Posts with «author_name|james trew» label

Rode's Rodecaster Pro II isn't just for podcasting

When Rode unveiled the original Rodecaster Pro it was something unusual: a capable mixing desk with a singular focus on podcasting. It made it easy to record multiple guests in person or over the internet/phone, while adding background music and audio enhancements in real time or with minimal processing in post. A mini radio station in a box if you will.

Today, Rode is announcing its successor, the Rodecaster Pro II, and the messaging this time is that it’s for all creators, be that podcasting, streaming or music production. The new hardware looks familiar, but brings with it several changes that should improve your audio wherever and whatever you publish.

The most obvious difference you’ll see here is the smaller footprint. The Rodecaster Pro II loses two physical fader strips in favor of occupying less desk space. You still have as many channels available, but some are assigned to virtual controls and it feels like the right move to save desk space.

Other external hardware tweaks include an all new contextual rotary control and the move to combo ports around the back rather than just straight XLR connections like the original. This opens the Rodecaster Pro II to things like guitars and synthesizers without occupying other inputs or needing adapters.

James Trew / Engadget

Whatever you plug into the new Rodecaster it should sound better as it comes equipped with new preamps that can drive even the most hungry of microphones (looking at you SM7B). Rode claims the new preamps are so powerful and quiet that using an in-line signal booster like a FetHed or Cloudlifter would technically be detrimental, not beneficial, to your audio quality. This remains to be tested, of course, but it’s good news either way if you have a microphone that needs a lot of gain.

On the listening side of things, Bluetooth on the Rodecaster Pro II supports audio out as well as in, which means you can get funky and monitor your show wirelessly on speakers or headphones. Rode also claims if you record call-in guests over Bluetooth there should be improved sound quality also (at least between the phone and the mixer – obviously not the cellular network).

Semi relatedly, there’s no longer a 3.5mm headphone jack on the front edge. On the original, the show’s host/producer could connect their headphones either around the back (with the other headphone jacks) or via the dedicated jack on the front, if that was more convenient. Alas that option has now gone and headphone 1 is only accessible via the 1/4 inch ports on the rear. A mild pain if you have a shorter/non-coiled cable.

On a more practical front, the new hardware has WiFi built-in and ethernet connectivity which allows for easy updating (without having to leave your computer on). You can also connect it to two PCs at the same time, or even your phone which makes it perfect for podcasters on the go or game streamers who have a separate gaming rig. You’ll also be able to record directly to SSDs as well as memory cards. And with that dual-PC connectivity your options for routing where your audio goes are myriad.

James Trew / Engadget

Perhaps the secret sauce here is how customizable the workflow is. This starts with simple things like the eight pads on the Rodecaster Pro II can trigger audio or send MIDI as before but also be assigned to “mixer actions” like a fade out or be used to switch cameras in your stream. You can also reassign mixer channels however you like, including mapping two inputs to one fader and saving them as profiles if you don’t like how things are out of the box.

There are also a number of new audio effects including stereo panning, echo and reverb. But perhaps the most unexpected addition here are some funny voice effects. This might make podcasters recoil, but Voicemod has proven popular… so somebody somewhere is all about the squeaky voices.

Overall, there’s quite a lot new here. The new audio internals and connectivity should make this a more viable option for all types of creators, and the ways to connect, configure and process the audio will likely make this much more flexible. Details important to streamers such as OBS control, dual PC connectivity and the ability to sync/delay audio to match video suggest it’s a genuine attempt at being more capable rather than just a few buzzy marketing terms.

Whatever your use case, the Rodecaster Pro II is available for pre-order starting today for $699. Rode expects to start shipping "early to mid-June."

Ayn's Odin is the retro gaming handheld to beat

There are many, many ways to play retro games today. Plenty of those options are handhelds. But you might be surprised at how many of these devices feel jury rigged, cheap or often both. Worse, there’s a mishmash of open-source emulators running on a variety of operating systems to deal with, and all of the hardware is different — in short, emulation is a bit of a wild west sometimes.

What’s more, even the better handhelds usually only emulate up to around the PS1/N64 era. If you’re a fan of the GameCube or PS2 libraries, for example, the venn diagram of handhelds powerful enough that are well made and reasonably priced is effectively three separate circles. Maybe not for much longer thanks to the Odin by Ayn.

Yep, I hadn’t heard of ‘em either, but in the retro gaming scene that’s not uncommon. The Odin was launched on Indiegogo and instantly drew a lot of attention. The premise is simple, to bring the aforementioned venn diagram together and make a more cohesive retro (and even modern game) handheld.

The Odin gets off to a good start by effectively mimicking the Switch Lite form factor. Though the Odin’s screen is a shade larger (5.9 inches compared to Nintendo’s 5.5) and, at FHD, higher resolution. Anecdotally, most people who’ve held both find the Odin more comfortable and even prefer the latter’s analog sticks and D-pad which is not bad for a company new to the space.

James Trew / Engadget

I’m personally a fan of how all the controls are laid out. The analogue sticks are far enough away to not interfere with the buttons/D-pad but close enough to allow for quick, comfortable switching between them. I also like that the sticks are a little shallower than on other controllers which means you don’t need to push as far to get the movement you need.

There are three different models of Odin available: Pro, Base and Lite. The Pro is the one we have been using and is, as the name suggests, the higher specification version. We’re not talking bleeding edge internals here, but with a Snapdragon 845 and an Adreno 635 doing the processing and graphics we’re looking at something similar to a high-end smartphone from a couple of years ago. Bear in mind that the Switch using an older chipset: It’s, as the saying goes, what you do with it that counts, right?

The differences between each model include battery size, SoC, storage, RAM and, of course, price. Here’s a cheat sheet for those interested:


Ayn Odin LiteAyn Odin BaseAyn Odin Pro
ProcessorMediaTek Dimensity D900Qualcomm Snapdragon 845Qualcomm Snapdragon 845
RAM/Storage4GB/64GB4GB/64GB8GB/128GB
Battery capacity5,000mAh5,000mAh6,000mAh
Price$200$240$290

It’s worth noting that if you’re only worried about the storage, all Odin’s come with a microSD card slot so you can expand the available memory that way if you prefer. As for battery capacity, the 6,000 mAh model I tested was good for around six hours of play on systems like the PS2/GameCube and, given everyone seems to test this game, about half that time with something like Genshin Impact.

This puts the Odin in an interesting spot. You can certainly pick up a very good retro handheld/emulator for around $100, but likely it won’t be able to play nearly as many games from as many platforms. Alternatively, you could spend over $1,000 on something like the Aya Neo which likely trounces the Odin but then is also four times the cost. Then there’s the Steam Deck which is a whole other beast, but a viable alternative if you want to play non-retro games also. It’s also a shade pricier than the Odin, starting at $400, but obviously not a direct competitor. All to say, the handheld market is kind of all over the place.

The Odin runs on Android. If that induces an internal groan, we get it. Android and gaming have a complicated history. But arguably Android makes the most sense for a device like the Odin. Not least because the hardware is comparable to that in a high end phone, but Android is also well catered for in the retro world, with most of the emulators having mature ports. Oh, and Android does have good games of its own, so you can play those natively too.

As much as the Odin is aiming to feel like a complete console rather than a single-board PC in a box running apps, there’s a bit of a problem. It’s almost impossible to do it any other way without going full remake a-la Analogue. That said, setting up the Odin was about as painless as this process gets. Pick the emulators you want, install them, load up on games and you’re more or less good to go. Often the physical controls are either already mapped or just take a minute to do so.

James Trew / Engadget

Ayn did give the Odin its own launcher which sorta-kinda makes it feel more “consoley” and less like an Android tablet, but honestly the version it ships with is clean enough that you can just stick with that. Thankfully there’s almost no extra app cruft on the Odin out of the box and, despite being Android 10, there’s support for Project Treble which should help keep it feeling current for longer.

If your interest is mostly around the NES/SNES or Sega equivalents, you can simply install RetroArch and kick back. There’s nothing unusual here for those most favored or classical consoles so I’ll focus on the more advanced systems.

For many it’s the promise of portable PlayStation 2 and GameCube emulation that will be a lure here. The PS2 is notoriously tricky thanks to the console’s custom processor. But the emulation community is industrious if nothing else and there are some pretty good options now. I tested out some of my favorites from my physical collection, but obviously had to start with Rez, just to see how it looked on that display.

Sure enough, it looked pretty fab. My left thumb is way less nimble than it was 20 years ago but the Odin barely flinched at serving up the game. I may have heard a few minor, almost imperceptible glitches in the audio, but they were infrequent and possibly something that could be remedied in the emulator settings rather than the hardware.

This experience was pretty much the same with any other title I tried. I spent time taking Raiden out for a crawl in the rain in Metal Gear Solid 2. While over in GTA: San Andreas, CJ’s hopes of going straight were just as futile (complete with slightly wonky physics) as I remembered. Final Fantasy XII’s dramatic opening sequence ran as smooth as it ever did and Reks’ brave naivety was almost glitchless bar some light cracking on audio here and there.

James Trew / Engadget

With the GameCube you might reasonably expect a little more success given that historically it’s been easier to emulate. That does broadly seem to pan out. It might take a little fiddling around to get things optimized, but F-Zero GX can run at full speed and there are only a few games that are more performance hungry than that. You can also get some good results for Wii emulation here too but that will depend on a title’s use of Wiimotes among other things.

Of course, everything at this level is still some sort of crapshoot. Who knows how the game was programmed or how it used the hardware it was built for. There are already several videos on YouTube that dutifully go through a bunch of titles for all the systems to show how they run. There’s also a thriving subreddit that has spreadsheets dedicated to listing which games are (or aren’t) compatible and how well they perform on the Odin.

There are two areas where you don’t need to worry about compatibility: Android gaming and streaming services like Stadia and Game Pass. There’s not a lot to say here really other than the Odin was born to do it, so long as your internet can keep up. (WiFi performance is comparable to my phone, for what it’s worth.)

Some brave folks out there have even tried running 3DS and even Switch games all with varying degrees of success. Ultimately what you’re buying with the Odin is a bespoke gaming handheld that merely has the capability to run these apps, there’s no real promise of performance (or really control thereof). 

James Trew / Engadget

But it does seem to have been particularly well designed. The active cooling seems to be a bit of a secret sauce, making sure you not only get the most out of the processor but for extended periods without any fear of damage. Some might wonder, why not simply get an old handset with similar specification and slap it in something like Razer’s Kishi. You definitely could do that, but the Odin’s cooling isn’t the only perk, its screen is bigger and 16:9 rather than superwide like a phone. Plus… it’s about not feeling like you have a phone in a clamp, that’s kinda the point.

It’s not a headline feature, but Ayn did see fit to offer two ways of playing the Odin on a TV/display. There’s a micro HDMI port on the top which is probably the simplest way to get your game on a bigger screen. I will say though that I didn’t have a great time with it as neither of my TVs have a great gaming mode, so latency was an issue. There is also DisplayPort connectivity via the USB-C connection.

If you really want to consolize the Odin, you can do so via a $50 “Super Dock” accessory. With this, you can slide the Odin into the mount much like a Switch and pick up where you left off on the bigger screen. Along with USB, there are also dedicated ports for both GameCube and N64 controllers should you have any of those lying around. It also adds in the option for ethernet and USB-C/SATA for things like SSDs (more modern games take up a lot more space after all).

Of course, given it’s running Android, you can do anything with the Odin that you can do with a phone or tablet. That means video streaming or music listening and even productivity. Though, logic might suggest that running things in the background or, heaven forbid, allowing notifications is only going to do bad things to your gaming experience. But you could.

How Gen Z is pushing NES Tetris to its limits

In the fall of 2018, tucked away in a side hall at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, seven-time Classic Tetris World Champion (CTWC), Jonas Neubauer, found himself against the ropes. 37-year-old Neubauer, the Tony Hawk of Tetris, was two games down to teenage rookie Joseph Saelee. To stage a comeback, he now had to win three games in a row, a monumental task that would require every last drop of focus.

As his third game came to an unsuccessful end, Neubauer’s strained expression appeared to dissolve from frustration to the realization that his long reign as champion could be over. Neubauer may have lost in three straight games to 16-year-old Saelee, but the real defeat – for the Tetris old guard at least – was the arrival of a new era for the world’s most played game. An era that would upend over 30 years of convention and redefine, quite literally, how the game is played.

Saelee’s disruptive victory, or one like it, was inevitable. Neubauer played Tetris just like you or I do – holding down the D-pad to move the pieces (a technique called “delayed auto shift/DAS” in competitive Tetris lingo). He just happened to do it with a level of skill beyond almost anyone else. Saelee played differently. He used a style called “hypertapping” – a contorted mix of fingers and thumbs designed to sidestep the game’s built-in speed limit – and it allows you to move pieces much faster than DAS.

Saelee didn’t invent the technique, but he coupled it with enough skill to secure his victory over Neubauer and, with it, would kick start its popularity in competitive play. “So 2018, it was just Joseph [tapping]. 2019, honestly, it still hadn't quite taken over yet.“ Adam Cornelius, CTWC Co-founder told Engadget. “2020 was the year that it totally flipped, by then, there was like, 100 kids who were tapping.”

Tetris, invented in 1984 by software engineer Alexey Pajitnov, is considered by many to be the perfect puzzle game – easy to learn, difficult to master and endlessly playable. It exploded in popularity in 1989 after its debut on the NES and release as the pack-in title for the Game Boy. Tetris has since been officially released on over 65 platforms and holds the Guinness world record for the most ported video game. Despite all that, there’s possibly never been a more exciting time for fans of the game than right now.

“Classic Tetris” usually refers to the NES port of the game. It’s considered the gold standard original and is the version played in the CTWC tournaments. This means original NES consoles, controllers and big old CRT TVs. “A lot of people make fun of us in the comments. They're like, can’t you afford new TVs?” Cornelius told Engadget.

This not only ensures authenticity, it creates a level playing field. Other competitions, like Classic Tetris Monthly are more relaxed about what hardware/emulation you can play with, but CTWC and any world records will usually be played on original Nintendo consoles. There’s a slight concession allowing for a special version of the game that’s modified to allow for higher scores (often done with a Game Genie) and you’ll understand why later.

Saelee’s victory at the 2018 CTWC finals may have surprised everyone, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum. Interest in the game had been steadily growing since the tournament’s inaugural event in 2010, which was also the subject of a documentary: Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters (directed by Cornelius). The film followed a rag tag bunch of high-ranking players toward the climax of the first CTWC event. The winner? Jonas Neubauer.

CTWC soon found a home at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo and grew in size every year. In 2016, another newcomer found their way to the final against Neubauer, who was competing for his 6th title. That player, Jeff Moore, was having the run of his life, scoring repeated Tetrises much to the amazement of the commentators. “Boom, Tetris for Jeff” they yelped every time he slid a long bar down the right hand side of the screen.

“The commentators got so overly excited about this new dark horse candidate, Jeff, that they kind of said, ‘Boom, Tetris for Jeff’ maybe a little excessively. And people just stumbled across the video [on YouTube]” Cornelius said. Cutdowns were made and t-shirts were printed. “Boom, Tetris for Jeff” was just the right sort of silly in the right sort of venue (YouTube) to pique the interest of younger eyes and kickstart a growing appetite for competitive classic Tetris videos.

“There are a lot more young players getting into the game, especially since Joseph Saelee won the world championship, because he kind of blew up the scene in terms of teenagers and stuff.” Christopher “Cheez” Martinez, told Engadget.

Cheez, as he is known in the Tetris community, is one of those teenagers. He found the game via Saelee’s world championship win video and then another recommendation about Tetris Effect. At 16 years old, he’s exploring a game that was already twice his age. Like many other of the new, teenage players, his progress has been remarkably fast.

Greyj/Getty Images (modified)

Before there were competitions like CTWC, there were two white whales for elite classic Tetris players. The main one was the “maxout.” The NES version of the game only has a six digit scoreboard meaning 999,999 is the highest score obtainable, but reaching that was difficult, not least because of the second elusive goal: beating level 29 (aka the “kill screen”).

As anyone who has played any version of Tetris will know, one of the main dynamics is that you clear lines to advance to the next level, as you do the blocks fall faster than the level before. In NES Tetris, level 29 is when the game reaches its maximum speed and was widely considered impossible to beat when DAS was the only play style. This, in turn, meant that if you were playing for a maxout you had to get there before level 29.

The maxout was officially first achieved by Harry Hong in 2009, but it’s widely accepted that another old school player, Thor Aackerlund, achieved it earlier, but in a time long before video phones, YouTube and social media. Aackerlund also claimed to have reached level 30 (albeit briefly) but myth about the achievement meant it'd be many years before the kill screen was truly considered beaten.

After Hong’s maxout in 2009, a slow trickle of players started achieving the goal each year. Until you get to 2019, at which point the number exponentially accelerates. “It took me a year, I progressed pretty slowly compared to a lot of the players now actually. People are maxing in like four or five months. It's kind of ridiculous.” Cheez said. He achieved his first maxout in 2019 and was the 65th player ever to do so. Today, around 400 people have reached the magic million points..

As for passing the level 29 “kill screen.” This was, at one point, considered almost impossible. A hard wall that could not be surmounted due to how the game was designed. DAS simply cannot move the pieces to either edge fast enough, meaning that once the “stack” is above a certain height math takes over and failure is guaranteed. Despite that glimpse of level 30 by Aackerlund, kill screen’s reign of terror truly ended when Saelee reached a verified level 33 just months after winning his first world championship.

Yet, despite the two main goals of high-level Tetris no longer being out of reach, these achievements seem almost quaint by today’s standards. As DAS gave way to hypertapping, the once impossible soon became a a rite of passage for elite players. But with the limitation of the kill screen now removed, the theoretical score limit was also eliminated. While level 29 probably was intended to be the last level (the level counter breaks once you hit 30 and the speed no longer increases no matter what level you reach) hypertapping was perhaps still not quite fast enough to allow players to progress much further.

Cheez had other ideas.

Greyj/Getty Images (modified)

While he had made a name for himself as a player with hypertapping, Cheez eventually found a video of someone using a technique that doubled the inputs for one press. “They would put their thumb down, and they would hit on the bottom and the top into their other thumb, and you would get two inputs with the same motion pretty much. So I kind of took inspiration from that in like, late 2020. And rolling became a thing.”

"Rolling" is a strange technique to watch. Most players rest the controller on their thigh or knee, many wear a single glove and then “strum” the controller from below with one thumb on the D-pad. However you get there, though, you can move pieces left and right even faster than with hypertapping. It’s such an efficient technique, Cornelius says, that some fans consider it cheating. It’s entirely legal in CTWCs eyes as it is done with unmodified NES hardware and nothing but your hands.

Rolling is so effective, it’s allowing players to dismantle the current limits of the game. Remember how Saelee achieved the first level 33 in 2019? Well when I interviewed Cheez for this story the new record for the highest level was 63 – kill screen and then some. By the time I clicked publish, that record has been smashed again, with an eye-watering level 95 now the goal to beat.

This rapid advancement isn’t just about new world records, it’s fundamentally changing how the game is played, strategically and physically. Competitive classic Tetris is all about the score. Not the number of lines or how many Tetrises you make, just who scores the most points in a best of three game.

In the old world, the kill screen’s hard limit forced players to focus on efficient play, scoring as many Tetrises as possible before level 29. In the era of rolling, pros are training by starting at level 29. This is where the Game Genie comes in as the original version of the game just can’t count above 999,999 which you’ll definitely need it to once you get to this level. If you hone your skills on the fastest level possible, that becomes the new normal and you can theoretically play indefinitely. That’s how we can go from the impossible kill screen to a level 95. But this also presents some challenges for the burgeoning esport, something Cornelius is all too aware of.

“I predict that in, maybe it's this year, maybe it's in five years, but sometime very soon, everyone's always going to max out on level 28. And they're always going to get to level 50. And tack on another million points. And it's really just going to be this… who flinches first, who messes up first, is really all that matters” he said.

This is already happening, at least on the record-setting circuit. Shortly before I interviewed Cheez he had recently set a world record for the highest score: 2.3 million which casually included a level 61 and a total of 551 lines cleared – both also new world records at the time. All of these have since been beaten, and by considerable margins. The game is now at the stage where players are looking to more niche or specific goals and records to break – such as the highest score achieved with a level 29 start – because these are the areas of the game yet to be broken wide open.

In early 2021 something unexpected rocked the Tetris community. On January 5th, at 39 years old, Neubauer collapsed and died of a sudden cardiac arrhythmia of undetermined cause. The game’s most iconic character was gone, and with him the last champion DAS player. “Jonas' passing is a big part of the story and he was a friend of mine” Cornelius said. “Obviously, nothing compares to the loss in general. But for the Tetris scene, it was really cool to have one person from the old guard who could really hang with all the kids.

Despite renewed interest in the game from a much younger generation, Tetris is still somewhat of a fringe esport. You’ll find games featured on ESPN and it has obviously been growing in popularity, but prize pools remain modest compared to more popular games like Counter-Strike or League of Legends.

“The highest paying tournament is CTWC right now. And the first place prize is $3,000. So it's no Fortnite but it's kind of a decent sum of money anyway.” Cheez said. When I asked him if he’d consider doing this full time should that become an option, he was diplomatic. “Honestly, it's hard to predict the future of the scene but like if the money gets good, I might try to make it a job at some point, but I don't know how stable it would be.”

Cornelius is a little more optimistic about where the future could lead. “You know, when you watch an Olympic sport, you don't watch to see someone beat everyone else by double, you're seeing people winning by these tiny, tiny, tiny margins that are almost imperceptible,” he said. “I think that's where Tetris is headed, where the players are all going to converge on a point where they all play exactly the same. And there is one ideal way to play and we're witnessing them try to just add, just push it a little bit further every year.”

Cheez, for his part, made it to the semifinal for April’s Classic Tetris Monthly event and will no doubt be looking to beat his 2020 top seven placing at CTWC after finishing 21st in last year’s event. One thing’s for certain, whoever wins will likely be a roller meaning Cheez’s mark on the tournament and the game in general is indelible.

Thanks to the pandemic, CTWC was forced to take the competition online. This year’s plans aren’t confirmed yet, but the hope is to return to an in person event if possible. Current world champion Michael "Dog" Artiaga is set to return to defend his title. After Saelee’s 2018 victory, he won again in 2019. Dog took the title the next two years and there’s a host of players ready to take his crown. Dog is widely considered the one to beat, especially after recording a 2.2 Million high score on a level 29 start. Because today’s Tetris begins where the old game left off.

Amazon AMP preview: Like the app, my radio show needs a little work

I spent about an hour hand-picking songs for my first Amazon AMP radio show. The social-audio-but-with-music app offers the chance to play radio DJ with just a phone and your imagination. I tried to pick a catchy name for my debut broadcast – “The best House Classics” or something like that. Like all music bores, I was confident I was about to blow some minds with my impeccable taste and hand-picked floor fillers. All that was left to do was click the “Go Live” button. Once you tap it, the app counts you down 5…4…3… . I cleared my throat and then… silence.

AMP was initially reported as something of a Clubhouse competitor, but that’s not really the best way to describe it. Yes, you can sorta-kinda use it as a live chat platform, but music is really the selling point here. When you create a “show” you can add songs from Amazon Music’s library and then stream them to your audience. In between hosts are doing anything from chatting about sports, to comedy skits, having guests call in or just letting the music play. On paper, it’s the app teenage me, with his dual cassette deck and microphone, had been waiting for all his life. It’s just a shame that, right now in its beta form, no one’s really listening.

I’ve spent the last week or two exploring the app and hosting shows and I barely peaked at four simultaneous listeners. Briefly. Usually I was lucky to get one or two people tuning in, but more often than not I was alone. And I definitely didn’t do a whole hour-long show talking to myself in between ‘90s drum & bass tracks. Definitely not a thing that happened. Twice.

Engadget

It’s hard to tell if this is a true reflection of the interest in AMP, given it’s in beta. It's not difficult to get in, as long as you have access to the US App Store / have an iPhone. Technically you also need an invite code, but given that the official AMP Twitter account has one right up top, the app is basically open to everyone who meets the first two criteria.

I speculated I am at a disadvantage being located in Europe, so my shows tend to fall in the middle of the American work day. But I checked the app regularly and even at typical US commute and evening times other people’s shows rarely had more than 10 listeners, usually half that. But again, this is a beta so not an indication of too much. I bring it up now though for the following reason: without a listener, you cannot play songs and that presents a problem. Hence the silence at the start of my big debut show.

In fact, there are a few more restrictions. Not only must you have at least one listener to play music, you can only play two songs from the same album or three songs from the same artist within a three hour period. These rules make some sense to prevent the free app being abused. But also that presents a big problem during the beta stage. If I have no listeners, I can’t play a song… so I can only talk. But what is the point of talking if no one is listening?

It certainly made for some intimate moments. I joined someone’s show when they currently had no listeners. I could practically hear the host excitedly rushing to play a song now that they could. I then enjoyed a 1-on-1 human-curated show of hip-hop. Likewise for my own shows, there were definitely some weird moments when I realized it’s just me playing songs for someone else. I ended up using a second account on a spare phone so I wouldn’t have to wait for someone to join (hence the DnB party for one) to fully test the service for this story. This should be less of a problem in the future, but it was frustrating at the start, waiting up to 30 minutes sometimes for a listener to join so you could kick a song off.

Amazon also imposes other curious rules that seem a little ornery if not hard to enforce. For example, you may not make a show consisting mostly of listener requests, you may not announce playlists ahead of time and you may not announce a song until just before it is being played. The difference between can and may I’ll leave up to you.

Setting up a show is straightforward. Tap the button top left, add a title, choose some topics (tags), type a description and then either add songs to a playlist or just throw caution to the wind and go live, adding songs later. I’d recommend having a playlist fleshed out because navigating the song menu screen isn’t very slick right now. You can only enter global search terms – there’s no filter by artist or song title or genre etc. – so finding what you want can sometimes be hit and miss.

More importantly, the library doesn’t seem to be fully fleshed out right now. AMP’s official help pages claim there are “tens of millions of songs” but I sometimes couldn’t find what I was looking for. To be fair, this was usually down to my weird taste in niche ‘90s dance music but I did find songs on decent-size labels that were absent.

For example, “Gold Dust” by DJ Fresh is on Amazon Music for sure, but it wasn’t available in AMP. This is a real crime as anyone who knows that track will attest. I did check again over a week later and saw that a remix had since been added, so it seems the library is growing in real time. More surprisingly, another time I looked for a track by Hot Chip and noticed only half of their albums were listed.

A related issue is that you can’t preview tracks before adding them to your playlist. In my case, that meant a few occasions where I had found a version of the song I wanted, but golly was it not the one I was expecting when I played it, making for a slightly awkward record scratch moment. If you have better taste in music than I, you’re probably fine, but if you were hoping to spin niche cuts or even some fairly well known synthpop you might want to revise that plan for now.

I know AMP is designed to be a mobile-first experience, but I do wish there were at least some tools to prep your show on desktop first. I often resorted to finding tunes on my PC and then just looking up tracks on the phone while setting up the show. I also learned the hard way that if you schedule a show for the future and then sleep through the time it was set for, the show and all the tracks you added to it disappears (I’d at least have liked the option to reschedule it!).

Relatedly, you can’t add tracks to some sort of “record box” or bookmark them for later shows. I found myself thinking of great tunes for other shows but had to just keep a notepad going for later reference. Likewise, once you finish a show, that’s it, poof… gone. There’s no way for people to go back and listen again or scroll through your feed to see what you tend to play etc.

Engadget

In its current state, the app also doesn’t offer any way to fade out a song or speak over it while it’s playing. This seems minor, but it does mean you either have to wait until the bitter end of a song before you talk (and then with no music “bed”) or cut a track off prematurely. I heard people doing both but it would be nice to have a more gentle way to transition tracks.

Once your show is over, AMP will give you a little slide show of stats. As you can imagine, this was a bit painful for me as it gleefully told me I peaked at two listeners and had one like, but this would definitely be cool once you have an audience.

Amazon has enlisted some popular creators to showcase the platform and give it some gravitas. These are instantly identifiable as they will be the only shows with a bunch of people listening. AMP promotes these accounts and they are featured on the website, but I do wonder where all these listeners go the rest of the time. The fact you can’t currently click on the show's listener count to see who’s tuning in means you can’t size up potential listeners for your own show.

I'm live @OnAmp_ but there's no way to share the link etc so have fun with that!

— James Trew (@itstrew) April 15, 2022

In fact, the “social media” element of the app is possibly the most limited part right now. For starters there’s no way to share a link to your show. I know the app is in beta, but given how open that is, I would have thought sharing links is a basic enough thing to enable. AMP offers links to recommended shows in its newsletters which you can adulterate to link to your own but you need the app installed for them to work so that’s still less than ideal.

Discovery is also not fully fleshed out at this point. When you open the app you’ll be presented with shows currently on air as you swipe through one by one. Then once you reach the end you’ll see what’s scheduled for the future, but right now there’s no real way to drill down by genre or topic. You can search, but a host needs to have scheduled shows for them to turn up in results.

It’s also clear that, right from the start, Amazon is trying to encourage diverse voices to join and host. The company was explicit about that in the run up to its launch, and it seems to be working. The types of show and the people behind them have all been refreshingly varied and this I feel is important to AMP finding its way to stand out. The music aspect alone makes it different from rivals like Clubhouse, Greenroom and even Twitter Spaces. But the voices it amplifies will be the secret sauce.

This for me was really the most rewarding part. I thought hosting my own shows would be fun, and it was, but it was the exposure to other music that was the most rewarding. I often joined shows with no listeners to allow them to kick off some tunes and then found myself staying. Other times I figured I’d dip into a show with a genre I don’t normally listen to and was more often than not surprised to find things I liked. Being a DJ is cool, but hearing new, hand-picked music is even cooler.

Rough edges aside, there’s a lot of promise here. It’s understandable that no one wants to listen to my favorite Happy Hardcore songs (the ones I could find on the app at least) at 2pm on a Wednesday. But if, like me, you kinda prefer the human touch over an algorithmic recommendation and the chance to stumble into new worlds of music then AMP makes a lot of sense. And of course, as with all such creator-based services as more people join, the culture and flavor of the platform starts to change organically (remember when TikTok was about people dancing to songs?). Once AMP is open to the public proper, it’ll be interesting to see where it goes. For now, if you want to hear rando dance music, I’ll be here… waiting.

JackRabbit review: If a scooter and an e-bike had a baby

In a world where most e-bikes are trying to blend in, JackRabbit, well… stands out. In fact, it’s unique enough that you’re either going to love it or at the very least be curious. As a pedal-free e-bike, it’s aimed at those in the market for a scooter rather than an electrified road bike. But, unlike a scooter, the JackRabbit can handle more than just paved sidewalk while remaining about as portable. All this to say, the JackRabbit bike is a curious proposition, but don’t let its quirky looks deceive you.

First, let’s back up a little. The JackRabbit is an electronic bike, but it’s categorized as a scooter in some jurisdictions. Thanks, in part, to its size, at 48 x 21 x 39 inches (122 x 53 x 100 cm) it’s comically/helpfully small. There are no pedals, chains or gears – it’s throttle mode only, like a tiny electric motorbike. At 24lbs (11Kg) it’s also pretty light. The advertised range is 12 miles, the top speed is 20mph delivered by a 300W motor / 150Wh battery combo and it will cost you $1,200 new in a range of four spiffy colors.

As alluded to above, comparing the JackRabbit to most other e-bikes doesn’t really make sense. This is something you’ll want to ride for short to moderate distances or for that famous last mile. It can fold down to a degree (you can pop out the handlebars and invert the front wheel) at which point it’s only slightly less portable than most scooters. That said, lugging it around is a little bit different – it doesn’t fold down as small, but you can also wheel it over/up things instead of just carrying it.

Maybe you really just wanted a bike that did all the work for you, in which case, that is this. For example, if your commute is up to five miles each way across town, and you normally ride a bike, the JackRabbit could be a viable alternative if you want something that can cut through traffic but won’t mean showing up at the office needing a shower. Oh, assuming you’re under 6’2” that is (the maximum height according to the company).

Or, if like me, you live in an apartment block and maneuvering a full-size bike downstairs with a small elevator is just straight-up hassle, the JackRabbit is a pure delight. No kidding, I have to stand a regular bike on end and hope no one’s waiting downstairs as I barge the door open with the front wheel. With the JackRabbit, I can actually just ride into and straight out of the elevator if I want.

James Trew / Engadget

The first time you take the JackRabbit out, the center of gravity takes a little getting used to. Especially once you hit higher speeds which can make the ride feel a little invigorating – in the most danger-fun sense of the word. But it doesn’t take long before you’re settled in and starting to think about what street obstacles you can try to bunny hop off of/over.

From there on out the ride is pretty smooth, though there are a few things to keep in mind. While the top speed is 20mph, it’s hard to get there in anything other than optimal conditions. The acceleration isn’t slow, but once you get to around 15/16mph it tails off enough that you need a clear road ahead to hit that top speed. This is still an improvement on the previous JackRabbit that seemed to take even longer to get there.

Inclines are also not the JackRabbit’s forte. If you hit a modest gradient at a good speed you shouldn’t have any problems, but once things get steeper and/or you hit them slower you might have to help finish the job with your feet, like a kid on a balance bike. It’s not the most gracious thing, but you shouldn’t have to get off and push – unless you live somewhere like San Francisco. That said, this latest JackRabbit does a much better job of the model before it, so that’s something.

Some other quirks of the JackRabbit’s size include your feet occasionally rubbing against the wheels, tight turns definitely require a little more forethought and I do wonder the addition of footrest pegs on the front wheel too might give an alternative riding style – almost putting you in a slight “chopper” seating position.

But as much as the unusual dimensions of the JackRabbit present some minor challenges, they are also what makes it so much fun to ride. There’s something about its slightly “dirt bike” aesthetic that makes you want to deviate from the well-paved sidewalk and into more adventurous terrain. I live near a very long park that has everything from railway sleepers to block-paved cycle paths to small dirt tracks and gravel – the JackRabbit loves ate them all up.

I also discovered that it can fit in the back of my small hatchback without any folding – it sits perfectly with one wheel behind each seat making it easily transportable, too. You can fold it down somewhat if you need to. The handlebars pop out easily and there’s a clip to hold them while the front wheel folds inwards. It shrinks the profile down enough if you either want to take up less space on the metro or simply stow it somewhere when not in use.

It actually didn’t take long before I found myself just taking this thing out for fun rather than as a means of getting somewhere. Although it had already usurped my scooter and regular-size e-bike as a means of transportation, I was now just using it for the fun of the ride, too.

And then that’s when it happened.

James Trew / Engadget

Three LEDs to indicate battery power is not enough. I found this out about a mile away from home where, with one shiny LED remaining on the handlebar-mounted throttle, the JackRabbit suddenly lost most of its power. I pressed my thumb down in vain only to remain at a crawl – I had been having so much fun I had drained the battery and the three-LED power indicator clearly isn’t detailed enough to let you know you’re really in the danger zone.

Luckily, where I live is very flat and I was able to push my way home without too much trouble. It turns out you can pump like a skateboard with one foot if you really don’t want to get off and walk this thing home. Worst of all, I had mentally calculated that I was well within the claimed 12-mile range, and tracing the route out on Google Maps suggests it was a shade over six miles.

I subsequently discovered that each LED appears to remain on as you accelerate until it’s about to drop down to the next one. At which point the LED remains lit unil you apply the throttle and it dims. This is a way of letting you know you’re at the lower end of that section of the battery indicator. So it’s slightly more informative than just three LEDs, but it’s still not a great indicator of remaining time or range.

I spoke with JackRabbit about this and we did some back and forth which included checking the battery with a voltmeter to make sure it wasn’t faulty. The company’s own testing is, like most of these things, done without going full speed and with a payload a bit lighter than me it seems. So my full-throttle approach and extra weight seem to be enough to drag down the range somewhat.

For me, it’s less about the actual range (although that’s a factor) but more about having detailed information. Most scooters will give you either a numerical percentage of battery remaining, or a higher resolution graphical indicator. So for me, it’s more about not having the information I needed to know I was about to empty the proverbial tank.

James Trew / Engadget

Thankfully, the batteries are removable and they are portable enough that you could definitely slip a spare into a backpack. But at $200 each, that’s a reasonable spend just to relieve some anxiety. It’s also slightly frustrating that if you have the previous JackRabbit, the battery from that won’t work on the latest model, despite being nearly identical.

If there was another small addition that might help here, it would be regenerative braking. Right now, the JackRabbit doesn’t have it, but with just one rear brake to speak of, it seems something that might be easy to implement and enable a modest saving of power, especially as most inner-city commutes require a fair amount of stop-starting anyway.

The above might sound like there are still quite a few areas for improvement, but the JackRabbit remains about the most enjoyable electric ride I’ve tried in a long while. It’s form factor is going to sing to some users while being a little impractical for others. But that’s true of scooters, bikes and any other form of transportation. The JackRabbit just presents another option. I would also strongly consider how many inclines are on your route. For the most part cities with moderate inclines, they shouldn’t present a challenge but hillier locations won’t be as much fun.

But if you don’t want/need a full-size bike and you find scooters uncomfortable or impractical this is a refreshing alternative. Throw in the fact that you can also cover terrain that scooters can’t (or fit places where most bikes won’t) and the JackRabbit really does make a good, if specific, case for itself. The fact that it’s wildly fun is just an added bonus.

Rode's first headphones are the creator-focused NTH-100

You might be mistaken for thinking Rode already made headphones. And that’s fair enough, it feels like something the company would already be doing. Yet, here we are with the first set from the Australian brand, the NTH-100. The $150 over-ear headphones might have been a long time coming, but if you’ve been following the company over the last couple of years, you’ll know it’s making a conscious effort to dominate the podcast and streaming world, and that’s who these headphones are aimed at.

At a glance, the NTH-100 seem pretty straightforward. An all-black pair of studio headphones with no Bluetooth or noise cancellation frills. Just a comfortable set of wired cans designed for home studio use. And for the most part, that’s exactly what they are, but Rode has tried to add enough details here to make them stand out in an otherwise busy segment.

Rode states that the drivers in the NTH-100 have been designed for accurate frequency response which makes sense if you are pitching these to streamers and creators. They certainly don’t sound overly loaded at the lower end and the mid-highs don’t artificially stand out which can often be the case in this category.

In fact, the NTH-100 sound surprisingly neutral. I was expecting them to be weighted toward… something, but they don’t seem to be doing much to the source material at all. I’ve worn them for everything from Zoom calls to Podcast recording and of course endless music listening and they serve each of these purposes well. I particularly like them for monitoring. I’m not sure why, but my dull voice seems to be accurately dull when I listen through these and I appreciate their honesty (it allows me to better spice it up at the edit stage, which is the whole point).

James Trew / Engadget

They also aren’t distracting to look at and that’s no bad thing. Bar the small circular gold Rode logo the only other aesthetic detail is the overly large “Ø” debossed into the side of each matte earcup (in gloss). It’s a little too large for my taste and feels a little conspicuous in an otherwise understated design but given it’s also black it doesn’t spoil their discreet look too much.

Neutral and discreet is cool and all but surely there’s a little seasoning here to make them interesting? And there is, mostly in their comfort. The Alcantara covering on the earpads feels luxurious, but it’s the “CoolTech” gel underneath that is the real treat. Rode states that this makes them colder on the ears and thus reduces wearing fatigue. I was skeptical, but when I put them on they really do feel noticeably chilly and that makes a big difference. Given these are aimed at editors, creators and streamers it’s entirely possible you’ll be wearing them for longer stretches so details like this can make a difference.

Likewise, a clever detail called “FitLock” removes the need to adjust them every time you put them on. Once you have them set just right, there’s a locking clip that will prevent them from accidentally re-adjusting them every time you handle them. It actually took me a little bit to get used to the idea that I might not have to check if they are positioned right every time I put them on.

Given that you’ll likely be wearing these at a desk, Rode saw fit to make sure you can attach the cable on either side. It’s a small detail, but one that can quickly induce buyer’s remorse if you have to decide between reorganizing your desk to have your audio interface on the other side or dealing with awkward cable spaghetti.

James Trew / Engadget

What’s less of a surprise is that Rode has designed the NTH-100 to slot right into its existing creator ecosystem. If you own a Rodecaster Pro or use Rode Connect or maybe just bought the “Colors” accessory for your NT-USB Mini you’ll know that the company is centering a lot of its products around multi-person podcasting and streaming and including colorful ways to mark which microphone (or headphones) belong to which audio channel and/or host . The NTH-100 are no exception with color tags included in the box.

If you want to take that a step further, or merely want to customize them a little so they’re not entirely black you will also be able to buy replacement cables in each of Rode’s four bright chosen colors. That’s an extra spend though of course.

All in all for $150 everything feels decidedly more expensive. The plastic material on the earcups might not be the most luxurious, but the overall build and sound quality should make them an appealing choice for those looking for something comfortable while getting some work done.

The NTH-100 are available starting today.

The best mobile microphones you can buy, plus how to pick one

If you consider yourself a mobile creator and you’re not using some sort of dedicated microphone, you might be holding yourself back. We’re not judging, but your audience likely is. Audio, especially dialog, is often overlooked but nothing screams amateur more than subpar sound. There are many, many options for the home or office/studio, but there are a surprising amount of mobile-specific (or at least, mobile-friendly) solutions out there to elevate your on-the-go recordings be that for social, a jam session, making movies, podcasting and beyond.

What “the best mic for your iPhone or Android” is will vary depending on the task you need it for. If you want to record a TikTok or a Podcast or even a jam session, all have slightly different needs but the selection below covers most bases (and maybe even a few you didn’t think of yet) for recording high-quality sound with little more than a phone.

The gear

This guide is all about recording on the go, free from the constraints of a studio or office, but also far away from luxuries like power outlets, acoustically friendly rooms and a full-size PC. As such there are two styles of microphone that really shine here: Lavalier (lapel) and shotgun. We’ll be covering a few other types, too, but between those, most tasks are covered.

We’ll also show you how you can use the USB mics you may already have with your phone and even ways to connect heavy-duty studio classics (XLR) to your humble handset, but all that will be through accessories. For now, let’s start with the classic clip mics.

James Trew / Engadget

Lavalier mics

The obvious benefit of a lapel mic is size. Their small profile makes them perfect for presenting to the camera with the flexibility to move around while maintaining consistent audio quality. If you’re a budding TikTok or YouTube creator it’s definitely worth having one of these in your bag.

The main trade-off, however, is that they’re only good for recording the person they’re attached to. If you have two people talking and only one is wearing the mic, you’ll only get good audio for one half of the conversation, so for multi-person recordings you’ll need a mic for each guest and a way to record them at the same time, so costs can go up quickly.

Fortunately, lapel mics have become a very competitive market with good, viable options costing as little as $14.95. For an absolute bargain with a long cord and some connectivity accessories, the Boya BY M1 is hard to argue with. But, while these budget choices are great value, if you want something that should either last longer, is more versatile or just sounds better it’s worth paying a little bit more.

Best 3.5mm mic: Rode Lavalier II

Rode’s Lavalier II is a slick-looking low-profile lavalier that sounds great. At $95, it’s somewhere in the sweet spot between budget and higher-end options. It’s easy to recommend the Lavalier II just on its sound alone, but it comes with a rugged case and a good selection of accessories. For even more flexibility you can pair this with Rode’s AI Micro interface ($79) which provides easy connection to an iPhone or Android (or even PCs) and adds support for a second mic – perfect for recording podcasts or interviews.

Buy Rode Lavalier II at Amazon - $95

Best USB-C mic: Sennheiser XS

At $60 Sennheiser’s XS (USB-C) lav mic is fairly affordable, sounds great and plugs right into your phone (or laptop) without needing an adapter. This not only makes it convenient but reduces the overall cost as you don’t need a headphone adapter for your phone. What’s more, the XS has a 2-meter long cable which gives you plenty of scope for movement or framing.

Buy Sennheiser XS at Amazon - $60
James Trew / Engadget

A word on wireless systems

Recently there has been an explosion in mobile-friendly wireless systems but there are two we really like. The first is Rode’s Wireless GO II. Arguably the original defined this category, but the second generation improves on it with two wireless transmitters making this podcast and interview friendly. The Wireless GO II is also incredibly versatile as it doubles as a standalone recorder, can be mounted in a camera cold shoe and even has its own “reporter” mic adapter. Oh, and you can make any 3.5mm mic (including the lavaliers above) wireless by plugging it into one of the receivers.

The second is the Mikme Pocket. This Austrian-designed wireless pack is a high-end lavalier mic system designed to be particularly mobile-friendly. There’s a comprehensive app for both video and audio recording and internal storage so you won’t ever experience dropouts. It also means you can enjoy a practically infinite range. At $399 it’s a higher spend, but if high-quality audio and near-infinite range are what you need then this is the one.

Adapters

So we’ve already touched on this with the AI Micro, which is an adapter of sorts. One of the first things you might bump up against when dealing with mobile audio accessories is TRRS vs TRS connectors. Simply put, 3.5mm TRS is what you might know as the age-old classic headphone connector while TRRS became common for its support for headsets and inline mics. You can easily tell them apart as TRS connectors have two black bands on them while a TRRS has three.

For you, the budding creator, it can be a bit of an annoyance as many 3.5mm lavaliers are going to be TRS and won’t work when plugged into your phone’s headphone adapter. Sometimes your lavalier might include what you need in the box, but otherwise, you’ll want to pick up a TRS to TRRS adapter like this. Of course, some smartphone-specific mics have TRRS connectors already – for those, you’ll want a cable that goes the other way should you want to use it with other devices like a DSLR.

James Trew / Engadget

Shotgun mics

You may be more familiar with shotgun mics when it comes to video. It’s the style of microphone most often found atop a DSLR or mirrorless camera, but they make great companions for other portable devices too, your phone included.

The benefit of a shotgun is that they tend to be highly directional, which makes them perfect for podcasts, recording instruments, foley sounds and much, much more.

For us mobile recordists, another benefit is that they tend to be light and portable, perfect for slipping into a backpack or even a laptop bag. Even better, there are some great mobile-specific options.

Best shotgun mic for video / music: Sennheiser MKE 400 (2nd gen)

You shouldn’t buy a mic just because of how it looks, but the MKE 400 from Sennheiser ($200) definitely makes its rivals look wimpy. More important than aesthetics, though, is how it sounds and the MKE 400 records very cleanly without obvious coloration to the audio. What’s more, the battery-powered mic won’t steal power from your phone or camera, and with three gain levels to choose from you can boost things when needed, or avoid clipping on louder subjects. The MKE 400 also comes with both TRS and TRRS cables for compatibility with a variety of devices.

The MKE 400’s physical gain controls and high pass filter (unlike the other two below that are updated via an app) take the stress out of worrying if your audio source moves or changes volume as you can adjust that on the fly. If you’re a musician looking to record loud drums and then softer vocals on the move, for example, these tactile gain settings are a massive plus.

Buy Sennheiser MKE 400 at B&H - $200

Best budget shotgun mic: Rode VideoMic GO II

When we tested the VideoMic GO II we were surprised at just how good it sounded right out of the box. At $150 it rivals many desktop microphones that cost three times the price. You’ll need a companion app to change settings, otherwise this performs well across the board.

Buy Rode VideoMic GO II at Amazon - $150

Best shotgun mic for portability: Shure MV88+

Not to be confused with the older MV88 that plugged directly into a Lightning port, the MV88+ is a diminutive shotgun mic made with the smartphone in mind. Often sold as a vlogging kit ($249) with a tripod and phone grip, the MV88+ has modular cables for connecting directly to Androids and iPhones.

Buy Shure MV88+ at Amazon - $199

Desktop and USB mics go mobile

Mobile-specific mics are great, but there’s nothing stopping you from using the mic you might already have (if it’s somewhat portable). You’ll definitely need to do a little dance with some adapters, but that’s half the fun. Below are a couple of recommendations for “regular” microphones that pair well with a phone and then the cables and adapters that you’ll need to get setup.

James Trew / Engadget

Apogee HypeMic

Arguably, there are few microphones that are could be described as "mobile-friendly" than the HypeMic from Apogee. While it looks like a regular handheld mic, it's actually deceivingly small, making it very light and portable. It also comes with cables to directly connect it to iPhones and Android handsets — no adapters needed. Don't let the small size deceive you though, the HypeMic has a big trick up its sleeve: a built-in analog compressor for professional-sounding vocals. Whether you record podcasts, vocals or instruments there's a setting on the HypeMic just for you. At $349 it's a little on the spendy side, but you get a very versatile device that's just as useful for the desktop too.

Buy HyperMic at amazon - $349

Samson Q2U

This dynamic mic is a favorite with podcasters, with many production companies using it as their standard mic to send out to remote guests thanks to its excellent quality to value performance. The Q2U features both USB and XLR connectivity making it versatile for both desktop and mobile applications, but it’s the former we’re interested in here as that’s what allows you to connect it to your phone with nothing more than a USB cable and an adapter (see below).

What’s more, the Q2U is solid enough to endure a little bit of rough and tumble, so will happily live in the bottom of your backpack ready for when you need it. Meanwhile, the handheld design is versatile enough it can turn its hand to singing/instruments, podcasts, interviews and more.

Buy Samson Q2U at Amazon - $69

Tula

You may not be familiar with the name, but Tula snuck into our hearts with its versatile, vintage inspired debut microphone. From a mobile perspective, the Tula connects to Androids directly over USB-C or iPhones with the right USB-C to Lightning cable (more on this below) or a USB “camera kit” adapter. What makes the Tula special is that it’s also a desktop mic and portable recorder with lavalier input and 8GB of storage and even features noise cancellation – perfect for cutting down on outside background sounds. With the Tula you could theoretically have one mic for home, mobile and standalone recording.

Buy Tula mic at Amazon - $229
James Trew / Engadget

IK Multimedia iRig Pre 2

If you already have a stash of XLR mics or really do need a studio condenser mic with phantom power then the iRig Pre 2 is a portable interface that will feed any XLR mic into your phone. It runs off two AA batteries which it uses to supply phantom power when needed and won’t drain your phone. There’s also a headphone port for monitoring, gain controls and LEDs to help prevent clipping.

Buy iRig Pre 2 at Amazon - $60

A word on cables

Connecting USB microphones directly to phones is rarely as simple as just one cable, although that’s starting to become more common. In general, Android makes this simpler, but also, thanks to the wide range of manufacturers and software versions you can’t always guarantee things will work smoothly.

The iPhone is a whole other situation. USB microphones have a good chance of working via the USB camera kit we mentioned earlier, but that’s still inelegant sometimes. Frustratingly, some USB-C to Lightning cables will play nice with microphones, but sadly most will not – including Apple’s own. One confirmed option is this cable from Fiio or this generic alternative. These are inexpensive enough that it’s worth having a couple around if you work with audio a lot (they of course can also be used to charge your phone as a bonus).

Eargo 6: Tiny hearing aids that don't scrimp on features

In the world of hearing aids, Eargo stands out for a few reasons. Not least because of its different approach, but also because of its rapid, annual release cycle. It’s all part of how Eargo operates more like a technology company instead of a stuffy medical-device provider. This year’s model? It’s number 6, and it’s not a huge leap from last year’s, but it’s still a notable one. One that pushes Eargo ever nearer to feature parity with the competition it seeks to outdo while maintaining its tiny, tiny form factor.

It’s that form factor that is both beneficial and binding. To be clear, “invisible in canal” (IIC) hearing aids are not unique to Eargo, but they do tend to come with tradeoffs such as no Bluetooth connectivity, reduced battery life and, of course, a lack of on-device controls (such as volume). To Eargo’s credit, it has found ways to sidestep most of these challenges with each new product, and this time it’s automatic profile switching – dubbed “Sound Adjust” — that gets crossed off the list of things that an Eargo can’t do.

First, a reminder of some of the things previous models could already do. Despite their size you can configure Eargos via the companion app. Initially, this was limited to placing them in the (Bluetooth-enabled) charging case, but newer models can be adjusted while wearing them thanks to the clever use of ultrasonic commands. You can also switch preset profiles using a gesture (double-tapping your tragus). All Eargos are also rechargeable with a charging case so you don’t need to fiddle with batteries.

More recently, since last year’s model, you’ve been able to customize the audio profile of the hearing aids to match your own unique hearing needs, which is perhaps the most significant update for most people. As a direct-to-customer product there’s usually no audiologist fitting these for you, so the app-based process goes a long way to eliminating that rather obvious negative and probably also does a good job of convincing fence-sitters that these are serious hearing aids and not fancy personal amplifiers (all Eargo products have been FDA approved hearing aids).

James Trew / Engadget

When it comes to testing out the new Sound Adjust feature it’s not quite as simple as monitoring the companion app and watching it update as a profile changes. Thanks to how the Eargos communicate with the app (via the aforementioned ultrasound) the phone needs to be very close to the hearing aids with the volume up (above 75 percent) for it to make changes. Of course, that’s just one way. Right now, there’s no real way for the buds themselves to communicate back to the app. So how do we know when the hearing aids change modes?

As a crude test I left the Eargos on the “Normal” preset and then simulated a noisy room by playing some restaurant sounds over a nearby speaker. I can’t be certain what changes the device made, but compared to the same test wearing the previous model (without Sound Adjust) the noise did seem less jarring. The sharp sound of cutlery against plate was more pronounced in the older model than it was in the Eargo 6.

There is another, perhaps more immediately observable difference this time around and that’s the noise reduction, which seems much improved. As before you can decide how much noise reduction to apply from three different settings (low to high) or disable it if you prefer. It’s not obvious how much this feature impacts the battery life. I was able to get a full day’s use out of them with it activated and room to spare, so I don’t see why you wouldn’t use it — it really does make the hearing experience more natural.

These new features definitely add some finesse to the whole experience. They're also more practical updates, too. There’s a new “mask mode” which, and I mean this optimistically, I hope doesn’t remain useful for much longer but it’s there nonetheless. Another practicality is that the Eargo 6 is rated IPX7 for water resistance: finally, you can take a shower with these things in. With water-resistant earbuds/headphones, stepping into the shower with them on is a novelty, but with a hearing device you want to put on forget about, not having to remove them for a shower just gives you one less thing to worry about.

All these new changes increase the viability of the Eargo 6 as a replacement for whatever legacy device you might be using currently. Or, if you sense you could benefit from hearing assistance but the thought of a trip to the audiologist or haggling with insurance has been putting you off, these are about as easy an option you can find.

James Trew / Engadget

I do wish they were a little more comfortable for extended use. In general, they are fine – even for all-day wearing. But some days, my ears can feel a little more blocked than others and when this happens, I can sense some fatigue after a couple of hours with the Eargo inside. This can be further aggravated by eating, which reminds you how connected many of the muscles in our jaw and ear are.

It would also be nice to know when the Eargo have reached their maximum or minimum volume. There are controls in the app for adjusting them together and separately (perfect for my unilateral hearing loss) but I never know when it’s at maximum, so I end up either over pressing the “+” sign to make sure I must be at max when some simple feedback could just solve the mystery. This is obviously a minor nitpick, though it can be useful for helping to get the balance right to avoid going so loud as to create feedback, which does occur at higher volumes (on most hearing aids).

As always, if these sound like they might be helpful to you, you can buy them directly from the Eargo website for $2,950 (financing is available). As to whether this could be covered by your insurance, that’s less clear/something you’ll need to confirm with your provider.

The secret behind Amazon Echo's alert sounds

“Alexa?”

If you own an Amazon Echo, there’s a chance that just reading that word triggered a pavlovian “bimm” in your mind. Or, if you have the wake sound disabled, maybe it’s the timer alarm that makes you twitch if you hear it on a TV show (or someone else’s speaker). Whatever you think of the sounds a smart speaker makes, none of them are accidental. They have all been meticulously designed to pull your attention or provide reassurance, depending on their goal. And the Echo could have sounded very different from how we know it today.

The Echo series, in particular, has been instrumental in defining the smart speaker and the sounds we expect and (to avoid burned pizza) need it to make. Maybe you don’t think about these transient acoustic signposts much – the beeps and boops that bookend Alexa’s verbal responses – and that’s okay, that’s by design too. In fact, Chris Seifert, Senior Design Manager at Amazon wouldn’t mind if you don’t notice these sounds at all.

“One of the things that people often say about sound is you only hear about it when it's wrong,” Seifert told Engadget. “People don't go to a play and say how great the sound was, [it] probably wasn't a good play, if that's what your focus is.”

This is why, when you do say the magic wake word, Alexa responds precisely as it does. That “bimm” might seem like a neat, generic alert sound, but it was purposefully crafted that way. Seifert, the first person Amazon employed to build Echo’s sound design, reckoned that for users to be comfortable with a smart speaker, all the interactions – not just the spoken answers from Alexa – needed to feel natural and in context. ”If we just use skeuomorphism, and just real-world sounds, that's kind of strange, in a purely digital experience,” he said.

Amazon

This is a concept Seifert refers to as “abstract familiarity.” You know it, but you don’t know why you know it. And there’s no better example of this than Alexa’s wake sound, which is based on the ubiquitous and very human “uh-huh.” A sound we can hear dozens of times a day. A sound that lets us know someone is listening without us feeling interrupted.

“We took recordings of people saying that and we analyzed it and looked at the frequency it’s used and how long they typically took and how loud they were in comparison to their actual normal speaking responses,” Seifert said. “And then we recreated that, tried lots of different instruments. Some of them, real-world instruments, some of them completely synthetic, and found this combination of all of the above to create what we call our wake sound.”

If you have an Alexa device nearby, go ahead and try it. That short sound is also curiously practical. You might find that how you respond to it is different from someone else. I personally initially always waited for the sound and then issued my command. Turns out, I might have just been being a little too polite. Seifert informs me it was designed so that you don’t need to wait, you can happily talk right over it. Again, this is not a coincidence.

“I love this topic, because the whole point of the technology is it should work for you, right? Seifert said. “Even you know, during the day, I might say, ‘Alexa, what time is it?’ all in one phrase, right? Because I'm right by the device, just rattle it off. If I'm thinking of a larger question, before I start this long thing, I might actually pause to make sure I'm heard because I'm halfway down the hall. And I don't want to have to repeat the whole thing if it never heard me.”

If you ever wondered what that wake noise could have sounded like in an alternative universe or with some of the real instruments, then you can hear them in the audio embedded below.

Good sound design is an exercise in Occam’s razor: How does one create informative, appropriate feedback in a tone that’s maybe less than a half a second long? We’re all familiar with the dreaded Windows error alert or maybe the satisfying iPhone message swoosh. The terse, off-key alerts ignite frustration while the crisp chime of a task completed just feels right. But is it merely a case of choosing something that sounds positive or negative?

Not if the Echo wake sound is any indication. But sometimes, Seifert and his team have the luxury of a little more sonic breathing room. Like the Echo’s boot-up sound which is a full nine seconds. The audio equivalent of War and Peace in UI sound design terms. But also, the very first sound that any Echo owner is going to hear, so it has to count. Even more so back in 2014 when these things were new.

“We were making a speaker that you spoke to which now we totally take for granted,” Seifert said. “At the time, that was really a novel thing, like you're just going to speak to this, this device, you literally aren't having to touch it in any way, shape or form. So how do we encourage people to feel comfortable doing something that's so new, that that's just not expected?”

Seifert went on to explain how they needed to create expectations for everything to come. They needed a sound that would indicate this screenless device was powering up for the first time and that right at the end of those vital nine seconds Alexa was listening, waiting for you. The result is a pad sound that creates a little bit of suspense before breaking itself apart into three ascending notes that lead us right into Alexa’s first word: Hello.

These three notes also comprise the wake sound (two at wake, the third comes later in something called an “end pointing” tone). Oh, and the incoming call ringtone uses these three notes and adds in two more for fun. In fact, pretty much all of the Echo’s non-verbal signals boil down to just these three notes at some level. Just placed in different orders, pitches and lengths depending on whether they want your attention, already have it or no longer need it.

Elaine Thompson / Associated Press

“From the moment you boot up your device, you hear these three notes. When you speak to it, you hear two before you speak and one at the end, when you get an incoming call, you get a five-note version of that melody.” Seifert explained. “That's all happening before the logic part of the brain kicks in, and you start interpreting what you're hearing and thinking of the meaning of it.” In short, they are playing with our minds and we’re not even mad about it. If you’re still not convinced, maybe you will be when you learn that those three recurring tones are meant to sound like someone saying “Am-a-zon.”

But there’s one small thing that Seifert and his team haven’t been able to crack yet: Personalization. When it comes to our individual devices we can change and choose the sounds they make, but an Echo is often communal, part of the shared home. How does one allow for some level of personalization while maintaining the ubiquitous understanding of an “uh-huh?”

According to Seifert, that’s the next big challenge in smart-speaker land. “The next step is to make all of these experiences such that people can personalize them when it's just them, but that they're still understood by a collective group.” But he also remains tight-lipped, for now, about how that might actually work. “I think we’ll see a lot of the future is going to have more personalization and customization [...] and that's the challenge because prior to Alexa and Echo, most sounds were made, you know, one to one.”

Garmin's new Fenix 7 smartwatches get a touchscreen and a flashlight

If you want a Garmin that screams "adventure" the Fenix line is the one to go for. The premium range of multi-sport GPS watches has come a long way over the last 10 years, and the new 7-series adds a few new tricks. 

Most notably, Fenix 7 line will now include touchscreens. It might seem something of an odd omission thus far, but the great outdoors tends to mean gloves, sweat, motion and the elements — all of which can play havoc with a touchscreen. As such, it'll be interesting to see how responsive it is under active conditions. Although other Garmin watches, like the Venu and vivoactive lines, have had touchscreens for a while so this isn't a first for the company by any stretch, but a new addition to the Fenix line.

Another addition includes a new multi-LED flashlight. Handy for those camping trips or early morning/late night runs. Not only is it a general-purpose light, but it can also alternate between red and white as you run, matching your personal cadence, so traffic or cyclists can be alerted to your presence (and direction).

As usual, the Fenix comes in three models/sizes: the 7S/7 and premium 7X which measure 42, 47 and 51 mm across respectively. All have solar-charging options and Garmin claims the new casing includes a larger screen surface area which could see solar gains doubling over the Fenix 6 line. This potentially puts the total time between charges (without using GPS) at up to five weeks, which is pretty impressive for a smartwatch of this size.

Beyond the hardware changes on the Fenix, there are some new advanced training modes too. These include Real-Time Stamina, Visual Race Predictor, Recovery Time Advison and Daily Workout Suggestions. These features join the already extensive offering of topo-maps, golf courses and surf/snow features that lie hidden within the Fenix's extensive sporting options.

All the models and varieties in the Fenix 7 line are available as of today, starting at $700