New content: VPN Provider Review: AzireVPN

A VPN provider that owns their own hardware? And runs the system in RAM only? And physically plugs external ports to prevent tampering?

Although no VPN provider can be trusted 100% due to the nature of the service, if AzireVPN's claims are true, and there is some evidence they are, then this is a company worth considering.

Read: VPN Provider Review: AzireVPN

VPN Provider Review: AzireVPN

AzireVPN, operated by Netbouncer in Sweden, was recommended to me by one of those geeky, super knowledgeable hacker types who detailed some really interesting differences between Azire and other VPN providers. And what are those differences you ask, mouth watering in anticipation?

Well, first let's get something straight regarding VPN providers: there isn't a damn one that can be fully trusted, at least none i know of. They can tell you whatever they want about their security and no-log policies (many of them are flat out lying when they state this), but unless there's an information leak, or you discover a security or privacy issue yourself, or you personally know the people running the company, your confidence in their service will always be blind. Tor advocates like to use this ammo to suggest that Tor is far better in this regard because it's open source and uses multiple nodes and multiple layers of encryption, yada yada yada, but i find their claims of security to be less than concrete. For example a bad actor, such as your ISP, can apparently run an entire Tor network on a single machine using something like The Shadow Simulator.

Tor has other problems as well, some of them detailed in my article Tor versus a VPN - Which is right for you?. Understand that i'm not suggesting that a VPN is necessarily superior to Tor in every case, but i think that what path is best chosen depends on what you're trying to achieve and i think that for the average user who's downloading ... things ... or wants to circumvent YouTube's idiotic geo-restrictions, a VPN may be the better option, though unlike Tor, VPNs are not free and any provider that claims this is a good one to run the hell away from at maximum velocity.

Back to Azire...

AzireVPN claims to do things very differently. For one, they claim to physically own, install and maintain all their servers. Unlike every other (or mostly every other) VPN business where one can sit behind a keyboard, provisioning as many servers around the world as they please, Azire tells us they have to purchase, configure, secure and install each server they operate (if you search the images on their domain you can find some evidence that supports this).

From a security/privacy viewpoint i see this as a huge advantage over other mega-VPNs like NordVPN, ExpressVPN, etc., who are potentially more open to hacking and government snooping. Azire makes the following claims...

  • They own and maintain the hardware.
  • All hard drives are removed.
  • Nothing is stored physically on the servers - the entire system runs only in RAM (more here).
  • All USB, VGA and serial ports are plugged to prevent tampering (more here).
  • They support WireGuard which is apparently faster, better, easier and less bloated than the more traditional OpenVPN protocol.
  • No logging.

AzireVPN was featured in TorrentFreak's article, Which VPN Providers Really Take Privacy Seriously in 2021?.

Sounds like the berries, right? There is one downside to managing your own hardware though in that they can't provision equipment as quickly as the fast-food VPNs and so Azire doesn't have a heck of a lot of servers, but the ones they do have are located in quite a few countries and they seem to be slowly expanding (see their blog for more). Azire does offer SOCKS5 proxies, however you must be connected to one of their VPN servers to use them and there is no encryption at the proxy level. Still, their SOCKS5 servers make it easy to change your location/IP in order to circumvent geo-restrictions. For those like myself who run their VPN client on their router this is a plus because, while it isn't as straight forward to swap locations, there are plenty off web browser extensions available that provide the ability to quickly switch between SOCKS proxies.

I started with AirVPN several years ago then moved to NordVPN, but being with a huge company like Nord, who seems to be less than transparent, has always bothered me and i'm glad to have found an alternative which i think is better all around. Although it wasn't an issue when i first signed up, Nord's servers have become blacklisted by quite a few sites and it started to get annoying.

Getting AzireVPN set up on my router was a bit of a pain in the ass. At first i was using the DD-WRT firmware and even after contacting Azire support i could not get OpenVPN or WireGuard working. Truth be told, their setup guides are out of date and, although they say they support OpenVPN, i'm not convinced they do, at least for some configurations which they claim to support. Azire seems to be moving away from OpenVPN in favor of WireGuard, but this is all pretty new stuff and so there can be hitches in setting up WireGuard as well. I finally got the tunnel working with WireGuard only after i switched to the OpenWRT firmware and a lot of fiddling around plus still more help from Azire support. Azire definitely loses points here though their support has been mostly OK (i'll get more into that in a bit). If you decide to use their app however, you can likely avoid the hassle i had and they have a healthy selection of apps for different platforms/devices.

Another big plus with AzireVPN is that you don't have to give them any personal information to open an account and you can pay with cryptocurrency, so acquiring their service can be totally anonymous if you want, especially if you use another VPN or Tor to sign up. There aren't allot of other VPN providers that go this far to protect your privacy.

As far as the tunnel itself, all ports are open and bandwidth is unlimited. I've only been using their service a short time, but speed seems really good in tests, though this may have a lot to do with the WireGuard protocol since it has less overhead. Also i haven't yet had much trouble accessing sites which had blocked Nord's IPs. P2P traffic is of course allowed.

Now, back to that support thing...

Because i couldn't get DD-WRT working with the OpenVPN protocol, a configuration which Azire claims to support, i was offered some free time without having to ask for it. I appreciated the offer and viewed it as the right thing to do, especially for a smaller company which is apparently interested in growing. Problem is, they didn't follow through and so i inquired again about their offer. Crickets. In the end i inquired four times before i got a response, and their response was to renege on the offer because i didn't help them figure out how to get DD-WRT/OpenVPN working on their tunnels, a condition which was absolutely never stated nor implied. Here's what they said, emphasis added:

We thought that our offer was pretty clear while saying the following statement:

"Whether you manage to find a solution to your issue, we will be glad to give you free time and eventually we will make a quick update to our guide."

In other words, if you were able to find a solution which we could integrate into our guide to update it, we would give you free time. I think our sentence was poorly written, but that is what we meant.

Their offer was unconditional. It did not hinge upon anything. Needless to say, their blatant twisting of their own words pissed me off and so i fired back a reply calling out their shady tactic to renege on the offer. Shortly after receiving my mail they extended my service time by one month, so in the end they did what was proper and ethical, but what they should have done was not ignore three mails regarding their offer of free time and just gave me the time they promised.

All in all i think AzireVPN offers some uniquely attractive and important features and they manage to do it at a very competitive price, though i do have an issue with their ethics regarding my support issue. At any rate, if you decide to go with Azire please consider using this referral link which helps me out a little bit.

Quick and dirty product review: HIFIMAN Sundara Planar Magnetic Headphones

I'm not an audiophile so i can't offer you a detailed description of the sound the HIFIMAN Sundara produces. Besides, there's more than enough reviews of these cans on the interwebs anyway, such as this excellent review by the respected Joshua Valour...

And a follow-up review, again by Joshua...

As i said, i'm not an audiophile, but i have taken a small step in that direction with the purchase of an external AMP/DAC combo and the $350 USD Sundara. Except for the Sundara, the only half decent cans i have is the open-back QPAD QH-85 headset which caters to gamers (it's got a mic) and so they are the only ones i can compare the Sundara to ... and what i have to say isn't entirely pretty.

The Sundara sounds great. It's an open-back, planar magnetic type with very thin and responsive diaphragms that produce a well-rounded sound without over or under-doing any aspect of it. The bass, mids and highs are all well defined in my opinion. The build quality seems really good; contrary to what Joshua said, they don't feel cheap in any way to me. However, compared to my $94 QPAD's, that's about where the pluses end.

My QPAD QH-85 is significantly lighter and more comfortable than the Sundara. While they also have a somewhat thin and short cable, at least it acts like a 'normal' cable that obeys gravity whereas the Sundara cable is like a god damned slinky! It may well be a better cable as far as the internals, but the sheathing, which feels like silicone, is like a coiled rattlesnake poised to bite me somewhere where i'd rather not be bitten. I tried running it through my hands while exerting some pressure on it to heat it slightly and get it to straighten out, but that didn't help a whole lot. Hopefully it will straighten itself out in time, else i may purchase a different cable.

I thought the Sundara frame design, with a suspended headband that molds to your head, would be more comfortable than the QPAD design, however it's really not, largely due to the extra heft of the unit. The clamp pressure is also a too high for my taste, but perhaps this will feel better once the ear pads break-in. Problem is, i couldn't wait for that to happen. The Sundara ear pads are kind of shallow which is nice because it positions the drivers close to the ears, but they are so close that, with the added clamp pressure, the top of my ears were getting a bit sore from contact with the material just inside the ear cups. I wanted to stretch out the frame a bit to reduce the clamp pressure, but the head band makes that difficult because it prevents flexing the frame far enough to open it up. It is doable however and the phones do feel somewhat better after i figured out how to do it (hold the unit in both hands near the drivers and open the headband as far as it will go, then with your index and middle fingers, press down on the top of the frame).

Another niggle i have with the Sundara is that the hinge for the driver housings isn't loose enough which causes the ear pads to not conform to the sides of your bean as well as they could. I put a tiny bit of lubricant on the hinge points but it didn't really help. Again, this is something that may heal itself in time.

So while i'm very happy with the sound, i expected more in the comfort department for my $350 clams. And a better cable too, though the length of it is perfect for me.

In the end, the question is whether the extra $256 bucks on top of the QPAD's equates to a $256 dollar better experience and, from my perspective, the answer is no, it don't, but such is the case in the audiophile world where one can spend thousands on a set of cans to get an incrementally better sound. That said, i'm not sorry i bought them and i'm sure they will feel more comfortable once the pads break-in.

Product Review: Schiit Hel 2 External Headphone AMP/DAC

Dealing with Schiit Audio was not a pleasant experience. Perhaps some of my frustration can be chalked up to the alleged COVID-19 "plandemic" (yes, the spelling is intentional), but i'm not sure that accounts for all the trouble.

Second of all, i'm not very technically knowledgeable regarding digital audio, but i do have a basic understanding and i just wanted to share a potentially unique and early review of the Schiit Hel 2, "early" meaning i've only had the unit in my hands for a week or so.

The Hel 2 Gaming AMP/DAC is primarily aimed at headphone and headset users who also want to run their microphone through the unit, thus it suits gamers well. The $199 USD Hel is an upgrade to the $109 Fulla 4 (up from $99) for those who require more power and options. I no longer do much gaming, nor is that why i bought it. My reasons for wanting the Hel were because the Fulla 4 i was sent was DOA and i wanted to see if could gain a better listening experience verses my on-board sound system. Also i needed to clean up the noise floor on my cheap microphone.

While the Hel looks and feels great on the outside with its weighty steel and aluminum exterior and smooth, precise knobs and switches, there seems to be serious shortcomings with the internals. While most of the reviews i've read and watched were enthusiastically positive, others were quite critical. While i was writing this review and listening to music, my Hel started producing the same 'popping' every few seconds that quite a few other customers have mentioned. For example there are several people on Reddit that very recently have had problems similar to what i experienced, both with Schiit and its products. Here's a couple partial quotes from the beginning of the thread...

'HuskySlim' opened the thread with...

All i’ve seen so far are a lot of people with a lot of issues on their new Fulla 4 / Hel 2 units. Is this something that Schiit is aware of and actively correcting with the outgoing units? Seems like a lot of units are effected.

'b34tn1k' replied with...

I got my Hel 2 yesterday and it's cut out a bunch of times. I've emailed their support detailing the steps I've taken to trouble shoot and their reply was to ask if if I'd taken any of the steps that I already detailed.... It was like they didn't read my email beyond the subject line.

Another user replied...

Audio randomly cuts out/pops for a second and I have to unplug the power cord from the hel everytime I turn on my computer or my mic wont work

The 'popping' issues people are reporting, which i would characterize as a roughly 100 millisecond skipping in sound every second or two, as though the unit were turned off and back on again, is not exclusive to the Hel. I noticed the exact same issue with an ARC MK2 which causes me to wonder if the issue is due to a Linux kernel setting or a problem with USB on Linux.

As i mentioned, the Fulla i received was DOA which is one reason i went with the Hel. There's no excuse for this. Schiit is shipping products which i believe they know are faulty. In Schiit's defense, 'HuskySlim' apparently wasn't using the required power supply and this may have been an issue with 'b34tn1k' also, i don't know. What i do know is that many other customers are complaining, and have been for years, and that i completely agree with the statement, "It was like they didn't read my email beyond the subject line". I'm certain this is what happened in my case, no less than three times when my concern regarding the quality of their 1/4" to 1/8" headphone adapter, which others also complained about, went unanswered.

Another Reddit thread, this one from 2 years old, reveals more complaints. Here 'deepskypics' opens the thread with...

Why the hate for Schiit these days?

'verifitting' replied with...

Schiit got called out for their quality control, safety concerns, poor objective performance, and engineering pitfalls by an experienced audio engineer with an impressive résumé. Rather than own up to it, provide their own measurements, or their own review units, they attacked his character and credentials, along with many others from SBAF and Head-Fi. He then, in turn, reviewed all of their gear and pointed out all of the flaws, albeit using pretty biased language in his reviews.

It was a big controversy on headphone/audio forums (here, ASR, Head-Fi, SBAF), with many people taking sides. When it was all set and done, Schiit ended up buying their own audio analyzer and started measuring their equipment, so the desired end-result was met (i.e., audio manufacturers being more transparent in their objective performance/engineering).

Had i found these comments earlier i would not have bought from Schiit. If you're considering purchasing a product from them, i'd highly recommend finding plenty of the most recent reviews before you decide to pull the trigger.

Another problem i had with the Hel was latency. Listening to music or doing voice chats was fine, however watching videos resulted in roughly a ~300 ms delay between someones lips moving and the sound hitting my ears. I don't know whether Schiit could have done anything different regarding design since this seems to be an OS issue. In my case i run a Linux box (Manjaro) with PulseAudio and once i screwed around with the configuration file for PulseAudio, the latency issue seems to be resolved, or at least nearly so. Here's what i did...

  1. Make a pulse folder in the .conf directory of my home directory ( ~/.config/pulse ) and copy /etc/pulse/deamon.conf to ~/.config/pulse/deamon.conf
  2. In the daemon.conf file, change default-sample-format = s16le (the 'le' could be 'be) to default-sample-format = s24le
  3. After saving the file, open a terminal and restart PulseAudio: pulseaudio -k

If you want to double check that the default-sample-format setting matches the spec for the Hel 2, or if you're tweaking your config for another sound card, open a terminal and run pacmd list-sinks and look for the sample spec: line for the card you want to configure. For the Hel 2 the spec is: s24le 2ch 44100Hz , thus why i used the s24le setting.

Here's the resources that helped me:

PROS:

  • Made in the U.S.
  • All metal, solid build quality with silky smooth volume controls and quality toggle switches
  • Flexible in terms of input/output capability
  • Can drive most any headphones thanks to the hi/lo gain switch
  • Microphone volume knob
  • Unlike the Fulla, the Hel has a mechanical switch to toggle between the USB and optical inputs
  • Power switch

NIGGLES:

  • Requires a separate (included) power supply - the data USB cable alone won't cut it, but this is the price of a rather powerful amp.
  • Microphone gain is weak, but OK, at least for me.
  • The microphone gain knob is positioned on the front of the unit which makes it a bit difficult to adjust. I think they should have stuck it on top near the output volume.
  • Price may be an issue for a dedicated gamer who is not an audiophile or doesn't need the feature-set of the Hel 2.

CONS:

  • Long standing quality control issues make buying Schiit's products a roll of the dice. In my case they shipped me a Fulla 4 which was DOA and a Hel 2 that started having problems shortly after i received it. Many others are complaining as well.

Here's the specs for the Schiit Hel 2...

Frequency Response: 20Hz-20Khz, +/-0.3db
Maximum Power, 16 Ohms: 1350mW RMS
Maximum Power, 32 ohms: 1200mW RMS
Maximum Power, 50 ohms: 800mW RMS
Maximum Power, 300 ohms: 200mW RMS
THD: <0.0008%, 20Hz-20KHz, at 1V RMS
IMD: <0.0008%, CCIR
SNR: >110db, A-weighted, referenced to 1V RMS
Crosstalk: >-80dB, 20Hz-20KHz
Output Impedance (headphones): 0.25 ohms
Output Impedance (line out): 75 ohms
Gain: Low and High, selectable via front panel. Low has maximum output of 1.3V RMS, high has maximum output of 8VRMS.
USB Receiver: C-Media CM6635
DAC: AKM AK4490 with TI OPA1656-based filter stage
Sample Rates and Bit Depths: 
USB Playback: 16/44.1 to 32/384 supported without drivers on Windows 10, Mac, Linux, Android (any UAC 2 device) with autoswitching to UAC1 for PS4, PS5, and Switch consoles.
USB Input: 48kHz
Optical Input: 16/44.1 to 24/192
Output Stage: TI OPA1656 (4 amp stages per channel) 
Power Supply: Via USB, with +/- 12V rails via high-current dual-polarity switching regulator, with inductor filtering and local regulation
Power Consumption: 2.5W typical
Size: 5 x 3.5 x 1.375” (including knob)
Weight: 13oz
APx Report for Hel 2