There are lots of portable Bluetooth speakers on the market, from a lot of brands. You don't really know what you're paying for, either, unless you get a chance to try before you buy. Braven is a US company, and while it's relatively new it has a wide range of versatile wireless speakers that prove themselves in creating good sound -- including the BRV-X.
What Is It?
The $299 Braven BRV-X is a portable Bluetooth speaker that, like the smaller BRV-1 it resembles, is entirely waterproof. It's bulky and and heavy for its size, measuring 230 x 78 x 88mm and 680g and being almost entirely encased in a rubberised plastic shell -- you can buy the speaker in either light grey or jet black, although the metal grille at the BRV-X's front is black on both variants.
Around the back of the BRV-X, a protective circular rubber cap twists off to reveal the Bluetooth speaker's various inputs -- you'll find DC power -- the BRV-X doesn't charge over USB, unfortunately, but needs a dedicated power pack -- as well as an auxiliary 3.5mm stereo audio input, battery status button and a two-mode indoor/outdoor sound-tweaking toggle. If the speaker decides to stop working mid-song, there's also a reset button that you'll need a pen tip or toothpick to press.
Apart from the NFC pairing tag on the Braven BRV-X's rear left panel, there are four buttons on the corner of the speaker's top panel -- power, play/pause, volume up and down. Hold the power button for a couple of seconds and the BRV-X switches on; hold it for a few more seconds and the BRV-X turns off. There are audible notes for both, as well as a noticeable beep whenever you hit maximum or minimum audio power using the volume buttons.
What Is It Good At?
For a company without the audio nous of a brand like Ultimate Ears or Bose or Jawbone, Braven has done an excellent job creating full and rich and well-rounded audio from the BRV-X. Waterproof speakers are notoriously mediocre when it comes to creating good sound -- with the notable exception of the UE Boom, which I love -- but the BRV-X has no problem in that department. Bass response especially is good for a portable speaker thanks to a dedicated downward-firing radiator at the base of the BRV-X, which resonates to give a little oomph to lower notes, and contributes to the speaker's overall punchy musical tone.
Treble response, courtesy of two centrally-mounted tweeters in the front grille, is great at low and middling volumes, but at maximum power it's just a shade too bright and can leave your ears a little fatigued after a little listening. Mid-range response from the two forward-firing 2-inch drivers is good -- there's plenty of detail and a lot of power. The Braven BRV-X has a loud maximum volume, too -- even one speaker on its own is enough to fill a medium-sized room with sound, and more than enough for any picnic or pool party. There's no audible distortion, either, even on bass at full power -- Braven has taken some care to prevent over-extension and the result is a speaker that sounds great at any volume, which is genuinely surprising.
If you are so inclined, though, you can hook up a second BRV-X over Bluetooth, in the same way as Ultimate Ears' Double Up works. If you have two Braven BRV-X speakers powered on, holding the battery check button on both for five second will pair the two. After that's done, playing audio back through one Bluetooth connection will play it through both -- twice the volume, and with stereo separation (one playing left audio, one playing right). It's an expensive pair of speakers at $600, but they are entirely waterproof and sound great.
The BRV-X is incredibly well built. The twisting rear cap locks securely into place, so there's no chance of any water ingress or dust getting into the ports if you're using Braven's most hardcore speaker on a hike or at the beach. The rubberised finish isn't the most attractive thing in the world in grey, but black looks awesome -- if I was picking one of the two it would be my choice every time. The front perforated grille is strong, and the Allen bolts and screws holding the speaker together are standard sizes, so you could take the BRV-X apart if you wanted to.
The Braven BRV-X has a 5200mAh internal rechargeable battery, and it can share this juice with any other device that charges over USB. Its rear full-size USB port can supply 5 Watts of power, so it'll charge an iPhone or Wi-Fi hotspot quickly enough, but will struggle to do much more than maintain the battery level of a big-screen smartphone like the Samsung Galaxy S5 or a tablet like the NotePRO. For smaller devices (like the Telstra Wi-Fi 4G Advanced hotspot, which I tested the setup with) it works very well.
What Is It Not Good At?
The Bluetooth connection of the BRV-X is just as stable as any of the best Bluetooth speakers that I've tested, but it doesn't have the same long-range capabilities as something like the UE Mini Boom or the Bose SoundLink Mini. With the two speakers side by side, I got around 10 metres line-of-sight Bluetooth from the BRV-X with a consistent music stream (as Braven claims, to be fair), but the Mini Boom lasted at least a couple of metres further before beginning to lose a solid audio link.
Having the ports hidden behind a cap is good for waterproofing, but it's inconvenient when you have to keep the cap nearby for when you're done charging or when you're finished charging an external device. For that matter, not being able to charge over USB is similarly annoying -- I would have much preferred a microUSB charging port, so I could use my phone or tablet charger, even if charging times were slightly longer as a result.
The design is also going to be polarising. I'm usually a fan of clean, minimalist, simple designs, but the BRV-X is none of those things. It benefits from its basic colour scheme, but there are lots of edges and crevices that will pick up dust and hide away dirt and grime, and the many-faceted design doesn't look especially modern. Kotaku editor Mark Serrels described the BRV-X as "what the future looked like in the '90s", and it does look vaguely Super Nintendo-ish. That might turn some people off, although the black version looks markedly more fashionable.
Should You Buy It?
Do you need a portable Bluetooth speaker that can stand up to not just a bit, but a lot of punishment? The $299 Braven BRV-X is the high-tech equivalent of the tradie's boombox -- it can handle loud music without breaking a sweat, it can play for an entire workday without running out of power, and it can (probably) take a fair whack of abuse before breaking.
It's more expensive than the UE Boom that has broadly similar sound characteristics and the same ability to pair a second speaker for stereo audio over USB, but for that extra price you get extra ruggedness and the ability to charge a smartphone or tablet over the BRV-X's 5200mAh internal battery. It sounds good, too -- and that's an important consideration. I'd happily have one or two of Braven's hardy BRV-Xs as an everyday stereo system.