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Taking the fight to recessed headphone sockets

panasonic rp-hc500As many previous iPhone owners discovered, recessed headphone sockets are a pain.  It’s difficult to find headphones with a plug slim enough to fit into a recessed socket and a market sprang up for ungainly adapters. I’ve experienced this pain first hand with my excellent Panasonic RP-HC500 noise canceling headphones.  The RP-HC500 is one of the best sets of noise canceling cans ever made, crushing comparable Bose QCs on build and sound quality in my opinion.  But while I love detachable cords since they preserve the lifespan of good headphones, the RP-HC500 has a recessed socket.

recessed headphone socket

Ugh, recessed headphone sockets

One day I came home to find that my cats had ripped through the RP-HC500’s cable, leaving me with a dilemma.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find any cheap off-the-shelf replacement cables that will fit a recessed socket.  So I could either pony up the ridiculous $20+tax+shipping for Panasonic’s official replacement cord or tell my cats to fix it before their next feed.  Since I reckoned my cats’ cord cutting abilities were superior to their repair skills, it looked like I’d have to hand over the cash.

recessed headphone socket RP-HC500

A typical 3.5mm stereo male to stereo male cord is too fat to fit into a recessed socket

That was when the DIY bug bit me.  I had some 3.5mm stereo male to stereo male cords lying around,and I wondered if I could trim them down to size.  Out of the box they were too big to fit, but I hoped that between a Stanley knife and some delicate carving I could fashion a $2 replacement.

cutting the cord

Cutting the cord - don't try this at home!!

It actually turned out to be a five minute job and my RP-HC500s are now singing again, ready to make plane journeys a pleasure once more.  See, we’re not such a throwaway generation after all!

recessed headphone cord RP-HC500

The cut down plug now fits the recessed socket

Here’s the warning: I don’t recommend doing this at home because it’s easy to wreck your cord, plug and fingers.  But if you’re a risk taker and choose to ignore my warnings, be careful not to cut all the way through the plug’s casing.  Also, the RP-HC500’s cord plug was rubber, which made it possible to carve the plug; I don’t think I would have seen a successful outcome if the plug had been made of hard plastic or metal!

Neil Berman

Jan 17, 2011 Posted by | Audio, Home Theater, Photo & Video, Mobile | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sennheiser MM550 review

Sennheiser MM550 14We scored a hands-on, or perhaps that’s an ‘ears-on’, with the Sennheiser MM550 stereo Bluetooth noise-canceling headphones last month.   That quick listen got our eardrums all excited, and Sennheiser was kind enough to loan us an MM550 so that we could get better acquainted. For the specs and general info, check out our earlier hands-on with the MM550.  In this review we’ll dive into more detail on the physical, technical and sonic aspects of the MM550.

First impressions of the Sennheiser MM550

The MM550 is marketed and priced as an ultra-premium headset, so we were expecting something special when opening the brown FedEx box that arrived at theONbutton HQ. We were greeted by a smart looking store-friendly retail package, which was easy to open without a knife (yay!). Hiding inside was the MM550 itself and a soft pouch containing Sennheiser MM550 5a USB cable, headphone cable and charger with several international adaptors; Sennheiser really is expecting some serious jetsetters to buy this headset. Given the pricing of the MM550 and it’s billing as a do-everything set of cans, it’s good to see that Sennheiser included a good range of travel accessories.

The MM550 feels good to hold; for a closed back set of headphones the MM550 is light but evidently well made. The fitting mechanism on the headband is smooth and the headband itself has a decent amount of flex, giving the impression that it will be easy to get the MM550 to sit comfortably on the head. The ear arms fold inwards to make the MM550 more portable. The ear pads have a very soft cushion that closes around the ear helping to reduce ambient noise and making the MM550 handy in the cold, windy New York winter climate. The closed back design of course also allows for larger drivers to be placed within the ear pads.

The right ear pad houses all of the MM550’s controls; power/play/pause, track skip, volume, noise canceling, Bluetooth and the SRS WOW HD enhancer are all controlled from here. On the left ear pad a Sennheiser logo takes pride of place, presumably enclosing the MM550’s rechargeable battery. The micro-USB charging port is also on this ear pad.

Using the Sennheiser MM550

The MM550 paired without issue with the Samsung Epic 4G and BlackBerry Bold 9700.  Both of these smartphones support A2DP (stereo audio streaming over Bluetooth) and AVRCP (remote playback control over Bluetooth), so they were ideal candidates for testing the MM550.  In both cases, the MM550 technically functioned perfectly.  Playback and volume controls worked as expected, and I never needed to re-pair the MM550 during the testing period.

Sennheiser MM550 9Call quality on the MM550 was excellent, and the headset distinguished itself by being the only stereo Bluetooth headset I’ve used outdoors where callers say they can hear me clearly.  Due to the microphone’s placement all the way back at the ear, most stereo headsets have difficulty picking up spoken words.  The one issue I encountered outdoors however was that the microphone did pick up some street noises too prominently; callers still said they could hear me but that the street noises were also very audible in these cases.  Indoor call quality with the MM550 was excellent.  As you would expect, the MM550 interrupts music playback when an incoming call arrives and takes you back to the music when the call is over.

The noise-canceling features of the MM550 has been well thought through by Sennheiser’s engineers.  The MM550’s noise-canceling technology, called ‘NoiseGard 2.0’, does its business without introducing noticeable sound effects into the music.  That’s a bigger complement than it may appear, as many noise-canceling systems introduce hiss or significant coloration but this is not a problem with the MM550.  The MM550s however do not completely block out external sound, but they did a good job of significantly reducing ambient noise on the New York subway and made listening to quiet content such as podcasts much more pleasurable during a typically noisy journey.  The noise-canceling also allows you to hear content better without needing to cranking the music up to 11.

Sennheiser MM550 16One interesting feature of the MM550 is that when the noise-canceling button is pressed, the microphone activates and passes external sound through the headset instead of music playback.  Sennheiser calls this ‘TalkThrough’.  So if you’re listening to music in a store for example and then get to the register, by pressing this button you can have a normal conversation without needing to take off the headset.  The Plantronics BackBeat 903 has a similar feature, and it’s nice to see it being implemented on other headsets.

So how does the MM550 sound with music?  Listening to consumer headphones is often a subjective experience; increasingly people prefer a more bass heavy delivery and consumer headphones have been moving in that direction in recent years.  The MM550 is designed to give a balanced delivery of the music, with the SRS WOW HD enhancer

available to provide some extra sparkle if you want more excitement from your content.  I’m not a fan of adding enhancers to headphones or amplifiers, because from my experience good headphones and amps are able to give a good sound delivery without needing enhancement.  But consumers generally expect some kind of enhancer or bass boost, so these things exist as a result.

With the SRS WOW HD enhancer off, the MM550 does deliver a reasonably balanced sound with a slight accentuation of the upper vocal frequencies at the expense of some of the lower midrange.  The bass is punchy and there are plenty of highs, so this slight lack of lower midrange produces a very open sound that doesn’t suffer from any muddiness.  It also means that some vocals can tend towards thinness, even sounding a little harsh sometimes.  Pop, dance and Jazz Sennheiser MM550 12sounded great in my listening time with the MM550.  The bass in Mylo’s Drop the Pressure drove the track with energy and Uniting Nations’ Ai No Corrida bounced along with real verve.  It was with Country music that the MM550 tended to produce occasionally harsh female vocals and guitars.

Turning on the SRS WOW HD enhancer, the bass became really solid on the MM550.  Dance music powered through the ear pads in a superb way and without sounding muddy.  The enhancer adds significant amounts of midrange boost however, which can sound harsh on some music genres after extended listening.  So while the SRS WOW HD enhancer gives an instant “wow”, as I experienced during my initial hands-on, I tended to enjoy the MM550 for longer periods with it switched off.

The MM550 can also work as a regular set of cabled noise-canceling headphones.  In this mode the MM550 sound almost identical to when they’re connected over Bluetooth.  The sound is perhaps slightly clearly, but the difference is almost imperceptible.  The MM550 ship with a regular stereo cable rather than a three ring hands-free cable, so they can only be used as a hands-free cellphone headset when connected over Bluetooth.

The MM550 has one noise-canceling quirk, whereby the noise-canceling circuit momentarily disengages when switching from one music track when you’re listening to a playlist.  It’s not a big issue, but is just a little odd because the silence breaks for a split second while you’re in a break between tracks.

Sennheiser MM550 15Sennheiser quotes 8 hours of stereo Bluetooth music playback with noise-canceling for the MM550.  Although I did not track my exact listening time with the MM550, I only needed to charge the headset once during my testing and I listened to it extensively.  It felt like Sennheiser’s battery claim is ballpark accurate.  Various factors will impact battery life with wireless products, so it’s difficult to really assess claims.  For example a headset will have to work harder to maintain a connection if the device it’s talking to is at the limit of its reception range.  Also, switching a headset on and off uses proportionately more battery life because the headset has to expend significant energy searching for a connection.  When a stable connection is secured, the power usage reduces.

Can the Sennheiser MM550 justify its premium price?

Overall the Sennheiser MM550 is an excellent headset.  That does need to be put into the perspective of its extremely high MSRP of $649, which currently translates to around $499 on various online retailers.  If you can live with the MM550 as your only headset for noise-canceling, stereo Bluetooth streaming and cabled duties then you might be able to justify its premium over other closed back designs.  It does pretty much everything very well, but whether it does it hundreds of dollars better than the competition is a difficult call.

Neil Berman

Dec 12, 2010 Posted by | Audio, Mobile | , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Hands-on with Sennheiser’s MM550 stereo Bluetooth headphones

Around this time last year we went hands-on with the Sennheiser MM450 stereo Bluetooth heaphones.  They sounded great but were expensive, around twice the price of Nokia’s BH-905 and even more still than Sony’s excellent (but not noise cancelling) DR-BT50.  Sennheiser has updated the MM450 with the MM550 which, unlike the on-ear MM450, sports a closed back design. Just like the MM450, the MM550 is able to stream music over Bluetooth (A2DP), handle calls and offers playback remote controls (AVRCP).  I scored a listening session with the MM550 this week and here are my impressions.

Update: We’ve now written a full review of the Sennheiser MM550, or you can continue on this page and read our initial hands-on impressions.

Features of the Sennheiser MM550

  • NoiseGard™ 2.0 noise cancelling technology, available when using the MM550 either wirelessly or wired
  • Stereo Bluetooth A2DP, AVRCP and hands-free calling
  • TalkThrough – one press of a button turns on the external microphone so you can hear outside sounds without removing the headset
  • Neodymium magnets and patented Duofol diaphragms
  • SRS WOW HD™ sound enhancer
  • Large closed back ear cups
  • Direct cable option
  • Integrated track and volume controls
  • Collapsible and a carry case is included

Listening to the Sennheiser MM550

In the demo the MM550 was paired to a Motorola Droid and the pairing process was straightforward.  I was in a fairly noisy environment and the noise cancelling was turned on when I put on the MM550.  Outside noise was significantly attenuated although by no means silenced.  As with most noise-cancelling headphones I was able to hear people speaking around me but there was a notable difference between when the noise-cancelling was engaged vs disengaged.

When I pressed play on the MM550 it was immediately clear that this is a rocking set of cans.  The SRS WOW HD enhancer was switched on and, while I’m not a fan of that feature on Motorola’s S9-HD, on the MM550 it produces a superb  sound.  Basslines are solidly resolved, there’s an airy top end that creates a perception of openness and the soundstage is wide without sounding artificially stretched.  What’s great of course is that with the noise cancelling turned on, you can enjoy all of this at lower volume levels.  This is the kind of reproduction though that makes you want to crank it up to 11; a truly engaging, driving and yet non-fatiguing sound.

Interestingly all of that good stuff went away when I disengaged the SRS WOW HD.  I often find that headsets that have enhancers sound great in one state but not both.  Typically I prefer the natural balance of the headphones with the enhancer switched off, as long as the engineers have done a good job.  With the MM550 however the sound became empty and tinny with the SRS WOW HD disengaged.  Now admittedly I only spent a limited time listening to the MM550 but I honestly don’t think this was a perception issue as I switched between the on and off positions of the enhancer.

Other funky features of the MM550 include TalkThrough, which mutes the music and activates the external mic so you can hear outside sounds.  This worked well and is a very useful feature.  The MM550 is also collapsible for portability.  It’s not quite as compact when folded as the Sony DR-BT50, but the collapsing is a handy feature.  The MM550 also comes with a detachable cable for use as regular wired headphones, which makes them good travelling companions for travelers who want to make use of in-seat entertainment and other wired sound sources.

The Sennheiser MM550 is rated to give 20 hours of talk time, or 8h/10h of wireless music playback with/without noise-canceling engaged.  Although I would love to listen to the MM550 for that amount of time, I didn’t have the opportunity to test these claims.  I also didn’t try making any calls with the MM550.  I did however try all the playback and volume controls, which worked fine when paired with the Motorola Droid.

If you’re reaching for your wallet, I’ll warn you that the MM550 will retail at $499 so it’s unlikely to fit within all budgets.  If money’s no object though, for music lovers they’re definitely the best sounding stereo Bluetooth headphones I’ve heard.

Neil Berman

Nov 10, 2010 Posted by | Audio, Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Demo of stereo Bluetooth remote control working on iOS 4.1

It’s taken Apple three years to implement stereo Bluetooth AVRCP correctly on the iPhone OS, but here it is on the new iPod Touch 4th gen!!

Neil  Berman

Sep 10, 2010 Posted by | Apple, Audio, Hardware, Mobile | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

iPod Touch and Nano (September 2010 release models)

iPod Nano coverflowSo now I’ve come down from my iOS 4.1 stereo Bluetooth high, here are some calmer thoughts about Apple’s new iPod Touch and Nano.

First the Nano. It’s cute, very cute. Surprisingly usable too for something with such a tiny touchscreen. Somehow that tiny screen manages to display coverflow artwork and it looks good too, since the screen has excellent pixel density. The wristwatch use case is clear, but the Nano also reminds me of the Pop Swatch. That was the one that clipped ‘into’ your clothing using a clasp behind and clock on top. The physical feel of the Nano is first iPod Nano buttonsrate, it exudes class and seems to be fashioned from a slab of machined metal. I can see this having greater appeal than the previous Nano because this one just has so much ‘I must buy this now’ factor.

Now onto the new iPod Touch. I must buy this now. I must. The retina display is stunning, the HD video looks great and Apple has finally implemented stereo Bluetooth properly (but I don’t care about that).

The new iPod Touch is thin; as seriously thin as the Nano is cute. It almost feels insubstantial just because it’s like holding a long wafer; it really can’t be much thicker than a few credit cards so it can disappear comfortably in a shirt pocket.

I mentioned the HD video earlier, and while we now know that the camera on the new iPod Touch is lame, the quality of its video recording is good. I also confirmed that just as with the iPhone 4, the new iPod Touch can download iMovie as a paid app from the App Store. So this thinnie might really give the Flip/Bloggie posse something to worry about. I might give it a shot as my CES backup videocam to see if it can handle the pressure.

The one thing I’d have loved to see on the new iPod Touch is a slightly larger screen. Even though the retina display renders so much information in a small space, stretching the screen to 4 inches would have hit a real sweet spot in my view.

I can definitely see myself picking up one of these. Amazingly it would be my first iPod, but now that HD video and proper Bluetooth implementation are there, I finally feel the feature set is comprehensive enough to merit the price.

Neil Berman

Sep 8, 2010 Posted by | Apple, Audio, Mobile | , , , , | Leave a comment

Plantronics BackBeat 903 Review

Plantronics BackBeat 903 17

What’s under review: Plantronics BackBeat 903 Stereo Bluetooth Headset, MSRP $99.95, current street price approx $60-90

What we like: Excellent sound quality; lightweight and comfortable to wear for extended periods even with glasses; easy to learn controls

What we’d like to change: Can be fiddly to put on intially; we would prefer separate track skip and volume controls

Our verdict: An excellent contender; the BackBeat 903 should be high up on the shortlist of anyone looking for an in-ear stereo Bluetooth headset

Our full review follows the video summary:

Plantronics has plenty of history in the Bluetooth market, including several stereo headsets in its Pulsar 260/590 ranges and the recent Voyager 855 hybrid design.  Plantronics upped the ante in when it paired up (Bluetooth pun intended) with its subsidiary Altec Lansing to release the BackBeat 903 and 906 models.  The BackBeat 903 was subsequently named as a CES Innovations Design and Engineering Awards Honoree in November.  While we had only listened to the BackBeat in noisy environments previously, Plantronics was kind enough to send us a BackBeat 903 so we could spend some quality time getting more acquainted. Continue reading our full Plantronics BackBeat 903 review…

Feb 27, 2010 Posted by | Audio, Hardware, Mobile, Reviews, Video Features | , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Skullcandy creates one-offs for NBA All-Stars

Skullcandy has come out with some tricked out cans in commemoration of Sunday’s NBA All Star game.  The personalized headgear, which feature one-touch muting, left or right side cabling and a closed back design was handed to each player.  So if you’re reading this wondering where to get a pair, you’re probably not in the game line-up.  No word yet on whether these will go on general sale, but it sure would be cool to see them on the shelves of my local electronics emporium.

Neil Berman

Feb 13, 2010 Posted by | Audio, Hardware, Mobile, News | , , , , , | Leave a comment

theONbutton@CES: The CES 2010 gallery part 2

Here are some more of our best shots from Vegas to feast your eyes upon…

Neil Berman

Jan 9, 2010 Posted by | Audio, CES, Computing, Gaming, Hardware, Home Theater, Photo & Video, Mobile | , , , , | Leave a comment

theONbutton@CES: The CES 2010 gallery part 1

Start salivating now, here are the the shots from the show floor so far…

Neil Berman

Jan 7, 2010 Posted by | Audio, CES, Computing, Gaming, Hardware, Home Theater, Photo & Video, Mobile | , , | Leave a comment

Sennheiser MM450 Stereo Bluetooth Headset Hands-on

Sennheiser MM450 profileAt yesterday’s CES 2010 preview in New York, I got some hands-on time with Sennheiser’s premium MM450 headset.  This pair of ultra-light foldable cans support music streaming, remote control over playback and call management, as long as your device supports A2DP and AVRCP (so iPhone users beware).  My initial impressions were positive, with solidly resolved basslines and clear highs.  The MM450 also offers active noise cancelling although there is a lesser model, the MM400, which skips this feature and drops the price.  Speaking of the damage to your wallet, you’re looking at $299 for the MM400 and $499 for the MM450.  That puts the MM450 in a price bracket beyond the noise-cancelling Nokia BH-905 and the MM400 beyond the Sony DR-BT50 (reviewed here recently), but Sennheiser thinks they’re worth it.

Neil Berman

Nov 11, 2009 Posted by | Audio, Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sony DR-BT50 Stereo Bluetooth Headphones Review

Right ear houses controlsThe availability of stereo Bluetooth headsets has been steadily increasing this year, helping to bring prices down. In particular at the top end last month’s arrival of Nokia’s noise-cancelling flagship set, the BH-905, has led to significant drops in other premium closed-back designs. Motorola’s high end S805 has been selling for a steal recently on some sites  but today I’m going to focus on the Sony DR-BT50, which for some represented the pinnacle of stereo Bluetooth headsets until Nokia recently crashed Sony’s party.  I’ll make comparisons to the S805 along the way.

First impressions of the Sony DR-BT50

Sony DR-BT50Sony debuted the DR-BT50 at a whopping $229 but the headset is now available for a around $129 or so at several e-tailers. The cans are based upon Sony’s celebrated Altus MDR-D777LP, so they carry a promise of good sound delivery. They also bring practicality, being foldable.

Physically the DR-BT50 is extremely light, feeling like about half the weight of the Motorola S805. The earpads on the DR-BT50 are also thinner and the buttons are smaller; more on this later. Like the S805, the Sony headphones sport a full set of music playback controls along with a mic and call management.

Pairing was straightforward with my BlackBerry Bold 9000 and subsequent reconnections have gone perfectly, mirroring my experience with the Motorola S805 and S9-HD headsets. The days of fiddly Bluetooth connections are hopefully now well behind us!

Putting on the Sony DR-BT50

The DR-BT50 feels great to wear and the slim earpads enclose the ears comfortably. The pads are so soft that it’s easier to wear sunglasses with the Sonys compared to the Motorola S805, which is important if you live in a sunny part of the world. Having said that, this not so much a failing of the S805 but rather a comment on how soft the DR-BT50’s earpads really are.

Playback and volume controls are smallI mentioned earlier that the controls on the DR-BT50 are small and when I first saw them I wondered how I would find them when the cans were on my head. The power and call pickup buttons are fine but the playback and volume controls are, frankly, tiny. Worse still the playback control is a flick-touch rocker switch controlling play/pause/stop and track navigation. The S805 seems like a Tonka truck in comparison, with its large finger-friendly controls.

Listening to the Sony DR-BT50

In use the buttons on the DR-BT50 were actually easier to locate than I had feared, although the playback rocker is too easy to nudge causing a track skip when you’re trying to depress it to pause. The call pickup button is a decent size, as is the power button, so these present no issues.

In order to use the stereo music and playback functions you will need a device supporting the A2DP and AVRCP Bluetooth profiles. Check your specs on your device manufacturer’s website. A2DP provides music playback support and AVRCP provides remote control of playback functions.

Once the music is playing the BT50s simply shine compared to most other stereo Bluetooth headphones, trumping the Motorola S805 for both bass and mid-range.  However occasionally the top end detail seems to suffer at the expense of the solid bottom end frequencies. It’s not that reproduction is too overtly bass heavy, but rather that current consumer trends favor bass and consequently the DR-BT50 will find plenty of fans in this regard.

When a call comes in pressing the call accept button pauses music playback and answers the call. I could hear callers very clearly and they could hear me well both indoors and outside, although in both environments they did say I sometimes sounded distant.

FoldedThe DR-BT50 felt both light and snug even for lengthy listening sessions and that included time wearing sunglasses. When I was finished listening I found that the folded BT50s fit perfectly into my jacket pocket.

Some room for improvement

On the downside the DR-BT50 is picky about placement and likes to have a decent line of sight to the originating device. They are less tolerant to obstacles than the Motorola S805 and this results in occasional cut-outs unless your phone is in a shirt or jacket pocket fairly high up on your body. This issue is not unique to the DR-BT50, the Motorola S9-HD suffers from a similar weakness.

The DR-BT50 must have a decent size music buffer however because it takes a while for the cut-out to occur. As a result I found I could walk around normally with almost no cut-outs with my BlackBerry Bold in my top pocket. Part of this issue could also be attributed to the Bold, which I’ve found to have a below-average strength Bluetooth transmitter compared to some other phones I’ve used.

The other niggle is that Sony fitted the DR-BT50 with a proprietary charging port rather than a mini-USB connection.  This means having to remember to take the charger when you travel, rather than simply a USB cable to charge from a laptop.  Accessories these days should really be rechargeable via USB.

Is the Sony DR-BT50 a music legend?

Overall I can give the Sony DR-BT50 a solid recommendation at its current street price. Most listeners are likely to be very happy with their sound quality and they felt both practical and comfortable for extended use on my ears, although as ever your mileage may vary depending on your head and ear shape so try before you buy if you can!

Note: I also published an edited version of this review of the Sony DR-BT50 on BerryReporter.

Link to Sony DR-BT50 pproduct page.

Neil Berman

Nov 7, 2009 Posted by | Audio, Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , | 3 Comments

iPod Touch videocam: It’s not over yet

Adding more fuel to the rumor fire about whether the lack of cam-equipped iPod Touch is a temporary delay or a never-product,  a UK flyer was spotted advertising an iPod Touch with “Built-in video recorder & WiFi”.  This was a publication error as said features are not currently available, as we know all too well, but it does lend credence to commentators who say that the device was pulled at the last moment.

Here’s hoping for the Apple Store to come mysteriously down sometime before Christmas and to come back up with enough cam-equipped iPod Touches for Santa to fit in his bag.

Neil Berman

Sep 23, 2009 Posted by | Apple, Audio, Mobile, News, Rants | , , | Leave a comment

Zune HD is a sellout, but is it better than an iPod Touch?

Early indications tell us that the Zune HD has been selling out at Amazon, BestBuy and Newegg. Is it actually a more desirable device than the iPod Touch or is this just an initial flurry of fan purchases?

I’m not going to review the two devices here, as plenty technical articles have already been written about how the Zune HD has both the design and quality playback edge over the iPod Touch. From a pure stored media reproduction perspective the Zune HD seems to be the superior PMP with slicker hardware and cooler software.

But consumers now expect more than just media playback, and this is where the iPod Touch fights back. Yes the Zune HD has a browser, but Safari on the Touch is better. The Touch also offers an email client and YouTube playback. The Touch might not have got it’s camera yet, but let’s not forget it is a gaming platform.

This flexibility, rooted in the App Store, ultimately makes the iPod Touch a stronger platform than the Zune HD. The Zune HD does have a selection of applications available, but its ad-based revenue model makes little sense in the face of ad-free 99 cent apps for the Touch.

Ironically the largest thorn in the side of the Zune HD’s third party app growth may be Windows Mobile. It makes every bit of sense for the Windows Mobile and Zune platforms to merge, just like the iPhone and iPod touch share the same OS. But right now Windows Mobile and Zune feel too far apart, which may ultimately harm third party app growth on both platforms.

As I said prior to the Zune HD’s release, the device brings technical superiority, but the iPod Touch is probably a more fun and flexible platform even without the camera we were hoping for. Ultimately the buying decision depends upon what you want to do with your device, but it’s now a harder decision than ever.

Neil Berman

Sep 20, 2009 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Audio, Microsoft, Mobile | , | Leave a comment

Stay calm and breathe normally

Warning: I’m haven’t fully recovered from today’s stratospheric letdown. I’m still angry that my planned trip to the Apple store on 5th Ave was cancelled at lunchtime. I’m hot under the collar that I still have the cash that I totally expected to part with this evening.

So it went down like this:

Steve’s return was obviously a wonderful moment and a great achievement on his part. After that the regular stats rundown took place. iTunes 9 looks cool, liking the LPs, loving the music sharing. Not a convert yet but it’s looking like a more welcoming platform.

iPod Touch makes an entrance, games start. Getting psyched on the games, going wild for the games, Madden (nice), Nova (WOW) and with a video cam on the back this is just gonna be SICK.

Just one more thing: Video Camera. Wallet…check. Subway ticket…check. Cancel dinner with Zune HD…check.



Awesome, this is gonna be so swee… Wait…NANO!!! Whaaaa??? Deflation takes hold of my entire body, I’m entering shock, emergency room on standby.

Epic disappointment. Legendary letdown. Quick mental review; the obvious contender for a cam, with its big screen for editing, WiFi for instant YouTube action and a processor which can allegedly handle HD video goes cam-less whilst an offline tiny-screened music player gets a VGA video-cam.


Like I said, I’m still a bit emotional about this, but I guess that’s the risk of believing the rumors so many of us thought were true.

Neil Berman

Sep 9, 2009 Posted by | Apple, Audio, Hardware, Mobile, News, Rants | , , , , , | 1 Comment

iPhone 3GS: stereo bluetooth now mainstream?

Apple’s decision to enable stereo bluetooth on the iPhone 3G will bring the technology into the mainstream, but has it remained on the periphery for a reason?

Like mono bluetooth headsets, stereo ones need to be paired. Nowadays this is straightforward but some phones and headsets have better recollection than others. There so many headsets and phones out there that inevitably some have better bluetooth inplementations than others. Pairings sometimes have to be re-established; this can be due to the phone or headset not being the best at remembering its partners.

Once you’re happily connected, you’re using the A2DP profile which gives audio streaming. If your phone and headset support AVRCP then you’re also getting remote control over music playback as well as calls. This is awesome and has made wired headphones redundant for years for many cellphone owners.  Now that iPhone 3G S has partially caught-up with this technology (allowing play/pause but not track skip), owners have an option to make those white wired earbuds disappear.

So how do you find a good headset? Here are a few options…

Motorola S9 HD

The S9 HD is a one-piece-behind-the-neck design similar to its predecessor, the S9.  The receiver and battery are housed in the connector band with call and playback controls living on the frame outside the earbuds. The power button and mini-USB charging port are on the underside of the connector band. There are three buttons on each side aligned vertically which makes controlling the S9 HD a snap once you’ve mastered the layout. Multi-function buttons are kept to a minimum; it’s the opposite of working a current generation iPod Shuffle.

Pairing was a good expeience with an HTC Touch Pro and Samsung Epix, with both phones picking up the S9-HD’s mono and stereo bluetooth profiles as well as playback controls.

Speech quality was good indoors but outdoors call recipients complained of some wind noise. Music quality was excellent, with solid bass and clear treble with the SRS WOW enhancer left off. With the enhancer on the sound took on an overly bass heavy response with low-mid frequencies being over-emphasized.

When I was standign still outdoors, music playback was consistent but on the move this became a variable experience. In a envionment with lots of objects providing reflections the bluetooth connection was solid. However in open spaces free of people, cars or walls the playback would become choppy unless the phone was close to the headset.

As with many other stereo bluetooth headsets the S9-HD seems to employ timestretching technology to extend playback whilst allowing its music buffer to fill. This results in perceptible pitch changes from time to time; I would rather pay a few dollars more for a larger onboard buffer.

The S9-HD is comfortable for long periods of use and feels light on the head. Some pairs of glasses can sit on top of the earpieces which can be an odd feeling, I found I could wear sunglasses without difficulty after getting accustomed to the feeling. YMMV.

On balance I liked the comfort and sound quality of the S9-HD, but the choppy music playback when walking through wide-open spaces can become annoying.

Panasonic RP-BT10

Sometimes using your own headphones is a must (I’m looking at you, Etymotic lovers) and Panasonic created the RP-BT10 with this in mind. Resembling the previous generation iPod shuffle the RP-BT10 sports transport and volume controls on the main unit and a call control button on the microphone cable. This cable has a standard 3.5mm headphone socket for you favorite cans.  There is a bespoke charging cable, so no USB cable charging option here.

Pairing was a smooth process. The spring-clip mechnism on the main unit allows positioning of the RP-BT10 closer to your phone if necessary for greater connection reliability. Of course if you plan on making calls you will need to ensure the mic is reasonably close to your mouth.

Sound quality is of course dependant on your choice of headphones, the bundled set are OK and need on a snug fit with the supplied ear fittings to get the best out of them.  The benefit of the RP-BT10 though is that you can use any 3.5mm headset you want.

By nature of its design the RP-BT10 also allows you to create a semi-wireless connection between a phone and a stereo system. Simply use a stereo 3.5mm to stereo RCA cable to connect the RP-BT10 to most stereos’ auxiliary input, which will turn your phone into a useful makeshift jukebox.

The RP-BT10 is a good choice if you want to use your own headphones, but the downside is that it re-introduce wires into your setup…and isn’t that what the iPhone community is getting excited about being able to give up?

Motorola S805

Last up in our trio is the Motorola S805. This big DJ-style headset fully covers the ears with call controls on one side and payback on the other. The S805 employs rocker wheels on each earpiece to control volume and track selection.

Control buttons are large and easy to press

One the underside of one earpiece is the charging port, which uses a standard mini-USB connection.

As with the other two devices, pairing was straightforward.  Once in use the buttons on either side pulse in blue, although fortunately this feature can be disabled by pressing the call and play buttons simultaneously for a couple of seconds.

In use callers found my speech to be crystal clear both indoors and outside. Music playback was very good with almost no droputs. Bass frequencies were slightly less pronounced than with the S9-HD, but the overall sound was easy to listen to for prolonged periods.  The headset, although large, was also comfortable and did not feel heavy on the head.

The pitch-shifting effect was evident on the S805 as with the S9-HD, although significantly less so. I’m guessing the S805 has more onboard buffer memory, which would also explain its resistance to dropouts.

Overall the S805 is a great headset as long as you can live with its size.  The S805 is certainly not the most discreet headset available, but its form usefully keeps ears warm and noise out on windy days.

Listen-up, here’s the bottom line…

These are three very different headsets. As a portable one piece solution the S9-HD is a good bet as long as you stay around objects or remain stationary when listening. The RP-BT10 allows use of your own headphones but makes you wire-y. Finally the S805 provides excellent connection strength and a balanced soundstage.

Each one however suffers from sporadic connection issues and even if these are forgiven by savvy owners, they may deter non-techie users from long term usage.  In my opinion this has been a delaying factor to widespread adoption of stereo bluetooth technology so far.

On the other hand I am hopeful that the release of the iPhone 3G S will create renewed energy in the stereo bluetooth market with new product offerings and greater reliability.  I can’t wait to see if Apple releases a headset!

Neil Berman

Jun 21, 2009 Posted by | Analysis, Apple, Audio, Mobile | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Shiny Stereo Stars: Motorola S805 Review

Ban the wires from your bod with these

Ban the wires from your bod with these

I’ll try to keep this short for reasons which will become apparent.  Bluetooth headphones are all the rage at the moment with big hitters like Jabra, Plantronics and Motorola selling several models in different formats. Recent sets have even included a dog tag design.  There have also been some high end designs from the likes of Sony and Motorola. I’ve got my mitts on the Motorola S805 DJ headset, let’s see what its like.

Control buttons are large and easy to press

Control buttons are large and easy to press

First impressions of the Motorola S805

The S805s are closed back style headphones with nice ‘n soft ear pads and a cushioned adjustable head band. The black finish looks smart rather than showy and the fit on my head is snug rather than heavy or tight.

On the left earpiece is a call button and track skip rocker, the right earpiece has a play/pause button, volume rocker and mic. There’s a charging port under the left ear alongside a wired headphone port for use with the supplied 3.5mm adaptor so you can listen to non bluetooth sources. There’s also a semi-hard travel case in the box.

So that means stereo bluetooth audio (A2DP) with playback control (AVRCP), bluetooth hands free with seamless music integration and non-bluetooth wired audio.

Pairing the Motorola S805

Wired headphone port sits next to charging port

Wired headphone port sits next to charging port

Pairing to my HTC S620 was straightforward with the phone detecting both hands free and stereo audio profiles. As with many bluetooth headsets various things started lighting up blue at this point. Thankfully Motorola understood that S805 owners are buying into a sound rather than sci-fi experience, so the cyborg-looking lights can be easily disabled.

Using the Motorola S805

Hands free conversations come through well, with minimal background noise as with most modern bluetooth headsets and voice dialling is also supported.

Music playback just works beautifully.  On my HTC s620 I called up a playlist in Windows Media Player, put the phone in my bag and controlled the rest from the S805s.   Sweet.  Tunes come banging out of these cans so hard you think you’re in a Detroit club. Basslines are solid, treble comes through clearly and I had no dropouts unlike the otherwise excellent Logitech Freepulse.  The S805s even paired to the Freepulse’s headphone output bluetooth transmitter so I was able to watch TV without using the S805’s wired connection.

The soft earpads are comfortable for extended use

The soft earpads are comfortable for extended use

That’s not to say they’re the last word in headphones.  In a wired listening test against my reference Beyer DT250s the Beyers deliver a significantly better performance in terms of frequency reproduction and sound stage.  In a fairer wired test against the more consumer oriented Beyer DT231 Galactic, the S805s come out with a more open and balanced sound stage with clearer highs whilst the Galactics deliver more in the middle and lower frequencies.  Both are easy to listen to without fatigue for decent amounts of time.

For those conscious to protect their hearing, the closed back design provides useful passive background isolation allowing for comfortable low volume listening…and conveniently protects your ears from the cold which is an added bonus for East Coast winters.

The bad news?  They’re DJ-style big cans which is a question of personal taste and they’re bag rather than pocket friendly.

Is the Motorola S805 a stereo star?

The good news?  Overall the S805s are awesome and worth the money as a high-end accessory for any music-loving owner of a stereo bluetooth cellphone.  Fortunately at the time of writing the S805s were available at several retailers for less than the (deep breath) $249 MSRP. In fact I saw them on sale in short supply for a lot less than that at Amazon and  Nuff said, get that plastic armed and ready.

Neil Berman

Sep 13, 2008 Posted by | Audio, Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CES Digital Downtown 2008

Digital Downtown opened today at the World Financial Center in Manhattan. This micro CES hopes to get end consumers to fondle cool tech today and their credit cards on the weekend. There were also some product previews of toys not yet available on J&R’s shelves a few blocks away.

The long awaited Gigabyte M528 came up for air on Intel’s stand along with a handful of other MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices).

This 800MHz Centrino Atom powered MID is super-light with a full slide out keyboard. The design is similar to the Nokia N810 and keeps the Linux theme alive with a customized OS loaded with OpenOffice and Skype. The keyboard feels good with a rubberized texture and the light weight (spec is 340g) means you can hold it for a long time without feeling like it’s a brick in your hands.

Whilst the M528 would be an awesomely useful device with Windows XP installed, its limited 4GB SSD means that this will be a challenge. Unlike the EEE 4G which packs XP and leaves room on the side for a 32GB SDHC, Gigabyte’s beauty only provides Micro SD expansion and current capacities are unfortunately small. On the plus side there’s a 3 megapixel camera on the back, a very low res webcam on the front and an 800×480 pixel screen which is a high enough resolution for decent web browsing. An unnamed source suggested that the M528 would ship in the US this summer for around $500.
LG showed off an LED-backlit LCD screen, due out for before the end of the year. It was noticeably more vivid than it’s sister screen and boasts a crazy contrast range of 1,000,000:1 (yes, you read all those zeros right). This gives really black shades of black and a heck of lot more of everything in the middle until you get all the way across the spectrum. (LED model on left in photo, current model on the right.) Pricing is expected to be at a fair premium to the existing model, but we’re not talking OLED megabucks. In fact although the image didn’t give me the wow I got from Sony’s OLED screen at CES, it’s a worthy contender at a fraction of the cost per screen inch. Better still it’s actually a real big screen product in 2008, whilst we’ll probably wait at least a year for large OLED screens to reach production.

Hitachi were showing off their 1.5 inch thin TVs, which we saw in January at CES. They still look great, but don’t hold a candle to Sony’s recent efforts.

With the obligatory customized Scion acting as gatekeeper, Pioneer were the party animals of the show. They brought their country-touring-dome-complete-with-DJ to bang out some tunes, with a funked-out trippy kaleidoscope ceiling.Inside was a homage to all things ICE, but as cool as Smart cars look on European streets they just don’t cut it with a sub in the back.

The show is being held across from Ground Zero, which was the site of the World Trade Center until Sept 11, 2001. For those of you who have not seen Ground Zero, it is now a scene of energetic building activity and will be the future location of the Freedom Tower. The first building to be rebuilt at Ground Zero was 7 World Trade Center, which opened its fifty-two stories in 2006. This is the top of it at 28x zoom (shot with steady hands and without a tripod, I used to be a surgeon – not).

Neil Berman

Jun 12, 2008 Posted by | Audio, CES, Computing, Hardware, Home Theater, Photo & Video, Mobile, News | , , , | Leave a comment

MacBook Air & iPod Touch Going Cheap

Want a MacBook Air but don’t fancy paying full whack? I just spotted it for $1,635 including shipping at Abe’s of Maine. That’s almost $200 off the sticker price. Looking at the forthcoming 6-hour-batteried, 10-inch-screened, Atom-powered MSI Wind, the MBA still looks overpriced…

Meanwhile I spotted the iPod Touch 16GB with current software going refurbished on Amazon’s Marketplace for $299. That’s $50 off Apple’s own refurbished price.

If you’ve been wanting to join the Apple faithful it seems like a good time to sign up!

Neil Berman

May 17, 2008 Posted by | Apple, Audio, Computing, Hardware, Mobile | | Leave a comment

Sandisk Sansa Clip Review

In the congested MP3 market, Sandisk has been enjoying healthy success with its Sansa range. Competing with the heavyweight iPod, Zune and Zen ranges is a pretty big ask, but Sandisk reckons it has some clever tricks in its range. In this review we’ll look at the Sansa Clip 1GB, which sits squarely in iPod Shuffle and Zen Stone territory.

First impressions

Unboxing the Clip reveals an ultralight but solid feeling player, with an iPod-esque control pad and decent size screen. The whole unit, including the clip, is larger than the iPod Shuffle due to the built-in display.  Tricked out with a four line ultra-cool OLED screen, FM radio, voice recorder and spring clip, the forty dollar Clip beats the Apple and Creative competition on paper. Several EQ options, backlit controls for low light and play & play USB connectivity complete the specs.

Navigation is pretty easy, it turns out that the control wheel is actually a textured four way pad with good responsiveness to touch. A home button exits out of menus. The OLED screen is as bright as expected, and is easily readable outdoors.

Loading on music is a simple case of plugging in a USB cable, dragging songs into the Windows Media Player sync pane and clicking on ‘Start Sync’. WMP transferred each song to the Clip in about two seconds then automatically disconnected the Clip when done.  You can also copy files across to the Clip in a file explorer window if you prefer using it that way.

How does it sound?

Plugging in Beyerdynamic DT250 reference headphones revealed a fairly balanced sound output from the Clip. Most importantly there was no over-emphasis of bass frequencies, which can create muddy playback especially when paired to a bass heavy set of consumer phones. The EQ settings were disappointing and probably best left alone unless you have a particularly poor set of headphones, in which case the onboard five band graphic might help.

Moving away from the neutral 250s to the more consumer hi-fi style 231s, the Clip delivered a great listening experience which was upfront but not tiring. Basses were solidly resolved and stereo imaging was good. For an MP3 player, there was also plenty of detail in the top end which never became drowned out by the mid or bass frequencies. Dance tracks came thumping through the cans and rock had me reaching for the volume control.

The FM radio is a useful feature and reception is decent enough for occasional use. The Clip held on to stations (as well as my shirt) walking through my apartments, witching automatically between stereo and mono when the signal weakened. The Clip can store presets and record from the radio. The voice recorder function is also a useful addition.

Overall the Clip is an outstanding music player for the price and should have the execs at Creative and Apple more than a little worried.

Neil Berman

Apr 27, 2008 Posted by | Audio, Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Logitech FreePulse Review

Wireless headphones. A great idea often unstuck by uncomfortable cans, poor sound quality and bulky base stations. Now lightweight bluetooth stereo headphones are streaming into stores, but there are still questions about whether they can change this perception. Let’s get Logitech’s FreePulse 2 into the interrogation room.

The FreePulse is a ultra-lightweight bluetooth headphone set with a cool neckband look and graphite coloring. The right ear unit houses the controls with volume, power, muting and track selection, although only some devices will be compatible with all of these functions. Flexible rubber over ear hooks keep them from falling off your ears. These hooks can be repositioned for custom fitting. Also in the box are adaptors for various iPods and a small bluetooth transmitter for standard 3.5mm headphone sockets. This allows the FreePulse to get audio from anything with a headphone output. Nice. Putting them on for the first time is slightly confusing, as the neckband sits at the bottom of the ear units rather than the top. Once figured out though, fitting is easy and the FreePulse feels secure, comfortable and, most importantly, lightweight when sitting correctly. The key is to play with the ear hooks to get the right fit.

The FreePulse paired to my HTC TyTN straight away and the phone recognized them as wireless stereo phones. Within seconds stereo music was streaming to the cans…and the sound quality was surprisingly decent.

Both bass and treble came through well enough, with an emphasis on the lows. There were pronounced peaks around the 1-3 KHz midrange, which is where snare drums and vocals live. This combination makes the FreePulse real rocker’s cans, and when I cranked up the volume I found myself dancing around the room in no time. The slightly overdone bass can smother some clarity at times, which can be remediated if you have an equalizer on your music player. There is a bass boost on the headset, but I didn’t find it particularly sweet sounding. At the other end of the spectrum I plugged the headphone dongle into my Teac Reference system, which receives a SPDIF audio feed from my Media Center. After some quick cutting of the offending bass and midrange frequencies on the computer’s output EQ, the sound quality of the FreePulse was extremely impressive.

Transmission quality was strong throughout my (admittedly small) apartment. The FreePulse had no problem holding a connection at around ten meters through a wall, although as the distance increased from the source, momentary dropouts started to occur every thirty seconds or so. The dropouts also occurred outside with the phone in my pocket and as the battery weakened after around five hours. However the dropouts only became annoying when watching movies as lip sync issues emerged. I can only imagine that this is a buffering issue when some data packets don’t make the full journey and need to be resent, which is a problem in any data streaming situation. I found that momentarily pausing the film sorted this out.

I found the FreePulse worked well both in and outdoors. I could jog without them falling off, and when fitted well they only became tiring after a couple of hours. They always had plenty of volume range as long as they were receiving good level from the source. Best of all, they just have a subtle power light, as opposed to a huge geeky flashing indicator which afflicts so many bluetooth headsets. So I could happily wear them without feeling self conscious. At a MSRP of $99.99, the Logitech FreePulse is good value given the packaged headphone adaptor, solid sound quality and comfortable wearability at home, in the gym or in the street. I recently saw them advertised at one large electronics store for $49.99. I bought them straight away.

Neil Berman

Feb 10, 2008 Posted by | Audio, Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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