All posts by Tim Anderson

Bang & Olufsen HX wireless headphones: a delight

I’ve reviewed dozens of wireless headphones and earphones in the last six months, enough that I’m not easily impressed. The B&O HX wireless headphones are an exception; as soon as I heard them I was delighted with the sound and have been using them frequently ever since.

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These are premium wireless headphones; they are over-ear but relatively compact and lightweight (285g). They are an upgrade of the previous model, Beoplay H9, with longer battery life (35 hours), upgraded ANC (Active Noise Cancellation), and four microphones in place of two. It is not top of the B&O range; for that you need to spend quite a bit more for the H95. Gamers are directed to the similarly-priced Portal model which has a few more features (Dolby Atmos, Xbox Wireless) but shorter battery life and no case; worth considering as it probably sounds equally good but I do not have a Portal to compare.

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What you are paying for with the HX is a beautiful minimalist design and excellent sound quality. The sound is clean, sweet and exceptionally clear, perfect for extended listening sessions. Trying these out is a matter of “I just want to hear how they sound on [insert another favourite track]”; they convey every detail and are superbly tuneful. It is almost easier to describe what they don’t do: the bass is not distorted or exaggerated, notes are not smeared, they are never harsh. Listening to an old favourite like Kind of Blue by Miles Davis you can follow the bass lines easily, hear every nuance of the percussion. Applause on Alison Krauss and the Union Station live sounds like it does at a concert, many hands clapping. Listening to Richard Thompson’s guitar work on Acoustic Classics you get a sense of the texture of the strings plus amazing realism from the vocals. The drama on the opening bars of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein, is wonderfully communicated.

In other words, if you are a hi-fi enthusiast, the HX will remind you of why. I could also easily hear the difference between the same tracks on Spotify, and CD or high-res tracks on my Sony player. AptX HD is supported.

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That said, there are unfortunately a few annoyances; not deal-breakers but they must be mentioned. First, the HX has touch controls for play/pause, volume, and skip track. I dislike touch controls because you get no tactile feedback and it is easy to trigger accidentally. With the HX you play/pause by tapping the right earcup; it’s not pleasant even when it works because you get a thump sound in your ear, and half the time you don’t hit it quite right, or you think you haven’t, tap again, then realise you did and have now tapped twice. Swipe for skip track works better, but volume is not so good, you have to use a circular motion and it is curiously difficult to get a small change; nothing seems to happen, then it jumps up or down. Or you trigger skip track by mistake. Ugh.

Luckily there are some real buttons on the HX. These cover on/off, and ANC control, which toggles between on, transparent (hear external sounds) and inactive. There is also a multi-button which activates voice assistants if you use these.

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Second, there is an app. I tried it on an iPad. Major annoyance here is that it does not work at all unless you create an account with B&O and sign in. Why should you have to sign in to use your headphones? What are the privacy implications? That aside, I had a few issues getting the app to find the HX, but once I succeeded there are a few extra features. In particular, you can set listening modes which are really custom EQ, or create your own EQ using an unusual graphic controller that sets a balance between Bright, Energetic, Warm and Relaxed. You can also update firmware, set wear detection on or off (pauses play when headphones are removed). Finally, and perhaps most important, you can tune the ANC, though changes don’t seem to persist if you then operate the button. You can also enable Adaptive ANC which is meant to adjust the level of ANC automatically according to the surroundings. It didn’t seem to me to make much difference but maybe it does if you are moving about.

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The ANC is pretty good though. I have a simple test; I work in a room with a constant hum from servers and ANC should cut out this noise. It does. Further, engaging ANC doesn’t change the sound much, other than cutting out noise, which is how it should work.

There is a 3.5mm jack connection for wired use, but with two important limitations. First, this does not work at all if the battery is flat; the headphones must be turned on. Second, the jack connection lacks the extra connection that enables use for calling, so for listening only. The sound quality was no better wired, perhaps slightly worse, so of limited value.

Despite a few annoyances I really like these headphones. I doubt I will use the app, other than for firmware updates, and rarely bother with the touch controls, which means I can enjoy the lovely sound, elegant design, good noise cancelling, and comfortable wear.

HP unhinged, refuses to honour warranty on its defective laptop

My son bought an HP laptop. He is a student and bought it for his studies. It was an HP ENVY – 13-aq0002na. It was expensive – approaching £1000 as I recall – and he took care of it, buying an official HP case. He bought it directly from HP’s site. A 3-year extended warranty was included. Here is how the HP Care Pack was described:

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After  a few months, the hinge of the laptop screen started coming away from the base of the laptop at one side, causing the base to start splitting from the top part.

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He was certain that it was a manufacturing defect. However he did not make a claim immediately, because he needed the laptop for his studies, and he knew he had a long warranty. (I think this was a mistake, but understand his position). The December vacation approached and he had time to have the laptop sorted so he raised the claim.

HP closed the case. He had a confusing conversation with HP who offered to put him through to sales for paid service, he agreed (another mistake) and ended up talking to someone who quoted hundreds of pounds for the repair, which he could not afford.

He attempted to follow up but had no success. He did engage with HP Support on Twitter who seemed helpful at first but ended with this:

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At no point did HP even offer to look at the laptop.

My son replied:

“The problem is absolutely not accidental damage or customer-induced – I’ve never dropped the laptop, and have always taken very good care of it (there are no marks on the chassis, for example). Whenever I’ve moved it around, it’s been in an HP case designed for the laptop. The problem emerged during normal use within eight months of me purchasing the laptop, and others have reported the same issue – for example, see this post on the HP forum:

https://h30434.www3.hp.com/t5/Notebook-Hardware-and-Upgrade-Questions/HP-Envy-13-2019-Hinge-Issues/td-p/7590894

The problem is the sole result of HP’s hinge design being inadequate. It’s therefore a manufacturing fault and should be covered by the care pack.”

Follow that link and you find this:

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It is the same model. The same problem at an earlier stage. And 10 people have clicked to say they “have the same question”. So HP’s claim that “nothing has been reported” concerning a similar defect is false.

See also here for another case https://h30434.www3.hp.com/t5/Notebook-Hardware-and-Upgrade-Questions/HP-Envy-13-hinge-issue/m-p/7911883

“I bought my HP Envy in 2017 for university, unfortunately that means it is now out of warranty. One of the hinges is loose and pops out of place every time I open the laptop”

and here for another https://h30434.www3.hp.com/t5/Notebook-Hardware-and-Upgrade-Questions/Hinge-Split-issue-HP-Envy-13-2019/m-p/7991805

“I purchased HP ENVY 13-aq0011ms Laptop in December 2019. After using about 1 year, (I treated it very gently all the time), the issue started: when the screen of the laptop is being moved to open/close, the chassis of the bottom case pops and split-opens”

and here https://h30434.www3.hp.com/t5/Business-Notebooks/Broken-hinge-in-HP-ENVY-13-Laptop/td-p/6749446

“Just after 13 months of buying my new HP Envy and spending 1400£ for it, the right hinge broke. There were no falls/accidents”

My son did attempt to follow up with customer service as suggested but got nowhere.

He knows he could take it further. He could get an independent inspection. He could raise a small claim – subject to finding the right entity to pursue as that isn’t necessarily easy. But he found the whole process exhausting. He raised a claim which was rejected, he escalated it and it was rejected again. He decided life was too short, he is still using the broken laptop for his studies, and when he starts work and has a bit of money he plans to buy a Mac.

Personally I’ve got a lot of respect for HP. I have an HP laptop myself (x360) which has lasted for years. I was happy for my son to buy an HP laptop. I did not believe the company would work so hard to avoid its warranty responsibilities. I guess those charged with minimising the cost to the company of warranty claims have done a good job. There is a hidden cost though. Why would he ever buy or recommend HP again? Why would I?

Note: HP Inc is the vendor who supplies PCs and printers, like my son’s laptop. HP Enterprise sells servers, storage and networking products and is a separate company. None of the above has any relevance to HP Enterprise.

PS I posted a link to this blog on the HP support forum, where others are complaining about this issue. I was immediately banned.

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A surprising favourite: Shure’s Aonic 215 True Wireless Sound Isolating Earbuds

I have reviewed numerous wireless earbuds over the last six months, but the real test is which ones I pick out of the pile when going out for a walk or run. Often it is the Shure Aonic 215, despite some limitations. They are an unusual design which hook right over the ear instead of just fitting within; I like this because they are more secure than most designs and I don’t like the inconvenience or potential expense of losing a valuable gadget when out and about. Plus, they sound good.

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How good? It was some years back that Shure opened my eyes (or ears) to how good in-ear monitors (IEMs) could sound. It was at a show, only a demo, and the IEMs had a four-figure price, but it made me realise the potential of in-ear electronics to sound better than any headphones I have heard.

I also have some lesser but much-used wired Shure wired IEMs which are a years old but still sound good. I’m happy to say that the Aonic 215s sounds substantially better in every way: clarity, frequency response, realism.

That said, the Aonic 215 true wireless has had a chequered history. Launched in April 2020, they were actually recalled by Shure because of problems with one earphone not playing, or battery issues. Shure fixed the issues to the extent of resuming supply but they are still a little troublesome.

If you value convenience above sound quality, you can get other earbuds that sound fine, have more features, and cost less – so go and do that.

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Still reading? Well, if you like the Shure sound the True Wireless does have a lot going for it. It’s important to understand that this is a modular system. The Aonic 215 has Shure’s standard MMCX connector and you can get a cable that would let you use these wired. You can also get other Shure IEMs to connect to the True Wireless earhooks to let you use them wireless.

This package of course has them in one. You get a charging case too, which will charge the IEMs three times when fully charged. Play time is up to 8 hours (7 hours probably more realistic). Long enough for me.

Task number one is selecting the right ear sleeve. The aims is to create a seal in your ear. 6 pairs are supplied, including the one pre-attached. The best in my opinion are the foam type which form themselves to the shape of your ear, and which come in small, medium and large. Changing these is a little awkward and as ever one worries about damaging the unit but with a little twisting and tugging it is not too bad. Most other earbuds do not have these foam-type sleeves.

That done, you fit the earbuds and turn on. Now the fun starts. There is a single button on each ear hook, positioned on a circular piece which hangs behind your ear. You operate it either by squeezing this piece, or pressing the button which then presses into your head. I found the squeezing option better, but it is not super convenient.
Don’t worry too much though as functionality is limited. You can power on and off, pause, answer or end a call, and turn environment mode on or off. A triple click activates a voice assistant (I didn’t try this).

Environment mode? This is pretty useful, and lets you hear what is going on around you. If you want to have a conversation while listening, it is pretty much essential.

What’s missing though? Well, volume control and track skip are the key ones. You will have to use your player for that. Shure is still working on the firmware so this might improve, but one button is not much to play with.

Another potentially big deal is that calls only work in the right ear. This doesn’t bother me much, but for some it is a deal-breaker, depending on how you want to use them. I expect to use them almost entirely for music.

There is a Shure Play app for iOS and Android which describes itself as a high-res audio player. This has a graphic equalizer but it only works when playing music through the app, which excludes streaming sources. You can also adjust the environment mode. You need the app to update the firmware – which given the history of the product is quite important; the update history makes reference to “bug fixes.” The update is done over Bluetooth and takes around 30 minutes; my first effort failed because the mobile went to sleep. I got this done in the end by keeping the app open and touching it from time to time to stop it sleeping. Such are the things that lovers of high quality audio endure in pursuit of the best sound!

I use these earbuds mainly with a Sony Walkman music player and like the excellent sound quality, secure fit, and very useful environment mode. A few things to note about the sound, which is the main benefit here. You get aptX, AAC and SBC, with aptX best for quality but AAC important for Apple devices. There is only a single driver which limits the quality compared to the high-end Shure devices, like the ones I heard years ago, but it is still excellent. I would characterise it as neutral in tone, with particularly good separation and bass that is clean and not at all boomy. The lack of boom may come over as bass-light at first, but persevere and you appreciate this. It is important to have a good fit and if you don’t get the seal they will sound thin; of course every ear is different so how easy this is will vary. The design of the Shure also means that the sleeves can clog with wax and a little tool is supplied to help with cleaning.

Not for everyone then; but these suit me well. One last thing to mention: Shure unfortunately has a reputation as not the most reliable of earbud brands. In my case, one wireless unit went dead after a couple of weeks. Shure replaced it and all is well, but it is somewhat concerning.

Karachi Vice by Samira Shackle

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Karachi is the largest city in Pakistan (though not its capital) and among the largest cities in the world. It is also a troubled city; and Karachi Vice tells a bit of its story through accounts of the lives of five people. Safdar is an ambulance driver for a charity called Edhi; Parveen a resident and activist from Lyari, a densely populated area fought over by rival gangs ; Siraj a map researcher whose research into water resources make him vulnerable to attack by those with, um, business interest in controlling water supplies; Jannat a woman from a village near Karachi who tells of its near-destruction because of illegal land possession by a private developer; and Zille a crime reporter who lives for the thrill of real-time reporting on notable incidents. Some names have been changed.

The book is astonishing and has the feel of authenticity since it is based on the actual experiences of these people. It is also something of a dark book, as you would expect from the title. It is a somewhat disjointed read, particularly in the first half of the book, since the various stories are interspersed; you read a chapter on one, then on another, than back to the first, and so on. There is a common thread though, and it all begins to make sense when you go back to re-read the prologue, having finished the rest of the book. There we find a timeline of major events as well as the background. Karachi, Shackle explains, “has been home to a series of complex and ever-evolving conflicts, with sectarian and ethnic resentment mingling with politics and organized crime.” The author concludes that “this is the front line of global urbanization at its most unforgiving.” It is important for all sorts of reasons, demonstrating the human cost of corruption and sectarian conflict.

The tone is measured and matter of fact though you cannot read it without feeling angry at times. One incident that I found particularly stirred my emotion was the account of the 2012 Baldia Town fire, a fire in a textile factory where “all but one exit had been locked by bosses who did not want the workers to take breaks or steal the products … anyone who made it to the front gate of the compound found it locked too.” Many lives were lost.

Karachi Vice has been a long time coming. Author Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist and editor of the New Hamanist, a rationalist quarterly. Shackle is based in London but her mother is a Karachiite. Shackle lived there between 2012 and 2013, a tumultuous period ahead of the Karachi Operation, an effort to stem the violence and crime and one that had considerable success. Shackle was also in Karachi following police patrols in 2015 and 2016 and has first-hand knowledge of incidents like those she describes. In 2018 she won a book prize enabling her to get the book deal that has enabled publication. Parts of the book have been previewed in the Guardian as long ago as 2015.

While I highly recommend Karachi Vice for anyone with an interest in world affairs, I do not find the approach of the book entirely to my taste. I preferred the Guardian pieces where the main subjects are referred to by surname rather than forename; I could have done with a bit more background; the jumping around between subjects makes things hard to follow at times.

None of that matters. Shackles tells real stories from people who get too little attention; the book is gripping, sad but also in a way inspiring, thanks to those moments when courage, love and human decency shine despite dark times.

See more reviews on Amazon UK

Carole King’s Tapestry by Loren Glass

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This title in Bloomsbury’s thoughtful 33 1/3 series is by Loren Glass, a professor of English at the University of Iowa in the USA. Writing about music is always a curious business – “dancing about architecture” –  and Glass takes a personal approach, dedicating the book to his mother and describing his memory of “the singer songwriters whose albums [she] played as I was growing up.” Tapestry was one of her favourites and Glass links it to the sexual revolution of the sixties and the feminism which followed. He observes that King favours the term “woman” over “girl” and how she sang as “the subject, not the object, of sexual experience and desire.” Tapestry, says Glass, “heralded a new, more equitable era for parents and their children.” He also writes that “the peak years of the women’s liberation movement coincide with the apogee of the long-playing album as an art form.”

There are five chapters in this short volume. One of the slightly odd things about the book is that each chapter feels almost complete in itself. The introduction is an essay in its own right. Next comes Maturity, giving the biographical background about King and her turbulent relationship with husband and lyricist Gerry Goffin. Then comes Trilogy, describing the three albums which King calls a trilogy in her autobiography: Now that everything’s been said, Writer, and Tapestry itself. Glass describes the recording of Tapestry and then gives a song by song commentary. Chapter 3 (or 4) is Celebrity, looking at King’s profile and career following Tapestry. The book closes with Legacy, looking at King’s later more retrospective career and reflecting on the significance of Tapestry today.

Glass goes over the top from time to time. ““No album before or since has been able to speak so intimately to so many for so long,” he says. And later that, “Only the Beatles have achieved this degree of cross-generational appeal … but most of us grow out of our Beatles phase while Tapestry endures.” I could do without the hyberbole; it is of course a fine album but one of the curious things is that it was James Taylor who better caught the magic of You’ve got a friend, in my opinion, and Aretha Franklin (for whom the song was written) who has the best performance of (You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman.

I enjoyed the book and learned a lot about Carole King, Tapestry, and the other albums Glass covers in some detail. I also appreciated the personal approach. On the other hand, I am not convinced the book is structured in the best way; it seems repetitive at times and I would have liked a sharper focus and more detail on the album itself, perhaps gathering together some of the fragmented commentary into a longer song-by-song analysis. Still a good read for anyone who loves this classic album.

See more reviews on Amazon.co.uk

Odd behaviour from Azure App Service: production version sometimes serves app from staging slot

I am developing an application which is deployed to Azure App Service. It runs on .NET 5.0 on Linux. I have set up a simple DevOps process so that committing changes to GitHub runs an Azure DevOps pipeline that deploys the application to a staging slot on Azure App Service for Linux. Then I can use Swap in the Azure portal to update the production slot. Swap simply exchanges the content of the staging slot with that in the production slot, so there is a route back in the event of disaster. Swap also restarts the application and forces users to log back in.

Yesterday I fixed a bug, deployed the change to the staging slot, and performed a swap. Logged back into the application, but the bug was still there, though intermittent. That was the bit I could not figure out: what was causing the code to behave differently on different requests? I became suspicious that it was sometimes serving the old version. I proved this by refreshing a page that demonstrated the bug. My page has an application version in the footer, and I could see that when the bug appeared, the version was older.

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Well this is odd. In the App Service Deployment slot settings I have traffic set to 100% for the production slot:

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In general I tend to assume a bug in my code or an error in my configuration settings is more likely than an issue with the Azure App Service. This does look odd though: why, if traffic is going 100% to the production slot, does the application sometimes serve the old version?

The pragmatic fix was easy. A second deployment to the staging slot means both now have code that works. The bug no longer appears; but I have kept the version number different and can see that the issue is actually still occurring.

I will update this post when I have more information, just in case anyone else hits this issue.

Some of my favourite earbuds and headphones of 2020: part 1

I love technology that endures and one of my most treasured gadgets is a pair of Sennheiser HD600 headphones. Mine are not quite that old, but this is a model that was first released in 1997 and remains on sale; they sound fantastic especially with a high quality headphone amplifier, and I use them as a kind of reference for other headphones. The ear cushions and headband perished on mine and I bought the official spares at an unreasonable price because I so much wanted to keep them going.

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Still on sale today: Sennheiser HD600

They are as good as ever; but it happens that this year I have reviewed a large number of headsets and earbuds some of which I also like very much. First though, a few observations.

Passive headphones like my HD600s are in decline. I call them passive because they have no built-in electronics other than the speaker drivers. They can only work when wired to the output from an amplifier. Wires can be a nuisance; and as wireless options become cheaper, better and more abundant, wired is in decline (though it will never go away completely).

Once you go wireless, something else happens. The signal the headset receives over Bluetooth or wi-fi is a digital one. Packed into the receiving electronics is not just a pair of speaker drivers,  but also a DAC (Digital to Audio Converter) and an amplifier. Further, the amplifier can be optimized for the drivers. The output can be equalized to compensate for any deficiencies in the drivers or the acoustics formed by their case and fit. This is an active configuration and has obvious advantages, getting the best possible performance from the driver and also enabling smart features like active noise cancellation (if you add microphones into the mix). It should not be surprising that the better wireless devices sound very good. I have also noticed that headsets which offer both wired and wireless modes often sound better wireless, despite the theoretical advantages of a wired connection.

Another significant development is that off-the-shelf chipsets for wireless audio have got better. The leader in this is Qualcomm whose Bluetooth audio chipsets are packed with advanced features. SoCs like the QCC 3506 include adaptive active noise cancellation, 24-bit 96Khz audio, low power consumption, voice assistant support, fast pairing, built in DSP (Digital Signal Processing), and of course programmability for custom features.

It is because of this that there are now numerous budget true wireless earbuds and headsets from brands you might not have heard of, with these exact features.

The importance of the fit

A few years ago I attended a press event at CES in Las Vegas. Shure was exhibiting there and I got to try a pair of its premium IEMs (In-ear monitors). Until then I had been convinced that earbuds could never be as good as headphones; but what I heard that day changed my mind. The audio amazed me, sounding full, rich, spacious, detailed and realistic. I thought for a moment about it and realised I should not be surprised. IEMs are designed to be fitted directly to your ears; why should they not be of the highest quality? The best ones, like those at CES, have multiple drivers.

There is something else though. Getting the best sound from IEMs requires getting an excellent fit since they are generally designed to sealed into your ears; the once with expandable foam ear seals are perhaps the best for achieving this. If they are badly fitted then you will hear sound that is tinny or bass-light.

This means that it is worth taking extreme care with the selection of the right ear seals or ear sleeves, as they are sometimes called. Most earbuds come with a few sizes to accommodate different ear sizes. If the sound changes dramatically when you press the earbuds in slightly, they are not fitted right.

Something else regarding Shure, that I did not realise until recently, is that all its earbuds are designed to have a cable or (in the case of the wireless range) clip that fits behind your ears. The reason for this is that it makes it easier to get a good fit when the cable is not constantly pulling the IEMs out of position. Check out this video for details.

Earbuds that do not fall out

It is a common problem. You fit your earbuds and then go for a run or to the gym. With all that movement, one or both of the earbuds falls out. This can be a serious problem with wireless models. If you lose your earbud in the long grass or on a busy street; you might never find it again, or someone might trample on it.

There are a few solutions. The Shure approach makes it unlikely that the device will fall out. Another idea is to have a neckband that connects the two earbuds and hangs at the back of your head. I quite like this approach, since manufacturers can sneak some batteries into the neckband that give a longer play time than is typical with true wireless. It does not stop an earbud falling out, but it does mean you are less likely to lose it. Some people I’ve chatted to though feel it is the worst of both worlds, the battery and pairing issues of Bluetooth with the inconvenience or ugliness of wires. Up to you.

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Airloop Snap 3-in-one

One brand, Airloop, claims to solve this by offering 3-in-one earbuds that can be used true wireless, or with a neckband, or with a lightweight “sports band” that has no batteries but does give a bit of security. The idea was good enough to raise hundreds of thousands in crowdfunding on Indiegogo and Kickstarter; they are nice devices but did not quite make my favourites list as I found the devices a little bulky for comfort, the firmware a little buggy, and the sound not quite what it should be at the price.

Don’t fret about the codec

One last remark before we get to my list of favourites. You will find a few variations when it comes to wireless standards and codecs. Headsets used for gaming generally use USB dongles for low latency. Other headsets generally use Bluetooth and support various codecs. The minimum today is SBC (low-complexity subband codec) which is part of A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile). Apple devices support AAC. Qualcomm’s aptX has advantages over SBC in compression, higher bitrate and lower latency. Sony has LDAC which supports higher resolutions.

In my experience though, the codec support is relatively unimportant to the sound quality. Yes, the better codecs like aptX or LDAC are superior to SBC; but compared to other factors like the number and quality of the drivers, the ease of getting a good fit (see above), and the quality of the electronics in other respects, the codec is less important. “As you may have noticed, it’s difficult to tell the difference between SBC and aptX by ear”, observes this article.

You can bypass these concerns by going wired; but when you consider the benefits of active amplification as well as the convenience of wireless, it is not a simple decision.

See part two (coming soon) for some of the headsets I have enjoyed in 2020.

Her Last Holiday by C L Taylor

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C L Taylor takes us into a world of needy people in this tale of discovery and self-discovery, as a woman (Fran) sets out to discover what happened to her much younger sister who went on a holiday/extended therapy session two years earlier but never returned. The official verdict was suicide but with no body discovered and the fact that the organiser of the event, Tom Wade, was imprisoned for the manslaughter of two others at the same event, there is every reason to suspect that the full story has not been told. When Wade is released and organises a new retreat, Fran attends under an assumed name, determined to find out more.

The novel is billed as a psychological thriller, the tension builds as strange and scary things occur on the retreat and you cannot figure out who is really responsible. It reminded me of one of those Agatha Christie stories where a bunch of people are all in a lovely house together, with surface politeness but all sorts of friction and emotion underneath. The desire to know more kept me turning the pages. The story is told through the eyes of three women: Fran, her missing sister Jenna, and Tom’s wife Kate. We jump back in time for the Jenna sections, with helpful chapter sub-heads saying “two years ago”. Several people on the current retreat were also at the previous one, so we gradually learn more about them from these different perspectives.

Tom and Kate pitch their holiday retreats as “soul shrink”, events for hurt people to give them a new start. We join some of the counselling sessions, and in describing these the author shows deep knowledge of the subject; they are convincingly told and make the book though-provoking in terms of the ways people damage one another (and themselves) and the somewhat dysfunctional families they belong to. There is ambiguity in the telling: are Tom and Kate charlatans making promises to their vulnerable guests that cannot be fulfilled? Or are they doing good work (manslaughter and missing person incidents aside) that really does improve the lives of others? This is deliberate and even at the close of the book, when the facts of the matter are revealed, the reader is, I believe, meant still to have questions about what is sincere and what is fake.

I love books that challenge me to do some thinking, and this is one of them. Part of me though would have liked the loose ends to be more firmly tied up; there is also an incident described in the first chapter for which we never get full resolution.

Great read though, exciting, well-written, thought-provoking and insightful.

Her Last Holiday
is published by Avon Books on 29th April 2021, ISBN 978-0008379223

Rhys Bowen: A love story for Venice

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I loved this book; if anything it is too short. It begins with Lettie, a young English girl, and her visit to Venice in 1928, accompanied by her prim and stuffy aunt, who is determined to protect her charge from anything modern or lively, and especially from interacting with strangers. Needless to say the delightfully named Aunt Hortensia’s does not altogether succeed in her endeavours and Lettie forms a brief but life-changing connection with a Venetian, leading us into a story that spans the decades, as we jump to the modern day and follow the story of Caroline, who is charged by her great aunt Lettie to visit Venice to uncover … something.

This is an easy and compelling read which I finished in one sitting. The bulk of the book concerns Lettie and her time in Venice as Europe was plunged into the tragedy of the second world war. The war is mostly at a distance but casts a shadow over everything, and author Rhys Bowen recounts some dark moments.

Reflecting on the book I am struck by how Bowen transports us to Venice, the city and its people, which in many ways is the heart of the story. She has obvious affection for this unique and wonderful place, its delicious food (if you know where to go), its beautiful works of art, its addiction to religion, and even its less savoury aspects, smells, frequent rain, and occasional “acqua alta” when the city is flooded.

The charm of the ancient and magical city more than makes up for what are perhaps slightly thin (though still likeable) characters. The only negative for me is that the ending was a little abrupt; I would have liked a little more detail about the aftermath.

No complaints though; I reviewed this book on a drab November day in lockdown and spending a few hours in Venice was a most welcome and enjoyable respite.

A Venice Sketchbook is published by Lake Union Publishing on 13th April 2021.

A UI lesson: do not ask users to choose between Register and Login

I am developing a web site for playing bridge, a project which kicked off in March when lockdown caused bridge clubs everywhere to close. There are lots of sites where you can play bridge online, but not many options (particularly back in March) for clubs that wanted to run their own online sessions.

It’s going OK with a number of clubs now using it every week, though it is still in development. I have learned a painful lesson though. In order to proceed as quickly as possible, I started my project with the Visual Studio template for an ASP.Net Core application with ASP.NET Core Identity – the latter an easy decision since it handles all the complications of registration, password reset and so on. (I did end up having to re-plumb it to use int rather than GUID for the primary key but that is another story).

The default home page the template generates looks like this, with options in the menu to Register or Login.

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Registration and login are fundamental concepts that have been part of the web forever. It’s simple for a developer to understand: you register to create an account, you login if you already have an account.

The painful discovery is that this is not obvious to everyone, particularly to an older demographic that did not grow up with computers. Another factor is that cookies, browser-saved passwords and single sign-on with Google/Facebook etc means that this whole area is a bit of a mess and there are people who just kinda expect web sites to know who they are (which in one way horrifies me but I do see the massive convenience).

The consequence is that a surprising (to me) number of people had difficulty knowing whether Registration or Login was what they needed. They would Register, then return to the site and hit Register again. Why is this site asking for my details again? Maybe a security thing? Oh no, why does it now say username not available?

This is because asking the user to make this choice is not good design. Registration is rare, login is common. Further, Register is a confusing word. We sometimes use the word register when accounts already exist. Create Account is better. And a better UI is just Login. I need to access this website. Then, underneath the username/password request, an option that says “I need to create an account”. The two options should not be equally prominent; and if you look at how many prominent sites design this, that is what they do:

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Lesson learned; but I wish this had occurred to me sooner!