Blueshift’s bamboo Bluetooth beauty ditches D cells for supercapacitors

blueshift bamboo speaker helium sam beck shop
Blueshift founder Sam Beck stands beside his creation, the Helium speaker

The pitch read like hundreds of others earlier this year: “We have an awesome new Bluetooth speaker we want you to check out! It’s really unique and amazing and has ten times the awesome that other Bluetooth speakers have!”

Just like all of the others.

Only this time, “they” were right; the hype was true. And, as fate would have it, the speaker in question was being developed and built just a few blocks away from our headquarters here in Portland, Oregon. A ripe opportunity if ever there was one, right?

Except, there was a catch: The speaker in its current state was just a prototype; a dream materialized by bamboo, some electronic parts, a lot of trial and error, and plenty of sweat equity. It would never see the light of day unless a planned crowd-sourced funding campaign pulled in some serious bucks. Still, it looked interesting enough, so we did what we could to help spread the word in hopes that, one day, the speaker project might transform from prototype to production run, and we’d have a cool story to tell.

Well, it did, and now we do. As of December 19, 2013, Blueshift managed to pull in $36,292 – 103 percent of its $35,000 goal. Now it’s time for Sam Beck, currently Blueshift’s sole proprietor, designer, engineer and assemblyman, to get busy. Really busy. Like, right now.

What’s so super about this speaker?

For many, Blueshift’s products are appealing purely from an aesthetic point of view. The carefully cut and jointed Bamboo cabinets have a look that matches today’s modern, minimalist décor, and the exposed drivers bring a retro boombox vibe to an otherwise modernized piece of technology. But beneath its handsome, sustainable cabinetry lay the speaker’s real magic: supercapacitors.

In the most simple of terms, a supercapacitor is a battery that charges extremely fast. In slightly more technical terms, it’s a canister-shaped cell that can take a charge extremely quickly, store a considerable amount of energy, and release that stored energy over a sustained period. Essentially, supercapacitors bridge the gap that exists between conventional capacitors (which charge quickly, but discharge equally fast) and rechargeable batteries (which charge slowly, but discharge over a sustained period).

You can charge a Blueshift speaker to capacity in the time it takes to prepare a bowl of Ramen noodles.
One of the Blueshift’s side panels is fitted with a laser-cut aluminum panel housing an aux input, LED indicator lights, a power port and two switches.

What all that techno-babble means is less down-time between jams. You can charge a Blueshift speaker to capacity in the time it takes to prepare a bowl of Ramen noodles, rather than a roasted chicken. But unlike the sodium-soaked noodles in our analogy, the result of such a quick-and-dirty charging method is highly appetizing, indeed: 6 hours of uninterrupted music. Another admirable attribute is the supercapacitor’s ability to be charged over and over, literally tens of thousands of times, without degradation. That’s something that can’t be said for the quick-wearing lithium-ion batteries we see in most portable devices today.

Why isn’t everyone doing this?

As you might expect, money is a factor. In fact, supercapacitors aren’t cheap. Beck tells us that the cluster of capacitors he uses in his speakers cost 10 – 15 times that of a rechargeable battery that can do the same job. That’s the sort of cost manufacturers avoid like the plague. The big players in the industry like to make four to five times the cost of their goods, so you can see how, under such a model, things could get prohibitively expensive for the end user.

In the most simple of terms, a supercapacitor is a battery that charges extremely fast. 

It’s not just about money, though. Beck’s speakers can play for as long as they can because everything about them is highly efficient. The class-D amplifier Beck uses draws very little power, as does the Bluetooth chip. The speaker the amp powers is also very sensitive, requiring precious little current to produce a large-volume sound. The cabinet is ported, in part to enhance bass, but also because it maximizes efficiency. Also, there’s no crossover network to suck up precious energy, nor is there any DSP (digital signal processing) employed to squeeze more bass than is natural from the speaker’s 4-inch drivers. Everything about the design is simple and straightforward.

Larger manufacturers can’t play by that rulebook. They need to maximize profit on their investment, and to do that, they have to play to the most common denominator. Their speakers have to play louder than is necessary and they must produce disproportionate amounts of bass in order to appeal to a broad market. That takes power, and lots of it; more than Sam Beck’s supercapacitor approach could feasibly support, regardless of cost.

That makes Sam Beck’s design particularly well-suited for small-scale production and sale. But that means he has to find the right buyers. The crowd-sourced funding campaign was a good start, but ultimately, the product will have to find its audience organically and sell itself.

How do they sound?

We had hoped that Blueshift speakers would sound as good as they looked, but it turns out they sound even better than that. Our expectations were exceeded by remarkably uncolored sound, snappy transients, solid dynamics and a midrange that is both warm and slightly punchy.

Since tweeters are so common in modern speaker design, it is easy to misunderstand that they must be necessary to achieve good treble response. But the truth is, there are some who believe the right kind of single-driver speaker design will outperform even the most advanced speakers with fancy tweeters made of aluminum, titanium, or even Kevlar. Beck’s decision to use a premium Fostex driver usually reserved for high-end studio monitors proved to be right for more than one reason. Not only does  it thrive on very little power; it’s capable of delivering sparkling, detailed treble which exhibits an air of dryness that is absolutely addicting. The speaker is almost worth buying for its high-frequency characteristics alone, but there’s more good news.

blueshift helium bamboo supercapacitor powered speaker batteries
Blueshift speakers use a collection of supercapacitors in place of a traditional battery. Four of them are clustered on the circuit board seen here.

The Blueshift speaker’s midrange work is also endearing, resolving vocals that are warm, rich and on par with (in some cases better than) many dedicated hi-fi bookshelf speakers we’ve heard. We also enjoyed the pleasant punch that they can deliver. For instance, when we queued up Erykah Badu’s live version of “Boogie Nights,” we were treated to a super snappy kick drum, punctuated with pop’s from the electric bass player. The sound was organic and live, just like the track itself.

Without some kind of boundary reinforcement (wall, window, whatever), bass was on the lean side with our review sample. In the outdoors, some may find the speaker lacks some authority from about 100 Hz down, but when used indoors and placed near a boundary of some sort, we found the bass was sufficient. There will be no rattling of walls or shaking of windows, but the speaker will deliver musical bass with enough oomph to support the rest of the sound.

You can charge a Blueshift speaker to capacity in the time it takes to prepare a bowl of Ramen noodles.

If there is any disappointment to report, it in regards to the speaker’s volume limitations. While we are often quick to point out that most speaker systems don’t need to get as loud as they do (usually because of the distortion involved, not the loud volume level) we can’t help but want for just a little more from the Blueshift. The problem is that the speaker sounds so good, we simply want more of it. Still, there is something to be said for being left wanting for more. The Blueshift does that, but not without satisfying most of your needs.

Other notable points are the speakers’ exclusion of typical on-board controls for volume, play/pause and track advance or reverse – you’ll need to handle that with your device. Also, unlike many conventional Bluetooth portables, the Blueshift will not charge your devices. It’s just not that kind of device.

Should you get one?

If you look at Blueshift speakers and find yourself drawn in by its visually appealing, sustainable exterior design, then we say order one up. Blueshift speakers don’t just have a pretty face, they’re beautiful where it counts the most: sound quality. Add in the convenience of lightning-quick charging and long-lasting play times, and this speaker is downright irresistible. Just keep in mind that it might take a while before you get yours. To say that Sam Beck has his work cut out for him would be something of an understatement. But, given his drive, determination and problem-solving skills, we think he’ll sort out the next steps necessary for ramped-up production just fine. He’s got 36,000 motivating reasons to make it happen.

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