Category Archives: Audio

Review: Sony SRS-XB3 Portable Bluetooth Speaker


The Sony XB3 is a new series of Portable Bluetooth speakers from Sony that has been geared to take on the JBL Charge/UE Boom market. Sony past models X33 and the X3 were very good speakers that focused as more affordable alternatives to the the Bose SoundLink Mini market, rather than the outdoor friendly market. Sony seems to have made a decision that the outdoor oriented market was a better space, and the new XB series is geared towards this.

The hardware

The XB3 product replaces the X33 (and X3) speakers, but by the likes of it, it might be a viable option for the very good X55 as well if you want similar audio volume but in a more outdoor oriented packaging.

The XB3 audio hardware layout is pretty much standard for the class, with dual woofers and dual passive radiators. The key factor Sony shouts about is the larger 48mm full range woofers it uses, the audio processing engine to boost bass (megabass) and Sony’s LDAC Bluetooth technology for high-resolution audio streaming.

I have extracted why the LDAC can be important by the following quote from Sony,

“LDAC™ audio coding technology developed by Sony, which allows transmission of up to around three times the data volume of existing technologies, and was the first in the world to offer audio quality in the Hi-Res class using Bluetooth Audio”.

While LDAC is offered by Sony on other more expensive models, the XB3 and XB2 were the first models to feature this in the lower price bracket.

The range 2015/16 range of speakers from Sony maxed out at 20W output for models which operated similar on battery and when on charge, while models that offered higher outputs the X55/X77 etc offered lower outputs on battery but the amp got into full power only when it was being charged. The XB3 is the first Sony where the output is 30W (all models in the past range were max 20W) and works i201606200911583902n the same manner on battery or when charged.

EXTRABASS is the new thing with the XB3 and Sony claims the BASS boost has been achieved by a combination of specially tuned woofers and radiators coupled with the Sony DSP processing. Sony also goes on to add that this is particular tuned for modern dance floor and EDM tracks, more about this on the sound test section.

This effectively now pitches the XB3 directly in line with the JBL Charge 3 and the UE Boom 2 on loudness. I did a quick table to compare the XB3 with the JBL and UE speakers (and the older X33 model) and you will how similar the XB3 is now to the competitors, clearly showing Sony targeting the JBL Charge 3 and UE BOOM 2 speakers, as in the past most of the comparisons of the X33/X3 was with the Bose SoundLink Mini I/II. The driver sizes are now pretty similar, and based on RMS output the XB3 seems to have the more powerful amplifier.

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Wit4836815cv19dh the XB3, Sony also brought in some outdoor protection into its speaker,and its now IPX5 certified (Water resistant).
While it cannot be immersed compared to the rivals which are IP7 and IP67 certified, it can now withstand splashes of rain and drips of water (essentially making it shower, kitchen and pool friendly). Notice the rain in the Sony marketing photos 🙂

The XB3 design is primarily meant to be placed horizontally, the XB3 is also capable of being kept vertically due to its non slip rubber exterior. While this is not going to make it provide 360 degree sound like the UE Boom speakers, you can now use it in smaller places which is a useful design feature.

The speaker also has the NFC pairing, an 3.5mm aux in stereo port and the USB chargeout. Importantly Sony has upgraded the Bluetooth spec to version 4.1 which means lower battery consumption. Range wise the Bluetooth range is still 30ft, and Sony works well even with thick walls without any sound artifacts (unlike my Bose Soundlink III which has issues with big cement walls!).  The UE Boom and Anker speakers have a greater Bluetooth range and they say 60-100ft.

A new feature for Sony is the ability to pair two speakers (aka dual pairing) with the speaker ADD button. The pairing is similar to the JBL implementation where you can pair speakers of the same type (two XB3) but you cannot pair different models (e.g. and XB3 with an XB2) as is possible with UE speakers. When paired you can decide if you want the speakers to Double (both play full range) or Stereo (left and right channels play on different speakers).

Like all Sony Bluetooth only speakers, the XB3 does not work with the SongPal application.

Design and Quality

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Gone is the Xperia Z phone like smooth external feel we saw with the older X3/X33 models, and we now have a rubbery non-slip exterior. The design still is very conservative its no longer the premium desktop feel speaker, but feels more rugged and outdoor friendly. The shape to me is more pleasing than the JBL Charge and UE Boom which are the two direct competitors.

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The water resistant feature means that the aux in, usb charge out, and power are now protected by a flap cover. If you going to using the speaker a lot with the aux in or on charge this can be annoying, but with a very good battery life and outdoor use being the market, i assume most users are not going to be complaining too much about this. It would have been better if each of the ports had their own protective covers rather than one huge flap is my opinion, which is the case with competitors such as the UE Boom. Since my use is mainly indoors, i found this rather annoying compared with the exposed connectors on the older models.

Only the POWER, EXTRABASS and BLUETOOTH buttons have tiny LED lights to illuminate it when using thexb3buttons speaker in a dark location. The volume UP and SPEAKER MUTE buttons have tiny bumps which is useful to identify the buttons, but why there are no LED for the volume button baffles me (same criticism i had with with the X5). Seriously why don’t manufacturers use different colored LED for buttons, specially to differentiate the volume up and volume down buttons at least (red and blue maybe)?

Since the speaker allows pairing two, a nice design touch is the indicators to show if the speaker is the left or right when you pair two speakers and set it up for Stereo mode.

Sound Quality

To start of with yes, the XB3 with MegaBASS on is loud, very loud and can easily fill a big room, or be heard outdoors, no question about that. Since i also had the Sony X5 with me (which is a higher up model but older) on battery the XB3 is significantly louder, and when connected it still much louder than the X5. One might say it should be because the X5 when powered is 20W while the XB3 is 30W. But being loud is one thing, the question is how is the quality of the sound and the manner in which it handles highs, mids and lows.

The next point to clear is that without MegaBASS on the volume is significantly lower, and selecting MegaBASS does not simply increase the BASS but also has a profound impact on the mids and highs as well.

Without MegaBASS the speaker lacks the oomph and that also explains why Sony has MegaBASS on by default.

Sony models in the past had a button to enable ClearAudio processing, which enabled more cleaner sound but it also meant lower battery times as this required additional processing. While the XB3 does support ClearAudio, there is on way to disable or enable it, and i assume it is always on which is a good thing, since on the X5 the sound was definitely richer than with ClearAudio on.

BASS (Lows)

Well with MegaBASS being the feature, let me start with the Lows. The XB3 with MegaBASS on handles bass quite well for a speaker of this size, but it also seems to be bass dominant, which is very different compared to the older models which had a more balanced playback. Further while it handles some forms of music well, the bass did sound a bit muddy with certain songs i tried. In many ways the bass for more akin to the type of bass you see with the Bose speakers.

The Sony X5 which has a special woofer to handle bass provides a more richer bass that can handle thumps better than the XB3.

However the XB3 is still a small speaker, and the bass does not have the thump you will get from a larger speaker.

Mids

Without MegaBASS on the Mids are well handled, and with MegaBASS on while they are still handled the bass tends to drown the mids.

Compared i found the Sony X5 handled the Mids better even when for songs with heavy bass.

Highs (Treble)

The highs are handled well both with MegaBASS on and off, and sound very clear.  The bass does not overwhelm  the treble in most songs i listened.

Stereo separation

Though the speakers are placed a part, the distance is not that great and you are not going to notice the stereo separation which is also how all other speakers of this type work. However if you want true stereo separation you can pair two XB3 and select stereo mode. I did not have a second unit to try this and provide feedback if it does work as stated.

Battery Life

The XB3 bring a big improvement on battery capacity compared to the older models and essentially doubles the on battery use time compared with the X33. Battery times quoted by manufacturers cannot be taken as fact since they don’t mention the volume. In most cases the volume is at 50% and this maybe rather too low for our usage.

Online reviews and forums are the place to go for this information.  I had the XB3 with me for over a week and i used it for 12+ hours without charging, and the volume was usually at 80-90%.

Tips when buying a wireless portable speaker


Compiled a few tips / best practices when buying a wireless portable speaker.  If you have any more please do comment on this post!

  1. Don’t go by reviews, audio is a personal taste, and speakers are designed to play certain genre’s better than others. So take a collection of your music and try out how it sounds before investing.
  2. When trying out speakers, try it out in environments that you will want to use the speaker. Testing in an enclosed sound room, or big showroom may sometimes make the speaker feel better or worse than what it is. Smaller speakers perform better in smaller rooms, and the bass performance improves when you place the speaker closer to a wall. Some speakers have issues with balance (tend to rock or vibrate) depending on the surface you keep it or with high volumes, and take this into consideration
  3. Be vary careful of fakes of popular affordable products. You will find loads of fakes for speakers made by Bose, JBL, Beats, Sony simply because many buyers want this, and some A-Grade fakes are very well made that its hard to distinguish it from the original unless you playback and listen carefully. In some cases the fakes can even perform better acoustically but may have durability issues in the long run !!!If the Bluetooth speakers voice prompts are Chinese like for well known brands its most likely a fake 🙂
  4. If you intended to use it on Bluetooth and wireless, try it out with over the preferred wireless medium.
  5. Most wireless speakers will sound better when you connect it to the traditional mini stereo (aux) jack.  There are some speakers where the aux in may not have any amplification while the Bluetooth will amplify.  With Apple dropping the 3.5mm port, the aux in is becoming an option rather than a mandatory requirement.
  6. Understand your speaker and see how it works, some speaker amps are designed to run at lower power in battery mode, and sound much better when they are connected to the power line. If you hope to use the speaker mainly on battery mode make sure its not connected to the power line when testing to see how it performs on battery.
  7. Some speakers will not playback when they are being charged!! So test this or read and check if it does.
  8. Don’t assume that speakers having dedicated treble, bass controls (E.g. Marshall Stanmore) are professional models.  In most cases these for the design, or to compensate for limitations in the quality of tuning implemented.  A speaker that can handle different music genres without you having to fiddle with controls is more desirable, indicating it has been designed and tuned well.  If the speaker comes with an app that has a software EQ maybe useful but again not mandatory.
  9. If you can’t find the speaker in your local market, you use YouTube and listen to videos by reviewer who have used high definition mics to records sample sounds.  You need to listen with a good headset to get the best of these reviews, but since the sample music and environment is not going to be same you may not get the same outcome as testing it personally.  One such popular reviewer i listen to is https://www.youtube.com/user/clavinetjunkie
  10. For everyday use some of the larger OEM brands that sell equipment worldwide produce very good speakers as they may use the same drivers and other related hardware as big brands.  Notable brands i have come across include Anker and Divoom who actually make products that compete and outperform leading brands.  Another recent example is the Xiaomi  MI bluetooth speaker which offers far better sound quality, build and features than the much pricier Jawbone JamBox mini which it has been designed to look like (however make sure you are buying from a reliable source, as many online sites sell replica’s of the Xiaomi MI)
  11. The quoted battery time by manufactures are usually for 50-60% volume, cranking the speaker to 90-100% is going to reduce that quote time significantly.  Many speakers with 10hrs quoted time can go down to 2-3hrs when cranked full.  Read forums and reviews to get an idea of the actual battery of of the device you are planning to buy.
  12. For WiFi speakers firmware versions are very important. Make sure you update the firmware but also read forums if the new firmware has introduced any issues before updating.
  13. When buying wireless speakers with the intention of using wireless capabilities and the ability to combine multi-room and multi-device capabilities, the mobile app provided by the vendor is going to be a very deciding factor.  Here again online feedback is going to be a very useful information source (more than reviews, unless the review is a long term variety) since only long term users will be able to discuss the challenges and limitations they find.
  14. Size is not the sole indicator.  Smaller sized speakers may perform better than larger sized speakers because they may actually cram in better hardware and optimized tuning.  Checkout reviews of the Bang & Olufsen A1, a pricey premium palm sized portable speaker that actually has audio quality superior to much larger Bose SoundLink III (Thanks to an unusually large 90mm woofer at the bottom that handles bass and mids coupled to a tweeter for the highs!).  However small speakers may come with other issues.  Amazon reviews for the A1 indicate that it heats up and shuts down, and the all aluminium body becomes hard to hold when it gets warm under use.  In some cases specially with OEM speakers the external case maybe large, but the internals feature very low end hardware. Rather than buying such OEM speakers you can buy a small speaker from a tested brand and get better audio and battery performance.
  15. Bose is NOT the nirvana of speakers in the portable world (though most of us may only hear a lot about the SoundLink and SoundTouch series).  There are many niche brands that offer great audio performance but they also come at a steep price. One such brand making great speakers in the portable market is the a nordic brand called vifa (https://www.vifa.dk)
  16. Most speakers with Bluetooth will work from 20-30feet away from the music source, though that will depend a lot on the construction materials used for walls and area interference.  However there are some speakers that boost Bluetooth for over 50feet making them ideal for outdoor use, or for large areas.  Depending on your need this might also be a key selling point when buying speakers that you want to connect via Bluetooth.
  17. Most leading brands don’t state the output of the speakers in watts, since this number cannot be verified easily and also will depend on the manner the calculation was done.  However some brands do share the output such as Sony, Harman Kardon, JBL, and some even indicate the frequency band to give you an idea of the way the total speaker drivers will handle music.  When calculating the total watts, big brands only consider the powered drivers, and radiators are not considered into this calculation.  However i have noted that OEM speakers add an output for radiators to falsely increase the output of the speakers!  But don’t go by the watt count, as that’s not a true measure of a quality of the speaker, and neither is it a way to decide the loudness.
  18. When buying OEM brands, try out the speaker since most reviews are by authors who are provided the device free (same applies to amazon in some cases) and they will not write any negatives or problems since they will only get free equipment for favorable reviews.

Introduction to Wireless Portable Speakers


We live in a generation where the mobile devices are a central part of our life.  The importance of the mobile has brought an explosion in portable companion devices such as the portable chargers, Bluetooth headsets, speakers, etc.  Portable speakers are not a new concept for folks who would have been used to boom boxes and battery equipped radios in the 1970s.  These speakers were part of a major cultural change when it came to street music.

The popularity of the IPOD brought a new wave of portable audio devices in the likes of sound docks.  However for Android which joined the party a bit later found only limited options for sound docks  due to the change in the connector (mini USB to Micro USB), and the variety of device types.  The emergence of Bluetooth as a medium for playback, and combined with music apps on smart devices truly made universal portable audio devices to come into the market.

The portable wireless audio market since then has been growing fast, and these devices are offering continue to improve on the quality audio in a smaller foot print.  In order to achieve these portable wireless speaker manufacturers have designed in extensive concepts that allow maximum use of the small space of the speaker cabinet.

For anyone who has used audio equipment will know that size of the speakers, no of speakers, type of speakers, power of the amplifier, etc are not pure indicators for good quality sound.  The speaker designers have to tune the speakers to ensure it can handle a full range of frequencies, and the circuitry and software must also be designed to ensure compressed audio is processed, amplified to make use of the speaker hardware.

Unlike home theater systems or mini hi-fi systems, which feature dedicated sub woofers or speaker units for bass, the portable speakers with the size limitation are challenged in handling playback of the full spectrum of frequencies.   Hence if your expectation is that the portable wireless speakers are going to give the same quality and loudness of GOOD home theater systems or mini hi-fi systems, you will have to tone your expectations 🙂 , but things keep improving so some of these portable speakers can provide far better output than the largish computer speakers we used in the past.

So here is a few useful notes on the basics of a portable wireless speaker that can help you buy like a pro!

SPEAKER DRIVERS

Since we refer to the complete unit as the “SPEAKER”, i will refer to the individual speakers in this unit as “DRIVERS”

Modern good quality portable wireless speakers will feature some of the following drivers.

internals-of-a-bluetooth-speaker

  1. Full range drivers – These are all purpose speakers, which will TRY to handle all frequencies with on speaker.
  2. Mid Range drivers – These speakers will usually handle most of the vocals in the music (300-5Khz)
  3. Woofers – These are used to handle low frequencies (40 – 1kHz)
  4. Tweeters – These are used to produce high frequencies (2kHz – 20Khz)
  5. Passive Radiators (also called drone cones) – The air forced by the main woofers and speakers are “re-used” and pushed through the radiators (a piece of audio equipment that specially useful for bass frequency), which add to improved bass response. Most radiators are passive in nature, as in they do no use any electrical power (they are not connected to the amplifier), but are entirely powered by the pass through airflow.
  6. Bass Reflex port – This is more common approach to improve bass responses on speakers. Many small PC computers feature this technology, which allowed superior bass outputs from standard speakers. Here again there are variation, but seemingly with smaller footprints the passive radiators seem to offer better bass responses than a reflex port, as bass reflex ports are harder to design (but cheaper to implement)

A good read for passive radiators – http://www.centerpointaudio.com/passiveradiators.aspx

If you buy a speaker and it only has two same size drivers, then its mostly likely having full range speakers, where both drivers will try to play all frequencies.  The quality of the full range driver will decide how well the total speaker system plays different genres of music, but most often such speaker will be bass limited (bass will be muffled and lacking the thump), or if the manufacturer tunes it it may lack the mids (which will effect the vocals).

Many knock offs (copies/fakes) of branded products or cheap speakers will usually feature full range speakers, and possibly a simple bass port.

Some higher quality speakers may bring in a more balanced set of drivers that combine the different types (mid range drivers, woofers, radiators, tweeters) to provide good quality audio which can also handle different music genre’s.

SPEAKER AMPLIFIER and AUDIO PROCESSOR

The drivers/woofers/tweeters/radiators are one part of the speaker, but another essential part is the sound processing hardware and amplifiers.  The speakers also consist of the DSP (Digital Signal Processor), the DAC (Digital Audio Converter), and codecs.  The quality of the hardware and software used here, along with the tuning of these to match with the drivers/woofers will be key for the overall performance of the speaker.

This is why you will find that some speakers touting very powerful speakers may not sound so great for different music genre’s, as lack of software optimization and poor sound processing can completely cause the speaker drivers to be useless. Some vendors may add buttons for controlling treble, bass but you may find  when playing wireless you will hardly use these buttons and also need to change them from song to song making them useless.

A speaker that is optimized to handle different types of audio without such perks, and not distorting will be a happier purchase !

Another important aspect is how the manufacturer has designed the speaker to perform under battery mode.   Some speaker amps throttle the output of the speaker if its running on battery to reduce the drain on the battery, hence the speaker may not sound as great on battery compared to when its connected to the power and is charging.

Bluetooth version and features

The key enhancement in newer Bluetooth versions is the reduction in interference from other devices and frequencies.  One has to understand that frequencies used for other devices vary from country to country, and hence the interference can differ.

In most cases Bluetooth 2.1 would be adequate in handling playback of HD audio, but Bluetooth 4.0 with LE support can be help improve the power consumption of Bluetooth equipment.

A good read : https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-difference-between-Bluetooth-4-0-3-0-and-2-0

Some Bluetooth speakers allow you combine speakers and provide you better stereo isolation.  Though the portable speakers have multiple drivers, they are located to close to each other to really differentiate left and right channels.  By adding two devices, the speakers split left and right enabling better stereo isolation (which will also depend on how you place the speakers)

WiFi features

Newer wireless speakers may support WiFi, and this will bring a heavy dependency on the quality of the mobile application provided by the vendor to harness the speaker capabilities.  The mobile app will allow you to combine many speakers and stream audio from your mobile device to the speakers that can be located across your house.  The app will also help integrate with popular audio streaming sites, the support sites would depend on the application.

Each speaker will use separate bandwidth, and hence your network quality and bandwidth become key factors for the quality of audio that the speakers can provide when playing over WiFi.

Purchasing speaker to harness the WiFi capabilities will need lengthy research as many products have very grave issues such as regularly failing to connect to a wireless hotspot, breaks in streaming, lack of support for popular audio streaming sites, etc.  WiFi in portable speakers still seem to be in maturing state and here its led by a fairly new company called Sonos who create good audio devices that also feature robust WiFi connectivity supported by a good app for key mobile platforms.

Most WiFi speakers will also have Bluetooth connectivity, but if you fallback to Bluetooth you won’t have the ability to connect all the speakers as one, a key selling point for WiFi speakers.

Environmental Protection

A popular demand these days if for speakers to be very outdoor friendly including the ability of the speaker to handle a dip in the swimming pool.  New speakers come with different IPX ratings, and one has to understand making a speaker soundproof also bring in various forms protection for the equipment within, and the use of different materials for speaker drivers.  These can result in reduced audio quality in some instances.

Note from Author 🙂

This is a shift in interested towards mobile speakers, since Mobile Phones have become boring in recent times !!  With evolutionary improvements being harder to even notice (slightly better camera, faster processor, better battery life, better display, etc), and some features that to me are downgrades such as the lack of a 3.5mm speaker Jack (= no high quality DAC for audio), i decided a slight change on interest was required.. and the area i have now picked is portable audio. If you have any such gadgets and are willing to loan it for me for a week or two for review, i would be most delighted!

Related Posts

Some tips when buying a portable wireless speaker – https://rayazmuthalif.wordpress.com/2017/01/29/tips-when-buying-a-wireless-portable-speaker/

Portable audio equipment owned or used

Bose Soundlink Color, Sony SRS X5, Sony SRS XB3, Harman Kardon Onyx Mini, Divoom Solo, Bose Soundlink III, JBL Charge, Bose Soundlink Mini