When the Grace EcoBoulder arrived, I was afraid it was broken -- its single carton (no double boxing) had been greatly damaged in shipping. But inside, sturdy pieces of Styrofoam top and bottom still held the EcoBoulder in position, safe and unharmed. When I’d removed these, I stared in admiration.
The EcoBoulder is the opposite of all the tiny, bass-shy Bluetooth speakers I’d tried lately. At 20”H x 15”W x 12”D and weighing 27 pounds, it’s a big, brawny, beautiful beast that will remain unscathed by anything less than a tank. And considering its extreme versatility, its waterproofing (and dust- and snow-proofing) rating of IP67, and its low price of $249.99 USD, it opens a whole new world of portable music listening.
In the box
Inside are the EcoBoulder, its power cord, a well-written instruction booklet, a mail-in warranty card to take advantage of Grace’s three-year warranty, and pages that warn of hazards and tell you how to contact tech support.
Unlike many Bluetooth speakers, the EcoBoulder doesn’t have a lithium-ion battery and a USB charging cord; instead, its 12V, 7.0Ah SLA battery is charged directly with the AC power cord -- just plug the cord into the speaker and the other end into the wall. It reminds me of the battery charger I have for my car.
All of the bigger Bluetooth speakers I’ve seen -- though none have been this big -- have been “wireless” only in terms of receiving audio signals; for power, they had to be plugged into the wall at all times. I’ve often wondered if it was possible to make a larger Bluetooth speaker that would be completely wireless, and now Grace Digital has done it. The EcoBoulder’s built-in amplifier has a power output of 100W peak and drives a 3” tweeter and an 8” midrange-woofer. There’s also an 8” passive radiator, it being impossible to vent the case and keep it waterproof.
The EcoBoulder is heavy, but Grace has done two things to make it easily portable. At the rear of the speaker’s base are two large, rugged, “all-terrain” (Grace’s term) plastic wheels, and at the front are two feet with nonslip bottom pads -- the speaker sits solidly upright on its wheels and feet. A telescoping handle with two positions can be pulled up from the top back, as in a rollaway suitcase. The EcoBoulder can also be lifted by two handles at the top.
This is one of the best-designed audio components I’ve seen. Everything is in exactly the right place, and the functions and controls cover all the bases. The EcoBoulder’s overall look is sleek and powerful; most of its surfaces are covered in a luggage-quality semigloss vinyl. The handles are of rubberized plastic, as are the wheels. And its name is appropriate -- the whole thing feels solid as a rock. I’ve never seen anything in the audio world with more solid build quality.
At the bottom are holes to let water drain out. The front is mostly speaker grille, with the EcoXGear logo at the center in raised letters. Inset in the rear panel is a rectangular grille measuring 7.25” x 9”, including the molded frame.
On the left side panel are the covers of two small waterproof compartments. Turn and lift the upper cover to access a 1/4” microphone jack, a USB jack, and a 3.5mm auxiliary jack. The microphone jack can be used only for dynamic mikes or musical instruments; the USB port is output only, to power USB devices. The lower compartment contains the power-cable jack.
On the right side panel is a large (8.75” x 5”), waterproof, rectangular compartment that contains a mesh pocket for holding a phone or other device, another auxiliary jack, and a USB output. When the door of this compartment is closed, its handle won’t click until its waterproof latches are properly sealed. The instruction manual repeatedly reminds the user that the EcoBoulder is not actually waterproof until every one of its openings has been properly closed and sealed.
This large side compartment could be very useful. Say you’re throwing a pool party, or have been invited to one because you have “the speaker.” (Once people know you own an EcoBoulder, I see your popularity going nowhere but up!) Say your iPod is lying on top, connected by Bluetooth, and a summer storm comes up. You can just pop the device in that compartment, seal it up -- and still keep playing tunes. Or you’re at the beach and want to avoid sand -- put your device in the compartment, seal it, and roll down to the beach ready to go, with no gear put at risk.
All of the EcoBoulder’s controls are logically grouped on the lower third of the top panel, and there are a lot of them. These are grouped around a central, 2.5” LED screen with easily read characters in blue. The power button is all by itself on the far side; between it and the screen are buttons for source selection, Bluetooth pairing, pairing another EcoBoulder for stereo, play/pause, next/previous track, and mike volume. The mike control is separate from the volume teeter bar, which is directly below the screen.
To the left of the screen are the radio controls -- because, in addition to being a Bluetooth music speaker, a PA speaker, and a musical instrument speaker, the EcoBoulder includes a digital radio with six preset buttons each for FM and AM. Just tune in the station you want, then press and hold the preset button of choice until the screen flashes, and you’re set. This group also includes buttons for tuning scan up and down, and for turning on backlighting for all of the EcoBoulder’s buttons except Power, which remains lit as long as the speaker is powered up, whether or not backlighting has been selected. Always shown on the left side of the screen are a battery icon with four bars, indicating how much juice is left, and, in the lower right corner, a Bluetooth icon.
The controls and screen occupy the top panel’s lower third; the upper two-thirds comprise a nonslip mat where you can park your Bluetooth device(s), or stand them upright in a slot. Anything fits, from smartphone to iPad.
The EcoBoulder uses Bluetooth v.4.1, and is compatible with devices supporting v.1.1 and higher. The speaker can be operated in temperatures ranging from 23°F to 95°F, and stored within a range of -40°F to 122°F. It has a slow-blow glass-tube fuse.
There’s one big catch. Although it will work wired, and has two auxiliary inputs, some of the EcoBoulder’s functions work well only in Bluetooth mode -- most importantly, when pairing two EcoBoulders for stereo. Using cables, splitters, and adapters, you could rig up two EcoBoulders to play non-Bluetooth stereo, but as some of their compartment doors would have to remain open to accommodate the necessary interconnects, neither speaker would be waterproof. Greg Fadul, Grace Digital’s CEO, told me that 95% of his customers order just one EcoBoulder.
Overall, the EcoBoulder was a pleasure to use -- its design is intuitive and user friendly. I could move it around without too much trouble, and the controls all make sense, and did their jobs without a hitch, with one exception: If you accidentally hold down Play/Pause for more than a second, you end up selecting the next of one of five equalization modes: Flat, Bass, Treble, Rock, Jazz. These modes weren’t Grace’s idea; I’m told that they were automatically bundled with the chipset used in the EcoBoulder. Bass and Treble were awful: Bass produced a big glob of mud in the bottom end, and Treble a sound like chalk on a blackboard. Rock and Jazz were OK, but no better than Flat.
I found that a full battery charge lasted a lot longer than the ten hours promised by Grace. One day, my house had a power outage of five hours, and I began listening to the EcoBoulder. Its battery-status icon showed three of the total of four bars, and five hours later it was still at three bars. Apparently, if you’re playing the EcoBoulder at considerably less than full volume -- I kept it at “8” on a scale that maxes out at “30” -- you can easily get an entire day’s worth of listening, and keep your phone or device charged to boot. Grace’s published spec of charge length is conservative. Per Grace, the battery takes eight hours to fully charge -- plug it in before you go to bed.
I didn’t have at hand a body of water large enough to check the EcoBoulder’s ability to float, but I have tested Grace’s smaller EcoXGear speakers, so I trust that their claims for the EcoBoulder are accurate. I did dump a pail of dirt over the EcoBoulder. After I’d rinsed it off with a hose, it looked and worked like new -- no harm done. The watertight compartments opened and resealed just as indicated in the instruction booklet. I found nothing about the EcoBoulder's functionality I did not like. It’s a real kick to use!
The EcoXGear ads say “Play It Loud,” and that’s something you almost do by default. I increased the EcoBoulder’s volume from “0,” and from “3” to “4” it sounded muffled and indistinct. Suddenly, at “6,” it was loud enough for inside the house, with 24 more increments still to go. This is the loudest-playing Bluetooth speaker I’ve heard by far, and it fully qualified as an outdoor speaker due to that. When I played rock music at volume level “14,” my cat, Tux, ran for the hills. At the highest volume levels I heard a bit of distortion, but only when I stood right next to the speaker -- and you really don’t want to stand that close at such high volumes. In fact, you should probably never turn the volume all the way up to “30” unless you’re at the beach -- and have incredibly tolerant neighbors!
Other Grace speakers I’ve reviewed have proved to me that Grace knows how to make a good indoor Bluetooth speaker -- but the EcoBoulder is advertised as an outdoor speaker, which can’t or shouldn’t be judged by the same criteria as indoor models. The EcoBoulder had a loaded midrange, and a peak at the crossover frequency. It had good bass, but not as good as I expected -- its waterproof design requires a passive bass radiator instead of a port. It sounded rather brash, and projected sound a good distance away.
Ben Folds’s voice and piano on Whatever and Ever Amen (16-bit/44.1kHz ALAC, 650 Music), one of his albums with Ben Folds Five, were projected vividly by the EcoBoulder. Lots of good party sounds here -- thumping, well-defined bass, and solid midrange and upper frequencies. “Fair” provided a great example of what the EcoBoulder does so well, with its piano variations over ostinato bass at the close of the track.
Beatles albums sounded excellent through the EcoBoulder, particularly Rubber Soul (16/44.1 ALAC, Apple). This recording has good mid- and upper bass but not much lower bass, and this was perfect fodder for the EcoBoulder’s 8” midrange-woofer and passive bass radiator. The Beatles’ voices came through with punch and clarity, but without harshness.
David Bowie’s unmistakable voice rang out from the title track of his Scary Monsters (16/44.1 ALAC, EMI). Incessantly pulsing drums drive this song, with electric guitar adding macabre flights of higher-frequency fancy. Through the EcoBoulder, all sounded clean, crisp, and very effective.
I tried some FM, too, and though the overall sound quality depended on the station, the result was not unsatisfying, and the reception was quite decent. I could get about eight stations where I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains, two of them very clearly. If you’re in a more heavily populated area, you can expect more.
Grace Digital’s EcoBoulder is a distinctly different Bluetooth speaker: an outdoor speaker, a PA system, and an amp and speaker for a musical instrument or karaoke, it’s primarily intended for use with Bluetooth devices -- but also included are an AM/FM radio and inputs for other devices. It does everything it’s engineered to do, it’s beautifully designed and solidly built, and a full charge of its battery will last a long time -- for the length of the party or a whole day at the beach. And, being completely dust- and waterproof, it’s the perfect party companion for pool or shore. Its three-year warranty is generous and its price is fair. Leave it to Grace’s EcoXGear line to push the limits of innovative gear for audio on the go. Bravo, and well done.
. . . Rad Bennett
- Sources -- Apple iPod Touch (fifth generation) portable music player
Grace Digital EcoXGear EcoBoulder Waterproof Bluetooth Speaker
Price: $249.99 USD.
Warranty: Three years, limited.
Grace Digital Inc.
10531 4S Commons Drive, Suite 430
San Diego, CA 92127
Phone: (866) 446-0961, (858) 748-6343
Fax: (858) 408-3336