Thursday, July 2, 2015

Review: Braven BRV-PRO

Braven BRV-PRO Review:

:by Kyle Weldon (July 1, 2015)

Bravens latest rugged outdoor entry into the portable bluetooth speaker scene is an overall solid speaker.  The design follows its little brother, the BRV-1, in many respects and for those familiar with the BRV-1, you know its a decent portable rugged speaker design.  Bravens approach on the audio spectrum is for these devices to be used in an outdoor environment.  I will break down the various aspects of the speaker below, but overall the sound signature is set for outdoor listening, with an emphasis on the midrange and treble section of the audio output.  But, the PRO does carry a good solid low end as well, once you hit certain volume levels.  Lets get into the particulars on the speaker:

PACKAGING:  The BRV-PRO is packaged very well, and the design is definitely for retail sale.  A magnetic flap cover wraps the box, then revealing the speaker through a plastic window.  Once the box is opened from the top, youll find the carry strap, USB Cable and hex wrench.  Below a small plastic tray is the speaker itself.  The packaging is attractive and informative as well.

BUILD QUALITY:  This is where the BRV-PRO gets some of the highest marks.  The overall construction and heft of the speaker is really quite amazing.  With the aluminum top and bottom plates, the thick heavy rubber feet and surrounds, rugged hinged port cover and steel grillthis is truly one military grade tank' of a speaker.  With its IPX7 rating, the user manual does not say you can submerge the speaker, but rather the waterproof rating is for water jets and splashing.  The micro USB port, 3.5mm line in, and USB A charge out port are not sealed / waterproof type ports, like youd find on the Fugoo.  The hinged port cover is designed to seal off those ports from any moisture.  I would be cautious actually submerging the BRV-PRO into water, as the ports would not withstand a direct assault of H2O, or beer, or the like.  Although, I think the hinged port cover would most likely keep a good seal and not let in moisture.  The carry strap and strap holders on the sides of the speaker are functional and add a bit of color to the device.   

FEATURE SET:  Here is another category where the BRV-PRO really shines as well.  It is a swiss army knifetype of speaker, especially when you factor in the add on accessories.  According to Braven, the unit has (2) 6-watt drivers and the updated bass radiator module, which is more of an oblong oval radiator located in the bottom of the speaker.  I did remove the front grill and was able to verify that Braven is using an aluminum cone technology in this unit, much like their 855 and new BRV-HD series of speakers.  Micro USB charging of the unit, 3.5mm audio input, the USB A charge out (5V ~ 1A), the 5 LED battery meter, and the reset button all live behind the hinged port cover on the back of the unit.  Top of unit has the 4 function buttons for power, play/pause/answer call/hangup, volume up + (hold for track forward), and volume down - (hold for track back).  The accessory plate is also located at the top of the speaker, removable with 4 hex screws.  Pressing and holding the play/pause button puts the BRV-PRO into bluetooth pairing mode.  Bottom of unit has the open holed aluminum plate (housing the bass radiator) and the small attachment port for BRV-PRO stacking.  Yep, you can stack multiple units using the optional stacking plate.  

Speaking of accessories, this is one of the first gen bluetooth speakers to give the end user add-on options.  Braven has developed an extended battery pack, action mount, stacking plate, and the solar panel.  The action mount installs on the bottom of the BRV-PRO, where the other 3 accessories attach to the top of the PRO.  Battery pack is a 3800mah pack with LED meter to check battery level.  Braven reports up to 40 hours of runtime with the battery pack attached.  Stacking plate allows multiple PROs to be stacked, and according to the webstie, the stacking can be unlimited.  Wowlike a 6tower of BRV-PROsmaybe a new kind of portable line array system?? 

  The solar panel is probably the most coolaccessory, in that it can keep your BRV-PRO running for an extended period of time.  I did check with Braven about lighting conditions (indoor vs. outdoor) and am waiting for a response.  I will most likely snag a solar panel and run some various tests (run time, light source, charging of iPhone w/ panel, etc.).  The accessory port is a great idea and will allow for future expansion of the BRV-PRO in various ways.  Time will tell to reveal what other options Braven will dream up for this accessory port.  Good call, Braven!

Battery is rated at 15 hours of playback (at 50%which would be volume steps 7-8) and it takes 2-3 hours to charge.  From what I can see the internal battery is not user replaceable.

SOUND: Now, to what my friend Oluv and I consider the most important categorySOUND.  Lets face it, we buy these bluetooth speakers for sound.  Better sound, fuller soundsound that gives us the chills when listening to our favorite artists & songs.  Well, the BRV-PRO gets a 6 out of 10 in the sound realm.  Ive compared it with the UE Boom, JBL Charge 2, and the Denon Envaya Mini.  And, gotta saythe BRV-PRO does pretty well against these 3 speakers in shear volume, but not necessarily quality of sound.  The Fugoo would also be another unit I can mentallycompare it with, as I had several of the Fugoo speakers to test and get familiar with months ago. 

VOLUME: the volume control is a device paired control, with 15 volume steps.  Meaning that the BRV-PRO and playback device volumes are in syncspeaker controls device and device controls speaker.  My test playback device is an iPhone 6, so this may be an iOS feature only, as I do not have an Android device to test with.  The 15 volume steps are fairly uniform from 1-10, then the unit starts to dramatically jump in volume within steps 11-15.  I think Braven kept the volume curve very sloped until the last 5 steps for a reasonthat being to get a 15 hour battery rating at 50% volume.  Which, at steps 7-8, is a decent near-field volume level.  Here is a BIG PLUS though, at step 15MAXthere is no distortion!  Zero.  And its loud, just as loud as the Denon Envaya Mini, JBL Charge 2, and UE Boom.  Here is an RTA breakdown, using pink noise...max volume on wired connection...measured at 1 meter...31 band average measurement:

     Braven BRV-PRO:   88.3db   
     Denon Envaya Mini: 84.7db
     JBL Charge 2:    84.4db
     UE Boom:    85.7db

Id honestly say that the BRV-PRO sounds its best at max volume as well…solid bass, mids true, and highs very clean and clear.  I can detect a compression circuit kicking in as well, keeping all the sound held together through the (2) 6-watt drivers.  With program material (Maroon V It Was Always You), the PRO generated 83.7db on average at 1 meter.  Not bad for a hand-held tank.
SOUND QUALITY: as stated in my intro, this is an outdoor speaker.  As Ive spent more time with the unit, at various volume steps with various track material, there is a huge jump in fullness and quality of sound at certain steps.  Breaking it down some more:

Steps 1-7: small sound, very thin, lacks bass
Steps 8-12: bass comes in, mids and highs hold true
Steps 13-15: this is where the speaker REALLY sounds its best.  Fuller sound, mids and highs still spot on, and the bass is now not only heard, but also felt a bit.  Step 15, as stated above, is MAXand it sounds great.  Will report later on the battery run time at max volume.

The sound processing could use some help on the BRV-PRO.  The Denon Envaya Mini and JBL Charge 2 have excellent digital signal processing (DSP) and bass compensation at low volumes.  BRV-PRO may have some processing and EQ, but the bass compensation is absent, for sure at low volumes, and there is a bit of compression at higher volumes.  If one needs a low-volume, full bodied sound in a waterproof, rugged speakerget a Fugoo Tough.  I have also detected a bit of signal distortion or "bluetooth clipping" at most volume levels, especially when there are defined bass hits and kick drums.  This is not in the drivers / amp section but in the wireless chipset.  It's almost like the bluetooth receiver in the BRV-PRO is wide open and is clipping just a small amount.  At higher volumes, it's not as detectable.
One feature that Oluv and I look for is low volume bass processing, or as Braven calls it in their new "Balance" speaker, bass optimization.  (I did snag a Braven Balance and will report on that unit far, pretty impressive).  Anyways, back to the PRO.  It is a pretty thin sounding speaker until you hit volume steps 8 - 15.  I would say on par with most low-cost, 2 driver speaker options available in the $40 - 100 range.  But when you hit step 10, it starts to sound good, and then at MAX...well, it's just pretty darn impressive.  My bass-test torture track (Infected Mushroom "Mambacore") held together very nicely.  

All that being said, it is also a pretty mono sound field, due to the closeness of the drivers to each other.

CONCLUSION:  Let's do some category ratings for this part...

BUILD QUALITY: 9 out of 10
FEATURE SET: 9 out of 10
SOUND: 6 out of 10

Simply put, it's an outdoor speaker, voiced for an outdoor sound experience (much like the UE Boom).  If I had to chose an outdoor, rugged speaker, at this $120-220 price point, I would rate them as such: (1) Braven BRV-PRO (2) Fugoo Tough (3) UE Boom.  The BRV-PRO wins due to a mix of all it's features and design, plus the add-on accessories.  Sound is it's weakest point, but still good at higher volumes.  I think Braven would benefit greatly from additional sound engineering and added DSP with this really could sound amazing at all volume levels.  Maybe a firmware update at some point??  Not sure Braven units can take a firmware update, but that would be another nice feature to add on.

So, do you need to pick one up?  It's a little steep at $149.  Worth it?  If you need the feature set (2200mah battery, USB charge out, add-on accessories and built like a tank, toss-able over a bridge)...YES!  If it's hi-def full range sound you seek...look elsewhere (i.e. Denon Envaya Mini or JBL Charge 2+).  There were several BRV-1 units that I have tried over the years as well.  BRV-PRO is definitely louder and more feature-packed, but overall, it's a very similar sound signature as the BRV-1.  Are there better sounding speakers for $149...absolutely.  Do they have the feature set of the BRV-PRO...absolutely not.  Braven would have a winner here if it was $119 and had better DSP and bass optimization.  Maybe in the BRV-PRO 2??  We can only hope...