Review: House of Marley Bag of Riddim Bluetooth Portable Speaker System
Boxy plastic Bluetooth speakers might be all the rage right now, but there's still plenty of demand for options with more natural shapes and materials. House of Marley's amusingly-named Bag of Riddim ($300) is about as far as an audio company can go in the opposite direction from Jawbone's Big Jambox, Soundfreaq's Sound Stack and iHome's iBT4 -- organic and earthy with Bob Marley-inspired design elements, it's a gigantic wood, fabric, and plastic boombox intended to be toted around with built-in handles or an arm strap. The design is thoughtful, attractive, and packed with rich sound, so while it won't appeal to everyone, it will have very strong appeal to its market niche.
Given their identical prices, the contrasts between Bag of Riddim and Big Jambox couldn’t be sharper. Most people question how a speaker as small as Big Jambox could sell for $300, but Bag of Riddim’s size and materials go a long way towards psychologically justifying the price even before you hear it play music. Measuring 20.9 inches across, 6.9 inches deep, and 6.8 inches tall at its largest points—six or eight times the physical volume of Big Jambox—the system organically tapers in each dimension, using a front wood face and gray canvas fabric to cover an otherwise black plastic body. Nothing about this system looks or feels cheap, and the wood is interestingly imprinted with subtle logos that add to its visual appeal.
Since Bag of Riddim weighs over ten pounds, you’ll definitely want to carry it either with both of the integrated nylon hand straps, or with the matching, adjustable nylon arm strap. Worn across a chest, Bag of Riddim looks sort of like a set of bongos; you’ll have to manually tilt the speakers so that they’ll tilt forwards rather than upwards. A House of Marley patch, green/yellow/red stitching, and a green/yellow/red-striped nylon bar on the bag’s single top pocket remind you of the Marley family’s Jamaican history; additional Marley logos can be found on the system’s front and bottom. Hidden underneath the pocket is a power port hole; House of Marley designed the speaker and bag to eliminate traditionally rear-mounted ports, so even this one is on the top, just far back.
Beyond the reddish, smooth-textured wood, the front face has been beautifully designed around a three-circle theme, with two 1-inch tweeters resting inside huge 4.5-inch woofers off to the left and right sides, all behind black grilles with silver edges. In the center is a third circle, with an intriguing set of concentric rings holding four capacitive control buttons and two ports. House of Marley situates concave power, volume, and Bluetooth pairing buttons around the top of the ring, with rubber-capped USB and aux-in ports below them. While the buttons aren’t ideally sensitive—power on and off, for instance, require a deliberately held-down finger rather than a tap—the design is otherwise really nice, and unlike what we’ve seen on other developers’ speakers.
In addition to the canvas bag, which is detachable with metal snaps but really intended to remain on the speaker, two other items are packed in—and capable of fitting inside a snapped pocket on Bag of Riddim’s top. A large, long-cabled wall adapter lets you run Bag of Riddim from wall power, and a short, fabric-jacketed 3.5mm audio cable enables you to connect the speaker to the headphone ports of devices without Bluetooth.
What’s notably missing from this speaker is a rechargeable battery; House of Marley instead expects you to self-supply six D cells to use the unit on the go. This is arguably the speaker’s only major miss from a features standpoint, but it’s a big one: it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense to design a speaker system so conspicuously for on-the-go use, then fail to supply the necessary on-the-go power to keep it running. Almost all of the portable Bluetooth speakers we test nowadays include their own power cells, so Bag of Riddim falls a step behind there.
Thankfully, Bag of Riddim makes up for that omission with its sonic performance, which is entirely enjoyable at near-field listening levels but particularly impressive at very high volumes. Once in a while, an audio system comes along with sound balance that sounds “just right,” and Bag of Riddim is one of those speakers; it has just enough treble and midrange detail to offset its skew towards mid-bass and bass tones. While the sonic warmth is no surprise given the large woofers inside, the bass is actually quite nicely controlled, without bloat or unpleasant distortion regardless of the volume level.
As the volume goes up, the bass continues to improve in power, generating just enough sub-sonic energy to feel like thump. Bag of Riddim is more than capable of filling a small room with sound, but sounds good even when it’s playing at much lower levels. And beyond the unit’s four audio drivers, two large bass ports on the system’s sides provide ample room for the system to radiate sound off to the sides, though stereo separation isn’t much further than the speakers’ physical edges.
The one sonic issue we noted was actually Bluetooth-related: when changing tracks, we noted a slight hiccup at the beginning of each new track as a split-second of audio clipped from the prior track played again—an issue we’ve also heard in some, but not all recent JBL speakers. Apart from this problem, Bag of Riddim sounded pretty close to great, and we’d call this issue minor but a little annoying, detracting from the rating a bit.
Overall, Bag of Riddim is a very good new Bluetooth speaker, combining close to great design with close to great sound at a reasonable price. Its biggest omissions are in its half-hearted execution of portable functionality, easing the physical task of carrying without properly addressing the electronic power requirements of a portable speaker, and its slight Bluetooth hiccup, which likely won’t deeply bother most users. If you’re looking for a powerful, large speaker system with a handsome chassis, rich bass, and strong high-volume performance, Bag of Riddim is certainly worth considering; by $300 wireless speaker standards, it’s particularly distinctive in the design department.