Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Earphones with Mic for Android

Klipsch Image S4A (original)
Update: There's a new king!

Your Android smartphone (or tablet) may have come with earphones/headphones, but the sound quality is probably mediocre at best. You could spend literally hundreds of dollars for the best possible sound, but roughly $100 is the point of diminishing returns, in part because "a chain is only as strong as the weakest link", and the cheap audio components in most smartphones will limit the sound quality if you spend more than that. So this list focuses on products under $100 (street price) with these characteristics:
  • Designed for Android, with single button remote
  • Mic for phone calls with good sound quality
  • Cords designed to minimize rubbing and bumping noises
  • Comfortable fit
  • Good construction
  • Good value, sounding better than the price

GOOD: Sony MDR-EX110AP ($21-25)

Cords could be better (thicker and more rubbery), but they aren't terrible, and the design is otherwise good, with sound quality comparable to products at double the retail price point, comfortable fit, light weight, and small size that keeps them inside the ear, minimizing wind noise outdoors. Available in a variety of colors. A bargain.

GREAT: Klipsch Image S4A ($45)

Excellent sound, good build quality, but the app is problematic, and fit with the oval tips can be a problem. The newer S4A (II) version features tangle resistant flat cables and other minor tweaks, but many prefer the original version, which can still be found and is usually less expensive. Tips:
  • Replace the oval ear tips with Shure memory foam "olives" (EABKF1), which install perfectly, fit comfortably, seal out noise, and improve sound by enhancing bass and taming treble just a bit. The latest version has an ear wax screen.
  • Forget the app.
  • Discontinued, replaced by replaced by Klipsch R6m.


  • Don't limit sound quality with low bit-rate audio:
    • Many streaming apps (Google Music included) default to a lower bit-rate that limits quality, and there may be a Setting for higher quality (at the expense of more mobile data).
    • The bit-rate of your own audio audio files (MP3, AAC, etc) should be 175-245 Kbps. (With good encoding, higher than that won't sound better.) LAME V3 profile is a good way to get the best possible sound with the lowest possible bit-rate. 
  • Take high end audio claims with a grain of salt. Many do not stand up to serious scrutiny.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Mini Wireless Multifunction Routers

Apple pioneered this category of capable mini devices with the AirPort Express, and now there are less expensive alternatives. Multifunction capability is what makes them special, the ability to be configured as:
  • Router (base station)
  • Access Point (supplement existing router)
  • Client Bridge (wireless connection of wired devices)
  • Repeater (extend wireless coverage)
Apple AirPort Express (latest version)
  • Pro: Easy setup with AirPort Utility, simultaneous dual band wireless, printer server, AirPlay client for wireless audio
  • Con: Expensive, N150 speed, separate power adapter
Satechi Wireless Multifunction Mini Router
  • Pro: N300 speed, QoS
  • Con: Single band wireless
TP-LINK Mini Pocket Router TL-WR700N
  • Pro: Inexpensive, small (like original AirPort Express)
  • Con: N150 speed, single band wireless

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Best USB Car Charger

PowerGen Car Charger
You purchased a "fast" car charger for your mobile device (smartphone, tablet, etc), but you find that the actual charging rate is slow, possibly not even able to keep up if you use the mobile device at the same time. What's up with that? Is the charger defective? Not really a "fast" charger?

It's the fault of the USB standard, not necessarily the charger. USB was conceived as a connection standard, not a charger standard, and to keep costs down the original standard provides only a modest amount of power, a maximum of 500 mA. But as USB gained traction as a connection standard, it also gained traction in chargers.

500 mA (½ A) is fine for a low power device like a mouse, but insufficient for fast charging of a current smartphone (~1000 mA), much less a tablet (~2000 mA). The USB standard is evolving to deliver greater amounts of power, but adoption takes time, and current USB products could be damaged by high power drain, so device manufacturers have resorted to non-standard tricks for fast charging with USB connectors:
  1. Shorted data connection: This is frequently used by Android devices (e.g., Nexus 5), which won't try to fast charge if the data connection isn't shorted, displaying (USB) rather than (AC) on the Battery screen.
  2. Non-standard data voltage: This method is used by Apple devices, with different voltages signaling different maximum charging rates. They similarly won't try to fast charge when those voltages aren't present.
Since no standard USB port should do these things, a device can assume it's on a charger rather than a USB host. But since there is no single method, and since both methods can't be used at the same time, a charger that's fast for Apple devices may not be fast for Android devices, and vice versa. So either make sure to choose the right type of charger (which can be tricky), or choose a charger that has both methods, like the excellent PowerGen 4.2A/20W Dual USB Car Charger:
  • High power for fast charging even tablets
  • Dual ports for charging 2 devices at once, one Android port and one Apple port*
  • Good physical design for secure fit and durability
  • Compact size
  • Great value: $10 at Amazon.com
PowerGen Wall Charger

Best USB Wall Charger

All of the same considerations apply, and PowerGen comes to the rescue here as well, with the PowerGen 2.4-Amp (12 Watt) Dual USB Wall Charger. Another great value: $13 at Amazon.com

UPDATE: There is now a more powerful version: PowerGen 3.4-Amp (17 Watt) Dual USB Wall Charger. Even better value: $10 at Amazon.com

* If a device is connected to the other type of port, it will still charge, but the rate may be slow.