Monthly Archives: September 2012

Google: a search engine, or affiliate site?

According to my current web stats, 95.6% of those using a search engine to find a post did so using Google. That represents market dominance, and power to make or break a business which depends on web traffic.

Google’s search engine is the best in my experience, but I am increasingly concerned about the quality of the results, which are noticeably worse today than they were in the early days.

Ideally (from the user’s perspective) its search results should be objective as far as possible; for example, it should not favour sites which spend more money advertising with Google, nor should it favour Google’s own web properties above rivals.

I noticed an article in the Guardian stating that this is not the case:

A Google search for credit cards returns with an advert at the top of the screen, far bigger than the rest and bigger than any other website link. Adverts of this size and prominence will attract a high click-through rate. This will prevent searchers going via other affiliate sites or applying directly for a credit card.

I tried it. Here is what I got:

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The most prominent results is the one with the images, admittedly marked “sponsored” but in a grey, small font that you could easily miss. This is actually an ad for Google’s own affiliate site for credit cards, just click Apply:

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I do not get the same issue with Bing, although I do think the designation of which results are ads is too small:

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Still, at Bing has not awarded itself a large ad with images that links to its own affiliate scheme.

Of course I can choose not to use Google. Unfortunately though, businesses cannot choose what search engine their customers or potential customers use to find their sites.

I am one of those who believes regulation should be as light as possible, but considering the power Google currently exerts and the lack of fairness in examples like this, it seems to be that some kind of regulation is needed.

Disclosure: this site uses Adsense, a web advertising scheme operated by Google

Review: Logitech UE Smart Radio – the last Squeezebox?

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The Logitech UE (it stands for Ultimate Ears) Smart Radio has some history behind it. The Squeezebox music system originated with a company called Slim Devices and consisted of open source music streaming server software and hardware players which you connected over wired Ethernet or later Wi-Fi. Squeezebox build up an enthusiastic following, and in 2006 the company was acquired by Logitech which set about bringing the system to a wider market.

Logitech was only partially successful. Products like the Squeezebox Touch, reviewed here, won acclaim for their high sound quality and the flexibility of the system, but the weak point has always been that setup is too complex and quirky to win over the mass market.

Now Logitech seems to have abandoned efforts to beat Apple in home entertainment, and the UE Smart Radio is the only current product which still uses Squeezebox technology. Other products in the new UE range – headphones, wireless speakers – have nothing to do with Squeezebox.

Even the UE Smart Radio does not use Squeezebox branding at all. The blurb on the box says this:

Turn it on, connect to your Wi-Fi network and instantly have access to thousands of free internet radio stations from around the world, online music services, as well as the music stored on your computer.

It is intended to offer a simple out-of-the-box experience without any setup issues, whereas the physically similar Squeezebox Radio which preceded it was unashamedly part of the Squeezebox system.

Out of the box

Enough preamble, how is it out of the box? What you get is the UE Radio, a power supply, a standard 3.5mm mini-jack cable, and a brief introductory booklet in eleven languages.

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The unit has a beautiful though easily marked shiny black finish and surprisingly weighty, probably a sign of quality. A recess in the back forms a grip for easy carrying in one hand. There is an internal rechargeable battery which (says the manual) takes 6 hours to charge and then plays for 6 hours; of course you can use it while charging.

On the front is a 2.4 inch colour screen, 6 numbered presets, a large rotary controller, a smaller rotary volume control, a power button, and 8 further buttons: Home, Alarms, Add, Back, Rewind, Pause, Forward and Play.

There is also a stereo headphone jack (although the Radio itself has only a single speaker), and on the back, a wired Ethernet port and a 3.5mm jack input. The input jack means you can use the Smart Radio as a powered speaker for most MP3 players, iPods and smartphones.

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Finally there is a secret feature: an infrared receptor on the front. No remote is supplied, but if you have a Squeezebox remote it works. Since this is unadvertised I guess there is no guarantee the feature will remain.

What you do then is to plug in the power, switch on, and connect to your home network, usually via Wi-Fi. Next, wait a moment while the unit updates its firmware if necessary, and the unit is ready to play. A menu displays on the screen, and you use the rotary controller to navigate, pressing it in to select an option. Select Live Radio, pick a station, and play.

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Disclosure: in my case this is not what happened. I pressed play but no sound came forth. There was some kind of fault which later fixed itself. I am inclined to put this down to bad luck and possibly early firmware which will soon be updated. Incidentally, support was easy to contact and most helpful, which is not the case with every product.

When a station is playing you can easily assign a preset, simply with press and hold. You can also set alarms. When the unit is on standby it displays a clock, making this an excellent if pricey clock radio.

Radio is supplied through a link with tunein, which claims 50,000 stations. That means something for you, whatever your musical taste or location.

Sound quality

The sound quality is very good. Yes it is mono, but considering the size of the unit it is deep and rich, and lacks the annoying squawk of some small music players. The mono speaker has separate tweeter and woofer for extended frequency response.

I compared it to a Squeezebox Boom, a now obsolete stereo player which is considerably larger. The Boom was better in every way, deeper and sharper. That said, the Smart Radio sounded like a smaller version of the Boom, which I mean as a compliment. The Squeezebox team has always cared about sound quality, and it shows.

With internet radio, of course, the sound quality is limited by the source. I will say though that the Smart Radio is kind to poor sources and tends always to be listenable.

Remote app

If you have an iPhone or iPod touch, or an Android phone or tablet, you can download the Smart Radio app. This lets you control your Smart Radio remotely. No iPad support currently.

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If you have a local music streamer (see below) you can search and play from your own music library.

It also links to the Logitech UE Smart Radio cloud service, where you can add further music services such as Last.fm, Napster, Spotify, and the Live Music Archive to your Smart Radio. Adding a service like Spotify extends your music library to more music than you will be able to hear in your lifetime, though it does require a paid subscription.

Once you have created an account with Logitech, you can add services via the web site, and also set alarms on your Smart Radio.

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The UE Music Server

What if you want to play music from your own network? In this case you download and install the UE Music Library for Windows or Mac.

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Once installed, the Smart Radio automatically picks up the library and activates a My Music option in its menu. You can then play any music from the library either by navigating with the rotary controller, or by using the remote app.

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Album artwork displays on the Smart Radio screen.

Music is picked up from the standard music folders on your PC or Mac, and the Music Library will link to iTunes where available. Supported formats are MP3, Flac, WAV, AIFF, WMA, Ogg Vorbis, AAC (MP4) and Apple Lossless (ALAC). You can add additional library locations from the Music Library control panel.

Smart Radio and Squeezebox

What then is the relationship of UE Smart Radio and the old Squeezebox? This is where it gets a little confusing. The UE Music Server is none other than the old Squeezebox Server (or Logitech Media Server), but cut down to remove many of the features. You can log onto the server with a web browser. The default port is 9000.

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So what has been removed? Most notably, plug-in support and the ability to control the player from the server.

If you have an existing Squeezebox server, the annoyance is that the Smart Radio will not connect to it. In mitigation, you can install the new UE Music Server alongside the existing server and it will automatically choose different ports and run without conflict. This mean there is no need to mess with your existing collection of music files.

It is a shame to lose remote control and plug-in support; but the essence of the Squeezebox system, the ability to play your music anywhere in the house, remains. If you have more than one Smart Radio, you can play different music on each unit. Potentially, Logitech could bring out further UE products that use the same server, for example a new version of the Touch designed to link to a hi-fi system, though whether it will is unknown. It may depend on whether the UE Smart Radio is a success.

You could use the headphone output as a line out for a hi-fi, but it is shame there is no true line out setting for this purpose.

Final words

Taken on its own merits, the Smart Radio is an excellent device, with good sound quality, portability around the house or anywhere it can connect to the Internet (note it will not play your local music library unless it is on your own network), and some handy extra features such as alarms, Spotify support and so on.

There are two main reservations. The first is whether the relatively high price will deter much of the potential market. You do get a lot for your money, especially once you hear the sound quality and grasp the full capabilities of the system, but it will seem expensive when presented as just an Internet radio player.

Second, to what extent has Logitech succeeded in making the Smart Radio “just work” in the manner for which Apple is famous? I am not fully convinced. The control system is still a little quirky. What does the Plus button do, for example? The manual describes the button as More, and it brings up a number of options. Squeezebox users will know why it is plus, which is because it means Add to playlist. The Smart Radio playlist is mostly hidden though, making this a confusing feature.

Installing the UE Music Server is not really difficult, unless you run into firewall issues, but it is surprising Logitech does not give more prominence to this part of the system. It is mentioned almost as an afterthought, even though it adds greatly to the value of the Smart Radio. The thinking I guess is that most users would now rather subscribe to Spotify or the like, than build up a library of their own music files. This will likely be the future, but I would guess that many potential customers still have music collections on computer that they would like to play. This is still the way Apple’s iTunes works, for example.

If you do not require battery power, you might be better off buying a Squeezebox Radio while stock lasts, since it is cheaper and physically similar.

While there are some excellent music services supported, it is a shame there is no support for Google Play or Amazon cloud player.

This may be the last of the Squeezebox line, but it remains a great system for music at home.

 

Apple looks mortal

This has been a bad week for technical journalism. Everything was going according to script; new iPhone announced on 12th September; not really much new but oh, the design, oh, the performance, oh, the small touches. Then those with early access to devices poured forth their reviews: “probably the most beautiful smartphone anyone has ever made,” said The Telegraph, while Walt Mossberg on the Wall Street Journal said that “Apple has taken an already great product and made it better.”

Mossberg did say that the new Maps app in the iPhone5 was “the biggest drawback” though the faults he found were, in retrospect, minor. He observes the lack of public transport information, and add that “while I found Apple’s maps accurate, they tend to default to a more zoomed-in view than Google’s, making them look emptier until you zoom out.”

When iOS 6 was rolled out generally this week though, the public had a different take on the subject. One factor was that they looked at the maps in their own location, whereas early reviewers tend to be located in major cities. The big issue is not the lack of public transport routing, though that is an issue, but the poor quality of the data. It is simply not of release quality. One small example. Birmingham Airport is a significant destination in the UK, but if I search for it here, I get mysteriously directed to Aldridge Airport, 20 miles north.

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Note: “Aldridge Airport” closed in the sixties and is “Now an open space used for football, dogwalking and the buzz of radio controlled aircraft.”

Birmingham airport itself seems missing.

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This search is no challenge for Google Maps.

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Maps are important on a mobile device, and this was an instance where the technical press, labouring as usual under short deadlines and the unrealistic challenge of perfectly encapsulating the qualities of a complex product with a few days of skimpy research and a few hundred words, let the public down.

More significantly, it is the biggest PR disaster for Apple that I can think of in recent years, certainly since the launch of the iPod in 2001, which was in a sense the beginning of Apple’s mobile adventure. When a tube station puts out a notice mocking Apple’s maps you know that this is a problem that everyone is talking about, not just the Twitterati.

Why has Apple done this? It is paying the price for escaping Google dependence, a real problem, but one that you would have thought could have been better addressed by licensing maps from Microsoft or Nokia, both of which have better maps; or by sticking with Google a little longer while putting its own effort out as an alpha preview while it fixes the data.

Apple will no doubt fix its maps and the decision to break with Google may eventually look good, but it is hard to see how it can fix them quickly.

The big reveal here is how Apple is prioritising its long-term industry strategy ahead of the interests of its users. Apple has done this before; but never with such obvious harm to usability.

It is still, no doubt, a beautiful phone, and the maps issue will be solved, if only by using Google’s web maps instead.

Apple looks mortal though, and the script is not playing back as planned. People who once would only have considered Apple will now be more aware that alternatives are in some respects better. The longer the maps issue continues, the more significant will be the effect.

Apple should withdraw its broken maps, go back to Google at least temporarily and reinstate the old maps app.

BBC replaces Flash with Flash in Android iPlayer

The BBC has announced its solution to the lack of mobile Flash on Android devices, which meant that its iPlayer catch-up service did not work on recent devices like Google’s popular Nexus 7 (though there are hacks to make it work).

However, the BBC is not really replacing Flash, but instead creating a media player that is compiled from Flash into a native Android app. This means that the Flash runtime is compiled into the app.

In the end, Flash was still the best choice of media format for us to use. And the only practical technology for us to play this format back on Android is Adobe Air.

says the BBC’s Chris Yanda.

Yanda points out that using HTTP Live Streaming is impractical since it is not supported on versions of Android prior to Honeycomb; and the majority of Android devices in use are Froyo or Gingerbread.

Judging by the comments, users are glad to have something but disappointed with the BBC’s support for Android. The native iOS app is much better, especially considering that it now supports downloads. On a recent flight I took an iPad with me solely for the ability to watch iPlayer content offline.

Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows RT tablets will support Flash, as I understand it, though only for a limited subset of web sites. Presuming BBC iPlayer is on that list, it should work.

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85% of user reviews are genuine says Gartner

Except that it doesn’t. The headline on the press release just received is:

Gartner Says By 2014, 10-15 Per Cent of Social Media Reviews to Be Fake, Paid for By Companies

The full paid-for report is here.

I think we can agree that fake user reviews are a Bad Thing; but the current agitation about sock puppetry among book authors and fake reviews in general seems to be missing the key point, which is that user reviews in general have had a transformative and beneficial impact and should be applauded.

Examples that come to mind are tripadvisor, which has hotel and restaurant reviews, user reviews in general on Amazon, and restaurant reviews on Yelp.

Since the emergence of sites like these, I have had fewer disappointments and more pleasant surprises in travel, books, music, technology and more.

That said, there are plenty of flaws in the various systems for gathering user opinions. The problems are not confined to the most extreme examples of paid-for reviews masquerading as genuine.

You often get what I think of as a smiley face effect, where across the spread of reviews there are disproportionate numbers that are highly favourable, because fans are more likely to post reviews, and disproportionate numbers that are too negative, because users who have a bad experience are more likely to post.

After all, if you use a product or service and it is so-so, why bother posting a review?

Another problem on sites like Amazon is competition for top reviewer status, which means reviews are upvoted by friends and downvoted by rivals, a kind of meta-sock-puppetry.

On balance, I reckon 85% is far too high, if you want a measure of what proportion of user reviews on social media are both genuine and useful. Certainly, Gartner’s headline seems back-to-front in terms of what would be more surprising.

Those reading the reviews should also be credited with some common sense. Most people will look for a balance of opinion over a quantity of reviews where possible, and observe which reviews seem to be based on a solid analysis of facts rather than on bland opinions.

Long live user reviews.

Ancient game plays better in Windows 8 than Windows 7

Windows 8 runs the 1999 game Age of Empires II better than Windows 7, which curiously messes up the screen graphics unless you terminate the Windows Explorer process – a fact that I noted in December 2010. Here is the game in Windows 7:

and in Windows 8, without fiddling with Explorer:

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The fact that the game runs better in Windows 8 is probably due to some obscure bug-fix, though I like to think that somewhere in the development team is a fan of this old but excellent game (it is great multi-player) who decided to make it work.

Nokia City Lens: augmented reality on your Lumia 920 Windows 8 phone

Nokia has announced the Lumia 920 with features including Qi wireless charging, PureView camera, and of course Microsoft’s new Windows Phone 8 operating system.

One eye-catching feature presented by Nokia’s Jo Harlow is City Lens, which uses augmented reality to overlay the view through your phone’s camera with tap-able labels showing information about local restaurants, stations, shops and so on.

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A great feature; I am sceptical though since Local Scout, a feature in Windows Phone 7 that was meant to find local places of interest including restaurants, shops and so on, was worse than useless in my experience. Information was missing, out of date, and lacked the necessary momentum to have user reviews of any consequence. It was a little better in the most central locations, such as central London.

City Lens could be great though, a practical application of augmented reality (historically a solution looking for a problem) which has obvious appeal.

Windows 8 desktop user tip: learn mouse-top-left-drag-down

Windows 8 is a difficult adjustment for some users, particularly those with long experience of earlier versions. With its dual personality it is always going to be a little odd; but I have found it just as productive as Windows 7 for desktop use. In fact, thanks to its good performance and other new features, I prefer it.

Some actions in Windows 8 are not obvious though, hence the puzzlement of first-time users staring at the desktop and wondering how to get back to the Start screen.

There is one mouse movement in Windows which I find particularly useful, which is mouse to top left corner and drag down. This works in both the Desktop and Modern UI (“Metro), provided that at least one Modern UI app is running. It displays a list of all running Modern UI apps, with the one you last used (before the current app) at the top.

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This is an app switcher, and I use it frequently to get back to the desktop from a Modern UI app in one quick mouse movement. However it has other functions too. If you right-click an app in the list, a close button appears. If you have a screen wide enough to support Snap, you can also snap the app to left or right.

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You can also activate Snap by click-and-drag on an app in the list. Just drag it a little to the right. When you release the mouse, it will be snapped left. Or drag it all the way to the right to snap there. Or if the screen is already in a split view, drag it to the centre of the screen to replace the current occupant.

This may be why your computer is crashing

I was asked to look at a PC which was misbehaving. Sometimes it worked, but increasingly it was freezing or crashing. Sometimes the hard drive would corrupt and needed Windows repair before it would boot.

I took a look. I ran the drive manufacturer’s diagnostics, which reported no drive errors. I ran memory tests. I removed each of the two RAM sticks alternately to see if one was faulty. I tested the power supply. The PC was still not stable.

Then I took a close look at the motherboard. The only visible sign of possible trouble was that two capacitors close to the RAM sockets were bulging slightly at the top.

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I removed the board and replaced the capacitors – not that easy a task, though the actual capacitors are cheap enough. You need a powerful soldering iron and plenty of patience.

Since the replacement though, the PC has been perfectly stable.

Of course the owner had presumed a Windows problem and spent ages updating drivers, looking for viruses, and so on.

The capacitors are branded Tk and since making the repair I discovered that others have similar tales. It is not just these specific capacitors though. The bad capacitor problem remains a common fault with PCs that are a few years old.

The economics of the repair is marginal unless you can do it yourself. A replacement motherboard costs so little that it does not pay for much professional service time. However if like me you get some satisfaction from repairing rather than disposing of old but good electronics, it is worth it.

The other point: if your PC is crashing a lot, take the back off and check the capacitors. Any bulges or leaks, and you can stop wasting time trying to fix a hardware problem by tweaking Windows.

Review: Audyssey Lower East Side Audio Dock Air for Apple AirPlay

Based in Los Angeles, Audyssey specialises in audio processing software. This is used in home theatre equipment such as multi-channel receivers, and also finds its way into TVs, mobile devices and cars. In 2010 Audyssey started making its own audio accessories, with an iPhone/iPod dock which I reviewed here. I was surprised how good they sounded. Since then I have kept a close eye (or ear) on the company’s small range of products. This is a company which cares about sound quality, and whose secret sauce is applying software to solve the problem of getting big, accurate sound from small enclosures.

The Lower East Side Audio Dock Air is an active loudspeaker system for Apple’s AirPlay wireless streaming protocol. It also has a standard 3.5mm input for wired connection to MP3 players or other devices. Using AirPlay, you can play music and control the volume from a Mac or PC running iTunes, or from iOS devices including iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.

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What you get in the box is the Audio Dock Air, an external power supply, a 3.5mm jack connector, and a Quick Start Guide that unlike many others is actually rather good.

The styling of the Dock Air is distinctive with its speaker systems firing left and right, though if you check out the internal shots later on you will see that the tweeters are actually directed more forwards than sideways.

Plug in the power and you can get started. For set up, you press and hold a pairing button on back, which lets you connect to the Dock over Wi-Fi. You than browse to a small web application on the Dock, where you complete the set up by connecting to your home Wi-Fi network. You can also rename the device, which could be particularly useful if you have several Dock Airs in different rooms.

Once fully connected, you can go to iTunes and click on the AirPlay button at bottom right of the iTunes window. There you can select the Dock Air, using whatever name you assigned during setup:

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Even more convenient is to download the Remote app for iOS. This lets you use your iOS device to control iTunes on the Mac or PC.

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You can also play music directly from iOS.

The sound

The sound quality is excellent as I have come to expect from Audyssey. There are a few points to note though. The first thing you notice is the bass extension, which is remarkable for a unit of this size. Drums have real thump, and bass guitar sounds like bass guitar. If you are used to the anaemic bass of most small speakers, hearing this from a small box is pleasing and unexpected. That said, the sound is not dominated by the bass. The treble is sharp and clear too; and I was struck by how easy it is to follow different strands in the music and to notice small details.

Playing Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain, for example, you can easily hear the whispered “Son of a gun” right at the start of the track. Karajan’s Beethoven’s 9th sounds dramatic and powerful; a little lightweight compared to a full-range home stereo, but superb from a compact dock. Mika’s Billy Brown, a simple arrangement with a forward vocal, is conveyed with drama and deep bass from the accompaniment, with just a trace of confusion at the bottom end compared to my monitor reference speakers.

Given that this is a single box, you should not expect the best stereo image. You do get some limited stereo effect. The unit goes loud enough for most listening at home, but not for parties or neighbour-annoying rock out sessions,

I made a comparison with the Audyssey South of Market dock, which is just a little larger but a similar design. The older dock does not go quite so deep, though the sound is a shade cleaner; the Dock Air is slightly softer in tone though if you had your eyes closed you would guess it is larger, not smaller, than its predecessor. On Sade’s bass-heavy song By Your Side, the South of Market keeps a firmer grip than the Dock Air, though this is a difficult song to reproduce. Some listeners might find the bass in the Dock Air excessive, though it is not to my ears. I doubt anyone would think that of the South of Market dock. Both sound very good.

The not so good

Audyssey has a strong grip on audio technology, but less so with its manufacturing quality. It is not bad but could be better. The rotary volume control is slightly out of true on the review unit, for example. These are products that you have to hear to appreciate, and my guess that a little more investment in fit, finish and design would win more customers, bearing in mind the relatively high prices.

The responsiveness of the Dock Air can be laggy, both from iTunes and even more when used with the iOS Remote app. Some of this is down to the iTunes/AirPlay system, and no doubt some audio buffering in the Dock Air, but it can be annoying.

Switches and ports

The Dock Air is fairly minimalist when it comes to switches and ports. On the top of the unit is a rotary volume control and status LEDs.

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You can also control volume remotely, which you will probably do more often. The volume control is also a mute button; press down to mute, and again to unmute.

On the front is a headphone socket along with what looks like an infra-red receptor though if so it is undocumented.

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At the rear is the power, aux input, and pairing button. No on/off switch. I recommend turning off at the socket, connecting, and then switching on, presuming your mains sockets have switches.

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Underneath is a USB port, which Audyssey says is solely for future firmware updates.

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The technology

Audyssey does not give much away in its specifications for the Dock Air. It does state:

  • 3/4” tweeters
  • 3” woofers
  • 4” Passive bass radiator
  • Audyssey EQ
  • Audyssey BassXT
  • Audyssey Dynamic EQ

Of these, the last are the most interesting. What are they?

Audyssey EQ is not much documented, but in the context of another product I read that it corrects time and frequency response imperfections caused by the loudspeaker and cabinets.

BassXT “dynamically monitors the low frequency signals and constantly pushes the speaker to its maximum capability.” The over-simplification would be that it boosts the bass signal to compensate for the drop off in the frequency response of the woofer.

Dynamic EQ is a more sophisticated form of the “loudness” switch that you see on old hi-fi equipment. As Audyssey says, “It will preserve the and octave-to-octave balance of the content as you turn down the volume to make up for the changes that happen in human hearing at lower listening levels.”

Purists may feel that this is too much tinkering with the signal. My view is that the high quality results successfully validate the approach. With Audyssey products, it is a large part of what you are paying for.

Internals

The Dock Air is not designed to have its grilles or panels removed; however we had a quick look inside for this review. This shows one side of the unit with its 3” woofer and passive bass radiator.

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If you look carefully you can also see the tweeter at top left. Note that this points more towards the front than to the sides, though it is at an angle.

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Internally Audyssey has taken a lot of trouble with acoustic damping foam so that the sound is clean even at high volume. I was also impressed by the size of the loudspeaker magnets, which are bigger than I have seen on speakers many times larger.

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Conclusion

With rumours that Apple is redesigning its dock connector, thus threatening the compatibility of products like the South of Market dock, wireless is the future. If you value high sound quality and need an AirPlay speaker system, you will like the Lower East Side Audio Dock Air. Note that there is no Bluetooth support, so if you want to use non-Apple devices this is not suitable. A bit more attention to design and manufacturing quality would be welcome. But I do not know any other company that can get such great wide-range sound out of small boxes.