Review: Mobile music

7 Bluetooth speakers: Still portable, now with better sound

7 Bluetooth Speakers
Credit: Barbara Krasnoff

Small Bluetooth speakers are ideal to carry along to a hotel room, a picnic or just to save room at work. We look at 7 that can make your day more musical.

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.

Canz

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.

808 Canz Bluetooth speaker Voxx Intl
Canz

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.)

Sound quality

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.

Speakerphone

The Canz doesn't offer speakerphone capabilities.

Bottom line

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. 

Qube2

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.

matrix audio qube2 Matrix Audio
Qube2

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.

Sound quality

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.

Speakerphone

The Qube2 doesn't offer speakerphone capabilities.

Bottom line

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

Jabra; $100

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.

jabra solemate mini red Jabra
Jabra Solemate Mini

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.

Sound quality

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.

Speakerphone

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.

Bottom line

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.

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