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Bluetooth audio that's truly plug and play (hands-on)

/ Updated: January 6, 2013 6:11 PM PST
Bem Wireless Outlet Speaker
Sarah Tew/CNET

CES is always a coming-out party for new brands looking to get noticed. For 2013, you can add Bem Wireless (pronounced "beam") to that list. Among the upstart audio company's first products is the Outlet Speaker, a small Bluetooth model that brings a sensible design approach to the increasingly saturated wireless speaker market.

LAS VEGAS--As the name suggests, the Outlet Speaker plugs directly into any standard two-prong power outlet. It's not the first-ever plug-and-play wireless speaker -- the Klipsch light bulb speakers come to mind -- but the $100 Outlet Speaker does get props for being truly wireless, since the plug-in design eschews the need for even a power cord.

Bem Wireless Outlet Speaker
Sarah Tew/CNET

The Outlet Speaker is available in black or white, and it's roughly the size of the more expensive Jawbone Jambox. Aside from its unique plug-in design, the Outlet Speaker is otherwise your average Bluetooth speaker -- meaning that it will wirelessly stream audio from any A2DP Bluetooth-enabled device. That includes all smartphones and iPads, most tablets, and most recent iPod Touch and Nano models. It's got a stereo input and output, so it can also double as a Bluetooth receiver for larger stereos. And while you "lose" a power outlet when the speaker is plugged in, the inclusion of a USB port means you can still juice up tablets and smartphones.

I've been living with the Outlet Speaker for a few days, and it performs in line with other Bluetooth speakers of its size and price. My biggest issue is the "soft touch" finish; it's that rubberized plastic that attracts fingerprints and smudges -- not good for a product you'll probably be handling on a frequent basis (when you move it from room to room, for instance).

Bem Wireless Outlet Speaker
Sarah Tew/CNET

The sound quality is fine; like other mini speakers, it gets the job done at reasonable volume levels, but don't expect the sort of sonics you'd hear from a larger or more expensive audio system. To get the best sound, you'll want to plug the Outlet Speaker into one of your home's higher receptacles -- think kitchen counter -- rather than one near the floor.

The biggest drawback is that the Outlet Speaker doesn't have a rechargeable battery. For that, you'd need to opt for Bem's $100 Mobile Speaker, which also includes speakerphone capabilities -- or just choose one of the other zillion or so portable Bluetooth speakers currently available.

Bem Wireless Outlet Speaker
Sarah Tew/CNET
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