Absurd Gear Pitches For Things We Don’t Need

When you’re on the mailing lists for the gear companies, you get some very odd things pitched your way as “perfect for travelers!” Sometimes the pitch is spot on, and you think, yeah, I would totally recommend that. But other times … uh, no – just no. Here are three strange ideas that came my way recently – you decide for yourself, but I’ll pass.

The Utilibrush: This project, funded through Kickstarter (why doesn’t this surprise me) solves a problem you didn’t know you had. It combines toothpaste, a reel of floss, a mirror, a cap you can use as a cup to rinse with, and, of course, a toothbrush. This all-in-one, handy device is good for approximately 40 uses (if you floss every day, I guess). The campaign is kind of amusing and the device is only 12 bucks, but you know what? I’m good with throwing those little tubes of toothpaste the dentist gives me into my carry-on.

The Sash Bag: “A modern take on the fanny pack.” I’m going to confess something – I own and still sometimes travel with a fanny pack. It’s earned its place in travel. I find a money belt about the most awkward piece of travel gear ever invented and my ancient fanny pack, sourced somewhere in the depths of the ’80s, fills that role if the type of traveling I’m doing requires it. Beyond that, I just carry a shoulder bag or a day pack. Dudes put the kind of stuff the Sash Bag is supposed to hold in their pockets. I’m taking a cue from the dudes.

The Earbud YoYo: Apparently, there’s an epidemic of accidents on the slopes caused by the annoying tangle of earbud cables. Now, don’t get me wrong, the annoyance of tangled earbuds is a legit, albeit first world, complaint. But what I do not need is an additional do-dad attached to the high-speed shred metal loving denizens of the slopes. What I need is for them to pay attention to what’s around them, not to focus on their own personal sound tracks. Yes, I’m old. Get off my (snow covered) lawn.

[Photo credit: Avrene via Flickr (Creative Commons)]

Gadling Gear Review: RHA Earphones

Still 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 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: Phiaton Noise-Canceling Earphones

Traveling with our smartphones, mp3 players and tablets has made life so much more enjoyable. Those devices bring a host of entertainment options in compact packages, allowing us to listen to music, watch movies and television shows, play games, chat with friends and a whole lot more. But to truly enjoy all of those features you really need a good pair of headphones or earbuds. The problem is, headphones can be large and bulky, taking up excess room in your pack and earbuds generally don’t provide enough noise isolation to allow us to listen comfortably while on a plane or in a busy airport.

Enter the PS 20 NC earphones from Phiaton. These earbuds promise audiophile levels of sound quality in a comfortable and compact package that also happens to include noise-canceling technology that is more commonly associated with larger and more expensive headphones. In theory, this combination of features should make for a great audio experience, as you get the ability to tune-out unwanted noises, such as a jet engine, while still having your music or movies presented with crystal clear sound. The earphones are also lightweight, compact and easy to carry with you no matter where you go, making them a terrific choice for travelers in particular.

For those who have never used noise canceling headphones before, the first time you activate them can be quite eye opening. These types of devices are powered by a battery and when they are switched on, they create low-level white noise that is designed to block out background sounds and allow the listener to hear music or other audio sources more cleanly. I’ve used a variety of noise-canceling headphones over the years and the good ones function remarkably well. In fact, they can often be a revelation when you first experience them. The downside is that if the battery dies you lose the noise-canceling functionality, and in some cases the headphones won’t work at all.That isn’t the case with Phiaton’s earbuds. The PS 20 NC’s continue to function quite well, with or without the noise-canceling system powered on. I found the sound quality to be impressive across the full range, especially compared to other earbuds, and when the noise-canceling system was activated, that level of quality didn’t change in any way. But what did change was that background noises simply melted away, leaving me isolated with the music or movie that I was listening to at the time. Phiaton claims that these earphones are capable of blocking out 95% of background noise, which seems a little optimistic to me. While they do a very nice job of preventing most unwanted noises from creeping in, some outside sounds still manged to break through. That said, the noise-canceling system in these headphones is impressive nonetheless and I think most people will appreciate how well it does its job.

As mentioned above, the audio quality of these earphones is much better than I expected. The mid- and high-ranges came through crystal clear and I heard elements to some of my music that I hadn’t noticed before. It’s tough to get any solid bass out of a pair of earbuds, but even the low-end sounds solid and substantial. That high quality shines through even as you increase the volume to higher levels, where similar earphones begin to get muddled and break-up.

I was also impressed with the comfort level of the PS 20 NC’s. Phiaton ships them with four different sizes of silicon tips, allowing owners to dial in just the right fit. And when they are placed inside the ear they feel like they are naturally meant to be there. This makes it extremely easy to wear them for extended periods of time, which hasn’t always been the case with most earbuds I’ve used in the past. In fact, I tend to prefer over-the-ear headphones to these types of audio devices, but Phiaton has me strongly rethinking that preference.

Phiaton obviously had travelers in mind when it designed the PS 20 NC. Not only does the noise canceling come in handy while on the road, but the earphones also ship with a soft carrying case and an airplane adapter. The latter of those is increasingly not needed in this day and age, but it is still a nice touch nonetheless.

Despite the fact that I obviously love these earphones, there are a few things that I would change about them. First, the battery compartment, which is just large enough to hold the single AAA battery that powers the noise-canceling circuitry, is located along the audio cable. This is a bit awkward at times and even the built-in clip doesn’t help all that much. Also, my other favorite earbuds feature an inline remote and microphone, which especially comes in handy when using them with my iPhone. The PS 20 NC doesn’t include that option and it was missed on occasion.

At $130 these earphones are also a relative bargain. That price tag puts them squarely in the same range as other high-end earbuds, but none of them include the noise-canceling technology and few offer comparable sound quality either. If you’re a frequent traveler looking for an new way to enjoy your favorite audio while on the go, I think you’ll find the Phiaton PS 20 NC headphones a more than worthy investment.

[Photo Credit: Phiaton]

Gadling Gear Review: Phiaton Noise Canceling Earbuds

I had a moment of anxiety when I boarded a recent flight from Amsterdam to Seattle. The middle cabin, where I was seated, was full of very small children. Now, before you hit send on that hate mail, let me tell you that I am always sympathetic with the yowling little ones; they’re expressing exactly how I feel when I park myself in coach for a ten hour flight. But the noise, oh, lord, the noise, does not make the flight any easier. You know this as well as I do.

When I first started testing noise canceling gear, I had hoped these miracle devices would make everything go away, that I would be in a bubble of beautiful silence, serenaded only by the voices of Ira Glass (“This American Life”) or Jad Abumrad (“RadioLab”) from podcasts I’d downloaded to while away the tedium of flight. Not so, not so. I’ve tried several different brands and configurations; they do not make the noise of the plane go away.

They do, however, make for less noise, and that’s a good thing. But headphones are bulky and take up space in your bag. Phiaton makes active noise canceling earbuds that do a good job of eliminating airplane noise – as good as the other over-the-ear headphones I’ve tested. They take up a fraction of the space; I can stuff them in my pocket and they’re feature packed.The buds have Bluetooth so you can use them while your phone is stuffed in your pocket or in your bag on the back seat in your car. Bluetooth doesn’t work when your phone is in airplane mode (that was news to me) but there’s a connector cable so you can wire the headset to your device. The controller – the earbuds are wired to this – clips on to your shirt (or whatever) so it’s easy to find and easy to use once you get the hang of it. The device charges via a mini-USB cable and the battery life is impressive; it easily lasts the life of a ten hour flight with juice to spare. They’re comfortable, too.

With regard to that noise reduction feature, the marketing language ensures, “background noise is virtually eliminated.” I’m not going to go that far. There is a significant reduction in that grinding engine noise; frequent fliers know exactly what I’m talking about. You will notice the difference; I absolutely did, but “virtually eliminated” is a bit of stretch.

Noise canceling headphones or earbuds do make a big difference in the quality of a flight experience. I pack mine whenever I fly and I am very pleased that now, they’re small enough to pack with barely a nod towards consideration of space. The Phiaton noise canceling earbuds are easily as good as my traditional, low- mid-range noise canceling headphones. That’s a terrific improvement. And anything that eases long haul travel – oh, I’m for it.

Phiaton’s earbuds are listed for $159 MSRP, shop around, though. I’ve seen them listed for $129 on the big online shopping sites.

Cellphone Accessories For Our Mobile Overlords

There’s no device I love to hate as much as I hate to love my iPhone. (You read that right.) Your mileage may vary; you may not feel like both a chump and a devotee while caressing your mobile whatever. Until I attain your Zen-like state, I feel annoyed whenever I find myself buying presents for my phone, even if they are practical and make using my phone a better experience. Here’s the drill on three extras I’ve been using lately.

G-Form Extreme Grid iPhone Case
: Drop your phone one time ONLY on the bus and you’ll wish you’d shelled out for a case. It’s like Apple is intentionally propping up the case market by using that slippery exterior. I used an Otter Box on my iPhone 3, but I’ve come to prefer the weird grippy exterior of the G-Form on my iPhone 4. People keep making fun of the almost tire tread like bumpy black box I wrap my phone in, but the fact is, it stays put in my hand and has enough padding and bounce that my phone didn’t shatter into tiny expensive bits when I dropped it on the 54. There was an audible gasp from the people around me, but I just picked up my phone and went back to listening to vintage sci-fi radio theater and posting pictures to Instagram.

The case comes in black or black and yellow. I kind of wish I’d got the yellow just because it would make the phone easier to find when it’s lost in my backpack. Cost: about $40. That might seem expensive, but it’s going to cost you more than that to buy a new phone.

Mophie Juice Pack Plus: With great addiction comes the endless search for outlets and places to recharge the phone, right? You can buy yourself a lot more time with a spare battery. Mophie builds theirs into an attractive case that allows you to double the use time of your phone. I think this case/battery combo is pretty freaking great. It serves to protect your phone, and gives you all that extra use time, and it comes in a bunch of happy colors. I dropped my phone in this case, too, because apparently, that’s how I roll. The case is a little scratched up, but it still works just fine and my phone is still totally intact. It’s charged via a mini-USB cable. You leave it off until you need the extra juice, then it charges your phone while you use it. It’s great for long-haul flights, especially if, like me, you spend your airtime with audio entertainment.

The Juice Pack is pricey – it’s about $100. Here’s the truth: I like this thing and bring it everywhere.

Able Planet Clear Harmony Sound Isolation Earphones: I’ve gone through half a dozen pairs of iPhone compatible earbuds. On my last trip I lost my isolation Sennheisers. The sound was top notch, but I was on my third pair because they kept breaking (while still under warranty, thankfully). I replaced them with a really cheap pair of JVC iPhone compatible headphones, and they broke too.

I like the isolation earbuds because they don’t take up the space of headphones, but I’ve yet to find a pair that reduces external noise the way active cancelling headphones do. I like the Able Planet brand just fine; they’re far superior to the standard Apple earbuds and they stay put, but I’m not totally sold. They sound great, don’t get me wrong, and they do help with noise reduction on the plane or the bus, but that crying baby still found his way into my head while I was trying to doze on the plane. Even with the white noise app I use, ambient sound leaked in through everywhere. Able Planet makes active noise cancelling headsets too, I own a pair, and I wish I’d packed them instead. I await perfect, affordable, noise blocking earbuds.

Able Planet Earbuds run about $170. They’re fine for daily use, but if you’re really looking for noise reduction and you’re going to spend that kind of money, go with active noise cancelling instead.