Review: Soundmatters foxL v2.2 Bluetooth Speaker for iPhone + iPod touch
When we receive physically small speakers for review, the question we ask isn't whether they'll sound great in an absolute sense of the word, but rather whether they achieve a worthwhile balance of sound, features, design, and pricing. Soundmatters' Bluetooth 2.0-equipped portable speaker foxL v2 ($249/$199) starts at an apparent disadvantage relative to nearly all of its peers in the iPod and iPhone universe: it's very, very small, which almost invariably translates to thin or muddy sound, depending on how the enclosure and speaker drivers were designed. But foxL manages to outperform expectations on size, even though it falls a little short of the "audiophile" expectations users will have based on its steep price.
At 5.6” wide by 2.1” tall by 1.3” deep, foxL v2 is nearly as pocketable as an iPhone—taller and deeper but narrower. The unit’s front features a glossy metal grille with two speakers, a noise-canceling microphone, and a combination button-slash-status light. On its back are volume buttons, an on-off switch, and a flip-out plastic stand that covers its bass radiator and five-hour max rechargeable battery, while its sides include aux-in and power ports, audio-out and USB ports. The aux-in lets you connect any audio device via an included 3.5mm audio cable, while the audio-out is designed to let you pair foxL with an external subwoofer if you want to boost the system’s power further. Soundmatters also includes a wall charger, international power blades, USB cable, wrist strap, carrying bag, and a rubber pad to keep foxL from vibrating off the edge of a table when in use.
First, the good news: the speakers inside foxL v2 are in fact impressive given the unit’s tiny footprint. Despite the less than 2.75” separation between the little drivers, the system actually offers legitimate if limited stereo separation, as well as a very reasonable balance of treble, midrange, and bass performance—most of the pocket-sized speakers we’ve tested would struggle to match the overall output quality offered by this little 8-Watt system. Except at peak volume levels, the bass is most impressive in that it’s both obvious and reasonably restrained: you can hear the low beats in songs, but they don’t sound muddy, and there’s enough treble to let you hear cymbals and synthetic high-pitched drums, too. The system does in fact vibrate enough to modestly shake the table underneath when you’re listening to bass-heavy songs, so the little rubber mat may be a handy thing to keep around.
It’s important to note how foxL v2’s performance differs from other micro audio systems. Competing products almost invariably give up certain dimensions of speaker performance in order to achieve their size, so they might sound fine in the highs and mids but have no bass, give up stereo separation in favor of a single-driver solution, or lose treble in order to produce a solid, thumpy sound. These compromises might sound foolish, but in practice, they result in systems that occupy roughly the same volume as foxL v2 but cost half or less its price. By contrast, foxL v2 doesn’t compromise: there are two 25-millimeter dome speakers and a passive, rear-firing bass radiator that together achieve the closest thing to 2.1-channel sound we could imagine from a unit this small. Their sound is akin to bigger four-driver systems we’ve heard from better-known companies, minus the room-filling volume.
So here’s the first catch: though foxL v2 works at the promised 25-30-foot distances, the Bluetooth hardware inside produces some of the most audible interference we’ve heard on a wireless speaker. During stereo testing, a combination of light static and what sounds like wireless signaling could be heard during silences and quieter parts of songs, occasionally becoming louder when an iPhone or iPod touch re-initiated pairing. While the quality of streamed stereo music is acceptable—typical of Bluetooth stereo standards—it’s not fantastic, and foxL v2 struggles with major bass distortion at the upper 25% of its volume range. By comparison, making a wired connection with your iPhone or iPod touch improves both sound quality and volume; Soundmatters also notes that using the included power adapter will boost foxL’s amplitude, as well as avoiding an overload protection feature that dims or cuts off one of the speakers. Tethering wires to the system for audio and power wouldn’t be our first choice for any wireless speaker, but at least they’re options.
There are a couple of additional issues, too. Soundmatters sells foxL v2 as both a stereo Bluetooth speaker and as a monaural Bluetooth speakerphone, noting that it’s capable of pairing with only one device at a time—a limitation that some but not all iPhone-friendly speakerphones possess. More importantly, our test callers disagreed somewhat on the unit’s microphone performance. One told us that foxL v2’s “business-quality” microphone picked up way too much background buzz during testing, and rendered voices in a compressed, low-volume fashion. Another noted the same compression, volume, and background noise issues but found foxL’s rendition of our voice to be intelligible despite the issues. After one call, we were very surprised to hear TDMA noise—the plague of early first-generation iPhone users and accessories—playing through the foxL speakers. Buzzes of various sorts were just too common with this system.
Our overall impression of foxL v2 is somewhat mixed: given the $249 price point—now $199, says Soundmatters’ web site—we wouldn’t rush out to the store for wireless performance that both we and our callers found to be acceptable at best and decent at worst, despite the obviously high quality of the speakers. On the other hand, even though its sound quality in Bluetooth mode doesn’t in our view live up to the “audiophile” claims made on the product’s web site, this small unit does quite well when connected via a wire to a device for music purposes. Additional shielding and other wireless fine tuning could make a next-generation foxL a more worthwhile travel companion for users requiring conveniently miniaturized speaker and speakerphone functionality.
Updated December 21, 2010: foxL v2.2
Following our initial August 9, 2010 review of foxL v2, we had the opportunity to compare an updated version of the speaker—foxL v2.2, as indicated on its rear sticker—against a brand new competitor, Aliph’s Jawbone Jambox, which was introduced at the same $200 price point Soundmatters is now selling foxL for. These devices turn out to be extremely similar to one another in concept, but different in execution, and the new foxL is a little better when all factors are taken into consideration.
One obvious advantage that foxL v2.2 has over Jambox is size: it’s a little smaller in each dimension, and feels at least as solidly built thanks to its combination of glossy plastic and metal surfaces. Whereas Jambox is almost playful in its use of colors, rubber, and its variously textured wraparound grilles, foxL has a comparatively serious design that speaks to its audiophile ambitions, and its inclusion of a wriststrap adds to its “take it anywhere” sense of pocketability. On the other hand, Jambox’s designer Yves Behar did a better job of addressing two needs: controls and stability. Big volume controls and a talk/Voice Control button are more usefully situated on Jambox’s top than the volume-only controls on foxL’s rear, and Aliph’s use of rubber on the bottom enables Jambox to stay stable rather than “walking” on a table surface with every bass note. foxL benefits from the included rubber pad for stability; Jambox doesn’t need a separate part.
Sonically, the two systems are close to a draw in performance. foxL has noticeably superior dynamic range, particularly thanks to extra bass generated by its rear-firing bass driver, and also initially sounded a little clearer. However, additional testing demonstrated that whereas Jambox doesn’t have any real bass thump, it also doesn’t distort at higher volumes when the bass is heavy in a song, a problem that becomes obvious in foxL during direct comparisons. With both systems at below-peak, safe near-distance listening volumes, foxL sounds fuller and more interesting—Jambox seems flatter—but when they’re each turned up to their top volumes, the restraints placed on Jambox’s low end actually work to its advantage. Neither system is spectacular at high volumes, but Aliph’s less dynamic, slightly quieter peak is better than foxL’s heavily distorted, louder peak sound on some songs. Since we don’t like to listen to speakers at ear-damaging levels, we’d prefer foxL under most circumstances, but there are situations when Jambox will sound better.
Apart from high volume performance, Soundmatters has more advantages in its favor. Just to name a couple of others, microphone tests suggested that we sounded a little cleaner to our callers when using foxL as a speakerphone alongside Jambox, and foxL v2.2 does in fact remove the static hiss we heard in v2 when used as a stereo Bluetooth streaming device—a small buzz in the microphone was noted by callers when using both devices. All in all, we’d give foxL v2.2 the nod over Jambox, though both products could stand to be less expensive given the overall audio quality they deliver for the dollar, and Soundmatters should take Aliph’s design as an inspiration on how to improve stabilization of an eventual third version without depending on a separate rubber pad. At $150, little Bluetooth systems like these could really take off as low-priced alternatives to the upcoming wave of expensive AirPlay speakers that are soon to be released.