Bluetooth Speakers Come of Age
Portable speakers were once an accessory afterthought. Audio fidelity was hardly a priority and one was lucky if the volume levels could fill a bathroom. But a new generation of Bluetooth speakers now offers vastly improved sound quality and features that will appeal to 20-something smartphone addicts and grizzled road warriors.
Originally designed for laptop and iPod owners looking to shed their headphones, compact wireless speakers also appeal to the socially-minded smartphone owner who wants to share. And more smartphone owners are using their handsets to play and share music; roughly 30 percent of smartphone users play music on their mobile devices, according to a recent Business Insider Intelligence report. The growing popularity of streaming music services such as Pandora, Spotify and Rdio also means that consumers are looking for better portable sound.
While there are dozens of cheap speakers available, this latest generation ($180 and up) offers improved audio clarity and features like wireless connections, speakerphone functions and related apps. Initially hampered by digital compression, the Bluetooth wireless component has also improved thanks to a new specification. It now rivals Apple’s AirPlay. Bluetooth also has the advantage of being pervasive on smartphones and, unlike Apple’s wireless solution, it doesn’t require a Wi-Fi network. Any Bluetooth device within about 30 feet—including iPhones and iPads—can play music over these speakers.
Most of these models are designed for a bedroom, office or hotel room, but they compete against wired docking stations and larger models from the likes of Bose and iHome. The main attraction of these models is convenience, appealing to tablet and smartphone users who want simple solutions to bring music on the road with them. In fact, some owners even use the smaller portable Bluetooth models in their cars.
To showcase the benefits and features of these Bluetooth speakers, it’s worth giving them display space next to headphone racks, so that shoppers can audition these models. Consumers will be impressed by what they hear.
Jawbone Jambox, $199.99
Responsible for almost single-handedly legitimizing the category of portable wireless speakers, the Jambox has proved to be both versatile and popular.
With a stylish diamond-patterned grill, the Jambox comes in several colors, including red and blue. In addition to Bluetooth, it can play music via a 3.5 mm aux input (cables included), or act as a speakerphone. There’s also a mini-USB jack for charging, which is handy, because with so many other devices using the same type of port, you won’t have to pack yet another charger. The battery is rated to play music for up to 8.5 hours, although it often seems to go for longer stretches between charges.
The Jambox was originally developed with laptop users in mind. It’s a solid speakerphone, for example, and when synched to a notebook it can use a suite of apps for voice calling and other services.
What initially garnered gadget lovers’ interest in the Jambox, however, was its sound quality. Surpassing the tinny audio of built-in notebook and tablet speakers, the Jambox delivers richer audio with an emphasis on mid-tones. It’s a pleasing experience, and there’s enough volume to satisfy anyone working at a desk or in a hotel room.
The ultimate test for a portable speaker, though, is whether it passes the road warrior question: Is it worth its weight (12 ounces) to bother packing it? Most music fans will find that it is.
Audyssey Audio Dock, $399.99
Like a New Yorker with attitude, the Audyssey Audio Dock has muscle and moxie. Designed to stay at home, it kicks out more power with less distortion than portable models.
An example of docking stations that have gone wireless, this Audyssey model relies on Bluetooth but also has the advantage of a built-in iPod/iPhone docking cradle. An included remote gives owners control of their iTunes, but if buyers want the latest in Apple wireless features, they’ll have to opt for a different AirPlay-specific model, such as Audyssey’s $299.99 Audio Dock Air. The desktop model also has a built-in microphone for making calls, which can be answered with a touch of the remote.
Standing roughly 9 inches tall, the Audio Dock is aided and abetted by a pair of 4-inch woofers. When its volume is cranked to the maximum, astute listeners will notice some modulation of the audio that rounds off bass response in order to prevent the speaker from distorting. It’s a common DSP trick, but most music fans won’t mind the tradeoff. There’s also a free app that acts as a remote graphic equalizer, so that owners can tailor the sound to their own tastes using a smartphone.
The price point of the Audio Dock means it’s aimed at serious sound shoppers who want better fidelity in an office or second home. But when the right buyer is able to audition this in the store, you’re likely to make a sale.
Monster ClarityHD Micro, $219.95
No longer partnered with the now ubiquitous Beats by Dre brand, Monster is focusing on re-establishing its own moniker in the mobile music space. The ClarityHD Micro is a big sounding portable speaker, but it lacks the styling of brands like Jambox.
Like other portable speakers, the ClarityHD Micro comes with a carrying case, wrist strap and all the necessary power cables. Slightly larger than the Jambox, the ClarityHD’s battery is rated to last for up to five hours of continuous music playing, offering less playing time than other portables. Also taking a page from the likes of Jambox, spoken instructions walk users through different operations, such as pairing a phone to the speaker. Call out “Hello Monster Micro” and owners get the added bonus of using spoken commands, including some to control the speakerphone functions.
On the audio side, the ClarityHD offers more volume and bass than the Jambox and Braven boxes, but it can (like most) also lead to distortion at high volume levels and isn’t as precise with higher registers. Monster has given this speaker a very pronounced “up-front” sound, which rock ‘n’ rollers may prefer.