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.
When I first saw photos of the Olasonic TW-S7s ($129.99 USD per pair), I immediately thought they’d probably be great little speakers for a laptop computer -- entirely portable. I was wrong about the portable part.
The TW-S7s come in glossy plastic enclosures tinted Noble Black or Brilliant White. Since their bottoms are round, they must sit in their stands (provided), which are made of a rubber-like silicone. Flat on the bottom and concave on top, each stand has over a hundred little bumps that hold the speaker steady. In the front of the speaker is an opening covered with a web-like grille that’s part of the entire enclosure; you can see (and touch) the drive-unit, which Olasonic calls a "full-range 60mm driver with an integrated high-frequency diffuser and a 55mm high-efficiency ferrite magnet." On the back of the speaker is another, smaller opening, also covered with a design molded into the plastic. Inside can be seen a 60mm passive radiator of expanded urethane.
The TW-S7 looks futuristic in a very cool way. Olasonic states that the appearance wasn’t chosen for beauty alone; the ovoid shape provides a resonance-free body for "powerful, clear sound reproduction."
As technical advances are made in audio, it seems that everything just gets smaller. You can get 16 gigabytes of storage with the sixth-generation iPod Nano, which is about the size of a Nabisco cracker -- and almost as thin. Blu-ray Disc players have gotten smaller, certainly in the height department. The one thing that’s been difficult to miniaturize is speakers. The speakers in laptop computers and iPods might be good enough for announcements and news, but they’re totally inadequate for music.
So I was intrigued when I saw Logitech’s S135i iPod dock and speakers on sale at Walmart for $34.95 USD. (It lists for $49.99.) Normally I’d ignore anything that small and priced that low, but I’d had a very good experience some months before with Logitech’s S715i rechargeable speaker and iPod dock, and figured that if anyone could make a miniature speaker that sounded respectable, it might be Logitech.
My quest for the perfect Bluetooth sports headphones continues, with this installment focusing on the Rocketfish RF-MAB2. The headphones provided many hours of solid use, but they still came up lacking in a few details.
In the package
The RF-MAB2 headphones come in a box meant to hang on display hooks in a store, with a large plastic window to show them off. Aside from the headphones, the package includes an AC power adapter, a removable USB charging cable, a user guide, and a quick setup guide. Also included but not listed was the pleasant surprise of an extra set of foam earcup cushions.
The headphone set has a one-piece plastic frame that expands when you place it on your head. The frame wraps around the back of your neck instead of over the top of your head, and it’s a design that I greatly prefer. The frame will not fold up, making the search for a case (which isn’t included) difficult but not impossible. The earcups are a rather stylish triangular shape with rounded corners. On the face of the left earcup are the play/pause button and an on/off power switch that doubles as a talk button for your phone. The other controls, which are grouped around the edge of the left cup, include rocker switches for volume and skipping tracks backward and forward. There’s also a USB port close to the skip rocker for charging the unit. On the earcup exterior is an attractive LED display in the shape of the Rocketfish logo that conveys the headphones’ status, and the delivery area on the inside of the headphones is covered with light foam.
The Rocketfish RF-MAB2 has five different built-in EQs that you can engage by tapping the power button twice when the unit is on and in use. Rocketfish calls this “3D Sound,” and the settings include Normal, with no alterations; Xomei, which reduces distracting sounds, making the phones sort of noise-canceling; Live, which Rocketfish claims represents a live performance; Wide, which provides a fake panoramic effect; and Mex, which extends the width of the image while pumping up the bass. Out of the box the headphones measure 5.5" high and 4" from cup to cup when not on the head. The earcups are 1.75" triangles that are .75" wide. The weight is a very light 1.8 ounces.
My Apple iPod Touch is pretty hardy. I keep it in a rubberized case, and it has survived being dropped and other accidental abuses. But this is my second Touch -- the first succumbed to any iThing’s greatest enemy: water. It sounds silly now, but when I was in the men’s room of a coffeehouse I frequent, I carefully placed Touch No.1 on a ledge (I’d never leave it at a table for fear of theft), somehow moved abruptly, and swept it right into the commode. I immediately retrieved it, but even after I’d tried a few of the resurrection ploys found on YouTube, it wouldn’t come back to life. I’d killed it.
That accident was due to my own negligence, of course. I’ve never taken Touch No.2 into a bathroom, including my own at home. If I’m caught in the rain, I keep it close to my heart, where it stands a good chance of staying dry. But I want music everywhere I go -- what about situations where water can be expected: the shower, camping, fishing, whitewater rafting, the beach?
Enter the Eco Extreme powered speaker case ($49.99 USD). Its manufacturer, Grace Digital, claims that it’s waterproof, shockproof, and "floatable" (see below). Amazing claims. I wondered if the Eco Extreme could possibly live up to them.
One way to have music everywhere you go is with a laptop computer. The only problem is that laptops’ tiny speakers are embarrassingly inadequate for listening to music. This is fine in a coffeehouse or café, where most people use headphones of some sort to respect the privacy of others, but it’s not fine if you’re on a picnic and there are no other laptops around. Or perhaps you’re stuck in a motel room overnight and just can’t watch another TV show. In such situations, you need speakers.
But decent-size rechargeable speakers can be too heavy and cumbersome to be easily portable, and they must be plugged into an AC outlet and charged. UltraLink’s new UFi UCube speakers ($149.95 USD per pair) provide a good solution: They plug into and play through a USB connection -- no AC outlet needed! The host computer will provide the necessary power. The UCubes are small, weigh very little, and easily fit into an overnight bag or medium-size camera bag.
They are also just so darned cute and stylish. Fastened to the included stands, they stared up at me like Pixar’s Luxo Jr. I almost expected them to speak on their own.