Thursday, September 25, 2014

Review: Bose Soundlink Colour - now we're talking!

The latest Bluetooth speaker from Bose is also the most affordable one, costing just $129,- or a bit more in Europe with €139,-. The new Soundlink Colour is not just a stripped down version of the bigger Soundlink III or the Soundlink Mini, as it rather seems to introduce an own new category of fashionable and colourful portable speakers for Bose which are more suitable for real outdoor use than the previous Soundlink versions. Let's have a look how much features and sound Bose has managed to squeeze into their cheapest Soundlink.

The Soundlink Colour comes in several different colours, my review sample is in black, which looks most understated, but I also like white or mint, not sure about the other colours though.
The speaker has a nice build quality and gives the impression as if it could really be tossed inside a rucksack or a bag without showing any signs of wear. The Soundlink Mini despite having a precious aluminium finish which might give the impression of being really sturdy is in reality quite delicate and prone to scratches, just as the speaker grilles are easily damaged with the finish peeling off pretty quickly, when touched a bit too hard.
My biggest hope was that Bose would announce a Soundlink "Micro", a considerably more compact speaker, something pocketable that is still able to deliver a more serious sound than most current offerings. There are dozens of book sized speakers, hundrets of beer-can sized ones, but all pocketable speakers I have heard so far are hardly usable for listening to music, the best ones being the JBL Clip or TDK Trek Micro, which both are still quite tinny for my taste with no bass at all below 100Hz.

The Soundlink Colour is bigger overall than the Soundlink Mini (I measured about 60% more capacity nearly reaching the size of the JBL Charge 2), but it is also lighter. Still due to the different form factor and its rounded edges it might even be easier to carry around or packed away than a Soundlink Mini, let alone a JBL Charge 2. It feels nice in your hand and although missing this typical "premium"-feel of the Soundlink Mini, the Soundlink Colour doesn't feel cheap at all as you can still discern Bose quality here.

Although the Soundlink Colour isn't reported to be waterproof or specially rugged in any way, I was already told by Bose that some additional neoprene covers will become available in future, which will definitely make the speaker even better suited for outdoor use at a sandy beach etc. I would have definitely hesitated to use the Soundlink Mini in such a setting, but wouldn't be afraid of placing the Soundlink Colour right beside on a wet towel.

There's not much inside the box, the Soundlink Colour comes just with a small 5V 1A charger and a Micro-USB cable, no other accessories are included. The biggest news here is that the Soundlink Colour can indeed be charged through Micro-USB. This was what many complained about with all previous models. Actually Bose seems to have listened to user-complaints and fixed many points of criticism.
Charging shouldn't take longer than 3 hours with the included charger. A flashing orange LED will display the charging procedure to become steady green when charging is done. There's no dedicated indicator showing the actual charge. You have to keep the power button pressed and if it lights up green, there is still "high charge" left, orange means "medium", if "low" the LED will turn red.

You either like or hate the new design. My wife said it's ugly, I think it has something of a classic Braun electric shaver, albeit an oversized one.

The speaker has only 2 ports at the back, namely the USB-port and an auxiliary input. On top of the speaker you will find all control buttons hidden under a rubber coating. This should allow using the speaker with wet or dirty hands as well. Beside the power button, the volume buttons etc, finally also track control is possible directly through the speaker with the new play/pause button, another finally fixed issue that was not available on the other models. You can start or pause music and skip forward or backward by double pressing or tripe pressing it. There is still no speakerphone functionality which might put off many, but I don't miss it at all.

A really useful feature now is the ability of enabling or disabling power saving mode. While so many owners always complained about the Soundlink Mini to turn off on its own after some time, which was no big deal for me, this feature can now be disabled for your liking. If you want to use the speaker stationary with permanent power on, you can do this now, just keep "Aux" and "+" pressed for some seconds to toggle between on or off for the "auto power off" function.
"Aux" and "-" kept pressed for 10 seconds will finally do a factory reset, in case you want the speaker fresh again or to prepare it for resale...

Another big novelty are voice prompts. The Soundlink Colour talks to you now. On the first power on you'll have the choice of selecting many different languages for voice prompts. Beside English, French, German etc, I also recognized Italian, Spanish, Portugese, Dutch, Polish and Russian with some other languages, which are probably Chinese and Japanese. Good news first: the voice prompts can also be disabled, which I welcome very much. The speaker will still play some beeps when paired or when attached to mains, but it won't talk around. Especially the computer voice (a kind of female simulation) is a bit annoying. There seems to be a real speech synthesizer built in unlike some sampled phrases as it is the case with many other talking speakers, but on the Soundlink Colour it just sounds artificial and awkward. Keep both volume buttons pressed for 3 seconds and the voices are gone. Kudos to Bose to give us the option. The voice might be helpful though if you want to know which devices are paired with the speaker. The Soundlink Colour will remember up to 8 devices, but usually will automatically pair with the 2 recent ones as 2 devices can be paired with the speaker simultanously. When the first device stops playback, the other device can start playing, without the need of any new pairing or switching procedure. Bluetooth connection is nearly instant on the Soundlink Colour, unlike many other speakers I have tried, where you sometimes have to wait up to 10 seconds until they finally decide to establish a connection.
If you still want to connect to another already paired device you can simply switch between them by pressing the Bluetooth button. The first press tells you which devices you are currently connected to, this is where the voice prompts can really be helpful. Press the Bluetooth button again within 3 seconds and the speaker will search and try to connect to the next available device in its list. You can scroll like this through all paired devices, which is really a nice thing. If there is no other device available, it will tell you that no other devices were found. The only speaker I know that has a similarly comfortable way of switching between different devices is the Fugoo, but you will never know which device it is going to connect to next, while on the Bose you will indeed hear which device is connected now, in case you have the voice prompts enabled of course.
Many other Bluetoothspeakers are quite a pain to use with different streaming devices. They either search for the latest device only and won't automatically connect to any other already paired devices, so you have to manually dig them up from the menu and force a connection, or they simply refuse any other connection and you have to repeat the whole pairing procedure from scratch to pair the speaker to another device, which was the case on the AudioXperts EVA Blu for example.
I have to applaud Bose for finally making Bluetooth connections that easy and comfortable. Although I always hated any kind of voice prompts, in case of the Soundlink Colour they are really useful as the speaker will always tell you which devices it is connected to. It works much better than on any other Soundlink model I have tried, let alone most other Bluetooth speakers that manage to make Bluetooth pairing or reconnecting a frustrating experience.
By the way, with the Soundlink Colour volume control should now be in sync on the streaming device and speaker. I have tested this with several iOS device, not sure about Andorid or other. But while most other speakers just offer 15 volume steps (some may have 32 or 35), the Soundlink Colour still has all 100 steps, like all other Bose speakers I have tried. 100 steps allow much finer volume control than the rough jumps you get from a JBL Charge 2 for example, which nearly doubles volume with the first steps on each press. A synced volume control should also work better with dynamic sound processing, as you cannot confuse the speaker with a too low input level, while setting the speaker's volume too high.

As on all recent Soundlink models so far, there are 2 opposing passive radiators inside the Soundlink Colour as well. Opposing passive radiators mean less vibration because they cancel out their forces, so you don't have to be afraid of the Soundlink Colour rattling or creeping around at higher volumes. The openings on the upper part of the back indicate where the back passive radiator is located. The one at the front is at the same height, but the main part of the music is still produced by the 2 active drivers, which are located below. The Soundlink Colour is indeed a stereo speaker, but the drivers are so close together, you won't notice any stereo separation. I think that Bose even tried to apply some tricks to enhance the stereo effect, because when peering through the openings, you might notice a kind of bar in the center between both drivers. This bar reminds me of the acoustic barrier that speakers always use which apply "Embracing Sound" for stereo enhancement, they call this "plate", which seems to be necessary for the system to work. Embracing Sound is a kind of inversion of the M/S stereophony, but in case of the Soundlink Colour it doesn't work or it might have another purpose, but regardless what I tried I was not able to get any real stereo width from the speaker. A Soundlink Mini, which is not a very broad sounding speaker either is nevertheless able to produce a broader stereo field than the Soundlink Colour. You just have to accept the fact, that with the Soundlink Colour you are actually listening to a stereo speaker that sounds mono. Nothing wrong with that, as the fewest portable speakers that small really manage any convicing stereo stage either. The Jambox with its "Liveaudio" algorithm or the Geneva XS thanks to Embracing Sound being the rare exceptions.

Let's have a look and listen what kind of sound we can expect from the new Soundlink Colour.
To tell the truth there is not much surprise here. The Soundlink Colour delivers solid sound with the typcial Bose sound signature which is slightly boosted bass with boosted lower treble at the same time. As usual for Bose the sound is already quite full-bodied at lower levels, althouth appears a bit dull and starts to brighten up close to medium levels. You won't get any class-leading high-end sound, which was to be expected, given the Soundlink Colour being a lower-cost model, but to my surprise there are even some slight enhancements in sound over the original Soundlink Mini. The first thing you will notice when putting both side by side and playing the same music is that both still sound pretty similar, but at the same time the bass of the Soundlink Colour is not reaching as deep as that from the Soundlink Mini. Overall bass amount is still comparable, both have a bassboost compared to their mids, but the bass of the Soundlink Mini reaches deeper down to 60Hz, while the Soundlink Colour has already a strong roll-off at 80Hz. This typical bass-thump that many love and others hate from the Soundlink Mini is a bit missing on the Soundlink Colour. Nevertheless it is not a bass-light speaker, there is still plenty of bass compared to most other contenders, which do not manage any real bass at all. The Soundlink Colour plays with a similar bass level to the Soundblaster Roar, which I reviewed here.
Surprisingly the Soundlink Colour manages to sound cleaner with less distortion than the Soundlink Mini. Due to the missing lower bass part of the Soundlink Mini, the Soundlink Colour doesn't struggle that much with bass-heavy recordings or when playing at higher levels. Many tracks start droning quite a bit on the Soundlink Mini already slightly above half volume, this is not a problem for the Soundlink Colour. It will even play slightly louder and with less dynamic compression. There is still some bass reduction at higher levels, but the difference in sound between low volume and high volume is not as severe as on the Soundlink Mini, which at high levels puts out an overly compressed sound with some noticeable intermodulation distortion and booming bass. With both played at their maximum volume the difference in bass amount is not that pronounced anymore as on lower levels, but the Soundlink Colour manages to deliver cleaner sound with less compression and less distortion.
Although the Soundlink Colour is still not a bright sounding speaker, it is an improvement over the rather dull sounding Soundlink Mini, especially when not listened exactly on axis. When both are aimed directly at the listener, the Soundlink Mini might even give a clearer impression, but tilt both away slightly and the treble will even improve on the Soundlink Colour, while it falls off on the Soundlink Mini considerably. Maybe this is the reason for the center bar between both drivers, which might acts as some kind of reflecting surface to add some dispersion to the high frequencies, I am just guessing though. Treble could still get along with a little bit more sparkle, but overall I think it sounds more convincing now. Many tracks sound considerably clearer on the Soundlink Colour, although mids got quite a hollow character now. The Soundlink Mini sounds more refined although duller. I would have preferred the bass tuned a bit lower on the Soundlink Colour but with less boost than it is now as I have the impression as if bass was already bleeding into the mids quite a bit and covering them even more. I think boosting bass less would have helped to make the sound a bit more classy and the speaker might have lost some of its boxiness. The bass of the Soundlink Colour has some resonance peak at around 100Hz which can make many songs sound strange. I noticed it especially with bassdrums which tend to have a longer decay than usual. You can also hear this resonance if putting your ear closer to the back passive radiator, you will probably notice some slight rattling coming from the enclosure. The result is still better than of many other similar sized speakers I have heard, but Bose could have held off slightly by pushing the bass less.

Of course I also did some measurements of the Soundlink Colour to allow for a better visual judgement of my sound descriptions above, which are understandably always quite subjective.
First some close-up measurements at medium volume from 10cm to minimize room influence. Compared to the Soundlink Mini shown in green, you can see that both still have a similar sound signature, but the bass of the Mini reaches lower. At the same time you can see better treble extension on the Soundlink Colour, but it still rolls off too much.

In the following graphs you can see the in-room response from 50cm at all 100 volume levels with 7 steps in between each measurement to achieve 15 distinct curves, the blue one being 50%, while the red one being 100% (smoothed with 1/6 octave):

There is a slight bassboost visible from the lower volume curves while stronger bass reduction already starts above 50%. If looking at the maximum volume measurements of both Soundlink Colour and Soundlink Mini (in green again), you will notice that the Soundlink Colour shouldn't sound that different anymore, as the Soundlink Mini managed to reduce most of its bass advantage with only some deeper bass still present in the background:

Here we see the difference in sound on-axis and off-axis (in pink), which was measured from 30cm above, which results in about 37°. Below the same measurement from the Soundlink Mini. Although the Soundlink Colour still has some treble loss when listened off-axis, the Soundlink Mini shows it to a stronger degree with a 10dB loss above 10kHz thus becomes quite dull more quickly than the Soundlink Colour:

I am not sure which speakers might be direct competitors to the Soundlink Colour, as I haven't found any suitable ones, most cheaper or smaller ones just don't sound that full-bodied, while some other similarly priced ones like the TDK A33 or the Soundblaster Roar are mostly bigger and might sound louder overall, but not really better. Therefore I prepared a first comparison video with the Soundlink Mini to show how much compromises in sound must be made compared to its bigger brother. Another video shows the Soundlink Colour compared to the Creative Soundblaster Roar, which currently is a very popular speaker although bigger and heavier costing 20$ more. Although the Roar should play quite a bit louder than the Soundlink Colour, in reality the Roar already struggles at top volume with some severe volume fluctuations which you can also hear in this video resulting in a top volume which is hardly louder than the Soundlink Colour in the end.

Concluding I think Bose managed quite an appealing portable speaker which can convince of most its features. The Soundlink Colour would probably find a place on my wish list, if I didn't already own dozens other portable speakers. All features are implemented really well and I am especially impressed with the Bluetooth connectivity and how well it works. As soon as you turn the speaker on it will automatically connect to the nearest 2 devices. If you want to connect to another one instead, just press the Bluetooth button and scroll through all other already paired ones. I am not sure any other speaker gives you this comfort. Others often won't even connect to the last device for unknown reasons (the Soundlink Mini being no excpetion). Bose also managed to improve on most critical user comments and offers not only MicroUSB charging now, but also the ability to disable the "auto power off" feature that many complained about constantly.
It is just when looking solely at the sound, that the Soundlink Colour doesn't impress me that much. It isn't a bad speaker by any means, it is just that meanwhile you can get better sound for a similar price. If it was offered below the magic 100$ or € mark, it would certainly manage to stir up the market quite a bit, but for 20$ or 10€ more you can already get a JBL Charge 2 or a Soundblaster Roar, which manage either a more balanced sound with more punch or can play louder.
When the Soundlink Mini was announced more than a year ago it was pretty unique and without any real competition, a similar sized Jambox costing the same at that time was a bad joke soundwise, not to mention the Beats Pill which still costs 199 today! But other companies have finally managed to catch up or even improve on the sound of the Soundlink Mini, the best example being the new JBL Charge 2. The Soundlink Colour on the other hand doesn't offer any big advances in sound, but it doesn't sound bad either. Bose knows how to make speakers sound appealing, but for my personal taste, I would have preferred a slightly more balanced approach with better treble extension and deeper but less boomy bass.
The Soundlink Colour reminds me a bit of a vintage portable transistor radio, albeit without a radio but Bluetooth instead. It sounds better than any portable radio I have heard, like the larger and more expensive Tivoli PAL that also I own, but just don't expect any hi-end listening experience. The sound is a bit restrained and sounds as if it was trapped inside the speaker. In the meantime I know how "open" a small portable speaker can sound after I have experienced the Fugoo. It is definitely not as bass heavy as the Soundlink Colour, but it is still more enjoying to listen to, due to the depth of the sound it is able to produce, while the Soundlink Colour gives rather a one-dimensional impression.

Last but not least I would like to thank the Bose Experience Center Wien for providing me the review sample.

+ affordable 
+ colorful sturdy design
+ solid and full bodied sound
+ high possible volume without distortion (slightly louder than Soundlink Mini)
+ less forced sound than the Soundlink Mini with less compression
+ clearer and less directional treble than Soundlink Mini
+ great Bluetooth implementation
+ automatic multipoint pairing with 2 devices simultanously
+ easy switching between different devices
+ voice prompts helpful to indentify paired devices
+ track controls on the speaker
+ synced volume with streaming device
+ 100 dedicated volume steps
+ charging through MicroUSB 
+ auto power off can be turned on or off

- bass not very deep with cut-off at 80hz
- boomy and hollow sounding due to boosted upper bass
- still stronger treble roll-off
- sound a bit restrained with no stereo separation
- could be more compact