Ikea Is Pro-Vinyl

The furniture retailer has announced that they will soon offer, gasp, a turntable

By Low Teck Mee

Is there anything for the home that Ikea will not offer? I have bought bookshelves, chairs, and kitchen ware from Ikea, but never electronic devices. And certainly nothing close to audio equipment, such as a turntable, although, to be sure, I was tempted by their speakers. The furniture giant announced a week ago that their first turntable will be available in fall this year. I am unable to confirm if it will be sold on our shores then. One of their speakers I did consider is the Symfonisk “picture frame with Wi-Fi speaker”, launched a year ago, but it was not released here until recently. I, therefore, fear that I won’t get to audition the turntable till next December.

The vinyl player is part of the new Obegränsad collection that includes a table (for “music production at home”, with stands that can accommodate speakers at ear level!) and a chair (that “represents the perfect balance of form and function”). Has Ikea come into some data that shows people spending more time at home listening to and recording music on, say Spotify and Soundtrap respectively? The turntable is, interestingly, co-designed with the electronic dance music biggie Swedish House Mafia, which is unlike the Symfonisk speaker series, conceived in collaboration with the American audio products manufacturer Sonos. I would have expected Ikea to produce their first turntable with, say, Audio-Technica (based on their affordable AT-LP60XBT-BK, perhaps?), but they went with musicians, not that that’s a bad thing. Just not sure how that would turn out, sound wise. Hopefully, rhythmic and expressive.

No specs have been released by Ikea with regards to the turntable, other than it “has a sleek, minimal style, and works with the ENEBY speaker (their earlier Bluetooth audio boxes that are recognisable by their squareness)”. I think one of the possible appeals of the Obegränsad turntable is the price; it is likely affordable. In terms of looks (as seen in the official photographs), I fear it might be a bit too chunky for my taste, after using my first and only turntable, the slender (and very capable) Planar 1 from the British maker Rega Research, for so many years. Perhaps, the Ikea model would look more fetching on their Kallax shelves? I am just guessing.

Watch this space for more information—and price—on the Obegränsad turntable. Product photo: Ikea

A Camera That Makes Calls

The new Sony Xperia 1 IV really deserves more fans. Unfortunately, the price is too prohibitive

The sleek Sony Xperia 1 IV

By Low Teck Mee

It has been a while since I contributed to this site. Not that I have been out of action, but, there is, to me, not that much happening in the gadget world these days to write about. Few things could get me excited (what more do we really need?), even when I still love my tech toys. Sure, there are stuff constantly coming out, but they are mostly not game-changers, just small upgrades to existing product churns. Digital devices are getting less appealing also because they seem to be everywhere, across all price points. Even luxury/fashion brands, with no history in hi-tech gadgetry, are putting out kit and caboodle that do nothing to enhance their branding. One comes to mind: Louis Vuitton, and their new flashy Horizon earphone (or the supremely-Beng Light Up speaker). Sure, the buds are made by the New York audio firm of Master and Dynamic, but a discerning ear would go for the brand’s MW07 model (which the Horizon is based on, anyway) for less than a third of what LV is asking for, with no loss of audiophile cred. I won’t be surprised that LV would be offering smartphones in time to come.

Still, a monogrammed phone (or any flashily branded) is never an object I’d desire. When it comes to smartphone, I have a happy relationship with the Sony Xperia series for so long, despite the brand’s waning (and them climbing) popularity, that a close friend of mine—an iPhone diehard—even remarked, “actually, I don’t know anyone who uses a Sony phone except you.” True, you don’t see that many Xperias in the hands of phone zombies. But, I have been sold on the Sony handphone (yep, it’s been that long) aesthetic that it’s hard for me to wean myself off it (to be sure, I have used phones from other makers, but I could never decamp). How long? Since Sony sold their phones branded as Sony, way before they went into partnership with Ericsson in 2001 and labelled their products with the ungainly moniker Sony Ericsson. Smartphone users today, probably don’t even remember the joint-venture products (Sony acquired the Ericsson shares in 2012, and today all their consumer and professional merchandise come under Sony Corporation), but my personal history with Sony communication devices goes way, way back—to the Sony CMD Z1 (with the unique fold-down microphone stick) and, my favourite till today, the CMD Z5 (the first music-player phone), released in 2000, both with my favourite feature the Jog Dial. I did say, it’s been long!

For the ken of today’s smartphone users, let’s stick to the Sony Xperia, a more familiar name. As you would have figured, I have been a user of the Xperia phones, too, since its inception in 2008. I have always liked Sony’s minimalist design language for Xperia (a clear departure from the sometimes too gimmicky-looking Sony Ericsson phones), and have remained a firm user since the under-rated X10 of the following year. But it is in the Xperia 1 series that I find Sony offering their most compelling smartphones. In 2019, the company decided to ditch the letters of their previous models (after being criticised for years for the confusing naming convention) with a simple number ‘1’. It has remained their flagship phone, and, more and more, prohibitively expensive top-of-the-line. And now, after three iterations of the ‘1’, their fourth is finally out (pre-ordering was available about a month ago). For those who have not found even a vestige of love for the Xperia 1, the latest Xperia IV will not tug at heartstrings, and worse, they won’t look significantly different from previous versions.

To be frank, there is no reason for me to upgrade to the Xperia IV. I am currently using the Xperia II (I have skipped the Xperia III as I did not think that it significantly trumped the model before), and I am pleased with it; I am, in fact, still holding on to the very capable Xperia 1, which now sits on my bedside table, where it serves as alarm clock and movie screen (with the 21:9 aspect ratio and 4K definition of 3,840 horizontal pixels, a very competent one). The life cycle of mobile phones, as the market research firm Kantar Worldpanel reported in 2019, has been “on the uptrend”: people were, and are, clearly keeping their devices longer. To me, Sony makes lasting smartphones: The Xperia Z Ultra from 2013 that I own is, believe it or not, still working! Normally, I would be intrigued by new phone releases, but I do not quickly succumb to them. The Xperia IV, however, has one thing going for it that I find hard to resist: “the world’s first true optical zoom lens” (even if, to some, is debatable). Although I am the only one among my friends still totting an actual camera (compact) around, I do find an even more adept smartphone-shooter tremendously tempting.

The triple-lens camera (above) of Xperia IV is clearly a draw and, I am certain, the selling point, but it’s the optical zoom (85-125mm) that’s the star. Now, I can depend less on the somewhat inconsistent digital zoom of the past (not just on the Xperia). Some reviewers consider Sony’s claim of being the first to be “brazen”. There are, of course, smartphones with optical zooms before the Xperia IV, such as the iPhone 13 Max Pro, Galaxy S22 Ultra, and Pixel 6 Pro, but it is arguable if optical zoom was actually applicable to the latter three. I generalise here: most phones’ optical zooms are based on a single focal length. If one touts 3X zoom, the image at 3X would be lossless, but not at 1.5, 2, or 2.5 times. The rest are likely digital zooms. This is where the beauty of the Xperia IV lies: actual telephoto camera lens within the 8.2mm-thin body that can protract and retract to zoom in and out (the Xperia III used a similar lens, but it was useful at only two fixed positions), and shoot different proximities to the subject without degrading image quality. In use, the optical zoom is really rather fast, although it is not as responsive as what I am used to on an actual camera.

Two other reasons why I stick with Sony Xperia (other than habit and the familiarity of form) are the now-curiously dated features of a headphone jack and a slot for expandable storage (up to 1TB to boost the onboard of 256GB. Yes, I avoid keeping anything in the cloud). There is, additionally, the phone’s overall design which has not changed drastically since the introduction of their OmniBalance design philosophy of 2012: Minimalist—a bad word these days, I’m afraid—and discreet. I also like the lens placement in the rear. Unlike other makers that prefer massive squares, definitely-noticeable circles, or a bar across, Sony has kept to a clean and simple strip on the left side of the phone. It’s this little tempering with the shape and exterior of Xperia phones that has kept me returning to them, even with the sometimes disapproving looks I get when I hold one in my hand. I like that the Xperia 1 IV is not different in looks from its predecessor (so no one knows I have upgraded, including the missus!), except the eye-watering price. And that it and its past iterations could never be thought to be iPhone killers. A toast to that. And, the optical zoom, of course.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Sony Xperia IV, SGD1,969, in black or purple, is now available at Sony stores. Photos: Low Teck Mee

Google Opens A Store

Its first is in the Big Apple, New York City

Google is a latecomer when it comes to hardware retail. Apple’s first retail outlet was opened two decades ago, in May 2001, in not one but two locations, both not hub cities: McClean, Virginia and Glendale, California. Google’s retail debut, simply called Google Store is in Manhattan, New York, in the still-happening neighbourhood of Chelsea, just across from the famed Chelsea Market. In fact, in the same building as Google’s NYC HQ is situated. Adjacent to what’s known as the Meatpacking District, the swanky glass-fronted Google retail temple is in the company of some of the big names associated with the city: Diane von Furstenberg, Anthroplogie (just opposite, in fact), and Kiehl’s, and restaurants such as Buddakan (in which Carrie and Big’s wedding rehearsal dinner from the first Sex and the City movie was shot). Perhaps what’s more interesting is that an Apple Store is situated nearby too, less than 100m away, and on the same thoroughfare: 9th Avenue. With the Samsung store and Tesla showroom nearby, too, Chelsea is geared up to be quite the tech district.

In a blog post, Google wrote that the eponymous store is “a space where customers can experience our hardware and services in a helpful way.” It sounds very Apple, of course. In a press release from 2001, the late Steve Jobs was quoted saying, “Rather than just hear about megahertz and megabytes, customers can now learn and experience the things they can actually do with a computer, like make movies, burn custom music CDs, and publish their digital photos on a personal website.” There is that word “experience”. In a world where online is the preferred place to shop, what one gets out of visiting a physical store other than the purchase considered is what makes or breaks the store. Perhaps echoing Apple twenty years ago, Google said it wanted their space for consumers to come and try all of its devices and services that show their synergy, and how they’ll work together in different places.

But experience isn’t just a beautiful space or good service. There’s also the component, “theatre of retail” (stand outside an Apple store as far away as you can, and look at the action within—performance indeed!). Google is so serious about making their debut store work, they built a full-size mockup in a hangar in Mountain View, California to give their ideas the necessary trial runs.The Google Store is divided into rooms or “sandboxes” (to suggest play?) that offer situations in which their gadgets might be used. There is even a soundproofed area to audition their various Home/Nest products. One particularly experiential feature is a striking 5-metre-tall circular glass enclosure that is known as the Google Imagination Space. At this spot, shoppers can enjoy an immersive exploration of Google’s newest technologies. For the opening, the company’s Translate service is in full display. Speak any language (almost, anyway—Google can’t translate Aramaic!) and you will be able listen to real-time translation, in 24 languages (about 6,500 are spoken in the world today), while learning how this is possible. Playing can go hand-in-hand with purchasing.

Despite the popularity of the their search engine, Google is not really known for their products, at least not here, where they are not as widely sold as in the US. The store’s lure is that you can “shop the latest Chromecasts, Phones, Speakers & Smart Displays at Google Store. Buy Pixel 5, Nest Audio, Chromecast with Google TV, Nest Wifi, and more,” according to pre-opening marketing blurbs. And to that, add sending what you already own for on-site servicing or tweaking. The shopping and learning is done inside the 465-square-metre space, clearly designed to encourage discovery. As it looks less cold and sparse and more homey than the Apple Store, there is a good chance this is where you’ll be able to easily while away an afternoon. Now that the prospect of travel is still dim, we are unlikely able to see the Google Store soon. It took Apple 16 years to open its first free-standing flagship here (and the first in Southeast Asia), on Orchard Road. For Google/Android fans, the wait for our own Google Store here would probably be just as long.

Google Store is at 76 9th Ave, New York, NY10011. It opens tomorrow (New York time). Screen grabs: Google

Screen Time Is Play Time 👍🏼

And it plays music tooDivoom Tivoo P1

By Low Teck Mee

Some tech inventions, once gone, just won’t come back. The cathode ray tube (CRT) television, I am sure you’ll agree, is one. Conversely, the vinyl player is an exception since it is not a clunky piece of old tech. It’s analogue with charm an beauty. And I am guilty of resuscitating my old Rega. Sadly, not the CRT set. It may be charming as retro interior item, but no one wants to watch Netflix on it.

Still, some designers find the old television cute enough to want to resurrect its form. In the case of the Tivoo, a neat little gadget from portable speaker maker Divoom, the goggle-box is ideal for disguising a (mini) boombox. While the Tivoo may look like it could have come from the set of the Jetsons, “Family of the Future”, it is designed for the present digital age, and possibly for a little longer than after tomorrow.

Hong Kong-based Divoom is known for their Timebox and Aurabox LED-pixel-fronted speakers, which are both audio and visual companions to those who can’t get enough from listening alone. When I caught sight of the Timebox at HMV in Hong Kong two years back, I was quite attracted to it. The idea that I could also create pixel art on the front screen was especially appealing. What held me back was the square-blockish design: it felt oddly stiff and cold. A year later, when I saw it again in Loft in Sendai, Japan, I didn’t bite the bait.

Divoom Tivoo P2

With the Tivoo, things are different. Unlike the earlier Divoom iterations, it is conceived as a far more capable portable speaker. Fitted with a digital signal processor (DSP) that renders surprisingly clear sound and vocals for such a tiny little devise, the Tivoo also comes with a bass port to give a palpable thump to tracks such as BTS’s Idol. In fact, the Tivoo is a 6W, 360 full-range speaker that offers multi-directional sound from the top, unlike the Timebox and Aurabox, which had speakers in their rear. Okay, I’m not going to pretend this can take the place of the well-loved (and a lot dearer) Bose Soundlink Revolve, but as it includes a a full-RGB panel to support the LED screen, which is customisable to keep your eyes entertained.

To be frank, while I have no love for peripherals that blink incessantly, such as light-fitted USB charging cords, I do find the Tivoo’s pixel art very likeable. The 16X16, fully programmable graphic on the screen allows you to “draw” whatever you like with the Divoom Smart app that you can download onto your smartphone. Apart from pixel art creation, you can also edit the 256 LED config for your own lighting effects (bedroom disco enthusiasts, be warned!). Of course, the screen, too, provides a time-telling interface, which means this serves as an alarm clock as well. Frankly, this is such a playable device that I can’t begin to list all that you can do with the Tivoo.

I have to state clearly that if you’re looking for a HiFi audio companion and concerned with output power, you may be in the wrong end of the sound divide. If, however, you are in the market for something that could be as fun as, if not more than, mobile Pokémon, then the Tivoo might be your best AV aide. Not only is it quite future-proof (how about Bluetooth version 5.0, which means less power consumption and wider coverage?), it’s also multi-talented: it’s a DJ mixer, a voice memo recorder, a weather notice service, a game machine, a sleep aid (by producing melatonin-inducing light apparently), and a notifier of in-coming messages from your social media accounts. Seriously, almost everything except the proverbial kitchen sink!

Divoom’s Tivoo pixel art Bluetooth speaker, SGD89, is available at Gadget Plus stores island wide. Photos: Divoom

Small. Wireless. Powerful

Sony WF 10000X earbuds

By Low Teck Mee

Sony is a late comer when it comes to true wireless, in-ear headphones. Sure, there’s the Xperia Ear, but that’s more a personal assistant that lets you do what you want to with your phone without touching the thing. Perfect for Okay-Googling, but, as it’s only for one ear, less ideal for The XX’s I See You.

Truth be told, I gave up waiting for the release of their completely cordless, the WF 1000X. So, in the middle of this year, I gave another pair a chance: the Nakamichi MyEars True Wireless Earphones NEP-TW1 (S$299). I have been looking around for a set that won’t take a chunk out of my bank account, but it was not easy to find anything sensational that’s less than S$300. I have even considered Samsung’s not quite eye candy, the oddly triangular Gear IconX (S$298), but I have never been a Samsung user, and to pair a Samsung earphone with my non-Samsung devices seemed a poor coupling to me. Someone suggested that I try the Apple Airpod (S$238), but the unsealed earphones (sound spill!) fail to impress me as they look like oversized cotton swabs bent from over-vigorous insertion into the ear.

The Nakamichi is a nifty little earphone mainly because it is so small and it comes with a compact charging case that doubles as a battery pack, which you can use to charge any gadget that has a micro USB port, assuming there’s juice left in the case. The neat tubular buds sound a tad too muffled for my liking, but I was happy to have them accompany me on my daily commute to work, on the dastardly, unreliable MRT trains. Until, the dearer S$300+ Sony WF 1000X debuted.

Sony has it displayed in their concept store in Wisma Atria, as well as the flagship in 313@Orchard. Strangely, at both places, they are secured behind clear cases that are clearly a case of see-no-touch. Virtually all Sony headphones are available to try and the staff will urge you to, but the WF 1000X sat haughtily in their confines—out of bounds. Although deep curiosity had a tight grip on me and the WF 1000X seemed to be casting speaking glances in my direction, I was able to walk away from it. A week later, the missus, sensing my unsatisfied yearning, bought me a pair! (An emoji should be placed here, but I won’t say which one.)

Sony WF 10000X earbuds P2

The WF 1000X is now the only set of earphones I use and enjoy. To be honest, when I first held them between my thumb and index finger after extricating them from the case/charger, I was uncertain about their aesthetic attraction as they’re rather big. I had gotten quite used to the compactness of the Nakamichi that these oval shapes seemed like the Hercules in the gym that has the talent of making you feel puny. The WF 1000X are, therefore, not discreet buds that won’t invite wireless headphone virgins from starring into the entrance of your ear canal. When the missus first saw me with them, she said, not without satisfaction, “So, now you have your own ear jewellery.” I am just grateful that, for me, the black was chosen over the gold.

In the end, the pleasure of using them drowned out the self-consciousness that comes with the conspicuous buds plugged in. After the initial pairing with the phone and a music player (I use the Sony Walkman NW-A26HN), I was honestly blissed out by what flowed into my ear. The sound was warm and balanced, revealing a level of detail I had not expected from such a small pair of Bluetooth-connected cans. Could it be because of the 6mm “dome-type” driver crammed somewhere in them? Bjork’s The Gate flowed magically, wrapping my head in some place more splendid than Na’vi-land, Pandora.

What’s also appealing is that the WF 1000X comes with noise-cancelling capability. I do not know of any true wireless earphones that are similarly endowed, so this is a welcome feature for me, especially when I am easily annoyed by train commuters who use their smartphone audibly. The noise-cancelling, however, is not 100% (I’m not sure it’s even 90%), but for me it blocked out more than adequate external audio intrusion without the need to turn up the volume (I mostly kept it at the half-way mark). There is also a choice for what Sony calls “ambient sound”, perfect if you do not want to miss hearing the announcement of which station you’re approaching next.

Like many true wireless headphones, the WF 1000X is not spared connectivity issues. For some reason, the right earpiece is prone to signal drop. It’s worse when your audio source is placed in your bag or even in any one of the pockets of your pants (I assume it’s the same with skirts)—especially the rear. So, I hold it in my hand. Sometimes, when you’re informed that the headphones are on, there’s no connection. To solve this problem, I place the headphones back into the charging case, which turns them off automatically, and then remove them again, which turns them on. The connection is re-established.

If you have fat fingers like I do, then the placement of the two control buttons—one on the bottom of each side—could be a problem. The buttons are tiny, but they are positioned precisely where your thumb will rest when you need to, say, position the buds for comfort or snug fit. This means there is a good chance that you will press them and, consequently, turn the set off, or cancel the enjoyable noise-cancelling peace. Or, maybe, that’s just me: unable to treat sensitive equipment gently.

Sony WF 1000X Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones, SGD349, is available at Sony concept store at Wisma Atria and flagship at 313@Orchard. Photos: Jim Sim