Working from home during the pandemic has been a challenge for someone used to a dead quiet house. While I typically rely on white noise to help me concentrate, it’s now been replaced with David Whiting’sEndless Acid Banger: a browser-based sequencer that generates random but very listenable Acid house music.
Using a randomized algorithm, The Endless Acid Banger autofills a sequencer with notes and four drum tracks that evolve and change over time as parameters are slowly tweaked and tracks are muted and unmuted. You’re able to tweak some of the parameters yourself (crank up the BPM if you’re on a tight deadline and want to boost your productivity—or your stress level) while regenerate buttons (⟳) can be used to randomize a track again. You can also just leave it running on total autopilot if all you’re interested in is endless background beats without any distracting samples or vocals.
When Pioneer initially described their new DJ monitors, the VM-80s, I was convinced they’d be a great addition to my desk audio setup. Pioneer makes great, solid speakers, and these new monitors—essentially $289 standalone speakers that can be installed in any configuration—looked like just the trick to get some solid audio out of my lossless music files.
I wasn’t wrong. But then again, how wrong I was.
When I cracked open the box, I quickly discovered that these aren’t desktop speakers as much as behemoths fit for a DJ booth. They are, in a word, glorious, and in another word, huge.
First, let’s address the question: “Who are these for?” Pioneer sells these as powered studio monitors, which means they have a built-in amplifier and some minor digital processing power built in. Studio monitors are essentially sturdy, no-nonsense speakers designed for music production, and, like the legendary Yamaha NS10M, they are supposed to offer completely flat and accurate sound reproduction. While this seems odd in an era of heavy bass and twiddly treble, a pair of simple speakers is often the best tool available to a DJ or producer when trying to understand and fine-tune a mix.
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These speakers are definitely studio monitors. They have an 8-inch woofer and standard tweeter ensconced inside an unusual oval cone that works to shape the sound. Bass response is excellent and the resulting stereo projection of having two of these in a close position to your mixing desk or computer is amazing.
Arguably, this is to be expected. Speakers like these move a lot of air and I felt my desk vibrating as these things really took off. I tested it using a number of song genres, from techno to jazz to my favorite test song, Fleetwood Mac’s, “Everywhere.” “Everywhere” is interesting because it has a number of intertwined highs and lows and it can be tough to get good separation of each layer, from the twinkling chimes to the galloping bass, not to mention synthetic horns and a steel drum sound that can be lost in the chorus on lesser speakers.
Playing these songs through the VM-80 was like running a DJ booth in my attic office. I had excellent reproduction through most volume levels, and even at max volume, the sound wasn’t muddy or confused. That said, these are definitely near-field speakers that can play double duty as smaller DJ speakers. The ideal position for the VM-80s is on a stand, away from walls and windows, at about head height, and if you don’t have the room for these guys don’t even bother. Unless your desk is as big as a barn door, placing these near your keyboard or anywhere closer than five feet is going to be quite a shock. I loved how they sounded up close and at mid-volume, but I knew my eardrums wouldn’t last long if I kept them there.
So the answer to that question of who these speakers are for is, quite simply, DJs and electronic musicians. These can do double duty as stage speakers, although the design and padding definitely won’t survive being dragged from gig to gig. Instead, you could easily place these up next to your mixing station and use them to master audio or, in a pinch, invite a few friends up to your loft for an impromptu rave.
Pioneer has added an interesting trick to these speakers that is also worth exploring. Because it has a digital sound processor built in, the speakers have four bass and four treble settings that let you change the sound profile considerably.
In the second position, the speakers are absolutely flat. The other three positions will expand the low and high frequencies quite a bit, and the fourth setting will max the bass and treble completely, creating speakers that sound better in a club than in your den. I tested all of the settings and preferred the flat treble and bass to either of the others.
There are a few things to consider before picking up these beasts. First, they don’t come in pairs, so you have to pay $289 each for left and right speakers. Add in the stands, about $160 per pair, and you’re already looking at an $800 investment. Further, the speakers support XLR, phono, or RCA inputs. This means you’ll need to invest in a set of cables to connect to your standalone amplifier or to connect them directly to a computer. Because the speakers have a built-in amp you won’t have to worry too much about adding anything into the sound chain, but I enjoyed them best when they were connected to my Schiit pre-amp. That said, if you’re looking at these then you probably already have a setup in mind.
You get a lot of speaker for your money when it comes to the VM-80s, and I was very impressed, if a bit overwhelmed. Pioneer also announced a number of smaller speakers in the VM line, including the VM-50, which we’ll review as well, so your DJ dreams don’t have to be dashed if you can’t fit these in your studio. The bottom line? Pioneer made some lovely, affordable speakers that sound as wonderful as real studio monitors and even better blasting out Radiohead at high decibels.
Urbanista isn’t a household name. Founded in Sweden, the company makes low-cost, high-design headphones for folks who don’t want to spend a few hundred dollars on options from Apple, Bose, or Beats. Their latest product, the Miami, is a pair of active noise-canceling headphones with 50-hour battery life and a tempting price tag.
These are not premium headphones. They are nicely designed and the monochrome hues—on the review unit I tested, a glossy glowing green/blue that really pops—are quite fashionable. The audio quality is fine and they fit great even on bigger heads. I used them exercising for a few weeks and then on a six-hour flight and I was impressed in both cases. They stayed on my head while I was shadowboxing and running, and on the flight, they destroyed enough plane noise to make things very pleasant.
The headphones also have on-ear sensors so they’ll stop playing when you take them off. Couple that with a 50-hour battery and you’ve got an interesting set of noise-canceling cans.
You can connect the Urbanista Miami wirelessly via Bluetooth or to a regular audio jack with the included cable. The box also includes an international adaptor for plane seats with dual audio inputs. All of that works well, and you can turn off the ANC with a button on the side. You can even listen to the headphones when the battery is dead, although the sound quality is very muddy.
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If you need audiophile quality, however, a pair of $149 headphones is decidedly not it. The attractive design notwithstanding, you definitely don’t get much range with these guys. They’re bass-heavy, a fairly common problem with cheaper, mass-market headphones like these. That’s great for kids and teens or maybe if you’re looking for something that you’ll wear for a few years at the gym or on the road, these will work fine. I can’t attest to the long-term build quality, but the entire set is made of plastic and I saw a bit of wear and tear even in the few weeks I’ve used them. As you can see, the rubber ear pads are already wrinkling with a bit of use and could easily crack and split with extreme use.
But the active noise cancellation works, and that’s the real draw of the Miami’s real draw. Finding quality ANC in a $149 set of headphones is rare, and these definitely work. They’re an acceptable alternative to lower-cost powered headphones like Sony WH-CH510 or the slightly more expensive $179 AKG N60NC noise-cancelling headphones.
That said, if you’re looking for a pair of headphones for a picky teenager or a traveler on a budget, you could do worse than these—a pair of fashion-focused headphones with a little bit of high tech thrown in. Folks who have used headphones like the Bose Noise Canceling Headphone 700, Sony WH-1000XM3, or the AirPods Pro Max will definitely be disappointed with the Urbanista Miami, but if you’re looking for a quick and affordable fix for your noise-canceling needs, they’re priced right and work well.
Hello, hello. If you’re reading this it means that you may be somewhat interested in audio, or at the very least, are in the market for a new, affordable pair of headphones. Well, look no further than these Anker Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro ANC Headphones, down to $100 from the original list price of $130. Available in four colors, The Souncore Liberty 2 Pros are the latest in a steady brand compatible with both Apple and Andriod. The headphones themselves have targeted ANC (active noise cancellation) and boasts HearID, a personalized EQ that looks inside your ears and analyzes the shape for a customized listening experience.
The Liberty Air 2 Pros also have up to 26 hours of playtime and seven hours of playback with just one charge, and if you use the charging case (you should!), you’ll get three re-charges. Of course, they come with noise-canceling microphones so you can take Zoom calls in peace, especially if you have too thin walls and too loud neighbors. And honestly, these are great competition to the original AirPods and the AirPods Pro which are about $150 and $250, respectfully.
For many, working from home this year has been a tricky adjustment. Among the many frustrations and inconveniences are the many noises your housemates will make as you try to focus on your work. Asking to keep the noise down might work, but it can also cause some tension, and it’s never any fun.
Spare yourself the trouble with the Sony WH-1000XM4 noise-canceling headphones. Typically they’d cost you $348, but they’re down to $278 today at Best Buy. I’ve been testing them for the past couple weeks, and the noise-cancellation is a joy when your neighbors have a symphony of dogs on standby.
In his review, Gizmodo’s Andrew Liszewski says they provide the best noise-canceling experience, and you can easily switch between two paired devices, so you can toggle from a laptop to a phone before getting started on a home workout or heading out for a walk.
This deal was originally published by Jordan McMahon on 12/09/2020 and updated with new information on 03/24/2021.
A good pair of headphones are more than a vessel for your favorite tunes. They can help your favorite hosts keep you company during a lonely shift, help keep you energized during your morning run, or just block out noisy neighbors so you can stay focused and do the dang thing. Headphones come in all shapes and sizes, packed with a range of features from noise cancellation to voice-assistant integration, all of which can help mold your experience to best suit your needs.
Bose’s 700 wireless headphones, which are down from $380 to $300 right now, packs noise-cancellation and 20 hours of battery life into a sleek body you won’t feel ashamed of plopping on your dome before getting to work. They also have voice and touch controls for easier on-the-go tune switching. Heads up, though: this discount is only for the Soapstone color option, though the silver and black headphones are discounted at a slightly lower rate if those are more your style.
Apple introduced the ability to track your noise level exposure on the Apple Watch back in 2019. The company also launched three clinical research studies alongside that feature, including one to examine hearing health. Now, a little over a year later, Apple’s sharing some preliminary results in time for World Hearing Day.
For the Apple Hearing Study, Apple partnered with the University of Michigan to look at how daily sound exposure can impact hearing over time. In a briefing, Dr. Rick Neitzel from the University of Michigan noted that the “thousands” of participants in the study volunteered their data and, in addition to regular questionnaires, participated in regular hearing tests. The study also looked at noise exposure from headphones and wasn’t necessarily limited to data collected from the Apple Watch. Headphone exposure data, for example, could also be collected from the iPhone and iPad. That said, the researchers were able to get more detailed data from watch users, including environmental noise, heart rate, heart rate variability, and exercise.
According to Neitzel, one intriguing takeaway from the early data is that one in five participants experienced some kind of hearing loss, according to World Health Organization guidelines, and that there seems to be a link between chronic environmental noise and cardiovascular disease. Also, nearly 50% of participants currently work, or previously worked, in a loud workplace. Another surprising tidbit was that despite covid-19 lockdowns, many participants still had high environmental noise exposure (though overall noise exposure was cut nearly in half). About 10% of participants also had been professionally diagnosed with hearing loss, but despite that diagnosis, 75% of them weren’t using assistive support such as hearing aids or cochlear implants. Another 10% had average headphone sound exposure exceeding weekly WHO limits, and 20% had daily exposure above daily WHO limits. Another sobering finding was that 25% regularly experienced a ringing in the ears that could be tinnitus a few times per week and that nearly 50% hadn’t had their hearing tested by a professional in at least a decade.
The findings are actually pretty impressive when you consider the scale and the detailed data that wearables can report with just passive health-monitoring. A major problem that can occur with health research is that the findings may come from a limited sample that may not be indicative of the general population or have an inherent bias (i.e., not enough BIPOC subjects, etc.) With wearables, you can actually conduct continuous research with a much, much larger slice of the population. The Apple Heart Study, for example, managed to get 400,000 participants in eight months, making it the largest virtual study to date.
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On that front, Neitzel said that he believes that the participants in the Apple Hearing Study are overall accurately representative of the general population. He also noted that access to location data, for example, can help researchers look for more esoteric patterns. For example, researchers can now ask questions like, “Is hearing loss worse in an area with more air pollution?”
The Apple Hearing Study is still ongoing, and Neitzel noted there’s still more to learn. In particular, Neitzel pointed to understanding how typical noise exposure and headphone listening patterns could impact future hearing health, including tinnitus, as well as further exploring the relationship between hearing and cardiovascular health. In the meantime, however, it’s probably a good idea if we all just lowered the volume on our headphones.
Everything is loud all the time. Don’t you just wish you could cancel it? It is time to deplatform noise and you can do that with Anker’s Soundcore Q30 headphones, which are down to $68. These bad boys feature robust noise cancellation options, including three different modes. You can choose to dampen outdoor, indoor, or airplane noises, so these are optimized for a variety of use cases. These are also wireless and feature 40-hours of battery life in noise cancelling mode, and 60 in standard. Toss in some soft leather earcups and a lightweight design and you’ve got a comfortable headset that suits your needs. Everyone come to my noise is over party.
In a world in which Apple is now selling $549 headphones, and the major players like Bose are sure to follow suit with equally pricey devices, it’s refreshing to find a pair of earbuds that offer solid noise cancellation, excellent design, and a great price.
The Liberty Air 2 Pros from Anker sub-brand Soundcore cost $130 and come with a cute little charging case that slides up and exposes a pair of white, black, pink, or blue earbuds. The buds last for about six hours on one charge and have simple touch controls. You can double-tap to start and stop the music or go to the next track and hold a finger near the top of the metal part to turn noise cancellation on and off.
The sound quality is good. You will not mistake these for high-end earbuds. The AirPods Pro, for example, have a cleaner presence, while these ‘buds feature a flat, almost monochromatic sound, with an acceptable amount of bass and treble with little tuning on either end. The noise cancellation was good in both a (simulated) airplane environment and outdoors. I wouldn’t recommend these for, say, a long flight—you want over-ear headphones for that—but they knocked out a lot of the low- to mid-range hum of most environments. One odd thing I noticed was that these earbuds let me hear the noise bed, or the slight hissing sound in some songs that are artifacts of the recording process. In fact, it was surprisingly noticeable, especially on older songs.
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The earbuds come with nine different rubber tips ranging from extra small to super large. I swapped out the normal-sized ones for slightly larger ones and got a better fit. You’ll probably find yourself doing the same. Without a tight fit, these earbuds aren’t quite as effective in loud environments, but once you’ve dialed things in, they are light and comfortable.
Battery life was great. I got six hours of use out of these without a charge and the battery case holds another few fill-ups before you need to connect these to a USB-C charger. You could safely put these in your pocket on a daily basis and rarely have to worry about a recharge if you use them sporadically for calls and listening.
I listened to a bit of everything using the Liberty Air 2 Pros and found them more than capable of playing anything from a little Taylor Swift to some Foo Fighters. I wanted a bit more separation in the sound and a deeper soundstage—as I mentioned before, the music is front and center without much difference between lows and highs. Add in the active noise cancellation and you’ve got a pair of earbuds suitable for subway commutes and walks in the neighborhood.
I also tried the Soundcore app to “tune” the earbuds to my hearing. This included what amounted to a hearing test that had me listen to various frequencies at various volume levels. The resulting profile sounded slightly better than the default setting but not by much.
One comical little app feature is a noise-canceling level dial which, I believe, is supposed to reduce certain frequencies. Spinning the dial did nothing.
And, at $130, I wouldn’t expect much more. These little guys work well, fit well, and offer solid noise cancellation. If you’re in the market for something that works, sounds good, and won’t break the bank, the Liberty Air 2 Pros are worth a look.
A low-cost alternative to Samsung and Apple’s “Pro” wireless earbuds.
Giz AsksGiz AsksIn this Gizmodo series, we ask questions about everything and get answers from a variety of experts.
Is your body perfectly toned? Are your workdays marathons of effortless achievement? Do your relationships proceed from a place of maximal openness/empathy? Have you, through therapy or nootropics, trained your brain away from thoughts of sadness/despair? If you’ve answered yes to all of these questions—and frankly I can’t imagine a person who wouldn’t—you might be wondering: what’s next? What is left, at this point, to optimize? To which we’d respond: your ears. A finely-tuned pair has tremendous advantages as both practical tool and status symbol. Whether or not it’s even possible to sensitize your ears is another question—one which, for this week’s Giz Asks, we’ve posed to a number of audiologists.
If you practice listening to rising tones, or falling tones, or really anything, your ear will stay the same but your brain will become more sensitized to whatever distinction you’re drilling on. Your ear is constantly getting tuned to its environment.
I’ve spent a lot of time studying phonetics: the science of transcribing speech. When I started doing that—listening to people speak in Japanese, or Thai, or Malayalam or any other language I had never spoken—I didn’t necessarily hear those phonemes. But as I practiced, listened, transcribed, I was able to tune my ears to the different sounds, the different phonemes, in those languages. Focused attention and practice will absolutely tune your ear.
Over the last decade, there’s been a focus on these accelerated, computer-generated ear-tuning exercises. These have been marketed for various reasons, primarily money. But ear tuning naturally happens in the ambient environment and does not require any specialized computer based training.
For instance: I have a new granddaughter. And when little Abigail was first born, her mom did not really have a differentiated response to her different cries. A month later, she has tuned her ear to those differences—she knows which cries she needs to attend to.
Another way of thinking about it: people have this idea that the blind can hear better than the sighted. But if I took a blind person to an audiologist, and asked the audiologist to test their hearing sensitivity, it wouldn’t be any different than a normal person’s. That would change, though, if you asked a different question. When you become blind, vision centers in your brain get a new job: they have to detect slight differences in dynamic hearing that tell you about movement on the periphery. So a blind person’s ears become tuned to small differences in frequency and sound localization, because they don’t have access to sight. That’s neuroplasticity in action.
Assistant Clinical Professor, Speech and Hearing Sciences, University of North Carolina
If we’re talking about improving your ability to detect sounds, my short answer is: no. At the end of the day, hearing is a neural process. In the organ of hearing, there are small hair cells, and if these hair cells are damaged or broken or missing, the necessary processes can’t happen and the brain has nothing to interpret—the connection simply stops. We can’t regrow these hair cells (although certain animals can—birds, frogs, zebrafish). Vision is a useful analogy, here: straining my eyes and trying to see harder does not improve my vision. I cannot will myself to see a wider bandwidth of colors.
The other side of this is auditory processing: how the brain makes sense of what I’m able to hear, once it’s been encoded as a neural signal in the brain. The question, then, is: can that be improved? The research on this subject is very poor. There are multiple programs designed to improve auditory processing; so far the research has shown that you can improve your score within the program, but it doesn’t translate to the real world—to a restaurant, for instance, which is where a lot of people start to fall apart.
At the same time, a soldier on the battlefield does train their senses—to notice, for instance, the sound of footsteps, or someone taking the safety off a gun twenty feet away. Have they enhanced their hearing? Not necessarily. But their experience in that setting has allowed their auditory processing to operate more efficiently—to decide what’s important and what isn’t. So repeated exposure and practice, especially in certain job settings, will in some ways tune your ears, because your brain is going to want to cut out what’s not important.
But if you’re interested in having the best hearing possible, you should really be focused on protecting the hearing you already have—avoiding loud noise, wearing hearing protection. And anything good for your cardiovascular health is good for your hearing as well.
Professor and Director of the Knowles Hearing Center at Northwestern University
It is often thought that our senses cannot be modified. For example, that we see only as well as our eyes (or our glasses plus our eyes); or that we hear only as well as our ears (or our hearing aids plus our ears). However, this is not the case. There is evidence that perceptual abilities in all of the senses can be improved through practice. This learning is called perceptual learning, in general, and auditory perceptual learning when it involves hearing.
Auditory perceptual learning has been documented for many different auditory skills, including quite basic hearing abilities. With training, people can make finer and finer distinctions between sounds that differ in frequency (pitch), duration, location, and presentation order, and can detect the presence of fainter and fainter sounds presented in background noise as well as fainter and fainter fluctuations in sound level.
Certain circumstances appear to be necessary for this learning to occur:
Just Do It: If the goal is to improve a particular auditory skill, it is generally necessary to practice that skill; mere exposure to the relevant sounds is not enough.
Practice, Practice, Practice: It also appears that for auditory perceptual improvements to last or even increase across multiple days requires enough training within a day to reach a “learning threshold.” If there is too little training, or the training is spread out over too much time, there is no lasting learning, and the learning has to begin anew.
Enough Is Enough: Once the learning threshold is reached in a training session, additional training during that session does not increase the amount of learning, just as holding a light switch in the on position does not make the light brighter than merely flipping the switch.
Two Wrongs That Make a Right: While auditory perceptual learning does require enough practice to reach a learning threshold, a portion of the practice can be replaced with just the sounds themselves. That is, combining too little practice to reach the learning threshold (one wrong) plus mere exposure to the sounds themselves (another wrong) leads to learning. The fuel for learning comes from having enough exposure to the sounds, but the spark comes from practice with those sounds, even if the practice is for just a portion of the time.
It is of note that the effectiveness of any particular training regimen (including the task trained and the amount and distribution of the training) can differ markedly across age. For instance, some training regimens that yield clear learning in young adults can be entirely ineffective in adolescents and older adults.
Assistant Professor, Speech and Hearing Science, Arizona State University
My answer to your question is yes. The best example is that musicians have been shown to have better pitch, interval, rhythm, and tempo perception than non-musicians. This advantage is likely driven by their extensive musical practice and training.
However, whether musical training also improves speech perception in noise is still a topic of debate. Lab-based auditory training that lasts only a few hours over multiple days has also been shown to be effective in improving sound detection and discrimination, although such perceptual learning may not always generalize to different but relevant tasks and stimuli.
Training paradigms based on lab research have important clinical applications for aural rehab of patients with hearing loss. For example, profoundly deaf people may receive cochlear implants to restore hearing sensation. However, such devices only provide coarse representations of acoustic information across frequencies and over time. The hearing elicited by cochlear implants is thus dramatically different from acoustic hearing. Cochlear implant users who have had hearing before deafness will have to learn the new input from cochlear implants to recognize speech and environmental sound. Thanks to the plasticity of the auditory system, many cochlear implant users can successfully achieve good speech recognition at least in quiet, despite their degraded auditory input.
Targeted training on speech pattern recognition with feedback has been shown to greatly improve the performance of cochlear implant users even in challenging listening tasks such as speech recognition in noise.
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