Sounds Good to Me
Audio is as much a part of the modern classroom as notebooks, tablets and projectors, but speakers are generally the least mobile of the gear we teach with and often an afterthought when designing a classroom. That is, until now with the advent of high-quality audio systems that can link to a variety of sources with Bluetooth wireless.
Of the hundreds of wireless speakers that are available, I’ve chosen two to try in the classroom: Braven’s 850 and Cambridge Audio’s Minx Go. They both take up a surprisingly small space, sound great and can run for more than a full school day on their built-in batteries.
While they can each use an off-the-shelf audio cable, Bluetooth is the key to making them versatile. Just about every classroom device made today – from notebooks and tablets to digital music players and phones – has Bluetooth built-in. For those that don’t, there are often add-on Bluetooth radios.
To see how flexible they are, I used each with four different sources, including an iPad Mini, Microsoft’s Surface RT, Sony’s Tap 20 portable desktop PC and an LG Nitro phone. Each speaker offers the bonus of having a USB outlet for charging a phone or tablet.
They are not perfect, though, when it comes to filling a classroom with sound. Unfortunately, neither has a Near Field Communications (NFC) chip built-in that can make the initial set up as easy as tapping the source to the speaker. Plus, both lack the ability to plug in a microphone to turn the speaker into a class-wide public address system. On the other hand, the Braven 850 lets you use it as a speaker-phone for hands-free calls.
The bottom line is that each speaker pumped out surprisingly strong sound and can connect across the room so you can put it where it sounds best. Which you choose probably has a lot to do with how generous your school’s tech budget is.
Beneath the Braven 850’s sophisticated black and silver case is a high-quality audio machine that pumps out rich sound for hours and hours on battery. At $300, unfortunately, it’s a potential budget buster.
At 4.2- by 9.3- by 2.7-inches, the 850 is rectangular and slightly larger than the curved Minx Go. It’s sturdily built, but if your school is rough on its equipment, the 855s model is made of aircraft grade aluminum, waterproof and costs the same $300.
It doesn’t have the pull-out tripod leg of the Minx Go and doesn’t need it because it sits flat on a table or desk. The speaker’s stainless steel screen makes it look elegant and it picks up fingerprints less easily than the Minx Go’s case. At 3.4-pounds, though, it’s more than a pound heavier than the Minx Go and a bit overweight.
The system has control buttons on top and connections on the side for a headphone jack, USB port for charging a phone or tablet and power. The speaker comes with an audio jumper cable and an AC adapter for charging the mammoth 8,800 milli-amp hour battery pack; unfortunately, the battery is not removable.
While it lacks any LED indicators to show that it’s on, the 850 makes a fog horn sound when you turn it on. It worked well and connected on the first try with the iPad, Surface RT, Tap 20 and LG Nitro. The 850 had a range of 25-feet, just short of the MinxGo’s range.
Inside, the Braven 850 has a powerful amplifier and an APTX digital signal processor for enhancing the audio. The system’s two speakers are rated at handling a total of 20-watts and the 850 has a passive radiator in the back. Unlike the Minx Go, the 850 includes DTS and SRS audio enhancements available and the ability to use a pair of 850 units with the True Wireless technology that’s on some phones and tablets.
It all adds up to rich and deep sound, regardless of whether it was playing a spoken work radio documentary, music or the soundtrack from a DVD. It worked well with Internet radio, online curriculum and Web videos. Using it as a speakerphone for a parent-teacher conference or listening to a district curriculum conference call is a big bonus for teachers who have only two hands.
The 850 also has something the Minx Go doesn’t: a five element battery gauge that tells approximately how much battery capacity remains. I’m not entirely sure you’ll need it because the speaker ran for a phenomenal 37 hours and 50 minutes of constant use at half-volume on a charge, while alternating between Bluetooth and a direct connection. That’s one-third longer than the Minx Go’s battery ran for, and likely to give teachers the option of charging the speaker only once a week of typical use.
The long-distance leader, The Braven 850, can turn any classroom into a sound studio, but at $300 costs twice what the Minx Go does.
+ Full, rich sound
+ Can charge tablet or phone
+ Battery gauge
+ Exceptional battery life
Cambridge Audio Minx Go
Made of a glossy white or black case, the Cambridge Minx Go portable speaker will fit into any classroom décor. It’s not only smaller and lighter than the 850, but costs half as much.
In addition to an AC adapter to charge the Minx Go’s battery pack, the speaker comes with an audio cable and a soft felt bag, a luxury that the 850 doesn’t provide. The Minx Go measures 4.9- by 9.1- by 2.3-inches, or slightly smaller than the 850. The speaker’s finish picks up fingerprints too easily and you might need to spend time wiping it down with its soft bag.
At 2.3-pounds, it’s also quite a bit lighter, making it easier to move from room to room. Its curved front and upward angle mean that it can disperse sound more effectively in a large room than the Braven 850. Because of this, the speaker has a pull-out leg to keep it from tipping over.
The Minx Go is powered by an amplifier and digital signal processor that can make the audio sound fuller. It, however, lacks the DTS and SRS audio enhancements that the 850 provides as well as the ability to use it as a speaker phone for hands-free calls. There’s an array of four speakers inside, including a pair of 2-inch woofers and a pair of ¾-inch titanium tweeters. The 850, the Minx Go has an active radiator that pushes sound out of the back.
The sound quality is quite good, with excellent balance. It’s not as rich or deep as the 850’s output and lacks high-end definition. It worked well with Internet radio, Web videos and online school content, but can sound slightly hollow at times.
While the Minx Go was able to remain connected 27 feet from the source – slightly farther than the 850 – its battery life couldn’t hold a candle to the competition. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but the Minx Go ran for 24 hours and 15 minutes, one-third shorter than the 850’s astounding battery life. Still, it’s more than enough for several days of schoolroom use between charges.
Unlike the Braven 850, the Minx Go has a single LED to let you know that it’s turned on or ready to receive a Bluetooth connection. On the other hand, it lacks the 850’s incredibly useful battery gauge; it does have a light in the back that turns red when the battery is about to go dead.
It might lack some of the amenities that the 850 provides, but the Minx Go delivers high-quality, affordable sound that can go where you go.
+ Four speakers
+ Tripod leg
+ Can charge phone or slate
+ Good Battery life
- No battery gauge
- Can’t use as speaker-phone