Review: Cambridge Soundworks OontZ XL Bluetooth Speaker
Our appreciation for Cambridge Soundworks dates back years before Apple released the first iPod -- a time when the company's affordable multimedia speakers frequently outperformed more expensive rivals. Though Cambridge had a somewhat rocky time with its iPod docking speakers, it recently entered the Jawbone Jambox-style portable Bluetooth speaker market with the OontZ lineup -- a series of three compact, battery-powered speakers that gave up fancy materials in order to compete aggressively with the Jamboxes on price.
This month, Cambridge debuted OontZ XL ($150), which it has pitched a competitor to Jawbone’s $300 Big Jambox and similar speakers; however, with an introductory price of only $100, users will be able to buy it for only 1/3 or 1/2 the Big Jambox’s price. Is OontZ XL a serious competitor to Big Jambox and its increasingly numerous rivals? Your personal answer will depend on whether you just need similar audio performance, or expect a strong combination of sound and fashion-forward design; as the much lower price suggests, OontZ XL makes compromises in both categories.
Unlike the colored metal and plastic Big Jambox, or its substantially aluminum $300 rival Braven 850, Cambridge designed OontZ XL with a soft touch rubber-coated plastic chassis that’s currently available only in one color—jet black. Measuring roughly 10.2” wide by 3.5” tall by 3.4” deep at its deepest point, its proportions are highly similar to its aforementioned competitors, but its D-like shape is softer: nearly flat on the front and sides, with a C-shaped curve connecting the top and bottom. The front is striped with horizontal lines of dot perforations, and the sides have slightly grippy, wave-like concentric C patterns. Collectively, OontZ XL’s design choices are fine rather than beautiful; no one would confuse this cosmetically with the distinctive Big Jambox or clearly Apple-inspired Braven 850.
Cambridge doesn’t try to hide any of OontZ XL’s functionality. A microphone hole is very obvious on the unit’s top left, alongside light white-illuminated battery and Bluetooth pairing indicators, while a collection of large six circular buttons handle track, volume, Bluetooth and power on/off toggling. Four dot-shaped rubber feet on the bottom help to keep OontZ XL stable even when music is blaring at top volumes.
Beyond two forward-facing treble and midrange drivers, OontZ XL has an unusual slit in the top back that hints at ventilation for three passive bass radiators inside; the company doesn’t identify any of the drivers by size. The slit surrounds a rubber-capped, pill-shaped panel containing power, USB-out, and aux-in ports; Cambridge includes a wall power adapter and 3.5mm auxiliary audio cable in the package. Notably, the rechargeable battery inside can be used to power the speaker for 10 hours at a relatively loud 70% volume level, or offer spare power to a device connected to the rear USB port with a self-supplied cable. Cambridge provides no guidance on the recharging capabilities of the battery, but we found that it runs at 0.5-Amp speed—full-speed for iPods or half-speed for iPhones, which we’d expect to get perhaps one full charge, depending on the model. By comparison, Big Jambox cannot be used to recharge a device on the go, but Braven 850 includes a huge 8800mAh battery with iPad-ready 2.1-Amp output capabilities, and the prospect of three to four full iPhone recharges.
The biggest challenge we faced in evaluating OontZ XL’s sonic performance was benchmarking: though it’s marketed as a competitor to $300 speakers, it’s so much less expensive that the comparison isn’t truly fair. Judged in a vacuum, it produces classically “good” sound at reasonably high volumes: the audio skews a bit bass-heavy, which most people prefer, and can be turned up to a peak level that’s just a bit short of small room-filling. As a speakerphone, OontZ XL is respectable rather than great; callers said that we sounded a little closer but noticeably more muffled on Oontz XL than on the iPhone 5 itself—a surprise given that the microphone isn’t hidden inside the front grille, like some competitors.
But to address the obvious question, no, OontZ XL is not truly the sonic equivalent of its aforementioned competitors. Besides a somewhat lower peak volume level—roughly 80% of the others—and a bit less bass, such that its rivals produce deeper, richer sound, it also has more of what was historically called “boom and tizz” audio, with more pronounced highs and lows at the cost of definition in the midrange. On a positive note, you’ll hear slightly sharper highs coming from OontZ XL than the Braven 850 or Big Jambox, but we found that the sonic curves on the 850 and Big Jambox sounded smoother, particularly in the mids, making their renditions of songs more realistic. OontZ XL also exhibited some bass distortion that wasn’t as obvious in its supposed competitors. If the prices were equivalent and we had to choose between the models, OontZ XL wouldn’t win.
But the prices aren’t equivalent—they’re not even close. OontZ XL is better understood as a more affordable and sonically superior alternative to the standard Jambox, albeit in a much larger chassis. While OontZ XL has a $150 MSRP, Cambridge sells it for $100, a huge gap given that the $300 Big Jambox can’t be had for less than $250, and the newer Braven 850 currently can’t be found for less than its $300 MSRP. Compared against other $150 speakers—and even against the original Jambox—Oontz XL becomes a much more interesting option. It has a wider dynamic range than the Jambox, making the smaller unit sound comparatively flat, and a much higher peak volume level, which isn’t surprising given that the Jambox relies on tiny speakers that occupy around 1/4 of OontZ XL’s space. Yes, you can find smaller speakers with different and arguably better combinations of sonic tradeoffs, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll like their prices or sound more than OontZ XL’s.
Largely on the strength of its value for the dollar, OontZ XL merits our strong general recommendation and B+ rating. While the black plastic chassis and high/low-heavy sound detract from its ability to compete directly with fashion-forward $300 Bluetooth speakers on quality, its far more aggressive pricing gives it an unusual advantage over both those rivals and their step-down $200 alternatives. Cambridge has come up with an option that sounds good, works pretty well, and looks just good enough to be worthy of the regular $150 asking price. If you can purchase it for $100, you’ll find that it outperforms virtually every other Bluetooth wireless speaker at that price point, compromising only on size and beauty in the process.