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Exploring laptop sound

Posted 16th April 2015 at 11:38 PM by fas42
Updated 27th April 2015 at 05:08 AM by fas42

As mentioned elsewhere, now have a laptop with reasonable internal sound, a HP Compaq 6830S (not a Pavillion, sorry!) of quite some vintage. My mainstay Dell over many years prior lost its sound many years ago, a USB port got cooked, and took down the sound circuitry at the same time; and what I was using as an interim, another Dell of nominally very good quality, had downright faulty sound, buzzed and rattled - was plain sick ...

OK, so the exercise here will be to see how good I can get the newly "installed" HP unit's sound to be, by my measures, using minimal or zero internal hardware tweaking - essentially working out what factors impact the sound, and whether the negatives can be circumvented. This gives an idea of how I go about things, what I use to "measure" with, what I'm listening for.

Trying a couple of CDs that I use often the signs were good - obviously no bass, and the volume is very restricted, but otherwise the sound was 'correct' - the music sounded like it was meant to, not like some of the bizarre caricatures that often very expensive systems project, :p .

No obvious faults, except for some slight bzzz'ng from plastic vibrating on big bass notes; but, plenty of flaws, main one being "tiny" sound, it came across exactly as the laptop looks, just a small pimple in the room, acoustically. What I'm aiming for is to get the sound to be pleasurable to listen to, rather than just a basic means of listening to audio from the Net.

[I]Why [/I]is the sound so "small"? Many would say it's because there is no low frequency information, but in my experience that is not the case - the real reasons are that the treble content is compromised, and low level information is severely clouded, I can't hear the detail that I know is there! This is easily appreciated by listening closely to the speakers while running at maximum, the sound is quite dirty and sludgy, has a blaring, PA, quality to it - that's what I'm going to try to get rid of.

Easy things first: I make sure that the CPU is running under minimum load, in fact the sound in this m/c at the moment does glitch quite badly when the CPU is working too hard, I get a burst of mosquito sound replacing the music - so, I can get CPU usage hovering between 0 and 1% by shutting things down, while no music playing, a good start. Next, I'm using Wi-Fi because there's some funny with the Ethernet, it's not talking to the modem; I switch that possible source of interference off, a physical switch on the keyboard.

Immediate big gain! Initially, I'm using CDs playing in the internal drive and standard Windows Media Player, and the SQ jumps dramatically, a lot of life and sparkle is restored, we're getting somewhere!

Next ... the power brick is plugged in, and it's a cheap, no-name Chinese replacement, the original must have died at some stage. What's it adding to the gunk in the sound chain? The battery is fully charged, so pull the plug from the laptop [I]and[/I] disconnect the mains plug, the brick is dead ... another big gain, this is sounding quite promising.

Left it running at maximum volume on a CD, no cords plugged in, battery power, and as usual the SQ improves steadily from the playing, by about halfway through the disk it's quite decent, a nice sparkle and sense of space in the sound - listening closely to the speakers, the murkiness is much, much less; the sound is filling the room far more, rather than just coming across like a transistor radio playing, :D.

So, very simple things done, with very marked effect - no funnies, or magic stuff done ... just bypassing a couple of the cheap and nasty, quality degrading factors that most people never think about.

I'll continue playing with settings, environment, etc to see how far this evolves ... ;)
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  1. Old Comment
    Next installment ... :).

    Every time I do these exercises, I can only shake my head at those who say the differences are only imagination, or expectations - I think cloth eared is too kind a term to use for these people, :p. Even on these "miserable", standard, pea sized internal speakers the variations scream at one; as always the treble and low level detail, the "space" of the recording are the giveaways, make SQ adjustments obvious, :D.

    One thing I've noted, is that the quality does vary over time, say of a CD playing, by quite a large degree, so room for plenty of variables to be involved - I'm aiming for consistency, the worst thing is have best sound at the beginning, which slowly falls off over many minutes; far better to have a lower standard, which maintains over an extended period.

    The main movement currently is exploring alternatives to Windows Media Player, and MediaMonky has got a good rap - downloaded it, and a substantial improvement over the Windows default ... though still variable quality over a time frame. Why should another player work better? Well, looked in Task Manager at CPU usage, pretty obvious factor: Media Player running at around 9% all the time while playing, MediaMonkey, 0.2% !! Having the processor grinding continually will do quality no favours - so, Media Player gets the boot!

    Battery usage, and charge level seem to be important - a bit of detective work on that to come ...
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    Posted 19th April 2015 at 02:04 AM by fas42 fas42 is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Talking of battery usage, I was getting a weird battery charging condition - both the charger and battery are no-name replacements, and I was doing a lot of experimentation with charging and not charging, and ended up with a flashing LED on the charging indicators - which didn't go away unless the m/c was on the charger, and continued even when the laptop was fully powered down, whoa ... !! Plus, the charge level number got stuck, didn't move from a setting that was almost full, no matter what! OK, pull the battery from the case, reseat it a couple of times ... that fixed the problem, a glitch somewhere must have got the logic states confused, and a full reset was necessary ...

    To backtrack a bit, what I'm looking for is that the laptop deliver the best sound that it's capable of, which hopefully will mean minimal faults, and the lowest audible level of flaws in the sound. So far, the internal speakers are doing nicely, but are indicating the worst fault, a resonance with high level, complex low frequency material - as one would expect! Solo piano is always a good test, and this material is catching it out - I might have to lift the lid and do some damping and similar stabilising to "mend" this, or it is still possible that extensive conditioning might be the only "cure".

    So far, I'm pleased with how the exploration is going - the sound reproduction is substantially correct, the main hurdle, as usual, is "unclogging" the low level detail, having all the ambient information come across cleanly - this is essential for the sense of "big" sound to happen. As an explanation for what this sounds like on a system with minimal SPL capability, this means that with the volume on maximum that putting one's head over the keyboard, almost resting on it, as close to between the speakers as possible, that it sounds like a pair of very high quality headphones - after all, that's what the speakers inside the case are in fact: headphone drivers ...
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    Posted 21st April 2015 at 11:09 PM by fas42 fas42 is offline
    Updated 21st April 2015 at 11:13 PM by fas42
  3. Old Comment
    Very positive, just tried a classical CD, from cold the speakers have some mechanical scratchiness, and piano beautifully hightlights this - but this physical problem does steadily settle down. The good news is that full scale orchestral is doing very nicely, rings very true, has good space and depth - there seems to an issue with the CD-ROM drive and/or player output software module though, it's glitching on the end of tracks, on this CD ...

    Edit: The kicker is, that even at this relatively preliminary point in the exercise, the intrinsic quality of the sound is quite superior to the majority of ambitious hifi setups, :D ! Yes, it doesn't go[B][SIZE=4] loud[/SIZE][/B], and it doesn't have walloping bass! - but everything else is in good shape ... unlike many of the clown(!), expensive audio setups one comes across ...

    "Correct" sound is just this, with the low bass filled in, and able to go to any sensible volume one wants - it's all quite simple, really ...
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    Posted 22nd April 2015 at 12:11 AM by fas42 fas42 is offline
    Updated 22nd April 2015 at 12:43 AM by fas42
  4. Old Comment
    Where it is still struggling is with [URL="http://www.allmusic.com/album/small-world-big-band-mw0000463762"]Small World Big Band - Jools Holland | Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards | AllMusic[/URL]. This is one of my "killer" CDs, I would use this but rarely on other, audiophile systems, :D - very dense sound, mastered using modern studio, heavy, and clever compression methods ... forces the amplifier to be absolutely on its best behaviour, and most [I]will [/I]fail miserably - sound will clog, and turn shouty; people will demand that the playback be stopped, :p.

    And this is what the laptop is doing, the power demands are too much for the circuitry to cope with, at the moment, and distortion intrudes, badly ...
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    Posted 22nd April 2015 at 01:20 AM by fas42 fas42 is offline
  5. Old Comment
    Things [I]are [/I]moving very nicely at the moment, this is most pleasing! The problem with the previous disk, the Jools Holland was overcome by plugging the power adapter back in - by itself, just the raw power pack, the sound was still poor, so I used a simple approach that I often do, a basic surge buster, the MOV thing, which improved things hugely. Full spaciousness and cleanness of sound was recovered; the mains was introducing too much garbage, and a bit of filtering did the trick.

    All in all, a very good few hours fiddling, with remarkably competent sound now being extracted ...
    permalink
    Posted 22nd April 2015 at 02:41 AM by fas42 fas42 is offline
    Updated 22nd April 2015 at 03:00 AM by fas42
  6. Old Comment
    A couple of things of note ...

    The speakers seem to take quite some time to bed in, the resonance problem went away completely, at least from a subjective standpoint - piano became very authorative, and the bass register conveyed the usual sense of that part of the instrument's sound - how much of that will be lost with a cold start tomorrow?

    Working on the laptop at the same time as music is playing, in any way, is a no-no - especially with piano, an unpleasant edge very quickly intrudes, and soon one has no choice but to drop volume dramatically, or switch off. This would be fairly obvious, since cross-interference goes up dramatically, internally when the CPU is revved up more - but is mentioned here for the record.
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    Posted 22nd April 2015 at 10:42 AM by fas42 fas42 is offline
  7. Old Comment
    Yesterday was not the best day, I had lost ground, it seemed! The sound was [I]not [/I]coming on song as it had the day previously, and there didn't seem any obvious reason for that. It was only towards the end of the day, and when I had lost a lot of enthusiasm for the business that the light dawned - I had determined that the charger in operation [I]was [/I]helping the sound, aided by simple filtering. So that's how it was running all day, but I was getting sludge quality, no matter what. Ah-ha! The battery was fully charged all the time, and the charger was just idling, in another "mode" of just ticking over with only enough juice to keep everything in balance. When the charger first was a positive factor the battery was way down, so the charger was going flat out refilling the battery, its plastic case got to a very cosy temperature from the output regulators doing their work - so, I now discharged the battery somewhat, and a good measure of the SQ was restored.

    Meaning, the whole power supply side of the laptop, and sound is in fine balance, in its raw form - the interference factor jumps a great deal if the battery and charger currents are not at a relatively high level. Now, the "proper" solution would be to sort that out, but I'm not going to do such - my aim is to find a balance of the environment that means good sound comes out; to see how far the sound components of the laptop can be pushed. It's not worth "fixing" the m/c, this is just an exercise in investigating what factors contribute to the quality of the sound.
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    Posted 23rd April 2015 at 11:43 PM by fas42 fas42 is offline
  8. Old Comment
    Back on track ... yesterday I just consolidated my sense of confidence of what was needed as regards a charger and battery strategy for the moment, I was consistently getting a certain, acceptable SQ. There is still a resonance issue in the speakers at times, very dynamic solo piano brings this out, but I still don't know whether long term conditioning will resolve this, or whether a bit of physical fiddling with the driver is needed.

    Tried a CD that is truly close to being a 'bad' recording, and still not quite sure how this will turn out - I only acquired it fairly recently, and haven't the confidence to say how "good it can get". It's a John Buller Trio live recording, in 2005(!!) at a Swiss music do ... and why is it bad? Because, at first glimpse it sounds technically very competent, but where the signal was tapped from the PA system used is too far down the chain it seems, and it's quite dirty, and grungy - there's an irky, low level unpleasantness which comes and goes. It's very much like listening to good quality PA speakers, which means the denser the sound the more it clogs up - perhaps they wanted the listener to feel like they were in the crowd. But I have heard plenty of other recordings of this type do this far better, the sound doesn't need a patina of crappiness to convey the right atmosphere ...
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    Posted 25th April 2015 at 12:10 AM by fas42 fas42 is offline
  9. Old Comment
    Today turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag, at times getting somewhere and then seeming to fall behind again. This is also fairly typical of a certain stage of the tweaking process - one is still learning what the key factors are, and how they may interrelate; it's like juggling, say, 10 balls and working out the precise sequence of hand movements to keep the show running: get the sequence right and it's remarkable to watch; get it wrong and you just have an embarrassing mess up !!
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    Posted 25th April 2015 at 11:01 AM by fas42 fas42 is offline
  10. Old Comment
    Very pleasing, it seems that a certain setting for MediaMonkey is making a substantial difference - and the latest round of listening has been positive! This was a trial and error thing, the why is unknown, at the moment. Also, it now makes a strong difference whether the display is on or off, possibly meaning that the balance of power draw in that mode suits the battery/charger setup better.

    So what is the key criterion that I'm focusing on at the moment? The clarity of low level detail - when not in the "groove" the sound has a fog, somewhat unpleasant, "blurring" the tiny stuff that's happening - very quickly one's brain says, I don't want to keep listening to this! But get the settings, the environment right and that cloud lifts - you can hear "into the sound", there's a pleasure in picking up little details of what's going on in the sound space.

    Also, as mentioned before, the experience with one's head merely inches away from the keyboard is like wearing a pair of high quality, open style of headphones - the sound surrounds your head, you're "inside" that music space.
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    Posted 26th April 2015 at 10:55 PM by fas42 fas42 is offline
  11. Old Comment
    I must say I'm somewhat surprised, intrigued that the sound is doing so well, so far. From a cold start something like Kocsis Plays Bartok, a Denon digital recording from 1975(!) of small piano pieces comes across very well. Nice and spacious, all the elements of "correct" piano sound are there, in particular the bass notes are fully convincing - way superior to what I would typically hear from a pretentious, high end audio setup! The only thing missing is volume, I keep wanting to grab some magical volume control, and wind it riiight up!!

    It's in the good position now that it's so pleasurable to listen to, that I need to be motivated to want to improve it - I could quite happily just keep playing music! So, I need to pull out some my killer CDs, the nasty ones, to expose deeper weaknesses.

    I hadn't expected that this level of quality to be realised so easily ... a nice surprise ...

    Edit: IOW, this sound is "good enough", all a system would have to do is replicate this, say up to 20 or 30 dB louder, to be satisfactory.
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    Posted 28th April 2015 at 02:41 AM by fas42 fas42 is offline
    Updated 28th April 2015 at 02:48 AM by fas42
  12. Old Comment
    A couple of things ...

    What's still catching it out is the resonance problem - I have a cheapo CD of Mario Lanza on hand, and the big notes from a full throated opera singer cause grief - faulty bzzz'ng happens, and I need to establish the whys and wherefores of this.

    When I get it to a stage where I feel there is nothing significantly more to be gained without a major hardware alteration, then I'll start going backwards - undo a single tweaking step only, and describe what the impact of that lone, "degrading" reversal does to the sound, as best I can. Then I will restore that tweak, to get back to optimum, and move to undoing the next tweak, etc.
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    Posted 28th April 2015 at 11:26 PM by fas42 fas42 is offline
    Updated 28th April 2015 at 11:30 PM by fas42
  13. Old Comment
    I'll just point out, that right at this moment I can "destroy" the SQ in a matter of seconds. How? In the optimum state the m/c is not usable, especially to do anything on the Net - so all I have to do is restore the settings, which takes a matter of a few seconds, to bring the laptop into a usable state, and I've lost the listenability - it's evaporated!

    As an example, at the moment I have on some "ambient" classical pieces, from the main repertoire of this world of music - and I'm getting very soothing, "creamy" string sound from the massed playing - lose the best settings, and we're back to "classic", "digital" sound - it's right, but it's [I]not [/I]right! There is an irky, irritating quality to the sound, which would make me switch the playback off very quickly, if I can't "fix" it ... which I will, in a moment, after posting this ...
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    Posted 29th April 2015 at 02:12 AM by fas42 fas42 is offline
  14. Old Comment
    Okay, time for another step in the exploration: so far I have always been using the CD-ROM drive as the source - MediaMonkey buffers the data in whatever manner it has chosen to do it, so it's not continually reading from the drive - and, perhaps m/c activity there makes a difference. At the moment I'm listening to a "dodgy" Country & Western CD, many of the tracks are obviously recorded from a needle drop, so mastering is very sus. So, for a pretty chewy track thereon I used EAC to rip to hard drive - does it make any difference playing from CD drive, vs. hard drive?

    Boy, does it ever! Not even in optimum play status, but "chewiness" has lifted by quite a bit, a distant backing drum has a much cleaner hit, and the very distant audience cheering for the, live, recording is much more distinct - looks good!
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    Posted 29th April 2015 at 06:16 AM by fas42 fas42 is offline
    Updated 29th April 2015 at 06:18 AM by fas42
  15. Old Comment
    Confirming the early comparison between CD-ROM drive and HD, I tried a playlist of alternating a particular track which is not the best quality, from Count Basie in London, a live show in Sweden(!!); ripped, CD drive, ripped, ... . Definitely a step up using HD, this track has significantly cleaner sound from the hard drive.

    Note, for some reason the playback glitches at times during CD-ROM playback, no obvious reason, because the data has [I]already [/I]been read from the disk - whatever's causing this might be dragging the quality down a bit ...
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    Posted 30th April 2015 at 06:37 AM by fas42 fas42 is offline
  16. Old Comment
    Continuing on the theme of running with a track, as a tool, that is on the edge of being dirty enough to, literally, cause headaches - I am now focusing on that Count Basie track. This is track 15, "Sixteen Men Swinging", a live recording from 1956 - one that was not included on the original vinyl release, and that may have been, as seems to be the case from the playback here, because that recording was not taken in the best circumstances.

    As the name implies, this is a full on, driving swing band production, brass going full tilt, and the drummer going for it too. There [I]is [/I]a version of that number on YouTube, but this is not the same session - completely different sound to the recordings. My CD's one has picked up nice and gutsy bass drum hits, the transients are well conveyed.

    The sound on this can be rapidly wearing, plenty of natural echo, plus the drummer is working hard, a very dense combination - when it's replaying better one has an immediate sense of relief!!

    This is an ideal test signal, at the moment, for fine tuning of of laptop settings, etc.
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    Posted 1st May 2015 at 07:19 AM by fas42 fas42 is offline
    Updated 1st May 2015 at 07:23 AM by fas42
  17. Old Comment
    One of the" fun" :rolleyes: bits of doing this sort of thing is fighting the computer, Microsoft ... :mad: ! I had just noticed that every time the display was turned off, to see if this possibly helped or altered the sound, that the disk activity light was going crazy - needed a bit more checking, yes, the disk drive was going mad for many seconds most times when trying this - why ??? I want the computer to shut down unnecessary activity, not go in the other direction !!

    After some detective work, turned out to be Microsoft's malware "protection" service, using the display off as a trigger to go into a mad fury of scanning the drive ... okay, this makes sense, but I want to shut down this behaviour, to give myself a level playing field, for evaluating relevant factors. So I need to disable Windows Defender Service ... long story short, this took a couple of hours of fiddling to work out how to do this - but, finally, killed it!

    Result, hard disk now doesn't go for a frenzied dance, predictably so ... progress made! :D

    Apart from that I'm pleased with the sound quality at the moment - from a cold start, it does remarkably well now, good clarity, standard of low level detail, sense of depth and space. Again, I had no expectations when I started this exercise that it would do this well ...
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    Posted 1st May 2015 at 11:51 PM by fas42 fas42 is offline
    Updated 1st May 2015 at 11:55 PM by fas42
  18. Old Comment
    Since the sound from the laptop is now good enough to be taken seriously, another exercise that makes sense, apart from backtracking with "undoing" in turn each of the tweaks, will be to develop test signals, in the normal sense of the word, that will emphasise these artifacts of difference and make it easy to feed into a system to try and catch them out. Hopefully, something that can both be heard, [I]and [/I]recorded with a reasonable setup, making analysis a bit more "rational", ;).

    I've had this idea before, but there was no neat, easily used, convenient environment in front of me for doing it, so I haven't bothered so far. The laptop can be used to both create the test waveforms, and then play them back in the right state, for immediate feedback. So, could be interesting ...
    permalink
    Posted 2nd May 2015 at 03:56 AM by fas42 fas42 is offline
  19. Old Comment
    I'm impressed!!! ... Just tried another one of my "difficult" CDs, [url]https://musicbrainz.org/release/e6cdaff7-f18f-4247-a2d2-f4964e281161[/url], Harry James going at maximum rev's, from a broadcast recording! Doing remarkably well, easy to hear the flaws of the recording media, but this doesn't get in the way of the music - good stuff!
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    Posted 3rd May 2015 at 12:56 AM by fas42 fas42 is offline
  20. Old Comment
    This one's for fdegrove ... ;) - tried some Piaf tracks, and apart for some slight resonance did well. One track, L'Homme de Berlin, is of very poor recorded quality - but the playback was as good as I've heard this ... :)
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    Posted 3rd May 2015 at 07:08 AM by fas42 fas42 is offline
 

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