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If you want more from desktop speakers, the Edifier R1700BT is worth a look, and a listen.

Edifier R1700BT at a glance

For:Big warm sound, smart-looking, fun to use.
Against:Too much bass, Controls sometimes difficult to use
Maybe:The design and sound may not be to your personal taste.
Price:$250
Website:Edifier’s Australian site

Although Edifier is 20 years old, the brand has only been on sale in New Zealand since earlier this year. The company makes speakers, most come with Bluetooth as standard.

I tested a pair of Edifier R1700BT used as desktop speakers for a Mac, iPad and iPhone. You could use them as bookshelf speakers or with Bluetooth.

The pair come supplied with a cable to connect the two speakers, a 3.5mm jack to dual RCA cable and a dual RCA to RCA cable. There’s also a remote control unit in the box.

On the outside

The speakers look smart enough. They come with take-it-or-leave-it walnut wood-look panels and a black vinyl finish. They pass as classy, but don’t always look right in every room or on every desktop.

Bookshelf speakers are compact. Compared with floor-standing speakers they are. But at 220 x 155 x 215mm they are huge compared with most desktop speakers. And weighing in at 6.6kg, they are hefty too. If your computer is a laptop, they dominate the desktop. They look a lot better when used with an all-in-one computer or a large screen display.

Edifier has thought about how you are likely to use the speakers in practice. They come with an upward tilt so the sound will point at your ears if you sit at the desk.

Edifier R1700BT: Side view showing controls
Edifier R1700BT: Side view showing controls

There’s a cut-out on the side of the right-hand speaker for controls. You can twiddle knobs to adjust the volume as well as the treble and bass.

This positioning can be awkward. I found I had to turn the speaker to make adjustments. Even so, it’s better than making the controls hard to access by putting them on the rear. And it makes for a better, minimal look not having them clutter the front.

Get the settings right

In testing I found it hard to get the settings right. Playing some tracks the controls seemed oversensitive. At other times the treble and bass controls didn’t seem sensitive enough. This could improve with familiarity.

There are grills over the speakers which you can remove to expose the drivers. In practice it is better to keep them in place, although you might prefer otherwise.

Edifier includes a remote in the box. It’s not the best controller. The remote is plastic and feels cheap. In this sense, it seems a little out-of-place with the speakers. Yet it is useful to control things when you’re sitting away from the speakers.

You buy speakers for the sound and the R1700BTs don’t disappoint in this department. Most of the time you’ll get crisp, clear music. With exceptions we’ll get to in a moment, most lossless digital music sounds near perfect. The speakers cope well with low-resolution rock. They seem to smooth over some of the bumps.

You get plenty of detail in the midrange. Male vocals tend to work well all the time. Things start to go off beam with female vocals. The treble part of the sound is a touch weak, but never tinny or unpleasant.

Too much bottom

The opposite is true at the other end of the audio spectrum. There is too much bottom. Bass lines punch through. There’s a hint of booming distortion. That’s fine for parties, but a touch off-putting with mood-setting music.

In general modern rock and electronic music is fine. Classical music is more of a challenge, although it is never unpleasant. With jazz and classic heavy rock there is often too much happening at the low-end.

Let’s put these points in context: the R1700BTs are better than any other affordable desktop speakers I’ve used. But this is a review, it would be remiss to not notice shortcomings.

At the price the Edifier R1700BTs are excellent value. You’d need to spend close to double to get a better sound and that’s the point for NZ$250 they are a steal.

If you want to rock the house you need a big, heavy sub-woofer that moves a lot of air. The bad news is, car sound systems apart, it is hard to take big subwoofers with you. That’s where you might want Sony’s $300 SRS-XB3 speakers.

They are portable, battery-powered, Bluetooth speakers that can add respectable oomph-oomph at the bottom.

The front is a solid metal grill. On the top are buttons including one to use the SRS-XB3 as an over-powered speaker phone. The review model was dark blue. Sony offers a variety of colours, some are garish or as they say in the marketing world: fashionable.

Heavy, heavy monster sound

Each speaker is about the size of a supermarket packet of biscuits. They’re much heavier than biscuits, weighing-in at about 900 g. This weight is important. The extra heft is one reason the speakers can move enough air to do loud and low. It has the added advantage of stopping the speakers from jumping around while playing.

Sony packed a lot of battery into the case. That’s where some of the weight comes from. I can’t tell you how long the SRS-XB3 will play for on a single charge. I’ve used them for many hours over the past few days after only one initial charging session. Sony says they last for 24-hours on a charge. That seems plausible.

Buy two speakers and you can pair them for stereo. Sony only sent one, so I conducted my tests in glorious mono.

Electronic dance music

Sony says they’re ideal for electronic dance music — and they might be. It’s not my taste.

They do OK for other music styles too. to test the speaker I dug out some old, old Reggae to hammer out a heavy beat with a lot of bass. This works well in mono. Hell, some of the old Reggae tracks were only recorded in mono.

The sound is loud. You can crank one little speaker up to the point where neighbours might call the noise control patrol. It’s enough for a small party, but maybe not enough for a big house full of dancing, talking guests.

Thumping bass

If you hit the Extra Bass button you’ll get the full doof-doof effect. It’s not clear to me as a casual listener if hitting the button pumps up the bass volume. It could just change the internal equalisation setting to emphasise low notes. Either way, it thumps.

You have to like bass to enjoy the extra bass feature. You have to like it a lot. With some types of music you can hear bass distortion. There’s a notable touch of mid-range compression.

My usual Bluetooth speakers are a pair of Logitech Z600s. The Logitech speakers sound better than the SRS-XB3 for most of my music. If anything they take the edge off the bass and treble. I tried classical, jazz and blues and prefer how the Z600s sound. It’s a line-ball call on some flavours of rock music.

SRS-XB3 made by Sony

Remember, Sony made the SRS-XB3 for electronic dance music. That seems niche to me, but I’m not working for the marketing department of a large corporation.

Sony’s speaker has the advantage of portability over the Z600s. At the same time Sony might beat the Logitech’s on loudness. I say might because cranking both up to the top for comparison is antisocial. And at those volumes it is hard to hear which is louder.

Would I buy the Sony speakers? I’m not the customer Sony is aiming for. Sony optimised the speakers for a different sound to my normal listening. That said, they’d be great to take away to a bach or similar.

SenCbuds

New Zealand-designed SenCbuds are smart earphones that detect when you stop listening. They know when you pull the earphones from your ear and pause whatever is playing. Put them back in and the audio starts again.

While this feels like magic, the trick lies in smart engineering, not hocus-pocus.

I tested a SenCbuds prototype with music on an iPhone, an Android phone and my laptop. Then I tried watching a movie, listening to a podcast and an audio book.

Testing 1-2-3

In each case they worked as promised. the music would stop if I pulled the buds from my ears. If I put the earbuds back in, the audio would start playing from where it left off.

At first I had to remind myself not to hunt for a pause button when this happened.

It’s a simple idea, that makes sense if you have to live with constant interruption.

Audiobooks and podcasts

In practice I found it more useful with audiobooks and podcasts than with music. Missing your place with music is annoying, but I can live with that. It’s easy to find where you stopped viewing a movie. Navigating back to the right spot on an audiobook or podcast is often difficult.

The SenCbuds earpieces are a fraction larger than those that came packaged with phones. That means they are tight-fitting in the ear, but this tightness acts to block external sound.

Although I found the sound quality better than on most of the earbuds I have to hand, the difference is hard to quantify. Perhaps I need better ears.

Departure

Because of the automatic stopping and starting, SenCbuds design departs from everyday earphones. There’s a reel for managing the cables — you can wind the wires around it so they don’t get tangled.

The reel has four buttons. Two advance and rewind music. The third allows you to take incoming calls on a phone. There’s also a USB port for charging the battery.

While the SenCbuds are good at handling disruption, the plus version helps stop disruptions happening in the first place. There are LEDs set into the outside of the earpiece that glow red to tell others you don’t want them to disturb you.

At the time of writing SenCbuds are an Indigogo project. You can order a set for US$50 ahead of production. When they go on the market the price will be US$70. The Plus version is US$70 compared with an expected retail price of $100.

It hasn’t taken Logitech’s Ultimate Ears brand to carve out a niche as maker of stylish, rugged Bluetooth speakers. It helps that the speakers in the UE range look good and perform well yet sell at affordable prices.

At the time of writing the most affordable model in the range for New Zealanders is the distinctive-looking UE Roll. You can find it on sale for a shade under NZ$150.

We’ve had one at home for over a month and it has become the go-to casual speaker when playing music from computers, tablets and phones.

Strange looking, in a good way

The UE Roll is a curvy, flying saucer-shaped disc. The speaker sits under a fabric cover with large embroidered plus and minus symbols. These symbols tell you where to find the volume controls. As you’d expect the plus sign cranks up the sound, the minus sign reduces it.

My UE Roll is mainly grey with fluro pink embroidered symbols. There’s a bungy-type cord on the back in the same shade of shocking pink. There are plenty of other colour combinations to choose from.

The UE Roll has a diameter of around 135mm and is 35mm thick. If you’ve got big pockets it will just fit. It also fits comfortably in my hand, although that might not apply to everyone.

Versatile

The elastic cord on the back hooks on a rubber lug most of the time. You can use it to attach the speaker to, say, the handlebars on a bike or to a belt. I use the cord to hook the speaker on the car sun shade while driving.

Physically the UE Roll portable and tough enough to carry to a picnic or to the beach. It can take a little punishment, so it would be ideal for raucous children. Logitech says the speaker is waterproof, I’ve used it in an Auckland rain storm, which didn’t do it any harm.

Why we like the UE Roll

The UE Roll ticks all the important boxes. It looks good, is dead simple to use and has decent sound, enough to fill a room. We also like the fact that it’s robust, that it doesn’t cost much and that it uses rechargeable batteries. Our previous portable speaker chewed through the Ever Readys.

The sound is good enough for casual listening. Hi Fi fans wouldn’t want to place a comfy chair in front of the UE Roll and settle back for the Brandenburg Concerto or a Miles Davies album. On the other hand it is great for playing rock music or reggae while chopping vegetables in the kitchen.

Where it misses out is the low, rumbling bass sounds. Everything else is lovely and clear. Hi-hats chink away, the top end sparkles. There’s enough here for your ears to notice the difference between MP3 tracks recorded at 160kpbs and 320kbps — that’s not something I can hear on my computer’s built-in speakers.

If you’re not happy with the pre-set sound range, there’s an app for tweaking the equaliser settings.

Audio cues

My favourite feature is the audio cues you get. Hit the plus and minus symbols at the same time and a voice tells you how much power is left. Connect or disconnect the speaker to hear an on-off click.

One of the most impressive features is the Bluetooth range. We run Logitech’s Z600 speakers at home. They struggle when driven by the MacBook in the study, it’s five or six metres away and separated by two walls. The UE Roll handles it perfectly. Indeed, most devices can punch out Bluetooth sound to the UE Roll from anywhere in the house without interference.

Battery life is respectable. We get about eight hours from a single charge. There may be a connection between the Bluetooth range, the speaker loudness and the drain on the power supply, although it’s not something we’ve noticed in practice.

What’s not good?

There’s little to dislike here. The weak spot is the bass sound quality, but for the price, less than NZ$150, the sound is more than good enough.

Some people might not be happy that the UE Roll can’t double as a speaker phone — there’s no built-in microphone. Others might whinge about the lack of controls to step through a playlist. You can find devices with both these feature, but you’ll pay a lot more.

And that’s the key to the UE Roll, you get a great deal for the asking price. We like it so much we’re going to buy some more to give away as presents.

New Zealand DJ Zane Lowe is the face of Apple Music. TV3 journalist Adam Hollingworth interviewed me for last night’s 6PM news bulletin me for last night’s 6PM news bulletin asking me what it means for local music.

NZ DJ Zane Lowe fronts Apple’s new radio station

There’s good and bad news for local radio. Apple Music and other streaming services mean New Zealand stations face a well-funded, well-resourced rival with global reach. People who spend so much per month for these services will listen less, if at all, to locally-made radio.

On the other hand while Apple Music isn’t one-size-fits-all, it is global and that gives the local radio programmers an opportunity to work on tailoring their output to New Zealand tastes.

Either way, there’s downward pressure on the value of a broadcast licence and more change on the way for NZ music stations.