Back in the 1950s and ’60s, when it seemed that all college students had Acoustic Research AR-3 bookshelf speakers, my favorites were a pair of Wharfedales. In the ensuing decades I went through many different speakers, before deciding on MartinLogans as the right choice for my main audio/video system. But in the past two years I’ve been testing a lot of portable and Bluetooth speakers, and was excited to see that Wharfedale now makes one: the Cobalt.
Out of the box
In the cardboard box is the Cobalt speaker ($299 USD), a remote control, a power cord and power supply, an audio cord with 3.5mm jacks at either end, and an instruction manual. The speaker’s exterior is made of the usual hard, glossy black plastic, despite the fact that the material is an A+ dust catcher. But I must admit -- if I dust it every day, the Cobalt looks dazzling.
Tiny Bluetooth speakers are popping up like mushrooms. Last month I reviewed Outdoor Tech’s Turtle Shell 2.0, and this month a waterproof model from Grace Digital’s EcoxGear line. For September, Denon waits in the wings.
In the box
The EcoxGear EcoRox ($129.99 USD) comes packaged with a USB-to-USB Micro charging cord, a carabiner clip, a user guide, and a warranty card. The EcoRox itself looks like a smaller version of Grace’s EcoXBT waterproof Bluetooth speaker, which I reviewed in May 2013, minus the appealing carrying handles. But the EcoRox doesn’t need handles -- small enough to comfortably fit in the palm of a hand, it measures only 5.3”W x 2.5”H by 3”D and weighs a mere 11 ounces. Its two forward-firing, “full-range” drivers are driven by 6W each and, unusually, there’s a bass radiator that fires up through the top of the case. The speakers and radiator are covered with grilles available in black, orange, or red; the sturdy, rubberized body is black.
It’s been interesting to see how many designers of small Bluetooth speakers have literally thought outside the box, creating designs not married to the rectilinear enclosures of traditional speakers. Outdoor Tech has boldly designed a speaker that’s all facets and angles, yet retains a shape familiar enough to give it its name -- Turtle Shell. The speaker is indeed about the size and shape of a small box turtle.
In the box
Just as they did with their recently reviewed Privates headphones, Outdoor Tech has provided for the Turtle Shell 2.0 a colorful case covered with hype: “Louder than a bear’s roar,” “Cause a scene while riding your bike in the rain, singing your heart out.” Inside, a plain cardboard inner case houses the Turtle Shell 2.0 itself ($129.95 USD), a cloth carrying case, and two sets of cables: one USB-to-USB Micro for charging the unit, the other with 3.5mm male plugs at both ends for connecting non-Bluetooth devices. Also in the case are an instruction manual printed in odd dimensions (2 1/8” x 6”) on heavy paper, a quick-start instruction card of the same size, and some Outdoor Tech logo stickers.
The ATH-AX5iS over-ear headphones ($89.95 USD) are part of Audio-Technica’s SonicFuel series, which is otherwise devoted to in-ear models. Although they have large (40mm) drivers, the ATH-AX5iSes have a slimmer profile than most over-ear ’phones, and would seem to work for both sports and general listening.
In the box . . .
. . . are the headphones, a carrying case, a quick-start guide, and a safe-disposal pamphlet. The case is much nicer than the norm at this price, being made of sturdy fabric and having a drawstring.
The headphones are mostly made of plastic, in this case acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), though I feel there must be some metal somewhere in the headband. The ATH-AX5iSes come in black or gun-metal gray; there’s a small ring in red (with gray ’phones) or blue (with black ’phones) around the earcup where it meets the earpad, and on the outside of each cup is the Audio-Technica logo in red or blue. The left and right channels are identified by small but readable letters at the top of each earcup assembly. It’s a simple, neat design that’s quite stylish. The oval earcups measure 3.5” x 2.75”; when they’re folded in, the ’phones are 7.5” x 7” x 2.75”, and they’re fairly light: just 5.4 ounces.
Ever since I began writing this column, I’ve been looking for the perfect Bluetooth headphones to accompany my gym workouts. The spiffy new Privates, from Outdoor Tech. ($99.95 USD), have come closest to filling that bill. They look good and sound good. Naming them the Privates invites every bad joke on the planet, but this is for sure: You won’t forget the name.
Everything about the Privates screams “Cool and innovative!,” beginning with the all-plastic box: clear in front, black on the other surfaces. The ad copy on the box conveys “cool” facts about the headphones: e.g., the Privates can be used via wireless Bluetooth, or with an included braided cable of the same color as the ’phones: Black, Turquoise, Mustard, or Military Green. Inside are the Privates and their audio cable, a charging cable (Micro-USB to USB), a clearly understandable -- and readable -- fold-out instruction sheet, two Outdoor Tech. logo stickers, and a carrying bag.
Because many of the new products debuted in January, at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, are just now starting to ship, this month I again went shopping. I spotted the Motorola S11-HD ($99.99 USD) earphones and was intrigued. The somewhat similar Motorola S-10 was the subject of my second review for this column, two years ago. Had Motorola taken to heart my and others’ reviews and made some improvements? The answer is largely yes -- but only by ignoring the most important thing.
Inside the S11-HDs’ box is a transparent case and inside that are the earphones themselves, three extra pairs of eartips (each of the four sets is a different size), a very short (6”) USB-to-Micro-USB charging cord, an additional, inner headband for a snugger fit, and an instruction manual.
Having written about Bluetooth minispeakers in January and February, I decided to write this month about a medium-sized Bluetooth speaker. The Philips SBT300 is unique in not having a rechargeable battery; when not plugged in, it’s powered by four AA cells. This has advantages and disadvantages. The SBT300 lists for $99.99 USD; I found mine at Walmart for $44.66.
On the Philips SBT300’s box are printed claims that its “Bass Reflex Speakers [sic] System deliver [sic] a powerful, deeper bass,” along with the information that it’s Bluetooth equipped but also has an audio input for “portable music playback.” The SBT300 comes with a power cord with transformer, and a short user manual in many languages that unfolds like a map and is not very easy to use.
From Day One, the Jabra Solemate Mini and the Logitech Mini Boom portable Bluetooth speakers seemed to be in direct competition with each other: FedEx delivered them the same day.
The Jabra Solemate Mini ($99.99 USD) comes nestled in a small, sturdy box. Lift out the speaker and on an insert you’ll see the very simple, illustrated directions: “1) Turn On. 2) Bluetooth Connect. 3) Play.” Lift out that insert and you’ll find a USB-to-Micro-USB charging cord, a quick-start pamphlet in many languages, warranty information, and a reminder to register your unit.
The Solemate Mini is small: 4.9”W x 2.3”H x 2.1”D. The bottom, top, and sides are rubberized material over metal, and the front and back are covered with a fine-mesh metal grille. It comes in black, blue, yellow, or red. One of the Solemate’s most distinctive features is on the bottom panel, which is ridged like the sole of a running shoe. This keeps the speaker from jumping around when you push it to high volume levels. Put it on a flat surface and try to push it from side to side -- it won’t budge without a lot of force. Also on the bottom is an ingenious hollow for the provided 3.5mm cable, to be used with non-Bluetooth devices.
There seems to be no end to the craze for Bluetooth mini speakers -- new ones pop up every day. But while many have appealing features and good sound, most still sound like . . . well, like mini speakers. Not so Logitech’s mighty UE Mini Boom, which, with your eyes closed, could fool you into thinking you’re hearing something much bigger.
Probably because it’s so small, the UE Mini Boom ($99.99 USD) doesn’t come in Logitech’s usual packaging, but in a clear plastic box on a black plastic base. Depress a pair of locking tabs to remove the box, and more tabs to separate the base into two parts. The lower part houses a Micro-USB charging cable and two very small publications, one a startup guide (no text, just pictures), the other the usual warning and warranty information.
I’m enough of a dinosaur to have witnessed the birth of stereo sound as a popular consumer medium. It was one of the biggest landmarks in the history of home audio, one that I felt would be permanent. Everything should be in stereo, right? Well, yes -- until Bluetooth speakers and miniaturization came along. Then we began to be presented with very small speakers that produced sound bigger than we ever expected -- monaural sound. This seemed to me a step backward -- though not nearly as bad, or as retrograde, as the virtual abandonment of surround sound.
Now, in an effort to make things right, HMDX has come up with the little Jam Plus wireless Bluetooth speaker ($59.99 USD), two of which can be paired to deliver . . . stereo.