Bluetooth speakers are the new headphones. We don't mean literally, and please don't start taking them on the bus with you, but they are an area where lots of companies see lots of chances to make money. And like headphones, these aren't £50 accessories any more, they're high-quality hardware that costs more than £200.
That's certainly the case with the SRS-BTX500, which is Sony's high-end, stand-alone Bluetooth speaker. It costs £280, which strikes us as a really staggering sum of money to pay for a speaker. But then, there are some mitigating factors here, and that's something we'll consider in this review, along with if we'd be prepared to spend that kind of money.
The killer feature
Lots of people have written off NFC, but it appears that it has something to offer. The BTX500 includes the required hardware included, but what does it bring to the party? Well, simply put it makes the process of Bluetooth pairing a million times less awkward.
Anyone who has paired a Bluetooth anything with anything else will know, it can be a bit of a pain in the limbs, buttocks and reproductive organs. First one of the devices needs to be visible, then you need to use the other device to find the first device. Then you need to ask one to pair with the other, then they'll be something about a PIN which may or may not actually be needed. Then the two will pair, if you're lucky, and you'll be able to listen to music.
Here, the process is: touch phone on NFC logo, devices are paired and ready to play music.
Of course, your phone will need to have NFC and the iPhone does not. This might also be the first really helpful use of NFC, so we don't totally blame Apple for not bothering with it, but on the flipside, including it in a device is incredibly cheap and easy and does add potential for such devices.
Looks to match its power
Sony usually makes nice-looking hardware, and this speaker is no different. The front speaker grille is finished in a grey, and the rest of the case is finished in a darker shade, with silver trim on the ends of the speaker.
There are a few buttons on the right-hand side. One changes the sound of the speaker, another selects the wired audio line-in, while a third handles Bluetooth pairing - if you don't decide to use NFC, that is.
On the top, there's a volume control and a button for ending phone calls taken with the unit.
We tested the speakerphone function with a three-year-old and her grandmother, this was a nice experiment because children don't speak clearly at three, and grandmothers can sometimes have pretty terrible hearing. Happily, this conversation was as clear and crisp as you'd hope, with everyone involved able to hear clearly and understand.
We don't think this is a feature everyone will make use of, but it's actually really good, and if you consider it in terms of making the Sony a centrepiece of your home office, it might make sense to use its speakerphone functionality. Anyway, we liked it and we're pretty sure you will too.
The main event here, of course, is audio quality. The Sony doesn't disappoint in this regard either.
We paired several phones to test the quality, and each was a pleasant surprise. There's a lot of power in this little speaker, and Sony says its magnetic fluid speakers are capable of producing lots of volume, without distortion. This is certainly true, and the BTX500 is more capable than we really expected it to be.
We had seen magnetic fluid speakers demoed by Sony some time ago, and they were very impressive. The system works by dispensing with the speaker's traditional damper, and replacing it with a frictionless magnetic fluid. The upshot is, more volume from a smaller speaker, but will less distortion.
This is what a magnetic fluid looks like
Loud is one thing though, and clarity is quite another, but we remain very impressed at what the Sony can do. Lyrics are utterly brilliant with an amount of clarity you don't really expect from a speaker like this. There's bass too, and plenty of it, but not so much as to destroy everything else. And the high end is clear, without overdoing it and adding nasty artefacts to the audio.
We could get some distortion if we turned up the speaker, and the volume on our phone, but it was quite minimal, and really much louder than you'd really want to listen anyway. At least indoors. It might sound a little lost outside, but there's still enough power here to supply a picnic on the beach with tunes.
There is also a "sound" button. This changes the profile of your sound, basically adjusting the tone, which gives you a bit of control over the output. It's a good idea, because one setting has lots of bass, and one does not. That, essentially, caters for those who like bass, and those who do not. Cunning.
When it comes to doing what it does, the Sony is really very good indeed.
Battery is included
You also get a rechargeable battery in the unit. This allows you to run it from the mains, then when you want to go out, unplug it and head off for wireless listening. Sony says that you'll get six hours, and we used it solidly throughout the working day with no problems, we switched it off at times, left it on at others, and it lasted well. We'd say it's pretty close to their estimate.
One annoyance is that if you forget to turn it off, it won't just shutdown after a period of inactivity. Instead it will stay on, and drain its battery to nothing. Additionally, unless you flip the "Bluetooth standby" switch at the back to "off" it doesn't really shutdown even when you do press the button, so will also discharge the speaker over time too.
Even with those niggles, having an included battery is great, and really increases what you can do with the speaker.
There can't be much argument that nearly £300 for a portable Bluetooth speaker is a lot of cash. But that said, the sound quality from this Sony is nothing short of amazing. It's also a fantastic speakerphone and we think it looks ace too.
It won't be for all, but the sound quality is really next-level stuff, and it feels like a return to form for Sony, which seems to have been enjoying a real boost in both build quality and well thought-out products in the past year.
This is the Sony we remember from the 80s, not the company that got tangled in its own tentacles in the late 90s.