Review: Logitech Rechargeable Speaker S715i
Logitech understands the challenges of engineering great portable speakers better than most companies: its mm50, Pure-Fi Anywhere, and Pure-Fi Anywhere 2 were all best-of-breed sub-$150 audio systems. But in 2009, the company stumbled with two lower-end follow-ups called S125i and S315i, both of which used downmarket designs and less impressive components to achieve sub-$100 price points. This week, Logitech released the Rechargeable Speaker S715i ($150), an iPod- and iPhone-compatible system that blends the separate sensibilities of its Pure-Fi and S-series speakers into a single package that sounds great for its price, albeit with a couple of important caveats that may lessen its appeal to certain users.
S715i continues the same industrial design themes Logitech introduced in S125i and S315i, eschewing the Apple-inspired rounded rectangular bodies of mm50 and Pure-Fi Anywhere in favor of a shape that looks somewhat like a bone, bulging at the sides and pinched in the center. A matte mesh black grille with subtle curves and interior accents focuses your eyes on six separate speaker drivers facing forwards, while a mix of glossy and matte black plastics comprises the rest of the chassis. The gloss is S715i’s only obvious aesthetic carry-over from the Pure-Fi family, and even then, the unit’s organic, almost alien backside is substantially matte, with very modest rubber padding to keep it stable on a table. Two more speakers can be seen in plastic-covered compartments on the rear, next to a rubber-sealed set of auxiliary audio and power ports.
Design aside, and unlike S125i and S315i, it’s obvious that Logitech attempted to carry as many of Pure-Fi Anywhere’s features over as possible to S715i—albeit in a streamlined fashion. The company includes a carrying case with a power supply and remote pocket on the side, but the case’s design is nearly as low-end and simple as they come. Similarly, the 30-foot-tested, line-of-sight-requiring Infrared remote control is smaller and has fewer buttons—just enough for track changing, volume, power, shuffle and repeat modes. Logitech’s cheaper S125i and S315i didn’t include either a remote or a case, but it’s worth noting that the $150 Pure-Fis both did more than S715i in these regards. There’s also a wall charger in the package, which Logitech has included with each of its portable speakers; however, unlike the ones included with the Pure-Fis, it doesn’t fit inside S715i’s dock, so it consumes extra space when carried around.
The most important elements of mm50 and Pure-Fi Anywhere to survive in S715i are the speakers. With mm50, Logitech blindsided established competitors in the iPod space by pairing two highly competent full-range active drivers with two large passive bass drivers, a potent combination of speakers that let mm50 and its sequels produce a surprisingly wide range of high, midrange, and low sounds within a reasonably portable chassis. Enjoyed with Logitech’s included, non-removable rechargeable battery packs—the latter a point of contention for some users—the mm50 and Pure-Fi Anywhere speakers proved all but impossible for rivals to duplicate in sound quality and value for nearly five years.
At a time when value for the dollar is extremely important, S715i packs more impressive sonic hardware than any of Logitech’s prior $150 iPod and iPhone systems. This time, it uses two three-inch midrange drivers paired with two half-inch tweeters—Logitech’s first use of dedicated speakers for highs in a portable unit—plus four total two-inch passive bass radiators, two firing forwards and two firing backwards. Looking at S715i directly alongside Pure-Fi Anywhere 2, it’s obvious that Logitech build S715i up from the Pure-Fi hardware, doubling the bass drivers and adding the tweeters to extend the highs and lows. Thus, unlike the S125i and S315i, both of which fell well behind the Pure-Fi Anywhere units in audio quality, S715i actually raises the bar for the $150 price point, a further challenge for companies that have spent years coming close to Pure-Fi Anywhere’s sound without surpassing it.
Two differences between S715i and the Pure-Fis are obvious from the first moment they’re compared: S715i has deeper bass and superior clarity. Songs that sound really very good when played through Pure-Fi Anywhere suddenly appear comparatively distorted—the sort of noticeable “wow, that’s better” effect that Pure-Fi has on most of its competitors—and it’s obvious that some of the low-end, particularly in really low beats, just isn’t there in the Pure-Fi units. Unlike Pure-Fi rivals, however, S715i doesn’t trade anything off sonically to achieve its superior low-end performance: the highs and mids are still there, albeit with a small shift towards midrange-heavier sound, which we found to be somewhat of a surprise given S715i’s new dedicated tweeters. Logitech’s decision to split what used to be two full-range drivers into four should have enabled S715i’s dedicated speakers to each focus on what they’re good at doing, but due to either psychoacoustics or the way S715i’s drivers have been tuned, subtle midrange details in certain songs don’t pop as much as they did with Pure-Fi Anywhere 2; rather, they’re audible but blend more into S715i’s mids and stronger bass. A very small amount of amplifier hiss can occasionally be heard during silences, but it’s largely inaudible while music is playing.
It also bears mention that S715i is not a boom box and has some interesting volume characteristics. Rather than optimizing its sound for ear-splitting volumes and potential outdoor group entertainment use, Logitech has designed S715i’s speakers to perform at roughly the same peak volume levels as the Pure-Fi Anywhere systems, at least when they’re both running on batteries. S715i at 50% volume is as loud as Pure-Fi at 75%, but when each unit is at 100% on battery power, the amplitude is roughly the same—small room-filling—with S715i sounding clearer and more dynamic, with particular benefits in the bass. Once you plug the included wall adapter in, however, S715i switches out of its automatic power-saving mode, adding both volume and further bass to the upper half of its volume meter. Running from wall power, S715i can roughly double its peak volume, becoming dangerously loud at close distances and capable of filling a larger room with somewhat flatter sound. It’s great given the price and size, but dedicated non-portable systems with bigger speakers, enclosures, and price tags can churn out better sound.
Logitech’s sonic improvements did require trade-offs. Besides the aforementioned streamlining of the remote and carrying case, Logitech cut the number of buttons on S715i down to three—power, volume up, and volume down—losing the one-touch shuffle and repeat play buttons found on the Pure-Fi Anywhere units. It has also dropped the optional spatialization button from the Pure-Fis, which was so worth using that we never found a need to turn it off; S715i’s stereo separation and staging are similar and don’t require a deactivation button. These tweaks didn’t bother us at all.
Additionally, Pure-Fi Anywhere’s five prior power and battery charge indicator lights have given way to one three-colored light that provides coded indications when in use—green for “greater than 40% power,” orange for “somewhere between 5% and 40% power,” and red for “less than 5% power,” with different variations on green when it’s charging. The old indicators were easier to understand and provided better information while the battery was charging. Logitech notes that the S715i’s eight-hour battery will take between four and ten hours to recharge, so keeping it connected to the wall outlet improves both its horsepower and its ability to be ready for portable use when needed. Unlike its predecessors, S715i has a battery compartment with standard screws that can be opened to swap the rechargeable cell out when it’s non-functional, a positive change that critics of the Pure-Fi series will appreciate.
Two other changes will be more controversial. First is the size of the chassis, which has grown to roughly 15 1/4” wide by 5” tall and 2.5” to 4” deep depending on the position of the unit’s kickstand. These measurements make S715i larger in every dimension than the Pure-Fis and MM50, taking it out of the briefcase-ready size category while giving its bass and tweeter drivers the room they needed. Second is the new dock design, which Logitech touts as free of “those annoying trays,” a reference to the Universal Dock Adapters Apple has designed for iPods and iPhones. The dock’s protected during travel by Logitech’s new kickstand, which flips open at the top and locks into the back to keep the system upright, but unlike the Pure-Fi Anywhere 2, it doesn’t work with certain encased iPhone 4s—the new dock is either too shallow or the Dock Connector isn’t elevated enough to let some cases make a proper electronic connection with this model. Users of super-thin shells won’t have a problem, but thicker full-fledged cases we tested were not able to connect properly while sitting in the tray. This is the only really big bummer with S715i, given the known need of the iPhone 4 for some form of case coverage, and we wouldn’t get rid of our preferred cases just to use this speaker. Your mileage may vary.
Despite its issues, S715i is Logitech’s best-sounding portable sound system yet. If you’re willing to accept its larger physical size and potential for encased iPhone 4 incompatibility, you’ll find that it delivers outstanding sound for its asking price, making great use of several different drivers to deliver superior sonic fidelity to its rivals—products that couldn’t definitively beat even the company’s best prior model. While Logitech has cut certain features and corners from earlier Pure-Fi designs, the strategically surgical nature of most of the changes will make them non-issues for typical users, while the improved sound offers considerable dividends. S715i is worthy of our high recommendation, and should be a top option for everyone save users of medium to thick iPhone 4 cases; they would be better off looking for Pure-Fi Anywhere 2 units instead.