There's no escaping the sound of small speakers these days. Round is all the rage – cylinder-shaped sound-makers that fire off good vibrations in all directions.
Put one such "360 degree" music maker in the center of the room and gather round. It becomes the audio equivalent of a campfire.
Or put that round one close to a wall. Now the sound bounces and spreads off the back wall as well as firing straight at you, creating the impression of a much wider "source" than the small cylinder might suggest.
Mostly for indoor use, voice-activated smart cylindrical speakers from Amazon (Echo, Tap, Dot) and Google (Home) have become massive sellers the last couple years, and come December will be joined with a serious new competitor from Apple called HomePod that will do your bidding with a mere murmur of the name "Siri."
Hear, there and everywhere: Hardly a radical new idea, the controversial Bose 901 "Direct/Reflecting" speaker is approaching its 50th anniversary for introducing the concept of drivers pointing both forward and aft. Rebelling against the prevailing stereo high-fi aesthetic that celebrated "pin-point" location of left and right channels, Abington, Pa.-raised audio pioneer Amar Bose argued that an orchestra in a concert hall attacked ears from a variety of angles. The room's resonance was a serious factor and should be worked into honest, home high-fi reproduction.
Today, the "Is it realistic or not stereo sound?" debate falls mostly on deaf ears. We're living in a "back to mono" world, listening while multitasking, moving about the house, fixing dinner, and playing with the pooch. Just keeping the music clear and even-tempered from all listening locations is key today.
At the moment, some of the best 360-degree sound is in portable (rechargeable battery- or AC-powered), wireless, Bluetooth speakers that amplify music beamed from a smartphone or tablet. The UE (Ultimate Ears) Boom 2 ($199) and its bigger sister MegaBoom ($299) are cheerful party animals, hitting sonic peaks of 101 and 102 decibels, respectively. And while they are a tad, uh, boomy before adjusting the equalization app, you're rarely left to ponder "whatdidhejustsay?" Multiple Booms can be ganged for stereo or multi-room play. And with weatherized protection, these things easily survive a day at the beach, even some splashing.
Just introduced, the Bose SoundLink Revolve ($199) and louder playing Revolve + ($299) aren't as showboatin', cranking to 96 dB, tops, in our test. Where they do excel is with a sonic neutrality and detailing that seem honest and true when putting forth voices, acoustic piano, drums, bass, etc.
The Revolves also mate, and boast the most buttons for music and phone control. An optional ($30) cradle makes recharging effortless. The Revolve + features a helpful, non-resonating woven handle.
Bose is also newly including sleek, quad-direction-firing speakers as part of its top "4K-TV ready" Lifestyle 650 home entertainment system. The pitch? Even listeners sitting off to the sides of the room get a fulfilling stereo/surround sound impression from a movie soundtrack. And wow, it works well!
While hard to find and audition at retail, the Libratone Zipp (about $270) is a novel round unit that can blast music beamed from both a smartphone and (through WiFi) from the internet, with a few web radio station presets switchable on the touch screen display. The Libratone is the largest and warmest sounding of the cylindrical portables we tried. Up to six can be ganged.
Speakers that listen: The unremarkable, mid-fi sound of the biggest Amazon Echo and Google Home smart speakers is "good enough" for busy people who are verbally asking the home assistant to play background music or a talking audiobook, to time a recipe, to report the latest news and weather, or to crank up the lights and air conditioning.
But Apple's forthcoming HomePod ($349) variation will fire on more cylinders. While some round ones get by with as few as one or two speaker drivers cleverly baffled to disperse the sound, HomePod will blast in all directions through seven tweeters, plus an upward-firing woofer, each digitally amplified.
HomePod is gunning for the popular Sonos (and Bose Soundtouch, Yamaha MusicCast, Samsung Radiant360, Polk Omni, and Denon Heos) multi-room speaker systems. At a recent press preview, a pre-production HomePod was put up against a $299 Sonos Play:3, a more traditionally styled, three-speaker-plus passive radiator unit. No surprise, the 360-degree sound firing Apple was judged "more room-filling" with better bass.
But don't lay funeral wreaths on Sonos just yet. Amazon Alexa voice-activation is coming to the Sonos' multi-model line. The wrap-around-grill-dressed Sonos Play:1 (closer in size to a HomePod) offers reasonably wide dispersion sound for a mere $199. And while HomePod will only play nicely (initially) with pop-obsessed Apple Music, Sonos also offers streaming alternatives such as Spotify, Napster, Tidal, and Deezer that dangle more interesting, grown up music in front of your ears.