Gear4's new Blackbox system aims to provide a wireless speaker solution in a snazzy package. Ideally, it's going to appeal to those of you with Bluetooth-enabled music phones, but a line-in socket paves the way for iPod compatibility and more.
Does a glossy speaker system with Bluetooth as its primary function really stand a chance in this market? For about £100, quite possibly.
The glossy Blackbox may attract fingerprints but a quick polish makes it a beautifully presented little system. Its top-mounted touch-sensitive controls glow an attractive deep blue when pressed -- a very complimentary colour to the all-black exterior. More lights on the Blackbox's face form a 19x9-LED grid, acting as both a pseudo-LCD display and visual equaliser. The result is effective, though personal taste may necessitate you switch it off -- it's certainly pointless, if quaint.
As an all-in-one unit, it's well built. The overall feel is solid, sufficiently weighty and resilient to knocks. You'd be forgiven for thinking a minimalist designed this system, given its apparent 'less is more' attitude. But construction is anything but minimalist and critics will have a hard time conjuring too many disparaging remarks.
A2DP Bluetooth functionality is the main selling point of this system, so it's worth mentioning first. Any Bluetooth-enabled audio device will work with the Blackbox, as long as it's able to pair with other devices. A2DP transmits really high-quality stereo music, and Gear4's new horizontal speaker setup promises to do those high-quality streams justice.
A 3.5mm line-in socket sits to the rear of the system and allows you to jack in any music player with the supplied cable. While this means it's compatible with iPods, it's no reason to call this an iPod-compatible system. Gear4 itself says you're to "sit back and enjoy... the hassle of no wires," so the 3.5mm socket is really just a bonus.
Underneath the system, and beneath a screw-fastened flap, a battery compartment resides, allowing you to power the speakers with four size C batteries. This killer feature positions the Blackbox as a cracking festival companion -- all those music fans, all those music phones -- all compatible with one set of speakers. Spot on.
A lack of extra functionality does somewhat limit how useful these speakers will be. There are no EQ options, for example, and there's no built-in radio. Not having a dock for the world's most popular music player -- the iPod -- means 'Pod owners will have to use an extra cable to hook up their Apple-tastic audio archive.
Pairing was a simple affair but needs to be done within the first three minutes of the system being switched on.
We started our performance stress-test with a fiercely heavy track by Dream Theater, Dark Eternal Night. The exceptionally loud twin kick drums and a variety of cymbals, layers of thick guitars and keyboards, combine together to make a difficult song for smaller systems to reproduce. As we expected, the Blackbox struggled to retain definition as the song progressed. Metalheads should probably look away.
Moving to some pop, however, We Get On by Kate Nash sounded much better. Her distinct London vocals were powerfully emitted from each of the 12W speakers and sounded fantastic over the mix of piano, quiet drums and tambourines. Similarly, the dirty club track Yeah Yeah from Bodyrox and Luciana was given a great reproduction and wouldn't struggle to fill a teen's bedroom.
Each 12W speaker is mounted on either side of the unit, creating a very wide sound. There's a good deal of separation between each audio channel -- quite unusual for small systems. Festival goers note: the Blackbox can hit a decent volume, and would fit well next to the beers and barbecues within the tent circle.
This isn't a product everyone should consider; it offers decent enough sound quality, but the lack of EQ options and extra functionality limit its usefulness. However, if you're fond of using your music phone, or if you fancy a portable and wireless audio system, perhaps for festivals and camping trips, the Blackbox is quite nice indeed.
A great alternative for iPod owners would be Griffin's superb Amplifi -- it offers a massive sound, solid build, a built-in subwoofer and it costs just £90.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday