The PSB Alpha IQ Speakers
A set of bookshelf speakers that’s smart enough to deserve its name
You have to think of hi-fi as being like wine. Every now and again, we -philes (audio or oeno) will proclaim that we have found “the best” in a long while. And we will mean it. But it does not mean we won’t soon find another “best.” And we will mean it.
The truth is, there are plenty of fine wine growers and plenty of talented audio designers, all of them striving to surpass themselves and their competitors.
This is fantastic for -philes, but you must excuse our occasional ebullience, because it is not over-ebullience. There are myriad wonderful wines, all bests, and as many fresh, enchanting sounds for audio systems as there are tunes.
Which brings us to these brand-new, bookshelf-size, wireless speakers from one of Canada’s most accomplished audio manufacturers, PSB, from Pickering, just east of Toronto. The speakers are simply extraordinary. Mind-blowing. The best. (Sorry, there we go again.)
We heard PSB’s Alpha iQ demonstrated for the first time at Dean Street Studios—formerly Zodiac Studios, and later Good Earth Studios, before the name was changed again—a basement in London’s Soho where the likes of Bowie, T. Rex, Pink Floyd, and Tina Turner once recorded. Today, you’re as likely as not to see Adele, Ed Sheeran, or Noel Gallagher disappear through the unmarked door between a cake shop and a vacant storefront.
A temple to audio was a fitting spot to hear the sonic equivalent of an optical illusion. The 9.7-by-5.7-by-7.6-inch speakers—currently made in black or white only, but with a range of cute colors a-comin’—were set up in the gallery of the main studio, and it seemed at first that the sound was being produced by the huge professional monitor speakers nearby. It was big and powerful, yet subtle, natural, and detailed.
The “soundstage,” as audio wonks call the illusion of space a system creates, was just as remarkable. It was as if the musicians were spread across the room rather than channeled left and right. The bass was so perfect to our ear that it seemed there was a separate, hidden subwoofer, though it was just the two tiny, shiny boxes, each connected to a main outlet, with no other wiring.
The speakers have their own onboard amps, producing 180 watts of oomph, from PSB’s local sister company, NAD. The music was transmitted over Wi-Fi from an iPhone running Tidal (our favorite streaming service) at its maximum-audio-quality setting.
PSB uses its own control app, Bluesound, built by another Canadian partner company. Bluesound allows for easy whole-house audio setups that can include other PSB or NAD products in different rooms, or speakers and amps from unaffiliated companies.
PSB is our ideal kind of hi-fi company. It is the life’s work of Paul Barton, who was set to be a professional violinist—his dad built him a Stradivarius clone when he was 11—but turned to designing and building speakers because, as he says, music reproduction intrigued him more than music production. This diversion has kept him busy for the past 50 years, with the Alpha iQ being his lockdown project.
Barton has another exciting new product coming before Christmas, on which we are sworn to secrecy for now—but we heard it at Dean Street Studios, and it’s also the best.
The Netatmo Smart Home Weather Station
A good reason to ignore your lousy local weatherman
In the days before climate change became The Thing, we were all interested in the weather. A lot of kids—O.K., perhaps just the geekier ones, such as your columnist—used to keep their own weather records, for reasons that were never quite clear. It certainly didn’t help you do your own forecasting, which might have been worthwhile.
But a plastic rain gauge, a thermometer, an old brass barometer, and an exercise book full of readings was enough to convince any science teacher you had Nobel potential.
Netatmo, a Paris-based company that specializes in sleekly designed, reliable, and easy-to-use home-monitoring gadgetry, has this fabulous and highly user-friendly electronic weather station that will get any former youthful weather nut positively drooling.
The Netatmo Smart Home Weather Station will not only keep detailed records—relayed to your phone, tablet, or, best of all, computer—of the outdoor temperature, humidity, air quality, and barometric pressure but will also monitor conditions indoors, warning you of excessive CO2, humidity, and even noise.
The Netatmo app also provides notifications of the micro-climate in your backyard, and performs fascinating analyses of the data it gathers—along with, yes, your own localized forecasts.
There is a basic starter kit, but we would strongly recommend splashing out on Netatmo’s $350 Full Weather Station Pack, which includes a wireless electronic rain gauge and—the joy of it—an anemometer to measure wind speed and direction.
We haven’t yet tried it, but you can also integrate your home readings with some third-party weather apps (the popular Carrot Weather being one) to get full-on professional forecasts, enhanced by your own hyperlocal twist.
The Combi Wave 3 in 1 Air Fryer
An appliance that will create counter space, not consume it
There’s a lot of enthusiasm for air fryers these days—the countertop machines blast food with piping-hot air at high speeds and allow for not only drastically reduced cooking times but palatable dishes prepared with minimal fat and oil.
They belong to that genre of kitchen gadgets that have, quite unusually, succeeded in throwing off their earlier aura of shopping-channel novelty product. Perhaps it’s because recent tests have shown air fryers can save some 50 percent on electricity—a little less on gas—with users finding that food like chicken legs cooks up notably crispier on the outside and juicier inside than in conventional ovens.
You can pay $49 or even less, so why spend $500 on the Combi Wave 3 in 1 from the upmarket Australian manufacturer Breville? Well, the great thing is that the 3 in 1 can also be used as both a traditional convection oven and a microwave. In fact, it looks like a large microwave, with a 1.1-cubic-foot capacity, which is enough to hold a whole chicken.
True to its name, the 3 in 1 can serve all three functions at the same time in its Fast Combi mode, which is orchestrated by ingredient-specific algorithms. A four-pound test chicken straight from the refrigerator came out superbly with a 65-minute Fast Combi cook.
In air-frying mode alone, we made delicious, virtually fat-free french fries (a spray of oil is needed) straight from God’s own potato in 30 minutes. Many vegetables, such as broccoli and green beans, also air-fry very well.
There are other clever touches to the Combi Wave, too. The door mechanism, of which Breville is especially proud, is virtually silent—it’s surprising how much clunking and clanking is involved in the typical microwaving process. There’s also a button to stop the turntable if you’re cooking in a rectangular dish. And a button labeled, in laconic Aussie style, A Bit More, which gives your air-fry dish a brief extra blast if it looks a little pallid.
Riding the crest of the air-frying wave, Breville also has a new air fryer/convection-oven fryer, the Joule, which performs the additional functions of a dehydrator, toaster, grill, and pizza oven—and can be app-controlled.
We feel the Combi Wave is the better bet for most. The air fryer and microwave will be the main functions you actually use. And while kitchen-appliance apps are clever and interesting, they are, in our experience, a classic example of a solution in search of a problem.
The Blueair DustMagnet Air Purifier
An air filter whose design you won’t gasp at
The helicopter-like mosquitoes aside—and they are not always in residence—the Stockholm archipelago is one of the most delightful spots to be found close to a European city. Its crystalline waters and soft, clean air are particular assets.
In 1996, Bengt Rittri was at his summer house on the archipelago with his baby daughter and was reluctant to take her back to the city air. Stockholm is hardly as polluted as New York or London, but the traffic can still be pretty fierce. Rittri went on to found the air-purifier-maker Blueair, which is now owned by Unilever but operates separately.
Blueair’s extensive range of domestic purifiers is already popular in cities around the world, and the coronavirus seems to have done the company no harm. Blueair claims its machines remove 99.97 percent of pollutants, airborne viruses included, by moving large volumes of air through three types of filters (HEPA and activated carbon included). In addition to cleaning the air, Blueair purifiers act as fans, putting out a pleasing stream of air.
Blueair’s new DustMagnet range employs the same science, attracting and trapping a claimed 99 percent of airborne dust, pollen, smoke, mold, pet dander, cooking odors, bacteria, dust mites, and volatile organic compounds before these substances land on your surfaces or find their way into you. DustMagnet appliances are smaller than the other lines’, though, and are semi-disguised as small tables or nightstands. This makes them ideal for small, but dusty, spaces.
They would look a bit off in many interiors, but in an Ikea-like setting they could pass muster as a piece of furniture. And a nightstand that traps air pollutants as you sleep—and provides a restful burr of sound in its night mode—is not to be sneezed at.
Like other Blueair appliances, the DustMagnet range is Wi-Fi-connected, with an app to control the machine and indicate variables such as room air quality and remaining filter life in real time. The filters last 6 to 12 months, and have sensors to warn you when they need changing.
The DustMagnet 5440i model we have been trying is sufficient for up to a 356-square-foot room.
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