Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: TDK A26 "Trek", Yamaha NX-P100, Panasonic SC-NA10 compared

This time I would like to present some recent portable Bluetooth speakers in the price range from 100-200$ and compare one to each other including my current favorite at this size: the Bose Soundlink Mini.

The smallest of the bunch is the TDK A26 "Trek", which looks like a smaller version of the great TDK A33 and can already be found for as low as 79$ on the US-Amazon store. The Trek costs a bit more in Germany though, where the lowest price is around 129€, which would make it twice as expensive when directly converted from the US-price.

The Yamaha NX-P100 seems to be a direct competitor of the Bose Soundlink not only in size but also in price, as at 199$ it costs about the same as the Bose and is also more or less equal in size.

Last not least the Panasonic SC-NA10, which is a bit bigger than the others, but remains still pretty portable as it is considerably smaller and lighter than the TDK A33 for example. Volumewise it should be only slightly larger than the Bose Soundlink Mini if the cover is not included. The Panasonic comes exactly in between pricewise, costing about 150€. I haven't found it on yet though.

I won't cover all the details of each speaker this time as I would like to avoid too much blabla. Like so many they are simple Bluetooth speakers, all of them have handsfree included as well as NFC for faster pairing, the Yamaha and TDK being splash-resistant too.
The Yamaha and Panasonic have Apt-X codec built in for better streaming quality. And both Yamaha and Panasonic have an additional USB-port for charging external devices.

Build quality seems great on all of them. I also like the design of any of them. The TDK Trek feels great in your hand, it is neither too heavy nor too light. Compared to the Soundlink Mini the TDK weights maybe 40% less as I would also estimate the overall volume about 30-40% less. It has exactly the same length as the Bose, but it is flatter and higher at the same time. The overall design resembles much of the original A33. Just the volume indicator LED is missing, which I liked quite a lot on the A33, as you could always see how loud it is set.
The volume of the speaker is not synced to the player's volume, on neither of them by the way. So far only recent JBL/Harman Kardon speakers have a single master volume, as do the Jabra Solemate and Solemate Mini speakers. I think the Jamboxes with recent firmware versions also have this feature, and maybe there are other ones too, but I don't know all of them.
As the Trek is so thin (only 2.5cm) it doesn't stand very stable. There is a flip-out stand at the back that covers the passive radiator, very similar to the Soundmatters FoxL. If you pull the stand out too much, it will fall out completely. No idea if this was done as protection for not breaking the hinges or if this is just a design flaw.

When turning the speaker on you will hear some simple tone-progression, not too loud thank goodness. When paired there is another tone, pretty much like on many other bluetooth speakers and the speaker just beeps when maximum volume is reached.

The A26 also has a main power switch, just like the A33 to conserve battery life if not in use. The switch as well as auxilary and charging ports are covered by a soft rubber cap. If powered down with the power button at the top, the speaker is probably just in standby-mode. I have no idea if there is much battery drain when left like this for a longer time. I noticed some problems with the power button on my sample. I really had to press harder in order to turn it on or off, not so with the other buttons which worked well.
The TDK is also the only speaker that forces playback from the player after pairing with Bluetooth. After it reconnects with any device you should automatically hear some music playing. Not sure if this is desireable every time, so I thought I should mention it. According to the specs, the TDK should provide 6 hours of battery life. That is on par with the TDK A33 which I always found to be a bit short, as I never got more than 6.5 hours, despite listening at lower volumes.

I had highest expectations for the Yamaha NX-P100. It is really pricey for that kind of speaker that's why I thought it should also easily compete with the Bose soundwise. Let's find out later if it really did.
The Yamaha looks quite modern, the design is nice and it comes in different colors. It is about equal in size to the Bose Soundlink Mini, maybe even slightly bigger overall.

The body is made of metal covered with rubbered elements at the sides and at the top and bottom. First I thought the body would be made of plastic, but in fact it seems to be metal, it is just the used paint that has makes it feel a bit cheap. Overall it doesn't look that classy as the Bose Soundlink Mini which consists entirely of a "naked" not painted aluminium body. The Yamaha also weights less than the Bose, but has more heft to it than the TDK. At the bottom you can see some kind of vent-slots. I assume the passive radiator is hiding in there, but you cannot really discern it like that.

The side ports are protected with a rubber cover which is very hard to open. You really need to have long nails, but even then it is nearly impossible to flip the cover back. I only managed by hooking up a scissor blade or a screwdriver etc. No idea what Yamaha was thinking when designing this. The TDK also has the ports protected, but you can open the flap easily.

When I unpacked the speaker for the first time and tried pulling it out of the bag, one of the rubbered side covers came down easily. Not sure if this is really meant to be like that, but pulling the cover down doesn't do any harm as you can put it up again without much effort, still I wanted to mention it, as it rather decreases the overall impression I had for this speaker.

The Yamaha has no volume indicator either. It just beeps, when the lowest or highest volume level is reached. When turning the speaker on, you will hear some chords, when successfully paired with a bluetooth device there will be a voice prompt telling you that Bluetooth is now connected. The voice prompts and confirmation tones are not that annoying like on many other speakers and they are played with the current level of the speaker. So if you left the speaker at a lower volume, the next time you turn it on, the tones will also be played low. Battery life should be 8 hours according to the specs. When paired with an Iphone you will also get a battery life indicator in the top status bar.

The Panasonic is in a bit different category as it is larger. In case of emergency you could just put the TDK Trek inside your jeans pocket as it has the size of a "phablet" more or less, and there are many geeks around who carry theirs inside pockets day in day out. The Yamaha is also managable if you have larger side pockets, but the Panasonic will already need a Jacket or something similar. It is still pretty compact as a speaker though and quite light too.

It is even about 25% lighter than the Soundlink Mini and doesn't make the impression of being much heavier than the other two despite being larger. When having both Bose and Panasonic in your hand, the Bose feels like a heavy brick, while the Yamaha rather resembles a book.

Only the Panasonic comes with built in protection in form of a a flip-cover, similar to the one found on the original Bose Soundlink which also holds firm due to built in magnets. You can easily remove it because it is just attached through a press-button, but without cover the speaker won't really stand upright.

If not in use you just flip the cover over like a book and have the front and back of the speaker automatically protected as the cover is padded to some degree like a cushion. The sides and top of the speaker are still prone to scatches, so just tossing it inside a rucksack could do harm to the glossy finish. Only the front grille of the Panasonic is made of metal, the edges as well as the back are pure plastic. Although the edges seem to be aluminium, in reality they are just painted to look like that. The Panasonic has a rotatable volume-button like a good old analog stereo. The button rotates endlessly, but when the speaker is turned on it automatically gets a beginning and an end through a confirmation tone if you reached the minimum or maximum. The Panasonic also plays some confirmation tones when powering on of off. But all the tones are really restrained and not too disturbing.

The Panasonic is the only speaker of the bunch that needs a proprietary charger. It cannot be charged through USB like the others. The charger is also pretty big, by far lager than the Soundlink Mini charger.
The Panasonic adds a battery level meter like the one from Yamaha to the Iphone display as soon as it is paired through Bluetooth. The Panasonic battery is rated for 20 hours in "LP"-mode. I only know this mode from my old VHS video recorder, where the tape was rotated with half the speed, so that you got double the space but with considerably worse quality. Maybe in LP-mode the Panasonic only uses half the bits or half the sample rate? ;-)
It doesn't look as if the battery was replaceable on any of these speakers. I haven't found any obvious way how to get access it.

What about sound?
The Yamaha SC-NA10 was the first I got, so I was able to listen to it first. As already mentioned I expected a performance at least close to the Bose if not even better. In reality the speaker just sounds like any mediocre 50$ Bluetooth speaker. There is hardly any bass to speak of, the one that's there is a kind of muddy mid-bass which sounds rather boomy, without much impact. The overall sound is pretty covered too, as if the speaker was playing inside an additional cartoon box, the treble has some unpleasant resonance frequency, and it tends to sound like a bad clock radio. Volumewise it can reach about 70% of the Soundlink Mini's volume, which is quite loud, but not really louder than a Jabra Solemate Mini that can be found for less than half. At top volume there are hints of distortion, but not too severe, but you can also notice dynamic compression. It sounds neither good at low nor high levels.
Overall the Yamaha disappointed me most. The speaker has neither the quality nor the sound to really justify the high price. If the price was down to 100$ it could be maybe worth considering, but even then there are better sounding speakers that cost less. To tell the truth, I have not heard that many speakers in this size or price range that sounded really worse.

The TDK A26 sounds just like the A33, but without bass. It sounds quite balanced in the upper frequencies, but it has even less bass than the Yamaha. The Bass is tuned differently, so that it doesn't have the boomy character but rather more impact. The sound is much more opened and also treble has quite a bit of sparkle, more than the Soundlink Mini without doubt, but compared to the Soundlink Mini it sounds thin and a bit anemic. There is no real bass below 100Hz, just added overtones, but no fundamental. You can even hear "something" at 60Hz, but these are just overtones not real bass. Maybe they did this in order to make the speaker sound fatter than it is in reality. And in fact you have the impression of hearing some low frequency, but listening closer you notice that there is hardly any power. The smaller FoxL put beside sounds remarkable similar to the TDK, but has a more punchy bass. You can really feel some low-bass with the FoxL, while with the TDK you only hear a bit more mid-bass. With good placement the FoxL manages to outplay the TDK easily as many bass driven songs will sound more engaging, although the FoxL won't play as loud as the TDK and distorts pretty quickly. If the TDK had at least half the bass of the Soundlink Mini it would be a really great sounding speaker for the size, but as it is now it just sounds like a small portable speaker.
Still I prefer the TDK over the Yamaha, as the TDK can play louder and sounds more powerful at higher levels than the Yamaha. The bass on the Yamaha tends to distort at high volume due to its boomy tuning. The TDK also distorts on top volume, but only noticeable with louder peaks like drum kicks etc. which start to crackle. In fact this can be quite disturbing, as I would prefer some slight distortion over crackling sounds, but lowering volume one or a few notches should make it go away.

The Panasonic would outplay both the others easily, at least at low levels the bass is deep and powerful, nearly on par with the Bose Soundlink Mini while at the same time clearer in mids and treble. The sound of the Panasonic was indeed impressive when I turned it on the first time, but the magic went away if I turned it a bit louder. When the volume was reaching pleasant listening levels strong distortion started creeping in. It sounded really severe with some bassheavy songs, the passive radiator was buzzing and farting around, while the speaker hasn't even reached 30% volume yet. The distortion became less again at higher levels, as the speaker seems to dial back bass at higher levels, but it was still noticeable. It was not that strong with songs not containing much bass, so I was not sure if this was a failure or a feature and I ordered a replacement to really get sure I have a representative sample for my review. But the replacement behaved in exactly the same way. You couldn't turn the speaker past 30% without getting heavily humming overdriven sound with many songs. Apart from the distortion the speaker would play quite loud, louder than the TDK A26, but not as loud as the Soundlink Mini. A pity that something seems to have gone wrong with the acoustic design, as otherwise the speaker could be indeed quite nice. I also tested the LP-mode but this just seems to reduce bass and maximum volume adding some stronger dynamic compression to achieve louder levels, while distortion still remains high.
Ignoring the distortion, the Panasonic is tuned quite nicely. Although it has less bass overall than the Soundlink Mini, it is still strong enough to sound convincing as a speaker unlike the Yamaha or TDK, which sound rather flat and tinny. The mids and treble sound clearer on the Panasonic and are less directional. The sound starts to fall apart quite a bit at higher volume levels, where the Soundlink Mini still manages to deliver a compelling sound. If one didn't like the Bose sound because of excessive or "overblown" bass as many claim it, the Panasonic could have been a real alternative, not much bigger, but lighter at the same time. Unfortunately the distortion problems with the passive radiator make it rather useless as a speaker. I ask myself how such a flaw could have made it into a final product?

I prepared a video where you can hear all of them including the Bose Soundlink Mini as reference. I chose again the same track from the Youtube audio library in order to avoid any copyright issues. This time audio was recorded with a Zoom H2n audio recorder. Volume level was set to about 60% on the Soundlink Mini, and all other speakers were matched more or less volumewise. You can hear severe distortion from the Panasonic, as well as pumping effects and clipping from the Yamaha.

Conclusion: The Panasonic SC-NA10 could have been in fact the best of the bunch by far, but fails due to excessive distortion problems with its passive radiator even at low volumes.
The Yamaha NX-P100 is a total failure delivering sound not really better than any clock-radio. It has a nice design and all the features you could be asking for, but listening to it makes me cry, especially when considering the price Yamaha is asking for!
If I got the TDK A26 for 79$ I would definitely choose it over the others. The TDK produces a nicely balanced sound only falling short of delivering some deeper bass, but the sound still remains pleasant with only disturbing crackling sounds at top volume. I am not sure about the battery, but this could be another weak point. The battery doesn't seem to be easily replaceable on any of them, thus making them paperweights after some years and heavy usage.