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Live vs. Headphones (A selection of tracks)

There are many ways to experience music. Historically, I’ve found two of the most emotionally arresting of these ways to be live and via headphones. As I explained in Tuesday’s post, each offers distinct advantages; some songs are more powerful with the pulsing electricity of a crowd backing them up, while others benefit from the intimacy of the artist singing right into your ear. I’ll run through a few of my favorite songs and let you know whether to snap up concert tickets or pop on some ‘phones to hear them at their best. (Make sure to choose headphones with good bass; if you’re wondering why, read my post about why bass is important).


Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine is a captivating performer. Photo from F+TM's official web site.

Howl by Florence + The Machine: LIVE Florence Welch’s vocals are exquisite in any setting, but she is a truly enchanting performer. I saw her in 2010 at the Wiltern in LA and was mesmerized by her stage presence and spellbinding, emotional delivery. The difference between the recorded and live renditions of her songs was most stark in “Howl,” a visceral and animalistic track that evokes wild passion. It’s a sight to behold when this song pours out of Ms. Welch with an intensity that’s a little scary in the best possible way. 

Baba O’Riley by The Who: HEADPHONES This was a tough call, since this song is so amazing and epic that it blows me away no matter how I listen to it. I was lucky enough to see The Who play the HP Pavilion in San Jose in 2006, and they’re still legendary rock stars. Still, the magic and energy of the live setting (and accompanying light show) couldn’t quite compare to the overwhelming sensory overload that takes place when I close my eyes and fall into this song through a good pair of headphones. Just try getting one-on-one with this song without getting goosebumps.

“MFEO Pt. 1 – Made for Each Other / Pt. 2 – You Can Breathe” by Jack’s Mannequin: LIVE I was already in love with Jack’s Mannequin’s first album, Everything in Transit, before I ever saw the band live. The obsession didn’t set in, however, until the first time I saw them in 2007. “MFEO” was a completely overwhelming experience; the lyrics took on an entirely new meaning in the context of a live show. And maybe we were made for each other // And maybe, just maybe // the world will look like this forever… meant that I might get that feeling over and over, the feeling that everything was perfect and wonderful and utterly, painfully beautiful. It wasn’t a love song about a girl; it was a love song about music, about the crowd, about the ecstasy of a couple hundred people worshiping at the rock pulpit together in a room. If you’ve never seen Jack’s Mannequin live, I recommend it as highly as I could recommend anything.

Black Balloon by the Goo Goo Dolls: HEADPHONES “Black Balloon,” which tells a story of love and drug addiction, breaks my heart every time it plays on my headphones. The Goo Goo Dolls put on a decent show, but by now they’ve performed this hit so many times that it’s lost a little bit of emotional authenticity in the live rendition. It’s clear that they’re bona fide rock stars, and with that title comes an aura that enhances their “bigger” songs (see the next paragraph) but detracts from their most heartfelt offerings.

Slide by the Goo Goo Dolls: LIVE The rock-star vibe that takes away from “Black Balloon” serves to pump up sing-along-friendly radio hits like “Slide”. I had a blast dancing and singing along when this song filled the Greek Theater in Berkeley on a Friday night in 2007, riding the energy the band brought to the venue.


I invite you to play “Live vs. Headphones” whenever you get the chance to compare. No matter how you listen, I wish you frequent and joyful musical experiences.


-Benevolent Siren

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5 Differences between Live Music and Using Headphones

Visual elements can enhance or detract from live music. Oooh, pretty lights... so green...

It’s happened plenty of times before: I’ll buy concert tickets months in advance, my expectations directly proportional to the price of the tickets, only to wish I could have just heard the tunes on a good pair of headphones when the show was over. On the other hand, I can look back at a few live music events as peak life experiences and never quite recapture the excitement without the pulsing energy of a jazzed crowd. When it comes down to it, live music and the stuff that comes through your headphones is fundamentally different. Here are 5 key distinctions between the live and headphone experience.


  1. Technical perfection. Live music is almost never “perfect” the way a recording can be. Auto-tune is a fickle mistress, and it’s painful when an artist can’t deliver the goods live. On the other hand, as Dave Grohl explained following his controversial Grammy speech, little flaws can add authenticity and excitement to a performance. Personally, I’ll happily forgive a few missed notes if the artist is a passionate and energetic performer.
  2. Personal space. Boy howdy, can this one make a difference. Whether you’re fighting it out in a mosh pit, perching on the edge of a stadium seat or reclining on a blanket in the grass, you will invariably have neighbors in a live music environment. Whether or not they act neighborly is up to pure chance–I’ve personally had to elbow my fair share of bubble-violators, which can certainly detract from the magic of the evening. On the other hand, the crowd can create an electricity and energy that headphone listening can’t hope to match. Whether the adjacent masses help or hurt the experience is up to the crowd-sorting fates to decide.
  3. Intimacy. As #2 suggests, there’s plenty of (often unsolicited) physical intimacy to be found at a concert. Aural and emotional intimacy, though, is hard to attain when throngs of people around you are chatting over the music or singing along off-key. By contrast, a pair of noise-reducing headphones can isolate the sound to the point where the whole outside world melts away, and all that’s left is you and the artist playing right into your ear. That’s the kind of intimacy I’m talking about: no distractions, no extraneous noise, no intrusions. And you’re better able to get it with a pair of ‘phones.
  4. Visual aids. Unless you’re prone to using the visualizer option with iTunes or watching music videos, your typical headphone experience will be strictly auditory in nature. This leaves you free to close your eyes and supply your own visual elements, or to concentrate only on how the sounds hit you. At a concert, with light shows or pyrotechnics or even just the band, the visual spectacle can have a big impact on your experience. Whether the production is distracting or engaging depends entirely on the show.
  5. The element of surprise. When you select your favorite track on your MP3 player, you know exactly what’s about to come through your headphones. A familiar album or playlist can act as an aural security blanket or change agent that you can perfect and select for your particular mood and musical needs. Live music has the element of surprise; instead of being in control of your experience, you’re along for the ride.


Coming soon: I compare the experience of hearing a few of my favorite songs live to the recorded versions in one of my favorite games, “Live vs. Headphones“–with some unexpected results.

Benevolent Siren

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Why Music Snobbery Is Codswallop (A Rant)

If you have ever been young, chances are you have been told that the music you love is garbage. Maybe it was a parent, maybe a teacher, maybe an old fogey on TV; it might even have been a peer with a cool older sibling who molded his or her tastes. Whoever it was, he or she was 100% wrong, totally misunderstood what music is for and had absolutely no right to tell you that. Here’s why.

Music is one of the most personal things you can experience. At its best, it gets all the way in you, through you, messing with your head and your heart, speeding or slowing your pulse, triggering your tear ducts, making your heart swell until you’re sure it’s going to burst out of you. I don’t care what kind of performer does that for you; if they do, they are by definition a good artist. I’ll say that again because I feel it so strongly: If an artist moves you, he or she has succeeded in creating good art. And if you love something, if you feel it in your bones and your veins, it’s not up to anyone else to say that it’s crap. Because they are necessarily wrong.

I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard older generations (and jaded, too-cool-for-school youth) bemoan the decline in the quality of popular music, and I understand where they’re coming from–but I vehemently disagree with their assessments. I would argue that the intended effect of popular music is to appeal to a very wide range of people, which can only be accomplished by tapping into emotions that are a fundamental and near-universal part of the human experience, and that isn’t as easy as it sounds. Successful pop songs are an integral part of cultural cohesion and the bonds between a society held together by common experiences, regardless of their content or technical merit (and really, who’s deciding how to judge technical merit?). Popular art will always serve a powerful cultural function, and while it will superficially seem quite different between generations, it is fundamentally the same thing. If you listened to pop music in your youth, you are committing hypocrisy by criticizing today’s pop music.

It’s one thing to admire and value a song or artist from an academic, music theory perspective. I don’t wish for one second to suggest that music theory is worthless and music academia is silly. But when it comes to experiencing music, one-on-one with just you and a pair of headphones or killer sound system or even live as one of thousands in a crowd, the music theory is almost besides the point. In the same way that fine art is about touching something in your heart and soul at least as much as it is about technique, I think it’s utterly foolish to criticize someone for the aural art that makes them feel something as deeply as a human can feel.


By all means, let me know if you disagree.


Benevolent Siren

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What do Audiophiles and Elephants Have in Common?

When the working day is done, I can usually be found writing fiction from the comfort of home. Currently, I’m working on a story about the relationship between a mahout and his elephant. I’m still largely in the research phase, which means my early morning hours are now saturated with all things elephant.

So, what does this have to do with audio?

One of the most interesting things I’ve learned about elephants is the way they communicate with each other. Elephants can “speak” to each other over long distances by producing and receiving infrasound, a sub-sonic rumbling, which can travel in the air and through the ground much farther than higher frequencies. The frequency range in which humans can hear sound is 20 Hz to 20 kHz. Sounds are generally considered to be infrasonic if their frequency is less than 20 Hz. This low frequency sound can’t be heard by humans, but it can be felt. This is how our subwoofers allow you to feel bass rumbling through your body during an epic battle scene. They go infrasonic. For instance, our flagship Digital Drive PLUS series produces frequencies as low as 8.8 Hz overall (14.4 Hz +/- 3 dB).

These infrasonic frequencies can also be felt by the sensitive skin of an elephant’s feet and trunk, which pick up the resonant vibrations much as the flat skin on the head of a drum. To listen attentively, every member of the herd will lift one foreleg from the ground, and face the source of the sound. They will often also lay their trunks on the ground, as well. The lifting of one leg will presumably increase the ground contact and sensitivity of the remaining legs.

The discovery of this new aspect of elephant social communication came with breakthroughs in audio technology, which can pick up frequencies outside the range of the human ear. The pioneer in this type of research is a woman named Katharine Payne. Payne is a researcher in the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University. In 1999, she founded the lab’s Elephant Listening Project. The Bioacoustics Research Program team developed Autonomous Recording Units (ARUs), which are used to continuously record elephant vocalizations in forested areas. These units are hoisted high into trees, protecting them from elephant damage. They are waterproof and will record unattended for up to six months. The ARUs have performed extremely well in the difficult climate of Africa’s tropical rainforests. Reportedly, the biggest problem has been damage to the power cables caused by inquisitive chimpanzees.

In 2004, Payne’s initial recordings of elephants were selected as one of 50 recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. Incidentally, I highly recommend taking a look at the list of recordings on record. It might surprise you to see what else is there.

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What the 2012 Grammys Taught Me

Not only were the 2012 Grammys a grab-bag of entertaining and/or boring and/or cringe-inducing moments, they were also a learning experience for me. Choice nuggets of wisdom:


Justin Vernon of Bon Iver reluctantly accepts the Grammy for Best New Artist. Also, the BS Award for Most Delusional Hairstyle.


What did you learn? Feel free to share.


Benevolent Siren

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Welcome to Integrated Systems Europe (ISE 2012)

Showing off the Digital Drive PLUS at ISE 2012...

I wasn’t sure what to expect as I landed in Amsterdam a few days prior to ISE 2012. I felt confident I was mentally and physically prepared following the exquisite chaos called CES. But how would it go down with the added stress of frigid weather and jet lag?

I can report I was pleasantly surprised by the civility of it all.

The show itself was substantially smaller than CES. There were 40,869 registered attendees over the course of three days. The 825 ISE exhibitors occupied 11 halls of the Amsterdam RAI. These numbers are the highest in the history of the show, with the exhibitor total increasing 15% from 2011.

ISE, which started in 2004, is Europe’s largest tradeshow for the professional AV and electronic systems industry. It’s a kind of meeting place for manufacturers, distributors, and retailers from all over the world. The manufacturers can show off their latest technologies and distributors and retailers can see what’s available for their customers and consumers.

The show itself feels like a cool combination of a professional dress code and relaxed energy. It is truly international, representing companies from all over the globe.

The Standout Trend

There was "live" entertainment available in every hall.

The number one trend at ISE was digital signage. It was everywhere. In fact, ISE kicked off with the Digital Signage Conference (DiSCO). One of the topics covered was the potential for digital signage to help brick and mortar retailers compete with e-commerce websites by allowing them to reflect the new ways in which consumers are shopping. This includes providing the ability to allow shoppers to serve themselves, access products not on shelves, and obtain detailed product information.

That’s the cerebral take on digital signage. The sensorial take is the mind-blowing picture clarity and endless number of LED screens dominating the halls of RAI. There were single screen behemoths towering overhead, as well as smaller screens interacting seamlessly to create any number of awesome effects.

One of my personal favorites was a bit more understated, but really cool. These screens featured “live bands” playing in a sushi lounge located in the center of one show hall. Each member of the band had his or her own screen towering over the lunch tables. There were four screens in all playing simultaneously. The bands members were probably filmed separately, but they actually look like they are interacting with each other in each of their respective screens. You really feel like you’re watching a live show.

The European Aesthetic

A minimalist at heart, I felt a connection to the European aesthetic. There weren’t a lot of bright colors or flashy designs. And it was easy to see why as I looked up into apartment windows while walking through the city. They almost look bare compared to living space in the United States.

The fully invisible wall speaker complete with signature by Dave Santos, one of our sales aficionados.

For the most part, the walls were consistently white or off-white. And there seemed to be only one or two pieces of furniture or artwork. The industrial design and colors of most of the audio products reflected this aesthetic. It’s no wonder that our MicroVee and MiniVee are so popular in Europe. Most of the design is focused on hiding audio components. I saw the embodiment of this idea with a “fully invisible wall” speaker. It was quite literally a wall of sound. It’s also not surprising that our distributors in the United Kingdom are creating some pretty cool custom designs focusing on installing the SC IW (1250) In-wall subwoofer into the floor and other hidden locations.

Overall, the show was fantastic. It was fascinating to see what is happening outside of the United States. ISE showcased some of the major differences in the domestic and international markets. However, both markets are clearly utilizing incredible technology to fill consumer needs and demands.

A typical Dutch snack is the “Hollandse Nieuwe” or raw herring from the North Sea. It’s an acquired taste.

A Special Message to the People of Amsterdam

Thank you for your gracious hospitality. Thank you for delicious cheese and chocolate. I secretly believe these are your two major food groups, although I cannot prove this. I found your city to be absolutely delightful, but please consider holding ISE during the summer next year.

To all the bikers who jingled their bells as I wandered into their lane, unaware I was grossly violating local etiquette: In my humble opinion, your bike lanes look very similar to your pedestrian sidewalks. It was an honest mistake.

 A Tribute to Amsterdam in Trivia:

  • Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands, as well as the largest city.
  • The name Amsterdam is derived from the city’s origins: it grew around a dam in the river called Amstel.
  • There are approximately 747,290 people living in Amsterdam proper and 2,158,592 living in the metropolitan area.
  • It is impossible to know for sure, but city authorities say there are well over 600,000 bikes in Amsterdam.
  • There are165 canals in Amsterdam, with a combined length of 60 miles.
  • There are 1,281 bridges in Amsterdam, many of which can open to let ships pass. In fact, “The bridge was open” is a popular excuse for arriving late to school or work.
  • Amsterdam has 6,800 16th, 17th and 18th century buildings.
  • Amsterdam is also known as the “Venice of the North” due to its many canals.
  • The Amsterdam zoo, Artis, was founded in 1838. It is the oldest zoo in Europe and the third oldest zoo in the world.
  • Established four centuries ago, the Amsterdam Stock Exchange is regarded as the oldest stock exchange in the world.

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The Perfect Hump Day Playlist

Note: You can find this and all my other playlists on Spotify by using the post titles as search terms.

It’s Hump Day! Are you dragging? Need some RADICAL TUNES to pump you up and get you through the rest of the week? Here’s a list of jams that are currently putting a pep in my proverbial step.


  1. “Big Machine” by the Goo Goo Dolls
  2. “People, Running” by Jack’s Mannequin
  3. “Use Somebody” by Kings of Leon
  4. “Paradise” by Coldplay
  5. “Baba O’Riley” by The Who
  6. “Mad Season” by Matchbox Twenty
  7. “This Love” by Maroon 5
  8. “Shake it Out” by Florence + the Machine
  9. “Ooh La La” by Goldfrapp
  10. “Sail” by AWOLNATION
  11. “Sing Out” by The Grand Magnolias

And if you need a new pair of in-ear headphones to rock out at work, there’s a 2-for-1 sale on vPulse at in celebration of Valentine’s Day with promo code BEMYVELODYNE (1 per household; see promotion details). Because if there’s one thing I love more than music, it’s free stuff.


Benevolent Siren


Admin note: This promotion is no longer in effect. Please visit to learn about current promotions.

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5 Catchy Songs You Didn’t Know Were Tragic

  1. “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind  With its utterly singable “do-do-do” chorus and melody, this may be one of the catchiest songs to come out of the 90s–but did you know it was about a struggling meth addict? I certainly didn’t until I sang it at karaoke night in a bowling alley (I mean…something less depressing?) and read all the lyrics for the first time. Lines like “Doing crystal meth will lift you up until you break / It won’t stop / I won’t come down” and “We tripped on the urge to feel alive / But now I’m struggling to survive”  reveal the painful hopelessness that comes with crippling drug addiction. Uplifting, right? Some more dreary lyrics: ”She’s got her jaws now locked down in a smile /  but nothing is alright, alright…”
  2.  “Slide” by The Goo Goo Dolls: At first blush, this might sound like a run-of-the-mill catchy love song, with charming lyrics like “And I’ll do anything you ever dream to be complete /…/ Put your arms around me / What you feel is what you are, and what you are is beautiful / Oh May, do you want to get married, or run away?” If you take a closer listen, though, a darker undercurrent is revealed:  “Don’t you love the life you killed / The priest is on the phone / Your father hit the wall / Your ma disowned you” suggests that the song is really about a young Catholic woman dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. This interpretation was confirmed by songwriter and Goo Goo Dolls frontman Johnny Rzeznik during a VH1 performance.
  3.  “Drops of Jupiter” by Train: According to Pat Monahan, lead singer of Train, Drops of Jupiter is about the passing of the artist’s mother and his effort to overcome the loss. He stated that the lyrics “She’s back in the atmosphere” came to him in a dream, and are meant to represent the concept that his mother returned to him spiritually after leaving for a while. He explained in a VH1 special, “Obviously, loss of the most important person in my life was heavy on my mind, and I thought of, ‘What if no one ever really leaves? What if you just kinda…you’re here, but different?’ you know, and the idea was, ‘She’s back. Here, in the atmosphere.’” Heavy, man. But on the bright side, if you want to interpret this track as a simple love song, there’s always the Taylor Swift cover.
  4.  “Paper Planes” by MIA: Gunshot sound effects make up the majority of the “Paper Planes” chorus, hinting at the morbidness of the song’s themes. Still, the fun hook and danceable beat makes it easy to overlook the extent to which this pop hit deals with violence and drug dealing culture. Lyrics like “sticks and stones and weed and bombs / Running when we hit ‘em / Lethal poison through their system” and “Some, some, some I, some I murder / Some I, some I let go” are explicitly violent, and the disturbing levity of M.I.A.’s tone contributes to the overall darkness of the track.
  5.  “If I Had $1,000,000″ by Barenaked Ladies  BNL weaves a fantasy world in which the male protagonist outlines what he’d buy if he were to receive a million-dollar windfall. Whimsical and goofy, right? Well, on the surface, yes: potential purchases include the remains of the Elephant Man, a mini-fridge (filled with pre-wrapped sausages) and an exotic pet (like a llama, or an emu). Sadly, though, everything he would buy is for a woman who doesn’t seem to love him back. This refrain reveals the misery underlying this song:  ”If I had a million dollars / I’d buy your love.” Unrequited love is among the cruelest of life’s trials, and one could speculate that his riches would be of little comfort to him without this dream woman. And if numerous pop idols are to be believed, money can’t buy love. Sorry, BNL.


Can you think of any more? Let me know in the comments!

Benevolent Siren

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Must-Hear Song of the Day

If you’ve never heard this version of Adele’s “Someone Like You,” you’re doing yourself a grave disservice by not listening to it now. Stop what you’re doing, press play, and take some deep breaths (song starts at 1:07):

I’ll be sobbing in the corner if anyone needs me.


Benevolent Siren

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