Imagine a cube into which a tennis ball could perfectly fit and you have a good idea of the size of the NuForce Cube compact portable speaker. It’s amazing to think that this tiny aluminum box contains a speaker worthy of notice, and even more amazing to know that it can also serve as a 16-bit/48kHz USB DAC and a headphone amplifier, all for $99 USD.
A box in a box
The NuForce Cube comes in a transparent plastic cube that looks almost exactly like the one Apple used for its sixth-generation iPod Nano. In it is the Cube, a USB cable, a 3.5mm stereo cable, a soft drawstring carry pouch, and a leaflet containing brief instructions, safety warnings, and information about the one-year limited warranty.
Logitech acquired Ultimate Ears four years ago, and have now come out with a line of UE-branded products that includes a smart radio, wireless speakers, and wired and wireless earphones and headphones. The wireless UE 9000 ($399 USD) is their newest model of what I think of as commuter or frequent-flier headphones. Such designs have large earcups (aka “cans”) that cover the entire ear and can often reproduce good bass. Most such designs are built to withstand abuse, have active or passive noise cancellation, are optimized to work with smart phones and iPods, and come with a durable, hard-shell carrying case.
Portable, commuter ’phones aren’t sports headphones -- wearing them while doing anything more active than walking would be a chore. Still, they’re more durably built than the average set of home ’phones. They most benefit those who regularly commute and want to take their tunes with them without losing much in the way of sound quality. Wearing such a device gives one the appearance of being someone who wants to be left alone to chill with his tunes. This is perhaps perfect for a crowded subway car, where you don’t want to talk with anyone or be too bothered by their noise: You can feel safe and secure in your own isolated audio world.
Celebrity headphones still seem to be on the rise. You can’t go to a mall CD shop without tripping over the Beats by Dr. Dre or the Soul by Ludacris -- and now there are SMS Audio’s Sync by 50 models. The “50” refers to popular rapper and entrepreneur 50 Cent, who not only endorses this line, but claims that it’s been designed to suit his own tastes.
My guess is that almost 100% of those who buy these ’phones are paying as much for status as for sound. If you use the Sync by 50s on your train or bus commute or while walking to work, the sizzling blue S on each earcup blinks to let people know your celebrity allegiance. How much are you paying for that status, and what do you get for it?
When I began writing this column over a year ago, it soon became evident that a great percentage of the personal audio products I would cover would be headphones. I discovered Bluetooth, and one of my first reviews was of the Sony DR-BT21G Bluetooth headphones. At the end of that article, I compared them to the jWIN JB-TH710 Bluetooth ’phones. I recommended the purchase of the jWIN set, along with Sony’s TMR-BT8IP Bluetooth transmitter, which can be used with most Apple iPhones, iPods, and iPod Nanos.
But things move quickly in the electronics world. Just as the review was published, the supply of jWIN headphones dried up -- jWIN had dropped the Bluetooth model. I felt terrible about this, having recommended a bargain that was already gone forever.
When I bought my Apple iPod Touch several years ago, I was excited by its versatility, and particularly looked forward to being able to carry it around with me to retrieve e-mail, listen to music via the Internet, and get the latest news. I’d ruled out an iPhone as being too expensive -- the phone itself, and the mandatory service plan. I eagerly read articles that promised more powerful Wi-Fi, more hot spots, and greater range. They never appeared, and still haven’t as I write this. Citywide networks exist, and some of them are free -- but not in my town. I depended on stores and other businesses to provide local Wi-Fi networks. I sought out all the local places (mostly coffee shops) that provided free networks because they know that offering Wi-Fi is a good way to bring in business. When I got my iPod Touch, I haunted Wi-Fi-enabled places just so I could use my cool new device. I drank a lot of coffee.
But after the Touch’s newness wore off, I began taking care of Internet-related business while at home, and just left the Touch behind. I’d heard about Virgin Mobile’s MiFi devices, but they, too, were expensive -- might as well buy an iPhone as subscribe to MiFi. But a month ago, while visiting Walmart, I saw that the price of Virgin’s MiFi 2200 Mobile Hotspot had fallen to $99.99 USD, and that the service plans had changed. Suddenly, MiFi seemed reasonable. No more driving around to connect -- if I couldn’t find a Wi-Fi network, I’d carry my own.
The continuing miniaturization of devices that can record and/or reproduce music blows me away. For the past six months I’ve been using Google to find original album-cover art for recordings I’ve ripped as Apple Lossless (and beyond) files. Don’t ask me to explain it, but if I can throw one of these up on the screen of my Logitech Squeezebox Touch and occasionally glance at it while listening, I get a warm, fuzzy feeling of remembrance that seems to improve the sound. When these recordings were transferred to CD, they usually included extras from other albums by (perhaps) the same artist. The covers for those editions I do not consider original. The upshot is that I’m coming to remember the relatively short playing time of the average LP, and learning things like this: the original edition of one of Ernest Ansermet’s recordings of Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka, about 35 minutes long, occupied two sides of an LP. If we go back to 78 records, the ballet would require even more sides.
During the same time I was remembering the short sides of vinyl, I became acquainted with the miniature Zoom H1 Handy Recorder, made by Samson Technologies. It records music -- or anything else -- on microSD cards, each of which is about the size of an adult thumbnail. The H1’s easy-to-read screen tells me that the 8GB card I installed in it can hold 55.5 hours of material at MP3’s highest setting, 12.5 hours at CD quality (16-bit/44.1kHz), or 3 hours 55 minutes at 24/96 resolution in the WAV format. It does this on a single AA battery that will last five to six hours (Zoom claims ten hours, but I couldn’t achieve that). As I used the H1 over a few weeks, I found out it had other outstanding abilities -- and a major flaw.
The domination of the personal-electronics industry by Apple’s iPhone, iPad, and iPod families of products has inspired the startups of dozens of cottage industries now making accessories for the hugely popular devices. I recently reviewed a watchband that can turn your iPod Nano 6 into a fashionable timepiece. You’d think that every type of gadget for these devices must by now have already been fully explored, but this spring has brought two new and different ideas.
The first, from Breffo, is the Spiderpodium ($19.99 USD). It’s easy to see where the device gets its name: It has a solid rectangular body and eight flexible legs. The rigid central section has a rectangular opening so that you can use the Spiderpodium as a charging base. Each leg is made of rubber-covered metal, the leg’s diameter narrowing at three points, at which the leg can be easily bent; with a little more effort, you can also bend each leg between these points. Flattened out, the Spiderpodium measures 8.2” x 7.4” x 1/4” thick and weighs just over an ounce. It comes in black, white, blue, pink graphite, green, or purple.
Because I have so many recordings and often little time, I hadn’t tried any of the music streaming services. But I swore to myself that I would try MOG, as soon as they’d enabled streaming to my Logitech Squeezebox Touch Wi-Fi music player. As more high-resolution downloads have become available, the Touch has become the heart of the audio portion of my audio/video system. But the minimum resolution of everything I listen to through the Touch is CD quality: 16-bit/44.1kHz. MOG was better than most streaming services, at 320kbps, but not quite there. Would I be happy with the sound quality?
Getting set up
I set up MOG on my computer, first downloading the software, then choosing one of two account options: Basic ($5 USD per month) allows you to stream to your Squeezebox or other supported device (MOG is rapidly expanding the number of devices it supports); Primo ($10/month) allows you to stream to portable devices (such as your phone or iPod Touch), download an unlimited number of songs to your personal music player, and synchronize your Web and mobile playlists. Or you can take advantage of MOG’s free trial period, which provides basic streaming, but the Basic and Primo subscriptions are such good values that I see no risk in jumping right in. There are also Facebook features, with which you can communicate with friends about music, swap playlists, etc.
Have you ever seen an accessory so cool that it makes you want to buy the product it’s designed to be used with? There are many fascinating apps that can lure you into the world of Apple. Maybe you never considered owning an iPod Touch, but then you see the free Red Eye app, which turns a Touch into a full-featured remote control. So you buy a Touch. This month’s product is sort of like that.
A year ago, when I reviewed the sixth generation of the iPod Nano music player, I said that I hadn’t yet found a wristband that would hold it securely. Though a Nano looks cool when worn like a wristwatch, none of the bands I’d tried worked well enough. The bare bands that slid between the iPod Nano’s clip and its body left the iPod unstable and subject to all kinds of damage. Other bands had soft rubber skins that you pulled over the Nano, but these weren’t very strong, obscured a clear view of the player, and placed all the controls and outlets in the wrong places.
The geniuses at iWatchz have gotten everything right and designed a perfect accessory to the sixth and seventh generations of the iPod Nano -- a wristband that looks good, fits well, and holds the Nano securely without diminishing its sleek beauty or interfering with the easy use of its controls. It’s a winner all the way.
A little over a year ago, I discovered the IDAPT i3 universal charging station. The IDAPT i3 made it possible for me to charge my phone, my Apple iPod Touch, and iPod Nano at the same time, quickly and easily. I got in the habit of docking all of them before I went to bed each night.
The IDAPT i3’s interchangeable cartridge tips let you dock any model of portable device. If you don’t need a mini USB, push the two release buttons to pop that one out and snap in the one you need. IDAPT swears that its dock is compatible with over 4000 different devices -- more than I even knew were being made! If you buy a product with a new type of plug, you can order a new tip, confident that IDAPT is keeping up so that its charging stations will never become obsolete.
But the IDAPT i3 is small -- only 6.75”W by 1.5”H by 5.5”D -- and I couldn’t park my rather large Bluetooth speaker or Bluetooth headphones on top of it. That’s where the new IDAPT i4 ($59.99 USD) comes in. Like the IDAPT i3, it has three docks on top, but also a USB port on the side, into which I could plug the USB cord of either of my oversized components.