While portable speakers haven’t changed a lot over the past several years, a recent sub-category — Bluetooth wireless ultra-portables — have really taken off since 2010, thanks to last year’s introduction of the Soundmatters foxL v2 and Jawbone Jambox. Due to their high price-to-performance ratios, neither of these speakers merited our general recommendation until Soundmatters made some post-release improvements to foxL, but competitors such as Uniden’s BTS200 have since been released with similar features at a superior value. Today, we’re reviewing two additional options: JBL’s On Tour iBT ($150/$200) and Spar’s Zephyr 550 ($160), each with its own advantages and disadvantages relative to other ultra-portable speakers.
On Tour iBT and Zephyr 550 have a number of features in common. They both use Bluetooth to make nearly instantaneous connections with your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, streaming stereo audio from speakers mounted behind perforated grilles. Each has a microphone built in that allows users to make and receive phone/FaceTime calls, as well as integrated volume and phone call buttons, plus ports for power, auxiliary audio-in, and—unusually—USB.
From there, the speakers differ a lot in frills and functionality. On Tour iBT looks like a black UFO with a roughly 6.5” diamater, containing four small JBL Odyssey speakers that fire upwards in a 360-degree ring. It ships with a wall adapter, a simple plastic iPad stand, and a Dock Connector cable that unusually allows Apple device users to eschew the Bluetooth wireless functionality for a purely wired connection. When used with this cable, On Tour iBT can charge iPods, iPhones, and iPads at the same time as it’s being used for audio, assuming that it’s connected to wall power. Unlike many speakers these days, however, On Tour iBT does not include its own batteries; you need to self-supply four AA cells, which will last for roughly five hours before requiring replacement.
On paper, Zephyr 550 sounds a little more appealing. Ringed with anodized aluminum that matches Apple’s iPads and Macs, it’s shaped like a small brick, and has one of the nicest industrial designs we’ve seen in an ultra-portable speaker: one of the two black plastic sides has four bright white battery indicator lights that double as a power indicator, while the other has clearly marked call and volume buttons above its USB port. Zephyr 550 also contains a very powerful battery pack—3000mAh, for roughly 28 hours of continuous play time. While its USB port can’t be used for audio input purposes, Zephyr 550 is capable of playing audio while recharging your iPhone, iPod, or iPad from its own battery—if you supply your own Dock Connector cable—and Spar ships it with both a very neat soft touch rubber-coated power adapter and a micro USB charging cable, as well as an auxiliary audio cable and a drawstring carrying bag. Given that it’s being sold in the same price range as the On Tour iBT and is only a little more expensive than Uniden’s BTS200, but more impressively appointed with frills, one might think that it’s a better buy.
In practice, however, the BTS200 remains the best pick in this category, with the On Tour iBT close behind it, and the Zephyr 550 a distant third—the primary reason is sound quality. When we compared these three speakers to one another, Uniden surprisingly achieved the best overall sonic balance at reasonable volume levels, offering just a little more treble and bass than On Tour iBT when streaming stereo music, while making only slight sacrifices in midrange clarity to achieve that performance. As is JBL’s traditional practice, On Tour iBT aims for low distortion in everything that it does, but it doesn’t reach as high or as low as BTS200, resulting in sound that’s a little flatter and uninspired—particularly on the low end—but also relatively clear across its entire volume range, which is roughly the same as the other two speakers, or appropriate for near-distance listening. By comparison, Zephyr 550 was a disappointment, performing music with relatively bass-skewed sound that was regrettably plagued with considerable low bass distortion at higher volumes. While it initially appeared to make songs feel a little richer than On Tour iBT, Zephyr 550 never really sounded better, and became decidedly worse as the volume level increased.
Speakerphone performance with all three units tracked with their streaming music performance. Uniden’s BTS200 microphone came the closest to sounding like the integrated speakerphones in Apple’s iPhones—quite close—and JBL’s mic sounded nearly as good during most of our tests, falling a little behind only immediately after Bluetooth pairing, improving soon after the wireless connection was established. Zephyr 550 was described by our test caller as sounding muddier; in some cases, we were told that we were very difficult to understand through 550, which sometimes showed signs of mic improvement during calls, then fell backwards without any apparent rhyme or reason.
All in all, while there are reasons that each of these units might appeal to a given user, the BTS200 still strikes us as offering the best balance of features and performance for its lower asking price. JBL’s $200 MSRP for On Tour iBT appears not to be actually followed anywhere, as its $150 street price is currently being observed by almost every online vendor we’ve seen; we’d still lean towards the $120 BTS200 unless you really love JBL’s UFO-like form factor or 360-degree sound projection concept, preferring either to the slightly better sonic balance and much better battery life you’ll get from Uniden’s more pedestrian design. Spar’s $160 asking price for Zephyr 550 is similarly somewhat odd, as the company’s web site says that it’s sold out, suggesting that it will be replaced with a new model in Spring 2012. That’s probably for the best, as the company will hopefully use this opportunity to improve the sonic and wireless performance for the upcoming year; with some tweaks, a new Zephyr could sound as impressive as it already looks.
Company and Price
Model: Zephyr 550
Compatible: iPhone/3G/3GS/4/4S, iPad/iPad 2, iPod touch 2G/3G/4G