An Audio Toolkit: The Creative Sound Blaster Roar SR20
Creative Sound Blaster Roar SR20 ($199)
When I first laid eyes and ears on the Sound Blaster Roar SR20 at CES earlier this year, Creative Labs booth personal began pointing out the long, long list of features. Slowly it dawned on me: this was no ordinary bluetooth speaker, this was an audio toolbox. I also began to dread how much of a dent this little gadget was going to put in people's wallet. When I was told it would be $199, I was stunned...it seemed too good to be true. I immediately signed up for a review sample. Having now lived with this little gem for a month or so, I can say that while other Bluetooth speakers will likely get my ears for music playing, I have no doubt the Roar SR20 will always be within arms reach both at home and on the road. It's just too good an audio tool to be without. Let's have a look.
The Roar SR20 weighs in at 2lbs 6oz, is about the size of a brick at 8"x4.5"x2.5", and feels about as sturdy. The chassis is wrapped in metal grille for the most part; the rear panel control area is a gray rubbery material. The heft and mostly metal construction is confidence inspiring; this unit seems built to last.
The Roar has five driver elements: two forward-facing 1.5" high-frequency drivers; one upward-facing 2.5" mid/bass driver; and two passive radiators supporting bass response firing outward at the sides. Internal active crossovers split the signals to tweeters and woofer before being driven by independent class-D power amps.
This speaker lay-out is designed to do a good job of filling a room with sound by radiating bass both up and to the side; the mids upward to bounce sound off the ceiling; and the tweeters forward to directly radiate into the room. Obviously, there is little to no stereo separation with this unit, but it does do a very good job of filling the room with sound.
The second purpose of this speaker arrangement is to reduce vibration that may cause the unit to move around on the table. With the low-frequency driver mounted vertically, vibration is limited to up-and-down motions that will tend not to cause the Roar to vibrate in the horizontal direction that might cause it to move. But more interestingly, this up and down motion is efficiently transfered into the surface upon which the SR20 rests, and, it seems to me, the table vibration helps to give the impression of bigger bass.
Audio Inputs and Playback Controls
Four methods for playing music are available on the SB20: Bluetooth; USB; Line-in; and music stored on a micro-SD card. Strangely, there is no input selection switching and it's possible to play from three sources simultaneously! (The USB and SD card sources are exclusive as the play button is used for USB mode select when the USB cable is attached, so it won't play SD card material when connected to USB.)
Audio volume is always controlled by the + and - buttons on the top rear panel. A "ROAR" button next to the volume controls is available to make the SR20 play louder and more intelligibly in loud environs like while having a party. Basically, this control increases the overall volume by about 3dB, and mids between 100Hz and 600Hz and treble between 1.5kHz and 12kHz are elevated. Especially noteworthy is about a 5dB increase in volume of the audio between 4kHz and 10kHz; the boost in this region is particularly strong and audible. I didn't get the chance to play the SR20 at a party, but I certainly prefer not to have the ROAR feature enables during normal listening as it does become significantly more strident sounding, and the unit is more than capable of filling a room to an adequate level without it.
Bluetooth - The SR20 complies with the Bluetooth 3.0 standard and typical transmission range is about 10 meters unobstructed. NFC pairing is supported, and traditional pairing was a breeze. The A2DP profile is supported, and SBC, aptX, and AAC CODECS are included. The SR20 paired both media and phone call audio separately and simultaneously to my Galaxy S3. By disabling the the BT phone channel I can answer my phone normally while still playing music on the SR20; by disabling the media channel, I can use the SR20 as a speakerphone while listening to music from other sources when not on the phone. The SR20 seamlessly muted the music and allowed me to answer calls using it as a speakerphone, and then returned to music when the call was over. Similarly, if I had paired the phone call audio but was listening to music from another source, receiving a call would again mute the music and allow me to use the speakerphone. The Roar supports multi-point pairing, which allows two people to pair with the SB20 and alternately play music form their phones without having to continually reconnect. Bluetooth operation was rock-solid, and the operation and experience of use as a speakerphone was excellent.
USB Audio - Playing music from your computer through the SB20 and accessing files on the micro-SD card is possible through the USB interface...but it can be a bit tricky. To put the SB20 into USB audio input mode, you must first connect the USB cable to your computer, then depress and hold the play button on the rear panel until you hear a beep. I've been using my MacBook to test the USB audio, and have run into a few problems. As soon as the USB cable is plugged into both devices, the Mac recognizes the SB20 drive, which then appears in the Finder as "No Name" and a beep sounds to indicate you've connected via USB. When I then push the "Play" button to go into USB audio mode, the "No Name" volume is removed from the Finder and a warning about improper ejection of the drive appears---in other words, when plugging in the USB cable the Mac automatically mates; when the play button is then depressed, the SR20 thinks you want to turn off the USB audio. I then have to press the play button again for the SR20 to go into USB audio mode and show up in my audio preferences as an audio output. So, USB audio works, but you're going to have to get used to it.
Line In - A 3.5mm stereo jack is available on the rear panel for wired playback. Simply plug it in, turn on the SB20 and source, and play. Easy peasy.
Micro-SD Card - The SR20 can act as a stand-alone music player by loading up to 32GB of music in MP3, WMA, or WAV formats onto a Micro-SD card and mounting it into the rear panel slot. I put 320kBs MP3 files on the card in an artist/album folder structure and the SR20 had no problems finding and playing the files. Playback controls are limited to play/pause, FF, RW, and continuous and random play. There is no way to select particular tracks for playback. If you're interested in greater control over the music played from the Micro-SD card, I would suggest having multiple cards with various music selections and basically use the cards as playlists.
Other Features and Controls
Speakerphone and Voice Recorder - When used as a speakerphone, the SR20 performed very well; voice from the other party was clear and intelligible, people I called said my voice was clear while talking, and even when walking around the room a conversation could be easily carried out.
Maybe my favorite feature of all is the ability to do voice and phone call recording. I've tried numerous apps for my Android phone for recording calls and they've all been somewhat disappointing. The SR20 completely fulfills my need for recording interviews with others...I totally dig this feature. When phone or voice recordings are made, they are written as WAV files into a folder named "VOICE" off the root directory on the micro-SD card. Files in this folder are not played by the music player. To create or listen to recorded files, a separate control panel is used. The red dot record button is pushed to start a recording, and pushed a second time to stop recording. If the record button is pushed during a phone call, it will record the conversation, otherwise it will simply record your voice using the mic mounted within the front panel. To listen to voice recordings simply push the play/pause button to hear the most recent recording. To listen to other recordings, use the FF and RW buttons on the Micro-SD card audio control panel. Also located on this panel is a switch for muting the front panel mic.
Storage Battery - Inside the SR20 is a 6000mAh lithium-ion battery the will power the device for about 8 hours of playback at normal levels. In addition, power from this battery is available on the rear panel large USB connector and may be used to charge your smartphone or other USB powered device. The SR20 does not need to be powered on to charge external devices. Included with the SR20 is a 15VDC 1600mA power supply that will charge the SR20 in about three hours. If you forget your power supply, the SR20 can also be powered and charged from the small USB port, but it will take significantly longer to get a full charge as current is limited over this connection. Battery life is aided by an auto-shutoff feature that automatically turns the unit off if no music is played for ten minutes.
Bedtime Mode - When playing files from the micro-SD card, you can start the sleep mode by pushing and holding the play/pause button next to the record button until the unit beeps. This will cause the volume to slowly turn down over a period of 15 minutes and then shut off. Holding down the button until it beeps twice will cause the period to 30 minutes. Sleep mode can be turned off by simply pushing the play/pause button once quickly.
Alarm and Life Saver Mode - Okay, these are a bit weird. Sliding the little toggle to turn on the Life Saver mode will cause the unit to randomly play weird noises intended to keep you awake. The random noises are quite random indeedcar crashes, alarms, bird tweets, screams, and all manner of sonic oddities occur randomly in intervals between one and five minutes roughly. In switch position 1 it will play the noises at 3/4 volume, in position 2 the noises will be at full volume. You can play music simultaneously, and the music will turn off momentarily when the sounds occur. The SR20 can not be turned off when this switch is in any position but off. I was never sleepy enough to need this function, but I did spend some time playing music with the switch in position 2 and I can tell you it was certainly a startling experience.
The SR20 alarm sets off a siren-like sound, simply arm the alarm with the slide switch and then press and hold the alarm button until it sounds. This seemed like a handy thing to have in the unit while campingyou never know when you might become injured and have to call for help. Unfortunately, the alarm really isn't that loud, so I think it's a fairly useless function.
Alrightythen...turn the page and we'll talk about sound quality.