Kevin Hunt: Braven 650 combines speakerphone with mobile charger

For the talent competition of the Bluetooth-speaker pageant, the Braven 650 brings something to the stage besides the usual wireless audio reproduction and speakerphone capabilities.

Are you ready, judges? Watch as an iPhone is plugged into the 650's USB port. Now stand back. The iPhone, ladies and gentlemen, is now charging.

That's the high-level excitement surrounding the 650, which has a 2,000-milliamp-hour lithium-polymer battery that charges a small mobile devices up to 90 percent capacity. The 650 fully charged an iPod Touch, whose battery indicator was in the red (low) zone, in exactly 61 minutes.

When the battery is dedicated to powering the 650's tiny Class D amplifier driving a pair of 1.5-inch paper speaker drivers, it lasts up to 20 hours — far longer than the battery powering an iPhone or iPod Touch will last as it sends Bluetooth signals from an iPhone or iPod Touch. The 650 can charge as it plays too, which means the party might last till dawn.

The 650's predecessor, with both a different brand (Spar) and model (Zephyr 550), had an even more powerful battery, 3000 mAh, with close to 30 hours of play time.

Braven, of Provo, Utah, says it traded some of that power, and battery size, in the re-engineered 650 for improved sound. It also bumped the price to $190, close to elite compact Bluetooth speakers like the Soundmatters foxL v2, the Jawbone Jambox and the Geneva Sound System Model XS, which has its own special talent as a travel alarm clock.

The 650, an aircraft-grade aluminum brick about 6 inches wide, 2.5 tall and 1.75 deep, is also built to travel. It doesn't travel quite as well as the diminutive foxL, but it sounds just about as good. The 650 sound is well-balanced, with maybe slightly more bass energy than the foxL. It does sound less natural than the foxL and distorts at higher volumes, but it still belongs in the Bluetooth speaker pageant.

It would probably sound even better if I could have paired it with a device compatible with the 650's built-in apt-X technology, compression algorithms that allow high-quality audio via Bluetooth. Apple devices, even the new iPhone 5, do not support apt-X, developed by CSR of Cambridge, England. You'll need a third-party Bluetooth adapter or turn to a suitable Android phone or tablet.

To pair the 650 with a mobile device, slide the on/off switch on the 650's side and press/hold the adjacent call/Bluetooth button for five seconds. Just below these controls on the black side panel are a micro-USB port for the 650's plug-in charger and audio input for directly connecting an audio device (example: I used it with a DVD player).

The volume up/down buttons also double, somewhat clumsily, as previous/next track controls for your mobile device. Most users likely would use their mobile device for both volume adjustments and song selection anyway.

On the other side panel, between the USB port and battery-capacity push-button with LED indicator, is another unusual feature — an audio output connector so the 650 can be joined to a second 650 or other audio device.

When a call comes in to a synced phone, the 650 beeps, the music stops and the ring tone plays. When you press the call/Bluetooth button, the 650 officially becomes a speakerphone. Call quality with a synced iPhone 4s was generally excellent. But do the 650's droning and beeping notifications, whether to signal the completion of a mobile device's charging, an incoming call or powering on/off, really have to be so loud?

If the price or battery power is too much, the similar Braven 600 at $150 comes in red or gray aluminum with a 1400-mAh battery. The 625s, an outdoor-ready speakerphone with black rubberized coating and a 1700-mAh battery, costs $180. Neither has apt-X technology.

A charger in a speakerphone isn't everyone's idea of technological beauty, but this judge was impressed.

khunt@tribune.com

What: Braven 650 Bluetooth speakerphone/ charger

Price: $190, braven.com

Hot: Big sound from little brick, long battery life. On-the-go charger for mobile devices.

Not: Some distortion at higher volumes.

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