7/19/14

What is a DAC and do you need one?

When I got my new MacPro I knew it would be faster, quieter, smaller and cooler than my previous hulking MacPro from 2009.  I love my new machine but like every honeymoon, once the newness wears off you realize it's not perfect. Don't get me wrong, I am still  head over heels in love with my new machine it's just that the audio performance was adequate at best. I'm not talking about the tiny internal speaker. I knew that would be horrible for any sort of music. I'm talking about the listening to music on nice external speakers.  Why didn't it sound better than my old machine? Doing some research I found out that your audio performance comes down to the internal Digital to Analog Conversion, better known as DAC. 




Every Computer, MP3 player, iPod, iPhone and music device out there has a small chip inside that takes a digital file and converts it to analog audio. Depending on the DAC design, the chip will smooth out the rough spots, fill in the digital holes and balance the volume. Just like computers CPU, the better designed the DAC chip is, the better the sound quality. There is a huge difference in abilities & quality between a DAC in a $5.99 CD player from Walmart and the DAC in a $1000 sound system from a high end audio store. 

In a perfect world your music looks like this and sounds great


image source 

Here's a representation of the output from a normal DAC


image source 

Notice how it approximates the curve with a stair-step function? That's not the best sound and to a discerning ear it can sound awful.

I won't bother you with all the technical details of what makes a good DAC, just know that there is a balance of bit rate, sample rate, filters, clock-rate as well as production costs. 

Some audiophiles say only an old fashioned tube will give you the "warmth" of live audio. Some argue that upsampled bit-rate is the key. There are a ton of articles and arguments out there on what makes a good DAC and if it's worth the cost. I'll list some links at the bottom of the post if you are interested. For now, just know that as expensive as the new MacPro is, one item that isn't top tier is the built in DAC. 

I did some digging and found out the MacPro probably uses a chip based on the Cirrus Logic CS4207. Not a bad chip but there are better. 

So after all this technical talk be aware that there are a lot of DAC choices out there. DACs are built by every major electronics firm and a lot of independents as well. Look around, you'll find them. After months of looking I finally decided on a quality DAC built by Schiit Audio.  Yeah, go ahead and say that name out loud and laugh, they laugh at their name as well. 
"Yes, that is our name. Shih-tah. It's a proud German name, host to a long line of audio engineers who slaved away in crumbling Teutonic fortresses as lightning lashed the dark lands outside, working to perfect the best amplification devices in the world... 
Or, well, no. Yep, Schiit is our name, and it's pronounced, well, like "hey man, that's some really good Schiit!" And now that we have your attention..."





With my DAC I also purchased a pre-amp volume control and have never been happier. Here's a diagram of my audio setup:





The sound quality with the DAC & speakers is wonderful. Much better than the analog output directly from the Mac itself. If you are an audiophile or just someone interested in getting better sound out of your Mac, I highly recommend looking into a DAC.

Links:



5/12/14

Viewing your X-Rays

In today's world many formally analog process are finally getting the digital treatment. This includes the medical world. Many modern doctors or chiropractic offices now have new digital x-ray machines. These new machines expose you to less x-rays and develop the "film" instantaneously. The visit may not be fun but the great part about this new technology is you can usually get a copy of your x-ray just by asking. The down side for the Mac user can be unreadable files and an unusable PC only application. As a Mac guy I knew there must be a Mac version of a medical application out there somewhere that can read DICOM files so I did some sleuthing and found an application called OsiriX.




Files from medical imaging devices like MRI’s, ultrasound, PET, X-Rays & CT scans come as a collection of .DCM files. This file type will not open on using your average image  application. There seem to be a lot of applications out there for Mac that say they support this file but many are outdated and don't run on the latest Mac OS.  I finally found a DICOM image viewer called OsiriX that works well and best of all is free.

Download the application, open it up and insert the CD/Thumb-Drive or manually import the files your doctor has given you. If the application is already open you should get a dialog like this:

Select copy and the files will be imported. When finished you can now view the x-rays on your screen



If you want a more universal file you can export the file as a JPEG.  Go to the file menu and select "Export to JPEG"and select your destination.



OsiriX is a free version of a professional application so there are a lot of options you can play with. For the non-medical user however it's a great tool to look at files you might not otherwise have access to. If you need the iPhone or iPad version it's available for $30.

If you are willing to pay a little money there are other applications available that do the same thing. For $3.99 you can pick up an application called Espresso Ray that can view and batch convert DICOM files. But if you need to batch convert x-ray files I think $3.99 is the least of your worries. For me free works well.

I hope you never need this application but if you do you can view and save your own medical data to your home computer.

PS - The files make great backgrounds!





3/30/14

Geek Day off 2014

Last year I did a post titled "What do Geeks do on their Day off?" about Seattle's amazing Emerald City Comicon. I loved it so  much I went again this year.  It was again jammed with artwork, comics, TV stars, & people dressed as their favorite characters and was a a great break from the more technical side of my brain. 

So here are this years photos for all to enjoy!



Badges are a must and I picked up 3-Day passes as Christmas gifts for my family. 



Off to the Con!


Comic Con wouldn't exist without comics and the artists that create them. Unlike some of the bigger Cons (San Diego, L.A. etc.) Seattle prides itself on putting the artists front and center. There are booths and tables filled with the famous and not yet famous. Most of the time the artists sell prints, postcards or paintings to help make ends meet. 


The part that most fans love is dressing up. Just pick someone from your favorite Anime Series, TV Show or Movie then make your own costume and go have fun.


Here's an example of a my daughter as Jack Frost (on the right) and two total strangers dressed as Anna & Elsa from Disney's Frozen. At the Con everyone is a friend you haven't met yet and sharing stories about your costume is expected. 



Some people go to extreme lengths to get just the right look. This guy was AMAZING! I started talking to him and found out that his armor was hand made. Each piece was individually formed acid etched or burnished then put together. And I love the eyes! It made for a great finishing touch.

Here's a collection of some of the people on the show floor.



Link was well represented this year. 


This fairy spent a lot of time getting her ears & wings just right. 




The Hulk



Loki obviously spent some time on the details

There were a ton of kids in attendance and a lot of them were in costume too. I feel in love with this Minion outfit. A ton of mom and dad bonus points to the parents of this little guy.




There were a ton of people dressed as their favorites from movies. It's always nice to see someone dress up in a way really fit's with their own looks. This version of Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot rocked!



 And this Mr. & Mrs Shrek really hit the mark as well. 



Steampunk was big this year with a lot of Steampunk versions of Disney characters.



I really liked the Steampunk Tinkerbell.


I even found the whole Waldo family!



At about 6' 5" This Wonder Woman really made an entrance.



This one was subtle. Dressed to kill (literally) this woman could only be Irene Adler. Stunning to say the least. I had fun playing with Photoshop to get this photo.


ECCC is for all ages.

One thing that also goes on is selling autographs & Photos with a star. This year ECCC had Karl Urban from the TV show Almost Human & the Star Trek Movies, Stephen Amell from the TV show Arrow, Richard Dean Anderson most widely know for his role as MacGyver, John De Lancie & Michael Dorn from Star Trek and Eliza Dushku from Serenity, Buffy & Dollhouse. You can check out the full list on ECCC's web page

They also had famous CosPlayers. Here's YaYa Han in costume.  


Because ECCC is about comics they also had well know cartoonists. My family loves Jan Elliot and her comic strip "Stone Soup" She is a wonderful person and we spent about 5 minutes or so just talking about her strip.


And of course there are things to buy. If you ever go, take cash. Lots and lots of cash. 




Star Trek Fez anyone?



Everyone needs a sword right? But maybe a tee-shirt is a bit more your style. Which one? Maybe you can grab one next year!!








2/1/14

New MacPro & DRM - Gotcha!

I am loving my new MacPro. Having traded and upgraded through a series of Macs, this is without a doubt my best Mac yet. So tell me, why do DRM & HDCP have to ruined my day?



* details of setup below


Setup

Let me step back a minute. Did I mention that when I upgraded from my old Nahalem 2009 MacPro to my new late 2013 MacPro I also got a Thunderbolt Display? I was hoping for an inexpensive (yeah right) Apple 4K monitor but the 27" Thunderbolt display is beautiful and quite a step up from my old Apple 23" Cinema Display. Because it was in stock, the monitor arrived many weeks before my Mac. Since it was just sitting there I opened it up and tested it out using my wife's MacBook Air and daughter's MacBook Pro. Both laptops worked perfectly and we had a great time watching HD movies on my gorgeous new screen. 


The Problem 

When my new Mac finally arrived I immediately set everything up and started to test things out. My new Mac was fast. I mean Usan Bolt fast! A few hours later I figured it was time to relax so I popped in a DVD using my new external LG Blu-ray player and sat down to watch. When I fired up DVD Player this is the screen I was greeted with:


What The France!!!  Being the trouble shooting type I tried various other DVDs all with the same result. I immediately suspected Digital Rights Management (DRM) was the cause so I opened iTunes and tried to play a purchased movie:



I couldn't believe it! I knew that HD content wouldn't play through my old Mac's AVI connection but at least it would play DVDs. When I bought my new set up I "assumed" that the digital nature of the Thunderbolt connection would allow full 1080p glory on my new display. To say the least, I was pissed. 

DRM & HDCP

After poking around on the web and doing a little research here's what I found out. The presence of a graphics card with HDCP support installed on the Mac Pro is detected by iTunes and prevents HD content from being displayed unless your monitor has HDCP support.  The Thunderbolt Display does not have HDCP support. 

What is HDCP you ask? HDCP stands for High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection, a copy protection scheme to eliminate the possibility of intercepting digital data midstream between the source and the display. It's basically a format designed by Intel to curry favor with Hollywood. Here's an explanation from one of the websites I found:

"A simple answer is that an HDCP session will result in the exchange of keys between the source and display device.  The source device will query the display to make sure that the equipment is HDCP compliant before video is shown.  Non-HDCP devices such as PC's and older model DVI products will work with any DVI compliant display, but the HDCP compliant boxes will show an image only on HDCP compliant display."

That means if your clunky old MacPro has a non-HDCP graphics card it will work with your non-HDCP display. But your brand new MacPro that does support HDCP won't work on your brand new non-HDCP monitor. HD content cannot be played on any non-HCDP compatible device. Period. You can download and play the SD version of iTunes purchases for free but where's the fun in that?

While HDCP appears to only provide point-to-point encryption between the graphics card and the monitor, it seems that the presence of a graphics card with HDCP support disables at least some of the software video decoding logic in iTunes.  It's assumed that the monitor has the necessary hardware logic to perform the video decoding.

I'm no expert but after poking around a little bit I found references to software hooks that enable DRM & HDCP as well as the hardware chip in the graphics card and monitor. So Apple is also complicit and wrote in some DRM switch in Mavericks, DVD Player & iTunes that made playing HD purchases as well as DVDs impossible unless you have a HDCP monitor. The good news here is that all internal display devices that Apple makes (iMac & laptops) support HDCP and will play everything. 

The Solution

That last bit about software hooks got me thinking: Are there other non-Apple applications that bypass DRM & HDCP?  Why yes there are!


To play DVDs I found two free applications. The first is Wondershare Player. It's a fine application and works with a lot of video file formats. I did have mixed results with DVDs so I kept looking and found DVDFab Media Player. Which I have set as my default DVD player. 

When you open DVDFab you get the a splash screen that asks you to open a file or your mounted DVD.


Once you select your DVD it opens up and plays just like you would expect. The only thing to get use to are the controls. To control your DVD you just need to hover the mouse at the edges of the movie. If you hover the mouse on the bottom you get the standard play menu.



 If you hover to the right you get the DVD Menu control


Hover at the top you get screen controls, chapter selection, sound & a camera icon to take screen shots. 



Blu-ray & DVD player

The best news of all was that DVDFab Player also plays Blu-ray disks! AWESOME! I did have a copy of Mac Blu-ray Player that I received in one of the many Mac bundle deals that were held during the holidays, and it also worked well for both DVD & Blu-ray disks. For me though, you can't beat free. I need to test things out for a few weeks but for now DVDFab will be my default player.

Lessons Learned

The internet has been around for a while and wether we know it or not we have all accepted DRM. When you use Netflix, Amazon Prime, or any internet movie streaming service you are using DRM. It requires hardware as well as software support and you need an Internet connection to make it all work. 

The challenge for me comes when you have purchased a new computer or TV, then hook it up with your brand new Blu-ray or DVD player and insert your very own purchased copy of your favorite movie then can't watch it. It's just wrong.

Thankfully there are work-arounds for watching Blu-ray & DVD shows. Too bad there is no easy answer for purchased iTunes content. To watch those movies and shows you either need to download the Standard Definition version or learn how to crack Apples DRM. Either way it's a pain. 

So what is the lesson here?  When you purchase your next DVD/Blu-ray player, Computer, Computer monitor, TV set, or other media device make sure you make sure it's HDCP compliant. Right now Hollywood is making all the rules so if you want to watch your shows you need to play the game. 



* My Setup

  • Late 2013 MacPro
    • 3.5 GHz 6-Core Intel Xeon E5
    • 16GB 1866MHz DDR EEC RAM
    • 512GB PCIe Flash Storage
    • Dual FirePro D500 Graphics Cards
    • Apple USB Keyboard
    • Logitech Anywhere MX Mouse
    • Apple Trackpad
  • 27" Thunderbolt Display
  • LG Blu-ray Player 14X USB 3.0
  • CalDigit T3 Thunderbolt RAID enclosure
  • CyberPower UPS System - 1350W
  • Apple 2GB iPod Nano
  • Apple iPod Touch 4th Gen
  • Apple iPod Nano with watch band
  • Apple iPhone 5
  • Apple iPad 3rd Gen
  • Apple iPad 2nd Gen


PS - That large opening in the lower cupboard area is where my old MacPro fit. Amazing that Apple was able to fit all that power into their new MacPro. I now use it for my external RAID enclosure and UPS system. 



UPDATE: 

It was brought to my attention (thanks Mike!) that I missed the fine print when I downloaded DVDFab player. Sure enough, after digging through the preferences I found this screen.


Bummer!  Not that it isn't a great product, it is! But I like to try out free apps and see if I really need the extra features of a paid application. That's when I realized that VLC, the do everything open source, video application does play DVDs. You can read about all its features here

VLC decrypts DVDs through the libvdss library and it must be loaded in order to play DVDs. If you can't play a DVD you might need to install it. You can download it at this site:

http://download.videolan.org/libdvdcss/1.2.12/macosx/

This form thread may be helpful for installation

https://forum.handbrake.fr/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=23301&p=106325&hilit=vlc#p106325


To play a DVD just open up VLC and at the initial screen just drag the DVD icon from your desktop to the player screen. It might take a while but when it's loaded it will automatically start to play.




When I finally settle in on the DVD player I like the best I will let you know.