Five years ago, using Bluetooth to wirelessly stream music wasn’t impossible, but the results weren’t particularly impressive — there were few stereo Bluetooth audio systems, and even fewer with good speakers and audio hardware inside. That changed when $100 to $200 Bluetooth speakers hit the market with increasingly impressive audio hardware, and then Apple upped the ante by introducing AirPlay, a pricier and less popular wireless standard that promised superior sound quality. While Bluetooth remains dominant by a wide margin, and has improved in sound quality such that the differences between top Bluetooth and AirPlay speakers are today footnote-worthy, companies continue to release separate audio systems with both standards.
Today, we’re looking at four recent wireless releases: Brookstone’s Big Blue Media Tower ($400) and Ecoxgear’s Ecoxbt ($130) are on the Bluetooth side, with AQ Audio’s AQ SmartSpeaker ($179) and Bowers & Wilkins’ A7 ($800) representing AirPlay. Collectively, these speakers are noteworthy because they demonstrate today’s wide variation in wireless speaker pricing and features—AQ Smart Speaker is the least expensive AirPlay speaker we’ve seen, and A7 is tied with Philips’ Fidelio SoundSphere for the most expensive. Designed to be waterproof, Ecoxbt is a rarity in wireless speakers, a different take on the previously-released iDevices iShower, while the Big Blue Media Tower is one of the priciest Bluetooth speakers we’ve seen—a taller and more powerful sequel to the Big Blue Studio we loved earlier this year. Each has a unique feature to set it apart from the pack, but is any one compelling enough to earn our rare high recommendation?
We were seriously excited when we first heard about Ecoxbt, as Ecoxgear’s parent company Grace Digital has made some very nice speakers—though few in recent times with iOS specific features—and the idea behind this audio system was instantly compelling. For considerably less than the price of a Jawbone Jambox, Ecoxbt offers a fully waterproof speaker system with otherwise similar functionality: big sound, speakerphone calling, and a 10-hour rechargeable battery. When you begin to consider some of the extras Ecoxgear includes, such as twin handles that let you hold the unit while swimming in a pool, an included carabiner hook and strap for easy carrying, and the use of much bigger speaker drivers, the $130 Ecoxbt seems to make a lot more sense than the $200 Jambox, and offer a lot of versatility that can’t be found in the aforementioned $100 iShower, either. A wall charger and micro USB cable are also included in the package.
Whether you’ll be impressed by the reality of Ecoxbt will depend a lot on your particular circumstances; our view is more nuanced than we’d originally expected. On the strong plus side, the speaker generally does exactly what it’s expected to do: it performs music while you’re in a pool, a shower, or a tub, and you really don’t need to worry about moisture, splashes, or even submersion. It can float, and even if it’s held directly under a heavy showerhead, all you’ll notice is reduced volume from the speakers until the water runs off of them. Since Ecoxbt has plenty of sonic power, you’ll be able to hear it indoors, even inside a loud shower, or outdoors in a pool without issues.
In the “pretty good but expected” category are the Bluetooth pairing, which is straightforward but did suffer from brief and infrequent dropout hiccups during stress testing, and the sonic performance, which is par for the sub-$150 smallish Bluetooth speaker course. As with most of the Jambox rival speakers we’ve tested, Ecoxbt has better overall sound than Jawbone’s unit, performing at louder, close to small room-filling volumes, and moreover with wider frequency response, here most notably in the treble, which sounds cleaner and more balanced. While the bass isn’t deep or thumpy, it’s not completely absent, and we generally preferred the way Ecoxbt sounded at every comparable volume level. That said, Jambox is smaller, occupying less than 50% of the total physical volume even omitting the included handles, and although Ecoxbt comes in several different colors, Jawbone’s range of colors and textures, plus its little industrial design touches, are all more handsomely executed.
A couple of things about Ecoxbt are unimpressive. First, the unit’s controls aren’t especially well executed—they’re thankfully waterproof like the rest of the system, but consist of gray rubber circles and a pill-shaped volume control, lacking for track controls and a proper way to interface with iOS Siri or calling functionality. Hitting the phone button on the unit’s top doesn’t let you initiate calls, change tracks, or use voice controls; it’s basically just an answer/hang-up button. Consequently, you’ll basically need to start some music playing before you get into a pool or shower, then be satisfied with the streaming as it is, apart from turning the unit off or making volume adjustments. Add to that the fact that the speakerphone sound was described by callers as akin to a pillow smothering the microphone, and you probably won’t want to use Ecoxbt for one of its few touted features except in emergencies. Taking speakerphone calls in the shower or pool will have to remain a dream for the time being.
Taken as a whole, Ecoxbt is a good system, but due as much to its limited controls as its speakerphone performance, the design doesn’t quite live up to its potential. While it is very capable of streaming music and decently equipped to handle phone calls, both of these features could use additional polish. What could have been an unqualified superior option to the iShower instead is better in some ways and less appealing in others, with the sonic improvements and enhanced portability coming at the cost of a higher price and fewer controls. If all you’re looking for is a very simple way to stream uninterrupted music from your iOS device to a speaker you can carry into wet environments, Ecoxbt will do the trick, but with just a little additional tweaking, it could have received a higher recommendation than the flat B it merits.
Company and Price
Compatible: All Bluetooth-Capable iPods, All iPhones, iPads