Very Solid Audio



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sponsored by Audio Explosion

The Japan-based Kobe Steel has apparently entered into a licensing agreement with NTT (Nippon Telephone & Telegraph, basically Japan’s AT&T) for rights to use the TwinVQ

codec in a portable digital audio player called “SolidAudio.” TwinVQ, also known by its file extension .VQF, was developed separately from MP3 technology. This is in

contrast to AAC, which extends MP3 technology. While AAC has a small

technical edge over TwinVQ, both sound distinctively better than

MP3 at equivalent bitrates.

I got a chance to test out the prototype SolidAudio player and interview one of the DSP engineers, Toshiaki Shimoda, about a week ago. I brought both my Rio and my friend Nathan Schmidt (hardware guru) to the interview: both proved very useful in making comparisons between the devices. While Toshi (as he liked to be called) didn’t let us take pictures, we were allowed to measure the device and play around with it. It was roughly the size of a credit card and was half the thickness of the Rio. The device comes with a very cute docking station for recharging the internal lithium ion battery.

It uses SmartMedia flash cards to store the .VQF files, obviating the need for a direct PC link. Toshi demonstrated loading the flash card into a special, hollow floppy disk

to make a computer believe that the flash is actually a

floppy! (The “flash floppy” is called Flash Path and

costs about US$70 in Japan) We were able to place files

onto the flash card simply by copying the .VQF files of

our choice to the floppy drive. The player takes the names

of the .VQF files and displays them as the song plays in

a 1″ x 2″ LCD panel on the front of the player.

The player had very small buttons for changing the volume,

skipping tracks, playing, stopping, fast-forwarding, and

rewinding. There were also two buttons that didn’t do

anything. Yet. Toshi suggested that they could serve a

variety of purposes in the production release, although

Kobe had not yet fully decided what functionality to incorporate. The output is through a supertiny headphone jack, a form factor becoming popular in Japan. Toshi had a converter on hand for US headphones, thankfully.

The sound quality from the player was excellent. We loaded

up two pieces of classical music onto the SolidAudio player

and the Rio and played them through my friend’s $100 DJ

headphones. The SolidAudio player turned out crisp and

vibrant music, filling my ears with sound. There was very

little noise, but I felt it was lacking the rich bass

that a good Walkman should have. The Rio, in comparison,

sounded quite muddy, garbling several of the more

intricate and intense parts of the piano solo I had

loaded onto it. To the Rio’s credit, I felt that it’s

bass was a bit more smooth and well-rounded, and that

the overall sound was a tad warmer.

On the technical side, the SolidAudio player uses a

recent DSP from TI. (Kobe Steel distributes TI’s DSPs

in Japan, so it was a good match!) It’s apparently reprogrammable on

the fly: you could turn this device into an MP3 player

simply by uploading the MP3 codec to the device. This

holds equally for other codecs, such as AAC. This technology

might also enable new encryption formats, like

AudioSoft‘s ASFS, (soon to be integrated into Winamp)

to be incorporated to allow playback of protected music. As such,

this player could end up a serious competitor to

codec-specific devices. Why pick one format when you could

have them all?

Optomistically, the player will go on sale in Japan, likely

in the fall or winter of 1999. Toshi didn’t know when the

player would make it to the United States. It should be noted

that it’s not clear that anyone else besides Yamaha and Kobe

have licensed VQF technology from NTT for incorporation into

a hardware device. If Yamaha decides not to pursue creating

their own portable digital audio player, this would give Kobe

a virtual monopoly on the portable VQF market.

The player is expected to cost just under $200 when it comes out in Japan, and be even cheaper by the time it hits US shores.

It should be noted that the largest card available for the

device today is 16Mb. This would amount to just under half

an hour of high-quality VQF playback. Nice, but expensive!

Toshi hopes that by the time the device is released there

will be affordable 64Mb cards. When asked about the

possibility of using IBM’s new superthin hard drives,

Toshi seemed initially wary of such a possibility. He cited

several power consumption, robustness, and vibrational problems

with using mechanical devices in such a small form factor, but

did not discount the idea completely.

All in all, Kobe will be a mover to watch next year. Their

shiny, tiny player just may be the next step for Internet

audio distribution.

Existing Players

Saehan Information System of Korea released the

MP-Man about six months ago as the first solid-state MP3 player. Cute and technically

impressive, it turned the heads of several industry observers, but has

not been able to make much of a consumer impact yet, mainly due to

the fact that it is difficult for a manufacturer without brand-name

recognition in the US to get “shelf placement” quickly. The device

is sold at a few websites, but is generally not yet available

in traditional retail outlets.

Diamond Multimedia, a US computer peripheral manufacturer, came out

with their portable Rio player a few weeks ago. The player will soon

be available in stores, thanks to Diamond’s preexisting relationships

with the retail sector. This marks the beginning of a new generation

of consumer portable digital audio products. Diamond, as the first

major US hardware firm to support MP3, took flak from the RIAA on the grounds of supporting piracy. Diamond fired back that the RIAA “had damaged Diamond’s credibility” and was guilty of “unlawful business practices.” While Diamond was not prevented from manufacturing their Rio device, prospective device manufacturers are taking care to approach the RIAA gingerly before coming to market, lest they be sued, too.