As far as we’re concerned, everyone’s preparedness kit ought to have one of Eton’s products in it. The company builds some impressively rugged and useful gear, including its practical American Red Cross line of hand-cranked and solar-powered shortwave and weather radios. But there’s also a more light-hearted side to Eton — one that favors Bluetooth over shortwave radio reception and is more likely to bring the party than it is to save your butt in an emergency. This is the side of the company responsible for products like the Soulra and Soulra XL solar-powered boom boxes and, more recently, the Rukus and Rukus Solar.
At first glance, the Rukus appears to be pretty compact–maybe even too compact. Often, portable music systems this small sound…well…small. What good is portable music if it sounds only slightly less annoying than a mosquito buzzing in your ear? Our hope for the Rukus was that it might be different. We were impressed with the strapping output of the Soulra XL, but found ourselves curious whether the Rukus could hold up given its compact size. We contacted Eton, received a Rukus Solar, and then put it through the wringer. Read on to see how the Rukus measured up.
Out of the box
The Rukus Solar measures 12 x 8.12 x 3.25 (W x H x D in inches when stood upright) and is especially light. At just under 5 lbs.–lighter than many laptops–you can toss the Rukus Solar into a backpack and hardly know it’s there. In spite of its lack of heft, however, this portable speaker feels well-constructed. This is no toy: the hard resin shell is as resilient to outdoor wear as it is suitable speaker cabinet material.
Features and design
Both the Rukus and Rukus Solar run off of a built-in 7.4v 1500mAh rechargeable Lithium-ion battery which can be charged with a provided AC power adapter. The Rukus Solar model adds on a monocrystalline solar panel which Eton claims can fully charge the Rukus’ battery in about six hours, provided it gets full sun exposure. For those not down with solar photovoltaic technology, monocrystalline solar panels are noted for their high efficiency, though they do tend to cost more.
Eton doesn’t disclose specs on the Rukus’ speakers or amplifier, but a quick measurement of the two full-range stereo speakers indicates they are about 2.5 inches. The amplifier is no doubt digital, but we won’t wager a guess as to how much power it provides.
Since the Rukus can be oriented into two positions, it is hard to say which end is up exactly. Photos of the Rukus on Eton’s Website, its handle location, and Eton’s published dimensions would suggest that the speakers point up rather than out. But little rubber pads located on the underside of the speaker tubes–which allow it to be set so that the solar panel faces upward–just made more sense to us.
Assuming that the solar panel should face up, we can say that it is the underside of the speaker that sports an elastic band for securing a phone or some other portable media device, a USB port, 3.5mm auxiliary input, and a DC power plug.
The Rukus’ rubbery control buttons are straightforward and useful. From left to right there are buttons for power, Bluetooth, USB, auxiliary input, bass boost, and volume.
Seated between the buttons is the speakers’ E Ink display. To the best of our knowledge, the Rukus is the first portable speaker to use E Ink, which can be easily read both in bright, direct sunlight and at night. During the day, the E Ink display shows black characters on a white background. Once the display is inverted, it shows white characters on a black background. We found this to be one of the slickest features of this speaker. More on why later.
The only setup the Rukus needs involves pairing it to a Bluetooth device. Historically, Bluetooth pairing has been a dodgy proposition, but the Rukus paired quickly with both our iPhone 4S and quirky laptop with no issues at all.
Solar charging performance
We’ve had the opportunity to test a lot of solar-powered products over the past few years and have found ourselves frequently disappointed. Because we’re located in Portland, OR–which is covered with a thick layer of gray clouds at least nine months out of the year–sun is hard to come by. On one hand, that can be seen as a disadvantage since the opportunity to determine how a product will behave in full sun rarely comes along. On the other hand, it gives us an opportunity to test just how sensitive the solar panels built onto these products really are. Under very rare circumstances, we get to test these products under both cloudy and sunny conditions. This time around, we lucked out.
We had the Rukus Solar for about 1.5 weeks before we saw any real sun. During that time we exposed the speaker’s solar panel to sun levels so weak that vampires could have walked around freely with no fear of sudden combustion (which, by the way, would explain a lot about Portland). To our bewilderment, we saw no vampires. Even more surprising, however, was that the Rukus was able to trickle a charge to its battery under these dismal conditions. We didn’t have time to see how long it would have taken the Rukus to fully charge in such dim light, but we can say that after a couple of hours sitting outside, we were able to charge our iPhone via the speaker’s USB port from completely dead to 25% in about 45 minutes. Maybe this thing could save our butt in an emergency after all.
In full, direct sun, the Rukus performed better than advertised. We were able charge the battery from totally dead to completely full in well under five hours. As a solar device, the Rukus Solar gets our seal of approval.
With any Bluetooth device, we have two performance concerns: range and sound quality. As for range, the Rukus fared pretty well. Placing our iPhone in a pocket significantly reduced operating range, particularly if line of sight was lost. With the iPhone out in the open and a clear line of sight, range improved dramatically, provided there was no significant interference at play. In most scenarios, Bluetooth range will suffice, but don’t plan on pocketing your device and running around the house because you will experience dropouts.
We’ll dig deeper into general sound quality in a moment, but as far as the Rukus’ Bluetooth-specific audio quality goes, we’d have to say it is a cut above what we’ve heard from most portable speaker systems thus far. While many older Bluetooth products produce sound as if it was sourced from an FM radio station with questionable reception, the Rukus sounded as if it was getting a near-CD quality input signal.
To be perfectly candid, we didn’t expect a whole lot out of the Rukus’ 2.5 inch full-range speakers. The sealed cabinet design would make eking out bass a challenge for engineers and since we assumed bass would be some kind of priority, we feared concessions would have to be made that would compromise other regions of the audio spectrum. Good news, though: Eton surprised us.
After we let the Rukus break in for about 30 hours, we started in with our typical evaluation process indoors. We lunged right at the bass jugular by streaming Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” from its Synkronized record. Of course, the Rukus wasn’t able to produce with gusto the low E-flat that rounds out the song’s intro, but we were pleased to hear the tone’s harmonics coming through, giving us the impression that we could hear the note anyway. When the kick drum came in, we got plenty of snap, but very little thump. Engaging the bass boost fattened things up a little bit, but didn’t transform the Rukus into a ground-rumbling hi-fi rig.
As we continued our indoor listening session, we found the Rukus to sound mostly pleasant, with a respectable amount of output. Midrange came across clearly and high frequencies sounded decent, unless we pushed both our phone and the Rukus’ volume controls to the max, where treble got a little distorted.
We then took the Rukus outside where it became immediately apparent that this speaker is much more comfortable in the great outdoors than it is cooped up inside.
It isn’t as if the Rukus suddenly drew upon invisible forces of nature in order to change its sound quality or that the open environment somehow enabled the Rukus to sound better. No, in this case, the change occurred with the listener. Now our attention was drawn away from the sound quality, and toward the experience of having some good-sounding tunes while we went about enjoying ourselves outside on a gorgeous day.
The Rukus excels at providing a soundtrack to underscore your life and adventures outdoors. It is the perfect accompaniment to an evening by the BBQ, an afternoon in the garden, a weekend at camp, a nice dip in the pool or whatever else it is you like to do outside. This isn’t an audiophile-grade product and it isn’t going to throw down the jams at your next raging party. But, for the passive listener, we can think of no more suitable passive outdoor speaker. It’s light, portable, sounds good, and it will charge itself and your phone–even on less than sunny days. For $150 and under, it’s a surefire hit!
- Sensitive/efficient solar panel charges itself and mobile devices quickly
- Sounds great outdoors
- E Ink display always legible, even in bright sun
- Convenient carrying pouch shades mobile devices
- Light and easily portable
- Lean on bass, even with bass boost
- Sounds gritty at max volume
- Solar panel scratches easily