ULTRASONE EDITION 9
Since 1991, Ultrasone has concentrated on building one product: headphones. The new Edition 9 headphones use the company's patented S-Logic low-radiation principles, and at $2,092 retail they are decidedly aimed at the high end. Hand-made in Germany, the Edition 9s employ black ruthenium-plated ear cups with chrome-plated brass insignia, titanium-plated Mylar drivers and polished MU metal shielding to claim a 98-percent reduction in magnetic field emissions. They also sport a gold-plated adapter, ear and head pad made of Ethiopian sheep leather, and come in a hard-shell carrying case.
The ear pads are very comfortable, but the first time I wore them the Edition 9s felt too small and tight for my head, although they sounded great and offered a remarkable soundstage. After listening to these for a good bit of time, I went back to my workhorse Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro headphones, and I noted how the DT's sounded almost “directional” by comparison, as though a little cannon was pointed at the outside of my ear. You've all heard the exclamation, “Wow, I was hearing things I've never heard on (insert name of album heard 1,000 times here).” Well, it happened to me. The Edition 9s' separation and detail was astounding compared with my other standard-fare cans — AKG K 240M and K 26P portables, Sony MDR-7506 and Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro). If you closed your eyes, the difference would be like having a speaker in each ear and one on top of your head for center (conventional designs) vs. a series of tiny little speakers that start at one ear and wrap around the front of your head, leaving no holes in the soundstage (Edition 9).
Even more surprising was when I matched the headphone levels with my reference monitors (JBL LSR6328Ps). When I put on the headphones, there was no change in volume. When listening back and forth between the Edition 9s and my speakers, it was as if I hadn't put them on. I've never had this happen with a set of cans. The timbre and soundstage matched as perfectly as I've ever heard — astonishing.
Despite my love affair with the sound of the Edition 9s, I do have some complaints. For starters, the comfort factor — or lack thereof. I'd like to see a product at this level of performance and price have adjustable tension and offer different-sized ear cups, providing a truly semi-custom fit. It would make listening to these great 'phones much easier over a long haul. I'd also like to see a left-side, single-cable exit; it's what I'm used to. I found the dual wires annoying and more difficult to work around if I'm tracking as a musician. Lastly, the cable needs to be upgraded; it's doing its job sonically, but it felt and looked kind of chintzy. Other than that, if price is no object, the Edition 9s offer a unique and portable listening experience.
Ultrasone of America, 615/599-4719, www.ultrasoneusa.com.
— Bobby Frasier
APHEX MODEL 454 HEADPOD
The latest studio problem-solver from Aphex Systems is the Model 454 HeadPod™, a studio headphone amplifier with four stereo headphone stations, each with its own power amp and level control. The $249 HeadPod will interface any audio system at any operating audio level or with varying impedance requirements. It can drive any combination of disparate headphones simultaneously, exhibiting the maximum comfortable loudness with minimal distortion.
About 5 inches square and powered by an included wall wart power supply, HeadPod is constructed in a low-profile, heavy steel box, making it perfect for desktop use. Headphones with an impedance range between 8 ohms and 1 kilohm are usable with 55-ohm impedance 'phones receiving up to 1.5 watts of power. Distortion (THD+N, 1 kHz) is specified at less than 0.001 percent when driving a 25-ohm load with 100 mW.
The unit accepts balanced and unbalanced line inputs of any impedance from 10 to 20 kilohms and up to +24dBu level. It has a pair of balanced TRS left- and right-channel jack inputs and a single ¼-inch unbalanced TRS input. A solid-feeling switch toggles between these two inputs. The master level input control sets the gain structure for a wide variety of levels and sources.
Comparing the headphone output of my pro CD player to that of the HeadPod, the CD player's headphone amp sounded fine at low volumes on my 55-ohm AKG K 271 headphones, but at higher volumes I could hear compression and dips in overall volume on loud bass notes. The overall sound thinned out noticeably. After adding HeadPod, the loud bass notes remained loud and clear, and the overall mix sounded fatter.
Aphex Systems, 818/767-2929, www.aphex.com.
— Barry Rudolph
DIGIDESIGN REEL TAPE SATURATION
Analog Recorder Emulation Plug-In
With the DAW becoming commonplace in modern audio production, several companies have introduced analog tape-simulating plug-ins. Not to be outdone, Digidesign has introduced the Reel Tape Saturation (RTS) plug-in, which comes separate ($295) or as part of the Reel Tape Suite ($495). The bundle includes an analog tape delay plug-in called Reel Tape™ Delay and Reel Tape™ Flanger that emulates old-style, two-machine analog tape flanging. These TDM, RTAS or Audio Suite plugs are offered in mono or stereo versions, and handle up to 192kHz sample rates.
Reel Tape plugs are designed to re-create that analog je ne sais quoi — the elusive character of analog electronics and tape recorders that is hard to describe. These plug-ins model analog tape's frequency response, noise, distortion and saturation with no detrimental delay, wow or flutter. Reel Tape Saturation, like the other plugs, starts with four controls that define the signal path of the “virtual” analog recorder.
Tape saturation is controlled by the Drive knob (±12 dB); Output (±12 dB) is the deck's playback level — useful for reducing the level when Drive is maxed; Tape Machine gives you a choice between the sound of an American-made 3M M79 deck, Swiss Studer A800 multitrack and low-fi tape echo machines like a Maestro Echoplex or a WEM Copy Cat. Lastly, a subtler parameter called Tape Formula switches tape stock between the old-school Ampex 456 Grand Master, which saturates at lower Drive levels, and the higher-output, modern Quantegy GP9.
The Speed switch provides the effect of 7.5/15/30 ips tape speeds. Each setting does a great job in mimicking the original machine. The Noise knob (0 to -24 dB) adds tape hiss and grunge, depending on the speed, tape formula, machine and drive settings. Noise is produced only during playback. The Bias (±6dB) control simulates over- or under-biased tape for duller or brighter-sounding recordings with differing distortion characteristics. This effect works the same as with real tape, but the plug-in lets you hear the effect instantly, unlike real tape where the change isn't discernable until playback.
I inserted RTS on electric guitars, bass, vocals and keyboard tracks. This is strictly an insert plug-in with only 4 ms of latency. Electric guitars take on a thick, almost syrupy character, as if recorded at a superhot (analog) level. For bass guitar, I like 15 ips because the low end is fatter — just like real tape. As I would expect, the 7.5 ips speed had more noise and rounded-off high frequencies. It was better for supergrungy vocal effects. Wurlitzer electric pianos get very warm and fuzzy with much more harmonic distortion and sustain.
RTS is well used in the send path to reverb or delay effects. It rounds off sibilance and compresses in an analog sort of way that makes for a smoother result — you'll want more. I liked RTS' nonsubtle nature; you can go overboard and dial it back later. I could relate to all of the adjustable parameters — they make sense and change the sound exactly like in the “reel” world of analog recording.
Digidesign, 800-333-2137, www.digidesign.com.
— Barry Rudolph
ROGUE AMOEBA NICECAST 1.8
Streaming Audio Software
Rogue Amoeba's Nicecast Version 1.8 was designed for creating an Internet radio station on your home computer. This $40 program for Mac OS X broadcasts any audio from your computer to a server that other people can then stream into their computer or MP3 player. Although not specifically created for audio pros, it's perfect for streaming a mix in real time to your clients. It also comes bundled with four effects plug-ins for adjusting and improving your audio, plus a dozen free VST plug-ins — although I didn't use them in this application.
After downloading the software (a free demo version is also available), setting up Nicecast is a two-part task involving hardware and software. If you use a Firewall and/or router, you may have to make some changes to your network settings. Nicecast will automatically configure the newer routers supporting UPnP (Universal Plug-and-Play) and NAT-PMP (Network Address Translation Port Mapping Protocol).
Software operations occur in four windows: Broadcast, Server, Effects and Archiving. The Broadcast window lets users select the audio source and quality, and displays the streaming information that clients require to “listen in.” A Server window restricts access to your stream via a user name/password that you send to the client, along with the Internet address. Effects and Archiving are of little or no consequence for professional streaming of mixes, although they could be useful.
Once installed and set up, I had to specify how to deliver audio into Nicecast for broadcasting. Nicecast will “look” at audio internally from the computer (e.g., an iTunes playlist) or at the computer's audio inputs. My Mac G5 has analog and optical digital inputs, so I could broadcast using either one. I used the optical output from my Digidesign 192 I/O to feed the G5's optical input. Once you're streaming, the client simply opens any MP3 player that accepts an Internet stream. That's all there is to it.
Streaming my mix for approval, I selected the highest quality that Nicecast allows — the 48kHz/24-bit, 320Kb/second setting. I was concerned that at the highest settings my G5 processor might take a hit and the audio quality might suffer. However, I noticed no difference in the audio. I conducted tests using my G5 2.5GHz PowerPC quad-core machine, and the same results may not be possible on slower or weaker machines. My remote clients and I were very pleased with the results, and I've since adopted Nicecast exclusively for when I approve mixes from a distance.
Rogue Amoeba, www.rogueamoeba.com/nicecast.
— Erik Zobler
MICROBAORDS GX DISC PUBLISHER
The GX Disc Publisher from Microboards is a $1,795 CD/DVD duplicator with a 50-disc capacity, a Plextor burner and an HP print engine. The GX's width is only 11.5 inches, but what they don't tell you is that the unit is nearly three feet long! It's built like a tank, which I liked, but it commands a bit of space.
The GX's length is tied to its assembly line-style disc movement. Blank media is loaded into a “hopper” in the middle of the unit at a slight angle, which takes a little getting used to. The hopper drops the discs into the burner. After burning, a mechanical arm quickly lifts the disc out of the tray and onto a conveyer belt that moves the newly burned disc under the print head and into the output bin. This operation is fairly noisy — one of the unit's downsides. In addition to the unit's long footprint, you'll need ample clearance in front of it for its output bin. The good news is that the lengthy design does produce speedy production results and shouldn't bother those with desk space to spare.
The software bundle includes third-party packages for Mac and PC. Charismac's Discribe is a solid Mac offering, while on the PC side, using Prassi Zulu2 with SureThing's CD Labeler gets the job done. Discribe has the better GUI, while Zulu2 is very utilitarian and could be spruced up a bit for mostly aesthetic reasons. SureThing's CD Labeler 4 SE works fine and offers numerous options for creating labels. Everything you need is included for a wide variety of dupe jobs. My only complaint is that the software and driver installation for the unit requires far too many mouse clicks before everything is up and running. I ran the GX without issues with an older 1.7GHz Pentium 4 Windows XP system.
What the GX and many duplicators lack, for that matter, is tight integration of the duplication and labeling software with the hardware. This results in little quirks that can be confusing. For example, SureThing's CD Labeler can be used with the GX to create a label, and it offers a print option. However, the GX requires the Prassi Zulu2 software to move discs through the system, so making a simple label sans the burn necessitates running two programs.
I'd like to see a revised version of the GX with a smaller footprint, less fan noise and a hopper that's easier to load. However, I was very pleased with the results while using the GX Disc Publisher for burning and printing CD/DVDs. Despite the noise, the build quality is good and the price is competitive. For small, quality jobs, the GX Disc Publisher is definitely worth checking out.
Microboards, 800/646-8881, www.micro boards.com.
— Rick Spence