All posts in “Reviews”

The Best and Worst Parts of the Most Extreme Phone Camera Yet

Brand: Samsung
Product: Galaxy S20 Ultra
Release Date: 03/13/20
Price: $1,400
From: samsung.com

There are plenty of places to start a discussion about the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, the new flagship phone of Samsung’s next, renamed generation of its Galaxy S line. There’s the dual-band 5G connectivity, the 120Hz screen. Also, of course, the sky-high $1,400 starting price. But the question that jumped out to me the most when I first saw this beast, with its impressive 10x optical zoom and unheard of 100x digital zoom, is whether that camera is a revelation or a gimmick. The answer? Well, it’s both.

The S20’s ability to zoom optically up to 10x is a terrific feature, and the ability to zoom that deep without destroying image quality is a freedom I enjoy even if I use it less than I expected in practice. Beyond, to the 100x and even the more modest 30x zoom, the downsides start to overpower any practical application. Yes, it is a great party trick, but I can hardly imagine, like, using it.

10X optical zoom is incredible, but niche.

In case you forgot, zooming works like this. Optical zoom uses physical lenses to magnify your picture, letting you get closer with no compromise in image quality. Digital zoom takes a picture, crops it and enlarges, giving you chunkier pixels the further you zoom. By using a sideways mounted lens and a prism to fit inside a large but manageable camera bump, the S20 lets you get that deep 10x zoom guilt free, which is definitely incredible.

Shooting around with the S20, I found this was great for a few of my pet projects, like getting crisp, close up pictures of interesting features on buildings, and I figure it would be similarly great for shooting wildlife from a distance, or getting close ups at a concert or sporting event. At 10x magnification, it is a little difficult to hold the camera still enough to get a clean shot, especially in low light conditions or with one hand. I spent more time using 5x purely for ease of use. But that impressive zoom can help you get shots you’d otherwise need an honest-to-god zoom lens on an actual camera to capture. It’s sick, even though I didn’t find quite as many uses for it as I expected.

100x zoom is as awesome as it is useless.

If you need a steady hand for 10x, you need an actual tripod for 100x. Once you get above 10x, keeping your target in the frame while you press the button feels more like balancing a broomstick on your finger than using a point-and-shoot. It is a hopeless exercise to try this one-handed, and it is still barely manageable with two. The camera app shows you a handy mini-map in the top of the screen that you can use for reference, which is crucial since the ultra-zoom picture from the viewfinder will be nigh unintelligible. But it can only help so much since the physical act of aiming is wildly challenging.

Now don’t forget this is also digital zoom, which means you are losing image quality at the same time. The S20 boasts some machine learning tech that ostensibly helps repair your ridiculously cropped image but it can’t work miracles. Your final images, if you somehow manage to stay on target to get the shot, are basically as high resolution as a watercolor painting. I can maybe, theoretically, imagine a case where this would be useful, if you were trying to get a faraway shot as evidence instead of art. I mean, it’s cool for a second! But at best it is a party trick.

The S20 Ultra is more than just its camera, obviously.

Of course, the S20 has more going on than just its camera. With dual-band 5G connectivity, the S20 Ultra and its little brother, the S20+, can deliver the face-melting 10 Gbps-and-higher speeds the best 5G connections will be able to offer, if you can find them. Meanwhile, the baseline S20 only supports the slowest flavor of 5G. Its screen, with a silky smooth 120hz refresh rate, is beautiful though tests indicate it robs you of about the hours of battery life to have it turned on. These are both features that, like the camera, are objectively impressive but maybe not practically useful for most people. And at a $1,400 price point to start ($1,600 with maxed out specs!!!!!!) it is very hard to recommend this phone as a sensible purchase, especially when the S20 and S20+ sport more modest prices ($1,000 and $1,200) and less intense cameras (3x optical, 30x digital) that still push the limit of practicality.

It’s still ultra cool though.

Samsung provided this product for review.

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.
Eric Limer

Eric Limer is Gear Patrol’s tech editor. A resident of Weehawken, NJ, his current obsessions include mechanical keyboards, mechanical pencils and Formula 1.

More by Eric Limer | Follow on Instagram · Contact via Email

Is Samsung’s Bonkers 100x Zoom Awesome or Overkill?

Brand: Samsung
Product: Galaxy S20 Ultra
Release Date: 03/13/20
Price: $1,400
From: samsung.com

There are plenty of places to start a discussion about the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, the new flagship phone of Samsungs next, renamed generation of its Galaxy S line. There’s the dual-band 5G connectivity, the 120Hz screen. Also, of course, the sky-high $1,400 starting price. But the question that jumped out to me the most when I first saw this beast, with its impressive 10x optical zoom and unheard of 100x digital zoom, is whether that camera is a revelation or a gimmick. The answer? Well, it’s both.

The S20’s ability to zoom optically up to 10x is a terrific feature, and the ability to zoom that deep without destroying image quality is a freedom I enjoy even if I use it less than I expected in practice. Beyond, to the 100x and even the more modest 30x zoom, the downsides start to overpower any practical application. Yes, it is a great party trick, but I can hardly imagine, like, using it.

10X optical zoom is incredible, but niche.

In case you forgot, zooming works like this. Optical zoom uses physical lenses to magnify your picture, letting you get closer with no compromise in image quality. Digital zoom takes a picture, crops it and enlarges, giving you chunkier pixels the further you zoom. By using a sideways mounted lens and a prism to fit inside a large but manageable camera bump, the S20 lets you get that deep 10x zoom guilt free, which is definitely incredible.

Shooting around with the S20, I found this was great for a few of my pet projects, like getting crisp, close up pictures of interesting features on buildings, and I figure it would be similarly great for shooting wildlife from a distance, or getting close ups at a concert or sporting event. At 10x magnification, it is a little difficult to hold the camera still enough to get a clean shot, especially in low light conditions or with one hand. I spent more time using 5x purely for ease of use. But that impressive zoom can help you get shots you’d otherwise need an honest-to-god zoom lens on an actual camera to capture. It’s sick, even though I didn’t find quite as many uses for it as I expected.

100x zoom is as awesome as it is useless.

If you need a steady hand for 10x, you need an actual tripod for 100x. Once you get above 10x, keeping your target in the frame while you press the button feels more like balancing a broomstick on your finger than using a point-and-shoot. It is a hopeless exercise to try this one-handed, and it is still barely manageable with two. The camera app shows you a handy mini-map in the top of the screen that you can use for reference, which is crucial since the ultra-zoom picture from the viewfinder will be nigh unintelligible. But it can only help so much since the physical act of aiming is wildly challenging.

Now don’t forget this is also digital zoom, which means you are losing image quality at the same time. The S20 boasts some machine learning tech that ostensibly helps repair your ridiculously cropped image but it can’t work miracles. Your final images, if you somehow manage to stay on target to get the shot, are basically as high resolution as a watercolor painting. I can maybe, theoretically, imagine a case where this would be useful, if you were trying to get a faraway shot as evidence instead of art. I mean, it’s cool for a second! But at best it is a party trick.

The S20 is more than just its camera, obviously.

Of course, the S20 has more going on than just its camera. With dual-band 5G connectivity, the S20 Ultra and its little brother, the S20+, can deliver the face-melting 10 Gbps-and-higher speeds the best 5G connections will be able to offer, if you can find them. Meanwhile, the baseline S20 only supports the slowest flavor of 5G. Its screen, with a silky smooth 120hz refresh rate, is beautiful though tests indicate it robs you of about the hours of battery life to have it turned on. These are both features that, like the camera, are objectively impressive but maybe not practically useful for most people. And at a $1,400 price point to start ($1,600 with maxed out specs!!!!!!) it is very hard to recommend this phone as a sensible purchase, especially when the S20 and S20+ sport more modest prices ($1,000 and $1,200) and less intense cameras (3x optical, 30x digital) that still push the limit of practicality.

It’s still ultra cool though.

Samsung provided this product for review.

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.
Eric Limer

Eric Limer is Gear Patrol’s tech editor. A resident of Weehawken, NJ, his current obsessions include mechanical keyboards, mechanical pencils and Formula 1.

More by Eric Limer | Follow on Instagram · Contact via Email

Galaxy Z Flip Hands On: Flip Phones Are Back, Baby

Brand: Samsung
Product: Galaxy Z Flip
Release Date: 2/14/2020
Price: $1,380
From: samsung.com

The Galaxy Z Flip, Samsung’s newest folding phone, just makes a ridiculous amount of sense. Where the giant Galaxy Fold was impressive but also strange and unwieldy and wildly expensive, the Z Flip is instantly familiar and intuitive. When open, it’s just a normal phone! When closed, it is a tiny little square that can fit in the smallest of pockets. And in the transition in between? It’s a wonderful throwback tot he flip phone days of old.

I got the chance to play with the new Z Flip for a fleeting 24 hours, and here’s what I took away from that experience. In short? This little guy is one of the most delightful gadgets I have used in a long, long time. It might not be a glimpse into the future of phones, but I really hope it is.

Flipping it open and shut is intuitive, satisfying, and hard to go back from

Chances are good you used a flip phone years ago. I know I did, and the Z Flip makes it all come flooding back. There is something wildly satisfying about ending your phone time with a definitive closing snap. The Z Fold’s mechanism is smooth and satisfying, if a little disconcerting at first. There is a noticeable little vibration you’ll feel inside the phone when you snap it shut. But the ability to physically shut an otherwise standard form factor phone before putting it in your pocket just feels so incredibly good and finite. After about 15 minutes with the Z Flip, I already found myself trying to close my normal, rigid phone.

Durability is a huge concern

Like the Galaxy Fold, the Z Flip comes with all kinds of “don’t”s to help you protect the screen, which include avoiding dust and avoiding applying pressure to the screen with anything hard and sharp, even a fingernail. The problem? The Z Flip is pretty one-hand-able, but you will end up pushing it open with your thumbnail if you try this. Samsung says the Flip is rated to some 200,000 folds but I’ll believe that when I see it. There is no doubt in my mind this thing is very fragile and Samsung’s abundance of warnings, which set the table to put the blame on you if and when it breaks, just make that all the more clear.

The folding screen rules, but it might not be essential

Obviously the big draw of the Z Flip and the Galaxy Fold before it is that their literal screens fold. This is cool! It is a flashy, beautiful, impressive technical accomplishment! It also makes them incredibly fragile and incredibly expensive! There is, however, another way. Last year, Microsoft teased its upcoming Duo phone which pairs a folding form factor with a good old-fashioned hinge in the middle of two discrete screens. Sure, it wouldn’t be as good for watching videos in landscape, but other than that it stands to be cheaper and more durable. And while the Z Flip has sold me for good on the idea of a folding phone, I’m not sure that a single, folding screen is actually an essential part of what makes that experience so promising.

Samsung provided this product for review.

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.
Eric Limer

Eric Limer is Gear Patrol’s tech editor. A resident of Weehawken, NJ, his current obsessions include mechanical keyboards, mechanical pencils and Formula 1.

More by Eric Limer | Follow on Instagram · Contact via Email

Two Affordable Field Watches for Under $450

The origins of the field watch trace back to the early 20th century and the transition from the pocket watch to the wristwatch. Pocket watches simply didn’t suffice for the trench warfare of WWI — soldiers needed timekeeping devices they could access quickly and read easily without fumbling in a pocket. The original solution was to simply add wire lugs and leather straps to pocket watches, and this practice eventually evolved into one of producing dedicated wristwatches.

After the war, soldiers came home with their timepieces, and the stigma around wristwatches — which were originally marketed to women — started to shift: If they were rugged enough for battle, they were certainly rugged enough for the average gentleman. By the time WWII set in, nearly every major watchmaker was eager to produce timepieces for military use, marking the birth of the modern field watch.

It’s been 75 years since the Second World War, and the field watch is still an enduring design. In an era of watchmaking filled with infinite complications, avant-garde designs, and futuristic materials, the no-frills field watch holds a special place in our hearts and our collections.

Now, as it seems to fit in our modern lives so seamlessly, you’d think this type of timepiece was made specifically for the average millennial working at a startup in a uniform of jeans and t-shirt. But adaptability is the charm of the field watch, which once served an indispensable purpose on the battlefield. Nowadays, it’s an essential tool that everyone should have in their collections. Here, we have two stellar options for under $450.

The Competition

Nodus Sector Field


The Nodus Sector Field is a quintessential field watch, with high accuracy, good legibility, and solid water resistance. However, it’s been re-interpreted with modern style elements and contemporary engineering.
Diameter: 38mm
Water Resistance: 150m
Movement: Seiko (SII) NH38

Vaer A5 Field


The Vaer A5 Field balances the ruggedness of a field watch with a refined design. With an emphasis on water resistance, the model adopts an “ocean-to-office” functionality. All the while, it upholds Vaer’s commitment to American assembly, craftsmanship and local parts sourcing.
Diameter: 40mm
Water Resistance: 100m
Movement: Miyota 9015

The Test

Design

The Nodus Sector Field comes standard on a stainless steel tapered bracelet with button release clasp. (Though many field watches traditionally ship on fabric or leather straps, some well known models, such as the Rolex Explorer, ship on a bracelet.) To give it the true field test (pun intended) and to make for a more even comparison with the A5 Field, I tried it out on both the bracelet and a NATO strap. The bracelet gives the 38mm Sector Field a more substantial weight, with a feel similar to that of a modern tool watch. However, once you get it on a NATO, it’s instantly lighter and looks more like a classic field watch.

With the right tools, changing from a bracelet to a NATO strap was surprisingly easy on the Sector Field. This option really added to the versatility of the watch. (It’s a somewhat controversial opinion, but I tend to prefer bracelets to straps.) So, I enjoyed the Sector Field as it came — it paired perfectly with jeans and a sweater. That said, when I was ready to head upstate for a day hike, it was nice to have the NATO as an alternative.

With the A5 Field, you get a choice of two straps (either quick-release or single-pass), from which you can choose silicone, nylon, or Horween leather options. However, I was lucky enough to test all three. The supple Horween leather and silicone fit seamlessly. On the other hand, the nylon is a bit thicker and stiffer at first but will certainly mold to the wrist with wear.

Functionality

When it comes to the functionality of a field watch, durability and legibility are key. The Nodus Sector Field is a time-only watch with a clean, easy-to-read dial. In daylight, the white Arabic numerals and hands pop on the black dial, and in low-light, a healthy dose of Super-LumiNova keeps them equally legible. The thick 316L surgical-grade steel certainly gives the Sector Field a durable feel.

Adding to the overall readability and heft of the watch is a double-domed, tapered sapphire crystal treated with blue anti-reflective coating on the underside. The screw-down crown makes it easy to set the time while contributing to the water resistance of up to 150 meters. Inside, you’ll find the Seiko (SII) NH38 automatic movement.

With respect to functionality, the Vaer A5 Field is fairly comparable to the Sector Field. However, there are a few minor differences, chief amongst them being a date function at the three-o’clock position. For me, this was a nice bonus even though a traditional field watch is time-only. Despite the date, the dial layout is quite similar to that of the Sector Field: It features bold, white hands and Arabic markers on a contrasting black background, both with Super-LumiNova coating for high legibility in all conditions.

Though the A5 Field is also comprised of a 316L stainless steel and features a domed sapphire crystal like that of the Nodus Sector Field, it’s remarkably thin and wears lighter the Nodus, which I appreciated when using it in more active settings. Despite this light weight, the threaded, screw-down design of the crown and case back makes for 100 meters of water resistance.

The A5 Field’s case comes in slightly larger at 40mm, yet, it’s significantly thinner at 9.7mm compared to the Sector Field at 12.9mm. Inside this model, you’ll find the Miyota 9015 automatic movement, which you can see through the exhibition case back.

Build Quality

Nodus prides themselves in assembling watches like the Sector Field entirely in-house, which includes regulating their movements in four positions (+/-10 seconds/day) even though they don’t use their own calibers. The Seiko (SII) NH38 automatic is considered a reliable workhorse movement — a smart choice for the Sector Field. Externally, this model appears to have an equally substantial build quality: the bracelet clasp’s button release disengages and latches securely. The case itself also has a hearty construction, from the overall weight to the screw-down crown.

The Vaer A5 Field features equally solid construction. As previously mentioned, it houses the Japanese Miyota 9015 automatic movement, which is also considered a workhorse caliber, offering a minimalist design while being accurate and easy to service. The only potential downside to the A5 Field may be the quick-release straps: They’re certainly user-friendly and convenient. However, they’re not as secure as a bracelet or NATO strap, which could become an issue in more extreme conditions. Of course, if this is a concern, you can get the A5 Field with a single pass strap.

Verdict

[

All in all, the Nodus Sector Field and Vaer A5 Field made for an admirable field watch match-up. If you have a NATO strap and feel comfortable swapping out a bracelet, the Sector Field is slightly more versatile, as the bracelet allows it dress up a bit more easily. On the other hand, it instantly becomes a true field watch on a NATO.

The A5 Field’s lightweight construction and slim build in combination with the strap options make it feel like a second skin. In this way, it serves as an ideal field watch. While elements like the date function and exhibition case back stray from its field watch roots, I personally appreciated these thoughtful and functional touches. You really can’t go wrong with either model if you’re looking to add a field watch to your collection.

Nodus and Vaer provided these products for review.

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

Are These Noise-Canceling Wireless Earbuds Good Enough for Audiophiles?

Brand: 1More
Product: True Wireless ANC In-Ear Headphones
Release Date: late January 2020
Price: $200
From: 1more.com

If you’ve never heard of 1More, don’t worry. The company isn’t nearly as well known as the likes of Bose and Sony, and it traditionally makes hi-fi headphones and earbuds that are way more affordable. Think less than $100. But the company’s newest product is a step in a little bit of a different direction. The True Wireless ANC is, as the name gives away, a pair of wireless earbuds that have active noise-cancellation. They cost $200.

It’s not all that surprising given that proliferation of noise-canceling wireless earbuds, but what separates the True Wireless ANC from its more expensive competitors — such as AirPods Pro, Sony WF-1000XM3 and Master & Dynamic MW07 Plus — is that each earbud has dual drivers. This means that, essentially, they’re able to most evenly distribute the responsibilities of handling high, mid and low frequencies and deliver a more robust, dynamic sound. And that’s ideal for hi-fi enthusiasts. So, do they?

The sound quality is the big selling point.

The True Wireless ANC are punchy, loud and fun-sounding wireless earbuds. The secret is its dual-driver technology in each earbud, specifically a dynamic driver and a balanced armature driver working together, and they are able to produce really crisp highs and really powerful lows without making your music sound scratchy or distorted. The effect creates a depth to the music that’s really on par with the Sony WF-1000XM3, which are probably the all-around noise-canceling earbuds. If I were to be overly critical, I’d say that the treble and bass, because they’re both amplified, can sometimes overshadow the midrange (meaning instrumentals and background vocals), which is the area that audiophiles most cherish.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.

The controls can be a bit complicated, admittedly.

In a little bit of an odd move, 1More made the True Wireless ANC with both physical buttons and capacitive controls — and it definitely takes a little while to learn. For instance, each earbud has a physical button on it. A single tap on the left earbud’s button lowers the volume, while the same thing on the right bud raises the volume. If you double-tap either of those buttons it plays/pauses the music. And if you hold down the buttons, depending on if it’s on the left or right earbud, it starts the song over or skips to the next one. I found myself constantly pausing the music when I just wanted to lower the volume.

To switch between the various noise-canceling and pass-through modes, that requires capacitive touch; you have to double-tap on the surface one earbud (it doesn’t matter which one). The problem for me was that double-tapping didn’t always — in fact, most of the time — switch the levels of noise cancellation. I actually found myself just opening the 1More and toggling through the settings in there. And that’s been a bit frustrating.

Noise-cancellation works well, surprisingly well.

Color me impressed. The noise-canceling and passthrough abilities of 1More’s True Wireless ANC earbuds are almost on par with the AirPods Pro and the Sony WF-1000XM3. While no wireless earbuds are able to completely block out all ambient sounds, these do a pretty damn good job (especially on the low end). Part of the reason for this is that fit snugger than a lot of other wireless earbuds and therefore have a better passive noise-canceling ability. This also, on the flip side, fatigued my ears quicker and made them a little difficult for me to wear for long periods (this, admittedly, will vary from person to person depending on your ear shape).

1More provided this product for review.

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.
Tucker Bowe

Tucker Bowe has been on Gear Patrol’s editorial team since 2014. As a Tech Staff Writer, he tracks everything in the consumer tech space, from headphones to smartphones, wearables to home theater systems. If it lights up or makes noise, he probably covers it.

More by Tucker Bowe | Follow on Instagram · Twitter · Contact via Email

Believe the Hype: The Porsche Macan S Is Every Bit a True Porsche

When Porsche introduced its first SUV, the Cayenne, in 2002, enthusiasts lost their mind over the idea of the archetypal sports car company betraying its heritage by serving up a jacked-up soft-roader. (Not helping matters: the fact that it looked like a bloated fish carcass.) But the crossover proved a gold mine for the company, providing the funds that helped enable the continued excellence of the 911 and Cayman / Boxster, as well as projects like the 918 Spyder and the company’s return to the top tier of endurance motor racing.

It’s been the smaller Macan, however, that’s turned out to be the company’s true cash cow. The compact crossover has perched high on Porsche’s sales charts ever since it arrived six years ago, in spite of the fact that it shares some of its bones with the lesser Audi Q5. Still, its comparatively proletarian roots apparently haven’t caused it harm: enthusiasts and journalists alike have been singing its praises ever since it arrived.

But as the old saw goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the proof of the car is in the driving. So we nabbed a Macan S for a few days of highway and byway driving around the greater Detroit area to see how it really feels to drive Porsche’s pocket crossover.

It feels every bit like a Porsche from behind the wheel

Porsche has long been a master of giving vehicles off shared VW Group platforms a unique brand feel, and the Macan is no exception. From the moment you twist the key (mounted, of course, to the left of the wheel), every control serves up the distinctive connectedness and directness that every car designed in Zuffenhausen these days serves up.

The steering is far sharper and more involving than any crossover’s rack has a right to be; the brakes grab decisively; the suspension keeps the SUV level and balanced even while dissecting tight turns. The 3.0-liter turbocharged V6 may be the base engine in the larger Cayenne and Panamera, but it doesn’t feel one iota like a cheapo choice; its 348 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque are more than enough to let this cute ‘ute rip around like a hooligan.

If you snap the Macan S into Sport or Sport Plus modes, the gearbox holds the revs closer and closer to the meat of the power band; left in Comfort, it promptly shuffles up to the highest cog for better fuel economy, although slamming the gas pedal to the firewall will, as in most VW Group cars, spur the engine into the lowest possible gear. (You can also always switch to manual mode and shift with the paddles, too.)

It’s the looker of the carmaker’s SUV lineup

The Cayenne may be newer and more expensive, but the Macan has it beat when it comes to visual appeal. Unlike the taller, chunkier Cayenne, the Macan is lean, low and muscular, with curves that channel the company’s famous sports cars.

The corporate face works better here, too; it has less sheet metal to be stretched across, and the matte black trim pieces make it look more ferocious, evoking bared fangs. It all adds up to one of the most attractive SUVs on the market — at least, if you prefer them more svelte and car-like, rather than boxy and brutalist.

An old interior isn’t always a worse interior

The Macan also whups the Cayenne (and the new Panamera) when it comes to interior usability. Unlike those newer Porsches, it has yet to move over to an almost-all-glass touchpad control, instead sticking with a combination of a 10.9-inch touchscreen display and a series of hard buttons and dials below it and around the shift lever. The resulting combination of physical controls and crisp, clear touchscreen may be one of the best infotainment and car control setups to be found today, bringing the best of the iPhone/Android world and merging it with the muscle memory-optimized realm of tactile controls.

Sadly, other new Porsches like the 992-generation 911 and the all-electric Taycan suggest the carmaker is pretty much all-in on glassy touchscreen interiors for the foreseeable future. But with the current Macan expected to stick around for at least another few years — likely being sold alongside its electric replacement for a while — there’s still time for Porsche to change its mind before it ditches this delightful control system for good.

Will Sabel Courtney

Will Sabel Courtney is Gear Patrol’s Motoring Editor, formerly of The Drive and RIDES Magazine. You can often find him test-driving new cars in New York City, cursing the slow-moving traffic surrounding him.

More by Will Sabel Courtney | Follow on Instagram · Twitter · Contact via Email

Are These the Best “Budget” Noise-Canceling Headphones?

Brand: Sennheiser
Product: Sennheiser HD 450BT Noise-Canceling Headphones
Release Date: mid-February
Price: $200
From: sennheiser.com

The Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 3 are the company’s flagship noise-canceling headphones. Released this past fall, they’re comfortable, look cool and, most importantly, they sound fantastic. The problem is that at $400, they’re more expensive than the extremely popular Sony WH-1000XM3 and Bose QuietComfort 35 II headphones. Basically, unless you love the industrial design or you have strong brand loyalty to Sennheiser, the Momentum Wireless 3 is a tough sell.

That’s where the Sennheiser HD 450BT comes in. These noise-canceling headphones cost $200, which is half as expensive as the Momentum Wireless 3, plus they offer many of the same sound qualities and features. They also mark the first time that Sennheiser has released a pair of so-called “budget” noise-canceling headphones — which is exciting. Yes, there are some definite tradeoffs and you can still buy decent noise-canceling headphones for cheaper, but none have the sound qualities and noise-canceling skills of the Sennheiser HD 450BT. These are the best “cheap” noise-canceling headphones I’ve tested.

The sound quality and noise-canceling abilities are almost premium.

The whole idea with the HD 450BT is that Sennheiser wanted to bring its superior sound quality down into something more affordable — and they’ve essentially done just that. The HD 450 BT headphones have a generally warm sound that’s clear on the high end, and the bass gives a punch as well. They don’t have quite the same quality of drivers as the Momentum Wireless 3, admittedly, and so you don’t the same full-range sound. The Momentum Wireless 3 have noticeably better bass. Both headphones use the Sennheiser Smart Control app so you can adjust the EQ of the audio if you like.

As far as active noise-cancellation, the HD 450BT performed pretty well. I wore them on my flight back from Vegas to New York and they successfully blocked out the person sitting in front of me complain for ten minutes about the ridiculousness of having to pay extra for wired headphones. The downside is that their noise-canceling abilities aren’t as versatile as other headphones. For instance, there are only two different modes — ANC on and off — that you can switch between. On the Momentum Wireless 3, there are three different modes plus a transparency mode.

The price feels right.

There’s a new breed of wireless headphones with active noise-cancellation that aren’t designed to compete with the premium cans made by the Sony’s, Bose’s and Sennheiser’s of the audio world. Basically, they don’t cost over $300. The brand-new Sennheiser HD 450BT headphones fit in that category, obviously, but they’re the best of the bench; their blend of sound quality, noise-cancellation and modern features (like USB-C charging) make them superior, in my opinion, than the likes of Anker’s Soundcore Space NC or Audio-Technica’s ATH-ANC9. Granted, at $200, the Sennheiser HD 450BT are priced at the high-end of the new breed of headphones.

There are some definite compromises.

The hardware is where you’ll see the biggest tradeoffs. The Sennheiser HD 450BT headphones are obviously not as pretty as the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 3 — which are one of the prettiest noise-canceling headphones, in my opinion — and they don’t feel nearly as premium. There’s less leather and metal and way more plastic on the HD 450BT headphones.

The HD 450BT headphones don’t have the same optical sensors as Sennheiser’s Momentum Wireless 3, so they don’t play/pause music when you put on and take off your ears. And the headphones don’t automatically turn off in the same way when you fold them up — you have to really make sure to hold the power down so that you actually turn them off, which just isn’t quite as convenient.

Sennheiser provided this product for review.

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

Harley-Davidson LiveWire vs Zero Motorcycles SR/F: Electric Bike Battle Royale

Brand: Harley-Davidson
Product: LiveWire
Release Date: On Sale Now
Price: $29,799+
From: harley-davidson.com
Brand: Zero Motorcycles
Product: SR/F
Release Date: On Sale Now
Price: $19,495+
From: zeromotorcycles.com

This fight has been a long time coming. In the year 2010, California-based Zero Motorcycles had already been toiling away at battery-powered two-wheeled propulsion for four years when potatopotatopotato stalwarts Harley-Davidson began venturing down the path of developing their own EV.

Harley finally crashed the EV party last year with the $29,799 LiveWire, which butts heads against the current king of two-wheeled EVs, Zero Motorcycles’s top-dog SR/F ($19,495). Can the 117-year-old motor company from Wisconsin compete against the California startup in the brave new world of electric-powered bikes? We rode both EVs through the cityscapes and canyon roads in and around Los Angeles to find out.

First off, don’t let their nearly-$10,000 price gap throw you off. Though the Harley initially seems considerably pricier than the Zero, you’ll want to equip the SR/F with the $2,000 Premium package for a fair fight; that adds a fly screen, heated handgrips, and aluminum bar ends. Opt for Zero’s additional 6.0-kW rapid charge system ($2,300), which cuts Level 2 charging time from 4.5 hours to 2.5, and the total MSRP escalates to $23,795. Once you tick all the boxes on the SR/F, it lands within around $3,000 of the LiveWire.

Incidentally, Zero’s soon-to-be-available Power Tank promises to boost range from 161 miles in the city / 82 highway / 109 combined to 201 city / 103 highway / 136 combined. (Harley offers only one battery option, delivering a claimed 146 miles of city riding or 59 combined.)

At first glance, the Zero and Harley’s stats appear surprisingly similar on paper. While both draw power from big lithium-ion batteries (14.4-kWh in the SR/F and 15.5-kWh in the LiveWire), the Zero directs slightly more horsepower to the rear wheel (110 vs 105). Crucially, though. the SR/F churns out a stump-pulling 140 lb-ft of torque, which blows away the Harley’s 86 lb-ft.

The Zero takes the lead on the scales, as well. Equipped with the Premium package, the Zero tips the scales at 498 pounds (or 543 with the optional Power Tank), while the H-D weighs in at a portlier 549 lbs.

Zero gains a significant edge in charging, too. The Harley has an onboard DC fast charger, which is cool, if you have easy access to the technology. Find a Level 3 DC charger, and LiveWire can go from empty to an 80 percent charge in only 40 minutes.

But here’s the rub: when using a far more common Level 2 charger, the H-D fills up at Level 1 rates, a.k.a. really slow. W I attempted to fill up from a half-full state of charge, the Harley indicated it would need nearly six hours to reach max capacity. In contrast, using my ChargePoint Level 2 home charger (which is capable of producing an impressive 50 amps of power), the SR/F indicated it could go from 28 percent charged to full in just over an hour. Advantage: Zero.

Swing a leg over either bike, and the personalities become more distinct. The Harley is a retro-futuristic café racer, with a scooped saddle sitting at a low 30 inches and a somewhat-long reach to the low-ish handlebars. The look is fresh and distinct, combining familiar H-D elements like a small bikini fairing and dirt tracker-style “fuel” tank with a cool, industrial-looking metallic motor unit hanging below an anodized aluminum frame. Harley’s trick chassis makes the Zero’s steel trellis frame seem crude in comparison.

Also cool: the H-D’s contrast-heavy 4.3-inch LCD touchscreen, which has a thoughtful, tilting design to help avoid glare. Both handgrips are flanked by Harley’s familiar soft-edged switchgear buttons, and proprietary individual turn signals reside at each grip side, in contrast to Zero’s conventional pushbutton/toggle combo. However, the Zero makes better use of the false fuel tank by adding a cover that flips up to reveal a nifty storage cubby — complete with a USB port.

Interestingly, the Zero may be considered the more progressive of the two, but their flagship model takes on a more conventional upright sportbike layout. The saddle sits an inch higher than the Harley’s, though a lower (30.3-inch) or taller (31.9-inch) perch can be ordered as an accessory. Zero’s 5.0-inch TFT LCD offers customizable layouts (as does the Harley’s screen), but lacks the H-D’s novel tilt function. However, the Zero’s smartphone app is more powerful, enabling custom ride mode settings using sliders for variables like throttle response, power and regeneration levels. The Harley offers a well-thought-out app, but ride mode customization occurs only through the dash-mounted touchscreen.

While the Harley and Zero’s specs are similar, each riding experience subtly reflects a different take on the EV paradigm. Twist the grip on the Zero, and a crisp rush of power whisks you forward with intense acceleration. Do the same on the Harley, and while the acceleration is also eye-openingly strong, it’s not quite as fierce or sharp as on the Zero. Harley-Davidson claims 0 to 60 mph in a brisk three seconds flat, and we believe it. Zero is mum on acceleration specs, but the seat of our pants (and the SR/F’s superior power-to-weight ratio) suggest it’s at least a couple tenths below H-D’s figure.

Similarly, each bike’s cornering dynamics echo its power delivery style. Though neither maneuvers with the flickability of a truly lightweight motorcycle, the Zero feels a tad nimbler, with crisper turn-in and more eager responsiveness. But that doesn’t mean the Harley is inferior In fact, while both bikes feature suspension systems by Showa, the Harley’s hardware is more sophisticated and finely-tuned, making the LiveWire feel more planted, secure, and stable in the corners. There’s even separate high and low speed compression adjustability on the rear shock, a feature reserved for high-end bikes.

While the Harley exhibits a bit more resistance at the initial moment of turn-in, it does manage to handle road irregularities more gracefully than the Zero, whose chassis is more easily upset by mid-corner bumps. The SR/F does have a slight advantage in the braking department, though, offering slightly better feedback during strong stops. In contrast, the Harley also offers excellent stopping power, but its brakes can feel slightly more wooden than the Zero’s.

One fact to consider when it comes to everyday life with an electric motorcycle: your mileage will vary. Significantly. While we have no doubt both bikes can easily achieve their official range estimates, their powerful motors make it remarkably easy to get carried away when twisting the grip. Acceleration is so strong and seamlessly quiet, blasting to illicit speeds becomes all but irresistible…and the battery pays the price. During a week of switching between both bikes, my riding style became so hoon-tastic, it was easy to start a full charge and still have well under 100 miles of total range.

One ride with a buddy proved particularly revealing of how EVs can be significantly different from their gas-burning counterparts. I’m lucky enough to live about 10 freeway miles away from the base of Angeles Crest Highway, one of North America’s best roads for canyon-carving. Though the twisting tarmac is tantalizingly close to home, pinning these EVs at 85 mph on the freeway can deplete a full quarter of the battery before I hit the fun bits. And while I would customarily top off with fuel at a gas station at the bottom of the hill, when you’re riding electric, there’s no choice but to plan around the battery.

Traversing those winding roads on a pair of EVs leaves a dramatically different impression than gas-powered bikes. For starters, there’s no engine wail to alert authorities to your presence, just the subtle high-pitched whine of fast-revving motors. Another differentiator: the lack of gears to select or clutch lever to pull, leaving you with a simple twist-and-go approach to modulating your speed. Dial in maximum energy regeneration, and you can attack the corners aggressively almost without ever needing to tap the brakes. The sensation is very new, offering a refreshing outlook for those used to focusing energy on carefully-executed gearshifts and rev-matched downshifts.

However, range anxiety is real. Whereas I would often ride as far as Newcomb’s Ranch, a rustic diner smack in the middle of the Angeles National Forest 35 miles from home, I wouldn’t dare risk the journey on these bikes, since I could easily run out of juice before I reach a plug again. That range limitation puts a damper on the very thing that’s so attractive about motorcycling in the first place: pure, unadulterated escape.

And yet, when you’re riding a powerful EV like a LiveWire or SR/F, the visceral experience in the mountains is a revelation. The thrum of a motor is replaced with the soothing sounds of air rushing past and the scrub of tires as they grip in the corners. It’s strangely serene, speed without internal combustion. Each bike handles it in a singular way: the Zero, with a bit of busyness and bumpiness but loads of confidence, and the Harley, with a composure that conveys the sense that these guys have been building motorcycles for a long, long time.

After shooting some photos, experimenting with burnouts and bombing back down the freeway towards civilization, a funny thing occurs to me on the last few miles through the city: these electric motorcycles just might be more fun slicing and dicing through city traffic than carving a canyon road. While they feel somewhat heavy in the mountains, their instant torque and acceleration makes them urban missiles ideal for slipping silently through traffic without broadcasting their presence.

At the LiveWire’s launch last year, Harley-Davidson CEO Matt Levatich said, “We, as a company, are shifting our mindset. Our first thought in the morning went from, ‘How do we build great motorcycles’ to ‘How do we build riders?’” It was a crucial shift in thought, one that’s manifested an electric bike that, although admittedly expensive, also reduces the barriers of entry into motorcycling by eliminating sound, fury and shifting — all things that can scare away newbies.

Whether you gravitate towards the mature, well-sorted Harley-Davidson LiveWire or the youthful, sporty Zero SR/F is entirely up to you. While neither is a 100-percent-perfect substitute for a gas-powered bike that can always be quickly refuelled at easy-to-find gas stations , electric motorcycles deliver their own unique draws, offering an entirely unique twist on the two-wheeled experience.

Call it a cop-out if you want, but we have to call this battle a tie. Get out there and test drive both. Even if you don’t become an EV convert quite yet, you’ll at least be in for a pleasant surprise.

Harley-Davidson and Zero Motorcycles provided these products for review.

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

Is This the Ultimate Accessory for Your MacBook Pro?

Brand: Linedock
Product: Linedock 13
Release Date: late 2019/earlier 2020
Price: $349+
From: linedock.co

The Linedock ($349+) is a 3-in-1 gadget that works as a docking station, a portable power bank and an external hard drive for your MacBook Pro or MacBook Air. It’s unique because it’s shaped exactly like the bottom half of your laptop, so it can then rest under it and comes in the same colors Apple offers its MacBooks in space grey and silver (you can also get a Linedock in matte black). Aside from color, the only other thing(s) you have to decide is how much storage you want and how much you’re willing to play. More storage, more dough.

For those of you who think you’ve seen the Linedock before, you probably have! It was first launched as an Indigogo campaign back in 2016, but it only just became available recently. After reviewing it for the past few weeks, I can say that the Linedock really isn’t like anything else, and it is an extremely overkill device if you can stomach the price. As for the design, which is one of the Linedock’s most striking features, it’s definitely innovative — but there’s one design flaw that can’t help but think it would drive Jony Ive up a wall.

The Linedock has nine ports in total: three USB-C, three USB 3.0, an SD card reader, HDMI and MiniDisplay ports, and a 4K display output.

It really is a productivity beast.

The Linedock is first a docking hub. It adds pretty much all of the ports that a creative would want — there are nine in total — including three USB-C ports, three USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader, HDMI and MiniDisplay ports, and a 4K display output. By allowing me to connect my old-school wired keyboard and mouse to my MacBook Pro, plus simultaneously charge my other devices like my iPhone and AirPods without taking power away from my computer, it essentially made my laptop feel more like a desktop. Also cool is the fact that the Linedock worked with the external display (LG UltraFine 4K) at my office. (The Linedock works with 4K displays up to 60Hz, but it can only be connected to one at a time.)

On the charging front, the Linedock is a decently powerful portable battery. It has a 20,000mAh capacity, which is approximately enough to fully recharge a 13-inch MacBook Pro (or give it 8+ hours of extra battery). There’s a button on the side of the Linedock that, if double-tapped, switches the Linedock into a more powerful “Saiyan mode” that delivers up to 60-watts of power so that the Linedock can fast charge your computer. If you want the Linedock to charge multiple devices at once, it can; it can simultaneously charge six different devices, spreading 100 watts of power between them; according to the company, it’s enough to work on your MacBook, while keeping it fully charged, as well also charging four other devices.

A neat and useful feature is the Linedock’s smart charging ability; it’ll actually charge all its connected devices (like your computer, smartphone, headphones, etc.) before it actually charges itself.

The Linedock we reviewed had 256GB of storage.

This thing ain’t cheap, and affordable alternatives abound.

The Linedock starts at $349, but that’s for the (smaller) 13-inch model that comes with no SSD storage. If you want 256GB or 1TB of storage, that’s going cost an extra $100 and $350, respectively, to that. Needless to say, the Linedock isn’t cheap.

If you’re just after one of the following — ports, battery or extra storage — there are cheaper alternatives of each. For example, the HyperDrive Pro ($100) is a great option for those who just want to add ports to their MacBook Pro. The Mophie Powerstation USB-C XXL ($150) or the RAVPower 26800mAh PD Portable Charger ($60) are solid options for those who want a portable battery for their MacBooks. And both LaCie and Western Digital make dependable and well-reviewed portable hard drives.

There’s one small but extremely annoying design flaw.

The Linedock is designed so that it can fit perfectly under your MacBook Air or MacBook Pro. And while it can, as it has the same dimensions, the USB-C ports on the Linedock and the MacBook Pro don’t perfectly lineup with each other. This wouldn’t be problematic if the Linedock didn’t come with a special U-shaped USB-C connector. You see, when you place the Linedock directly under the MacBook Pro and then connect the two with the special U-shaped USB-C connector, you’re forced with an ultimatum; you can either have your MacBook hanging half-an-inch off the front of the Linedock, or half-an-inch off the back. It gives the appearance of the two devices an overbite or an underbite.

Of course, you can skip this whole dilemma by just using your own USB-C charging cable to connect the Linedock and your MacBook. But, I can’t help but thinking: why didn’t Linedock just get the USB-C ports to line up? Or why did they even include this weird U-shaped cable? The whole thing strikes me as a bit odd. And I can’t help thinking this one design flaw is the exact type of thing that would drive Jony Ive up a wall.

Linedock provided this product for review.

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

Two Affordable Chronographs for Under $400

Chronographs are widely considered one of the most popular and beloved of watch complications, and while I typically like to go against the grain, this is one case where I fall in with the masses. I myself am a one-watch-woman, and that watch happens to be none other than a chronograph.

It makes plenty of sense that the chronograph is a favorite of the watch community. Unlike many other complications, it’s relatively easy to operate, and it offers an attractive design consisting of two or three registers, adding just the right amount of interest to the dial without being overwhelming or compromising the readability of more basic time and date functions. Still, the factor that probably makes the chronograph so widely liked is the sheer variety of models on the market, one that can suit any style and budget.

Though it’s possible, of course, to spend tens of thousands (or even millions) on a chronograph-equipped watch, for those with more Earthy budgets, there are far more affordable options like the Roue TPS or the Brew Retrograph, two models that perfectly exemplify the beauty of the chronograph. They come in at similar and completely attainable price points and are equipped with similar meca-quartz movements. Yet, they’re vastly different when it comes to style and the way they wear on the wrist. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I was able to put the two models to the test, and this is what I found.

The Competition

Roue TPS

Notice the dual pulsation and tachymeter scales on the TPS’s dial

The Roue TPS is a classic racing chrono with a touch of midcentury design. It’s offered in three different colorways, each of which comes with both a silicon and a leather rally-style strap. Together, the mix of retro elements and contemporary materials results in a well-balanced and versatile take on the iconic chronograph.

Brew Retrograph

The Retrograph’s outer seconds scale is meant for timing the perfect espresso shot

The Brew Retrograph takes its own approach to incorporating design elements of chronographs, old and new. It features a unique cushion-shaped case as a nod to 1970s chronos like the TAG Heuer Monaco. The model is also available in three colorways complete with a premium Italian leather strap or a beads-of-rice bracelet (for $45 more).

The Test

Design

As an owner of a more traditional, round, triple-register chrono, I was instantly attracted to the Roue TPS. Like the model in my collection, the stainless steel TPS has that sumptuous weight to it that’s oh-so comforting. Slipping on the robust 40mm model immediately felt like home. I opted for what I consider to be the most interesting of the three colorways: the blue dial with yellow accents.

The TSP dial features triple-layer construction and printed lume

However, this is not your typical blue watch — it’s a particular shade of baby blue that has a nice warmth to it, especially when paired with the camel-colored leather strap. Alternatively, the grey silicon strap completely changes the look and feel of the watch, making it significantly sportier. Also notable is the domed crystal made of K1 mineral glass with anti-reflective coating on the inside and sapphire coating on the outside. This definitely adds a more substantial thickness and bulk to the model.

The Brew Retrograph is certainly a more standout design compared to what I think of when I conjure up the image of a typical chrono. Though I own a round watch, I often notice myself gravitating toward watches with more interesting shapes, like the Retrograph. It too has that luxurious weight as well as similarly robust proportions, measuring 38mm by 41.5mm.

The Retrograph’s dual counters consist of a running seconds sub-dial and a 24-hour indicator

For comparison’s sake, I also chose the cobalt variation of the Retrograph. That said, this is hardly a blue-on-blue comparison. The hue of the Retrograph is entirely different — it’s a cooler, dustier shade that can easily read as grey and serve as a neutral. This, in combination with the flat sapphire crystal and premium Italian leather strap, makes the Retrograph easier to dress up or down. Case and point: the Retrograph was my choice for Thanksgiving dinner whereas the TPS was better suited for jeans, a sweater, and leather high tops while browsing holiday window displays.

Functionality

The Roue TPS is truly a classic chrono when it comes to functionality — for the most part. First, you have three sub-dials: a 24-hour indicator at the three o’clock position, 60-minute counter at the nine o’clock position, and a running seconds register at the six o’clock position. Then you have a tachymeter scale around the dial, used to calculate speed and distance. However, there’s also a pulsometer scale, used to calculate pulse, and a prominent, bright yellow chronograph hand. Inside, you’ll find the Seiko VK63 chronograph hybrid meca-quartz movement. This combines the reliability and accuracy of quartz and with the satisfying action of a mechanical chronograph with its dry click and instant reset.

The sub-dial at 3 o’clock is 24-hour indicator, rather than a 24-hour counter.

Although I’m used to reading a watch with three registers in a color that contrasts with the dial, the Retrograph with its two registers in the same color as the dial is actually perfectly legible, particularly in low light, thanks to white indices and hands. In place of a third register, it offers the added bonus of a date window at the six o’clock position. Additionally, there’s something unique and thoughtful about the outer track.

The Retrograph’s cushion-shaped case is well proportioned at 38 x 41.5mm

As a brand, Brew’s designs draw from coffee culture, specifically the espresso machine (hence the name “Brew”). Where many vintage chronographs highlight a range of three-minute intervals to indicate when to insert a coin to add more time to a long-distance call, Brew has aptly highlighted the range between 25 and 35 seconds to indicate when the optimal espresso shot has been extracted. This serves as a useful feature for coffee fanatics and a rather clever nod to chronos past. All of this functionality is powered by the VK64 hybrid meca-quartz chronograph movement.

The Verdict

At the end of the day (or in my case, the extended holiday weekend), these may be two chronographs with a similar price point and similar movement, but they’re two totally different watches. The Roue offers a more classic take on the chronograph, which is a look and feel I’ve personally come to know and love. The unique colorway and different strap options give the otherwise traditional design just the right twist and versatility.

On the other hand, the Brew is truly one-of-a-kind. It offers a more uncommon case shape and a number of thoughtful touches. Overall, the Brew is undoubtedly easier to dress up or down based on the color palette and quality of the strap. These are two distinct watches for two distinct people or two distinct occasions — it’s up to you to decide which best suits you and your lifestyle.

Brew Watches and Roue Watches provided these products for review.

Disclaimer: The Brew Retrograph is available from the Gear Patrol Store, to which we linked in this post.

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

Are Jabra’s Latest True Wireless Buds Still the Best AirPod Alternatives?

Brand: Jabra
Product: Elite 75t Wireless Earbuds
Release Date: November 2019
Price: $180
From: amazon.com

Over the last two-odd years, the Jabra Elite 65t have been widely considered to be the best AirPod alternatives. In my review I stated that they sounded better, were water-resistant (so you can actually run in them) and they one of the best microphone arrays of any wireless earbuds I’d tested (calls sounded crisp and clear). Now, Jabra has released the next-generation models of those wireless earbuds, the Elite 75t, they are better in pretty much every way. So does that mean that they are the new best AirPod alternatives?

The answer is …not really, but not because they have gotten worse! Not in the slightest! The Jabra Elite 75t are a great pair of wireless earbuds and one of the best that I’ve tested, but compared to when Jabra released its Elite 65t, there is a lot more competition in the space; seemingly every tech company — some of whom had never even made headphones before — has released its own pair of wireless earbuds and many of them great, and great at specific things to boot. It’s true that the Elite 75t are awesome all-around earbuds, and are especially good for taking phone calls with. But if you want wireless earbuds for something more specific, whether that’s for working out or traveling you can find specific running headphones like the Jaybird Vista or affordable active noise-canceling headphones that will fit specific use-cases better than the (still terrific but fairly all-purpose) Jabra Elite 75ts can.

The 75ts are smaller, which is better — in most cases.

The main thing that distinguishes the Elite 75t from the Elite 65t is the size. The new earbuds are 20 percent smaller than their predecessors and it actually makes a huge difference in how they feel. Obviously fit is subjective, but my biggest complaint with the Elite 65t was that they were rather large earbuds and, because each earbud fit so snug in my ear, they were at times uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. The Elite 75t don’t have that problem and I find them much nicer to wear.

That said, not everybody is going to like the fact that Jabra’s wireless earbuds have been shrunk down. One of my colleagues who has worn the Elite 65t for the last year — and loved them — immediately noticed that the 75ts have lost the ability for on-ear volume control in service of the smaller form factor. Since the Elite 65ts are larger, they were able to have larger and more versatile buttons on each earbud; you can adjust the volume and forward/rewind tracks directly on the earbud, without touching your smartphone. And with the Elite 75ts you can’t do that.

They’ve finally entered the world of USB-C charging.

A USB-C charging port feels like a prerequisite for wireless earbuds — unless they’re made by Apple — and the Elite 75t finally have it. No more micro-USB. This addition means you can use the same charger to charge your MacBook (Pro or Air) or any USB-C laptop with your Elite 75t, and it also means that they can fast charge.

Another nice little upgrade is that the Elite 75t earbuds actually have a significantly better battery life than the Elite 65t. Each 75t earbud gets about 7.5 hours of playtime, while each Elite 65t earbud gets around 5 hours. And with the charging case, the Jabra Elite 75t earbuds can get up to 28 hours of juice, which 8 more total hours than the Elite 65t.

They’re still great for business professionals.

One of the Elite 65t’s standout features was that the earbuds were excellent for phone calls. They had a four-microphone array, which at the time was more most other wireless earbuds, and so calls sounded crisp and clear. The Elite 75t have the same exact 4-microphone array, despite their diminutive size, so calls sound just as good. If you’re a business professional who’s often taking calls while wearing earbuds, Jabra’s newest offering is a great option.

Additionally, the Elite 75t are just all-around solid wireless earbuds. They’re IP55 rated, which is more sweat- and water-resistant than Apple’s AirPods Pro and Beats’s Powerbeats Pro, meaning it’s safe to run and workout in them. And if you have a particular sound preference, you can tweak the Elite 75t’s EQ via the Jabra Sound+ app.

Jabra provided this product for review.

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

How to Turn Your Home Stereo Into a Sonos Wireless System

Brand: Sonos
Product: Port
Release Date: January 2020
Price: $399
From: sonos.com

The Sonos Port ($399) is one of Sonos’s newest audio products, and it’s essentially a newer and more versatile (and more expensive) version of the Sonos Connect ($349), which has been around for years. Like the Connect, the Port is designed to do one of two things. It can be connected to a stereo or receiver, and thus allow you to control the home sound system you already have just like a Sonos system (via the Sonos app). Or it can be connected to a turntable (one with a phono preamp) or CD player so you can stream its audio to your existing Sonos speakers. The main differences from the original Connect is that the Port supports AirPlay 2, has a better built-in DAC and, has a cherry on top, actually looks like a typical home audio component.

What We Like

Unlike the Sonos Connect and its unconventional white-stool appearance, the Port isn’t going to stick out like a sore thumb when you place it with all your other matte black audio equipment. It’s also more versatile; like Sonos’s newer speakers and all-new Amp, the Port supports AirPlay 2 making it easier to stream music straight from an iPhone or a Mac. It also means that the Port (and the connected system) can be integrated into AirPlay 2 multi-room system, which is a nice option to have.

Maybe the most interesting upgrade is the Port’s 12-volt trigger, which gives it (and you) a little more control of the connected receiver or amp. It essentially eliminates the need for you to manually turn on the receiver or stereo, or switch to the proper inputs, because everything will just turn on and work when you start streaming via the Sonos app to stream music. There’s a catch, however, and it’s only newer stereos and receivers that have a 12-volt trigger input. (My three-year-old Yamaha receiver didn’t support it, so I still have to use the receiver’s remote to switch inputs, unfortunately.)

It’s true that most newer audio components have built-in Bluetooth, so simply adding “streaming” to your stereo receiver on its own isn’t actually a big feature of the Port. However, the Port does have a fancy new digital-to-analog converter (DAC), compared to the Connect, and supports Wi-Fi streaming like Spotify Connect and AirPlay 2; so it’s going to stream higher-resolution and all-around better sounding audio than Bluetooth.

Watch Out For

There’s no getting around the fact that $400 for what is a connection device is extremely expensive. The Port also doesn’t have a built-in amp, like the (even more expensive) Sonos Amp, so it’s only going to work directly with audio components and active speakers that have built-in amplification. If you’re looking to hook the Port up to your existing turntable, it’ll have to have a built-in phono preamp, or you’ll need an external one.

The Port is a two-way audio component because you can stream audio to it (from your smartphone) and from it (if connected to a turntable or CD player). It’s minor, the Port only comes with one RCA cable, so you’ll have to buy a second if you want to utilize its a stereo RCA input and output at the same time.

The Port is designed to do one of two things. It can be connected to a stereo or receiver, and thus allow you to control the home sound system you already have just like a Sonos system (via the Sonos app). Or it can be connected to a turntable (one with a phono preamp) or CD player so you can stream its audio to your existing Sonos speakers.

Other Options

There are two alternatives. You can find the Sonos Connect ($349) even though it’s antiquated; it has a worse built-in DAC and doesn’t support AirPlay 2. Then there’s the Sonos Amp ($599), which is significantly more expensive and, because it has a built-in amp, can actually drive larger loudspeakers.

Verdict

The Sonos Port isn’t a very complicated device and it does exactly what it claims to do. If you have a system consisting of a receiver and two passive bookshelf speakers, or maybe you have a pair of active bookshelf speakers, or maybe you have a turntable (with a phono preamp), the Port will allow you to integrate any of them into a Sonos wireless system. Yes, it’s fairly expensive, but it just works.

Sonos provided this product for review.

Should You Buy a Mesh Wi-Fi System? An Expert Explains What You Need to Know

Mesh router systems are more popular than ever because it’s never been more important to have excellent home Wi-Fi. We have all sorts of devices that rely on it; whether that’s smart speakers or a smart security system, smart lights or just a smart TV. Maybe you just want to take your laptop anywhere in the house and be able to access the internet that’s as fast as it is in the best room of the house.

So, what is a mesh router system?

A mesh router is different than a traditional router system because it is able to broadcast a Wi-Fi signal from multiple points, rather than just one. There’s a router that connects to the modem, same as with a traditional router system, but then there are separate “points” that are positioned around the home that are able to rebroadcast the signal so that it covers more area. And the entire Wi-Fi signal is under one network name, so it’s really simple.

Traditional router systems, which your internet service provider (ISP) most likely provides, still work well enough for plenty of people, and if you’re not experiencing internet problems, then there’s no reason to switch to mesh router system. However, if you are having internet issues, a mesh router system might be a great solution.

Who Should Buy a Mesh Router System?

• If you’re constantly having to reboot your system — unplugging your router, waiting 10+ seconds and then plugging it back in — then you might want to think about switching to a mesh router.

• If there are multiple dead zones in your home, a mesh router promises to solve them. If you’re just looking to cure a singular dead zone, on the other hand, a Wi-Fi extender is probably the most cost-efficient solution. (Although, having multiple Wi-Fi extenders tends to add more complications, as each creates a new network and will have a different name, aka an SSID).

• If you have a home with multiple floors or just a large home — 3,000 square feet or more — a mesh router system can ensure great Wi-Fi coverage. You can just add extra points to your system and place them around your home.

The main downside to a mesh router system is that it’s a bit more expensive. It requires placing extra hardware around the house, and extra hardware is going to drive up the upfront price. Most of the popular mesh router systems, made by Google, eero, Netgear and Linksys, have starter kits that consist of a router and a singular point, and they usually go for between $250 and $300. You can then add more points, but each addition point tends to cost between $150 and $200.

We talked with Sanjay Noronha, the Lead Product Manager of Nest Wifi, who explained the advantages of a mesh router system, and the unique benefits Google’s solution affords.

Nest Wifi is newer, faster and more colorful than its predecessor, Google Wifi.

A mesh router system can’t work by itself. It still needs a modem, right?
This is true. Even if you don’t pay for cable, you need to have a modem from an internet service provider (ISP). However, once you have the modem you’re under no obligation to you use the internet provider’s router. “You can buy a third-party router from Best Buy for pretty cheap and you can save that recurring cost that they charge you — there’s like a $10 cost on your bill [each month],” Noronha explained. A mesh router is a great option if you want to solve the problem of multiple dead zones. Plus, these mesh router systems give you greater control of your home’s Wi-Fi.

How do the mesh points talk to each other? Is it a horizontal connection or is it more of a bubble?
The Wi-Fi signal that comes from the mesh router is shaped like a bubble. It spreads both horizontally and vertically. “Technically the antenna patterns are more like a donut,” said Noronha. “They kind of balloon out into two big globes that reach two floors up and two floors down, and they spread out to the sides as well. It’s a big donut with a small hole.” Then, each mesh point catches those antenna waves and then rebroadcasts it as its own donut.

Is the signal strength evenly distributed? Or is it weaker further away from the router or mesh point?
“It’s just physics,” said Noronha. “The further away you go from the source of the signal, the lower the signal will get. That is true for any system no matter what anybody will tell you.” If you want a more faster and stronger connection, as far as Nest Wifi is concerned, you can buy a two-pack of routers instead of a router-and-point starter kit. “We aren’t calling it a ‘pro pack,’ again this is all marketing, but the option is there for users who believe that they want a more robust connection.”

Is there a drop-off from a router-router pack to a router-point pack?
From a Wi-Fi point of view, a two router system is going to be more powerful. “If you’re just running a raw speed test, you’re probably going to see a little better coverage or speeds if you have two routers as opposed to a router and a point,” Noronha explained. “That’s just because routers are more powerful hardware and that’s again by design to allow more flexible placement of the points.” However, if you have a standard router and a point system, Noronha says you’ll be able to still run, in the furthest reaches of what Google considers ‘covered,’ two 4K TVs simultaneously in the room.

Is there a certain router per square foot ratio?
If you go to the Nest Wifi page on the Google Store’s website — here — and scroll down, it’ll help you figure out what kind of system is right for you. A one router system can cover up to 2,200 square feet. A router and point system, which Noronha says is probably best for most people’s homes, covers up to 3,800 square feet. Add a second point to the system and it’ll cover a home up to 5,400 square feet. Each point after that adds an extra 1,600 square feet.

If you get two routers, do you have to have two modems in your house, too?
No. What will happen is that the second router will mesh to the first router as a meshed point, Noronha explained. “So what you do is you put one of them by your modem and you put the other one somewhere else, like three or four rooms away, and then they will use their powerful radios to talk to each other, and then the second router will form a very powerful mesh point.”

What’s are the advantages of Nest Wi-Fi in particular?
There are a couple of advantages to using Google’s mesh router system. First, it uses the Google Home app and quickly walks you through the setup process, which should take less than 10. Each mesh point also has Google Assistant built-in and works exactly like a Google Home smart speaker (Noronha says each point has the same guts as a Google Home Mini, but actually sounds a bit louder because the cabinet is slightly larger.) Within the app, you’ll be able to see what your internet speed history is, how many points you have online, how many devices you have online. And you can run a quick speed test if you want, in the app or with a voice command. “You can say, ‘OK Google, run a speed test’ or ‘What’s my internet speed?’ or “Pause Wi-Fi for [person on Wi-Fi.’” You can also voice match these commands so, if you have kids, they can’t unpause the Wi-Fi whenever they want.

Within the Google Home app, you can also set up a guest network. “The guest network is a good thing from a Wi-Fi hygiene point of view,” Noronha said. “For example, a lot of my kids’ friends come over and they’ll have Windows laptops, which are notorious for viruses, and they could [spread] a virus to other devices on my network.” As for family Wi-Fi, within the app, you can easily set up scheduled pauses and turn on ‘safe search,’ so that kids can’t access explicit content.

Do you need to have other Google products or use Google’s other services to use Nest Wifi?
According to Noronha, Google’s mesh router system is designed to be neutral and agnostic. The new mesh points in Nest Wifi are integrated with Google Assistant and you could use them as Google Home speakers, so there’s obviously some preferential treatment there. (You can’t turn them into Alexa smart speakers, for example.)

The other thing that Nest Wifi has a “Gaming Preferred” mode that’s specifically designed for Stadia, Google’s new wireless gaming service. You can turn this on within the Google Home app and it optimizes the Wi-Fi connection for Stadia for a specific time. That said, you can prioritize the internet connection for any device, whether it’s a specific laptop, smartphone or even an Xbox One. All this can easily be done within the Google Home app.

Google provided this product for review.

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

These Are My New Favorite Noise-Canceling Headphones

Brand: Bowers & Wilkins
Product: PX7 Noise-Canceling Headphones
Release Date: October 2019
Price: $399
From: amazon.com

The Bowers & Wilkins PX7 are the company’s new flagship noise-canceling headphones. They are essentially upgraded, redesigned versions of the B&W PX headphones, which we reviewed two years ago and loved for their industrial design and epic soundstage. The new models are lighter thanks to a carbon fiber design, and they now support USB-C fast charging. They cost the same, however, which is a fairly hefty $400 and puts them in the same price range as the new Bose Headphones 700.

|

What We Like

There’s a lot to like about the Bowers & Wilkins PX7. They’re noticeably more comfortable to wear than the original PX headphones, thanks to their lighter design and more rounded earcup design. And they’re easier to control your music and the noise-cancellation because the physical buttons on the side of each earcup are more pronounced (and more clicky). On the left earcup, you can switch between four strengths of noise-cancellation (low, medium, high and off), with a subtle voice telling you which mode you’ve just switched to. On the right earcup, there are buttons to turn the volume up or down, as well as play/pause the music. There are optical sensors in the earcups so they’ll automatically play/pause when you put on and take off the headphones, just like AirPods.

The sound quality of the PX7 is, once again, the main reason to get these headphones — they sound exceptional. As was true with Bowers & Wilkins’s previous noise-canceling headphones, the PX7s create a very wide soundstage, more than any other noise-canceling headphones that I’ve tested. It feels like you’re in a concert hall listening to a live show, as you can hear all the instruments, where they were placed on the stage, and the vocals are crisp and clear.

According to Bowers & Wilkins, these are also the first headphones that support Qualcomm’s new Bluetooth aptX Adaptive technology, which allows them to wirelessly stream 24-bit/48kHz high-resolution audio with extremely low latency. So in addition to sounding excellent, the PX7s are designed to especially have zero lag, which is ideal for smartphone games and Netflix bingers.

Watch Out For

Bowers and Wilkins’s newest noise-canceling headphones aren’t the most travel-friendly. They aren’t completely foldable like the Bose QuietComfort 35 II, although they do fold flat, and the rigidness of the headband and the size of the earcups — they’re rather large — means that you probably are going to treat them on the precious side. There’s also no app to adjust the EQ settings, which a lot of people tend to like (few people want another app on their smartphone), but it means you can’t adjust the sound signature if you don’t like it. Finally, $400 is undoubtedly on the expensive side.

Other Options

If you love the design and sound of the PX7 but aren’t a big fan of over-ear headphones, the company actually makes an on-ear version of these noise-canceling headphones: the B&W PX5 ($299). They’re a $100 cheaper and almost as good as the PX7, although the noise-cancellation isn’t as impressive and they don’t sound quite as good (the PX7 have larger speaker drivers than the PX5).

In terms of the style, sound quality and price, the two obvious alternatives are Bose’s new noise-canceling headphones, the Headphones 700 ($399), and Sennheiser’s new noise-canceling headphones, the Momentum Wireless 3 ($400).

Verdict

The Bowers & Wilkins PX7s are excellent noise-canceling headphones that prioritize sound quality over everything else, with maybe the company’s signature industrial design coming a close second. They might not be as travel-friendly as some of the more popular cans by Sony and Bose, but if you’re comfortable with the $400 price tag, these are some of our favorite noise-canceling headphones you can buy right now.

|

Bowers & Wilkins provided this product for review.

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

This Unique Field Watch Is Perfect for the Design-Obsessed

Brand: anOrdain
Product: Model 2
Release Date: Fall 2019
Price: $1,230+
From: anOrdain.com

When they released their initial watch, the Model 1, in 2018, anOrdain grabbed our attention by its lapels. Here was an indie watch brand — a Scottish one –making an affordable grand feu-dialed watch. The dials sang, in beautiful colors, which was rare enough. But so did the rest of the watch: a spare, clean design, with a sensible case shape and unique typography inspired by a vintage map of the area around Loch anOrdain in northern Scotland.

In 2019, the company released their second watch, called simply the Model 2. It has the same affordability and grand feu enamel dial, with a palate of beautiful and interesting colors. But they tweaked the case and the feel of the entire watch significantly; rather than a simple 38mm 3-hander, this was 36mm. AnOrdain’s founder, Lewis Heath, told me they were excited that it had a “field watch feel.” Other reviewers have called it a tool watch. Compounded with the fact anOrdain discontinued the Model 1 in 2019, and there was a lot of pressure on this watch.

What We Like

Like the Model 1, the Model 2’s grand feu enamel dial is gorgeous in person. Color options are striking and unique. In fact, the design of this watch is unlike anything else out there — something you can’t say that about many other indie brands these days. Plus, at 36mm, it’s the perfect size for people who enjoy watches on the smaller side; more and more brands are putting out 38mm and 39mm watches these days, but few dare go this small. It works beautifully.

Who It’s For

Aesthetes, engineers, and architects. Yes, it’s got a few field watch features, like a movement with shock protection. But the styling of this watch is not at all for the dive watch- or tough beater field watch- set. It’s for watch lovers who like highly stylized watches, and who appreciate indie brands that strike out on their own when it comes to design.

Watch Out For

A purple watch sounds fantastic, but you might worry about not being able to match your look every day; should you go with the more plain grey and white? (A proper buyer’s conundrum.) Though very small, the Model 2 actually wears more like a 38mm due to its large crown guard. And even though its sapphire crystal has 6 layers of anti-reflective coating, I still found it reflective and hard to read in the sunlight. Oh, and the handwound Sellita SW210-1 has shock protection, which is great, but I found its roughly 38 hours of power reserve to require a bit too much winding. (Then again, maybe I’m a spoiled automatic guy.)

Other Options

The anOrdain Model 1, for one — but that’s been discontinued, which I find a great shame. Seiko’s Presage line is another great reasonably affordable take on the enamel dial look, and the three-hander comes in at about the same price. As far as unique design goes, you could call Nick Harris over at Orion Watches a similarly bold indie designer; NOMOS also comes to mind.

Review

The first concern when choosing an anOrdain watch is color. All the options are beautiful and interesting: the Model 2 is currently offered online in Torr Blue, Moss Green, Purple, Midnight Green, Grey, and White. (Not to mention the dazzling fumé dials, which go for ~$1,948.) I quickly realized I was spoiled for choice. Each of these was unconventional enough to warrant pause, even for a guy who enjoys his baby-blue, bakelite-bezeled Zodiac Sea Wolf.

One of the striking fumé dial Model 2 watches

The question of which color to pick throws the bigger question of the watch into focus. What is this watch? How would I wear it? If it’s an everyday wearer, would purple make sense? If it’s a field watch, would I want light blue to match the sky, or deep green to blend with the forest?

Eventually I settled (maybe I chickened out) on a grey dial. The idea here was to wear it every day, in a variety of uses, and I didn’t want to limit those by choosing a particularly bold color. The grey, in person, fit this use very well. Like grey eyes, it seemed to shift color depending on its surroundings: against a rare LA grey sky, it seemed dark; against lively greenery, it took on an olive hue.

The grand feu enamel dial is a selling point of the watch, and in person it did not disappoint. The enamel is slightly mottled when viewed up close, the subtlest kaleidoscope of hues. The slight dimple at the dial’s center, where the base of the hands connect, is one of my favorite peculiarities of the watch; it feels handmade, and yet perfect. The hand-painted hour markers in black and silver are gorgeous, with a different feel than those of the Model 1. The skeletonized syringe hands, alternatively, were a little disappointing: they felt a bit too stylized for my liking, and the luminous finishing on their tips looked a little rough.

At 36mm it’s oddly sized for the current market, but I personally found it the perfect fit: I’m constantly complaining that no brand makes a good, complete watch like my old Zodiac Sea Wolf, which is 35.5mm and doesn’t feel small at all. The Model 2 actually wears quite large on the wrist — I’d guess it closer to 38mm, if I didn’t know the diameter.

This is because the case is quite a hunk of metal. Not in respect to thickness — it’s 11mm, with a curved case back, and wears very comfortably on the wrist. No, the size here is because of its unique design. The brushed steel bezel is hearty, while not dive-watch thick. The crown guards arch out imposingly to cup the crown. When you look at it closely, you see the beauty of the design and its excellent execution. When you glance, you just get the sense that it’s big and solid, maybe a little chubby.

Which is, I think, what Heath was talking about when he said it had a field watch feel. Truth is, beyond that pleasant chunkiness, I found its vibe to be the exact opposite. Wearing it on a hike, I was vexed: why did this thing feel so odd and out of place? Then I saw it: with its suede strap, architectural case, utilitarian hands and highly stylized hour markers, it wasn’t the watch of some roughneck explorer. It was the watch of an architect, an engineer, an aesthete.

Verdict

I love the anOrdain Model 2 because it’s different. Enough already with the Submariner homages. Indie brands that boldly do their own thing are rare these days. Does anOrdain pull the Model 2 off perfectly? Not quite. But its grand feu dial selling point shines in person, and its aggressive reach for something different is admirable, and the right fit for the right type of watch lover.

What Others Are Saying:

• “We often associate modern, oversized watches with durability and ruggedness, but anOrdain understands that it’s not size, but design, that makes a watch appropriate for the field. There’s nothing delicate about the Model 2 — you can imagine it simply existing on your wrist unobtrusively until it’s called upon.” — Zach Kazan, Worn & Wound

• “The size is one of its biggest assets, disappearing on your wrist as you go about your day, whether on the hiking trail, beach or office. It’s both outdoorsy and elegant, and I quickly grew to appreciate its small dimensions.” — Erik Slaven, Monochrome

anOrdain provided this product for review.

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

Amazon Claims Its Echo Buds Have Great Noise Cancellation — But Does It Actually Work?

Brand: Amazon
Product: Echo Buds
Release Date: October 30, 2019
Price: $130
From: amazon.com

When Amazon announced the Echo Buds ($130), its first truly wireless earbuds, there was a little bit of confusion. At the initial announcement, Amazon implied it had partnered with Bose to integrated its renown noise-cancelation technology into the Echo Buds. It was later clarified that the Echo Buds had Bose’s “active noise-reduction” technology, evidently distinct from Bose’s “active noise-cancellation” technology, with Bose reps claiming the Echo Buds’ tech was different and less effective that what will be found in the first-party earbuds Bose plans to release in 2020. Still, at $130, which is wildly cheap compared to other noise-canceling wireless earbuds on the market, such as Sony WF-1000XM3 ($228+) and Apple’s AirPods Pro ($249), putting the Echo Buds in a position to really shake up the market if their noise-canceling powers can pull through.

What We Like

The good news is that, in practice, the Echo Buds are impressive. Their noise-canceling ability is on par with the likes of Sony’s and Apple’s new wireless earbuds, which I think has a lot to do with Bose’s technology, but also to do with the way the Echo Buds fit in your ears. Each earbud is rather large, similar to the Jabra Elite Active 65t ($138+) or the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless ($299), and they create a very tight seal against your ear; in this way they’re able to passively and actively reduce noise.

There are more layers than just noise-canceling, too. The Echo Buds have an easy-to-access transparency mode (called passthrough mode), which you can switch to by double-tapping the right or left earbud. They are also pretty interwoven with the Alexa app. Here, you can adjust the EQ of the audio you’re listening to, turn the built-in microphones off (which is good if you don’t ever want to talk to Alexa, and bad if you plan on taking calls with the earbuds), adjust the strength of the transparency mode and, just like with the new AirPods Pro, have the earbuds run a “eartip sizing test.”

Lastly, the Echo Buds are IPX4 water and sweat resistant, just like the AirPods Pro and Powerbeats Pro ($200+), so you can wear them working out or running. In addition to coming with multiple silicone ear tips, the Echo Buds also come with silicone ear wings in case you want that extra layer of snugness for working out. If you attach the ear wings, there’s no issue fitting the Echo Buds back in the charging case.

Watch Out For

There’s no getting around the fact that Echo Buds will never be the sexy choice for wireless earbuds. They look pretty generic and they feel very plastic-y, because that’s exactly what they’re made out of. The fact that they still charge via micro-USB is a pretty big bummer, considering that very few “new” gadgets still require that charging cord. Some people won’t like how large the Echo Buds are, as well as how snug they fit — could cause greater ear fatigue compared to other wireless earbuds.

The Echo Buds are Amazon’s first wireless earbuds.

Other Options

The Echo Buds’ noise-canceling abilities make it a legit alternative to Apple’s AirPods Pro ($249), the Sony WF-1000XM3 ($228+) and the Master & Dynamic MW07 Plus ($299). It’s going to be interesting to see how much better (and more expensive) Bose’s first true wireless earbuds with active noise-cancellation, the Bose Noise Cancelling Earbuds 700, when they arrive in 2020. These other higher-end options do have generally superior sound quality, but you will certainly be paying a premium for it.

Second, its sweat-resistance and secure fit make the Echo Buds an excellent option for anybody looking for true wireless workout headphones. Some of our current favorite workout buds include the Jaybird Vista ($180), the Powerbeats Pro ($200+) and the Jabra Elite Active 65t ($147+).

And lastly, the Echo Buds are affordable enough to fall into the budget category of wireless earbuds. Some alternatives include the Anker’s Soundcore Liberty Air 2 ($100) and Soundcore Liberty 2 Wireless Earbuds ($100).

Verdict

The Echo Buds are a no-brainer buy for anybody who doesn’t want to dish out more than $130 on wireless earbuds. They don’t sound quite as great as the AirPods Pro, or most of the high-end alternatives by Sennheiser, Bose, Jabra or Master & Dynamic for that matter, but what they deliver in terms of fit, versatility, and noise-cancellation and transparency modes, more than makes up for it. They are certainly in the conversation for being one of the best wireless earbuds you buy right now. Call me impressed.

Amazon provided this product for review.

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

How This Weird Little Keyboard Is Making Me Better at Typing

Every day at work, I sit down at my desk and type hundreds, sometimes thousands, of words. I do it for a living. But that hasn’t saved me from being a lousy typist. I’m not slow. I certainly don’t hunt and peck. But I am sloppy as all get out. I let my hands carelessly flail over the keys, with overall top-speed hindered by lousy form and less than stellar accuracy, overworking a few fingers while letting others go underused. It’s OK though! I catch all, well most, well… some of the typos! But now, thanks to this strange grid-like keyboard called the Preonic, I’m slowly but surely improving, and I’m loving every frustrating minute of it.

The funny thing about modern-day computer keyboards, with their staggered horizontal rows and traditional QWERTY layouts, is that they have no real reason to look the way they do. These designs aren’t intended for comfort or efficiency. These now standard characteristics were designed for typewriters, to help ensure that the metal arms that pushed inked stamps into paper would be less likely to smash into each other and jam up while you type. Computer keyboards obviously aren’t subject to the same concerns but tend to stick to tradition for its own sake.

My lovely little grid boy, the Massdrop x OLKB Preonic Mechanical Keyboard to be specific, is a nerdy variety of mechanical keyboard that uses a different layout strategy known to ergonomic geeks as “ortholinear.” Instead of needlessly staggering keys to prevent non-existent jams, an ortholinear keyboard arranges its keys so that no heavily-used key is more than one space away from the finger assigned to press it. That way, the logic goes, your fingers don’t need to move as far and so can make their movements faster, and with less stress and strain. It’s a half-measure approach to improving ergonomics versus more extreme alternatives like switching away from QWERTY entirely.

Photo:Chandler Bondurant

Using an ortholinear keyboard for the first time is uncanny. It’s almost like what you’re used to, so muscle memory takes over at first. But every now and then, a key is a fair bit left or right of where sloppy muscle memory says it should be. When that happens, I’m forced to stop, slow down not just to make sure I’m hitting the right key, but also that I’m hitting it with the right finger.

The first few days were rough, but over about a week my speed has improved from “slightly below average with very strange typos” back up to “just about average.” Better yet, with better form, I’m making good use of all my fingers, instead of just half of them. Better yet? I’m not spending 30 percent of my time just riding the backspace key anymore.

Sure, there are other ergonomic hacks and efficiency tricks I might still try. Some people dump QWERTY entirely for bespoke, supposedly superior layouts. But the Preonic is a fun little conversation piece of a keyboard that’s helped me up my game in a matter of a week or so (relatively) pain free.

The Massdrop x OLKB Preonic Mechanical Keyboard is currently $30 off its $170 price tag, and right now, first-time Drop buyers will get an extra $20 off. Fair warning: it comes as a kit so some assembly is required, but there’s no soldering involved so it’s no more complex than playing with Legos. The deal expires on 11/25/19, so if you’re thinking about taking the plunge, now is a great time.

Come on in, the water’s fine!

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

Is This the Best-Sounding Wireless Speaker Under $500?

Earlier this year, Bowers & Wilkins released its super high-line of wireless multiroom speakers, named “Formation,” and the big thing with them, other than being beautiful and well designed, was that they were able to stream higher quality audio than pretty much all its competitors (namely Sonos, Bose and Apple’s HomePod). They work like most Wi-Fi speakers, as you can still stream music via Spotify Connect or AirPlay, but the speakers actually establish their own proprietary wireless mesh network between themselves and can thus stream up to 96/24-bit audio. Of its Formation speakers, I’ve reviewed the Wedge, a 120-degree wedge-shaped all-in-one speaker that also happened to be the smallest and cheapest Formation speaker you could buy.

Since then, Bowers & Wilkins has added an even smaller and more affordable wireless speaker to its Formation line. The all-new Flex is a cylindrical front-firing speaker with a woven grille. It gets its “flex” name because it’s versatile, able to be designated as a right or left channel alongside another Flex speaker, or two can work as rear-channel speakers with a Formation Bar (B&W’s soundbar) in a home theater system. The B&W Formation Flex costs $450.

|

The Good: The Formation Flex is certainly one of the best-sounding “compact” speakers you can buy right now. In the press release announcing the speaker, B&W claimed that the Flex was “the highest quality sound ever found in a standalone wireless speaker of its size,” and to be honest, I can’t really say much to refute that. It has a decoupled double-dome tweeter (that uses the same technology found in the company’s higher-end 600 series speakers) and a 4-inch woven glass fiber cone bass/midrange driver, both of which have their own dedicated amp and DSP. All this ends up meaning that the Flex delivers a rich and accurate audio experience (which is what B&W speakers are known for), one that sounds best when played at medium to high volumes.

B&W has really nailed down the setup process with its Formation line. In regards to the Flex, specifically, the setup process is almost identically to the latest Sonos speaker (the Move); you just download the app, connect the speaker to Wi-Fi and then – bam – you’re finished. There’s no self-tuning process because, like Apple’s HomePod or the Sonos Move, the Flex has a kind-of dynamic equalizing software, meaning the speaker can autotune itself in realtime for the room it’s in.

If you’ve bought into B&W’s ecosystem, meaning you’ve invested in other Formation speakers, you can do some pretty neat things with the Flex. Although I wasn’t able to test this, you’re able to pair Flex speakers together so they play in a stereo tandem, or you can designate two Flex speakers are rear-channel speakers with the B&W’s Formation Bar (soundbar) and have a 5.1 home theater system. You are able to do the same kind of thing with a Sonos system, with two Sonos Ones (or two Sonos One SLs) and any one of Sonos’s soundbars.

Who It’s For: The Formation Flex is for anybody who wants a beautiful wireless speaker that sounds great – and they’re willing to pay a little over the odds to get it. Obviously, if they’re already invested in B&W’s Formation ecosystem, the Flex makes sense because it’ll pair so easily.

Watch Out For: The Flex is optimized to be a standalone speaker or work in a multiroom audio system with other Formation speakers; even though it technically can play in a multiroom system with other speakers (via AirPlay 2) it’s not going to sound the same. There aren’t any analog connections on the speaker. And despite it looking like a 360-degree speaker, the Flex is not – it’s a forward-firing speaker so it’s going to sound best if it’s facing your direction. Lastly, it’s more expensive than most other speakers that are its size.

Alternatives: The Formation Flex is a powered, front-firing all-in-one speaker, and can be best considered as a high-end version of a Sonos One SL ($179). It’s not a smart speaker, like HomePod, although it’s probably most similar to Apple’s speaker in terms of sound quality. If you want to “go bigger” than the Flex, B&W’s Formation Wedge ($900) is essentially a bigger and better sounding version of the Flex. Also, Naim Audio just released the second-generation of its Mu-so Qb speaker ($899) for those who love high-end speakers with spectacular volume dials.

Verdict: The smallest speaker in Bowers & Wilkins’s new Formation lineup, the Flex, still sounds big. The combination of design, sound quality and price (and lack of a built-in voice assistant) means that the Flex is definitely not your run-of-the-mill entry-level speaker – not everybody is going to buy it. But those who do aren’t going to be blown away with the way it sounds (and looks). Just make sure it’s in an area where you can play it loud.

What Others Are Saying:

• “Voices are very clear and the top end is super open and extended. This little guy sounds like a decent home speaker. The bottom end is what is the most impressive though. Most speakers with this kind of footprint have bass, but it is more of the one-note variety where it is hard to hear tonal differences and is bloated in the midbass.” — N/A, Audio Advice

• “So far, we’re very impressed by the Bowers & Wilkins Formation Flex – it’s incredibly powerful, offers fantastic audio fidelity, and it looks just as good as the other products in the Formation range. Even better, unlike its siblings, it’s not prohibitively expensive, either. Sure, it’s pricey, but it’s a great way to gain entry to the Formation lineup without breaking the bank.” — Olivia Tambini, Tech Radar

Key Specs

Speaker: compact speaker
Drivers: 1-inch decoupled double dome tweeter (1x), 4-inch woven glass fibre cone bass/midrange (1x)
Frequency response: 50Hz to 28kHz
Weight: 5 pounds
Connectivity: Apple AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Roon Ready, Bluetooth aptX HD

|

Bowers & Wilkins provided this product for review.

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

Sennheiser’s Noise-Canceling Headphones Are a Beautiful Blend of Old and New

Sennheiser is one of my favorite audio companies. Its Momentum TW are amoung the best-sounding true wireless earbuds we’ve ever tested. Its 13-speaker beast of a soundbar, the Ambeo Soundbar, sounds simply incredible. And its previous noise-canceling headphones, the Momentum Wireless 2 (also called the HD1 Wireless), were simple-yet-fantastic. Obviously, there’s a catch with all of these products and that’s price. Sennheiser makes high-end audio products and they are accordingly expensive.

That’s a trend that holds true with its latest noise-canceling headphones, the Momentum Wireless 3. Of course, $400 isn’t unheard of when it comes to noise-canceling headphones; Bose and Bowers & Wilkins both released noise-canceling headphones in 2019 that cost $400, while Master & Dynamic’s own MW65 cost $500. The thing with Sennheiser’s new noise-canceling headphones is that they carry the company’s premium sound quality, but maybe more importantly, they don’t look like any other noise-canceling headphones on the market. It also should be noted that they’re decidedly better than Momentum Wireless 2 in almost every way.

The Good: Sennheiser’s second-generation noise-canceling headphones, the Momentum Wireless 2, were decidedly simple. They didn’t have any advanced features and won’t let you adjust the noise-canceling at all (it was always on, whether you liked it or not) – and the new Momentum Wireless 3 are definitely not that. They have optical sensors to automatically play and pause music when you place and remove the headphones on your head. There’s now a companion app that lets you adjust EQ and levels of noise-cancellation, as well as select a virtual assistant. There’s a transparency mode. They charge via USB-C (thank goodness). And then even have a Tile integration to help you find the headphones should you misplace them.

But that doesn’t mean Sennheiser has completely abandoned old-school touches that are still terrific for their simplicity. The headphones still have physical buttons to adjust volume, answer calls and adjust the noise-cancellation. As somebody who dislikes the ambiguity and lack of feedback that comes part and parcel with the swipe gestures you find on the Sony WH-1000M3 or Bose’s Headphones 700, I really appreciate this restraint. And yet the Momentum Wireless 3 still have the new features that I like too, like how they start playing every time I put them on, pause when I take them off and shut off completely when I fold them up. It’s equal parts intuitive and pleasant.

If you’ve ever used Sennheiser’s previous noise-canceling headphones, maybe the biggest upgrade with the new models is comfort. Sennheiser decked the Momentum Wireless 3 with huge, plush leather earcups. Not only does the extra padding make the earbuds a heck of a lot more comfortable – I had no issues wearing them for long stretches during work – but its density also lends itself to passive noise isolating; not as much outside noise gets in, thus these headphones sound better. But as a downside, this extra padding really makes these headphones look big on your head.

As far as sound quality, you can expect the Momentum Wireless 3 to sound as good if not better than most other new noise-canceling headphones. The sound is warm and accurate, but you’re also not getting that incredible soundstage that Bowers & Wilkins headphones are known for. You might like that. You might not. The noise-canceling abilities of these headphones is also pretty top-tier as well, and you can adjust the power of the noise-cancellation within the companion app (there are three different settings).

Who It’s For: Anybody who retro-industrial design of the Momentum Wireless 3 and wants some really great noise-canceling headphones. Of course, as they’re a little bit more expensive, you should be cool with dropping $400 on headphones, too.

Watch Out For: Aside from being on the expensive side, there are just a few things that could affect your purchasing decision. First, there’s no dedicated power button which is a bit strange. If you want to turn the headphones off, you have to fold them up. It’s also not super intuitive to adjust the levels of noise cancellation; you have to switch between the three settings within the app, but there’s no way of immediately adjusting on the actual headphones. Lastly, the claimed 16-hour battery life is on the low end compared to other wireless noise-canceling headphones.

Alternatives: Every audio company these days seems to be throwing its hat in the ring in regards to noise-canceling headphones. That said, these are premium noise-canceling headphones whose main competition is between three other companies: Sony, Bose and Bowers & Wilkins. Sony’s WH-1000XM3 are probably the best all-around choice if you want the best-sounding headphones with the most modern features. Bose’s new Headphones 700 ($400) remain the pick of the bunch for phone calls and overall noise-canceling abilities; while the QuietComfort 35 IIs remain a great and slightly cheaper alternative. And Bowers & Wilkins’s newest headphones, the PX7 ($400), are another premium option.

Verdict: There’s really not too much negative to say about the Sennheiser’s new-and-improved noise-canceling headphones. The Momentum Wireless 3 sound, look and feel great. What these headphones do best, however, is they blend all the new-age features that people want (and weren’t available on Sennheiser’s previous headphones) with the old things that people will want (like buttons!). If you like the industrial design and you’re comfortable forking over $400 on headphones, these headphones are fantastic.

What Others Are Saying:

• “Noise cancellation is really good. It outperforms the Master & Dynamic MW65 when it comes to filtering out midrange and treble frequencies. However, the low-end attenuation isn’t great compared to top competitors like Sony, Bose, and AKG. If you spend a lot of time on rickety trains, you’ll likely prefer the performance of the previously mentioned brands. If you go with Sony or AKG, you’ll save a significant amount of cash, too.” — Lily Katz, Sound Guys

• “The Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 3 are a great and much-needed update to Sennheiser’s high-end wireless headphones. I really like their retro-inspired design, and they’re comfortable to wear. It’s also nice to see Sennheiser experiment with some newer features, even if it doesn’t stick the landing on all of them. Tile support is a nice addition, for example, but I would have really liked to have seen a traditional on / off button in addition to being able to turn them off by collapsing them. If you’ve been holding off on buying the current Sennheiser Momentums because of their slightly dated specs, then the new headphones are a great update.” — Jon Porter, The Verge

• “The weird thing to me, still, is that it took me a few days to love the new Momentum Wireless. If you’re upgrading from the old generation, there’s a little bit of a learning curve, as the new Sennheiser’s are smarter. You will immediately love the sound quality, though. If you’re looking for serious noise-canceling headphones, the new Momentums might impress you less than the latest Sony or Bose headphones. If you’re on a bit of a budget, you can save $100 or so by getting the Jabra Elite 85h, which offer a lot of the same features as the new Sennheisers. But if you just want the best all-around wireless headphones, look no further than the Momentum Wireless. They’re simply majestic.” — Adam Clark Estes, Gizmodo

Key Specs

Drivers: N/A
Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0
Charging Port:: USB-C
Battery Life: 16 hours
Key features: Sennheiser Smart Control app, Transparency mode, Tile integration

Sennheiser provided this product for review.

Read More Gear Patrol Reviews

Hot takes and in-depth reviews on noteworthy, relevant and interesting products. Read the Story
Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

Is This the Perfect Entry-Level Smartwatch?

Last fall, Fitbit released the Fitbit Versa – and I loved it. It was a simple-to-use smartwatch that was slim and bespoke, relatively affordable, an excellent fitness tracker and it had a battery life that lasted nearly a week. It was a great entry-level smartwatch for basically anybody, but especially casual smartwatch wearers, and it worked equally well with both iPhone and Android.

The next generation of that smartwatch, the Versa 2, doesn’t mess too much with last year’s success. It has the same relative look and feel of the original Versa, but Fitbit updated in nearly every way. It has an even simpler design, a better processor, a new OLED display (a welcome improvement over the Versa’s LCD display), and improved sleep tracking. The most “touted” new feature is the addition of Alexa integration, so you can tell the smartwatch to do things like set alarms and control your other compatible smart home devices. Lastly is price: the Versa 2 comes exactly the same as last year’s Versa.

|

The Good: The Versa 2 is a better entry-level smartwatch than last year’s Versa, which is something you’d both expect and welcome. The two most important upgrades are that the Versa two now has an always-on display (if you select it) and superior sleep tracking feature, called Sleep Score, which gives you a nice little rating out of 100 – the higher the number, the better your sleep. If you’re fine wearing a smartwatch to bed and you want to track your sleep, the Versa 2 is exactly what you want.

As was true with the Versa, a huge selling point of the Versa 2 is its battery life. If you elect to not have an always-on display (it’s off by default) the Versa 2 can last around five days on a single charge; if you have the always-on display, it lasts around three days. Either way, this battery life which is huge, especially when you consider an Apple Watch lasts roughly 18 hours and is not designed to wear while you’re sleeping.

There are two other big reasons to buy a Versa 2. First, it’s solid and intuitive fitness-tracking abilities. It has an always-on heart-rate monitor and can accurately track things like steps and calories. It also, like the Apple Watch, has automatic workout detection, so if you forget to start a walk, run, bike ride or pool workout, the smartwatch won’t skip a beat. And secondly, the Versa 2 is very slim and lightweight, and it’s one of the most comfortable smartwatches that I’ve ever worn.

Who It’s For: The Versa 2 is an entry-level smartwatch designed for anybody who wants a good fitness tracker with some smartwatch-y features (like see call and text notifications, and control music). If you’re somebody who wants to keep track of your sleeping, the Versa 2 is particularly good. It works equally well for iPhone and Android users.

Watch Out For: The new Alexa integration might come as a welcome addition for some, but it really shouldn’t be the main reason to buy this smartwatch. The fact is that most people don’t really need (or want) to talk to Alexa when they’re outside the house. Also, talking to Alexa on the Versa 2 isn’t like talking to Siri on the Apple Watch. For instance, you can’t tell Alexa to send text messages, open certain apps or even play/pause music; all it can do is answer specific queries (“Alexa, what’s the weather?”), set timers and alarms, and control some of your connected smart home gadgets. The other thing is that there’s no speaker, so you won’t be able to hear Alexa and all its answers will just appear on the screen – it’s far from a seamless experience.

As was true with the Versa, the Versa 2 lacks a dedicated GPS, meaning if you want reliable workout data you’ll have to have your smartphone nearby. This is a big bummer for runners. There’s also no LTE model available for the Versa 2.

There’s a new Spotify app that’s available on the Versa 2, which isn’t available on the Versa, but it’s not super helpful. Like with the Apple Watch, the Spotify app on the Versa 2 doesn’t let you download anything (playlists, albums, songs, podcasts) for offline listening. If you’re a Spotify Premium subscriber, only a select few Garmin and Samsung smartwatches do this.

Also, the Versa 2 still comes with a proprietary charger. The annoying thing is that it looks and feels just like the proprietary charger that came with the original Versa, which I didn’t like to begin with, but it’s actually not the same and won’t work with previous Versa smartwatches. I still have and use my Versa, and mixed up the chargers on several occasions, which was obviously frustrating.

Alternatives: Fitbit has a right to feel frustrated after the latest Apple hardware announcements. That’s because, in addition to announcing new high-end Apple Watches, Apple also dramatically reduced the price of its two-year-old smartwatch – you can now buy an Apple Watch Series 3 for $200, which is the exact price of the Fitbit Versa 2. Basically, if you have an iPhone and you want an entry-level smartwatch that works well with it, the Series 3 is probably a better bet.

Verdict: The Versa 2 is a better version of last year’s Versa, which was the best entry-level smartwatch for most people, Android or iPhone owner, who just wanted an easy-to-use smartwatch to track fitness. A year later, the Versa 2’s main problem is that there’s more competition, especially within its $200 price range. The Versa 2’s best qualities are its 5-day battery life, its great fitness and sleep tracking, and it’s super-slim design. If you those things are important to you, then the Versa 2 remains one of the best – if not the best – entry-level smartwatches you can buy. However, the reality is that the Versa 2 will feel more like a glorified fitness tracker than an actual smartwatch, especially if you have an iPhone or Samsung smartphone.

What Others Are Saying:

• “If you’re not wedded to Fitbit’s platform, the Versa 2 is a harder sell when you compare it with other $200 smartwatches, such as the Samsung Galaxy Watch Active and the Apple Watch Series 3, which both have GPS, onboard music storage and contactless payments. One feature that could set the Versa 2 apart is Fitbit’s new subscription service, but it will take a lot to convince me to spend $80 more per year. Still, the Versa 2 is a very good fitness-focused smartwatch that offers plenty of insights into your overall health, subscription or not.” — Mike Prospero, Tom’s Guide

• “Overall, the Versa 2’s fitness tracking features are the best and most comprehensive you’ll find on any smartwatch, even though it doesn’t have a dedicated GPS radio and relies on your phone for GPS tracking.” — Dan Seifert, The Verge

• “If not for its connectivity problems, the Versa 2 would be an excellent smartwatch. It offers accurate, comprehensive fitness features and a nice design for a reasonable price. It’s also one of the longest-lasting smartwatches around, while the Alexa integration makes it more useful than its predecessor. I just wish Fitbit would get its Bluetooth act together already, and give me a better OS.” — Cherlynn Low, Engadget

Key Specs

Display: 300 x 300 pixel touchscreen AMOLED
Water resistance: swimproof; up to 50 meters
Sensors: 3-axis accelerometer, optical heart rate monitor, altimeter, ambient light sensor, vibration motor, NFC
Battery life: 5 days; ~3 days with always-on display

|

Fitbit provided this product for review.

Read More Gear Patrol Reviews

Hot takes and in-depth reviews on noteworthy, relevant and interesting products. Read the Story
Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.