Sunday, October 23, 2011

New and old Tenergy

So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from Hell,
Blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field
From a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?
Sometimes deterioration over time is subtle. For example, you age a little bit each day, those around you don't notice. But for others who haven't seen you for years, the difference can be quite shocking.

A few days ago, I put on a new sheet of rubber on my table tennis paddle. I felt it was time: the older sheet was 5 months old, and perhaps it was just me, but I felt it had lost a bit too much of its spring and surface friction characteristics (for generating spin). In short, it was limiting my play.

(I practice two or three times a week for about 2 hour at a time to maintain my game. Plus take coaching lessons and play in a round robin once about every two months in an attempt to improve it. You can do the math but I probably have about 150 hours on the old sheet.)

So I glued on a brand new sheet of Tenergy 05. Boy, oh boy oh boy... watta a difference!

Having gotten used to the slow deterioration of the surface of the rubber, the new sheet felt like a rocket. In fact, it felt so uncomfortably fast I think it was hindering rather than helping my game. I was swinging hesistantly, didn't feel I had good control and forever adjusting my stroke on the fly. Can't I have a sheet of half-worn Tenergy instead?

(I even entertained thoughts of getting a slower blade than my fancy high-tech marvel, the Butterfly Innerforce ZLC: layers of ZL fiber/carbon for speed/power sandwiched by wonderfully soft feeling wood for good touch.)

At $75 (retail) a sheet, or $150 per blade (since I glued on two sheets, one for backhand, one for forehand), you'll understand why I tend to use it until way past its lifetime. Unfortunately, that's a really bad idea because of the effects on stroke mechanics.

Can you tell the difference just by looking at the surfaces? (Ignore the frayed edges.)

As I said, the difference in playing characteristics is readily apparent and huge. Or to paraphrase Dr. McCoy immortal catchphrase, "It's dead, Jim."

A couple of close up shots, can you see which is old, worn and tired, and which is new?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Rocky Mountain Audio Fest

This Sunday I attended the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, an exhibition for audio or hi-fi geeks in Denver CO.

I'm not a hi-fi geek by any means. First of all, I'm slightly deaf in my right ear since childhood. And the last time I bought speakers was when I was 17 years old. That's well over a quarter-century ago.

I still own my teenage years speakers (Celestion SL6s). They work fine, but I thought I should think about getting a new pair.

Plus, I'd just gotten a pair of Etymotics earphones with custom molds for my ears (see earlier post here).

At the end of that post, I said: "Anyway, this is my introduction to the world of custom-fit earphones. One can spend $1000+ on higher quality ear canal phones."

Well, on that note I ventured over to the JH Audio booth. Jerry Harvey introduced himself. So I listened to their top-of-the-line earphones. I A-B'ed the (universal fit) JH16 Pro earphones back-to-back against my custom-fit Etymotics that I had with me. I used the iPod section of my iPhone for source.

And damn... the JH16 Pros were obviously way better right from the start. In particular, they have real bass. They were offering $100 off as a show special and custom molding done right there for free.

These guys make it all way too easy. I was sold.

So I'm looking forward to my custom-molded JH16 Pros (right ear in transparent red, and left in transparent black); they should arrive in about a week.

Note that they take open mouth ear molds: hence, the picture of me biting on a polystyrene peanut. I understand they fit tighter that way because of the way the jaw moves. Hmm, I'd just spent $100 getting custom ear molds for my Etymotics, and the audiologist there didn't make open-mouth ear impressions for me.

I borrowed the JH16 Pros I was trying out and went over to the Ray Samuels Audio booth to listen to their battery-powered portable headphone amp, called the The Shadow. It would fit between the iPhone line-out and the earphones. Hmm, I'm afraid I'm going to be needing that as well. (Good job there was no show special, otherwise I might have ordered one on the spot.)

I also listened to Stax SR-009 full size headphones driven by Woo Audio amplification. Electrostatics. It sounded fantastic. The total price was about $10,000. Man, for a headphone system? Arrgh.

I wandered around the other exhibits in a bit of a daze for the rest of the day until the 4pm closing time: remember, I'm actually looking for something to replace my current speakers.

There was way too much to see (actually, listen to) in one day. Plus my ears get fatigued after a while. Unfortunately, the only two I really liked were the Wilson Sashas (at $30,000) and the Sonus Faber Amati (at $36,500). The Vandersteen 7s were $50,000. I heard them in two different rooms but found them a bit too forward, maybe it was the music being played in each case. Still John Lee Hooker sounded great. The Sony SS-AR1 ($27,000) were great with Joni Mitchell, and I'm not a fan of hers. I guess I could live with the Orion 4.0s; $14,000 but less if you build them from a kit yourself.

If you thought $1100 (JH16 Pro) was expensive for iPod earbud replacements, well it appears great speakers are totally unaffordable. Oh well.

Of course, then you need honking big amplifiers as well. The whole nine yards. And it starts to look like this:

Totally ridiculous. Who buys this stuff? I give up on the idea of replacing my speakers with something way better.

Hopping back in the Hyundai Elantra from Enterprise, costing only $18.21 for one day's rental, my thoughts returned to normality. Also, having turned down the optional GPS, I navigated back to Denver International Airport (DIA) using my iPhone wedged next to the speedometer:

Arriving back at the airport, I happened by the New Belgium Hub in Terminal 2.

I immediately recognized it of course, having passed through Denver during my trip to Mons, Belgium earlier this year.
(See my post here).

This time though, time was on my side, so I had a few sips of beer while watching the sunset over DIA.

Not bad, not bad at all.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

It matters where you sit

It matters where you sit on a plane.

I got a chance to try my custom in-ear Etymotics phones on a flight recently. (See my earphones here).

I was on a CRJ700. Etymotics has a free iPhone App that allows you to hear and talk to people via the iPhone mic without having to wriggle the earphones out of your ears. Obviously, your earphones have to be plugged into the iPhone for this to work.

The App also has a nifty sound pressure level (SPL) meter. Being a nerd, I measured the noise during the flight at three locations inside the aircraft.

#1 was my seat (row 5) in Economy Plus.

#2 was most of the way down the aisle:

And #3 was next to the bathroom at the back, next to where the engines on the CRJ700 are.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Custom-fit Etymotic Research earphones

[Updated twice.]
Like many travelers on today's increasingly jam-packed flights, I like to block out external sounds.

You know what I'm referring to: engine noise, babies crying, people snoring, apologies from the captain about delays, duty free announcements etc.. In other words, stuff we don't need to hear.

One can use earplugs to sleep but I'd also like to listen to music from my iPod/iPhone without the constant buzz of the engines in the background.

I like Etymotic Research's ear canal phones because they seal well (noise-isolating) and are tiny. They also sound pretty decent.

Those so popular Bose active noise cancelation headphones require power and are too big and bulky for me. In fact, my Etymotics are so tiny, unfortunately I keep losing them.

I know: it's terrible. I've bought four pairs so far. Still got three of the boxes... only one missing is my top-of-the-line ER-4 box. There doesn't seem to be much difference (to me) between the various models sound quality-wise. They all seem a bit lightweight on the bass to me. Perhaps I never get to listen to them long enough before I lose them on trips.

The latest one I purchased are the hf3 earphones in metallic blue, which are also iPhone-compatible. (They have a microphone, volume buttons, and a center pause/play button as well that doubles as a track advance/backwards button if you can remember how many clicks you need.)

Being passive isolation earphones, in order to get a good seal, the standard earpieces require you to push them in quite far. Otherwise there is really very little bass indeed and the noise isolation doesn't work. The tradeoff therefore is one of comfort versus deep penetration.

This time around, I decided to go to an local audiologist and try custom earpiece molds since Etymotic Research has a custom-fit program. The cost is an extra $100 and a two week wait (for Etymotic Research to make the custom silicone earpieces). The benefit hopefully is better comfort and isolation. With a quietened background, this means I can play the music softer even in noisy environments. And perhaps preserve my hearing a bit longer.

Update #1: I really wasn't sure how tight they should feel. So I visited the audiologist again and she kindly immediately offered to re-do the molds for free and ask for rush delivery. (Apparently, there is a 30 day guarantee.) So in about a week or so I'll have a second pair of silicone earpieces, and I'll be able to see which ones are the most comfortable yet seal the best. I'll report back.

You need to have a mold of the inside of your ears made. The pink material looks like this:

and it comes in a pack like this:

Those white foam bits with string go in first and prevent the pink stuff from reaching your eardrum.

Injected into my ears, they take about 3 minutes to set. I know it's not the final material, but incidentally, the pink stuff happens to be a wonderful isolator. I have no clue what the audiologist is saying to me. I can't hear anything at all.

These molds are sent to Etymotic Research. And two weeks later you get the silicone versions in the mail. (You don't need to send the earphones as well to Etymotic Research.)

When the silicone pieces arrive, you can simply pop off the standard plugs and press the phones into the silicone comme ça:

This close-up shows how far the tiny phone extends into the silicone earpiece.

Here's how they fit into my ears (blue is left, red is right):

Once you wriggle those "worms" into your ear canal, the isolation is very good indeed. And the sound quality seems a bit improved. To my uneducated ears, the midrange and treble are pretty sweet. Unfortunately, I'm still not impressed with the bass. Perhaps those tiny drivers are just too small to get the weight and thump I expect from good bass. So I don't think these count as audiophile-level earphones. (They're about $160 at Best Buy.)

Because of the noise isolation, you literally are blocked off from the outside world. Rather than taking them out each time you need to hear someone, there is even a free iPhone App that allows you to pipe in the outside world when needed to your splendid isolation.

Anyway, this is my introduction to the world of custom-fit earphones. One can spend $1000+ on higher quality ear canal phones. I think I'm getting there with the number of Etymotic Research devices I've purchased so far.

Update #2

As I mentioned above, I revisited the audiologist to get new mold made. The first time around, I had some trouble wriggling the right side in. It felt too big and uncomfortably-sized after a while. And exactly a week after that, I got the new molds in. There is not much difference between the new and old left ear molds, but the new right mold was much better. It finally felt very comfortable. The difference in shape and size is clear from the picture below:

Also in my ears, the new set snuggle in a little better and results in a cleaner-looking appearance:

Unfortunately the sound remains the same. Sweet treble and midrange. No bass even compared to my car's audio system.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Apple iPod Nano 6g v1.2

The other day Apple introduced an update to the iPod Nano 6g that I use for running with the Nike+ receiver and shoe transmitter.

The update included the opportunity to dispense with the white Nike+ dongle that hangs off the 30-pin port (shown here on the left). In fact, it permits for the first time the use of its internal accelerometer to record run pace and mileage instead of relying on the separate shoe sensor.

This is quite exciting because...
  • There is only one 30-pin port, and the iPod Nano lacks integrated bluetooth. So if that port was freed up, one could use a small bluetooth dongle and pair the Nano with bluetooth earphones. Yes, in other words, ditch that pesky cord that is always bouncing around and interfering with arm motion while running.
  • Also, I wondered whether the Nano accelerometer would be less accurate than the accelerometer built into the shoe sensor: reasoning being that footfalls should be more accurate than torso movement: the Nano being clipped to one's clothing.

So I eagerly downloaded v1.2 of the system software for the Nano and installed it via iTunes. Things went smoothly and one good piece of news is that stored data was preserved: in other words, it didn't wipe out my pre-existing records of workouts on the Nano. So far, so good. Let's see if the internal accelerometer does as good a job as the Nike+ foot sensor.

To do the experiment, I ran on a treadmill for exactly 12 minutes at 7.5 mph (8:00 min/mile pace), once with the internal sensor and once with the dongle inserted.

The new version of the iPod Nano user guide recommends "Clip iPod nano to your waistband for better accuracy." So I obeyed and did the experiment so configured.

(Note: I began the timer when the treadmill was at 3.0 mph (walking pace), and held the increase-speed button until it hit 7.5 mph. Total time spent including the ramp up in speed was 12 minutes. Assuming the treadmill is accurate, the total distance should be just under 1.5 miles.)

Here are the results:

Neither sensor was calibrated beforehand. I was pleasantly surprised how close they were to each other. (The one on the left is the run recorded by the internal sensor.)

(Seems within the margin for error I've experienced with repeats using the Nike+ foot sensor. Also both sensors were slightly optimistic. Even without calibration, assuming the treadmill is correct, it is within single digit percentage points of reality.)

I was disappointed though that when I synced the iPod Nano using iTunes, it only uploaded the Nike+ foot sensor session to the Nike+ website. So it could only display one of the graphs.

I went into the Nano while it was mounted as a drive on my Mac. And extracted the raw data.

(See how to do that in my 2007 blog post here.)

It is mildly interesting that using the internal sensor records only distance (in km) every 10 seconds. But using the Nike+ foot sensor it recorded both speed and distance data every 10 seconds.

I plotted and overlaid the distance data (converted to speed) on top of one another in Excel:

As you can see the data are pretty comparable.

Hmm, now the dongle has been deemed unnecessary, I guess I could go wireless. I see the preferred set-up is to pair that tiny i10s bluetooth dongle for the iPod port with a pair of those Sony Ericsson HBH-IS800 earphones. My birthday is coming up. So I think I will reward myself...

Update: December 1st 2011: I have new and serious doubts about the usefulness of the built-in accelerometer based on a treadmill run. See Apple iPod Nano 6g v1.2 (Part 2).

Sunday, October 2, 2011

symposium sushi

This blog has been zig-zagging a bit recently.

Deviating from the usual fitness blog, first it was home improvement with wifi thermostats and ice makers with filtered water, now we seem to be beginning a minor food streak with this second post in a row.
(See last post here.)

Saturday, I was at ASU (Arizona State University) for an all-day symposium. As usual, after the event, a bunch of the presenters and organizers went out for a bite to eat and socialize a bit near Mill Avenue in Tempe. I'd have dearly loved to have joined them of course.

But I reckon I'd earned myself some sushi after my talk. So I made my excuses and left as we were about to enter a restaurant. Of course, I'd thoroughly enjoyed the academic presentations at the symposium, but it was either these wonderful people or my dinner reservation.

I feel terrible about it but I'd been thinking of this neat place that I haven't been to for a while. So much so that I had quietly sneaked out during a break and called to make a reservation to be sure I'd get a spot - you know, Saturday night and all that.

A bit rude and anti-social? Guilty as charged. But look at the evidence below: can you resist?

On the left, sauteed eryngii mushrooms (special, not on the regular menu). On the right, aji (spanish mackerel), mirugai (giant clam, geoduck) chuo toro (medium fatty tuna), uni (sea urchin) and hamachi (yellowtail). So good, so good...

As I ate, I think back to the last time I was here. It has been a while.