Creative Sound Blaster Roar Review

Creative LogoWhile everyone’s eyes have been on drones, portable Bluetooth speakers have been the sleeper hit of the past few years. From low-fi to hi-fi and prices to match, there’s a speaker for everyone. On review here is Creative’s Sound Blaster Roar, a compact portable Bluetooth wireless speaker with NFC, though this description sells it short by a long way. Let’s take a look.

To start with, the SoundBlaster Roar is about the size of four DVD boxes stacked on top of each other, though it’s a bit narrower (57 x 202 x 115 mm). It’s no lightweight either with a bit of mass (1.1 kg), which is reassuring when it comes speakers. There’s metal mesh on four sides and a swathe of controls, slots and sockets on the fifth with soft touch rubber which spills over onto the top. The design itself won a Red Dot Award in 2014.

Creative Roar

Some of the controls are self-evident such as the power button and volume controls, but it’s not immediately apparent why there are buttons for record, play and pause. Even more surprising and concerning is the switch marked “ARM”, which fortunately is in the off position for now.

The Roar is much more than a Bluetooth wireless speaker. It’s a hands-free speaker phone, a USB digital sound card, an MP3 player, an audio recorder, microSD card reader, a battery pack and a siren. It’s quite the box of tricks with versatility to take it from the office to the party.

Powering up the Roar plays a satisfying little jingle – it’s on and ready to rock. Starting with the basics and playing music from a smartphone, it’s straightforward to pair the Roar, with a choice of two techniques. Pair via the normal Bluetooth passcode or else swipe the NFC hotspot on the Roar to automatically set the pairing, assuming your device has NFC.

With the pairing done, it’s time to play some music. Given Creative’s long history in audio, it’s not unsurprising that the Roar sounds good. For it’s size, it’s very good indeed which rich sound that’s far bigger than the box itself. To achieve this presence, the Roar houses five speakers in the unit’s body, with sets of speakers tuned to deliver in the bass, mid and high frequency ranges. For extra volume, the ROAR button will turn it up to eleven, through it needs to be plugged into the mains to get maximum volume output.

The Roar is a portable speaker and as a necessity there’s a built-in battery that according the specs gives eight hours of playback. I’m not going to disagree with that – it’s in the right space. The Roar can be recharged either from a supplied power brick or via micro-USB through a port on the rear. There’s a full size USB port too for recharging other devices such as smartphones and tablets from the Roar. Battery status is shown by three round green LEDs on the top.

That’s the main presentation out of the way and if that’s all that’s needed from a portable wireless speaker, the Roar delivers well and is worthy of closer inspection.

Creative Roar

But it’s so much more. As the speaker pairs with smartphones via Bluetooth, it’s not entirely unexpected that Roar doubles up as a speakerphone. In use, call quality was good and echo was minimal, and unlike most speakerphones, the audio from the phone call can be recorded to the inserted microSD card. Potentially a useful feature, but check the legality of recording conversations in the relevant jurisdiction.

The Roar works as a USB audio device too, and installation is largely limited to plugging a USB cable between the PC and Roar. Windows auto-loads the drivers and a few seconds later, the Roar is good to go to play music (and other sounds) from the PC. In this mode, the Roar is powered by the PC and the battery charges up as well. The Roar complements music streaming services such as Spotify or Google Music.

Next up, the Creative Roar can work as a standalone music speaker. Load up a microSD card with mp3s and pop it into the Roar. There are simple controls for play, next track, previous track, repeat and shuffle.

Finally, returning to the ARM button, the Roar has a siren feature. Arm the unit with the switch at the top and press the Alarm button to get a whoop-whoop siren to get everyone’s attention. What more could you want?

Overall this a portable wireless speaker that is crammed full of features and the Roar is everything you need for music on the go, in the office or at home. It’s a great sounding wireless Bluetooth speaker, speakerphone, call recorder, MP3 player, USB digital sound card, battery pack and personal alarm in a portable package costing GB£129. There’s nothing to quibble about here, though I’d really like to see it in yellow. Available now from good retailers and direct from Creative’s store.

Thanks to Creative for the loan of the Roar.

Otone Audio at Gadget Show Live

Otone AudioManchester-based Otone Audio might only be a few years old but they’ve been busy producing a neat range of audio products from soundbars and headphones to speakers and digital radios. It’s impressive what they’ve achieved in such a short period of time.

At Gadget Show Live, Otone demonstrated a selection from their line-up including the BluWall speakers and the BluMotion radio (lower shelf) plus the Blufiniti and SoundBase II soundbar (upper shelf). It’s hard to get a good listen in the hustle of a trade show but initial impressions were good.

Otone Audio

The Blufiniti portable Bluetooth speaker comes in a range of colours and is priced at £49.99. To learn more, listen to my interview with Shruti from Otone (sorry about the background noise from a neighbouring stand.)

Sennheiser Headphones at Gadget Show Live

Sennheiser_aiAt Gadget Show Live, I had the chance to chat with Michael from Sennheiser about their current headphone range including the Urbanites and the latest iteration in their classic Momentum series. The second generation Momentum M2 maintains the original’s high fidelity while improving the headphones’ comfort. The Momentum Wireless is ideal for the traveller with Sennheiser’s active noise-cancellation technology, NoiseGard, and the AptX codec for high definition wireless transmission.

Having previously reviewed the Momentum On-Ears and being extremely impressed with the audio, I imagine the over-ear version is even better.

Momentum M2

 

 

Creative Sound Blaster E1 Portable Amplifier Review

Creative Logo

Creative products always induce a little nostalgia with me as the Creative Sound Blaster Pro was the first ever upgrade that I bought for my PC. Looking back from today and the state of digital audio, it’s hard to imagine that most PCs only went “beep” back in the late 1980s and early 90s. Once I’d installed the SB Pro, I had glorious multichannel stereo sound, and incredibly, Wing Commander II had speech. Look it up kids.

Creative E1 Box

Returning to the 21st century, on review here is the Creative Sound Blaster E1 Portable Headphone Amplifier, a battery-powered amplifier supporting high impedance headphones, combined with a USB DAC sound card. In other words the E1 lets you used studio-quality 600 ohm headphones with smartphones, tablets, laptops or desktops. Pretty much anything with a 3.5 mm socket or a USB port and it works fine with lower impedance headphones, so let’s take a look.

What’s in the box? Simply, everything that you need to get going in the scenarios outlined above. There’s the E1 amplifier itself plus two bright red cables; a 4 pole (TRRS) 3.5 mm jack audio lead and a USB to micro-USB cable. The first cable is needed for tablets and smartphone listening and the second when using the E1 as a sound card (DAC). Bring your own headphones though.

Creative Sound Blaster E1

There’s a hint of red detailing on the E1 too but you have to look pretty hard to see it. Of course, there’s assorted instructions, warranty and disposal leaflets too.

Creative Sound Blaster E1

Glancing over the amplifier itself, the E1 is a lightweight plastic unit with a clothing or belt clip on the back. One end takes the music audio inputs, either digital via micro-USB or analogue through a 3.5 mm audio socket. The other end has the two 3.5 mm audio sockets, one for a set of headphones and one for a microphone or second set of ‘phones. On the side, there’s a power switch, a volume slider, a multi-function button and a small LED.

Creative Sound Blaster E1

Enough of what it looks like….what does it sound like? Pretty good actually. I used the E1 in both configurations, first taking an input from a smartphone or tablet and in this instance I was using a Nexus 9 tablet and a OnePlus One smartphone, both with high bit rate mp3s and Spotify. I’m not a total audio geek, so I don’t actually have any high impedance headphones so the testing was done using Sennheiser earbuds and recent edition 414 headphones (the ones with the yellow earpads).

Listening to the E1, there’s no dramatic difference from the source but it does tend to ameliorate the worst aspects of compressed digital audio, reducing the high frequency tinniness and giving it a slightly warmer feel. It particularly worked well with Spotify and other low-bit music sources, smoothing out the treble.

If worn conveniently, the E1 has a built-in microphone to enable hands-free calling. Call comes in, press the multi-function button, take the call. Callers reported that they could hear me well as long as the E1 was close. Clipped to my shirt was fine.

Using the E1 as a sound card is simply a case of plugging in the E1 to a spare USB port via the red cable. I tested with a Windows 8.1 Toshiba laptop, an 8.1 HP tablet via a dock and a Samsung Chromebook, and in all cases it worked out of the box. In this configuration, the presentation of the sound was good and generally superior to the audio provided by the laptop or tablet, especially when listening to Spotify.

Generally, background hiss was kept to a minimum and was only noticeable in the earbuds when I went looking for it, e.g. by putting the source volume down low and increasing the volume on the E1. With the source volume at a normal level there’s no problem and is unlikely to be noticeable with on-ear headphones.

In case anyone is wondering, it’s not possible to use the E1 as a mixer with two sources. Plugging in a 3.5 mm audio jack disconnects the micro-USB input. Sorry.

The E1 works well out of the box, but where it delivers in spades is with the full driver and app package which is downloaded from Creative’s web site. Once installed the software gives tons of extra controls over the E1, in particular allowing the audio response to be customised.

SB Studio

One of the best features is the equaliser which adjusts the frequency response. There are a bunch of presets with the usual suspects from classical to pop and rock, and its also customisable to personal preference. I liked this.

SB Studio

Overall, the E1 portable amplifier does what sets out to do, making compressed audio sound better, whether from an analogue 3.5 mm source or a digital USB connection. The extensive range of features from hands-free calling to audio equalisation is impressive and for those people who live in their headphones, it’s worth considering. The RRP is £39.95 in the UK or $49.99 in the USA.

Thanks to Creative for the loan of the review unit.

Sennheiser Momentum Wireless Headphones

Sennheiser LogoSennheiser have always been one of my preferred headphone brands and I previously reviewed the Momentum On-Ears for GNC. Consequently, I was very interested to hear that a second generation of Momentum headphones were on their way with both Bluetooth wireless and noise-cancellation features. Marlo chats to Scott Houston from Sennheiser about the Momentum Wireless.

The new Sennheiser Momentum Wireless takes the original Momentum and updates it for listening on the move. No tangled wires with Bluetooth wireless; environmental sound kept to a minimum with active noise cancellation; integrated microphone to take calls without removing the headphones, improved padding for extended listening and folding arms to pack the headphones away neatly. Overall, it looks like a tidy package.

Of course, this doesn’t come cheap with the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless costing US$499 or GB£379 from Sennheiser’s web store.

Interview by Marlo Anderson of The Tech Ranch for the TechPodcast Network.

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HearNotes Wirefree Earbuds Come to CES

HearNotesAudiophile wireless headphones are rare and audiophile wireless earbuds even rarer. There are a couple of reasons for this but the main one is that Bluetooth isn’t really very good for music streaming, even with newer codecs like AptX. HearNotes reckon they have the answer to this problem. Patrick Donohue explains what HearNotes can offer the audiophile.

HearNotes wirefree earbuds are special for three cool features. First the earbuds are genuinely wirefree with no wires even between the earbuds. Second the earbuds charge wirelessly in a matching case – there’s no plugging in to charge up – giving about 4 hours of listening between charges. Finally the wireless transmission uses a high quality wireless audio technology called Kleer. It goes without saying that the audio components are top notch too.

A small transmitter plugs into the 3.5mm audio port to support the Kleer technology so the HearNotes can be used in any situation where an audio jack is available. This is undoubtedly a benefit but the audio output from most DACs in portable equipment leaves a great deal to be desired.

The HearNotes will be available in Q1 for a fairly pricey $349 from retailers nationwide.

Interview by Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central and Todd Aune of The Elder Divide for the TechPodcast Network.
Disclosure – HearNotes is currently an advertiser at Geek News Central.

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Ion Audio Gets The Party Going at CES 2015

Ion Sound Experience

The great thing about Ion Audio is that they concentrate on fun audio products: seriously, who else puts a speaker in plant pot? At CES, Ion has continued in the tradition of fun with two products for two very different environments. Todd listens in with Wendy Fortin, Ion Product Manager.

First up is the Block Party Live, a 50W PA speaker on luggage wheels complete with light show. No really, there’s a light dome on top that projects coloured lights. Music can be streamed via Bluetooth and there’s an Apple and Android app to control the lights. Available now for $199.

Coming inside, the Sound Shine are wireless stereo speakers with built-in LED lighting. Screwed into a standard lamp holder the two speakers can either work as independent mono speakers or can be paired up for stereo sound. As with the Block Party, music is streamed via Bluetooth and both the music and light output can be controlled via an app for both Android and Apple devices. Available in Q1, $69 buys a single lamp and $129 gets a pair.

Interview by Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central for the TechPodcast Network.

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OnePlus Partners with JBL for E1+ Earphones

OnePlus LogoOnePlus today announced a partnership with audio specialists JBL for exclusive earphones to complement the audio capabilities of the OnePlus One smartphone. The new JBL E1+ earbuds are bright red with flat tangle-resistant cable and comes with an in-line three button remote. The built-in microphone means that there’s no need to unplug when a call comes in, and it’s a standard 3.5mm jack on the end.

JBL E1+ Earphones

 

These earbuds look great and I love the knurled endcaps. I’m usually pretty understated with black Sennheisers but I could like these red E1+ earphones and I hope the audio is up-to-scratch too. It’s great to see all these moves in the audio space and it’s not just the iPhone that has all the fun, too.

Available in October for US $39.99 or GB £29.99 from the OnePlus Store. Video below ticks all the expected boxes.

Auro 3D Immersive Sound

Auro 3DDon and Todd get a demo of Auro 3D‘s immersive sound experience which until recently was only available in movie theatres. The newly launched consumer version of the Auro 3D audio system adds a height component into the sound mix, giving the equivalent of 9.1 sound. Coming from a digital cinema background with over 150 theatres already using the system, Auro 3D is being introduced into home theater, gaming, mobile and automotive markets.

Especially watch this video if you want to see Don and Todd looking like smurfs while discussing the merits of smooth jazz and alcoholic beverages….

Interview by Don Baine, the Gadget Professor and Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central for the TechPodcast Network.

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Philips Golden Ears Challenge

Philips Golden EarsThe mp3 digital music format has liberated music in a way that would be totally unthinkable to a previous generation. The Walkman made music portable and the CD digitised music but the revolution came as the mp3 format compressed music to fit into a fraction of its true size. Instead of music collections stretching from floor to ceiling, they could fit into a small box. However, audiophiles claim that this freedom has come at the price of sound quality, gradually eroding in the transition from vinyl to CD and finally to compressed digital, with serious deficiences in the sound output from mp3 music.

Are you one of the audiophiles or do you think that mp3 sounds just as good as vinyl? (C’mon, seriously?!) Do you want to put your hi-fi hearing to the test? If you do, the Philips Golden Ears Challenge is right up your street.

Philips has created a self-testing website that lets you find out “how good your ears are”. The Golden Ears sites educates you in everything anyone could ever need to know about sound, and helps to deepen the everyday listening experience, defining your own superior audio experience and understanding in what goes into creating quality sound equipment.

Golden Ears Legacy

The site takes the listener (you) through a number of challenges starting at basic then working up through bronze and silver before achieving Golden Ears!

Golden Ears Challenge

Each step explains the terminology and related effect before letting you hear the differences. For example, “Spectral Balance is the relative balance between the low and the high frequencies. A bright sound has more high frequency content, whereas a dark sound contains more of the low frequencies.

Timbre Training

After training, you then take a test to see if you can pick out the modified audio track from the original. The changes get progressively smaller over six samples to see how good you really are. It gets pretty tricky when there are only a few dB differences. It really helps if you have decent headphones or speakers on your PC – I wouldn’t recommend doing the tests with a Bluetooth headset!

It does take a little while to work through the exercises but it is educational and rewarding to understand the complexity of audio reproduction. You could easily spend a couple of hours going through it to get “Golden Ears” but the site remembers your progress so you can leave and return as you have time. It’s very satisfying too when you correctly select all the distorted tracks in a test. The Basic Level will take about an hour.

If you think that mp3 sounds as good as a CD or that bundled headphones sound as good as those costing $100, then take the Golden Ears Challenge and you’ll be both educated and surprised!