Review: Grain Audio PWS.01 Packable Wireless System
Every established category of audio product seems to follow the same pattern: after plastic versions establish the market and metal models debut as "premium" alternatives, a wood version arrives for people who prefer a more earthy look and/or believe that the sound will be more resonant. So it's no surprise that a company called Grain Audio has debuted PWS.01 ($249, aka Packable Wireless System), a "solid walnut" Bluetooth wireless speaker with perforated metal grilles and rubber edging. Like most of the wood headphones, earbuds, and speakers we've tested, PWS.01 sells at a substantial premium relative to peer-sized speakers, relying primarily on materials rather than features to set it apart from the pack.
Nearly 7” wide by 3.1” tall by 2.3” deep, PWS.01 is around a half-inch to an inch larger in each dimension than the plastic and metal speakers that defined the near-pocketable Jawbone Jambox category several years ago. The medium-brown walnut core is capped by fairly dark gray front and back bumpers, then interrupted by small pills holding rubber controls on the top and micro-USB/audio-in ports on the right. Grain Audio’s logo appears twice, first as a laser etching on the left and then a gray badge on the bottom, the latter nestled between long rubber feet that stabilize the system on a flat surface. There’s nothing particularly striking about the design — no interesting curves or metallic accents a la Wren Audio’s V5 series, for instance — but there’s as much wood here as is practical for a small speaker.
Grain’s pack-ins are pretty familiar, as well. The speaker ships with a wall power adapter, micro-USB cable, audio cable, and carrying bag that look similar to Braven’s 2012 model 625s, though they’re not identical. PWS.01’s black fabric bag doesn’t seal closed, instead loosely clamping its open end with an integrated plastic clasp system to sorta-kind hold partially shut as needed. The wall adapter’s blades fold down for storage, and the USB cable lets you recharge the integrated eight-hour battery from a wall or computer as needed.
Functionally, PWS.01 is relatively spartan. Three top buttons are used solely for power/play/pause/pairing and volume adjustment, with no track controls, and there’s also no speakerphone functionality — a feature that’s most often found in speakers of this size. You can use the Bluetooth 3.0 connection solely for streaming audio, and the wireless feature works like most of the Bluetooth speakers we test these days, maintaining a stable connection at around twice the promised 33-foot broadcasting distance assuming no objects are obstructing that path. At around a 55-foot distance, or with an obstruction around the 40-foot mark, the signal can hiccup a little, but it’s stable within the expected limits of the basic Bluetooth standard.
PWS.01’s sonic performance is solid rather than spectacular, which is an issue given its asking price. For $80 more than the $170 Braven 710, you get a sonic experience that’s roughly on par — nearly the same peak volume and basic sound quality, only with a different audio balance. Whereas the 710 has crisper treble, PWS.01 has richer bass and a hint less distortion at its just-slightly-lower top output level. It performs music with relatively smooth, natural tones, but the two front-firing drivers and passive bass radiator don’t deliver the sort of full-frequency sound we’ve heard from well-engineered $150 to $250 multi-driver speakers; they’re on par with numerous near-pocketable systems now selling for $150 or less. It’s also worth noting that the $170 Braven 710 has a USB port to share its integrated battery with your device, a speakerphone, and the ability to pair wirelessly with a second unit. It’s also smaller, made substantially from metal, and lighter. The two advantages PWS.01 offers are in bass and cosmetics.
All of this leads to a fairly simple conclusion: PWS.01 is a nice speaker, but too expensive and large to have mainstream appeal given the huge number of similarly-specced competitors currently in the marketplace. Although its wood chassis may convince some users to bypass smaller but equivalently-equipped alternatives, that’s really the only feature of this otherwise me-too design that stands out, and it comes at a steep enough premium to deter most users. Consequently, PWS.01 merits our limited recommendation: at a lower price or with more distinctive sonic performance, it might have a better chance in the marketplace.