MY AUDIO SETUP

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This article will cover the different components of the hi-fi audio setup I use with my PC.  The setup described below offers excellent quality audio without breaking the bank.

When building a PC based hi-fi audio setup, the following main components will be required:

  • A DAC
  • An Audio Switch
  • A Headphone Amplifier
  • Audio Cables
  • Headphones
  • Studio Monitors (Speakers)

We will now cover each of the components mentioned above for my setup.

DAC

A DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) converts digital signals that computers use to audio we can hear. A DAC is one of the most significant determining factors with regard to audio quality. Although most motherboards and laptops have onboard audio solutions, they tend to be mediocre at best, and using a dedicated DAC is the quickest way of gaining a significant bump in audio quality.

For a DAC, I selected the SMSL M100 DAC. The M100 utilises the AK4452 DAC chip and implements the XMOX 2nd generation Audio USB interface. It supports PCM signals of up to 32bit 768kHz and DSD up to DSD512.

For inputs, the M100 offers optical, USB and coaxial inputs, and for output RCA. If the DAC is not connected to the PC via USB, power will have to be provided via a USB micro power port.

The M100 is a fantastic little DAC, offering sound quality that would have cost a fortune five years ago. The M100 currently sells for $80 (USD) on Amazon.

Audio Switch

An audio switch allows you to switch between different audio inputs and outputs, for example, selecting if you want audio to play through speakers or headphones with the flick of a switch.

For an audio switch, I use the NobSound Little Bear MC403, which is a 4 to 3 out audio switch. For input, it offers a 3.5mm jack, two sets of RCA jacks and Bluetooth, and for output, it has a 3.5mm jack and once again two sets of RCA jacks. The MC403 implements Bluetooth 4.0, and in order to use it as a Bluetooth receiver, it must be powered (5V DC). However, none of its other functionalities requires it to be powered.

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It is imperative to select an Audio Switch that has complete audio line isolation. I have previously used an inexpensive switch that did not properly isolate all its audio lines, and that resulted in a great deal of line noise.

The MC403 offers excellent audio line isolation, with no noise interference between different inputs. The NobSound Little Bear MC403 sells on Amazon for around $70(USD).

Headphone Amplifier

For a headphone amplifier, I selected the Sabaj PHA3 Vacuum Tube Headphone Amplifier. The PHA3 utilises two 6J9 Vacuum tubes. A headphone amplifier obviously amplifies the sound delivered to the headphones (a must for high impedance headphones as the DAC will not be powerful enough to play sounds over these headphones at a reasonable level). However, an additional benefit of vacuum tube headphone amplifiers specifically is that they enrich the sound quality and widens the sound stage. The effect of Vacuum tubes on sound quality is very subjective, and it is not an effect everyone enjoys, however personally, I find it makes the audio playback sound more natural and makes the listening experience more enjoyable.

The Sabaj PHA3 Vacuum Tube Headphone Amplifier can be purchased on Amazon for around $50(USD).

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Audio Cables

Not all audio cables are made equally. There is no point in spending a fair amount on money on an audio setup and then using inexpensive low-quality cables to connect everything together, as this will have a negative effect on the overall audio quality.

I use the Seismic Audio Premium Red RCA Audio Patch Cables to connect the different parts of my setup. They are amazing quality cables that offer spring strain relief, and 24K gold plated RCA connectors. It is very difficult to explain the quality these cables offer until you hold a set of these cables in your hands and then becomes apparent why they are different from your average RCA patch cables. They are available on Amazon for around $10(USD).

Headphones

I have four sets of headphones\earphones I frequently use for a variety of use cases. I have two primary headphones I use with my hi-fi setup, and they are the Samson Z55 and the Phillips SHP9500. Let us have a look at these two headphones first:

Samson Z55

My daily use headphones are the Samson Z55 Professional Reference Headphones. They are closed-back headphones that offer best in class sound quality and excellent sound isolation. The headphones use 45mm neodymium drivers and have an impedance of 32 ohms. The Z55 offers a frequency response of 10Hz-25kHz.

The Headphones have a detachable cable (as all good headphones do), and the cable has a locking mechanism to ensure a secure fit.

The Samson Z55 comes with lambskin ear pads and has a very tight clamp, which can cause a bit of discomfort after prolonged use, especially in a warmer climate.

I have made two customisations to my Z55 headphones. Firstly, replacing the earpads with the Brainwavz Hybrid Memory Foam Ear Pads, which are incredibly comfortable and a massive upgrade over the standard earpads from a comfort and sound isolation perspective.

Secondly, I use a headband cover, the LTYIVABHTTW headband cover, as my headband started showing signs of wear and tear after more than a year of daily use. The LTYIVABHTTW headband cover is made from durable stretchy material and uses a zipper to attach over the headphone headband. It is incredibly comfortable, and you do not even notice it is there.

The Samson Z55 Headphones can be picked up from Amazon for around $100(USD).

The Brainwavz Hybrid Memory Foam Ear Pads cost around $25(USD)  on Amazon.

Lastly, the LTYIVABHTTW headband cover sells for under $15 (USD) on Amazon.

Phillips SHP9500

The Phillips SHP9500 are open-back headphones that are unbelievable value for money, costing only $70(USD) on Amazon, the sound quality they offer rival headphones that cost four times more. As they are open-back headphones, the SHP9500 offers little to no sound isolation, but they do offer a large sound stage.

The Phillips SHP9500 uses 50mm neodymium drivers, with a 32 ohms impedance and a frequency response of 12Hz-35kHz. Additionally, the Phillips SHP9500 has a detachable cord.

These headphones are hands down the most comfortable headphones I have ever tried and can easily be worn all day without causing any discomfort. This is the main reason why I alternate between them and the Samson Z55, as especially in a warmer climate, the Z55 can become uncomfortable after long listening sessions. In contrast, the SHP9500, with its light clamping pressure, can be comfortable used even on the warmest summer day without any problems.

Additionally, to the two headphones mentioned above, I also use the JBL Under Armour Sport Train Headphones while at the gym (the only time I would typically use wireless headphones) and then I also use the Sony MDRXB50 Wired Earbuds when out and about on my Amazon Fire 10 tablet and Nintendo Switch. Let us have a look at these now:

JBL Under Armour Sport Headphones

The Headphones I use in the gym is the JBL Under Armour Sport Headphones. They are Bluetooth headphones specially designed to be worn while physically active. They have a tight clamp on-ear design to stay on while moving around. They are sweatproof, and the earpads and headband are made of Under Armour’s breathe material. The headphones have a folding design and come with a sturdy carry case, which is ideal for protecting the headphones while they are in your gym bag.

From a technical specification perspective, the JBL Under Armour Sport Headphones implements a Bluetooth 4.1 interface, has 40mm Drivers with an impedance of 32 ohms, and an estimated battery life of 16 hours.

The headphones offer good sound quality for Bluetooth headphones, and they are very comfortable while working out.

The JBL Under Armour Sport Headphones is available from Amazon for $160(USD). 

Sony MDRXB50 Wired Earbuds

I use the Sony MDRXB50 Wired Earbuds when I’m am out and about with my Amazon Fire 10 tablet and Nintendo Switch. They are high quality, relatively inexpensive earbuds available for around $30 on Amazon.

The MDRXB50 uses 12mm dome-type drivers along with high-energy neodymium magnets, which deliver excellent sound quality for their small size. The earbuds have a frequency response of 4Hz – 24kHz and a 16ohms impedance.

These earbuds offer great value for money and come with a carry pouch and flat tangle-free cable, making them an excellent compact option for when traveling or just out of the house.

Studio Monitors (Speakers)                    

Samson Media One BT3

For speakers, I use the Samson Media One BT3 powered studio monitors. They are good quality speakers offering Bluetooth as well as 3.5mm and RCA inputs. They are sturdily constructed stereo speakers, and each of the two speakers contains a 3-inch copolymer woofer and a 1-inch silk dome tweeter. They offer excellent sound quality and 15 watts per channel RMS (30 watts peak)  that can easily fill a large room.

They are available from Amazon for around $100(USD).

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MY AUDIO SETUP

A Tour of Silicon Valley

I recently did a self-tour of Silicon Valley, and as someone who works in the field of technology, it was a fantastic experience.

The first stop of the tour was Apple Park, the Head Quarters for Apple Inc. The only section open to the public is the Visitor Center, which mainly consists of a massive apple store (which was insanely busy as it was 2 days after the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro launched) as well as a sizeable Augmented Reality display of the Apple Park Campus and the famous UFO looking Apple Ring building. This AR display consists of a large model, shown in the photos below, that you can interact with using an iPad Pro which the staff hand out to guests entering the display area. On the iPad Pro graphics are superimposed over the model showing not only a realistic aerial view of the campus but also showing various bits of information relating to the design of the ring building such as how the ring building is designed in a way to take advantage of the environment (wind, etc.) to cool itself in an ecologically friendly manner.

The next stop was the Apple Garage, which is the garage at the house in which Steve Jobs grew up. It is commonly considered the birthplace of Apple. Steve Wozniak (Apple co-founder) has said that this is a bit of a romanticized myth, but it was still great to see.

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Next came the Computer History Museum, a truly amazing museum with items covering the entire history of computers. From the abacus to mainframes and supercomputers to the current day smartphone, the items on display are truly astonishing. Below are some photos and descriptions of some of the items on display.

Numerous Abacuses on display, one of the oldest forms of calculation tools.

A variety of mechanical calculation machines.

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A Curta Calculator, also known as the Pepper Grinder Calculator. One of the most advanced handheld mechanical calculators ever created.

A Selection of IBM Mainframe Equipment.

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A model of ENIAC, the world’s first general-purpose computer.

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A Selection of Fortran Programming Books and Promotional Material.

A PDP-1 Display, Spacewar! one of the first video games ever was programmed on and ran on the PDP-1.

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A 486 DX motherboard.

A display showing the advancement of transistors, microprocessors, silicon wafers, and Moore’s Law.

Various Robots on display. Including expensive toys, industrial robots, and research robots.

Numerous bizarre and unusual computer peripherals on display.

Video and computer gaming displays, with various consoles and games on display.

Apple I, Apple II, Apple Lisa, and Original Macintosh computers.

IBM PC Model 5150 and an Altair 8800.

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A boxed copy of Windows 1.0.

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The NeXTcube workstation from NeXt Computers. NeXt computers were founded by Steve Jobs after leaving Apple in 1985, and Next Computers were acquired by Apple when Steve Jobs rejoined Apple in 1997. The NeXTStep Operating system became the foundation for Mac OSX.

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Waymo Self-Driving Car.

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A scale model of the Mars Rover.

World of Warcraft exhibition.

An exhibition showing the rise of MP3s and the rise and fall of Napster.

The next stop after the Computer History Museum was the Googleplex, the massive headquarters of Google. The Googleplex, which is mostly open to the public, has various significant things to see, such as the Android Statue Lawn, where retired Android statues representing previous versions of the mobile operating system are on display. From volleyball courts to Massive Statues to vegetable gardens, it is easy to see why the Google Campus has a reputation as the best working environment. Here are a few photos of the Googleplex.

The last stop in Silicon Valley was Stanford University, a University that amongst its alumni has various famous people. Stanford has a beautiful Campus, as can be seen in the photos below.

A Tour of Silicon Valley

REVIEW – LUXCOMS RGB SOFT GAMING MOUSE PAD

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The Luxcoms RGB soft gaming mouse pad is an inexpensive, yet surprisingly good RGB extended mouse mat. The mouse mat measures in at 80cm x 30cm, and has a smooth and soft surface which allows for effortless and low friction mouse movement and also has minimal visible branding, with the Luxcoms logo only appearing on the control box.  Additionally, the mouse mat has a rubberized back to prevent it from slipping while in use. The mat surface quality is amazing and is easily comparable to the Razer Goliathus I previously used.

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 The RGB comes by way of a thin RGB LED tubing sewn around the perimeter of the mat, which offers bright and vivid colors with no visible dim spots.  The RGB lighting is controlled via a button on the control box on the upper left corner of the mouse mat, which cycles through the nine available lighting modes, seven of which are different static colors and the remaining two being variations of a rainbow effect (breathing and wave). The mouse mat does remember the RGB setting selected if it is powered off.

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 The mouse mat utilized no software whatsoever and simply requires power via a micro-USB port located on the control box.

The Luxcoms RGB soft gaming mouse pad is available on Amazon for $22 (USD) which is extremely reasonable for a mouse mat of this quality.

This mouse mat is a very easy recommendation for the price and should be a serious consideration for anyone interested in an RGB extended mouse mat.

REVIEW – LUXCOMS RGB SOFT GAMING MOUSE PAD

DESK TOUR

After a few posts with photos of my desk, I have received a few questions and requests to do a post regarding my desk setup, so here is a quick desk tour.

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As can be seen in the photos above I run two 27-inch monitors, for a secondary monitor I use the Dell SE2717H, a 75Hz 1080P FreeSync monitor, and for a primary display, I use the Dell S2716DG, a 144Hz 1440p G-Sync monitor.

The full specs of the PC can be found in a previous post here, with only a few minor changes since then that I will cover now.

The first change made was replacing the standard plastic backplate of the Corsair H150i Pro with an all metal one, as can be seen in the image below:

metal backplate

The plastic backplate that came with the H150i never felt completely stable, and with the new metal backplate, the whole mounting feels much more robust. This backplate is available from Amazon. While replacing the backplate, I also replaced the thermal paste that came pre-applied with the AIO cooler with Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut. This process resulted in the CPU temperatures dropping by approximately 2-3°C.

The next thing that changed was the addition of a Corsair Lighting Node Pro and RGB Strips, as well as a storage upgrade with an additional 4TB Western Digital Blue drive, total storage is now 17.5 TB consisting of 500GB NVMe storage, 1TB SSD storage and 16 TB spinning disk storage of which 4 TB is accelerated with 32GB Intel Optane Memory.

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As the case front panel, Corsair AIO and the Corsair Lighting Node Pro requires USB 2 headers and my motherboard only has two, this resulted in a problem which was solved by installing an NXZT Internal USB Hub.

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I also added Phanteks Halos to my AIO fans, that was covered in a previous post here.

The final change was the switching out of the MSI Gaming X GTX 1080 with the Zotac RTX 2080 Amp Extreme.

The only additional change that might happen in the short term is the addition of a PSU shroud.

Now that we have covered the PC let us get back to the rest of the desk.

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The photo above shows that on each side of the primary monitor there is a speaker, they are Samson studio monitors, the MediaOne BT3. The microphone I use can be seen on top of one of the speakers, the Samson Meteor USB Studio Microphone. And the webcam used is the Razer Kiyo, which is set up on top of the primary monitor.

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On the back of both the monitors and desk, RGB strips have been mounted and the remote to control them is stored in a custom 3D printed housing under the desk.

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Various figures decorate my desk, most of them made by Funko, but somewhere 3D Printed.

From a peripheral perspective, I use the Corsair K70 MK2 mechanical keyboard and Razer Mamba Tournament Edition mouse (although I am considering replacing the Razer Mamba TE with the new Corsair IronClaw Wireless RGB mouse). Both the keyboard and mouse are on top of the Razer Goliathus Extended Speed Edition Mouse Pad. For a controller, I use an Xbox One controller, the Volcano Shadow Special Edition, which is kept out of the way when not in use by Vault Boy.

I use two headphones, one Wireless Gaming Headset, the Corsair HS70, and one wired professional studio headphones, the Samson Z55. I have a Silicon Headphone Anker under the desk to store these headphones when they are not in use.

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I store a precision screwdriver set under the primary monitor for easy access, the Xiaomi Wiha Precision Aluminum Screwdriver set.

My VR Headset and controller are stored on top of the pc case, it is the Lenovo Explorer Windows Mixed Reality Headset. This was covered in a post here.

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I have 3D printed a cable box, for easier access when plugging in the VR Headset.

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Lastly, behind the second monitor is where my 3D Printer is located, the Wanhao i3 Mini.

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DESK TOUR

REVIEW – RAZER KIYO WEBCAM

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The Razer Kiyo is a USB webcam that retails for around $100. It is capable of 720p video at 60fps and 1080p at 30fps.

The main differentiating feature of the Razer Kiyo compared to other webcams is that the Kiyo has an integrated LED light ring (with adjustable brightness) and this makes a huge difference to the image quality captured by the webcam.

As with most Razer products it is configured and controlled with Razer Synapse, where things like brightness, contrast, saturation, white balance and auto\manual focus can be configured.

The Razer Kiyo has a strong streaming focus and is fully compatible with Open Broadcast Software (OBS) and Xsplit.

The Kiyo does however have two shortcomings, firstly the auto focus is not well implemented, and continuously refocuses for even the slightest movement, resulting in the auto focus being pretty much unusable. The second shortcoming is that the built-in microphone is not great, this is however a very common problem with webcams.

Even with these shortfalls the Razer Kiyo is a compact and convenient solution compared to alternative camera\lighting solutions. It is a good all in one solution as long as you use manual focus and an external microphone.

REVIEW – RAZER KIYO WEBCAM

REVIEW – CORSAIR HS70 WIRELESS GAMING HEADSET

The Corsair HS70 is a wireless headset which features virtual 7.1 surround sound using 50mm drivers in a closed back design. The headset connects to your PC using an included USB dongle and utilises a 2.4GHz low latency wireless connection.

Additional features of the headset include on ear controls, a detachable microphone and an advertised battery life of 16 hours (although my experience was closer to 12 hours), all of which makes the HS70 a very alluring offer at a retail, price of approximately $100.

The headset is extremely comfortable and the build quality is good. Sound quality is also exceptionally good for a wireless headset, and this is from someone who normally avoids wireless headsets and uses professional grade wired studio headphones that cost about 6 times more than the HS70. The microphone quality is also good and delivers crisp and clear quality sound.

In closing, the Corsair HS70 is a great wireless headset at a great price.

REVIEW – CORSAIR HS70 WIRELESS GAMING HEADSET

The Dark Art of DevOps (and how Azure DevOps fits in)

Here is a Post n wrote for my Companies blog, originally posted here.

DevOps has become a hot topic in organisations over the past year or so. However, there seems to be a lot of confusion regarding what DevOps actually entails. So, what is DevOps?

If you asked a more sales-inclined individual, you may get a response along the lines of: DevOps digitally transforms an organisation’s development department by bridging the gap between development and operations, resulting in higher quality solutions, fewer bugs, quicker delivery times, shorter recovery times, and controlling scope creep.”

This sounds amazing! However, it does not answer the question as to what DevOps really is. So, I will be taking a different approach to delve into what DevOps entails.

DevOps is based on the principal of continuous improvements in the Software Development Lifecycle, and consists of principles, practices and tools that allow an organisation’s development department to deliver projects at a high velocity, while maintaining quality and continuously improving the process associated with delivery. This is where Azure DevOps comes in. Azure DevOps is a selection of tools that facilitate the implementation of DevOps within an organisation.

DevOps consists of five main pillars (which are supported by processes, practices and tools), namely:

1. Plan and Track

This involves planning what development work needs to be completed and tracking progress against that. The tool Azure DevOps offers here is Azure Boards.

2. Develop

This is where your software developers write code and store that code. In the Azure DevOps ecosystem, the tools that used here are Visual Studio, Visual Studio Code and Azure Repos as a source code repository.

3. Build and Test

Automated builds and testing are a very important part of DevOps, as this automation frees up valuable resource time to focus on more imperative tasks. Automated builds can be set up to trigger new builds (compiling source code into executable programs) based on certain criteria (for example, “once a day”), and automated tests can then be run to verify that everything is working as expected without the intervention of a person.  Azure Pipelines and Azure Test Plans are the tools utilized here.

4. Deploy

The next step is Automated Deploy – first to a UAT\Test environment and eventually to production. Doing deploys in this manner prevents unwanted changes being accidentally deployed from a developer’s machine and introduces additional controls to only deploy what is wanted and limiting the introduction of problems.  By automating the deployment of systems deployment times are also drastically reduced and thus system down time is reduced. Azure Release Management is the Azure DevOps tool used to automate deployments.

5. Monitor and Operate

After a system has been deployed, it needs to be monitored and operational activities need to be performed to ensure it is up and running and running optimally. Azure Monitor and Application Insights are the tools available in the Azure DevOps tool-belt for this.

With the tools provided by Microsoft Azure DevOps, as well as industry tried and tested principles, the above five pillars can dramatically improve the operations and output of a development department while driving down operational costs.

Now that we understand what DevOps is and how it works, what outcomes can we expect from mastering the 5 pillars?

  • Better quality solutions
  • Quicker delivery times
  • Fewer bugs
  • Shorter recovery times to resolve bugs
  • Prevents uncontrolled scope creep
  • Improved collaboration and agility in teams
  • Better cross-skilling in teams
  • More automation
The Dark Art of DevOps (and how Azure DevOps fits in)