Bose SoundTouch 20 review: A polished wireless speaker that's rough around the software edges

One thing that would help is if you could set up everything through your mobile device rather than your computer. Bose is working on offering a setup through its iOS and Android apps (a feature Sonos offers), but currently that feature isn't available.

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Screenshot: Ty Pendlebury

As noted, Bose's simplicity theme revolves around the use of "presets"; all the new speakers and apps (Android and iOS devices, as well as Macs and Windows PCs are supported at launch) are equipped with buttons numbered 1 through 6. Each number corresponds to a preset in the app.

Using the apps, you can drag and drop specific Pandora or Internet radio stations onto a number to set it as a preset. You can also link one of the presets to the music library on your PC or a specific playlist.

To get your music up and running, you simply press one of the preset buttons that's on the speaker or the included remote, or within one of the apps. Thus, the SoundTouch name.

Unlike other streaming newcomers like the Samsung Shape and Phorus, the Bose lacks Bluetooth capability, but to balance this out it does add Apple AirPlay. In addition to Pandora and Internet radio, the company has said it plans to add IHeartRadio and Deezer in the second half of 2014.

While the number of supported music services is skimpy right now, iPhone users have the benefit of using AirPlay for native apps instead (in other words, you can play Spotify via AirPlay if you want).

The speaker supports DLNA playback from remote devices as well of the file formats MP3, WMA, AAC and Apple Lossless -- FLAC support is on the way. Unlike with Samsung and Sonos devices, there is no "play from my device" feature unless you set up a DLNA server on it (via Windows Media Player, for example).

Like Sonos, the system doesn't tell you tell you which format your music is in, and if it encounters a file type it can't play, the player can simply halt without a warning message (Bose engineers told us this happened because we were playing files from a networked server). Two additional file formats we'd like to see supported are WAV and Ogg Vorbis, the format that Spotify is encoded in.

While Bose hasn't specifically stated it will integrate Spotify, it has said that it's working on adding all major music services, so presumably both Spotify and Ogg support are forthcoming. (Bose reps told us that because they want to include the preset theme across whatever services they add, it requires some custom programming that makes the development process more complicated).

Performance

The Bose has a generally warm and tight sound that is particularly good at hiding the sins of poorly recorded (or ripped) music. That's not to say it's not a detailed speaker, but it is able to pick out the important bits and leave out the fluff.

Vocals in particular are very well-served and, as an example, on "Alviverde" by Jun Miyake, singer Arto Lindsay's voice had the breathy intimacy that the Samsung Shape M7 lacked. While there's virtually no stereo image (the drivers on all these tabletop speakers are spaced too closely together), voices are bold and well-formed.

For a relatively small speaker, the SoundTouch's bass response also managed to impress. The Bose has a punchy warm sound that's especially pleasing with rock music and doesn't hurt with gentler styles like folk, either.

One of the most important aspects of a streaming speaker is its ability to resist music dropouts, and this is something private mesh networks like those used on Samsung and Sonos speakers are able to do quite well. Despite being on a standard WiFi network, the Bose exhibited a similar level of reliability, and thoroughly trounced the drop-out prone Phorus PS1.

Whether it was Internet radio or DLNA, wired or wireless, the Bose was able to pull content from multiple sources without issue. It was also able to eke out a feed from our test router from about 100 feet away. (By comparison, from the same spot, the Android smartphone we were using in our tests failed to register the same router).

These observations do come with a caveat: We only tested one speaker and can't comment on how a multiroom system will perform (we'll update our review shortly since Bose is sending additional review samples in the near future).

On a more critical note, while the volume control seemingly gives you lots of headroom, it's essentially unusable after 70 percent. At that level, the speaker plays loud enough to fill a small room. But on anything above that level the bass drops out and the treble hardens. Sure, you can listen to it cranked at full volume, but it just doesn't sound good, at least to our ears.

Conclusion

Bose has gotten a lot right with the Bose SoundTouch 20 and from a pure hardware and performance standpoint, it's arguably a bit better than the similarly priced Sonos Play:5. (Another option for the same money is a pair of $199 Sonos Play:1 speakers, which provide better stereo separation).

However, from a software and services standpoint, Bose still has some work to do. To put it another way, the foundation and framework are in place for an elegant, user-friendly system, but the house isn't quite finished yet. You can certainly live in that house, but it doesn't feel as cozy and comfortable as it should; it's missing a few amenities.

Bose feels that multiroom audio is the future and is investing heavily in making its SoundTouch system better. So, while it may be a little while before it truly catches up to Sonos on the software/services end of things, at least you can have some confidence that Bose is in the multiroom wireless game to stay, and could be one of the significant players in that arena in the coming years.

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Bose SoundTouch 20

Part Number: SOUNDTOUCH20WHT
MSRP: $399.95 Low Price: $399.99 See all prices

Quick Specifications See All

  • Type Wi-Fi Music system
  • Connectivity Wired
    Wireless
  • Connectivity Protocols Ethernet
    Built-in Wi-Fi
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