While fairly pricey at just under $300, the Sony SRS-BTX500 more than holds its own against the top premium portable Bluetooth speakers.
Sony's 2013 portable Bluetooth wireless speaker offerings are pretty varied. At the low end -- or entry level, as companies prefer to describe it -- you have the ball-style SRS-BTV5 ($69). Then there's the purse-style SRS-BTM8, which retails for $99. And finally, at the high end you have the SRS-BTX300 ($199.99) and the SRS-BTX500 ($299.99).
I'm most impressed with the X-series line -- especially the subject of this review, the SRS-BTX500, which has a very slick design and delivers excellent sound for a compact Bluetooth speaker. At around $300, it competes against such products as Bose's SoundLink Bluetooth Mobile Speaker II and the Jawbone Big Jambox and should be on your short list if you're looking for a premium portable Bluetooth speaker.
Design and features
Like a lot of these Bluetooth speakers that don't feature any sort of dock, the SRS-BTX500 has a clean, sleek look, and the speaker is a classic example of Sony's design prowess. If there's a fault, it's that the matte finish on the back scratches pretty easily if you rub it up against a rough or sharp surface. But otherwise it's really nice. It has a bit of brushed metal on the sides and measures 15.1 inches wide and 6 inches tall, and has a depth of 2.5 inches.
I liked how there's a slot for on the back to fit your fingers into when carrying the speaker (it's sort of like a handle without being a handle). And there's a kickstand for propping up the speaker -- it retracts and folds flat when you want to stow the speaker in the included protective neoprene carrying case.
At 4 pounds, 7 ounces, the SRS-BTX500 has some heft to it, and it's probably not something you want to be carrying around in your luggage, though it will certainly fit. The speaker seems better suited to moving from room to room and outside onto the patio. Sure, you can carry it wherever you want, but with its more executive styling I don't see this as a speaker you'd want to bring to the beach.
To add a little flair, Sony's designers equipped the base of the speaker in front with a glowing, thin blue light. There are few buttons on the side of the speaker (power on/off, auxiliary input, sound mode, and pairing mode), as well as a couple on top -- a call end/answer button for speakerphone calls and a volume control -- but overall the design is fairly minimalist.
The notable extras here are the speakerphone capabilities, an integrated USB charging port for juicing up your smartphone -- the AC adapter has to be plugged in for this feature to work -- and NFC pairing for compatible devices.
In case you don't know what NFC (near-field communication) is, it's available in only certain smartphones, including recent Sony Xperia smartphones, as well as the Samsung Galaxy S3, S4, and Galaxy Note 2; here it allows you to tap your phone or tablet on the speaker to automatically pair with it and to disconnect. I don't find that terribly compelling -- it doesn't really save you more than a second or two -- but NFC is a hot feature these days and more companies are adding it to their Bluetooth speakers.
In order for NFC pairing to work, you'll have to first download the free NFC Easy Connect app from the Google Play Store. I loaded it onto a Galaxy S3 and was able to pair without a problem. I had some trouble using NFC pairing with the Sony SRS-BTV5, but it worked flawlessly with this speaker.
I also had no trouble pairing the old-fashioned, non-NFC way with an iPhone 4S and an iPad Mini.
Like its Bose and Jawbone competitors, this model has a built-in rechargeable lithium ion battery. It provides up to six hours of continuous playback, though you can do better than that if you play your music at lower volumes.
The SRS-BTX500 has a 2 x 10W power rating, which adds up to 20W of total power. For a small speaker, it's got some kick to it and can fill a small to medium-size room with sound.
What I liked most about it is that it sounds very clean for a Bluetooth speaker and the punchy bass holds together pretty well at higher volumes. That said, the bass isn't huge, and I did get some distortion when I cranked up the volume on bass-heavy tracks such as Swedish House Mafia's "Greyhound." It sounded fine up till about 75 percent volume (call it 8 out of 10), then got a little crunchy when I pushed it past that point. In other words, the speaker does have its limitations and you're going to get your best results with the volume in the 40-to-60 percent range.
As noted, there's a sound mode button on the side of the speaker with a little LED light next to it. The default setting is for Mega Bass (amber LED), which is supposed to help deliver "high-quality bass." Tap it once and it shifts to a green LED and Mega Bass + Surround, which opens up the sound stage a bit with some digital processing. Tap it again and the sound effects are turned off. After playing around with sound button a bit, I leaned toward the default Mega Bass setting.
I compared the SRS-BTX500 with the Bose SoundLink Bluetooth Mobile Speaker II, which I like a lot and offers similar battery life (6 hours is OK but not great; the Jawbone Big Jambox is the winner there, with up to 15 hours of continuous play). The Bose also plays impressively loud for its size, but I thought the Sony sounded a little bit clearer and was a bit better overall. But it is a larger speaker, so you'd hope it would deliver better sound.
If you're considering the $199.99 SRS-BTX300, that model also is a very good performer for its size, but the BTX500 is a noticeable step up in sound quality. I personally would pay the extra dough for the BTX500.
As for speakerphone performance, it was decent, though not great; the Big Jawbone offers better speakerphone performance. Callers said I sounded slightly muffled, though my voice did get clearer if I moved closer to the speaker, which was about two feet away. I could hear callers fine.
The Bose SoundLink Bluetooth Mobile Speaker II and its predecessor have really owned the premium portable Bluetooth speaker market (yes, the Jawbone Big Jambox is a strong product, but it hasn't had nearly the success of the much smaller, original Jambox). While the SoundLink II is an excellent product, its dominance has been more than partially fueled by Bose's massive marketing efforts.
The Sony SRS-BTX500 won't get that kind of support from Sony, but it certainly holds its own against the Bose. It's a slick, excellent-sounding portable Bluetooth speaker that also features speakerphone capabilities (the Bose doesn't offer that), a USB charging option for smartphones, and NFC pairing for NFC-enabled devices. As I said in the beginning of this review, if you're in the market for a premium portable Bluetooth speaker, the SRS-BTX500 should certainly make your short list.