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Bose SoundLink II review – gadget purchases are rarely 100% rational

Bose Soundlink Mobile Speaker II

I’ve went through a somewhat irrational journey last month that started with me completely dismissing the sound quality of the Bose Soundlink Mobile Speaker II — and ended with me shelling out $349 for the premium/leather edition and even starting a Spotify Premium subscription. While my cognitive dissonance is still fading, I thought I’d share the journey in case there are others out there looking for similar audio solutions.

It all started when a friend demoed his Bose SoundDock Portable in his appartment. That’s a relatively small sound dock for the iPhone, but it produced impressively rich sound quality. I already have a pretty sophisticated home cinema system in our living room that I’ve proudly owned for the last ten years, so I consider myself spoiled with very high fidelity audio at home. The only problem is that this system is limited to the living room. I don’t have any reasonable way of playing music anywhere else like the bedroom or in my office — other than cranking up the volume of the home cinema downstairs to insane levels. Seeing and hearing this SoundDock Portable system made me compelled by the basic idea of having a secondary sound system that I could use to enjoy music and radio when I wasn’t in the living room.

Inspired by the SoundDock Portable, I started to look for an equivalent sound system that wasn’t tied to Apple’s proprietary standards but used Bluetooth instead. The two Bluetooth speakers that kept coming up everywhere in online reviews described as the “best” portable speakers were the Bose Soundlink II and the Jawbone BIG Jambox. I read countless of reviews and I really didn’t like that both of these systems seemed to be optimized for size and weight, rather than sound quality. These speakers are actually quite expensive when you consider the limited fidelity they output, but what you’re paying for is the portability factor — including built-in battery, microscopic footprint, and rugged durability. Well, I wasn’t really looking for that at all — I wouldn’t mind a slightly larger system that wasn’t as portable, but was still “carryable” so I could move it across different rooms in our house.

The Samsung DA-E670. Better sound, less portable.

The Samsung DA-E670. Better sound, but less portable.

I then found systems like the Samsung DA-E670, which is in the same price range as the comparatively tiny Bluetooth speakers, but less portable and supposedly higher fidelity. However, the more I looked at those options, the more I started to actually like the idea of ultimate portability. My wife (who is surprisingly supportive when I have an urge to buy new gadgets — maybe because she knows that makes me more forgiving about her own shopping habits?) started to talk about how nice it would be to be able to bring a speaker like this with us on vacations. Also, there was something with the look of the Bose speaker that clicked with me on an emotional level already the first time I saw it — it reminds me of those old radios that people had in their garage or kitchen back in the days.

This isn't a particularly old radio, but it sure is beautiful. (Sony IFC-J40)

This radio isn’t old, but its beauty reminds me of one. (Sony IFC-J40)

So I decided to go to a store and test both the Soundlink II and the BIG Jambox — and I was immediately disappointed with both of them. Just like I had feared, they sounded great for their size, but ultimately nowhere near hifi quality. The salesman was quick to demo a larger machine that only supported Airplay (the Bose SoundLink Air) and it definitely sounded better but was out of question for me since I specifically wanted a Bluetooth speaker (Bluetooth is far more universal than Apple’s proprietary wifi solution and I have no plans to ever buy an iPhone). I got so upset about the fact that it was so hard to find something relatively portable that didn’t sound like crap and wasn’t coupled with Apple’s proprietary solutions that I had to post that rant about bluetooth speakers a month ago.

But even after being disappointed with the Bose Soundlink II in the store, there was still this emotional urge left in me that made me want to give it another try at home. After all, the speaker probably would sound better at home than in the large store where I tried it. And besides, Bose offers you to try their products out at home for 30 days, so I figured I had nothing to lose. So I brought one home and tested it without all the noise in a busy store — and yes, the difference was definitely noticeable, it sounded better. What’s more, when placing it close to a wall in the bedroom and putting on some music at a moderate volume level, the sound quality was what I’d call good enough. I enjoyed discovering new and old music via a trial of Spotify Premium, and after over two hours of listening, the best testament of the sound quality is that I sometimes forgot that I was playing it from a TINY battery-powered bluetooth speaker!

So let’s talk about sound quality. The soundstage is definitely limited/narrow, and just like many other reviews point out, it lacks a bit of clarity in the mids and treble. As I was experimenting with a trial of Spotify Premium for Android, I found that just increasing Spotify’s built-in 5-band equalizer to (0, 0, +1, +1, +1) made the sound just perfect for my taste. That said, I also noticed that the sound quality depends on the device you’re playing from too — if I stream audio from my MacBook Pro, the mids and treble sound clearer than when streaming from my Galaxy Note. Another thing I noticed is that the speaker sounds better if you step back a few meters and let it fill the whole room. If you stand too close to it (e.g. a meter or less), the stereo sound is rather narrow and directed — the sound feels more natural and wide/rich if you take a couple of steps back.

The bass? It’s incredible considering the size of the speaker. If you place it up against a wall, it’s boomy all the way down to around (I’m guessing) 50 Hz, but below that there’s nothing — definitely no subwoofer magic hiding in this book-sized speaker here, but still impressively deep bass. For certain genres like classical music, this speaker can sound almost as good as my home cinema system (though with a much narrower stereo sound). As I was enjoying some scores by Hans Zimmer (Inception movie soundtrack), I even forgot that I was playing it from the same speaker that I completely dismissed when testing it in the store. If you listen to house or pop, it’s easier to tell that compromises had to be made in order to make the speaker this small — but it still sounds good.

Waking up American style: radio and unhealthy but delicious food.

Let’s get real though: although I was never able to actually test the Samsung DA-E670 and similar systems, I’m pretty sure that those sound better than the tiny portable speaker I ended up buying. It’s just that as I went through this research journey, I started to actually like the idea of being able to bring the speaker with me to more places than just between the bedroom and home office. Case in point: I wrote the bulk of this blog post from a hotel room in San Francisco while listening to Swedish podcasts, thousands of miles from home!

As a side note, this speaker is also what made me decide to get Spotify Premium. As I was listening to music when testing this speaker, I started to really see the benefits of having access to almost all the music in the world. It even works while offline since you can use its download feature to store songs and play them when in flight mode. The combination of this Bose speaker and Spotify has changed the way both my wife and I listen to music and podcasts in very real ways. (The only problem is that I now have to come up with a solution for when at the gym, because using an mp3 player with actual mp3s suddenly feels very old and fiddly — does anyone know of a good Android-based music player that is tiny and lightweight?)

Btw, for those interested in the differences between the BIG Jambox and the Bose Soundlink II, my impression in the store was that the Jambox had a more even/flat EQ curve, while the Bose had slightly weaker treble but richer bass. With richer, I don’t just mean louder — the Bose seems capable of reproducing lower frequencies than the Jambox (i.e. like the Bose gets down to 40 Hz and the Jambox only to something like 60 Hz). The Bose sounded slightly better in my ears. The thing to keep in mind is that the slight loss in treble/clarity of the Bose can be fixed with a small tweak of the EQ of your phone/tablet/computer, but you can never get the same deep bass back in the Jambox since the frequency range just isn’t there. So for me, the choice was very simple, especially since the Bose is also about ten times more attractive (in my very subjective opinion).

The bottom line is that there are two ways of describing the Bose Soundlink II: it’s either OUT OF THIS WORLD, if you consider the small size and design of the speaker — or it’s simply “good enough” as a secondary sound system in your house if you close your eyes and judge it based on sound quality alone. Given the added benefit of portability that this form factor enables and the remarkably sleek design, the Bose Soundlink II really deserves the highest marks.

If you’re still not sure why you need this speaker, check out this awesome video that I found as I was downloading the internet to go through all reviews of it (yes, I’m still 100% a nerd in that sense).

My review of Olympus E-PM1

I recently purchased my E-PM1 as an “upgrade” from my 2-year old Olympus E-P1, which of course is a more high end camera in some respects, but was simply getting a bit old and felt slow to me. I put “upgrade” in quotation marks because the E-PM1 isn’t really meant as an upgrade from the E-P1 because the two cameras target separate customer audiences. But — and I hope my review will be able to demonstrate this — it certainly is possible to take this upgrade path if you’ve used the E-P1, as long as you’re aware of what you’re gaining and losing during the upgrade.

Olympus E-PM1 “Mini” with the new 14-42mm lens.

I’ll focus this review on the differences (good and bad) between the old E-P1 and this new E-PM1:

E-PM1 advantages:

  • Much faster focus algorithms – even with the same lenses, the E-PM1 focuses noticeably faster. With the new lenses, it’s faster than any non-dSLR camera I’ve ever used.
  • Extremely lightweight and small – I think I managed to shave off another 100 grams of total weight in my camera bag with this upgrade! (For our fine Americans, 100 grams is approximately 1/2 cup of sugar, or 3/4 cup of all-purpose flour. I’ll leave the mpg calculation as an exercise for the reader.)
  • Much improved kit zoom in terms of size and focus speed/noise. Although the lens mount is in plastic, it doesn’t seem like there will be any problems with worn out mount connections.
  • Slightly, slightly better high ISO performance, though this is only confirmed by reading professional reviews.
  • Up to 5 fps burst mode – really impressive.
  • Nicer menu interface (though menu layout is mostly unchanged).
  • Comes with a useful snap-on flash that I’ve really missed on the E-P1 at e.g. very dim party nights. Now I just have to remember to bring it along with the camera. :)

E-PM1 disadvantages:

  • I definitely preferred the retro design of the E-P1, but I was happy to give it up in favor of a much more portable package.
  • There is absolutely no grip on the E-PM1, making it a bit hard to hold. You can essentially forget about holding the camera with just one hand.
  • For some reason, Olympus leaves out a basic orientation sensor in their simpler models, which means that if you take photos in portrait mode, you have to manually rotate the photos on your computer. Not a big deal, but I can’t understand why they would take out such a basic feature — there’s not a single mobile camera phone out there that doesn’t include it, so it can hardly be a size (or cost) issue.
  • I really miss at least *one* more programmable Fn button, or at least the freedom to assign *any* feature to the one that exists (the Rec button). For some reason, Olympus decided to omit certain essential features that you can assign, which means that some combinations of direct button access aren’t possible.
  • The video mode is crippled in the sense that it’s no longer possible to re-focus while recording by e.g half pressing the shutter (or assigning the AEL/AFL lock button to focus). It’s possible to program the AEL/AFL function (which can be assigned to the Rec button) to re-focus while in Manual mode when taking photos, but for some reason Olympus forgot to inherit that feature when switching to video mode. So, the only way to re-focus while recording a video is to give the control over entirely to the camera’s hunting focus algorithms by switching over to continuous focus. This is a shame, really, and it makes the video feature much less useful to me.
  • The screen, while higher resolution than on the E-P1, actually ends up being a disappointing experience because of its aspect ratio. This is a widescreen (16:9), while the E-P1 had a lower resolution 4:3 screen. Because both screens are labeled as 3″ sized, the widescreen actually ends up being a lot smaller if you still shoot your photos using the sensor-native 4:3 aspect ratio. (This is the same thing that happened a decade ago when you compared an old 28″ TV with the, then, new 28″ widescreen TVs — the latter ended up being a much smaller screen in most practical purposes.) If would be nice if Olympus gave you the option of only seeing 16:9 cropped version of the view when framing a photo, while still actually recording the full frame (this is admittedly possible if you shoot in RAW, which I never do).

My old retro-looking E-P1 (sold).

All in all, by selling my old E-P1 and (with a little help from Michael Verdi) buying the new E-PM1, I ended up spending an additional ~220 USD, which, all in all, feels like a pretty cheap upgrade. The E-PM1 is better than the old E-P1 in many important respects (to me) such as overall size/weight, autofocus speed, and flash — but it’s admittedly a step back in some others. As an interim upgrade until the “next big thing” comes out, it feels like a good choice to me in the end. But if you own an E-P1/E-P2 and plan to hold on to your next camera upgrade for a long time, I would suggest you wait until sometime like a future E-P4 is announced, which may be a far more significant upgrade with (supposedly) a much improved sensor.