Archive for the ‘Audio’ Category

Amazon’s Echo devices launched in 2013 and have been a huge success story.

It’s no exaggeration to say that they have taken the world by storm. Like the Nintendo Wii, they seems to have transcended typical demographics and found their way into not only the 18-30 years geek’s bedroom, but into your mother’s kitchen, your grandad’s living room and your father-in-law’s study.

Voice operation has been around for a while, but mainly for dictation products like Dragon’s Naturally Speaking. Apple brought it to the mainstream with Siri, standard on all iPhones from the 4S upwards and Google now use voice input in nearly all of their major products including their excellent Google Now assistant.

I’ve said it before (and I stand by this statement after 2 years): Amazon nailed it with the Echo. First time. It can hear you across the room, even while playing music, but more importantly, the error rate for understanding is substantially lower than rival products,

The single worst thing about owning an Echo is that you realise just how bad Siri and Google Now at accurately deciphering your commands. And I guess it has to be. You can fall back to another method of input on a phone. With the Echo, you can’t. It’s voice operated or erm, not operated.

Which brings me to the point of this post. It’s nice to have hands-free operation of a device in the living room or the bedroom. But it’s actually useful in the kitchen. Why? Because it’s where we prepare food and wash dishes. I realised while washing up last month that the real benefit to hands-free is when you actually can’t use your hands. They may be wet or dirty – contaminated after handling raw meat for example.

So I got to thinking. Where would Alexa truly be a revelation? Where is the wettest place in the home? The bathroom!

I had always taken my iPhone with me to play music while having a shower or bath but stopped doing so when my wife dropped hers in the bath.

Side note – that accident cost us £200 to replace, even out of warranty and water damaged. £200 is a snip- to buy another was £699 at the time. Apple Support truly is industry leading.

Anyway, I decided that Alexa in the bathroom is the holy grail. I tried various different methods to achieve it and finally settled a cheap and very effective solution.

I’ll put up photos of my failures at the bottom of this post. For now, I’ll let the photos do the talking.

What you need in addition to an Echo Dot:

Grand total <£80.

Now this is important. I have power in my loft. You may not, but after speaking to an electrician, you can run some small devices off the loft light circuit. UK lighting circuits are 5A whereas the mains is 13A. As he said, “you’re not running a 3-bar electric heater from it, you’ll be fine”

Now, you are buying three speakers. Two to use for audio and one to sacrifice to create a caddy for your Echo Dot. This one will never work as a speaker.

The ground loop noise isolator will stop any buzzing or hissing when the system in idle. It will be always on, remember. The 3.5mm adaptor plugs into this and connects the amp to the Echo Dot.

The Amp is well, an amplifier. Small and powerful.

Sacrifice Speaker with Echo Dot:

Step 1.) Remove the grille and the paper cone in the middle. Just pull the cone and it pops off.

img_0010-1

Step 2.) Make a small incision right in the centre of the speaker paper and pass through the 3.5mm jack and the Micro-USB cable. Pull them through and plug them into your Echo Dot. Pull the cables back through from beneath and place your Echo Dot dead centre of the speaker. Push it down to pin the cables beneath t, being careful not to stress the cable connectors.

Step 3.) Put the grille back on, it will snugly push the Echo Dot down, securing the cables with it.

Connect everything together BEFORE installing in your ceiling to make sure everything works. Trust me on this – theres nothing more infuriating than having to take everything back out after installing in the ceiling to find that you didn’t push the 3.5mm jack all the way in.

The light in the Echo Dot looks very cool in the the new speaker caddy:

Step 4.) Install the amp in the loft. Cut three holes in the ceiling for the speakers and caddy as per the box instructions and connect it all together.

Step Back and Enjoy. Play, Pause, turn the volume up / down, everything. All voice operated. It’s perfect.

 

 

For those wondering whether the Echo Dot Wi-Fi signal strength is affected by the fact it’s essentially entombed in a Faraday Cage, the answer is two fold – on 5G yes, a bit. But on a 2G network, surprisingly – no, it doesn’t appear to be. I had mine configured on my 5G network before I installed it and on a couple of occasions after the ceiling install it lost connectivity. So I changed it to my 2G network and it’s been rock solid ever since.

 

As an aside, the method of changing Wi-Fi involves pressing a button on the Echo Dot for 5 seconds to put it into Setup Mode. I used an iPhone SIM card ejector tool to press the button through a hole on the grille. No need ever take the speaker apart!

 

 

 

Advertisements

Bluetooth is a wonderful thing, and since the likes of Apple have created AirPlay, our devices can connect to others to release our playlists from the palm of our hands. 

The problem most of us face, is having to move on with the times….yes we all have the iPod, iPhone or Android handset, but our sound systems do not connect wirelessly, pushing us to connect our lovely portable devices via AUX and leave them by the sound system’s side. 

OK, you could go out and buy a whole new sound system, plenty of Samsung, Onyko and Pioneer Amps now include AirPlay, but you will have to part with around £500 for the pleasure. 

In come the guys at Audioengine who bring us the B1. This little device is an adapter designed solely for Audiophiles (doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t get involved), with high-fidelity output that directly connects into your sound system. It lets you stream audio wirelessly via Bluetooth from your smartphone or Bluetooth enabled computer with superb sound quality. 

The B1 is housed in aluminium which oozes quality and sets to warrant the price tag. It measures 1″H 3.5″W by 4″D and has an adjustable antenna on the front. On the back panel we find the RCA stereo output for your receiver, a 24-bit digital optical output, and a micro USB port for power through the included power adaptor. The RCA cable is included in the box. 

B1 Rear

Under the hood, the B1 includes a 24-bit upsampling DAC (digital-to-analog converter) which provides the high fidelity music. This device will work beautifully with high quality music files and will play them at their best. A lot of the other devices on the market tend to make your music sound worse, this device will never degrade what you have and that is the beauty of it. 

The B1 supports the aptX codec and both the A2DP and AVRCP Bluetooth profiles and is simple to set up, with the iPhone 5S taking just seconds to pair. Inside the box you get a small drawstring carrying pouch in addition to the USB cable and power adaptor if you want to travel with it. 

This device performs well, sounds great and is the epitome of wireless audio for 2014. If you like your music and find that nothing out there does your playlist any justice, then give the B1 a go…..this is a force to be reckoned with!

£140 here in the UK or $189 for the US. 

Audioengine-B1

The idea of virtual reality has been around for a very long time, but few have been able to perfect the idea like the boys at Oculus Rift.

This company not only smashed through its Kickstarter campaign goals but still has investment flowing in with Facebook purchasing the company and now Samsung working with them to create a headset for its own media.

Of course, in any great market, others will strive to take a piece of the pie as the public is hungry for the new technology. The gaming industry is worth nearly $80bn, and some games gross more than some films nowadays so the fruit is there for the picking.

Oculus may be seeing its first real rival from China in the form of ANTVR. Still small and mobile enough to do what it wants without the huge corporate board that Oculus has with Facebook peering over its shoulder demanding results.

The ANTVR Kit includes a customisable remote, which is compatible with all games. The coolest form the remote takes is the hand gun which I think most of us will enjoy, giving you that "Time Crisis" type feel which we all enjoyed back in the 90's arcade scene.

7b85e089f617b72633663fa49f3caaa8_large

The controller can be a simple joy pad, or happily transform into a joystick or steering wheel making it very versatile.

The headset is equipped with Full HD display (1920x1080, 1.03 megapixel per eye) and will give an IMAX style viewing environment with its large screen. They creators have even thought about glasses wearers making sure there is enough room inside to still wear them. It supports all the mainstream platforms including PC, Xbox, PlayStation and Android devices. All you need is a standard HDMI signal to use the headset as a screen.

20140531-231302-83582737.jpg
The headset can be wireless, but currently it is an expensive add-on which we don't really think you need. We do like the idea of the "shotgun style" bullet reload to change the batteries in the device.

This is certainly a formidable rival for Oculus, it's price point is pretty much the same and it looks no lesser quality than its bigger brother and presents Oculus with a spin....the cool controller.

Starting at $300 with an estimated delivery date of September, we really cannot wait to test these out for ourselves.

Over on Kickstarter

Up until now, if you wanted to play a downloaded video on your iPhone or iPad, you would either have to download an Apple-friendly MP4 version or convert it to one.

Apple’s iPhone 5 specification webpage states that it will natively play H.264 video up to 1080p, 30 frames per second, High Profile level 4.1 with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4 and .mov file formats’.

The problem with this is that for the vast majority of downloadable HD videos, MKV is the container of choice. It has become so popular because of it’s flexibility – it can contain almost any codec for both video and audio tracks – indeed it can have multiple of either track – and has excellent subtitle support too.

Most MKV files will contain an H264 video track which iOS can play, but the MKV container is not recognised and the audio track is invariably not in the preferred stereo AAC format. An MKV video file is simply not recognised by iOS.

The options until a couple of years ago were to either convert the entire video into a recognised file format or ‘remux’ it. There are a myriad of encoding applications available for both the OSX and Windows, but are usually easy to use paid-for applications or perplexing free ones.

Converting the entire file loses quality on both the audio and video tracks and to make matters worse could take a very long time to accomplish on all but the fastest machines.

Remuxing on the other hand is a clever process whereby the application separates the H264 video track from the audio track, and then converts only the audio stream to AAC before stitching them back together again in a friendly MP4 format. Result? No loss of quality for the video, and a playable file.

A few years ago, Apple relaxed the policies on the App Store to allow third party developers to publish their own video players. These have until recently only been able to play unofficial formatted files in software. What this means is that instead of using the dedicated video chip, it uses the CPU to decode it. This can result in a lot of dropped frames, making the video appear jerky and also massively decreases battery life.

Around a year ago, Dolby, angered by lack of money generated through licensing Dolby Digital decoders, requested Apple to stop any developers providing apps on the App Store that could decode Dolby Digital soundtracks without paying Dolby a licencing fee. Apple responded, and all apps that could play Dolby Digital soundtracks were pulled and were only allowed to be republished once either the functionality was removed or the developer paid Dolby a licensing fee.

Google however, seems to have come to the rescue.

It was discovered this week that if you upload an MKV file to Google Drive in what seems like ANY format, including soundtracks in DTS, you can then download (or stream) it using the Google Drive app on iOS immediately. These files are played in the stock video application, meaning that GPU accelerated decoding is being used, keeping battery drain to a minimum. It would seem that Google is quite happy to do the remuxing/converting for you in real time without any cost to you using their servers. Quite why Google is willing to do this is up for debate, but for now, let the good times roll and stop converting!

 

Written by our guest writer Phil Carroll.

 

340225-google-drive

One of the most asked questions aimed at TheTechSpy is “What wireless speaker should I get for my phone?”. It’s a good question, of which has many answers, as over the last few years some interesting products have been released at various price points.

Of course, we have the likes of B&W, Denon and Bose up at the higher end producing some very tasty devices, but you pay for that class which some people just do not want to stretch to. To a certain extent we agree, as this is a product that is meant to be thrown in your case or bag, pulled out at impromptu situations with friends to enjoy music together and not always just to look stylish and pristine on your side table.

Last week we came across Blazar made by Beacon Audio, a cool little company that created a wireless speaker last year and like all good companies has improved on its design and taken it a step further. This device offers the best of both worlds….it looks cool in the house but is begging to be taking out and used on your travels.

This clever little speaker connects to any device with Bluetooth and can even pair the Bluetooth via NFC for those lucky enough to have it. It comes with a rechargeable battery which lasts up to 12 hrs and can even handle phone calls when you are listening to music with its in-built microphone.

Constructed of a single piece of aluminium, this speaker will not look out-of-place with most current setups. The speaker (if the $200k stretch goal is reached) will come with a beautiful leather carrying case to protect it which I don’t think any other manufacturer offers.

The guys have worked with some artists to bring you different versions of the unit with a little of that artist’s character, which give this an edge over most other speakers I have seen. Whether you use this to listen to music on the go, or watch a film on your tablet, the construction and design places it at the top end, but with a fairly mid range price of $124 (and $17 shipping internationally) for the silver version on Kickstarter.

We will see you on the pledge board! 😉

Blazer

Blazer little jacket

 

 

It seems like not a day passes where another Apple compatible product is released, as companies scramble to profit from the design savvy consumer Apple  produces for.

Logitech are pretty much ahead in this arena, but I have to admit they are on fire at the moment with some of the products they are releasing and seem to have their finger on the pulse.

Bring on the Logitech Z600. The sleek, Apple-esque, wireless stereo speakers for your desktop. These cool units house three drivers each and can hook up to smartphones, tablets or laptops over a Bluetooth connection. Logitech have kindly included a Bluetooth dongle for those who do not have this built-in to the electronic device they are using.

The speakers allow for 3 simultaneous connections to your devices and can easily switch between them when the command is sent. Volume is controlled via the right speaker with a touch panel at the top which allows you to glide your finger iPod style and a 3.5mm jack is housed at the rear for those devices without the ability to connect wirelessly. Along the back of the right speaker, you can also find the power and pairing button which are hidden nicely.

These speakers will not look out-of-place and are at the right size to sit on your desktop and look pretty cool. You may want to think of these as a cheap alternative to a multiroom system as they are cheap enough to buy and place in every room and then just stream music from your smart phone and confidently fill most rooms with good sound.

Released in August with a RRP of £129.99 in the UK.

Z600

 

Today Pioneer announced the BDP-160, a new way to use a Blu-ray unit as the centre of your media system.

The player, first and foremost, plays DVD, CD & Full HD Blu-ray movies with 3D thrown in for good measure. Where it gets a little smarter is the way it has gelled together other standards while still looking like our good ol’ friend the Blu-ray player.

The BDP-160 has inbuilt WiFi to help take care of the network features but can be easily connected up via Ethernet for a more trust-worthy connection. The connection will be used to stream content which can be obtained from your PC or NAS on the same network using the popular DLNA 1.5 standard. Pioneer have decided to also go with the WiFi Direct feature to stream content from a smartphone, tablet, laptop or even Android device direct onto your screen which I think is great to see in a product like this and has even allowed the YouTube “Send to my TV” function.

A USB slot on the front and back panel allows you to connect a USB hard drive which can handle formats like FLV, MPEG, AVI, WMA, FLAC2, MKV, MP3 and DivX to cover pretty much all users needs.

Pioneer also have some cool apps for Android and iOS, which have been included on this device, so you are able to control the unit via your smartphone as the remote control. iControlAV can be used by 4 people at the same time and will happily stream music direct to the device, so you could hook this up to your big speakers and have an alternative to a Sonos system.

If you fancy a bit of this, you can pick it up for a very pleasing £129.99 from July in the UK.

Pioneer_BDP-160