7 Bluetooth speakers: Still portable, now with better sound
- 05 September, 2014 17:41
With the abundance of smartphones and tablets comes a proliferation of Bluetooth speakers. And it makes sense: Although mobile devices have, on the whole, better speakers today than they had even a couple of years ago, they still can't produce the sound quality or the volume that a good speaker can.
Of course, what makes a "good speaker" depends on several factors. First is how picky you are about the quality of your sound. Most true audiophiles will probably try to avoid wireless speakers altogether; because Bluetooth demands audio compression, a lot of your music's fidelity gets lost in the journey from source to speaker.
The situation has improved of late -- Bluetooth speakers are more reliable and offer better audio quality than they did only a couple of years ago. For example, aptX, a long-standing audio codex that is capable of vastly improving the quality of Bluetooth-transmitted sound, has begun to be available in lower-cost consumer speakers; two of the devices reviewed here -- the Braven 710 and the Bayan Audio Soundbook -- offer aptX technology.
That being said, if you're looking for a great musical experience at home or in some other place where speakers will probably stay put, then you may still want to consider a wired system.
But wired speakers won't help if you want to hang something off your bike, play music at the beach, watch a movie on your tablet with louder volume than it can provide, or just quickly connect your smartphone to a speaker without having to deal with physical wires. And for that purpose, one of these speakers may work well for you.
For this roundup, we looked at seven very different Bluetooth speakers that range in price from $30 to $200: Voxx International's Canz, Matrix Audio's Qube2, the Jabra Solemate Mini, Jawbone's Mini Jambox, the Braven 710, Bayan Audio's Soundbook and Logitech's UE Boom.
In order to test the quality of the sound they produced, we connected them to a Droid Razr M running Android 4.4.2 (KitKat) and played a variety of musical tracks on each, ranging from an a capella rendition of a traditional Irish song through the final chords of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture."
I say "we" because the audio quality of each speaker was judged by two people: me (a reasonably discerning consumer) and my partner Jim Freund, a radio host and audio editor with an expert ear.
Of course, while sound quality may be of primary importance when choosing a speaker, there are other factors as well. All of these devices are quite portable, but two are small enough to be dropped into your pocket. Four can also be used as speakerphones (which were tested with the help of Computerworld editor Tracy Mayor). Three can be wirelessly connected to a second device to offer either larger and/or stereo sound. And one speaker comes with built-in FM radio while another can be used to charge your smartphone.
In other words: Bluetooth speakers are a varied lot. Here are seven interesting devices to choose from, arranged from least to most expensive.
Voxx International; $30
At $30 a pop, you would hardly expect a speaker to live up to the standards of its much more expensive siblings. Yet for something this small and low-cost, the Canz -- part of Voxx International's 808 line of headphones and speakers -- produces pretty impressive sound.
Look and feel
The Canz is certainly appropriately named -- it is the shape and even the size of a small can of, say, peas.
The controls and ports are ranged along the bottom edge of the device. They include a standard 3.5mm line-in port, a mini-USB (rather than the more standard micro-USB) port for the included power cable, and an LED that indicates the speaker's power status. On the other side is a button that lets you pair the speaker with your audio source along with another LED that indicates the pairing status. An on/off switch is on the bottom.
The Canz has only a single speaker on top, so there are really no pretensions here to full stereo sound. However, don't worry about volume; the first time I tried it out, with my smartphone set to just under 50% volume, I had to dial it down just a tad. In fact, I never got the Canz above about 65% for fear of getting irate calls from my neighbors. (And it actually shifted slightly along the table at higher volumes, so you may want to make sure it's not too near the edge.)
Jim and I were both surprised and pleased by the sound. While the bass was, of course, nowhere near as good as what you'd get from a larger speaker, it was quite respectable. The audio was clear and full even at louder volumes; we were especially impressed with how you could hear the individual voices and instruments in both the choral and instrumental samples.
Even full orchestrations were rich and detailed, with little of the tinniness that you tend to get from similarly-sized speakers, especially at this price point. Tracks such as "Spinning Wheel" by Blood, Sweat and Tears blasted nicely.
The Canz doesn't offer speakerphone capabilities.
The 808 Canz is small and, at $30, very inexpensive, but offers a surprisingly good audio experience for something at this price point. This is definitely a best buy for somebody who wants a speaker that offers good sound and portability at a low price.
Matrix Audio; $80
Matrix Audio's Qube2 speaker is about as portable as you can get and delivers reasonably good sound despite its small size.
Look and feel
The Qube2 is extremely portable -- at 3.1 x 1.5 x 1.5 in., it is small enough to fit in an adult fist and can be easily carried in a pocket or hung from the strap of a backpack or bicycle handlebar. The solid rectangular metal device weighs 6.5 oz. -- heavier than it looks. Its solidity makes it more likely that it will survive the occasional slip or drop.
The sound comes from two small speakers hidden by a grille on the top of the device. The controls are on one end -- they include a micro-USB port for powering the speaker (which can also be used as a headphone jack with the included 3.5mm input/USB cable); a tiny button that acts as an on/off and play/pause switch; and an LED that indicates when the speaker is connected and when it needs to be charged.
A small hole at the other end lets you connect an included wrist strap; the package also comes with a small carrying bag.
Unlike most other speakers, even small ones, there are no volume controls; that has to be done via your phone, tablet or other connected device. (The setup isn't that much of a hardship as far as I am concerned; most of the time I control audio through my phone or tablet anyway.)
According to the company, the Qube2 offers up to 8 hours of playback time and will stay connected up to 30 feet away. Perhaps, but make sure there's nothing in between you and the speaker -- I lost my connection as soon as I stepped out of a relatively small room.
The unit comes in red, black, silver, blue and purple.
Most of the music, especially the louder orchestrations, sounded tinny and even a little vibratory, even at realistic volumes; basses were not really there, and voices were a bit muddy. This is hardly surprising; it's a very small device, and the two small speakers are about 0.75 in. apart, which is not going to make for great stereo sound.
Given that, the Qube2 was still notable in terms of volume and fidelity for something that size.
The Qube2 doesn't offer speakerphone capabilities.
If you're looking for a good (and loud) speaker to clip to your bike or backpack, you could do a lot worse. The Qube2 offers decent audio and will give you great volume for, say, background music at an impromptu party.
Jabra Solemate Mini
Last year, I reviewed Jabra's Solemate, an interestingly-styled Bluetooth speaker with a ridged rubber bottom that also contains a handy built-in 3.5mm audio-in cable. Since then, Jabra has come out with a smaller, more portable version of that speaker called the Solemate Mini.
Look and feel
At 4.9 x 2.1 x 2.4 in. and 10.4 oz., the Solemate Mini is sturdy, nicely compact and fits comfortably in one hand. As with its larger sibling, a smooth rubber casing wraps around the top and sides while a ridged, sneaker-like rubber bottom keeps the unit from slipping no matter how much bass you're pumping through it. And it too offers a detachable 3.5mm audio-in cable that is stored in a crevice that runs around the bottom. The Mini comes in black, red, blue or yellow.
The Mini offers two speakers hidden behind a front grille. There are three buttons on top: volume down, volume up and answer/end for phone calls (this last also triggers Bluetooth pairing). As with its larger sibling, there is no way to pause or restart audio directly from the Mini; however, you can mute and unmute it by pressing the volume up/down buttons simultaneously.
On the right side of the device is the 3.5mm connector that can be used for earphones or the audio-in cable; the on/off switch; and a micro-USB port for powering the device.
As with the larger Solemate, the Mini uses a voice -- a rather deep male voice -- to tell you when it's connected or paired, or when a call is coming in. It's informative, if a little startling -- and unlike Jawbone's Mini Jambox, you can't switch to a different voice.
The Solemate Mini seems best suited for good, loud music. It did pretty well on rock like "Spinning Wheel," offering decent stereo separation, and didn't do badly with the "1812 Overture."
However, as one might expect, the sound was not nearly as clear, or the high/lows as clean, as that of the higher-end speakers such as the Bayan Audio Soundbook or the Logitech UE Boom. In fact, we were a bit surprised to find that the audio was often not as distinct as the sound we got with the Canz.
As a speakerphone, the Mini was pretty much at the top of the group. On my end, it sounded very much like the Jawbone -- audible and recognizable with a slightly fuzzy edge. My caller, though, said that the Mini sounded pretty good on her end -- which actually makes sense, since Jabra is known for its headsets, and so would likely have better microphone technology than its competitors.
Like its bigger relative, the Solemate Mini has an interesting design and a handy connection for non-Bluetooth devices. Its audio quality is acceptable, especially at higher volumes, but not much more than that. However, its speakerphone audio was the best of the devices reviewed here. As a result, this could be a good alternative for a small office speaker.
7 Bluetooth speakers
While Jawbone is increasingly identified with its Up health-monitoring wristband, it was originally known mainly for its audio products. The company was one of the first to come out with a reasonably sized but high-quality portable Bluetooth speaker called the Jambox; its current model, the Mini Jambox, is well within that tradition.
Look and feel
The Mini Jambox is a small rectangular block that resembles nothing so much as an undersized brick. It comes in nine different colors and several different speaker patterns; for example, on the review model (which was described as Silver Dot), three rows of circular indentations decorate the front (where the actual speaker is) and the back of the device. Other styles include Purple Snowflake and Aqua Scales, for example.
On top is the play/pause button, along with plus/minus buttons for volume decrease/increase. The left side of the device offers the power button, a pairing button, the microphone (the Mini Jambox can also be used as a speakerphone), a micro-USB port to power the unit and a 3.5mm stereo input.
The Mini Jambox comes with a lot of interesting features. For instance, you can pair two speakers so that you have them playing as either left/right speakers or as what Jawbone calls "Unison" speakers (both playing the track). And, as with Jawbone's headsets, you can upload different personalities -- a mobster, a "bombshell," an arcade game -- to announce when the speaker is on or off, when it's paired, and so on.
Jawbone also offers mobile apps for iOS and Android devices. The app is actually rather handy; it offers reminders for which combinations of the buttons do what (two presses of the play/pause button will redial the phone, for example, and you can program the press-and-hold to either do a voice search or dial a specific contact). The app also lets you switch your speaker's personality without having to connect it to a laptop (or, if it's irritating, you can disable the voice altogether).
The app also offers an agenda (which it picks up from your Google Calendar) and its own playlists; I didn't find these particularly useful, but some users might.
And you can use it to enable or disable the feature that Jawbone calls "LiveAudio," which optimizes sound to create a 3D effect (at least, with music that has been recorded using the technology, although Jawbone says that the feature also improves traditional stereo recordings).
The Jambox is a fine speaker with superior sound; it came in slightly better than the UE Boom and easily surpassed the other speakers in this roundup, with the exception of the Soundbook. The sound was clean, with good range from the basses to the highs, and you could distinguish the instruments in the orchestral numbers and the separate voices in the chorals. There was none of the slight muddiness that we found with some of the other speakers.
That being said, we found the LiveAudio feature more of a hindrance than an advantage. The technology may be a real help when you are playing music files that use the technology, but for most other tracks, it's hit and miss. For example, the a capella version of "My Lagan Love" gained greater brightness, as did the vocals on "Spinning Wheel" -- but in all of our other music samples, having the LiveAudio active seemed to boost the treble and make the audio tinnier than otherwise.
If you want maximum audio quality from each of your tracks, you may find yourself reaching for the LiveAudio button on your mobile device on a per-song basis. Or you can just leave it off and enjoy the audio as is.
The Jambox works reasonably well as a speakerphone: The audio quality is adequate to allow you to understand the other party with reasonable clarity. Tracy Mayor, who helped test the device, reported a bit of tinniness and described an occasional glitch as though the sound was "about to break up without actually breaking up."
Incidentally, the "personality" used by the Jambox is useful here as well, since it confirms that you've muted and unmuted the sound, and also reports the phone number that is calling.
Jawbone has a reputation for good Bluetooth audio products, and the Jambox Mini follows in that tradition. It provides solidly good audio for a reasonable price; audiophiles will want to do a little testing with the LiveAudio feature, though, and decide whether they want to use it for specific tracks or ignore it entirely.
The Braven 710 is a well-constructed, sturdy speaker that also works as a speakerphone and, not so incidentally, a power bank, allowing you to pump up your smartphone's battery while listening to your audio.
Look and feel
The unit's look is streamlined and attractive -- rectangular with rounded edges. It is manufactured from what Braven describes in the packaging as "aircraft-grade aluminum" with all the switches and ports on one end or the other. The right end offers four large, easy-to-access rubber buttons for on/off, play/pause, volume up and volume down; the play/pause button also activates Bluetooth pairing.
On the left end, hidden by a pull-away rubber cover, you'll find a mini-USB power-in port, a button for testing the current battery strength (via five LCDs) and a USB power-out port that lets you charge other devices with the Braven's 1,400mAh battery (which should offer a decent, if not full, charge for most smartphones).
There are also a couple of 3.5mm aux in/aux out ports that let you daisy chain two speakers together to create right and left channel stereo; according to the vendor, you can also connect to another Braven 710 speaker via Bluetooth.
In addition, you can use the aux out port to connect to a different set of speakers, if you wish. In other words, you can use the Braven 710 as a bridge for connecting a Bluetooth audio source (such as your phone) to a non-Bluetooth speaker (such as an older stereo).
The rubber cover, by the way, is to ensure that the unit has IPX5 water-resistance; a very nice idea, although it occurs to me that it would be a bit too easy to lose the cover somewhere along the way. There is also rubber matting on the bottom to prevent the speaker from sliding along any surface (a good idea, since I've had sliding problems with other speakers).
Like the Balan Audio Soundbook, the Braven 710 offers aptX-encoded audio. And, on the whole, it showed in the quality of the sound. The Braven did well with both the basses and highs on instrumentals, such as the "1812 Overture" and Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." It also did nicely on the rock beat of "Spinning Wheel," especially on the instrumentals. The choral portions, such as the opening of Sondheim's musical "Sweeney Todd," were also quite good.
The sound wasn't quite as clean as that of the Soundbook or the Mini Jambox, and it felt as though there was a slight amount of echo being added. But all in all, the Braven 710 gave us a very good performance.
The Braven 710 doesn't offer speakerphone capabilities.
The Braven 710 is a fine speaker for an outdoor patio or picnic: It's water-resistant, offers good audio at impressive volumes, can chain to another speaker for stereo sound, and can even supply your smartphone with some extra power should you need it.
Bayan Audio; $200
The Bayan Audio Soundbook has the kind of user interface that other speaker manufacturers should take heed of. It's practical, easy to operate and has a retro charm that will look good on a desktop.
Look and feel
The retro look is due to the Soundbook's trapezoidal form factor, which makes it appear to lean back slightly. The metal sides give it a sturdy feel; it comes with a permanently attached rubber cover that protects the front of the speaker when you're not using it and folds back to become a stand when you are. The Soundbook comes in either silver with a blue cover or black with an orange cover.
The top of the Soundbook has a power button in the center that also is used to switch the speaker from a Bluetooth connection to line-in (for physical connections) to an FM radio, which is a welcome addition to those of us who still listen to broadcast radio. (Note: I did find I had to press the button a little too hard to get it to shut off.) Blue LEDs on the lower right front tell you which mode the device is currently in (and, in the case of the radio, which station you're on); it also lets you know when the batteries are running low.
Other controls on top include tune up/down (for the radio -- although unfortunately you can't set any stations for automatic tuning) and volume up/down. A series of tiny LEDs tells you how high the volume currently is. The only other ports, on the back of the unit, are the line-in connection, a 3.5mm port for other speakers, and a mini (not a micro) USB port for power. An LCD surrounding the USB port flashes red while it's charging and green when it's done.
The Soundbook is more of a portable desktop speaker than what I'd call a truly mobile unit; at about 1.2 lb., it's a bit too heavy to casually carry around. However, it is certainly small enough to carry in one hand and drop into a pack or a briefcase for a presentation or for use as a hotel-room speaker.
If $200 is a bit over your budget, Bayan Audio also offers the $130 Soundbook Go, which is about the same size as the Soundbook but lacks the FM radio and the 3.5mm audio output port, and is made of plastic rather than aluminum.
Like the Braven 710, the Soundbook offers aptX audio compression, which is meant to provide better audio quality. And it definitely worked -- the Soundbook provided the best audio quality of all the speakers in this roundup.
The audio on all our test tracks was very clean, with no discernable echo. In almost all cases, you could distinguish the various instruments and voices; in the "1812 Overture," for example, you could hear the high violins and the horns backing the strings; during a choral moment in "Sweeney Todd," you could hear the bass voices and the sopranos with equal clarity. All the highs and lows were there, and there was excellent bass resonance. And the clarity was not lost when volume was boosted.
Audio quality during a call was a bit tinny and broke up slightly, but was, on the whole, adequate. My caller reported that while she had no trouble hearing and understanding me, she referred to it as "B-level sound quality."
One small inconvenience: Although the speaker has its own tones to let you know that a call is coming in, you have to answer the call via your smartphone -- you can't pick up directly from the speaker.
At $200, the Soundbook isn't inexpensive -- but at the same time, considering its construction, the inclusion of an FM radio, and the excellent quality of the audio, it is definitely worth the price.
Logitech's UE Boom was obviously designed for those who want big, spread-out sound: Its 360-degree speaker is designed to push audio to, as the website has it, "every corner of the party."
Look and feel
The UE Boom is by far the most visually distinct speaker of this group: It stands 7.1-in. high with a 2.6-in. diameter. Its net-like skin -- which comes in a variety of colors and designs -- is, according to the company, coated to be water- and stain-resistant.
Both ends are made of rubber and are slightly convex, so you can stand the UE Boom on either end. On one end you find the power button (which lights up when the device is on) and a smaller button for pairing; on the other, there is a micro-USB port for powering the UE Boom or connecting it to a computer (so you can update the firmware); a 3.5mm connector for earphones; and a small ring for attaching the device to a hook or backpack. The speaker also comes with a rubber ring that snaps into the two ports to protect them from moisture.
A thin strip of the same rubber material runs down the side of the device; it has two large buttons for increasing/decreasing the volume. Press the two buttons simultaneously and a pleasant female voice tells you how much power is left.
Like the Mini Jambox, the UE Boom has its own app. However, while the app is certainly nicely designed, it also takes a while to connect (possibly because of its unnecessarily fancy animation), which could be irritating when you want immediate access.
The app allows you to use the speaker as an alarm clock; which is sort of neat. You can also check the battery level; access help on the speaker's various features; and wirelessly connect two UE Boom speakers to either act as stereo speakers or to play the same music from both (presumably doubling up on the volume).
You also have access to four different equalization (EQ) presets. When we tested the speaker, they were called Out Loud (which the app described as "Best for most environments"), Bass Boost, Vocals (for podcasts, movies, etc.) and Intimate (for small rooms). Since then, the mobile app has been updated, and now the presets have been renamed The Standard, Bass Jump, Voices and Off the Walls.
The UE Boom speaker offers fine sound quality with good volume; while we didn't have a second speaker to try stereo mode, I imagine that the result could be pretty impressive. (I first heard the UE Boom perform at a crowded press event and the sound was quite distinguishable even when the ambient noise was at its loudest.) While the sound quality at the lower volumes wasn't quite up to the Soundbook or the Mini Jambox, the speaker is better when you crank it up.
However, we were definitely not overwhelmed with the EQ settings other than Out Loud (now The Standard). With all our audio samples, it felt as though the Bass Boost (now Bass Jump) was simply muting down the treble; the sound produced at the other two settings didn't seem much improved, either.
With the update, however, comes the ability to create your own five-band EQ preset, called Uniquely You. While casual listeners will probably want to stick to The Standard, audiophiles and those who like to experiment a bit will welcome the chance to create their own EQ setting.
In addition, the UE Boom claims up to a 50-foot range between your device and the speaker; all the others in this roundup give 30-33 feet as the maximum. Certainly, I was able to walk a good distance from the speaker without affecting sound quality, which would bode well for a party in a large yard.
The UE Boom did very nicely as a speakerphone; the voice of my caller sounded about as clear as it does on most current speakerphones, and she reported the same, with only a bit of breaking up at one point. (A call is announced via a digital version of "Ride of the Valkyries," which I thought was rather cute.)
Be aware that almost all controls, such as taking the call and hanging up -- with the exception of adjusting the volume -- will have to be done via your phone and not via the speaker itself.
Logitech's UE Boom is a fine speaker with good audio and would be ideal for situations where you need volume in a noisy environment. In addition, it is the only speaker among the ones reviewed here that lets you create your own EQ setting. Like the Braven 710 and the Mini Jambox, you can get full stereo sound by wirelessly connecting two speakers; however, at $200 a pop, at that point you'd probably be better off looking at wired systems.
The seven speakers in this roundup cover a wide range of sizes and prices. None are bad choices; which you select depends on what you're looking for and what your pocketbook can handle.
On the cheaper end, the Qube2 is a quite acceptable speaker if you're looking for something very small and very portable. However, of the two ultra-portables here, the Canz really stood out for its surprisingly good sound and very low cost.
If you're looking for something more in the $100 or so range, the Mini Jambox offers considerably clearer audio with better range than the Jabra Solemate Mini, although the Jabra is the best of the bunch when it does duty as a speakerphone. The Braven 710, while not quite as impressive as the Mini Jambox, is still quite satisfactory, and offers better volume and a water-resistant case for outdoor use.
Finally, our two $200 speakers -- the Logitech UE Boom and the Bayan Audio Soundbook -- both offer excellent audio quality, especially when it comes to Bluetooth devices. The UE Boom excelled on volume and, while its EQ presets leave a bit to be desired, the ability to create your own EQ setting is a definite plus.
In the end, however, we felt that the Soundbook was the real winner. Besides its interesting and useful design, and the addition of an FM radio, out of the box the Soundbook offered the highest fidelity, the most distinguishable basses and highs, and the best sound of the seven speakers reviewed here.