Hey, yeah it's a blog.  It's random.  I just put up stuff that could be useful...

Seriously, it could be.

Do you like high end stereo?

July 26, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

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.  














Grey Market and Nikon

July 25, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

If you've done any online shopping you've likely seen items listed as "Grey Market" or sometimes as "Imported" and usually for a lower price than identical items for the USA market.

It can be real tempting but let me tell you before reading any further - don't do it for Nikon products.  

The big problem is that Nikon no longer sells most repair parts to third party repair shops - almost all repairs go straight to Nikon regardless of the repair shop or facility you actually sent the item to for repair.  

Here's the rub - Nikon absolutely WILL NOT repair or warranty a grey market item.  The only exception is if you bought a camera overseas and you still have the receipt and can prove you bought it overseas.  

Nikon knows the intended market for all items because they track them via the serial number and it provides an undeniable system.  And when your item arrives at the Nikon repair facility the first thing they do is check that serial number, if it doesn't match up they box it up and ship it right back out and charge you the shipping costs.  You end up paying shipping to and from Nikon and end up with the exact same broken camera you had previously.  It's unlikely that Nikon will even bother explaining why they shipped you an unrepaired broken camera.  It's grey market and they don't care.  It's that simple.

There are some differences in how Nikon treats different classes of items, a camera body is treated differently than a lens or a flash unit.  But overall you're gambling big time if you purchase a grey market item. 

Here's another rub in the grey market.  Some vendors, particularly on Amazon and most likely on ebay as well, will not disclose grey market items in their listings so you MUST READ CAREFULLY before purchasing.  

Even still, you can do all the research possible and still end up with a grey market item.  You can determine this by going to Nikon USA's website and registering the serial number.  If it's grey market the Nikon web page will tell you.  

This was not always the case, but the recent changes in Nikon's policy are meant to shut down grey market sales and that policy leaves you with no repair options at all.

So, you've been warned!



Nikon lens notes

May 15, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

There's a couple things about Nikon lenses that you need to know, particularly if you're thinking of buying one of the modern Nikon camera bodies.

The current version of the Nikon lens has a designation of AF-S, which refers to the focus mechanism of the lens.  There's a secondary designation, "G" which is the lens series.  G lenses do not have an aperture ring on the lens.  We'll leave that to another discussion though.  You don't need the aperature ring on a modern camera anyway.

The simple explanation is that an AF-S lens has the focus motor in the lens itself.  This motor is what moves the all the bits and pieces inside the lens to bring it to a sharp focus when you press the shutter button on the camera.

Any other lens designation, and there are a ton of them, use a focus motor that resides inside the camera.  

Here's the reason why it's important - many of the modern Nikon camera bodies do not have a focus motor in them and therefore REQUIRE the use of an AF-S lens to work at all.  

Nikon is not great about explaining that and I almost fell victim to it just recently when I was looking to buy a back up body on the cheap and was about to pull the trigger until I decided to take another closer look at the camera specs.  Whew.

Now the reason why it's good to have a camera with a built-in focus motor is that it allows you to use older lenses, auto focus and manual focus.  The best of the older lenses are the ones that have a "D" designation.  These are great lenses, typically smaller and lighter than their AF-S versions and normally at least as sharp and absolutely more durable.  The one downside is that D series lenses tend to focus slower than the AF-S lenses and can have a  bit more trouble in low light conditions.

There is a subset in the D line and those have a designation of "ED" which indicates optically superior glass.  D series lenses are largely out of production but are easy to find used and are almost always a tremendous bargain.

I shop KEH.com for used lenses and they are the only place I trust.  I've never been disappointed by a lens I got from KEH.

If you're doing landscape or general use photography and your camera can use the D series lenses, I strongly recommend looking closely at the D series lenses before shelling out huge cash for the modern AF-S and especially the newest AF-S VR or VRII lenses.  

One caveat to that is that if you have a camera that's above 16 megapixels, and particularly if you get to the 24 megapixel range and above, then the most modern lenses will perform better with those cameras.  High megapixel sensors are not forgiving of lesser lenses and it does show up.  It's not a night and day difference though - you'll have to look very carefully to see any difference between a top end AF-S VR lens and an equivilent D series lens.  

For example I have a 80-200 f2.8 D series lens that is great and I like it a lot.  I also have a 70-200 f2.8 VR II lens that is even better in that it's sharper and I can really see a difference in my 24 megapixel camera, but do not see much difference in my 16 megapixel camera.  But the newer lens is bigger and heavier and cost $1000 more.  Is it worth that extra $1000?  No, not really.  And sometimes I regret that expense.

Also keep in mind that Nikon, like most any company, produces two or more lines of lenses for different target audiences and just because a lens has the AF-S or AF-S VR designation doesn't necessarily mean it's a good lens.  Read reviews thoroughly, lots of people have been down this road before and so there's plenty of opportunity to learn from others' mistakes and good fortune.







Nikon or Canon

May 09, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Canon or Nikon?  By far it's the number one question I get asked.  I'm sure most any other photographer gets the same question.

It's an easy answer...it doesn't matter.

There used to be some points of consideration, such as Nikon had better flash technology for years, upper tier Nikon lenses may have less distortion than a comparable Canon lens, Canon camera body technology is better than Nikon's, Canon's have better ergonomics and so on.

But today I think the differences are so small and esoteric that it's meaningless.  Get the camera that feels better to you.  If you like the word Canon better than the word Nikon, then get the Canon, if the Nikon fits your budget better than the comparable Canon then get the Nikon.  

You get the idea.

So once you decide on Canon or Nikon, then you have choose which camera body to get.  This is a whole 'nother ballgame.  I can't help you here.

However there is this fella, Thom Hogan, that has a website and he reviews pretty much every camera out there, as long as it's a Nikon.  It's very a helpful site but not organized all that well.  You have to dig around a bit to figure it out.  Thom is a protege of Galen Rowell, which is a pretty darn good pedigree.


There is another guy that does a more "common man's" reviews.  Some do not trust his views but I find them to be worth reading anyway.  This web site is easier to navigate as well.


If I find a similar resources for Canon camera reviews, I'll pass that along as well.





Flashpoint 1820A monolight power switch failure

May 08, 2014  •  1 Comment

One of the big photo houses in NYC is Adorama.  A really good and huge photo vendor.  They have a "house" brand which is Flashpoint.  Some of that brand gear is really good, and some not so much.  

One of the best lines they offer is a monolight series.   A monolight is a big strobe that has it's own power source (no external power pack).  They come in a number of different power capacities.  In a monolight, or really any flash, power is listed as Watt Seconds and abbreviated "w/s" or just "ws" most of the time.  The bigger the more powerful. A typical shoe mounted flash that fits on your camera is going to be around 80-100 w/s and could get up around 150 w/s.  A moonlight can be as low as 160 w/s and can get as high as 1600 w/s.  Beyond that an external power pack is often required.  In any case, they're really bright.

The Flashpoints are solidly built and a great value, with one huge exception.  The power switch fails on the higher powered models.  I have four 1820A lights, they're rated at 900 w/s and I use them all the time.  Every day.  Every one of them has failed within a year of use.  Adorama warranties them no problem, and that's great, but they always fail when you need them to work.  I mean, you don't set up and plug in these babies to use as mood lighting in your home, you set them up when you need to shoot and you need them to work right then.

Because they can and do fail at exactly the wrong time, they are hard to trust.

When the unit is new and working, the power switch has a nice crisp, distinct "click" feel to it when you turn the unit on or off.  At some point that switch's tactile feel becomes mushy, indistinct and the "click" goes away.  When that happens, the unit will probably fail the next time you turn it on.

I've searched the web for a DIY fix and found none, so I experimented on my most recently failed 1820A and am reporting success.

My feeling all along was that the failure point was just the power switch itself, which if you buy a thousand of them, will run 12 cents each.  That's a pretty unfortunate choice by the manufacturer.  I'm betting if they procured the 18 cent switch these failures would stop altogether. 

Anyway, I picked up a Double Pole, Single Throw switch (DPST) at my friendly Radio Shack, removed the power leads from the original switch and put them on the new switch, and it worked!  The unit powers up, fires, shuts down and is overall a real happy unit, which in turn makes me really happy.

Now you have to have just a tiny bit of ability to unscrew things and solder some wires in the same order you took them off, and maybe a smidgen of experience with a dremel tool and a tube of super glue, you're good to go.  You probably will need to solder a couple inches of wire to the existing wires to extend them far enough out to work on, but that isn't a big deal at all.  It's not going to hurt to have some heat shrink tubing available to keep things tidy after you're done soldering.

Oh yeah, don't touch the wires together - just in case. And don't poke around the capacitors either, they carry a lot of power and there's no good reason to mess with them.  I have no idea how much residual power is left in them, but I'm not taking any chances of discharging them.

So is this worth doing?  If the new switch provides a long term, reliable solution, then yes.  I'll put this unit back in to service and we'll see how it goes.  In a year I'll post another message with the update.  

On the other hand, getting a return authorization from Adorama only takes a few minutes.  It'll run you about 15 bucks to ship it back to them and then they'll send you a new one in another couple days.  

That's really good service, but it doesn't increase my trust in the reliability of the flash much at all.


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