Once relatively few in number and largely similar to one another, Bluetooth headsets and car visor speakerphones have become increasingly numerous and interesting over the past few years, thanks to developers that have been pushing for smaller and lighter components. Bluetrek first hit our radar screen three years ago with the release of SurfaceSound Compact, a breakthrough ultra-slim car speakerphone that remained at the top of our charts for quite a while. Now the company has returned with two new innovative products: the monaural Bluetooth headset Carbon ($70) and the decidedly novel “cute speakerphone” Speaky ($70). They’re completely different from one another in approach, but they’re both very aggressively priced and impressively well-developed; we review both here today.
Because it takes a substantially new and different approach from all of the in-car speakerphone accessories we’ve tested, Speaky quickly struck us as one of the coolest products that debuted at this past January’s CES. Rather than trying to find another way to package a flat panel speaker, microphone, and battery into a flat or boxy visor-mounted unit, Bluetrek created a glossy plastic shell that looks sort of like Marvin the Paranoid Android from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One version of Speaky is pink, with “IM SPEAKY” on its globe-shaped head, and the other is black with green eyes and the words “BE SAFE!” on its chest. (Other variations were shown at CES but have not yet been announced for sale.) Speaky’s legs are permanently locked in a sitting position, legs spread out, while its arms hanging on the sides.
The specifics of how Bluetrek has built traditional speakerphone features into Speaky are all pretty impressive. A speaker grille is in the back of the unit’s head, venting the bassy sound behind the unit in a manner that is nonetheless entirely audible from the front. While the speaker isn’t mind-blowingly clear or powerful, it’s on par with most of the visor-mounted speakerphones we’ve previously tested, and entirely acceptable for telephone calls. Dual noise-cancelling microphones are found in the feet, sticking forwards, and three buttons are hidden in the arms and belly—volume up on the left, call answer/end on the center, and volume down on the right. You can press volume up and down together for one second to activate iPhone 3GS/4 or iPod touch 3G/4G voice controls, tap Speaky’s belly twice to redial your last caller, or hold the button down to initiate pairing. While we’d have preferred the pairing to require two buttons and voice controls to be activated by holding the center button down, this is only a small issue, and not fatal to an otherwise very easily controllable design.
As in-car speakerphones go, Speaky does a pretty good job of rivaling the mid-priced visor solutions we’ve previously liked. Callers said that we sounded nearly as clear to them with Speaky sitting on a dashboard as an iPhone 4 held in our hands, and we didn’t have problems hearing them, either. The sonic performance was only a little shy of the best in-car speakerphones we’ve tested, but very good given the price. Bluetrek is using not only a six-hour battery and Bluetooth 3.0 inside Speaky—with atypically fast pairing and two-device simultaneous connections as benefits—but also includes voice prompting software that makes the unit sound like a fun little robotic buddy. “Hi, what’s up?” it asks as it turns on, and “Bye, bye,” it says as it turns off. Pairing status, low battery levels, and the like are also spoken rather than bleeped or chimed.
Some other bonuses: Speaky can stream music from iOS devices in addition to calls, transitioning smoothly between them, and even has an aux-in port on the back for audio input. It also automatically turns on when motion is detected, including when your car is opened, and a micro-USB port lets it charge either in your car with an included USB cable and charger, or via a connection to your computer. Both ports are rubber-sealed, and an audio cable is included for wired music connections.
Apart from the modest hits in audio quality relative to top visor-mounted speakers, the only major issues with Speaky are in mounting and charging. Originally, Bluetrek suggested that Speaky was designed to hang from a rearview mirror, and there’s a small clear plastic loop in its head to do that—but no other mounting hardware for that purpose. It’s legal in some places to do this, but in others, it’s not, so the company instead provides two sets of adhesive and Velcro mounts to place on Speaky and up to two dashboards. While the unit works as well as described above from the dashboard’s distance, its performance might well be even better if it was closer to your head. You’ll have to decide whether dashboard mounting is acceptable in your car; if not, a visor-mounted solution might be wiser. Similarly, if the six-hour battery life isn’t adequate for your needs—most in-car speakerphones today offer between 10 and 20 hours between recharges—a traditional visor kit will be more to your liking.
Overall, while Speaky’s cartoony design and battery limitations won’t appeal to everyone, there’s undeniably a lot of quality in the overall experience it offers within a unique new form factor. Rather than just creating another slate or brick-like Bluetooth car kit, Bluetrek enables you to mount and carry something that looks almost like a toy, with comparable performance to mid-ranged visor-mounted speakerphones—plus music streaming and Bluetooth 3.0 support that are uncommon at the $70 price point. Assuming that you like the design and feel comfortable with the run time and dashboard mounting, you’ll be very satisfied with what Speaky offers. We’re hoping to see additional paint jobs and body designs from the company in the future.
Company and Price
Compatible: All iPhones, iPod touch 2G/3G/4G*, iPad/iPad 2*