Review: Geneva Lab XS Portable Bluetooth Speaker Page 2

Off-road listening

That’s “off-road” not as in “four-wheelin’,” but as in “not on the road.” I didn’t have any biz trips scheduled in time to give the XS the real workout it needs — i.e., running around my room at the Comfort Inn, blasting’s Guitar Jazz feed from my Motorola Droid Pro via Bluetooth with CNN on mute while putting myself together for an 8 am business meeting — so I had to test it in my own bedroom and merely pretend I was waking up every day in a different town. I often compared it side-by-side, at matched levels, with the Soundmatters FoxL v2, which is quite a bit smaller in physical volume than the XS but still something of a standard-bearer among Bluetooth travel speakers.

To me, the real measure of a little system like this is whether or not it can fill your hotel room with satisfying, adequately clear sound, and there’s no question the XS can do that. I used it all around my home to play music while I was working or relaxing, and the XS was always up to the task. There’s just enough bass that you’re not constantly reminded you’re listening to a compact system, and the midrange is generally clear enough to let you get into the music and forget that you’re listening to it on something that could slip into a large coat pocket.

In fact, when I played Herbie Hancock’s The New Standard, a mid-1990s collection of pop covers by the famed jazz keyboardist, I noticed that the sound was actually loud enough to be more than background music, and good enough that I could listen fairly intently to what Hancock and his supporting players were doing. In particular, the simple recording of Nirvana’s “All Apologies,” with Hancock on piano and John Scofield on electric sitar, had depth and realism that was simply astonishing for such a small system.

And yeah, it does produce some sense of depth with many recordings, especially something like Holly Cole’s “Train Song,” which is packed with high-pitched percussion instruments.

Compared with the FoxL, the XS produces a substantially fuller sound, which comes as no surprise when you consider it has a sort-of woofer instead of the FoxL’s passive radiator, and perhaps a larger acoustical volume to work with. You do get some sense of groove from the XS, which the FoxL really can’t muster. However, the FoxL’s midrange and treble were usually clearer and more neutral-sounding; sometimes the XS’s mids and treble sounded confined in comparison. Surprisingly, the XS often produced more midrange distortion at moderate to high levels than the FoxL did.

As I analyze my listening notes, it seems the XS has an advantage with heavy rock and some jazz, while the FoxL sounds better with most pop music. That said, I’d be happy to pack either one for my next trip.

The one place where to me the XS flubs is FM reception. At my home on the west end of Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, reception is good with most FM stations, but I had trouble pulling in my favorites clearly with the XS. It was usually listenable, but static often intruded. The fault probably lies in the short telescoping antenna, which is only 11.75 inches long fully extended.


I measured the frequency response of the XS by placing it on a 2-meter-high stand, then placing a microphone 0.5 meters in front of the speaker and using my Clio FW analyzer in MLS mode through the XS’s line input. This gave me quasi-anechoic measurements down to 300 Hz. (Quasi-anechoic measurements remove the reflections from nearby objects to simulate measurement in an anechoic chamber.) To get the response below 300 Hz, I placed the mic against the grille of the XS and ran the Clio FW in log chirp mode. I then imported the data into my LinearX LMS analyzer for post-processing. The graph here shows a quasi-anechoic measurement at 0° on-axis (red trace) and an average of the measurements at 0°, ±10°, ±20°, ±30°.

You can see from the chart that these measurements are shockingly good considering that the XS is a super-compact and relatively affordable system. From 900 Hz to 10 kHz, the response on-axis is almost dead flat  at ±1.6 dB; measured from 112 Hz to 20 kHz, response is ±10.2 dB. The averaged response shows a mild and graceful treble roll-off, with response ±3.2 dB from 900 Hz to 10 kHz, and ±11.2 dB from 112 Hz to 20 kHz. There’s a little cancellation dip at 800 Hz, probably due to interaction between the drivers and probably inaudible or barely audible. I got 112 Hz for the -3 dB bass response, which is good for such a small device.

To judge maximum output level, I used my highly subjective but reasonably repeatable MCMäxxx™ test. To wit: I played the Mötley Crüe tune “Kickstart My Heart,” turned up the level until I encountered audible distortion, then backed the volume off a hair and measured the average output at 1 meter. The result: 85 dB, which is +1 to +7 dB more output than the other compact Bluetooth speakers I’ve tested.

Bottom line

In my CES coverage, I wondered if some of the excellent sound quality of the larger Geneva Lab products would trickle down into the XS. It has. Combine the unit’s better-than-expected sound quality with its cool form factor, retro looks, friendly ergonomics, and the added entertainment option of FM, and you have one of my favorite Bluetooth speakers. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the XS could turn a miserable biz tip into a tolerable one, and a good biz trip into a great one.