Nearly two years ago, I was introduced to Grace Digital when I reviewed the company’s Eco Extreme powered waterproof iPod case and loudspeaker. I was struck by the attention to detail and the Eco Extreme’s user-friendliness. It not only did what it was supposed to, it was fun to use, and at an almost unbelievably low price: $49.99 USD.
Since then, Grace has introduced more items in what it now calls its ECOXGEAR line of products. The latest, the ECOXBT Bluetooth speaker ($129.99), can accompany you literally anywhere. It has a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, and is shock resistant and waterproof. It floats.
Logitech shocked its followers and fans some months ago by announcing its new Ultimate Ears (UE) line of products and the discontinuation of its Squeezebox models. Owners of the Squeezebox Touch were up in arms, even though Logitech has promised continued support of all Squeezebox models. The UE Smart Radio seems something of a peace offering -- it’s very similar to the Squeezeboxes in many ways -- but the biggest problem is that the UE models use a different operating system from the Squeezeboxes, making them largely incompatible with each other. The UE Smart Radio will more likely sell to new buyers than to returning Squeezebox customers.
One important fact: The UE Smart Radio requires a Wi-Fi network.
The boombox was introduced to the US in the mid-1970s, after enjoying great success in Japan. Boomboxes usually had at least two speakers (often more), AM/FM tuners, and played cassettes and, later, CDs. They operated on battery power or could be plugged into the wall, and were portable, though the ones we usually think of were very large and heavy. They became synonymous with “loud,” and were featured on TV and in many films. My favorite reference is in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in which Spock subdues a bus passenger whose boombox is loud to the point of pain.
As physical media continue to die on the vine, one of the ways portable sound has transformed is into the combination of a speaker and a controlling device, usually an iPhone or iPod, that communicate via Bluetooth. Logitech has entered the race with the UE Boombox speaker ($249.99 USD), which arrives with equal numbers of pluses and minuses.
The packaging for Audio-Technica’s ATH-ANC9 QuietPoint Active Noise-Canceling headphones ($349.95 USD) is simple. Open the attractive display box (no plastic window, but a large photo) to find an instruction manual and a sturdy carrying case measuring 8.5” x 8.5” x 2.5”, at its center a coin-like Audio-Technica logo in hard rubber. Like many such cases, this one is designed to be hung from a belt, though I have yet to see anyone carrying a headphone case that way. But you can fit your middle three fingers through it and use it as a carrying handle, which seems much more useful.
Pull the zipper, open the case, and inside are the headphones, their earcups folded flat. In a little zipper pouch are the accessories: a 6.3mm (1/4”) adapter, an airline adapter, an AAA battery, and two cords, both with 3.5mm mini plugs -- a 4’-long straight cord, and another 4’ cord with an inline microphone with single-control switch. Folded flat, the headphones measure about 8” x 8” x 2”, their oval earcups 3.5” x 2.75” x 2”. The ATH-ANC9s are a bit smaller and lighter than headphones I’ve covered in the past six months -- they weigh a mere 8.2 ounces with battery installed.
The style is basic black with silver accents, and the construction is mostly plastic, with metal in the headband, and foam cushions on the earcups and headband. On the left earcup are the power button, a small slider switch for selecting the noise-canceling mode, and an LED that indicates power status and which mode has been chosen. The earcups and headband are adjusted by pulling the earcups away from the band, which has detents; when you’ve got the fit where you like it, the headphones remain firmly in that position.
The blurb on the box is dramatic: “Overwhelming Bass.” I wondered if my classical and jazz recordings were going to sound like 1970s disco, but Audio-Technica’s ATH-WS70 headphones -- with, as Audio-Technica puts it, Solid Bass -- proved entirely unthreatening, producing only solid, not overwhelming bass that was just right for most of the recordings I auditioned them with.
In the box are the headphones, their nondetachable cord, a one-sheet set of instructions, and a sheet of warnings and cautions in 12 languages. That’s it -- no carrying case, no adapters, no cleaning cloth, or any other extras that seem to have become de rigueur with headphones. Then again, I’m comparing the ATH-WS70s with other “commuter”-class headphones I’ve recently reviewed -- over-ear models that are still considered portable. In that company, the ATH-WS70s are inexpensive at $149.95 USD, and the lack of a case can be forgiven. You could buy a generic case for them and still be ahead of the game.
The ATH-WS70s are made of aluminum and plastic. They have a very sharp-looking, somewhat industrial design and weigh about 8.1 ounces, a tad more than many others. The earcups are 3” in diameter, with an inside pad diameter of 2”. The earcups are on continuously adjustable sliders -- no détentes. The Y-cord is permanently connected to each earcup; a protective rubber tube covers the wire where it enters the cup. This will probably last a good while under normal use, but I wouldn’t pull or tug roughly at the connections. The earcups pivot 90 degrees to lie flat; trying to turn them more than 90 degrees would result in damage. Folded flat, the pair measure 8.25” x 7.1” x 1.25".
Audio-Technica lists the ATH-WS70’s driver diameter as 1.56”, the maximum input power as 1000mW, the frequency response as 10Hz-25kHz, the impedance as 47 ohms, the sensitivity as 100dB/mW, and the cable connector as a 3.5mm L-type, mini-stereo, gold-plated.
If, like me, you want headphones that produce enough bass, you’ve probably been using some of the larger designs, such as Logitech’s UE 9000 ($399) and SMS Audio’s Synch by 50 ($399.95), both recently reviewed. Those are fine but a bit pricey, and while not all that heavy, they’re a bit cumbersome to wear or carry. RHA, a division of Reid Heath Ltd., a Scottish company new to me, offers an alternative: the SA950i headphones ($59.95).
The SA950i headphones are presented without frills or accessories. There’s no carrying case -- just a detachable cable that contains an inline remote control and microphone with controls compatible with iPhone, iPod, iPod Nano, iOS, and some Android devices. Click the multipurpose switch once to pause, twice to go to the next track, and three times to return to the beginning of the current track; two sets of three clicks each take you to the previous track; and pressing a button at either end of this central control raises or lowers the volume. If you’re using your headset with a phone, pressing the volume-down control lets you take calls. The very skimpy user’s manual can be read in less than a minute.
Imagine a cube into which a tennis ball could perfectly fit and you have a good idea of the size of the NuForce Cube compact portable speaker. It’s amazing to think that this tiny aluminum box contains a speaker worthy of notice, and even more amazing to know that it can also serve as a 16-bit/48kHz USB DAC and a headphone amplifier, all for $99 USD.
A box in a box
The NuForce Cube comes in a transparent plastic cube that looks almost exactly like the one Apple used for its sixth-generation iPod Nano. In it is the Cube, a USB cable, a 3.5mm stereo cable, a soft drawstring carry pouch, and a leaflet containing brief instructions, safety warnings, and information about the one-year limited warranty.
Logitech acquired Ultimate Ears four years ago, and have now come out with a line of UE-branded products that includes a smart radio, wireless speakers, and wired and wireless earphones and headphones. The wireless UE 9000 ($399 USD) is their newest model of what I think of as commuter or frequent-flier headphones. Such designs have large earcups (aka “cans”) that cover the entire ear and can often reproduce good bass. Most such designs are built to withstand abuse, have active or passive noise cancellation, are optimized to work with smart phones and iPods, and come with a durable, hard-shell carrying case.
Portable, commuter ’phones aren’t sports headphones -- wearing them while doing anything more active than walking would be a chore. Still, they’re more durably built than the average set of home ’phones. They most benefit those who regularly commute and want to take their tunes with them without losing much in the way of sound quality. Wearing such a device gives one the appearance of being someone who wants to be left alone to chill with his tunes. This is perhaps perfect for a crowded subway car, where you don’t want to talk with anyone or be too bothered by their noise: You can feel safe and secure in your own isolated audio world.
Celebrity headphones still seem to be on the rise. You can’t go to a mall CD shop without tripping over the Beats by Dr. Dre or the Soul by Ludacris -- and now there are SMS Audio’s Sync by 50 models. The “50” refers to popular rapper and entrepreneur 50 Cent, who not only endorses this line, but claims that it’s been designed to suit his own tastes.
My guess is that almost 100% of those who buy these ’phones are paying as much for status as for sound. If you use the Sync by 50s on your train or bus commute or while walking to work, the sizzling blue S on each earcup blinks to let people know your celebrity allegiance. How much are you paying for that status, and what do you get for it?
When I began writing this column over a year ago, it soon became evident that a great percentage of the personal audio products I would cover would be headphones. I discovered Bluetooth, and one of my first reviews was of the Sony DR-BT21G Bluetooth headphones. At the end of that article, I compared them to the jWIN JB-TH710 Bluetooth ’phones. I recommended the purchase of the jWIN set, along with Sony’s TMR-BT8IP Bluetooth transmitter, which can be used with most Apple iPhones, iPods, and iPod Nanos.
But things move quickly in the electronics world. Just as the review was published, the supply of jWIN headphones dried up -- jWIN had dropped the Bluetooth model. I felt terrible about this, having recommended a bargain that was already gone forever.