A first-hand guide to setting up music on an Astell and Kern SR25

Why Astell and Kern SR25?

Two things stimulated the purchase of my Astell and Kern SR25. The desire for a good pair of headphones and continued frustration that itunes continues to want to update and do things its way and not mine. After reading many reviews and watching vlogs on YouTube, I decided that I should play my music on a portable player and the task of looking for a suitable device was underway. On a rainy winter’s day in Shrewsbury, I sat in Listen Audio’s lounge with coffee, headphones on and Frankie Goes to Hollywood welcoming me to the pleasure dome. I wasn’t about to buy a portable device based solely on the recommendation of the internet and I didn’t want to spend money if I couldn’t hear the difference. I don’t consider myself an audiophile, but as Suzanne Vega sings small blue thing to me, the difference between an iphone and the Astell and Kern is clear. I’m reaching for my wallet.

Music player nuances

The advantage of buying on the high street, particularly when it comes to selecting audio, is that you can try before you buy and you get customer support. While the Astell and Kern SR25 is an excellent player that works straight out of the box once you’ve loaded music to it, it does have some interesting nuances in the way it loads up your music library – especially when you are trying to get higher resolution files to play that itunes does not support. A phone call to Listen Audio has Steve checking why the Astell and Kern is not loading artwork and not playing tracks from Welcome to the Pleasure Dome and Pink Floyd’s Dark side of the Moon in the right order. “The Astell and Kern SR25 is a great portable player with excellent sound quality but needs to see album information in the correct format to display artwork and play tracks in the order they are intended by the artist,” explains Steve. “This is controlled by metadata associated with the album and the way the album artwork is stored and labelled. You can update some of the metadata directly in windows file explorer on a PC, or by using software which also allows some album artwork to be uploaded from the internet, but it can be quite tedious for large numbers of files, as it’s a very manual process.”

bliss to the rescue
Armed with this information an internet search found bliss. A quick call to Dan Gravell, the owner and developer of bliss, established that every piece of software has its own way of manipulating files and portable music players need to see information in a specific format. “Think of music transfer as each conversion programme putting its files on a white board, from which your Astell and Kern SR25 looks at them and select the ones it needs. Your device recognises them and uses them if they are in the right format and ignores them if they are not. Album artwork needs to be in a jpeg or png embedded format for the SR25 to display it,” Dan reveals.

From itunes to flac
So how do you get your files from itunes onto an Astell and Kern SR25 efficiently? Here’s my first-hand experience. Let’s start by looking at the source files. And the quality of the file you want to end up with. The files on itunes come from 2 sources. The first are from ripping CDs and the second are purchased. The CD ripped files are converted to the AAC format preferred by apple. I wanted flac files, so I ripped the CDs again using windows media player onto my laptop working on a windows 10 operating system. The purchased music from itunes presented some problems as some of it was stored as m4p files. This means it cannot be read and played by portable players. I used an apple converter software programme to produce the flac files.

Get organised
The trick now is to be organised and make sure you have the music all in one directory. In my case this was the music directory on my D: drive. Now you should purchase and download bliss. This will make life much easier. In my opinion, you should go for the full licence rather than the pay per fix trial as you’ll be surprised about the number of fixes you need. This is because you will find the windows media player may do peculiar things with the 1st track of the CDs you burn, and not all the album artwork is in the right format. The great thing about this software too is it can organise digital files from tape conversion, but more on that later.

bliss rules
bliss works on a set of rules and makes changes to the music files. These appear to translate into what you see on windows media player too. On start up the software asks you to identify the drive your music files are on. It then asks you to set rules that you can configure to get artwork and organise your files. For the Astell and Kern SR25 you need to configure the artwork rule to look for jpeg and png format files, so untick other forms. You also need to check that files will be embedded. I found this was automatic. I then ran the software first to get it to scan all my albums and find the artwork. Time for a cup of tea while it does its thing. bliss found most of the artwork and demonstrated this by populating windows media player with lost artwork. It didn’t find all of it, but there’s a lovely feature in bliss that lets you edit album artwork. A good old Google search for the album name followed by artwork will give you a plethora of pictures. Right click to check it’s a jpeg or png and then save it to a file on your computer. Back to bliss and it will ask you to upload an image and you can now select this file and Bliss will embed it for you. It also has an option to look for the file at a specific url if you prefer. This function is useful as not only does it provide album artwork that the SR25 will recognise and display, but gives you the option to change original artwork images. I found that where there were two discs for instance in a greatest hits album of an artist then I could use a different image for the second disc.

Get tagging
All may now look well and you may be tempted to put music onto your SR25. I did, but then found a number of unknown artist files on my SR25. These are the first tracks of albums. Fortunately, Bliss comes to the rescue again on this. The software allows you to alter the metatag data associated with each album and album track. Go to the Tag menu in bliss and it’ll present you with a table of the tags associated with each track in each album. Robbie Williams may have been expecting me, but strong the first track on the album, was not expecting to be associated with the album when windows media player ripped it to flac. It appears as an unknown artist on an unknown album with ‘Track 1’ as the song title in the Tag table bliss presents. Simply enter the relevant details into the tag table and type ‘Strong’ into the track name and all is well. You can copy and paste artist and album entries, that was helpful, and the far left of the table gives you the track name you need to enter. At the top of the bliss dashboard is a bell icon that has a red label next to it telling you how many fixes are required. This is useful as after a review of the tag sheet, and altering the ones I’d found, bliss showed me I still had seven missing. A second search showed me the software was correct and helped me find and fix them. The software now runs in the background and as I add albums it checks them for me and fixes them automatically where it can. At present Bliss is promoted predominantly as an album artwork organiser, but it is far more sophisticated than that and an essential tool in getting the best out of your Astell and Kern. Files that I have converted digitally from tape can be tagged easily, track numbers added, so they play in order and artwork attributed to the album and embedded. What is not to like? I like to search and find the album I want to play by artwork, so this is a real boon.

The transfer turn on
Finally getting the files across to the Astell and Kern could not be easier. I bought a 128 Gb card, inserted it into the player and plugged the player into the computer with the cable provided. I turned the SR25 on and simply copied all of the music to the card syncing with windows media player. An alternative way is just to drag and drop the music directory onto the card using your normal computer file organiser. There is an internal storage option too and that works as well if you have a smaller music collection or have not bought a card. As you sync you can watch the files populate on the screen of the SR25. However, when transferring a large number of files to a card, according to Steve from Listen Audio, Astell and Kern recommend that you do this directly with a PC with the card plugged into a reader/writer external to the SR25. Then reinstall the card into the device. Now you have moved your data onto a card or across to the SR25, Steve has a very important piece of advice. Don’t just turn the SR25 off and on again to effect the changes you have made. “The most effective way of getting the SR25 to make these changes to the list it holds currently is to rescan the media on the SR25 using the settings menu on the player,” advises Steve. I’d not been doing this and it makes a difference as the player has a tendency to hold old data. For example, on the Brothers in Arms album I had assigned inadvertently the wrong album artwork to it. I changed this in Bliss and recopied it across to the SR25. While it assigned the new artwork to tracks, it didn’t to the cover. That was until I rescanned the media as Steve suggested. Simply go to the menu options Settings-System Reset-Initialize media scan. This may warn you it will take you a long time, so go have another cup of tea and don’t get worried if you look at your album list and it’s not there. The SR25 is working hard in the back ground and will populate the album and artist list with all the new artwork.

Now it’s time to listen to your favourite tracks in the right order with the album artwork adding to your auditory experience. Enjoy.

Are you a digital party pooper?

Social media has developed significantly over the last five years and continues to do so. If you are not using social media as an integrated part of your marketing mix then you either have a very specific limited business objective or you are not aware of the power the exciting channels to market social media present.

In a recent project to promote high street retail in a town centre, our team spoke to shop owners about how they market themselves. Many independent micro-business retailers had not explored social media and did not even have a Facebook or Twitter account. Some even professed to not know how to use these. In stark contrast, big high street brands know about social media and are using them very effectively to bridge the digital physical divide, engaging customers at a range of touch points in the customer journey.

The lack of social media knowledge and understanding of how to use it caused us to create a simple social media handbook for these retailers. At the heart of using social media effectively was a key message: Listen.

I describe social media to the uninitiated as a party. The analogy seems to work well. Then, I describe an individual who bursts through the door shouting at everyone and handing out a brochure. I ask how quickly that person is going to find themselves sat in a corner with nobody interacting with them. The classic party pooper: are they worse than someone not going at all?

The most popular person at the party has a different approach. They have joined a group of people and taken the time to listen to the conversation. They have understood the topics of interest and made relevant comments and observations when appropriate. They have learnt about the lifestyles and interests of the people in the group and demonstrated understanding of their interests, points of view and concerns. They then find the group introduces them to other friends and their social network continues to grow.

When it comes to social media strategy, it’s important to think socially. The approach is not complex, although the range of tools channels and protocols for using them differ. Being the most popular person at the party requires strategy. Charming individuals may be charismatic in nature, but they have learnt a way of behaving that makes people want to know them and what they have to say. They say things in the right way, that has appeal and resonance, as they understand the people they speak with. They achieve this through a lot of listening, together with processing and understanding the information they gather. Social media strategy is no different.

There are a wide range of tools out there to help companies listen and interpret what they are hearing. The big brands what to know what impact they are having across 10 or 15 social networks while tracking discussions on blogs, forums, news sites and a range of other channels. They are looking to understand what their customers think about the brand, be able to react to it and importantly to analyse where their marketing budget is being effective.  While these tools are useful the smaller business can achieve the same intelligence with some diligent analysis of the arena they are operating in.  If you are targeting a young audience social media holds a wealth of data. Twitter and Facebook have been around since 2006 and 2004 respectively, so a generation has grown up with these channels. Millennial’s views, relationship history, consumer preferences, social life, work life and even geographical location are on the internet.

Listening, interpreting and telling a good story then analysing effectiveness is something good marketing professionals have been doing with traditional media channels for years. The same principles apply in the digital arena. Being social is not scary, it’s party time.

Was Hurricane Irma a climate change phenomenon?

The British always love to talk about the weather. Perhaps it’s the variability of the climate where the UK is situated. However, for many months to come the weather in the Atlantic is set to be the stimulus for some debate. At least it ought to be, as the politicians and scientists in America seek to be heard by their President and the environmental regulator who seem to have dismissed climate change as a ‘hoax’.

For hundreds of years scientists have worked hard to gain an understanding of our planet, how it works and the effects of human activity upon it. The laws of nature do not change and scientists can predict hurricane activity. Irma, Jose and Katia were no surprise. Dr Gerry Bell, the lead seasonal hurricane forecaster with the Climate Prediction Center, a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, predicted them and had identified that this summer would be an active hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean. Since the season began on 1st  June  there have been 12 named storms, four of which strengthened into hurricanes, with maximum sustained winds above 73 miles per hour. “We’re seeing the activity we predicted,” comments Dr Bell.

Dr Bell and his team understand how Hurricanes are formed. They are fuelled by warm ocean surface temperatures and require lower wind shear to help them build.  Irma is unusual as a ridge of high pressure prevented it travelling into the cooler northern ocean, sending it westward intensify with an abundance of warm Atlantic water. Coupled with six cycles of a phenomenon called eye-wall, Irma grew and persisted for three consecutive days in the Atlantic Ocean as a Category 5 storm with maximum winds of 185 mph for 37 hours.

Dr Bell and his team have clearly done an excellent job of predicting and forecasting hurricanes and their scientific knowledge and understanding has helped save lives with thousands of people being evacuated from Florida before Irma hit land and wreaked havoc.

When it comes to taking immediate short term action in the face of adversity, the American government clearly took rapid and appropriate action to protect its people in the face of an environmental calamity. However, it seems that politicians can be very selective about the scientific evidence they choose to believe and that they care to dismiss.  For years scientists have been predicting global warming and there is extensive research on greenhouse gases and their effects on influencing the environment. Yet President Trump walked away from the Paris Climate Agreement to protect American jobs and businesses. The environmental regulator too has shunned the scientific evidence. Mr. Scott Pruitt, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency has declared that carbon dioxide emissions from cars, power plants and other sources are not the primary contributor to global warming, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. The E.P.A. has removed many mentions of climate change from its website and is rolling back regulations aimed at curbing carbon dioxide emissions.

Time to talk Climate change?

The scientists in American understand the political agenda and appear to be careful with the wording of their funding proposals as they know that research on climate change will head for the bottom of the pile. The American administration is also suggesting that to discuss climate change in the light of recent events is insensitive. On the other side of the pond the rhetoric is more direct. Climate experts are clear that Irma and the pattern of three hurricanes in a row can occur naturally and may not have been the result of climate change. However, climate change contributes to the strength and energy of the hurricanes increasing the damage they do. “Climate change may not have caused Hurricane Irma, but it is making its impacts a whole lot worse,” said Dave Reay, Professor of Carbon Management at the University of Edinburgh. “Rising sea levels and a warmer, wetter atmosphere are combining to intensify flood risks all around the world.”

According to Bloomberg, cleaning up after Irma in Florida is expected to cost over 50 billion dollars and a further 30 billion dollars in the Caribbean and Cuba. So, after the clean-up will President Trump and the EPA engage with the scientist, reassess their position on climate change and make changes in fossil fuel policies? Despite Mr. Pruitt suggesting that it is an insensitive time to discuss long term prevention, once clean up gets underway it is important to cease the moment to examine long term mitigation strategies and to listen and act on well researched scientific knowledge.