Sony WH-1000XM4 Bluetooth active-noise-cancelling headset – still relevant as we stay at home
When we see the likes of Bose and Sony launch new active-noise-cancellingheadphones during the time of coronavirus-driven isolation, we may think that headphones like these are totally irrelevant now.
Such thoughts will come across our mind when it comes to portable technology like laptop computers where it is seen as an unnecessary expense. It is as we see these COVID-19 stay-at-home requirements as a time of slowing down and contemplating the need for any perceived flamboyance.
This is because we aren’t travelling at all or travelling very infrequently as a measu re to reduce virus infection. But these headphones are still very relevant nowadays in some way even during the short term.
If you have heating or air-conditioning at home that becomes noisy during active operation, they can come in very handy.This may also apply to those of us with older desktop computers that have noisy fans as well.
Here, the operating noise associated with these devices can become annoying and distracting and these headphones can mask it out just like they can when it comes to transport noise. If you find that your equipment changes its operating noise level during use, usually in order to answer actual heating or cooling needs, you may find that change of noise level distracting. Again, the noise-cancelling headsets can come in to play here.
Even though the cities are quieter now, you may find that there is some excess noise from remnant vehicles moving around the streets past your place. Add to this people using tools powered by small engines such as during the weekends when most households are maintaining their lawns and gardens. Here, these noises can be very distracting especially if you are listening to podcasts or engaging in videocalls.
Over-the-head-type noise-cancelling headsets do perform well with music thanks to larger drivers that allow for improved bass. This may also be of benefit with other content like video content you watch through Netflix or similar video-on-demand services, or whenever you play games and you want that bit of extra punch on those sound effects.
There is also the fact that the COVID-19 plague will be tamed through the use of vaccines and medical treatments that are proven to be effective. It is in addition to better knowledge gained through experience on how to deal with particular outbreaks. Here, we may be then in a position to travel longer distances whether by land, sea or air. The noise-cancelling headphones will then come in to their own while you get back to travelling.
I would still consider active-noise-cancelling headphones very relevant for most people even through these uncertain times where we are at home more.
Sony has now raised the bar when it comes to the ideal set of over-the-ear Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones. This is with the fight that is going on between Bose, themselves and Bang & Olufsen to achieve the ideal active noise-cancelling headphone experience with their entry being the WH-1000XM3 headset.
This successor, known as the WH-1000XM4, follows on with what the previous model offers like Bluetooth (Hands Free Profile, A2DP, AVRCP) and the optimised active-noise cancelling. But the Bluetooth audio functionality has support for Sony’s codecs that permit playback of high-resolution audio along with audio optimisation for lossy compressed-audio files.
The active-noise-cancelling has been improved to increased useability in real-world scenarios. This includes optimisation of its functionality for situation-specific requirements like hearing transport announcements or background music played over the vehicle’s or aircraft’s audio setup.
There is even the ability to set the Sony WH-1000XM4 cans up to pause your music and admit ambient sound whenever you want to engage in conversation with other people. This can be done fully automatically when you start speaking or semi-automatically when you cap your hand over one of the earcups.
As well, you have touch control for your device so that you swipe in particular directions to switch tracks or raise and lower the volume or tap the headset to start and stop the music or answer and end a call. There is also a button that can be mapped for use with voice assistants or to manage the active-noise-cancelling function.
But Sony has improved on the multipoint functionality that allows the headset to work with two Bluetooth devices concurrently. Here, it switches automatically between the devices based on whatever audio signal is being offered by the device.
But by following the review chatter, Sony has been able to refine the successor to the WH-1000XM3 Bluetooth noise-cancelling headset in order to create the ideal product in this class. Who knows what the competitors will have in store when they revise their products.
Headphones and earphones can improve the sound quality during that Zoom video call
Increasingly most of you are taking part in a multi-party videoconference using Zoom, Skype or similar platforms as part of working or learning from home or keeping in the loop with distant relatives and friends. This has been driven by necessity due to the COVID-19 coronavirus plague and the requirement to stay home to limit the spread of this bug.
But you may find that your correspondents’ audio has that unnecessary echo or reverberation that can make the videocall sound fatiguing and awful. The excessive noise from the reverberation or echo may cause you also to speak louder as a means of dealing with a poor signal-to-noise ratio. As well it can also make a participant harder to understand especially if they have a strong accent that doesn’t cope well with poor signal quality.
… no matter the kind of headset you use like this JBL Bluetooth headset
This is caused due to latency imposed by the different home-network and Internet connections each party uses and the fact that the sound and vision are being sent around as data packets. As well, most of the parties in the videoconference will typically be using a microphone and set of speakers integrated in or connected to the device for the sound.
Here, the reverberation or echo is heard due to your voice coming out of the participants’ devices’ speakers at a later time thanks to the videoconference setup with its limitations. It can also be magnified if someone is using a speaker setup that is very loud like most desktop speakers or a hi-fi system used as audio output for your computer.
By using headphones during that video conference if you are the only person calling in to the videoconference from your endpoint, you are effectively minimising the echo and reverberation. This is because when a person uses headphones for the videocall, the sound from the other parties is being “funneled” through the headphones exclusively to the device’s user, not likely to be picked up by their device’s microphone.
You will also find that you can hear your participants more easily when you use headphones. This is due to the headphone’s speakers located very close to your ear therefore leading to very minimal audio leakage that can cause further reverberation or echo. Those of you who use active-noise-cancelling headphones may also be at an advantage due to reducing fan or air-conditioning hum interfering with what your callers are saying, allowing you to concentrate better.
Here, any headphones or headset would do, whether they be in-ear, on-ear or over-ear types; or whether they are a wired or wireless setup. For example, if you are using a smartphone or tablet and you have its supplied in-ear wired headset, you can get by with it. Or a pair of good Bluetooth headphones may even do the job better.
This won’t be of use for a group situation where many people like a family or household are joining the videocall from the one device at the one location. It is because they want to talk to the rest of the videoconference as if they are one person. This situation would require the use of the device’s loudspeakers and microphone to be of value.
When you alone are participating in that multi-party videocall and you want to get the best out of it, your headphones may serve you better through that call.
An audio accessory that I still consider as being important and relevant even in the day of the smartphone and tablet is the cassette adaptor.
What are these cassette adaptors and how do they work?
This is a device invented by Larry Schotz during the mid 1980s to allow one to play CDs in the car using their car’s cassette player and their Discman-type portable CD player. It has a cassette-shaped housing that has a head that faces the cassette player’s playback head along with a mechanism to prevent that tape player from acting as though it’s the end of a tape side.
The head in this housing is wired to the portable audio device using a cable that is attached to the adaptor itself in a manner to cater towards different tape-loading arrangements, and plugged in to that source device via its headphone or line-out jack using the 3.5mm stereo plug. When in place, the audio content from the source device is transferred in to the cassette player’s audio electronics using a simple inductive-coupling process between the head installed in the cassette adaptor and the player’s head.
Even if the tape player ended up being mechanically defective typically by “chewing-up” tapes, the cassette adaptor was still able to work. This is because it is not reliant on tape that is at risk of being pulled out of the cassette.
As well, the same arrangement was able to work with home or portable cassette equipment like boomboxes or low-end “music centre” stereos by enabling its use with other audio sources. This was more important as the omission of a line-level audio input was seen as a way to cut costs when designing budget-priced equipment.
How did these cassette adaptors become respected audio accessories?
A cassette adaptor being used to play a smartphone’s audio through a car cassette player
At the time this device was introduced, the cost of a car CD player was way more expensive than what a Discman-type portable player would cost and these car CD players were out of the league for most people. It was also a reality that if a person installed a car CD player or any other advanced car-audio equipment in their car during that time, they had to pay more for their vehicle’s insurance coverage and, perhaps, install a car alarm in their vehicle. This was because of a high frequency of “smash-and-grab” car break-ins where the advanced car-audio equipment was stolen from the vehicle.
For that matter, I had made sure that if I bought a Discman-type portable CD player, I would buy one of these cassette adaptors as an audio accessory for that unit. Gradually, consumer-electronics manufacturers offered Discman players with a car power adaptor and a cassette adaptor as accessories that came with the unit.
During the 1990s, the in-car CD changer became popular as an original-fitment or aftermarket car-audio option. This setup had the user place CDs in to a multiple-disc magazine which was installed in a changer unit located in the back of the car. Then the user controlled this unit using a radio-cassette player that has the ability to control the changer with the sound from the CDs emanating from the speakers associated with that unit.
But a portable CD player along with the cassette adaptor ended up being useful as a way to play another CD in these changer-based setups without having to swap out discs in the changer unit. This approach became relevant if, for example, you bought a new CD album and are eager to listen to it or have temporary use of a friend’s car but want to run your own CD-based music without worrying about discs you removed from the changer’s magazine.
The rise of MiniDisc and file-based MP3 players and, in the USA, satellite radio assured the continual relevance of these cassette adaptors as a way to play content hosted on these formats using your cassette-equipped car stereo.
Infact I was following an online discussion board about the MiniDisc format and one British member of that board, who was in a position to buy a new car, preferred a vehicle with a lower trim-level rather than a premium trim level that he could afford. In this case, the vehicle builder offered the cheaper variant of the car with a cassette player as its car-audio specification while the more expensive variant had an in-dash CD player as its only car-audio option. This is in order so the forum-participant can continue listening to MiniDiscs in the car with their MD Walkman player and cassette adaptor.
Different variants of these cassette adaptors
Ion Audio’s new Bluetooth cassette adaptor
There have been some variants of the cassette adaptor existing with one unit being an MP3 player that work as a stand-alone portable player along with units that worked as Bluetooth audio endpoints. This included one of these adaptors being a Bluetooth handsfree with a microphone module that was linked by wire to the cassette adaptor itself in order to facilitate phone calls or voice-assistant operation.
The Bluetooth cassette adaptors will become very relevant with newer smartphones as these forego the standard 3.5mm stereo headphone jack. Here, they use a Bluetooth link between the smartphone and the cassette adaptor fir the audio link. Let’s not forget that the ordinary cassette adaptor can be used with a full-on Bluetooth audio adaptor equipped with a 3.5mm stereo output jack on the unit itself rather than a flylead that plugs in to a 3.5mm AUX socket.
How are they relevant nowadays?
These cassette adaptors still maintain some relevance in this day and age primarily with vehicles built between the mid 1970s through the mid 1990s being welcomed in to the classic-car scene. This is very much underscored by the Japanese cars of the era acquiring a significant following amongst enthusiasts.
That same era saw the concurrent rise of the audio cassette as a legitimate mobile-audio format and car cassette players of that era represented a mature piece of in-car audio technology. Here classic-vehicle enthusiasts are preferring to keep working cassette players, preferably the original-specification units, in these newly-accepted classic vehicles. This is also about keeping the vehicles as representatives of their generation.
Similarly, there are a significant number of vehicles built from the late 1990s through the 2000s, especially in the premium sector or at higher-cost trim levels, where an integrated audio system with a CD player and cassette player is fitted in them by the vehicle builder. Here, these vehicles don’t necessarily have any auxiliary input for other audio sources and it is hard to fit aftermarket equipment in to these vehicles without doing a lot of damage to their looks and functionality.
These devices have effectively converted a car cassette player’s tape-loading slot in to an auxiliary input so other audio devices can be used in conjunction with these players especially on an ad-hoc basis.
The cassette adaptor has highlighted the fact that some accessories do still remain relevant to this day and age and has stood the test of time.
When Creative Labs launched the Stage Air desktop soundbar, they were positioning it as a single-piece soundbar to exist on your desktop under your computer monitor. This is in the same vein as those soundbars or TV speaker bases that are connected to larger TV sets to improve their sound. This unit isn’t just a desktop soundbar but able to work as a portable Bluetooth speaker thanks to it having its own battery power.
I then organised to review one of these desktop soundbars to find out how they perform as a desktop computer speaker system or portable Bluetooth speaker and am now reviewing one of these units.
The Unit Itself
Recommended Retail Price: AUD$79.95
Single Piece soundbar
Count as for a device
1 x 3.5mm stereo line input
Bluetooth 4.2 A2DP wireless connection
A2DP with AVRCP
5W per channel
2 speakers in one cabinet
2 x full-range speakers
Enclosure Audio Qualities
Use of one passive radiator
The unit itself
Setup and Connection
Connection Options: 3.5mm stereo line-in jack, USB Micro-B charging port, USB Type-A port for MP3 playback from USB Mass-Storage Devices
The Creative Stage Air desktop soundbar sits just under my monitor properly and would be able to fit under most of the monitors or all-in-one computers easily. The connections are in a recessed space on the back of the speaker with a 3.5mm stereo jack for your computer, a USB Micro-B power connection and a USB Type-A connection for use with a memory key full of MP3 audio files.
The controls are located on the right-had-side of the speaker with the power / source button located on the right near you. Here, you press this button until the lamp on the front turns green to use the line input connection for your computer sound.
Controls on right side – Power, Up, Down, Bluetooth pairing
To use it as a Bluetooth speaker, you would press this source button until the lamp turns blue. If no device is paired to this unit, the light will flash and the speaker will announce an invitation to put your Bluetooth host device in to pairing mode to complete the setup.
To have the speaker work with a new Bluetooth device. you would need to hold down the Bluetooth-icon button to start the pairing process. This may be a procedure you need to do whenever you want to have it work with a new Bluetooth device and there is no knowledge of whether the Creative Stage Air soundbar can work in a multipoint fashion supporting multiple Bluetooth devices.
It is easy to tell which input source you are using by the colour of the front light – blue for Bluetooth and green for line-in. As well, the voice prompts for the Bluetooth setup process make it easy for new users to enrol a new device with the Creative Stage Air desktop soundbar.
Initially adjusting the volume may be confusing with the + button located towards you and the – button located away from you where you may be used to setups that have buttons in the reverse order. But you can still feel the controls to identify which ones they are when adjusting the volume from the speaker.
While I was using the Creative Stage Air desktop soundbar with my smartphone as a Bluetooth speaker, I noticed that it didn’t take long to pair up with the smartphone. As well, there wasn’t any jitter in the sound while I was playing music using the Bluetooth connection.
What really shows up with a speaker system is its sound quality including whether it is too bassy or too brittle in the sound.
Firstly, I had run some audio content from my smartphone and from the computer with it coming across with a tonal quality that has a rich bass sound and a treble sound that is bright enough. It can cope with bass-heavy electronic dance music and yield the appropriate amount of “punch” in that music.
I have played some video content through my desktop PC and have found that the Creative Stage Air desktop soundbar does treat the audio mix properly. This is to assess how a speaker or headphone setup can handle speech, sound effects and music with it affecting its prowess for viewing video content, playing games, engaging in videocalls or similar activities.
The speech comes across clearly with male voices having a deep rich sound. The sound effects come across with some authenticity, something I had noticed while watching an episode Julie Zemiro’s Home Delivery on ABC iView with the sound of the car engine whenever they went anywhere. It is while the music in the video content contains the right balance of clarity and depth. I also watched an episode of a police drama and found that some effects like the gunshots had that bit of punch in them, something that would be of importance when playing a lot of first-person shooter games.
Achieving the right amount of bass response for a small area is facilitated using a passive radiator which is like a speaker driver but not driven by the amplifier circuitry. This was used in some “ghetto-blaster” designs to increase the bass response in a power-efficient manner and is commonly used on many Bluetooth speakers for the same purpose.
As part of testing speaker setups, I take the volume setting up to as high as it will go before I notice any clipping or distortion in the sound. This is to identify how powerful the amplifier circuitry really is and I could take it up all the way without it distorting.
The sound output would really be loud enough for close-up listening at your computer desk or to fill a small area while there is still a rich tone.
The unit can run on its own battery for what would be expected for a portable Bluetooth speaker but if you are using it regularly with a computer, I would have it work with a USB power supply.
Limitations and Points Of Improvement
One design improvement I would like to see is the implementation of USB Audio as an audio pathway for this device. This is rather than just using the USB Micro-B port for providing power to the speaker. It would then mean that one cable can be used to provide sound and power from the host computer to the speaker rather than using another connection method like Bluetooth or line-level analogue for that purpose.
Similarly, Creative Labs could move towards using USB-C for power and audio connections especially where more computers are being equipped with this connection. It can also lead to them evolving the Stage Air desktop soundbar towards an elementary USB hub function especially where laptops and small-form desktop computers are being equipped with fewer USB connections.
Other alternative connections that can be looked at include the use of an HDMI or DisplayPort input and output connection so that the speaker can be connected between a host computer and a monitor that uses one of these connections and you want to use the “display audio” function that is part of the host’s graphics infrastructure.
The side controls could be made easier to identify by touch so you can know which one is which quickly without looking at them. This could be through raised O, + and – symbols for the power / source and volume buttons or through other means. It is because most of us may he simply used to using the speaker’s volume controls to quickly raise and lower the volume of our computers.
If Creative wants to support playback of file-based audio content from a USB Mass Storage device, they could have the Stage Air also work with other file codecs, especially FLAC and AAC. This is more so as these codecs, especially the FLAC codec, gain traction as higher-quality alternatives to the MP3 audio codec.
As well, if the Stage Air desktop soundbar is to live under that monitor or all-in-one’s screen most of its working life, I would recommend the use of a headphone jack or Bluetooth headphone support. This would avoid the need to swap out the speaker cable for your headphones when you want to connect them to your computer.
I would position the Creative Stage Air desktop soundbar as something that can serve as a portable Bluetooth speaker or as a single-piece alternative to a modest two-piece desktop computer speaker setup. It can also include improving your DAB+ or Internet radio’s sound output, something you may want to do with a small unit that has a headphone connection on it.
But you may find that its sound output is more so for use in the office or at home where you aren’t placing value on a heavy bass response. The idea that the Stage Air is battery powered may come into its own when you are travelling and want something powerful enough to fill a small room like your average hotel room with music from your laptop, smartphone or a portable audio device. This is while it doesn’t take up much room in your luggage.
On the other hand, if you place value on stronger bass response, most of the three-piece desktop computer speaker setups with a dedicated active subwoofer may answer your needs.
One of Bluetooth’s killer applications, especially for smartphones and tablets, is a wireless link between a headset, speaker or sound system to reproduce audio content held on the host computing device.
At the moment, the high-end for this use case is being fought strongly by some very determined companies. Firstly, Bose, Sony and Bang & Olufsen are competing with each other for the best active-noise-cancelling over-the-ear Bluetooth headset that you can use while travelling. This is while Apple and Sony are vying for top place when it comes to the “true-wireless” in-ear Bluetooth headset. It is showing that the Bluetooth wireless-audio feature is infact part of a desirable feature set for headphones intended to be used with smartphones, tablets or laptops.
Let’s not forget that recently-built cars and recently-made aftermarket car-stereo head units are equipped with Bluetooth for communications and multimedia audio content. This is part of assuring drivers can concentrate on the road while they are driving.
.. just like headsets like this JBL one
But this technology is to evolve over the second half of 2019 with products based on the improved technology expected to appear realistically by mid 2020. Like with Bluetooth Low Energy and similar technologies, the host and accessory devices will be dual-mode devices that support current-generation and next-generation Bluetooth Audio. This will lead to backward compatibility and “best-case” operation for both classes of device.
There is an expectation that they will be offered at a price premium for early adopters but the provision of a single chipset for both modes could lead towards more affordable devices. A question that can easily be raised is whether the improvements offered by next-generation Bluetooth audio can be provided to current-generation Bluetooth hosts or accessory devices through a software upgrade especially where a software-defined architecture is in place.
What will it offer?
… like with the upcoming generation of smartphones
The first major feature to be offered by next-generation Bluetooth audio technology is a Bluetooth-designed high-quality audio codec to repackage the audio content for transmission between the host and accessory.
This is intended to replace the need for a smartphone or headset to implement third-party audio codecs like aptX or LDAC if the goal is to assure sound quality that is CD-grade or better. It means that the device designers don’t need to end up licensing these codecs from third parties which will lead to higher-quality products at affordable prices along with removing the balkanisation associated with implementing the different codecs at source and endpoint.
A question that will be raised is what will be the maximum audio quality standard available to the new codec – whether this will be CD-quality sound working up to 16-bit 48kHz sampling rate or master-quality sound working up to 24-bit 192kHz sampling rate. Similarly, could these technologies be implemented in communications audio especially where wide-bandwidth FM-grade audio is being added to voice and video communications technologies for better voice quality and intelligibility thanks to wider bandwidth being available for this purpose.
Another key improvement that will be expected is reduced latency to a point where it isn’t noticeable. This will appeal to the gaming headset market where latency is important because sound effects within games are very important as audio cues for what is happening in a game. It may also be of benefit if you are making or taking videocalls and use your Bluetooth headset to converse with the caller. Here, it will open up the market for Bluetooth-based wireless gaming headsets.
It will also open up Bluetooth audio towards the “many-endpoint” sound-reproduction applications where multiple endpoints like headsets or speakers receive the same audio stream from the same audio source. In these use cases, you can’t have any endpoint receiving the program material reproducing the material later than others receiving the same material.
A key application that will come about is to implement Bluetooth in a multiple-channel speaker setup including a surround-sound setup. This will be a very critical application due to the requirement to reproduce each channel of the audio content stream concurrently and in phase.
It will also legitimise Bluetooth as an alternative wireless link to Wi-Fi wireless networks for multiroom audio setups. As well, the support for “many-endpoint” sound-reproduction will appeal to headsets and hearing-aid applications where there is the desire to send content to many of these devices using a high-quality wireless digital approach rather than RF or induction-loop setups that may be limited in sound quality (in the case of induction-loop setups) or device compatibility (in the case of RF setups). There could even be the ability to support multiple audio-content channels in this setup such as supporting alternative languages or audio description. In some cases, it may open up a use case where transport announcements heard in an airport or rail station can “punch through” over music, video or game sound-effects heard over a Bluetooth headset in a similar way to European car radios can be set up to allow traffic bulletins to override other audio sources.
A question that can be raised with the “many-endpoint” approach that this next-generation Bluetooth-audio technology is to support is whether this can support different connection topologies. This includes “daisy-chaining” speakers so that they are paired to each other for, perhaps a multi-channel setup; using a “hub-and-spoke” approach with multiple headsets or speakers connected to the same source endpoint; or a combination of both topologies including exploiting mesh abilities being introduced to Bluetooth.
From next year, as the newer generations of smartphones, laptops, headsets and other Bluetooth-audio-capable equipment are released, there will be a gradual improvement in the quality and utility of these devices’ audio functions.
Creative Labs recently launched a small desktop soundbar that is being positioned as a viable single-piece alternative to the traditional computer speakers setup. If you did want a right-sized single-piece speaker setup for your computer, you would have used a small Bluetooth speaker or a boombox with a line input.
Here, it is being pitched towards desktop computer users who either are using an all-in-one desktop computer; or a traditional “three-piece” computer setup with the monitor, system unit and keyboard.
Creative Labs Stage entry-level soundbar
This capitalises on Creative Labs pedigree in relationship to computer audio – who remembers themselves or a computer enthusiast they know installing a Sound Blaster sound card made by this firm in their computer through the years? It also includes their merger with Cambridge Soundworks who designed different “personal” speaker products advertised in American magazines through the 1990s.
This soundbar, known as the Stage Air, is a stereo device with a full-range speaker driver per channel along with a passive radiator to provide improved bass response. That speaker-arrangement technique had been used with some boomboxes made during the 1980s and 1990s as a way of improving their bass response in a power-efficient manner for portable applications. It is rated by Creative for 5 watts RMS per channel with a 20 watt peak output.
The Stage Air soundbar can fit underneath your computer monitor or all-in-one computer and connects to the host computer using a line-level connection with a 3.5mm stereo jack. But it has Bluetooth connectivity and a battery that can run for six hours on a charge allowing it to be a Bluetooth speaker for your laptop, tablet or smartphone. There is also the ability to connect a USB memory key to the Stage Air soundbar to have it play MP3 audio files held on that memory key.
There are controls on the speaker to regulate the volume so you don’t have to fuss around with your operating system’s sound icon to quickly adjust the sound. When it serves as your desktop speaker, you can have it normally powered by a USB power source like your computer or a USB charger.
From all of the material that I have read about this product, it is being pitched as something that can fill a small office or similar space with sound, something that would be akin to typical desktop computer speakers or a small boombox.
It is being offered as the junior brother to the Stage soundbar which has more power output and can fill a larger area with sound. Some press material even described this soundbar as being better than most low-priced entry-level soundbars. This unit uses a midrange speaker for each stereo channel and works alongside an external narrow-profile subwoofer for the bass.
This uses an infra-red remote control so you can select different frequency-response curves to adjust how it sounds. This has the Bluetooth and line-in connectivity but also has an optical input and HDMI-ARC TV connection, but it could also have an HDMI input so you can connect a video peripheral to it incase you displaced one that was connected to your TV’s ARC-enabled HDMI socket.
What I see of these products is that Creative Labs are filling in gaps for high-quality single-piece soundbar speakers that can answer your needs whether as something for your desktop or laptop computer or as an entry-level soundbar setup for your Smart TV.
At the moment, the USB-C audio application case isn’t being implemented consistently across all mobile devices that rely solely on that connection form.
There are two operating modes – a “passive” accessory mode which creates inbound and outbound analogue audio paths as if it is a 3.5mm audio jack, and an “active” mode which uses USB Audio device classes and outboard digital-analogue audio circuitry to create the sound to be heard via the accessory.
The former passive setup is primarily exploited by USB-C jack adaptors and basic headset implementations, especially “earbud-style” headsets. Here, the host device which is typically the smartphone or tablet would use an onboard audio chipset to convert the sound between an analogue and digital representation.
If there is some form of remote control, a basic implementation may be in the form of a single button that starts and stops media or answers and ends calls. On the other hand, if the USB Human Interface Device specifications are implemented properly in mobile operating systems, it may allow for a device to support advanced multifunction remote control.
At the moment, it may be a case of trial-and-error to find out if a USB-C Audio passive-mode headset or adaptor will work across USB-C-equipped regular computers. So for, to my knowledge, recent iterations of the Apple MacBook lineup of laptops that use this connection will provide some support for this setup.
The latter active setup would be targeted at premium or audiophile applications such as highly-strung USB digital-analogue adaptors, noise-cancelling headsets or headsets with highly-strung digital-analogue circuitry. In some cases, this setup may also support accessory devices that implement multiple-microphone arrays.
It may also apply to wired setups involving home or car audio equipment. In this case, one would be thinking of this kind of equipment providing digital-analogue interface, power to the host device and remote-control / accessory-display abilities.
Here, they have to fully implement the USB Audio Device Class 3 peripheral class as expected in the “textbook”. As well, iOS and Android need to provide a native class driver for this device class and implement its code as expected for a mobile device which will do communications and / or multimedia. This would mean that microphones have to be used as an audio endpoint for communications purposes including regular telephony as well as for multimedia purposes. It may be a non-issue with regular computers running the Windows or MacOS desktop operating systems where it is easier for the operating system or application software to “purpose” an audio endpoint.
USB Audio Device Class 3 provides inherent support for audio-processing so accessory manufacturers don’t need to reinvent the wheel by creating their own software to implement any sort of sound processing. As well, Android and iOS need to support the inclusion of audio-processing logic in the inbound or outbound audio-signal paths in a purpose-specific manner.
Power and connectivity
There will be power and connectivity issues raised for both implementations of the USB-C Audio application. Active devices will need to draw power from the host unless they have their own battery. But with proper implementation of USB-C Power Delivery, it could allow a USB-C Audio accessory with a very high capacity battery to provide power to the host smartphone.
The passive setup wouldn’t work properly with USB-C hubs or devices that have this function unless it is assured that the hub will assure a proper clean electrical connection between the host and the accessory.
Remote control and accessory display
Another issue yet to be raised is implementation of USB Human-Interface-Device Classes and Usage Tables when it comes to using a USB-C accessory as a control surface for the host. The key issue here is whether there is proper operating-system support especially in the mobile operating systems. In the same context, there will be a market requirement for the accessory device to be able to view host-device-held lists like call lists, message lists and track lists.
The functions considered relevant to this usage case would be sound volume and transport control (play / pause / next track / previous track / etc) for multimedia; and caller volume, microphone mute and call control for communications. Accessory-based display would also need to be factored in with USB-C audio adaptors and in-line remote-control modules which implement an LCD or OLED display.
There may be use cases where multiple remote control devices are used in the same setup, typically to offer complementary functionality. Examples of this may include a USB headset with elementary remote-control for volume and a single-button control for multimedia “start-stop” or call “answer-end” functionality; along with a display-equipped inline remote control which allows for track navigation or advanced call-control.
There will also be an issue regarding use of the USB-C cable as an aerial (antenna) for broadcast-radio reception whether the tuner is built in to the smartphone or the accessory. It is because of a long-standing design factor for Walkman-type radios with separate headphones where the headphone cord served as the radio’s aerial. Similarly single-piece headphone-based personal radios implemented the headband as their aerial.
It also extends to the ability for mobile operating systems to control broadcast-radio tuners integrated within smartphones or accessories to the fullest extent possible. This would include preset-station management, “follow-this-station” operation for stations appearing at other broadcast locations, graphical identifiers amongst other things.
If the smartphone and audio-accessory industry wants us to think of using the USB-C connector as the point to connect all peripherals, they need iOS and Android to have full native USB Audio Device Class 3 support including support for advanced-audio modes. As well, the operating systems need to have USB Human Interface Device class support for remote-control and accessory display abilities. Similarly, there would have to be proper support for broadcast-radio operation with USB-C-based mobile-device setups.
There has been a consistent range of affordable stereo amplifiers and receivers offered from the 1960s onwards that weren’t about high output levels or audiophile-level sound output quality. Here, they were about playing music from what was fed through them and yielding a decent-enough sound through a set of modestly-priced speakers.
Typically they were sold as something to have as the heart of your first multi-piece hi-fi system whether the system was with source equipment and speakers that you chose or as part of an affordable stereo-system package offered by the manufacturer. In some cases, the circuitry in some of these amplifiers has been integrated in one or more of the premium single-piece or three-piece stereo systems offered by that manufacturer.
Examples of these ranged from the Australian-built valve-based Cosmos stereo integrated amplifier that was sold through the Encel hi-fi store during the late 60s and early 70s, through affordably-priced Realistic stereo receivers sold by Tandy / Radio Shack through the 70s and 80s to the “micro” component systems that most of the Japanese hi-fi names launched through the early 1980s. This class of amplifier or receiver also represented the equipment that was offered at the lower end of a manufacturer’s product range.
In a lot of cases, these amplifiers and receivers were typically used as the heart of an elementary stereo system like one’s first hi-fi setup or a secondary hi-fi setup. Then the user’s needs would change towards using a better amplifier and these amplifiers ended up being used with a pair of cheap speakers to amplify sounds like game sound effects from a multimedia-capable computer.
But lately this practice has shown up again with the likes of Lepai, Topping and others who implement very small stereo integrated amplifiers that work effectively on a single chipset for both channels. Some of these amplifiers may have extra functionality like a phono stage, a digital-analogue converter, or a USB or Bluetooth interface as part of that same chipset or as another chipset that presents a line-level signal. But typically they are sold through different online stores as well as some specialist electronics outlets or hi-fi stores.
Here, these amplifiers are based on a TriPath “Class T” circuit design or a similar design which is based on the Class D switch-mode amplification approach that has allowed for highly-compact audio amplifiers. That is due to the ability to work with low current demands as well as not yielding excess waste heat.
Why are these amplifiers showing up again? Here, the low power output and the small circuit size has allowed for a very small footprint and one could easily connect them to low-powered speakers of which many are in circulation. One of the reasons this has This is brought about through affordable three-piece stereo systems that had given up the ghost and the speakers associated with these systems are seen as of value with a low-power amplifier.
There is also the fact that most, if not all, of the stereo speakers made before the 1970s were engineered for amplifiers which had low power outputs thanks to valve (tube) or early solid-state circuit designs that couldn’t achieve high output power. In this situation, these speakers including the floor-standing types were designed for maximum efficiency and an ideal tonal response while better amplifiers were designed for improved sound clarity.
A common application that these midget amplifiers are being put towards is to become an audio amplifier for your computer’s sound infrastructure. This is seen as being better than a lot of budget-priced active speakers pitched towards computer users which aren’t seen as offering high-quality sound.
Personally I would still value a stereo system based around these amplifiers as another direction towards a cost-effective music system where you don’t want memories of the gaudy 90s.
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.
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