Review: Bem Wireless Speaker Trio
Our entire editorial team was genuinely excited when Bem Wireless announced Speaker Trio ($300), a new multi-room audio system with a clear and powerful value proposition: one purchase gets you three wireless, battery-powered speakers in your choice of black or white, plus a matching recharging base, and Bluetooth compatibility for connection to your iPod, iPhone, or iPad. Seemingly a spiritual successor to Griffin's Evolve, a brilliant but ultimately ill-fated wireless sound system released five years ago for iPods, Speaker Trio appeared to be considerably more appealing for today's Apple device users. Yet unlike Evolve, which worked just as expected on day one, Speaker Trio is littered with all sorts of issues that detract from its appeal -- problems that most likely will need to be fixed in subsequent revisions to the hardware, or a follow-up product.
Evolve established the wireless speaker template that Speaker Trio is following. For the same $300 price, Griffin bundled two detachable, battery-powered speakers with a charging base and integrated iPod dock, enabling the iPod to broadcast music to the cube-shaped speakers at up to 150-foot distances using a digital 900mHz signal. Additional speakers and charging bases could be purchased separately, as Evolve was capable of simultaneous streaming from the iPod to numerous speakers at once. Each speaker had its own power button, volume controls, and bottom-mounted charging plate; you could turn them on or off individually, and just drop each onto a base when its 10-hour battery ran low. Though the concept was great, Evolve proved expensive to manufacture, and its wireless functionality ran into regulatory issues in some foreign countries. Consequently, it unceremoniously disappeared from stores, and didn’t spawn a sequel.
On the surface, Speaker Trio seems to have learned from Evolve’s example. It begins with similar cube-shaped, rechargeable battery-powered speakers that have integrated volume and power buttons—now three speakers for $300, rather than Evolve’s two. Bem interestingly has positioned each 6” by 6” by 6” speaker’s single driver directly upwards from the bottom charging surface, while venting the speaker in five different directions with plastic or metal perforated grilles. This small charge means that you needn’t point a given speaker forwards and hope that its sound carries around a room—it can point upwards with sound radiating out from the sides. Each speaker’s base emits a nice white glow when its power is on, and a red glow when it’s recharging. And there’s no need to dock your iPod, iPhone, or iPad; instead, you just pair your device wirelessly with Bluetooth to Speaker Trio’s base, and the base re-distributes streamed audio to the speakers using a 2.4GHz wireless signal.
Some of Bem Wireless’s industrial design decisions are really smart. The charging base fits the three speakers almost perfectly, leaving just enough room for the speakers’ glowing bottoms to be visible—if the recesses were only a little deeper to keep the speakers snug, they’d be perfect. Small issues aside, this is an impressively minimalist design: apart from a metallic Bem logo on the front, there are a power button and light on the right side, and three ports for aux-in, aux-out, and wall adapter power on the back, nothing else. Some users might note the omission of an Evolve-like remote control, or take issue with the absence of any charging capability for an iOS device, but most people will want to carry their iPods, iPhones, or iPads around and stream wirelessly to the base rather than making an old-fashioned wired connection. Those missing components are offset here not by a price drop from Evolve’s $300 initial tag, but by the third speaker, which lets you spread your music out to another place without buying any additional components.
Unfortunately, Speaker Trio isn’t as impressively executed under the hood as it should have been. Put aside the drop in speaker size from Evolve’s 4” drivers to 2.5” here, the reduction in rechargeable battery life from 10 hours to 4-6 hours, and Bem’s choice to use capacitive volume buttons that offer very little sensation when you’re switching between what sound like only six steps between full blast and off. Collectively, these changes make Speaker Trio’s speakers less powerful and cheaper-feeling than Griffin’s, as does the purely matte plastic design, but from our perspective, they’re not fatal to the package. We could easily forgive that Speaker Trio isn’t particularly loud, long-lasting, or wonderfully tactile when you interact with it—so long as the wireless functionality performed as expected.
It doesn’t. While Griffin spent considerable time and energy engineering Evolve to be relatively interference-proof and long-reaching by the standards of its time, Speaker Trio’s Bluetooth and 2.4GHz wireless combination has some serious problems. Evolve promised 100 feet of wireless speaker range under typical modestly-obstructed conditions, or 150 feet absent obstructions—figures that were realistic. By contrast, Bem’s promise of “up to 120 feet of speaker range from base” is truly a best case scenario. In practice, we experienced near or complete signal drop-outs at 50- to 60-foot distances from the base, and ultimately concluded that Bem’s 120-foot estimate would be accurate when measuring two speakers’ distance from each other on opposing sides of the base. But due to wireless interference issues, we also experienced audio hiccups and sometimes temporary de-pairing of the speakers even in the same room; when the latter happens, the speakers emit loud and annoying beeps until they’re physically placed back on the base for re-pairing. When the former happens, the speakers can become de-synchronized from one another, creating echo-like gaps in their playback.
Speaker Trio suffered from a wide variety of other wireless issues during our testing. iOS devices placed too close to the unit began to stall out during Wi-Fi usage, becoming incapable of downloading songs using iTunes Match. Re-establishing Bluetooth connections with previously paired devices was a hit-or-miss proposition, sometimes requiring manual re-pairing through the iOS device’s Bluetooth settings menu. And because the promised Bluetooth transmitting distance with Speaker Trio is considerably shorter (25 feet) than the speaker transmitting distance, the audio can and will cut out completely if you’re carrying your iOS device when trying to fix an issue with a distant speaker.
It’s worth mentioning that the speakers sound decent when both the Bluetooth and 2.4GHz wireless signals are working properly. Collectively, Speaker Trio’s three speakers can put out enough sound to fill a small room, though each speaker is locked in a monaural mix of left and right channel sound—something Griffin impressively engineered around in Evolve. Used individually, the speakers aren’t powerful enough to provide more than respectable ambient background music in a small room, and there’s some obvious sizzling-style distortion in the audio signal, but these aren’t huge surprises given the technologies Bem selected here.
Taken as a whole, Speaker Trio is a great idea with a nearly great industrial design and seriously problematic wireless implementation—so serious that this unit falls letter grades of the rating it would have otherwise received. There’s absolutely no question in our minds that a market exists for multi-speaker wireless audio bundles; even where the speakers individually sound only okay, there’s serious convenience in being able to move them around a house and enjoy music from room to room. However, there’s very little value in a wireless audio system with significant wireless stability, synchronization, and re-pairing issues, all of which really would benefit from a serious re-thinking and likely major component changes. A more recent Bluetooth standard with Class 1 broadcasting capabilities would fix some of Speaker Trio’s issues, while addressing the 2.4GHz wireless interference and stability problems may require more significant changes. Hopefully, Bem Wireless will take the necessary steps to improve Speaker Trio, because it got nearly everything right with this product, except for the performance of the most critical feature.