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Citizens are turning face recognition on unidentified police

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Moves have been made to restrict the use of facial recognition across the globe. In part one of this series on Face ID, Jennifer Strong and the team at MIT Technology Review explore the unexpected ways the technology is being used, including how technology is being turned on police. 

We meet: 

  • Christopher Howell, data scientist and protester. 

Credits: 

This episode was reported and produced by Jennifer Strong, Tate Ryan-Mosley and Emma Cillekens, and Karen Hao. We’re edited by Michael Reilly and Gideon Lichfield.

Transcript:

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[TR ID]

Strong: A few things have happened since we last spoke about facial recognition. We’ve seen more places move to restrict its use while at the same time, schools and other public buildings have started using face I-D as part of their covid-prevention plans. We’re even using it on animals and not just on faces with similarities to our own, like chimps and gorillas, Chinese tech firms use it on pigs, and Canadian scientists are working to identify whales, even grizzly bears.

In other words, the number of ways we might use this technology is exploding as are concerns about whether that’s feasible, let alone a good idea. And so, bans on how face I-D can be used are expanding, from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon, where the toughest restrictions on facial recognition in the country are set to take effect next year banning not just its use by police, but commercial applications as well. 

Wheeler: Colleagues, we are here this afternoon to consider two ordinances that seek to ban the use of facial recognition technologies by our own Portland city government and by private entities in the public spaces. 

Strong: That’s Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler opening the city council meeting that passed these bills in September. As with most things these days, the public comments and vote took place on Zoom. 

Wheeler: Portland is far from an anti-technology city, and I want to make that very clear. We are not anti-technology with a wide array of local and national tech companies. We are one of the fastest growing tech hubs anywhere on the West coast. 

Strong: Over the next few hours lawyers, software engineers, concerned citizens, and business leaders all had their say. Then, just before the vote took place. One last person, a local data scientist, raised his virtual hand to ask a question.

Wheeler: Christopher Howell… last but not least, welcome.

Howell: I would like to express a conditional support for this ordinance, but I have concerns.

Strong: That’s because he’s building something that uses facial recognition in a less than conventional way.

Howell: I’m involved with developing facial recognition to in fact use on Portland police officers since they are not identifying themselves to the public and they are committing crimes. Would this become illegal if you pass this ordinance? 

[Music]

Strong: I’m Jennifer Strong and over the next several weeks we’re going to do another deep dive on the rise of facial recognition. In this latest miniseries, we’ll explore how it’s being used in sports both on athletes and fans, its use in retail stores even how it’s used to serve the homeless. But first, we kick things off with a look at how it’s being turned back on police.

[SHOW ID]

Strong: The anonymity of police and other authority figures is steeped in a really complicated history. There’s a delicate balance of privacy and accountability on both sides for protesters and for police.

[Sound of Chicago riots.]

Strong: The Chicago Riots of 1968 interrupted the TVs of Americans all over the country as they tuned in to watch the Democratic National Convention, which was held in Chicago that year. 

[Sound of Chicago riots.]

Strong: Protesters were demonstrating against the Vietnam war and against the Democratic Party.  After clashing with the police at Grant Park, protesters marched down Michigan Avenue to the hotel where many of the convention delegates were staying. For 17 minutes, America watched live as the Illinois National Guard fired tear gas… as the police beat the demonstrators. 

[Sound of Chicago riots. “The whole world’s watching”]

Strong: The police weren’t wearing name tags and this is actually pretty common when police deal with protesters. Sometimes it’s legal, sometimes it’s illegal, and sometimes it’s even mandated in the interest of safety like this summer in Buffalo, New York.

Reporter: The Buffalo Police commissioner says it was his decision to have officers wear their badge numbers and not their names on their uniforms.  

Commissioner: There was a rising harassment concern with officers and their family. In order to allow officers to do their job without fear, I made the decision at that time.

Strong: But when it happens, citizens and activists push back. Many argue this gives police even more power than they already have…because it becomes nearly impossible to hold them accountable.

Interviewee: We need our council to stand up and speak for the 255,000 people you represent and encourage and demand that this police force change the policy back instead of thinking solely of the dozen or so officers who were harassed, who could be protected under the current existing law.

Strong: But, well before the events of this summer, people have tried to identify unidentified police officers. They’ve used photos from protests, sleuthing on social media, crowdsourcing through the internet even resorted to stealing personal information. As in the case of a hacker collective – called Anonymous. It’s known for aligning itself with the Occupy Wall Street protests and briefly taking down the New York Stock Exchange’s website. That same group later leaked private information it stole from police and government websites including the home addresses of police officers. 

Prank Call: You have reached the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office… [ring]

Strong: In this prank call, they claim credit for the hack.

Prank Call: Sheriff’s office….. On the european continent.. Bring it on.. Ok goodbye…

Strong: Unmasking those wielding force over others isn’t unique to the U.S. Back in 2014 during Russia’s annexation of Crimea you might recall that soldiers without badges on their green uniforms seized control. At the time top officials including President Vladimir Putin repeatedly denied that those troops were Russian.

Putin: There are no troops whatsoever. No Russian Troops at least. 

Strong: This is Russia’s ambassador to the EU speaking to reporters.

Ambassador: The United States being in the tradition of interfering in other countries and sending troops overseas, may be acting according to their own mentality… I would say. But this is not a case of Russian interference. 

Strong: But it was. By matching photos, potentially with the help of facial recognition, the Ukrainian Government determined the troops were in fact tied to Russian military. And they released photos as proof. Later, Putin also admitted the troops were indeed Russian.

Putin Translation: Of course, the Russian servicemen did back the Crimean self-defence forces. They acted in a civil, as I’ve already said, but a decisive and professional manner. 

[Music]

Strong: Now protesters are increasingly trying to turn Face I-D back on police – to identify officers who use excessive force. Including in Hong Kong, where last year dramatic images of clashes between protesters and police dominated news feeds showing police firing live bullets and protesters attacking officers. This is New York Times Reporter Paul Mozur speaking on public television.

Mozur: As the protests have gone on and police and Hong Kongers continue to square off week after week the face has become weaponized and identity itself in a way is weaponized. You know, protesters will go out and police will try to capture their images on video and then go back and identify them via all the social media and online materials that are out there and then vice versa. We saw the police actually take their badges off and so now protesters are doing the same to the police where they are trying to go back and use social media and figure out which police are doing what act. //One protester in particular this guy Colin Cheung that we found created a facial recognition tool to try to identify police… and he didn’t actually release the product but he says because of that police targeted him.

Strong: And Cheung was arrested shortly after he posted about the tool on Facebook…  but similar efforts are ongoing in other places, including Portland, Oregon. 

Howell: I’m taking the exact same technology they use on us. And it’s not like I’m trying to dox people. I mean, this is for officers that are essentially breaking the law in terms of their use of force. 

Strong: Christopher Howell is a data scientist, and protester. 

Howell: And I just wanted to get on the record. Hey, there’s another way we could use this. // And really it’s more about, you know, keeping the pressure on them to identify themselves as opposed to us having to do it. 

Strong: His testimony before the Portland city council about this tool he’s working on led to his project getting covered by The New York Times. Since then, he’s gotten a fair bit of attention as did the reaction of Portland’s mayor, who called the project creepy.

Howell: It’s creepy to let them go out and tear gas people night after night // and I, that was really, to me was just a, kind of a mind blowing moment of like, it’s creepy that these guys don’t have their names. You know, that someone can just dress up like a policeman you know [laugh]

Strong: He says he started the project partly just to see how it would work.

Howell: I mean, there’s a definite technological curiosity there… and that sort of, something I can do when it’s late at night and it’s frustrating to see this stuff, the news or you go on Twitter and see people’s, everyone’s videos of the protests and okay, well, what can I do? …and ultimately I would like it not to be necessary. I think they should wear their names in tall letters so that we can not have to use facial recognition on cops to try to figure out who they are.  

Strong: Being able to identify an officer isn’t just about knowing if someone actually is one… It’s extremely difficult to file a complaint against someone without knowing who that person is.

Howell: One of the reasons I started this was because in lawsuits, you can’t name like the cop who shoved me. You have to know who it is. They’ll just say, well, we don’t know who it was. So there’s nobody for you to sue and trying to get records on what particular officers did they will not let you go fishing for it. // You need to know so, if you gave me a picture of, you know, here’s this cop hitting somebody with a baton I want to, and we’re going to figure out, you can see his face. So we’re going to figure out who it is, how do we do that? And initially I was more thinking on a reverse image search on a database. Like I’ll just collect in all the pictures I can, and we’ll be able to link them together so we can say these are all the same person. And then I kind of realized I could do better than that. 

Strong: He realized he could build a face ID tool, using images of the officers from the internet.

Howell: So I started looking at their pictures where they are identified or news, you know, going back further and getting like news articles.

Strong: The project is technically easier than building a system meant to identify anyone.

Howell: We know that who the police are, you know, there aren’t, there shouldn’t be people in riot gear who aren’t police officers. So if you can get all of their pictures and that’s the real challenge, but then you could have, a less difficult mathematical problem in that sense to identify, okay, we know this person is out of this set. Let’s find out which one of them they are…

Strong: He says he’s collected thousands of pictures so far…mostly manually from Twitter and news articles…on average 15 to 20 or so for each officer he’s identified.

Howell: A lot of the initial images were from Twitter. A lot of it was me going into news articles. // I mean, the traffic accident, one is, you know, news story is such a great example. Cause I found a bunch of those. Or like community barbecue and there are uniformed officers there and it names them.

Strong: It’s not exactly the same scale as the face ID systems used by police…

Howell: I’m just all doing this right now on a Python script – you know, it’s all local on my laptop. 

Strong: …those are usually trained on photo sets of millions or billions.

Howell: Because I do think the, the accuracy is important and, uh, and the number of images is small enough that if I was trying to put my face in there, I don’t want to get another Chris Howell.

Strong: But it’s just enough images that it seems to do the trick. He says his tool has already been used to help confirm the identity of an officer in a case that’s headed to court.

Howell: Somebody brought me a picture I hadn’t found and said, help me, you know, you use your system and tell me what it says. And she already knew who she thought it was, but she didn’t tell me. And then the top result was the one that was expected.

Strong: As for where this goes next, that’s anyone’s guess, though he can imagine a day when it might be used in partnership with the city. 

Howell: I could see a future, maybe years from now, when things are a bit different where the city makes something like this available and hosts it themselves and makes them take a bunch of pictures so we can have a well-trained thing. So as a like citizen feedback thing. And, and it wouldn’t necessarily have to all be negative things, but in a way that it could also be used for complaints. I mean, part of me thinks there’s there would be a use they’re partnering with the government agencies themselves to say, “Hey, we want to be accountable.” I don’t think that’s very realistic in 2020, but I think it, it could be not far away! [laugh]

Strong: Something he doesn’t want is to make it open source. 

Howell: I don’t think it’s a great idea for anybody really to have it just be like public facing on a website. Think that’s, it’s asking for things to go wrong beyond like the really obvious things you could have, people, you know, faking things or intentionally putting in misleading pictures…

[Music]

Strong: Portland’s bans on face I-D will take effect in January but Howell’s project? It won’t be impacted. Public schools, religious institutions, even how facial recognition is used at the airport, such as the way airlines like Delta board its passengers. None of that will be impacted either. Local government agencies won’t be able to use it. And it won’t be allowed in most public spaces or private spaces that are open to the public, like a shopping mall. Local police will not be allowed to use the technology either though people in their private homes, like Christopher Howell, will be. The bans also don’t apply to law enforcement at the state or federal level.

In a way, the use of this surveillance technology is becoming a sort of global arms race between the public and authority figures, both hoping to peel back the cover of anonymity to encourage good behavior. It’s hard to see who the winner might be, but certainly the loser is privacy.

In the next episode… 

It’s not trauma informed to have somebody walk into a facility and say, yes, you can absolutely come in, but let me just take your fingerprints. 

Strong: We look at the move to use facial recognition in public housing and homeless shelters. 

Facial Recognition is kinder emotionally in that it’s passive, it, doesn’t touch them and you can capture it more quickly and there’s no risk of transmission.  

Strong: This episode was reported and produced by me, Tate Ryan-Mosley, Karen Hao and Emma Cillekens. We’re edited by Michael Reilly and Gideon Lichfield. 

Thanks for listening, I’m Jennifer Strong. 

[TR ID]

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Daily Crunch: Slack and Salesforce execs explain their big acquisition

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We learn more about Slack’s future, Revolut adds new payment features and DoorDash pushes its IPO range upward. This is your Daily Crunch for December 4, 2020.

The big story: Slack and Salesforce execs explain their big acquisition

After Salesforce announced this week that it’s acquiring Slack for $27.7 billion, Ron Miller spoke to Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield and Salesforce President and COO Bret Taylor to learn more about the deal.

Butterfield claimed that Slack will remain relatively independent within Salesforce, allowing the team to “do more of what we were already doing.” He also insisted that all the talk about competing with Microsoft Teams is “overblown.”

“The challenge for us was the narrative,” Butterfield said. “They’re just good [at] PR or something that I couldn’t figure out.”

Startups, funding and venture capital

Revolut lets businesses accept online payments — With this move, the company is competing directly with Stripe, Adyen, Braintree and Checkout.com.

Health tech venture firm OTV closes new $170M fund and expands into Asia — This year, the firm led rounds in telehealth platforms TytoCare and Lemonaid Health.

Zephr raises $8M to help news publishers grow subscription revenue — The startup’s customers already include publishers like McClatchy, News Corp Australia, Dennis Publishing and PEI Media.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

DoorDash amps its IPO range ahead of blockbuster IPO — The food delivery unicorn now expects to debut at $90 to $95 per share, up from a previous range of $75 to $85.

Enter new markets and embrace a distributed workforce to grow during a pandemic — Is this the right time to expand overseas?

Three ways the pandemic is transforming tech spending — All companies are digital product companies now.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

WH’s AI EO is BS — Devin Coldewey is not impressed by the White House’s new executive order on artificial intelligence.

China’s internet regulator takes aim at forced data collection — China is a step closer to cracking down on unscrupulous data collection by app developers.

Gift Guide: Games on every platform to get you through the long, COVID winter — It’s a great time to be a gamer.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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Gift Guide: 9+ caffeinated gift ideas for your favorite coffee lovers

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Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2020 Holiday Gift Guide! Need help with gift ideas? We’re here to help! We’ll be rolling out gift guides from now through the end of December. You can find our other guides right here.

The pandemic has meant we leave our homes far less often, and that means fending for ourselves when it comes to coffee. But too many of us have old, cheap coffee makers or worse, pod-based ones at home. Here are the best ways to elevate your coffee game or delight the java lover in your life.

This article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.

Superior drip coffee makers

Every grocery store sells a cheap drip coffee maker that does the job adequately, but if anyone is going to use a device every day, it should be something they look forward to, not the bare minimum.

That said, a coffee maker shouldn’t be an IQ test — you have to operate it before you’ve had your coffee, after all. I personally find the ones with touchscreens and apps add nothing but new ways to get it wrong. So I tested a few coffee makers that balance quality with simplicity, and after a few weeks of jitters here are my favorites.

For the industrial design appreciator: OXO 8-cup coffee maker

Pros:

  • Compact, well-thought-out design
  • Lots of actually useful features
  • Thermal carafe included

Cons:

  • Single cup brewing is a bit over-complicated
  • Could be more coffee-efficient

OXO’s reputation as a kitchen goods designer is well deserved, but I often find their items a bit much for the job. Not so with the 8-cup coffee maker, which manages to balance thoughtful design with simplicity and quality. I can say with confidence: if you aren’t sure what coffee maker to get… get this one.

The OXO 8-cup is the (obviously) smaller alternative to the 9-cup, losing the ability to schedule brewing but gaining simpler operation and a single-cup option using a separate, Kalita-compatible basket. The lids of the reservoir and basket area flip up (the latter allowing condensed water to flow safely into the filter) and the basket itself sits securely but pops out easily.

The coffee is uniformly good; I would say as good but slightly less strong than the KBGV below. It flows directly into a thermal carafe with a dedicated hole in the top, simplifying even that part. Pretty much everything about this machine is made to simplify and foolproof itself, making the brewing process extremely reliable.

I honestly struggled to find any complaints, but I would say that the necessity of keeping a second basket that uses a different filter type, then adjusting the various bits so that you can slip the mug in, etc., is arguably more trouble than it’s worth. But the capability for single-cup brewing is there and doesn’t take away from the rest at all.

It also recommends somewhat more grounds per cup than the KBGV, not a crazy amount but enough that you’ll probably get one less pot out of a standard 16 oz bag of coffee.

Price: $170 from OXO

For the FBI stakeout: Technivorm Moccamaster KBGV

Pros:

  • Streamlined retro-institutional look
  • Strong, reliable brew
  • Automatic hot plate

Cons

  • Lots of removable parts
  • Materials unremarkable for the price

The KBGV brewed my favorite coffee and in my opinion has the best look, like what you’d expect in the background of an FBI stakeout field HQ in a 70s movie. Where the OXO is rounded-off and unassuming, designed to disappear in a modern kitchen, the KBGV is bold and shiny.

The coffee it makes is bold, too: reliably strong and flavorful. Its #4 filter process to me was also pretty efficient with grounds.

The squat glass carafe sits on a hot plate that remains on for an hour or so after brewing, which is great but also means you must remember to turn it off — it won’t start a fire or anything, it’s just going to sit there being hot.

My main issue with the KBGV is that the reservoir and basket covers just sit on top rather than being on hinges, making the process of brewing involve removing and replacing several pieces. A small complaint, but they, like the carafe lid and basket, are also made of a rather ordinary plastic rather than something more durable. I feel like given the premium price you should be given something a bit more classy and convenient.

The good news is they’ll be easy to replace if they break, and Technivorm has an excellent warranty.

Price: $330 from Technivorm

For the ‘gram: Ratio 8

Pros:

  • Extremely handsome
  • Excellent materials
  • Very simple operation

Cons:

  • Nothing to keep coffee warm
  • Quite large!
  • Very expensive

Objectively the most good-looking of the machines here (even if I prefer the quirky charm of the KBGV), the Ratio 8, with its wood and textured metal finish, is obviously meant to be a display piece. And you couldn’t hide it if you wanted to — this thing is big, and the thick power cord juts straight out of the back, making it difficult to put anywhere but somewhere central.

The machine is basically an automatic Chemex brewer (Chemex makes one of their own that I tried to test but never heard back on), which kind of tells you everything you need to know. Chemex, with its wood-collared, single-piece carafes and luxuriously thick filters, is almost like the BMW of drip coffee, with all that implies. I like it, but I also acknowledge that it’s a bit over the top. And a machine that does it for you — well!

But as a Chemex brewer goes, it’s a lovely thing. You get that special extra clarity that the Chemex process brings, and there’s something wonderful about the way the coffee comes out of those carafes. Operating the machine is a single-button affair, which activates a short bloom period then showers the grounds over time with however much water you put in the reservoir.

I found that the Ratio 8 was best when making a full carafe, as with a half-portion I felt it over-watered and consequently under-extracted what I put in there. Unfortunately that full carafe will have to be consumed with a quickness as the Ratio 8, despite its size and price, has nothing to keep the coffee warm once it’s been brewed.

For a showy and unique machine the Ratio 8 is great. But if all you want to do is make great drip, the OXO or KBGV is a much better use of your funds.

Price: $495 from Ratio

More exotic methods

There are lots of ways to make coffee, and while drip is the easiest and most reliable for most people, the following slightly more unusual options are also viable and perhaps more interesting as gifts.

FrankOne

PA150003Want to get the first coffee maker to come out of Colombia — you know, coffee central? The FrankOne is a cool device that quickly makes a pourover-like cup by steeping the grounds then creating a vacuum in the chamber below it, sucking the liquid out but leaving the grounds up top. It works great, operates on a rechargeable battery, and is easy to clean (especially if you have a garbage disposal).

Price: $80 from FrankDePaula

ROK manual espresso maker

Image Credits: ROK

I avoided the many fancy espresso machines out there for this review mainly for the reason that they are complex, expensive, and require considerable upkeep. The ROK is about as simple an espresso maker as you can get, bested only by a stovetop Moka pot.

To work the ROK, you pack your grounds into the included espresso filter and attach it to the machine like any other. Then you pour your hot water into the reservoir up top, raise the arms, and depress them with a slow, steady pressure that forces it through the filter. It really is that simple.

It may not be quite the high-pressure espresso you get from a “real” machine but it’s quite good, and the process can be repeated to increase the volume and produce something like an americano. The coffee produced by the ROK is a bit like a Moka Pot’s, but a bit less strong and far less likely to be burnt.

The machine itself is bulletproof — and I mean I think it’s actually bulletproof. It’s practically solid metal, though the reservoir and bellows are rubber. Use this to make coffee while camping and then fend off a bear attack.

For a unique, electricity-free coffee experience the ROK is a great option, though not necessarily a practical one.

Price: $189 from ROK

Osma

Image Credits: Osma

I haven’t gotten to test this one yet (though I will), but designer Joey Roth hasn’t done me wrong yet. This new device from his workshop uses a completely new method of circulating hot water through grounds, making a drip-like cup in a very short time, or cold brew, or tea. If your loved one is a gadget fiend, this is one they probably haven’t had the chance to covet yet. Technically it uses pods, but they’re totally biodegradable and you can fill them with your own grounds or leaves.

Price: $185 from Osma

Pourover cones

I’ve used pourover as my main method of making coffee for years, and it reliably produces the best single cup you can have, though at the cost of being somewhat time-consuming.

Kalita Wave 185

Kalita makes a couple sizes of these pourover cones, and although I have happily used my 155 for many years, if I could do it over again I’d opt for the slightly larger 185, which is more forgiving when you’re pouring and can brew more than the 16 ounces that is the realistic upper limit of mine.

Price: $36 from Amazon

OXO’s pourover cone with tank

If hovering by the stove and watering your grounds for the two to three minutes it takes to make a cup is not something you enjoy, OXO has a nice little gadget that simplifies things. It’s basically a pourover cone with a reservoir that sits on top, dripping water through a few tiny holes at a steady rate.

It made a good cup and with minimal fuss, but the capacity is limited, so if you want more than 12 ounces you’ll have to refill the reservoir.

Price: $16 from Amazon

Kone and other metal filters

These permanent filters have gotten quite good, and I have one that sits right on top of a cup. No more paper! However I would recommend these only to people who have a garbage disposal or sink that can handle a lot of grounds, because cleaning the filter involves losing a lot of grit down the drain. Occasional deep cleaning is required but it’s nice to reduce waste even a little bit.

Price: Around $30-40, depending on brand.

Coffee subscriptions

Just as a general note: These types of subscriptions are great, but you need to do a little bit of research or your loved one will end up with a roast they don’t like. I don’t want to recommend any in particular, since they all specialize in different things, but aim to prop up independent roasteries and fair trade rather than just getting a steady supply of the same old thing from a major chain.

Some good options:

 

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Review: Wireless headsets from Logitech, Audio-Technica, SteelSeries, HyperX and more

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With the amount of time you’re spending at home these days, you deserve a better headset. A wireless one that works with your computer and maybe your console as well, with a mic for calls and great sound for games and movies. Fortunately there are a lot to choose from, and I’ve tested out your best options.

I asked the leading audio and peripheral companies to send over their flagship wireless headset, with prices ranging from about $100 to $250. Beyond this price range returns diminish swiftly, but right now that’s the sweet spot for comfort, sound, and usability.

For years I’ve avoided wireless headsets because there were too many compromises, but I’m pleased to say that the latency has been eliminated and battery life in the ones I reviewed is uniformly excellent. (NB: If the wireless version feels too expensive, you can often get wired ones for $50-100 less.)

To test the headphones, I used them all for a variety of everyday tasks, from video calls to movies and music (with only minimal EQing to get a sense of their natural sound) to AAA games and indies. None require an app to work, though some have companion software for LEDs or game profiles. I have a fairly large head and medium-sized ears, for what it’s worth. All the headphones are rather bulky, though the angle I shot them at individually makes them look huge — you can see in the image up top that they’re all roughly the same size.

None of these headphones have active noise cancelling, but many offer decent physical isolation to the point where they offer a “monitor” feature that pipes in sound from the outside world — useful if you’re playing a game but waiting for the oven to preheat or something. Only the first set has a built-in mic, the rest have detachable ones of generally solid quality, certainly good enough for streaming and chatting, though for broadcast a separate one would be better. All these headphones use a USB-A style dongle, though the 7P/7X also has a USB-C connector.

SteelSeries 7P/7X – $149

The 7P and 7X headsets, designed with the PS5 and Xbox Series X in mind (as well as PC) respectively, are my first and most unreserved recommendation.

The standout feature on these is, to me, a truly surprising sound with an almost disturbingly broad stage and clarity. I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing when I put on some familiar tracks I use for reference. This isn’t a 7.1 simulation or anything like that — but no doubt the gaming focus led to creating a large soundstage. It worked!

I also found the headphones to be very comfortable, with a “ski goggle” strap instead of a per-band adjustment that lets them sit very lightly as well as “remembering” your setting. The spacious earcups rotate for travel or comfort.

The built-in mic is unobtrusive and stows away nicely, but if you’re picky about placement it was a bit floppy to adjust. Many of the other headsets have nicer mics that completely detach — maybe that’s a plus for you but I tend to lose them.

My main issues with these are that the controls feel cheap and not particularly well laid out. The bottom of the headset is a jumble of ports and buttons and the volume dials don’t have much travel — it’s 0 to 100 in one full swipe. (Volume control is independent from system volume.)

The dongle is different from the others in that it is itself USB-C, but with a USB-A cable attached. That’s good for compatibility, but the cable is three feet long, making it kind of silly to attach to some laptops and whatnot. You could easily get your own short cord, though.

At $150 I think these are an easy recommendation for just about anyone looking at that price range.

Audio-Technica AT-GWL – $250

Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The high price on these is partly because they are the wireless version of a headset that also comes wired, so if you want the solid audio performance and comfy fit, you can save some money by going wired.

The sound of the AT-GWLs is rich and naturally has a focus on the upper-mid vocal range, which makes voices in media really pop. I did find the sound a bit confined, which hitting the “surround” setting actually helped with. I know that this sort of virtualization has generally been frowned on, but it’s been a while since these settings have been over the top and distortive. I found surround better for games but not necessarily for music, but it’s very easy to switch on and off.

The headphones are light and adjusted with traditional, no-nonsense metal bands, with a single pad on the top. I would say they are the lightest-feeling pair I tested, with the SteelSeries and Razer coming in just behind owing to some extra weight and bulk. Despite being compact, the AT-GWLs felt airy but not big. The leather-microfiber combo cups are nice, and I think they’ll break in well to provide better isolation over time.

Where they fall short is in the interface. First, a note to Audio-Technica: Turn down the notification noises! Turning the headset on, the mic on or off, or hitting the system-independent volume max produces loud, surprising beeps. Too loud!

Second, the buttons and dials are stiff, small, and same-feeling. Lifting a hand quickly to turn down the volume (maybe after a huge beep) you may very easily mistake the power switch for the volume dial. The dial also doubles as a button for surround mode, and next to it is a microscopic button to turn on and off the sound of surroundings. It’s a bit of a jumble — nothing you can’t get used to, but considering how nice other headsets on this list made their controls, it has to be said.

HyperX Cloud II wireless – $100

Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

HyperX (owned by Kingston) wasn’t exactly known for audio until fairly recently, but its previous Cloud headset got the crucial Wirecutter endorsement, and it’s easy to see why. For less money than any of the other headsets in this roundup, the follow-up to that headset (which I’m wearing right now) has excellent sound and isolation.

I was surprised to find a soundstage nearly as wide as the 7P/7X, but with more of a focus on the punchy lower register instead of on detail and placement. My music felt big and close, and the atmosphere of games likewise, more immediately present.

The Cloud II’s controls are simple and effective. The volume dial, tied directly to the system volume, is superb: grippy, with smooth motion and just the right amount of friction, and just-barely-there clicks. There are two good-size buttons, the power one concave and the mic mute (which gives different sounds for muted and active) convex.

It’s unfortunate that they’re not as comfortable, for me anyway, as the others on this list. The cups (though a bit on the warm side) and band are perfectly fine. It’s that there’s little rotation to those cups, meaning there’s no play to accommodate the shape of your head. I don’t know, maybe it’s just my big dome, but they were noticeably tighter at the front of my ear than the back, so I was constantly adjusting or trying to twist them.

I’ll say this: if they add a bit more adjustment to the cups, these would be my default recommendation over the 7P/7X. As exciting as the SteelSeries sound is to me, the Cloud IIs seem more like what people expect and $50 cheaper.

Logitech G-733 – $130

The matte texture of the G733s had a weird interaction with my camera — they don’t look speckly IRL. Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

These are Logitech’s streamer-friendly, color-coordinated, LED-sporting set, but they’re better than the loud design would suggest.

The sound is definitely gaming-forward, with a definite emphasis on the low end and a very central, present sound that was a lot like the Cloud II.

To be honest, I was not expecting the G733s to be very comfortable — their stiff plastic look suggested they’d creak, weigh down my ears, and crush my noggin. But in fact they’re really light and quite comfy! There’s a lot of play in the positions of the earcups. The fit is a little odd in that there’s a plainly inferior version of the 7P/7X’s “ski goggle” strap that really only has four settings, while the cups slide up and down about two thirds of an inch. It was just enough to accommodate my (again, apparently very large) head.

The mic boom is rather short, and sadly there is no indicator for when the mic is on or off, which is sometimes a minor inconvenience and sometimes a major pain. You can tell from the sound the mute button makes, though.

The volume dial is nice and smooth, though the “clicks” are really far apart. I like the texture of it and the mic mute button, the power button not so much. But it works.

The colors may not be to everyone’s liking, but I have to hand it to Logitech for going all the way. The headset, mic, and even the USB dongle are all the same shade, making it much easier to keep track of them in my growing pile of headphones and widgets.

Logitech Pro-X – $200

Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

Currently Logitech’s most premium set of gaming headphones, the Pro-X abandon the bright, plasticky look of its other sets and goes for understated and black.

The sound of the Logitech is big and very clear, with almost a reference feel in how balanced the bands are. I felt more presence in the mid-lows of smart bass-playing than the other sets. There is a “surround” feel that makes it feel more like you’re in a room of well-configured speakers than headphones, something that I think emerges from a de-emphasis of the center channel. The media is “out there,” not “in here.” It’s not a bad or a good thing, just distinct from the others.

The controls are about on par with the Cloud II’s: A nice frictiony volume wheel controlling system volume, a nice mic toggle button, and a fairly meaty on-off switch you’re unlikely to trip on purpose.

Also like the Cloud IIs, there is no rotation to the earcups, making them less comfortable to me than the ATs and SteelSeries, and Logitech’s cheaper G-733s. A larger head than my own, if that’s possible, would definitely feel clamped. I do think these would wear in well, but all the same a bit of play would help a lot.

The external material, a satinized matte plastic, looks truly lovely but is an absolute fingerprint magnet. Considering you’ll be handling these a lot (and let’s be honest, not necessarily with freshly washed hands), you’re going to need to wipe them down rather more than any of the others I tested.

Razer Blackshark V2 Pro – $180

Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The understated Razer Blackshark V2 Pro soon became my go-to for PC gaming when the SteelSeries set was attached to the PS5.

Their sound is definitely gaming-focused, with extra oomph in the lows and mid-lows, but music didn’t sound overly shifted in that direction. The soundstage is full but not startlingly so, and everything sounded detailed without being harsh.

The Razers look heavy but aren’t — it varies day to day but I think they’re definitely competing for “most comfortable” with the A-Ts and SteelSeries. The cups feel spacious and have a nice seal, making for a very isolated listening experience. Adjustment is done with the wires attached to the cups, which is nothing special — I kind of wish this setup would let you adjust the cant as well as the height. The material is like the Logitechs — prone to fingerprints, though a little less so, in my experience.

Their controls are very well designed and laid out, all on one side. The protruding (system-independent) volume knob may seem odd at first but you’ll love it soon. The one big notch or click indicates exactly 50%, which is super useful for quick “calibration,” and turning the knob is smooth yet resistant enough that I never once accidentally changed it. Meanwhile there are conveniently placed and distinguishable buttons for mute and power, and ports for the detachable mic, charge cord, and 3.5mm input.

I’m hard pressed to think of any downsides to the Blackshark except that it doesn’t work with consoles.

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