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Apple is one world’s largest companies. It got there by giving people the technology they want. Products include the Mac, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and AirPods.

Technics AZ60 review: Premium Noise cancelling earbuds

Technics AZ60 airportWhile Technics’ AZ60 are not special enough to disrupt the crowded wireless earbud market, they offer a solid premium alternative at a decent price.

There are two new wireless earbud models from Technics. The AZ60 with active noise cancelling (ANC) tested here sells for around NZ$330.

If you don’t want to pay for ANC, consider the $230 AZ40 option.

Apple wasn’t the first company to offer wireless earbuds, yet it set the pace with the original AirPods. Technics came later. Now, like Apple, it is on its third earbuds generation.

Premium earbuds

When it comes to the specifications, Technics AZ60 earbuds are closer to Apple’s premium AirPods Pro ($450) than the AirPods.

Like Apple’s ANC earbuds they come with a rechargeable case and a variety of eartips to help you get a better fit.

Apple offers three sizes, Technics offers seven.

Beyond that there are few similarities. You couldn’t describe Technics earbuds as AirPod Pro clones. They don’t look similar, sound similar or behave similar.

A better comparison would be with Sony’s $400+ WF-1000XM4, which, like Technics, aim to give audiophiles a better sound than other earbud brands.

Although Technics doesn’t match Sony’s WF-1000XM4 earbuds, they come close enough and cost around $100 less depending on where you shop. That makes them an worthwhile bang for buck trade-off.

Sound quality

Technics’ sound is solid. The AZ60 earbuds are a clear step up from the AirPods Pro which are now two years old and will soon be due a refresh.

A lot has happened to earbud sound in the last two years. The pace of product development is impressive.

Technics coaxes a clearer sound from its earbuds than Apple. They offer more definition at the bass end than the AirPods Pro. They do this without overwhelming the ears – always a danger when pushing bass through in-ear speakers. The effect is to give more depth to music.

For me, classical music and jazz are the best tests for headphone or earbud sound quality. Rock and pop are more forgiving.

Technics AZ60

Subtlety

The AZ60 earbuds shine where there’s a wide dynamic range. They are good at dealing with subtlety. You’ll hear more than you might with other earbuds.

I’m no audiophile, but I’d rank the listening experience above the AirPod Pros and beneath the WF-1000XM4.

Sony’s earbuds feel more musical and crisper, but unless you are a fussy listener you’ll find little to complain about with the AZ60.

The relative price difference between the WF-1000XM4 and the AZ60 earbuds is a fair reflection of the sound quality.

Noise cancelling

My AirPods Pro are good enough to let me watch SparkSport in peace on my iPad oblivious of my neighbour’s power tools, the lawn mowing contractor or nearby building work. They are great on bus rides and airplanes – not that there is much flying these days.

If anything, Sony delivers the best active noise cancelling of the three earbuds. This applies to both music and making phone calls.

Technics uses four microphones per earbud to feed its noise cancellation. Two of them work when you make phone calls using the earbuds. They reduce the amount of noise for the person at the other end of the phone call.

This doesn’t always work as well in practice as the marketing material might suggest, but that applies to all earbuds. Every brand oversells the technology.

ANC and voice calls

I tested the earbuds when calling for my regular radio slot a few weeks ago and the engineer asked me to remove them because something was creating a problem with the sound of my voice. It wasn’t good enough to go on air.

I’ve used Sony and Apple earbuds in the past without a problem.

That said, there are zero issues when making normal phone or video calls with the AZ60.

Likewise the ANC is first class when you play music. Again, I’d say the WF-1000XM4 does a better job, but if you didn’t have the two to make comparisons, you’d be more than happy with the AZ60 performance.

Ambient mode

Technics lets you adjust the strength of noise cancelling and, as with all other ANC earbuds, there’s an ambient mode that allows you to switch to hearing sounds around you. If, say, a colleague steps up to your work desk or a flight attendant offers you a drink you can quickly flip to hearing what they say.

At least that’s the idea.

At this point I’m going to confess that testing so many different headphones and earbuds in the last year has left my head spinning when it comes to remembering which gesture does what.

This won’t be a problem if you buy the AZ60 earbuds and learn their controls.

Technics gives you the option to customise its controls, which, in theory helps, but in practice adds a further layer of complexity.

Technics’ app

There’s a downloadable app which includes a handy find my earbuds feature. It gives control over many features. If you like to tinker there are hours of entertainment here.

Personally I can do without the fuss although the Technics app is one of the best and most complete I’ve seen to date. It isn’t optional, the app’s battery life indicator is essential.

When I installed the app it went through a lengthy firmware update before I could anything. While that’s a minor irritation, it indicates that Technics is active with updates. That’s more than can be said for some earbud and headphone brands.

Design and features

Technic’s charging case feels tackier than either the Sony or Apple cases. It lacks the heft and solidity. They may all be made of plastic, but this feels more ‘plasticky’ if that makes sense.

AZ60 comes in a variety of colours including black, white and, depending on how you see things grey or silver. The are easy to wear, mine went in first time, no need to deal with the tips.

They fit fine. If anything they are more comfortable over the long haul than with the Apple or Sony earbuds. Technics says they are waterproof, but I didn’t have a chance to test that.

Technics AZ60 verdict

If you are wedded to Apple’s world, you may find the AirPods a better choice even though Technics gives you better sounding music. The value of Apple’s smooth integration might outweigh pampered ears.

On the other hand, if music quality is everything and your ears are sophisticated enough, you might prefer to spend extra and choose the Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds.

Technics AZ60 offers a better-than-Apple treat for the ears at a lower price than Sony’s earbuds. They are comfortable, have good ANC, great sound and all the features you might need.

Apple AirPods 2021 review: Updated classic

Third generation Apple AirPodsIt’s five years since Apple launched AirPods. They weren’t the first wireless earbuds, but by adding an easy-to-carry charging case, Apple turned an obscure niche product into another iconic design, another sales hit.

And as always, a slew of imitators have followed Apple’s lead.

You can buy rival wireless earbuds that cost less, do other things and sound better.

Since 2016 we’ve seen models with active noise cancelling (ANC), including Apple’s own AirPods Pro.

ANC adds a hefty premium to the price. That can be worth it if you find yourself in noisy places.

Third generation AirPods

This year’s AirPods are the third generation. They look different, with shorter stems. Otherwise they aren’t a huge departure from the earlier AirPods models and they don’t have ANC.

Apple isn’t carving out new territory here. There are improvements and new features.

Does it make sense to upgrade?1

The answer depends on what you want from earbuds and what you are upgrading from.

Better sound

The third generation AirPods sound better than earlier models.

Apple says there is a redesigned acoustic driver and the amplifier. It gave the third generation AirPods a sound profile closer to that found on the noise cancelling AirPods Pro.

The bass punches through better than before. You get crisp highs, the midrange is clear.

There’s a limit to how much bass you can pump through tiny in-ear speakers with an open design. If you need a heavy bass thump with your music then buy over ear headphones and doof-doof your way home on the bus.

Applications

Yet the sound is fuller than the original AirPods. You get a nice feeling of space.

They are great for listening to videos. This shows them off to their best. I use mine to watch international sport on my iPad in the wee small hours without waking others.

You can’t beat AirPods for working from home video conferences and phone calls. Voices are clear and crisp. They are great for listening to podcasts or radio and do a good job if you work with voice audio files, say if you produce a podcast.

I don’t recommend them for editing music because they add too much colour to the sound. The adaptive EQ that makes them sound better for other applications can get in the way of editing.

Music

Music is the killer application for earbuds. More people buy them to listen to music than for any other use.

While Apple’s third generation AirPods are up there with the best earbuds for sound quality, they are not the best I’ve heard.

Sony’s WF-1000XM4 are better for a wider range of music. There isn’t much in it, but the difference is noticeable even to inexpert ears.

I’d pick WF-1000XM4 for listening to classical music, jazz or anything with a lot of subtlety and a wide dynamic range. You get a better bass from the Sony earbuds. The AirPods are the equal of the WF-1000XM4 for every other style of music.

All things equalised

Adaptive EQ is clever and makes a difference. It works by using microphones to pick up what you hear in each ear. Then it adjusts the sound to give the best output for your ear shape. You don’t know when it is working, but it is part of the reason why the newer AirPods sound better than the old ones.

Apple’s new feature is spatial audio. This is odd at first. It adjusts what you hear so that as you move your head the device you are listening to, phone, tablet or computer, appears to stay fixed in one place. This sounds better in practice than any writing could describe.

The other neat use of spatial audio is when you are on a group FaceTime call. People appear to be speaking from where they are on screen. The person on your right sounds like they are on the right and so on.

There are Apple Music tracks that have been re-engineered for spatial audio. It doesn’t always work well. There are times when it makes a track sound worse. When it works, you get the feeling of being in the room with musicians.

Third generation AirPods verdict

Spatial audio is something of a work in progress and, other things being equal, not a reason to choose AirPods.

You can buy cheaper wireless earbuds and you can buy ones that have better sound. While they do well, none of the alternatives will give you the same seamless integration you’ll get from pairing AirPods with your iPhone or iPad. The experience remains outstanding and that’s what Apple does best.


  1. It may be time to upgrade if you have first generation AirPods with fading batteries that struggle to hold much charge any more. ↩︎

Belkin Soundform Freeform wireless earbuds revew

Belkin Soundform Freedom 1 Belkin wants a slice of the earbud action. The company’s Soundform Freedom earbuds are a respectable alternative to Apple’s AirPods.

You could use them with Android or Windows devices, but Soundform Freedom earbuds connect to Apple’s Find My network.

That way you can track them down if they go missing. This only works if you use other Apple kit.

It’s about the price

While they sound fine and have plenty of features, the main reason you would choose these in place of the Apple original is that you get to keep $100.

Belkin’s Soundform Freedom earbuds cost NZ$230. Apple sells the third generation AirPods on its website for NZ$330.

The Soundform Freedom earbuds resemble AirPod. The review earbuds are black, there is a white option. They have stems and controls in much the same way.

In use they weight about the same1. The stems are larger and have a more clunky feel, but if you’ve never owned AirPods you’ll never notice this.

Comfort

I found they are not as comfortable as the AirPods and more inclined to fall out of my ears. But it’s marginal.

They have a similar charging case. You can use a wireless charger. Although I recommend you don’t. Belkin uses a micro USB connector. This is an annoyance in 2021 when the world has standardised on USB-C.

Belkin says the batteries in the earbuds together with the carry case give you 36 hours of use. Apple claims 30 hours for the AirPod. In practice it didn’t feel like there was a noticeable difference.

Connecting to an iPhone or iPad is not as straightforward as connecting the AirPods, but again, there’s not much in this. You won’t feel disadvantaged if you haven’t owned AirPods in the past.

Belkin Soundform Freedom 2

OK but…

Putting sound quality aside for a moment, that’s the story for the Soundform Freedom earbuds: Apple’s AirPod are a better experience.

If you come to Soundform Freedom from AirPods you’ll notice little things. If these are your first wireless earbuds, you might be happy about all that.

You might also be happy about the sound quality. But it is not for everyone.

I’ve tested earbuds from Apple, Huawei and Sony in recent times. To my ears they all sound better than the Soundform Freedom earbuds. I did a fresh test to write this review and my opinion hasn’t changed.

Belkin cranks up the bass on the Soundform Freedom. That may be to your taste, but there’s not the depth of sound with these earbuds.

Verdict: Belkin Soundform Freedom

The Soundform Freedom earbuds make sense if you don’t want or can’t afford to pay extra for active noise cancellation. There’s nothing bad, nor is there anything outstanding.

You’ll find better features and sound quality elsewhere, Belkin sent the cheaper Soundform Rise earbuds which cost less and sound better. Watch out for the review.

The Find My feature means they are going to appeal more to iPhone users than Android users.

You’d choose these if you want decent, serviceable earbuds without paying more for the best earbuds.


  1. I normally use scales to check weight but the scale resolution isn’t capable of measuring the difference. ↩︎

iPhone 13 – Incremental is only half the story

Apple iPhone 13 reviews from the US press are in. There is a wider spectrum of opinion than you’d expect to see when Apple launches a new iPhone.

At the New York Times, the headline on Brian Chen’s Apple iPhone 13 review – the story is behind a paywall – dismisses the new phone as “the most incremental upgrade ever”.

He says the annual phone upgrades from Apple and Samsung are a “mirage of tech innovation”. For Chen, upgrades are “a celebration of capitalism”.

Chen has a jaundiced view, not negative, but not positive.

Battery and cameras…

Joanna Stern is kinder. At the Wall Street Journal her headline reads: “iPhone 13 Review: From Mini to Pro Max, It’s All About the Battery and Cameras”. This is also behind a paywall.

Stern is positive about the battery life improvements. This will make more difference to many iPhone users than the new camera mode which is her second focus.

…better display

There is no paywall hiding the Verge’s Dieter Bohn more positive take. The headline on his review says: “…A better display, the best camera, and incredible battery life.

Bohn makes an important point about the cameras on the new iPhone models. Other reviewers can get bogged down with technical specifications and intense testing. Bohn writes: “ I also can’t remember the last time I’ve said “whoa, look at this photo” as many times as I have during this review.”

Reporting his response this way says more than raw figures ever could.

Low light

His big point is that the iPhone 13 takes excellent photos in low light conditions. I’ve found this to be the case with the last two iPhone ranges. Yet the iPhone 13 takes this one better.

This is the one last feature I want from a phone. Now Apple has fixed low light photography, there is little more to ask for. Phones have reached the end of one evolutionary path.

There’s scope for incremental improvements, there always is. Yet that’s it for today’s metal and glass slabs. The next change to get excited about will be revolutionary.

Incremental or not, Apple does a good job of pushing the boundaries of what is possible with a handset.

A different world

Apple may not throw up as many new ideas and features as the Android phone makers, but they live in a different world.

First, Android phone makers have to compete with each other and prove their phones are not commodities. They crave novelty and points of difference regardless of whether these are things customers want or need.

Second, many of the so-called innovations that turn up in Android phones go away again after a generation or two. Some are half-baked, some are change-for-the-sake-of-change. A few, think of ‘beauty mode’, appeal to people’s worst instincts.

It would be easy to dismiss the iPhone 13 as an incremental update. Indeed, that is exactly what the New York Times review does. Yet that’s not the whole iPhone 13 story.

Numbers, revenue, profit

Apple has won the phone market. While Apple may not sell the most handsets worldwide, it does make more phone revenue than anyone else. Moreover, Apple makes more profit from phones than anyone else. Almost no other company does.

Huawei is, in effect, out of the picture. This month Oppo, a would-be rival, hit the wall. Samsung sells more phones than anyone else, but it makes more money selling technology to Apple. No other phone maker gets close.

Earlier this year Apple sold its 2 billionth iPhone. There are more than a billion active iPhones in use today. It accounts for one mobile phone in four around the world. In the US Apple has a 60 percent market share. That’s 50 percent in the UK.

The most telling statistic is that more than 10 percent of US and UK iPhone users switched in the last two years. The company’s dominance is accelerating.

Apple allure

When discussing this subject, there are frequent comments about Apple’s allure all being in marketing or snob value. And there are claims iPhones are expensive.

The first assertion is clear nonsense. Samsung spends many times as much on marketing as Apple does. So did Huawei when it was still a player.

Likewise the snob value argument doesn’t hold much weight. Apple always sells its phones on the functionality. The product may have cachet, but the company doesn’t talk that way.

When Samsung launched the Galaxy Z Fold2, the company’s reps talked about it being a status symbol.

Oppo tried to push the same snooty buttons with a ridiculous overpriced Lamborghini phone. The market ignored it.

Expensive is in the eye of the beholder. You can spend NZ$3000 on an iPhone 13 Pro with a terabyte of storage. The cheapest iPhone 13 is the mini which starts at NZ$1250. Apple still sells the NZ$900 iPhone 11 and a NZ$750 iPhone SE.

Apple doesn’t have a monopoly on expensive. There are Android phones at all these price points.

Active life

The second part of this is that iPhones have a longer active life and have better resale prices. None of the critics take any of this into account. A $2000 phone with a five year working life is cheaper and better for the planet than a $1000 phone that needs replacing after 24 months.

It’s true you can get by with a $600 Android phone. On the surface there is validity to the argument that no-one needs to spend more than that on a phone.

But this ignores many of the less tangible but valuable aspects of life inside Apple’s curated garden. The App Store is better, the app choices are better. The integration with other Apple products beats anything offered in the Android world.

It’s a better all-round phone experience. I should know, my work involves a constant stream of new phones to test. I have access to almost any model and still choose to invest my own money on an iPhone.

The pay off is better productivity and convenience. Don’t take my word for it, there are a billion other iPhone users you can ask.

How long must you work to buy an iPhone 13 Pro?

According to online retailer Picodi the average New Zealander has to work 8.4 days to afford an Apple iPhone 13 Pro.

This is 0.6 days less than it took a year ago to buy an equivalent iPhone 12.

New Zealanders have it easy compared to people in Turkey. There the average worker needs to toil for 92.5 days to buy a new iPhone. It takes the average Pom 10.8 days.

Things are easier in Australia. There it takes 6.4 days. In the United States it takes a mere 5.9 days. The Swiss have it best of all. They only have to show up at the workplace for 4.4 days to earn enough for a new iPhone.

It’s all relative

Younger readers have no idea how these matters have progressed over the years.

In 1987 when I was working for The Dominion in Wellington, I calculated that it would take a Wellington bus driver over three months to afford a PC. It would take them more than four months to buy a Mac.

Knowing how long it takes to buy an iPhone is useful when it comes to making a buying decision.

Buying decisions

Let’s say you are tossing up the merits of an iPhone 13 Pro and an Android phone that costs half the price. You know it would take 6.4 days to buy the iPhone.

Simple maths tells you the Android would mean 3.2 days of your labour.

You may also know you can do things a little more efficiently on the iPhone. This might not work for everyone, but stay with me, the thought experiment is useful whatever your circumstances.

That spanking new iPhone 13 Pro should be good for three years. So, in round numbers, you have to work one day for each of those iPhone owning years.

Assuming you use the phone every day, you’d come out ahead if the iPhone saved you four minutes a day. That is, one day divided by 365.

This is all before you take the resale value of the two phones into account. After three years an iPhone would lose less value than an Android.