An Audio Toolkit: The Creative Sound Blaster Roar SR20 Page 2
A Note on Equalization and Apps
On two occasions in the last month I've run across smart streaming speakers that have their internal equalizer set to something other than flat out of the boxthe Sound Blaster Roar SR20 and the Philips Fidelio Sound Spheres. It seems to me that what's going on here is that speakers are shipped with the EQ set to be attention grabbing and exciting on the display room floor or for unsophisticated users. The bass was set too high on the Sound Spheres, and the sound from the SR20 was overly punchy and slightly strident out of the box.
In both cases, in the normal flow of doing the review I found companion apps on-line that allow more comprehensive control of the device. Once I opened these apps I stumbled upon the fact that the equalizers were set to something other than flat. I'm going to make an assumption here that engineers in the company who designed the product calibrated it to be as flat as possible with the settings flat, and that subsequently folks in Sales and Marketing decided that punching up the sound of the product away from flat would improve sales. Sadly, they're likely correct, and I can't be too hard on the practice. What I can do though is warn you when purchasing products like this that it's well worth the effort to find companion apps and to check the EQ settings.
Sound Blaster Control Panel
Obviously, there's a good bit of DSP (digital signal processing) going on inside the SR20; no doubt the active crossover in the unit is accomplished digitally. The DSP can also be controlled to some degree from an external computer connected via USB using the Sound Blaster Control Panel. (Download for Mac and Windows machines available here, at the moment no iOS or Android apps are available.)
The Main screen shows a series of pre-set profiles that may be selected. Once selected, you can push the Edit button and change the setting of the pre-set. Two screen of adjustments are available: SBX and graphic equalizer.
The SBX panel has a variety of cryptic controls for audio neophites to goof around with...I found few that were useful. I found no resource for exactly what these controls do, so I'm guessing a bit here. It seems from listening and using the Faber Acoustical measurement software that the surround function adds some out-of-phase information to channels to reduce the center image and make the sound seem like it's not coming from the SR20. The Crystalizer appears to raise bass and treble ranges to give a more exciting "fun" sound. The Smart Volume control is essentially a compressor that may allow you better listening in noise environments by applying some dynamic range compression. Bass control adds or reduces the lows; the crossover frequency steers the active crossovers to a different crossover point. I'm really not sure what the Dialog Plus is doing. I would have expected it to raise response in the roughly 1.5kHz to 4kHz range, which is the area responsible for the clarity of consonants and speech intelligibility, but it didn't. In fact, response slightly dropped in the region, though very little happened overall to the frequency response. I'm guessing from what I heard they're making the signal more mono, but not sure.
The second page available while editing the presets is the graphic equalizer page. This ten-band, octave spaced EQ is fairly straightforward and functional.
Once you've got settings you like, you then click "save" at the bottom of the page and you're done. One note: the SBX Default setting can be changed, but it can NOT be saved; and there's no way to create new presets. If you want to create your own preset, you'll have to modify one of the existing ones and save it.
Bottom line: the Sound Blaster Control Panel is a good thing to download primarily to reset the factory setting to something more flat, and potentially for you to do a little tweaking to the EQ and maybe some compression for loud environs.
Straight out of the box, and when listening within a few feet, I found the SR20 a bit hard and uneven sounding; once I got it's EQ set to flat, it sounded a bit more coherent and even, but some modest hardness and mid-range distortion remained. Treble response is snappy without harshness, but lacks finesse. Problematic areas worsened mildly as the volume got louder, and, of course, low bass response is somewhat missing. Generally speaking, in near-field listening I found the sound good, but not great; however, compared with small BT speakers I've heard it's easily on par with the better units in terms of sound quality. Please read the criticisms in this paragraph as those of an audiophile; there are virtually no small, inexpensive BT speakers that produce really great sound.
On that note, I'll also add that as I've been reviewing this product and others of its kind, I'm becoming ever more aware of the need to evaluate the sound of these products in quite a different way than, say, desktop speakers. With desktop speakers the intended use would have the listener sitting in the sweet spot between the speakers, which would therefore be a good way to evaluate the sound of computer speakers. With Bluetooth single-unit speakers however, the use paradigm is far more varied. At times you'll be sitting right in front of the speaker, but likely more often you'll be placing the speaker somewhere in the room and listening as you walk around. I've come to think it's responsible to evaluate sound quality of these types of devices both up close and personal, and for the speaker's ability to fill a room with sound satisfactorily. Along with that, I find it's important to move the device under test around to numerous places to see how proximity to walls and surfaces effect the sound.
It appears to me that due to the small size and speakers pointing in 3 different directions on the SR20 that placement and nearby surfaces can have a fairly strong effect on the sound heard. Due to the front firing speakers, small size, and relatively low crossover point, placing the unit in the middle of a flat surface puts the front-firing tweeters in close proximity to the tabletop surface and creates reflections and cancelation notches in the frequency response. The notch seemed to occur between 4kHz and 8kHz primarily, but the exact position of the notch is dependent upon the angle of measurement. Suffice it to say that placing the unit flat on the table created easily noticeable changes to the timbre of reproduced sound. Bass was also moderately increased with the table surface boundary, and seemingly by table vibration induced by the upward firing bass driver. I found the best sounding position for me was on a raised surface off the desk, with the front of the SR20 even with the front edge of the shelf surface. Proximity to a rear wall was sometimes helpful for low frequency response.
The SR20 did a pretty good job of filling a room with sound regardless of where it was placed due to the wide dispersion of the variously pointed speakers. Corner locations tended to be a bit too warm and honkey sounding with congested lower mids. Placing the unit too far back on a surface tended to obscure some of the treble. Placing the unit in the middle of the room tended to lower bass response and make the sound a bit thin, and the directionality of the tweeters limited high frequency response in areas behind the speaker. The best position I found in my living room was centered on one of the long walls of the room, on top of a small bookshelf with the tweeters even with the front edge of the shelf. In this position, the upward-firing mids bounced off the wall behind and ceiling to become well distributed in the room. Bass from the top-firing speaker and side-firing passive radiators are nicely reinforced by the wall behind. And the front-firing tweeters, though directional, had their best opportunity to radiate into the whole room.
The Creative Labs Sound Blaster ROAR SR20 is a feature packed player that does an very good job of filling a room with sound for a very reasonable price. It can play music from Bluetooth, USB, line-in, and on-board micro-SD card sources. It can act as a speakerphone and can record calls as well as act as a simple voice recorder. Oddly, it has a mode where it makes random strange noises to keep you awake, another mode that slowly lowers the volume and turns off to send you to sleep, and, even more oddly, it has a siren...though it's not as loud as I had hoped.
Sound quality out of the box was a tad rough, but attaching the SR20 to a computer running the Sound Blaster Control Panel software allows you to return the unit to flat and improves the sound quality. The sound then is goodvery competitive with other units of this pricebut not great. With its unusual multi-directional driver arrangement it was somewhat sensitive to placement and pointing position, but with careful positioning it would easily fill a room with sound. The unit can play quite loud, but sound quality does diminish as volume rises, though not as badly as many units of this size.
I really like the ROAR SR20. It would be good value at $199 if all it did was play music over Bluetooth. Adding in significant sonic control with the SB Control panel software; the ability to record voice and phone calls; the ability to play computer audio over USB; and the ability to act as a stand-alone player with music on the Micro-SD card makes it a product that delivers terrific value for money. This is a great little unit for the business traveler as it's small enough to fit in a brief case if needed, and will help you set-up a dandy little office in your hotel room. Totally dig it, happy to recommend this very cool audio tool!
Creative Labs home page and ROAR SR20 product page (from Singapore site, not up on US sites at this time).
Roar SR20 support page for more in-depth info.
Creative Labs forum SR20 thread.
Creative Labs Sound Blaster Control Panel software page.
Sound Blaster ROAR SR20 user experience guide .pdf.