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Bill Bennett

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You’ll have to pry my Airpods Pro from my cold, dead hands

They sound great and last for hours on a single charge. Apple AirPods Pro pack impressive noise cancelling into a tiny space. At NZ$450 the price is competitive if you are looking at more traditional noise cancelling headsets.

Apple AirPods ProApple’s original AirPods were a surprise hit. You see them everywhere. Almost everyone who has a pair loves them.

Reports say they account for six of every ten wireless earbuds sold worldwide.1

My old AirPods are the second generation model. They fit my ears and work better than you might expect.

Airpods Pro are a step up in every dimension. Apple added active noise cancellation to an already successful recipe. It then improved the fit and upgraded the functionality. They look like another hit.

AirPods Pro wake-up

My first AirPods Pro demo was in a noisy cafe with hard floors and background clatter. We connected them to an iPhone.

From the outset the earbuds blocked out most of the noise. They allowed me to hear music with an unexpected clarity.

It got better fast.

That’s because there is a built-in feature that lets you check how well the earbuds fit in your ear. Unlike the original all hard plastic AirPods, Apple uses removable soft tips. Three sizes of removable tip come packed in each box. Mine needed changing. This is a little fiddly, but only takes a minute or so.

After swapping, the new tips block even more of the background sound. The sound quality is astounding for something so small.

Later, I listened again on the bus ride home. The experience was even better than the cafe. I’m not sure I’ve heard such outstanding crystal clear sounds while on public transport.

At home I can be blissfully unaware when helicopters pass overhead or if the Royal New Zealand Airforce takes off from nearby Whenuapai,

Both types of music

AirPods Pro work well with all kinds of music, which is good because I listen to all kinds of music. One acid test I use to gauge loudspeaker or headphone quality is high quality recordings of piano music. Both the classical and jazz tracks I tested came out near perfect… on a bus. You don’t get a bass boost, which may not be your taste.

I’ve enjoyed noise cancelling for a few years now. When I reviewed the Sony MDR-1000X headphones, I liked them so much I bought a pair. They proved their worth on long distance flights.

There is some colour to the MDR-1000X sound. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They sound fine when listening to my favourite music. In comparison, the Airpods Pro have a much flatter, more accurate sound.

In the past I’ve always thought the MDR-1000X-style over-the-ear form is more comfortable if you use them for hours, say on a trans-Pacific flight.

I haven’t been on a flight since getting the Airpods Pro, but I have enjoyed long listening sessions. The earbuds don’t get uncomfortable if you wear them for a few hours. They are certainly much easier to drop into carry-on luggage. I expect them to replace my older style noise cancelling headphones.

On most measures the Airpods Pro are the better or equal to the Sony headphones. It feels like the Sony controls are easier to use, but that could be familiarity; I’ve only had the Airpods four days.

The flat response is so good that I can use them as a reference when mixing music tracks on my iPad without waking the house. They are that good.

During testing I never heard any lag or had trouble connecting. Although, if you pull the AirPods Pro out to talk to someone the music will pause. This isn’t always necessary as we will see later. I found Apple’s Music didn’t have a problem, but some other non-Apple apps can stop altogether and need a restart.

Controls

AirPods Pro have smaller stalks than the older AirPods, but are a fraction heavier. Not that you’d notice. They come in a slightly larger snap-top box.

You can store AirPods in the box when they’re not in use. The box charges the AirPods, you can use a lightening connector or wireless charging. When charged, the box carries its own reserve of charge, so you can top-up the AirPods Pro charge between sessions.

A single charge gives around four hours listening time. Depending on how you use the box, Apple says you can get up to 24 hours before needing a recharge. This more or less squares with my experience, although my record keeping while watching the battery life wasn’t perfect.

There’s a squeezable control surface. Squeeze once and the music or other audio will stop playing. Squeeze twice and you skip to the next music track.

Squeezing and holding either fires up Siri or turns off noise cancelling. You can also start Siri by saying “Hey Siri” and have your text messages read. It also uses the microphones to deliver external sounds. You might want to do this if, say, a flight attendant wants a word.

One of the magical features is the way AirPods Pro pair with your other Apple devices. Once they have met one Apple device, all the others can find them. Open the box close to an Apple device and you’ll see a message telling you how much charge is left.

Apple AirPods Pro Verdict

AirPods Pro show off Apple technology at its best. They feel a little magic. It’s rare for someone like me who has been looking at new gadgets for decades to break out even a modest smile. The AirPods Pro left me grinning.

They are comfortable, sound good and have battery life to see you through everything except a long haul flight. The noise cancellation is excellent, on a par with headphones costing much more. You can use them if you have an Android phone or Windows device. Best of all, they fit into a tiny pocket.

While the price tag looks expensive, you get a lot of value for the money. Decent noise cancelling technology is never cheap.


  1. This success came at the moment Apple’s iPhone sales stumbled. ↩︎

AF56W wireless headphones from Audiofly: Review

Audiofly’s AF56W is another take on the Bluetooth wireless headphone. Here I look at the updated mark II version. 

Now the 3.5 mm jack socket is an endangered species, Bluetooth wireless headphones are the way to go. At NZ$200, the Audiofly AF56W is an expensive option, but not at pricy as Apple’s AirPods 2 which cost another NZ$80.

The money buys a pair of in-ear headphones connected to each other by a Cordura fibre-braided cable. There’s a built-in microphone and a basic controller on the cable.

Elsewhere in the box is a selection of tips so you can get the headphones to better fit your ears. There’s also a magnetic charger on a micro-USB cable and zip case that Audiofly says is waterproof.

Interesting twist

Connecting the two headphones with a cable is an interesting twist. Audiofly says this makes it harder to lose the headphones. Maybe. There have been reports of people losing Apple AirPods, so it could be a useful feature.

However a funny thing happened when I was preparing to write this review. I temporarily lost the AF56W. So, the cord is not that helpful.

The cord is about 400mm. You can adjust the actual length with a clip device at the centre of the cord. At first I wore the headphones with the clip under my chin, which looks dorky. Then I figured it works better when the cord goes around the back of your neck.

Hard to lose the AF56W

While I didn’t have problem with the buds falling out of my ears, more about that in a moment, the cord means they won’t drop to the floor if that happens.

You’d have to be unlucky for both to be dislodged at the same time. This means the AF56W might be a better choice of headphones if you want to listen to music during a vigorous run or workout.

Audiofly’s choice of tips means you get a better fit. That’s important because the headphones don’t have noise cancelling. Instead you have to rely on a tight fit to reduce ambient noise.

The box says the batteries are good for eight hours. That’s pushing it a little. In testing I found seven hours was about all I could get.

Charging takes 90 minutes according to the information on the box. That squares with my experience. It’s nothing like as easy as the Apple AirPod charging arrangement.

Audiofly AF56W headphones magnetic charging

The magnetic charging pad on the cord snaps onto a connector that, in turn links to a 300mm micro-USB cable. The other end of the cable has a standard USB plug, so you might be able to charge the headset from your PC or laptop. I used a phone charger. But the 300mm cable means I had to leave everything on the floor next to a power socket.

That’s far from ideal. Although micro-USB is still fairly common, the move to USB-C means the AF56W could get left behind.

Sound quality

Enough of the details. How do the headphones sound? I found them to be surprisingly good. There’s clear blue water between the sound quality of the AF56W and the cheaper earbuds. That must be down to the 13mm neodymium driver — I read that from the blurb on the box.

Music comes across far better than the spoken word. There’s enough at the top and the bottom to fill out a wide range of music. After hours of listening I can’t tell you if the sound is better or worse than Apple’s AirPods. I can tell you they sound different.

One area where the AF56W lags AirPods is dropouts and glitches. I get almost none on the AirPods, quite a few on the Audiofly headphones even when I’m only a metre or so away from the phone, laptop or tablet.

Another oddity is the spoken voice used to tell you the phones are connected. It’s been recorded at a low bit-rate so it sounds glitchy, which is a bad advertisement for the actual sound quality.

Audiofly AF56W verdict

At NZ$200 the AF56W headphones are expensive. More so considering there is no noise cancellation. Mind you, the sound is noticeably better than you’d find on low cost Bluetooth headphones.

That said, the product and the experience feels cheaper and not as complete as Apple’s AirBuds. In terms of overall quality, ease of use and so on that extra NZ$80 for the Apple alternative starts to feel like a bargain.

In other words high-end audio, mid-range user experience at price somewhere between the mid-range and high-end.

AirPods 2: Apple’s clever wireless headphones get tidy tweak

Longer battery life, new charging case, hands-free Siri. AirPods 2 are a refreshed version of Apple’s popular wireless earphones.

From the outside, you’d be hard pressed to tell Apple’s updated AirPods from the model they replace. The two look identical.

Identical looks mean they also have an identical fit. If AirPods didn’t sit comfortably in your ears last time around, the new model changes nothing. Likewise if you had a problem with them falling out your ears, that’s still going to plague you1.

There’s also no discernible difference between the sound on the new and old models when it comes to playing music. You still get a full, clear sound.

A single AirPod

AirPods 2: Good sounds

The bass is not too heavy and the treble stays under control. You don’t get mentally exhausted by jangling highs. All the music I tried sounded crisp. The AirPods pick up a surprising amount of detail. They cope well with a range of musical genres.

There’s no active or passive noise cancellation and the AirPod design does little to block out excessive background noise. I haven’t had an opportunity to test them on a flight yet, but they work well on public transport.

When AirPods first appeared, I passed because recently purchased fancy noise cancelling over-the-head headphones. While the headphones are still more comfortable for long listening sessions, upwards of, say a couple of hours, the pods are so light and unobtrusive that, at first, it’s almost like you’re not wearing anything at all.

Upgraded chip

Apple says the newer AirPods 2 have an upgraded chip which improves performance in some areas: Longer battery life for voice phone calls, faster switching between devices and lower latency.

Because I’m new to AirPods I can’t tell you if the experience is better. What I can tell you is the experience is easily as good as I’ve had from other bluetooth speakers, earbuds and headphones.

With the earlier AirPods you had to double tap to launch Apple’s Siri voice interface. Now you can start the app by saying “Hey Siri”. This is how it works with the iPhone, iPad and Mac. While I’m too embarrassed to do this in public, it works well. Telling Siri to play your music choices is a useful feature when your hands are busy.

Like the earlier AirPods, your music will automatically pause if you remove one from an ear.

Qi charging

The wireless charging case work with Qi. This is a standard, you’ll find it on some iPhones and Androids. It means you can use the charging pads you already have to give your AirPods more juice. In practice it works well, although it isn’t fast.

It takes between three and four hours to fully charge the AirPod case using wireless and around two hours if you stick with the lightning connector.

AirPods show the best of Apple’s approach to technology. In use they are radically simple, so simple and easy to use they merge almost seamlessly into the background of daily life. After a few days you almost forget what life was life before you had them.

AirPods 2 verdict

There are few reasons to upgrade from first generation AirPods and even fewer if you’re not going to use wireless charging. That said, there are stories that ageing AirPods suffer from worn-out batteries, so there will be upgraders.

If you’re the kind of person who aims to impress by owning the latest fashionable kit you’ll be disappointed. While AirPods are something of a fashion accessory, there’s no extra kudos showing off the latest version.

One weakness; AirPods don’t fit everyone and they can fall out of your ears if you are active.

They’re not cheap at NZ$350 for a pair of AirPods 2 with a wireless charging case or NZ$280 for the non-wireless case. Yet, you’ll struggle to find better wireless earphones. They have plenty of battery life and the sound is as good as you’ll find anywhere else.


  1. If you are new to AirPods and wonder if they will fit, there’s an easy way to find out. The earpieces are more or less than same size and shape and those on the wired earbuds that come with iPhones. So long as they fit your ears, AirPods will be fine. ↩︎

Talking VPNs on Radio NZ Nine-to-Noon

Technology journalist Bill Bennett discusses Russia’s move to crack down on virtual private networks. Also, two conflicting takes on the power of online advertising; and the day the music died: the Pandora music service closes in New Zealand and Australia.

New technology – Bill Bennett

From my speaker notes:

Virtual Private Networks

Virtual Private Networks allow people to surf the next anonymously. They also help keep data safe from online criminals.

A VPN is a safe tunnel, usually from your computer, phone or tablet to an end-point elsewhere on the internet. They are a form of encryption.

You can use a VPN to make it look as if you are connecting from elsewhere in the world. So, if you want to see content that can only be accessed from, say, the UK, choose an endpoint in the UK.

Earlier this week Russia followed China cracking down on VPNs.

Putin pushed a law banning VPNs through the Duma. China has been cracking down on VPNs since January. I had personal experience of issues with a VPN when I was in China last year.

Apple pulls VPNs from Chinese app store

Also this week, Apple pulled VPNs from its App Store in China.

Critics say Apple should have stood up to China and refused, even though that would mean losing sales maybe even pulling out of the Chinese market. On the other hand, it is complying with the law. Chinese law says VPNs need to be licensed.

The consequences of pulling out of China are huge. It is Apple’s second largest market. What’s more, China is where most of the company’s products and the components in its products are made. Bloomberg’s Gadfly has an interesting take on this.

Meanwhile… perhaps New Zealanders ought to be more familiar with virtual private networks

Symantec, which sells a VPN service, says New Zealanders take risks with public wi-fi – something that a VPN can protect against. About two thirds of NZers think they are safe with public wi-fi and the same number take no precautions when using it. Hardly any NZers know whether they are transmitting data safely or not. I wrote about this earlier today.

Online advertising failures and successes

Two conflicting takes on the power of online advertising:

Procter and Gamble cut US$100 million from its online advertising spend in the last quarter and noticed no discernible impact on its business. This is taken as evidence online advertising doesn’t work. Part of this is a lot of ads turn up at dubious sites and are only seen by fake traffic or bots.

Sounds like a lot of money, but P&G spent a total of US$2.5 billion on ads in the quarter.

Also says niche advertising on Facebook didn’t work either.

Motorola is a much smaller company, but it reports the money it spent on Facebook ads did nothing to help its campaign to relaunch its phone brands. It too spent on highly targeted Facebook campaigns that didn’t work.

…And yet: The New Scientist reports that ad campaigns that used artificial intelligence to target voters on Facebook were enough to swing both the US Presidential election and the Brexit referendum.

So why does one type of advertising work and the other fail?

My take is that you don’t need to shift wavering individual voters by much to swing their vote. That’s part of it. The other part is that you don’t need to influence that many voters in a tight ballot. Clinton actually won the US popular vote by around two percent, but a tight focus on key states meant moving only a tiny fraction of voters was enough to win it for Trump.

One set of researchers also pointed out that it can be more important to persuade some people to vote or not vote, than to change their choice.

The day the music died…

Pandora music service closes in New Zealand and Australia. Meanwhile Apple has dropped almost all its non-iOS iPod models. The two stories are closely related. First, the streaming music market is consolidating. That was always going to happen. Global scale is important here. It also seems users don’t like the advertising supported model much.

Meanwhile Apple’s iPhone, which, arguably is a brand extension of the iPod has eclipsed its granddad and rendering it almost obsolete. Cue squeals from people, like me, who still love their old-school iPads.

Sony MDR-1000X review: noise-cancelling headphones

Sony MDR 1000X headphonesIf you have $700 to spend, these Sony MDR-1000X headphones do a fine job cancelling noise.

Sony MDR-1000X at a glance

For: Excellent noise cancellation, seamless Bluetooth, first-class sound.
Against: Erratic touch controls.
Maybe: Features can complicate use.
Verdict: I bought these.
Price: $700.
Website: Sony.

It would be easy to dismiss Sony’s marketing promise as hype. The company claims the MDR-1000X headphones deliver “industry-leading levels of noise-cancelling”. We’ve all heard words like that before. This time they may be true. If there are headphones with better noise cancellation, I’ve not heard them.

The MDR-1000X headphones do a fine job blocking the background noise. I tested them at home, in a noisy shared space and riding on public transport. I have yet to test them on an airplane, but am looking forward to the experience.

In each case they cut out a lot of noise. Our neighbours love power tools and leaf blowers. While the MDR-1000X headphones didn’t end the noise, they cut it to a dull drone. It meant I could listen to Mozart without grinding my teeth. They cut the buzz of a noisy shared office space to near silence and worked well on a bus ride.

You can choose to listen to music or enjoy the near silence. I also tested them to listening to a podcast.

If you choose music, they will surprise and delight you. The sound is wonderful. Although you’d expect that from $700 headphones.

Sony says its DSEE HX audio processing technology can boost the quality of compressed music. It’s another bold claim, usually when technology messes around with sound you lose as much as you gain. That’s not the case here, there is no booming over-cooked bass or too much brightness. Both can be annoying when a speaker or headphone maker adds them.

Listen in comfort

The build quality is impressive. The MDR-1000X look good and feel solid. Sony decided not to pimp their look with anything tasteless. You could wear these in an office or the Koru Club without feeling like a dork.

Sony designed the headphones so they stay comfortable if you wear them for a long time, say on a long-distance flight. There’s foam padding to help keep more noise out. If you like, it’s a passive version of the active noise cancellation. The padding also keep your ears from rubbing against hard surfaces. The headphones sit on your head, there’s no clamping sensation.

Sony MDR-1000x

When they’re not in use the MDR-1000X fold for storage. They come with a hard protective case to make that even easier.

Bluetooth performance

There’s a jack socket so you can connect the headphones to devices with a wire. The box also includes an adaptor for airplane-style audio sockets. But most people and all iPhone 7 owners will turn to Bluetooth.

Bluetooth audio connections can be flakey. I found the MDR-1000X to be more reliable than most connections once connected. They did run into problems when I had many Bluetooth devices to choose from. If, say, you connect the headphones to the iPhone, changing to the iPad is far from easy.

Sony packed useful Bluetooth device controls into the headphones in a clever way. You can swipe up and down on the right headphone to raise or lower the music volume. Swiping from front to back and in reverse will skip one track forward or backward. Tapping the centre pauses music. The swipe commands work well, the pause-tap action takes practice.

Pause for thought

Another gesture command turns off the noise-cancellation. You hold your hand against the right ear to do this. You may want to do this if someone wants to speak to you. The action turns the outside speakers on. They then relay the speech without you needing to take the headphones off.

On one level the feature is impressive, but how lazy do you have to be to not take headphones off?

There are buttons on the left headphone to control power, the noise cancellation feature and ambient noise. Finding them by feel is hard, but a disembodied voice tells you what’s going on.

There’s a charge port with a USB at the other end so you can pull power from almost anywhere. Sony says a full charge gives you twenty hours of noise cancellation. Confirming that is difficult, so we’ll have to take Sony’s word.

Sony uses optimising software that calibrates the headphones as you wear them. It takes into account the conditions around you and the way the headphones sit on your head.

Sony MDR-1000X verdict

At $700 the MDR-1000X are for serious buyers. They deliver on their promise. You get one of the best noise-cancelling experiences around and a great sound. The features are a nice balance of useful extras. I would buy these.