Wireless speakers can be basic and cheap, or they can be fancy and expensive. Features and design flair usually scale with price, usually. The Sound Blaster Roar is solidly built, is chock-full of fancy (and superfluous?) features, and sounds pretty impressive -- and it costs a lot less than I thought it would.
What Is It?
The Roar is Creative's newest speaker, and is its entry into the increasingly crowded attractive-boombox-with-Bluetooth market. It's a 1.1kg, 202 x 115 x 57mm box surrounded by a finely perforated satin aluminium grille, with the occasional accent of shadow chrome or matte grey rubberised plastic. Overall, it's a very solidly built device -- I was a bit surprised, because Sound Blaster has had some misses in recent years, but the Roar is extremely well put together.
The perforated aluminium looks great, and reminds me of Samsung's visually similar F61. The plastic side grilles have larger perforations and don't look quite as premium, but are every bit as sturdy as the main wrap.
The top panel is flush with buttons; perhaps too many for my liking. There's a bunch of inputs -- power, auxiliary 3.5mm, USB power output, USB power input, micro SD -- and a set of multiple playback, recording, and alarm buttons and switches. They break up the otherwise clean lines of the speaker; although they're useful, they could have been equally well controlled with an appropriate Sound Blaster app on your smartphone or tablet.
The Sound Blaster Roar hasn't been confirmed yet by Creative for Australian retail sales, but you'll be able to buy it online for US$199. That's about the same price as the UE Boom, a similar-sounding speaker that has the advantage of being waterproof, but isn't as versatile.
What Is It Good At?
The sound that the Sound Blaster Roar produces is actually pretty impressive given its relatively compact size. I took it on an overnight trip to Singapore and it was more than capable of filling a hotel room with clear, bassy audio; it doesn't have any trouble with small to medium spaces. It might run out of puff if you're trying to use it to fire sound around an entire Australian-size house, but in any office or personal living space it is more than capable.
There's plenty of treble detail, but also a large amount of mid-bass extension, courtesy of the speaker's 2.5-inch woofer driver and passive bass radiators. It's a more rounded overall sound than the UE Boom and Samsung F61, thanks in part to the Roar's larger size and extra amplification. There's a bit of bass distortion at higher volumes, especially after you hit the ROAR button -- which boosts treble and lower bass to give a more musical sound, but at the cost of high volume breakup.
As a general rule I preferred ROAR mode at low to moderate volumes, where it adds a good deal of aural oomph, but it's better off disabled whenever you're listening from a distance or at volumes above the speaker's halfway point.
As a speakerphone, the Roar also does an excellent job. Bluetooth A2DP and Apt-X codec support means you get a clear and detailed audio stream from the Roar SR20 with little to no delay, and the single inbuilt microphone is capable of picking up the speaker's voice from a decent distance (probably just outside around a three metre range). Creative's Roar also has the nifty, legally-questionable feature of recording any calls that you make through the speakerphone system -- useful for keeping conference call notes, maybe.
If you like extra features in your audio accessories, the Sound Blaster Roar SR20 has them in spades. You can control your audio playback using the integrated play/pause/skip buttons on the speaker's rear panel, and play any WMA or MP3 audio files saved to a card in the micro SD slot. You can charge an external device with the full-size USB port (as long as you have a cable handy), and set an alarm. Less useful features include a mode that blasts noise at you randomly to keep you alert, and a built-in siren. God knows why.
What Is It Not Good At?
The Creative Sound Blaster Roar is let down by its inputs and buttons. Personally, I wish they were hidden away on one of the side panels, with the inputs shielded by port covers to keep out stray dust and dirt. The buttons are perfectly reasonably laid out, but there's too many of them, and they're all of different designs -- there's a round recessed alarm button, round embossed record button and oblong playback buttons. If only Creative had an app that could do all this for you, syncing your settings with the speaker over Bluetooth.
As I mentioned before, there's a small amount of distortion at the higher end of the Roar's volume range. I'd recommend avoiding the ROAR equaliser booster at max power, and if you're running the Roar at full power all the time anyway it's probably not going to sound as good as a larger, more capable speaker (like the Big Jambox, maybe).
Battery life at moderate volume is merely OK. The 6000mAh cell means there's enough power to charge a smartphone from the Roar's USB output if you're running low on juice, but for playing audio over Bluetooth, I managed a moderate seven hours of continuous music. This is a little less than you'd get from Creative's competitors. Recharging over USB also takes quite a long time; you'll need to bring along the 15V DC powerpack if you want a quick top-up.
Should You Buy It?
The Roar definitely holds its own with other portable wireless speakers from established brands like Ultimate Ears and Jawbone and Samsung. It's not quite up to par with proper, powered units from Sonos and Bose, but if you're looking for a versatile portable boombox, the Creative Roar is worth test-driving at US$199 if you get the chance. If it comes to Australia properly at a similar price, it'd be an easy sale.