep: without a display, no one wants to decode blinking lights; what’s it doing? why is it doing that? It just needs to work.

To use Beep as a renderer (something that plays media from a DLNA server), I had to get another Android app, BubbleUPnP. It’s a fairly straight forward app, though I did have to install the “demo server” in order for it to find my MiniDLNA server. Not sure if this is me or the app, but it was not very intuitive to figure out. That done, however, I can stream my server’s music library to whatever I connect my Beep to.
Screenshot_2015-03-09-16-50-06

On the web:
Beep | Bringing music to every room in your home
MiniDLNA
BubbleUPnP Server

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xitel md-port dg2

Remember minidiscs? To start, you'd have to dive back in time to the pre-iPod era, perhaps reaching as far back as a time before MP3s! Sony introduced the format in 1992 as an alternative to the cassette; minidiscs offered "digital" recording to a magneto-optical disc. Using an encoding technique called ATRAC, "an audio coding system based on psychoacoustic principles", it was one of the first lossy formats, but one that delivered both CD quality sound and convenience. The discs were indeed small and with compression held about 80 minutes of music – the same as a CD. But to make a long story short, the minidisc never really caught on (though musicians did (still do?) appreciate the portability and quality), and by 2000 both the format – and the players – were destined for the audio dustbin.

Somewhere along the way a company named Xitel developed a line of products to bridge the computer / audio equipment divide. Introduced in 2001, the DG-2 was a USB audio device that offered digital output for use with a Minidisc recorder – hence the name "MD Port". It saw a few hardware revisions, but basically did one thing: converted USB audio to optical S/PDIF via TOSLINK so you could keep everything digital when recording to minidisc. Xitel also made an analog device, the AN1, that converted USB audio to analog via a stereo miniplug. The AN1 is still available from Xitel (it's now called the "MP3 Streamer"), but for the DG2, just search eBay and you can find one of a dozen vendors selling it for as low as US$12.

Now, what's this got to do with anything? Well, the DG2 gives me the ability to send audio from my computer – in pure digital form – to the superior digital-to-analog converters of that newly-purchased surround-sound receiver of mine. No larger than an iPod, the DG2 uses a controller at 16-bit 44.kHz to work it's wonder, converting the ones and zeros from the USB input on the computer side to optical TOSLINK on the output side. It's an inexpensive, plug-n-play way to get digital audio from almost any computer that supports USB audio. Thanks Xitel! Be sure to check out the detailed review of the device at Dan's Data (link below and thanks for the pix).

On the Web:
Xitel
Dan's Data review of the DG2 and AN1
Xitel at Minidisc.org

free television, part 2

I installed that EZ-HD antenna I purchased from Denny’s Antenna Service for the holidays. Wow, it all worked. Not the antenna, I had little doubt that would work, but all the RG6 cable in my house. The first time too! (NB: It’s a hell of a lot easier to cap f-connectors on RG6 cable than quad-shield, and according to Denny, that extra shielding is only necessary if you’re around high-voltage.) My digital converter box now enjoys great signal without any “cliff effect”, and I don’t have to adjust rabbit ears – in fact, I don’t have any rabbit ears! I also connected the antenna to my old Harmon Kardon receiver in the basement. I’ve never had better FM reception. In an age of cable and satellite television and radio subscriptions, we forget that, internet aside, both television and radio are still free. Viva!

free television

Ever since I ordered my coupon for a digital converter box from the government, we’ve enjoyed not only a significant step-up in quality to our off-air television, but a boatload of new channels – all for $25 bucks. The next step, which just so happens to coincide with some major house renovations, is a roof-top antenna.

The place to start is AntennaWeb. It’s an industry (CEA) sponsored site that assists you in finding out everything about off-air television reception, simply by entering your street address and zip code. TVFool.com offers the same information in a more graphic presentation. I live on the north side of Chicago and fortunately enough, the vast majority of signals I receive all emanate from the Sears Tower (CBS2 is the odd one out). I’m now empowered with information to make my antenna purchase a lot easier: the vast majority of television signals in my area are about 4-5 miles from my home, with a compass heading of 142 – 158 degrees and they fall into the “yellow” band. Now I know exactly what will be required of my antenna, and where to place it. I probably don’t have to worry about range, and may even experience some over-saturation if the antenna has too much gain. It also looks like a directional antenna will do.

After checking out Radio Shack‘s website, I wanted to find out more about antennas. First, I found the big three: Antennas Direct, Winegard, and Channel Master. Then I stumbled upon Denny’s Antenna Service. His site offers a wealth of information about television antennas, and he’ll even send you a personalized recommendation. For now, it looks like the EZ-HD Antenna is a top contender. Imagine, free, high definition television forever, all for a one-time purchase of $59.00.

Here’s what off-air reception entails:

  • VHF – Very high frequency, channels 2 – 13. Indoors, these are “rabbit ears”. There are two spectra: low, 2-6 and high, 7-13. According to Denny, you’ll have at least one channel in this range, so plan on an antenna that has VHF reception as well UHF.
  • UHF – Ultra high frequency, channels above 13. Indoors, this is the circular element. This is where the majority of television is broadcast.
  • FM – Frequency Modulation, good ol’ radio. I’ll be adding this to my roof set as well.

I’m old enough to remember buying our first color television with my father. Back then, we had exactly five television stations: the three major networks, a PBS affiliate, and one independent station, Channel 18. Since then, cable and satellite have all but overtaken off-air transmission. The government – especially the FCC – doesn’t do a lot of things right, but the conversion to digital transmission offers not only free high-definition television, but a new lease to off-air reception. Hurry now, as of this post you have exactly 100 days until analog tv is shut off for good!