updated 10:36 am EDT, Mon March 17, 2014
Pair of Bluetooth streamers bring portability, bass to mobile device audio
Bluetooth speakers come in enough configurations that anyone should be able to find one to suit their needs. Be it a speaker to fill an entire room with sound that never moves from its spot on a shelf, or a small speaker clipped on a bag pumping out music on the go, there are tons of different units on the market to match an individual's tastes. Boomphones and id America each offer a speaker that may fit a niche for customers looking at small form factors with unique features. Which speaker will do the trick in our showdown -- Boomphones Pocket Speaker or the id America Touchtone?
Taking a look at the speakers for this showdown, each one looks vastly different from the other not only in base design, but also in how they approach controls. The Pocket Speaker takes design cues from a cell phone or external battery pack, offering a condensed speaker package in a footprint that's slightly bigger than a iPhone 4S. The plastic shell is wrapped in a silicone band along its edges. The Touchtone, on the other hand, features a taller oval design that is mostly plastic with an aluminum mesh covering. It is bulkier and larger than the Pocket Speaker, but feels sturdier because of it.
Top: Boomphones Pocket Speaker, Bottom: id America Touchtone
Pairing the speakers to a device is a normal experience involving tones and flashing LEDs. Both have to have a button pressed to begin the syncing process. However, both speakers can be sort of loud about it. The Pocket Speaker defaults to a midrange of volume when turned on, which is rather loud up close. Even though the Pocket Speaker might be a little loud when turned on, the Touchtone is even worse with its recorded voice announcing what it is doing. It borders on being disruptive because of the volume at which the voice comes out at when the speaker is turned on. Neither speaker hiccuped at a range of 20 feet from its device, but started to have issues past 30 feet.
The Pocket Speaker utilizes a standard button press control over four buttons. Of the buttons, two are for volume, one is for power and the last acts a dual-function button for Bluetooth, pause/play and answer/disconnect call. Noticeably absent are buttons for track control, which leaves users to control which song is playing by the device the Pocket Speaker is synced to. Buttons need to have a solid force behind them to register a click, but feel durable and made to withstand a good deal of force during operation.
The Touchtone offers a different control scheme with four touch-sensitive "buttons" -- for pause/play, one each for track forward and backwards, and a mode button to select whether the sound source is coming in via Bluetooth or through wired auxiliary device. Only a slight touch is needed to operate the buttons. The Touchtone is quite responsive as well, without much lag time behind a button press and a track advance. A swipe over the buttons was eventually adopted as the preferred operation method. Our reviewer was impressed by how quickly a button touch could trigger a change on the paired device.
The volume control of the Touchtone is perhaps the cleanest design that we have seen on a recent Bluetooth speaker. The blue LED circle on the top of the speaker is actually used to control volume levels, mimicking a rotary dial by touch. Users place a finger on the circle and move around it counterclockwise to turn down the volume or clockwise to turn it up, similar to a scroll-wheel iPod. There are distinct marks within the movement that users get a feel for as the grow acquainted with the speaker.
Even though the Touchtone has track control buttons, there is an issue when using them. Progressing tracks either forwards or backwards works as normal, but whenever they are used the next track in line has around a second of the song cut off of the start. It isn't a huge issue, but it is enough to create a minor annoyance in its use if searching for a specific track or catching all the notes of a song.
Part of the design of the Pocket Speaker is cause for concern in two areas, namely the exposed drivers on the front and back of the speaker, as well as a silicone band that wraps around the speaker. The silicone band is attached with a thin layer of adhesive that easily peels off. Over time this will come off the speaker with normal wear and tear. Our review unit showed that the the adhesive had been partially peeled off near the micro USB port already probably due to the band being forced on during assembly.
The passive drivers in the Boomphones unit are the bigger issue, as the ring with the rubbery substance that makes the speaker reflexive is exposed on both sides. There isn't a very large gap to be able to shove something in there, but a key could slide in making it an issue for something that is kept in a pocket. The speakers don't seem to indicate they will break under heavy outside pressure, such as a finger holding them down while it is in operation, but dropping it may give a better opportunity for it to be punctured.
While the Touchtone doesn't suffer such a design flaw, it is frankly less portable that the Pocket Speaker. With it being just about as long as the Boomphones offering and two inches thick, it won't be joining other everyday items in a pocket or slim handbag. Even carrying it around in the pocket of a hoodie seems somewhat cumbersome. While the weight isn't much at only 0.82 pounds, it feels somewhat like carrying around a softball.
While both speakers support Bluetooth and auxiliary inputs, the Pocket Speaker handles it in a unique way. Rather than having a port directly on the speaker, the Boomphones design only utilizes a micro USB port as its only plug option. With the included cable for charging, users will notice that the 3.5mm port is actually embedded in the USB block. It isn't necessarily a perk to the system, but it is a nice design change to help keep the outside of the speaker as consistent as possible without littering it with any other plugs or port holes. The Boomphones speaker also offers the ability to pair two Boomphones speakers for a stereo-like experience, but only one unit was provided for the review. The Touchtone has the 3.5mm port on the back of the speaker, but also requires users to change the mode for the sound input to use it.
Embedded headphone jack
Sound output signatures for the speakers are somewhat different for each as well. During our testing rounds, the Touchtone offered a higher decibel level at each measuring distance of one, three and nine feet in gaps of 5dB at times over the Pocket Speaker. The Touchtone also offered a closer grouping of the three test songs, with the largest drop off occurring after the volume was decreased past the 25 percent mark. The Boomphones unit acted as expected with the test songs, both sitting at their expected positions when monitored. Of interest during the test, the Touchtone sounded its best with the mix in "Notorious" more than any other tested song, most likely due to its dynamic recording nature. The largest decibel swings were observed during "Notorious" as well, which also saw the song chart at a higher level than the bass-heavy "Hunter" at the maximum volume level.
Touchtone volume response
Pocketspeaker volume response
The Pocket Speaker was heard to have more of a flat sound, with highs and mids getting mixed together only a little above the bass. It felt as if it was shallow, not having much character to it. With the size of the unit and the amount of room in the reflexive speaker, this is hardly a surprise. The unit clearly likes a more bass-heavy, compressed sound that would be favored by many modern listeners. To give credit where credit is due, the Pocket Speaker feels loud even though the decibel levels may not show it. It clearly has a lot of power in a tiny package.
The Touchtone offered a more balanced sound, with highs very audible and decent bass mix. Mids clearly present, but didn't lean one way or another. The overall mix wasn't spectacular, but it gave a better overall listening experience. The speaker still faltered when it came to shrill highs in brass or heavily-distorted guitar, but no one element ever overpowered another. Bass hits could be felt through the desktop from three feet away, but it was never loud enough to cover up vocals or guitars.
Even though the speakers put out a good quality of sound, they are lacking an option that many other Bluetooth speakers on the market have. Neither speaker can be used as a backup battery to charge other devices, but this is hardly a surprise given the battery life on both the speakers. The Touchtone has a battery that is only 1,000 mAh, which really isn't that much. This omission doesn't hold either speaker back from being good, but it is a feature that many consumers will consider when looking for a speaker to buy.
Both speakers take around two hours to charge, but vary in battery life -- with the Touchtone lasting around four hours, while the Pocket Speaker gets closer to eight hours. LED lights are used to indicate battery levels, but the Pocket Speaker also transmits battery information over Bluetooth to show the remaining level in the notification area. Both speakers have speakerphone capabilities, but offered no issues or special features to make them stand out in their use.
Both the Touchtone and the Pocket Speaker are good in their own right, but which one is right for a customer looking for a Bluetooth speaker to carry with them will depend on individual tastes. Boomphones created a speaker that is compact and powerful up close, but its sound is shallow -- and the design and construction are of concern to anyone that may be rough on a speaker. The Touchtone offers a well-rounded sound with a unique feel and control scheme, but can be interruptive when used and cuts off the beginning of tracks. At $80 for the Touchtone and $130 for the Pocket Speaker, neither sits at a bargain price range either. Price aside, the Touchtone offers a better sound experience than the Pocket Speaker, making it the winner of our showdown.