Sony MDR-HW700DS: World’s first 9.1ch headphones

MDR-HW700DS

Like the amplifier in Spinal Tap that goes up to 11, when it comes to anything to do with sound bigger numbers are usually better. So, forget about your puny 5.1 or 7.1 sound systems, these latest wireless headphones from Sony offer a 9.1 audio experience – but without actually having all the speakers. They use what Sony calls Virtualphones Technology to reproduce the effect of multi-channel speakers.

The unit’s ‘Cinema’ mode has been created with the support of Sony Pictures Entertainment and the company says, “This mode ensures an authentic cinema sound experience and virtual sound arena that is based on an analysis of the prestigious sound mixing stages used for the production of major motion pictures.” Which in non-PR speak means it should sound like the director intended.

The transmitter unit can be used as an HDMI switchbox for up to three sources so you can enjoy audio from multiple devices. It also supports 4K sources so you can send uncompressed audio to the headphones, and has a conventional stereo line-in though of course the latter won’t give you the full surround-sound experience.

These then aren’t just a set of headphones, they’re a positive feast of audio technology, so what are the reviewers making of them?

Bonkers bass and voices in your head

Trusted Reviews was impressed by the sound quality, “…their dynamic range is sensational, with bass handling proving able to do full justice to the sort of bonkers low-frequency rumbles employed by most modern action movies.”

It also praised the surround-sound capabilities, “…the scale of the film – or game – soundstage it produces creates a world much larger than the physical presence of the headphones.” However, the way dialogue is delivered came in for some criticism, “While dialogue appears to stand forward of most of the mix and is extremely clear, it still feels distractingly dislocated from what you’re watching. The words spoken sound like they’re in your head, rather than like they’re coming from the mouths of the actors on the screen.”

“The 50mm drivers offer enough bass to immerse the user for up to 12 hours before the cans need fast recharging.” notes Pocket-lint although it hasn’t done a full review as yet.

People who have actually bought the headphones seem impressed too, with one Amazon reviewer in the US saying, “Sound quality is stunning. I especially like that putting the headphone on, turns them on and powers up the HDMI box all at once.”

Another US Amazon customer praises the unit’s ability to combat interference, “The headphones work on the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz band. Switching bands automatically if you desire. My neighborhood is crowded on the 2.4 band, so I use my Apple devices, including an airport express and airport extreme, all of them on the 5 GHz band. I had only heard just a few skips, probably when the headphones change channels automatically. Otherwise signal is perfect, without any noise whatsoever.”

We’ll leave the last word to Trusted Reviews, “While the HW700s are only good rather than spectacular music performers, they’re capable of completely transforming gaming or movie sessions where you either don’t currently have any surround sound kit or else you regularly find yourself wanting to play or watch stuff in antisocial circumstances.”

If you’re impressed enough by all this to think that you might want to buy the Sony MDR-HW700DS headphones they’ll be available in the UK from this month. You’ll need to find £450

Chord Electronics’ Hugo – A nifty portable DAC device with little CES coverage

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When we think of a product named Hugo, the luxury German fashion brand Hugo Boss springs to mind. Chord Electronics, British manufacturers of high-performance hi-fi products, has introduced a new Hugo onto the consumer market. Playfully named because you can take it anywhere ‘you go’, the Hugo takes claim as being “the world’s most advanced and first truly reference-class portable DAC/headphone amp.”

We have to note that competing against the One Wheel – a cross between a skateboard and a unicycle – and the Samsung Galaxy Note Pro, a huge 12.2” tablet which is said to be Samsung’s answer to the Surface 2 and the iPad Air, Hugo has had relatively little exposure as the top techno innovations on display at this year’s CES. Its comparative inconspicuousness in the gadget-obsessed press doesn’t mean to say that Hugo hasn’t got  its own innovations and niche to step into.

Seasoned audiophiles will understand the importance of the digital to analogue converter (DAC), a device that translates digitally stored information from a mobile device into analogue signals, thus upping the volume and improving the quality of the sound.

So in the vast world of audio and the DAC market, what’s so special (if anything) about Hugo and how have its capabilities been initially assessed?

What’s good about Hugo is that it can be used as both a portable headphone DAC and as a reference-level source component in a static system. What’s more, Hugo offers five digital inputs, including A2DP aptX Bluetooth, as well as 384kHz PCM and DSD 128 playback for contemporary high-resolution Digital eXtreme Definition music files. In layman terms, Hugo will pump out meticulously clear tunes, no matter where you are.

Hugo by Chord
Hugo by Chord

As mentioned earlier, Hugo didn’t receive that much attention in the post-CES 2014 reports and consequently trying to locate feedback about Chord Electronics’ new venture proved a little difficult though by no means impossible. StuffTV, one of the lesser-known gadget and video review sites, was one source to catch on to the unique merits of Hugo.

With a boldly dramatic headline that Hugo, the world’s first portable hi-res audio DC, will “quadruple the prove of your phone’, StuffTV talks about how the device’s lightweight, compact and portable DAC contrasts to other DACs and headphone amps, which “tend to be a little on the bulky side.”

The audio tech review site What Hi Fi was also quick to review Hugo, reiterating Chord Electronics’ claims that Hugo offer “studio-master-tape sound quality, advanced connectivity and uncompromising file playback capability.”

If you are heavily into listening to crystal-clear tunes whilst on the go, Hugo certainly seems to tick all the right boxes. This nifty little device, which is encased in aircraft-grade aluminium, is not cheap though and will set you back £1,200.

Sky’s Now TV Box review round-up

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When it comes to the latest in audiovisual technology it wouldn’t be unfair to say Sky TV’s ageing satellite system is years behind the competition when it comes to streaming and catchup TV. And with the likes of LoveFilm and Netflix changing the landscape of TV consumption, Sky has finally realised that its current crop of set top boxes just can’t keep pace with the ever-changing world of Internet TV.

Step forth Sky’s Now TV box, a dinky little plastic box that you can pick up for less than a tenner, and upgrades your TV to a smart TV capable of streaming services like BBC iPlayer and access to Sky’s premium programming without the need of a satellite dish.

There are several reasons why Sky has launched the Now TV box. Firstly, their current raft of set top boxes just can’t compete with the Apple TVs and game consoles of the world. If you’ve ever plugged your Sky box into a broadband router you’ll know that catchup TV doesn’t really work with Sky’s legacy system. I tried it a few months ago and was prompted to download each show on iPlayer before I could watch them – hardly an ideal solution.

So it’s no surprise that their Now TV box looks to solve a lot of the issues Sky faces with its proprietary boxes: first up, the Now TV comes with built-in WiFi, which means Sky can now beam online content to consumers who don’t have a Sky dish. Now TV also grants access to a range of a free catchup services from likes of Channel 4’s 4oD and Channel 5’s Demand5 catchup service.

As well these free services you get access to Now TV’s Sky services, which offers a range of content from Sky TV including premium movies and sport. This mean Now TV is clever alternative for those who don’t actually have a satellite dish. At the moment a Sky Sports day pass costs £9.99, which gives you access to all of Sky’s sports channels for 24 hours.

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Sky Movies fairs a little better in the value for money stakes: the movies subscription costs a not unreasonable £8.99 per month for three months and £15 per month thereafter – better still there’s no yearly contract so you could subscribe for just a few months at a time.

There are downsides though: at the moment the Now TV is lacking quite a few apps you’d expect from an Internet TV service – so at the moment both LoveFilm and Netflix are missing in action. But you do get access to rudimentary versions of Facebook and Spotify – so you win some and lose some.

Techradar were impressed with the functionality on offer for the price during their hands-on review, but they too couldn’t forgive Sky for blocking out other services: “It should be pointed out that Sky is restricting some competing services from the library – and that means you can’t use this as a sneaky Netflix of LoveFilm box. Curses.”

Expert Reviews noted during their review that the set top box didn’t offer a value for money as an alternative to a full Sky Package but they did like the idea of a few friends chipping in for a big Premiership game using the system’s day pass: “At this price, it’s obviously not a replacement for Sky Sports on satellite for serious sports fans. Get a couple of mates to chip in and it’s actually quite reasonable.”

Expert Reviews weren’t enamoured by the quality of the streams either, which is limited to just 720p at the moment: “Unfortunately this the maximum output resolution the box runs at, and so though video quality is acceptable, it pales in comparison to 1080p content from Netflix or LoveFilm.”

Overall if you’re looking for a cheap way to add some smart functionality to an ageing TV, then Now TV is a no-brainer. If you’re looking for a box that supports both Netflix and Lovefilm then Now TV won’t serve you well for the time being – but for the price it’s hard not to be impressed by Sky’s first attempt at a fully-fledged Internet TV service.

Bose’s SoundTouch Wifi music system: what the critics said

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Trying to dethrone Sonos from the number one spot for wireless audio systems was always going to be tall order for Bose, but with the company’s SoundTouch Wi-Fi range they’ve focused on what they do best: sound quality.

The most impressive part of Bose’s SoundTouch range is the quality of the sound. Having built a name for themselves as the purveyors of high quality sound it’s good to see Bose using its expertise to bring high fidelity sound to the burgeoning mini wireless audio market.

Separated into three distinct ranges, the SoundTouch 30 is the largest of the speakers measuring 25.4cm x 43.2cm x 17.8cm, the SoundTouch 20 is slightly smaller measuring 17.8cm x 30.5cm x 10.2cm, and the final version is a portable battery-powered version that’s no bigger than an average sized paperback book.

One of the big advantages of the SoundTouch range is it has been designed to be modular. This basically means you can daisy chain multiple speakers together over time to assemble your own multi-room home audio system. So you may start off with two, say, in the lounge and kitchen, and then later on you can add more to an upstairs bedroom for instance, all without having to traipse wires across your house.

During Huffington Post’s early hands-on with SoundTouch they were blown away by the sound quality, noting: “the sound it generates is hugely impressive. Bass notes aren’t just loud, they feel alive – physically below the rest of the sound – and genuinely fill the room.”

Where the SoundTouch is less impressive, though, is the range of content services on offer at launch: there’s no Spotify or Rdio support, TuneIn radio is missing too, as is Last.FM – all of which just so happen to be available on Sonos’ range of systems. But don’t worry too much as Bose have told us they’re planning to add services to the speakers over time, as well as plans to bring SoundTouch Wi-Fi functionality to its more expensive lifestyle range of products.

It’s not all bad news, though, you do get access to 18,000 Internet radio stations and you can of course play your entire iTunes library via Airplay by using the accompanying app – which softens the blow a bit but for those of you who have Spotify subscriptions this isn’t the speaker for you just yet.

Setting up the system is a breeze, with Mashable noting the process was “painless”, simply requiring you plug in the speaker, download the app and connect the system to your local Wi-Fi network.

To control the system wirelessly, Bose has created slick app that allows you control the system from anywhere within your home as long as you’re on the same Wi-Fi network and are in range, of course.

The entry-level speakers are fairly affordable compared Bose’s usual eye-watering standards; the SoundTouch 20 and Portable are available for £349. But the SoundTouch 30 comes in at £599, which is quite frankly scary money, especially considering what you could get for that sort of money if you plumped for a archaic separates system.

The new SoundTouch range offers a simple, easy-to-use wireless music system, with Bose’s high-end sound quality at a reasonable price. The price of the top-of-the-range of version might just be too steep for some but for a first attempt the SoundTouch is a near perfect alternative to a Sonos system only being let down by some missing services.

LG’s LAP340 SoundPlate – sound without the fury

lg-soundplate-lap340

The main problem with today’s flat screen TVs is that, because they lack the cabinet of the old CRT models, you tend to get pretty weedy sound from their built-in speakers. This accounts for the popularity of multi-speaker home cinema systems but they have their own problems with a mass of ugly cables which you need to hide or risk the cat getting tangled in them.

If you want decent sound but like to keep things neat, tidy and feline friendly then the answer is a soundbar that sits below the screen. LG has released a new take on this with its SoundPlate LAP340, a sleek 35mm high device with wireless connectivity that sits under your TV stand but still packs a powerful 4.1 channel punch with dual subwoofers.

Nobody has yet had the hands on – or should that be ears-on? – time to do a full review but initial impressions seem positive. Whilst comparing the device to a large ice cream sandwich (not sure where you get your black ice cream, guys) Trusted Reviews said, “In the noisy showroom floor, the Sound Plate cranked up to maximum volume delivers a satisfyingly powerful grunt of sound. It was so loud and powerful that it managed to knock the remote sitting on top of the Plate out of its display stand.”

It’s natural to worry when standing your pride and joy widescreen TV on top of another box but they didn’t think there’s be a problem, “The 55-inch LG TV on its metal stand looked secure on the system and didn’t show any noticeable signs of strain from the weight of the television.”

Trusted Reviews summed up their preview saying, “It’s a great speaker solution if you don’t have space to mount a soundbar on the wall or room for a separate subwoofer. Most importantly, it has the sound performance to match the chic, minimalist, space-saving design home cinema enthusiasts will surely love.”

What Hi-Fi? was impressed by the wireless capability, “The LG SoundPlate can be connected to the TV wirelessly (handy if your telly is wall mounted), or using a single cable if you prefer a wired connection. Bluetooth is included as standard so users can stream audio from smartphones, laptops and tablets to the SoundPlate.”

Gizmodo too seemed to be worried about how well the unit would cope with larger sets, “The Sound Plate is 35mm high and is designed to hide underneath a flat-screen TV up to 55-inches in size. Anything larger and presumably the base will be too wide, and the TV too heavy.”

LG claims that the SoundPlate automatically adjusts its mode, “to make every line of dialogue on the user’s favourite news and entertainment shows easier to hear…” Good news for those who complain that you can’t hear the actors for the background music. Whilst at the same time its movie mode offers, “convincing” surround sound.

Due out later this month with a price tag of £349 the SoundPlate looks like it could be a tempting piece of kit.

Name that BluTune: Roberts launch Bluetooth radio range

roberts-blutone-range

Hundreds of stations and not a thing worth listening to: Even the shift from FM to DAB couldn’t help us avoid the nasal, cheesy, over-enthusiastic, often-egotistical tones of presenters playing the same 10 soulless songs every hour.

Sound familiar? Well let’s say goodbye to the fake cheery chat and start taking over the airwaves ourselves!

Don’t worry, Latest Gadgets isn’t suggesting you climb up a high-rise tower block with a ropey aerial and set up a pirate channel. Oh no, we’ve got something much safer and more convenient than that. Besides, we haven’t got a decent collection of jungle records and we’re scared of heights.

Roberts are joining the likes of Sony, Sandstorm and Samsung with BluTune, a range of cool-looking Bluetooth enabled radio devices. No high-rise towers, no law-breaking, no fuss – as long as the radio is within a 10metre range of your laptop, or smart device you can be the DJ and play whatever you like, whenever you like completely wirelessly.

Complete with full FM/DAB/DAB+ functionality, all you need to do is activate the Bluetooth mode, it will recognise your player and will stream the music seamlessly. And in good quality, too.

Other functions in the range include a USB port for smart device charging, auxiliary input for iPod or MP3 playback, station pre-sets, two alarm settings, FM RDS display, mains AC adapter and a headphone socket (in case your family consider your selections to be worse than the professionals!)

Price-wise the range goes from £80 to £199.99, let’s take a quick look at each one:

blutone-40

Blutune 40: The entry-level, baby model, it’s compact, it’s bijou, it offers all of the functions listed above and it’ll look nice on any work surface or bedside table.

blutone-50

Blutune 50: The slightly cooler bigger brother of the Blutune 40. Why is it cooler? Because it has a 2.1 speaker system so it sounds better, that’s why.  This one will cost you £99.

revival-blutone

Revival Blutune: In-keeping with the ‘family’ metaphor, the Revival is the stylish yummy mummy of the Blutune clan. She might not sport the 2.1 speaker system but her retro 1950s finish, 120 hours of battery life, classic rotary tuning controls and larger LCD display more than make up for it. Complete with a carry handle, you can pick her up for £199.99.

roberts-blutone

Blutune: The daddy, if you will. There’s no retro styling here. Just a timeless beatbox boasting the range’s largest 2.1 speaker system, it offers all of functions we’ve already listed plus a whole load more volume. And a remote control. In case it’s too loud you can’t actually get close enough to switch it off manually. Like the Revival, this flagship model will cost £199.99.

Samsung’s S9C (Curved OLED TV) Gets UK Launch

samsung-s9c-oled-tv

Looks like a 55” Pringle, actually a telly. Say hello to the Samsung S9C.

The brand’s first ever curved OLED TV – and the world’s second ever curved OLED set, following LG’s 55EA980V – the S9C is already available in Korea, parts of Europe and the US. From September 5th, it will be available in the UK.

Perhaps the largest TV-shape revolution since widescreens emerged 15 years ago, the curved design takes the lead from IMAX technologies. Mirroring the natural curvature of your eye, the idea is the screen creates more depth, allowing for a more immersive, cinematic experience. Close your eyes and you can smell the popcorn. No wait, don’t close your eyes… You’re watching the TV.

Of course it’s not just about the striking design and screen shape, the S9C has loads to boast about… Being OLED, the pixels are self-emitting. There’s no need for backlighting or colour filters and the screen’s contrast ratio is top of the range, creating more true-to-life colouring and allowing absolute blacks to grace our screen for the first time (unless you have one of the aforementioned LG 55EA980Vs of course).

There’s more; the S9C is the very first TV to offer Multi View functionality. Ever been frustrated with your partner’s viewing choice and don’t want to wait to watch your chosen show or film later? Then you’re in luck; the 55” screen can be split to show two full HD screens!

Sound clash not included; just don the 3D glasses… They come complete with full stereo speakers, allowing you to tune into your own chosen content (3D or conventional HD) and completely ignore the viewer sitting beside you.

Naturally with this type of functionality the S9C is full smart-enabled with categories for on demand programs, movies, social networks, applications, photos, videos and music. There’s also a platform for hard and software updates. What’s most interesting about the smart functions is Samsung’s own S Recommendation feature. Exploring your viewing data, it makes suggestions on other content that suits your tastes and habits.

Samsung haven’t given any prices with their announcement but, based on prices elsewhere in the world, the S9C is rumoured to go for about £6500-7000. Steep? Possibly, but not over the top considering the technology at play, plus that it’s almost £1000 cheaper than its LG competitor.

Whether the curved revolution will truly take over the TV world remains to be seen; certain tech commentators have been quick to call the shape ‘gimmicky’ and have highlighted the fact that if you’re not sat directly in front of the screen the curve will actually detract from the experience. But at a cool 55” inches, there’s plenty of space to fit all of my family. And two screens to keep us happy, too.

Review Roundup: Beats Studio by Dr. Dre

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You can trace the resurgence in the popularity of over-ear headphones back to the release of Dr Dre’s Beats Headphones in 2008. Due to some expert marketing the bulky headphones suddenly became the must-have fashion accessory for footballers, celebrities and the world’s most successful hip hop producer, Dr Dre.

Four years later, Beats has finally decided to re-imagine their flagship headphones – so how do the company’s new Studio Beats compared to the original Studio HD headphones? Well, quite well actually. Beats have tried to address several of the flaws that plagued the original design. Having owned two pairs, I know first-hand where the last headphones fell down compared to the competition.

First of all, Beats thought that having battery-powered headphones was a good idea. But in practice it was one of their biggest flaws. There’s nothing worse than getting on a plane or a train to find out you’ve forgot to turn them off, and you’ve drained the batteries. Now, you might think that’s fine: they’ll still work just minus the noise-cancelling tech, right? Well you’re wrong, with no juice they’re rendered completely useless and for the £269 price tag that’s almost unforgivable.

This time around the company has looked to improve this situation with the inclusion of a 20-hour rechargeable battery, which powers the headphone’s adaptive noise cancelling technology, now as soon as you unplug the headphones from your device they shut down completely.

Beats have also gone to great lengths to make their flagship cans as light as possible, shaving 13% off the total weight, which makes them a lot more comfortable during prolonged listening periods.

Despite the eye-watering price tag, and the word “studio”, Beats’ headphones should never be let near a studio, let alone a music producer – this is because they’re famed for being incredibly inaccurate when it comes to sound reproduction. Beats’ headphones are notoriously bass heavy, incredibly punchy and while that might turn some audiophiles off there’s no doubt they sound relatively impressive despite the woeful sound accuracy. The decision to go bass-heavy is Beats’ realisation that your average music fan is listening to crappy mp3s where quality takes a back seat to overall audio fidelity.

The decision by Beats to continue to utilise noise-cancelling tech is once again a double-edge sword; at its best it can pretty much cancel out, say, the drone of an aircraft engine. But at worst it requires power and if you haven’t got any left you’re essentially left with a rather expensive headband.

And that’s the main problem with Beats’ Studio headphones; they’re less about audio fidelity and more about a fashion statement – if you want highly accurate headphones we’d recommend you checking out some other headphones, but if you want to make a fashion-statement then Beats headphones offer a premium price alongside solid branding.

Here’s what some of our fellow critics had to say about the Studio headphones:

“What is irritating is the hiss you get with the Studio’s active noise-cancelling technology.  That hiss is cranked up a notch when there is no music being played through the headphones, which means that the Studio can’t be used to just provide some peace and quiet on things like a noisy aeroplane.” – DigitalSpy

“The Beats Studio are fine-sounding headphones, but they don’t have the qualities that separate a good £100 headphone from a good £270 one. The Beats Studio improve upon their predecessors with simpler active noise cancellation and a more streamlines design. They’re enjoyable headphones, but thanks to a few sound issues we’d recommend checking out a few other sets for becoming part of the Beats brigade.” – TrustedReviews

“There’s another port to be aware of: the micro USB port is an essential as this is where the headphones need to connect to charge up their built-in battery. That’s right, they’re not passive so you’ll need to juice up these cans to listen to your favourite beats. That’s better than the lesser-lasting AAA batteries of the original model, and while a full charge claims to deliver 20-hours of audio – we’ve run them non-stop and, fresh out the box on first charge at least, the time claim rings true – outside of the charge and it’s audio out. Radio silence. Nada. Zilch.” – Pocketlint