Audio

Speaker features that amplify appeal

This small and pricey package packs a massive punch, projecting a stereo field that delivers surround sound without physical left or right speakers. Even when standing behind it, you can hear the music all around you.
This small and pricey package packs a massive punch, projecting a stereo field that delivers surround sound without physical left or right speakers. Even when standing behind it, you can hear the music all around you. PHOTO: MASS FIDELITY

Bluetooth speakers are small enough to tote around, yet big on sound. Some have extras that make them stand out

Portable Bluetooth speakers are more than just devices that amplify your music on the go. These days, they are packed with plenty of unique features, such as a pairing mode which offers stereo music playback across two speakers, to woo consumers. Some smaller ones also offer hands-free functions, so that drivers can keep them in the car to answer and make calls.

There are water- and splash-proof ones for outdoor use, while the higher-end ones have apps for users to tweak the sound to their liking.

Newer models, such the Creative iRoar, offer an optical connection, making them powerful enough to double as a soundbar for your home entertainment system, but still small enough to carry around.

For this review, we rounded up four of the latest portable speaker models in the market.

Bluetooth streaming was done using the free Guvera Music app, installed on an Apple iPhone 6s Plus.


Mass Fidelity Core

Think of the Mass Fidelity Core as the love child of the high-end Sonos speaker and any of the Bluetooth speakers in the market.

Priced almost as high as the Sonos speakers, the Core has a multiroom feature similar to Sonos', in which up to eight Core speakers can be paired to one music-playing device, to stream music across the home from one source.

Each Core has a battery that lasts 12 hours, and offers wired and wireless connections. It is also small enough to be carried around, although its boxy 15 x 15 x 10cm profile stretches the definition of portable.

Still, the five-driver unit trounces most Bluetooth speakers in every other regard.

Within the plastic shell are two front-firing drivers, with one driver each on the left and right side. They are wrapped with a thin black cloth mesh. There is also a downward-firing woofer.

  • TECH SPECS

  • PRICE: $899 (www.soundbuys.com.sg. )

    SPEAKERS: 5 x custom high output drivers

    Multiroom network

  • RATING

  • FEATURES: 5/5

    PERFORMANCE: 5/5

    BATTERY LIFE: 4/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 2/5

    OVERALL: 5/5

The controls are spread out across the unit. They consist of the volume and pairing buttons, as well as the near-field communications chip on the glossy top panel. The power button, along with the optical, USB and 3.5mm ports, are at the rear.

The first time I fired it up, I was stunned by the impact of the stereo soundscape that the speakers produced.

Despite its diminutive size, the Core was able to project left and right channel audio in any indoor room environment, allowing me to clearly hear the effect of a car racing by on my TV screen, explosions ripping across it and more.

The folks at Mass Fidelity attribute this to "Acoustic Holography", which recreates a stereo field that can deliver surround sound, without physical left or right speakers present.

The result of this is that no matter where you stand, even behind the only side of the Core without any drivers, you can still hear music from all around, as if you were standing in the middle of the room.

This small box also delivers plenty of boom at high volumes, and there was no need for me to place it strategically. Its small profile means that it can remain hidden in my bookshelf, or placed by my bedside and away from the TV across the room.

While the Mass Fidelity Core is pricey, it offers a unique and impressive set of features and performance, and is worth the investment.


JBL Pulse 2


The biggest advantage of the Pulse 2 is its ability for all-round dispersion of audio. And the splash-proof feature makes it a must-have for camping and the beach. PHOTO: JBL

Imagine the Blue Man Group performing each time you turn on the music.

The mix of coloured visuals, which is what the theatrical troupe is known for, is a huge part of JBL's Pulse 2 speaker, as there are LED lights that pulsate each time you play audio tracks through it.

When paired with an app, users can decide what colour light show presets they want to accompany their music.

Otherwise, they can use the prism sensor, located at the rear of the cylindrical speaker, to have it scan a new colour from any object. The scanned colour will then dance around the circumference of the speaker.

The prism does not always work, though, as some complex colours cannot be analysed and recreated by the LED lights.

  • TECH SPECS

  • PRICE: $339

    DRIVERS: 2 x 45mm

    PASSIVE RADIATORS: 2

    BATTERY: 6,000 mAh lithium-ion

  • RATING

  • FEATURES: 4/5

    PERFORMANCE: 4/5

    BATTERY LIFE: 4/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 3/5

    OVERALL: 4/5

A narrow vertical strip at the rear houses all the touch buttons, including power, volume, playback, Bluetooth pairing and Connect, which enables users to link to another Pulse 2 speaker, for a stronger sound.

The catch is that the sound from each of the paired speakers merely mirrors each other, instead of working as left and right speakers of a stereo pair. This is because the Pulse 2 is already offering stereo sound.

The biggest advantage of the Pulse 2 is its ability for all-round dispersion of audio. It can project music across a room, which makes tracks stand out even when I was moving around inside the room.

The splash-proof feature makes it a must-have for camping and the beach.

The volume controls here match the controls of your smartphone, but the audio output levels have been dialled up, so it plays more loudly.

This means that the Pulse 2 is more than capable of filling a larger room. Distortion of music is absent at higher levels, and the bass levels are excellent for a speaker of this size.

Vocals are crisp at regular volumes but while there is no distortion in the music at higher levels, the vocal tracks do get drowned out by the background music. But that's an expected issue, given the capabilities of a small speaker.

With the light show on, battery life will be affected. The unit touts 10 hours of music playback with the lights, and there is a row of indicator lights to reflect the amount of power remaining.


Elysium Zeon III


The Elysium Zeon III has a wedge design, such that when it sits on a flat surface, the front speaker is tilted upwards. This makes for less fuss when it comes to placement. PHOTO: ELYSIUM

The Elysium brand might be unknown to most Singaporeans, but the company behind it is not a newcomer.

The brand is the latest by Leapfroglobal Group, a local hardware start-up that covers gaming headsets, keyboards, laptop accessories and speakers, under various sub brands like PowerLogic, SonicGear and Armageddon.

The Elysium Zeon III has a wedge design, such that when it sits on a flat surface, the front speaker is tilted upwards.

This makes for less fuss when it comes to placement. The sound projects towards you when you place it on a desk. But even when you walk away, the sound projection remains relatively unaffected.

There is a selector knob for you to turn the machine on, and doing so turns on Bluetooth mode instantly. This knob is placed beside the volume and playback controls. All the controls are located on a tiny ledge above the front speaker grill.

  • TECH SPECS

  • PRICE: $99

    INPUT SENSITIVITY: 800mV

    OUTPUT POWER: RMS 5 Watts x 2

    BATTERY: 2,200 mAh lithium

  • RATING

  • FEATURES: 3/5

    PERFORMANCE: 3/5

    BATTERY LIFE: 3/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 5/5

    OVERALL: 3/5

Unlike the Razer and JBL speakers, the volume on the Zeon III works independently from the Bluetooth source, so users can finetune the volume a little more.

The bad bit is that the overall volume of the Zeon III is rather low, so I had to dial it up all the way on Bluetooth mode, just to get a decent beat. Audio levels were better on a wired connection.

The passive radiators are located on both sides and you can watch the vibrating and fast- moving "thumps" they deliver as the music gets channelled through them.

Overall, the bass levels of the unit can be a bit higher. But having less bass means that vocals have more emphasis.

This makes it great as a hands-free device to take calls, or to connect to your tablet while watching Netflix shows.

Those looking for a kick in listening to music might want to look elsewhere for a better groove but, at $99, the Zeon III is worth every cent.


Razer Leviathan Mini


Measuring 54 x 185 x 55mm, the Mini is small but packs a powerful punch. Overall, it has great bass focused on the mid range, and vocals punched through with clarity. PHOTO: RAZER

Razer, the company famed for its gaming accessories, moved into the audio market last year with its Leviathan soundbar, and it recently launched the two-driver Leviathan Mini portable Bluetooth speaker here.

Its move from the gaming room to the living room is not a big surprise, given that it also has the Forge TV Android set-top box, though that is not expected to be launched yet.

Having dabbled in gaming headsets, the company is no stranger to audio and it shows with the Leviathan Mini, which projected a wide range of soundscapes, all from a petite frame.

Measuring 54 x 185 x 55mm, the Mini is one of the smallest, yet more powerful, portable speakers I've tried. Its structure is not uniform though - the rectangular unit has some slanted sides that make for a bigger front and a smaller rear.

The speakers are front facing, and protected by a grill. The volume controls are on the top, while the power and Bluetooth buttons, along with the 3.5mm audio jack and USB charging slot, are located on the right edge of the unit.

  • TECH SPECS

  • PRICE: $279.90

    DRIVERS: 2 x 45 mm

    PASSIVE RADIATORS: 2 x 40 mm

    BATTERY: 2,600 mAH lithium-Ion battery

  • RATING

  • FEATURES: 3/5

    PERFORMANCE: 4/5

    BATTERY LIFE: 4/5

    VALUE FOR MONEY: 3/5

    OVERALL: 4/5

Pairing it with your Bluetooth device is simple, as pairing mode starts the moment the speaker is turned on. Otherwise, there is a separate Bluetooth button just for connecting devices to the speaker.

Between the volume buttons is a circular button, which is meant for pairing two Mini speakers to one source, to deliver stereo audio.

This Combo Play feature syncs both Mini speakers, and such schemes to expand the use of speakers look to be the way in which manufacturers now differentiate themselves in the market.

Overall, the Mini has great bass focused on the mid range. Vocals punched through with clarity, and it easily matched the JBL Pulse 2 in terms of sound balance, without over-emphasising on the bass.

In terms of portablity, the Mini offers the most bang for its size, with a battery life of 10 hours.

Still, the price is a tad on the high side, even if it does offer a well-rounded set of features.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2016, with the headline 'Speaker features that amplify appeal'. Print Edition | Subscribe