Review: Braven BRV-1

Compact Bluetooth speakers are all small enough to toss into a suitcase-but they're not all tough enough to survive the trip. But I knew the Braven BRV-1 was different when I first pulled it out of its package.

With rubber bumpers covering most of its surface, rubber control buttons, and a bolted-on perfed metal grille, it looked tough enough that I could toss it onto the wooden floor of my office. So I did. Not necessarily a smart thing to do with a review sample, but when I went to mate my Samsung G3S phone with the BRV-1, everything worked just fine. I repeated the demo for my fellow Tech^2 blogger Geoff Morrison and frequent West Coast headphone tester Will Huff, and the BRV-1's still working, still not showing a scratch.

It's also rated as waterproof to IPX5 standards, which means it can tolerate a 12.5-liter-per-minute stream of water from a 6.3mm nozzle for 3 minutes. A watertight cap on the back protects the USB jacks and the 3.5mm analog input from water ingress. The top has waterproof controls for power, volume up and down, and play/pause for a Bluetooth-connected device.

Wait, you're asking, why two USB jacks? One's a micro USB for charging the BRV-1. The other's a full-size USB that works as a power output to charge your mobile device. A five-LED meter below the jacks tells you how much charge is let in the BRV-1's batter.

Obviously, the BRV-1 would easily survive any hike, camping trip, or bike tour I've ever taken. But that's all for naught if it doesn't sound good. It certainly at least looks like it could sound good. The driver complement follows the general paradigm set by the Soundmatters FoxL: two 1.25-inch active drivers, each powered by a 3-watt amp, and a 3-inch passive radiator to reinforce the bass.

Braving the listening panel

Will happened to be in to test some headphones with me, so I asked him to give the BRV-1 a listen, too. I set up a blind listening comparison with two other compact Bluetooth speakers-the RockSteady XS and the Native Union Switch-covering all the speakers with thin black fabric so Will couldn't see which was which. I then connected all of them to my custom-built blind testing switcher and matched the listening levels. I did the test on my own before Will came over; for me, of course, the test wasn't blind.

Both Will and I felt that the BRV-1 sounded substantially better than the other Bluetooth speakers we heard. The great thing about it is that its tonal balance is so natural. It's quite a bit fuller-sounding than your average compact Bluetooth speaker, even more so if you place it atop a table or shelf that can vibrate a bit to reinforce the bass. John Paul Jones' alternating pulsing-then-melodic bass line in Led Zeppelin's "Living Loving Maid" rocked hard through the BRV-1, every note from the deepest to the highest sounding even and the little passive radiator putting out enough vibration to get my head bobbing. You pretty much have to crank the unit full-blast when you play rock, because it doesn't play all that loud (typically 80 to 82 dB SPL on dynamically compressed rock tunes), but even at full blast Robert Plant's voice didn't distort or sound strained, and every instrument could clearly be heard.

Less punishing material sounded just as good, maybe even better. On "Bemsha Swing" from Thelonious Monk Trio: Rudy Van Gelder Remasters, I could hear plenty of detail: Max Roach's snare echoing off the walls and ceiling, his metal brush slapping the ride cymbal, and Monk quietly "singing" along with his piano.

I also got a chance to compare the BRV-1 to the Soundmatters FoxL Dash 7, one of the best-sounding compact Bluetooth speakers available. From a tonal balance standpoint, both sounded similarly natural. The Dash 7 has the advantage in refinement, though; the voices of Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger in the English Beat's "Hands Off She's Mine" simply sounded clearer, as did the marimba solo in the middle. It sounds to me like the BRV-1 has a trace of "cupped hands" distortion, as if the singers had their hands lightly cupped around their mouths. I also noticed a slight edginess in the treble with the voices.

Still, while I do prefer the Dash 7, I could live happily with either speaker on a week-long vacation. Which in fact I did when I brought the BRV-1 along on a road trip through California's northern coast, across Oregon to Crater Lake, then returning through Reno and the back side of the Sierras. The BRV-1 easily filled my hotel rooms with sound, whether it was R.E.M.'s Reckoning or NPR's Morning Edition.

Measurements

Frequency response
90 Hz to 20 kHz, ±8.9 dB 0° on-axis, ±7.6 dB 0° to 30° avg

MCMäxxx™ maximum level test (1 meter)
87 dB

Frequency response measurements were taken with a Clio 10 FW audio analyzer and the MIC-01 measurement mike designed for use with Clio. The measurements above 300 Hz were done at a distance of 0.5 meters with the BRV-1 atop a 2-meter stand using quasi-anechoic MLS technique. The blue curve in the accompanying graph shows the response at 0° on-axis; the green curve shows the average of measurements taken at 0°, 10°, 20°, and 30° horizontally. To measure response below 300 Hz, I did a ground plane measurement at 1 meter. The ground plane result was then spliced to the quasi-anechoic curves. The ground plane measurement was smoothed to 1/6th octave; quasi-anechoic measurements to 1/12th octave. All measurements were taken using the 3.5mm line input, feeding the left channel only.

The BRV-1's frequency response is rather shockingly flat from 100 Hz to 2 kHz. Then the output rises considerably in the treble, peaking at 6 kHz. This is likely the cause of the mild edginess I heard in some voices. Why didn't it bother us more? Probably because these compact speakers can't play loud enough to annoy you much. Averaged 0° to 30° response is a little smoother than the on-axis response.

On my MCMäxxx™ test, in which I crank up Mötley Crüe's "Kickstart My Heart" (a tune that employs extreme dynamic compression) then record the maximum usable volume at 1 meter, the BRV-1 scored 87 dB with the volume turned all the way up, beating out the Dash 7 (which is something of a class leader in output) by 1 dB.

Bottom line

The Braven BRV-1 ranks among the best of the compact Bluetooth speakers I've tested. Sonically, it blows away most of what's on the market. There are a couple of compact Bluetooth speakers that sound a bit better to me, but I'd hesitate to take them on a bike tour. With the BRV-1, though, I'm confident I could (literally) toss it into my panniers and come back after a two-week, rain-filled trip with the unit still working great and probably looking nearly new.

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