Review: Geneva Lab Geneva Sound System Model XS
Prior to the debut of Jawbone's Jambox, wireless portable speakers were as easy to understand as their iPod- and iPhone-docking predecessors: prices tended to increase as units grew bigger and added better speakers, and fall as they shrunk or reduced either the quality or quantity of the audio hardware inside. Jambox shook things up somewhat: as a miniature wireless speaker, it achieved a form factor that would have been impossible with an integrated iPod or iPhone dock, while the sound quality was obviously less than fantastic for the $200 asking price. But its good looks and simplicity made it popular, then spawned a half-dozen rivals -- most from companies that hoped to win fans with similar but less expensive versions. Geneva Lab is bucking that trend with the Geneva Sound System Model XS ($250), an upscale alternative that will appeal to price-no-object users who value small size and great looks over raw audio performance for the dollar.
If you haven’t been following Geneva Lab’s past speaker releases, it suffices to say that the Swiss company has built its brand by narrowly focusing on three key elements: consistent industrial design, outstanding build quality, and atypically powerful speakers. The prices of its audio systems have fluctuated with increasing production costs and exchange rates, but the vision has remained basically unchanged from its original Model L and XL versions to its more recent Model S and XS: every Geneva Sound System has a fancy lacquered body with a distinctive bulging metal speaker grille, a peek-through display in the upper right corner, and capacitive controls on top. Geneva’s displays typically work as clocks, radio tuners, and input selection indicators, and Model XS’s does all of these things, depending on which of the controls you’re using.
As with the Model S, the controls are illuminated through the unit’s top surface, and look really nice. This time, the buttons are all in a straight line, and Geneva has done a good job of insuring that they make sense: a bell lets you set an alarm, two arrows handle radio tuning and clock setting, an M button manages modes, a clock button brings up the clock, -/+ buttons are used for volume, and a dimpled button turns the power on and off. All of the buttons are responsive, and though they’re not a surprise given Geneva’s other systems, they’re a lot fancier than what you’ll see on other portable speakers.
There are several ways that Model XS differs substantially from its predecessors. Beyond its size—a little over 6.5” wide, 3.5” deep, and 1.5” tall at minimum, around twice the Jambox’s total volume—it’s Geneva Lab’s first portable system, and the only one that runs off of either a five-hour rechargeable battery or an included wall adapter. In order to perform, Model XS must fold open into a triangular shape with 4.5” of depth and a 3.5” height. It’s fair to say that the company has pulled out almost all the stops to give Model XS the same luxurious look and feel as its larger, generally wooden cabinets: available in black, white, or red, the speaker is permanently held inside a magnetically sealed carrying case with faux leather on the outside and fine velvet inside. Even if the materials here are synthetic, they look and feel great, and the case has generally been designed with the sort of clean touches that design gurus will appreciate. Model XS shuts off automatically when it’s not in the correct triangular orientation, a smart energy-conserving idea that only worries us a little due to its use of plastic pins to activate the speaker. If the pins break, the speaker mightn’t turn on; only time will tell whether the pins survive. (We suspect that they will, except under abusive conditions.)
Another big change is the addition of Bluetooth wireless support as the primary means of performing music through this speaker. Geneva Lab’s prior systems have all been dock-dependent with auxiliary audio inputs and sometimes CD players, but Model XS is streamlined—sort of like a classic compact travel radio with extra functionality. Not surprisingly, Bluetooth connections are easily made with a straightforward pairing system, and Geneva includes a short 3.5mm audio cable in the package for devices without Bluetooth. Generally speaking, the Bluetooth feature worked really well here: audio quality was roughly the same between wireless and 3.5mm wired playback, and we only experienced a single quick hiccup in the audio when moving beyond the promised 33-foot transmission range to a roughly 60-foot distance. Better yet, the popular Bluetooth standard guarantees compatibility with the iPad, a first for a Geneva Sound System. Overall, Bluetooth wireless adds so much to Model XS that we’d love to see Geneva Lab add it to future models.
Last on the “changed” list is Model XS’s speaker configuration. Geneva Lab’s earliest audio systems were sonic monsters, equipped with huge drivers and equally powerful amplifiers, but Model XS continues a trend that we saw in the mid-sized Model M and smaller Model S: compromises. Geneva has stuffed two 1” tweeters and one 2.25” “woofer” into the tiny chassis, which breaks with the company’s past traditions by lacking depth, bass ports, or other ways to let low-end sounds develop resonance. It’s noteworthy that XS’s 1.25” deep HD composite plastic shell is even shallower than the Jambox, which had just enough bass to satisfy for its small size.
As a result, while Model XS does very well in the mids for a compact speaker system and respectably in the highs, it suffers on the low end. Bass frequencies, such as the famously rich introduction to A Tribe Called Quest’s Scenario, seriously sizzle with distortion as they play through Model XS’s “woofer” at even average listening levels, regardless of whether notes are going through a wired or Bluetooth connection. Thankfully, the issue is less pronounced in songs and portions of songs without heavy bass, but there’s still the occasional sizzle in the lows, which is really surprising for a Geneva Lab product.
Bass aside, Model XS is a pretty good-sounding speaker, and has some advantages relative to the smaller Jambox, including top volume levels: though the aforementioned distortion remains an issue as it gets louder, and becomes obvious in the highs and mids as well, XS can be turned up to a much higher volume level than Jambox—they’re roughly equivalent at Jambox’s peak and XS’s level 60, leaving XS to climb to a considerably louder but shaky peak of 100. At regular volumes, XS offers fine treble, good mid-treble, and good mids, as well as obvious if not particularly wide stereo separation. While Jambox did better with seriously bassy tracks, Model XS had a slightly lower static level, and noticeably smoother midrange performance in many other songs. All that’s obviously missing here by comparison with the Jambox and some—not all—rivals is a microphone; XS is solely for audio playback, not for speakerphone calls.
There are a few other small areas in which Model XS has issues. First is the FM radio tuner, which while extremely easy to operate is also particularly prone to staticy reception of even powerful local radio stations. Given the size of Model XS’s retractable left side antenna, which needs to be pulled out of the chassis and pointed upwards from the unit’s top, adding 8.5” of height, we were really surprised by this. Second is the battery charge indicator light: Geneva has used only a tiny dot on the bottom right of the clock face, a virtually invisible symbol unless you know to look for it; XS’s design also makes the power port inaccessible unless the unit is opened. Last is the fact that the unit’s single alarm is disabled when the lid is closed, for power saving reasons. Consequently, this isn’t as reliable of a portable alarm clock as, say, an iHome speaker; you’ll want to carry it on trips with the wall adapter, which can be stored in an included soft cloth carrying bag.
As much as we had hoped for better overall performance from the Geneva Sound System Model XS, our editors ultimately agreed that this cool-looking portable speaker was only worthy of a limited recommendation. If you value great industrial design and small size enough to compromise on sound quality and pay a steep price premium, Model XS will certainly appeal to you—it’s not the smallest compact speaker around, but it’s solid in wireless and wired performance, equipped with a fine radio, and wrapped inside one of the nicest speaker cases we’ve seen. On the other hand, its speakers, radio, and battery charging system all fall short of the expectations users will have given the Geneva Lab name, and should have given the price. For the time being, Model XS offers a tantalizing glimpse at the wireless potential of Geneva Lab’s products, and of what can continue to be accomplished with the company’s signature form factor; we’re just keeping our fingers crossed for a post-release update with improved performance.