Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Future of Us - possibly the best SG50 product

2015 has been a year of unabashedly lavish indulgence for the Singaporean psyche. In stunningly predictable fashion, the populace made #SimiSaiAlsoSG50 a running joke before the first quarter of the year was over. With the year now drawing to quite the comfortable close, I'd say the Singaporean public, in particular those connected on the interwebs, is very much done with SG50. But ohhh dear friends, Singapore's not done with you just yet. Oh no, sir. No ma'am. December sees a final burst of activity to close the Golden Jubilee of our independence (if you've ever observed or analysed the pyrotechnic sequences of our National Day or New Year celebrations, you'll know what I mean).

Chief amongst these activities is the Future of Us exhibition, happening from 1 December 2015 till 8 March 2016 at Gardens by the Bay (just across from MBS, near the Meadow). According to its website description, "‘The Future of Us’ exhibition is an immersive and multi-sensory experience that offers a glimpse into the possibilities of how Singaporeans can live, work, play, care and learn in the future. ... It is the capstone event to round up Singapore’s SG50 year of celebrations." Tickets are free, but need to be pre-booked on the website, and collected before entry into the exhibition.

The Future of Us presents a forward-looking message of hope. Within its expansive (and logically, expensive) omnitheatrette, fancy projection mapping and literal sandcastles in the air of what the future could be, a singular message constantly rings clear.

The future may bring technology even sci-fi movies couldn't dream up. It may well hold possibilities that most of us would scoff at today. The future is as limitless as They say, but They always to neglect to mention one factor - you and I, the people piloting the future.

We who brought automobiles about. We who brought computers into our lives. We who have made smartphones as ubiquitous as day and night. Just as our evolving demands shape the development of technology and the world around us, so will our hopes, dreams and aspirations drive our future. We didn't become a global powerhouse within half-a-century by merely sitting about, so there's no reason why we should do so and expect to continue leading air-conditioned lives.

The future is up to us.

With all the hysteria of the year's celebrations, and no thanks to the countless brands who dived at this opportunity to show us just how bad their marketing can possibly get, such messages have sorely been lacking the government's overarching rhetoric. And that is not to say that there is no place for over-the-top celebrations and unbridled glee. We've come this far and we sure as hell deserve a party. Few other sovereign nations can claim as unique a milestone as its 50th year of independence, in such a time in the world's history as 2015. But even if it comes at the tail end of this year to remember, I'm glad to see that we have not neglected the biggest message that needs to be heard - that if not for its people, Singapore is nothing. Nothing at all.

The Future of Us, under the hand of creative director Gene Tan, has brought this message home like no amount of fireworks can.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Tech Review: Creative Sound Blaster Roar 2 Portable Bluetooth Speaker

TL;DR - if you aren't insanely particular about audio reproduction, and are instead more interested in not breaking your back or your baggage allowance, get the Roar 2.

A year ago I went on what David Attenborough might have described as a frenzy, technolusting after a product I only had theoretical knowledge about, eagerly awaiting the day I would be able to queue up (short one, because obviously I was one of the first), fling dolla dolla bills at the poor staff behind the counter, and dance out of the convention hall with my new-found (still theoretical) love into strawberry fields forever.

I did so, minus the swag bits (because civilization, guys), and went home with the Creative Sound Blaster Roar. And for once, the hype did not disappoint. It performed as it said it would, and astounded as it promised it would.

Courtesy of the awesomely hospitable Creative team, I got a chance to learn more about the Roar 2, and take a review unit home for further testing.

"20% smaller, 10% lighter, 100% sexier" is the tagline they've come up for the Roar 2 - I have my subjective reservations about the 100% sexier bit, but I still think the phrase makes brilliant sense from a marketing perspective. Creative basically said that they looked to shave as much external material and components without changing any of the core internal components that have contributed to the original device's jaw-dropping audio quality. For those considering the Roar for the first time, those internals are a bi-amplifier system separately driving two higher-range drivers, and one woofer with two passive bass radiators on either side that amplify and throw lower frequencies outwards, along with aptX and AAC Bluetooth audio codecs to ensure the best possible wireless sound.

Before I go on, Creative has made it clear, both to me and within their press and marketing materials, that the Roar 2 is not an upgrade, or a Gen-2 product, it is an alternative choice for customers in line with feedback asking for something even more compact, and lighter. Keep that in mind as you read through the rest of this review and assess which is better for you, the Roar 2 or the Roar Classic.

Shaving as much of the chassis off meant sizing down with as little compromise to the product's now famous audio quality. I suppose it is natural that the first thing to go were the metal grills protecting the bass radiators on either side. This along with the reduced overall size does mean that there is less room within the speaker for the bass to resonate, but more on how that affects overall sound later. Creative assures me that the now exposed radiators have been suitably reinforced, and indeed the metal plates are made of beautifully machined aluminum surrounded by a springy flexibie rubber that feels it can take some accidental impact. If it is your thing, the radiators now visibly pulsate to tangibly mesmerize you with almost-holographic Creative logos. Like so:

Other external enhancements: I love that the front buttons are now tactile bumps, instead of being flush with the surface. So much easier for you to deal with your speaker without looking at it, because there should be plenty more important things to do in a party, or indeed, for visually impaired people to use the device. The MicroSD card playback and voice record buttons sets at the back remain the same, but they have removed the alarm button out (I love bells and whistles but that was a vuvuzela right there if you know what I mean) and moved the Roar button to the back, which now functions to cycle between regular, Tera Bass and Roar audio modes. There is also now a switch between USB Audio and Mass Storage modes, to cut out the problem of cranky computers not recognizing your Roar's MicroSD as a storage device. This switch makes it clear what you intend to do - use it as audio output or manage your MicroSD card. Ports remain the same - MicroSD slot, MicroUSB, USB out for charging your device (the Roar uses a 6000mAh Li-ion battery), Aux In and DC In.

If you've read this far, you're interested in the crux of the matter: just how does a sized down Roar perform aurally?

 Maintaining the same innards as its predecessor means that the Roar 2 essentially can handle just about any genre of music you throw at it - classical, opera (not the same), hard rock, jazz, musicals, live recordings, funk, classic rock, electronic, dance. Those are just what I have in my library, and if tests are anything to go by, the list goes on. Nuances that you would think to forgo in a portable speaker surprise you by showing up anyway - the squeak of fretting on guitars, shadow beats on cymbals and drums, breathy harmonics on a flute. These are the marks of solidly crafted mid-high frequency drivers.

The bass continues to be a pleasure to indulge in, and now have throbbing aluminum plates to boot. The massive bass drops in Jamiroquai's Tallulah and Giorgio Moroder's 74 Is the New 24 did prove to be a little beyond the speaker's capabilities, but for one with dimensions similar to that of a paperback novel, the fact that it managed to reproduce half of those drops already speaks volumes (heheh volumes, geddit).

Roar 2 speaker configuration

A key difference between the Roar Classic, as they are calling it, and the Roar 2, is that the two mid-high speakers now accompany the low-mid woofer in firing upwards, as opposed to the front-firing configuration in the Roar Classic.

Roar 1/Classic speaker configuration

This crucial change makes for several things: with the Roar 2's configuration, you are now able to either lie the speaker down for coffee table-type use, or sit up for more directional, party-type use. This, Creative says, is in line with user feedback which requested this flexibility. When told this I nodded with a smile, guiltily wondering how many times I made my Roar Classic sit up, completely forgetting that the two more important speakers were firing right into solid wood or stone. Honestly, it still sounded good, which is why I never had enough cause to doubt I was using it wrongly, if I even did so in the first place.

The down side to this that, from a strictly audio perspective, you do not get the best-of-both-worlds configuration that the Roar Classic offers, firing mid/high frequencies forward while throwing low/mid frequencies upwards and sideways, where it would have more space to resonate. But hey, if you wanted something that can produce great audio at both low and high volumes, with audible bass, wherever the hell it fires as long as you hear it, then get the Roar 2, because it will be less of a strain on your luggage space, or your shoulder if you are hand-carrying it. If you know that you will be using this speaker for evening tunes before bed as much as you will be using them on travel, then get the Roar Classic, because you will most likely appreciate the more carefully projected soundstage the Classic offers.

If you already have the Roar Classic, I wouldn't advise purchasing the Roar 2, unless you have a family member whom you can pass the Classic to - remember, it is not an upgrade, it is an alternative choice for customers.

The original Creative Sound Blaster Roar is available at the IT Show 2015 at Suntec Convention Center Hall 601 for S$198, and the Creative Sound Blaster Roar 2 available in limited quantities for S$249 in black or white, bundled with a really sexy neoprene carrying case. If you are going to pick either products up there, ask for the discount vouchers.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Tech Review: Bowers & Wilkins T7 Portable Bluetooth Speaker

Bowers & Wilkins, generally known as purveyors of hi-fi (seriously hi-fi) products with equally high aesthetics to match, entered the portable Bluetooth speaker foray last November, with the introduction of the T7 Bluetooth speaker. Featuring and proudly displaying the company's first commercial application of its honeycomb-structured Micro Matrix technology for greater cabinet support, the aptX-capable speaker uses two 50mm drivers with patent-pending force-cancelling high-output bass radiators (all them hyphened phrases... someone hold me please), supported by DSP and DAC modules, and high quality Class D amplifiers (you know... whatever they mean).

Designed with B&W's signature minimalism, the slim yet solid rectangular block features no more than a power button and battery level indicator on the right, volume, play/pause and Bluetooth connection buttons on top, and discreet charging, auxiliary input and Micro USB ports, along with a reboot button.

Battery life is impressive. I only charged it once, mistakenly as it turns out, since the battery was already almost full. And being the cluttered anti-minimalist that I am I fiddled about for a good 5 minutes before discovering the power button, along with the battery level indicator. Since then, I have used the speaker in approximately 5 half hour sessions at rather high volume, and have not had to charge the speaker. Its specifications boast up to 18 hours of battery life "at normal listening levels".

So let's get down to what this review really is about - does the T7 live up to the grand legacy of its older siblings? Yes, but not without its caveats.

The bottom line - sound is great. Said audio drivers were not developed and chosen lightly, and they throw sound far and forward quite commendably. Sound is clean and crisp, great across the board, but especially fantastic for jazz, be it quartet, big band or electric-style. Stereo separation is almost non-existent, but I've come to not expect that in a portable speaker anymore, except perhaps the X-mini Max (feel free to surprise me though).

My biggest problem with it? The lack of bass. The sleek and compact design ultimately took its toll on low-frequency resonance, and as far as I'm concerned anyway, the otherwise fantastic sound quality just makes the absence of bass even more apparent.

Fortunately, I stumbled upon a solution before completely writing the device off. While there is insufficient bass resonance, the speaker does still have good acoustic throw, and that applies to bass too. By setting it on my window ledge, I inadvertently turned the recessed space framing the ledge into a massive bass cabinet. If you have purchased the speaker and are fretting about this, find yourself a window ledge, cubby hole, or shelf measuring ideally 1 meter across diagonally - the squarer the space the better. Place your T7 approximately 40cm away from the wall of the space, step 2-3 meters back, and hear the difference for yourself. And if you are considering the T7, keep this in mind before cashing in. Alternatively if you aren't fussy about bass, and who am I to judge, even though I already am, then why not. Go right ahead.

The T7 is available now for S$590 at authorised dealers.