Confessions of a Mac Junkie: Introduction

OK, so it’s not football season and my blog is suffering from neglect. But classes are over and I can only watch so many movies, even on blu-ray, in a week. The last couple summers I’ve used the little down time I have in the summer to read a couple novels. Since the sequel to The Name of the Wind isn’t going to be out for a while, nothing on that front really grabs me right now. Thus I’m starting a new series on the blog, which I’ll try to update about once a week. So, what is this all about?

I’ve been using Macs since I started college in 1987 (insert your own age joke here). One of the things I often find myself asking when I meet other Mac aficionados is “what X do you use?” where X is software for some particular purpose, or hardware, or whatever. And I’ve noticed over the last few years that people ask me that question a lot.

So, I thought I’d document some of the storehouse of Mac knowledge and preference buried in my brain. Why should anyone care? Well, I have to confess that I have a problem: I’m a junkie. I’m completely addicted to Mac stuff, hardware, software, peripherals, you name it. There are (at least) four fully licensed word processors and at least three such spreadsheet programs on my hard disk. There are probably five or six keyboards in my study right now. I spring for MacUpdate Promo bundles and MacHeist bundles pretty much whenever they happen. I am, sadly but most definitely, addicted to this stuff—but it means my opinions are generally pretty well-informed and backed by a fair amount of experience.

Here are some planned topics, though I probably won’t go in this order:
• Word processors (and maybe reference managers)
• Mice & keyboards
• Web browsers
• Presentation software
• Utilities (this will take many posts as I’m especially addicted to these; I’ll need to generate multiple sub-categories)
• Spreadsheets
• Audio editing
• How I keep my multiple Macs in sync (I get asked this particularly often)
• Drawing and diagrams
• Graphing
• Outlining/brainstorming
• Text editing
• Image editing for the non-’shopper?
• Blogging/twittering?

And I’m open for suggestions on others. Let my addiction work for you…

One last sidebar. This will most definitely not be any kind of Mac vs. PC holy war stuff. I find that tiresome. I made a choice, it’s my choice, it’s not a choice borne of ignorance or incompetence, and I really don’t give a rip if there are people who don’t agree with it. Nor do I expect other people to be swayed by my choice, so I’m not going there. If you want that kind of utterly unproductive nonsense I’m sure there’s a thread on Fark or Gizmodo where people are fighting it out—there nearly always is.

Now, I will dip my toes into some the muddy waters of dissent on the Mac side, because it is germane to the topic. LaunchBar vs. QuickSilver. BBEdit vs. other text editors. There will be Microsoft-bashing, but only for some applications; and don’t worry, there will be Apple-bashing, too.

Blu-ray first impressions

So, my Oppo BDP-83 arrived over the weekend and we got to experience the new tech. In a word, WOW.

I guess I didn’t fully realize just how used I am to upscaled video. The first thing we watched was Planet Earth. This is terrific but I’d seen it in HD when it first came out and the Discovery blu-ray is only 1080i so it’s not much different from watching it off the DVR.

Next was WALL-E. This is outstanding on blu-ray, no question. Of course, it’s a digital image to start with, and animated, so while it looks terrific, it was somehow not mind-blowing that it was so perfect. Well, that’s not quite true–the audio is pretty astonishing. The lesson, as always: lossy compression blows.

What really rocked me was The Matrix. I think what impressed me the most were the skin tones–just amazing. And smoke. And backgrounds. No banding or speckling or blurring. This movie was the “killer app” for DVD in the early days of that format and it’s one I’ve seen on DVD many, many times, so I’m really used to what it looks and sounds like in that format, so the contrast between blu-ray and DVD was particularly salient.

We watched The Dark Knight last night, and it’s also spectacular. However, since we didn’t have the DVD prior to the blu-ray, the contrast between blu-ray and DVD was obviously not at the forefront. Great blu-ray experience, though, for sure–I was actually holding off on buying this movie until we had blu-ray, as I did with WALL-E. Good choice.

The other thing I’ve really been enjoying about the BDP-83, and one of the reasons that I went with that despite its somewhat hefty price tag is SACD playback. The BDP-83 can output raw DSD multichannel, which my Denon receiver handles beautifully, and it just sounds fantastic. I know this isn’t a format which really took off, and I don’t have a lot of titles (mostly classical), but it’s fantastic where I do have it.

So, good stuff all around. Now if the price of media would only come down a bit, it’d be fantastic. The way to make this happen, I think, is for higher demand. So, if you have a decent HDTV, get a blu-ray player, dammit. If you don’t care about things like SACD, even a cheap one will be a big upgrade in terms of picture and audio quality.

Test Drive Impressions: MazdaSPEED3, MINI Cooper, Honda Civic Si, & Subaru WRX

So, on Friday I test drove four cars. As I noted in that day’s entry, I love my 2002 Mazda Protege5. However, it is getting a bit long in the tooth and I wouldn’t mind a more updated car in terms of saftey and gizmos—and I’d love something faster, of course. I love the size and handling of my Pro5 so I’m looking for something like that; a fast small car with good handling and updated content. Automatic transmissions need not apply. Now, I have two kids (they’re still small) so a strict coupe is out. To be honest, I also don’t really need a new car right now, as my Pro5 has been rock solid. But I just got a raise so it’s fun to look.

The good news is that there are some great cars in this segment and I liked everything I drove. These are all worthy cars and any one of them would be terrific. Of course, I liked some of them better than others. In worst-to-first order:

4th: Honda Civic Si
While overall I liked this the least—but let me be clear, I did like it—the Si has a fantastic shifter. Totally smooth, perfect snick into each gate. On the other hand, this is probably the slowest and worst-handling of the four. The steering wheel provides a little less feedback, the ride is a little too smooth, and it has the standard VTEC engine “torqueless wonder” problem. It’s possible to coax decent response out of the engine, but the thing is almost completely gutless until you hit about 6000 rpm. Now, this is actually doable, but requires a lot of rowing with the shifter. That’s actually kind of fun, but fundamentally the car just doesn’t seem as tight and responsive as the other three. The low torque is indeed smoother when not pushing the car and there’s something to be said for that, but it’s just not enough. Also, this particular Si didn’t have the upgraded tires, so perhaps it would have been better, but it just didn’t stick to the road the way the other cars did.

Also, I have to comment on the utterly inane speedometer. Digital speedometers are a horrible idea. It was a horrible idea on GM cars in the late 1980s, it’s horrible on the Prius, and it’s horrible in the Si. Rate of change is almost impossible to assess, it creates distracting flicker for night driving, and pretty much nobody wants to know that their speed is 57. Maybe the driver wants to know if s/he is above 55 and below 60, which is a very quick glance at an analog speedometer (is the needle in the region I care about or not?) but is harder with a digital. It’s just a bad idea.

Also, a comment to all floor sales managers: when you’ve talked to a customer who has clearly done his homework and knows rather a lot about the car, don’t send a sales guy on the test drive who knows nothing at all about it.

3rd: Subaru Impreza WRX 5-Door
The recent re-design of the Impreza line is pretty substantial in some ways and not in others. It’s a very similar engine, though the improvement in the size of the power band is certainly welcome. The body and interior are totally different, and IMO much improved. The old wagon (5-door, whatever) was ugly, and the interior more than a little on the Spartan side. The 2008 WRX has a dramatically more comfortable and well-appointed interior, and I’m in the camp that thinks the exterior also looks a lot better, too.

The ride is also a lot smoother. In fact, it’s too smooth. It still handles very well, but it’s not as stiff and responsive as the old WRX. The AWD is nice and offsets this a little bit, but Subaru’s obvious attempt to “go mainstream” here went a just a smidge too far and it took the fun edge off just enough that this car came in a bit behind the other two—but only a little bit.

In some sense the WRX is the jack-of-all-trades, but master of none. It’s not as fast and the cabin, while nicer, is still not as nice the Mazda. It isn’t as fun and with the content of the MINI, but rather strikes a nice balance between those other cars. But this is a race where I felt like one car had to be the winner at something, and this wins only at having AWD, which is nice but really not all that big a deal here. The AWD also makes it the big loser at the pump. Considering that this isn’t the high-miles car in the family (that’s our hybrid), that’s not my primary concern, but 25 highway? Really? Seems pretty awful.

Second comment to car salespeople: being knowledgeable about your product is good, but if you spend half your contact time with me denigrating the competing cars, that makes me think that that’s all you have. Sell me on what’s great about your car, not what you think are the flaws of the other cars. If your product is actually superior, that should be good enough.

2nd: Mazda MazdaSPEED3
This is the sub-$25,000 compact car equivalent of being shot out of a cannon. The Speed3 is just teeth-rattling fast. Given the numbers—263 horsepower and a whopping 280 lb.-ft. of torque—this is not a surprise. However, throwing that at the front wheels, well, it seems like a recipe for the worst torque steer ever. What was the most amazing thing to me about the Speed3 is how well-controlled the torque steer is. Apparently the computer works the limited-slip differential and limits turbo boost to manage the torque steer—and it works impressively well. Besides that, the handling is tight and responsive and feedback from the road through both wheel and tires is excellent. Certainly some people won’t like the ride—it’s very stiff—but I rather like it that way. It’s communicative and the tires seem good and sticky.

And it’s strikingly well-appointed—the interior is outstanding, particularly for a car in this price range. The driver’s seat is very good, the ergonomics are sound, the backseat and cargo area are generous (36.3” of rear legroom, which is more than some mid-size sedans); this is a terrific car, practical as well as a kick to drive. And the price is sweet. (Though I’d have to seriously consider factoring in extra expense for speeding tickets.)

I have four minor quibbles: you can’t get a moon roof (laugh if you want, but being able to vent hot air when parked in the Houston summer is not a trivial feature; note that the WRX lacks this as well), the color choices don’t appeal to me (they just dropped both the blue and the silver), no daytime running lights, and there’s a couple minor creature features I’d like (Bluetooth and real iPod integration), though those are indeed minor features. The other thing which was kind of a gotcha for me was the shifter. I think the problem is that in so many other ways it’s similar to my current car, but the gates are closer together in the Speed3 than in mine (which makes sense, since it’s a 6-speed) that sometimes I’d miss, particularly the 3rd gear gate. I think I’d get used to that in, oh, about two days. Or maybe the shifter really is a bit notchier than the other three. Hard to say for sure.

Fundamentally, this is the sensible choice. It’s what I should get if I were to replace my current car. In fact, if I really were going to replace my car now what I really ought to do is go back to the dealer on Monday and grab the last blue one before they’re all gone.

1st: MINI Cooper S (and Cooper Clubman)
I know, the MINI just seems so wildly impractical, but the new “Clubman” version seemed like it could be just big enough that with two small kids it could work.

Now, let me be clear. I am, generally, not into “retro.” However, there is something about the look of the MINI that just really grabs me. And, of course, being a lover of small cars, the size is just wonderfully appealing. But of course with two kids, the pure coupe—I don’t relish the idea of climbing over to buckle and unbuckle our 4-year-old—and the nearly zero trunk just would not work. But the Clubman looked good on paper (well, on the Web), so I had to check it out.

The dealer didn’t have a Clubman S. This is hardly a surprise, the Clubman is very new and they’re still pretty hard to come by. However, the dealer had a regular Clubman and of course many Cooper Ss, so I drove the one Clubman and an S.

First, the Clubman is a trip. When I first saw it, I had to say my impression was that of a really miniature limo—it looks just like a regular Cooper, but stretched out. I mean, it’s really not all that stretched out; the Clubman is only 9.5 inches longer, bringing the total length of the car up to 155 inches, which is still 16” shorter than my Pro5. And it drives… like a MINI. That is, spectacular road feel. The whole marketing brochure nonsense about “go-kart handling” is, in fact, not just marketing nonsense. There’s a button marked “Sport” in the car which tightens up the steering and improves throttle response—I don’t know why anyone would ever even consider turning that button off. (Well, OK, actually I do: supposedly the car delivers better mileage that way.)

And the Cooper S is just fantastic. No, it’s not rocket-fast like the Speed3, but the road feel on the MINI is just so much better than the other three cars that it feels almost as fast. The shifter is great, a very close second to the Honda, and the feedback through the steering wheel was easily the best. The cockpit is, of course, a little quirky. The truly gigantic center-mounted speedometer is weird, but unlike the speedo in the Si, this turned out not to bother me at all. I dislike the power window control not being in the door (it’s on the center console), but the driving position, pedals, and steering wheel are all very well-configured. It is simply a blast to drive. Hands down, the most fun driving experience of the four.

Being a BMW brand, just about every feature under the sun is available on these. There are a zillion options, from checkered flag side markers to Bluetooth and full iPod integration. Obviously this means it’s possible to really jack up the price, but all the gizmos are certainly available. The BMW thing also means reliability is only about average, but all maintenance included for the first 3 years/36,000 miles. The boys will outgrow the bitty backseat in not too long, so three years of total coverage would probably do the trick—that’s probably about how long I’d keep it anyway; I’d probably lease.

Oh, and the mileage is crazy good: 26 city, 34 highway. The salesman reset the trip computer when I took the wheel on the S, and I drove it very hard and still pulled 24 mpg for the trip. Again, not my primary concern but it certainly would offset the price tag a little.

And there’s no issue with color choice on the MINI. Gorgeous British Racing Green, anyone? Check this out:


As much as I’d love to jump in and lease it right now, the wait on an order for a Clubman S is now 16 weeks. Four months is quite a while. So, I think I’m going to wait for a while longer and see if availability improves and see what kind of track record the Clubman generates over the next year or so. But it’s wild good fun and I’m very positively inclined.

Always park bonnet out, right?

Mini-review: Sennheiser MX75

I got a pair of these for Xmas and I’ve used them quite a lot, so it’s well past time for a review.

First, why Senn MX75s? Well, I know earbuds aren’t really the best choice in terms of sound quality, but I find that the convenience factor is sometimes too much to overcome. So, for couple years, every time I headed to the gym or out do do work in the yard, I had my Sony E888s in my ears. The E888s are excellent earbuds (you know, for earbuds), but my pair were literally falling apart. Not the foamies—I have a small stockpile of replacement foamies—but the actual housings are starting to come apart. I don’t think they’re designed to handle sweat.

The MX75s are “sport” earbuds and are supposedly designed explicitly to handle this kind of thing. So how are they?

The differences between different ear buds are not, in my experience, as big as the differences in comfort between different full-size headphones. That said, there are differences. The MX75s have this interesting thing they call “twist-and-fit;” basically, there’s an extension above where the bud goes in your ear canal. This seems weird at first, but it’s actually great—it really does hold the bud in place, which is particularly important when doing something active. The MX75s come with different size outer rings on the buds as well as two different sizes for the twist-and-fit pads, so these should work well for a range of ear sizes.

The cable is extra sturdy and somewhat stiff. It comes with a little rubberish semi-rigid plastic pouch for storage. Frankly, I’d much prefer a winder like the one that came with the older MX400s.

Sound Quality
This is, of course, the main concern, and I’ll admit that I was a actually a bit surprised here. I didn’t expect much from these; basically, I was expecting these to be sweat-proof MX400s. Happily, they’re better than that. They have both more and clearer bass than the MX400s. Now, they’re still earbuds, so there’s a limit to bass, but these have pretty decent bass performance for earbuds on that score. The highs are also cleaner than the MX400s. Mids are also improved; definitely less murky than the MX400s. That is, the MX75s are better across-the-board than the MX400s. That’s as it should be, since these are more expensive.

So, how do they stack up against my long-time earbuds of choice, the E888s? Here, they’re not quite as good—but they’re closer than I expected. The E888s have a small advantage on the highs—a bit more sparkle, as it were—and the bass is better-defined on the E888s. The mids on the two are very comparable. Again, I’d give the edge to the E888s, but again, the margin is smaller than I would have guessed beforehand. The E888s are better—noticeably—but the MX75s are at least playing in, well, certainly not the same ballpark, but at least one that’s vaguely nearby.

If nothing else, the MX75s are certainly good workout earbuds for $35 (that’s the current U.S. price on Amazon).

Yes, I miss the improved sound quality of the E888s, but I have to say, in the gym, I miss it less than I might have thought. I guess that may be in part because I watch more movies now (hooray for video out on the iPod) and spend less time just listening to music. That is, I don’t listen to these buds under the most demanding conditions—which is really the whole point of earbuds in the first place. If I’m listening critically in a quiet environment, I’m going to be listening to speakers or full-sized cans anyway. For sweat-heavy on-the-go places for under $40, the MX75s certainly fit the bill for me.

Apple TV Impressions

Somewhat unintendedly, I recently acquired an Apple TV (for this story, see the postscript). As a UI guy and a long-time Apple guy, what do I think?

First, there is no way I would have considered this before the 2.0 update. Having a device designed to work with a home theater which didn’t natively understand 5.1-channel digital audio is a failure out of the gate. But, with the 2.0 version and the magic that is HandBrake, one can digitize DVDs with full 5.1 audio and stream them across the home network quite nicely. (And yay for MetaX also for tagging.)

So, my initial impressions. I suspect that some of the things I don’t like are actually fixable, but these are my initial impressions after having the thing for a week:

• The whole idea of having your whole audio and video library available all the time at the home theater—the main purpose of the thing—is Way Cool. I’m sure there are other gizmos which provide this basic functionality (more or less), so I’m mostly going to comment on things which are either especially good or which particularly need work.

• Basic setup is incredibly easy, even for an Apple product. Plug in the relevant cables (and supporting full HDMI means a single cable from the Apple TV to the receiver), input a five-digit code into iTunes on the main home machine, and that’s it; it just works. Now, I have CAT5 ethernet wiring in my house so there was no wireless to set up, but still, that’s not bad.

• More advanced configuration, however, could be better. I really want to change the order in which things are sync’d with the ATV. It’ll let you put photos on first, which is good, but I’d like to give music priority over movies and TV shows. I’d also like for there to be some way to exclude things in my iTunes library from showing up on the ATV; because now I have two versions of most movies in my library (a low-bitrate stereo version for my iPod and a high-bitrate 5.1 version for the ATV), I’d like to not see doubles of everything on the ATV. Similarly, on the ATV, I’d like to be able to have more organizational control, such as sorting my own movies into categories rather than having one enormous list.

• One thing I didn’t think I’d like nearly as much as I do is using the ATV for photos. We recently took the kids to DisneyWorld and I immediately sync’d the photos to the ATV and we all sat around looking at the new pics. This really is a great way to look at photos.

• The simplicity of the Apple remote is great and all that, but I find that I’d like more controls. I control my home theater with a Logitech Harmony 550 (and it knows the ATV remote codes, which is nice) and I’d like to be able to make use of more buttons. In particular, I’d like to be able to navigate the huge lists with numeric keys rather than having to scroll forever. Also, entering text using this remote is an exercise in annoyance. (As my brother pointed out, this is hardly surprising; after all, this is the company of the single-button mouse.)

There’s one kind of goofy unintended consequence of Apple using the same remote for everything, too. I often have my laptop out in the living room, and I’m constantly having to quit FrontRow which has been launched by me navigating the Apple TV. Kind of annoying, actually.

• We haven’t rented a movie (yet), so I can’t comment on that, though the UI for doing so is certainly clean and easy. They’re a little pricey, but the fact that some titles are in HD is good, and I don’t think we’ll rent that many. In fact, because of this we just dumped our movie channels, and I bet we spend less on rentals than we did on those. It’s nice that the high-res format war is over, but Blu-Ray players are still way more expensive than they should be so I’m not willing to go there just yet. Frankly, I might not be for quite some time if HD rentals are so easy and if the library expands.

• If you think YouTube videos look bad on your computer, you really don’t want to see how awful they look on a big screen HDTV. Jaggy hell.

Overall, I’d give the Apple TV something in the B/B+ range. It’s good but there’s definitely room for improvement.

So, why an Apple TV now? First, the timing is good, as the 2.0 ATV is now out, the 0.9.2 release of HandBrake understands 5.1 audio in a way that works with ATV, and the new version of Airfoil also now supports Apple TV. The main reason, however, is that my A/V receiver (an old NAD T751) kind of gave up the ghost and I wanted something which offered at least some protection against future changes in digital formats, so I went with the Denon 3808CI. (The protection against future format changes is that the 3808 has an ethernet jack and can download new firmware to itself quite easily.) In order for the warranty to be valid, of course, one has to buy from an “authorized dealer.” This is stupid, as of course the “authorized dealers” basically don’t offer discounts. However, one of them was running a promo and offering a free 40G Apple TV in lieu of a discount, so I went with that. A nice excuse, really.

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7 vs. Sennheiser PXC 250

I do a fair amount of air travel; in 2007 I flew about 50,000 miles without leaving the U.S. As a human factors guy, I know that the airplane rumble contributes to feeling fatigued as a result of air travel. I don’t like having things in my ear canal (I apparently have some skin condition in my ears and they always irritates the skin in my ears) so IEMs (that’s “in-ear monitors” for the non-headphone crowd) are not a good option for me. So, active noise cancellation (ANC) was a possibility. I wasn’t sure about all this but years ago I got some cheap Aiwa noise-cancellers as a gift and I’ve never looked back, active noise cancellation is for me.

So, I’ve owned, and been reasonably happy with, the Sennheiser PXC250s for some time. I got them on sale at MacMall for $90 back in 2003, which was pretty much a steal at that time. That was the only PXC model at the time. The PXC 250 is simply the Senn PX200 with Sennheiser’s active noise cancellation.

A little while back, Audio Technica released a new entry into the ANC party, the ATH-ANC7. Sennheiser also release some new players like the PXC 450 (which I understand to be the drivers from HD555 in closed form with Senn’s ANC circuit). The PXC 450 is a bit on the spendy side and has gotten some negative reviews, so I wasn’t all that interested in them, despite the fact that I really like the Senn HD 555/595 sound signature. I asked for the ATH-ANC7s for Christmas and my wife obliged.

So, now I’ve had them for a couple months and they’ve been on a few plane trips (including two transatlantic flights); how do they stack up against my tried-and-true PXC250s?

I should preface this by saying that Sennheiser and Audio-Technica are currently my favorite headphone manufacturers. My main cans at home are Senn HD595s (the better 120-ohm model), but when I need a closed can, I go for my ATH A700s. So this is a shootout between two companies I’m predisposed to liking.

I’ll face them off on a number of attributes. However, first, details on my usual air travel rig:
• 5.5gen 80G iPod video
• SendStation lineout dock to bypass Apple’s attenuator
• Xin Supermicro amp
• Custom mini-to-mini cable (made by Norm of “Vibe” amp fame)

This one goes hands-down to the PXC250, no contest at all here. They fold up into a pretty small little package and Senn provides a nice zippered cloth case which also has a zippered pocket on the outside, which is perfect for the dock adapter and SuperMicro. The ANC7s fold kind of flat and also have a nice zippered hard case, but the thing is probably almost three times the size of the Senn case and doesn’t have as nice a pocket.

Noise Attenuation
This is more or less a tie. Due to their small size, the PXC250s don’t block out very much sound without ANC engaged. This means they don’t muffle mid-range and higher sounds very well. The ANC7s are much more substantial and do a better job with that. However, the Senn ANC circuitry is flat-out better than the ATH circuitry. With no audio being fed into the headphones at all, switching on the PXC250s just completely wipe out airplane rumble. The ANC7s do pretty well, but not as well as the Senns. Now, with any kind of music playing, the rumble is pretty well masked by the music so it’s not a big deal, but I know the Senns have the better ANC circuit. The ATHs, however, do a much better job with the screaming baby three rows back because of their superior passive noise cancellation.

Annoyance Factor
I’m not sure what other term to use for this. Basically, I want to give a point to the ATHs because the physical setup of the Senns is kind of irritating. The ATH is physically bigger, and the over-ear unit also houses all the electronics and the battery. Thus, you can put on the ATHs and have no cables coming from them at all, so if you just want the noise attenuation and don’t want to listen to anything else, you can do that without having to mess with anything else. The ATHs also take a standard mini-to-mini cable so you cable freaks can recable if you want, or anyone can replace the cable if it breaks. The Senn setup is not so slick. The cable that runs out of the ear cups goes a ways, then there’s a unit about the size of a candy bar which houses the batteries and ANC circuitry (including the mic), and then there’s a few more feet of cable ending in a mini plug. So when you’re wearing them you have to find a place to clip the candy bar thing. I have thus gone to wearing shirts with breast pockets when I fly just so I have some place to clip the stupid thing.

This is again a no-brainer. The Senns are feather-light and very comfortable; I can wear these babies for hours without any discomfort. The ATHs are reasonably comfortable headphones, but they just cannot match the Senns. After about two hours I need to take breaks with the ANC7s. The place where this really matters is sleeping; I find it very hard to fall asleep with the ATHs on, but this is not a problem with the Senns.

Sound Quality
So, which one sounds better? The PXC250 is based on the PX200, which is just simply not one of Senns better-sounding cans; both the highs and the lows are a bit rolled off with the PX200 (yes, I own a pair of those, too). I think the PXC250s sound better than the PX200s, though. I know it’s the same driver but the PXC250s are a little more lively. The highs have more sparkle and the bass is not so weak, though the mids are still emphasized. The ANC7s have the Audio-Technica sound signature to them, which means the mids are somewhat recessed overall. Overall I think the ANC7s sound a bit better; they’re a little more detailed and involving than the PXC250s and definitely have more thump for you bass-heads out there, though I would give a slight edge to the Senns for classical and acoustic music.

It should be noted, though this should be a surprise to nobody, that both of these sound dramatically better than any Bose NC product and they cost less. I’ve listened to both the QC2 and QC3 in stores and they both sound like crap, especially for those prices.

That’s probably not a word, but you headphone geeks know what I mean. The Senns are 300-ohm cans. With ANC on, they’re not quite as quiet as that, but even still, they aren’t all that easy to drive. With ANC on and no amp, putting the iPod volume on max still isn’t all that loud. This is why I got the Supermicro in the first place. The ATHs, on the other hand, while also not super easy to drive with ANC off (260 ohm), are much better behaved unamped with the ANC on than the Senns. They do improve when amped, as most headphones do, but not as much as the Senns. In particular, the ANC7s are adequate for watching movies without an amp, where the PXC250s need one even for that.

The Bottom Line
So, which headphone do I like better? I’m kind of on the fence, as there are obvious tradeoffs. I think in the future for transatlantic flights I’m taking the PXC250s because of the comfort and size advantages. (Coming out of the UK you only get one carry-on total, and that includes laptop bags, so space is at a bit of a premium, and I’m rather hoping to make trips to the UK more regularly in the future.) But for domestic flights I’ll probably go with the ATHs.

Postscript: What is ANC?
This is for those of you who don’t know anything about active noise cancellation. ANC is a pretty cool idea. Basically, there’s a microphone on the outside of the headphone which listens to the noise around you. A circuit takes that input, inverts the phase, and feeds that into the audio signal passed into the headphones. The result is that the outside noise is “cancelled out” of what you hear. Phase inversion is a little tricky and only really works at low frequencies. So, for instance, ANC doesn’t really block out voice all that well, particularly high-pitched voice. The good news, though, is that it’s the low frequencies which have an easier time passing through solids. (You know, when someone’s got the music too loud in their car with all the windows closed, all you can hear is the bass; the low-frequency stuff.) ANC is generally very good with any kind of constant, low-frequency rumble, like jet engines.

mini-Review: Script Debugger 4

One of the things I find myself doing a fair amount is making small tweaks to AppleScripts. Somewhat less frequently, I write big ones. AppleScript is great because with GUI scripting, even non-scriptable applications can be controlled. And since AppleScripts can run shell scripts, the potential is enormous. So I’m a big fan.

And, for many years, I’ve been a big fan of Script Debugger. Well, not too long ago Script Debugger 3 was starting to show it’s age. The latest version of Apple’s Script Editor is pretty feature-rich and fairly smooth to use, and Script Debugger 3 was a bit behind. Version 3 was a port of the OS 9 version and still really felt like it. It didn’t support newer script formats, the editor was getting klunky, etc.

Well, Late Night Software finally released version 4 of Script Debugger a few months ago–and, for lack of a more eloquent term, it rocks. I just googled “script debugger review” and got only hits for older versions. Well, that needs to be corrected. If you do even a moderate amount of AppleScripting, get SD4. The UI has been updated and polished some, but what really makes it great are the new bits of functionality.

One of my favorites is the live inspector (which they call the Explorer—horrible name, I know, sounds like Micro$soft). SD4 has a palette, and on this palette is a list of applications. With a pair of clicks, SD opens a window which gives you live access to all the current variables for that application. And the new inspector is great, making it very easy to navigate those objects. What was the name of the appropriate variable for that application’s window? Just a couple clicks, and there it is, right in front of you. And, if you can remember anything, you can search on it, and SD does a great job with that, too. Debugging is smoother than ever, and now it’s multi-threaded so you can run more than one script at a time.

Overall, it’s a way-cool tool. There were a few glitches in the initial 4.0 release (crashed on me several times), but now it’s up to 4.0.2 and those all seem to be gone. I now look forward to AppleScripting, which hasn’t been true in a while. Kudos to the gang over at Late Night

More car stuff

OK, so I recently drove the Acura TL. It’s a very nice car, luxurious, well-thouhght-out, and pretty fast. I can see why Consumer Reports likes it so much, as there’s little to criticize. But I don’t think it’s for me. First, it’s big. It didn’t feel quite as big from the driver’s seat as the Infiniti G35 did, but it’s truly a mid-sized car. Second, it’s too… isolating, I guess. The car seems designed to make sure everything is very smooth and controlled. To luxo. I also really hated the clutch. The car is powered by a Honda VTEC (of course), which doesn’t make much torque until you get the RPMs up. That’s OK, the throws are nice and short and the gears nice and close-ratioed. The problem is the hydraulic-assisted clutch is very soft and doesn’t give any engagement at all until right at the very tip-top of the travel. I unintentionally red-lined the car a couple times (the car shuts off fuel to protect the engine when you do this–why not just rev-limit it?) by accident because I’m used to some engagement as the clutch lets out. There’s just none, and no feedback at all as the clutch pedal comes up. I’m sure some people like that, but I like to interact a little more with the shifting process. I’ll note I had no issues with the G35 or RX-8 clutch–and nothing needs to be kept at high RPMs like a rotary. The shifter, on the other hand, is terrific. Nice quick, certain snaps through the gates, no notchy-ness at all. Very nice feel to it. Comfortable seats, too, no doubt about it. The turning radius is a bit wide for my taste, too.

I think, however, that even if I liked the clutch, I wouldn’t be that inclined to go for the TL. It also felt big to me, and I think that’s what I didn’t like about the G35, either. I think my options are starting to become clearer. I think it goes like this:

• I still need to drive the MazdaSPEED6. Based on what I’ve read, I’m sure it’ll be wicked fast but I suspect that I won’t like the nose-heavy (and just plain heavy) feel of it. And what’d odd is that despite the small back seat, the 6 is actually a pretty big car: 186.8 inches by 70.1 inches. It’s both longer and wider than the Infiniti, and a smidge longer than the Acura (though narrower). It is at least not as tall as either, so that’s something. I most certainly won’t rule it out until I drive it, but my expectations are moderated a little. Driving one is going to be a trick, though, as even my buddy the Mazda sales guy only has one (they got three on Saturday and sold two already), and they’re currently only letting serious immediate buyers drive it, which makes sense. Still, grr.

• If I go with the RX-8, I’ll lease it. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to take the small trunk and shuffling the boys in and out, and while they’re small now, if I were to keep the car for say, seven years, then my older boy will be 12. I can’t see living with a car that non-functional up to that age. And there’s the oil issue, and the flooding issue, and I’m not 100% sure the A/C is really up to the challenge of Houston in the summer, etc. Seems like a lot of hassle, though it is a joy to drive, more so than anything else I’ve driven (and I don’t expect the other Mazda or the Pontiac to beat it there). Maybe I could put up with the hassle for a three-year lease term, though, that seems more reasonable.

• I do still need to drive the S40 with a stick. Maybe I’ll hate their manual (Road and Track certainly did). If I don’t, though, and I go this route, I’m thinking very seriously about their overseas delivery program. They fly you to Sweden (yes, they pick up the plane tickets), put you up in a hotel, give you a factory tour, etc. You drive the car at least off the lot, or bum around Europe for a while, whatever, and they ship it back to you (at no charge). They take about 3 grand off the sticker so it’s a reasonable price for the car, as well. Not a bad way to beat the August in Houston heat, I’d say. But I still need to drive a stick.

• There is, of course, also the Pontiac. I guess I should drive it before I rule it out, but somehow I’m just not enthusiastic about the idea. Part of it is that it’s also big (by my thinking) being both longer and wider than the MazdaSPEED6. It meets the official criterion, but it’s not the best on any measure, and is the only one without at least a 4 year, 50k mile warranty. Not exactly confidence-inspiring.

We’ll just have to see how the drives go.

Car Ramblings

OK, so the situation is this: I’m up for a promotion at work this year, and it’s looking very positive. This is the Big One for people in my job, and since we bought a new car for my wife recently, I’ve been thinking that the proper reward would be a new car for me, since it is completely wrong that my wife now drives something faster than I do. Seriously–I’m amazed the world hasn’t spun off its axis. Anyway, even if I don’t get one, it’s fun to think about.

Anyway, the first phase is determining what that basic “must have” requirements are, and thus who the players are. Here’s the must-haves:

• Manual transmission
• Fast, and by fast I mean 0-60 in 6.5 or less, or quarter-mile in 15.1 or less
• Reasonably accessible back seats, since I have to kids to shuffle in and out
• Stability control
• ABS with EBD (turns out this disqualifies next to nothing)
• Decent handling (purely subjective)
• Comfortable driver’s seat (also completely subjective)
• Side airbags
• Non-staggering price tag. I stagger at about $34K, I think.
• Average or better reliability (sorry, VW and Audi)

It turns out this generates a pretty short list:

• Infiniti G35 Sedan
• Mazda RX-8
• Mazda MazdaSPEED6
• Pontiac G6 GTP
• Volvo S40 T5 (the AWD T5 just barely makes the speed cut)

Notable absences include anything made by Subaru (can’t get stability control), the Nissan Maxima (same problem), anything made by Acura (no manual tranny), the Lexus IS (the 250 is too slow and the 350 doesn’t have a stick option), and the Dodge/Chrysler Charger/300 platform (again, no manual tranny). [Edit: Actually, that’s a mistake, the Acuras are available with manuals. The TSX is too slow, though, but the TL should be on the list as it just squeaks in on price. I’ll get it on there eventually.]

I have a bunch of the features and information summarized in an outline. Some entries I don’t yet know, or the information I can find is inconsistent, hence the question marks. And if there’s a car I seem to be missing, let me know!

Anyway, the MazdaSPEED6 is a brand new car and I can’t yet even find a dealer who has one. However, I’m currently driving a Mazda and I have a great rapport with my sales rep and I know he’ll hook me up with a drive the next time I’m in for routine maintenance. The early reviews (including this) of this car are that it’s blazing fast but that it doesn’t quite feel like a Mazda in terms of handling. Dunno what I’ll think of that until I get behind the wheel.

Because of the Mazda connection, I’ve driven the RX-8 a bunch of times. What a terrific car to drive. Great balance, superb handling, wicked fun 9000 RPM redline, etc. However, I do have concerns about the practicality of the car with the teensy trunk and the funky doors. Lately I’ve been trying to force myself to notice when I think I would have been bothered by either of those and it happens more often than I would have thought. We don’t really need a car for hauling anything serious here, since our other car is a midsize SUV (it’s a hybrid, settle down), but with soccer season the trunk gets pretty full of gear when I’m picking up the boys for soccer practice–not sure about that gaping 7.6 cubic feet of trunk space (in practice, it’s less, because the RX-8 doesn’t come with a spare, but the optional dinky one sucks up trunk space).

One last thing on the Mazdas: through my wife’s employer, I get “s-plan” pricing, meaning I can buy a Mazda for invoice. So that’s also a factor.

I was stunned to end up with a Pontiac on the list at all. I can’t rule it out on the basis of handling or seat comfort because I haven’t driven it yet. More precisely, I haven’t driven the GTP yet. I’ve rented a base G6 once and it was surprisingly non-sucky for a GM car, although the handling was somewhat vague and elastic. However, the GTP uses a different steering system, so there’s hope. I tried to drive one the other day but they didn’t have a stick and I just had no desire to putter around with a GM slushbox, I’ve driven enough rental cars to know that game.

So, the other two, the Volvo and the Infiniti. Well, I got the chance to drive both for the first time this holiday weekend. After being shut out at the Pontiac dealer, I was not going to leave the Volvo dealer without driving something. Of course, they also had no T5s with a stick (much less an AWD T5). Well, the auto in the Volvo is a tiptronic so I gave in and took the T5 for a spin. Heck, it didn’t even have the sport suspension. It’s the slowest car in the bunch and, well, it’s a Volvo. Talk about turning into your father… (my folks have owned many Volvos and my dad still drives one). My expectations were pretty low, given that it’s a Volvo and the handicap of no stick and the softer standard suspension. So was I ever surprised–I really liked it. It’s quick (though not overpoweringly so) and very nimble and responsive. Almost no turbo lag whatsoever. Both comfortable and classy on the inside. Pretty tight quarters in the back seat but I have little kids, so not a big deal. (Heck, even has available integrated booster seats!)

I could not believe I liked a Volvo this much. Later I think I figured it out–I really like my current car, a Mazda Protege5, except that it’s slow and missing some safety and creature features I’d like to have (like stability control). The Volvo S40 shares a lot with the Mazda3, which is the successor to my car. So driving the S40 was a lot like a faster and classier (and safer) version of my car. So I guess it shouldn’t have been such a surprise that I liked it so much. On the other hand, a year ago I was lambasting this car for being a Mazda3 with double the price tag. Why not just get a Mazda3? Well, for one, no stability control, and for another, too slow. Now, when MazdaSPEED gets through with it, which I guess is supposed to happen in the next year or so, the speed thing should be addressed. I wonder about the stability control, though.

Then we went to the Infiniti dealer. They had a G35 sedan with a stick, so I took it for a spin. I was a smidge predisposed against this car because, well, because everyone already has one. They’re extremely popular here in Houston. After driving it, I can see why. It’s very nice, felt very big, and is wicked fast. 298 ponies and a slick 6-speed will do that. There was something about it I didn’t like, though. Perhaps it was a combination of the size and the sheer grandiosity of it. The car is very self-consciously a luxury car with a big engine. It was kind of hard to assess the handling because the test drive route was pre-designated (the sales guy rode with us, unlike with the Volvo, which we drove forever) and almost entirely straight with a couple of right turns at intersections, but I’m sure the handling is fine. It’s a hard car to criticize as it’s very well done and very fast. I guess what I didn’t like is the complete lack of subtlety–the Infiniti is very “in your face” about how fast and luxurious it is. It’s clearly a car designed to impress. It seems to be just short of outright having a sign that says “look at how successful I am!” Except, of course, that on a typical drive home from work I see a half-dozen of them, so it’s success without distinction. Or something like that. Perhaps I’m just not an Infiniti kind of guy. I did just about fall over laughing with the last thing the sales guy said to me: “You deserve it.” Here’s someone who sells a luxury item, all right…

If the Pontiac is indeed in its soul a GM car (though the G6 is based on the Saab 9-3 platform)–which I’m not ready to assume until I actually drive it–and that I can’t convince myself that I want to deal with the impracticality of the RX-8, then it would come down to what I think of driving the killer-turbo’d Mazda and how it compares to the S40. I know the Mazda will be way faster, but other than that, we’ll see…

Audio-Technica ATH A700 Initial Impressions

I have occasional need for closed headphones. Normally when I need closed cans at home I’ve been listening to HD280s and at work, Sony V6s. The HD280s are good for what they are but they but they do have their drawbacks, including rolled-off treble and an overall kind of boxy sound.

The Audio-Technica Ax00 series gets a fair amount of coverage at head-fi, and so I decided to give them a whirl. I went with the A700s since most have either the A500s or the A900s and I just have to be contrarian. That, and my self-set limit for cans I know I won’t use all that much was $150. With the audiocubes sale, the A700s were just under that, including shipping.

Anyway, they came while I was out of town last week, and last night I hooked them up when I got home from work and let them break in for about six hours before I put them on.

So, first, physical characteristics. As everyone says about these things, they’re HUGE. They’re not heavy at all, but they are big. The 3D Wing deal for the headband feels odd at first, like it’s going to fall off, but it stays on pretty well. They’re surprisingly comfortable given their size, though they do cover a lot of the side of my head and they do get a bit warm on the old noggin after a while.

The color is funky. The picture on Audiocubes just doesn’t do them justice–at first, I thought the pic was totally off and my pair was just black. They’re not, they’re this really deep midnight blue, which is all sparkly if you look closely in good light. Subtle and very nice.

Build quality seems very solid. They’re terminated with a 1/8″ plug, which I don’t like, and the 1/4″ adapter is kind of cheesy–I like the screw-on style of the HD280s and V6s much better.

So, the big one: how do they sound? Well, remember that these are initial impressions–I haven’t had them long enough to do what I’d call a full review but I have run them through my Audio Test Mix and I have at least something of a feel for them. (Note that my main cans are HD595s and so most of these impressions are relative to those.)

The good:
Soundstage is very impressive, especially given that it’s a closed can. This is a common response to the Ax00 line and I expected it to be decent, but I wasn’t expecting this. I can see why gamers love these.

Detail is good, instrument separation is pretty clear. The sound is very energetic. Performance on string quartet was better than I expected, good job controlling shrillness of violins.

The bad:
Again, everyone says “recessed mids.” Absolutely true. I’ve not seen a frequency response curve for these but I bet it’s almost exactly the inverse shape to the HD280 curve (see Headroom for that). It’s not as bad as I sort of expected, but it is noticeable, especially for male vocals. Female vocals sound slightly better than male vocals, I think because the higher end of the female vocals don’t sound as recessed.

Highs sound kind of unnatural in a way that’s hard to describe. Cymbals don’t sound exactly like cymbals. It’s just… off. It’ll probably take me more time with them to get a clear handle on this.

Bass is pretty good, certainly more prominent than with the HD280s, but extension is not as good. It’s not quite as tight as I would like. It’s not horribly flabby or anything, but I’m so used to the HD595s tight and clear bass that they sound a little muddled to me.

I know that was more bad than good, but overall for $150 closed cans, they are actually pretty good. They’re definitely more fun than the HD280s. I’m certainly not inclined to give up my HD595s but they might replace the 280s as my normal closed cans.