Performance Sound No other artist in the rock era has followed his own muse as deliberately and as singularly as Bob Dylan has. Right from the dawning of his career at the outset of the 1960s, Dylan has chosen his own lane and then merged into it full-on, regardless of any external pressures or expectations. Whether the message is parlayed with his voice backed only by an acoustic guitar or translated with full band accompaniment, the foremost poet of our times has known exactly what information he wants to share with us every step of the way, critics and cognoscenti be damned.
Audio Performance Features Ergonomics Value PRICE $200 AT A GLANCE Plus Multiple streaming options via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Chromecast built-in Remote control Minus Lackluster sound quality THE VERDICT The Mondo+ is a versatile internet radio that offers easy access to a multitude of streaming sources, but we expected better sound quality for the price. My first thought was &ldquo;clock radio&rdquo; as I lifted the Mondo+ out of its box. It&rsquo;s tough to gauge the heft of a product from a picture, so I guess I was expecting something a bit more substantial. Even so, the plastic-encased Mondo+ is nice and compact&mdash;about the size of a loaf of bread&mdash;and attractive with a smooth gray finish and large color display that serves as a gateway to wireless streaming options and system settings, including&mdash;you guessed it&mdash;an alarm clock.
Performance Features Ergonomics Value PRICE $3,499 ($4,477 as reviewed) AT A GLANCE Plus Fast setup/programming Supports modern and legacy sources Integrates with many third-party systems AirPlay gives virtually unlimited access Minus NAS streaming has quirks Native app support is fairly limited THE VERDICT Russound delivers whole-home audio entertainment in a single, massively expandable chassis, allowing you to enjoy legacy analog/digital sources or modern streaming. Streaming and app-based control may be all the rage for music listening, but they ignore the fact that many people still have older, legacy gear they want to enjoy around their homes. Sometimes, whether it&rsquo;s a CD player, turntable, or cable/satellite set-top box, &ldquo;stream it from the cloud&rdquo; isn&rsquo;t a workable solution. Also, most modern wireless streaming music systems, such as Sonos and Play-Fi, eschew any type of wall-based control, relying solely on a smartphone or tablet interface.
Performance Features Ergonomics Value PRICE $600 AT A GLANCE Plus 50 context-sensitive programmable buttons on remote IR, serial, and IP-based control Amazon Alexa voice-control integration Minus Controller generates a lot of heat Low-resolution screen on remote THE VERDICT Control4&rsquo;s EA-1 bundle sets a new standard for affordability and opportunity when it comes to professionally installed A/V control and home automation. One of the great inventions of the 20th century, the humble Lego brick, doesn&rsquo;t inspire much admiration on its own. Take more than 32 million of them and throw in a little imagination, though, and you can create awe-inspiring 1:20scale replicas of famous American landmarks, including the Golden Gate Bridge, the Capitol Building, and (of course) the Las Vegas Strip. Then set them up together. Call it Miniland USA. Build a theme park around it. Suddenly you&rsquo;ve got Legoland California. If I were called upon to write a review of a single Lego, there&rsquo;d be no bricking way I could come up with the concept of Legoland on my own if it didn&rsquo;t already exist.
Performance Features Ergonomics Value PRICE Nexia Bridge, $87; Trane XL824, $334 AT A GLANCE Plus Nexia Diagnostics monitors real-time HVAC performance Z-Wave-supported Nexia Bridge built into thermostat Minus $9.99/month subscription fee Cloud-based automation works slower than local systems THE VERDICT The Nexia system is unique in that it appeals to both do-it-yourselfers and those who want it done for them. Its combination of a simple programming structure with an assortment of welcoming and intuitive user interfaces makes it a system you&rsquo;ll actually enjoy using. I was beginning to worry that we&rsquo;d run out of acronyms. After all, what would we do if we had to speak or write actual words instead of just using three- or four-letter shorthand? Saying &ldquo;do-it-yourself&rdquo; is so much more time-consuming than &ldquo;DIY.&rdquo; Thank goodness there&rsquo;s a new acronym making the rounds: DIFM, which stands for do-it-forme. Although people have always wanted to have things done for them, the appearance of the acronym DIFM is the result of the wicked hangover that the DIY smart-home industry is suffering, after a couple of years when rapacious startup enthusiasm sucked all of the rational oxygen out of the air. The fact is that there are plenty of rooms in the smart home to accommodate the yourselfers, the for-me-ers, and the dedicated custom installers.
As more and more devices become wireless, it seems that it should be easier to connect together all the TVs in the house without the mess of cables. Truth is that it’s not as simple as it seems. The new Nyrius WS54 (MSRP: $170) makes it about as simple as it can be. Plus, it works in a challenging situation where many other systems have failed.
Performance Features Ergonomics Value PRICE $2,979 as reviewed AT A GLANCE Plus Easy retrofit replacement of wired volume controls Dedicated router creates private TiO Wi-Fi network Exceptional level of user customization Minus Limited direct IP control of third-party components Few streaming services supported&mdash;but more coming THE VERDICT With TiO&rsquo;s unique approach to home automation, systems are a breeze to design and install, quick to configure, and intuitively natural to use&mdash;with the bonus of being highly configurable by the user without the need for a return service call from the dealer. The folks at TiO (short for &ldquo;Turn it On&rdquo;) claim they&rsquo;re taking &ldquo;an entirely fresh approach to home automation&rdquo; with a philosophy that considers the user to be the most important part of a TiO system. In other words, if a home automation system were a round hole and the user a square peg, the manufacturer should re-engineer the hardware hole into a square rather than force the user to become a round peg. Of course, making things truly and honest-to-goodness-ly easy for the user is way, way simpler to pontificate about than it is to accomplish.
Picture Sound Extras As popular as 007&rsquo;s grittier, more credible exploits have been of late, fans raised on the character&rsquo;s more extreme tendencies have wondered what those movies might be like if he had continued his cheeky, over-the-top evolution. And for them, there&rsquo;s Matthew Vaughn&rsquo;s Kingsman: The Secret Service. Here a small but well-funded super-secret organization, independent of government, is populated by consummate gentleman (and lady) spies, quietly risking their lives to save others and maintain peace. Headquartered in a posh Savile Row tailor shop, they have access to impossible high-tech gadgets, bold training, and virtually unlimited resources.
NEAR IG 6/IGS 12 Outdoor Speaker System Performance Build Quality Value NEAR 6XL Amplifier Performance Features Build Quality Value PRICE $4,656 as reviewed AT A GLANCE Plus In-ground installation allows the speakers to almost disappear Incredibly clear audio at high, and low, volume levels Designed to last in any type of weather Minus Expensive Back-breaking work to install permanently THE VERDICT A speaker system designed for the rigors of outdoors with the performance of high-end indoor loudspeakers. As a home theater die-hard, I spend way too much time indoors, regardless of the season. But my wife encourages me to get my vitamin D whenever the weather is nice, and there&rsquo;s nothing like spending a leisurely Saturday afternoon lying by the pool while listening to music or some San Francisco Giants baseball. I&rsquo;ve had an outdoor speaker system installed for the last 15 years. I think those speakers cost me under $1,000 (including amplification), and whereas they sounded great when new, they&rsquo;ve gotten progressively worse as the years have gone on&mdash;even though I uninstall them in the winter to keep them from getting waterlogged when the rainy season hits. This isn&rsquo;t a knock on the unnamed company that made my outdoor speakers; it&rsquo;s just an acknowledgement of what happens when drivers bake in the California sun and have cheap &ldquo;all weather&rdquo; plastic enclosures.
Performance Features Ergonomics Value PRICE $4,070 as reviewed AT A GLANCE Plus Incredibly simple setup Terrific home theater integration Easily handles both analog and IP sources Minus No native sources Typical Class D sound quality THE VERDICT Auriel is a breeze to set up, provides control over legacy and modern sources, and offers home theater integration along with a variety of easy-to-use interfaces. Housewide audio distribution systems varied little in their design and feature set for many years. Whether they were from Niles, Elan, SpeakerCraft, NuVo, or Russound, you could essentially count on them offering six analog audio source inputs, onboard amplification for six stereo zones, and connections for a variety of controllers, usually including an in-wall keypad.