Kevin Hunt: Split personality for Bem Wireless Speaker Trio

The Bem Wireless Speaker Trio, as threesomes go, seems to have traces of The Three Tenors and The Three Stooges in its electronic DNA.

Either it fills the house with song or acts like a bunch of knuckleheads.

The intentions, of course, are all good: Bem (as in "beam") Wireless designed the Speaker Trio as a relatively inexpensive answer to whole-house audio. The three wireless speakers sit charging on a cribbage-board-size base station and pair, via Bluetooth, to any compatible mobile device, laptop or tablet. The speakers, once deployed, communicate with the base station using the 2.4-gigahertz radio frequency popular in cordless phones.

When all works correctly there's single-speaker mono music in the kitchen, the living room and an upstairs bedroom; speakers can be placed up to 115 feet from the base station. When everything doesn't, which was too often during my trials with two sets of Speaker Trios, it's almost vaudevillian.

Getting a steady Bluetooth connection between an iPhone or iPod Touch and the base station was impossible until I discovered the secret. If a device using yet another wireless technology, Wi-Fi, was placed too close to the base station, dropouts would occur or a streaming music station would (silently) buffer endlessly.

Yet move the device too far from the base station — Bluetooth's range, on a good day, is 30 feet — and the base station-device communication fails again. The surest connection was wired, by 3.5-mm cable, to the base station's auxiliary input.

Though the speakers have touch-sensitive volume controls, I found it easier to use an iPod Touch, iPhone or iPad. Remember, though, such a device can't stray too far from the base station. If the base station is in the kitchen, the device must remain there if you move upstairs to another member of the Speaker Trio.

The 2.4-gigahertz technology linking the base station and speakers was equally finicky. With no music playing, the speakers hiss loudly, though nowhere near as loudly as the startling, air-raid beeping signal the speakers emit when in pairing mode with the base station. The speakers might reach their stated 115-foot range in an open gymnasium but not in a house filled with signal blockers.

The speakers' range in my house was more like 50 feet. Watch out for dead zones, though. A speaker brought into the master bedroom quickly lost its connection to the base station in the kitchen. Despite the signal interruptions, the Bem Wireless concept doesn't miss by much. The speakers, 6-inch cubes, have a single 2.5-inch driver firing directly upward toward the ceiling instead of the listener. Some sound radiates from slim side grilles, but the goal is a diffuse sound field suited for background music.

The speakers, each powered by only 2 watts, have a low signal-to-noise ratio of 60 decibels, which translates into more noise and less clarity. That's OK for background music — the Speaker Trio's performance is perfectly passable.

Each speaker's lithium-polymer battery should last up to six hours on a single charge. The average was closer to four hours at moderate-plus volumes during my evaluation. Only two members of the first Speaker Trio I auditioned showed signs of life.

When the speakers are working properly, the bottom of a charged speaker will glow after you press its on-off button. When charging, the light blinks red. One member of the Speaker Trio — let's call it Curly — wouldn't stop blinking red no matter how long it sat on the charger.

This speaker apparently never held a full charge and repeatedly died before the others.

For stability and range, I still prefer in-home wireless speakers using Apple's AirPlay technology that piggybacks on a home network. Bem Wireless' system needs tweaking, but the company says it plans no changes, including the too-loud pairing beep, the stability issues and the idle speakers' hissing.

That makes the Speaker Trio hard to recommend. Not unless you like a little vaudeville with your music.

What: Bem Wireless Speaker Trio

Price: $300,

Hot: Wireless music around the house for a fraction of the price of installed whole-house systems.

Not: Unreliable wireless communication between base station and too-close mobile device; range of base station and speakers much shorter than best-cast 115 feet.

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