Review #62: Anne Pro II ★★★★✬


This is my first instance of writing a review of a product while using it to write the review. Having said so, this is the best experience I have had yet of the process of typing it out. Considering that I have been resigned to membrane keyboard until now and this happens to be my first mechanical keyboard, I would mostly like to recount my experience of using it rather than draw comparisons that I am ill-equipped to do.

Package:

Disregarding the fact that I received the product in a beaten-up box, the item itself was well packaged and the accessories included a red-themed Type-C cable along with a keycap puller and blank CMYK PBT keycaps to allow for some customisation. A good package for a budget keyboard.


Setup:

The first time around, the keyboard simply didn't power up due to the orientation of the cable which was extremely odd considering it came with a Type-C cable. However, I am pleased to inform that the issue has since been resolved with a firmware update, which is one of the positives of having a smart keyboard. Another quirk I encountered, that still exists, is that the keyboard would work properly only with some and not all the USB 2.0 ports on my motherboard.

Considering the bugs I encountered with the shipped firmware, I would recommend making the software setup part of the initial keyboard setup. The Obinslab Starter software for Linux, Mac and Windows can be downloaded from here. The firmware section is divided in to 3 distinct sections - Application Processor, Light Processor and Bluetooth processor. Mine came shipped with v2.06 for the first two and v0.06 for the latter. At the time of writing, the last firmware update was released on May 20, 2019 whose versioning is at 2.09 for Application/Light Processor and 1.00 for the Bluetooth Processor.


Product:

The first and foremost question about any mechanical keyboard is about the switches being used. Since I was looking specifically for a general-purpose keyboard, I had long decided to go with Brown switches rather than Red or Blue. The next logical question is about the brand and as ridiculous as it may sound, I decided to go with the default Gateron switches based on price alone. The preference for Cherry MX switches and its clones varies on an individual basis, so for my first mechanical keyboard, I chose to keep it simple, especially as I didn't have the means of comparing them. For those inquisitive, the Kailh variant commanded a premium of a little over 10% while the Cherry MX were dearer by 25%.

The first thing that hits you on picking up the keyboard is its weight. It comes it at about 630g which feels comparable for a keyboard of this size. Prior to this, I was using the Apple Wireless Keyboard, so you can ascertain where I am coming from. That is another reason why the 60% layout didn't come as much of a shock to me than would have been the case had I been using a full-layout keyboard. For the record, I was using a G105, a feeble attempt at getting a gaming keyboard, prior to switching to the Apple keyboard simply because it wouldn't fit in my new keyboard tray. So, size mattered to me a lot in making the purchase decision.

Having said so, the keyboard doesn't feel cramped by any means. I am not a professional typist, but my typing speed on 10fastfingers went up by about 10% on my first attempt compared to membrane keyboards. The beauty of the keyboard however is in its software which provides 3 levels of modifiers (FN1, FN2, TAP) to effectively quadruple the number of keys while being able to customise it in every conceivable manner. The keycaps are made from 1.2mm thick double-shot PBT plastic which is not meant to fade away with usage, but I will let time be a testament to that.


Lastly, there is the sound of the keys clacking. The sound of the keys are about as light as the force required to actuate them. They are not too disturbing and in a manner quite pleasant to listen to.

Bluetooth:

My idea behind getting this keyboard was to also be able to use it with the increasing range of devices capable of working with Bluetooth keyboards, ranging from mobiles to projectors. The Anne Pro II comes with Bluetooth 4.0 and supports pairing with 4 devices which is huge plus in my opinion. Pairing can be invoked by long-pressing the first 4 number keys along with FN2 while short-pressing the same key combo engages that specific pairing. I couldn't find any means of exiting the pairing process prematurely which can be a bummer if you happen to engage it erroneously.

Thoughtfully, the Anne Pro II contains a Bluetooth switch on the back which should be useful in conserving the 1900 mAh battery that the keyboard comes with. However, even with the latest firmware, I encountered a bug where Windows failed to detect the keyboard in wired mode until the Bluetooth switch was turned off, which I hope is fixed in a future update.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the keyboard requires a Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy dongle. So, if you happen to have an old BL 4.0 non-LE dongle like I have, then using the keyboard with the desktop in wireless mode is a no-go. Another limitation of using the keyboard in Bluetooth mode is that the animated lighting effects like Rainbow are not supported, presumably to conserve battery life.

Lighting:

A major draw of the keyboard is its customisable backlighting. The keyboard features the following hardware combination to play with the lighting effects.

FN2 + 9 = Switch Light Effect
FN2 + 0 = Turn Backlight On/Off
FN2 + - = Reduce Backlight Brightness
FN2 + + = Increase Backlight Brightness

I found the Rainbow effect to be the most pleasing among the stock options, though further customisation can be done through the 'Light' section of Obinslab Starter.

Software:

I have already covered the 'Firmware Upgrade', 'Layout', 'Light' sections in earlier parts of the review which is where most of the action is. However, apart from those sections, you can also access 'General Information' about the keyboard and set up 'Macros' which can be extremely powerful depending on your use case.


Price:

The decision to get this keyboard would depend a lot on the price you can get it for. It is normally listed at $80 and at that price, it may not be as much value for money as you might expect it to be. I managed to snag it for $66 during an AliExpress sale and that price seems to be more befitting of the product. So, it might make sense to hold out for a sale whenever possible to make this more of a value purchase.

Conclusion:

The Anne Pro II is an ideal beginner's mechanical keyboard after factoring in the price, features and portability. Cheaper keyboards come with no-name brand switches while comparable ones come at a significant premium. If nothing else, the keyboard is pure value for money and preferable to purchasing portable, membrane-based Bluetooth keyboards.

P.S.: Till the time the default browser fonts start supporting the half-star, I have decided to improvise with the 'Black Center White Star' as a proxy for it.

Review #59: JBL Xtreme ★★★★½


My review of the Xgimi Z6 Polar mentioned my disappointment with the in-built Harman Kardon speakers, especially when in pursuit of the home theatre experience. Since then, I was on the lookout for options that would fill this specific void.

It was natural to first consider a sound bar. Here, I was looking at two extremes in terms of (limited) budget as well as sound quality. At one end of the spectrum was the Mi Soundbar. For the price of INR 4999 (USD 70), one can't go wrong, going by the spec sheet. However, it would be unfair to expect it to be anything apart from middling in terms of quality. At the other end of the budgetary spectrum, I was enamoured by the Yamaha YAS-108 selling for INR 18500 (USD 260). It would be my choice (along with the YAS-207, budget permitting), if I ever decide to go with a sound bar. However, an infrequently used projector setup and the awkward option of mounting a speaker below the projection screen led me to look for something more versatile...and portable.

Portability inevitably means switching focus to a category of speakers that one would casually term as "Bluetooth speakers". To make it clear upfront, I have never been a fan of Bluetooth codecs and iffy connectivity, but sometimes it is worth the convenience. In this case, the concern is somewhat alleviated by the fact there is also an Aux-In input present in most cases, though one has to forego advanced digital connectivity options like S/PDIF and HDMI-ARC. It is human to want everything in everything even though compromise is imminent.

With this frame of mind, I headed over to Amazon and as it happened, a Bose banner occupied the front page. The Soundlink Mini II became the object of my focus on account of its stellar reviews. However, the age of the product, accentuated by its archaic Bluetooth version of 3.0, a pretty lowish battery life by today's standard (10 hours) combined and a not-so-lowish price of INR 13000 (USD 183) stressed my little grey cells a bit more than I wished for. Also, keeping algorithmic trickery aside, there is no beating the quality constraints put forth by the physical dimensions of the product. This made me yearn for the Soundlink III, but unfortunately it isn't sold locally and the other products from the Bose range didn't fit my bill.

Venturing to other brands then, I came across my eventual purchase - the JBL Xtreme. In fact, it wasn't so straightforward as I went through numerous other options from Harman Kardon (Onyx Studio), Ultimate Ears (Megaboom), Marshall (Kilburn) and Sony (XB41). The focus in most cases seemed to be on waterproofing (as a poolside speaker), raucous lighting and mega-bass, all of which I was not particularly attuned to. NFC is another feature that gets mentioned a lot, but I can't see myself pairing devices to a speaker so frequently so as to necessitate its presence.

It was a review of the Soundlink III that led me to the JBL Xtreme as it was listed as an equivalent, if not a better option in the same price range. In case you are going by looks, then you wouldn't find anything distinguishable about the Xtreme compared to its smaller and cheaper siblings - Flip and Charge. In fact, it would be completely wrong to form your opinion about a brand based on a product alone, especially a cheaper one. Sound quality doesn't scale linearly with price and it is always a tight rope walk finding a balance between the two. In this case, I can only assure you that size does matter.

Even settling on the Xtreme wasn't without further complications. Considering the price I mentioned previously for the Mini II, one can only imagine a Soundlink III to come close to the USD 300 mark in INR, if it was sold locally. This meant I was staring at the outer realms of my budget. Luckily, with the JBL Xtreme 2 picking up the mantle in this price category, the Xtreme was relegated to a lower price tier, though still commanding a price of INR 15000 (USD 211). This brought me to my second consideration - whether the price difference to the Xtreme 2 is worth it. From the reviews I read, the difference in sound quality between the two is largely imperceptible and the main draw for it, as you can guess, is waterproofing. Pfft.

Would I have spent even INR 15000 on the Xtreme? Possibly no. The real clincher was that I managed to get it for INR 10800 (USD 152). It was quite a matter of luck, patience and persistence. I happened to find a single unit of Xtreme listed separately on Flipkart at the aforementioned low price and correctly postulated it to be an open box item, considering it had a delivery time of 11 days as against 2 days for one listed at the normal price. Listing an open-box product as a new one is deceitful, but it worked in my favour as I was able to avail of the 10-day replacement policy, but not without considerable haggling.

I mentioned the word "portable" previously in relation to Bluetooth speakers. In the case of the Xtreme, I'd rather use the word mentioned on the box - "transportable". It weighs over 2 kg, so calling it portable would be a stretch by any means. Conscious of this, JBL has thrown in a shoulder strap, though I suppose someone from the design team had a good laugh at it. However, having a multi-instrument, vocal Dholak hanging from the shoulder isn't as ludicrous as it may seem.

All that heft must account for something and in the case of the Xtreme, it does so in the form of 2 x 65mm woofers, 2 x 35mm tweeters and two thumping passive radiators with a rated power of 2 x 20W (Bi-amp). With specs, comes power consumption and in the case of the Xtreme, JBL provided an ample 37Wh (10000 mAh at 3.7V) Lithium-Ion battery which is rated to be good enough for 15 hours. On my first complete run on battery, I got about 15h 25m over Auxiliary and 2h 15m over Bluetooth, totalling a run time of 17h 40m. Of course, the battery life depends a lot on the volume, content as well as Bluetooth usage, so my figures are simply empirical. The battery also works as a power bank and the Xtreme features two USB-A ports that can cumulatively output 2A (1x2A or 2x1A) in addition to the charging, aux-in and a service port.


The Xtreme comes with a round-pin charger rated at 57W (19V 3A) which is an awful lot for a battery powered device. However, it ensures that the device gets fully charged within 3 hours (though the specs mention 3.5 hours). To my amusement, I found that the charger works with my Z6, so in effect I now have a charger redundancy, which is always appreciated, to a point. The battery life is indicated with the help of 5 LEDs on the front which is pretty vague and the device could have done with a battery percentage callout. Lastly, despite its age, it comes with Bluetooth 4.1 on board which is any time better than what's onboard with the similarly old Soundlink Mini II.

Moving on to the most pertinent aspect of the device, the sound. The thing that hits you in the face (specifically the ears) on your first playback is the bass (along with the vigorously vibrating radiators). If your first track happens to be a vocal one like mine was, then you would be justified in harbouring some doubts. However, even with overpowering bass, the width of the soundstage becomes evident and it is able to reproduce sound pleasantly across the spectrum. The bass tends to eat in to the mids for tracks that have even a modicum of it, though the treble is unblemished. This helps it as a party (and home theatre) speaker but not as a music one.

Thankfully, pressing the 'Bluetooth' and 'Volume -' buttons simultaneously for 10 seconds significantly flattens the frequency response and brings any vocal or instrumental track to life. What it actually does and why it isn't documented in the manual is beyond me. There are 30 volume steps present on the device itself when used independently but it links up to the phone volume levels on pairing. The speaker is plenty loud to fill up any mid to large sized room, though oddly, the volume over Aux is significantly lower than over Bluetooth. There is no official mention of any other codec support and going by the fact that Android always defaults to SBC on selection of any other codec, it seems that's the only supported codec. While I couldn't bear SBC on cheap Bluetooth headphones in the past, the sheer quality of the speaker makes it less of an issue, and one can always switch to good old Aux. Lastly, there is the 'JBL Connect' button to pair up additional compatible JBL devices with the Xtreme but I find no use for it in a home setting.

The app support for this device is pretty barebone. The 'JBL Music' app on iOS simply lists the songs from Apple Music and mentions AirPlay support. The "AirPlay" option is nothing more than the native iOS selection of a Bluetooth receiver, so is of no practical use. Having said that, playback of the same track on Apple Music is much better than Spotify, though it is mostly due to the impact of transcoding from AAC compared to Ogg Vorbis. The 'JBL Connect' app is a tad more useful in the sense that it is supposed to provide firmware update notifications, though I didn't get any and it is unlikely I ever will, considering the age of the product.

To conclude, if you can get the device for less than $160, then there is simply no better option available. Sound doesn't degrade with age (of the speaker, unfortunately not of the listener), so it still holds up well against the $300 Xtreme 2 in terms of quality but beats it in terms of value for money. In short, for a discounted price, the Xtreme is highly recommended.

Review #50: RHA MA650 Wireless Earphones ★★★★☆

When wireless doesn't mean getting less! 


Bluetooth headsets have always been a matter of convenience for me rather than a technological evolution over wired headsets. For a long time, I preferred to use wired headsets whenever possible and took recourse to Bluetooth headsets when on the move. However, the abysmal performance of Bluetooth plug-in headsets like SBH54 and the Fiio BTR1 left me extremely disappointed and finally set me on course to finding a standalone wireless earphone.

Review #46: Fiio BTR1 (Bluetooth Amplifier with AK4376 DAC) ★★★☆☆ (Updated!)

A small device with big sound on a budget.
The removal of the headphone jack on phones is a recent phenomenon but I have been dilly-dallying with clip-on, stereo Bluetooth headsets for quite some time. The excuse for doing so was convenience, at the expense of sound quality. Without putting so much as a thought, I went with Sony in those days and hence my initial experience revolved around the MW-600 and SBH54. However, while the MW-600 was a solid device for its time, the SBH54 was a huge disappointment. Hence, Sony was never in consideration for my next device.

With the iPhone 7 being my primary device, I gave some thought to using a lightning connector device prior to considering other Bluetooth choices. The 1More Triple Driver was certainly at the top of the list but the price premium for the lightning version put it beyond the price range I was looking at. Another option was to go for a 3.5mm adapter and the i1 turned out to be the most prominent among the limited options available, but it didn't take much to understand that it didn't really offer a better value proposition compared to Apple's adapter. However, it was this visit to the Fiio site for the i1 that put me on course to the BTR1.

Review #10: Sony SBH54 Bluetooth Headset (October 2017 update) ★★★☆☆

Good design, let down terribly by software and connectivity
Update #6 (Oct 30, 2017): For the first time in a long time, an update is not about the latest firmware. I recently got my hands on the Fiio BTR1, so stay tuned for that review later in the week. However, over the course of testing that device, I revisited the SBH54 and finally checked its codec support. Sony only lists support for the A2DP v1.2 profile, so the exact codec support isn't clear and I can't believe that I didn't test for it until now. Guess it's better late than never.

1. SBH54 has AAC support, so Apple Music and local AAC files are directly transmitted to the SBH54 without re-encoding.
2. The device doesn't support the optional MP3 codec, so direct decoding of it fails. Since the SBH54 also lacks aptX support, MP3 files are re-encoded to SBC prior to transmission.
3. Similar to MP3, Spotify streams in Ogg Vorbis are re-encoded to the much inferior SBC prior to transmission to the SBH54.
There you have it. The complete list of codec support includes the optional AAC in addition to the mandatory SBC. I assume that Sony also didn't include support for its proprietary ATRAC codec, but even if it did, it's redundant and doesn't have any practical usage. So, AAC (Apple Music) files are the best way to go on the SBH54 as they are played back natively, to the best of the device's ability. Meanwhile, if your MP3 collection and Spotify didn't sound so good on the SBH54, then you know why.