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listen up... 
The mobile era has given rise to an entire industry of accessories, cases, add-ons and adaptors -- most of it junk. We're interested in how things sound, so start with a portable headphone amp, find some earbuds or headphones that block out sound and fit snugly for long periods of time, and get your fidelity on.

We were skeptical, but BlueAnt's lightweight Embrace cans serve dynamic, detailed sound even though they don't completely envelope your ears. They rest gently on the head, which helps for longer listening sessions, and the "sealed ear pads" appear benign, but certainly focus your ears. Certainly a grade above several other ear-cushioned noise-canceling brands we've tried. Reminds you how important comfort is to the listening experience. Cable comes with Apple remote and OMTP adaptor.

The new Arriva earbuds work best for exercise, biking, all manner of sport. A unique wraparound design lets them fit snugly to the back of your head, and the buds themselves fit snugly in the ears. We use the Acoustibuds and grip for secure fit and noise-blocking. The tradeoff with Arrivas deals with wireless comfort during strenuous routine, but absence of cord reaps big rewards, and signal never fails.

Blueant Q2 Smart Bluetooth Headset Sports rich sound, voice commands, easy hookup and jamming battery life, typically up to two days. Comes with a variety of ear pieces for best fit.

Motorola T505 Speaker phone handles not just your bluetooth phone but streams your music, and smoothly segues back and forth between the two when you takes calls. Although many FM signal units don't deliver, this one finds the best band for whichever area you're in, tells where to tune, and produces quality FM sound. Honking battery life, goes weeks without recharging, turns off automatically so you don't have to remember.

Twelve South iPad/iPhone Cases
This dandy little shop makes the most stylishly convenient widgets, from its Compass portable iPad stand to the SurfacePad macbook wrist cushions. The Book Book line of cases camouflages your iPad/iPhone (and now for Air) as an old-fashioned heirloom. They also make an ingenious BassJump woofer for the much-needed bottom boost your MacBook needs in hotel rooms.
Otter iPhone/iPod Armour cases
--Waterproof, dustproof, dirtproof, sandproof, and drop-proof
--ClickWheel protected by a thin membrane which remains fully functional through the case
--Included belt clip provides cable management for your headphones (however, even these sturdy clips tend to malfunction, we recommend "through the belt" style holsters)
--External headphone jack usable with any style headphones with a standard mini stereo plug

Headroom Total Airhead

We swear by this amp, carried its uncle around for years, built like a truck and performs like a mule. (Almost as good as Sean Penn on a dingy.) Try out one of your favorite tracks at LOW volume for revealing depth and detail. Like a speaker, if you can hear detail at very low volumes, you've got a groovy thing. Headroom has recently redesigned the entire unit, but it still is cheap at $99, and the Headroom Total Bithead ($149) features a USB connection for better laptop sound through external speakers. A steal.

more to come... anybody used these Boostaroos?

isolation earbuds 

Within the past two years, earbuds have developed into the preferred listening device for both "noise cancelation" and fidelity. They consist of some key parts detailed below: the bud itself, which sits deep inside the ear canal, the foam or rummber tip, which fits the bud into the ear canal and blocks out noise, and the "outer piece" or "anchor," which rests in the outer ear. You simply can't make the same claims to quality with those bulky battery headphones.

Shure E500PTH
and SE210

Shure has the right idea with its new E500s and E530s: the earpiece fits deep into the canal while a larger anchor rests in the lobe for stability and comfort. The SE210s are better for smaller canals. The sound is faithful, full-bodied, even elegant. The problem was actually the different sized tips, because everybody knows the BIG problem with earbud units are comfort -- specifically seal and stability. For this, expanding foam works better than rubber "bubble" type, especially for larger canals. The "bubble" fits are far too leaky and unstable for most common listening experiences. Turn your head the wrong way, the fit slips and you have to readjust. Both units come with handy mute clip and volume adaptor, which should be standard on all these units, but aren't.

vmode VIBE
Sennheiser PSC-300 and CX-300 B
JVC HA-NCX77 5 Pro

These units are all acceptable choices for reduced budgets (most under $100), but suffer from the same design flaws: weird, unstable fits marred by rubber tips and outer-ear positioning. As a general rule, the further in the earbud rests in your ear canal, the better the sound isolation, the more focused the sound. (The clip-on models are simply not for serious listening.) As with amps, test your earbuds with QUIET music, both to gauge the noise-cancellation and focus on incidental source noise like hiss. It's tempting to try out isolation earbuds in a noisy setting to see how much they filter out, but the fit will tell you this sooner and more convincingly -- a better, more stable fit is harder to find than superior noise supression. Take yourself to the quietest space possible and turn down the volume: the more detail you can hear in the quiet mode, the better earbuds you're wearing.

Apple is pushing super.fis, and they're perfectly respectable if ordinary. We had trouble getting a good fit: the metallic tubes are larger, presumably to carry more detail or sound, but cramming it into the ear canal can be painful, and there's no stability: cough, sneeze, or simply twist your neck and they jiggle out of place. Perhaps this is a better solution for Cousin Big-Ears.

Etymonic ER4P

This unit came with a lot of buzz, and has held the audiophile sector for the past couple of years, justifiably so. The sound is smooth, broad, detailed and rich, with plenty of mid- and bass range. My complaint is the fit: these buds have the longest stem of the batch, so the sound sits very close to your ear drums, but also extends further out the ear instead of resting in the lobe. These are not spy units: everybody will know you have earbuds in, you get those "subtle Martian" looks. But the quality is very rewarding. There is a budget model (ER6i) which doesn't sacrifice very much in quality, either. However, if you're serious about spending at least $170, we strongly urge you to consider:

Westone UM2

The gold standard for both sound and fit. This Colorado Springs firm specializes in custom-molded ear monitors for performing musicians, and this is Westone's consumer model based on years of feedback from musicians. In the live setting, noise cancellation takes on added urgency: in order to hear a decent balance, stage noise needs to get filtered way down.

But the overriding breakthrough in this unit is its comfortable fit: a deep ear position allows the (clear or black) anchor to rest in the ear lobe, which allows chewing, talking, and the most natural motions without ever disturbing the sound. You forget you have these things on, which will do wonders for your marriage, not to mention your parenting.

The fidelity is a wonder: it was getting hard to believe that earbuds could deliver the kind of spaciousness and breadth that larger headphones can deliver. These do: they're exacting without being cold, spacious without ever getting boomy, and intimate in that ineffable way that puts you in the room, or the audience, with the music.

Bose QuietComfort 2 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones

First to market, backed by a relentless campaign and now the new model 3s (take a pass), this is really Bose at its best: whatever they do to the sound between the source and your ear is negligible compared to how well they block out noise. This model is getting to the point where an ebay search will turn up plenty of decent alternatives to the outrageously inflated price (don't even think about paying $350 retail, or you're a chump). Bose is simply too closeted about both its specs and methods, and overall too weird a brand. Still: they have inspired imitators.

quiet point Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7 QuietPoint

It could partly be our prejudice against Bose, but these are simply irresistible: the received wisdom is about how you have to sacrifice fidelity for "active noise cancelation," but these would make great universal headphones. And the filter beats Bose in any case. Watch them turn their heads in envy and you bop down the aisle to the restroom.

JVC’s HA-NC250

Reviewed favorably in the the NYTimes... but how can you trust that paper after both Iraq and fluff like this?

Altec Lansing inMotion IM500 Portable Audio System for iPod
We put this in our kitchen after giving up on that $500 Bose CD changer, which takes forever to load and won't even shuffle between 5 discs. Works better as an OVERPRICED alarm clock. But Altec has created a convenient and sturdy-sounding unit that handles both iPod (all models) and an AUX input for our CD player. The remote controls both the base AND the iPod, and the sound is smooth and rewarding, even at higher volumes...

Tivoli Audio iPal

This is still the standard, quick and dirty, easy to lug, makes a great bathroom radio on snow days, and performs reliably. While battery life could be better, you can recharge in the car if needed using a cig lighter adaptor, and the radio reception is boffo. Tivoli recently came out with an Audio Songbook, a trimmer travel version that doubles as an alarm clock.
 recent rock/pop

2011 in the running...

2010 iTunes playlist
still gaining acceptance...


Rosanne Cash The List (Sony)
Mission of Burma The Sound The Speed The Light (Matador)
John Fogerty Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again (Verve)
Chris Potter Ultrahang (ArtistShare)
Allen Toussaint The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch)
the-dream Love vs. money
Lily Allen It's Not Me It's You
Oxford American
10th Anniversary Edition

Susan Tedeschi Back to the River (Verve Forecast)
Bob Dylan Tell Tale Signs (Sony BMG)
Walter Becker Circus Money (Mailboat Records)
Beck Modern Guilt (Interscope)
Al Green Lay It Down (Blue Note)
Erykah Badu New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War (Motown)
Portishead Third (Mercury)
Carlene Carter Stronger (Yep Roc)
Punch Brothers Punch (Nonesuch)
Waco Brothers Waco Express: Live and Kickin' at Schuba's (Bloodshot)
Steve Malkmus & the Jicks Real Emotional Trash (Matador)



1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About, by Joshua Clover (California)
The Cultural Dictionary of Punk 1974-1982, by Nicholas Rombes (Continuum)
Gig Posters: Rock Show Art of the 21st Century, by Clay Hayes (Quirk)
The Song Is You, by Arthur Phillips
Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music,
by Tom Gioia

Oxford American 10th Anniversary Southern Music Issue
1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, by Tom Moon (Workman)
There's A Riot Goin' On: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars and the Rise and Fall of '60s Counter-Culture, by Peter Doggett (Canongate)
Re-make/Re-model: Becoming Roxy Music, by Michael Bracewell
(Da Capo)

Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance, by Dean Wareham (Penguin)
Roadwork: Rock & Roll Turned Inside Out
by Tom Wright (Hal Leonard)

Bomp! Saving the World One Record At a Time
by Suzy Shaw, Mick Farren (Ammo)

Creem: America's Only Rock'n'Roll Magazine
by Rogbert Matheu (Collins)

 2000-2010 books
Can't Buy Me Love
by Jonathan Gould (Harmony)

Perfect From Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life
by John Sellers
Recording the Beatles
by Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew

Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music
by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor

Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe
by Gayle F. Wald

Blue Monday Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock'n'Roll
by Rick Coleman

Everything I'm Cracked Up To Be
by Jen Trynin

White Bicycles: Making Music in the Sixties
by Joe Boyd

Always Magic in the Air
by Ken Emerson

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