Saturday, September 26, 2009

Earbud Review

Way back sometime in 2006, I realized that the default iPod earbuds pretty much sucked, so I decided to do a little shopping.

Pretty much instantly, I became a fan of the Philips "virtual surround sound" headphones. They're cheap ($20 or so in the store, $13 plus shipping on Amazon). The "virtual surround sound" works better than it has any right to. The treble-bass equalization is pretty much spot-on. And they have a convenient behind-the-neck arrangement, so if you need to actually listen to something in the real world for a few seconds, you're not stuck awkwardly holding them--they just rest on your neck. I really love these headphones. In fact, I love them so much, I bought three pairs of them over as many years.

Wait... no, I bought three pairs of them because they kept breaking. Like clockwork, after about a year of use, the sound in one channel would suddenly crap out on me. September 2007, left ear drops; I buy pair number 2. September 2008, left ear drops; I buy pair number 3. So when the melody dropped in September 2009 (leaving me with nothing but drums, a little bass, and some background vocals if I was lucky), I thought twice about buying pair number 4.

Thinking back on it, the design on these earphones is a little screwy. The cord is far too long, so it keeps getting caught on random objects as you walk past them--particularly doing yardwork or exercising. That much tension on the cord probably doesn't help the auditory integrity that seems to plague the earbuds. And because the cord was so long, it kept getting tangled in my pocket, ensuring that I'd spend at least half the time I wanted to listen to music on disentangling the damn cord.

So if not the old reliable Philips, where to turn? I headed to the Staples up the street and came out with the Griffin Tunebuds. I spent $30 (but they're cheaper--$18--on Amazon) on them, subscribing to the old fallacy that more expensive means better quality.

From the standpoint of durability, that seems to be true. Also, these earbuds did a great job of "noise isolating" like they claimed. The only problem is that the sound is no good at all. First, the bass is pretty decent, but the treble is cranked to eleven, and the low-mid range is way underbalanced. Equally as bad, there's a white noise/static undercurrent that runs all the time. That means if you're listening to music that relies on lots of dynamics changes (anything classical) or anything with a lot of starting and stopping (like a podcast), you're treated to SHHHHHH at every quiet moment. I had to find a better solution.

I've been participating in E-poll surveys for several years now. It's one of those deals where you fill out surveys about various things--usually TV, but sometimes random products, and occasionally food and drink. In return, you get "points" that go toward various rewards from cool places like Amazon, iTunes, and Best Buy. It's not much--it takes about a year to get to twenty bucks' worth of rewards. Having not cashed in for a while, and being a poor grad student, I decided to check my point balance on a whim, and hooray! I had enough for fifty bucks at Amazon.

Armed with that much virtual cash, I decided to buy the highest-rated fifty-dollar earbuds, figuring that surely they'd blow anything else I've ever heard out of the water. I ended up at the UltimateEars MetroFi 170 by Logitech. The verdict? They're good, defintiely better than the Tunebuds I had to put up with for a couple of weeks. The equalizer is much better, and the noise isolation is at least as good. On top of that, they seem much more durable than the Philips I used for years: the cord is sturdier and shorter, and I haven't had a tangling issue yet.

The thing is, though, I'm not sure they sound any better than the Philips. I'm inclined to think that the "directionality" of sound I noticed in the Philips was actually better due to this "virtual surround" business. And I get the same sort of white noise/static on low volume that I did with the Tunebuds. It's not as noticeable--more of a shhhhhh every time the volume drops--but it's definitely there. Maybe this is merely a side effect of good noise isolation--the static is there all the time in the iPod, but you only notice it if the noise isolation is any good?

Bottom line: I'm happy with the UltimateEars, and I'm even happier that they were free. I'm not sure I would have been as happy if I'd actually spent money on them, and I'm not at all convinced that a pair of these is any better than the two or three of Philips that cost the same amount of money and in series would last just as long.

Currently listening: "Spiders", Lovedrug

3-Sentence Reviews: TV Premieres, Part 2

Continuing from last week's installment...

Curb Your Enthusiasm: At the start of a TV season that seems determined to wreak as many changes in characters as the stretching bounds of realism will accept, Curb hit its stride by not changing a thing. Larry is still as cantankerous as ever, and the show's formula of "three or four plot elements converge to screw over Larry" hasn't gone anywhere at all. But that's what made the show funny for six seasons, and that's what should keep it funny for a seventh.

House: This was undoubtedly the weirdest episode of House ever, including the ones that were hallucinations or entirely in House's head. It definitely had its ups and downs, and I'm hesitant to pronounce it "good" or "bad" before I see it in context in the rest of the season. If it means the end of Dead Amber, though, there's at least one definite plus.

The Big Bang Theory: Very weak episode, because it strayed too much from what we've come to expect from these characters--sitcoms aren't supposed to be too much about character development. Sheldon needs to be laughably socially inept, not making statements about religion; Raj and Howard need to making wisecracks about Sheldon, not bringing out actual feelings in him; Leonard and Penny certainly do not need to be in bed together. And I really, really hate Kripke--slapping a speech impediment on a character does not make him funny.

Criminal Minds and CSI: New York: Basically the same episode in both shows, and both were reliably solid. Actually, these are pretty much the same show, with a different flavor of forensics in each. And as long as they stay reliably procedural-y, I'll keep watching both.

The Mentalist: I hope the decision to have Jane and Co. move away from all this Red John business is an admission from the producers that serialized plots don't really fit into a show as light-hearted as this one, instead of the shift to just another serialized element that Agent Bosco could easily become. All the drama about Jane leaving the team in the first half of the episode was completely unnecessary, but the second half picked up nicely with the stakeout scene. Also, is it just me, or is Amanda Righetti ridiculously pretty?

Special note to CBS regarding the above shows: get into the modern era and start putting full episodes online. All your competition does it, and even you do it with a handful of shows. The more reluctant you are to let me watch your programming for free, the more encouraged I am to download some dude's bootleg of it. Controlled distribution on the internet, or a free-for-all in Torrent-land. Your pick.

Currently listening: "My Mirror Speaks", Death Cab for Cutie

Sunday, September 20, 2009

3-Sentence Reviews: TV Premieres, Part 1

It's TV season again, and since I watch sort of a lot of television, I may as wellpost some thoughts on the premieres. But in keeping with the Twitter paradigm, I'm going to do micro-reviews of each one. This covers premieres for the week of 9/14.

Survivor: Samoa: I'm skeptical of this season, and most of my skepticism has to do with this Russell character. He manages to make Johnny Fairplay look like a decent human being and Coach look level-headed and sane. Sucks that Marisa had to go so early--she was cute, way cuter than those two blond girls that I can't tell apart.

Bones: Though it has intriguing mysteries like all the other procedural crime dramas that I'm so into, I'm not a huge fan of Bones, and after the season premiere, I realized why. It centers around the title character; Emily Deschanel is an attractive woman and a good actress, but her Detective Brennan is so socially stubborn that the show is difficult to watch. She's like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, except that his social ineptitude is comedic and therefore watchable.

The Office: Season 5 showed us that The Office is much better when it's emphasizing the "mock" part of "mockumentary" rather than trying to tackle serious issues. "Gossip" showed that the show is back to its old tricks, which is a relief. Michael exhibited some lawsuit-worthy behavior, Jim and Pam were adorable, Kelly was perky, Creed was creepy, and Andy made a fool of himself.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: This show is so funny I watched all four seasons of it in the past few weeks in the run-up to the premiere. The premiere had its moments, but I can think of several funnier episodes off the top of my head. FX lost major points in my book for that "covert screening" crap they kept pushing through the show--the "covertly screened" show was horrible, and to add insult to injury, they made it look like we'd be getting an hour-long premiere of Sunny.

Check back next week for House, various CSI's, The Mentalist, and more!

Currently listening: "We'll Never Sleep (God Knows We'll Try)", Rilo Kiley