Review: FoxL Portable Bluetooth Speaker

soundmatters foxl portable speaker

The foxL is a portable speaker, about the size of two chocolate bars but considerably heftier. It comes in two versions – the plain old foxL, and the foxLmb with bluetooth connectivity.

I’ve had the foxLmb for a while now, and I was wondering whether it was time for an upgrade. I went to the Bose store ready to purchase a battery powered SoundDock but then I sampled it and decided to stick with the foxL. The SoundDock doesn’t sound bad; it’s just that the foxL manages to hold its own against the SoundDock in terms of audio quality. And now that the iPhone and iPod Touch can stream music wirelessly over bluetooth, the foxlmb has gained a new lease on life.

I don’t have sophisticated sound measuring instruments handy, so this review will concentrate on the practical rather than technical aspects. I’ve added a link to a quite technical review of the foxl at the end of this post if you’re interested.

Soundmatters, the company behind the foxL, describes it as being ‘the first pocket-sized music system good enough for audio purists’. I’m not exactly an audiophile, but even I can tell that the sound it produces is amazing, especially considering its size. Here’s the obligatory iPod size comparison:

foxl ipod touch size comparison

And from the side:

foxl ipod touch size comparison side

I’d never heard of soundmatters, prior to getting the foxL. It’s apparently a company with some serious brains behind it. The founder of soundmatters is ‘audio design legend’ Dr. Godehard Guenther, a former NASA engineer. The ‘engineer’ part probably explains the utilitarian accessories.

foxl accessories

Included with the foxL, are: a thin felt carrying sleeve, a wriststrap/lanyard, a 3.5mm audio cable, a generic USB to mini-USB cable for charging and a power adaptor. It takes about 2-3 hours to completely charge the foxL using the power adaptor, and considerably longer through USB.

foxl usb charging

A full charge is supposed to be good for up to 5 hours of use, depending on how loud you play your music and whether you connect using a cable or bluetooth. The foxL has a smart power management feature – when connected to wall power, it is capable of 4 watts per channel but on battery power, the digital amplifiers deliver half of that. One problem – and it’s a big one – the battery appears to self-discharge after a few weeks even when the speaker is powered off. Li-ion batteries are supposed to be able to hold their charge for months, but I often came back to the foxl after a week or two of non-use, to find that it wouldn’t even turn on. I’m not sure if that’s a fault specific to mine, or if the foxL goes into some kind of sleep mode instead of turning off completely.

foxl right

On one side of the foxL, are the mini-USB and subwoofer-out ports.  It’s a bit incongruous, but you can add a subwoofer if you’d like more bass. Soundmatters recommends their SUBstage product, but I think it’s overkill considering that the SUBstage is more than 10 times as powerful as the foxl. You’re supposed to be able to connect the subwoofer-out to a line-in/microphone jack on your computer or other recording device and use the foxl as an external microphone, but I’ve never gotten it to work. The mini-USB port is used solely to charge the foxL; I don’t think the foxL is firmware upgradeable.

foxl left

On the other side, are the audio-in and power ports.

foxl rear enlarged

The non-user replaceable ‘BassBattery’ module is visible through a protective plastic grille that doubles as a flipout kickstand. The volume control buttons are two tiny nubs that can’t really be seen in the main photo. You’ll have to fumble a bit to change the volume, especially in bluetooth mode; most devices hand off volume control to the foxL when streaming audio over bluetooth.

foxl bluetooth connection

The foxL is picky about which bluetooth devices it’ll work with. It connected to a Macbook Pro, but wouldn’t pair with a Mac Pro. I tried a variety of sources: with a Motorola ROKR Z6, audio quality over bluetooth was mediocre, with lots of static and crackling. A couple of Nokia phones fared slightly better; surprisingly, the best performer was the iPhone 3G – I was able to stream music from up to ten feet away. Sound quality wasn’t as good as over a wired connection, but it was very good for a bluetooth connection – somewhat comparable to FM radio. As a speakerphone, the foxL was average in all circumstances. It features noise and echo cancellation, but it’s not a replacement for a dedicated speakerphone, such as this Jabra reviewed by Dan.

Overall sound quality is very good for a speaker of its size. It’s not a boombox by any means. It produces palpable bass and works best when placed on and against hard surfaces. The small size doesn’t leave room for a bass port so it has to bounce the lower frequencies off a surface. I have a pair of comparably-priced Creative HD50 speakers, and on first listen I thought the foxL was out-bassing them. It wasn’t, but the bass it produces is very tight. One thing to remember is that the foxL is a monitor-type speaker. Monitors are meant to reproduce sound as accurately as possible, as recorded in the studio. The foxL doesn’t have the kind of sound enhancement and digital trickery that Bose employs, so you might have to do some tweaking with your iPod equalizer or use something like iWow to get the ‘warm’ sound that most people are used to. Stereo separation is next to non-existent because the two drivers in the foxL are so close together. You can get a sort of acceptable soundstage if you listen from maybe a meter or two away, but you’re definitely not getting surround sound with the foxL.

Volume-wise, the foxL can fill a large conference room, and will work well outdoors. It will distort when playing bass-heavy music, turned up to maximum, but if you need that kind of volume you’re really better off with much larger speakers.

The foxL isn’t exactly cheap at $199 for the plain version and $249 for the foxLmb, but it’s very versatile and if you have an iPod Touch (2nd Gen) or iPhone, it’s even better value, and can replace a dock, a travel speaker and serve as your main speaker in a pinch. I don’t know if it’s a testament to the foxL’s quality or Soundmatters just have supply issues, but the foxL is always out of stock at their online store. If you want one, I’d suggest contacting them to place a pre-order.

RRP: $199 (foxL) and $249 (foxLmb) at Soundmatters

What I Like: Small size; great build quality; sound quality surpasses anything in its size class; bluetooth convenience (if your device works).

What Could Be Improved: Niggling battery issues; tricky bluetooth pairing process; speakerphone is a letdown. Can’t get it to work as an external microphone.

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