I got a fever…and the only prescription is more Bluetooth! Ok, maybe Christopher Walken didn’t say that, but the point is: something crazy is going on with portable Bluetooth speakers right now. From small start-ups to well-established hi-fi companies, it seems everyone has a new portable Bluetooth speaker to add to the pile.
With so many choices out there – and such similar designs – it can be hard to decipher which speaker will make the perfect partner for your mobile device. To help you in your quest, we’ve put together this little round-up pitting 5 entry-level models against each other. We were impressed to find that almost all of our entries offered unique contributions to the field, with considerable improvements over devices we tested just a short time ago.
With that in mind, we decided to spice things up a bit by giving “awards” to our 5 speakers — both to celebrate this burgeoning era of portable sound, as well as to help emphasize the strong suits of each device. So put on your formal wear, grab a cocktail, sit back, and enjoy our first “Portable Bluetooth Speaker Round-up Awards”.
JBL Flip – $100
The award for Best Audio Performance goes to the JBL Flip. We could also have awarded the flip Most Original Design (or should we say only original design) for this roundup, as the sleek white cylinder is the only device in our line-up that breaks ranks from the other four strikingly-similar rectangular boxes.
The Flip easily established itself as the audio darling with a distinct sound signature marked by clarity, dimension, and powerful max volume. In fact, the Flip almost doubled the volume level of the rest of the field, and with no audible distortion. Though at first we found the Flip’s treble response a bit light, the speaker slowly grew on us, revealing an impressive amount of detail and timbre for its size. It’s 40mm drivers created a warm and full sound, rendering everything from horns to percussion with a depth that was unmatched by its rivals.
The Flip’s Achilles heel is its battery life, coming in at a paltry 5 hours. But, when you double the volume, you chop the battery life in half – that’s just how it goes. As such, the Flip was the only speaker we tested that didn’t last at least 10 hours. It’s also a bit light on extras compared to the competition, offering only an aux input, a mediocre microphone for hands free calling, and a neoprene carrying case. However, its clear dominance in sound and $100 price tag make it a serious contender for king-of-the-hill in our round-up. Depending on how far you intend to travel from an outlet, the Flip could make a great choice.
Braven 600 – $150
The Best Overall Performance award goes to the Braven 600. The Braven takes the honor due to its wide feature set, strong audio performance, and impressive battery stamina, which lasts for almost 12 hours while playing music and charging a smart phone.
Though the sound of the Braven didn’t match the volume level or breadth of the JBL, its 2-inch drivers delivered a warm, detailed sound signature that fared well in almost every genre we tested. The passive subwoofers at the back of the unit help provide powerful midrange drive which perfectly complements its smooth upper register. The result is a full, clean tone with only a slight touch of sibilance.
The Braven’s wide feature set includes an aux input, a USB port (for phone charging), Bluetooth 3.0 compatibility, and a mic for hands free calling, which, by the way, provided the best call clarity out of all the units we tested. Though the Braven is the most expensive speaker of the bunch at $150, it delivers great build quality and solid performance across the board.
Edge.sound by CubEdge $90
The Edge.sound took home our Handiest Feature award for its ability to display battery life directly on the iPhone main screen. Though it’s a small touch, these devices are supposed to be about convenience, and we enjoyed being able to monitor everything from our phone.
Aside from that, however, the Edge.sound is otherwise ordinary. Its sound quality had a tinny presence that reminded us of an old clock radio. As we explored different genres, there seemed to be a distinct cloaking of the music that diluted clarity and detail throughout the frequency spectrum. And though the Edge’s max volume was higher than all of the speakers save JBL’s Flip, it also exhibited major distortion issues at full blast, thus giving its bark a bit too much bite.
Included with the Edge.sound are a mic for hands free calling, an aux input, and a carrying case. Like the Braven, the Edge also employs Bluetooth 3.0, but it skips out on the smart phone charging port. The CubEdge website also hints at a stand-alone solar panel in the works for the Edge.sound to help extend its 10-hour battery life. Depending on price and performance, that option could give the device a real advantage on long-term portability. But as of now, we’re not sold.
Rock Steady XS $90
The Rock Steady XS won the award for Deepest Bass. Though none of our mini speakers offered much response below the 300Hz mark, the Rock Steady had some fairly impressive bump for its size in the lower midrange, sending some tangible vibrations through our coffee table from its passive 2-inch subwoofer.
On the flipside, however, the Rock Steady’s extremely bright treble, and almost total lack of midrange created was a turn-off. Even on hip-hop tracks like BIG’s Hypnotize, the sibilant upper register rendered snare snaps and cymbals with an ear fatiguing, brittle tone.
The best feature of the Rock Steady’s sound was its superior stereo separation, thanks to side-firing speakers positioned on either side of its rectangular frame. The wider stereo image offered some welcome space on tracks from artists like Radiohead and the Beatles that was missing from its competitors. Still, though the Rock Steady delivered some pleasant moments here and there, we couldn’t get past the issues with the upper register.
We were also fairly unimpressed with the features of the Rock Steady XS. Though it does have a 10-hour quoted battery life, aux input, and Bluetooth 3.0 compatibility, it doesn’t offer a smart phone charging port, and it was the only unit in the group without a mic for hands free calling. The Rock Steady XS matches the lowest price of the bunch, but for a few extra bucks you can get more from its competition.
JLab Crasher $100
Our final speaker, the JLab Crasher, walks away with the Best Bang for the Buck award. We had a lot of fun with this little guy. For two-thirds the price of the Braven, it was a close competitor, coming up just a tiny bit short in sound and build quality.
Though not quite as loud or as warm in the midrange as the Braven, the Crasher delivered a balanced sound that was especially well-suited to acoustic music. Like the Braven, its 2-inch drivers are matched by passive “subwoofers” at the back, which help to round out the lower mids.
For much of our listening session, we found it tough to pick a clear winner between the Crasher and the Braven – much of the difference was simply subjective preference. The only significant issue came when we listened to more complex productions, where the Crasher tended to be a bit boxy, adding a slightly metallic sheen over the music.
Hands free calling was the Crasher’s weakest point. Incoming call quality tended to be cloudy, and our conversational counterparts had trouble hearing us through the microphone. Still the unit offers quality sound and a wealth of features including a quoted 18-hour battery life, a USB port for phone charging, aux input, and a carrying case, all for $100.
In the JLab tradition, the Crasher is also available in several color patterns, including an audacious bright purple and green version. Overall, we think it’s a worthy, affordable choice.
For our money, the top choices are the Braven 600, the JBL Flip, and the JLab Crasher, each offering its own distinct advantages. Still, though the other two speakers came up a bit short on performance, all of the devices in our round-up were incredibly easy to pair to our smart phone, and offered serious convenience for a low price. Surprisingly, though, this little roundup barely scratches the surface of the vast selection of portable Bluetooth speakers on the market – and there are more on the way! Our job here isn’t done by a long shot; so stay tuned for roundup number two.