Review #50: RHA MA650 Wireless Earphones ★★★★☆

When wireless doesn't mean getting less! 


Bluetooth headsets have always been a matter of convenience for me rather than a technological evolution over wired headsets. For a long time, I preferred to use wired headsets whenever possible and took recourse to Bluetooth headsets when on the move. However, the abysmal performance of Bluetooth plug-in headsets like SBH54 and the Fiio BTR1 left me extremely disappointed and finally set me on course to finding a standalone wireless earphone.

Review #45: Mi A1 (Updated with Oreo impressions) ★★★★☆

An A1 Choice


The Android One programme was launched in 2014 with the intention of being the entry point for budget conscious users. Perhaps it was the choice of hardware or OEMs that ultimately made it a stillborn venture. On the other end of the spectrum, the Pixel hasn't quite turned out to be the iPhone killer that Google might have envisaged. However, Google isn't one to take things lying down and hence we now have the reinvigorated Android One programme. This time Google has taken a much more hands-off approach, with this being no more than a branding exercise and the entire onus of the device specification as well as updates following squarely on the shoulders of the OEM.

For an OEM like Xiaomi that is well entrenched in MIUI, it certainly came as a surprise when it was mentioned as the first partner of the new avatar of Android One. At the same time, it seemed a logical choice considering the stranglehold that various Mi devices now have at the budget segment of the market. I had already "upgraded" the Redmi Note 3 of one of my family members to LineageOS to make the device more usable and while getting another Mi device, it was a toss-up between getting a Redmi Note 4 and flashing it with LineageOS or getting the Mi A1 with stock android on board. Ultimately, the novelty of the dual camera setup as well as a manufacturer supported implementation of stock Android justified the premium.

While the review is focussed on the Mi A1, I found it a good idea to compare it with the other phones I have at my disposal which is the Redmi Note 3 and the iPhone 7. The Note 3 should be a good comparison coming from the same stable but based on a year-old higher performance chipset while the iPhone 7 acts like a good benchmark.

Musing #43: Some cables are more equal than others

Purchasing cables online is a tricky proposition. This is the reason why I have a USB voltage/current tester in my possession to ascertain a cable's mettle. I normally restrict myself to Amazon fulfilled orders so that I can return a cable should it be deemed to be unworthy of its price. However, the more esoteric products from China are rarely available locally and even if they are, the mark-up in pricing is absolutely astounding. Going by the reviews, it seems most are unaware of the source of these products.

Review #47: Walnutt Flexible Bumper Case (iPhone) ★★★☆☆



A bump in the road!
A bumper case is a sweet compromise between using the phone as manufactured and sheathing it in a figurative armour. The RhinoShield CrashGuard has done well in this space and while price is a genuine concern when purchasing it in India, it also has its fair share of issues with its width, buttons and removal. Far cry from that is the 'Walnutt' bumper case. Going by the different brands and prices this case is sold under, it seems to be a generic case, rather than one from a specific company.

Review #46: Fiio BTR1 (Bluetooth Amplifier with AK4376 DAC) ★★★☆☆ (Updated!)

A small device with big sound on a budget.
The removal of the headphone jack on phones is a recent phenomenon but I have been dilly-dallying with clip-on, stereo Bluetooth headsets for quite some time. The excuse for doing so was convenience, at the expense of sound quality. Without putting so much as a thought, I went with Sony in those days and hence my initial experience revolved around the MW-600 and SBH54. However, while the MW-600 was a solid device for its time, the SBH54 was a huge disappointment. Hence, Sony was never in consideration for my next device.

With the iPhone 7 being my primary device, I gave some thought to using a lightning connector device prior to considering other Bluetooth choices. The 1More Triple Driver was certainly at the top of the list but the price premium for the lightning version put it beyond the price range I was looking at. Another option was to go for a 3.5mm adapter and the i1 turned out to be the most prominent among the limited options available, but it didn't take much to understand that it didn't really offer a better value proposition compared to Apple's adapter. However, it was this visit to the Fiio site for the i1 that put me on course to the BTR1.

Review #10: Sony SBH54 Bluetooth Headset (October 2017 update) ★★★☆☆

Good design, let down terribly by software and connectivity
Update #6 (Oct 30, 2017): For the first time in a long time, an update is not about the latest firmware. I recently got my hands on the Fiio BTR1, so stay tuned for that review later in the week. However, over the course of testing that device, I revisited the SBH54 and finally checked its codec support. Sony only lists support for the A2DP v1.2 profile, so the exact codec support isn't clear and I can't believe that I didn't test for it until now. Guess it's better late than never.

1. SBH54 has AAC support, so Apple Music and local AAC files are directly transmitted to the SBH54 without re-encoding.
2. The device doesn't support the optional MP3 codec, so direct decoding of it fails. Since the SBH54 also lacks aptX support, MP3 files are re-encoded to SBC prior to transmission.
3. Similar to MP3, Spotify streams in Ogg Vorbis are re-encoded to the much inferior SBC prior to transmission to the SBH54.
There you have it. The complete list of codec support includes the optional AAC in addition to the mandatory SBC. I assume that Sony also didn't include support for its proprietary ATRAC codec, but even if it did, it's redundant and doesn't have any practical usage. So, AAC (Apple Music) files are the best way to go on the SBH54 as they are played back natively, to the best of the device's ability. Meanwhile, if your MP3 collection and Spotify didn't sound so good on the SBH54, then you know why.

Tutorial #18: Unlocking the bootloader on Redmi Note 3

As I had mentioned in my review of the Redmi Note 3, it was good value for money. However, MIUI proved to be a hindrance for the target user because of which I had switched the device to LineageOS while not rooting it and keeping the bootloader locked. However, with the phone now back in my hands, it was time to break the shackles for good.

To Xiaomi's credit, they have an official process in place for unlocking the bootloader. However, it has its quirks and more often than not following the official guide results in the process being stuck at 50% due to incompatibilities. This was the case with my first attempt and hence I decided to proceed with it unofficially.

As always, I headed to XDA to quickly gather the process for this device. However, the process seems to be a bit outdated and perhaps a bit difficult to follow for the uninitiated, so I have listed the steps undertaken by me. There could be other ROM versions or files you can use but I have mainly picked up the ones from the XDA thread linked above which you might visit in case you need visual reference.

Note: Prior to starting with the flashing process or even after flashing the MIUI ROM in Step 4, make sure you have the 'OEM unlocking' option selected under Developer Options, without which the fastboot unlocking will fail.

Step 1: Download and extract/install the following:
1. MIUI Global ROM v7.2.5.0 (You will have to extract the file twice to get the folder contents)
2. Mi Flash Tool (Official MI tool to flash ROMs - used v2017.7.20.0 at the time of writing)
3. Unlocked emmc_appsboot file (Primary file needed to unlock bootloader)
4. EDL Fastboot (To enter emergency download mode)
5. Minimal ADB and Fastboot (Installs necessary ADB and fastboot drivers)
5. TWRP Recovery (Gateway to flashing anything on the device)

Step 2:
Browse to the 'images' folder within the extract ROM folder (kenzo_global_images_V7.2.5.0.LHOMIDA_20160129.0000.14_5.1_global) and replace the emmc_appsboot.mbn file in that folder with the downloaded one.


Step 3:
After installing the Minimal ADB and Fastboot drivers, connect the phone and run 'edl.cmd' from within the extracted 'fastboot_edl' folder to boot the phone to the emergency download (EDL) mode. If you don't, then the Mi Flash tool may give a 'tz error'. This mode can be recognised by the flashing red LED on the device.


Step 4:
Run the Mi Flash tool using 'XiaoMiFlash.exe' and select the folder containing the extracted ROM files (kenzo_global_images_V7.2.5.0.LHOMIDA_20160129.0000.14_5.1_global). Clicking on 'Refresh' should list the device and then subsequently, click on 'Flash'. The process will take 4-5 minutes to complete after which you will be able to see the 'success' status.

Step 5:
Boot the phone to the normal fastboot mode using the Volume Down + Power button. Open a command prompt window and browse to the 'Minimal ADB and Fastboot' folder. Here, execute the following command:
fastboot oem device-info
It should indicate 'Device unlocked: false', following which execute the command:
fastboot oem unlock-go
Running the 'fastboot oem device-info' command once again should now indicate 'Device unlocked: true'. That's it, your device now has an unlocked bootloader.

Step 6:
While not part of the bootloader unlocking process, a follow-up step should be to flash the TWRP recovery which opens a whole window of opportunities. This can be done by copying the 'twrp-3.1.1-0-kenzo' (latest file at the time of writing) to the 'Minimal ADB and Fastboot' folder and running the following command from the cmd window:
fastboot flash recovery twrp-3.1.1-0-kenzo.img
Following this, you will have complete freedom to tinker with the device in any way you deem apt. Oreo, anyone?