If you’re like me, you can’t be away from your tunes for too long, especially when you’re outdoors. Whether it’s hosting a backyard cookout, gardening, or just washing the car, having my favorite music playing nearby is always high on my checklist. With the weather improving every day, now’s the time to start thinking about a portable Bluetooth speaker for outside listening or when you’re on the go.
There’s a glut of portable Bluetooth speakers of all shapes, sizes, and price points. Just about any company can make a Bluetooth speaker and it seems just about every company does these days. Bluetooth speakers have come a long way as far as sound quality and battery life are concerned, but making one that sounds good and is fun to use is not easy. For this month’s blog post I undertake my first-ever hardware review…a roundup of four fun portable Bluetooth speakers…some old, some new, all under $160, and all providing musical fun in the summer sun.
Model: M90 Mini Blaster
Brand: New Wave Toys
Fun Factor: 10/10
Playback time: 40 hours
Bluetooth Version: 5.1
Warranty: 100 days
The M90 Mini Blaster by New Wave Toys in North Hollywood, CA is the newest model of my roundup. New Wave is known for their accurate reproductions of classic video arcade games. Their arcade games are considerably smaller than the originals that inspired them, but they look incredibly authentic and they actually work!
Almost 2 years ago, the company threw their miniature-sized hat in the crowded Bluetooth speaker ring, launching a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for their M90 Mini Blaster and M90 Micro Blaster (an even smaller version Bluetooth speaker). I was one of over 2,700 backers to receive my M90 Mini Blaster about 2 months ago and despite some issues, I haven’t been able to put it down.
Back To The Future
Rather than make a ho-hum-looking Bluetooth speaker, New Wave stuck with their 1980’s theme and designed a faithful reproduction of the legendary JVC RC-M90JW (known as “the king of boomboxes”) from 1981, albeit on a considerably smaller scale. I own a couple of working vintage boomboxes including the JVC RC-M90, and I can say with authority the company is to be congratulated on the job they did emulating the original boombox. New Wave must have invested an enormous amount of time studying the RC-M90 (presumably thanks to the boombox museum they reference in the user manual) to achieve such remarkable detail in the M90. The Mini Blaster may be small but it’s a big blast (from the past).
What’s In A Name
Don’t let New Wave Toys’ name fool you. The M90 Mini Blaster is no toy. In addition to Bluetooth 5.1, the 30-watt stereo M90 Mini Blaster houses two 3” full range speakers (the drivers in my version have “limited edition” blue-colored cones), a decent FM tuner with dual telescoping antennae (AM was disabled due to significant reception problems), a 3.5mm analog stereo input, a USB-A for playing music from a thumb drive or charging a smartphone, and a Micro SD card input. Frankly, had I been the Product Manager for this model, I would’ve left off the Micro SD card input and added other features that would’ve been more widely used and appreciated. But I’m not done. With it’s built-in microphone, the M90 Mini can be used as a good quality speaker phone. I tried it and the party on the other end commented that I sounded better than when I use only my phone. You can also pair two M90’s together to achieve true wireless stereo (TWS). A USB-C is on tap for charging the internal 20,000mA battery. That kind of battery capacity is unprecedented for a Bluetooth speaker of this size and price. According to the company, the M90 will play up to 40 hours on a single charge. The M90 Mini Blaster is indeed the Tesla of Bluetooth speakers.
New Wave made the M90 Mini Blaster even more special by including some very sweet accessories. There’s a mini wired remote control that works (also based on the original JVC wired remote), gnarled, aluminum knob expanders to provide a better grip of the very tiny bass, treble, and balance knobs (which actually work), and an adorable faux iconic Memorex cassette tape complete with blank stickers so you can label it “80s Mix Tape” (the cassette deck isn’t functional but the door opens to accommodate the tape). There’s even an optional soft, sleek, black custom carrying case in which to store your M90 Mini Blaster when you’re not using it (which I assure you won’t be very often).
We’ve Got Issues
When a company that’s not an audio company dares to enter the audio field with their first audio product there are bound to be issues. The M90 is no exception. There’s prominent white noise in the background and the volume control isn’t gradual. The level choices are basically zero, medium, and high and nothing in between. Disappointingly, New Wave never apologized for the problems and actually told users to turn down the treble control if they found the white noise objectionable! They ended up issuing a firmware update in an attempt to improve the volume behavior, though the user feedback I’ve read on their campaign page isn’t favorable, including several units being rendered non-functional after the update, so I’ve refrained from updating mine. New Wave certainly never would’ve shipped their arcade games if they all had problems with their displays. Likewise, the M90 never should’ve shipped with these audio problems. To New Wave’s credit, they’ve voluntarily offered refunds to any Kickstarter backers who are unhappy, which they aren’t required to do. Even with these problems, wild horses couldn’t drag mine away from me.
There are other scalp-scratching decisions New Wave made like omitting a headphone jack, placing the Bluetooth status light on the back instead of the front, omitting a power light, leaving off a Loudness control like the original JVC boombox had (and which the M90 would’ve greatly benefited from), and always defaulting to Bluetooth mode rather than to the last mode used. Oh- and those cute little Vu meters on the front…they’re not load-bearing. I’ve said it already, but it bears repeating…I won’t allow these things to get in the way of me enjoying the M90 Mini Blaster.
One final bone of contention I’ll raise before stepping down from my soap box has to do with New Wave’s 100-day warranty which is standard for their product line. My 2-slice toaster made by a Chinese company I never heard of before, and which cost me a lot less than the M90, came with a 1-year warranty. The other models in my Bluetooth roundup cost quite a bit less than the M90 Mini Blaster, yet they all come with a one-year warranty. New Wave should have enough confidence in their own design and engineering, and respect for their customers’ hard-earned money, to stand behind their products for at least 12 months. I’ve worked for numerous audio companies including two small startups and none of them offered less than a 1-year warranty.
To be perfectly clear, the M90 sounds good, but there are other good sounding Bluetooth speakers on the market without audio issues that cost less. None, however, evoke 80’s boombox nostalgia like the M90 Mini Blaster. You simply won’t find anything else like it because no other company is crazy enough to try to do it. An original, working, vintage JVC RC-M90JW boombox will set you back several thousand dollars, but you can get this incredible smaller simulation for $159.99, whenever New Wave Toys gets them back in stock that is. Summer just got a whole lot funner.
Model: Wild Mini
Brand: Muzen Audio
Fun Factor: 10/10
Playback time: 8 hours
Bluetooth Version: 5.0
Warranty: 1 year
If you require a very small Bluetooth speaker without a lot of bells and whistles but still want acceptable sound quality, here’s a different Mini to consider…the impossibly adorable Wild Mini by Muzen. Muzen makes a number of different Bluetooth speakers, including one resembling a miniature table radio from the 1950’s. The Wild Mini, on the other hand, is designed with a military style in mind. It indeed looks like it could be standard issue for the US Army, including its hard-sided carry case with retro Sergeant stripes. Too bad Muzen didn’t complete the military theme by offering a Wild Mini camouflage version including a dog tag with the unit’s serial number stamped into it.
A Case To Be Made
In addition to its novel size, the metal housing (the only speaker in my round-up sporting a metal case) and horizontally rotating volume thumb wheel make it stand out from the pack, not to mention a delight to use. I find myself always going for the Wild Mini’s clicking volume wheel instead of my smartphone’s boring volume button. A small plastic wheel on the right provides next and previous track control. There’s even a small, integrated, 3 LED flashlight on top that can be switched between a high or low solid beam and flashing S-O-S like a navy signal lamp. I should also mention the convenient built-in bar allowing the Wild Mini’s owner to clip it to a backpack, belt loop, hang inside a tent, etc. The Wild Mini is dope. If you hang it then I guess you could call it dope on a rope. Sorry.
Don’t Add Water
Muzen’s website states the Wild Mini is rated “IPX5 waterproof” and claims if you accidentally drop yours in the pool you shouldn’t fret. It’s the only model in my Bluetooth roundup with such a rating. IPX5-rated products can withstand sustained low pressure water spray but they’re not waterproof. My Wild Mini has gotten wet but I would never submerge it no matter what Muzen says. I also try to avoid leaving it in strong, direct sunlight for any extended period of time to avoid the zinc alloy metal case from potentially heating up.
Firing up the Wild Mini and playing music via its Bluetooth 5.0 never fails to raise my eyebrows. The sound from this diminutive speaker is clear and crisp, and it will get as loud as a Drill Sergeant (keeping with my military theme). According to Muzen’s specifications, the bass response extends down to 80Hz which is more than I would expect from such a compact speaker, but it certainly isn’t going to cause ripples in your glass of water like an escaped cloned dinosaur would. The Wild Mini would produce a more open sound were it not for its restrictive metal speaker grille. Presumably Muzen felt protecting the 36 mm diminutive diameter driver was more important. It would’ve been even more wild to be able to pair two Wild Minis together for true wireless stereo.
Original Or Extra Crispy?
As with the other models in this roundup, the Wild Mini has a built-in Li-Ion battery…800mA to be more precise. That will get you about 8 hours of playback time which should more than suffice for most trail hikes and campfire singalongs ( or special ops missions). I should point out there’s a more recent version of the Wild Mini that uses a 1,000mA battery and has a few other new features including a multi-colored light and a wheel in front of the driver that rotates (Muzen calls it a “fidget spinner”). I guess it’s the Wild Mini Wheel of Fortune Edition. Frankly, I consider these “features” a step-down and hardly worth the $50 up-charge. I prefer original recipe over extra crispy.
I can’t resist a Bluetooth speaker in uniform. One look at the Wild Mini and I just knew I had to have one even though I already own more Bluetooth speakers than I need. I guess you could say its appearance is disarming. With its rounded edges and measuring just 3” x 2” x 1”, the Wild Mini is easily the cutest Bluetooth speaker on the planet. Whether you have a proclivity for military-styled things or not, you’ll quickly surrender to it. Getting one means you’ll have to drop and give Muzen 109. No, not 109 pushups, but $109, though I’ve seen it on sale for as low as $90 on Amazon. Should you get one? Sir, yes sir.
Model: EP203 Poison
Fun Factor: 8/10
Playback time: 6 hours
Bluetooth Version: 4.2
Warranty: 1 year
Larger than the Wild Mini but smaller than the M90 Mini Blaster is Lofree’s retro-styled Poison. It’s a rather odd name for a portable Bluetooth speaker. Perhaps Lofree named it that because it resembles a giant pill and it’s sound is killer.
Ace Of Bass
Smaller-sized Bluetooth speakers might be cute and convenient, but let’s face it- many of them don’t sound very good. For a plastic speaker measuring 7” x 4” x 2.75” with only 10-watts of power, Poison sounds very good indeed. In fact, it’s the best-sounding speaker in my round-up. Lofree says Poison’s frequency response goes down to 60Hz. No doubt the passive bass radiator that takes up a good portion of its behind is responsible. You can see the woofer in action as the music plays. Baby got back. It’s a good thing Poison has prominent rubber feet to couple it to the surface of whatever it’s playing on, because without them, the speaker would dance all over the place. If I’m looking to impress someone visually, I take out my M90 Mini Blaster or Muzen Wild Mini, but if I’m looking to impress acoustically, I dish out some Poison.
For radio enthusiasts, there’s an FM tuner on board, though reception is so-so and the tiny tuning dial is a challenge for the eyes. Even with my glasses on (which served as the prototype for the Hubble Space Telescope) I couldn’t see what frequency I was tuning. I bought my Poison through a friend in China and its FM dial is lightly back-lighted. Why Lofree left this feature off the US version I have no idea.
The Queen’s English
Some Bluetooth speakers, like the M90 Mini Blaster, use sounds to confirm when the source has been changed. Others, like Poison, use a spoken voice confirmation. The female voice used for Poison’s confirmations speaks with an Asian (Chinese?) accent. The voice Poison uses is pleasant enough but the accent screams “made in China”. It’s a small but important detail. Ordinarily, the manufacturer has the ability to record a different voice instead of whatever comes stock on the Bluetooth chip. A female voice with a British accent would’ve been my choice. A British accent always adds a little sophistication to any occasion.
It’s A Looker
Poison makes just as strong a visual statement as it does with its sound. Retro styling is great, but overdo it and your product risks resembling a cheap plastic toy. In this case, the design is just enough to give it that 50’s retro appearance without making it look goofy or cheap. It’s available in tasteful shiny colors, too, including “Milk Tea”, a kind of very light beige color with just a hint of pink or orange from what I can tell. There’s also a cool chrome dome on the top that changes color depending on the source mode it’s in, though it can be difficult to see the light in bright light conditions.
Make A Wish
On my Poison wish list, I would’ve preferred the top controls and prominent front grille be made of metal instead of plastic. It wouldn’t have added much to the cost and it would’ve given it a more quality look and feel. I also wish Lofree had included an AM band along with the FM, at least for US customers. Alas you can’t have everything.
Poison’s compact size makes it quite comfortable to carry in one hand, though chrome bars are integrated on either side to accommodate a carry strap. My Chinese market version came with a nifty carrying case that resembles a child’s vintage suitcase. Here again, I don’t understand why Muzen failed to include this with the US version.
Li-Ions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My
Playback-wise, expect about 6 hours from the 2,000mA Li-Ion battery. That’s on the short side but it’s probably due to the bass which tends to be power-hungry. As with most of the speakers in my roundup, Poison doesn’t have a user-replaceable battery. When the battery is exhausted (hopefully not until six or more years from now), shipping the dead unit both ways to its China factory for battery replacement and back again will be costly, assuming the factory will even service it. It will probably cost the same or less to just toss it out and buy a new Poison if they’re still being made then. This isn’t the best solution for the environment or your wallet, but it seems to be the inconvenient truth for many lower-cost portable Bluetooth speakers these days.
Poison is priced at $119, not quite half way between the $160 M90 Mini Blaster and $109 Wild Mini, though if you sign up on Lofree’s website, you’ll get emailed a discount code to save a few bucks. By the way, in case you’re wondering, Lofree’s name is a combination of the words “Love” and “Free”. Poison isn’t free, but you’ll love it.
Fun Factor: 6.5/10
Playback time: 8 hours
Bluetooth Version: 5.0
Warranty: 1 year
Bumpboxx makes very impressive, full-sized Bluetooth boomboxes sans the cassette deck. I’ve never owned one but I do own their Microboom. Microboom is the smallest and least expensive Bluetooth speaker in my roundup, measuring only 5” x 4” x 2”. It’s a Bluetooth wearable that comes in different shiny colors (including a recently-released, swanky gold-colored version) and includes a 24” stainless steel gold-plated chain to complete the 1980’s image. Bumpboxx also makes a portable Bluetooth speaker that resembles a vintage pager, but I was instantly drawn to the Microboom.
Bumpboxx says Microboom “seamlessly blends fashion and technology.” I say Microboom is the bomb, albeit a very basic bomb. There’s no FM tuner, no auxiliary input, and no headphone output, though a Micro SD card input is included on its backside. As with the M90 Mini Blaster, had been the Product Manager for this model, I would’ve left off that input in favor of something more conventional. There are small push button controls on the front for basic functions like power, Bluetooth pairing, track control, volume, and play/pause. The center “display” features a tiny white Bumpboxx logo which illuminates when the unit is powered on. That’s cool, but what would’ve been way cooler is an actual tiny color display that showed artist/song metadata. Of course, that would’ve used more battery power and raised its price, but it so totally would’ve been worth it. Totally.
The Microboom lives up to its name in more ways than one. It’s a micro boombox and it has very little boom despite Bumpboxx managing to shoehorn a passive bass radiator behind the dual 1.2” diameter full range speakers. Wearing the Microboom definitely makes a statement, and it also reduces its bass since the rear woofer’s meager output gets smothered by your clothing. Perhaps Bumpboxx prefers we all go topless. That said, it sounds better than I expected for a 3.7 oz plastic speaker on a chain. One big thing about the little Microboom is it can get fairly loud. It’s only 10 watts max, but this baby boomer(box) goes to 11, and it’ll crank for about 8 hours until its 500mA Li-Ion battery wants a re-charge.
Bumpboxx’s website is long on features but short on specs. I couldn’t find out simple details like what version Bluetooth the Microboom used, the frequency response, or even if it was stereo. It took several emails and over a week with their customer support to learn the Microboom uses Bluetooth 5.0. I never got a response to my frequency response or stereo questions, so I used a simple app on my phone to at least verify it’s outputting 2-channel stereo. However, with the speakers being in such close proximity to each other, it’s effectively mono. Perhaps sensing that, Bumpboxx made it possible to pair 2 Microboom’s together for true wireless stereo, with one Microboom being the right channel and the other the left.
You can get your own Microboom on Amazon or from Bumpboxx directly for $99, which strikes me as a bit on the expensive side compared to the prices of the other models I’ve covered in my roundup. Be that as it may, there aren’t many audio devices you can wear that play loud and look wicked cool. Hang a Bumpboxx Microboom around your neck and be prepared to get stopped on the street by impressed strangers wanting to know what it is and where you got it.
You may have noticed the different versions of Bluetooth used by the models in my roundup…5.1, 5.0, and 4.2. What does it mean and why don’t they all use the latest Bluetooth specification? To give a quick comparison, Bluetooth 5.1 and 5.0 include BLE, or Bluetooth Low Energy, which requires less power and thus yields longer playback time than Bluetooth 4.2. Both versions also provide more bandwidth (allows simultaneous connection of 2 different Bluetooth devices) and a much longer range. Bluetooth 5.1 pairs faster than 5.0 and 4.2. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should cross out anything on your list that uses older versions like 4.2. The Poison Bluetooth speaker uses Bluetooth version 4.2 and I’ve never experienced an issue using it.
One major drawback to Bluetooth is that Bluetooth IC’s can’t be updated, meaning whatever Bluetooth version your device has is what it will have forever. If a device has Bluetooth 4.2, there’s no way to update it to something more recent. That’s the nature of the beast, and you can bet Bluetooth technology will continue to evolve as it has over the years. So, even if you buy a Bluetooth speaker with the very latest Bluetooth specification (currently 5.2), it’s only the latest until the next version comes along. The good news is devices with older version Bluetooth chips will still work with sources having newer versions. For example, if you own a Bluetooth speaker with Bluetooth version 4.2, but stream your music from a smartphone that has Bluetooth version 5.1, your speaker will still work and sound fine.
I should also like to point out that none of the Bluetooth speakers in my round-up support aptX, a technology that claims to preserve the quality of the music. I don’t consider that a big negative because portable speakers are often used outdoors, which isn’t the ideal environment for audio reproduction. Moreover, in Apple’s wisdom, the iPhone doesn’t support aptX, so at least half of all users wouldn’t be able to take advantage of it anyway.
Juice Me Up
If you do a lot of streaming from your battery-powered smartphone or laptop to your battery-powered Bluetooth speaker, you don’t want your devices running out of power and ruining the vibe. A portable power bank will give your devices a boost when their tanks are nearing empty. Up until recently, most power banks were nondescript devices that sort of resembled those geeky aluminum wallets you see on late-night TV commercials. Enter Shargeek. They designed a portable charger that gets the job done and looks sexy while doing it. I wish I could say that about myself.
The Storm2 boasts a whopping 25,600 mAh of power from its 8 rechargeable, high-density Lithium-ion batteries. It provides four (count ‘em, four) power outputs (USB-C x 2, USB-A x 1, DC x 1) to fast-charge up to 3 devices at once, from phones to drones. It’s also the first portable charger to use a transparent housing exposing the power plant as well as the electronic components mounted on the PCB. Illuminated output jacks would’ve been extra cool, but now I’m really exposing my geeky side. Anyway, you haven’t heard the best part yet. There’s a small, crisp, color display that shows the input/output power, battery pack voltage/current, battery/PCB temperature, charge-discharge cycles, and DC voltage adjustments! OMG. I think I just experienced arrhythmia.
With great power comes great responsibility, and Shargeek takes safety seriously. They’ve built-in protection against short circuits, high voltage, and extreme temperatures. The transparent plastic chassis is fireproof and the Storm2 is rated safe to legally carry onto airplanes should you wish to take yours with you when you travel.
Roughly 3 months ago, Shargeek came out with a new power bank model called Storm2 Slim since it’s approximately 50% smaller than Storm2. It supports 130W high speed power delivery (vs. Storm2’s 100W) and is lighter weight than its big brother, but only includes 1 x USB-C and 1 x USB-A output. An optional, fold-out solar panel keeps the Slim itself charged when electricity isn’t available. Both models retail for $199, though they’re sometimes discounted on Amazon.
We’re all geared up to get outside and enjoy the summer. It feels like it took forever for it to finally get here. Enhance your summer enjoyment even more by bringing your favorite tunes with you. Whether you invest in one or more of the models in my roundup or decide on a different one, know that a portable Bluetooth speaker that makes listening fun in the summer sun is priceless.
Full disclosure: I don’t make a commission if you buy any of the models I recommended. I purchased all of these devices myself and did not receive any free review samples or special discounts. The advantage of this is I can be honest and not feel beholden to any manufacturer. The drawback is it’s a very expensive way of doing reviews! Accordingly, please consider supporting my website blog and Internet radio station by becoming a Patreon supporter (link below) for just $1.
Trivia: According to Wikipedia, a hands-free mobile headset introduced in 1999 was the first consumer Bluetooth device. The Ericson T39 from 2001 was the first Bluetooth mobile phone. Also launched in 2001 was the IBM ThinkPad A30 which was the first notebook with Bluetoooth.
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