Gadling Gear Review: Bluetooth Speakers For Travel

Bluetooth Speaker: Damson Twist
Damson

Smartphones, tablets and iPods have made it incredibly easy to carry your entire music collection wherever you go. This is particularly useful when traveling; you get an entire library of songs right at your fingertips, helping to make those long stays in airports and hotels just a bit easier. Add a portable Bluetooth speaker to the mix and you have a wireless entertainment system with high quality sound that can go with you anywhere. Those speakers have gotten smaller, lighter and more affordable over the past few years, making them a great travel companion for the music lover. Here are two unique options to consider for your next road trip.

Damson Twist ($69.99)
If you’re looking for a compact, yet surprisingly powerful, Bluetooth speaker to take with you when you travel, it’s tough to beat the Twist from Damson. This diminutive audio device really packs a punch and thanks to its unique design it even provides a solid amount of bass — something that can’t be said about most of the competition.

When taking the speaker out of the box for the first time you’ll probably be struck by two things. First, the Twist is quite small, measuring a shade under three inches in height and about two-and-a-quarter inches around. The second is that the speaker is surprisingly heavy for something so small. It tips the scales at 12 ounces, which doesn’t sound like much until you hold it in your hand. For such a small device the Twist feels incredibly solid, conveying the sense that it can take a little abuse and keep performing just fine. The build quality on the speaker is truly top notch and Damson should be commended for creating a portable speaker this good.Pairing the speaker with a smartphone or other Bluetooth-enabled device couldn’t be any easier. After charging the Twist to full capacity, I simply turned it on in “BT” mode and selected it from my iPhone’s list of available devices. The two gadgets communicated with one anther for a few seconds before the speaker gave out a brief chime indicating that it had successfully connected. After that it was ready to begin playing music and moments later it was doing just that, belting out tunes in a very satisfying manner.

Unlike most other Bluetooth speakers, the Twist incorporates what Damson calls “resonance technology” to improve volume and overall sound quality. While holding the device in your hand, you’ll barely be able to hear anything out of the speaker at all, even with the volume turned up fairly high. But place the Twist on a flat surface and it immediately begins pumping out audio at a higher level. In fact, when I set it down for the first time I was caught a little off guard at the jump in both volume and sound quality. The speaker uses natural resonance from whatever surface it is placed on to create a richer and more full audio experience and as a result, it delivers performance on par with a speaker much larger than itself. Damson says the Twist works best when sitting on a wood, metal, glass or even cardboard surface. During my testing I found that I preferred it on wood the most as that helped to amplify bass levels quite nicely.

Battery life is a bit lackluster on the Twist when compared to the competition, although that is somewhat expected considering its size. Damson says you will get about 4 hours of wireless music between charges and I found that to be a solid estimate during my testing. You can extend that life up to 9 hours if you forego the wireless options and plug your audio source directly into the Twist itself. A 3.5 mm audio cable is included in the box for that very purpose and a USB charging cable is included as well.

Available in four colors, the Twist’s outer casing is made of brushed metal. This gives it a very classy look that isn’t found on other speakers in this price range. Damson has even provided a nice travel pouch that helps the device to maintain those good looks when you hit the road. These small touches help to set the Twist apart from the crowd. The fact that it only carries a price tag of $70 doesn’t hurt either. At that price, you can afford to buy two and daisy chain them together for even better sound. Considering how good the Twist looks and performs, I’d say it’s a real bargain.

Bluetooth Speaker: Boom UrchinBoom Urchin ($149.99)
At the opposite end of the spectrum from the Twist is the Urchin from Boom. The two are both Bluetooth speaker systems, but the similarities between the products pretty much ends there. Where the Twist is a small wonder of modern engineering, the Urchin is larger, louder and built like a tank.

The distinctively shaped Urchin features a removable silicon shell that helps protect it from all manner of dangers. This speaker is shock and dust proof as well as water resistant, which means you can hang it in your shower, take it on a camping trip or pack it for your beach vacation in Fiji. In short, it is designed to survive in just about any environment while continuing to wirelessly pump out tunes without missing a beat.

Clearly Boom’s focus was on building a speaker that could withstand plenty of punishment but they didn’t skimp on the sound quality either. While the Urchin doesn’t provide the deep bass that the Twist offers, it does deliver a much more consistent level of sound that isn’t dependent on the surface it is sitting on in any way. The high end of the audio spectrum comes through bright and clear, while the mid-ranges are delivered vibrantly too. The Urchin sounds great even when the volume is completely cranked up with no discernible distortion.

Boom’s technical specifications say that the Urchin’s rechargeable battery should be good for up to ten hours of music and I found that to be fairly accurate. Adjusting the volume to lower levels can extend the battery life a bit longer but as it stands, this speaker is capable of providing music for a full day out. The included wall charger will replenish the battery fairly quickly as well so the Urchin will be ready for use again in no time at all.

One feature that the Urchin has that the Twist doesn’t is the ability to be used as a speakerphone. This is a useful feature for hands-free conversations or making a call in a group setting. When paired with a smartphone the Urchin’s built-in mic allows for two-way communication although I found it to be rather lackluster when used in this capacity. The voices of callers came through the Urchin’s speaker just fine but they reported that my voice sounded muffled and distant. The quality of the cell connection can play a role in this of course, but compared to other Bluetooth speakerphones that I’ve used, this one did little to impress.

Boom ships the Urchin with a carabiner for attaching the speaker to a backpack or even a belt loop. A suction cup and adhesive screw attachment are also included in the box, making it easy to lock down the speaker no matter where you want to use it. The suction cup works great in the bathroom for instance, giving you another reason to sing in the shower. The fact that the company recognized that this is how their customers would want to use the product is an indication of how much thought went into its design.

Both the Twist and the Urchin have qualities that make them great choices for travelers. One packs great sound in a small package while the other is designed to survive just about anything you can throw at it. If you want to listen to music outside in the elements, the Urchin is the clear choice, especially with its much longer battery life. But if you want an inexpensive speaker that you can carry with you when you hit the road, the Twist is an amazing piece of technology that performs beyond its size. Either of the two devices will make music-loving travelers very happy.

Gadling Gear Review: BirkSun Atlas Solar Powered Backpack

BirkSun Atlas solar powered backpack
BirkSun

As a gear reviewer for Gadling I see a lot of different products come and go across my desk. Everything from high-tech gadgets to travel apparel and footwear are sent my way for evaluation. After awhile, much of that gear can start to look alike and while I seldom come across an item that is completely without merit, it is also rare to find an item that surprises you with how well it performs. That happens to be the case with the new BirkSun Atlas, a backpack whose main selling point is its ability to charge your small electronics via a built in solar panel. But to focus too much on that one feature alone runs the risk of dismissing everything else this high quality pack brings to the table.

When I first took the Atlas out of the box it was shipped to me in, I was immediately struck by the high quality materials that it is made from. It uses soft, yet durable, fabrics that are resistant to the wear and tear that comes along with travel. In fact, after using this bag as a daily commuter pack for several weeks, it hasn’t shown a hint of fraying, abrasions or any other typical blemishes that you would normally expect to come with regular use. Those same materials provide a level of water resistance as well, helping to protect the important items you carry inside. The entire package feels solid, well built and more than ready to hit the road.

Speaking of the interior of the pack, it is absolutely cavernous. BirkSun has designed this bag to allow you to carry all of your important equipment with you wherever you go. It includes a large laptop sleeve capable of safely holding up to a 17-inch notebook, while still giving you plenty of room in the main pocket for an iPad or other tablet, not to mention any other miscellaneous items that you want to bring along such as a camera, book, snacks and so on. A smaller secondary pocket houses the Atlas’ battery pack (more on that later) and some organizational sub-pockets that come in handy for keeping track of smaller items like pens and business cards. An elastic water bottle holder along one side is a welcome touch too.Taking a few cues from messenger bags, the Atlas features a large flap that seals the interior with both heavy-duty Velcro and a pair of very solid plastic clasps. The back panel is thickly padded and works in conjunction with a pair of thin shoulder straps to make this a very comfortable bag to wear, even when it is loaded down with gear. A strategically placed handle on the top of the Atlas makes it easy to grab and go when you’re in a hurry as well.

BirkSun Atlas solar powered backpack
BirkSun

All of these nice little touches add up to a very impressive pack in its own right and that is before we even get to the Atlas’ ability to keep your gadgets charged while on the road. As mentioned, this pack has a solar panel embedded into the flap that efficiently collects power from the sun and stores it in an included battery pack. The battery sits nestled in its own pocket and features a proprietary cable that can be fitted with a variety of plugs to cover nearly every type of smartphone or other small gadget. BirkSun includes both micro- and mini-USB adapters as well as plugs for Apple’s 30-pin and Lightning ports. Those four options will cover just about anything you could ask for including Android phones, iPhones, iPods and a variety of other small gadgets.

Using my iPhone 4S as a test, I was able to get two full charges out of the battery before depleting it fully. As is typical with a solar charger, the length of time that it takes to recharge the battery pack depends on the amount of direct sunlight the solar panel is exposed to. When placed directly into the bright sun, it takes just a couple of hours to restore the battery, but on cloudier days it will be much slower. If you need to juice it up quickly it can be recharged via USB on a laptop or wall outlet, which takes no time at all. This is useful when you’re heading out the door and you want to make sure you’re at full power before you ever leave home. No matter how you charge it, however, you can set out secure in the knowledge that if your smartphone battery begins to dwindle, you’ll always have a charger close at hand ready to help restore it to full power.

BirkSun is a relatively new company but their first foray into the backpack arena shows that they have a keen eye for detail. For instance, the pocket that holds the battery has a small window on the outside of the pack that allows the user to quickly check the level of the charge it holds without ever having to remove it from the bag. I thought that was a nice touch and although it seems simple, it isn’t the kind of thing that the competition would necessarily think to incorporate into their packs too. They’ve even included a nice little carrying pouch to store the various adapters for the charging system, helping to keep them organized and preventing them from getting lost. I also appreciated the strategically placed zipper on the side of the pack that grants access to your smartphone without having to open up the entire bag.

As you can probably tell, I am highly impressed with the BirkSun Atlas. It serves as a great pack for travel or for daily commutes to the office, carrying everything you would need without a hitch. The built-in solar charger and battery pack would make it easy to dismiss this pack as just a gimmick but quite frankly that would be selling it short. This is a product that does an excellent job of doing its primary job, which is to carry all of our gear comfortably and securely. It just so happens to have a nice portable charging station built into it as well. The combination of all of those things make it easy to recommend and with a price tag of $160 it is more than competitively priced. This is a great piece of gear that will keep you – and your smartphone – happy for a long time to come.

Gadling Gear Review: RHA Earphones

RHA MA450i earphonesStill looking for a last minute gift for the music lover on your holiday list? Look no further than the incredible sounding earphones from RHA Audio. The British company, which is relatively new to the U.S. market, makes some very high-quality earbuds that pack impressive sound without inflicting a lot of damage on your wallet. Here are two of their products that I’ve recently had the opportunity to test, coming away very impressed.

RHA MA450i Earphones ($49.95)

The MA450i is RHA’s flagship in-ear model that is available through Apple Stores – both online and brick and mortar – as well as Amazon. These earphones are built from aircraft grade aluminum, which gives them a very solid and durable feel that you don’t always find in similar headsets. They also feature a three-button inline remote that allows users to skip tracks, adjust volume or pause their music on an iPhone, iPod or iPad. The remote even has a built-in mic, which makes it easy to both place and receive calls that sound crisp and clear on the tiny speakers. RHA has also included seven sizes of interchangeable soft tips for the earphones allowing users to find just the right fit for isolating outside noise.

If you’ve ever gone in search of good earphones for your portable devices, the above description probably doesn’t seem very out of the ordinary. After all, there are literally hundreds of options for earbuds on the market from dozens of different companies that offer a similar set of features. But where RHA’s products stand out from the crowd is in their performance for the price. Simply put, these are easily the best sounding earbuds I’ve ever used in this price range and they equal or exceed the quality of many higher priced offerings as well.As I tested these earphones I was continually impressed with how clear the audio was across the entire range of sound, including the lower bass levels, which are not easy to reproduce on an earbud at any price point. Highs and mid-ranges came across very cleanly too, making these a great choice for music lovers who prefer a full audio experience. Listening to my favorite music on the MA450i’s was a rich, personal experience, highlighting subtle notes that aren’t always noticeable on other earbuds.

I found these earphones to be super comfortable to wear as well, once I found the proper size tips to use. True to form, my ears always require different sizes to fit properly, but with all of the options that RHA includes, it was easy to adjust as needed. Once I had the right sizes dialed in, the MA450i’s did an excellent job of isolating outside noise, which can be particularly distracting at times. These earphones were also comfortable to wear for hours on end, something that comes in very handy on long flights.

Available in both black and white, the MA450i’s come with a nice little soft case for use while traveling. Throw in a long, durable cable and a full three-year warranty, all for a price of just $49.95, and you really have a set of headphones that are incredibly tough to beat. This kind of sound quality just doesn’t show up very often at this price point, which makes them a bargain that is tough to pass up.

RHA Audio MA350 earphonesRHA MA350 Earphones ($39.95)

Looking for a similar level of sound quality to the MA450i at an even lower price point? That’s why RHA has the MA350 earphones in their lineup. These smaller, lighter headphones offer a no-frills approach to design without compromising on sound quality in any way. These earbuds feature the same aluminum housing, high-quality fabric braided cable and interchangeable silicon soft tips, although this time you only get three sizes to choose from. They even include the nice travel pouch and three-year warranty. But best of all, the MA350′s provide the same high level of audio performance as the MA450i’s, which is to say, exceptional sound at a great price.

So, what exactly are you missing with these slightly less expensive earphones? For the most part, the main difference is that they lack an inline remote control and mic for answering calls. Considering that functionality is specifically built for Apple’s i-devices, if you use an Android phone or some other audio player, these earphones are probably the better choice. But if you are an iPhone or iPod owner, spend the extra $10 to get the MA450i’s instead. You’ll be glad you have the ability to use the remote.

Other than that, the audio quality on the MA350s is still outstanding and better than anything at this price. That is even more true when you consider that these earbuds come in under $40, which is considered the bargain basement in terms of most earphones. I’ve paid more than twice that for competing products that don’t sound nearly this good.

The bottom line is that if you’re looking for outstanding audio performance at an affordable price, it really is tough to beat these options from RHA. Try them for yourself, and I think you’ll find they provide amazing sound at an amazing price.

They also make great last minute stocking stuffers for your favorite audiophile.

[Photo credit: RHA Audio]

Gadling gear review: Stem Innovation Time Command Mini clock

The Time Command MiniI’ve always enjoyed having a collection of my music with me when I travel. It helps me to relax on a long flight, keeps me entertained while on the go, and is much appreciated when I’m passing the time in a hotel room. Thanks to MP3 players and smartphones, it is now easier than ever to carry our entire library of music with us wherever we go, and enjoying that music is made even easier with a compact alarm clock/speaker system such as the Time Command Mini from Stem Innovation.

Designed specifically for iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch), the Time Command Mini is a very small and lightweight clock that has the potential to be a favorite amongst travelers. The device weighs just 9 ounces and measures less than five inches in diameter, which makes it easy to pack and take along with you when you hit the road. Better yet, it offers surprisingly great sound out of such a small package, filling a room with your favorite music with ease.

On it’s own, the Time Command Mini is a very basic alarm clock with limited functionality. As you would expect, it tells time and can wake you as needed, but other than that, it doesn’t do much else. It doesn’t even include a built in radio, which is a standard feature on the vast majority of alarm clocks these days. But when you plug an iOS device into the dock, located on top of the Mini, it can easily play music, podcasts, or streaming Internet audio, quickly making up for these shortcomings.Stem calls the Mini an “app enhanced” device, and that is a very accurate description. Installing the free Stem:Connect app, which can be downloaded directly from Apple’s App Store, unlocks the true potential of this clock, giving you control over a variety of settings, including display brightness, snooze interval, alarm volume, and so on. The app can also tell you at a glance what current weather conditions are and whether or not you have any alarms set. You can even select from a variety of alarm tones or choose to wake up to music from your personal collection.

But that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. The Stem:Connect app also includes a variety of pre-set Internet radio stations to listen to, as well as a “sleep to audio” mode which gradually lowers the volume of your music over a pre-set time, while you drift off into blissful slumber. There are even a number of included natural relaxation sounds, such as ocean waves or summer rainstorms to help you rest easier.

Stem included a number of other nice features in the design of the Time Command Mini as well. For example, docking your iOS device automatically sets the time on the clock, making it a snap to adjust while traveling or for changes in Daylight Savings Time. As you would expect, the built in dock charges your phone or iPod as well, and has been designed to accommodate devices in a protective case too. This is especially handy for iPhone users who don’t want to remove their case just so they can charge their device.

While I appreciate what the Mini brings to the table, and think that it makes a great alarm clock for iPhone owners, especially with the app installed, it does have one large caveat for travelers to keep in mind. For me, a true travel alarm clock needs to have the option to run off batteries for those times when you are staying away from a power outlet. That isn’t an option with the Mini, for obvious reasons. A clock like this one, working in conjunction with an iPhone or iPod, would eat batteries very quickly, making it less than ideal for travel use. If you’re not the kind of traveler who strays very far from power outlets, than this won’t be an issue for you, but I thought it was worth mentioning none the less.

When paired with an iOS device running the Stem:Connect app, the Time Command Mini is a great little alarm clock that is both versatile and fun to use. The clock provides excellent sound and great options for listening to music or streaming audio, both at home or while traveling. The size is perfect for a nightstand or your suitcase, making this a great option for use just about anywhere. With an MSRP of $79.95, it is also surprisingly affordable when compared to other clocks that include an iPhone/iPod dock.

10 best photography apps for travelers

photo app Sometimes, your basic camera just doesn’t cut it. With all of the advancing technology we now have, the possibilities for travel photography are endless. Before your next trip, make sure to download these ten photography apps that will help you capture, edit, and share the perfect picture.

Pro HDR

Pro HDR is perfect for people who want to take high dynamic range shots without investing in an expensive DSLR camera. It’s also extremely helpful when the scene you’re trying to snap contains a lot of contrast. What’s really useful about the app is that it has a manual mode for you to choose where you want to adjust brightness and darkness in your shot, as well as an automatic mode. Final images are shown almost instantly, and you can save, edit further by adjusting the brightness, contrast, saturation, warmth, or tint, or discard your finished product. There is also an option to e-mail your photo to others.

Pro HDR is available for Android, iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. $1.99. A free version is also available that takes smaller shots. Instagram

This free photo sharing application is extremely popular among travel photographers and those who just enjoy taking pictures. Instagram allows you take a photo with your device, choose a filter to manipulate the look and feel, and then instantly send to Facebook, Twitter, or Flickr. There are tons of mood-altering filters, like 1977, Earlybird, Kelvin, Rise, and Nashville, to name a few.

Available on iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Free.

tiltshiftTiltShift

TiltShift is a photography app that mimics a tilt-shift lens, transforming photos into miniature worlds. Basically, your photos will appear like small-scale models by manipulating different effects and contrasts, like creating a focus and blurring the surrounding area (as shown right). You can also adjust brightness, color saturation, and contrast and even choose a shaped aperture, such as a dollar sign, heart, or hexagon.

Available on iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. $1.99.

iSynth

iSynth brings Photosynth to the iPhone and allows users to not only take great photos but also allows viewers to immerse themselves in the photos as if they were actually there. The app transforms photographs into 3-dimensional worlds that people can virtually explore. There are also different “modes” you can use, such as the Orbit Mode, which allows users to circle around the synth as well as move in all different directions on the screen in order to get the desired shot.

Available on iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Free.

CameraBag

CameraBag is a filter app that uses many different camera and video simulations. The app gives you the chance to choose from a range of different camera styles all in one application, some of which include:

  • Helga- “Square-format toy camera with washed out highlights and old-school vignetting”
  • Cinema- “Dramatic, moody coloring with a widescreen aspect ratio”
  • 1962- “Dynamic, high-contrast black and white from the photojournalism of a bygone era”

Available on iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. $1.99.

Luminance Luminance

Luminance allows for powerful and professional photo-editing for those on the move. With this app, you can easily add special effects to your pictures as well as edit numerous photos at one time. Filters include white balance, exposure, brightness/contrast, hue/saturation, tone curve, split toning, vignette, colors, and sepia. The app also makes it easy to crop and rotate photos, as well as share them via social media, Camera Roll, e-mail, copy, or print.

Available on iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. $0.99.

360 Panorama

360 Panorama is a must-have for anyone looking to take panoramic photos. While many cameras and apps with a panorama feature have users stitch multiple photos together, 360 Panorama allows you to simply pan the camera around the scene that you want included in the picture. Sharing your photos is simple, as well, and no app is necessary for viewing.

Available on Android, iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. $0.99.

ShakeIt

ShakeIt combines modern day technology with old-school photo developing methods as users can watch as their instant pictures are developed slowly. To speed up the process, simply shake the photo. It’ll take you back to the days of dark rooms and photo labs.

Available on iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. $0.99.

camera+Camera+

Camera+ is one of the best apps there is for taking high quality photos as the shots appear to come from a SLR lens. With an array of features and editting capabilites, you can literally take the perfect photo. Another useful feature is the ability to set the focus and exposure separately by tapping the screen, allowing you to have the photo come out exactly how you want it. A photo flashlight to brighten photos, a stabalizer to fix blurry pictures, a grid to line up shots, a zoom feature, scene modes, and special effects make the possibilities limitless for your photos.

Available on iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. On sale now for $0.99.

Camera Zoom 3

Camera Zoom 3 is perfect for those times when you see the perfect picture you’d love to take but are just too far to get a good shot. This app allows you to zoom in and out up to eight times by simply moving a slider. For clarity and focus, just tap the screen. There is also a useful anti-shake feature as well as an auto-adjust that sets the photo to its best quality.

Available on iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. $0.99. If you’ve got an Android, a similar app you can use is the Camera ZOOM FX, which is on sale right now for $2.99.