Review: Griffin Evolve Add-On Set, Cube Speaker + Speaker Charging Base
In some cases -- particularly when discussing wireless accessories -- the best thing that a review can say is that everything works exactly as it's supposed to, without major hiccups. So when we offer such praise for Griffin's Evolve Add-On Set ($200), which adds additional portable speakers and charging stations to last year's Evolve Wireless Sound System, understand this: the fact that Griffin has created an affordable, simple, and attractive wireless speaker system is seriously impressive, more so today than last year, as it can now be expanded to include enough speakers to populate an entire home.
The idea behind Evolve was extremely smart: rather than just offer another clone of the $300 Bose SoundDock, Griffin developed a visually stunning $300 system with two large, battery-powered cube speakers that rested on top of a matching wireless and charging base with an iPod dock. You could dock an iPod in one room, then hear and control the speakers up to 100 feet away, placing each one on the charging base, or carrying them temporarily to different rooms, a porch, or wherever you happened to be walking. A packed-in RF remote control let you control the iPod and speakers, including tracks, volume, and more. Griffin built the speakers to run for around 10 hours off their battery packs, and be swappable: you could make the left speaker work as the right speaker, or vice-versa, or set both speakers to monaural mode, just by touching them to the right side of the charging base or flipping a stereo/monaural switch. And it included a feature that couldn’t be exploited until now: Evolve could actually perform music through additional speakers, potentially creating a whole-home wireless audio solution.
This month, Griffin started shipping individual Evolve Charging Bases for $30 each, and Evolve Add-On Speakers for $100 each, with a set of two bases and two speakers going for a discounted total price of $200. Cosmetically and functionally identical to the standard Evolve speakers, the Add-On Speakers are 5.1” cubes with 10-hour battery packs and wireless receivers built in. Their boxes don’t include anything else other than simple instructions and packing materials; buying an extra speaker alone means that you’ll have to remove one speaker from Evolve’s built-in base to charge the new one, and swap between them.
That’s where the new Evolve Charging Bases come in. Each one is made from Evolve-matching plastic and metal, and sits directly underneath an Evolve Add-On Speaker, doing nothing more than providing power. Griffin includes an international power adapter with each Charging Base, and you know power’s circulating when a pin-sized power light on its face glows yellow-green. Though you could get one of the Charging Bases just to have a spare location in your home or office to keep one of Evolve’s included two speakers powered up, you’re more likely to get one to use with an Add-On Speaker.
The Base is “dumb” in that it doesn’t link the Add-On Speaker to the main Evolve system; again, it’s just there for charging. All you need to do to pair an Add-On Speaker with Evolve is to touch it once to your preferred side of Evolve’s larger wireless base; thereafter, it can be left on the Charging Base or carried around, and will perform either the stereo side or monaural signal set by the main Evolve system.
All of that is a comprehensive way of saying something simple: Evolve is a two-speaker wireless system that requires no effort to set up, and the Add-Ons let you create a four-, six-, eight- or larger system with barely any additional effort. Grandma or the grandkids could figure it out: after receiving the Add-On Set’s two bases and two speakers, we plugged the bases in on different ends of a house, touched the new speakers to the main Evolve station once each, and that was it; the speakers were ready to play. Creating a whole-home audio system was as simple as leaving the new speakers on their Charging Bases and pressing play on the iPod or the Evolve remote control. And whenever we wanted to move a speaker elsewhere, we picked it up with the rear handle and set it down on a flat surface. That was it—nothing more was required.
We tested the expanded Evolve system in a 4000-square foot home, using two real world but stressful configurations: Evolve as an entertainment system for a typical party, where all four speakers would fan out downstairs, and then as a music system to pipe music through the house, with speakers spread out on two floors. Even with the wireless base on one side of the house rather than in its center, we didn’t have problems hearing our music downstairs or upstairs; all the speakers performed as expected.
The one issue we experienced was a one-second silence in audio when one speaker was being walked to the far end of the system’s range, which Griffin bills as 150 feet unobstructed, but is more practically around 100 feet with common obstructions. At the same distance, the remote control worked only 90% of the time. In other words, push the system by locating the wireless base as far away from the speakers and yourself as possible and you’ll possibly experience signal drop-off—in a large house. This isn’t a surprise. Additional obstructions, such as walls, may also limit distance, but even in a large environment, putting Evolve in the center rather than at one end is a simple solution.
In our view, Evolve’s Add-Ons only have three issues. First, as noted in the earlier Evolve review, the speaker drivers were deliberately selected for their power and size rather than their detail and balance, which makes these great speakers for a party environment or for casual listeners, but they’re not the sonic rivals of multi-driver speakers. A modular wireless system like this one could, and probably should, be expandable to use different types of speakers appropriate to different rooms, and different types of listening. We continue to hope that Griffin will offer more balanced tweeter/full-range speakers as alternatives, and additional color options would be great, too.
Second, though there isn’t a simple solution for this, all of the speakers are set to perform at the same volume, and other than turning the power off to a given speaker, there’s no way to bring its volume down or up. This contrasts with most whole home audio systems, which provide “zone” or room-specific volume controls. Putting a volume control knob and optional volume control on-off switch on each Charging Base would might been a good solution, but it wasn’t done here, so Evolve will play at the same level of amplitude at all points in the system. And finally, the Add-Ons’ pricing is fine as a bundle, but not great if you’re trying to purchase individual parts. You do much better buying the bigger Set than the separate packages; it would have struck us as reasonable just to sell sets of single speakers and matching bases for $100 each.
That having been said, Griffin deserves a lot of credit for enabling Evolve to work so seamlessly with additional speakers, and for making them available at prices that won’t break the bank. By comparison, it costs around $300 to add an additional set of permanently linked, wall power-dependent stereo speakers to Klipsch’s RoomGroove, and though there are sonic benefits to doing so, you’ll pay more and get far less portability than with Evolve. RoomGroove is a solid option if you need zone-style volume control or cleaner sound, and are willing to give up the individual battery-powered Evolve drivers in the process. Notably, another competing system called EOS Wireless offers add-on wireless speakers for $150, but they don’t sound great, and also require wall power. Having tested all of these options, and others, Evolve is unquestionably the best of the bunch in design and overall performance for the dollar. As wireless speaker systems are concerned, the Evolve was a breakthrough on price, design, and overall performance; the Evolve Add-Ons are every bit as impressive, and equally worthy of our high recommendation.