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New Mac Mini?

Last week someone posted a picture on the forum of what purports to be the eagerly-anticipated-but-not-yet-actually-announced Mac Mini revision. Thing is, no-one seemed to believe the picture was real.

Mac Mini backs Current model Vs Supposed revision

Rik Myslewski at The Register found it “fishy” because the specs leaked alongside the photo claim 2GB RAM, a SATA optical drive and the inclusion of 2 video ports, but mainly because he’s following the analysts that reckon Apple won’t announce new models in today’s economic climate where products that “woo” don’t necessarily become products that sell.

Stewart Meagher at The Inquirer questioned the double video ports too but also the inclusion of a FireWire800 socket. His main reason for calling “Photoshop shenanigans!” though was that the left-most USB port looks like a copy-paste job of the 2nd left-most.

And me? Oh, i was skeptical and in complete agreement that having 2 video outputs is very odd (especially as Steve Jobs’ Apple has never really been about giving the customer choices) but not really convinced by the other complaints. 2GB RAM sounds right to me given that the recently revised entry-level MacBook has that much, a SATA optical drive is now probably cheaper than an IDE one, FireWire support may have been dropped from the MacBooks but still exists on the MacBook Pros (and we’ve no evidence yet to say one way or the other about its fate on the desktop lines) and, if anything, surely Apple has to refresh its budget offering with the global economy what it is. No, my skepticism was based on nothing more than those two video ports and that additional USB port (why would Apple add a fifth when 4 is quite generous by their standards anyway?). In other words, my reasons were no better than anyone else’s. Yet we all maintained in was a fake.

And then the poster of the original photo went and killed off all accusations of Photoshoppery by providing a video clip. That silenced a few people and made believers of a few more. Now for this to be a fake it has to be some sort of elaborate, and very well done, modding of an existing Mini. Yet still the general consensus (and i’m still including myself here) seems to be that it’s all bullplop.

Why is that though? Why can’t we accept it? Is it because there’s something very “un-Apple” about that design? (the 5th USB port for me!) Or is it just because we’re jealous of this guy who has one? Is it because this can be attributed to a person that we feel compelled to dismiss it? Had this photo just been emailed to and listed on the site as a photo from an anonymous source, would we all just believe it was the new Mac Mini? It’s difficult to say. Hopefully it won’t be too long before an Apple announcement tells us whether this is real or fake though…

A little more on headphones.

Since writing about my new Sennheiser CX300 headphones last week, i came across these Creative Labs EP-630 headphones which look identical but are roughly half the price. I can’t find anything concrete to say they are identical internally or in terms of the audio quality but there is some (anecdotal) evidence out there on the web that suggests they might be (and some that vehemently suggests not). If you happen to be looking for some cheap but good quality headphones though I reckon they might be worth a punt.

Of course, the validity of my opinion when it comes to audio-quality is quite questionable so you might prefer to look elsewhere. For instance, the Reg has just posted their top-ten noise-isolating earphones. No mention of the CX300s there sadly but then their review does cover buds costing as much as £180.

Update: I’ve just noticed that in the comments section of that Reg review there are a good few mentions of the CX300s, and one in particular about the EP-630s that says, well, what i said above really. There’s also a great comment by “Pete” (who says some of the things i’ve been trying to say but more succinctly) which is probably worth repeating in full here:

Warble on all you like about sound quality, but it’s all wasted. No matter how much you spend, you can’t turn the pigs ear of a 128KBps compressed stream into the silk purse of high-end audiophile sound.

Yes, you can filter out extraneous sounds (confession: long-time user of Etymotic ER6i’s here) and that’s their single, best, overriding, feature: you can’t hear the screaming child in the seat behind, or the inconsiderate “I’M ON THE TRAIN” idiot, either. Plus you don’t risk permanent ear damage as the accoutic seal means the volume can be kept down – while still hearing all the (compressed) good bits of the music itself.

However, don’t kid yourself that you’re hearing sound quality that represents the £150+ tag of these top-end puppies. Apart from the inconvenient truth that very few people have ever heard top-end kit (away from passing traffic noise, over-flying aircraft, or even other people moving around in the house) and so have no real benchmark to compare these with, the sound of your own body functions (oooh, err,) for example your hearbeat gets amplifed by these devices and detracts from the “quiet bits”. You’ll also find that wearing these while running, or even walking, is not a nice experience as the “thump thump” of your footfall is so loud.

If you do buy these, buy them to remove external sounds – but be under no illusions that they’ll improve a poor quality sound source. Finally, don’t *ever* wear these while driving.

On Headphones.

The earbud headphones that Apple supplies with its iPod line  generally receive a negative press on the web and are invariably berated in reviews, sometimes being the sole criticism of the iPod package. I’ve always been curious of this fact as i’ve never noticed anything wrong with them and long assumed that those complaining must be true audiophiles. So when my long-serving 1st generation Shuffle’s headphones started to bugger up (balance increasingly skewed to the left, volume levels not what they were and intermittent cut-out on both buds) i took the opportunity to try some 3rd-party kit.

True to my Yorkshire heritage, i didn’t want to spend a lot on replacements but nor did i want to end up with some cheapo ‘phones that’d have sound quality akin to a yoghurt pot on a string. A quick bit of research revealed that stuff by Sony, Sennheiser or Shure would probably make good replacements. Sadly Shure kit was just far too expensive (£55 for the cheapest set – an amount which’d nearly buy two new iPod Shuffles) and Sony products seemed overpriced for the sort of customer reviews they received, so i quickly settled on Sennheiser’s CX300 headphones which got very favourable reviews and at £17 would cost less than a replacement set of standard Apple earbuds (£19).

the many layers of packaging the many layers of packaging

When the CX300s arrived i was immediately impressed by Sennheiser’s “eco-friendly” but quite stylish and novel packaging, which consisted solely of cardboard. The headphones were carefully packed in layered squares of plain brown cardboard, all kept together with a couple of cardboard wraparounds and only one of these a bleached, stiffened and printed piece of card. A delightful change and actually a joy to unpack unlike the horrendous, hard plastic, finger-cutting packaging that many-a tech accessory comes in. It was an almost Apple-esque experience, you might say.

Anyway, enough of the green, tree-hugger stuff and back to the matter at hand. Are these new earphones any good? Oh, they’re only sublime. My pleasure at the packaging was absolutely nothing compared to the joy of that first use. The improvement over the standard iPod earbuds was immediately evident and so vastly different that i instantly wondered how i’d ever “coped” with anything less. So much deeper… clearer… richer… and a lot of other adjectives that i’d seen audiophiles use copiously in the past. It was a revelation.

I’d never worn truly in-ear (ear-canal) headphones before but the soft rubber buds were surprisingly comfortable (more surprising still was that i only needed the Medium size buds – Small and Large are also supplied though) and i assume that as well as providing some (very good) outside noise cancellation the in-your-ear-canal aspect also helps to contribute to the level of bass the CX300’s achieve. Unfortunately, i also believe that being ear-canal ‘phones is the reason my elation didn’t last.

iPod Vs CX300 bud iPod Vs CX300

Thing is, i’d just been enjoying the headphones while sat still and so when i put them on for a real-world test (ie. travelling to work) one major problem became immediately apparent – noise. Not whitenoise (these things are crystal clear). Not external noise (the CX300s do a great job of blocking that out). No, just noises from inside and around me. Everytime i moved, the headphone cable moved and got knocked around – those vibrations travelled up to my ears and, amplified, sounded like muffled thuds. Likewise, my feet hitting the ground caused muffled bangs in my ears, and all the usually hidden sounds of simple things like eating and drinking become horrendous distractions. Stick your fingers firmly into your ear holes while you’re chewing and you’ll soon see what i mean. This was a real disappointment and only exaggerated by how excited i’d been about the sound quality and the fact that it was quite unexpected, having always been an ear-bud headphone user (where the device just rests in the shell of your ear, free to make tiny movements that must – it’s now obvious – prevent these sorts of distractions).

So, overal verdict on my replacement headphones? The sound quality of the CX300s is awesome and i don’t reckon you could do much better for the sort of money i paid. They’re also light, very comfortable and not unpleasing on the eye. It’s just such a crying shame about the “cable noise” spoiling things though when you’re on the move.

Purchasing these headphones has been a real eye ear-opener for me though. It made me question my choice to rip my entire CD collection in only 128kbps AAC format. It made me wonder whether audio through a £300+ set of Shures would be like sex for your ears. But the amazing difference in quality i experienced mainly had me wondering whether i’d ever experienced anything so good. Had i just gotten used-to the Apple headphone’s lacklustre sound since getting an iPod or had i always had this “grey” listening experience? In order to try and find out, I went digging through some drawers to find all the old headphones i could…

Philips, Sony, Apple and Sennheiser buds... Philips, Sony, Apple and Sennheiser buds

…and was only able to find a pair of Philips and a pair of Sonys that i probably bought in the late 90s (to use with my Sony Discman). Anyway, i gave them all a try hooked up to the Shuffle and while i was pleased to find that the Philips offered worse reproduction than the Apples, i was sort of disappointed to find the Sony buds (with, note, a small rubber “cone” to fill the ear canal) were actually better. That meant i’d probably experienced better quality audio in the past but had just not noticed the Apple ‘phones were inferior when i got my first iPod. Oh dear.

PNGs Out.

Until today i’d been using the Portable Network Graphics (PNG) format for most of the images i include in this blog, as (being lossless) they look better than JPGs and GIFs. Sadly the price to pay for this image quality is a larger filesize – often much larger – even when compressing them using PNGOUT, so i’ve decided to stick to JPGs from now on. The images might not look quite as good but i’m afraid the 70% reduction in filesize wins hands-down.