Sunday, June 14, 2015

Review: Bose Soundlink Mini II - lots of improvements and still on top?

The original Bose Soundlink Mini was released nearly 2 years ago and managed to change the current portable Bluetooth speaker market completely. While most compact portable speakers prior to the Soundlink Mini pretended to sound good with phony claims like "the JAMBOX delivers shimmering highs and thumping lows that you can literally feel - the richest sound all in the palm of your hand" 
or even more exorbitant the Beats Pill which cost exactly the same: "the Beats Pill produces powerful sound [...] enjoy soaring highs and deep, booming bass" it was finally Bose to show what kind of "thumping lows" was really possible to squeeze out of enclosures that small. The Soundlink Mini was not perfect though and many complained about the "thick" sound and still seemed to like their Jamboxes more. Others complained about the lack of handsfree or USB-charging. But the huge success and what probably became the most popular portable speaker on the market, the Soundlink Mini managed to sell more than 10 million units according to some sources. Recently the Soundlink Mini II hit the market and it seems as if Bose didn't try to revolutionize this model but rather improve on numerous aspects in detail.
Let's see if they managed and if the Soundlink Mini II is really worth an upgrade.

I already made a review of the original Soundlink Mini when it was released but the review was still in German and I never prepared any English review of it. Therefore I decided to catch up with the Soundlink Mini II now. Although there is lots in common between both models, the Soundlink Mini II has nevertheless many new features which first appeared with the Soundlink Colour. I will try to treat the Soundlink Mini II as a completely new speaker, but I will also try to point to the most important changes compared to the original model as far as I can for all those who play with the idea of replacing their old model with the new one.

The Soundlink Mini II comes within a slightly shorter box than the original. The original Soundlink Mini box had a hidden extra compartment at one of the sides containing the necessary EU-adaptor for the power supply that had foldable US-contacts only. But obviously many owners didn't notice this compartment at all and complained about the missing adaptor rating the speaker with 1 star only at With the Soundlink Mini II everything is inside a single box now. The speaker is still on top warped into some cellophane with all accessoires and manuals below inside a kind of drawer-compartment. The speaker comes in 2 colors now, black or "carbon" and thanks to the Bose Experience Center in Vienna I could borrow the grey or how Bose calls it "pearl" version. I would have preferred the carbon one though, as I personally think that this one looks really gorgeous. I think that even the old silver/grey version of the original Soundlink Mini looked better than pearl, but carbon is really eye-catching now.

It seems as if the accessories are matched to the color of the speaker. The carbon version should come with a dark power supply as well as dark charing cradle and dark USB-wire. With the pearl version all accessories are light grey.
As you can see the Soundlink Mini II comes still with an own charging cradle, but this time the charging port was moved to the back instead of the side. You do not need to use the cradle at all and can attach the cable also directly to the speaker, but I found the cradle to be really useful as you can simply place the speaker inside when it needs recharging without having to hassle around with any wires, or looking for the correct side of the USB-connector.
The biggest news is that the Soundlink Mini II can be charged through MicroUSB now. This was maybe the major downside of the previous version for many owners. With the included power supply which offers 5V @1600mAh it takes slightly more than 3 hours to fully charge the speaker. I am not sure how long it might take from a 500mA USB-port. The new charger has no foldable contacts now and it is not as flat as the old one, but I wouldn't see that as drawback as you can really charge the speaker from any USB-port now.

Designwise not much has changed compared to the predecessor. Appart form the different color they still look pretty much the same, but the new one has the edges chamfered now. This little details does not only feel much better than before, but it also give a more refined look, together with the rubber seal of the speaker at the grille-side it looks much more coherent now.

But also the side ports are not simple holes drilled into the aluminium body, but rather an own unified element. These might be small details, but they are definitely a big improvement. I think that the old version looked and felt already great, but the new one especially the dark version even tops this.

The top control area remained the same but was simplified with less buttons. The aux and mute-buttons are missing now, instead both volume buttons frame a new center function button. This button has many functions and can act as track-control, something the old Soundlink Mini didn't have, and it can also control the built-in handsfree which was also missing before.
For controlling music playback double press will take you one track forward, while tripple press will take you back. A short press will either start or stop playback. You can either start calls by keeping the button pressed (and activating Siri) or reject calls and even jump between calls etc. Lots of functions possible through a single button.

At the bottom of the speaker you can still find the same big rubber foot that absorbs any unwanted vibration of the speaker well. Underneath this foot you will find the battery, attached by 4 torx-screws just like before. The battery is still of the same type and delivers 7.4V with 2330mAh, but I was quite surprised that it is not that easily exchangeable as before, because the contacts are soldered through a wire to the circuit board now. You might still be able to swap batteries with some tinkering but it is not a one-handgrip procedure as it was before. A pity and not quite logical, as a user replaceable battery is always a big plus for any portable speaker, now if this feature has been cut, a big advantage over most other speakers was robbed with the Soundlink Mini II. But Bose will hopefully have their reasons for this step.

Apart from that not much has changed with the general appearance. The Soundlink Mini II just feels like the old one with the same weight and heft, just slightly more refined thanks to the chamfered edges and a slightly different structure of the anodized aluminium body.
It feels much more solid and premium than the JBL Charge 2 for example, which doesn't feel cheap but gives a bit of a toyish impression when directly compared.

The Denon Envaya Mini is even slightly smaller than the Bose, but longer at the same time, overall cubature is more or less similar between both. Altough the Denon feels extremely well made, the Bose just gives you that extra feel of having something expensive in your hand. But I would not hesitate of tossing the Denon into my rucksack, while when I did with my Soundlink Mini the speaker grille immediately got a dent...
The new Sony SRS-X33 might have become smaller than the old X3, but it is still larger than the Soundlink Mini II, and won't give you any premium feel either.

On looks alone the Soundlink Mini II is extremely good looking and seems to be well made. But I wouldn't want to use it in an outdoor enviroment without any additional protection. It is not rugged in any way, although the silicone sleeves available as extra might help a little bit, but the front and back grilles will still remain totally exposed and are quite prone to scratches or dents. Neither it is protected against water or splashes and I would rather avoid using it at the pool where it might become wet, while the Denon Envaya Mini should be perfectly protected.

The most obvious changes compared to the old Soundlink Mini appear when you turn on the speaker for the first time. A voice will guide you to select the correct language and after setting your language it will tell you that the speaker is ready to pair. The voice prompts are exactly the same as in the Soundlink Colour. Of course you can also disable them, and although I don't like this speech-synthesizer voice much, it really helps if you intend to use the speaker with many different Bluetooth sources. The Soundlink Mini II is the next and only speaker after the Soundlink Colour which allows for an easy and comfortable pairing of multiple devices or switching between them. The Soundlink Mini II supports multipoint pairing to 2 devices at once, when the first device stopped playback the second device can start playback immediately, they cannot take over playback or steal it from the other device as it is possible on the JBL Charge 2 for example. Still pairing works so much better on the Soundlink Mini II than on any other Bluetooth speaker I have tried so far. After powering on it will tell you the current charging status of the battery and then it will automatically connect to both recently used devices with the voice telling you which devices are currently connected. If you want to connect to another already paired device instead, you don't need to dig into menus to disable Bluetooth on the first devices or brake the connection in some other way, by bringing the devices out of reach (don't laugh, this is how my mother always dealt with this problem) but simply press Bluetooth-button on the speaker again and the voice guide will tell you the next device in its list. If this is not the device you want to connect to, press the button again as long as the disired device is called then after some seconds the speaker will automatically try to connect to this device. If the device is not present or reachable the speaker will tell you that it cannot connect and you can repeat the whole thing with another device.
It might appear logical and simple, but only Bose really figured it out how to make the whole Bluetooth-pairing and connection procedure as simple and hasslefree as possible. I was already quite excited about this feature on the Soundlink Colour and decided to replace my mother's Soundlink Mini with the Soundlink Colour, as she always had problems with connecting to the right device, either the Soundlink Mini connected to her iPad instead of iPhone or it didn't connect at all.
With the Soundlink Mini II Bluetooth connections finally become as easy as with the Soundlink Colour and much better than on any other speaker I have tried so far. The Denon Envaya Mini, the JBL Charge 2 etc, they all might support multipoint pairing, but they never connect to 2 devices at once on their own, besides they always try connecting to the latest devices only by simply ignoring any other already paired device. The only way to connect from other devices is to dig up the menu and select the speaker manually from the list.
The Soundlink Mini II can remenber up to 10 different bluetooth devices, which is plenty and thanks to the unique switching ability you can cycle through all of them with a simple button-press.
The only drawback with this cycle-mode or switching-mode is that you will lose your multipoint connection to both currently connected devices. If you are for example connected to your iPhone and iPad at the same time, but instead of the iPad want to connect to your Notebook and start cycling through the whole list, as soon as the notebook is finally connected both iPhone and iPad won't be connected anymore. You will have to reconnect the iPhone again manually from its Bluetooth menu. This is at least what I have experienced.
On iOS devices volume control is mirrored between speaker and player. You still get all 100 volume steps when controlled directly through the speaker, or you can also control the volume through the volume buttons of your iPhone and will get 16 dedicated steps. Fortunately volume control is rather linear instead of what JBL is doing with the Charge 2, where the first steps manage to double the loudness until the jumps become finally smaller above the 5th step.
Another feature inherited from the Soundlink Colour is the ability to disable autopower off. Some owners seem to use their speakers in a stationary way. But the old Soundlink Mini shut off on its own after 30 miuntes regardless if it was running from battery or AC-power. Now with the Soundlink Mini II you can disable autopower off if the speaker is connected to AC-power. It will still power off though if running from battery and it would power off anyhow when the battery became empty...
So good news for all those who want to use the Soundlink Mini II as a kitchen radio permanently turned on or even as an alarm clock, although what a big waste this would be to use it just in that way.
Battery life is claimed to be improved with up to 10 hours (vs. 7 hours of the old one). As both still use the same battery any real changes must be rather based on some internal optimization. To see if there is any difference I let both play at their maximum volume with the same playlist to see when they will turn off. The Soundlink Mini II managed to play for exactly 3:25 until it turned off on its own, my own Soundlink Mini played for 2:55 hours. Just keep in mind that the battery of my Soundlink Mini is close to 2 years old, so there will be probably some loss of capacity, with this taken under consideration I am not really impressed with the battery life of the Soundlink Mini  II, it seems to still be hardly any better, the improvement is less than 20% despite having a completely fresh battery to begin with.

Now let's check the most important part namely if the sound has changed in some way compared to the previous model. First for all those who have not heard any Soundlink Mini so far, although I really doubt there will be anyone, let me give you some details about the general sound quality. If you are used to the sound you get from a Jambox, a JBL Flip or some other similarly compact speakers, the Soundlink Mini II sounds much more full-bodied. As long as you don't crank it close to maximum you really get the impression as if you were listening to a much larger speaker. Although both are tuned slightly differently, the Soundlink Mini II sounds pretty similar to the much larger Soundlink III which is no bass-slouch either, it is just when the Soundlink Mini starts struggling at levels above 70% that the Soundlink III is still going strong, but at normal levels I sometimes even preferred the sound of the Soundlink Mini. That being said the Soundlink Mini sounds more mature than many other even much bigger speakers including such models like TDK A33, B&W T7, I am not even mentioning the UE Megaboom here etc. You just have to be aware of the limits and that the sound starts to deteriorate at higher levels with some stronger bass reduction and noticeable dynamic compression.
Despite having quite a pronounced presence-region above 2kHz the upper treble area is rolling off much too early resulting in a muffled sound as treble above 12kHz has a very steep cutoff. If treble extended higher the sound would be perfectly in balance together with the obvious bass-boost, but as it is now the Soundlink Mini II simply sounds too bass-heavy most of the time as if it was playing behind some curtain. It is still acceptable, as long as you keep it aimed directly at you, but listen from some angle and there will be no treble at all albeit the presence region below will still give you the impression of some clarity which many might confuse with real treble. The Soundlink Mini sounds clear even off-axis, but it is totally missing any upper treble sparkle. You probably won't hear this when you are over 60, but any teenager will notice the tendency of the Soundlink Mini II to sound dull. Many will prefer the stronger treble boost of a Sony SRS-X33 or JBL Charge 2. The Bose Soundlink Mini II might appear even clearer sounding than the Denon Envaya Mini, although the Denon extends much higher, but the Denon has no obvious boosts, it is tuned relatively flat, while with the Bose I have the impression as if the boosted presence area is there to compensate for the missing upper treble.
The Soundlink Mini II doesn't sound bad and I prefer it much more over a speaker that has no bass at all like the UE Boom or the JBL Flip, it is just that it could get away with some better treble extension. This would make it sound much more balanced and pleasant to listen to than it is now.
Let me give you some details about the changes in sound compared to the old version or if has changed at all. Yes it has changed indeed, but the changes are hardly noticeable. You won't hear any difference if you don't have both devices in front of you for a direct comparison. Anyone who hoped for some improvement in treble or whatever will rather be disappointed, it is still the same sound you are getting here. The only thing Bose adjusted is that they took away a little bit of bass. The new Soundlink Mini II does not sound that overly bloated as before, but the difference is really marginal. It is maybe a 2dB reduction over the entire spectrum up to 500Hz. There is more reduction at lower levels and less reduction at higher levels. Many complained about the sound being too heavy and thick at low levels and Bose seem to have this corrected, although I really think that it is still very heavy sounding with the bass having a tendency to drone out the mids. The high amount of bass wouldn't be such a problem as it doesn't have any resonance and reaches really low, you get some response well below 60Hz at low levels. Bose seem to apply a kind of loudness compensation as the bass is boosted more and more at lower levels and reduced at high levels, this makes the speaker always sound full and mature, the problem is rather that the bass becomes a bit uncontrolled at levels above half. Despite the slight bass reduction with the new model there is still some distortion and droning noticeable with particular recordings. Something you won't get from the JBL Charge 2 or the Denon Envaya Mini which play the same songs much more controlled. I cannot list the Sony SRS-X33 here as this distorts even more than the Soundlink Mini II, and sounds really much worse than either of them if higher levels are considered.
While there were quite big changes in sound with every generation of the bigger Soundlink models (Soundlink I, Soundlink II, Soundlink III), Bose didn't really change anything this time. The bass reduction I am hearing might also be some sample variation between different units or simply the missing of any "burn in"-period for the new model.

Let's see how it performs from the measurements. Here you can see the entire volume-range of the Soundlink Mini II with 10 steps between each measurement.

I picked up 3 measurements of the Soundlink Mini (grey) and Soundlink Mini II (black) to compare both directly, the lowest one was taken at 40% the one above at 75% and the top one at their maximum volume. As you can see they still measure pretty much the same, the only real significant difference is the overall louder bass oft the old Soundlink Mini, any other differences could be also caused by slightly varying placement for both speakers or simply the result of a stiffer cone suspension of the newer unit
Of course you will be interested how the Soundlink Mini II fares against all the other current contenders, therefore I measured them all at around 70% of their volume, where all of them are already starting to apply some bass reduction.
First let's compare the Soundlink Mini II with the Sony SRS-X33 (red). You can see that the Sony has similarly deep bass as the Bose, but the frequency dip in the upper bass region is starting to become pretty obvious at this level, at the same time treble extends quite a bit higher on the Sony:

Compared to the JBL Charge 2+ (green) the Bose shows a louder overall bass which is reaching even slightly deeper, but the strong bass and treble peak of the JBL is clearly visible and manages to give the JBL even a punchier sound especially at higher levels where the JBL retains more bass than the Bose. What's not visible from this measurements is that the JBL has no distortion at this level yet, while the Bose already shows more than 20% THD close to 80Hz:

The Denon Envaya Mini (blue) measures relatively flat and doesn't have any of Bose's boosts, but the bass of the Denon doesn't quite reach as deep, still the Denon will give you a much more natural and realistic sound than the Bose and it has better treble extension as well.

I also prepared a short video demonstrating the most obviouis changes between the old Soundlink Mini and the new model but also differences in sound if you are able to discern any:

The Soundlink Mini II is definitely a big improvement over the old model in many aspects, it just doesn't improve on sound. If you already liked the sound of the Soundlink Mini, you should love the Soundlink Mini II as well, especially in regard to all the new features included now. It you didn't like it so far, it is unlikely that you will like the new model, as both still sound pretty much the same. Nevertheless the Soundlink Mini II will probably still remain the market leader for portable Bluetooth speakers and in reality it is a great speaker with all necessary functions built in: It can be charged through USB now and it has handsfree included as well. Bose doesn't do things by halves and everything they included into the Soundlink Mini II works really well and much better than on most other competing speakers. I really love the easy and reliable connection to many different Bluetooth sources. We can argue about the sound quality, but I wouldn't call it bad, it is just that it could have been improved or finetuned a bit within the last 2 years. Obviously the selling success so far showed Bose that the main part of their customers are already satisfied and they decided not to change anything. If you like the heavy Bose tuning and still don't own the old version go out and grab the new one, as it is an excellent portable speaker, just handle it with care and don't throw it into the water, but on sound quality alone you will be definitely much more satisfied than with anything UE is offering so far. If you already own a Soundlink Mini but were longing for some more hifi-like sound tuning, you might still want to wait a little bit until the RIVA S appears, because from what I heard so far I think this will be finally the portable speaker all of us audio geeks were waiting for. Alternatively both JBL Charge 2 and Denon Envaya Mini are worthy alternatives, the JBL Charge 2 with a more punchy sound and better battery life but also the ability to charge external devices, while I would call the Denon Envaya Mini more natural sounding than both the Bose and JBL. It all depends on the music style and on your taste.
It is great to finally have the choice between such high quality portable speakers and Bose led us the way to this. If not the Bose Soundlink Mini, we would still be satisfied with a Jambox or UE Boom paying 200$ for that junk without being aware that it could become any better...

+ great design and high premium feel
+ very full-bodied sound, still one of the bassiest compact speakers around
+ best Bluetooth implementation so far
+ handsfree
+ automatic multipoint pairing with 2 devices simultaneously
+ easy switching between different devices
+ voice prompts helpful to indentify paired devices
+ track controls on the speaker
+ mirrored volume with iOS devices
+ 100 dedicated volume steps
+ charging through MicroUSB 
+ charging cradle included
+ auto power off can be turned on or off 

- no real improvement in sound compared to the old model
- treble recessed and highly directional
- bass can become dominating due to high overall boost
- bass becomes out of control at levels above half
- strong dynamic compression at levels above 70%
- not rugged nor water resistant
- no AptX, NFC...
- no stereo pairing with another one 
- battery not easily user-replaceable now
- expensive