July 2020 Product Reviews

Alice Bonasio
Jul 14, 2020 · 15 min read

Summer is here and July’s product reviews are mostly devoted to audio tech.

Helm DB12 Mobile Amplifier

I am excited to review two advanced audio quality boosting gadgets for mobile devices this month. The first of these addresses a key issue all smartphone or tablet users will have faced when trying to play music, movies, or podcasts over high-quality headphones or external speakers, volume. No smart device can output the sheer loudness of a separate Hi-Fi or dedicated media center amplifier meaning if you want to watch films or listen to high-quality music with friends you inevitably have to compromise on sound quality and volume.

The new HELM DB12 AAAMP Mobile Headphone Amplifier addresses the low-level volume our portable devices output, providing a 12-decibel gain boost plus an optional 6-decibel bass boost. This boost in gain is vital for power-hungry headphones like planar magnetic or high-impedance types, ensuring you hear the best quality sound and it also makes sure plugging your device into a portable battery-powered speaker or mini Hi-Fi gives you sound levels that will fill a room at a party or in a shared movie screening.

Two features make the DB12 such a success. This is an in-line, analog amplifier and connects to your device’s audio out via male 3.5mm jack and outputs back to a female 3.5mm jack, as such it is easy to use and connects seamlessly via all the headphone or audio cables you might already have. Also, key to the design is the integration of THX AAA™ Amplifier Technology which provides the power efficiency needed to deliver a rich, “unmasked” stereo field running off the DB12’s small, rechargeable battery.

Most amplifiers require power and extra cables. The DB12 is 100% portable with 6+ hours of battery life per charge and features exclusive in-line silver coiled (highest conductive metal) cabling delivering studio-quality amplification on the go with zero fuss.

With over six hours of mobile playtime, the HELM DB12 AAAMP transforms your mobile device into a portable hi-fi audio solution. As a seal of its superior audio design and output, it has also achieved THX Certification, meeting the highest industry standards for its sound quality and performance.

“Working together with our partner in audio innovation, THX, we have infused the HELM DNA with some of the latest and greatest audio technologies on the market to create a world-class mobile headphone amplifier,” said Eric Johnson, chief executive officer of HELM Audio. Powered by THX AAA technology the HELM DB12 AAAMP provides +12 dB of zero distortion volume gain, improved stereo imaging, and clarity (true linear amplification), plus an optional user-controlled +6 dB bass boost. The ground-breaking DB12 is simple, the plug & play in-line amplifier delivers maximum volume, improved sound quality, and bass enhancement to any headphone on any mobile device.

In practical use, the amp is simplicity itself to use and that valuable boost in volume really does make your smartphone or tablet a useful media station. Hooked up to my demanding headphones it sounded bold and very pleasing. The same was true when connected to my Hi-Fi. I didn’t have to crank the volume as high as I would otherwise and the sound quality was more solid than when the DB12 was not connected. This is an analog amp so there is no digital magic going on inside to improve the sound and I did notice a tiny loss of fidelity in complex music tracks when using the DB12 but nothing that would bother anyone less of an audiophile than me and much less loss in quality than I expected from such a small battery-powered gadget.

The optional Bass Boost it offers is also great, offering a small but significant boost to the lower frequencies without muddying the mids and treble. Charging is super easy, the battery lasts a good few hours, and the metal construction and high-quality cable Helm use mean this is all round a great device. I love it and it will become an essential part of my tech travel kit.

Winner of an “Innovation Award at CES 2020,” the HELM Audio DB12 AAAMP is small enough to fit into the palm of your hand and plugs seamlessly into any mobile device (Android, iOS, macOS or PC supported) delivering analog amplification from your mobile device to any pair of 3.5mm headphones or an external speaker.

For those of us who don’t keep over 100GB of music files on their phone (hem hem) and prefer to stream from services such as Spotify or YouTube Music the DB12 will make a great difference when used with expensive, power dependant headphones. You know, the big ones that make you look like a Cyberman

• Studio Grade Amplifier with Bass Boost Powered by the Award Winning THX® AAA™ Amplifier Technology. Boost the Sound from your Mobile or Gaming device to your Headphones
• World’s First In-Line Audiophile Quality Headphone Amplifier That Fits In The Palm of Your Hand and a separate Bass Boost feature
• Delivers Maximum Volume +12dB for the Cleanest Signal, Improving Sound Quality and an Independently Controlled Bass Boost +6dB Turning any Mobile Device Into a Full Blown Studio Experience
• Plug & Play: No Additional Components or Connections
• Utilizes the THX AAA Lowest Distortion Rated Streamlined Amplifier
• Game-Changing Ultra-Clean Power Breathing New Life into Your Favorite Headphones Anywhere You Go
• 100% Mobile: Rechargeable Battery With 6–8 Hours Play Time

If you need to boost your mobile device’s audio then I can recommend you give the DB12 a try! They are available now for £199 now directly from the Helm website here.

Cyrus SoundKey

The second mobile audio device we are looking at this month is from the excellent British company Cyrus. The Cyrus SoundKey unlike the Helm DB12 is a DAC (Digital-to-Analogue Converter) for your smartphone, tablet, laptop or PC so it connects to the digital output on your device which is always some form of USB unless you are an Apple iOS user in which case it is most likely a Lightning port. I was blown away to find that the SoundKey comes with high-quality OTG USB adapters for all the different flavors of USB right in the box! If however, you are iOS user you will have to use a Lightning Camera Kit connector which Cyrus doesn’t supply as it is a proprietary Apple product.

A DAC takes the digital audio info from the device and refines and improves it via special circuitry to make it sound better in every way. I have tested and owned several Hi-Fi sized DACs and was blown away that most of the quality of these large, expensive devices has been boiled down into a tiny little USB key like this. I can attest that the boost in audio quality is huge and that once you have used a SoundKey you will never go back. The clarity, sound stage, fidelity, bass response, and overall balance of your music and movie soundtracks will leap forwards. It draws power from your device but claims it is very low current and I have not noticed any impact on my phone’s charge at all during use.

Via my Galaxy S9+ MP3, Flac, and M4A files sounded so much better I was still re-listening to my favorite tracks three hours after first plugging in the SoundKey, I just couldn’t stop listening to how wonderful my old files now sounded. Streaming Spotify also sounded a load better, even when tested with mid-range earbuds. Hooked up to my MacBook Pro (which already produces very good audio) movies were so much more enjoyable with the breadth of the soundscapes wrapping right around me and placing me in the middle of the action. With Jurassic World, for example, plugging in the SoundKey showed off the excellent mix, every rustle in the jungle stood out and the cacophonous roars of the dinosaurs were more complex and chilling.

SoundKey is an award-winning revolution in mobile music. Hi-Fi streaming services like TIDAL mean fantastic quality is available to subscribers, but phones lack the necessary hardware to get the best from this data. SoundKey unlocks that data, using our years of expertise in high-resolution DAC and amplifier design. Cyrus quality audio is now available to everyone.

If you care about sound if you truly love music and movies you have to get one of these. For under a hundred bucks it will change the way you engage with audio on your laptop or mobile device. Simplicity is the name of the game here, just plug the SoundKey into your macOS, Windows Vista+, Android 5+ and iOS9+ (all require OTG connection) device and it will work seamlessly. On computers, you will of course have to flip the Audio Output from ‘Device’ to ‘SoundKey’ but that is one click and you are done.

Unbelievable Sound Quality
• Improved clarity, more realistic sound
• Works with Windows Vista+, Android 5+ and iOS9+* (all require OTG connection)
• 3.5mm Jack for headphones connection
• Robust aluminum casing
• Extremely low current, conserving your phone’s battery life
• Compatible with a wide range of audio format, including MP3, AAC, and FLAC
• Can handle High-Resolution audio files up to 24bit/96kHz
• Size 5.4cm x 2.3cm x 0.8cm
• Weight 18g
*Requires Apple Camera Kit for connection to iOS devices

Find out more here and I strongly recommend you pick up one of these Cyrus SoundKeys right now, you will never go back! Their British website has a dealer locator for several countries but they are also available on Amazon in most places for about $99 or £79.

Wisdom Panel Essential Dog DNA Test

You might have noticed a lot of doggy tech in the last few review posts, well that’s because the tech for pets market is growing fast. We love our pets almost as much as we love ourselves and spend accordingly

In these crazy days there is nothing wrong with that! So I was super excited to try out Wisdom Panel’s Essential Doggy DNA test. I have a pack of pedigree Staffordshire Bull Terriers so was keen to see if their pedigree status was justified (as well as the expense!).

In terms of appearance, dogs are one of the most diverse species on the planet. Which is why it’s hard to believe a Yorkie and Great Dane are nearly identical on a genetic level. Thanks to the 15,000 years that have passed since humans and dogs learned to live together, there are now over 350 unique dog breeds, types, and varieties recognized worldwide. Through DNA testing, we can map the “ancestry” — or origin story — of your dog, from their breed breakdown to family tree, going back several generations.

The Essential DNA test Wisdom offer for dogs costs £99.99 and works for 350+ breeds, types, and varieties it also tests for 25+ genetic conditions, 35+ breed traits, and much more.

Knowing your dog’s breed mix or pure breed and their genetic makeup empowers you to tailor training, nutrition, and care to their unique needs — helping you ensure a happier, healthier, snugglier pup for years to come. If you are a dog lover the information this test reveals is really valuable in caring for them.

The analysis of health conditions they show markers for is key to planning their medical care with your vet going forwards. For example, if they show a strong marker for hip dysplasia this can help you manage their exercise to mitigate the degeneration and to watch out for early signs of the disease and take early steps against it with supplements or drugs.

The test kits each have a unique ID number that you use to create an account for you and your pet online. Instructions for the procedure are clear and well laid out online, the interface really is well designed, and taking the DNA sample itself was easy peasy! I just roughly rubbed the small bristly brush inside the dog’s cheek, popped it back in the supplied tube and sent it back to Wisdom in the prepaid package. Simplicity itself. Results only took a couple of weeks and I was emailed a link to take me straight back to the online account where all my pets results were clearly laid out in categories with simply laid out results.

I was very happy to find that all three of my dogs were indeed 100% purebred and had zero health issues commonly associated with poorly managed breeding programs. All-round I was very impressed with Wisdom’s testing kits and services. From start to finish the process was well explained and simple to use, plus the prices are very reasonable. The Essential Dog DNA Collection Kit costs just £99.99 and includes everything I have discussed above and a Premium Kit costs $159.99.

Our algorithm considers over 17 million possible family trees that could have produced your dog’s raw genetic results. Looking at all of the trees together, the algorithm then determines the most likely breed breakdown and family tree for your pup.

Once your pup’s sample reaches our lab we log its arrival, and extract and purify the DNA from the sample that you collected. The DNA is then processed on our proprietary Illumina® Infinium® XT microarray, which tests for approximately 100,000 variants across your dog’s genome. Variants are places in the DNA that can vary between dogs, and the process of determining which particular variants a dog has is called genotyping. We then take your dog’s variant data and compare it to the largest dog reference database in the world: with over 350 breeds, types, and varieties built from a library of more than 1 million dogs.

I was particularly pleased to see the information they supplied on fur color as all my dogs are red. This was no mean feat and we had to shop all around the UK to find puppies that carried this rare gene. I have a soft spot for red animals so watch out all Highland cattle!

Breed info was also good and covered traits as well as a little on the history of the breed. Difficult to read but a wonderful outcome!

In 17th century England, bull baiting fortunately declined in popularity. Sadly, however, a new ugly sport rose up to take its place. As dogfights became increasingly common, there was a real need for a smaller and more agile fighter. This new dog would be a better contestant than the larger bulldog and mastiff. Bulldogs were bred to reduce their size and, over time, they were also crossed with the Black and Tan Terrier, resulting in the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Eventually, dog fighting was outlawed in 1835 and these devoted and loyal dogs were free to become home pets. From ugly beginnings … to a beautiful breed we’re glad are here today.

From start to finish the process was well explained and simple to use, the kits are easy to use, the website is excellent plus the prices are very reasonable. The Essential Dog DNA Collection Kit costs just £99.99 and includes everything I have discussed above. Also available is a Premium Kit for $159.99.

Olive Smart Ear

Our world is a loud place and I for one have lost some hearing in one ear due to being a stupid kid in a loud metal band. Whether your hearing loss is your own fault (hem hem) or not it can be an expensive and tedious problem to address with old fashioned hearing aids costing a fortune and often being overkill for the issue you have. Oh, and they tend to look like fleshy pink monstrosities, a bit like the alien Ceti Eel that crawls into Chekov’s ear in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, I might be exaggerating but it is not a good look.

We all hate to admit when we need help, especially men, but that’s what Olive Smart Ear is for. It’s a stylish single-ear hearing amplifier that re-engineers hearing for better conversations and enhanced listening. Be honest, we’ve all experienced it: the “What did you say?” from Dad at a noisy restaurant, the “Can you speak up?” from Grandpa during FaceTime calls, and the notorious remote control stealing so the TV can be on max volume.

Olive Smart Ear uses AI to capture 99.8% of the sounds within your hearing range without distortion while dampening unwanted background noises. Not only is it a modern and cool looking gadget, but it was also the CES 2020 “Best Wearable” award winner! The Smart Ear is a next-gen hearable for anyone with mild to moderate hearing loss and ensures they’ll never need to ask someone to speak up, turn the volume up, or be told they are shouting again (what if I like shouting?).

The Olive Smart Ear isolates, filters, and reduces distracting background noises, and amplifies the ones that matter most, optimizing the experience of everyday listening. Designed to enhance the surrounding audio for those with mild-to-moderate hearing loss (less than 50 dB) but who aren’t yet ready for hearing aids — either clinically or emotionally.

Setting up the new Smart ear was a piece of cake and after a quick charge in its handy little USB charging dock, I downloaded the app to my phone, connected through Bluetooth, and was up and running fast. When you first activate it the Smart Ear performs a simple hearing test to personalize your device. Check out the video below for a demo of how simple set up is.

Through their app it is super easy to control your Smart Ear with three simple modes that cover general listening situations; Default, Conversation & TV Mode. There is a simple Feedback Cancelation setting and a Volume slider. There is also an Equalizer so you can further personalize your settings and get the sound just the way you like.

I don’t have a problem hearing the TV as I’m usually in a quiet room anyway but the Conversation mode was a real help when chatting in a group in a loud room. Generally, I have an issue focusing on the speaker’s voice in crowded settings and often struggle to get more than the gist as background noise blurs together with the voice. Using the Smart Ear definitely helped in this specific situation, pulling the voice of the speaker out to the front and stopping me struggling to engage with the conversation.

Key Features:

  • Personalized sound with simple hearing calibration: Provides users with an easy-to-use, 5-minute hearing test via smartphone with the included Olive Smart App (Android and Apple compatible) to customize audio and equalizer frequency settings, personalized to their own hearing profile.
  • Designed to be seen not hidden: Eliminates any hearing impairment stigmas through modern design cues, borrowed from popular truly wireless earbuds that everyone is wearing.
  • User-Friendly sound modes with feedback cancellation: Captures sounds you never realized were missing and avoid turning up TV volumes with preset “TV Listening” and “Conversation” modes. Three onboard mics capture high-frequency sounds while minimizing feedback for a clear, spectrally balanced sound.

With its simple and easy to use partner app on your smartphone, the personalization possible and the long-lasting battery the Smart Ear is a tantalizing option for those with low to mid-level hearing loss. Add to this the low price and help with hearing loss is now available to many more people for whom the old fashioned solutions large medical companies offer are out of reach. To be honest, the tech on offer from Olive is the same or better than many high-cost alternatives, and damn it looks so much better.

  • Performance: 16 channels / 16 bands Feedback Cancellation + Active noise reduction & Personal hearing settings Equalizer.
    FRR 200Hz〜6,704Hz
    Maximum sound pressure level 122.8dB+3dB
    Average sound pressure level 116.5dB±3dB
    Maximum sound level
    Average sound level
  • Power & Battery: Lithium-ion batteries with 7 hours + Charging dock: 14 hours
  • Compatibility: Olive App & Firmware + Android & iOS smartphone
  • Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.2 Low Energy + Enhanced data rate(EDR)

The Smart Ear is effective, small and modern looking and would easily be mistaken for a high-end Bluetooth earbud similar to many of those I have reviewed here previously. With an MSRP of $299 USD the Smart Ear is available from QVC & B8ta, or you can pick one up direct from Olive Union here for a limited time discount price of $229.

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Alice Bonasio

Written by

Technology writer for FastCo, Quartz, The Next Web, Ars Technica, Wired + more. Consultant specializing in VR #MixedReality and Strategic Communications

Tech Trends

Showcase for the latest disruptive technology that is changing the education landscape globally

Alice Bonasio

Written by

Technology writer for FastCo, Quartz, The Next Web, Ars Technica, Wired + more. Consultant specializing in VR #MixedReality and Strategic Communications

Tech Trends

Showcase for the latest disruptive technology that is changing the education landscape globally

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