PERSONAL TECH

Big sound from all around


Audio Advantage Micro from Turtle Beach turns a workaday laptop into a surround-sound theater.

The New York Times
Published: Monday, January 17, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 9:36 p.m.
Even expensive computers sometimes lack decent speakers and headphones. One remedy is to buy a costly sound card and upgrade your equipment.
But a company in Yonkers called Turtle Beach offers a simpler and more creative option with its Audio Advantage Micro, a $30 device that turns a workaday laptop into a surround-sound theater.
About the size and weight of a flash drive, the product connects to a USB port on a Mac or PC to simulate 5.1 multichannel audio for devoted music hounds, gamers or cinephiles.
Plug headphones into the product's internal jack, or an optical cable into its included adapter plug. Either way, the result is improved computer sound.
Simple features include bass and treble boosts, a multiband equalizer and programmable presets. But the plug-in is most fun when "rotating" a CD's sound; the effect is like standing in the center of a sonic carousel. You can also choose programmed settings for rock, classical, jazz and other genres, and you can add ambient effects that mimic bathrooms, steel pipes, concert halls, rock-and-roll bars and other spaces.
One disadvantage is that the Audio Advantage Micro, which is available at www.turthebeach.com and at consumer electronics stores, amplifies sounds while disabling the manual volume controls found on some computers. That leaves adjusting the onscreen levels of your operating system or media-player software as the only way to set the volume. Check the sound level when you plug it in, or be prepared for a high-decibel surprise.
  • Out of the shower and off key? Perfect pitch may be in a box: Before heading off to face Simon Cowell at the next "American Idol" audition, you may want to consider investing in a new software program, Singing Coach. It could help you avoid becoming the next William Hung.
    Singing Coach, from Carry-A-Tune Technologies, is a 20-lesson computer tutorial designed to improve a singer's pitch and rhythm.
    Lessons consist of lectures, presented by an animated microphone, and performance scores.
    A passing score, based on the percentage of time the student is on pitch and in tempo, lets an aspiring singer graduate to the next level.
    A graphic display shows exactly how far off pitch a singer is. There are beginner, intermediate or advanced lessons.
    Twelve practice songs are included, and four more can be downloaded from an online library. (Beyond that, they cost $2.45 to $3.99 apiece.) An Unlimited version allows users to compose practice songs, select from a larger library and compete with other singers.
    Singing Coach is compatible with Windows 2000 and later and includes a microphone. The basic version is $50; the Unlimited version is $100. They are available in stores, at www.carry-a-tune.com or by phone at (888)378-5050.
    Of course, being on key is not a prerequisite for fame. Just ask Ashlee Simpson.
  • For the collector with fine wines in the cellar, a digital sommelier: Perhaps your wine collection is little more than a few supermarket specials in the refrigerator behind a carton of skim milk. But if you own much more, or aspire to, the eSommelier Wine Management Server may help.
    At first glance it looks like a desktop computer. But the flat-screen system is a dedicated database for cataloging and tracking a household's wine.
    The system, with touch-screen controls, ships with the names and backgrounds of 150,000 wines on its hard drive. A user can select the wine's country, region, variety, winery and vintage from the database, then simply note the number of bottles on hand, said Ben Rosner, a developer of the system and president of Media Access Solutions, which makes it. Wines that are not listed can be added by typing in the information; personal wine ratings and tasting notes can be added as well, he said.
    The eSommelier, which costs $5,000 (an optional bar code scanner is $1,000), is an alternative to old-fashioned cellar journals and spreadsheet programs, Rosner said. The system is sold through a variety of custom installation dealers, said Joseph Hageman, a public relations representative for eSommelier (www.esommelier.net).
    In the end, Rosner suggested, oenophiles need not be technophiles to manage their collections.
  • Not a palmtop, not a laptop, tiny PC wields a lot of power: A few lightweight notebook computers are already smaller than their spiral-bound namesakes, but Sony Electronics has introduced a full-fledged Windows XP machine even tinier than most other portable PCs.
    Just over an inch thick, the Sony Vaio VGN-U750P weighs just 1.2 pounds and is 6.6 inches wide by 4.3 inches high.
    Although it might be mistaken for a personal organizer or a gaming device because of its five-inch color screen, the U750P has the power to run all the standard business programs like Microsoft Office and includes built-in 802.11b/g capability for wireless network connections.
    It uses an Intel Pentium M Ultra Low Voltage 733 processor and comes with 512 megabytes of memory and a 20-gigabyte hard drive.
    Standard battery life is estimated at 1.5 to 3 hours, but an optional power cell with a longer life is available.
    As for data entry, the U750P offers a variety of options, including a fold-out USB keyboard and handwriting recognition software, as well as an onscreen keyboard that works with the Vaio's stylus.
    Information on how to buy the computer ($2,000) and technical details are available at www.sonystyle.com.
    The U750P comes with headphones and a remote control to allow the hard-working traveler to rock out while on the road.
  • From soup cans to still lifes, turn the den into an art gallery: Not all art must hang in a frame. GalleryPlayer, an image-downloading service, can transform a big blank TV screen into a dynamic digital canvas.
    For $5 to $7 a month, the service provides 20 to 25 images in any of several categories, allowing you to create a high-resolution slide show on televisions connected to a Microsoft Media Center PC. Requirements include high-speed Internet access for downloading and a Media Center PC running GalleryPlayer software, to convert the downloaded files into images. Media Center PCs offer multiple ports for transferring the images to the television, including Digital Visual InterfaceS-video and VGA. Viewing is optimal on a liquid-crystal display or plasma television.
    Beon Media, GalleryPlayer's developer, said sets of images were available in 12 categories like nature, earth and space and fine art; entries are updated monthly. The company said most of the photos and paintings were in private collections, and many were previously unavailable for downloading or online viewing.f-z Images can be purchased outright for $1 to $3 each, or in collections of 15 images for $5 to $20. Thumbnails of the images and descriptions of the categories are at galleryplayer.com.
    The viewing experience can be enhanced by music or sound effects, but you will have to provide your own.
  • Satellite-based traffic information, even for older cars: Soon you will not have to buy a luxury car to get a navigation system that shows local traffic conditions . Pioneer will offer the AVIC-N2, an after-market unit that combines entertainment and navigation system.
    The traffic information, provided by satellite by XM NavTraffic, is available for 20 metropolitan areas in the United States. The traffic option includes more than 130 channels of XM Satellite Radio programming, which is also available separately.
    The 6.5-inch liquid-crystal display, which folds away into the dashboard, can show a rear view when the car is in reverse (the unit has inputs for an optional camera) and DVD movies when the car is parked. When the car is in motion, movies can be played on optional rear seat screens and music (CDs, MP3 CDs, AM/FM radio and XM Satellite Radio) can be played in the front.
    Virtual instrument dials on the display show time, electrical system voltage, the road's slope and the compass heading. A subscription to the XM traffic and radio services will be $14 a month. Prices for the AVIC-N2 and its options will be announced this week. Pioneer says pricing will be similar to the AVIC-N1, which costs $1,400 to $2,000 without an XM adapter (about $150). The company also says the N1 can be upgraded with new software and a new XM adapter.
    If you want an excuse to buy a luxury car now, the Pioneer won't be available until the spring.
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