Tag Archives: electronics

Razer Barracuda X First Impression/Review

Long time no blog.

As with the other white-collar types during the Pandemic, I worked from home a lot–almost exclusively now. That’s great for my hour+ commute life, but I had to upgrade my home IT equipment to make things work well. I can probably get deeper into this at the end of this post.

But it’s in this backdrop that Razer drops their latest wireless gaming headset, which comes with this T-shaped USB-C dongle that works with Playstation, PC, Switch and your smartphone, most likely. I think that’s awesome, and I didn’t really try it out on the smartphone, for reasons I’ll explain, but that’s great on paper. For $99 MSRP that’s a nice set of reqs.

In addition, there’s a proper microphone on the stalk that even has L/R directionality. The padding on the ears are memory foam. It provides great passive audio isolation for a $100 headset arguably for gamers. Prior to the Barracuda X, I was using the Logitech G733, which is, uh, way too gamerZ for this old man who is using it to run, uh, raids, the dungeons are called “Quarterly business review” and “customer escalation bridge.” I mean, I do talk to my team every day, we are on vc often, just that we battle using Zoom, Slack, email, Jira, and, well you get the idea.

Razer Barracuda X‘s sound quality is significant better than the Logitech. The mic quality is also better. There’s more isolation. It purports a longer battery life, and is charged in the same way through a USB-C charging cable. Volume control, secondary button (which is mapped to the power button), and a mute button, plus volume, all on headset. The wireless range is on par with the G733. It’s about the same price. The T-shaped USB-C dongle also comes with a USB-C(f) to USB-A(m) cable for sanity’s sake if you have to plug that into a PC or a crowded laptop port.

It all made sense to me, which is why when it was released, I bought it the day of and went right at it for almost a week. Turns out, this product just didn’t quite cut it, for these reasons:

  1. The memory foam doesn’t dissipate heat well, and my ears get warm after an hour. That’s not going to cut it especially in the summer months.
  2. My head is on the large side, and the fit is a little tight. The G733 uses an elastic band to basically double-support the top of my head (think AKG), while the Razer looks a bit like my Sony WH1000X-MK4. I’m happy with the Sony (in fact I flew transpacific with them all the time no issues, back when that was a thing qq). It’s just that the Sony headphones are notably bigger than the Razer, and actually is meaningfully “over ear” where as the Razer is more “on ear.” Without those comforts the heat and pressure become a notable factor in short order.
  3. The microphone stalk has a cover that is symmetric (like a grape), it is also symmetric once you cover up the mic part with the cover. Which means people may not hear you properly if you didn’t orient the stalk correctly given it is a stereo mic. It’s all black and symmetric, so you wouldn’t be able to tell if the mic is oriented correctly unless you 1) figure it out by touch or 2) remove the cover. This got me on a work call, which basically soured me on this headset completely, even if I now know why and can address it. The funny thing is for people without stereo output on their headsets, they’ll hear you fine. Imagine that confusion while raiding. No thank you.

Overall, this is a great pair of headphones and I probably would be able to put up with these pitfalls, but they’re showstoppers versus what’s on the market now. I don’t think there are better wireless PC/gamer headphones than these on spec, however, especially given the $99 starting price. It’s surely going to get discounted, and these would make pretty good work headphones too.

If Razer makes a v2 that address those 3 problems, they have a winner. Actually all they need to do is make a more directionally visible mic stalk that captures the audio correctly (maybe they can also do a software cue), and make these bigger. For now, back to Amazon they go.

PS. Just as a matter of spilling it out, I basically converted my everyday workstation for work purposes. I put a VM on it to do the VPN stuff. I hooked up part of it with OneDrive for work. I drive my apps mostly via old copies of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and a Chrome window doing everything else (like email and stuff I don’t run local). Since I already run 3 monitors, this makes working easier than I had on hand in the office. For audio, at first I ran with my Blue Yeti with a pair of headphones as monitor, and I would run the Zoom audio into the Yeti. This probably sounds great, but I had to be talking into the mic and it’s tiring for long calls, plus the Yeti picks up all the background sounds. I also tried my previous go-tos, like that Fiio bluetooth dongle I used with my wired earphones back when I get to travel more. I also used my WF-1000m3s. Those all worked, but the mic quality were lacking. The BT transmission is not great either, so the range isn’t good enough–not even so I can sneak into the bathroom. That’s when I went to the G733, about a couple months before the holidays in 2020. In short, the G733 fixed all the issues, even if it is not a great headset either, especially in terms of quality. For video, I had this kind-of-old Logitech C920, which worked perfectly fine. I also did not have a shortage of laptop and laptop-likes that had front-facing cams. Only thing that I wish would work better was the action cam I got, which couldn’t quite just work like a webcam straight and required finagling.

Sony WH-1000XM4

I finally bit the bullet and upgraded my Sony WH-1000X, the OG wireless bluetooth cans with badass sound cancelling–the one that didn’t use SBC! I went from mark 1 (technically they’re just not mark anything, but I’ll call them XM1 to keep it simple) to XM4, so there are actually some big differences. Most of them are probably already there if you got the mark 3s.

For one, I went from a refurb pair to a new pair. My 1000X was $180 refurb back in 2017 holiday season. It’s 3 years later and I went up to about $275 for these. I think that is a stretch, not because the sale was not big enough for me, but because I haven’t had a regular commute to work since March. If I had my usual workday commute, $300 for a three-year investment is well worth it, because these cans are just great all around.

Since I’m comparing the XM4 with the original, it is probably easier to just say what remained the same between the two, and what didn’t.

SAME SAME:

  • Sound signature: still a tad thick overall versus neutral, is what I’d call it.
  • LDAC and AAC support
  • Basically the same form and form factor, with small changes.
  • Still comes with a carry case with the same fold style and shape
  • Still comes with a 3.5mm jack for wired use
  • Same kind of ear pads
  • Still fits my large-ish head comfortably, if on the snug side
  • Still comes in black (I got the black one, but there’s also a silver XM4)
  • Freakishly good ANC
  • Touch control on right can, buttons on left can (only 2 buttons now on XM4)
  • Mic still not great (XM4 is better though)

Differences:

  • XM4 has nearly double the battery life
  • There’s an app. Since XM2 there was an app but the XM4 stuff is pretty wild. It’s the same app for the WF-1000 line (I also own a pair of WF-1000XM3).
  • Seamless pairing thanks to Android advances (not that it was particularly an issue before, just much easier now). Also smooth onboarding that’s more or less automatic.
  • More…bass in the XM4. By a good amount.
  • XM4 is lighter and less rigid than XM1, which addresses the stress tension failure they had in the OG.
  • Multi-point support–it’s barely working but it does work. Only caveat is it only supports SBC/AAC when you enable this feature, up to 2 devices max. Honestly AAC is fine for me, but sometimes I still prefer LDAC with the high resolution stuff.
  • The case is a bit lighter but also a bit flimsier. XM1 case is quite rigid and took a lot of beating (I beat on it a lot, on that note). XM1 case is also a tiny bit more circular and thus a tad bigger. It also didn’t have the little hole in the divider inside to stow the airplane adapter, 3.5mm cable, and possibly your charger cable.
  • Oh, USB-C on these, so I probably will just ditch the charger cable in the case. My XM1 was literally one of the last two things I carry that still used micro-USB. That said I am likely still to carry a micro-USB cable around even when I go to 0 micro-usb items just because I have some packrat tendencies. [The other micro-USB thing is a BT audio dongle/DAC.]
  • I think the USB-C port on the XM4 actually has data, where as it’s just power on the XM1, correct me if I’m wrong here.
  • The XM4 also is $50 more on MSRP, but this is the kind of thing you would never buy MSRP, so not a big deal. I got mine for $278 plus tax minus some credit card promo. Not bad for newish hardware on a Black Friday sale, as the XM4 came out in August 2020.
  • XM4 sound is more delicate than XM1, but I think this is just a general improvement on Sony’s part.

Overall I think once the ‘rona stay-at-home vibe is over I will be working these hard. I find these headphones teetering more and more towards “need” than “want” over time, even if obviously I don’t need them. It’s just such a nice luxury. Also my XM1 is heading towards physical breakdown due to the headband stress fracture issue. It’s not beyond repair, that said, so maybe they’ll make as great backup or a hand-me-down.

Pixel 4 One-Month Look

The fourth Pixel that I own is a limited-edition Orange 4 with 128GB storage. I already managed to lightly scratch the display (probably because I put it and a lanyard in the same pocket without thinking). Other than that, it’s pretty nice. I’ve even gotten used to this Spigen case, which is the clear TPU one that is a little thicker than the one I rocked with the 3 (which was black).

I think the 4 remarkably similar to Pixel 3, with even better build quality. After using Pixels 1, 2, 3 and 4 each year, you can begin to tell the improvements. Pixel 2 was definitely kind of the odd child out versus the 1, which remains a solid phone if you can get it cheap (although the 3a probably is the better bet now). Pixel 2 was great more because of its crazy software. Pixel 3 was great because it is more like what Pixel 2 should have been–kind of like the 2 XL was for the 1. So Pixel 4 definitely feels more like a “S cycle” upgrade for the 3.

The 4 is great build-wise. Like this is close to Sammy quality. The display is Sammy quality in fact, and it’s got the 90Hz screen that almost got me to buy a OnePlus 7T. Actually without this I would not have bought the 4, at least as I tell myself. It does justify the price a bit.

The new speakers on the 4 sounds better than the 3, which sounds worse than the 2. The polish on 4 is better than the 3, which, in a way, is what makes 2 XL good. No screen gacha meant it is a phone people can recommend, other than the ludicrous price of $799 (or $899 in my case).

So in a lot of ways the 4 is really what things should have been a year ago. The more I think about stuff to write, the more I feel this is true.

I sold my Black 3 128GB for about $350, which reflects the deep discount I got from the Fi deal that were prevalent when the 3 came out. No such a thing came with 4 unless you sign up with Verizon or another contract-laden tier-1. I’m vaguely tempted actually. Sometimes I think the limited color actually would help the aftermarket price.

In the end, I think it’s still worth it, because the hardware is nice. It’s just not a huge jump. Losing full-size backup of Google Photo is a hit but not too bad of a hit. I would think during BF you can probably do enough of a deal to justify, should you fancy that.

As for the new features? 90Hz is as advertised, it is also not worth that much. You can tell, it is nicer, but it is also not a huge deal. Same with the astrophotography mode–you can make some great pics with it, but not really relevant for most people. The new swipe gesture takes getting used to, because more the lack of easy home screen access. The added memory makes the 4 actually practical versus the 3. Again, build quality type improvements in this phone makes the 4 actually a lot more desirable. Face unlock is overall better than fingerprint, but what Google really should have done is combine radar detect with accel method in the iPhone. As is, there are some edge cases where fingerprint is still better. If you use a pwd manager that supports face unlock (like lastpass) you can seamlessly access your app with face unlock.

It’s just that if you are not already doing the Pixel life the past years, there isn’t much candy on that stick to get you forward.

Pixel 3 128GB First Impressions

I’ve had the phone for 4 days, cheeky me.

The original plan was to not upgrade this year. My Pixel 2 had a failure in the camera in September (2 days before I left for Taipei and Hokkaido for family vacation). Google sent a replacement while I was away, and basically when the Pixel 3 was announced I had a 3-week old refurb Pixel 2 128GB Black. The phone has a 2-year warranty and that means I will be set even for the next Pixel.

From the keynote and marketing material, it was clear that the Pixel 3 was an incremental improvement over the 2. What’s more, all the cool software features, most of them were slated to be released on the 1 and 2 anyway. I didn’t have much of a reason to upgrade.

Then the sales hit. BOGO on Fi and Verizon? I decided to go in with my sister on Fi and reap that $800 credit. She was going to jump from a Nexus 6P, so it’s a huge jump. We ordered the day it was announced. Reselling the refurb plus the credits would basically pay for 90% of a new Pixel 3.

The downside was switching to Fi. I’m not entirely sure if I have signal inside the river crossing tunnel. I have not personally checked, it is spotty as is on Verizon, and half the time I was still clinging to the work VZW hotspot. At times it feels like I have signal in there, though… The other issue was losing my Google Voice capability. It’s forwarding to my work phone (which is VOIP software anyway). I used that number for work and I definitely can’t lose it, and I also can’t lose my personal number that I use for everything else.

The upside to Fi was it’s a lot cheaper, and it has high speed data overseas included. It’s a major savings, as I pay 4500JPY for 7gb in Japan for 30 days (including voice and text). That’s a big fat zero on my next trip, now that I’ve paid the cost to verify my JP number (which means I still have to activate it once a year).

Swappa gave me about $410 in actual cash after the sale of the Pixel 2 (didn’t even took 24 hours to sell). The fees were 15 from Swappa, 15 for shipping (and insurance), and 13 from Paypal. This is nuts. The Pixel 3 128GB is 955 or so after tax. So I’m still on the hook for 145, or 15% of the cost. Maybe I should have held out for a better deal.

Onto the phone. Oh, just to detail the activation process, I followed first the invite email from my sister to set up the porting info. Then when it’s time to load the phone, I followed the on-screen prompts. It would let stuff run in the background while the rest of the phone is being set.

Basically after I got to the home screen, there was a notification waiting for me telling me there was an issue porting. Going to the notif takes me to th Fi app, and tells me what was wrong. Seems like invalid pin? I was suppose to put in my last 4 digits of social for Verizon porting, but I just set a pin on the Verizon account anyways and used that, and it worked minutes later.

In short, the phone is a refined Pixel 2, or what Pixel 2 really should have been. You can say that the Pixel line is a bit behind the release cadence. OnePlus for example, do 2 phones a year (6T looks good!). The next gen Galaxy phone is due in a few months. iPhone news comes out in September or early October. I would say the overall package of the Pixel 3 matches what is really, a better than-iPhone X.

That is great really, except we live in a world with the iPhone XS/Max. So on paper the Pixel 3 is not leading in any category besides its still class-leading camera powers, and other things that people who live inside Google’s ecosystem would enjoy. Thankfully that describes me to a tee.

I say with no irony that this is the most iPhone-y experience I’ve had yet on Android. It’s not a knock as a copycat, but it provides finally that fit and finish matching post-iPhone 8 hardware, with a visual presentation to match. I didn’t know how much of that edge-to-edge look added to this phone. I had it side by side with the Pixel 2, and despite similar displays, the Pixel 3 knocks things out of the park just because the angle my eyes see the edges of the screen, making it “float” towards the top like an iPhone X does.

As for features, it’s similar to the Pixel 2 on Pie. The only quirk is the tall screen makes pulling down the notification shade harder than the 2, and the wider aspect makes my full screen games look slightly different.

Besides the screen, there are major improvement in the speakers–they have a lot more depth and reverb and makes it sound way more solid than the Pixel 2’s. The buttons feel much better with better flex and feedback, where as the Pixel 2’s feels like they could get stuck. The haptic engine is improved, but I normally don’t use it anyway. These 3 points are in the order of decreasing importance, if you didn’t notice.

Wireless charging is something I can actually live without, but I splurged for a Pixel Stand. I can use one for my desk, and I still haven’t messed around it enough to give a proper review. So far it’s mainly just to fast charge, show the time and notification, and do the sunrise alarm thing. I think I am staying clear of a wireless charging pad on the Tesla Model 3, but I can see the appeal if the wiring situation is squared away (long story). Maybe in the future when they’re cheaper (the cheapest one I would buy is $50).

Not much to say otherwise. There are some integration in the Pixel 3 that makes sense which hasn’t rolled out to the Pixel 2 yet. Putting a photo scan link in the photo app makes sense, but I think this might be in Pixel 2 already. New nav for camera makes more sense than before, and it’s easier to use. I sideloaded the night mode beta and it is definitely as jaw-dropping as they say. Sample photos here and here.

In conclusion? This is the phone the Pixel 2 should have been. I don’t want to mention the XL line here because the 2 XL is a much closer presentation to the 3 XL than 2 was to 3. In a way, the Pixel 3 is actually the non-notched answer to our burning need for a modern, iPhone X-y device. LOL. Too bad the iPhone X is going to be a year old in December.

As for the rest of the competition… if you are looking at this phone and not, say, a 1+ 6T or Galaxy Note 9 or Huawei Mate 20 Pro, then nothing more needs to be said. Software superiority is something real. Integration matters. This is still the heart of the Pixel experience, where you get real-time chat and support over the web, your phone (as in not voice, but app), as well as traditional telephone service. It still has a long ways to go to catch Apple in terms of physical stores supporting users, but it’s slowly getting there. At least it needs to solve my Pixel 2 camera problem with less lead time than 48 hours!

I think I see clearly where Google is trying to catch up, and it’s a lot of stuff difficult to market. It doesn’t show up on a spec sheet. But for Americans it matters… So I think I will continue to use a Pixel phone in the future, and let Google take care of my personal info in exchange for services it provides.

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.