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Head-Fi Buying Guide (Desktop & Portable Speakers)

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Head-Fi Buying Guide
Koss BTS1  

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

With as much traveling as I do, I try to go carry-on-only style whenever possible. However, as someone who has to take so much of his office with him wherever he goes--not to mention the requisite audio gear--making carry-on-only travel work means being very selective about what to bring. One of my travel essentials is a small Bluetooth speaker to use in my hotel room, for music and movies. For some time now, when I have the space--and when my travel kit isn't already too heavy--I'll bring the UE BOOM. When space is super-tight, though--or when I need to trim some weight--I've been going with UE's MINI BOOM. Now, I've got one more amazingly small, even lighter option in Koss' BTS1, and it's a gem!

 

Weighing only 0.36 pounds (5.76 ounces), it is around half the weight of the already-light UE MINI BOOM! The first time I picked the BTS1 up, I thought perhaps it was an empty dummy unit for photography. When I realized it was a fully functional unit, its feather weight had me checking my expectations, as it simply felt too insubstantial to have any chance to impress. As it turns out, I was wrong to assume that.

 

Once paired to my iPhone 6 Plus, I was very surprised by the sound coming from the BTS1. As you can imagine, given its light weight, and that it's barely larger than a deck of playing cards, the BTS1's bass performance is rather limited. Experimenting with positioning can help bring out more a little more bass, though. The BTS1's midrange somehow throws from the tiny unit with surprising clarity--while, of course, this is great for music, it's also awesome for speech articulation in its very important (for me) movie-playing role. The BTS1's treble extension sounds a bit limited, but not any more than other ultra-compact Bluetooth speakers I've used. In other words, there's good treble presence for this kind of speaker, but don't expect crazy detail or shimmer up top.

 

The BTS1 can also play surprisingly loud in a typical hotel room--no, not hotel-manager-knocking-on-your-door loud, but enough to charge the air with enough music or movie sound to hear it clearly from anywhere in the room. Also nice, in terms of flexibility, the Koss BTS1 can be laid flat for what Koss calls omni-directional listening, or pointed in your direction with its cool built-in kickstand for more directed sound.

 

The BTS1's battery life is rated at up to five hours of playback from a full charge (and it charges from USB).

 

The price for the Koss BTS1? $59.99! Only 5.76 ounces. Only 60 bucks. Awesome, and highly recommended.

TYPE: Bluetooth wireless loudspeaker
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PRICE: $59.99
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URL: www.koss.com

 

RIVA Turbo X  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
TYPE: Portable, wireless Bluetooth stereo loudspeaker
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PRICE: $349.99
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URL: rivaaudio.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

On Head-Fi, Donald North is known as the man behind Donald North Audio (DNA), designer and maker of high-end tube headphone amps, with a dedicated fan following. Donald's background in the audio industry is actually quite a bit more diverse than the crafting of high-end tube headphone amps. He's done loudspeaker and transducer engineering for companies you've heard of, like Harman International and Boston Acoustics. Most recently, he decided to ply his expertise in loudspeaker engineering and DSP (digital signal processing) to craft a battery-powered portable Bluetooth speaker that has the best overall sound I've heard so far from a speaker of this type, and it's called the RIVA Turbo X.

 

The RIVA Turbo X is relatively compact, measuring 230mm (9.1 in) L X 89mm(3.5 in) W X 105mm (4.1 in) H, and weighing 3.5 pounds (1.6 kg). It has two proprietary 60mm drivers and four bass radiators, driven by 45 watts of total amplification. Its battery is rated for up to 26+ hours of use (battery life, of course, varies with volume), and can also charge a connected phone or tablet. The Turbo X also has a built-in microphone so that it can be used as a speakerphone.

 

The first time I heard the RIVA Turbo X was at CanJam SoCal 2015, where Donald and his legendary business partner (Rikki Farr--look him up) were demoing the Turbo X directly against some of its key competitors (by the likes of Bang & Olufsen and Bowers & Wilkins). To say that the Turbo X was shining in those comparisons would be an understatement. Even placed away from a wall, the Turbo X was outputting far more impressive and impactful bass than any of its competitors could muster. Given more boundary support with a wall behind it, the Turbo X's bass presence blossomed further. And with the still stronger boundary support of corner placement, the Turbo X's bass presence stood completely alone amongst its peers. It was a wow moment for everyone in the room, and I think RIVA ended up selling every show unit they brought that weekend--@joe and I each left the show with one.

 

First of all, in terms of its sound, the Riva Turbo X has the most extended (especially in terms of bass), most even-keeled, most audiophile-friendly spectral balance of any portable, battery-powered Bluetooth loudspeaker I've yet heard. Combine that with the best stereo imaging I've heard from a battery-powered single-box speaker (which I have to imagine involves some DSP-induced magic), and you've got something that sounds more voluminous than it is--your eyes have a hard time believing that they're seeing what your ears are hearing.

 

Perhaps most importantly, the DSP in the Turbo X shapes the sound as volume levels increase to prevent driver breakup, while maintaining the perception that the tonal balance remains quite consistent and with minimal perceived compression, all the way up to the Turbo X's maximum volume setting. It pulls off this wizardry better than any other portable Bluetooth speaker I've heard, many of the Turbo X's competitors sounding nothing at loud levels like they do at low volumes. The Turbo X's DSP also features a switchable surround-sound mode that I don't use for music, but that I've found fun and useful when watching some video content.

 

My criticisms of the RIVA Turbo X are minor. First of all, I wish they'd get rid of the loud vroom vroom sound that serves as an audio indicator of the Turbo X's "Turbo" circuit being activated ("Turbo" representing its maximum volume setting). Every time I hear that sound, I have visions of my son as a toddler pushing the Turbo X around the table like a toy truck. Also, though it comes with a silicone cover that protects its ports from water ingress, the Turbo X isn't specifically rated for weather resistance, and I haul it inside when I see or feel any hint of rain. I'm also not sure how well its attractive, glossy chassis would survive a decent drop. Again, these are minor nits to pick.

 

I always thought the first product by Donald North that I'd own would be one of his famous blue high-end tube amps, not a Bluetooth speaker! That said, if what you're after is the best available sound quality--from quiet to loud--in a portable, battery-powered Bluetooth speaker, his RIVA Turbo X is the best I've heard to date. Its full-sounding tonal balance, detail, and spacious image at any volume level make the Turbo X an absolute standout.

 

"The RIVA Turbo X wound up being one of the tremendous hits at CanJam, and I emphatically recommend the RIVA Turbo X to anyone who loves music – it is purely a divine flow of waves of sound."

-Maurice Washington (moedawg140)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

KEF LS50

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Let me start this off right away by saying that in all of my many years in audio--with the seemingly endless stream of audio gear I've auditioned and/or owned--KEF's LS50 loudspeakers may represent the best bang-for-the-buck performance I've ever heard. I first heard the LS50 at an audio show, and was absolutely blown away. The sound coming from them was far larger--in terms of image size, dynamism, presence, slam, and bass--than their modest bookshelf size should be able to produce. When I was told they were only $1500/pair, I literally had to ask to re-confirm the price--maybe a half-dozen times. Give a pair a listen and you'll see why the high-end audio community can't seem to stop talking about the LS50.

 

After hearing them for the first time, I looked up the dimensions of the LS50 on KEF's website, and realized there was no way possible to free up enough space on either of my main desks to fit the passive LS50's and and an accompanying amp. So what did I do? I ordered the KEF X300A Wireless instead. The X300A Wireless is really not any smaller than the LS50, but it has built-in amplification (as well as built-in DAC functionality, and other internal goodies), and so it fit on either of my main desks--barely. As happy and impressed as I've been with the KEF X300A Wireless, the LS50 pangs never ceased. How bad did I want the LS50's? At work, I decided to move to a windowless location in my office building that had a larger built-in desk on which the LS50's would fit--yes, I gave up windows and natural light to accommodate the KEF LS50.

 

And I didn't just order one pair, I ordered two: one pair for my new, larger (windowless) desk; the other pair likely to eventually find itself on stands for a room rig. I've found so far that the KEF LS50 is remarkably versatile, able to completely charge the air of a good-sized room when placed out in a room, yet also able to serve the role as desktop or nearfield monitor.

 

Also, the LS50's build quality is top-notch. When I first picked up and rapped on the top and sides of an LS50, I couldn't believe how heavy--and especially how solid--it seemed. The quality of construction--and even the quality of the gloss finish--is superb. I'd never seen or felt a speaker at this price with a build nearly as inert as the LS50's chassis. Even when you play the LS50 very loudly and place your palm flat on its top or sides, you feel very little vibration. Considerable engineering went into its chassis to make it so. Remarkable stuff.

 

To say I'm thrilled with the LS50's would be a vast understatement. Like I said earlier, they're imaging monsters, helped along by the phase-coherent KEF Uni-Q point source driver array, that places the high-frequency driver smack dab in the center of the mid-low driver. Also, in front of the high-frequency driver is something called a "tangerine" waveguide, that disperses the tweeter's output, as opposed to simply letting it beam (which, without intervention, treble frequencies do), and this helps minimize the treble-sweetspot effect, and also improves imaging.

 

Again, the LS50's bass impact is also fantastic for a mini-monitor, and measures -6dB at 47Hz, and -3dB at 79Hz. So does it defy physics? Of course not; but, positioned well, the LS50 really punches beyond what those specs would indicate. The LS50's bass is also fantastically controlled and detailed, and the LS50 carries that refinement throughout its entire audible range.

 

The KEF LS50 is a speaker resolving and accurate enough to merit a place in studios for monitoring (where it does find use), and yet possessing of enough body and sumptuous presence to make audiophiles weep. Though it's priced at only $1500/pair doesn't change the fact that it's easily one of the best mini-monitors I've heard so far at any price.


Long story short, KEF dedicated a tremendous amount of their research and development resources to get the KEF LS50 as close to perfect as they could achieve at that price, given the technology at hand, and given the design constraints presented by a mini-monitor design. Mission accomplished.

TYPE: Loudspeakers 
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PRICE: $1499.99 
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URL: www.kef.com
Peachtree Audio deepblue2  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
TYPE: Desktop, single-chassis, wireless Bluetooth stereo loudspeaker
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PRICE: $399
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URL: www.peachtreeaudio.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

For the last several years, the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air has been my go-to wireless music system at the house and office. I was so impressed by the Zeppelin Air that I picked up two of them, one for the house, one for the office. With 150 watts of total amplification, the Zeppelin Air was the first wireless speaker of its type (transportable single-chassis) that I used that could charge the acoustic of a medium-size room adequately.

 

I knew Peachtree Audio had a 240-watt monster of their own in their deepblue Bluetooth speaker, but I never got around to trying one, and was perfectly happy with our Zeppelin Airs. However, last year, Peachtree Audio announced they were releasing the successor to the deepblue, called the deepblue2. With this next vesion, they were signficantly increasing power and performance, upgrading the drivers, and substantially increasing its maximum power output, going from 240 watts (deepblue) to 440 watts (deepblue2)! Though pretty much everything about it was upgraded, one of the key improvements in the deepblue2 was an upgrade to the subwoofer, including dedicating 240 watts of the deepblue2's amplification entirely to the 6.5" long-throw subwoofer driver!

 

For many speakers like these, DSP (digital signal processing) can play a significant role in how they sound, especially in terms of managing the physical limitations of the enclosures and drivers as the volume is turned up. There can be a lot of trickery involved in keeping a speaker sounding like itself as you turn its volume past where its drivers' physical limits would be crossed without the processing. Given the improved cabinet, the improved drivers, and the longer throw of its new subwoofer driver, I'm guessing the Peachtree Audio DSP engineers felt absolutely gifted with greater physical performance envelopes to work with than most. From quiet listening levels to loud, room-rumbling amplitude, the deepblue2 is phenomenal.

 

Of all the products I've tried in this category (including the Zeppelin Air) the deepblue2 has the most impactful real bass performance and the deepest bass extension--and we're talking controlled, taut, deep bass. The deepblue2's midrange performance is neutral-ish, and detailed in comparison to its peers; and the crossover from the subwoofer to mids is well-executed, the subwoofer's strong bass performance not bleeding into the midrange drivers and imparting any artificial chestiness to low male vocals like the Zeppelin Air can. The deepblue2's treble from its silk dome tweeters is also extended and articulate, lending a nice gleam to the top end. It's in the treble, however, that you'll occasionally catch an edge, but only at moments--a little more treble refinement would be nice, but, given what the deepblue2 is (and it's price), that's wishlist kind of stuff.

 

I want to make clear--in case the fact that it can pump out up to 440 watts of power didn't make it obvious--that the deepblue2 is not a battery-powered device. Compact as it is, the deepblue2 requires wall power. Though it has a carry handle, it's not designed as a go-anywhere, portable speaker. From what I can tell, it's neither water nor impact resistant. To my mind, the deepblue2 is a compact, one-box home stereo system.

 

Also, unlike the Zeppelin Air, the deepblue2 does not use Apple AirPlay--as far as wireless, it's Bluetooth only for the deepblue2. It supports connection with up to five devices, and is equipped with aptX. The deepblue2 also has a wired analog input (via a 3.5mm stereo mini jack), that is actually routed through an analog-to-digital converter in the deepblue2; and it also has a Toslink optical input that supports up to 24-bit/96kHz digital.

 

At the time of this writing, the price of the Peachtree Audio deepblue2 has been lowered from $499 to $399. At $499, it's an easy recommendation. At $399, it's like getting away with something.

 

How much do I dig the deepblue2? Where once sat two Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Airs now sit two Peachtree Audio deepblue2's. The Peachtree Audio deepblue2 is the best single-box Bluetooth loudspeaker I've yet heard at anywhere near its price.

Focal XS Book Wireless

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Bluetooth for audio. Ewwww. That and screwed-up faces are what you'll get from a lot of audiophiles when you say "Bluetooth" and "audio" together. But audio via Bluetooth has gotten better. A lot better. In this Gift Guide, for example, are several examples of outstanding Bluetooth headphones. Until now, though, the Bluetooth loudspeakers we've included in the Gift Guide have all been intended for more casual use, and not really the type that an audio enthusiast might consider for more serious sit-down listening. Again, though, that's until now, as Focal's XS Book Wireless entered the Guide as the first Bluetooth loudspeakers I've used that I can recommend for consideration as your primary desktop speakers.

 

The Focal XS Book Wireless is equipped with Bluetooth aptX support. aptX is one of the more capable Bluetooth codecs, allowing for near-CD-quality streaming, for those paired devices that support aptX. My iPhone 5S doesn't support aptX but my MacBooks do. With either, though, I've been very happy with the fidelity I'm getting from the XS Book Wireless. Going wired through the XS Book Wireless' analog inputs will result in marginally better sound, but it's close enough via Bluetooth that I use it wirelessly much of the time.

 

In terms of its bass, the XS Book Wireless has surprising output considering its smallish four-inch low-mid drivers, rated down to 60Hz (+/- 3dB) and 44Hz (-6dB). While not as impactful as my beloved Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air, the XS Book Wireless' bass is more controlled, and likely to be preferred by the stricter audiophiles among us--even if it won't suit your party guests like my beloved Zeppelin Air does (the Zeppelin Air being better at this than anything its size I've ever used). In one of my desk setups that has a sturdy hutch behind it, the Focal XS Book Wireless' bass presence had more reinforcement, more oomph; but, not surprisingly, at my main desks (that have nothing but air behind them), they could be a bit light sounding without the use of an equalizer. (I usually use the parametric equalizer in Amarra Symphony.) With the XS Book Wireless' little bit of emphasis on the upper bass, I tend to increase its low-mid bass up a bit to match.

 

As for its midrange, I hear a bit of lower midrange emphasis tailing from its slight upper-bass accent, and it sounds neutral thereafter. It's a very nice presentation for its form factor, and helps give a little hint of richness to the XS Book Wireless' mids. The XS Book Wireless' treble is also neutral and extended, and is what I'd describe as very good for the type of speaker it is, though short of the outstanding treble refinement of the (much more expensive) KEF X300A Wireless.

 

We use the Focal XS Book Wireless with a computer setup located next to our little product photo studio at Head-Fi HQ. The computer rig feeds the XS Book Wireless via its analog input, and my iPhone will be paired to the XS Book Wireless via Bluetooth. So, sitting at that computer, the XS Book Wireless system serves as that computer system's speakers. However, if I'm going to be taking photos or working in the general area (but not sitting down at the desk), I'll be able to stream music to it from my iPhone, to listen to the XS Book Wireless' reasonably room-filling sound from wherever I am in that area.

 

Though Focal is best known for its magnificent, ultra-expensive loudspeakers, the XS Book Wireless is another set of its excellent, reasonably-priced loudspeakers that allows you some of the Focal audio magic wherever you have a computer or mobile phone to stream music to it.

 

"Bluetooth audio." Go ahead and say it. The times they are a-changin'.

TYPE: Bluetooth wireless, powered loudspeakers
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PRICE: $399/pair (It is also available without the wireless functionality for $299/pair.) 
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URL: www.focal.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

I picked up a Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air iDevice dock with AirPlay, and to say I’ve been using it a lot would be an understatement--I actually bought a second one to use at the office. Being able to hop on iTunes on any of my Macs, or on any of my several iDevices, and wirelessly stream music (losslessly) to the Zeppelin Air is killer. It is the best-sounding iDevice dock I've yet heard, and it can play loud, with 150 watts of total amplification (each of the five drivers with its own amplifier).

 

The biggest downside of the Zeppelin Air for me is the lack of flexibility that comes with a single-chassis unit. Obviously, the speakers can't be separated to improve imaging. And make sure to read the instructions to find out how to adjust the Zeppelin Air's bass level, as it can be a bit heavy at its default setting (for my tastes).

TYPE: Desktop iDevice dock with AirPlay
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PRICE: $399.99
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URL: www.bowers-wilkins.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Cambridge Audio has been known for years for making components that perform far above their affordable prices, but I hadn't had much personal experience with their gear. John Bevier at Cambridge Audio's U.S. distributor--Audio Plus Services--suggested I try their Minx M5 2.1 speaker system, feeling pretty confident I'd be impressed with the ultra-compact satellite-subwoofer loudspeaker. And I am.

 

First of all, it's a tiny little system, each of the satellites, 2.9-inch cubes, fitting easily in the palm of my hand and weighing less than a pound each. The subwoofer is a compact 8-inch cube weighting just under 10 pounds. The system comes with a cool desktop connection hub and volume control (also very compact) that has a horizontal rubberized disk that can be spun to adjust volume, or pressed to mute/unmute. This hub/control has two inputs: USB for digital and stereo 3.5mm miniplug for analog. The bottom of the hub/control feels like a sticky silicone, to keep it from sliding around your desk.

 

Cambridge Audio says the Minx M5 system has a frequency response of 45Hz to 20kHz (no +/- range is specified), which, given what I'm hearing, seems a reasonable manufacturer spec. The subwoofer is powered by a built-in 30W amplifier, each satellite is fed 15W. The subwoofer does have a knob that allows you to adjust its output level.

 

What's most impressive about the Minx M5 is the level of richness it can convey, belying its super-compact appearance. It can also play surprisingly loud before it starts to lose composure, and it's at medium to medium-loud levels that I've most enjoyed it. Does it have the timbral accuracy and finesse of the KEF X300A or the Focal XS Book Wireless? No. But I bet you'll get a lot more of your music from it than you were expecting, and at a level that I find almost shocking for only $229.

 

You can expect some compromises at this price--it can't all be too good to be true for $229. The construction of the speaker components seems good, but the little stands that prop the satellites up feel like pretty flimsy plastic. The control unit's USB DAC (according to my Mac's Audio MIDI Setup) to be limited to 16-bit/48kHz. When muting the control unit, there's a fairly loud electronic popping sound. And when it's really quiet in your room, you may hear some of the amp's self-noise through the satellites.

 

Those quibbles aside, the Cambridge Audio Minx M5 speaker system is a lot more music and impact for the desktop than I'd have imagined possible for the price.

TYPE: 2.1-channel (satellite/subwoofer) loudspeaker system

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PRICE: $229.00
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URL: www.cambridgeaudio.com

 

 

TYPE: Desktop speakers
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PRICE: $499
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URL: www.bowers-wilkins.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

I also have the tiny Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 active (self-amplified) loudspeakers on my desk at my home office, and they sound beautiful. They do not, however, play very loudly, which is fine for me, because I rarely listen at high volume levels. Also, despite being so small, they manage to sound surprisingly full--just don't expect deep bass. As little desktop nearfield monitors, the MM-1 system is wonderful, with nice, neutral mids, and a surprisingly refined treble.

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Even Head-Fi'ers occasionally hang up their headphones and want to listen to loudspeakers from time to time. CNET Audiophiliac blogger Steve Guttenberg reviewed the PSB Imagine mini loudspeakers on Head-Fi.org. You can read the complete review by clicking here. About the PSB Imagine mini speakers, Steve said:

 

"...no in-ear or full-size headphone images as naturally as the Imagine mini. The mini resolves dynamic shading better than headphones, and you feel more viscerally connected to music over speakers."

 

The PSB Imagine mini loudspeakers start at $760/pair, and require a separate amplifier to power them (they do not have built-in amplifiers).

TYPE: Desktop speakers
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PRICE: $760
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URL: www.psbspeakers.com

 

Aurender Cast-Fi 7  
TYPE: HDMI docking display and speaker
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PRICE: $399 
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URL: www.aurender.com

I was at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, in a meeting with Aurender to talk about their Aurender Flow portable DAC/amp combo (which I was mightily impressed with, by the way). On my way out of the meeting, they quickly introduced me to the Aurender Cast-Fi 7, and I knew straight away I had to have one.

 

Because this product is rather out in left field in the context of Head-Fi, let me explain what exactly it is. The Aurender Cast-Fi 7 is a 7" 1024x600 display on top of a very nice loudspeaker, all encased in a robust, stable aluminum chassis. It was designed with stick-type HDMI devices in mind (like Google's Chromecast, the Roku Stick, and Amazon's new Fire TV Stick), an HDMI jack recess on the back of the Cast-Fi 7 perfectly fitting these types of devices (and supplied with USB power).

 

Once you plug one of these HDMI stick devices in, all of the services available on them--like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, etc.--are available to watch on the Cast-Fi 7. The Cast-Fi 7's sound is bigger than its picture, with a very nice two-way loudspeaker (3-inch woofer, 1-inch tweeter) that can be loudly driven by the Cast-Fi 7's built-in 24-watt amplifier--and that big sound is a key part of its appeal for me. An included wireless remote allows control of volume level, screen brightness, and a sleep timer. If you just want to listen to the Cast-Fi 7, you can turn the LCD off and use it in "Sound Only" mode.

 

How do I use the Cast-Fi 7? In my kitchen, I have a small bench in front of a sofa that I use as a desk (and where I work from quite often). This is where the Cast-Fi 7 spends most of its time, mostly playing rockumentaries, documentaries, and music performances in the background while I'm on my laptop. When I do decide to kick back for a short break, I sometimes sneak in a sitcom episode for 20 minutes of laughs and respite. My wife and son also use the Cast-Fi 7 like a small kitchen TV, so I'll occasionally find it has been relocated to the kitchen countertop.

 

At $399 (not including an HDMI device, which you have to supply), the Aurender Cast-Fi 7 is a fun, unique, piece of entertainment electronics that has found a role in my daily work and home life.

 

Fujitsu TD-M1

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

If you know a single thing about me, it's probably that I'm a headphone enthusiast. What might be assumed, though, is that I prefer headphones to loudspeakers, and that's actually not true at all--when possible, I'll listen to loudspeakers, and find that they have many advantages, especially where visceral impact and imaging are concerned.

 

In my experience, though, some things I find many loudspeakers lacking--particularly when playing them at lower volume levels--is the inner detail and sense of intimacy (with the music) that great headphones can provide. For example, one of my favorite tiny-form-factor speakers, the Bowers & Wilkins MM-1, is a wonderful pair for nearfield listening, but needs to be turned up to at least low-moderate volume levels before it comes into its own.

 

At CES 2014, however, Philip O'Hanlon (of On A Higher Note, importer of Luxman and other high-end audio gear) insisted I listen to a new loudspeaker system called the Eclipse TD-M1, and, after only a brief listen, I ordered a pair straight away. With only a single full-range driver per side--and meticulous engineering--maintaining time domain accuracy (the "TD" in its name) was one of the key drivers in the TD-M1's design and development. The result is imaging that is simply out of this world in a desktop nearfield setup--three dimensional, layered soundstaging. Just as impressive is how the TD-M1 projects detail and timbral richness even at surprisingly low volume levels--the result being more dimensional, meaty sonic image objects, at low volume levels, than any other speaker I've heard--and this is the main reason Mr. O'Hanlon had an order from me within minutes of hearing it.

 

If that wasn't enough, the TD-M1 provides many other reasons to love it: it's self-powered, with built-in class-D 25-watt/channel amplification; it has a built-in 24-bit/192kHz DAC, with USB and iDevice inputs (it also has one stereo analog input); the TD-M1 also includes AirPlay streaming, which, as someone with Macs and iOS devices, is something I use and appreciate a lot. To help optimize placement and imaging, the TD-M1 speakers each have a very nice and secure three-position lever-lock tilt mechanism. Finally, the TD-M1 is a stunning looking loudspeaker (especially in white), its ovoid shape looking at once retro and futuristic, and taking up very little desk space.

 

My gripes with the TD-M1 are few: the LED indicators are rather nondescript; not surprisingly (given their small size), there is little bass below around 70Hz; on my Mac, volume cannot be controlled with the Mac's volume control, and instead have to be controlled by either the slide/touch volume control on the right speaker's base, or via a TD-M1 iOS app. But these are minor quibbles for what is otherwise an amazing little pair of desktop monitors.

 

Though I use and enjoy the heck out of the TD-M1 at any time of day, where I find it unparalleled by any other speaker I've tried is for late night listening. My home office is located right below a couple of bedrooms, my wife in one, my young son in the other. And though I've taken measures to sonically insulate my office from the world above and around it, it doesn't take much volume (from loudspeakers) before my wife and son can start to hear muffled remnants of music getting past the sonic tiles and insulation. With all the detail and presence the TD-M1 conveys at low volume levels, I don't feel the need to turn it up loud, and my sleeping family no longer hears a thing upstairs when I occasionally opt for loudspeakers (over headphones) in the middle of the night.

 

I'm actually thinking of ordering a Pelican case and customizing the foam interior to carry the TD-M1 system for monitors on-the-go. With the TD-M1's feature-packed internals and its wireless capabilities, I wouldn't even need to bring a source component beyond a smartphone or tablet to use it.


At $1300, the Eclipse TD-M1 is not necessarily inexpensive, but it does do some amazing things I haven't heard from any other loudspeaker yet. Of course, its built-in USB hi-res DAC capabilities and amplification only strengthen its case. What a wonderful, often amazing, little set of monitors the TD-M1 system is.

TYPE: Powered loudspeakers (also with built-in 24/192 USB DAC, and direct iOS input support)
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PRICE: $1300.00
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URL: www.eclipse-td.net
KEF X300A Wireless Speakers
TYPE: Wireless, powered loudspeakers (also with built-in 24/96 USB support)
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PRICE: $999 (It is also available without the wireless functionality for $799.)
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URL: www.kef.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

At CES, I heard a pair of KEF LS50 loudspeakers, and was floored, understanding immediately all the awards and accolades these speakers had received. The KEF LS50 is easily one of the most impressive bang-for-the-buck loudspeakers I've heard in many years. Full of body, full of detail, wonderful imaging, and only $1499 for the pair. Visions of the LS50 as desktop nearfield monitors danced through my head. Alas, my imagination got the best of me, conjuring in my mind’s eye a desk that was larger than the desk of my reality, which is a worktable barely large enough to fit a pair of speakers, let alone the DAC and amplifier the passive LS50 would require.

 

Then I found out about the KEF X300A Wireless loudspeakers ($999/pair), which look like slightly smaller siblings of the LS50 that also use KEF's point source Uni-Q driver technology (in which the the high frequency driver is placed in the center of the low-mid driver, placing the acoustic centers of each at the same point in space). And very significantly for me and my meager desk real estate, the X300A Wireless has, built into each enclosure, two Class AB amplifiers, 50W for the low-mid driver, and 20W for the high-frequency driver. Sweetening the deal further, the KEF X300A Wireless has its own built-in 24-bit/96kHz USB DAC, which, combined with the built-in amps, make the X300A a plug-and-play computer audio speaker setup.

 

As if that wasn't convincing enough, the X300A Wireless also supports wireless streaming via AirPlay (for Apple users) and DLNA (for Android users). As an avid user of AirPlay at home and work (using the Apple TV, and a couple of Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Airs), this was enough for me set out to get the KEF X300A Wireless on my desk for a listen. Immediately upon its arrival, I was struck by the X300A Wireless' build quality. Weighing 16.5 pounds per speaker, they're a lot heavier than most speakers I've used at my desk. Rapping on the X300A Wireless' cabinet sides suggests very inert, very solid build quality. Even with the volume turned up very loud with bass-heavy music, touching the cabinets and baffle on the X300A Wireless reveals very little vibration.

 

As with the LS50, the KEF Uni-Q driver array in each of the X300A Wireless' cabinets contains two drivers--though they do, at first glance, look like a single driver. Very impressively--and like the LS50's drivers--they also sound like single drivers, with their remarkable coherence and timbral accuracy. Musical instruments overlapping the 2.5kHz crossover point give up no hint of a crossover whatsoever, no suggestion that there's more than one type of driver at play.

 

Though I haven't performed a direct comparison to the KEF LS50, the X300A Wireless' imaging is also wonderful, impressing me like its more upscale sibling did. This computer audio loudspeaker is capable of casting close-your-eyes-and-you're-almost-there sonic imagery with my best recordings, even in a desktop nearfield setup (toed-in). Of all the loudspeakers I've heard (that fit on my desk), the KEF X300A Wireless is easily the best so far, in terms of imaging.

 

Given its compactness, bass with the KEF X300A is surprisingly good, rated to reach 49Hz (-6dB) or 58Hz (+/- 3dB). It's impactful, taut, detailed. The X300A's midrange is very well fleshed out (though not as full sounding as my recollection of the LS50), with precise, crystal clarity. The X300A's treble is super-extended--rated to 45kHz (-6dB) or 28kHz (+/- 3dB)--and refined beyond my expectations at this price. Really, in terms of tonal balance--for this size and form factor--I literally can't think of anything I'd change about it.

 

I do, however, want to point one thing out: like many loudspeakers, the X300A Wireless can be sensitive to placement. Not surprisingly, when placed in front of a wall, the X300A Wireless' bass becomes more pronounced. If this happens to a degree that one finds too emphasized, the X300A Wireless comes with two-stage foam plugs for the rear ports, for two different bass attenuation settings. On my desk, where there isn't a wall anywhere near them, I actually find the X300A Wireless' bass presentation to be a bit leaner than is ideal for me. Given the X300A Wireless' very good bass extension, I use Amarra Symphony's excellent parametric equalizer to bring it forward; and with this (as mentioned earlier), the X300A Wireless' bass is fantastic for its size and form factor.

 

I also want to say that the X300A Wireless is certainly not limited to desktop use. It can be placed on high-quality stands and used in your main system. I tried them this way in a medium-sized room, and the X300A Wireless sounded startlingly full, especially when about two feet in front of my room's back wall. This is a surprisingly versatile pair of speakers.

 

My hope was that with the KEF X300A Wireless loudspeakers I would be able to bring at least some of the sonic magic of the amazing KEF LS50 to my desktop. Mission accomplished. The KEF X300A Wireless is one of the best all-in-one desktop loudspeaker system I've heard so far. It's beyond superb, and one of my favorite audio products of any type.

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

For many years, PSB (named after Paul and Sue Barton) has been making some of the best value loudspeakers around. Some of their speakers defy logic, in terms of performance for price. One of their most recent examples of this is intended for the desktop, and it's also PSB's only powered (self-amplified) loudspeaker model. It's called the PSB Alpha PS1.

 

Of course, given its small size, deep bass is out of the question (without a subwoofer); but, still, the PSB Alpha PS1's bass performance exceeded my expectations, rated to punch as low as 58Hz at -10dB (and 80Hz at +/- 3dB). Bass detail is very good, too. Mids are neutral and extraordinarily well fleshed out. Treble, which is rated to 22kHz (+/- 3dB), sounds extended, detailed, and devoid of edginess. The PSB Alpha PS1 can also play extraordinarily loud for its size. In other words, for the size and price, the Alpha PS1 is everything I'd expect from PSB, and more than I'd expect from just about anyone else.

 

At its $300 price point, I'd have been thrilled to have passive speaker performance like this. That its self-powered, though, is a huge bonus, and simplifies the desktop. Given the value it already provides, I feel greedy for even suggesting this, but my only wish for the PSB Alpha PS1 is a built-in USB DAC circuit (a la the Bowers & Wilkins MM-1), for an even simpler desktop.

 

If you want even more impact, PSB made sure that adding a subwoofer couldn't be easier, as the Alpha PS1 has a dedicated subwoofer output. I may one day play around with adding a subwoofer to this set; but right now I'm perfectly happy to listen to the PSB Alpha PS1's as they are.

 

If you're looking for a neutral, revealing, impactful loudspeaker system for your desktop--and if you're on a tight budget, but don't want your desktop to sound low-budget--the PSB Alpha PS1 has my highest recommendation.

TYPE: Desktop loudspeakers
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PRICE: $ 299.99 for Alpha PS1
$249.99 for SubSeries 100
$499.99 for Alpha 1-100 2.1 (which is the Alpha PS-1 and SubSeries 100 bundled together) 

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URL: www.psbspeakers.com

 

TYPE: Desktop loudpeakers and amplifier
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PRICE: Starting at $249/pair and $199, respectively
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URL: www.audioengineusa.com

 

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

At my office can be found the Audioengine P4 loudspeakers (starting at $249 a /pair), audioengineusa.com, and Audioengine's N22 amplifier ($199). This system is not as refined sounding as the Bowers & Wilkins MM-1, but it still sounds very good for the price, and it plays much louder, and has deeper, more impactful bass. The N22 has the added benefit of a built-in headphone output, so, in addition to being very affordable, it's also very Head-Fi-friendly! For the price, this Audioengine P4/N22 system is easy to recommend.

UE MEGABOOM  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The UE BOOM (the smaller, more veteran sibling of the MEGABOOM I'm about to tell you about) has been my most used Bluetooth speaker since its release a couple years back. Its toughness means I can just grab it and go--stuff it into packs and bags, take it with me to the cottage, hotels, anywhere, without babying it, no carrying case necessary. One place I do find myself occasionally wishing more from the BOOM, though, is when I'm outside, where I sometimes find myself needing more wireless range, and more sonic horsepower in open air. That's where the new UE MEGABOOM comes in.

 

The UE MEGABOOM looks exactly like the BOOM, only bigger. The MEGABOOM measures 3.3"W x 8.9"H (versus 2.6"W x 7.1"H for the BOOM), making it quite a bit larger; and it weighs 31 ounces (versus 19 ounces for the BOOM). Don't be fooled, though, as the MEGABOOM is much more than just a larger version of the BOOM, equipped with several key upgrades, including improved battery life (up to 20 hours, versus 15 for the BOOM), wireless range (up to 100 feet, versus 50 for the BOOM), durability, and sound quality.

 

The original BOOM is durable. I've dropped it, splashed it, and traveled with it for over two years, and it still performs as it did on day one, and still looks almost as good as new. This larger UE MEGABOOM feels even more robust, and it is also now waterproof, with an IPX7 rating, meaning the MEGABOOM is rated to be submerged in water for 30 seconds at a depth of one meter. (The BOOM is IPX4 rated, or splash resistant.) I've used the BOOM near the swimming pool, but always made sure it was far enough way from the water to prevent falling in. The MEGABOOM, however, I feel comfortable placing right up to the water's edge, no longer concerned about whether it falls in or not. What I also love about the MEGABOOM's waterproofness is that it's easy to clean. When we take it to the beach, I don't worry about sand getting on it or in it, as I can simply rinse the sand off under running water.

 

The MEGABOOM's improvements in durability versus the BOOM are matched by its sonic gains. The original BOOM uses two 1.5" drivers and thetwo 2" passive radiators. The MEGABOOM has two 2" drivers and two substantially larger 4" passive radiators. Putting the larger drivers and radiators to work with the MEGABOOM's substantially larger volume yields significantly more impactful bass than its sibling, along with greater maximum output--and the MEGABOOM can play loud for a Bluetooth speaker of this size and type.

 

The tonal balance of the MEGABOOM is similar to the BOOM, rich, with good extension in either direction for the class. In terms of fidelity--not just amplitude--the MEGABOOM improves on the original BOOM in every respect. No speakers that I've used in this class provide true deep bass, but the MEGABOOM is impactful, with prominent mid and upper bass, and conveys a sense of drive even outside in the yard, which most other battery-powered Bluetooth speakers I've used struggle to do.

 

Like the BOOM, the MEGABOOM has a major trick up its sleeve. With its companion app, two MEGABOOMs can be joined together, with one MEGABOOM dedicated to the left channel and one dedicated to the right channel; or the pair can be configured with each MEGABOOM serving up both channels. When the two are closer together, I use two MEGABOOMS in the one-per-channel mode; when they're far apart, I use each of them in dual-channel mode. When doubled-up (especially in one-per-channel mode), the pair can play very loudly.

 

One other key advantage of having doubled-up MEGABOOMs is being able to place my laptop between the two, for better, more immersive imaging in a work desktop wireless setup than possible with single-chassis Bluetooth loudspeakers. It's important to note, by the way, that latency is increased when using doubled-up mode--so while movie watching and gaming are fine with a single MEGABOOM, doubled-up mode introduces too much latency for those activities.

 

As much as I appreciate the ability to run a pair of them together, the MEGABOOM companion app is, unfortunately, too finicky. Occasionally, the app glitches, and doubled-up mode simply doesn't work. I can get it to work most of the time, but it's never as easy as it should be, and I hope this is something Ultimate Ears is able to improve over time. Thankfully, this app is only necessary if you're going to double-up, which (given the price of two units) most probably won't need.

 

For those of you who spend a lot of time talking on the phone, you'll appreciate that the MEGABOOM includes speakerphone capability, and is surprisingly good at it--and I only say "surprising" because UE doesn't boast much about its adeptness at this function. In this regard, I've found it trumps its predecessor, and even betters the RIVA Turbo X's outgoing voice quality. I'm on the phone a lot, so I very much dig this about the MEGABOOM.

 

So, yes, I'm a big fan of the UE MEGABOOM. Have I heard a better, more audiophile-refined battery-powered Bluetooth loudspeaker? Yes, the RIVA Turbo X has the edge there. However, for me personally, the most common use case for a portable wireless speaker is outside (on the deck, camping, at the cottage, at the beach, etc.). The MEGABOOM, for the most part, keeps me from worrying about weather conditions, terrain, or potential for abuse (like getting hit by footballs, basketballs, kids, etc.), and I've heard no other ruggedized Bluetooth loudspeaker that sounds this good. That's why I use my MEGABOOMs more than any other battery-powered Bluetooth speakers.

 

"If you've been shopping for a Bluetooth speaker for a while now, you already know there are plenty of cheaper options available. But unless you're looking at the UE MEGABOOM's little sibling, you'll be hard-pressed to find this impressive breadth of functionality and spark in speakers even twice its cost. With loads of volume and great clarity, the UE MEGABOOM is an awesome Bluetooth speaker."

-Paul Formaggio (pformagg)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Portable, wireless Bluetooth stereo loudspeaker
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PRICE: $299.99
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URL: www.ultimateears.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Getting you closer to house party music levels is the Logitech UE Boombox ($249.99), which is a portable, rechargeable Bluetooth wireless stereo loudspeaker with two 2 5/8" passive radiators, two 3" woofers, and two 0.5" tweeters. The built-in rechargeable battery can keep the UE Boombox playing for as long as six hours between charges. The UE Boombox will allow up to eight Bluetooth pairings, with up to three of them connected at the same time.

 

The UE Boombox is a very sleek, simple, attractive looking speaker, that, as one reviewer put it, looks like a nod to designers Dieter Rams and Jonathan Ive. Spanning its entire length is a thick, beautiful, wraparound aluminum carrying handle that looks to me like something that helps form a tough chassis.

 

As for its sound quality, it's actually very good for a battery-powered portable boombox--especially if you take even just a minute to experiment a bit with placement. The uses for the UE Boombox are easy to find. Since I don't have patio speakers, the UE Boombox finds itself in that role. Rockumentaries on Netflix, on an iPad? Yeah, it works great for that, too. The UE Boombox is loud music with you. It's fun.

TYPE: Bluetooth wireless loudspeaker
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PRICE: $249.99
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URL: ue.logitech.com

 

TYPE: Portable, Bluetooth loudspeakers
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PRICE: $199.99
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URL: www.ultimateears.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Ultimate Ears (UE) has been promoting the UE BOOM portable Bluetooth loudspeaker as the "social music player," and I can understand why. We recently hosted a pool party, and two UE BOOMs served as the poolside music engines that kept the music flowing. (Only one UE BOOM is needed, but I’ll explain why we had two in just a minute.) And the UE BOOMs were a big hit, everyone in attendance impressed by, and asking about, the compact speakers.

 

A big part of the UE BOOM's appeal is the form factor--a compact, cylindrical design that almost begs to be grabbed; so, throughout the party, the BOOMs were being moved to wherever the party goers flowed. In addition to being so grabbable, the UE BOOM has a metal swivel loop on its bottom that allows the attachment of a carabiner, so you can clip it to things (like your backpack, for example). The cylindrical design also allows the UE BOOM to be placed in cup holders, and even fits into a bicycle water bottle holder.

 

Another big part of the UE BOOM's allure is the fact that it's water- and stain-resistant. For much of the party, I kept them immediately poolside, where they were getting thoroughly splashed. The UE BOOM also seems very ruggedly built, and has already survived a few drops to the deck without issue. It also has long battery life, lasting up to 15 hours per charge--press a couple of buttons, and the UE BOOM will tell you (literally, with a human voice) what percentage of battery life is left.

 

Of course, none of this would matter if the UE BOOM didn't sound good, and, for what it is, it sounds excellent. It's not hi-fi, but the sound is more full-range than I'd expect from the two 1.5" drivers and two 2" passive radiators in each UE BOOM. It also plays a lot louder than I reckoned it could. The UE BOOM's sound is lively and fun.

 

Sometimes the fun has to be interrupted by a little bit of business, and for those times the UE BOOM can serve as a Bluetooth speakerphone--and it's actually surprisingly good in that role.

 

I mentioned earlier that we were using two UE BOOMs, and here's how. If you're using an iOS or Android device, there is an available UE BOOM app that allows two UE BOOMs to be joined together as either two separate stereo loudspeakers, or with each one dedicated to serving one channel of a stereo pair. One UE BOOM sounds good. Two is even better and louder, especially if you're running one as left and one as right. (I use the dual-stereo mode only when the two are separated by a relatively long distance.)

 

At $199.99 each, the UE BOOM is the best Bluetooth speaker of its type that I've used. I love the UE BOOM's slogan: "Make Music Social." The UE BOOM really does encourage that, and I love it.

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The Ultimate Ears (UE) MINI BOOM looks almost exactly like the UE Mobile Boombox that preceded it, but it's much improved. Sonically, UE made some key changes to the design to enhance its sound. The UE MINI BOOM has two 1.5" drivers and one 3" x 1.5" passive radiator. The older Mobile Boombox's two drivers were 1". The effect of the changes is dramatic. Switching between them, side-by-side, the MINI BOOM sounds much richer, especially through the mids (where the Mobile Boombox sounds almost tinny by comparison). It also has much more refined treble performance and a little more tuneful oomph down low. I was very happy with the Mobile Boombox--its newer sibling just trounces it, though.

 

And, with the MINI BOOM's much improved sound, it can now be more than twice as good as its predecessor! Let me explain: like its big sib the UE BOOM--the MINI BOOM can be doubled-up. That is, if you get two MINI BOOMs, and have an iOS or Android device, you can use the MINI BOOM app to have two MINI BOOMs play as two separate stereo speakers (each MINI BOOM playing both the left and right channels). Or, for even more powerful sound, one of the MINI BOOMs can be the left channel, the other the right channel. For two tiny Bluetooth speakers, the doubled-up MINI BOOMs are fantastic!

 

(NOTE: When using two MINI BOOMS, there's a bit more latency, and I wouldn't recommend playing games or watching videos with two of them because of that. Of course, that little bit of latency is of no concern when playing music. And using only one MINI BOOM works great with both videos and games.)

 

Still, if you're going to spring for only one, I think you'll still be thrilled with it in solo mode. In addition to its surprisingly good sound for its size, the MINI BOOM (like its predecessor) can act as a speakerphone. It is also now NFC-enabled, which is nice for those with NFC-enabled phones and tablets. Battery life is rated at ten hours (which my experience would suggest is a fair estimate). Its wireless range is rated at up to 50 feet (which I haven't tested, but it does seem to have very good range).

 

I use the MINI BOOM mostly for travel, taking one with me as a speaker through which I can play music, games, Netflix, and movies I've rented on my iPad. Weighing only 301 grams (around 10.6 ounces), it's plenty light enough to keep in my backpack or rolling briefcase, or to put in checked luggage.

 

The UE MINI BOOM is an exciting, versatile product that's very easy to recommend.

TYPE: Portable, Bluetooth loudspeakers
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PRICE: $99.99
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URL: www.ultimateears.com

 

 

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