Review: IK Multimedia iLoud

December 19, 2013 by  

There is no doubt that audio technology has become less expensive, more transparent, more powerful and more portable. In terms of real cost-to-performance, anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars can get you a lot more in a set of professional studio monitors than at any other point in history. Perhaps it’s about time that consumer-focused systems started to catch up as well.

The new iLoud by IK Multimedia ($299) is one such attempt to bring studio-quality sound to consumers, musicians and hobbyists while providing features that are relevant to many of today’s listeners. Its makers have included wireless Bluetooth connectivity, a rechargeable battery, even a guitar input and modeling software that can turn this portable, wireless device from a 40-watt stereo system into a 21st century practice amp.

IK Multimedia has marketed this simple-looking black box as “The first studio-quality portable speaker designed for musicians and audiophiles.” And we thought we’d just have to see about that.

iLoud

iLoud

 

Appearance and Build Quality

Out of the box, the iLoud felt strong, sturdy, and appropriately heavy, while still remaining light enough to throw into a knapsack and carry around. A good thing, as that’s one of the main points of the device: To be rugged and portable as well as good sounding – a rare goal for a prosumer stereo speaker.

In this focus on sturdiness, sound and features, however, IK Multimedia may have skimped a bit when it came to the consideration of visual aesthetics. The look of the iLoud is decidedly spartan and monolithic-looking, and at first I found the unit and its glowing ring of red light even a bit ugly and unnerving. But within a few short days it started to disappear into the background. (I was reminded of the story about how coarse and industrial-looking the Aeron chair was considered when it was first introduced, and how few of us even notice them now.)

Features

There is very little that is conventional about the features built into the iLoud. Sure, it’s a small, stereo self-powered speaker with both Bluetooth and 1/8”. But how many are you aware of that put out 40-watts of bi-amped power through 4 drivers, include a rechargeable battery, a dedicated guitar input, and the ability to integrate with iOS apps that promise to turn your new speaker into a self-powered modeling amp?

iPhone and Guitar plugged directly into the back of the iLoud

iPhone 5 and Guitar going directly into the iLoud

In order to use the iLoud as a guitar amp, one can simply plug in the guitar to one jack, an Apple iOS device to the other, and then run one of IK Multimedia’s modelers, such as Amplitube Free. For portable listening, the battery is spec’d to last for about 3-10 hours of continuous use, depending on your volume level.

The Bluetooth input uses the A2DP protocol, which offers enough bandwidth that the wireless stream should be effectively transparent to the ear with a range up to about 30 feet under ideal conditions.

Sound

The real test of course, is the ear test. For a box of such compact size, I was surprised to find out that the iLoud goes as deep as 50Hz, thanks to some clever cabinet design. Even with such a suggestive name, it does go surprisingly loud, and stays surprisingly clean while doing so. I found it was able to comfortably put out 90dB without a hint of distortion, and responded well to dynamic material. It sounds big on bottom, clear on top and well-balanced through the middle. Smooth and a bit tailored without sounding overly “scooped.” I wouldn’t consider it a replacement for a set of great studio monitors, but you could sure do a lot worse.

My small quibbles with sound are the kinds of complaints only an audio engineering nerd would be likely to make: With low frequency drivers just 3” in diameter and a single rear port, there’s obviously going to be some kind of tradeoff in terms of low-frequency resonance.

In IK’s defense, this tradeoff was far less significant than expected, but it was there: A subtle, low-end tonal color that only total sound geeks like myself would be likely to hear and grumble about. This was not so serious as to be of true “one note bass” proportions, but on some complex basslines, an especially critical listener might notice some notes jump out a bit more than others.

This kind of thing is to be expected in any system this size, especially if it aspires to go this deep. But considering the compact dimensions they’re working with, IK Multimedia did much better in this department than many. With the iLoud you get deep, full-sounding bass that’s not too boomy or “note-y,” even when cranked loud. (I just wouldn’t use it as a sole mix reference in a professional environment.)

The iLoud being portable.

The iLoud being portable.

The top end on the iLoud is clear, bright and open without ever sounding sizzly, spitty or strained. The one quibble I’d have here is that the tweeters are spaced so wide as to make it an awkward listen up close where one might think to put traditional desktop speakers.

If you’re less than 3 feet away, this unusual tweeter spacing can make the stereo image seem to swim and lack a concrete center. But from further away, this liability becomes an asset, helping the iLoud stay suitably stereo-sounding as it fills the whole room with music. And it’s in this kind of medium- to long-distance listening scenario that the iLoud stands up particularly well to other small stereo systems, even many bigger ones.

Syncing via Bluetooth was a snap, and is probably one of my favorite features of the unit. Bluetooth connectivity has come a long way in recent years, and I found the A2DP protocol to be pleasantly transparent when streaming music from my cellphone from up to about 30 feet away.

I had a little less luck with a recent Mac laptop (presumably due to a less powerful built-in antenna) and needed to remain within about 10-15 feet in order avoid dropouts, timing and pitch artifacts from poor connectivity. Spending less than $10 on a plug-in Bluetooth antenna would have likely solved this issue and given me as much range as the cellphone.

The freedom and convenience of not having to wait to get to the studio, move to a different room, or to even step out of my chair and plug in to stop listening on built-in laptop speakers and start listening on a decent-sounding casual reference system was perhaps my favorite thing about the iLoud. It’s a simple luxury I’d definitely pay a few hundred dollars for.

Whether the iLoud will become a leading choice in that department remains to be seen. But currently, it faces an unsaturated and fairly uncompetitive field, and stands as one of the better-sounding compact wireless speaker systems around. It’s also unlikely that any casual listener would be disappointed by the sound. Some professional studio nerds might even find themselves feeling the same way.

Recording Drums, Part III: Placing Room Mics

December 5, 2013 by  

Welcome back for Part 3 of our free drum mic video series.

Get off those laptop speakers and switch your video stream to HD as Justin Colletti takes us through a handful of the most popular approaches for placing stereo room mics.

Sennheiser e914

Sennheiser e914, Parker Kindred on the drums at Strange Weather Recording

This video takes place at Strange Weather Brooklyn, and is filmed by Elias Gwinn of Velidoxi and the recording studio documentary series, “Masters From Their Day.”

In this clip, you’ll hear examples of room mics used in a real-world context: Blended in loud over a basic set of close mics. Once again, we’ll be using a set of microphones provided by Sennheiser, this time focusing on the e914 small-diaphragm condenser mic.

All the clips are presented with no EQ, compression, or effects processing of any kind. If you’d like to hear what these close mics sound like without the room mics blended in, refer to the “Mono Overhead” example from the first episode in this series.

Stay tuned for more free sound and video clips on microphone techniques, and a full-featured drum mic’ing course coming in the near future.

Click here for more on Sennheiser’s Evolution Series microphones, which were used all over these videos.

This series was produced by Justin Colletti and SonicScoop, and was shot and edited by Elias Gwinn of Velidoxi.com. Also check out Part I on Overhead Mic Placements, and Part II, on Close Mics Techniques.

Recording Drums, Part II: Close Mic Techniques

November 7, 2013 by  

Welcome back for Part 2 of our new drum mic video series!

Fire up a good pair of speakers or headphones and switch your video stream to HD: This time, Justin Colletti leads us in a look at some of the most popular approaches for close mic’ing drums.

Filmed at Strange Weather Brooklyn by Elias Gwinn of Velidoxi, this video offers back-to-back comparisons of a different mics and placements.

In this video, you’ll hear real-world examples using some mics provided by Sennheiser: An e902 kick drum mic; an e914 condenser, and the e905 dynamic mic; Plus: the classic MD 421 and 441, and a vintage Neumann FET 47 from the collection at Strange Weather.

All the clips are presented with no EQ, compression, or effects processing of any kind.

Stay tuned for additional sound clips, plus our upcoming episode on creative room mic techniques!

Click here for more on Sennheiser’s Evolution Series microphones, which were used all over these videos.

This series was produced by Justin Colletti and SonicScoop, and was shot and edited by Elias Gwinn of Velidoxi.com and “Masters From Their Day.” Watch Part I here.

The Uninsured Musician’s Guide to The Affordable Care Act

October 16, 2013 by  

According to one survey by The Future of Music Coalition, about 43% of artists and musicians currently lack health insurance. This is roughly 2.5x higher than the average national rate.

It seems natural to assume that as musicians and freelance creative workers, we’re going to be among those who are most affected by the new reforms around health care.

As of 2014, many of us will not only be able to afford health insurance for the first time, most of us will be required to buy it, or face a small tax for choosing to forgo the stuff.

The Insurance Store is Now Open

Despite the ongoing gridlock in Congress, the new Health Care Exchanges opened on October 1, 2013. This allows all of us to begin comparison shopping for health insurance – and to see if we’re eligible for any kind of Federal subsidy towards buying it.

Although the Federal exchanges had some trouble keeping up with the unexpectedly huge amount of traffic that flooded their servers in the first days, they’ve been getting progressively more stable.

The Economist reports that “glitches may be short-lived. Officials and contractors are rushing to fix them. New York’s exchange seems to have recovered. In one week it quadrupled the capacity of its computer servers, and as of October 8th more than 40,000 New Yorkers had signed up for coverage. But other exchanges are making slower progress.”

Earlier this week, I finished my own application, and was up in no time, comparing the cost of new plans on the New York State exchange. If all goes well, I’ll soon have insurance for the first time in a decade.

To get started yourself, visit https://www.healthcare.gov. I found that the entire sign-up process took about 1/20th the time of doing my taxes. It may not be instant, but it was over a lot sooner than I expected – even with freelance income to account for.

Who Can Expect Big Changes (And Who Will Be Unaffected)

If you’re one of those rare musicians, engineers or producers who already gets health insurance through an employer, don’t even worry about the exchanges. You don’t have to do a thing.

If you’re covered by Medicare or Medicaid, you’re already all set too. If you’re a young person on your parents plan? Cool. Now you can stay that way til you’re 26.

If you already pay for your own insurance and like it just fine, you may want to check out the exchanges anyway. There’s a good chance you’ll end up paying less, particularly if you’re young, have a pre-existing condition, or if you don’t make a ton of money.

For those who have been unable to afford healthcare in the past, there’s a good chance that’s going to change now.

How Much Do the New Plans Cost and What Do They Cover?

Caduceus.svgFor most musicians and younger people, the new plans are likely to cost less and cover more than what they’re used to seeing. For many others, prices may stay about the same.

If you make anything under $46,000 each year, chances are you’ll also qualify for subsidies that could dramatically reduce what you pay out of pocket.

Coverage plans start with the “Catastrophic” tier, which is now available in high-cost areas like New York City for as little as about $180 a month. (In less expensive states, like Virginia, a similar plan now costs as little as about $40 a month.)

If this sounds like a lot of money to you, chances are you haven’t shopped for insurance before. In my own fruitless attempts to find affordable health insurance over the past decade, I’ve generally found plans that cost almost twice as much and seem to cover even less than these do.

The “Catastrophic” plans, which are available only to those 30 and under, will usually have high deductibles – meaning that if you have a major health emergency you’ll have to pay out over $6,000 in costs out of pocket before insurance kicks in. This is no good for anyone who anticipates recurring medical costs, but it could be a great option for otherwise healthy young people.

Still, even these kinds of plans also offer more coverage than you might expect. Under the Affordable Care Act, annual checkups, major vaccines, essential screenings and many women’s health services are now included in the cost of the plan.

The next level of coverage, the “Bronze” plans, start at about $300 here in New York, depending on your age. These plans offer lower deductibles, prescription plans, copays for doctor’s visits and the like.

(Once again, the quoted prices here in New York City are very high compared to the rest of the nation. If you live outside the big cities where so many of our readers are located, please hit the exchanges yourself for more accurate pricing. In less expensive states, plans may cost 1/5th as much.)

In New York City, “Silver” plans start closer to $360, and get you quite a lot of coverage: Copays of $30 for doctors visits and $10-$70 for prescriptions. Even significant services or medical procedures may carry copays of just $50-$100.

After that, you’re looking at “Gold” and “Platinum” plans, which start at about $400 and $450 in New York, and range all the way up to around $850 for a single adult.

Again, copays and deductibles go down – this time to as little as $0. Once again, exact prices may vary significantly depending on age, location and certain risk factors. For exact pricing, the best thing you can do is check out the exchanges for yourself.

If you can afford them, these plans are a great idea for families, older people and those with regular medical expenses.

You Might Not Pay Full Price

What if I said you could take these sticker prices and chop them in half? Well, if you’re making significantly less than $46,000/year, that may be the case for you.

For instance, a 30-year-old making $35,000/year might expect a monthly subsidy of over $100/month, effectively reducing his or her cost out-of-pocket for a Bronze plan by 33%.

A person making even less might spend as little as $130 for a Silver plan, even in New York City.

Those of you who live in other areas might pay next-to-nothing, even without qualifying for a government program like Medicare or Medicaid. (Which incidentally, have recently been expanded.)

Many more of those who make very little income will now be eligible for Medicaid, the government-assisted health program. In New York, the cutoff is now at about 133% of the Federal Poverty rate. That’s about $15,800 a year for a single person, or $32,500 for a family of four.

Opting Out of Health Insurance Will Cost You (But Not Much)

The other big part of the Affordable Care Act is the “mandate.” This means that if you don’t buy healthcare to help support what is essentially a volume discount for Americans across the board, you will have to pay a small tax to help offset the cost that your uncovered risk adds to the system.

If you could plausibly afford health insurance but choose to go without it anyway, you’ll eventually have to pay a fee of $695, or 2.5% of your income, whichever is greater. But that doesn’t really kick in until 2016. The opt-out fee for next year is comparatively slim.

In 2014, if you make over $9,500/year and don’t otherwise qualify for a “hardship exemption,” you’d only have to pay $95, or 1% of your income if you decide to go without health insurance. In 2015, that fee ramps up to $325 or 2%. Only in 2016, does the full fee finally kick in, should you choose to forgo insurance altogether.

You Still Have Some Time (But Not Much)

If you’re currently uninsured but haven’t checked out the exchanges yet, now is the time to start.

If you want to have your coverage kick in by January 1st, 2014, you’ll have to decide on a plan and make your purchase by December 15, 2013 at the latest. Get moving, because that’s just two months away.

You can delay just a little bit longer if you’re not ready to take the plunge. Those who are uninsured for less than three months in any given year get to avoid paying any opt-out fee. So, if you want your plan to kick in for March, 2014 and avoid paying any fee, that means you have until February 15th, 2014 to sign up and buy your plan.

At the end of March, 2014, the exchanges will close for the year, and you’ll have to wait for the next window in the fall of 2014 to shop for coverage.

(Why do the exchanges close? So that people can’t wait until they’re sick to sign up for coverage. Purchase windows like these have been common throughout the health insurance industry for some time.)

There’s Help If You Need It

Health insurance plans now come with extra coverage, lower prices, and for those who make under $46,000, Federal subsidies to help make them more affordable.

But those aren’t the only perks. Federal and State governments also have trained healthcare “Navigators” to help regular people find their way around this new system.

For personal assistance, in person or over the phone, visit healthcare.gov or call toll-free at 1-800-318-2596.

For local assistance in New York, visit nystateofhealth.ny.gov or call toll-free at 1-855-355-5777.

One more good resource is the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on major health care issues and gives good written and video primers on the new law (below), and how it effects you.

The Politics of The Affordable Care Act

For one reason or another, The Affordable Care Act has become a partisan lightning rod. On a purely logical level, this is difficult to understand. Of all the bills in recent years, one would imagine this one would get the most bipartisan support.

The reality is that the Affordable Care Act (aka, “Obamacare”) is intended to be a market-based solution. The principle of the act was originally advanced by folks like the American right, including the conservative think tank, Heritage Foundation, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Republican Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.

The idea was eventually picked up by Democrats like President Obama as a politically feasible alternative to a tax-based single-payer system, which is unlikely to ever fly in the market-focused USA. The law was then passed by both houses of Congress, and later upheld as Constitutional by a largely conservative Supreme Court.

In a saner political environment, a law like this one might be perceived as one of the great bipartisan compromises of modern history. Unfortunately, that is simply not the case at this moment. But as the exchanges open, and millions of Americans – musicians, artists and freelancers especially – are able to find affordable coverage for the first time, that legacy may change. I was personally surprised to find myself looking at health insurance I could afford for the first time in my adult life. Only time can tell if it will stay that way, and if the tradeoffs presented by the law prove worthwhile.

But don’t take my word for it. Go on the exchanges today and decide for yourself. If, for some reason, you don’t like what you see, you can always opt out and check back in the future. With any luck, basic health care costs should continue to go down over the years as the bargaining power of consumers goes up. That’s the idea, anyway. We’ll see what history has in store.

Happy hunting – and stay healthy.

Justin Colletti is an audio engineer, educator and journalist.

Drum Recording Video: Overhead Mics Compared

October 9, 2013 by  

We’re happy to announce the launch of a new series on drum mic techniques hosted by Trust Me I’m A Scientist founder and SonicScoop contributor, Justin Colletti.

Filmed at Strange Weather Brooklyn, and using microphones provided by Sennheiser, our “Drum Mic’ing Fundamentals: Part I” will teach you about some of the most popular and flexible overhead mic placements, including: XY, ORTF, Spaced Pair, Glyn Johns, and the classic “Mono Overhead” approach. You’ll be able to see and hear these placements in action.

Each of the sound clips in this episode consist of no more than 4 mics: A pair of overheads, plus close mics on kick and snare. The overhead mics are a pair of Sennheiser e914s, the kick and snare mics are the e902 and e905, also by Sennheiser.

All the clips are presented with no EQ, compression, or effects processing of any kind. Watch the video below!

Stay tuned for additional sound clips, plus our upcoming episodes on close mics and room mic techniques!

For more on Sennheiser’s “Evolution 900″ series of microphones, which we used to make this video, click here.

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