Very Solid Audio

sponsored by Audio Explosion

The Japan-based Kobe Steel has apparently entered into a licensing agreement with NTT (Nippon Telephone & Telegraph, basically Japan’s AT&T) for rights to use the TwinVQ
codec in a portable digital audio player called “SolidAudio.” TwinVQ, also known by its file extension .VQF, was developed separately from MP3 technology. This is in
contrast to AAC, which extends MP3 technology. While AAC has a small
technical edge over TwinVQ, both sound distinctively better than
MP3 at equivalent bitrates.

I got a chance to test out the prototype SolidAudio player and interview one of the DSP engineers, Toshiaki Shimoda, about a week ago. I brought both my Rio and my friend Nathan Schmidt (hardware guru) to the interview: both proved very useful in making comparisons between the devices. While Toshi (as he liked to be called) didn’t let us take pictures, we were allowed to measure the device and play around with it. It was roughly the size of a credit card and was half the thickness of the Rio. The device comes with a very cute docking station for recharging the internal lithium ion battery.

It uses SmartMedia flash cards to store the .VQF files, obviating the need for a direct PC link. Toshi demonstrated loading the flash card into a special, hollow floppy disk
to make a computer believe that the flash is actually a
floppy! (The “flash floppy” is called Flash Path and
costs about US$70 in Japan) We were able to place files
onto the flash card simply by copying the .VQF files of
our choice to the floppy drive. The player takes the names
of the .VQF files and displays them as the song plays in
a 1″ x 2″ LCD panel on the front of the player.

The player had very small buttons for changing the volume,
skipping tracks, playing, stopping, fast-forwarding, and
rewinding. There were also two buttons that didn’t do
anything. Yet. Toshi suggested that they could serve a
variety of purposes in the production release, although
Kobe had not yet fully decided what functionality to incorporate. The output is through a supertiny headphone jack, a form factor becoming popular in Japan. Toshi had a converter on hand for US headphones, thankfully.

The sound quality from the player was excellent. We loaded
up two pieces of classical music onto the SolidAudio player
and the Rio and played them through my friend’s $100 DJ
headphones. The SolidAudio player turned out crisp and
vibrant music, filling my ears with sound. There was very
little noise, but I felt it was lacking the rich bass
that a good Walkman should have. The Rio, in comparison,
sounded quite muddy, garbling several of the more
intricate and intense parts of the piano solo I had
loaded onto it. To the Rio’s credit, I felt that it’s
bass was a bit more smooth and well-rounded, and that
the overall sound was a tad warmer.

On the technical side, the SolidAudio player uses a
recent DSP from TI. (Kobe Steel distributes TI’s DSPs
in Japan, so it was a good match!) It’s apparently reprogrammable on
the fly: you could turn this device into an MP3 player
simply by uploading the MP3 codec to the device. This
holds equally for other codecs, such as AAC. This technology
might also enable new encryption formats, like
AudioSoft‘s ASFS, (soon to be integrated into Winamp)
to be incorporated to allow playback of protected music. As such,
this player could end up a serious competitor to
codec-specific devices. Why pick one format when you could
have them all?

Optomistically, the player will go on sale in Japan, likely
in the fall or winter of 1999. Toshi didn’t know when the
player would make it to the United States. It should be noted
that it’s not clear that anyone else besides Yamaha and Kobe
have licensed VQF technology from NTT for incorporation into
a hardware device. If Yamaha decides not to pursue creating
their own portable digital audio player, this would give Kobe
a virtual monopoly on the portable VQF market.
The player is expected to cost just under $200 when it comes out in Japan, and be even cheaper by the time it hits US shores.

It should be noted that the largest card available for the
device today is 16Mb. This would amount to just under half
an hour of high-quality VQF playback. Nice, but expensive!
Toshi hopes that by the time the device is released there
will be affordable 64Mb cards. When asked about the

possibility of using IBM’s new superthin hard drives,
Toshi seemed initially wary of such a possibility. He cited
several power consumption, robustness, and vibrational problems
with using mechanical devices in such a small form factor, but
did not discount the idea completely.

All in all, Kobe will be a mover to watch next year. Their
shiny, tiny player just may be the next step for Internet
audio distribution.

Existing Players

Saehan Information System of Korea released the
MP-Man about six months ago as the first solid-state MP3 player. Cute and technically
impressive, it turned the heads of several industry observers, but has
not been able to make much of a consumer impact yet, mainly due to
the fact that it is difficult for a manufacturer without brand-name
recognition in the US to get “shelf placement” quickly. The device
is sold at a few websites, but is generally not yet available
in traditional retail outlets.

Diamond Multimedia, a US computer peripheral manufacturer, came out
with their portable Rio player a few weeks ago. The player will soon
be available in stores, thanks to Diamond’s preexisting relationships
with the retail sector. This marks the beginning of a new generation
of consumer portable digital audio products. Diamond, as the first
major US hardware firm to support MP3, took flak from the RIAA on the grounds of supporting piracy. Diamond fired back that the RIAA “had damaged Diamond’s credibility” and was guilty of “unlawful business practices.” While Diamond was not prevented from manufacturing their Rio device, prospective device manufacturers are taking care to approach the RIAA gingerly before coming to market, lest they be sued, too.