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Nokia Play 360 - Review

Put simply, this review is overdue. I've no idea why the nice people at Conversations by Nokia (formerly known as Nokia Connects) even let me play with this thing, let alone keep it for a bit longer than the usual two weeks... they probably just didn't want to upset me by asking for it back too early! That right there should give you a pretty good idea of my thoughts on this speaker: this is hands-down my favorite (feasibly) portable bluetooth speaker. Period. You can stop reading now.

My first real-life encounter with the Play 360 occurred at CES 2012, while I was with the rest of the (then) Nokia Connects crew. Of course I'd seen the PR television-spot, but I'd never actually been able to test one or see someone else with one (or even hear of someone owning one) until I found the Nokia booth on the CES show floor. One of the Nokia staff happily gave me a little demo and I was blown away at how loud the speaker can get, despite it's (relatively) diminutive size. However I was unable to assess the sound quality on account of all of the background noise present at the time, and the speaker soon faded from my thoughts.

As mentioned in my last bluetooth speaker review, this one, my interest in getting a bluetooth speaker was rekindled when I stumbled across a Jawbone Jambox for the first time. I've had quite a bit of time with my own speaker, had a great few weeks with the 360 (did I mention I like it a lot?), and Nokia has announced the JBL PlayUp successor of sorts to the speaker being reviewed here, I think that it's time I finally sit down and write this review all the way through.

I don't normally do a section like this, but I feel like the opening the Play 360 was something of a treat and therefore deserves it. It's not the most spectacular unboxing I've ever taken part in or even the most unique, but it was... nice. So without further ado, here's the box that the speaker comes in.
It's of the familiar blue cardboard variety that so many Nokia products come in these days. There's what amounts to a pretty much 1:1 scale depiction of the speaker (in full color) on the front, followed by product descriptions all around.
An inner box slides out from the outer shell, with a front "page" or "lid" that hinges open from the side to reveal everything...
Open it up and tada! There's the speaker sitting atop a box containing the accessories. The bookcover-like lid even has a nice diagram depicting how to instantly pair the speaker with your bluetooth device. Inside of the accessory box you'll find a 3.5mm stereo auxiliary audio cable (for connecting the speaker with non-bluetooth-enabled devices), a micro-USB charger and a custom-fitting neoprene sleeve for the speaker to protect it while underway:
And with that we conclude the unboxing! Let's move on.

What makes the Play 360 unique from other bluetooth speakers on the market is that it doesn't make any attempt to cram two small speaker drivers into a small space just for the sake of producing stereo sound. And why should Nokia have bothered? The whole idea of a portable bluetooth speaker is first-and-foremost to create good quality sound. There's very little meaningful stereo separation that can occur within a couple of inches, so why bother at all?

Having thrown away the illusion that two speakers are better than one, Nokia went about creating a portable bluetooth speaker that is just that: a single speaker. A good, high-quality driver, with something called a "bass port" located on the right-hand side to help form the lower bass tones. (This actually does something, too, as proved by simply sealing the hole with one's hand.)
Moving around to the back, you'll find the all-necessary power-button, micro-usb port for charging and the 3.5mm jack. While the power button is rather questionably located back here, it is surprisingly easy to find, even while fumbling about in a pitch-black room.
What you'll find on the bottom of the speaker is a simple battery door that features the same quick-start guide that was printed on the box. That battery door comes off with a screwdriver or even a coin, if you happen to find one that's tiny enough to wedge in there, and underneath you'll find an easily replaceable Nokia BL-5C Lithium-Ion battery, in addition to some of that not-so-eye-pleasing trade-registration jibberish that you see on almost any electronic product.
All that's to be found on the bottom-front of the device is a large button with the universal bluetooth symbol on it. Press the button once to reconnect with a paired device. Press and hold it for a few seconds to make the speaker discoverable for additional pairing. The plastic ring around the button also glows in different colors to indicate a connection or power status and, for those of you for whom it matters, the ring is very evenly illuminated and looks quite nice. Below it is a simple indicator that will flash red when the battery is getting low or illuminate a constant red when the battery is charging.
And lastly, and perhaps  most importantly, we arrive at the top of the front side of the Play 360 as well as the very top of the device itself. At the top of that front side are two buttons for increasing or decreasing audio volume. Betwen them is a Nokia logo. On top of the device there is a bit of fabric stretched over what feels like a plastic speaker grille, under which must of course be the driver itself. Affixed to the cloth is a little rubbery NFC moniker, as the Play 360 itself is equipped with NFC technology making bluetooth connections among compatible devices as simple as a tap.

That anodized aluminum you see encasing the unit? The holes in that are purely aesthetic (so far as I can tell anyway). The 360 also comes in different colors to match your personal preferences, though it is my belief that the colored stitching on the neoprene bag is the same regardless of the color of the unit itself.

When I first pulled the Play 360 out of the box, I was curious as to whether or not I would have to charge it prior to it turning on. To my surprise, it happily chirped into life (seriously, whoever came up with the on/off-sounds did a fairly good job of making the speaker just that one little bit nicer than you'd expect). Though every other electronic device I've ever owned has also done the exact same thing, I didn't quite expect the speaker to perform for about another 14 hours before it finally shut itself off and needed its first ever recharge. (I was sent a brand-new sealed unit, just to make that clear.)

Having already played with a Jambox in a store about ten months ago, and owning the Banggood speaker for a few weeks, I had a decent idea of what I should be setting par as in terms of what to expect from a bluetooth speaker. The Play 360 managed to simply waltz past this par and didn't stop till it had wandered quite far beyond it. So blown away was I by the audio quality that I literally put the Banggood speaker in my closet and contemplated moving the stereo system on my "desk" into the closet as well.
From an audio perspective, I found the quality of the Play 360 to be much better than what this old Panasonic deck was capable of making. The Panasonic was capable of much better bass, but it also takes up many, many, many times more space than the Play 360 does. If I still owned my old Alfa Romeo GTV-6, the one with the straight-pipe and no stereo, I think I'd have been more than happy with simply plopping the 360 between the rear seats, boosting up the volume and using that as an improvised sound system. This speaker is just capable of such great audio, even at higher volumes, than I could have ever predicted.

Unfortunately I was only sent one Play 360, therefore I never got to test the two-device stereo mode. I believe that this would have literally led to the throwing-out of the above pictured stereo system, had I a stereo setup. I did, however, manage to have a coworker of mine who's phone is NFC-equipped try the auto-pair with the speaker, and was quite shocked at how well that worked. Bit surprised that nobody's figured out how to do that with just bluetooth proximity sensors, but oh well.

At the end of the day, it comes down to this: would I buy a Play 360 speaker? The answer to that question is a hesitant yes, if only because of the price tag. At around 100€ a pop these days, it would be very hard to justify over cheaper alternatives or a cheap 2.1 sound system. Or even both together. Especially since getting stereo sound will run one double that cost, and then add headaches in making sure both speakers are charged up.

There's also new Nokia speakers about to be set loose: the JBL PlayUp speakers. Which, if you ask me, look a bit like coffee mugs. (To say nothing of my current dislike of the somewhat questionable yellow and red color choices.) If the new speakers are cheaper, then I'd definitely spring for those independent of news that the JBL replacements are actually quieter than the 360s that are being retired.

But if one were to ask me what is the best portable, and by that I mean feasible to carry on airplane, bluetooth speaker... I would have to point at the Play 360. It may lack a built-in microphone or be not quite as clear as the Jambox Big, but that Jawbone creation really is too big and heavy to travel. And what the 360 gives up by lacking a microphone for conference calls, it instantly makes up for with NFC and superior sound. I'm going to miss it... maybe Nokia Connects will be kind enough to send it back for my next holiday.