Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review: Creative Sound Blaster Roar SR20 - the Swiss knife speaker

I got contacted by Creative lately if I would like to review a new speaker from them, the "Sound Blaster Roar SR20". I started reading a little bit about it and as some first reviews were already online I got pretty excited, as it seemed to be an interesting portable speaker with infinite and even some funny features.

But first some facts: The Roar as I will call it from now on, is a compact portable battery driven Bluetooth speaker about the size of a book. The Roar is not a big speaker, but compared to the Soundlink Mini the Roar is about 2.5 times larger in overall volume. It is rather comparable to the original Bose Soundlink or TDK A33 being a bit "fatter" but overall shorter. It weights 1.1kg which is similar to the other competing speakers this size. It is driven by 3 active drivers (2 tweeters and 1 mids/bass driver) and 2 opposing passive radiators and it has some really strange features I have never seen so far in any other speaker.

There is a built in alarm, which makes you sound like a police-car if turned on, or a "life saving mode", which plays random noises at random intervals to keep you awake, there is also a sleep mode, which gradually turns the volume down for 15 or 30 minutes. But the more useful features are a built in microSD slot for music playback or even for audio recording. A built in handsfree is self-evident, and you can use the microphone, aux-in, or Bluetooth signal as source for recording, even phone calls can be recorded. The speaker has NFC capability, and supports Apt-X for best audio quality. There is an USB-port for charging external devices (devices are even charged when the speaker is turned off), and there is a micro-USB port, which makes the Roar act as an external audio-card when connected to a computer or as a micro SD-reader. Enough features? No, there is another, although the Roar is usually charged by an extra charger, it can also be charged through USB, although charging should take considerably longer like this. And last but not least, the Roar is equipped with an own Roar-button, just like a volume-knob that goes to 11. Also worth mentioning is that the Roar can connect to 2 Bluetooth sources simultaneously, which means that you can stay connected from 2 devices at the same time, as soon as one device stops playback, you can start playing from the other without the need of repairing.
In fact the Roar is just missing a built in flashlight or coffemaker to really make it a Jack of all trades. Feature wise the Roar is probably the best equipped Bluetooth speaker I have seen so far, but I asked myself if the Roar can also convince on the audio side.

I have heard some speakers from Creative that really sound pretty damn good, I had even bought a set of Creative T12 speakers for my mother-in-law, so that she could listen to some music wirelessly from her Ipad. I was pretty sure the Roar would also deliver and was waiting eagerly to try it out in person.

According to Creative the Roar should become available in Europe later in June and should cost 149€ or 199$ respectively, which is quite a competitive price, considering all the bells and whistles the speaker has built in. My review sample came even with an additional carrying bag and with an micro-SD card. From what I know the bag is going to be an extra, and I doubt the SD card will  be included either.

Normally I would have already disregarded a speaker if it had a built in alarm or "life saving mode" rather classifying it as some cheap useless trash (like all those junk-shops in Vienna at Mexikoplatz from the 70s were selling). But the Roar doesn't have any of these attributes, the quality of built is really high and the overall look is pretty elegant. In terms of look and feel, the Roar is indeed a top-notch prodcut. Even the box left some classy impression and reminded me a bit of Apple and their way of packaging.

Inside the box you will find the speaker, the power supply including 2 different plug-adapters and a USB-wire beside some quick-start manuals and warranty-cards. It is a pity that the carrying bag is not included as well, as it gives quite a bit of protection to the speaker when on the go, without compromising on sound. It even looks quite good, all the openings at the back are left free, with the rest of the speaker being covered entirely. You can just leave the speaker inside for listening and don't need to take it out every time, the used materials seem to be acoustically transparent.

In contrast to most other peakers with similar proportions so far (from Bose, TDK, Loewe, Sony etc...) the Roar doesn't stand upright but rather lies flat. The tweeters are at the thin front, while the single mids/bass driver fires to the top, both the passive radiators aim to the sides. This driver configuration should fill any room best as audio is spread to all sides (except to the back). And thanks to this design the Roar will never fall over unlike all the other speakers, which need additional feet or covers to really stand upright. You could take the Roar on the road and just put it on the dashboard, it should stay there. Don't do this with any of the others, trust me, I tried this with the original Bose Soundlink or TDK and the only place where they (mostly) keep still in a car is on the passanger's seat leaned against the back-rest.

Because of this its design the Roar has a larger footprint which has to be considered when placing it somewhere. While I could place the TDK A33 even at some narrow shelf or slot, the Roar needs more space to really lie flat. You could try placing it vertically like a book, but this should compromise sound as one of the passive radiators would be covered, and you would lose stereo imaging, but interestingly I didn't notice lots of problems like this, at least at normal levels. Due to both passive radiators being mounted in an opposing direction, you won't get much rattling or vibration from the speaker and it won't dance around like the TDK A33 at high levels.
The bottom has some slim rubber strips, although I would have preffered the whole bottom covered, as the Roar is still a bit slippery and could slide off the dashboard, when used in a car. I had it in my car several times and had to put it on an additional non-slip mat.

The Roar is designed with the most important controls easily reached at the top, namely the power button, as well as both volume buttons and the pairing button, not to forget the "Roar"-button. All other controls are at the back of the speaker. The Roar even has track-control buttons, but these only work for playback from micro SD-card, which is a pity. Unfortunately neither button is lit. There are 3 small status LEDs which show the actual battery level, and there is also a LED which shows the current bluetooth connection status. But when trying to operate the speaker in darkness, you have no chance to figure out where the volume buttons are, as all buttons feel more or less the same, so instead of turning lower, you could also turn on the "Roar"-mode. The Soundlink Mini has at least the volume buttons elevated, so that you can actually feel where to press.

Usage is pretty straighforward. Keep the power button pressed for half a second and the speaker will come alive with a bit annoying and loud welcome sound. Pairing through Bluetooth is more or less a standard procedure like on any other speaker so far. My Iphone is not equipped with NFC, which would probably make the pairing procedure even easier, but if you keep the Bluetooth button pressed for about 1 second the speaker will jump into pairing mode with some voice promt telling you that "it is in pairing mode, waiting for the device to connect..." Fortunately the voice prompts can be turned off by keeping the - button pressed when turning the speaker on. The welcome tone as well as the turn-off sound or pairing-tone cannot be turned off.
When the speaker is connected to the Phone, you will get a battery-status symbol showing the actual charing level of the Roar, which is really welcome.
Unfortunately volume is not synced through Bluetooth, you will have to deal with 2 separate volume controls, the one from your device and the other one from the speaker.
Worth mentioning that Bluetooth reach was a bit less than with the Bose Soundlink Mini, I got some drop outs when using the Roar in the garden and walking away some meters. When switching over to the Soundlink Mini standing right beside the Roar I still had perfect streaming.
I also encountered some strange streaming drop outs, when streaming from an iPhone 4, where the Roar suddenly became silent. My iPhone was still streaming showing an active connection, but I couldn't hear anything. The only possible fix was to repair the iPhone with the speaker. I had similar problems with the TDK A33. I assume some interference problems with Wifi, when Wifi was turned off, I didn't notice any problems. Maybe the Iphone 4 is more prone to this than more recent models. But apart from the Roar and A33 no other Bluetooth speaker I have ever tried showed similar issues.

If you have a micro SD-card inside the Roar, just start playback with the play-button. To jump between tracks, use the track controls. There is no way for fast forward or rewind though, you can just skip entire tracks. Because if you keep one of the track buttons pressed, you will jump to another folder containing music.
According to the manual the playback order is according to the file date when it was copied. I noticed though, that the tracks playback just as you would expect alphabetically. If your tracks start with track-numbers, they all should play fine and with the correct order.
I also noticed that playback was quite a bit louder when streaming through Bluetooth than from SD-card. I had the same tracks playing from my iPhone streaming through Bluetooth and from SD-Card and Bluetooth was always louder.

When the Roar is connected to a computer with its dedicated USB-wire for the first time, the operating system should install all drivers automatically (tested on Windows XP, and Windows 7). When installation is finished, the Roar usually acts as a card-reader, and you can copy files to the inserted micro SD-card. If you keep the play-button pressed for a second, the Roar will become an external audio device instead, followed by another automatic driver installation. If installed correctly, you should hear the output from your computer coming out of the Roar now.
Creative even provides an own control panel which can be downloaded from their site and can be used to fine-tune the speaker and its DSP. There are lots of different SBX sound profiles which you can customize further even including an extra 10-band Equalizer. More on that feature later.

There is no aux-button or anything like that to switch between different inputs like on many other speakers, because the Roar will play all sources together at the same time. Yes, funny as it is, you start playback from a device connected through aux-in, and you can also play from micro SD-card at the same time, additionally stream from your Bluetooth device and if the Roar is connected to a Computer through USB, it will also play from there. All audio sources will play at once, so no need to switch between them.

The Roar has an automatic power down, when there is no sound playing and no active Bluetooth connection. It will stay on as long as the Bluetooth connection is kept active, even when nothing is being played. This might come in handy for some, who might want to use the Roar for waking up with music from their phone! Many complained about the fact that the Soundlink Mini turned off on its own after some minutes, even when plugged in.

What about sound?
I must confess that the Roar sounds pretty good. It is not a jaw-dropping sound experience you are getting, but the overall sound is balanced, full-bodied and refined enough to put the Roar at the same level of the competition from TDK etc.
The sound is not that bass heavy as that from Bose, even the much smaller Soundlink Mini is able to produce a deeper and more profound bass, at least up to a certain volume level. The Roar can play considerably louder, but it is not the loudest speaker that size I have heard. The TDK A33 is slightly louder as is the Loewe Speaker2go. Great thing is, the Roar doesn't distort, even at its top-volume. There is a hint of volume-pumping at higher levels, which might be a bit annoying, but it depends on the music. It is also not the bass that puts the speaker to its limits, the bass is remarkably powerful and distortion-free up to maximum volume. I have rather the impression as if mid-frequencies were causing the speaker to turn the volume down on its own. Quite a bass-heavy song might become suddenly softer, when a loud piano-note or trumpet/sax etc. comes in. This is mostly noticable at the loudest volume settings. Turn the speaker some notches lower, and it is not obvious anymore. Apart from that the music remains pretty dynamic even at top level, unlike Bose where peaks are always compressed heavily. A problem I noticed was that maximum volume was automatically reduced, when the battery started to get weaker. When volume was automatically reduced, the Roar didn't even manage to reach half of its usual maximum volume. I cannot say how many hours it would play at maximum volume as I also charged my Iphone at the same time with the Roar.
Like on most other similar speakers the Roar reduces bass on higher levels as well. It is not that obvious and disturbing like on the Soundlink Mini, because the Roar doesn't push bass that much at low levels, but compared to mid volumes you can hear that bass power is reduced accordingly to prevent distortion.
Bass on the Roar is certainly powerful, but not as dominant as on the Bose, especially if listening at very low levels, it is never straight-forward, just there to give enough foundation to a song, but the Roar is not light on bass either. Some mixes can really sound "fat" even on the Roar, it is just the deepness you will be missing. For comparison a Sonos Play:1 although not portable and a different kind of speaker should cost about the same, but the Sonos sounds considerably larger with much deeper and more impressive bass response. The Roar has more focus on mids, more than Bose, therefore the Roar might sound a bit boxy in direct comparison. At the same time the bass from the Soundlink Mini reaches slightly deeper. The Roar has hardly any output below 80Hz, while the Mini plays down to 60Hz.
Many who usually claim the Soundlink Mini to be too bass heavy, might actually like the Roar more. The Bass is certainly there, the mids are better defined than on the Bose, and treble is quite natural, although very directional. I would even claim that the treble dispersion on the Roar is more directional than on the Soundlink Mini, which already isn't the most impressive speaker in this regard, to put it gently.
I think this is the biggest problem of the Roar. While sounding pretty clear when aimed directly at the listener, the sound starts to suffer quite a lot as soon as the speaker is tilted slightly up or down. It is not the best speaker for a big listening circle, despite all the drivers spread to various sides. In reality just the one sitting frontally at the same height as the speaker, will get perfect sound.
I am a bit unsure about the "Roar"-function. Although it seems to make the overall sound a little louder, I have the impression as if it achieves this by compressing dynamics stronger (similar as Bose does at high levels), but at maximum volume this will result in even stronger pumping effects than without. A bigger benefit of the "Roar"-button is that it makes the audio broader (probably due to some phase-shift) and clearer at the same time, unfortunately it doesn't seem to have any effect on the bass, while I would have also welcomed some kind of bass-boost. Infact the Roar sounds fuller and more convincing with "Roar" turned off if the volume is equalized. I only liked  "Roar" at very low listening levels, as it brightned up the sound and evened out some louder peaks, which might be disturbing when listening at really low volume.

I prepared a video with a direct sound comparison to the Bose Soundlink Mini at various volume levels recorded at optimum position directly aimed at the front of both speakers.

Thanks to the Sound Blaster control panel there is a way of tweaking sound of the Roar, which could improve both bass and treble response considerably, with the annoying constraint that all the settings only work for USB-audio when the speaker is connected to a computer. Neither audio from Bluetooth nor SD-card or aux -in will benefit from these tweaks. All other audio sources will sound as if SBX was turned off completely.

I played quite a bit with the different settings and found that if tweaked well, the Roar would sound clearer and more profound than the Bose Soundlink Mini, which unfortunately it doesn't with its standard audio setting.
Crystalizer set to about 65%, with bass slider pushed to 35% and crossover-frequency set to about 120Hz makes the sound quite mature, and much more impressive than completely without SBX.
I didn't use the additional EQ much, because the basic settings already produce enough impact to really sculpt the sound.
The crossover-frequency acts a bit like a notch-filter. From factory it is set to 80Hz, but I found it to sound better at 120Hz, because it doesn't filter away the deeper frequencies below 100Hz, which are already bit missing, but rather tames the boomy frequencies around 150Hz.

There even is an iOS app called "Sound Blaster Central" which despite recognizing the Roar as device, doesn't provide any audio settings for tweaking in case of the Roar. There is just another player and an alarm inside the app.

I have no idea why Creative didn't take all this serious, because even when you disconnect the speaker from your computer, all audio settings will be reset again.

The Roar would easily be on the same level of Bose or even beat it, if the extensive SBX audio-controls were globally enabled for all inputs and also tweakable from the iOS app. I am not sure if this is just limited by the hardware, or if this could still be made up with some kind of firmware update. As it is now, they are pretty much useless, because they are not even saved when the speaker is deattached from the computer.

The Roar is a very interesting and nice sounding portable speaker. Featurewise it beats most of the competition with built-in handsfree, NFC, Apt-X and such unique features like micro SD-card playback and even audio recording. I don't care much about "life saving mode", or built-in alarm, but some might have use for that too.
The Roar is perfectly portable, although not as compact as my personal benchmark for portable speakers the Bose Soundlink Mini which even manages to sound more convincing, at least for my taste. Many others might prefer the more neutral tuning of the Roar, with powerful but laidback bass and quite high distortionfree volume, although with some occasional pumping effects. A bigger problem is the rather strong directional treble dispersion, which makes the Roar sound quite muffled when listened off-axis (even more than the Bose Soundlink Mini, which is already known to be not a bright sounding peaker).
Although the sound is customizable through the downloadable Sound Blaster control panel, the settings have no effect at all on audio being streamed through Bluetooth, or coming from Card or even Aux-In. The settings only work when the speaker is acting as external USB sound card for a computer, but every time you deatach it, the settings will be reset to factory defaults.
I definitely liked the sound with active SBX processing more, it is a pity it won't work for anything else than for playback from computer.
Battery life should be as the advertised 8 hours, I couldn't complete a full battery-test, but got a whole day of listening at comfortable listening levels. That fact that you can charge the Roar through USB as well, makes the speaker really versatile, although it took more than 8 hours to fully charge it from my notebook's USB-port. Also charging other devices with the Roar will probably result in a considerable lower battery life. So expect to get about 4-5 hours at medium levels while charging another device at the same time. If priced as announced, the Roar should do really well even considering the strong competition from other brands like TDK, Loewe, Sony etc.

+ great design, perfect build quality
+ broad and unique features
+ balanced and full-bodied sound
+ high volume without distortion
+ charging of external devices
+ recharging through mains supply or USB

- highly customizable SBX sound settings only work for USB-audio
- strong directional treble dispersion
- hardly any bass below 80Hz
- top volume with pumping effects
- volume control not globally synced 
- ocassional Bluetooth drop outs (with iPhone 4)
- status sounds too loud/cannot be turned off 
- hard to operate in darkness
- convenient carrying bag not included