Elliott C. Back: Internet & Technology

Hidden Radio: A Review

Posted in Hardware, Music by Elliott Back on October 5th, 2012.

If you aren’t familiar with Hidden Radio & BlueTooth Speaker by John VDN + Vitor Santa Maria, it is one of the more popular Kickstarter projects, having $938,771 on a $125,000 goal. Their plan was to create “the simplest, most powerful radio and wireless speaker for iPhone + iPad ever.” In this review, we’ll see if the bluetooth behemoth lives up to the hype!

Unboxing

The packing for HiddenRadio is immaculate, iPhone style, with a certain simplicity that seems to be directly ripped off from an old-school iPod box. There’s no Microsoft-esque list of system requirements or tacky stickers. You’d feel proud wrapping one of the Hidden Radios up for a gift. There is a subtle panel of use-cases on the back, while the other three sides are product shots:

I opened it up; inside you get a few accessories:

  • A USB mini cable for charging
  • An audio mini-jack FM radio antenna cable
  • An audio mini-jack cable to connect to your Sony Walkman or … whatever
  • A microfiber drawstring dust pouch

Also, there’s the unit itself. A rounded grey (hey dude, I order silver!) cylinder, it looks sleek and is shorter than a beer bottle, and slightly smaller than your palm in diameter. They’re cute looking little devices, and it’s the design concept rather than the sound engineering, I believe, which got them their first million dollars in Kickstarter sales:

Build & Sound Quality

So how does it sound? I received two units, and they are slightly different. Both units exhibit a mediocre range with very little bass when placed on a flat surface. Treble is also attenuated, so you end up having to set EQ on your iPhone to “Rock” or a similar setting to get a response that sounds similar to the song you’re trying to listen to. When held in the air, the speaker sounds quite a lot better. Also, the volume control doesn’t work terribly well. If you set your iPhone to 100% output (no eq), the Hidden Radio will actually distort. So instead of using the beautiful twist feature to control volume, you’ll most likely leave your HiddenRadio 80% open and control volume from your iPhone. More than 80% and the sound quality again degrades.

Another sound quality issue I encountered was a constant buzzing from the unit–but only one of them. The other HiddenRadio didn’t have the same poor circuitry causing the buzz. Fortunately, it seems to be worst only when turned on, or in front of a monitor, and not playing sound. Once it locks onto a bluetooth signal, the buzz amplitude is reduced or eliminated–but you might notice it on a quiet song!

As for the build quality, it’s not good enough. I’m not sure why you twist the device left to open, which is an awkward motion for right-handers. The device feels plastic, and doesn’t have enough weight in the base to stick to the surfaces you place it on, so actually turning it on usually takes two hands: one to stabilize it, the other to twist it open. This defaults the main point of Hidden Radio: the gorgeous twits-to-open feature. Both of my units suffer from superficial defects: the first has paint already chipping off the plastic around the base ring, while the second one’s grille has a permanent dimple. See if you can spot it:

Hidden Radio definitely needs to improve their quality assurance process before selling to the mainstream customer. Another example–one unit came with some charge, while the other (better) unit was entirely uncharged:

The base also needs a few more pounds of weight so that it sticks. Right now, I either need to apply more downwards force than it would take to fire an NYPD glock, or pick the thing up in two hands to turn it on.

Ports

The Hidden Radio has all of its input ports on the bottom–you charge it through a mini-USB cable that plugs in on the base. You can also either give it direct audio input or FM antenna through a minijack on the base. There’s also a bluetooth/direct input/FM radio switch and channel picker to control the modes there:

Other Reviews

You can check out their KickStarter comments page which includes mostly negative feedback. The founders appear to be removing anything but positive comments from their Facebook page. Here are a few comments from Kickstarter:

  • I bought a five pack to give as gifts, unfortunately, the one I opened to try (only after hearing all the negative reviews) it sounds TERRIBLE. At low volume it is so distorted that I cannot bear to listen.
  • I received two units, both look very nice. But the first one has a lot of white noise in the background while charging via USB, the second one’s volume control is out of order.
  • Well add one more backer with the frustrating automatic shut-off between two and three minutes. This only happens in wireless and wired mode though. In FM mode the HR stays on.
  • Everything worked flawlessly out of the box. Simple, easy to use, well made and it really does sound good.
  • Frankly I have to say that the sound quality is horrible yet especially at the max volume. Voice being distorted and sound stage is bad.
  • First of all, this thing is solid. It’s surprisingly heavy, which is nice because with the “no movement” pad on the bottom it has no problem staying in place on a variety of surfaces (I tested glass, wood, and laminate). Secondly, the range is amazing. I have a small 3/2 house and I can sit it in one corner of the house and play music in the other corner. That’s going through 3 walls, one of which is insulated. Finally, the volume is loud, surprisingly loud.

TechHive also gave it a big “meh” review.

My Take?

This is HiddenRadio v1, which for $115/unit, you get a gorgeous bluetooth speaker you can plug into your bedroom and kitchen and rock out while you read, cook, do chores, etc. The sound quality is acceptable, if you know how to goose the settings, and hopefully the Hidden Radios will survive the test of time. I’d give it a 3/5, for now, until they improve the frequency response of the units. Bluetooth is also a bit gimmicky, and quite static-prone.

I don’t care about direct minijack access or FM radio; just give me an amazing bluetooth speaker with great batter life, a bigger speaker or more speakers for better sound, and a twist-to-the-right to open, and I’d happily give you 5/5!

Old San Juan: Fort El Morro, Fort San Cristóbal

Posted in Puerto Rico, Travel by Elliott Back on February 26th, 2011.

There are two famous forts in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico: Fort San Cristóbal and Fort San Felipe del Morro. As you approach Old San Juan from the south, you will come first to San Cristóbal, and then walking to the northmost tip, El Morro:

Fort San Cristóbal

The first fort you encounter into the city, Fort San Cristobal is actually build second, after el Morro, to defend the city of old San Juan from invaders coming by land from the South. Finished in 1783 it wrapped around the bottom mouth of the city, but in 1897 a large portion was demolished to ease traffic flow into the town.


San Cristobal Fort, a National Monument

As you step inside, the Fort opens into a large courtyard:


Interior of the San Cristobal Fort. Under this level are 5 giant water cisterns.

Walk up a level, and you have a great view of the rest of San Juan to the South:


Looking over the battlements

To the north are fantastic views of La Perla and El Morro:


Not to mention the crashing ocean waves

Fort San Felipe del Morro

Construction on the fort started in the mid 15th century to control the harbor, and continued over the next four centuries. With walls six metres thick in places, a lighthouse on top, El Morro has lasted unharmed through many wars and conflicts.


Main entrance to El Morro

Inside is an artillery firing position, and many levels of fort:


See the tracks to the left?

There are many famous sentry boxes:


Also called guerritas

The US military replaced the lighthouse with this one in 1908:


The old one was damaged in the Spanish-American war

Some cannons are left for tourists to photograph:


The larger cannonballs lying in stacks are actually mortar rounds

After you see El Morro, you can take a walk around the front down a paved street called Paseo del Morro, which offers a great view from below of the fort and its garritas. You will pass by or through the old San Juan gate, as well:


Many families and children stroll el paseo del Morro

One of the many guerritas along paseo del Morro:


You should take a photograph from the top, of yourself inside the guard box

More Puerto Rico

Check out these other posts in the Puerto Rico travelblog series:

Best SLR / DSLR Camera Bag

Posted in Fashion, Photo, Reviews by Elliott Back on February 22nd, 2011.

If you were lusting after the sold-out Union Street men’s DSLR bags which retail for a hair-raising $279, I’ve got an alternative for you. One that I’ve tested out on a 4-day trip to Puerto Rico, carried through the jungles of El Yunque rainforest, and in the unyielding heat of a sultry day in viejo San Juan. It’s the Tamrac 3537 Express 7 Camera Bag. It comes in either Khaki or Black, and sells for just $50. It’s a good looking messenger/shoulder bag:

The benefits are obvious:

  • Nylon material is simultaneously lightweight, strong, and waterproof
  • Ample pockets let you carry a Nikon D90 with Zoom attached, an SB-600, a 50mm prime (small lens), and two other lenses or a litre of water. There is another front pocket, two side pockets, and a pocket on the flap.
  • “Quick access” flap and carrying style lets you get your camera out and shooting very quickly.
  • Shoulder strap, handle, and rolling luggage piggyback let you carry it however you want.

This diagram convinced me of its usefulness:

Amazon reviews give it 4.5/5 and I agree, it’s a fantastic camera bag if you are a DSLR or SLR owner. Especially with a prosumer-size body. If you have a full-frame camera, you might want to check the dimensions, as the body will be larger than what I’ve tried. But with a Nikon D90 or equivalent, it’s a perfect fit.

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