You might have been considering – or have already started – picking up a new hobby this year, particularly one you can do at home. Podcasting seems to be a popular option, and RODE is a company that has done more to cater specifically to this audience than just about any other audio company out there. The RODECaster Pro ($599) all-in-one podcast production studio that they released in 2018 is a fantastic tool for anyone looking to maximize their podcast potential, and with amazing new firmware updates released this year, along with a host of great new accessories, it’s stepped up even further.
The RODECaster Pro is a powerful production studio, but it’s not overwhelming for people who aren’t audio engineers by trade. The deck balances offering plenty of physical controls with keeping them relatively simple, giving you things like volume sliders and large pad-style buttons for top level controls, and then putting more advanced features and tweaks behind layers of menus accessible via the large, high-resolution touchscreen for users who desire more fine-tuned manipulation.
RODECaster Pro includes four XLR inputs, each of which can provide (individually selectable) phantom power for condenser mics, along with four 1/4″ headphone outputs for corresponding monitoring. That’s great because it means if you have guests used to recording podcasts and high-quality audio, they can listen to their own input, or you can opt to just have one producer keeping track of everything. There’s also a left and right 1/4″ audio out for a studio monitor speaker or other output, as well as a USB-C connector for plugging into a computer, and a 3.5mm in for connecting a smartphone or other external audio source. Smartphones can also be connected via Bluetooth, which is very handy for including a call-in guest via wireless.
Image Credits: Darrell Etherington
The main surface of the RODECaster Pro includes volume sliders for each available input and pre-set sound effects; volume knobs for each headphone and speaker output; buttons to activate and deactivate inputs; large buttons for playing back pre-set audio files and a large record button. There’s also a touchscreen which gives you access to menus and settings, and which also acts as a visual levels editor while recording.
RODECaster Pro is designed so that you can use it completely independently of any computer or smartphone – it has a microSD slot for recording, and you can then upload those files via either directly connecting the deck through USB, or plugging the card in to a microSD card reader and transferring your files. You can also use multitrack-to-USB or stereo USB output modes on the RODECaster Pro to effectively turn the studio hardware into a USB audio interface for your Mac or PC, letting you record with whatever digital audio production software you’d like, including streaming software.
The RODECaster Pro’s design is a perfect blend of studio-quality hardware controls and simplicity, making the device accessible to amateurs and pros alike. I was up and running with the deck out of the box in just a few minutes, and without making any adjustments at all to the sound profile or settings, I had great-sounding recordings using the RODE PodMic, a $99 microphone that is optimized by RODE to work with the RODECaster Pro out of the box.
Image Credits: Darrell Etherington
All the controls are easy and intuitive to manage, and you shouldn’t need to read any instruction manuals or guides to get started. The eight button sound effects grid is likely the most complicated part of the entire physical interface, but even the default sounds that RODE includes can be useful, and you can easily set your own via the RODECaster companion app for Mac and PC, and in the box you’ll find guides that you can use to overlay the buttons and label them to keep track of which is which.
The sliders are smooth and great to use, making it easy to do even, manual fade-ins and fade-outs for intro and outro or pre-recorded soundbites. Backlit keys for active/inactive inputs, mute status and the large record button mean you can tell with a quick glance what is and isn’t currently active on the track.
RODE has smartly included a locking power adapter in the box, so that you won’t find the cord accidentally yanked out in the middle of a recording. Each of the XLR inputs also includes a quick release latch for secure connections. And while the RODECaster Pro definitely takes up a lot of space with roughly the footprint of a 13-inch MacBook Pro, it’s light enough to be perfectly portable in a backpack for on-location recordings.
Image Credits: Darrell Etherington
The touchscreen display is another design highlight, since it’s high-resolution, with a matte cover that makes it viewable in a wide range of light, and very responsive touch input, It’s a great way to extend the functionality of the deck through software, while still ensuring nothing feels fiddly or hard to navigate, which can be the case with hardware jog controllers like you’d find on a Zoom recorder, for instance.
Balancing simplicity and power is the real reason RODECaster Pro works so well. If you’re just starting out, you can basically just begin using it out of the box without changing anything at all about how it’s set up to work. That’s especially true if you’re using any of RODE’s microphones, each of which has built-in profiles included for optimizing sound settings instantly.
I mentioned above that the RODE PodMic is optimized for use with the RODECaster Pro in this way, and the results are fantastic. If the price tag on the RODECaster Pro is a deterrent, it’s worth considering that the PodMic is a fantastically affordable dynamic podcasting mic, which produces sound way above its class when paired with the deck. so the overall cost of a RODE podcasting setup using both of these would actually be relatively reasonable vs. other solutions.
Image Credits: Darrell Etherington
If you’re ready to dive in and customize sound, you can toggle features like built-in compressor, de-esser and other audio effects. You can also manually adjust each of these effects since the release of Firmware 2.1 earlier this month – letting you adjust the processing of each included sound effect through the RODECaster Pro companion app for a totally custom, unique finally sound.
The ability to pre-load and call up sound effects and other audio tracks on demand on the RODECaster Pro is another killer feature. It’s true that you could achieve a lot of this in editing post-recording, but having it all to-hand for use in live recording scenarios just feels better, and it also enables genuine interactions with your guests that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. That 2.1 firmware update also brought the ability to loop clips indefinitely, which could be great if you want to place a subtle backing track throughout your recording.
One final feature I’ll highlight because it’s fantastic especially in a world where it might be hard to consistently get guests in-studio is the smartphone connectivity. You can either plug in via cable, or connect via low-latency Bluetooth for terrific call-in interactivity, using whatever software you want on your smartphone.
RODE has done a great job building out an ecosystem of accessories to further extend the capabilities of the RODECaster Pro, and enhance the overall user experience. Among its recent releases, there’s the Rode PodMic, mentioned above, as well as colored cable clips that correspond to each input backlight color for easily keeping track of which hardware is which, 1/4″ to 3.5mm stereo jack adapters for using standard headphones as monitors, a TRRS-to-TRRS 3.5mm audio aux cable for smartphone connections, and a USB power cable to replace the adapter for easier plug-in power on the go.
Image Credits: Darrell Etherington
The small plastic cuffs for your XLR cables are simple but smart ways of keeping track of gear, especially when everyone’s using the same mic (as they likely should be for sound consistency) – and it helps that they enhance the look of your overall setup, too. And the USB power cable in particular is a great addition to any RODECaster Pro kit that you’re intending to use outside of your own recording studio/home, since you can use it with any USB charger you have to hand – so long as it can provide 5V/2.5A output.
The real must-have accessory for the RODECaster Pro, however, is the RODE PodMic. It’s a no-fuss, well-built and durable microphone that transports well and that can work flexibly with a wide range of mounting options, and in a wide variety of settings including open air and in-studio. Yes, you can get better sound with more expensive mics, but with the PodMic, you can afford a set of four to complement the RODECaster Pro for the same price you’d pay for one higher-end microphone, and most people won’t notice the audio quality difference for their podcasting needs.
Image Credits: Darrell Etherington
The RODECaster Pro is a fantastic way to upgrade your at-home podcasting game – and a perfect way to take the show on the road once you’re able to do so. Its high-quality hardware controls, combined with smart, sophisticated software that has improved with consistent RODE firmware updates to address user feedback over time, are a winning combo for amateurs, pros, and anyone along the spectrum in between.
For photographers and videographers spending a lot less time on location and a lot more time at the desk right now, one great use of time is going back through archives and backlogs to find hidden gems, and honing those edit skills. One recently released device called the Loupedeck CT can make that an even more enjoyable experience, with customizable controls and profiles that work with just about all your favorite editing apps — and that can even make just using your computer generally easier and more convenient.
Loupedeck’s entire focus is on creating dedicated hardware control surfaces for creatives, and the Loupedeck CT is its latest, top-of-the-line editing panel. It’s essentially a square block, which is surprisingly thin and light given how many hardware control options it provides. On the surface itself, you’ll find six knobs with tactile, clicky turning action, as well as 12 square buttons and eight round buttons, each of which features color-coded backlighting. There’s also a large central control dial, with a touch-sensitive display in-set, and a 4×3 grid of touch-sensitive display buttons up top — each of which also includes optional vibration feedback when pressed.
Loupedeck CT connects via an included USB-C cable (though you’ll need an adapter or your own USB-C to USB-C cable if you’re using a modern MacBook) and it draws all the power it needs to operate from that connection. Small, rubberized pads on the back ensure that it won’t slip around on your desktop or table surface.
When you first set up the Loupedeck, you’ll need to download software from the company’s website. Once that’s installed, the setup wizard should see your Loupedeck CT hardware when it’s connected, and present you with configuration options that mirror what will show up on your device. By default, Loupedeck has a number of profiles for popular editing software pre-installed and ready to use, and it’ll switch to use that profile automatically upon opening those applications.
The list is fantastic, with one notable (and somewhat painful) exception — Lightroom CC. This isn’t Loupdeck’s fault: Adobe has changed the way that Lighroom is architected with the CC version such that it no longer offers as much interoperability with plugins like the ones that make Loupedeck work with such high integration. Loupedeck offers a Lightroom Classic profile, and one of the reasons Classic is still available is its rich support for these plugins, so you can still access and edit your library with Loupedeck CT. Plus, you can still use it to control Lightroom CC — but you’ll have to download a profile that essentially replicates keystrokes and keyboard shortcuts, or create your own, and it won’t be nearly as flexible as the profiles that exist for Photoshop, Photoshop Camera Raw and Lightroom Classic.
That one exception aside, there are profiles for just about any creative software a creative pro would want to use. And the default system software settings are also very handy for when you’re not using your computer for doing anything with image, video or audio editing. For instance, I set up basic workflows for capturing screenshots, which I do often for work, and one for managing audio playback during transcription.
I mentioned it briefly above, but the Loupedeck CT’s design is at first glance very interesting because it’s actually far smaller than I was expecting based on the company’s own marketing and imagery. It’s just a little taller than your average keyboard, and about the same width across, and it takes up not much more space on your desk than a small mousepad, or a large piece of toast. Despite its small footprint, it has a lot of physical controls, each of which is actually potentially many more controls through software.
The matte black, slightly rubberized finish is pleasing both to look at and to the touch, and the controls all feel like there was a lot of care put into the tactile experience of using them. The graduated clicks on the knobs let you know when you’ve increased something by a single increment, and the smooth action on the big dial feels delightfully analog. The buttons all have a satisfying, fairly deep click, and the slight buzz you get from the vibration feedback on the touchscreen buttons are a perfect bit of haptic response, which, combined with the raised rows that separate them, mean you can use the Loupedeck CT eyes-free once you get used to it. Each knob is also a clickable button, and the touchscreen circular display on the large central dial can be custom configured with a number of different software buttons or a scroll list.
Despite its small size, the Loupedeck CT doesn’t feel fragile, and it has a nice weight to it that feels reassuring of its manufacturing quality. It does feel like a bit of a compromise when it comes to layout to accommodate the square design versus the longer rectangle of the Loupedeck+, which more closely resembles a keyboard — but that has positives and negatives, since the CT is easier to use alongside a keyboard.
Ultimately, the design feels thoughtful and well-considered, giving you a very powerful set of physical controls for creative software that takes up much less space on the desk than even something like an equivalent modular system from Palette would require.
The Loupedeck CT’s primary benefits are found in its profiles, which set you up out of the box to get editing quickly and effectively across your favorite software. Each feels like a sensible set of defaults for the software they’re designed to work with, and you can always customize and tweak to your heart’s content if you’ve already got a set of standard processes that doesn’t quite match up.
Loupedeck’s software makes customization and addition of your own sets of tools a drag-and-drop process, which helps a lot with the learning curve. It still took me a little while to figure out the logic of where to find things, and how they’re nested, but it does make sense once you experiment and play around a bit.
Similarly, Loupedeck uses a color-coding hierarchy system in its interface that takes some getting used to, but that eventually provides a handy visual shortcut for working with the Loupedeck CT. There are green buttons and lights that control overall workspaces, as well as purple actions that exist within those workspaces. You can set up multiple workspaces for each app, letting you store entire virtual toolboxes for carrying out specific tasks.
This allows the CT to be at once simple enough to not overwhelm, and also rich and complex enough to offer a satisfying range of control options for advanced pros. As mentioned, everything is customizable (minus a few buttons like the o-button that you can’t remap, for navigation reasons) and you can also export profiles for sharing or for use across machines, and import profiles, including those created by others, for quickly getting set up with a new workflow or piece of software.
The Loupedeck CT even has 8GB of built-in storage on board, and shows up as a removable disk on your computer, allowing you to easily take your profiles with you — as well a tidy little collection of working files.
At $549, the Loupedeck CT isn’t for everyone — even though the features it offers provide efficiency benefits for many more than just creatives. It’s like having an editing console that you can fit in the tablet pocket of most backpacks or briefcases — and it’s actually like having a whole bunch of those at once because of the flexibility and configurability of its software. Also, comparable tools like the Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve Editor keyboard can cost more than twice as much.
If your job or your passion involves spending considerable time adjusting gradients, curves, degrees and sliders, then the Loupedeck CT is for you. Likewise, if you spend a lot of time transcribing or cleaning up audio, or you’re a keyboard warrior who regularly employs a whole host of keystroke combos even for working in something like a spreadsheet app, it could be great for you too.
I’ve tested out a lot of hardware aimed at improving the workflow of photographers and video editors, but none has proven sticky, especially across both home and travel use. The Loupedeck CT seems like the one that will stick, based on my experience with it so far.
Sonos has been releasing new hardware at a remarkably consistent and frequent pace the past couple of years, and what’s even more impressive is that these new releases are consistently excellent performers. The new Sonos Arc soundbar definitely fits that pattern, delivering the company’s best ever home theater sound device with performance that should convert even diehard 5.1 traditionalists.
The Sonos Arc is a soundbar that’s designed to integrate wirelessly with your Sonos home audio system, as well as accepting audio from your TV or A/V receiver via HDMI Audio Return Channel (ARC). Just about every modern TV should have at least one HDMI ARC port, and basically that just means that in addition to acting as a standard HDMI input for video sources, it can also offer audio output to a connected speaker or stereo system.
The Arc also comes with an HDMI to optical digital audio adapter in case your setup lacks ARC support (if a TV doesn’t have that, it almost surely has a TOSLINK digital audio output port) to cover all the bases. It also works as a wireless speaker that connects via Sonos’ dedicated mesh networking tech to other Sonos speakers you may have, so that it’s one more addressable multi-room speaker in a whole home wireless audio setup.
Arc can also be combined with other Sonos speakers, including the Sonos Sub, as well as Sonos One, One SL, Play:1 and others for setting up a more complete wireless 5.1 setup with a subwoofer and two rears. That’s an optional enhancement, however, and not necessary to take advantage of the Sonos Arc’s excellent virtual surround rendering, which with this new hardware also includes Dolby Atmos surround sound encoding for the first time on a Sonos soundbar.
The Sonos Arc really comes from the modern design pedigree that Sonos has put into its hardware releases since the debut of the Sonos One, which means monoblock coloring (in either black or white), smooth lines and rounded hole grill designs that look a lot more contemporary than the contrast color grills on the Play:1 for example.
Arc looks like a spiritual successor to the Sonos Beam, the first Sonos soundbar to feature a built-in mic and support for virtual voice assistants including Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. But it’s also a lot larger than the Sonos Beam at 45″ long – much more like the Sonos Playbar and Playable that marked the company’s entry into the category.
For a sense of how long it is, it runs almost the full length of my LG 65″ C7 OLED TV. It’s also a bit taller than the Sonos Beam, coming in at 3.4″. For my use, that was still short enough that it doesn’t obscure any of the TV’s display when it’s sitting on a TV bench in front of the television from my regular viewing angle, but your mileage may vary, and if you had a similar setup with the Beam, just note that you’ll need a bit more clearance with the Arc.
The larger size isn’t just for show – it helps Sonos delivery much better sound vs. the lower-priced Beam. Inside the Arc, there are 11 drivers, including two upwards-facing ones, and two that face out either end of the long cylindrical soundbar. The end effect of all of these drivers, and the true distance separation that’s made possible by its long profile, is much more effective left/right/rear sound separation.
On the back, there’s a vent bar that provides additional sound quality improvements and holds the mounting outlets for attaching the Arc to a compatible wall mount. Either wall-mounted or resting atop furniture, the Arc is an attractive piece of hardware, and with just two cables required to run to power and the TV, it’s a minimal solution to home theater clutter that should mesh well with most home decor.
I mentioned this briefly above, but it’s amazing what the Sonos Arc can accomplish in terms of sound separation and virtual surround immersion with just a single speaker. It’s easily the best sound rendering I’ve experienced from a Sonos soundbar, and likely the best audio quality from a soundbar I’ve heard, period.
Stereo sound field testing shows that audio tracks really well left-to-right, and the Dolby Atmos support really shows its benefits when you have content that offers it. Speech intelligibility is also really fantastic on the soundbar alone, whereas with the Beam, I’ve found that it can suffer in some situations unless you have a Sonos Sub added to your system to take care of the low end frequencies and allow the soundbar to produce better clarity on the high end.
The Arc definitely benefits from pairing it with a Sonos Sub and other Sonos speakers acting as rears, but the soundbar on its own is a much better performer than anything Sonos has previously offered, in case you’re looking to save some money or you just want to focus on the most minimal sound setup possible that isn’t just terrible built-in TV speakers.
Sonos has also included a microphone on the Arc, which allows you to use it with either Alexa or Google Assistant to play music, turn on the TV, and do plenty more. It’s a great feature that’s optional, if you’d rather leave the mic off or not connect any assistants, and for me it’s perfectly suited to a device that essentially sits at the center of the living room experience. The mic seems very able to pick up commands even in a large room when you’re quite far away from it, so it could be the only voice-enabled smart speaker you require in even a large open-concept living/dining/kitchen space.
The Arc also acts as an Apple AirPlay 2 speaker out of the box, which means you can use it wireless. For minimalists, this is yet another selling point, since it means you can use it wirelessly with an Apple TV mounted to the back of your TV for instance – ridding yourself of one more wire if you want. It’s also super easy to stream any music or audio from your phone to the Arc as a result, even without opening up the Sonos app.
Speaking of that app, the Sonos Arc is exclusively compatible with Sonos’ new, forthcoming mobile app, which arrives on June 8. This app will live alongside the existing one, which will continue to be available in order to support older, legacy Sonos hardware that won’t work with the more modern version.
This new Sonos app, which I used as a beta during the testing period for the Sonos Arc, is not as dramatic a change as I was expecting. The app definitely offers a better, cleaner and more modern interface, but everything is still located pretty much where you’d expect it to be if you were a user of the existing version. Most of the changes are probably happening under the hood, where the app is presumably designed to work with the more modern chipsets, higher memory and updated wireless technology of more recently-released Sonos speakers and accessories.
Long story short, the new app is a pleasant, fresh take on a familiar control system that seems both more performant and aesthetically better suited to modern Sonos speakers like the Arc. Even in beta, it didn’t give me any problems during my two weeks testing the Arc, and worked perfectly with all my services and voice assistants.
The Sonos Arc is definitely a premium soundbar, with a $799 price tag and great audio quality to match. It’s a fantastic successor to the Playbar and Playbase that exceeds both of those in every regard, and a great companion to the Beam that means Sonos’ home theater lineup now offers excellent options for a range of budgets.
If you want the best, most versatile and well-designed wireless soundbar available, the Sonos Arc is the speaker for you.
The USB audio interface is a fairly standardized device – for those who might not know, that’s the hardware you use to take a microphone or instrument that uses an XLR or 1/4″ output and get that into your computer via a USB connection for recording or streaming. There are a lot of choices in USB audio interfaces, from a wide range of brands, but a relatively new entrant from Audient is the EVO 4, a modern take on the device that includes some smarter tech tweaks to make using one even easier.
The EVO 4 is a 2in / 2out audio interface, which means that it supports input from up to two microphones or instruments, and can output to speakers and/or headphones, as well as your computer. Audient has made the EVO 4 even more flexible on the input front with a dedicated 1/4″ input for plugging in your guitar, in addition to the combo XLR+1/4″ connectors on the back. This is a great feature for anyone looking to use this as a recording method for instruments, and goes above and beyond most of its competitors in terms of flexibility.
Audient has also helpfully used USB-C as the primary connector for linking up the EVO 4 to your computer. This means it’s likely to work with cables you already have or that are easy to find no matter where you happen to want to use it. The USB-C connection also not only routes audio to your computer, but also provides all the power the EVO 4 needs to operate, including what it requires to provide 48V phantom power to microphones that require that to operate. The fact that it’s powered via USB makes it super handy for portable use, and its overall small size helps with this as well, making it the perfect audio interface for creating a lightweight, very packable podcast interview kit.
On top of the EVO 4, you’ll find all the physical controls. There’s a single large volume dial, two buttons to select the XLR inputs, a 48v phantom power toggle, a monitor mix and pan button and a volume button that applies to both headphones and any attached speakers. There’s also a dedicated, large green button that’s specifically for Smartgain, a unique feature Audient has included with the EVO 4 that really boosts its convenience – more on that later.
The EVO 4’s control interfaces are a bit of a mixed bag – on the one hand, they help keep the hardware minimalist and sleek. On the other, there is a bit of a learning curve to figure out how to adjust input volume levels, control interfaces, switch between different outputs and adjust the mix to each, and more. It’s definitely a more modern interpretation of an audio control surface (many other USB interfaces still just primarily user dedicated hardware switches and dials for most of these things), and so it’s going to have a learning curve for anyone used to the older way of doing things. That said, once you do figure out what everything does and what to press, in what order, it’s all relatively intuitive and easy to remember from that point on.
Where the EVO 4 really shines is in the features that Audient has added to make it more convenient and flexible than your average USB audio interface. Two in particular, Smartgain and Audio Loop-back, are immensely useful and make using the EVO 4 incredibly easy and convenient even for people inexperienced in any kind of audio recording or editing.
Smartgain, which as mentioned has a dedicated button on the top of the EVO 4, lets you automatically set the gain (essentially the input volume) level of any instrument or mic you plug into the interface for the best possible results. Typically, setting gain levels on a USB audio interface is a fully manual affair, and involves a lot of listening back to yourself either via monitors or through recordings. With Smartgain, you simply tap the button, tap the input you want to set (you can select both), and start speaking, singing or playing – after a few seconds, the button will flash green to indicate that it has set the gain level based on the volume of your input.
If you’re doing a recording where you’re both singing and playing guitar, for instance, you can set Smartgain to determine the best level for each input, which makes it super simple to record a balanced multitrack recording of both. It’s hard to understate how much time and frustration this can save in the recording process.
As for Audio Loop-back, it similarly makes it easier to record audio – but by allowing you to capture the sound coming from your computer, as well as the inputs from whatever mics or sources you have plugged into the EVO 4 itself. This is a super handy feature for something like an advanced game streaming setup, since you can use it to route the sound from any game you’re playing along with your commentary via your mic plugged into the interface to the same output source.
Audient accomplishes this without the need for any additional hardware or connections from the EVO 4 to your computer, but you will need to makes some adjustments in either the streaming or recording software you’re using, or in your computer’s audio devices settings. Luckily, the company provides clear and easy-to-follow instructions about how to do that depending on your specific needs.
Often, this kind of thing requires an additional dedicated capture device, and a much more complicated and roundabout setup in software, too. Audient building it into the EVO 4 shows that they recognize the needs of the modern market for USB audio interfaces, and it’s a great competitive advantage for the gadget over the rest of the field.
At $129, Audient’s EVO 4 is a remarkable value for a USB audio interface with these capabilities. One of the most popular devices in the same category, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, retails for $30 more, is larger and doesn’t come with any features similar to Smartgain or Audio Loop-back.
EVO 4 is compatible with PC, Mac, and iOS devices, and it’s small enough to be perfect for a portable setup, as well as taking up very little desk space. It has a matte black, lightly textured surface that looks great, and the large volume dial has graduated, clicky tactile response that makes it simple to use.
For podcasters and at-home recording artists, this is a fantastic option that packs a lot of value and quality into a sleek, feature-rich package.
Technology improvements over the past few years mean that most fully wireless earbuds are a lot better than they used to be. That has led to something of a narrowing of the field among competitors in this arena, but some of the players still stand out – and Jabra have definitely delivered a standout performer with its newest Elite Active 75t fully wireless earbuds.
Jabra’s Elite Active 75t is a successor to its very popular 65t line, with added moisture resistance designed specifically for exercise use, as indicated by the ‘Active’ in the name. At $199.99, these are definitely premium-priced – but they’re a lot more affordable than many of the other offerings in the category, especially with their IP57-water and sweat resistance rating.
The Elite Active 75t also feature an esteemed 7.5 hours of battery life on a single charge, and their compact charging case carries backup power that adds up to a total of 28 hours potential run time across a single charge for both. The case charges via USB-C and also offers a fast-charge capability that provides 60 minutes of use from just 15 minutes of charging.
While they don’t offer active noise cancellation, they do have passive noise blocking, and an adjustable passthrough mode so that you can tune how much of the sound of the world around you you want to let in – a great safety feature for running or other activities.
They use Bluetooth 5.0 for low power consumption and extended connection range, have an auto-pause and resume feature for when you take out one earbud, and include a 4-mic array to optimize audio quality during calls.
Jabra has accomplished a lot on the design front with the Elite Active 75t. Their predecessor was already among the most compact and low-profile in-ear wireless buds on the market, and the Elite Active 75t is even smaller. These are extremely lightweight and comfortable, too, and their design ensures that they stay put even during running or other active pursuits. In my testing, they didn’t even require adjustment once during a 30-minute outdoor run.
Their comfort makes them a great choice for both active use and for all-day wear at the desk – and the 7.5 hours of battery life doesn’t seem to be a boast, either, based on my use, which is also good for workday wear.
Another key design feature that Jabra included on the Elite Active 75t is that both earbuds feature a large, physical button for controls. This is much better and easier to use than the touch-based controls found on a lot of other headsets, and makes learning the various on-device control features a lot easier.
Finally in terms of design, the charging case for the Elite Active 75t is also among the most svelte on the market. It’s about the size of two stacked matchboxes, and easily slides into any available pockets. Like the earbuds themselves, the case features a very slightly rubberized outer texture, which is great for grip but, as you can see from the photos, is also a dust magnet. That doesn’t really matter unless you happen to be tasked with photographing them, however.
One final note on the case design – magnetic snaps in the earbud pockets mean you can be sure that your headset buds are seated correctly for charging when you put them back, which is a great bit of user experience thoughtfulness.
It’s easy to see why the Jabra Elite Active 75t is already a favorite among users – they provide a rich, pleasant sound profile that’s also easily tuned through the Jabra Sound+ mobile app. Especially for a pair of earbuds designed specifically for active use, these provide sound quality that goes above and beyond.
Their battery life appears to line up with manufacturer estimates, which also makes them class-leading in terms of single charge battery life. That’s a big advantage when using these for longer outdoor activities, or, as mentioned, when relying on them for all-day desk work. Their built-in mic is also clear and easy to understand for people on the other side of voice and video calls, and the built-in voice isolation seems to work very well according to my testing.
In my experience, their fit is also fantastic. Jabra really seems to have figured out how to build a bud that stays in place, regardless of how much you’re moving around or sweating. It’s really refreshing to find a pair of fully wireless buds that you never have to even think about readjusting them during a workout.
Jabra has done an excellent job setting their offering apart from an increasingly crowded fully wireless earbud market, and the Elite Active 75t is another distinctive success. Size, comfort and battery life all help put this above its peers, and it also boasts great sound quality as well as excellent call quality. You can get better sounding fully wireless earbuds, but not without spending quite a bit more money and sacrificing some of those other advantages.
Minecraft is one of the popular games on the planet, so it’s natural that Microsoft, after buying creator Mojang some years back, would attempt to apply the genre’s playful, blocky aesthetic to other genres. After modest success with the Story Mode adventure game and Minecraft Earth Pokemon GO-like, they’ve tried their hand at a light action-RPG a la Diablo — and unfortunately come up rather short. For now, that is.
Minecraft Dungeons is a sort of my-first-dungeon-crawler type game, a friendly, streamlined version of the genre Diablo created where players enter a procedurally-created dungeon or region, kill some monsters, get some loot, make it out alive, and do it all over again.
That’s the idea in this game as well, but of course the whole thing uses the block-based look and feel of Minecraft. As you travel through different biomes to free villagers, destroy ancient forges and so on, everything from the levels and monsters to equipment and potions looks like it came straight out of the original game. They nailed the look perfectly.
It’s refreshing, because games like this tend to court a rather grim aesthetic, and when it comes to gameplay they pile on features and mechanics until it feels more like you’re playing a spreadsheet than a game. It’s clear from the start Minecraft Dungeons was intended to provide the fun of fighting, upgrading, and exploring without the overly complex and dark trappings of the genre.
For instance, instead of having a handful of character classes each with their own skill tree, everything your character can do depends on their equipment. Weapons, armor, and accessories all have unique bonuses and abilities. So if you want to be a bow and arrow type fighter, wear the Ranger armor that gives you extra ranged damage and ammo, and use accessories that empower your arrows. Want to be a melee guy? There’s armor and swords for that too.
Customization of your play style, an important part of these games, is achieved by judicious choice of a set of random upgrades on each item. When you gain a level, you get a point can be used to activate, say, a passive ability that deflects enemy projectiles 20 percent of the time. Then it costs two points to upgrade it again, so it deflects 30 percent of the time.
You get those points back when you trash the item and can reapply them to a new one, providing low-risk, low-commitment progress — in time you’ll have lots of points banked to upgrade and experiment with whatever new item you find.
This approach is really a breath of fresh air after the convoluted overlapping systems of the likes of Diablo, Grim Dawn, and Path of Exile. There was just the right amount of “this new sword is tempting but do really I want to recycle my old one?” tension, and although you will collect trash loot, it’s easy to check and dispose of.
I didn’t get a chance to test multiplayer, but the game is definitely designed with co-adventuring in mind. Couch co-op lets you drop in a second player with a controller or connect online with others on the same platform (cross-play is coming soon). A cross-platform casual dungeon crawler is something I’ve been wanting for a long time.
It’s too bad, then, that this is where the game runs out of really positive qualities. I’m keeping in mind that this is a $20 game designed with players new to the genre in mind — not to say kids exactly — so there’s no sense comparing it directly to a major mainstream gaming franchise. But even so, Minecraft Dungeons has some serious issues.
For one thing, it really needs more variety. Part of the fun of these games is traveling from region to region and fighting new types of monsters with different tactics and abilities. That really just isn’t there in this game. The 10 different areas are visually distinct, yes, but they’re linear, similar from one run to another, and don’t differ all that much gameplay-wise. One aspect of Minecraft I’ve always loved, exploration, is nearly absent. Getting up on a hill or down in some little valley or cavern you can see usually isn’t possible — they’re just walls or bottomless pits. Side paths often run quite a distance but I eventually learned to stopped taking them because they were frequently empty and it always took forever to backtrack afterwards.
You’ll run into the same zombies, spiders, and soldiers over and over, and get the same weapons and accessories dropped over and over, often with very similar stats. Although there seems to be a good variety at first, the abilities and weapons don’t seem particularly well balanced, with some obviously and objectively better than others. Some are basically useless: One ability gives you a speedup for a few seconds after you dodge — but the game also slows you down for a few seconds after you roll, so they kind of just cancel each other out. Another returns a third of one percent of your health for every 100 blocks you uncover in the game. What?
This wouldn’t be an issue if the game had better difficulty tuning. I found in my playthrough that there was no challenge whatsoever 99 percent of the time, and then suddenly a situation would arise where I would be nearly instantly killed. These weren’t lesson-teaching deaths like other games — just sudden confluences of bad luck and, it must be said, some poor design.
Ranged attacks from enemies will often come from off-screen, for instance. And not just a stray arrow, but many simultaneously. Enemy projectiles also go through all other enemies, unlike your own, and are very difficult to dodge, especially when there are a dozen coming from different angles. So sometimes after spending the whole level barely taking a hit, you’re reduced to an emergency situation in a fraction of a second, with very little warning, by enemies you haven’t had a chance to react to or perhaps even see. The close-zoom camera shows details well but limits your understanding of what’s happening around you.
These brutal difficulty spikes aren’t always accidental. One enemy kept popping up that repeatedly spawned huge numbers of bear traps under my character’s feet that closed before any but a really expert player could be expected to dodge. Bosses are cheap, swarming players with minions, storms of enormous projectiles, and instant, undodgeable melee attacks.
The issue here isn’t just that it’s hard, but that the game doesn’t give you the tools you need to deal with it. Dodging feels clumsy and enemies block your movement; there is little in the way of active defense like a shield or accessory you activate to repel arrows for 5 seconds; you only have one slowly recharging healing potion and health doesn’t trickle back, so little mistakes add up over time. Not that it matters, since punishment is usually swift and extreme.
What all this amounts to is a game that alternates between monotonous and frustratingly hard, even for a fan of the genre like myself. And considering you’ll run through all the areas in the game in a handful of hours — there are ten areas, each of which takes perhaps 20 minutes to clear — it’s expected that you’ll repeat them over and over to reach the gear level required to beat the final boss. I got all the way to that point and was insta-killed twice in a row.
I repeated a few areas but found them nearly indistinguishable from their earlier iterations. Ultimately I just wasn’t motivated to grind away just so I could unlock another, likely even more unfair, difficulty level.
I wouldn’t complain so much if this wasn’t, ostensibly, a game for beginners. Minecraft Dungeons innovates and simplifies in some really laudable ways, but the moment-to-moment game design is too uneven and the variety on offer isn’t enough even for a $20 game.
But it must be said that Minecraft itself also started out rather barebones and was built up over time into something remarkable and almost infinite. There are two DLC packs in the works for Dungeons, one rather crassly visible from the very start — nothing like being asked to pay more for a game you just bought. The good news is these packs will grow the game to a size that feels more like an adventure and less like a demo. I also expect that patches over the coming weeks and months will considerably tweak the equipment and difficulty — it can be, and needs to be fixed.
A year from now Minecraft Dungeons might be a no-brainer purchase, a cross-platform casual hack-and-slash that you can play with your kids or your friends. But right now it’s mostly potential. I’d hold off on picking this one up until it’s been made into the game it’s meant to be.