I don’t know about you, but music is instrumental to my productivity (pun intended). It picks me up, calms me down, keeps me focused. I dislike complete silence in general, making my home office a potentially oppressive and patently unproductive environment without some good jams playing in the background.
I don’t like wearing headphones for extended periods, and given my tendency to work in a variety of settings throughout the day, I don’t want to invest in an audio system that I can’t take with me. And so, as part of my efforts to create the most productive environments both in and out of the office, I’ve been searching for a decent portable Bluetooth speaker.
My search has been challenged by my very eclectic musical tastes, which range from classical to classic rock to pop and jazz and alternative. A completely random playlist from my collection can include Andrea Bocelli, The Police, Taylor Swift, Stevie Wonder, Rush, Mozart, and The Clash–and just about anything else except much rap and hip hop, which I’ve never appreciated. Therefore, a Bluetooth speaker needs to offer a fairly wide soundstage to make me happy; I don’t need thumping bass, but otherwise I’m unlikely to be happy with a speaker that can’t handle details in the lows through the midrange and into the highs.
It’s important to point out here that I’m no audiophile. Music is important to me, and I’m fairly picky, but I’ve never had the time nor the money to invest in the most expensive high-fidelity equipment. I’m not sure that my ears are all that well-trained, either. And so, my opinions here are very much those of a well-intentioned amateur.
At the same time, I don’t have piles of cash to spend on a speaker (my budget tops out at around $250), and even so there are hundreds of options. Bluetooth speakers have exploded as a market segment in response to billions of Bluetooth-enabled mobile devices floating around, and so I conducted copious research in order to narrow down my options. I provide an overview of some other speakers that sampled at the end of the post, and for now I’ll go ahead and cut to the chase.
After reading scores of reviews, I settled on a handful of speakers to try out, and the Fugoo line quickly separated itself from the pack. I didn’t have a chance to try every recommended alternative, such as the highly regarded Logitech UE Boom, but I touched on enough speakers to convince me that the Fugoo Tough ($229.99 at Amazon) is my overall best option.
Build and Design
The Fugoo Tough is precisely as its name implies: a hardy speaker designed to handle serious abuse. Fugoo offers three models, the Style, Sport, and Tough, all of which share the same speaker element, called “Core-X,” with six drivers (two tweeters, two mid/sub drivers, and two passive radiators) and an IP67 rating. It’s therefore dustproof and waterproof to a meter for 30 minutes, and will actually play underwater. The Style, Sport, and Tough skins wrap around the core to provide increasing levels of physical protection.
I chose the Tough, at a $50 premium over the Style ($179.99 at Amazon) at the low end of the Fugoo line, because I wanted a speaker that I could toss around and not worry about breaking. Simply put, the Fugoo Tough fits the bill. It’s extremely well-made, with a combination of impact-resistant resin and solid aluminum, and feels like it could survive moderate-intensity warfare.
It also looks good, even better in person than in pictures, and it’s smaller than one might imagine. All in all, it’s a speaker that I can toss into my backpack and take with me anywhere, but that looks good sitting on my desk.
The Fugoo core provides a handful of useful features along with the simple ability to play great music. Here’s a quick list of the most important:
- Bluetooth 4.0 LE support, including Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) 1.3, Hands-Free Profile (HFP) 1.6, and Headset Profile (HSP) 1.2. If your device can send it, the Fugoo can play it.
- aptX support for the highest-quality Bluetooth sound available. My Lumia 830 supports aptX, and I can tell the difference.
- 3.5mm stereo input for wired connection. Plugging in saves battery life on both ends by allowing Bluetooth to be turned completely off.
- MicroUSB for charging and firmware updates. The latter is a particularly welcome capability that allows feature updates and hopefully helps avoid early obsolescence.
- Omnidirectional microphone with noise cancellation providing full-duplex speakerphone capabilities. I’d rate the Fugoo as a bit higher quality speakerphone than my phones’ native capabilities.
- Digital Signal Processor (DSP) intended to optimize sound quality based on music and volume, while reducing wind and background noise for conference calls. More on the DSP later.
- One-touch access to all mobile digital assistants, including Siri (Apple iOS), Cortana (Microsoft Windows Phone/10), and Google Now (Android). Just hold the middle button and talk.
- Voice prompts for Bluetooth pairing, power status, battery life, and different operating modes. Given the dearth of visible notifications, the voice prompts are vital.
- A full range of accessories to enhance the use of the Fugoos, including standalone jackets (Style, Sport, and Tough), mounting kits and straps, and a wrist-wearable Bluetooth remote (coming soon).
Just about the only thing the Fugoo is missing is NFC support for easy pairing. That’s not terribly important to me, personally, although two of my devices do support NFC (the Nexus 5 and Lumia 830), because pairing multiple devices with the Fugoo Tough is an easy one-time affair for each device (the speaker remembers up to eight devices). So far, I’ve used the Fugoo with my iPad Air 2, iPhone 6, Nexus 5, and Lumia 830 without issue, and switching between them has been fairly painless.
iOS support is definitely the best of the bunch, in that the iPhone and iPad directly control the speaker’s volume and display the speaker’s battery life in their status bars. Other devices have separate volume controls, and so I need to make multiple adjustments to get the right amount of sound. And, I’m completely reliant on the speaker’s voice prompts and simple LED for feedback on battery life. That’s not so much a knock against the Fugoo, since most Bluetooth speakers operate this way, but rather a feature that makes iOS devices more convenient.
Fugoo specifications call for 40 hours of battery life at 50% volume, and in my experience that’s entirely realistic. I bought and fully charged the speakers almost a month ago, and just yesterday the battery finally ran dry after using the speaker for a few hours roughly every other day. I believe that’s an industry-leading specification, and certainly more than sufficient for my own needs.
Of course, all of the features, great design, and ruggedness in the world would be wasted if sound quality isn’t up to snuff. Fortunately, Fugoo has done something special, providing a speaker that, although sound can be a bit “sculpted’ by the DSP, creates a soundstage that accommodates almost all musical genres.
Here’s what Fugoo has to say about that DSP:
Not all songs were created equal. To maximize the audio quality of your favorite music we’ve created a Digital Signal Processor that dynamically adjusts the bass, mid-range, and highs as you adjust the overall volume. So whether you’re cranking bass-heavy pump up jams or a neo-soul ballad, your music is optimized for unprecedented audio quality.
The speakers also utilize an all-digital circuitry that Fugoo says provides optimal sound quality:
To produce the best possible sound it’s imperative that the signal path of your music is maintained throughout the transfer process. Converting a digital signal too early translates to sound quality that is far less than ideal. With FUGOO’s Core-X technology, the path from your music files to the amplifier that drives the speakers is entirely digital. From the origin of the files and the way they are transmitted, to the way they pass through the speaker towards the digital signal processor, your files stay in their original state, ensuring pure, premium sound. Other wireless speakers convert to analog too early, allowing interference from cell phones and other radio sources to get amplified and sent to your ears.
All in all, I have to say they’ve accomplished their objective of covering as wide a musical swath as possible. Add in a 360 degree design that minimizes the impact of speaker placement, along with an eight degree angle that directs sound to the ears, and it’s obvious that Fugoo has paid serious attention to the most important details.
For the most part, that attention has paid off. I’ve found the Fugoo’s sound quality to be the best I’ve heard in Bluetooth speakers anywhere close to the same price point. They’re not perfect, but when they’re good, they’re very good.
Lows are well-expressed but not overbearing, although there’s some obvious dropout at high volumes in truly bass-heavy songs. It’s not distortion–the speakers never distort–but rather an impression that something is simply missing. I think the DSP decides that the drivers can’t handle the bass at times and so just leave it out. That leaves the occasional song a bit flat, but in my opinion that’s better than spewing out overly boomy or distorted noise.
Interestingly, it’s in the midrange that I find the most issues with the speaker. It can handle mids with aplomb, for the most part, but it struggles at times with complex vocals. It’s a subtle issue that many people might not even notice (my wife doesn’t), but there’s sometimes a “buzzy” quality that’s most apparent with, for example, complex harmony overlapped by heavy cymbals. It’s a sort of sharpness that’s a bit distracting at times, almost as if the aforementioned cymbals are intruding into the vocals just enough to give it a bit of sibilance.
I don’t want to overstate things here. For the most part, midrange is excellent, with punchy guitars and vocals, and my complaints only show up in a handful of songs. Particular examples are a few Eagles selections, which are midrange- and vocals-heavy and feature intense harmonizing that seems to highlight the issue. Even then, the songs sound decent enough, just not up to the Fugoo’s general standards.
Highs are handled well, with no brightness and plenty of clarity. The sound at the high end is detailed without being harsh.
The Fugoo gets plenty loud for a small or medium space, and has a selectable loudness mode that makes it more suitable for outside use while compromising a bit on the overall quality. The speakers are rated at 95 dB, although make sure to update the firmware to the latest version to get the highest output.
Like I mentioned earlier, I have fairly eclectic tastes. Here’s a quick rundown of the Fugoo’s performance on a variety of tunes:
- “Witchy Woman,” The Eagles: The sibilance I mentioned in the midrange is most pronounced here. Overall, the song sounds decent emough, but the chorus is just a bit harsh to my ears.
- “Tiny Dancer,” Elton John: I hear some of the same midrange flaws in the vocals in what’s otherwise a very smooth and mellow song, and overall the Fugoo does a good job with one of my favorites.
- “Back in Black,” AC/DC: This song is the definition of punchy, with a powerful bass opening, aggressive vocals, clashing cymbals, and dominating guitar riffs. The Fugoo handles everything surprisingly well and provides a nice rendition of this heavy metal classic.
- “Whole Lotta Love,” Led Zepplin: Here’s another song with a distinctive guitar riff and vocals and overall complexity, and the Fugoo does extremely well.
- “La Villa Strangiato,” Rush: This is a very complex instrumental piece (and my favorite Rush instrumental overall), with a quiet intro that builds to a crescendo while moving through five distinct parts before its done. The Fugoo mostly kills this song, providing copious amounts of detail and emotion. It’s impressive. My only complaint is that a few bass drum beats are dropped at various points throughout the song, I think because the DSP is getting in the way–but that’s quibbling.
- “Renegade,” Styx: There should be a heavy bass beat at the start of this song, and it barely registers on the Fugoo. The song sounds great otherwise, but again the DSP seems to be doing its best to avoid even the possibility of distortion at the low end.
- “Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550,” Mozart: My favorite Mozart piece sounds excellent on the Fugoo, with all kinds of range and complexity. No complaints whatsoever. In fact, consider this an endorsement of the Fugoo for all classical music.
- “Dell’ amore non si sa,” Andrea Bocelli: Powerful vocals smack in the midrange stress the speakers a little here, and bring out the aforementioned sibilance just a touch. I wouldn’t call the response harsh, by any means, but there’s just enough of a buzz to bother me. Again, many people might not ever notice it.
- “Lose Yourself,” Eminem: Low-end response is pretty much missing, with the DSP seeming to get in the way of what would presumably be distortion. It’s not unlistenable, it’s just nowhere near the intended sound. Hip hop and rap aren’t my favorite genres, and that’s a good thing as far as the Fugoo is concerned–which could probably be said for all small speakers.
- “Shake Your Rump,” Beastie Boys: The Fugoo does better on this song, oddly enough, handling the bass growl in the chorus without completely dumping it. I’m not sure why the DSP deems this song more playable than the previous example, but it’s far less aggressive in damping things down.
Overall, the Fugoo Tough is an impressive piece of hardware. It’s a bit pricey at $229.99 for a small Bluetooth speaker, but the design’s attention to detail, build quality and ruggedness, and superior sound quality more than justifies the investment. The firmware can be updated, giving the speaker some longevity, and in fact Fugoo has announced that the ability to pair two speakers together for true stereo performance is coming in a future update.
I highly recommend the Fugoo Tough to anyone searching for a portable Bluetooth speaker. If you’re willing to wait a little while and spend a little more money, Fugoo is releasing their XL line soon, which will offer larger speakers with more power and presumably an even larger sound.
In addition to reading a ridiculous number of reviews, I gave a handful of other Bluetooth speakers a try before deciding on the Fugoo. I’ll focus on sound quality in the following brief descriptions, because quite honestly that’s what’s most important to me in a Bluetooth speaker, but note that features also vary from speaker to speaker.
Polk Camden Square
I had high hopes for this speaker, having owned Polk equipment in the past and liked it quite a bit. Unfortunately, the Camden Square was disappointing. Sound was essentially flat, which some audiophiles prefer. I found it completely lacking in personality, however, and with surprisingly weak volume given how much larger it is than the Fugoo. The Camden Square wasn’t a bad speaker, exactly, especially at its current Amazon price of around $90. It just didn’t rise to the level that I expected given its manufacturer.
I’m tempted to think the unit I received was faulty, because sound quality was, frankly, very disappointing and the worst of the bunch. The speaker’s design and build quality was fine, but every song I played was harsh in all the wrong places. Lows were hollow, the midrange was muted, and highs were a hissing mess. I’ve read positive reviews of the BRV-X, and so I’m going to write off my experience as the result of receiving a lemon.
The SRS-X3 is a well-built little speaker, with decent and clean sound but not a great deal of volume and almost non-existent bass. It offers a DSP mode that helps avoid distortion at higher volumes and widens the soundstage a bit, but I thought it adds an artificial note to the sound. Overall, I just didn’t like how the speaker sounded–although, as always, that’s a matter of personal taste.
The SRS-X5 is a bigger version of the SRX-S3, with a bit more volume and overall punch. When plugged in, the SRS-X5 definitely put out more sound than its smaller sibling, but bass was still underwhelming. The DSP worked about the same, with the same effect. A decent choice in terms of sound but not the best in its price range.
Bose Soundlink II
Some people love Bose sound, some hate it. I found the Bose Soundlink II (not the latest in the series) to be a little underwhelming, with bass that sounded artificially boosted to the detriment of midrange and highs. Volume was acceptable but things got a little harsh the more I pushed the speaker and bordered at times on distorted.