Review: Eton Soulra XL Solar Powered Sound System for iPod and iPhone
We've been testing two very different portable speaker systems over the past couple of weeks, though they both have one thing in common: they compete directly against Logitech's S715i, a very capable $150 portable speaker released last year. The system reviewed here is Eton's Soulra XL ($250), which is best understood as a bigger S715i with a couple of frills, plus some conceptual rough edges that are a little hard to get past.
Unlike audio systems that surprise you by delivering more than you’d expect from their small bodies, Soulra XL is designed to wow you with its bulk. Measuring roughly 14” inches wide by 8” tall and 5” deep, it looks from the sides like an extruded triangle, complete with sturdy hard rubber edges and metal speaker grilles that imply a certain level of anti-shock ruggedization. Unusually, the iPhone/iPod dock on front is hidden behind a removable flip-down hard plastic shield that can keep your device safe from the elements, and you can control play/pause, track, volume, and power from rubberized buttons on the system’s top front edge. A matching rubber panel protects the power port, aux-in port, and a device charge on/off switch from moisture or sand intrusion. But despite all of the ruggedizing elements, Soulra XL isn’t specifically marketed as waterproof or elementally safe; it comes with a gel-padded carrying strap, and is clearly intended to be used outdoors, but you probably wouldn’t want to leave it out in the rain or carry it through a stream.
The Soulra name references XL’s whopping 72-square-inch solar panel—the largest we’ve seen in any Apple accessory to date. Connected with a hinge to the top of the triangular unit, the panel flips open to face the sun, revealing a compartment for the included Infrared remote control. Eton says that the panel needs five hours of sunlight to fully charge, but when we began testing Soulra XL in brighter September, picking a relatively sunny day for power testing, ten hours passed before the battery went from dead to full—and those ten hours actually took two separate daytime sessions. Leaving a speaker sitting out in the sun for that long just to recharge its battery doesn’t strike us as making a lot of sense, and explains Eton’s inclusion of a wall charger—most of the time, you’re going to just want to plug it into an outlet to refuel the rechargeable battery, which gets between five and eight hours of play time per charge. Notably, you can also have the battery recharge the docked iPod or iPhone, depending on the position of the side charging switch; both the speaker and iPod/iPhone will charge regardless of the switch’s position when the wall adapter is connected.
What’s odd about Soulra XL is that for all of the extra bulk, Eton has added very little functionality to the core design that Logitech came up with for the S715i—it’s as if the company set out to build a product around the huge solar panel, which only the most eco-conscious and sundrenched users will actually use. Both Soulra XL and S715i use an eight-speaker configuration with two tweeters, two midrange drivers, and four passive bass radiators. Soulra XL fires two of its radiators from the front and two from the sides, with the side positioning partially explaining the need for the triangular shape; S715i instead mounts its drivers flat on the front and back, reducing the unit’s need for added depth.
Sonically, the systems sound very similar to one another, which put S715i in the “great” category for$150, and Soulra XL in the “good but overpriced” category for $250. Straight out of the box, Soulra XL sounds somewhat flat and bass-deficient, but if you press the “bass” button, the low end suddenly kicks in and the sound signature sounds extremely similar to S715i’s—capable across the entire audio spectrum from treble through the midrange to the bass, though with a hint less treble and just a little extra bass resonance. The big surprise here is that for all of its extra size, Soulra XL doesn’t perform louder, considerably deeper, or otherwise better than S715i in any meaningful way. You’re really just paying a $100 premium for the solar panel and a shoulder strap, using the latter to ease lugging around the former.
By using solar panels as its major product differentiators, Eton is definitely appealing to a niche market of users who want to rely less on wall power and more on the sun for their energy, but as efficient as its latest components may be, we’re still not seeing the real-world benefits that would justify the added size, weight, and cost. Pick Soulra XL over smaller, lighter competitors if you live in a region that gets lots of sunlight, or if your travel plans frequently take you outdoors without access to power outlets; it’s only these situations that justify our limited recommendation. Otherwise, there are plenty of good- to great-sounding speakers that will recharge quickly from any wall outlet, and benefit considerably from having less to carry around.