Bang-on: The B&O Beoplay A9

The Bang and Olufsen (B&O) Beoplay A9 is an self enclosed streaming music hi-fi system that crosses that line between art and electronics. So what is it and what does it do? Basically, it is a self enclosed speaker array system, amplifiers, sound preprocessing unit and network node all in one. I am one of these people that does indeed appreciate good sound quality and had quite a few expensive audio components hooked-up in the living room: amplifiers, speakers, preamplifier, and CD-player. This unit replaced all of those things in a nice clean package. The Beoplay A9 would be perfect for people who want good sound quality to fill a larger room or space, but always want form along with the function. This background is important, here… I had found myself hooking up an Airport Express to all this fancy high-end audio equipment just to stream from iTunes, so I figured, ok, time to optimize. My plan is to offset the cost of the B&O by selling my equipment used.

Now just to be clear, this unit is expensive. It’s about USD 2,800 or about CAD3,700. However, I think it’s worth it if you want to up-your-game in sound quality for your streaming music.

The sound quality on the Beoplay A9 is pretty good. The speaker array consists of a subwoofer along with mid and high-range speakers: there are 5 speakers located in this unit. It delivers reasonably good bass, and keeps the sound quality and high audio levels – there is not a lot of distortion. I have never had any problems with Wi-Fi  streaming audio, and I never experienced any blips in the sound or networking problems. After weeks of use, it has been very reliable as an AirPlay receiver on my network. I mainly use it to stream from iTunes, but you can also stream from Spotify and other services. A cool feature of the unit is that there are touch sensitive controls along the top: a left side, right side and sweep sensor area along the top. It is kinda cool to sweep your fingers along the top to raise the volume. There is a mobile app that can be used for setup and monitoring of the Beoplay A9, where you can control things such as the maximum volume, and check the network connection settings, etc. There is also another separate mobile app for hooking the A9 to your phone for streaming, or streams across multiple Beoplay devices in your house. One problem that has been posted on various forums is the clunky setup procedure, it took me a bit to get it setup (the light codes required some interpretation but the language-independent visual instructions kinda fell short)… but, be patient, when it gets setup it works fine every time. Another cool feature of this is that the cover can be customized and changed, and there are even third-party companies that make covers for it.

So, back to the sound for a minute. It’s not fair to compare this unit to high-end audio equipment and dedicated speakers, but I did have the chance to do a side-by-side comparison. What you miss in this unit compared to the most expensive audio components is a bit of richness in the sound and bass. Speakers which are larger and made from wood have a certain smoothness in the bass that are missing from the Beoplay A9, and you’ll never be able to match the power delivered by a dedicated power amplifier: the A9 does delivers 160 W for bass and 2×80 for other speakers, but I was comparing it to a amplifier that had balanced inputs and 2 x 150W outputs. Yeah, it’s not entirely fair. But, that being said, I am really happy… it looks great, sounds great for what it is, and I am certain you’ll be thrilled.

58407-BO-BeoPlay-A9-White-Front-and-Back-on-white-original

You’ll love to have this around

The bottom line: The Beoplay A9 delivers very good sound with a visual and industrial design that make this a conversation piece in your living room.

 

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Not Quite a Fan: Lacie 2big Thunderbolt RAID

The LaCie 2big Thunderbolt RAID drive seems like a perfect choice for Mac users who need fast storage solutions for photos, video and backup. The Lacie hardware features prominently with Apple and both on-line and in most Apple Stores. I recently upgraded my iMac for a brand-new Retina 5K i7 with a 512 GB SSD. Nice. My last iMac lasted nine years and was the last 24-inch White iMac Intel Core2, which was really showing its age. But, I digress. I was looking for a storage solution for music, photos and backup, and I like the idea of a RAID1 configuration, especially with the photo library which has crept up into the 100 GB range. When using external storage, you want something fast fast fast, especially when you just invested quite a bit in a new computer. The Thunderbolt connections are supposed to be the way to do this on your Mac.

So, you may ask, how’s it been so far with this drive? Answer: meh. The pros of this unit are the nice visual design: it’s compact, looks cool and has clean lines. The cons are that the fan is a bit noisy, there is an odd panel in the back that helps hide the cable (but is way too snug for my taste), and I’ve had problems with the drive ejecting on sleep. The eject on sleep issue is somewhat pervasive, as you’ll see from the Lacie posts on the Apple store, and is annoyingly random – I had this problem for a while and then it randomly fixed itself one day after I tested the drive with USB3 and when I switched it back to Thunderbolt all was good. Sigh. The fan noise is particularly stupid. I had a Lacie 2big NAS for a couple years and I felt like I was working in a saw-mill. The fan noise was horrible. I eventually dismantled the whole unit to find that not only was the fan a bit cheap and noisy on its own, but it was not properly mounted and isolated from the chassis (it was actually vibrating against the chassis). Now, the Lacie 2big Thunderbolt is not this bad, but with my whisper quiet Mac and the USD 749 price tag (which is about CAD 999 with tax), why the heck can’t they put an awesome fan in it?!? Like, really.

lacie2big

Fancy but fan noise not fantastic (see what I did there?)

The bottom line: This is that is a “decent unit”, but I wish I considered alternatives like those from OWC. I also feel like Apple ought to put more effort into critiquing and/or picking accessories for the Apple Store: is this really the best unit out there?

Black Friday: A Tool for Making the Most of Your Hard-Earned Money?

Black Friday is a spectacle. The media love the imagery of the frenzied masses scrambling for deals, sacrificing their time and ensuring harsh weather conditions lining-up, trampling each other in a orgy of shopping chaos. The liberally minded folk use it as the basis of deep social commentary on consumerism, the failings and shortcomings of modern Western civilization, and how it has over-shadowing the meaning of Thanksgiving. The economists fixate on it as a key economic indicator, as a measure of the strength of the retail industry and the domestic and global economy. Individual consumers revel in the thrill of victory, sharing stories, strategies, successes and experiences – giving further fodder for the academic criticisms that humanity has devolved into a vapid shell of consumerism, as if talking about shopping wasn’t already orders-of-magnitude more prevalent than engaging discussions on religion, politics or key social issues, already.

So what the hell does this have to do with Real World Reviews, anyway? Fundamentally, my time spent on this blog is about value, not wasting your hard earning money and consumer advocacy. All of the stupidity associated with Black Friday remains true. But, is it all that bad? What’s wrong with getting a good deal anyway? Nothing. Nothing at all. So, I’d thought I’d stimulate some thought on how not to waste your hard-earned money. You won’t find me fighting the crowds, but this doesn’t mean that I am opposed to getting a deal – and neither should you. Don’t feed the frenzy, but selectively exploit it.

There is a natural flow to these ideas, so try to think about them in order:

Don’t buy crappy stuff. This is where the rubber hits the road on my time spent clacking out blog entries. An article in Psychology Today suggested that impulse buying is somewhat driven by an innate desire to save money. But, I would argue this is only effective for stuff that you need, or want after some careful consideration. Do your research ahead of time. You should also spend some time reading about Consumer Behavior. Take advantage of savings on Black Friday: absolutely, just won’t buy stuff you don’t need. Duh.

Be patient. Obvious? Probably, so. Getting a good deal is about being patient. Stalking. Like our primal instincts borne from millennia on the Savannah, squatting in the bush, fixated on our prey, waiting for the right time. Shopping sometimes feels like hunting: a little bit of luck, as with all things, timing and patience. The surest way to get a great deal is to wait. Eventually, the latest thing will fade from the spotlight and you’ll save yourself some money. Ask yourself: “what’s the worst thing that will happen if I don’t buy this right now”. This is a lot easier than it sounds, and it’s particularly hard for me – there is a lot of psychology at play here. Black Friday is your opportunity, but only if you’ve got something specific in your cross-hairs.

Products life-cycle and Generations. Consumer electronics is a classic example where waiting for deals is key. Everyone knows a new generation will inevitably be forthcoming in 2-3 years. There are two strategies in here: the first relates to being patient and not buying the latest model (e.g., TVs are a great example since new LED models offer little improvement), it will eventually go on sale; another is timing to purchase to maximize useful life-cycle (Apple is the best example here: they don’t fire-sale previous generations of equipment, so you want to buy the latest model always or buying a car at the beginning of a model year assuming you don’t pay a premium for that). Clothing also has a life-cycle implication, since you can buy things on sale knowing you’ll eventually need a new sweater next winter, but styles change eventually. This means that, yes, you will eventually see that TV for 50% in about 6 months anyway, whether you lined-up at 4 AM, got four bruises, and stressed yourself out in the process.

Understand supply and demand. Some basic understanding of macro-economic principles can inform decision-making. E.g., seats on an airplane for a flight you need to buy with no flexibility is different from an iPhone 6. Apple will make more iPhone 6 phones, but there are only 127 seats on that plane – being patient is key, but limited supply means that timing is important. I have gotten great deals on flights by jumping on a deal immediately, and I have gotten burned by not being patient and buying too early. Focus your deal hunting on stuff that is in limited supply.

Buy on sale. Yes, another obvious one. But, how many of you out there have bought toilet paper full price? Shaving blades? Basic white under-shirts? Luggage? If you find a good deal on toilet paper, fill your trunk with it. You’ll eventually need it and it won’t expire. Luggage and shoes are other classic examples for me: you will always be able to buy luggage 50% off, just be patient. Shoes? Stalk the pair you want and hunt for deals, if you are older than 17 years old, your feet are unlikely to grow any more. This means don’t be afraid to use Black Friday sales to get stuff you will eventually need.

Don’t be penny foolish and pound-wise. As part of the myriad of media musings on Black Friday, I saw an article that took the opportunity to re-enforce some personal finance principles around fund fees and MERs. It seemed a bit misplaced but the fundamental point is a good one: it’s awesome that you saved $200 on a vacuum cleaner, but you realize you are getting fleeced on those cable TV packages you don’t watch to the tune of $480 per year, right? Or, that your banking fees are also sucking away your hard-earned money?

Travel App Smack-down: TripIt vs TripCase

Wow. I really thought this would be more clear-cut, but reflecting on my comparison points, it’s going to be hard for me to uninstall one of these applications. I have been using both TripIt and TripCase services for several months in parallel. I was an early adopter of TripIt and have been using it for a couple of years now, so I have some endearment for it along with its awesome automated trip management features.

Merging travel plans into a trip. Clearly, only TripIt provides this functionality properly. This is really the “secret sauce” of TripIt and its mandatory for complex and evolving itineraries. Having to merge the individual parts of trips in TripCase is really annoying.

Conflicting plan synchronization. TripIt comes out ahead in this category, and it has the ability to detect duplicate itineraries, flag them and allow you to easily select the right itinerary by showing when the itineraries were received. For those of you who book in advance to get the best prices, or use reward points, you will appreciate the value of this – the likelihood of getting an updated itinerary e-mailed to you (i.e., because the departure time changed by 5 minutes or other such logistical minutia) is pretty high.

Look and feel. Admittedly, this is a bit subjective. I prefer the TripCase interface for its simplicity and high-contrast visual style (e.g., white on black background), and the key information is displayed more clearly on the mobile application. Both mobile applications have a select trip, and swipe left-right for individual legs or parts of your trip. TripCase enables another level of detail for each trip part with “additional information” easily accessible. I also prefer the TripCase website – the TripIt web-site is very overwhelming with additional details and advertisements, which is annoying because as a premium user I would not expect ads to clutter my screen. To be fair. TripCase also does have some extraneous menu options to up-sell you on services but they are appropriately placed and don’t clutter the mobile application flow. How hotels are shown is also better in TripCase, where it shows a more prominent card on your check-in event, and a less obtrusive one for your check-out time, unlike TripIt which treats both as travel events which somewhat clutters the visual presentation of the list.

Service Integration. I am not an Uber user, but TripCase offers this which is really cool. Also, TripCase automatically synchronizes with my Travel Agent who uses Sabre which means updates and bookings are automatically added. This is a real bonus. These two features are probably the most stand-out capabilities for TripCase.

Meta-data. TripIt allows users to add notes and photos, which is immensely useful when you are doing research ahead of your departure. Inevitably, you will find a need for adding data and notes that don’t fit within the existing data elements for your individual trip elements. Adding photos has been a handy feature for me, as I like to add photos of locations, hotels and airlines when planning vacations. TripCase does offer a cool feature where is allows you to view photos of your hotel, automatically fetching them from vfmii.com.

Notifications. Both applications offer flight notifications and both are very timely. I can always count on them arriving at more-or-less the same time. TripIt has a neat user interface feature that flags trips as on-schedule, or experiencing delays, right on the trip summary list.

Value add features. TripIt has integration with Seat tracker, which is really valuable to know where you are sitting and alert if there is a better choice. However, most of that seat selection and research occurs prior to your booking, so I have never really used the Seat tracker integration with TripIt. TripCase does offer seat maps but it never seems to work for the flights I take. TripCase has a much nicer weather forecast integrated into the mobile application, which TripIt only offers on the web-site. Both applications offer maps integration. TripCase automatically adds directions to your itinerary, which I don’t often use, and it would be nice to have this as an option. TripIt offers loyalty points integration for the Premium service user.

TripCase might be a great option for people who rely on a Travel Agency that connects directly to the Sabre booking system (so you can imagine that’s almost every business traveller out there), and changes to parts of the trip for the same reference number get updated automatically. TripIt has much better overall trip management, between merging and reconciling conflicting plans. If you are a business traveller, I recommend going with TripCase and not even bothering to look at TripIt – mainly because you’ll just end-up like me: missing the cool trip management and notes capabilities of TripIt (i.e., if you never used it, you won’t miss it). If you mix both business and leisure, I would go with TripIt – the Sabre integration is nice, but I’ve never felt too burdened by updating itineraries, especially with TripIt’s features for reconciling conflicting plans.

Up-in-the-air: Trips in the Cloud

Up-in-the-air: Trips in the Cloud

The bottom-line: I think that TripIt edges out TripCase overall, but for business travellers who use an agency and Sabre (and who have not used TripIt before), just go with TripCase.

A good multi-device charging dock: Hallelujah!

Eventually, I just decided that three phones, a tablet, and all the associated charging accessories was more than I wanted to look at, snaking out from the electrical sockets, across the kitchen counter. I thought to myself: there has to be way to organize this mess. Different phone models, different adapter types, different sizes, different covers or protective cases – a lot of variables, but you would think this was a common enough problem that a product to help would exist. The answer is no, with many seemingly fit-for-purpose products falling woefully short.

And, herein lies the story of mobile devices, journey, innovation and hope. The journey comes from me searching for months and months for a product, where most were either ugly, cheaply built, or not very space efficient. Innovation occurs when creative ideas are needed to solve real-world and practical problems, and this comes in the form of the All-Dock docking station. It’s a KickStarter funded project to solve exactly my multi-device, kitchen cable disaster. Hope comes from the fact that I damn-well hope this makes me happy after waiting months for a product that hits the mark.

The All-Dock unit is a rectangular multi-dock system with an integrated USB charging box, providing a way to connect your charging cables, keeping cable management in the box, and seating your devices. The unit I ordered was the medium size in the black colour. It managed to fit an iPad with a smart-cover, an iPhone 4 and iPhone 6 with protective cases. The  construction was pretty impressive, with a combination of plastic and rubber in black. The top-plate fits snugly into the base and can be lifted-up without excessive force. The form factor is appropriate for my kitchen-counter top, and it uses the space optimally. The width and depth of the slots to seat the devices seems to be just the right size: they are wide enough to accommodate a variety of covers plus allow an appropriate tilt on the devices, not too snug and not too loose. My unit had four (4) charging ports and it shipped with shorter cables and cable ties. This is helpful, except I got mini-USB instead of iPhone 4 cables, which required me to coil-up my longer Apple cables (which I wrapped with the provided table ties), and the cables were able to fit inside comfortably. The holes that the cables pop-through are uniquely designed, with a hole plus a tapered grove that can be used to “hold” the cable adapter. I have not had any problems yet with cables falling back into the box. I have not have any problems with the amount of “slack” needed to pull-up your mobile device to detach the cable, either both because the provided cables seem to be the appropriate length and I sensibly coiled my longer Apple cables. The front of the unit has a notch that would allow you to press the home button while seated, which is useful, except that my iPad, being the largest device and most likely to benefit from this, is seated in the back. The charging worked well, and so far the charging time has met my expectations.

In my research on the available products for this docking application, I had originally thought that having a docking station with a “fixed” adapter port would be better. However, there is just way to many kinds of adapters and devices and the USB charging station plus cable management approach seems to be the best way. There were some products out there that offered different fixed, and modular, adapter components that you can swap out, but none were quite right and future proofing is always an issue. I somewhat feel that cable management is an inevitable reality, so finding smart ways to do it has traditionally been a smart approach.

Overall, I am pretty happy with the All-Dock multi-docking station so far. Admittedly, my impressions might be somewhat flavoured by the emotional journey of searching for a solution for months. If you order the unit, expect that it might take some time to ship – when I ordered mine, there were none in stock and had to be manufacturer. But, it was worth the wait.

Herald the elusive multi-charging station equivalent of the unified theory of everything.

Herald the elusive multi-charging station equivalent of the unified theory of everything.

The bottom-line: Definitely fits the bill for a multi-device docking station, so this is the one to get if you have more than one type of device.

Regional Jet Rarity: Air Canada E175

As you sit at the gate, sipping your soda and looking around at the passengers mulling about with some gloom, you are probably witnessing the glum that comes with flying on regional jets. These are not the happy and excited travellers flying to Europe. These are the either the uninitiated masses flying-off to see Aunt Gladys in Dayton, or the business traveller struggling to get home from that sales meeting in Baltimore. It’s those short-haul flights, with those puddle jumpers, that tend to wear on people. To state the obvious, I feel that this comes from a few main reasons: regional planes tend to be delayed owing to the compounded delays and conditions across having to fly multiple routes a day, small cramped cabins, often needing to take a bus out to the tarmac as opposed to a gate-ramp, poor leg room with cramped seats, bumpy rides, and finally (worst of all) gate-checking your bag. Honestly, it’s like taking a bus, and that’s no fun.

I have flown on a relatively small number of regional jets. The US Airways, Air Canada and United Airways Bombardier CRJ200, the Air Canada Bombardier Dash8-300, and even a Beechcraft 1900. I can almost excuse the prop-planes from any critique, since when you’re on such a short, low capacity flight, you’re not going to expect much. Also, some airlines have done-up the prop plane, such as the Porter Airlines Q400 planes – which take it in an opposite direction: design for luxury.

The Air Canada Embraer E175 is a rare exception to all this. I will actually go out of my way to fly on this airplane, and its current configuration has been around for years – this is not something new. The E175 offers a 70+ seating capacity airplane with a pretty decent sized cabin that alleviates the problem with gate check since the overhead bins are big-enough to fit your carry-on (albeit length-wise). This is a huge plus. A huge plus. Can you tell I hate gate check? Is there anything worse than standing on the tarmac at Dulles waiting for your bag in January? This jet is still a 2+2 configuration, which is actually pretty comfortable – not having a middle seat is always a plus. The aircraft cabin noise levels are typical for this kind of aircraft, and it’s not noticeably noisy – my impression is that it is quieter than most in this class. The leg-room is pretty good, as well. I never feel too cramped. Air Canada offers in-flight entertainment on every seat in their E175s. This is pretty unique, as even the new United and American E175s don’t offer this. Also, they have a power outlet in every row, along with a USB charger for every seat in economy class. This is immensely useful, and I can’t imagine any airplane not offering power for charging these days. Air Canada offers a business class service on this flight with nine (9) business class seats. This might seem unnecessary, but there’s something to be said about snagging your upgrade after a few days of travel on your way home. Yes! Interestingly, Air Canada runs this plane on both short and long routes, from hour-long flights to the north-east, for flights up to four (4) hours. I was stuck on multi-hour flight from Denver to Chicago on a United CRJ200, and that is not comfortable. I recently had to book flights to Denver on United, and I was pleased to see United offer service on an E175 at a time that was convenient for me to travel – it was an easy choice over the CRJ200s at the other flight times.

Carry-on fits in the overhead bin. Thank the Lord.

Carry-on fits in the overhead bin. Thank the Lord.

The bottom-line: If you have multiple flight options and have a chance to ride an E175, go for it.

It Blows. That’s Good.

I cannot remember not owning a bicycle pump. If you own a bike, soccer ball, pool float or anything else that requires air, you certainly need one.

Both floor-standing and hand-pumps, they have always disappointed and left me frustrated. I have often pondered throwing my old floor-standing pump into the ravine across the street, stopped only by some sense of environmental responsibility. One day a year or so ago, I sought advice from my local bike and ski shop: “Please, I want to buy a pump that doesn’t suck. I don’t care how expensive.” He pointed over the Joe Blow Pump by TopPeak, and at $50 it’s not over-the-top expensive.

The Joe Blow head has a very reliable lever that clamps the ball needles, when inflating my soccer balls, and nicely snugs the Schrader valve on my bike tires. Its name also gives me endless amusement, almost reason enough to  buy it – nothing like household tools that we can anthropomorphize or give personas. When clamping onto the bike tires, there is no awkward fiddling or fussing, as the head clamps reliably onto the valve and pulling the lever gives you assurance it’s on nice and snug. You get the same satisfaction when clamping on the ball needles. The gauge is accurate and easy to read, and the pump has a hose dock that keeps the hose snug and tidy against the pump, and keeps the head from rattling around on the ground. It has a hardened steel base and is well constructed. Most importantly, it delivers a lot of air with each pump – you get to save the effort for the bike ride or soccer pitch, unless you want the excitement of pretending to pump and handrail car down some train tracks.

Blows. Don't suck.

Blows. Don’t suck.

The bottom-line: Just go buy one. You’ll have it forever, and the good quality head will make attaching your valves and pin needles frustration-free.