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Tivoli Audio PAL BT review: Retro Bluetooth radio doesn't come cheap

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Tivoli Audio's PAL radio has been out for several years and while it's pretty pricey, it remains one of our favorite portable speakers. ("PAL" was allegedly an acronym for "Portable Audio Laboratory.")

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7.0

Tivoli Audio PAL BT

Pricing Not Available

The Good

The <b>Tivoli PAL BT</b> retains the wonderful retro design, compact form factor, strong battery life, and excellent AM/FM radio of its predecessors, while adding Bluetooth compatibility. It offers surprisingly big sound for its size.

The Bad

The Bluetooth performance (and overall sound quality) is decent but not good enough for a $300 speaker -- yes, it's overpriced.

The Bottom Line

It's great that Tivoli added Bluetooth streaming to its great little PAL radio, but its $300 price tag is excessive.

Over time Tivoli has done little to change the PAL except to offer it in more colors -- and to cash in on the iPod/iPhone craze by dubbing the white one the "iPAL," which included a cable to hook up your mobile device. But now the company has finally added a wireless Bluetooth option to the PAL and its tabletop radio cousin, the Model One. Keeping things simple, the products are called the PAL BT ($299.99) and Model One BT ($259.99).

As far as I can tell, the 1.92-pound PAL BT is virtually identical to the standard PAL, both of which come in multiple color options. The one difference is that the knob that allows you to toggle among "off," "AM," and "FM" settings adds a fourth "BT" option -- that stands for Bluetooth, of course. Note that the AM and FM bands remain totally analog; Tivoli has not added support for digital HD Radio.

Once you turn the knob to BT, the unit goes into pairing mode and becomes discoverable from Bluetooth-enabled devices such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops. You can then wirelessly stream music -- or any audio -- to the PAL BT from up to 30 feet away. And depending on your environment, that range may extend to 40 to 50 feet.

The PAL BT looks the same as its non-Bluetooth sibling. Sarah Tew/CNET

While there's no "aux" switch on the knob, plugging in a standard 3.5mm cable to the rear input overrides the radio or Bluetooth signal so long as it's connected.

The PAL was always impressive because it played louder and offered more detailed sound than its 6.25 x 3.69 x 3.88 (HWD) dimensions would indicate. As Steve Guttenberg wrote in his original review of the PAL in 2003, "The PAL's rich sound belies its modest dimensions. With FM radio, audio quality was excellent, and reception was consistently clean. For kicks, we hooked up our iPod and marveled at the PAL's crisp MP3 sonics. We almost forgot we were listening to a mono-only speaker."

Around back there's a headphone jack and an auxiliary input for non-Bluetooth devices. Sarah Tew/CNET

He noted the unit's strong battery life (it's rated at 16 hours) and a couple of other nice features. Then, in the conclusion of his review, Guttenberg told CNET readers that, "for just $130, the PAL makes a great traveling companion."

Remarkably, after we posted that review, the PAL and iPAL, have steadily gone up in price. Today, the PAL retails for $220 and is one of the few consumer electronics products I've seen that has had such a dramatic price hike without making any noticeable changes (most products typically go down in price or stay at the same price with some small upgrades).

Despite that high price, I still recommend the PAL to people and regularly use a unit myself. It's easy to take from room to room -- or outdoors, as it has a somewhat weather-resistant exterior. It also makes for a good bathroom radio. I often leave it plugged in and it takes a few hours to fully charge its built-in lithium battery, which is replaceable.

Turn the dial to "BT" to enabling Bluetooth pairing. Sarah Tew/CNET

The PAL BT offers the same excellent performance as a radio and as a wired speaker. The sound quality in Bluetooth mode is decent, though not great (it sounds a touch canned) and we've tested portable Bluetooth speakers in this price range that sound better. For the same price, you can get the Bose SoundLink Bluetooth Mobile Speaker II as well as the Jawbone Big Jambox, which features a speakerphone. At $250, there's the Logitech UE Boombox.

None of those speakers has a built-in radio, but you could stream Internet radio from your phone easily enough.

The PAL BT has a built-in, replaceable rechargeable battery -- you charge it with this AC adapter. Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion
The PAL BT retains all the features that I like about it, particularly the wonderful retro design -- analog dial and all -- compact form factor, strong battery life, and excellent radio. The Bluetooth is certainly a nice addition. I was easily able to pair an iPhone 4S and an Android Galaxy S3 and it automatically re-paired with the phones whenever I turned the Bluetooth on the PAL back on after I'd set up the initial pairing.

The one thing that's very hard to swallow is the price. The PAL already is expensive at $220 and tacking on another $80 for Bluetooth just seems too much to pay when you consider there are very compelling competitors in this price range that offer better sound. That said, if you're a PAL fan and don't mind overpaying, there's nothing wrong with this speaker except for the price. I still like it. I just think it should cost a third less.

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7.0

Tivoli Audio PAL BT

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7