Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review: Audio Pro Addon T3 - smaller and better than the Marshall Kilburn?

Prior to the IFA I didn't know much about the Swedish speaker company "Audio Pro". I have seen their Addon T10 speaker quite often when browsing through amazon, but it didn't catch that much of my attention until I discovered their latest announcement of the portable Addon T3 Bluetooth speaker.
Someone on Youtube claimed that the T3 sounded so much better so than he had to return his JBL Xtreme, while Whafhifi even awarded the T3 the first place in their Bluetooth speaker group test among other devices like JBL Xtreme, Onkyo X6 etc. And although Whathifi often awards highest ratings to rather mediocre speakers like the B&W T7 or the Cambridge Audio Go V2, I got nevertheless curious about the Addon T3 and thanks to the Austrian distributor Novisgroup I was able to receive a review sample from them, so that I could finally convince myself if this speaker really sounds that great. Jump in to find out more.

After the Canton Musicbox XS, the Audio Pro Addon T3 is my second coverage of the most promising IFA announcements I collected here. The Audio Pro Addon T3 is interesting because of its design. Apart from some funny resemblence of a Koala-bear, while some rather think to see Mickey Mouse in it, it simply looks like a real Hifi-speaker, albeit a shrinked one with an added carrying grip and an internal battery.

Most interesting is the battery life claim, which should be 30 hours at half volume and still some impressive 12 hours at maximum. This would be indeed class-leading. Many companies state their speakers for 20-30 hours, but if you turn them up to maximum or close to that, they will even die after 1 hour. 20 hours of a UE Megaboom become more like 3:20 when played at maximum. Not so with the Addon T3, which indeed should deliver enough energy for a whole day at the beach with some additional hours for the afterparty. But to tell the truth, this is not a speaker I would willingly want to take to the beach. Not only the form factor is a bit disadvantageous for real portable use, but it is simply the finish which I would rather prefer not to get in touch with sand, dirt etc. This is rather a speaker for home-use, but also around the house maybe, not one that I would take with me on trips etc, which is a pity, because the Addon T3 sounds really great, but more on this later.

The Addon T3 is equipped with AptX for best streaming quality, but there is no handsfree or other gimmicks, no voice prompts, no distracting welcome-tones, a real serious speaker. Some may also miss track-controls, or NFC, it doesn't have multipairing etc but is really reduced to the basics of a Bluetooth speaker with more of a puristic approach.

Finish and build quality is great, although the external material is some kind of plastic, but give quite a durable impression. But this is no metal or aluminium, it is some painted plastic and comes within numerous different colours. My test-sample came in orange and was quite an eye-catcher. But as I liked the speaker so much I returned the orange unit and bought my own white one, which fits a bit better into our house.

The first thing that came into my mind when I played around with the T3 was, that it reminded me of the Marshall Kilburn. Not so much on looks, but simply on features, specs and also acoustic design. The Audio Pro Addon T3 looks like a shrinked Marshall Kilburn. It has the same driver layout with one bigger woofer and 2 tweeters, the same power rating of 25 Watts the same bassreflex port and the same battery compartment at the bottom, with exactly the same type of battery built in just arranged differently. Both even have the power supply built in, so you just need a powercable for charging. This cannot be just pure coincidence, but more on that later.

The operation is pretty simple: you get a control panel with a power button along with a bluetooth pairing button, an auxiliary input button and volume buttons, nothing else. If you intend to use the speaker in darkness or elevated on some shelf where you won't see the buttons it is quite hard to determine which one to press to increase volume as they are close to flush with the surrounding panel. The power button has to be kept pressed for a second to turn the speaker or on off. Unfortunately volume control is not synced between streaming device and speaker, but at least it does not have any influence on sound, regardless if you keep the speaker at maximum or the other way round as there is no additional dynamic sound compensation. The T3 sounds always the same independent of the actual volume level with exception of the highest levels, where some intelligend protection circuit starts kicking in and limiting lower frequencies to avoid distortion.
The T3 does not provide any sound adjustment as it is the case with the Marshall Kilburn. But to tell the truth, I didn't like the result of both bass and treble dials that much on the Kilburn as the bass dial boosted a range around 150Hz, which I would rather want to take down, and treble was already well defined as well. If you want to change the sound to your liking, you will have to use some kind or EQ-app etc but I don't think it is really necessary.

As already mentioned the battery can be replaced in case it should die after heavy usage, just unscrew 2 torx-wrenches and you will get access to the battery which seems to be a four-pack of 18650 cells. And the Addon T3 can also charge external USB devices in contrast to the Kilburn which didn't provide this option. In this case the T3 delivers 1A at 5V.

My only gripe would regard the strange grip design. It is simply much too narrow to really give any secure hold. I really have to press in my fingers with some force to get a hold, I am not quite convinced about this and hope the grip will maybe become looser after some usage. Apart from nothing to moan about. The feet at the bottom give a bit of cheap "Ikea"-kind of impression, like the sticky protection guards you can buy in any building centre, but this is really no important. The higher front feet help to tilt the speaker slightly upwards, which is of course nice if you listen from above.

When I first listened to the T3 it managed to convince me from the very beginning. It has a nice smooth frequency resposne with a healthy amount of bass which even has some lower response below 50Hz and with very nice mids and wonderfully sparkling treble definition. It simply sounds good and I would get so far to claim that it is one of the best speakers in this class that I have heard so far and close to real Hifi.
It sounds comparable to the Marshall Kilburn, but funnily even better. It doesn't have this honkiness of the Kilburn and sounds more restrained overall with even better bass-punch, which surprised me a lot, given the fact that the T3 is even smaller. But overall tuning seems to pretty similar between both speakers as I still think that both are built around equal or similar components, just that Audio Pro squeezes a better result out of it.
Of course the T3 is bigger than a B&W T7 or a Soundlink III, but it also sounds considerably better, simply more mature and more serious, without any artificial boosts and sound enhancements. Putting the JBL Xtreme beside, the T3 will sound more natural, far not as bass heavy but with much smoother mids and treble at the same time. At the same time you won't get any loudness compensation. This might of course result in some tinny sound at low levels, but in fact it doesn't. Sure the T3 won't play as full-bodied as the Soundlink Mini at low levels, but it still sounds pretty full and far from tinny, it is just that you won't get this strong bass boost. I especially liked the "kick" that the speaker delivered at normal listening levels, it was able to hit stronger than the JBL Xtreme without this strong bass boost.
The T3 holds up pretty well up to 75-80%. It has 50 volume steps and up to step 40 it sounds prefectly clean and meaty without any obvious bass reduction or compression while being free of any kind of distortion, even with some heavier and bassy stuff. Up from there the bass obviously cannot keep up that well and the higher you turn up volume the more the treble will be pushed forwards. At maximum the T3 becomes really treble-heavy, the bass is still there and hits strong, but it is simply softer than the treble. It is not bad and still sounds punchy, it is also comparably loud to the Marshall Kilburn, but sounds more forced also due to some additional limiter that tends to make the sound pump quite a bit with dynamic recordings. If you want best results, I would keep the speaker some notches below maximum.
Something you won't get from the T3 is any kind of stereo separation. Only the 2 tweeters have some distance between them, but there is just one woofer, so some left/right separation will be limited to higher frequencies, but from 1 meter away even this will disappear. This is not a severe problem as very few single cabinet manage any real stereo sound at all, so I wouldn't rate this as a negative point. There is simply no way to get a sense for stereo with this design. I only think Geneva Lab has some tricks up in their sleeves with "embracing sound" technology, which they still seem to apply for their latest Aerosphere speakers, although I haven't heard them yet, so I cannot judge how good it works in reality.

If we look at the frequency response measurement of the T3 (orange) especially when put against the Marshall Kilburn (grey) at a medium volume level and at maximum, it is noticeble that both have lots in common. The Marshall is just more boosted in some areas like upper bass and lower treble, but the general tuning is similar between both, although I prefer the more relaxed response of the T3 over the Kilburn:

To give you an idea about the sound of the Addon T3, I prepared a video. I would have liked to put it against the Marshall Kilburn, but as I didn't have any at hand I simply took the JBL Xtreme instead. I think the T3 sounds quite a bit better overall with a more natural sound, nicer sweeter treble response and less artificial bass-boost. Although I must confess that for outdoor listening I definitely preferred the more bass heavy tuning of the Xtreme more, but the T3 is no slouch even outdoors, it is just that it needs a bit of higher levels to really rock, as due to the lack of loudness compensation it might appear a little tinny when played outdoors at low levels.

There's not much not to like about the Audio Pro Addon T3, if you like the looks and don't mind a less portable speaker than those book-sized devices from Bose B&W etc, the T3 is definitely in a league of its own. Soundwise it could be even regarded as some kind of reference in this class, that's also the reason why I bought my own unit and will use this for my future tests and comparisons with other speakers, just keep in mind that you will not get any real sense of stereo, but hardly any of these devices really offers this with exception of those that apply some particular tech like RIVA with their "Trillium" technology or Genvea Lab with "embracing sound". Of course a HK Onyx Studio 2 will sound even more profound than the T3, I think Harman tweaked the sound of the new model quite a bit compared to the old Onyx and Onyx Studio models, as it seems to sound clearer and even fatter than before, at least this is the impression I got. The T3 cannot quite compete with the powerful and more bassy tuning of the Onyx Studio 2, but I think it sounds more natural at the same time.  It is smaller, although both are not really suitable to be carried around in a backpack or something, but at least the T3 has really an outstanding battery life in contrast to the Onyx Studio 2. The T3 gets my strong recommendation for anyone looking for true Hifi-like sound in a puristic and portable form-factor. I have yet to hear something much better.

+ great simple design with high built quality
+ mature and smooth Hifi-like sound
+ little distortion up to maximum volume
+ AptX
+ classleading battery life
+ battery easily replaceable
+ no external charger required
+ no tones, no voice prompts

- a bit too large and boxy for transport
- grip too narrow for a secure hold
- no multipairing
- volume control not in sync between speaker and player
- strong treble-boost at high levels close to maximum
- no loudness compensation at lowest levels