Hey, yeah it's a blog. It's random. I just put up stuff that could be useful...
Seriously, it could be.
I've mentioned repair issues previously and mostly regarding warranty work from both Nikon and Canon.
This is more about our local shop and maybe we're now seeing a new sherrif in town!
For years the best place for repairs was Midwest Camera Repair in Wyandotte, MI. Great service and decent prices and a fair turnaround time.
Unfortunately that's all changed. I sent a lens in for a basic clean, lube and adjust and to have the zoom ring smoothed out. Over the years it's become sticky and more difficult to turn.
So anyway, six months and a few emails later I get a bill for $317.00-ish and a package with my lens.
The zoom ring functioned like new, that's cool!
317 bucks - that's in the ballpark for them typically and I'm neither thrilled nor upset by that.
Six month, that's really poor. Pathetic for a company that says it gives priority to working professionals.
Auto focus - it barely works at all. It's incredibly slow and even binds up to the point where it won't work at all. This lens is an AF-S lens so it ought to be really fast to focus and it ought to be focussing accurately.
But it doesn't. AF fine tune showed it to be decently sharp, but in real world use the AF did not lock in correctly hardly ever and so the images it produced were way below acceptable.
So I sent it back in for more repair work. Midwest is out of the picture in my mind. I could not afford another six months without that lens. Nikon's estimate was $600.00! Ouch! That's crazy.
I remembered that my fav used equipment retailer, KEH.com, now offers repair services and they do it on a flat rate basis.
KEH has always been top notch in my book, so I figured it was worth giving them a shot.
They had my lens back to me in 18 days for a cost of $235.00 and it now works perfectly and is sharper than it was before I sent it in to Midwest.
Unhappy customers that get no explanation and charged premium prices for poor work causes customers to leave. If the customer finds a good option, then they become former customers.
So, yeah, there's a new sherrif in town and it's KEH. I love supporting the local shops, but sorry Midwest Camera Repair. You were great at one time. I can't afford that sort of treatment.
Canon has had AF Fine Tune for a long while, Nikon is relatively new to it. I am unsure if all camera bodies have this function. Just go to your menu system, in the Nikon world AF Fine Tune is under the Tools, or Set Up, menu.
Simply put, a lens out of the box put on a camera fresh out of the box is not likely to produce optimally sharp images.
It is real likely that the lens will focus either in front of your intended subject (front focussing) or behind the subject (back focussing).
It can miss the focus by just a couple inches or it could be a foot or so off. So if you get a lens/camera combo that isn't "sharp", be sure to check the AF Fine Tune.
It's a good practice to check your focus accuracy for every lens you have. Nikon cameras create a database of AF Fine Tune numbers. The camera talks to the lens and the camera knows what lens is mounted on it. If you use a third party lens, you can create a custom name for that lens and the camera will remember it.
Follow this method
1) put the camera with lens on a tripod
2) tape up some newspapers to a wall 10 or so feet away. Be sure the camera is perpendicular to the newspaper.
3) use the camera's auto focus to focus on the newspaper.
4) put your camera on self timer so your hand won't jiggle the camera during exposure
5) shoot with the zoom wide and again at the longest telephoto range.
6) evaluate your results on a computer and zoom in so your viewing your image at 100% and even 200% if you're really critical, the LCD screen on your camera won't give you enough information to make a good judgement.
7) use the camera's AF Fine Tune menu to adjust the focus correction and shoot and evaluate again.
8) repeat until you get the best results.
Here's a couple notes.
First, the menu has two adjustments, one is listed "default value" and the other is "saved value". Default value is applied to ALL lenses. The saved value is specific to the lens. This gives you a lot of flexibility. I tend to use the default value primarily and do a final adjustment using the saved value. It is altogether possible to have a negative Default Value and a lens that needs a positive Saved Value, in a case like that the two values basically cancel out each other. Most of the time Nikons seem to need negative values.
Second, the f-stop to use during testing. There are two schools of thought, one is to test wide open and the other is to test stopped down two stops. It's your call. I test wide open. I want to know the maximum possible tuning. Stopping down will generally make all images sharper on all lenses. So I think stopping down is cheating your tuning a little bit.
Third, once you get the close range test done, do another test at longer range, maybe 30 or so feet. I've never seen a lens tuned at 10 feet that needed any further adjustment at longer range, but it never hurts to test it.
Fourth, during this process it is possible that you'll notice that one side of your image is softer than the other side. This is not all that uncommon. Test again stopped down two or three stops and you should see that the sharpness has evened out. This is a fixable error but you have to send it a repair facility or back to Nikon. There's no guarantee that this issue will ever be solved though. At least this test will tell you what your minimum f-stop needs to be to get edge to edge sharpness, and that's good info to have.
As I wrote previously, Nikon's policy is that under no circumstances will they warranty a grey market camera.
Well, Canon just announced the same policy, they will no longer warranty grey market items, and that includes cameras but also grey market ink tanks, batteries, chargers, etc, that cause damage to an otherwise legal Canon product even if they are packaged together. There's caveats and disclaimers so it would be best to research this topic if you're planning on buying something expensive soon.
So, read the fine print before you purchase, and it remains a really good practice to only buy from reputable shops.
If you shop on Amazon, only buy if the item is fulfilled by Amazon and it won't hurt to send them an email asking specifically to answer the grey market question. Having that paper trail will really help if you have to activate the Amazon A-Z guarantee.
B&H Photo and Adorama are top choices, if it's grey market they will indicated that fact upfront. KEH and Midwest Camera also are probably ok, though I've never noticed KEH indicating grey market. Maybe KEH weeds out grey market before those items ever hit the website, because they have always provided exceptional, clean, used gear.
It's been a long time since I've considered shopping at any other online storefront.
As I mentioned in my previous post, there are huge variances in the quality of recordings. I think digital music has made the problem worse because there's a strong tendency to make the files as small as possible not only for download efficiency but also so it's possible to store every single recording ever made on your phone.
But if you're more interested in high quality music, then it's a different game altogether and you have be a little careful when you're starting out.
First off, ignore the iTunes store and Amazon downloads are nearly as bad. The files they sell are way too small to be useful for serious listening.
There are a number of places to purchase pure high resolution music but it could take a whole lot of searching to find what you like. Over the past year one online company has really risen above the rest and that's www.hdtracks.com
One note right off the bat so you aren't surprised later on. High res music is not cheap. It's not crazy expensive either and you can download free samples easily, but overall be prepared to spend money if you want the good stuff.
My primary interest is in older Rock music and I like to throw in a healthy amount of Jazz and I have a soft spot for the old Windham Hill New Age music too.
One big problem is that very few reviews of any recording provide a critique of the recording quality at all. This makes searching for well recorded music a crap shoot at best.
I have a list of recordings that I think are top notch, so if you want to experiment with higher end music, this list could be helpful.
By the way, we need more people to offer up reviews or thoughts on high quality recordings of all sorts.
This list is in no particular order.
Dire Straits - Love Over Gold (CD). This is one of my reference albums. The production value is superb on either CD or LP. There is a remastered version of this CD available and it is better than the original. A must have disc. The hit song Industrial Disease is on this album though I consider it the weakest song on the album. Telegraph Road and Private Investigations are very unique and compelling and they sound great.
Grateful Dead - Terrapin Station (CD). Another reference album. I only listen to the title track and it's amazing and utterly incomprehensible. There is a remastered version of this CD as well. The remaster has a wider soundstage and is a bit brighter and very clean. It also contains a few bonus tracks and are great additions to the original album. I can't believe it's been over 30 years since this album came out. Crazy.
Primus - Pork Soda (CD). Primus takes some getting used to. If you don't like loud music then this band is not for you. Most rock bands use vocals and guitars as the primary instruments. The primary instrument Primus uses is the bass guitar with electric guitar accents and a strong drum underlayment. The production value of this disc is just a bit below Love Over Gold and Terrapin, but still exceptional. When I upgraded my preamp/processor I discovered some distortion on a few tracks that I had never heard before so it gets knocked down a bit for that.
Robbie Robertson - self titled (CD) A great album but the production wanders a lot. Some tracks are superb like Somewhere Down the Crazy River and some surprisingly bad.
Robbie Robertson - Storyville (CD) Even better than the first album but production quality also wanders somewhat. Every song is a great story though. It's possibly the only rock album I've ever had that I'm willing to listen to every track.
Dire Staits - Dire Straits (their first album) (CD) Get the remastered version, the original is pretty poor but the remaster is exceptional. I hear a bit of hiss and other odd noises in the background from time to time but overall it's very much worth having.
Deep Purple - Machine Head (remaster and remix two disc set) This is absolutely THE disc to have if you like Deep Purple at all. If you know that band at all you'll know that Deep Purple had constant and incessant line up changes. This disc has what is called the "MK II" line up that included Roger Glover and Ian Gillan.
Roger Glover remastered this album years after he was fired from the band and Ritchie Blackmore wandered off to obscurity. Glover did the remastering as well as remixes which is simply the same songs with alternate vocal and guitar tracks. It's interesting to hear the differences but it's the remaster disc that shines. Smoke on the Water is absolutely thunderous as it should be and Glover included a quadrophonic version of Lazy that is really great. If your stereo system has a 5.1 speaker set up, then this track played in an "all stereo" mode that uses all five speakers will blow you away. This collection also includes a few bonus tracks that are also great listens.
KMFDM - Naive and Angst (CD) Also a band for a specific or acquired taste. Very heavy industrial sound. The low end of all KMFDM discs is enormous. You'll not only shake your house, but also houses a few doors down. If you stereo is in your basement, seismologists are likely to note some odd tremors. I no longer have moles in my yard because of these discs. The high end on these discs are clean but can sometimes seem a little restrained. That's likely a good thing because I like to play these discs so loud that imminent hearing loss is definitely possible.
Concrete Blonde - Bloodletting (CD) Get the 20th anniversary remastered version. All other Concrete Blonde discs are surprisingly poor in terms of recording. This is the ONLY disc worth getting for audio quality. It's too bad because Concrete Blonde is a great band. Just as a note the album "Mexican Moon" is a really fabulous album with lesser production value. It's not terrible but it could have been so much better.
Steely Dan - Aja (CD or LP) I read a lot of people that say all Steely Dan albums have great production but I find that not to be true at all. Gaucho is the only other album that sounds good to my ears. Aja is outstanding and is also one of my reference albums. A must have disc.
Type O Negative - Bloody Kisses (CD) Interesting album. The mid bass is nice and punchy but the low bass is very lean which is odd and you'd think it must be intentional becuase there are a lot of low frequency effects (LFE) going on too. Very unique band that pays homage to horror films like White Zombie and Alice Cooper but with a greater sense of humor. They do a cover of the old song Summer Breeze which I think was a Seals and Crofts song originally. That song is worth the price alone.
Godsmack - Voodoo (CD) Strange disc. The song Voodoo is just about as perfect a mix as you could ask for, the entire rest of the album is terrible. I mean terrible. I wouldn't pay more than a couple bucks for it on the used market. Free with shipping would even be better.
Simply Red - Stars (CD) A very nice Pop Rock album and very easy to listen to. You won't play this at high volume but it holds up at high volume very well, and the sound quality is decent enough to make this list but nowhere near the top. Certainly worth having.
Bruce Dickinson - Accident of Birth (CD) This is one of my newer discs and the production value is very good. Bruce Dickinson is the current vocalist of Iron Maiden, and I've found that all Maiden discs suffer from very weak bass. Interestingly this disc is very similar and I have to apply an EQ that increases the low end in conjunction with a boost of the subwoofer to make it sound more balanced. In all other respects it's pretty good.
I swear that Dickinson is paying homage to Thin LIzzy with this disc because the twin guitar sound is so similar that I actually looked up the album to see if Scott Gorham or Brian Roberston had a hand in this album. They don't.
Thin Lizzy - Live and Dangerous (ALAC high res download) I consider this album to be the benchmark of live albums from the 70s. The high res version is very noticably cleaner than either the original LP or the later CD versions and I think it's worth the price if you like Thin LIzzy at all. A careful application of a custom EQ will do a lot to improve the sound of this album.
Diana Krall - The Girl in the Other Room (high res ALAC digital download) I often find Krall to be more Pop than Jazz and she seems to be a quite polarizing artist as well. Some folks seem to love her and some sneer. I fall solidly in the realm of "I like her music".
This album is the the best recording I've ever heard and I think is clear example of how modern recordings with high resolution mastering kicks the crap out of anything that's come before it. Actually I think we're well beyond a simple butt kicking, it's more of a "kick to the gutter, then a head stomp, steal your wallet and then spat on". It's that much different. The clarity of this album is astounding, even if you don't like Jazz/Pop this is a must have album.
I like the instrumentation on this album though I often find myself wishing the instrumental sections were longer. The song Black Crow in particular sounds amazing. Krall's voice has loads of texture and there are great instrumental sections that are really good, but too short and it seems that those sections could be more improvisational as well.
Joe Sample - Sample This (CD) I first heard Joe Sample on a late night Jazz program on Western Michigan University's radio station, WMUK I think, probably in 1976. Very much Lo-Fi music but I fell in love with Joe's sound even though I was a typical heavy metal head banger back then.
Sample This is now an old-ish disc (1997) but the recording quality is very good, on some tracks the bass is heavy, way too heavy. Overall it's a nice clean album. For me the standout tracks are Rainbow Seeker II, Free as the Wind and especially I'm Coming Back Again with Diane Reeves providing an amazing vocal performance that Diana Krall could probably learn a thing or two from. You're not going to go wrong with any Joe Sample disc except maybe the original Rainbow Seeker.
Angela Hagenbach - The Way They Make Me Feel! (mid res ALAC digital download) I got this album from HDTracks, which is where I get most of my digital purchases. Strangely this album is only available as a 44/24 format rather than the more typical 96/24 high res format. Nonetheless, the recording is very clean and nicely balanced.
Hagenbach can be hushed and breathy and I have to be in the right mood to enjoy her sound. This album sounds like a tribute to much older vocal jazz. Most definitely worth a listen.
New York Sessions Volume 2 (high res ALAC digital download) Lots of big name Jazz artists on this disc and the music is fantastic. This disc is on the Chesky label which is important because Chesky employs a very specific recording style. That style is meant to reproduce a live feel to the recording. To my ears though, I often find it dull and muted which I don't like at all.
I prefer a more typical studio recording and mixing style. If one were to play any track of this album and then switch immediately to a track from the Diana Krall album listed above, the Krall recording will sound tremendously more vibrant and alive. And frankly I've been to a lot of small venue Jazz concerts and the Chesky recordings do not represent what I hear at a live event.
Having said that, it's not like these recordings stink. They are most definitely worth checking out at the very least. Chesky must be doing something right because there are a lot of recordings under that label.
Windham Hill Sampler 88 (CD) This disc is on the old and defunct Windham Hill label. It's a shame that Windham Hill is gone, it was a great label. There have been no new releases in years, but the parent company (Sony BMG) does occasionally more or less recycle previously released materials in a new collection. That is a HUGE shame and great deal of the albums released by Windham Hill seem like perfect candidates for remastering to a high resolution format. Maybe someday. Sooner is better.
This is a superb disc, the sound quality is excellent, strong, clean and deep bass and a clear high end. Many different artists on this disc, being a sampler and all, there's something for everyone on this disc.
George Winston - Plains (CD) Originally on the Windham Hill label. This is a decent recording and worth having. George Winston is a solo pianist only, as far as I can tell. The song Dubuque is amazing. I'd like to see a video of him playing this song, but have not been able to find one. I think I know how he's making a piano sound like that, but I'm not completely sure. That tune is a must-listen for everyone.
Golden Earring - The Continuing Story of Radar Love (CD remaster) This is one of a number of Greatest Hits compilations from Golden Earring. This is a very good recording. Very clean but with occasional harshness on the high end. Very much worth having in your library. It does include Radar Love and Twilight Zone but there are a number of other really fine, catchy tunes here.
Golden Earring - Bloody Buccaners (CD) This is a relatively new-ish offering from Golden Earring, 1994 as far as I can tell. By the way, Golden Earring has a TON of albums, way more than just the two albums that we all know that has Radar Love or Twilight Zone. I find this album to be similar to their early-ish recordings such as Moontan that has Radar Love, Vanilla Queen, Candy's Gone Bad, etc on it. The audio quality is top notch, a bit better than the disc I listed above.
Billy Ido - Vital Idol (CD) This is also an older album. The audio quality is just barely good enough. What makes this album worthy of the list is the song To Be a Lover, which is fabulous. Different than what you probably expect from Billy Idol. Great song and there's a section of it that goes holographic on my system and sounds amazing.
The Nails - Dangerous Dreams (CD) Another band of the 80's and 90's, and one of those truly great bands that got no recognition. This disc is their second release, probably around 1986. Their first album Mood Swing is a good album in it's own right but Dangerous Dreams definitely is the better sounding disc by a good margin, and in my view, a better collection of songs as well.
The Nails - Corpus Christi (CD) Their newest album released in 2000 and there is controversy around this release in that the band supposedly had no hand in it's release and does not acknowledge it or something. IDK, and I don't care all that much either. But I love this album. It's my favorite Nails album and the sound quality is top notch. I think Dangerous Dreams is the "quintessential" Nails album, but Corpus Christi is a must have.
More to come...
I'm referencing only Macs on this post. PC's are probably the same but I don't know that for a hard fact.
So anyway, music, stereo in particular. Higher end stereo. That means it's not an iPod or iPhone.
Stereo gear runs the gamut of quality and can be insanely expensive and that once you get to even the mid range of equipment you really have to "tune" the room where you listen to music to take advantage of quality gear. I'm not getting into that stuff though.
Here's the basic rule for stereo sound quality. A good mid range to high end stereo system will not make poor recordings sound better. It's exactly the opposite.
A high end stereo is typically intended to be "transparent" in that it imparts little or no influence on the recording so you hear the music exactly as the artist and producer wants you to hear it. The downside of that is that the equipment does not mask poor recordings and if there are flaws such as boomy bass or harsh tinny cymbals or muddy vocals - that all comes through. It is annoying when that great tune that you love in your car becomes nearly un-listenable on your "good" stereo.
Low end gear such as ear buds and car stereos mask flaws and there is usually so much ambient noise when you listen to music in that way that clarity is almost the least important aspect.
So, on to the computer.
On the back of your Mac is an audio "out" port. It's a standard analog 1/8" stereo plug and you probably have small computer speakers or a headphone connected to it. Here's the cool thing - that port is also a digital fiber optic output port. All you need is an adapter that allows you to connect a standard Toslink cable to your Mac.
A quick Bing search brought up this, http://www.trianglecables.com/toslink-digital-optical-to-3-5mm-.html
Plug that adapter in to the same 1/8" output port and then plug a Toslink cable into that adapter and you're now outputting a pure digital signal! It's so simple a caveman can do it.
Here's an important note that no one bothers to explain. Almost all music now is digital and needs to be decoded, if you're running a purely analog signal from a LP to an amp then you're either using really old equipment from the 80's or earlier OR you're running stupidly expensive modern equipment and you're just wasting time reading this blog.
When you run an analog signal (via the standard 1/8" plug) to your preamp, processor, amp or receiver then the signal decoding happens at the playback source, which in this case is the Mac.
If you output a digital signal through a Toslink connection then the Mac is sending a pure, unaltered digital signal to the next device in the chain. What that means is that the preamp, processor, amp or receiver is doing the decoding. This is really important because not all decoders have the same capabilities. This is true for any DVD/CD/BluRay/or whatever player too.
I believe we all get sold on the idea that a digital Toslink cable provides the optimum sound quality. That is not at all entirely true because it is completely dependent on how well that signal gets decoded and interpreted - and it's totally subjective as well.
The only way to know is to test both analog and digital pathways and listen to it to determine if one sounds better than the other. This is no small matter, the decoding is a HUGE part of how the music sounds in the end.
Generally speaking a device or piece of software specifically designed to decode digital signals will sound better than a decoder built in to a receiver or even your CD, DVD or BluRay player. A hardware unit is going to be called a processor but many preamps also decode. There is software available for you Mac that can also act as a processor, but you have to be careful about how well it gets along with iTunes.
OK, on to the next topic. iTunes.
ITunes is great. But it's great for a reason you may not realize. iTunes is the ONLY music playback program that I know of that allows you to create and assign a custom EQ setting for each and every song and have that EQ automatically activate when the song is played.
There are tons of playback programs available and most of them have an EQ option, but all of those EQ settings are "global" settings and therefore that same EQ is applied to every song.
If you've listened to music at all you've probably noticed that there are ZERO standards for how a song or album or disc is mixed and therefore some songs sound amazing and some are just pure crap. Maybe the tune has muted vocals, bass that is too thin or too heavy, high frequencies that are too bright and harsh, or not bright enough.
In those cases you really HAVE to apply a custom EQ to make some recordings listenable. Because of the lack of standards, a global EQ is just about as worthless as you can imagine.
I'm hugely oversimplifiying EQ. It is very common to have a global EQ that affects the stereo system's interaction with the physical walls and ceiling and dimensions of the room and that is entirely different than custom EQ that is applied to a specific song. This is altogether a different topic that will not likely ever be discussed on this blog. Nonetheless, I'll stick by the statement that a global EQ that is applied to each and every individual song is worthless.
Just as a brief side note, digital music comes in a number of forms and the most important aspect to consider is bit rate and bit depth. The higher the number the better. For exampe a standard file you'd buy from Apple contains between 128 and 256 kilobits of data per second (kbps) of music and be around 5MB in size. A standard CD file is going to contain 192 to 320 kbps while the newer "high resolution music files are going to run between 2935 up towards 64,000 kbps and be around 130MB per file. There's a huge difference here.
If you run basic AAC files that you buy online a digital connection is not worth your time to do. If you run the medium resolution files from a CD then you're likely to hear some difference from a higher end connection. If you run the high res files then you must have gear to take advantage of it. iTunes allows you to look at the file sizes and bitrates. It's worth a look, you may be surprised at how low resolution the music files are.
The next topic is another gadget in the Mac world which is a small program in the Utilities folder called "Audio MIDI Setup". This allows you to specifiy the bitrate that the computer will output audio files. I think by default it outputs the standard CD bitrate of 44/14 but you can change that to the high resolution output of 96/24 and you really should do that if you're playing anything above a standard low res AAC file. If you do not make that change in the Audio MIDI Setup then high res music files get dropped to a lower bitrate.
Getting back to the EQ feature of iTunes. Why is that important? I referred to the lack of standards in how music is mixed or produced which has a huge effect on how the music sounds to you. A custom EQ can do a lot - a lot - to improve the sound quality of poor recordings.
I listen to older music quite a bit, from the 70's through the 90's. A few recordings that were originally done on LPs and later on CDs are pretty darn good. However most are pretty poor. I "rip" tunes from CDs a lot and sometimes rip from LPs as well. I think every single song needs some level of EQ to make it sound good to my ears. It may be just a slight bump on the low end or it could be a treatment that affects much of the song's range.
This is a lot like digital photography. The file that comes out of your camera can look pretty good, but it's really, really, really, rare that a photograph is perfect as is. Any photo is going to benefit from cropping, or a change in brightness or contrast, or the colors need to be tweaked, or a little bit of sharpening and so on.
Music is exactly the same way.