There are few high-end technology products that have been substantially the same since anyone alive can remember. One such is the Fender Telecaster. Another is the Rolex Submariner. A third is Leica’s M Series.
All were launched in an apparent burst of creativity at the start of the 1950s and are still produced in only slightly updated versions that would look perfectly familiar to a 1950s buyer.
But go back further still, nearly a century, and a contemporary Fender or Rolex would look impossibly futuristic. Yet Leica’s magnificent new baby, the M11, would be wholly recognizable in design and technical detail to, say, the inventor of the Leica, Oskar Barnack of the Leitz microscope company in Germany.
Barnack was a keen photographer but had asthma, which made carrying cameras of the day difficult. So he set out to make what he called a Lilliput camera, which shot re-purposed 35-mm. cine film. He produced a working version before World War I, which the head of the company, Ernst Leitz, took on a trip to New York.
Leitz realized that it liberated a photographer to take more spontaneous photographs of real life, and began producing the camera in 1925. And though it was initially shunned by most serious photographers, by the 30s Leica’s 35-mm. camera had been taken up by young punks such as Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Modern photo reportage was born.
All this may suggest the new Leica M11, which costs close to $13,000 with a lens, is a retro, even gimmicky camera. And in a couple of ways it is: it may have been Lilliputian in 1913, but it is hefty compared to most modern cameras; it doesn’t also make phone calls and write e-mails like your cell phone; it has an optical viewfinder rather than letting you view what you’re shooting directly through the camera lens; and you have to manually focus every photo using a rangefinder that takes some getting used to.
So what do you get for your $13,000 and more (much more, in fact, if you buy extra lenses and accessories)? Above all, incredible picture quality. Images of up to 60 mega-pixels, a new high for Leica, pop quite breathtakingly from the screen or in print. Leica lenses, coupled with their sensors and software, produce a tonal richness and punchiness that even professional DSLRs struggle to match.
The other benefit is that the German-built machine in your hands is a tool of such perfect quality, balance, and function that you are inspired—and we promise that this is not mere marketing bombast—to take better, more characteristically Leica photos. To be your own Jeff Mermelstein or Lynn Johnson, if you like.
This on its own could justify the immense price tag. If that’s not enough, though, Leicas help your photography by looking so less threatening to subjects than a bulging, professional DSLR or a weirdly creepy cell-phone camera.
We would say that more than anything, however—and it’s not the most seductive sales pitch—the impetus to take better photos is that the camera is quite hard to use, so you need to think about each frame.
The M11 is the simplest M Series there’s been; it’s not festooned with buttons and wheels like a DSLR. You can set it to auto exposure and have nothing to do but focus, which is easier than with older Leicas.
But much like the Telecaster—which sounds pleasant even in the hands of a three-chord guitarist but requires endless studying to really make it sing—the M11 demands at least a couple of days with the dense manual. At most, years of practice.
KEF REFERENCE 1 META
There is no tech subject about which more nonsense is spoken than audio. For instance, hi-fi enthusiasts will tell you that you need to spend $10,000 a foot on loudspeaker cables. Or to stand and drink a glass of ionized water before listening to recorded music.
The founder of one of the finest audio companies, Meridian Audio, when asked his view on cables, told this writer that the one important thing about speaker cables is that they should be long enough to reach the speakers. It was a clever and understated snub to the obsessive-amateur brigade.
Yet, it’s true that loudspeakers are the most important element of a sound system, the one most worth spending money on. It’s also true that the U.S. and the U.K. make most of the best loudspeakers, but that the U.K. possibly has the edge in real connoisseur audio.
One of the best British makers is called KEF and has been hand-building speakers in Kent, southeast of London, since 1961, when the company was started by a BBC sound engineer, Raymond Cooke, who was later awarded the Order of the British Empire by the Queen.
Cooke had a mission, and a poetic turn of phrase. He wrote of recorded music: “transformed to a dance of electrons along a wire, its ghost lives on. When KEF returns music to its rightful habitation, your ears and mind, they aim to do so in the most natural way they can … without drama, without exaggeration, without artifice.”
In that spirit, KEF has three prominent speakers: its $225,000 Muon, which stand higher than a tall person and are beloved by rock stars; its $28,000 Blade Two Meta, which, inevitably, male buyers can have finished in Ferrari red for their man cave; and its $1,600 LS50 Meta, which reviewers almost unanimously love.
Our choice, however, would be the Reference 1 Meta, a pricey (but not outrageously so) pair of bookshelf speakers, which KEF worked on over the coronavirus years, are 17 inches high, and can be mounted on steel floor stands if you prefer.
The KEF Reference 1 Meta almost illuminate a room with a sound that belies their relatively compact size. The bass notes were so profound and rich we thought there was a hidden subwoofer. (There wasn’t.) And it’s worth noting that you weren’t obliged to sit precisely between the two speakers to get the full effect—“off axis” listening, as it’s referred to, is the true test of the skill of a speaker manufacturer.
What would we team these prodigious speakers with given a healthy credit balance? It would be easy to go nuts—they will easily do justice to $25,000 worth of amplification. Our choice, however, would be for Canadian brand NAD’s new C700 BluOS streaming amplifier, a one-box unit that does everything and costs a modest $1,499. It relies on streaming, but you can connect CD decks and turntables if that’s your thing.
Concerns about deteriorating air quality are not as new as some might think. It was 1965 when Tom Lehrer released his coruscating song “Pollution”: “Just go out for a breath of air / And you’ll be ready for Medicare.”
But today, if you’re worried about poor air quality in and around your home—from quotidian causes (traffic) to exceptional ones (forest fires)—there’s affordable technology to detect it.
AIR MAIL has been trying out an entry-level pollution detector from Temtop, and comparing its outdoor and indoor readings favorably with a more expensive professional device. The instruments gave similar readings in all the settings we tried.
The handheld Temtop P600 measures harmful microscopic particles using the international standard of micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter. On city streets, it indicated a level of between 2.5 and 5.0 micrograms per cubic meter air—indicated as safe by the device. Only when an older, more polluting car or truck passed close by did the reading go higher, but not to a dangerous level.
Around frying food, the P600 read just under 100 micrograms for fine particles (“moderate” on the Temtop’s screen), but registered an “unhealthy” 165 for coarser particles. In a kitchen where a greasy oven was doing a high-temperature pyrolytic self-clean, the meter hit 300 for both types of pollutant—seriously unhealthy and best not breathed in.
The device does measure up to 999 micrograms per cubic meter, well above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s hazardous level for particulate matter, at which people are recommended to stay indoors, even though indoor air quality would also be impacted. If you want to delve further into other pollutants, such as formaldehyde, carbon dioxide, and volatile organic compounds, the same maker has models we haven’t tried, ranging up to $226.
Behind Iris, a new audio company whose $399 Flow headphones have the spooky ability to make poor music recordings sound uncannily good, is an unusual story.
The basis for their sound-processing ability—brilliance, actually—was developed by Don Estes, an alternative therapist and electronics experimenter in his 70s, working from an incense-heavy home in bohemian Rustic Canyon, Los Angeles.
Mr. Estes’s invention was bought out by a young British music entrepreneur, Jacobi Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe, an insider in young-royal circles and half-brother of the model and actress Cressida Bonas.
If none of this sounds notably Silicon Valley, so be it. But the resulting technology and the headphones have been rapturously received by sound engineers, and some serious academic work is proceeding on the mental-health benefits of sound processed by the Iris method.
But the headphones are almost peripheral to Iris’s longer-term purpose, which is to process sound for broader applications. Their new product, Iris Clarity, is software developed with motorsports (they are partnered with Red Bull Racing), aircraft-carrier flight decks, call centers, and military settings in mind—all of which have problems with people hearing radio or phone audio clearly.
They are just now launching a desktop computer app that piggybacks onto most of your preferred videoconferencing service (though not yet FaceTime) to totally nullify extraneous noise. And we mean nullify.
If you are speaking with someone on Zoom augmented by Clarity and he or she claps—or a dog barks, or a child screams, or he or she is in a crowded, noisy office—the interfering sound is not heard at all. It’s also bi-directional, so if I have Clarity but you don’t, we both benefit. It’s almost magical.
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