Thursday, January 29, 2015

SOL Republic Tracks Air Headphone Review

I've been searching for a new pair of headphones for awhile. I used to use in-ear headphones, but they always seemed to break, so for the past few months I've been trying to find a good pair of traditional over-the-head headphones. In addition to my trusty Sony NC40s from 2008 (noise cancellation for flights), I recently picked up a Sony ZX set, an AmazonBasics pair, and now a set of SOL Republic Tracks Air. Since these are a bit pricey ($199 retail), I thought I'd give you a review.

Short story: man, these things are nifty. I never knew cutting the cords would be quite this nice. Once upon a time, I worked at a place that sold wireless headphones that had a stand and connected by either infrared beams or low powered analog radio. They sucked. Static, finicky, expensive, and bad battery life. Thankfully, technology today is much different.

These headphones are bluetooth enabled, which means that your music streams wirelessly to the headphones from just about any modern phone or laptop. It's baked in to every smartphone and Connecting the headphones to my laptop was a snap, but even more impressive was setting up the connection on my mobile phone. All I had to do was tap the phone to the right earpiece where the NFC tag is and it just connected. Bluetooth turned on and a moment later, "Connected to TRACKS Air" appears on my screen.

Very slick.

All of the controls are on the right earpiece. Power, volume, and a multifunction button that lets you play/pause/skip tracks. You can also use the headphones as a headset as well: There are microphones built in to either side. The sound quality is pretty good with the microphones. My tests on Skype and on the phone came across clear. If you are a bluetoothless Luddite, the headphones also come with a a set of wires that will let you plug it into a a 3.5mm jack... but if that is your MO, then you can probably save some cash by foregoing all the bluetooth toys and buying a wired set like this.

Another concern you might have is play time, but fear not: A full charge gives up to 13 hours, so you only need to plug them in every other day or so with moderate use. The headphones charge over a standard micro-USB cable. Easy-peasy.

All those toys are nice (very nice), but what about the sound? After all, a wireless pair of headphones that suck still suck. I've been using these things a lot with Spotify at work, and overall I'm very happy with them. On a heavy day, I'll run through a couple hours of music, across a number of different genres.

For modern dance/electronica/trance, these things are great. Avicii, CAZZETTE, Pitbull, Robyn, Empire of the Sun, Deadmau5 (especially Deadmau5) and the like all get a wink and a nod from the engineers. The bass hits nicely and the vocals are clear. Something a little more... northwesty? No problem. Mary Lambert, Deathcab for Cutie, Macklemore, Postal Service, and even Sir Mix all sound great. The 808 kick drum makes people get dumb loud and clear. Luda comes in crisp and clear. Ne-Yo, Junip, Jonsi, alt-J, Two Door Cinema Club, Mumford & Sons, all sound good to me. These are designed and marketed towards a younger audience, so there is a little gaming with the sound going on to make them sound better with what is popular in the 20-30s crowd.

Where I did run into a little trouble came when I was running through my classic Big Band tracks. If there is an album that I have listened to ad nauseam, it is Ella Fitzgerald's Love Songs: Best of the Verve Songbooks. I was my first exposure to Ella and for awhile I listened to it pretty much non-stop. The net result is that even years after retiring the album from my main rotation, I still remember every single word and phrasing on the CD. The boomy profile of the headphones wasn't too well suited to the Big Band sound. Rich bass is good, but I am listening to as I type this "All the Things You Are", and I feel like the bass is getting in the way of some of the other components of the band. The brass isn't as bright I would like be. Listening to some Nate King Cole, it seems like Big Band isn't the best suited for the headset. The sound seems to be better paired to jazz trios, like much of Stan Getz and Carmen McRea.

Overall, the headphones worked well and despite a bump with a specific genre, I really like them. They are a solid performing headset, comfortable for longer periods, pretty sound isolating, and full of tech driven tricks. My next flight is in a couple weeks, so I'll write a follow up after that when I know how well they handle the noisy cabin while inflight and compare them to my active noise cancellation headphones.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Do you XLB? You should.

Do you know what this is? This is xaiolongbao, and it is pretty much my favorite edible thing to come out of China, ever. XLB, as some trendy hipsters have taken to calling it, is basically a pork meatball soup made into bite-size delicious morsels. Within that soft exterior is a meatball surrounded by broth, waiting to be taken between two chopsticks and eaten.

My first run in with xaiolongbao was at Ping's Dumpling House in Seattle. The restaurant sits unassuming in the middle of the international district. When you look inside, it is a pretty humble shop with the same people there every day. All of the dumplings are made by hand on site and while the menu offers two or three different versions, they just are not as amazing as the xaiolongbao. My first experience was... awkward, but delicious. There is a bit of a trick to eating these dumplings and I had no idea what it was, so it ended up being a bit messy (1).

Now that I am in Oakland, I need to find my go to replacement for Ping's. Today was the first attempt. I headed out to Dumpling Kitchen in Parkside from the reviews and to see a new part of the city. The end result? Pretty dang good xaiolongbao, but way too far out to make a regular spot for me... The quest has begun!

1 The trick to eating xaiolongbao (at least how I do it): Have a soup spoon in your left hand. Carefully pick up the XLB with your chopsticks (You don't want the skin to rip!). Place the XLB in the soup spoon, then pick it up again and bite a small hole near the top. Slurp and the broth will come right out without a mess. Next, dip it in the vinegar (mixed chili, if you like) sauce and finish it off in the next bite. Repeat until you need to order more.

Photos from Stockholm

 My last trip to Sweden was a bit of a personal trip. I was there to see friends and family, and my schedule didn't allow for very many photos. From the moment that I landed in Stockholm, it was pretty much non-stop: A dinner at a friend's house an hour and a half after touch down; Visiting family out in Stockholm; Visiting friends; Meeting their new families; Catching up with more friends; Spending time with three generations of family members outside of Stockholm. It was a whirlwind.

Still, I manage to get a few photographs in. Stockholm is a very, very nice city. Whether you want to measure it in terms of beauty, livability, or how well things just work, it is hard not to look around and wish that your city back home was as nice as it is here.

It really is too bad that you can't be in more than one place at once...

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Flight Report: $490 to Stockholm on Norwegian... Plus, first time on a 787!

One of the new benefits of being in Oakland is that I have a new option for getting to Scandinavia: Norwegian flies to Stockholm, non-stop, from Oakland. It's a ten hour flight where you step on in California and off in Sweden. That's pretty much unheard of, since I've always had some connection, either in Europe or on the East Coast. The most convenient was always SAS, who flew to Copenhagen and then onward to Stockholm... but this is a new level of convenience.

Plus, my ticket was $490 round trip. I've paid more to get to the mid-west. For that price, you might be wondering what you get and how scandalous Norwegian will treat you once you get to the airport. After all, prices that cheap make people think of RyanAir and their shenanigans.

Turns out, you get exactly what you pay for. In my case, I opted to skip any additional services like food, drinks, checked bags, and a reserved seat (saving $140 in the process) and I got what I paid for: A spot on a plane. They did weigh my carry on (there is a 10kg limit that IS enforced), but none of the Ryan Air stuff like being forced to check in online or pony up a hundred dollars.

On the plane, there is no free drink or food service, but you can ask for a glass of water in the back for free. Otherwise, the best move is to bring it with you; Even at airport prices (and Oakland Airport does suck for food), it's still less than buying it on the plane. I didn't get a snap of their meals, but it looked like standard airline fare. Not worth the money they want for it.

The bottom line is this: I'll fly with them again. They are cut rate, but they are at least nice about it.

Another big bonus for this flight was that I finally got to fly on a 787. I've been waiting for the opportunity to take a trip on one of these aircraft and Norwegian runs them on their international routes (to the US and Thailand). Inside, it is pretty spacious. The cabin is nice and the storage pulls up pretty far to give it the feeling of having extra room. The new electrochromatic windows are alright, but they let in far too much light for my taste (see the last image). It's harder to sleep than with traditional blinds that can be pulled down. I suspect in the future they will either do both or have to dramatically improve the technology.

While the inside is nice, the real stunner is the wings. These things are amazing. They move like they are almost organic and on lift off, the bend in the wing is pretty dramatic. Most other wings are pretty stiff, but these flex in the wind and you can see them curl as the lift starts pushing the plane upwards. Check out this video of what I'm talking about.. (not mine). Pretty exciting to see them in action in person!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Food Friday: Ma'ono in West Seattle

When visiting Seattle, one area that isn't quite as frequented by tourists is West Seattle. Many people may visit Alki beach, which is where the photo above was taken, but there is a lot more to the neighborhood than just the summer beach area.

By far, the best area to explore is the California Junction. Once upon a time, this was the streetcar junction where the current commercial center is (See maps of the Streetcar Network here. It was all ripped up in 1941 to make way for buses!)

The neighborhood commercial area here is pretty good. It has a good mix of businesses, bars, and restaurants that make it a vibrant area. There is Easy Street Records (one of the few remaining places to get knowledgeable advice on music), the kid friendly Cupcake Royale, West Five (the home of interstellar mac-n-cheese), and the renown Bakery Nouveau.

This time around, I tried Ma'ono for brunch. They opened up a couple years back, but this was the first time that I had been there. The menu is hawaiian inspired (delicious, but "healthy" it is not) and features fried chicken. Reservations are recommended, both for a table AND for the friend chicken. If you don't order it ahead of time, then you may end up without it.

So, how was it? Delicious. The breading is nice and crispy, while the meat is tender and not overly oily. The sausage gravy that comes with it feels so wrong, but ends up being something you can't stop eating. By the end, you are looking at those spoons in the gravy and thinking, "What if I just thought of this as a sausage stew? No one is going to judge me for eating stew, right?"

On the menu there is also chicken nuggets and french toast. While also fantastic and seasoned well, it's just not the same as the bone-in fried chicken. The french toast is lightly sweetened and plays well with the savory ground chicken nuggets, but isn't the same show stopper at the fried chicken. It's great by itself, but having them side by side will leave you wishing you could just some of the fried chicken with your toast instead.

A meal this good, however, is not guilt free. However, the guilt is a pretty cheap price of admission for something like this.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Winter at the Pike Place Market

It's no secret that I love the Pike Place Market. It's one of the defining features of Seattle, just like Mount Rainier, The Sound, and The Space Needle. In fact, one of the downsides of living in the Bay Area now is that there really isn't anything quite like The Market down here in the Bay.

Fisherman's Wharf? Uh, no. That place is a full on tourist trap. And the chowder ain't that good (certainly not up to Pike Place Chowder standards. Or even Ivar's).

The Ferry Building? Close, but not quite. It is a very nice building, but it is small and lacks the nooks and crannies that make The Market interesting. It's also a little too haute to be in the same class as The Market. It's more akin to Chelsea Market in New York than The Market.

Where else? I don't even know. If you have a recommendation, send it to me or post a comment.

If you are looking for the iconic Seattle's Best Coffee sign, it is long gone. Now it is the RGB sign!