Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Big 'Bang & Olufsen A1' Review

I love music, and I also love portable speakers. Over the years, I've demoed quite a few to replace my Bose SoundDock which I've had for 10 years now. But I wanted something smaller. (The Bose is about 503 in³ and 5.2lbs) But I needed it to still be loud and sound great.

I decided to try Bang & Olufsen's Beoplay A1. (43 in³ at 1.3lbs) B&O is known for their design and craftsmanship of home entertainment products. Designed by Cecilie Manz for Bang & Olufsen, the A1 doesn't disappoint in the design factor.

Packaging is clean and simple. A bit snug sliding the bottom half out, but the weight of the A1 helps. Inside you'll find the speaker, a USB-C charging cable with the B&O logo, and a quick start manual. That's it. No charging block or case. Very bare. A nice velvet pouch would've been nice specially for $250. But all that aside, the speaker itself is beautiful. Sophisticated, classy, and refined. The aluminum dome is perfectly sculpted and has a very luxurious feel to it. The base is made of a rubber-like material and helps keep the speaker stable when set down on a surface. The buttons are hidden and spread around the base area, along with a 3.5mm input jack and USB-C port. The speaker comes with a leather strap which you can use to hang the speaker on a hook while you're indoors or on a tree branch when you're outdoors.

Pairing the Beoplay with your phone is easy. Turn the speaker on. Press and hold the Bluetooth button til the white power indicator flashes blue. Select the A1 on your phone's Bluetooth list, and you're done. You can also download the free Beoplay app which allows for some basic tone functions. It lists preset EQ curves as 'warm, excited, relaxed, and bright'. There is some benefit to using the EQ, but the speaker naturally sounds good that other than the initial novelty of the EQ, I leave it off most of the time.

I was preparing myself to be underwhelmed by the audio quality. Usually, when a speaker is this compact, the first thing that gets compromised is the bass. B&O claims the A1 can go as low as 60Hz. Your ears will confirm that claim. Not only does it reproduce adequate bass, it does it accurately and cleanly. No muddiness or distortion. No hollow sound. Quite an amazing feat for such a compact speaker. The treble is smooth and controlled. Not harsh or ear grating. Very pleasant. Although the A1 shines with classical, jazz, and ambient tracks, it does justice to rock, electronica, house and even dubstep. With bass heavy tracks, I found that keeping the volume at around half maintains the bass balance of the track. But what if you want more bass at a higher volume level?

Then get a second Beoplay A1!

For true stereo or ambient audio. Adding a second A1 increases its performance dramatically. Pairing can be done via the Beoplay app, but any EQ presets you have will be turned off when paired with another A1. You can also pair two A1s without the Beoplay app, I've found this method more reliable. To pair the speakers without the use of the app:

  1. Turn on the first speaker, you'll heard a power on beep and the indicator light will be white.
  2. Press and hold the Bluetooth button. Indicator will start flashing blue for about five seconds then it will start flashing white.
  3. Wait about 20 seconds for a second beep then turn on the second A1.
  4. Press and hold the Bluetooth button on the second A1 for five seconds until the light starts flashing white.
  5. Wait a while, then you'll see the indicator lights on both speakers sync up then glow a steady white.
  6. Now connect your phone to the first speaker, this will be the Master speaker as well as the LEFT audio channel. The second speaker will be the Slave speaker as well as the RIGHT audio channel.

And how do two paired A1s sound? Like bringing your home stereo system out with you where ever you go! Seriously good portable audio. Although at this price point, you may be asking why not just get the Beolit 15 or 17? It's louder and the bass is a lot deeper. So why choose two A1s over the larger Beolit 15? It boils down to a matter of preference and purpose. Two A1s (100 in³ and 2.6lbs for two) are still easier to pack and carry than a single Beolit 15 (358 in³ and 5.7lbs). Two A1s can be spread out over two rooms to play different music in each room. Two A1s can be stereo paired to give much better imaging and ambient audio. You'll definitely be happy with either purchase, but for my needs, I chose to have two A1s that can be used together or separately.

Now, it's not all party all day and night with the Beoplay A1. There are limitations that come with the compact size, great audio, and relatively low price (low for B&O anyway). And partying all day and night is one of those limitations. To be specific, a short battery life. B&O claims 24 hours of playback at moderate levels. This probably means about 25% volume. Because anywhere close to 50-60% volume, that rating drops to about 6 hours. Crank that up to 70% or more and you're looking at maybe 2-3 hours max.

The other limitation is related to the stereo pairing. The range is extremely short. Bluetooth has an effective range of about 30ft. The A1 can only be about 8ft apart with a CLEAR LINE OF SIGHT. Any obstruction within that 6ft of separation and you will start getting dropouts on the slave speaker. The more realistic distance is about 4-5ft. I'm guessing power to the Bluetooth chip was limited to minimize the effect on the already short battery life. Either that or the beautiful aluminum dome acts as a Faraday cage and shortens Bluetooth range. Either way, this limits how far you can place the speakers from each other when paired. Another limitation of stereo pairing is that it doesn't work if the source is a line-in source. So only Bluetooth streamed audio will work for the stereo pairing.

With regards to the design, my only complain are the buttons. They look great hidden behind the rubber bottom but they're not very easy to press. Now, this can be a good or a bad thing. It does prevent accidental presses but it also makes actually pressing the button quite difficult. Even though there's minimal interaction with the buttons, when you do need to use them it takes a bit of hunting to actually find the right one and press it. The tiny icons make the control surface look clean and very minimalist but the lack of tactile indicators means you have to actually look for the symbols to know which button you're actually pressing.

Are any of these deal breakers? Not for me. I'd rather take the time to memorize the button locations and work around the limited Bluetooth range just to be able to use these wonderful sounding works of art. If you want a Bluetooth speaker that is small and easy to pack for traveling, sounds like a home hi-fi system anywhere you go, and looks like tiny work of art, then the Beoplay A1 is the speaker you've been waiting for.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Not the Sounds of Silence (A Sonos Review)

There are many wireless speaker systems out there. The most recent ones that have been gaining popularity are the Amazon Echo and Google Home systems. These are a new breed of smart speakers that offer more than just music playback. But that's for another blog entry. Today will be for a more traditional wireless audio system, the Sonos. Specifically, the Play 1.

Sonos has been around for quite a while. And their product lineup hasn't really changed much. It offers less functionality than smart speakers, but the multi-room capabilities and the simplicity of the app are what really make it shine. Their app came at the heels of people playing music locally (stored on your computer or local hard drive) mostly through iTunes. But now that streaming services are more popular, smart speakers have become the weapon of choice for most people. Why should you still pick Sonos over the others? Two main reasons. Simplicity and Multi-Room capabilities. Sonos isn't the only one with this capability. Bose would be the closest match, but I didn't like their app interface. Then there's Google Chromecast Audio which can do something similar but not quite and still relies on streaming services.

Playing music in separate rooms isn't a simple task. Wiring up your home to a central amp and music server takes time, planning, and a lot of work. Doing it the wireless way isn't that simple either. Synchronizing playback and centralizing your source isn't for the average user either.

Sonos does this quite simply and elegantly. My main consideration for the Sonos was "How easy would it be for anyone in my home to access my music and playback what they want". I needed something that could easily access my local music library as well as streaming services. Something that wouldn't be crippled if my internet connection went down (this is always a consideration of any tech I invest in). No other system offered ease of use like Sonos did.

And for those that actually care about sound quality, Sonos sounds great. Disclaimer on my statement, it is NOT meant to be a listening room system. It is also not meant to be the solution for just a single room (there are others that can fulfill that need at a lower price point). It is meant for whole house, multi-room music. And it does that job extremely well. Even against larger more traditional systems, the Sonos Play 1 can hold its own. It's very easy to conceal, and it's also moisture-proof if you want music in your bathroom!

Sonos is supposedly working with Amazon to integrate Alexa into their control UI, that would be an excellent combination and one that would bring Sonos back up to the front of the smart speaker pack. But even without it, Sonos is still one of the better multi-room systems available today. The ease of use and audio quality make it perfect for anyone in the home to enjoy great sound. It also helps that they have a wide array of products to suit your specific needs. From the easy to conceal Play1, to the Sound bar and wireless subwoofer for decent movie audio, Sonos is a great product family all around.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Lock Up and Throw Away the Keys! (A Kevo 2nd Gen Review)

Building a smart home has become a recent obsession of mine. Anything other than builder's grade deadbolts is better. There are a ton of smart locks out there, from replacements, to upgrades that convert your existing lock to a smart one.

My list boiled down to two, the Schlage Connect, and the 2nd Generation Kevo. Although the Schlage has gotten better security reviews (Grade 1) vs the Kevo (Grade 2) what ultimately got me was the convenience of the Touch-To-Open feature of Kwikset's offering.

First up, installation. The Kevo is a breeze to install. Even for someone with my limited handyman experience. My only complaint is that the install instructions are online only. Which made it take longer for me since I had to keep referring to my phone and flipping pages. But realistically, if you've ever installed a regular deadbolt, this is hardly any different other than connecting the front and back with the cable.

Next, functionality. It's pretty awesome. Initially had issues but the most recent update seems to have addressed most of them. As long as you have your phone in your pocket (front works better than back, and women's bags are more reliable than men's pant pockets) just touch the side of the Kevo with any part of your body and it opens!

Why is this such a big deal? Over the keypad of the Schlage Connect, it is a lot faster to get in your home. People with physical disabilities will have an easier time. Specially with the key fob, which is an optional purchase [BOO!] is more reliable than the phone. Another scenario is when you have your hands full (of groceries for example) and being able to unlock your door with your elbow.

Wintertime can pose a problem with gloves. Capacitive gloves seem to work ok so those of you with gloves that are Smartphone compatible need not worry. But for those of us that use regular gloves, you can exhale onto the lock while simultaneously tapping it. For whatever reason, this worked for me. Another option which I have used is my nose. Hahahaha. Yes, my nose. But the risk of getting it stuck to the lock when the temp is well below freezing made me discover the exhaling method. But either way worked for me.

The most recent app update has also added one of the best features of the Kevo. UNLIMITED eKEYS!!! Originally shipped with only 2 eKeys and the option to purchase more for $2, the high cost of the Kevo made the purchase of virtual keys feel like a rip-off. Thankfully Kwikset changed this. There are 4 different types of eKeys, Owner, Admin, Anytime and Scheduled. The Owner key goes to the first person who registers the Kevo with their account. I think there can only be one Owner key. Then next option is the Admin key. These function just like the Owner keys and can give out eKeys to anyone as well. The third type is the Anytime key and this allows full access to the lock but doesn't allow the user to give out keys. The last type, the Scheduled key is great to give friends, relatives, guests, service providers, etc. It can be made to never expire but access is restricted to certain times only, or access anytime but has an expiration date, or limited access for both time and date. Very handy for rental places as well. No need to re-key. Which is another feature too but not as ground-breaking. The Kevo features Kwikset's SmartKey tech which allows end users to rekey their locks without a locksmith.

For you Nest users out there, Nest hasn't really been accurate doing the whole Auto-Away thing lately. Kevo works with Nest. Link your account and once you lock your door, a notification will pop-up asking if you;d like to set your Nest to Away mode. Not perfect but handy. The Kevo also works with the Ring doorbell if you purchase the Kevo Plus hub.

Android Wear users are in for a nice bonus as well, you can pair your watch with your Kevo app. Your watch is specifically paired to your phone, NOT the Kevo lock itself. How this works is that the Bluetooth authentication is duplicated on your watch, and has an expiry date if your phone loses contact with your watch for a couple of days. This is automatically renewed for as long as your watch connects to your phone frequently. It works as a precaution in case you lose your watch, in that the eKey stored in it automatically expires. Came in handy a few times when I had to run in the house to grab something and forgot my phone in the car.

The cons? It is expensive. Considering a Grade 1 traditional deadbolt can be had for $40 or so, $200+ for a deadbolt may not be the first on your smarthome shopping list. It's only a Grade 2 lock. Not too bad, but for that price would've been nice to have a Grade 1 rating. The remote unlocking is not possible without the additional purchase of the Kevo Plus hub which is another $100. Boo! Considering that the hub only works with the Kevo and can only do ONE thing, I think $100 is too much. It should've been part of the Kevo 2nd gen package or at most $40. I'm hoping the 2nd gen Wink hub will work with Kevo but that might not be the case if Kwikset is pushing for the $100 single-purpose hub. It can be temperamental. It's benefits far outweigh the glitches, but there are times when it takes a while to detect your phone. Holding your phone CLOSER will NOT work. The proximity sensor of the Kevo uses signal 'weakness' to detect whether the phone is outside or inside. Holding your phone closer will fool the lock into thinking the phone is inside and not allow entry. This happens maybe once every 2 weeks or so, and highly dependent on what I'm wearing. Winter coats will interfere with the signal enough that you may have to try a few times to unlock your door.

But despite all the shortcomings of this relatively new product, the Kevo is pretty handy. I've gotten confident enough that I no longer brings the physical key anymore. In fact, I haven't used a house key in the last 4 months! Now, if only Kwikset would lower the price of the Kevo Plus... HINT HINT!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Time for a change! (Huawei Watch review)

I've had my Moto 360 for quite a while now, and it was about time to upgrade. I loved the Moto 360 and it's round screen (in spite of the flat tire) so I was looking to upgrade to the newer version.

But being Android Wear based, opened up my options to many more brands and models. And a lot of them have gotten really good. I was never a fan of the rounded rectangular watches. I loved the square Sony Smartwatch but no one ever seemed to follow that monolithic design ethos. So back to the traditional watch look.

Not having the patience to wait for Google to release a watch (look how long it took them to release the Pixel) I decided to go for the Huawei Watch.

And am I happy that I did. The one thing that the Moto 360 really let me (and other users down with) was the dismal battery life. 20 hours was generous, 12 was more likely, 8 was realistic. It would last my work day, then I'd have to leave it to charge after that.

The Huawei Watch is probably one of the most non-tech looking smart watches out there. And that's why I love it. Very few people have noticed that I actually wear a smartwatch until they see a notification come in and only then do they realize it's a screen and not an analog watch. Good job Huawei!

For a piece of tech, they did go the extra mile to make it feel very premium. From the box to the finish, it will pass for an equivalently priced analog watch.

The screen is OLED and looks great. One of the main advantages of OLED on a smartwatch is that anything black on screen is not using up battery power. The disadvantage is that OLED screens do suffer from burn-in (as evident in a lot of display models) so Huawei does have a trick for this watch. In standby mode the watchface shifts a few pixels in random directions every few minutes. Not noticeable unless you're looking for it. Kind of like the screensavers of the old days.

The great thing about the Huawei... battery life. I can go almost a full 48 hours (ok maybe about 36) without charging. Which brings me to the neat but odd magnetic charger. It's not as nice as the Moto's induction charger, but it is magnetic. But it doesn't quite snap into place as well as it should. The magnet is strong but doesn't always line up automatically. Sometimes (not all the time) you'll have to wiggle the watch around a bit to get the contacts to line up properly. Another trick is to let the watch hover over the charger and let the charger snap up into the watch. This is a surer way to get the contacts to line up better. I wish they didn't have the charging cable permanently connected to the charger, so it would be easier to bring around. I decided to buy a second travel charger for ease of use.

The speakerphone is a neat Dick Tracy/Knight Rider function and works decently in moderately quiet environments BUT it will disable your car speakerphone since the watch speakerphone takes priority over the car speakerphone. So you may not want to leave that function enabled until Google allows this to be customized. Some have found apps that work well, I have not. So I don't use the speakerphone function regularly, but it is convenient and does work well.

Because of the speakerphone, this also lets the Huawei have customizable ringtones. There are a few default ones and with a couple of apps (no root needed) you can upload your own short sound files to your watch as well.

Another nice things about the Huawei watch is that it accepts standard watch straps. Make sure you get the newer ones with quick release pins as this makes it far more convenient to change the look of the watch to match your mood.

One thing I do miss from the Moto 360 is also the one thing that made people hate its screen. The ambient light sensor housed in the flat tire section of the screen. This isn't a deal breaker at all for the Huawei Watch but it would've been a nice feature to have.

All in all, I'm loving this watch more and more. And with Android Wear 2.0 coming up, it's just going to get better!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

And There Was Light (Smart Lighting Review)

Automated lights have been around for a while. Smart lighting all started with simple timers, motion sensors, The Clapper®, and remote controlled plugs. But in recent years, the options and price have become more attractive to more people.

In this entry, I'll be comparing the two more popular brands for today's version of smart lighting. Germany's Osram (Sylvania in the US) Lightify (Now sold under Osram's Ledvance brand) and the Netherlands' Philips Hue.

Philips Hue was probably the first mainstream app-controlled lighting system on the market. Others had earlier attempts but none became as widespread as Hue. For good reason. The marketing and partnerships that Philips had for Hue was great. Not to mention the semi-open. Although the lights still require a Philips bridge but the bridge can link to many more apps and is IFTTT compatible. But Hue products were still quite expensive and there were not many alternatives that could compete with their features and product support.

Enter Osram. Osram has been in the lighting business for almost a century. So they are almost as experienced as Philips (founded 1891) when it comes to lighting. I still have Osram CFL bulbs from the early 90's that still work today which is a far cry from a lot of the newer non-LED offerings that barely last 3 years. Osram recently entered the smart-lighting scene with their Lightify line of products. In the US, they sell under the Osram-Sylvania brand. Now under the new Ledvance brand, they are giving Hue some very good competition.

Without going into a 3rd party controller like Wink or SmartThings, I will give a run down on the pros and cons of each system, which is better, and why you should start getting smart lighting systems.

First up, Philips Hue. Very mature app. Recently updated, the Hue app is polished and offers cute moods that can use colors from a users favorite photo. Did you like a particular beach photo that you took from a vacation? Upload it to the app and it will use the specific colors and hues from that photo to create a unique lighting scene that only you have. Setup is quite simple, just follow the instructions on the app and press the pair button on the hub to pair each Hue product you have. You group lights into rooms and set routines and you're all done. Lighting can be changed through the app (or widgets if you're on Android) and offer extremely smooth transitions from one color to the next. For shifting mood lighting, you can't get much better than Philips Hue. Lightify can only fade on/off when manually turning on lights from the app.

Hue offers basic bulb and LED strip replacements, and some unique lighting products like table orbs, and side table lighting lamps. The stylings are on the modern side so it may or may not go with your decor. If it doesn't you're pretty much limited to a regular E26/27 bulb choice or the LED strips. Going for about $35/bulb they are pricey. But if you don't need mood shifting colored lights, then they also have basic white bulbs for about $15.

Now for the new kid in town, Osram's Lightify. Slightly cheaper than Hue, Lightify is a very solid alternative to Hue. App is a bit more utilitarian but offers some things that the Hue app doesn't. Setup for Lightify was initially a pain. You have to scan the hub barcode on the app before it even allows you to sign up for an account. This doesn't sound like too much effort, until the app accesses the camera and has a tendency to distort the image. I had to rotate the hub in all directions before the QR Code scanner recognized the code. On occasion, if you lose internet connection and attempt to open the app it will reset and ask you to scan the QR code in again, which is a pain since it's at the bottom of the hub which is plugged into the wall. You'll have to unplug the hub to scan the code in. I took a picture of my hub and just save the image for future use. But... for all that, I actually expanded my Lightify system more than my Hue system. Why? Options.

Lightify offers way more bulb options than Hue does. Yes, Hue has cute lamps and all, but Lightify has more standard bulb replacements. Regular A types, PAR lights, garden spots, LED strips (in 2 foot increments so you don't waste anything by cutting the strip) and for 220V countries, even GU10 bulbs. Recently, Lightify even launched smart plugs, 2 and 4 button switches (they don't look as good as the Hue switch but they offer more control and programmability)

How does Lightify perform... almost as good as Hue. This is where the two differ slightly and may steer you to one product or the other. I initially thought that by the end of my review, I'd have a clear winner and I'd recommend one or the other. But without using a 3rd party hub, these two have distinct differences that may appeal to some but not others. I personally use both but for different tasks.

The main differences between Lightify and Hue are how the apps controls each system. Other than the basic off/on control, they both have automated features.

Hue's routines trigger particular scenes that you choose or program in. To customize a scene, you set each individual light or room to the setting you want. Then you save the scene (this can be an individual light, room, or whole house) essentially taking snapshot of how you want the lights to be for that scene. The routines trigger the scene at your specified time and day. This means that the lights stay on. To turn them off at a specific time, you must create a scene where all or some lights are off, then save that scene, then trigger it at a specified time as well.

Lightify schedules are different in that they function like scheduled timers. You set which lights/rooms/scenes you want to turn on at a specific time/day AND when they turn off. No need to create a new 'off' scene. The app also has a Vacation mode and TV simulation mode. The Vacation mode alters scheduled timings slightly to mimic an occupied house. For example, if you set your room light to turn on between 7pm and turn off at 11pm (for bedtime) while you're on vacation,  Lightify will turn on at 7:10pm one day, or 7:05 the next. It may turn it off at 8:00pm then back on at 8:30pm. There will be slight variances so that the light won't behave mechanically. I think that's a great feature that Hue doesn't have out of the box.

Why would the scheduling matter? It all depends on how you prefer to interact with your lights. Switching moods is much easier (and a lot prettier) on Hue. Lets say you want full brightness in the dining room for dinner, then later on, slowly fade to a dim after-dinner setting. Hue does this so much better. Since each routine is triggered separately, "Dinner lighting" at 7pm then "Mood lighting" at 8:30pm will trigger a very smooth fade from full brightness to dim at the specified time. Fading can be done instantly or over several minutes. Lightify on the other hand, can't do this. It will go from one scene to the next instantly. Depending on how drastic the scene change is, it can be jarring. Not to mention, scenes have to have on-off times so scenes have to have start-end times that are the same, or you'll end up in darkness. IFTTT is another thing all together, currently only Hue has an IFTTT channel. So if you're an IFTTT fan, Lightify is out.

Another difference is grouping. Lightify allows cross grouping. One bulb can be assigned to several groups if you choose to include it in different groups. Like a hallway light can be grouped with both the kitchen and living room so that when you turn off all kitchen lights, and turn on all living room lights, the hallway lights will still stay on if you want. Hue won't allow this and can be annoying if you want more meticulous control over groups of lights that cross over 2 different rooms. You can work around this with Hue's scenes but it's not as intuitive or as simple as Lightify's groups.

Finally, the fading of Philips is much better than Lightify. Earlier, I mentioned that Hue can transition from dark to light, scene to scene and color to color quite smoothly. Lightify can't. It will switch from scene to scene instantly. Even with Lightify's fade in/out (which only works when you manually switch the lights on/off) there's a point when dimming to off, it reaches about 10% brightness then it will just suddenly switch off. Same goes for turning it on, it will instantly go to 10% brightness, then fade to full. Almost all LED bulbs suffer from this (curse of their ultra efficiency) but Philips' fading is still a lot smoother. It won't allow dimming control below 10% but when switching the light off, it will gradually dim to off.

Both Lightify and Hue use the Zigbee protocol. Although they only work with their own respective hub as of their latest firmware update (You used to be able to control Lightify bulbs with the Hue bridge but no more) but the Zigbee alliance is releasing versin 3.0 which is supposed to unify all member products. This is a good thing since it may mean that you get the best of both worlds. The scheduling of Lightify and the smooth fade transitions of Hue. Can they co-exist? Yes they can. It's not a big deal to have both hubs and both apps. On Android, both offer widgets so creating a new screen on your phone with both widgets on it isn't inconvenient. And if opening 2 apps is really a big inconvenience, the option of getting a 3rd party hub like Wink will consolidate your smart home appliances into one app. One caveat though is that product specific functions still have to be controlled by the respective brands' hubs and apps prior to 3rd party control.

So which one would I recommend? It depends. For mood/colored lighting, I have to say Philips Hue. But for over-all home lighting without the fancy disco lighting effects, Lightify is my preferred option. Osram has to tweak their app to offer smoother scene transitions to really come out the clear winner. Philips has to come up with more standardized bulb replacements, not just funky lamps, and better grouping options.

*Update Jan 30, 2017* Osram (LEDvance) Lightify no longer works with Amazon's Echo (Alexa). The skill got crippled and has since been removed from Alexa's skill set. Osram is currently working on the issue but no word on when it will be restored. Boo!

**Update Jan 31, 2017** Amazon Alexa skill is back! Whether this is a stable fix or not, is yet to be seen. Will update in a week to report on stability. But as of now, everything works again!

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