Even the most high-end smartphones and tablets today still have less-than-stellar speakers. We test four mobile Bluetooth speakers to see how they can improve your sound.
It's been about six months since I reviewed five mobile Bluetooth speakers to see how well they compared. These lightweight speakers were meant to make up for the awful sound quality provided by most smartphones and tablets (and many laptops, for that matter). They ranged widely in size, price and quality -- some were great for tossing in your coat pocket, while others had the chops to offer fine audio at home.
Well, there's a whole new crop that has become available since then. For this roundup, I've gathered four recently introduced mobile Bluetooth speakers to see how they compare.
Four speakers on a tabletop: a red one (Beats Pill), a black one (Jabra Solemate), a blue one (Native Union Switch) and a green one (Carbon Audio Zooka).
These four devices are much more similar to each other than the others. To begin with, they fall into a narrower price range: from $100 to $200.
In addition, all claim up to a 30-foot range between the speaker and the music source; in informal testing, that was pretty much borne out. All include the ability to also act as a speakerphone, should somebody call while you're playing music -- and all were able to do so in my tests, although the quality of the audio differed.
Interestingly, while their basic designs are quite different, all four speakers come in the bright mono-colors that seem to be in vogue these days. I have to admit that this made it far too easy to refer to each not by its name, but by its color -- "red speaker, "green speaker," "black speaker" and "blue speaker" -- making the testing process sound a bit like a Dr. Seuss recitation.
(All four give you a choice of which color you want, from the Solemate, which comes in black or white, to the Zooka, which lets you opt for one of nine different colors.)
To test the sound quality of these four speakers, I listened to a variety of music tracks, including:
I tested the speakers by playing a group of music tracks that ranged from quiet to lively to must-be-played-loud, both voice and instrumental. (For the curious, I've listed the six tunes I used as tests in the sidebar to the right.)
I also accepted a phone call while playing music and chatted with my caller for several minutes to try out the speakerphone features.
Admittedly, any judgment of the quality of these speakers must be -- by necessity -- subjective. However, with any luck, this can serve as a guide if you're trying to choose a mobile speaker for home, office or travel. (Note: We've ordered the reviews from least to most expensive.)
1.5 x 2.0 x 9.25 in. Weight: 19.2 oz. Price: $99.95
The Zooka is, if nothing else, interesting for its style.
The 1.5 x 2.0 x 9.25-in. oblong-shaped device has two 30mm speakers at each end and an open slot running along its length. The slot is there so you can fit the speaker onto the top of a laptop display (assuming the display is slim enough to accommodate the 0.25-in. slot). You can also fit it onto the side of a tablet, to use as a handhold.
Carbon Audio Zooka
But wait, there's more -- if you fit the bottom of your tablet into the slot, you can then pull a 2.75-in. metal rod out of a hole in one end of the Zooka and screw that into the back of the speaker; the Zooka then acts as a kickstand. (Unfortunately, when it was stored in its hidey-hole, the rod had an unfortunate tendency to slide out when I picked up the speaker.) The Zooka sits comfortably on a desktop as well.
I was able to fit the speaker onto the display of a Chromebook CR-48 laptop and a Galaxy Nexus 7 tablet. In both cases, it was something of a squeeze to accommodate it; the Zooka is obviously more suited to an iPad.
Other than its design, the Zooka is fairly minimalist. On the side opposite the slot, there is a power button with an LED indicator, volume down/up buttons and a button to pair Bluetooth connections (which is also used to pause music and to connect/disconnect a phone call). There is also a 3.5mm AUX audio-in jack and a single micro-USB-to-USB cable (a rather short one, at that -- only about 12 in.).
Even the documentation is minimal; you get a small card that shows (with pictures) how to turn the Zook on and start the Bluetooth connection. If you need any more directions, you have to go to the website.
The Zooka's casing is made of a smooth, soft-to-the-touch plastic and is available in nine different colors. According to the company, each charge provides up to 8 hours of play time.
How did it sound?
Unfortunately, while the Zooka has a nicely innovative design, its audio wasn't up to the quality of the other three speakers in this roundup. While the sound was fairly well equalized, it wasn't nearly as strong, clear or full as the others, and a lot of the subtleties of the music were lost. Of course, this is the least expensive speaker of the four reviewed here, so you're not going to get the same audio quality as something twice the cost.
As a speakerphone, the Zooka didn't really work well. There were so many digital drop-outs that sometimes I didn't understand what my caller was saying, and she reported some issues at her end as well. In short, it would only be useable for quick, emergency calls; most users would probably need to move to their phones for longer conversations.
The Zooka offers a reasonable sound and has an innovative design that could make it a fun gift for iPad owners. But if you're at all picky about your audio quality, you might want to spend a few more bucks for something a bit better.
7.5 x 2.8 x 2.0 in. Weight: 21.1 oz. Price: $149.99
The Switch from Native Union looks, at first glance, nearly featureless: When standing the 7.5 x 2.8 x 2.0 in. rectangular device on one end (it can be played either standing upright or on its side), the only external feature that stands out is a volume control on one end.
Native Union Switch
That volume control -- an oversized circle that surrounds the power on/off button -- gives the otherwise modernistic device an old-fashioned touch.
Most of the other controls are hidden under a discreet door on one edge of the speaker: a micro-USB port for powering the speaker; an Aux line-in; a speaker/mic line out and a USB port that you can use to power other devices (a handy addition that the others in this roundup didn't have). The device's three speakers are behind a grille that covers one full side.
Press a tiny button in the base and up to five LEDs will light up to let you know how much battery power is left. A small LED near the volume control also tells you when the Switch is on or off. The device comes in one of five colors: black, red, grey, blue or white. According to the company, it will play up to 14 hours.
How did it sound?
Along with the Beats Pill, the Switch was the best of the four speakers reviewed here. Audio was very full and rounded, with great bass. It got quite loud without any distortion and offered very clear sound -- almost too clear; when I listened to an older rock recording, the slight distortions resulting from the transfer of analog to digital were audible. While the Pill sounded a bit more forceful when I played Blood, Sweat & Tears, the Switch excelled on complex music such as the chorale finale of Bernstein's Candide.
As a speakerphone, the Switch performed the best of all four devices. There were no digital skips or drop-outs at all, and the sound seemed about as good as your typical speakerphone -- in other words, a bit hollow, but understandable. If I were looking for a speaker that I expected to use reasonably frequently as a speakerphone, this would be the one.
The Switch is an excellent mobile Bluetooth speaker with very nice sound quality for a range of music; it also was the best speakerphone of the four devices. Its rectangular design allows it to fit in a variety of spaces, but it would probably not be as convenient to use on the go as the Beats Pill.
1.8 (diameter) x 7.5 in. Weight: 11.5 oz. Price: $199.95
It's immediately obvious why the Beats Pill has been given that particular moniker: It's shaped very much like a the kind of capsule you find in a medicine bottle -- although at 1.8 (diameter) x 7.5 in. and 11.5 oz., it's a bit large for human consumption.
The Pill's speaker grille (which protects four small front-facing speakers) is divided in the center by a solid strip of plastic that holds a large LED (decorated with a prominent "b") that shows when the power is on; above it are the volume up/down buttons. On the back of the device are the power button, a 3.5mm line-out port, an audio-in port, a small LED that shows you if Bluetooth is engaged and a micro-USB power port. According to the vendor, the Pill offers about 7 hours of play time.
Alone of the four speakers reviewed here, the Pill comes with NFC -- if your smartphone or tablet is similarly equipped, you can to tap it on the Pill to connect it. A small light on the back indicates whether an NFC connection is in use. I tried it with my Galaxy Nexus smartphone, and after a few seconds of holding the phone to the Pill, it made a Bluetooth connection. Which was fun, but to tell you the truth, just pairing it normally via Bluetooth was a lot easier.
The Pill is definitely made for travel. To begin with, it comes with its own plastic case -- in a matching color, natch. And speaking of colors, the Pill is available in a variety: black with red highlights, red with white highlights, white with red highlights, black with blue and red highlights or (if you're feeling particularly patriotic) red, white and blue.
You also get a separate 1.5mm audio cable, a USB power cable with a separate AC adaptor, and a carabiner (presumably so you can attach the case to your backpack).
How does it sound?
Beats is known for its sound enhancement software -- many higher-end smartphones are equipped with it -- and the Pill lives up to the hype. I was generally impressed with the quality of the audio; it had a clean, high-fidelity sound with great bass and good volume. Of the four, it performed best with music that had a driving beat such as Spinning Wheel by Blood Sweat & Tears.
It did feel a bit muted on quieter music tracks, as if the enhancement algorithms were interfering a bit. But on the whole, I felt that I got a good listening experience.
As a speakerphone, the Pill was reasonably well-behaved. The sound was a bit hollow and, during my conversation, there was an occasionally dropped syllable. But both my caller and I agreed that we could understand each other perfectly well.
The Beats Pill is an excellent mobile Bluetooth speaker that handles most music quite well, especially the type that depends more on a louder, bass beat.
6.8 x 2.5 x 2.7 in. Weight: 21.5 oz. Price: $199.99
At first glance, the Jabra Solemate is the most traditional-looking of the four Bluetooth speakers reviewed here. However, if you look closer, it has some interesting details.
The 5.6-oz. device has a slightly boxy, rectangular design (6.8 x 2.5 x 2.7 in.) with rounded corners. A grille wraps all the way around, hiding three front-facing speakers and a rear bass panel.
One gets the idea that the Solemate was named by people with a sense of humor. The bottom of the speaker is ridged rubber, very much like the sole of a jogging sneaker. Embedded inside that rubber is a slim indentation that contains a 3.5mm audio-in cable; if your music source doesn't have Bluetooth, you can just pull out that cable.
The top of the Solemate has three buttons: one for volume down, one for volume up and a third that lets you answer and end phone calls. Surprisingly, there is no way to manually pause the music on the device.
Several more controls on one side of the speaker include a micro-USB jack (the device comes with a USB cable and a separate AC jack), a headphone jack and a tiny switch that lets you turn the device on or off or enable the Bluetooth. Two LEDs indicate the status of the Bluetooth connection and the battery level.
On the other side of the speaker, there is a small handle loop. The Solemate also comes with its own hear-through travel bag that lets you use the speaker even in inclement weather. It is available in either black or white; according to the company, you get up to 8 hours play time.
If you like devices that talk back to you, the Solemate is definitely the one to get. When you start up the Bluetooth, you get a rap beat and a male voice says, "Go ahead and connect me." The voice lets you also know when you've made the connection and, if you tap the answer/end call button, you get a verbal report on your battery status. At first, I found it a bit startling, but I must admit it's clearer than the usual code of beeps and buzzes that other devices use.
How did it sound?
I found the Solemate's sound to be clear and crisp, although it wasn't quite up to the standards of the Switch or the Pill, and some of the audio details that I got from the other two were slightly blurred here. Volume seems to bring out the best in the Solemate; when it got louder (and it could get very loud), the beat of the bass seemed to increase in relation to the music, and there was little distortion.
As a speakerphone, the Solemate performed adequately, although there were some digital drop-outs (not as much as with the Zooka, however). While I'm not sure I'd depend on it for long calls, it would perform adequately in a pinch.
The Solemate is a good Bluetooth speaker with a decent bass range and good sound, especially when it gets nice and loud. It is also a convenient travel speaker; it comes with both a protective bag and an embedded audio-in cable. However, I think it might be more attractive to buyers if the cost was slightly lower, especially considering the competition.
Although it's got a fun and innovative form factor, the Carbon Audio Zooka simply didn't have the audio chops to compete with the other three devices in this roundup. The sound from its two speakers was adequate, but not nearly as clear or deep as the other three. However, if you want a gift for an enthusiastic tablet user, and don't want to spend more than $100, you could consider it.
The Jabra Solemate did a fine job, and especially excelled at offering volume without distortion. It also provided a fine bass line, and I liked its design; if you occasionally use non-Bluetooth devices, the embedded audio-in cable is handy.
However, I think the two winners here are the Native Union Switch and the Beats Pill. In fact, I had a great deal of trouble choosing between them. Both offered very clear, sharp sound with good ranges and fine bass. The Beats Pill did a bit better at this last, so songs with a heavy background beat, such as the Blood, Sweat & Tears number, did really well.
On the other hand, the Switch was slightly clearer, so choral numbers with intertwining melodies, such as Bernstein's Candide finale, came off extremely well. I also felt that the Pill occasionally sounded a bit flattened with less bass-dependent orchestral numbers; but both did fine with quieter numbers, such as a single voice and piano.
So as far as those two are concerned, I would choose depending on what your needs are. The Pill's design is more convenient for carrying around than the Switch (even though it's slightly heavier), and if you want something to throw into your backpack or suitcase, this is the one to look at.
However, if you're looking for a speaker to use in a home office, I'd go for the Switch. It doesn't only offer fine sound (and is priced $50 less than the Pill), but it was the only speaker of the four that worked as a speakerphone without any digital glitches to get in the way.
Barbara Krasnoff is reviews editor at Computerworld. When she isn't either editing or reviewing, she blogs at The Interesting Bits ... and Bytes; you can also follow her on Twitter ( @BarbaraKrasnoff).
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