A year or two back a friend mine got in touch to ask me an increasingly common question among my friends. “I feel like I’ve missed some crucial leap in technology,” she said to me. “I’ve got this Bluetooth boombox thing but it drops its signal all the time and it kind of sounds like crap. What am I doing wrong?” She wasn’t an audiophile but she was certainly a music fan and she was just looking for an easy way to listen to the many music files on her laptop without having to use headphones all the time. Her mission statement: something that would let her listen to music in her office or bop around the kitchen.
After talking to this friend a while about needs and budget, I pointed her in the direction of Audioengine. I knew from experience that they would provide good sound for the money with enough oomph to fill a small-to-medium sized room. A week later she had a pair of Audioengine A5, their wireless DAC and was already eyeing up the matching subwoofer. Her reaction was nothing but positive: she was enjoying music like she hadn’t in ages. She soon wondered if her boyfriend would consider placing a larger sound system in their living room.
Because of my friend’s experiences with her first failed Bluetooth speaker and her subsequent success with an Audioengine set-up, I found myself eager to take Audioengine’s B2 (US$299) for a test drive. It’s a Bluetooth ‘boombox’ (my word) and it seemed probable that if anyone could create a Bluetooth solution that would have satisfyingly replaced my friend’s discarded attempt it would be Audioengine.
The B2 is a nicely styled compact device. It comprises two of Audioengine’s A2+ powered speakers combined, a TI PCM5102A DAC and a Bluetooth receiver…all under one roof. Yes, the B2 is aptX-capable for (theoretically) superior Bluetooth sound quality. With a license fee payable to aptX’s developer CSR, Apple has yet to implement aptX in any of its devices. Smartphone models from Asus, Samsung and HTC are on board with aptX – CSR maintain a list here. I used an iPhone with the Audioengine unit so no aptX for me. The A2DP profile supports AAC streaming but it’s almost impossible for the average user to know if his/her Apple phone is streaming AAC-wrapped content or reverting to the standard SBC protocol.
The first thing I noticed when unboxing the B2 was its looks – it’s more attractive than other similar devices coming to market. The box is MDF with wood veneer (in my case, zebrawood) with a magnetic grey cloth grill that fits sleekly to the front. It’s very grown-up looking – no flashy greebles or blinking lights – and wouldn’t look out of place in a modern office or living room. The veneer is expertly and seemingly seamlessly applied. The B2 also has a very reassuring weight to it. Given its mental conjouring of shiny black plastic buttons, “Boombox” doesn’t seem like the best way to describe the B2 at all; It’s a word Audioengine themselves don’t use so, moving forward, neither shall I.
Setting up the B2 is dead easy. Plug it in, attach the Bluetooth antenna and turn it on. The unit automatically goes into “pair” mode – go into the Bluetooth settings on your phone or computer, choose “Audioengine B2” and then fire up your music player of choice. All that’s left is to adjust the volume; this is done digitally on the transmitting device. If you don’t wish to use Bluetooth on the B2 there’s a stereo mini cable included to accommodate hard-wired connections. Plug one end into headphone jack on your laptop, plug the other end into the B2 and you’re good to go. It’s about as close to “plug it in and press play” as things get.
I set up the B2 first on a table in my combined kitchen/dining room and listened to music whilst I cooked dinner and puttered. The B2, I reasoned, doesn’t really seem like a “sweet spot” kind of device; it’s meant for (humming along to) background music while stirring spaghetti. For similar reasons, I opted for lowest-common-denominator digital audio and streamed some tunes from YouTube. I queued up some Reverend Beat Man (my latest obsession) and started grooving to some surreal folk blues rockabilly weirdness.
Initial impressions were quite favorable. The Audioengine folks like to brag that they have one of the best Bluetooth receivers in the business and I agree that the streaming distance for which the connection is stable is better than other similar devices. It maintained signal lock without drop-outs whilst I moved around – and then exited – the room with my smartphone. At first blush the sound was quite nice. I achieved sufficient SPLs to fill the room. Mids and highs presented as clean and punchy despite the unit’s form factor limiting ultimate bass extension. Not bad. Not bad at all.
The B2’s compact sizing is not without its drawbacks. For moving from stove to refrigerator to counter and back this speaker’s dispersion pattern was not ideal. Listening off-axis proved a little disappointing. The B2 has excellent clarity when faced head-on but its sweet spot is somewhat narrow.
Furthermore, the longer I listened, the more fatiguing I found the B2. With treble and upper midrange dominating I kept wandering over to turn the volume down in the hopes of relieving some of some of the B2’s occasional upper frequency insistence.
Reasoning that it might simply be a question of file quality, I switched from streaming to CD-quality files from my computer. This solved of part of the problem but as I returned to the stove, irritation started to creep in again. Talking Heads were making me grumpy – not a good sign! Could it be the Bluetooth transmission? I switched to the B2’s hardwired connection. This change resulted a tangible improvement; some of the issues with the over-pronounced high-end were still there but it seemed to remove a good portion of whatever it was that was setting my teeth on edge from my station at the cooktop. Through the B2 little drivers the percussion on “Girlfriend is Better” was thinner than I would have liked.
Mixed results from the kitchen test, how would the B2 fare in an office situation? Sounds like it might be Take Your Stereo To Work Day.
I’m a librarian – not an occupation commonly associated with rocking out. My position here on the Oregon coast requires me to work very early or very late to complete paperwork or other administrative tasks, often while the library is closed. This is when I’ll defer to a pair of very cheap computer speakers to get me through. It was under these circumstances that the B2 really came into its own. I set it up directly on the workstation desk below a computer monitor. With lower listening levels and less of a need to perform off-axis I found the Audioengine device an admirable companion in both Bluetooth and wired mode. It was still a little bass-shy and there’s nothing that’s going to make it sound huge but during a five-minute break to dance to The Coup’s “Magic Clap” it hit the spot in a way that the little no-name speakers just couldn’t match: propulsive, musical and dramatically better than anything else I’d hitherto had in the office. The results improved further when I used a couple of pink erasers (we’re high tech here!) to angle the device to point upward to my ears. If you want something a little less ad hoc Audioengine’s DS1 speaker stands could be deployed in a similar fashion.
During its time on my work desk I also found that it possessed a secondary usefulness that otherwise might not have presented. It’s not uncommon for me to attend online webinars and product demonstrations during my work day for which I usually use headphones or the landline on speakerphone. With the Audioengine box present I decided to listen to a webinar through it instead. Turns out that the B2 is superbly well-tuned for voice clarity, rendering the task of listening to a vendor describe the latest in library gadgetry a little bit less of a chore. This advantage was then turned to extract greater clarity from Netflix streaming.
With the B2’s office setting providing an altogether more positive listening experience it’s probable that the less-than-stellar kitchen experiences could have been the result of trying to drive the B2 too hard in too large a room. Perhaps break-in was a factor too? Audioengine recommends forty hours before the B2 will reach optimum sound.
Should I have recommended the B2 to my friend seeking an alternative to her cheaper Bluetooth boombox back in 2013? Not necessarily. Given how quickly she took to the A5 speakers and then started angling for the subwoofer, I’m not sure the B2 would have been quite what she was ultimately looking for. The B2’s form factor is cute. Perhaps a single box take on the A5+ is order? That’d be bang on for someone like her. And my kitchen too.
The Audioengine B2 probably isn’t the right product for someone looking for an audiophile experience proper. Separate speakers and an amp still better serve that intent. Instead, the B2 is a solid choice for casual desktop listening as well as adding vocal clarity to TVs shows and movies.
Compared to the Beats Pill and UE Boom’s more youthful aesthetics Audioengine’s take is more appropriately styled for adults – that alone sets it apart. The absence of rechargeable battery power and water resistance aims the B2 toward office deployment. The executive’s Bluetooth speaker? You betcha. Also separating it from the pack are its insane ease of use and an ability to hold tighter to paired devices. Put this one on the gift list marked ‘friends and relatives’ or slip one into your own shopping bag for placement under the computer monitor or TV.
Further information: Audioengine