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Linux Home Theater

Linus Finally Learns How to Sing and Dance


Francis Vale

Music is tribal. It may have begun around 50,000 year old campfires with the beating on animal skins pounding out the day's events in primitive rhythms. Some shaggy soul may even have added a few moaning lyrics. And here we are 50 millennia later and the tribal beat still goes on in the form of MP3 files whizzing around the new electronic campfire, the Internet. Music is fundamental to our individual and collective psyche, as the music industry knows all too well. And now some invading brutes want to stomp into our tuneful campsites and forcibly take over our music making. Some big companies, including Microsoft, want to put a hammerlock on our basic freedoms to select what we think are the best possible audio encoding and playback system(s) and to use them fairly. They also want to take over our hard drive campsites and turn us into squalid squatters.

It is well known that Microsoft would just as soon kill off MP3 and have everyone use its proprietary Windows Media Audio (WMA) format. Instead of natively supporting MP3 encoders within XP that can rival WMA encoder quality, Microsoft has instead given XP users the "benefit" of downloading extra cost Media MP3 Creation Pack(s) from third parties. For example, Cyberlink charges $9.95 for its MP3 PowerEncoder for Win XP that rips MP3 Music from within the Windows Media Player. Intervideo charges the same sum for its XP-MP3Xpack that rips CDs and encodes MP3 files. Now ten bucks may not sound like much, but with customers paying a couple of hundred dollars for the XP operating system, how many users out there will be in the mood to shell out even more money for enhancing their Rich Windows Experience?

Moreover, inside XP is an insidious system called Secure Audio Path (http://msdn.microsoft.com/library/default.asp?url=/library/en-us/wmrm/htm/understandingthesecureaudiopathmodel.asp), which ties audio tracks to the music-playing hardware on your PC. SAP first made its debut in the Windows Millennium Edition OS. SAP adds noise to music tracks that is removed only when the track is played through a trusted sound card. Microsoft is going to use SAP as the basis for a content management/digital rights management  (DRM) system that will force people to pay to listen to their hard drive music. Third-party developers can also build an audio player based on the Windows Media Format SDK to take mercenary advantage of Secure Audio Path.

So, A) how do you feel about noisemakers being deliberately put in the audio path of your music files? B), How do feel knowing that you will not be able to make perfect digital copies of SAP-enabled music even after it has been decrypted? And C) how do you feel about the content of your hard drive no longer being yours but which is now held captive to Microsoft and its DRM -SDK buddies? Of course, Microsoft is not alone in its DRM disc grab. Real Audio (RA) has its Windows Media Player-competitive DRM system that has the backing of Adobe, AOL, radio and TV conglomerate Clear Channel, EMI, IBM, MGM, Napster, Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment and Sun Micro, among others.

Before the Net, Napster, et al, if you bought a CD or LP, you owned it, and you also had the protection of the fair use principal, a hard won end user right that has been fought for in numerous legal battles. Fair use allows you to make a copy of your CD's music content, say onto a cassette that you can play in your car or wherever. Portable MP3 players hold forth the same music on the go fair use promise. But now this may all be about to change. For example, many new CDs being produced in Europe now come with a content-munging system that prevents their being copied or ripped into MP3 files or even WAV files. In the US, attempts are being made to incorporate Macrovision's SafeAudio system into CDs so that your ripped music will come out with annoying ticks and pops.

This is all only just the start. With a system like SAP --and users are indeed a sap if they fall for this MS ploy -- fair use has at last truly been vanquished. No less than George W's National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, had this to say on fair use when she was Provost at Stanford University: "Where only a small portion of a work is to be copied and the work would not be used if purchase (sic) or licensing of a sufficient number of authorized copies were required, the intended use is more likely to be found to be fair." See also http://fairuse.stanford.edu, which has an excellent set of links that explore the various issues of fair use.)

But why stop with music? What about kludging movies? After all, if they are on a DVD, they are just bits, and bits of any sort are apparently now fair game for a concerted industry attack on fair use. Sony and some other movie studios like Disney have announced plans to rent movies on demand via the Net, and the security storm flags are already flying. "We believe that the movie business must not wait like the music business, until Napster or some other equivalent steals our movies." -- Howard Stringer, chief executive officer of Sony Corp. of America, and acting chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. By some estimates, as many as 400,000 bootlegged films are being swapped daily on the Internet, so you can understand Stringer's paranoia. 

But what does it portend for users when Sony, a major player in the music industry, and its industry compatriots blessed the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA attempts to slip end user file swapping into the Patriot anti-terrorism bill?  The RIAA wanted the legal right for its members to attack file-swappers' computers without suffering any civil liability. The proposed RIAA text would have exempted from lawsuits "any impairment of the ability of data, a program, system or information, resulting from measures taken by an owner of a copyright."

In other words, Sony, Disney and others could nuke your hard drives with the permission of the US Congress. Who knew that Osama bin Laden's secret WMD (weapon of mass destruction) was Napster? In the industry's view, all you music swappers out there are just another insidious part of Bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist organization. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and this obnoxious RIAA item was deleted from the Patriot legislation. But still, it gives you a good idea of just how far the entertainment industry is willing to go in its attempts to absolutely control the content food chain, from studio to your hard drive, even if it means blowing up your computer. And so Microsoft, the ultimate marketer, simply whisper's the siren call of SAP into Stringer's and his industry friends' highly receptive ears.

You can also use Secure Audio Path to disable digital output on audio cards. Microsoft says that by using this "feature", content owners can disable digital output by setting a parameter in licenses for their music. So, what's to stop a movie studio from adding the same drop dead audio thing to a movie's sound track? Of course, you can always turn on the movie subtitle feature and add your own appropriate music. Maybe silent movies are about to stage a big comeback

Regardless of Microsoft's ambitious plans to collect a toll every time you want a little entertainment, there is still not much a user can do to avoid insidious schemes like the Macrovision CD anti-ripper kludge. Moreover, other DRM systems like the one being put forth by Real Audio and its backers will also probably enforce draconian limits on both DVD and music playback on your computer. However, there is one approach available that affords at least some ray of hope for preserving fair use sanity--Linux-based home A/V systems.

Home entertainment gateways are getting a lot of play these days. Essentially an Internet attached multimedia server with lots of disc; these new products will serve as the distribution hub for squirting A/V content around your home. Naturally, Microsoft wants to own this emerging product space. But Linux has a strong chance at winning this critical new market for several very important reasons, and in the process, giving hapless consumers a fair use break.

1. Home entertainment is about simplicity and invisibility. No one except the geeks will want to fool around with Windows just to play a movie or scroll through a song list catalog. Open source Linux is the ideal embedded OS choice for consumer electronics vendors who want their value added (as in simple UI) system nameplates -- not Microsoft's -- in front of the consumer.

2. Java is winning the consumer embedded device battle. Japanese telecom giant NTT DoCoMo is already selling about 60,000 Java phones a day, and cell phone giant Nokia expects to sell 100 million Java-enabled cell phones by the end of 2003. And that's just in telephony. Sun expects that by the end of 2002, over 200 million "smart credit cards" from American Express, Visa, and Mastercard will be equipped with a version of J2ME called JavaCard. Next, both Cable Labs and ATSC have built Java into their smart TV specs. Given Microsoft's open hostility to Java -- in stark in contrast to Linux's warm embrace --which OS makes ever increasing market sense for a consumer electronics-oriented home server?

3. All the right add-on baubles are starting to appear for home Linux A/V use. For example, Sigma Designs now has Linux drivers for both its NetStream 2000TV and NetStream PCI cards. The NetStream 2000TV card (http://www.sigmadesigns.com/products/netstream2000TV.htm ) offers progressive scan output for DTVs. It also features overlay support for merged graphics and video output to TV (composite, S-video, YPbPr or SCART) without VGA resolution or refresh rate restrictions. The NetStream 2000TV also incorporates Sigma Design's REALmagic Video Streaming Technology, which includes full precision DVD decoding and scaling. To my eyes and that of many others who have seen the video output results, the NetStream 2000TV beats the pants off even 2 GHz processors doing software-only DVD decode, especially when the video is projected onto a big screen. The NetStream 2000TV card also features Dolby¨ Digital or DTS¨ surround sound (through S/PDIF) that pumps straight into your surround processor. See this card at work and you will never go back to software-based DVD decoders or software based solutions for advanced video-on-demand and streaming video applications. The DVD picture of this  $245 (MSRP) card also rivals standalone DVD players costing hundreds of dollars more; none of which have the NetStream 2000TV system's overall flexibility and capabilities, especially when it is installed in a Linux box.

4. RME Audio of Germany (http://www.rme-audio.com), which has distributors in the US, makes a truly excellent PCI audio card, the DIGI9636 Hammerfall, which supports Linux (as well as MacOS). 3rd party drivers are available on-line at RME that support the Linux Open Sound System as well as for ALSA  (Advanced Linux Sound Architecture). Among other features, the DIGI9636 Hammerfall provides 130 MB/s transfer rate for record and playback. The DIGI9636 turns your Linux computer into a 36 Channel (18 inputs and 18 outputs) digital audio multitrack system with just a single card -- and with only a 7% PCI bus load when using all 36 channels. Up to three cards are supported in one machine, and with ASIO in hardware the latency is just 1.5ms. Making 24 bit/96kHz multitrack recordings is also possible thanks to its hardware-based S/Mux feature. With the available Hammerfall extension card, you can upgrade to a full Hammerfall 52-channel system if needed. This is a very serious audio card meant for pro or semi pro audio production. However, the Digi9636 card ($565 MSRP) also has another option, the AEB8-O daughterboard with 24-bit DA-converters that offers 8 outputs with 4 stereo TRS jacks. The AEB8-0 ($245, MSRP) operates like any other DA-converter with ADAT input, except that it is connected internally to the DIGI9636. I tried this RME card- daughterboard combo in my high-end audio system. The long and the short of it is that for about $800 you get a PC Linux-based system featuring excellent analog playback that rivals high-end audio stand alone DACs costing hundreds, if not thousands, more.

Linux for home entertainment server use has come of age. The open source model of Linux and its extremely low licensing costs allow consumer electronics OEMs and entrepreneurs to create reliable, robust systems with huge amounts of custom value add. The license cost savings over MS XP can also directly accrue to the consumer's advantage. Instead of being nickel and dimed to death every time the user wants to add another "benefit" to a deliberately dumbed down XP system, he or she can instead apply their No-XP-here! savings to some truly nifty things. For example, like buying more disc space, add-in cards like the NetStream 2000TV or RME Digi9636, or other useful features and services. Using Linux also means the user gets to avoid the Microsoft entertainment tax it so dearly wants to levy on each and every consumer via SAP and other shenanigans. With the Microsoft taxman out of the way, companies like Sony can make more money and possibly be persuaded to take advantage of their extra revenue to forgo such stupid moves like the RIAA Patriot fiasco. Finally, there is the pressure of the open source community itself, which can bring its considerable influence and resources to bear to preserve and maintain the principal of fair use, which, if it's good enough for Geo. W's National Security Adviser should be good enough for the entertainment industry as well.

The Review Gear

For my reviews of the NetStream 2000TV and RME audio cards I used a 1.4 GHz Intel P4 system from IBM, the IntelliStation M Pro. This particular system came with two 16GB SCSI hard drives, but for A/V storage work I attached two very sweet external peripherals from Maxtor. One was the 3000LE, an external 40GB drive that uses the 480 Mbit/sec USB 2.0 bus, and the other was the 3000DV with 60GB and a 1394 bus. The 3000DV is also available in a 80GB configuration. Both units operated flawlessly and as important, very quietly. The issue of noise is not mentioned too much for home A/V use, but really, who wants to have a multi-fan system roaring away during a quiet arpeggio? Which is another great reason why I liked the IBM IntelliStation M Pro so much, apart from its flawless UNIX performance (using S.u.S.E., my favorite Linux flavor, and v. 7.3 also has new TV applications) -- this PC is really quiet; the quietist 1+GHz system I have ever heard, in fact. The very low noise level makes a huge difference in listening pleasure.

I also discovered a great CD-R, CD-RW system for muy rapido ripping and burning, the Yamaha CRW2200EZ drive. This drive is touted as having a 40X read speed, but in my speed tests, I only got an average of 20.5X. Yamaha confirmed that its 40X spec was the unit's best possible read speed, not the average speed. Somewhat chagrined at this finding, I assumed that the UltraSCSI 160 CD-ROM drive I was also evaluating from Plextor would beat the pants off the Yamaha when it came to ripping duties. I was in for a big surprise. The Yamaha, on average, was only about 5 to 8 seconds slower than the Plextor when ripping a complete CD, which on the IntelliStation M Pro typically took about two and a half minutes. The Yamaha would start off slower than the Plextor, but as track by track went by the Yamaha just went faster and faster, until it almost caught up with the Plextor in overall ripping time by the end of the CD. The lesson: save your SCSI controller dough and a PCI system slot and go buy the Yamaha.

Note to High End Freaks

Who needs all the compression trickery of WMA, or MP3, or even lossless encoding schemes like LPAC when you can store the complete thing, uncompressed? Disc space is becoming so cheap and huge that for home sever CD ripping, why not just use WAV files on Linux? Or if compress you must, why not use MPEG Layer-3 WAV, which is a true WAV format? With WMA and XP out of the playback loop, so are SAP's tentacles. Moreover, the couple of hundred dollars you save by using open source Linux instead of buying an all-up Win XP system let's you buy hundreds gigabytes of storage space for storing those uncompressed files. The same WAV logic applies to portable MP3 devices, which will soon have tens of gigabytes of cheap storage. (If having thousands of hours of squashed music on a tag along device is still your thing, then simply MP3 encode the desired WAV files on your home server and download them onto your portable player.)

MP3 is touted as being a perceptually lossless system, with supposedly no difference in sound quality between a source CD and a MP3 file, especially when using the highest bit rate encoding, but it just ain't so. In numerous A/B comparisons between uncompressed WAV and MP3 files encoded at 320Kbit/s, the highest rate supported by MPEG-1 Audio Layer III, the WAV file still sounded better. Moreover, a CD consistently trounced its WAV equivalent on the PC.

My primary audio reference system is comprised of MBL 101D speakers, biamped via Sunfire Signature amps with a max of 2400 watts (at 4 ohms) per channel, and wired together with Nordost SPM speaker cables. A tube Sunfire preamp does the front end duties, with a top of the line Pioneer player feeding an external Enlightened Audio Design DAC.

The noticed losses in sound quality could have occurred anywhere in the PC signal food chain, but the fact remains that if the high-end is where you live, MP3 or WAV playback through a PC is still not where it's at, not by an uncompressed mile.

Copyright 2002 Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved

21st, The VXM Network, http://www.vxm.com

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