Bose SoundLink Bluetooth Speaker III review: The Lexus of Bluetooth speakers
Bose SoundLink Bluetooth speakers are among the most popular -- if not, the most popular -- portable wireless speakers in terms of sales. Last year, the company launched the impressive $200 SoundLink Mini, a micro model, and now in early 2014, it's revamped its larger portable Bluetooth speaker, releasing the Bose SoundLink Bluetooth Speaker III ($299.95).
The III is similar in size to the previous two generations of the speaker but changes its design, and improves its battery life, and according to Bose it also plays louder and sounds better.
The SoundLink III is slightly wider than the previous versions, measuring about 5 inches high, 10 inches wide, and 2 inches deep, and weighing in at 3 pounds. The original SoundLink Mobile Speaker, which came out in 2011, and the SoundLink Mobile Speaker II both offered around 8 hours of battery life. The new model ups that number to 14 hours.
Earlier models had a built-in cover that converted into a stand. However, the SoundLink III does away with the integrated cover and as with the SoundLink Mini, you can purchase an optional accessory cover for $34.95 in various colors. In other words, if you want some added protection, it'll cost you.
Design and Features
I liked the design of the early SoundLink Bluetooth speakers and liked how the cover converted into a stand. Bose hasn't fundamentally changed the look of the speaker, but it has straightened out its lines, and the new model has a flat base (previous versions had a slight angle to the base and you had to use the cover/stand to prop up a speaker).
Once again, you're left with a speaker that has a clean, elegant design and seems sturdy and well-built. While it's a bit pricey at $300, at least it looks and feels like a premium product.
If you're using the speaker indoors and not moving it around all that much, you probably don't need the optional cover. But if you plan on taking it outdoors -- it works well out on the patio or by the pool -- the cover is a good idea and it's well designed, with a zipper on the side to make it easier to get on and off the speaker (the cover for the Mini is a little hard to get on and off quickly).
Pairing with my Bluetooth test devices proved to be a smooth process and the speaker will remember your device after the initial pairing (it will automatically pair when you turn it on so long as you have Bluetooth enabled on your device).
For better or worse, you don't get much in the way of bells and whistles. The speaker has some on-board buttons for controlling volume, muting the sound, switching to the auxiliary input (no cable included but you can connect non-Bluetooth devices to the speaker this way). However, there's no pause/play button or transport controls (skip forward/back) on the speaker itself and it doesn't come with any sort of remote so you'll have to use your Bluetooth device to control everything. For the majority of people that won't be a problem, but some people like to have at least a pause/play button on the speaker.
In the past, Bose has eschewed such extras as a built-in speakerphone, aptX and near-field communication support for devices that support those features. I personally don't see any use for NFC tap-to-pair in these types of speakers (you pair once, and then it pairs automatically afterward, so who needs NFC?). And aptX, which is supposed to make music streamed over Bluetooth sound better, doesn't seem to make a significant difference with a speaker this small. But some people really do want the speakerphone capabilities. I also like it when these speakers have a USB port for charging devices (you use the speaker's battery to juice your device).
It's worth mentioning the charging situation. Like its predecessor, this model uses an AC adapter for charging. There's a Micro-USB port on the back, but it's just for future firmware upgrades, not charging. The downside to having to charge the speaker with an AC adapter is that you have to carrying it around with you and if you end up losing it, you have to get a new one rather than just use another common Micro-USB cable for charging.
As noted, Bose says the new speaker sounds better than its predecessors. The speaker is equipped with four neodymium transducers and dual-opposing passive radiators which, according to Bose, "combine with a new digital signal processing algorithm and improved electronics to play louder than its predecessor, while maintaining balanced and natural sound at higher listening levels." Got that?
With all its SoundLink wireless speaker products product, Bose talks about the engineering challenges of getting good sound out of a very compact speaker, and a Bluetooth one at that, as Bluetooth compression diminishes sound quality.
With previous versions, you could debate whether the Bose sounded better than competing $300 portable Bluetooth speakers from the likes of Jawbone (the Big Jambox), Sony, and others. However, what was clear -- and remains clear with this model -- is that for their small size these Bose speakers perform very well, playing much louder and capable of producing more bass than they appear.
The goal with the SoundLink III was to get the speaker to play even louder (without distorting) and also sound a little better in the process. As always, getting there requires the finessing of both the hardware and the software that processes the sound and shapes it in a way that makes your ears think it sounds good (there's a bit of trickery involved, especially with a speaker that has little-to-no stereo separation).
Mission accomplished with the III; though all these small speakers have their limitations and the SoundLink III is no exception. The bass is slightly fuller and the overall sound slightly more detailed. And the speaker performs quite well with a lot of material but not everything.
Where it does best is with well-recorded, simpler tracks. The midrange is pretty forward so vocals stand out and acoustical tracks sound clean and dynamic (Sting's the Last Ship and The Rolling Stone' Hot Rocks came across well, for example). It sounded good with jazz and some rock material and it handled Nirvana's "All Apologies" as well as some bigger Bluetooth speakers. But with complicated material (a lot of instruments playing at the same time), you'll lose some definition (it did OK with Arcade Fire's Reflektor album but it sounds a lot better through a good pair of $300 headphones).
As far as the volume goes, it really does play loud -- it can fill a small- to medium-sized room, though it's a bit directional (stand off to the side and the sound quality diminishes).
It plays louder than its predecessors and doesn't distort at higher volumes, though to steer clear of distortion it rolls off the bass and sounds like it's restraining itself to keep from going off a cliff. Pop tracks like Ellie Goulding's "Burn" sounded pretty punchy and relatively clean. But it was hit or miss with techno tracks. The bass can sometimes seem a little subdued at higher volumes, so just don't expect real thumping bass with a lot of oomph to it. Then again, as I've said before, it's just not fair to expect subwoofer-level performance from a speaker the size of a hardcover book.
The reality is the SoundLink III is designed to play at more modest volume levels (it sounds best when it isn't pushed) and I think it offers a more detail and bass at lower volumes than its predecessors. In other words, it seems to sound a little richer at lower volumes, which is a good thing because that's how a lot of folks end up using this speaker -- as a background music generator.
If you're looking for a better value for quality casual listening, there's plenty of other stuff out there in the $150 range that does a good job (the TDK Life on Record, for example). In the $200 to $300 range, I also like the Sony SRS-BTX500 and Logitech UE Boombox, as well as the aforementioned Big Jambox.
But you'll be hard-pressed to find a Bluetooth speaker that's as compact as the SoundLink III and sounds as good (yes, it produces bigger and better sound than the SoundLink Mini, which performs remarkably well for its size).
The competition in the portable Bluetooth speaker arena is much stiffer these days and the Bose SoundLink Bluetooth Speaker III isn't as big of a standout as it was when the first version launched in 2011. It also isn't as feature-rich as some models. Still, its sound and battery life have improved (the battery life is a bigger jump than the sound), and its build quality remains top notch.
We could sit here and argue which competing models sound as good (or almost as good) for less money. However, at the end of the day, the Bose SoundLink Bluetooth Speaker III is a high-quality product that's an easy speaker to recommend if you can afford it. Audiophiles may not be wowed, but most people will be duly impressed by the quality of the sound it produces for its size.