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How I Audio: Mobile Edition

I do not regularly listen to audio of any sort outside of home or the office. But I value the ability to do so, so I always carry earbuds in my bag. As with headphones, the cable is the usual failure point. The solution, once again, is modularity.

Specifically, I recommend skipping the entire consumer earbud category and going straight to “professional” in-ear monitors.

I carry Shure SE215 IEMs. These are near the bottom-end of the IEM market. I’ve heard people claim that paying hundreds, or thousands, of dollars for custom-molded IEMs is worth it. I’ve heard other people claim that the Chi-Fi market now offers IEMs that are cheaper than the SE215s and yet provide better audio quality. To my non-discerning ears, the SE215s sound great, and they satisfy my listening and comfort requirements. But more important than the specific make or model is that most products in this market segment will offer replaceable cables. The SE215s use an MMCX connector.

For portable use, I want a cable with an inline mic (and 3-button remote) so that I have the option of using it to go hands free with my pocket telephone. Shure sells IEMs with such a cable. This cable failed for me after a couple years. Fortunately, the Chinese Communist Party has realized Marx’s dream of a practically infinite supply of generic MMCX cables with inline mics for dirt cheap. I’m now using a cable I bought off AliExpress for about $10, and if I have to spend another $10 in another couple years I shan’t shed a tear. (If this was for more than occasional and incidental use, I would likely purchase something like the Antlion Kumura Cable or Kinera Gramr, but I’m not going to carry that sort of thing around in my bag just in case.)

I prefer silicone eartips when out and about in the world. They are long lasting and easy to clean. They don’t provide as much isolation as foam tips, but I consider that a feature rather than a bug; I don’t want to be cut off from the surrounding environment. (In special circumstances where I do actually want to block or diminish environmental sound, I use actual ear protection). My favorite tips are the Spinfit CP100+. The medium size feels good upon initial insertion, but I find the small size is more comfortable after a couple hours of continuous penetration.

As a general rule, I subscribe to the Kamala Harris School of Audio Peripherals, as documented in my favorite example of modern hard-hitting investigative journalism. Wireless is a trap. But I admit that there are times when a wireless connection is convenient and worth the additional hassle, however few and far between those times may be. With a modular system, this can easily be addressed by the addition of an adapter.

Originally I thought I might purchase something like the FiiO UTWS5 or Shure RMCE-TW2. But both of these utilize telephone software, which I’m allergic to, and I realized I didn’t actually understand what the sales pitch was for this new-fangled category of “true wireless” earbuds.

Instead, I ended up going back to AliExpress and purchasing a much cheaper necklace style adapter. This isn’t something I carry everyday, but it’s nice to have the option to grab it when plans warrant.

Bluetooth is the one component of the modern audio stack where the technology is still improving – or, at least, getting less bad – so using an interchangeable module here makes sense. The adapter I purchased is built on the Qualcomm QCC5181 chip, providing Bluetooth 5.4, which appears to still be the latest and greatest thing. Portable Bluetooth devices have a limited service life due to their integrated batteries, so again, modularity makes sense here. When these batteries fail, or when I determine it is worth updating to the latest chip, I just buy a new adapter rather than purchasing a whole new system. (It’d be great if we could buy adapters with replaceable batteries, but that seems to be a dream too far.)

If someday in the future I decide it is worth it to buy custom molded IEMs, I’ll just order them with an MMCX connector and they’ll be able to play nicely with my existing ecosystem of cables and adapters. This is the antithesis of the market trend and may result in the revocation of one’s listener license.

Modular, Portable Audio Rig

How I Audio: Desktop Edition

At my desk, I use open-back, circumaural, wired headphones. This technology peaked decades ago. Despite what marketers may claim, there is no reason to keep up with the flavor of the month. At home, I use the Sennheiser HD 600. At work, I use the Massdrop Sennheiser HD 6XX. These two models have some aesthetic differences, but in my experience they are identical in use. I can’t tell a difference between them when they are on my head, either in feel or in sound.

The key with both of these headphones is that they are modular. Every pair of headphones I’ve ever had fail has failed either at the cable or due to the disintegration of the padding. Both are replaceable on the Sennheiser cans. The cables and ear pads on the 600 and 6XX are interchangeable, so I only have to stock one set of spare parts. (The headband pads are different, but I wear the headphones with this pad just lightly resting on the top of my head, so those pads last indefinitely.)

I had to replace the cable on both headphones after five years of use. In both instances, I went with a generic 3-meter Chi-Fi cable from NewFantasia. It is cheaper than the official Sennheiser replacement cable, and it works great. The braided sleeve may provide some extra durability.

I replaced the ear pads in one pair after four years, and in the other pair after six years. Since ear pads can actually effect the sound, unlike the cable, I went with the official Sennheiser replacement pads.

Both my Sennheiser cans have Antlion ModMic microphones attached (one has the Uni, the other has an older discontinued model). This allows for audio calls without needing to switch to some sort of inferior, integrated solution. Boom mic or bust. Importantly, the ModMic has an integrated mute switch. This allows the microphone to be kept muted, and only made hot when actively speaking. (When not on a call, I unplug the ModMic cable.) Because it is a simple two position switch, it provides haptic feedback and thus can be toggled blindly. With this system, you don’t look like a noob trying to find the software mute button in whatever video chat software the kids are using this week, nor will you start talking without realizing that you’re still on mute. Just touch the switch with your finger and you’ll know what position it is in.

The ModMic cable and headphone cable are wrapped together in a length of Techflex Flexo F6N0.25 braided cable sleeve. This keeps the cables together, and also provides some extra protection when they inevitably get stepped on or rolled over by a chair.

Both cables are plugged into a Schiit Fulla DAC. This is the only piece of audio equipment I have that is approaching the “audiophile” market (but is incredibly cheap by the standards of that market). More important than the purported improvement in audio quality that this provides is the volume control knob. I’m a sucker for sexy knobs.

I recently got the newer USB-C model of the Fulla at home, and moved my older Fulla from home to work. Previously I used the UGREEN USB Audio Adapter at work. This was adequate for solving the problem of needing to plug dual TRS connectors into my laptop, but it did not provide the hot knob fondling action I desire.

I also keep Kingtop Headphone Mic Splitter cables in a desk drawer at home and work, so that I may use this rig with my cellular telephone. I use this rarely, as most voice communications these days are VoIP based, and thus performed on my laptop, rather than PSTN.

When not in use, the headphones are stored under my desk on the Elevation Lab Anchor.

The theme with my entire desktop audio setup is modularity. The headphones allow for pads and cables to be replaced. The mic is a separate unit. The DAC is a standalone device. All these components can be easily swapped if one fails. All of them are based on long established technologies that have already reached a practical level of perfection, providing me with a level of immunity to advertising in these spaces.

Holly Herndon composes music with machine learning.

I learned of her thanks to Bruce Sterling‘s mention in his 2020 State of the World, wherein he defines her music one of the few current examples of “genuine technical novelty”.

She used machine learning to train a program (referring to it as “AI” seems popular but I’ll refrain) that could reproduce human voices, and then used that software as a vocalist for PROTO. Neat.

Around the turn of the century there was an ambient music transmission called Blue Mars.

It and Rant Radio Industrial were important sources of music in the early days of streaming. Blue Mars described itself as Music for the Space Traveller:

Long ago, when the waters of Mars were still under the ground and above the sky, our ancestors came to this place and called it “Home”. And from the high Plains of Tharsis to the Elysium Ocean, from as high as Mount Olympus to as deep as the floor of the Hellas sea, one can still hear the song of our brothers and sisters chanting to us throughout the ages.

This melody is one that is made of hopes… It is sang with the voice of nostalgia, and looks ahead with pride. Listen…

Blue Mars: Signal Lost

The transmission ceased some years ago. For a time, recordings of the stream were rebroadcast at a site called Echoes of Blue Mars, but that too seems to have come to an end. Recently I stumbled across someone who had created YouTube playlists of much of the original music.

There are also playlists for Blue Mars’ two alternative stations. Cryosleep, which was described:

Most people who underwent cryosleep have reported that the mind seems to naturally retreat into a place of infinite tranquility, where the experience of Time itself is distorted in a subtle way.

Although there is no trace of conscious activity in the brain of sleepers, it appears that Experience itself never ceases, creating atemporals bubbles of memories of transcendental calm when the subject awakes.

It may be possible that chemicals used in the cryosleep process alter the outer cortex in a way that is not yet understood, however we believe cryosleep is a perfectly safe means of interstellar travel.

And Voices from Within, explained:

In these days of stellar explorations, encountering alien lifeforms is the dream of many space-travellers, but Language will always hinder the realization of the full potential of such an event.

Thus, Voices from Within tries to prepare cosmonauts for the experience by focusing on the abandonment of Words in favor of Vibrations, which, being uniquely suited to channel your Emotions, will usher Comprehension into the Mind of your new alien friends.

  • Blue Mars: Cryosleep
  • Blue Mars: Voices from Within

Delta Drone

Last year BoingBoing linked to a video featuring delta waves produced by the idling engine of an ice breaker in the arctic. I found it to be a useful tool, so downloaded it for offline access. Later, I decided I wanted the audio on my phone. The video is a 10 hour loop, resulting in too large a file for mobile storage. To turn it into something reasonable for a phone, I used ffmpeg to extract the audio, chop it down to 3 hours, and add a 10 second fade on either end.

$ ffmpeg \
    -i ~/library/video/web/White\ Noise\ Sounds\ of\ Frozen\ Arctic\ Ocean\ with\ Polar\ Icebreaker\ Idling\ -\ Creating\ Delta\ Waves-gpW7iYfuGDU.webm \
    -vn \
    -ss 00:00:00 \
    -t 03:00:00 \
    -af afade=in:st=0:d=10,afade=out:st=10790:d=10 \

I then added ID3 tags from the metadata of the original video.

$ id3tag \
    --artist="Relax Sleep ASMR" \
    --song="White Noise Sounds of Frozen Arctic Ocean with Polar Icebreaker Idling - Creating Delta Waves" \
    --year=2017 \

The result is a 165 MB file of loopable delta waves, perfect for drowning out the world.

The original video has since been deleted (a reminder to download any data that you find to be useful), but is available at the Internet Archive.

Delta Waves

The above spectrogram of the file is produced by Spek.

The score to Blade Runner 2049 failed to live up to the original, and is the only thing that prevented me from scoring the film 10/10.

But as an ambient soundscape, it excels. The soundscape creator wrote about his experience cutting, slowing, and mixing the score. I keep a copy of his audio on my phone and play it whenever I need white noise – concentration, meditation, sleep. It proved excellent on an airplane a couple weeks ago.


Luv loop via reddit.

I appreciate that Nine Inch Nails is the type of band that inspires a team of rogue archivists to follow them around and record their shows.

Reflecting in the Chrome attempts to be a complete archive of live NIN performances. I’ve been using it to revisit the three different shows I attended this year.

NIN Crowd

Photo by reddit user trover47

The Axolotl Tanks

I’ve been using an isolation tank every few weeks since the beginning of the year. The tanks are large, enclosed bathtubs, filled with body-temperature salt water, in which you float and not much else.

Before my first float I wasn’t sure if claustrophobia would be a problem. I’d never experienced claustrophobia, but I’d never enclosed myself in a bathtub before either. What I was missing here is the key component of the experience: sensory deprivation. With the tank closed, there’s no light, and the tank is large enough that I don’t touch the sides. Without any incoming data telling you that you’re in a small tank, you could be in an Olympic-sized pool, or simply floating through space.

There are odd an unusual claims about the benefits of isolation tanks which match the odd and unusual experience of the tanks themselves. To me, the tank is just a venue for meditation. It eliminates distraction, making the process a bit easier, but does not offer any additional benefits of its own. (Telekinesis has yet to manifest.) If you are not comfortable in your own head, you won’t have a good time.

I enjoy playing music during my sessions, sometimes for the whole hour, more often just for the first and last 15 minutes. Ambient textures are best, as anything with a beat requires too much attention. I tune in to SomaFM’s Drone Zone every now and then, which usually ends with at least one new purchase that I’ll queue up for the next tank session. Tom Heasley’s Where The Earth Meets the Sky and Massergy’s The Vast Colure have recently been useful. I’ll also sometimes go a less electronic route, opting for chanting from Gyuto or Georgian monks. It should go without saying that I’ve tried ending a session with Akira’s Requiem.

Isolation Tank