Sunday, August 10, 2014

Review: AudioXperts EVA BLU - the portable Bluetooth speaker with wooden flavor

I am going to review a speaker which probably most of you will never be able to buy or even hear in person because AudioXperts as a company doesn't exist anymore! The EVA BLU was originally announced to cost 399$, but now there only seem to be some units left for the German market, with some dealers even offering prices below 200€, so hurry if you still want to get one or just read my own impression if it is worth at all.

I haven't even heard about AudioXperts before, but according to the info still found on the web it started 2 years ago as a new audio company specialized in luxury audio gadgets consisting of some former Boston Acoustics, JBL and Infinity members. They already had brought some products to the market, like the 4TV 2112, a virtual surround console that received raving reviews, with the EVA (enviromental audio) devices to follow, when the company unexepectedly had to close.
Therefore there are rather few reviews available about the EVA Blu portable speaker, which is ineed quite an interesting device.

The EVA BLU is a portable speaker made of bamboo and comprised out of 70% sustainable resources according to the manual. Even the box where it came in was obviously made out of recycled cartoon.
The EVA BLU is not as small as most current portable speakers as it already weights 2.2kg and has about 3 liters of capacity, but it has an own grip to be carried around and the battery life is claimed to last up to 6 hours, which makes it quite comparable to similar portable speakers like the Libratone Zipp which is nearly equal in size.

Even the flap on one of the sides reminds me a bit of the Libratone Zipp, not to mention the woolen speaker cover. But especially the wooden body makes the speaker look quite unique and elegant among most other mainly plastic speakers.
Other similar sized speakers might be the Bose Soundlink Wireless Music System or the UE Boombox that I revied here (though in German) with the Beats Pill XL being slightly smaller and lighter.

The audio core of the EVA BLU consists of 2 2" drivers and 2 20mm tweeters with an additional passive radiator driven by a 30W amplifier. So nothing really special here and quite similar to many other Bluetooth speakers. With exception of the reset-button on the back, there are no real buttons, just touch sensitive areas. This is also one of its biggest flaws, and probably the absolute deal-breaker because the touch-buttons are the most unresponsive ones I have ever tried. There might be definitely some sample variation and not all of them are equally bad, but the power-button only works 1 out of 5 times, the worst being the Bluetooth button, where I had to initially fight about 1 hour to finally make the speaker switch from Aux or optical input to Bluetooth let alone to successfully pair my iPhone with the speaker as you have to keep the button pressed for some seconds, to force pairing mode. Once I accidentally switched back to Aux I nearly gave up trying to make Bluetooth work again, but when I finally managed thanks to my sweaty salty fingers, I haven't dared to change the mode anymore.

I noticed that when touching a screw on the back with one hand, while trying to power on the speaker with the other hand, it will work with a bigger chance, than just trying to press or touch the power-area, also pressing with more force seems to do the trick sometimes, but the volume-buttons as well as the mute button always work flawlessly, you just put your finger there gently, and the speaker does what it should. Sometimes everything seems to work better if the speaker is attached to the power cord than without. I think if AudioExperts still existed as a company, they would have sorted all out, but as the speaker is not produced anymore, we are probably dealing with some kind of pre-series problems.

If everything worked as it should, the speaker should behave pretty normally at least according to the manual it will remember 6 Bluetooth devices and should automatically pair to any of them being reachable. Unfortunately this does not work as advertised. You can pair as many devices as you like, the speaker will still always look for the last one paired and refuses to pair to another already paired one. You really have to re-pair all the others again, to make them connect to the speaker. As the Bluetooth button hardly ever works on my sample, you can imagine how easy this is!

There is no charging indicator either, so you will never know anything about the status of the internal battery, if it is charged at all or not. Maybe many won't even want to carry this speaker around, as despite giving quite a sturdy impression, the bamboo might get scrached easily as well as the front wool cover seems quite prone to get damaged. There doesn't seem to be any protective additional mesh below, the driver openings are only covered by the wool where it also tends to get stretched. The EVA BLU is not a speaker to be just tossed into a bag or rucksack, although the size would easily allow it, I am sure it won't look good for too long. It is rather meant for being brought to the patio or into another room, but it is definitely not a speaker for travelling or hiking... At least you could use it as a provisional flashlight, as the blue status-lights are so bright, they nearly manage to light up an entire room.

But how does it sound?
Well, pretty good actually if not even best in its class so far. It easily outplays the similar Libratone Zipp, which has a strange honky sound that I never got used to. In comparison the EVA BLU sounds very natural without any abnormal frequency bendings overblown bass or muffled treble. It impressed me quite a bit, because there is enough punch to the bass without sounding overdone, neither does it sound thin like many other speakers, despite the bass not reaching very low, but the bass is pretty nicely tuned, so that the speaker never gives a tinny or boomy impression. The same goes for mids and treble, which both manage to nearly give a bit of a 3D-stage. It is really a pleasure to listen to the EVA BLU. Turn it up to medium level and just enjoy the music, providing you are listening to a good quality recording with a higher bitrate. As the EVA BLU also supports AptX you can be sure to really get the best possible quality despite of lossy Bluetooth streaming. Although the EVA BLU even has an optical input, I am not sure why I should use this or for which purpose.

Everything is not perfect though. The EVA BLU sounds best at medium levels up to about 70%. It still sounds good at maximum volume, but some obvious limiting kicks in, which might sound pretty nasty depending on the music. Very dynamic mixes will start pumping with stronger drum-kicks and you can still hear a little bit of distortion on the kick-attack. Both together can ruin the listening pleasure and it reminds me a bit of how the Libratone Zipp equally suffered at high levels.
Apart from that everything remains pretty distortionfree, is is only the high dynamic peaks which make the speaker or the DSP struggle a bit. There is no obvious compression like on all Bose speakers, but rather volume-limiting as a whole. This can be heard when you start playing a song at high level, then after the first beats you will notice that overall volume will suddenly drop slightly. Bass level is kept high even up to maximum volume, although there is a slight bass reduction at higher levels, it is not that obvious to become disturbing.
Although the EVA BLU sounds usually very good even at maximum volume, in reality it doesn't play that loud. A smaller Sonos Play:1 will play louder, although you will definitely notice quite strong dynamic compression. The Soundlink Wireless Music System can also play much louder, but also with very noticeable processing. The EVA BLU reaches a maximum volume slightly below the TDK A33, which surprised me a bit, because I expected quite a bit more power out of a claimed 30W system which is also quite a bit larger than the A33. The EVA BLU should be capable of a high enough volume for most situations, but it is definitely not a party speaker, but rather meant for pleasant listening.
If you like listening at really low levels, the EVA BLU won't convince either. It doesn't have any loudness algorithm built in, and although it won't sound thin at lowest levels as does the iLoud for example, it doesn't sound impressive either, you really need to turn up volume a little bit to get the best out of it. Around half volume the EVA BLU really shines and outclasses most other portable speakers I have heard.
Although the EVA BLU has its own volume control independend from the volume control of your streaming device, you could even leave the speaker just at its maximum level and control the volume from your source only. There is no volume dependent equalizing, similar to what Sony or Bose does, so that with their speakers you might get completely different results depending on how both volumes are set one to each other. There is also hardly any hiss noticeable even when the EVA BLU is cranked to the maximum, which seems to prove that indeed some high-quality components were used. Many speakers I have tested do have lots of hiss even with the volume turned down to the minimum.

I compared the EVA BLU to some speakers I had at home, and prepared a video switching between all of them.
I recorded this video with the EVA BLU volume set to about 60%, which made the smaller speakers like Sony SRS-X3 or Bose Soundlink Mini sound less than ideal, as they were already close to their volume limit. At low levels I nevertheless prefer the SRS-X3 over the EVA BLU, because due to the DSP processing the Sony can maintain a fuller bodied and clearer sound even at lowest levels below 50dB.
You will also hear how strange and sculpted the Beats Pill XL sounds compared to the EVA BLU, the same goes for the bigger Soundlink Wireless System, the only one being the iLoud which manages to keep up somehow in neutrality, with only some stronger bass-punch missing.

I also prepared some frequency response measurements. Interestingly it doesn't measure completely flat despite sounding that good, the TDK A33 measures much flatter, but sounds worse Verwirrter.
There is a bit of a bass-bosst and lower treble boost, while upper treble has even quite a strong roll-off, which in the graph looks not that different from the Soundlink Mini.
You can see that the bass level is already slightly reduced at 75dB. The EVA BLU also sounds 2.5dB louder when plugged in, but the overall sound doesn't change regardless if played from battery or mains. There is some stronger high-frequency loss when listened off-axis from higher above (grey curve @65dB) and you can also see that there is no bassboost at lowest levels as the first 3 curves up to 65dB are completely parallel.

Here some further direct comparisons at 65dB, first the Soundlink Mini, which is 1/4 the size, but manages to produce an equally full-range sound with deeper reaching bass at lower volumes. Even at 75dB, where the EVA BLU already reduces bass, the Soundlink Mini still plays more powerful. It is only the overall tuning that makes the Bose sound more muffled and boomy, although not that visibile from the graphs, the EVA BLU has a more refined sound (EVA BLU is always shown in blue)

Compared to the TDK A33, the TDK has a more linear sound and measures pretty well. But it is missing the deeper bass of both the EVA BLU and the Soundlink Mini to really sound perfect, as it rather has a honky character.

The iLoud measures similarly linear with the deepest bass of all of them reaching down to 50Hz, but with a too low amplitude to really make the sound full-bodied enough. The graph of the iLoud has a tilt towards left and therefore makes an overall too thin impression to really be called balanced. With some stronger bass it would be definitely one of the best sounding speakers. Due to missing any dynamic sound processing, the iLoud sounds worst of all at lowest levels, as the deeper bass is hardly noticeable at all.

I think the EVA BLU is a very good sounding portable speaker and I have yet to hear a better sounding one, let alone one below 200€. It doesn't sound unnatural in any way and is really a treat to listen to. But for a speaker it is too large to really be called portable. For a stationary speaker it is too underpowered to really be able to substitute a bigger stereo.
A much smaller Bose Soundlink Mini could probably even keep up soundwise, if Bose didn't decide to boost both bass and lower treble that much at all costs. Because of this the Soundlink Mini sounds quite artificial, but when trying both outddors side by side with some ambient noise, it was hard to choose between one of them. The Soundlink Mini didn't sound that much worse, while the EVA BLU lost most of its indoor-advantage.
If the EVA BLU was half the size while maintaining the same audio quality, it would really be one of the best portable speakers around. I have tried many of them, and none really came close. The Soundlink III sounds pretty similar to the Soundlink Mini thus having the same boosted bass, the Denon Envaya seems to have been tuned for a sound quite similar to Bose, only the Sony X5 sounds better, but it doesn't have the power at higher levels to really keep up.

It seems as if there was still enough room for a really good sounding portable speaker. None of the current models really manage to satisfy audiophile needs. The EVA BLU shows how it could be done. Just improve on the hardware-side and shrink it a little bit.

Now let's wait and see, what other companies might come up with in future...