Geek Stuff

Holiday Guide 2023

Back again with the list for all the family CTOs out there. I’ve been putting this list together every year so when I get tech questions from the family over Thanksgiving I can just send them this link. Hopefully it helps you too, feel free to send me any suggestions!

Easy Gifts

I’ve been doing more and more with MagSafe, this is the iPhone feature where magnets can attach to the phone allowing you to wirelessly charge, mount in the car with no work, or add a popsocket.

I’ve also switched to using my phone as my alarm clock so that opens up chargers as gift ideas.

I use this popsocket at events, the QR code is my Trust Insights business card so no more wasted paper or running out.


If you have anyone that needs glasses there are two interesting things: I like Maui Jim sunglasses for the beach/running and they are great for boating/fishing. They now come in readers. The other thing is being able to make ski goggles (or any other glasses) bifocals for less than $25. I have just refused to pay the $400+ for prescription goggles because that would just guarantee they would get lost/stolen/broken, nevermind the fact that they get used maybe 20 times a year. Add the lens in the reading zone and boom, I can see my phone again when trying to find my kids.


Trello is a great tool for managing your holiday tasks. Create a card for each person or task that you have to take care of, and I have three columns: Parking Lot which is where the cards stay and during the year as I get gift ideas I can add them to the checklist for that person, In Progress for the items that I am currently working on completing, and finally they rest in Done.

TV and Home Theater

Everyone here is still in love with the projector setup built during Covid lockdown, that full story is here.

It’s interesting, maybe it’s the current chip shortage but the original projector I installed has not dropped in price since last year. It’s 1080p and as of today is $229.

I have a savings account that receives the cash when I sell stuff on eBay and this year for my birthday I decided I was going to try a 4k Projector. I got a good deal on a BenQ TK850 and quickly learned that you should not be looking at anything with an old school light bulb in it. It was nowhere near as bright as my $229 1080p projector but the good news was I was able to flip it on eBay, breaking even after shipping and fees.

Nebula was recently acquired by Anker and I was able to get this Nebula Cosmos Max for under $1,000. My jaw just dropped when I saw that it’s gone up to $1,395. One thing, the first one I got was defective and I had to return it so I was very glad that I bought it from Nebula directly. I also added a subwoofer to the setup, that was a crazy McGuyver job that I won’t go into here but will update my home theater post, or feel free to ask me about it on Threads if you want to nerd out.

The end result is that the picture is much sharper at 4k, it’s worth doing. It’s still not as bright as the 1080p, in mid light scenes but anything outdoor or with special effects looks amazing.

Video Games

The Nintendo Switch still rules the house here, my previous post on that hasn’t changed. H Bomb has been using an old PS4 and playing Spiderman Miles Morales and Star Wars Fallen order, both of which are a ton of gaming for around $20. Sorry, but I’ve got no Xbox or PS5 tips. When I don’t know where to look I start at GameSpot.

If you play Fortnite check in with me, PhilDunphey247


Last year I took the gutpunch of laptop upgrades, this year, thankfully, there will be no hardware under the tree. Just the standard opinion here: Macs are great for people that don’t know what they are doing, I’m so excited not to be Anti-Virus police for my family. But if you have any gamers or people who want to venture outside the controlled garden, you may be PC shopping.

Marketing Over Coffee fan Jennifer N. said she’s getting an Elgato Teleprompter. This reminded me that I’ve played with a couple of them and finally settled on a Plexicam. It’s not a true teleprompter, it’s a clear bracket that lets you hang your webcam on the center of your monitor. It’s less expensive than a teleprompter, and is a lot less stuff to be moving around and have on your desk. If you do a lot of web meetings I can heartily recommend it.

Audio Gear

Beats Fit Pro are still the earbud champions but one interesting note – I have been able to find some Jabra 75T earbuds for less than $30 and I was finally able to side by side test. The Beats are better for sports, better bluetooth connection, better for calls, better noise cancellation BUT even though the Jabra loses in most categories… the music is just a little bit better, and it has an EQ.

Bluetooth Speaker: Bose has killed the Soundlink Mini a couple of times and it just keeps coming back. I drag mine nearly everywhere except for construction sites, where I have an old Jambox that I don’t care if it gets destroyed.

For podcasting I love my RodecasterProII, but you can now get the Duo which is smaller and has all the features I need so I may do the eBay downgrade at some point to get some desk space back. For microphones I still love the VModa boom best, but with wired headphones slowly vanishing for everyone except hardcore audiophiles, I’ve stopped making Sony 7506 mods and use Beats Fit Pro for day to day, and recommend Shure SM7B for the office/studio.


With all of the family building music libraries and having their own playlists I finally buckled and went all in on Spotify – please add me, I’ve got a bunch of holiday and other playlists, feel free to send me your info. The unintended consequence is that it I didn’t realize how bad Amazon Music in CarPlay was until we switched. The lovely Carin is thrilled that she can easily fire up playlists in the car now.

If you are into DJing or setting up online listening Turntable is back after being gone for nearly a decade. If you want to throw a virtual holiday party this would add the music.

I am thinking about upgrading the PC speakers I use in the kitchen with an Amazon Echo Studio with Subwoofer, I’ll report back if Santa agrees.


I’m messing around with adding CarPlay to our older vehicles. It’s entered the under $200 category and I’m reaching the point where I refuse to have any vehicles without backup cameras. This requires some wiring though so it’s not for the faint of heart. I’ll post more after experiments have run.

Happy Holidays!

I’ll update this as things change, and I hope you have a restful holiday!

Geek Stuff Productivity Booster

Answering Nerd Gift Questions

It’s the most wonderful time of year! My friends and relatives ask me questions about HDMI cables and memory cards, stuff they want nothing to do with for the other 11 months of the year.

Here’s the most common questions I’ve been getting so that I can just email this link around.

What video game system do I get?

The PS5 is still in short supply, but for hardcore fans of the platform they may not consider anything else. If your gamer is into playing Halo then Xbox may be an option, I would not assume so unless they say so.

I’m suggesting the Nintendo Switch for most people. It’s not as powerful as the previous two but the killer feature is that it is both a console (looks great hooked up to a TV) and can be used as a handheld game (fully portable for creating silence in the car. You’re welcome.)

There are multiple versions of the Switch so it can be confusing. The newest version has an OLED Screen and it’s the one I recommend. The original version is $50 less most places I’ve seen it and that’s not much of a discount for what’s basically 4 years old. The Switch Lite is smaller and cheaper but does not output to a TV which is a dealbreaker for me.

What Do I Need To Buy With A Nintendo Switch?

Games of course. An important point here is you can now choose between buying games from the store in memory cards or just downloading them.

I prefer download because they never get lost. They cards are only the size of a postage stamp and that’s just asking for disaster in my house. If your gamer is a neat and tidy person there is the upside of being able to resell games on memory cards when they are done with them if they like to trade up. For downloaded games that’s the end of the line, you have no access to the used market.

You can buy Nintendo eStore cards all over the place, good games that are new tend to run around $60. Target is currently running a buy one, get 15% off the second on a bunch of video game platform gift cards.

A tip here – our local library network does lend Nintendo Switch games. It’s always great to try them before buying, some games just suck, others can be completed before it has to go back to the library. This can save a huge pile of cash.

Nintendo Switch also has a gaming network, this allows you to play with other gamers online and gives access to a library of a bunch of games from previous Nintendo systems (current Wii games are not in there though.) This is $20 a year for an individual or $35 for the family. This is a cheap way to have a ton of games right from day 1 without breaking the bank.

Nintendo Switch Controllers

The small controllers are the weak point on the platform. They work but they can’t handle the long term abuse that controllers normally get. If your gamer is tough on controllers (like ragequit throwing) a Pro Controller is a required upgrade. It’s very much in the platform gamer standard, strong enough to easily break a TV when tossed and will survive.

I have tried a few upgraded controllers that attach like the stock ones. This Kinvoca Joypad has worked well and not broken as fast as the original. Updated July 2022: I’ve tried two upgraded controllers, one lasted 6 months, the other 9. Forget these, get the Pro Controller.

If you have the original controllers and they are not working, most commonly by “drifting” where things move without you touching the stick, or if you can’t move in certain directions, they can be repaired if you are a little bit handy and not afraid to void your warranty. I have used more than one of these joystick replacement kits that come with all the tools and parts you need.

Get A Memory Card and Screen Protectors

If you are going the downloaded games route you’ll want to add more storage. This is a good memory card.

My kids manage to crack the screen protector every 3 months or so, making screen protectors the best purchase I’ve made with the system, these come in a three pack so we’re never without one.

Smart Light Bulbs and Smart Home

There are a lot of Smart Home Options, we use Alexa for everything since it works with Smart Outlets (Alexa, turn off Christmas tree is a big win.)

Phillips Hue Light Bulbs are expensive compared to the competition but they have a good app and integrate with Alexa. Note that there are bulbs that do different shades of white and brightness and then more expensive ones that can do the full color spectrum. Phillips has a starter kit on sale for the holidays, and my local warehouse club has them.

I have a Google Nest Smart Thermostat, it is only ok. It’s limited if you want to use sensors to adjust the temp by room (at night I want the heat to go on based on the bedroom temp, not the temp downstairs.) If you have one you like please mention it!

TV and Home Theater

This space is crazy, everything has become so cheap. I like buying TVs from the warehouse club (or Best Buy if you still have one close to you) so you can see them to pick, compare, and make sure it fits in your house (also confirm it will fit in your car/truck to go home before you pay.)

TV’s are cheap but the LED revolution has made projectors affordable too. Adding a projector to our living room has changed the game, I don’t like watching the TV anymore and because of the scale it’s better than going to the movies. I’ve already done a post about that if you want to see how I got it together for a screen over 100 inches for less than the price of a 47 inch TV.


Everyone here is getting upgraded because we are in a rural area and some carriers shutting down 3G is going to be a problem so everybody is getting a 5G upgrade. The real fun here is that I won’t know if this will make life better or worse until we try. It astounds me every day that I live in a town with a top rated liberal arts college and have crappy cell/internet, but here we are.

Headphones, Earphones, Earbuds

There’s a lot going on in this space but the short version is that the Jabra Active Elite 75T are ranked #1 by many review sites and I can agree. Better sound quality than AirPods, great microphones for calls. But, remember there’s no one size fits all, there’s a bunch of reasons why you might want to use something else (number one being not wanting to force something into your ear canal.)

Unfortunately the Active Elite 75T is being phased out and I have not tried any of the new line to know what the best successor is. Right now I would suggest the 85T until the new stuff has been reviewed.

Always happy to talk this topic or…

Trusted Review Sites

I’m a paying member of Consumer Reports for appliances and cars. The Wirecutter is fantastic for trying hundreds of products and recommending the best (Lauren Dragan on headphones!)

Geek Stuff Productivity Buster

Building a Home Theater for Around The Price of a Good TV

A little more than a month ago a neighbor of mine said “Here, have this projector.” I was astounded at the generosity because having worked virtually for more than 10 years now, the last time I had to get a projector for the office it was around $2,000 to get something that looked decent.

What I missed is that while I’ve been all about LEDs for home and my toolbox, I didn’t realize that they’ve completely changed the projector market too. My brain melted a little bit when I looked this projector up on Amazon and saw it was $90. When it started acting a little weird the company told my neighbor “We’ll send you another one, don’t even bother shipping the wonky one back.” Regardless of the price I was thrilled to get to mess around with a new toy.

The projector was good enough to be impressive in a dark room but our TV was sharper and didn’t require a darkened room, so the trade off of size vs. picture was about even. After a couple of weeks I started to have the same problem with it, not powering up or shutting off randomly so I recycled it but the damage had been done. I had a taste of a huge screen in the house having my own little movie theater was just too cool.

So, here’s where I went from there and links for you if you want to check it out. For the projector I went with this Yaber Y30 ProjectorYaber Y30. It’s 1080p so it’s not going to compare to a 4k image (4k projectors currently starting at $1,200) but it currently retails around $200 and it went on sale with a coupon for $150 and then I had some Amazon credit so I got it for $100.

What really got me and Carin was that we had an open wall large enough to hit a sweet spot. It was like having a 110 inch TV and it was a magic point. At that size, in many movie scenes the characters were “Actual Size.” It wasn’t like TV where you focus on the actors and that’s really where your brain is, or that it was a movie screen where everything was huge. It was like looking into the next room. It hit us in a restaurant scene where were we listening to the actors but it felt like we were in the same restaurant.

I have a few speaker sets around and I was trying to see what I could make work but realized that with a Soundbar that supports Bluetooth, Apple TV could connect and then I’d only have to plug it in, I wouldn’t have to run any wires across the room (or drill into the floor which is the only safe thing to do.) Bose TV SpeakerBose had their TV Speaker as a refurb for only $150 (sorry, looks like it’s gone up a bit) and it’s good enough for the small room. The wall mount was separate but this Amazon one is a better deal than the official Bose.

For the wall we are projecting on silver is the color you want (I naively thought it would be white, but that ends up being too bright.) Home Depot sells it and I got it online but it took about 10 days, I don’t know if they can mix it on site. A gallon was $60 and that was a huge mistake. We will do the whole room with it but if you are only doing one wall I did two coats and some touch up and I barely made a dent in the bucket.

The only thing I went full retail on was the Apple TV. Years ago I gave up on the whole media server thing and just went all in on Apple. Movies, music, TV shows, phone apps, it’s all in their cloud. I’m trapped there and it’s not cheap, but I don’t have to do any work to maintain anything. I throw the hockey puck in the bag with an HDMI cable and we can go anywhere with our media library.Apple TV

And you can see the three remotes, which is a pain, but the good news is that the Logitech Harmony programmable remote runs the TV and stereo in the same room, and I had enough open devices (limit 8) that I was able to add it all. So I hit the movie screen button and the projector, speaker, and Apple TV all fire up. The Harmony is fantastic but it can be a pain to program, I suggest using the PC/Mac App to program it, the phone apps seem to crash when under heavy load. Here’s a link and it should be $149 but it seems that perhaps too many people have gotten into smart remotes during Covid so they are out of stock and folks are tacking on an extra $100 if they have them.Harmony Remote

Since the projector is blocking the top of a window I went with cable runs, which are plastic tracks you can wall mount and snap on the cover so the cables are out of sight. With a white run on the window molding it’s difficult to even spot. Cable Run on Window

Here’s the image, and this is in the middle of the afternoon with the room half darkened:Screen

One thing I learned more about than I wanted to was ceiling mounting and image keystoning. Many projectors have keystone correction, the ability to correct the image if the projector is too high or low, or even not straight on. My first thought was to mount the projector up on the ceiling so it was totally out of the way of the window. After I set it up and went through the keystone correction (you just hit a couple buttons until the image is straight on all sides again) it was obvious that you pay a price in image sharpness by doing it. It was still watchable but out of focus in the areas where the light was traveling the farthest to hit the wall. I’ve learned that this is one of the things that make the $10,000 commercial projectors what they are, for big bucks you can keystone correct and still look great. For my budget… not so much.

So, much to Carin’s chagrin (drilling another 4 holes in the ceiling) I ordered another mount, this one with an extension arm, so that the projector was shooting straight at the wall at the right height. This was kind of a pain, but she did admit it was worth it when we fired up the next movie.

The good news with this is you can tell people are screwing up the mounting job all the time and so Amazon has no shortage of open box specials. I got the first ceiling mount for $5 down from $20, and the second with the arm for $10, down from $35.

So end of day I’m going off to the movies to see the new Star Wars stuff on Disney+ and with my random coupons and credits I got there for around $470, which is almost exactly what we paid for our TV about 3 years ago. I recommend it to any TV, movie, concert or sports fan!

Geek Stuff

Sony 7506 Ski Helmet Mod

Updated: Of course 3 minutes after hitting publish I realize the better headline is “Audiophile Ski Helmet.”

It’s so funny that I have a post today, almost exactly one year from my last one! Of course the last one was that I had finished the book project so that’s a pretty decent excuse to stop writing but that’s not the case, it’s just that the blogging I’ve done has been over at my work site – Trust Insights. For martech folks check out this series on lead scoring, attribution, and machine learning for attribution!

Longtime readers know that I’m a huge fan of the Sony 7506 headphones, and I mod them for podcasting and webinars with a removable mic – the ubergeek special Johnny Headphones.

This winter I decided that I wanted to upgrade from my Bose Sport Headphones and started looking into other options. Taking sport headphones in and out is a hassle and I wanted to see if I could get both better sound and less isolation (being able to hear what was going on around me better) as I’m chaperoning my kids and a couple others after lesson time is over and I need to know who is yelling, and more importantly why.

I was new to helmets when I came back to skiing 4 years ago after only going out a handful of times over the past 15 years. At first I thought I would hate them as it’s a lot like motorcycle riding, although it’s moronic in terms of risk management there’s nothing like the wind coming at you high speed to feel like you’re truly free.

What I was not expecting is that the helmet is the perfect combination of super warm, and yet still with enough ventilation to stay comfortable. I was not expecting a helmet to be warmer and more comfortable than any ski hat I’ve ever had. I’ve had a ton of hats and the very best, I would charitably rate as half comfortable. And projecting my skull from impact is a wonderful side benefit.

After a bit of researching I learned that many ski helmets, like the Boeri I got a great deal on at the local ski sale, are made with velcro pockets over each ear so that you can drop in a speaker solution like these Alta Wireless Bluetooth Helmet Drop in Speaker Chips:

As you can see it’s pretty simple, just drop them in and go.

But, in the process of learning how to mod the 7506 I had a bunch of parts lying around and decided to build my own. There were three benefits to this: first I prefer wired, while bluetooth no wires is a wonderful thing, the freedom is offset by even one day of arriving at the mountain and realizing I forgot to charge my helmet. Second I was pretty sure I could do better sound wise than anything else out there, and so far I haven’t tried anything better (although there is a helmet that has a perfect cutaway so that it includes a real full set of over ears with headband, but I wasn’t about to go that route because of reason three – I already had the parts so this was “free.” It as pretty straightforward:

  • Take apart the 7506s with Phillips head screwdriver
  • Cut all wires, leaving enough for me to see which color goes where (note that the left side that has the jack has 3 points to solder to while the right only has two)
  • Use the Dremel cutter to cut around the plastic plate that holds the driver, and then the Dremel grinder to take off all the rough edges
  • I had an old patch cord that I soldered to both to connect the left to the right driver. The cord fits between the styrofoam and the outer plastic shell of the headphone so it’s completely out of sight running around the back of my head.
  • Plastic twist ties are perfect for securing the cables to the plastic driver plates after soldering, cut the plate leaving pairs of holes that you can run the plastic twist ties through to bind down the cables so they don’t move (cable 1 connecting left to right, cable 2 long enough to run down to my jacket pocket and terminating with a 3.5mm tip which plugs into my iPhone 6 (until next week when my iPhone X arrives!!!)
  • Note that many ski jackets have a loop along side the zipper for cord management and may also have a button hole so you can run the cord into the pocket from the inside. I have both so even though I went all fancy with a Neon Lime cord, you can’t see it at all if I have my jacket zipped all the way up so that it covers the bottom of the helmet ear pads.
  • This bullet and the next two are critical for sound quality – I used another twist tie to connect the driver plate to the ear cushion that attaches to the ear flap. I tried just having it float in the pocket but sound quality can vary dramatically if it moves too high, anchoring it with the twist tie solves this (and be sure the driver is facing into your ear, not out, that was a moronic mistake I made once.
  • Because the 7506 are closed back headphones I found out that by adding a Beyerdynamic driver cover (a piece of foam with velour on one side that normally covers the driver to protect it from your greasy ears) not over the driver but behind it to reduce the amount that bleeds outside the ear flap dramatically increased the sound quality. At this point in the testing I started smiling as the sound quality was fantastic.
  • The third improvement was learned by testing – having the chin strap connected and tight is critical, the better the seal on the ear flaps the better the bass, so much so that if it’s snug the whole helmet will bounce a bit when you his some big bass.

I also covered the solder points with electric tape to reduce the risk of shorting out in case it gets wet, or catching fire against the foam. With that said, if you are going to try this at all let me be clear:

You are violating your warranty, odds are it will light on fire, short out and destroy the headphones and probably kill you. I’m straight up telling you that in no way should you try this, if you are crazy enough to still try remember that I told you it would never work and best case scenario is you dying quickly.

With the disclaimer done here’s some photos:

Driver soldered, cables secured and covered up
Finished project

One last thing, using your phone or the normal buttons on the average headphone cable is mostly impossible. While searching I came across Chubby Buttons – a bluetooth controller for your music (and the watch battery lasts a season, no recharging.) It’s not cheap, around $60 but it is fantastic, I highly recommend:

Chubby Buttons

Ok, start building some playlists!


After field testing I thought the sound was only ok. Then this year I added the EarStudio ES100. It’s a Bluetooth Adapter, you can plug in any wired headphone and now it’s Bluetooth. The big win here is that it also has a full EQ app. So while the sound used to be pretty thin (unsurprising make a closed back headphone open back) as soon as I switch the EQ to the setting I use to make earbuds sound better it was fantastic. I can now recommend this rig whole heartedly.

Also one other update, Chubby Buttons 2 have been released. Same link, same thing but you can now access smart assistants so no more pulling out the phone to read text messages. I’ll update when it gets here!

Geek Stuff

$4k Worth of Headphones

About four months ago a friend forwarded a link to who now rents high end headphones (sadly, Lumoid is no more). It had just been covered in Lifehacker or one of the other high profile blogs so it took until last month for my order to come up. For $75 I had two weeks with three top shelf headphones:

  • Audeze LCD-3 ($1,945)
  • Sennheiser HD 800 ($1,599)
  • Sony MDR-Z7 ($699)

Of course for the majority of the time they were hidden in my closet so that my kids wouldn’t look at them

Audeze Sony Sennheiser
Our Contestants!

or breathe on them. I also waited on writing this up until they were safely back in the Bay Area in case anyone considered doing an Ocean’s 11 heist with me actually having something of value in my home.

If you’re in a hurry, the punchline is: I don’t think spending this much money on headphones is worth it. Yes, 2 of the 3 sounded amazing, but maybe 5% better than my Sony MDR-V6 headphones that cost under $200. For those still wondering what $4,243 (+tax, +shipping & handling) gets you…

Click for full size

As you’d expect from headphones this expensive, the boxes were impressive. The Sony and Sennheiser were similar, opening like a trophy case. The Audeze come in a plastic travel case, like the kind you’d use to transport a monitor to a trade show. Basically about half a piece of luggage, leading to the first lesson – this is not stuff you travel with.

Note that the Audeze and Sennheisers are open back headphones, the ear cup is vented so air flows in and sound flows out. These give them a much more natural sound, as if you are in a concert hall, but it means that on a noisy subway you’ll hear the train, and the passengers will hear your music, so probably not a wise choice.

All three of them have proprietary cables with unique connections to the headphones. The Audeze and Sony’s plug in and then are screwed down to prevent them being pulled out. The Senn’s have some crazy mount with a pin that makes them only insertable in one position. The Audeze come with an XLR cable so you can have a balanced connection, which is supported on some high end gear. A balanced connection means that the signal is sent down two wires, inverted on one of them. It’s ingenious, when the inverted one is restored any interference picked up along the line cancels itself out. Of course I’ve never personally seen someone using a balanced connection to listen to music, but you could say that’s just because I hang with a low rent crowd.

Audeze LCD-3
Audeze LCD-3

Over the past couple of years I’ve come up with a number of theories on headphones, one of them being that fit and comfort are more important than any specs or technical analysis. It doesn’t matter that the Audeze sound better than anything I’ve ever listened to, I don’t want to wear anything that heavy so I wouldn’t buy them even if I was sitting on a pile of cash I had no use for. The Sennheisers also sound amazing, and are very light and comfortable. But I’ve also been impressed with the Sennheiser HD 558 which you can currently get a used set on Amazon for $64. Yes I would say that the HD 800 is two or three times better considering the sound, fit, weight, and quality. Paying 25 times the price for it? Personally, the value is not there. Factor in losing or breaking a pair now and then and the economics get uglier quick.

I did not like the sound of the Sony headphones compared to other Sonys I’ve heard. Usually they have a very clear mid range and high end, and this pair did not. This comes to another point about my review, the case could be made that listening to uncompressed digital files via a Dragonfly DSP and a Meridian Explorer 2 is not the same as spending $10,000 on an amp to drive these headphones to the extreme. I admit that this could be true, but that throwing down another $10,000 is not going to tilt the odds in the headphones favor in my value equation.

In closing, I won’t be dropping a boatload of money on headphones, but I would not hesitate to rent from Lumoid again. They also rent photography gear, and fitness wearables, two areas where you definitely want to try before you buy.

For past writing on audio start here.




Beefing Up Audio

I’m just posting this because I listened to a Tim Ferris interview with Tony Robbins this week and it doesn’t do well in the car or while running because of the mix. Tim has a page where you can submit comments and I wanted to post a sample to show what I’m talking about.

For anyone podcasting here are two simple things that can significantly improve your audio. Here’s a screenshot of an audio wave:

Audio Graph
Sound Wave Before/After

You can listen to this audio file here:

If you cut the picture above in half, the left side is the “Before” and the right side is the “After”. On the left side the recording is not taking advantage of the power available to it. In other words, you are going to have to turn the volume up twice as much compared to the average song, or audio cues on your phone. These are the situations where you turn up a podcast and then when you get a text message, or your running app cuts in to tell you how many miles you are at, it blows your ears out.

Now there’s an entire profession dedicated to mastering audio – making it sound great and taking into account the devices it will be played on. I am by no means an expert in this area, but I can give you two simple things to at least get from annoying to sounding closer to an NPR podcast:

The Levelator is a free tool that will adjust the entire file so that it uses most of the dynamic range. This includes fixing where one person is louder than the other. All you do is drag and drop your file on to the window and it spits out a second file that sounds better.

Soundsoap is not free but does a great job at reducing background noise and can also add some Barry White to your sound. If you realize that the air conditioner or other stray noise in the background is annoying this can make a huge difference.





Jason Keath posted about building a home studio on Facebook and asked if I would throw in my two cents. Jason is a mensch and I realized that my comment would be one of those annoying five page Facebook comments so it was much easier to write an entire manifesto here.

I probably know about 5% of what you need to know to build a studio, but that doesn’t matter because there are two easy options. Either call Parsons Audio and spend the money or talk to some podcasters who are always experimenting with cheap stuff, which is often pretty good thanks to the current level of technology.

First things that come to mind:

Do you really want to build a studio in your house and lose a room? Renting allows you to not have weirdos in your home, will sound fantastic, and means that you won’t have the UPS guy ringing the doorbell or the General Lee driving by honking the dixie horn. It’s also just like the gym, when you go you will get the job done, if the equipment is in the house it will probably end up as a clothing rack. On the other hand, the big upside is setting up a bunch of stuff and then never having to take it down. Let’s say you’re sold on that. Most people I know have an office and create a studioffice. Or maybe an officudio. Or something.

Noise kill: John Federico makes a great point about Dynamic vs. Condenser mics – I’ve found it easier to use dynamic mics in a room with carpet and some stuff on the walls than trying to make sure everyone is out of the house and gluing up foam egg crates. Capturing the room noise before and after recording and then using Soundsoap hides a huge array of sins.

Who’s doing the talking? If you have four people around the table with some microphone technique, then nice mics and headphones are great. These Sony headphones are good enough that if someone doesn’t like them you can yell “BRING YOUR OWN DAMN CANS.” Shure SM58 is a workhorse for a microphone, but if you want similar guts but a lot cooler looking, the Elvis Mic fits the bill.

The thing here though is if they are not broadcasters it may change things – for podcast guests sometimes a lavaliere mic is great because  public speakers who move around a lot may not always be in front of the mic (off axis), or worse yet tap or kick the table (why you see the 10,000 pound tables in the studio). An old NPR trick is to have a lav mic on the brim of a baseball hat, the placement works and you don’t have to mess with people’s clothes.

Also on furniture – finding chairs that don’t creak is important. Metal submarine style chairs are an option, although standing up or having a barstool can improve vocal projection for the group.

I like to keep a computer out of the equation for panel discussions (although the fanless Macbook may change that). I run a Mackie mixer into a Marantz digital recorder, it’s been solid for years.

Of course then you’ll start thinking that you might video some of it so that requires cameras and light….




Sound and #MyHeadRoom

Longtime readers know that I usually check in every six months or so with a sound update. Between loving music and producing the Marketing Over Coffee podcast I keep an eye on what’s happening in audio (and tend to spend more money than I should).

I got a push this time from the folks at Headroom, I mention them every time we talk audio because of their great shared testing results. Since I’m writing anyway I can also enter this in their #MyHeadRoom campaign which is giving away 2 sets of Shure SE846 earphones (if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to drop $1,000 on earbuds), and a set of SHR1540 headphones (which I would love to take for a test drive). Listening to music is the only peace and quiet that happens in my house full of kids, and I have worn my Shure’s for a full day as part of work so thanks Headroom!

Last time we were talking about getting better sound out of your iPhone. Since then: Bose replaced the QC15 with the QC25 and all reports say they are even better, so if noise reduction is your thing (hello road warriors), that’s the way to go.

I also found an interesting app called Dirac. It optimizes the sound for Apple Earphones and EarPods (the freebies that come with your phone and most sound fans laugh at and throw away). For $3 it is no joke, it makes the EarPods sound much better, as in better than some earphones costing $100 or more.  The catch is you have to use their music player, it doesn’t work for all apps (i.e. no movies, games, etc.) If you want to nerd out on it some more check out their site and how they optimize for Rolls Royce and others.

I’ve been digging into DACs as part of the quest for better sound and have found that some call the Pono snake oil, there are some interesting things (or maybe more snake oil) on the horizon, and some results that show the iPhone 6 actually has fantastic soundAn interesting tip from that last link – the volume slider on the screen gives you more granular control of the volume than the buttons on the side.

As far as phones… a moment of silence for my Shure 535s that have gone to the great listening room in the sky. For now I’m using my Bose QC20i as they are the easiest to travel with. I’m also interested in checking out what lands from the guys that make the Dragonfly.

On the recording front, Shure has some things in the pipeline that look interesting. Also Soundsoap released version 4, that’s my secret weapon for making the podcast sound a bit better than the other guys out there. I’ve also been kicking around a condenser mic in the studio and have been checking out Apogee gear for that.

That’s what I’ve been listening to, if you’ve found anything interesting lately I’d love to hear from you @johnjwall


Geek Stuff

What headphones should I buy for my iPhone?

So a good friend of mine told me he just switched to an iPhone and that he wasn’t happy with the earbuds. Since I was going to get a bunch of links for him anyway, it’s a perfect excuse for a new sound roundup (see previous post here)! There are some new entries, and better yet new resources to check things out yourself. Between running, having an addiction to buying music, and producing Marketing Over Coffee I spend (waste) a lot of time worrying about audio.

There are two hard rules I can guarantee you – one, there is no substitute for testing. There’s no universal fit, and only you can decide what sound quality/price trade off you can stomach. Two, yes, the stock earbuds stink.

First is the fit category, I’ve cut into 4 options:

  1. Over the ear – These cover your ear completely and because they are so big this means you’ll get more bass than anything smaller
  2. On the ear – Slightly smaller, but personally I’ve found them more likely to hurt after prolonged use. Overall I ignore this category, if you have any you like in this segment I’d love to hear about them.
  3. In the ear – These are your standard earbud style. The key here is that they go in your ear but do not seal it shut like an earplug (that would be #4)
  4. In the ear canal – These have an airtight seal which has a tradeoff – they can sound much better than #3, but you can’t hear what’s going on around you as well. Some people don’t like cutting off the outside world, for example I prefer #3 for running so I still have some idea what’s going on around me. On the other hand, when on a plane or subway you may prefer this style to block out the noise around you

Other things to keep in mind:

  1. Bluetooth – If you want to go cordless then you might consider this. It’s a big trade off though – this means they’ll need a battery of some sort, one that requires charging or replacement. Audiophiles also write off Bluetooth as the sound quality is not as good as wired. However, see #4 for more on sound quality
  2. In-line controls – Having the ability to change volume or tracks, and having a microphone on the cable makes life easier in a number of situations. It’s a lot easier to hear calls through your earphones/headphones. It’s much easier to control while excercising rather than pulling out your phone.
  3. Celebrity Headphones – If a celebrity is getting paid, that’s money that didn’t go to sound quality. The Wirecutter article below goes in depth here, they’ve never had a celebrity headphone win its price class.
  4. Apple sucks, Bose doesn’t – The bottom line is that you make a lot of trade offs on a phone so that your battery lasts more than 2 hours. It takes energy to process a digital signal, and to drive headphones. Since the sound quality is not audiophile grade you don’t notice that the stock headphones are quite crummy (although this latest generation is much better than the last). This is also why you can get by with Bluetooth, unless you’re really listening it’s not going to make much difference on an average or less MP3 file. On the other side ofHeadphones the spectrum I’ll mention hometown team Bose. Yes, they are more expensive than gear that’s considered the same quality and yes, audiophiles tend to take issue with them. Until recently I’ve said “Do a little homework and you can get better for the same money, or get as good and save some money”. In the past couple of years though they’ve been crushing it – The QC15 (over ear), QC20 (in ear canal),SIE2i (sport headphones) and the Soundlink Mini (portable speaker like a Jambox) all are category leaders to my ear. So if you want good sound, you’ll have to pay. Bottom line is, although their stuff is expensive they don’t make any mid-grade or entry level junk. Anybody that buys Bose is usually happy with their purchase. Brands like Sony and Sennheiser make so many different models that you’ll have a hard time figuring out what’s best for you.
  5. Noise Reduction – there’s passive noise reduction, blocking outside noise by airtight seal and insulation, and active noise reduction where microphones measure the noise and cancelling sound waves are created. Many reviewers say Bose leads the pack here by a significant margin, and my testing agrees with that.

Resources: is still fantasic for a broad range of headphones, great advice and test results if you are hardcore. A new one to me, thanks to @gadgetboy is The Wirecutter. You can check out their buying guide and they are great for reviews on what’s the best in a number of tech categories. In fact, I’d start there first before going to my list below.

The stuff I like:

Over the ear: I still love my Bose QC15s. The sound is good, the noise reduction great. Hard to beat this for watching your own movies on a plane. If you’re not into that price range a great choice is the Sony MDR7506. At $85 these get rated higher than cans going up as high as $250.

On ear: Never like any enough to buy.

In the ear: For running the Bose SIE2i are the best sounding sport headphones I’ve ever had. Fair warning though, they are expensive and I’ve had to replace them once after a year and a half. Amazon reviews say that the microphone is a weak point if sweat gets in there. On my list to try are the Jaybird Bluebuds X which are guaranteed sweatproof.

In the ear canal: My Shure 530s are still going strong. I’ve had custom earmolds made so I can wear these all day with no problem and they block out a lot of noise. They no longer make these, the latest model is the 535 and it’s much better because you can replace the cable when they wear out. However, they are no longer the king of the hill, if you happen to have $1,000 just lying around the SE-846 has 4 drivers in each ear (not sure how they squeeze that all in there) which are supposed to sound better than Morgan Freeman telling your life story. On my wishlist here: Bose QC20. The noise reduction on these is much better than even the QC15 plus it’s a lot less to carry when traveling.

That’s where it’s at today, if you have any gear you love please tell me about it!

Geek Stuff

Migrating to Air

AirTwo weeks before Christmas it finally happened. I wanted to edit some video and could no longer stand the thought of doing it on my PC. I drove over hill and dale to the Albany Apple Store just in front of the lunch holiday shopper rush and brought home a new MacBook Air.

The great migration began more than 6 years ago as I got sick of doing anti-virus updates and Windows reinstalls. As most geeks can relate, I am the family CIO, and getting married doubled my workload. As we started to spend a lot more on computers and other Apple devices, my maintenance time and expense fell far enough to put me ahead in spite of the increased workload and everyone else started having less trouble with their use.

My Dad noticed that a lot of email attachments from his buddy Koz no longer opened. Primary family virus source identified.

I considered buying a Mac in 2010 but the company I was with ran on ThinkPads and I had over 15 years of software and tools on the PC side. The deathblow for the last PC standing came when the next company I worked for gave me a Macbook Pro and the Palm Smartphone platform breathed its final gasp.

So! Who cares about the details? Nobody. Who cares about specs and workflow? We do!

Of course the SSD is blazingly fast, I already knew this having been an SSD fan since 2006, however my photo and iTunes libraries were too big and I wasn’t about to drop a grand on a 1TB SSD so it was all about Western Digital Black Caviar drives.

I decided to migrate the iTunes library to an external drive to make up for going from 1TB down to 500GB, and it seems to work quite well given the USB 3.0 ports. I have my second monitor on the Thunderbolt port, nice that Mac recognizes the exact model number, no drives required.

On the audio front I picked up an Apogee One that allows me to plug in my “real” microphones instead of using a USB mic. It seems great so far, and better looking and easier to use than my Mobile Pre USB.

Trade Show technology master GadgetBoy clued me into this Ethernet Port and 3 USB 3.0 hub. I actually had to download a driver to get the Ethernet to work, the horror! My Logitech HD cam was Plug and Play as were my Microsoft Natural Keyboard and Explorer Trackball, which is now a highly valued antique – if you didn’t click that, it shows what was an $80 trackball now going for $500 if you have one new in box (or NIB for you eBay hooligans).

An Anker USB 3.0 Drive enclosure and a WD 1TB drive made migration simple enough and leave me set with Time Machine Backup. I need some kind of case, I’m looking at a Dodo Case kind of sleeve.

For software I’m running VMWare Fusion so I could move my Quicken data there and run Goldwave for audio but I’m going to start trying GarageBand and Audacity for my Podcast workflow. We had a copy of Office for Mac 2008 lying around and I’ve decided to take the Adobe Cloud suite for a test run which has impressed me so far. iPhoto has blown me away. I upgraded to Mavericks so I could download Keynote, Pages and Numbers, I’ll give them a try.

Another interesting point. I was always complaining about the quality of our internet connections, drops during Skype calls or Webinars. Guess what? New machine, suddenly I’m not having drops…

So now I’m in that headache phase of enjoying the step up, but at the same time running into the occasional snag of “Oh, how do I do this now?” Overall I’m incredibly happy, starting at the moment I picked up my travel bag and it was 10 pounds lighter.

Anything else I need to know? Advice on hardware or workflow appreciated!