Christmas 2018: The best new gadgets to buy

Toby Young on the latest hi-tech headphones and virtual assistants

Style

28 Nov 2018

What a cornucopia of goodies to choose from! I’ve always had a weakness for high-tech gadgetry and here were some of the very latest gizmos spread out before me. Where to begin?

With Christmas fast approaching, I decided a good place to start would be to pick out a suitable present for my wife. Caroline is in her mid-forties and, in addition to a daily commute, is a bit of a gym bunny. Clearly, some wireless earbuds were the way to go. She likes listening to podcasts on her way to work and music when she’s exercising. But which ones to choose? I had three pairs before me: Jakan by Urbanears; MW07 True Wireless Earphones by Master & Dynamic; and Bose SoundSport Wireless Headphones.

Jakan by Urbanears are the cheapest of the three, retailing at £77, but the buds are connected by a chord, which makes them a bit less tidy. The set-up is pretty straightforward. You simply charge them up using the enclosed USB cable and then link them via Bluetooth to your phone. Once connected, you can use the control knob to pause songs, fast forward, rewind, turn the volume up and down, answer telephone calls and activate Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant. To get the buds to fit snugly in your ears, you are supposed to push or pull the chord until the desired fit is achieved, but that didn’t seem to make any difference. No matter: by twisting the buds in a clockwise direction, the fit was good enough.

So from a design point of view, the Jakan earbuds were tiptop. However, the sound quality was disappointing. Buds are always going to struggle to replicate the depth and richness of a good pair of over-ear headphones, but even allowing for that I wasn’t impressed. The benchmark for me are the ear-pods that come as standard with an iPhone and I didn’t think the Jakan were quite up to that. The sound was a bit muffled, the notes and instruments not as clearly delineated as I would have liked. Not a problem when listening to podcasts, but not great for music.

The Master & Dynamic True Wireless Headphones

Next up were the Master & Dynamic True Wireless Earphones. The recommended retail price is £279.99, making them the most expensive of the three, but you can get them for about £25 less on Amazon. There’s certainly no skimping on materials. The earbuds are hand-crafted from acetate and stainless steel and no two are the same. They come with five different sets of ear tips so you can find the ones that fit you best, and two pairs of silicone ‘fit wings’ to add extra stability once they’re in place. They’re housed in a stainless-steel charging case that is just small enough to fit into your trouser pocket and which can deliver 14 hours of listening time without needing to be re-charged. A tiny button on the left-hand bud enables you to adjust the volume, while another on the right-hand one allows you to rewind, fast-forward, etc. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, I didn’t much care for the sound quality of these earbuds. It was better than the Jakan, with the notes clearly picked out, but there was too much treble and not enough bass — something to do with the acetate-and-steel components, perhaps. I was expecting more from Master & Dynamic as I’m the owner of a pair of MW50 Wireless On-Ear Headphones, and their sound quality is sensational.

Bose SoundSport Headphones

Lastly, I tried the Bose SoundSport Wireless Headphones. With a recommended retail price of £179.95, but available for £169.95 from Amazon, these were priced in the mid-range. They had the same functionality as the Master & Dynamic earbuds and, from that point of view, there wasn’t much to choose between them. On the plus side, they were a better fit once you’d twisted them in place and, as a result, less likely to fall out while jogging. But the charging case was slightly larger and cylindrical, making it a bit bulky for trouser pockets.

However, where the Bose earbuds won hands down was on sound. Unlike the other two, these were a cut above the Apple ear-pods, producing not just the clarity I’d been seeking but also a throaty depth and resonance to rival a good pair of on-ear headphones. Forget Caroline. I fancied a pair of these myself.

In addition to the earbuds, I tested three different virtual assistants: the Amazon Echo Plus, the Google Home Hub and the Apple HomePod.

Caroline was actually given an Amazon Echo for Christmas last year and it’s been sitting in our kitchen ever since so I’m familiar with the concept. Amazon’s virtual assistant has been given a female persona called Alexa and you can ask her questions, tell her to make appointments in your diary, place phone calls, etc. Quite miraculous and extremely beguiling at first, although the novelty soon wears off. These days I use it as a glorified egg timer, but my 15-year-old daughter has linked it to her Spotify account and asks Alexa to play music while she does her homework, while Caroline listens to podcasts as she’s doing the cooking. The Amazon Echo Plus (£139.99) is essentially the same product, but with better sound quality. Not sure I could tell the difference.


Google Home Hub

The Google Home Hub (£139) is similar to the Echo Plus, except it comes with a screen that can play videos, stream movies, etc. Unfortunately, it’s a very small screen, so I’m not sure why anyone would use it to watch anything. Helpful for cooking instructions, I guess. The sound is poorer than the Echo Plus, but Google’s virtual assistant is slightly better at answering questions than Amazon’s. Too often, the Echo Plus will provide the wrong answer, followed by the question, ‘Would you like to know more?’ When you respond with an emphatic ‘No’, it comes back with, ‘Hmmm. I don’t know that one.’

 


The Apple HomePod

The Apple HomePod (£319) is the newest entry in this market and, for an Apple product, it seems a bit half-baked. That’s because the virtual assistant is Siri and, as anyone who owns an iPhone can tell you, Siri is a bit crap. More often than not, her response to a question is, ‘OK, I found something on the web… take a look’, which kind of defeats the point of a virtual assistant. You expect to be told the answer. Given that Apple sold a quarter of a billion phones last year and is now the most valuable company in the world, it can afford to give Siri an upgrade.

Having said all that, the sound quality of the HomePod is out of this world. It’s a lot chunkier than the other two and contains a woofer and seven tweeters. If you’re rich enough to buy two, you can set them up alongside each other and listen to music in stereo — and the sound really fills the room. You cannot link it to Spotify because Apple wants you to buy a subscription to Apple Music, but you can synch it to your phone via Bluetooth and hook it up to Spotify that way. You can also connect it to an Apple TV, so in theory you could have a HomePod on either side of your television as an alternative to an expensive sound bar.

Money no object, I’d probably get the Google Home Hub and sit it alongside the Apple HomePod, asking questions of one and playing music on the other. But since I’m on a budget, I’ll probably stick with Caroline’s Amazon Echo.


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