Back in 2009, Lief Storer realized he was putting his own safety in jeopardy every time he donned his big DJ headphones before biking to work. “I had a tough time picking up traffic coming at me from the rear,” he says. But he didn’t want to give up his music. So he jammed an old speaker inside a plastic toy skull, attached a walkie-talkie clip, attached the whole thing to his messenger bag, and voila—he had his own ultraportable sound system.
After about 30 of his friends asked him to build them something similar, Storer, an optical engineer with an artistic streak, realized there was a business idea lurking in the skull-shaped speaker. That idea grew into Boombotix, a San Francisco startup that has since spawned three generations of portable speakers from its Mission District garage, including the new Boombot Rex Bluetooth device (pictured in the slide show above).
The Rex is like a smaller, louder, more rebellious version of the Jawbone Jambox, which is probably the most popular Bluetooth speaker on the market today. “The Jambox is a brick,” says Storer, who’s now Boombotix’s CEO. “The industrial design lends itself really well to being a sleek desktop device, but it’s not built for the active-lifestyle, adventurous person.”
Sound, today, is all about portability. The idea of the living-room hi-fi became old hat the day the Sony Walkman hit the scene in 1980, and now that most of our music is stored or streamed on our mobile devices, there’s simply less need for speakers. Most of the time, headphones suffice.
Still, as Storer realized, there are times when headphones are inappropriate—for example, when you’re biking in traffic, or partying outdoors with friends, or watching a video on your tablet with your S.O. Hence the explosion of Bluetooth speakers, which can play sound from your smartphone or tablet as long as they’re within about 30 feet. At the last International CES show in Las Vegas, CNET counted no fewer than 60 models of Bluetooth audio devices, in every conceivable form factor. The “Clipster” from Ion is designed like a carabiner, so that you can clip it to your belt loop, while the Panasonic SC-MC07 is shaped like a yo-yo and the HMDX Jam Classic looks like an actual jar of jam.
I got a Jambox as a birthday present back in January, and this week I’ve been testing five additional models, including the Boombot Rex. In general, I’m impressed. All of six of these devices pump out more sound than you’d think possible from devices in their weight class. The price tags on the devices are reasonable—from $120 to $200—and most have built-in microphones that let them double as speakerphones. (One of the devices I tested, the Switch by Native Union, even acts as a charger for your smartphone.) Given that the speakers built into most mobile gadgets are so tiny and tinny, I think a Bluetooth speaker is becoming a must-have item in any household with lots of iPhones, Android phones, or tablets.
|Baby Bluetooth Boom Boxes|
|Boombot Rex, by Boombotix||$119.99. Dimensions: 85 mm x 80 mm x 54 mm. Loudness: 90 decibels at 2 feet. Battery life: 6 hours.|
|Turtle Shell, by Outdoor Tech||$129.95. Dimensions: 142mm x 99mm x 53mm. Loudness: 96 decibels. Battery life: 9-10 hours.|
|Jambox, by Jawbone||$129.99. Dimensions: 151mm x 40 mm x 57 mm. Loudness: 85 decibels. Battery life: about 10 hours.|
|Switch, by Native Union||$149.99. Dimensions: 52mm x 70 mm x 190 mm. Loudness: 87 decibels. Battery life: 14 hours.|
|Urchin, by BOOM||$149.99. Dimensions: 57 mm x 98 mm x 159 mm. Battery life: 8 hours.|
|Sound Cylinder, by Definitive Technology||$199.00. Dimensions: 48mm x 48 mm x 190 mm. Loudness: 85 decibels at 1 meter. Battery life: 10 hours.|
From a pure audiophile perspective, the Jambox still stands out from the other devices I tried. That’s because Jawbone is the exclusive licensee of an audio filtering algorithm called BACCH, developed by Edgar Choueri, an aerospace engineer at Princeton. Choueri’s technology uses a technique called crosstalk cancellation to create the illusion that a sound is coming from a spot several feet to the right or left of the speaker. It’s absolutely uncanny, and it effectively gives the Jambox the same footprint as a much larger device. The only downsides are that the Jambox has a much lower maximum volume when the Live Audio feature is on, and the audio illusion only works when your head is positioned in exactly the right spot in the sound field. (For more details about the BACCH filter, seee this fascinating Adam Gopnik profile of Choueri in the January 28, 2013 New Yorker.)
The Boombot Rex, by contrast, has no pretensions to creating great stereo sound. Technically, the device has two speakers or what audio engineers call “drivers” (just like all the devices I reviewed), but they’re so close together that the stereo effect doesn’t really come across. And that’s okay, because for most Boombotix customers, volume is what counts—“stereo is pretty secondary,” Storer says. Still, I found the sound from the Rex to be exceptionally clean and crisp, even when the device was pointing away from me. That’s useful if you have the unit clipped to the straps of your backpack or messenger bag. According to Storer, so many bike messengers use Boombotix speakers that the company plans to donate part of the proceeds from its next Kickstarter campaign to the Bicycle Messenger Emergency Fund.
The Turtle Shell, from Los Angeles-based Outdoor Technology, is similar to the Boombot Rex in that it’s designed for rough handling and outdoor use. (And like the Rex, it was developed with help from donors on Kickstarter: Outdoor Technology raised $92,000 in a crowdfunding campaign that ended last October.) The Turtle Shell has an unusual angular design—it looks like a miniature Frank Gehry building—and there’s a standard camera threading screw hole on the base that you can use to mount the device to bicycle handlebars. Unfortunately, the unit I borrowed had a dead battery, and I didn’t have the right charger cord, so I couldn’t test out its sound.
The Urchin, from a Southern California company called BOOM (it stands for Born on Original Motives), has an even more unconventional design. It’s a lozenge-shaped device with a removable silicone skin that makes it extremely water-resistant. With the skin on, it’s safe to take the device into the rain or the shower, the company says. The skin includes a loop that you can use to carry the device around, or perhaps hang it from a tree. That makes it versatile, but in terms of sound quality, the Urchin was the least impressive of the devices I tested.
The Switch, from Hermosa Beach, CA-based Native Union (don’t ask me why there are so many consumer audio companies the L.A. basin), is pretty much the opposite of the Urchin. While it’s portable, it’s not ruggedized, and it has by far the biggest sound of the bunch—it’s so loud you can feel the air moving in front it, with powerful bass in addition to a crystalline sound at higher frequencies. I think that makes it the best choice for someone who’s only going to use the device at home, and is seeking room-filling sound. And the Switch has one other feature I really like: a big volume wheel on one end that harkens back to the old-fashioned hi-fi.
Then there’s the Sound Cylinder, which is the odd man out in this group, since it’s designed specifically to be used with a tablet such as an iPad or a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2. If you’re like me, you’ve spent hours watching streaming video on your iPad while cupping one hand behind the crappy little rear-facing speaker, just to redirect the meager sound around to the front. The Sound Cylinder, from an Owings Mills, MD, company called Definitive Technology, fixes all that. Just slide your tablet into the rubber sleeve, release the kickstand, and you’re good to watch hours of Netflix with great sound. The stereo effect is surprisingly good, and at top volume, leaning too close would cost you a few cochlear hair cells.
So there you have it—a tour of the half-dozen Bluetooth speakers I was able to put my hands on this week. This is only a small sampling of the devices on the market, but I think it covers several of the typical scenarios—outdoor, desktop, and tablet—where portable sound comes in handy. If you’ve been waffling over whether to get a Bluetooth speaker, now’s a good time—the Jambox started out at $199.95 but Jawbone recently lowered the price to $129.95, and other manufacturers may follow suit. And that’s a tune you can dance to.
Special thanks to Boombotix for loaning me the Boombot Rex and the Turtle Shell.