bluetooth

Anker SoundBuds Sport IE20

Anker SoundBuds Sport IE20 Macro

As a rule of thumb, the headphones you got with your latest audio device are probably rubbish. I.e the headphones that came with your phone.

Every phone I’ve bought has come with some kind of included headphones (or more accurately “headset” since there’s a microphone on them), and in nearly every case, they have been rubbish.

When I say “rubbish,” I don’t mean they don’t work – they obviously do. But they deliver at best very average audio, and in many cases really poor audio. I include Apple in this list.

While over the ear headphones invariably sound better than any other type, the fact is that in-ear headphones are usually more practical and convenient, so I’m regularly seeking out affordable in-ear headphones to listen with.

Before I get onto my most recent headphones, I’ll say a little about others I’ve used regularly in the last few years. I should point out that I tend to use and abuse headphones. They usually follow me everywhere, and cables get caught and pulled, and supplied cases are rarely used.

Sennheiser CX 300 II – I’ve owned lots of pairs of these, because they sound excellent and are very reasonably priced. However, the reason I’ve had lots of pairs is that I found that the build quality wasn’t great and I got through a new pair every 6-9 months. Also, these are headphones only, so there’s no microphone for taking calls.

Sennheiser CX 5.0 G – I’ve recently started using these again after a period of disuse. The quality is excellent, and unlike the CX 300 IIs, there’s a microphone and three buttons for controlling your phone. I have the Android version, the G standing for Samsung Galaxy, but found they work well with my HTC 10. I did have problems with my previous Sony Xperia Z3, with only volume up really working. The reason I hadn’t been using them that much was that none of the included rubber ear bud cases were quite right for me. I solved this by purchasing some Comply foam replacements. These have to be ordered from Comply in the US direct, because while most of Comply’s range is widely available the Sennheiser fitting is not available internationally. But once fitted, the headphones are excellent.

SoundMAGIC E10 – Another headphone I’ve owned several pairs of. These come with a plentiful selection of rubber caps to choose from, and I found them excellent. I still managed to break a few sets over the years, and again, these are headphones only. Recently SoundMAGIC has announced the E10BT which are Bluetooth wireless set of phones. Certainly worth considering, if more pricey.

HTC Hi-Res – When I said earlier that all headphones that come with your phone are decidedly average at best, I wasn’t being entirely accurate. The earphones that HTC supplies with its HTC 10 are superb. They fit well, and have excellent sound reproduction with great volume. The only issues I have are that there is only a single button in line, and replacements are really hard to come by. When one ear stopped working on mine, I hunted high and low to find replacements. On eBay I only found a pair in white (I never wear white headphones), and in the end, it was HTC’s service department that supplied me with a replacement pair. But these really are excellent.

I mention all of this so you know where I’m coming from with headphones. Affordable quality rather than over-priced branding. This piece is supposed to be a review the Anker Soundbuds Sport IE20 however.

Anker SoundBuds Sport IE20 Macro - with Remote

Now I’m not going to pretend these are the best headphones on this list. I think I probably still prefer the HTC Hi-Res or Sennheiser CX 5.00 in terms of sound quality. But these do sound pretty good. And then there’s the not-inconsiderable question of their price. While most of the others have been £30+, these come in at £24 at time of writing. Did I mention that they’re wireless Bluetooth?

They come well packaged with a frankly unparalleled array of rubber pieces to make the earphones fit your ear. I find fit the single biggest problem with any headphones. If I can’t keep them in my ears, then it doesn’t matter what anyone else says – they’re useless for me. A case in point would be Apple’s standard earbuds. They simply don’t fit my ears, and I can’t keep them in. As a consequence, Apple’s recently launched and ridiculous looking Earpods won’t fit me either. One size fits all? One size fits none more like.

I found that the Ankers fitted my ears “as is” – that it, with the standard rubber caps, but in fact with the entire headphone swallowed by my ears. Once in, they rarely come loose, staying in as I walk or cycle around. The earphones come with a wire that loops around the back of your head and includes a small strap fastener to minimise “hang.” Personally I like the ability to hang the headphones around my neck – it keeps them convenient, but out of my ears for talking to people, listening to announcements or whatever. And of course, should one dislodge itself, then it doesn’t fall straight to the floor.

There is a three button remote controlling volume up/down and start/stop – all of this working via Bluetooth. Pairing the earphones was straightforward, and the controls work well on my Android phone.

The right hand side has a small rubber cap covering a micro-USB charging point. Anker claim that a 1.5 hour charge will give 8 hours playback and that feels about right in my experience. The phones also have a very clever magnetic on/off facility. When you connect the backs of the left and right sides together, they clasp via a magnet and power-off Bluetooth. Obviously that’s essential because there’s nothing worse that your phone ringing on your desk, but forgetting that your headphones are still connected when you try to answer!

A small blue and orange LED lets you know when the earphones are connected, when they’re charging and when they’re powering down, and a small pouch is supplied if you want to carry them around with you.

Overall then, a really impressive package at a very reasonable price.

There are a couple of issues though.

The magnetic clasp works well when it works, but they can come unattached in a pocket and then connect to your phone, slowly flattening the battery at the same time (they should disconnect through non-use though). And the headphones are so discreet, you may forget that they’re there. I accidentally attended a meeting with them around my neck without even noticing.

The biggest problem you will have is the same that you have with any wireless headphones – the battery. Eight hours’ power is enough time that you don’t need to charge them every day (assuming you’re mostly using them for commuting or exercising). But it’s not enough that you don’t need to think about battery power at all. You are going to get caught out without power, and unfortunately, like other wireless headphones I’ve tried, the power tales off very quickly towards the end. The only way you can check power is an audible warning noise when you’re approaching the end. Sadly, that probably means a maximum of 15 minutes before the headphones die.

While the headphones don’t come with a fancy charging case a la Apple Earpods, you can charge them with a standard USB charger. I tend to keep a lipstick-sized Anker power bank in my bag all the time. The issue is that on a practical level, you have to stop listening to recharge. So while you might only require a 15 minute boost to get your through the rest of your journey, that’s 15 minutes without audio. For me, that means keeping a spare set of wired headphones in the bottom of my bag for such emergencies. While micro USB might be a bit fiddly, it does at least mean that you have multiple ways to charge the headphones.

If you love a throbbing baseline, then these aren’t for you. The only other issue I’ve had is down to the strength of the Bluetooth signal. I find that you can’t wander too far from the phone for uninterrupted sound, and occasionally there are signal issues in some areas. I usually keep my phone in left breast or hip pockets, and rarely have problems with the distance to the headphones. However there are certainly more powerful BT units out there – Sony MDR-1ABT over the ear headphones for example.

However, overall, and notwithstanding some limited shortcomings, I can thoroughly recommend these headphones for the quality, sound and convenience. It is liberating losing a wire connected to your phone, although that does mean owning something else to keep charged.

Anker SoundBuds Sport IE20 Macro - right hand side

Chromecast Audio – Initial Thoughts

buy-audio-chromecast-lightbox

At Google’s recent devices launch, they announced a new version of the Google Chromecast – a £30/$35 device that plugs into an HDMI socket and lets you stream video via WiFi, using a phone/tablet/laptop as controller. It’s a neat device.

They also announced Chromecast Audio – essentially doing the same for audio for your existing speakers. Why go out and replace your perfectly good audio set-up with something bespoke like Sonos, when for £30/$35, you can stream directly?

Amazon is behaving like a stroppy teenager right now, and has taken away its ball and refuses to sell the new Chromecast devices. They say that it’s to avoid confusion with its customers who might expect to be able to watch Amazon Prime with them. The fact that there are dozens of no-brand streaming devices still available for sale on Amazon, and in any case, Amazon could easily add Chromecast to its Android app, is seemingly neither here nor there. In fact you can currently buy the older version of Chromecast – but I assume that’s while stocks last. The only real improvement I can see with the new version is multi-band WiFi meaning that you might get a better signal if you had problems before.

And despite Chromecast Audio not competing at all with Amazon Prime, I can’t find it on the UK site.

However, the good news for UK customers is that PC World seems to have loads of new Chromecasts. I popped by the Tottenham Court Road store yesterday and found them stacked up all over the place. Furthermore, they had an equal number of the Chromecast Audio devices. The devices can also be bought direct from Google, and I note that Argos also stocks the regular Chromecast, but seemingly not the Audio version.

I bought one and thought I’d write about my initial experiences. Inside the smart box is the device itself, circular and designed to look a bit like a vinyl record, with grooves around the outside. There’s also a very short and very yellow 3.5mm-3.5mm jack lead, and a micro-USB charger.

The Chromecast on my TV is able to power itself from a USB socket negating the need for a charger, but my ancient JVC mini-system (20 years old and still sounding great) obviously doesn’t have a USB socket, so I needed to use the charger. Since I was replacing a perfectly serviceable Logitech Bluetooth adaptor, this didn’t prove a problem, switching out one power adapter for another.

The device obviously has a 3.5mm jack socket, but it also has an optical out, but you’ll need to supply your own mini-TOSLINK to TOSLINK optical cable for connection to an AV receiver or amplifier. I used an existing 3.5mm to RCA cable.

The only slight issue I have with the design is that the device wont’ lie flat. Broadly speaking Chromecast devices are designed to be hidden away behind TV’s and audio devices, the new TV adaptor coming with a short length of flexible connector to ensure it can safely “hang” from any recessed HDMI port. However, I suspect that Aux sockets of audio devices are even more variable in positioning, and being able to pop it someone it won’t move would be useful.

Hooking it up to your WiFi is easy. You open the Chromecast app on your phone (or do it from the web), let it have your WiFi network and password, update software as necessary and you’re away. Unlike the TV device, you obviously have no screen to make sure that everything is working properly, but it took me about two minutes to get set-up, and it’ll play an audio test signal to ensure you’re connecting it correctly. You can also enable a guest mode to allow visitors who may not have access to your home WiFi network, to stream from their devices.

Once up and running you have the new Chromecast app to help you both discover Chromecast compatible apps, and direct you to ones you already have.

Now unlike my Bluetooth adaptor, which essentially sent all my phone’s audio to the speakers, Chromecast does only work properly with apps that have embedded its functionality. In audio terms for me, the key two are Google Music and PocketCasts for podcasts. Aside from live radio, the vast majority of my listening comes via these apps, and they’re completely compatible.

Obviously the key difference is that streams come direct from your router to the Chromecast device rather than router to phone, and then onwards via Bluetooth to the speakers.

That’s one fewer places for the audio to fall down, and it should also mean that the audio will sound better, not being passed through potentially lossy Bluetooth compression. I should say that I’ve been pretty happy with recent iterations of Bluetooth though, but then I wouldn’t classify myself as having “golden ears.”

This system also means that your phone’s notifications don’t come through and interrupt your audio. That’s handy if your phone is regularly pinging away with email and social media updates. On the other hand, you do have to pro-actively send you audio to Chromecast, whereas you may have a set-up currently where your phone automatically latches onto Bluetooth without any assistance on your part (I tend to turn that off, since my phone ringing in the bedroom while I’m in the lounge actually with my phone isn’t all that helpful).

The key part of Chromecast Audio is really the apps. Spotify, which I rarely use, has recently had Chromecast added, but it’s not yet included in iPlayer Radio [Update 21 October: iPlayer Radio now supports Chromecast!]. It is in TuneIn, but not in Audible (owned by Amazon of course).

You can “mirror” your phone’s audio, as you can with its screen with the regular Chromecast, and that allows you to stream audio from those apps currently without Chromecast support, but that obviously eats battery and processing power of your device. Whether that’s worse than Bluetooth streaming I couldn’t say as I’ve not run comparative tests.

We’re promised that multi-room is coming soon – allowing you to synchronised audio across multiple Chromecast Audio devices. That would lead it to competing head-on with the likes of Sonos, at a significantly cheaper price.

Overall I’m pretty happy. I’d certainly like to see Chromecast support in more apps, but I appreciate that adding lots of bespoke systems to apps like Sonos and Chromecast, is an expensive proposition. You really can’t complain for the price, although it’s possible for some people a Bluetooth adaptor might remain a simpler solution. But if you already have a perfectly good audio system, then I’d certainly suggest giving it a go for such a low price.