I asked for a Bose Soundlink Mini II for Christmas, because I wanted a way of getting music audible while I work, screen printing on vacuum tables. The vacuum is noisy. I figured a small speaker I could put right next to me would be better than blasting the proper stereo from the other end of the room.
It’s great for that, it’s close to me, I can hear even with the vacuum on, and it doesn’t have to be so loud that it’s offensive to other users of the print room. Problem solved.
For my studio (sounds fancy, it’s just a little room full of boxes), I wasn’t loving it though. Because I have coveted the Mass Fidelity Core since it got kickstarted, and I received a bit of a windfall, I pulled the trigger on that, and it arrived a week or two ago.
My existing machine is a Creative D80 bluetooth speaker, so we aren’t talking audiophile gear here. Nevertheless, I was surprised by how a machine four times as expensive compared, and a machine ten times as expensive.
There are plenty of reviews of the Soundlink and the Core, so I’ll not describe what they’re like in terms of specs, but I will give my reactions and feelings on build and finish.
Bose Soundlink Mini II is a tiny, solid piece of engineering, beautifully finished. It weighs about 700 grams, but seems heavier. The metal case of it is smooth where it should be smooth, and has sharp edges where it should be sharp. The metal grille makes it very grabbable, and inspires confidence. I was happy just to grab it and shove it in a bag, without fear of clicking fabric, or poking a driver.
It comes with a charging dock. The Soundlink Mini II has a big rubber foot, that means it doesn’t easily slide into place on the dock. You’ve got to wiggle it a bit until it seats properly. That’s literally the only problem I can find with the build on this machine, it’s really a nice piece of kit.
Unpacking is a pleasant experience. The USB charger has got a couple of international prongs to slide into it. Neat.
The Mass Fidelity Core is not as tiny as the Soundlink, and twice as heavy – though it doesn’t seem so. Holding both out in front of me, I struggled to sense a great difference in weight, despite the huge difference. It seems solid enough, and the polished metal is a beautiful element. I wish there was a bit more special up top though – it’s a bit of a bland top. Shiny black plastic – I’ve seen it before.
Unpacking looked good to begin with: The box has a colour sleeve, over a rather beautiful stepped, sturdy board box. Inside are two sections, with high density black foam precisely cut out to cradle the Core, and another little cupboard at the side for the accessories. It seemed a little over-dressed to me, and my Core had clearly been unpacked and re-packed up before – cardboard tabs were bent and delaminated. A bit of the protective film had already been peeled back through handling.
The precision of the packaging made the untidy contents seem more problematic.
The Core comes with a little infrared remote, the power supply, and a handful of international figure 8 leads for it, and a stereo RCA-to-3.5mm jack cable.
The size of this means it isn’t going to be slung into a shoulder bag, even with the odd little tote that accompanies it – it’s a weird sort of shape, and just too large for me to pick up with one hand. I do have small hands though.
The power button is on the back rather than the top.
Physically it’s a little underwhelming, and there was some marring on the moulding at the back. I can’t tell if it’s damage or just a slightly duff mould, either way it’s cosmetic only, but just reflects a little less attention. If the rest of the unit wasn’t so sharp and sleek, then I wouldn’t even have noticed.
Frustratingly, neither of these devices are anywhere near as reliable as my Creative D80, that just connected instantly as soon as I wake my laptop, and stays on, rock solid. It’s never dropped. The D80 is mains powered (and old), I wonder if it’s something to do with power saving.
Both the Soundlink and the Core lost their connections once or twice over the course of a day’s use. With the Core, any silence of longer than about six seconds makes sound fade back in, when it next occurs. This is most obvious when changing the volume in Windows, using the slider – the sounds that plays misses it’s attack. In the scheme of things, not that strange, but just a bit curious. I guess this is a power saving thing, and it doesn’t happen with a wired connection.
This is tricky, these are very different beasts.
The Soundlink is focussed, bassy, powerful. It has a flattened, compressed punch that is unsubtle but effective. It is very directional, and falls off very quickly as you move away from the unit.
The Core is polite, detailed, expansive. The soundstage is quite amazingly expressed, and I’ve never had the layout and composition of the musicians suggested to me so openly before.
I listened to a couple of different tracks to compare them.
First off, Nigo‘s Ape Sounds. The Soundlink expresses this with a wonderful focus and punch, round bass, a full, convincing sound. The Core showed it diffused, a bit neutered. Compared to the Soundlink, the Core sounds oddly phased, a bit like turning on “surround sound” on some hifi systems. Not the best.
Inception OST, We built our own world and Radical Notion contain passages that I was surprised to be able to “see” quite deeply into on the Core, it was obvious that there were different physical instruments playing different sections. The layering was clear. On the Soundlink, it all just blurred into “strings”, and the difference between the violins and the cellos was lost.
The Soundlink really has punch, and expresses bass that the Core only eludes to, but it does sound a bit muddy down there.
The track Mombasa has a repetitive bass drum signature, that sounds insistent and solid, processed on the Soundlink, enjoyable. On the Core, it sounds like a real drum, in a room, quite surprising.
There’s a brilliant brass break at around 1:25 on that track, and I was expecting it to really show the best of the power that the Soundlink could deliver, but it actually sounded compacted and processed, a bit of a dirge. The Core lacked the oomph, but expressed the part open, rasping, tearing. A much more interesting piece to hear.
Avril 14th by Aphex Twin is a fairly low-fi simple piano ditty, and was actually pretty hard to differentiate on these speakers. The Core edged out as being more realistic, sounding more like an upright piano. The Soundlink more like a toy piano.
The Way by DJ Taktix was a sub-bass test. Weirdly, I could hear the very low tones on the Core, but just not loudly. On the Soundlink, the bass rolled and boomed carelessly, certainly a lot more perceivable than on the Core, and powerful bass is part of the joy of this kind of record. It flapped a bit, loosely expressed.
I was surprised to find with the Core, separation was obvious, clear even on something as unsubtle as bloodclot jungle techno that I always assumed was just a thrilling hot mess of splats and breaks. The Soundlink presented is as such, a solid scribble of energy. The Core again neutered the track, showing it almost too unforgivingly, maybe highlighting the track’s lack of sophistication a little too clearly.
Max Richter‘s Sleep was a surprise. I found I much preferred the simpler presentation that the Soundlink gave this album. There’s a conviction and a seductiveness in it, sipping a more concentrated soup. The unsubtlety of it worked well with the droning, solumnabulatory sound, allowing it to sound warmer, more complete, less interesting.
With the Core, I found it open and layered rather than sonorous and suggestive, but not any more engaging.
The killer feature of the Core is the ability to present a wide, expansive sound stage with one pretty dinky speaker. It does it, quite amazingly well. When it plays, the source of the music is very indistinct, but the actual sound itself is crystal, chiming, rareified. It invites deep inspection of layered orchestral sounds, and is realistic. Instruments sounds like pieces of wood and cork and strings, and brass, blown, plucked, bowed and hammered, in a room. Rather than recordings, or something from the radio.
On the down side, that realism is a problem for acoustically simple music – particularly bass music (which is a lot of what I like) where the Core’s expansive presentation sucks quite a lot of power out of it, makes it sound neutered, or hollow. Unmoving I listened to quite a few jungle tracks I love, and just felt “so what?”. An empty performance.
The Soundlink is tiny, and has bass. It presents a much more simple picture, not muffled exactly, but just flattened. The highs are just as high, and the lows are just as low, but there doesn’t seem to be much range in between. This gives a powerful, directed sound that is fun and bouncy, and plays bass music (and probably rock and pop) pretty well. It doesn’t travel far.