Technology: Sound and vision
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Archimedes is said to have come up with his famous principle while sitting in a bath and I think I may have discovered something of similar significance in the tech world while performing my own morning ablutions.
I have taken to sitting my iPhone in a clear plastic bowl in order to listen to the radio on it while shaving. Not only does this act as a water-resistant stand, but the speakers on the bottom of the phone fire down into the base and bounce back to be amplified by the curvature of the bowl, thereby enabling a much fuller sound to be heard above running water than previously possible.
I take no credit for solving this century’s most pressing tech problem – how to give flatter devices fatter sound. I offer this solution unpatented and without dunning for money in the shape of an investment round on the Kickstarter crowdfunding site. There is already any number of home-made smartphone and tablet peripherals to be found that are seeking funding and major manufacturers are tackling this area with relish too.
Logitech, the Swiss peripherals maker, has seen demand for its mice and keyboards suffer as tablets and smartphones have begun to usurp PCs. The company has responded with iPad cases and keyboards, and its latest gadgetry features headphones and external speakers to strengthen the thin sound from ever thinner devices. Its Ultimate Ears brand – which originally served musicians with expensive in-ear reference monitors – has gone mainstream with a new range.
The UE 4000 on-ear headphones cost just £79 and feature an on-cord microphone and controls for an iPad, iPhone or iPod. The 6000 model, priced at £169, folds up and includes noise-cancelling technology.
I tried the top-of-the-range £299 around-the-ear 9000 headphones. These connect wirelessly to mobile devices using Bluetooth technology. This means they first have to be charged with the included USB cable, but on a full tank they should play for 10 hours. The advantage of Bluetooth is that your phone or tablet can be charging in the kitchen while you are listening to music on it in the bedroom or walking around the house, up to 15m from the device. I soon got used to controlling volume, play, pause and next track with the rocker switches on the back of the right cup. You can also use these to answer and hang up on calls, as a built-in microphone is included.
If Bluetooth goes on the blink or the batteries run down, a cable can be attached to turn the headphones into a standard wired set-up.
The 9000 model has a classy look, the cups are well cushioned and I was deaf to the world around me with the noise-cancelling technology. The sound was rich and immersive, with impressive bass registers. A moulded travel case is provided, although a strap for it would have been useful.
You might ask why anyone should pay for headphones that can cost as much as the tablet for which they are designed – £300 would buy an iPad 2. Well, obviously they can be used with many other devices as well and consumers appear to consider good sound as a necessary complement to the high-definition screens they are now viewing.
A survey by NPD Group, the market research company, suggests 29 per cent of premium headphones – those costing $100-plus – were connected to a tablet this year, triple the number in 2011 and compared with 16 per cent of all categories of headphones that were used with tablets.
In the Ultimate Ears range, I was also taken with Logitech’s UE Mobile Boombox, which offered beefy Bluetooth-enabled sound despite a size that allowed me to almost hide it in a closed hand. At £80, it is half the price of Jawbone’s Jambox Bluetooth speaker, which is a little larger and more stylish but not that much different in sound quality. The Boombox has an easy-grip rubber casing and can be used as a speakerphone with its built-in microphone. Battery life is 10 hours.
There are innumerable speaker docks for Apple’s devices, but I have yet to come across one that offers better boom for your buck than the JBL OnBeat Xtreme, which has numerous features, including Bluetooth and absolutely staggering sound that makes it well worth its £450 price tag. JBL and its fellow Harman Kardon brand are releasing a new range of products this autumn that emphasise Bluetooth streaming capabilities.
The £250 JBL SB200 is a soundbar designed to boost sound from a flat-panel TV, but I was also able to Bluetooth-connect my iPhone to it and play music through its 2 x 60 watt speakers and their built-in subwoofer. However, the sound was unimpressive, lacking clarity and separation, despite several equalisation presets being available through an iPhone app.
I was more impressed by the sound – and looks – of the £200 Harman Kardon Soundsticks Wireless. These thin transparent speakers, about a foot high and with a bell jar-like subwoofer, have Bluetooth capability, and streaming from the iPhone was very satisfying sonically. Finally, the Harman Kardon BTA 10 adapter is a pill box-sized Bluetooth receiver that has a range of cables to Bluetooth-enable any device to which they are connected, such as an old amplifier or speaker dock.
Of course, Bluetooth speakers and headphones might lose some of their appeal if the sound from tablets and phones could be improved.
I discussed this recently with Dolby Laboratories, the audio company, which agreed tablet makers were improving their positioning of speakers. In the past, they have been on the side, the bottom or even the back, making it easy to muffle sound with a misplaced hand. The trend now is to have front-facing speakers on either side of the screen, such as on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 and the Kindle Fire HD.
The HD is the first to feature Dolby Digital Plus. This software tunes the device to maximise the sound quality. I was impressed in a demonstration at how dialogue was much clearer and a surround sound experience was created. Volume levelling and maximising brought a consistency to the sound and raised the levels without distortion.
But I feel there is still more to come in this area – I just have to persuade the tablet makers about the need for a plastic-bowl accessory.
Going mobile: apps to book yourself a ride in the city
Taxi apps seem more readily available than cabs themselves, but some are only strong in certain cities. Hailo offers good coverage in London, where it uses only black cabs, and now operates in Dublin as well. The app detects your location, allows you to refine the address and pay with a stored card.
You can track the progress of your cab on a map, call the driver and receive an emailed receipt. Similar apps include Taxi Magic, available in 45 US cities, and GroundLink, which has good coverage in New York.
While Hailo focuses on black cabs, Uber is more about private taxi services and interesting rides such as in luxury saloons and hybrids.
It operates in around a dozen cities, including New York, Los Angeles, London and Paris. In Boston, customers will soon be able to summon ice cream trucks to their location in hot weather. Uber shows your location on a map and stores credit card details for payment, and includes the tip. Sedan Magic is a similar service, which launched first in New York.
The streets of San Francisco are home to several taxi alternatives, with people sharing their cars through services such as Relay Rides or offering to pick up others for a “donation” using apps such as Lyft and SideCar Ride.
Lyft cars sport distinctive pink moustaches and passengers can recharge their phones and play their own music during a ride. Such services do background checks on drivers and inspect their vehicles. SideCar Ride lets you see a picture of the driver and car, and you can call him or her.