Review: Braven 850 HD Wireless Speaker
Although Jawbone's Jambox was radically overpriced when it debuted, it helped to define a category of fashionable, compact portable Bluetooth speakers. Around a year and a half later, a rival named Braven released the similarly-sized and -capable Braven 650 at a lower price. While Jambox came in multiple colors and textures, Braven 650's body looked a lot like Apple's Mac Pro computers, sporting a perforated silver aluminum body that also matched iPads. Soon thereafter, Jawbone debuted Big Jambox as a larger $300 Jambox sequel, and now Braven has followed suit with Braven 850 ($300), which similarly jumps considerably in physical and sonic volume at a matching price point.
Braven 850 isn’t just a larger Braven 650, but the size is certainly the first thing you’ll notice—this is no longer a “compact” portable system. Measuring 9.5” wide by 4” tall by 2.8” deep, it’s less than a half-inch taller than Big Jambox, but roughly a half-inch shallower and narrower; they’re in the same “way bigger than a brick” ballpark, but Braven 850 is a little smaller overall. The silver aluminum chassis is interrupted only by a pill-shaped collection of five black buttons on the top, black plastic end caps on the sides, and two gray rubber pads on the bottom. An international wall adapter and 3.5mm audio cable are included in the package.
Like Jawbone, Braven substantially redesigned its control system when moving to the larger model, though 850’s buttons aren’t quite as elegant as Big Jambox’s. Aside from the power button, there’s a phone icon button that doesn’t activate Siri, a play/pause button that oddly doubles as a Bluetooth pairing button, and volume buttons that regrettably double as track controls when held down; you need to tap them repeatedly to change the volume. The side battery indicator button shows you the current charge level when pressed once, and oddly doubles as a dual streaming pairing button when held down. While everything generally works, it’s just not as appealingly implemented as in Big Jambox.
Matching grids of small holes on the front and back let 850’s speakers breathe through, though it bears mention that Braven has thus far been atypically ambiguous about the unit’s speaker hardware. It’s obvious that there are no fewer than three drivers inside—stereo left and right speakers in the front, with at least one bass driver in the back—but apart from promising 20 Watts of amplification versus Braven 650’s 6 Watts, Braven 850’s audio hardware is largely a mystery. Notably, Braven’s box mentions Bluetooth support, which worked to 60-foot unobstructed and 30-foot partially obstructed distances, as well as SRS HD audio, plus Apt-X codec support. There was no obvious SRS-related benefit during our testing, and Apt-X is solely for non-iOS devices; it’s possible an app or future iOS update will make 850 sound different or better.
For the time being, our audio testing suggested that the speakers inside Braven 850 are extremely similar to the two 1.75” active front-facing drivers and 3.5” box-shaped passive bass radiators found inside Big Jambox. Placed next to one another and played at matching volume levels, Braven 850 sounds almost identical to Big Jambox, with a small advantage in top volume level and a smaller disadvantage in treble sharpness. When we listened closely to the same songs through both speakers, Big Jambox’s drivers had just a hint of extra high-pitched detail that made music sound a little clearer and more dynamic, while Braven 850’s midrange was a little stronger, making tracks sound a bit more full. Neither $300 system outperformed the wide dynamic range of the $150 Logitech Wireless Boombox we’ve previously reviewed, but Braven 850 and Big Jambox are both somewhat smaller, with better battery life and substantially metallic bodies. An individual Braven 850 could be turned up louder—enough to fill a small room—while Big Jambox is a step below that. Additionally, Braven 850 includes a microphone for speakerphone functionality with iPhones, and its mic performance is on par with Big Jambox’s. Callers told us that Braven 850 sounded basically identical to the iPhone 5’s integrated microphone, while they sounded the same in fidelity, but considerably louder.
One somewhat novel feature in Braven 850 is of questionable value here. This is Braven’s first speaker to feature a simultaneous two-unit Bluetooth streaming mode that has appeared in a handful of recent speakers, and here is called “True Wireless.” Buy two units, and you can pair your iOS device to one 850, then hear music in properly separated left-right stereo through a second 850, boosting both the volume and wideness of the stereo field. We’ve recently seen the same feature in Soundfreaq’s Sound Platform 2, SuperTooth’s Disco Twin, and Ultimate Ears’ UE Boom speakers, and it works basically the same semi-intuitive way here—you hold down the battery indicator light button on each 850 for five seconds, hear a sonar ping, then wait for them to painlessly and automatically synchronize.
Apart from the potential for interference from other wireless devices, a common dual-streaming issue that we noted a couple of times during testing of two 850s in a challenging wireless environment, the only problem here is pricing. Every other individual speaker offering dual Bluetooth streaming is in the $200 or less range, with Disco Twin including two speakers for $200, and Sound Platform 2 bundling two speakers for $250. This is about the right price range for dual Bluetooth streaming, which works well but doesn’t offer the sort of audio fidelity and speaker hardware users would expect from more expensive speakers. By comparison, it’s hard to imagine spending $600 or even $500 for a couple of Braven 850s—that sort of money can buy a far more sonically optimized audio system with both wireless and docking functionality. That said, the inclusion of the dual-streaming option certainly doesn’t hurt 850, and if the prices fall in the future, some one-unit customers might consider upgrading. (Note: Braven has also announced but not yet released the Braven 855s, a speaker with identical audio hardware but a more ruggedized chassis, which will be able to pair with the 850 for dual streaming.)
There are two other differences between 850 and 650—as well as the Braven family versus the Jamboxes—relating to the full-sized USB port found on 850’s right side. Braven’s past “better than Jawbone” pitch has been to note the long runtimes of its speakers and their ability to double as backup batteries for USB-connected devices, if necessary. Just like 650, Braven 850 promises a healthy 20-hour playtime at medium volume levels, but the newer model’s 8800mAh battery is a lot larger, and now capable of putting out 2.1-Amp power for faster recharging of iPads. Accessory companies would sell a standalone USB battery of that size for $40-$60, a factor that might tip some Big Jambox customers over to 850 instead.
All in all, Braven 850 is a good rather than great portable speaker, earning a small edge over the Big Jambox largely on the basis of semi-unique added features—the spare battery and dual streaming functionality—rather than sonic performance or industrial design. Both of these factors might tilt you in either speaker’s direction depending on personal preferences and needs. If you’re looking for a solid portable speaker that really matches the look of Apple’s computers and higher-end tablets without major design deviations, Braven 850 is worth considering. And if expandability is of interest, Braven 850’s dual-streaming option works pretty well, though it’s expensive. That said, you’ll find many otherwise compelling options at lower prices, with varying compromises depending on the features that are important to you.