With more and more people turning to their smartphones and tablet devices for music, podcasts and other media; the demand and interest in (wireless) Bluetooth-enabled portable speakers is on the rise. I review one such option, the Bose SoundLink® Wireless Mobile speaker.
Outstanding sound performance in a small & compact package. Portable. Wireless. Sturdy design. Cover cleverly doubles as a stand. Wirelessly stream music, podcasts, movies and more via any Bluetooth compatible device. Solid battery life. It’s Bose.
A little pricey for a portable speaker system. Compression at high volumes – although intended to prevent distortion – might sound monaural to some when at a distance from the device. For some, audio may be too “fat” at low volumes…if you like a solid bass sound, this is not an issue.
Although there are cheaper wireless | portable speaker options available, you would be trading audio quality in favor of savings. This newest offering from Bose continues to solidify and strengthen their position as the premiere audio provider of outstanding consumer speaker solutions.
Shiny New Toy…
Previously I had a JBL On-Time portable speaker system, however as I have moved further towards using my smartphone for most of my media & music needs – and further away from my iPod – I had been looking for a wireless solution that was less Apple-centric. Although a decent and attractive device (but over time the sound began to suffer and the “halo” array made it only suitable for listening in front of the device and not so much when on a bedside table with only one speaker pointed towards you), the On-Time required me to use a AUX line in order to connect my device, unless I was physically docking my iPod. With everything being available to stream or download via my mobile device, it was no longer practical to constantly have to connect my (non-WiFi-enabled) iPod to a computer, download files to (and clutter) my computer HD, transfer over downloads to the iPod…rinse & repeat.
Also, as I am not an Apple fan-boy, I had no intention of upgrading my iPod to the more WiFi friendly Touch, since my Android phone does all of my media & musical heavy-lifting these days. However, the Soundlink is still an outstanding option for iPhone users who wish to connect wirelessly via Bluetooth and don’t want to sacrifice audio quality on cheaper solutions.
Judging a Book By It’s Cover (aka: Design)
The SoundLink measures 5.1 by 9.6 by 1.9 inches and weighs 2.9 pounds, with a front face that is mostly a black steel speaker grille, with black matte plastic and “automotive-grade” brushed chrome around the sides. The smaller flat size and almost hardcover book-like shape make it ideal for easily packing it away and taking with you on the go. Although very convenient for the beach or an impromptu jam at a friend’s BBQ, my intent was for the speaker to stay home, but easily picked up and taken to other rooms as needed (i.e. bedside table, bathroom while getting ready, in the kitchen while cooking and in the backyard grabbing some sun etc).
The standard design at $299.00 (shown above) comes with a dark gray nylon magnetic snap-shut cover that doubles as a stand when folded back. For $349.95, the SoundLink comes with “premium trim” (aka: all chrome), no black plastic—and a dark brown leather cover. Also, the covers for both models can be replaced with two nylon options (red or purple, for another $29.95) or two leather options (burgundy or tan, for $49.95)…easily swapped out and personalized with an included Allen key (when you buy the individual cover accessories).
Along the top you’ll find a row of function buttons (from left to right): Power, Aux, Bluetooth, Mute, Volume Down, and Volume Up. The back panel has a 3.5mm aux input to connect non-Bluetooth devices (cable included), a micro USB connector for firmware updates, and a power supply connection. Inside, there’s a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. There is no included remote control, but for me this is a non-issue since most devices these days work as their own remote and volume control. Bose rates the battery life for a full charge at about 3-4 hours of high volume listening and roughly eight hours at moderate | normal levels (I have found both statements on battery life to be true). Of course, when you plug the system back in, the battery will charge.
When the magnetic cover is closed (it works much like the Smart Cover for the iPad 2), the device will automatically power off. In addition, if you have not connected or played a device through the system after roughly 10 minutes, the Soundlink will shut itself off to preserve the battery. I venture that most people will have it plugged in for the majority of time, but the ability to grab and take it anywhere you want for a truly wireless experience is very nice. I also noticed very little difference in audio quality and volume levels between being on battery power or directly plugged in.
“Yeah, But How Does It Sound?
Patience, I’m getting to that part!
Obviously, the design of a speaker system means absolutely nothing if it doesn’t sound good, right? As is the case with all of Bose’s speakers, you are unlikely to be disappointed. In fact, I purchased the Soundlink without actually ever hearing it first. Normally this is not the smartest way to purchase a $300 product, however I currently own the Companion® 5 multimedia speaker system , which continues to sound incredible and utilizes similar low-profile neodymium transducers as the Soundlink, with the exception of the Acoustimass sub-woofer module.
Bose likes to do demonstrations where they bring you into a room and fill it with incredible sound, only to pull away the curtain to reveal that everything you just heard had been coming from a tiny device. The Soundlink is no exception to this trend.
Keep in mind that the Soundlink is intended to be a portable speaker system, therefore it won’t sound as “big” as their larger Sounddock systems, which have to be perpetually plugged in and are far-less conveniently portable. Despite that caveat, I would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t raise their eyebrows and nod in acknowledgement that the sound that does come out of this tiny system is extremely impressive. I was amazed at how “fat” and bass-y the sound was, considering its slim design. This is because Bose uses a 6 speaker internal system. This includes four low-profile neodymium transducers (high and mid frequencies) and 2 dual-opposing passive radiators that create the amazing bass reflex. The dual-opposing passive radiators essentially push the low frequencies against each other, thereby pushing bass out of the front and back of the device. In fact, for even better bass performance, it helps to place the Soundlink with the back facing towards a wall, which generates an even fuller and deeper response.
When I received the Soundlink (which I purchased directly through Bose.com), I immediately paired it with my EVO and iPad. Pairing was a snap and I was connected within seconds. The Soundlink remembers up to 6 devices, but will (obviously) only play one device at a time. Therefore I can have my phone, my girlfriend’s phone, iPad, computers etc all paired with the system and not have to worry about re-pairing whenever I change devices. The Soundlink will attempt to re-connect to the last device that it played through, however a simple touch of the Bluetooth button will connect it to one of the Bluetooth-enabled devices already paired with it.
Once connected, I wanted to test this puppy out, so I increased the volume on my cell phone to roughly 80%, launched Spotify and began increasing the volume on the Soundlink. The sound that came out really surprised me! Again, the bass that emits from such a slim device was very impressive. The highs, mids and lows were clean, solid, full and completely filled my office. Later I tested it at home in different environments and continued to be impressed.
The only con that I can think of is that due to the close array of the speakers, the further you get from the device the less “stereo” it sounds and the more mono it can be (not to be confused with sounding worse). The instruction manual recommends that you have the Soundlink at a minimum height of 24 inches if it is placed in a big room, which is certainly reasonable, as I doubt many people plan to place the system on the floor. Also, when at max volume, a discerning ear may pick up on the fact the the compression “flattens” the sound a little in order to prevent any distortion (you never feel like the speakers are about to blow or sound worse, even at top volume). Thanks to the digital signal processing, the speakers won’t distort, even at maximum volume. However, this means the low frequencies, particularly, get slightly sculpted in a way purists won’t like, but for casual listening or parties, it’s ideal. One side effect of the processing is that, at low-to-moderate volume levels, the SoundLink produces a richer, rounder bass response than at higher volumes, where the bass becomes toned down fairly noticeably. This almost creates the aural illusion that some songs with very deep bass are actually louder at just-below-maximum volume than they are at max volume.
Tell you what, instead of telling you what it sounds like…why don’t I just show you:
Verdict | Conclusion
At $299.00, the Bose Soundlink might be a little on the pricey side for those simply looking for a decent portable system or one that is just likely to sit in the same place in the house everyday. However, for those familiar with the quality of Bose products, their stellar customer care and the long life that you get from your investment, the Soundlink is a no-brainer.
I have compared the Soundlink to other comparable systems (i.e. from Logitech, JBL and the Jawbone Jambox)…and there is no comparison. Especially in the case of the Jambox, where the difference was like listening to a plastic toy. For many of the others, they are so iPod-centric (docking stations) and don’t offer the ease and convenience of Bluetooth, that none of them were ever under consideration, as they were basically the same device I was looking to replace (my old JBL).
If you are seeking full sound, with solid bass reflex and excellent audio quality that is almost shocking coming from such a small speaker, I would recommend that you take a look at the Bose Soundlink. Although it is slightly larger and heavier than other competing device, it feels and sounds well worth the investment if you are willing to part with 300 bones.
Additionally, Bose is famous for the rigorous testing that it puts its devices through. There is testing video available in which all of the buttons along the top of the Soundlink are pressed thousands of times in order to ensure continuous performance and quality assurance, in addition to placing the speaker in a salt-fog tunnel (for those planning on taking their tunes to the beach) and subjecting it to moisture and even drops on different surfaces. It is this attention to quality and support that makes the price tag perfectly within reason for me, as I know what I will be getting for my investment.
By: Dana Sciandra