Sunday January 19, 2014

A very personal take on Sony Neotank GTK-N1BT

Posted by Karthik

Update (February 1, 2014): I went to the nearby Croma to buy this and while there, tested a couple of other options available, including JBL’s Flip, another smaller Bluetooth speaker from Sony and Bose’s SoundLink. Bose blew my mind with its sound! It doesn’t have Sony’s USB drive (input), a screen (this comes in handy to pair via Bluetooth by entering a password, as against other speakers where you just pair with no security. This means even neighbors can connect to your Bluetooth speaker, technically; this is a more complex problem if you are in a hostel or share your room/house with others) or a remote control and is a LOT smaller too. The portable size, along with the audio quality led me to opt for the Bose SoundLink, instead of Sony Neotank, which was my original plan when I entered the shop! Considering this long post below, it is only fair I let you know what I ended buying finally and let you decide, if you’re in the market to buy a wireless Bluetooth speaker. Sony Neotank has its benefits, though, particularly if USB memory sticks is one of the primary sources of music for you.

Original post:

One of my lasting memories about music is listening to Music For An Arabian Night by Ron Goodwin & His Orchestra. This was way back in the early 80s, when I was a kid and when my dad was playing them from an old tape recorder. He had listened to these in radio while growing up in Kolkata and managed to get these songs recorded (given how difficult access to original tapes was, back then) in blank cassette tapes.

Some of my dad’s favorites have continued to be my favorites too. SD Burman, OP Nayyar, Madan Mohan… a whole lot of Spanish and Latin music. It was almost like he was passing his interest in music to me and I imbibed what I liked (which is mostly all). I discovered RD Burman and Ilayaraja on my own, early in my life, as a continuation to that musical interest and then eventually A R Rahman.

This was possible because, back then, music consumption was not this personal – today, we live in a personal music consumption era. The home competes for so many sounds – my daughter’s on the iPad making smoothies to some background music through the app, my son watching Ninja Hathori on TV, my dad listening to FM in his radio, my mom listening to some discourse through her mobile phone connected to a speaker… there’s literally an assault of sounds from every direction.

Another issue compounds this problem. Most of the music that I acquire these days is purely in digital format. I don’t remember the last time I bought either an audio CD or a cassette. But I buy music almost on an everyday basis, digitally. I have an LG Home Theater system that has a USB input to play music/movies, but since that is connected to our TV, music is usually a no-go since someone is always watching TV. Our home PC (a Dell All-In-One) is in the bedroom, away from where I loiter at home, so music from it doesn’t reach me, or anyone else. There are multiple laptops and tablets, but the audio output from all of them are middling, at best.

I had stopped exploring the market for an appropriate music player for my needs. I wanted something that I can use to play music from whichever room I was in and I should be able to play digital files, not music from physical media like cassettes and CDs.

So, when the PR agency handling Sony India called me asking if I’d be interested in reviewing a ‘music system’, I told them that I have frankly lost interest in ‘music systems’ of all kinds. They persisted and as I did some research on the model they were willing to send me a review unit (which I need to return to them; I’m anyway planning to buy it myself – you’ll know why at the end of this post!) of actually seemed interesting.

The Sony Neotank (GTK-N1BT) did not have any means to play physical media at all. It is just a glorified speaker… a very good one at that. What was really enticing for me was its ability to sync to mobile phone via Bluetooth and play music from my phone, using my phone as a remote control of sorts! This works great, because I already store (and shuffle) most of my music in my Samsung Galaxy S4 (waiting for iPhone 6, though, which I hope will have a slightly bigger screen, for Toutatis sake!) so that I can play them while driving, again, connected via Bluetooth!

The single-purpose focus of the Neotank is perfect for me – it does what it is supposed do damn well. The sound – at least from my limited knowledge point of view – is fantastic. I’m not an audiophile. I cannot distinguish finer nuances of sound… I’m perfectly content with in-ear phones for so-called good sound reproduction. I cannot tell CD or vinyl output, via their dedicated players, from sound out of other media (except cassettes, of course, which come with their own sounds, enough to distinguish them!). And, I’m a huge fan of mp3s – 320kbps works perfectly for me.

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In this scenario, the Neotank is bang-on target, for me. I started streaming music from my phone in seconds. The Bluetooth pairing was a breeze (there is NFC pairing too, but I couldn’t care less for it). There are in-device options to select folders, besides tracks – this is a big plus since I store music in multiple folders. Moving through folders is a pain in my car steering wheel and I have to move my focus away from driving, albeit momentarily, to skip folders using the touch screen in the central dashboard or on my phone – that is more dangerous than a pain.

There is of course a slightly cheesy ’10 coloured patterns LED Display’ in the Neotank that makes it almost like a Punjabi wedding music console, but Sony has thoughtfully added a button to disable it – brilliant invention, that, since the option to be – or not to be – at a Punjabi wedding is left to the user!

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The physical dimensions of the speaker has been thought-through as well – it can be placed both horizontally and vertically.

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That helps placing it in even tighter nooks (vertically). The controls, on the top are simple and functional, with a small LED display that gets my name as soon as I connect my phone via Bluetooth! There are just 4 ways to play music via this device – Bluetooth, NFC, USB and FM. Perfect for the kind of modern music consumer like me.

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It already is working. My daughter (all of 3) started dancing to the music I started playing first, via the Neotank… it was kind of dance we’ve never seen her do – a curiously mild shake of the shoulder, with a mighty grin on her face and simple foot movements too!

My son has already asked me play his favorite songs – Zinda from Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Linkin Park’s Castle of Glass, Michael Jackson’s Beat It, London Dreams’ Barson Yaaron. I’m gladly obliging since his primary source of new music (music discovery) is through friends in school, where he doesn’t listen to them, but merely hears from friends that some song is ‘good’. He then comes and asks me to play those songs and I play them via YouTube. Plus, there are songs that I play during our drives together and he picks up what he likes and makes them his favorite (like Zinda, Barson Yaaron and so on). I think I can now finally do what my dad did to me in terms of music. As someone who manages Milliblog and helps a lot of people, in some small way, discover new music (good/bad is subjective; discovery IS the point), I can finally share that with my son (and daughter) too, at home. Never ever underestimate that background music someone played at home when you were growing up – they shaped my interest and evolution in music appreciation. And I’m forever thankful to my dad for what he imprinted in me. I hope to do the same with my son. (For more on this, see Milliblog’s Three Laws of Music Appreciation Multiverse)

If I end the previous sentence with ‘…with the Sony Neotank’ that may seem like an advertising, but honestly, I haven’t found another device that can help me start playing music with so much ease and little fuss.

PS: The last time I did a review (sort of a review, I can hardly every do a proper review of an audio device) of an audio equipment, it was for the Sennheiser Momentum headphones and I chose to do it in my other blog. It was a conscious call to not do it in Milliblog, since that was more about the equipment itself and less about its usage. This one makes more sense for Milliblog since what I have written about is more about the usage (evolution of music listening, at least in my home) than about the actual equipment itself (which is mentioned only incidentally, in context).

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