Before wireless tabletop speakers were a dime a dozen, before AirPlay and Bluetooth streaming were mainstays of the audio experience, Soundcast Systems was at the forefront of this category. Back in the days circa 2007 when you needed a base docking station that communicated wirelessly with the speaker, I reviewed Soundcast's SpeakerCast and then the omni-directional OutCast outdoor speaker and was quite impressed with the audio performance. In fact, I continued to use the SpeakerCast as my kitchen speaker until it finally died on me just recently. Too bad the OutCast was so prohibitively expensive that most people probably never bothered to audition it.
In recent years, Soundcast was nearly crowded right out of the category, but the company is still standing strong and recently introduced a new speaker, the Melody ($450). This round, portable wireless speaker is designed for both indoor and outdoor use, with a weather-resistant cabinet and port covers, a carrying handle integrated intuitively into the top panel, and a built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery system that allows for a truly wireless experience. The package includes both micro-USB and 12-volt car chargers, and Soundcast claims 20 hours of playback on a fully charged battery (depending on playback volume).
The Melody is a Bluetooth speaker, incorporating Bluetooth v3.0 with aptX and AAC lossless codec support to allow for receipt of higher-quality audio sources. AirPlay and DLNA streaming are not supported, but a 3.5mm auxiliary input is included to directly attach a music source. You can control source playback directly through your source device (be it a phone, tablet, computer, or other) or by using the Melody's top-panel buttons for track forward/reverse, play, pause, volume, and power. A single LED glows green when the unit is powered up, flashes blue when it's searching for a Bluetooth device, and glows solid blue when Bluetooth pairing is successful. The Melody automatically enters pairing mode when you power it up, but there's also button to initiate pairing if you need it.�Melody's Bluetooth remembers up to six devices for easy pairing.�
The Melody has a nine-inch diameter, sits 9.5 inches tall, and weighs nine pounds. Like the previous OutCast, this speaker has an omni-directional design, alternating four full-range three-inch Hi-Q drivers with four bass radiators in a stereo 360-degree array. The goal of the omni-directional speaker is to produce similar audio performance all the way around, which makes sense in an outdoor environment where people aren't necessarily standing or sitting in the sweet spot in front of the speaker. In that respect, the Melody succeeds, as I spent a lot of time walking in circles around the speaker and found the audio quality to remain consistent.
I auditioned the Melody speaker both indoors and outdoors, using AIFF files streamed from my iPhone 4 and MacBook Pro laptop, and came away generally impressed with the speaker's performance. The Melody has good dynamic ability and presents a well-balanced sound, where highs, mids, and lows are all well represented and none overshadows the others. Deeper male vocals like those of Tom Waits in "Long Way Home" had good heft and meat to them, and the bass notes in this track had good presence and definition. The speaker is not bright or harsh; if anything, it's a bit too diffuse up top. Higher-frequency information isn't quite as crisp, clean, and airy as I've heard through other wireless speakers, like the Aperion AllAire ARIS and the Russound AirGo. The top-end presentation sounded just a little compressed.
While I was pleased with the Melody's performance indoors, the speaker's omni-directional design is really better suited for outdoor use, where you aren't concerned with the sound bouncing off boundaries in every direction. Everything seemed to snap into place when I moved outside; dynamics seemed even better, providing good coverage around my large backyard, and those limitations in the high frequencies are less apparent.
I don't know if it's because my laptop and iPhone use older versions of Bluetooth compared with the Melody's v3.0 (2.4.5f3 and 2.1 + EDR, respectively), but I had more connectivity issues than I would like. I experienced a fair amount of drop-outs and pops, and a few times audio playback stopped completely after about 10 minutes of playback, forcing me to turn Bluetooth off and on and then re-pair the devices. Sometimes I opted to just use the supplied mini-jack cable to directly attach my iPhone to the speaker for a more reliable connection. I will mention, though, that I checked out several other reviews of this product, and no one reported having Bluetooth connectivity issues. (A Soundcast rep did say that the Bluetooth in iPhones older than the 4S isn't as compatible, so drop-outs can occur.)
Go to Page 2 for High Points, Low Points, Product Comparisons, and the Conclusion.
� The Melody's omni-directional design provides even coverage and consistent audio quality over a wide area, which is perfect for outdoor listening.�
� The Melody has good dynamic ability, solid bass, and a nice blend between lows, mids, and highs.
� The use of Bluetooth makes the product compatible with a wide range of mobile devices, and the auxiliary input allows you to hardwire a device if desired.
� Bluetooth 3.0 supports aptX and AAC lossless codecs.�
� The Melody's portable design allows you to easily grab it and go. The rechargeable lithium-ion battery allows for a completely wireless experience, and battery life is excellent. The inclusion of a car charger means you can quickly recharge at the beach or while camping.
� The speaker does not support AirPlay or DLNA.
� Bluetooth wireless range is limited to about 33 feet.
� The Bluetooth connection between the Melody and my devices was not as stable as I'd like.
Comparison and Competition
There's no shortage of Bluetooth wireless speakers at a wide variety of price points, but few combine the Melody's full package of wireless connectivity, weatherproof design, and rechargeable battery. Of course, the Melody's $450 price tag puts it at the higher end of the spectrum compared with a good many Bluetooth speakers, be they indoor or outdoor. One competitor that I mentioned in the review is�Russound's AirGo outdoor speaker, which originally had an MSRP of $399.99 but can now be found on Crutchfield for just $150. The AirGo offered better overall performance in dynamics, bass, and top-end clarity for both indoor and outdoor listening, but it is not nearly as convenient and portable as the Melody, lacking the battery and requiring the addition of either an AirPort Express or Bluetooth adapter that will add a bit to the bottom line.
Another portable, outdoor Bluetooth speaker is Harman/Kardon's $400�Go + Play Wireless, which is battery-powered but doesn't include a rechargeable battery (it takes eight D-cells!). Jabra's�Soulmate Max�also sells for $400 and includes the rechargeable battery, as does the $300�Beats Pill XL. A few other options that aren't necessarily weather-resistant but do contain rechargeable batteries include the�Def Tech Cube, ($399.99),�Libratone Zipp�($399.99),�Klipsch KMC 1�($300), and�Bose Soundlink III�($300).
Soundcast Systems' Melody is a well-conceived portable speaker that offers better dynamics and performance than you're likely to get from all those tiny, handheld Bluetooth speakers, but is still easy to transport, charge, and use. If you're shopping primarily for an indoor Bluetooth speaker, there are plenty of alternatives around this price point that will provide a more refined, pristine top end, but the Melody has nice versatility to satisfy in both indoor and outdoor environments. Its design is perfect to grab and take to the beach or campsite or just to sit poolside and not worry about the kids making a splash. The question is, how much are you willing to pay for that versatility? Even though the Melody is far less expensive than Soundcast offerings like the much larger OutCast, its $450 price tag is still higher than many of its bigger-name competitors and may turn away some prospective buyers. If you've got the cash, though, and are looking for an easy, flexible way to add higher-quality outdoor sound without having to install traditional outdoor speakers and run wires, the Melody is worth an audition.