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A couple of quickies: another Audible update, and better buds

First, no doubt being prompted and encouraged by my review of their last update, Audible has released another update to their iPhone app.

They added two more narration speeds (0.75x and 1.25x) and a shorter sleep timer option (8 minutes).

The 0.75x speed does slow the narration down, and the pitch correction stops your alto narrator from turning into a baritone (just like it stops said narrator from turning into a chipmunk when sped up).  Unfortunately it sounds all echoey with the two books I tried.

Why would you want to slow a book down, anyway?  Trying to stretch your Audible credits as much as possible?

The 1.25x narration speed works well, and sounds really natural.  I expect it will become the default speed for a lot of people, especially with non-fiction books.

But who asked for an 8 minute sleep timer?  Who falls asleep that fast?  Someone call a somnambulance.

They also fixed a bug with the sleep timer not working when running multiple apps — something I never noticed.  And they promise a volume control in a future update.  I guess people miss it.  I don’t, really.  I just use the normal volume up/down controls.

Second, I wanted to update my review on Jaybird JF3 Freedom Bluetooth earbuds.  I had forgotten to test the microphone sound quality for voice calls.

In my review of my first set of buds, I had said the microphone sucked.  Well I’m happy to report that it no longer does.

I have made several calls now and the voice quality is good on both ends.  It needs a quiet environment though — once I walked into an Arby’s while talking and my friend got a blast of background conversation, even though the place was relatively quiet.  Apparently they still need improvement on filtering out ambient noise.  It does work well outside though, even with a light wind.

New Audible app pleases the eyes, too

Audible updated their iPhone app last week to version 2.0.  I don’t see a corresponding Android update but on their website but I’m sure it’s coming.   I’ve been using the new app daily (of course) ever since it came out and I love it.

Here are the release notes.

Not much there, right?  (sardonic grin with Rock-style eyebrow lift)

Well the iPad support is a big deal for those who have them, and being able to download more MB over 3G is nice for people with no wifi and lots of money (or unlimited 3G).

But the “complete visual overhaul” line bears some expansion…

First, there is a new icon — it’s cleaner and more industrial looking:


The main screen is also cleaner and more industrial looking:


You can see they removed the chapter skip buttons, which is reason enough to upgrade for me.  I kept hitting the damned things by accident when I wanted to pause.

They also removed the volume slider, which I miss a little, but we still have the volume buttons on the side (remember those?).  Plus my Jaybird earbuds have a volume control too.

I use the 20 second rewind button a lot, and that is right there.  It’s the audio equivalent of rereading that last sentence, because your attention wandered for a moment.  Or because the phone rang in the middle of a virtual paragraph and you lost the virtual thread upon its actual resumption.

Next to the Play button is the “add bookmark” button, which I am starting to use more and more.  A quick tap every so often helps you find your place if you lose it.  (Yes this is a problem for me.)

The sleep button in the bottom left will “sleep” the app after selectable 15 minute increments, or at end of chapter.  It’s now a simple dropdown instead of a silly spinner.  Note this is really a pause, it doesn’t sleep the phone or anything.  That’s up to your normal phone sleep settings.

The speed button on the bottom right is useful if you are in a hurry to read your book, but I enjoy my books, so I wouldn’t use that.  Actually I lied: I used it once to find my place in a chapter after my mind wandered for an extended period.

So where was I?  Oh yeah, the main screen.  Now, if you want to move forward or back a chapter, you have to use the chapter list.  This is much easier to get at though — just tap on the “Chapters and Bookmarks” button at the bottom.  It brings up the Details, Chapter, and Bookmark viewer, which is now just the Chapter and Bookmark viewer.  Other than losing the Details (see below) the interface is much the same as before, except updated for the new industrial skin.

The book details are now available anytime by hitting the little “i” at the top right of the screen.  This is an easily overlooked change that, to me, really ties everything together.  Just like the book jacket it replaces.  You can see it is not only pretty but is a tribute to the book, which is after all the reason you got this app in the first place:


At the bottom is a swipe pad which brings up the button free screen.  Here you can use swipes to fast forward, rewind, pause, or add a bookmark.  The screen hasn’t changed, just is easier to get to.  Seems like a gimmick to me; I don’t use it.

Speaking of gimmicks, the “Me” menu hasn’t changed much.  It still has our somewhat interesting listening stats and those silly badges.  Cue the obligatory “we don’t need no stinking badges” joke.

As before, you get to the Me menu by tapping the back button from the main screen to get to the main menu area:


You can see this is also much cleaner.  The library is now one level instead of several confusing submenus, with non-downloaded books simply greyed out.

And note the oversized book cover icon in the middle — that’s actually a button that zips you back to the main screen.

And note the star at the top left: this allows you to access help and modify some app settings, such as the 20 second rewind time.  You can make it a 10 second rewind time.  Or 30.  And yes, the button on the main screen updates with the new number.  Slick, huh?

Have you tried the new app yet?  What do you think?

Audible has cheap audiobooks

I’ve rattled on about Audible and audiobooks in a previous post.  Well, last week I found myself without one.  I had spent my two credits for the month… The Horror! … what to do?

Audible was showing a $10 credit for something, no idea where that came from (crossed over from Amazon?) so I figured I should spend it.  I tried looking for low cost books.  They used to have a category for that but it’s gone.

On a whim, I tried a search by keyword for “books under $5” and lo! I got a crapload of them.  Most were radio shows or excerpts (teasers) but I was able to filter them out by using the “Refine Search Results” in the left column.  Picking “audiobook” and choosing a length over an hour filtered out most of them.

I decided to go a step further.  Searching for “free books” got everything with “free” in the title… so I tried “books under $1” and got lots of free books.

Most were crap, but one was Legion, by Brandon Sanderson, the author of the excellent Mistborn series.  A well written and well narrated two hour short story, for free.  Not bad, eh?

After I finished that, I splurged and spent $5 on Oliver Twist as narrated by Dickens’ great-great-grandson.  He is turning out to be a pretty good narrator.

Anyone got other Audible tips to share?

Updated review of the “Jaybird JF3 Freedom” Bluetooth earbuds

In my previous review of the Jaybird JF3 Freedom earbuds I extolled their virtues.  I also said how tough they were.

Well, last week my beloved earbuds died.  They are indeed tough on the outside, but the inside, not so much.  The battery won’t take a charge anymore.

The little red button goes on when I plug it in, so it looks like it’s charging, but the little red button doesn’t do nuthin’ once it’s off the charger.

Sadly, I only got 10 months out of it.  But considering I used it every day, I’m willing to forgive.  It has a one year warranty so I’ll see if I can get a replacement.  That is, if my wife can find the original receipt, which is looking unlikely at this point.

I tried using a pair of wired earbuds for a day and managed to get them caught on my bike seat, my jacket collar, my car steering wheel, and my butt (I sat on the cord).

“Screw this,” I said.

So I went out to Best Buy and got a new pair.  Interestingly, at least to me, nothing has changed.  The package has changed (old one on the left, new one on the right):

But everything else is identical.  Same buds, same case, same accessories, same price, and to my disappointment, same performance.  I was hoping they would have improved transmission outdoors, but nope.

Ah well.  They are still damned good buds.

And so far I haven’t managed to sit on them while they are in my ears.

Review of the “Jaybird JF3 Freedom” Bluetooth earbuds

“Bluetooth earbuds?”, you ask.  Yes.  And for someone like me who never goes anywhere without an Audible audiobook in his ear, they are a Godsend.

Over the years I have gone through many, many pairs of earbuds.  I kept my MP3 player in a vest pocket or (recently) in a holster on my hip.  That left a cord running from my ear down the left side of my body.

That damned cord had a magnetic attraction to door handles, bike handlebars, fence posts, furniture, pets, passing dragonflies, etc.  Life gets especially exciting when the cord wraps itself around a steering wheel while you are in heavy traffic.  How we suffer for our art.

Every time something yanks earbuds from your ear, which is painful and worse, makes you lose your place in your audiobook, it weakens the internal wire connections.  I generally got Skullcandies for about $20, which had good sound and were more durable than most.  But even treating them gently I could only get 3 months or so out of them.

Last Xmas my wife got me Bluetooth earbuds, the Jaybird JF3 Freedom.  So yes, these guys have been around for a year or so already, but people still stop to ask me about them.  I’ve only used them with an iPhone, but they are supposed to work with any A2DP Bluetooth device, which includes Blackberries, Droids, etc..

Jaybird JF3 Freedom earbud

Looking at the picture above, you can see a pinky-sized grey button on the right earbud body.  That acts as a play/pause button for whatever music player (or the Audible app) you have going.  It also answers the phone but the built in mic is crappy so I don’t use the earbuds for phone calls.

The same button is also how you power on the unit, which is my biggest problem with the thing: you have to hold it down for 7 seconds (why??) to power it on.  At 8 seconds, it starts the pairing operation.  I have lost count of how many times I started pairing when I only wanted to power it on.  To stop pairing, you have to power it off, which takes 4 seconds.  Then you power it back on, another 7 seconds.  Damn it, one second too long, it started pairing again.  Power it off, 4 seconds.  Power it back on.  Et cetera.

(FYI this same button also gets you Siri on the iPhone if you press it for 2 seconds.  Sometimes when I try to turn off my earbuds I don’t hold the button down long enough, and I get Siri instead.  Not often, though.)

Also on the right earbud body, there are two tiny grey buttons that act as volume up and down.  They are nice but don’t have much range — I usually have to control volume at my iPhone.  Then there is a micro-USB jack for charging.

I read someplace that the right earbud body also contains the Bluetooth antenna.  However, these things usually use the cord as an antenna (it’s a long wire, after all).  Through trial and error, and experiments using tin foil wrapping, I’ve found the right side does get slightly better reception than the left.  I guess there are some antenna bits in there.

This leads to my second problem with the thing, and what the company itself warns you about.  Apparently the Bluetooth signal needs stuff to bounce off to get from your MP3 player to your earbuds.  This is a problem when you are outside.  That’s where I do all my running.

Inside, the earbuds can talk to my iPhone across the room.  Outside, my hip is pretty much the extent of their range.  I keep my iPhone in a holster on my left hip.  Normally this is fine.  However, when I’m running or cycling it sometimes cuts out.  I could get an armband holster, I suppose, but I don’t like them.  Switching to the right hip helps a little, maybe.

The kit comes with a sturdy case, which is kind of useless unless you plan to carry the case around.  It also comes with three sizes of eartips, and three sizes of this hook shaped rubber mesh thing that fits in your ear to lock the buds in place.  With that getup I’ve never lost an earbud.

As for the cord, so far it has never caught on anything.  I wear it in front of my neck most of the time, where I barely notice its light touch.  When I’m at the gym, I string it behind my neck just to be safe, but it tends to stick to my skin back there.

Battery life is good, 4 hours I’d guess.  This leads to my third problem with these earbuds: you don’t get much warning when the battery is about to die, and there is no visual indication.  You get a few minutes of annoying beeps, then silence.

The weakest link in earbuds is where the cord connects to the buds.  Jaybird has reinforced this point with a thick metal collar.  After eight months of daily use, they are still going strong.  I would have replaced my Skullcandies four times by now.  If you look at it that way, the steep $100 price for these things is not such a bad deal.

Overall I’m very pleased with these things.  They are useless for phone calls, worse in fact than regular earbuds because you get that crappy mic whether you want it or not.  They have good high and low frequency response, as earbuds go.  For music and audiobooks, they are my best earbuds yet.

Postscript: I see Jaybird just released a new model, the JF4 Sprint.  It’s a little smaller but the battery life is also a little shorter.  Does anyone have experience with these?  Does it fix my 3 problems?

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