Expect the unexpected from Grace Digital and you’ll never be disappointed. Hot on the heels of their EcoPebble Bluetooth speaker-powerbank-flashlight, which I reviewed last month, comes another waterproof powerbank combo -- but this one’s solar powered.
I remember when 10 to 12 hours of battery charge time was considered a lot -- and that was only two or three years ago. Now we’re seeing mind-boggling charge times, even for small devices. The EcoPebble Powerbank can easily be held in the hand, yet boasts a 50-hour charge time -- a helpful thing, because it’s designed to charge your other devices. It’s also a Bluetooth speaker and a 200-lumen LED flashlight.
Thanks largely to Google’s Cast system, Wi-Fi speakers are rapidly replacing Bluetooth models. Wi-Fi units use your wireless network to transmit sound, and since they’re not subject to the data-transfer limitations of Bluetooth transmission, they have the capability to provide better performance. The Grace Digital CastDock X2 is rated to handle music files up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution.
Lately, it seems, I’ve reviewed nothing but over-ear headphones, which have become lightweight enough to be serious contenders in the portable-headphone market. Still, on-ear cans have some features that appeal more to people on the go; because they block out fewer external sounds, they let you have birds with your Bach -- and they’re safer to wear when you’re out and about. Wearing over-ear ’phones, you can get so wrapped up in the music that you can’t hear that quiet car approaching from the rear. On-ear models can also be cooler and more comfortable to wear over long periods.
I hadn’t heard much about Acoustic Research in a long time, though the name was very familiar. When I was in college, every other student who was on a budget but appreciated great sound had Acoustic Research AR-3 bookshelf speakers. These used an acoustic-suspension design that produced amazing amounts of bass from a small box. Then AR produced an affordable ($78!), high-quality turntable, the AR-1 -- a belt-driven design that greatly reduced acoustic feedback. Since then, AR speakers and turntables have only appreciated in value, as collectors continue to seek them out.
The first pair of headphones I ever owned were Sennheisers, back when the German company’s main competitor was the US manufacturer Koss. Many competitors and multitudes of headphones later, I was happy to check out Sennheiser’s Momentum Wireless Bluetooth circumaural (over-ear) model -- noise-canceling ’phones that can be used with or without wires. The noise-canceling feature is always on. The Momentum’s price of $499.95 USD is a bit higher than those of many competing products. There are also Momentum models in an on-ear wireless version, and wired over- and on-ear versions.
It had been a while since I’d visited the world of miniature Bluetooth speakers, but this one called to me from the shelf: “I look like a hand grenade. Doesn’t that make you curious?” Well, yes, it did -- and so did the fact that, like most hand grenades, this one is water resistant. But the Philips Shoqbox BT2200 Mini proved to be more than a toy.
Audio-Technica, one of the last big-name manufacturers to enter the market of wireless Bluetooth headphones, has put out two new over-ear models: the ATH-S700BT SonicFuel, which I reviewed very favorably two months ago, and the subject of this review, the ATH-WS99BT Solid Bass ($249.95 USD), which has problems.
Most Bluetooth speakers are all-in-one models. Though some of these have “stereo capability,” they deliver little perceptible channel separation. In the BT Bluetooth speakers, Grace Digital has instead created separate speakers that can be used as computer or desktop speakers, or to listen at home to portable music devices and smartphones. The Grace Digital BT accepts audio signals via wires or wireless Bluetooth transmission; it lists for $249.99 USD per pair but can be found for much less.
I’ve heard a rumor that this year’s new iPhones won’t have 3.5mm headphone jacks. Can this be why everyone and her brother seem suddenly to be making Bluetooth headphones? Less than a year ago, an Audio-Technica rep told me that A-T would probably never release a Bluetooth model. But they have released some in Japan, and this year, five models are available in the US: three in-ear and two over-ear versions of models already popular in wired versions. And right now I’m wearing Audio-Technica’s ATH-S700BT SonicFuel over-ear Bluetooth headphones ($129.95 USD).