Rugged; portable; good sound quality; superior device charging capability
Can withstand rain and splashes, but not full immersion
Can be fully immersed in water; unit doubles as speakerphone
Hint of muffling in midrange frequencies; bit heavy
Outdoor Tech Turtle Shell
Outdoor Technology, www.outdoortechnology.com.au
Unique shape; omnidirectional microphone; good range of accessories; can be mounted on a bicycle via the Turtle Claw Bike Mount
Bike Mount not yet available in Australia
Philips Shoqbox SB7200
Surprising amount of features; small size; light sensor and hand gesture activated
Slightly less playback time than other models reviewed; expensive
TDK Wireless Weatherproof Speaker A33
Excellent sound quality; built-in rechargeable battery;
Can only be powered or charged using the included power adapter
These days, it’s hard to imagine going on a camping trip or relaxing by the pool without our favourite tunes playing in the background. But when a battery-powered device is exposed to the elements, worries about damage are surely at the back of your mind. Luckily, a number of manufacturers have developed speakers with such use in mind. I tested five rugged, Bluetooth-equipped speakers designed for portable use in electronics-hostile environments.
Of course, ‘rugged’ is a vague term, but the industry has developed a specialised standard called Ingress Protection (IP). A product’s IP rating indicates how well that product’s enclosure resists solid particles (such as sand and dirt) and liquids (such as water).
In reviewing the Bluetooth speakers, I was particularly curious about sound quality, given their overall compact size – after all, a rugged speaker that sounds tinny and underpowered may not be a desirable trade-off. I also gave consideration to each unit’s intended use. Some models forgo toss-in-your-bag size in favour of bigger sound, making them more apt for poolside entertainment than a long hike in the woods, while some make too many compromises in the name of packability.
Braven’s $199.95 BRV–1 (4.5 of 5 rating) is a relatively new addition to the company’s lineup of Bluetooth speakers that sports an IPX5 rating, which means it’s good enough to withstand rain, splashes and jets of water, though not full immersion. The speaker, which comes in black with a blue or gunmetal finish, also sports a 3.5mm audio-in jack for connecting a non-Bluetooth source, although this requires opening a waterproofed port at the back, thereby reducing its water resistance.
The BRV–1 provides excellent sound quality, even at high volumes, with remarkably deep bass and no distortion whatsoever. When called upon, it’s also surprisingly loud, which is a definite advantage over most compact speakers.
The Braven can also double as a speakerphone thanks to its noise-cancelling microphone, which worked well enough in my test calls. The person on the other hand of the line didn’t even realise that I was outside.
The BRV–1’s internal battery is good for 12 hours of continuous playback, and you can charge that battery using the included Micro-USB cable. You can also use the BRV-1 to charge other devices via USB – the speaker provides enough juice to power music players and phones, but not tablets. (Though doing this of course reduces the speaker’s playback time.) Along with its diminutive dimensions and light weight – just a little over 340g – these features make the BRV-1 an excellent choice for backpacking or camping trips.
The $129 EcoXBT (4.0 of 5 rating) has an unusual IPX8 rating, which means that it’s designed to allow full immersion into water – in fact, the speaker actually floats, making it perfect for listening to music while you’re swimming. Better yet, the unit also doubles as a speakerphone, which means that you could even dial into your next conference call from your pool.
The EcoXBT’s sound quality is pretty good, offering stereo sound and excellent dynamic range, with just a hint of muffling in the midrange frequencies, likely due to the waterproofing. The built-in battery, which can be recharged with a Micro-USB cable, provides up to 10 hours of playback time.
At a little over 680g, this product is a bit heavier than most, but its weight is dictated in no small part by its waterproof capabilities, and the designers have obviously left no stone unturned when it comes to convenience. It features two large handles on the sides, a built-in carabiner that you can use to secure the unit to prevent it from floating away, and even a wrist strap.
Despite its heft, I wouldn’t hesitate to bring the EcoXBT on a camping trip, particularly if lakes or canoes are involved – somehow, the idea of just grabbing the speakers and tossing them in the water while you float around on a lazy summer afternoon sounds very appealing.
Outdoor Tech Turtle Shell
Outdoor Tech’s $199 Turtle Shell (3.5 of 5 rating) is unique among the speakers I looked at, in two ways. The first is the speaker’s shape, which, for lack of a better description, looks like something out of a futuristic space program. The second is a threaded receptacle at the back that allows you to mount the speaker on your bicycle using the company’s US$20 Turtle Claw Bike Mount (not currently available in Australia, but there are plans to stock it in the near future). Alas, the threads in the speaker aren’t compatible with the standard used for camera mounts, which could have opened up some interesting opportunities.
From a sound perspective, the Turtle Shell does an adequate job, although it doesn’t sound as good as some of the other speakers in this article. Bass response isn’t bad, but the midrange frequencies sound muffled, even if you try to compensate by using the iPhone’s equaliser feature.
The Turtle Shell features an omnidirectional microphone, which is useful for making phone calls, and the speaker is IP6X certified, which means that you can safely take it on the road with you. It weighs a little over 312g, and it’s available in seven colours.
The Turtle Shell also includes a good selection of accessories, including a USB cable, an AC-to-USB power adapter, a 3.5mm audio cable, and a convenient carrying pouch. The company says the speaker’s rechargeable battery is good for up to 10 hours of playback.
Philips Shoqbox SB7200
The $229.95 Shoqbox SB7200 (4.5 of 5 rating) packs an amazing number of features in a small package. It’s weatherproof and drop resistant, and its menu system can be navigated entirely through voice prompts in a variety of languages. It even sports a light sensor that lets you use hand gestures to start and pause music, answer the phone, and skip between songs.
The Shoqbox’s two drivers offer pretty good dynamic range along with excellent bass for the size, with only a tiny bit of distortion at the highest volumes. Although the device works just fine on its own, you can pair two Shoqboxes with your Bluetooth source and have them work independently in a left-channel/right-channel combination for true stereo sound without additional wires.
The speaker’s rechargeable lithium battery provides eight hours of playback, and you can recharge it via a USB cable (the company includes an AC-to-USB adapter). The speaker’s diminutive size, rugged design, less-than-one-pound weight, and convenient loop for attaching it to a backpack make the Shoqbox an idea travel companion.
TDK Wireless Weatherproof Speaker A33
At a little over 900g, the $199.95 Wireless Weatherproof Speaker A33 (4.0 of 5 rating) is not the kind of speaker that you’d want to take on a long hike or a outback camping trip, but its additional heft is due to the fact that the A33 forgoes space-saving compromises in favour of the best sound quality of any of the speakers I tested.
With two full-range drivers and a 2.5in woofer in the front, and two passive radiators in the back, the A33 delivers sound clarity that rivals much larger Bluetooth speakers, with excellent stereo separation, essentially no distortion even at maximum volume, and chest-thumping bass that will get your guests dancing in no time.
The speaker is IP64 rated for protection from dust and rain, comes with a built-in rechargeable battery that delivers up to six hours of playback, and can even be used to recharge an external device via USB. On the minus side, the A33 can be powered or charged only using the included power adapter, which is not as convenient as a USB port and requires you to pack – and keep track of – one more item.
The A33 incorporates a microphone that allows it to double as a Bluetooth speakerphone, and it also offers a 3.5mm audio jack. (As with the Braven unit, using this jack requires opening a waterproof port.) Of note is a useful panel of indicators that make it easy to determine whether you’ve successfully turned the device on or off.
If you’re looking for speakers for outdoor use, you’ve got plenty of options. The one you should choose depends largely on where you plan to use it. Overall, Braven’s BRV-1 and Philips’s Shoqbox offer the best combination of ruggedness, portability and sound quality. Either would adapt well to a wide range of situations. The BRV-1’s device-charging capabilities are going to be handier on a long trip, but the Shoqbox can be used in a two-unit configuration that gives you a bit more oomph in a noisy environment.
If you spend a lot of time on the water, the EcoXBT is a great choice due to its true submergibility. Finally, if you’re looking for an all-season music solution for your patio or car-camping, TDK’s Wireless Weatherproof Speaker A33 is an excellent choice.
by Marco Tabini, Macworld