Bluetooth speakers - categorically suck?

MikeyFresh

Moderator
Staff member
#1
Way back in 2010 I bought a small battery operated Bluetooth enabled powered speaker, the Soundmatters foxL v2, based on a few gushing reviews by mainstream outlets, including as I recall Time Magazine, CNN, Macworld, and others.

Though I knew better than to believe the "jaw dropping" sonic assessments in those reviews, I was still curious about Bluetooth audio. More importantly I needed a speakerphone compatible with my Blackberry, easing those longer business calls from the road by eliminating the need to hold the phone in your hand (something I never actually did behind the wheel even when it wasn't illegal). This worked well in the car back when cars had no voice activated Bluetooth stereo integration of their own.

However my healthy skepticism of the praise the foxL v2 had received for supposed audio prowess in those reviews was warranted, it wasn't very good at all with music. Though the 3.5mm analog AUX input was far better than the Bluetooth audio quality, that just wasn't sayin' much. Both pretty much sucked, as you might have expected from a palm sized powered speaker circa 2010:

foxl_bluetooth (1).jpg

I quickly assigned the foxL v2 speakerphone duty only, it didn't cut it for music at all despite the review claims to the contrary, I'd much rather just use headphones (that don't suck) for mobile music enjoyment.

Through the years since 2010, various advances in Bluetooth technology have improved things somewhat, but then, there was quite a long way to go too. A few other various listens to Bluetooth speakers owned by friends proved decidedly underwhelming. Was I demanding too much, simply setting the bar too high? Am I just an audio snob of the 1st degree? Perhaps... but I also know "sucks" when I hear it too. Bluetooth sucked.

Fast forward to more recent times and I decided I'd like to give things another try, with Bluetooth now in it's 4.2 and aptX form, and some additional use cases in mind such as summer camping trips, or just taking in the ballgame from a lawn chair someplace, and various convenient Android apps such as Pandora, Spotify, or even video streaming on Netflix, FS1, NBC Sportsnet, etc...

I entered this recent evaluation with very diminished expectation levels, it would only need to not suck for me to be a buyer. After considering the downright dizzying array of choices available at everything from dirt cheap to super pricey, I settled on the Bang & Olufsen Beoplay A1:

B&O A1 (1).jpg

I figured B&O's brand reputation and design pedigree gave this unit a fighting chance, as did it's 2x 30 watt Class D amps (one for the woofer and one for the tweeter). It would need to sound good, at $249 I wouldn't be able to keep it otherwise.

And sound good it did, in fact very good, when it agreed to stay powered on. Sometimes for no apparent reason, the A1 decided to shut itself off. Hitting the power button again always turned it back on, but this was disconcerting to say the least. Coupled with an inability to update the firmware via their Android app (simply didn't work) I exchanged it thinking I got a dud, but still impressed with the sound, especially when fed a high quality signal via the analog input (from my Oppo HA-2's line out). Bluetooth audio was also not too bad, a major improvement over my previous experience with it, seemed OK for Pandora, and Spotify.

But when the exchange/replacement arrived, my excitement quickly vanished as I instantly heard a buzzing type of vibration/resonance coming from the woofer or it's enclosure. This sample of the A1 had a real sonic issue, and, it too sometimes just turned itself off for no apparent reason though not as frequently as the first sample did.

I noted there was also a desktop app for updating the A1's firmware, and unlike the Android app, it actually worked. However that did not cure either the buzzing resonance sound or the sporadic auto shut-down phenomenon. It appears B&O does not have a great Asian manufacturing partner or QC program, but in any event, I boxed up the 2nd A1 sample and arranged it's return. It's too bad, it's a nice looking piece design-wise, and the 1st sample actually sounded good, but this model despite being available for a couple of years now, still has issues.

Back to the dizzying array of choices, I considered everything from lesser expensive JBL, Creative, Bose etc... and on up to pricier B&W, Riva, Sony, Aiwa, and Vifa branded units. There isn't anyplace near-by me to actually listen to these speakers, the best I can do there is a trip to B&H Photo in NYC, where they have many but not all of these models on display.

So instead I rolled the dice again, and had Crutchfield exchange that faulty B&O A1 unit for a Marshall Kilburn:

Kilburn.jpg

It will arrive early next week, and hopefully it won't suck.

Are there any Haven members with experience in this area, do all Bluetooth speakers suck in one way or another?
 
Last edited:

Celt

Peanut Head
#3
I tried an AudioEngine B1 Bluetooth receiver with my stereo. I was satisfied with the audio...that is until it started randomly dropping out. AE's solution was to disconnect the WiFi modem. No...that won't do...I like being online while I listen to music!
So, I sold it...it's new owner seems to be happy with it and I replaced it with a Yamaha CD/USB player.
As good a compromise as any I guess.
 

billfort

Administrator
Staff member
#4
After handing down an older android phone to our 12yr old daughter and loading Tidal on it, I went looking for a Bluetooth speaker and settled on a Marley Get Together Mini. Interesting styling with a laminated bamboo face and a lot of stuff in a (barely) portable package; a pair of main speakers, tweeters, a passive radiator and the usual rechargeable battery and BT features.

MarleyGTM.jpg

I found a few glowing reviews for this which I mostly dismissed, but it does have reasonable sound for what it is. Frequency response seems typical smiley-faced with recessed mids, zippy highs and thick, bloated bass that yells upper-bass ‘hump’ type tuning. This plays quite loud and aside from some weird bass noises, is impressive in that regard; perfect for its intended use - outdoors and in the hands of a soon-to-be teenager. :)

It has some quirks (like a loud voice that tells you things like “turning off”) and doesn’t play well with multiple paired phones, but my daughter loves it, carries it everywhere and we all make good use of it outdoors. It does sound better to me at lower volumes using the aux jack & fed analog from my phone/Oppo HA-2SE, but the convenience of BT wins out for the rest of the family and that’s how it’s primarily used.

Combine the Marley with some WiFi connected phones sharing my Tidal account, and you have a nice example of current technologies being used by a non-hifi obsessed person & kids to enjoy music on their own terms – a very good thing. And the best part; Andrea tagged along with dad to a music store and we found a vinyl release by one of the bands she insistently listens too on the BT speaker. She was mesmerized by the physical album presentation under that shrink-wrap and when I cued it up on the main system for her to hear, she sat in open mouthed disbelief; said she was amazed at what she was hearing, like she was hearing it for the first time. Big smile from me when I found her waiting for me to get home the next day so we could warm up the stuff and let her listen to it again (but that’s a story for another thread :) ).

And another aside maybe not so much off-topic; I’m currently going through the Bluetooth sonics vs. convenience thing on my long commute right now, as I just changed to a newer car (a few yr. old Audi with tech package and B&O audio), which brings the option of listening to music off a BT connected phone. This is very nice as some of my favorite music is in play via offline Tidal, locally stored rips and even downloaded Radio Paradise internet radio streams (a very cool new option).

This is a few year old BT technology so maybe no better than high bitrate mp3 quality at best, but I am loving this combination of convenience and decent audio (the Audi/B&O system is very nice for factory audio). The phone wirelessly connects, I start the streams on the phone and the car controls work for volume, track control, track information, etc., all nicely integrated with hands-free phone use and NAV.

I don’t currently have an aux-in jack in the car but have ordered the Audi specific MMI cable adapter needed to try this. Since this brings into play a potentially less compromised analog input from the phone or even the Oppo HA-2 external DAC, I might realize better sonics from higher-res sources; tempting when you spend close to 2hrs/day commuting, but I’d lose that BT convenience. Should be interesting to see if it’s worth it.
 

MikeyFresh

Moderator
Staff member
#5
And another aside maybe not so much off-topic
Not at all off-topic, nor was the aforementioned family convenience aspect of Bluetooth, and your 12 year old daughter's tag along to the vinyl shop. All good.

My primary use case with the Marshall Kilburn (assuming it doesn't suck) will be outdoor portable shared with others, camping, lawn chair etc... much like your mention of the Marley's duty (and it's Get Together namesake apropos).

My Mazda has a 3.5mm AUX input, and it does trump the convenience of Bluetooth IMO, the Oppo HA-2 ensures that sonically speaking.
 

billfort

Administrator
Staff member
#6
Maybe all about the source and pieces used around it, but I'm thinking yes, Bluetooth does categorically suck for good audio. :)

Got the MMI cable adapter for the car so tried some things last night; analog out of my very average dtek50 android phone and analog out of the Oppo HA-2AE when connected to the phone. The straight out was easier to directly compare as all source material could be A-B'ed by switching source in the car's infotainment system - using the DAC seemed to kill BT output so took a few more steps.

Source was phone SD card stored 16/44.1 flac, DSD, 320mp3, Tidal flac lossless downloads, and locally saved RadioParadise streams in 320mp3 and lossless flac. I couldn't use the DAC for the Tidal or RP downloads - don't think that is possible with this phone/DAC combination.

First off the negatives with the analog in; no system track info, no track advance and no pictures, so you kind of need the phone mounted somewhere to allow it to be seen and occasionally, touched. And there is that cable; sticking out of the top of my phone and needs to be routed to the armrest console where the MMI jack is. So it's a pain in the ass and there are some mounting and use challenges here (spookily like the convenience tradeoffs you are faced with when listening to the best at home - vinyl :) ).

But man, what a difference over BT!!! I had no idea how good factory in-car audio had gotten, at least this particular B&O/Audi implementation. The analog-in totally transformed the sound removing a layer of mud and way extending the frequency extremes, all while letting the sweet mids soar when the track had it in it. You could now clearly hear the differences in the source file quality (even something like RP downloads in 320k vs. flac) and I was blow away by how good something like a DSD rip through the Oppo could sound in this little space - Muddy Waters and the Cowboy Junkies...just wow.

Not so convenient though, and I have to figure out how to live with this, but I will - I NEED this for my commute.

But that Marley BT speaker - still doing it's magic for my daughter and last night she played me a few songs on it (outside in the sun) and told me with wide-eyed excitement that we could get that album on vinyl to listen to downstairs - she already checked to see if it was available. Might be time to show her that a CD or download might do it too if done right.

Maybe new-tech that so often disappoints me, isn't so bad when well applied, especially if used by open-minded people who can see beyond it.
 

MikeO

Active Member
#7
I am very interested in the progress of wireless speakers. Not really so much the bluetooth only, tiny 2 inch driver type of systems, although for their purpose there is nothing wrong with them in my mind. But it is the higher end active and powered speakers with at least four or five inch drivers and a selection of inputs which include bluetooth, usb, optical etc where I am most interested. I really could see myself end up with a pair of these at some point.

One of the obvious premium models in this range is the KEF LS50 wireless which after reading some of the reviews by audiophile magazines may be one of the finest systems available at any price. But it is still far out of my price range. The speakers that have the most appeal to me at this time is the yet unreleased (but demoed at CES, and due out this summer) SVS Prime wireless. In its active/passive configuration it will list for only $500 US and has a variety of digital and analog inputs using a 4.5 inch driver with digital crossovers. The reviews were very good and it looks like it could serve as a real audio system for even most audiophiles. It can also be paired with a sub if you want a bit more although I would likely start with just the two speakers.

The only concern i have with these type of systems is that as we rely more and more on digital technology, the products using them also become disposable. Especially as software and computers are likely the fastest moving technology, I would hate to put out the money that a pair of KEF LS50 wireless costs to find that a windows update in the future, or a mac update made the digital functions unusable. After working in the software industry for 20 years I have seen many cases of forced upgrades which people did not want to make just because the software company made a business decision not to support older hardware. And older hardware is often anything older than a few years. If I spent $3000 on a pair of speakers (which is actually a whole system) I don't want to have to throw it away or sell it for 1/10th of what I paid for it three years later. I guess we can choose to look at it like a smart phone and say it will only last for a few years but my current system is built of parts that are between 20 and 30 years old and still running well.

But this is always the choice we have to make with technology. Which is why I can see myself spending $500 to try the SVS system, but not $3000 for the Kefs.

Here is an interesting video on Youtube:

 

MikeyFresh

Moderator
Staff member
#8
Yesterday I received the Marshall Kilburn mentioned in the OP above, Crutchfield with another very fast efficient transaction and shipment from Virginia to New York, they are a great cataloger.

This one is a keeper. After fully charging the battery I paired my Galaxy S7 phone via Bluetooth at work and streamed some Pandora Plus (256 kbps?). Not bad at all, certainly not offensive sounding, though obviously limited by the source. Pleasing tonal balance, but lacking in dynamic swing and overall detail.

The Kilburn's Bluetooth implementation seems good enough for convenience purposes, but not more.

Next up was connection of the Oppo HA-2 portable DAC's line out to the Kilburn's 3.5mm analog input, using the supplied phone cord style coiled cable.

Playback of PCM at various bit depths and sample rates, and DSD files from the superb UAPP music player app was quite impressive. This speaker plays louder with less strain than the Bang & Olufsen A1 did, though the ported enclosure makes for a little less bass definition/articulation than with the A1. I'll accept that small trade-off, it's not a huge difference, and the Kilburn even sounds good outdoors despite that ported design.

The one small niggle I have with the Kilburn is the ability to overload/clip the analog input with tracks that are just too damn LOUD. Highly compressed music produced to sound excessively loud can cause clipping at the AUX input, evidenced by the fact it keeps happening even if you turn the volume way down, it's not the output stage causing this crackling type sound. The Kilburn does not exhibit this issue on tracks recorded at reasonable levels.

Evidently Marshall designed that AUX input with low output devices in mind such as the typical mobile phone, iPod etc... I will test the LH Labs GO100iem DAC in place of the HA-2 to see if it's lower output ceiling (100mW output intended to drive IEMs) eliminates the problem entirely.

But overall this unit passes muster, even if I do end up having to steer clear of highly compressed tracks (not too bad an idea in the first place). Marshall has managed to offer a surprisingly good sounding loud playing speaker with decent Bluetooth and a still better analog input, in a cool retro-looking package with great battery life, that's portable and easily toted by it's guitar-like strap.

Battery life is said to be 20 hours at half volume, which is actually fairly loud, and kudos to Marshall for making the battery user replaceable via bottom panel access. Toss in volume and tone controls that are easy to use via very ergonomically friendly round knobs, and we have a winner for outdoor summer fun, camping trips, etc... even the occasional power outage situation where I will no longer be limited to just headphone use to pass the boredom until the power is restored.

Kilburn_aux (1).jpg

I thought the cream white color option was better for outdoor use potentially in direct sunlight at times, where the black model would likely soak in more UV and thus run hotter. Then again, white gets dirty pretty quickly.
 

Thermionics

Post Whore In Training
#9
Well, other than the inherent limitations to Bluetooth and battery power, my wife is fond of the Sony SRS x55 speaker I got her for her birthday. It has a nice, classic 60's transistor radio look, decent sound - especially with spoken word, which tends to be where a lot of Bluetooth speakers fall over dramatically, and good battery life.



It's certainly not 'hifi' by the standards of this group, but when Used Within Its Means (tm), it doesn't embarrass itself.

-D
 

MikeyFresh

Moderator
Staff member
#12

MikeyFresh

Moderator
Staff member
#13
Sony SRS x55 speaker
That too is an interesting piece, using a Sony (proprietary?) alternative codec to aptX HD called LDAC, I believe roughly Redbook quality Bluetooth is claimed.

I actually have the similar Sony SRS-X88 in my desktop system, however I don't really use the Bluetooth there at all as it has both a hi-rez capable USB input and DLNA/UPnP over Wi-Fi:

x88.jpg

I bought it a couple of years ago and it's a very fine sounding desktop speaker, but in retrospect your wife's X55 model would have been a wiser purchase for me as it could have served double duty as both a computer desktop and a portable on-the-go speaker, while the X88 above has no battery and is thus not portable, AC powered only.
 

MikeO

Active Member
#14
Seems that Klipsch has some interesting products in this market. From a small battery powered traditional bluetooth speaker system to the very interesting "The Fifteens" with several connectivity options, built in amps, phono stage, bluetooth, usb and optical and a horn tweeter with 15 inch woofers. These look like some serious speakers and perhaps a representation of what a high end wireless solution will look like.

https://www.avsforum.com/best-of-ces-klipsch-heritage-wireless-the-fifteen-2-way-15-active-speakers/
 

MikeO

Active Member
#17
So are those "Fifteens" on the market?
A quick look at the Klipsch website didn't turn 'em up for me(?).
It looks like they may have decided not to put them into production. Don't know the reasoning but can think of a couple of possible reason. Maybe those who want to buy a large speaker like that really would prefer to buy their own amps, cables, preamps, etc. or another possibility is that the dealers who would be selling them really would like to sell their own amps. cables, preamps etc. Could be either or both I guess. The do seem to be selling "The Sixes" which are much smaller and go for around $1000 vs the $3000 price tag on The Fifteens.
 

MikeyFresh

Moderator
Staff member
#18
I've got the Marshall Kilburn sorted out, the clipping I hear on hotly recorded/mastered tracks is indeed an issue at the analog input where evidently the sensitivity is very high, it's easily overloaded.

I can only guess Marshall assumed the use of wimpy/low output source devices such as the typical mobile phone's headphone jack, iPod, etc... they don't recognize there are lunatics like me (us?) that wish to use something more robust and good sounding. Or maybe they just think everyone will connect via Bluetooth and call it a day.

That said, I applied a -12dB pad to the source's output and it solves this issue, while also allowing the Kilburn's volume control to be used much more wide open. Sounds great with the Resonessence Labs Herus DAC and Galaxy Tab A running UAPP.

I also made a short 3.5mm cable out of some Mogami W2893 with Neutrik right-angled plugs, as the Marshall included 3.5mm coiled "phone cord" didn't end up sounding all that wonderful compared to some other 3.5mm cables I have (but were too long for this rig), so I made a short one this morning:

Kilburn_rig.jpg
 

billfort

Administrator
Staff member
#19
That's pretty slick Mike; bet it's nice with the Resonessence Herus DAC, I really enjoyed my time with their Concero HD.

I never thought about rolling my own 3.5mm cable with right angle plugs - might be the answer to getting things sorted in the car - the phone+external DAC on UAAP is really a major step up from Bluetooth in there. Wireless is nice in a portable situation where convenience rules and it's a key piece in my daughter loving the Marley, but it's hard to beat a copper wire when it comes to audio performance.
 

Prime Minister

Site Owner
Staff member
#20
It looks like they may have decided not to put them into production. Don't know the reasoning but can think of a couple of possible reason. Maybe those who want to buy a large speaker like that really would prefer to buy their own amps, cables, preamps, etc. or another possibility is that the dealers who would be selling them really would like to sell their own amps. cables, preamps etc. Could be either or both I guess. The do seem to be selling "The Sixes" which are much smaller and go for around $1000 vs the $3000 price tag on The Fifteens.
Too bad. Be nice to see some fresh approaches.

Your little Morgans changed my mind on what tiny powered speakers could do. So I'm waiting to be blown away by something from the Bluetooth side.
 
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