Editors' note: As of September 2012, Bose has released the
Bose, create a ground-breaking product? Sure, the company's got some really nice headphones and decent sound systems that are just a tad overpriced. But Bose? Since when does Bose make a game-changer?
Since it came out with its compact Bluetooth speaker, the SoundLink Wireless Mobile, that's when. No, it's not the iPhone or anything, but it may just be the iPhone of portable Bluetooth speakers.
For the uninitiated, Bluetooth speakers let you stream music and other audio from any smartphone and many tablets (including the iPad) wirelessly. There's no need for network configurations--just a simple pairing procedure, and whatever you're playing on your phone or tablet gets wirelessly sent to the speakers, whether it's MP3 music, Spotify, Rdio, a baseball game, or a video soundtrack.
Bluetooth speakers have been around for years, so what's so special about the Bose? Well, it starts with how small it is and ends with just how much sound comes out of it--and impressive sound at that. Bose also seems to be taking a few cues from Apple: along with the compact shape and clean, elegant design, the SoundLink Wireless Mobile, starting at $300, is equipped with a magnetic protective combined cover and stand that automatically turns the speaker off when closed. Sound familiar?
Oh, and like the Smart Cover for the iPad 2, the SoundLink Wireless Mobile's cover comes in two grades: nylon and leather. But you only get the leather cover from the get-go if you step up to the higher-end version of speaker, which costs an extra $50 and has what the company calls an "automotive-grade" chrome trim.
Should you buy that fancier silver model or stick with the standard black model with its dark-gray nylon cover for $300? That we can't answer for you, but the truth is you can't go wrong with either model. And, not surprisingly, Bose is selling additional nylon and leather covers in a wider variety of colors for $30 and $50, respectively, in case you want to make a change later.
Design and features
The first thing you notice about the SoundLink Wireless mobile speaker when you pick it up is that while it may be small, it's got some heft to it, weighing in at 2.78 pounds. It's 5 inches tall, 9.5 inches wide, and a scant 1.9 inches thick.
That depth--or lack thereof--is really the most impressive part of the design. But while the SoundLink Wireless Mobile speaker looks sleek, elegant, perhaps even a bit dainty, and would seem more suited to indoor listening, Bose has made a point of touting how durable and rugged the unit is. The company says it has extensively drop-tested the product, and even put it in a chamber and exposed to simulated salt-air fog. So, yes, this is designed to be a portable, outdoorsy product.
Further boosting its portability is the built-in rechargeable lithium ion battery, which is rated for 3 to 4 hours of use at high volume between charges.
The SoundLink Wireless Mobile has a wireless range of about 30 feet and works with any A2DP Bluetooth-enabled device, which includes nearly all smartphones, as well as the iPad. Around back you'll find a standard 3.5mm audio input for connecting (via an included cable) any other audio devices that don't offer Bluetooth, like an iPod Nano, for instance.
We had no trouble pairing an iPhone, an Android smartphone, and an iPad 2 with the speaker. You simply hold down the Bluetooth button on top of the speaker and it goes into pairing mode. After you select "Bose SoundLink Wireless" from the Bluetooth setup menu on your phone or other device, after a few seconds you should be linked up wirelessly to the speaker and be able to stream audio to it.
At one point, we did get some dropout from the Android phone--just for a couple of seconds. It was an instructive reminder that Bluetooth, like all wireless tech, just doesn't have the 100 percent reliability of a wired connection.
Another note: the SoundLink Wireless Mobile does not offer speakerphone capabilities the way the Jawbone Jambox does, for example. Could it someday offer that feature? Probably not, considering there's no built-in microphone that we're aware of. However, there is a Micro-USB port on the back of the speaker labeled "service," which is for firmware upgrades; Bose says it will offer software upgrades to make sure the speaker is compatible with future phones.
We should also mention that the SoundLink Wireless Mobile speaker doesn't come with a remote. That's because you shouldn't need one since you'll be able to control the volume--and everything else--from your smartphone.
That said, we did connect an iPhone 3G running a less-than-current version of iOS and found that the volume control didn't work, so it's possible to run into some snafus depending on how ancient your phone is.
At the launch for the product, Bose talked 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.
If you want to see what's going on inside the speaker, the design for the speaker's four low-profile neodymium transducers (mid- and high frequencies) and dual-opposing passive radiators (bass) are detailed on Bose's Web site.
While the cutting-edge hardware design is the biggest factor behind the speaker's sound, there's also a nice piece of software running in the background to process what's coming into the speaker and make it sound as good as possible going out.
The results are shockingly good. As we said, the speaker plays incredibly loud for its size. This thing can actually fill a medium-size room with sound and blows away the $200 Jawbone Jambox. What's also impressive is that the sound doesn't distort at higher volumes. You can crank the Bose and it does just fine, with the bass holding together well and without any rattling or shaking of the speaker.
We played the new Wilco album "The Whole Love" and the mellower, acoustical guitar tracks sounded rich and detailed, like what you'd get from a larger speaker. We then hit it with some hip-hop, and our old standby test track, Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot," sounded pretty solid, but as we ratcheted up the volume the heavy bass line did feel a bit subdued--or perhaps restrained is the better word.
After plowing through a variety of other music, this reviewer tested the SoundLink Wireless with a jury of a few other editors here at CNET, and all of them came away impressed by how loud it played for its size and how full the sound was, particularly for a small Bluetooth speaker.
Some noted that the bass didn't have quite the oomph they would've liked, but it's just not fair to expect subwoofer-level performance from a speaker the size of a hardcover book.
In terms of battery life, Bose rates the unit at 3 to 4 hours playing at loud volumes, but says you can get double that at "typical listening levels." In other words, for light listening on the porch or patio you should be fine for most of the day. But if you're having a party, you probably want to get the speaker fully charged first and be able to plug it in somewhere if the party runs long.
What can we say--we were impressed. Not often does a product come along and blow away the competition in its category, but that's what the Bose SoundLink Wireless speaker has done.
This guy isn't as small as the $200 Jawbone Jambox, and it's a little more than twice as heavy. Nor does it offer that product's speakerphone capabilities. But it sounds much better and plays much louder.
Likewise, the Bose is bigger and more expensive than the $200 Soundmatters FoxL v2, but we think the Bose sounds better than that model, too.
But the Bose's speaker is a big notch up both in terms of design and build quality, and in terms of sound quality. The company also gives a 30-day money-back guarantee on the product and generally offers good customer service should something go wrong. Reps told us that the rechargeable battery will be replaceable, though no cost was given for the replacement.
So, yes, $300 (or $350) is a lot to spend on a portable speaker--and we say the same thing about Bose's noise-canceling headphones. But in this case it seems worth it if only because the SoundLink Wireless Mobile speaker is in a class by itself.