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.
From Day One, the Jabra Solemate Mini and the Logitech Mini Boom portable Bluetooth speakers seemed to be in direct competition with each other: FedEx delivered them the same day.
The Jabra Solemate Mini ($99.99 USD) comes nestled in a small, sturdy box. Lift out the speaker and on an insert you’ll see the very simple, illustrated directions: “1) Turn On. 2) Bluetooth Connect. 3) Play.” Lift out that insert and you’ll find a USB-to-Micro-USB charging cord, a quick-start pamphlet in many languages, warranty information, and a reminder to register your unit.
The Solemate Mini is small: 4.9”W x 2.3”H x 2.1”D. The bottom, top, and sides are rubberized material over metal, and the front and back are covered with a fine-mesh metal grille. It comes in black, blue, yellow, or red. One of the Solemate’s most distinctive features is on the bottom panel, which is ridged like the sole of a running shoe. This keeps the speaker from jumping around when you push it to high volume levels. Put it on a flat surface and try to push it from side to side -- it won’t budge without a lot of force. Also on the bottom is an ingenious hollow for the provided 3.5mm cable, to be used with non-Bluetooth devices.
There seems to be no end to the craze for Bluetooth mini speakers -- new ones pop up every day. But while many have appealing features and good sound, most still sound like . . . well, like mini speakers. Not so Logitech’s mighty UE Mini Boom, which, with your eyes closed, could fool you into thinking you’re hearing something much bigger.
Probably because it’s so small, the UE Mini Boom ($99.99 USD) doesn’t come in Logitech’s usual packaging, but in a clear plastic box on a black plastic base. Depress a pair of locking tabs to remove the box, and more tabs to separate the base into two parts. The lower part houses a Micro-USB charging cable and two very small publications, one a startup guide (no text, just pictures), the other the usual warning and warranty information.
I’m enough of a dinosaur to have witnessed the birth of stereo sound as a popular consumer medium. It was one of the biggest landmarks in the history of home audio, one that I felt would be permanent. Everything should be in stereo, right? Well, yes -- until Bluetooth speakers and miniaturization came along. Then we began to be presented with very small speakers that produced sound bigger than we ever expected -- monaural sound. This seemed to me a step backward -- though not nearly as bad, or as retrograde, as the virtual abandonment of surround sound.
Now, in an effort to make things right, HMDX has come up with the little Jam Plus wireless Bluetooth speaker ($59.99 USD), two of which can be paired to deliver . . . stereo.
Munitio, based in Woodinville, Washington, is not a company with which I was familiar before beginning this review. Now, having heard their Pro40 headphones, I’ll be tuned in the next time they release something new.
In the box
The Pro40s ($299 USD) come inside a hard carrying case, along with a braided microphone/control cable with a 3.5mm miniplug and three buttons, a carabineer, and a quick-start guide and warranty declaration.
The plastic carrying case is one of the best I’ve seen. It’s very solid, and should protect the Pro40s quite well. Inside is a mesh-covered compartment for carrying cables and accessories. It tucks easily under the arm, or could be thrown into a backpack or travel bag, or hung by the carbineer from a belt.
The Pro40s are a fairly standard design with adjustable arms that have minuscule detents: they can be adjusted to fit almost any size head. The earcups swivel slightly, using a technique Munitio calls Coda Axis in-line gimbal technology, to “allow a natural range of motion without disrupting speaker driver performance,” but the headphones do not fold. The Pro40s are nongloss black, except for a raised white logo on each side at the bottom of the headband, and a gold (or silver) ring around the exterior of each earcup. There’s an embossed logo on each earcup, though this is black and doesn’t stand out nearly as much as it does in photos. Markings on the inside of the headband connector indicate the left and right channels. It strikes me that silver might be more effective than gold for the earcup bands. I was sent the gold ones, but the silver ones sure look sleek in the product photos! They also come in all black.
Wireless Bluetooth speakers have become the rage, and ever-inventive Logitech has come up with a new model that is distinctive in a number of ways and has only one minor flaw.
The appearance of the Z600 speakers ($149.99 USD per pair) is bold and striking -- they look like miniatures of the mammoth cooling towers of a nuclear power plant. They stand 9.5” high, with a diameter of 4” at the bottom and 2.75” at the top. The left tower weights about 21 ounces, the right tower 23 ounces. Both seem solidly built.
Except for an exposed white strip at the back, the white plastic bodies of the speakers are covered with a silver-gray fabric that complements Apple’s Mac computers and laptops more than it does the average PC. On the white strip on the back of the right speaker is a column of what appear to be four buttons. From the top: a Bluetooth pairing button, a power button, and then what look like two more buttons, but are actually covers for a USB port and a 3.5mm auxiliary jack. (These need to be pried off with a paper clip.) The only other control is one you don’t see at all: to change volume, you run your finger around the top of the right Z600. A flat, no-tangle power cord protrudes from the bottom rear of each speaker -- though the Z600s get their music signals wirelessly, they need to be plugged into an AC outlet.