Logitech’s Ultimate Ears Boom Speaker

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Portable Bluetooth speakers line the virtual shelves of tech shops up and down the internet, each with an almost identical feature set and very little to help recommend itself over another. There are two choices to manufacturers hoping to enter such a crowded product category. One is get lazy, knock out a product with your brand on it and sit back, comfortable in the knowledge that people with probably by some, just through the sheer volume of numbers.

Fortunately Logitech have taken the road less travelled with the Ulimate Ears Boom. The UE Boom is a can-shaped 360º speaker with a lovely textured design and sounds as good as it looks.

The speaker packs dual performance drivers and dual passive radiators and is impressively loud and clear across all frequencies, albeit with some loss in the low end. For something so dinky (it reminded me of a beer can) it’s impressive how it can really fill a room – without distorting. Another cool feature that I was fully onboard with is the ability to pair with another Boom for wireless stereo sound – although this isn’t a cheap device so the idea of buying two just for this unlikely. If however you and a friend share the same device it’s nice to be able to join forces.

The Boom has a wonderful textured feel and great, clear cut design – I was a big fan of the huge volume control buttons that adorn the side. The look of a speaker isn’t normally crucial, but seeing as it’s designed to be popped in the middle of the room it really helps that it’s easy on the eye. The little hook at the top that enables you to dangle the speaker was also useful – significantly widening your placement options. You can also unscrew the hook and attach the Boom to a tripod – if you have a Gorrilla Pod you can then hook the Boom up to a beam or tree branch and have crazy overhead sound fun – especially if you’ve made a wireless stereo pair.

Again combining form with function, the colourful acoustic skin has a plasma coating that makes it water and stain resistant. And with 15 hours of battery life it’s more than ready for all but the longest of park jams. The lack of buttons, power, pair and volume makes it easy to use, especially when you’re at ease and don’t feel like fiddling.

Available now for £169 from ultimateears or Apple.

iBean & iTagua: The World’s First Cybotanic Music Players

itagua-ibean

Even in the stormiest of brainstorming sessions at the most innovative of tech companies, it’s hard to imagine someone looking at a baked bean and an iPod and wondering to themselves why the two have been kept separate for so long. Well, it might not be a baked bean exactly, but this week, London based Cybotanics Ltd have launched a funding drive on Kickstarter for their first product. The world’s first ‘lossless’ digital audio music players housed inside natural and Amazonian sustainable beans and nuts from Columbia.

As we enter an era of heightened awareness, both in relation to how we treat the environment and the social impact of what we consume, technology is one area society often turns a blind eye to. Much of what we use is mass produced and is constructed using plastics and similar components which we know are not sustainable, but we let it slide, because our gadgets enhance our lives. The iBean and iTagua are the world’s very first digital audio music players, designed using sustainably gathered, whole natural botanical casings from the Amazon Rainforest. They are the first in a series of products planned by Cybotanics over the next year.

However, it’s not just the environmental benefits which make these products so appealing. Jim Campbell, Managing Director of Cybotanics Ltd. says;

“No two products are alike, each and every iBean and iTagua digital music player is a natural botanical wonder, skilfully fused with a cutting edge audio heart. Every single product is an individual work of art sculpted by nature.”

Whilst it’s great news that we have forward thinking companies seeking to begin an environmental revolution, it’s essential that whatever music player you have in your pocket is up to the job. The iBean and iTagua, as you might expect from a small device offer either 2 or 4GB of storage. However, the company is promising far better sound quality than you typically find from a digital music player, by using ‘APE’, a new form of lossless compression. While the devices will play your existing MP3s, your MP3 files sacrifice quality, to save space; APE files will always sound exactly the same as a CD, whilst taking up substantially less space.

You might not be ready to give up on your iPhone, but if you do want good quality music on the go and don’t want to carry a chunky device around with you; or if you are after something environmentally friendly and individual, Cybotanics may soon have the product for you.

If you want to support the project, visit Cybotanics’ Kickstarter page.

Google’s Chromecast Review Roundup

Google Chromecast

Last week Google released a HDMI dongle called Chromecast, a week later the entire tech fraternity are still talking about it – so what is it and why is it so important?

Basically Chromecast is Google’s answer to Apple’s Airplay, but with a few added bells and whistles. Designed to be cheap (just $35), and simple to use: all you have to do is plug a Chromecast into your HDTV and you can watch content from a range of apps on your TV. As well as that you can also send tabs from Google’s Chrome web browser and beam them onto your TV, whilst using your device – whether it’s a phone, tablet, or computer – as the controller.

To get it going is fairly simple: plug the dongle into a HDMI port, then you need to either plug the dongle into a power source, or alternatively you can power the device via a spare USB port you might have on your TV. Once you’ve done that you need to download the Chrome Extension, then the Chromecast setup app and then, finally, connect the dongle to your home Wi-Fi network.

Once setup is complete you can start sending content from your device of choice to your TV. When you hit the Cast button in a supported app, the Chromecast directly connects to the Internet and streams the video itself, rather than streaming the content from the device. At the moment the only apps that have a cast button are Youtube, Netflix, Google’s various Play media apps.

If you have a smart TV, media player or games console, all of this functionality might not seem like that much of a revelation. But what you’re actually paying $35 for is the ability to simply put content from your laptop, PC, phone or tablet onto you TV. And when it works, it works really well.

With the Chrome Extension you can load your favourite video content and beam it to your HDTV at the press of a button, then you can use your device as the controller. Google says the tab casting feature is still beta, and it kinda shows. High quality video playback isn’t perfect, with dropped frames and audio lag often ruining playback at times, and if you’re computer has seen better days then you might notice lag between controller and screen.

chromecast-dongle2

What have our fellow critics had to say about Chromecast?

“Could a small, plastic stick really deliver the type of functionality that so many other companies have failed to fully implement and utlilise? […] Once you select the Cast button in either app, Chromecast will play the video files while your device becomes the remote control. Since Chromecast is doing all the work, you can play with your device while watching TV. This means you can open and close apps and switch between tabs without disrupting your video. This also means you can switch platforms. For instance, when casting Netflix on Android, you could switch to iOS and continue managing your Netflix without a hiccup. To manage the currently streaming video, such as hitting rewind or pause, you have to use the original app (ie, Netflix, YouTube, etc) from which you “casted” the video. Google could easily circumvent this hassle by implementing playback buttons to Chromecast set-up app.” – Pocket-Lint

“The Chromecast basically offers two ways to get content onto your TV: from apps that support it directly, or by “Casting” content from the Chrome browser. […] It works well, for the most part. We had a couple of glitches at times, but 720p video streamed cleanly and there’s the option for 480p or 1080p depending on what headroom your network has. Switching between Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play takes a couple of seconds, no more frustrating than regular source-jumping on your TV.” – Slashgear

“Chromecast provides a much-needed low-cost means for migrating towards streaming services that immediately renders most of the recent advances in Smart TVs obsolete. […] The fact that Chromecast communicates directly with the cloud server means that once I load up a video, I can continue using my phone or tablet for other stuff without disrupting the movie. I can also queue up additional media directly to the TV so my mobile device doesn’t burn through its battery pushing the data from Netflix’s servers to the TV.” – Gizmodo

If you’re looking for a wireless solution to get your content from device to TV then Google’s Chromecast is a no-brainer for the price. Cinephiles would argue that the quality will never beat a traditional HDMI, and while that might true that’s not the point. Chromecast is all about convenience, and if Google can gets enough app developers onboard it could be a watershed moment for Google and it’s plans for the future of the TV, which so far haven’t exactly been all that great.

Hands on With Sony Vegas Pro 12

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Regular visitors will know that when we’re not writing about gadgets, we’re busy filming them for our YouTube channel. Over the years we’ve experimented with a variety of video editors and for the last few months we’ve been checking out Sony Vegas Pro 12 – which is aimed at the professional end of the market. We imagine it could also be an attractive choice for those have outgrown Sony’s Movie Studio and who don’t want to start from scratch with the likes of the more expensive Premiere Pro or Final Cut.

If, like us, you are new to Sony Vegas Pro (SVP), then it can all be a little overwhelming at first. As soon as the software loads, it’s immediately apparent that you’ve stepped up a gear (or three) in terms of features and complexity when compared to the more consumer level products such as Power Director and MAGIX Movie Edit Pro – both of which compete more closely with Movie Studio.

Sony Vegas Pro 12 largely focuses on further improvements to software’s workflow. There are over 20 changes in this area alone, including an expanded edit mode. This enables you to see ‘in’ and ‘out’ frames via a split-screen preview and there’s also the ability to identify unused, available frames from within the timeline.

Expanded import options
Expanded import options

Proxy editing has also been introduced. When full frame rate playback is difficult to achieve, this “Smart Proxy” feature will automatically and dynamically replace clips on the timeline with high quality, edit friendly HD proxies. As you’d expect, the software still uses the original media files to ensure a high quality final render.

Another workflow improvement is the ability for users to hold the shift key (for trim) or ctrl+alt+shift (for adjacent trim) while dragging an event edge to quickly ignore event grouping – this allows for fast “J” and “L” cuts.

Similarly handy are the new rectangle/square and circle/oval masking tools which make it easier to mask sections of your media. FX masking is also available which, by masking an effect rather than the image itself, enables you to easily blur or pixelate an area of a video clip – handy for those situations when you want to obscure a face, logo, etc.

New Color Match plugin
New Color Match plugin

There are a number of new plugins, including “Color Match” – which enables you to match the colour characteristics from one clip to another. Using this same technology, there is also the new LAB Adjust plugin which takes advantage of the L*a*b colour standard to provide precise control over the colour characteristics of your content.

Those looking to swap to Vegas Pro from other editors will appreciate the “Project Interchange” feature. As you may have guessed from the name, this enables you to exchange projects between SVP and other popular video editors. The conversion engine currently supports Final Cut Pro 7, Final Cut Pro X (albeit export only), Avid Pro Tools 10 as well as Premiere Pro and After Effects CS6.

Having produced a number of videos that feature colour effects, titles and transitions – we still feel that we’ve only just scratched the surface of what SVP has to offer. That being said, I’ve always preferred to have too many tools and plugins rather than be left wanting. The learning curve, while pretty steep, is certainly achievable and that’s coming from someone who has mainly dabbled with more consumer level products in the past. Within a few days of playing around (and regular use of the undo button), I quickly found myself appreciating some of the “power” features which are often lacking in cheaper, slimmed down programs.

LAB Adjust plugin
LAB Adjust plugin

Some user reviews have identified various compatibility and stability issues, but we didn’t encounter any of these and, apart from a strange EULA acceptance “nag screen” each time we started the software, SVP was very stable and handled rendering and effects in its stride. For those interested in such things, our test system was  a Dell XPS 8300 (i7-2600, 8GB RAM) running Windows 8 Pro (64-bit) with a AMD Radeon HD 6800 series graphics card.

All in all, SVP 12 gets the thumbs up from us. It’s a powerhouse of an editor and this is reflected in its price. Those with a smaller budget and who can live without DVD Architect Pro and the ability to encode their audio in Dolby 5.1, may wish to check out the new “Edit” version of SVP 12 which comes in at around £180 cheaper. We’d recommend checking out this page on the Sony site which gives a handy comparison of the two Pro versions as well as the consumer-focused Movie Studio range.

Top 5 Car Stereos

Parrot-Asteroid-

It’s a rite of passage for any first-time driver to upgrade their car stereo, and with the proliferation of mp3s, streaming services and smartphones there’s never been a better time to buy a new car stereo to use with your new smart device.

Whilst car stereos haven’t changed all that much over the past 10 years, it’s safe to say the way we consumer music has. With this in mind it’s now really easy to stream music from your phone onto your car’s stereo, and with our top 5 car stereos you can all do of that and so much more.

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Pioneer MVH-350BT

The long-time car stereo experts Pioneer have recently released the MVH-350BT, which is specifically designed to play music stored on your portable devices for under £150. On the front there’s an illuminated USB and Aux-in gives your iPod, iPhone, or Android smartphone direct connection to your car speakers.

The system is fully Bluetooth-enabled so you can easily make hands-free calls and stream Bluetooth audio from your device, whether it’s iOS or Android.

The MVH-350B’s built-in amplifier is capable of a solid 50-watts across four channels. There are also 2 RCA pre-outs so you can hook up another stereo component, like a subwoofer for some extra kick. The only downside for the Pioneer is the lack of CD playback, which might be a deal breaker for some.

Pure-Car-Radio

Pure Highway H240Di

In-car entertainment manufacturer Pure has joined forces with Halfords to develop and manufacture a range of car stereos that will get you streaming music from your iPod or iPhone in no time at all.

The mid-range Highway H240Di costs £129, but for that you do get quite a lot of bang for your buck; it comes with digital DAB radio, traditional FM and AM tuners, and there’s connectivity for iOS devices via USB.

If you’re still using CDs as your main source of music, the head unit is compatible with a range of mediums including CD/CD-R/RW, CD/CD-ROM and MP3 CD/ USB playback. There’s also a clever bookmarking feature, which is perfect for listening to audio books on the commute to work. There’s an AUX input, and enough power to run four 45-watt speakers.

Pure-Highway-260dbi

Pure Highway H260DBi

Pure’s has also released Highway H260DBi, which costs a little bit more, coming in at £149. But for the extra £20 you get full wireless Bluetooth streaming and hands-free calling via Bluetooth, and an extra 5-watts across all four channels.

Drivers are able to safely make and receive phone calls via the Bluetooth receiver using the Highway’s controls and an external microphone to ensure the best call quality possible. Finally, you can also customise the button lighting to better suit your dashboard’s internal lighting.

Parrot-Asteroid

Parrot Asteroid

Newcomers to the in-car entertainment market Parrot offer the world’s first Android powered car stereo but for the added functionality you should expect to pay around £240.

The Asteroid is capable of running Internet applications and can access geo-location information via 3G and GPS. You can also listen to Internet radio stations and music streaming services too. Basically it’s like a fully-fledged Android tablet but for your car.

The Android-powered system comes with a decent sized 3.2-inch colour screen, which displays your phonebook, menus, music, playlists, album covers and Internet applications.

The Parrot Asteroid is compatible with an array of music sources whether it’s an iPod, iPhone, USB, SD card or Bluetooth wireless streaming. You can also access to your music via voice command; just say the name of the artist and the music will be launched automatically.

The Asteroid comes equipped with an impressive 55-watt MOSFET amplifier, spread across 4 channels. And there are subwoofer and 6xRCA preamp-outputs, too.

Thanks to a new technology called MirrorLink, it is now possible to bring smartphone apps directly to the screen of our car’s stereo. And, the new Sony XAV-601BT is one of the first systems to offer MirrorLink connectivity.

Sony-XAV

Sony XAV-601BT

The Sony XAV-601BT is a double-DIN audio-video center for your dashboard, so it’s quite a bit bigger than you standard head unit. There are a number of ways to enjoy music on the system whether it is via Sirius XM or Pandora, via the app control feature. There’s iPod compatibility, as well as Bluetooth, dual USB inputs and CD and DVD playback. The XAV-601BT comes standard with everything you could possibly want – except perhaps GPS navigation, but there is an added option for that too.

The main selling point of this is system is obviously 6.1-inch WVGA TFT touch screen, which is running a pin-sharp 800×480 resolution. The system is also Navigation ready – so you can add an optional TomTom satnav module and external GPS antenna for fast, accurate route planning. Passengers are also able to control the system with the Control App. For all this space-aged functionality expect to pay a not unreasonable £270.

Native Instruments Kontrol Z1: Unbeatable Precision

Native-Instruments-Kontrol-Z1

Having caught our attention with its recently released Traktor DJ app (free for a limited time), Native Instruments today released the world’s smallest professional mixer and audio interface, the Kontrol Z1.

The new controller takes the company’s new app and transforms it into a professional DJ system combining the best of a touchscreen with the unbeatable precision of a physical tactile controller.

Combined the recently released app (which is currently free on the App Store) and the Z1 controller you get a fully-fledged DJ system with headphone cueing, dedicated faders, filters, effects controls and crucially a 3-band EQ for each of the 2 channels.

Where the Z1 begins to make even more sense is the inclusion of an integrated 24-bit audio interface that dramatically improves the output sound quality to club-ready levels – all without interfering with Traktor DJs engineered touch interface.

The beauty of the Z1 is it gives users physical controls that complement the touchscreen controls on the app, all faders, filter, effects controls, and 3-band EQ are automatically mapped and synced to Traktor, giving aspiring DJs hands-on, physical control over their iPad or iPhone setups.

Kontrol-Hardware-and-Software

With the Kontrol Z1 added, Traktor DJ becomes a compelling tool for crafting credible live mixes, utilising the app’s looping, cueing and effects functionality to create professional mixes than can even be recorded within the app to be then shared with your fans and friends.

To use the Z1 with Traktor DJ does, however, require an AC adapter for power, meaning the possibility of using it anywhere are off the cards, but it has the added advantage of supplying power to your iPad or iPhone. So at least you know you won’t run out of juice mid-set.

If you want to use the Z1 as a MIDI controller and/or audio interface for other software, you can just open up Ableton Live or whatever you have, and the Z1 should be recognizable and configurable from the jump. We were able to map it to Live 8 using the software’s MIDI map function with no problem at.

The Z1’s cue section introduces channel headphone monitoring to iOS setups, allowing for track pre-listening – a first for any app-based mixing software. The inclusion of a professional 24-bit integrated soundcard delivers quality club-level sound without the need for an additional audio interface.

Traktor Kontrol Z1 is the world’s smallest professional mixer for Traktor Pro 2 too – perfect for intimate after-party gigs or any situation that requires both compact size and professional performance features.

Traktor Kontrol Z1 also comes with a license for Traktor LE 2 and connects to iPad and iPhone with the included 30-pin connectors. For those of you who have the Lightning connector devices you’ll need to pick up the Lightning adaptor which is sold separately unfortunately.

Traktor Kontrol Z1 is available at retailers worldwide and at the NI Online Shop for $199 / 199 € / 20,800 ¥. ??All Z1 customers receive a personal $50 / 50 € e-voucher, which is? delivered by email upon registration of the Z1 hardware.

Bayan Audio Soundbook: Wireless Audio Dynamite

Bayan-Audio-Soundbook

I’ve seen more wireless music docks than I’ve had fish suppers, and I don’t think that my lifelong vegetarianism detracts from that statistic. Some, dare I say most, ellict a certain sense of ennui, but even I was excited to hear about the release of the Bayan Audio Soundbook – a small speaker powerhouse that brings something new to the table.

The 15W speaker uses aptX audio compression so the sound quality if far more detailed than certain larger speakers I’ve come across, with a decent level of bass as well. There’s also TDMA noise rejection to eliminate interference from other nearby electrical equipment.

The Soundbook is quite compact and designed to be neatly tucked into a bag and pulled out during picnics or camping trips. However it can also be used in the boardroom as there is an integrated microphone that allows for hands free conference calling (I’ve only ever done hands free conference calling in a board room).

The ballistic nylon cover also doubles as a stand and comes in Silver/Turquoise or Charcoal/Burnt Orange. But the cover also triples as an on/off switch so you simple close to preserve battery life and “open to play”.

The Soundbook uses Bluetooth 4.0, so can deliver 10 hours of streaming wireless music on a single charge. The Soundbook also has NFC paring so all the non-iPhone owning smartphone users can revel in one-tap ease of use. Of course AirPlay would be nice but the Apple-only streaming technology literally carries a premium.

The Soundbook also has an integrated FM radio with an invisible aerial. I grew up on Radio 4 so have a soft spot for the radio and am glad it’s included. DAB would be nice but if you’re pairing with a smartphone, you have access to most digital radio shows away.

Soundbook from Bayan Audio will be priced at £149.99 including VAT and will be available to buy at bayanaudio.com from 7th July 2013.

Top 5 DJ Controllers

Hercules-DJ-Control-Air

With the proliferation of mp3s the world of DJing has seen a seismic shift away from traditional forms of mixing to digital systems and controllers that solely work with digital music files. So it’ll come as no surprised to you that there’s a burgeoning market for low-cost easy-to-use DJ controllers that range from simple midi controllers to all-in-one systems – here are our top 5.

Hercules DJ Control AIR 2, price: £199

Hercules recently updated its popular DJ Control AIR range; the low-cost setup has been really popular for aspiring DJs who are on a tight budget of less than £200. The unique selling point of the DJ Control AIR + is it’s an all-in-one system – meaning you won’t need to fork out for a costly separate mixer.

The biggest change to the new AIR+ is it has increased size making a lot easier to use – crucial for any all-in-one DJ system. Other changes see both jog wheels increase in size to 5.9-inches, and they now both have 750 steps per turn – making scratching a lot more representative of a real vinyl player.

DJs are able to liven up their mixes with samples and hot cue points using the controller’s 8 touchpads, 4 per deck. Another clever touch is the harder you tap on each pad, the louder the playback volume. DJ Control AIR+ comes bundled with DJUCED, a new DJ mixing software that provides an adequate clone of Native Instruments’ Traktor.

XDJ-R1

Pioneer XDJ-R1, price: £859

Established hardware manufacturer Pioneer are also courting the all-in-one market with their newly announced XDJ-R1. This system is four times the price of the AIR+ – but for the money you get a system that wouldn’t look out of place in any of the world’s top clubs.

The controller features two decks (that work identically to the company’s much-love CDJs), there’s also: two CD slots, a full built-in mixer, two USB ports (allowing users to use the company’s Rekordbox software) – and a bulletproof set of ports and connections to supplement the system with extra CDJs and vinyl players.

Elsewhere you’ll find a bevy of beat effects, cross faders, EQs, filters and hot cues on the controller – just about everything you’d expect to see on professional club setup.
The XDJ-R1 can also be controlled wirelessly using Pioneer’s new Remotebox iOS app. The app allows users to browse music, mix tracks and even mash up tracks, all remotely using their favourite iDevice. The app can also be used to control an XY pad, crucial for professional sounding effects.

Ableton-Push

Push Controller – Akai, price: £429

While Ableton Live isn’t exclusively a performance tool, it does now have a brand-new performance controller called Push from Akai. The new controller doesn’t follow the design and look of a traditional DJ controller, instead Akai has taken it takes its design cues from its classic pad-based drums machines.

The Push controller essentially turns Ableton into a live instrument rather than being just another a generic midi controller – and, on the whole, it largely succeeds at this. Push immediately feels robust, mainly, due to Akai’s decision to give the controller a rubberised coating – making it perfect for DJs who do a lot travelling.

You can control almost any function of Live, so you can use the controller to navigate samples, launch tracks, play or step sequence drums, and you can even use it as a midi keyboard with fully pressure sensitive velocity pads.

Traktor-Kontrol-Z2

Native Instruments Traktor Z2, price: £500

Industry leaders in digital mixing, Native Instruments have also recently launched their latest all-in-one creation: the Z2. It’s another Traktor-centric MIDI controller that comes with a built-in audio interface, conventional analogue DJ mixer, a copy of Traktor Pro and Traktor Scratch Mk2 time encoded vinyl and CDs, for use with CDJs and vinyl players.

Like any good mixer, NI has kept the Z2’s hardware simple. It offers two channels, fed by either line or phono inputs, both with built-in Traktor Scratch decoders – so whether you use CDJs, turntables or even a laptop, the Z2 looks bring together the best of Traktor Pro and the tactile feel that only a phyiscal deck can provide.

The Z2 features two remix channels, meaning it fully supports Traktor’s recently released Remix Decks. Another great feature is the Allen and Heath-style filter knobs on each decks – making sweeping high and low-pass filters are incredibly smooth.

Pioneer-DDJ

Pioneer DDJ-WeGo, price: £249

Pioneer is also aiming to corner the budget DJ market, too, with its latest ultra compact DJ controller, the DDJ-WeGo. It enables DJs on a tight budget to get a professional DJ controller for under £300. Much like the Air+, the DDJ-WeGo is a two-channel all-in-one system.

Setting up WeGo is simple: just plug in a laptop and start up the software. The WeGO’s ergonomic controls and user-friendly interface make it easy for aspiring DJs to learn the ropes from the ground-up. But there’s also a range of advanced features from Pioneer’s professional products – such as Beat Sync, sound effects and loops, for DJs who want to get really creative. For the asking price you get a free copy of Virtual DJ that has the ability to perform music stored on a Windows PC or Mac.