Review: Braven 650 Bluetooth Speaker

Another week, another exciting new line of Bluetooth portable products. This time around, the name behind the speaker is Braven (the company formerly known as Spar), who recently announced three new full-featured models in the Six series. We of course couldn't resist calling in the company's flagship, the $189.99 Braven 650, for a look.

With the massively renewed interest in the category - thanks largely to cool little speakers like the Jawbone Jambox and Soundmatters FoxL v2 - it should come as no surprise to anyone that there's a mini-explosion of cute, portable Bluetooth speakers coming onto the market now, with more poised to make their debuts over the summer.

There are a few contributing factors. On the tech side of things,  Bluetooth's far more universal than AirPlay, allowing for use with a far wider range of source devices. And better yet, it requires very little power, allowing for long playtimes, small form factors, and easy portability from bedroom to kitchen to beach. And Bluetooth sounds better than ever, thanks to improved codecs like CSR'S apt-X.

There's also a related philosophical point: It's taken a while, but with mobile eclipsing desktop across the board, there's finally been a consolidation around the notion that the phone and tablet, not PCs, are the dominant sources of our time, and Bluetooth is uniquely suited to a smartphonecentric media ecosystem. including as it does both media streaming and remote device control protocols. That means its easy to implement a portable speaker that without fuss can be pressed into double duty as a speakerphone - manufacturers need only implement the headset controls in the spec for widespread device compatibility.

Now more than ever, Bluetooth just makes sense.

Listening to the Braven 650

We got to spend some time with the Braven 650, which like all of the new models from the company (also on offer are the relatively basic $149.99 Braven 600 and the ruggedized, travel-friendly Braven 625s, at $179.99). We couldn't resist an advance look at the flagship, of course.), is a hybrid product, mating a Bluetooth speaker with a USB charger (which is up to the task of charging a smartphone, though not an iPad, in case you were wondering), making for a very travel-friendly package. The 650, the audiophile flagship of the line, employs apt-X for optimal audio quality over Bluetooth (the 600 and 625 use plain-vanilla A2DP). With more apt-X sources newly arriving on the market (HTC's One series and the more recent entries in Samsung's Galaxy line, in addition to existing offerings from Motorola and Apple, it's an increasingly nice option to see on offer in a portable device.

While the 650 is significantly larger than the FoxL v2, and slightly outbulks and outweighs the Jambox, it's still small enough that it can comfortably slip into an overstuffed briefcase or overnight bag; charging, thankfully, is via micro USB rather than a mini USB - further cutting down on clutter; since most contemporary smartphones use the micro format, you can conceivably get away with packing a single USB cable for traveling. The only thing missing is an LED flashlight, which you get in the more heavily armored 625, though as mentioned above you'll give up apt-X; the thinking may be that audiophiles and adverse environments don't mix, which is reasonable enough.

Like its peers, the 650 is dead simple to use. Flip the switch to turn it on, push the button with the phone icon (see!) to enter pairing mode, locate the 650 from your source device and play some tunes. You'll also find volume up and down controls, a dedicated battery-level check button with associated LED indicator, and 1/8-inch input (for your non-Bluetooth devices) and through jacks (for daisy-chaining multiple 650s, which won't get you stereo (one of these days I'd like to see a Bluetooth ultraportable that let you configure multiple units as left and right channels, a la the Creative ZiiSound system, but maybe I'm just too demanding), but will get you more volume).

Playing back from at apt-X source (I employed both a Samsung Galaxy 7.0 Plus tablet and an HTC One S phone), the 650 sounded noticeably better than the Jambox and compared favorably to the apt-X endowed FoxL v2 Platinum. I cued up Roxy Music's "Mother of Pearl" (from Stranded), a song with a complex mix that I've been listening to obsessively for about thirty years, and while Bryan Ferry's vocals were smoothest coming out of the FoxL, the smaller unit just couldn't match the bass weight that the Braven had. The Jambox came a bit closer, but sounded relatively strained, boxy, and clearly pegged at the top of the dial at levels that left the Braven still sounding full and clear. Playing back from an apt-X-less HTC Amaze, the differences were a little less clear between the Jambox and the FoxL, but the Braven's sheer output stil beat both - it simply sounds like a bigger box than it really is, regardless of source.

Bottom Line

Most importantly, the 650 offers a good deal of what impressed us regarding the FoxL v2 and the Jambox, and outclasses both of those units in some respects - certainly in terms of sheer output, Which should you pick up? While the FoxL has an edge on the Braven and the Jambox in midrange definition and high-end clarity, the 650 has the most satisfying overall presentation of the three, offering the bass weight of the Jambox along with the refined sound quality of the FoxL.

The Jambox wins out on design (its rubberized case and sealed controls are more confidence inspiring than the other units in this class), and offers an apps ecosystem if you're into that kind of thing. And the FoxL will still appeal to those more concerned with sound quality (and those folks can pick up the FoxLo subwoofer to fill in the bottom end, albeit at additioal expense). But the Braven really does sound far larger than it is, and the built-in charger and smart design should save road warriors the trouble of lugging along yet another piece of gear. So if your main interest is simply being able to keep entertained wherever you are, or maybe to rock a (small) party with a pocket-sized piece of gear, the Braven is a good bet.