Small Bluetooth Speakers

Paleo Retiree writes:

Currently living out of suitcases in a small, furnished sublet far away from our usual city, my wife and I recently found ourselves craving a speaker. Earphone-listening is great but sometimes it’s fun to share music, and sometimes one wants a little music in the background when having friends over. Neither of us felt a need for anything extravagant or permanent. Something small — something not too expensive, as well as something we can travel with — would suit us fine.

So for the last week we’ve been treating ourselves to a lot of agonizing over which small Bluetooth speaker to buy. I read a lot of reviews and ordered up four of the most praised devices, ranging in price from $100 to $300. We’ve listened to all kinds of music on the gizmos, from Mento songs to Cecilia Bartoli singing Vivaldi; from Motown to Boulez conducting Mahler; from intimate jazz to historical opera recordings. We’ve been setting the speakers next to each as well as moving them around our rooms. It’s been an orgy of comparing and contrasting.

We’ve finally settled on a winner, which I’ll share at the end of this posting. But I can’t resist saying that what I found most intriguing about the process was less the conclusion than the getting-there. The main thing that took me by surprise about the process has been how much psychological (and not purely-audio) factors colored our reactions to the speakers. My wife and I both have decent ears as well as some background in music. Though we aren’t by any means hyper-picky audiophiles, we’re both capable of some fussiness and snobbery where sound and music go. That said, it wasn’t just the sound quality of the devices that led to our final decision.

I’ll run through the speakers in the order I acquired them.

Riva S

riva-s-1-565c5a218141d

Recently released and much-touted by audiophiles, the Riva S is a dignified, Euro-seeming, silver and black minimalist box about the size of a stack of crackers. It’s such a refined and dense little package — like a tiny BMW — that even the voice that announces that the device has entered pairing mode speaks with an uppercrust English accent. Of the four speakers we tried, the $250 Riva S offered up what was unquestionably the most detailed and precise sound. The accuracy and evenness of the sound struck me as quite the virtuosic tech achievement, in fact. There was no mooshiness, boominess or shrillness; the sound was clean, distortion-free and balanced from low to high. The bass sounds weren’t thumps and booms, they were specific notes, just very low ones. The trebles never whistled or went tinny, and the mids never got sucked into a sonic morass. This isn’t sound quality, or a device, for the beer-swillin’, Beyoncé-worshippin’ masses, in other words.

Downsides: the price, which seems a little high. And a psychological one: Given that we aren’t talking about a huge, life-enveloping sound system, how much difference does an extra 5% of detail really make? Do you really want your small Bluetooth speaker to be audiophile-quality? There were a lot of moments when I found myself enjoying, say, the extra bit of color (the woody/reediness of a clarinet, for instance) that the Riva S enabled me to discern. But there were other times when the experience reminded me of hearing a really good stereo system playing a couple of rooms away. The Riva S was like a miniature version of a really great speaker system, in other words. And as a physical thing the Riva S can feel a little precious. Are these bad things or good things? At times I really didn’t know.

Incidentally, if you choose to give the Riva S a try, do give it time to break in. Where the other speakers sounded like they ultimately sounded right off the bat, the Riva S took hours to settle in. In the case of the specific device I was sent, the diff between how it sounded straight out of the box — perplexingly offbase — and how it sounded three or four hours later (refined, knitted-together and grownup) was really dramatic.

Bose SoundLink III

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Curious about how the controversial Bose (Bose devices are always love-‘em-or-hate-‘em) would compare to the Riva S — the two of them are considered to be the high end of the small-and-portable Bluetooth-speaker genre — I picked one of these up at the Apple Store for $299. As a physical thing it’s bigger than the others — about the size of a hardback novel — but it isn’t so big that we couldn’t travel with it. And, who knew, maybe the larger size would allow it to pump out extra sound without straining.

I liked the look and feel of it. The SoundLink III conveys the same kind of silvery, high-end design-and-engineering feeling that the Riva S does. But the sound threw both my wife and me for a loop. At first we grinned at each other: happiness, achieved. We were ready to pull the trigger then and there. But as the minutes passed … Well, while there were times when we were happy with what we were hearing, there came along other, just as numerous, times when we found ourselves frowning at each other about it. It was such a now-I’m-happy/now-I’m-unhappy rollercoaster ride for both of us that, as the days went by, we found ourselves playing the Bose less and less.

I’ve never lived with a Bose device, but I’ve spent plenty of guy-time in electronics stores and I can report that all the Bose devices I’ve sampled have struck me the same way this one did. As far as I can tell, Bose engineers are big on first impressions. The sound is nearly always impressive as hell at first listen; then it turns into something that makes me feel like I’ve fallen off a cliff and lost myself in total confusion. Why is such big bass also so indistinct? Why are some of the sounds in the midrange overvivid while others seem squashed? Where are the notes? Everything seems deliberately and expertly engineered, but to what end? Given that the Bose approach doesn’t suit me much, all I can do is guess. And my guess is that the SoundLink III is applying tons of behind-the-scenes trickery in an effort to make a superdeluxe impression. In any case, my wife and I weren’t having it; we reacted to the trickery by getting confused and tuning out. Having said all that, some people are devoted to the brand. They adore the heavily-massaged Bose sound and don’t mind the high prices. Maybe you’re one of them, and if so, god bless.

After test-driving the silvery high end products I decided the time had come to explore two well-reviewed but much-cheaper speakers: Denon’s Envaya Mini and JBL’s Flip 3. First impression with both of them: Liked ’em! We found the unprentiousness and compactness of the devices approachable and friendly. And the sounds coming out of them were so straightforward and clear that the Bose went right back into its box. I kept the Riva S around as a kind of reference monitor for further comparing and contrasting.

Denon Envaya Mini

denon

For $150 you get a solid, heavy device that’s about the size of a big hot dog on a roll, with a look that strikes me as fun without being idiotically flashy. It’s a satisfying, unfussy thing to share a room with, as well as to grab and move around. As for the sound: of all the devices, this one pumped out the most pleasing music. The Envaya Mini isn’t the loudest of the speakers, and it can’t compare in refinement to the Riva S. But the music it delivered struck me as wonderfully warm and creamy. For once I was feelin’ the music rather than puzzling out the engineering decisions behind it. The music hangs together and flows; the device conveys more of the music’s emotion than the others do, even the Riva S. Some reviewers praise the Envaya’s “sound stage” and marvel at how such a small thing manages to create stereo effects. I found that this mattered only so long as I was within a couple of feet of the device, which, in practice, I never was.

Too bad then about its battery. The more I investigated people’s reactions to the Envaya Mini online, the more unhappiness I ran into with the battery. People love the sound but unanimously write that the battery life isn’t great, and about one out of every three consumers has encountered a genuinely bad problem, ranging from batteries that lose their entire charges in mere months to lousy customer service from Denon. Given how seductive I found the device’s sound, it caused me no little pain to return this one. But, since “simple, reliable and easy” are three of my bywords when it comes to electronic devices, back to Amazon the Envaya Mini went.

JBL Flip 3

jbl

To get the bad news out of the way up front: the sound of the $99 JBL Flip 3 is goosed at the treble and bass ends. The engineers were clearly striving to force the tiny device (it’s about the size of a beer can) to project bigness. Some sounds get so picked-out and highlighted that they can seem to be detaching themselves from the rest of the music. Loud flutes and cymbals especially can get shrill. The music can fly apart and the mids can do occasional vanishing acts. You have to make the most allowances when you’re listening to 19th century orchestral stuff: deep, turbulent and murky performances do not show this device off at its best, to put things mildly.

All that said, the sound this dinky thing kicks out generally is amazingly clean, tight and clear. The device can get louder than I’ll ever want it to. It’s bright and up-front, perhaps unrelentingly so — the Flip 3 seems to be optimized for the kind of all-foreground, all-highlights music that most everyday people listen to most of the time. But its devotion to keeping sounds clear and separate delivers payoffs too, even if you don’t bother much with conventional pop. The Flip 3 delivers good results with Baroque music, country and small-ensemble jazz — with any music that’s made up of distinct lines. Though the device’s sound quality doesn’t match the delicacy of the Riva S or the smoothness of the Envaya Mini, it has more presence and more immediacy than either of them. The sound is always right there with you. (We thought the device worked best when it wasn’t placed against a wall or in a corner.) And, as a physical thing that one will handle and have in one’s life for a few years, it’s a very likable package, rugged-feeling and a snap to use. People online report good luck with the battery life — 10 hours!  — as well as ease with managing the battery. Verdict: the Flip 3 is a more populist product than the Riva S, but it’s also rugged, it’ll travel well, it’s a good enough performer and it’s cheap.

So, of the four speakers we tried out, we wound up buying and keeping the one with the third-best sound. Sound quality was important in our decision-making, but so were many other factors, including price, physical feeling, design and pretension-level. Isn’t it interesting how many elements go into what we prefer “hearing”? It is to me, anyway.

A few unrelated words …

  • For the first thing: wow, is there ever a lot of yak online about Bluetooth speakers. Who knew? The main thing that struck me about the way many people talk about Bluetooth speakers was how misleading the excitable and highflown language they often use can be. The language gets so fancy and picky that you could be forgiven for thinking that what’s being compared and debated are devices capable of replacing a full-sized stereo system. They aren’t. As impressive and as handy as many of them are, these speakers are at best the equivalent of a midlevel car stereo system. Maybe because I’m old and easily taken-in by critical language, I was expecting these little things to deliver really sumptuous and ravishing sound and was taken aback when they turned out to deliver quite a lot less than that. It took me a full day or two to come down to earth. All that said: Now that I view these small Bluetooth speakers as, basically, table radios, I really am quite impressed by them.
  • If you disappear down the rabbit hole that is researching-Bluetooth-speakers-online, you’re soon going to run into the phenomenon that is Oluv. Oluv is a German or Austrian (I assume) guy who — apparently in his spare time — blogs and makes videos about his reactions to Bluetooth speakers. Where  amateur-Bluetooth-speaker-reviewers go, he’s The Man. He’s also smart, helpful and informed (and, god knows, industrious), and I admire the heck out of his work. He’s cranked out hundreds of postings, videos and Amazon reviews. Ain’t it great that amateurs with drive, knowledge and enthusiasm can now put their contributions in front of the world? (Note to self: Write a reflection about personal filmmaking, triggered off by Oluv’s videos. Short version: It’s great that people today can communicate with video — and doesn’t one hope that some everyday video-communicators will use at least some filmmaking resources? I sure do. But filmmaking of a traditional sort — staging, lighting, editing, all that — is a huge pain in the ass. You’d have to be crazy to do too much of it without being paid. So how much filmmaking can a non-pro, non-crazy video-communicator be reasonably asked to supply? Oluv seems to me to hit a nice balance: a whole lot less than a flashy TV show, but quite a lot more than just turning a webcam on and off.) All that said — and all that appreciation sincerely expressed — my actual reactions to the speakers are often a little different than Oluv’s, though not without considerable overlap. (Oluv is a big partisan of the Riva S and the Envaya Mini, for instance.) Where tips and quick reactions go, I find that my ears and preferences correspond more closely to the reviewers at the British magazine What Hi-Fi?

About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff, formerly Michael Blowhard. Now a rootless parasite on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
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7 Responses to Small Bluetooth Speakers

  1. plwinkler says:

    “As far as I can tell, Bose engineers are big on first impressions.”

    My former editor J. Gordon Holt (the late founder of Stereophile magazine) described this phenomenon as “boom and tizz”: a purposefully exaggerated bass and treble. It sounds impressive in showrooms with high levels of ambient noise, but soon becomes fatiguing to listen to over extended periods of time.

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  2. Gary Reams says:

    I used to love Boom and Tizz’s lounge act in Vegas back in the 70’s and 80’s.

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  3. Fenster says:

    I get your point about people mistaking these little things–nice as they are–for bigger, fuller sound systems. It seems odd to me that as video quality has gone up and up for the past decades audio quality, and the expectations for audio quality, have gone down and down. Truly, my 70s and 80s stereo systems were better than what passes nowadays. Records were bumped by tapes, supplanted by CDs, challenged by mp3 and now we have streaming. Over ear buds, small speaker systems or, at best, good headphones. Not that I have anything against good headphones: my budget sound system in the late 60s was a reel to reel, turntable and headphones, and they can work. But it is not the same thing as the audio coming at you in space.

    My son, who is at college, confirms that no one he knows has a real sound system–phones and cans is about it.

    My daughter just inherited my mid 80s system when she bought a turntable for “vinyl”. Good for her. So I went off to the half-retail half-Goodwill store Savers and bought a new ‘system’. My wife is not happy since it takes up space and our place is small. But I got some large and impressive Sony speakers for $10 (with the senior Tuesday discount!) and $20 for a high end amplifier. Hog heaven.

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    • JV says:

      I agree, we still have some Sony cabinet speakers from the early 80s and a decent JVC amp of about the same vintage. While the sound from that combo isn’t as complex as from our surround sound system, it’s warmer and, more importantly, bigger. When I turn it up there’s a physicality and presence to it that I guess comes from the sheer size of the cabinets and cones. Vinyl sounds just great on it. Alas, we’ve put them in the guest room which is mostly used by our kids to hang out and play video games in, so I rarely play music there. It’s hard to beat the convenience and unobtrusiveness of a built in system.

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  4. Pingback: In Praise of Apple Music’s Playlists | Uncouth Reflections

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