Sunday, February 9, 2014

Review: Bose Soundlink III - the best Soundlink yet?

I have been playing around with the new Soundlink III for the last days, comparing it to the old versions as well as to the Soundlink Mini, and I think I can state that it is the best sounding Soundlink so far. This should already have been the Soundlink when the first version was announced in 2011.

The entire Soundlink family (missing only the Soundlink Air)
Apart from the very first Soundlink which was larger and rather a repacked Sounddock Portable, the original "real" Soundlink 1 marked a somewhat new speaker category that didn't exist before: "the book sized speaker". The only comparable speaker that could really compete by then was the Logitech s715i. The s715i was slightly bigger but lighter and it sounded really powerful with some nice deep bass for its size, but completely lost its power when run from battery.
Up from then the competition started bringing out similar models like the Philips P8/P9, which was designed pretty much like the original Soundlink. Some later models like the Grundig Bluebeat, Loewe speaker2go, Sony SRS BTX-500 started to sound even better than the Soundlink, that's why Bose probably brought the successor Soundlink II to the market one year later without any big changes in design apart from the differently folding cover.
The new one had better mids, but still suffered from a rather muffled sound, which seems to have finally been addressed by the latest Soundlink III model.

The Soundlink III got a complete design fresh-up with a new and svelte looking body. It looks very clean without unnecessary strips or slots. Build quality seems very high. Most of the body is out of metal (including the sides), only the top and bottom borders are out of plastic. The grille doesn't yield under pressure as it did on the old versions. The cover is needless now as the Soundlink III stands quite stable without. Although there are optional covers available, they are pretty useless, as they don't seem to give any real protection. Especially the grilles are totally exposed even when inside the cover. I am not sure how tough the used coating is, but the Soundlink Mini has a very scratch sensitive front and back, as even the units on display in the Bose stores showed scratches shortly after the Soundlink Mini was announced. I also managed to scratch mine pretty quickly, maybe meanwhile Bose improved the coating with the new Soundlink Mini series. Instead of the optional covers I would have preferred a real sleeve made of acoustically transparent materials, so that you could use the speaker inside without the need of taking it out when on the go.

The Soundlink III is standing straight now and therefore missing the slight upwards tilt of the previous versions, but treble response is considerably better than before, so the tilting is not needed anymore. After getting used to the new design, I think that the Soundlink III has a modern and classic look at the same time with a kind of "Braun-design" quality. The old Soundlinks suddenly look really old-school and dated.
Featurewise not much seem to have changed since the very first version. The Soundlink III still does the same as the first version: It connects to any bluetooth enabled device and plays music. There is no speakerphone, neither charging of external devices or other bells and whistles.

It is a pity that Bose still doesn't seem to see the need of embedding current features like NFC, multiple pairing, volume sync etc. So you still have to deal with 2 separate volume controls, the one from your player and the other one from the speaker, which means you cannot turn louder from your device if the speaker is only set to low volume. The Soundlink III is rather about improvements in sound and in battery life. According to Bose it should play up to 14 hours, while the previous versions were rated at 8 hours only. Many complained about battery life at top volume, I was getting about 4-5 hours out from mine, this should also have improved on the new version.

In this review I would rather like to concentrate on the audio quality of the new Soundlink III especially compared to the previous versions as well as to the more compact and cheaper Soundlink Mini.
The Soundlink III is definitely an improvement over the old versions in most aspects. While I liked the sound of the older Soundlinks at higher levels, the sound started to get really muffled at lower levels. At the same time bass was dialed back quite a lot and dynamic compression kicked in at levels above 70/80%. The Soundlink III on the other hand sounds much more coherent across its entire volume range. It sounds equally good at lowest levels and there is no such obvious DSP-processing at top levels with less compression. Bass is still dialed back at higher levels to avoid distortion, but the Soundlink III sounds fuller and more dynamic than the predecessors at its maximum volume. There also seems to be better stereo separation, while the Soundlink II rather sounded like a mono-speaker, now you actually get a hint of spatial ambiance from the Soundlink III, the sound has more breath and doesn't remain that constrained to the speaker, but rather manages to free itsself with some sparkle in the upper frequencies that were missing so much on the old versions. The Soundlink III is still not the brightest speaker around, and it still sounds most convincing if listened exactly frontally at ear height, but it doesn't suffer that much as the old versions when not listened frontally, meaning that you won't hear only bass when listening from the side as it was before. When switching back and forth between the Soundlink III and the old versions you have the impression of listening to a more expensive bigger speaker, while the Soundlink II suddenly starts sounding like a kitchen-radio. There might be particular recordings that will even sound more convincing on the Soundlink II, but overall I definitely prefer the sound of the Soundlink III by a far margin. For my taste it has a bit too much upper bass. When directly compared to the Sonos Play:1 the bass of the Play:1 seems more powerful with better impact, but not as loud as on the Soundlink III. The Play:1 has a more laid-back sound, while the Soundlink III is more straightforward.

Comparing the Soundlink III to the Soundlink Mini is another story. The differences seem less between the Soundlink III and the Mini than between the Soundlink III and the older versions. In fact the Soundlink Mini impressed me most of all portable speakers I have heard so far and it still impresses me even now when directly compared to the Soundlink III. Although the Soundlink III has an overall better treble extension, I sometimes tend to prefer the Soundlink Mini, despite having a much smaller and more limited speaker in front of me.

Funnily bass is similarly powerful on the Mini, reaching equally deep as on the Soundlink III. Both manage to play healthy 60Hz at normal levels, but the Soundlink III tries to push bass further and starts adding additional overtones so it would even play down to 45Hz but without any clean fundamental, the Soundlink Mini on the other hand seems to have a low pass filter built in and will just remain silent below 50Hz.
This somehow dirty bass reproduction was already present on the very first Soundlink, making particular low frequency tones sound strange, especially electronic bass drums, that start to get an ugly decay-plume, that is not present in the original recording. The Soundlink II even made this worse, but I finally hoped for an improvement with the the Soundlink III and while it is better than before it is still not perfect
I suppose this comes from the passive radiators, that react differently according to the actual volume level, so bass frequencies have to be pushed more at lower levels to compensate for their rigidity. But the best and most natural bass reproduction still comes from the Computer Music Monitors, although also based on the same dual opposing radiator design. Of course this is somehow nit-picking, and you will hardly notice this except with some particular recordings, but I thought it should be mentioned as most other comparable speakers don't suffer from this problem, albeit don't manage such a full overall sound.

Here is a video where I tried to compare all 3 generations of the Soundlink. I wanted to show how they differ in sound when listened at optimum positioning, unfortunately I didn't manage to record them off-axis, but you can also hear how they sound at their top volume and which of them is loudest. The Soundlink I and II were slightly tilted forward towards the microphone to ensure the best soundquality. Audio was recorded with Zoom H1 which boosts bass frequencies a little bit in contrast too some other recorders that don't record bass very well, therefore the recording might sound slightly too bass heavy. I didn't do any postprocessing on the audio files except adjusting absolute levels.
Originally I wanted to use some music which I think demonstrates the differences in sound best, but unfortunately I am limited to the free music provided by Youtube to avoid any copyright issues as latest rumors claim that the German performing rights society "GEMA" now plans to charge not only from Youtube but also from the video creators...
Still I tried to select the best tracks with the best recording quality available from the Youtube audio library, as most of their music is pretty poor and not suitable for such a test:

As you can hopefully hear all versions sound definitely different but they mostly differ in treble reproduction. Bass is rather similar on all of them, it is the quality and tuning of the bass that's different, but it is by no means a night and day difference, they all sound still pretty similar and could be mistaken for the same speaker without a direct comparison. Despite the much smaller size the Soundlink Mini sounds remarkably similar to the Soundlink III as you can hear in the following video. The Soundlink III can of course play considerably louder (about 5-6dB) than the Mini:

I really like the new Soundlink III. It has a more refined sound with nicer treble than all the versions before, but in relation to the difference in size between the Soundlink III and the Soundlink Mini I expected a bit more to tell the truth. The Soundlink III is overall more powerful with a considerably higher maximum volume, but at normal listening levels both sound equally powerful and full bodied. The Soundlink III doesn't seem to have any big advantage in bass power or quality of the bass, at least not up to normal listening levels. I had already chosen the Soundlink Mini over the Soundlink II, when I heard it the first time and as a truely portable solution I would probably still even choose it over the Soundlink III. For me the differences in sound between both just don't justify the much bigger size and weight of the Soundlink III. The Soundlink III might be able to play louder, but it is still by far not as loud and powerful as the original Soundlink Wireless Music System or a Sounddock Portable (here you can see a comparison video between both).
While sounding better than the old versions the Soundlink III still remains in the same category without any huge advantages. I am sure the same tuning could also be achieved by a good EQ on the previous versions. The missing features like USB-charging of external devices or handsfree might be a problem for most.
It is just a big letdown that Bose doesn't allow standard features like NFC-pairing, Apt-X support for even better audio quality let alone advanced features like multiple pairing, synced volume, app-support with customizable EQ etc.
I cannot judge yet how the Soundlink III sounds compared to the new Beats Pill XL which also costs the same now. From what I heard so far the Pill XL should pack considerably more punch while being about similar in size and weight. But the Beats Pill has much more features, can do stereo pairing with another Pill, charge external devices etc.

The Soundlink III is definitely a nice sounding speaker, it sounds better than the old versions and it can play slightly louder without distortion, but compared to the Soundlink Mini in relation to the huge size difference, the difference in sound is just not worth the extra. It might play louder, but up to about 70% the Soundlink Mini holds up pretty well and remains the most impressive portable (nearly pocketable) speaker around. Bose could have come up with some new features or a lower price as most of the competition offer their products for considerably less. If you already own a Soundlink I or II I am not sure if the upgrade is really worth it.

+ modern clean design
+ improved sound over the previous versions particularly due to better treble definition
+ less boomy at low levels
+ treble less directional
+ more spacious sound
+ slightly louder than the previous versions without that obvious DSP processing
+ better battery life

- no additional features (handsfree, usb-charging, Apt-X support)
- hardly better sounding than the much smaller Soundlink Mini
- no app support
- battery not that easily replaceable as on the old versions
- too big, too heavy
- optional covers do not offer any real protection
- too expensive