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2020 Airstream Caravel Review: A Small-Scale Return to Form

The 2020 Caravel is a new addition to the Airstream stable, though founder Wally Byam first used the name for his trailers in 1956. Those original Caravels, with a moniker that pays homage to a speedy style of Portuguese ship, were created by Byam and Co. as a showcase for lightweight, compact design. The 2020 version of the trailer continues the tradition.

The Caravel, which comes in lengths of 16, 19, 20 and 22 feet, offers space to sleep four, a galley with two gas burners and a sink, a bathroom with shower and a dining area that converts into a second bed. This trailer fits into the Airstream line as a similarly-sized-but-more-premium version of the venerated, entry-level Bambi, while slotting below the larger Flying Cloud and Classic. The Caravel is $12,000 more than the Bambi, but it offers a host of features that the latter does not: panoramic windows, an electric hitch jack, a ducted climate system and 3.5 more inches of interior height, to name a few.

The Good: The 2020 Caravel has tremendous curb appeal. The exterior oozes class, thanks to shiny, unblemished aluminum wrapper. Where other trailers are cloaked in quickly-dated, multicolor graphics, Airstream only shows rivets and a couple tasteful badges. Beyond its looks, it’s easy to maneuver and tow. Even after a winding, 50-mile drive on a two-lane mountain road, I still had the energy to back the trailer into several different camping spots, just to test the views.

Who It’s For: Someone who loves weekend camping trips and the premium name and classic look of an Airstream, but isn’t quite gearing up for their retirement rig just yet.

Watch Out For: The all-electric fridge cools more quickly than previous gas absorption models, but it also mercilessly drains the battery if you’re camping without hookups. And the awnings can be a bit of a pain to latch, unlatch and roll out; the safety locks on my trailer had wedged themselves stuck into a closed position at some point, and I even clumsily drew a little blood trying to unlatch the arms of the awning.

Alternatives: Airstream’s revered name and reputation for quality means they can effectively set their own price in the industry. Still, other companies are building trailers with an eye towards the influx of younger, more active buyers. Other compact premium travel trailers include the Winnebago Micro Minnie ($23,845+) and the Oliver Legacy Elite I ($47,900+).

Review: The RV industry has tripled in size over the last decade as it’s rebounded from the rock bottom of the Great Recession, and perhaps no company has benefited more from this era of growth than Airstream. In that time, the 86-year-old trailer maker has grown from 200 employees to 1,000, reversed a 60% downward sales trend into a 210% upswing and begun construction on a brand new production facility in Jackson Center, Ohio

It makes sense, then, that Airstream has continued to churn out new models and redefine their product line, especially in regards to smaller trailers. The company is taking aim at first-time buyers and nomadic workers who desire compact, mobile, connected luxury. They launched the Basecamp in 2016 and the Nest in 2019 — both imaginatively-designed, forward-thinking, 16-foot trailers priced under $50,000.  “Small is the new big,” Airstream CEO Bob Wheeler told Bloomberg last year. “Millennials are interested in the less intimidating, easier-to-use models.”

With this in mind, the 2020 Caravel was born. It’s a middle child, offering inherited bits from its forebears in the product line. It shares the iconic “silver bullet” exterior styling of the $153,000 Classic, but compressed into a 16-foot package. It has the efficient interior layout of the company’s most popular line, the Bambi, but with added luxuries like a ducted climate system and panoramic windows. The Caravel is not cheap, but it provides approachable, convenient and unfussy access to adventure just the same. 

So it was when I took the trailer out on a summer Friday, towing the 16-foot Airstream Caravel up the two-lane Angeles Crest Highway snaking high into the San Gabriel mountains. I was underway on a weekend mission to get off the grid and out of Los Angeles, barely visible through the smog some 5,000 feet below me.

I was trying to spend the weekend as a statistic, embodying these RV industry trends I’d read so much about. I knew 45% of Airstream buyers in 2018 were purchasing a trailer for the first time. Further, I knew these buyers are skewing younger than in the past, and they’re gravitating to the convenience of the compact, moderately-priced models like Basecamp, Nest and Bambi — or now, the Caravel —  while leaving top-of-the-line six-figure RVs for the well-heeled retirement set. Airstream is modernizing, catering to changing tastes and gauging the feasibility of turning Instagram likes into trailer fans who actually #LiveRiveted instead of just searching it.

The Caravel fits the bill on at least one critical component: it was a complete breeze to tow. My tow vehicle, the GMC Sierra AT4, was a great match for the trailer and immensely capable, but it’s also a testament to the aerodynamic design and build of the Caravel that I felt completely comfortable on the winding 50-mile ascent and descent deep into the Angeles National Forest. Further, I meandered through the narrow fingers of my campground with ease, worrying little about my turning radius. 

Some longer Airstream models I’ve tested, like the 22-foot Bambi, are prone to swaying on the road. Not so with the Caravel, which seemed to tuck in tightly behind the Sierra for the whole drive. I had a similar sensation when testing the Nest. 16 feet seems to be a sweet spot for trailer length. This towability makes the Caravel an attractive option for an urbanite looking to leave town on a quick weekend jaunt. Even maneuvering down residential avenues and into a suburban Los Angeles shopping center upon my return proved to be unstressful, due to the slim dimensions of the trailer. 

Once settled at camp, the Caravel was a welcome companion, serving up all the shelter, cooking and bathroom amenities needed. Still, I was left with a few quibbles that might frustrate me if I had forked over $61,000 for the trailer. The all-electric fridge is intended as an upgrade — it offers quicker cooling than the gas absorption fridge found in other models — but it quickly depletes the battery when camping unless you’re plugged in. Even with the Caravel’s solar charging capabilities and the trailer parked in bright sunlight, the fridge couldn’t stay for the duration of this 48-hour trip, even when my only other drains on the battery were a fan and 30 minutes of stereo use. (Of course, this could easily be remedied by bringing along a generator, camping at a location with hookups or even running your car for a bit with the trailer attached.)

My second minor quibble: the awnings are a bit of a pain to latch and unlatch. The safety locks stick, and the screw points will pinch your fingers if you’re not careful. The 2019 Nest has an automatic awning with LED lights; why pay $20,000 more for the Caravel and lose a convenient feature?

Yet while those criticisms about the Caravel stuck out to me as a reviewer, they didn’t much bother me as a camper. The core objective was to be outside, and to get there quickly and easily. 72 hours later — after the trailer was returned to the Airstream dealership, and I’m back at the computer, listening to honking traffic outside — I’m still thinking about the view from the bed of the Caravel on Saturday morning. 

Verdict: The Caravel is ideal for urban dwellers seeking a regular, easy weekend escape from a sprawling metropolis to the low-key pleasures of nature.

2020 Airstream Caravel 16-Foot Key Specs

Weight:  3,200 pounds
Sleeping Capacity: 4 adults
Fresh Water Capacity: 23 gallons
Interior Height: 6 feet, 8 inches
Exterior Weight: 8.0 feet

Airstream provided this product for review.

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Review: These Are the Only Noise-Canceling Wireless Earbuds You Should Buy

The Sony WF-1000XM3 ($228+) are the company’s newest true wireless earbuds and they’re really the first serious true wireless earbuds to have active noise cancellation. Sony’s previous true wireless earbuds, the Sony WF-SP700N ($178), were also marketed as “noise canceling” but the problem was that their noise-canceling wasn’t that good. That on top of connectivity issues reported by some users. The Sony WF-1000XM3 are an entirely different breed, however; they’re part of the company’s 1000X line, which includes the hugely popular Sony WH-1000XM3, and Sony has basically taken all the abilities and features from those noise-canceling headphones and put them in a wireless earbud. They are available in black or silver.

Sony has never been great with product names – too many numbers – so forgive yourself if you confuse the WH-1000XM3 and WF-1000XM3. Here’s what you need to know: “WH” stands for wireless headphones and “WF” stands for “wireless free.” That’s it.

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The Good: The Sony WF-1000XM3 are the only true wireless earbuds available right now that have noise-canceling abilities worth their salt. And those noise-canceling abilities aren’t just good, they’re actually great. Over the past few weeks, they’ve been super helpful blocking out ambient noise while commuting on the subway, as well as blocking outside conversations while at the office. Obviously, the first job of any headphones or earbuds is to sound good, and the Sony WF-1000XM3 sound fantastic: clear mids and highs, and bass that can punch. If you want to tweak the EQ, it’s quite easy using Sony’s companion app.

Are Sony’s New Noise-Cancelling Wireless Earbuds Airpod Killers?

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The brand-new processor inside the SOny WF-1000XM3 is what enables its great noise-cancelling but it also enables something called “adaptive sound control.” There are three preset modes that you can switch between by tapping the left earbud – noise-canceling on, adaptive sound control on, and both off – and with adaptive sound control turned on, the Sony WF-1000XM3 automatically adjust the noise-canceling settings depending on your activity and the ambient noise around you. For instance, if you’re walking, it will let ambient noises in so you can hear your surroundingss. Or if you’re constantly standing up and sitting down, the earbuds will switch over to “transport mode” and make sure the noise canceling is at full 100 percent. I had fun experimenting with adaptive sound control but ultimately I like to have noise-canceling turned on all the time, and so I spent most of my time in standard noise-cancelling mode.

The Sony WF-1000XM3 lifted many of the best and most modern features from the Sony WH-1000XM3, too. The wireless earbuds have intuitive swipe controls on each earbud. The optical sensors in each earbud so the music will play/pause every time to put in or remove an earbud (you can turn this feature off via the app). There’s a conversation mode – if you hold/press the left earbud, it lets ambient sounds in – so you can have quick conversations with somebody without removing an earbud. And they charge via USB-C. Additionally, the battery life is maybe the best of any true wireless earbuds out there; each earbud gets around six hours, but the charging case adds an extra 24 hours with noise-canceling turned on.

Who It’s For: Anybody that wants premium wireless earbuds with the best noise-canceling abilities. If you like Sony’s WH-1000XM3, but want them in a wireless earbud form, the Sony WF-1000XM3 are exactly that.

Watch Out For: These are premium wireless earbuds and their price reflects that: at $230, they fall between AirPods ($159) and Powerbeats Pro ($250). They’re not water-resistant and the design of each earbud makes them stick out of your ear; basically, it’s not recommended to run or exercise while wearing these. The charging case is rather large and not really pocket-friendly. There’s no swipe gesture on the earbuds to adjust volume, meaning to lower or raise the volume you have to take out your smartphone or use Google Assistant. There’s no way adjusting the noise-canceling levels via the mobile app (the settings when in adaptive sound control mode are preset).

Alternatives: The Sony WF-1000XM3 are really the only noise-canceling wireless earbuds on the market right now. Bose will be releasing its own variants, the Bose Noise Cancelling Earbuds 700, but those won’t be available until sometime in 2020. If you don’t care about true wireless, Bose’s QuietComfort 30 ($299) are wireless “neckbuds” with excellent noise cancellation.

Verdict: Sony has brought the sound quality, noise cancellation ability and the best features from its WH-1000XM3 over-ear headphones, and packed them into a pair of true wireless earbuds. They’re on the expensive side, for sure, and you probably aren’t going to exercise with them, but the Sony WF-1000XM3 are some of the best wireless earbuds you can buy. Especially if you want to block out all other noises around you.

What Others Are Saying:

• “The WF-1000XM3 sound fantastic, fit securely and comfortably, and have some fun, touch-based features that make them easy to use. And their active noise canceling is so effective that it’s starting to scare my family. Last night, I blocked out an episode of Paw Patrol, then removed a bud when I saw my preschooler’s lips moving. She asked, “Mommy? Are you wearing the things you wear when you don’t want to hear us?” — Adrienne So, Wired

• “Sony’s true wireless WF-1000XM3 earphones deliver excellent noise cancellation and powerful audio performance with the ability to adjust the EQ. The Google Assistant inclusion seems like an afterthought, and not a terribly unique one at that. This, along with the lack of ANC control in the Sony app and the frustrating on-ear controls, diminish the allure of what is otherwise a great product. The noise cancellation is strong enough, however, that the earphones are still worth considering if true wireless ANC is your top priority.” — Tim Gideon, PCMag

• “Bass-heavy genres sound superb with the WF-1000XM3, too. The low-end tone is big and boomy, but it’s never too much. This means the pounding heavy metal drums of Gojira’s The Way of All Flesh don’t drown out intricate finger tapping and other guitar riffs. It’s rather chaotic music, sure, but the WF-1000XM3 keeps everything organized, and each instrument stands on its own.” — Billy Steele, Engadget

Key Specs

Driver: 0.24-inch dome driver
Frequency response: 20Hz – 20kHz
Battery: 6 hours per earbud; up to 24 hours of battery life total with ANC turned on (with case)
Charging port: USB-C
Key features: noise-canceling, adaptive sound control, Quick Attention, works with Google Assistant

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Sony provided this product for review.

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2020 Subaru Outback Review: Hitting All the Right Notes

For decades now, Subaru’s Outback has been a reliable, durable and capable option for outdoorsy types who want something smaller and nimbler than an SUV, and the latest generation continues to carry that flag. The 2020 Outback is better in every meaningful way, without giving in to bloat or erosion of character — a common trap many carmakers’ favored models fall into. It’s also more efficient, better-looking and smarter than its predecessor, and just as fun. Most critically: It’s still the kind of car you can see yourself getting dirty, bashing around and sleeping in should the need arise.

The Good: As a non-fan of the continuously variable transmission (CVT) — the kind that dispenses with gears in favor of a sliding range of ratios — I found myself surprised by how much I didn’t notice this one. That’s a good thing. CVTs are typically limp and high-revving, but Subaru’s new Lineartronic mimics an eight-speed gearbox nicely. Also, the car’s optional vertical infotainment display is a nice bit of modernization, while the Onyx XT trim delivers a cool and distinctive visual look, as well as a full-sized spare tire at enthusiasts’ request (lest they bust a tire on the trail and have to limp out on a donut).

Speaking of: the Outback’s off-road chops remain terrific. I did things with this I’d never attempt in anything short of a Wrangler, honestly.

Who It’s For: Though a virtual afterthought in terms of global carmaker market share — a stat the company is fighting to improve — Subaru maintains a devoted following among about as wide a collection of audiences a company could hope for. You have the flat-brimmed import tuners who lust for the tightly-wound WRX STI, the crusty New England salts who relish a good snowstorm to show off their Imprezas’ prowess, and the newest members of the fold: the hardcore overland crowd that mods Outbacks and Crosstreks for maximum roof-tent off-road-ability.

The Outback will still appeal to the faithful Subaru fans, and Outback aficionados in particular — but it should also be given a good look by those weighing crossovers and SUVs. This is one of the most capable cars on the road (and trail), and it deserves a bigger slice of the pie.

Watch Out For: The CVT. Though I praised it above, and it is barely noticeable, there are times when the precision of actual gear selection comes in handy, particularly while off-roading. If you want to linger in a gear while grinding up a hill or force it down to a specific ratio to muscle over an obstacle, there’s comfort in doing things by the numbers. Also, no CVT on Earth can really be described as peppy. But most people won’t notice these deficiencies, so it’s generally an acceptable compromise for average drivers.

Alternatives: When it comes to off-roadable wagons, there isn’t much. The Audi A4 Allroad is certainly competitive, but it’s far pricier. Otherwise, you have to look at the likes of the Honda CR-V and the Ford Escape. These are perfectly excellent crossovers, but they don’t have quite the ground clearance or the overall off-road-ability that the Subie brings to the table.

Review: During a media presentation at the car’s launch in Mendocino, California — closer to Oregon than the Bay Area– company reps showed a timeline of the model’s progress through the years. The Outback is now in its sixth generation after being launched in 1994, with a little help from everyone’s favorite Aussie, Crocodile Dundee (a.k.a. Paul Hogan).

His involvement faded after the vehicle’s debut years, since it proved virtually an immediate hit amongst those resisting SUVs but still hankering for their capability. The newest edition is, of course, larger and pricier than the first-gen, but not by much. (The new one is also only $300 more expensive than its predecessor.) It’s still an Outback at heart, something Subaru should be commended for.

This time out, you do get more for your money, as Subaru’s engineers have taken steps to modernize their flagship’s offerings. It still has the requisite Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system, as well as the X-Mode dynamic control system (which includes hill descent control) and the recently-added EyeSight driver-assist system. Added into the mix now, though, is a spacious 11.6-inch infotainment screen, a distraction-monitoring system to ensure your attention isn’t wandering and a front-view monitor ideal for inspecting terrain on the trail or more mundane tasks such as parking.

Mendocino sits at the southern end of what’s known as the Lost Coast, a region of remote, largely-unpopulated California too steep and inhospitable for much development, including roads. In fact, the famed S.R.1 — the Pacific Coast Highway — cuts sharply inland right there and hooks up with US 101 north, effectively ending the coastal experience.

We got a sense of that inhospitable terrain during some off-roading in the hills in and around the region’s redwood trees, included a shallow water crossing, plenty of rocky terrain, and most notably some steep switchbacks that arced menacingly upward and backwards. Yet the Outback managed them all without breaking a sweat, and with barely any wheelspin, either. The only time we did encounter trouble was in a dip in the trail that the car could become stuck in if you don’t hit it with some momentum. But when that did happen, simply staying on the throttle helped power out of with no trouble. X-Mode managed the traction and downhill speed predictably and reliably.

Back on the road, the car continued to show its strengths — as well as a few weaknesses. It’s quieter than the previous model to the tune of three decibels thanks to sound-insulated glass and new weather-stripping, and its new lane-centering system works very well, helping minimize fatigue and momentary lapses on longer drives. Its newly-retuned suspension helps absorb the steady sway of the coastal roads, with MacPherson struts and a new 23mm hollow stabilizer bar up front and a double-wishbone rear layout.

But where the suspension wins, the engines mostly fizzle. Even the turbocharged 260-hp engine felt a bit uninspired, perhaps due (again) to the CVT to which it was mated. The 182-hp non-turbocharged 2.5-liter engine gets the job done, but little more. Both have grunt, make no mistake, as evidenced by their ability to tackle steep dirt-track ascents — but on the highway, the thing just doesn’t sing. Of course, the car hits so many other notes just right that it can be forgiven for not being a dragster.

Verdict: The 2020 Subaru Outback is a solid improvement that doesn’t compromise the model’s not-insignificant legacy. The CVT is its weakest point, and it’s barely even that. When you take this car off-road, though, scrambling up hairpin turns along craggy two-tracks, it truly comes into its own — and you realize what a scrappy champ this thing is. Over the years, the Outback has filled a niche in a way that essentially no manufacturer has, save for occasional premium wagons like the Audi Allroad — and it looks like it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

2020 Subaru Outback Key Specs

Powertrain:  2.5-liter boxer-four / 2.4-liter turbocharged boxer-four; continuously-variable transmission; all-wheel-drive
Horsepower: 182 / 260
Torque: 176 /277
Cargo Capacity: 3.25 cubic feet (75.7 with rear seat lowered)
Fuel Economy: 25 mpg city / 30 mpg highway (2.5-liter); 23 mpg city / 30 mpg highway (2.4-liter turbo)

Subaru hosted us and provided this product for review.

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Review: Sonos’s $99 Speaker Is A No-Brainer Buy for Most People

Sonos doesn’t make furniture and Ikea doesn’t make speakers. Well, at least that used to be true. The two companies have partnered on the Symfonisk collection — which means “symphony” in Swedish – consisting of two Wi-Fi speakers: the Symfonisk Bookshelf Speaker ($99) and the Symfonisk Table Lamp ($179).

Both speakers work exactly like any other Sonos speaker. You set them up using the Sonos app, group them with other Sonos speakers or have them as standalone speakers and accurately tune them for the room they’re in using Trueplay. Neither of the Symfonisk speakers is “smart,” meaning they don’t have microphones and aren’t integrated with Alexa or Google Assistant (like a Sonos One or Sonos Beam). Since the Bookshelf Speaker is only $99, it’s technically the cheapest Sonos speaker you can buy.

Ikea will exclusively sell both Symfonisk speakers. You can purchase on Ikea’s website or at an Ikea store. Sonos does not sell them, nor will any third-party sellers like Amazon.

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The Good: If you’re familiar with any Sonos speaker, then you should have no problem setting up or using either Symfonisk speaker – they work exactly the same. As far as how to compare them with other Sonos speakers, you should think of each Symfonisk speaker as a Play:1; neither has a built-in voice assistant, and you can configure two together in a stereo pair or as rear channel speakers in a home theater setup with any of Sonos’s soundbars.

The Table Lamp is basically a Play:1 speaker with a lamp on top. It has the same guts (mid-woofer, tweeter and dual Class-D digital amplifiers) as the Play:1 and it sounds basically identical. The Bookshelf Speaker doesn’t quite live up to the sound quality — the midrange and highs are slightly more blurred – but Sonos is also open about this fact; a huge chunk of why the Bookshelf Speaker is the cheapest speaker that Sonos has ever made is because it’s not quite as good of a speaker. That said, the Bookshelf Speaker is really meant to be played in stereo pair with another Bookshelf Speaker – like a pair of actual bookshelf speakers – and if you buy a pair it comes out to be pretty much the same price as a Sonos One ($99).

While Sonos brought the sound, Ikea brought the design (and the manufacturing capabilities to keep the price low). Both the Symfonisk speakers are designed to look like home furnishings, not specifically speakers. While the Table Lamp pulls this off more convincingly – it looks like a contemporary-designed lamp and isn’t immediately identifiable as a speaker – the Bookshelf Speaker has a trick up its sleeve: It can be mounted horizontally on the wall and work as an actual bookshelf, meaning it can support the weight of several actual books.

Both Symfonisk speakers have old-school mechanical buttons on them, just like the original Play:1 or Play:5, so you can play/pause or change the volume without having to touch your smartphone or speaker to a virtual assistant (if you’ve configured the Symfonisk speaker with a Google Home, Echo or Sonos One smart speaker.

Who It’s For: The Bookshelf Speaker is designed for anybody who loves Sonos speakers and wants to build out their existing system for cheap, or somebody that wants the most affordable entry point into Sonos. The Table Lamp is for people who want a speaker that blends right into their home, meaning it doesn’t specifically look like a speaker.

Watch Out For: With the Symfonisk Table Lamp, the design won’t be for everybody and even though the base looks like a HomePod ($299), it’s nowhere near the build quality; it’s basically a “sock” that’s been slipped on the base, and if you manhandle it too much, its woven patterns can be easily manipulated and will look frustratingly uneven. Also, the Table Lamp does not come with a light bulb – you have to purchase your own. The light is only 7-watts and isn’t actually very bright.

The Symfonisk Bookshelf speaker doesn’t come with proper brackets and screws to mount it. That all has to be purchased separately, but it’s not that expensive: a vertical mount costs $5 and a horizontal mount (complete with a pad that lays on top of the speaker) costs around than $10.

Lastly, both Symfonisk speakers are front-firing, not 360-degree (omni-directional) like a HomePod or an Amazon Echo, so they’re designed to be placed near a wall or corner (as opposed to the middle of the room). The Table Lamp specifically looks like a 360-degree speaker, but it is not.

Alternatives: It’s easiest to compare the Symfonisk speakers to other Sonos speakers…because that’s essentailly what they are. The Table Lamp is the exact same speaker as Sonos’s Play:1 ($149), but the addition of the lamp adds $20 to the MSRP. The Bookshelf speaker is most similar to the Play:1, too, although most people will probably buy two so they can turn it into a stereo pair for less than $200.

Verdict: The Symfonisk collaboration between Ikea and Sonos is super interesting because, well, it’s a no-brainer for both parties. For Ikea, who has never had an audio product, it makes sense because sound in the home is becoming more and more important. And it makes sense for Sonos because they can explore that “low-end” market in a way they’ve been able to before. The resulting speakers are a slam dunk.

The Bookshelf Speaker is the perfect gateway into Sonos, and will undoubtedly make a great gift this holiday (or even for returning students). The Table Lamp is a bit more niche; it’s designed for people who want their speaker to disappear into their home, but they also have to like the look of the Table Lamp, which might look strange placed in less contemporary homes. As far as sound quality and ease of use, though, you really can’t go wrong with a Sonos speaker at these low prices.

What Others Are Saying:

• “The Ikea Symfonisk speakers are, at their core, Sonos speakers. But they’re also less expensive than other Sonos speakers, and they are designed to function as both speakers and sleek-looking home furnishings (even if the latter isn’t really achieved—the lamp isn’t my style). But I can tell you I would immediately go buy two of the Symfonisk bookshelf speakers if I didn’t already have a few Sonos speakers in my home. And they would take up even less space than the Sonos speakers that I do already have..” — Lauren Goode, Wired

• “But the biggest upside to the bookshelf is its $99 price. This is a product that could very well introduce a generation of college students to Sonos and the convenience of wireless, multiroom audio. At the price, I think you’re getting satisfactory sound. The challenge here is finding a direct comparison for the bookshelf speaker. A $100 Bluetooth speaker? The standard Amazon Echo? I think it out-performs both of those options..” — Chris Welch, The Verge

• “For the biggest sound nerds out there, who have outfitted their home with the $400 Sonos soundbar and several Play:1s, these are going to be a little lower quality. But, comparing one Symfonisk to a Play:1 shows just how good the Symfonisk sound is. The volume is easily enough to fill a room, even a small apartment. Pair a few together, and you have a pretty solid stereo system.” — Hadley Keller, House Beautiful

Key Specs

Symfonisk Bookshelf Speaker

Drivers: one tweeter, mid-woofer, two class-D digital amplifiers
Works With: Spotify Connect, AirPlay 2, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa
Colors: charcoal or white

Symfonisk Table Lamp

Drivers: one tweeter, mid-woofer, two class-D digital amplifiers
Works With: Spotify Connect, AirPlay 2, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa
Colors: charcoal or white

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Sonos and Ikea provided this product for review.

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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.

Bose’s New Noise-Canceling Headphones Are Almost Perfect

The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 ($400) are the company’s new flagship noise-canceling headphones, stealing that mantel from the QuietComfort 35 II ($349). They represent a pretty big change for Bose. Not only do they look drastically different from any of Bose’s headphones (some would argue that a design makeover has been long overdue), but they also can do some pretty different things.

Thanks to a new digital signal processor, completely new audio drivers, and new eight-microphone system, the Headphones 700 have an all-new transparency mode. Plus they’ve been engineered to make phone calls, for both you and the person on the other line, sound as clear as possible. The Headphones 700 have adopted other modern features, like on-earcup swipe controls, USB-C charging and Bluetooth 5.0, which the QuietComfort 35 II still lack. That said, these improvements/differences come at a price – which is $400.

A note on the name: The long name of the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 has resulted in many reviews calling the headphones by different names. I’ve seen them be called the Bose 700, the Bose NC700 and the Bose Headphones 700. Bose’s website even occationally calls them the Bose “Smart” Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. For the remainder of this review, we’ll be referring to them as the Headphones 700.

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The Good: Bose’s line of QuietComfort headphones have always been known for two things: 1) being great for travel because they are exceptionally lightweight and comfortable, and 2) being exceptionally good at blocking out the noise. And while the Headphones 700 technically aren’t QuietComfort’s, they certainly take after that line’s best features. Even with the redesign, the Headphones 700s are extremely lightweight and comfortable, especially with the new cushioned headband, and I’m guessing most people will be able to wear them for hours without any ear fatigue. The noise-canceling is maybe even a bit better than the QuietComfort 35 II, which is already great.

A major selling point of these headphones is the way they perform when taking phone calls – any business traveler or somebody who spends a lot of time on the phone while wearing headphones will absolutely love these. It’s true that there are a number of wireless over-ear headphones that can do call clarity pretty well, but the Bose Headphones 700 are on another level; they’re especially good in noisy environments, like a Starbucks in the morning or in Penn Station at rush hour. The secret is its beamform-array of microphones, which is able to separate your voice from the noise around, no matter how loud, and make sure you sound great to whomever you’re talking to. They might not even be able to tell you’re in a noisy environment.

Its advanced microphones are able to create a transparency mode — Bose calls it a “conversation mode” – that’s unlike any other. When you hold down the noise-cancellation button on the left earcup, it pauses the audio, turns off the noise-cancellation and amplifies the ambient noise around you. It’s neat because if somebody quickly comes up and talks to you, you can hold the button down and your conversation will sound as if you weren’t wearing any headphones. Your voice doesn’t sound different, even to you, where other headphones can make your voice sound muffled or Darth Vader-esque.

Another great thing with the Headphones 700 is that unlike previous Bose headphones, they can connect to two devices at the same time. For instance, you can be listening to audio on your laptop and then when you get a call on your smartphone, the music will automatically stop and you can answer (or decline) the call with a quick tap on the headphones.

Who It’s For: Anybody who wants wireless headphones with arguably the best noise cancellation. They’re great headphones for frequent travelers because they’re lightweight and comfortable. But really these are the perfect headphones for business professionals know spend a lot of time on the phone while wearing headphones.

Watch Out For: The Bose Headphones 700 have so much “good” going for them that, oddly, pointing out the negative things were actually pretty easy. If you don’t like having swipe controls on the earcups, because maybe you tend to touch or adjust your headphones quite often, you might get frustrated by these. The Headphones 700’s rigid headband prevents them from folding as compactly as the QuietComfort 35 II, so even though they fold flat, you probably won’t find them as packable. And they are expensive; at $400, the Headphones 700 are definitely in the premium bracket for noise-canceling headphones.

Alternatives: The Sony WH-1000M3 ($349) and the Bose QuietComfort 35 II ($349) are the two most main competitors to the Headphones 700. Both are more affordable and both have noise-canceling abilities of both are near the same level. The Sony WH-1000M3 have similar modern features, like swipe controls and USB-C charging, while the QuietComfort 35 II offer a similar combo of comfort and sound quality.

Verdict: The Bose Headphones 700 are tremendous wireless noise-canceling headphones. The new design and modern features are welcome changes, especially because Bose hasn’t compromised on comfort (a defining feature of the QuietComfort). The voice pickup and call clarity are really category-defining, and it makes the Headphones 700 the instant best option for business professionals and anybody who spends a lot of time on the phone. That said, the improvements in sound quality and noise-cancellation aren’t so significant over the Sony WH-1000M3 or the Bose QuietComfort 35 II; people that don’t spend much time simultaneously wearing headphones and chatting on the phone – they should have no qualms about going the “cheaper” route.

What Others Are Saying:

• “As you might expect, the Bose 700 are excellent noise cancelers, but what you might not expect is that the noise-canceling effectiveness is slightly different than what is offered with the QC 35 II. What I noticed is that the 700 seem to cancel out more of the static high-frequency sounds than prior models. I can see this working well for air travel in that it will cancel more of the hiss you hear from a plane’s ventilation system.” — Caleb Denison, Digital Trends

• “These headphones aren’t your daddy’s Bose. The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 have raised the bar for active noise-canceling headphones. The eight mics effectively silence outside noise while simultaneously allowing you to clearly be heard, whether you’re talking to someone on the phone or cueing up a digital assistant. The 700s don’t skimp on audio quality either, offering clean, balanced sound with some impressive, intuitive tech flourishes. The adjustable noise cancellation keeps things quiet without adding distortion to your music, and the Full Transparency mode is similarly impressive.” — Sherri L. Smith, Tom’s Guide

• “While the Bose 700 headphones don’t beat the Sony WH-1000XM3 at active noise canceling, they still do a great job. This is exactly the upgrade that Bose needed to make and I think doing so has made the Bose 700 headphones the most desirable pair of ANC cans on the market.” — Adam Molina, SoundGuys

Key Specs

Drivers: N/A
Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0
Charging Port: USB-C
Battery life: Up to 20 hours
Key features: 11 levels of noise cancellation, Transparency mode, four-microphone system

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Bose 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.

The Sea Ranger Is an Affordable Field Watch and Dive Watch in One

Astor & Banks is another of the crop of young American microbrands that has popped up in recent years, valiantly striving to bring watchmaking back to the United states. In Andrew Perez’s case, the impetus for founding Astor & Banks lay more in the search to do something he truly loved following his military service, but the fact that his products are designed and assembled in Chicago makes the brand all the more notable, and constitutes a further step in the revival of American watchmaking.

We recently got to spend some time with the Sea Ranger, which comes in four different variants and will be available for pre-order on Kickstarter soon.

The Good: The Sea Ranger is a unique diver-field watch combination that offers roughly 300m of water resistance and a 12-hour bezel on which the first 15 minutes are individually demarcated. What this effectively means is that you can take the Sea Ranger diving and use it to time a decompression stop, but you can also use the bezel to track a second time zone while top-side. (This is pretty cool, and something I wish was incorporated onto more watch bezels.) The 40mm case is well sized, the bracelet isn’t yet another Oyster ripoff, and the watch comes in fun colors — all pluses in my book. Overall, the Sea Ranger has a unique look and a genuinely useful function set.

Who It’s For: If you’re a diver, the Sea Ranger has more than enough water resistance and technical sophistication to see you through your dives. If you’re a traveller, the Sea Ranger can help you track a second time zone without the need for a GMT complication. If this is your first mechanical watch, $850 is a pretty good price for something unique that won’t find on every guy’s wrist while walking down the street in NYC. The Sea Ranger, in short, has a large pool of possible clientele.

Watch Out For: There’s not a whole lot to complain about, here. Are there less expensive microbrand offerings with similar feature sets? Sure. (See below). However, considering that you’re buying an original design from a one-man brand, the value seems pretty damn good. I could conceivably imagine the diver’s extension release getting snagged on something and opening up accidentally, but didn’t experience this problem myself. Overall, this is a solid, well made watch, and problems with it are probably going to boil down to personal aesthetic preferences.

Alternatives: There are quite a few alternative in the sub-$1,000 diver/tool watch world, most of them from boutique brands. The Contrail from Nodus Watches (12-hour bezel variant) offers very similar functionality for $600, albeit without the 15-minute demarcations. The Humbolt from Chicago-based Oak & Oscar is another tool/diver in the same vein, but costs roughly twice as much as the Sea Ranger at $1,650. Finally, the MKII Paradive is a tough-as-nails diver/field watch based on the famed Benrus Type I/II that retails for $895 and features 200m of water resistance.

Review: Based around the automatic Swiss Sellita SW-200, the Sea Ranger is an amalgam of modern tech and vintage-inspired aesthetics. The case, for example, is a 40mm asymmetric stainless steel type with drilled lugs and polished chamfers, giving it a profile that resembles somewhat the asymmetric military chronographs of the 1970s. A signed, screw-down crown provides the aforementioned 300m or so of water resistance, and the matching steel bracelet vaguely resembles a vintage Omega 1039 type, though there are significant differences.

The bracelet clasp is not a fold-over, and features two push-buttons either side of it for release. As mentioned earlier, the diver extension also deploys with push-buttons (there’s no need to open the bracelet, as there is on an Oyster, in order to extend it), which makes for more potential surfaces on which the watch could snag. In practice, however, I haven’t experienced this being a problem, and the bracelet is also comfortable and easy-wearing.

The case’s screw-down case back is simple and adorned with basic information, and doesn’t warrant much analysis. The dial and bezel of the Sea Ranger, however, are its biggest selling points to me, and are worthy of a deeper dive, so to speak.

I received the Sea Ranger variant with a beautiful marine blue dial and matching bezel. (I’ve handled all four variants, including the black DLC-coated “S” model, and each has identical fit and finish. Personally, I gravitate to the fun color scheme of the blue model, but this is a personal preference.) The dial itself is split into multiple “sections,” and includes an outer section with applied, Super-LumiNova-coated indices and a 1/5th-second track executed in white.

The next concentric section takes the form of a recessed track with a 24-hour scale, also executed in white. Finally, there’s the inner section of the dial, which contains the watch’s branding in white and red. The watch’s hour and minute hands are triangular and coated with SLN luminous material, and the seconds hand is orange and straight out of the 1970s sports watch world in shape and design.

Taken together, the recessed 24-hour track, outer 1/5th-second track and handset make for an incredibly engaging dial. A double-domed, anti-reflective sapphire crystal makes viewing the dial a simple affair, and the slight dome is hardly noticeable but provides a subtle, premium touch.

The Sea Ranger’s bezel is fully lumed with SLN and features minute demarcations for the first 15 minutes — a useful feature for diving. Otherwise, its aesthetics and dimensions are representative aesthetically of the Bakelite bezels of the 1960s, and make for a cool look. For some unexplainable reason, I don’t particularly like the way the minute demarcations bump up against the triangular 12 o’clock marker on the bezel — I think it makes the entire thing look crowded — but I do otherwise like the font used for the numerals.

Verdict: Given the build quality, most of the Sea Ranger detractors will likely be objecting on aesthetic grounds. While alternatives can certainly be had for less money, the Sea Ranger provides plenty of value for $850, packing a unique design, utility and a workhorse movement into a 40mm package.

What Others Are Saying:

• “Regardless of dial choice, the Sea Ranger represents an attractive value for anyone after a nicely detailed tool watch with a unique type of military heritage.” — Zach Kazan, Worn & Wound

• “Functionality profile aside, aesthetically, I think the Sea Ranger is a blast. Very fun to wear and a great visual look.” — Kaz Mirza, Two Broke Watch Snobs

Key Specs

Case Diameter: 40mm
Case Depth: ~13mm (including crystal)
Water Resistance: 30 atm (~300m)
Movement: Sellita SW200

Astor & Banks provided this product for review.

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With Security Cameras, What’s the 4K Difference?

Arlo’s battery-powered Ultra 4K ($376+) is among the first home security cameras to deliver true 4K resolution, and it uses that capability to the max. Though pricey compared to other DIY systems, it offers unique and useful features as a result of this enhanced imaging power, including the ability to track and zoom in on people and moving objects, and it has a bright, clear image that’s almost competitive with the likes of most 4K action cameras. You can identify people, read license plates and scan a wider swath of property from each camera.

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The Good: First and foremost, the 4K resolution is top-notch, delivering stellar images in a variety of lighting conditions. But the system also throws in with color night vision, a loud alarm, a spotlight, motion detection, a two-way microphone and an almost bewildering array of connectivity and streaming options. Finally, it’s battery-powered, which means you can place the camera anywhere you like without having to worry about running power to the device.

Who It’s For: The system is great for apartment owners who just want a single camera to scan their whole place, but it’s truly optimized for those with multiple camera needs and the desire to mount them in a wide variety of places. This is especially true if the locations are not always accessible via power cable – whether that’s outside, in an awkward placement high up on a structure, or even if the owner tends to move the cameras around a great deal for whatever reason.

Watch Out For: Pricing is a big gotcha, with the single-camera and hub systems priced normally at $400, and the two-camera and hub system at $600. (This, of course, is in addition to the service plan.) Also, though the setup is fairly painless, the app that you use to manage everything isn’t the most intuitive ever devised. There are multiple entry points to the same screens, pages that look similar even if they’re not, and functions that tend to be buried in awkward places. It takes some getting used to, and you’ll find yourself hunting quite a lot until you do.

Alternatives: Google’s Nest Cam IQ Outdoor ($399) also uses a 4K sensor—though it streams in only 1080p – and it delivers many of the same capabilities at a similar base price. It does also offer facial recognition for an extra monthly fee, which the Ultra doesn’t offer. Rather, Arlo is able to detect people, just not actually identify them.

Review: Security cameras are funny things, in that people don’t always use them precisely how they were intended. They might be installed by frequent travelers to keep an eye on the plants in their apartment, or just take a peek at the home front every now and then for peace of mind. Pet owners use them to check in on the dogs and cats. We look for packages on the doorstep, make sure a recent big storm didn’t knock over any trees, or even make time-lapses of snow accumulation during a blizzard. We look for pests in the garden, and watch aquariums remotely for a mid-day moment of zen at the office. Sometimes, people even install them for actual security purposes – as protection against intruders, deterrents, and evidence-gathering devices.

Not surprisingly, 4K resolution enhances each of these motivations, making Arlo’s Ultra a highly attractive proposition. The camera delivers, too, with bright, clear images, effective use of high dynamic range to even out the exposure, and the ability to zoom in and track people as they pass through the field of view, so you can identify them even in the absence of facial recognition capability.

Full 4K is the system’s key selling point, and it exploits it in a variety of ways beyond the above. Thanks to the Wi-Fi smart hub that comes with the base system, it allows for streaming of the live view to the smartphone app, and access to 4K footage via cloud storage or through an on-board SD card. Of course, you need to ensure that the camera is within range of a strong Wi-Fi signal at your home, lest the ability to transmit the images be compromised. This robust connectivity, combined with the wireless power option – the chunky batteries are apparently good for 3 to 6 months of use, and will charge in just a few hours – make for a highly versatile system. You can stash the things anywhere, and move them around as you please, as long as the aforementioned Wi-Fi signal persists.

Mounting the camera can be done in two ways. One is through a simple but secure screw-mount on the back of each camera, and the other is via a magnetic mount that holds the camera in a cradle that you can screw easily into most surfaces. This was perhaps the most frustrating part of the system because it’s not quite as easy to aim as you’d want such a system to be, especially because the magnetic charge cable interferes with the base and limits the camera’s range of motion. (This is only a problem if you choose to keep the camera continuously powered, which some people may opt to do.) In general, however, you’ll eventually gravitate to a mount location that positions the camera precisely as you like.

The 4K resolution enables a strong gamut of camera field-of-view options, from ultra-wide 180 degrees down to a more familiar 120 degrees. (The wider views make use of an anti-distortion algorithm that helps minimize the fisheye effect.) It also smooths out night-views, illuminated by infrared LEDs, and it captures sudden, bright contrasts very effectively, such as when the built-in, motion-detection – activate spotlight goes off on an unsuspecting target. The camera adapts quickly to the sudden light, allowing you to identify the subject easily. Are those subjects not quite startled enough? Activate the loud siren yourself remotely once an alert comes in, or have it synced up to motion detection, too.

One of the problems with security cameras that send out alerts to your smartphone is the sensitivity of the motion detection system. It can be a challenge to dial that in precisely enough to weed out things like rustling leaves or passing cars. Arlo helps that process in two ways: 1) a sensitivity dial that tunable from 1-100, rather than just, say, high and low; and 2) the ability to mark out several zones in the camera’s field of view that it will pay attention to, ignoring movement in the rest.

If it sounds like the system is overflowing with features, it kind of is. Using the Ultra can be a bit overwhelming at first, so the trick is to just fold in features and adjust them over time. You get a free year of Arlo’s Smart plan, which typically costs $3 per month and includes A.I.-based detection systems, and the custom detection zones. Bumping up to $10 a month for the Smart Premier plan adds the ability to instantly call 911 to your house in an emergency, via the app, and incorporate up to ten cameras. You can also pay an extra $2 per month for cloud storage of full 4K clips, accessible from anywhere.

Verdict: Arlo’s system is relatively easy to use once you grasp the app functionality and the logic behind all the features, and you’ll need to buckle up for a possibly protracted period of messing around with things after the installation to get it properly tuned. Once you do, however, it’s an extremely functional and useful system. For between $400 and $600, you’ll get one of the most robust DIY home security systems you can buy.

What Others Are Saying:

• “The greater level of [4K] detail can be particularly useful for businesses, which tend to have more reasons to capture high-res images and zoom in if necessary. Really, the only significant difference between the added features is that the Ultra includes an integrated spotlight, something the other models don’t have. Again, this is a feature more suited toward businesses, but certain homeowners may appreciate a spotlight as well.” — Tyler Lacoma, Digital Trends

• “Not only do the Arlo Ultra’s 4K cameras deliver the best quality we’ve seen from a wireless security camera, but it also uses that extra resolution to enable digital track and zoom, which makes it easier to follow and ID a person as they move across the frame. A built-in spotlight also enables color recording at night, and it has dual microphones for better audio.” — Mike Prospero, Tom’s Guide

• “If you want a flexible, easy-to-install-and-use indoor/outdoor camera that delivers 4K streaming and a high-quality image sensor, the Arlo Ultra is a solid bet. Its $600 price and disappointing lack of free cloud storage will hold a lot of people back, though. Think about what makes the most sense for you and go from there..” — Megan Wollerton, CNET

Key Specs
Image Sensor: 8 megapixels
Max Resolution: 3840 x 2160
Digital Zoom: 12x
Field of View: 180 degrees
Features: weather resistant, night vision, motion detection

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Arlo provided this product for review.

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This Navy SEAL-Inspired Home Gym Delivers Huge Gains in a Small Package

With the launch of the TRX Home2, you can truly bring the Navy SEAL-approved workout system home with you. The TRX Home2 is the ultimate at-home (or outdoor) workout tool. All you need is an anchor that will hold your weight; then you can break a sweat any time, any place. So I took the TRX home to see how it fared in a New York City apartment.

The Good: With the purchase of every TRX Home2 system comes a free 12-month membership to the TRX app’s cache of workouts. It’s relatively easy to set up, and the variety of exercises will keep you motivated for days. If you don’t have a gym membership, this could be your new go-to. With a five-year warranty and a TRX concierge, any help you need with setup or use is at your fingertips.

Who It’s For: Anyone looking for a way to stay active. The TRX Home2 is an efficient way to work every muscle in your body. It forces your body to work harder, thanks to its gravity-based bodyweight training. Since the TRX suspends your body in the air, your core is continuously firing. Pro athletes use it, but the workout is easy to adapt to any fitness level.

Watch Out For: If you’ve never used a TRX system before, I’d recommend checking out the ‘Find a Gym or Coach’ section in the app. While there are videos to accompany every single workout, feet placement and body alignment aren’t a major focus. It can be an intimidating tool to use at home without any human instruction, so to ensure you’re executing each move correctly, I recommend seeking out a coach as a beginner. A trainer can also help with modifications in case you have any injuries. One simple modification is to move closer or farther away from the anchor point.

During the app workouts, I struggled with the time provided to raise and lower the straps. There are three lengths: high, medium and low, but a typical workout has you swapping back and forth between them. Dropping the straps is a breeze, but getting them both back up to the highest point took me a few tries, and often longer than the 15 seconds provided. With time it gets more comfortable, but initially, your 15-minute workout might take 20 minutes with all the pauses to tweak the straps.

Alternatives: The at-home workout market is pretty saturated with DVDs and apps galore. And there are lots of machines that ‘come with’ an app that streams classes. In a similar vein to the TRX Home2, Peloton sells its bike, along with a membership to live and pre-recorded classes ($2,245 for the bike, $39/month subscription). Then there’s Mirror, a video device that looks just like a mirror that you install in your wall to work out ($1495 for the starter pack with fitness bands, HR monitor, wall mount and stand; $39/month subscription). And there’s also Tonal, another at-home workout tool that uses magnetic force to increase the weight you’re lifting ($2995 for the machine; $49/month subscription). It’s hard to find something of quality that’s as affordably priced as the TRX.

Review: I’ve used TRX straps in classes at Equinox, Orangetheory, Flex and Exceed Physical Culture in New York, so I’m familiar with how they work. But the straps have always been already set up for me, and finding a spot to hook them up myself was a little intimidating. It sat in a box for a while next to my bed because I wasn’t quite sure what to anchor it to, which in hindsight is silly — a door is the most accessible starting point.

From start to finish, it took 15 minutes — and that’s including hanging the straps, downloading the app, registering my set and activating my 12-month membership. Right out of the box, I downloaded the TRX app first on my iPad, which looked funny, so I swapped over to my phone and was welcomed by Randy Hetrick, a former Navy SEAL and the founder of TRX. While there is a small pamphlet on how to hang the straps, there aren’t explicit directions in the app or the box. It took me a few tries to figure out what exactly to connect to what. You can either use the suspension anchor or door anchor. I opted for the door anchor, which is no larger than a deck of cards but somehow managed to hold all of my weight.

The pamphlet in the box also includes step-by-step instructions for the seven basic movements that are repeated in a variety of ways throughout each of the workouts: Push, Pull, Plank, Rotate, Hinge, Lunge and Squat. The directions explain exactly where the straps should be, foot placement, how far to bend or lower, and where to keep your gaze. If you dedicate time to walk through the instructions, you’ll feel confident with any move. I breezed over this, simply because I’ve worked out on the TRX before, but for beginners, this is incredibly useful.

If you’ve used TRX before, or use it in a gym setting regularly, you can likely make up your workouts (rows, push-ups, plank holds, etc.). But if you’re looking for ideas, the app is a great way to mix it up. I was never bored of the workouts, thanks to six categories of activity (functional training, flexibility, cycling, high intensity, running and suspension workouts). The app also gives you the ability to schedule workouts, which range from 6 to 50 minutes. I loved that you could select a plan for the month and have the app remind you when it’s time to break a sweat.

Verdict: The TRX workouts are all bodyweight driven, and you can adjust the resistance with a step forward or backward. There’s no limit to how much you can challenge yourself, and thanks to a simple setup and ease of use, there are hardly any downsides. As someone who has been trying to lift weights and build strength more often, this is just the tool I needed. The variety of workouts in the app goes beyond suspension training with access to top trainers and athletes in their respective fields.

What Others Are Saying:

• “The best thing about the TRX is how light it is and the versatility of exercises you can use it for. There are a bunch of different exercises you can use the TRX with [that] you can’t use with any other piece of fitness equipment. Current or past injuries allow the TRX to be a fantastic substitute. With any kind of functional training, you’re treating your body as an entire connected system. This is a more efficient way to train, especially compared to machines when you treat your body as individual pieces.” — Josh Schlottman, Trainer Josh Fitness

• “TRX training is never boring. I was constantly blown away and excited about the endless exercises you can do [with] two simple straps. And while my gym training is usually more legs and stomach than it is arms, the TRX combined them all without me giving it much thought.” — Amy Packham, Huffington Post

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This Brand Is Making Affordable Mechanical Watches for Under $500

Lorier is a young boutique watch brand founded by husband-and-wife team Lauren and Lorzeno Ortega and based in New York City. Their catalog currently consists of three models: the Falcon sports watch (also available in a gold PVD version); the Hydra diver; and the the Neptune diver (soon to be restocked on the company’s website). Incredibly, all three models, which feature automatic movements and matching steel bracelets, are priced at just $399, with the gold PVD version of the Falcon coming in at just $449.

Though we typically like to focus on just one watch in a brand’s catalog, Laurier made an intelligent call when designing its timepieces, deciding to have them share a 39mm case. What this effectively means is that the differentiating factors in its watches come down to dial, bezel, and other aesthetic choices, so we thought it might make sense to give you an overview of the entire catalog, in order to better understand the features that differentiate these watches.

The Good: Since we’re talking about a shared case architecture — and one that works quite well — let’s break it down. The case used by all three models is crafted from stainless steel and measures 39mm in diameter. It features an attractive combination of different finishing techniques, including a polished edge on the bevels of the prominent lugs, which are otherwise brushed, along with the rest of the case (the lugs are also drilled, which is a nice touch, making strap changes easy).

At 48mm lug-to-lug by 12mm thick (not including the crystal), the Lorier case is proportioned well within the “Goldilocks” dimensions for a tool watch/diver, in this writer’s opinion. With its screw-down case back and oversized, 7.3mm screw-down crown, the case achieves 200m of water resistance — more than enough for recreational SCUBA diving. What’s more, the case is affixed with a vintage-style, domed plexiglass crystal, giving it that old-school aesthetic. The crystal isn’t domed quite as prominently as the “top hat” or “box”-style crystals found on certain vintage dive watches, but the certainly provides the dial with that “warmth” that so many watch aficionados love. Without crown guards, the case certainly resembles that of one of its vintage inspirations, the Rolex 6538 “Big Crown” Submariner.

Also, all three watches share a handset, with only the base color changing from model to model (the Neptune’s hands are rendered in plain steel, while those of the Hydra and Falcon are manufactured in a gold tone). The hands are a slightly modified alpha type, in which the centers have been filled in with BGW9 Super-LumiNova. The seconds hand terminates in a long, pointed arrow; the minute hand features a gentler conical shape with a rounded back; and the hour hand is a similar shape topped with a prominent, thick arrow. They’re highly visible hands that work well on a dive watch, though are are perhaps a bit heavy handed on a sport model that isn’t necessarily meant for diving (the Falcon, in this case).

The last shared feature between the three models is the bracelet, which features flat links and is reminiscent of a vintage Omega 1039 bracelet that you might find on an old Speedmaster. Seeing a 1039-type bracelet on a Big Crown-looking dive watch admittedly throws a vintage watch fan for a bit of a loop, but the bracelet itself is pretty damn cool. Comfortable, well engineered and different (at least in the sense that it’s not another cheap Oyster ripoff, thank God), it nevertheless differs from the Omega original by including a push-button-release clasp with micro-adjustments.

Is this the best dive watch bracelet and clasp I’ve ever seen? No. There is no dive extension or other facility to extend the bracelet over a wetsuit, and the clasp doesn’t close with the surest, most firm “click” I’ve ever felt in my life, but it’s likely more than adequate for most casual wear. And it looks great, tapering from 20mm down to 16mm and adding a serious vintage vibe to whatever watch accompanies it.

Who It’s For: In looking over the three Lorier models (four, if you count the PVD version of the Falcon separately), I was immediately struck by the price. $400 for a steel dive watch (or tool watch, in the case of the Falcon) with a workhorse automatic movement, solid water resistance, a well designed case and a beautiful matching bracelet? It just seemed to good to be true, that kind of pricing, so I was, quite frankly, prepared to be underwhelmed by the quality of the watches. Pleasantly, I was quickly proven wrong in the assumption that they couldn’t possibly be built all that well, which is clearly a testament to the high quality being delivered by today’s microbrands.

Anyone out there looking for his or her first foray into dive watches and who doesn’t want to drop, say, $8,000 on a Submariner, should certainly check out Lorier. I could also easily see a seasoned collector who’d like a fun, everyday watch to wear to the beach (or everyday, for that matter) but who perhaps doesn’t want to travel with an expensive vintage watch springing for the Neptune or the Hydra. The Falcon, with its “waffle dial” (we’ll get to this later), is an excellent modern replacement for, say, a vintage mid-century Tudor or Rolex, and at $399/$449, there’s little likelihood of finding a comparable contemporary watch for the money.

Watch Out For: There’s not a whole lot of nitpicking to be done here, to be frank, with the exception of aesthetic decisions are largely subjective, anyway. I, personally, would have preferred a different handset on the Falcon, which, to my mind, doesn’t require such a large, “visible” set and would have benefitted from something more elegant. However, I can also appreciate the fact that duplicating case and handsets across the model ranges has allowed Lorier to keep costs down while still delivering a great product.

The Falcon and Hyrda also feature date wheels at 6 o’clock. As far as date wheels are concerned, these are well done, having been rendered with a keystone shape and containing, on the Hydra, a gilt strip surrounding the window (the surround is gilt on the Falcon or black, depending on the dial color).

My two most significant problems with the watches are two issues that will only admittedly affect a subset of wearers. One is that, while I understand the aesthetic and practical inspirations of the oversize crown (practical because it’s easier to grip and turn, especially whilst wearing gloves, and aesthetic because the oversized crown on the 6538 Submariner clearly had some influence on the crown on this model), the fact is that a huge crown like this will dig into some people’s hands and become uncomfortable. For as long as I’ve been wearing watches, I’ve had a permanent “indent” on my left hand from watch crowns, and this is from more moderately sized crowns. I can’t imagine wearing a Lorier model every single day, personally, as this problem would only be exacerbated.

However, there are certainly plenty of people for whom a large or oversized crown won’t be a problem. The one other issue I have with the Hydra and Neptune pertains to the bezel. The knurling on the outer edge of the bezel on these two models doesn’t, in my experience, provide enough grip to make turning the unidirectional bezel all that easy, and because the bezel itself doesn’t protrude very far above the lip of the dial, the problem is exacerbated.

For this reason, these two models wouldn’t be my first choice to use underwater during actual SCUBA diving, though I have to add two points, the first being that I haven’t yet actually gone diving with either watch, and the second being that the great majority of people, even if they’re certified divers, aren’t using mechanical watches to time decompression stops anymore. They’re using dive computers, and, if anything, they’re using mechanical watches as backups.

Alternatives: With the rise of myriad boutique watch brands, consumers have been spoiled for chocie in watches lately, even in the sub-$1k range. The Aquascaphe, from Baltic, runs about $650 (~$737 on a steel bracelet) and, similar to the Lorier Neptune and Hydra, features an automatic movement, 200m of water resistance and vintage-inspired aesthetics. The U1-DZN from Unimatic, for $666, doesn’t ship on a bracelet, but also features an automatic movement, a unidirectional bezel, 300m of water resistance, and ships on two straps for about $666.

NOTE: Check out the Lorier product page for a representation of the true, deep blue color of the Neptune blue dial.

Review: As I said, I was quite surprised with the quality present across Lorier’s model lines considering the pricing, which ranges from $399 to $449. The Ortegas aren’t shy about their design inspiration, which stems from a cross-section of some of the vintage models that they themselves love. Some of these qualities were things that they found the modern watch market lacked in affordable timepieces, and this is largely why the pair decided to design their own watches.

As the watch cases and bracelets are the same throughout the different models, choosing one largely comes down to the dial, bezel, and crystal, which is shallower on the Falcon than it is on the two dive models, but still crafted from acrylic. Beginning with the Falcon, one is struck immediately by the texture on the waffle dial. If you’re familiar with vintage Rolex and Tudor Oyster-based models from the 1950s and 1960s, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the “waffle dial,” a complex, repeating, honeycomb-like pattern that isn’t nearly as popular today, especially amongst more affordable sport watches.

The Falcon is available with green, black or white dial, each of which features “gilt” indices and hands and a date wheel at 6 o’clock. Some might balk at the date wheel, but it’s well integrated and unobtrusive as far as date wheels go. As I mentioned earlier, I would have preferred a slightly thinner handset on a non-dive model such as this, but I think the present handset still works well. The printing atop the waffle dial is smooth and even, and the quality is impressive.

Moving on to the Hydra, there are two dial colors available: black and royal blue. If you’re into the look of vintage “gilt” Rolex, than this is the model for you, especially in black — the “gilt” outer chapter ring and hands really pop against the black dial and red depth rating, effectively conveying that vintage Rolex look. As previously stated, I found the thin bezel with aluminum inset difficult to turn on dry land, so I can only imagine it would be that much more difficult to work underwater. However, the bezel, which is thin and conveys the look of a vintage Bakelite model, does indeed look sharp, and convincingly vintage.

The Neptune, which is currently being re-released in a second batch, is my personal favorite. Available in gilt, black or marine blue, the dial on this watch really captures the look of the late 1980s/early 1990s Tudor 79090 Submariners, with their alternating dot-and-triangle indices. The bezel was slightly easier to grip on this model than on the Hydra, though this could have been simply a quirk of the particular review watch that I received, as the bezels on both models are, to my knowledge, the same. Not normally as big a fan of blue-dial watches as I am of black, I immediately gravitated toward the royal blue Neptune.

Lastly, all three watches utilize the Seiko automatic NH35A movement, which has 24 jewels and is hackable, with a power reserve of 41 hours. There’s not much else to say here — this is a workhorse automatic movement utilized by numerous watches that have come out of the “microbrand” movement. It’s inexpensive, relatively robust, and should provide many years of faithful service. Also, all Lorier watches ship with a genuine leather 2-slot watch roll with microfiber lining and a screwdriver to resize the bracelet. Nylon straps are available separately and currently include a regimental-type single-pass nylon model in black and blue, which measures roughly 26mm. I found this strap adequate and comfortable, though I would myself spring for a NATO if diving with one of these watches.

Verdict: What Lorier has managed to do is undoubtedly impressive — starting a company from scratch with no prior watchmaking experience, designing and manufacturing watches that accurately reflect myriad vintage influences but still function well, and doing all this while winning over serious watch fans — none of this makes for an easy feat. But it’s clear from spending some time with the Lorier catalog (the gold PVD version of the Falcon excluded, which I didn’t review) that these aren’t ripoffs. Sure, they feature design cues that are derivative of myriad vintage watches, but they somehow manage to turn many influences into a cohesive whole without creating watches that seem like cheap copies or knockoffs. The Lorier models are awesome starter watches, or perfect weekend watches, or, for the right person, some of the only watches that you’ll ever need.

What Others Are Saying:

• “The Neptune really is a well made and designed micro-diver with tons of character. The large crown, thin aluminum bezel insert, domed plexiglass crystal, and the tapered bracelet all add up to one very cool watch—and it’s available at an amazingly affordable price. At $389, you really can’t go wrong with the Neptune.” — Christoph McNeill, Worn & Wound

• “I’m at a bit of a loss for things to criticize as everything is actually above expectation at the price point, and the aesthetics are both cool and distinctive. Sure, it could have been thinner, but it doesn’t wear thick so you don’t really notice it and the movement options at the price point don’t give the brand much choice. All in all, it’s just a very successful watch if you like the look of it.” — Zach Weiss, Worn & Wound

• “I’m really impressed. In fact, I would go out on a limb to say it might be the best choice for a truly affordable watch maybe aside from a Seiko these days….Really pleasing to wear on a daily basis.” ” — Jason Heaton, The Grey Nato

Key Specs

Case Diameter: 39mm
Water Resistance: 200m
Crystal: Domed acrylic crystal
Movement: Seiko NH35A automatic

Lorier provided these products for review.

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The Best Cheap Bookshelf Speakers That You’ve Never Heard Of

It’s no industry secret that some of the most popular speakers in the world are made or assembled in China. How many Chinese speakers can you find at your local Best Buy? The answer is none. Asia has a rich and distinguished history of creating some of the world’s best-sounding audio components so it should surprise no one that an upstart brand like Micca Electronics is having a very difficult time keeping its products in stock. The RB42 bookshelf speakers ($130), for example, are the real deal. And if you visit Amazon at just the right time, you may get lucky and see that the Micca RB42s are “in stock.”

The Good: To say that the RB42 don’t sound like $130 speakers would be an understatement. After some substantial burn-in, it becomes rather evident that these diminutive 2-way loudspeakers are extremely capable if paired with the right amplifier and set up properly. There is no question that these compete with loudspeaker rivals that are more expensive, but just how far does your budget stretch to get the most out of them.

The construction quality on the RB42 would be impressive if they sold for $400, making one raise an eyebrow considering that they sell for $130. Micca may have cut corners in other places, but the curved 3/4-inch thick MDF cabinet wrapped in a laminate dark wood veneer isn’t one of them. The RB42 are solidly built loudspeakers that look great as well.

If you’re expecting subterranean bass response out of a pair of 4-inch paper coated midrange/woofers, you’re not getting the point of these loudspeakers. The RB42 deliver a tight, solid bass response that will impress anyone; adding a subwoofer would certainly make sense with these loudspeakers but it’s not mandatory.

The silk dome tweeter sounds very smooth with above average top end extension; when driven very hard with less than stellar recordings, the RB42 never exhibited a level of brightness that we would normally associate with entry-level loudspeakers. The midrange resolution is outstanding; the absence of obvious colorations made vocal reproduction one of the best parts of its sonic signature.

Who It’s For: If you’re limited to under $200, the RB42 are clearly one of the best sounding bookshelf loudspeakers on the market. They work well on a desktop, credenza or set-up on a pair of high-quality speaker stands. College students can drive the hell out of them with a suitable amplifier, and they work well in almost every environment.

Watch Out For: Power. The RB42s need a lot of power to sound their best. We drove them with a number of different power amplifiers from Schiit Audio, Anthem, and NAD, would suggest that 80-100 watts is a good starting point. The bass response, in particular, can sound slightly anemic if your amplifier is not up to the task.

The RB42 image superbly well, recreating a rather deep soundstage, but that only became evident when placed on 24-28-inch loudspeaker stands and pulled 2-to-3-feet from the wall. The rear ported loudspeakers certainly benefit from some boundary reinforcement, but placed too close to the wall, the bass started to overload the corners and lost its solidity.

Alternatives: As much as we love the RB42, they do face some stiff competition from the PSB Alpha P3 ($199), Paradigm Monitor SE Atom ($298), and the ELAC Debut 2.0 B5.2 ($200). The Monitor SE Atom are more than double the price of the RB42, but they justify the difference based on the sense of scale and higher levels of resolution and transparency. The PSB and ELAC have a much harder time in our opinion making that same case; the PSB sound lightweight in the bass department compared to the RB42, and the ELAC can sound somewhat strident when pushed. The silk dome tweeter of the RB42 is more laid back sounding; the overall tonal balance is not as forward sounding which might appeal to listeners over the long haul.

Verdict: The RB42 bookshelf speakers sell out online very quickly and it’s easy to understand why. The construction quality is superb for an entry-level loudspeaker below $150, and there is a lot to like about the bass response, midrange resolution, and long-term listenability of the product. The biggest caveat is the low sensitivity, which required me to use amplification that was 10x the price of the loudspeakers. In a small room or office with 40-50 watts, most people won’t think they are missing out on anything, but having heard the RB42 play with some of the best affordable high-end amplifiers available, we know better. For under $150, the Micca RB42 are remarkably good.

What Others Are Saying:

• “The Micca RB42 Reference is mighty impressive, but the Dayton Audio B652 Air and Pioneer SP-BS22-LR speakers are less expensive and clearer-sounding speakers. The RB42’s superior build quality, richer sound balance and smaller size might tilt the balance for some buyers.” — Steve Guttenberg, CNET

Key Specs
Type: passive bookshelf speaker
Drivers: 0.75″ silk dome tweeter; 4″ coated paper, rubber surround woofer
Frequency Response: 50Hz-20kHz
Impedance: 4-8 ohms
Sensitivity: 83dB

Micca Electronics provided this product for review.

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Alpinestars Supertech M10 Helmet Review: The Off-Road Rider’s Featherweight Champ

It’s rare for any company to get things right on their first attempt. Entering into unexplored territory with a new product can be tricky; hell, even well-established car companies usually need to give a new model a couple iterations or model years to iron out the kinks.

Which is why I was a bit tentative to slide my gray matter into Alpinestars new Supertech M10 Helmet. It’s not that there’s any reason to doubt Italian motorcycle gear manufacturer’s commitment to safety, of course. But helmets need to be more than safe to be effective. They need to fit well, be comfortable, offer adequate venting and be light enough to not induce fatigue on a ride.

So, how does this company’s first diallance into protective headgear stack up? Does Alpinestars have a hit on their hands with the Supertech M10, or should buyers wait for the next generation?

The Good: Alpinestars clearly set a high safety bar for themselves to clear with the Supertech M10 — and they’ve cleared it on a number of deliverables. This helmet is a marvel of technology. Integrations such as MIPS (Multi-Directional Impact Protection System) combine with a slip layer between the EPS foam liner and the interior padding to further reduce the rotational forces associated with crashing. The EPS liner itself is comprised of a four-part construction, meaning the most impact prone sections can react with a different density of protection.

Meanwhile, under the chinbar, a clavicle relief cutout has been made to help mitigate collarbone injuries. The moisture-wicking interior is also set up with an ERS (Emergency Release System) at the cheek pads to ensure paramedics can toss off the M10 without adding to potential problems. On top of this, the visor is held on via a trio of quick-release fasteners that surrender their hold at near lyany impact.

Who It’s For: Since its both DOT- and ECE-certified, any street rider looking for a well-ventilated, lightweight summer helmet could happily don the Supertech M10. But riders that are hell-bent on exploring single-tracks and trekking down paths less travelled will see the greatest benefits of Alpinestars’s development work.

Watch Out For: Despite the integrated A-Head Adjustment feature, if you don’t carry an intermediate oval-shaped melon on your shoulders, the SM10 isn’t the bucket for you. Also, some of the vents either don’t have screens (the nostril vents) or the screening is inset from the outer shell (the upper eyeport vents), which makes them a mud magnet. One roost too many and the earth’s goo will be trapped too tight for a wipe on the fly, restricting airflow.

Alternatives: This may be Alpinestars’s first production helmet, but the off-road and motocross space is already pretty packed; alternatives from well-established helmet manufacturers and other do-all brands abound. The Arai VX4 Combat ($665) meets both DOT and Snell ratings and offers their unique Facial Contour System to ensure a snug fit. The ATR-2 from 6D ($695) is a touch heavier than the Supertech M10 but boasts a beefy list of safety integrations that 6D developed during work in the NFL’s Head Health Challenge. Another great choice is the F5 Koroyd from Klim ($649); equipped with MIPS and built using Klim’s patented Koroyd energy-absorbing technology, it too boasts leading-edge safety tech and a lightweight design.

Review: The original plan was to take the Supertech M10 out to an off-road riding school north of Toronto, but Mother Nature had other ideas. At the time of this writing, all nearby trails had yet to be opened due to unseasonable flooding. No matter. Since it was graced with street legality, I went to find out how this MX lid performed around town and during lighter-duty ADV riding.

Right out of the included tote bag, it’s hard not to be impressed with just how light the Supertech M10 is: deceptively so, even for a motocross lid. The interior is soft, plush and supportive; I could feel a bit of a hot-spot at my forehead initially, but after experimenting with the fitment system, was able to find a fit that worked just right.

On the street and in the breeze, the M10 offers an expansive view from the eyeport. I experimented with both goggles and sunglasses during on-road testing, and both fit well enough to keep my peepers protected without stifling airflow. From behind a windshield, buffeting and wind noise is quieter than expected; a few hours of interstate slog would be perfectly tolerable it on. That said, it’s certainly not as quiet a headspace as a full-face cocoon, and the visor will induce lift at speed.

Off-road, the M10 comes into its own. The combination of 16 intake vents and five exhaust ports keep things cool, while its near-imperceptible weight means keeping your noggin on a swivel won’t wear you down. The eyeport is well-sized for proper off-roading goggles, and despite not being adjustable, the visor is well-positioned to cut glare without becoming too much of a sail.

Verdict: It may be Alpinestars’s first entry into the segment and designed primarily for motocross, but the Supertech M10 — the product of more than five years of design and development — has far broader appeal. This is a lid that dual-sport and ADV-riders should have on their radar. But what really has me salivating is the assumption that this won’t be the only helmet Alpinestars creates: With an incredibly strong presence in MotoGP, World Superbike and product lines that fill near every niche of riding, it seems like only be a matter of time before dedicated street and track helmets see the light of day. And given how well the Alpinestars did with the Supertech M10, we should all be in for a treat.

What Others Are Saying:

• “The Alpinestars Supertech M10 helmet is DOT- and ECE-approved. It features a multi-density foam liner, composite shell, MIPS rotational impact device, impact release visor system and comes in six different sizes. There is no doubt that the styling, design and construction are cutting edge.” — MOTOCROSS ACTION MAGAZINE

• “We’ve enjoyed the time spent so far in the M10, and we’ll continue wearing it. Testing helmets for a review is one thing, but continually reaching for it every time we ride or race is another – it speaks much more to the helmet’s value not only in terms of comfort and looks, but to the peace of mind that comes with knowing and trusting the protective qualities it provides.” — BRENT JASWINSKI, MOTORCYCLE.COM

• “With any helmet hitting north of the $500 mark, the bar for features is very high. Thankfully the S-M10 exceeds expectations in all areas and confirms that Alpinestars really did overdeliver with their first foray into the dirt helmet world.” — ESSENTIAL MOTO

Alpinestars Supertech M10 Meta Helmet Key Specs

Construction: Three-layer composite
Weight: 2.77 pounds (size medium)
Number of Shell Sizes: Four
SPEC4:
SPEC5:

Alpinestars provided this product for review.

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Review: These Are the Best Running Headphones for Anyone With an iPhone

The Powerbeats Pro ($250) are true wireless earbuds from the Apple-owned Beats that combine the design, sweat-resistance and sound of Beats’s Powerbeats3 Wireless ($200), a workout headphone staple, with the true wirelessness and functionality of Apple’s second-generation AirPods ($159+). They cost $250 and are available in four colors: black, navy, moss (green) and ivory (off-white).

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The Good: The Powerbeats Pro have almost all of the same conveniences of second-generation AirPods; they quickly pair to your iPhone, have “Hey Siri” functionality, and they have good sound and call quality. They also charge via your iPhone’s Lightning cable, leaving you with one less cable to carry. The Powerbeats Pro also offer a couple key upgrades over AirPods. They are sweat resistance (IPX4) so you don’t have to worry about your workout killing them, and their design gives them a more snug fit than old Powerbeats3 Wireless. (Great news if AirPods don’t fit in everybody’s ears.) They offer better battery life, an incredible nine hours for each earbud. And they come more colors than just white.

Who It’s For: Anybody with an iPhone looking for the best running true wireless earbuds that money can buy.

Watch Out For: The charging case of the Powerbeats Pro is huge, frankly. It’s roughly twice the size of the AirPods charging case and almost three times as heavy. There’s basically no way you’re fitting it into your pocket. The odd shape of each of the Powerbeats Pro’s earbuds makes it sometimes difficult getting them back inside the charging case. The experience is nowhere near as snappy as slipping AirPods back into their perfectly-sized charging case. Their odd shape can make it difficult to get them in your ears. They can’t wirelessly charge. They’ve got no sensors or coaching features, and they’re pretty expensive to boot.

Alternatives: The Powerbeats Pro are the essentially the combination of Beats’s Powerbeats3 Wireless ($200) and Apple’s second-generation AirPods ($159+), meaning either is a sensible alternative. If you’re looking for great true wireless earbuds that, unlike AirPods, are also sweat resistant, you can go with the Jabra Elite Active 65t ($190) or the Jaybird Run XT ($150).

Verdict: The Powerbeats Pro are true wireless earbuds that are designed with a very specific type of person in mind. One who has an iPhone and wants earbuds specifically for working out. Yes, they are fairly expensive. And yes, the charging case is almost comically huge. It’d also be nice if there was some sort of coaching feature or built-in sensors to measure metrics like distance, heart rate or V02 max, but most athletes already have a wrist-bound wearable for stuff anyway.

The bottom line is that combination of fantastic battery life, fit and overall sound quality, plus the integration of Apple’s new H1 chip, make the Powerbeats Pro the best true wireless earbuds for running and working out that money can buy, if you’re ok with shelling out.

What Others Are Saying:

• “If you’re an iPhone user, AirPods can be attractive, but the PowerBeats Pro are the better companion for your smartphone. Sweat resistance, actual noise isolation, and a secure fit in your ears make these the true wireless earphones you want in Apple-land. Android users may find other options they like better, as these only support AAC.” — Christian Thomas, Sound Guys

• “The Powerbeats Pro are the best Beats product yet. They raise the bar for what can be expected of fitness and true wireless earphones, both in terms of sound quality and battery endurance. They improve on Apple’s own AirPods in tangible ways, and they shame rivals like Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless that can’t seem to be able to figure out the whole wireless connectivity issue.” — Vlad Savov, The Verge

• “We admire the Powerbeats Pro headphones for their build, their fit and their superb features. Thanks to the Apple H1 Bluetooth chip technology, they’re wonderfully easy to set up and use, and they’re virtually glitch-free in their delivery of wireless audio. But their musical performance brings them down. While not chronically bassy and replete with detail, they just don’t have the liveliness to keep us interested even in tracks we know and love..” — Anonymous, What Hi-Fi?

Key Specs
Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0
Sensors: beam-forming mics, optical sensors, accelerometer
Battery: 9 hours listening time (24 hours with case), 3 hours talk time (18 hours with case)
Key Features: sweatproof (IPX4), hands-free “Hey Siri”

Apple provided this product for review.

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These Stunning Noise-Canceling Headphones Sound As Good As They Look

The Master & Dynamic MW65 are the company’s first noise-canceling headphones and sport the company’s trademark industrial design that marries metal with genuine leather. However, other than the new noise-canceling abilities, the MW65 have another secret feature. Because they’re made out of anodized aluminum, the weigh in at just 245 grams and are significantly lighter, and as a result are more comfortable, than any other of M&D’s headphones. Despite this new lightweight design, the company claims that the MW65 deliver the same signature rich and warm sound.

The Master & Dynamic MW65 cost $499 and are available in two colors: gun metal and black leather or silver metal and brown leather.

The Good: The first thing I noticed is how light and comfortable the MW65 headphones are. If you’ve ever worn Master & Dynamic’s other headphones, like the over-ear MW60 or the convertible MW50+, you’ll know that they feel like they’re made of metal, not plastic like many popular and cheaper headphones. It’s good in that they feel solid, and less good in that they’re heavy on your head. Despite having essentially the same industrial design, the MW65 are almost shockingly light, which is exactly what you want in a pair of noise-canceling headphones that you’re going to wear for lengthy periods of time.

The MW65 are also some of the best noise-canceling headphones that you’re going to find. They have 40mm beryllium drivers, same as the company’s most recent MW50+ headphones, and they’ve been specially tuned to have the same right and expansive sound that M&D headphones are known for. They sound positively terrific. These headphones have a very good battery life, and maybe even more importantly, thanks to the USB Type-C port, they charge quickly: a 15-minute charge can get you an incredible 12 additional hours of listening time.

The MW65 are basically idiot proof when it comes to setup, which is a double-edge sword. There’s no app to deal with, but at the cost of any way to adjust the EQ settings. All the buttons on the headphones are very tactile; switching between noise-canceling modes is simple, and an in-ear voice tells you what level of noise-canceling you’re using. There aren’t any on-earcup swipe gestures to accidentally hit. If you want to add a virtual assistant, like Google Assistant, you can but you don’t have to.

Who It’s For: Somebody who is looking high-end noise-canceling headphones with a unique style that’ll stick out in a sea of Bose and Sonys.

Watch Out For: The Master & Dynamic MW65 are considerably more expensive than the best-in-class noise-canceling headphones by Bose and Sony, but its noise-canceling simply isn’t on the same level. The MW65 has two noise-canceling modes, high and low, and while “high” is pretty good at limiting the melodic hum of an airplane, or the clatter of colleagues at the office, there was never really a reason to choose “low.”

Alternatives: If you’re simply looking for the best noise-canceling headphones, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II and the Sony WH-1000XM3 are still the ones to beat; the Bose’s being the most comfortable and the Sony’s boasting the best noise-canceling abilities. If you’re shopping in the high-end market, which is where the Master & Dynamic MW65 undoubtedly are, the Bowers & Wilkins PX are also a great option that charge via USB Type-C and deliver an expansive soundstage.

Verdict: The M&D MW65 headphones are some of the best-sounding, most stylish and most comfortable noise-canceling headphones you’ll find in 2019. That said, they probably won’t be for most people simply because they’re expensive and, comparatively, you’ll probably be just as happy with Bose’s or Sony’s flagship noise-canceling headphones. If you like the industrial aesthetic of M&D and you won’t headphones that are unique, and you’re willing to spend a little bit more, the M&D MW65 are excellent.

What Others Are Saying:

• “This is another great product from Master & Dynamic where price is my main gripe. Yes, the MW65 looks great, and yes, it sounds really good. Sure, the materials used here are much better than basic plastic. And even though the noise cancellation doesn’t kill all noise, it does its job well without sacrificing great audio in the process. The MW65 are nearly the perfect headphones. It’s a shame most people won’t pay what it costs to find out.” — Billy Steele, Engadget

• “One thing that didn’t surprise me is the audio quality. It’s excellent, just as you’d expect from the M&D brand given its track record of producing great-sounding headphones. My only note is that MW65s have a “natural” sound profile, meaning they aren’t goosed in the bass frequencies the way that Beats or V-Modas (and so many others) are. Just be aware that if you live for drippy, skull-rattling bass, you’ll want an EQ app on your phone.” — Michael Calore, Wired

Key Specs

Drivers: 40mm beryllium
Materials: leather, anodized aluminum
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.2
Weight: 245 grams
Battery: up to 24 hours; 12 hours on a quick 15 minute charge
Charge: USB Type-C

Master & Dynamic provided this product for review.

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Review: This Bowers & Wilkins Speaker Is the Perfect Upgrade From Sonos

When Bowers & Wilkins announced its Formation line of wireless speakers, it was clear they were designed to be a conversation peice as well as a speaker. But that doesn’t mean they’re form over function. The Formation series consists of a pair of active powered speakers, a soundbar, a wireless subwoofer, an audio box and wireless speaker, and they all can work together in a multiroom system or as standalone devices. Using B&W’s proprietary wireless mesh network technology, called Formation Wireless Technology, the speakers can also stream up to 96/24-bit audio, which B&W claims this is twice the fidelity of many other high-end wireless speakers.

The Wedge ($900) is the small standalone speaker in B&W’s Formation series and it’s arguably the most interesting. It’s unmistakable with its 120-degree wedge-shaped design and woven grille. With the ability to play full-range stereo that can easily fill a room, it’s a cousin to the Sonos Play:5, but for serious audiophiles who also have a little more cash to splash.

The Good: The Wedge is an all-in-one speaker with five drivers that are each individually amplified, and it has no problem filling a room. Just like a Sonos speaker, the Wedge is also super easy to use. It works with Spotify Connect so you can stream music directly from the app, is Roon Ready, supports Bluetooth aptX, so your guests don’t need to be connected to wi-fi to play music, and supports Apple AirPlay 2 so you can group it with any other AirPlay speaker. Ultimately, it’s designed to play in a multi-room setup with B&W’s suit of other Formation speakers, but the flexibility is key, especially if you don’t want to spend any more money. ‘s really designed to play in a multi-room setup with B&W’s suite of other Formation speakers, but it supports Apple AirPlay 2 so you can theoretically group it with any other AirPlay speaker.

And while the design is certainly striking, the sound quality is definitely its standout feature. In my testing, I found myself revisiting older albums by Florence and the Machine, and the clarity of the midrange and vocals on tracks like “Spectrum” and “Breaking Dawn” were impressive. The Wedge has a built-in sub, too, so it’s able to bring the bass.

Who It’s For: You have to want a top tier, high-end wireless speaker with a bold design. Seriously, you better love that design. It’s also anything but cheap, so you have to be someone who is serious about hi-fi as well as speaker design.

Watch Out For: There are three things to watch out for with the B&W’s Formation Wedge, and the first two are obvious. First, it’s expensive. Second, the design won’t be for everybody. It looks sort of like a Fabergé egg, or something out of some 50s sci-fi concept art. Lastly, a detail that’s a bit smaller but still worth knowing, the Wedge cannot be designated as right or left channel speaker like some other wi-fi speakers, such as a Sonos One. That, and there’s no analog way to play music. There’s no 3.5mm jack and the USB-C port located on the bottom of the speaker is for service only.

Alternatives: There are plenty of high-end wireless multiroom alternatives to B&W’s Formation Wedge. The Sonos Play:5 is a more affordable option that sounds good and supports AirPlay 2. The Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Wireless ($700) is effectively the older and cheaper version of the Wedge, although it’s not able to sync with other Formation speakers in a multiroom system. If you’re looking for something on the high end, Naim’s Mu-so Qb ($699) and Mu-so 2 ($1,599) are both excellent wireless speakers with a distinct design.

Verdict: The Bowers & Wilkins Formation Wedge is a prime example of a traditional hi-fi speaker seeing the success of Sonos and throwing its hat in the ring. The Wedge is without a doubt a terrific-sounding wireless speaker that’s easy to use and versatile, thanks to AirPlay 2 support as well as built-in Bluetooth. Yes, it’s fairly expensive. Yes, its looks won’t be for everybody. But if you’re in the market for standalone hi-fi speaker that you also want to be a statement piece, for maybe your living room or kitchen, this is definitely a conversation starter that sounds good enough to justify its high price.

What Others Are Saying:

• “The Spotify streams sounded impressive. Bat for Lashes’ “Laura” was summoned from the music streaming service and the sound was bigger than you’d expect from a speaker of that size, easily capable of filling the room. In this instance, the Wedge was able to go loud without losing a grip on clarity or detail.” — Kob Monney, Trusted Reviews

• “Bowers & Wilkins has an excellent track record when it comes to producing curiously-shaped, excellent-sounding wireless speakers. So we have high hopes the Wedge can follow in the Zeppelin’s footsteps. The size and price tag will deter some, but if you’re willing to pay to get the best possible wireless sound, we’re pretty sure you’ll want to audition the Formation Wedge.” — Anonymous, What Hi-Fi?

Key Specs

Speaker: wireless music system
Drivers: 1″ double dome tweeter (2x), 3.5″ midrange (2x), 6″ subwoofer
Frequency response: 35Hz to 28kHz
Weight: 14.3 pounds
Connectivity: Apple AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, Roon Ready, Bluetooth aptX HD

Bowers & Wilkins provided this product for review.

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Can a Wool Surfboard Be as Good as a Traditional Board?

Humans use wool for all sorts of products: clothing, insulation, carpeting, blankets, technical garments and on, and on. We can add “surfboard” to that ever-growing list, now that Firewire Surfboards is bringing to market a peculiar idea from New Zealand surfboard shaper Paul Barron that replaces the fiberglass fabric of a board with ovine fiber. The technology is called Woolight, and Firewire is manufacturing a limited initial quantity to test the market acceptance, all of them in the company’s most popular shape, the Rob Machado Seaside.

Woolight’s origins are humble: nearly ten years ago Barron spilled resin on a sweater of his, but instead of the resin dripping off as he expected it to, it settled into the soft material. A cerebral light bulb clicked on, and he got to work. Years later, Barron brought the concept to Firewire, a surf company (owned in part by Kelly Slater) that has a reputation for using non-traditional processes to make surfboards. In its first board design, which debuted in 2006, Firewire removed the wood stringer from the middle of a board’s foam core and placed it instead parabolically around the outer edge of to create a more torsional flex pattern.

The use of wool continues that tradition of innovation, but also hits on another issue that plagues the surf industry: sustainability. “People with ideas around sustainability who can’t commercialize it for any number of reasons approach us all the time asking if we want to bring it to market,” Firewire CEO Mark Price says. “Paul was aware of all the things we’ve done and are doing, and he approached us two and a half, three years ago. We were just excited by it. It’s a natural fiber that grows, so to speak, in a very environmentally-friendly way.”

The types of boards everyday surfers ride have typically been dictated by what professional surfers have under their feet. The surf industry plays heavily on marketing what less than one percent of the surfing population can actually do on a wave, and surfers can be stubborn to adopt something different without seeing it in action. But the one thing that has stayed consistent since the conception of professional surfing in the 1970s is the materials used to make surfboards.

Surfboard construction has remained mostly unchanged since the introduction of fiberglass and polyurethane (PU) after World War II. The 1960s and 70s, a time colloquially referred to as the Shortboard Revolution, saw board designs get shorter than the old 10-foot planks so that they could become much more maneuverable. There have been size and shape developments since then, but that polyurethane foam core and fiberglass-fabric-with-resin construction is still what floats surfers over waves around the globe today.

Surf companies have only recently begun to explore the use of new materials. Carbon fiber, recycled timber, cork and bio-resins are beginning to make their way into more prominent shapes. In many instances though, different materials provide different riding experiences on a wave, and for creatures of habit like surfers, changes may not always produce the desired characteristic in a surfboard. For surfboard manufacturers looking to move away from the toxic resins and the large carbon footprints associated with petroleum-derived polyurethane surfboard blanks, that stubbornness creates a difficult hurdle.

Firewire has always approached surfboard making differently though. The company utilizes sandwich construction on all its boards, including the Woolight board. Sandwich construction starts with an expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam core covered by a high-density aerospace composite deck skin, which enhances durability. This is then wrapped with deck sandwich cloth, which is typically made of epoxy and resin but, in the Woolight’s case, is wool. This is then sealed through exterior lamination with an entropy bio-epoxy resin to create the hard outer shell.

To replace the bread in that sandwich with wool, Firewire went to Barron’s home: New Zealand. The company partnered with a co-op of sheep farms in the country that’s overseen by New Zealand Merino, a company that has helped brands like Allbirds and Smartwool to get the materials they need ethically. Price and the Firewire team visited the farms and found it was vastly different from the traditional sheep farm: “The traditional sheep farming industry is pretty ugly,” Price said, regarding the shearing process. “Most factory farms rely on a system whereby when shearing sheep, if they kill or maim a certain percentage of them, but get it done faster, that’s just the cost of doing business.”

To change that paradigm, New Zealand Merino enacts limits on the number of sheep per hectare and how many animals can be sheared per hour to ensure animal welfare, responsibility and land conservation. New Zealand Merino also audits the farms every six months to make sure farms are consistently meeting its ethical standards.

When Firewire receives the wool, it is minimally processed and quite raw, not woven like a sweater. To apply the wool to the surfboard, Firewire uses proprietary factory processes that include a vacuum-sealing technique for the exterior lamination procedure. The vacuum bagging method allows for the thinnest amount of resin while still offering the highest strength-to-weight ratio possible. Firewire uses bio-epoxy resin in this process, along with the wool and EPS foam. The recipe qualifies the Woolight board for an ECOBOARD Level One rating from Sustainable Surf, which is an independent, third-party “eco-label” for surfboards that have become the standard in the industry.

“Overall, the use of natural materials in surfboards is a good thing,” Sustainable Surf Cofounder Kevin Whilden says. “Especially if it doesn’t affect other qualities such as surfboard performance, look, feel and durability.”

For the past few months, I’ve been surfing one of these Woolight boards at my local beach breaks in New York and New Jersey. Winter has been transforming into spring, and water temperatures have been lifting from the 30s to the 40s and now to the 50s, but the extra millimeters of neoprene hasn’t hindered how the board paddles.

In terms of performance, I haven’t noticed any signs that it’s an abnormal surfboard that functions lesser than a traditional PU one. In fact, it’s an incredibly progressive board that rises to the level of performance I need in in the different conditions that I often encounter in the Northeast. That may be primarily due to the shape of the board itself (the surfing I like to do fits naturally with a progressive fish that has a double vee concave), but the fact that the materials match those levels is a testament to wool’s ability to replace fiberglass in the lamination process.

During my first session with it, I rode the board on a blustery New Jersey day with few surfers around, one of the early waves I caught presented a long, clean wall about shoulder high. After an initial check turn, I wrapped a roundhouse cutback. These moves tend to be a little drawn out, but to my surprise, I was back in the whitewater of the wave much sooner than I anticipated and was able to bounce off it and redirect back down the line of the righthand wave fast enough to keep riding for a couple more moves down the line.

The board proved that it handles well in the barrel and allows for finesse, drive and complete control, returning energy throughout turns and various maneuvers. That a surfboard can come out of a move without losing speed is essential, and in this the Woolight board shined, retaining all speed (and at times generating more out of a move) to continue down the line of a wave.

While paddling, I often looked down at the board and recognized individual wool fibers in its cloudy blue surface. It was a real, physical reminder that Woolight is different, something new. But on a wave, with the board under my feet, the place where performance is more crucial than appearances, I didn’t think about the wool at all. I couldn’t feel any difference; the board offers the typical flex patterns and riding capabilities you’d find in any regular surfboard. So, to answer the question on every skeptical surfer’s mind, does the Woolight board surf any differently from a normal one? No, and ultimately, that’s the point.

The Good: Buoyancy, performance and durability aren’t affected by the replacement of fiberglass with wool. Simply put, the Woolight surfboard rides exactly like a regular fiberglass surfboard. According to the compression testing that Firewire performed in its factory, it found the durability and tensile strength of wool to be comparable to fiberglass too. This is aided by the sandwich construction deck skin, which also helps keep the deck of the surfboard less susceptible to heel marks and divots that tend to happen immediately with fiberglass. After four months of testing, I didn’t notice any heel marks or dings.

Who It’s For: Surfers looking for a sustainable alternative to the toxic boards that are the current industry norm.

Watch Out For: If you’re looking for an eco-friendly surfboard there are alternatives with smaller carbon footprints, but the Level One ECOBOARD rating is still commendable. While using the bio-epoxy resin is a huge plus for the board, the EPS core keeps it from qualifying for the Gold Level. Plus, the wool doesn’t reduce the carbon footprint as much as you’d think because sheep emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

As Sustainable Surf Cofounder Kevin Whilden told us, “Wool actually has about a ten-times higher carbon footprint than fiberglass. Firewire certainly did their homework in sourcing wool from a very sustainable sheep ranching operation, which supports that local community. However, I think it was a bit of a surprise that a natural material like wool has a higher footprint than an inorganic material like fiberglass. That’s a counter-intuitive result, and it speaks to the importance of conducting formal lifecycle analysis when deciding which materials are more sustainable.” On the other hand, fiberglass is not a renewable material, and its application in a board is far more toxic than wool.

On the performance side, lets’ note that Firewire’s Seaside model is the only shape Woolight is currently available in. The Seaside comes with a quad fin setup, unlike most traditional surfboards these days that offer the versatility of five fin boxes to allow for riding the board as a thruster or a quad. As someone who rides lots of twin fin setups, I opted to ride the Seaside Woolight with a twinzer setup (two smaller knub fins in front and two bigger twin fins in the back). While this board might lack a stabilizing center fin, it still offers versatility if you get creative.

Alternatives: One direct alternative to Woolight is Lost Surfboards’s C4 Technology, which uses cork in a similar sandwich construction. Firewire’s own Timbertek, which uses sustainably-grown Paulownia wood deck skins, is also up there, and has a Gold Level ECOBOARD rating. Other companies like Grain Surfboards and Agave Surfboards use wood as the major material in their boards. The ECOBOARD Project offers a comprehensive list of companies that offer sustainably-built surfboards, which you can view here. Almost all sustainably-built boards cost $700 or more.

Verdict: Early signs show that wool might be a direct replacement for fiberglass, with potential to expand far beyond surfboards. Woolight, or something like it, might be used wherever fiberglass is present, like in boats, housing, automobiles and more.

That futuristic and potentially game-changing premise is a lot to wrap your head around, but take all that away, and Firewire’s Seaside Woolight surfboard handily proves that wool, whether it changes manufacturing or not, can produce a surfboard that competes with the best of them. The Woolight board isn’t quite the greenest surfboard you can buy, but it serves as a potent example of how surfboard makers can change their thinking about the materials they work with, without sacrificing anything that surfers want from a board.

Key Specs: Firewire Seaside Woolight Surfboard

Price: $840
Ridden Dimensions: 5’2” x 20” x 2 5/16”
Ridden Volume: 26.5L

Firewire Surfboards provided this product for review.

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Review: Is this the Perfect Outdoor Projector?

If you’re looking for a portable outdoor projector, Anker has a few of your best options. There’s the Nebula Capsule II ($580), which is the size of a soda can (it’s called a “pocket cinema” for a reason), but also the Nebula Mars II ($499), a slightly larger and more affordable portable projector that’s actually capable of throwing a bigger and brighter screen. Both onboard Android operating systems and can access apps like Netflix and Youtube right from the get-go; or you can connect your smartphone, laptop or even gaming console to either of them. Both can be used as portable Bluetooth speakers, too. So if you’re gunning for a gadget that will let you bring the movies into the great outdoors on a cool summer evening, how does the Mars II square up?

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The Good: The Mars II is the better of the two portable projectors if you care about the picture and sound quality, and are less concerned about being able to carry it in your pocket. It’s a great companion for backyard cookouts and sleepovers, as well as campouts, although you’ll probably want to invest in portable or outdoor projection screen. If you’re a cord cutter and have open wall space in your home or apartment, the Mars II could fairly easily be turned into a DIY home cinema.

The Mars II can be used as a standalone device to stream movies and shows from Netflix, YouTube TV or Amazon Prime Video; this means that you don’t need any cables to watch things, but you will need a Wi-Fi connection to stream if the app in question doesn’t allow you to pre-download your content. You can also just use an HDMI cord and hook up your smartphone or tablet directly which will let you stream shows and movies from other apps, like HBO GO or Showtime Anytime, which aren’t available to download on the Mars II. The projector is also ideal for hooking up gaming consoles, like Nintendo Switch, which is what I frequently did. I brought it into the office and played Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe with my colleagues, and generally had a blast. And if you’re looking for a work-related excuse to shell out, you could also use this projector for presentations without having to find a room that has a projector already set up.

The Mars II also has built-in autofocus so you don’t really have to worry about the screen ever being blurry. It doubles as a portable Bluetooth speaker, too, so you don’t need to bring a separate device for audio. It has a USB-A port and can work as a portable battery that can charge your other devices. And lastly, the screen it projects can be huge — up to 150-inches — and it’s noticeably brighter than Anker’s smaller projectors. It’s compatible with a 1/4-inch tripod screw mount.

Who It’s For: The Mars II is the portable projector that’s better suited for using “near the home.” Whether that’s in the backyard or projecting a big screen in a playroom, that’s where this thing thrives. It’s great for car camping, too, although you’ll want to invest in a portable projection screen.

Watch Out For: Like pretty much every portable projector you’ll find, the Mars II needs a very dark environment to thrive; if it’s in a bright room or a room with a lot of windows, you’ll have a hard time making out the picture. There’s no auto-adjust dial on the back of the projector, like the Capsule II, so the only way you can adjust the screen size is by physically moving the projector closer or further a way from the screen. There’s no Google Play Store, which seems like a miss, because you can’t download many of the apps from your smartphone directly onto the projector, such as HBO Go or Chrome. And to cap it all off, it uses a proprietary charger.

Alternatives: The Capsule II is the obvious alternative. It’s decently smaller and can be taken more places, but it’s more expensive. It also can’t produce the quite the same picture quality (although it’s not that much different) and its speakers aren’t as loud. But it will give you access to the Google Play Store and it charges via a USB-C port.

Verdict: Anker makes some of the best portable projectors you can buy right now. As for which of its projectors you should buy, that comes down to how you’re planning on using it. The Capsule II is definitely the better travel companion and its upgraded operating system (with more apps) make it more of a standalone device. However, if you want a better and bigger picture, and a device with better battery life, that’s where the Mars II comes in. It’s the better option for backyard movie nights or weekend car camping trips — just know that if you don’t have a place to project the screen, like a garage wall, you’ll want to buy a portable projection screen.

What Others Are Saying:

• “The Anker Nebula Mars II projector is a fantastic gadget. While it’s not going to tempt cinephiles, those looking for an easy-to-use, easy-to-transport portable projector need look no further.” — Gerald Lynch, TechRadar

• “Overall, the Mars II is very good as a projector. It’s not as bright as the original model, but I think that’s a perfectly acceptable tradeoff, considering this is $170 less (at the time of writing) than the first Mars was at launch. Auto-focus is a nice bonus, too.” — Corbin Davenport, Android Police

Key Specs
Screen size: 30 to 150 inches
Resolution: 720p
Brightness: 300 lumens
Operating system: Android 7.1
Connectivity: wifi, Bluetooth 4.0
Battery: 12500 mAh; roughly 4 hours of playtime
Ports: HDMI, USB-A, 3.5mm jack

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Anker provided this product for review.

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The Hoka One One Carbon X: a Nike 4% for the Everyman

When Nike launched the Zoom Vaporfly 4%, it was groundbreaking. Thanks to a combo of the shoe’s researched-confirmed efficiency benefits and the broad-reaching publicity it received, everyone wanted a pair. And competitors wanted to respond.

Since Nike’s launch, Hoka and Skechers have both produced carbon-fiber running shoes. Earlier this month, in a staged event to launch Hoka’s second carbon-fiber shoe, Jim Walmsley broke the 50-mile world record (pending verification), running 4:50:08 in the new Carbon X.

So I know you’re wondering, how does Hoka’s Carbon X compare to Nike’s Zoom Vaporfly 4%? I was one of the select few to get a prototype pair weeks ahead of launch, and having now logged over 80 miles in them, here’s my take.

The Good: Typically, when brands introduce new models, it takes a few iterations to work out the kinks. Not so with the Carbon X. It has a remarkably mature feeling, like it’s been on the market for years. Maybe that’s because it isn’t Hoka’s first foray into carbon-fiber-plated shoes. The Carbon Rocket, which launched earlier this year, featured the same carbon-fiber design, laying the groundwork for this more cushioned sibling.

The ride quality is phenomenal — one of the best I’ve experienced. Out of the box, the Carbon X settles into a smooth, rhythmic cadence that’s bouncy and fun. Above the carbon-fiber plate sits a soft compression molded EVA, with a firmer, more responsive Injected R-bound below. This teaming of softer foam above the plate with firmer foam underneath gives the Carbon X a balanced ride.

The stiffness of the carbon-fiber plate helped maintain, and even amplify, Hoka’s classic meta-rocker feeling of propelling you forward with each footstrike. Even as I varied my pacing from dead slow to race effort and altered my footstrike from forefoot to heel, the ride remained consistent. What stood out for me was the seemingly impossible balancing act of a firm versus soft feel in the midsole. I tend to like a softer feeling shoe for easy, recovery runs and a firmer, responsive shoe for faster runs, when pace matters. The Carbon X fits both bills.

Who It’s For: While there may be different use cases, the Carbon X is a fast shoe for everyone. For the first-timer to the competitive recreational runner, it’s an ideal half marathon-to-marathon racing shoe, regardless of footstrike or gait. For elite runners, who may tend towards the Vaporfly 4% or a lower-profile racing flat come race day, the Carbon X makes a fantastic long tempo or up-tempo long run shoe, saving the legs from extended pavement pounding.

Watch Out For: For all the good, the Carbon X does have one weakness; the wide footprint felt stable while moving forward, but the high stack height (32mm/27mm) and flimsy mesh upper contributed to a lack of lateral stability. I often felt a bit tipsy while turning sharp corners at high paces and running on uneven footing. This uneasy feeling was amplified on grass, dirt and gravel, as I found myself quickly darting back to the concrete for more stability. I’d like to see some added midfoot support integrated into the mesh upper to help keep the sides of the foot more secure. However, that may add some weight. Just make sure you’re a little cautious through the turns and when venturing off-road.

Alternatives: The most obvious comparison, due to the carbon-fiber plate, is Nike’s Zoom Vaporfly 4%. However, they couldn’t be more different. The Vaporfly 4% is suited for the front-of-the-pack runner, whereas the Hoka Carbon X is more geared to a broader audience. The two closest alternatives I’ve tested are the New Balance Fresh Foam Beacon ($110) and Skechers GoRun 7 ($130). Both fit the maximum-cushioned race profile, like the Carbon X, but tend to be a little softer in the midsole and less stable. They also retail for $70 to $50 less than the Carbon X, begging the question: Is the $50 price difference noticeable? Yes, for sure. I’d treat the Carbon X as a “special occasion shoe” for race day or those key workouts where you want to nail your pace.

Verdict: Hoka’s got a winner here. I test about 80 running shoes per year, and I can honestly say these are some of the best I’ve ever tested. Most racing-oriented shoes, such as the Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4%, are more suitable for the competitive to elite runner, leaving the majority of runners racing in their heavy, everyday trainers. Why should elites get all the fancy shoes? Just because your corral is towards the back doesn’t mean you’re not out there trying just as hard as those in the front. From back-of-the-packers to elites, heel to forefoot strikers, the Hoka One One Carbon X delivers a smooth, responsive, cushioned ride. Just be sure to stay on the pavement.

What Others Are Saying:

• “It provides a unique blend of soft, bouncy, very plentiful cushion, stability and carbon powered propulsion. It has proven a very fine longer than half racer for me but its real strength for me is as a heavy mileage, anything but the fastest tempo paces, lightweight trainer. Recovery runs, daily mileage, long runs at most all paces are gobbled up with ease by the X.” — Sam Winebaum, RoadTrailRun

• “To say that a shoe is good for midfoot strikers and not good for heel strikers would be an oversimplification, but after a week of Runner’s World staff testing and comparing notes, that’s about where we’re at. I land on my midfoot and I quite like the Carbon X; the rocker feels like a subtle ramp that helps me load up and push off my forefoot, and the shoe feels natural whether I’m jogging or sprinting.” — Dan Roe, Runner’s World

Key Specs

Weight: 8.7 oz.
Stack Height: 32mm (forefoot); 27mm (heel)
Offset: 5mm
Midsole: Compression Molded EVA (above plate); Injected R-bound (below plate)
Upper: Engineered Mesh

Hoka One One provided this product for review.

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Review: Nike Terra Gobe Hiking Shoes Are as Comfortable on the Streets as They Are in the Woods

Way back in 1989, Nike brought performance athletics prowess to the great outdoors with the launch of ACG (All Conditions Gear). Now for the line’s 30th year, the brand has unveiled fresh designs, including the Nike ACG React Terra Gobe. The brand-new shoe is a blend of runner-approved foam and a durable DWR-coated upper that looks like it belongs in a ’90s ad. Built for the trail, these shoes do double duty in urban areas and densely wooded locales. True to ACG’s original aspirations, they’re the latest example of Nike’s efforts to get the user out of the city.

The shoes dropped at the end of April after Nike put them through 2,000-plus hours of testing. I tried them out myself through sun, wind, rain, sleet and snow on a recent trip to Portland, Mt. Hood and all around the Hood River in Oregon. Here’s how they fared.

Video: Nike React Terra Gobe Review

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The Good: The most exciting feature is the inclusion of Nike React foam in the midsole. It’s the same foam found in the Nike Odyssey React, a sneaker I ran in throughout the winter. The lightweight, bouncy foam keeps your feet comfortable all day long. The beefed-up outsole includes both medial and lateral pads that add enough traction for you to walk on packed snow without slipping. A vibrant yellow (or blue) upper with a simple webbed design is easy to tighten and stretchy, yet lightly supportive. I liked the heel pull tab that made it a snap to slide in and out of the sneakers. Similar to running shoes, these 11.22-ounce hikers should last about 300 miles.

Who It’s For: The bright yellow upper is definitely for the hiker or aspiring outdoorsman who likes to get outside and wants to make a statement. The look is quite a departure from your typical Danner hiking boots in a dark nubuck leather upper. Nike wants to encourage everyone to get outside — especially those living in cities — so the street-style vibe carries you from the concrete jungle to the actual woods. These are not for the user looking to summit Mt. Everest or another super technical trail, but they’ll work for someone who aspires to climb the Grand Tetons — or the stairs at the nearest train stop.

Watch Out For: While the shoes are water-resistant, they’re not waterproof. If you step into a puddle, your socks will get wet. That said, they kept my feet dry during many hours of testing in snow, sleet, rain and mist. Also, right out of the box, these shoes are comfortable, but after wearing them all day long, two days in a row, I felt some rubbing on my right Achilles. My socks were pretty thin, so I’d recommend wearing hiking socks with these types of shoes.

Alternatives: If you want something with stronger ankle support, look for a hiking boot that comes up over your ankle. For hiking shoe aficionados who don’t like the look of this shoe, check out the Adidas Outdoor Terrex Free Hiker Boot ($200), Danner’s Tramline 917 ($200), or Teva’s Arrowood 2 Mid ($105). The Terrex boots have a somewhat similar look to the Nike ACG shoes, should you still crave a bit of sneakerhead appeal.

Verdict: If you’re looking for a pair of sneakers that will double as your hiking boots and work in a pinch as your running shoes, these retro-styled kicks will do the trick. While the colors aren’t for everyone, the top-notch comfort and easy on-and-off style works for urbanites seeking a sneaker that’s worthy of the streets but doesn’t slip on those upstate trails.

Nike provided this product for review.

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The World’s Lightest 17-Inch Laptop Is a Beautiful Contradiction

The LG Gram 17 ($1,700) is caught between worlds. With a 17-inch screen, it has an enormous footprint, but at the same time it’s uncannily thin and weighs less than three pounds. That lightweight design lends itself to portability, but the 17-inch frame, no matter how light, is far from convenient to travel with. Similarly, the LG Gram 17 is packed with premium guts — a beautiful display, Intel’s latest Whiskey Lake processor, 16GB of RAM, a full compliment of various ports — but it’s missing a dedicated GPU, making it all but useless for high-end gaming, which is one of the few good excuses for splurging on a screen so large. So, who exactly is this thing for?

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The Good: The Gram 17 has a lot going for it on paper and on your desk. It’s huge, bright, colorful display has lots of real-estate for spreadsheets at the office, or Netflix on the road. It has a tremendous battery life, up to 15 hours between charges depending on how hard you’re pushing it. It’s 8th generation Intel Core i7 processor has a good amount of horsepower, not that you’ll need a whole ton of it in day-to-day life. Its good variety of ports means you can live life dongle-free, which makes up for some of its bulk if you’re going to take it on a trip. And if you’re looking to game, and external GPU is always an option.

Who It’s For: Anybody looking for ultrabook laptop with a huge screen, great battery life and a lightweight design. Travelers who are more concerned about weight than volume. Folks who wish they could throw two full screens in a suitcase. But the lack of a GPU means it’s probably not a good pick for gamers or video editors who might be enticed by the rest of the package.

Watch Out For: The Gram 17 is exceptionally lightweight, but its metal alloy body (technically it’s a nanocarbon and magnesium mix) feels a little like plastic. That said, it’s pretty durable; LG says its military tested and it’s not going to dent through everyday use or anything. The 17-inch design, which could almost fit into the footprint of some 15-inch laptops thanks to its thin bezels, might not fit into a lot of backpack sleeves. There’s no dedicated GPU and the stock graphics (Intel UHD 620) aren’t great. The speakers aren’t the best either.

Alternatives: There are other lightweight ultrabooks. Many of them by LG. The LG Gram 13 and Gram 15, for example, share a similar featherlight design just with 13-inch and 15-inch displays, respectively. If you’re looking for a 17-inch laptop with a beautiful display, the HP Envy 17 is a pretty safe bet. The Alienware Area-51m is one of the best 17-inch gaming laptops you can buy.

Verdict: The LG Gram 17 has shock value. It’s so darn light yet so darn big that it’s a little distracting. Yes, it’s the lightest 17-inch laptop that you can buy, with a beautiful display and a battery that can keep up with it, but how much is that worth to you? Yes, the lack of a dedicated GPU will scare serious gamers away, but it could make a good travel companion so long as you have a bag with a 17-inch laptop sleeve.

What Others Are Saying:

• “LG’s first couple of Gram laptops impressed with their lightweight designs, but they fell short in other areas, whether it was battery life, performance or build quality. The Gram 17 is a big step forward for the brand, offering a bright and colorful 17-inch display in a design so light you’ll do a double take. ” — Mark Spoonauer, Laptop Mag

• “There’s nothing quite like the LG gram 17. LG took its 13-inch gram and blew it up to a 17-inch laptop, but at less than three pounds, this giant is as light as a feather. The incredible battery life, excellent ports, and standard Core i7 processor make it perfect for productivity, but not great for heavy-lifting due to the lack of a discrete GPU.” — Daniel Rubino, Windows Central

• “If you love the idea of a 17-inch screen, the LG Gram 17 might be a good choice. For most, though, $1,700 is too much to pay for a 17-inch laptop without a dedicated GPU, fast storage, and robust build quality.” — Arif Bacchus, Digital Trends

Key Specs
Processor: 8th Gen Intel Core i7
Display: 17-inch WQXGA (2560 x 1600)
RAM: 16GB
Storage: 512GB
Graphics: Intel UHD Graphics 620
Ports: USB-A 3.0 (3x), USB-C Thunderbolt 3, HDMI 1.4, microSD card reader, headphone jack
Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0
Weight: 2.95 pounds
OS: Windows 10 Home

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LG provided this product for review.

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Review: This Isn’t Your Average Action Camera

Sony has been spreading its imaging talents across a wide swath of camera products, from its mirrorless rigs to DSLR’s, point-and-shooters to action cameras. The new RX0 II (along with its predecessor, the RXO) is in a class by itself. It’s not an action camera — the appropriately named Action Cam line fills that slot more directly — and it’s not just a ruggedized point-and-shoot, either, since it doesn’t have the zoom capability or the typically larger sensor those cameras have. Instead, it’s simply the smallest and most durable camera for any of those users. It’s like they averaged out the needs of all the photographers in the world and compressed the result into a bulletproof 5-ounce box that fits in the palm of your hand.

The good: This RX0 II ($698) introduces a few key improvements, most notably internal 4K video and a flip-up/down rear screen. The waterproof cube now has image stabilization, and its baseline usability and quality make it a fine companion on most adventures. Finally, it’s crush-proof. Like, really crush-proof. You can place the RX0 II on a golf tee, drive it straight into the face of Half Dome, and get some pretty great footage of the whole affair. (In all seriousness, it’s rated to 440 pound-feet of crush-proofing, a number that likely reflects the glass and screen giving up first.) It’s got nicely granular programmability and lots of features from the larger prosumer cameras.

Who it’s for: The camera is clearly targeted toward vloggers and other types of creators, something Sony mentions explicitly in its media information. But that’s a bit misleading. After all, this is a mass-market — though relatively expensive — product, and the only fully ruggedized camera in Sony’s lineup. So while YouTubers and Instagrammers and folks making content professionally will certainly have their curiosity piqued, it’s for anyone looking to make photos and videos and who want a more compelling or more specifically capable alternative to the GoPros. It’s a top-shelf travel camera and yes, it takes great selfies, given the flip-up screen.

Watch out for: There are a few critical caveats with this camera, of particular note to anyone cross-shopping it against conventional action cameras such as the GoPro line. First, while it can now shoot 4K video directly to the camera — instead requiring tethering to a separate device that can process the stream, as in the original version — it’s not a true action camera. The field of view is tighter, which is a good thing for most shooters, so you won’t have the extreme wide-angle views that make mounting and aiming the camera easier, and the field of view isn’t universally in focus, so it has to focus with each shot. Finally, it’s not set up like an action camera, with simplified menus and quick, idiot-proof activation.

Alternatives: There aren’t many that sync up specifically with this camera’s features and capabilities. That said, in terms of size and general durability, the GoPro lineup or Sony’s own Action Cam models are roughly equivalent.

Review: I brought the RX0 II on several trips and shooting expeditions, and it proved to be a reliable and valuable travel companion, as well as a quick and easy tool for those instantaneous photo-ops — the ones where firing up the smartphone is a bit complicated even when access is integrated into the home screen. With the RX0 you simply turn it on and start firing — two buttons you can access and engage without looking. In automatic mode, the camera produced good images across a variety of conditions and better ones when you dialed in the exposure via the manual settings. The Zeiss lens proved as sharp as it always has been, and the 24mm optics, with its 85-degree field of view, wide enough to be broadly useful without generating the fisheye effect that most action cameras generate. The images don’t have that “GoPro look,” which is a good thing if you’re taking your shooting seriously.

The images don’t have that “GoPro look,” which is a good thing if you’re taking your shooting seriously.

Though Sony bolstered the camera’s video capabilities, it’s still designed and oriented much more as a stills camera that also shoots videos. By that I mean its menu system mimics that of Sony’s DSLR and mirrorless cameras. All shoot great video, but they aren’t engineered solely for that person. As a result, if you’re not already familiar with Sony’s menu conventions and its operational logic, it will take you a little while to figure out, for instance, how to flip back and forth between still and video modes. It’s a multistep process executed via the rear screen, since there are no external buttons. (These are limited to just power and shutter.) So be willing to dig in a bit to the instruction manual. “Intuitive” isn’t exactly Sony’s middle name.

The addition of a flip-up screen is welcome. This isn’t because it makes selfies or vlogging easier when you pivot it straight up to 180 degrees — though it certainly does that — but rather it enables you to much more easily compose images when the camera is down low to the ground or held up above your head. In any camera without this feature, you have no way of confirming the view in these positions, so having a tilting screen essentially triples your possible perspectives while shooting.

Other welcome features further push this already highly compelling package’s appeal, including the high shutter speed of 1/32,000 second. That’s of limited practical use since the lighting demands are quite high, but if you know how to work with such speeds you can grab beautiful freeze-frame images. Additionally, the 16 frames-per-second shooting rate greatly improves your chances of getting a perfect frame while shooting action sequences. Just remember to get close to your subject, since a 24mm lens is wide enough that you might lose the impact of high-speed events. Speaking of getting close, the addition of Sony’s Eye AF autofocus feature is another great boon, as it vastly improves your ability to get excellent portraits of people.

There are other somewhat more esoteric capabilities, including improvements in 4K recording performance and the ability to control up to 5 cameras via Sony’s app. Hardcore users will like its compatibility with Sony’s Camera Control Box system, which allows control of up to 100 wired cameras from a single device, such as when creating creative visual effects like 360-degree rotations around a moving subject. (Should you have $70,000 to invest in such a rig, of course.) Most users, though, will be happy with the camera’s more conventional programmability, as well as its reliably Sony-caliber results.

Verdict: The RX0 II is a fine camera for those who know exactly what they’re getting into — essentially a mini-DSLR with a fixed lens and a rock-hard case. Once you become adept at navigating the settings on the fly, doing so becomes quick and easy. There’s an unmistakable learning curve in this respect, but it’s worth it if you’re looking for high-quality images or video shot from a variety of angles or with yourself in the image, monitored via the tilt-up screen. But if you don’t have a specific need for this particular camera, a GoPro might indeed be a better, and cheaper, alternative — especially given the camera’s recent improvements in usability and versatility.

Key Specs
Sensor: 1-inch 20 MP, cropped down to 15.3 MP
Lens: Zeiss Tessar T* 24mm F4
Video: Up to 4K
Still shooting: Up to 16fps continuous with shutter speeds up to 1/32,000 second.

Sony provided this product for review.

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