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Zolo Liberty+ quick review

I backed the Zolo Liberty+ (Zolo Liberty Plus) kickstarter–it’s part of my semi-conscious push to get more companies to do better wireless audio for portable use cases. Neckbuds and the like can DIAF, as I’m thinking it is really just not a viable solution for mobility due to durability and cost problems. For clarity’s sake, note that there’s also a non-Plus version of the Zolo Liberty+ (which is just called Liberty). Zolo is a new brand and the Liberty/Liberty+ are their first foray into this product category.

The Zolo brand is Anker’s consumer audio label, they have these earbuds and a set of Alexa and Google Home enabled speakers under the brand. So it’s easy to see why the Liberty+ has a great charging case, as that’s in their wheelhouse. The Liberty+ has an aluminum charging case with extended charges, and supposedly so does the earphones with longer battery life. The Plus also has audio pass-through (similar to ANC headsets that pipes the microphone through the headset for ambient listening), compared to the non-Plus Liberty. The normal Liberty do not have a non-aluminum charge case and it has supposedly half the battery life, but since I don’t have one I don’t know in detail the differences. It is the one shipping as of this writing from Amazon, where as the Plus is not yet shipping (and won’t for Christmas) unless you are a backer.

In the box: It comes in a box with nicely presented opening experience, I guess? There is the buds, the charge case, a nice (braided) USB-A to USB-micro charging cable, and paperwork. There are also a set of tips of different sizes, and 4 pairs of earbud jackets (that are the same AFAIK, so just for replacement I guess).

Battery life: The Liberty+ should have 24+ hours of battery life from the case, but I don’t know how much each bud is. I have ran non-stop over 1.5 hours and it seemed rock solid, and I think it’s suppose to get over 3.5 hours, but I have not tested either capacity.

Looks: These are okay buds, they set in your ear with a “lock in” kind of mechanism. It comes with a rubber tip (the folded kind that you find common with low end in-ears) but also with a earbud jacket that you attach to the business end of the bud. Made of plastic, these have a weight to them but it isn’t too heavy, and probably just light enough that it doesn’t move around if you run with them. The non-business end (the one facing out) has a round “zolo liberty” labeled button. So you got one on left ear and one on right.

The Liberty+ comes in black, white, or backers edition (which is black with gold trims). I got the black ones because they ship first. I’m assuming backers editions are not available in retail.

Handling and use: The buds are a little tricky to pick up out of the case, or maybe my fingers are too fat. They have magnetic pins in the case that lines up to the buds, and they only fit one way so it isn’t hard to put them in. The build quality is not 100% best because sometimes the buds don’t rest completely on the pins, and you have to jiggle it a bit. Maybe with a bit of practice and breaking into it would be better down the road. Also, it would be nice if the finger holes in the case were a tad bigger so it’s easier to clean any ear wax or the like that falls into the case. (I have dry earwax.)

The buds themselves are pretty big in terms of holding it between my fingers and being able to insert into my ears and remove from my ears. I don’t particularly handle them with confidence, however. In a way the Apple Earpod’s stem provides a good contrast, but the Zolo Liberty+ is easy enough to handle even while on the move, it just needs a bit more caution.

The aluminum Liberty+ case feels good in the hand, and it has motion-sensitive battery indicator led that looks neat. I would say that aluminum makes it a tad more slippery than you’d want, and the lid is a tad hard to open for me, because the “lip” part is pretty small to get a grip on–again, it’s okay to handle while on the move but i wish they made it a little more confidence-inspiring tactilely.

To use the buttons, pressing it to turn on (each bud has to be turned on individually). Press it while it’s paired to start/stop music or pickup/hangup calls. Pressing it for 2 seconds to skip (left bud skip back, right bud skip forward). Pressing it for 3 seconds enables audio pass-through mode. Once I got used to it, the buttons all made sense and it wasn’t a problem pressing them while the buds were jammed in my ears.

The only real complaint about handling and use, besides maybe the case can have a better opening experience and the seating of the buds could be better built, is that it really jams into your ears. Zolo says it has some kind of ear lock thing, where you put it in upright and twist for a good seal. For me it mostly works, although I didn’t have to twist much. But I found that using the default size cups is not the most confident fit so I went one size larger. It is definitely a tighter fit and it doesn’t move around, but it’s also a tad uncomfortable for a long time. I think I will get used to it though.

Bluetooth: The pairing process was painless, if you read the instructions first. It’s definitely not intuitive in a way, but given there are just 2 buttons, I doubt you can screw it up. Basically, once your buds are charged, you press the buttons on the buds once each. It will give you a power up sound if you happen to have them in your ears while pressing the button. Then you just go to your phone and pair, that’s it. I believe this is both applicable to iOS and Android. There are no fancy tech or anything in these.

I haven’t figured out how to reset the pairing yet (or rather, I read it and forgot what it said in the instructions), or if it can be paired with multiple devices. None of that is a huge deal though.

Sound quality: So the Zolo Liberty and Liberty Plus have graphene drivers. I think it’s kind of like other statically driven earphones/headphones I’ve used, on the budget end. In other words, it sounds kind of like an appliance speaker with fairly muddy mids/highs and generally uninspiring sound. On the Zolo, it’s better than most membrane phones in this price range in that it has some bass, and if I EQ a bit the mids and highs can distinguish themselves a bit better. Consider I got the 2nd round early bird kickstarter price on these, they’re definitely decent sounding, if even good, for $90. I think they would also give Airpods a run for their money, but the sound quality leaves something to be desired. That said, a pair of Shure 215s would blow these away, as a measuring stick.

The isolation on these are on par with IEMs, maybe a bit worse because they don’t have great tips. I wish I can just use my Comply tips with these, it would improve comfort, although that might mean I couldn’t run with them.

Lastly, these buds don’t support Aptx or any advanced BT audio codecs–which might not be a big deal because the sound quality on the Liberty+ is barely at that point where you can tell the difference. That would still be nice to have though.

Other notes: There is a companion app to the Zolo Liberty. On the Plus, you can use it to control the buds’ passthrough mode and other commands you can otherwise do via the buttons. That is also how you EQ the buds–I couldn’t find any custom settings, just the presets. Also, the app for this, Zolo Play, has the same icon as the other Zolo app, Zolo Life, on Android. Maybe not the best idea.

I can criticize the case some more. It’s small and easy to pocket (for me), but the marking in the back kind of ruins the look when it’s in the hand. They should’ve saved all the regulatory writing inside the case or something. It feels like they are 95% of the way there to a great case, but it has these minor things I can nitpick.

Conclusion: This is a new and exciting product category that I feel is made for me. As someone who has been listening to music on his phone on the go since the dumb phone days, who bypassed iPods and went for phones as soon as possible, this is like, the second realization of that wireless vision. But at the same time I understand too well as to the challenges in this product category, and why we haven’t landed on wireless audio nirvana yet. The Zolo is a democratic brand, not for audiophiles, but hopefully they can raise the bar and do something to bring the pragmatic aspects of their devices to pair with actual high end audio. With the Liberty+ I think they got the gist of it, they just need better phones.

Google Pixel 2 First Takes

It might be too early for a first take because things are still developing with some potential hardware issues with the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, and Google is in the process of addressing them. Today they announced that my warranty for this 128GB Black Pixel 2 will go from 1 year to 2.

I like this. Coming from almost 1 exact year from owning and using a Pixel (also 128GB and Black), I had to RMA my old Pixel once because the unit died, effectively bricking the phone. It also died while I was in Japan, so that kind of blows. After I got back to the States I started the RMA process, which involved calling them and explaining the situ. Then they sent me a replacement phone (likely a refurb) and I sent them my broken phone back. And in this process they had to authorize the payment of a phone and credit me back, which is kind of normal I guess? I don’t know. Anyways it’s good to have assurance.

What is there to say about the new Pixel 2? Leading up to it, I was definitely reading on all the leaks. What was pivotal was the first impressions people had at the Google announcement event. Reading those, I got the impression to turn on sRGB mode on my Pixel (as O already rolled out by then on Pixels) and started to get used to it. Turned out that really was the one biggest change between PIxel and Pixel 2.

That leads to my biggest one thing about the Pixel 2–it’s sRGB only (on launch), and this is BAD. I mean, it’s great, but bad in that people want Android because of choice, not because it’s Yet Another Apple. I think Google doesn’t own enough of the supply chain to guarantee that they don’t screw up on the screen, as the currently developing situation is playing out. In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, there are widespread reports about the Pixel 2 XL display, that it either is just low quality (blue tinting, graininess, and varies between units), reports of burn in (unlikely tbh, just that the OLED in question leading to more image retention for more units), and it looks blue off-angle (all units exhibits this). It’s the same pentile nonsense Nexus owners had to deal with in the early days.

That said, it’s not a big deal. The display itself is great on the Pixel 2 and sRGB is hardly terrible, it’s just this sRGB is a tad too blue (not enough red).

To give this review more personal context, I think the second largest change is the sound. Two front facing speakers is great to play Theater Days/Deresute/Bang Dream with. Playing it on the Pixel was pretty lame because sound would go right into your palm (I’m a thumb player) and now it sounds fine. I actually picked up the fact that the top and bottom speakers actually sound different almost immediately, but from far away enough you wouldn’t really be able to tell. It doesn’t really matter. On those rhythm games, the only thing that bothered me was just if you press hard enough, you can feel the vibration of the music just a bit, which is lols. Overall it’s improved from the Pixel I’d say, mainly because of the speakers, and there’s less lag. My calibration is maybe 2-5 max on the Pixel 2 in Theater Days, 10 with BT. On the Pixel it’s like 18 on BT.

The other part of music/sound that’s great about the Pixel 2 is that it comes with out of box aptx (full stack) support and LDAC support. The low BT latency and superior connection makes this a much better music box than the Pixel. Even via the USB-C dongle hires sounded notably better than the 3.5mm jack. Sure, I am now rocking a Fiio BTR1 and I pulled the trigger on a pair of Sony MDX-1000X, just because this is the solution God has intended. Well, maybe when someone else releases a good AptX HD compatible BT portable amp.

I guess that might be it in terms of the overall impact? The Pixel 2 is really similar to the Pixel. Physically it is a bit heavier, and a touch longer, and of course it has a better camera stack and all. The camera on the Pixel 2 is really the bees knees and there is nothing on the market this good. I actually think it’s a better point-and-shooter than my aging NEX-5N, especially under low light, unless you include what a nice kit of wide-aperture, prime lens can do for anybody.

Some key data points for curious Pixel 2 owners or owner-wannabes. I used the Google Clear case with my Pixel, and I can’t find the same thing from Google for the Pixel 2. Bummer. The next best thing is the Air Jacket case Google Store sells, and it does fit the description for the most part. Instead of textured plastic on the back though, now it’s this kind-of-slippery self-healing thing. I guess it looks better, but it’s more slippery. It also now covers all of the top of the phone, because there isn’t a need to accommodate a headphone jack. I count this as an improvement because my Pixel got scratched the hardest at the top of the phone, which is now protected with this type of case.

I tried to use a generic Pixel 2 case at the Verizon store while the air jacket case was in the mail, it sucked and promptly was returned a few days later.

Anyways, since I’m really happy about my Pixel, I am about as happy with my Pixel 2. The price of the Pixel 2 128GB went down compared to the Pixel originally, and I was able to sell my Pixel on Swappa for about $400ish, making this a fairly painless purchase. I guess the money I spent on the Pixel is lost to depreciation…and being able to get a 1-year phone to a 0-year phone with some incremental upgrades.

So that’s the rub, if you dig incremental upgrades and don’t mind paying for that gap, I think the Pixel 2 is worth it. If you are coming from a Nexus 5X or something, it’s a huge upgrade. Actually I’d say it’s a huge upgrade from anyone not coming from a GS8, as that’s the only phone not that big and still arguably comparable (closer to Pixel than Pixel 2 TBH). Maybe the LG V30 but that thing is huge. Or a discounted Pixel, LOL.

HomePod & Apple Audio

I’m not fully in Apple’s echosystem, owning just a MBPr for personal use, a work MBPr, a work Mac Mini, an iPad mini 2, and the latest addition which is an Apple TV. I guess I’m pretty deep in it! But my daily drivers are my Pixel and my home-build desktop running Win10, so it goes that I only tangentially use Apple’s hardware because I think they are pretty good. I kind of use MacOS begrudgingly but realize that a *nix environment with my work is very nice, a gap that Win10 is slowly bridging.

Digression aside, with WWDC wrapped up the only real interesting item to me is the HomePod. I am very lightly dabbing in the home IoT stuff with just a WeMo switch and my Google Home Assistant (and it comes with the Pixel too). HomePod just seemed timely because I recently upgraded my receiver to a Yamaha RX-V581 (attached to a Polk-powered 5.1 system) in my living room, and it allows for 96khz FLAC streaming. It sounded really good if you have properly high-dynamic-range music playing off it. Like, REALLY FREAKING GOOD.

I’m thinking about the HomePod in this context, in that it adds a voice assistant in the form of Siri in which can help you easily set the music you want, assuming you want to use its services. Well, that’s nice, because the immediate bottleneck in order to get the FLAC streaming going on my new receiver is getting the music set up for streaming. On the phone, I was able to use Yamaha’s MusicCast and that was fairly painless, but on the PC I had to use some homebrewed media server (MinimServer) to get high res FLAC to work. It’s not hard, just something you need to research. Wouldn’t it be easy to just Aux out from something like a HomePod?

Well it turns out if I hook up a Chromecast (which I did) to the receiver the same could happen. And the internet comments are right, Google already allows for this use case. It’s not first-party in that you have to get the devices or apps that allows for Chromecast streaming, or a Home Assistant which does it for you. But this is the thing Apple is good at–simplifying these kind of “a little nerdy” ways to get things to work.

I guess since my Apple TV is hooked up to it, I should be able to do it with that too, right? I guess Apple hasn’t opened up that use case yet. I imagine it’ll happen soon. And if I want to use AirPlay I can directly do it into the receiver, so it’s even easier there, it’s just Apple hasn’t enabled Siri enough in the way Google has for its Assistant.

All this is saying, is that I won’t be getting a HomePod because once again I am not really the kind of users they’re targetting. Not that I’m not in the high end market, but I’m not “sheeple” enough to appreciate their enhancements, and I want more flexibility and openness than what Apple is willing to give. And I prioritize differently in terms of my voice or smarthome assistant. So I guess it’s a variety of things.

Say what you want about Apple being an audio company; the EarPods are the #1 thing I want from Apple today, and what is stopping me from buying one is precisely because they have pretty bad sound compared to a similar pair of full wireless buds.  Why can’t they double down on some truly good IEM? Ear buds suck! Sigh.

Google Pixel Hot Take (72 Hours)

TL;DR after the jump.

The Pixel is a good phone with flaws, but that shouldn’t stop anyone because there are no perfect phones. Every phone has some flaws, and any claim of “best” is to be taken not just with a grain of salt but a confirmation of bias in the opinion. After all, there are only ‘better’ phones, and no perfect phone yet. I got the Pixel on a Monday (but didn’t open it till Tuesday) and I like it a lot, as I have no regret changing from a Nexus 6P. But you need to be cognizant of your own requirements and preferences before going into any high end smartphone purchase decision.

If that sounded a defensive way to open up a phone review, it’s because ultimately I feel the Pixel is a flawed phone. The ideal Google Phone probably won’t emerge until next year. Reason why here. But compared to other phones on the market, the Pixel is still the best or almost the best Android phone you can get.

The only real concern about the Pixel is the cost versus the value you get. I think at some level it’s hard to justify any phone over, say, $500, just because alternatively you can get a Nexus 5X or 6P or OnePlus 3 or something, and get on with your life. The extra $200-400 go pretty far and it’s up to each person to figure out if that distance covers the difference between the newest Pure Google experience and their best alternatives.

To help with that fundamental calculus, let me offer another delta-value, which is the difference of having a Nexus 6P when it was the newest Pure Google experience a  year ago, and the Pixel today. I can’t really speak from a place of who may be coming from a more “mundane” device, like someone who wants to upgrade from an iPhone 6 or your garden variety Android phone of 2 years+ vintage. I can speak to that this shiny New Google Device experience is better than the last one. How much better?

  • The 6P has good hardware, but it’s not Huawei’s best bet, just one of their better ones. The Pixel might be HTC’s best phone.
  • Software-wise, the biggest advantage to Android 6/7 was the power management. The Pixel takes it up a notch (FWIW Pixel XL owners were reporting 1+ day batt life across the board).
  • Arguably the best camera although what really shines is the HDR+, much like Nexus 6P but better compared to rival phone cameras.
  • The new on-board features, such as live help and unlimited Google Photo storage @ full size, are of some value. I don’t even count the assistant integration, although that’s nice.

The real driving reason to buy a Pixel is because this is Google’s first start-to-finish product. That allows them to innovate in the software in a way that has only been possible to see in iPhone and the Microsoft Surface (and the Surface Studio is a prime example of it), because they can control both the hardware and software in the minute. I can say that Google delivered a little of that in this first iteration. A lot of the above bullets are more “business” reasons in that some of Google’s strengths are their ecosystem/services, and it would be more kosher to embrace a phone that didn’t belong to an Android OEM. For that, you have to look at the camera–i is the crown jewel of Android integration and Google engineering.

Which is to say, it’s kind of like a Nexus phone in that the Pixel has some breakthroughs, but it also has some rough edges. It’s just that, by far, the Pixel is the most polished Nexus phone if it was one. Which is good, because you expect that given the price gap.

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Hot Take: PicoBrew Pico Review

[The “Hot Take” qualifier added as I’ve only used it twice, among other things.]

I got my Kickstarter edition PicoBrew Pico device in late August, and have brewed up my 2 packs that were part of the Kickstarter rewards. Here’s my take.

Being Early Bird backer #205 I got my machine pretty quickly. A hardware kickstarter like this was bound to be delayed and the guys at PicoBrew didn’t disappoint. Overall I think they did a good job on the Kickstarter*. They conveyed enough information to keep us sated, although it was not as frequently as some people may have wanted. More importantly the delay was not too too long, but it was long enough that my folks who retired to Taiwan missed out on the first batch, as they had to leave the same week when my package arrived.

I realized part of the delay has a lot to do with getting the Pico Packs set up so they can crank them out fast. With fast brewing you can turn around a batch in a week, and it ain’t all that much beer per batch–about 1.3 gallons give or take. Recently they just emailed all backers that the Pico Pack marketplace is in business, and it was definitely not too soon for people who have already started brewing.

Aside: What is kind of tricky is that these batches of beer packs do have a shelf life, so I don’t think stocking up on them during the free shipping promo is the wisest. The order I placed a week ago has already shipped.

As for the main dealie of working and brewing the beer via Pico, well, overall I am satisfied but I think they fall short to be the Kureig of beer. As at least some were claiming that (none from the company). Regardless, there are a bunch of things they could improve, and it depends on the philosophy behind the point of the Pico device.

I feel what they have created is not so much Kureig, but just a Bread Machine. You gotta put the stuff in the thing and let it cook, and the biggest gain out of a bread machine, is that you can customize it to a degree and you can have very freshly baked bread whenever you want, provided the prep is done ahead of time. I don’t know if you know this but beer is similar to bread that freshness counts for a lot in the taste, living up to the moniker liquid bread.

Prior to the Pico I’ve only made beer via canned wort mixes, so I don’t know all the pain of making beer from scratch, but that experience was sufficiently educational that I understand the overall process. Once you remove the whole creation aspect of beer making–everything related to the ingredients–it becomes a process where you simply “brew” it up and let it ferment.

That part is pretty simple and I think the Pico did a good job. What is lacking is kind of the rest. The racking process worked pretty well, and I had no issues except the serving keg’s serving plug had an issue. Using a CO2 cartridge is definitely better than bottle/keg conditioning.

The main problem I have with Pico is cleaning. It is a major time consuming aspect of brewing beer. It should surprise nobody but I think more importantly, this is a very manual task that the system doesn’t really explain to you in detail. The flushing of PIco system can take upward of 30 minutes cumulatively, not even using the first-time flush feature. That’s just running water through all the pipes, kind of. Then after brewing, you have to clean the brewing keg, which takes at least 30 minutes as you have to dissemble the keg (mainly the o-ring-sealed keg inlet and outlet). Then there’s cleaning of the serving keg. I got one of the racking pipe dirty and I’m not sure if I can clean it properly as some beer got stuck in it and now it has discolored. The best I could do is soak the inside with H2O2 and hope for the best. Maybe get a wad of wires and try to clean it out in the future?

So another thing they need is the ability to sell spare parts. It’s going to be necessary.

Given there is no good way to streamline the cleaning, each time I brew I spend over an hour just to clean the thing, and cleaning well is imperative to a good brew. I didn’t clean well after the first batch and my second batch didn’t come out as good as I’d expect, so there’s that.

Without going into the details, I think some of the steps can be streamlined, if some equipment were designed a certain way. The initial brewing process can be time consuming as well if you take care to clean each step. But these are not as big of problem to me as that Pico doesn’t do a lot to help you clean better in terms of what you needed to do to clean.

That said, none of these are permanent problems and they can improve on it even now. Selling parts. Selling cleaning kits (like the powder thing they recommend). Do a better job showing people how to clean. Improve some of their stuff so it’s easier to clean.

In that sense that’s what Kickstarter is about. You are beta-testing their kit in a way, and when I back stuff I count on the potential of things shaking out well, not just the pledged rewards. In a V2 Pico they should be able to address all these things, as well as their current online store.

On the value prospect of Pico, I think if you live near a well-stocked liquor store with a wide selection of brews, you probably won’t be missing much. I think the PIco Packs generally will break even with the same quantity of beer / beer type as ones you get in store. That doesn’t include the $500+ you invested in the kit however, and instead you have to spend hours cleaning to get about a 12-pack of beer. Actually usually Pico packs are a little more expensive than bottled.

The real promise Pico brings is the reverse-engineered recipes of other famous or limited edition brews. Think of it as an alternative to a liquor store instead of a replacement. There are countless microbreweries in the USA alone, and you can get entries from all over the world with this system. So in that sense Pico addresses the greatest driver for drinking microbrews–if everything pans out with PicoBrew’s large-scale plans–the ability to try a new beer forever. Or, that old beer you can’t find anymore. (Or, the beer that is sold only in certain breweries and draws lines hours long, ahem.)

To bridge the gap, Pico promises a sous vide kit. I hope that comes through soon.

As for the two Kickstarter reward beer packs: Tweatie and Buffalo Sweat…the milk sugar in the latter is a nice touch but it’s the batch I messed up. The Tweatie was a nice American beer however, and I rec that one.

*I have done enough Kickstarters I think, to be somewhat of a judge of these things.