Connect with us

Gadgets

The $199 Echo Link turns the fidelity up to 11 – TechCrunch

Published

on

The Echo Link takes streaming music and makes it sound better. Just wirelessly connect it to an Echo device and plug it into a set of nice speakers. It’s the missing link.

The Link bridges the gap between streaming music and a nice audio system. Instead of settling for the analog connection of an Echo Dot, the Echo Link serves audio over a digital connection and it makes just enough of a difference to justify the $200 price.

I plugged the Eco Link into the audio system in my office and was pleased with the results. This is the Echo device I’ve been waiting for.

In my case, the Echo Link took Spotfiy’s 320 kbps stream and opened it up. The Link creates a wider soundstage and makes the music a bit more full and expansive. The bass hits a touch harder and the highs now have a newfound crispness. Lyrics are clearer and easier to pick apart. The differences are subtle. Everything is just slightly improved over the sound quality found when using an Echo Dot’s 3.5mm output.

Don’t have a set of nice speakers? That’s okay; Amazon also just released the Echo Link Amp, which features a built-in amplifier capable of powering a set of small speakers.

Here’s the thing: I’m surprised Amazon is making the Echo Link. The device caters to what must be a small demographic of Echo owners looking to improve the quality of Pandora or Spotify when using an audio system. And yet, without support for local or streaming high-resolution audio, it’s not good enough for audiophiles. This is for wannabe audiophiles. Hey, that’s me.

Review

There are Echo’s scattered throughout my house. The devices provide a fantastic way to access music and NPR. The tiny Echo Link is perfect for the system in my office where I have a pair of Definitive Technology bookshelf speakers powered by an Onkyo receiver and amp. I have a turntable and SACD player connected to the receiver, but those are a hassle when I’m at my desk. The majority of the time I listen to Spotify through the Amazon Echo Input.

I added the Onkyo amplifier to the system last year and it made a huge difference to the quality. The music suddenly had more power. The two-channel amp pushes harder than the receiver, and resulted in audio that was more expansive and clear. And at any volume, too. I didn’t know what I was missing. That’s the trick with audio. Most of the time the audio sounds great until it suddenly sounds better. The Echo Link provided me with the same feeling of discovery.

To be clear, the $200 Echo Link does not provide a night and day difference in my audio quality. It’s a slight upgrade over the audio outputted by a $20 Echo Input — and don’t forget, an Echo device (like the $20 Echo Input) is required to make the Echo Link work.

The Echo Link provides the extra juice lacking from the Echo Input or Dot. Those less-expensive options output audio to an audio system, but only through an analog connection. The Echo Link offers a digital connection through Toslink or Digital Coax. It has analog outputs that’s powered by a DAC with a superior dynamic range and total harmonic distortion found in the Input or Dot. It’s an easy way to improve the quality of music from streaming services.

The Echo Link, and Echo Link Amp, also feature a headphone amp. It’s an interesting detail. With this jack, someone could have the Echo Link on their desk and use it to power a set of headphones without any loss of quality.

I set up a simple A/B test to spot the differences between a Link and a Dot. First, I connected the Echo Link with a Toslink connection to my receiver and an Echo Input. I also connected an Echo Dot through its 3.5mm analog connection to the receiver. I created a group in the Alexa app of the devices. This allowed each of the devices to play the same source simultaneously. Then, as needed, I was able to switch between the Dot and Link with just a touch of a button, providing an easy and quick way to test the differences.

I’ll leave it up to you to justify the cost. To me, as someone who has invested money into a quality audio system, the extra cost of the Echo Link is worth it. But to others, an Echo Dot could be enough.

It’s important to note that the Echo Link works a bit differently than other Echo devices connected to an audio system. When, say, a Dot is connected to an audio system, the internal speakers are turned off and all of the audio is sent to the system. The Echo Link doesn’t have to override the companion Echo. When an Echo Link is connected to an Echo device, the Echo still responds through its internal speakers; only music is sent to the Echo Link. For example, when the Echo is asked about the weather, the forecast is played back through the speakers in the Echo and not the audio system connected to the Echo Link. In most cases, this allows the owner to turn off the high-power speakers and still have access to voice commands on the Echo.

The Echo Link takes streaming music and instantly improves the quality. In my case, the improvements were slight but noticeable. It works with all the streaming services supported by Echo devices, but it’s important to note it does not work with Tidal’s high-res Master Audio tracks. The best the Echo Link can do is 320 kbps from Spotify or Tidal. This is a limiting factor and it’s not surprising. If the Echo Link supported Tidal’s Master Tracks, I would likely sign up for that service, and that is not in the best interest of Amazon, which hopes I sign up for Amazon Music Unlimited.

I spoke to Amazon about the Echo Link’s lack of support for Tidal Master Tracks and they indicated they’re interested in hearing how customers will use the device before committing to adding support.

The Link is interesting. Google doesn’t have anything similar in its Google Home Line. The Sonos Amp is similar, but with a built-in amplifier, it’s a closer competitor to the Echo Link Amp. Several high-end audio companies sell components that can stream audio over digital connections, yet none are as easy to use or as inexpensive as the Echo Link. The Echo Link is the easiest way to improve the sound of streaming music services.

Source link

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Gadgets

Stadia controllers could become e-waste unless Google issues Bluetooth update

Published

on

Enlarge / Ars originally liked the Stadia controller, describing it as “solidly built, with springy, responsive inputs.” It could still be that way without a giant USB cord if Google unlocked its full Bluetooth capabilities.

Kyle Orland

Google’s Stadia game-streaming service will die a nearly inevitable death early next year. Google is refunding players the cost of all their hardware and game purchases. But, so far, Google is also leaving Stadia players with controllers that, while once costing $70, will soon do less than a $20 Bluetooth gamepad.

Stadia’s controllers were custom-made to connect directly to the Internet, reducing lag and allowing for instant firmware updates and (sometimes painful) connections to smart TVs. There’s Bluetooth inside the Stadia controller, but it’s only used when you’re setting up Stadia, either with a TV, a computer with the Chrome browser, or a Chromecast Ultra.

The Google Store’s page for the Stadia controller states in a footnote: “Product contains Bluetooth Classic radio. No Bluetooth Classic functionality is enabled at this time. Bluetooth Classic may be implemented at a later date.” (Bluetooth Classic is a more traditional version of Bluetooth than modern low-energy or mesh versions.)

That potential later date can’t get much later for fans of the Stadia controller. Many cite the controller’s hand feel and claim it as their favorite. They’d like to see Google unlock Bluetooth to make their favorite something more than a USB-only controller and avoid a lot of plastic and circuit board trash.

“Now if you’d just enable Bluetooth on the controller, we could help the environment by not letting them become electronic waste,” writes Roadrunner571 on one of many controller-related threads on the r/Stadia subreddit. “They created trash and they at least owe it to me to do their best within reason to prevent millions of otherwise perfectly good controllers from filling landfills,” another wrote.

Many have called for Google, if they’re not going to push a firmware update themselves to unlock the functionality, to open up access to the devices themselves, so the community can do it for them. That’s often a tricky scenario for large companies relying on a series of sub-contracted manufacturers to produce hardware. Some have suggested that the full refunds give Google more leeway to ignore the limited function of their devices post-shutdown.

You can still plug the Stadia controller into the USB port on your Smart TV, computer, or gaming console and use it as a controller through a standard HID (Human Interface Device) connection. How-To Geek reports that it’s working well on PCs and with Android devices but not great on Xbox or Playstation consoles. At least one Github project reportedly improves the Stadia controller’s Windows function (as an Xbox controller). One intrepid Stadia fan, Parth Shah, had already cobbled together a “Stadia Wireless” Python hack to get the Stadia controller working “wirelessly”: connected to a phone, then that phone connecting to a Windows PC over Wi-Fi, emulating a standard Xbox controller.

Yet Shah is also active in the Stadia subreddit, asking for his creation to be made obsolete: “Not having to go through all this trouble would be so amazing. Hopefully [G]oogle does something about it.”

There’s some precedent to pushing new firmware to old business ideas. Valve, makers of the Steam PC gaming store and assorted hardware connected to it, enabled Bluetooth Low-Energy on Steam Controllers just before its Steam Box and Steam Link hardware ambitions fizzled out. Valve had something else in mind for them, namely its Steam Link software on other platforms. But Valve made Steam Controllers viable for lots of other platforms and prevented them from ending up in, at best, e-waste sorting facilities.

E-waste from abandoned hardware is an area where Google, along with many other large tech companies, is far more quiet than it is about carbon emissions, water, or even food waste. The company’s pledge to create “A circular Google” states that the company believes that by “incorporating circularity into our designs from inception, things created today can become the resources of tomorrow and enable reuse, repair, and recovery.”

In this case, it seems like circularity, in the form of a standard Bluetooth controller, is sitting inside Stadia controllers. The reuse and recovery would be much appreciated by customers.

Continue Reading

Gadgets

Rewritten OpenGL drivers make AMD’s GPUs “up to 72%” faster in some pro apps

Published

on

AMD

Most development effort in graphics drivers these days, whether you’re talking about Nvidia, Intel, or AMD, is focused on new APIs like DirectX 12 or Vulkan, increasingly advanced upscaling technologies, and specific improvements for new game releases. But this year, AMD has also been focusing on an old problem area for its graphics drivers: OpenGL performance.

Over the summer, AMD released a rewritten OpenGL driver that it said would boost the performance of Minecraft by up to 79 percent (independent testing also found gains in other OpenGL games and benchmarks, though not always to the same degree). Now those same optimizations are coming to AMD’s officially validated GPU drivers for its Radeon Pro-series workstation cards, providing big boosts to professional apps like Solidworks and Autodesk Maya.

“The AMD Software: PRO Edition 22.Q3 driver has been tested and approved by Dell, HP, and Lenovo for stability and is available through their driver downloads,” the company wrote in its blog post. “AMD continues to work with software developers to certify the latest drivers.”

AMD says the OpenGL driver rewrite in its 22.Q3 professional GPU drivers will bring big benefits to pro apps that rely on the older graphics API.
Enlarge / AMD says the OpenGL driver rewrite in its 22.Q3 professional GPU drivers will bring big benefits to pro apps that rely on the older graphics API.

AMD

Using a Radeon Pro W6800 workstation GPU, AMD says that its new drivers can improve Solidworks rendering speeds by up to 52 or 28 percent at 4K and 1080p resolutions, respectively. Autodesk Maya performance goes up by 34 percent at 4K or 72 percent at the default resolution. The size of the improvements varies based on the app and the GPU, but AMD’s testing shows significant, consistent improvements across the board on the Radeon Pro W6800, W6600, and W6400 GPUs, improvements that AMD says will help those GPUs outpace analogous Nvidia workstation GPUs like the RTX A5000 and A2000 and the Nvidia T600.

A full list of compatible Radeon Pro-series GPUs is available in the 22.Q3 driver’s release notes; in addition to desktop cards, the driver is compatible with the mobile GPUs in a variety of laptops from Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Panasonic. AMD didn’t show any performance numbers for Radeon Pro GPUs older than the 6000 series, though presumably, all GPUs supported by the new drivers will see at least some benefit.

The OpenGL API is old, but it’s still in relatively wide use among older games (the PC version of Minecraft being one prominent example), in professional apps, and as a rendering backend for game console emulators, among other places. AMD also rewrote its DirectX 11 drivers earlier this year, though the performance gains in most games were generally much smaller than the improvements provided by the new OpenGL drivers.

Continue Reading

Gadgets

USB-IF says goodbye to confusing SuperSpeed USB branding

Published

on

Enlarge / The USB-IF no longer recommends SuperSpeed logos or branding for speedy USB ports.

When SuperSpeed USB was announced in 2007, the branding was a logical differentiator. The term launched with USB 3.0, which brought max data transfer rates from USB 2.0’s measly 0.48 Gbps all the way to 5Gbps. But by 2022, there were three flavors of SuperSpeed USB in various connector types facing consumers, plus the potentially faster USB4. Looking ahead, USB products will continue to offer different performance capabilities while looking the same, but there’s at least one thing we can all agree on: The word “SuperSpeed” isn’t a helpful differentiator anymore.

SuperSpeed branding already felt pretty unremarkable by 2019, when the USB-IF, which makes USB standards, renamed USB 3.0 to USB 3.1 Gen 1; USB 3.1 to USB 3.1 Gen 2, and then USB 3.2 Gen 2; and USB 3.2 to USB 3.2 Gen 2×2. The group sought to make things easier for consumers by recommending to vendors that they label products not by specification name but by “SuperSpeed USB” followed by max speed (USB 3.2 Gen 2×2, for example, would be SuperSpeed USB 20Gbps).

Per updated guidelines and logos that started coming out this quarter and that you may see before 2022 ends, as reported by The Verge today, the USB-IF now recommends vendors label products as, simply, USB 20Gbps (for USB 3.2 Gen 2×2), USB 10Gbps (for USB 3.2 Gen 2), etc. No SuperSpeed necessary.

The USB-IF's USB performance logos.
Enlarge / The USB-IF’s USB performance logos.

USB4, meanwhile, gets the same treatment, with the USB-IF recommending USB 40Gbps and USB 20Gbps branding for the spec. When it comes out, USB4 Version 2.0 should be called USB 80Gbps.

“USB4 Version 1.0, USB Version 2.0, USB 3.2, SuperSpeed Plus, Enhanced SuperSpeed, and SuperSpeed+ are defined in the USB specifications; however, these terms are not intended to be used in product names, messaging, packaging, or any other consumer-facing content,” the USB-IF’s language usage guidelines updated in September read [PDF].

The USB-IF still recommends vendors label USB 2.0, which can take the form of USB-C, USB-A, USB-B, and more, as “Hi-Speed USB” with no performance indicator. Most products using the USB 2.0 spec are peripherals, like keyboards and printers, Jeff Ravencraft, USB-IF president and COO, told Ars Technica, so the industry group doesn’t think consumers will mistake the tech for being faster than, say, USB 5Gbps. The USB-IF also feared consumers confusing “USB 480Mbps” as being faster than USB 5Gbps, due to the larger number (we guess “USB 0.48Gbps” doesn’t look so pretty).

“Hi-Speed USB has been around for over 20 years and is well established in the marketplace, so we focused our rebranding efforts to 5Gbps and up,” the USB-IF spokesperson said.

Recommended USB 1.0 branding, meanwhile, is untouched.

For USB-C cables, the USB-IF now recommends packaging and logos show both max data transfer rate and power delivery.

The USB-IF's USB-C cable logos.
Enlarge / The USB-IF’s USB-C cable logos.

This doesn’t change much

The changed recommendations align with what many vendors had already been doing: listing speeds alone without any spec name or the term SuperSpeed. Some vendors list USB spec names only. With all this in mind, it’s not surprising to see the official demise of SuperSpeed branding, especially with the USB-IF revealing its optional, SuperSpeed-free USB-C logos a year ago.

The primary issue at the heart of USB confusion remains. Even as USB-C becomes more ubiquitous and, in some places, eventually required by law, USB-C products can have a range of capabilities, including data transfer rates of 0.48–40Gbps.

The USB-IF’s guidelines also don’t specify other capabilities, like Intel Thunderbolt support, whether a cable’s active or passive, and PCIe tunneling.

SuperSpeed labels like this (under the USB-A and USB-C ports) should be no more.
Enlarge / SuperSpeed labels like this (under the USB-A and USB-C ports) should be no more.

Scharon Harding

But according to Ravencraft, the typical consumer doesn’t really care about any of those things. The exec told The Verge that consumer study groups showed that most consumers only care about “the highest data performance level the product can achieve” and “the highest power level I can get or drive from this product.”

Most consumers don’t understand USB branding, messaging, revision control, or spec names, he told The Verge.

Everything’s optional

Despite its efforts to simplify what consumers see, the USB-IF also can’t ensure widespread usage of its optional logos and certification. The USB-IF-certified products list currently contains 2,500 items when there are countless devices, cables, and products using USB.

Ravencraft admitted to Ars that some companies may view the costs associated with getting USB-IF-certified, including passing USB-IF compliance testing and acquiring a USB-IF trademark license agreement, as “prohibitive.” There are discounts for USB-IF members.

Ravencraft also suggested that some companies may forego certification if they know they cut corners to save costs and, thus, wouldn’t pass compliance testing.

So, the Wild West of USB labeling will probably continue to some degree, but customers have options, too. Products with USB-IF logos, if available, immediately tell you how much power delivery and speed to expect. Whether or not that rate should be considered a super speed is up to you.

Continue Reading

Trending