Siyfion Programmer, hacker, extreme sports fanatic, photographer. I am a professional code-monkey (Node.js, Javascript, C++, C#)

17Sep/130

Portishead really can be quite beautiful sometimes…

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12Sep/130

The Death of Novatech Ltd.

So as some of you may already be aware, Novatech Ltd. decided to close three of their stores (Portishead, Cardiff and Reading) effective immediately from 1pm today. The official company line is:

Novatech is growing and we are stronger than ever, but the way people buy technology has changed so we have decided to close our Portishead, Reading and Cardiff stores.

We still have amazing people taking care of our customers at the centre of what we do. That much hasn't changed and never will.

We are now all working in our headquarters in Portsmouth where we have been building and supporting award-winning hardware for over 25 years.

I have a few points to make on this:

  1. When has a company that is "growing" and "stronger than ever" been forced to close 75% of their stores? - Never.
  2. "the way people buy technology has changed" - While agree that consumer buying patterns have changed substantially in the last 15-10 years, Novatech was an already established online retailer before it even opened it's first expansion store in Portishead in 2006-07. It was already very obvious back then that the mass-consumers were moving / had moved to online retailers. For this reason I never saw Novatech's store openings as a revenue generating move; more of a service to their customers. Which makes my next point even worse...
  3. Closing the stores down with no notice to the customers was possibly the worst thing they could have done. "We still have amazing people taking care of our customers", if you really did, those people would have been screaming the place down, telling you how much of a stupid move this was.

When visiting Novatech today, I arrived to find a notice posted on the door, much like all the other stores I imagine. I got speaking to another guy that had turned up, looking (like me) rather confused and shocked at what he was reading. It turns out that he had driven over to Portishead, all the way from Midsummer Norton, to pick up a PC he had ordered for collection from the store today. I was horrified; I'd only driven 5 mins down the road for a HDMI cable, this guy had wasted half a tank of petrol to pick up a new PC as a present for his son's birthday.

If Novatech really care about their customers, start listening. Personally, I will never be buying anything from Novatech again; there are lots of other great alternatives out there which really do offer great customer support, are cheaper for most items and whose PCs are generally finished to a much higher standard (www.overclockers.co.uk, www.scan.co.uk).

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22Mar/120

Still loving the Goldrings!

Firstly, let me apologize for the lack of updates, I've recently started a new job in Bristol and I'm staying over there a few nights a week, meaning less spare evenings at home! Anyways, back on the topic at hand...

I have been using the Goldring DR150s for the best part of three months now as my "primary" headphones, they have been burnt-in to the extreme and they still sound amazing. Not only that but they are also some of the most comfortable headphones I've ever owned; if they ever fall apart or die on me, they will be re-purchased in an instant. So I entirely stand by my original comments and I would still recommend trying some out (for the price you might as well give them a go!?).

15Dec/110

Goldring DR150

I can honestly say that since starting my "quest" for an audiophile-quality gaming setup I have found many different things that have impressed me, sometimes because of performance, price, looks or comfort. This time, it's different. A few days ago I ordered some Goldring DR150 headphones as I'd had good experiences with another of their sets (the Goldring NS1000) and they were reduced from £90 to £30, so why not!?


Goldring DR150

They arrived a few days ago and I immediately hooked them up to my Zero DAC/Amp, loaded up Foobar2000 and picked a test-selection of:

  • The Prodigy - Warrior's Dance (Bass)
  • Dirt Devils - The Drill (Bass)
  • Imogen Heap - Hide and Seek (Electronic / Vocals)
  • Adele - Rolling In The Deep (Vocals)
  • Avril Lavigne - Everybody Hurts (Acoustic / Vocals / Bass)
  • Foo Fighters - All My Life (Rock)
  • The London Philharmonic Orchestra - Battlefield 2 Main Theme (Orchestral)

After listening to these, I then spent the next 6 hours listening to various different artists and styles just to make sure that I hadn't somehow picked a "perfect test" for them... 6 hours later, my jaw was still on the floor. Next up was gaming, so I tried Battlefield 3, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, League of Legends and yet again, these blew me away. These are by far and away the best headphones that I have ever heard under the £200~ mark, perhaps even more. The only thing I haven't tested is using them un-amped, so I can't comment on the performance there.

In short, buy some! (http://www.superfi.co.uk/) Best £30 you'll ever spend.

28Sep/110

Time for some new in-ear headphones…

So I've decided to not go for anything too high-end this time, as I want to see what is available at a "standard" price, first up are the SoundMAGIC PL30 In-Ear Isolating Earphones:

I managed to get these delivered for about the £30 mark; in the next few days I'll be posting my views on them, so keep an eye out.

Update: I have to say that I was very "meh" about these, I found them to be very uncomfortable and not particularly well-balanced either (favouring the mids/highs). I can't honestly say I'd recommend these to anyone! :(

25Mar/111

Ahh…. Sweet Internet

For those of you that have been wondering where all the updates have gone, I've had a few issues with my internet connection; what should have been a simple move to an FTTC line turned into an almighty nightmare and culminating in me being disconnected entirely for about two weeks!

The good news however, is that come Monday the 28th I should have internet at home again and I plan on posting a full review of the ZERO DAC / Amp that I received a couple of weeks ago.

Hold on, it's coming!

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6Feb/112

Perhaps I was a bit quick to jump the gun…?

After discussing the issues that I've been having with the ASUS Xonar DG causing general system instability, I have now heard from various sources that it could be the "GX" feature of the card causing the problem.

The GX mode is ASUS' attempt to emulate EAX (Creative's surround sound engine) so that older games written using it can still have surround sound. What they don't seem to tell you is that it might cause all kinds of system lock-ups depending what games you play, etc.

As such, I feel that I perhaps should give the Xonar another go, this time with the GX mode permanently set to off. If this cures the stability issues, then I will happily recommend the cards again, with the proviso that GX mode should be always off. Especially considering that almost all games released these days are not coded with EAX and so gain no benefit from GX mode.

6Feb/116

Is audiophile headphone gaming possible? (Part 3.5)

Hey everyone! Sorry for the lack of updates, I've been extremely busy recently and as you'll soon realise, I wanted to fully investigate something before I wrote the next part which will cover DACs.

The main part of my DAC coverage was going to focus on internal sound cards (being the weapon of choice for most gamers), however I have been having some problems with my PC recently, with it randomly blue screening or crashing rather spectacularly in games (and only games). So I went about my normal testing of various components; I prime95'd my CPU + Memory for 24 hours, FurMark'd the GPU for 10 hours, ran hard drive stresss tests, all sorts and... nothing. Not a single thing failed, overheated or crashed. S**t.

So I started thinking about hardware changes that I've made recently and one in particular stood out; I installed a new sound card two weeks ago. So to test my theory I removed the sound card and revert back to my old one. Then I tried various games, running them for over 8 hours, each without a single crash. So I decided to do some more digging, I put the old one back in and tried again; a clean install if you like. Crash. Yep, within 2 hours of playing a game (the RIFT beta as it happens) the PC crashed. So I cleaned out the drivers and tried a "custom" set. Crash. By this point I'd pretty much had enough so I re-installed the old sound card and gave up.

After my testing everything leads me to believe that it was in fact the sound card that was causing the PC to blue screen / crash and as such I feel that I can no longer recommend this sound card or others in the same range.

What is the card you ask? An ASUS Xonar DG. The sound quality may be great and Dolby Headphone awesome, but if it causes BSODs it's going back!

Which one worked, flawlessly each and everytime? A Creative X-Fi XtremeMusic.

27Jan/118

Is audiophile headphone gaming possible? (Part 3)

So in the last post I went through the different types of headphones and headsets available on the market and came to the conclusion that for a audiophile gaming rig, I needed some audiophile-quality stereo headphones to go along with it.

Before I get too carried away with pretty shiny headphones, I think it's best to go over some pretty important tech-jargon first; impedance. Impedance in it's most simple form is the electrical resistance of the headphones. It is measured in ohms with low-impedance headphones generally falling in the range of 32ohms -> 80ohms and high-impedance headphones 80ohms upwards (600ohms is not uncommon). "But what does this mean?" I hear you ask... In short, the higher the level of impedance the more power the headphones need to be driven properly, so the more likely they are to require a headphone amplifier to get enough volume and/or to allow the true quality of the headphones to shine through. This is because most sound cards only offer a line-level output, which isn't powerful enough to drive high-impedance headphones.

If you are interested in learning more about impedance and it's effects, I'd recommend taking a look here.

Right, back to headphones... I've searched high and low for what users are recommending and that knowledge along with my own experiences so far, have allowed me to compile a list of recommended choices (I'll add to this list over time). I'm going to separate out headphones that I have personal experience with, from the ones that I have investigated / researched as to meeting my own criteria for my gaming rig. First up are the one's I have used myself:

Goldring NS1000

Price: £55~ (although some places seem to think that they can get away with £150~)
Impedance: 100ohms when in "passive" mode, 300ohms in "active" mode.
Open/Closed Back: Closed

At the £55 mark, these are an absolute steal. Compared to my Razer Carcharias gaming headset (which cost 1.5x this), the Goldring NS1000 simply blows it out of the water (pun intended, for those that know what a Carcharias actually is). Not to mention that they are amazingly comfortable; the ear pads are made of something that feels simply sublime, they are reasonably light and the headband doesn't dig in at all. I personally don't use the Active Noise Reduction (ANR) feature, but if you're in a noisy environment then it could be an added bonus. Given a 5-Star rating by What Hi-Fi? in 2007, these really are a brilliant set of cans for someone making their first steps into audiophile-grade hardware. One thing to note is that they have a relatively high impedance level (as will most audiophile headphones), 100ohms in "passive" mode is still more than most un-amped sources can manage to drive properly. As such it's worth getting a headphone amplifier to get the best out of these; whether that be a sound card with an amp built-in, an external headphone amp or a DAC/Amp combo.

The last thing is more of a warning: There have been some build-quality issues with what seems to be a previous "bad batch", although recent purchases seem to be ok so far, when you get them make sure you give them a proper going-over before you bin the packaging!

Beyerdynamic DT770 PRO

Price: £120~
Impedance: 80ohms or 250ohms (2 separate versions available)
Open/Closed Back: Closed

If there's one word that can describe these it's this: BASS. Yup, these are bass demons. Having a closed-back design helps with bass reproduction and while the mid and treble isn't as good at the AD900's, it's not awful by any means. Designed and built in Germany these are a set of headphones you can rely on, they are built to last, even if you decide to be reckless with them they sell separate spares for them so you'll never need to bin them! Comfort-wise they are hold up very well; the earpieces are very soft and don't squeeze your head above what's necessary to keep them on, the headband is well padded too and the only complaint really is that you might end up with "hot-ear syndrome" as they are closed back they have a tendency to get quite warm! Brilliant for the type of gamer that want's to "feel" every explosion, gunshot or photon torpedo, however the bass makes it harder to consistently determine directionality. Availability in two different impedance levels (80/250) allows users to choose a set that will be driven best by their set-up.

Now for the one's that I've heard are good (from multiple generally reliable sources), or used lightly, but not to the extent that I'm happy to put my own personal stamp of approval on.

Audio-Technica ATH-AD900

Price: £220~
Impedance: 35ohms
Open/Closed Back: Open

Obviously these are at quite a different price-point to the Goldring NS1000's and as such they need to deliver a lot more. Most people seem to be in agreement that the mids and treble on this set of cans is hard to beat (without spending silly amounts), however the bass is a little on the weak side (most "open back" cans have a harder time to get punchy bass notes). As such it's a good choice for a competitive gamer that wants to hear where everything is around them, without getting too distracted by overpowering explosions and gunfire sounds. Comfort-wise they fair very well; the headband adjusts when tension is applied so that there is never any pressure on the top of your head and the earpieces have only enough force applied to keep them on your head (rather than like a vice!). Also worth a mention is the fact that they are very low impedance, meaning that you should be able to drive them reasonably well with a standard headphone output (although I'd always recommend an amp!).

Denon D2000

Price: £220~
Impedance: 25ohms
Open/Closed Back: Closed

Another stunningly well made bit of kit here, this time from Denon. Having a closed back design these feel less "airy" than the AD900's, however they do have a bit more bass impact; notice that I say a "bit" because generally speaking these are very well balanced between bass, mid and treble. They produce a sound that I think most people would describe as "refined", not overly bass-heavy, but it's there when you need it. Build quality might be a bit lacking however; they are made in China and have been known to suffer from the odd manufacturing defect (loose screws, etc). Comfort wise they are good, if a little "slippy". Perhaps a good choice for a gamer that want's to do a mix of bass-heavy gaming and music listening.

26Jan/110

Is audiophile headphone gaming possible? (Part 2)

Ok, so hopefully now we're all clued up about the options available to us when it comes to getting an audio signal out from our PCs (Part 1). Now I'm going to go off to the other side of the set-up; the headphones / headsets. I'm going to go over the 4 main types that I've encountered, then discuss the good and bad points of each.

Firstly let me explain that you will see me refer to headsets and headphones separately; for the purpose of this article headsets are headphones but with a mic attached (as standard).

  • 3.5mm Stereo Headsets - These have two drivers (read: speakers), one in each ear and connect via an analogue 3.5mm connection. Some headsets that fall into this category are: Corsair HS1A, Razer Carcharias, Plantronics GameCom 367 and the SpeedLink Medusa NX. Obviously with these headsets only having 2 drivers they have to rely on some form of surround sound emulation to achieve a "5.1" effect. These headsets take the analogue signal straight from the 3.5mm jack and output it through the drivers; as such for surround sound emulation to work, it must be enabled on whichever device is providing the source signal (be that a sound card, or a dedicated DAC / Headphone Amp).
  • USB Stereo Headsets - These (like the 3.5mm variety) have two drivers, one in each ear. They connect to your PC via a USB connection. Some headsets that fall into this category are: Corsair HS1, Razer Megalodon, Logitech G35, SpeedLink Medusa NX 5.1 USB and the Plantronics GameCom 777 USB. Again, having only two speakers these headsets rely on surround sound emulation to achieve a "5.1" effect. The similarities end there however; as the headset is USB it effectively takes over the role of the sound card, performing as a DAC internally. Also, many of the headphones mentioned also include a toggle for a surround sound effect (hence why, for example, the G35 is listed as a 7.1 headset when in fact it only has 2 drivers). The downside to these headsets is that the "sound card" built into them isn't normally of a very high quality and as it's built in, there's no way to upgrade it. Also, as the DAC is internal and not upgradeable, the headset is stuck with the version of surround emulation that it shipped with.
  • "True" 5.1 Headsets - These generally have 3 drivers in each ear, angled towards the users ear from the front, back and side of the headphone, they sometimes also have a vibration unit to emulate the effect of a subwoofer. They connect to the PC via three (or more) analogue 3.5mm jacks. Some headsets that fall into this category: Roccat Kaves and the SpeedLink Medusa NX 5.1 v2. What with these headsets having multiple drivers in each ear they do not need surround sound emulation to achieve a "5.1" effect. These headsets take the analogue signal straight from the three 3.5mm jacks (Front L/R, Rear L/R, Centre/Sub channels) from the sound card. As a result of this, the PC must have a sound card which supports 5.1 or 7.1 audio.
  • 3.5mm Stereo Headphones - These are essentially identical in terms of usage to the 3.5mm headsets, except that an additional microphone will be required to utilize voice communications. There are simply too many stereo headphones available on the market to list, covering everyone's tastes, requirements and price range.

So now that I've covered the basics of how each type works, I'm going to get rather opinionated now. Each and every person has their own tastes when it comes to clothes, cars, food and unfortunately, sound and music falls into this trap as well. Everything I say in this post from here on is subjective, so take it with a pinch of salt.

Firstly, lets start with the USB headsets. While I think that some of them might be very decent "gaming headsets" (G35 and Corsair HS1's in particular) none of them fall into the "audiophile" category of sound quality (SQ) and performance. The DACs built-in to the headsets are generally OK at best (often there is background noise) and the surround sound emulation is normally as simple as on/off; you don't get to customize it to your own personal tastes or upgrade it when new technologies come along (for a tech explanation of surround sound emulation, see below). For this reason, I believe that USB headsets have no place in an audiophile level gaming set-up. However they may be good for you if you are using a laptop or are on a limited budget and have no dedicated sound card.

Next up are the "true" 5.1 headsets. Having owned and used a set of Roccat Kaves (as one of my first headsets) I found them reasonable, IF paired with a good dedicated sound card. However, in terms of the "5.1" effect achieved by them, it wasn't good. To set up hardware "5.1" headsets with your sound card you need to set it up as if it were outputting to a 5.1 set of speakers, think about that. The sound card creates the 5.1 analogue signals thinking it's sending it to speakers a few feet away from the user, so now imagine strapping those speakers to the side of your head and you might get an idea of what the effect sounds like. The reason why the rear speakers in a 5.1 set-up sound like they are behind you is because... they are. If you move the "rear" speakers so they are three inches away from your ear drum, can you tell that it's "behind you"? No. In addition to this, music is pretty much exclusively stereo, meaning that you only ever use 2 drivers in each ear (the one's in "front" of you) making it sound really quite weird unless you enable stereo up-mixing (putting the stereo sound over all speakers). For this reason, they are out. I'd even find it hard to recommend these; the only situation being if you have a very limited budget and already have a sound card that doesn't have CMSS-3D or Dolby Headphone.

Now it's time for the stereo headsets, but before I start on them I think it's worth going over some tech-wizardry. You're probably thinking that because these headsets/headphones don't have three drivers next to each ear they can't do surround sound very well. Well, you'd be wrong! I'm sure all of you will have heard of Dolby at some point or other (if not why are you reading this!?), but most of you probably haven't heard of Dolby Headphone (if you read it in Part 1 and Google'd it, that doesn't count!). Dolby Headphone is a form of surround sound emulation, this means that it takes a source (preferably a real 5.1 / 7.1 source, eg. A game / movie) and converts it to stereo in such a way that the sound dynamics allow the user to be able to tell where the sound is coming from. Ok, so is it any good? Well, it's not a simple answer. It depends on the implementation; for example the USB headsets which I discussed earlier offer no customization of the Dolby Headphone settings, which probably make it suitable for some people, but not others. However, if you get a sound card with Dolby Headphone support it will allow you to configure it just the way you want, ensuring that you get a great experience.

Right, back to the 3.5mm stereo headsets and headphones. I have owned a few of these in my time, but it wasn't until I got a sound card with Dolby Headphone that I really saw "the light" as it were. Without Dolby Headphone stereo headsets aren't great for gaming; you're unable to hear what's around you, as you're only getting the left/right channels of sound. It's not bad, but it's not exactly "immersive". However, when I tried Dolby Headphone with my Razer Carcharias in Battlefield Bad Company 2 the first time, it blew my mind. It really does make that much of a difference.

Some of you are probably thinking that no matter how good the emulation, you still wont be able to tell accurate positioning from a stereo headset. As proof, put a set of stereo headphones on, make sure your output is set to two-channel and listen to this. Now, the demo is labelled as Dolby Headphone although I don't actually believe it really is (I think it's a binaural recording), but in short, it doesn't matter; you're still listening to it via stereo headphones so it's still showing what is possible.

EDIT: I've managed to find some pre-encoded Dolby Headphone demo's over at BitTech here, while I don't personally think they are as good as a game running in 7.1 with DH, they showcase the general idea of it all.

As a final note, when it come's to stereo headsets vs. headphones, there are good and bad versions of both. But the best headset on the market is only on a par with the "reasonable" headphones in terms of sound quality (also generally comparatively-overpriced!). For this reason, when trying to create an "audiophile" level gaming set-up I'm going to rule out stereo headsets as well.

Having said that, I would happily recommend a headset to a fellow gamer, even one with a reasonable budget. The best headset I have tried so far is the Razer Carcharias, I've also heard nothing but good things about the Corsair HS1A so that's probably worth a look too.

Click here for Part 3