Introduction: (Note: You'll find a video of this speaker at the end of this review.)
Being something of a Nokia fanboy (being a cellphone nut, one sort of has to ignore the company’s more recent head-tilt-inducing strategies and remember the good ‘ole days), the first quality Bluetooth stereo accessory I was introduced to was the BH-905 stereo headphones from none other than Nokia themselves. I have never laid my hands on that set, though I did get to play around with the later 905i variant. Soon afterwards I remember seeing the promotional material for the Nokia Play 360 speaker, though I wouldn’t actually see one of those in person for quite some time.
The first time I actually ran across a Bluetooth speaker in-person was when I was buying my Atrix 4G Laptop Dock(s). (Yes, I bought two.) I noticed this bright red aluminum-and-rubber brick sitting on the counter and asked the saleslady what it was. What followed shortly afterwards was nothing short of a small dance party consisting of myself and AT&T reps laughing over the fact that someone’s iPhone had “randomly” decided to play Party in the USA as the first song when put into shuffle mode. Needless to say, I was quite surprised by the quality of the speaker, though I couldn’t help but notice that the sound produced was very directionally projected out of the thing… which I quickly realized was a Jawbone Jambox. I walked out of the store with only my docks after serious contemplation over the device’s $150 so-called “on-sale” price. The quality of audio compared to the unit’s size had made a great impression on me, and the industrial design it sported didn’t hurt at all, either.
Shortly after arriving at home, I was glad I hadn’t bought the Jambox speaker. Sure, the sound quality was good enough to appease my ears in lieu of my 2.1 sound system, but that was the problem: I already owned said system. Why should I double up having already bought one of two stereos, since the one I already owned produced noticeably better audio and had a higher power output? A hundred fifty is a lot of money to spend on a little brick. When I was invited by Nokia Connects to join them at CES 2012, I got to finally see with my own two eyes a Nokia Play 360 speaker… multiple, actually. I got to feel them, pick them up, and ponder their purpose. I sort of got to test them, too. (The CES floor was filled with all sorts of loud chatter and electronic blabber, and this made it nearly impossible to actually tell what kind of audio fidelity the Play 360 was capable of producing.) Long story short: I liked the Nokia better because of its increased size and “360” sound, but the Jambox still was tugging at my heart with its petite size and big bite. It’s good I already owned a stereo system otherwise I probably would have bought either one of them by now and missed out.
While perusing eBay, as I occasionally do, something caught my eye. A listing for a Bluetooth speaker. Brand-new, buy-it-now. Three dollars and fifty cents, including shipping. I did a quick search for a review and came up with nothing apart from a rather silly “Banggood Bluetooth Stereo Speaker Review” video on YouTube. (You can find it yourself, if you really want.) In that video, the speaker seemed to perform pretty well enough. Shoot, for $3.50, how could I say no? It was being sold for less than 3% of the cost of the Jambox. If it performed 5% as well as the Jambox, I’d have no justified reason to complain. I bit the bullet and paid up, preparing for the extremely long shipping wait from Hong Kong to Germany. Turns out, I only had to wait about a week till the speaker showed up at my doorstep. That’s a first.
Let’s dig in.
Call it what you will, or buy it under whatever name it seems to be being sold as… I imagine they are all the same. This speaker is generally cylindrical in shape, though flattened a bit so that the sides appear as ovals. On the front of the device, where the buttons and speaker grille is located, one will find nothing other than those things, plus a small clear window below the buttons for an LED indicator. The grille is painted a somewhat glossy black and everything behind it (speaker cones, plastic, screws, etc.) are all painted black as well. The buttons, meanwhile, are made of plastic chrome.
In terms of the front alone, the result is fairly understated. I’m not sure what to make of it- the glossy buttons look a bit cheap, but had they been painted anything else I’m most certain I would have deemed them to be even more so. Should I be able to modify them, I would wish to resize them to the size of Tic-Tacs or even smaller. The LED window is much too large as well, and curiously it is made up of clear plastic as opposed to something opaque. While perhaps unintentional (or maybe intentional if designed by some oddball), this too-large indicator window and a very bright blue LED behind it means that the speaker will happily illuminate an entire room in blue light at night. Not a big fan of that blinky light.
Moving on to the back of the plastic-based body and there are only two things of note: the battery compartment and the little slot for the puck-stand piece. I would applaud whoever designed this speaker for that replaceable battery alone: I would worry about using this speaker constantly and then have the battery slowly become useless, should the battery be internally contained like on the Braven Zephyr or Jawbone Jambox (which would certainly diminish the functional appeal of the former). Because of this speaker’s forward-thinking designer, there are no problems to be foreseen, assuming that Bluetooth tech remains current and the entire device manages to live long enough. That stand-puck on the other hand… kind of confused why this piece wasn’t just built-in. But no worries, it’s a somewhat ingenious solution to a problem that shouldn’t really have existed, despite which manages to set this sound-maker apart from similar products (being a cylinder rather than a brick).
Jumping lastly to the right-hand side of the unit (there is nothing to be found on the left), one finds “Bluetooth” written rather proudly on the side next to an understated microphone grill (questionably placed here), a power switch, 3.5mm stereo-in jack (for your friend to use when they want to share from a non-Bluetooth device) and a mini-USB port (for charging).
That’s it. Really. Despite the device’s size, there’s really no reason why it should have a plethora of buttons compared to your average Bluetooth headset. So it doesn’t. And one can’t fault it for that. Simplicity is the key to success and this guy sticks true to that mentality. There is no USB port for charging other devices (Zephyr). No fancy voice-menu for features (Jambox). And it goes without saying that there’s no fancy NFC radio for instantaneous pairing with NFC-enabled phones (Play 360). A simple, understated and clean design that doesn’t attract a lot of attention to itself. On the downside, it feels a bit light. There’s something to be said about a product having some heft to it, though on the flipside this thing would most certainly travel without hogging up precious weight. It may not be as much eye-candy as the other big-boys in the Bluetooth speaker world, but it looks good.
Did I forget to mention that the battery used in this speaker is a Nokia BL-5CB Li-Ion? Or rather, identical, right down to most of the wrapper design on the battery. Gone is the text found on a legitimate Nokia battery, as is the hologram signifying a product as being a genuine Nokia product. Obviously. Just a funny thing worth mentioning.
After opening up the box, taking the speaker out of its protective foam sleeve, popping in the battery and stand-puck, all I had to do was flick the power switch to on and press the play button to set the speaker as being discoverable. I grabbed my Lumia 710 (WP7 phone, by the way) and did a Bluetooth device search, instantly finding the speaker. (Which had some random-characters Bluetooth name.) Click on it, and everything is done and paired. Didn’t even have to enter in the passcode as the instructions warned me about (“0000” or something, I believe).
Next, I started up the music player on my phone and clicked play.
Wow. Now, this speaker is no Hi-Fi replacement, but I was quite blown away. Smaller, underpowered speakers have the issue of being unable to actually recreate lower frequencies and instead emulate them. The result is the brain perceiving music as it is meant to be heard, but also being aware that it is being cheated. In that scenario, there is no tangible vibration. With this speaker, however, there was vibration. Not the type of vibration that your TV’s 5.1 surround-sound system is capable of imposing on you, but definitely better than most built-in speakers found in your phone, computer, tablet, etc. And I would say that the audio quality is fast approaching if not exceeding in many cases what you would expect from a smaller low-end stereo system. On par with the Jambox, if not a bit better for reasons of better omnidirectional sound projection (though not a full 360 degrees) and not as much emphasis on bass. (Jambox has an odd tonal quality that matches it’s diminutive size, despite creating impressive sound.)
By about this point in the review you might be asking yourself: what’s the catch? A speaker this cheap must have some catches. You’re right: it’s that stupid blinking blue light. I might end up scuffing up the LED window myself to try and alleviate that problem, but using the speaker at night can be bothersome. Imagine having someone shine a blue flashlight in your face on and off. That’s how it feels some days. When the light flashes red instead (it can flash red, by the way), that is usually not a welcome development as it means either the device is almost dead or it is shutting itself off because it is dead. A much smaller, dimmer, diffused blue LED would be a warm welcome as an improvement to this speaker.
So, that’s it? Yep. I think it’s about time I cut to the chase and answer the important question that you might be asking yourself: should I buy one? If you can get one for $3.50 shipped to your door like I did, there’s no reason to hesitate! If I had gotten the chance to play with this speaker before buying it, I probably would have been willing to pay up to $25 on the spot, and up to $50 with a bit of thought and contemplation with comparison to other alternatives. (Especially since a basic wired 2.1 system can be bought easily for $25 these days.)
In short, it’s a soundsystem that about as good as a Jawbone Jambox or that silly Monster ClarityHD or whatever it’s called. In my opinion, this little guy actually sounds better than those other alternatives, though that might be a case of personal taste in frequency tuning. Considering all of these are probably made in the same factory next to one another… how much does a brand-name and design really matter to you? (Side note: Monster’s offering has always struck me as aesthetically atrocious; this no-name speaker is definitely a step up.) At the end of the day, they’re all just portable speakers anyway. If it were me I’d go get this again in a heartbeat. It’s sad that the sale price I got mine at is gone now. Want to "hear" what the speaker sounds like? Then watch this video: