Editors' note, April 20, 2016 : Mohu has announced that is recalling the BeBox due to the potential for fire risk and advises customers to discontinue using them immediately.
Android tablets: They're now so commoditized that they're freebies -- the extras thrown in the box when you buy video and audio equipment. Vizio's new 2016 P series TVs include a free Android tablet that doubles as a remote control. And the $500 Mohu BeBox, reviewed here, is basically an old-school boombox with an Android tablet (and wireless audio streaming) built in.
You wouldn't expect Mohu -- the company best known for those wafer-thin over-the-air TV antennas you paste on your window -- to be a likely suspect for such an offbeat product. And even though the operating system is a lot more robust now than it used to be, Android audio/video gadgets can still feel clunky: the BeBox wireless speaker sometimes feels a little like this. It's one part Philips Screenio with two parts Sony ZX2 Walkman. And the Mohu doesn't sound as good as equivalently priced Wi-Fi speakers from the likes of Bose and Sonos.
That said, the BeBox does sound better than some of the more expensive Bluetooth speakers. And while it's large and somewhat heavy for a "portable," its built-in rechargeable battery means it can be moved from room to backyard, or wherever you want your tunes -- be they app-based sources like Spotify or Pandora or gigabytes worth of your own files. If you value its uniqueness, and can look past some minor connectivity foibles, the Mohu BeBox could be the Jack-of-all-trades you've been looking for.
While an Android boombox may seem out of the blue for an antenna company, the company has flirted with Android-based gadgets before: the Mohu Channels box came out in 2014.
Compared to most other $500 wireless speakers, the Mohu BeBox can only be described as "large" at 19 inches across and over a foot tall. It's shaped a little like the pole-mounted dust pan that a janitor might use: a rounded box and an angled console (where the dust goes, maybe in both instances). In addition to the touchscreen display, the console features capacitive buttons to turn the display on and off, adjust volume, or toggle inputs. The physical power button on the rear is a welcome feature.
If you're toting this thing about, it weighs a not-too-uncomfortable 14.5 pounds, and it comes with a convenient carrying handle on the back.
The display is, effectively, a 7-inch (non-removable) tablet that features a 1,024x600-pixel LCD. The tablet is based on Android KitKat (version 4.4) and comes preloaded with a music app called "Apollo". The device also includes the Google Play store so that you can load more apps via Wi-Fi. Of the streaming apps I tried I found that some , like Spotify, worked better than others. Tidal, for instance, displayed strangely on the screen.
The player enables you to play from the built-in 16GB of storage, via a plug-in USB key (up to 64GB), or by using a 32GB Micro SD card. Mohu recommends using the last method, as getting music onto the speaker is otherwise convoluted. For example, while the Apollo app suggests you can load music from a PC via a USB cable, this simply won't work (as Mohu confirmed). While you can choose to hold down tracks in the Apollo interface to download them from a USB drive, I found it's easier loading up an SD card instead.
The BeBox is a stereo speaker with two sets of 3-inch midrange drivers and soft dome tweeters, underpinned with a single 6.5-inch long-throw woofer.
The company says the speaker is capable of up to eight hours of battery life using the onboard battery. I tested the speaker sporadically without charging over several months, and it still managed to retain 50 per cent of its charge.
The onboard player will support most file formats including AAC, MP3, Ogg Vorbis, Wave and FLAC files up to 16-bit/48kHz. While I managed to play 24-bit/96kHz files on the BeBox, they played significantly slower than usual.
In addition to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 3.0 connectivity, there's a standard 3.5mm auxiliary minijack input so you can use the BeBox as a "dumb" speaker for any audio source. But there's also an HDMI output, which acts as a screen mirror for the internal display. That can also be used to stream video or play from one of the storage methods outlined below. Wi-Fi streaming was less successful: a Netflix stream of "Daredevil" took a long time to buffer (30 seconds or so of stuttering video), but it eventually looked reasonable when output to our reference Sharp Elite LCD. So video output "works," but it's clunky and awkward compared to, say, a Fire TV, Roku or Chromecast video streamer that can be had for 10 percent of the Bebox's price.
Be aware that there's no remote, and all of the controls including volume are done via the touchscreen. Of course you can get around this by using Bluetooth or loading a DLNA app like Bubble UPnP, and thus using a phone or tablet as the remote -- sort of. Like any Bluetooth speaker, those cases work fine for streaming any music or service resident on your handheld device. But that means you need to walk up to the BeBox and use the touchscreen to access any of the local music files on the Mohu itself.
While it technically sits inside a box, the Mohu is not at all boxy sounding. It has a relatively open sound, which is particularly generous with pop and rock music. Though it's sometimes difficult to determine stereo separation due to the limitations of a single box speaker, the Mohu can sometimes surprise you. With certain songs the sound can extend beyond the borders of the box. For example, the insane teacher's rants at the end of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick In The Wall Part 2" materialized a foot away, as did the brass section in Spoon's "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb."
While most of my testing was with onboard music or Wi-Fi streaming, the unit can also perform when camping out with your Bluetooth-connected phone. My Lighthouse by Villagers sounded pleasant, detailed and impressively wide when streamed over Bluetooth.
Bass is plentiful yet not cartoonishly bloated, but even so, some of its rivals can pull a better performance out of demanding tracks. The completely bewildering Animals as Leaders song "Kascade" had better focus and low-end drive on the Bose SoundTouch 30, for instance. The Mohu was too laid-back and apprehensive about the song, leaving it a little difficult to untangle the dense arrangement.
Next, I lined up the BeBox alongside the Sonos Play:5 and the latest Libratone Zipp and then fired up the Ray LaMontagne track "Three More Days." The Sonos shone head-and-shoulders above both rivals with a taut, muscular take on the song which presented LaMontagne's slightly breathy voice front and center. The BeBox sounded a lot wider than the Play:5, but the vocals sounded recessed, like he was singing to you through the crack in a door that's ajar. The Libratone sounded even worse with a small sound which, while also recessed, lacked the bass punch of its rivals.
The Mohu BeBox is a likable boom box with a room-filling sound, and it's figuratively bursting with features. If you're an Android newbie, though, you may find the operating system's vagaries combined with the quirky connectivity a little daunting. If you like the idea of a portable, all-in-one music-and-occasional-movies machine, however, this might be the dream come true.
What I'd really like to see in the future is a more affordable step-down model of the BeBox that keeps the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities and loses the screen. By letting your phone do the heavy lifting, this could result in an even more recommendable product.