It was bound to happen sooner or later, and we’re glad that it coincides with the start of this year’s holiday season: after falling shy of last year’s $100 JBL Flip and Soundfreaq Sound Kick, Jawbone’s $180 Jambox has now been eclipsed by an even less expensive competitor. Say hello to TouchTone ($80), a superb Bluetooth wireless speaker from id America that offers noticeably better sound quality and very attractive industrial design — with only one real compromise. We had a good feeling about TouchTone when we first spotted it at CE Week earlier this year, so we were thrilled to find that the final unit fully delivered on its apparent promise.
Measuring 4.9” wide by 2.4” tall and 2.9” deep, TouchTone is roughly the size and shape of three large bars of soap stacked atop each other—not terribly different from the dimensions of iPhone 5-series phones, but with softer corner radiuses. Like Jawbone, id America selected materials that instantly convey a sense of value, including a wraparound perforated speaker grille made from rigid metal, plus top and bottom caps made from a mix of solid matte-finished plastic and rubber. Nine different colors will be available, ranging from classic black, white, and gray versions to bright shades of blue, pink, green, orange, red, and mint green. Even when it’s turned off, TouchTone looks nicer than Logitech’s UE Mobile Boombox, which is slightly smaller and far more heavily rubberized.
When it’s turned on, TouchTone manages to achieve a feat that we’d almost given up on: it’s the extremely rare budget speaker to effectively use illuminated capacitive controls in a classy way. Bright white lights beam through track, play/pause/call, and mode buttons, while a rich blue circle in the center glows with the id America logo. Compared with iLuv’s Aud 5 speaker, which was marketed with a brightly glowing top light that in reality looked too dim to be visible at most angles, TouchTone completely nails the right balance of brightness and colors to make the controls work while looking great.
Notably, the center of the blue circle doesn’t actually control anything; power for the unit is instead turned on and off with a rear-mounted button, instead. The circle turns red only if you connect a 3.5mm audio cable to the rear aux-in port for wired operation and then hit the Mode button to confirm the input source. Unplugging the cable automatically switches the unit back to Bluetooth mode, at which point the top light will flash blue until it pairs, becoming solid again. Thanks to a tip from id America, we discovered that there are unmarked volume controls on the unit, a feature that wasn’t obvious during initial testing: sweeping your finger counterclockwise across the circle’s edge turns the volume down, and clockwise turns it up. While this won’t be clear to a user without reading the instruction manual, it’s a neat trick, effectively simulating a volume dial without requiring an actual dial.
Bluetooth 3.0 pairing was unsurprisingly effortless with TouchTone, but surprisingly accompanied by voice prompts from a modestly accented baritone man’s voice that sounded—believe it or not—almost like Star Trek’s original Mr. Sulu, George Takei. Three of our editors found the voice to be charming and a little funny, even though it’s highly atypical by voice prompting speaker standards. Beyond the industrial design and color choices, it’s that voice prompting, some impressively handsome cardboard packaging, and a nice drawstring carrying bag that elevate TouchTone above the common sub-$100 speaker. Only the generic-looking USB recharging and 3.5mm audio cables included in the package would tip some users off that this isn’t a $200 option; it’s really that nice.
TouchTone offers very little to complain about in terms of wireless or sonic performance, particularly for its price. We were able to reliably stream music from an iPhone at nearly double the promised 33-foot Bluetooth range, though quick signal drops began when we introduced physical obstructions past the 33-foot mark or walked over 50 feet away. By contrast with some budget speakers, which work solely to the edge of the 33-foot standard Bluetooth distance, TouchTone does well.
Sonically, TouchTone is better than solid across the board. It’s a little louder at its peak volume than the Jambox—nearly enough to fill a small room—and the dynamic range is wider, with substantially greater treble, slightly superior midrange, and equivalent bass. If the latter is contestable in any way, it’s solely because TouchTone offers such obviously superior high-end performance that your ears aren’t as drawn to the lows as they are with Jambox. It’s no joke to say that hearing the same song through TouchTone and Jambox makes the latter sound like a flat, muddy radio, no small feat given id America’s considerably lower price tag. Additionally, the systems are roughly equivalent in offering modest stereo separation, which is interesting given that TouchTone is around an inch narrower. Given the use of only two front-firing speakers here, the audio engineering here is hard to fault.
If TouchTone falls behind its chief rival in any ways, they’re these: it’s slightly less impressive in speakerphone mode, working properly but with a little static on the receiving end and a hint less clarity on the caller’s side, and the battery life is lower. Most speakers in this category offer eight to ten hours of battery life, though JBL’s Flip bucks that trend by offering only five. TouchTone promises an even more modest four hours, which is at the very edge of acceptable, and unquestionably this speaker’s only serious limitation. It’s a small consolation that TouchTone’s battery life can be monitored directly on the iOS device’s screen with iOS 7’s tiny new Bluetooth battery meter, so you won’t be surprised when the power level is low.
Battery life is frankly the only major weak spot in this otherwise very impressively designed portable speaker. With TouchTone, id America has succeeded in creating a tiny, highly affordable wireless audio system with excellent sound and industrial design quality for its price. This is a speaker we’d actually use ourselves, and yet another option we’d pick over the original Jambox even if their prices were equivalent. Given that TouchTone came out of nowhere given id America’s prior focuses on cases and headphones, we’re genuinely excited to see what the company does next with its audio products. It can deliver something as excellent as TouchTone for $80, it could easily take on Big Jambox and other larger speaker rivals, as well. For now, it offers the best $80 Bluetooth speaker we’ve tested: TouchTone is certainly worthy of our high recommendation, and just excellent enough across the board to merit our rare flat A rating.
Company and Price
Company: id America
Compatible: All Bluetooth-Equipped iPads, iPhones + iPods