Audio Equipment Review: Cambridge Audio Minx Air 200, Great Sound in a Small Package

I’d long wanted a compact audio device in my bedroom. I don’t care as much about having perfect stereo separation when I’m listening to music in bed, nor does it matter if the sound is as good as it is on my office or living room systems. With this in mind, I’ve tried out a couple of devices, and found the Cambridge Audio Minx Air 200, which offers great sound and easy-to-use functionality.

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I wish I knew how Cambridge Audio packed such great sound into their Minx Air 200 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). This 18-inch, or 450mm, wide device, which stands easily on a bookcase or shelf, sounds almost as good as a full-sized stereo. Listing at $600, or £350 (the current Amazon.com price is around $500; you won’t find discounts in the UK though), I can’t think of a better way to listen to music when you don’t have room for an amp and speakers.

The Minx Air 200 is part of Cambridge Audio’s broader Minx product line. There is also a smaller Minx Air 100, and a portable Minx Go, all of which offer wireless playback. The Minx Air devices let you stream music via AirPlay or Bluetooth, and the Minx Go only Bluetooth.

The Minx Air has an impressive feature set. With a class-D amplifier, providing 200 watts to a pair of 57mm balanced mode radiator drivers and a 165mm subwoofer. It has a rich sound, with strong bass that you can adjust using a knob on the back of the device, or from the company’s Minx app. It supports AirPlay and Bluetooth atpX, and has an Ethernet jack, so you can run music to it over a wired network, if you wish. It has a 3.5 mm jack and a pair of RCA jacks on the back, so you can even connect it to a TV or portable music player.

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The Minx Air also offers access to internet radio stations. I haven’t used that much, but you can store a number of presets and access them from the Minx Air app, or control with the buttons on the device, or its tiny remote. You can also, of course, stream anything from an iOS device, or other device that supports AirPlay or Bluetooth. The Minx Air app also lets you adjust the device’s bass and apply EQ, if you wish. (I found the app to be somewhat persnickety; it often wouldn’t connect to the device, and I had to re-select it.)

Soundwise, I am very impressed by the quality and clarity of the Minx Air 200. While my office and living room stereos are better, nothing I threw at the Minx Air 200 sounded bad. From acoustic Bob Dylan to electric Miles Davis; from Public Image Limited, with its bass-heavy grooves to Bill Evans’ piano trios; from string quartets to solo piano. Everything sounds great. There is a feeling of thinness to the music, compared to a full-sized stereo, but it’s just a slight impression, due to the smaller speakers. Even at full volume – louder than I’ll ever play it – the Minx Air 200 sounds great.

Unlike many devices of this type, it’s stereo. Compared to the mono Sonos Play:5, which is the same price, but a few inches narrower (and which requires a Sonos system), the Minx Air 200 has much more presence. Naturally, the lack of stereo separation, with speakers so close together, is evident, but the shape of the Minx Air devices – slightly curved – sends the sounds from each speaker slightly to the side, providing an excellent stereo soundscape.

One thing that doesn’t work, which I would have liked, is streaming audio from an iPad when watching videos. In other words, if I were watching, say, a movie streamed from Netflix, I’d like to stream the audio via AirPlay to the Minx Air. The audio is streamed, but there’s a delay. It’s possible to do this with the VLC iOS app, which allows you to set the audio delay, but not apparently with others, such as Netflix or Apple’s Videos app. This isn’t a limitation of the Minx Air; it’s a problem with AirPlay itself.

You may not want to spend this much on a wireless speaker, but it sounds great. If you want good sound in a small space, check out the Minx Air. It sounds better than I expected a speaker of this type could sound.

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What Are the Best “Focused-Writing” Apps for OS X?

I wrote an article a while ago about The Tools I Use: Writing and Text Apps, discussing the different apps that are part of my writing toolbox.

In my latest Macworld article, I look at several “focused-writing” apps for OS X. “These apps, increasingly popular of late, allow you to write in a focused environment, export your writings to various formats, possibly apply basic styling, and let you print your work.”

I have tested many of these over the years, and, while my choices may not match yours, it’s worth looking at what’s available. I picked several that I like a lot, and it’s safe to say that there’s no shortage of excellent apps in this category for OS X.

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Theater Review: The Roaring Girl, by Dekker and Middleton, at the Royal Shakespeare Company

I rarely leave a theater at the intermission, but last night, at The Roaring Girl, performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre, my partner and I did just that. After what seemed like an interminable first part, the interval finally came, and we both looked at each other and discussed how bad the play was. We decided that we didn’t need another hour of it, and headed home.

The Roaring Girl, written by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton, around 1607-1610, is, as the RSC says, a “subversive city comedy about the feisty Moll Cutpurse who unmans all who cross her path.” Unfortunately, it’s a bad play, and the current RSC production tries very hard, perhaps too hard, to make it better.

The language is poor, the jokes coarse, and the plot is just too complicated to follow. It has something to do with a rich son who wants to marry someone, whose father doesn’t want the marriage to happen, and after that, I just got lost.

It seemed that, with this bad play, the actors and director tried to make something out of it, and tried too hard. The actors were all over-acting, trying to camp it up and make the bad jokes funny. There were lots of in-jokes about London, which no one laughed at, crude sexual innuendoes, which were just embarrassing, and overall poor timing that made the jokes fall flat.

While Lisa Dillon’s opening of the play – sitting alone in a chair, speaking an introduction – showed her as a potentially interesting interpreter of the “roaring girl,” Moll Cutpurse, once she was on stage with other actors, she tended to go overboard.


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Photo by Helen Maybanks, for the RSC.

Set in the Victorian period, with a beautiful set and excellent lighting, the production was visually sumptuous. The choice of music, however, was disturbing. It was loud and overbearing, a combination of rock, jazz and ska, with one scene where Moll comes up from the center of the stage, playing an electric guitar and singing. It was so loud – I was sitting in the third row – that it was annoying.

I’ve only had a couple of experiences in the theater when I couldn’t wait to leave, and this was one of them. (Last year’s Globe Theatre production of Henry VI in York was one of them.) But this Roaring Girl just dragged on. There was one redeeming scene with Mistress Gallipot and her husband, about a letter the former had received and a secret lover, which was delightful. In fact, Lizzie Hopley, as Mistress Gallipot, was the only high point for me in the play. But I had no idea what that scene had to do with the rest of the play; what plot there is is so convoluted, and there are so many characters, that it was too hard to follow.

The Telegraph, in its review, called the play “over-the-top and underwhelming,” saying, “this effortful, strident production proves a botched shot at a play that in more sensitive hands might have yielded richer comic rewards.” I’m not sure that’s the case; it’s just not a good play.

Whats On Stage said, “My overriding impression is of a production that lacks confidence in the source material and so decisions have been taken to ‘improve’ it. On the whole, these decisions only seem to highlight the inherent weaknesses in the script and consequently make for an unsatisfying evening in the theatre.”

And that sums it up well. One goes to the theater hoping to be entertained. The Roaring Girl does not deliver.

(It’s worth noting that there were lots of empty seats in the theater, and looking on the RSC website today, I see that there are plenty of tickets available, even for today’s performance; at the time of this writing, 1:30 pm, about 175 seats. The RSC has been advertising this play a bit to spur sales; during a recent trip to Birmingham, I saw posters for The Roaring Girl in bus stops. It would be unfortunate if this were someone’s first experience seeing a play at the RSC.)

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Apple Opens OS X Beta Program to All

In a surprising move, Apple has opened its OS X beta program to all users. Anyone can register on the OS X Beta Seed Program website, whereas, previously, one needed to have a $99 per year developer subscription to access these betas.

Apple says that this program “gives users the opportunity to run pre-release software. Test-drive beta software and provide quality and usability feedback that will help make OS X even better,” but I’m not sure that this is a good idea. While only the bleeding edge users will install the betas, there will still be a substantial number of users who will run them.

Yes, Apple will get more feedback – but it’s not like they don’t already get plenty – but these users will encounter problems. If they install these betas on their primary Macs, they will find, as all of us who have developer accounts have found, that they are buggy. Only near the end of a beta program do these seeds become stable, and, even then, I don’t install betas on my main Mac until the reach golden master stage; that’s the final release version of the software.

Unlike iOS betas – available through a $99 per year iOS developer program – you can run an OS X beta on a device, then switch back to the release version of OS X. With iOS, you have to dedicate a device to running betas, and it’s not possible to downgrade.

So, a word of warning for those wanting to run OS X betas. Don’t install this on your main Mac, or, if you do, make sure to have two partitions: one with the current version of OS X, and another with a beta. The best way to try out these betas is to install them on an external hard drive, to ensure that you don’t lose any data. Because there is a real risk of a beta crashing and causing you to lose everything on your Mac. (Though, to be fair, this is rare.)

Apple’s opening up the OS X beta program is an odd step. They already don’t fix many of the bugs that those with developer accounts report, so getting many more bug reports is unlikely to make a difference. While this is a good thing for users who are not developers, and who want access to OS X betas – journalists such as my colleagues and I will save $100 a year – I don’t see how expanding beta access will improve anything. But this is a sign of the greater openness we’ve seen since Tim Cook took over the company.

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Happy Birthday Will Shakespeare

On this day, 450 years ago, in Stratford-Upon-Avon, William Shakespeare was born. I sit here in my home office, a few miles from that place, and reflect on what Shakespeare means to me, and to the world around me.

As one can see in Stratford-Upon-Avon, many people come to visit Shakespeare’s birthplace. Mostly, they go there because Shakespeare was a famous person, and because this part of England – the West Midlands – is an attractive area; stopping for a day in Stratford-Upon-Avon is a nice thing to do on a tour of the country.

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Shakespeare’s birthplace on Henley Street, in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

But for others, Shakespeare’s theater remains alive, and Stratford’s own Royal Shakespeare Company is the best example of maintaining a tradition of the plays. I’m privileged to live in this area, and to be able to go to the theater so often, and I salute William Shakespeare on this day of his birth.

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New iTunes Store Share Button?

Maybe I just never noticed it before, but yesterday, I spotted a sharing button on artist pages in the iTunes Store. It looks like this:

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It’s at the top-right of the page, and it’s tiny. Click it, and you can choose Copy Link, Share on Twitter, Share on Facebook or Alert Me.

This only shows on artist pages, since you get similar functions by clicking the arrow button next to an item’s price. But I’ve never noticed this before. Is it new, or did I just miss it?

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Why I’m Ditching the Nike+ Fuelband

nikefuelband.jpgI recently reviewed three fitness trackers, and, after discussing the Nike+ Fuelband on a recent episode of The Committed podcast, decided I would try one out. But I’m not keeping it; I bought it from Nike, who offers unconditional 30 day returns, and I’m sending it back. (Bully to them, by the way; though if it had been available on Amazon UK – not sure why it’s not – I would have bought it that way, and Amazon offers the same return policy.)

Nike recently fired much of their wearables team, and, while the company claims they’re not dropping the Fuelband – or their other devices – it’s clear that they don’t have a brilliant future. Speculation is that Nike will be partnering with Apple to provide software for fitness and activity tracking features in the as-yet-inexistant iWatch.

This makes sense for several reasons. The Fuelband only syncs with iOS devices; you can sync it on your computer, but there are no Android apps. Nike has a long history of working closely with Apple; oh, and Tim Cook is on the company’s board of directors.

I kind of like the Fuelband. I wasn’t converted to the concept of Nike+ Fuel, though I can see that, as a relative measurement – more or less fuel today than yesterday – it’s as valid as any other metric. Since most of my activity is walking, a step counter, such as the Fitbit One, which I wear daily, captures my activity. But I could go either way.

The thing is, any such device that you wear on your wrist is cumbersome, unless it offers other features; something the iWatch should do, if it is ever launched. I did appreciate that the Fuelband has a watch; I haven’t worn one in more than a decade, and I did find myself using it to check the time occasionally. But aside from that, it’s a bulky device that offers nothing more than tracking.

If Nike hadn’t axed the wearables team just a few days after I got the Fuelband, I’d most likely have kept it. But I don’t want to get involved in a dying ecosystem. Like many people, I’d rather wait and see what Apple does, if they can create a wearable that is more useful than a simple fitness tracker. And, in the meantime, I’ll keep that Fitbit One on my pants. It’s there all the time, and I forget about it, until I check to see how many steps I’ve walked. That, to me, is how a fitness tracker should work.

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How Do Shared iTunes Radio Stations Work?

With iTunes Radio, you can share stations with your friends. You can’t do this with the Featured Stations – the ones Apple curates – but you can with any you create. However, some of the stations you create may be pre-packaged stations, based on artists or genres.

001.pngHere’s an example. There’s a Contemporary Classical radio station that I added to iTunes the other day, which has bits and pieces of recent “classical” music. I didn’t create this station myself; I selected it from the stations that showed up when I clicked on the Classical genre. I tweeted about it, and someone added it to their iTunes Radio stations. So it displays, as you can see here, with 1 Follower.

But what does that mean? Will anyone who’s added an iTunes Radio station from a link you share automatically get all the changes you make to the station? Because you can choose a setting in the Tune this station section, and you can add artists or songs to the Play more like this section, and you can also block artists or songs in the Never play this section.

If the station is shared, then, will all users get the same Play more and Never play information when they listen to the station? Do you want to try? Here’s a link to the Contemporary Classical station. I’ve added Steve Reich, Bang on a Can and So Percussion to the artists I want to hear more of. And I’ve added Black Sabbath to the Never play section. If you add this station, do you see the same?

Update: If, as the comments below suggest, you don’t see the Play more or Never play sections with a shared radio station, then you are, indeed, following someone else’s choices. I find this surprising for a preset station – the one I experimented here is one of iTunes’ sub-genre stations.

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