TEENAGE ENGINEERING OB-4
So what exactly is this stylish, retro but simultaneously futuristic box of tricks—literally, it is a box and it contains many tricks—from an achingly trendy Stockholm electronics company, Teenage Engineering?
This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer, as we discovered when introduced to it by a member of the company’s team in London, who disconcertingly turned out to be an actual teenager.
The Teenage Engineering OB-4 is, above all, a European-built Bluetooth stereo speaker with great-quality sound, but it’s also so loud that it is almost a portable P.A. system. It is pretty much the best wireless speaker currently available—astonishing.
But the OB-4 is also a wired speaker. And an FM radio. And a kind of a D.J. remixing deck. And a metronome. And an oddly wonderful musical-mantra box that plays 30 pre-loaded mantras. It may well do more we didn’t discover.
All of which means the company has given up trying to say what it is and just call it a “magic radio.”
The mixing feature is the most interesting. “If you don’t want just to listen to music, you can interact with it even if you don’t know what you’re doing and are just randomly pressing buttons,” as the brand’s impressive 19-year-old sales-education representative, William Gunning, says, his fast fingers extracting the most extraordinary D.J.-like effects from regular music Bluetoothed from his phone.
The most dramatic of the buttons is marked TAPE and winds whatever you are listening to back in real time as if it were, well, on a tape. But adding echo and reverb to talk-radio stations is also fun.
Young Gunning explains that you can’t save the mixes you make—they are designed to be transitory, one-off experiences—although one suspects making the Franken-music you create unsavable also avoids awkward copyright issues.
As an aside, Teenage Engineering comprises mostly adults. They have been operating in Sweden for 16 years, producing tiny synthesizers and the like, used by artists ranging from Bon Iver to Beck, Depeche Mode to Jean-Michel Jarre.
For nine inches square by two inches thick of audio joy, their prodigiously talented OB-4 takes some serious beating.
Business schools may one day teach courses on how Zoom, just one of many second-rank videoconferencing services, lucked out during the coronavirus. It’s even achieved the ultimate for a business—becoming a verb. So just as we tell people we’re in an Uber when it’s really a Lyft, we say we’re on a Zoom even if it’s actually Google Meet, Skype, FaceTime, Teams, BlueJeans—whichever.
Videoconferencing is clearly more than a flash in the pandemic; there is every sign it’s going to be with us forever, since it’s convenient, economic, time-saving, and planet-saving.
But what’s perhaps oddest about the Zoom boom is that, aside from having a clever name, Zoom isn’t really very good. The software is clunky and quite expensive, but, most importantly, the quality is largely horrible, like looking through a dirty window.
Whether two years into the coronavirus is a great time to launch a videoconferencing system that trounces Zoom and the others may be the subject of another M.B.A. course, but Beacon, a new system out of Dallas, could be just that Zoom killer.
The first time you try Beacon, you may well gasp. The picture, especially in ultra-HD mode, is startlingly sharp, but it also has a color saturation that makes it look luminous, almost 3D. The audio is clear and natural. And, unless we were lucky while testing, the freezes, bumps, burps, and audio dropouts we wearily accept with other systems are missing.
Beacon was started and is run by Angel Munoz, widely acknowledged as the father of eSports—the world of competitive, organized video gaming—which is significant because squeezing the best out of online connections and minimizing gaps and latency are key to that now massive global industry.
Beacon is still in its launch phase, so you can try the free Beacon X version now without commitment. It’s platform-agnostic, so it works on almost every device and operating system. It has a bunch of add-ons, either in Play Now or Coming Soon, which you may or may not care about: a collaborative whiteboard, simultaneous translation, and an A.I. assistant you speak to like Alexa among them. It also claims better security than its rivals.
But, in the end, it’s probably the superb video that will get you to love jumping on a Beacon.
Ever wonder how an upmarket, design-led Italian kitchen-appliance company comes to be called something as un-Italian-sounding as Smeg? The answer—and it’s, um, obvious when you think about it—is that it’s an acronym for Smalterie Metallurgiche Emiliane Guastalla (or: Metallurgical Enamel Works of Guastalla, in the Emilia-Romagna region).
This, the BCC02, is Smeg’s first bean-to-cup coffee-maker since the Bertazzoni family, originally blacksmiths, founded the firm in 1948.
Its winsome looks aside, the BCC02’s beauty is in its diminutive footprint: a sylph-like 7 inches wide by 16 inches deep. Accordingly, it can fit on even the most cramped kitchen counter.
The machine makes beautiful coffee—it is Italian, after all—even if it’s probably too simple for serious espresso aficionados. So if you want to make a flat white that’s not a cappuccino, for example, you may struggle. And don’t expect to use it in a coffee shop; six cups and you’ll need to replenish the water and beans, empty the tiny grounds container, and wash the fussy milk frother.
But it’s way more serious than a Nespresso and a lot less high-maintenance than, say, a La Pavoni lever machine—the ones you see in Italy topped out with a flamboyant chrome eagle. La Pavoni, lately acquired by Smeg, can take years to master. This Smeg, despite the not great instructions, takes a few minutes to learn.
JAXJOX KETTLEBELLCONNECT 2.0
Peloton, Hydrow, Mirror, and many other fine Internet-connected exercise machines have made gym memberships unnecessary, which is good news if you are either bashful about exposing your lack of fitness and technique to public gaze or are still nervous about people you don’t know puffing and panting around you.
A connected kettlebell, however, is a rarity. Apart from being a lot less expensive than any of the above and taking up far less space in your home, a kettlebell is an old-school but effective way to build power, strength, and cardio fitness. Indeed, a lot of personal trainers say kettlebells are quite the fitness-and-weight-loss secret.
The JaxJox KettlebellConnect 2.0 is a terrific blend of mechanical and electrical engineering. The outer shell is your 12-pound starter weight, but inside there are five more doughnut-like discs.
Using an app or buttons on the machine’s base, you dial in interim weights up to a ludicrously difficult 42 pounds. Click, whirr, clunk, beep, and the shell physically locks in the discs—and keeps them there however vigorously you wield your kettlebell.
On its own, that would be quite a thing, and truly you could ignore the JaxJox app and the device’s connected features (as well as the inevitable associated subscription) and be guided instead by one of many books on kettlebell fitness.
But the app and the training routines are excellent, if brutal. Connect your phone wirelessly through the TV—iPhone and Apple TV make this possible; there are Android alternatives—and see your cruel kettlebell instructor live, with readouts on your performance and heart rate (the latter if you wear an Apple Watch or similar) right there on the screen.
Best of all, because there’s no provision for live classes as in the Peloton world, you get the sublime pleasure of cheating, or just doing the routines as half-heartedly as you like.
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