All posts in “Tech Desk”

The $200 Headphones That Punch Way Above Their Weight

The headphone industry has reason to be happy in 2019. With Q1 sales of over $5.9 billion, consumer appetite for the personal audio category has never been stronger. Wireless headphones have led the charge, outperforming all other categories with a staggering 40-percent increase in global sales. The news, however, for on-ear and over-gear headphones has not been as rosy with single-digit levels of growth; the silver lining for manufacturers of luxury headphones is that the average sale price has risen to almost $130 pair.

Consumers are buying more expensive headphones from brands like Audeze, Sennheiser, HiFiMan, Grado and Beyerdynamic, but the market remains focused on brands like Sony, Bose and Apple who are commanding significant market share with their wireless IEM products. An outlier in this mix of global brands has been upstart 1More with their affordable Triple-Driver IEMs and Triple-Driver Over-Ear model that made our recent luxury headphones buying guide.

The Triple Driver Over-Ear have been favorably reviewed by every major headphone publication; their overall performance for $200 makes them a tremendous value in a category dominated by similar products that are 2x or 3x the price. Like many brands, 1More manufactures all of its products in China which has made it possible for them to keep their products affordable.

If you want a pair of audiophile-level headphones that works well with your smartphone and doesn’t need a separate headphone amplifier, the Triple-Driver Over-Ear are a great pair of over-ear headphones — especially for the value.

1More has built a pair of travel headphones that are built to last; my personal pair have survived dozens of plane trips and weekly train commutes from New Jersey to New York and Maryland. The Over-Ear have a stainless-steel and leather headband, along with rotating leather cushioned ear cups, that fits comfortably and then folds compactly when you’re done listening to them.

If you have a large head (like myself), the adjustability of the headband is a major plus. The closed-back design makes them a smart choice for commuting and airplane travel; the ear cups achieve an above-average seal so the level of leakage is acceptably low (you don’t want people to hear what you’re listening, too. On the downside, the earcups aren’t replaceable and the size might be an issue for those with large ears.

Detachable headphone cables are more common with more expensive headphones and 1More provides an excellent sounding copper detachable cable with the Over-Ear model; a feature that has saved them on numerous occasions from my less than elegant arm movement. The 52-inch length of the headphone cable is longer than what is supplied by most manufacturers and gives you some slack if your playback device is tucked away. One negative is the absence of an in-line mic and controls on the supplied cable; which is somewhat ironic as 1More includes this feature on their less expensive Triple-Driver IEMs.

The Triple-Driver have three advanced drivers including a 40 mm titanium dynamic driver, ceramic tweeter, and bass reflector. The 32-ohm impedance makes them smartphone-friendly, and while they certainly sound better connected to the new DragonFly Cobalt DAC/Headphone amplifier from AudioQuest, the 1More offer a very balanced sounding presentation that is consistent with most smartphones via their 3.5mm stereo connection.

While not the last word in bass response, the Triple-Driver Over-Ear offer a fairly detailed sounding presentation with a slight bump in the mid-bass. Vocals are clean sounding thanks to a neutral midrange and their overall tonal balance makes them a solid option for most types of music. If you’re looking for analytical sounding studio headphones, the 1More will not be your cup of tea; they are also not as warm sounding as the Master & Dynamic MH40 ($249).

In a market filled with over-achieving audiophile headphones like the HiFiMan Sundara ($349), and sub-$300 wireless earbuds from Sony and Bose, the 1More Triple-Driver Over-Ear headphones offer a lot of performance for only $200.

The Best Retro Tech to Still Hunt for Today

It’s easy to understand the appeal of heirloom watches, classic cars, or vintage clothes, but it can be harder to imagine how gadgets and gear more broadly classified as “technology” can have usefulness that stands the test of time. Old computers are a fun novelty, but you’ll be hard-pressed to use them in any remotely modern way. Smartphones from as little as seven or eight years ago are often worthless as anything more than paperweights. But there are exceptions to the rule, bits of gear that work just as well — if not better — today, albeit perhaps a little differently. Here are some examples.

Buckling Spring Keyboards

Photo: Wikipedia

If you’ve ever thought about how computer keyboards used to be louder and clickier back in the day, chances are you’re thinking of the venerated Model M. These classic beige beasts were included with IBM PCs starting back in the 1980s and sport a unique “buckling spring” design unlike what you’ll find in a modern keyboard, even a mechanical one. The Model M may be old, it’s not obsolete. Enthusiasts collect, restore, modernize, and even sell these pieces of computer history, and you can use one with your laptop, if you’re willing to pay the price.

Old School Stereo Recievers

There’s no shortage of new hi-fi audio equipment, but classic Marantz equipment from the 70s is not only still functional but still desirable. Not only do Marantz receivers have retro flair, but they offer incredible sound and have stood the test of time for decades already. Models like the Marantz 2270 will cost a pretty penny nearly 50 years on, and you can expect to pay over $1,000 for one, but you can also expect it to be the last stereo you’ll ever need to buy.

Film Cameras

Photo: Japan Camera Hunter

Digital cameras are absolutely terrific, even if the ability to see a picture right after you’ve taken it seems old hat after several decades of dominance. But good old-fashioned film cameras still have their charm, not only thanks to the long, long legacy of film photography and development, but also because they can do things that a digital camera could never dream of—like shooting with no battery power required. There is a whole army of vintage cameras worth exploring, depending on your price range, your preferences, and your access to film, but the Fuji GW690III is a great place to start thanks to its hefty build quality, price, and the size of its negatives.

CRT Displays

Photo: Smithsonian American Art Museum

The modern TV and monitor market is obsessed with size and resolution. The age of 8K is on the horizon. But if you’re trying to recapture the warm, fuzzy visuals of classic retro gaming, that added resolution is only going to make your NES graphics look uncanny. If you want authentic visuals, you’re going to need scanlines, those faint, classic, horizontal stripes that define the pre-digital picture of cathode ray tube TVs. CRTs are, for the most part, out of production but plenty of old models are still floating around. Among the various choices, vintage gamers often point to the Sony Triton as an option worth hunting for. And in addition to those beautiful lines, you’ll also have all the retro ports you need to plug in your old Sega Genesis with no need to fiddle with adapters.

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

You Want a Trackball, You Just Don’t Know It Yet

For decades, the standard set of tools for computing has been more or less set in stone. When you sit at a desk, you use a keyboard for typing in words and you use a mouse to point and click things. If you have a laptop, maybe you use its touchpad. If you’re really out there, you might use a Magic Trackpad or its equivalent. And that’s fine! It’s OK to be normal, but if you really want to the next level of comfort and productivity at your desk, it’s time to put away childish things and upgrade. My friend, you should be using a trackball.

Trackballs, while a little tough to get the hang of, are rarer than they should be. And they’re more comfortable, more useful, more efficient and dare I say cooler than every alternative, and now that I’ve seen the light after years of missing out, I’ll never go back. If you make the switch, and you should, you’ll see what I mean. Let me make the case.

The Case Against the Venerable Mouse

For all their popularity, there are a ton of reasons not to use a traditional mouse. First and foremost is the ergonomics. Do you ever get pain in your wrist after a long stint at the computer? I know I used to, and if you’re using a standard mouse, it’s no wonder. It might feel like you are in a resting state, but various parts of your hand and arm are actually tense. If you hold your mouse with a so-called “claw” grip, muscles on the back of your hand are too. Worse yet, standard mouse posture, with your palm parallel to the desk, keeps your forearm in a perpetually twisted state. Twisting your wrist to the left or right as you point and click can cause further stress. Also, you may not have it (yet), but “mouse elbow” is real.

One solution to this problem is a vertical mouse which holds your wrist in a better position like the Logitech MX Vertical. But even a vertical mouse requires precious acreage on your desk. Unless your sensitivity is through the roof, you’ll always need a decent amount of room to slide the dang thing around, lift it up, set it down and then slide it around again. And if a glass of water or can of soda encroaches on that space, you’re asking for trouble.

Standalone trackpads, with their stationary footprint, are an improvement and can offer some fun gesture controls depending on your computer’s operating system, but come with their own downsides. All that swiping and tapping can still tweak your wrist and, worst of all, clicking and dragging becomes a true nightmare. If only there were a way to solve all of these problems at once…Surprise, there is! It’s called a trackball.

Why You Should Try a Trackball Instead

Completely stationary, a trackball lets you dial in a comfortable, relaxed position and keep it all day every day while simultaneously freeing up your desk for mugs, post-its, chargers — whatever you want. There are a wide variety of vastly-different trackballs, so you have creative license to figure out which model works best for you.

The choice between designs that offer a small ball you control with your thumb or a larger ball you operate with your index or pointer gives you a variety of control options and ergonomic setups the world of mice just can’t match. What’s more, trackballs virtually all include a wealth of extra, programmable buttons to customize to your various needs. To top it all off, they’re uncommon, exotic and, by this nerd’s definition, even cool.

Kensington Expert Wireless

My first trackball

• Ambidextrous design
• Four programmable buttons
• Physical scroll wheel
• Included wrist wrest
• Wireless connection by Bluetooth or USB

Price: $75

I started exploring trackballs after a bout of ulnar wrist pain that dogged me constantly and would flare up after long days at the office. Sitting stationary at your desk all day isn’t ideal for fitness, but maintaining a comfortable and healthy posture is crucial to your arm and joint health while you are doing it. And if you don’t have a Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI) or similar pain from your time with a mouse, good! But it’s worth being proactive to avoid. If you don’t believe me, just ask the guy who invented Kirby.

The first trackball that I bought was the Kensington Expert Wireless ($75), and it was for the extremely shallow reason that I liked the way it looked, but it turns out to have a whole host of other features that make it appealing. I’m righthanded, but its symmetrical design makes it a rare option that also works for lefties. And while folks swear by trackball models that put a smaller, marble-sized ball under your thumb, but I instantly fell in love with the cue-ball design that lets me pilot my pointer with my more dexterous index and middle fingers. Switching overtook a little bit of getting used to, a few weeks of minor fumbling with the cursor, but the improvement in comfort was immediate and extreme. It was love.

Once I got acquainted with my Kensington, I knew I would never go back, but I did want to go forward and explore more. For all its appeal, the Expert Wireless has a few flaws that were a particular problem for me. Chiefly, instead of any sort of scroll wheel, it has a scroll ring that loops around the ball. It’s a joy to spin around and around and around, but it requires just enough wrist movement that it still can cause me a bit of pain. And while its included wrist rest works well enough, its relatively flat design left a little to be desired. So I decided to dig a little deeper.

That’s when I discovered the Elecom Huge ($55), a common sight on Reddit’s haven for trackball nerds. With its mitten-shaped design, it’s almost obscenely comfortable to use, and the thumb-mounted left-click button and traditional scroll wheel mean that I never have to move my wrist at all — a small improvement that feels almost magical in practice.

Elecom Huge

My current trackball

• Hand-shaped ergonomic design
• Eight programmable buttons
• Physical sensitivity switch
• Wildly comfortable sculped palmrest
• Wireless connection by Bluetooth or USB

Price: $55

The buttons on the Elecom Huge are, frankly, a little bit overkill. In addition to left and right click, the Huge has three programmable function buttons, a scroll wheel that clicks in and tilts up and down and forward and back buttons for your browser. Without the help of third party software (I use a program called Steermouse), you won’t be able to reprogram them all, but you’d be hard-pressed to come up with uses for each. So far, having a copy and paste buttons within finger’s reach has been my particular joy.

But what I think I love most about the Huge is its amazing aesthetic. Your mileage may vary when it comes to style, but for my money, it’s a sharp, neo-Thinkpad antidote to the theoretically-all-white-but-eventually-dingy aesthetic of Apple’s hegemonic peripheral mice and keyboard. Its swooping palmrest and the ruby red crown jewel, which is surrounded by an army of buttons, make the Huge seem more like something you’d use to pilot a spaceship than a mouse cursor. It’s a visibly strange and specialized tool, but it’s one that I’ve learned to master. Also, it gives me a nerdy but endless sense of satisfaction whenever I lay hands on it.

That, I think, is perhaps my best argument for trying a trackball. Or at least it’s my favorite. For cubicle cowboys and desk jockeys, it’s easy for an unassuming computer to melt into the background with whatever mouse and keyboard you were assigned by IT. And if that’s not a problem for you, great! But the right keyboard, the right trackball, can give you a sense of ownership and agency that adds a spark of joy to your day when you sit down to get to work. You’re not just using any computer, you’re using your computer, tricked out just how you like. Yes, it’s a nerdy endeavor, but you’re sitting there all day either way. Might as well be comfortable, and maybe even have a little fun.

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 Best Thing About This Speaker Isn’t Just How It Sounds

The high-end British audio company Naim Audio makes some of the best audiophile-grade wireless speaker systems you’re likely to find. Its Mu-so range, consisting of the Mu-so and smaller Mu-so Qb, is also notable for the huge glowing volume dial on top of both speakers. If you’re a big fan of volume dials and love some great “knob feel,” then the Mu-so speakers and their associated dial are simply as good as it gets.

Earlier this year, Naim Audio announced the Mu-so 2 ($1,599), which is second-generation version of the original Mu-so ($999) that was released roughly five years ago. Though the two speakers look strikingly similar the Mu-so 2 has been totally gutted and revamped. It has six, new, individually amplified drivers, a new processor with 10 times the power, the ability to stream tracks up to 32bit/384kHz, support for AirPlay 2 and Chromecast, support for Tidal, Spotify Connect, Roon, and Bluetooth, all topped off with HDMI ARC and optical connections so you can use it as a soundbar. And yes, also a new volume dial.

The new dial on the Mu-so 2 has an entire new interphase and more functionalities, including 15 touch sensitive buttons to quickly play favorite playlists or switch inputs. Its famed “halo” light that forms a ring around the dial now has a proximity sensor and automatically lights up when you hover your hand over it. It’s undoubtedly the coolest thing on the whole speaker.

On the Mu-so’s volume dial, the new interphase allows you to save playlists from Spotify or Tidal, or even radio stations. This way you can play music without needing to pull out your smartphone or open your computer.

Simon Matthews, the design director at Naim Audio, is one of the main brains behind all of Naim Audio’s products. I was able to chat with him about the new Mu-so 2, as well as what makes what I consider to be one of the coolest volume dials in all of speakers, so special.

The below interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: How did you look to improve the volume dial on Mu-so 2?
A: Well, firstly, it’s important to say that we certainly set the bar high with the original Mu-so’s volume dial. Customers have really expressed with enthusiasm that they love our tactile, well-executed volume dial and that it delivers precision and pleasure in equal measure in use. There is a very funny and equally disturbing Youtube review of the volume know of gen 1 Mu-so called ‘knob feel review.’ It’s had 100,000 hits. Watch it at your own discretion, here.

So although we really nailed the principle of an oversized, bearing driven and highly responsive volume dial, with all product user interface elements internally located, for Mu-so 2 we completely redesigned all the elements from the ground up. Firstly, we needed to do this to accommodate all the new features and connectivity that Mu-so 2 offers over the original Mu-so. Secondly, we wanted to get closer to the iconic design language of volume control on our $270,000 Statement amplifier. So now we have an acrylic cylinder, mirrored on the inside, which transmits light magically from deep in the product to create a very distinctive ‘halo’ design language which clearly differentiates the Mu-so 2 from what has come before.

Naim Audio Mu-so 2

Key specs

Speaker: wireless multiroom stereo speaker system
Drivers: six drivers; six 75-watt Class D amplifiers
Total power: 450 watts
Connectivity: Apple AirPlay 2, Chromecast Built-in, Spotify Connect, Tidal, Roon Ready, Bluetooth, Internet Radio, 3.5mm (headphone jack), optical, HDMI ARC

Price: $1,599

Q: Why did you add the proximity sensor?
A: In terms of proximity, it wasn’t a customer-driven requirement but we could see a lot of benefits to the end user. Now the product can present itself as ‘always ready’ and wakes up magically with the waft of a hand. It just feels like there is now one less obstacle between the user and the music that means so much to them.

Q: Are there any volume dials on other speakers or vintage audio components that inspired the Mu-so?
A: For sure, there is a world of sexy volume dials over the years that have stuck in my mind. Dieter Rams’s work tends to be ‘ground zero’ for me in terms of perfection of placement and form. Every designer in the audio industry owes some debt to his groundbreaking work. Jonathan Ives and the development at Apple of the iPod wheel is also an iconic ‘portal’ into a music collection and deserves a round of applause. Beyond audio, I am always inspired by great science fiction and its representation of an exciting future way of living. If a little of the monolith and HAL 900 from 2001 slipped into my subconscious during the design phase then I won’t complain!

Q: What about sensitivity of the volume dial?
A: Sensitivity across both generations is the same. We have 100 discreet step changes with very sophisticated algorithms controlling bass management and loudness to ensure that when the volume changes the character of the song always remains the same. Sensitivity was determined by a complex set of criteria looking at all likely input sources, understanding the gain of our state of the art digital architecture, and mathematically ensuring we always operate within safe boundaries whilst not always respecting the neighbors. In the end, all the science is in service to the music and that’s what gets the Naim R&D team out of bed every day.

Q: In this age of streaming, where most people are either adjusting the volume via an app or using voice commands, what is the importance of Naim’s volume dial?
A: I think that as we take on more and more all digital experiences then it is clear to see that people crave a reaction to this trend, and the “analog” experience of a gorgeous tactile volume dial answers that need beautifully. It appeals to the child in all of us and it’s important we always find time to listen to that child because it’s often when we are our happiest.

The Best American Audio Companies That Are Keeping Passive Speakers Alive

Wireless smart and active loudspeakers have taken a considerable slice of the pie in the past three years; the category generated more than $3.2 billion in revenue in 2018 and has experienced a level of growth not seen since the launch of the iPad and Android-based tablets. But before you stick a fork in passive loudspeakers, it’s worthwhile to point out that the category still generates billions in revenue; passive loudspeakers are also able to deliver superior sound quality at both the entry-level and extreme high-end.

Passive loudspeakers may not represent the future of home audio, but dozens of manufacturers around the globe, and particularly three in the United States, are holding firm: their passive speakers sound better than the vast majority of speakers out there.

Magnepan, Zu Audio, and Spatial Audio are all located in the states and build their products domestically. Each audio company offers something different than the traditional passive loudspeaker you might find in your local Best Buy.

Quality doesn’t come cheap and it should be noted that you can’t drive any of these passive loudspeakers with A/V receivers and expect great sonic results. It’s true that each company has a very different philosophy when it comes to transducer technology but they all share one thing in common; their products offer world-class levels of transparency and resolution that could make you rethink how a loudspeaker is supposed to sound.


Magnepan is an audio company based in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, that has been manufacturing full-range planar loudspeakers for almost forty-eight years. Its planar magnetic loudspeakers — which utilize very low mass, razor-thin film ribbon drivers — have a specific dipole design; there’s no speaker cabinet and the sound radiates from the back and front of the loudspeaker. The effect is that the sound has a level of openness and transparency that you don’t hear from conventional loudspeakers.

Magneplanar speakers utilize a full-range ribbon tweeter and quasi-ribbon driver to reproduce the entire frequency spectrum of sound; the trade-off is that the panel needs to be larger to accurately reproduce mid and low bass information. And you shouldn’t expect subterranean bass from this type of driver. Magneplanar speakers are known for their resolution, speed, clarity, and the illusion of soundstage depth and height. They require space (a minimum of 2-to-3 feet from the wall to allow their sound to really open up) and a very powerful amplifier to work properly; 100-200 watts at a minimum.

Magnepan’s loudspeakers can be surprisingly affordable by high-end standards; the .7 ($1,395) and 1.7i ($1,995+) full-range models are $1,450 and $2,200 respectively, but the new LRS (Little Ribbon Speaker), which retail for $650, offer better sound quality than most loudspeakers below $1,000.

Zu Audio

If Magnepan represents the old guard of American high-end audio, Zu Audio is new money. Based in Utah, the company focuses on full-range single-driver loudspeakers housed in beautifully finished cabinets that don’t require a lot of power. Zu’s product range is comfortable with 5-400 watts of power, but your choice of solid-state, tubes, or class D amplification will have a significant impact on the final sound.

The Omen MK. II loudspeakers ($2,250), for example, are its hook. The 10-inch full-range driver is augmented with a super tweeter and the 36-inch tall cabinets are built to last. Every Zu loudspeaker inspires confidence with its heft and high level of finish quality.

If you’re looking for an audiophile loudspeaker that is overly focused on imaging and soundstage depth, the Omen MK. II is not for you. Zu’s speakers create a wall of sound that flesh out great sounding recordings with midrange punch and a lot of detail; which can also be too much of a good thing with bad ones. A small nitpick is that they are sensitive to placement; a few inches in either direction can have a significant impact on the sound.

Spatial Audio

Spatial Audio is another Utah-based company, but they are better known for their M-series open baffle loudspeakers that have turned a DIY concept into an innovative piece of industrial design; the speakers not only look sleek and expensive, but sound impressive as well.

Open baffle loudspeakers have always had a big following in the DIY audio community; the absence of a cabinet that can negatively interact with the room and drivers, and the ability to experiment with a combination of driver technology are just two of the advantages. The disadvantages include not sounding great in smaller rooms, the need for a relatively large baffle, and not being very forgiving of bad recordings. The reality is that very few have succeeded in bringing this type of loudspeaker to market in a way that most people would consider them for a living room or den.

Spatial Audio builds and assembles its products in-house; its custom full-range drivers are mounted in a 2.5-inch thick multi-layered HDF slab that screams Ikea chic. The M4 Turbo S feature two 12-inch full-range drivers per speaker and are a very amp friendly load. What sets the Spatial Audio products apart from the other designs that have failed over the years are the room-friendly baffles; the M4 Turbo S work well in smaller spaces and the controlled directivity of the drivers minimizes their interaction with the room.

The M4 Turbo S delivers layers of resolution and impressive low-end performance. Their high sensitivity allows them to work with low-powered tube amplifiers, and even moderately powered integrated amplifiers. Their neutral sounding tonal balance makes them a good loudspeaker to experiment with if you want to compare the differences between solid state and tube amplification and they are very spacious sounding.

Give them enough space and drive them with quality amplification and you may not understand how a pair of floor-standing loudspeakers can disappear in a room like a pair of the world’s best bookshelf loudspeakers.

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

3 Must-Buy Bourbons, A VR System You’ll Actually Want and Last Minute Mother’s Day Gift Ideas

In this episode of This Week In Gear: Tucker Bowe reveals the all-new Oculus Quest VR gaming system; Oren Hartov recounts a trip to Switzerland to study the history of the iconic Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso watch collection; and Will Price philosophizes about – and samples – what makes three specific bourbons his “unicorn” bottles. Plus, our writers weigh in with one solid Mother’s Day gift idea each and J.D. DiGiovanni unveils Just Get This, Gear Patrol’s new one-stop shop for top product recommendations in every category.

This episode of This Week In Gear is presented by Flipboard, where quality content from the world’s best publishers and storytellers of every type is discovered.

Featured Products

Oculus Quest VR Gaming System

Oculus Quest is an all-new, all-in-one VR gaming system. It’s the big brother to the Oculus Go, which is best used for watching videos and live events. Set up the Quest with an app, and everything else is self-contained. Quest comes in two storage sizes: 64GB ($399) and 128GB ($499) and is avaialable now for pre-order.


Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Collection

Designed and engineered in the early 20th Century to protect watches worn by British officers while playing polo, the Reverso Collection dates back to 1931. The body of a Reverso can be flipped 180 degrees. Original Reversos featured a metal caseback on the side opposite the watch face; contemporary versions may feature a second face like the one shown in this episode.

Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is next Sunday, May 12. That means you have ample time to shop for a great gift. These are the products our individual experts recommend, but if you want a more complete guide check out The 60+ Best Mother’s Day Gifts of 2019 now.

Featured Suggestions:
ARROW 5 Minute Beauty Kit ($16)
Opinel No10 Corkscrew Folding Knife ($35)
Rancourt & Co Lily Camp-moc ($210)
Sonos One Speaker ($199)
Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon

Just Get This: Our Top Product Recommendations, All In One Place

Just Get This is Gear Patrol’s comprehensive list of the most noteworthy products on the market right now. If you’re in the market for a product and want a top-level recommendation, look no further. For quick and convenient access, check out the main website navigation for a link.

Three Bourbon Favorites

Staff Writer Will Price has a philosophy when choosing bourbons: among other criteria, a bottle must be accessible and affordable, but also special. These three bourbons qualify and then some: Elijah Craig Small Batch, Knob Creek Single Barrel and Heaven Hill 6-Year-Old Green Label.

Watch Now: This Week In Gear, Episode 4

In last week’s episode: Tanner Bowden reviews the all-new, magnet-construction Leatherman Free; Josh Condon rock-crawls in Jeep’s latest concept trucks; Will Price demonstrates Vermicular’s waterless cooking appliance; and Jack Seemer reveals the ultra low-cal now IPA from Dogfish Head. Also in this episode: Meg Lappe gives a one-minute rundown of the JaxJox KettleBellConnect. Watch Now

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here. In some instances, brands have provided access to, or loans of, the products included in this episode.

Watch Now: An Oven for Pizza Idiots, the 2019 BMW X7 & More

In this episode of This Week In Gear: Eric Yang and Will Price test Breville’s countertop pizza oven, Henry Phillips discusses the $5K Leica Q2 and Nick Caruso raves about the all-new BMW X7. Also in this episode, a Bryan Campbell reviews the Honda Talon side-by-side – in 30 seconds – and AJ Powell explains why the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless earbuds are the last thing he bought.

This episode of This Week In Gear is presented by Crown & Caliber: the convenient online marketplace for pre-owned luxury watches. Visit to get $175 towards any watch purchase until May 31st.

Featured Products

Breville the Smart Oven® Pizzaiolo

“This thing is fuckin’ awesome at what it does. It works for the pizza idiot to the pizza savant.”


Leica Q2

“All the improvements feel iterative, deliberate and genuinely helpful to the end user. The Q was my general price-no-object recommendation for a great camera for basically everyone. The Q2 takes that place no problem.”


2019 BMW X7

The X7 very well may be everything great about BMW, fully realized.


Honda Talon SxS

“Add an exciting application of DCT technology and it’s fair to say that while the Talon 1000R and 1000X aren’t necessarily game changers, they’ve sure as hell raised the bar.”


Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless Earbuds

“I believe the Momentum earbuds could replace each headphone in my current rotation — including my Bowers & Wilkins P5 on-ear headphones.”


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

Watch This Week In Gear, Episode One: We Review the All-New Porsche 911, Apple Airpods & More

Welcome to the premiere episode of Gear Patrol’s first video series: This Week In Gear, the ultimate news show for gear enthusiasts.

As the definitive executive briefing on what’s new in product culture, every week we’ll be talking shop about the latest and best gear, from outdoor & fitness, automotive and tech to home, style, grooming and watches. Hosted by Editor-in-Chief Eric Yang, every episode will feature insights from Gear Patrol staff experts as well as field tests, interviews, buying advice and beyond.

In this episode of This Week In Gear: Nick Caruso gives a rundown of the all-new 2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S; Tanner Bowden introduces The James Brand Ellis multitool; Jacob Sotak explains just how hugely advanced the Orvis H3 fly rod is; and Tucker Bowe describes what’s new in Apple’s second-generation AirPods. Also in this episode, a lightning-round Q&A with Staff Writer Meg Lappe.

This episode of This Week In Gear is presented by Crown & Caliber: the convenient online marketplace for pre-owned luxury watches. Visit to get $175 towards any watch purchase until May 31st.

Featured Products

2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S

Porsche’s all-new 911 is, as expected, a tremendous performer.


The James Brand ‘The Ellis’

The brand’s first multi-tool is a gorgeous shot across the Swiss Army Knife’s bow.


Orvis Helios 3D 8-Weight 9′ Fly Rod

“Without a doubt, the most scientifically accurate rod ever produced.”


Apple AirPods with Wireless Charging Case

The second-generation earbuds feature incremental tweaks, which means they’re still great.



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

Apple’s New TV Streaming Service: Here’s What We Know

If you’ve been on the news pulse, you’ll know that Apple has shared some exciting announcements. This week alone, it’s released new, updated versions of the iMac, iPad and AirPods. Basically, it got all its new hardware announcements out of the way to clear the air for a big event it’s hosting on Monday, March 25th, when it’s expected to unveil a brand new video streaming service.

There’s long been speculation that Apple would throw its hat in the ring with Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu. It made waves at CES this year when it announced partnerships to integrate its HomeKit and AirPlay into pretty much every new smart TV coming out in 2019, meaning users won’t need an Apple TV device to access Apple TV services. And it’s been producing its own content, like Carpool Karaoke and Planet of the Apps with varying levels of success.

Content is key with any new video service, and it’s been reported that Apple’s budget for original content is more than $1 billion, which it’s spent to produce an expansive list of films and shows (you can read it in full at The Verge). It’s a big chunk of change, but it’s not much in comparison to the estimated $8 billion to $13 billion Netflix reportedly spent on original content in 2018, and is dwarfed by the $15 billion it could spend in 2019.

But notably, it’s anticipated that Apple’s video service will include partnerships with other premium subscription services. According to a recent Recode article, “it will also be able to offer its own bundles — for instance, it could offer a package of HBO, Showtime and Starz at a price that’s lower than you’d pay for each pay-TV service on its own.” There’s also a chance that Apple could bundle its other services, such as Apple Music, with its TV subscription plan.

Still, we don’t exactly know what Apple’s streaming video service will look like or how people would access it — there’s speculation that the service would be integrated into Apple’s TV app, although there’s currently no TV app for Mac. Another thing we don’t know is how much the new service will cost. A monthly charge of $10 seems like a safe place to start, but given that there will likely me copious bundle deals, it could easily cost more.

While there a lot of questions that won’t be answered until Monday, you can catch up on what we know for sure about its new hardware through the links below.

Apple’s New AirPods Are Better in So Many Ways

The new AirPods come with a number of welcome improvements, including faster pairing speeds, more talk time and improved microphone clarity on calls. They can also wirelessly charge.

Apple’s New iMacs Are Twice as Powerful as Before.

Apple is shrinking the gap between its entry-level iMacs and super high-end iMac Pros.

Everything You Need to Know About Apple’s New iPads

The iPad Air and iPad mini are decked out with Retina displays, A12 Bionic processors and Apple Pencil support.

The Best Vinyl LPs to Really Show Off Your Turntable

If your affection for sound quality has started to compete with your affection for music itself, you may have entered the early stages of audiophilia. Should the condition advance, you will likely become preoccupied with stereo equipment and, inevitably, the sound quality of the recordings you own. Often dismissed as a geeky hobby gone awry, audiophilia actually rests upon a keen phenomenological insight: that aesthetic experiences start with physical events. It follows, then, that optimizing those physical events is an attempt to optimize aesthetic experiences, which, if not entirely cool, isn’t an entirely geeky impulse either.

As one of the most important art forms to arise from the industrial era, the 12-inch vinyl LP – with its perfect running length, natural intermission between sides and meaningful tactility – can deliver thoroughly transcendent analog listening experiences, provided the LP is itself physically optimal. Unfortunately, the likelihood of getting a subpar LP today is far higher than it should be, and a subpar LP will make even the best of stereo systems sound iffy at best.

The Complex Process of Producing an LP

Producing an LP is a multi-stepped process. We’ve separated each of the steps below, each a potential pitfall on the long journey of delivering a high-quality LP.

Recording: With today’s shrinking budgets, home studios and self-taught engineers, the probability of an exceptional recording using exceptional equipment is lower than ever.

Mixing down to stereo: ^ Ditto. Plus the demands of mixing for digital streaming have left a generation of mixing engineers bereft of techniques best suited to making analog LPs.

Mastering the stereo tracks: Mastering is the final polishing of the mixes for commercial delivery. Even many top-notch mastering engineers optimize tracks for digital media, and not for cutting an LP. It’s best to cut an LP from specially prepared masters or from the unmastered mixes.

Cutting a lacquer disc: The cutting engineer plays the stereo tracks and uses a lathe to cut grooves into a blank lacquer disc. If the cutting engineer is not the dude at the plant who just pounded three beers on his Friday lunch break, but rather a sober and experienced cutting engineer working in a sterile environment on a well maintained lathe, there is hope of a properly cut lacquer. However…

Producing the blank lacquer disc: In 2013 a bad batch went out from Japan and screwed up cutting sessions around the world. Environmental restrictions on certain chemicals have made modern lacquer production fussier than it used to be.

Plating: Let’s assume the cutting engineer produced a near-perfect lacquer. Excellent, now the cutter screws the lacquer into a what looks like a medieval torture device and ships it off to an electroplating plant where another engineer sprays the lacquer with silver, dips it in a nickel bath, zaps it, and eventually ends up with two metal plates called stampers. Lacquers are often destroyed in failed attempts to create stampers, and must be cut again.

Pressing: Let’s assume plating produced clean stampers. The plating engineer packs the metal stampers into another odd looking packaging device and delivers it for pressing. A pressing machine operator installs the stamper onto a huge machine that drops goobers of (what we hope is properly formulated) vinyl onto the metal plates and then squeezes them together just like you’d make waffles. If dust hasn’t found a way in and the vinyl releases cleanly from the metal stampers, we may have an excellent sounding vinyl LP on our hands.

The Records

As one who has overseen vinyl production from microphone to final packaging, I can attest to the Sisyphean nature of making a high-quality LP. The good news is that more than a few labels are doing it, and some are even forging new analog techniques.

Below are ten albums that have miraculously made it past all of the production pitfalls to stand proudly as some of the very best sounding 12-inch vinyl LPs currently available. Whether you dig the music or not, spinning any of these LPs will give you a good idea of what your stereo rig is capable of. Chances are, however, that at least one of these LPs will transport you to the quasi-psychedelic glory land of vinyl at its best.

Harvest, Neil Young

The grandfather of grunge is one of the most outspoken advocates for great sound quality, and his masterpiece Harvest may be the main reason he wants your stereo and source not to suck. This edition, cut directly from analog masters and pressed in 180g vinyl, brings Neil and his tasty Nashville studio group into your living room. Check out the hi-hat overdub on “Heart of Gold,” added months after the song was tracked, and tolerate the hyperbolic “A Man Needs a Maid” because it’s a 26-year-old Neil live at the piano with the London Symphony Orchestra over his shoulder.

Key Specs

Label: Reprise Records
Series: Neil Young Archives Official Release Series (ORS)
Format: 180g black vinyl, gatefold
Source: original analog masters (no digital conversion)
Cut: Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering
Plated and Pressed: Pallas Group, Germany

Tomorrow’s Harvest, The Boards of Canada

It’s rare that a modern synth record will translate onto vinyl as well as this set of retro-electroica from the analog-obsessed Boards of Canada. Every swishy filter sweep, grinding bass tone, and live drum beat is rendered with sculptural realism. You’ll find yourself sitting up straight in the sweet spot and admiring your rig’s bass response and mid-range articulation as these moody, dystopian tracks chronicle our fast-changing world.

Key Specs

Label: Warp Records
Series: standard release
Format: 180g vinyl, double disc in gatefold

All other info is unavailable.

Maggot Brain, Funkadelic

The ten-minute, Hendrix-trouncing guitar solo that opens this LP is so raw, so up-in-your-face, and so far off to the right channel that it sounds like Eddy Hazel set his amp up in your house. When the band comes in, you’ll hear exactly why the 1970s are still regarded as the heyday of the recording arts, as well as unbridled drug use. Sounds are crunchy and warm and a million light years away from today’s sterile digital soundscapes. Consider a seat belt.

Key Specs

Label: Westbound Records
Series: 4 Men With Beards issue with permission from Westbound
Format: 180g black vinyl, single disc in gatefold with essay

All other info resides on The Mother Ship.

Concerto for Orchestra, Bela Bartok

Of all the version of this masterpiece on vinyl, this one recorded in the mid 1950s with Fritz Reiner waving the baton at The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is the gold standard. When the low string drone starts the first movement, turn up the volume and brace yourself for a long slow crescendo up to the brass fugue that, on a great stereo, will make The Who sound minuscule. Reverb is natural and astonishingly well suited. Acclaimed mastering engineer Ryan Smith cut this one directly from the original analog master tapes, and Quality Record Pressings (QRP) here in the USA pressed it flawlessly.

Key Specs

Label: RCA Records
Series: RCA Living Stereo Series from Analogue Productions
Format: 200g black vinyl
Source: original analog master tapes
Cut: Ryan Smith
Plating and Pressing: Gary Salstrom, QRP

The Four Seasons Recomposed, Max Richter with the Berlin Orchestra

By side three of this two-disc set, Max Richter has taken us from a crystal clear and quintessentially German orchestral recording of Richter’s take on Vivaldi into an entirely electronic soundscape. The sound quality throughout is modern and precise without succumbing to brittleness. That’s quite an accomplishment, but shouldn’t surprise fans of Deutsche Gramaphone’s modern records.

Key Specs

Label: Deutsche Gramaphone
Series: standard issue
Format: dual 180g black vinyl discs in cut-out gatefold
Source: original mixes by Neil Hutchinson and Max Richter
Mastering: Mandy Parnell at Black Saloon
Cut: Mandy Parnell on a Neumann lathe
Plating and Pressing: N/A

Monk, The Thelonious Monk Quartet

The simple grammar of Frankie Dunlop’s drum intro eventually interlaces with Monk’s abstract expressionism on piano, Charlie Rouse’s economical tenor sax, and John Ore’s swinging bass to form one of the most vibrant live jazz records ever laid down. Rendered in glorious mono, you’ll have nothing but an incredible center image of the 1963 set from Copenhagen to remind you, as only Monk can, that sometimes less is way more. This LP is 100-percent analog from start to finish.

Key Specs

Label: Gearbox Records
Series: Future Analog
Format: 180g black vinyl
Source: AAA = analog recording, analog mix, analog master
Mastering: Darrel Shienman on a Haeco Scull lathe with Westrex RA1700 series amps, 3DIIA cutting head, Telefinken U73B tube limiter and Decca valve EQ.

Natty Dread, Bob Marley & The Wailers

Sometimes a musician and their songs are so iconic that sound quality barely registers beneath their glory and fame, but Bob Marley and the Wailers did not fuck around in the studio. Perfect panning and a delicately balanced mix allow the deep grooves and even deeper emotions to come forward in equal measure. To celebrate what would have been Bob’s 70th birthday, all of his albums for Island Records have been faithfully reproduced in fresh new 180g pressings, but Natty Dread’ has the most compelling 1970s sound quality.

Key Specs

Label: Tuff Gong / Island / Universal
Series: 70th Anniversary Reissue
Format: 180g black vinyl

All other info is unavailable. Marley’s releases are notoriously varied across markets and poorly documented, which is half the fun.

Revolver, The Beatles

Staying up into the wee hours with Australian-born, LA-based record producer Andy Baldwin (Bjork, Nick Cave, etc) trying to decide which Beatles record sounded the best brought a unanimous vote for Revolver. In Baldwin’s words, “Oh, mate, it’s just like you could pet the guitar tone, like a cat, sitting just there.” Both the stereo and mono versions sound incredible, but the Fab Four would prefer you listen in mono as God intended. Go ahead, pet it.

Key Specs

Label: EMI
Format: 180g mono vinyl (mono and stereo available)
Series: All-Analog Project
Source: mono from original 1/4” master tape; stereo from 192kHz digital transfers
Mastering: cut at Abbey Road Studios by Magee and Berkowitz using the original analog chain from the 1960s
Plated and Pressed: Optimal, Germany

Shady Grove, Jerry Garcia and David Grisman

Two old friends, an acoustic guitar, a mandolin and a few mics. This LP is naked in the best way possible. Grisman convinced Garcia to put heavy strings on his guitar, and the result is Uncle Jerry struggling just enough to get his best acoustic guitar tone ever laid to tape. Newly cut to 180g vinyl from the original analog tapes using Mobile Fidelity’s GAIN 2 Ultra Analog process, your stereo will seem as naked as the recording itself.

Key Specs

Label: Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab
Series: GAIN 2 Ultra Analog™
Format: 180g vinyl on two discs with full sized booklet
Source: original masters
Cutting: GAIN 2 Ultra Analog system
Plated and Pressed: N/A

Portrait in Jazz, The Bill Evans Trio

If you’re going to drop $125 on a single LP, then it ought to blow your mind, and this one will. Recorded in 1960, the fidelity of this LP has yet to be topped. Paul Motian’s ride cymbal sounds like Champagne bubbles sliding down the throat of Audrey Hepburn in a black sheath dress, while LaFaro’s bass steps forward to create the modern standard for jazz bass recording. Evans’ piano tone approaches perfection. Cut using a unique one-step process that skips plating all together, this LP will either make you very proud of your stereo rig or have you out shopping for upgrades – which is always fun.

Key Specs

Label: Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab
Series: Ultradisc One-Step
Format: 180g black vinyl
Source: original tapes
Cutting: done via the one-step process which creates a unique lacquer stamper
Plating and Pressing: no plating involved (see above)

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

Review: The New Leica Q2 is Really The Only Leica You Should Want

Late last night, Leica announced the Q2 ($4,995) to wild American applause and approving German nods. The company’s greatest modern success story finally has a sequel. To tell the truth though, about three weeks earlier in the meeting where Leica gave me a loaner unit, the new camera was sitting on a conference room table for five minutes before I realized that it was, in fact, the Q2. I promise that’s a good thing.

What made the original Q so good was that it wasn’t minimal for minimalism’s sake and it wasn’t as feature-packed as alternatives from Sony or Fujifilm. It was just this goldilocks of a camera that was intuitive enough to make you want to pick up and shoot and produced images that were so good that they made you want to keep going. It justified (or at least made a really good attempt at justifying) a price north of $4,000. Plus, on the other side, it made many of the longtime M rangefinder users that I know think slightly differently about what a Leica has to be in order to satisfy those who talk endlessly about the “Leica look.” Can a “real Leica” have autofocus? An electronic viewfinder? (Gasp) A fixed lens?!

At the core of what made the Q great was not only the fact that it asked these questions that are paradigm shifting for a company that has been famous for making (nearly) the same product for 50 years, it’s that it went a really long way towards answering them.

Does the Q2 ask new ones? Does it re-re-define what a Leica can be? Or does it prove that there’s a reason Leica’s really only famous for the M instead of the million other cameras it’s made? I had a couple of weeks with the camera to find out.

Leica Q2 Review Back

Just about all of the physical changes between Q and the Q2 are visible in this photo. The far-right control dial is borrowed from the CL, the new power switch is borrowed from the M10, the diopter-control has been moved to a less bump-able place, the menu buttons have been simplified and squared-off, and there’s a cute little “2” engraved on the hot shoe now.

The Good: As it turns out, Leica nailed the sophomore album by basically releasing a remastered version of the first. The original Q was great — with some notable faults — and with the Q2 Leica does it’s best to address them.

On the UI/UX side menus and button interfaces are cleared up, gone is the stupid power switch that always sent you into continuous shooting mode, the WiFi connection is infinitely better (largely thanks to Bluetooth LE). The IP52 splash- and dust-sealing is a welcome addition.

Then there’s the actual shooting experience. There’s a massive new 47-megapixel sensor that helps things like the Q’s signature “rangefinder digital crop” feature work much better (and include a 75mm equivalent crop that still leaves you with a 7-megapixel image). The 28mm f/1.7 stabilized lens is as great as it ever was, not stumbling at all when presented with nearly twice the resolution. Rounding out the operation is the new Maestro processor which manages to push those crazy big files around just as fast as before.

Generally, the great part about the Q2 is it doesn’t mess with the special sauce that made the original Q so great. The manual/automatic mix, the EVF, the lens, the size, the speed, the portability — it’s all still there, and it’s fully up to date.

Who It’s For: Honestly, basically everyone who wants a Leica and is thinking logically. Don’t get me wrong, the M10 is an astounding camera and the associated lenses are beautiful, but the list of drawbacks for general everyday shooting feels like it’s getting longer. [Full disclosure: because I refuse to think logically, the day Leica told me a Q2 was coming, I bought a silver M10 and a 35mm Summicron.]

Have kids? Get a Q2.
Like autofocus? Q2.
Lightweight? Q2.
Want wide open shots to actually work? Q2.
Want higher res than any Leica camera currently in existence? Q2.
Want to take travel photography that is mindless and fast enough to not make you “the camera guy?” Q2.

Want a slightly abstruse lesson on the history of photography and to use one of the most iconic and refined pieces of design on earth? Buy the M10.

Leica Q2 Review Macro

The good news? Just about everything that made the Q so charming is retained in the Q2, including the insanely pleasing way that you switch the camera into macro mode by rotating a dial on the lens.

Watch Out For: Oh come on, you knew this was coming. It’s $5,000. You could buy three Fujifilm X100Fs to throw at Youtube commenters who say the Q2 is too expensive and still come out ahead.

Aside from that, there’s not too much off with the Q2. Leica hasn’t fully embraced the idea of Instagram ready photography and in-camera JPEG settings reflect that so you’re going to have to ship that massive DNG file over to your phone and play with it a bit before it really starts to sing.

Did they really need to shoot the moon with a 47-megapixel sensor? Probably not, I think 30 would’ve been just fine but my hunch is that you’ve seen something very similar to that 47 in the new Panasonic S1R and you’re probably gonna see it in the SL2 and M11 whenever those decide to drop. I guess big is the new normal.

The only other notable foibles are that you really have to nail focus for the digital crop to feel like a useful feature and I think that in redesigning the ergonomics slightly, they made the lens a bit uglier and less elegant on the Q2 compared to the original.

Leica Q2 Review Bottom

A couple fun changes on the bottom: the Q2 now uses the same battery (and battery loading system) as the SL and theres a small indicator that the camera is now IP52 splash and dust sealed.

Alternatives: Despite my jokes about X100 throwing, there actually isn’t an apples-to-apples alternative to the Q2 – and I think that’s what makes it so special. Sony does technically still sell the RX1R II but the interface isn’t particularly pleasant to use and it just feels like a souped-up point and shoot. The Fujifilm X100F is a fantastic camera that will get you the most similar shooting experience, but you drop the full-frame sensor and a bunch of resolution (if we’re being kind to the Fuji, it’s also nearly 80-percent cheaper than the Q2). The M10 is a quasi-alternative but see the abbreviated list above for why the comparison doesn’t really hold water. Perhaps the best alternative? The original Q. Because all these updates are more evolution than revolution, the Q still totally holds water — even 5 years later — and hopefully prices fall enough that it can get into the hands of more users.

Verdict: In this case, and in my time using the Q2, no news is good news. I liked the original Q so much that I didn’t really see what Leica was going to improve with the second act. Really though, they listened to critiques from Q users and addressed as many as they could. All the improvements feel iterative, deliberate and genuinely helpful to the end user. The Q was my general price-no-object recommendation for a great camera for basically everyone. The Q2 take that place no problem.

Leica hosted us and provided this product for review.

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iPhone XS Review: Should You Upgrade to Apple’s Best-Ever iPhone?

Apple took the look and feel of last year’s iPhone X, updated it in a number of key ways, and produced two next-gen smartphones: the iPhone XS ($999+) and iPhone XS Max ($1,099+). The iPhone XS is essentially the same size as year’s iPhone X – both have a 5-inch screen – while the iPhone XS Max has a “Plus-sized” 6.5-inch screen. Besides size, the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max are virtually identical in terms of specs. And compared to last year’s iPhone X, the iPhone XS and XS Max feature a lot of the expected: a faster processor, a better camera system or a longer-lasting battery. The new models are definitely the best and most advanced iPhones that Apple has created, however, the question is – is that enough for you to upgrade?

Editor’s Note:We had both the iPhone XS and XS Max in the office, however, since they are virtually the same exact iPhones, save for their size, we primarily used the smaller iPhone XS for the purpose of review.


The Good: The biggest difference from the iPhone X to the iPhone XS and the iPhone XS is with the cameras. The cameras’ specs might not have changed – you still get 12-megapixel standard lens (f/1.8) and a 12-megapixel telephoto lens (f/2.4 aperture), both with optical image stabilizers and the collective ability to shoot 4K video up to 60 frames per second – but the wide-angle sensor on the iPhone XS and XS Max is actually 32 percent larger and they have an all-around better image processing system, called Smart HDR, which enables the camera to capture a number of photos simultaneously, at different exposures, and then combine them into one high-quality image. Essentially, the iPhone XS and XS Max are able to capture more detailed photos with more contrast.

The iPhone XS and XS Max are decked out with the new A12 Bionic processor which makes them noticeably faster than the iPhone X. They are more energy efficient and thus have a better battery life, too; compared to the iPhone X, the iPhone XS has a battery that lasts roughly 30 minutes longer, while the XS Max lasts a more substantial 90 minutes longer. There are other improvements, which are subtle, such as a stronger and more water-resistant body; dual-SIM support for world travelers or other people who need a secondary phone line; and they have better speakers. Oh yea, and the iPhone XS and XS Max come in gold, which is a first.

Who They’re For: The iPhone XS and XS Max are for anybody who needs the latest and greatest iPhone right when it comes out. Also, if you have an older iPhone 7 Plus or before, you’ll really notice the difference in speed, display and the camera quality of these new iPhones.

Watch Out For: There’s not a lot to “watch out” for, but it’s worth reiterating that the new iPhone XS and XS Max have some striking similarities to the iPhone X. They essentially have the same exact screens.They have the same hand-feel, too, other than the fact that the iPhone Xs Max is obviously larger. The notch is still there and, therefore, the top of the screen can at times feel underutilized. There’s no 3.5mm adapter included in the box this time around, meaning Apple is twisting the knife even further into those who love their analog headphones. And they are, again, very expensive smartphones.

Alternatives: One of the things that went under the radar with the iPhone XS and XS Max, is that Apple also discontinued last year’s iPhone X – you can’t buy new ones (at least from Apple anyway). The iPhone XR is several hundred dollars less expensive and has most of the same features, except for the nicer OLED display and telephoto lens.

Review: It might seem like a little thing, given that Apple’s latest iPhones are so similar to the iPhone X, but the new models offer up a real difference: choice. For the first time in nearly two years (since the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus) you can buy Apple’s flagship iPhone in one of two sizes. This is great for those with small and big hands, or simply those who want to watch Netflix or Hulu on the biggest iPhone screen possible.

As somebody with small hands and who frequently wears slim-fitting jeans, I primarily used the iPhone XS, although I also played around with the iPhone XS Max. The important thing to remind yourself is that they are essentially the same iPhone. True, but iPhone XS Max has a bigger and longer-lasting battery, but the iPhone XS’s battery is no slouch either, and I’m not sure that’ll tip the scales for too many people. It really comes down to whether you want a smaller or bigger iPhone, and if you’re willing to pay extra for the big one.

As mentioned above, the iPhone XS and XS Max are both marked improvements over the iPhone X when it comes to capturing photos and shooting video. Thanks to the upgraded camera sensor and better image processing system, photos look crispier, more colorful and have so much more detail. I was able to take photos of buildings and my friends, facing the sun, and the photos didn’t get blown out. The bright background didn’t bleed into my subject like it did with my iPhone X. And low-light photos were way more usable, more colorful and more detailed. Videos look better in much the same way.

Portrait mode is also improved on the iPhone XS and XS Max. One of the standout differences is that the A12 processor allows these new iPhones to adjust background blur or bokeh afterward, which Samsung’s Galaxy S9/S9+ and Note 9 also are able to do, although working it is easier on the new iPhones.

It’s important to note that the iPhone XS and XS Max definitely have the best cameras that have ever been featured in an iPhone, but that doesn’t mean they feature the best smartphone cameras. The Pixel 2 and 2 XL are still the kings of the smartphone camera world, taking the most accurate, true-to-life photos (and that’s probably only going to get better with the impending launch of the Pixel 3 in early-ish October). I, myself, had been using the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 and, when comparing the two, tended to prefer its photos over the iPhone XS. A key point of difference, however, is that Samsung’s smartphones tend to take more saturated photos, which are pretty but not as accurate as Google’s or Apple ‘s smartphone cameras – which looks best is essentially a matter of preference.

(We’ll have a smartphone camera review in the near future that breaks down the iPhone XS’s and XS Max’s skills compared to their competition. I’ll link to that review when it goes live – here.)

The iPhone XS and XS Max have been upgraded in several other ways, but those improvements probably won’t drastically change how you use the smartphone. The processor is really fast and impressive, and it also will probably allow the iPhone XS and XS to be much better at running advanced apps, such as ones that dabble in AR and VR, but your everyday use – checking email, scrolling through Twitter or Instagram, and sending messages – that’ll be largely unchanged. A colleague and I have actually been using the new iPhones for over a week, me the iPhone XS and him the iPhone XS Max, and we both kind of agreed: they feel pretty darn similar to an iPhone X.

Part of the reason why the two new iPhones feel so similar is that Apple just rolled out iOS 12, which is available on both devices, and so it doesn’t really matter as much if you’re using the iPhone X, XS or XS Max – all going to have the new features, like Screen Time and Group Notifications, and also feel snappier than before.

Verdict: The iPhone XS and XS Max are the most powerful iPhones ever and they’re also the iPhones with by far the best cameras. However, don’t expect it to feel drastically different than an iPhone X. If you have an iPhone X, there are really two reasons why you’d upgrade to these new models. One, if you want a bigger smartphone and thus you’d go for the iPhone XS Max. Or two, you take a ton photos and videos and want the iPhone with the best camera. If you haven’t upgraded from an iPhone 8/8 Plus or before, on the other hand, these new iPhones are an expensive-yet-worthwhile upgrade.

What Others Are Saying:

• “Given the lack of radical design changes, Apple wants you to focus on the camera, and just how good it is. And, well, it is pretty good. All the improvements made to the iPhone’s new processor let you snap HDR — high dynamic range — photos without worrying about shutter lag. It also means your photos will look a lot better in environments adverse to photography. Bright blue skies won’t look washed out, and low-light images will feel more alive and saturated thanks to the camera combining multiple exposures into a single photograph.” — Patrick Lucas Austin, TIME

• “What I find most interesting is that the two things responsible for that step forward — the A12 system (including the same Apple Neural Engine) and the much larger new wide-angle camera sensor — are included in the upcoming iPhone XR, which, for the same amount of storage, costs $250 less than than the XS and $350 less than the XS Max. I suspect there are a lot of people out there who don’t care about the telephoto lens on the XS and who don’t see much if any difference between the XR’s LCD display and the XS’s OLED one who are looking at these prices thinking they must be missing something. They’re not.” — John Gruber, Daring Fireball

• “I would not rush out to spend another $999 on the XS if you have a X, but if you’re already deep into a preorder, don’t worry: you will love the iPhone XS. It is, indeed, more iPhone, and it will probably hold up for years to come. I definitely prefer the Pixel 2’s camera, but the iPhone XS isn’t that far behind, and it’s still a significant improvement over previous iPhones.” — Nilay Patel, The Verge

Key Specs

Size: 5.8-inch (XS), 6.5-inch (XS Max)
Display: Super Retina HD display
Processor: A12 Bionic chip, next-generation Neural Engine
Rear Camera: dual 12MP wide-angle (ƒ/1.8)and telephoto lenses ƒ/2.4; 2x optical zoom; digital zoom up to 10x
Front Camera: 7MP (ƒ/2.2)
Durability: Rated IP68
Capacity: 64GB, 256GB or 512GB


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

Master & Dynamic’s True Wireless Earbuds Are Badass and Beautiful

Master & Dynamic’s first pair of true wireless earbuds – the MW07s – don’t look like anything else out there. They’re made of stainless steel and handcrafted acetate, the latter being the same material used in high-end sunglasses. Each earbud packs a 10mm beryllium driver to deliver excellent and expansive sound. And the charging case, which charges via USB-C, is made of stainless steel and looks like it’s bulletproof. At $300, the MW07s are almost twice as expensive as Apple’s AirPods, but how do they compare?

The MW07s will be available this September. And you can order the acetate in four different colors: matte black, grey terrazzo, steel blue and tortoiseshell.

The Good: The MW07s look, feel and fit amazing. The earbuds come with swappable silicon earbuds and earwings so I never had any issues with them falling out. The audio quality is very good with a wide soundstage, which I really like. The tactile button controls on the actual earbuds are simple and straightforward to use. And the charging case is excellent; it charges with the same USB-C cable I use with my smartphone laptop, and it has LED lights to indicate its battery life, as well as the battery life of the individual earbuds. They have built-in optical sensors that, similar to AirPods, will play/pause the audio you’re listening to when you place or remove the earbuds from your ears. There’s no app to download or deal with – the MW07s work straight out of the box.

Who They’re For: Anybody who values great sound and design, and is willing to shell out $300 for a pair of true wireless earbuds. They’re OS agnostic, perfectly suited to work with an Android or iPhone. Even they are IPX4, I wouldn’t recommend working out or running in these earbuds.

Watch Out For: The obvious downside is price – the MW07s are at the tippy-top of the price range for true wireless earbuds. Other than that, the only real qualm I had was that a wall adapter wasn’t included in the box, which seems a little ridiculous for a pair of $300 earbuds.

Alternatives: In the $300 price range, there are several premium audio brands making true wireless earbuds. There are the new Sennheiser Momentum Earbuds, which I haven’t tested, as well as B&O’s Beoplay E8. If you’re looking for sport-focused earbuds, I’d recommend Sony’s WF-SP700Ns or Jabra’s Elite Active 65t. However, AirPods are still the best pair of true wireless earbuds, in terms of the total package (which includes price), especially if you have an iPhone.

Review: The most important thing to consider with any true wireless earbuds is fit, because if they don’t fit in your ears, well, they aren’t going to work for you. And pretty much every pair of true wireless earbuds that I’ve tested has fit differently. Jabra’s Elite Active 65t run tight, for example, while Bose’s SoundSport Free kind of hang out of your ears. We know that AirPods don’t fit in everybody’s ears. And for me, I know that something that looks like Bang & Olufsen’s Beoplay E8, they aren’t going to fit me well. Master & Dynamic’s MW07s fit me perfectly.

In the three weeks that I’ve been testing the MW07s I haven’t had one issue with the way they fit. And I don’t think that will be unique to me. Similar to Samsung’s IconX (2nd-gen) and Sony’s WF-SP700Ns, the MW07s take advantage of both silicone eartips and silicone earwings, so they grip in and around the ear cannel. And despite looking a little bulky when you hold in your hands, the MW07s fit neat and tidy; they don’t look they’re hanging out of your ears like Bose’s true wireless earbuds.

The MW07s are built with Master & Dynamic’s signature beryllium drivers and they sound pretty great. I’m not a true audiophile, but if you pressed me I’d say that the MW07s produce a slightly wider soundstage than AirPods – midrange and high frequencies are crisp and clear – but I’d also have to concede that the difference in sound quality between them and AirPods is subtle, hardly night and day. And that’s not a knock on the MW07s, but more of a testament to how great Apple’s two-year-old wireless earbuds still are.

Forget the high price tag of the MW07s for a second and, I swear, these are my favorite true wireless earbuds that I’ve tested.

Yes, a key feature of the MW07s is their excellent sound quality, but, for me, these earbuds are more about style and flair – “personality” – which they have heaps of. The MW07s are gorgeous, obviously, with an exterior made of beautiful acetate. The MW07s that I tested (which are photographed in this article) are grey terrazo, which I liked but if I could do it all over again I would probably opt for the steel blue; those look really special. And because the exteriors are cut from sheets of acetate, each earbud is going to look a bit different. So that’s neat.

Another standout feature is the charging case, which is made out of stainless steel and looks like a badass bullet case. Yes, it looks cool but it also feels better designed than pretty much all other charging cases that I’ve encountered. That’s because it has three LED lights built into its front, which light up different colors depending on its battery level. Green is full charged. Red is dead. And yellow is somewhere in-between. Also, the left- and right-most LED lights represents the power level of the left and right earbuds, while the middle LED light shows the battery level of the case. Again, it’s thoughtful and well-designed.

In terms of functionality, the MW07s just work. And I love that about them. They connect like any other Bluetooth device – there’s no quick pair feature, unfortunately – and from there they have built-in optical sensors and can automatically start/stop when you place or remove the earbuds from your earbuds, just like AirPods. There’s no app to deal with, which I found a godsend, although this also means that there’s no “Find My Earbuds” feature or the ability to tweak the earbuds’ EQ settings.

Forget the high price tag of the MW07s for a second and, I swear, these are my favorite true wireless earbuds that I’ve tested. They work and fit extremely well, plus the look and design of these blow AirPods and pretty much all other true wireless AirPods out of the water. Yes, $300 is very expensive, especially when you consider that the sound quality isn’t that much better/different than AirPods ($159) of Jabra’s Elite Active 65t ($180). However, you’re paying for more than just sound quality with MW07s. You’re paying for style and personality (and the higher-end materials). And just like some people will never understand buying a t-shirt that costs $50 when they can get “virtually” the same thing for $12, there will also be people who will never comprehend shelling out $300 for a pair true wireless earbuds.

Verdict: The MW07s feel refreshingly uncompromising. They’re beautiful and badass (especially with the charging case), and if you don’t like the expansive sound signature that Master & Dynamic is know for – well, tough luck. They are easy to use and will fit most people’s ears. The inclusion of the USB Type-C charging port makes them feel modern.

As far as the price, $300 is very expensive, especially when you consider that the sound quality isn’t that much different than AirPods ($159). However, you’re paying for more than just sound quality with MW07s. You’re paying for style and personality, and the high-end materials, of course. And if you value all that stuff, you’ll probably be over the moon with these MW07s.

Key Specs

Drivers: 10mm beryllium
Battery: 3.5-hour per earbud, 10 hours from the charging case
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.2
Water Resistance: IPX4
Charge: USB Type-C
App: none

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Review: Should You Buy a BlackBerry in 2018?

Nostalgia strikes with the BlackBerry Key2 smartphone ($649+). It’s the next-generation of 2017’s BlackBerry KeyOne and despite looking similar, the two models are different in all the right ways. The new model is slimmer, lighter and sturdier than its predecessor. The bezels on the Key2 are less prominent and its keyboard has been redesigned with 20-percent larger keys and a new “speed key” that lets users program their own shortcut to a specific app without going to the home screen. The Key2 has all its traditional specs bumped (processor, display, etc.) that you’d expect from a next-generation smartphone, too. And it’s the first Blackberry to ever have a dual rear-camera system. So in a world where BBMs are dead and iMessage is king, do you still need a smartphone with a smaller display and a physical keyboard?


The Good: Picking up the Key2 feels similar to using a mechanical keyboard with a computer — it’s different and sometimes difficult, but typing (texts, emails and Slack messages) is that much more enjoyable. The keyboard itself also comes with some neat tricks, such as 52 programmable shortcuts (one for each key), swipe gestures (which seems strange, but, for instance, you can scroll and erase messages by just swiping across the keyboard) and a fingerprint reader that’s in the spacebar. There’s an easy-access “Productivity Tab” that streamlines things like emails and calendar events. Blackberry put a number of features and apps, such as its well-known DTEK app, into the Key2 that take security to the next level. The rear-camera system is pretty decent for most photos. There’s a headphone jack.

Who They’re For: Any business person looking for a smartphone that’s primed for productivity (aka, somebody who sends a helluva lot emails via from their smartphone). It’s also not optimal for streaming videos or spending a lot of time looking at apps such as Instagram or Facebook, so the person probably shouldn’t care too much about that.

Watch Out For: Unlike many of the current crop of flagship and mid-range smartphones, the Key2 isn’t waterproof and doesn’t support wireless charging. Its display is tiny compared to pretty much every other smartphone in its price range. The keyboard can be frustrating at times, especially when you want to add symbols or numbers. The camera system isn’t great in low light.

Alternatives: In terms of other smartphones with physical keyboards, your only other option is last year’s Blackberry KeyOne, which is nowhere near as spec’d out as this much-updated Key2. At the $649, the Key2 is in line with other mid-range or older smartphones, such as the OnePlus 6, Google Pixel 2 or Samsung Galaxy S9, all of which have bigger displays and better camera systems.

Review: Full disclosure: I never had a Blackberry growing up. I never had the joy of BBMing or asking somebody, “Hey, what’s your pin?”. So getting my hands on the Blackberry Key2 was a novel experience — I hadn’t ever used a smartphone with a full keyboard before.

So let’s talk about the keyboard. Obviously, I use a keyboard on my desktop and laptop every day, so the physically typing on the condensed keyboard didn’t feel as abstract as I initially thought. The keys are small, true, but that was never really frustrated me. Instead, it was typing symbols and numbers that gave me the most problems, as navigating the Alt and Shift keys with just my thumbs felt aberrant.

The “speed key,” — that universal shortcut key — is located in the bottom-right corner of the keyboard and is surprisingly useful. It allows you to program up to 52 quick shortcuts to open apps without ever having to click the home button. I used it with just a few of my most-used apps — Twitter, Slack, Spotify, Gmail, Instagram — and I used it quite frequently. The keyboard has some swipe gestures, too, which first felt odd. You can switch between home screens, scroll up/down articles you’re reading and even delete words by just quickly moving your thumb over the keys. It’s honestly like the keys feel what I was trying to do — like a phantom touchscreen was there — but after a day or two of use, these swiping gestures kind of become second nature.

The keyboard is well-designed and feels great, but the great irony is that it actually made me a slower typer. I obviously have to caveat that point by saying two weeks of using a completely different smartphone isn’t enough time to break my habits, but still, I’m guessing most people used to typing on a touchscreen keyboard will have a similar problem.

The main star of the Blackberry Key2 is its keyboard, true, but the smartphone is also about privacy and security. As mentioned before, it has features and apps that bring this to the forefront. The DTEK app will tell you how secure each app is and let you manage permissions (it’ll tell you which apps have access to your microphone or certain log-in information, for example). The Redactor app allows you to black out sensitive information, too, so people standing near you can’t read what’s on your screen.

The other big difference is, as a result of that physical keyboard, that the Key2 has a smaller screen than other smartphones. The Key2 has a 4.5-inch display, which is slightly smaller than the 4.7-inch screen of the iPhone 8 and the five-inch screen of the Google Pixel 2, but it’s noticeably bigger — those smartphones are nearly all-screen.

For the most part, I didn’t have an issue with the smaller screen size. Apps like Gmail, Slack, Twitter, Google Maps and Messages all felt the same. However, the small screen has some noticeable drawbacks. The borders of Instagram Stories were cut off and watching landscapes videos on Netflix and YouTube is awkward. The resolution isn’t great either.

That said, the Key2 is a smartphone that’s not really meant for those things. Nor is it meant for taking photos, despite the fact that it’s the first Blackberry with a dual camera system and actually takes pretty decent photos. (I took a number of photos at my friend’s wedding and liked them enough to post on Instagram, which is saying something.) The camera, admittedly, isn’t great in low-light situations — photos can look flat — and it generally won’t impress you in the same way as the most recent iPhone, Samsung Galaxy or Google Pixel smartphones.

Verdict: At its core, the Blackberry is a very good mid-range smartphone. It’s fast, dependable and has a more than an adequate camera. Most importantly, it’s fun to use — a flash from the past. However, it’s really designed as a productivity weapon for business folks and doesn’t offer the supreme specs that are found in all today’s best flagship smartphones. The display isn’t big or beautiful, and it lacks features that have become ubiquitous, such as wireless charging and water resistance. If you want a second phone for business, or you’re just a big fan of Blackberry, the Key2 is a great choice. Otherwise, for $650, you can buy another midrange Android or an older iPhone and probably be happier.

What Others Are Saying:

• “BlackBerry Mobile managed to fix most of the issues, so if you were holding off on a KeyOne, you’ll probably love this phone. For everyone else it’s about figuring out whether you can get to the point where tapping away at a physical keyboard, like pen on paper, brings you enough fulfillment that you forget about all the things you’re losing in the process.” — Daniel Bader, Android Central

• “It might sound like I’m damning the phone with faint praise, but whatever: The BlackBerry Key2 is the best Android-powered BlackBerry ever made, and it improves on last year’s formula in almost every way. That said, the Key2 remains a questionable option for most smartphone shoppers — you could get a more-powerful Android phone like the OnePlus 6 for less money, and I suspect most people have moved on from physical keyboards without looking back. That said, for the right people — people who long for tactile keys and data privacy — the KEY2 just might be the right device at the right time.” — Chris Velazco, Engadget

• “On paper, it might be the best camera system ever put in a BlackBerry. But the Key2 doesn’t hold a candle to smartphone camera staples like the Pixel 2 XL and the iPhone X. After all, business users also want to take great photos with their phones, but the Key2 clearly isn’t cut out for that.” — Stefan Etienne, The Verge

Key Specs

Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 660
OS: Android 8.1 Oreo
Display: 4.5-inch IPS LCD (1,620×1,080)
Rear Camera: dual 12-megapixel camera system; 4K video at 30fps, 1080p video at 60fps
Front Camera: 8-megapixel
Key Features: headphone jack, USB-C charging,
Battery: 3500mAh


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KEF LS50 Wireless Review: The Perfect Hi-Fi All-in-One Speaker System

The KEF LS50 ($1,300/pair) has been regarded as some of the best desktop monitors (or hi-fi speakers, for their size) that you could buy since their release in 2012, but the British audio manufacturer has since released the KEF LS50 Wireless ($2,200/pair). Despite the likeness in name, the LS50 Wireless speakers are more than just Bluetooth- and wifi-enabled versions of the LS50. They are active powered speakers, unlike the passive KEF LS50, meaning each speaker has its own power amplifier built-in. But each LS50 Wireless speakers has two amplifiers, one for its tweeter and one for its woofer, and a dedicated DAC (up to 24-bit/192kHz) and DSP for each.


The Good: The KEF LS50 Wireless speakers offer the best of both worlds: a bonafide audiophile-grade stereo speaker system that can play up to 24-bit/192kHz audio files and can also be used as a traditional Bluetooth (aptX) speaker. Each speaker is built around KEF’s signature Uni-Q driver (comprised of a tweeter and woofer) and a hefty cabinet, which, in tandem, and with 230-watts per channel, are able to produce powerful, detail-rich audio that has virtually zero distortion — these speakers sound tremendous. The app is primed for Tidal and Spotify subscribers, and you can stream to the speakers directly through their respective apps. And there are numerous other wired connection options, including optical, USB-A and analog RCA inputs.

Who They’re For: If you want an all-in-one hi-fi system that sounds truly incredible, and doesn’t make you deal with separate stereo components, the KEF LS50 Wireless speakers are a great value for right around $2,200. The speakers also give you the option to connect a separate subwoofer, in case its natural bass isn’t enough (it probably is).

Watch Out For: The KEF LS50 Wireless speakers are a one-stop-shop hi-fi system, so if you have a separate stereo receiver, these aren’t the type of speakers for your setup. They’re not designed to be integrated into a home theater system, either. Both of the speakers are powered, so you’ll want to make sure they there’s open outlet space wherever you place them.

Alternatives: The KEF LS50 Wireless are a step above any other powered bookshelf speakers. Period. And there’s nothing really out there, in this price point, that’s like-for-like.

Review: Prior to testing the KEF LS50 Wireless, I was testing Audioengine’s new A5+ Wireless speakers, which are terrific-sounding, powered bookshelf speakers in their own right — especially for $500 — but it shouldn’t come as much of surprise that the KEF LS50 Wireless speakers are an entirely different animal. The level of detail you get from tracks just from Bluetooth streaming is, again, incredible. And then when you use the app and connect them to wi-fi, these speakers reach their true potential (if you’re streaming Tidal).

We spent most of the time streaming over wi-fi, from Spotify and Tidal, and the separation between the treble and mid-range is exceptional. In songs like “Downtown” by Majical Cloudz and “Gravity” by John Mayer, you can hear the vocals and individual instruments, especially percussion and strings, and it sounds like each is coming from their own separate place — it creates a soundstage that’s special, especially among stereo speakers.

The magic of the KEF LS50 Wireless, other than those unique drivers, is that there are two custom amplifiers and two built-in DACs in each speaker. This, along with an intuitive app that lets you adjust the DSP and other settings, means that the KEF LS50 Wireless is capable of producing an accurate audio experience that’s all their own. If the speakers are up against a wall or in a large room, or if you want more bass or treble, you can adjust the audio easily all in the app.

There are several features, not specifically related to audio quality, that are charming. Similar to the original KEF LS50, these new wireless speakers sort of look like the Death Star. And on the right speaker is an OLED touchscreen — plus a fantastic “click” noise when you turn the speaker on — and allows you to toggle through things like Bluetooth and wi-fi, along with allowing you to adjust the volume levels without breaking out your smartphone.

Verdict: $2,000 might seem like a lot to spend on a pair of bookshelf speakers — and it is — but the KEF LS50 Wireless offers so much more than your average high-end bookshelf speakers. They’re an engineering feat all in themselves, fitting individual amps, DACs and other electronics inside a cabinet that’s essentially the same size as the older LS50 speakers. They can be used as desktop monitors or an all-in-one hi-fi speaker system. And, best of all, anybody can use them: the app and a wi-fi connection allow Tidal tracks to play in all their high-resolution glory, or with the tap of the Bluetooth button anyone can play whatever they like — no instructions needed.

What Others Are Saying:

• “While I’ve been visited by no little birds, I will venture to say that this approach — fully active, with digital controls, integrated streaming, and the like — can and probably will be found in future KEF products. It really is just too simple to pass up. Simple — not in construction or execution — but in life. The lack of wires and extra bits means that the LS50W can go just about anywhere. Like the living room. An office. A bedroom. A dorm room! Though, maybe not the latter without some optional anti-theft deterrents, because these will draw not just eyes but outright lust..” — Scot Hull, Part-Time Audiophile

• “Put simply, for the £2000 you’ll pay for this ‘all-in-one’ setup, you’ll only get better by spending the same on hi-fi separates. The electronics and circuitry [are] so tailored to work perfectly with one another that the sound is spot-on – even pairing the LS50 passive speakers with a talented amplifier up to the same price can’t top it.” — Verity Burns, Trusted Reviews

• “We liked the speakers best, though, when rendering acoustic instruments — especially percussion. You know when the pop of a conga pulls you back into the room for its sheer presence, something is going right. One of our favorite moments came in the LS50 Wireless’ rendition of Ripple by the Grateful Dead. We’ve heard this song dozens of times over the years, but the speakers bring something really special to the table. The acoustic guitar at the intro sounds almost visible in space on the left side, while the rest of the instruments curl around in their own distinct locations within the stereo image. At the chorus, the dual mandolins are near magical in their precision — you can actually hear the room echo flutter between each click of the frenzied strumming.” — Ryan Waniata, Digital Trends

Key Specs

Speakers: Fully active speakers with built-in streaming preamp
Drivers: Uni-Q driver combo: 5.25-inch woofer, 1-inch aluminum tweeter
Frequency Range: 40Hz – 47kHz
Frequency Response: 45Hz – 28kHz
Max Volume: 106dB
Streaming: Tidal, Spotify, Bluetooth aptX support
Connectivity: wi-fi, Bluetooth 4.0 aptX, RCA, subwoofer
Weight: 22.5 pounds (each)


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Sonos Beam Review: The Perfect Entry-Level Soundbar, for Most People

The Sonos Beam ($399) is the company’s newest soundbar that, similar to the Playbase ($699) and the Playbar ($699) that came before it, integrates your TV with your existing Sonos speakers. If you have a multi-room setup you can play the TV’s audio throughout your whole house, or you can configure your other Sonos speakers as satellites and/or rear channels and thus have a complete Sonos surround sound system.

That said, the Sonos Beam is much more than a smaller, more affordable version of those other soundbars. It’s a smart speaker with Alexa built-in, like the Sonos One, so you can ask Alexa to play music or control your smart home devices. And since it’s connected to your TV, you can use your voice to control your TV, too, which is a first for Sonos. For TV control, the Sonos Beam will work best for those with an Amazon Fire TV (or a TV with an Amazon Fire TV dongle), allowing you to ask Alexa to turn on the TV and even go to specific shows or channels. Also, unlike Sonos’s larger soundbars, the Sonos Beam can be either wall mounted or left to rest on your media console. (The Playbase needs to rest under your TV while the Playbar is designed to be wall mounted.)


The Good: The great thing about any Sonos speaker, other than its sound quality, is that it comes with great software and an intuitive companion app — and the Sonos Beam is no different. You just plug the soundbar in, and then the app walks you through how to correctly connect it to your TV. The app also tunes the soundbar so that it’s optimized for your room, using its Trueplay tuning software, same as other Sonos speakers. If you own an Amazon Fire TV (or dongle), the Sonos Beam will be able to control your television almost completely. It plugs into to your TV through HDMI ARC port and it supports CEC, so you can use your TV’s remote to adjust the volume if you don’t feel like asking Alexa.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Sonos Beam is that Sonos promises that it will eventually support all major virtual assistants, including Alexa (built-in), Siri (mid-July) and Google Assistant (by end of 2018). Not only that, but the Sonos Beam promises “cross-platform voice control,” meaning, as it pertains to music streaming, you’ll be able to ask Siri to play a song, then ask Alexa what song was playing. (This is an example that Antoine Leblond, Sonos’s VP of software, showed off at the Sonos Beam’s launch event in early June). You’ll be able to do other things like this eventually, but the conditions need to be perfect for it to work — certain virtual assistants won’t work with certain streaming services, for example. These cross-platform voice controls aren’t available at launch, so I wasn’t able to test them, but knowing they’re coming is a good thing. (It makes the product “future proof.”)

Who They’re For: At launch, there are two ways of looking at the Sonos Beam. Either 1. you’re buying it because you have other Sonos speakers and you want to integrate your TV into the mix, or 2. you want one smart speaker to rule your home — it can greatly improve the sound of your TV while also being a darn good speaker for streaming music. In the latter instance, the Sonos Beam is effectively taking the place of any quality sounding smart speaker, like the Google Home Max or Apple’s HomePod.

Watch Out For: The Sonos Beam is a plug-and-play, entry-level speaker that’s designed to work well with other Sonos speakers, but if you have a home entertainment system that includes an A/V receiver and non-Sonos satellite speakers, this is probably not the soundbar for you. (You could integrate them all with a Sonos Connect:AMP, but that gets messy and expensive.) If you don’t have an Amazon Fire TV, you won’t be able to control your TV with Alexa as completely as you might expect. And if you use your TV’s optical port instead its HDMI-ARC port, you won’t be able to turn the TV completely on/off with Alexa. Even though the Sonos Beam sounds very good with its wide stereo separation, it won’t sound as immersive as other soundbars with Dolby Atmos or DTS Virtual:X that creates three-dimensional sound using virtual height channels.

Alternatives: The Playbar ($699) and Playbase ($699) are the two other soundbars that Sonos makes. Both are louder than Sound Beam and probably better options for larger rooms. The main difference, other than size and cost, is that neither of those soundbars is a smart speaker that’s integrated with a virtual assistant: you can’t summon music or you control your TV (in any capacity) with your voice.

If you’re just looking for a soundbar that doesn’t need to sync with other Sonos speakers around the house, there are a number of great-sounding and more affordable options to choose from; the Yamaha YAS-207 ($300), for example, is affordable and supports the latest surround sound technologies by DTS and Dolby Audio.

Review: For the last week I’ve had the Sonos Beam hooked up to my Vizio M-Series (2017 model) and I can tell you, right off the bat, that the Sonos Beam won’t be for everybody. If you have an A/V receiver and two satellite speakers that are normally connected to your television, like me, you’re not going to be able to easily integrate the Sonos Beam into your home theater without a Connect:AMP, which is expensive. I didn’t have one, so I reviewed the Sonos Beam as a standalone soundbar. That said, you’re not going to buy the Sonos Beam to integrate it into your non-Sonos home theater system. It’s a soundbar that’s meant to work by itself or with other Sonos speakers. And that’s what it’s great at.

The Sonos Beam is a 3.0-channel soundbar that can be integrated into 5.1 surround sound system if you add two Sonos One (or two Play:1) speakers and a Sonos Sub. However, I’m guessing that most people looking at the Sonos Beam aren’t going to have those other Sonos speakers — yet — and are instead just looking at it as a great-sounding, versatile and entry-level soundbar. It sounds very good, with a wide stereo separation that isn’t as immersive as other immersive technologies (like Dolby Atmos or DTS Virtual:X), but still makes you feel like in the movie or show (especially if you’re watching in a small-to-medium-sized room). Using the soundbar is exactly like talking to an Amazon Echo or a Sonos One speaker. You can select from the same default music streaming services (Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora), but the Sonos Beam just sounds bigger and better than those other smart speakers.

The other difference is that the Sonos Beam is obviously a big upgrade over your television’s speakers. When you turn on the television, the sound comes out of the soundbar and movie nights or just watching ESPN become instantly better. Worried about a tedious setup process? Don’t be. The Sonos app walks you through the whole thing, from using an optical dongle if your older TV doesn’t have an HDMI output for audio, to turn off your TV’s default speakers — it’s all really easy.

Again, the Sonos Beam excels as a soundbar and as a smart speaker. The last thing that Sonos Beam can do is control your television, and this is where it gets a little iffy. If you have an Amazon Fire TV (or dongle), it works wonderfully. In a private demo, I witnessed the Sonos Beam turn the television on and off, open up to specific shows, and pause and rewind those shows. Boom. Amazing.

I don’t have an Amazon Fire TV, though. I have an Apple TV 4K and an Xbox One, both of which are connected to the TV in my room, and I wasn’t able to utilize many Alexa commands. I was able to adjust its volume and I was also able to switch to specific channels and programs (like ESPN’s “Get Up” show in the morning) on the TV that’s in our living room, which is where our Verizon Fios cable box is connected. So if you don’t have an Amazon Fire TV, but your Sonos Beam is connected to a TV with a cable box (Sonos supports all the major providers), you’ll be able to ask Alexa to go to specific channels. But you still won’t be able to open apps on the Apple TV, like HBO Now or Netflix, until support for Airplay 2 launches in the coming weeks.

(Note: When support for Airplay 2 launches this July, anybody with an Apple TV will be able to ask Siri to play specific apps and shows. You’ll have to speak to Siri directly through your iOS device or Apple TV remote, however, and not directly through Sonos Beam like you can now with Alexa.)

Verdict: The Sonos Beam promises a lot, especially when it comes to cross-compatibility. If it’s actually able to understand and work with Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant, all at the same time, then that’s great. Better than great, actually. But I wasn’t able to test that and in my experience, when virtual assistants from one company start controlling devices from a different company, things get complicated and they never work as well as you think they should. (Siri still won’t be able to identify a song playing on Spotify, for example.)

Sonos is known for not being complicated, however. You just plug in its speakers, follow the in-app instructions and they just work. So instead of looking the Sonos Beam as this ambitious speaker for the home, even though it could turn out to be just that, I think it’s better to look at what you’re guaranteed to get out of it. And that’s an audiophile-grade smart speaker, rivaling the Google Home Max or an Apple HomePod, and that’s a terrific entry-level soundbar. Throw in the fact that it’s going to be able to work with most future smart devices, and $399 is a pretty good deal. If you have an Amazon Fire TV, it’s a steal.

What Others Are Saying:

• “At a high level, all of this means that the Sonos Beam will offer an exchange between competing voice assistants in a way that no other smart speaker on the market does. But to Jones’ point, there are still limitations around how all of that will work, due to the way the individual cloud services work. While I was at the company’s offices, Sonos more than once used an example where you’re using Siri to initiate a song and then asking Alexa to identify which song it is. In reality, that will work only if you’re playing Apple Music. Switch to Spotify and Siri can’t be used for song search or initiation, only playback and volume controls.” — Lauren Goode, Wired

• “At $399, the Beam isn’t cheap, but it’s markedly less expensive than Sonos’ other TV speakers. It’s the same price as the Google Home Max and only $50 more than Apple’s HomePod. But because it also works as a soundbar, it offers more utility than either of them. And because Sonos is trying to mediate between all these different ecosystems, it works (often better) with more services than either of them.” — Dieter Bohn, The Verge

Key Specs

Drivers: four full-range woofers, one tweeter, three passive radiators
Channels: 3.0
Key features: five-microphone array,
Compatibility: Amazon Alexa, Siri/AirPlay 2 (July), Google Assistant (sometime in 2018)


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This Travel Adapter Changed the Way I Use AirPods

When Twelve South announced its nifty little travel accessory, the AirFly ($40), last month, I honestly couldn’t wait to get my hands on one. Its promise was big. It allowed anybody to listen to in-flight movies with AirPods. Previously, you’d have to use a wired headphone — most likely the cheap ones that Delta provides — and plug it into the 3.5mm jack in the armrest or next to the monitor to hear those movies. Not with the AirFly. After an initial pairing process that takes less than 20 seconds, you can plug the AirFly into that said headphone jack and listen to those yet-to-be-released airplane flicks with your AirPods. Beautiful.

As somebody who loves their AirPods — I’m on my second pair after leaving my first set in a California hotel room, but I digress — the AirFly excited me, though not for the reasons you might think. I don’t fly often, so the prospect of using AirFly and my AirPods on an airplane didn’t totally do it for me. Instead, I wanted to see how AirFly changed the way I play video games.

You won’t catch me in big eSports tournaments or anything like that, but I do dabble in the dark arts of a Nintendo Switch and an Xbox One. For the past few weeks, I’ve been using the AirPlay and my AirPods to play both games — and there are pros and cons to both. The Nintendo Switch really lends itself to the AirPlay. The handheld console doesn’t have Bluetooth built-in — a surprising omission, actually — so you need wired headphones if you don’t want everyone around you to hear everything. And the AirFly works seamlessly with the Switch; after pairing with the AirPods, I just plugged the AirFly into the Switch’s headphone jack and was good to go. Boom.

But I expected the AirFly to work well with the Switch. Going into my testing I really wanted to know was whether the AirFly would work with Xbox One — if I plugged it into a controller, would I be able to use my AirPods while playing Xbox Live with friends? The answer is “yes,” but mostly “no.”

I tried the AirFly with two different Xbox One controllers — a new controller with a 3.5mm jack and an older one that required a headset adapter ($25). Both worked pretty much the same: the AirPods could play the game’s auto and I could hear my friends, but the built-in microphone didn’t work, so my friends couldn’t hear me. This wasn’t entirely unexpected, as AirPods have been known to have some issues when paired with some non-iPhone smartphones — but still, this was a bit of a bummer.

At the time of testing, I was also playing around with the Oculus Go, the company’s new portable VR headset. It has a 3.5mm jack for audio, so I was able to use the AirFly (and my AirPods) while watching the World Cup and playing ‘Settlers of Catan’ in virtual reality. I know that the AirFly was designed specifically to allow people to listen to their AirPods on flights, but I found some other uses. True, I wasn’t able to replace my current gaming headset with your AirPods — most serious gamers wouldn’t dream of doing this anyway — but you can’t blame me for trying. I just like AirPods too damn much.

Editor’s Note: It’s worth noting that the AirPlay isn’t a revolutionary product. There are other Bluetooth receivers on the market that can essentially do the same job. However, the AirFly is specifically marketed for AirPods and has an instruction guide that’s specifically geared to help AirPod owners pair their AirPods — what to press, and for how long, etc. It’s just easier, and I appreciate that.

The Best Portable, Waterproof Speakers You Can Buy This Summer

This definitive guide to the best portable speakers of 2018 explores everything you need to know before buying your next portable speaker, including what features to look out for and the different options available, along with which portable speakers we feel are best for every type of person.

Prefer to skip directly to the picks? Click here.

The Short List

Best Overall Speakers: Ultimate Ears Megablast and Blast

Verdict: The UE Megablast and UE Blast are the next evolution of the best-in-class portable speakers, the UE Megaboom and UE Boom. They’re slightly larger and more powerful, but the UE Megablast and UE Blast are also the company’s first smart speakers. They support Alexa voice commands and essentially work exactly like an Amazon Echo, but they’re portable so you can take them hiking or to the park. When I originally reviewed these speakers in early 2018, my two criticisms were that they were too expensive and didn’t support Alexa voice commands with Spotify — both of the problems have now been rectified; UE has significantly dropped the price of each speaker and updated its software to support Spotify. | |

Runner Up: Bose SoundLink Revolve Plus

Verdict: The Bose SoundLink Revolve Plus is the company’s first 360-degree Bluetooth speaker. It’s loud and powerful, and the audio is accurate and spacious; it’s engineered with dual-opposing passive-radiators and an efficient transducer to eliminate distortion. It’s not the most rugged speaker on this list, but it’s still splash-resistant. And it’s simple design and easily-defined buttons make this traditional Bluetooth speaker very intuitive to use. It also has a built-in mic so you can answer calls without having to take out your phone — super convenient. For anybody who loves Bose, the SoundLink Revolve Plus is an easy next buy. (Even if it does look like a lantern.) |

Best Budget Speaker: Anker Soundcore Flare

Verdict: The Soundcore Flare is new and small portable speaker that produces suprisingly great, room-filling sound. Throw in the fact that in only costs $60, and this is an excellent portable speaker for pretty much anybody. It’s extremely waterproof and has a dedicated button on the outside to boost its bass, in case you like more bass-heavy audio. Additionally, through Anker’s Soundcore app you can tweak the EQ setttings and customize the LED lights that flash on the outside of the speaker.


When I was younger, I remember having a dependable portable speaker was everything. It provided the soundtrack to backyard barbecues, pool parties, sports practices and pickup games. Then in my nefarious high school years, it was one of three weekend essentials that we divvied up between our friends — somebody brought the beer, somebody brought the cups and balls, and somebody brought the tunes. It was great.

Today, having a dependable portable speaker is still super important, even if seems like there are so many more types of speakers to choose between, from smart speakers to bookshelf speakers, multi-room speakers to multi-channel hi-fi systems. One of the main reasons is that all those speakers need to be tethered to a wall outlet, which is boring and not conducive to a life on the move. Also, many of our favorite portable speakers have no problem operating in the sun or rain and have long-lasting batteries, which makes them ideal companions for camping, hiking or just picnicking at some park.

The cream of the latest crop of rugged portable speakers — meaning they’re water-resistant and can handle a drop — don’t necessarily look the rugged part, but looks are far from everything. Many of these models are rated IP7, which means they can handle more than just splashes, smashes, snow and sand; instead, they can be submerged in water 3.3 feet deep for up to 30 minutes. That’s not bad for speakers that might look as nice on your bookshelf as they do on the edge of the hot tub.

The Factors to Consider Before Buying

When setting out to buy a portable speaker, there are almost too many to choose from. They come in all different shapes and sizes, with different sound qualities and price points. Also, they also come with many different features. Here’s what you need to look for to make sure a speaker is right for you.

Brand: You’ve probably heard of all the speaker manufacturers on this list, which is a good thing. You want to trust that speaker is not only going to sound good but also last. The other thing with brand, is that many portable speakers on this list work with other like-branded speakers; for instance, you can pair two Bose Soundlink speakers together or two of Kicker’s Bullfrog speakers together for more of a party (or multiroom) setup.

Size and Shape: Portable speakers come in all different shapes and sizes, and generally the bigger the speaker, the louder and better it is going to sound. You also want to consider the shape and design of the speaker. The two most popular shapes these days are 360-degree (cylindrical) or monodirectional speakers. The 360-degree speakers are generally better when placed in the middle of a room while monodirectional are better for stereo audio.

Ruggedness: All rugged speakers aren’t the same. And in order to know how water-resistant or drop-proof a speaker is, you really need to understand IP (Ingress Protection) ratings. The easy way to explain it is that the higher the IP rating of the speaker, the more water-resistant it is — an IP7-rated speaker is more durable than an IP4-rated speaker. You can check out how the IP ratings are explained, here.

Features: Some of today’s portable speakers are more versatile and feature-packed than others. For instance, some speakers like Ultimate Ears’ Megablast and Blast can actually connect to wi-fi and function like an Amazon Echo. Others can pair with other like-minded speakers in a stereo setup. Some have built-in microphones so you can use it as a loudspeaker without having to pick up your phone. And then some have controllable LED lights. Depending on how you want to use the speaker and if you want to deal with a companion app — these are all factors you have to consider.

Voice Assistance: Some of the newer portable speakers have wi-fi connectivity and support a voice assistant, such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant. This allows you to use speaker similar to an Amazon Echo or Google Home, using voice commands to request songs, answer general queries and control smart home devices. However, you’ll only be able to access the voice assistant when connected to wi-fi or a mobile hotspot.

Battery Life: Bigger speakers tend to have larger and longer-lasting batteries. That said, it varies from speaker to speaker. If you know you’re going to listen to the speaker a lot and you’re also going to have to go days between charges, these are things you should consider before purchasing a portable speaker.

Charge: Most of today’s portable speakers need a micro-USB cable to charge. However, there are some speakers that require a USB-C or AC cable to charge. Knowing what kind of cable might seem like a small thing, but it’s actually really convenient to be able to use the same cables to charge a few of your devices, like wireless headphones, smartphone and computer.

Buying Guide

Best Overall Speakers: Ultimate Ears Megablast and Blast

Verdict: The UE Megablast and UE Blast are the next evolution of the best-in-class portable speakers, the UE Megaboom and UE Boom. They’re slightly larger and more powerful, but the UE Megablast and UE Blast are also the company’s first smart speakers. They support Alexa voice commands and essentially work exactly like an Amazon Echo, but they’re portable so you can take them hiking or to the park. When I originally reviewed these speakers in early 2018, my two criticisms were that they were too expensive and didn’t support Alexa voice commands with Spotify — both of the problems have now been rectified; UE has significantly dropped the price of each speaker and updated its software to support Spotify.

Ultimate Ears Alternatives:

• The UE Boom 2 ($100+) is an older, slightly cheaper, and less powerful version of the UE Blast — it also doesn’t have a built-in virtual assistant. It’s a very good sounding 360-degree speaker that comes in a lot of colors and you can find online for pretty cheap.

• The UE Megaboom ($169) is a larger version of the UE Boom 2. While it’s a still a very good speaker, you can find the newer and better-sounding UE Megablast for even cheaper than the UE Megaboom, so it makes sense to pass on this.

• The UE Wonderboom ($63+) is a really small, ball-shaped portable speaker that’s water-resistant and sounds way bigger than its size. A solid budget speaker.

• The UE Roll 2 ($62+) is ideal for bike messengers or anybody with a backpack. It’s a front-facing speaker — not 360-degree — that’s super portable and comes with strap for those who want to fasten the speaker to their backpack.

Key Specs

UE Blast
Max Volume: 90 dBC
Frequency Range: 90Hz – 20kHz
Drivers: two 35mm active drivers, two 81mm x 39mm passive radiators
Battery: 12 hours
Waterproof: IP67

UE Megablast
Max Volume: 93 dBC
Frequency Range: 60Hz – 20kHz
Drivers: two 25mm tweeters, two 55mm active drivers, two 85mm x 50mm passive radiators
Battery: 16 hours
Waterproof: IP67

| |

Runner Up: Bose SoundLink Revolve Plus

Verdict: The Bose SoundLink Revolve Plus is the company’s first 360-degree Bluetooth speaker. It’s loud and powerful, and the audio is accurate and spacious; it’s engineered with dual-opposing passive-radiators and an efficient transducer to eliminate distortion. It’s not the most rugged speaker on this list, but it’s still splash-resistant. And it’s simple design and easily-defined buttons make this traditional Bluetooth speaker very intuitive to use. It also has a built-in mic so you can answer calls without having to take out your phone — super convenient. For anybody who loves Bose, the SoundLink Revolve Plus is an easy next buy. (Even if it does look like a lantern.)

Bose Alternatives:

• The Bose SoundLink Revolve ($179) is virtually identical to the SoundLink Revolve Plus. It’s just a little smaller, cheaper and doesn’t have the handle. It’s a great alternative if you want to save a little dough.

• The Bose SoundLink Color Bluetooth Speaker II ($129) is a smaller portable Bluetooth speaker that comes in several colors. It’s a more portable and more playful alternative. Also has a built-in mic to access voice assistants and answer calls.

• The Bose SoundLink Micro Bluetooth speaker is the cheapest rugged Bluetooth speaker in the company’s current lineup. It’s also really water-resistant (IP7, which is more than Bose’s larger speakers above). No built-in mic.

Key Specs

Frequency Range: N/A
Drivers: N/A
Battery: up to 16 hours
Waterproof: IPX4 (splash-proof)


Best Speaker for Parties: Sony SRS-XB41

Verdict: The SRS-XB41 is the largest and most feature-packed portable Bluetooth speaker in Sony’s 2018 Extra Bass series. It’s a front-facing speaker, unlike many on this list, so it won’t be able to fill a room as evenly as a 360-degree speaker. However, it can play music really loud with strong bass and surprisingly little distortion. Through its companion app, you can adjust the audio’s EQ, customize its LED lights and pair it with other Extra Bass speakers in a multi-room system. And it has an IP67 rating, so it’s a non-issue if it gets submerged in water or a pitcher of beer. All in all, it’s a good speaker for parties that has a terrific battery life and a bunch of funky features, which you may or may not choose to use.

Sony Alternatives:

• The Sony SRS-XB31 ($118) is the medium-sized speaker in Sony’s 2018 Extra Bass line-up. It’s not as loud and is slightly smaller, but it comes with many of the same features as the SRS-XB41.

• The Sony SRS-XB21 ($70) is the smallest speaker in Sony’s 2018 Extra Bass line-up. It doesn’t have quite the same features as its larger siblings, nor the sound quality, but it’s a solid budget alternative.

Key Specs

Frequency Range: 20hz – 20kHz
Drivers: dual 2.28 drivers
Battery: 24 hours
Waterproof: IP67


Most Durable Speaker: Kicker Bullfrog BF200

Verdict: Kicker’s Bullfrog BF200 is hefty, weighing in at eight pounds, but it’s one of the toughest and most weatherproof Bluetooth speakers you’ll come across. It comes with a companion app that allows you to adjust the EQ settings and pair it with other Bullfrog speakers. In addtion to a USB port to charge your phone and an aux port, the Bullfrog BF200 is really unique because it has a built-in FM radio tuner. Unlike other Bluetooth speakers, there’s no built-in mic to talk on your phone’s speakerphone.

Kicker Alternatives:

• The Bullfrog BF400 ($350) is virtually the same as the Bullfrog BF200 in look, features and sound quality. It’s just a larger and more powerful speaker.

• The Bullfrog BF100 ($175) is the smallest speaker in Kicker’s Bullfrog lineup. It isn’t as powerful, nor does it have the same battery life, but it’s slightly more waterproof and has a built-in mic so you can talk on the phone.

Key Specs

Frequency Range: N/A
Drivers: two 2-3/4-inch drivers
Battery: up to 20 hours
Waterproof: IP66

Best Budget Speaker: Anker Soundcore Flare

Verdict: The Soundcore Flare is new and small portable speaker that produces suprisingly great, room-filling sound. Throw in the fact that in only costs $60, and this is an excellent portable speaker for pretty much anybody. It’s extremely waterproof and has a dedicated button on the outside to boost its bass, in case you like more bass-heavy audio. Additionally, through Anker’s Soundcore app you can tweak the EQ setttings and customize the LED lights that flash on the outside of the speaker.

Anker Alternatives:

• The Anker Soundcore Flare+ ($100) is a better version of the Flare and will be released later this summer. It’ll have better drivers and a longer battery life, plus a USB port to charge your other devices.

• The Anker Soundcore Motion Q ($40) is a really smaller 360-degree speaker that’s also waterproof. It can be synced with another Motion Q speaker in a stereo pair.

Key Specs

Frequency Range: N/A
Drivers: dual drivers, 360-degree sound
Battery: up to 12 hours
Waterproof: IPX7

Honorable Mention: JBL Xtreme

Verdict: JBL has made some of our favorite Bluetooth speakers for years and its Xtreme speaker is probably the best sounding and most rugged of the bunch. It’s powerful and bass-heavy, yet still sounds accurate, comfortabling handling mid- and high-range frequencies. Through its companion app, you can pair multiple JBL speakers together. It has a built-in mic to answer phone calls. It’s very waterproof. And, because it’s about to be phased out when the JBL Xtreme 2 launches this summer, you can get the JBL Xtreme for relatively cheap.

JBL Alternatives:

• The JBL Xtreme 2 ($300) is the next-gen model of the JBL Xtreme. It’s more waterproof and has bigger drivers, so it’s supposed to sound better with even more bass. You can order the Xtreme 2 now, but it won’t ship until June 23.

• The JBL Charge 3 ($120) is a speaker that’s been around for a few years. It’s significantly smaller and cheaper than the JBL Xtreme, but comes with many of the same features.

• The JBL Flip 4 ($80) is a small waterproof speaker that’s been around for a few years and comes in several colors.

• The JBL Clip 2 ($44) is a small waterproof speaker that comes with carabiner clip, making it easy to attach to a backpack.

Key Specs

Frequency Range: 70Hz – 20kHz
Drivers: four drivers, two bass radiators
Battery: up to 15 hours
Waterproof: IPX7

The 7 Best True Wireless Earphones of 2018

AirPods have set the bar for true wireless earphones. A year and a half later, however, other products are starting to catch up. Read the Story

Apple’s 10 Most Important Announcements from WWDC 2018

At Apple’s annual developer’s conference (WWDC) this afternoon, the company revealed a string of significant updates to iOS, macOS (named Mojave), watchOS and tvOS. All these updates will kick into effect this fall for the public, while beta programs will roll out today or later this month (depending on the software). No new hardware was announced, unfortunately, and the HomePod wasn’t even mentioned; although AirPlay 2 was released last week and enabled all HomePods to produce multiroom and stereo sound (learn more, here). Still, for anybody who uses an iPhone, Mac, Apple Watch or Apple TV — or all of above — there were a bunch of cool features announced.

The Measure App

Apple introduced ARKit 2 early on in today’s presentation and with it, a really cool app that I think everybody — not just those proficient in AR — will use. It’s called ‘Measure’ and it’s able to quickly and accurately measure the size of real-world objects. It’s like a virtual tape measurer. Want to know the size of the table? chair? or TV? Just open the app, hold your iPhone or iPhone up to the object, tap the screen in a few key places to get digital measure points, and the app will tell the object’s measurements. Instant and simple.

Siri, Siri Everywhere

One of the many features coming with iOS 12 is Siri Shortcuts. Effectively, it allows any iOS app to work with Siri. iPhone and iPad users will be able to create simple-yet-specific voice commands to kick off an action. There will be a new Shortcuts app, too, that according to the press release will allow users “to create a series of actions from different apps that can be carried out with a simple tap or customized voice command.”

A Better ‘Do Not Disturb.’ Also, Notification Management

iOS 12 will bring about more customization options for Do Not Disturb mode. Instead of just being able to turn it on and off, you’ll be able to set automatically set end times for Do Not Disturb. This could be really useful when out on a dinner date or at the movies. Also, iOS 12 will allow users to more quickly manage their notifications. You’ll be able t group all notifications from a single app together, such as Twitter or Slack, and allow you close them in one fell swoop. No longer will you have to individually exit out of Twitter notification when somebody mentions you in a tweet, for example.

Create Animojis That Look Like You. Also, Tongues.

There will a couple of new Animoji avatars that iPhone X users will be able to choose from (including a ghost, koala, tiger and Tyrannosaurus) with iOS 12; more importantly, Apple announced Memojis, which are customizable Animojis that you can make actually look like yourself. Also, all Memojis and Animojis will be able to detect and capture winks and tongue movements, which they weren’t able to do before.

Group FaceTime

You’ll be able to FaceTime with up to 32 people in the same group at the same time, which is probably way more that you’ll ever need. But still cool. The feature is neat because whoever is talking in the Group FaceTime will appear larger on your screen, then when some else begins talking they’ll come to the forefront. From the demo they did on screen, the feature is simple and intuitive to work. It’ll be integrated directed into the Messages app, so group conversations can be continued even after the FaceTime ends. Also, anybody in the Group FaceTime will be able to customize how they appear, with different filters, Animoji or Memojis.

Apple TV 4K Welcomes Dolby Atmos, Zero Sign-On

When tvOS 12 rolls out this fall, Apple TV 4K will gain support Dolby Atmos audio, making it the only streaming player to be Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision certified, which is a huge coup for Apple and home theater enthusiasts alike. Also, with its new “Zero sign-on,” your Apple TV will be able to detect the broadband network you’re on and automatically signs you into all the apps that are supported by that subscription. No more having to type in your password. The zero sign-on feature will work with Charter Spectrum (and its 50 million subscribers) later this year, but Apple says it’s working to expand this feature to work with other TV providers in the future.

Aerials Shots from Space

You know those beautiful aerial screensavers that come on every time your Apple TV goes idle? Apple is adding two neat features to that. First, you can simply tap your Apple TVs remote and it’ll tell you the location of where the photograph was taken. And two, it’s adding aerial space screensavers that were taken from NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Very cool.

Safari Makes Privacy a Priority

Safari will put a much stronger emphasis on privacy and security when macOS Mojave rolls out. Apple’s internet browser will effectively block “Like” or “Share” buttons and comment widgets from tracking cookies (and therefore your browsing movements) without your permission. It’s a big step and significant stiff arm to companies like Facebook and Google who have used these tools to collect data about its users for years. There are a number of other preventative features designed to protect you from the big bad internet, which you can read about by clicking the link below.

The Apple Watch Does Yoga, Podcasts and ‘Walkie-Talkie’

With watchOS 5, your Apple Watch will be able to recognize yoga and hiking as dedicated workouts. Apple Podcasts will have its own dedicated watchOS app, too, so you can download or stream your favorite podcasts and listen to them anywhere. And finally, watchOS 5 will introduce a new Walkie-Talkie feature, which the company called “an entirely new way to communicate with voice and just a tap of the wrist.”

Stacks and Dark Mode Headline the Features Coming to Mac

There are a number of new features coming to Mac with macOS Mojave, but two really stood out for me. First, there’s Dark Mode. You can probably guess but the feature darkens the color scheme of your Mac, making the content that you’re actually working on stand out and everything else fade into the back. While on stage at this year’s WWDC, Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, said it’s a great feature for developers working with code, or really anybody working at night. The other feature is Stacks, which is a cool new organizational tool for Mac. The tool automatically organizes files on your desktop into groups based on their file type (such as images, PDFs, movies and spreadsheets). Also, for the first time the Home app is coming to Mac, allowing anybody with HomeKit-enabled devices to control them straight from their desktop or laptop.

Today in Gear

The best way to catch up on the day’s most important product releases and stories. Read the Story

Is Audioengine’s A5+ Wireless the Best Bookshelf Speaker Under $500?

For years, Audioengine’s A5+ powered speakers have been regarded as some of the best desktop and bookshelf speakers you can buy. Audioengine designs and manufactures everything in the speaker from the ground up — it’s a bonafide audiophile-grade speaker. Recently, in 2018, Audioengine released the A5+ Wireless speakers, which are essentially identical to the Audioengine A5+ speakers, just with built-in Bluetooth so you can stream music. No need to wire the speakers up to a computer, CD player or turntable to play music, although you still can.

The Good: The A5+ Wireless speakers produce the same excellent sound quality of the A5+, but with built-in Bluetooth receiver and 24-bit DAC, it’s extremely easy to stream Spotify or Tidal from your smartphone. The speakers support high-res streaming: Bluetooth aptX, SBC and AAC. The speakers have numerous inputs and connectivity options, so if you don’t want to stream music you can connect the stereo pair to a turntable, stereo receiver or desktop. Audioengine offers a 30-day “audition period,” allowing you to get a free refund if you don’t like them (but you will).

Who They’re For: Anybody looking for versatile high-quality bookshelf speakers that aren’t super expensive. If streaming is your thing, it’s as simple as flicking a switch on the speakers and connecting via your smartphone’s or computer’s Bluetooth settings — it’s that simple. It’s easy enough to connect them to other stereo components, too. Also, they can be paired with a subwoofer.

Watch Out For: Sometimes the volume of the speakers and your smartphone speakers gets a bit mixed up; if the volume of the smartphone is really low, can be basically impossible to turn the volume up straight from the speaker. Also, the “knob feel” of the volume knob on the right speaker isn’t the best we’ve felt. It’s not a multiroom speaker and there’s built-in virtual assistant.

Alternatives: If you don’t plan on streaming music, you can pick up Audioengine’s several-year-old A5+ powered speakers and get the same audio quality for $100 less on Amazon.

Review: The A5+ Wireless speakers are nearly indistinguishable from the A5+ powered speakers you fell in love with years ago. Aesthetically, the only real change, aside from the Bluetooth antennae, is that the tweeter of each speaker is now centralized, instead of skewed to one side like on the A5+. But they produce fantastic stereo sound and more versatile than ever. However you choose to listen to them, frankly, they’re going to sound fantastic.

I spent the majority of my time with the A5+ Wireless streaming music (Spotify) to them, as that’s really what’s new and neat about these speakers. As good as they are, there are some things to consider before buying the A5+ Wireless speakers. They’re near-field speakers, so for optimal listening, you want to position the speakers so that they are both slightly angled towards you, not straight on.

The A5+ Wireless speakers handle midrange and highs very well, which is especially noticeable on tracks like Enya’s “Orinoco Flow,” and even the bass stands up on tracks like Kendrick Lamar’s “All The Stars.” Although, if you want to add a subwoofer to the stereo pair, that’s easy enough. In truth, these speakers handle the gamut of songs really well, especially in a near-field setup, and they do sound really good at high volumes. So crank it.

Verdict: At the $500 range, the A5+ Wireless are really the cream of the crop when it comes to wireless bookshelf speakers. It’s easy to stream hi-res audio from your smartphone, tablet or computer, or you can connect them to any of your existing hi-fi components. They’re versatile, sound good with or without a subwoofer, and would look good in any living room or office.

What Others Are Saying:

• “While the Bluetooth connectivity is a great feature, it doesn’t sound as good as the wired connection. This is no surprise, as we’ve never heard a wireless connection that sounds better than wired. Overall, though, it sounds very good for Bluetooth and in many cases, such as parties, the convenience factor is really what you’re looking for. When you’re ready to sit down with some friends for a critical listening session, the A5+ Wireless excels there too.” — Staff, Audio Advice

• “The Audioengine A5+ Wireless bring vibrant and lifelike sound to small and medium-sized rooms, adding the convenience of a wireless connection while maintaining the same outstanding audio performance we’ve loved for over a decade.” — Parker Hall, Digital Trends

• “Audioengine’s A5+ Wireless system delivers a high-quality Bluetooth stream in a bookshelf-style form factor that offers stereo separation and avoids dynamics-crushing DSP. Some listeners might want to beef up the audio with a subwoofer, but the system sounds great without it.” — Tim Gideon, PCMAG

Key Specs

Type: 2.0 powered (active) bookshelf-style speaker system
Output: 150-watt peak power total
Input: 3.5mm stereo mini-jack, RCA
Drivers: five-inch Kevlar woofers, 3/4-inch silk dome tweeters
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.0; supports aptX, AAC and SBC

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