The Sennheiser Orpheus Experience or the day I went to a holistic health clinic to listen to the best headphones in the world.

Hurt. One song. Two definitive versions. Reznor’s is painful, vivid, fresh and raw. Cash’s is tempered by looking back from the vantage of time.
https://soundcloud.com/nineinchnails/hurt-quiet-1994
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vt1Pwfnh5pc

My 25 words or less that ended up with sitting in a comfy chair in a clinic above an art gallery on a rainy Sydney day with a pair of $75k headphones on my head.

Humans are constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, often creating something for no other reason than “because we can”. Bugatti Veyron, the world’s fastest production car. Over $2 Million of luxury, technology and sheer horsepower. Gravity Probe B, the most perfectly spherical objects ever made, with no imperfections larger than 40 atoms high. Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower in the world, soaring over 800 metres into the sky. Sennheiser Orpheus, the lowest distortion audio reproduction hardware ever made.

Back in 1991 the engineers at Sennheiser were given free reign to create the absolute best headphones in the world, with no compromise. Cost was not a consideration. The end result was the Orpheus HE90 – the pinnacle of audio engineering at the time. Sold for $15,000 USD (over $35,000 in 2016 Australian pesos), these headphones came with a matching amplifier built with a lovely Art-deco aesthetic. 6 valves for the pre-amp were mounted front and centre, chrome was everywhere, there was a beautiful rosewood trim and the electrostatic headphones had people raving about their sound.

Over the years, Sennheiser’s audio engineers often thought back to the technology, materials and construction in the HE90 and wondered if they could do any better, could they improve on the Orpheus in any way? It took until the mid 2000’s until they finally stood up and said “Yes, we can make it better” and thus began a 10 year journey to create the duo of the HE 1060 / HEV 1060.

A decade in the making, the team at Sennheiser were again given an open chequebook to source any materials, use any build techniques, do whatever they had to do to achieve ultimate clarity and fidelity in sound with no compromise whatsoever. If there were no off-the-shelf components that could achieve the sound quality desired, then they went out and had them made especially. Ear cups machined from a solid block of aluminium. Handmade leather and microfibre ear pads. Vacuum tubes housed their own individual clear quartz envelopes. 8 digital to analogue converts. Carrara marble plinth for the base. A platinum coated membrane so thin that you would need to stack 40 of them together to reach the thickness of a sheet of paper.

One of the areas they noticed could be improved from the previous version was in the transmission of the signals from the amplifier to the headphones. Electrostatic drivers require quite high voltages with a low current, and are subject to losses and interference when sent down a couple of metres of cable. This time around the valve preamp sends a low level signal to the headphones where active Class-A amplifiers in both of the cups step it up to the high voltages required, with the power for these amplifiers supplied via the cable.

I was pretty excited when Sennheiser told me that I won their recent Sennheiser Experience Facebook competition. The prize was return flights to Sydney, a pair of Momentum Wireless headphones and some one-on-one time to experience the new Orpheus HE 1060 / HEV 1060 first-hand.

Riding in an Audi A8 long-wheelbase limo

Riding in an Audi A8 long-wheelbase limo

When I arrived in Sydney, I was picked up at the airport in an Audi A8 long wheelbase limo. Suitably cocooned against the miserable Sydney weather we drove around some tiny back-streets in Darlinghurst trying to find the venue – Muse. After squeezing down Little Oxford Street, we located the ivy-covered front of the building and in I went to have my mind blown.

I met Heather and the rest of the team from Sennheiser Australia who had just three days of hands-on time to demo the Orpheus for the lucky few. There were some prominent musicians invited, product managers for some of their larger customers, prospective purchasers and the lucky trio who were chosen. Sarah, Tom and myself.

We arrived with plenty of time to spare before our allotted listening slot, and had a good time relaxing in the downstairs gallery at Muse where Sennheiser had set up an installation. There were half a dozen pairs of headphones and a couple of microphones in perspex boxes on display and some really nice product-related artwork on the walls. The special 70th birthday edition HD800 headphones, with custom blue accents by ColorWare were a particularly special pair, as it turned out they weren’t for listening to.

Muse in Little Oxford Street

Muse in Little Oxford Street

While we were waiting, we discussed many topics, particularly the Orpheus. Some of the more interesting facts about these headphones are at the moment there are only 3 pairs in the world. Around 200-300 people have heard them by this stage however there are possibly only 50 people or so who have have had a chance to listen to their own music selection on them. This set was in Australia for less than a week, one of the few venues on the planet that Sennheiser were offering this listening experience at. They were really excited to be able to see the expression on people’s faces after their auditions. No-one left without a smile.

Each pair of headphones and the attached amplifier are completely hand-made by a team of 10 or more people and they can only produce 250 pairs a year. Yes, there is already a waiting list if you want to buy a set. They retail in Australia for $75,000 however customisation options can take that into the hundreds of thousands. Some of the options are black or white Carrara marble. You can get silver or gold plated knobs if you want. Really, the sky is the limit – if you have the money, Sennheiser will customise them for you pretty much any way you want them.

Everything about the listening experience is absolutely first-class. Even before you have a chance to put them on your head, the way the whole system powers on is a show on it’s own. While the system is turned off, the storage case on top is closed, the valves are retracted flush with the top surface, the volume dial is turned down and the knobs are retracted into the marble plinth. When you power it up, the knobs slide out, the valves rise up (all 8 of them), the volume dial returns to the last level you had set and the piano black lacquer and smoked glass storage case opens up, you don’t even have to get any fingerprints on the high gloss finish. The opening sequence is choreographed so that by the time you can remove the headphones from their case, the valves have had time to come up to operating temperature and the system is ready to go.

The frequency response of the headphones is flat from 8Hz all the way up to 100kHz. Although humans can only hear from 20 to 20k Hz, Sennheiser wanted to ensure that if there were any flaws in the response that they would be pushed out to either end where only elephants or bats would be able to hear it.

Listening to the Orpheus

Listening to the Orpheus

Enough about the technology, all of this is secondary to how they actually sound.

The detail and depth in the music was amazing. Turning up the volume just made more sound, not noise, not distortion, just sound and lots of it. They could play loud, but were never noisy. Even on heavily textured and complex passages like the last parts of Hurt, every track, every layer, every instrument had it’s own space and it’s own definition.

The reproduction of sound was unlike anything else I’ve heard. The bass was a physical presence – warm, smooth and without limit. The treble was clear and distinct, without being harsh or sharp. The mids were all where they were supposed to be – everything was presented as-is without any colouration, exactly as the music was mastered.

The headphones in their storage case

The headphones in their storage case

Nothing seemed to worry the headphones, everything sounded so clear and effortless like they were just striding along and not even breaking a sweat. Even turning up the volume to uncomfortably loud levels just resulted in more sound with no loss of clarity, no distortion, it was purely louder.

The sound was clear and tangible. Instruments were all given their own place in the soundstage. Nothing sounded hurried or strained everything was clearly composed.

In Hurt, you could clearly hear the raw emotion in Trent Reznor’s voice, the pain was right there. The guitar sounded like it was right in front of you and when that first kick drum comes in, it was like a physical impact. Even through the distortion and digital noise, the other sounds were not masked out or blurred, they were still there.

On Johnny Cash’s rendition, you could hear every detail in his fingers on the guitar strings, and his voice was front and centre, every intonation, every inflection was there for the taking. You could even hear that as the song progresses his mouth gets dry and the sound of him opening his mouth to take a breath is like he’s in the room with you.

The two Daft Punk tracks were selected for their use of real instruments, high dynamic range and quality mastering. Oh, and the bass. O.M.G. It was like I’d never heard bass quite like this before. It was deep, warm, inviting and full, all at the same time. There was absolutely no distortion, no breakup, no clipping, just an ocean of clean, pure bass. Of course everything else was there with absolute clarity as well, the bass didn’t overwhelm the vocals or the other instruments, rather it provided a soft velvet cushion for it to all rest on.

All up, it was the most pure listening experience I’ve had. Everything that happened that day all came together to ensure this. It’s the plane and limo ride, the happy and welcoming staff from Sennheiser, the venue, the headphones, the technology, the music. It’s the vibe and, no, that’s it. It’s the vibe. I could have easily spent hours sitting there in my own world, having the music wash over me but unfortunately time was limited.

The 8 valves for the preamp section

The 8 valves for the preamp section

While I’m not sure that I heard things in the music that simply weren’t there when listening on lesser equipment, what I did notice was that subtle details were clearly presented for you with with no effort, you didn’t have to dig around and concentrate as much to hear them. Nothing was blurred or smeared together, it was all there for you on a silver platter. Without even trying you could easily pick out any individual element from the composition and feel it sitting there

Worth the money? Hard to say. I suppose if you had the kind of disposable income where a $75k pair of cans was even a consideration, and if you really enjoyed music, then they’d probably be worth every cent. I would likely get more enjoyment out of these than, say, a $75k Jaeger-LeCoultre or Rolex. Are they 10x better than a pair of HD800’s with the matching amp? Hard to say, possibly not. Are they the best headphones I’ve ever listened to? Absolutely.

Source equipment: Bryston BDP-2 Digital Player. Music was delivered as FLAC on USB.

Playlist:
NIN – Hurt (High-res)
Johnny Cash – Hurt (CD Quality)
Daft Punk – Lose Yourself to Dance (High-res)
Daft Punk – Get Lucky (High-res)
Johnny Cash – Personal Jesus (CD quality)

More information and technical specs:
http://en-au.sennheiser.com/reshaping-excellence

Set Microsoft Outlook 2016 as default mail client on OS X 10.11 El Capitan

I’ve had a few issues trying to change the default mail client on El Cap. In nearly every case, after changing it in Mail (seemingly the only place you can actually change it), the change doesn’t stick. After quitting and relaunching Mail, it’s back to the default of Mail.app.

I’ve found that if you clear the Launch Services database, this may allow the change to persist.

So, quit all running apps.

Open Terminal and enter in the following (all on one line)

/System/Library/Frameworks/CoreServices.framework
/Versions/A/Frameworks/LaunchServices.framework
/Versions/A/Support/lsregister -kill -r -all local,system,user

When it returns, you can quit Terminal.

Launch Mail, go into Preferences > General and set the Default email reader to Microsoft Outlook

Quit Mail and the change should stick.

Fix a broken Open Directory

I don’t know why the databases that OpenLDAP uses are so fragile, and therefore why Open Directory looses it’s shit nearly every single time you have to force a server to restart, but they are and it does.

In the majority of cases, it’s pretty straightforward to fix – and again I’ve got no idea why this isn’t part of the startup process for OpenLDAP if something goes wrong…

Anyway, if Open Directory won’t load, or isn’t showing you any users, nine times out of ten, it’s one or the other of the OpenLDAP databases that are corrupt.

Fix them like so:

sudo launchctl unload /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/org.openldap.slapd.plist
sudo /usr/libexec/slapd -Tt
sudo db_recover -cv -h /var/db/openldap/openldap-data/
sudo db_recover -cv -h /var/db/openldap/authdata/
sudo /usr/libexec/slapd -Tt
sudo launchctl load /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/org.openldap.slapd.plist

Re-running a Unix command, until it completes successfully – e.g.: imapsync

I’m doing an email migration for a client from an old 2008 SBS Server into Office 365. For some reason, there were two mailboxes that just wouldn’t migrate using the migration wizard in Office 365.

I switched to the ever-trusty imapsync which I’ve used to migrate more mailboxes than I care to remember.

As an aside, I had a few issues with imapsync from MacPorts so ended up downloading a fork from GitHub that resolved the issue, however I had to install a few CPAN modules for Perl manually. I’ve lost the link to the GitHib version, however it was easy to find initially by searching on the error string that it was returning when trying to run it – something about an SSL error.

Anyway, after building and installing everything required, imapsync kept erroring out on these two mailboxes after some random number of emails migrated. After logging in and restarting it manually a few times, I thought that there had to be a better way.

Looking further into the issues, imapsync was exiting with a return code of 2, indicating that an error occurred. When it completes successfully, it should exit with a return code of 0. This makes it easy to just keep running it until it exits with zero;

until imapsync --option1 --option2 ... --optionn; do
    echo Exited with an error, rerunning...
done

Nice and easy…

The until loop keeps running the command given to until (often a check for something == 0) exits with a true (or zero) exit status. The echo statement gets executed as part of the until loop, however this is more a side effect of running imapsync as the until loop predicate.

 

Sonos and Spotify

I make no secret of it, I love Sonos gear and am thoroughly addicted to it. It started out quite innocently with just a single PLAY:1 that was soon joined by it’s twin to make a stereo pair – these live in my bedroom and work as the best alarm clock I’ve ever used. Not long after that a PLAY:3 joined the mix in the living room, and then as it was lonely on it’s own, a second one came along… And, well, you get the idea.

One of the best features of Sonos is it’s integration with 3rd party streaming music services. As well as being able to play from your iTunes music library, either stored directly on your computer, or accessed via a NAS or a home server, you can play from a huge number of streaming radio stations as well as services like Pandora, SoundCloud and Spotify.

I have been listening to the high quality music that the folks over at SomaFM have been broadcasting for more than a decade now – they have expanded the number of stations that they broadcast over the years however the sounds on Groove Salad, Beat Blender and Lush have consistently been in my playlists for a long time.

Sometimes however you want to listen to something more specific and this is where Spotify shines. Whilst you have been able to listen to Spotify streams in Sonos for some time now, the integration has always seemed like a bit of an afterthought. I’m sure that this was partly for technical reasons and partly for legal or political reasons, but whatever the reason, it was never as straightforward as it should have been.

If you wanted to listen to a particular album or stream on Spotify, you first had to go into the Spotify app or web app, find what you wanted to listen to, save it as a Playlist or a Favourite and then go into the Sonos app and locate it from there.

With the latest Sonos update, this has all changed. Version 5.5 brings to the table the ability to start a new Sonos station from the song that’s currently playing, or search for your favourite artist – all within the Sonos app. They also deliver a Daily Soundtrack with a selection of playlists based on the current time of day (it’s 7am and I’m presented with a Rise and Shine! selection). You can also browse Genres and Moods, New Releases and Charts – pretty much the entire experience you get when using the Spotify app itself.

All in all, this is a highly recommended update if you’ve got Sonos and Spotify, and it’s free – so get onto it!

OS X 10.11 El Capitan and System Integrity Protection (SIP)

This is shamelessly cut and pasted from TwoCanoes:

System Integrity Protection (SIP)

Apple has implemented a new security feature in OS X 10.11, System Integrity Protection, which prevents even super users from altering the contents of files in key System folders. The flags for restricting the folders is applied at the time of installation and cannot be overridden. SIP is designed to protect System files from malware and viruses.

For the specific cases described above, SIP must be disabled to allow writing to the master boot record when restoring a Winclone image. After the restore process is complete, SIP may be enabled again from the Recovery partition.

Disabling SIP requires booting into the recovery partition to run the Terminal command below.  

To boot into the Recovery partition, hold Command-R while restarting the Mac.  

From the Utilities Menu, select Terminal.  On the Terminal command line, enter:

# csrutil disable

which will confirm the change with status message:

Successfully disabled System Integrity Protection. Please restart the machine for the changes to take effect.

Reboot back into the El Capitan system partition.

To re-enable SIP, boot back into the recovery partition, open Terminal from the Utilities menu and set state to enabled:

# csrutil enable

Product Review: Overboard Waterproof eBook Reader / Kindle Case

This is a pretty simple case, it does one thing and it does that one thing quite well.

Unlike just about all other kindle accessories, the Overboard Waterproof eBook Reader / Kindle Case is a more universal accessory and will fit any number of different devices – from a Kindle to an iPad mini or any other device with a screen size less than 8-9 inches or so.

It accomplishes this by being a tough, flexible waterproof and air-tight bag with an easy sealing mechanism at the top.

You unlock the four locks in the thick plastic seal, open the bag, drop your device in, with the screen towards the clear side and then seal it all up. The case is supplied with a shoulder carry strap (that I thought was cute but really am probably not going to use) and a few small sachets of Silica Gel – those little white sachets that say DO NOT EAT that are invariably packed in with your new electronics. Silica Gel will absorb moisture, and it does it very well. Overboard were thoughtful enough to supply these sachets sealed in a ziplock bag, so they haven’t already absorbed all the moisture they can out of the air before you go to use them.

Why would you need to use them? Well, this case (bag?) is pretty well waterproof.

Ever wanted to read your Kindle in the bath, or at the beach and don’t want to get it sandy or wet? This is the answer to that problem!

If you’re using the case in a humid environment, you can put a silica gel sachet in with your device, and then you’re not going to get any fogging inside the bag.

In my testing, this case worked exactly as promised – my kindle is none the worse for wear after being read in the bath, washed under the tap and taken into the shower just to see how it went.

The clear front surface of the case is a tough and flexible plastic that doesn’t seem to interfere with the touch screen on either my kindle or iPhone (I don’t have an iPad mini to test it with).

All in all, a handy thing to have if you’re holidaying with your Kindle, or want to use it in the bath…

Fix NTP on OS X with no external network access

NTP is built into all recent versions of OS X and OS X Server (and OS X with Server.app)

If you’re running a server, the other clients on the network can receive time updates from the server – but only if the server is able to update it’s time to an authoritative time server on the internet or other network.

If, as I was confronted with recently, you have a server and UDP Port 123 is blocked, then the server is unable to sync it’s time with any more authoritative time servers. If the server is unable to sync it’s clock, by default it refuses to give out time updates to network clients. How annoying.

With OpenDirectory, and it’s use of Kerberos, if workstations drift more than a few minutes from the server, bad things happen.

In this case, it is desirable to have all workstations sync their time to the server. Even if the time on the server isn’t completely accurate, it’s still better that all computers on the network at least agree what they think the time is, rather than having them all showing different times.

In order to do this, the NTP service running on the server must be told it’s a stratum time server. With stratum time servers, they’re authoritative with respect to what time it is. Normally, they’re connected to a highly accurate atomic clock or get an accurate time from GPS signals.

To tell our OS X server that it’s a stratum time server, edit /etc/ntp.conf and put in the following two lines. Note that 127.127.1.1 is not a typo, it’s not meant to be 127.0.0.1

server 127.127.1.0 # local clock
fudge 127.127.1.0 stratum 10

This then tells the ntpd service on the server that it’s a Stratum 10 time server. Lower stratum numbers are higher priority and higher accuracy servers, so saying we’re at Stratum 10 means that if we do end up talking to real ntp server, it will be a lower stratum (and therefore higher priority) to our local clock.

Restart the ntp service with sudo killall -HUP ntpd

Point the network clients to the server and in very short order, they should have their clocks synchronised.