Review – Bluetooth Speakers from Cambridge Sound Works OontZ XL and Jabra Solemate

Bluetooth speakers are all the rage. Most promise the same thing - great audio, room-filling sound, long battery life, cool styling, and a few other features. But the main job is to allow you to share tunes with friends, family, and of course to overpower anyone nearby who may be listening to Justin Beiber or Nickelback. We look at two recent additions to the field - the Cambridge Sound Works OontZ XL and the Jabra Solemate.

Cambridge Sound Works has built a reputation since 1987 as a source for low-cost high quality components with a manufacturer direct distribution model. The first time I heard a system was in a colleague’s living room, and he was positively ecstatic over the sound quality and the savings over similar systems. Now, they offer over 70 products and, in addition to internet and phone sales, they have 30 showrooms across the country. Chances are there is a showroom near you where you can audition their products first hand.

Product choices range from the OontZ models, beginning with the entry level Curve, to their top-of-the-line OontZ XL which utilizes three passive radiators for bass response from the front and back of the unit. Aesthetically it has soft curves that claim to reduce diffraction from standing waves. It has an integrated lithium-ion battery with a claimed battery life of 10 hours, although we cranked it for 12 without problems - that should just about cover any party playlist. To charge it you need the supplied AC adapter.

The sound quality was first-rate, but it was not as loud as some units we have tested. However, in its under-$100 price point it outshines most competitors. The music was precise and accurate, and the bass was solid without thumping or distortion. It seems that the volume was limited to prevent distortion, but we’d rather have distortion-free audio at the expense of a few more DB’s. The sound stage was reasonably well defined and its ability to use with a phone for calls worked well in our tests. For the money, we think the Cambridge Sound Works OontZ XL is great choice for the music lover on a budget.

Jabra has quickly become one of the best-known names in telecommunications audio. OK, strike that, since “quickly” isn’t the most accurate term for a company that has been a respected force since 1983 starting with their line of products aimed at business use of earphone related technologies. Over the years the company started to roll out consumer-based products, with an enviable reputation for both technology, features, and quality. The Jabra Solemate is their recently introduced Bluetooth-based portable speaker system.

The Solemate is distinguished by several interesting technologies. It is the first system we have tested of its type with a matching iOS and Android app to synchronize with your phone or tablet. The Jabra Sound App allows for Dolby sound enhancement from your device streamed to the Dolby equipped Solemate. The app worked fine, but could use a bit more refinement and additional features. The Solemate also offers Digital Signal Processing, plus dual tweeters, a woofer, and a bass slave (passive radiator) to handle the low-end.  The built-in lithium battery is rated for 8 hours of use, with 40 hours standby. Our tests confirmed these times, with 9-10 hours of play in our use depending upon volume. Aesthetically the Solemate sports a really interesting industrial design available in a variety of colors, and has a rubber bottom that is a bit like a shoe sole. Hence, the Sole in Solemate.

The feature set includes Dolby Digital, a DSP, AC charger, speakerphone capability, and compatibility with the Jabra Sound App. The build quality is terrific, with elegant recessed buttons, and feels solid and sturdy. How does it sound? Very good indeed. The dual tweeters provide a nice precise sound space when paired with Dolby enabled material. With built-in USB 3, users can feed it via a cable or Bluetooth. Out of the box we found the audio a bit light in the bass with an emphasis on midtones and the high-end.

A bit of EQ helped with this, but like other small systems it worked best in moderation in terms of volume. If you want to stream audio from your phone, computer, or tablet while travelling, then it’s more than adequate. If you’re having a dorm party where bass-a-thumpin’ is a measure of audio, than you might want to consider stepping up to Jambra’s soon-to-be-introduced Solemate Max. The unit’s relationship with Dolby results in a larger than expected soundscape, which is a good thing, since we found it held its own with jazz, classical, rock, spoken word, and more. The Jabra Solemate is an attractive, great sounding, solid choice for the music lover in your life. With a selling price of roughly $150, it faces some stiff completion, but few match its sense of style and feature set.

Harris Fogel and Nancy Burlan, posted 12/22/2013

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