Welcome, everyone, to the second edition of our “Portable Bluetooth Speaker Round-up Awards.” There’s a lot to get through, so please, hold your applause till the end. It’s been months since we last took stock of the massive field of Bluetooth speakers, and a lot has changed. Designs are more creative, Bluetooth is faster and easier to pair, and manufacturers have developed a slew of innovative new features to outpace the opposition in one of the most competitive markets in audio. The latest buzzword dominating the mini sound-machine landscape: durability.
Water, dust, and shock-resistance are becoming the norm, allowing us all to beat up on our audio gear like never before.
It only makes sense that a speaker you can take anywhere should be able to stand up to the elements, and these days, he who has the strongest armor is king. Water, dust, and shock-resistance are becoming the norm, allowing us all to beat up on our audio gear like never before.
In that spirit, we’ve pulled four entry-level competitors off the shelf to test their audio skills and their mettle in this special “hardhat edition” round-up. All of our entries are designed to take a few lumps, and a couple even have some brand new tricks up their sleeves. Like our previous round-up, we’ll be presenting our entries with “awards” to showcase their strong suits, and separate the extraordinary from the ho-hum. So strap on those hiking boots, grab some trail mix, and get ready for the Portable Bluetooth Speaker Round-up Awards, Volume II.
Philips Shoqbox — $100
The Coolest New Feature award goes to the Philips Shoqbox for its foray into the world of gesture control. Constructed from a splash-proof metal tube wreathed in rubberized armor, the rugged Shoqbox reaches a new level of innovation with its ability to change songs, pause/play and answer phone calls, all with the wave of a hand. It’s a pretty fun little trick, and it’s convenient when using the device in situations when you don’t want to touch it, such as swimming in the pool, or eating a sticky s’more.
However, the feature is a double-edged sword, especially if you’re all jazzed up to show it off to your friends at the next barbecue. As we discovered, the feature works well indoors, but outside sun’s rays get in the way, making performance spotty. We also noticed some Bluetooth-related issues, with the connection dropping out easily while out in the wild.
As far as other specs, the Shoqbox offers a modest array of features, including an Aux input, shock and water resistance, and an estimated 8 hours battery run-time.
Audio performance from the Shoqbox was decent for most genres, with a clear midrange, and relatively good detail on lighter acoustic instruments and percussion. But when we pushed the speaker in the low end, the pair of 1-inch drivers folded, distorting easily. Jam-outs by the fire are a lot less fun when the groove of “Stronger” sounds like a beatboxer with a speech impediment. That said, we have to give the Shoqbox props for being the first speaker we’ve seen with gesture-control – and at a pretty low price to boot.
Boombot Rex — $120
The Take It Anywhere award was snatched by the Boombot Rex for its miniature size and strap-on clip that allows you to wear the lightweight speaker any place you might adventure, hands free. Funded by a Kickstarter campaign launched by Boom Botix, the Rex is a Ninja Turtle-like green pentagon of sound that delivers impressive volume from its twin 1-inch drivers. Sheathed in a layer of ABS polymer, the Rex is tailor-made for the X-games crowd, allowing you to strap on your sound and skate, snowboard, bike, rock climb, or do just about anything else, literally without missing a beat.
Aside from its handy-dandy clip (which does not ooze style while hugging a waistband, we have to say), the Rex harbors an impressive war chest of features, including a speakerphone, water and shock resistance, dual ports for daisy-chaining two speakers together, and even an onboard button to access Siri. Battery life can be monitored from your smartphone, which is important as the speaker lasts a paltry 6 hours runtime — enough for a day in the elements, but a short stint for extended camping trips.
As for audio performance, the good news is the Rex is extremely loud. We didn’t have a decibel meter with us, but suffice it to say the little diamond was more than powerful enough to cut through the ambience of the outdoors. The bad news, however, is that the little bugger is predictably tinny and thin, with almost no body in the lower regions to speak of, and a good deal of clinky sibilance up top. Still, if you just want a blast of sound to take with you on the trail, the Boombot Rex will do the trick — just don’t listen too closely.
And now, for the moment we’ve all been waiting for (cubicle drumroll please): The award for Best In Class goes to…the Braven BRV-1. And to be honest, it was a pretty easy call.
Braven BRV-1 — $150
The BRV-1 might be the most expensive on the list, but this little block of rubberized polymer and metal puts it all together, providing a deep feature set, a cool and compact design, and the best audio performance we have yet to hear from anything in the segment. We liked this speaker when it was $180, and now that it’s more reasonably priced, it’s even more enticing.
While almost every speaker we review brings some tinny sound to the party, the BRV-1’s two-inch drivers and passive radiator provide a decidedly warm and full sound signature, offering reams of power in the lower midrange as well as radiant detail in the upper register. There aren’t a lot of small portable speakers you can listen to on a regular basis around the house and actually enjoy, but this is one of them.
As for features, the BRV-1 is well stocked, offering a leading 12-15 hours of battery run-time, a USB charger for smartphones, Aux input, an onboard LED battery monitor, a battery monitor icon on your paired device, and of course, water and shock resistant armor. A canteen style cap at the back protects the ports and interface, and a rough and tumble metal screen at the front provides good protection for the drivers. It would take an army to review every entry-level Bluetooth speaker available, but as far as we’ve seen, the Braven BRV-1 is a strong contender for king of the mountain.
Panasonic SC-NT10 — $100
Before we award our final entry, can we all agree that Panasonic needs to work on coming up with better names for its gear? I mean, let’s be honest, SC-NT10 isn’t exactly sexy. That said, we loved this little speaker, and it easily walked away with our Best Bang for the Buck award. Shaped like a miniature spaceship (and remarkably reminiscent of the old Simon Says game from back in the day) the speaker’s hardened shell promises water, shock, and dust resistance, as well as the ability to withstand extreme temperatures, from -10 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit.
The protective cover around the copper disc is fashionable in its way, and even includes a cool Q-bert pattern on the bottom platform. But the real marvel, as far as we’re concerned, is the SC-NT10’s ability to squeeze quality audio from a single 1 ⅜-inch driver. The little speaker provided a clean and warm midrange, excellent presence and detail, and a pleasant, balanced sound signature across all genres. The speaker also put out an impressive level of bass for a small portable, thanks to its 2-inch passive radiator, which handled hip-hop with some muscle, and even created the Jurassic Park effect on a glass of water resting next to it on our coffee table.
Features include an Aux input, onboard speakerphone, a battery monitor icon for your smartphone, and even NFC pairing. The only real drawbacks are the speaker’s low max volume, and battery run-time. The battery is listed at a respectable 8 hours, but we had to engage the Boost button to get decent levels, which cut that figure almost in half, limiting the SC-NT10’s applications. But with great sound and ironclad armor, this $100 disc still offers some of the best value you can currently get in a portable speaker.
We don’t want to get all philosophical here, but if you’re looking for an argument for the importance of competition in the free market, the blossoming field of Bluetooth portable speakers is a great example. Each time we survey the field, the prices are lower, performance is better, and the options are wider.
The two winners today were the Braven BRV-1, and the Panasonic SC-NT10, which both offer durability, a wealth of features, and excellent audio performance for their size. Still, while the Shoqbox and the Boombot Rex didn’t make our cut, they did present innovative new features and designs that should push the competition. Keep checking back with us for more suggestions in the portable Bluetooth market.