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 

When There Are No Cars, The Clothes Come Out

park-ing-ginza-pic-1

In what was a car park, two floors beneath ground level of the Sony Building in Ginza, a mini fashion emporium has opened. The subterranean space is unadorned, which is rather at odds with the mostly swishy stores above ground. This is one of Tokyo’s swankiest shopping districts. Is this why Hiroshi Fujiwara’s new retail concept is placed under the glitz?

In The Park.Ing Ginza, a two-level store, Mr Fujiwara is perhaps bringing street wear back to the street, or, in this case, underground concrete parking lot. This is Tokyo retail quite unlike others. In spirit and in the product mix, it brings to mind Dover Street Market Ginza, just three blocks away, but the similarity ends there. Park.Ing, by contrast, is closer to the term ‘market’, which is then similar to Comme des Garçons’s Good Design Shop (in Omotesando), a veritable general store much like a chap huay tiam (杂货店).

park-ing-ginza-pic-2Movable industrial fixtures for The Park.Ing Ginza

Mr Fujiwara has given the space a jumble that is jaunty. That is to be expected since his approach, to many street style watchers (even those in his native Japan), is more with it than his former personal assistant and pal Nigo’s, now ensconced at Uniqlo (but still with the benefit of his own retail outlet, Store by Nigo in Laforet, Harajuku). Park.Ing is a showcase of Mr Fujiwara’s curatorial flare. You don’t only find Park.Ing-branded products; you’ll also find those that seem to share the retailer’s sense of sensible street wear that can be sensational.

In this regard, fans see Park.Ing as the next chapter of the POOL aoyama, Mr Fujiwara’s previous concept store, which closed shortly before the former opened in March this year. The POOL aoyama was a veritable headquarters of Japanese cool. Its collaborators—from Undercover to Uniform Experiment—speak as much about the founder’s eye as the clout he enjoys. The ‘Pool’ T-shirts—clearly cooler than an obvious ‘Cool’ and a clever jibe—was one of the most coveted garments during the store’s reign, and they still are.

park-ing-walkman-sweat-topPark.Ing’s Sony Walkman tribute in a form of a sweat top

For Park.Ing, Mr Fujiwara continues to work with people who shared his vision for Pool (is the initial P in both names deliberate?). He has kept the original creative team and continues to collaborate with Kiyonaga Hirofumi, the man behind SOPH and Uniform Experiment. In the already potent mix is Daisuke Gemma, the creative director at one of the hottest Japanese labels today, Sacai. This really means a steaming brew of products only the Japanese can bring together with such conviction and panache.

And there are the inevitable T-shirts, which remain deliciously anti-cool and borderline cultish. What is really interesting to us is his take on corporate/consumer-name branding, a trend started by Uniqlo and validated as haute by Vetements. In conjunction with Sony’s 70th anniversary (and the building’s 50th), Mr Fujiwara has created a couple of short-sleeved sweatshirts bearing the logo, right in the centre, of Sony’s nearly forgotten product range Walkman—in its original font to boot. There’s also another version featuring DAT, Sony’s much snubbed Digital Audio Tape (SOTD tech contributor Low Teck Mee was thrilled beyond words at the sight of them!). These may be lost on the Tidal generation, but for many there is something alluringly retro and snobbishly other-gen about them.

the-park-ing-ginza-paper-bagThe white paper is as plain as a grocery bag

Therein is the appeal of Park.Ing. The store is stocked with street wear, but they aren’t predictably cute as A Bathing Ape, hardcore (and expensive) as Mastermind Japan, repetitive as Neighborhood, art-core as OriginalFake, or work wear-centred as Freak Store. Mr Fujiwara, 52, approaches fashion retail like the DJ that he is: sampling from only the most captivating sources. We can’t say for sure, but perhaps age has grounded him to output the practical without sacrificing wit and fun. It is really street wear for older customers (especially those who have shed their bond with business attire). And mostly with the important hint of exclusivity.

Mr Fujiwara is indeed the one to play pied piper to the matured crowd (more so since Ginza is no Shibuya). Once a Harajuku habitué who had worked in World’s End, the London store opened by his idols Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McClaren, he later embraced hip-hop and was considered the first to introduce rap music from the US to Japan, even teaching fellow DJs the turntablist technique of ‘scratching’. Fashion came later, in 1990, in the form of his own label Goodenough, thought to be the country’s first street wear label and a key player in the burgeoning street scene centred in Ura Harajuku, or the “back of Harajuku”.

park-ing-hang-tangThe Park.Ing Ginza hang tag in the form of a car park ticket

T-shirts have always been a consistent part of his output since Goodenough (a couple were reprised for Park.Ing), and his aesthetic sense can be traced to Stüssy. Mr Fujiwara was a member of the International Stüssy Tribe—in fact, the group’s first Japanese member. The influence of his early days never really left him, and he has been able to take the visual cues of surf (as opposed to skate) culture and throw in dashes of hip-hop, pop, and whatever is capturing the imagination of cool-cat urbanites to generate approachable products that speak of the mood on the street.

Hiroshi Fujiwara is also very much connected to Fragment Design, a one-stop, multi-discipline studio he started in 2003 that does not really produce anything other than put out judicious collaborations. That runs the gamut from Louis Vuitton to Off-White to Nike to Levis (the Japan-only Fenom line): projects that strengthen his standing as street style’s Zeus, who also happens to play the guitar and sing.

The Park.Ing Ginza proves, just as the POOL aoyama before it did, that with the right mix, in an unexpected location, and awash with attitude, retail can be viable and, as they call it in Pokémon Go, a lure.

The Park.Ing Ginza is at Sony Building, B3F, 5-3-1 Ginza, Chuo-Ku, Tokyo. Photos Jiro Shiratori

Two Of A Kind: Block Party

Swatch & SonySwatch Touch (left) and Sony Smartwatch 3 (right)

Both have oblong faces and appear to wrap the wrist, and both allow touch-screen operation. But one is just smarter than the other. When Sony’s Smartwatch 3 made its appearance last month, and we had the chance to handle it recently, the device—better categorised by the fancier and geek-worthy name of “wearable”—immediately reminded us of the Swatch Touch. Put them side-by-side, however, the similarity immediately evaporates. Keep them apart, one reminds us of the other.

The Swatch Touch is clearly a piece of pre-Android Wear wrist fashion. With its curved digital display, and font that looks like an art deco take on Arabic script, the Swatch Touch was refreshing at the 2011 launch, given the tired looks of the standard Swatch offering. With Swatch’s fading popularity, the Touch appeared, even momentarily, like an attempt by the Swiss company to re-write the design of inexpensive fashion watches. Until Android Wear came knocking and gadget makers opened their doors.

Sony’s third iteration of the smart watch—this time, Android Wear-enabled—looks completely different from the previous two, just as the predecessor is unlike the debut piece. But while most of the competitors are making theirs look more like a watch (i.e. round-faced, such as Motorola’s Motor 360 and LG’s G Watch R), Sony’s is decidedly geeky, almost a toy, and rather Swatch-like. Not that that’s a bad thing. Far from it. For gadget that’s Dick Tracey-worthy, we prefer them to sport a rectangular screen in portrait orientation. If we’re going to use our watch to tell time as well as mirror some of the functionality of our smartphone, we really prefer something that comes across as an extension of our smartphone. Who really prefers to look at holiday shots or city maps cropped into a circle?

Time may be running out on 2014, but it’s only beginning for the smart watch. Okay, Google!

Swatch Touch, SGD195, and Sony Smartwatch 3, SGD298, are available at authorised dealers