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!


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.


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!

Travel to Manaus, Brazil is Dangerous

Posted in Crime,Travel by Elliott Back on October 3rd, 2012.

Since American Airlines was offering super cheap roundtrip flights to Manaus, in the Amazon region of north Brazil, I figured I’d jump on it! I booked myself a nice $550 NYC JFK-MAO roundtrip, and thanks to a promotion, I’ll earn double miles on the MIA-MAO segments both ways! I figured this would be awesome! First time in Brazil! Travelling by myself! Not speaking Portuguese! However, a few things happened that made reconsider adventuring here again…

One of the almost-shanty-town areas that are common in Manaus

I got Robbed at Knifepoint…

The first day I was toying all the sights of Manaus. Generally felt pretty safe. Walked all over; posted photos to Facebook.

On my way back a pitter-patter of feet became a pressure at my back, I turned around ( that probably caused the scratch ) and there’s a scrawny campesino with a knock-off kitchen knife telling me he wants my bag, in Portuguese. I’m backing up and telling him in Spanish I have money and going for my wallet. But our mutual incomprehension opens up a gap, and 12 feet is too far. I turn and bolt while he stuffs his salad carver into his pants. Since I assume I must now be in a bad area I head up the opposite direction and go home. It was 3 in the afternoon, and people on the street 50 feet away.

I put some iodine on my scratch which wasn’t too bad, and promptly started chain smoking. I think I was robbed around R. Cel. Sérgio Pessoa and R. Miranda Leão, so keep your wits about you when you’re in the Mercado Municipal area.

Debit Card Skimmer Fraud

I took out some cash at the airport, and came back to find the following charges made after my flight had departed:

09/26/2012  	ATM Transaction	NON-CHASE ATM WITHDRAW 519173 
09/26 TECBAN PR BR Real 1000.00 X 0.4939526 (EXCHG RTE)
 + 15.00 (EXCHG RTE ADJ	$514.88

09/25/2012  	ATM Transaction	NON-CHASE ATM WITHDRAW 403240 
09/25 BANCO DO BR Real 1000.00 X 0.4934100 (EXCHG RTE)
 + 14.80 (EXCHG RTE ADJ	$508.21  

09/24/2012  	ATM Transaction	NON-CHASE ATM WITHDRAW 500187 
09/24 BANCO DO BR Real 1000.00 X 0.4941900 (EXCHG RTE)
 + 14.83 (EXCHG RTE ADJ	$509.02

It seems that whoever cloned my card at the airport had been taking out the maximum 1000 reals until I shut them down. I actually don’t know whether it was a skimmer, a hidden camera, or even an entirely fake ATM. When I tried to get cash at the airport, only 1 of 4 ATMs worked, so there are at least three others that could have been entirely fake.

Terrible Airport Service

And it wasn’t AA’s fault! I know they’ve been getting press for seats and things falling off their planes, but in Manaus, it’s the local airport workers who will delay your flight by over an hour, without giving you any updates. And for some odd reason they took my lighter, even though it’s allowed according to TSA regs. They also have a bizarre screening protocol where they ask you about any of your new electronics (to see if they’re fakes containing drugs or bombs), so I told the agent about my new Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7…

We were told “be here from 9:30 – 10:30 strictly” to go through an immigration check. However, waiting to board our plane, we saw people coming through even after the plane was scheduled to take off. So I blame the delay on the airport’s inability to do its job and take off on time, even if it means some could be late.

Not much to do?

There are really two main historical buildings in Manaus, which are the Teatro Amazonas, an old-style opera house/theater, and the Centre of Justice which has an ancient, no longer used, courtroom. The two buildings are nearly adjacent, so if you see one, you’ll see them all! I can even save you the time by posting a quick photo:

If you want to drink, there won’t be a proper pub/bar like you may be used to. Most cervecerias serve you a large bottle, a glass, and a beer coozie (a frozen sleeve to keep your beer cool). While this is imminently enjoyable in the Brazilian heat, you won’t be finding a lot of cocktails or beer on tap.

Crime is ridiculously high

I think, now, every traveller needs to google their destination city + “crime”, as I found Rio drug trade turns Amazon city into crime capital from just a year ago, only after I returned. Some choice quotes:

Rio’s drug conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives since the 1980s; in Manaus the drug trade is also taking its toll. A growing local market for cocaine has triggered a rise in homicides. Official figures show the number of murders rose over by 9% this year.

If you do go, bring a travel buddy and stay safe. And enjoy an Amazon safari, which is fun, and visit the CIGS Zoo or the Bosque da Ciencia. TripAdvisor has a pretty great list. And the Caesar Business is a great hotel.

Staples “Easy Rebate” Visa Debit Cards

Posted in Deals & Savings,Finance by Elliott Back on April 2nd, 2012.

I’m looking at two Staples “Easy Rebate” giftcards right now, each of them for $350, and wondering what can I do with them? They expire in just under six months, and have lots of interesting fees and conditions attached, so I am eager to use them up sooner rather than later. However, they are surprisingly hard to use. In spite of being a “debit” card, they tell you always run the transaction as credit, and specify that “ATMs cannot be used to withdraw cash.” I’ve tried:

  • Getting a cash advance at the bank for the full amount (declined)
  • Charging an Amazon giftcard for the full $350 (declined)
  • Talking to a Staples store manager (spent 15m on the phone, no luck)
  • Buying Kindle giftcards at an in-store Best Buy (declined)

After I ran the first Amazon attempt, a “test” pre-authorization charge of $1 went through and apparently will stick there for 7 days, so I now have $349 on each card to figure out how to extract:

The cards think they have money. They decline everything!

My next test will be to titrate up Amazon giftcards, starting at $10 and working my way up, and seeing if they will let smaller charges through. 10 minutes later, it worked. So, Staples won’t let you use the card all at once–weird! I’m charging $100 now … success! $200 would make life easier, so trying that now … DECLINED. Alas. Also don’t submit orders > $100 in a row until the first one clears–major yuck.

My advice to you if you go the Staples “Easy” Rebate route is to take the cheque option. It’s far more painless. Check out FrequentMiler’s Staples keeps on giving post where it’s all explained. Just select “I would like to see other options for my reward” when filling out your rebate form, then choose “Select Rebate Check” for the best option.

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