Home Audio gets smaller and better, PCs still drive people crazy, TVs get cheaper and larger, and Home Appliances are worse than ever – but we find the hottest, coolest, easiest, best and worst devices of the season.
By Richard Sherwin, Amy Eller, Bob Plunkett, Rich Macias, Jennifer Auspitz, Christine Eads, Theodore Mayo and Susan Davis along with special content from Gary Kaye and the Tech50+ news organization.
At a recent home design and technology symposium in New York City, some of the top interior and exterior designers cuddled up with technology innovators and announced what many of us knew all along: The “Wife Acceptance Factor” is finally determining the design and function of today’s consumer products, especially audio video products for the living room, den, and bedroom.
The battle cry in recent focus groups conducted by many CE makers and home décor experts was, “No more wires, plugs, cables and clutter, and do we really need a Sub-Woofer?”
The LG people, conducting a recent seminar featuring some of their “no-more-clutter network-compatible audio and video equipment,” showed off new ways to hang large screen OLED TVs rather take valuable space sitting on furniture. LG also featured a sound bar that filled the room with high quality audio, but didn’t require another room crowding sub-woofer.
Dave VanderWaal, VP of Marketing, LG Electronics USA, and Michelle Fernandez, Head of Marketing, Home Entertainment, LG Electronics USA, had a healthy debate with industry experts like Lisa Frantz and Lydia Marks, Principals of Marks & Frantz Interior Design, and Ricardo Rodriguez, a prominent Real Estate Agent from Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage. All agreed that women now make nearly 70% consumer electronics buying decisions. But Lisa Marks and Ricardo Rodriquez pointed out the millennials of both sexes play an even bigger role because their apartments or homes are usually smaller than other age groups. Lisa Frantz commented that older folks who are downsizing still wanted their high quality audio video equipment and were spending much time contemplating where to put their 70-inch TVs. One industry wag in the audience called out that some grandchildren of baby boomers may be getting some large, pricey hand-me-downs.
With all that in mind, DFA thought the first place to cut down clutter is with audio products. We are featuring some sound bars that fit under your TV and don’t have subwoofers. These all passed the “family acceptance “ factor in that they delivered enough bass from their devices to satisfy the booming rock fans and also made sound clearer since most TVs have poor audio quality.
These sound bars also all have Blue Tooth, so your phones and tablets can play any music service available and any of your own music that’s stored on a Blue Tooth enabled device. If you have eschewed Blue Tooth devices, these sound bars can also be directly attached to your TV or stereo via Optical cables, RCA jacks and HDMI plugs. Some have FM frequencies built in, too.
Our Favorite Sound Bars
Let’s start with the formerly top rated Vizio, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio, all reviewed previously in this space (good, better, best of the major brands) and The Bose Solo 5 perennial best seller. They are all still good, but now there’s some major competition. We feel there’s no reason to splurge in this category, so we will not get into the $1500 to $3000 models. In the budget (under $200) category, JBL has gone way past Vizio (in fact Vizio is NOT selling some of their cheaper models).
The JBL Boost, half the size of many famous Sound Bars, outplayed some of the major brands. It fills a decent sized (20 X by 12 foot) living room with 2.1 channel high-quality audio whether you are using your TV, Bluetooth and/or set top box (Roku, Apple TV, TiVo) sources.
Professionals might be concerned that it doesn’t support HDMI in-puts and out-puts. But for many folks, that is a needless and confusing add-on. If your only thought is to make your TV and set top boxes sound better, this is your best bet.
Next Up: The Yamaha Yas 106
At just a few bucks more than the JBL (but with a lot more features and two built in to the unit sub-woofers), the Yamaha Sound bar was clear, powerful, and easy to install at half the price of the Bose and top of the line Samsung. At 36 inches, about the same length as the Samsung or Sony wide units, the Yamaha was designed for a very short and or narrow TV table and can also be hung on a wall.
The Yamaha has HDMI ports, optical input, and an analog port to attach your old MP3 player or other device. Its Bluetooth seemed to be a quicker connecting feature than most of the other players we tested. The $200 YAS-106 adds support for 4K and HD audio (via HDMI), so consequently this format gives you better TV sound than just optical digital-audio output. Like the more expensive brands, you can now use Dolby Audio or DTS Digital Surround at a touch of a button without interfering with anything you are playing on the TV.
The unit has two tweeters, two woofers, and two sub-woofers (again built in), as well as Yamaha’s “bass reflex port,” which is what many experts believe makes this unit powerful enough even without a separate sub-woofer.
Like the Sony or the Vizio, you can use the Yas 106 as a Bluetooth speaker. It comes with its own remote, but doesn’t require you to use the available smartphone or tablet app where most people store their music. Those Apps are definitely annoying and troublesome web access for those of you who just want to sit down and listen to music.
The Polk MagniFi Sound Bar, Polk Voice Adjust™
We had this thing set up in about 15 minutes flat. The hardest part was opening the box and checking the components. Our TV is on a stand so we didn’t have to worry about the wall mounts. The slim design of this sound bar fit in all the tight spaces under our TV and allowed us full access with the TV/ Cable remote.
One side of the outside of the box was labeled open this side first. We didn’t see that label before we opened the “wrong” side. So we wasted a few minutes looking for standard white paper directions until we realized the little beige Polk book on the other side was it. It only too a quick look at the pairing directions to hook up the power cords and the optical cable. It took longer to figure out my TV’s settings than anything else.
We were very impressed that it came with an optical cable. Previous ones from other manufactures did not (sometimes a $20 add on). Also, after adjusting the voice level on the enclosed remote, it greatly enhanced the ability to hear most TV programs. The ability to synchronize the TV/cable remote with the sound bar was easy and made the Polk remote only a backup. There is more than adequate bass coming through the sound bar and, this unit while equipped with a Sub-woofer adds a whole new dimension to those low notes without it.
The Bluetooth connection to mobile devices had us streaming Pandora, YouTube, and Spotify Music right away. And kids loved the sound of race cars coming from one side of our house to the other. VROOOOOOM! Overall, this is as advertised: a top pick for most families looking to enhance the quality of their TV/video streaming and gaming experience.
Sliding backwards and forwards with Epson’s New Printer, HUH?
Everyone has a story. And many of us have boxes, bins, and drawers full of photos, videos, and movies that can help illustrate that story. The problem is that putting it all together in a form that will make sense to our children and their children is a daunting, often overwhelming task. What’s worse than not organizing those materials is losing them to a fire, flood, or other disaster. When you hear about people who’ve lost their homes, the one thing they are saddest about is often the loss of those irreplaceable memories. And let’s face it, life is finite. How many of us lose loved ones who leave behind boxes of photos with no stories to explain their rich history?
Epson has just introduced a high speed photo scanning device, the Epson FastFoto, that dramatically improves both the speed and ease of scanning, naming, filing, and storing hundreds or thousands of photos in short order. It can scan about one snapshot a second at 300 dpi. The machine will do better quality, 600 dpi, but a little more slowly.
But the scanning mechanics are only a small part of what FastFoto can do. The software makes it easy to organize pictures by dates, events, and people and can even be set so that it will restore faded photos, reduce red-eye, and color correct. If you’re not sure if you like your pictures as they were or as you might like them to be, you don’t have to to decide – the system will save both versions. The scanner will also grab the notes on the back of photos in the same pass. And if you’re looking at photos that predate you, those notes may be the best information you have to work with.
If You Like Philips MRI, You’ll Love Their Fitness Devices
A fitness tracker or a health tracker? It’s the difference between a trainer at the gym saying you’re doing well, and your doctor telling you you are well.
Philips, the Dutch electronics company mostly known in the US for its lighting products, is also an international player in health care, making many of the medical devices you see in hospitals and doctors’ offices, from MRI machines to ECGs to patient monitors. They’ve now taken their HealthSuite program, which tracks patient care, to apps for Apple and Android phones, and a series of devices designed for use in the home to track your health.
One of them is their Connected Upper Arm Blood Pressure Monitors – they don’t give it a fancier name –does just what it says. It takes your blood pressure and your pulse rate, and, via Bluetooth, transfers these readings to their HealthSuite health app. The device allows people with blood pressure issues – and that’s a growing number of people 50 plus – to keep track of their pressure as many times a day as needed. The Philips monitor will also warn if your heart rate is irregular, a warning that you should discuss with your physician or other health care professional. Whether you send them your results or not. Philips also has a wrist blood pressure monitor, which is smaller and easier to carry, and necessary for people who cannot use the more standard upper arm devices, such as those whose underarm lymph nodes have been removed during breast cancer surgery. It too sends its readings via Bluetooth to the HealthSuite app on your phone or tablet.
Another Philips device is their Connected Body Analysis Scale, which of course you step on to take your weight. But since you’ve told the HealthSuite app – accurately it’s hoped – your age, sex, and height, it produces a reading of your body fat percentage. Because it sends a small, unnoticeable electrical charge through your body (if you follow the instructions and step on the scale in bare feet), the reading is more accurate than just looking up a chart comparing your height and weight to produce a BMI, or Body Mass Index.
Most recently, a Connected Health Watch was introduced which straps to your wrist like a fitness tracker and does the same sort of lifestyle monitoring such as activity and sleep patterns. It’s designed to be more pro-active about your health, including notifications that you’ve been sitting too long and should get up and move around!
Other Philips devices that connect with their HealthSuite, include their Connected Ear Thermometer that can be used for adults, children, and newborns.
Samsung Gear Fit2 – A Good Fit For Your Workout
Samsung has branched out their smartwatch line with the Gear Fit2, which is clearly going after the Fitbit with thinner, rectangular “fitness band” design. It might look similar to a Fitbit, but is almost functionally identical to the rest of the Gear S2 smartwatch line. So, it can do a lot more than simply count steps. Of course the Fitbit, Motorola and many other heakth indced watches do
The Fit2 does everything you’d expect of a smartwatch. It makes it possible to keep your phone on silent. Instead of annoying ring tones and chirps, the watch subtly vibrates to alert you of notifications, which then appear on the Fit2’s screen.
Text messages can be replied to from the Fit2 with basic pre-set replies like, “Yes,” “No,” or custom messages. The device isn’t a replacement for your phone, but it can make life in the smartphone age easier simply because you don’t have to pick your phone up every time something happens on it.
The Fit2 comes equipped with a variety of useful built-in apps like an alarm, stopwatch, and timer. Even better is the Find My Phone functionality, which will turn your misplaced phone into a loud, annoying siren until you find it again.
actual Gear app could definitely be more streamlined. Since it’s essentially for all the Gear-labeled products, it’s easy to end up in a totally irrelevant part of Samsung’s app store. There’s also a lack of clear app categories for the watch, making it rather confusing to search for things. New watch faces can cost from 99 cents to $3.
The Fit2 is incredibly comfortable to wear. The adjustable rubber band accommodates a wide range of wrist sizes and feels feather light. It does come in two sizes – one for “small” and another for “large” wrists. The band whisks away sweat far better than other materials.
Listed at $179.99, the Fit2 is cheaper than the regular Gear S2 and only somewhat more expensive than the Fitbit Charge HR+, which has only a tiny display and little of the smartwatch bells and whistles. Granted, the Fitbit is purely about activity tracking, but for only $20-$50 (depending where you shop) more, you can get far more functionality.
While the Gear app works across most Android models, there’s no iPhone support.
Slinging Your Cable Contract Away
Cable and satellite TV subscribers are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. But while many would love to cut themselves free of onerous fees, there’s been one major problem: There’s been no way to get ESPN sports without cable or satellite. Until now.
Sling TV is a new online package of television channels from the folks at Dish Network, and while that company’s main source of revenue comes from satellite TV subscriptions, Dish is known as a renegade. (It’s the company that ticked off TV broadcasters by putting a skip ads button on its remote controls, as did TiVo.) So, looking to an a la carte future, Dish decided to bundle several channels, traditionally only available through the likes of Time Warner and Comcast, into an online option that can be streamed over the Internet to any device.
With Sling TV, you get a dozen channels, including ESPN, ESPN 2, TBS, Food Network, CNN, Cartoon Network and the Disney Channel, all on an app or on your TV using a media player like the Roku 3.
Usually, cord cutting is associated with Millennials, but there are plenty of Boomers who travel or split their time between summer and winter residences who could do without the $100-plus monthly cable and satellite bills. Sling TV makes the decision to switch much more attractive.
Simply download the app to the device you want to use (it’s a channel on Roku 3, but it’s also available for iPads and Android devices) and sign up. The channels are listed along the bottom of the screen, with preview thumbnails of upcoming shows below. You can access stations relatively quickly–at least on our test broadband connection and a Roku 3. In fact, Sling TV changed channels more quickly than Time Warner’s online app. I also did not encounter the kind of hesitation or hiccups that can mar Netflix viewing. Picture quality across all the stations in our tests was as good as live Time Warner cable feeds.
The combination of channels is also tempting. News junkies get CNN. Sports fans get ESPN and ESPN 2. On demand shows are available from most of the channels, with the notable exception of ESPN. Sling TV lacks the major broadcast networks, however, so there’s no ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox stations. One could easily fill that gap with an indoor HDTV antenna (costing about $80) and pull in the local affiliates for free, but you can only do so in a metropolitan area where reception is reliable. Out in the country, over-the-air TV broadcasts are few and far between.
If you’ve already got a Netflix subscription, Sling TV may be all you need, though. Many popular network shows are available on the streaming service and you can easily switch between Netflix, Sling TV and another service such as Hulu Plus and still save about $50 or more a month.
The on-screen Sling TV interface could use a redesign (already). Having to scroll horizontally across the bottom of the screen to find stations and then below that to see other shows is stupid. The other frustration factor is that you don’t get the sort of DVR functions we’re accustomed to on all channels. You cannot record an ESPN show or pause CNN, for example.
For snow birds or those who like to travel and don’t want to pay $100 a month for cable, Sling TV’s channel lineup is appealing. It costs $20 a month and there’s no contract so you can drop it at any time. Dish plans to offer additional sports and news channels, as well, in $5 upgrade packages. You can also rent mainstream movies on the app, most are about $5 for 24 hours. For the moment, it’s an invitation-only service, but Dish plans to roll it out nationwide soon.
However, if you prefer to flick through hundreds of channels in a single interface, don’t give up your satellite or cable subscription…yet.
Royole Introduces Moon, a Foldable 3D Virtual Mobile Theater with Noise-Cancelling Headphones
Royole Corporation, a global pioneer and innovator of flexible displays, flexible sensors, and smart device technologies, announced the introduction of Moon, a 3D virtual mobile theater for movies, gaming, and more. Combining unique proprietary optical and system technologies that recreate a giant, scalable 800” curved screen with realistic 3D effects and high-fidelity noise-cancelling headphones, Moon provides the viewer with a truly immersive, amazingly realistic entertainment experience. Its ultra-high resolution (over 3000ppi) AMOLED display eliminates eye fatigue and queasiness often associated with VR and 3D viewing.
Our initial tests with this device were very positive. The unit was more comfortable than the Sony VR with clarity as sharp as the Epson VR. Royole is also announcing its partnership with global R&B icon, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Akon, who joins Royole as their Chief Creative Officer (CCO).
What is Muse and how does it work?
We’ve seen the lines at the media previews and finally have some answers. Muse is a brain-sensing headband that makes meditation easier. The tool answers the question: “Am I doing this right?” by providing real-time audio feedback on your meditative state. It has EEG and brain-sensing technology built in to provide guided feedback to help users achieve the benefits of meditation and motivate them to build a steady habit of the practice. The directions are very questionable though, with on-screen instructions telling the user to perform some actions while their eyes are still closed. After a few calls to the strong technical support, we got the unit working.
The verbal tool can help beginners or experienced meditators alike build a rewarding practice and enjoy the benefits of meditation in as little as three minutes a day or through longer, deeper sessions. You can use Muse based on your own schedule, in the privacy of your own home, office or personal meditation space. Muse tracks your session-by-session progress, keeping you engaged through motivational challenges and by providing tips to improve your meditation practice.
Muse is available for $249 from a variety of vendors, including Amazon and Best Buy. It can also be purchased directly from Muse’s website. More than 100 medical and research institutions around the world have used Muse, including the Mayo Clinic, Harvard University, MIT, and the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.
Radio Alive and Well With Internet Access Making It Better
Veteran audio product executive Tom DeVesto has spent most of his adult life bringing music to music lovers around the world. Como Audio is the third Boston-based audio company founded by Mr. DeVesto, the first being Cambridge SoundWorks, followed by Tivoli Audio, giving him a “triple play” in bringing great sounding, iconic, high-fidelity music systems to market that are simple to use and look as great as they sound.
The first of Como Audio’s products, aptly called “Solo” and “Duetto,” are designed to make all of the music content available today accessible with the touch of a button. With Solo and Duetto, there is no need for an app or remote control to listen to music from all content sources including: Spotify, Internet, Bluetooth or FM radio.
We found that while it’s still a pain to access Sirius, Pandora and some other fee based music services, the search engine can find almost any terrestrial radio station in the world and thousands of Internet only stations too. The search engine (after a system upgrade) is far superior to the old Tivoli system and Polk systems which helped start the high end Internet radio business.
The Blue Tooth access is easy to connect so that any content from your phone, tablet, paid services are easy and stays connected which some blue tooth radios do not.
And finally the sound: Our staff agreed that it was by far the best sounding radio per size we’ve heard in a long time. So even if you purchase this unit just for FM radio you won’t be disappointed.
Bytes and Pieces
Comcast Found Guilty
No surprise here that the FCC fined Comcast and Comcast sort of pled guilty to bilking 1000s of customers by sending inaccurate bills, misleading service guarantees, and more.
In addition to the still undecided fines at press time but rumored to be in the multimillions, the company promised to provide more accurate financial reports to the feds, better and improved service to its multi dwelling and single home customers and to make good with older promises to provide better hardware, programming, and service. Our friends in the industry and people we know at Comcast claim that third part consultants may have unknowingly contributed to these issues by offering deals that the cable giant was willing to offer yet. If your home, condo or high-rise is negotiating with Comcast (or any other service provider), assume that you might be getting screwed before you sign that contract and do your best to negotiate a better deal, because it will take years and years before the Feds realize if you are getting cheated.
Those Damn Plugs, Cables, Wires Are Only Getting Worse
In our recent reviews of television, audio equipment, even mobile phones and tablets, it’s apparent that the problem of non-compatible cables has grown to more than unacceptable levels.
The software inside USB chargers means that when you used to charge any of your devices with a standard AC adapter it would work with any brand of device. This no longer is the rule. Despite the similarity between 100s of different android based phones or tablets, it seems you MUST match your charger with the appropriate device to get it to charge faster and better or charge at all.
In addition, HDMI cables as tough as they are to place inside your cable box, TV, set top box and video game machine for many unaccustomed consumers, still also may not be compatible with certain older models of your audio and video equipment. And optical audio cables, the bane of our labs audio video equipment and home too, is still almost impossible to get into their respective receptacle, no matter where on the device is located.
Bluetooth Getting Long In The Tooth
Our final connectivity bitch for today is the technology that was supposed to replace most wires and make everything wireless. Blue Tooth, which is now common in mobile phones, speakers, high end audio equipment, radios and many computer accessories and printers, still has a long way to go to being easy for the average consumer to connect.
A recent survey by GCM LLC (a division of Digital Family Advisor) says that despite its almost 20 year existence, Blue Tooth still fails to connect with many supposed compatible devices (especially computer accessories and printers). And it is still not reliable enough for prime time use 24-7 with high end devices like fancy speakers and home automation equipment.
Appliances: Truth Stranger Than Fiction
Major appliance brands are still at least 50% worse at performing their washer, dryer, refrigeration, and dishwashing functions than just 10 years ago, a finding that is confirmed by a recent survey by a major consumer appliance analyst, and experienced every day by the staff of Digital Family Advisor.
In addition, the repairs are almost 40% higher and even in the first year of operation, are worse than ever. What makes these results even more deplorable is that there are fewer affordable brands on the market. But if it makes you feel any better, recent reports are coming in that top of the line brands are also falling down in reliability. Experts in the field …especially those from the major retail stores blame these issues on federally mandated power consumption, water restriction and other “green” rules. We here at DFA don’t agree. We think it’s just in shoddy production and poor design. Our suggestion? Hold on to your old reliable appliance for as long as you can.