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ruark-audio.jpgHigh-end audio specialists, Ruark Audio, have unveiled a beautiful new sound system at Milan Design Week as part of the Wallpaper Handmade Project 2014.

Dreamt up by sculptor and designer Alex Mulligan, the concept product looks absolutely amazing, combining the brand's audio specialism with such a beautiful product. We just wish it was more than a concept!

The Wallpaper Handmade Project 2014 is a celebration of craft and creativity with designers from all over the world sharing their ideas and producing one-off concepts. The final design of the Ruark Audio system is being exhibited at Leclettico in Milan between the 8th and 12th of April.

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When many of our readers hear of the Jawbone brand they probably think of its small Jambox speaker or the Up and new UP 24 (expect a review of this one soon) fitness trackers. But Jawbone has ventured into the world of Bluetooth, hands-free headsets before and actually started out its life with a mission to shake up the voice-activated world of audio gadgets.

Today Jawbone takes one step further as it launches the new Era headset globally (it was available in the US earlier this year), which could well redefine the way we use and view headsets.

So what's the Era all about?

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Shiny Shiny were invited along to an exclusive preview of the Era before its launch today to find out more about the tiny device and whether it can actually make wearing a hands-free gadget cool, as well as details about what Jawbone has up its sleeve over the next year or so.

We were shown the Era in its four different colours, bronze, silver, black and red, and you can get an indication of how tiny this thing is in the snaps where I hold it in my hand - yep, it's about half the size of my thumb and 42% smaller than its predecessor.

The Era has been designed to sync up with your mobile phone, allowing you to make and take calls, listen to any kind of audio and use voice command services like Siri and Google Now, which all means more time doing things and less time faffing around with your phone.

The device is packing small MEMS microphones (micro-electro-mechanical systems) that haven't been used in a Jawbone headset before, as well as custom DSP algorithms (digital signal processing), which adjust the loudness and work to deliver the best audio possible based on your surroundings.

When it comes to its audio capabilities, Jawbone has also rebuilt its Noise Assassin technology with the addition of wide-band audio. This tech employs algorithms for detecting all different kinds of speech, enabling the Era to distinguish it from background noise, providing you (and not to mention those you're talking to) with a much better experience.

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It's designed to make life easier, so it's able to keep going for four hours and comes with an equally tiny charging device that houses a further six hours of talk time. You can also plug it into your computer to charge it up too.

Up until now these kinds of hands-free devices have had a bad rep and for many are synonymous with salesmen or pretentious banking guys. But with its tiny stature and attractive colours the Era actually looks very subtle, and dare I say it, pretty attractive for a headset.

But will any of us actually use it?

When we were shown the Era we were also shown a lot of different promo photos of how the Era could be used and there wasn't a dodgy-looking salesman in sight. So the question is, could regular people like me and you really start to us the Era on a daily basis?

Well, I've been trialling it for a week and I have to say I've put it to a lot of good use so far. I find it particularly handy when I'm marching to the office and want to listen to some music at the same time as staying tuned into the environment around me or catch up with friends and family by calling them and not having to worry about whether some London mugger is about to cycle past at high-speed and steal my phone.

It's also totally invaluable if you're cooking. I know, I know, how stereotypically female of me to bring up how useful it is in the kitchen. But I personally find cooking a little tedious on the best of days, so being able to mess around in the kitchen at the same time as make calls back home to my family is a godsend.

I'm not claiming I'm a hands-free headset convert, of course the novelty might wear off soon, but for now I definitely see the value in a small device that makes me less reliant on my phone, which gives me more freedom to do other things and makes me feel a little bit safer when I'm out and about.

Pros:

  • It makes me feel safer.
  • It gives me an opportunity to get other things done - productivity win!
  • It looks good (and for those who don't think it looks good, it at least looks tiny and very subtle).
  • The audio quality is pretty exceptional for something so small.
  • It can be charged with the on-the-go dock.

Cons:

  • It might just be a gimmick that I'll have forgotten about tomorrow.
  • Some people might think it looks absolutely ridiculous (I'm still none the wiser after a week though).
  • It's a little pricey at £109.


The Era is available from today for £109 in black, silver, bronze and red at Jawbone.com, Apple, Amazon and at Selfridges stores. You can get your hands on an Era for for £79, but that comes without the very handy charging case.

Klipsch KMC 1 wireless portable speaker review

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Not that long ago Klipsch released the KMC 3. A serious contender for wireless boom box of last year, it boasts a huge amount of power for a smallish box and is perfect for people who want a mini speaker they can move around the house.

Now the company has unveiled the KMC1 which has much in common with the 3, but is notably smaller. The 1 can still work as a home based system but I guess that its prime role is for travellers who want something that is going to deliver a great sonic performance but is small enough to fit into suitcase.

The only downside is that the KMC1 is pretty hefty. Put this another way you'll know you are carrying it.

However don't let that put you off as the KMC 1 is a really rather lovely piece of hi-fi. First up it looks the part. Klipsch have gone for a fairly traditional understated design. If you want something a bit more flash it is also available in white, blue (pictured), purple and plenty of other colours, but the black is fine. It looks like a speaker and there probably isn't a lot wrong with that.

In terms of connectivity there are several options. The wireless offering for smartphones is Bluetooth and usefully the Klipsch remembers the last eight devices that it was paired with. It also works with a wired connection through a small phono if you prefer. Another plus is that it sports a USB which you can use to power/charge smartphones - a real boon if you are on the move. On board is a Lithium Ion battery that Klipsch claims gives around sixteen hours of power. In testing it fell a little short but it was still capable of a good innings

The key for the KMC 1 though is its performance. You are only going pay a fairly sizeable amount, up to £250 in this instance, for speakers that deliver an exceptional sonic performance. Fortunately the KMC 1 more than delivers. It is pretty muscular for a speaker of its size blasting out 2x10W RMS 40W through its speakers. Crucially, and this is where it scores heaviest over its rivals, there's plenty of bass too courtesy of a 3inch dedicated bass driver. The overall sound is crisp and clear. It works well on low volumes too which might be useful for listening to speech based sound like podcasts.

Crank it up though and it delivers a very punchy sound with lots of bottom-end. It is a party animal for those who want music on the go.

As I mentioned earlier its retail price is around £250, thought it can be bought for a little less if you shop around. From around the same price you can also buy the Loewe Speaker 2go which is a striking looking speaker. Also the Samsung DA-F60 which comes in around £100 or so cheaper.

Nevertheless if a stunning sound performance and especially if you love bass heavy music then you need to hear the KMC 1

Bayan Audio drops the Soundbook X3

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bayan-audio-front-2.jpgBritish audio specialist Bayan Audio has added another model to its growing range of high quality, rather good looking speakers.

The £249.99 Soundbook X3 combines top-end components with Bluetooth v4.0 audio streaming which the company claims

'replicates the entire frequency of the audio, maintaining CD-quality audio over the Bluetooth connection and ensuring that users lose the wires without losing the audio quality. '

The speakers also feature integrated NFC technology which means that a single touch can get devices working together and the music started.

Other features include TDMA noise rejection which Bayan says ensures clearer, uninterrupted streaming, plus an integrated battery with 10 hours of power.

The Soundbook X3 also boasts 20W stereo power and works with smartphones, tablets and laptops. There's also a speakerphone feature and integrated FM radio.

'Our aim is to create the best possible audio experience with all of our products, as well as clean, timeless designs which are both simple and easy to use' says Prash Vadgama, CEO of Bayan Audio. 'We spent a lot of time developing the right quality of speaker drivers that matched the enclosures and amplifier set up. This ensured that whether you're listening to the delicate notes in a classical arrangement or the powerful bass in an R'n'B track, Soundbook X3 offers not just power, but detail too. Together, these produce the best possible listening experience, all housed in a beautiful, contemporary design.'

Its is available now and comes in two colours - Brushed Silver/Turquoise and Charcoal/Burnt Orange.

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Exciting rumours abound as Forbes magazine reports that music-streaming service Spotify could be able to do something amazing, and make it's mobile apps free to access to non-paying customers.

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As things currently stand Spotify offers a free service to users of its desktop app - an iTunes-like piece of software that gives your Mac or PC access to pretty much every track ever recorded (unless you like music from really obscure record labels), for up to 10 hours of playback a month. The free service is funded by advertising - every few tracks you'll get a short radio-style advert, which seems like a fair trade for easy access to so much music.

On top of this they offer two paid services: Spotify Unlimited, that for £4.99 gives desktop users no time limits on the amount of music they can listen to in a month - and Spotify Premium for £9.99 that does all of this - but also enables access through the Spotify iPhone and Android apps. Word is though that this could all be changing - with no monthly fees for using the app.

And whilst this does remain unconfirmed and staunchly just a rumour - it does raise the question of why Spotify would do something like this. After all - according to Forbes they have 24 million existing users, 6 million of whom are paying them every month... why take the pay cut?

And this is where we start to worry that the economy is in a bit of another internet bubble. The thinking is that the number of users is more important than how much money they're bringing in - citing the examples of how both Facebook and Twitter became worth multiple-billions of dollars on the stock market, despite the smaller matter of nobody knowing how to make money with them. The theory is that the best thing for Spotify to do is to grow the user-base into the many, many more millions ("Hey would you like unlimited free music?" "Yes please", says everyone)... and then it's the time to worry about how to make money out of it. 24 million may sound like a lot of people... but apparently it's not enough!

As far as I can tell... this perverse logic makes a weird kind-of sense. Especially when you consider what's changed: When Spotify launched it was a big deal because it was the first of it's kind - the first service to have done the deals with the major record companies, and the first to package all of the music into an attractive and easy to use service.

A few years on though and there are a tonne of competitors who have similar deals with the labels - and the scary thing for Spotify, who are something of a corporate minnow, is that competitors in many cases are linked to much bigger and scarier companies: Apple have launched iTunes Radio in the States - which is the same sort of thing, but with built in integration in every iPhone - and Microsoft have just launched Xbox Music alongside the Xbox One... which has their corporate might behind it. For Spotify to remain a big player, who device manufacturers will fight to get on board, they need to grow quickly so that they're important to tens of millions of people.

So it's a tense decision to be made: Should they gamble their current relatively comfortable existence for potentially bigger rewards later on? It seems like they might have no choice.

itunesradio.jpgSome interesting rumours from Bloomberg this morning. It claims that Apple is set to bring its iTunes Radio service to the Uk (and Australia and New Zealand) in early 2014.

As you may remember iTunes Radio is a service that is integrated into iTunes and iOS7 software - if you are in the uS - which basically analyses your music tastes and then rustles up some tunes it thinks you will like.

The service is quite customisable too, so you can set it to just play stuff you know, or instead focus on discovering new music. You can personalise it more too by pressing the incorporated Play More Like This or Never Play This Song tabs.There are also some existing radio stations thrown in and the service is free and supported by ads.

Apple does need to get a move on as iTunes Radio already has plenty of rivals in the UK including Spotify which celebrated its fifth birthday yesterday. Another rival, Pandora, is also expected to launch over here in the spring too.

If you want a bit of a comparison between the services and to work out whether you are going to benefit from iTunes Radio click here.

Radiohead's Thom Yorke isn't a big fan of Spotify, to say the least. In an interview with the Guardian he called it "the last desperate fart of a dying corpse" (referring to the record industry). Whilst I'm not entirely sure what that would sound like, I bet there's a recording of it somewhere on Spotify.

The trouble is, for all of the justified criticisms of Spotify's poor royalties for artists, it's just too damn convenient. Whilst the streaming music service has made a massive dent in the amount of piracy taking place (another major bugbear for artists), it's also made owning physical discs or even specific MP3 files seem like a lot of effort.

The only drawback to Spotify seems to be that it's difficult to get your music from the app on your phone into that nice speaker system you've got setup. So here are 5 possible solutions to make the most of Spotify.

pure-orla-clementine2.jpgIt is London Fashion Week this week so not surprisingly a few rather glam tech items have been popping up.

The latest comes from radio specialist Pure which has unveiled the Evoke Mio Striped Petal Edition a collaboration with noted designer Orla Kiely. It is the fourth time the pair have worked on a digital radio together.

The model, which will retail for £149.99 is finished with a mirror chromed handle, walnut veneered cabinet and cream fascia. It also sports an input for an iPod/ MP3 player, an alarm, 30 presets and a kitchen timer and comes with a rechargeable battery which delivers up to 24 hours of power.

Says Orla Kiely: "Our collaboration with Pure has been so successful to date, it made perfect sense to add a fourth radio to the range. I have a passion for creating quality and functional down-to-earth designs that complement any home interior and the Pure Evoke Mio is the ideal canvas."

More details here.

Vinyl revival! Five great record decks

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So the vinyl revival continues with hipsters across the globe discovering that the best way to listen to music is via an old school record deck.

But while sales of vinyl albums may have gone stratospheric, it is early days for the record player revival. Specialist audio dealers and record stores are reporting a bit of an upsurge and there appears to be a good market for second hand decks.

However there isn't a huge amount of innovation and design going on at the lower end of the marker which means that Crosley and Ion - companies with two very different types of record players seem to be cleaning up.

If you are thinking of buying a record player of some sort then here are five that I can vouch for. Prices start at under £100 for a basic deck and run through to £1,500. The more money you pay the better quality the components and build quality and ultimately better performance. If you do opt for a pricier model remember too that you'll need an amplifier and speakers too.

Stockists

Ion Audio Live LP

Crosley Keepsake Turntable
Pro-ject Essential 2
Rega RP 3
Roksan Radius 5.3


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Here's a highly useful bit of the web that has been surfacing a lot on social media recently so I thought it was worth another plug. It seems that those smart people at WMFU station - it is apparently a radio station in New York - have been messing around with Pink Floyd's seminal Dark Side of the Moon album and stripped it down to some of its core parts.

So if you are a but musically minded and fancy mixing a few things together you can create your own slice of Dark Side-esque space rock using say the pedal guitar from Eclipse alongside the bits of speech that pepper the album. You'll probably end up with 'Ok Computer.'*

Give it a try...

It is here.

* Just kidding Radiohead fans

Retro cassette style MP3 player from Mixpixie

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original_personalised-mp3-player.jpgThe jury it out on this one, It is a fairly basic MP3 player with a cheaper price to match, in the guise of a cassette.You can personalise the player too by adding your own text. It will house 200 songs and you bung them on the player via USB.

It can also come with 10 pre-loaded songs that you chose - which could make it quite a nice gift.

It comes with headphones and has a battery life of 3-4 hours.

Available here.

Spotted by Retro2Go

philips-dj.jpgIf you are going to launch a DJ system then I guess it is good form to get a DJ to help you out. And that's exactly what Philips have done for the launch of its new M1X-DJ System which debuted today at IFA.

They got Armin van Buuren on board to help promote what looks like an intriguing app based DJ system. Essentially the device combines a DJ controller and sound system that comes integrated with an Apple Lightning connector and Bluetooth® connectivity and works with the djay 2 app from Algoriddim. It is optimised to work with the Apple iPad or iPhone 5 but the Bluetooth option means that it works in a more limited capacity with a range of other devices too.

By using the djay 2 app, you can switch between tracks on your playlist or mix tracks together. The onboard DJ controller allows you to mix and scratch your music using two professional grade platters, cross faders and controls.

Given its audio heritage the system features some high-end which combine to deliver 80-Watts of sound. It will play for five hours if run remotely by D cell batteries.

"Fans often ask me what equipment they should buy when they want to start mixing themselves," said Armin. "A lot of kit can be expensive, so with the M1X I wanted to create something that's accessible for everybody. The other great thing about the M1X is that you can play it wherever you want, whether that's the beach, the park or your street: it's the ghettoblaster reinvented for today."

The Philips M1X-DJ Sound System will be available in November 2013 priced at EUR 399.95.

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happyplugs-gold.jpg I don't know about you but i am always losing my earphones! If I had these beauties though I guess I'd be a bit more careful with them because Happy Plugs' latest set of in-ear phones are finished in ulp, 18-carat solid gold.

Made by a Swedish goldsmith in Stockholm who creates the headphones by hand from 25 grams of gold they can be ordered from September 6th for a price of a price of 11.000 Euro ($14.500 USD). Around £10k...

If that's is bling it a little too much you can opt for metallic colored headphones in gold and silver for a slightly more affordable 24.99 Euro ($29.99 USD) and 34.99 Euro ($39.99 USD) respectively. I think the dog costs extra.

More here.

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Onkyo-LS-B50-lifestyle-sunset.jpgIf you have a rubbish sounding TV - and a lot of sets aren't exactly high fidelity are they? then the easy way of upgrading is to add a soundbar systems. And if you are thinking of buying one then Onkyo has three new models for you to peruse.

It has just introduced a pair of new Envision Cinema soundbar systems and an all-in-one TV-base speaker system. The three models - the £299 LS-B40 three-way Soundbar, the £449 LS-B50 two-way Soundbar with wireless 40w subwoofer, and £349 LS-T10 TV speaker system (which is designed to sit under a TV set) all combine a multi-channel, multi-speaker array with powerful DSP and Onkyo claims fills rooms with panoramic, immersive sound.

As well as their TV upgrade role the trio can moonlight as hi-fi systems as they include Bluetooth technology for wireless audio streaming via smartphones, tablets and PCs. There's also an onboard USB port for adding an MP3 player.

Needless to say the sound bar can also be connected to games consoles, media players and more which is achieved by hooking a single digital cable.

They all also feature Onkyo's AuraSphere DSP system that the company claims expands the traditional sweet spot (the area directly in front of the TV where audio sounds best) to create an all-enveloping 3D soundfield that places the listener in the centre of the action, wherever they happen to be in the room.

Also included in the package is a learning remote control which can handle a number of AV devices.

As for the audio differences both the Soundbars pack eight drivers. The LS-B50 has six full-range drivers and two ring-radiator tweeters while the LS-B40 features two bass woofers, four mid-range drivers, and two tweeters. The LS-T10 has a six full-range drivers plus an integrated 21w subwoofer on its underside.

The LS-B50 adds a separate wireless 40w active subwoofer while the LS-B40 incorporates two bass woofers and a subwoofer pre-out.

All three will be available in September/October.

googleplay.jpgThe big news this morning is that Google Music, which was announced in the spring and has been working in the US for several months now, has become available in the UK and other European countries.

You can sign up now and get a month for free and then pay an intro rate of £7.99 per month. It will eventually cost £9.99.

But what is it and how does it stack up against the current king of online music Spotify?

The similarities

In many ways the services have a lot in common, They both allow you to stream whole albums and the catalogue of tracks they boast is very similar. There's no Beatles or Led Zeppelin on either of them, but then you guessed that already. They both have deals with companies to deliver new albums though Spotify has the edge on indie and European music for now.

The music discovering offerings are also similar too with Google Music including offering up recommendations on what to listen to next based on your listening habits.
Listeners can also turn any song into a "radio station", with the service intelligently creating an endless playlist of songs based around the artist and track you've selected, with each song complementing your original choice.

Both services stream music at a maximum of 320kbps.

But there are some key differences

Price - Spotify has a lot more flexibility here. For starters it has a free ad supported version - Google starts at £7.99 a month. Spotify's PC only version is cheaper too at £5.99 per month. For the full versions both will come in at £9.99 a month (though Google has an introductory offer of £7.99) which will let you listen to and store songs on mobile. Google scores here as you can store up to 20,000 tracks, a lot more than the 3,333 offered by Spotify.

Platforms - Google can be played from a browser on a PC or Mac, and on an Android based smartphone. If you have an iPhone you can access the service via the browser. Spotify has a browser service for PCs, an app for PCs as well as apps for both iOS and Android devices.

Music integration - Google has an edge on Spotify in that the new service integrates with its cloud based storage system. So you can upload all your music to the cloud and it will be accessible on any PC using Google Music. This is very useful for people who like music in genres which aren't well represented on either of the streaming services (obscure 60s stuff, jazz, easy listening, exotica etc). It also means that it is easy to create playlists that contain both yours and Google Music which are then available anywhere. For some users this is a serious advantage over Spotify.

Overall - Which one you choose I think depends on a number of factors. If you are a casual music streamer then Spotify's free service will probably suffice for you. If you are an Apple diehard too Spotify has the edge. Where Google Music scores is the integration of your own music with the streaming catalogue. that is a small, but significant niche. It will be interesting to see if and when Spotify addresses this.

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spotify-ipad-official.jpgDon't get me wrong, I am a huge fan of the music streaming service Spotify. The way in which it makes almost every great album, both past and present, accessible with one click, is a wonderful thing.

However there are still a few things which I think Spotify needs to address. Here are five quick ideas.

1 Charts - What would be amazing is if Spotify were to allow users to create their own charts. There must be a way of taking the data they collect and then enabling the listener to conjure up all kinds of fancy charts from 'most played tracks of the week' to the 'top ten album of the month.' It would be great to have weekly charts about my most listened to tracks which I'd prodigiously share on Facebook etc.

2 Less confusion about following bands - I want to get alerts that tell me when bands I love have added new music to Spotify. I do get alerts from Spotify but I have no idea why I am getting them. It used to be that if you followed a band then you got the updates. Now though you also apparently get updates of new music from bands who you have featured on your playlists. Except that I don't. I have so many bands in my playlist that if that were the case I'd be getting emails from Spotify all the time. Spotify needs to sort out the process and make it easy for you to keep tabs on who you are following.

3 Album sleeve notes and comments
- I know that there are notes for many artists taken often from Allmusic and other sources. Well why not grab album reviews too. In fact maybe take 500 great albums and get some serious, specially created sleeve notes for them. It wouldn't cost that much but it would certainly be an interesting new feature for Spotify to shout about. Alternatively it could add a reviews section and take reviews from some of its media partners etc, as well as giving users the opportunity to add their own comments.

4 Work harder to correct mistakes
- Today I got an email informing me of the new Cat's Eyes album, which was great news as I love the band's previous collection. Instead of a new collection of songs from the side project of the fella in The Horrors, I got some weird ambient nonsense from a French DJ. Spotify is riddled with errors like this. I do think that the company could crowdsource information from its users to correct sites. If there was an easy way of doing this, I am sure its users would oblige.

5 Request an album - In the same way that Amazon enables you to suggest to publishers that they publish books in the Kindle format, so there could be way of Spotify users asking for albums to be added to the service. Especially more obscure, low key or older albums.

The jury really is out on most retro gadgets. Quite often they try a little too hard and come across as a pale pastiche of the products they are trying to imitate. Or they are so low-tech that they are almost useless in the modern world.

Here are nine though that we think deserve the moniker of retro gadget classics.

Five of the best - Waterproof MP3 Players

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Time for a dip, and if you want some musical accompaniment check out these waterproof players.

sonywalkmans.jpgDoes anyone still buy standalone MP3 players? Apparently so, because Sony is back with a pair of new Walkmans that it believes are perfect for the holiday season.

Design-wise the Walkman E580 MP3 (and the E-360 ofr that matter) resembles an old school iPod mini, but with a colour screen, an aluminium body and brighter colours.

The big story is that it will play music back for 77 hours from one charge. There's also 16 gigabytes worth of storage and you can watch video and see images on its two inch screen.

You can load tracks onto the player via either Windows Explorer or iTunes. Other features include Clear Phase.DSEE (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine), which restores those subtle high frequency details that get lost when you're listening to heavily-compressed digital music files. VPT (Virtualphones Technology) adds an extra dimension to your listening with the authentic ambience of a studio, club or arena. There's also an FM radio thrown in and compatibility with high level FLAC audio files.

The NWZ-E380 has a slightly smaller screen, half the storage at 8 Gigabytes and 33 hour battery life.

The Walkman NWZ-E380 video MP3 player from Sony is available in the UK from July in blue, red or black. The Walkman NWZ-E580 will be available in black from August. Now news yet on price.

Check our five of the best MP3 players to take swimming here.

onkyo audio.jpgOnkyo has carved out a significant niche in creating high quality yet competitively priced mobile phone friendly audio systems.

The latest to emerge from its stable is the CS-255DAB hi-fi mini system which the company claims offers high quality audio in a stylish package, and judging by the pics it isnt wrong on the latter.

As well as featuring Apple-certified charging connections for new (Lightning charging dock for iPhone 5, iPod touch (5G), and iPod nano (7G)) and legacy iPhone/iPod models, the CS-255DAB also sports a USB connection to enable audio playback from compatible smartphones/tablets via USB.

Other features include an integrated CD player, DAB/DAB+ tuner with 40 memory presets and a 30 preset FM tuner.

The CS-255DAB is powered by an energy-efficient digital amplifier and is supplied with robust two-way speakers. The cabinets feature a 10cm cone driver, 2cm balanced-dome tweeter, and a cabinet with non-parallel sides with rolled edges to prevent internal standing waves.

Onkyo claims that even at higher volumes, this compact mini system maintains excellent composure, with an airy, pleasant mid-range and punchy bass response.

It retails for £249.99 and will be available in July.

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