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

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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.

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This enthusiast’s keyboard and trackball used to launch nuclear missiles

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There’s no telling what you’ll find on eBay—like an old keyboard and trackball originally dedicated to firing off nuclear missiles.

As detailed Tuesday by YouTube channel Pointless Tinkering, an enthusiast bought the keyboard off eBay simply because it “looked awesome” and had “some interesting buttons” saying things like “TRANSMIT,” “ABORT,” and “INITIATE.”

The keyboard and trackball were part of a larger control system for a nuclear missile silo command center. More specifically, the peripherals were part of a console used to launch Minuteman III missiles in the ’80s as part of the US Air Force’s Rapid Execution and Combat Targeting (REACT) program.

As explained by the Cold War history site Nuclear Companion and cited by Pointless Tinkering, “There is one stunning difference between REACT and the old Command Data Buffer (CDB). While the CDB had two separated workstations, in REACT, both crew are side by side. In other words, they operate in a single console with keyboard and trackball included.”

The keyboard has reed switches, which use magnets to actuate. Other parts include an Intel MD82510/B chip as a serial controller, an Intel 8051-family microcontroller, and RS422 communication chips.

After grabbing the keyboard and trackball from eBay and learning about their history, the enthusiast went to work, armed with tools like an Arduino Pro Micro (which eventually got fried) and a programmer for the microcontroller, which he acquired through Dromeda Research. He also repaired the trackball that stopped working after purchase and got both the keyboard and trackball to work with modern computers with a USB port.

“All that reverse engineering led to me creating this little interface, which has the Arduino Micro, which can emulate a mouse and a keyboard,” the owner said. There’s even custom software for the keyboard.

Of course, there’s no RGB lighting, but some keys actually do have LEDs.

Not quite RGB.

Pointless Tinkering also highlighted a “BIT key” that seems to reset the keyboard.

According to the video, both the keyboard and trackball work like regular PC peripherals, save for the Ctrl, Alt, and down keys, making the Nuclear Keyboard, as the video dubbed it, “very hard to use as a normal, daily driver keyboard.”

Pointless Tinkering said he would try to address any issues that pop up in a follow-up video. Despite its flaws, the Nuclear Keyboard is still a fascinating testament to the power of old tech and fresh minds.

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Luna Display lets you wirelessly use a Mac as second Windows monitor

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Enlarge / A 24-inch iMac used as display for a Windows 11-based Lenovo Thinkpad.

Sometimes you just need more screen space. You can always buy a portable monitor, but what if you could just use the systems already in your home—whether they run Windows or macOS?

Luna Display is a product by Astropad that lets you turn an iPad into a wireless second display. The $130 offering uses a dongle and works with Windows PCs and Macs. Its “headless” mode turns the iPad into the main display for a Mac Mini or Mac Pro.

Luna Display’s 5.1 update, announced this week, adds even more possibilities. The dongle can now be used with any Apple machine—not just an iPad—to provide a second display for your Windows PC or Mac.

An iMac used as wireless display for a MacBook.
Enlarge / An iMac used as wireless display for a MacBook.

You’re not limited to Apple’s desktops or laptops, either; Luna Display now supports adding a 4K or 5K screen to your PC as a second display. That means you could attach the 24-inch iMac with a 4.5K (4480×2520) resolution or a 27-inch iMac with a 5K (5120×2880) resolution to your Windows or Mac PC.

There are some caveats, though. If you plan to connect a 4K or 5K Mac, the machine has to be running at least macOS Big Sur. Any 5K screen connected to your Windows PC will be limited to a 30 Hz refresh rate, which is half the refreshes per second than what’s typical (60 Hz). If you’re using a Mac with Big Sur or later, the refresh rate is increased to 45 Hz. And if you’re “only” connecting a 4K screen, your refresh rate will be 60 Hz, whether the display is connected to a Windows or Apple system.

Other additions with the Luna Display 5.1 update include support for Apple’s Magic Keyboard and trackpad with a Luna Display-connected iPad. Again, this feature works whether the iPad is connected to a Mac or PC.

Note that to use Luna Display in general, you must have a system with Windows 10 64-bit, Build 1809 or later, or macOS 10.11 El Capitan or later as your main PC. The iPad must run iOS 12.1 or later, and you need either 802.11n Wi-Fi or an Ethernet connection.

With Apple and Windows historically living in such separate camps, it’s nice to see a product bring more platform agnosticism for those who aren’t completely committed to one side.

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Microsoft restores individual “default browser” setting in Windows 11 preview

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Aurich Lawson

It’s been a rough week for Microsoft’s Edge browser in the court of public opinion as users grumbled about the addition of a controversial “buy now, pay later” financing feature and another layer of pop-up messages that tries to dissuade users from installing Google Chrome. But Microsoft isn’t totally unresponsive to user criticism when it comes to Edge—the latest Dev channel Windows Insider build of Windows 11 restores a button in the Settings app for setting your default browser, something that existed in Windows 10 but is missing from the current stable version of Windows 11.

The change, originally spotted by developer Rafael Rivera, adds the default browser button to the top of the Settings app when you navigate to any browser in the “Default apps” section. The button automatically changes the default app for opening http, https, .htm, and .html files and links instead of making users change each of these associations manually (or relying on browser makers to build that capability into their browsers themselves).

For all the other file types that Microsoft Edge can handle, including PDFs, SVG files, and others, you’ll still need to change those associations manually and one at a time. But this is already how the default browser button worked in Windows 10, so it at least represents a reversion to the pre-Windows 11 status quo rather than a new hurdle to jump over.

Features being tested in the Dev channel builds of Windows are usually destined for the operating system’s next major servicing update, which for Windows 11 will happen sometime in the fall of 2022. Recent builds have begun to address some common complaints about Windows 11’s user interface changes, including tweaks to the Start menu and taskbar.

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