The end of the headphone jack has spurred an interest in high-quality audio components, but where does the madness stop?

Everything I do revolves around music. It’s always been this way — as a kid I would sit on the floor in my carpeted living room creating hours of mix tapes from my father’s classic rock cassettes, returning to my bed to close my eyes and exist between two worlds.

As a teenager, I spent nearly all of my money on headphones, poring through the Head-Fi forums to discover the best possible combination of music source, headphone brand, and emotional state. I amassed a collection of over-the-ear closed headphones and in-ear monitors, of custom amplifiers, DACs and cables. I paid attention to everything, and nothing was good enough. As I approached college and moved into a tiny dorm room, my headphone collection got sold to pay for textbooks and expensive coffee, for first dates and, inevitably, other technology. Though the iPod certainly catalyzed my regression to lower-quality portable audio, it was a confluence of factors that caused me to leave that addictive, expensive world behind.

I spent a long time building a collection of expensive audio equipment only to sell it and start all over again 15 years later.

That itch stayed dormant until a couple of years ago. I re-purchased a pair of headphones, the Beyerdynamic DT770, that I had worn so much as a teenager, the damn things had fallen apart; to push them, I dusted off a solid-state headphone amplifier that had been sitting in storage for over a decade.

But like the multitudinous reasons I left behind audiophilia in the early 2000s, the itch that caused me to re-up on a devastatingly expensive hobby has its roots in my current job, in reviewing phones. For so long — and I largely blame Apple for this — it was the “headphones in the box” appeal that made it useful to plug those recognizable white earbuds into the standard 3.5mm jack. The thin sound wasn’t necessarily good, but unless someone was curating a collection of high-quality MP3s, either ripped from an increasingly-ignored CD collection, or downloaded legitimately (or otherwise) from a trusted site, the returns on spending much more than a few dollars on a pair of nice headphones were largely wasted.

I’m not going to pretend that no one used good headphones between the years of 2001 and 2016 — that would be absurd. Of course high-quality equipment was popular and, in many cases, ubiquitous in the right circles. Lossless music files offset the potential inconveniences in leaving behind physical media for the digital. And wireless headphones, an expensive pipe dream when I was growing up, began sounding pretty good, even at prices 15-year-old me wouldn’t have balked at.

The iPod made it easy to carry thousands of songs in your pocket, and just as easy to forget what music was supposed to sound like.

But, ironically, the slow death of the headphone jack has, if not facilitated a resurgence in high-end equipment itself, brought the importance of quality components back into the conversation. Phones like the LG V30, Sony Xperia XZ1 and HTC U11 emphasize high-quality DACs and powerful amps as they would impressive cameras and multi-day battery life. The market is also being divided into those companies retaining the classic 3.5mm (Samsung, LG, Sony) and those that aren’t (Apple, Google, HTC).

For the most part, I use wired headphones at home and wireless on the go. Given how often I change devices, I can’t take for granted that a favorite pair of earbuds will work with the phone in my pocket, nor that I can remember to stuff one of the dozen dongles I’ve accumulated since the Moto Z shipped with one in the summer of 2016.

I also don’t stress too much about sound quality when I’m mobile; as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to accept that, unless I am actively reviewing a composition, music is for listening, not scrutinizing. As long as the Bluetooth connection is solid, the seal in my ears good, and the quality good enough to keep me engaged, I don’t much care if they’re $24 Ankers or $350 Sonys. Of course, the more expensive they are, the more I’m able to appreciate the subtleties in my favorite recordings, and the better the sound displacement, the less I am distracted by the outside world.

One of those great expensive headphones is from a Chinese company trying to compete with Sony and Bose in North America. The $350 FIIL IICONs (pronouned “Feel Icons”) are big, plastic, and unabashedly simple, but they have some of the best sound I’ve ever heard from a pair of wireless headphones. An accompanying app lets you tweak equalizer settings and adjust the intensity of the excellent active noise cancellation, too, which is nice, and a gesture area on the right earcup can adjust volume and switch tracks.

These days, I care more about how easy it is to listen to music for a long time than how good that music sounds.

I’ve also discovered — and stay with me here — neckbuds. I had largely dismissed the design after receiving and immediately hating a pair of LG Tone headphones from the G4 launch event in 2015, but I heard such good things about the 2017 refresh that I picked up a pair of the sub-$100 Tone Infinims and immediately fell in love. Neckbuds take the pressure off your head and ears by resting most of the equipment around the neck. They sound great, have easy-to-use controls and, most importantly, are incredibly comfortable to wear for long periods.

I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed testing and comparing the $129 Fitbit Flyer and Jaybird X3 headphones, which I’ve employed during my workouts to great effect. Unfortunately, I seem to have a weirdly-shaped left ear and can’t get a solid seal with either of them despite multiple sizes of tip, wing, and flange.

There’s also the V-Moda Crossfade 2 Wireless, which are currently my favorite wired and wireless headphone alike. At home, they stay in my solid-state amp hooked into my MacBook Pro, and are superb on trips and in places active noise cancellation isn’t necessary.

And, finally, I just indulged and bought myself a pair of dream headphones: the Sennheisher HD600s. Sort of. These are a custom-built version of those venerable open-back headphones from Massdrop, a company that works with brands to deliver improved or modified versions of existing audiophile products. Back when I was 15, all I wanted was a pair of HD600s, but they were way too expensive, and I didn’t have the equipment necessary to drive them properly. Now, a bit older with a fuller bank account — well, here goes nothing.

Here are a couple other things to keep in mind this week.

👋

-Daniel




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Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the world’s leading cloud computing platform, used by many of your favorite online services, including Netflix, Spotify, and Shazam. AWS pros are in high demand, but special training is required to master the tools.

If you’re new to AWS, you need a course that covers the fundamentals of cloud computing. Unfortunately, this type of training — with certification included — is usually quite expensive. Right now, however, Android Central Digital Offers has a deal on an AWS Solution Architect certification training bundle. Instead of the usual price of $649, you’ll pay just $49. That’s 92 percent off the regular price.

This bundle includes 22 hours of content, including training in EC2, S3, RDS, and EBS. You’ll learn how to design fully functional systems on AWS, as well as how to select the appropriate AWS service based on data, compute, database, or security requirements.

Interested in a career with AWS cloud computing? This is the course you need to learn the fundamentals, plus certification of completion is included. At this price, the time is now!

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In the arena of 4K streamers, which one deserves your money?

While TV channels still mostly live at 1080p, online streaming services like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix have moved forward into the sharp world of 4K video. At four times the resolution of 1080p video, 4K requires not only a new, compatible TV but a decent internet connection to be able to stream it.

You also need something to get that 4K media onto your TV once you’ve piped it in from the internet. There are three great options from three big hitters in the world of streaming boxes, and we’re looking at each of them right now.

Which one deserves your money? The NVIDIA Android Shield TV ($179 or $199), the Amazon Fire TV ($69.99) or the Roku Ultra ($89)?

Or maybe you’re interested in the Apple TV 4K. Let’s break down the facts.

Hardware

There’s no other way of saying it, so I’ll come right out: The NVIDIA Shield TV is the most powerful of these four streaming units. The Tegra X1 chip inside it is an absolute beast, despite being over a year old now. The extra raw performance you get from the Shield TV allows it to do some other pretty amazing things which we’ll cover further on.

By contrast, the Roku Ultra and Amazon Fire TV both pack quad-core processors, which in their own right are very good. There’s more than enough power on tap for streaming video, music — even playing games.

The Apple TV 4K has Apple’s first-party A10X processor, which is powerful, low energy, and versatile. The fact Apple controls hardware and software once again means that optimization is on point and the performance will be solid. You don’t get many connectors, with a HDMI and Ethernet port all she wrote on the box itself. The glass-faced Siri remote is also inside the box.

All the other three boxes now come with a remote in the package, too, which didn’t use to be the case with the Shield. When it comes to features, the different remotes are equal when it comes to packaging voice search, though it’s only the Roku that doesn’t have an AI assistant on board. The Fire TV now has Amazon’s ever more widely used Alexa assistant while the Shield TV has Google Assistant and, of course, Apple TV 4K has Siri.

The Roku and Shield TV remotes do have something the Amazon and Apple ones do not, however: a headphone jack. This is perfect for those times you want to watch TV without disturbing someone else in the room.

The Fire TV, Shield and Roku are loaded with ports, with USB and microSD on the Fire TV and Roku, though the Shield TV has now done away with the microSD slot on the latest version. You can still plug in USB storage like a hard drive or thumb drive and expand the internal storage that way.

But what about video? These are streaming boxes, after all. The Roku Ultra and the Shield TV used to have one big advantage over the Fire TV: HDR video. That has now changed with the announcement of the latest Fire TV, which despite being much smaller, is compatible with HDR as well as 4K video up to 60 FPS. Likewise with the new Apple TV 4K, which supports HDR10 and Dolby Vision for selected content.

You’re not left out on audio support, either, with Dolby Audio supported on the Roku, and Dolby Atmos on the Shield TV and the newest version of the Fire TV. The Apple TV 4K doesn’t support Dolby Atmos, which is a letdown given its price, instead offering only Dolby Digital 7.1.

Ultimately though, when it comes to hardware, the Shield TV is still out front on its own as the most powerful all around.

Software

While Amazon and NVIDIA both base their boxes on Android, Roku has its own operating system and associated app store. Apple has its own first-party offering, tvOS, for the Apple TV.

The Fire TV runs Fire OS which is based on Android, but it has the same limitations as Amazon’s other Fire devices, namely no Google Play Store or Google services. Even the Roku has Google Play Movies and TV.

Apple’s tvOS is another fork of its mobile operating system and since the previous generation has had access to apps from the App Store. Like Android TV, if you already own a compatible app on your iPhone or iPad it’ll be available for the Apple TV as well, in most cases for free. And while it’s not quite the games machine the Shield TV is, it’s pretty handy, with MFi controller support to play on the big screen.

Android TV is still pretty bare bones, but it’s got some great apps.

The NVIDIA Shield runs Android TV with some additional benefits on top. Firstly, NVIDIA has a dedicated game store for both optimized Android games as well as its GeForce Now service. It also has Plex Media Server pre-installed, allowing you to set up your own home media system using the Shield TV as a base. Both of these show off the added horsepower you get from choosing a Shield TV.

With the Shield TV you also get easy access to live television through either the Live Channels app from Google or something like Plex or the HDHomeRun beta app. You need additional hardware to make it happen, but if you’re cutting the cable cord you’ll get the best TV experience on the Shield.

The Fire TV, Roku and Apple TV 4K can also make use of live TV through services like Plex, but the Shield is the only one to have the software natively built in.

You can’t forget Kodi. It’s the reason many people buy these boxes.

Importantly, all three of these boxes have apps for the biggest streaming services out there: Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Hulu. But there are advantages to the Fire TV and Shield running on Android.

You get a lot more flexibility with apps and arguably better support from developers. And one of the big elephants in the room is Kodi. As this media center application continues to grow in popularity it’s perfectly reasonable you might want it on your box. You just can’t get it on a Roku, that’s the way things are right now. Officially, you can’t install it on the Apple TV, either.

With the Fire TV and the Shield, you just have to load up the Android app and you’re away.

All boast custom interfaces for the TV, but Amazon’s is a little clunky, even after a fairly vigorous redesign. The other two boxes are nicer to interact with, and the Roku, in particular, has shortcut buttons on its remote to get you to some of the most popular apps, including Netflix. One of the Apple TV’s strongest points is its user interface, which is colorful, clear and easy to navigate.

Price

When it comes to price there is a clear winner and a clear loser.

The loser is the most expensive, and that’s the NVIDIA Shield TV. The 16GB version costs $179 without the controller and $199 with it, while the 500GB Pro model costs $300. You do get the remote with both versions at least.

It isn’t alone, though, since the Apple TV 4K also costs $179 or $199 for 32GB or 64GB of storage respectively. Storage is more of a concern buying an Apple TV 4K, because you can’t expand it as you can with the Shield TV.

The Roku Ultra sits in the middle, normally costing $110 (though it’s on sale for $80 right now) with the remote control included. However, it’s not available everywhere. For example, you can’t get the Roku Ultra in Europe.

The Amazon Fire TV is a veritable bargain costing only $70 and now includes the latest Alexa Voice Remote as well as being not much bigger than a Chromecast.

Which should you buy?

All three of these boxes have a lot going for them, and honestly, they’re all good purchases if you’re looking to get into 4K video streaming. If you just want the absolute best though, go for the NVIDIA Shield TV. It’s more powerful, has great app support and frequently gets updated with new features and fixes. It’s arguably the more future proof of the three, and ticks pretty much every box you can throw at it. It’s even a very handy little games console.

If you just want to get 4K video at the lowest possible price, the Amazon Fire TV is the one to go for. You now get HDR and you can get a game controller to expand the experience a little. Ultimately it’s a great box at a great price.

The Roku Ultra was recommended by Mobile Nation’s own Modern Dad as “the best streaming box for most normal people.” In many ways, that’s absolutely correct. But it’s only correct if you’re in one of the locations you can get one. In Europe, all you can get is the streaming stick or the Roku 3, neither of which handle 4K video. So it’s a solid option, but harder to recommend when the other two are more widely available.

And then there’s the Apple TV 4K. It’s not a bad set top box, it’s actually very good. But unless you’re immersed in the Apple ecosystem of apps and content, it’s not the best you can do. That honor belongs to the Shield TV.

If you’re OK with the price tag, the NVIDIA Shield is the best streaming box, 4K or otherwise. Buy it, love it.

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Updated October 13, 2017: We’ve updated the details on the Amazon Fire TV to reflect the latest refresh which is available soon as well as adding the Apple TV 4K into the mix.




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Are we crazy, or can something really make a phone worth the same amount as a used Honda?

Welcome to 2017, when the best phones from almost every company that makes high-end smartphones will cost just shy of $1,000. And plenty of people are buying them.

Samsung and Google tend to be pretty firm on the price and aren’t going to haggle with you.

I’m not wondering why people are buying them. If you want to play, you have to pay and it’s not like you’re going to be able to call up Samsung or Google and make a deal. The phones themselves are better than ever, the parts inside of them are better than ever and even the way you can buy them — 0% interest for 24 months, anyone? — is better than ever.

Enthusiasts, as well as people who need the features that come with a top-of-the-line phone, have to pay the sticker price. I get that. Heck, I’m one of the people buying them, just like many people reading this are. If we want the flagship model with the most memory and biggest display, we’re paying for it.

I just can’t shake the feeling that paying $1,000 for a phone is crazy. Even while I’m doing it and can honestly recommend you do it, too.

Let me stop for one second and call out LG. We don’t know when an unlocked V30 will be sold in the U.S. but we do know places like B&H already have a listing for it. We also don’t know the price, but most people are assuming it will be in the vicinity of $750 or so. We do know what U.S. carriers are going to charge (right around $850) and LG usually sells an unlocked model just a bit cheaper than a carrier does. $750 is a lot of money, too, but it happens to be about 75% of the price everyone else making a superphone at the end of 2017 is charging. And it’s just as feature-packed and awesome as any of the others.

Where to buy the LG V30

And yes, there’s an LG V30+ that’s just the LG V30 with an extra 64 GB of storage. (Why, LG? Just stop.) Of course, you can only buy it through Sprint ($900) and U.S. Cellular ($800) because LG just does things like this. If you count those, and I don’t because even LG knows that hardly anyone will be able to use them and nobody is switching to Sprint for 64GB of storage, then LG is creeping up on the $1,000 mark, too.

I’m not saying any company is trying to play a bit of the price gouging game. I sincerely don’t believe that and don’t want to believe that. But I know that I can buy a 2000 Honda Accord V6, with a warranty, for the same price as a new Note 8. I’m pretty sure the Honda uses even more premium metal and glass and a whole lot of Gigabytes would fit in the trunk. All that’s missing is an S Pen.

13-inches of OLED, glass, and aluminum is cheaper than six-inches. ಠ_ಠ

While comparing a Note 8 (or any of these phones) to a 17-year-old Honda is silly, you can make the same comparison with a laptop. While you can spend $2,800 on a Surface Pro or $4,200 (WTF?) on a MacBook Pro, you can also buy a really nice Dell XPS13 for about $850. It can do everything your new Note or Pixel or iPhone can do, has an even bigger QHD+ display and is made of “premium” materials to be thin, light, and beautiful. Even the new Pixelbook, which everyone says is outrageously priced, is nicely spec’d at $1,000.

Anyway, let me circle back around to the beginning. I know why we pay so much: we have no choice. I know why we want to pay so much: these phones are really cool and we want or need the best. I just don’t know what makes them worth the prices being charged.

Maybe someone out there can make a case better than “small stuff is more expensive” and help me figure it out.




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