Today we’re looking at more portable sound!
Three pieces today; one wired, one wireless, and a couple of adapters that live between those two options. Each piece will deliver sound while you're away from your home base and all will fit in your pocket, purse, or backpack. I'll feature a bluetooth speaker from Soundfreaq that catches your eye with design. Also, a couple of bluetooth adapters from Jaybird to bring your more ancient gadgets into the present. Finally, some substantially natural wired wooden headphones from Griffin. For a detailed look at each piece, Read on...
Sound Spot by Soundfreaq
Soundfreaq is regularly featured on this site because they have been regularly releasing great product. The Sound Spot continues that momentum for the most part but a few omissions leave it a bit lacking compared to the current market. Nothing in recent memory seems more saturated than the portable wireless bluetooth speaker market of the moment. It's not that every company around offers a speaker, it's that they each offer 8 different models. It's starting to feel a bit like twitter as product release. People use to contain their thoughts, develop them, rewrite them and eventually publish a book. Twitter is a poorly written memoir published one sentence at a time. No restraint is used and the good stuff is often lost in the shuffle of the bad or ordinary. That's the feeling I get while looking at mobile bluetooth speakers today. Products are released multiple times a year missing key features. While they do end up appearing in subsequent updates, that doesn't do the buyer of version 1.0 any good. It's a poison that Apple introduced to the world. Purposefully holding back developed tech that's cheap to implement in order to save the “wow” (that isn't a wow) for the next version. Did you hear? The new iPhone has a dual flash!!!!!
Walking around the speaker, you'll see Soundfreaq's signature slatted look in a predominately plastic build with touch controls on top. Basic track forward/backwards, volume control, play/pause, and a pairing button. The only physical button is the power button which also has an indicator light integrated into it's center. The speaker is available in gloss black, gloss white, or a very intriguing white + wood combo. The Hydrographic wood grain is not actually wood at all. It's a composite material that feels a bit like cardboard but looks very much like actual wood down to the changing grain. When you get closer the jig is up, but the piece looks great on a shelf, especially considering the contrast of the white plastic speaker back. The front grille of the single large driver is made from painted metal for another nice contrast. The Sound Spot does use a single large speaker in place of the several small speakers you'd find in most mobile bluetooth speakers. While this defeats any true stereo separation, it does allow the speaker to reach higher peak volumes without cracking or hissing. The sound is actually very well done for the speaker's relative size and lower price. You'll get a very full experience with clear highs, decent mid tones, and the only real sacrifice is the lows. The size of the speaker would lead you to believe that the bass would be something to talk about here, unfortunately the speaker lacks a bit of punch unless you're very close and it means that you don't fully feel the music from across even a small room. Despite the lack of a more booming bass output, the Sound Spot is loud and clear at top volume making this a more ideal piece for vocal heavy music or podcasts. Sound Spot is also compatible with Soundfreaq's remote control app available for iOS and Android. It isn't a pretty app and it's interface is beyond basic. It won't play/pause or advance tracks for any other media player on your device and it certainly won't control any streaming apps like pandora or spotify. It's really a novelty and in the end it's a non factor. This really does need some attention. Across the board, Soundfreaq's remote app is the only undesirable part of their experience.
With the Sound Spot, you'll miss out on some of today's exciting newer features. Unlike Apple's model though, these bits and pieces seem to be left out for good reason, price. Though leaving out something like NFC is easy to overlook, it is difficult to accept the limitations of wired pairing of multiple speakers when Soundfreaq already has demonstrated functional wireless stereo pairing with the Sound Platform 2. The Sound Spot omits things like NFC, Apt-X, and a more premium build, but those sacrifices ultimately mean that this becomes a very decent sub $100 mobile speaker. I was only able to get my hands on a single Sound Spot speaker, so I can't speak to the wired daisy chaining unfortunately. In reading other accounts, while paired with bluetooth won't get true stereo sound but if you are manually connected to the aux input you'll get stereo separation for as far as the wired pairing allows. Without being able to physically separate the speakers to better fill a room, the draw is diminished for me. You're basically paying double and playing the same sound from two speakers to try to get a louder sound from a single source. If you just want volume, you need to find a better single speaker instead of trying to use two units to get your desired sound.
So just as people on twitter should keep some thoughts to themselves and companies should wait to release more fully featured products at reasonable prices, you should seriously consider waiting to save up your money and buy something that lives up to the full tech possibilities of the day, less you find yourself lusting after your neighbor's gadget with the latest extra something.
I've had a great experience with Soundfreaq's product but before you decide to pull the trigger on the sound spot, make sure some of the similarly priced bluetooth speakers aren't for you.
comparable alternatives (extra features highlighted) - ClarityHD by Monster (hands free calling), Syren by iLuv (NFC), Sony bluetooth speaker (NFC), SP1 by a.m.p. (hands free calling), MobiOut by iLuv (hands free, splash resistant)
iSport and uSport bluetooth adapters by JayBird
In my previous review of the sweat-proof BluebudsX wireless bluetooth headset from Jaybird, the headset was great, but I personally wanted a bit more. The built-in bluetooth radio of the headset is very functional, but it can only receive music from a source that can send bluetooth signals itself. My Galaxy Note 2 is a bit too bulky to carry around while jogging. Whatever you choice to store your music, some of us are still tied to devices that are bluetooth free. Most notable when considering a workout is Apple's 6th generation iPod Nano in a watch case. You might have read a roundup I'd done in the past covering the wide world of the iPod watch that almost was. Apple purposely left out bluetooth in an attempt to have something to “upgrade to” in version 2.0. Once they saw the tide of smartwatch popularity approaching, they completely changed the design of the 7th generation iPod nano. Now they prepare the same tech that should have been in the original 6th gen iPod nano for the iWatch that we'll see released soon. It's all dirty pool and if you're a regular reader you know better than to jump up and down in celebration when apple allows a new crumb to it's customers. Luckily JayBird saw the potential of allowing non-native bluetooth devices to surf the wireless sound waves.
The iSport is a bluetooth adapter with a 30-pin connection, a single button and a led indicator. Plug it into any compatible iOS device, press the button and put your speaker or headset in pairing mode. The two devices find each other automatically and you are off to the races. Sound was crisp, clear, and consistent but the one drawback is that with the single port taken up, you can not charge your device while streaming. Streaming eats battery during use because the adapter itself is not powered (it uses your device's internal battery charge). I'd consistently find about an hour of continuous playback using my nano with the iSport. It ends up being enough for a quick run, but it's a bit limiting for most workout regimens. I don't fault the iSport at all, a product like this is just a band-aid on Apple's purposefully created problems. The iSport allows you to at least have a taste of what Apple's product should have been at release.
Next is the uSport adapter, “U” standing for universal. This device also outputs bluetooth from a device that isn't natively capable of wireless sound. Instead of the iSport's 30 pin connection, the uSport uses a universal 3.5mm aux connection that will plug into any headphone jack and get the job done. It's a bit less tidy then the iSport with a 2” cable hanging from it's side. It's about double the size of the iSport and it isn't really suited to movement on it's own unless it's in a pocket. The real advantage here, besides universality, is that you can charge whatever device you're streaming from while still streaming. That means near limitless wireless sound from just about any device! Unlike the iSport, the uSport is powered on it's own. It charges with a proprietary cable (boo!) and takes about 2 hrs. to give you 8-10 hours of playback. It's a little more work and the proprietary charging cable is a truly terrible decision from the company, but you will be able to get through even the most rigorous bike ride, run, or trip to the gym and then some on a single charge.
A not very elegant, but still very usable solution to the flopping adapter was a rubber band to secure the uSport to the nano. I always keep a portable battery pack with me for when power runs low, and even though the connection to the uSport is specific, the charging end is a full size USB so you can charge anywhere easily as long as you remember the charge cable. With either option, things are workable but not ideal. Kudos to JayBird for having the foresight and consideration for their customers to release an attempted fix for those left suffering from Apple's poor design decisions.
Woodtones over-the-ear headphones by Griffin
It takes something special for me to feature a set of wired headphones on the site in today's wireless market. Wireless is getting cheaper and cheaper while delivering better and better sound. There will always be resistance to the new though. Whether you don't like having another device to charge or you just don't trust wireless sound yet, manufacturer's are still releasing wired options that you can get for a steal. Years ago, a set of cans like Griffin's WoodTones would cost you a couple of hundred dollars. Premium real wood construction, 90 degree pivoting ear cups, and a substantial size for comfortable all day use at under $100 is now possible.
WoodTones hope to hug your whole ear without any pressure points that can cause fatigue with prolonged use. They do a great job too. The ear cups are actually squared off because according to Griffin,
“your ears aren't circular, why should your headphones be any different?”
It's odd at first to see, but makes sense during use. A leather inner headband stretches to fit your head securely while two rubberized metal pipes above form a protective barrier against head bumps. The feel is flexible but strong. The large ear cups are backed in your choice of three actual wood finishes; walnut, beech, or sapele. Aside from small wood accent pieces on the detachable cord and the ear cup covers themselves, the headphones are predominately of a matte black plastic construction. The plastic brings cost down of course, but a decision like that can usually affect quality and aesthetics. Luckily, the fact that the plastic has a matte finish helps to retain a more premium look and feel overall while still coming in at the sub $100 price point. The headphones have also proven very durable throughout use thanks to the two part headband design. The bottom band handles comfort and fitment, while the top two thin rubber coated bands keep the whole piece feeling solid and cushions bumps while headbanging.
Nicer speakers have traditionally used wooden enclosures. Specifically MDF, or medium density fiberboard, which is a engineered wood which is basically made by mixing what amounts to sawdust and woodscraps with resin to form dense boards that sell for relatively cheap compared to hardwoods. MDF is king when it comes to speakers for a couple reasons. It's reasonably stiff, strong, very consistent internally compared to plywood and straighter than hardwood. Above all it's very dense, which helps to stop vibration which can alter sound. Plastic enclosures can offer a lot of the same pluses as MDF, but becomes expensive with the amount of plastic you'd have to use to make a thick walled enclosure. Most plastic headphones use thin plastic walls that can change sound in a bad way. I don't know how much the wood accents on the WoodTones truly affect the sound but the company claims,
“Griffin WoodTones headphones impart warm overtones that accentuate the mid-range. Vocals come alive, and low frequency bass emerges without distorting harmonics or clarity-destroying echoes. You'll notice an improvement in sound volume, as well; you may find yourself listening at a lower volume level than usual, yet enjoying it more. ”
Whatever the reason, the sound is full and the bass is deep. Mids are clear enough but a little light in my testing. Some instruments would get lost in more complicated arrangements, but overall, the pair looks and sounds great for the money. The inline microphone allows phone calls and is itself a multipurpose button. A long press activates either Siri on iOS or Google Now on Android. It also stops/starts phone calls and plays/pauses music. The headphones should work in theory with any device that utilizes a 3.5mm headphone port. Apple devices were fine as well as Android tablets and three different Android phones. For some reason, I could get system sounds and activate a voice search, but I could not get any media to play through the headphones when connected to my Verizon Samsung Galaxy Note 2, I suspect the issue is with the phone though and not the cans.
If your budget doesn't allow for the Over the ear version, Griffin sells the same look in the form of WoodTones earbuds which are available in the same wood finishes and with the same inline mic and control. They are a third the price, but obviously there is a compromise in sound. They are solid earbuds though if that's your preference. One point to meniton, they are very basic in terms of fit. You'll get the standard set of different sized cushions but no additional pieces to help secure the buds in your ear.
Thank you again to the companies above for supplying their product for this review.
ENJOY YOUR GADGETS!