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.

 

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?

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.

On the Ropes. Yes, the kind you tie stuff with.

This entry was about to turn into a buyer beware entry on the Blueline 1/4″ Utility Braided Rope, but I realized that I just didn’t know as much as I needed to about rope. I always do at least a little bit of research both before a purchase, and after I decide something is worthy of a review. Who knew there was so much to know? Prior to a recent camping trip, I found myself standing in the hardware section in front of a wall of rope. I wanted some additional rope for the tarps that I use to provide an extra layer of protection in the event of a downpour. I tie them to trees around the campsite, good and snug. I ended up with a the braided polypropylene rope: it looked fancy, came in a nice spool, and was rated to about 60 lbs. I learned that Polyester ropes are actually much better for what I was trying to do. Polyester ropes don’t stretch as much as polypropylene, resists elongation better, and has good resistance to moisture problems. Polypropylene is lighter weight and float, and does not resist elongation as much – it is also cheaper. There were a couple of really good comparisons on the Web, including some narrative that provides more chemistry for those in-the-know about the science of materials. There you have it: things you should know.

Pretty to look at. Not for camping.

Pretty to look at. Not for camping.

The bottom-line: If you want to keep your tarps taut, stick with the polyester rope.

What’s Summer without Clean Rims?

I am one of those people that believes cleaning your car is an art-form, and it is probably one of my few unique skills. I have obsessive compulsive tendencies that make cleaning my car something interesting and worth getting right – that, plus maybe some kind of pride in car ownership. It feels good to drive around in a shiny clean car. One of those simple things in life that make a guy happy, I suppose. Yes, this is a true guy thing.

Those skilled in the art of car detailing will acknowledge the importance of properly cleaning your tires and rims. These require special attention because the brake dust, and dirt, build up fast. Most cars have some intricate rims with nooks and grooves, making it much more difficult and time consuming to clean. And, gleaming rims and tires get noticed as the icing on the proverbial “clean-car cake”.

SONAX Wheel Cleaner Full Effect is a spray-on cleaner for your aluminum rims. It promises to take away all the work associated with scrubbing, mostly on your hands and knees, all the grooves and spokes. You spray on the cleaner, wait a while until it turns purple, and spray it off. Simple enough, right?

The good news is that it does generally get the wheels much cleaner, and it does appear to composed of less chemicals. A benefit here is that it washes away without any harm, such as staining, to your driveway. I have never had any problems with this product harming my rims, wheels or paint finish (i.e., in the event of a few wayward droplets). There are some products, like the one I use for cleaning the tires, which will stain the driveway and will take time, and effort, to wash away. The reviews of this product are resoundingly positive, and it is rated to be one of the best cleaners for your rims out there. However, it does not replace the need to scrub and polish the rims. It will remove most dirt and it is good for a quick wash, but it will not get every part of your rim clean. For those skilled-in-the-art of car washing, you know that the shine and gleam come from avoiding water spots – and you can’t avoid that step with this cleaner.

Keeping with the theme of needing to actually touch something to clean it, the EZ Detail Auto Wheel Brush is a much better way to scrub away dirt without risk of scratching the rims. With your car wash soap and this brush, you can scrub away most of your dirt and grime for a much cleaner rim. And, you can use the brush for quite a bit longer. You’ll be buying at least two containers of the SONAX 500mL size in a season, easily. Scrubbing also burns more calories, so there’s a plus.

Works well enough. Doesn't replace good old fashion scrubbing.

Works well enough. Doesn’t replace good old fashion scrubbing.

The bottom-line: It’s probably the best out there, and good for those wanting to get the most clean for the minimum amount of work, but you are better off with an auto-wheel brush.

 

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.