I think that finding a perfect Bluetooth speaker is a bit of a white whale.  And, even if I found my white whale, it may be entirely different from anyone else’s—which makes reviewing these things both difficult and sometimes frustrating.   For instance, last June I got my hands on a speaker from a company, little known in the audio world, that I thought was going to blow my mind—and it was, in large, a total dud.

That said, I also think that I am (just like anyone else) invariably influenced by the speakers that I use most, and I use them most because they are the best of what I need them to be.  Nary a room in my house isn’t, or hasn’t been, adorned with some kind of speaker technology that I use on a pretty regular basis; my love for technology aside, I LOVE listening to music.  And for me, the best all around speaker I have used is the Bose SoundLink Mini II, which I bought a couple years ago.

The SoundLink has become my measuring stick for all other speakers; I put it up against similarly sized and priced speakers from the same market, and it dominated in every matchup; I even compared it to speakers in a completely different market, namely a $450 Samsung Soundbar and the latest Apple HomePod.  And, while it certainly is not a better sounding speaker than either of those, this little guy has held its own well.

At this point, I’ve set up two big things that you might be thinking I’m headed towards: first, the wireless speaker white whale, and second, the speaker that can unseat the current undefeated champion.  Spoiler alert—I will make neither of those claims in this review, at least not in that way.

Sony is no stranger to the audio market, and I really like their stuff; my first “nice” on-ear headphones were a pair of $20 Sonys that I had for many, many years (wasn’t it nice when prices for good audio gear weren’t so inflated??).  A year after I got my SoundLink, Sony released an obviously competing product that had a good sale going, so I picked it up.  Sad to say, I was massively disappointed and had to return the product which couldn’t keep up with the SoundLink.  But the audio market has changed a bit since then, and for Sony and their line of Extra Bass headphones and speakers, another product has emerged which I was curious enough to try out.

xb31 - 1

The product is the SRS-XB31, an incredibly Sony-esque identifier.  This speaker sits in their Extra Bass line as a competitor (at least in size) to my aging Bose SoundLink Mini II.  It has all the minimum bells and whistles—long battery life, the ability to connect multiple devices (up to 100 of them, which seems to be something that no one would ever use), USB power out for charging your devices if necessary, auxiliary input jack, and it’s IP67 certified for water resistance.  More on standard-speaker-fare, there are controls on the device, allowing you to play, pause and adjust volume.  It is NFC-enabled, but it doesn’t have the latest Bluetooth 5.0 and doesn’t have USB Type-C charging.

On to the design—Sony jumped on the all-mesh body bandwagon with this one, and it looks great (I have a feeling that many other manufacturers are going to copy this design language).  The model I have is all black, but it also comes in blue and white.  The black is a classic look to me, very clean.  It has a rounded back and a flat front, and there is no question about which direction this thing is supposed to face—so keep in mind this is not a 360-degree speaker.  The bottom of the speaker has 4 small rubber feet to keep it stationary while in use, but I would have liked to see an option to set this thing on its side for a more vertical placement as well (since its directional, this should have very little impact on the sound).  And if that’s all there was to this speaker, I’d give it a solid thumbs up on design.

But, sadly, it’s not everything.  This speaker is intended as a party speaker—its goal to apparently liven up the group of rebelling teens who took their Sony SRS-XB31’s down to the beach, to dance around a campfire.  No, but seriously, that’s the image they portray in at least one video on their product page.  And what rebellious teenage beach party is complete without a strip of LED lights across the top and bottom of the speaker, which animates to the beat of your music?  No, I’m not sure either.

The light strips are a huge gimmick to me, so distractingly awful that I had to turn them off—which, thankfully, you can do with a button on the back…so you don’t need to navigate through the frustratingly-menu-based app that Sony puts out there for you.  Honestly, I was trying to listen to the audio quality and couldn’t stop watching the blinking lights…it was annoying, to say the least.  But, for what it’s worth, using the app you can change the light strips to be more or less annoying, even solid colors if you want—so that’s kind of nice, I guess.  I’ll get to the app more later.

On to the important stuff: the sound.  If you’ve ever used any of Sony’s XB gear, this device will not surprise you at all.  Yes, it is a bass-heavy device, but that functionality can be turned off to completely flatten the sound profile.  Straight out of the box, it’s a device that seems to compete well in the space, as there were definitely songs that I think the XB31 handled better than my tried-and-true Bose speaker.  But to be clear, you’re not going to pick this up because you love listening to vocal tracks or orchestral music (although the software-enabled “Live Sound” feature did a good job accenting some of the mids and highs that a typically bass-heavy speaker will leave as garbled mush.

For hip-hop, pop, and even some classic rock and roll, this thing is a great little speaker.  And for desktop home cinema, it’s amazing.  I recently acquired a projector that I’ve been using in the back of my living room–and if there’s one thing you can count on when it comes to projectors it’s terrible built-in audio.  Instead of moving my soundbar across the room, I thought I’d connect the XB31 via a 3.5mm audio cable to the back of the projector, and I was blown away by its performance as a replacement for a theater speaker in a larger room.  The sound was deep, loud and didn’t distort with higher volumes.  Admittedly, this thing is not intended to replace your soundbar, but it’s incredible when you consider that in some instances you could get away with it.

Sound profile aside, you have to remember this is in Sony’s XB line for a reason.  It handles lows like a champ, and mids are bright and clear. As expected, the highs can get a little blatty at higher volumes, but that kind of distortion requires extreme high volume, probably 85% or higher, and would probably be used sparingly.

So, maybe the beach party isn’t such a bad idea.

Sony’s companion app works to improve the experience, and does so on a limited basis.  Most important is the mixer, which allows you to modify the sound profile to your liking; you also get access to LED light strip adjustments, customizable quick-launch links that navigate you to some predefined entertainment apps (default music player, Netflix, Youtube, etc), and information about the speaker itself.

That said, the app has its fair share of shortcomings, most notably the terrible interface which has an overly complicated menu system.  There is also a built-in music player, which is fine I guess, but absolutely no one is looking for an alternative to whatever player they’re currently using, which makes this feature wasted code.  And back to more gimmicks, I have to mention one portion of the app which is probably worse than the speaker’s LED light strips—the “Party Booster,” which enables you to turn the speaker into a mini drum kit, adding your own percussion to already professionally-produced songs.  Because why not.  It really helps that beach party atmosphere.

I’ve covered a lot of things more sarcastically than my typical review, but I don’t want to take away from how awesome of a little speaker this thing is.  It is bogged down by cheesy gimmicks, things that might reduce its appeal to someone who is looking for a sleek, smart-looking speaker that sounds great. But it does sound great, and that’s arguably the most important thing to remember.

It’s way too gimmicky to be a white whale–but its price tag of $150 makes it a really, really accessible speaker that performs well in spite of its less appetizing features.  But it performs well enough otherwise to be worth the price…and maybe, MAYBE just a little bit better than my trusty Bose.


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