Tag: headphones

Why use headphones during that Zoom or Skype video conference?

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

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.

JBL E45BT Bluetooth wireless headset

… 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.

Product Review–JBL E45BT On-Ear Bluetooth Headset

Introduction

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.

JBL E45BT Bluetooth wireless headset

Price

RRP: AUD$149.95

Headset Type

Headphone Assembly Traditional over-the-ear
Driver Positioning Supra-aural (sits on the ear)
Driver Enclosure Closed back
Primary sound path Digital
Microphone position Microphone integrated in earcup

Functionality

Pitched for Commuting / street-use
Active Noise Cancellation No
Remote Control Music Transport (Bluetooth AVRCP)
Sound Volume
Call control (Wired / Bluetooth HFP)
Voice Assistant (Wired)

Connectivity

Connection for main operation Wired
Bluetooth 4.0 wireless
Wired path 2.5mm 4-pole analogue jack
Supplementary adaptors 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.

JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset Bluetooth controls and wired-headset socket

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.

JBL E45BT Bluetooth headset MicroUSB charging port

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.

Comfort

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.

Sound Quality

Music

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.

Conclusion

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.

Apple to use the UAC connector as its standard connector for headphones

Articles

Dell A2 Performance USB Headset

Feature headphones with digital functionality will be using UAC as an accessory-side connector for widest compatibility

Relax, Apple isn’t introducing another new connector | The Verge

Apple’s Ultra Accessory Connector dashes any hopes of a USB-C iPhone | The Verge

Apple plans new smaller Ultra Accessory Connector (UAC) for Made-for-iPhone accessories | 9 To 5 Mac

What is UAC? Apple’s new ‘Made for iPhone’ accessory and port explained | Trusted Reviews

My Comments

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.

Dell AE2 Performance USB Headset - USB plug

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.

Product Review- JBL Synchros E30 headphones

Introduction

JBL is best known over a long time for loudspeaker systems, especially PA/commercial-audio and hi-fi speakers. Examples of these speakers include the JBL hi-fi speakers that were designed the same way as in-studio monitor speakers and known for their tight bass response; and the JBL EON speakers which were one of the first active-design PA / sound-reinforcement speakers to use biamplification in that class of speaker.

But as for headphones, they haven’t been known much for this product class. This is because brands like AKG, Audio Technica and Sennheiser have dominated this product class when it comes to good hi-fi or monitor-grade headphones.

Now I am reviewing the JBL Synchros E30 headphones which are positioned more or less as “all-round” stereo headphones for personal-audio applications. These are a headset with an in-line microphone designed for use with your smartphone or tablet or as headphones for use with your MP3 player or laptop.

JBL also offers the Synchros E40BT headset which is a Bluetooth wireless variant of this on-ear headset which may be handy for those of you who value wireless connectivity with your smartphone, tablet or laptop computer.

JBL Synchros E30 headphones

Price

Recommended Retail Price: AUD$129.95

Type

Headphone Assembly Traditional over-the-head
Driver Positioning Supra-aural (on the ear)
Driver Enclosure Closed Back
Microphone Position In-line – detachable cable
Source Device Connectivity
Headset 3.5mm four-conductor plug
Adaptors None

The headset itself

Connectivity

JBL Synchros E30 headphones - detachable cable

Detachable cable

Like an increasing number of headphones that are coming on the market, the JBL Synchros E30 is equipped with a detachable headset cable which has an integrated microphone. This will most likely be wired for CTIA (Apple) applications and may not operate properly with OMTP applications.

The advantage of this is that you can repair or replace the cord if it breaks which is something that can easily happen with personal-audio headphones as you use them a lot. As well, you could have one or more headset cords made up for different applications very easily, something that can be done if you or someone you know is handy with a soldering iron.

Comfort

JBL Synchros E30 headphones - earcups

Hinge-style anchor for earcups

The hinge design that JBL uses for the Synchros E30 headphones makes it easier to store the headphones flat but it can take a while to get the headphones to fit properly on your head for best sound response.

The “over-the-ear” earcups have a vinyl ring that doesn’t absorb sweat but is very confusing where headphones that have a similar ring encourage you to have this wrap around your ear.

Once these headphones are adjusted properly, you can wear them for a long time without them being too uncomfortable.

Sound

The JBL Synchros E30 headset has the kind of efficience that you would expect for headphones that are to be used with battery-powered equipment. This means that they can sound loud therefore you may be able to run them on lower volumes to save on battery power.

Music

The JBL Synchros E30 does well on the bass response by being able to “reach down there” but it needs the use of equalisation at the source if you want to bring this out. This may be achieved by implementing a “bass-boost” function or a player that uses tone controls or a graphic equaliser. The high frequencies are still there and come out clear.

Video and games

I have watched some video content with these headphones and the dialogue does come through clearly. The effects may not have the punch unless there is some form of equalisation along the way.

I also tried these headphones with an iPhone that a kid was using to play a motor-racing game and noticed that the sound effects associated with that game came across very sharply. But as I have said with music, there still needs to be some equalisation to bring out the bass which is important for some sound effects like motor-vehicle noise or gunfight.

Communications

I have made and taken a few phone calls and the caller’s voice had come across intelligible and clear. The frequency range that these headphones offer could also make them suitable for HD Voice applications like Skype, Viber and VoLTE so you can hear your callers better.

Noise reduction and handling in noisy environments

I have used these headphones up the back of a transit bus and found that the JBL Synchros E30 headphones do reduce the ambient noise from the bus’s engine somewhat. As well, you can still hear the program content if you run the volume hard on your portable device.

Conclusion

I would recommend that one buys the JBL Synchros E30 as a baseline “all-round” headset for most users whether they listen to music, watch video content, play computer games or use them for online communications. This comes across more where users place emphasis on durability with such features as a detachable cord or a strong hinge design along with a sound that can come across as being “authentic”.

Internationaler Funkaustellung 2015–Part 3–Home Entertainment

IFA LogoPreviously in my series on IFA 2015, I have covered the trends affecting personal and mobile computing like the arrival of the Intel Skylake silicon which raises the performance of portable computers along with trends affecting the home network such as 802.11ac Wave-2 Wi-Fi wireless. Now I am covering the technologies affecting home entertainment.

TV technology

There have been major strides forward with TV technology especially 4K ultra-high-definition TV.

Firstly, the cost of these sets is gradually reducing in such a way where they could start to appear in discount stores and supermarkets.

But another technology is appearing in the form of High Dynamic Range for video-content display. This is intended to create a more realistic image by preserving a high level of contrast between the brightest parts and the darkest parts. Here, the image would look like what you would see in real life like when you see the sun reflecting off the surface of the sea. Colour shades would be represented close to what they were to be, including the ability to handle bright exotic reds properly.

LG OLED TVs pres picture courtesy of LG

LG OLED TVs being launched at IFA 2015

LG have launched some flat OLED 4K TVs in the form of the EF9500 (65” and 55”) series and the EG9200 (55”) which are HDR-ready. With these sets, the flat-screen feature is underscored as being important for group viewing and whenever one is viewing on an angle which is something that curved screens cannot excel at. They also released a curved OLED 4K model in the form of the EG9100 series but this model omits the HDR feature. All these Smart TVs implement the WebOS 2.0 platform.

Samsung have covered all their bases when it comes to 4K TV technology by offering sets from 32” to 105”. They have announced that their UHDTV sets can be able to work with HDR material and these sets will benefit from this capability courtesy of a firmware update.

Panasonic have launched the CZ950 which is the first 4K OLED-based UHDTV to be launched by this brand. This 65” curved-screen set is tuned by Hollywood colourist Mike Sowia and is HDR ready.

Sony haven’t been quiet but launched their Bravia X91C series TV to Europe and Australia. This is while Philips launched their Ambilux TVs which use pico projectors to project images on to the surrounding wall to effectively enlarge the viewing area.

As for sources that supply video content in UHDTV, there has been some action lately on this front.

The 4K UHD Blu-Ray format has been launched as a way to cost-effectively deliver 4K material on Blu-Ray optical discs. It also has the ability to work with Dolby Atmos and other object-based sound-mix formats as well as supporting a digital media bridge function. Samsung has launched the first player capable of this format at IFA 2015.

As for broadcast content, Germany is moving towards DVB-T2 and implementing the HEVC codecs as part of this format which makes for traditional terrestrial broadcast TV being capable of being delivered in 4K UHDTV.

But there is more activity on the satellite-TV front with Eutelsat and SES Astra have been building out bouquets of 4K television content to be delivered this way. One example of this is the Fashion TV 4K channel that is being delivered by SES Astra satellites. CanalPlus is in on the 4K act as is Pearl TV, a German shopping channel. This is while Hessicher Rundfunk who is part of ARD is running demo transmissions via the Eutelsat Hotbird satellites. Sky Deutschland and a Scandinavian broadcaster have registered intent to establish 4K satellite content.

Audio Technology

When a consumer-electronics show has computing and TV as activities of focus, it is easy to forget about what is happening with audio technology. This is as the technology is being more focused around file-based audio and wireless multiroom audio setups of which there has been a lot of activity in this department.

LG Music Flow P5 speakers press picture courtesy of LG

LG Music Flow P5 speakers

LG has built out their MusicFlow Bluetooth audio platform with the MusicFlow P5 speaker that supports Automatic Music Play that starts playing your music when you come in range.This device can run on its own battery for 15 hours.  They also launched the SoundPop 360 which is a Bluetooth speaker that is the shape and size of a coffee cup and fires the music out around it. It has a playing time of 20 hours on its own battery.

LG SoundPop 360 Bluetooth speakers press picture courtesy of LG

LG SoundPop 360 Bluetooth speakers

These Bluetooth speakers support LG’s MusicPoint functionality which is effectively multipoint for Bluetooth speakers where you can connect two Bluetooth phones to the one speaker and play music through that speaker. There is also the DualPlay functionality where you can connect one phone to two LG Bluetooth speakers and set it up for improved stereo separation or many-speaker party-mode playback. The TV Sound Sync functionality allows you to link the Bluetooth speakers to a Bluetooth-capable TV and set up for better stereo or surround home-theatre separation or a private listening experience.

Samsung has answered LG on the Korean wireless-speaker front by offering 360-degree wireless speakers in the form of the R1, R3 and R5. These are cylindrically-shaped speakers rather than the previous egg shape and have a touch-based control surface so you can skip or recall tracks or “duck” the volume easily and they work with your Wi-Fi home network. Samsung’s Gear S and S2 smartwatches come with software to make them be remote controls for these speakers.

Philips have fronted up with the “Izzy” BMS range of Bluetooth speakers which can be synced to each other for a party-mode playback setup. These implement a pair of 2.5” full-range drivers in a bass-reflex enclosure.

Bang & Olufsen have fronted up at the IFA this year to show the BeoPlay A6 multiroom speaker which implements an unorthodox shape in order to fill a room with sound. The fact to remember about the way B&O speaker designs is that it isn’t just about their distinct looks but that these looks are to achieve improved sound dispersion across the frequency bands.This Danish-built speaker can work with B&O’s wireless iteration of the Beolink multiroom system or can cover all bases by working with Bluetooth or a Wi-FI home network supporting AirPlay or DLNA.

There is a desire by manufacturers and consumers to gang multiple wireless speakers together to play the same source. This is to permit improved stereo separation with that wider sound or to allow for “party mode” playback where all the speakers play the same music over a larger area. This extends to integrating subwoofers in to the equation to bring out that deeper bass, allowing the bass guitar or drum kit to come forward in popular music for example.

But there is a problem with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth setups where these networks are packet-based in the way they move data and there is a desire to keep the audio content in proper sync. This is limited due to chipset manufacturers and speaker / multiroom-system manufacturers designing their products so they can’t work with other products. There has been an effort in the right direction with Qualcomm’s AllPlay Wi-Fi-based system being implemented by different brands. Bluetooth could work harder on this goal for speakers that work in that domain while the Wi-Fi Alliance, IEEE Forum, the UPnP Forum and other alliances can work together to achieve this goal over IP-based local networks.

There is always a bit of action when it comes to new headphones and earphones to connect to your laptop, smartphone or tablet when on the train or plane. This is because most of us want to hear good sound from these devices to make our travel more easier and, in a lot of cases, these double as communications headsets for whenever we make and take phone calls on the go using the classic mobile or VoIP services.

Sony hear.on high-resolution stereo headphones press picture courtesy of Sony Europe

Sony hear.on high-resolution stereo headphones

Sony have released their h.ear series of “cans” which come in different colours and are optimised for high-resolution sound. The first of these is the h.ear on which is a pair of closed-back circum-aural headphones that have a 5Hz-60kHz frequency range and are efficient for battery-operated devices by having a low impedance and 103dB/mW sensitivity. There is also a pair of h.ear in noise-cancelling earbuds that are part of the range.

These are pitched to go with their NW-ZX100 noise-cancelling Walkman file-audio player and the NW-A25 and NW-A26HN Walkman file-audio players with this model having noise-cancelling headphones.

Onkyo has used IFA 2015 to advance a pair of wireless earbuds which look larger than your typical earphones. Personally I see these earbuds a bit like a stereo take of those mono Bluetooth headsets that you slip over your ear to take calls in a hands-free manner while on the go.

Bose have used the IFA 2015 to premiere their Soundlink AroundEar Wireless Headphones 2 which are a pair of Bluetooth circumaural headphones based on their QuietComfort range of active-noise-cancelling “cans”.

Technics Grand Class G30 hi-fi system with media server press image courtesy of Panasonic

Technics Grand Class G30 hi-fi system with media server

The traditional hi-fi hasn’t been forgotten about courtesy of Panasonic who are staging an aggressive comeback for the Technics hi-fi brand. For vinyl, they are revealing a prototype direct-drive turntable that is modelled on the classic SP-10 turntable and the SL-1200 “Wheels Of Steel” DJ turntable. This will come with an improved direct-drive motor. They have also fielded a pair of hi-fi headphones in the form of the EAH-T700 closed-back headphones which implement a two-way speaker design based around a 50mm main drive and a 14mm super-tweeter for each channel.

But they also have built out their stereo equipment range further with the Grand Class G30 hi-fi which is based around the SU-G30 network media player / integrated amplifier and the ST-G30 music server which rips CDs to solid-state disk in a bit-perfect manner, more the reason to buy your music on CDs. This device serves the music out to your home network using DLNA technology and uses FLAC or WAV files to store the music. They have also fielded a single-piece hi-fi system with integrated CD player which can also draw in music from your home network in the form of the Ottava Premium Class C500 system. As well, they showed the C700 speakers to go with that above system.

Next in this series, I will be covering the Internet Of Things which will encompass home automation and home appliances. Stay tuned!

Part 1 – Personal Computing Trends

Part 2 – Wearables and the Home Network

Part 3 – Home Entertainment

Part 4 – Home Automation and the Internet Of Things

Product Review–Plantronics Backbeat Pro Bluetooth noise-cancelling headset

Introduction

I am reviewing the Plantronics Backbeat Pro Bluetooth noise-cancelling headset which is my first attempt at reviewing a headset equipped with two key features: Bluetooth wireless connectivity and active noise cancelling.

The former feature links to mobile devices and laptop computers via Bluetooth wireless technology while the latter detects noise associated with transport or fans using microphones and applies a “counter-noise” to this noise through the headset’s speakers. When you listen to program content or take a call, the sound from the external device such as the music or your caller’s voice is mixed in with the aforementioned “counter-noise” so you can hear that sound more clearly.

Plantronics BackBeat Pro Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones

Price

RRP:  AUD$349 (Street price AUD$299)

Type

Headphone Assembly Traditional over-the-head
Driver Positioning Circum-aural (over the ear with sound-containing foam wall)
Driver Enclosure Closed Back
Microphone Position Integrated microphone
Connectivity
Headset 3.5mm headset socket wired for Apple (CTIA)
Bluetooth
– A2DP audio with aptX
– Headset Profile
– Handsfree Profile with HD Voice
– Multipoint for 2 devices
Adaptors 3.5mm four-conductor headset cable

The headset itself

Connectivity and Usability

I was able to pair the Plantronics BackBeat Pro headset with my Samsung Galaxy Note 4 smartphone very quickly – this supported NFC-based pairing which is currently implemented in Android only. But with devices that don’t support it, you can start the pairing process without needing to hold down a button on the headset.  There is support for multipoint use with a simplified call-handling experience where you just touch one button to answer calls from any phone.

Plantronics BackBeat Pro Bluetooth noise-cancelling headset - right side earcup

Right side earcup with volume control and call handling button on earpiece

There is a 3.5mm four-conductor headset jack which connects to your device via a supplied cord that is wired for CTIA / Apple setups. This overrides the Bluetooth headset functionality so you can use the Backbeat in an airliner.

It is powered via an integrated rechargeable battery that lasts a long time – you could get a day or more out of the headset’s battery life when you are using it as a Bluetooth headset or as an active-noise-reduction headset with another device.

Plantronics BackBeat Pro Bluetooth noise-cancelling headset - right earcup

Left-side earcup with track navigation toggle, play-pause button on earcup and noise-cancellation switch

The controls are easy to discover with a large ring on the right earpiece to adjust the sound volume, a large ring on the left earpiece to move between tracks, a large button on the left earpiece for playing and pausing music and a large button on the right earpiece for handling calls. The power and noise-cancel slide switches are easy to discover and locate with the former on the right earpiece and the latter on the left earpiece.

Plantronics BackBeat Pro headset - sockets

Connectivity options – USB charging socket and 3.5mm headset input jack (wired for Apple / CTIA)

There is a motion sensor that starts and stops your music device when you put the headphones on and take them off. But this can be very erratic in some situations such as a rough road or rail ride or sometimes even putting them on a table and subsequently picking them up has me find that they start playing too early. A supplied configuration program can be used to adjust this function but I would prefer a hardware switch to enable and disable this function.

Comfort and Durability

The Plantronics Backbeat Pro has the same kind of comfort level expected for most circum-aural headsets and could be worn for a significant amount of time. You could feel that they were there without it feeling as though they are crushing on your head and the padded headband provided that feeling as if they were just there.

Plantronics BackBeat Pro Bluetooth noise-cancelling headset

Cloth speaker grilles assure comfortable long-time use

The ear surrounds even didn’t come across as something that could end up being sweaty. As well, your ears rest on foam cushioning with cloth lining the earpiece areas so as to allow for increased comfort. Here you even have the sides that each earcup represents written on the cloth lining itself. The only comfort tradeoff you may find with the Plantronics BackBeat Pro and its peers is that due to their hard construction, they may feel uncomfortable to use when you are sleeping if you sleep with your head on your side.

As for build quality, I would expect them to last a long time. This is through the use of durable design practices like thicker plastic and placing a plastic conduit which houses the cabling between the earpieces against an aluminium strip.

Sound

I was able to run the Plantronics Backbeat Pro headset at lower volumes while the sound is still audible which makes for a headset that is designed with efficient drivers. This would then allow for the headset to run on its own batteries for a long time yet be useable.

Music

The music came through loud and clear and with that desirable amount of bass response. I even disabled any equalisation curves in my media player and any in my phone to identify whether the bass response was there without the need for added equalisation and found that these headphones still delivered the punch in the music.

Video and Games

The Plantronics Backbeat Pro has come up trumps with video content in that it was able to yield clear dialogue and give punch to those effects. I was even keeping an ear out for effects like gunshots or vehicle moment while watching Kurt Wallander because they are the kind of effects used in some of the games liked by “core” gamers and they came through with that desirable punch.

Communications use

I have made and taken a few phone calls using the Plantronics Backbeat Pro Bluetooth headset and have noticed that the conversation came through clearly for both myself and the caller. I also tried the headset a few times with Google Now and the voice assistant could parse what I was saying easily. The headset call button worked as expected with the ability to tap twice to call the last number or tap and hold to invoke Google Now or Siri depending on your mobile device.

Noise reduction and handling in noisy environments

I used the Plantronics Backbeat Pro headset in the back of a transit bus and had noticed some level of noise reduction when the bus was at speed and was able to hear my music content more clearly.

Active Noise Cancelling

The Active Noise Cancelling function is available when the headset is switched on and can work either with a wired connection or the Bluetooth connection. Here, you then enable it using a slide switch on the left earpiece and can notice the difference.

Here, the rumbling associated with trains and the like is cancelled out using so-called anti-noise. There was a noticeable difference when I used it on the train in Melbourne’s City Loop because I heard very little of the rumbling associated with through-tunnel train travel but could have my music at a decent volume. The experience was also the same when I used this headset in a few different transit buses and the noise from the engine was significantly reduced. As well the noise-cancelling function had no effect on the BackBeat Pro’s bass response. In some situations, I could hear the destination announcements that were called over the train’s intercom or a radio station played over a rail-replacement charter bus’s sound system more clearly and intelligibly even if I had my music going.

The only problem with using Active Noise Cancelling is that if you want to simply just run that functionality without the headset working with another audio device, you have to plug something in to the 3.5mm jack to override the Bluetooth transceiver. This may be of annoyance for those of you who are trying to sleep on the overnight train or that night flight or use the Active Noise Cancelling to effectively mute out the air-conditioner’s noise while trying to go to sleep..

Limitations

The active noise cancelling function  could be set up to run independent of Bluetooth operation or having the headphone cable plugged in. This could be handy when you are in a noisy environment without needing to deal with a cable that can entangle you. An example of this could be to claw some sleep when you are in the plane or in a motel room where there is a noisy old air-conditioner.

The microUSB charging socket on this headset could be set up to work as a way to connect the headset to a computer and have it serve as a USB audio sound device for that computer. The controls could also be mapped through as USB Human Interface Device controls for multimedia and telephony use. This would earn its keep when you are on the plane and using a laptop which is set up for “flight mode”, or are using the headset with a desktop computer for online communications and gaming, especially as traditional “three-piece” desktop computers don’t necessarily support Bluetooth.

The Plantronics Backbeat Pro could benefit from a hardware switch to enable or disable the sensors that allow it to play or stop the music source if you take the headset off. This can be of importance where the ride is bumpy and this function could be susceptible to false triggering.

As well, the headphone cord could benefit from a switch which selects between OMTP / Apple (CTIA) headset wiring mode. This is because not all mobile phones and communications devices are wired for CTIA (Apple) mode and you may want to make sure that your BackBeat Pro could work with anything your present to.

As for adaptors, the Plantronics Backbeat Pro Bluetooth headset missed out on an inflight-entertainment adaptor which is considered abnormal for a noise-cancelling headset that would be typically used in an aeroplane.

Conclusion

I would recommend the Plantronics BackBeat Pro for those of you who value a Bluetooth noise-cancelling travel headset that excels on usability especially when you use your smartphone as a music player when you are travelling on public transport. As well, it would earn its keep with those of you who aren’t necessarily after the fashionable headset brands but are really after something that does the job.

If you do need to use this headset as an active-noise-reduction headset without the use of any program-source device, you could use a 3.5mm plug which you could purchase from an electronics store and plug this in to the audio jack on the headset.

Product Review–Kingston HyperX Cloud II Gaming Headset

Introduction

Kingston HyperX Cloud II gaming headset - boom removed

The headset with a removable boom

The Kingston HyperX Cloud II Gaming Headset is a traditional-look headset with a detachable boom microphone. Here, this allows you to use it as a pair of stereo headphones or as a “full-on” stereo headset. This includes using it in the plane thanks to an “in-flight-entertainment” two-plug adaptor so it can plug in to your seat’s armrest.

It also comes with a USB sound module so you can use the headset with your computer when playing games and this provides claimed surround-sound abilities as well as supporting the audio input and output required of the headset.

The headset is available with a choice of either red accents or grey accents to suit your style.

Kingston HyperX Cloud II gaming headset

Price

RRP: AUD$149

Type

Headphone Assembly Traditional over-the-head
Driver Positioning Circum-aural (over the ear with sound-containing foam wall)
Driver Enclosure Closed Back
Microphone Position Boom attached to headphone assembly
Connectivity
Headset 3.5mm four-conductor phone plug
Adaptors USB sound module
Two-pin airline inflight-entertainment adaptor

The headset itself

Connectivity

The headphones that are part of the Kingston HyperX Cloud II come with a four-conductor 3.5mm phone plug which can work with most smartphones and stereo equipment.

Kingston HyperX Cloud II headset USB adaptor

USB headset adaptor for your regular computer – separately adjustable input and output levels

But Kingston provided a USB-connected sound module that presents to Windows as a logical sound-output device and a logical sound-input device. This is done using the class drivers that were provided out of the box with Microsoft Windows and is something you would experience with your Macintosh or your Linux computer. This works properly and is more to allow you to have a separate communications channel for games while you have the sound effects coming through the computer’s speakers.

For Windows users, it is worth reading an article I have written about how you can manage multiple sound devices like headsets especially if you want this to be a private-listening or communications headset.

Comfort

The Kingston HyperX Cloud II Gaming Headset does feel securely tight on your head and is comfortable to wear. This is thanks to the padded headband and the ear cushions which also don’t feel sweaty.

This means that you can enjoy wearing the headset for a long time without any fatiguing even on hotter days or intense gaming sessions.

Sound quality

Music

As far as the bass response is concerned, it is there but not overpowering. It doesn’t overpower the vocals nor does it overpower melodic or harmonic instruments in the mix. Here, this means that you still have that “kick” that is desireable for a lot of music but it doesn’t boom.

Video content

I watched some video-on-demand content using a review-sample laptop and have found that the Kingston HyperX Cloud II gaming headset does treat dialogue and sound effects very well. The headset even handles ambient effects clearly and gives bite to the “sounds that matter” like the aggressive engine sound of a vehicle used in a hit-and-run scene in the show I was watching. This gives it some worth when it comes to using the headphones with your laptop for watching video content or playing games.

Communications use

I have made and taken some calls with this headset and do hear the caller clearly and have used it with the microphone for a video call on my computer. Here, I had to raise the volume on the supplied USB adaptor to get my voice heard by the caller when I was making a Skype call.For portable use, you still need to run the Kingston HyperX Cloud II Gaming Headset hard with some devices to obtain a decent loudness and this may also have an impact on your device’s battery life. With laptops, I could get a decent sound out of the headset without running it at a high level.

Noise reduction and handling in noisy environments

I have used the Kingston HyperX Cloud II gaming headset as a travel headset and integrated a bus journey as part of my travels. Here, I sat up the back of a typical transit bus and used the headset there to determine whether the engine noise was reduced while I used it.Here, I noticed a significant amount of noise reduction while being able to hear the program material that I was listening to and concluded that you can benefit from this somewhat for bus or train travel but may not be effective for air travel especially when the plane is in flight.

Limitations And Points Of Improvement

One feature I would like to see for the Kingston HyperX Cloud II Gaming Headset would be to have a detachable cable and the availability of replacement cables. This is because whenever you are engaging in heavy gaming, you may pull on the headset and this could cause the connection to become unreliable.

Similarly, the USB adaptor could be offered as a standalone accessory for use with headsets so you can connect a headset of your choice with your computer for gaming, videocalls or voice recognition. Here, it could be switched between the Apple configuration or the OMTP configuration so it can be used with headsets destined for the iPhone or open-standards devices. This is something that will be important for the Windows platform as Cortana comes to the Windows 10 operating system as a voice assistant or for businesses who want to use softphones as part of their IP-based telephony needs.I would also like to see the headset plug able to be switched between Apple and OMTP configurations to work with smartphones, along with a switch on the cable or headset for call control.

Conclusion

It is easy to think of the Kingston HyperX Cloud II Gaming Headset as strictly a gamer’s headset but it can work well as an all-round headset you could use with your laptop or your smartphone. This is more so if you are on a budget but you still want some “kick” from your music or sound-effects.

As for value-for-money, I do find that this headset does offer that especially if you want to see it in use beyond your games console or “gaming-rig” computer, such as for Skyping friends, listening to music or watching videos using your tablet or laptop.

Product Review–Sony MDR-10RC Stereo Headset

Introduction

I am reviewing the Sony MDR-10RC stereo headset which is a new set of Sony headphones optimised for the kind of audio recording technology that was being put forward for high-quality sound such as the 24-bit 192kHz file-based audio along with the “new-cut” vinyl records.

They are the “compact” base set of headphones for the MDR-10RBT Bluetooth headset and the MDR-10RNC active-noise-cancelling headphones to take on the plane with you. Sony have taken the right steps by designing advanced headset categories based on a good pair of headphones rather than “reinventing the wheel” by designing new headsets for the advanced categories.

Sony MDR-10RC stereo headphones

Price

RRP: AUD$179

Type

Headphone Assembly Traditional over-the-head
Driver Positioning Circum-aural (over the ear with sound-containing foam wall)
Driver Enclosure Closed Back
Microphone Position In-line on headset cord
Connectivity
Headset 3.5mm four-conductor jack plug on headset cord

The headset itself

Connectivity

Sony MDR-10RC headphones - detached cord

Sony MDR-10RC headphones with cord detached

The Sony MDR-10RC stereo headphones have single-sided connection but they also have a detachable cord which is a feature that I desire of headphones. I remember the countless times that I have had to write off headphones because the cord has become damaged near the equipment plug and the detachable cord means that I can easily repair or replace the headphone cord if it becomes damaged.

Like the previously-reviewed Denon MusicManiac AH-D600 stereo headphones, these headphones come also with a separate “headset cable” with inline microphone which turns it in to a stereo headset as well as a 3.5mm stereo jack cord for use with other equipment.  This can make these headphones earn their keep with smartphones and similar devices when you do a lot of the travelling.

Comfort

For this class of headset, the Sony MDR-10RC felt very lightweight. This, along with the padded headband, made the headphones very comfortable to wear and less fatiguing to use.

The earcups on these headphones don’t feel excessively sweaty thus being able to be worn comfortably for a long time even on hot days.  This is compared with the way some headphones that use leather or vinyl ear surrounds or cushions can feel sweaty after a significant amount of use.

Sound

The Sony MDR-10RC headphones yielded a fair bit of “kick” from the bass but it wasn’t too boomy or dominant. I could also hear the rest of the music clearly and effectively hear a lot more of the quieter parts of that music. It has meant that this pair of headphones could come in to their own if you love your music. As well, the sound wasn’t in any way fatiguing to listen to.

Even for non-music content, the Sony MDR-10RC headphones were able to come through well with this content. Here, you could hear the voices clearly and effects from home video were able to come through clearly without being “muddled”. The bass response had also given life to various voices from YouTube videos I have seen using my phone.

Noise reduction and handling in noisy environments

In the CBD environment, I had noticed a significant amount of noise reduction with some of the essential sounds from outside coming through. As well, I used the Sony headphones in a transit bus and was at the back of that bus yet I noticed significant reduction with the engine noise even when the bus was at speed. This means that these headphones could work well for transit users who do a lot of commuting on buses or diesel-railcar trains.

Other Comments And Observations

Previously I had let a friend of mine who is in to funk, soul and related music try out the Denon UrbanRaver AH-D320 headphones that I was reviewing and he was impressed with them offering the bass response. This time I let him try out the Sony MDR-10RC headphones and he was impressed with the bass response where the bass was there but not dominant.after listening to Earth Wind & Fire’s “September” and Daft Punk’s summer anthem “Get Lucky”. He mentioned that these weren’t the “studio grade” headphones but were much better and lighter than a set he used in the 1970s.

I shared the Sony MDR-10RC headphones with a fellow commuter on the train who was using his own pair of Audio-Technica headphones in order to hear how he thought of the headphones compared with his “cans”.  He noticed a lot more of the noise reduction as well as a deeper bass response compared to what he was used to with the Audio-Technica “cans”.

Limitations and Points Of Improvement

One feature that the Sony MDR-10RC headphones misses clearly is a supplied 6.35mm plug adaptor which allows you to use the headphones with hi-fi and professional-audio equipment that has the larger 6.35mm “jack” for the headphones connection. This can easily be rectified by you having many of these adaptors floating around from headsets that are or were in use and the fact that an increasing number of home audio and AV equipment uses the 3.5mm jack.

There isn’t much else that is lacking with these headphones when it comes to having these as an all-rounder set of “cans”.

Conclusion

I would position the Sony MDR-10RC headphones as a high-quality “all-rounder” circum-aural headset. This is whether as an entry-level “monitor” headset for people starting to show an interest in audio or video recording or DJ mixing; a pair of headphones to listen to your hi-fi system, smartphone, tablet or MP3 player while loafing on the couch or travelling on public transport; or simply a high-quality laptop accessory.

Android comes to a pair of headphones near you

Article

Streamz Reveals Android-based Smart Headphones | Tom’s Hardware

My Comments

Denon UrbanRaver AH-D320 headphones

Headphones like these could become like the current crop of smartwatches

Streamz are exhibiting a proof-of-concept headphone system that is effectively the headphone equivalent to a smartwatch. Here, these headphones have the Android operating system and an app platform along with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity to provide access to online and network-hosted music sources.

They will be managed via a control-surface app for most regular-computing and mobile-computing platforms in a similar vein to what Samsung, Sony and others are doing for their smartphones. As well, they maintain their own 4Gb onboard storage and a microSDHC card slot for additional storage.

One of the goals provided by these headphones is to provide hi-fi-quality digital-analogue converters in the headphones where the DAC in these headphones works to CD-quality (or should I say DAT-quality) 2-channel 48khz 16-bit standards along with hi-fi-grade drivers and amplifiers.

Being the first product of its kind, there will be issues with compatibility with other “smart headphone” software and the headphones missing certain functions like the ability to exploit Wi-Fi Passpoint technology. Similarly, as far as I know, they aren’t really a stereo headset with a built-in microphone which you can use also for communications purposes.

It is an example of increasing the functionality in the peripheral devices that augment a smartphone’s operation leading them to become standalone smart devices rather than become totally dependent on other devices.

Last minute shopping ideas

Are you still at the shops looking for gifts to buy those loved ones? Have a look at this list of last-minute shopping ideas so you have something to give.

Headphones, Earphones and Speakers

Denon UrbanRaver AH-D320 headphones

Denon UrbanRaver AH-D320 headphones

Whether someone is working with a poor-quality headset or simply has lost or damaged their headphones, a replacement or additional headset can earn its keep.

Similarly the headset that they are using may not suit a particular activity they are doing like jogging or listening to content in a noisy environment. For example some headsets may earn their keep better for on-the-road use compared to other headsets or someone who does a lot of air travel or commutes by bus or diesel-powered train may appreciate the active-noise-cancelling headphones.

Bluetooth headsets can be of benefit to smartphone, tablet ad laptop users as a way to achieve private wireless handsfree communication. Why I mentioned tablet and laptop users is because of programs like Viber, Skype and Lync that allow for audio or video calls using these devices.  There are the Bluetooth audio adaptors that can covert a pair of wired headphones to a wireless headset and most of these come in the form of “Bluetooth in-ear headsets” which have these adaptors supplied with a pair of bud-style earphones.

Sony SA-NS510 Portable Wireless speaker

Sony SA-NS510 portable wireless speaker

Wireless speakers are still worth considering whethe they are Bluetooth-based or Wi-Fi-based, most of which serve as Internet radios under the control of a software app for smartphones and tablets. The cheaper variety can work as an ad-hoc portable listening device for a smartphone, tablet or ultraportable laptop and better-quality units can work well as an adequate secondary sound system for a small area. If you are buying a Wi-Fi-based unit, make sure that it supports AirPlay and DLNA or is a Wi-Fi / Bluetooth type that supports DLNA for Wi-Fi use.

To the same extent, a Bluetooth-capable radio can serve as an alternative to wireless speakers if you are thinking of something for the kitchen, workshop or office and you want access to broadcast or, in some cases, Intenret radio.

Input Devices

External hard disk

A typical external hard disk

One last-minute shopping idea for most technology users would be an input device of some sort like a keyboard or mouse. This includes Bluetooth keyboards and mice that come in handy for tablets and some smartphones or a small USB “multimedia” keyboard for a games console or some smart TVs and video peripherals.

Examples where they could benefit would be to create a “full-sized” workstation with a full-width keyboard for an ultraportable laptop or a tablet or a proper keyboard to use with a Smart TV or games console to enter in login parameters or social-media text on these devices rather than “hunt-and-peck” or SMS-style text entry.

Of course, they would earn their keep with replacing that half-dead computer keyboard, mouse or games controller thus benefiting from increased reliability.

Storage

The USB memory key always earns its keep as a removable storage solution for most devices especially if you are doing things like printing photos from your image collection at commercial photo-printing kiosks, using as a “virtual mixtape” for music to play in the car or on another music system or simply to keep certain important data with you on the go. Blu-Ray player users can use these USB memory keys to locally store downloadable BD-Live content peculiar to their own experience with the BD-Live disc and player. This could even allow them to take the same data between many Blu-Ray players which comes in to its own with BD-Live interactive entertainment that maintains local scoreboards or progress charts.

USB external hard disks also serve a purpose for providing offline backup of large amounts of data or offloading a large quantity of data from a laptop. This is more important with users who operate an ultraportable laptop that uses lower-capacity solid-state storage or for travellers who want to make sure they have a copy of the data in their in-room safe. Some smart TVs and digital-TV set-top boxes also benefit form USB hard disks simply to allow them to gain PVR functionality.

Similarly, most digital camera users and Android phone users would benefit from a spare SD or microSD storage card. The camera users can see these cards serving as extra rolls of film that can be swapped out at will where you can gain access to the photos for printing or downloading. For Android and, to some extent, Windows Phone, users, the microSD card can work as infinitely-expandable storage or, as I use them, as the equivalent of the mixtapes.

Covers, sleeves and other accessories

One simple way to personalise any portable computing device is to purchase ta cover, sleeve or pouch that reflects the personality of the user. In the case of smartphones, cases that look like a wallet or notepad also can add that look of something that exists alongside one’s wallet and other personal accessories.

Similarly, “gadget bags” come in to their own with people who has laptops, smartphones, tablets or digital cameras. These can be small “toiletry-bag-style” bags or “school-style” pencil cases that can be used to keep chargers, cables and other accessories “rounded up” and hard to lose to neat-looking camera cases that can keep cameras and their accessories protected.

As wit these, pay extra attention to the quality of the material, the stitching and any fasteners that are part of these accessories because a lot of cheaper poor-quality types easily become undone by stitching coming apart or zippers giving way. This is because these cases undergo a lot of use as people use their portable computing devices through life.

Other notes

Have a look at the Essential Smartphone Accessories gadget list that I recently published because these highlight the kind of accessories a person who has a smartphone or tablet can never be without. Of course, it is so easy to think that you should have a certain quantity of chargers, extermal battery packs or similar devices but they are the kind of devices you never have too many of and are easy to lose or not have with you at the right time.

If you know what they like for music, video material, games or books, the right title can fill the spot easily. In some areas like Australia and New Zealand, these earn their keep as Christmas is immediately followed by the main summer holidays that most people take and it becomes the time to enjoy these titles more easily.

Of course, if you are not sure of what to give a person, a gift card to an online app store, online music store or “bricks-and-mortar” music, games, technology or similar store can answer you gift-giving needs. Some gift cards such as the JB HiFi gift card can be exchanged for credit towards another storefront like an online app store like the Apple iTunes storefront. Similarly, vouchers to the same merchant from different can be added towards a more significant purchase.