When I started pounding the technology beat in the 1990s, I struggled to find one new gadget a week. Now dozens of products are launched each day. Most are O.K., but uninteresting.
I look for things that stand out from the background noise of routine tech launches. Hardware, apps, online services, even innovative non-electronic devices—and if they alert me to a tiny void in my life that needs filling, I’ll try them.
I’m happy for the Steve Jobses of this world to get us craving things we didn’t know we wanted; creating demand is beautiful. Who in 2001 realized they needed an iPod? Or, in 1955, a pocket-size transistor radio?
And while products made to resonate with fashion brands, or ones that have been lightly breathed on by a superstar, are occasionally worth a look, I’m not generally interested in routine tech that’s been dipped in gold or encrusted with jewels.
As for quirky new tech, if it works and is amusing, sure. And if a product has been out a few months and I missed it—it happens—it might get a look-in if it causes me to hyperventilate even a little, when I catch up with it.
From now on, I’ll be reporting for AIR MAIL on what I find patrolling the tech launches, navigating the misleading P.R. releases, and steering past the deceptive product specifications.
I’ll be on a mission to find the stuff to get your hearts beating like mine does when it finds a good one.
MASTER & DYNAMIC MW08 SPORT EARBUDS
New York City is home to two of the best headphone brands around. Down in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Grado Labs has for three generations been crafting “cans” behind graffitied shutters at the Sicilian family’s former fruit store.
Many Grado models are made partly of wood. Their latest in-ear wireless model, the $259 GT220, is basic, plastic, and ugly, but provides the loudest, punchiest sound you can get.
Across the East River, in the different world of Midtown Manhattan, Master & Dynamic started designing stylish, retro-styled headphones for audio enthusiasts and notable personalities just eight years ago. They count Paul McCartney, Madonna, Daniel Craig, and Maria Sharapova as clients.
M&D’s founder, Jonathan Levine, obsesses over build quality, materials, and audio refinement. His latest, the $349 MW08 Sport earbuds, are a thing of gleaming beauty with their lightweight sapphire-glass body and textured Kevlar case, but they also provide an exquisitely subtle sound. The ergonomics are also clever—real, clickable buttons rather than the finger swipes and gestures that rival “true wireless” earbuds favor. Better.
The earbuds cling limpet-like to your ear canals during workouts; there’s up to 12 hours of play time, with 30 backup hours in the charging case; noise cancellation; an ambient mode to keep you aware of the real-world outside your music bubble; a wind-reduction microphone array; and IPX5 water resistance, meaning they should survive the shower. Maybe don’t do that, but rain is fine.
The MW08 isn’t the loudest earbud, although it’s loud enough. But its audio elegance will make you want to re-listen to all your music. ($349, amazon.com)
It’s one thing for Dyson to charge $399 for a hair dryer, but for a start-up in Lithuania—not known as a technology hub—to ask $350 for a smoothie-maker is ambitious, to say the least. Only Vitamix machines come in pricier, and theirs are full-on blenders that will make nut butter or knead dough.
But Millo is worth it—even when the nearest comparable device, the ubiquitous NutriBullet, can be bought for $50. Millo has “Magnetic Air Drive”; the blending jar sits on the U.F.O.-like base, replete with trippy white lights, powering the blade magnetically, with no open spinning parts. This means it’s safer and more durable, but also quieter. In our bench test, a NutriBullet measured 87 decibels—the same level as a power lawn mower—while Millo kicked up less than half the noise.
This makes blending notably less stressful. But Millo is also smart. It’s controlled by a superb app: you can choose manual, pulse, or silent mode and do it your way. Or simply touch “Smoothie,” whereupon it takes over and goes through a custom routine based on how tough and fibrous it senses the blend to be.
Millo’s looks come courtesy of a moonlighting Bang & Olufsen product designer. ($300, amazon.com)
DA CAPO GUITAR AMP
It may sound pretentious to say that audio gear powered by old-style vacuum tubes sounds better than semiconductor amplifiers. It’s like the B side of the interminable vinyl-versus-digital argument.
But just as vinyl has attractive qualities, tube amps do sound warmer, deeper, and grander.
This implausibly beautiful all-tube guitar amp is hand-built by Nicolas Acou in a sleepy village not far from Belgium’s North Sea coast.
His Da Capo GT Deluxe has five tubes, a huge 12-inch speaker, and real, old-school rotary controls rarely seen today.
Acou spends much of his time sourcing these rare components as well as the perfect beechwood, which he gets bent into shape by a specialist in Holland.
The Da Capo looks a little home-brewed at the edges, like the kind of guitars big stars have custom-made by luthiers in their garage. But the sound is glorious. There’s 20 watts of power for practice, but flick the switch on the back from “Studio” to “Stage” and 40 watts are yours.
The aural delight of the Da Capo is enhanced by the lack of boring, multi-choice menus that infest guitar amps. The $4,300 price tag is not un-steep, but this is a desirable piece of furniture, even when it’s turned off. ($4,300, da-capo.be)
DRIVE & LISTEN APP
Now that we can travel again, you’d think a Web site featuring high-def video shot from cars driving through cities across the world, with a soundtrack of local radio stations, might be a waning attraction.
But Erkam Şeker, the Turkish graduate student whose Drive & Listen Web site became a lockdown sensation, reports thousands of people are still visiting at the same time to experience such surreal delights as driving around Yekaterinburg in Russia in the snow, or Mumbai, skirting round decrepit black-and-yellow taxis and beggars.
“I have volunteers now sending in video they’ve shot especially for Drive & Listen,” says Şeker, who is actually trying to get on with his biomedical-computing studies, so he admits he hasn’t watched every video from start to finish.
The Yekaterinburg one even features a segment in an underground parking garage. It’s more fun on the road, though—especially the bit where a Brezhnev-era Volga tries to mount the sidewalk to beat the traffic, only to get stuck in the snow.
Drive & Listen is free, but you can donate via the Buy Me a Coffee app if you enjoy the virtual ride. (driveandlisten.herokuapp.com)
Based in London and New York, Air MaiL’s tech columnist, Jonathan Margolis, spent more than two decades as a technology writer for the Financial Times. He is also the author of A Brief History of Tomorrow, a book on the history of futurology