Small Bluetooth speakers, as abundant as they are, sometimes pack a lot of punch for their size. But loud doesn’t mean great, and much of what’s out there is primarily aimed for smaller spaces anyway. Canadian startup Mass Fidelity is trying to buck the trend with the Core, a speaker that is mobile, yet loud and versatile enough to spread out further than anything in its class.
You must hear the Core to believe it. It’s one of the best speakers you can buy, and even challenges Sonos and other multi-room audio solutions.
Out of the box
The box might give the impression that the Core is bigger than it really is, and that’s partly because a third of it had to be allocated for all the cables included inside. The main power supply comes with separate plugs for North America, Europe, Australia, and the U.K. A red-and-white RCA audio cable is also thrown in, ostensibly for connecting directly to a TV, although there are a few other ways to do that.
A gray case for the Core made of cloth is layered on top of the cables, along with a small packet that includes the quick setup guides, the Core’s soundbar remote, and a microfiber cloth to keep handy for wiping off the top of the unit.
The Core itself is nestled in the other two-thirds of the box, with a layered flap of foam on top, revealing the speaker wrapped in plastic underneath. A small brochure also came with our review unit, indicating the best positioning and tracks selection to show what the unit is capable of doing.
Features and design
Bluetooth is the Core’s primary feature, but Mass Fidelity outfitted it with a variety of ways to play audio. The back has a number of connections, from left to right: a subwoofer output, Aux-In, control input for connecting to a home automation system, optical connector, USB port for charging devices and the power supply input.
On the top, there’s a clearly labeled NFC (Near Field Communication) setup, along with the multi-room, source, and volume buttons. There are no track skipping buttons, but there’s a reason for that. Being so glossy, the top is a major fingerprint magnet, which explains why the microfiber cloth was included in the box.
The stainless steel foundation blends in nicely with the cloth fabric along the middle covering the five speaker drivers inside. All told, the unit measures 6 x 6 x 4 inches and weighs just shy of eight pounds. That might seem pretty hefty, but it’s in the same ballpark as a number of other Bluetooth speakers of similar sizes. It also doesn’t hurt that it has a sizeable battery inside rated up to 12 hours.
Audio performance makes the Core stand out in a very crowded category.
The Core uses Wave Field Synthesis (WFS), which is a technology that’s been around since the late 80s in stadiums, airports, and other large venues, but was too expensive to utilize in a small form factor like this. WFS is the secret sauce behind the “acoustic holography” Mass Fidelity touts with its speaker. This uses computing power to propagate the audio and spill it out spatially, which can fill a room with sound without sacrificing clarity.
Audiophiles might scoff at the fact that it’s Bluetooth, but the company’s founder, Ben Webster, is unequivocal in defending that choice. He claims the Core processes the Bluetooth signal differently than anyone else. The digital-to-analog conversion (DAC) happens inside the amp outputs and goes straight to the speaker, so that “no junk can get in the way.” The intent is to minimize the opportunity for noise in the analog domain, using a completely digital signal path end-to-end.
Defining the Core as a “Bluetooth speaker” is probably too limiting anyway. It is the easiest function it offers, but it’s far more versatile than a typical Bluetooth speaker. Pairing it with a smartphone or tablet is as easy as it gets. The Core goes into pairing mode upon first being turned on, and pairing with other devices only requires holding down the Multi-room (with the antenna showing) button and choosing it on the device you’re using. If the device has NFC, then the process is even easier.
Mass Fidelity recommends placing and positioning the Core as symmetrically as possible, with its back close to a wall, and each parallel wall on either side an equal distance away. The reason why is because of the acoustic holography that determines how sound flows out of the Core. Going further, the company suggested pushing the volume to the max, and then pushing it down five presses, while cranking up the volume on the playback device, to get to a “sweet spot” for assessing the speaker’s muscle.
The multi-room setup is very different than that of most other similar products, where control is centralized and largely app-driven. The Core has no dedicated app, so getting a second Core to play the same audio required that we press the multi-room button on the unit paired with our mobile device, and then the source button (with the arrow) on the second unit. When it turns purple, it indicates a successful handoff.
Unlike Sonos, however, linking Cores isn’t meant to keep them in the same room. For example, it’s not possible to get distinct left and right channels like we could if we paired two of the same Sonos speakers. To get the true essence of what Mass Fidelity means by “multi-room,” we had to keep them apart with at least one wall between them.
Then there are the various other ways to utilize the Core. The optical connection makes it possible to plug it in directly to a streaming box, like the Apple TV or Roku, or straight into a TV. The Aux-In port makes it easy to plug in anything with a 3.5mm line-in cable. The control input that can bring in a subwoofer for a boost to the lows is a nice perk to have. We didn’t get to test the home automation integration, however.
There is no AirPlay, but when connected to an Apple TV, it’s possible to push audio over to it. The Aux-In also makes it possible to connect a Chromecast Audio for Wi-Fi playback, as well.
Mass Fidelity suggested specific tracks (ideally in hi-res audio) with good stereo separation “to get the full holographic experience”, including Pink Floyd’s Money and The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood. A Spotify playlist is also available that offers a good mix of tracks from artists as varied as Adele, Andrea Bocelli, Mos Def, Bob Dylan, Michael Buble, and Led Zeppelin. We used these as reference points but threw a lot of other tracks at it, too.
One of the merits of the technology built into the Core is that it effectively eliminates the need to sit or stand in a particular spot to appreciate the sound coming out of it. We completely concur with that.
The Core was one of the most consistent speakers we’ve tested in a long time. The WFS effect isn’t a gimmick or software trickery, but rather a better representation of how music is supposed to sound. After all, they wouldn’t have used it in big venues if it didn’t do that, right?
Standalone speakers, Bluetooth or otherwise, generally vary in how well they can sound like there is true stereo separation. The Core made us feel like there was. With her song, Hello, Adele’s vocals weaved across the middle of the room, and felt like it had risen above to travel over us. Skyfall sounded haunting, while Rolling in the Deep sounded, well, deep, with the strong bass coming out of the unit.
Walking around the room, we could feel the same clarity and volume level throughout, never sensing it trail off or lose resonance. This was proven no matter what track we played. Guns N’ Roses’ November Rain came alive, particularly early on in the orchestral opening. The Weeknd’s Can’t Feel My Face also had depth that we wouldn’t have been able to appreciate from another speaker of this size at the same loud volume. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, with its sudden breaks and shifts, was a joy to listen to, while doing chores in the same room.
What was especially impressive was the lack of distortion at higher volumes. Speakers usually have a tipping point where distortion becomes obvious, but the Core didn’t really jump off a cliff; it maintained its clarity the higher it went. Not only that, but the lows didn’t die out or crackle in the process. While a slight degradation and sibilance was noticeable to a tuned ear, moving down a couple steps on the volume worked wonders to stabilize things.
This remained true when multi-room was enabled, too. Moseying from one room to another, the sound felt like a seamless transition. The one caveat was that we had to physically stop the secondary speaker from playing by going up to it and disconnecting it from the main one. An app would have been ideal, especially if the two rooms are on different floors.
The Core was one of the most consistent speakers we’ve tested in a long time.
As a TV soundbar, the Core absolutely excelled. We were taken by surprise at how rich everything sounded, with sports benefitting the most. A hockey game brought out more of the audio nuances, like skate blade friction with the ice or the various stick sounds. Basketball sounded fuller with squeaking sneakers, shots hitting the rim, and even the odd yelp from a player being fouled. We started watching the Australian Open Men’s Final under this setup with the Core at full blast. While there was a slight hiss during the quieter moments before each serve, knocking the volume down two steps made a big difference. Another one or two steps down and the sound seemed to travel further.
Despite the solid performance, we would recommend plunking down some extra coin for a sub to put the Core over the top in a soundbar setup.
As a speakerphone, the speaker served its purpose well. Voices came in clear, but were really contingent on reception. If we had someone on HD voice, it was amazing. If not, it was as good as it could be.
Where the Core loses some of its luster is in lower volume situations and really close-quarters playback. Having the speaker at a low volume and right next to us on a desk, it didn’t stand out. We got the same audio experience from similar-sized speakers that were only a foot or two away — and half the price. The trick was to place it further away, and raise the volume slightly, but that wasn’t always a practical solution.
The speaker’s Bluetooth range is rated at 30 feet by Mass Fidelity, and that’s mostly true, but the connection sometimes came off as sensitive to movement. It wasn’t a requirement, but we opted to keep the phone or tablet stationary and within range to ensure there were no drops.
The Core is supposed to get 12 hours of battery life, but it doesn’t make it, mainly because it’s best enjoyed at higher volumes. Still, it’s not a huge drop. We managed to get about 10 hours per charge, give or take a few minutes. Charging a smartphone through the Core’s USB port when it isn’t plugged in itself naturally narrows that down further.
As good as the bass can be on the Core itself, Mass Fidelity wisely chose to build a dedicated subwoofer to pair with it. The two can be tethered together with an included line-in cable, or wirelessly paired through a simple step-by-step sequence. Having that extra power on the low end makes a difference, particularly in how bass rumbles and resonates on tracks that lean on it heavily. Even for watching TV shows or movies when plugging the Core in to a TV through the optical cable, the Core Sub delivered a booming response.
In freeing up the Core speaker’s own DSP to focus more on the mids and highs, the balanced sound fills a room even more. The only caveat is that the Sub doesn’t seem to have been designed for the kind of volume others have. The Sonos Sub, for instance, can go deeper and louder than Mass Fidelity’s unit, but it’s also $700, compared to the Core Sub’s $300 price tag.
We liked that we could orient the Core Sub on its four feet facing up, or horizontally on its side facing toward us. Mass Fidelity says there isn’t any right or wrong way to position it, leaving it to users to decide on what would sound best. Buttons for adjusting gain, phase and crossover frequency are situated by the power button, so there is some flexibility to customize the sub’s output.
Spending the $300 on it does make it a pretty expensive coupling when you tack it on to the Core itself, but when you consider that a Sonos Play:5 and Sub are $1,200 together, it softens the blow a little.
Mass Fidelity offers a six-month manufacturer’s warranty from the date of purchase through the retailer or directly from the company. Registering the Core extends that by 12 months. European Union countries get 24 months from the date of purchase, with another six upon registration.
At $600, the Core is expensive, especially when one of its primary features is multi-room functionality, implying that buying more than one is needed down the line. Audiophiles are willing to pay top dollar for the sound they want, and the Core should appeal to that crowd, except Mass Fidelity has priced it to cater to a wider subset of consumers.
The DT Accessory Pack
It’s not a bad strategy, considering that it delivers one of the best sound experiences from a standalone speaker in its size. This isn’t a speaker that plays one genre of music well; it plays all of them well, treating audio nuances in a way that we aren’t accustomed to at something this size. The versatility is also welcome, given that it’s not often a Bluetooth speaker can double as a solid soundbar — and with a connection for a sub to boot.
Ultimately, audio performance makes the Core stand out in a very crowded category. The WFS effect is the real deal, and while another manufacturer could choose to adopt it, Mass Fidelity has managed to make a speaker that not only travels well, but also sounds clear while doing it. If space is at a premium, but sound matters a great deal, the Core is a no-brainer. It very well may be the most outstanding speaker you’ve ever heard.