Review: Outdoor Technology Turtle Shell Wireless Boombox + Turtle Claw Bike Mount
While we called out the Jawbone Jambox two years ago as overpriced and sonically underequipped, there was no question that the small, boxy $200 speaker landed in what's known as a blue ocean -- a segment of the market where there wasn't a lot of direct competition. After repackaging Soundmatters' pioneering small Bluetooth speaker foxL in a more stylish Yves Behar-designed enclosure, Jawbone aggressively marketed the Jambox in an increasingly diverse range of colors and textures, winning fans who were less concerned about the sonic performance for the price than its clean looks. Major and minor speaker makers alike took notice, and rushed various small wireless alternatives to market, trying strategies ranging from "same price, better performance" to "lower price, similar performance" and "lower price, lower performance." Having covered many earlier and in some cases superior options in prior reviews, we're taking quick looks today at seven new Jambox alternatives, all less expensive than Jawbone's basic model. The prices range from $59 to $150, and though their shapes, features, and performance vary considerably, any one will save you at least $50 relative to the Jambox, and several markedly outperform it, too.
All of today’s speakers have several things in common. They’re all built primarily as Bluetooth wireless speakers with support for Bluetooth 2.0 and newer devices, which is to say that they’ll work in wireless mode with all iPads, all iPod touches and iPhones except the original models, and even the latest seventh-generation iPod nano—reliably at 30-foot distances, sometimes longer. Each has an auxiliary 3.5mm wired option if you needed it. Every speaker comes with a charging cable and has a rechargeable battery built in, with a run time of roughly 4 and sometimes more hours, though longevity is dependent on the volume level you pick. And finally, they’re all super portable: though their shapes are different, each could be placed in a purse or backpack with ease, though there’s variation in the resilience of the materials chosen by each developer, so some will emerge more unscathed than others.
Because Outdoor Technology’s Turtle Shell ($150) is in a very unusual situation—it was sent to us for review as a finished but yet-to-be-funded Kickstarter project, and now is being sold through only one web site—we weren’t exactly sure what to make of it, or whether to even review it, given that it may never see wide release in the submitted form. From an aesthetic standpoint, it’s the most unlike Jambox of any speaker in today’s roundup, resembling a simple polygonal representation of a medium-sized turtle’s shell: a bit narrower than the Jambox at around 5.6” wide, but a lot deeper at roughly 4” of depth, and neatly matched in peak height, though with a considerably uneven top surface that varies from around 3/4” to 2” with triangular peaks. Sold in a variety of colors, each with a soft touch rubber finish, it feels solidly built on all of its octagonal sides, and uses a set of rubber-coated feet to stand up on a flat surface. It’s small enough to toss into a bag, but occupies around twice the Jambox’s total physical volume.
Two silver speaker drivers are clearly visible through its perforated top, and a large down-firing bass driver is hidden underneath, covered by a rubber grate. Pitched as IPX-5 water-resistant, which is to say rain- and splash-safe but not submersible, Turtle Shell has a sealed side compartment for audio and power ports, a power switch on the other side, and a set of three control buttons—arrows somewhat uneasily double as volume and track controls, depending on how long they’re held, while the center is a play/pause/call button. Notably, if these controls are facing you, the speakers inside perform stereo in reverse—left channel audio through the right speaker and vice versa—though the unit’s unusual shape doesn’t strictly require it to be in either orientation, and the stereo separation is so limited that most users will never notice it, anyway.
One reason that you might care about the orientation is Outdoor Technology’s decision to include a metal screw thread on Turtle Shell’s bottom, capable of attaching to an optional $25 accessory called Turtle Claw. Matching the speaker’s design and arguably besting it in execution, this small clamp enables you to attach Turtle Shell to a bike for outdoor use. Since Turtle Shell can run for 9 or so hours per charge, you’ll likely be able to take a few rides with it before needing to unscrew it from the Turtle Claw and bring it indoors for charging. A charging cable and wall adapter are included for this purpose, notably using a proprietary connector rather than micro-USB—a possible challenge if you lose the cable. Outdoor Technology also shipped out an unexpected and unexplained Olympus-branded replacement for the pictured hexagonal wall charger, noting that we should dispose of the originally provided unit.
Cosmetics and simple functionality aside, Turtle Shell is also different from most of its rivals in not even attempting to beat the Jambox in speaker quality. Its peak volume level is, if anything, 5-10% lower than Jambox’s, while its sound is a hint muddier, and its bass is under normal indoor conditions a little less obvious, with modest high-frequency differences that actually lean a little too sharp in the treble department. However, to the extent that its bottom-firing bass driver has the ability to breathe—as it might when mounted on a bike—you might find that you’re able to hear more audio frequencies than you might by just strapping a Jambox onto your bike’s handlebars. It suffices to say that it doesn’t really stand out as an indoor speaker, apart from selling for a lower price than the Jambox, and looking somewhat different.
As a speakerphone, however, Turtle Shell does a little bit better than the Jambox. Callers said that the Turtle Shell’s microphone was clearer, enabling them to hear us a little better versus what they called “degraded” sound on the Jambox, and although Turtle Shell’s speaker notably was quieter than Jambox’s during phone calls, it exhibited less distortion. The fact that you can use it to take or make calls outdoors—simply holding down the circular center button to activate Siri—is also a nice feature, and one bike riders will particularly appreciate.
Overall, Outdoor Technology’s Turtle Shell offers a roughly peer experience to the $200 Jambox at a lower price, in a weather-resistant package, and with bike mounting as an option—these factors are cumulatively enough to earn it our general recommendation. That having been said, the raw sonic performance is a solid step or two below the top $100 portable speakers we’ve tested, so if you’re intrigued by this model’s design or features, bear in mind that it’s best-suited to the specific outdoorsy and bike-ready applications it’s being marketed for.