We’re spoilt for choice when it comes to wireless portable speakers – they come in all shapes and sizes, calling out to us with the promise of great sound. But if you had to pick one, here’s our take of speakers large enough for great sound, with aesthetics and features that matter, yet small enough to bring about anywhere.
B&O BEOPLAY A2
The combination of its shimmering aluminum trim with carefully machined buttons, and the little leather strap to the side accentuates the premium look and feel of the A2. Unfortunately, the front and back speaker grill is made of plastic, which takes away some of the glitz and style. Among the four, the A2 is also the fl attest looking speaker, taking up less space on the table. Nonetheless, for a speaker modeled after a purse, it is bound to get people talking. While it’s necessary to showcase the A2, its upright design also means it topples easily if you’re not careful.
Feature-wise, the BeoPlay A2 feels sufficient. Besides the expected Bluetooth connectivity, it comes with a 3.5mm audio input port, so there’s always the option of wireless or wired audio. The A2 can remember up to eight devices, so switching between smartphones or users is easy. Like the Sony and the Creative speaker units, the A2 also comes with a 5V DC Out USB port for charging mobile devices. But what makes the USB output port more sensible than the other contenders is its battery life that boasts 24-hour playback, which is more than twice the playback time that other speakers of its tier can offer.
The BeoPlay A2 is a great performer too with clean playback, quite unlike how luxury brands tend to price themselves outside of their performance quality. It is similar in sound signature to the Sony, but the A2 comes with an even brighter feel that borders on a cold touch to everything it plays. It’s not the loudest speaker out of the four, but its sound certainly exudes class – with a few caveats, like lesser emphasis on midrange and a slight peaking at higher treble notes.
With its sound profile, we expected the BeoPlay A2 to completely dominate the Adele track. It did, but it lacked fi ll and volume in the midrange, while high frequencies were a slight challenge. It was excellent with Buckethead’s Sail On Soothsayer, with great reverb playback and managed to change a warm and gritty tune into a clear masterpiece. Needless to say, Hotel California was definitely enjoyable, with the BeoPlay A2 being the best at bringing out the track’s soundstage.
With all its factors considered, you would expect that the B&O to not only have excellent performance, but excellent design. It actually falls short in a few places, like its skinny standing room and its excessive use of plastic, but in return, you get a speaker with an intimidating battery life with great soundstage. It’s hard to ignore the A2 if we want to talk about hearing one of the best options here.
Stylish and excellent sound quality.
Skinny standing point with disproportionately heavy body.
CREATIVE SOUND BLASTER ROAR PRO
Physically, the new Sound Blast Roar Pro looks just like its predecessors. Its controls are lined up along the rubber spine, with large tactile buttons for key functions and smaller buttons for its special features. One interesting point to note is that the Roar Pro follows the five-driver layout of the first Roar speaker, instead of the Roar 2. As a whole, the grey-and-black wireless speaker feels thick and solid with an appearance to match.
The Roar Pro’s comes with a few new features, although the biggest is also a niche one. Besides playback, it can be used as a portable loudspeaker for live performances or speeches, but requires a separate $129 wireless microphone accessory, the iRoar Mic for this to work. Besides this, the Roar Pro does come with handy add-ons out of the box, such as a built-in audio profile selector for warm, neutral, or energetic sound. It also comes with aptX Low Latency support, for even lower delay playing back songs wirelessly from an Android device. The new speaker also has a 10-hour playback time, which is a two-hour increase from the first two Roars. The Roar Pro also keeps all the core features introduced before such as recording mode, the volume-increasing Roar button and the TeraBass button.
The Roar Pro’s sound signature is rounder with a more compact soundstage when compared with the Sony wireless speaker. The soundstage gives a very different closed-door performance feel to the Roar Pro, but it rounds off the midrange frequencies too much as well. The bass handling is not overdone like the Pulse 2, but it’s quite clear to us that the Roar Pro is bass-heavy and aggressive in general. It has a great time handling Adele’s distortion and bass on Melt My Heart to Stone, but the keyboards and guitar feels muted compared to the other frequencies at play. We expected Tiesto’s Elements of Life to do well due to its hard-hitting nature, but even the electronic song was too complex when it came to the less noticeable details, such as the full synths and galloping beats.
All in, the Sound Blaster Roar Pro does have what it takes to be the best. If you value features at the cost of some sound quality, the Roar Pro is a no brainer, especially when up against the nearly feature-less Sony SRS-X55. While it may not be versatile for all music genres, the features ensure that you get to use it even in different audio situation that’s not always related to playback.
Feature filled, with some use one way or another.
Different materials used in chassis design can be clashing.
JBL PULSE 2
JBL returns with the second version of their bottle-shaped light show. Dubbed the Pulse 2,it is the same wireless portable speaker with its signature multi-colored LED lights, except it’s slightly larger in height and width, has improved control placement and new gimmicks to capitalize on. At fi rst glance, the Pulse 2 has a visibly finer mesh for its LED feature, with controls spaced out lengthwise across the speaker. In place of the predecessor’s old control pad is a passive radiator, with the same radiator on the other cylindrical end. Build quality is very impressive – the device as a whole feels sturdy and is also splashproof, adding to its overall durability.
JBL made some changes to the Pulse 2’s LED display (which they call Light Show), by removing the old color selection dial and implementing a new color picker called JBL Prism. JBL Prism lets you choose your desired color by pointing and shooting the color-picking camera lens at any object; the LED display should then follow your new color choice. While gimmicky, it does open up more options for a feature that’s already unique amongst the competition. Still, it’s important to note that fi ring up Light Show will half its playback time; the Pulse 2 can last for about 10 hours otherwise. This version comes with Bluetooth 4.1 for wireless efficiency, but does away with NFC, which isn’t really missed. There’s a 3.5mm Aux In port if you like to stream your audio the old-school, wired method.
Performance-wise, the Pulse 2 did better in bringing out Sail On Soothsayer’s pacing and nuances in the gritty electric guitar parts. Adele’s Melt My Heart to Stone saw some instrumentals missing out on detail in favor for her vocals, which made the track sound hollow, but still enjoyable. Overall, the Pulse 2 favors bass-heavy tracks, with lower frequencies portraying more vigor. Unfortunately, there’s detail loss on the higher frequencies. It has a good soundstage despite its boomy bass signature and is capable of music loud enough for your average bedroom, making it ideal for noisy gatherings, but not for a quiet evening in with your favorite songs.
Getting such a flashy speaker does have its benefits, given how the audio dispersion, volume and signature are designed for small parties. The JBL Pulse 2 could use a more versatile sound signature and better attention to audio details, but Light Show is bound to keep you and your guests enthralled.
Visually exciting to own.
Not the most versatile speaker.
You would think that the Sony SRS-X55 portable speaker as unwieldy and heavy with its listed weight at 1.2kg, but with its 51mm-wide width, it actually feels smaller and easier on the grip compared to other lighter contenders, like the JBL Pulse 2. The X55 adopts a brick-shaped exterior with the front and back featuring its metal audio grill, and the sides feature machined aluminum panels against a plastic matte body. While the X55 looks and feels premium, its glossy glass top panel is prone to attracting dust, dulling its aesthetics somewhat. The back mesh gives you a glimpse of its two passive radiators from the grill gaps, which tells us that the speaker can project sound beyond the front.
The X55 comes with standard features for taking in audio – Bluetooth 3.0 and NFC for wireless users, and a 3.5mm Aux In port for wired sound. There’s a USB 2.0 port for charging your mobile device using the speaker, making it a thoughtful and practical addition, since you might have to sacrifice one wall socket for the speakers when you are intending stream higher-powered audio (the subwoofer can go up to 20W when X55 is plugged in to a power source). While the control buttons are handy, they’re not very intuitive. Only the power button and phone-call button are tactile, while the volume rocker, Bluetooth pairing, and play button are non-tactile touch buttons, making it hard for the user to do minor adjustments simply by feeling up the speaker. It doesn’t help that the volume buttons are less responsive.
It’s not hyperbole when we say that the X55 has the most balanced sound signature of the four we’ve shortlisted. It offers a chill and crispy sound signature paired with an open soundstage. Pushing the X55 to its limits doesn’t make it peak or distort either, which is surprising for a $300 wireless speaker. This performance quality was most evident on the live rendition of Hotel California by The Eagles, the X55 managed to produce good and spaced out positioning of instruments, plus its ability to separate multiple vocal tracks from each other.
It may not have the friendliest controls, but the X55 makes up for it with easy use, practical form factor, pleasant physical appeal, and its good performance - even before factoring the cost into equation.
Excellent sound balance and feel.
Speaker controls are not user-friendly.
HELLO, IS IT BLUETOOTH YOU’RE LOOKING FOR?
We often take for granted the Bluetooth profiles and codecs that are supported. The abbreviations actually do mean something, but it does take a little bit to explain what each one offers. For your benefit, here’s what some of the most common Bluetooth profiles actually offer – it would do users well to mentally note them down so they can choose the correct speaker for their setup.
A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile) means that the device is Bluetooth-enabled for audio in high-quality mono or stereo via asynchronous connection-less (ACL) channels. The audio will go from a source (the music file, or a piece of recording from your microphone) to your audio sink (your headphone, or the music/voice recorder).
AVRCP (Audio/Video Remote Control Profile) is a technology that lets you alter your target, such as your speaker or even lightbulb, to have its properties altered via a remote control like your smartphone. It sounds pretty straight-forward in nature, but a Bluetooth profile lacking this feature would mean that your physical device’s control can only be altered by walking to the speaker's controls. Since your audio is already a wireless connection, we’ve come to expect the same convenience on your speaker.
AptX is a proprietary audio codec compression algorithm that isn’t owned by Bluetooth, although you’ll see it marketed under the Bluetooth compatibility specifications. That’s because AptX compresses data over Bluetooth in a way Bluetooth doesn’t, and the result is the ability to stream CD-like quality over the wireless connection. There’s one catch: both your audio source (phone) and your playback device (wireless speaker) must have AptX support, or your playback will automatically fall back on the lower quality SBC (a low-complexity subband coding that values energy efficiency over audio performance). Many sources have AptX, but not Apple’s iPhones – they have other workarounds to it (like support for proprietary, wireless AAC audio).
AND THE BEST PORTABLE SPEAKERS IS
Portable wireless speakers have come a long way from a niche accessory to boost the tinny audio from your smartphone to being able to produce powerful-room filling sound. Last year, Creative showed some of the big boys that innovation can come in a modest all-round package with the Roar and this year’s Roar Pro improved on functionality, but with added cost. The B&O BeoPlay A2 on the other end of the scale also proves what premium audio can be worth.
However, the stand out speaker this time has to be the Sony SRS-X55. It performs equally as good as the BeoPlay A2at almost half the price and has a better grasp of a wider range of music than the Roar Pro. Put aside aesthetic and functional gimmicks, and you’ll find that the Sony SRS-X55 is a speaker with almost impeccable audio delivery for its size.