Monday, January 2, 2012

Proprietarily Ridiculous - The Apple Pro Speakers

Apple Pro Speakers
There are a few "extra" features of the iMac G4 that I have gone to great lengths to incorporate because I felt that these were important to the design of the iMac.  One of these is the optical disc drive.  Although this is no longer a critical feature and it uses a huge amount of space in the dome, the disc tray emerging from the oval slit in the otherwise featureless dome is something I always associate with the iMac G4.  Similarly, the apple pro speakers, sometimes called the orb or eyeball speakers falls into the same category for me.  Other speakers just don't look quite right next to the iMac G4.  I had always known that the apple pro speakers had a proprietary connector (the apple mini-jack) and lacked an amplifier in the speakers themselves, but I didn't realize exactly how they worked until I was completing my most recent project and decided to incorporate these speakers.  I had been lucky to obtain both a Griffin Powerwave and a Griffin iFire which accept the apple mini jack and never gave this connector much thought.

Griffin Powerwave (External USB Amp)

Griffin iFire Adapter (Powered by Firewire)
One thing that made iMacs appear more elegant was the lack of "cable mess".  Steve Jobs talked about this frequently and this was one of the reasons that he so greatly favored all-in-ones.  Included in this was AC adapters/plugs.  It makes sense, why should computer speakers need another cable for AC power to power an onboard amp (complete with its own powerbrick for DC conversion) when you have a power supply in your computer and a cable already connecting to it. You could either have the amp in the computer and then output the amplified sound to the speakers or keep the amp external, but use the computers power supply to power it.
Cube Speakers
These speakers, designed by Harman Kardon, appeared with the G4 generation of PowerPC Macs.  The G4 Cube seem to contain an external amp in the small box that closely resembles an ifire (likely secondary to space constraints of the cube's chasis).  This then connected to the computer via USB for both power and connection.  The USB port, however, was a special port, with a higher voltage (standard USB is 5V) required to power the amplifier.  This makes sense to me and although these speakers were not compatible with standard USB, this was necessary to power the speakers and still keep the design simplicity that was characteristic of apple.

Apple Mini-Jack
For the Powermac G4's speakers (The Speakers with the Dark Circle) and the iMac G4 (The Speakers with the White Circle) apple introduced the apple mini jack connector.

At first this appears to be a 2.5mm plug.  The 2.5mm is simply a smaller version of the standard (3.5mm) Audio Jack.  These use a TRS (Tip, Ring, Sleeve) method for connection.  Looking from Top to Bottom, the Tip supplies the L channel.  Then there is a separation (see the white band below the tip), followed by a metal band - the Ring, which supplies the R Channel.  Then there is another separation, and then more metal which is the Sleeve.  The Sleeve is the Ground which is shared by both channels.

Apple Mini Jack on top,
2.5mm connector on bottom
However, with the Mini-Jack, at the base of the plastic part of the connector there is another metal piece not seen on the 2.5mm connector.  I had initially thought that this was there to provide a mechanical obstruction for use with other devices.  Similar to the original iPhones headphone jack which was recessed making compatibility with other headphones limited.  However, this is much more than just a physical barrier.  Closer inspection reveals another difference.  There are 4 metal areas on the inner pin for the minijack (separated by 3 white bands) as opposed to the 3 metal areas (separated by 2 black bands) on the 2.5mm which correspond to Tip, Ring, Sleeve.


For my project, I wanted to make it as similar to the original iMac G4 as possible.  To do this I had intended to internalize the griffin powerwave's board with the DC power hooked up to the an internal 12V line.  However, this board was a tight fit and I already had a USB audio adapter for use with the internal microphone and did not want to add a second.  So I opened up and tried internalizing the smaller Griffin iFire which connected via a standard 3.5mm audio jack and FireWire.  Although my computer did not have a firewire 400, this is used only for power.  So I connected this to the internal 12V and hooked the iFire to my turtle bay usb audio adapters headphone port via a 3.5mm cable.  Unfortunately the shape of the board did not lend itself to sit flush against the round rear ports of the iMac.  Although Griffin made an extension cable for these speakers, it seems to be long extinct.  So, using the port on the original iMac's motherboard, I fashioned an extension cable.  I cut the connector from a broken set of Pro Speakers and was surprised  to find 6 wires, instead of four wires. It seems that the ring on the base (the black wire) and the extra connector area on the pin itself (the red wire) are used to send some "signal" in addition to the 2 channels (white/blue and brown/yellow).  I then used a multimeter to find where on iMac's port each wire connected to (I used the connections at the bottom of the picture.  The solder points on top in the picture that I labelled indicate where these connections were routed next.



I noticed that above the "Circle" only 4 wires exit, 2 to each speaker.  But 2 wires terminate in this circle (blak and red).  Inside of this plastic circle is a very small chip from which the wires to the orb speakers themselves emerge.

"The Circle"

This seemed way too small and simplistic to be any type of circuit necessary for alteration of the audio itself.  After some research I realized others had come to the same exact conclusion that this is simply a "gatekeeper".  If the proper signal from the 2 additional wires does not reach this chip, the audio signal in the other 4 wires will not be allowed to pass through. 

 Cutting the circle off and connecting the individual speakers to a small amplifier, 10 - 20 watts, then connecting the amplifier to the computers audio out port resulted in crystal clear audio which is indistinguishable from the audio that is produced by sound that went through the "circle" and mini jack.

It turns out that due to power limitations of my power supply, I started to see signs of strain (USB ports not working etc) when I hooked up the ifire to a 12v molex (via the power cables in the firewire) internally, so I decided to scrap internalizing the speaker connection.  I thought it was interesting that this $20 mini amp pictured here sounded exactly the same as the sound from these speakers when the iFire or Powerwave provided the amplification via the minijack connector.
When I looked to see what the cost of these long discontinued items are online, I found that the asking prices are even more outrageous than when I grossly overpaid for these several years ago.  Used iFire's (initially $40 or so) seem to go for as much as $300 and the Powerwaves $200+.  For anyone who wishes to use these speakers with a different computer, simply cut the speakers free before the "circle", strip the 2 wires, and connect it to a mini amp.  If you already have an iFire or Powerwave, there is no reason to do this, but buying one for as astronomical amount is not worth it.

In retrospect, this is one of most unnecessary, frustrating, proprietary features that I have seen apple incorporate for very little reason.  It seems that apple went to a lot of trouble to make sure that people could not use these speakers with non-apple hardware.  I completely understand why they did not add an amplifier to these speakers. By keeping the amp internal they simplified the setup allowing for completely translucent speakers to be connected via one cable to the computer without the need for another AC plug.  Putting the amplifier in the machine itself makes a lot of sense, but for the few owners who wanted to connect it to an external amp to use in some other fashion, why create a whole new connection, add an unnecessary chip etc to stop them? Its not like Apple felt that these belonged only with the iMac G4 as they were incorporated into the Powermac G4 and Apple Cube as well, both radically different designs.  These were even designed outside of Apple and whats more - Apple itself stopped supporting the MiniJack in its very next generation of computers, the G5's.  A simple google search reveals countless forums and discussions where people from 2003 til now search for ways to reuse their apple pro speakers.  In addition, most people just want to use them with their new iMac or Macbook.

For those interested, however, a cheap amplifier and stripping 4 wires is all you need to free your apple pro speakers from its ridiculous proprietary mini jack.

25 comments:

  1. Great inventions. It comes after great work.

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  2. Wow!!! Thank you for this!
    So the speakers won't work if connected to the headphone output of the computer?

    And what is the brand of the mini amp you got and where can I get one?

    Cheers,

    Ben

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    Replies
    1. Thanks. Unfortunately no, the connector is not compatible and the sound will not be amplified - it will be at "headphones" volume. The one pictured here is from Sonic Impact but other small amps are made by Pyle and Dayton

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    2. Is there any way you know of to use the Cube USB Orb speakers with a Macbook Pro laptop? Will they work with a powered USB adapter? Thanks!

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    3. Ive heard that some people have used this, but its still reduced volume. I've never owned a pair so I can't say for sure.

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  3. Great Post Dremel Junkie, I love my lampshade G4 (or as Jobs called it, The Sunflower)
    I have mine on my desktop and am still awed by the sound and the design
    Didn't Apple call it cinema sound or concert sound? Anyway, it sounds better than any other mac before or since.
    Question, When you play the pro speakers through your external amp do you achieve the same sound quality as with the iMac, also does the internal speaker play when the pro speakers are plugged in?

    Thanks, Paul

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    Replies
    1. While I find the sound comparable to when it is hooked up to either the power wave or ifire, it may not be as good as when it was originally hooked up to an iMac G4. Now keep in mind, it has been a while since I have heard them while hooked up to an original iMac G4, so my memory may be embellishing the quality somewhat. But, the amp in the iMac was specifically designed only for those speakers and vice versa, so it does make sense. Plus, back in the day, I had an iSub with them, which I'm sure helped.

      In terms of the internal speaker, do you mean with the original iMac G4 or with a modded/hackintosh iMac G4?

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    2. I was refering to the original iMac G4, however your modded G4iMac is awesome(as well as your others). It seems the internal speaker is cut off once the pro speakers are plugged in.
      When you say the speakers and amp were designed for each other- Were you able to isolate the amplifier circuit? I read somewhere(maybe here on your blog) that it was 18 watts.i watched your vids and looked at the pics but never saw a shot with the internal speaker or notation of an amp.
      I found your blog while looking for an exploded view with schematic of the G4 but never found anything
      any suggestions or links for that?

      Thanks

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  4. Just bought and 2.5 to 3.5 converted and ripped the grounding ring off. Only one speaker works at very low volume when I plug it into my iPod. Just when I was throwing the speakers out, I found your post! I'll have to try and hook it up to my amp. Thanks!

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  5. My used iMac G4 1.25 came with Pro Speakers but I was dismayed to in the connector on back was smashed! Whenever plugged in, the speakers operate at a full and clearly distorted volume. Is there any easy way to fix this connector? I figure some moron decided to try and cram a 3.5mm jack in there at some point. It's the biggest hang-up in my upgrade to internal SSD, 2GB memory, new wireless mouse and keyboard, airport extreme card etc.

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    Replies
    1. Unfortunately, no. There is really no easy to acquire female version of this plug. There was an extension cable that I'd eist, but I have not been able to locate. To make my adapter I actually cut off part of a motherboard and soldered the wires onto the motherboard itself. This was extremely difficult and lasted only a few hours. Replacing your entire motherboard would actually be the only wy I can conceive to genuinely replace it. Using a griffin power wave would allow you to use a USB slot, but these are somewhat hard to find and often way overpriced hen you do find them. Sorry

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  6. Hi, I've just cut the minijack off my old G4 Pro Speakers to fit a standard 3.5mm. I've left the disc on. I was also surprised to find 6 wires, but by testing found
    Left is White / Blue
    Right is Brown / Yellow
    Both channels work ok without the Red and Black connected. I haven't wired up yet because I don't know which wires are signal and which are Common Grounds, and don't want them out of phase.
    Any idea which is whch?

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    Replies
    1. Good to hear. To be honest I can not remember. Based on the way I hooked it up in the picture above, Blue/Brown are the "Grounds" for their respective channels and White/Yellow the Positive. I did not get the same result in terms of leaving the disk intact, I am unsure why. One thing the I am unclear on is how do you know the channels work ok if you haven't yet hooked them up?

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  7. This was very helpful, thank you.

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  8. Hi Doc: This was very helpful indeed. Had a lot of fun the other night at the local coffee house showing off these beautiful speakers with 6 wires. I had cut off the jack and stripped the wires hoping that they could be used in an analog system. Seems that a good deal of people believe that these speakers are only good for a digital output. Lot of guesses for the red and black extras and strange jack.

    My big question was the polarity of the speakers. I hope your right in the above note. Your photo is quite fuzzy and you stated that you couldn't remember? I'm going to trust your color coding.

    As I was reading about you using a small amp for power, I realized that most computer designed sub-woofers with amps would most likely power these Harman Kardon speakers. I use a speaker system by the name of Klipsch THX with a large and powerful sub-woofer. This system can make awesome sound at times, but I always disliked a horn for highs and that is this companies trade mark. The desktop speakers just clip in the sub with spring thumb jacks - why couldn't I add these apple pro speakers? Twist all the wires together? LOL

    Have any ideas on this subject?

    Oh, by the way - I've had this sore throat! TEASING


    Thanks so much for your article. Made my day

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  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  10. Hey dremel , would it work if you change the wiring from the speakers to 3.5 mm? without cutting the original wires?

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    1. Unfortunately no. There is some type of "decoder" chip in the little circular hub. It's not just a size issue, without something that gives the proper signal, the decoder will not pass sound along to the speakers themselves

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  11. Hey bought a 3.5mm stereo headphone plug w screw terminals and simply looked through the conveniently clear housing to see that blue and white are - and + for left while brown and yellow are- and + right channel. Any way just hook up the common grounds to the base and white to the tip and yellow to the collar, no amplification but they sound nice as travel speakers for my iphone.

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  12. Do you recommend a specific amp to use that has a power supply that should be able to handle a full audio load? Also...Good job sir!

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  13. Thank you so much for posting this info!

    I bought a pair of these speakers for a ridiculously low price on ebay, mainly because the photo looked cool: when they arrived, I discovered the Ridiculous Proprietary Connection. :-( An initial search didn't seem too promising – they were digital only (supposedly), they needed a ridiculously expensive adapter, and etc. But then I read your page, and it gave me the courage to start cutting and stripping...

    My findings were not exactly yours. I started by cutting the plug off, even though you indicated I probably wouldn't be able to get signal past the disk, because there was so much more cable on that side that it seemed a shame not to give it a try. I found the six wires OK, it was pretty clear which ones were the “gateway” signal, since they are smaller gauge, and I stripped and tinned the other four colors. It was easy to see what went where by looking in the globes, as already mentioned.

    I hooked the wires up to the external speaker outputs of a found 12V SoundWorks subwoofer, and... Holy Cow!!! I didn't see any detriment from lack of a “gateway” signal – if anything, the problem was I might have blown them then and there if the main volume level hadn't been turned way down. They are incredibly loud, sound great, and the little bit of thump from the subwoofer adds just the right touch to the mix.

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  14. These are very helpful and amazing. We had purchased and experienced so much fun with these beautiful speakers. Companion 20 Speakers.

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