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iFi Uno review: a small, but big way to boost your audio
6:00 pm | December 3, 2023

Author: admin | Category: Audio Computers Gadgets Hi-Fi | Comments: Off

iFi Uno: Two-minute review

The iFi Uno DAC/headphone amplifier may have a small price tag but the improvements to your sound experience are massive. After all, at some point we’ve all been tempted to plug a pair of headphones into that headphone socket on our laptop, haven't we? But, as we all know, no good can come of it. Oh, sound comes out – of course it does. But it’s far from satisfactory.

A quite modest sum put iFi’s way for its Uno DAC/headphone amplifier changes all that. As long as you don’t intend to listen at either miniscule or massive volume levels, the sound of your laptop once the Uno is involved is improved dramatically – you don’t need to be any kind of golden-eared audio savant to recognise that it's up there with the best portable DACs

Where detail retrieval, low-frequency extension, sound staging, transient response, stereo focus and all the minutiae that go towards delivering enjoyable and convincing sound reproduction is concerned, the iFi Uno is a battleship and your laptop is a pedalo. 

iFi Uno review: Price and release date

  • Released in December 2022
  • Price: $79 / £79 / AU$119

The iFi Uno has been on sale for around a year. While it sells for £79 in the UK, it’s even more of a bargain at $79 in the US. In Australia, you’re looking at AU$119 or something quite like it.

The world’s not short of USB DACs ready to put a rocket up the sound of your laptop – brands as credible as Astell & Kern, Audiolab and Audioquest are all in the market, and that’s just the ‘A’ section. So while iFi has a reputation as solid as any of those rivals, the Uno is hardly operating in isolation…

iFi Uno review: Features

The iFi Uno

(Image credit: Future)
  • ESS Sabre Hyperstream DAC
  • Three EQ presets
  • 3.5mm and stereo RCA outputs

The Uno may be tiny, but that hasn’t prevented iFi from squeezing in an impressively thorough specification. For desktop use in particular, the little Uno has everything you might realistically require.

On the front panel, there’s an ‘EQ’ button that scrolls through the digital filters iFi considers most appropriate for ‘game’, ‘movie’ and ‘music’ – a corresponding light on the top of the device indicates which one you’ve selected. Or, at least, it does if you squint – the icons are pretty indistinct.

Next to this is a ‘power match’ button - there are two positions, designed to align with the broad power requirements of various headphones and features what iFi describes as ‘dynamic range enhancement’. Let's call them ‘high’ and ‘low’. In the centre there’s a (relatively) large dial that functions both as a ‘power on/off’ switch and volume control. A little light above the dial glows in one of five different colours to indicate the file type and size that’s being processed. iFi being iFi, of course, at least two of these colours are really quite similar.

On the right-hand side there’s a 3.5mm analogue headphone socket. It incorporates iFi’s ‘S-balanced’ circuitry to keep crosstalk and noise to a minimum, and is gold-plated for superior conductivity.

On the rear there’s a USB-C socket that's used for both power and data transfer. A pair of gold-plated stereo RCA outputs complete the Uno’s external features.

On the inside, iFi has deployed hugely (and possibly disproportionately) capable ESS Sabre Hyperstream digital-to-analogue conversion circuitry. It’s able to deal with PCM files of up to 32bit/384kHz resolution and DSD256 – and it’s able to function as an MQA renderer too. Given the use the Uno is likely to be put to, this would seem to be ample. It’s similarly over specified where the less glamorous bits and pieces are concerned, too – muRata and TDK capacitors, for instance, tend to show up in rather less affordable devices than this. 

Features score: 5 / 5

iFi Uno review: Sound quality

The iFi Uno on top of a laptop

(Image credit: Future)
  • Detailed and eloquent
  • Good organisation and focus 
  • Slight treble overemphasis at bigger volumes

First things first: if you’ve been plugging headphones directly into the headphone socket of your laptop, introducing the iFi Uno into the chain will be little short of a revelation. Laptops, almost by default, don’t sound any good – but with the crucial digital-to-analogue conversion processing being dealt with by the Uno, suddenly your computer can become a valid source of music.

Mind you, the Uno is far from the only little DAC-cum-headphone amp that can put a rocket up the performance of your laptop. What makes it so compelling is just how accomplished a listen it is when you keep its asking price uppermost in your mind.

During the course of this test it’s almost exclusively fed via its USB-C socket by an Apple MacBook Pro loaded with both the Tidal app and some Colibri software that allows the machine to play properly high-resolution content from its internal memory. Headphones including (but not restricted to) Sennheiser IE900 in-ear monitors and FiiO FT3 over-ears are plugged into the 3.5mm socket on the fascia. Music includes MQA files of Maps by Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Stoned at the Nail Salon by Lorde, a 24bit/96kHz FLAC file of While My Guitar Gently Weeps by The Beatles, and a DSD64 file of Stevie Wonder’s He’s Misstra Know-It-All. 

And as long as you’re judicious with your volume levels, the effect the Uno has is nothing but positive. In every meaningful respect, it – how best to put this? – wipes the floor with the unassisted sound of the MacBook. Detail levels are far higher. The iFi is able to identify even the most fleeting, most minor occurrences in a recording and integrate them into the overall presentation with real confidence. The frequency range, from bottom to top, is smoothly integrated and evenly realised – no area is underplayed or given undue prominence. And the soundstage the Uno creates is far more focused, better separated and more coherent than the laptop is anywhere near capable of mustering.

Low frequency sounds are deep and solid, but properly controlled to the point that the Uno can express rhythms with real positivity. At the opposite end of the frequency range there’s a similar level of detail revealed, plenty of the attack necessary to give treble sounds some bite but sufficient substance to keep everything composed and coherent. In between, the iFi communicates through the midrange with absolute conviction – it gives a vocalist every opportunity to express their character, their technique and their commitment.

Really, it’s only possible to put the iFi Uno off its stride by setting volume levels to ‘very quiet’ or ‘very loud’. When listened to quietly, the ‘left/right’ presentation goes awry somewhat, there’s more activity apparent through the right channel than the left. Nudge the volume up just a touch, though, and things even themselves out. At big volumes, meanwhile, the sound gets just a little toothy – treble sounds, previously so well judged, get just fractionally edgy and hard, and the overall presentation hardens up somewhat as a result. 

These are extremes I’m talking about, you understand. ‘Extremely quiet’ or ‘very loud indeed’ are states that don’t especially suit the iFi Uno, everything in between is as good as gold.    

Sound quality score: 5 / 5 

iFi Uno review: Design

The iFi Uno

(Image credit: Future)
  • Small (26 x 88 x 81mm : HxWxD)
  • Light (92g)
  • Vaguely ovoid

There’s not an awful lot of it, but what there is of the Uno is a) perfectly well constructed, and b) recognisably an iFi product. This isn’t the first time iFi has deployed the mildly ovoid, slightly ruby ball-shaped chassis for one of its products, and I very much doubt it will be the last. 

There’s absolutely nothing special about the quality of the plastics iFi has deployed here. But then again, the Uno is one of the more affordable examples of its type around.

The dimensions are usefully small, ideal for a desktop device, but not so small that all the controls and outputs are crammed too close together. And iFi has done very good work with the Uno’s feet – they keep the unit secure on the surface it’s standing on, and prevent it being towed around by the headphone cable you’re using.

Design score: 4.5 / 5

iFi Uno review: Usability and setup

The iFi Uno

(Image credit: Future)
  • Connects via USB-C
  • Outputs from either front or rear
  • …and that’s about it

This really won’t take long. As far as setup and usability are concerned, it’s a question of making three connections, maximum: the USB-C input is where the Uno gets its power and from where it receives the digital audio information you want it to deal with. 

Then you either plug in headphones at the front or stereo RCA connections at the rear - or both, if that suits your purposes. Then turn the dial to power the unit up, set your volume level and decide on your preferred digital filter – and that’s everything. You’re up and running.

Usability and setup score: 5 / 5

iFi Uno review: Value

  • One of the most affordable around
  • Priced competitively

As an affordable way of making a big improvement to your desktop audio system, it’s hard to lay a glove on the iFi Uno. If you judge a product on the amount of stuff your money buys you, then I’ll concede that this looks like $79 / £79 / AU$119 spent on next-to-nothing. But the difference it can make to your workstation audio enjoyment is, frankly, out of all proportion to both the outlay involved and the product’s, um, proportions.  

Value score: 5 / 5

Should you buy the iFi Uno?

Buy it if... 

Don't buy it if... 

iFi Uno review: Also consider

How I tested the iFi Uno

A close up of the iFi Uno

(Image credit: Future)
  • Used for over a week
  • Connected to an Apple MacBook Pro and Samsung S21 Ultra
  • Wired to Sennheiser IE900 and FiiO FT3 headphones

The real beauty of the iFi Uno, of course, is how much better sounding it can make those devices you’d use anyway for audio playback. The Samsung has no headphone socket, of course, and listening to it using decent hard-wired headphones rather than the wireless equivalent is approaching revelatory. Much more so than listening to the MacBook Pro, anyway – because I’ve known for as long as I’ve owned it that the Apple is a truly rotten-sounding music player.

First reviewed in December 2023

Helm Audio Bolt review: punchy high-quality audio that’s ultra portable
2:00 pm | December 2, 2023

Author: admin | Category: Audio Computers Gadgets Hi-Fi | Comments: Off

Helm Audio Bolt: Two-minute review

The Helm Audio Bolt USB DAC/headphone amp is small, perfectly formed and elegant in its simplicity. It’s equipped to make the sound coming out of your laptop or smartphone far better than it otherwise would be, and it’s priced to make its talents available to as many people as possible.

Where high-resolution audio content is concerned, the Bolt is in its element – it can handle 32bit/384kHz, DSD256 and MQA stuff without alarms. It generates enough power to drive even quite tricky headphones to workable levels, and it’s small and light enough to accompany you even if you leave the house dressed for the summer.

Best of all, it’s a very enjoyable listen that's in line with some of the best portable DACs. If you really push on, volume-wise, it can sound a little hard and two-dimensional, but in every other circumstance it’s a pleasure to hear. Detail levels are high, frequency extension is impressive at either end of the range, the soundstage it creates is convincing, and – best of all – it’s entertaining. It’s a simple and affordable way to get the most audio enjoyment out of that device you already take everywhere with you.  

Helm Audio Bolt review: Price and release date

  • Released in November 2020 
  • Priced: $119.99 / £104.99 / AU$189

The Helm Audio Bolt DAC/headphone amp is selling for $199.99 in the US and and in the UK, you can pick one up for around £104. Meanwhile, in Australia, you’ll have to part with AU$189 or thereabouts. However, during 2023's Black Friday sales we did see it on sale, so you can get it cheaper. 

The world’s not short of reasonably affordable USB DAC/headphone amps, of course – everyone from Astell & Kern to THX has one to sell you. Not all of them are as aggressively priced as this, though, and not all as capable where specification is concerned.

Helm Audio Bolt review: Features

Helm Audio Bolt

(Image credit: Future)
  • USB-C and 3.5mm connections
  • 384kHz PCM, DSD256 and MQA compatibility
  • Three-stage display

Helm Audio is coy about the details of the DAC chipset that’s inside the Bolt, but what’s for sure is that it’s able to deal with PCM files up to 32bit/384kHz resolution and DSD256. It’s also an MQA renderer, so TIDAL users in particular should be able to exploit their subscription fee (yes, there is still plenty of MQA content available on Tidal).

To call it an ‘interface’ is to glorify it somewhat, but the single LED on the metal block lights up in one of three different colours depending on the type of file it’s dealing with. Blue indicates a sample rate of less than 48kHz, red means over 48kHz, and purple indicates MQA content. 

Other than that, there’s really only the little bag the Bolt arrives in and a tidy USB-C / USB-A adapter that count as ‘features’. But to be honest, I’m tempted to ask what more you might realistically expect? 

Features score: 4.5 / 5

Helm Audio Bolt review: Sound quality

Helm Audio Bolt

(Image credit: Future)
  • Detailed and insightful
  • Well-supervised punch and attack
  • Good separation and focus

If you subscribe to one of the best music streaming services, it’s possible to access a whole lot of high-resolution audio content – and if you have the service’s app on your smartphone, plugging the Helm Audio Bolt into its USB-C socket means you can hear it as fully as possible. And there’s no two ways about it, the sound of the Bolt is as far removed from the unassisted sound of any smartphone you care to mention as three courses at a decent restaurant is from a service-station sandwich.

It’s a rapid and politely attacking listen, the Bolt, with a whole lot of relevant observations to make about tone and texture – even the finest details can’t elude it. A 24bit/192kHz FLAC file of Chic’s I Want Your Love fairly motors along, the much-sampled bass-line delivered with straight-edged control and plenty of momentum. There’s decent brightness to the top of the frequency range, a similar level of attack and just as much detail revealed and contextualised. And in the midrange the Bolt communicates in generous fashion - the vocalists get more than enough room to express themselves, even when the strings and horns attempt to muscle their way to the front of the stage.

The frequency range is nicely integrated,  and rhythmic expression is confident too. It’s not the last word in dynamic headroom, to be absolutely honest, but that’s more of an observation than a criticism. What’s important is that the Bolt retains everything that’s fun and energising about the recording, rather than neutering it in the long-established smartphone manner. It can sound a little hard and relentless if you really decide to wind the volume up, sure – but did no one ever tell you not to listen so loud?

Sound quality score: 4.5 / 5 

Helm Audio Bolt review: Design

Helm Audio Bolt

(Image credit: Future)
  • Mechanical isolation of USB-C from decoding hardware
  • Flexible braided cable
  • Mostly made of plastic and aluminium 

If ever a product was ‘just enough essential parts’, the Helm Audio Bolt is it. At one end there’s a USB-C connection in a little plastic housing, and it’s connected via a short length of braided cable to a slightly larger metal block that contains all the necessary decoding and amplification hardware. This block has its single LED to let you know the broad state of play, and a 3.5mm analogue headphone output. It’s all very neatly put together and tidily finished.

Design score: 5 /5 

Helm Audio Bolt review: Usability and setup

The Helm Audio Bolt

(Image credit: Future)
  • Pug one end into your smartphone or laptop,
  • Plug some headphones into the other end, and
  • That’s all that’s required

I’m not the sort of person to talk down to anyone, but if you can’t set up the Helm Audio Bolt in seconds flat, I’m not sure you should be allowed anywhere near electrical equipment. The process is – and I have first-hand evidence of this – so simple, a six-year-old can do it. 

Plug the USB-C connection into the USB-C output of the smartphone or laptop you want to listen to. Plug some headphones into the 3.5mm analogue output. Put the headphones on your head and press ‘play’ on your music player. That’s job very much done.

Usability and setup score: 5 / 5

Helm Audio Bolt review: Value

  • Affordable compared to competitors
  • Offers great value

You can look at the Helm Audio Bolt one of two ways. The first view states that you’re spending more than $100/ £100 / AU$100 on a very small quantity of aluminium, and even smaller quantity of plastic, and a short length of cable joining them together. 

The second states that your money is buying profoundly significant improvements to the sound quality you enjoy from your wired headphones while you’re out and about. I know which view I take, and that’s why I reckon the Bolt represents very decent value indeed.

Value score: 5 / 5

Should you buy the Helm Audio Bolt?

Buy it if...

Don't buy it if...

Helm Audio Bolt review: Also consider

How I tested the Helm Audio Bolt

The Helm Audio Bolt plugged into a phone

(Image credit: Future)
  • Used for over a week
  • Connected to an Apple MacBook Pro and a Samsung S21 Ultra smartphone
  • Wired to Sennheiser IE900 and Campfire Andromeda headphones

The more responsibilities your source of music has, the less effective a source of music it is - I don’t naked the rules, it’s just the truth. So when unplugging headphones as capable as these from the headphone socket of the laptop and listening again via the Bolt, the differences in quality are almost comical. And even the best wireless headphones struggle to match the performance of good wired headphones when the Bolt is plugged into a headphone socket-less smartphone’s USB-C connection… 

First reviewed in December 2023

iFi xDSD Gryphon review: a stylish DAC and headphone amp that’s as portable as a hip flask
7:24 pm | November 30, 2023

Author: admin | Category: Audio Computers Gadgets Hi-Fi | Tags: | Comments: Off

iFi xDSD Gryphon: Two-minute review

The iFi xDSD Gryphon represents a new area of flexibility for the company. iFi is one of the front-runners where audio products like this are concerned and has been for some time. This xDSD Gryphon wants to widen the operability and relevance of its DAC and headphone amp range by offering wireless, as well as wired, connectivity in a package small and light enough to be considered portable. And it’s only gone and pulled it off. The xDSD Gryphon ain’t cheap, but the way it performs justifies the outlay all day long. 

Huge flexibility where connectivity and digital audio content is concerned, a completely confident and convincing sonic attitude, and a user interface that only just stops short of ‘impenetrable’ are what makes this iFi, the product it is. If you want something that’s capable of doing the audio business whether at home or in the wild, it’s almost a no-brainer.   

‘Almost’ because it’s not without competition from the best portable DACs on the market. A lot of it is from in-house, admittedly – but the xDSD Gryphon is going up against the Chord Electronics Mojo 2, which is a massively capable device in its own right. Hear them both, and then make your mind up. 

iFi xDSD Gryphon review: Price and release date

The iFi xDSD Gryphon next to a phone and heardphones

(Image credit: Future)
  • Release date: December 2021
  • Price: $599 / £599 / AU$899

The iFi xDSD Gryphon went on sale a couple of years ago, and in that time its reputation has grown in line with its asking price. As of the time of writing, it’ll set you back $599 / £599 / AU$899, which puts it up against some very well-regarded alternatives from companies as credible as Astell & Kern, Audiolab and Chord Electronics.

iFi xDSD Gryphon review: Features

The iFi xDSD Gryphon on a stool

(Image credit: Future)
  • Burr-Brown DAC
  • Extensive compatibility
  • Wired and wireless connectivity

iFi is not messing around where the feature-set of the xDSD Gryphon is concerned. The serious business is taken care of by a Burr-Brown chipset with enormous headroom and compatibility with a huge number of different digital audio file types. Use the USB-C input and it can handle PCM files up to 32bit/768kHz, DSD512 and DXD768 – and it can fully unpack MQA files too. The digital coaxial input is good up to 24bit/192kHz.   

Regardless of the type or size of the file you’re interested in, though, you have plenty of options as to how to best deliver it to your headphones via its balanced 4.4mm or unbalanced 3.5mm analogue outputs.. Its ‘Xspace’ setting, for instance, strives to give the biggest soundstage possible. ‘XbassII’, I hardly need say, increases low-frequency presence and substance – and can be further assisted by a physical ‘bass and/or presence’ switch on the chassis. Content delivered digitally can also be breathed on by one of three digital filters: ‘standard’, ‘bit-perfect’ and ‘GTO’ (which stands for ‘Gibbs Transient Optimised’). The xDSD Gryphon can also be adjusted to best respond to the sort of headphones you’re using – high-sensitivity in-ear monitors, for example, can sometimes introduce hiss, so there’s an ‘IEmatch’ switch on the bottom of the chassis to help deal with that.

Wireless connectivity is handled by Bluetooth 5.1, and there’s codec compatibility from SBC and AAC to aptX (HD, Adaptive and Low Latency), HWA and LDAC. So you should be able to find something to best suit your needs. All the most significant (and noisiest) circuitry – amplification, Bluetooth and digital-to-analogue conversion – is kept isolated in order to minimise cross-talk and other sonic gremlins. 

Power comes from a battery, of course – it’s a portable device, after all, and anyway it’s a cleaner and more efficient way to drive electrical equipment than noisy, dirty old mains power. The iFi has a 3600mAH lithium-ion battery that’s good for around eight hours before it needs recharging. From ‘flat’ to ‘full’ should take a couple of hours. 

Peripheral features extend to a quite generous selection of high-quality (although admittedly quite short) connecting cables. If your needs aren’t met by USB-C / USB-C, USB-C / Lightning or USB-C / USB-A cables, then what exactly are you attempting to attach?

Features score: 5 / 5

iFi xDSD Gryphon review: Design

The iFi xDSD Gryphon

(Image credit: Future)
  • 19 x 75 x 123mm (HxWxD)
  • 215g
  • Unhelpful user interface

This isn’t the first iFi product with a strong suggestion of the hip flask about it, and I strongly doubt it will be the last. At 19 x 75 x 123mm (HxWxD) its proportions are most definitely hip-flask-y, and it’s halfway between being truly pocket-sized and more suitable for desktop use. 

If you do decide to take it out and about, though, its 215g weight is no kind of burden. A lot of that is down to its aluminium construction – its ridged and contoured design is quite interesting and tactile – and is broken only by the little mirrored strip on the top surface. There’s a crisp, bright white OLED display beneath it, which makes it easy to understand what the xDSD Gryphon is up to.

Getting it to the stage where it’s doing what you want it to is more trouble than it really should be, mind you. iFi has plenty of previous where unintelligible user interfaces are concerned, and the Gryphon is just the latest example of the company’s commitment to end-user confusion.

A push/turn control in the centre of the fascia takes care of volume, power and menu navigation. Nearby there’s a ‘settings’ button - it turns ‘Xspace’ and ‘Xbass II’ on or off if you use quick presses, while a longer press summons the on-screen menu. Here’s where you can select your preferred digital filter, set a maximum volume level and adjust screen brightness. An adjacent button handles input selection and Bluetooth pairing. There are also those balanced 4.4mm and unbalanced 3.5mm headphone outputs on the fascia, as well as five vanishingly small LEDs. One of them is embedded into the push/turn dial, and shines in one of five different colours (to indicate volume level) or flashes (indicating the Gryphon is muted). One reveals whether or not ‘Xbass II” and/or ‘Xspace’ is switched on. One reveals the input that’s in use (and so can shine in one of four different colours), and one reveals the audio format of the digital file currently on board (so shines in one of seven different colours, two of which are so similar as to be indistinguishable). All clear? Of course it bloody isn’t.

Meanwhile, the rear panel features two USB-C sockets (one for charging and one for data input), balanced and unbalanced analogue inputs and a 3.5mm digital coaxial input. There’s also the three-stage switch to select the ‘Xbass II’ tone (‘bass’, ‘presence’ or – hey! – ‘bass and presence’). It’s small, but it’s not as small as the switch on the bottom that controls the ‘IEmatch’ circuitry.

Design score: 3.5 / 5  

iFi xDSD Gryphon review: Sound quality

The iFi xDSD Gryphon being held in a hand

(Image credit: Future)
  • Fast, detailed and articulate sound
  • Dynamic and precise in equal measure
  • Not impressed by inferior headphones

It makes sense to start listening to the iFi xDSD Gryphon in its most ‘pure’ state, which means filters set to ‘min’ and with ‘Xbass II’ and ‘Xspace’ switched off. Heard this way, and with content ranging from a 256kbps MP3 file of Eartheater’s Pure Smile Snake Venom to a DSD64 file of Stevie Wonder’s Pastime Paradise incoming from an Apple MacBook Pro via USB-C, the iFi is an uncomplicated, satisfying and thoroughly entertaining listen.

Its fundamental character is one of energy and speed. It creates proper momentum at the bottom of the frequency range without sacrificing any substance or extension. It powers through bass information with pace and precision, controlling low-frequency information with absolute authority – so the low end stays in its lane, underpinning everything going on above.

It’s similarly confident and accomplished at the opposite end of the scale, too. Treble sounds have brilliance and bite, but there’s no suggestion of edginess or splashiness, even if you’re listening at volume – and the Gryphon is most certainly capable of summoning significant volume. What you get at the top end is enough substance to counteract the shine, and – just as with the rest of the frequency range, impressively high levels of detail retrieval.

In between, the midrange is handled with complete assurance. Vocalists as idiosyncratic as the two mentioned above are given complete expression, their character and attitude and emotional state made absolutely plain. There’s real articulacy to the way the iFi deals with singers of all levels of competence, and as a result they communicate in the most direct and positive fashion. 

The frequency range is properly integrated, and with its settings left well alone the Gryphon enjoys a nicely neutral and unshowy tonal character. It’s adept at creating a sensation of singularity and ‘performance’ to a recording, even if the recording itself isn’t the result of a group of musicians all playing in the same room at the same time. Dynamic range is considerable, so both harmonic variances and big changes in intensity or attack are tracked without apparent effort. And the soundstage it’s able to create inside your headphones is spacious, organised and utterly believable. 

Fiddling with filters and what-have-you can result in small differences around the edges of the DAC’s overall performance, but in truth its fundamental characteristics don’t change all that much. And this is true regardless of which of the wired or wireless inputs you use - although naturally the quality of the wireless source (and its codec compatibility) has an effect on the final sound. Of more concern to the Gryphon, it seems, is the quality of the headphones you attach to it – it can happily drive even uncooperative headphones, but it gets a bit sniffy about less capable pairs and isn’t about to disguise that fact.  

Sound quality score: 5 / 5 

iFi xDSD Gryphon review: Value

The iFi xDSD Gryphon

(Image credit: Future)
  • Getting more expensive rather than more affordable
  • Performance to back up the asking price…
  • …but not so much the appearance

Unlike plenty of rival products, the price of the iFi xDSD Gryphon has gone up, rather than down, in the time it’s been on sale. This suggests that it’s been a roaring success, sure – but it also makes it slightly less compelling than previously. That the sound it makes is worth the money is not up for question, but if you judge as much by appearances as by performance you might end up wondering what all that money has bought you…

Value score: 4 / 5

Should you buy iFi xDSD Gryphon?

The iFi xDSD Gryphon

(Image credit: Future)

Buy it if...

Don't buy it if...

iFi xDSD Gryphon review: Also consider

How I tested the iFi xDSD Gryphon

The iFi xDSD Gryphon

(Image credit: Future)
  • Tested indoors and out
  • Tested with numerous file types and sizes
  • Tested with a number of different pairs of headphones

Really, that’s the whole story. I used the iFi xDSD Gryphon as a desktop DAC and headphone amp connected to a laptop, and I used it wirelessly when out and about connected to a smartphone. 

I listened to a huge variety of file types and sizes, I used a number of different headphones, and I listened to lots of different types of music. I investigated its various options where filters and what-have-you are concerned, and I listened to some competing products too.  

First reviewed in November 2023

Majority Oakington review: a DAB radio, CD player and Bluetooth speaker audio package
4:22 pm | November 29, 2023

Author: admin | Category: Audio Computers Gadgets Hi-Fi Wireless & Bluetooth Speakers | Tags: , , | Comments: Off

Majority Oakington: Two-minute review

The term ‘all-in-one audio system’ gets bandied about a lot to refer to a speaker that has multiple uses but Majority has taken the term to heart with the Oakington as there’s very little it can’t do – or play.

The Majority Oakington lets you play from CDs, tune into FM, DAB or DAB+ radio, plug in a device via an aux cord or USB cable, and connect via Bluetooth to stream music. This Swiss army knife of a music machine is only missing Wi-Fi streaming and it’d fill out the bingo card of all the modern ways of listening to music (sorry, vinyl fans, but I said ‘modern’).

This range of features is impressive enough when you consider its £159 ($200 / AU$300) price tag – that’s a great price for a device this versatile, especially with the Oakington boasting the design flair of a designer speaker of 10x that price.

Perfect it is not, however. There’s no one massive flaw with the Majority Oakington, but I did butt up a few little quirks and kinks that stop this being an otherwise glowing review.

The Oakington is a little complicated to set up and use, which admittedly only means that it’s harder to use than a simple press-and-play speaker, but I did have to spend some time poring over the instruction manual when using the device. 

That is to say, people who are technophobic might find the Oakington a little overwhelming. I've tested countless audio devices for TechRadar, including some of the best DAB radios and best Bluetooth speakers, and I'm slightly ashamed to admit that a large number of problems I had with the device were solved by randomly hitting different buttons until something worked.

Jumping between all of the Oakington's audio inputs did raise another annoying issue, and that's that volumes varied quite a bit between them. I'd barely be able to hear Bluetooth music and then deafen myself when jumping to DAB. Am I being dramatic? A little, and I don't want to seem to accentuate the negatives, because overall this is a handy multi-functional device with just a few teething problems.

Majority Oakington: Price and release date

The Majority Oakington's remote by its volume dial

While you can connect your phone to the Oakington to stream music, it also comes with a handy remote.  (Image credit: Future)
  • Released in 2018
  • Originally priced at £159 ($175 / AU$265)

The Oakington was first released in 2018 and it’s remained a popular entry in Majority’s line-up of digital radios ever since.

The device originally cost £159 ($200 / AU$300). But five years after its release, it’s generally sold for £139 ($175 / AU$265), which is the price that every online retailer sells it for at the time of writing and so we’ve reviewed it with this lower price in mind. Just note that Majority mainly ships its products in the UK, and while it does offer a few products in the US, we couldn’t find the Oakington on sale there.

That’s a fair price for this speaker given that it doubles as a radio and a Bluetooth speaker. For context, our top-rated DAB radio, the Roberts Revival RD70, currently goes for £179 (roughly $225 / AU$340). While you can of course get any old DAB for a fraction of the price, this all-in-one audio tool justifies its price when you consider it’s also a Bluetooth speaker, CD player and so on.

However, if you’re interested in the Oakington, you might also want to check out Majority’s Homerton 2, which costs the same amount and has Wi-Fi for extra connectivity like Spotify Connect and other Wi-Fi streaming apps. 

Majority Oakington review: Specs

Majority Oakington review: Features

The rear ports and buttons of the  Majority Oakington

The Oakington has a vintage look and comes in two color choices: (yes, you guessed it) oak or walnut.   (Image credit: Future)
  • Long list of connectivity types
  • Mains connection but AAA batteries for remote
  • Tricky set up process

As previously mentioned, the Majority Oakington has a long list of ways to listen to audio. You can connect it to your phone for Bluetooth, extend the antennae to catch some FM, DAB or DAB+ channels (the latter ensures that it’s future proof), plug in either an aux or USB cable to listen to tunes or simply pop in a CD. Such a wide swathe of listening options puts the Oakington in good stead for people who like variety.

As you’d expect, audio quality varies by input, as does volume – more so than you’d expect for such a device. When I first set up the DAB channels I’d just been listening to Bluetooth by streaming music and had to crank up the volume pretty high to hear anything streamed that way. Suffice to say, turning the radio on resulted in a really huge volume increase. This continued through the testing period when changing inputs, which means you’ll have to have your finger on the volume rocker on the remote or ready to spin the dial on the machine itself if you like to change input a lot. It’s easy to switch input thanks to the remote, though. Depending on what you’re switching to, the Oakington will sometimes take a few moments to get its act together to actually switch over.

Being a mains-powered speaker, you don’t need to worry about battery life here… except for the remote, which takes two AAA batteries. You get two with the radio, but once those run out you’ll need to pick up some more.

There are more features on offer here too. You can use the Oakington to charge your phone or another device via its USB port, which is particularly handy if you’re streaming music from the device. There’s an alarm function that turns on your music at a certain time, perfect for people who like to wake up to the radio. There’s also a headphone port that you can use if you want to listen quietly – however, there’s a catch on this last one. You can’t use headphones that have a built-in microphone which, in this day and age, is the vast majority of them. In fact, I don’t own a single pair of headphones that don’t have a microphone (and I test audio; I’ve got many), which limits this functionality somewhat.

Given the broad range of features, the Majority was a little finicky to set up. As I’ve already mentioned, I spent lots of the testing time glued to the manual, especially when setting it up and using the extra tools like switching to the aux input. This stops becoming an issue the more you use the speaker, but it’s worth pointing out if you’re not a tech-head.

Case in point, that has cropped up as I’m writing this – the remote has a few easy-to-press buttons to play from CD, Bluetooth, radio or USB, but to listen from the aux cable, you have to press the button on a different row of the remote simply titled ‘audio’. Or, like me, you can simply start pressing random buttons on the device until the aux-in starts working.

One feature missing from the Oakington is any kind of voice assistant, which is far from a deal-breaker but is worth flagging given how commonplace they are in Bluetooth speakers. If you want Alexa or Google to tee up your next song, you’re going to have to forget it.

  • Features score: 4.5/5

Majority Oakington review: Design

The Majority Oakington's volume dial.

You can use both the dial on the Oakington itself or the remote to adjust volume. (Image credit: Future)
  • Classy wooden design in two colorways
  • Not too big, but has top-mounted dials
  • Remote works most, but not all, of the time

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but in my eyes, the Oakington is a good-looking device – definitely more so than lots of its rivals. It comes in two color options, light or dark brown, with both using a wooden look to fit naturally into lots of home decor.

The front of the device offers two speakers, a small LED screen, eight buttons and a CD slot. The top of it has a dial that you can rotate to change the volume or press in as the device’s ‘select’ button, and the back has the power port and switch and four separate input or output jacks (more on these later).

Despite what pictures suggest, it’s not too big, measuring 40 x 20 x 13 cm and weighing just shy of 4kg. It’s not a portable device per se – nothing with a power cable really is – but it won’t take up too much space in your home. We wouldn’t recommend stacking other things on top of it though, not if you want to be able to change the volume without the remote.

Onto that remote: it gives you all the functions you need, with more functions than on the body of the Oakington, but I’d say it’s possibly too big and complicated for the device it controls. In the testing time, I was frequently having to consult the manual to work out how to enable simple tasks.

Some other reviewers have called the remote’s connectivity spotty, and this was the case for our review sample too – I’d sometimes have to press a button twice to have it pick up the signal. Saying that, I didn’t find it too much worse than most remotes that come packaged with TVs or similar devices. 

A more annoying issue was that the Oakington has 32 volume levels, and as I’ll get into later, the volume varied a lot by input, so I found myself changing it a lot. On the remote, this can mean lots of hammering at the volume up or volume down button to have an audible difference – in these circumstances, I’d end up eschewing the remote and utilizing the rotating dial on the device since it was much quicker. It just involved standing up! 

  • Design score: 3.5/5

Majority Oakington review: Sound quality

  • A good rather than great listen
  • CDs or Bluetooth streaming lacked bass
  • EQ presets offer minor tuning adjustment  

The front of the Majority Oakington

(Image credit: Future)

The Majority Oakington provides good audio, but it falls short of ‘great’ for a few reasons. It doesn’t quite stack up to many Bluetooth speakers on the market, but if you’re only planning to use it for, say, FM radio functions, then that won’t matter to you.

When listening to a CD or Bluetooth streamed music, the lack of bass is palpable – if you want thumping bass then you might have to look elsewhere. You can adjust the EQ with a control on the remote, but this didn’t seem to have a huge impact in tests. There’s an EQ button as well that cycles through presets: normal, class (which we presume is meant to be classical), pop, rock and jazz, but the changes between each sounded pretty minor.

As mentioned before, I had trouble with the wildly variable volumes of different inputs, and for some the max volume was too low. Bluetooth music maxed out at such a low volume that I couldn’t make out the song at the other end of the same room, and couldn’t hear songs from one room over. To reiterate, that’s at maximum volume, so this is only good news for your neighbors.

The lopsided balance is easy to criticize but it’s not a deal-breaker here, and I can see some users finding the sound of the Oakington just fine. That’s particularly true thanks to the sound stage which, bass aside, provides a lot of depth. 

  • Sound quality: 3.5/5

Majority Oakington review: Value

The front of the Majority Oakington at an angle

The Majority Oakington offers good value for its all-in-one solution and price point.  (Image credit: Future)

Given that you're getting about five devices all packaged into one with the Majority Oakington, it's pretty easy to recommend as a good-value audio device.

Of course, you could get each of those five devices separately for a much lower price, but Majority crams them all into one body and at a price lower than all of them combined. I'd call it a good value device for the features and audio props you get.

  • Value score: 4/5

Should I buy the Majority Oakington?

Buy it if…

Don’t buy it if…

Majority Oakington review: Also consider

How I tested the Majority Oakington

  • Tested for two weeks
  • Tested with a range of audio inputs

I used the Majority Oakington for two weeks prior to writing this review. This was mainly split between Bluetooth streaming and DAB radio (as you can see from the images in this review!) but I made sure to spend time testing the other inputs too. 

A lot of the testing time was spent scratching my head while staring at the manual. I should also flag that I moved the Majority about in my flat quite a bit, partly to test its signal and audio power in different locations, but mainly just to find a spot where I could play Bluetooth music and actually hear it. 

I joined the TechRadar team in 2019 and spent several years testing just about every kind of tech under the sun (though my primary role was in the phones team). Since leaving to join TR's sister site What to Watch in late 2022, I've continued to provide tech reviews for TechRadar including headphones, running earbuds, portable speakers, smartphones, robot vacuums and more. 

First reviewed in November 2023

JBL Authentics 500 review: a speaker with Dolby Atmos chops to rock your socks off
6:00 pm | October 29, 2023

Author: admin | Category: Audio Computers Gadgets Hi-Fi Wireless & Bluetooth Speakers | Tags: | Comments: Off

JBL Authentics 500: Two-minute review

The JBL Authentics 500 sounds more like an IndyCar Series race than a loudspeaker, but it’s actually the name of the newest premium Wi-Fi speaker with Dolby Atmos support from audio powerhouse JBL.

Launched alongside the more affordable Authentics 200 and 300, this is one of the best wireless speakers for people who are willing to toe the edges of their budget, without splurging too far. 

It’s one of the priciest speakers JBL has put out, and at the time of writing it heads up its line of Wi-Fi speakers (which doesn’t include the wallet-melting and LED-bedecked PartyBox line).

In terms of audio quality and features, there’s a good reason for this price. The Authentics 500 has audio chops that’ll rock your socks off, with sharp treble and bass that’s so ground-shaking that the speaker could be picked up by a seismograph.

You’re getting the connectivity tripartite here (Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and wired, with bonus USB-C connection in the US) and built-in functionality with a range of different music streaming apps: Spotify Connect, Tidal Connect, Chromecast, Amazon Music and more all have easy shortcuts and tie into the device.

The third-party collaboration extends to smart home assistants, and the JBL is so smart that it can actually run two assistants at once. This might just sound like a way to use each assistant for what they’re good at; letting Alexa control Amazon Music or Google to find web results, but it’s actually a vital tool for tech fans who have a diverse tech ecosystem that isn’t exclusive to one range.

So the JBL Authentics 500 ties cozily into a smart home and will please audiophiles with its excesses. So why have I only given it four stars out of five? Well, because it can be so damn fiddly to use!

The set-up process was quite a pain, because it involved wading through pages on the app store to find the exact right app and twiddling my thumbs while a massive firmware update was installed. And while connecting to the speaker was often a breeze, the app definitely wouldn't concur, as it sometimes couldn't sense the speaker even when the device in use was literally playing music onto it.

This may seem like a minor gripe, but speaker apps can be rather divisive for music fans, so featuring one that doesn't work perfectly might raise eyebrows. There's no doubt the Sonos Era 300 offers a simpler experience and similar audio quality for less – but it doesn't have as many features as the JBL.

JBL Authentics 500: Price and release date

  • Released in September 2023
  • Costs $699.99 / £579.99 / AU$999

The JBL Authentics 500 was announced alongside its 200 and 300 siblings at IFA 2023 at the end of August 2023, and went on sale shortly after.

The 500 costs $699 / £579 / AU$999, so it’s certainly not a cheap speaker – it’s the priciest of the brand’s current Wi-Fi speaker range, narrowly sliding above the Boombox 3. For context the Authentics 200 costs $349 / £299 / AU$499 and the Authentics 300 goes for £379 / $449 / AU$599.

Some of the close competitors to the JBL Authentics 500 you’ll find include the $449 / £449 / AU$749 Sonos Era 300 (which TechRadar gave 4.5 stars in our review), the $799 / £699 / AU$1,199 Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin (five stars in our review) and the $699 / £599 (roughly AU$900) Bang & Olufsen Beosound Emerge. 

This isn’t too premium as a speaker though, and most brands have one or more offerings in the four-figure range if you really want to splash out.

The JBL Authentics 500 on a gold table

(Image credit: Future)

JBL Authentics 500 review: Specs

The JBL Authentics 500 on a gold table

(Image credit: Future)

JBL Authentics 500 review: Features

  • Lots of tie in apps and assistants
  • Bluetooth 5.3 or Wi-Fi streaming or 3.5mm aux-in
  • Buggy companion app

The Authentic’s set-up process wasn’t exactly a breeze. While my first few days of testing solely utilized a Bluetooth connection to the speaker, which was simple, most of the device’s features require you to pair with the JBL app. That first hurdle is the biggest, as there are 10 different JBL-named apps on the Play Store, but it’s JBL One that you’re looking for. 

When I finally found the right app to install, the speaker told me it’d take 20 minutes to install firmware updates. After that, it decided to crash several times when trying to set up the voice assistants. Not exactly ideal.

My issues continued through the testing period. Occasionally, when I was streaming music from a phone via Wi-Fi, the JBL One app wouldn’t be able to connect to the speaker, even when Bluetooth was enabled. This meant I couldn’t play with the equalizer or control the music through the app itself.

The app is pretty useful when it works, though. You can use it to set up Wi-Fi streaming, set a ‘Moment’ or favored prompt that you can enact by pressing the heart button on the speaker (like a beloved playlist), play with the speaker’s equalizer, and enable voice assistants. 

The equalizer gives you a little more control over sound than the on-speaker dials, letting you tweak mid as well as bass and treble, but there’s no way to set or change presets.

Various screenshots from the JBL One app

(Image credit: Future)

The ‘Moment’ button lets you quickly draw from a range of music services including Amazon Music, Tidal and Napster, but curiously missing is Spotify. Spotify Connect is available for Wi-Fi streaming though, as is AirPlay 2, Amazon Alexa, Tidal Connect and Chromecast. 

A neat feature on the Authentics is that you can enable multiple assistants, like Alexa and Google Assistant, making this a useful option if you have multiple product ecosystems on the go.

Overall, the list of features and tie-in apps here is really neat. Whichever music service you use, you’ll be covered.

As stated, you can use the JBL either via Bluetooth (5.3, nice and reliable!) or Wi-Fi, giving you a range of ways to listen, with Wi-Fi streaming built into a lot of music apps these days including the ever-present Spotify. I never had any issues with either of these options in terms of dropping or cut-outs, though Bluetooth could sometimes take a while to pair, so I’d recommend you opt for Wi-Fi purely out of convenience. If you are still suspicious about wireless connectivity, there’s also a 3.5mm aux jack you can use.

  • Features score: 4/5

The JBL Authentics 500 on a gold table

(Image credit: Future)

JBL Authentics 500 review: Sound quality

If you want the short version, the JBL Authentics 500 sounds fantastic.

The bass is the killer here, thanks going to the 6.5-inch subwoofer hidden on the underside of the box for this miracle of music. Unlike some bass-heavy speakers, the element didn't overwhelm the other aspects of a song, instead underlining the rest of each tune. Balance in speakers like this is never a guarantee, so the JBL was pleasantly surprising.

That means the treble remains crisp and clear, no matter what kind of thumping bassline a song normally has. I did find that the top-mounted treble dial seemed to have very little effect, though, with the bass dial having more of a palpable impact on music.

Unfortunately bass does tie in to one audio issue, though the real culprit is the app's lack of sound profiles. The prominent bass became too dominant in certain types of audio, particularly when I used the speaker for podcasts (or other spoken word content) or movies. This could be fixed by changing the dials on the speaker (or in the app, if it wanted to work), but sound presets could make it much easier.

The speaker supports Dolby Atmos Music, the surround-sound tech that makes music and movies sound fantastic, but only for certain apps like Tidal. 

The max output on the Authentics 500 is 270W; in my general testing period, I never got even close to its volume limit, thanks to just how loud it was. Turning the dial up to full won’t just annoy the neighbors, but people several towns over.

I found this out the hard way (the neighbor part, not the hyperbole) when I accidentally knocked the volume dial up to about 70% volume with a toe: even at this level, my neighbor had to come around to have a word. That is to say, this is a loud loudspeaker, and no matter the size of your home, you won’t be straining to hear tunes. 

Another minor gripe is that there only seemed to be a few volume levels; when you turn the dial, each new volume tier (indicated by a new section lighting up on the dial) ratched up the noise by a noticeable margin. I spent a good while turning the dial just a few degrees one way then another, trying to find a Goldilocks spot, before realizing that one didn't exist. I was stuck deciding between music a touch too loud, or a touch too quiet, which is a first-world problem if ever you've heard one, but a problem nonetheless.

  • Sound quality: 4/5

The JBL Authentics 500 on a gold table

(Image credit: Future)

JBL Authentics 500 review: Design

  • Classy ’70s-esque design
  • Three main dials for volume, bass and treble
  • Big body and heavy

The JBL Authentics 500 is a big speaker; it makes its 200- and 300-named siblings look like they need to head back to the gym, and while that heft hints at its impressive speaker functionality, it does make this a challenging piece of kit to fit in your home.

Measuring 17.6 x 9.4 x 2.2 in / 447 x 240 x 255 mm, this is a piece of gear that you can’t just leave on any book shelf or window ledge (and weighing nearly 8kg, not all surfaces might support it!). Before buying the speaker, you should probably work out where it’ll sit on your house, and make sure you’ve definitely got space for it.

Not only is your home placement important to check that it fits, but you should also ‘vibe-check’ your home to make sure the speaker fits in with your decor. This is certainly a classy-looking speaker, with a black body and gold trim, and it could be as much of a fashion statement as it is a musical device if you want to channel some old-school cool. It's based on JBL's 1970s-era speakers.

Despite being such a big speaker, the Authentics 500 has a rather barebones set of buttons atop it. That’s mostly a good thing: it’s clear to see which is the dial for volume, bass and treble, the Bluetooth pairing and favorites buttons are clear and the pause/play function is easy to spot too. Privacy fans will also enjoy the physical slider which turns off the microphone, to make sure you’re not being listened to.

That slider is on the back, joined by the power port, 3.5mm audio jack, a USB-C port and an ethernet port, so you can get your internet wired if you’d rather. This USB-C port lets you input music digitally, but only with the US models of the speaker.

What’s missing is a power button: the instruction manual simply shows a picture of the power cable under the ‘Power On/Off’ heading, implying that the only way to turn the speaker off is to unplug the thing. When I wanted to use my phone’s onboard speakers I either had to manually disconnect the Bluetooth or turn the speaker off at the wall, which was rather annoying; a simple power button or switch would be appreciated.

  • Design score: 4/5

The JBL Authentics 500 on a gold table

(Image credit: Future)

JBL Authentics 500 review: Value

This has so far been a pretty glowing review of the JBL Authentics 500; perhaps the elephant in the room (other than the speaker itself, the chunky monkey!) is the speaker’s price.

This isn’t a cheap speaker, and you can get similar features and decent audio quality from the more affordable JBL Authentics 200 and 300. Plus they’re smaller, and in the case of the 300, is portable with a built-in battery.

So buy this if you’ve got the funds to cover its extra cost, but it’s certainly not the value option compared to its siblings.

Compared to other speakers, you can get the Sonos Era 300, with similar Dolby Atmos support and nearly as many speakers (but no subwoofer) for notably cheaper. But considering one of our criticism of that speaker was that we wanted more bass, and considering the extra connection options of the JBL, the extra money is warranted.

  • Value score: 3.5/5

Should I buy the JBL Authentics 500?

The JBL Authentics 500 on a gold table

(Image credit: Future)

Buy it if…

Don’t buy it if…

JBL Authentics 500: Also consider

How I tested the JBL Authentics 500

The JBL Authentics 500 on a gold table

(Image credit: Future)

As stated in this review, when I started using the JBL Authentics 500 I solely used Bluetooth, just to test how it worked alone; then for a day I used 3.5mm for the music. In both cases, this was for testing purposes, not because I'm a luddite, and then I moved onto using the app which I've covered in detail earlier in this review.

In full I tested the JBL Authentics 500 for roughly a week. A large part of this was with my default listening app: Spotify, using both Bluetooth and Spotify Connect for Wi-Fi streaming.

I also used the speaker for a few other things; I listened to an episode of my favorite podcast 'Fall of Civilisations' (which, at four hours long, counts as some pretty intensive testing) and connected it to my PS4 to watch the new movie No One Will Save You. At several times I accidentally also played autoplaying social media videos through the speaker, but this wasn't an intended part of the testing experience!

For some context on me; I was on the TechRadar team for several years as a staff writer and then editor. I've also tested plenty of other tech for the site, including loudspeakers and headphones since 2019.

Sony HT-AX7 review: a mobile surround sound system for projectors or tablets
7:15 pm | October 23, 2023

Author: admin | Category: Audio Computers Gadgets Hi-Fi Wireless & Bluetooth Speakers | Comments: Off

The Sony HT-AX7 is in a category of its own. It's a portable Bluetooth-connected surround sound system, where you can just grab the two rechargeable mini 'puck' speakers from the top of the main unit, place them behind you, and be surrounded by movie audio. Or you can just place them around a room for more diffused music than from a single speaker, Sony says.

The Sony HT-AX7 isn't promising 5.1-channel sound or anything quite so simple. It's processing your music and adding Sony's 360 Spatial Sound Mapping to create its best approximation of a bubble of sound around you, based on the location of the three units. There are two speaker drivers plus two passive bass radiators in the main unit, and a speaker in each of the satellites. The price for all this tech is pretty steep compared to your average portable Bluetooth speaker, though, at $499 / $499 (approx. AU$960).

We're not aware of any of the best Bluetooth speakers with a setup like the Sony HT-AX7's. And while some of the best soundbars have detachable and rechargeable rear speakers, as well as Bluetooth, they're far from portable. This device measures just 12 x 5.2 x 4.8 inches / 306 x 133 x 123 mm with the speakers attached.

Sony HT-AX7 on a table

The Sony HT-AX7 is more compact than you might guess. It's no larger than a loaf of bread. (Image credit: Future)

Clad in simple gray fabric, it's an odd, though not ugly, device aesthetically – kind of like a Lego brick when the speakers are on. The plastic on top has a high-quality matte feel. It bends inwards where you press the buttons for turning it on and off, activating Bluetooth pairing mode, playing/pausing (and taking calls – it has a mic), volume up and down, and the 'Sound Field' button that activates its surround-sound processing.

The two satellite speaker pucks are held on by magnets, and have a smartly designed charging system so you don't have to worry about their rotation at all. The magnets aren't especially strong, which makes them easy to grab, but also is easy to knock off accidentally. If you move the speaker too quickly when picking it up, you may lose one – I did exactly this when turning it to put it on charge. They're also easy to nudge off. However, they're built very solidly, so dropping them was no problem for me. The fabric is the thing most likely to get damaged if they hit something rough.

Sony HT-AX7 on a table with its two speakers leaning against it

The fabric covering makes the Sony HT-AX7's speakers very easy to grab as well as being good for acoustics. (Image credit: Future)

I had the Sony HT-AX7 out of its box and connected to my iPad Pro in about a minute, with surround sound following seconds behind that. Like all the best Bluetooth speakers, it's super simple – you hit the Bluetooth pairing button on top, connect from your tablet, phone (or whatever), play a movie, and position the rear speakers however you want them.

And with Sony's Sound Field tech on, it sounds good – though I was disappointed by the lack of strong rear effect at first. The volume of the satellite speakers and main speaker is controlled all together, and they were just too quiet by default. But Sony's Home Entertainment Connect app enables you to ramp up the volume of the rear speakers, and I found that increasing their volume by three gave me the impact I was hoping for.

With my iPad or phone, the effect is great – I watched lounging in bed, with the rear speakers on the head board, the front speaker down by my feet, and the tablet in my hand. But I don't actually watch like this all that often – most of my tablet or phone movie watching is done on planes or trains, with some of the best noise-cancelling headphones pulling audio duty.

So next I connected it to what most excited me: my portable projector. I have a Samsung The Freestyle (2022), and for a while I've been planning to get rid of my spare-room TV and just use the projector, but I haven't known what to do about good sound. Its own speakers aren't sufficient, but I haven't found anything that's quite right to connect it to instead – either the connection is wrong or the size is.

But the Sony HT-AX7 is ideal. It connects to the Freestyle over Bluetooth, and the HT-AX7 doesn't have to be permanently out. I can put it on a shelf when I'm not watching, and then just grab it, spread its three speakers out in a few seconds, get in position and start enjoying genuine surround sound with the projector. I'm instantly in love.

Sony HT-AX7 on a table, with its rear speaker positioned next to a Samsung projector

Obviously, this isn't actually my Sony HT-AX7/projector setup, but imagine oneself positioned in the middle of this. (Image credit: Future)

And happily, the Sony's sound is really effective when watching movies. It's got enough bass to provide meat to action or big movie soundtracks, but I found dialog easy to pick out, and it's dynamic enough to give impacts and sound effects some heft.

The soundscape feels wider than the small box across the front. Even with my projected screen hitting about 80-inches, the audio didn't feel like a mismatch compared to the screen.

There was impressively little lag over Bluetooth, and absolutely no discernible lag between the front and rear speakers – they felt like a coherent unit. I would not say the surround sound effect is as impressive as my Sonos setup I use for my TV – the rear speakers are too weedy to create a feeling of totally enveloping you (the system doesn't pump bass to them meaningfully at all, relying solely on the front speaker for that) –  but they add directionality for music and effects, and really enhanced the cinematic feeling beyond just having a speaker at the front.

As well as the all-important Sound Field mode, it has two audio modes (accessible through the app) that may come in handy. There's Voice Mode, which pushes the EQ up into higher registers to help speech stand out further, and Night Mode, which clamps down the bass and reduces dynamic range, so it's less likely to wake people in other rooms if a movie turns loud suddenly.

I can certainly imagine there are kids and students who watch a lot more movies on their tablet than I do, and for them the HT-AX7 will be a better fit in a bedroom or dorm room. For me, it's a super-convenient companion to the new breed of small projectors, and it's a total winner in that regard.

Sony HT-AX7 controls in a close up

The Sony HT-AX7's controls – there are more options in the app, though. (Image credit: Future)

However, there had to be a however. We need to talk about the music performance of the Sony HT-AX7, because that's what really causes the $500 / £500 price tag to stick in your throat.

If this were half the price, its music performance would be okay. But at this price, it's an outright disappointment. The mid-range and treble feel weighed down by the bass, and are only able to orbit it rather than express themselves freely, which makes the soundstage feel constrained.

I compared the Sony HT-AX7 directly to a Sonos Era 100, and the Sonos speaker has better balance and detail as a result. It also has a bit more energy… and it's half the price.

Now, the Sony HT-AX7 does, of course, have its party trick: you can take those satellite pucks and place them around the room so it's no longer like you have only one speaker. The sound is more diffused, great for actual parties. And in a party, no one cares about total audio fidelity. 

But as I mentioned before, the system doesn't let the satellites handle bass, so they're only spreading part of the sound around – bass still clearly pulses from the main unit. You could spend the cost of this speaker on two Sonos Era 100 speakers for sound that's dispersed around a room, or less than it on a Sonos Move 2 if you want portability. You'd get better results either way.

Sony HT-AX7 satellite speaker, showing its charging port on the bottom

The circle under the Sony HT-AX7's satellite speakers means they can charge no matter how they're rotated on the main unit. (Image credit: Future)

It's also worth noting here that there's no support for higher quality sound of any kind. No LDAC for higher-res Bluetooth, no Wi-Fi, no 3.5mm jack or USB-C audio input (its USB-C port is used for charging only).

And for TVs, there's no optical connection or HDMI connection, so you can't connect it to any TV or projector without Bluetooth. I can understand not wanting to deal with HDMI ARC here, but an optical/3.5mm input would have really raised the flexibility of the HT-AX7 for people.

The technical features it does have work perfectly, though. It has multi-point pairing to two devices, which worked totally seamlessly for me. I had no trouble switching between my tablet and projector without any connection freak outs.

And the battery life is far better than Sony's promises, in my experience, though it may depend on volume. Sony says 30 hours officially, but I got well over 40 hours, admittedly playing it mostly at only about 20% of volume (because that's all I've needed while it's in the room with me, trying to run it down while I work). Still, that was with the two satellite speakers separated and playing wirelessly too, and the Sound Field processing on. It's extremely impressive (though I don't like that the app only reports battery life in 20% increments).

Sony recommends a 45W charger for using and charging at the same time, and it doesn't come with this in the box – just a USB-C cable. However, it will charge from a lower charger (I used my 20W phone charger), it just might take a while. But you won't need to charge it often, thanks to that battery life.

I really like the Sony HT-AX7 despite its flaws. I think for the price it simply needs to be more versatile and better with music – but someone who prioritizes those is not who I'd recommend it to. As I said, get two Sonos Era 100 speakers if music is your focus.

This is designed to solve a particular problem. To be a soundbar for Bluetooth devices, without the baggage of an actual soundbar. To be the portable sound equivalent to the best portable projectors, easy to pull out for a thrilling movie night, and to tidy away afterwards. If you're a cinephile in a small space, the Sony HT-AX7 is a quiet revolution. It was for me. I just wish the price felt more justifiable, and the speakers stayed on more steadily.

Sony HT-AX7 on a table with one speaker on top, and one in front of it

The Sony HT-AX7 is the Liam Neeson in Taken of speakers, equipped with a very specific set of skills. (Image credit: Future)

Sony HT-AX7 review: price and release date

  • $499 / $499 (approx. AU$960)
  • Released in August 2023

With a price of $499 / $499 (an Australian release is still pending), the Sony HT-AX7 finds itself in the company of products like the Sonos Move 2. As a Bluetooth-only speaker, something like the UE Epicboom is still much cheaper.

But maybe we should compare it some soundbars, too. For the price, the Sonos Beam Gen 2 is a direct competitor to connect to a projector or TV, though it doesn't have Bluetooth. The Samsung HW-Q800C can actually be found for a similar price now, and that has Dolby Atmos, a wide array of speakers, and a separate subwoofer. Of course, it's huge, not portable, and really prefers to be wired, though it has Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

Sony HT-AX7 review: Specs

Should I buy the Sony HT-AX7?

Buy it if…

Don't buy it if…

Sony HT-AX7 review: Also consider

How I tested the Sony HT-AX7

Sony HT-AX7 on a table, with a tablet on top, and its two speakers separated

As you can see, the Sony HT-AX7 is the perfect width for a larger iPad Pro. (Image credit: Future)
  • Tested at home, in different rooms
  • Used to stream movies and music
  • Connected to iPad Pro, iPhone and Samsung The Freestyle (2022)

I tested the Sony HT-AX7 over the course of a week in my home. As mentioned in the review, I used with my 12.9-inch iPad Pro and Samsung The Freestyle projector for watching movies, and with my iPhone for listening to music. I watched movies from Netflix, Disney Plus and Apple TV. For music, I streamed tracks from Apple Music.

For testing the battery life, I played music from my phone to the speaker, with the two satellite speakers removed, and the Sound Field processing mode on.

Ultimate Ears Epicboom review: a big Bluetooth speaker with epic talent
11:00 am | October 21, 2023

Author: admin | Category: Audio Computers Gadgets Hi-Fi Wireless & Bluetooth Speakers | Tags: | Comments: Off

Ultimate Ears Epicboom: Two-minute review

The Ultimate Ears Epicboom has been worth the wait for a fresh speaker from a brand that used to be huge in portable speakers – at least, in terms of sound quality. It's big, it's bold, it looks like a bunch of mug-sized Wonderbooms morphed into one glorious beast, and UE's useful Outdoor Boost button (which made its debut in the 2019 Wonderboom 2) takes pride of place on the top plate. 

So, one of the best Bluetooth speakers on the market then? For sound, correct – and that will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with our Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 2 review, a speaker we rated as one of the best such options around in 2019. OK, the newer UE Wonderboom 3 didn't score quite so highly, but that's largely because there were so few updates between it and its (much) older brother, and the competition got fierce. 

The Epicboom is smaller than the talented (but rather somber-looking) 2020-issue UE Hyperboom and much bigger than the Megaboom 3. Although the Epicboom's wrist strap is ill-placed and odd given the speaker's near-2kg weight (I cannot carry it with the thing around my wrist – I'm no weakling, my palm just isn't Hulk-sized… today) it is still light enough to be grasped by its sides like a plant pot and carried to its destination. And wherever it is placed, indoors or out, you can expect meaty and prominent, zealous sound. 

Through the Ultimate Ears Boom app, you can now power it on or off using your phone, tweak the EQ, deploy Outdoor Boost, alter the volume or daisy-chain up to 150 other PartyUp-enabled Booms in a feature similar to JBL's PartyBoost or Sony's Party Chain (yes, all the big brands like to 'party'). 

The key bit is the word 'enabled' though, because if you recently bought UE's newest (by a wide margin) Wonderboom 3 proposition, it won't work, unfortunately. Why? Because PartyUp is not compatible with any Wonderboom, Blast or Megablast UE speaker. So, while you can daisy-chain your Boom, Boom 2, Boom 3, Megaboom, Megaboom 3 and Hyperboom to your heart's content, the newest speaker in that list was released in February 2020. Then again, maybe you are still using that original Boom you bought in 2013 – and I for one commend you on making that thing last… 

Any other flies in the ointment? The battery life, at 17 hours, is acceptable rather than excellent and we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention two other factors at play: namely price (at $349 / £340 / AU$499, it's more than a little pricey), and connectivity.

Anyone familiar with the Logitech brand knows that UE rarely wades into premium territory with it's funky-fresh speakers. Also, as a quick internet search proves, the much bigger Hyperboom is now available for only slightly more than the Epicboom's MSRP. Perhaps more pressing here though is the smaller but similarly-styled Wonderboom 3, which will set you back a trifling $99.99 / £89.99 / AU$149. Add to this the recent Sonos Era 100, which is a lot cheaper than the Epicboom, at $249 / £249 / AU$399, and as we pointed out in our Sonos Era 100 review works with both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi multi-room – there's a reason Sonos speakers feature heavily in our best wireless speakers roundup. 

What does the pricier Ultimate Ears proposition offer? Just Bluetooth connectivity, with a 55m (180ft) range, all of which does leave us wondering: is there a market for such a thing in 2023? Then again, if a speaker that hooks up to your phone's music is what you chiefly need, but you need it loud and good-looking, you've found it. 

And the reason it gets the rating it does, despite the cost and limited wireless connectivity at the level? It is one of the best party speakers for sound I've heard in some time. 

Ultimate Ears Epicboom review: Price and release date

  • Released September 6, 2023
  • Officially priced at $349 / £340 / AU$499

The Ultimate Ears Epicboom was released in early September 2023 for $349 / £340 / AU$499.

You can choose from two color options at the checkout: cotton white with 'lipstick red' accents (which is more of a coral pink hue), or charcoal black with lime. We tested the former and as previously mentioned, this shoe-box sized speaker – it's around the same size as the Bose Home Speaker 500 – bridges the size gap between the bigger Hyperboom and smaller Megaboom 3. 

For size, I might compare it to the Tribit Stormbox Blast ($199 / £229.99 / AU$319.99) which the Epicboom beats for sound, although at its price, the Epicboom is best compared to other speakers that hover around the $349 mark, including Sonos' dominant ouevre of multi-room speakers. Two words: tough competition. 

Ultimate Ears Epicboom on a navy and orange sofa, held in a hand

Yes, we like matching our nail polish and scatter cushions to our speakers. (Image credit: Future)

Ultimate Ears Epicboom review: Specs

Ultimate Ears Epicboom close-up, showing the USB-C charging port

Finally! The Epicboom is a big UE speaker with a USB-C charging port. (Image credit: Future)

Ultimate Ears Epicboom: Features

  • A 17-hour battery life
  • Plenty of useful in-app presets and features
  • No 3.5mm port or mics

UE says the Epicboom has a 17-hour battery life and in my testing this rang true – even when I played it louder than 50% volume. That quoted stamina is okay, but the older Hyperboom can go for longer, with a claim of 24 hours. The Epicboom also has a one-touch NFC feature (available for NFC-compatible smartphones with Android 8.0 or later) for that 'just hold them together' pairing magic. 

If you're using a 15W charger – you get a USB-C to USB-C cable in the box, but not the block – UE says the Epicboom will charge fully in two hours. I do miss the bright yellow cable UE speakers were once famous for, but the white one supplied here is perfectly adequate. 

Through the refreshed Boom app (updated on September 6), you can choose between different EQ presets including Signature, Bass Boost, Game/Cinema, Podcast/Vocal, and the all-new Deep Relaxation mode. You can also customize the mids, highs, and lows of the sound based on your personal preferences by dragging five different dots on the EQ tab to create your own – if, for instance, your online HIIT instructor tends to speak a little loudly as the workout gets spicier. 

As mentioned, the fan-favorite feature within the Boom app, PartyUp, lets you pair multiple compatible Ultimate Ears speakers (read: Epicboom, Boom, Boom 2, Boom 3MegaboomMegaboom 3, and Hyperboom speakers) to kick your soirée up a notch, but it's also worth noting that if you're pairing two Epicbooms, you can use PartyUp to create a (rather expensive) stereo pair. 

There are no mics under the hood and you don't get Wi-Fi support (so in-built streaming services and voice assistants are out), but the app also lets you select up to four music presets through Apple Music (iOS device only), Spotify (Android only) or Amazon Prime Music. I set the radio station Apple Music 1 as a preset and it works beautifully. 

Ultimate Ears Epicboom close-up, showing the top plate buttons

Unlike smaller UE speakers, the Epicboom's buttons are easy to navigate and understand. (Image credit: Future)
  • Features score: 3/5

Ultimate Ears Epicboom review: Design

  • A return to UE's trademark fun, fresh design
  • IP67 rating and environmentally friendly materials
  • Big – but not too big

Make no mistake: although UE's design language here is all fun, it's rock-solid in terms of build and braun. Ultimate Ears is back to being the Cali surfer dude (or dudette) of Bluetooth speakers; gone is the brutalist build of the Hyperboom – Epicboom is made from 100% post-consumer recycled polyester fabric, a minimum of 59% post-consumer recycled plastic and one thing that's hard to photograph properly is the vanilla-ice-cream-with-strawberry-sprinkles nature of this plastic. It's both classy and cute. 

Under the hood, the dual 1.5-inch drivers are coupled with a 4.6-inch woofer for bass clarity and immersive sound that'll go just above 94dB at full whack (think lawnmower loud). I can confirm that the Epicboom goes loud enough without distorting for your next garden party or medium-sized indoor event – especially with the Outdoor Boost button, which augments the treble to cut through extraneous noise, as well as those on-the-fly EQ tweaks. 

UE's trademark gigantic plus and minus buttons on the side and fully water- and dust-proof IP67 rating are here again – and yes, this one also floats if it finds its way into your pool.

One of our gripes with the smaller Wonderboom 3 was the lack of information on each tiny button's function. That is not the case here. Yes, the unit is bigger, but these buttons are far more intuitive, in that they start on the left with 'power', then 'pairing', the Outdoor Boost button, and finally UE's 'Magic button' which handles playback or your presets. And in front of all of these (closer to the big plus/minus buttons on the front-facing panel) is your NFC Connect spot. It's simple – although of course if you're nowhere near it, you can use your phone to do control it via the Boom app. 

My one issue with the design? The strap – it isn't helpful and is actually painful if you hang the entire thing around your wrist and try to bicep curl it. But that's a small thing in an otherwise delightfully classic Ultimate Ears design. 

  • Design score: 4.5/5

Ultimate Ears Epicboom, showing the wrist strap in a hand, on navy background

The Epicboom is a hefty beast and despite looking smart, this strap doesn't really help. (Image credit: Future)

Ultimate Ears Epicboom review: Sound quality

The UE Epicboom has 360-degree omnidirectional sound, so wherever you are in relation to the speaker you're getting quality audio chops. 

Niall Horan's orchestral version of So Long skips along musically, with admirable precision and timing across the frequencies in an expansive, emotive, layered mix that gives his vocals more space to shine than in almost any other rival Bluetooth speaker I've tested. Dungeon Family's Follow the Light is vibrant and as funk-heavy as it should be, with oodles of early noughties boot-shaking bass clout and energy. Jamie T's voice is textured and brimming with South London attitude as he spits out The Old Style Raiders

Honestly, even when I max out both the bass slider and the volume during testing, I struggle to make it struggle, with even my more complex, heavy playlists. 

Ultimate Ears has been holding out on us for a great new speaker, but I'm grateful for any wait that culminates in this. Like a band that broke through with a number-one smash hit, followed it up with an even better album, then cemented it with… nothing, for well over two years, Epicboom feels like that hotly-anticipated banger of a second album that confirms I was right about UE all along.

Epicboom's BOOM app, three screens on gray background

Epicboom's nifty 'BOOM' companion app offers all the control options you need from your paired device.  (Image credit: Future)
  • Sound quality: 5/5

Ultimate Ears Epicboom review: Value

Know this: within its price bracket, the Epicboom is one of the best-sounding Bluetooth speakers around right now.

Its fresh design, Outdoor mode, excellent companion app and superior sound make it a compelling proposition in the Bluetooth arena – but therein lies an issue: other things can connect to your Wi-Fi and thus will do more for less outlay (Sonos Era 100, this is you). 

The Epicboom's battery life is adequate rather than excellent and while it's a great waterproof companion for outdoor parties, I do worry whether anyone considering it might just opt for something that'll do it cheaper, like the Tribit Stormbox Blast, or pay a little extra for the Sonos Move 2 or Naim Mu-so Qb 2 and get Wi-Fi support along with all of the associated perks. 

I still recommend it for sound though – and I want to make that plain: this thing is worth every penny of the money if you value sound quality above all else. The issue I see is that when looking for something fun which you can chuck outside at the barbecue and know it'll bring the tunes, audiophile-quality sound is seldom the top priority.

  • Value score: 4/5

Epicboom's bottom section on a white table, showing its pink plastic finish

I really like the Epicboom's sprinkles-on-vanilla-ice-cream finish (Image credit: Peter Hoffmann)

Should I buy the UE Epicboom?

Buy it if…

Don’t buy it if…

Ultimate Ears Epicboom review: Also consider

How I tested the Ultimate Ears Epicboom

  • Tested for a week after a thorough run-in, listened against the Tribit Stormbox Blast, UE Boom 3 and Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 3
  • Used in the office; at home; in a friend's garden
  • Listened to Tidal Masters, Apple Music Lossless tracks and Spotify from an iPhone XR, Sony Xperia 1 IV and a MacBook Pro

As always when testing any hi-fi separate, time, energy, placement and investment is key. I tested the Ultimate Ears Epicboom in one of the larger boardrooms in our offices, my own humble apartment, a dance studio and a friend's garden (I don't have a garden). 

To test the omnidirectional sound quality, I danced around the Epicboom in ever-decreasing circles. I did of course max out the volume in the biggest office boardroom – I'm an agent of chaos – and while I stopped short of submerging the speaker in freshwater, I did check that it floats in my bathtub (not to boast, but I do have one of those). 

When testing the audio quality across the frequencies, I listened to various playlists spanning everything from pop to thrash metal on Apple Music, Qobuz and Tidal from my iPhone, but also to podcasts and albums on Spotify – plus YouTube tutorials (mostly on how to get a Thames foreshore permit to go mudlarking, if you must know) from my MacBook Pro. 

I’ve been testing audio products for five years now. As a dancer, aerialist and musical theater performer in another life, sound quality has always taken priority for me personally – but price, portability and durability are also very high on the list. 

Read more about how we test

  • First reviewed: October 2023