In order for a speaker to justify a $300+ asking price, it needs to offer something special — superb audio quality, an excellent industrial design, or a unique, legitimately worthwhile feature not commonly found in rivals. Having two or all three of these things certainly helps, which is why Soundcast’s new Melody ($450) has a real shot at winning fans in an increasingly competitive market. Built for outdoor use and atypically powerful, Melody has the rare ability to resist moderate rain and snow, bringing features from the company’s five-year-old OutCast down to a smaller and more affordable package.
Given OutCast’s $700 (later $900) price tag and niche positioning, we wouldn’t be surprised if you weren’t aware of it, but it was ahead of its time. Soundcast originally designed a gigantic, tube-shaped system measuring 26” tall and 9.75” in diameter, packed with four 3” speakers, one 8” woofer, and a 10-hour battery. Back in 2008, the company wanted to offer wireless stereo streaming at a time when Apple’s devices didn’t support it, so it shipped OutCast with a 2.4GHz wireless dock that could be placed inside, keeping iPods safe from the elements. The dock was wall-tethered, but worked reliably at a 110-foot distance from the speaker, enough to let a user lug the “portable” 25-pound tube around a yard or patio outdoors. Because the speakers inside distributed audio in a 360-degree circle, OutCast could be placed in the center of an area or at its edge, delivering plenty of sound for outdoor listening.
Pitched as large purse-sized, Melody offers the same general functionality in a far more compact form factor. Tapering from a 9” diameter base to a 7.5” top, Melody is around 9.5” tall at the peak of its angled top handle, and 7.8” tall at its lowest point—around 70% smaller in physical volume than the original model. Almost entirely white with gray and orange accents, Melody looks somewhat like a home ice cream maker, but feels more solid thanks to a nine-pound weight and a sturdy circular perforated metal grille that wraps around the unit’s base. It’s a more practical design than before, losing only one obvious feature from OutCast: a bottom ambient light has been removed. Soundcast included this feature because OutCast was meant to stand on its own like a pillar next to tables and chairs, potentially outdoors in the dark; Melody’s small enough that it will typically be placed atop a table, though it could be left on the ground if necessary.
Melody is interestingly bundled with both wall and car chargers, the latter encouraging on-the-road use—something that wouldn’t have been possible with OutCast. A rubber-sealed Micro-USB port is used for charging Melody, so common USB cables and chargers can top off the speaker’s battery if you lose the parts Soundcast includes. Soundcast rates the new battery for 20 hours, up from the 10 originally promised for OutCast, though in both cases longevity depends on audio volume levels.
We were impressed by how much of OutCast’s sonic and wireless functionality Melody preserves. While the prior model’s bottom-firing 8” subwoofer is gone, Soundcast has replaced it with four roughly 3” box-shaped bass radiators, while retaining four circular 3” full-range drivers for the same 360-degree sound capabilities found in OutCast. You still get top-mounted power, volume, track, and play/pause controls, but this time, Soundcast designed the top handle to let you rest an iPhone or iPod passively inside a rubberized nook should you want to temporarily place them together.
One other thing has changed from OutCast to Melody: here, Soundcast has wisely ditched proprietary 2.4GHz streaming for Bluetooth 3.0 support, eliminating the need for a standalone device dock in favor of the wireless hardware now inside iOS devices and iPod nanos. While this eliminates one OutCast feature—the ability to stream music from one device to multiple OutCasts at once—the prior price point was so prohibitive that we can’t imagine that many people used it. The switch to Bluetooth has also enabled Soundcast to add lossless AAC streaming support for high-quality stereo sound, which wasn’t possible in OutCast. On the other hand, Melody’s wireless streaming range has dropped to a standard Bluetooth 33-foot range. In our testing, Melody was able to stream reliably at roughly 50-foot distances without physical obstructions, but began to experience signal loss at greater distances or with obstructions.
Since there aren’t many Bluetooth wireless speakers in Melody’s price range, the question of whether its audio quality is impressive or not will depend on your reference points. On positive notes, it is capable of producing enough sound to more than fill a small room, roughly rivaling Harman/Kardon’s recent $400 Go + Play Wireless in that regard. The peak volume level isn’t just high enough to be easily heard outdoors—it’s too loud for near-field listening, so you can easily ratchet the level down somewhat under most circumstances. Thanks to the bass radiator hardware, Melody does an atypically good job for its size when producing warm, bassy sound, and unless you compare it to something like Go + Play Wireless, you’ll be impressed by the relative lack of distortion in the audio at high volumes. The latest round of small $300 Bluetooth speakers such as Jawbone’s Big Jambox notably aren’t in the same league as Melody.
Melody’s only problem is that it’s above the price point at which really excellent-sounding speakers begin to appear, so there are some less expensive speakers—including Go + Play Wireless—that outperform it in one regard or another. For example, Harman’s design uses smaller tweeters and larger bass drivers, enabling it to produce more dynamic sound that’s a bit sharper in the highs and more consistent in the lows. Some other speakers we’ve tested in the past use dedicated high, mid, and low drivers that really replicate the entire audio spectrum better, though typically not at such high volumes. Thanks to its use of two sets of four identically-sized drivers rather than a more diverse array of speaker sizes, Melody’s sound is strongest in the midrange and good rather than great overall: solid enough for indoor listening and more than adequate for outdoor listening, versus Go + Play Wireless’s more dynamic, indoor-ready speaker design.
Audio quality isn’t the only thing we take into account when rating a speaker system, however, and that’s the reason Melody rates a bit higher than Go + Play Wireless: Soundcast has done a better overall job in the practicality department. Unlike Harman, which dropped a Bluetooth 2 module inside a 2007-vintage speaker design, Soundcast delivered something more thoughtfully reengineered—a weatherproof speaker bundled with a useful rechargeable battery, and in a smaller but not hugely compromised form factor—all reasons that you’ll actually feel safe taking and using Melody outside. Harman has the edge on indoor audio quality, and we wouldn’t trivialize that advantage for some users, but Melody’s good enough indoors and outdoors that no one will mind. Soundcast did a good job with this speaker, which merits our general recommendation; users looking for a reliable and convenient speaker to take outdoors should seriously consider Melody.
Company and Price
Company: Soundcast Systems
Compatible: All Bluetooth-equipped iPods, iPhones + iPads