We'll admit it: we're jaded. There is so much bad, middling and just okay stuff floating around in the portable speaker universe that we're tired of even thinking about it. We've had our distinct favorite -- the Tivoli iPal -- for almost 10 years now, and it takes a lot to knock it off its unglamorous, but distinctive, pedestal. And we predict that it will continue to stay there. But newcomer Beacon has a hot little number in a soft-touch red dress that we're willing to put right next to it on a slightly more diminutive pedestal. The $99, baseball-sized, Bluetooth-packing Phoenix has gotten under our collective skins, and we'd like to tell you why.
Beacon Audio Phoenix reviewSee all photos
The good folks at Beacon know that looks are just as important as sound in the small speaker game these days. The muted fire truck color is handsome and the whole package feels more like a pair of OXO Good Grips kitchen shears than an overpriced Beats Audio accessory. Two sides are covered by tastefully spaced grill holes covering stereo speakers. Around back, the only ports are 1/8-inch audio in and mini-USB for charging. Up top are the transport controls, surrounded by a red and / or blue LED indicator ring to denote Bluetooth pairing / connection status or hardware line-in. The long presses used to differentiate between volume up and track skip are slightly annoying, but we didn't find ourselves using them too much anyway -- controlling on your host device is easier. A quarter-inch riser lifts the unit slightly, giving it a nice, built-in way to isolate the sound from the surface it's sitting on. If you're scared of the attention the red will bring you and your little friend, it's also available in electric blue and flat black.
The Phoenix puts out the best balance of quality and volume we've ever heard in a speaker of this size. The 180-degree speaker orientation (they face in opposite directions) isn't the best for panning cognition, but it helps to separate sounds that were meant to be heard on different speakers, which helps add to overall clarity. It's best heard from about five feet away, where the sound can be given some space to bounce around the room a little bit.
One of the most refreshing features of the Phoenix is that it seems almost completely distortion-proof. At this price level, most small speakers will get as loud as the Beacon, but we've never heard anything get as loud as the Beacon without distortion. We can't stress how important this is: most consumers will usually crank their small speakers until the sound is unbearably broken up, just to get the music to reach a little farther in space. No such worries here: as loud as we cranked the source and the on-unit volume, we heard almost none of the clipping or distorted mud that plagues nearly every other Bluetooth speaker on the market today. To the contrary, this hot little box is actually at its best at louder volumes, although we did find the high end to be slightly angular when it's loud, cutting through the bass a bit too much for our ears.
The two small speakers inside have their own character that mimics the soft-touch exterior. Reproduction is certainly not clear as a bell, but it seems to have a slightly soft-focus coloration that we began to grow fond of with time. You shouldn't be looking to buy reference-quality studio monitors at this price point or form factor anyway.
The Phoenix takes itself seriously for what it is. Smaller options like X-mini's Capsule speaker range are almost infinitely portable, but also almost not worth the trouble considering they only have slightly louder output than most devices' built-in speakers. Larger options like Tivoli's iPal offer superior loudness and quality, but they don't fit quite so easily in a carry-on already overstuffed to avoid ever-rising bag check fees. This mid-sized box does require a little spatial planning, but the sound it puts out is well worth committing the social gaffe of leaving an extra couple of pairs of socks at home to clear up room for it.
And the battery life? In a word, it's awesome. Four and a half hours on USB current will bring you to full charge. The Phoenix lasted four whole days as our primary computer output, always-on and connected via 1/8-inch. Streaming music over Bluetooth at medium to high volume, it stayed on for a staggering 18 hours, bringing it into the almost completely worry-free zone of usability, a testament to the set-it-and-forget-it mantra.
Its wireless range seems slightly smaller than other devices -- it got fussy if we traveled more than 10 feet away from the source, but we're happy to sacrifice that small inconvenience in exchange for better battery life.
Beacon's first foray into consumer electronics has turned out very nicely. Like some sort of genetically enhanced pet, it's a pleasure to be around, fun to touch and requires little to no maintenance. It falls into the sparsely populated family of "gadgets that make our lives better," a characteristic that makes it worth far more than the hundred bucks Beacon will ship it to you for today.
Update: Many of you are pointing out that there's a $45 version of this speaker available at Amazon that lacks only this version's color and branding! Update 2: Beacon Audio has responded to your comments. Here's what they have to say (thanks to all who commented about the Satechi device):
"The other device mentioned in this review is in fact sourced from the same manufacturing partner, but is a version that was produced from an outdated platform. In order to meet the company's strict quality control standards, Beacon Audio made improvements on the original product before it could be branded and sold as the Phoenix. We made the device look better, play longer and sound better. We also stand behind the updated product with a 1,000 day warranty. The quality overhaul and brand guarantee results in a finished product that has received amazing reviews and consumer excitement. Furthermore, Beacon Audio has obtained the exclusive U.S. manufacturing rights for this product moving forward. We anticipate the discounted & antiquated version will disappear from the market shortly."