Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Review: Infinity One - Premium wireless portable speaker

I must confess that the Infinity One was the most awaited speaker I wanted to try lately. My request for a review sample directly from Harman was denied with the statement the Infinity One not to become available outside the U.S. I am not sure if they might change their mind, but even in the U.S. availabilty still seems quite a bit limited.
At least my good old friend is dependable as he took the risk of ordering one overseas paying some premium taxes and import fees. But this is what you are ready to pay for a "Premium wireless portable speaker", which the Infinity One is called according to the Infinity site.
For all desperate potential buyers living outside of the U.S. there is still the option to buy the Infinity One directly from as they seem to be shipping their units to Europe too or maybe even worldwide. Ultimatively you can try a delivery service like "".

At the beginning I was not quite sure what makes it "premium", but the price it isn't, the Bose Soundlink III costing the same, or the Beats Pill XL, which therefore all might be called premium models as well. I am sure Infinity could have priced their "premium" portable speaker even higher, like other companies willingly do: Libratone, B&O, etc. Laudably they didn't because usually also Harman is known for offering higher priced speakers than the competition, but at the same time most Harman speakers do simply sound better than speakers from other companies. Many speakers from Harman that I know just sounded good, maybe not fully balanced, but just good with a professional tuning that makes listening to the speaker pleasant and enjoying without any weird frequency humps. I really liked the Harman Kardon go&play a lot (although it sucks when run from batteries). The JBL Radial being no excpetion with a very mature and deep sound from a rather compact body, or the JBL OnBeat Xtreme, which all sounded better than most similar competing models.
But most small and portable speakers from Harman were not up to this level, with either reducing sound quality when run from battery (like most onTour models), or just delivering tinny sound (JBL Flip, JBL Charge etc), the JBL Charge 2 being the first portable speaker from Harman which finally really manages to trump the competition in sound quality, albeit with some minor problems that I mentioned here.
After the JBL Charge 2 which impressed my soundwise but let me down due to the soundprocessing issues, I was eagerly waiting to hear the Infinity One in person, as it seemed to be a blown-up version of the JBL and could even become the reference for portable speakers in this size and price range, which includes models like the already mentioned Soundlink III, BIG Jambox, Beats Pill XL, several Braven models etc.
I currently still own a Pill XL, which I decided to sell but still only kept for a direct comparison with the Infinity One, and I even managed to get a Soundlink III directly from Bose, so I will be able to compare them all. I will also do a comparison with the JBL Charge 2, which of course is not as powerful but it is my current sound-reference for beer-can sized speakers, easily beating the Soundlink Mini, which suddenly started sounding pretty tired when directly compared to the JBL.

The main features of the Infinity One are an amplifier with 25 watts of power driving 4 speakers facing to the front and back thus offering close to 360° sound with 2 additional passive radiators at the sides for enhanced bass reproduction. A strong battery for up to 10 hours of run-time and the ability to charge other external devices directly from the speaker. The Infiniy One is also water resistant. I am still not quite sure to what degree, but I doubt you can really toss it under water and still expect it to work, like with the Fugoo. I rather think it is splash resistant only so that you can use it outdoors during rain without severe damage. Last but not least the Infinity One was tuned in collaboration with Linkin Park!!! Hmm..., I really don't know who that is. I haven't heard a single song from them and I would be probably more impressed if it was tuned by Quincy Jones, or Herbie Hancock, therefore I really do hope Linkin Park know something about speaker tuning, we'll see later!

The Infinity One definitely feels good in your hand, the body is made of aluminium with some additional ceramic coating. It doesn't feel plasticky at all, obviously this is what gives it this "premium" label. The design is pretty cool and reminds me a bit of a powerful grenade. Of all portable speakers I have tried, the Infinity One is definitely one of the better looking ones. But similar to the JBL Charge 2 the passive raditaors are fully exposed here thus quite easily to be damaged.

Together with the shiny chrome rings around them, I really find this design questionalbe especially for a portable speaker, which you usually toss inside a bag for transport together with many other objects. No bag is included with the Infinity One and so far no suitable bags or covers are available although it was announced that some accessories might come in future (all of them probably being "premium"). As for now you need to wrap the speaker in a towel or shirt for transport, or you are creative and manage to tinker some own protective caps. I initially thought about a yoghurt cup, but my friend had a better idea to try it with a plastic bottle.

The Infinity One is not a small speaker anymore. I measured around 1.3 litres capacity, which makes it comparable to the Soundblaster Roar and about twice as large as the JBL Charge 2. The Soundlink Mini would fit inside almost three times. And although the Soundlink Mini is already quite a brick, the Infinity One is around twice as heavy. It is definitely portable, but you will hardly carry it around in your jacket or in your trousers.

There is no carrying handle, so you really have to be careful how you are going to grab it, as it is quite thick for a secure grip. But there are some lugs at the top of the speaker on both sides, which might even give you the option to let it hang from your neck like a BIG FAT Gangsta-chain!
My friend already used those lugs to strap the speaker to his rucksack during biking. I think there are hundreds of ways how these lugs can be used or misused...

On top you will find all buttons underneath a rubber coat easily reachable, unlike the Pill XL, which has them somewhere at the back. The Infinity One is also equipped with an own playback button which you can use for starting or stopping music or skipping tracks forwards by double pressing or tripple pressing for backwards, this button also works for taking calls or for starting calls if you keep it pressed for several seconds.

At the back you'll find the battery indicator, it has 5 distinct LEDs similar to the JBL Charge 2 although I am not sure why they had to be hidden at the back. They usually stay off and only light up if you press a button. Below a rubber-flap are all ports to be found. Thankfully this flap doesn't feel flimsy like on the TDK A33 for example, but really solid and well made and seems to be a part of the speaker, not just an additional flap.

You can charge the Infinity One either with the included charger which provides 13V at 1.7A or through Micro-USB which will definitely take much longer to fully charge the battery. An obligatory auxiliary input and an USB-port for charging external devices is also here. Btw. the included charger will work with 220V too, it is only that you'll need an own adaptor because there is no European plug included.
I cannot say much about the battery life yet, but according to my friend who already used the speaker more often,it should last for more than 7 hours at close to maximum levels, which is quite impressive as many similar speakers claim 12 hours, while shut off after 2 hours when played at maximum volume.
Update: meanhile I was able to test the Infinity One at its maximum volume and it didn't reach full 5 hours. This is not a bad result, but it falls a bit short of the Pill XL, which manages 2-3 hours more out of one charge being quite a bit louder at the same time.

The rubber-flap fades into an own rubber-base, which acts as a foot for the completely round design of the speaker and makes it float a bit so don't need to worry about scratching the bottom part of the body if you place it on concrete or stone. I am not sure how durable this special ceramic coating is to tell the truth, as it is pretty unique for a portable speaker and feels like, well stone or ceramic hahaha... I am quite a bit afraid, that this material might even be a bit brittle, and might quickly crack if knocked against another object, it might be quite scratch resistant though, although I haven't dared to really test this.
Despite the rather narrow base the Infinity One seems to stand more stable than the JBL Charge 2, which has an overall similar design, but if you nudge the Infinity One slightly it will immediately stop after 3 bounces, while the JBL Charge 2 will bounce more than 10 times back and forth or simply roll away.
Unlike the JBL Charge 2 the Infinity One doesn't seem to be meant for upright placing. The edges on both sides are rubbered though, so you could indeed put it vertically, but you would cover one passive radiator like this. Thanks to both radiators firing in opposing directions, vibrations of the whole speaker are minimal and the speaker shouldn't rattle around, let alone dance or creep at higher levels.

After power on, the front logo will magically light up which really looks cool. There seem to be several LEDs behind and if looked from a higher angle the light magically starts to disappear. Also the powerbutton is lit, as well as the Bluetooth button when a connection is established. When playback is started the play-button will glow too. I just don't understand why the volume-buttons are not lit either. They are black on black thus hardly visible, this was already strange on the JBL Charge 2 as I don't care if I can see the Bluetooth button in darkness, but would rather prefer to know where to press to change volume.
The status tones are exactly the same as on most other JBL/Harman speakers. You will get the same bubble-sound after power on, the same sonar-sound when in pairing mode etc. It is a pity that you cannot turn off the sounds completely, or make them softer. Funnily you will also hear some slight background-hiss every time a sound is played, nothing I had noticed on any other Harman speaker so far.
Pairing is pretty simple, at the back you have the NFC-area, or just press the Bluetooth button and start pairing directly from your streaming device until you hear the typical "ping" sound, when both devices are connected. Unfortunately the Infinity One seems to be expecting the latest connected device every time after power on. If that is not present but some other already paired devices instead, it still won't pair to them automatically. In this case you have to force a connection to the speaker directly from any of the other devices. This seems to be exactly the same behaviour that I noticed on the JBL Charge 2. Sometimes it even takes up several seconds until the speaker finally connects to the desired device. Many other speakers mange to connect immediately within a second after power on.
Update: Me and my friend suddenly managed to establish 2 simultanous Bluetooth connection from 2 different devices to the Infinity One. This is an undocumented feature and I have no idea what we did to get there. But we were able to switch playback from our both phones just in the same way as the social mode works on the JBL Charge 2. A pity this function is not explained anywhere in detail.
Unfortunately Bluetooth reach seems quite limited with the Infinity One. Outdoors it may start breaking up after 5-6 meters. It seems better indoors but far not as good as on many other speakers. Sometimes even when standing close to the speaker it can be enough to turn away with your phone and playback will start stuttering.

On iOS devices volume is mirrored between speaker and player. But there are still only about 20 distinct volume-steps. The speaker will allow more presses from min. to max, but you can hear that the volume will not always change with each step. This is a pity because other companies show that even 100 own steps are possible like on the new Soundlink Colour.
Although the first volume step is not really loud (it is comparable to the second step of the JBL Charge 2), I sometimes wished an even softer level. At least the lowest possible volume on the Infinity One is still lower than that from the Pill XL, which meanwhile also gained a synced volume control with the latest firmware-update. While you could previously still lower volume on your device to bypass this first level, it is not possible anymore, which makes the Pill XL hardly usable for background listening now. Thank goodness I haven't noticed any processing artefacts on the Infinity One which are mainly present at low levels on the JBL Charge 2. While the Infinity One might share many other aspects of the smaller JBL brother, the sound processing is without flaws here!

Now let's hear if the Infinity One really can meet the high expectations for a "premium" speaker.
First thing you notice is that although it has drivers to the front and back it is not a real omnidirectional speaker. Although I expected full 360° sound similar to the Fugoo, the Infinity One still has a backside, as treble will only be hearable at the front. It doesn't seem to be a true 2-way system with an own crossover for the back and front drivers, but I rather have the impression as if the back drivers were just low-pass filtered compared to the front. I am not sure about this approach, maybe they wanted to "spread" around the sound more or there was not enough place for all drivers at the front, but I initally really hoped the Infinity One to be a 360° speaker. Thanks to the back drivers it still manages to add a bit more ambience to the sound, while most other speakers sound much more focused. The Infinity One has a more diffuse sound, which gives the music a bit more space around, giving the impression as if the speaker was larger than it is. I noticed the same effect from the Fugoo, but the Fugoo takes this even further, as it spreads the sound to all 4 sides, because it has all drivers facing all 4 directions. I am not counting the passive radiators as full drivers, because due to the omnidirectinal character of low-frequency acoustic waves, the passive radiators might be even mounted at the top or bottom and still sound pretty much the same.
Overall the Infinity One definitely manages to impress soundwise. It is a powerful well balanced sound, although you'll notice quite a bit of boom from the bass part, while bass doesn't reach overly deep. I really hoped for more bass extension than the JBL Charge 2. I wouldn't call the JBL Charge 2 an anemic speaker, but the Infintiy One is twice as large and should definitely play deeper. Instead the bass is boosted more, but it also has a similar falloff at about 70Hz already. Even the much smaller Soundlink Mini manages to play deeper, albeit at lower loudness levels only. If you like the sound of the Soundlink Mini, you should love the Infinity One as well, as it sounds much more refinded, with much better treble extension and less directional dispersion and a more dynamic sound, but the general tuning is rather similar, which is boosted bass and boosted treble, with the boost starting at 3kHz already. It is especially at medium levels and above, where you will notice the advantage of the Infinity One over the Soundlink Mini or even the bigger Soundlink III which both seem to start sounding a bit edgy. At lower levels though the Soundlink Mini even manages a fatter sound, with a more punchy bass. Bose usually applies loudness processing with an additional bass boost at lower levels to compensate for the human loudness curves. The Infinity One doesn't do this, it sounds equal at the first volume step as it does at its medium volume step. It is only above half volume that bass is starting to get reduced, but the Infinity One still manages to keep more lower bass punch than most other similar speakers, which only leave some mid-bass. At really low levels though (I would say the first 3 or 4 volume steps) the sound din't impress me that much as it did above. The Infinity One doesn't sound bad, but at low levels you simply don't hear all the potential it can offer. When switching back and forth between the Infinity One and the Soundlink Mini, I found the Soundlink Mini to be more impressive, despite the weaker treble rendition, but the sound was more full-bodied and sounded more serious with bass that just had more oomph. Although the Fugoo has even slightly less bass than the Infinity One, at low levels the differences between both were less, than between Infinity One and Soundlink Mini, but thanks to the very clear treble and mids reproduction of the Fugoo for soft background listening I sometimes even peferred the Fugoo over the Infinity One. You really need to turn the Infinity One up some notches to get the best out of it.

A more disturbing fact is that at higher levels close to top volume there is considerable intermodulation distortion noticeable, something that is completely missing from the JBL Charge 2. It is not as severe as on the Sony SRS-X3, and the levels needed to notice it are usually quite high already, but demanding ears will hear it easily. Some punchy bassheavy mixes may already start to distort at levels below half volume, while others remain quite clean up to maximum volume. But music prone to that problem (lots of deep bass notes played together with cymbals etc) will sound quite disappointing through the Infinity One as it will start sounding pretty harsh and strained when volume is raised to higher levels. When I compared both JBL Charge 2 and Infinity One side by side, the dynamic compression as bass-reduction seemed even stronger on the Infinity One, it nearly sounded like a gated effect with some songs, while the JBL Charge 2 was still perfectly usable at its maximum volume despite all the applied dynamics compression. The sound of the Infinity One becomes too mouldy, together with the intermodulation distortion it also sounds more scruffy while the difference in overall loudness between JBL Charge 2 and Infinity One is in reality not that much higher (maybe 25-30%). The Infinity One can play with a comparable loudness to the Bose Soundlink III, although the Bose doesn't manage to keep that much low bass, it sounds cleaner at the same time, without that obvious distortion and with dynamics compression being not that invasive.
I also noticed some rattling from the passive radiators with many songs. Usually the problem shouldn't be noticeable as other instruments will most likely mask and side noises. But if you listen to Jazz with some pure upright bass playing, there might be some rattling noticeable. I rather rule out sample variation, as I have tried 2 different units and both behaved exactly the same (the left passive radiator showed slightly stronger rattling both times).
Regarding loudness the Beats Pill XL is in another class than both though. The Pill XL doesn't apply any compression and while it also dials back bass at top volume, it still sounds very dynamic and punchy and at the same time manages to play about 4-5dB louder. On the Pill XL you really can feel every kick-drum of a house-song, while it starts to become quite a mush on the Infinity One.
This left me a bit unimpressed to tell the truth. I didn't expect the sheer loudness of the Beats Pill XL, which still remains one of the loudness kings at this size, but I expected a cleaner and more controlled sound, similar to the JBL Charge 2, just louder. This is not the case unfortunately, sometimes you really hear the negative side effects of the dynamic compressor and together with the distorted and ringing treble the Infinity One seems to be struggling while still not being really loud enough for those circumstances where high loudness is actually needed. The UE Boom will play nearly as loud, but of course with less bass but also with less obvious distortion.
Speaking of volume, the volume curve of the Infinity One is tuned pretty strange. The speaker becomes quite loud very quickly, but then above half way loudness won't increase much more. At half level the Infinity One will already reach the top volume of the JBL Charge and you might think it will play that much louder, but in reality it is already much closer to its top setting than to the lowest setting. Within the upper volume levels you will only notice more added dynamic compression and more bass reduction, which are both tricks in order to achieve a higher perceived loudness at the cost of loosing all peaks and stronger drum-hits.
If the 16 possible volume steps of an iPhone are taken as reference when directly accessed through its volume buttons, the Infinity One will still sound good without that strong intermodulation distortion or too strong bass reduction until step 9-10. At levels above it will only become slightly louder, but the sound will deteriorate more. Some songs may already distort below step 8 though. The problem of that strong intermodulation distortion seems to be based on missing tweeters because the front drivers are forced to playback lowest and highest frequencies at the same time, but are unable to cope with both. When listening to the back drivers which are filtered for higher frequencies, the intermodulation would be hardly noticeable even at maximum volume. It would have helped if the sound designers had added some simple tweeters taking over the entire treble-range, while filtering the front drivers to the same degree as the back drivers. It is a pity this design choice was not considered as the sound would definitely become cleaner and more controlled.

I was quite a bit torn to decide if I liked the flatter tuning of the JBL Charge 2 more, or the more bloated sound of the Infinity One and I am not sure what impressed me more in the end: the JBL Charge 2 and that it managed to keep up with sound (except overall loudness), or the Infinity One because of the added bass-boost and a slightly smoother sound.
The JBL Charge 2 has clearer treble which sometimes might even appear a bit harsh as the frequency-hump at 14kHz is pretty obvious, but the JBL Charge 2 is less directional too. Altough the Infinity One doesn't become extremely muffled when not listened on-axis, the JBL Charge 2 definitely has an edge here. The drivers on the Infintiy One are tilted upwards, I cannot say at which angle exactly (I assume they fire slightly above the front logo, at the height of the side-screws), so you should get the best sound, when listened slightly from above, put it on ear height and unlike most other speakers treble from the Infinity One will already suffer, it will sound better if placed on a lower desk than on a higher shelf.

Of course I also took some effort to do several measurements. First is an in-room response from 50cm at all available volume levels (smoothed with 1/6 octave). You can also see that bass is being reduced more aggressively from about the 15 level and that within the latest steps there is hardly any change in loudness anymore:

I also wanted to know how the sound differs between the front (red) and backside (blue) of the speaker, this measurement is done at the 8th volume level. There is some frequency boost between 1-2kHz from the backside, which might hint at a different tuning of both front and back-drivers.

I tried to demonstrate the effects of different listening angles with the following measurements. All my measurements were done with the Infinity One tilted slightly forward, so that the drivers would aim directly at the microphone, which is usually placed horizontally at the same height as the drivers. If the speaker was standing flat on its base, the microphone would aim below the drivers with a certain angle and would give a slightly duller response.
The black curve is the on-axis measurement with the speaker tilted forward, the green measurement is with the speaker standing flat, without changing the microphone position. Blue and cyan are the measurements from 30cm above (about 37° off-axis), with the blue curve for the speaker tilted forward and the cyan curve for the speaker standing flat. There is an obvious treble loss when listened off-axis, which is quite a bit stronger than what I measured from the JBL Charge 2. Maybe this is also the reason why the drivers are mounted with an angle, as the engineers probably expected the speaker to be placed below ear height most of the time, like on a table for example and wanted to give the best results. Most other speakers standing on a table need to be either tilted back towards the listener, or placed at an elevated position.

For a more accurate response I also did some close measurements from 10cm which should minimize any unwanted room influcence. If we compare the 1st volume level of the Infinity One (black) to the corresponding level of the Bose Soundlink III (red) which is about 25%, you can clearly see, that the bass from the Bose reaches deeper with a similar overall boost:

At the 7th step (which is about 50% on the Soundlink) differences in bass response become nearly negligible. Up from there the Infinity One manages to maintain a stronger bass, while the Soundlink III starts reducing bass more and more to become rather mid-focused at its maximum volume.

Here another comparison with the JBL Charge 2 at the 5th level for the Infinity One and the 7th level for the JBL Charge 2 which is shown in grey:

Next I prepared some comparison videos with the biggest contenders: A comparison with the Bose Soundlink III at various volume levels and a comparison with the Pill XL, which generally doesn't sound that impressive, but skip over to the last part of the video (from about 2:23) to hear both at their maxium volume level and how much louder and cleaner the Pill XL manages to play.

For those interested, I also prepared a comparison video with the half as small and half as cheap JBL Charge 2, so that you can judge if the difference in sound is really worth the extra:

Last but not least another video for everyone who cares about loudness. This time all 3 contenders are playing a very dynamic house-track at their maximum volume, with lots of punch from the kickdrum and a groovy bassline. At the same time I let the measuring microphone monitor the sound pressure level and filmed the result live from the notebook screen which you can see overlaid and synced at the right. I chose A-weighting and slow decay, but should have maybe went for fast decay instead because of the strong dynamics changes within the song. I also had to put back the measuring microphone 10cm compared to the recording microphone because the Pill XL was so loud it caused overload as 108dB seems to be the maximum limit for the microphone. The Pill XL has 40 Watts thus 60% more power than the Infinity One, therefore the difference in loudness shouldn't be that surprising. It is nevertheless impressive how clean the Pill XL manages to remain even with this strong dynamic track, it doesn't give the impression as if it was playing at maximum volume. There is hardly any limiting or compression noticeable, only bass is reduced down to a more healthy degree. In contrast both Infinity and Bose are struggling quite a bit with this track.

There is not much not to like about the Infinity One. I think it is one of the best looking and sounding speakers in its class, I have yet to find a better sounding one. I like the sound more than that of the Bose Soundlink III and much more than the strange nasal sound of the Beats Pill XL. The Infinity One just falls short of overall loudness as it cannot play that loud but will already struggle with a forced and distorted sound.
I would have wished for a more natural tuning with a less boomy bass but reaching deeper instead. Harman/JBL have already proved often enough that they can really build nicely natural sounding speakers, I think the obvious frequency boosts are just thanks to Linkin Park and my suggestion would be to hold them back doing any future speaker tunings. It is not that the Infinity One sounds bad, but it would be definitely more hifi, if the tuning was rather kept laid-back similar to the JBL Charge 2.
Although the total package is really compelling, including sound, design and functionality, there is certainly room for improvement. Bluetooth connectivity seems pretty simple, the speaker does not support multipoint connections seems to accept simultanous Bluetooth connections somehow, although this feature isn't documented anywehre, neither I am sure if it is AptX enabled at all. A great addition would also be the ability to connect 2 speakers for wireless stereo. These are all features that are already present on the Beats Pill XL for example.
My biggest wish would be some finer sound tuning at low levels with added loudness compensation and a different volume curve or at least more distinct volume steps for a more sensitive control over loudness. My biggest point of criticism is the sound at higher levels which gives the impression as if it was getting out of control a little bit. The intermodulation distortion is becoming pretty obvious with many tracks, while the added dynamic compression has a big impact on overall sound quality too resulting in some mushy dynamics response. I expected a bit more finesse from Harman to tell the truth. Especially the intermodulation issues are putting me off as the speaker can already start sounding quite bad at not that high levels.

The Infinity One is an impressive speaker without doubt, I would willingly recommend it as the best all around portable speaker to anyone who asked about my favorite. Unfortunately like many other speakers the Infinity One doesn't manage to cover all applications satisfyingly, because if you really need highest loudness, there are better choices out there. If you like listenting to music at lower levels, there are better or even cheaper solutions available as well.
Despite those cutbacks I nonetheless think that below 300$ the Infinity One could currently be one of the best choices for a compact portable speaker easily outperforming the Bose Soundlink III on sound but also offering more features and an outstanding design with a unique finish. The same goes for the Pill XL which wins on features though and on maximum loudness, but loses big time on sound-quality or on looks.
In the meantime I was really tempted to order the Infinity One for myself, but for my general purpose I am still quite happy with the JBL Charge 2 despite its processing issues. If not those issues, I wouldn't even think about the Infinity One more as it does not sound that much better than the JBL but is already considerably larger and less portable not to mention twice the cost...

Big thanks to my friend who lent me his brand new baby for this review!

+ gorgeous design
+ premium finish
+ water resistant
+ great punchy overall sound
+ back drivers add a bit of ambience to the sound
+ track control directly from the speaker
+ synced volume control between speaker and streaming device
+ charging with dedicated charger or through MicroUSB
+ recharging of external devices

- sound quite forced at higher levels with strong dynamics compression
- too strong bass reduction at levels above 2/3
- passive radiators tend to rattle with pure bass notes
- intermodulation distortion can already become noticeable below 1/2 volume with bassheavy mixes
- rough volume control with first volume level being too loud
- no loudness compensation thus a bit lifeless sounding at low levels
- treble quite a bit more directional than on the JBL Charge 2
- passive radiators completely exposed without any protection
- Bluetooth functionality very basic without multipoint or wireless stereo pairing
- Bluetooth reach quite limited
- status tones too loud 
- durability of ceramic coating questionable