Brookstone’s initial Big Blue speakers seriously impressed us last year, bringing a clean and appealing industrial design to both ultra-portable and desktop sound systems. While the company made an even bolder design statement with the late 2012 Big Blue Media Tower, that freestanding $400 unit was a lot better looking than sounding: at over 38″ tall, the giant system held five drivers that delivered flat sound with no discernible stereo separation. Squeaking in just before the end of 2013, Brookstone’s new Big Blue Party ($300) is a compromise between the $150 Big Blue Studio and the Media Tower — a nearly 16″ tall, mostly metal chassis with a 6.2″ rounded square footprint, packing six speaker drivers and a rechargeable battery inside. Designed for indoor or outdoor use, it’s water-resistant, and looks like a futuristic reactor core from an action movie. While arguably niche in appeal, it’s an example of how a company can leverage both industrial design and compelling features to strongly satisfy a specific audience of users.
Weight is the key Big Blue Party element that pictures don’t totally capture. Unlike common portable speakers, it uses so much metal that it weighs just under 12 pounds, all of which you’ll feel when carrying it by its impressive chrome and sparkling metal top handle. Apart from top, bottom, and back rubber caps, everything else shines with metallic luster: the Big Blue family’s signature silver and blue power button is found on the front of the otherwise gunmetal, wraparound perforated metal grille, while a rubberized battery indicator button sits low on the back between rubber-covered power and aux-in ports. It’s an undeniably handsome design, with the materials, weight, and elegance coming together to make a great first impression for Big Blue Party: no one’s going to confuse this with a common $100-$150 portable speaker. Putting sound quality completely aside, this just looks and feels like something worthy of a premium price, which is an important psychological hurdle for any $300 speaker system to overcome.
Like earlier Big Blue models, Brookstone has kept Party’s controls and input options pretty simple. Press the front button and a blue light around it will glow, with a set of nine top-mounted lights indicating the current volume level, and three additional lights enabling you to adjust bass and treble levels using +, -, and mode buttons. Power is also indicated via two rectangular lights found on the left and right sides of the handle, while a hidden button on the bottom can turn all of the power indicator lights off if you don’t like them — a nice gesture to accommodate users looking for less glam.
An included black wall adapter can be used to either power the unit indoors, or take 5 hours to recharge the internal battery for 4.5 hours of outdoor play time. While this isn’t a lot of continuous music performance, it’s also no surprise given the size or intended application of this system — speakers designed for outdoor use commonly demand a lot of power, particularly at high volume levels, so the limited run time at least makes sense here. Pull the power cable and you can go completely wireless, pairing Party’s Bluetooth 2.1 chip to your favorite iOS device or seventh-generation iPod nano for audio streaming. You’ll need to watch the distance between your audio device and the speaker: we began to experience audio dropouts at around the 45-foot mark, which is to say that Big Blue Party matches the 33-foot range promised by most Bluetooth devices, but doesn’t exceed it by as much as some of the more recent Bluetooth speakers we’ve tested. No 3.5mm audio cable is included in the package, but if you want to self-supply one, you can use Party in a wired mode with any other device you might have at your disposal.
Sonically, Big Blue Party has performance characteristics specifically optimized for its specific “big, carry-it-around speaker” use case. In the right light, you can see that four 2.5” drivers are mounted inside on 45-degree angles under the top rubber cap, with a 5.5” circular subwoofer above the bottom cap firing directly to the left, and a 5” by 7” passive box radiator firing off to the right. Unlike the Big Blue Media Tower, Big Blue Party actually performs properly stereo-separated sound through its speakers, with left- and right-channel audio clearly projecting out from the respective edges of the chassis.
As the name implies, Party can perform at relatively loud volumes, as well: it has more than enough power to completely fill a small room with sound, and at its peak, you’ll be able to hear it outdoors no matter what else is going on outside. But as is commonly the case with powerful speakers, the rub is that the audio quality at regular amplitudes is something short of fantastic. Straight out of the box, Big Blue Party sounds pretty flat — too flat, really, with the midrange-focused performance initially doing serious injustice to the two big bass drivers Brookstone put inside.
Play with the bass settings and you can bring those drivers online, adding plenty of low-end oomph but without any sub-sonic rumbling or nuance. Similarly, you can tweak the treble to add a little extra high-end detail, but not enough to make a huge difference in the audio. After a bit of tweaking, Big Blue Party can be balanced with enough treble, midrange, and bass to sound pretty good, but it’s not an audiophile’s speaker. This is no huge shock after testing the Big Blue Media Tower, but ideally Brookstone would have delivered the great performance-to-price formulas we saw in Big Blue Live and Studio here; Party falls just a little short.
Overall, Big Blue Party is a very good speaker for its intended purposes: it’s highly attractive, easy to use, and sonically more than up to the task of performing music under any conditions. Despite the fact that it’s not the most amazing speaker we’ve ever heard at its price point, Party’s optimizations and limitations are quite appropriate for its intended indoor or outdoor party applications, and the top-mounted handle makes it easy to carry despite its considerable weight. Brookstone did quite well with this model, and although some under-the-hood tweaks could make future versions even better, Big Blue Party merits our B+ rating and strong general recommendation.
Company and Price
Model: Big Blue Party
Compatible: All Bluetooth-Equipped iPads, iPhones, iPods