Soundcast’s Melody Makes Music in the Round Anywhere

Portable Bluetooth speakers are a dime a dozen; and, based on the way they sound, that’s about all some of them are worth. Good portable Bluetooth speakers are much more difficult to find. Really good portable Bluetooth speakers that are also weather-resistant and include a long-lasting, built-in rechargeable battery – heck, while we’re at it, let’s include that they’re not ultra-techie-looking, too – are about as easy to come across as a Big Foot cavorting through the woods wearing a bikini.

Soundcast Systems, the people who make the outstanding OutCast and OutCast Jr., dynamic duo of weather-resistant, wireless, transportable speakers, have been hinting for months about a new portable Bluetooth speaker that they think is so much better than anything else on the market that it’s more than simply the equivalent of finding a Big Foot in a bikini, it’s more akin to stumbling across a bikini-clad Big Foot pole dancing in a forest clearing. (What Soundcast actually claims is that Melody is “What other Bluetooth speakers want to be when they grow up.” Okay, that’s cool. But I think my pole-dancing Big Foot mental image is a more memorable.)

Instead of giving the new wireless speaker another forlorn sounding “OutCast”-related name, the company chose the much friendlier “Melody” moniker. Just prior to the official launch, the folks charging up the newly invigorated company (Soundcast says that the Melody is just the first of a bunch of unique products soon to come) sent one of the first Melody review samples to me for what was an all-too-brief period of time.

Music in the Round
Here’s the scoop on the Melody. First of all, unlike the two OutCast models that utilize Soundcast’s proprietary 2.4 GHz wireless protocol (“AudioCast”), the Melody uses Bluetooth v3.0 for “lossless audio quality” with supported devices. Specifically, this is what Soundcast has to say about its Bluetooth implementation:

Melody is one of the first products of its type to support both aptX and AAC lossless quality codecs. This means that if you use a compatible device, you will experience superior audio fidelity and quality over most other A2DP only compatible products. Capable Apple IOS devices use AAC for high quality Bluetooth playback while most other brands/devices utilize aptX for high-quality Bluetooth.

Whereas with the larger OutCast-series speakers you had to drop your iPhone/iPod into a special Soundcast iCast dock or connect the headphone output of your non-iOS device to a long, candy bar-sized UAT (Universal AudioCast Transmitter), any Bluetooth-enabled audio gadget can communicate directly with the Melody. The obvious advantage is that you no longer need to have your smartphone parked in a dock or tethered to a dongle in order to listen to music. Another advantage is extra control. With the two OutCast models, you could only use the transport controls located on the top of each speaker (Pause/Play, Track Back/Next) with docked Apple iOS devices. This feature wasn’t available to users of Android phones or computers. The Bluetooth connection, however, now lets you control music apps on lots of smartphones and tablets.

There is a disadvantage to Bluetooth connectivity, though. The broadcast range is limited to a max of about 30 feet (depending on surroundings); and Bluetooth is susceptible to interference from common household RF-emitting devices, such as the Panasonic “Genius Prestige” microwave oven in my kitchen. Even without the DNA-mutating radiation emitting from the microwave oven, I’m lucky to get 30 feet of range with any Bluetooth connection – regardless of the devices being used – in large part because the walls of my home are thick enough to withstand a small nuclear blast. (I also live on top of an invisible electromagnetic-disrupting paranormal portal, the effects of which play havoc with any wireless signal or electronic device. But that’s another story.)

On the other hand, one of the aspects of the OutCast sample I reviewed that truly amazed me was the phenomenal 300-foot outdoor range of the wireless signal using either the iCast or UAT. Had I not physically carried the 25-pound OutCast tower myself every foot of the way until the signal began to cut out – I actually made it a bit beyond 300 unobstructed feet from the transmitter – I wouldn’t have believed such an outstanding claim. In addition to a range that’s ten times greater than what you’ll get with a standard Bluetooth signal, Soundcast’s proprietary AudioCast connectivity is generally immune to RF interference from brain-cell destroying home appliances and cordless phones. Interestingly, Soundcast just announced a $79 BlueCast Bluetooth Receiver that plugs directly into the 3.5mm input jack on an OutCast or OutCast Jr. It’ll provide all the short-range Bluetooth benefits (including aptX and AAC) while retaining the long-range AudioCast capabilities. Unlike other Bluetooth adapters you can buy, the Outcast BlueCast is specifically designed to slide into the recessed opening on the OutCast/OutCast Jr where the 3.5mm input jack is located and seal the opening so the speaker remains totally weather-resistant.

Portable or Transportable?
Since even the OutCast Jr. weighs over 16 pounds, it’s hard to call either the OutCast or the OutCast Jr. a portable speaker. Transportable is a better description. The Melody tips the scales at nine pounds – and that includes the internal rechargeable battery. Unless you’re expecting your four-year old to move it from room to room, I’d say the Melody qualifies as portable. It’s essentially a white cylinder that’s nine inches in diameter and 9.5-inches tall. There’s a curved handle along the top that an integral part of the Melody’s UV-resistant-plastic, all-weather chassis. That means the handle doesn’t contain any hinges or other moving parts that are bound to break (or rust) sometime in the future. There’s a weather-resistant keypad on the top of the Melody and a four-inch high metal grille that completely encircles most of the bottom half of the speaker. Behind the grille are four “High-Q” full-range three-inch circular drivers interspersed between four passive rectangular bass radiators. Located just under the handle is a weather-resistant rubber flap that covers a micro-USB charging port, an AC adapter port, and a 3.5mm audio input jack. Soundcast says the built-in lithium-ion battery will provide up to 20 hours of playing time on a single charge, although this obviously depends upon the volume level and the source material.

The four active and four passive drivers operate in a “stereo 360-degree array” – and it’s very impressive how well the system sounds. Unlike with a lot of single-speaker stereo speaker systems, I always got the sense of spaciousness regardless of where I was located in relation to the Melody. That’s especially true when the Melody was on a countertop or table near a wall, in which case the reflected sound helped make the Melody sound even bigger than it already did. As with any speaker, the bass output is heavily dependent on placement. When I set the Melody on a counter in my kitchen, the bass was much stronger than when I used the speaker outside resting on a railing on my back deck. It wasn’t audiophile, pinpoint stereo performance, but you won’t find that in any product designed to provide 360-degree sound (and go outdoors, to boot) in any speaker system – regardless of the price.

Overall, I must say that Soundcast’s Melody has set a new, audaciously high standard for portable Bluetooth speakers. It’s certainly one of the best sounding Bluetooth speakers I’ve ever heard, and it has an absurdly long battery life. In the short time I was able to use it, the only drawback I found the Melody to have was its relatively large size. There’s no way this speaker system is going to fit inside a briefcase or purse. But there’s also no way a briefcase- or purse-friendly speaker could ever sound this good. In every other respect, the Melody is the envy of all other Bluetooth speakers. It doesn’t get any better than this.