EXCLUSIVE: Braven BRV-1 rugged portable speaker review

Pros

  • Stylish and extremely rugged design
  • Speaker, speakerphone and charger in one
  • Clear, rich audio performance

Cons

  • Volume could be louder
  • No support for AptX over Bluetooth
  • Battery life could be longer

“Rugged, water resistant, and built for the outdoors. The BRV-1 will keep up with you in even the most extreme environment.” - Braven BRV-1 product page.

Here at ITProPortal we like a challenge so we decided to put the marketing rhetoric behind Braven’s first rugged Bluetooth portable speaker to the test. In our exclusive review we took the BRV-1 north of the Arctic Circle to spend a week in the snow covered landscape of Finnish Lapland where temperatures in March can drop below -30 degrees Celsius.

Design

Making the 1,000km journey from Helsinki to our destination in Äkäslompolo by train meant a 14-hour ride. This was more than enough time to get a feel for the BRV-1, but it took just minutes to be struck by two significant aspects. The first observation upon opening the box is that Braven has decided to omit a wall charger. The BRV-1 charges over microUSB and a USB to microUSB cable is included in the box (plus lanyard and 3.5mm cable) and while USB wall chargers aren’t exactly scarce, it will come as a shock to buyers who first unpack the speaker on their travels as we did.

Secondly, and more positively, was the BRV-1’s build quality. To guard against water, impact and extreme temperatures the BRV-1 has a molded rubber finish, tightly sealed seams and control buttons and a large screw cap at the rear which covers its ports. At the front is an aluminium grill (coming in blue or orange finishes) to protect the drivers and the whole package not only feels solid as a rock, but measures only 115 x 60 x 85mm and weighs just 338g. The BRV-1 also looks great thanks to curves somewhat reminiscent of Dark Vader’s Tie Fighter!

Style is rarely high on the agenda with ruggedised products, but on the side of substance the BRV-1 is shock resistant and sports an IPX5 water resistance rating. The latter of these is defined by International Protection standards as “water projected by a nozzle (6.3mm wide) against enclosure from any direction shall have no harmful effects”. In real life this translates to the BRV-1 being happy out in the rain, snow, or liberally sprayed by water in a shower. It cannot, however, be fully submerged.

Features

Aside from the durability the key feature of the BRV-1, and Braven speakers in general, is its flexibility. Bluetooth audio playback is its staple fare (more on this later), but users will also find the BRV-1 functions as a speakerphone for taking calls and a portable charger. The former is aided by the inclusion of a noise cancelling microphone while the latter is enabled by the inclusion of a USB port under its rear screw cover.

The BRV-1 is fitted with a 1,400mAh battery which Braven claims is good for up to 12 hours of continuous playback, but this capacity is also large enough to virtually recharge an iPhone 5 (1,440mAh) or iPhone 4S (1,430mAh) from flat. It will also add significant extra juice to a Nexus 4 and Samsung Galaxy S3 (both 2,100mAh) or a Galaxy Note 2 (3,100mAh), or even an iPad Mini (4,400mAh). It won’t make much impact on the huge 11,666mAh battery fitted inside the iPad 4, but it does still make the BRV-1 potentially three highly useful portable devices in one.

Performance

So how does it all come together? The good news is remarkably well. At the heart of the BRV-1 are two 40mm drivers, a large 70mm passive subwoofer, class D digital amplifier (delivering a total of 6W) and output level of 95dB at 0.5 metres. Other than the size of the passive sub these don’t actually stand out a great deal, but for portable speakers dispersion and sound signature are far more important and Braven has got both of these right.

The BRV-1 defies its size in projecting audio widely around a room and there is a surprising amount of stereo separation given its two drivers are sat so close together. What’s more there is a strong balance of low, mid and high range performance with enough detail to do justice to acoustic and classical music and enough bass to generate emotion in heavier rock, dance and hip hop tracks. Of course this needs to be kept in perspective, the BRV-1 isn’t going to replace any larger dock or Hi-Fi speakers, but it will keep you content on your travels.

Where we do have a complaint is a slight lack of volume. Yes, sound spreads well around a room but it can be quickly dulled by significant ambient noise like a boiling kettle or shower and it can’t match the benchmark performance of Pasce’s Minirig dedicated portable speaker. It’s also notable that the best audio quality comes from connecting your device directly to the BRV-1 via a 3.5mm cable rather than over Bluetooth since Braven has omitted the excellent Bluetooth-enhancing aptX codec it offers on its fractionally more expensive top of the line “650” speaker. Then again you will need an aptX-equipped device to take advantage of this and while aptX is increasingly common on Android smartphones it continues to be omitted from iPhones, iPods and iPads (despite its inclusion on Macs).

What can be recommended without caveat, however, is the exceptional speakerphone. Speakerphones on portable speakers are notoriously hit and miss with Jawbone’s Jambox previously setting the bar, but the BRV-1 raises that bar to a new level. Callers come through loud and clear and both cellular and VoIP callers remarked that we sounded better than when speaking directly into the phone. For travellers looking to multitask this is a real boon.

So is the BRV-1’s ability to act as a charger. We found a full BRV-1 battery could charge an iPhone 4S from 0-to-89 per cent before it went flat and a Nexus 4 from 0-to-71 per cent. This is a life saver which could remove the need for carrying a second battery or bulky battery-packing phone case. Consequently it was a surprise to find the BRV-1’s own battery wasn’t as brilliant when kept to itself. Over a wired connection the speaker lasts for up to 12 hours (Braven’s quoted figure) at moderate listening levels, but this drops to around eight hours at maximum volume. Over Bluetooth you’ll get roughly seven hours listening time at a moderate volume so the convenience of wireless does come at a cost, even if this should be enough to last you days at a time.

Durability

That said where you can use the BRV-1 is its biggest appeal and this takes us back to Lapland. During our week’s stay the BRV-1 was treated to conditions which dropped to -33 degrees Celsius and was also left out in the snow. We allowed the snow collected on the BRV-1 to melt inside it once it returned indoors and put it in the shower for good measure after that, but it came through with flying colours.

Furthermore an array of drops, bumps and bashes had no discernible effect with the rubber exterior absorbing impacts which would have badly scratched or cracked plastic speakers. If adventure holidays are your thing or you’re just particularly clumsy the BRV-1 can be purchased safe in the knowledge that anything but the most deliberate abuse is unlikely to break it.

Value

Naturally such durability and functionality comes at a cost and with a £149.99 recommended price the BRV-1 is far from an impulse purchase. It also isn’t the purchase for someone looking purely for the best portable audio as the cheaper (£89), but wired-only Pasce Minirig remains the standard bearer. That said, it’s an unfair comparison because where the BRV-1 comes into its own is as a multi-functional device.

For frequent travellers the BRV-1 will save you the need to buy a separate headset and portable/second battery for your phone and its durability means it can be taken to the most inhospitable places or simply treated with a total absence of love and care and come out the other side. It is this complete package which makes the BRV-1 unique and for the right target market should more than justify its price.

Verdict

Braven isn’t yet a household name, but more products like the BRV-1 should change that. The asking price may appear scary, but it buys not only a top notch portable speaker, but a superb speakerphone, capacious portable charger and truly rugged styling that could handle all we threw at it.

In an ideal world its battery life could be a little better, aptX would be included and the speaker could be a tad louder, but they are negligible flaws in the big picture. Ultimately the BRV-1 is a class redefining product that is not only the Swiss Army Knife of portable speakers, but also the Chieftain tank.