When a new company named Spar launched the Zephyr family of three small Bluetooth speakers last year, we were intrigued but ultimately not impressed. Each of the speakers was positioned as a stylish but more affordable challenger to the Jawbone Jambox, which has a distinctive design but only so-so sound quality for the $200 price. However, Spar’s speakers didn’t fare much better; for instance, the $160 Zephyr 550 we reviewed was more notable for its Apple-inspired aluminum and black plastic body than its bass-heavy sound, which became increasingly distorted as the volume level increased. Amazingly, Spar pulled the Zephyrs from the market as quickly as they’d appeared, promising to retool them for a mid-2012 release. Soon thereafter, the Spar and Zephyr names disappeared in favor of a new corporate identity, Braven, and the old models were replaced by new versions.
Today, we’re reviewing two of the new models: Braven 625s ($180) and Braven 650 ($190). Both units have the same core functionality—Bluetooth music streaming and iPhone-ready speakerphone features—and basic pack-ins, but they differ in finish, specific features, and execution. Still clad in aluminum with matte black plastic end caps, Braven 650 is an updated version of Zephyr 550, featuring a modestly tweaked exterior, improved sound quality, a smaller internal battery, and a higher price tag. By comparison, Braven 625s is a new ruggedized model with grid-textured rubber wrapped around its body, save for metal front and back plates. It has a smaller battery inside, but comes with a water-resistant dry bag, flash light, and wrist strap that aren’t included with 650. They are so close in price and sonic performance to one another that the choice between them will really come down to the features you prefer in a small wireless speaker; they’re similarly so close in price to the Jawbone Jambox that they’re less likely to make a dent in their better-known rival’s sales, despite sonic improvements.
Since we’ve already covered Braven 650 in its prior incarnation as Zephyr 550, it suffices to say that the updated model’s tweaks range from superficial to significant. On the superficial side, Braven has swapped the formerly embossed “Spar” name on top for a fancier, polished-metal Braven moniker, and changed the lower front-centered “Zephyr” tag for a lower right-centered “Braven 650.” Previously gray, Jawbone-like 3.5mm audio and micro-USB cables have been swapped for black ones, and the included black cube wall power adapter and drawstring carrying case now both say Braven rather than Spar. Braven 650 remains 6.25” wide by 1.75” deep and 2.5” tall, relatively solid-feeling, and only a little larger in each dimension than the Jawbone Jambox. Neither will fit in a jeans pocket; anywhere one can go, the other will, as well.
The significant changes are internal, and mostly positive. Thanks to audio re-engineering work, Braven 650 sounds decidedly better than both Zephyr 550 and the Jambox when used with iOS devices: 650 no longer distorts as it gets louder, can be turned up to a slightly higher volume level than the Jambox, while performing a noticeably wider array of treble and midrange frequencies. Whereas Jambox makes a bass-focused first impression, Braven 650 simultaneously sounds crisper and more balanced, though not comparatively bass-deficient nor as flat as the Jambox. Heard next to one another, Braven 650 sounds like it’s performing more of any given song than the Jambox, rather than just playing the same song with a different skew. Neither speaker sounds as good or loud as larger sub-$200 speakers we’ve tested, but in the “nearly pocket-sized” category, Braven 650 beats Jambox sonically, hands down. It’s worth a brief mention that this model also includes support for the APT-X audio codec, which isn’t supported by default with iOS devices, but may enable even better sonic performance with other wireless devices.
If you want to use Braven 650 as a speakerphone, you’ll find that it puts out noticeably louder sound than the Jambox and current class-leading iPhone 4S, with microphone performance that’s very close to the iPhone’s and Jambox’s. Callers preferred the iPhone’s built-in mic by a small margin to either of the others, and Braven’s slightly more treble-focused mic by a similarly small margin’s to the Jambox’s, but the differences here were small, not favoring any speakerphone solution in a profound way.
One area in which Braven 650 steps down from the Zephyr 550 is battery life, and there’s only one reason that may actually matter to some users. Most of the portable audio systems we test make no effort to do anything with their batteries save power their own speakers, but a few, including the Zephyr and Braven models, include outbound USB ports so that you can also recharge your iPhone or iPod on the go. Zephyr 550 included a 3000 mAh battery for 28 hours of play time or roughly 10 hours of play time plus a full iPhone recharge. Braven 650 drops to 2000 mAh, which is enough for around 20 hours of play time or an iPhone recharge, notably at 1 Amp (full iPhone) speed. It’s unfortunate that this model has taken such a hit in a significant secondary feature—despite selling for a higher price—but most users will find the improvements in sonic quality to be more than enough to offset this change.
That brings us to the rubber-clad Braven 625s, which is best understood as a slightly less expensive and less fancy-looking version of 650, with very similar iOS sonic performance and different frills. Braven 625s is nearly identical to 650 in size, with the same width and depth, plus a very trivial two or three millimeters of extra height. Ports and buttons on the sides are identical, except for very tiny positioning tweaks to accommodate differences in the rubber 625s chassis. Unlike the pretty but scuffable 650, the 625s has been engineered to withstand some mild abuse: the top, bottom, and sides are covered with enough rubber that the unit feels like it could absorb a drop or two without incident, though the front and rear grilles are so perforated that there’s no question that you wouldn’t want to submerge 625s in water. It’s ruggedized but not weather-impervious.
For outdoor use, Braven includes a bright yellow dry bag that passively seals at the top with stiff but not watertight closures—enough to help the speaker resist a quick splash or dunk, but not to guarantee the complete water safety of anything inside the bag. Also unlike the 650, 625s includes a wrist strap that can be attached to the unit’s left side, and a small LED flashlight that connects to the strap-adjacent USB port, switching on or off to provide respectably bright illumination should you need it outdoors. None of these little frills is spectacular, but they do enable Braven 625s to stand out from other speakers in this category, none of which offers ruggedization or outdoors-friendly features.
Other feature differences between 650 and 625s favor the more expensive model, but not profoundly. The 625s has a 1700mAh rechargeable battery with 16 hours of play time, which is obviously smaller than 650’s and even less capable of practically serving as an iPhone charger, though external charging is still supported. No Apt-X support is included in 625s, which won’t matter to most iOS users—the speakers actually sound nearly identical to one another when used with iOS devices, apart from slightly cleaner bass in the 650—but may for others. And obviously, if you favor either the largely aluminum look of the 650 or its simpler black carrying bag, the choice is easy there, too. We see both systems as equally attractive designs for their specific purposes.
Three other small points are also worth noting. Both of these speakers uniquely offer both audio-out and audio-in ports, which enables them to be daisy-chained together with 3.5mm audio cables, or to share their wireless audio streams with other devices. This little frill is offset by a less than totally optimized Bluetooth implemention, which works really nicely in some situations—multi-device pairing, for instance—but doesn’t mirror the iOS device’s volume, and secondarily maps track and play/pause controls somewhat awkwardly to the volume and phone call buttons. A related issue is that neither speaker provides granular battery charge information as well as the Jambox; you’ll really want to make sure a Braven speaker has been connected to power for a while before leaving the house.
Overall, the Braven 625s and Braven 650 are so considerably improved on last year’s Spar models that they’re now worthy of our general recommendation: name change aside, the company has redeemed itself enough with each of these models that we’re actively looking forward to seeing what it does going forward. That having been said, a half-dozen companies have opted to challenge the Jambox with radically better pricing or considerably better performance, and each of these Braven systems is closer to a slightly cheaper, lightly improved Jambox alternative than a knock-out punch. If given the choice, we’d pick either of these Braven models instead, given their lower prices, superior sound quality, and extra frills, but the similar price points and appeal of Jawbone’s aesthetic designs will cloud the decision for many users. Hopefully Braven will continue to push the envelope with next-generation designs, as it’s definitely on the right track at this point and demonstrably capable of producing distinctive wireless speakers that sound as good as they look and feel.
Company and Price
Compatible: All iPads, iPhones, iPod touch 2G-4G