While Apple has relentlessly replaced its iDevices every year or two, audio accessory developer Bose commonly goes in the opposite direction, keeping “new” speaker designs all but unchanged for years. Rarely does the company trot out a completely new design, and it’s almost never the case that a new release is more affordable than its prior products. That’s why we were genuinely excited to see Bose leap into the increasingly crowded “palm-sized wireless portable speaker” market that was defined by Jawbone’s Jambox: the new SoundLink Mini ($200) isn’t just another me-too option, but rather a small speaker that impressively balances premium materials, features, and sound quality in a housing that’s only a little larger than Jawbone’s nearly three-year-old design. The only question is whether Bose has arrived too late to effectively compete with its rivals, particularly given some significant recent price drops across the Jambox-alike range.
If it wasn’t apparent from photographs, you’ll know how much SoundLink Mini has in common with the Jambox from the moment you place them next to one another: our impression is that Bose’s engineers were tasked with creating something that was extremely similar in overall volume, but given the latitude to go just a little bit bigger if absolutely necessary. Featuring an unusual shape that looks like a bulging trapezoid, SoundLink Mini is otherwise dimensionally similar to a rectangular Jambox with its face pointing downwards. It measures 1.3” longer than Jambox at just over 7.1” from top left edge to top right edge, while its 2.3” depth is nearly identical to Jambox’s 2.25” height, and its 2” height is just a little bigger than the 1.6” deep Jambox. However, tapering makes it look slightly smaller than these numbers would suggest, and in person, no one would call Bose’s design seriously less portable than Jawbone’s. They’re undoubtably in the same category, and considerably smaller than Bose’s earlier hardcover book-sized SoundLink and SoundLink II.
Several factors go a long way towards making SoundLink Mini feel more worthy of a $200 asking price than the Jambox. Jawbone’s design features prominent rubber pads on its top and bottom, flanking a thin textured metal grill in the center. Bose instead uses a thick Apple-grade aluminum frame for its body, interrupting the top with a clean line of six buttons and indicator lights, while the bottom has a removable rubber pad to cover its rechargeable battery compartment. Bose’s front and back speaker grilles aren’t as interesting as Jambox’s, but they’re finely perforated and fairly classy, apart from an oversized Bose logo that appears solely on the front grille rather than on the top where the SoundLink Mini name is located. We would have preferred that Bose was more restrained in branding the device, but the metal looks so nice and feels so substantial that it makes the Jambox seem comparatively toy-like and cheap.
Bose has also upped the ante by including a dead-simple recharging station for SoundLink Mini’s seven-hour integrated battery. While the all-plastic base looks a bit flimsy due to its device-hugging curvature and feels lightweight by contrast with the substantial 1.5-pound speaker, it connects to an included slimline wall adapter to let you just drop SoundLink mini down for charging sessions. Should you not want to use it, you can just plug the circular-tipped adapter directly into the SoundLink mini’s side. Although Bose could have eased recharging further by using common micro-USB cables, there’s undeniable convenience in just being able to leave the speaker on a plate for refueling, and most users will love this feature. A pleasant little chime lets you know a charging connection has been made.
Several things are notably missing from SoundLink Mini by comparison with Jambox and many of its rivals. One is speakerphone functionality: Bose didn’t include a microphone, so this speaker’s only for playing audio, not making calls. Another omission is travel protection: unlike the Jambox, Bose instead sells semi-protective “soft covers” for $25 each and more substantial “travel bags” for $45, a reminder of the company’s penchant for upselling pricey add-ons. You’ll also have to self-supply an auxiliary audio cable if you need it, another item Jawbone includes with its speaker. On the other hand, their core functionality is highly similar: SoundLink Mini operates reliably as a Bluetooth wireless receiver from 33-foot unimpeded distances, with breakup in the audio signal at greater distances or with obstructions.
Audio quality is SoundLink Mini’s real trump card over Jambox and most—not all—of its competitors. Although we’ve previously noted repeatedly that Bose’s speakers are sonically good but overpriced, the company this time addressed its key challenger by delivering a markedly better audio experience for the same target MSRP. While Bose rarely if ever discloses the audio hardware inside its speakers, two front-facing 1.25” drivers and two nearly 3”-wide pill-shaped bass radiators are evident through the front and rear grilles, and they’re collectively more powerful than the Jambox’s speakers in a couple of ways. SoundLink Mini’s top volume level is roughly twice the peak volume of the Jambox, and sounds richer at every amplitude. Neither is going to win awards for treble response or midrange detail—they’re roughly equivalent here—but SoundLink Mini delivers much deeper bass and cleaner mid-bass at all volumes, suffering from noticeable distortion solely at the top of its volume scale. It’s always a good thing when a new speaker makes a same-priced old speaker sound radio-like, and SoundLink Mini does that to the Jambox; it’s certainly a very nicely-engineered small $200 speaker.
The problem, of course, is that the small speaker market has changed substantially since the Jambox debuted at $200 in late 2010: Jawbone currently sells the basic Jambox for $180 in a stunning array of colors, and even recently discounted it to $130 in a brief promotion. It also must be noted that the Jambox was never a great-sounding speaker at any price, so it wasn’t any surprise to see it thoroughly trounced last year by JBL’s sub-$100 Flip, just one of a number of speakers now offering a lot more value for the dollar. Our key 2013-vintage question therefore isn’t whether the $200 SoundLink Mini is better than the $180 Jambox—it is—but how it compares to the $100 Flip.
Here, the differences aren’t as pronounced. Flip continues to deliver outstanding sonic value for the dollar, very nearly matching the SoundLink Mini in top volume and slightly edging it out in treble, while falling only a little below it in bass richness—at half the price. The average person would likely not see $100 worth of additional sound quality between the two speakers; SoundLink Mini’s only a little better thanks to its fuller presentation, while missing Flip’s speakerphone feature. On the other hand, Bose makes up some of the price difference with its other frills: SoundLink Mini’s substantially metal construction, recharging base, and longer battery life are all pluses.
Given the highly competitive state of the small portable Bluetooth speaker today, Bose’s SoundLink Mini is worthy of our B+ rating and strong general recommendation. While it’s not as incredible a value for the dollar as JBL’s Flip, the build quality, sound quality, and recharging base all make it a much better buy than the Jawbone Jambox, falling short only in color options, pack-ins, and speakerphone functionality. It’s exciting to see Bose actually trying to beat its now numerous competitors rather than merely sitting alongside them, and SoundLink Mini is the first Bose speaker we’ve seen in years that feels aggressively designed. We look forward to seeing more new Bose products like this one, hopefully in the near future.
Company and Price
Company: Bose Corporation
Model: SoundLink Mini
Compatible: All Bluetooth-Capable iPads, iPhones, iPods