Category Archives: Review

REVIEW: Triby, the Alexa-Enabled Portable Speaker, Radio and Speakerphone from Invoxia

I didn’t know I desperately needed something like Triby in my life until I had it hanging amidst the cheesy magnets and grammar school art masterpieces on my refrigerator door.

The design is reminiscent of an old school transistor radio but the portable Wi-Fi and Bluetooth speaker has a splash-proof and dirt-proof aluminum body and 2.9” e-ink display that makes it undeniably a 21st century product.

Additionally, it can serve as a digital assistant, play your favorite tunes from various Internet radio services, stream local radio stations, and act as a hands-free speakerphone and connected message board. I’m pretty sure your great-grandad’s Broksonic couldn’t do THAT.

Triby is the first non-Amazon product to be Alexa-enabled. What’s Alexa you ask? Well, my droogs, the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) is an intelligent and scalable cloud service that adds voice-enabled experiences to any connected product with a microphone and speaker.

In short, you give the device verbal commands using “Alexa” as the wake word and the Internet connected speaker does your bidding.

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Four digital microphones along with noise and echo cancellation algorithms accurately captured my voice from more than 10 feet away and Invoxia, the company that designed and manufactures Triby, claims the mics will work from up to 15 feet away.

Every request for weather, traffic and sports information was accurate and delivered with minimal delay. I found myself sorely tempted to ask Alexa to order me a Domino’s Pizza but after taking a look at my waistline, decided against it. One note, the Alexa service did have trouble with instructions offered up by my kids.

Using Triby as a hands-free speakerphone for VoIP calls was easy when using its companion smartphone app (available for both Android and iOS) or when paired with a mobile device.

A feature that I particularly enjoy are the large buttons flanking the left and right sides of the display. The phone shaped keys can be programmed with contact numbers for VoIP calls and the buttons on the right can accommodate Spotify playlists or radio station streams. Not a revolutionary idea but a nice touch when you are preparing a meal and just want to make a quick call or change the music options.

And those options are plentiful on Triby. Alexa accessed my Amazon Prime Music, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn accounts without a hitch.

The gadget is small but it sounds big. Two 1.4” transducers and a 2.5” x 2” passive radiator for bass amplification, along with the sound-shaping algorithms programmed into Triby, provide a surprisingly satisfying audio experience.

You can send doodles, short messages and emoji characters to the the display, also from the companion app, and a yellow plastic flag will pop out from the side of Triby alerting you to the arrival of a message. Pushing the plastic flag back in acknowledges receipt of the message.

If you want Triby to better match your décor you can trick it out with multicolored rubber protective bumpers that can be removed for washing and cleaning. Again, not a crucial detail but a nice one.

I honestly didn’t want to like Triby. I already have multiple bluetooth speakers and I was not thrilled with the idea of using another device powered by a rechargeable battery. Alexa on the Triby does not offer full Spotify support or access to Pandora and at $199, it is not an insignificant purchase. But the device is easy to setup and even without Alexa, the sheer convenience and fun factor would make Triby enticing enough for me to whip out the plastic at Amazon or the Invoxia web store.

Fun, convenient, good sound quality and a sturdy build. What’s not to like?

REVIEW: The Steelseries Nimbus MFi Wireless Gaming Controller

The Steelseries Nimbus wireless controller is touted as the first gamepad with official Apple TV support. I purchased mine to use with the 4th generation Apple streaming box but, truth be told, I’m playing the long game here.

The $49.95 iOS-only game controller is also compatible with iPhones, iPads and Macs, so it can pull double-duty on my television and on my iPad Pro. That is of course if I can ever afford to actually BUY an iPad Pro.

A guy can dream, can’t he?

The Nimbus looks like a cross between an Xbox and a Playstation controller but unlike either of them, it charges via an Apple lightning connector and sports a rechargeable battery that claims to offer up to 40-plus hours of life.

The joysticks, d-pad and buttons on the Bluetooth 4.1 controller are responsive and feel solid but the shoulder buttons and triggers are a tad too mushy. You can really feel the difference when comparing the Nimbus to Amazon’s proprietary game controller for the 1st generation Fire TV.

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Amazon’s controller is less “plasticy” and has a better feel while gaming and the triggers have just the right amount of give.

You’ll need to download and install a companion app on your iPhone or iPad to keep the Nimbus’ firmware up to date and for a list of supported games. Rest assured, the list of games supported on the Apple phone and tablet is extensive.

New titles are popping up regularly for both the Amazon and Apple’s streaming devices but Apple holds a commanding lead over the Amazon box when it comes to available quality games.

One annoyance that came up while using the Nimbus on iOS devices was the lack of consistent controls across games. Many iPad and iPhone games do not extend controller support through menus, so you’re forced to go back and forth to the touchscreen. Of course this problem is not exclusive to the Steelseries device. All MFi (Made for iPhone and iPad) controllers will be affected by this limitation.

Overall, the Steelseries Nimbus wireless gaming controller works as advertised. It connected via Bluetooth quickly and painlessly and worked on all Apple devices and with all games I hurled at it.

You will not be blown away by its build or features but it is a solid controller and a must have for gaming on the Apple TV.

FiiO X3 Audio Player: Audiophile Quality Minus the Buyer’s Remorse

Talk about sticker shock.

The most buzzed about product at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show was by far the new Sony Walkman NW-ZX2. It replaces the Japanese electronics giant’s flagship media player, the ZX1, and will carry a very hefty price tag.

The retail price here in the U.S. is in the 1200 dollar range, depending on the retailer of course. Sony spared no expense in the design and hardware of the ZX2 but I can’t wrap my brain around spending that kind of scratch for a portable media player. The OS is Jellybean for heaven’s sake!

This is absolutely a niche product.

I KNOW there are folks out there already yelling “Shut up, Sony, and take my money” but I am not one of them. Sure, the new Walkman can play all the uncompressed and “better than CD quality” resolutions you can think of but DANG, I just can’t get past the 1200 samolians.

If I’m going to enjoy a DSD master of some fantastically performed and engineered piece of music I will do it in the comfort of my home, on my Hi Fi, and NOT on a portable media player that I’ll schlep with me on the subway, a plane, or connect to my car stereo. All far from ideal listening spots.

However, I wouldn’t mind listening to my Apple Lossless files and FLAC files on a relatively inexpensive device that I can toss in my bag and that can power a decent pair of full sized headphones.

Photo Jan 28, 12 30 04 PMThat’s where the FiiO X3 Digital Audio Player comes in.

It sells for $199 dollars and plays back all the popular lossless formats at up to 24 bits and 192 KHz sample rates. And yes, it sounds damn good.

Every in-ear monitor and headphone played well with the X3 but for some power hungry cans you’ll have to switch the gain controller to high and expect a significant hit to your battery level.

The bass response is very good and well controlled with pleasant mids and highs.

Chinese electronics manufacturers FiiO has a reputation for producing reasonably priced, high-quality audio devices that even so-called audiophiles find appealing. The X3 audio player is their mid-priced player as the X1 covers the low end and the X5 carries the flag.

Files are transferred via micro-USB interface and the X3 features 8GB of built-in memory with the option of adding up to 128 GB of additional storage with a microSD card.

The player itself has a fairly sturdy metallic shell and is small and light but I found my self wishing it sported a touch screen. Coming from the click wheel and iOS displays of the iPod, the button layout takes some getting used to.

One killer feature I especially like on the FiiO X3 is the asynchronous USB DAC functionality with PCs and Macs. I can leave my portable DAC at home, use the X3 to drive a decent set of headphones and just worry about which ones will pair to up nicely with my laptop that day.

Several companies like iRiver subsidiary Astell & Kern and QLS offer alternatives to the FiiO but none can match the pure bang for the buck quality of the FiiO X3. Oh, and before I forget, the FiiO X5 plays the same “better than CD” formats that the SONY NW-ZX2 does. For about $800 dollars less.

Just saying…

The Paper Chase

A few weeks ago, we mentioned reports of a new Facebook app in the works — called sort of weirdly enough for the digital realm — by the name of Paper. Last week, Facebook confirmed Paper’s existence, put out a promo video and released the app on February 3rd. Many people virtually ran right over to the App Store to download it and check it out.

fbp1So just what is Paper? In short, it’s basically a new skin for your Facebook page that knocks it out of the endless vertical scroll format. Paper looks like a visual mashup of elements — part Flipboard’s mix of news and status updates, with a dash of the full-screen photo-treatment found Google+ and a splash of the modular tiles seen in Windows Phone. It’s customizable (to a certain degree) so you can arrange stuff the way you want to see it. With it, you flick through both your Facebook life and news from around the world.

fbp5Right now, the app is for iPhones running iOS 7 only. There’s no widescreen iPad HD version, nor is there an Android edition. (Perhaps the larger screen sizes of tablets and phablets defeats the purpose of having Facebook as a one-handed read.)

When you download the app on your iPhone and open it for the first time, it lifts your Facebook credentials from the regular Facebook app — if you have it installed. So there’s not much effort needed to get rolling in Paper.

fbp4The Paper app divides the screen into one large section at the top, and a series of smaller vertical tiles long the bottom half of the screen. You flick through each half of the screen to navigate through your chosen feeds: Facebook, Headlines, Tech, Pop Life and so on.

As usual, your Facebook feed shows the stuff from your friends, and the others (like Headlines) show articles from major news organizations and blogs on various topics . Overlaid icons at the top of the screen let you tap in to see Facebook messages and notifications without having to navigate away from the screen at hand.

Flick through the tiles along the bottom to glance at status updates and news dispatches in small type; tap one to make it readable.  A tutorial greets you the first time you open the app and explains all the various swipes and taps you need to do to navigate Paper. You may need to use it a few days to get the hang of what to swipe and where to flick, but here are some basic moves:

  • Drag down from the top of the screen to see your timeline, create posts, edit sections or adjust your settings.
  • Drag up on the top of a story tile to open the full version in the site. This part feels very Flipboardy.
  • Tap photos or videos to see them in full screen.
  • Drag a tile down to the bottom of the screen to return to the layout.

fbp2Who might like Paper? People who like all their information in one place, ready to be absorbed at a glance. Or maybe those who were bored with the regular Facebook mobile app.

But for those who like their Facebook feed all mixed together and linear — or who get mad every time Facebook redesigns itself — well, those folks will probably be annoyed with it. The app doesn’t feel as customizable as it could be with fonts and section topics. With iOS 7, there’s also the clashing UX issues of swiping the edges of the display and inadvertently summoning the iPhone’s Notifications screen or the Control Center.

But Paper is free, easy to install and worth a look if you like your news updates to be a mix of personal and  public. (Want more reviews? Time, The Verge, CNET and even MIT have weighed in.)

And if you don’t like Paper, go back to the old Facebook app. They haven’t taken it away. Yet, anyway.

REVIEW: Bowers & Wilkins C5 and RBH Sound EP1 earphones

RBH_EP1_02This week I took a critical listen to two relatively high-end in ear monitors from Utah-based RBH Sound and England’s Bowers & Wilkins, both well known residential and commercial speaker manufacturers.

RBH Sound claims the EP1 earphones deliver “a wide sound stage free from outside noise and interruptions”. While I found the passive noise cancellation especially good once the earphones were properly inserted, the soundstage was far from expansive. The EP1s sport aluminum housings, a gold connector jack, and a not so tangle-free cloth cord. A sturdy protective carrying pouch with a cord clip, a set of Comply foam tips, and silicone cushions complete the package.  The $149 dollar EP1s don’t feature a microphone or function controls but RBH Sound’s EP2 will offer those options — for $30 dollars more.

bowers-wilkins-c5_4fbae937842a4Just like their over-the-ear headphone cousins P3, P5 and P7, the C5 earphones from Bowers & Wilkins are sleek and stylish with a unique and modern design. They feature a proprietary cushioned loop that is designed to rest securely in the inner ridge of your ear instead of wrapping around the ear but I could never get a proper fit.

The C5s feature a tungsten design and a Micro Porous Filter, essentially hundreds of microscopic steel balls that act as a sonic diffuser to open up the sound and improve the listening experience.  I found the tiny ball bearings did neither. The sound stage remained fairly closed but more open than that of the EP1s. The Bowers & Wilkins $179 dollar earphones have a microphone with basic function controls for music and calls, replacement silicone tips in various sizes (no foam cushions) and a small padded carrying case.

While both the RBH EP1 and the Bowers & Wilkins C5 earphones are well constructed, you can easily find better sounding (and cheaper) offerings from ThinkSound and Logitech UE.

Be sure to listen to episode 76 of Pop Tech Jam (‘The Desolation of El Kaiser’) for my full review.

REVIEW: Thinksound On1 Supra-Aural Headphones

I have to get something off my chest before getting too far along with this review. I beg you not to judge me too harshly.

Okay, here goes…. I don’t care how eco-friendly the new On1 supra-aural studio monitors from Thinksound are.  I honestly don’t.

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Yes, they have a hand crafted natural wood casing and the company’s mission is to create headphones with the smallest eco-footprint possible by using renewable resources and recyclable materials but for El Kaiser, that‘s all just icing on the cake.

Now before you start flooding my email inbox with strongly worded messages of disappointment and anger, let me just say for the record that I care DEEPLY about our planet and respect the effort of companies like New Hampshire based ThinkSound for minimizing their impact on the environment.

I do my best to limit my impact as well but when you get right down to it, it’s all about the sound for me. It’s ALWAYS about the sound. In that regard, the On1 headphones do not disappoint. They are both earth-friendly and great sounding headphones.

Included with the On1s are two Kevlar reinforced, tangle-resistant cables. One of the cables is a standard cable with 3.5mm stereo plugs and the other has a single button microhone and music control for iDevices. The cables connect to the right ear cup as opposed to the left, which is what appeared to be the default for cans with single stereo cables, and it takes some getting used to. Another minor quibble is that ThinkSound did not include a ¼ inch/6.3mm adaptor to use on home stereo equipment. Yes I have a drawer full of them but still, it would have been nice to have one that matches.

The headphones are light, stylishly designed and surprisingly durable. The On1’s padded metal headband is flexible and can be stretched flat or coiled tight but will spring back into shape allowing for comfortable extended listening sessions.

The soundstage is generous and the overall sound is accurate and transparent with an especially well articulated low-end. If the song calls for a tight bass sound, then that’s exactly what the On1s deliver. If the track wants to bring the boom, it’ll bring the boom too. The high end is crisp, not harsh, which I suspect will smooth out after a breaking in period and the mids are smooth and clear.

At $299 dollars, ThinkSound On1s are obviously an investment in quality sound and not a disposable pair of cans you toss in your bag for a commute. According to Aaron Fournier, President and CEO of Thinksound, the company developed their own plastic molds instead of using existing off the shelf designs from their manufacturers in China, which contributes to the higher cost.

The On1 headphones are exceptionally good headphones for all styles of music and while not inexpensive I can say with sincerity I have paid more for worse sounding headphones.

Listen to my take on the Thinksound On1s and another set of eco-friendly headphones from manufacturer House of Marley on this week’s episode of Pop Tech Jam.