Review: Audyssey Lower East Side Audio Dock Air for Apple AirPlay

Based in Los Angeles, Audyssey specialises in audio processing software. This is used in home theatre equipment such as multi-channel receivers, and also finds its way into TVs, mobile devices and cars. In 2010 Audyssey started making its own audio accessories, with an iPhone/iPod dock which I reviewed here. I was surprised how good they sounded. Since then I have kept a close eye (or ear) on the company’s small range of products. This is a company which cares about sound quality, and whose secret sauce is applying software to solve the problem of getting big, accurate sound from small enclosures.

The Lower East Side Audio Dock Air is an active loudspeaker system for Apple’s AirPlay wireless streaming protocol. It also has a standard 3.5mm input for wired connection to MP3 players or other devices. Using AirPlay, you can play music and control the volume from a Mac or PC running iTunes, or from iOS devices including iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.

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What you get in the box is the Audio Dock Air, an external power supply, a 3.5mm jack connector, and a Quick Start Guide that unlike many others is actually rather good.

The styling of the Dock Air is distinctive with its speaker systems firing left and right, though if you check out the internal shots later on you will see that the tweeters are actually directed more forwards than sideways.

Plug in the power and you can get started. For set up, you press and hold a pairing button on back, which lets you connect to the Dock over Wi-Fi. You than browse to a small web application on the Dock, where you complete the set up by connecting to your home Wi-Fi network. You can also rename the device, which could be particularly useful if you have several Dock Airs in different rooms.

Once fully connected, you can go to iTunes and click on the AirPlay button at bottom right of the iTunes window. There you can select the Dock Air, using whatever name you assigned during setup:

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Even more convenient is to download the Remote app for iOS. This lets you use your iOS device to control iTunes on the Mac or PC.

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You can also play music directly from iOS.

The sound

The sound quality is excellent as I have come to expect from Audyssey. There are a few points to note though. The first thing you notice is the bass extension, which is remarkable for a unit of this size. Drums have real thump, and bass guitar sounds like bass guitar. If you are used to the anaemic bass of most small speakers, hearing this from a small box is pleasing and unexpected. That said, the sound is not dominated by the bass. The treble is sharp and clear too; and I was struck by how easy it is to follow different strands in the music and to notice small details.

Playing Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain, for example, you can easily hear the whispered “Son of a gun” right at the start of the track. Karajan’s Beethoven’s 9th sounds dramatic and powerful; a little lightweight compared to a full-range home stereo, but superb from a compact dock. Mika’s Billy Brown, a simple arrangement with a forward vocal, is conveyed with drama and deep bass from the accompaniment, with just a trace of confusion at the bottom end compared to my monitor reference speakers.

Given that this is a single box, you should not expect the best stereo image. You do get some limited stereo effect. The unit goes loud enough for most listening at home, but not for parties or neighbour-annoying rock out sessions,

I made a comparison with the Audyssey South of Market dock, which is just a little larger but a similar design. The older dock does not go quite so deep, though the sound is a shade cleaner; the Dock Air is slightly softer in tone though if you had your eyes closed you would guess it is larger, not smaller, than its predecessor. On Sade’s bass-heavy song By Your Side, the South of Market keeps a firmer grip than the Dock Air, though this is a difficult song to reproduce. Some listeners might find the bass in the Dock Air excessive, though it is not to my ears. I doubt anyone would think that of the South of Market dock. Both sound very good.

The not so good

Audyssey has a strong grip on audio technology, but less so with its manufacturing quality. It is not bad but could be better. The rotary volume control is slightly out of true on the review unit, for example. These are products that you have to hear to appreciate, and my guess that a little more investment in fit, finish and design would win more customers, bearing in mind the relatively high prices.

The responsiveness of the Dock Air can be laggy, both from iTunes and even more when used with the iOS Remote app. Some of this is down to the iTunes/AirPlay system, and no doubt some audio buffering in the Dock Air, but it can be annoying.

Switches and ports

The Dock Air is fairly minimalist when it comes to switches and ports. On the top of the unit is a rotary volume control and status LEDs.

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You can also control volume remotely, which you will probably do more often. The volume control is also a mute button; press down to mute, and again to unmute.

On the front is a headphone socket along with what looks like an infra-red receptor though if so it is undocumented.

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At the rear is the power, aux input, and pairing button. No on/off switch. I recommend turning off at the socket, connecting, and then switching on, presuming your mains sockets have switches.

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Underneath is a USB port, which Audyssey says is solely for future firmware updates.

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The technology

Audyssey does not give much away in its specifications for the Dock Air. It does state:

  • 3/4” tweeters
  • 3” woofers
  • 4” Passive bass radiator
  • Audyssey EQ
  • Audyssey BassXT
  • Audyssey Dynamic EQ

Of these, the last are the most interesting. What are they?

Audyssey EQ is not much documented, but in the context of another product I read that it corrects time and frequency response imperfections caused by the loudspeaker and cabinets.

BassXT “dynamically monitors the low frequency signals and constantly pushes the speaker to its maximum capability.” The over-simplification would be that it boosts the bass signal to compensate for the drop off in the frequency response of the woofer.

Dynamic EQ is a more sophisticated form of the “loudness” switch that you see on old hi-fi equipment. As Audyssey says, “It will preserve the and octave-to-octave balance of the content as you turn down the volume to make up for the changes that happen in human hearing at lower listening levels.”

Purists may feel that this is too much tinkering with the signal. My view is that the high quality results successfully validate the approach. With Audyssey products, it is a large part of what you are paying for.

Internals

The Dock Air is not designed to have its grilles or panels removed; however we had a quick look inside for this review. This shows one side of the unit with its 3” woofer and passive bass radiator.

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If you look carefully you can also see the tweeter at top left. Note that this points more towards the front than to the sides, though it is at an angle.

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Internally Audyssey has taken a lot of trouble with acoustic damping foam so that the sound is clean even at high volume. I was also impressed by the size of the loudspeaker magnets, which are bigger than I have seen on speakers many times larger.

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Conclusion

With rumours that Apple is redesigning its dock connector, thus threatening the compatibility of products like the South of Market dock, wireless is the future. If you value high sound quality and need an AirPlay speaker system, you will like the Lower East Side Audio Dock Air. Note that there is no Bluetooth support, so if you want to use non-Apple devices this is not suitable. A bit more attention to design and manufacturing quality would be welcome. But I do not know any other company that can get such great wide-range sound out of small boxes.

 

Free competition: Win a Kingston DataTraveler Locker+ secure USB Flash Drive

Ever worry about exposing confidential data by losing a USB Flash drive? Easy to do; but worry no more. A DataTraveler Locker+ secure drive is password protected, and after 10 failed attempts the data is wiped.

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Read our full review here. Then get one for free by entering our competition. Just answer the question and fill in your details below. One entry only per person or address please. Competition open to UK residents only. One winner will be chosen at random from those who answer correctly. Winner will be announced here and informed by email.

Closing date 14 September 2012

Note on privacy: Your details will NOT be retained after the close of the competition. You will not be added to any mailing list, nor will your details be shared with any third party.

 

Review: X-mini KAI, a Bluetooth audio dock you can put in your pocket

X-mini makes a popular range of what it calls Capsule Speakers, the latest of which doubles as a wireless speakerphone for your mobile, thanks to Bluetooth connectivity. Essentially, your smartphone sees it as a Bluetooth headset.

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First though, a word or two about the distinctive design. In the box you get the X-mini KAI, a USB charging cable that also has an audio cable for play-as-you-charge, a handy soft drawstring bag, and a tiny instruction manual.

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The X-mini KAI measures around 6cm in diameter and 8cm high when expanded. However, you can also push down the concertina and twist left to lock, whereupon it is just 5cm high. You can play it in this mode, but it sounds pretty bad. Still, easily small enough to put in your pocket.

Fit and finish is OK but could be better. Locking the unit shut takes some force and is slightly awkward because of all the switches. The multiple switches and ports do slightly spoil the appearance of the device and are somewhat fiddly to use.

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So how does it work? First, charge it via any USB connection. It takes at least 2.5 hours to charge fully, for which you get up to 8 hours of playback.

Once charged, you can use the KAI in several different modes. There is a three-position switch. Centre is off, or push left for wired audio, or push right for Bluetooth.

In wired mode, you can use the short 3.5mm jack connector which is coiled neatly in the base to connect to a SmartPhone, iPod, MP3 player or any audio device, and play your music. There is no volume control on the KAI in this mode, just control it from the audio device.

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The sound is mono of course, but not bad at all. You have to be realistic about what you can get from such a small speaker, but it is far better than the tinny sound you will hear from built-in speakers on phones and tablets.

I used it with the Google Nexus tablet with success. The Nexus is excellent for portable entertainment, particularly if you hack it a little to support Adobe Flash. Combine it with the KAI and you get much better sound from Google Music, BBC iPlayer, YouTube and the like.

X-mini quotes speaker power of 2.5w, frequency response of 100 Hz – 18 kHz, and distortion of less than 0.3%. Unfortunately these figures are meaningless without qualification; frequency response for example should be quoted as plus or minus 3dB or some such.

Still, with devices like this it is the experience that counts, since we are not talking hi-fi exactly. The KAI is a lot of fun, punchy and clear, you can hear a little bit of bass, and transforms the sound on your mobile device into something you can actually enjoy without earphones.

I compared the KAI to my trusty Creative Labs TravelSound. I give the nod to the TravelSound on sound quality, though the KAI was not embarrassed. However, bear in mind that the TravelSound has two speakers, is too big for the average pocket, and eats batteries unless you also carry a mains adaptor with you. KAI wins on convenience.

You can also wire two or more KAIs together for better sound, though I was not able to try this.

Wireless sound

The KAI also works over Bluetooth as mentioned above. To get this working, you slide the Audio key to the right. Then go to your mobile device, enable Bluetooth, and search for available devices. All going well, it will find the KAI and connect. This worked fine for me on the Nexus and on a Nokia Lumia 800 Smartphone.

Once connected, audio plays back through the KAI. It is as simple as that, and although there is some theoretical loss of quality, I did not find this audible on a casual comparison. Your battery will run down a little faster on both devices, but other than that it works just the same.

What’s nice about the wireless connection is that you can move your mobile device around the room and playback is not interrupted. The range is given as up to 10 metres, by which time you will hardly hear the KAI whether or not it is maintaining the connection. I tested this by walking around and the results were good.

In wireless mode an additional control on the KAI comes into play. Press down to play or pause. Move briefly right or left for previous or next track. Move and hold right or left for volume adjustment.

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You can also use the KAI as a speakerphone, and I tested this with an incoming call. When you hear the ring, press down the control above to answer. The music will pause, and you will hear your caller through the KAI. You can end the call by pressing the same control.

The snag with the call though was that my caller said I was hard to hear. I could fix this by holding the KAI close to my mouth but this was disappointing.

There is a mute button on the device, but note that this does not mute your voice when in a call. Rather, it mutes the speaker in the same way as during any audio playback.

Summing up

This is a great little device, ideal if you want a very small and portable travel speaker that still sounds decent. Bear in mind though that the X-mini capsule speaker is also available in a wired-only form for around a quarter of the price, so you are paying a lot for the Bluetooth and speakerphone features.

The wireless audio works really well, but the microphone seems insufficiently sensitive when used as a speakerphone and I would not want to use it for conference calling. That is a shame since this is otherwise a compelling feature, unless I was unlucky with my sample.

The review unit was supplied by Phone4U and you can find it here, price at the time of writing £79.99.

Building a cheap PC, and why it still beats tablets and laptops for value

I thought the Google Nexus tablet was good value, and compared to an Apple iPad or most other tablets out there it is, but for sheer capability on a budget a desktop PC has it beat.

Needing a cheap desktop I went along to Ebuyer and purchased the following:

  • Asus P8H61-MX SI Motherboard bundled with Intel Pentium G620 and 2GB DD3 RAM
  • Extra Value Micro ATX case with 500w PSU (unbranded)
  • Additional 2GB RAM

The total cost was £128.54 with free delivery. I then plucked a Sata DVD drive and a 200GB hard drive from a dead server, and put it all together, which took less than an hour. Next installed Windows 7 64-bit, for which fortunately I have a subscription license. Plugged in spare keyboard, mouse and monitor.

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I was impressed by the Windows Experience Index of 4.9, and Gaming graphics of 5.6 achieved by Intel’s integrated graphics. The board has VGA and DVI ports and supports dual displays. It also has HD audio and of course ethernet networking.

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What would it cost if I had not had spare DVD and hard drives? A 500GB drive is £42.70 and a DVD drive £11.94 currently, making £183.18, or £152.65 without the VAT.

Need Windows? You are a system builder, so you can get Windows Home Premium with SP1 64-bit for £75.99, or Professional for £104.98. Total cost with the cheaper option is £259.17, now more than a Google Nexus tablet (£159.00 for the 8GB version).

Add a screen, keyboard and mouse for £65.97 (BenQ LCD 18.5” 1366 x 768), and the complete system is £325.14, or £249.15 if you stick Ubuntu on in place of Windows 7.

Still, I’d bet that the average household has at least some reusable bits lying around.

The real point is how capable even a budget box like this turns out to be. The RAM is upgradeable to 16GB.

The dark side to all this is that the value of your old PC has plummeted since you bought it three or four years ago, and faults beyond the trivial are hardly worth repairing.

Finally, I should mention Raspberry Pi. The board complete with CPU, networking and graphics is £25.92. Add case, 4GB storage, power, keyboard, mouse, and HDMI monitor though, and my quick price for the complete system is £147.81, mostly for the monitor (Benq 21.5” HDMI). Of course there are many creative uses for a Raspberry Pi without buying a monitor.

My vote still goes to the PC for the best productivity on a budget.

PS let’s not forget the cheapest Mac, currently a Mac mini at £529. OS comes with it, but only 2GB RAM, no mouse, keyboard or monitor. Add those and it is over £600.

Canon PowerShot S100 vs Ixus 80 IS

I am not a photographer but take lots of snaps. I’ve been conscious for a while that my four-year old Canon Ixus 80 IS is not getting quite the results I would like so I have upgraded to a PowerShot S100, still relatively compact though larger and more expensive than the Ixus.

I expected an improvement but I am surprised how much better the S100 is. Here are a couple of comparisons. They are not all that scientific; they are what I got taking a snap at the default settings. This is the Ixus:

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and this is the PowerShot:

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Even more striking is this snap of a bee. This is a detail from a much larger shot as I did not get all that close to the bee, but the distance was similar. Here is the Ixus:

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and the S100:

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I hope that one of the outcomes will be better illustrations for this blog so keep reading!

 

Google Nexus 7: a little bit of everything you do

Google’s Nexus 7 is more than just a tablet. It is Google through and through: a trade where you get a cool device, and Google gets your data and the opportunity to sell you stuff, both advertising and content.

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That is why it is such good value; and it is good value. You get a 7″ 1280×800 display with toughened Corning glass; a Quad-core NVidia Tegra processor; WiFi; Bluetooth; NFC (Near Field Communications) with Android Beam; Accelerometer; GPS; Magnetometer, Gyroscope, 8 hours or so battery life, 1GB RAM, and 8 or 16GB (non-expandable) storage. It runs Android 4.1, “Jelly Bean”.

Not only is the spec decent, but the device is nicely done, though it has been put together quickly. The manufacturer, Asus, says that the Nexus was conceived at a meeting with Google in January, at CES 2012. A few points of interest from Asus:

  • The textured back cover is meant to “feel like a pair of premium driving gloves that will not slip out of your hands”.
  • There are two microphones, one on the top and one on the side, to avoid the chance of blocking audio input with your hand.
  • The display uses a single glass panel with a touch film layer, which Asus says makes it 42% thinner than a “standard touch display module”.

The display is excellent, bright to view and responsive to touch. I compared it to an HTC Flyer, another decent 7” Android tablet though now 18 months old, and the Nexus is sharper, more detailed and more vibrant.

The Nexus is also lighter and thinner than the Flyer, and performs better with its quad-core Tegra 3 vs the Flyer’s 1.%GHzz Snapdragon.

It is not all one way. The Flyer has a rear-facing camera, a microSD slot, and a stylus, all lacking on the Nexus. Still, the 16GB Flyer cost over £400 when it was released, and checking Amazon.co.uk today it is still over £200. The Nexus is £199.00 for 16GB, or £159.00 for 8GB, and comes with £15.00 credit towards content on the Google Play store.

In other words, the Nexus is fantastic value, and makes much of the competition look over-priced.

Nexus and you

First impressions of the Nexus are good. The device is easy to set up, though it insists that you sign in to a Google account. I had no problem setting up Exchange email alongside Gmail though.

There is an emphasis on content and one of the first things I noticed was the covers of a couple of CDs I recently purchased and ripped to my PC. The reason is that I have Google Music Manager installed on the PC, which had automatically uploaded them to Google Music, and now the Nexus was showing me recently uploaded music. It is what you can expect from a Google-connected life; stuff just shows up.

The home page is dominated by widgets recommending purchases. You can remove these but they set the tone: Google is trying to drive content sales.

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There is also a Google strip along the top of the home page which allows text or voice search. The first time you tap this, you get an invitation to sign up for Google Now, a service which mines your personal information, such as location, calendars and other data from Google and from third parties, in order to deliver alerts and reminders.

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Google Now is exactly in line with what former CEO Eric Schmidt said at Mobile World Congress back in 2010:

Google will know more about the customer because it benefits the customer if we know more about them.

Is it worth it? Does it matter if Google knows where you are, who your friends are, and where you are going? Can you trust Google not to misuse that information?

Those are big questions; and while I doubt that anything worse than occasional annoying advertising will happen if you switch on Google Now, it is also spooky and disturbing if you care about privacy.

Leaving aside the big issues, it is a great advertising opportunity for Google which can do targeting based not only on what it knows about you, but also on the context of where you are and what you are doing.

Nexus in use

What is the use of a 7” tablet? Quite a lot. It is a good size for personal media consumption, though it could do with a case that doubles as a stand for watching video. Web browsing works well using the Chrome browser. There is Maps, Skype, Twitter, Dropbox, Evernote, Kindle, music and games, calendar and email. The main limitation is that you need to be on WiFi, but most of the time that is not a problem.

The Nexus has three soft buttons: Home, Back and Recent apps.

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Recent apps shows thumbnails of what you have opened recently and feels like multitasking even though it does not guarantee that those apps are actually running.

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There are a few niggles. The Nexus has speech to text built-in. It kind-of works but so slowly that most will not bother with it. Typing is much quicker and more accurate, even on the soft keyboard.

No Adobe Flash, which is a disappointment, especially in the UK where BBC iPlayer is popular. Adobe is not making a version of Flash for Jelly Bean, though apparently older versions can be installed with a bit of manual effort. Flash cannot be installed directly from the Play store.

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Conclusion

I think Nexus will fly off the shelves. No it is not as good as an Apple iPad, but it is smaller, lighter and cheaper, all of which count for a lot.

With deals like this, Google is making life tough for its third-party partners, Asus aside, and giving Amazon (perhaps the immediate target) a challenge too. Nor will it be easy for the likes of Microsoft, RIM and Nokia coming into the market with new tablets, given everything that the Nexus does perfectly well and at a keen price.

USB flash drives: a modern design canvas

USB flash drives were invented around 12 years ago. They soon became commonplace, so designers differentiate with creative designs. I have a drawer full of them and have picked out some that caught my eye.

I like the understated elegance of this Adobe stick.

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though for elegance perhaps this Kingston is the winner. Paperclip included so you get the scale:

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This Huawei stick pays homage to Rubik’s Cube:

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This Google man is a favourite:

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though for the full effect you have to plug him in:

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The designer of this Asus stick plays on the fact that they are sometimes called USB keys:

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This one from Supertooth is a fake music player or something:

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Marley goes for the natural wood effect of course:

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Finally a reminder of where we started. I am not sure of the date of this stick but I have not attended a Borland event for many years:

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It has an LED that lights when plugged in. But the real shocker is the size, shown on the back along with a rather obscure warning:

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Still, bearing in mind that a floppy disk was not normally bigger than 1.44MB, 16MB is not to be sniffed at.

I also suggest that the era of USB flash drives will soon pass. Apple does not support USB storage in iOS, other than to a limited extent for cameras, and just as CDs gave way to USB drives, the USB devices will be replaced by wireless transfer, either locally or via the internet. Some press releases now arrive with links to Dropbox folders. How sensible.

OEM vendors: it’s Google, not Microsoft you need to watch

When Microsoft announced Surface, its first own-brand PC, it raised immediate questions about the implications for the company’s hardware partners.

Not long after, and Google has also announced a tablet, the Nexus 7.

It looks a neat device. 7″ 1280×800 display, Corning-toughened glass, NFC, accelerometer, GPS, gyroscope, wi-fi, Bluetooth, and a Quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor. Plus you get Google’s latest “Jelly Bean” operating system.

By coincidence, I have just been reviewing another Android tablet, from a brand you likely have not heard of: the Gemini JoyTAB 8″ running “Ice Cream Sandwich”.

I did not get on well with the JoyTAB. It is full of the compromises you expect from a device made down to a price with little attention to design.

But the price. I thought the JoyTAB was at least good value at £149.00. What chance does it have against a Nexus 7 for just £10 more – and with £15 of Play Store credit thrown in?

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The Nexus 7 is made by Asus so you can argue that at least one OEM vendor is not losing out here. Even so, competing with this thing will not be easy. 

We do not yet know the price of the Surface, either in Windows RT or Intel guise. My prediction is that Microsoft will aim to price it more like an Apple iPad than a Nexus. Although Microsoft is desperate for Windows 8 tablets to succeed, it also makes its money selling the software, Windows and Office, that is included in Surface. It cannot afford to price it too low.

By contrast, Google makes little money from software. Android is free. Google makes money from advertising, and also hopes to build its profit from the content market, where it takes a cut of every sale. If NFC payment takes off, it might even profit from every payment you make with an Android device.

I am right behind Microsoft in what it is doing with Surface. It has been let down by its OEM partners, with too much hastily designed and/or low quality hardware, further impaired by unwanted bundled software and poor customizations. Surface follows on from Microsoft Signature in challenging those partners to up their game. Long term, they will benefit from Microsoft’s efforts to improve Windows devices overall.

How Android tablet vendors will benefit from Nexus is less clear.

Nexus Q streaming device: you will use Cloud, you will use Android, says Google

Google’s Nexus Q is a streaming device. It is a spherical object with the following connections: optical S/PDIF digital output to connect to a hi-fi, wired ethernet, USB connection for “service and support”, and speaker outputs.

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The top half of the Nexus Q twists to control the volume. Tap the top LED to mute the sound.

The built-in class D stereo amplifier is 12.5 watts per channel.

There are also 32 multi-colour LEDs on the unit which blink in time to the music. This could be annoying but presumably there is a way to disable it.

You can stream music and video apparently, only from Google. This can be your own songs uploaded to Google, or purchased from the Play store.

Why would you want to stream music from the cloud, when it is already stored locally in iTunes, say, or in FLAC for a Squeezebox system? Cloud streaming can be high quality, but playing uncompressed audio over the local network is better still.

Why does not Nexus support standards like DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) streaming, so that you could stream to it from a variety of media servers?

Most seriously, Google says:

Requirements: Phone or Tablet running Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) or higher with access to Google Play

Is Google really saying that you cannot control streaming to a Nexus Q with a PC, Mac, iPad or any other non-Android device? For example, I am sitting here working at a PC. Do I have to pick up my phone in order to control Nexus Q? Or run the Android emulator, I guess?

One mitigating factor: developers can install stuff on the Nexus Q via that USB connector. I am guessing then what we may see these missing features plugged by third-party efforts.

The Nexus Q has the concept of “social streaming”. What this means is that if you enable guest mode, anyone else on the network who has an Android device can also stream their music. That could be fun, or could be chaos, but it is an interesting feature.

Music shared on the device is transient, according to this Wired article:

The queue is a transient song list, and not an actual playlist. When you add a song to the queue, the Nexus Q owner can listen to the track for 24 hours, even after you’ve left.

The price is $299.

Microsoft Surface has changed the Windows 8 conversation

The Register ran two online discussions on Windows 8, in which I participated along with Mary Jo Foley and Gavin Clarke.

The first was on 25th April and is here. A typical comment:

I personally think Windows 8 can’t bag Microsoft the kind of runaway success they had with Windows 95 or XP. It’s going to turn off many PC users and the success of Windows tablets is uncertain.

The second was on 20th June, following the announcement of Surface, a Windows 8 tablet to be sold by Microsoft itself. Typical comment:

I definitely want one. iPad for kids, Surface for grown ups. First bit of kit I’ve wanted in years.

 

 

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