Stop using Google and Startpage search engines. Here's why...

Google censors search results and this has been the case for years. Startpage, while offering some semblance of privacy, relies heavily on Google for its results and therefore both Google and Startpage are garbage when searching for anything politically sensitive. Case in point: search google.com for the exact phrase, quotes included, "fewer than 1% of vaccine adverse events are reported" and Google tells us that "No results found for "fewer than 1% of vaccine adverse events are reported"." As expected, Startpage also returns no results. DuckDuckGo on the other hand, which relies heavily on Microsoft's Bing search engine, does return some results, but the best results are returned by the Brave search engine.

Google has a search index. In other words, Google actively crawls the web looking for new and updated content. Bing and Yahoo do the same. Most other search engines, like Startpage, DuckDuckGo, Searx, etc., are meta search engines, meaning they depend heavily or entirely upon the corporate goliaths such as Google and Bing. The Brave search engine is a hybrid in that it pulls results from both the large search engines as well as from its own crawlers. I discovered the Brave search engine a short time ago and added it to my browser. So far, it seems to be better than any other engine i've found.

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

UPDATE: I don't recommend buying anything from Schiit Audio until they address the quality control issues they are obviously experiencing and are certainly aware of. While i was writing this review i was listening to music and my Schiit Hel 2 started having the same 'popping' every few seconds that several people in this Reddit thread mentioned.

Following is my original review...

First of all, dealing with Schiit Audio was not entirely 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 audio, but i do have a basic understanding of digital audio 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. Basically 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. From all of the reviews i've read and watched, virtually all of them enthusiastically positive, the Hel is more than just a gaming quality sound card; it seems to be a very worthy addition to the budding audiophiles tool kit. It seems to be built with high quality parts and nothing about its weighty steel and aluminum exterior feels the least bit cheap. However, while writing this review i ran across several people on Reddit that 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.

The Fulla i received was DOA which is why i went with the Hel. There's no excuse for this. Schiit is shipping product which they know may be faulty. In Schiit's defense however, '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 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.

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

I purchased the Hel because i wanted to see if i could achieve better sound quality than my motherboard's sound system offers, but primarily i needed to clean up the horrible noise floor for my microphone. Having a nice, big, mechanical volume knob is also welcome.

As for the sound quality on the headphone output, it's hard for me to say whether the Hel outshines the onboard sound which is actually pretty decent with the MSI B450 Tomahawk Max. It certainly is not any worse, that's for sure. The microphone for my headset is an order of magnitude better with the Hel, which has pretty much eliminated the noise floor.

The Hel seems very well built with smooth controls and there is no static when adjusting the large aluminum, top-mounted volume knob. Apparently this annoyance is somewhat common among some headphone AMPs, even good ones.

One of the problems i had with the Hel was latency. Listening to music or doing voice chats was absolutely fine, however watching videos resulted in roughly a 200-300 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 however. 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 )
  2. Copy /etc/pulse/deamon.conf to ~/.config/pulse
  3. Make sure the default-sample-rate option is either set to 44100 or commented out
  4. In the daemon.conf file, change default-sample-format = s16le (the 'le' could be 'be) to default-sample-format = s24le
  5. 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:

Overall i like the Hel, however after reading some of the more recent reviews which i missed earlier, i'm feeling less confidant about potential quality control issues. Had i found the Reddit thread i linked earlier, i would not have bought from Schiit. That said, maybe the company was having a problem with quality control issues during the manufactured "pandemic". Whatever the case, if you're interested in any Schiit product, i'd recommend finding the most recent reviews before you decide to pull the trigger.

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
  • 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

CONS:

  • Quality control issues in some cases, at least with the latest revision of units shipped around June, 2021