Our AV director, Gary O’Donnell, reviews the best of bluetooth portable speakers available for home entertainment purposes and finds he’s thinking differently about HiFis as a result…
I love music! I know I know, it’s a ridiculous statement to make, after all who doesn’t like music? It’s like saying “I like puppies” or “I like sunny days”. But part of this love of music means I am quite fussy with my delivery system; I prefer to listen on a real HiFi consisting of separate amplifier, speakers and a good quality source, but this isn’t always possible so compromise on my part and flexibility on the tech part is necessary and ideally there will be less of the former and more of the latter. There is a third variable. Of course there is: this is HappilyTania and we like aesthetics! The HT office is not the place for a green amplifier, a silver turntable, a black tuner and white speakers all linked together with blue and red cables!
I don’t need to give a fanfare to the virtues of wireless speakers as we all know how flexible they are; a shower with John Coltrane’s “Afro Blue”, a barbeque with a perfect summer backing track, a gathering in the park with friends? All of these situations are infinitely more enjoyable with a wireless speaker. And then there’s basic economics: do you buy a HiFi for the front room, the bedroom, the bathroom and another one to take out and about? That is going to be expensive. What HappilyTania demands is one thing that can do everything. Oh and if you could make it look good at the same time, K? Thanks…
I think I might have found the holy grail!
The Bluesound Pulse Flex is a compact wireless speaker available in basic black or white but the manufacturers also make different coloured skins to match your décor (we love the blue, which fits in with our teal and pink interiors). Extra accessories include wall brackets and (importantly for this review) a battery pack to make it portable.
Straight out of the box, the unit has a comforting weight to it that is slightly heavier than a standard portable speaker, but not so much that you wouldn’t want to just leave it in situ. Initial setup was easy and sound was coming out of this dynamo within two minutes.
So how did it sound? Well, pretty damn fine actually! I listen to a lot of different genres but every speaker I have tried struggled with either Electronic or Hip Hop. There is something in the compression algorithms that over compensates for anything with even a mildly troubling bottom end by messing with the levels of atmospherics or vocals and, while that’s fine for having a few friends over for a BBQ, it’s far from ideal if you are using it for the enjoyment of the music itself. Upon playing A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders album, it became apparent very quickly that this was not going to be the case here. The weight of the bass was totally satisfying, but what amazed me was the clarity of the middle range where Q-Tip’s and Phife’s voices came through in a way that was as clear as though they were standing in front of you themselves. In fact, I was impressed enough that I started looking for things that I wanted to hear from the perspective that the Pulse Flex offered. I found myself going through a varying repertoire consisting of Falty DL, Nils Frahm and Frank Zappa and everything I threw at it came back both bright and lush. Even Autechre’s Rsdio and Second Peng had a lovely balance without disturbing the delicate atmospherics that the Warp artists are noted for. The only thing it seemed to struggle with was Abba – SOS and I have no idea why. I know it wasn’t the quality of the files (for the record, they were all either lossless flac or Spotify Extreme) yet no twiddling with the tone controls could bring out the excitement that say, Mothers Milk by Tears for Fears did.
Moving on to more practical issues, what impressed me most about the Pulse Flex was its modular options. When connected to your router, there are options to add more units to be either a stereo pair as your main listening unit or to create a full on zonal, house wide system all controllable from a slick app which not only has the option for Spotify, Deezer, Tidal et al (along with MQA High Resolution Audio support), but also has Tune In Radio built in to open up the world of radio to the palm of your hand. Add on a battery and it becomes totally portable. Garden use? Tick. Park picnic? Tick. Aesthetics? Tick.
Coming in at £299 per unit and £69 per battery, this is about double the price of the market leading portable wireless speakers from Bose and JBL, but here’s the thing; it actually does sound twice as good while also having the practicality of being portable. Add on the modular options though and it really does take off into its own level. I would even go as far to say that if you buy two, you can seriously consider ridding yourself of your home HiFi (along with all those different coloured cables) altogether and get a fantastic sounding portable speaker into the bargain.
Next week: Cheap and cheerful portables!