Bluetooth headphones on a MacBook Pro

More audio to go: Bluetooth headphones

At the end of 2014 I wrote about budget Bluetooth speaker I picked up for £10, which I was pleased with at the time and – I’m pleased to report – I continue to be pleased with. Even with regular use and multiple recharges the battery life significantly exceeds the advertised four hours (unless I max out the volume for a bit of air guitar).

I’ve since added to my collection of inexpensive gadgets with Bluetooth heart rate monitor and a pair of Bluetooth headphones, of which the latter are the subject of this post.

Priced at the princely sum of £19.99 from Lidl, and available in black – my choice -, white, red, or blue the SilverCrest® Bluetooth® Headphones (aka SBTH 4.0 A1) boasting a 15 hours battery life were my latest purchase.

Since getting the portable speaker my music listening has increased drastically, but I only tended to listen via (wired) headphones when I was either:

  • Running
  • Walking
  • Travelling (with a pair of noise cancelling headphones)

Unless I was trying to block out other noise, I would rarely bother or remember to plug a pair in when I was working; therefore my only reason for picking these up was the typically compelling combination of “shiny new toy” and “cheap”, with “no wires” being an afterthought.

I’m sure it will come as no surprise that this purchase has been a double-edged sword, but the good does outweigh the bad.

Positives

They do exactly what they are supposed to. They paired painlessly with my iPhone 6 Plus and MacBook Pro, and will happily connect to both simultaneously (obviously you can only hear audio from one source at a time). They are mostly comfortable, and I have worn them pretty much all day without discomfort, but on other days they’ve annoyed me after only a short while. Battery is as advertised or better, as it was with the portable speaker. Audio is good enough, but they do distort with heavy bass. For a pair of supra-aural (on-ear) headphones, they do a good job of reducing ambient noise, but at medium to high volumes others will be able to hear what you’re listening to. The built-in microphone is passable.

Negatives

When connected and in use a blue LED flashes continuously on the right ear, which are very noticeable in a darkened room. Occasionally when using the hands-free mode the connection will be garbled, and I’ll have to switch to the phone itself.

Both of those are minor details compared to the next one though, but the majority of the blame lies in iOS. I cannot use these headphones to watch video on my phone due to a significant delay between the video and audio. From my research this seems to be because iOS uses AirPlay for the audio, and even affects Apple’s own Beats wireless headphones. There is no delay when used with the MacBook Pro, nor when paired with an Android phone.

Despite that one glaring problem I’m very happy with them, and have been using them everyday for both music and podcasts.

Smartbrick

I love my smartphones, and I’ve been using them for a long time now. I think my first real smartphone was an O2 branded HTC Universal, followed by a Nokia N95. I’ve also had various models of iPhone (3G, 4, 4S, 5 and currently using a 6) and both a Nexus 4 and 5.

The common factor between all these devices was my choice of service provider: O2. I let myself get suckered into upgrade after upgrade to get the latest and greatest model, and always lived in hope of them improving network coverage in my neck of woods.

You see, I live in the middle of nowhere. We’re right on the limit for both getting ADSL and having pizza delivered, and our nearest neighbour is a quarter of a mile away. It’s a wonderful location, but not without its frustrations for a self-confessed lover of technology like myself. The problem is getting worse as my older children start to suck up more and more of our available bandwidth with Netflix, YouTube, and Xbox Live.

Coupled with the poor broadband connectivity is less than stellar coverage from O2. I can get 3G in Carlisle, but around where I actually spend 99% of my time I get GPRS or nothing. To add insult to injury, the GPRS connection rarely works for anything other than push notifications. This means that whenever I leave the house, unless I’m headed for “civilisation” I’m carrying the eponymous “smartbrick” in my pocket.

The christmas before last my brother-in-law was shocked and delighted to discover he could get a 32Mbps 4G signal from EE in my living room, compared to the paltry ~2Mbps my BT ADSL was providing to a house full of gadgets during a family christmas.

Being tied into a contract prevented me from switching to EE at the first opportunity, but as my contract is due to expire I’ve been checking out my options. EE with their 4G-in-my-living-room is a clear contender, but with my work at Automattic (by the way, we’re hiring!) I also have to travel several times a year – usually to the United States. Neither O2 nor EE have particularly great roaming prices there, and having had my fingers burnt with a few bills on my return from travels, I’m keen to get the best bang for my buck. Especially when roaming I rarely turn my data on – except in emergencies – so despite being in “civilisation” my phone remains a smartbrick unless I’m near a WiFi connection.

This lead to me Three. They have very reasonable pay-as-you-go bundles (I really want to be done with long term contracts), but most importantly they have a “feel at home” romaing deal which means I can use my full allowance in the US and other countries. A quick warning: the “all you can eat” data allowance in the UK is capped at 25GB when roaming. The cheek of it! Oh, and they have 3G-in-my-living-room, which is a massive improvement on O2.

So for my current trip to New Orleans for a team meetup (I’m typing this on the train to the airport in our excellent WordPress app, and using my Three 3G to post it) I’m trying out their “feel at home” deal and I’m looking forward to being able to use my smartphone as Apple intended!

A smartbrick no more!

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Audio to go

I’ve been hankering after a Bluetooth speaker for a while, but never seemed to get around to purchasing one. When I was in Kauai last week for a team meetup, one of my colleagues used his speaker continuously to good effect and reminded me how much I wanted one.

While the holy grail (for me) continues to be the Bose® SoundLink® Mini Bluetooth Speaker, I’ve also heard good reports about the significantly cheaper HMDX HX-P230RDA-EU Jam Bluetooth Wireless Portable Speaker – Red (available in several colours). However, I kept putting off getting one for, well, reasons.

This morning while picking up some pain au chocolate and baguette in Lidl, I spotted a diminutive “SILVERCREST” (one of their many in-house brands) Bluetooth Mini Speaker (SBL 3.0 A1) for £9.99, so how could I resist? (It would seem plenty of others couldn’t resist either; there were six this morning, and none when I was back there this afternoon!)

I’m no fool: I know a £10 device is not going to compare to something from Bose, but I can happily report that it was well worth a punt. The volume is far greater than you would expect from something of this size, and while there is some distortion you have have to ramp up the volume to trigger it. It has a built in rocker button that allows you to play/pause and change tracks forwards and backwards (assuming your device supports the correct Bluetooth profile; it works fine with my iPhone). It is too soon to comment on battery life, but claims are made of up to 8 hours from a 3 hour charge – I’m assuming this is when used with the auxiliary connection, and 4-ish hours with Bluetooth will be more likely. Charging is through the ubiquitous micro-USB cable.

On the negative side, although the casing finish is good (I got the plain black one), the controls are utilitarian. There is a rubber base, but when a track with significant bass is turned up it did start slightly moving around, so beware of placing it near the edge of the table! Finally the aforementioned auxiliary connection is through a custom 3.5mm to micro-USB cable which will almost certainly be impossible to find if I ever need it. 🙂

I’ve not yet tried the built-in microphone, but it is a nice-to-have feature.

As with all Lidl/Aldi style deals, good stuff like these will disappear very quickly, so if you see one pick it up; I doubt you’ll be disappointed. If you do miss out, I did spot some on Amazon that looked identical (although with a different brand) yet even cheaper, so there may be bargains to be had.