Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Review: Sony SRS-X3 - The Bose Soundlink Mini killer?

Happy Birthday to my Soundlink Mini, as it will be exactly one year ago to the day that it made me 200 bucks poorer, when I carried it out from the Bose store. As much as I had used it over the time and thought it would be my last portable speaker bringing my search for the perfect portable speaker finally to an end, instead everything seems to have started again from the beginning.

Although I still really like the Soundlink Mini even after one year, I was never completely satisfied with it. I liked the deep and pronounced bass of it, but I hated the restrained treble response, which unnecessarily was also very directional at the same time making the Soundlink Mini sound boomy and muffled when not positioned well all the time.
For a portable speaker this is quite a limitation because you cannot put it just beside you on the ground, when outside with friends sitting on the lawn somewhere, as it will sound boomy and dull at the same time. Put it on some elvated position and aim it directly towards you, and it should be fine though, but dare moving around...

During this year I porbably tested more different speakers, than I did before owning the Soundlink Mini. So far nothing really came close in overall performance. Some other speakers might have been even louder like the UE Boom, but the overall sound quality rather resembled that of a kitchen radio, not a fully grown up speaker. I am sure if Bose didn't come up with the Soundlink Mini, all portable speakers would still sound like clock-radios or Jamboxes and companies would still be asking premium prices for their toy-speakers, like Beats is still trying to rip-off customers with their small Pill.

The Klipsch GiG that I reviewed recently, seemed to be one of the few real alternatives to the Soundlink Mini, but it was still far from impressive. Now Sony had announced the SRS-X3 just when I was testing the larger SRS-X5 reviewed here. As the X3 was claimed to keep its full 20 Watts of power from battery as well, my hope was, that it might come close to the X5 performance wise despite missing the extra woofer of the SRS-X5 and being nearly half as small. It took some time to compare the SRS-X3 extensively to the Soundlink Mini and the larger SRS-X5, so here we go:

It seems that Sony finally managed to beat Bose in some aspects, but Bose still seems to have the edge when some other details are considered. If you are in the market for a compact portable speaker which doesn't fall short of delivering a full-range sound despite the small size, I want to show you why and when you should choose the Sony SRS-X3 over the Bose Soundlink Mini and vice versa.

The Sony SRS-X3 is slightly bigger overall than the Soundlink Mini. It has nearly the same length and about the same thickness, but it is slightly higher. The differences are not huge, but you might notice it when trying to put it inside your trousers-pocket, while I managed easily with the Soundlink Mini, it probably won't be possible with the Sony because of its thickness. Nevertheless it seems as if Sony was trying to match the X3 as close to the Soundlink Mini as possible, the Soundlink Mini being the one which has to be beaten.

The Sony design is minimalistic and elegant at the same time. The speaker will look equally good outdoors, when put on a lawn, and it should also look good in your living room on a shelf. What it misses though is the premium feel you get from the Soundlink Mini. The Sony just feels like a portable speaker, while with the Bose you have the impression of holding something expensive in your hand.

Especially the bottom thin plastic base of the Sony leaves a very cheap impression, it feels pretty hollow when knocking against it. Also squeezing the body slightly with your hands, might result in some crackling as it yields slightly under pressure. I also noticed some slight resonance with the enclosure on the Sony when playing deep bass notes which went away after squeezing the speaker a bit. It was nothing serious, but I never experienced that with the Bose as it has a massive aluminium body. Only the grille is quite sensitive on the Bose and scratches pretty easily. Not sure how resistant the Sony is in this regard.

Apart from the plastic base and the metal grille the rest of the body is covered by some rubber-coating, including all the buttons at the top, which is a good thing, because it seems as if the Sony could also be operated with wet hands, without being afraid of moisture entering some slit.
I am only a bit concerned about the rubber coating, because so far I had made rather bad experiences with such kind of coatings. The Tivoli PAL which was also rubber covered nearly lost all of it at the edges, the same was the case with my Panasonic G1 camera where the rubber-skin started to peel off on many spots pretty soon.

The edges on the Sony are rounded, which not only makes the design of the speaker more appealing but according to Sony this should also avoid any diffraction of sound.

The Sony SRS-X3 comes only with an own USB-Charger and a micro USB cable, no other accesories are included. Yes, it can be charged directly from USB, something many were complaining about with the Bose, which needs its proprietary 12V charger. But the Bose has its charging cradle, which I personally find very useful, as I just have to put it into the cradle without any hassle with wires and trying to fit them into the small port.

Charging takes about 3-4 hours, although it says 5 hours in the manual. Unfortunately you cannot listen to music during charging, as the speaker is only charged when off. This is probably because of the low 5V USB-voltage which won't be able to power both the speaker and charge the battery at the same time. I am not sure how much I can trust the charging-electronics, but the Soundlink Mini for example won't charge if it is already charged, while when the SRS-X3 finishes charging and you attach it afterwards, it will again start charging for about 5 mintues. You can try this several times one after the other, and I wonder if the battery will be charged to 150% then? I also doubt the battery can be exchanged as I haven't found any screws, maybe they are underneath the rubber-feet wich are permanently glued to the base. I really hope the battery is of high quality, as the Sony might otherwise become an overpriced paperweight soon.  See update below, with a photo of the battery!

Update: Thanks to Joachim from a German Hifi-Forum who took the risk to remove the glued rubber-feet, there are indeed screws below, if the bottom-plate is removed the battery becomes exposed and looks like this. Each cell is 67mm long with 18mm diameter, which would hint on 2 18650 cells soldered together. If someone knows how to easily replace the battery with a stronger model, please let us know:

Battery life for the SRS-X3 is claimed to be 7 hours. At lower listening levels you should easily be able to reach or even excel this. I only found that when listening at high levels (close to maximum) the battery drain is much faster. At high levels I hardly got longer playing times than 2 hours, but the biggest issue is that the Sony SRS-X3 automatically lowers the maximum volume to about half when battery is starting to get weak. This can become quite annoying, as I was using the speaker for some hours at lower levels and then wanted to crank it for some particular tracks to the max, but after some minutes the speaker automatically lowered the volume on its own, the "charge" light started to flash and I was not able to increase the volume anymore. I think that the battery inside the Sony is rather weak compared to the one Bose uses. I am able to use the Soundlink Mini for more than 4 hours at the highest level. If you need high levels over a longer period, the Sony might be the wrong choice. You could try using an external power-pack, although it won't charge the speaker as long as it is turned on, at least you can continue using it. I have an older power-pack from Anker and it works flawlessly with the Sony. I haven't tried yet, how long the Sony would play when powered merely by the external battery. At least this might be a compromise for some. It is harder to find a suitable power-pack for the Soundlink Mini, providing the necessary 12V.

For transport there is an extra case available. It costs about 20€ or $ and is considerably cheaper than that from Bose for the Soundlink Mini. But unlike the Bose case the Sony case doesn't seem to have any additional space for the charger or the charging cable.

When turning the speaker on, it will play some sound, not unpleasant but pretty loud. The larger X5 remained silent, I have no clue why Sony decided that it needs a sound this time. A similar counterpart sound is played when the speaker is turned off. You force Bluetooth pairing with a long press of the Bluetooth button, this will produce a loud beep, then the speaker can be paired with any Bluetooth device. Although many Bluetooth speakers do meanwhile accept multiple connections, the Sony doesn't. You can just be paired with one device at the same time. The Sony is also missing AptX for better streaming quality, or the feature of being able to pair 2 speakers for wireless stereo, but it has NFC and built in hands-free, both of which are missing on the Bose.
It seems the Bluetooth reach of the Sony SRS-X3 is particularly stable. I am not sure if the reach is really that much longer than on the Soundlink Mini, but I had the chance to compare the Sony to the JBL Flip from a friend and the Sony had easily twice the reach without even producing a single drop-out, with the JBL stuttering and interrupting just half way.
The only thing that the Sony won't do is to automatically pair with previously paired devices. Which means that if the last paired device is absent or off, but one of the previously paired devices is present, the Sony won't pair with them on its own. The Bose does usually does this, and it works pretty well. If it cannot find the last paired device it will search for the next to last paired one and then automatically connect on its own. On the Sony you have to force pairing from your streaming device instead each time you want to change the streaming devices.

While the Bose has some kind of power saving mode and will turn off on its own after 15 minutes or so, if there is no music playing and even when attached to mains as well, the Sony will stay powered on as long as a Bluetooth device connected regardless if there is something playing or not. Many always complained about the power saving mode of the Bose because they intended to use it as an alarm, but didn't manage to keep it powered on. This should indeed work with the Sony, regardless if the speaker is running from battery or plugged in.
So feature wise the Sony beats the Bose and is furthermore cheaper. The Bose can only score on material quality and looks.
But now lets take a look (or better listen) at the sound of the Sony SRS-X3. Which one sounds better, which is louder etc.

The first thing you notice when you hear the Sony for the first time is a really serious full-range sound with extremly clear treble and deep bass, that isn't boomy by any means. The Sony doesn't sound like a tin-can speaker as so many similar speakers do, but rather like a fully grown up system, of course only as long as you keep the volume under control. When I played both X3 and X5 side by side, I was surprised to hear the X3 being able to produce a similar amount of bass while sounding much clearer than the bigger model. Directly compared with the Soundlink Mini the latter will sound pretty muffled and boomy at the same time. The bass on the Sony is louder at 60Hz than the Bose and reaches even slightly below that, but it isn't as boosted above 100Hz as on the Bose. The upper bass boost on the Bose can make the bass buzz and drone if you listen to it in small rooms or place it near a corner or near a wall. You can equally push bass on the Sony a little more when putting it near a wall. Both Soundlink Mini and SRS-X3 seem to have exactly the same driver configuration consisting of 2 full-range drivers and 2 opposing passive radiators, one at the front and one at the back, the opposing radiators avoid any stronger vibration or rattling, which you get from many other speakers, that have the passive radiator on one side only. By placing the speaker back near a wall, you will boost the bass that normally would be emitted to the back and might get otherwise lost to some degree. On the Sony this works indeed pretty well, as you make the bass stronger and louder, but not boomier, unlike with the Bose Soundlink Mini which rather profits form a completely free positioning for not to sound too heavy on bass especially in conjunction with the recessed treble, which will give the impression of being boomier than it actually is.
Biggest problem of the Bose is, that treble dispersion is very focused. When you aim the speaker directly at you, it sounds pretty balanced, but turn it away slightly or tilt it up or down and you will lose all the treble. Although the Sony also sounds best when directly aimed at the listener, treble still remains acceptable if you turn the speaker away. It even sounds clearer than the Bose if you turn it around backwards.
The treble of the Sony sounds a bit thin though, it can become even slightly harsh with some recordings. A hi-hat on the Bose has still some presence in the lower frequencies, while it is only fizzling in the upper frequencies on the Sony. While I thought the X5 to sound better with "sound" mode enabled, because it boosted treble at the same time and made the sound clearer. This sound-mode is completely overdone on the X3 as it boosts the already boosted treble even more. I even tried to wrap the X3 in some kind of "sock" to tame the treble a little bit as it is fundamentally too sharp and resonant for my taste, which probably is also the reason why it still sounds acceptable from behind, while on the Bose you won't hear any high frequencies when turned backwards.

Mids seem to have more presence on the Bose. On the Sony vocals are sometimes less clear and instruments like piano or guitar can sound a bit thin, probably because it is missing the basshump above 100Hz. This was not that obvious on the larger X5, which had a more rounded mids-reproduction.

It is hard to definitively decide which one is better, because both have their strenghts and sound is also a matter of personal taste. The Soundlink Mini obviously shines with bright recordings that are a bit light on bass, while the X3 sounds pretty convincing on older more muffled recordings.
While the Sony sounds better indoors most of the time, because you can just put it on some shelf, walk around and still get an acceptable sound, the Bose will sound veiled pretty quickly when you move too far to the side. Both have enough bass power to really create a convincing foundation for the music not to sound lifeless or anemic, but both are tuned differently, in such a way that the Bose might sound slightly more powerful overall at the expense of a duller treble response.

It is different outdoors. The deeper bass of the Sony can get lost more quickly than the Bose. Also the treble continues to sound thin and sizzling on the Sony, while it comes better through on the Bose. I compared both thoroughly outdoors on our patio and most of the time I preferred the rendition the Soundlink Mini gave me. The boomier bass was indeed an advantage outdoors with a noisy enviroment, while the Sony just sounded thinner because the deeper bass couldn't be heard that much outside. The Sony profits quite a bit of a wall or even putting it on the ground will considerably enhance bass outdoors. As treble dispersion is not such a big problem on the Sony, you could even just put it on the ground and listen to it while standing above. The Bose would just sound dull and bassheavy like this. So for a picnic, where you sit around together on the ground with the speaker somewhere placed beside or in the center, the Sony should be the better choice, as it would be able to produce a powerful  bass because of standing on the ground and enough treble, because of its superior clarity.

Volumewise both reach more or less the same loudness, but both do not sound too convincing at their top level anymore. Bass is reduced on both of them, but while Bose tries to keep the frequency spectrum intact with just lowering the bass amplitute, the sound seems to shift on the Sony, making the bass thinner and pushing treble even more. Both are not really perfect for high volumes, they sound best up to medium level or slightly above. From 3/4 upwards the low frequency balance starts to dissolve together with some dynamic compression that kicks in, and everything starts sounding forced. If really high volume is your priority, I think that the Soundlink Mini still sounds more convincing as it sounds fuller up to highest level, while the bass on the Sony becomes too thin from a certain point. Some of its lower bass remains, but the amplitute is reduced that much, that it won't sound full-bodied anymore. The difference between medium volume and high volume is too radical in case of the SRS-X3, while I would still see it acceptable with the Soundlink Mini.
Both speakers can distort at top volume, but while the Bose has problems with keeping its bass-level clean enough thus would start farting, it is rather the mid-tones that can make the Sony start crackling at high levels. I tested both with some pretty heavy mixes from pianoplayer and Smoothjazz artist Brian Culbertson, and while the Bose started to buzz with deeper bass notes but apart from that was still very clean even at top volume, the Sony on the other side kept bass rather distortionfree but also with lower amplitute, instead it had problems with loud piano-notes which started to crack sometimes.
With very bassheavy recordings both can struggle a bit even at medium volume. At levels between 50-60 Bose tries to keep bass as strong as possible which might result in an already dirty reproduction. You will mostly hear it on kick-drums, on deep bassnotes like that from a Hammond Organ etc. At comparable levels the Sony seems to have bass better under control, but you can hear how the bass-notes bleed into the treble. It is mostly noticable with ride or crash cymbals, triangle etc. They start to flutter when there is some lower bass played simultaneously. The Bose does the same, but it is not that obvious because it sounds overall more muffled, as the Sony sounds so clear this effect is quite noticeable. You should also hear it in my videos during some parts.

Both speakers are rather meant for low and medium volumes. The Sony has 30 volume-steps, while the Bose has 100. When the Bose is set to 50, it would play with similar loudness as the Sony when this is set to 10. The volume curve seems to be non linear for both, because they meet loudnesswise again at their top setting. I would say that the Sony sounds quite good up to step 15, the sound starts to deteriorate from there pretty quickly. The Bose sounds good up to 60 and still acceptable at 75, then it starts getting worse very fast too. The only problem with the Bose is the bass distortion that it might show on very heavy mixes within the already mentioned range between 50-60%. This distortion goes away if you turn it either lower or louder, it really seems to be just this range, where bass is boosted slightly too much for the small drivers to handle it.
At lower levels I prefer the Sony. It sounds clearer and bass is still present but not owerpowering. It sounds even good at the very first volume-step, which is impressive. Not sure if anyone would ever listen to music that low, but Sony really seems to have tuned the loudness-curve pretty well including boost of treble at lowest levels as well, which is just the way the human ear reacts to low and high frequencies at lower levels. Bose only seems to boost bass at lower volumes to compensate for the loundess-loss, but it doesn't do enough for treble, at least this is the impression I have, because the sound becomes more and more muffled the lower you turn volume.
Unfortuantely both speakers have their own volume control independent of the volume control from the streaming device. This might lead to strange artefacts, especially regarding loudness-compensation if you start messing around with both settings. If you set the speaker's volume to the maximum, while lower the volume on your player, both Sony and Bose will sound considerably different, than if you have the player set to maximum, and the speaker decreased to a lower value. This is a problem that most speaker seem to struggle with, especially when they apply loudness-compensation depending on the volume level. But the compensation seems not to be dependent on the final output-loudness only, but rather on both the input-level and the level the speaker ist set to. The Sony fights with this problem quite heavily, as the sound changes drastically depending on how both separate volume-controls are set.

Moreover I noticed some strange dynamic compression which I already heard from the larger SRS-X5 as well but didn't pay much attention to it back then. Especially when directly compared to the Denon Envaya or Soundlink Mini on the X5 drums didn't sound that punchy and snares were less snappy compared to the others. I had the impression as if Sony was trying to compress the dynamics on their speakers similar to most radio stations which do the same in order to increase the signal to noise ratio before transmission. This compressed dynamics is even more obvious with the X3. I played around with various volume levels and finally found that the compression mostly occurs if you set the volume on your streaming device to the maximum, which I normally always did until now. But doing so with both Sony speakers you will end up not only with a more compressed sound, but also a different sound overall including sharper treble and more recessed mids. During fooling around and listening closely at various volume settings, I finally discovered that decreasing the volume 4 notches on the iPhone and increasing it 2 notches on the speaker to achieve the same loudness as before would result in a more natural sound with less compression as well as better mids and slightly less resonant treble. You can try finding your own best setting by increasing volume on your player until you notice that the overall volume won't change much anymore during the last notches. Choose that one step below, where a change in volume is starting to become more obvious.
During my measurements of the SRS-X3 I also wanted to see how this input-level reduction would show up in the graph. I measured the speaker with a calibrated MiniDSP UMIK-1 microphone from a 50cm distance in my usual recording room, where I also do all audio recordings now. There is definitely some room-influence that I cannot avoid, but the measurements should be correct relatively to each other. You can see clearly from the blue curve that treble and bass is boosted in relation to the mids, this is what you get when the player is turned up to the maximum. When turning the player down to 75% and raising the volume on the speaker instead to normalize the output to the same level as before, you will get the red curve with a smoother response overall. I also included "sound" as additional factor which is shown in cyan for the maximum volume measurement and orange for the measurement with reduced input-volume to 75%:

I am not sure what Sony tried to achieve with this. Apart from the strange frequency shift which I cannot explain, maybe they were afraid of a too high input-level and decided to add some dynamic compression to avoid any distortion and be on the save side, who knows. But I was already about to nearly dismiss the SRS-X3 for these compression and sound-issues until I discovered that lowering the input volume would prevent most problems. But then this dynamic compression might even help at really low volumes to make music sound more constant, as it avoids strong peak-changes, therefore it is not too bad to have an indirect option of either accepting it or avoiding it.

Moreover I wanted to show a direct frequency response comparison at medium level between the Soundlink Mini and the SRS-X3, with the more balanced sound-setting at 75% input-volume as demonstrated above being used for the Sony:

In the following off-axis measurement recorded from 37° above with the same distance of 50cm the Sony measures even more balanced (cyan curve) as opposed to the direct frontal on-axis measurement (black curve), while the Soundlink Mini (see measurement below) suffers considerably when listened like this, losing all its treble above 7.5kHz already. This is one of the worst results I have measured from any speaker so far and nearly unacceptable making the Soundlink Mini sound extremly muffled and boomy, when not positioned exactly at ear-height. The Sony sounds indeed better if not aimed directly at the listener which is quite unique but not a bad thing for a portable speaker which you place just somewhere and walk around. Maybe I should have also performed a measurment with the Sony turned backwards? I guess it would still show better treble extension than the Soundlink Mini positioned optimally.

I also prepared two different videos comparing the SRS-X3 with the Soundlink Mini. The first video tries to demonstrate the difference in sound, when both speakers are heard off-axis. While the Sony will still sound acceptable to some degree, the Bose is hardly audible anymore.
In the second video I tried to demonstrate how the sound changes, if you set the player to the maximum instead of lowering it slightly and how both speakers would sound at different loudness levels.

In the third video you will finally see a comparison between the SRS-X3 and the bigger SRS-X5. You decide which one sounds better.

So which one to get? Soundlink Mini or SRS-X3? To tell the truth there is no clear winner as both have their own benefits, therefore I tried to compile a list which shows where each speaker has an advantage over the other, now you must decide which features have the biggest importance for yourself.

Sony SRS-X3:

+ cheaper
+ clearer and less directional treble
+ less boomy bass
+ less critical with placing
+ more balanced and open sound indoors  
+ better sound at very low levels
+ additional sound mode with enhanced stereo effect
+ built in hands-free
+ charging through micro-USB

Bose Soundlink Mini:

+ smaller and slightly lighter
+ more distinct sound outdoors
+ sound more solid at high levels
+ clearer and fuller sounding mids
+ more precious look and materials
+ probably higher resale value
+ included charging cradle
+ stronger battery
+ battery replaceable

What about me? I was already seriously thinking about selling my Soundlink Mini, as I repeatedly found myself grabbing the Sony more often than the Bose, when I wanted to quickly listen to some music around the house or garden. But meanwhile I think that I will probably keep both and check if there will be something new coming from Bose soon...
I also really hope that the SRS-X3 will become as popular as the Soundlink Mini, because Sony might indeed have the potential to improve things even further. Who knows how good the successor model would sound? I would wish some advanced features like wireless stereo pairing of 2 speakers, or multipoint Bluetooth connections, as this would enable the speaker for serious listening, while many other speakers do offer all those features, they all just sound like beer-cans.
On the other side Bose seems to be sleeping a little bit with only negligible updates, as you could see from the evolution of the Soundlink 1 to the Soundlink 3 which took more than 3 years. In the end the Soundlink 3 doesn't offer any new features or sound that much different and despite some slight improvements is still quite a bit shy of treble. I really have the impression as if Bose as a whole was trebleshy somehow!