audio

Amazon Echo – A Longer Term Test

Amazon Echo

I bought my Amazon Echo on its official UK release back in September last year. I wrote about it at the time, but I thought it might be worth checking back in here to see exactly how I’m using it. Right off the top, I’ll note here that I use Alexa multiple times a day, every day.

The first thing I’ll detail is how I have my Echo(s) setup. My original Echo sits in my living room. In fact it rests fairly close to the television. But interestingly, because of the direction of the TV speakers, the Echo will still hear me even with the TV on in many cases.

But more recently I also bought an Echo Dot to go in my bedroom. I have a very old hifi system there which still sounds amazing and has a single Aux socket. Until buying the Dot, I had a Chromecast Audio device dangling from the socket, since Chromecast serves most of my audio needs. I keep music on Google Play Music, and apps like iPlayer Radio and PocketCasts both support Chromecast.

I was faced with a dilemma when I got the Dot though. I wanted the audio from that to come through my speakers as well, but I obviously didn’t want to be plugging and unplugging wires every time I wanted to switch device. A single Aux socket, with the device permanently switched to that presented a problem.

The solution was a small mixer. This might seem like overkill, but it allows you to plug two (or more) audio sources into a single auxiliary socket and hear audio from both sources at the same time. So I can play music from Google Play Music via Chromecast, while also checking the weather via the Echo Dot. The only downside is some extra kit (and attendant audio cables), and that my mixer has quite bright LEDs (I used some LightDims tape to darken them. Yes, they are expensive, but I’ve used them on a couple of gadgets around the house).

With two Echo devices, it’s interesting to see them work together. If I stand in my hallway, I’m within range of both the Echo in living room, and Dot in the bedroom. But the two Echo devices decide between themselves which one should handle the request, and the other will go silent. In practice, this means I don’t actually have to worry which device I speak to.

I’d be tempted to get a further device for my kitchen where I have a very decent DAB and BlueTooth equipped radio. A fullsize Echo feels like overkill, yet a Dot really needs an auxiliary speaker to function. We’ll have to see. And as I said in my original review, the sound from the Echo itself isn’t great, in that it’s not the best standalone Bluetooth speaker ever. It’s slightly perverse that my much cheaper Echo sounds so much better because audio from it is passed to a decent pair of speakers with good stereo separation. So music does sound good on it.

But how about some specific use cases?

Radio

There’s no getting away that the Alexa environment is fantastic for listening to the radio. It’s just so easy to say “Alexa, play Radio 4” or “Alexa, Play 6 Music” and hear the station at a moment’s notice. As I mentioned previously, the default radio service is TuneIn, and it can very occasionally get muddled, but in general terms it works well. I installed the RadioPlayer “skill” (adding “skills” is the means to adding specific additional functionality to Alexa, and something done through the Alexa app or website), but it’s unquestionably more wordy to say something like, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute Radio.” Yet, it is more likely to work.

At the weekend I asked Alexa to play TalkSport during a football match, and for some reason I got what I assume is TalkSport’s ex-UK streaming feed via TuneIn since it didn’t contain football. Going via RadioPlayer fixed it, although then I went back to the default TuneIn version and that seemed to be working too. Strange.

One thing you don’t seem to be able to do is simulcast radio (or other music) throughout your home on multiple Alexa devices. So if I start listening to the radio in my bedroom, I can’t seamlessly continue listening in my living room. I can start up a stream there, but it will be out of sync. In essence I have to stop the bedroom stream and start a living room stream.

I’m not aware that I can stream the same music throughout the home either. On the other hand Google Chrome does allow this, by creating groups of speakers you can send a single audio source to. And of course, this is famously a major selling point of Sonos.

I think that these Voice User Interface controlled devices will undoubtedly drive additional radio listening, since tuning into a station is so easy. But there is the qualifier that people need to know and remember your service in the first place. My DABs radios at home receive upwards of 120 radio services, and I can’t remember them all. I can browse them fairly easily though, and I might stumble upon something I like, similar to the way you might scan through stations in a car. With Alexa, you need to know what you want in the first place. That favours big brands.

Lights

This is the real game-changer for me. I have a Hue Bridge and bulbs, controlling the lighting in my hallway and living room, and it’s still wonderful to get Alexa to turn lights on and off. Hue allows you to group lights together as “rooms” or groups of rooms. For my set-up I have two lights in the “Hall,” and three in the “Living Room.” Together they are know as the “Flat.” But I do need to annunciate properly to get them to work. If I drop the “H” on “Hall” (I’m a north Londoner after all), it won’t work. Sometimes I concatenate “Flat lights” to “Flatlights” and that won’t work either. I just have to moderate my voice a little. But overall it’s wonderful.

Alarms and Timers

I realise that I’m using some very expensive technology to do something that a £5 Casio watch is quite capable of, but it’s still really nice to be able to say just before settling down at night, “Set alarm for 7am.” And for cooking you can just shout, “Set timer for 20 minutes” when you slam the oven door shut on something. I confess that it was actually an Apple Siri advert that made me realise I could do this!

I will admit that I’ve asked it on more than one occasion what the time is. Yes, I wear a watch. But no, it’s not always on my wrist. And when you’re rushing around in the morning, barking out a command to Alexa is surprisingly useful.

Weather

I use Alexa’s weather forecasting all the time. “What’s the weather?” “What’s the weather tomorrow?” Yes I have weather apps on the homescreen of my phone. And breakfast radio and TV is full of weather forecasts. But it’s nice to have, and it’s highly localised.

The only issue I had was with my precise location. In the app, you enter a postcode and that determines your location. I live in a town, but five miles up the road from me is a tiny village. For whatever reason, Alexa was convinced I lived in that village. Now the weather in both places will be identical, but having Alexa say, “The weather in Botany Bay is 5 degrees…” was just annoying. I ended up giving an alternative local postcode to get it to say the name of my town correctly.

News

I use Alexa a certain amount to give me the news headlines. There is now a reasonable selection of news in there from the default Sky News, to a selection of BBC national and World Service offerings.

The one thing I would say is that not everyone wants quite the same type of news. There is a world of difference between Radio 1’s Newsbeat and a BBC World Service summary. While at the moment, there is a reasonable range of offerings (try BBC Minute for something a little different), in audio terms, one size doesn’t fit all.

Sport

Sport remains a real shortcoming for the Alexa environment. When I first got my Echo, I was shocked to discover that the only British teams I could add as favourites were English Premier League clubs. What’s more, the only data that Amazon seemed to be taking was from the Premier League. No other clubs or competitions existed. And while we’re at, no other sport existed either.

Even very recently, when I looked again, there were no Championship sides, Scottish Premier League sides, or indeed anyone outside of the 20 clubs in the Premier League.

Looking today, I see that finally Amazon has added additional football clubs. A quick search suggests that there’s a pretty full range of football clubs that can be selected – right down to some non-league sides. But it still seems to be an exclusively football selection. I couldn’t find any cricket, rugby union or rugby league sides. I can’t find a favourite tennis player, an F1 team or track and field athlete either. Amazon at least needs to add other major UK team spots to Alexa to give a proper rounded offering.

They do at least seem to have more data sources that they subscribe to. I can get the latest Champions’ League scores for example – something that was missing back in September when I first bought the device.

A lot of work still required, and therefore I mostly rely on apps to deliver me accurate and up to date sports scores.

Music

Oddly enough, despite this being a killer application of Alexa, it’s probably the functionality that I’ve used least. You can choose from “My Music Library”, “Prime Music” and “Spotify” as music sources (curiously, they also list TuneIn in the app), while you can also have “Amazon Music Unlimited” (Amazon’s Spotify competitor) if you subscribe to it. Despite lots of imploring to give it a test-ride, and the ability to get a cheaper subscription for a single Echo device, I’ve not bothered. Similarly I only very rarely use the free Spotify service. My music is stored in the cloud on Google Play Music, and locally on a NAS drive. As a result, I mostly use Google Play Music via a Chromecast device to listen at home.

That said, I’ll occasionally try something from Amazon’s “Prime Music” offering. The problem is that I simply don’t know what’s in the Prime music catalogue and what isn’t. So rather than be disappointed, I’ll look elsewhere.

It’s worth noting that “My Music Library” is largely made up of any music you’ve bought via Amazon as either digital tracks or auto-ripped CDs. You are also able to upload a 250 tracks from iTunes which hardly feels generous. I can add a quarter of a million more for a further £21.99 a year. I’d be tempted were it not for the fact that Google lets me store 50,000 tracks free of charge.

The other thing to consider is that you need to know what you want to hear to launch it. That means remembering an artist, or playing a favourite playlist. It’s not so great for discovering new music or exploring the outer reaches of a music collection.

Bluetooth Speaker

I found it to be a fairly painless process to pair my smartphone with my Echo, and it will usefully let you switch that connection on and off by voice. “Connect to device,” or “Disconnect from device” will do the trick. The only thing I’m not sure about is how many devices you can set-up to be connected to an Echo, and more importantly can you make sure the right device is connected?

The advantage of having this connection of course is that audio that won’t work with Alexa can be played through its speaker. In general terms, I’ll still use Chromecast ahead of Alexa for this, especially since the speakers I have my Chromecast dongles plugged into, sound much better. But it’s nice to be able to connect.

Travel

Alexa is keen to get you to detail your commute so that it can provide travel information. But by default, it assumes that a “commute” is a car journey, and the only information it will give you relating to said commute is traffic information. That’s great if your commute is a drive, but useless if you use public transport.

The National Rail skill is an essential add-on for me. While navigating it to work out a specific train journey can be difficult, it is fairly straightforward to set up a commute. This results in me being able to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gives me details of the next two trains (with more available) from my local station.

There are also third party tube skills to allow you to check the status of your preferred London Underground line, and I’ve recently used Bus Stop which also uses the Transport for London API to query my local bus stop. Every London bus now has GPS and every stop a unique code meaning that TfL can generate real-time data for when your next bus will be at your nominated stop. Again, useful for timing departure from your home.

Now it’s not as though there aren’t mobile apps and websites that can give me all this data, but in the morning when you’re rushing around trying to leave on time for work, the voice interface is perfect for giving you up-to-date information.

Podcasts

In truth, I don’t use Alexa for podcasts. It’s not that it won’t play them. It will. However the selection is based on what TuneIn supplies. But for my personal use, I need an interface with PocketCasts which is my preferred podcasting app. I have both the Android and web apps, and between them, they keep me in sync with what I have and haven’t listened to. I can pause a podcast on my mobile app, and pick-up on a laptop. For me to use a podcast app on Alexa, it would need to take account of all of that.

If PocketCasts were to build an Amazon skill then I’d be there. But PocketCasts is paid-for software, and I’m not sure whether currently Amazon Skills can be sold, or whether the developer is working on something.

Other

I do wish the Alexa app was better. It’s slow to load – perhaps because it’s checking to see whether it’s in range of devices or not. And some key functionality is buried a little deep within the menu structure. For example, to change news sources, you have to go into the Settings. It’s not a top level menu item.

The addition of IFTTT was nice, and opens up a wealth of potential. However, so far, I’ve not used it properly on my device.

There are a number of really bad skills that you can install, and Amazon probably needs to do a slightly better job in highlighting useful skills and downgrading poor ones with limited functionality, often feeling like they’re the result of people hacking together personal tests.


Amazon Echo Speaker Grill

Alexa Summary

Amazon sends out a weekly email newsletter highlighting new skills or phrases to try. Sometimes these are themed, or include jokes, which is fun. The reality is that you will get more out of Alexa the more time you spend with it. You need to recall specific key words and phrases to get the desired results. It can be frustrating if you forget how to do something.

The key to having a good experience is for Alexa to respond in an appropriate manner to your request. If you have to think too hard about how to frame a question for Alexa, then you won’t do it.

It would be nice if Alexa had a more flattened structure. Currently it seems to work with a number of base level skills built in, but for more complex requirements you have to remember to invoke a particular skill.

So if I ask, “Alexa, how’s my commute,” it will ask me to set up my drive to work. I then have to remember to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gets me the response I wanted.

I’d like Alexa to intelligently realise that I invoke the National Rail skill far more than the similar sounding built in skill, and to therefore answer me with what I really wanted. Think of it as a kind of audio auto-complete.

And Alexa needs to understand context a bit better. If I’ve just asked one thing, then the next question might be in response to the answer I’ve just received. Outside of specific skills, Alexa treats most questions in complete isolation. Google Home does seem to achieve this better, allowing you to string a series of questions and answers together in a more natural manner. Speaking of which…

Google Home

We know that Google Home’s UK launch is around the corner. In many respects, from demos I’ve seen and from what I’ve read, the skillset of Google and Amazon’s devices are actually very similar. The difference is perhaps the backbone of Google Assistant which lies behind Google’s voice interface. It can use everything Google already knows about me to deliver more personalised responses. Google has a distinct advantage here. It already knows my football teams, the locations I travel to, the news I want to follow and my appointments calendar.

Furthermore, I’ve invested in the Chromecast ecosystem, and have my music on Google’s servers (Although I don’t pay for Google Play Music Unlimited, and as a consequence, frustratingly I don’t get all their playlists built around the technology they bought from Songza. This, despite that being available to US users.).

Maybe in time, I will transition across to Google? Google Assistant will be built into future devices. Whether it comes to my HTC10 (now running Nougat) I’m not sure. But I’m led to believe it will be coming to the Nvidia Shield which I use for a lot of streaming. But always listening microphones do come at a power cost, and excess battery power is not something many phones have right now.

Conclusions

What I do know is that I’m satisfied where I am at the moment, and Amazon’s technology works well, some specific shortcomings notwithstanding.

Do I have privacy concerns with all of this? Absolutely. If it were shown that either Amazon or Google was uploading audio outside of when I specifically asked it a question, then it would be leaving my home instantly. But they seem to have been good to their word thus far.

As I was finishing up writing this piece, I read two separate pieces from writers who think Alexa has been oversold: a very contrary view from a Forbes writer, and another from Quartz. Both writers are frustrated that Alexa isn’t smarter than it currently is, that it can’t understand language better, and that generally is should be better out of the box. Another complaint is that Alexa doesn’t handle context too well, and that you have to utilise skills properly to get the best out of Alexa. I agree with both writers on some issues, but to my mind Alexa is extraordinary out of the box. It’s certainly not a “glorified clock radio” as the Quartz writer puts it. It will clearly get better over time.

Addressing a couple of specific concerns: I’ve certainly had no issues with transport details – I use the separate skills that I noted above. More importantly I’ve not ordered nor accidentally ordered anything so far from Amazon with the Alexa. In fact, I’m not convinced that it’s a terribly useful way to do shopping aside from a few staples – the kind of things I’m unlikely to use Amazon for regardless (Grocery shopping on Amazon in the UK really isn’t a great experience just yet, and I’ve got better options using a UK supermarket to fulfill such shopping).

Terms like Artificial Intelligence (AI) get bandied around far too much right now, when what they really mean is that the business is adopting algorithms to help with personalisation and the like. But beyond that, there is machine learning or deep learning, and that is meant when the term “AI” is used. But this isn’t AI as in the Spielberg film – autonomous thinking robots or whatever.

However the deep learning techniques do mean that speech recognition is improving in leaps and bounds, and the current range of devices should grow with it. The Echo, after all, is broadly speaking a speaker, some microphones, and an internet connection. While some work is done locally, the heavy lifting is in the cloud. These things will improve.

Five months in, and I’m very happy with Alexa, and use it a lot.

RAJAR MIDAS – Winter 2016

It has been a while since I’ve properly looked at RAJAR’s MIDAS survey, and it really does bear some close attention because it gives the most accurate picture of audio consumption in the UK right now.

As a reminder, MIDAS is a separate survey to the main RAJAR measurement, in which over 2,000 respondents are asked in detail about their audio listening habits by platforms, location, device and who they’re with.

It’s there to provide additional listening information and generally add ‘colour’ to the main RAJAR survey. Over time it allows some tracking in behavioural changes.

The full dataset is only made available to RAJAR subscribers, but RAJAR publishes a very good summary, and this provides plenty to get stuck into.

The key measure is Audio Share – the percentage of time spent listening to various types of audio. This is also known as “Share of Ear”, although I believe this is trademarked by Edison Research who carry out similar research in this area in the US.

Of course, simply saying “audio” is too simplistic because, for example, watching YouTube music videos is undoubtably a competitor to traditional audio sources for some audiences. So MIDAS does measure video as well as audio, although in most of the charts below, visual media has been excluded.

Share of Audio % (excluding visual)

The topline results show that live radio accounts for 76% of all audio consumption. The next closest category is digital music (downloads) at 9%. To put this in context, here is how radio’s share has performed over the most recent MIDAS surveys:

Careful examination of this data would seem to suggest a few things:

  • Radio remains vastly important in the audio world. While the last couple of MIDAS releases showed it declining a touch, it seems to have bounced back this time around. I’d be surprised if it didn’t fall some more over time since there are such strong radio competitors. But there’s still only one gorilla in this room.
  • Online Music Streaming (OMS in the above chart – e.g. Spotify, Apple Music) is growing. They seem to be growing as digital music tracks and CD listening is declining. Do you pay 99p at iTunes for a track or £9.99 a month for as much as you like? Consumers are shifting towards the latter.
  • Listen again is growing a bit, while podcasts remain static. The latter in particular definitely suggests something different in the UK, from say, the US.
  • Vinyl and cassette is basically static (although the graph doesn’t really show that it was at less than 1% at the start of the period displayed). You can safely treat all those news stories about vinyl’s resurgence as the hyperbole they truly are. Yes, a few albums are being sold as nice to have items, but in the scheme of things, they don’t amount to much in behavioural changes.

Now this chart doesn’t show the whole story. As I say, only RAJAR subscribers get the full dataset of MIDAS, but RAJAR publishes different aspects of the data in each release. And this time around they’ve published the demographic breakdown of listening. Indeed I think some of this has been presented at the Salon de la Radio in Paris over the last couple of days.

This shows some really clear differences by age group.

  • 15-24s spend 51% of their time listening to the radio (the green bar above) compared with 88% of 55+’s time. Radio is still the clear leader, but in time spent listening there is a competitor on the block.
  • Online Music Streaming is vastly more popular amongst 15-24s than other demographic groups. 15-24s spend 21% of their audio time on these services. This drops to just 9% for 25-34s and right down to 1% for 55+. This is as clear a behavioural change by age as you’re likely to see.
  • If you’d asked me to predict which age group spends the biggest proportion of their time listening to CDs, I have definitely said it was an older group. But in fact, the actual biggest group is 15-24s! Are they borrowing others music, or perhaps they can’t yet afford a Spotify subscription?
  • Podcasts are most popular amongst 24-34s, spending significantly more time than other age groups.

One thing to be careful of is that these are percentages within each age group. It’s important to note that overall volume of time spent listening will be different by different groups. So amongst CD listening, 5% off 55+ listening might be significantly more hours than 6% of 15-24s (the data doesn’t let us see).

What will be interesting to see is future growth of streaming. While there are free/bundeled streaming options – notably Spotify, or Amazon’s free offering for Prime members – there is surely a top limit to those prepared to pay £9.99 a month for music? There are ways to reduce the cost including family plans and logins shared with others; and some will happily bounce around different services taking advantage of free three month trials, creating new disposable email accounts as necessary. But continued growth within the UK market still isn’t clear.

Hours isn’t the whole story of course, and it’s worth looking at reach too. That shows that usage is much closer for most of the platforms. So while 90% of 55+ listen to the radio accounting for 88% of their listening, 82% of 15-24s listen to the radio but it accounts for just 51% of their listening.

Audio Reach % By Age Group

A couple of other charts. Ever wonder what people are doing when they listen to the radio?

Live Radio by Activity

Most radio presenters will recall being told to broadcast as though they were speaking to a single listener. There’s a good reason for that. A slight majority of radio listening is done alone, although this changes for younger listeners who listen more socially.

Live Radio by Who Listened With

Other things of note:

  • While most services are split evenly by sex, podcasts are notable for being significantly more male than female – 61% v 39%.
  • While laptops and tablets are used a lot for live radio, on smartphones the majority of use is for digital tracks and on demand audio.

There’s more in the original presentation which you can download on the RAJAR website.

Source RAJAR/IpsosMori. Sample 2,191. Conducted November 2016.

Farewell to the Arqiva Awards; the Continued Fragmentation of the UK Radio Industry

Towards the end of last year we learned that after 21 years, the Arqiva Radio Awards (previously the CRCA Awards) have now come to an end. The awards, which were contested by commercial radio alone, have been a mainstay of the calendar for many years now. Many might recall that in years gone by when the awards were held during the late afternoon and early evening, following a members’ conference, and they’d often then be followed by the notorious Xtracts party – a bus being laid on to transport party goers from one event to the next.

But this isn’t just sadness for bygone years of drunken revelry amongst industry peers; it’s one fewer opportunity for staff at commercial radio stations to receive plaudits from their colleagues. Awards aren’t just there to proudly display in receptions and boardrooms; they’re there to make staff at stations feel special – important in an industry that nobody really enters to get rich.

RadioCentre will continue to support the newly launched Arias, and it looks like the Radio Academy will be consulting to make changes next year, so that the BBC won’t necessarily be quite as dominant. I wish these new awards well.

However it’s curious to read from James Cridland that Arqiva itself was happy to carry on sponsoring the awards. Sadly, that suggests that there continue to be significant differences of opinion in how these awards should be run within the radio industry itself. Recall that Wireless Group and UKRD already declined to enter the awards.

Earlier last year, I noted – only slightly facetiously – that Sound Women appeared to be the only UK radio organisation supported by the wider UK radio industry.

With Sound Women winding down operations, I’m not sure that there’s a single organisation or body that covers the entire UK radio spectrum. RAJAR is perhaps the closest, although many smaller stations either can’t afford RAJAR, or don’t find that it offers them value for money.

And it’s not as though usurpers to radio’s crown are going anywhere: Spotify, Apple, Amazon and Google are all continuing to invest millions into audio, and we are unquestionably seeing behavioural changes at the younger end of the market.

I’m not suggesting that the presence or absence of an awards ceremony will make much difference in stopping that growth. But it’s indicative of an industry that’s not prepared to unite when it’s useful. Awards do reward excellence in radio and audio; and excellent audio is surely critical to the future of the medium.

The Cycling Podcast Review of the Year 2016

I seem to have been a little backwards in coming forwards with details of this edition of The Cycling Podcast put together by yours truly and published over the Christmas period.

Obviously it won’t be of enormous interest if you don’t follow professional cycling, and you’ll miss all the running jokes if you haven’t listened to previous episodes of the programme. And if you do follow cycling, and already listen to The Cycling Podcast, then you should have already heard it.

Nonetheless, a certain amount of effort went into making this, since we all know that searching for audio clips is relatively slow going. You can’t easily “scrub” it as you would video.

TechCon 2016 – The Return

One of the casualties of the changes surrounding the Radio Academy was that TechCon, the one day conference about radio and audio technology, fell by the wayside.

Fortunately, it was gamely picked up by Ann Charles, Aradhna Tayal and Andy Buckingham, who took the conference independent.

Running a conference is not for the faint-hearted, with real costs incurred for things like the venue hire, kit, catering and dull things like insurance. These are largely upfront costs before you’ve sold any tickets. And of course the more specialist a conference is, the more limited your potential audience might be. In a media landscape that has seen a reduction in the number of sizeable radio players, that can mean that it’s challenging to sell tickets.

I spoke to a colleague recently who attended another specialist conference, and they noted that almost the entire audience was made up of speakers and panelists.

So congratulations to the team for filling the room with more than 150 people, and thanks too to the sponsors of the event – notably Broadcast Bionics, Arqiva, KTN, RCS and the IET.

By its very nature, TechCon can get technical – and so it did. But never so much that an interested layperson couldn’t understand what was being talked about. While I won’t list every session from the day, in no particular order, here are some of the great takeaways I came away with:

  • The science of acoustics and machine learning is utterly fascinating. This is the sort of work that allows Amazon Alexa, OK Google or Siri to work as well as they do. Cleopatra Pike and Amy Beeston from the Universities of St Andrews and Sheffield, talked about the science and some of the challenges of this kind of automation, and about how machine learning is driving a lot of this. And if we move to object based radio, as Dave Walters talked about, there’s the possibility of this becoming a little easier.
  • There is no definitive conclusion on the future of radio according to research conducted by Nicky Birch of Rosina Sounds for the British Library. The report interviewed a lot of people, and while change is clearly afoot, nobody really knows what that’ll mean who how fast it will happen.
  • Some van drivers have illegal gizmos that they plug into their vehicles to block GPS. This is primarily to prevent their employers being able to track them with built-in GPS trackers. But Simon Mason of Arqiva pointed out that this one of many problems they face when trying to keep transmitters like the national DAB network in sync with one another. More generally he talked about satellite navigation solutions – a timely talk since the European Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), Galileo, is due to begin operations by the end of this year. That brings three systems to European users, sitting alongside the American GPS and Russian GLONASS systems.
  • We heard lots about the development of in-car audio. One interesting perspective is how the likes of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are received by different car manufacturers. Because they essentially offer a single solution to every vehicle, a luxury car manufacturer is no longer able to differentiate themselves from a budget car manufacturer. Everybody gets the same experience. We also saw a potentially scary video of self-driving cars handling a junction autonomously (similar to this video). It’s going to take a little getting used to.
  • Nigel Fry of the BBC World Service, told us how hard it is to broadcast to countries where governments might prefer you not to broadcast.
  • It’s possible to broadcast a radio station making use only of the sun. Even in London! Issa Kassimu of Internews, who is powering such a station in South Sudan, ran us through some calculations. The key point is that you do have to factor in the wattage of your kettle. Everyone wants a cuppa after all!
  • Ofcom is looking forward to licencing more small-scale DAB licences – although it may be a few months before they start to invite applications.
  • To broadcast the (re) launch of Virgin Radio from a moving train, Phil Critchlow of TBI and colleagues from Vipranet used twelve different 3G and 4G connections from four network operators. That still doesn’t help for some cuttings and tunnels, and probably isn’t enough for you to stream Netflix either!
  • Everyone loves binaural. I know you know I know this, but Chris Pike of BBC R&D was able to demo this live with wireless headphones. He played some audio from one of the two binaural productions broadcast a year or so ago (you may recall I went to an event for one of these). We also got to hear some of the audio from the BBC’s VR “Taster” experiment, The Turning Forest, viewable in Google Daydream, Google’s VR application.

And that’s without me mentioning Software Defined Radio, making and broadcasting radio using only cheap phones, and building new studios in tight confines when you have a hatful of new national speech services to launch!

To anyone who attended and couldn’t ask a question because there was just so much to get through – apologies. That was probably my fault as I was doing my best to keep everything running to schedule. One of the downsides of running a conference in a theatre is that, at the end of the day, a production wants the theatre back to put on a show. So we had a very tight turnaround. (That’s also why I wasn’t live Tweeting as I ordinarily would)

I’m sure that the conference will be back next year, so head over to the TechCon website and add yourself to the list!

David Lloyd has a nice writeup of the day, Arqiva has also written about the event, and Trevor Dann features the conference in this week’s RadioToday Podcast.

See you there next year!

Diversity in Radio

portrait

Yesterday, two things happened.

I got an email from Sound Women telling me that the organisation will be closing down at the end of next year.

And I went to a radio and audio conference in London.

I’ll explain the link in a minute. But let’s just say for the moment, that I learnt a new word yesterday too: manel.

It’s sad news that Sound Women is closing, because I think it’s fair to say that it has achieved a lot in the five years of its existence. As their blog explains, it’s a consequence of time (of their volunteers) and resources that has led to the decision.

What’s clear is that while the issues raised by Sound Women have been tackled to some extent, that does not mean that sexism in the radio and audio industry is over.

The medium still has a lack of diversity, and when I say this, I include sex, race and social background. I trust that their legacy will live on.

I received the email as I sat in a London radio and audio conference – the RAIN Summit Europe – in The British Museum. Overall I like this event, and there are a good range of speakers including some really excellent ones.

Notably Megan Lazovick of Edison Research gave a really good talk about in-car radio listening. It included some frighteningly dangerous footage of drivers explaining how they used their mobile phones to stream audio while in the car (coming in the week that a truck driver was imprisoned for ten years after killing a family while using his phone). But there was some really good insight into usage in the car.

Then in the afternoon we got entertaining presentations from David Cooper of Spotify and Sam Crowther of A Million Ads.

But there was also this.

Yes – that’s a NINE person panel for a session. And all nine, plus the moderator, are white men from around Europe. I’d tell you what it was about, but I practically fell asleep as it was as interesting as watching a supertanker conduct a turning procedure.

This size panel does not work. Panels are generally not great at conferences unless they’re incredibly well focused. You can’t have a meaningful discussion with this many people in the room.

And if you are going to have a massive panel, or even a small one, couldn’t you have at least found ONE woman?

My Twitter feed taught me a new word at this point: Manel.

I don’t think Sound Women’s job is quite yet done…

HTC 10 – Initial Thoughts

This is my fifth HTC device, although it has been a while since my last. That was an HTC One X, which was pretty decent in its day, although the camera was fairly average. Sometime before that, I also owned an HTC Desire, Orange SPV 500 (aka the HTC Typhoon) and an Orange SPV M500 (HTC Magician) complete with stylus.

More recently I have been using a Nexus 5 (made by LG), which was excellent except that I had serious battery issues with it, and eventually had to abandon it for those reasons. My most recent phone has been a Sony Xperia Z3 Compact (Z3C).

In point of fact, I’d remained pretty satisfied with my Sony, until a couple of faults occurred. The first was the failure of the headphone jack. I’d actually already had a warranty replacement of the Z3C over this failure. So it was disappointing when it happened a second time.

Since playing audio is a vital function of a phone for me – perhaps the most vital function – I had to find a workaround. This was a small Sony SBH54 Bluetooth adapter. Essentially this little device allows any headphones to be connected via Bluetooth. It was a workaround, albeit a pricey one. (Incidentally, expect to see more of these if the next generation of iPhones do actually come without a 3.5mm jack socket.)

For the most part audio quality on the Bluetooth accessory was excellent, and connectivity was generally good. Sometimes in built-up areas, you’d struggle for a few seconds to get a solid signal. The only slightly annoying thing is that you’re stuck with the device’s default ringtone, which really isn’t great. And of course, you need to keep the device charged. If it goes flat (and it doesn’t give you much warning that it has low battery), then you’re without audio. All in all, nice to have, but a wired connection is more reliable.

I would have persevered longer with the Z3C had I not dropped the phone and seemingly broken the proximity sensor. This is very annoying. The proximity sensor is the thing that turns off your screen when you put your smartphone to your ear. You don’t want your earlobe dialling other numbers for example.

When my proximity sensor broke, it meant that as soon as a call connected, the screen turned off, and none of the physical buttons would turn it back on. This meant, for example, that you had to wait for a caller to hang up. And if you needed to press the keypad during a call to an automated switchboard or your voicemail? Well good luck.

In fact, searches online showed me that firm pressure in the top right hand corned of the screen where the proximity sensor sits, reactivated the screen. But this was an added issue, and in any case, didn’t always work for me. While 18 months isn’t quite the life expectancy I would want to get out a phone, it was time for a new one. I subsequently learnt that disappointingly, Sony hadn’t included the Z3C on its Android N upgrade path either.

Now I don’t actually look forward to upgrading my phone. It’s a time-consuming process. Really time-consuming.

While Google Play attempts to reload all your regular apps, you have to re-sign into all your services, and I have to work hard to keep all my audio in place. It’s a much simpler process with Apple, and I wish it was easier on Android.

These days I actually end up taking photos of the layout of my phones home-screens – which apps I’ve gathered together, and so on. It’s a hassle.

The good news is that since I now buy phones SIM free, I’m not in a contract, and don’t have to worry about where I am in a contract cycle. And more importantly, many of the major 2016 Android phones have already been launched, so there’s a good selection out there. That said, like buying a PC, there’s always a new model on the horizon.

Nope, I wouldn’t consider an iPhone. I like and understand the Android ecosystem fully, and you tend to get better value with Android hardware. Plus I’ve invested in the ecosystem, paying for apps that still work happily on my new device, and that I’d need to rebuy if I switched to Apple.

You also don’t own the same phone as the rest of the world.

But mainly, I have a general dislike of Apple’s way of locking you into their ecosystem, them deciding what you can and can’t do with your device. They’re also right at the top-end price-wise (all that un-taxed income!), and iTunes is of course, the work of the devil…

So it was always going to be an Android phone, but which one?

Here are my needs:

  • A good camera
  • 32GB minimum on board
  • MicroSD card slot
  • Good battery life
  • Fast processor
  • Not a phablet – I want to put it in a trouser pocket
  • [Later] Headphone socket

A decent camera is vital. Your phone is always the camera you have with you – and I speak as someone who carries a Sony RX100M3 an awful lot. Phones with RAW capability are on the market now, and I’m looking for that flexibility and power.

Seriously, who even makes phone with less than 32GB these days? To be honest 64GB should be standard, but the need for MicroSD storage sort of puts paid to that. I currently use a 128GB card and it’s often close to full. That’s because I store a lot of podcasts, audiobooks and offline Google Play Music audio on it. That’s before you get to the more usual things like photos and video.

Battery life is always essential, and my Z3C really came through here with loads of life. Yes – I’m still putting the phone on charge each night, but for those times when you need that extra power, a bigger battery wins over a thinner phone.

A fast processor is more about making sure that the phone isn’t sluggish. I don’t really play games on my phone, but I do the occasional bit of photo processing on it, and that takes CPU power especially when paired with RAW files.

And the thing needs to be pocketable. Phones are getting larger and larger these days, but I want something that is easy to carry around.

[Later] A headphone socket because guess what, wired headphones – the ones I already have – are great. I’ve been using wireless headphones for a while since my old Xperia’s headphone socket broke (a design flaw of the phone rather than of the jack), and having an extra thing to charge is just maddening.

Narrowing down my options I had the following shortlist:

  • Samsung Galaxy S7
  • OnePlus 3
  • HTC 10
  • Sony Xperia X
  • LG G5
  • Wait for a new Nexus device (or whatever it ends up being called)

The Sony Xperia X could quickly be discarded. Originally priced close to the other flagships, it has since been discounted a bit. But it’s just not much of an evolution of recent Xperia devices. In particular, it doesn’t use the top-end Snapdragon 820 processor that most of the others use, instead having a mid-range one. That’s fine in a mid-range phone, but this isn’t priced as such. If I was searching for a £150 phone (e.g. a Moto G4), then this would be fine. But I’m not.

The phone seems generally fine, but it feels like Sony missed a trick. There is an Xperia X Performance which has been released to right some of these wrongs, but it’s also priced high. Plus those Z3C headphone issues have really burnt me. It seems to have been a known issue, and it really damaged my enjoyment of an otherwise excellent phone.

The OnePlus 3 has many things going for it. Even with the recent post-Brexit price increase, it’s still much cheaper than its competitors with a strong package onboard. I even like the fact that it has a dual-SIM which is useful for holidays or trips abroad. But while it comes as standard with 64GB of onboard storage, there’s no microSD slot. That’s a deal breaker for me, as I don’t ever want to be faced with storage issues on my phone. There are 200GB microSD cards on the market now for goodness’ sake.

The LG G5 might be a serious contender. It has come down a bit in price recently, and the Nexus 5 they built for Google remains one of the best phones I’ve ever owned. A good package and worth considering.

The HTC 10 has some excellent specs, and the camera seems like it’s almost best in class. Perhaps the Samsung betters it. It has expandable storage, and HTC has messed around very little with stock Android which is a good thing. The sound capabilities are also said to be very good. Another contender.

Samsung’s Galaxy series are always strong, and the S7 is no slouch. The use their own processors, but the camera is said to be excellent, and they’ve reintroduced microSD storage. The only thing stopping me is the premium price. Samsung doesn’t have to discount this, so they don’t. And Samsung does mess around with stock Android more than most. If I really wanted to be flash, there’s the Edge model, but that’s just ludicrously expensive, for fairly limited practical advantage.

Finally, there’s waiting for a new device, particularly one of the new Nexus devices from Google coming soon (and maybe not called “Nexus”). Waiting can be a fool’s game. Yes, you get Android N, but then some apps will take time to get support and so on. More pertinently, Nexus devices have hitherto come without expandable storage. And for my phone, that’s a deal-breaker. For a tablet mostly used at home, like my Nexus 7, 32GB (or 64GB) will suffice. (Incidentally, I’d really love to see a replacement for the Nexus 7. Superb quality at a great price.)

There are other phones of course, but it was always going to be between these ones. It must be said that some of the price issues diminish if you use an online Hong Kong-based retailer. Many of the shopping ads on Google with the best prices tend to be these guys. The problem is that you may or may not be hit with VAT and import duty when you receive the phone (these guys are definitely trying to avoid it), and your warranty may well not work over here. That could mean shipping your phone back to Hong Kong should you experience any difficulties. Buyer beware.

In the end, I plumped for the HTC 10. Despite HTC going through some tough times with their phones, this seems like a good one. A £100 off summer offer was enough to swing it for me. And theirs seems to be the only phone taking advantage of adoptable storage – in effect making the phone 160GB (32GB + 128GB microSD) in a single storage area.

So what are my initial thoughts?

Well the phone is really nice. It’s a large beast, coming after owning a Z3C for so, long, but not overly. I can still put it in either my trouser or shirt pocket. I tend not to wear suit jackets at work, so being pocketable is important.

The camera is really very nice, although I’ve really only experimented with it so far. But I’m impressed. If you do shoot in RAW, the only thing to note is that there is a “processing” delay before you can take another shot. But also note that RAW is actually RAW+JPG since it’s almost certain that none of your phone’s apps can handle the DNG formatted RAW file. Lightroom Mobile is the only app I have that seems to work with the format.

I liked the physical camera button that the Z3C had. You either used it as a shutter button in the camera app, or to quick start the phone from screen off into the camera app. I changed the function of the volume buttons to be the shutter on the HTC 10, but to get into the camera quickly, two swipes on the blank screen are required.

Indeed double tapping the screen when off can turn the phone on, and while this is nice, it can cause problems. I found myself accidentally turning it on from a pocket on more than one occasion. I may disable that function.

The implementation of Android M is fine, with relatively little messing around. I was impressed with the fingerprint reader which does unlock the phone very quickly.

The phone’s sound is excellent. Recent HTC phones have had “Boomsound” speakers front facing. On the HTC 10 they aren’t front-facing, but without headphones, still sound great. If you plug in the headphones that are packaged with the phone, then the sound is simply magnificent.

While I’m not an audiophile, I do care about decent sound, and the HTC 10 has better sound than I’ve ever heard from a mobile. The supplied headphones really are excellent as well. Another “quirk” of my Z3C had been finding any headphone/microphone combos beyond those supplied with the device, that worked properly with the phone. I don’t need to look for third party phones with this device since they’re just so good. A small button on the microphone lets you pause, answer calls and other things. A really nice package.

I must confess that I’m still getting my head around adoptable storage in Android M. As mentioned. this allows you to treat microSD card storage as if it was internal. I thought I’d be presented with a single storage space, but that’s not quite true. For example, I use the BBC Weather widget on my homescreen, but that needs to be stored on the device and not the SD card – even under adoptable storage – for you to be able to display it. So there’s a bit of rummaging around to move apps about. Still, I no longer face the interminable bore of moving apps back to the SD card every time they update, as I did previously.

The phone is mostly devoid of unnecessary and unasked for apps. However Facebook is there, as is its Messenger app – the latter seemingly not uninstallable despite my best efforts! (I refuse to succumb).

Probably the most disruptive thing about the HTC 10 is the use of USB-C charging. While I’m firmly in favour of this new format – assuming that third party manufacturers start building proper cables – this does cause some new short term issues. Nearly all my devices are micro USB charged currently, and that means it’s easy to bring one charger (I tend to use the slimline folding Muo Duo chargers) and a couple of micro USB cables wherever I go. They recharge everything from phone to camera to Garmin to tablet to bike lights. Yes, getting the cable the right way around is fiddly, and yes, I’ve damaged plenty of wires over time. But at home I also have a nice Anker 5 Port charger in my living room to meet all my charging needs.

The phone comes with a quick charger and this is excellent. It has found a place by my bedside table. That said, I miss the cradle I used for my Z3C, and the wireless charging capabilities of my Nexus 5. I may pick up an unofficial device if I can find one that will work with my case. Other 2A chargers such as those mentioned work well, but I did buy a few spare USB C cables to scatter around my home and put in my bag so that I’m never far a charging solution.

Otherwise everything looks good. The phone works fast, and holds charge for a solid day or so. Clearly your usage and experience will differ, but for me it perhaps last a little less than my Z3C, but still satisfactory. The screen is lovely, and call quality is fine. I had no problems with either WiFi or Bluetooth, although NFC isn’t perhaps quite as good as on the Z3C – I use it to pair with Bluetooth headphones and speakers at home. And sadly there’s no FM radio on the phone, but in truth, I now carry a pocket DAB radio for that. I wait in hope that phones aside from a single mid-range LG model, begin to come with this as standard. A good stereo DAB or DAB+ service could sound awesome through this device’s audio circuitry.

But those are small gripes. Overall I’m very pleased with the device. The camera and especially the audio quality are remarkably good and worth it alone for that!

The Political Cycle

It’s my favourite time of year – The Tour de France is well underway. Mark Cavendish is back on form, picking up wins 27, 28 and 29, leaving him second on the all-time wins list, and the fireworks are about to kick off as the race enters the Pyrenees.

Recently I raised my hand to say that I’d help out the chaps at The Cycling Podcast. They produce a gargantuan amount of audio during the Tour, with a post-race episode each evening after the stage, and a daily feature episode — KM0 — each morning, that’s on top of the Friends of the Podcast specials (Only £10!).

A couple of promos aside, this is the first real fruit of my labours, seeing me edit this episode of KM0. Tight turnarounds are the order of the day here, so it’s not perfect, but this was a fun one looking back at the Tour de Trump amongst other things.

Overall, I’m pretty pleased about the way this sounds:

A Sheringham Soundscape

Sheringham Beach-3

Recorded along the coast during a near high-tide this morning. The promenade in Sheringham was quite badly damaged during December 2013 storms, and more than two years later, there is still work being carried out to repair some of that damage.

The audio is a mix of different sounds with some “treatment” particularly to the workmen repairing some of the metalwork.

DAB and DAB+: Some Testing Ahead of SDL/D2 Launch Next Week

125 DAB and DAB+ Services

Rupert Brun, expert on all things audio and late of the BBC, has been testing his radios at ahead of the Sound Digital (SDL) launch in a week’s time. The multiplex is in full test mode at the moment, so if you want to know if you can hear the new services, then a rescan of your radio may be in order.

Rupert first compiled his results on his blog (direct link), and has gone on to produce a Google Doc of the results including those of others.

So I’ve decided to test my own radios allowing Rupert to incorporate them into his results.

First of all I should note, as the photo above shows, that I’m in a rather fortunate location with regard to DAB/DAB+ radio. I live in north London, inside the M25, but close to the green belt. I’m also high up (at least for London) at somewhere around 70m above sea level. What that all means is that my radios will currently tune in 125 different services coming from the following multiplexes

  • BBC National
  • D1 National
  • SDL National
  • London 1
  • London 2
  • London 3
  • London Trial
  • Herts, Beds & Bucks
  • Essex
  • Kent
  • Surrey

I am somewhat surprised that I can get the Surrey multiplex, since it’s geographically the other side of London. And to be honest, reception is poor – but listenable. Kent might seem as far, but historically FM services have always reached this part of north London, and the closest transmitter for that mulitplex is actually in Benfleet in Essex.

Anyway, here are the results of my radios. I’ve included the number of services tuned into to give you an idea of the sensitivity of these sets. I tested them all with their own built in antennae, except the portable models where I used a set of ear-buds extended vertically.

BrandModelResultsRating (Based on Rupert Brun's Rating)Services Tuned
RobertsEco4 BTDisplays and plays DAB+ servicesGood125
RobertsEcologic 4Displays and plays DAB+ servicesGood125
RobertsStream 83iDisplays and plays DAB+ servicesGood125
RobertsGemini 59Shows but does not play DAB+ servicesPoor125
GrundigOpusShows but does not play DAB+ servicesPoor125
PureMove 1500Shows but does not play DAB+ servicesPoor116
BushCDAB431RDoes not show or play DAB+ servicesAverage*122
GoodmansGHDAB101Shows but does not play DAB+ servicesPoor125

*Note that Rupert measures both sets that present DAB+ services that can’t be tuned, and those who can’t tune them, so hide them, as both “Poor.” That’s true, but I think it’s a better user experience to hide services that can’t be tuned. It you see a service and tune to it, it looks like there’s either a problem with your radio, or perhaps the station is off-air.

In summary, the more expensive radios – the first three Roberts models – all did fine. Which is as well, since these are my most used radios, and also deliver by far the best sound. I’m unsurprised that none of the portable models tested works, but I do have a new Pure Move 2500 – untested because I left it at my parents’ house accidentally – which should give me DAB+. And none of my cheap models surprised me by revealing that they were indeed DAB+ compatible.

Two more thoughts on my testing:

– The test audio that SDL is currently broadcasting for Virgin Radio is truly awful in sound quality. While the service will only be 80k mono, it sounds like they’re playing a 32k mp3. Not the best way to show off a new service.

– My radios get a lot of Heart stations. And it’s not always easy to tell them apart. In order I get the following:

Heart – Herts, Beds & Buck
Heart – London 1
Heart Kt – Kent
Heart Su – Surrey
Heart Sx – Essex (esS eX – geddit!)

You’ll note that the first two are indistinguishable from the short version of the DAB label. I have to tune to one of them and then hit “info” a few times to determine which multiplex I’m listening to.

When Heart Extra launches in a few days that’ll be one more! (With the London breakfast show carried on the service competing with all the local Heart breakfast shows.)

I know that DAB labels aren’t easy to manage. I once battled with naming all the Absolute Radio services, trying to get radios to sort them in a logical order. Unfortunately, what’s logical on one radio, isn’t on another – different brands and models use different sorting algorithms! So trying to get Absolute Radio 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s, along with the main brand and classic rock, into a sensible order proved impossible.