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Bluetooth Speakers Review

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Continuing my series on accessories for the Samsung Galaxy S4 (cases and screen protectors were previous installments), let's look at Bluetooth speakers. This installment applies to any cell phone, but I tested with the S4.
Here, there are many choices, and I won't pretend to have surveyed them all. But I'll say this: for a great speaker that kicks (b)ass - but not at the expense of bright mids and highs - check out the bem (pronounced "beam") HL2022 wireless mobile speaker. It's a sensuous cube with slightly concave surfaces, available in white, black, and vibrant red, green, orange and purple. The unit is made from matte-finish soft-surface plastic, with soft-touch (rubberized) non-physical volume control and play/pause buttons. There are no track skip buttons. Pairing is easy and subsequently connecting is hassle-free. Power on is announced by a slightly annoying beep. Overall, this device features a fun design that makes you just want to handle it - and it sounds great.
The bem also includes a 3.5mm aux in jack, in case you want to feed it tunes by wire rather than wirelessly. The charging port is a mini-USB port, rather than the somewhat more common micro-USB port. That means that you'll want to be sure to bring the bem unit's USB cable with you, since the Samsung's charging cable won't fit. The other end of the cable is a standard full-size USB Type A cable, which will plug into your PC, laptop or Sammy charger - or an external battery (power bank) - when it's time to juice up the speaker.
But wait, there's more. The bem wireless also has a 3.5mm aux out jack. Using the jack, you can attach the speaker to the audio in on your stereo system amplifier. That way, the bem speaker will be silent and will act simply as a Bluetooth receiver for your stereo, allowing you to beam tunes from your S4 to your home stereo.
Do you prefer spheres to cubes? Then check out the GOgroove BlueSYNC OR3. It's rubberized black with glossy blue accents. Unlike the bem, its controls include track skip forward/back, as well as volume and play/pause. However, I found it slightly less bassy, and more prone to distort at the highest volumes. The power cable is slightly unconventional: one end is a USB Type A, while the end that plugs into the speaker is a round plug. That means you'll need to carry the power adapter with you to recharge (and will need to be near an AC outlet). There are no aux in or out jacks.
Also in the 2QT category, not reviewed but with high ratings on Amazon, are the iHome iDM8R, and Accessorise Portable Bluetooth Wireless Mini Speaker.
One thing these units lack is a microphone that would allow using the speaker as a speaker phone. If you're looking for this feature, try the DBEST Eiffel 2, a cute speaker that resembles R2-D2. The bass is decent, though not as deep as the bem cube puts out. Overall sound quality is good, and it's much better for phone calls than the speaker built into the S4. The Eiffel buttons include track skip in addition to volume control and play/pause - frustratingly, though, all three of those functions are controlled by a single button. You press down to play or pause, you slide forward to skip ahead, and slide forward while pressing down to raise the volume (and similarly for skip back / volume down). Or maybe you slide forward to raise the volume, and slide forward while pushing down to skip ahead. It's easy to forget which is which, and that's the problem.
The speaker can (but need not) be set on an included dish-shaped base - sort of like a flower pot sitting on a saucer, but with a twist: the speaker and base couple magnetically. In addition, the base has an adhesive disk on the bottom that can be exposed so that you can actually mount the base vertically, then pop the speaker in. The adhesive might peel off paint, so a DBEST reseller recommended it for use on such surfaces as metals (refrigerators), glass (windshields) and plastics (dashboards of a car). He said also that it might take a flathead screwdriver or something similar to remove it. I didn't test the adhesive.
The Eiffel has an aux in jack, but no aux out jack. Also noteworthy: the speaker diaphragm mechanism is partially exposed. That means that if you transport it, you'll want to use the enclosed cloth bag to protect it from damage.
Purists will note that these are mono speakers, as are most Bluetooth speakers. If you want a stereo speaker, the handsome JBL Flip (available in black and in white) is a great choice. It really moves air - translation: great bass - and doesn't distort even at the shockingly high max volume. Like the iHome, this unit uses a charger with an old-style round plug rather than a USB plug charger; this is frustrating, for the reasons noted above. There are no track skip buttons; a minor point. Still, JBL is noted for high quality speakers, and this unit does not disappoint in that regard.
The Flip is a speakerphone as well as a speaker, but the sound on the other end is a bit muffled. Also, although you can answer the phone by pressing the phone button on the speaker, I found it was not possible to hang up the phone this way on the S4. (Presumably it will work properly with older phones; the S4 uses Bluetooth 4.0.)
JBL also offers a unit at a higher price with similar sound but fewer features (no speakerphone): the JBL Charge, available in your choice of boring grey or fun lets-go-to-the-beach green or blue. Unlike the Flip, it charges using a USB charger; it also has a USB out charging port so you can use the unit to charge your phone. According to the specs, you get 12 hours of listening time from the Charge vs. 5 hours from the Flip. Perhaps that accounts for the price difference. Once again, the unit offers great JBL-quality sound.
Both the Flip and the Charge have aux in jacks, though not aux out.
If you're looking for stereo in a more budget oriented unit, the iHome iBT24 will fit the bill. It's a playful looking rubberized neon green brick (also available in funky purple and blah! gray). There's an on/off switch but no volume or track skip controls, so you'll need to make those adjustments on the phone itself. It loud and bassy, but in stereo. It includes aux in and aux out jacks.
The JBL and iHome speakers are each single units with two speakers. What if you want some stereo separation? Here, one of a small number of choices is from DBEST, the attractive PS4003BT, available in various colors of soft-touch plastic. The sound isn't as bassy as the bem or even the Eiffel, let alone JBL's units (which, of course, are higher-priced), but mids and highs are good. The units connect to each other via a wire; the wireless part is the connection between the phone and one of the speakers.
Perhaps you'd rather listen to music through your home stereo. As mentioned above, the bem and iHome speakers can be used as a bridge for this purpose, but you might prefer a dedicated device, such as the Monoprice Bluetooth music receiver. It plugs into the RCA line-in connection on your stereo using the included 3.5mm-to-RCA cable. (RCA cables are the old-style standard for analog audio: two separate plugs, one for Left and one for Right.) You can also connect it to the Aux input on your stereo using a 3.5mm-to-3.5mm cable (not included, but readily available). You then easily pair the device to your phone (or to as many phones as you'd like, according to the manual). Pairing also connects the device to your phone; each time you want to use the device, you go to your phone's Bluetooth menu and reconnect (but do not need to re-pair).
If you balk at having to return to the Bluetooth menu each time you want to reconnect), spend a few more bucks and go for the Belkin Bluetooth HD Music Receiver. It features tap-and-pair / tap-and-connect technology. If your phone is NFC enabled, as the S4 is, just tap it against the Belkin unit to establish communication without going through any menus. Sometimes it took me two taps for the tap to register, but other than that, I found the unit performed as advertised. Another plus: the Belkin unit supports (and includes cables for) digital coax as well as 3.5mm-to-RCA.
Another tap-and-pair unit, not tested but highly rated on Amazon, is the HomeSpot NFC-enabled Bluetooth Audio Receiver.
Ok, party time's over. Time to go to sleep.
Wow, now it's time to wake up. Morning always comes too soon. Let's take a shower together, shall we? No, not you and me - we haven't even met. I'm talking about you and your S4. Samsung calls the phone a "life companion" - hey, I don't make this stuff up - and everyone likes to take showers with their life companion. Phone+water usually = goodbye phone, so let's consider a shower speaker and leave the phone on the sink where it can stay dry.
Here's my wish list for shower speakers: a timeout so it will shut itself off if you forget to, volume buttons, loud volume, decent sound (doesn't have to be great considering that you won't hear nuances in the shower anyway), track skip buttons, speakerphone, caller ID (ideally), multipoint (multidevice) pairing (for use in households with more than one person, i.e., more than one device), secure hook so it will hang on a shower head, small size so it fits in a shower caddy, and rechargeable batteries.
Sadly, no device seems to have it all. (Manufacturers, are you listening?) I took a look at reviews of competitive units, and the Hipe is the only one that meets all of these criteria, except for caller ID (so far as I know, no manufacturer's units have this). So the Hipe is the one I tested. The hook flexes disconcertingly, but seems in no danger of breaking and, in any case, works fine. Alternatively, you can put the Hipe in a shower caddy (it fit easily in mine - the unit looks wider in pictures than it actually is). The sound was plenty loud and the quality was perfectly serviceable for a shower speaker. Pairing was easy, and reconnecting was automatic. All of the buttons worked as advertised, and the design is attractive. If you're looking for shower tunes, I recommend the Hipe.
Once you're out of the shower and beginning your day, you'll probably be on the move. Let's rock out with some earphones. (Granted, these don't fit within the review's headline, "Bluetooth Speakers," but, hey, bear with me.) I tested the a-JAYS One+. Available in black or white, it's a fashion-forward choice. The thick, flat cable resists tangling and looks great, though its bulk can create distracting "cable thump" as you move around. The microphone includes a single multifunction button that plays or pauses music, or answers or ends a call. If you download a free JAYS Android app, you can control volume and skip tracks by doing things like double clicking the button or clicking and holding. It's a quirky approach that takes a bit of coordination, as well as memorizing what each combination of clicks and holds means.
On the subject of sound, perhaps you prefer a Bluetooth earpiece? I love the BlueAnt Q3, a new offering that's as light as a feather and quite smart looking. You can wear it without an earloop, which is what I prefer. It pairs easily and reconnects automatically when powered on. I found the sound crisp and clear on both ends, and the voice guidance ("Your phone is connected," etc.) is helpful. The earpiece easily downloaded my phone's address book after pairing with my S4; when people called, the earpiece read out their name or number and then asked me say "Answer" or "Ignore."
Oh, another thing about the Q3: it appears to be at least somewhat waterproof. It was in my jeans when I threw them into the washer, and it still worked when I found it - fortunately before putting everything in the dryer. The headset was off at the time, and the battery was depleted, both of which probably helped. In any case, don't try this at home (or at the laundromat).
I also like the BlueAnt S4 car speaker. It features the same great user interface as the Q3 and the sound is loud and clear. I haven't tried washing it, however, and don't intend to.
Get out of that car and grab your bike. Now it's time to rock out with the aptly-named Scosche boomBOTTLE. Available in your choice of boring gray or beachy cyan (blue), magenta (pink/red), green and yellow, this tough, weatherproof (e.g., splash resistant, not waterproof) speaker is shaped like a bottle - well, duh - and fits in most bicycle water bottle cages, the company promises. There's also a carabineer so you can snap the thing on your backpack, and a captive port cover that protects the micro USB (charging) and aux in ports. You can also use the device as a speakerphone. The 3 buttons (multifunction, and volume up/down) are large and easy to use, and a female voice acknowledges "power on," excitedly reports "connected!" and glumly informs you "disconnected," as the case may be. The overall aesthetic is very rugged and appealing, as much at home on an urban biking commute as a dirt biking adventure.
Oh, and did I mention the sound? With the boomBOTTLE, you can alert passing traffic, annoy pedestrians and terrify wildlife by rocking out at high volumes with little distortion. Overall, the sound is quite good, but not great - mids and highs are a little muddy, and the bass is good but not stomach-churning. The speakers are omnidirectional, and as a result, there's no stereo separation at all - you're very aware that the tunes are coming from within the speaker. That is, there's not as much "presence" as I'd wish. But when you're outside on a bicycle, who cares? The boomBOTTLE is a perfect choice for two-wheeled travel.
Back from our bike ride and the day's still a scorcher. What better way to enjoy global warming than a dip in the pool? You can take your tunes with you, too, thanks to the Grace Digital Ecoxgear ECOXBT, available in black, red or industrial orange. It's waterproof, and - yes - it floats. Indeed, it floats with the speaker side up. It offers volume control but, like most of the speakers reviewed here, does not have track skip buttons. It charges using a mini USB port, not micro USB. That port, and the aux in, are behind a removable port cover. There's a lanyard to save the port cover from getting lost, but there's no attachment point on the body of the speaker. That's a design misstep: it means you have to attach the lanyard to the adjacent (right) handle, which looks unsightly and interferes with using the handle to carry the device.
A larger concern is that the ECOXBT's sound is somewhat tinny and thin. It didn't wow me. But if you want tunes that will float amidst the fun in the middle of the pool, the ECOXBT fills the bill.
Now it's evening, and time for a more refined look and sound. I ditched the casual attire and checked out the iLuv MobiAria, whose name is a bit confusing since it's neither mobile nor quite up to the demands of an aria. It is, however, an elegant sleek black plastic unit. The other speakers reviewed up to this point are all compact, portable, battery-operated  units; not so the MobiAria, which sports an 8" x 13" front face and plugs into the wall. The controls are all soft-touch regions on the top of the unit, with no indentations or mechanical mechanism; again, classy. The unit would be at home in an adult living room.
Those controls include track-skip as well as volume control and play pause; there's an aux in; and there's also a USB charging port output to keep your phone juiced up as it beams music to the speaker. Unique among speakers I reviewed, the iLuv includes NFC tap-and-pair / tap-and-connect (like the Belkin music receiver reviewed above). Pairing and connecting work well, but disconnecting doesn't always. When I disconnected my phone from the MobiAria and attempted to connect to another speaker, I found myself disconnected from the MobiAria but unable to connect to the other speaker. I had to shut off Bluetooth on the phone altogether, then re-enable it, in order to connect to the other speaker. Meanwhile, the MobiAria, which has voice response, kept surreally repeating in an insistent British female voice, "Your phone is connected."
As befits its likely target market, the iLuv is less bassy than most of the other units above, and offers nice mids and reasonably good highs, with little to no distortion even at maximum volume. It's not the most crisp speaker in the world, but it's not bad either. Part of what you're paying for is the convenience of NFC, which is great when it works.
Speaking of paying, let's move now into the terrain of audiophiles, which for many people this will break the bank. But for those lucky enough to be able to spend around $400 on a wireless speaker, there's the Wren V5PF, available in bamboo or rosewood. These are real wood cabinets, not veneer. Adding to the elegance - there's that word again - is a beautiful swoop shape to the unit, sort of like a re-imagined Nike logo, plus handsome gray fabric covering the speakers. The Wren would fit right in on a Mad Men sidetable, next to a decanter of scotch and a set of fine crystal tumblers.
The stereo sound this unit pumps out is delightful: vibrant midtones, crisp highs, and bass that is just right - translation, less bassy than the party hearty speakers reviewed above prior to the MobiAria. Also like the MobiAria, this is a plugin unit, not a portable, battery operated one. There's an aux in and a USB charging port output.
The buttons are a slight disappointment. For one thing, there are volume controls but no track skip. Also, the buttons are mechanical. This detracts a bit from the sophisticated look of the device. Even more bothersome - to me at least - is the gunmetal gray plastic trim that stands in for brushed metal.
The device omits NFC pairing - and, in fact, omits Bluetooth pairing altogether. Huh? That's because it doesn't use Bluetooth at all. This speaker uses a different technology: Play-Fi, a technology that connects your phone and the speaker via your WiFi network. There's also an AirPlay version for iPhone and iPad users (it includes a remote, unlike the Play-Fi version, and is again available in bamboo or rosewood), and the company says that a Bluetooth version is coming soon. Wren says that Play-Fi yields higher quality sound than Bluetooth, unless your phone includes aptX Bluetooth - which the S4 does, as do the SIII, the HTC One and a number of other recent smartphones. According to the company, Play-Fi also enables streaming to multiple Wren speakers at once.
As advantageous as Play-Fi may be, it comes with a serious cost: you have to use the free Wren app (or the wired aux in) to get music to your speaker. That app can play any music on your device, as well as only a limited number of streaming sources: Pandora, a couple lesser-known streaming services, and a couple dozen Internet radio stations. This limitation means you may want to wait for the Bluetooth version. Keep an eye out; for those who afford the tariff, this is a wonderful speaker.
Coming soon will be my review of the Minx Air 200 by Cambridge Soundworks, a $600 unit.
That's it for speakers and other sound accessories. Look for my next installment, where I examine video connections for the S4, such as connecting your cellphone to a TV. Afterward will come chargers and external batteries, how to use your cellphone as a portable office, and then miscellaneous accessories. You can find all this at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-handel/.
Disclosure: Manufacturers provided product for this review

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