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Computerized Investing > June 1, 2013

Portable Bluetooth Speaker Comparison: Braven BRV-1, Jabra Solemate and SuperTooth Disco Twin

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by Wayne A. Thorp, CFA

$179.99 to $199.99

Head-to-head comparison of three portable Bluetooth speaker systems.

Now that summer has, at least unofficially, started, and the weather is finally warming up, many of us will be spending a great deal of time outdoors. As more and more of us have smartphones and tablets that allow us to stream music from services such as Pandora, Spotify and I Heart Radio, it only makes sense to want to enjoy our tunes in an outdoor setting. There are literally hundreds of portable speaker systems available today, and I have reviewed several of them over the years. In this week’s installment of Gadget Corner, I look at three relative newcomers: Braven BRV-1, Jabra Solemate and SuperTooth Disco Twin. After having used all three over the last several weeks, I have found each to have its own distinct advantages and drawbacks. Depending on your needs, any of the three may be exactly what you are looking for.

Design

These three speaker systems have unique design features. The Braven BRV-1 is designed for those looking for a rugged, water-resistant speaker to take to the beach, camping or even in the shower. The Jabra Solemate is a more “typical” bar-type speaker like the Braven 600, soundmatters foxL and Jawbone Jambox I have reviewed previously. Lastly, the SuperTooth Disco Twin is actually a two-speaker system, offering true stereo sound.

The Braven BRV-1, for Star Wars fans, looks a bit like a TIE fighter, and has more of a box shape than a bar design like that of the Solemate. It measures 6.7 inches by 6.3 inches by 4.1 inches and weighs around 12 ounces. The first thing you notice about the BRV-1 is its rugged design. It has a molded rubber casing, sealed seams and an aluminum grill that protects the speaker’s two drivers and the power/pairing status light. When I was at CES this past January, Braven had a booth setup where people were kicking around the BRV-1 while it was playing music. That’s not something I would try with any other Bluetooth speaker I’ve tested. Beyond its rubber casing, the BRV-1 also sports a screw-on cap on the back that protects the power and audio connectors. These features give the speaker an IPX5 rating, which means it is protected from rainfall, water jets and splashing. To illustrate this, at CES Braven also had a BRV-1 in a rain forest terrarium with simulated rain and mist. While I didn’t have the opportunity to put the speaker to such tests myself, I have read that other reviewers use the BRV-1 in the shower. A few even immersed the speaker in water for short periods, although Braven points out the BRV-1 isn’t water-proof. The BRV-1 has a simple design, making it easy to operate. On top there are four buttons protected underneath the rubber casing: volume up/skip track, volume down/skip back, power and play.pair/call button. The speaker has four pegs on the bottom, creating separation between the resting surface and the passive subwoofer, which is built into the bottom of the speaker. Behind the rear screw cap you find the check battery button, which lights up five battery indicator lights when depressed; a reset button; external USB charging port (more on this a bit later); mini-USB charging port; and 3.5mm audio-in jack for non-Bluetooth connections. The one drawback of using the 3.5mm audio cable is that it leaves the ports exposed to the elements, thereby reducing the speaker’s water resistance. The cap is recessed enough so you can also rest the speaker on the four rubber pegs that are on the back, which allows you to project sound upward and provides for more bass from the subwoofer. The BRV-1 comes with a micro-USB-to-USB charging cable (but no wall adapter), 3.5mm audio cable and a lanyard you can attach to the speaker for easy carrying.

Jabra may be better known for its wireless headsets but is making its presence known in the audio arena as well. The Jabra Solemate has a “bar-type” design. It measures 7.32 inches by 5.12 inches by 3.15 inches. I was surprised when I picked it up for the first time, as the Solemate tips the scales at 1.3 pounds, nearly twice that of the BRV-1. The base of the speaker is styled after the sole of a shoe, thus the name Solemate. The rubberized bottom offers protection from bumps and jolts and provides stability. Jabra says the Solemate is built to be sweat, dust and splash resistant, although it has not received an IPX rating like the BRV-1. The Solemate also houses a 3.5mm audio cable, which you can remove and use for non-Bluetooth connections. Inside the Solemate are three forward-facing speakers. On the top of the speaker you’ll find three buttons: volume up, volume down and call answer/end. One shortcoming of the Solemate is that you cannot control your music from the device. On the side of the speaker there are battery and connection lights, on/off/pairing switch, 3.5mm audio-in jack and micro-USB charging port. The Solemate also comes with a wall charger, a rarity these days, a micro-USB-to-USB charging cable and a “sound bag” that supposedly protects your Solemate from sand, sun and moisture.

Lastly, the two-speaker SuperTooth Disco Twin system is portable, albeit not as portable as the BRV-1 or Solemate. I view this as a system you would use on a deck or in an area of your home where you don’t have a true stereo system but want true stereo sound. I actually have mine set up in my bedroom, with a speaker on each of my two bedside tables. I was able to place the speakers nearly 40 feet apart from each other before it started to lose signal, a distinct advantage if you want to fill a room with music. Each speaker measures 7.4 inches by 4.3 inches by 2.8 inches and each weighs a little over 1.2 pounds. For two speakers, the 2.44 pounds of overall weight isn’t too bad. You get two carrying bags as well for transporting them. I would suggest holding on to these bags, as the speakers are covered in cloth that may tear if not stowed properly. Since you can use each speaker individually or as a pair, each speaker has a full complement of control buttons on the top: volume up, volume down, on/off, play/pause, backward and forward. On the back of each speaker, near the base, is a charge port for the 12-volt wall charger (you get one for each speaker), Bluetooth indicator light and 3.5mm audio-in jack. While the BRV-1 and Solemate pair like any other Bluetooth device, the Disco Twin system is a bit unique, since you are dealing with two speakers. The speakers come already paired to each other, so you will only need to pair your music device with the left speaker. A nice feature of these speakers is that they verbally tell you when they are on and paired with each other for play. Although, you have to turn on the left and right speakers individually, both speakers power off when you turn off either of them. However, I did experience a few quirks, such as the speakers failing to pair with each other when both are initially turned on. These issues were definitely minor and are by no means deal breakers.

Sound Quality

When considering a speaker system, sound quality is a critical factor. All three of these speakers performed admirably in my tests. I tested the speakers across a variety of music genres (hard rock, pop, classical and jazz) and found that I would have no problem using any of them as a primary Bluetooth speaker. Ranking the three, however, I would put the SuperTooth Disco Twin at the top due to it being a true stereo system. At full volume, I can hear my music throughout the first floor of my condo. The sound is crisp and precise with no sound distortion at high volume.

A close second is the Jabra Solemate. For such a small package, it delivers powerful, yet clear, sound. Even at full volume, I didn’t experience any distortion, which is something I occasionally find in a bar-type speaker. Secondly, the Solemate puts out a lot of sound. It works perfectly in an office or in the living room, as well as outside at the beach or on a picnic.

The biggest knock against the BRV-1 is that there is noticeable distortion at high volumes. It also wasn’t as loud as the Solemate, but is still perfect for small rooms or entertaining outdoors.

Hands-Free Calling

While many Bluetooth speakers offer speakerphone capability, this is a feature that’s lost on me. I rarely use a speakerphone at all, except when in a car, and these are not devices I would be carrying in a car for hands-free calling. That being said, the Solemate and BRV-1 double as speakerphones for placing and receiving calls via your Bluetooth-enabled smartphone. If this is a feature that interests you, be aware that the Disco Twin doesn’t offer this functionality.

In my limited tests, both the Solemate and BRV-1 serve as functional speakerphones. The BRV-1 has a noise-cancelling microphone, and the impact was noticeable, especially when outdoors. I didn’t find the Solemate’s noise-filtering microphone to perform as well, but I never had a call where the person I was speaking to had trouble hearing me.

Device Charging

As with the Braven 600 I reviewed last year, the BRV-1 allows you to charge your mobile devices. It comes with a 1,400 mAh battery, which is nearly enough to top off my iPhone 5. Since the speaker itself also runs off this battery, charging a device will limit the playback time. This is a useful feature to have should you find yourself away from a wall plug or car charger. Keep in mind, however, that the BRV-1 is intended for charging mobile devices, but not tablets, as its output is not high enough.

Neither the Jabra Solemate or SuperTooth Disco Twin offer charging capability.

Battery Life

With portable speakers you want enough battery life to last you through an afternoon at the beach or an evening deck party. SuperTooth claims the Disco Twin offers 10 hours of playback at “medium” volume levels or three to four at “high” volume. I have been able to use my set for several hours at a time without needing a recharge. According to Jabra, the Solemate can deliver up to eight hours of continuous playback, depending on the volume level. Again, I have been able to coax more than seven hours out of my review model without needing a charge. The winner, though, is the BRV-1, with up to 12 hours of continuous playback, obviously benefitting from the beefy battery that allows it to also charge other devices.

Value

These three speaker systems have suggested retail prices ranging from $179.99 to $199.99, so they are each a bit of an investment. However, they all offer features and functionality that make them worth their sticker prices. In terms of overall offerings, the BRV-1 is probably the greatest value, as it offers Bluetooth playback, hands-free calling and mobile device charging in a rugged, water-resistant form factor.

Overall

Each of these speaker systems brings something to the table that makes them unique. This also makes it more difficult to declare a clear winner. They all rank among the best Bluetooth speakers I have reviewed in this column. In terms of pure portability, the Solemate and BRV-1 win out, as they are singular units, unlike the Disco Twin system that has two speakers. However, the Disco Twin is my winner when it comes to sound quality. The BRV-1 also has the added benefit of being able to charge your mobile devices when you are away from a plug. Furthermore, the Solemate and BRV-1 are definitely designed to be used outdoors, with the BRV-1 having the IPX5 rating for water resistance. As someone who enjoys fly fishing and camping, the BRV-1 would be my choice. I have used my Disco Twin system outside, but that has been on my covered deck. This is a portable speaker system more for around-the-house usage.

If you were to hold my feet to the fire and force me to pick just one of these systems, it would probably be the Jabra Solemate. It is more portable than the Disco Twin and offers better sound quality than the BRV-1. While not built to the same specifications as the BRV-1, the Solemate can still take the bumps of everyday use. With the water-resistant “sound bag,” it is also something you can use poolside or at the beach.

Pros

Braven BRV-1:
Jabra Solemate:
SuperTooth Disco Twin:
  • Rugged construction
  • Water resistant
  • Charges your mobile devices
  • Speakerphone
  • Lightweight, compact design
  • Excellent sound quality
  • Room-filling sound in a small package
  • Speakerphone
  • Water-resistant “sound bag”
  • Solid construction
  • True stereo sound
  • Rich, full sound
  • Travel chargers provided
  • Wall charger provided

 

Cons

Braven BRV-1:
Jabra Solemate:
SuperTooth Disco Twin:
  • Sound distortion at high volume
  • No wall charger
  • Relatively short battery life
  • Cannot control playback with device
  • Cloth speaker covers prone to tearing
  • Non-USB charging
  • Two speakers not as portable
  • Lacking speakerphone capability

Braven BRV-1

$179.99 (Currently $179.99 from Amazon.com)

Jabra Solemate

$199.99 (Currently $147.96 from Amazon.com)

SuperTooth Disco Twin

$199.99

Wayne A. Thorp, CFA is a vice president and senior financial analyst at AAII and editor of Computerized Investing. Follow him on Twitter at @WayneTAAII.


Discussion

Zach Tripp from NH posted about 1 year ago:

No Bose SoundLink? Nice sounding device. Never heard of the brands listed above.

http://www.bose.com/controller?url=/shop_online/digital_music_systems/bluetooth_speakers/soundlink_wireless_speaker/index.jsp


Wayne Thorp from IL posted about 1 year ago:

In my experience, Bose tends to be overpriced considering the minimal sound-quality advantages.

Wayne A. Thorp, CFA
Editor, Computerized Investing


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