Review: SMS Audio Sync by 50 Portable Bluetooth Wireless Speaker
Once Jawbone demonstrated that there was a substantial market for small $200 Bluetooth speakers, dozens of companies began churning out me-too alternatives -- many soundalikes and some lookalikes among them. While we wouldn't say that there's been little innovation in the flock, they're rarely substantially different from one another, and it's becoming harder to find new releases with anything distinctive to offer. The two speakers we're reviewing today are exceptions: SMS Audio's Sync by 50 ($200) and the Sol Republic x Motorola Deck include Bluetooth 4 hardware, the latest version of the popular wireless standard, and feature distinctive industrial designs. While neither is an incredible value for the price, they're both intriguing and worthy of brief writeups.
Late last year, JBL released the amazing Flip —a $99 tube-shaped speaker that outperformed Jawbone’s $200 Jambox, taking honors as our 2012 Speaker of the Year. Since then, it’s been hard to look at similarly-sized and -shaped speakers without asking what possibly could justify a $100 price premium, so Sync by 50 arrives with a challenge: it needs to somehow deliver twice the sound or other frills to make up the difference.
Beyond touting the endorsement of 50 Cent, still one of our favorite rappers, SMS Audio has delivered a speaker and bundled-in accessories that look pretty good—all of the components are primarily black with attractively contrasting bright blue elements, matching earlier Sync by 50 headphones. Measuring 8” long by roughly 2.75” tall and 2.75” deep, Sync by 50 is around 1.75” wider and 0.25” thicker than Flip, using a couple of tricks to further differentiate itself physically. Although they’re virtually identical in shape—think of a tube ending in two diagonally-sliced sides, forming an rounded trapezoidal enclosure—Sync by 50’s flat edge is at the top rather than the back, hosting a button-packed control panel. In addition to track control, volume, calling, and play/pause buttons, SMS Audio includes a 3D sound button to toggle between a neutral mode and four EQ/enhancement presets. Two rubberized feet on the bottom keep it stable on a flat surface.
While we can understand SMS Audio’s desire to keep Sync by 50’s design language consistent with its headphones, there’s something weird about the speaker—there’s not much going on visually in its center. Most of the unit is made from somewhat boring soft touch-finished matte black plastic; the only distinctive touches are in the thick glossy edges around what feel to be metal speaker grilles on the sides. Since the front and back look underdesigned, the side blue “S” logos are arguably the unit’s most distinctive branding touch, besides a glowing SMS Audio logo on the top.
Ideally, the unit’s twin 50mm audio drivers would be front-facing, as they are in almost every other portable Bluetooth unit we’ve tested—the Deck speaker we reviewed today is an anomaly in that regard. Sync by 50 instead mounts them on the sides, a decision that increases the apparent stereo separation past the unit’s 8” edges, but reduces the drivers’ perceived treble. This also leaves the front of the unit completely plain except for a tiny microphone hole. On the similarly bland back are a three-position switch for power and Bluetooth pairing, an auxiliary input, and a micro-USB port for charging. SMS Audio also includes a zippered nylon carrying case, polishing cloth, 3.5mm audio cable, and micro-USB charging cable, all of which look and feel nice, but there’s no wall charger in the package. Battery life is rated at 12 hours for music, 15 hours for speakerphone mode, or 800 hours of standby time; the real-world numbers will vary based on whether you turn Sync up to its nearly small room-filling peak.
Sonically, Sync by 50 is a hard speaker to describe efficiently, mostly because its collection of 3D effects are so unusual and tend to introduce additional distortion into the audio. It’s largely noticeable in the bass and mid-bass, but also sometimes as a sizzle throughout other parts in songs. When you find the right 3D setting for a given song, you’ll be able to hear what sounds like a pleasantly dynamic, warm rendition of something you’ve heard before, or some interesting reverberations that enhance something in a novel way, but with the wrong setting, you’ll think that part of the audio is missing or being oddly processed in an echo chamber. We constantly found ourselves trying to just get back to the unenhanced standard setting—something that isn’t easy to do, since you cycle through the five settings one-by-one, waiting for two beeps to tell you the cycle is over. When you reach neutral, you’ll notice that your music suddenly sounds really flat and uninspired by comparison with the 3D modes, but spatialization shouldn’t work that way: the best speakers are tuned to sound their best without forcing the user to do anything at all, and we couldn’t get excited about having to keep playing with Sync’s button just to make each track sound ideal.
Sync by 50’s Bluetooth performance is fine rather than great. The speaker only promises a 33-foot performance range from the connected device, and we found that it only did a little better than that before sonic dropouts began. This isn’t a huge problem, but many rival speakers now well exceed the basic 33-foot Bluetooth range. On the other hand, we noted that Sync’s Bluetooth 4 re-pairing with devices was quite rapid, and callers told us that we sounded at least as good on the speakerphone as we did on the iPhone 5s we were testing it with. Additionally, although the speaker uses very odd, little girl-like speech for voice prompting—as much of a contrast with 50 Cent’s gravelly vocals as one could imagine—some voice is better than no voice.
Ultimately, Sync by 50 falls a little short of our general-level recommendation. While it’s not a bad-looking or -sounding speaker, it’s not as impressive as we would have expected given the increasingly stylish and metal-clad competition out there, and the idea of offering the user multiple sound profiles turns out to be overcomplicated and somewhat disappointing in execution. Numerous Bluetooth options at or below its price point offer even better value for the dollar and performance, so our hope is that SMS Audio will work on the exterior and interior for an improved 2014 sequel.