Once Jawbone demonstrated that there was a substantial market for small $200 Bluetooth speakers, dozens of companies began churning out me-too alternatives — many soundalikes and some lookalikes among them. While we wouldn’t say that there’s been little innovation in the flock, they’re rarely substantially different from one another, and it’s becoming harder to find new releases with anything distinctive to offer. The two speakers we’re reviewing today are exceptions: both Sol Republic x Motorola’s Deck ($200) and SMS Audio’s same-priced Sync by 50 include Bluetooth 4 hardware, the latest version of the popular wireless standard, and feature distinctive industrial designs. While neither is an incredible value for the price, they’re both intriguing and worthy of brief writeups.
Of these speakers, Deck is the more visually daring. Offered in either yellow with black accents or black with gunmetal, it’s very flat by speaker standards, measuring just over 1” tall, 3.75” deep, and 7.2” wide—roughly the shape of an iPhone 5-series phone, with the footprint of a PlayStation Vita. Oddly, it’s incapable of standing upright or on an angle: Sol Republic and Motorola instead designed it to lay flat on a table like a speakerphone, projecting audio upwards. A bass port on the left side lets the two audio drivers breathe; Sol Republic merely describes them as “larger-than-average,” and they’re so obscured by the speaker’s top grid design that we can only guess that they’re in the 2.5” to 3” size range. A wall adapter, micro-USB charging cable, and audio cable are included in the package, along with a carrying case.
In addition to the distinctive top grid, which is mirrored on the bottom for a rubber stabilizing pad, Deck includes an extremely cool branding trick: the power indicator light is a glossy Sol Republic logo that stretches from edge to edge across the entire top surface. Turn Deck on using its rear-mounted power button and the logo will glow blue, then cycle through a rainbow of colors as it awaits pairing, sonically pulsing and offering voice prompting—including current battery status—until pairing is complete. Although Sync by 50 coincidentally has a similar glowing logo on its top, it’s comparatively tiny, and we’ve never seen a rainbow effect work well for branding a speaker until Deck pulled it off.
As specs go, Deck checks the right boxes. Leveraging the Bluetooth 4 support, which is bolstered by NFC pairing for non-iOS devices, Motorola promises a 150-foot maximum receiving range rather than the typical 33-foot range of Bluetooth speakers—in practice, it delivers just under 60 feet of range with obstructions, and greater ranges when unobstructed. Deck also lets up to five devices simultaneously pair, a feature it calls “Heist” mode to let people have fun deejaying together. A switch on the back of the speaker toggles between one-user and multi-user modes, while volume buttons on the unit’s top all but blend into the grid design. A circular Motorola button beneath the Sol Republic logo toggles play/pause on your device, and when held down activates an “Outdoor” mode with a treble boost for better vocal intelligibility outdoors. The built-in battery promises ten hours of continuous playback, depending on the volume level.
Sonically, however, Deck runs into the same issue as many latter-day Jawbone Jambox rivals: apart from its aesthetics, it doesn’t deliver much for $200 that you can’t get for $100 or less elsewhere. Despite the fact that Deck is considerably larger, it doesn’t sonically outperform id America’s $80 TouchTone, which can perform at the same near-small room-filling peak volume, and offers slightly better treble response to Deck’s slightly better bass. Deck’s sound is fairly flat and midrange focused, tending to emphasize low notes rather than high ones. While Deck’s stereo separation is fine, Sol Republic and Motorola’s decision to fire the drivers upwards rather than forwards somewhat reduces perceived treble, and the shallowness of the plastic enclosure prevents the large drivers from delivering the sort of deeper sound they might have achieved in a larger housing.
Speakerphone mode worked respectably, delivering louder sound than was possible from any current iPhone’s speaker, with the integrated microphone offering comparable voice clarity during calls. However, we noted that an odd pairing bug kept Deck from recognizing the speakerphone capabilities of the second device that it was paired with, an issue we were only able to remedy by restoring its factory settings and pairing the iPhone again.
Overall, Deck is a good rather than great Bluetooth speaker, buoyed by a highly unique industrial design and some distinctive tricks, though saddled by an unnecessarily high price tag given its audio quality. We would recommend it primarily to users seeking something fashionable and distinctive, particularly if one of the features—range, outdoor boost mode, or Heist mode—is appealing. Apart from those items, it’s a lot like dozens of other Bluetooth speakers we’ve seen over the past couple of years, and will become more attractive as the price goes down.
Company and Price
Company: Sol Republic
Compatible: All Bluetooth-Equipped iPads, iPhones + iPads