Buying a Bluetooth® Speaker

Anker Soundcore Motion+

Here’s another vaguely-tech review for the more trusting among you! I love my gadgets but I think it just an excuse to go shopping. I like to get new things. Then I play with them a few times. And then they gather dust on the shelf.
That’s why I like to buy good stuff … but it must be cheap!
This review has a value bias.

I love the evaluation process almost as much as the shopping. Very often it’s the more expensive, well-known brand names that float to the top. The top choices in my mind were all the leading brand names that we all know & love. But I had one dark horse in the race too … the Soundcore Flare+™, from Anker, a company that’s trying to provide a quality product at a lower price point. A good strategy in my book & for my pocketbook.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a Flare+ at the store to listen to, so I went home to read more about it. To see if I could justify buying it without giving it a listen first. Then I stumbled across a brand new Anker speaker, the Soundcore Motion+™. It had just been released. Despite it not being available anywhere in Canada (& that just made me want it more!), the specs looked so good that I felt this must be the one. I bought it off Amazon.com, & who cares about the extra shipping & cross-border charges, it was still a lot cheaper than the brand name contenders I’d been considering.

Basics
The Motion+™ is a fairly plain, black brick, measuring a little over 3 x 3 x 10 inches, and weighing in at a few ounces over 2 pounds. A little chunkier & heavier than a couple of 1 pound butter bricks, placed end to end. It’s simple, but I like the look. It’s a little too heavy & chunky for on-board luggage travel, but getting decent sound is difficult with anything much smaller than this. The sound quality was more important than portability for me. It has a couple of tweeters, two neodymium woofers, & passive radiators that push out 30W. Comparing products by spec, we’re somewhat stuck with the Wattage as the comparison. It might be better if we knew the relationship between decibles & watts for each speaker, but nobody does that for these little things so we tend to rely on, & compare, wattage. I had a 12W & a 15W speaker already & they weren’t doing it for me anymore. The 30W sounded like a big improvement. And it is.

Key Specs
The grill protecting the speakers is metal, the rest of the body is a grippy rubber that can attract oil from our fingers, along with the dust & dirt that sticks to that. But the thing is IPX7 waterproofed so it’s easy to wash clean. It will survive being left out in the rain & even being dropped into the low end of the pool. The brick is more wedge shaped, giving a 15° angle of tilt towards the listener. Not a bad thing, I guess, & it does look a little cooler because of it.

The frequency range is billed as 50Hz to 40kHz. That sounds great but even a young person with great hearing probably maxes out, at the top end, in the 18 to 20kHz range. My hearing drops off somwhere between 9 & 10kHz. Though you can still drive your dogs & cats crazy going higher!
But … there’s nothing wrong with having a “better” spec than the competition.

From a tech standpoint, & this is great for a lower cost brand, this thing comes with all the latest stuff. Charging is via USB-C, so it matches all the latest phone chargers. You get a charging cord in the box, but not the power brick. It comes with a Hi-Res Audio sticker, & sports Bluetooth 5, with Qualcomm’s aptX™, for better quality & higher bandwidth streaming. But what does that mean?

If you’re playing your own MP3 files, not much. Similarly, most streaming service music won’t be anywhere near the kind of quality that will challenge these specs & capabilities. In addition to supporting a fuller bandwidth, the other advantage of aptX™ is latency. That happens when we watch a movie on our phone, & listen to the soundtrack through the speaker. Latency is the lag between the voice & the lips, or when the sound is out of sync with the action on screen. Watching video, I couldn’t detect any lip-syncing lag.

No NFC on this speaker, but that’s not a requirement for me. The Bluetooth connection was fast & easy. I haven’t checked to see if the battery life matches the 12 hour spec but it’s hanging in there & doing its thing, day after day, without me having to run to the charger.

Should You Worry About All These Specs?
That depends!
If you play highly compressed music files, or if you stream music at the “normal” or even at the “high” quality levels of most streaming services, probably not. I tested a high quality WAV file & I couldn’t tell the difference between the Bluetooth & the AUX cable (a lossless analog transfer). In fact, I wasn’t sure that I could tell the difference between the WAV file & a more compressed version of the same track, so I used a 3rd party for a “blind” sound test. She could reliably tell the difference between the WAV track & the compressed version, with 100% success over 10 iterations. And though she confidently claimed that she could tell the difference between Bluetooth & the AUX connection … she was wrong more often than right!
Though, since there’s no light going on to tell me, I can only hope the aptX™ stuff on my phone was working for all those tests too! 🙂

Now … what does all this mean in the real world?

For those with better hearing, playing a higher quality audio file may matter. But probably not if you don’t listen to them both being flipped back & forth in quick succession.
It looks like aptX™ is doing the job too, since it’s more difficult to tell the difference between using Bluetooth and the analog AUX cable.
And since my test subject could tell the difference between the quality of audio files, it looks like this little sub-one hundred dollar speaker is doing the job too.
The bottom line with specs, however, is that it rarely hurts to have gadgets with the latest & best specs.

Despite differences in what each individual can hear, the sound is really nice, all the way from low volume, right up to the max. The max being pretty uncomfortable on the ear if you’re sitting too close, so I guess that 30W is plenty for a deck or poolside speaker. Anything above 50% has the neighbours casting wry glances my way! For my own entertainment, I’m comfortable with it around the 20% mark. And the fullness, the richness, the roundness of the sound the Motion+ produces is good throughout the volume range. Things don’t fall apart when it goes loud, & it’s a very pleasant listen at lower volumes too. All in all, I was happy I pulled the trigger, sight unseen, on this little thing. It is a lot of speaker for the money.

You can add a 2nd Motion+ to the mix if you want a broader stereo platform. And that doubles the volume so make sure you invite the neighbours to the party ahead of time.

The AUX input is located right next to the USB-C charging port. This area is the only weakness from a waterproofing standpoint, hence the heavy rubber plug which must be pried open when you want to charge the speaker. Or for when you want to connect your phone or music player by wire.

Soundcore App
The app isn’t bad & it handles all the basics pretty well. First thing it did when I fired it up was a 7 minute firmware upgrade. All went well. Next, you must flip through the entire product range ’til you get to the Motion+ so you can select it. I’d prefer a list for this, rather than all that swiping. After that, you can choose a sound profile or create a custom profile. There is a BassUp™ button on the speaker that has a corresponding sound profile in the app, either one gives you the same result. I wasn’t impressed with any of the standard presets, so I created the one you see in the top left of the pic. There’s not much logic here, it’s just what I liked. The speaker has two passive radiators, one front & back, but it doesn’t have a secret, hidden sub-woofer & that’s probably why I tend to boost the bass. My higher frequency hearing is shot, so I’m likely doing a placebo compensation thing at the higher end of the scale. I still can’t hear anything beyond 10 kHz but it makes me feel better! 🙂
You will need to play with this to find what suits your ear. The end result of playing with the EQ sliders was far more pleasing to me than any of the included standard presets.

The 2nd image in the above pic is the profile that matches Soundcore’s BassUp™ technology. This, apparently, adjusts the bass in real time but I felt the loss of the mid-range & upper reaches so I kept going back to my custom profile. The profile at the bottom of the pic is Voice. I use this one for listening to podcasts. Here again, I can get a result that is more pleasing to me by adjusting the custom profile. Unfortunately, you can only save one custom profile, so I left that adjusted to my preferred settings for music. Once you save it, & if it’s the last profile used, it comes back by default next time you power up the speaker.

I listen to a pretty full range of music … Latin, Irish, folk, pop, rock, country & so on … but I’ll occasionally dip into my classical & opera “hits” playlists. My custom profile needed some tweaks for opera & classical music, I was lowering the bass & raising the higher frequencies. Ideally, I would like to be able to adjust the existing standard profiles, or I would like to have maybe 3 custom profiles that I could name & save. That would give me one each for Music, Classical & Podcasts. Otherwise though, the app is simple, straightforward & does what is should do.

Summary
I bought the Motion+™ without hearing it & I got lucky! It’s a good solid speaker, with great specs, & it comes with a basic, but decent, app. Where it really delivers is in giving some great sound, along with great value.

Interestingly, it’s currently unavailable on Amazon. What does this mean!?!? Is it wildly popular already & sold out? Or is there something strange afoot here? Will it become an instant collector’s item?

I don’t know what’s going on, nor do I care … I like it & mine is not going back!

A Marketer’s Dream

Smart Stuff or Clutter?

Google Home vs Amazon Alexa … not quite a review!

I’m a total sucker for a good line of marketing. And, with data collection being what it is these days, I’m like putty in the hands of the big marketers. But I’m happy to be a subject in the marketing wars. It’s like I’m having an out of body experience, watching myself be manipulated.
And that can be fun!

Two of my favorite companies are Google & Amazon. I use their products & services so much that I can hardly remember what life was life before they came to be. I haven’t totally lost it though: sometimes I will drive to the corner store without my GPS app running! And while I certainly make an effort to shop locally, not everything is available locally. So I’m glad to have an online alternative.

I noted, above, that this is not quite a review. It’s not that I can’t do a good review, it’s just that I don’t want to take the time to learn how to use these devices any better than I already do. If it doesn’t all fall into place automatically, I’m not bothered enough to take the time to go learn how to do any more. I got my first Google Home about a year ago. Google’s marketing strategy must have been winning my mind then.

It was great & I expected it to do all those wonderful things without me even thinking about it. But I’m really not doing much with it. It hung out in the living room … where it gave us the time, the weather, & who starred in what movie … but not much else. I started giving the device shopping list items, but then I couldn’t find them on the app. Where were these things hiding? I had the Home app on my phone & I had to do the whole “Hey Google” thing in the middle of the grocery store. I was afraid someone would recognize that I was a total idiot & stopped doing that! Again, no time to play & explore, just forget it for now. The Home device found it’s way to the bathroom, where it provides morning music at shower time. And that’s nice. But I never did get around to hooking up security cams & all the other stuff I dreamed of it doing when I bought it.
One day … soon!

About a month ago, I saw Amazon’s Echo Dot Gen 3 on sale. About half price. Oh well, why not! It started out in the living room, where it gave us the time, weather, & who starred in what movie. And I can add things to the shopping list. But now, I can find the shopping list on the Alexa app on my phone! Woohoo! This one is still in the living room & I subsequently signed up for a free trial of Prime. I’m watching some Amazon programming & it’s pretty good. I’m getting Amazon music, which is also pretty good. Today is the last Amazon Prime Day, by the way. This is like mid-summer Boxing Day sales on Amazon, with special deals for us special Prime members! Being a Prime member in Canada wasn’t a great deal one time. Now it’s got some shows & movies included, along with some music & books. I don’t think it’s the full version of any of those platforms, I’ll learn more when the full trail finishes & I’m back in the cheap seats. But this does add some value to the membership in Canada. The US version is more expensive than the Canadian one, but the US users get a lot more for their buck. Coincidentally (not!), Google offers sales around the same time as Amazon’s Prime Days.

Anyhow, I found myself buying an Amazon 4k TV Fire Stick in the Prime Day sale. Was I manipulated? Again!?!
Who cares … now I’m curious to see how involved I become with the Fire Stick. I already have Roku & Chromecast, so that will be an interesting comparison to make too.

A side-note here: Google & Amazon started playing together about a week ago. So now, we can cast Amazon’s Prime Video through Google’s Chromecast. And YouTube is available on Amazon’s services. Woohoo!
I’m sure it was all very complex but, as an end user & a faithful subject of their marketing plans, I’m just glad they’ve managed to get together on this front. It felt a little like two of my friends were having an unnecessary squabble!

I’m not sure I understand why we can’t change the voices & names on these things. Amazon gives a couple or three options but really, let me call my smart thing whatever I want, you guys. At least then, when I’m in the grocery store, I can pretend I’m having a phone conversation with my buddy, Seamus!

Back to the whole marketing thing … something tells me that Amazon is currently winning the award for control of my brain. And my wallet. The Amazon systems are just making it a little easier for me to be drawn in.
But I am overcome with guilt!
After all, I love Google too. And I really want that Google Home Max. I have nowhere to put it, really. But I want it anyway!

While all this stuff has gotten pretty smart, it’s not like it’s fully interactive AI yet. But maybe that’s a good thing. One day, I’m really going to take the time to learn how to use both products. Properly. And maybe then I’ll do a real review.

Meantime though … I’m enjoying stumbling through this stuff with both Google & Amazon.
What’s your favorite smart assistant?
What are some of your favorite uses for your little digital buddy?
And what’s it doing for you today!?!

Our Menu Options Have Changed

Our Menu Options Have Changed

Ducks Don’t Care!

If you have any influence on your company’s voicemail system, do me a favor & get rid of anything that comes even close to it saying …

“Please listen carefully, as our menu options have changed. Blah, blah, blah. Yada, yada, yah!”

Everyone’s shaggin’ menu system has changed. We don’t give a duck! Stop wasting my friggin’ time telling me about your menu system. I really & truly don’t give a flyin’ duck about your menu options. Just tell me what they are. Without having to listen to your preamble in that pathetic sniveling professional e-voice. As it wastes yet another two minute packet of my time.

And when did the damn thing change anyway? I’ve been calling your bloody company for 5 years now! Does it change every damn week or what? And even when you tell me it changes, why does it always sound the same? If you’re going to drone on about changes, at least entertain me by telling me what the changes are.

Do you think your company is the only dumb company I call? I don’t remember what number I pressed last time, so chances are I’ll have to listen to your stupid menu options anyway. So quit telling me to do that. Cut to the chase. Gimme the options. Now!

You shouldn’t worry so much about the clowns that hit the wrong number. Worry, instead, about the people you are pissing off. Who will then deliberately hit the wrong number, just to piss off someone at your place!

Not that any of it really matters. Since I know I’m probably going to get voicemail anyway!

Samsung S-Pen & Smart Switch

Samsung S-Pen & Smart Switch

My Little Duck.
Drawn with the S-Pen!

Back in the day, I loved my BlackBerry phones. When app development in the Apple & Android universes exploded, I found myself wanting to do things that all those people could do. I learned how to side-load Android apps on my BlackBerry so that I could keep pace. And I loved my BlackBerry keyboard, so I remained faithful.

One of the other big things that my BlackBerry did was sync with my desktop Microsoft Outlook. Until one day it didn’t! They eventually got around to restoring that functionality but meantime, I discovered that Samsung also did that. With Samsung Smart Switch software, not with a 3rd party app. Because Android wasn’t native to BlackBerry then, one or two of my side-loaded apps weren’t working properly. I decided to give Samsung a whirl. I went with a Galaxy Note because of the size of the screen. I like to read on my phone, it’s always with me so I’m never stuck. I managed to get over not having a keyboard. And the Outlook sync thing worked really well. Once or twice, it’s been screwed up by a new revision. But the support folk usually tide me over ’til they get it sorted out.

You might wonder why I’m still using desktop Outlook, but that’s a whole other story. For another day. The reality is that being able to sync to my phone was a big deal & Samsung did it. It also opened up the full native Android universe for me. And it had the S-Pen!

I admit, the S-Pen was a novelty at first. And the early versions really weren’t all that great. But I’m on my 4th Galaxy Note phone now. And with plan renewal coming up, I’m looking forward to No. 5. In addition to the Oulook sync, my loyalty to the Note phones is driven by the S-Pen. I go to meetings without paper. Though some are so not noteworthy, that I just doodle with my S-Pen! I can take sketches at a customer site. Add notes & arrows to pics. It’s just crazy how useful this thing is. For work & play.

But most importantly … I can draw little ducks!

And that is positively cathartic.

Who knows where the tech world will take us next. Now that BlackBerry is running native Android, maybe I should have another look. And I might be overdue to take at look at the Apple stuff again. There are some newer apps out there now for Outlook sync on the Android platform, maybe that opens up other Android phones for consideration.

But for now, I’ll just carry on salivating about my next Note & S-Pen combo!