A reality that can easily surface with Bluetooth headsets like the Apple AirPods range or the JBL E45BT that I just reviewed is that you may want to use them wirelessly with any audio device.
An example of this would include using a Bluetooth noise-cancelling headset like the Plantronics BackBeat Pro with the in-flight entertainment system during your flight but without dealing with headset cables that become tangled with your seat’s lift-up armrest or your seatbelt.
Or you work out at a fitness centre that uses an audio-distribution setup to pass TV sound or a workout-music mix to headphone jacks installed in the treadmills and similar machines so you can hear this sound through a pair of connected headphones. Here, you may want to use the Apple AirPods or your favourite lightweight Bluetooth headset to hear the TV audio or workout-music mix without ruining your headphones due to pulling on the headphone cable during that vigorous workout.
Similarly, you want to watch some late-night TV but don’t want to disturb other people who are sleeping. Here, using Bluetooth headphones with your existing TV equipment may be the dream come true because you could relax as comfortably as possible without worrying about that headphone cable connected between your TV and your headphones.
As well, you may want to use a Walkman device that plays legacy media like cassettes or CDs or a file-based audio player like an iPod to listen to music but maintain the cable-free manner associated with Bluetooth headphones.
Here, Twelve South have introduced the “AirFly” which is a compact Bluetooth audio adaptor that connects to any audio source equipped with the standard 3.5mm stereo headphone jack. This battery-operated device presents itself as a Bluetooth A2DP audio source device to stream the sound from the host device to your Bluetooth headphones.
The AirFly is being pitched as a companion accessory to Apple’s AirPod range of intra-aural Bluetooth headsets and is the same size as the charging case that comes with these headsets. But it can work with any Bluetooth headset or audio adaptor compliant to the Bluetooth A2DP target-device profile. As well, this size is catering to portable applications like travel, gyms and the like.
It uses an integrated rechargeable battery that is expected to run for eight hours and this was proven in the Engadget review when the reviewer used it with a pair of Apple AirPods on an eight-hour transatlantic flight.
The setup process is very simple through the use of push-button pairing. Here, you just have to press the setup button on the AirFly device for 10 seconds to make it discoverable. Then you put the headphones in to “pairing” mode as if to enrol them with a new device. After this procedure is complete, you are ready to connect the AirFly to the device you want to wirelessly hear through your Bluetooth headphones.
The AirFly can also be part of a multipoint setup if your Bluetooth headset supports multipoint operation which most recently-issued headsets do. This will mean that you can still monitor your smartphone for calls through your Bluetooth headphones while you are, for example, watching a TV program and listening to its sound through those same headphones.
A question that may come about with the AirFly Bluetooth audio adaptor is how it will perform with Walkman-type portable radios that rely on the headphone cable as their antenna when you use these radios as an audio source. Here, it may not be able to perform that antenna functionality properly thanks to the short cable that is supplied with it, therefore the Walkman-type radio may not pull in the radio stations properly.
But what is being shown up here is the idea of a highly-portable Bluetooth audio-source adaptor that can stream an audio source through any Bluetooth headset or audio device.
I am reviewing the JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset which is a Bluetooth-equipped follow-on for the JBL E30 headset that I previously reviewed. It is my first effort at reviewing a Bluetooth headset that JBL is positioning as one that is fit for general-purpose applications.
Supra-aural (sits on the ear)
Primary sound path
Microphone integrated in earcup
Commuting / street-use
Active Noise Cancellation
Music Transport (Bluetooth AVRCP)
Call control (Wired / Bluetooth HFP)
Voice Assistant (Wired)
Connection for main operation
Bluetooth 4.0 wireless
2.5mm 4-pole analogue jack
3.5mm headset cord
The headset itself
The JBL E45BT On-Ear Bluetooth Headset is capable of being a wired headset using an included wired-headset cable that has a built-in microphone and control button. Or it can become a standalone Bluetooth wireless headset when linked to your smartphone or computer via Bluetooth.
As far a storage is concerned, both of the earcups can be swiveled flat and parallel with the headband. This makes for compact storage in your briefcase, laptop bag or other personal luggage.
Connectivity and Functionality
The JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset honours the Bluetooth Hands-Free and A2DP / AVRCP application profiles thus allowing it to work as a headset for a communications device or a music-playback device compliant to these standards.
The remote-control buttons for the volume and call-management functions are on the right-hand earcup, but JBL could make the middle button which serves as a play/pause or call answer/end button have a different tactile feel so it is easy to identify quickly. You have to hold the volume buttons down until you hear a beep to activate track-skip functionality.
Volume / media-transport controls for Bluetooth, wired headset socket, Bluetooth pairing button
This control arrangement doesn’t allow you to start redialling a missed call or busy number or instigate a session with Siri or the Google Assistant using Bluetooth. But it provides what is essential to start and stop music, take calls, change tracks or adjust the sound.
Users can connect the JBL E45BT to the host device in a wired manner using the supplied headset cord, something that can come in handy if the headset’s battery had died out or you have to operate your mobile device on “flight mode” where you can’t use its wireless functionality. But you can’t enable Bluetooth operation while you are using the wired connection, which puts aside the idea of connecting it to a Walkman, portable radio or iPod while having it monitor your smartphone for calls.
Multipoint support for two devices
There is multipoint support so you can use one pair of these headphones with two host devices. One situation that this can cater for would be if you use two phones such as a personal phone tied with your own account and a work-supplied phone tied to your employer’s account. Or it could cater towards you using a smartphone and a laptop or tablet at the same time with the laptop or tablet being used with video content, music or games while you have the smartphone ready to answer calls.
MicroUSB charging port on left hand earcup
The setup procedure is relatively simple by you pressing the Bluetooth button on the headset’s right earcup to make it discoverable for the second source device then using the second device’s user interface to connect with the headset. In the case of a Windows-10-equipped laptop, you would use the Bluetooth menu in the Devices part of the Control Panel and click “Add A Device”. The headset will then be exclusively used by the second device.
Then your press the Bluetooth button again on the headset to make the headset discoverable and reconnect the original host device to the headset using that device’s user interface. Here, you have established a simple multipoint setup where whichever source device “comes on” plays through the headset. Phone calls or communications applications on each of the host devices that use the Bluetooth Hands Free Profile will always have priority over either device’s multimedia sources.
The multipoint functionality is destroyed if either device is disconnected but the JBL headset will normally re-establish this setup if you simply enable the connection again for both the same host devices.
The user-comfort level for the JBL E45BT headset is very similar to most of the recent supra-aural headsets in that they don’t feel heavy or hard on your head even after a long time of use. The vinyl-covered earcups don’t even become sticky when you use this headset on a hot day.
The JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset can handle strong bass response but you need to use equalisation at the source device to ramp up the bass and treble. Other than than it does well with music and similar content.
As well, it conveys a sound quality that doesn’t cause listener fatigue during extended listening.
Video and game content
I have watched a foreign-language European TV crime drama and had found that the voices come through intelligibly and clearly with the full weight. As well, the sound effects came through clearly and naturally especially with gunshot or vehicle sounds which will also matter with the games played by “core” gamers.
Communications on phone or computer
The JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset even works well for communications applications with the ability to hear whom I talk to clearly while they can understand me. It doesn’t matter whether it is the regular mobile-telephony use or through one of the various VoIP services. As well, it can handle soft-spoken callers or those with a distinct accent as well as those who are on a difficult connection.
Noise Reduction and handling of noisy environments
I assess headphones also to identify how they perform in noisy environments like on a bus or in an underground train. This is to assess how they would cope when being used to provide you with entertainment while travelling on public transport or whether they can even shut out a noisy environment so you can make that videocall or listen to some music.
The JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset doesn’t provide much in the way of noise reduction and you would have to make sure your program material or your phone’s call-volume setting was significantly loud if you want to have it compete in a noisy environment. This is something that would be expected for on-ear headphones.
Limitations and Points Of Improvement
One key feature that the JBL E45BT is mission out on is the ability to support a “press-and-hold” operation for the Play/Pause/Call button. This would provide access to voice-driven operation on smartphones that run a voice-driven personal assistant, or could allow the ability to use the headset’s buttons to redial the last call you made or a call you missed.
Personally, I would like to see the microUSB connection on a headset used not just for charging a Bluetooth wireless headset like the JBL E45BT. Here, I would like to see these devices implement the USB Audio Class and Human Interface Device classes so they can become a wired digital headset when connected to a host device using a USB or Apple Lightning connection. This could be seen as a way to provide high-quality digital audio from a laptop or newer smartphone especially where the 3.5mm audio jack is likely to be seen as being one the way out.
As for the battery, I would personally like to see it being user-replaceable so you can keep the headset going as a Bluetooth headset for a long time rather than throwing it away if the battery starts to die out.
JBL could provide support for concurrent “wired + wireless” operation so that the headset could work as a wireless headset for one device but as wired headphones for another device. A situation where this can come in handy is whenever you use a headset like this with a music player or portable radio for audio content and your smartphone for calls. This situation is underscored especially with portable FM or DAB radios that use the headphone cable as their antenna, but is also underscored if you are using legacy media like cassettes or CDs or are using a high-capacity digital audio player for your music.
Another issue still to be ironed out with the use of Bluetooth headsets is to allow you to manage calls from VoIP platform software like Facebook Messenger or Viber using the controls on these headsets. At least this should be about the call-control buttons to answer or end an incoming call, but it will be an issue that needs to be addressed by Apple and Google as part of developing their iOS and Android mobile operating systems.
The JBL E45BT represents what is feasible for a good-quality baseline “over-the-ear” Bluetooth headset. Here, I would recommend this headset as something to be after if you want a general-purpose headset to work with your smartphone, tablet or laptop.
The USB Implementers Forum are working on a project to achieve a reference design for USB battery chargers and power supplies in order to support fast charging or stronger power output.
The logo to look for
It is an extension of the initial USB Battery Charger specifications used for just about every smartphone charger but is extended to encompass USB Power Delivery which is being used to provide power to laptops. The goal is to be able to use USB PD chargers on all USB-C devices that support this power-intake path thus reducing e-waste and creating room for innovation when it comes to designing USB-based charging devices.
Here, it is based on the USB Power Delivery 3.0 standard but makes heavy use of the Programmable Power Supply function that is part of that standard. It allows for backward compatibility with existing USB devices that honour prior versions of that standard.
The idea of a Certified USB Fast Battery Charger as a logo-based certification program has been brought about due to the existence of poor-quality USB chargers and cables sold online or through a myriad of stories that are placing our devices at risk of being damaged. Here, it also allows customers to quickly identify power-source devices that will properly and safely provide the high current throughput in a vendor-independent manner, in a similar approach to how the Dolby symbol allowed us to identify the fact that a cassette player was able to play pre-recorded cassette tapes at the best quality or our favourite film was prepared with surround sound.
One of the desires also being raised in this certification process is the ability for host devices to implement authentication of cables and other devices and use this as a machine-level manner for verifying devices. The device-authentication feature is a goal that the USB Implementers Forum are intending to implement by this year’s end and is also appealing towards verifying that USB devices are what they say they are so as to protect against USB-borne computer attacks.
What is being achieved by the USB Implementers Forum is that there is a goal to permit fast charging of smartphones and laptops in a safe manner without having to be tied to a particular vendor’s accessories.
Apple and Google have put up a simplified Bluetooth pair-up approach for commissioning newly-purchased Bluetooth headsets and other accessory devices with host devices based on their mobile operating systems.
This approach has the Bluetooth device sending out a short range “beacon” to compliant host devices, causing them to pop up a notification inviting the user to instigate the pair-up procedure. Google even had the ability to invite users to download and install any companion apps for devices designed with the “app-cessory” approach.
It is rather than having the user head to the Bluetooth menu on their host device and to make sure they choose the Bluetooth peripheral device they intend to pair to. This can be arduous where Bluetooth device names appear to be very confusing such as to only show a model number or the device is being set up in an area where other Bluetooth devices are being setup to be discoverable such as “always ready to pair” default setups like Alpine car stereos.
Now Microsoft is working on similar functionality that will appear in the next or subsequent feature release of Windows 10. In this case, Windows users will have the ability to enable or disable this feature and the notifications will appear as pop-up messages.
.. to make these easy to set up
The Windows 10 host computer would need to be equipped with a Bluetooth interface compliant to Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy (Bluetooth Smart) standards for this function to work. It effectively makes the user experience for Bluetooth devices very similar to the “plug-and-play” experience that Microsoft achieved for peripherals directly connected to a Windows host computer.
Why would I suspect that a user be required to put a “fast-pair” Bluetooth device in setup mode?
One reason that I would see some manufacturers require a user to place a “fast-pair” Bluetooth peripheral device in a setup mode or specifically enable this feature on that device would be to conserve battery runtime on a portable device. Here, having a device broadcasting the beacon signal all the time may be taking power away from the device’s main functionality thus shortening the battery’s runtime.
It could also be a device security requirement to cater for environments where multiple compliant host devices are likely to exist and you want to make sure that your accessory device isn’t ending up pairing to someone else’s host device. It is an important issue with health and allied devices like fitness bands which work with your smartphone and these devices are dealing with very personal information. This can also be a user-experience issue regarding pop-up notificatiosn for other users’ devices.
What is showing up now is that a simplified user experience is being made available whenever you are commissioning a newer Bluetooth device.
Google has answered the setup method that Apple has implemented for their AirPod wireless in-ear headset by implementing a software-driven “quick-pair” setup that will be part of Android.
This method, called Bluetooth Fast Pairing, works on Android handsets and other devices that run Android 6.0 Marshmallow onwards and have Google Play Services 11.7 or newer installed and support Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy (Bluetooth Smart) connectivity. You will have to enable Bluetooth and Location functionality in your handset, but you don’t have to look at Bluetooth device lists on your smartphone for a particular device identifier to complete the setup process.
Click or tap this image to see Google Fast Pairing in action
It is meant to provide quick discovery of your compliant Bluetooth accessory device in order to expedite the setup process that is involved with new devices or to “repair” Bluetooth connections that have failed. This latter situation can easily occur if data in the device regarding associated Bluetooth devices becomes corrupted or their is excessive Bluetooth interference.
The user experience will require you to put your accessory device like a Bluetooth headset, speakers or car stereo in to Bluetooth-setup mode. This may simply be through you holding down the “setup” or “pair” button till a LED flashes a certain way or you hear a distinct tone. On the other hand in the case of home and car audio equipment that has a display of some form, you using the “Setup Menu” to select “Bluetooth Setup” or something similar.
Then you receive a notification message on your Android device which refers to the device you just enabled for pairing, showing its product name and a thumbnail image of the device. Tap on this notification to continue the setup process and you may receive an invitation to download a companion app for those devices that work on the “app-cessory” model for extended functionality.
Google implements this by using Bluetooth Low Energy “beacon” technology to enable the device-discovery process. This is similar to the various beacon approaches for marketing and indoor navigation that are being facilitated by Bluetooth Low Energy, but they only appear while your accessory device is in “Bluetooth setup” mode.
The Google Play servers provide information about the device such as its thumbnail image, product name or link to a companion app based on a “primary-key” identifier that is part of the Bluetooth Low Energy “beacon” presented by the device. Then, once you tap the notification popup on your Android device, the pairing and establishment process takes place under Bluetooth Classic technology.
I see this also as being similar to the various “Plug And Play” discovery process implemented in Microsoft Windows and Apple MacOS whenever you connect newer peripherals to your computer. This is where Microsoft and Apple keep data about various peripherals and expansion cards that are or have been on the market to facilitate installation of any necessary drivers or other software or invocation of class drivers that are part of the operating system. For Google and the Android platform, they could take this further with USB-C and USB Micro-AB OTG connectivity to implement the same kind of “plug and play” setup for peripherals connected this way to Android devices.
This system could be taken further by integrating similar logic and server-hosted databases in to other operating systems for regular and mobile computer platforms to improve and expedite the setup process for Bluetooth devices where the host device supports Bluetooth Low Energy operation. Here, I would like to see it based on the same identifiers broadcast by each of the accessory devices.
The Bluetooth Fast Pairing ability that Google gave to the Android platform complements NFC-based “touch and go” pairing that has been used with that platform as another method to simplify the setup process. This is more for manufacturers who don’t have enough room in their accessory device’s design to provide an NFC area for “touch-and-go” setup thanks to very small devices or where NFC doesn’t play well with the device’s aesthetics or functionality.
It may be a point of confusion for device designers like Alpine with their car stereos who place their devices in “discoverable” or “pairing” mode all the time so you can commence enrolling your accessory device at your phone’s user interface. Here, the device manufacturer may have to limit its availability to certain circumstances like no devices paired or connected, or you having to select the “Bluetooth” source or “Setup” mode to invoke discoverability.
At least Google have put up a way to allow quicker setup for Bluetooth accessories with their Android platform devices without the need to build the requirement in to the hardware.
– Bluetooth circum-aural closed-back noise-cancelling headset
A trend that will be surfacing with the voice-driven personal assistants is that the speaker or headset device doesn’t need to be directly connected to a home network to access the Internet.
Here, some of these devices will connect to a computer or mobile device via Bluetooth or a similar technology but work in an “app-cessory” manner with a vendor-supplied app. Here, this app will serve as a gateway to a voice-driven personal assistant platform which can be hosted natively or through an add-on app, with this function activated through a dedicated button on the audio accessory device.
The first example of these is the Bose QuietComfort QC35 II which is an active noise-cancelling over-the-ear headset, but this setup will also appear with more headphones products from Bose. In this case, the headset connects to the smartphone via Bluetooth and works with a Bose-supplied control app but works hand in glove with the Google Assistant app, available for Android and iOS.
But all audio accessories should be able to work with Siri, Google Now, Bixby and Cortana
There is a special button on the Bose QuietComfort headset that is mapped by the control app to trigger Google Assistant while messages that come in are read by Google Assistant in a text-to-voice manner. You will expect the Google Assistant to do what it can including providing voice-driven access to resources. This is while the headset is optimised to work at its best with voice recognition even when faced with noisy environments like public transport.
As I was highlighting in the last paragraph, such devices will be acoustically optimised for error-free voice recognition, preferably with the chosen platform. One method that will be commonly used would be to implement a microphone array that uses the multiple microphones to focus on the user’s voice.
This will be augmented with dynamic sound enhancement for the voice-driven personal assistant platform so that you can hear the personal assistant clearly when it replies.
But could these headphones and speakers be seen as a gimmick when any wired or Bluetooth headset can work with your mobile platform’s integral voice assistant without the need for any extra software? This is where you can, for example, dwell on the “call” button on your headset to invoke Siri or Google Now, then interact with that assistant to make a call or send a message for example.
Personally, I would just like to see the voice-recognition abilities of an audio accessory improved so that they can work with whichever voice-driven personal assistant you use. This would be in the form of something like microphone arrays or something similar, along with a standard function mapping for voice-assistant buttons. Similarly, audio adaptors and wearables like smartwatches and fitness bands could be focused towards supporting the “visual component” of voice-driven personal-assistant platforms by showing visual information on their displays that augment the voice-driven experience.
Any of you who have used Bluetooth headsets with your smartphones may have come across situations where the headset ceases to function or sounds the “low battery” signal when you use these devices a lot. This can happen more so if you are listening to music then make or take a long phone call using the headset and is something I had experienced many times with the Sony SBH-52 audio adaptor. But the audio protocol is being worked on to avoiding consuming too much battery runtime.
.. as it could with Bluetooth headsets
Apple and Cochlear, who are behind the Australian-invented Cochlear Implant hearing-assistance technology, have developed Bluetooth Low Energy Audio to provide a high-quality audio link between mobile devices and headsets but make very little demands on the battery. As well, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group are working on a similar protocol to achieve these same gains, with the goal to have it part of Bluetooth 5.0. But this has to be supported in a vendor-independent manner in the same context as the current Bluetooth audio technologies that are in circulation.
But why is there an imperative to develop a low-energy audio profile for Bluetooth?
One key usage class is to integrate Bluetooth audio functionality in to hearing aids and similar hearing-assistance devices that are expected to run for a very long time. Here, we are also talking about very small intra-aural devices that may sit in or on your ear or be integrated in a set of eyeglasses. The goal is to allow not just for audio access to your smartphone during calls or multimedia activity but even to have an audio pathway from the phone’s microphone to the hearing-assistance device as well as the phone being a control surface for that device.
Similarly, there is a usage goal to improve battery runtime for Bluetooth headsets and audio adaptors such as to avoid the situation I have described above. It can also cater towards improved intra-aural Bluetooth headset designs or lightweight designs that can, again, run for a long time.
Let’s not forget the fact that smartwatches are being given audio abilities, typically to allow for use with a voice-activated personal assistant. But devices of this ilk could be set up to serve full time as a Bluetooth headphone audio adaptor with the full hands-free operation. The expectation here as well could even be to have the display on the wearable active while in use, whether to show the time, steps taken or metadata about the call in progress or whatever you are listening to.
Once audio over Bluetooth Low Energy technology is standardised, it could be a major improvement path for Bluetooth-based audio applications.
For those of you who run highly-strung USB audio hardware like pro-quality USB analogue-digital interfaces or those audiophile-grade USB digital-analogue converters, the latest version of Windows 10 offers something for you.
It is to provide native driver support for USB Audio 2.0, the second version of the USB Audio device class that handles sound over the USB bus. These audio devices work independently of the USB physical connection type therefore they could work with a USB 2.0 connection, the higher-speed USB 3.0 connection or the USB-C connection. This version can handle higher-definition master-grade audio beyond the 24-bit 96kHz digital-audio specification. It also can natively handle the DSD files that started off with SACD discs and are another way of distributing high-definition master-grade audio content.
This improvement to the USB Audio standard was supported natively by MacOS and Linux but wasn’t supported by Windows. Instead, people who wanted to get the most out of their USB DAC or USB audio studio hardware had to install a driver file that was supplied by the USB audio device’s manufacture, either through a CD or USB stick supplied with the device or something to download from their Website.
Now if your computer is running Windows 10 Creator’s Update, it will be a simple plug-and-play install process to have Windows Media Player or Tidal coming through that USB DAC. But this is facilitated through the Windows DirectSound or WASAPI software-hardware audio paths.
The drivers that will come with your device may offer a highly-strung experience such as to work via higher-performance audio APIs other than the two previously-mentioned paths. As well, they may offer a control panel that allows you to better manage how the sound is handled.
Similarly, there may be other drivers that map the USB audio device’s control surface to Windows 10 in a manner more consistent with the manufacturer’s functionality expectations for that device. Examples of this may include mixing desks and DJ consoles with media transport buttons.
For manufacturers who design highly-strung USB audio devices, there is less of a requirement to write up and maintain software drivers for these devices. This can same them money and focus their R&D efforts on improved sound quality.
Hooray! Your Windows computer now can work out of the box with that USB-connected premium audio device with the full sound-quality expectations.
If you have owned a Nikon digital camera, you may have dealt with the Ultra Accessory Connector (UAC) as a method to tether your camera to your computer for, perhaps, downloading. This would typically be facilitated using a USB to UAC cable that came in the box with your camera.
Apple is resurrecting this connector as part of its MFi (Made For iOS) accessories program for iOS devices. There was a lot of confusion in the computing press regarding this connector because it could be about a different socket existing on a subsequent iPhone or iPad, or devices and accessories not working unless “you get with the program” – be part of the Apple ecosystem.
But the Ultra Accessory Connector is about how its use as an intermediary or accessory-side connector on a pair of headphones. It is being called on because an increasing number of newer smartphones and ultraportable laptops won’t be equipped with the traditional 3.5mm headset jack where you can connect a wired headset.
There is also the same appeal where headphones will have integral digital-analogue audio circuitry and there has to he a way to connect these to your smartphone if you are going the “wired” path. It is something very familiar to those of us who use a USB headset with our computers or a Bluetooth headset or audio adaptor with our smartphones. Here, manufacturers will see better digital-analogue circuitry and / or sound-processing technology such as microphone arrays, accessory-side sound-tuning and active noise cancellation as a way to differentiate their product ranges more effectively and innovate their products.
It will still be feasible to keep a level playing field for headphones that use USB or other wired digital links.
The approach that is being pushed here is for a headset or pair of headphones to have the UAC connection as an accessory-side connection. Typically this will be as a “lump” on the headphone cable like what is used for remote control or a microphone, which comes apart. On the other hand, the most probable implementation for a pair of traditionally-styled “cans” would be a socket installed on one of the earcups similar to what happens for detachable-cord implementations. The headset would then be supplied with one or more application-specific connection cables that have a UAC-connector on the accessory side and the appropriate connector (Apple Lightning, USB-A, USB-C or 3.5mm phone plug) on the equipment side. There is also a goal to have such cables also available through the aftermarket thanks to accessory suppliers like Belkin.
The UAC connection is meant to facilitate a digital connection that works with USB or Apple Lightning norms along with the standard stereo analogue connection. Here, it means that an accessory cable can exist which has the traditional 3.5mm phone plug on it to allow use with equipment that still maintains this connection. This includes still being able to use the 6.35mm headphone jack adaptor to connect your headpbones to hi-fi equipment or the two-pin airline adaptor to plug in to your aeroplane seat’s in-flight-entertainment connection. It also encompasses the goal with the Apple Lightning and USB-C standards to provide analogue pass-through from equipment-side digital-analogue circuitry to cater for the cheaper headset designs.
In the digital context, this can mean that the sound processing circuitry can present itself to Apple’s iOS devices or “open-frame” USB Audio implementations properly as the equipment expects. Apple still sees this as being important because their newer MacBook laptops are being equipped just with USB-C connections and MacOS is still providing class-driver support for USB-Audio devices. But most other regular-computer and mobile operating systems are providing a similar level of support for USB Audio.
But what needs to happen in both camps is for proper operating-system-level support for audio input and output in both the communications and multimedia contexts, along with accessory-side remote control for call management, media transport control and volume control at least. It may also include the ability to use a basic display on the accessory to show information like current time, incoming calls and messages and media-play details, something that can earn its keep with in-line remote-control accessories.
The UAC connection type can lead to the idea of “feature modules” or “enhancement modules” that add extra functionality to or improve the sound quality of existing UAC headphones. For example, they could offer:
a highly-strung DAC circuit as an upgrade path for better sound quality with premium headphones;
a Bluetooth adaptor to add Bluetooth wireless functionality to a set of existing wired “cans”;
an advanced remote control with display so you can keep your device in your pocket;
or an extended-power module which allows you to use external battery packs to obtain long operating times out of your smartphone and advanced headset.
What the UAC connector that Apple is pushing for is the ability to headset manufacturers to continue to work on feature headsets that can work across all of the computing platforms. As well, I also see the UAC connector as a pathway to innovation because manufacturers will be encouraged to work on features that work across all phone platforms. This is more so as we invest in the premium headsets to go with our smartphones and computers so we can listen to music or watch those videos while we are on the train.
A very dominant usage case being highlighted for laptops and 2-in-1 computers is the creation of a fully-fledged workstation at your main workspace or game-playing space. This involves connecting the portable computer to at least one larger-sized screen along with a desktop-grade full-size keyboard and mouse. Such workstations may even be the place where you connect extra non-portable storage devices like USB hard disks or optical drives or connect to your network via a blue Ethernet cable rather than the Wi-Fi wireless connection for improved reliability.
USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 ports will be seen as the way to connect expansion docks, peripherals and the like to your laptop
The USB-C connector and its higher-speed variant, the Thunderbolt 3 connector have been valued as a way to provide a single-cable connection option between your laptop and the normally-sessile peripherals once you used an expansion module, commonly known as a docking station or dock. Here, you would connect all the peripherals to this expansion module then connect your laptop computer to that same device via USB-C or Thunderbolt. This is also underscored by a significant number of these devices being equipped with USB Power Delivery to power the portable computer from that same device, underscoring that “one cable to connect” goal.
Let’s not forget that some manufacturers are integrating this “dock” functionality in to some of their display monitors so that these screens are where you can connect your keyboard, mouse and external hard disk.
Lenovo had pitched the ThinkVision P24h and P27h monitors which have a qHD (2560×1440) display resolution and an sRGB high colour gamut “out of the box”. These monitors, with the super-narrow bezel, implement a USB-C connection to the host computer facilitating a DisplayPort 1.2 connection, the data connection, and a Power Delivery connection with a power budget of 45W, along with a four-port self-powered USB hub.
LG’s 32″ 4K monitor with HDR10
LG had teased a 32” 4K monitor which has the narrow bezel and can handle HDR10 video but also offer this similar USB-C connectivity and USB hub. They also tweaked the monitor’s integral speakers for that bit of extra “kick” from the bass. They also are pleasing the gamer clans by offering the UltraFine 34” 5K and 4K UHD gaming monitors with features like AMD’s FreeSync technology and 1ms motion-blur reduction.
Dell had advanced a range of monitors including the UltraSharp 32” 8K UHD model and the 27” Ultrathin monitor which has its electronics housed in its base. This monitor implements USB-C connectivity to the host along with a QHD display.
It’s not 4K resolution in this Dell 32″ monitor, it is 8K resolution
They even advanced the 24” Touch monitor with an integral 10-point touchscreen along with the 24” Video Conferencing Monitor which has an integral Full-HD IR Webcam that has a privacy shutter. This monitor’s camera also adds on support for facial-recognition login under Windows Hello while the sound is catered for with a pair of 5-watt speakers and a noise-cancelling microphone built in.
Dell’s slimline 27″ monitor with its electronics in its base
Even households aren’t left out with a range of monitors from Dell that are designed with aesthetics and high-grade on-screen experiences. For example, the Dell 24 and 27 monitors (S2418HX / S2718HX) implement the ultra-narrow-bezel design being implemented in most of Dell’s laptops and all-in-ones plus the ability to support HDR along with Waves.Maxx sound tuning.
For those of us who have a screen that currently “ticks the boxes” for our computing experience at our desks, most of the manufacturers are offering highly-capable Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C docks. Remember that you can daisy-chain 6 Thunderbolt-3 peripherals from the same Thunderbolt-3 bus, which can open up a range of possibilities.
For example, Lenovo and Dell are offering these expansion modules as part of their official accessory lineups. Lenovo’s contribution is in the form of the ThinkPad Thunderbolt 3 dock (US279) with video connectivity in the form of 2 DisplayPort, HDMI and VGA ports; 5 USB 3.0 ports; audio jack for those speakers; a Gigabit Ethernet port; and USB Power Delivery for the host computer with a power budget of 60 watts. There is a USB-C variant that offers similar functionality for computers not equipped with Thunderbolt 3 connectivity. But Belkin have previewed the Thunderbolt 3 version of their original Thunderbolt 2 Express Dock, which will have 3 USB-3 connections, 2 Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C connections, two audio connections, a DisplayPort video connection and a Gigabit Ethernet connection. This device can supply a USB Power Deliver power-demand of 85 watts, again reducing the need for extra power supplies for your computer.
In the last post I wrote about CES 2017, I had cited Zotac’s external “card-cage” graphics module which uses Thunderbolt 3 connectivity as a way to enhance their “midget PC” product. This isn’t the only product of its kind to appear at this show. MSI also premiered the GUS (Graphics Upgrade System) “card-cage” external GPU system. This is styled for gaming and is a refresh of their original GUS external graphics module that they launched in 2012, but implementing the Thunderbolt 3 standard. It has a 500W power supply and USB 3.0 Type-C and Type-A connections.
Beyond the docking stations or, should I say, expansion modules, there have been a few other computer accessories with one being of note in the form of a Kingston 2Tb USB thumb drive.
The home network
A key trend affecting the home network this year at the CES 2017 is the concept of distributed Wi-Fi wireless systems. This consists of kits that use multiple devices to spread the Wi-Fi network’s coverage over a large area. They have appeared because most householders have run in to issues with their home network’s Wi-Fi wireless segment not providing reliable wireless coverage everywhere in their house.
They are typically based on a single chipset and most of them implement a dedicated wireless backhaul between the slave devices and the master access point. A significant number of these devices implement a “mesh” topology where there is a “root” node that works as a router along with multiple access point “nodes” that connect with each other and the “root” node to provide Wi-Fi coverage, using multiple backhaul connections for load-balancing, fail-safe operation and increased bandwidth. Other systems implement the traditional router and range-extender method with a single upstream connection but have a simplified setup method and properly-simple roaming between the access points.
The problem with these systems is that you have to use equipment that is offered by the manufacturer as part of that same system. This means that there isn’t any of the interoperability available which, at the moment, is stifling innovation.
Qualcomm launched their Wi-Fi mesh chipsets which can implement Bluetooth, CSRMesh and Zigbee also to support the “Internet Of Things”. The software is based also around a dedicated software framework and cloud-services. But these systems also support wired backhauls and multiple-hop mesh setups.
D-Link Covr router and wireless extender package
D-Link had premiered the Covr distributed Wi-Fi system which consists of a router and a wireless extender that implements the automatic setup and simplified roaming. For those of us with existing home networks, they also offered a Covr HomePlug system consisting of two wireless access points linked by a HomePlug AV2 powerline backbone. Another example that purely uses a Wi-Fi backbone is the NETGEAR Orbi which implements a router and a satellite extender device.
On the other hand, Linksys provided a true-mesh setup in the form of the Velop Wi-Fi system that implements multiple nodes. The Velop system even is able to work with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant such as controlling the guest Wi-Fi network or asking Alexa to quote your network’s credentials. Click or tap on this link to see a Linksys YouTube video which explains what Velop is about if you can’t see it below.
As well, Linksys have launched the WRT32X Gaming Router which implements the Rivet Networks Killer Wi-Fi chipset similar to what is implemented in the Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook. Here, it is optimised to work with client devices that implement the Rivet Networks Killer chipsets but is a 3×3 802.11ac MU-MIMO system that supports 160kHz bandwidth. There is also the EA8300 Max-Stream AC2200 Tri-band MU-MIMO Gigabit Router which is a more affordable device based on a 2×2 802.11ac three-radio design. Both these routers are equipped with Gigabit Ethernet for LAN and WAN (Internet) connections.
Linksys even offered a WUSB400M dual-band MU-MIMO 802.11ac USB wireless network adaptor as a way to retrofit your existing laptop or desktop computer for the new-spec Wi-Fi segments. This network adaptor connects to the host computer via USB 3.0 and can work at a 2×2 AC1200 setup.
What Linksys have been offering is a representative of another trend affecting the home network’s Wi-Fi segment where Wi-Fi network infrastructure hardware is working on a simultaneous three-band approach, operating on the 2.4GHz, 5.0GHz and 5.8GHz wavebands at the same time. As well, Wi-Fi repeaters are even being setup to implement the 5GHz bands as the preferred backhaul. Amped Wireless is another company also offering the three-band Wi-Fi network-infrastructure equipment in the form of a router and an extender.
NETGEAR Nighthawk S8000 Gaming And Media Switch – for the home network or home entertainment unit
NETGEAR’s not silent here with the Nighthawk S8000 Media Switch which is a media-optimised Ethernet switch implementing some of the quality-of-service technologies in their managed switches but optimised for household use. As well, this house-friendly switch can support functions like link-aggregation for increased throughput on supported devices like desktop computers and NAS units with two Gigabit Ethernet connections supporting this mode.
This is also intended to complement the Nighthawk X10 gaming and media router which has an integrated Plex Media Server for USB Mass-Storage devices connected to this router’s USB ports. It is also one of the first few home routers to offer 802.11ad WiGig (60GHz) same-room wireless network LAN segment capable of a throughput three times that of the fastest 802.11ac Wi-Fi network; along with the 802.11ac 4×4 MU-MIMO three-band Wi-Fi wireless LAN segment.
As well, there are 8 Gigabit Ethernet ports which can also support port-trunking for failover or high-throughput operation like the Nighthawk S8000 switch along with the WAN (Internet) side being looked after by a Gigabit Ethernet connection. The processing horsepower in this performance router is looked after by a 1.7GHz four-core CPU and it can support VLAN setups of the port or 802.1q tag variety.
Both these devices are pitched at “core” online and VR gaming enthusiasts with those hotted-up gaming rigs along with people who are in to streaming 4K ultra-high-definition TV content. But they can also earn their keep with those of us who run our businesses from home and want “big-business-grade” connectivity for IP-based communications or cloud computing.
Another trend that is surfacing is security-optimised broadband routers for the home network. These offer the “unified threat management” abilities associated with business-grade Internet setups but in a manner that appeals to the ordinary household. The latest from this class of network-Internet “edge” device is the Norton Core router. This device implements content-filtering and security software that is also focused towards the Internet-of-Things devices in your household due to the increased awareness of security risks and poor software maintenance practices associated with these devices.
The self-updating router works with Symantec’s DNS service to prevent DNS hijacks as well as implementing deep-packet inspection on unencrypted traffic to screen for malware and network intrusions. As for encrypted traffic, the Norton Core router will inspect packet headers for and connections of this traffic class. It also comes with Norton Core Security Plus endpoint-protection software which is a variant of the business-grade Security Premium endpoint software and can be run on 20 devices running either Windows, MacOS, iOS or Android but the router is dependent on this endpoint software for the full protection..
Lenovo Smart Storage home NAS
Most of the network-attached-storage units were focused on the “personal cloud” trend with the device being the centre of your data-storage universe while software and services work to locate these devices from afar. Similarly, some of them are using rich media servers which can do things like obtain further data about your media content. One of these devices is one that Lenovo launched called the Smart Storage 6Tb NAS which implements facial image recognition along with event-driven recognition to make it easier to identify and organise pictures of people just like what Facebook and Windows Photo Gallery were about. This unit has 802.11ac 2×2 Wi-Fi for portable use but can be connected to your home network via an Ethernet cable.
The next article about the 2017 CES will be highlighting the trends affecting home entertainment including the new smart TVs that will be showing up.