Compatible: Bluetooth-Capable iPods, iPhones + iPads
DBEST Transformative Bluetooth Hi-Fi System
Most of the Bluetooth wireless speakers we've covered over the past two years have fallen into simple categories -- all-in-one docking speakers with Bluetooth as a backup, all-in-one dockless speakers with Bluetooth as a primary feature, or traditional multi-piece speakers with Bluetooth and wired options. But over the past few weeks, we've had the opportunity to test a number of new and very different Bluetooth speakers that go further afield from prior concepts, with shapes and neat features that are either unlike anything we've seen before, or just executed better. Today, we're looking at three of them: DBEST's Transformative Bluetooth Hi-Fi System ($250), Swissvoice's BH01u ePure ($140), and Yantouch's Black Diamond 3 ($129). All three include two speakers and Bluetooth 2.1 chips, so they can wirelessly play music streamed from virtually every iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch, as well as the latest seventh-generation iPod nano. But they're otherwise completely dissimilar from each other.
Of the three systems, the most expensive and elaborate is DBEST’s Transformative Bluetooth Hi-Fi System—certainly one of the most distinctive wireless audio systems we’ve seen in recent months. Initially, Transformative appears to be a nearly complete circle of soft touch rubber-coated plastic, nearly 7” in diameter, interrupted by two obvious seams and a small pie piece-sized missing wedge at the top. Twisting at those seams, you can flip two arms upwards by 90 degrees to reveal speakers inside, taking the unit from 1.9” tall to 5” while forming an unusual curve. You then have the option to turn each arm through another 90 degrees, creating a roughly 14.4” wide by 4” deep by 1.9” tall wavy shape. With the arms upright, both speakers point forward and up; when the arms are down, they either point towards each other in the circle, or flare out to the sides when fully expanded. The arms are solid enough to hold any position in their 180-degree turning radiuses, including double 45-degree angles.
Unlike the other units we’re covering today, Transformative is pitched as a Bluetooth audio system and speakerphone but actually doesn’t require another audio source—it has a micro SD slot on its back if you want to use those tiny cards to store music, plus a tiny screen and buttons on its top to navigate a card’s contents. iPod, iPhone, and iPad users, however, will find the little screen useful only as a tiny clock—when the power’s on—as well as a rechargeable battery indicator, and the only way to restore Bluetooth connections.
It’s a serious failing of the firmware design that Transformative doesn’t automatically re-pair with iOS devices every time it’s powered on; in fact, you’ll wind up hitting the “M” button, the track forward button twice, and then the M button again to put Transformative in “Bluetooth Mode” before it will re-pair. Without taking these steps, even attempting to restore the wireless connection through the iOS device’s own Bluetooth menu will result in a “Connection Unsuccessful” error, a clear sign that DBEST needs to improve Transformative’s firmware if it’s going to sell this to iOS users.
Transformative’s speaker and speakerphone performance are okay rather than great, given the price. The two speakers inside the shell are around 1.5” in diameter and nestled behind perforated plastic grilles, performing fairly treble-heavy sound that is relatively clear and crisp-sounding, though pretty weak in the mid-bass and bass departments. Consequently, songs play without much “thump” in low end beats and notes, though at respectable volume levels that are enough to be heard clearly at the other end of a small room. Normally, a $250 audio system would have at least three if not five or six drivers, and the central portion of a unit such as this would house a dedicated bass driver, but that’s not the case here. Instead, DBEST uses its central compartment for the clock, control buttons—notably, with volume mapped to the track buttons and difficult to use—plus an unusually capable 25-50-hour rechargeable battery. Transformative performs wirelessly for up to 25 hours, and in wired mode with an included audio cable for up to 50 hours per charge. A mini-USB cable is included for recharging, but notably not a wall adapter, while a carrying bag lets you tote everything around.
Speakerphone performance varies based on the orientation of the arms. Callers reported considerable audio feedback when the speakers were left in a circular position, and some feedback when the speakers were placed in the most wide open “wave” position, though no problems when the arms were upright. Microphone intelligibility and quality were described as being roughly on par with the mics found in recent iPhones, while the speaker on the user’s side is somewhat louder if not particularly superior in quality to the iPhone 5’s. It’s worth noting that we and callers have experienced similar sonic quality on speakerphones selling for less than half Transformative’s price, but then, substantially better speakerphone performance than that is fairly rare.
Overall, due as much to pricing as user interface issues, iOS users will find it hard to get excited about Transformative’s overall value proposition. While the battery life is much longer than with common wireless speakers, and there’s undeniable convenience in being able to fold the speaker up and tossing it into a bag, these benefits are offset by the hassle of needing to manually re-pair this unit for Bluetooth speaker and speakerphone purposes, the middling sonic performance, and a high price. Together, these factors lead to an assessment of “merely okay” rather than good or great, at least for iOS users. That said, if you’re seeking a portable system that looks extremely distinctive and will primarily be used to play music from an SD card or wired audio source, with only the occasional pairing to an iOS device, Transformative isn’t bad. It’s the most conversation-starting design DBEST has yet debuted, and hopefully will be the foundation of something more impressive in the near future.