Review: Soen Audio Transit High-Performance Bluetooth Speaker
If you're reading this particular review, you probably know that companies can -- under some circumstances -- find ways to make small new products perform better than larger, earlier rivals, then offer the miniaturization at a premium. Apple did this, of course, with multiple iPods, iPhones, and iPads, inspiring hundreds of third-party developers to follow suit with like-minded accessories. Now a relatively young company called Soen Audio is trying the same feat with Transit ($250), the latest compact Bluetooth wireless speaker to hit the market at a surprisingly high price tag. Shaped like a trapezoid and sized like a small hardcover or large paperback book, Transit sits roughly halfway between Jawbone's Jambox and Big Jambox in both physical volume and pricing, differentiating itself primarily with higher-class materials and pack-ins.
Whereas Jawbone’s speaker designs bridged the gap between playful and serious by injecting colors and textures into their metal and plastic bodies, Transit is all business. Measuring 6.6” wide by 3.8” tall by around 1.3” thick, it’s jet black from edge to edge apart from three silver brushed aluminum accents—one on each side and a ring dividing the center. While not impervious-feeling, Transit has a solid and dense perforated metal front grille, matte soft touch rubber-coated plastic almost everywhere else, and very minimal controls. Three buttons are found in a bar across the top for volume and Bluetooth pairing, while a multi-color illuminated power switch is on the side next to micro-USB, aux-in, and bass ports. To protect the front, Soen includes a detachable magnetic travel cover; for recharging, it includes a micro-USB cable and one of the smallest wall charging adapters we’ve seen—easy to pack for travel. A thoughtfully designed audio cable is also included for wired operation.
While all of the aforementioned design elements are nice, one feature more than any other makes Transit feel like a premium small speaker. A metal kickstand pops out of the back when you press down on a set of ridges on the back, enabling Transit to rest firmly on a gentle recline for music playback. Made from solid metal and shaped like a rounded diamond, the kickstand is far more aesthetically pleasing than a plastic part would have been, even though Soen easily could have nixed it, shaving off dollars without compromising on functionality.
Where Transit begins to run into problems is in sonic performance for the price. As we’ve noted in past Bluetooth speaker reviews, Jawbone’s Jamboxes were really overpriced given their audio performance, instead leveraging compactness and fashion to win customers. Transit follows the same strategy: Soen has placed only two audio drivers inside the enclosure—notably one fewer than the Jambox—using the side “Momentum Port” to enhance the bass. As the company includes some former Harman engineers, we’re inclined to take more seriously its claim that the audio drivers are in fact custom-designed, but there’s only so much a two-speaker system this small can realistically deliver.
To their credit, Soen’s drivers are capable of playing at reasonably loud volumes: just short of small room-filling, a comparable level to the Jambox and similarly-sized rivals from companies such as Braven. Moreover, the unit’s mid-bass performance in particular is cleaner than in many of these ultra-compact systems, with modestly deeper bass as another benefit. However, the treble suffers somewhat as an offset, resulting in somewhat flatter and less dynamic sound. We also weren’t terribly impressed by the stereo separation. During testing, so little stereo was obvious at most volume levels that we had to strain to notice distinct left and right channel audio beyond the 6.6” width, even in music with pronounced stereo differences. Additionally, while Transit’s Bluetooth 2.1 receiving range was within the promised 33-foot distance, the audio signal began to break up quickly thereafter.
Another issue worth noting is Transit’s “eight-hour” rechargeable battery. Although Soen pitches Transit as long-lasting, the manual discloses that the battery’s actual rating is between four and eight hours, depending on the volume and other characteristics of the music you’re listening to. While this longevity isn’t terrible, it’s not great by comparison with the many 16-20-hour Bluetooth speakers we’ve been seeing recently, and accentuated by a volume adjustment oddity. iOS devices and Transit don’t mirror each others’ volumes, so to get the most out of both the speakers and the battery, you’ll need to do a bit of audio optimization on your own. Ideally, Soen would synchronize its speakers with the iOS device’s volume level, and offer a more prominent disclosure of its real-world battery life.
Transit’s speakerphone performance is pretty good. On our end, calls were considerably louder than with the iPhone 5’s integrated speaker. On the other end, callers told us that we sounded closer to Transit’s microphone, but slightly more intelligible and clear on the iPhone 5. These are fairly common comments about speakerphone accessories; the good news is that there are no echo or other issues impacting Transit’s ability to be used for this purpose.
Considered in totality, Transit is a good speaker at the wrong price point—pretty much the definition of a product worthy of our limited recommendation. Most of our editors really liked the unit’s industrial design, portability options, and feature set. However, all of us agreed that the price was just too high for something that sonically roughly matches rather than eclipses the Jambox, a speaker that has been repeatedly trumped by numerous lower-cost rivals. Consider Transit if you’re looking for a compact speaker that’s more professional-looking than the Jambox, and willing to pay a premium for it. In light of all the competition, a markedly lower price would help Transit stand out more from the pack.