Thursday, October 15, 2015

Review: Canton Musicbox XS - Bose clone "made in Germany"

Some time ago the original Jambox became a kind of template for many copycats which started bringing out speakers looking pretty much the same. In the meantime the Bose Soundlink Mini seems to have taken over this role as many companies are simply trying to copy the design and the sound of Bose with mostly just so-so results. Even Bose didn't change much for its Soundlink Mini II, they still pretty much look and sound the same with the same flaws and the same uncontrolled and distorted sound. And although the Soundlink Mini is far from really good sounding many companies still seem to take this as a kind of reference for their own speaker designs with the Canton Musicbox XS being probably the most extreme example I have tried so far. I highly regard Canton as a well established German speaker manufacturer delivering high-quality prodcuts and when I heard about their first Bluetooth speaker that was presented at the IFA I became really curious to hear it in person because it seemed pretty promising. Jump in to find out if the Musicbox XS is just another of these rip-offs or if Canton managed to deliver some really unique product.

The Canton Musicbox XS is the first of Canton's portable Bluetooth speakers lineup. The upcoming one being the Musicbox S, which resembles more of a Sony SRS-X55 design. I am not sure about availability worldwide but in Germany many retailers already offered it shortly after the IFA for 199€.

Actually I like the very simple and boxy "Bauhaus"-aesthetics of Canton's Musicboxes. I prefer this over the rounded and converging edges of the Soundlink Mini. The only part breaking the simple aesthetics is the larger center area or pad containing the oversized Musicbox label which is also acting as NFC-sensor. Although this makes the speaker look a bit cheap, it doesn't feel cheap at all, it is equally well built as the Bose Soundlink Mini with a kind of premium finish and premium materials including a similar rubber foot as the Bose, probably covering the internal battery compartment. But I didn't try to tear the rubber foot away, therefore I am just speculating and cannot even say if the battery is easily replaceable or not as it was the case with the first Soundlink Mini. In the meantime Bose decided to solder the battery directly on to the Soundlink Mini II to prevent an easy user replacement, otherwise the battery would still be easily accessible just not that easily replaceable...

The speaker comes inside a compact box with orange color-accents including an own charger unit and some manuals, but no other accessories. The most intriguing fact is the power rating quoted on the box which says 60 Watts! This is a very bold claim, especially if we remember the rating for the JBL Xtreme being 40 Watts (when run from AC-power) and being able to play twice as loud as the Musicbox XS, this makes Canton appear a bit dubious and I have no idea what they intended with such claims made up out of thin air.

Although the Musicbox XS is equipped with an own Micro-USB port, this is obviously just meant for service or update reasons. Charging has to be done through the included charger which is a bit of a pity, as so many even larger speakers do meanwhile provide the option to be charged through USB.

Although I have heard rumors that Canton might indeed extend this port for charging in future, I think these are just rumors and technically maybe even not possible at all. But it would be definitely great to have the choice for USB-charging as well, even if it took twice as long.

During charging the power button will flash blue to become steady when the unit is charged. In fact nearly all buttons are equipped with an own LED including the Bluetooth-button and the Aux-button. Depending on the action or status some LED will always start flashing or shining and I never quite understood what is going on and why this or that button is currently lit. If you turn off the speaker, the power button will start flashing and continue to do so, although the speaker should be already off...
After powering on the speaker usually remains silent and won't play any tones, but a voice prompt will signalize if the speaker is in pairing mode or when it is paired. So far I have not found any way to turn off the voice prompts completely but they are far not as disturbing as some other permanently talking speakers I have already tried.

The Musicbox XS supports Apt-X and multipairing with 2 devices at once. It also supports true wireless stereo with another Musicbox XS, although then multipairing will be disabled. Of course I was not able to try out wireless stereo as I would have needed a second speaker, but pairing is achieved by some combined button presses on both devices which appeared a bit confusing for me when reading about it inside the manual.

There are no track controls available directly through the speaker but at least volume control is mirrored between both iOS devices and speaker. The Musicbox XS has 16 dedicated volume steps which are exactly in-sync with the 16 steps when controlled through the iPhone's volume buttons. This might appear a bit low, as all Bose speakers still allow 100 steps when controlled through the speaker, but the volume curve of the Canton Musicbox XS is nevertheless set pretty sensibly and gives the option for a fine enough control at low levels, something many other speakers don't manage with the first volume steps being either too loud or with jumps between each step being too rough etc.

I had no problems with using the speaker even without having read the manual at all with exception of all the blinking buttons, which I was never quite sure what they tried to tell me, but there is a dedicated long list inside the manual which will reveal all possible meanings for each of the LEDs, depending if they are flashing or steady lit etc.
The Musicbox XS seems to have some auto power off which becomes active when the speaker is not in use for 5 minutes.
Battery life was pretty impressive as I got 4:05 hours when played at maximum whole the time. This is nearly 1 hour longer than what I got from the Bose Soundlink Mini II, which doesn't even manage to play as loud as the Canton.

Now let's directly jump to the sound of the Musicbox XS and the funny 60W power claim, if it is really true. The first thing I noticed when I played the first notes through the Musicbox XS was that it sounded really familiar which was surprising. After cross checking it was clear that it simply sounded like my 2 year old Soundlink Mini, just a bit clearer, with maybe a hint of better controlled bass, but it was still the same sound signature which could be easily mistaken for the Bose. The Canton Musicbox XS had definitely better treble extension, althouth a bit harsh, but it was also less directional. It didn't suffer that much when not listened exactly on axis, which might hint at a different and improved driver design compared to the Bose, but when listening closer I got more and more disappointed because there were some strange compression effects noticeable with some considerable distortion going on already way below half volume.
The compression effects sounded as if the compressor was trying to swallow some parts when a bass note was played together with some stronger bass-drum hit. It simply sounded like a badly setup compression algorithm and you could hear the bass-drum cutting of the bass note.
Distortion with bass heavy tracks and some kind of dirtness was something that always bugged me with the Bose Soundlink Mini. Certain tracks become simply unlistenable as you start hearing the drivers or the passive radiators droning. But the Musicbox XS is even more extreme in this regard. Stronger kick-hits or loud bass notes made the music sound terrible all this happening already at lower levels. Although the Canton could play quite a bit louder than the Bose without such obvious dynamic compression, there was a strong bass loss at high levels, which made the overall sound little convincing if high volume is desired. Still it managed to sound better than the Bose, as the Bose struggles with many tracks at high levels due to too strong dynamic processing with transients getting lost completely, while bass being tried to be pushed foward resulting in some stronger pumping effects. Both approaches sound a bit artificial, although I preferred Canton's way as I liked their overall tuning more than the Bose, with slightly less bass boost, but more treble at the same time. But this distortion and strange side-effects of swallowed notes was much more obvious with the Canton than with the Bose. It reminded me of the distortion I got from the Sony SRS-X55 when I asked myself back then how such a speaker could even find its way to the market,  the Canton Musicbox XS is similar or even worse than this, therefore I really won't like to lose many further words about it as it is simply not worth it. If you want to hear what I am talking about, check out my video especially when I put the JBL Charge 2 against the Musicbox XS later on for comparison. Where the JBL manages to play 100% free of artefacts and without any distortion (this is latest firmware 1.4.1 btw, the JBL would have struggled with some older firmwares as well), the Musicbox XS creates some completely new instruments and overtones out of the upright acoustic bass or plays just mush when a kickdrum is played unisono together with bass and guitar (click here for German):

Of course as always I did some measurements too. These are nearfield measurements so may not be representative of what you would get in an anechoic chamber from 1m, but as I measure all speakers exactly the same, the differences visible between various units should be still valid.
First you can see all available volume steps of the Musicbox XS. There is some bass boost at low levels according to human loudness contours, and some bass loss at high levels starting to be severe from the 10th volume step which is not surprising given the size of the drivers which simply cannot keep up to deliver the same bass amount with higher amplitutes:

Next you can see the Canton Musicbox XS (black) compared to the Bose Soundlink Mini (grey) at a lower volume step at a higher one and at maximum. It is shocking how equal both measurements blend throughout some frequency sections, although the treble advantage and better treble extension of the Musicbox XS is noticeable, they still measure like exactly the same speaker. I have already done measurements from different units of the same speaker that differed more than what is shown here:

I am not sure what to think about the Canton Musicbox XS. If it was released 2 years earlier, I would have been delighted for sure. But actually you get the same Bose sound for the same price, with slighty better treble extension, but with more obvious distortion at the same time... I am disappointed to tell the truth. I am not sure if the Musicbox XS is based on the same acoustic core of the Bose, if both share the same design on purpose or if one is just a blatant rip-off of the other. But when peeking through the grilles of both units which is not that easy with the Canton thanks to the dark color and mesh structure you will nevertheless notice that the passive radiators look exactly the same, you will also see that the drivers are placed within exactly the same distance on both. These similarities cannot be just pure coincidence. Therefore I feel free to claim that what we have here is a German Bose clone, just tuned a bit differently with slighty different electronics etc. I would definitely prefer the clone over the original, as I like the simple looks of the Canton more and the sound has some more air to breathe, but this horrible processing and distortion doesn't make it a speaker worth 200€. Anyone serious about music will not accept this and I am sure even kiddies just interested in playing their techno-tracks will be disappointed by how weird the kick-drums sound on their favorite songs when played through this speaker. Maybe Canton will issue some future update which could minimize the distortion and those strange compression effects, but I can only rate what I have currently in front of me, not what it could be in future. Therefore I would currently not recommend the Canton Musicbox XS over the Bose Soundlink Mini, let alone a JBL Charge 2 or even the cheap Anker A3143 Premium Bluetooth speaker which costs just 1/3 and simply plays cleaner without such obvious artefacts. If you are serious about fidelity and qualitative music reproduction I would rather add 50$ more and go for the upcoming RIVA S. Stay tuned when I can finally get my hands on a final series production unit!

+ minimalistic design and premium finish
+ nice overall tuning with deep powerful bass and good treble extension
+ less directional treble dispersion than the Bose Soundlink Mini
+ loud with less dynamic compression than most competition
+ support for AptX, NFC, multi pairing and wireless stereo
+ good battery life 

- strong noticeable distortion already at levels below half
- clumsy dynamic processing killing natural transients
- strong bass reduction at high levels
- no USB charging
- expensive