JBL is a name I heard a lot in college and my early years in Washington, DC, but until recently I hadn’t heard any of the company’s current products. My experience with the Synchros E50BT over-ear Bluetooth headphones ($149.95 USD) indicates that I should tune back in.
Out of the box
Inside the box, the Synchros E50BT headphones nestle in a black plastic cradle. In a compartment affixed to the inner side of the box lid are two cables: an audio cable with a straight 2.5mm plug on one end and a right-angled 3.5mm plug on the other, for use when the battery runs down; and a 2.5mm-to-USB cable for charging the battery. Also included are a quick-start guide, and warranty and safety information.
The E50BTs are made mostly of plastic, with a little metal, and their looks are impressive: futuristic with a retro accent. There’s a huge JBL logo on each earcup, and another on the leatherette-covered headband. The button behind the logo comes in different colors: black with silver, blue, red, purple metallic, and white with silver accents.
A unique swivel connection permits movement on two axes, allowing the earcups’ positions to be easily adjusted, from front to back and from side to side, to fit almost any head. This and the headband’s flexibility allow the cups to be folded for packing, and continuously adjustable sliders let the earcups be positioned for a secure fit. No carrying pouch is included, but I’ve found that Walmart’s camera department always has a case that will fit, at minimum cost. The earpads -- foam covered with leatherette -- are of generous size. The actual space for each ear is slightly oval, its diameters measuring 1.875” by 1.75”; each overall earcup is 3.5” in diameter. The E50BTs weigh 10.2 ounces and, despite all the plastic, feel solidly built.
I was comparing two Bluetooth speakers, wishing that one had brighter treble and the other more defined bass. Then, as if a genie had been summoned, there was a knock on the door. It was John the UPS man, delivering the Denon Envaya DSB-200BK.
In the box
The Denon Envaya DSB-200BK ($219.99 USD) comes with more stuff than do most Bluetooth speakers: a power transformer and cord with three plug adapters that allow it to be used just about anywhere in the world; a quick-start guide and safety instructions; and grillecloth inserts in various colors -- Lunar, Indigo, Fandango, Sunset. The speaker itself comes in black or white.
The Bluetooth-speaker craze has inspired designers to be creative. Though the rectangular box, with variations, is still the usual design, many companies have come up with creative shapes that are anything but boxy, and the latest I’ve come across is 808’s cylindrical Hex SL ($59.99 USD). Its clever design allows it to go places other speakers can’t.
The Hex SL’s clear plastic case does much to sell the speaker, letting the prospective buyer see the entire speaker from top to bottom. It comes in four colors: red, white, blue, or black. Also included are a USB-to-mini-USB charging cord, a 3.5mm cord for connecting non-Bluetooth devices, a quick-start guide, and a fold-out instruction manual.
The Hex SL is a cylinder 7.25” tall, 2.5” in diameter, and weighing 13.7 ounces. It feels so firm and solid that I had to check its weight several times -- it felt as if it weighed more. Its body is metal, brushed to feel a bit like felt. Though it feels exceptionally substantial, it fits the hand as if made for it. On the speaker’s top is the 808 logo in bright metal; starting just below the top and extending down 1.25” is a grille of hexagonal holes that goes all around the cylinder and gives you a glimpse of the upward-firing 2” driver. Hanging above the driver is an inverted cone that disperses the sound outward in all directions through the grille. About 1” from the bottom of the case, also going completely around the cylinder, is a vent to augment the bass response.
Back in the 1950s and ’60s, when it seemed that all college students had Acoustic Research AR-3 bookshelf speakers, my favorites were a pair of Wharfedales. In the ensuing decades I went through many different speakers, before deciding on MartinLogans as the right choice for my main audio/video system. But in the past two years I’ve been testing a lot of portable and Bluetooth speakers, and was excited to see that Wharfedale now makes one: the Cobalt.
Out of the box
In the cardboard box is the Cobalt speaker ($299 USD), a remote control, a power cord and power supply, an audio cord with 3.5mm jacks at either end, and an instruction manual. The speaker’s exterior is made of the usual hard, glossy black plastic, despite the fact that the material is an A+ dust catcher. But I must admit -- if I dust it every day, the Cobalt looks dazzling.
Tiny Bluetooth speakers are popping up like mushrooms. Last month I reviewed Outdoor Tech’s Turtle Shell 2.0, and this month a waterproof model from Grace Digital’s EcoxGear line. For September, Denon waits in the wings.
In the box
The EcoxGear EcoRox ($129.99 USD) comes packaged with a USB-to-USB Micro charging cord, a carabiner clip, a user guide, and a warranty card. The EcoRox itself looks like a smaller version of Grace’s EcoXBT waterproof Bluetooth speaker, which I reviewed in May 2013, minus the appealing carrying handles. But the EcoRox doesn’t need handles -- small enough to comfortably fit in the palm of a hand, it measures only 5.3”W x 2.5”H by 3”D and weighs a mere 11 ounces. Its two forward-firing, “full-range” drivers are driven by 6W each and, unusually, there’s a bass radiator that fires up through the top of the case. The speakers and radiator are covered with grilles available in black, orange, or red; the sturdy, rubberized body is black.
It’s been interesting to see how many designers of small Bluetooth speakers have literally thought outside the box, creating designs not married to the rectilinear enclosures of traditional speakers. Outdoor Tech has boldly designed a speaker that’s all facets and angles, yet retains a shape familiar enough to give it its name -- Turtle Shell. The speaker is indeed about the size and shape of a small box turtle.
In the box
Just as they did with their recently reviewed Privates headphones, Outdoor Tech has provided for the Turtle Shell 2.0 a colorful case covered with hype: “Louder than a bear’s roar,” “Cause a scene while riding your bike in the rain, singing your heart out.” Inside, a plain cardboard inner case houses the Turtle Shell 2.0 itself ($129.95 USD), a cloth carrying case, and two sets of cables: one USB-to-USB Micro for charging the unit, the other with 3.5mm male plugs at both ends for connecting non-Bluetooth devices. Also in the case are an instruction manual printed in odd dimensions (2 1/8” x 6”) on heavy paper, a quick-start instruction card of the same size, and some Outdoor Tech logo stickers.
The ATH-AX5iS over-ear headphones ($89.95 USD) are part of Audio-Technica’s SonicFuel series, which is otherwise devoted to in-ear models. Although they have large (40mm) drivers, the ATH-AX5iSes have a slimmer profile than most over-ear ’phones, and would seem to work for both sports and general listening.
In the box . . .
. . . are the headphones, a carrying case, a quick-start guide, and a safe-disposal pamphlet. The case is much nicer than the norm at this price, being made of sturdy fabric and having a drawstring.
The headphones are mostly made of plastic, in this case acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), though I feel there must be some metal somewhere in the headband. The ATH-AX5iSes come in black or gun-metal gray; there’s a small ring in red (with gray ’phones) or blue (with black ’phones) around the earcup where it meets the earpad, and on the outside of each cup is the Audio-Technica logo in red or blue. The left and right channels are identified by small but readable letters at the top of each earcup assembly. It’s a simple, neat design that’s quite stylish. The oval earcups measure 3.5” x 2.75”; when they’re folded in, the ’phones are 7.5” x 7” x 2.75”, and they’re fairly light: just 5.4 ounces.
Ever since I began writing this column, I’ve been looking for the perfect Bluetooth headphones to accompany my gym workouts. The spiffy new Privates, from Outdoor Tech. ($99.95 USD), have come closest to filling that bill. They look good and sound good. Naming them the Privates invites every bad joke on the planet, but this is for sure: You won’t forget the name.
Everything about the Privates screams “Cool and innovative!,” beginning with the all-plastic box: clear in front, black on the other surfaces. The ad copy on the box conveys “cool” facts about the headphones: e.g., the Privates can be used via wireless Bluetooth, or with an included braided cable of the same color as the ’phones: Black, Turquoise, Mustard, or Military Green. Inside are the Privates and their audio cable, a charging cable (Micro-USB to USB), a clearly understandable -- and readable -- fold-out instruction sheet, two Outdoor Tech. logo stickers, and a carrying bag.
Because many of the new products debuted in January, at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, are just now starting to ship, this month I again went shopping. I spotted the Motorola S11-HD ($99.99 USD) earphones and was intrigued. The somewhat similar Motorola S-10 was the subject of my second review for this column, two years ago. Had Motorola taken to heart my and others’ reviews and made some improvements? The answer is largely yes -- but only by ignoring the most important thing.
Inside the S11-HDs’ box is a transparent case and inside that are the earphones themselves, three extra pairs of eartips (each of the four sets is a different size), a very short (6”) USB-to-Micro-USB charging cord, an additional, inner headband for a snugger fit, and an instruction manual.
Having written about Bluetooth minispeakers in January and February, I decided to write this month about a medium-sized Bluetooth speaker. The Philips SBT300 is unique in not having a rechargeable battery; when not plugged in, it’s powered by four AA cells. This has advantages and disadvantages. The SBT300 lists for $99.99 USD; I found mine at Walmart for $44.66.
On the Philips SBT300’s box are printed claims that its “Bass Reflex Speakers [sic] System deliver [sic] a powerful, deeper bass,” along with the information that it’s Bluetooth equipped but also has an audio input for “portable music playback.” The SBT300 comes with a power cord with transformer, and a short user manual in many languages that unfolds like a map and is not very easy to use.