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Bose SoundLink Mini Bluetooth speaker review: The wireless speaker Apple could have made

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Editors' note: As of June 2015, this product has been discontinued and replaced by its successor, the Bose SoundLink Mini II. The new model keeps the same list price while adding longer battery life, speakerphone support and replacing the proprietary AC charger with one that's compatible with standard micro-USB cables.

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Bose SoundLink Mini Bluetooth speaker

The Good

The <b>Bose SoundLink Mini</b> is a very sleek, very compact wireless Bluetooth speaker that sounds very good for its small size. It also has excellent build quality, with a unibody aluminum enclosure, and includes a charging cradle that you can leave plugged in.

The Bad

Fairly pricey; no speakerphone capabilities; protective case costs extra.

The Bottom Line

While it's fairly expensive at $200, the Bose SoundLink Mini is one of few standout products in the ultracompact wireless speaker category, featuring a top-notch design and very good sound for its tiny size.

It's a good thing Bose has its logo splayed across the front of its new ultracompact wireless Bluetooth speaker, the SoundLink Mini, because if it didn't, you just might think it was made by Apple.

There's something very "i" about it -- and not just the Mini that's part of its name. Perhaps it's the unibody aluminum enclosure that surrounds the two small drivers and front and back radiators. Or the fact that at 1.5 pounds it feels considerably more substantial than many of the tiny all-plastic Bluetooth speakers now on the market. Whatever it is, this is a sleek-looking, very compact wireless speaker.

It also happens to sound good. For what it is, anyway. After all, there's only so much sound -- or shall I say quality sound -- that you can get out of a palm-size speaker. But as a whole there are enough enticements, including a bundled charging cradle, to make you overlook the small drawbacks, namely the lack of speakerphone functionality and a somewhat high price tag.

Design and features
As with its larger SoundLink Bluetooth Mobile Speaker II, Bose is targeting a broad audience with this product, and the Mini is designed to be very simple to use, with clearly labeled buttons on the top. Like all Bluetooth speakers, it will stream audio wirelessly from virtually any smartphone or tablet, plus any Bluetooth-enabled PC or audio player. The speaker remembers up to six devices, so you'll only need to sync each one once. Your device should automatically pair again with the speaker if it's in range with Bluetooth activated and the speaker is turned on.

The SoundLink Mini has a very clean and simple design. Sarah Tew/CNET

I liked that the unit comes with a desktop charging cradle. You can also plug the included AC adapter directly into the unit, so you don't have to take the cradle with you when you travel. However, it does not charge via USB, so you do need the AC adapter (the prongs on the adapter fold flat, which is helpful, but it's still another accessory you have carry around with you). On the plus side, speakers that require charging from an AC adapter tend to be more powerful and output more sound.

While the cradle is a nice extra, everything else will cost you. Bose is selling protective sleeves for a whopping $25 each, and a carrying case will set you back $45. I didn't test the carrying case, but the sleeve, which comes in a few different color options, is nice. It doesn't quite protect the whole speaker, but most of it -- and the nice thing is that you can still charge the speaker in the cradle without removing it from the sleeve.

The back of the speaker (sitting in the charging dock). Sarah Tew/CNET

In terms of connectivity, there's an auxiliary input on the side for non-Bluetooth devices as well as a Micro-USB port on the back for potential firmware upgrades.

I really liked the whole look and feel of the speaker, but like Bose's step-up SoundLink Bluetooth Mobile Speaker II, it has no integrated speakerphone, which is too bad. I find it a little weird, only because the unit looks like it's made to sit on a bedside table or home-office desk, where it would come in handy as a speakerphone. For most people this won't be a deal-breaker (I suspect Bose has done its market research and determined that the speakerphone is an underused feature in Bluetooth speakers), but this is a must-have feature for some consumers.

The speaker in its optional $25 protective sleeve, which is available in a few different colors. Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance
How does the Mini sound? Well, while it just can't deliver the performance of a larger speaker, for what it is -- and its tiny size -- it sounds very good.

The one thing I noticed about it more than some other speakers is that placement makes a big difference. Putting it closer to a wall definitely improves bass response and the speaker sounds fuller. It also plays pretty loud -- louder than the Jawbone Jambox, for instance -- but it's clear that Bose's engineers had to restrain the sound a little in order to avoid distortion at higher volumes. You can kind of feel the speaker wanting to go louder but those finely tuned algorithms running through Bose's digital signal processor (DSP) are keeping it from going too far and doing something it shouldn't.

The included charging dock. Sarah Tew/CNET

Overall, the sound signature is somewhat laid-back and forgiving; sound is a bit creamier. The bass goes pretty deep, but it doesn't sound incredibly tight or punchy. All in all, however, you come away with the sense that Bose eked out about as much as it could from a speaker this size. It can fill a small room with sound and does all right in medium-size rooms, too.

As for battery life, Bose says you'll get 7 hours of play time and a 3-hour recharge time. I managed to use the speaker over the course of an 8-hour workday without a problem, though I was listening at moderate volume levels and I did take a short listening break for a 30-minute lunch. That's fairly decent, though some speakers are rated at over 10 hours of battery life.

Comparing the Mini with such products as the similarly priced Beats Pill, the Bose comes out the winner, with better sound and slicker design, though the Beats Pill does include a carrying case and have speakerphone capabilities. I thought the $100 JBL FLip had a little bit brighter, more forward (aggressive) sound, and played about as loud, but the Bose's bass was bigger and could go deeper. And the $200, the UE Boom has slightly bigger sound, better battery life, and a built-in speakerphone, as well as being water-resistant and better suited for outdoor use.

You can plug the AC adapter directly into the unit. Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion
As an editor at CNET, I get to try a lot of Bluetooth speakers out. A new one seems to show up every week and many of the small ones tend to sound pretty similar. By that I mean the average consumer would think they sound pretty good for their small size, but they tend to sound a little thin and distort sound at higher volumes, particularly with bass-heavy material. I'm less critical of affordable models ($60 or less) but tend to be tougher on small speakers that cost over $100 and fail to deliver high marks for design and performance (features counts a little less).

In terms of price, of course, the Bose SoundLink Mini is at the high end of the spectrum for ultracompact Bluetooth speakers. That said, it's a step up in design and build quality from most of the competition and while it has its sound limitations (a tiny wireless speaker can only sound so good), it delivers bigger, fuller sound than most similarly sized Bluetooth speakers. In other words, it definitely stands out from the pack, even if in some cases the sound difference is relatively small -- JBL's Flip and Charge, for example, deliver very good sound for the money. I also wish the Mini had an integrated speakerphone and came with a protective cover, though the inclusion of a charging dock helps mitigate those omissions.

For me personally, I'd have a hard time choosing between this $200 model and the $200 UE Boom, which I think is a bit more versatile and better suited for outdoor use. Ultimately, it may come down to simple aesthetics and how you intend to use the speaker. The SoundLink Mini is targeted at someone who's looking for a very sleek wireless speaker that sounds very good for its tiny size and can be easily moved from room to room (and the patio) but at the end of the day will probably end up docked in a bedroom or home office, perhaps parked next to an iMac or MacBook Air. They do go well together.

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Bose SoundLink Mini Bluetooth speaker

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 7Sound 8Value 7