Using an Amazon Echo Dot 4th Generation as a Music Streamer

by James Wallace Harris, May 2, 2021

As I explained earlier, lightning killed my computer and TV, and zapped the ethernet/Wi-Fi circuits on my Yamaha WXA-50 integrated amp/music streamer. The amp portion continues to work with the optical and RCA inputs, just the streaming feature died. The Yamaha WXA-50 was my second favorite source of music, used in my computer room with Bose 301 Series V speakers. I know audiophiles sneer at Bose, but I loved the sound of these 301s in this room. I think they were just right for the room’s acoustics and being required to sit on the top of my bookshelves.

My main music system in the den is a Bluesound Powernode 2i paired with Klipsch RP-5000F speakers. The Yamaha WXA-50/Bose 301 sounded almost as good as the Bluesound/Klipsh system so I mourn its loss.

Instead of buying another Yamaha WXA-50 I thought I’d try getting a low cost streamer to see how it worked with the still functioning Yamaha amp. I had an old first generation Amazon Echo Dot that I tried, but it didn’t sound anything like the Yamaha streamer. I was about to order a Arylic S10 ($80) or a Arylic S50 Pro+ ($220), but Amazon diverted me with an Echo Dot 4th generation on sale for $29.95.

The 4th generation Dot does sound better than the first gen, but it’s still not as good as the Yamaha streamer. It’s pretty good when played loud, and it might be good enough for now. Describing how different music streamers compare is difficult. I don’t envy professional audiophile reviewers. The best I can do is say the Echo Dot 4th gen sounds a bit thinner, less rich, less detailed. The Yamaha often dazzled me. Sometimes I even preferred the Yamaha/Bose over the Bluesound/Klipsh, but it was really a choice between two very good sounds. Actually, it was a matter of mood. The room acoustics also influenced my listening mood too. I’m much too old to claim I can hear audiophile distinctions, it’s down to what I prefer when comparing two systems. I could even be fooling myself about the memories of what I used to hear on my Yamaha.

I’ve watched many John Darko videos about using a Raspberry Pi as a music server. I have an extra Pi which I’ve set it up before with Spotify Connect and already know it sounds crappy. As Darko points out, you need an extra third-party hat to clean up the signal/sound. Such a hat would cost as much as the Arylic S10. Maybe I’ll research Raspberry Pi v. Arylic, but my guess is both gadgets are probably closer to the Echo Dot, than the Yamaha WXA-50. But if anyone reading this knows, leave a comment.

If you’re new to music streaming through your stereo’s amp with a streaming server, it’s different from streaming with AirPlay or Bluetooth from your phone. If you aren’t picky about sound quality, it won’t matter. When you use AirPlay or Bluetooth the music is playing on your phone, but when you use a music streamer that has Spotify Connect or Tidal Connect that device is playing the music and your phone is merely the remote. It can make a big difference in sound quality.

For now, the Amazon Echo Dot 4th generation will allow me to listen to music in my computer room, it just doesn’t thrill me like the Yamaha did. It’s good enough, but not as pleasing. Probably most music fans won’t care. The Amazon Dot Echo 4th generation is a nice low-cost Spotify Connect music streamer, especially if you can get it for $29.95 on sale.

I’ve come to prefer integrated amps with streamers like the Bluesound or Yamaha. I’d probably love speakers with integrated amps and streamers like the Kef LS50 Wireless II speakers, but I’m too tight with my money to spend $2500. I love both the Yamaha WXA-50 and Powernode 2i streamers, but they aren’t perfect either. I’m addicted to Spotify Connect which allows me to use the native Spotify app to control these devices, including the Echo Dot. However, with all three devices, the app sometimes loses access and I have to quickly reload it to automatically reconnect. What I really wanted was Amazon HD music to have a Connect version like Spotify Connect so I could use the Amazon Music HD app to control the devices. It does for it’s own equipment, but not for the Yamaha or Bluesound. Each has their own Amazon Music controls built into their apps and both are pitiful.

I love using my phone to control my music. It’s a remote control for three different music systems in my house. I gave up on Amazon HD and Tidal, so I only use Spotify Connect. I love its simplicity and the Spotify app is near great.

After lightning killed me toys I’m a lot less inclined to spring for more expensive gear. Of course, it was a once-in-70-year-event for me. Still, I’m now surge shy. In the future I think I’ll aim for integrated amp/streamers in the $300-500 range matched with similar priced speakers. I’m just not going to go full audiophile. But if you already have a stereo system adding music streaming with the Amazon Echo Dot is a cheap enough experiment. I wish John Darko and Steven Guttenberg would test and rate it.

I still have a turntable and CD/SACD player but I don’t really care for them anymore. I’ve been spoiled by streaming music. It would be nice to know I was streaming everything in CD quality at a minimum. That’s why I played around with Amazon HD and Tidal. I’ve heard that Spotify will be moving to high definition music soon, so I’ve standardize on Spotify Connect, but like I said, my old ears might not be good enough to discern the extra data.

JWH

Which Came First – the Emotion or the Hormone?

by James Wallace Harris, 3/26/21

This essay began when I asked myself: Do emotional states stimulate hormone production or do hormones flowing first cause us to experience an emotional state? Does happiness increase energy, or does energy increase happiness? Our mental, emotional, and physical states are all interconnected. As I get older I’m trying to figure out how to increase all three even though aging seems to be reducing them equally. I’m wondering if working on any of the three will cause a corresponding increase in the others.

Eventually, we all go looking for the Fountain of Youth. Some want to look younger, others like myself, want to feel younger. I quit believing in magic when I was a kid, so whatever is the source of vitality it should be discoverable by scientific observation. My current amateur theory is youth and vitality come from chemistry, but I also assume aging affects the efficiency of the chemical processes in our bodies.

Most people want to believe in mind over matter, but is there any evidence to support that belief? Can positive thinking overcome entropy? Or do positive thoughts come from robust chemistry? We all know hyperactive oldsters, but does their energy come from force of will or thriving endocrinology? If we’re low energy beings because of our wimpy hormonal system, can we fertilize them with right thinking, positive emotions, or good eating?

I’m pushing myself to write this essay. The whole time while I’m writing part me is begging to be allowed to go eat and watch television. But I’m still writing. Is that because willpower has empowered by want, or is it because I stoked my chemical furnace with good food and a nap this afternoon?

Does our state of mind set hormones in action that create our feelings, or do hormones generate our feelings which dictate our state of minds? Lately, I’ve been trying to observe my feelings and mental states. I’ve even wondered if changes in my brain chemistry in the past year is making me more aware of my feelings and thoughts. Other reasons for increased contemplation is I’m feeling old, tired, and worn out, so I’m spending more time just relaxing, and that’s leading to increase cogitation and self awareness, but not productivity.

What I want is to be more active. I can’t tell if that’s wishful thinking since I’m turning seventy this year and decrease activity is natural with aging, or if I could be more active if I thought the right thoughts, or felt the right emotions.

Has the stress of living a year in pandemic isolation drained my vitality or is my diminished energy just coinciding with normal aging? Life is complicated. There are no quick and easy answers. However, I’m not ready to give up. I’ve been retired from work since 2013 and easy living might also be a factor in my decline. Of course, we do have to be logical. How many aging people gain youthful vitality as they progress in years? How many retired people start doing more?

I’ve never thought of myself as an emotional person. Whenever I’ve seen people getting wildly excited at parties, sporting events, and rock concerts I wondered why I wasn’t jumping up and down and yelling too. I’ve always considered myself a happy person because I don’t get depressed. But then I don’t get exuberant either. If I was more emotional would that give me more energy?

I can energize myself somewhat by artificial means. I gave up drugs a half century ago. I’m slightly tempted again because old age seems like the perfect time for uppers and cocaine, but I know that would only accelerate my decline. I also gave up caffeine decades ago for mental clarity. And in recent months I’ve given up refined sugar, which might explain my current low mental states. But I’m also feeling better physically since I gave up sugar, and I’m losing weight, so I hope in the long run eating healthier will translate into more mental energy.

When I said I could energize myself artificially, I meant with music, books, movies, and television shows. Sometimes a nap and some good music leads to gung-ho thinking that inspires actual activity. Or has my lunch digested while I slept stimulating hormone flow leading to roused thoughts and finally feeling inspired to get up and do something? It’s a subtle distinction.

Whatever refuels my tank doesn’t do it for long.

For example, when I play “Here Comes the Dawn Again” by Billy Vera and the Beaters real loud, I feel physically stimulated. That also turns up the flow of emotions.Then my thinking speeds up. After that I feel like getting up and doing something. Has music increased hormone activity? Or did music increase my thinking which increased hormone activity? Is this a bit of evidence for the power of positive thinking?

Writing this essay is energizing me – to a degree. I can’t quite call it a jolt of youthfulness. I also feel myself draining my battery as I write. I wish drugs weren’t so self-destructive because I feel like doing a Kerouac and chewing benzedrine cotton from a broken inhaler to write more.

Now that I’m older I feel more emotional, but still not highly exaggerated emotions like I see in other people. We all have different levels of energy and emotions. Are highly emotional people more active people? I have observed that some of the most emotional people I know are also the most active.

Instead of mind over matter, could it be emotions over matter? Or is there a direct relationship, more emotions means more mental activity? If that’s so I’ll have to find a way to increase both. However, I’m still trying to decide if more mental activity increases emotions, or if more emotions increase mental activity.

JWH

Albums You Can’t Play on Spotify

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 2, 2020

Most of the streaming music services have tens of millions of songs, or millions of albums. That should be plenty enough music for anyone, especially at the bargain price of $10 a month. It’s actually a better deal than Netflix because usually only one music service is all you need. I subscribe to two at the moment. Spotify because it’s the best, easiest to use, and works on the most devices with its Spotify Connect system. And I’m subscribing to Amazon Music HD because I’m testing out high definition music to see if it is worth a few extra dollars a month, plus I have three Amazon Echo devices. (Spotify plays through Echos too, so don’t think owning Echos means having to get Amazon Music.)

If music services offered every album ever produced I’d give up both CDs and LPs. Streaming music just too damn convenient. The Rolling Stone new list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” just came out and I bet most of them are on Spotify. There’s already a playlist created for it with 7,557 songs requiring over 471 hours to hear. (Although, I prefer to play albums one at a time.)

I keep trying to give up LPs, but some aren’t even on CD, much less streaming music. I’m neither enamored with LP’s sound, or nostalgic for the format. I’ve given all my LPs away more than once, but once again I got a hankering to hear some favorite albums and I bought four of them as used LPs. Also my Friends of the Library Bookstore sells LPs for 50 cents a disc, so it’s kind of fun to buy them based on the covers.

But, I really would give up my LPs and CDs, and my turntable and CD drive if I could get everything on Spotify. The future is almost here. The only downside to streaming music is they don’t pay the artists fairly. I hope that will change too.

I assume some albums aren’t available on Spotify for legal reason, otherwise why would all of Nanci Griffith’s albums be available but not Once in a Very Blue Moon – my favorite. There’s always a possibility that Spotify just wants to annoy the crap out of me personally. I’m hoping it will show up one day.

I just notice another album I’ve been waiting for years has appeared on Spotify, Willis Alan Ramsey self-titled debut album, and as far as I know his only album.

Sometimes early albums are left off of Spotify while later albums from the same group are available. I assume they are from different publishers or because of legal squabbles between band members. For example the group Cock Robin. Their early albums aren’t on Spotify, but Spotify offers to link you to places where you can buy them CDs. I recently bought a used LP to hear After Here Through Midland (1987).

Another old favorite album I can’t get on CD or Spotify is Never Goin’ Back to Georgia (1969) by The Blues Magoos. Again, some of their albums are available on Spotify, the early ones, but not the later albums.

An LP I’ve bought three times over the last forty years is Which Way to Main Street (1982) by Wendy Waldman. Some of her albums are on Spotify, but not all, and not this one. Some of her other albums are on Amazon Music, but not this one. This album is her only album from Epic Records, so that might explain why it’s not on streaming music services. Which Way to Main Street is available at Waldman’s website on CD, but I’m trying very hard not to buy any more CDs. I’ve started a tiny collection of used records that aren’t on Spotify. I hope that collection never grows very big because I’m over physical media.

There are groups that have no albums on Spotify. It’s like time just swallowed them up, or maybe they were bands I heard in my dreams. For example the debut double album by Gypsy called Gypsy. They have produced several albums but you wouldn’t know it from streaming music.

Interestingly, they do survive on YouTube. In fact, many of these ghost albums haunt that service. I don’t know if it’s legal or not, but it’s how they live on in our pop culture hivemind. By the way, listen to this album. I think it’s great.

I do like looking through the record bin at the Friends of the Library Bookstore. For fifty cents it’s kind of fun to try something that just looks interesting, for example this Peter Nero album, Tender is the Night. It’s not on Spotify. Most of the albums available on Spotify for Nero are compilations. For a lot of old artists, especially ones that were never big sellers, their individual albums aren’t available.

There is one whole class of albums that are often missing from Spotify and other streaming music services, and that’s soundtracks. I can listen to zillions of Ricky Nelson albums, but not this one:

But even this is changing. I’ve waited years for the GATTACA soundtrack to show up, and I see that it has. (Update – I was wrong, only a playlist that tries to recreate the soundtrack from other Michael Nyman albums.)

I’m still waiting for The Ipcress File. I have a copy on an imported CD, but I want it on Spotify. In the early days of Spotify I hope to hear the early James Bond movie soundtracks but they weren’t available but eventually they showed up. I’m hoping the same thing happens with The Ipcress File. Over the years more and more John Barry albums have shown up.

You might have noticed something by now. There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of any of these albums. There’s a good chance you could subscribe to Spotify and never search for an album you can’t find.

If you’re a music nut like me, there will be albums you hanker to hear but can’t. And patience pays off. My small list of albums not on Spotify seems to be shrinking. Please Mr. Spotify, if you are reading this, put these albums on your service, especially the Nanci Griffith and Wendy Waldman.

JWH

Hoarding Creative Works

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 26, 2020

A hoarder of creative work is called a collector, and a collection of creative works is called a library. That’s if we’re using polite terminology. I have stacks and shelves of books, music, TV shows, and movies that I hoard. I don’t know if I’m a librarian of my collections, or a hoarder of my crap.

It’s a strange kind of possessiveness. My problem is I don’t have enough shelves for all my libraries, so me and my piles of stuff is looking a lot more like your garden variety hoarder of junk.

The other day I decided to reduce the number of DVD/BD discs that Susan and I own down to what would fit into the bookcase we designated as our TV/Movie Library. It was either that or buy another bookcase, and getting another bookcase would mean taking wallspace from something else in our junked up house, and that would only cause anguish over giving something else away.

I figure it’s time to be practical about my hoard of creative works. I’ve got too many books, magazines, LPs, CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs. And that’s not even considering the thousands of digital items I own. I know that. I’ve always known that – but why can’t I remember that? Especially like this Tuesday when I was at the used bookstore buying seven large hardbacks I felt for sure I must read but know I never will. Jesus, I’m crazy, or what?

What psychological programming makes me want to possess (collect) so much? Many of my friends when they got a Kindle gave their books to the Friends of the Library. And when they embraced iTunes or Spotify gave away their albums to their kids. And when Netflix came along donated their VHS tapes and DVDs to Goodwill. I didn’t. I went to the Friends of Library book sales and Goodwill and bought all their crap.

We often blame our present hangups on our upbringing, and I guess there might be a case for that here too. When I grew up you got two chances at seeing a TV show. When it premiered in the main season and then again as a rerun in the summer. Evidently the trauma of believing I’d never again see a favorite episode again burned something deep inside of me. That childhood trauma caused me to mass consume VHS tapes and DVDs when they were invented.

Movies used come to town, and if you missed them you’d have to wait years to catch it on TV. Music was on the radio and you had to wait a couple hours for that catchy tune come around again. It’s probably why they only had 40 songs in rotation. It was agony on Golden Oldie Weekends hoping to hear an ancient rock ‘n’ roll hit from the 1950s. Books were something you got at the library that you took back in seven days, and magazines were something you threw away on cleaning day. Creative works were fleeting back then.

When I started earning money I bought my favorite books and albums. At first it wasn’t many. When the VCR came on the market it became possible to save TV shows or buy movies. Susan and I spent $800 on our first video recorder at a time when that was way more money than we could afford. Then came DVDs, and even better, Blu-ray discs. For years Blockbuster Video filled that need to watch what we wanted when we wanted – unless it was checked out. Then we realized we had to own our favorite flicks in case the pressure to see a movie immediately took ahold of us. (Actually, I can’t ever remember that happening.)

Over the decades it became possible to own all the creative works I loved. However, it’s taken me decades to realize that the desire to consume creative works immediately is an unhealthy trait I should try to control.

And even owning some creative works would have been fine if I had been selective about what I acquired. A carefully curated collection of all-time best loved works of art that I was most identified with would have been manageable. It wouldn’t be hoarding, just defining my identity. But something inside me wants to keep every creative work I ever had a momentary infatuation. (I think that might be related to my obsession with memory too. It bugs the crap out of me that I forget anything, and owning a creative work is like a physical memory.)

I guess I feel a need to own everything I love in case I want to relive that initial encounter – but is that true? Because of the internet, there’s been a new paradigm of instant access to creative works online. When I was cleaning out my DVDs yesterday I realized that many of the movies I owned are always available, either from a streaming service like Netflix, or by renting them for far less than the cost of buying (even if I rented them 2-4 times). And since I mostly watched old movies on TCM because I actually prefer the randomness of it’s offering, many of my most loved old movies do appear one or more times during the year, giving me plenty of times to re-watch a film. For those movies I don’t have instant access through checking Just Watch, with a little patience they would show up again on TCM.

I was able to cull over a hundred discs I could part with without too much anguish. However, I still had hundreds that I felt the need to own. Where does that psychological drive come from? What kind of anxiety do I have if I’m afraid I won’t be able to see a TV show or movie when get the urge?

Years ago I calculated I’d save tons of money if I bought books at full price on Amazon whenever I actually was ready to read them over the cost of collecting books at bargain prices thinking I’d read them someday. I’ve bought thousands of books I’ve never read simply because I believed I’d read them someday. Some of those books have been waiting forty years to get the attention of my eyes.

I’ve written essays like this one before trying to talk myself out of hoarding creative works. I shouldn’t need a psychiatrist to figure out I have a hoarding gene that I need to manage. At least my bedroom doesn’t look like this:

Luckily I have another gene that battles with my hoarding gene, a Marie Kondo gene. I also like to declutter and give away junk. If I still owned every creative work I once bought everyone room of my house would look like the photo above. I’m not exaggerating.

I have a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality but it’s a battle between my KonMari/Hoarders natural tendencies. I never can come to terms that my need to read books has no relationship to my need to buy books. I write these essays time and time again hoping they will reprogram my brain. They are my way of psychoanalyzing myself but I never get to a behavioral breakthrough. I’m a crappy at self-shrinking, or would that be an auto-analyst?

JWH

Music – Hear More With Less Equipment

by James Wallace Harris,

Weeks ago I got annoyed with my 5.1 surround sound system connected to my television, so I gave it away. Whenever I had a problem I had to fight the complicated configuration menus in the Denon AV receiver and Sony TV, and I was tired of screwing around with them. Plus, my old body has gotten too wimpy for wrestling big and heavy equipment.

For a couple weeks I researched soundbars. They promised to be the ultimate easy-to-use replacement. However, I kept worry about playing music through them. Would they sound good with Spotify? Then I watched “Escape the ‘world of crazy’ with the Bluesound Powernode 2i” on John Darko’s YouTube channel.

The view behind Darko’s stereo rack was just like mine used to be behind my entertainment center. I was sold on the Powernode 2i but spent a week watching more review videos and reading online reviews. I already had simplified my home office/library with a Yamaha WXA-50 and Bose 301 series V speakers and was very happy with its ease of use and sound. The Powernode 2i seemed to offer even more but at twice the price. I took a chance and bought it.

For the past year I’ve been watching speaker reviews on YouTube and have been hankering to try a pair of Klipsch RP-600Ms. I went back and rewatched the reviews and when I saw Steve Guttenberg’s video where he said if you want the RP-600Ms but want a bit more bass get the RP-5000F, and so I did.

Pairing the Powernode 2i with the Klipsch RP-5000F sounded great. I’m very happy. I now understand what all those reviews talked about when they said Klipsch has their own unique sound with their horn tweeters. I was afraid they might be too bright for me, but weren’t. They sound especially wonderful for vocals and orchestra music. The only problem I had with this setup was the HDMI ARC connection to my Sony TV wouldn’t work. I don’t know if I needed a better cable or not, but the HDMI ARC configuration was the source of my configuration problem with the old AV receiver. It had worked for years, and then started acting weird.

I quickly solved the problem with the Powernode 2i by using an optical cable instead and it worked great. However, sound level has to be controlled by the BluOS app, rather than my Sony TV remote which is a feature of HDMI ARC. I might order a HDMI 2.1 cable to see if that fixes the problem, but I’m in no hurry. I’m good to go.

I can call up Spotify or Amazon Music HD on my iPhone and can play whatever I want. Streaming music servers connected to 2.0 speaker setup is all I need. I miss the feel of surround sound some, but both the Klipsch and Bose fill their rooms nicely. By the way, I’m becoming less tempted to chase after audiophile quality gear and High Res music – I’m just not sure my old ears can tell the difference.

That left the bedroom. I have an Audio-Technica AT-LP60 turntable connected to Creative Reference CR-4 active speakers. It’s a nice low-end setup. I really don’t like records much anymore, but all those audiophile guys make me feel nostalgic and guilty for not playing them. Changing records is a pain in the ass, but the act of playing records does bring back wonderful memories. So I’m torn.

Then I watched John Darko’s video about using a Raspberry Pi as a network streamer. Since I had an old Raspberry Pi 3B I got it out and installed the raspotify on it. Darko was right, the Pi by itself doesn’t sound so good. I had unplugged my turntable from the speakers and plugged the Pi instead. Playing music from my iPhone was so much easier. I could imagine laying in my bed at night picking out different albums. With the turntable I’d have to get up twice for each LP.

So I looked at his video about using an ALLO hat for the Pi to get better sound. I just wanted to use RCA connectors out, so I could get by with the ALLO Boss and a case, still a bit less than $100. Not bad.

I was thinking of ordering one when I decided to Google low cost streamers. Several very interesting options came up, including the Amazon Echo Dot. I already had a second generation Echo Dot in my bedroom, so I unplugged the speakers from the Raspberry Pi and plugged them into the Echo Dot.

BAM! The music sounded tremendously better than Raspberry Pi. I tried both Spotify and Amazon Music HD. The good thing about using Amazon Music HD was I could control the volume with the Amazon Music app, but couldn’t with Spotify app. Wow, this was ease-of-use to the max.

Could anything be simpler? What if powered speakers came with Amazon Alexa or Spotify Connect built in? What if they they didn’t need a wire running between the right and left speaker. It would be one cord, two speakers. That’s as minimalistic as I can imagine. Should I give up my turntable and go three for three with streamers?

I suppose I could get some new active speakers with multiple inputs and keep both. I do keep an CD/SACD player hooked up to my Yamaha WXA-50 for playing discs in my man cave. I could designate the bedroom as an LP playing site.

I’ve been doing my testing with Sara Watkins album young in all the wrong ways. I have it on LP. To me it sounds equally great on LP, Spotify, and Amazon HD. It’s a wonderful album I play over and over again.

I feel I hear more with less equipment. Playing music is not about technology, but listening to albums. Now that I have selected my minimalistic equipment I can spend even more time listening to music. I’m tired of messing with technology. I’m tired of worrying if I’m hearing the best audiophile sound quality. I’m almost over messing with CDs and LPs, but not quite. But I’m moving in that direction.

For younger people thinking about trying LPs, don’t get too hung up on the equipment. Most audiophile turntables are manual. I hate them. I spent $300 on one and ended up giving it away. If you want to get into records, get an automatic turntable and powered (active) speakers. They are a very simple to set up. Research getting a turntable that’s mostly configured and adjusted at the factory. That is, unless you’ve been infected with the audiophile virus.

JWH