If you want to buy a Bluetooth speaker for picnics and beaches and afternoons in the backyard, you have a lot of choice. Kickstarter success story Outdoor Tech has a rugged wireless boombox, the Big Turtle Shell, that wants to knock off the UE Boom and Jawbone's Big Jambox as the outdoor speaker of record.
What Is It?
The $299.95 Big Turtle Shell is fresh off the Kickstarter production line for Outdoor Tech. It's a 280x150x90mm, 1kg multifaceted plastic-and-metal Bluetooth speaker with 10 Watts of audio power and a massive internal battery. It looks interesting, too, with a multifacted polygonal geometric facade finished in a rubberised matte black plastic coating.
The Big Turtle Shell aims its three top speaker drivers outwards and upwards, so you can leave it on its base and fill a room with audio or prop it up to get more directional sound. Next to those speakers you'll find a little NFC tag that automagically hooks up your NFC-enabled phone with the speaker over Bluetooth 4.0. At either end you'll find either a pair of 3.5mmm audio inputs and outputs -- to connect another Big Turtle Shell or to hook up an iPod or other non-Bluetooth music source -- or a DC power jack and USB power output. It's slightly vexing that the Big Turtle Shell doesn't charge over microUSB, but that's not a big deal.
Unlike the UE Boom, you can't sync the Big Turtle Shell up with another speaker wirelessly to make a stereo Bluetooth speaker system. It's a little more basic than that, but that kind of simplicity isn't necessarily a bad thing. With the Big Turtle Shell, you abandon a little versatility for a slightly more capable all-in-one unit. Its speakers are powerful, it's simple to set up and use, and it'll stand up to any dust or dirt or water you can throw at it.
What Is It Good At?
The internal rechargeable battery of the Big Turtle Shell is its biggest selling point by a long way. If you've ever been out with your phone and speaker playing music, and one of them runs out of power, you're stuffed -- and that's happened to me more than once before. Because the Shell's 7800mAh cell is so large, it can run for a full 16 hours of louder-than-average audio playback. I can attest to this, too -- I got the advertised charge and more in my time with the speaker.
Take the battery capacity of your smartphone or tablet and add a 10 per cent margin for good measure, and you'll find out how many complete recharges you'll get out of the Big Turtle Shell's USB power output. From a completely full charge, I was able to get two complete charge-and-discharge cycles out of the LG G3's 3000mAh battery and a solid five hours of moderate volume music playback. This is an excellent result and, as long as you have the correct cable handy, means you'll be able to use the Big Turtle Shell as a powerbank and a speaker, when you actually need it for both.
Bluetooth range from the Big Turtle Shell is great. I found a solid and reliable audio streaming connection from as far out as around 12 metres line of sight from the Shell, which is on par with the best Bluetooth speakers like the UE Boom. There's no in-between range, either -- you either have a solid connection or you have nothing at all, which is better than some other brands' sort-of-connected-but-not-really flim-flamming connectivity. Bluetooth 4.0 lends its weight to high quality streaming -- more than high enough quality to get the most possible detail out of the Shell's speakers.
When it comes to actually creating sound, the Big Turtle Shell does a pretty good job. Courtesy of its lower bass radiator it has a decent amount of low frequency extension and while it isn't exactly going to shake your floor, it has a well-rounded audio signature that doesn't sound weedy or anemic. Treble is a little sharp and sibilant at higher volumes, but for low and moderate volume listening there's a lot to like about the Shell's Bluetooth audio.
What Is It Not Good At?
I expected the Big Turtle Shell to be louder. On the Kickstarter, and on the speaker's actual retail packaging, Outdoor Tech touts the Shell's 110dB-besting audio output, but I'd question whether that's a real world result. Back to back, I actually found the UE Boom to be louder as well as more aurally pleasing. When you're buying a wireless speaker primarily for its sound quality and the volume of sound that it can produce, this is a bit of a problem.
Similarly, there's a small amount of audio distortion at maximum volume, primarily from a bit of break-up from the Turtle Shell's centrally-mounted downward-firing bass radiator. Because of this, the Big Turtle Shell sounds best a few notches down from full power, since treble also becomes a little too harsh at the absolute top end as well. For the most part it sounds appropriately musical and sits roughly on par with the UE Boom, but it's a close race and one the Shell loses out at the extent of its power.
The Big Turtle Shell's design is attractive in my eyes, but I fully expect it to be polarising. Looking at it from the top down, you can see that only about half of the speaker's mass is dedicated to speaker drivers and actual sound -- the rest is battery and styling. The overhangs at the speaker's long ends, for example, are a little superfluous and seem like wasted space that make the Big Turtle Shell bigger than it actually needs to be. The buttons, too, are multipurpose -- tap for volume, hold for track skipping -- and feel a little cheap when pressed.
Should You Buy It?
The Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell is the sound and battery life of the UE Boom with the design of the Jawbone Big Jambox in a bespoke, rubberised and ruggedised plastic shell. It's a little more outrageous in construction than it probably needs to be, but its target market probably likes that kind of thing. At the end of the day, it sounds good, looks nice(ish), and has the big advantage of a massive internal battery that genuinely works as a convenient and portable powerbank for your smartphone or tablet.
It's not as compact as the Boom or as high-fashion as the Jambox, but the $299.95 Big Turtle Shell is rugged and waterproof and does a great job of creating audio that sounds good outdoors. It might not be the best indoor speaker on the market, but it'd be a smart addition to your picnic basket or beach backpack.