Review: Bose SoundLink Wireless Mobile Speaker
Understanding Bose's Apple accessory development philosophy is relatively simple: unlike rivals that release new models annually, tweaking their price and performance all the while, Bose strongly prefers to develop speakers that can be sold for four or five years without price or feature changes. Consider the company's SoundDock, which debuted in 2004 and remained on the market until 2008, when the iPhone necessitated redesigned accessories; similarly, Bose's SoundDock Portable has been on the market since late 2007, and looks all but indistinguishable from both the original SoundDock and subsequent SoundDock Series II. All of these systems and the oversized 2009 model SoundDock 10 have been repeats of the same general story: they're all neutrally designed all-in-one speakers with good sound and somewhat steep price tags.
As noted in our 2012 Buyers’ Guide, the big theme of 2011 has been a shift from traditionally dock-based iPod and iPhone speaker systems over to wireless versions, some continuing to include docks while others omit them. Developers have had to choose between Bluetooth, a popular and relatively affordable wireless standard, or AirPlay, Apple’s newer wireless technology that has been encumbered by signal droppage issues and generally high prices. Given the direction it has followed with past SoundDocks, Bose surprised us by going in a somewhat different direction for its first Apple-focused wireless portable speaker: the new SoundLink ($300-$350) tosses away the SoundDocks’ styling, uses more affordable Bluetooth 2.1 rather than AirPlay, and aims for convenience rather than sheer power. While even its base price tag is high by comparison with competitive Bluetooth speakers, SoundLink is actually the least expensive portable unit Bose has targeted at Apple users, if also the most threadbare: all you get is the speaker, a wall power adapter, and an auxiliary audio cable. There’s no remote control, no iPod/iPhone dock, and no other frill in the package.
Also surprising is Bose’s decision to release SoundLink in two different trim packages. The $300 version has a black, plasticy finish with a gray nylon cover built in, versus the silver brushed metal trim and dark brown leather cover found on the $350 model. While we’ve been less than entirely wowed by the earlier, plasticy SoundDocks, the SoundLink’s trim helps to elevate what could otherwise have been a very austere design. It’s a compliment to say that the SoundLink could as easily be a Braun/Dieter Rams electric razor as a speaker system, apart from its proportions, which are akin to an atypically narrow and densely weighted hardcover book.
SoundLink measures 9.6” wide by 5.1” tall by 4” deep when unfolded, considerably smaller than the SoundDock Portable, which is around 12” wide by 6.75” tall by 6” deep. You can easily hold it in one hand when it’s folded shut, at which point it’s only 1.9” deep, though you’ll likely want to set it down or in a bag due to the 2.9-pound weight. Some users will appreciate Bose’s decision to build the magnetically-sealed front cover in and use it as a stand to keep SoundLink upright; others will see the cover as inadequate to fully protect the speaker, given that it offers no coverage for the top-mounted buttons, a rear-mounted speaker panel, or either of the unit’s sides. Bose is selling replacement covers for $30 to $50 depending on whether they’re made from nylon or leather, but isn’t offering a proper carrying case. It’s worth noting that competitors often—but not always—include cases with speakers sold for 1/2 or 2/3 of SoundLink’s price.
What’s most interesting about SoundLink is the value equation Bose is offering this time out, though the extent to which you appreciate the company’s choices will depend a lot on your tastes, needs, and budget. Unlike the SoundDock Portable, which was nearly identical sonically to both the SoundDock and SoundDock Series II, SoundLink is noticeably and decidedly less powerful than its predecessors: it can reach only roughly two-thirds of the SoundDock Portable’s peak volume when both are running off battery power, and consistently performs songs with less bass regardless of the volume level it’s on. There are tradeoffs inherent in shrinking speaker systems, with both high-volume and bass performance at the top of those lists, and SoundLink hasn’t been able to escape from them; that said, Bose has capped SoundLink’s volume so that it doesn’t reach levels where its small, shallowly-housed speakers become awfully distorted.
Those limitations aside, however, SoundLink continues in its predecessors’ tradition of sounding good straight out of the box—and preventing you from screwing around at all with its settings. The only thing to do with SoundLink after charging it is to turn it on, pair your iOS device with it using the Settings > General > Bluetooth feature, and then start playing music. Bose has made the unit’s top-mounted buttons so dead simple that it’s basically impossible to screw things up: there’s a power button, volume and mute buttons, a Bluetooth button—for pairing and toggling between additional devices—and an aux button to switch to the rear audio input port. A classy white Bluetooth icon flashes and goes solid on a bar above the front speaker grille, with a battery life indicator that can be flipped on alongside it by holding down the power button. SoundLink can run for up to eight hours on a charge, which is roughly the same as we’ve come to expect from Bluetooth units with rechargeable batteries these days. SoundDock Portable promised as few as 3 hours at full volume but actually ran for nearly 14 hours at an average volume level; SoundLink will show similar variations depending on how you use it.
Like most Bose audio products, SoundLink is designed to win first-time listeners over immediately with relatively warm-skewed sound, and when it’s not compared directly against anything else, it does just that: we found its renditions of rock, dance, and rap tracks to be strongest in the midrange and mid-bass departments, without particularly veiling mid-treble details in percussion or other instrumentation. Though stereo separation isn’t incredible, projecting a soundstage that’s only a little wider than the unit’s nearly 10” width, it’s both apparent and correct from left to right—details that are easy to take for granted with Bose, but not necessarily all of its rivals. Tracks with significant bass portions tend to be presented with prominent low end, and tracks without them feel as if the midrange has been pushed up a little bit to fill what would otherwise be a sonic gap. Wireless performance is very clean with Bose’s implementation of Bluetooth 2.1; there is no apparent static, and the signal from an iPhone 4S was clear at even a 60-foot distance, only dropping out when we walked much further away.
If there are any obvious deficiencies in SoundLink, the only one that’s obvious before you start making direct A-to-B comparisons is the unit’s relatively weak treble, which contributes to a sense that SoundLink isn’t as crisp or dynamic as it could be. This issue is common to Bose systems, but particularly apparent here when listening to tracks with wide frequency ranges. SoundLink does a good job at what it tries to do, but it’s obviously not trying too hard on the highs or really low notes. Logitech’s Wireless Boombox, our 2011 Wireless Speaker of the Year, handily beats the SoundLink on overall audio quality, reaching noticeably higher in the treble department and a little lower in the bass without compromising on midrange performance. Without rubbing it in too much, it’s worth noting that the Wireless Boombox sells for one-half SoundLink’s price while offering the same eight-hour battery life and Bluetooth 2.1 streaming; apart from cosmetic and size differences, the SoundLink’s existence is comparatively hard to justify.
And that’s where the SoundLink has the most in common with Bose’s other systems: it’s overpriced by around $100 relative to what you’re actually getting here. We really liked the SoundLink’s design, particularly the elements in the more deluxe $350 version, and the sound’s good enough not to get the unit thrown out of the room. But SoundLink is obviously outperformed by a top $150 rival with more polarizing styling, and there are plenty of other Bluetooth wireless speakers in the same ballpark these days. Users who will most seriously consider the purchase of a SoundLink will be long-time Bose fans looking for something smaller and less expensive than the SoundDock Portable—or just something more iPad-compatible—and others who are willing to pay a fairly steep premium over rival products for either SoundLink’s new design or Bose’s name. If you’re not in one of these camps, we’d strongly advise you to save your cash and lean towards a unit such as Logitech’s Wireless Boombox, which delivers a superior overall experience for a much lower price.