Bluetooth Speakers Back-Country Tested
On the (Dirt) Road Again!
It's that time of year where I close the laptop, pack the camping gear on the bike, and take off for nine days and about 1000 miles of backcountry Montana motorcycling from one Forest Service cabin to the next. In my previous report on last years adventure, I reviewed the EnerPlex Kickr Solar Panel (now slightly changed as the Kickr IV) and Jumpr storage batteries (now significantly changed with more models); the Astel&Kern AK120; and the Ultimate Ears UE BOOM Bluetooth speaker. Long story short: The EnerPlex charging gear was terrific; the AK120 Bluetooth performance was abysmal; and the UE BOOM was a joy.
I figured this year would be a good chance to review a few additional Bluetooth speakers; I got my hands on the Soundmatters FoxL APTX ($199), Fugoo Sport ($199), and Infinity One ($299). I'll get to those on the following pages, but first a moment for comments on the gear used allong with the speakers in this review.
EnerPlex Kickr Solar Charging Panels and Jumpr Storage Batteries
When I did my first "Gadgets Off The Grid" piece last year, I found this solar charging gear really attractive and well designed. But I worried that reliability might be an issue. The flexible solar cells are cool and all, but would the unit really stand up over time? And the storage batteries can decline in their charging capacity. To test the longevity of the Kickr solar panel I simply left it on the dashboard of my van for the last year, occasionally flipping it over or folding and unfolding it. The sun can be brutal on materials, add the heat and frigid Montana cold and you've got a pretty interesting test.
The only problem I found was some slight de-lamination of the top layer of transparent material at the fold points. Otherwise I saw no damage and the solar panel seemed to charge devices at about the same rate as last year. The Jumpr storage batteries likewise seemed to function to specthough, to be fair, I really didn't use these too much throughout the course of the last year, and it's multiple charge/discharge cycles that will eventuate loss of capacity. Both these products have evolved over the last year and product lines have been fleshed out. Not having had the chance to use the new gear I can't speak to their performance, but my experience with the company and products are good, and I think it's safe to recommend the gear.
One note: I did try the EnerPlex Surfr solar charging case w/built-in storage battery for my Samsung Galaxy S3 (here's the current S4 version). I found that it really didn't have the ability to charge the phone effectively unless it was basically sitting out in the sunlight almost continuously. I worked, but for me, not well enough in normal use to be worth the expense.
Astell&Kern AK240 ($2500)
Recently reviewed here, I took the Astell&Kern AK240 along as my primary Bluetooth player, backed up by my Samsung Galaxy S3 as a second source. The AK240 performed flawlessly over the course of the trip...couldn't be happier with it. The one odd thing that does happenand I knew this was the caseis that DSD files will not play over Bluetooth. The song will show on the player as playing, but nothing comes out the speaker. Took me a second to figure out what was going on the first time it happened, but subsequently, as songs were playing in random mode, when the player stumbled on to a DSD file I would just FF to the next track. No biggie.
Ultimate Ears UE Boom ($199)
The UE Boom made the trip as a reference to compare with my previous experiences, and it's performance held up well. I've had the Boom for a year now, and it finds its way into regular use and abuse on various outings by both myself and my daughter. It's been flawless (within its performance envelope) in every case. It will continue to get a recommendation from me as a dandy device.
Last summer Paul had to put up with all my old school jazz and weird progressive central European gipsy music. So, this year he came over to my house and surfed Spotify for a couple of hours lining up a nice playlist of stored files on my Galaxy S3. Paul's terrific taste in music often has me dropping a fin in the juke box just to let him play stuff. Little did I know he had a penchant for Punk and No Wave back in the day, and hadn't had the chance to listen to some of these bands for a long time. His track list included material from: James White and the Blacks; The Clash; Suicide; Richard Hell and the Voidoids; The Damned; The Gun Club; The Church; The Cramps; Touchers; and last but not least, a little Grace Jones. Um....this is not my usual cup of tea, but man, there was some really intense music in there. I actually liked James White and the Blacks quite a bit, but it's sort of like Thelonious Monk---deep, intense, ugly beauty, that captures your attention, but you can only take it for so long. Here's a little James White and the Blacks:
We also had a visitor on our first night out at the Black Butte cabin, our buddy Long Johnny Walker. After a healthy dose of No Wave I was ready for something a little different and asked John if he had any music he'd like to play. He whipped out his iPod excitedly telling us about an Umphrey's McGee concert he'd recently heard at Red Rocks in Denver. He had the entire set on his player, so we plugged it in. Sometimes lumped in with jam bands like The Dead and Phish, I found Umphrey's McGee tantalizingly various in their style, so smoothly mixing in rock, fusion, jazz, blues, electronica, and stuff that's just indefinably in-between...I wasn't quite sure what I'd heard when it was over, but I liked it. Here's a little video from that concert.
Vacation Photo Interlude
Black Butte cabin located at 8900' elevation in the heart of the Gravelly Mountains is usually the first stop on our cabin-to-cabin tour. At that elevation, the crisp summer night sky is inky black, offering spectacular viewing of our home Galaxy, The Milky Way.
Turn the page for the first speaker review...