Most of the Bluetooth wireless speakers we’ve covered over the past two years have fallen into simple categories — all-in-one docking speakers with Bluetooth as a backup, all-in-one dockless speakers with Bluetooth as a primary feature, or traditional multi-piece speakers with Bluetooth and wired options. But over the past few weeks, we’ve had the opportunity to test a number of new and very different Bluetooth speakers that go further afield from prior concepts, with shapes and neat features that are either unlike anything we’ve seen before, or just executed better. Today, we’re looking at three of them: DBEST’s Transformative Bluetooth Hi-Fi System ($250), Swissvoice’s BH01u ePure ($140), and Yantouch’s Black Diamond 3 ($129). All three include two speakers and Bluetooth 2.1 chips, so they can wirelessly play music streamed from virtually every iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch, as well as the latest seventh-generation iPod nano. But they’re otherwise completely dissimilar from each other.
While DBEST’s Transformative is the most complex device in this roundup, Swissvoice’s BH01u ePure is the one that most elegantly solves a previously obvious challenge for users. Nearly two years ago, we reviewed a beautiful but flawed accessory from Native Union called MM04i, which contemplated that users might enjoy a traditional telephone handset that doubled as a desktop speaker system. Subsequently rebranded the “Honeycomb BT iDock,” the handset used a gently curved, hexagonally-textured metal face to rest on a plastic charging cradle, looking quite nice as a two-driver speaker but sounding and feeling unpleasant when held up to one’s head. It was clear that Native Union had a good idea and cool design on its hands, but MM04i was not a product we’d actually want to use for its intended purpose.
Approaching the same idea with its own highly distinctive style and execution, Swissvoice has almost entirely addressed the challenges of combining a handset a person would want to actually use with a speaker system that plays great-sounding stereo music. Most capable with an iPhone but also compatible with Apple’s other Bluetooth devices, BH01u has been designed to look like the outline of a squat but traditional telephone, with soft touch rubber matte finish wherever your hand might touch the outside, and glossy polished plastic elsewhere. It’s an instantly iconic form factor for an accessory like this, rendered even better by the use of an intuitive system for charging.
The handset rests face down on a substantial weighted base, refueling its battery with two silver base pins and matching phone contact pads; a soft chime goes off whenever the phone is docked with the base. A USB cable is supplied to let you connect the base to a computer’s USB port for power; alternately, you can supply your own wall charger to use the base elsewhere in a house. Ideally, BH01u would have included a wall adapter, but it’s reasonable to assume that most people will use it on a desk near a computer. A tiny sealed Micro USB port is found on the bottom of the handset if you prefer to recharge it directly, without the base. Expect six hours of wireless talk time or 3.5 hours of music streaming from a recharge, with 300 hours of standby time.
Swissvoice’s critical achievement in BH01u isn’t the industrial design, but the human interface, which comes very close to “right” when making the sharp pivot between handset and speakerphone functionality. As was clear from MM04i, a speaker that sounds good from 20 feet away isn’t necessarily going to sound right when placed directly next to your ear, but Swissvoice has optimized BH01u’s handset to operate in three different modes. When a call comes in or goes out from your iPhone, the handset defaults to a volume level that’s safe for handheld listening—not super loud, but clear and pleasant, with a thin volume toggle on the handset to tweak the level. A tap of a button activates BH01u’s regular speakerphone mode, which is loud enough to be heard nearby with the phone sitting atop a desk; double-tapping that button activates loud speakerphone mode, which can be heard at a greater distance. The operating assumption is obvious and reasonable, if not strictly universal: most of the time, you’ll want to pick the BH01u’s handset up and use it for phone calls, but if not, you’ll more likely be close than far away when using speakerphone mode.
As a handset or as a speakerphone, BH01u does a very good job. Calls sound smooth and clear in either mode, and callers told us that we actually sounded clearer and closer when using the BH01u’s microphone than the one in the iPhone 5. Moreover, despite sporting the look of a cartoony telephone outline, it feels as solid and comfortable as a regular handset, with just enough size and heft to be placed up to one’s head without feeling cheap or slight. Volume buttons are placed precisely at thumb level for a right-handed user, with an adjacent +-shaped control pad to activate power, answer calls, and toggle between modes. Two speakers, a microphone, and a battery are built into this piece; an otherwise mirrored design requires you only to learn that the control pad is to be higher up when the handset’s placed next to your ear.
Swissvoice also uses a disarming trick to improve the BH01u user experience. Every time you turn on the unit, it emits pleasant “day-ya-dum” tones that sound like gentle female vocals—one tone to signal power on, another to signal Bluetooth re-pairing, and a third to signal power off. BH01u registers its current battery level on an iOS device’s screen with the headset battery indicator icon, and switches automatically between phone calls and stereo speaker performance without any issue.
You can still hear the speakers even if you keep the handset down in charging position, but if you turn the handset to recline on the base such that the speakers point towards you, the treble increases, balancing out the speakers’ bass; the audio is a little heavier in treble and mids than bass, not surprising given the roughly 1” size of the speakers here. While the stereo streaming volume level isn’t insane, there’s more than enough loud, clear audio at the peak volume to be unsafe for near-field listening, and Swissvoice has properly tuned the drivers to avoid distortion at any level. Flipping the handset upright also provides you with access to the control pad, which can be used to activate Siri, change music tracks, and adjust play/pause status during music streaming mode; the only thing it disables is recharging.
Although we really liked almost everything about BH01u, and found it to be a major improvement over MM04i in most important ways, there are a few rough edges and omissions that could benefit from further improvement. Swissvoice uses a light around the control pad to signal the current pairing and power status—a large plus-shaped outline that flashes constantly when the unit’s in use, and is very obvious when the speakers are facing forward. A more subtle and preferably static indicator design would have been better. Similarly, although BH01u handles handset to speakerphone to streaming music speaker changes much better than MM04i, the volume levels could benefit from additional tweaking: Swissvoice errs on the side of safety, so the handset and speakerphone start out quieter than they should, making a handset user hope for extra volume that mightn’t be there. And finally, BH01u has no integrated charging capability for Apple’s devices; there’s only a pass-through USB port on the back that you can use with Dock Connector or Lightning USB cables if you want to self-supply them. (A more expensive version of this model has been shown with a Dock Connector-equipped dock; a future release may include a Lightning connector.)
Overall, Swissvoice did a very good job with BH01i: coming up with a comfortable telephone handset that works very well as a speaker wasn’t an insurmountable engineering task, but it’s clearly more difficult than it might initially appear to be, and Swissvoice largely succeeded. While volume and lighting tweaks could further improve this design, the $140 asking price is reasonable for an accessory with this unit’s capabilities, and we’d call BH01i worthy of our strong general recommendation. It’s surprisingly charming in looks, feel, and sound; if the functionality appeals to you, expect to be largely satisfied by its performance.
Company and Price
Model: BH01u ePure Mobile Bluetooth Station
Compatible: All iPhones