Who’s advocating for the best interests of Android users?

Google’s latest attempt at solving messaging on Android is a user-hostile move.

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Last month Google unveiled it’s newest messaging app, Chat, the latest in a seemingly endless list communication apps made by Google in the past decade. To say that Google has had a terrible history with messaging products would be understatement. While Gmail has become the de facto choice for consumers and business alike, none of Google’s various attempts at creating a messaging app ever reached the same levels of success. Between GChat, Hangouts, Hangouts Meet, Allo, Duo, Wave, Google Plus, and still more tools I haven’t bothered to list, Google’s attempts to create a non-email communication tool have fallen flat, one after another. So why, in a world where users already have access to SMS along with dozens of chatting apps does Google feel the need to continue competing in this extremely crowded market?

Simple: SMS is terrible. Extremely terrible. It’s character limited, lacks modern chat features like read receipts and typing indicators, can’t be easily synchronized between devices, and most importantly, isn’t encrypted. It can’t be used for real-time location sharing (or really anything that requires deep integration with the phone’s software), and is generally ill-suited for anything that isn’t strictly one-to-one text-only communication.

And yet for many of us, SMS is still the defacto method of communicating with our peers. Unlike the many centralized chatting apps on the market, SMS is decentralized, or at least sort of decentralized. As long as you know your recipient’s phone number you’ll be able to send them an SMS message, regardless of what carrier, device, operating system they’re using, and regardless of what country they’re in. For many people, SMS is one of the safest ways to get in touch with a friend and be sure that they’ll get the message — no account signup or friend list management needed.

The fact that SMS is so terrible is a real problem for Google. There are some top-tier Android devices available on the market. They’ve got premium features, stellar cameras, but perhaps most importantly, a premium price tag. And yet, they’ve still got a messaging experience of a late 2000s feature phone. And if you’re Google, you know this is unacceptable, especially because you’ve got to compete with the iPhone.

You see, Apple solved this problem years ago with iMessage — an in-house service that adds all the features you’d expect in a modern chat app. If you’re iPhone user messaging another iPhone user, you’ve been out of SMS hell since 2011.

Wait, but isn’t iMessage one of those centralized messaging services you mentioned earlier?

While iMessage certainly is a centralized app that lives within the Apple ecosystem, it doesn’t have many of the typical drawbacks associated with those kinds of services. iMessage is tied to your phone number, not some random username or account identifier. iMessages can be sent and received without an Apple ID (though you need one if you synchronize iMessages across devices without a phone number like a laptop or tablet). iMessage integrates seamlessly with SMS. Users don’t even have to be aware that they’re using iMessage — it’s baked directly into the default iOS messaging app. Best of all, iMessage features complete end-to-end encryption, making it one of the most secure options on the market, consistently earning high marks by privacy advocacy groups and watchdogs. The phone simply detects if the recipient is an iOS user, uses iMessage if possible, and falls back to SMS whenever it can’t. It’s a seamless process, and one that has worked well for Apple — many iPhone users cite iMessage as the primary reason that they’ll never switch to an Android phone.

Enter Google, who has tried several times to create competitive products that address usability issues of SMS and failed. Entering the messaging market is hard — the average smartphone owner uses no fewer than 3 different messaging apps, each in different contexts. You might use Slack or HipChat for work stuff, iMessage for close friends & family, Facebook Messanger / Instagram Direct depending on how your friend group is split, and WeChat to communicate with people in China. In stead of carving out its own niche, Google tried to build apps to replace the tools people were already using— a strategy that was doomed to fail. This, coupled inconsistent marketing left users confused as to which app to use when and for what.

After Google Allo seemed like it was going to be the latest in a series of messaging app duds, Google was left with a two distinct options: go full Apple and build an iMessage clone for Android phones, or attack the problem at most fundamental level and improve the SMS standard.

SMS has had a logical successor for years. The GSM associated proposed its replacement, Rich Communication Services, in early 2012 — just a few months after iMessage hit the market. RCS was created to solve exactly this problem — it includes all the modern features missing in SMS without requiring the use of a proprietary, centralized platform like iMessage. The problem? Virtually no carriers supported it, and the few that did had radically different ideas about how the protocol should be implemented. The result was that RCS has had close to zero adoption since its inception with little hope for change. Google would have to either work with carriers to develop a new RCS standard, or else propose something else entirely and try to get every carrier in the world to adopt it.

So why not just build an iMessage clone and build it directly into Android?

Google has done a ton of work to unify the various releases of Android in recent years, and they’re more than capable of building a product as good as if not better than iMessage. Why re-invent the wheel if Apple has already figured out a solution that always works? Why, the carriers of course!

Carriers hate iMessage. Being totally controlled by Apple and fully encrypted, iMessage is a stone wall for carriers that undercuts portions of their business model. They can’t read your messages and use that data for analytics & services, a popular revenue stream. iMesssages usage is the same as any other data usage, preventing carriers from selective message billing (think texting plans). You can discontinue your cell service and still use iMessage, and the fact that you can iMessage over WiFi means the need to buy a roaming plan when you travel is greatly diminished.

Carriers have considerably more leverage over Google than they do over Apple. Google relies on carriers for the bulk of Android device sales all around the world, and making sure those relationships stay healthy is a key part of making sure Android devices are placed prominently on store shelves next to their Apple counterparts. Despite the fact Android users have been clamoring for Google to build an iMessage counterpart for years, doing so would mean seriously annoying an important part of the Android distribution network.

So let’s review the two options here: Google could choose to preserve their relationships with carriers and opt for expediency, or they could stand up to carriers and advocate for user experience and data privacy by forcing carriers to get their shit together or, even better, build the feature that Android users have been clearly asking for.

Guess which one they chose.

Google’s latest messaging product, Chat, seems to have a higher likelihood of success than any of the company’s previous efforts. Essentially, they’ve worked with carriers to all agree to implement RCS, and have refocused the engineering team behind Google Allo to expand and standardize the protocol. In 2015, Google acquired Jibe Mobile and began dabbling in RCS standardization for the first time. They began encouraging carriers and OEMs to implement Google Jibe, an standardized unified RCS profile developed after the acquisition. This new profile is now called just Chat (not Google Chat), and is Google’s next and possibly last attempt to solve the Android messaging problem.

On first blush, this might seem like a great idea. Google has all four major American carriers on board, as well as nearly every major Android OEM. As of this writing, Sprint already supports Chat on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. T-Mobile has suggested that support could come as early as summer 2018, though AT&T & Verizon haven’t specified a timeline, they should both be supporting Chat before too long. Every Android phone with 8.1+ will eventually support Chat directly in Android Messages, and just like iMessage, the phone will be able to detect if the recipient supports Chat, send a RCS message if possible, and fallback to SMS when needed.

Don’t be fooled though: this decision isn’t in the Android user’s best interest — quite the opposite in fact. Google has basically decided that they’ve spent too much time & energy in messaging products already, and would rather allow the carriers deal with this problem while preserving their corporate relationships rather than do whats best for the Android community. Chat isn’t end-to-end encrypted. It won’t work unless the recipients carrier says so. Carriers maintain the ability to bill selectively for chat usage. There is virtually no international roll-out planned.

SMS isn’t just bad because it’s an old standard, it’s bad because it’s controlled by carriers who are more interested in finding new ways to bill you rather than maintaining, expanding, and securing the platform. Google was capable of having this fight (their market cap comfortably exceeds the market cap of all four major US carriers combined), they’ve literally just chosen not too because there’s an easier option on the table.

By choosing not to stand up for users, Google has handed control of the future of messaging back to the people who ruined it in the first place.

Just like anything else, the smartphone industry has many players. Customers, carriers, manufactures, software developers, retailers, and software service providers all have different interests. Carriers have never been customer advocates. Apple’s customer advocacy isn’t charity — iMessage is designed to keep you buying a new iPhone every year or two despite price hikes and increasingly good competition — but at least it’s transparent. If Google is going to prioritize its relationship with carriers over the well being of its user base, I have to wonder: who’s advocating for the best interests of Android users?

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Vinyl for Beginners: Choosing a Turntable

Vinyl records can provide superior audio quality with a wide, rich sound stage, but getting started can be a daunting task for many people. Where do you begin? What equipment do you need to buy? How much should you pay?

I purchased a turntable, an integrated amplifier, and some speakers about a year and a half ago, and I thought I would share what I’ve learned since then. In this short piece, I will try to explain the basics of turnables, how they work, and how to choose the the perfect first-time record player for you.

The Anatomy of a Turntable

A vinyl record is a PVC disc which contains etchings of a soundwave. These etchings are an exact copy of the music’s original source, are “pressed” on to the disc using a lacquer presser made with the music’s master tapes. A turntable is made of up two main parts: a platter, and a tone arm. The record is placed on the platter, while the tonearm reads the record and produces the sound. These two parts sit on a large base piece called a plinth, whose job it is to hold the turntable together and reduce vibration.

At the edge of the tone arm is a small device known as a cartridge. A cartridge has a small stylus at its tip (sometimes called the needle), which is typically made of diamond. The stylus follows the grooves on the record as it spins, creating a small current which is sent back through the cartridge, the tone arm, and then to your audio system of choice.

This process is fully analogue and very naked — meaning that many external factors can affect the quality of sound produced by the turntable. The grooves in a record are thinner then half a single human hair, so even single pieces of dust and tiny vibrations will make difference in playback. A few of the most common considerations include:

  1. Turntable surface placement and location. Keep your turntable on a solid, firm surface that won’t shake or vibrate. Some turntables are better at reducing vibration than others, and use materials & design that inherently keep protect the record player from resonance and external vibrations.
  2. Turntable setup & maintenance. An incorrectly set up turntable can not only produce sub-par sound, but also damage your records, the stylus, and even the cartridge. Keep your records clean, and make sure they are as free of dust and static. Clean your stylus, and replace it when needed. Most turntables have a “counter weight”, a heavy block at the rear of the tonearm that determines how much weight is applied to the record. Different cartridges require different amounts of weight for optimum performance, and it is essential that your turntable is properly weighted and configured for your cartridge of choice. Using too much weight can cause the stylus to wear away quickly, and using too little weight will cause the record to play incorrectly, if at all.

Sound that comes from from a turntable must be run through a phonographic pre-amplifier before it can be connected to your amplifier or powered speaker system. Very few powered speakers have a phono input, but some amplifiers do. If your stereo system does not have an input for a turntable, you will also need to invest in a pre-amplifier. Some turntables have a pre-amplifier built-in, but these are often low quality, and are found usually only in budget turntables.

Most people remember turntables as the static-heavy audio systems that they gladly abandoned in favor of CDs, but a properly set-up and cared for turntable can be totally interference free!

Finding The Perfect Turntable For You

Now that you know how a turntable works, it’s time to decide what to buy. Turntables can cost anywhere from under $100 to several thousand dollars. But how do you know how much to spend? Consider the following factors:

  1. Stylus & Cartridge: Quality & Upgradeability. Some turntables have a built-in, non-replaceable cartridge. This convenient for some people as it reduces the amount of setup and maintenance the turntable will eventually need, but it also means that you are stuck with the cartridge in the box. Cartridges are designed to work with a specific tracking weight, and high-end cartridges are designed to work lower tracking weights, meaning less interference and less wear on your records. If your turntable uses a removable cartridge, then what cartridge does it include, if any?
  2. Motor Placement & Platter Speed. The motor that spins the platter will vibrate — this is inevitable. Nicer turntables use low-vibration motors, but it is impossible to find a motor with absolutely no vibration whatsoever. There are two main kinds of motor placement: belt drive and direct drive. Belt driven turntables keep the motor away form the platter and reduce vibration, but are known to have issues with speed accuracy. Direct drive turntables have better speed accuracy, but are worse are protecting the platter from interference. Modern day turntable manufacturers are aware of these issues and they have become mostly irrelevant in recent years — it’s  a matter of taste and features at this point. Records are designed to work at a certain speed (usually either 33 1/3 RPM or 45 RPM), and not all motors support all speeds. If your collection contains records of many speeds, make sure that your turntable supports them all, and that you can easily switch between speeds as needed. Belt driven turntables often require a little more work to switch between speeds than their direct drive counterparts.
  3. Connectivity & Output. How do you plan on using your turntable? Are you connecting it to a set of powered speakers or an amplifier? If you’re using powered speakers, you’ll need to either buy a pre-amp or buy a turntable that has one built-in. If you’re using an amplifier, check to see if your amplifier has an appropriate phono input for your turntable’s cartridge (either moving magnet [MM] or moving coil [MC]). If you want to use your turntable to create digital copies of your vinyl records, you’ll need to make sure your turntable has a USB output as well.
  4. Avoid Portable & Super Cheap Turntables. A portable or very inexpensive turntable might seem like the perfect choice for beginners, but don’t be fooled — these things will leave you with a very sour taste in your mouth. Apart from having high-vibration motors, limited upgradeability (if any), and few choices for connectivity and output, these turntables often include non-removable low quality cartridges designed for a very high tracking forces — meaning they will wear your records out fast. The stylus too will need replacing soon and you’ll need to replace the turntable altogether within a short order. Beginners will often make mistakes (I made plenty), and these turntables will punish you for it.
  5. If you see anything made by a brand called “Crosley”, run. This brand of turntable has made massive resurgence thanks to their product placement deals with huge retailers like Urban Outfitters, Best Buy, and Target. Don’t be fooled by their cute, retro aesthetic — these turntables sound awful and will completely destroy your vinyl records within a short order, thanks to their high-tracking force cartridges. You can get a considerably better turntable for the same or even less money than Crosley’s entry level model, the Cruiser. Don’t buy a Crosley. Your records will thank you.

Good Entry Level Turntables (US 2017 Edition)

All of these turntables are good choices for beginners. They all use moving magnet [MM] cartridges rather than more expensive moving coil [MC] cartridges, but they do not all have built-in pre-amplifier and differ greatly in price, feature set, style, and sound quality. I’ve listed them here in order of least expensive to most expensive. Note that if you’re reading this more than a year after I wrote it, you might want to do some searching as these models may have been replaced by newer options.

Audio Technica LP60/LP60-USB

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Pros: Affordable price, built-in phono pre-amp of reasonable quality, comes fully setup with aligned and weighted cartridge, includes slip-mat and dust cover. Easy to maintain.

Cons: Cartridge is attached to tonearm and cannot be replaced/upgraded. No height adjustment available. Plastic body doesn’t do much to reduce interference. Lacks basic features like a cue lever and an anti-skate device. Direct-drive motor is prone to humming.

Additional Info: Despite it’s all-in-one configuration, the LP60 is a great performer for the cost. Its integrated cartridge won’t demolish your records like many other fully integrated solutions, producing a tracking force of about 3 grams (high compared to others on this list but pretty good for a built-in solution. Many low-end turntables produce a tracking force of over 5-7 grams and will completely chew up your records).

Price: ~$100-$130, depending on model choice.

Bottom Line: This is a great turntable for people who aren’t sure whether they want to commit to the world of vinyl. It requires virtually no maintenance besides cleaning the stylus, and it’s built-in pre-amp is good enough to get the job done. It will connect easily to whatever set up you have with no problems, and the available USB option is a great deal for just thirty bucks. It isn’t very versatile, but if you’re looking for an all-in-one, no-commitment solution this is your best bet. Don’t expect to be blown away by the sound quality though.

Pro-Ject Essential III

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Pros: Good value for money, easy to change speeds despite being belt driven, easy to upgrade.

Cons: Gravity-based anti-skate device lacks accuracy and can be difficult to adjust. Does not include dust cover.

Addtional Info: Pro-Ject’s Essential II was an award-winning budget turntable, and the new model adds a plethora of upgrades at no additional cost. An acrylic platter is now available as an additional option, and the plinth is now made of high-gloss MDF, similar to Pro-Ject’s more expensive Debut line of turntables. The Essential II’s Ortofon OM5 cartridge has been replaced with a much higher end and better sounding OM10. This turntable is brand new, and still difficult to find in the US. This turntable doesn’t have a phono pre-amp, but a version that includes one along with USB output is on its way and should cost an additional $50-100 when it becomes available. Despite being belt-driven, this turntable is very easy to switch speeds, as the belt wraps directly around the platter and the cogs for the motor are easily accessible.

Price: ~$300

Bottom Line: The Essential III is the cheapest way to get a truly awesome sounding turntable. If sound quality is your thing and you don’t want to spend too much, this is the way to go. It isn’t the most versitile option, but delivers amazing high-quality sound at an affordable price.

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Audio Technical LP120-USB

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Pros: Feature packed, built-in pre-amp that can be bypassed if needed, USB output included, well-marked counter weight that allows for easy adjustment of tracking force without a digital scale, removable head-shell for easy cartridge replacement, support for 78 RPM records, includes dust-cover and slip-mat, built-in stroboscope & pitch control settings, reverse mode, anti-skate device, solid construction is more flexible with placement than some of the other turntables on this list.

Cons: “DJ” Aesthetic will rub some people the wrong way at this price. Included AT95E cartridge is supremely average. Other decks in this price range sound considerably better.

Additional Info: This direct-drive turntable is one of the most feature-loaded on the market. Rather than focusing on “luxury” features, this turntable distinguishes itself by being one most versatile options on this list, thanks mostly to its highly configurable direct drive motor. It’s removable head-shell and clearly labeled replaceable counter weight make it easier to upgrade than any other deck on this list — no additional measuring equipment needed. Note that while the motor supports 78 RPM playback, the included cartridge does not.

Price: ~$300

Bottom Line: If you are sure you want to play vinyl, but are still unsure of your eventual audio set-up and playback needs, this is the turntable for you. It’s built-in pre-amp sounds pretty good, but will work with an external one if needed. It is the most versatile option on this list, and its excellent build quality, connectivity and upgradeablity options will ensure that you can use it for many years to come, even as your stereo and playback needs change.

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Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC

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Pros: Easily upgradeable, includes an adjustable counterweight, carbon fiber tonearm usually found only on much more expensive turntables, Includes slip mat and dust cover. Excellent sound quality.

Cons: Changing speeds requires you to remove the platter. Gravity-based anti-skate device lacks accuracy and is difficult to adjust. Included felt slip-mat is very prone to static.

Additional Info: The Debut Carbon is one of the best selling turntables in this price range. The new DC model features a new motor that reduces power consumption and vibration. This turntable can be easily upgraded with a Pro-Ject’s speed-box and an optional ceramic platter. (Pro-Ject even sells these upgrades together in a bundle called the Debut Carbon Espirit. If you plan on getting these upgrades eventually, the Espirit model will save you around a $100 vs. buying the upgrades individually). The included cartridge is an Ortofon 2M Red, a well known entry level high-performance cartridge wichosts $100. This turntable does not include a built-in pre-amp as standard, but a version with phono pre-amp and a USB output is available for about $50 more. The new DC model is slightly more expensive than it used to be, making the Debut Carbon less of a value proposition than it once was.

Price: ~$450-$600, depending on model choice.

Bottom Line: You can’t go wrong with the Debut Carbon. It is one of the most well known and widely recommended turntables in the world, and features impressive performance that can be easily upgraded over time.

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Pro-Ject RPM 1 Carbon

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Pros: Very good value for money, easily upgradeable, easy to change speed despite belt-driven system, magnetic anti-skate device, fully decoupled motor to seriously reduce vibration, heavy MDF platter with inverted ceramic ball mounting system, carbon fiber tonearm found only on much expensive turntables, very stylish.

Cons: Does not include dustcover. Set-up can be daunting. Requires careful placement to get the best performance. Included felt slip-mat is prone to static.

Additional Info: The RPM1 Carbon is the entry level model in Pro-Ject’s RPM line of turntables which sits above the debut line. This turntable sounds fantastic and sports an amazing feature set for its price. Its magnetic anti-skate device is both easier to adjust and more accurate than the gravity-based one Debut Carbon, and it virtually eliminates skating entirely. Its s-shaped carbon fiber tone-arm works wonders to reduce vibration. The included Sumiko Pearl MM Cartridge is one of the best and most underrated cartridges on the market. Sumiko is mostly known for there higher-end line of MC (Moving Coil) cartridges, but this little thing sounds magnificent too. Make sure you are purchasing new inventory — older versions of this turntable include the Ortofon 2M Red instead. While they both cartridges are comparable in price and range, the Pearl is much better in my opinion. Replacement stlyuses for the Sumiko are also considerably less expensive than than for the Ortofon. Because the motor is fully decoupled from the rest of the deck and and the plinth is irregularly shaped, this turntable must be carefully placed for it to truly shine. This turntable does not include a built-in pre-amp.

Price: ~$500

Bottom Line: If you can stomach the extra $50-100 bucks over the Debut Carbon and are willing to deal with the somewhat finicky design of the RPM1, this deck is probably the best value for money and best looking of the group. It has all of the “luxury” features and materials you’d typically find in much more expensive decks.

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If You Don’t Already Have Speakers

If you don’t already have a stereo to use with your new turntable, then you’ll need to buy either a set of powered speakers, or a stereo amplifier / passive speaker set. Deciding between the two options will depend largely on your needs, but consider the following:

  • Many powered speaker systems only have 1 RCA input, but feature other handy conveniences like a remote, iPod/iPhone connectivity, and even Bluetooth streaming.
  • Powered Speaker systems almost never have an phono pre-amp, so you’ll need to make sure that your turntable has one, or you’ll have to save some extra room in the budget for this additional component.
  • Contrary to what you hear from audiophiles, powered speakers aren’t inherently worse than their passive counterparts. In fact, because they have a built-in amplifier, powered-speakers often perform more consistently than passive speakers, which require careful matching with an amplifier to make sure their sound and power requirements are compatible. There are some excellent sounding powered speakers on the market, and you don’t need a full stereo setup enjoy your turntable.
  • If you plan on connecting many other inputs to your speakers like a CD player, a streaming box, a media server, or a computer, then consider a stereo amplifier instead of active speakers. You’ll have many more choices for speakers, and you’ll be able to make sure that whatever you buy sounds good for *all* your audio sources, and not just the turntable.
  • Many modern amplifiers have a phono pre-amp built-in to them. Especially stereo amplifiers aimed at music listeners.
  • Amplifiers play a *huge* role in determining overall sound quality and differ greatly in their priorities. Look out for additional features like bluetooth streaming, the inclusion of a digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) for digital inputs, and a built-in phono stage.
  • If you are building a home theater, consider an AV receiver instead of/in addition to a stereo amplifier. An AV receiver will have 5 or even 7 channels for surround sound in videos, as well as a video out connection so you can add a TV. An AV receiver can also take audio inputs from bundled digital sources, like HDMI (which provides both an audio and a video signal). AV receivers often provide subpar audio quality when compared to their stereo amplifier counteparts, so you might want to consider a stereo amplifier AND an AV receiver if you’re building a hometheater with a serious music focus.
  • Consider speaker placement and how much space you have. Powered speakers require much less cable spaghetti than an amplifier / passive speaker setup.
  • Don’t connect your amplifier to a set of powered speakers. Bad things will happen. Call-the-fire-department type bad things.
  • Factor in the cost of cables. Most passive speakers do not include speaker cables, which can be expensive depending on how long you need them to be. Your turntable will probably include RCA cables with a grounding wire for use with a phono pre-amp, but if you are connecting to a pre-amp that isn’t built into an amplifier, you might need an additional set of RCA cables to go from the pre-amp to your amp/powered speakers, as well as 1 additional set for every analogue input

I’m not going to say much about what passive speakers / amps / powered speakers you should get, as good options for these products depend largely on budget and taste. There are literally millions of potential setups, as you can you can separate each component into subcomponents if you really want to. I’ll leave a few options that I think are good, and will work well with the turntables I’ve mentioned above, but there are endless list of brand and component combinations available. All of my choices are two-channel, music centric options that use either powered speakers, or an integrated stereo amplifier and some passive speakers.

Powered Bookshelf Speakers

Speakers that do not require an amplifier. They take in a single RCA input.

  • Micca PB42X (~$150/pair)
  • Audioengine A2+ Powered Desktop Speakers (~$250/pair)
  • Audioengine A5+ Powered Bookshelf Speakers (~$400/pair)
  • Klipsch R-15PM (~500/pair)
  • Audioengine HD6 Powered Bookshelf Speakers (~$750/pair)

Integrated Amplifiers

All-in-one amplifiers that take in many RCA inputs and connect to a set of passive speakers. These choices are all dual-channel (left/right), but vary in power, sound quality, and features.

  • Onkyo A-9010 [Built-in Phono MM Pre-amp] (~$300)
  • Marantz PM6006 [Built-in Phono MM Pre-amp] [Built-in DAC] (~$700)
  • Cambridge Audio CXA60 [Built-in DAC]  (~800)
  • Arcam FMJ A19 [Built-in Phono MM Pre-amp] (~$1000)
  • Rega Brio [Built-in Phono MM Pre-amp] (~$1000)

Passive Bookshelf Speakers

Speakers that require an amplifier. Make sure that your amplifier of choice has enough power your selected speaker system.

  • KEF Q100 (~$500/pair)
  • Sonus Faber Principia 3 Bookshelf (~$700/pair)
  • SVS Ultra Bookshelf (~$1000/pair)
  • KEF LS50 (~$1500/pair)
  • Paradigm Prestige 15B (~$1600/pair)

Moving Magnet Phono Pre-Amplifiers

For use with turntables and powered speakers or integrated-amplifiers that do not have a built-in phono pre-amp.

  • Bellari VP29 (~$60)
  • Pro-Ject Phono Box MM (~$80)
  • Music Hall Mini Phono Preamp (~$100)
  • Pro-Ject Phono Box DC (~$130)
  • Rega Fono Mini A2D w/ USB (~$175)

Things To Consider When Deciding

The Usual Rules of Audio Still Apply

Using a turntable does not guarantee amazing sound. As with any stereo, the speaker output and the source of the music are just as important. The quality of your records and your powered speakers or amp/speaker set up will play a huge role in sound quality — don’t expect a good turntable to magically save your scratched/warped/dirty records or turn your budget amplifier into an amazing performer.

Specs Matter, But Taste Matters More

Don’t buy a certain cartridge or turntable on specs alone. At the end of the day, sound quality is at least somewhat subjective and you want to enjoy your investment. Listen to the turntables before you buy them, preferably with some of your own records and on a similar audio setup to the one you’ll be using at home. If you think a cheaper product sounds better, than go with it. Never spend money on potential sound quality that you can’t measure with your own ears. Many hi-fi stores will let you audition the hardware before you buy it — take them up on this offer.

Look for a Good Dealer, Not A Good Deal

Avoid buying turntables and other hi-fi equipment online. You might pay a little less on the web, but you’ll suffer in terms of product choices, and you’ll be thankful when you have to do maintenance later on. A local shop will let you test the equipment out, bring in your own music, replicate your home speaker system if possible, and even help you with installation. You also have a bit more wiggle room with a local dealer when it comes to included options — they wil sometimes include things like speaker cables or a different cartridge at no additional cost. If this is your first turntable, you definitely want someone else to set it up for you — it can be tricky to do yourself, and you’ll need special equipment to measure tracking force, set up the counterweight, and align the stylus. Local dealers will also help you if you any have any problems down the road, communicating with the manufacturer directly on your behalf. My local shop even provided me with a loner amplifier when mine needed service! Research your local choices on line and go to a few before you pick your favorite place. Most hi-fi equipment manufacturers have a page on their website that will help you find the nearest certified local dealer.

Consider Your Budget Ahead of Time

Your turntable isn’t the only thing you’ll need to buy. Depending on what equipment you already have at home and how you plan on using your new deck, you may also need to buy a dustcover, a phono pre-amp, an amplifier, and even some speakers. Cleaning equipment for your turntable costs somewhere between $20-50. The wires you may need can cost between $0 and $200. Decide ahead of time on what your final stereo setup will look like and how much you want to spend on the whole package.

Stuff You Should Buy No Matter What

Anti-Static Record Brush

Records are made of PVC, a material that clings to dust and is prone to static. Before you play a record, wipe it once with a carbon fiber anti-static record brush — it’ll make a huge difference. These brushes are only about $15 (You can spend a lot more but it’s honestly not worth it. The standard AudioQuest brush will work just as well as anything more expensive). Make sure you use the brush correctly — you can scratch your records if you aren’t careful. There are many videos on the internet that show you how to do this.

Stylus Cleaner

There are a few different ways to clean a stylus. Most people opt for a carbon-fiber brush (not the same one used for your records). These little things cost about $5, and should be used regularly to keep your stylus clean. Take extreme caution when brushing your stylus — is it extremely delicate and can break easily if you aren’t careful. Always brush back-to-front, never side-to-side or front-to-back. Watch a video of someone doing it before you try it yourself. Alternatively, you can splurge for a Onzow Zerodust stylus cleaner. It costs around $35, but it is much easier to use and does a noticeably better job of removing dust & debris from your stylus than brushing it by hand — well worth the money in my opinion. It is an ideal choice for people who don’t have a steady hand or are nervous about interacting with the stylus directly.

Take Care of Your Deck

Turntables can be an expensive investment, and you should be careful to maintain your deck regularly to get the most out of the experience. Clean your stylus regularly and often. Brush your records before you play them every time. Don’t play warped or broken records — they can damage your stylus. Protect your turntable with a dustcover or use an old LP to cover the platter. Keep your speakers as far away from the turntable as you can, and don’t put them on the same surface. Make sure your turntable is weighted correctly. Your stylus will eventually need replacing — but if you keep everything cleaned and well maintained, a single stylus can last for years!

What I Use

Turntable: Pro-Ject RPM 1 Carbon

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Phono Cartridge: Sumiko Pearl MM Cartridge

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Integrated Amplifier: Arcam FMJ A19 Integrated Amplifier

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Phono Pre-Amp: (Built into the integrated amplifier)

Passive Bookshelf Speakers: Paradigm Prestige Series 15B (Bookshelf Speakers)

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Speaker Stand: Sanus Steel Series Speaker Stand (for Bookshelf Speakers)

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iPhone 7: The Case For & Against Removing The Headphone Jack

I’ve had my iPhone 7 for about three weeks now, and I thought I would address one of the most polarizing aspects of Apple’s latest smartphone: the removal of the headphone jack. This isn’t a full on iPhone 7 review — you can find plenty of those online — but rather one user’s take on Apple’s most divisive change in years.

Why Did Apple Do It?

The theoretical case for removing the headphone jack

Apple has a history of doing things like this — removing legacy technology in favor of newer, better solutions. In doing so, they force quicker adoption of new tech that already exists, and help bring that tech to the masses.

A key example of this occurred in 2008. Apple introduced The MacBook Air which controversially did not contain an optical disc drive. This angered many consumers who relied on optical discs for critical operations, and caused a lot of backlash against the MacBook Air.

Fast forward to 2010, and the second generation MacBook Air was heralded by those same critics as one of the most important notebooks of all time. It went on to be one of Apple’s best selling notebooks, and continues to be the best option for most people who are looking at a laptop (though Apple’s notebook lineup is undergoing some serious changes right now, but I’ll save that for another post). Nobody missed the optical disc drive anymore. Nobody cared.

Let’s break this down into further detail. In 2008, optical disc drives were primarily used for three things:

  1. Installing software purchased at a retail store. It may seem insane in 2016, but back then, people had to buy a copy of large-size software in person and install it with a disc / license key. Crazy, right?
  2. Listening to / ripping audio CDs into iTunes. In 2008, many people still had large portions of their music collection on physical media, and getting that content on to their iPod/iPhone was an important part of making those devices useful.
  3. Watching DVDs on a computer. These were dark times my friends, dark times.

The thing is, in 2008, there were already viable replacements for all of those use cases. Internet bandwith had become fast enough in many places that most software could be distributed via the internet and activated with a user account. Platforms like the App Store made this a viable option for developers too — easier to get your software to consumers, easier to charge them for it, easier to make sure they all have the latest version when it is available, and more difficult to pirate it. Music was sold online by a number of high profile retailers which offered lower prices, better sound quality, the option to purchase only parts of an album, and lower costs for musicians. (iTunes, AmazonMP3 and eMusic come to mind) Pandora Radio offered people the choice to stream lots of music over the internet for free. Streaming services like Netflix and digital movie sales meant that you could watch any movie you wanted at anytime as long as you had an internet connection, and carrying around a stack of DVDs on a plane flight became a thing of the past.

In short, the internet made the optical disc obsolete. By removing the optical disc drive in 2008 on the MacBook Air, Apple forced early adopters to embrace the new web-based technologies and in turn, encouraged developers and content creators to support these technologies as well. In 2010, when the MacBook Air was ready for mass adoption, nobody missed the optical drive. In wasn’t long afterwards that the optical disc drive disappeared from pretty much all computers (Apple or otherwise) and content creators to stop supporting them altogether. Microsoft hasn’t released physical copies of Microsoft Office with their latest major release and Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo has become one of the first high profile major label albums not to see a physical release. By removing the optical disc drive, Apple accelerated the death of optical media and ushered in the web/streaming world that we live in today. Which brings us, back to the headphone jack…

The headphone jack is the oldest port still in use today. It’s origins can be traced all the way back to 1878, and the 3.5mm version that we know today dates back to 1964. It achieved mass popularity when it shipped as part of Sony’s Walkman lineup of music players, and it became a mainstay of consumer audio products by 1979. Even if I’m being generous the headphone jack is at least 37 years old. It’s the only analogue port still shipping on consumer products, and it really does need to die.

The Headphone jack is also a very inflexible port, and causes a massive invasion into the inner workings of of the phone. It takes up a lot of space, and its removal has made space for Apple’s Taptic Engine, which has paved the way for the future of smartphone haptics and user interactions. (I’ll save that for another post)

So Why Are Techies & Journalists Angry?

The theoretical case against removing the headphone jack

The removal of the optical disc drive is just one such example of Apple removing features to push consumer technology forward. Since the company’s inception, they’ve done this several times and have succeeded every time. These changes have almost always led to an improved user experience and a better developer/distributer workflow in the long run. But this time, it feels somehow different. It seems premature, user-hostile, and undefined to many people, including those who typically defend Apple’s bold changes to consumer products.

Before I can get into why that is, I need to explain the difference between analogue and digital ports in terms of sound delivery.

All music is stored in either an analogue or a digital format. Analogue formats, like gramophone discs (vinyl) or cassette tapes, contain a direct representation of the sound waves that you will listen to. Vinyl records have the sound waves literally etched into them, while cassette tapes are chemically treated to contain exact copies of the original sound wave. These formats are the closest you can get to the original performance, but they aren’t without their flaws. While they do contain complete replicas of the original sound wave, they’re prone to deterioration and damage. Vinyl records can scratch or be broken and lose some of their quality with every spin. Cassette tapes are even more prone to physical damage. Both require complex machinery to be played back and neither are very convenient for transportation.

Digital music is stored in a computer file. Rather than containing a physical representation of the sound wave, digital files contain a ‘1s and 0s’ representation of what the sound wave might look like when played back to a user. Digital files have many advantages. They’re are not subject to deterioration and require no special machinery to be played back. They take up much less physical space and can be distributed via the internet.

The thing is, you can’t actually listen to a digital music file. ‘1s and 0s’ aren’t a real sound wave, and you can’t play them back to generate sound. As a result, digital files must be processed by a Digital-to-Analogue Converter (DAC) before they can make their way to a set of speakers or a pair of headphones. A DAC reads the 1s and 0s in the file and generates a sound wave that can be listened to by a human. This distinction is important for the digital port vs analogue port on your phone. The 3.5mm headphone jack is the only analogue port left on consumer devices. It transmits direct representations of sound waves (digital files that have *already* been through a DAC). Digital ports (USB, Lightning, Thunderbolt, etc.) transmit digital files, and the have to go through a DAC before they can be listened to by a human

The thing is, the DAC in the iPhone isn’t very good. It’s a cut above most other smartphone manufactures (many of whom do not pay any attention to a detail as trivial as the DAC), but it still isn’t great. You won’t notice the issues with Apple’s included headphones, but mid-to-high end to high-end headphones will be crippled by a smartphone DAC — it just can’t drive them.

[Fun fact, if anyone you know spent tons of money on designer headphones and plugs them into a smartphone and is raving about ‘amazing’ sound quality differences, they’re full of shit. The DAC in almost every smartphone just can’t do those headphones justice and the sound quality improvement is minimal at best.]

Now that you know the difference between the two ports, lets explain the difference between the removal of the optical disc drive and the removal of the headphone jack.

In the case of the optical drive removal, there was a clear and obvious replacement for each of those use cases. Software discs were replaced with internet distribution, music and movie discs listening got replaced with iTunes and streaming services. It was just a matter of forcing the public to adopt those technologies more quickly.

There is no clear replacement for the headphone jack. Apple would like to tell you that there is, but the truth is that it’s completely up in the air as to what should replace it. Apple has layed out a few solutions, but all of them are flawed and none of them are ready for mass adoption.

Bluetooth Headphones

Apple has made their point of view clear: they believe in a truly wireless future. The Apple “W1” ARM SoC has made bluetooth headphones both significantly easier to use as well as much better sounding. They think that most people will eventually use bluetooth headphones and port on the phone doesn’t really matter. There’s a certain level of truth to that, but envisioning bluetooth headphones as the option for most people is flawed logic for a few of reasons:

  1. Bluetooth headphones require power and need to be recharged. Are you fucking kidding me? I have to charge my phone, laptop, tablet, smartwatch, wearable, AND my headphones? And when they run out of power I can’t listen to music!? I don’t think so…
  2. Bluetooth headphones inherently sound worse than their wired counterparts. Assuming equivelent DACs, Bluetooth requires file compression (resulting in sound quality drops) and results in interference (connectivity issues). This won’t matter for most people, but people who plan on using their iPhone as their primary media player and care deeply about music and sound quality just can’t use bluetooth. Sure, AptX makes bluetooth sound better and interference issues are much less prevalent than they used to be, but they will never match their wired counterparts. Wires do not have interference at all. Wires do not need compression.
  3. Bluetooth headphones requiring pairing, setup, and other annoyances. Ever wondered whether a pair of headphones it compatible with a given device? Nope! You just plug it in and it just works. Bluetooth headphones need pairing, use complex settings menus and may or may not work with a given device. Sure Apple W1 removes all that, but W1 is only available on Apple branded and Beats by Dre branded headphones. Sure, that could change, but I somehow doubt it. Apple wants you to buy their stuff. If W1 becomes available on other manufacturers, it’ll because Apple licenses it out and charges money for the technology. This isn’t even necessarily because that they are greedy, but rather because W1 is an entire SoC with an ARM CPU and other guts. If other people implement it, Apple will need to control the process for the consumer’s sake. And I doubt they’ll perform that service for free.

In spite of all of this, Apple believes that bluetooth headphones are the best option for most people and that the aforementioned issues will resolve themselves eventually. My argument is that thes problems will plague users for a while, and that bluetooth headphones ready for mass adoption are a long while away. So what about the time between now and that distant future? What about audiophiles who care deeply about sound quality? How are they supposed to reconcile with this change?

Digital (USB/Lightning) Headphones

On first glance, digital headphones that use USB and contain their own DACs seem like the obvious interim solution while bluetooth headphones become convenient enough. Because they house self-contained DACs, their audio quality is standardized regardless of the device you connect them to. But upon closer inspection, this too is not a viable option for most people.

  1. USB is Changing. Lightning =/= USB. Apple’s Lightning port is, by all technical measures, an incredible feat of engineering. It featuers dynamically assignable pins, variable data throughput, is reversible, and is extremely thin. However, none of these achievements matter because the lighting port is proprietary and unlikely to be adopted by third-party manufactures. The USB standard is alreadty undergoing a massive change right now (USB-A3.x+ –> USB-C3.1.x+ x ThunderBolt3), and it is unlikely that third party manufacturers will want to adopt yet another port standard. Additionally, Apple charges a premium for licensing the Lighting port technology, a fee that only the largest manufactures will be willing to cover. If you choose to purchase a USB-C3.x+ headphone instead of a Lightning option, you will also need to shell out some more cash for an adapter. If you choose a Lightning option, it will only work on Apple products.
  2. Including a DAC increases headphone cost. Digital wired headphones force the manufacturers to include both the drivers for the headphones well as the DAC component. DACs can cost a lot of money and will almost certainly increase the cost of headphones when compared to their analogue counterparts that do not need a DAC. Sure, audiophiles will not care because the iPhone’s DAC isn’t very good, but those who are trying to avoid the complications of bluetooth will face a cost increase in buying wired headphones that are now burdened with including both speaker drivers as well as a DAC.

External DAC

Those who want to avoid the expense of high-end digital wired headphones and the inconveniences of bluetooth headphones can use an external DAC — a lightning or USB device that does the digital-to-analogue conversion and offers an analogue 3.5mm headphone jack for you to use whatever headphones you feel like using. Apple actually includes an 3.5mm to lightning adapter with the iPhone 7 that features a teeny tiny DAC. This adapter should work for most people, but is significantly worse than the iPhone’s internal DAC at the bleeding edges of performance. You are also likely to lose this adapter, and I am dubious that Apple will include an adapter with a DAC forever. In the future, people will likely have to provide their own DAC if the want use analogue headphones and perhaps even purchase a USB to Lightning adapter as your DAC of choice is unlikely to support Apple’s proprietary port. (I recommend AudioQuest’s DragonFly Red. Even if your device has a headphone port, your headphones will seriously appreciate a real DAC. Additionally, the HTC 10 is one of the only devices that features a true high quality DAC)

TLDR

All of this information should spell a similar story: The headphone jack is certainly ripe for replacement, but not just yet. The replacement technology just isn’t ready for mass adoption, and it is unclear as to what that technology actually is. Apple jumped the gun to force adoption of their own proprietary technologies (Apple W1 for wireless and Lightning for wired), and these replacements are not viable alternatives for the headphone jack. This is a scheme to make money, even if their technologies are quite excellent. Proprietary is never a solution.

What does this mean for me?

The practical case for living without a headphone jack.

I’ve had my iPhone 7 for exactly 21 days now, and I can honestly tell you that I do not miss the headphone jack. With my use, I’ve run into exactly two scenarios where not having a headphone jack have caused me problems.

On Halloween weekend, I was in an UberXL with several friends. The Uber driver offered me an aux cable, and I couldn’t play the music I wanted. Luckily, I was with people who did have headphone jacks, and because of streaming services, this annoyance disappeared quickly

When I went to the gym the day after I got my new phone, I found upon arrival that the EarPods I usually leave in my car would not work with my device. This was extremely annoying, but I now leave a set of Lightning capable EarPods in my car (this cost me $35) which has solved the problem.

Overall, while I have not missed the headphone jack, I cannot say that the same is true for everyone. If you rely on the good ol’ fasion analogue port, the iPhone 7 will seriously piss you off on more than one occasion. Make sure not to lose that adapter! A post headphone jack world is on its way, but its much farther away than Apple would like you to believe, and its really annoying if you want to use headphones that aren’t Apple branded. Many people will be completely unaffected (I for instance listen to music primarily via Bluetooth in my car or via an AirPlay stereo in my bedroom), but if you plan on upgrading to an iPhone 7, think long and hard about how often you use the headphone port, the viablity of the replacements I’ve mentioned above, and whether or not the loss of the port is something you can stomach.