Review: Monster ClarityHD Micro

When I first saw the Soundmatters FoxL portable audio system, I knew I'd found something cool, but I didn't realize it would start a movement. The FoxL proved that a tiny, briefcase-toteable sound system could deliver satisfying sound. Since then, we've seen lots of products inspired by the FoxL, including the Jawbone Jambox, the Braven 650, and now the Monster ClarityHD Micro.

The ClarityHD Micro is Monster's second entry in the Bluetooth speaker category. It's a much larger, more complex, more advanced, and more expensive product than its predecessor, the iClarity HD. It's available in black or white. The front and back grilles are magnetically attached so they're easy to swap out, and Monster promises it'll offer grilles in different colors so you can customize your ClarityHD Micro. (The grilles weren't yet available on Monster's website when this review was written.)

On the surface, the ClarityHD Micro looks like a beefed-up FoxL. Like the FoxL, it has two powered drivers, although the Micro's 1.3-inch cone drivers are larger than the FoxL's 1-inch domes. Like the FoxL, the Micro has a rear-mounted passive radiator, although the Micro's is about 35% larger. (Unlike the FoxL, though, it doesn't appear to use its rechargeable battery as mass-loading for the passive radiator.) Like the FoxL, the Micro connects through Bluetooth or an analog 3.5mm input; the Micro's Bluetooth (like the more recent FoxL v2's) is compatible with apt-X and AAC codecs for better sound. Both double as speakerphones.

The ClarityHD Micro's feature set, though, is more advanced, rivaling the Jambox's. Voice prompts talk you through the Bluetooth connection process and other operations. Monster promises you'll soon be able to update the Micro with different voices for the prompts. Like some Bluetooth headsets, the ClarityHD Micro accepts basic voice commands. Most of these are oriented toward phone operations, such as answering calls, but there's also a useful battery check function.

Buttons on the top provide basic control functions for a Bluetooth-connected device, including play/pause and forward/reverse track skip. These can be a little dicey, though, because the volume up/down buttons double as track skip buttons. You have to hold them down to adjust the volume. I often found myself unintentionally skipping tracks when I'd just wanted to bring the volume up or down one notch.

Surprisingly, the ClarityHD Micro costs $229, just $30 more than the FoxL.

The Micro on music

The first music I listened to on the Micro was "Vashkar," an avant-garde jazz tune by composer Carla Bley, performed with kick-ass abandon by the Tony Williams Lifetime on their Emergency! album. It's not something I chose as a test - in fact, it's a notoriously subpar recording of a fantastic performance - but it's the first thing that came up on my iPod touch. I noticed right away that the sound was brighter and thinner than I expected. Tony Willliams' kick drum and Larry Young's deepest organ notes sounded practically absent from the mix; John McLaughlin's distorted guitar and Williams' snare and cymbals dominated.

When I switched to my FoxLv2 and played the same cut, I found the tonal balance much more pleasing and the bass substantially fuller. That's a little shocking considering the ClarityHD Micro has larger drivers and about double the FoxL's physical volume.

Better recordings confirmed my initial impression. Deep bass notes that the FoxL cranked out fairly easily, such as the deepest tones in Olive's "Falling" and Holly Cole's "Train Song," seemed almost totally muted through the ClarityHD Micro. Even non-bass-heavy stuff, like "Too Long" by the energetic Pacific Northwest acoustic revivalist group The Crow Quill Night Owls, sounded fuller through the FoxL. (And it's worth noting that the Jawbone Jambox delivers an even fuller, more satisfying sound than the FoxL.)

The ClarityHD Micro did play 2 to 3 dB louder than the FoxL on my ultramega-exclusive MCMäxxx™ test, in which I crank up Mötley Crüe's "Kickstart My Heart" until it sounds too distorted, then back it off one notch and measure the output at 1 meter. But even though it played louder, the treble-heavy balance made the sound less enjoyable to me.

I gave the ClarityHD Micro several more days of listening, including some all-day-long talk radio sessions, just to make sure it was broken in, but the sound didn't change significantly.

Wondering if a little EQ might help, I opened the basic five-band EQ app on my Motorola Droid Pro. It definitely improved matters. Bringing the treble down -3 dB at 14 kHz and -1.5 dB at 3.6 kHz gave the ClarityHD Micro a more pleasing tonal balance. Activating the EQ's BassBoost function and kicking it up to 70% made the sound slightly fuller, but there wasn't enough bass capability there to get the Micro rocking enough for my taste.