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 ($149-ish retail now), 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...