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.


Close-up of the EnerPlex solar panels showing very slight de-lamination of materials at fold points after a year of sun exposure on my van dashboard.

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 spec—though, 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 happen—and I knew this was the case—is 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.


Paul and John enjoying their music on the Infinity One at Black Butte cabin.

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...

Seth195208's picture

..for a couple of Montana boys. I got one for you. Try Gustavo Santaolalla. Just kidding!

veggieboy2001's picture

Thanks for sharing your motorcycle getaway (again).

As far as those paddle boards,it's supposed to be easier on your back than a kayak, and good for promoting balance. My wife & I will probably give it a try soon.

Impulse's picture

I remember reading the previous article but I don't remember if you ever shared what kinda headphone you take on a trip like that... Are you just enjoying the company too much for anything besides IEM (for riding?) or do you pack a rugged pair of small on ears or something like that?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Didn't take any headphones. Generally I don't listen to music while riding...just like to enjoy the scenery and moving through it. I do sometimes listen when road riding long distances on my FJR. In that case I'm currently using the HiFiMAN RE-400
Claritas's picture

Looks like you had a blast. "Selfie with bovines" -- love that title. Thanks for sharing.

zobel's picture

Looks the same as it did 32 years ago today when my wife and I had our wedding reception there. Yep its our anniversary today, so it was nice to see the place today. Thanks for the pics.

bronson's picture

your photos of the great outdoors, looks like you had a heap of fun :)

bronson's picture

your photos of the great outdoors, looks like you had a heap of fun :)

cel4145's picture

"In other words, really great sound is probably not in the cards for portable Bluetooth speakers; but reliably good performance with a variety of sources and in differing use environments is certainly within reach."

I did my own little test of <$150 range bluetooth speakers last fall, listening to half a dozen at home, and another dozen in stores in the where I could either pair the device with my phone or use the line in.

About half the way through the process, I realized was going about it wrong, trying to evaluate each speaker critically by standing right inf front of them. As you point out, they are meant to be used in a variety of environments, and in poor placement locations. Portable bluetooth speakers are meant for background music when the listener(s) are doing something else, not critical listening. We have headphones for that :)

oluv's picture

Interesting allegations about sound improvement of the Fugoo after the firmware update.

I also got a review unit recently with an older firmware. I did audio recordings as well as measurements with both the old firmware and then repeated everything with the recent firmware again.

Apart from a slight increase of overall loudness and also less distortion on top volume, I have not noticed any difference in sound. Neither from my audio recordings nor from the measurements. The Fugoo sounds still like it did before. It also measures quite well, with a bit of an upwards tilt towards treble, thus making the bass sound a bit conservatite although it reaches quite deep for a unit this size (down to 70Hz with still usable 60Hz).
Neither I noticed any loudness compensation, just bass reduction at higher levels. I did measurements at 45, 55, 65dB etc, and the curves are all parallel with bass reduction just starting to become visible in the 75dB measurement.

a comparison video which demonstrates the difference in loudness between old and new firmware:

ibiza's picture

I work as a skipper at a boat charter business in Ibiza and I keep dropping expensive phones in the water. This year I've tried a couple of bluetooth devices (they also fall in the water) and they're awesome. I can even walk around the boat without fearing to drop the phone.

Downforce's picture

I purchased an open box FoxL Purist directly from Soundmatters for $119 (price is currently down to $99) based on a Stereophile review. Look for the outlet section under the "Shop" heading on their homepage, it is rather well hidden. Loved it and it sounded great for about 2 years, when it developed static and noise, even with no source plugged in via the 3.5mm input. The warranty for open box items is a brief 90 days. The battery life is claimed to be up to 12 hours, but mine never lasted that long. Also, while the power/charger and 3.5mm audio inputs are labeled, they look quite similar and are easy to confuse. Ensure you turn on the speaker (it lacks an Auto Off feature) and reduce the volume before connecting it, otherwise it will be very loud and could suffer damage.

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