The hot ticket audio item for the hearts of the smartphone savvy is the portable Bluetooth speaker. Companies are cramming every damn feature they possibly can in boxes the size of stacked cigarette packs. In our culture obsessed with convenience and mobile portability, this market segment is crammed with every kind of small footprint speaker that promises you tunes on the go. Everybody’s slapping a small cone speaker in a dwarfish enclosure and it’s getting pretty hard for an audio company to carve out attention.
Soundfreaq is an award winning company that I believe can manage to punch through in this noise of ultra-mini-boom boxes by focusing on – gasp – loving music. With a feel and design aesthetic more attuned to the timelessness of mid-century modern design and mated with an audio sensibility that focuses on love for music and coherence, the company’s authentic feel and taste is slowly taking claim on a market segment plagued by a bazillion different offerings every second.
I got the chance to attend the Philippine launch of their new set of products in the new Beyond The Box store in Century City Mall, Makati PH. The launch adds another layer of value to BTB’s commitment to provide consumers with experiences that goes beyond the unboxing of our beloved gadgets; so for this event they also invited the co-founder of Soundfreaq (Wayne Cheung) to talk about their new product line and about Soundfreaq in general.
As introductions were made about Soundfreaq and Wayne, I glanced at the corner right section of the store and all of Soundfreaq’s current products we’re displayed in a white table, which made them seem like industrial candy for sound junkies. The products certainly got the design part right, mating a simple, clean and modernist aesthetic with subtle geometric cues. The products wouldn’t look out of place as interior design accessories but they still retain a functional music player form factor.
Wayne got a chance to speak after a warm welcome, and he talked about how Soundfreaq started and their engineering and design background and how love for music banded them together to create products that they feel we’re being under served by the more established audio manufacturers. In a very low key and unpretentious presentation, Wayne managed to highlight the very honest process in which they built their new product line with a focus on vocal clarity and design cues built for the new digital lifestyle that is creeping up on our lives.
The quick and charming video presentation he played for us echoed the authentic feel of Soundfreaq’s advertising that is evident in their website (www.soundfreaq.com). The tone of the ads weren’t the typical feature overdose evident in most industrial products but more akin to products built by artisans, with a focus on craft, simplicity and ease.
A brief Q and A followed that allowed me to ask how they were able to squeeze out bass from such little devices and if there was any chance that their products can be tied together to create a stereo pair for a more engaging listen. Wayne responded to the bass question by stating that their enclosure may look simple from the outside but had an intricate “tubing” system that directs the sound flow to squeeze out more bass and clarity out of the units. Their proprietary UQ3 Spatial Sound Enhancement DSP technology creates a psychoacoustic effect by controlling sound wave interaction that enhances the perceived stereo separation. The benefit is that you get a compact system while enjoying an immersive audio experience. In short, a little bit of digital manipulation processes the sound to exploit the mechanics of how our ears hear sound.
As for the stereo pairing question, the Sound Spot can be paired for a true stereo experience, which I got to test after the launch.
To make the introductions of the individual products more fun and to highlight the sound, a quick game of name that tune was played using the Soundfreaq products featuring mostly 70s – 80s music that allowed us to get a brief sound profile of each product.
First up was the award winning Pocket Kick a fun portable music player the size of a smartphone that is recently creating buzz for packing a very musical and detailed sound in such a small footprint. The Pocket Kick achieves this by having a pair of custom designed stereo drivers with a rear facing passive radiator optimised for distortion-free power, detail, and clarity.
What does that mean?
Here’s an attempt at a very simplified explanation that does away with audio techno babble.
Pocket Kick manages to cram two speakers in a small enclosure that is tuned to match the device’s power and size limitation. This would be enough for most manufactures but Soundfreaq goes the extra mile and attaches passive radiators in the back of the speakers. Speakers vibrate sound waves to your ears by their cones moving forward. As they move forward, and for a vibration to be complete, the cones must also push backwards to come up again (kind of a tug of war generated by sound vibration). This backward motion also generates sound waves and putting a speaker cone in a box will limit these back waves. The Kick uses these back waves more efficiently by placing another set of “speakers” that don’t rely on power to “catch” these back vibrations. The “radiators/speakers”, in reaction to the back wave, generate more sound by vibrating, making the first forward firing speakers all the more efficient in generating the scale of music.
Aside from that, the Pocket Kick squeezes these features in a tiny package with a very enticing price point:
- Bluetooth 4.0 wireless
- Rechargeable battery with 10 hours play time
- Speakerphone with built in mic
- Micro USB charging port
- Line in 3.5mm input
- SRP: P4,550.00
Next up (and the 2nd sound profile I like the most) was the Sound Rise, a retooled clock radio / speaker that can become the best bedtime buddy for any music lover. Sensing a very under served market for bedside radios, Soundfreaq re-imagined the alarm clock with your modern lifestyle in mind and with a size that won’t look cumbersome in your night stand. It also features tone control switches to tune the sound profile to your preference. While the Rise sports only one custom speaker driver inside, it makes up for it by pumping more power (3.5W) into it than the Pocket Kick. I also touched and tapped the enclosure and I was surprised to find chambers of space beneath the covering. In the audio game, more often than not space can equal to more bass and more clarity, it depends on the trade offs you have in mind for your design. By allowing more chambers for the sound to pass through, the Rise seemed to carry a bit more heft in the sound’s presentation.
With these added features, the Rise is definitely worth looking into:
- Bluetooth 4.0 wireless
- USB power port for phone charging
- Line in 3.5mm input
- Clock: Dual alarm with day setting control and backup battery
- Adjustable screen brightness (with full black-out option and auto-on at wake up) with custom digits designed to optimize readability without filling room with excess light
- SRP: P4,450
After the Rise, we have the Sound Spot and it’s my personal pick from the bunch. With the Sound Spot the design cues from classic mid century modern furniture is very present in the white model that features a very classy faux-wood panel that is highlighted by recessed grooves in the enclosure. It has a custom full range driver with monophonic playback, meaning a single speaker is in charge of the whole spectrum of audio frequencies (as opposed to having two speakers divide the bass and treble duties of generating sound like most speakers do). It also features a button for sound profile selection (Flat, Warm and Bright). The options can give it a more coherent sound that can maintain definition on vocal tracks. I immediately liked the sound profile as the vocal clarity of this little speaker perked my ears up during the brief sound demos. I was able to borrow a pair of these to test the stereo speaker function (it worked like a charm) after the event and I even managed to sequester a secluded space in Beyond The Box for the testing of these speakers for a review I’ll write in a separate post.
With it’s small footprint, the Sound Spot punches way above its size class, delivering a coherent, mid emphasized sound in a very classy albeit small package.
Added features for convenience is a plus on an already jam packed little speaker; here’s some of the added specs:
- Bluetooth wireless A2DP compatible
- Aux in 3.5mm line jack
- Universal USB power port charges compatible USB devices
- Line-out audio to connect two Sound Spot speakers to play together
- Up to 7 hours battery life
- SRP: P3,950.00
The Double Spot
The Double Spot was up next and provided a beefier sound signature compared to the Sound Spot by way of its more powerful dual pair of custom speaker drivers. Its not a mere doubled Sound Spot as the bigger size of the enclosure also upped its power amplification and the space between the two drivers can get you a decent (for its size) approximation of stereo sound. Coupled with the aforementioned UQ3 processing the sound is once again bigger than its box.
It’s also feature rich as the step up in size allowed some more refinements like:
- Bluetooth 4.0 wireless
- USB power port for phone charging
- Line in 3.5mm input
- Rechargeable battery with 6 hours play time (optional for user upgrade and available pre-installed in bundle for retail)
- SRP: P7,950.00
After the conclusion of the demo / game I managed to strike up a conversation with Wayne Cheung and asked for some more details on how they crafted the signature clarity in these little speakers and it was enlightening.
First off he said that everyone perceives sound differently and that these speakers we’re tuned to what he feels make the most connection to the listener: the human voice. The interaction between the efficient amplifiers and the use of full range custom speakers were integral to the process. The speakers can now stand out on a glut of portable speakers that are too focused on adding gobs of bass rather than definition.
We also got to talk about the exciting developments happening in the field of chip and class D amplification and how these developments are making the miniaturization of audio equipment with decent sound ever more possible. We veered off a little off topic and I found out we had a mutual admiration for the sound of vintage Sansui Amplifiers (which I’m currently using), and that Wayne used to have one as a kid. It makes sense as vintage Sansuis have a well-defined warmth and clarity in the midrange that extends to its high frequencies. Now that’s a music loving co-founder who knows his audio!
In one of the more quiet moments of the event I got to audition the other speakers in the Soundfreaq table and they all share the same coherent, midrange that seems to be a trademark of the brand. For some odd reason though I liked the sound of the first four speakers better and the design elements on these were more utilitarian than eye candy. Nonetheless, they also boast the feature rich add-ons that the new products had.
Do understand that these are small speakers. Trade offs are present in any design endeavor and Soundfreaq choose definition over the appearance of being LOUD. Try to push it too much beyond its limits and a mid bass smear and some treble crunch can distract. I find myself backing up the volume on my source and the speakers themselves for that sweet spot on the vocal range. Dial this right mix in and you won’t be disappointed. We were in a big venue with tall ceilings so some adjustments on my ears had to be made. I’m sure that these will perform substantially better on the more typical room and / or condos that most upwardly mobile people reside in.
I paired a Samsung S5 through Bluetooth seamlessly with these speakers and played The XX’s debut album through Spotify and the speakers managed a decent amount of bass as well as the ever-present midrange. For the products with the optional sound signature switch (Flat, Bright and Warm), I found that setting the switch on warm is a match for Bluetooth streaming as this can smoothen some of the upper range harshness of using Bluetooth with the compressed file size of Spotify mobile.
It would be best to hear these speakers in the comfort of your own couch perched on a bookshelf, as they’re also visually appealing. I’ll try to do a more comprehensive review of these given the chance and how they interact with a more modest and common room size in which I feel that these speakers can excel in.
Overall Soundfreaq’s launch was a fun, music-filled event that celebrated the exciting time we’re currently living in. A galaxy of music is right at the palm of your hand and technology is moving towards better sound. So it’s about time that a design and audio centric company bring a coherent, mid range emphasized portable speaker that sparkles with vocal based music to the consumer market at a price that’s hard to beat.
With its charming mix of audio features and timeless design cues, Soundfreaq products can accommodate the convenience obsessed millennial market as well as the sound and definition requirements of the sophisticated music lover.
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