Review: Brookstone Big Blue Media Tower
Five years ago, using Bluetooth to wirelessly stream music wasn't impossible, but the results weren't particularly impressive -- there were few stereo Bluetooth audio systems, and even fewer with good speakers and audio hardware inside. That changed when $100 to $200 Bluetooth speakers hit the market with increasingly impressive audio hardware, and then Apple upped the ante by introducing AirPlay, a pricier and less popular wireless standard that promised superior sound quality. While Bluetooth remains dominant by a wide margin, and has improved in sound quality such that the differences between top Bluetooth and AirPlay speakers are today footnote-worthy, companies continue to release separate audio systems with both standards.
Today, we’re looking at four recent wireless releases: Brookstone’s Big Blue Media Tower ($400) and Ecoxgear’s Ecoxbt ($130) are on the Bluetooth side, with AQ Audio’s AQ SmartSpeaker ($179) and Bowers & Wilkins’ A7 ($800) representing AirPlay. Collectively, these speakers are noteworthy because they demonstrate today’s wide variation in wireless speaker pricing and features—AQ Smart Speaker is the least expensive AirPlay speaker we’ve seen, and A7 is tied with Philips’ Fidelio SoundSphere for the most expensive. Designed to be waterproof, Ecoxbt is a rarity in wireless speakers, a different take on the previously-released iDevices iShower, while the Big Blue Media Tower is one of the priciest Bluetooth speakers we’ve seen—a taller and more powerful sequel to the Big Blue Studio we loved earlier this year. Each has a unique feature to set it apart from the pack, but is any one compelling enough to earn our rare high recommendation?
Brookstone’s Big Blue Studio was a medium-sized desktop audio system, with a 9.4”-wide by 5.6” deep profile similar to the footprint of a full-sized iPad. Like its smaller brother Big Blue Live, Big Blue Studio used curved, glossy plastic and perforated metal for most of its body, and sported a distinctive blue metallic button on its face as a design touch. For only $150, Studio packed enough sonic power to fill a small room, with particularly strong bass—it made a lot of sense at its relatively low price point.
While the family heritage is obvious in its industrial design, Big Blue Media Tower is a very different beast, seemingly designed to compete against “pillar of sound” audio products that have historically been uncommon in the iPad/iPhone/iPod speaker market. Standing a little over 38” tall with a roughly 7.9” silver metal base, the top 33.5” of this speaker consists of a 5.7” rounded square frame made from the Big Blue combination of glossy plastic and perforated silver metal. Handsomely built with a 0.6” tall top plastic cap and a 6” tall bottom cap, Big Blue Media Tower is predominantly metal, contrasting with almost entirely plastic and fabric towers we’ve covered in the past. It feels every bit as substantial as one would expect for its $400 asking price, and is quite possibly the cleanest-looking tower-style speaker we’ve tested.
We weren’t entirely thrilled with the unit’s top: as was the case with Big Blue Studio, Brookstone chose to use capacitive controls rather than physical buttons, and the results are somewhat mixed. Cosmetically, the top is really quite nice: a chrome-ringed, internally illuminated blue and white power button sits in the center, resembling the distinctive one found on Studio’s face. Two lines of tiny blue lights—three input lights on top, nine meter lights on bottom—sit immediately outside the large power button, while four lines of text hint at capacitive buttons found in a box-like shape around the lights. The top buttons let you select Bluetooth, digital, or analog input sources, and the bottom ones toggle volume upwards or downwards, each briefly illuminating the small lights. Left buttons toggle treble upwards or downwards, and right buttons similarly adjust the bass, each using the bottom nine meter dots to indicate four levels of power above and below the default central setting.
It’s worth nothing, though generally not critical, that no remote control is included with Big Blue Media Tower; the top control panel is the only way to interact with the unit. This is different from most towers we’ve seen, and only a concern in that you have to walk up to the unit to turn it on, and to adjust the system’s volume—the latter is problematic solely when you’re cranking the amplitude up to potentially unsafe levels. Since Big Blue Media Tower is a Bluetooth wireless system without a dock, it’s generally the case that you can make volume adjustments on your easily-paired iOS device; however, they’re not mirrored by the speaker, a less than ideal volume-matching issue that will concern audiophiles more than the general public.
Conceptually, there’s nothing wrong with the top controls, and it’s actually a very good thing that Brookstone provides users not only with bass, treble, and volume control buttons, along with a way to visually understand where each level has been set relative to its minimum and maximum levels. The problems are in the buttons’ tactility and location: it’s easy to accidentally brush your fingers over the wrong capacitive control when interacting with the speaker, and as the side-mounted treble and bass + and - buttons are positioned in opposite directions, pushing levels upwards isn’t always a matter of hitting the higher button. Particularly given that you likely won’t fidget all the time with these buttons, it’s not a show-stopping issue, but the controls could really have been handled a bit better.
The broader issue with Big Blue Media Tower is its overall sonic performance. As a general statement, when any speaker hits or exceeds the $300 price mark, the developer should have done everything necessary to create a truly impressive sonic experience—typically, that calls for a minimum of five speakers capable of creating not only properly separated stereo sound, but also a division of the left and right channels to give each side dedicated treble, midrange, and bass drivers. Moreover, when a speaker is physically huge, as Big Blue Media Tower is, there’s very little excuse for skimping on components. The developer appears to have included the requisite minimum number of drivers, but for whatever reason, they just don’t sound as fantastic as similar speaker arrays do in less expensive configurations.
Brookstone’s web site explains that the Big Blue Media Tower contains two “full-range stereo speakers” consisting of 1.5” tweeters and two 3” mid-range drivers, plus one 4” subwoofer inside the unit, noting that the full-range speakers are “set at different angles” to “project sound out and away from each other.” Regrettably, the sonics really don’t live up to the marketing pitch. In our testing, the Big Blue Media Tower had literally no stereo separation—left and right channel audio appear to be coming together from the center of the pillar, radiating around the unit—and though the speakers are capable of achieving small room-filling volumes, they don’t have the sort of sparkle or depth that we’d expect from a $400, five-driver audio system. Even when the bass and treble levels have been tweaked, improving the flatter default sound curve, the results aren’t so much “great” as “better than okay.” You’ll hear “enough” bass, but without remarkable oomph, and some treble, but not enough to make audio sound crisp.
You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the system’s loud, adequate sound is enough for your needs. While an argument can be made that buyers of towers like this understand the stereo separation limitations of tall rather than wide speakers, we can only say that we were surprised by the unit’s monaural audio given the stereo marketing, and weren’t particularly impressed by the clarity, frequency response, or overall balance given the price. If you’re planning to use the Big Blue Media Tower primarily to provide louder sound for a television set, you’ll find RCA-style, 3.5mm, and optical inputs on the back. We did note some static and reduction in volume when testing the analog audio channel.
In sum, Big Blue Media Tower is a very nice-looking and substantial-feeling piece of audio equipment that falls short sonically of what users would typically expect for the $400 asking price—enough so that this model, unlike its highly recommended predecessors, misses our general- and limited-level recommendations. From a design standpoint, Brookstone has come up with something attractive that’s very nearly worthy of bringing into a home, but further audio and control engineering work are needed to deliver the audio performance that such a high asking price demands.