Mittwoch, 9. April 2014

Some videos...

I didn't have lots of time lately doing reviews etc.
Originally I planned to do a review of the Loewe Speaker 2go, the UE Boom etc... but it is really time consuming to prepare the stuff, write about it, and then still make it appear understandable to others, especially in English.

But I was not completely inactive during this time, as I have prepared lots of different comparison videos. If you haven't subscribed to my Youtube channel, here are some recent videos for you:

Bose Soundlink Mini vs. UE Boom:

Bose Soundlink III vs. Loewe Speaker 2go: 

An updated comparison of the Soundmatters FoxL vs Bose Soundlink Mini:

TDK A33 vs Bose Soundlink Mini:

TDK A33 vs Bose Soundlink Mini outdoors:

Bose Soundlink Mini vs. Harman Kardon Esquire:

Mittwoch, 19. Februar 2014

Music - some tips

What value does the best speaker have without the right music to be played through it?

I am no music expert by any means, but I listen to a lot of different music and I sometimes find interesting artists that are not known that much, but might be interesting for others too.
It is a sad fact that the best artists are rather kept secretly in the background while shit-music is commercially promoted and pushed through media and radio stations...

Here I would like to present some recent albums from this and last year that I think are really worth to be listened to. The style is my own preferred music style, which lies somewhere between Jazz/Funk/Electronica/Groove whatever.

First comes a very fresh release, just released this week: "Resolution 88"!
Tom O'Grady's jazz funk band sounds as if the original Herbie Hancock Headhunters band had rejoined together to record another album. The sound is very retro 70s sounding, but with modern mastering and a very thick bass heavy mix done by another Rhodes-wiz Dan Goldman aka "JD73", who will hopefully also be releasing his new album soon (if you don't know him yet, you have to check out his previous 2 albums).
If you like the old 70s Herbie Hancock fusion sound, you will definitely love Resolution 88.

Another pretty inspiring artist (and British as well) is Carl Hudson with his album "Zoology for Martians". The album is very Fusion-Jazz/Funk oriented too, but with more of a spacy atmospheric sound. Carl Hudson uses vintage keyboard sounds as well as some vocoder effects which makes it also quite reminiscent of Herbie Hancock's own experiments from the late 70s. The drums on this album are played by ex-Jamiroquai member Nick Van Gelder. If you liked the spacy sound of Lonnie Liston Smith or Christian Bruhn's soundtrack for the 80s TV-Cartoon "Captain Future" you will love Carl Hudson, but with a more groovy and more sophisticated sound.

If you are into Brazilian jazz and funk with acts like Azymuth or Marcos Valle, you should have a listen to Lucas Arruda's masterpiece "Sambadi", which is a mix of modern Brazil-grooves, with electronic acid jazz elements. Lucas Arruda played all the instruments by himself which proves him to be one exceptional artist!

This is the first real solo album of Jean Paul Maunick aka "Bluey", the mastermind behind the legendary Acid Jazz/Nu Soul band "Incognito". Leap of Faith is a pretty straight forward Nu Soul, R'n'B album where you can still hear some Incognito elements, but with all vocals parts sung exclusively by Bluey. Some tracks have an 80s vibe to them, while others remind me a bit of 90s Massive Attack. My favorite is "Why did I let you go", a kind of house-track bearing Simon Grey's signature.
Overall a bit short for a full-length album, but definitely worth listening to!

Jeff Lorber started to add "Fusion" to his band name recently like he originally did in the 70s. Jeff Lorber Fusion sound is indeed more groovy and jazzy than some of his previous smoothjazz albums, nevertheless there is still some easy smoothjazz-vibe floating around here and there.
The highlight is definitely the cover version of Frank Zappa's original "King Kong" that was originally played by Jean Luc Ponty who also plays the lead violin part here.

After all those hot and groovy albums, now something to float and chill. Aandra aka Alexandra Hampton shows how sophisticated chill-out and lounge music should sound like. The vibe is soft and a bit jazzy with nice laid back grooves sounding a bit like Naoki Kenji. I am already looking forward to her upcoming release that should be out any minute according to her website.

Sonntag, 9. Februar 2014

Review: Bose Soundlink III - the best Soundlink yet?

I have been playing around with the new Soundlink III for the last days, comparing it to the old versions as well as to the Soundlink Mini, and I think I can state that it is the best sounding Soundlink so far. This should already have been the Soundlink when the first version was announced in 2011.

The entire Soundlink family (missing only the Soundlink Air)
Apart from the very first Soundlink which was larger and rather a repacked Sounddock Portable, the original "real" Soundlink I marked a somewhat new speaker category that didn't exist before: "the book sized speaker". The only comparable speaker that could really compete by then was the Logitech s715i. The s715i was slightly bigger but lighter and it sounded really powerful with some nice deep bass for its size, but completely lost its power when run from battery.
Up from then the competition started bringing out similar models like the Philips P8/P9, which was designed pretty much like the original Soundlink. Some later models like the Grundig Bluebeat, Loewe speaker2go, Sony SRS BTX-500 started to sound even better than the Soundlink, that's why Bose probably brought the successor Soundlink II to the market one year later without any big changes in design apart from the differently folding cover.
The new one had better mids, but still suffered from a rather muffled sound, which seems to have finally been addressed by the latest Soundlink III model.

The Soundlink III got a complete design fresh-up with a new and svelte looking body. It looks very clean without unnecessary strips or slots. Build quality seems very high. Most of the body is out of metal (including the sides), only the top and bottom borders are out of plastic. The grille doesn't yield under pressure as it did on the old versions. The cover is needless now as the Soundlink III stands quite stable without. Although there are optional covers available, they are pretty useless, as they don't seem to give any real protection. Especially the grilles are totally exposed even when inside the cover. I am not sure how tough the used coating is, but the Soundlink Mini has a very scratch sensitive front and back, as even the units on display in the Bose stores showed scratches shortly after the Soundlink Mini was announced. I also managed to scratch mine pretty quickly, maybe meanwhile Bose improved the coating with the new Soundlink Mini series. Instead of the optional covers I would have preferred a real sleeve made of acoustically transparent materials, so that you could use the speaker inside without the need of taking it out when on the go.

The Soundlink III is standing straight now and therefore missing the slight upwards tilt of the previous versions, but treble response is considerably better than before, so the tilting is not needed anymore. After getting used to the new design, I think that the Soundlink III has a modern and classic look at the same time with a kind of "Braun-design" quality. The old Soundlinks suddenly look really old-school and dated.
Featurewise not much seem to have changed since the very first version. The Soundlink III still does the same as the first version: It connects to any bluetooth enabled device and plays music. There is no speakerphone, neither charging of external devices or other bells and whistles.

It is a pity that Bose still doesn't seem to see the need of embedding current features like NFC, multiple pairing, volume sync etc. So you still have to deal with 2 separate volume controls, the one from your player and the other one from the speaker, which means you cannot turn louder from your device if the speaker is only set to low volume. The Soundlink III is rather about improvements in sound and in battery life. According to Bose it should play up to 14 hours, while the previous versions were rated at 8 hours only. Many complained about battery life at top volume, I was getting about 4-5 hours out from mine, this should also have improved on the new version.

In this review I would rather like to concentrate on the audio quality of the new Soundlink III especially compared to the previous versions as well as to the more compact and cheaper Soundlink Mini.
The Soundlink III is definitely an improvement over the old versions in most aspects. While I liked the sound of the older Soundlinks at higher levels, the sound started to get really muffled at lower levels. At the same time bass was dialed back quite a lot and dynamic compression kicked in at levels above 70/80%. The Soundlink III on the other hand sounds much more coherent across its entire volume range. It sounds equally good at lowest levels and there is no such obvious DSP-processing at top levels with less compression. Bass is still dialed back at higher levels to avoid distortion, but the Soundlink III sounds fuller and more dynamic than the predecessors at its maximum volume. There also seems to be better stereo separation, while the Soundlink II rather sounded like a mono-speaker, now you actually get a hint of spatial ambiance from the Soundlink III, the sound has more breath and doesn't remain that constrained to the speaker, but rather manages to free itsself with some sparkle in the upper frequencies that were missing so much on the old versions. The Soundlink III is still not the brightest speaker around, and it still sounds most convincing if listened exactly frontally at ear height, but it doesn't suffer that much as the old versions when not listened frontally, meaning that you won't hear only bass when listening from the side as it was before. When switching back and forth between the Soundlink III and the old versions you have the impression of listening to a more expensive bigger speaker, while the Soundlink II suddenly starts sounding like a kitchen-radio. There might be particular recordings that will even sound more convincing on the Soundlink II, but overall I definitely prefer the sound of the Soundlink III by a far margin. For my taste it has a bit too much upper bass. When directly compared to the Sonos Play:1 the bass of the Play:1 seems more powerful with better impact, but not as loud as on the Soundlink III. The Play:1 has a more laid-back sound, while the Soundlink III is more straightforward.

Comparing the Soundlink III to the Soundlink Mini is another story. The differences seem less between the Soundlink III and the Mini than between the Soundlink III and the older versions. In fact the Soundlink Mini impressed me most of all portable speakers I have heard so far and it still impresses me even now when directly compared to the Soundlink III. Although the Soundlink III has an overall better treble extension, I sometimes tend to prefer the Soundlink Mini, despite having a much smaller and more limited speaker in front of me.

Funnily bass is similarly powerful on the Mini, reaching equally deep as on the Soundlink III. Both manage to play healthy 60Hz at normal levels, but the Soundlink III tries to push bass further and starts adding additional overtones so it would even play down to 45Hz but without any clean fundamental, the Soundlink Mini on the other hand seems to have a low pass filter built in and will just remain silent below 50Hz.
This somehow dirty bass reproduction was already present on the very first Soundlink, making particular low frequency tones sound strange, especially electronic bass drums, that start to get an ugly decay-plume, that is not present in the original recording. The Soundlink II even made this worse, but I finally hoped for an improvement with the the Soundlink III and while it is better than before it is still not perfect
I suppose this comes from the passive radiators, that react differently according to the actual volume level, so bass frequencies have to be pushed more at lower levels to compensate for their rigidity. But the best and most natural bass reproduction still comes from the Computer Music Monitors, although also based on the same dual opposing radiator design. Of course this is somehow nit-picking, and you will hardly notice this except with some particular recordings, but I thought it should be mentioned as most other comparable speakers don't suffer from this problem, albeit don't manage such a full overall sound.

Here is a video where I tried to compare all 3 generations of the Soundlink. I wanted to show how they differ in sound when listened at optimum positioning, unfortunately I didn't manage to record them off-axis, but you can also hear how they sound at their top volume and which of them is loudest. The Soundlink I and II were slightly tilted forward towards the microphone to ensure the best soundquality. Audio was recorded with Zoom H1 which boosts bass frequencies a little bit in contrast too some other recorders that don't record bass very well, therefore the recording might sound slightly too bass heavy. I didn't do any postprocessing on the audio files except adjusting absolute levels.
Originally I wanted to use some music which I think demonstrates the differences in sound best, but unfortunately I am limited to the free music provided by Youtube to avoid any copyright issues as latest rumors claim that the German performing rights society "GEMA" now plans to charge not only from Youtube but also from the video creators...
Still I tried to select the best tracks with the best recording quality available from the Youtube audio library, as most of their music is pretty poor and not suitable for such a test:

As you can hopefully hear all versions sound definitely different but they mostly differ in treble reproduction. Bass is rather similar on all of them, it is the quality and tuning of the bass that's different, but it is by no means a night and day difference, they all sound still pretty similar and could be mistaken for the same speaker without a direct comparison. Despite the much smaller size the Soundlink Mini sounds remarkably similar to the Soundlink III as you can hear in the following video. The Soundlink III can of course play considerably louder (about 5-6dB) than the Mini:

I really like the new Soundlink III. It has a more refined sound with nicer treble than all the versions before, but in relation to the difference in size between the Soundlink III and the Soundlink Mini I expected a bit more to tell the truth. The Soundlink III is overall more powerful with a considerably higher maximum volume, but at normal listening levels both sound equally powerful and full bodied. The Soundlink III doesn't seem to have any big advantage in bass power or quality of the bass, at least not up to normal listening levels. I had already chosen the Soundlink Mini over the Soundlink II, when I heard it the first time and as a truely portable solution I would probably still even choose it over the Soundlink III. For me the differences in sound between both just don't justify the much bigger size and weight of the Soundlink III. The Soundlink III might be able to play louder, but it is still by far not as loud and powerful as the original Soundlink Wireless Music System or a Sounddock Portable (here you can see a comparison video between both).
While sounding better than the old versions the Soundlink III still remains in the same category without any huge advantages. I am sure the same tuning could also be achieved by a good EQ on the previous versions. The missing features like USB-charging of external devices or handsfree might be a problem for most.
It is just a big letdown that Bose doesn't allow standard features like NFC-pairing, Apt-X support for even better audio quality let alone advanced features like multiple pairing, synced volume, app-support with customizable EQ etc.
I cannot judge yet how the Soundlink III sounds compared to the new Beats Pill XL which also costs the same now. From what I heard so far the Pill XL should pack considerably more punch while being about similar in size and weight. But the Beats Pill has much more features, can do stereo pairing with another Pill, charge external devices etc.

The Soundlink III is definitely a nice sounding speaker, it sounds better than the old versions and it can play slightly louder without distortion, but compared to the Soundlink Mini in relation to the huge size difference, the difference in sound is just not worth the extra. It might play louder, but up to about 70% the Soundlink Mini holds up pretty well and remains the most impressive portable (nearly pocketable) speaker around. Bose could have come up with some new features or a lower price as most of the competition offer their products for considerably less. If you already own a Soundlink I or II I am not sure if the upgrade is really worth it.

+ modern clean design
+ improved sound over the previous versions particularly due to better treble definition
+ less boomy at low levels
+ treble less directional
+ more spacious sound
+ slightly louder than the previous versions without that obvious DSP processing
+ better battery life

- no additional features (handsfree, usb-charging, Apt-X support)
- hardly better sounding than the much smaller Soundlink Mini
- no app support
- battery not that easily replaceable as on the old versions
- too big, too heavy
- optional covers do not offer any real protection
- too expensive

Freitag, 7. Februar 2014

Bose Soundlink Bluetooth Speaker III - hands on and first impressions

Bose announced the new Soundlink III speaker!
The third generation comes 1.5 years after the Soundlink II and 2.5 years after the original one, which was announced in September 2011.

The new Soundlink has a slightly different design and comes naked without any cover now, but there are optional covers with various colors available, for those who actually need one. I am not sure if I liked the old design better than the new, especially the limited white edition was really an eye catcher. The new one reminds me a bit of a squashed B&O Beolit 12 just missing the leathered handle. At least the buttons are rubber covered now, similar to the ones from the Soundlink Mini. I must confess that with the Soundlink II I sometimes encountered unwanted resonance vibrations from the buttons that were rattling at particular frequencies, due to being a bit loose. This probably won't happen with the new one anymore.

I am not sure if much changed on the hardware side apart from cosmetic adjustments. There is still no Apt-X support, no built in handsfree or USB-charging, the functionality remains exactly the same as before. Also the acoustic core consisting of 2 transducers per channel including 2 opposing passive radiators seem to be the same, so maybe the sound tweaks come only from different DSP-processing. But at least the new one is claimed to have an improved battery life of 30% which should make it play up to 14 hours. The battery doesn't seem to be directly accessible by the user anymore, but according to Bose it is still easily replaceable by pulling out the rubber feet, which I didn't try though.
I also found some new contacts at the bottom which would maybe suggest an option for a future charging cradle similar to that of the Soundlink Mini.

Thanks to Bose I already got a demo unit of the new one as well as the previous version. As my neighbour still owns the first version, I will be able to compare all three generations.

First impression so far: The new one sounds definitely better than the previous one. The sound is less veiled, broader and more open with more brilliance in treble and seems less directional too, not suffering that much in treble response when not listened directly on-axis. Bass seems a little better controlled, not that artificial sounding as on the Soundlink II, at the same time the Soundlink III doesn't sound as stressed at top volume with less obvious dynamic compression and it sounds less boomy at low levels, which is pretty welcome if you want some low background music, which was hardly achievable with the old one, as that one sounded extremly dull when not applying some special "tricks". Top volume is more or less the same, the new one sounds a bit fuller at top volume with more upper bass and therefore can make the impression of being a bit louder, but don't expect any loudness miracles. The very first Soundlink still remains one of the loudest and most powerful portable speakers, but at a slightly larger size of course.

Soundwise the Soundlink III seems to more resemble the Soundlink Mini now, although the differences are not huge between all of them to tell the truth, you are still hearing the same Bose sound signature, so don't expect JBL or Loewe sound now.

So far I have the impression that this is the best sounding Soundlink yet! I am planning to prepare an extensive comparison video and review soon, so stay tuned!

Update: full review can already be found here, enjoy!

Freitag, 10. Januar 2014

Review: Bose Soundlink Wireless Music System - oldtimer redux!

Bose has the habit of very long life-cycles for their products. I have no idea how long their Waveradio has already been on the market without much changes in design or acoustics (not to mention their nearly 50 year old 910 speakers).
The same is true for their Bose Sounddock, which now is revived within the 3rd vesion, but didn't change much from the very first version that came out 10 years ago.
The core of the Bose Sounddock portable (now discontiuned) even found its way into several different products. One of them being the Soundlink Air, another one the current Soundtouch 20 (but this time without the option of an additional battery). But the first one to use the same design was the Bose Soundlink Wireless System brought to the market in 2009 and meanwhile discontinued as well. The Bose Soundlink Wireless System was marketed as a wireless home system, where you could stream music wirelessly from your computer to the speaker through a special included USB-dongle. The Soundlink Wireless System was quite overpriced at the beginning costing around 550$.
What hardly anyone knows is that the Soundlink Wireless System was a simple Bluetooth speaker. There is no need for the dongle, the speaker can easily pair with any A2DP enabled smartphone.

When someone asked me about a speaker more powerful than the TDK A33 or the Bose Soundlink II, but without the bulk of a boombox like the Altec Lansing Mix or Klipsch KMC-3 there is hardly anything on the market. I had sold my Bose Sounddock Portable half a year ago, as I haven't used it anymore that often, because of the dedicated Apple-Dock and because due to heavy usage the dock got bad contact and wouldn't charge my Iphone anymore, but also because the Soundlink Mini was enough for my needs most of the time, as I didn't need the power or volume of the larger Bose speakers. Funnily the Mini even managed to sound more convincing than the bigger ones up to normal room listening levels.
Either the speakers are really small like the Soundlink Mini, JBL Charge, UE Boom etc, or book-sized like the Soundlink II, the Loewe speaker2go, TDK A33. But then there is a big gap until the really big ghettoblasters jump in with nothing inbetween.
I only found the new IK Multimedia iLoud (review will be coming soon), which is indeed a nice speaker not that much larger than the Bose Soundlink II but with considerably more power (they claim 40 Watts) and volume.

But here I  would like to present an interesting alternative, that I found at Ebay. There were many used Soundlinks Wireless Music Systems for about 150-200€. Quite a bargain and much cheaper than a new iLoud for example! From my own experience Bose speakers hardly ever brake and even a used Soundlink Wireless System should do its job for the next 5-10 years if handled with care.
I got one for 199€, 3 months old with an original invoice from a store, which probably was sold during a stock clearance.

Of course I could also have bought the new Soundlink Air, but in my opinion Airplay is not so well suited for portable use. Although the Soundlink Air can be brought into some kind of direct-play mode where it would stream music directly from an Iphone without the need of an additional network, this isn't very stable and doesn't work every time. Also streaming through Airplay (or Wifi) uses much more battery than streaming through Bluetooth. Of course you can stream losslessly through Airplay, but normally in case of the Bose Soundlink Air or Soundlink Wireless System, you shouldn't be able to hear any difference between Airplay and Bluetooth, it is not the most detailed speaker.

The Soundlink Wireless Music System has the advantage of exchangeable batteries over many comparable speaker systems. A spare battery usually goes for about 70-80$, and can be exchanged within some seconds by just turning a big screw with a coin or fingernail. At highest levels the Soundlink Wireless Music System should play about 3 hours according to Bose. I had it playing at lower levels like 70%, which is already pretty loud, but the sound doesn't suffer yet because of overly strong DSP processing, and it played for more than 4 hours. At comfortable room listening levels you should be getting more than 8 hours out of one single charge. I even squeezed out more than 12 hours out of my old Sounddock Portable, I haven't tested if I manage the same with the Soundlink Wireless Music System. I am not sure if Bluetooth drains more battery than charging an Ipod, as the Sounddock Portable was charging docked devices also when running from battery.
A full charge will take about 5-6 hours. The power supply is rather huge, but it has a handy loop to wind up the wire if not in use. There is also an additional car-adapter available, so you could charge the speaker even in your boat or caravan when on the go.

In fact if you already know the Bose Sounddock Portable, you will immediately recognize the Bose Soundlink Wireless System, as both are pretty much the same, but as there is no flabby rotatable Apple dock anymore, the Soundlink Wireless System makes an overall more sturdy impression and looks cleaner designwise.

The Soundlink Wireless Music System has no controls, there are only 2 touch-buttons for changing volume at the right side. Everything else must be done through the remote. While you could use the Sounddock Portable even without remote, because it automatically turned on as soon as you touched one volume-button, this is not possible with the Soundlink Wireless Music System anymore. You have to turn it on with the remote. If you lose the remote, you won't be able use it. You could force a turn-on if you remove the battery and attach it agian, or if you attach the power cord, then the speaker automatically powers on as well. It is also powering off automatically after 20 or 30 minutes when there is no Bluetooth connection active. So far I haven't noticed an automatic power down with an active Bluetooth connection. The Soundlink Mini even turns off when connected, provided that nothing is currently playing.

When holding the wireless button on the remote for several seconds, the Soundlink Wireless Music System jumps into Bluetooth pairing mode and you can connect to it from any Bluetooth enabled device. It acts like a usual Bluetooth speaker, there is no need for the additional Bluetooth dongle (to tell the truth I haven't even tried the dongle out yet).
As the connection is based on A2DP, you can also use the remote for skipping tracks, or starting playback and pausing it again. This worked with my Iphone or Ipad, I haven't tested it with other Bluetooth enabled phones.

How is the sound? Bose like! It is not perfect though. I cannot remember if my old Sounddock Portable sounded that much different, maybe Bose tuned the Soundlink Wireless Music System a little bit, but treble sounds somewhat harsh to me, especially on-axis, while mids are more restrained making the overall sound rather dull. Especially vocals suffer a lot compared to other speakers. It is not a very natural or linear sound, but it is still very enjoyable. Bass is really powerful and well under control, until the speaker reaches 3/4 of its volume, then bass and dynamics are reduced considerably. At top volume there is also some stronger distortion, but we are talking about really loud levels already, especially for a speaker as compact as the Bose Soundlink Wireless Music System.

The Soundlink Wireless Music System sounds best at medium levels, at lower levels the sound can become too boomy as treble is muted too much then. I even prefer the sound of the much smaller Soundlink Mini at lower levels, as it sounds clearer, despite not having that much sparkle in the upper treble.
Compared to the Sonos Play:1 which seems even a bit smaller, the Bose has more power and plays louder. But the Sonos has a more natural sound with a similarly powerful bass, but less boomy. The Play:1 bass seems to even have more impact at the lowest frequencies, but it is not as pronounced in the upper region as that from the Soundlilnk Wireless Music System. The Play:1 also has a less directional sound dispersion, while the Soundlink Wireless Music System suffers quite a lot if  not listened frontally.

I prepared some comparison videos. First is an indoor comparison with the Bose Soundlink Mini at room listening volume (about 60%). The other video is an outdoor comparison where both the Soundlink Wireless Music System and the Soundlink Mini were played at their maximum volume. The Soundlink Mini is already quite powerful, but compared to its big brother it sounds rather lost especially outside.
Audio was recorded with a Zoom H2n this time, which microphone records not as bass-heavy as that from the H1.

I would claim the Soundlink Wireless Music System to be indeed better suited for outdoor listening. Outside it sounds nicely balanced due to the stronger bass, that usually gets lost pretty quickly in the open field. When cranked you can still hear it with acceptable volume from 20 meters away, and from some distance you won't even notice that much distortion even if playing at top volume. The Soundlink Wireless Music System won't be able to throw a huge beach-party, but it should have enough power for any garden grill-fiesta.
If you need something more powerful than the Soundlink II or TDK A33, but still need to keep it quite portable, grab a Bose Soundlink Wireless System if you can find one. It plays twice as loud and has an overall much more powerful and mature sound.
It is definitely worth 200$ even in used condition and I doubt it will break that soon. If the battery is already weak, you can buy a new one. There is still no real alternative at this size right now that I know, maybe the new iLoud from IK Multimedia, so stay tuned for a review and comparison of both.

Montag, 30. Dezember 2013

Review: TDK A26 "Trek", Yamaha NX-P100, Panasonic SC-NA10 compared

This time I would like to present some recent portable Bluetooth speakers in the price range from 100-200$ and compare one to each other including my current favorite at this size: the Bose Soundlink Mini.

The smallest of the bunch is the TDK A26 "Trek", which looks like a smaller version of the great TDK A33 and can already be found for as low as 79$ on the US-Amazon store. The Trek costs a bit more in Germany though, where the lowest price is around 129€, which would make it twice as expensive when directly converted from the US-price.

The Yamaha NX-P100 seems to be a direct competitor of the Bose Soundlink not only in size but also in price, as at 199$ it costs about the same as the Bose and is also more or less equal in size.

Last not least the Panasonic SC-NA10, which is a bit bigger than the others, but remains still pretty portable as it is considerably smaller and lighter than the TDK A33 for example. Volumewise it should be only slightly larger than the Bose Soundlink Mini if the cover is not included. The Panasonic comes exactly in between pricewise, costing about 150€. I haven't found it on yet though.

I won't cover all the details of each speaker this time as I would like to avoid too much blabla. Like so many they are simple Bluetooth speakers, all of them have handsfree included as well as NFC for faster pairing, the Yamaha and TDK being splash-resistant too.
The Yamaha and Panasonic have Apt-X codec built in for better streaming quality. And both Yamaha and Panasonic have an additional USB-port for charging external devices.

Build quality seems great on all of them. I also like the design of any of them. The TDK Trek feels great in your hand, it is neither too heavy nor too light. Compared to the Soundlink Mini the TDK weights maybe 40% less as I would also estimate the overall volume about 30-40% less. It has exactly the same length as the Bose, but it is flatter and higher at the same time. The overall design resembles much of the original A33. Just the volume indicator LED is missing, which I liked quite a lot on the A33, as you could always see how loud it is set.
The volume of the speaker is not synced to the player's volume, on neither of them by the way. So far only recent JBL/Harman Kardon speakers have a single master volume, as do the Jabra Solemate and Solemate Mini speakers. I think the Jamboxes with recent firmware versions also have this feature, and maybe there are other ones too, but I don't know all of them.
As the Trek is so thin (only 2.5cm) it doesn't stand very stable. There is a flip-out stand at the back that covers the passive radiator, very similar to the Soundmatters FoxL. If you pull the stand out too much, it will fall out completely. No idea if this was done as protection for not breaking the hinges or if this is just a design flaw.

When turning the speaker on you will hear some simple tone-progression, not too loud thank goodness. When paired there is another tone, pretty much like on many other bluetooth speakers and the speaker just beeps when maximum volume is reached.

The A26 also has a main power switch, just like the A33 to conserve battery life if not in use. The switch as well as auxilary and charging ports are covered by a soft rubber cap. If powered down with the power button at the top, the speaker is probably just in standby-mode. I have no idea if there is much battery drain when left like this for a longer time. I noticed some problems with the power button on my sample. I really had to press harder in order to turn it on or off, not so with the other buttons which worked well.
The TDK is also the only speaker that forces playback from the player after pairing with Bluetooth. After it reconnects with any device you should automatically hear some music playing. Not sure if this is desireable every time, so I thought I should mention it. According to the specs, the TDK should provide 6 hours of battery life. That is on par with the TDK A33 which I always found to be a bit short, as I never got more than 6.5 hours, despite listening at lower volumes.

I had highest expectations for the Yamaha NX-P100. It is really pricey for that kind of speaker that's why I thought it should also easily compete with the Bose soundwise. Let's find out later if it really did.
The Yamaha looks quite modern, the design is nice and it comes in different colors. It is about equal in size to the Bose Soundlink Mini, maybe even slightly bigger overall.

The body is made of metal covered with rubbered elements at the sides and at the top and bottom. First I thought the body would be made of plastic, but in fact it seems to be metal, it is just the used paint that has makes it feel a bit cheap. Overall it doesn't look that classy as the Bose Soundlink Mini which consists entirely of a "naked" not painted aluminium body. The Yamaha also weights less than the Bose, but has more heft to it than the TDK. At the bottom you can see some kind of vent-slots. I assume the passive radiator is hiding in there, but you cannot really discern it like that.

The side ports are protected with a rubber cover which is very hard to open. You really need to have long nails, but even then it is nearly impossible to flip the cover back. I only managed by hooking up a scissor blade or a screwdriver etc. No idea what Yamaha was thinking when designing this. The TDK also has the ports protected, but you can open the flap easily.

When I unpacked the speaker for the first time and tried pulling it out of the bag, one of the rubbered side covers came down easily. Not sure if this is really meant to be like that, but pulling the cover down doesn't do any harm as you can put it up again without much effort, still I wanted to mention it, as it rather decreases the overall impression I had for this speaker.

The Yamaha has no volume indicator either. It just beeps, when the lowest or highest volume level is reached. When turning the speaker on, you will hear some chords, when successfully paired with a bluetooth device there will be a voice prompt telling you that Bluetooth is now connected. The voice prompts and confirmation tones are not that annoying like on many other speakers and they are played with the current level of the speaker. So if you left the speaker at a lower volume, the next time you turn it on, the tones will also be played low. Battery life should be 8 hours according to the specs. When paired with an Iphone you will also get a battery life indicator in the top status bar.

The Panasonic is in a bit different category as it is larger. In case of emergency you could just put the TDK Trek inside your jeans pocket as it has the size of a "phablet" more or less, and there are many geeks around who carry theirs inside pockets day in day out. The Yamaha is also managable if you have larger side pockets, but the Panasonic will already need a Jacket or something similar. It is still pretty compact as a speaker though and quite light too.

It is even about 25% lighter than the Soundlink Mini and doesn't make the impression of being much heavier than the other two despite being larger. When having both Bose and Panasonic in your hand, the Bose feels like a heavy brick, while the Yamaha rather resembles a book.

Only the Panasonic comes with built in protection in form of a a flip-cover, similar to the one found on the original Bose Soundlink which also holds firm due to built in magnets. You can easily remove it because it is just attached through a press-button, but without cover the speaker won't really stand upright.

If not in use you just flip the cover over like a book and have the front and back of the speaker automatically protected as the cover is padded to some degree like a cushion. The sides and top of the speaker are still prone to scatches, so just tossing it inside a rucksack could do harm to the glossy finish. Only the front grille of the Panasonic is made of metal, the edges as well as the back are pure plastic. Although the edges seem to be aluminium, in reality they are just painted to look like that. The Panasonic has a rotatable volume-button like a good old analog stereo. The button rotates endlessly, but when the speaker is turned on it automatically gets a beginning and an end through a confirmation tone if you reached the minimum or maximum. The Panasonic also plays some confirmation tones when powering on of off. But all the tones are really restrained and not too disturbing.

The Panasonic is the only speaker of the bunch that needs a proprietary charger. It cannot be charged through USB like the others. The charger is also pretty big, by far lager than the Soundlink Mini charger.
The Panasonic adds a battery level meter like the one from Yamaha to the Iphone display as soon as it is paired through Bluetooth. The Panasonic battery is rated for 20 hours in "LP"-mode. I only know this mode from my old VHS video recorder, where the tape was rotated with half the speed, so that you got double the space but with considerably worse quality. Maybe in LP-mode the Panasonic only uses half the bits or half the sample rate? ;-)
It doesn't look as if the battery was replaceable on any of these speakers. I haven't found any obvious way how to get access it.

What about sound?
The Yamaha SC-NA10 was the first I got, so I was able to listen to it first. As already mentioned I expected a performance at least close to the Bose if not even better. In reality the speaker just sounds like any mediocre 50$ Bluetooth speaker. There is hardly any bass to speak of, the one that's there is a kind of muddy mid-bass which sounds rather boomy, without much impact. The overall sound is pretty covered too, as if the speaker was playing inside an additional cartoon box, the treble has some unpleasant resonance frequency, and it tends to sound like a bad clock radio. Volumewise it can reach about 70% of the Soundlink Mini's volume, which is quite loud, but not really louder than a Jabra Solemate Mini that can be found for less than half. At top volume there are hints of distortion, but not too severe, but you can also notice dynamic compression. It sounds neither good at low nor high levels.
Overall the Yamaha disappointed me most. The speaker has neither the quality nor the sound to really justify the high price. If the price was down to 100$ it could be maybe worth considering, but even then there are better sounding speakers that cost less. To tell the truth, I have not heard that many speakers in this size or price range that sounded really worse.

The TDK A26 sounds just like the A33, but without bass. It sounds quite balanced in the upper frequencies, but it has even less bass than the Yamaha. The Bass is tuned differently, so that it doesn't have the boomy character but rather more impact. The sound is much more opened and also treble has quite a bit of sparkle, more than the Soundlink Mini without doubt, but compared to the Soundlink Mini it sounds thin and a bit anemic. There is no real bass below 100Hz, just added overtones, but no fundamental. You can even hear "something" at 60Hz, but these are just overtones not real bass. Maybe they did this in order to make the speaker sound fatter than it is in reality. And in fact you have the impression of hearing some low frequency, but listening closer you notice that there is hardly any power. The smaller FoxL put beside sounds remarkable similar to the TDK, but has a more punchy bass. You can really feel some low-bass with the FoxL, while with the TDK you only hear a bit more mid-bass. With good placement the FoxL manages to outplay the TDK easily as many bass driven songs will sound more engaging, although the FoxL won't play as loud as the TDK and distorts pretty quickly. If the TDK had at least half the bass of the Soundlink Mini it would be a really great sounding speaker for the size, but as it is now it just sounds like a small portable speaker.
Still I prefer the TDK over the Yamaha, as the TDK can play louder and sounds more powerful at higher levels than the Yamaha. The bass on the Yamaha tends to distort at high volume due to its boomy tuning. The TDK also distorts on top volume, but only noticeable with louder peaks like drum kicks etc. which start to crackle. In fact this can be quite disturbing, as I would prefer some slight distortion over crackling sounds, but lowering volume one or a few notches should make it go away.

The Panasonic would outplay both the others easily, at least at low levels the bass is deep and powerful, nearly on par with the Bose Soundlink Mini while at the same time clearer in mids and treble. The sound of the Panasonic was indeed impressive when I turned it on the first time, but the magic went away if I turned it a bit louder. When the volume was reaching pleasant listening levels strong distortion started creeping in. It sounded really severe with some bassheavy songs, the passive radiator was buzzing and farting around, while the speaker hasn't even reached 30% volume yet. The distortion became less again at higher levels, as the speaker seems to dial back bass at higher levels, but it was still noticeable. It was not that strong with songs not containing much bass, so I was not sure if this was a failure or a feature and I ordered a replacement to really get sure I have a representative sample for my review. But the replacement behaved in exactly the same way. You couldn't turn the speaker past 30% without getting heavily humming overdriven sound with many songs. Apart from the distortion the speaker would play quite loud, louder than the TDK A26, but not as loud as the Soundlink Mini. A pity that something seems to have gone wrong with the acoustic design, as otherwise the speaker could be indeed quite nice. I also tested the LP-mode but this just seems to reduce bass and maximum volume adding some stronger dynamic compression to achieve louder levels, while distortion still remains high.
Ignoring the distortion, the Panasonic is tuned quite nicely. Although it has less bass overall than the Soundlink Mini, it is still strong enough to sound convincing as a speaker unlike the Yamaha or TDK, which sound rather flat and tinny. The mids and treble sound clearer on the Panasonic and are less directional. The sound starts to fall apart quite a bit at higher volume levels, where the Soundlink Mini still manages to deliver a compelling sound. If one didn't like the Bose sound because of excessive or "overblown" bass as many claim it, the Panasonic could have been a real alternative, not much bigger, but lighter at the same time. Unfortunately the distortion problems with the passive radiator make it rather useless as a speaker. I ask myself how such a flaw could have made it into a final product?

I prepared a video where you can hear all of them including the Bose Soundlink Mini as reference. I chose again the same track from the Youtube audio library in order to avoid any copyright issues. This time audio was recorded with a Zoom H2n audio recorder. Volume level was set to about 60% on the Soundlink Mini, and all other speakers were matched more or less volumewise. You can hear severe distortion from the Panasonic, as well as pumping effects and clipping from the Yamaha.

Conclusion: The Panasonic SC-NA10 could have been in fact the best of the bunch by far, but fails due to excessive distortion problems with its passive radiator even at low volumes.
The Yamaha NX-P100 is a total failure delivering sound not really better than any clock-radio. It has a nice design and all the features you could be asking for, but listening to it makes me cry, especially when considering the price Yamaha is asking for!
If I got the TDK A26 for 79$ I would definitely choose it over the others. The TDK produces a nicely balanced sound only falling short of delivering some deeper bass, but the sound still remains pleasant with only disturbing crackling sounds at top volume. I am not sure about the battery, but this could be another weak point. The battery doesn't seem to be easily replaceable on any of them, thus making them paperweights after some years and heavy usage.

Montag, 9. Dezember 2013

Review: Klipsch KMC-1, the big letdown!

I started becoming interested in Klipsch speakers, when I heard the KMC-3 my friend brought along so we could compare it to my Altec Lansing MIX.
Infact the Klipsch wiped the floor with my Altec Lansing producing an overall louder and more punchy sound despite being smaller. But for portable use the KMC-3 needed battteries and for my taste it was still a bit large to really being taken with me.

Then Klipsch announced the smaller KMC-1 which looks nearly like the big brother, but much smaller sizewise, which should allow to be taken everywhere easily. It also includs a rechargeable battery, so that I thought I should give it a try if this could be the best mobile boombox so far?

The KMC-1 which stands for "Klipsch Music Center" came inside a rather large and heavy box. The speaker itself is about the size of a Big Jambox thus considerably larger than the Bose Soundlink Mini for example.

Despite having a plastic body, look and feel of the speaker are really positive, as it has some heft to it and feels pretty sturdy at the same time. The paint of the main body has a kind of soft feel, the front and back speaker mesh is out of metal, the top plate which contains the NFC-enabled area is rubberized. I assume the whole area is also meant for placing your mobile phone. It has about the size of a standard phone, though a larger phablet would look rather out of place there.

There are hardly any hardware-buttons on the device. There is only the main power switch at the back. There you can also find an auxiliary input and the AC-power input. In addition the KMC-1 is also equipped with an USB-output, which can be used to charge external devices. In fact this also works when the speaker is running from its internal battery, but it will of course reduce overall playing time.

On top of the speaker you can find a single touch-sensitive area with another power/standby button, a pairing button and the volume control with an additional light-chain showing the actual volume level. Unfortuantely the volume of the speaker is not synchronized to the volume of the connected device. An additional battery/call-button reveals that the KMC-1 even has hands-free included.

There is nothing written in the manual if the internal battery can be replaced, but at the bottom there is a screwed down cover which most likely should contain the battery. I haven't looked inside, so I cannot say if the battery is some specific model or if a standard battery pack can be used.

Powering the speaker on will play a cheesy guitar-chord as confirmation tone. Bluetooth pairing is forced through a longer touch of the pairing-symbol. When successfully paired another guitar-sound together with some kind of applause is played. The confirmation tones are pretty annoying and unnecessary. I have not found any way to turn them off. I would prefer a simple silent beep or something similar, but the current tones sound really bad. At least the speaker doesn't talk as some other ones. The KMC-1 supports Apt-X which should allow the best possible audio quality. Thanks to Apple not supporting Apt-X on their iPhone I only tested normal Bluetooth which in case of the iPhone should be some AAC-codec.
An issue I have found is that unlike most other bluetooth speakers I have tried, the Klipsch does not automatically reconnect to previously paired devices after power on. You have to force the connection each time from your device.
But there is another feature, which maybe is the reason for that as the speaker has some kind of automatic standby-mode, if it stays idle for some time. From this mode you don't need to power the speaker on manually, but on your phone just select it from your bluetooth-devices and it should automatically turn on.

Audio quality is a kind of mixed bag. I was really disappointed with the first sounds the KMC-1 was throwing at me. At low volumes there was hardly any body to the music. Bass was very subdued, treble was somehow sizzling, sounding rather metallic, with remaining mids that didn't overwhelm me either. Treble seemed also quite directional as sound became considerably worse when listened from above or from the sides.
Overall the sound was probably the most unspectacular I have heard for quite a long time. It reminded me rather of a kitchen radio than a mature "boombox". Even the small Soundmatters FoxL didn't sound that much worse at lowest levels than the Klipsch. You really had to turn up the speaker as loud as possible until it started to get some punch with bass becoming this particular drive so that you could feel the vibration of the passive radiators. In fact the speaker could play down to about 40Hz without much drop in amplitute, despite the specs claiming only 65Hz or 56Hz as lowest usable bass frequency.
The louder played the better and more powerful the KMC sounded with one drawback of severe distortion starting to creep in at levels near maximum. The speaker sounded best one notch below beginning distortion. Most songs were only playable up to 75%, others already caused distrotion at 60%. Particularly peaks of kick-drums were prone to clipping, not so bass-sounds which usually sounded rather clean.
Compared to the Bose Soundlink Mini the KMC-1 could theoretically play much louder, but not without sounding really harsh and distorted at the same time. There doesn't seem to be any limiter or dynamic bass adjustment active, which results in little bass at low volumes and much bass at high volumes but at the same time clipping and distortion.

For demonstration I prepared a quick video with a simple and dirty comparison of the KMC-1 to the Bose Soundlink Mini, which is the only portable speaker I currently have for comparison. It is rather unfair as the KMC-1 should be rather compared to similarly sized speakers, but even the small Bose manages to produce a more punchy sound up to medium levels. It is only when the Bose starts reaching its limits and automatically reduced bass, that the KMC-1 overtakes it with a louder more dynamic and more powerful sound, but we are talking about quite high volumes already, not really suitable for home listening. In this video the Bose was playing at about 50-60%, while the KMC-1 was matched volumewise:

I expected really more from the Klipsch KMC-1. I thought the KMC-1 would at least come close to the performance of its bigger brother KMC-3, but in reality it only sounded convincing at levels near maximum, while at the same time the speaker already struggled because of distortion.
A speaker that only sounds acceptable in a narrow volume-window is unusable for me, while others might prefer exclusively high volumes and nevertheless like the KMC-1, because it really sounds nice and powerful at higher levels, but the strong clipping made the overall listening experience rather frustrating for me. On the one hand you feel the need to crank the speaker, on the other hand if you crank it too much, the sound suffers.
Look and feel was certainly convincing,  but Klipsch could have done without the needless confirmation tones when the speaker is turned on or off, or when it pairs with another device.

I wouldn't want to recommend the Klipsch KMC-1 to anyone, as for comfortable home listening the sound is not good enough, while for loud outdoor use it is not powerful enough ending up with a distorted sound. Even if the KMC-1 was supposed to sound neutral, in reality it doesn't because the overall sound has a hollow character to it with rather biting treble.
If "boom" is really important I would actually choose the UE Wireless Boombox over the KMC-1, which meanwhile can be had for less than half the price. Although the UE Wireless Boombox also distorts at high levels, at least it is not sounding much worse at lower levels. An even better choice could be the TDK A33, which is smaller and sounds pretty good across the whole volume, but it won't play neither as loud as the Klipsch nor as the UE Wireless Boombox.

+ design and build quality
+ simple touch-UI, no hardware buttons
+ Apt-X for best streaming quality
+ NFC for quick pairing
+ powerful and precise bass at higher levels
+ hands-free
+ built in battery accessible

- sound unimpressive with hardly any bass at low levels
- thin and metallic sounding treble
- strong distortion at high levels
- annoying confirmation tones during on/off and pairing
- too big for given performance