Sony SRS-XB13 Review: A small and hardy speaker for outdoor use


In India, the Sony SRS-XB13 was launched on World Music Day, this w Opening up an audio product with the Sony logo on it remains as exciting as ever. All the important instructions are actually on the top flap itself, which shows you how to use the strap and buckle in different configurations. Within the box is the speaker enclosed within a soft pouch, a twelve inch long USB type C charging cable, a pictographic instruction manual, a text heavy reference guide, and the warranty card (which lasts for a year). The speaker itself is within a soft cloth pouch. 

Build and design

The speaker is three and a half inches tall, three inches wide, and weighs about 250 grams. This is designed to be a small and lightweight speaker, meant for the outdoors. The speaker is lightweight enough and the form factor is sufficiently compact to not feel like too much of an extra burden when packed into a bag for the next trek. It is actually small and light enough to dangle from your hand itself, for short excursions.   

On the top is the main driver, pointed upwards,but it’s the bottom half that makes the design of the device a little different. Beneath the device, pointing downwards is a passive radiator, which is a smart but obvious place to incorporate one in such a small form factor. This passive driver is powered by air pressure and depends on the electrical manipulation of the primary driver, to provide an extra thump in the lower frequencies. Now the membrane is within a railing that raises it above the ground, directing the sound downwards and then in all directions. This railing sits above half an inch above the surface of the ground, and needs just a little bit of care from the users, so as not to get too much gunk and dirt between the railing and the passive driver, although this is easy enough to clean out with earbuds. Sony recommends that the speakers should not be placed directly on loose sand. 

There is a handy strap that can attach itself to the side of the bag in two configurations, one where the speaker dangles down from the side, and another where it is more securely attached at two points. There is an S shaped clip, which is a pretty smart design that allows you to quickly switch between the two configurations, allowing the speaker to be easily hung on everything from trees to gear hooks within tents. Both the strap and the clip seem hardy enough, and more than capable of taking a few tugs and jerks without snapping. The textured strap, while easy to clean, gets dirty quickly as it easily holds mud or grit from the sides of trees. It is also much easier to switch between configurations when the strap is dry, getting the clip out and slipping it through the gaps around the bottom is more difficult and time consume when the strap is wet. 

The speaker is waterproof and dustproof with an IP67 rating. We tested it out in the rain and faced no problems. The unit is easy to clean, and in light but continuous rain with the speaker facing straight up, not too much water gets trapped within the grill. Turning it upside down for an hour or so is enough to get rid of any droplets. The speaker itself feels sturdy, and is completely satisfactory as a hardy outdoor speaker in terms of build quality. The finish of the speaker does not seem like it gets scratched easily. If you drop it in a pool, it will float, but slightly sinks over about fifteen seconds. The speaker seems to shake off small droplets of water easily, and it does not impact sound quality if it is wet.  

The power and volume rocker buttons are located on a rubber strip towards the base of the device, with a flap that opens up to the USB Type-C port. This flap is located just below the strap, which if you think about it, is the best place for it to be. It makes sure that if the speaker is dangling from somewhere and being simultaneously charged, then the power cable is comfortably sticking out from the port right below the strap, not getting pressed up against any other surface or dangling in awkward ways where they can get stuck in something and yanked off. 

Features

The speaker only has the necessary features for its intended function, stripping away all the extra bells and whistles. There is no WiFi connectivity, or voice assistant support, and the companion app does not work with this particular model. Being able to add the speaker on the Sony Music Centre app would have been incredibly convenient for checking the battery life, and simplifying the pairing of two units for stereo capabilities. The only feature that we wish the speaker had, was support from the Sony Music Centre app, if only to look at the battery capacity of the device. Fortunately, the device makes up for this by having a long battery life, and a dedicated LED indicator to show that it needs to charge up.

That said, we would consider the strap to be a feature on its own, because it is really convenient and allows the speaker to be positioned creatively in a number of different spaces, making it incredibly versatile. Within restricted spaces with limited floor space, such as inside tents, the ability to hang the speaker is really helpful, but this feature comes into play even indoors, where the speaker can easily be hung from a tripod in the middle of the room (allowing the speaker to fill it) or from shelf handles or hooks close to the ceiling (great for creating ambience). So even if you go out and decide to stay in a hotel, this is a handy and versatile travel speaker.  

There is also Google’s Fast Pair tech, which allows superfast pairing with Android devices, using Bluetooth Low Energy. This actually works like magic on some supported Android devices, where you get a notification on the device if the speaker is turned on anywhere in the vicinity. Tap on it once, and it gets paired. 

Unlike the SRS-XB12, the SRS-XB13 does not have an input for an audio jack, we absolutely do not miss that, but it does make the device get lower scores in the features department. Having a line in jack is a big plus for an outdoor speaker, as trekkers do tend to use dedicated music players to conserve the batteries on their smartphones. 

The only other feature of note offered by the speaker is a mic that allows you to answer calls. The mic is located below the control buttons, and does not perform very well at a distance. You can just about use it around arm’s length without raising your voice, but you will find yourself grabbing it and talking into the mic to be more clear, so it is not really something that one would prefer to use, but is a functional alternative if your phone is charging elsewhere. The good thing about using the speakers in this way is how loud you can make the incoming voice, and it also allows a group of people to huddle around a device for a conversation.  

Performance

One of the things that you need to be careful about is the positioning of the speaker. For example within a tent, it is much better to position it downwards towards yourself, and if hung from within an umbrella (it’s a possibility!), it is better to position it inwards. Especially at lower volumes, it makes a noticeable difference when it comes to which direction the speakers are facing. However, the strap that allows you to quickly and easily switch between configurations makes this part easy to manage. The strap also gives some room around the speaker , which makes it sound better. Considering the small size of the speaker, it is easy to push it up against corners and walls, where it cannot sound that great.   

The battery life is really good. We played it at around fifty percent volume and it lasted well over a day of continuous playback, well beyond the 16 hours on the box, which we assume are at higher volumes. This is the kind of battery life that you require on treks, but since it’s not going to be on all the time, it is safe to say that this speaker can easily last a weekend without needing to be juiced up again. Though we suspect that the battery life is bound to deteriorate over time, out of the box it seems to last forever, which is exactly the kind of expectation users have from outdoor gear. There are indicators for low battery life on the side of the unit. 

The Bluetooth connection does get jittery from time to time, with the audio playback stuttering or distorted playback. When this happens, usually turning off the device and turning it on is enough to fix this problem, which is infrequent anyway. Turning off and turning on the device, and establishing a connection  is a rapid process, the power button is set up in such a way that it turns off when you release it, so even very short presses are fine (don’t keep pressing till it turns off, that won’t work). Pairing is superfast, on Windows as well as iPhone, and is even faster on Android devices. 

When you hold the speaker while it is playing back, you can actually feel the power of the main driver. The casing beneath the passive radiator also thumps along with the beat, along with the entire circumference of the speaker. This shows that the main speaker is really powerful, but there is still a lot of misdirected energy. The highs and mids are clear and distinct. The bass is a bit problematic, while the speakers are bass forward, they do not really pack in a punch. It is also difficult to reconcile buyer expectations with reality in a review. The most critical thing here is that the bass sounds much better when the speaker is dangled, the way it is meant to be used, reflected off sundry surfaces such as tent tops, tree tops and umbrella tops. Seriously, the leaves resonate with the bass. When kept on the ground or a floor, it is just not that impressive. In fact, theoretically, this is how you would think all speakers are meant to be used after listening to this thing, suspended, and in the middle of an infinite plane. For those who want a well rounded sound with a differentiated bass, this is the right speaker, for those who expect an extra kick in the lower frequencies, it can be underwhelming. Just don’t expect an excessive thump that makes baby birds fall off their nests. The passive radiator really helps differentiate the lower frequencies, which can be clearly heard coming out from the base of the speaker. The bass does pack in more of a punch at higher volumes, but the beats are subdued at lower volumes (think Bjork’s Hunter), compared to bluetooth or desktop speakers twice its size, which is about the average size for both these devices. To sum up, the mids and highs sound great, and the bass is just about right without being excessive. At high volumes, a single speaker can easily fill a cave, so there is no problem in that department as well. It can get surprisingly loud for its size.  

One of the most frequent questions we get from our listeners is the mythical sound stage. As these are mono speakers, they do not have much of a sound stage to speak of, but all the instruments are distinct and clear. While mono has its own charm, a pair of these speakers can be linked up to form a stereo couple. As the model is not supported by the Sony Music Centre app, we imagine this pairing to be a tad more difficult, but the instruction manual has clear directions on how to get this done. We imagine a pair of these to perform admirably as a replacement for desktop speakers, and provide great stereo sound for the outdoors. For our tests, we used only a single speaker. 

We checked the speakers on a range of music types, and also with games, movies and TV shows, from a number of sources. The speakers can handle a range of genres quite well, but the quality of the device really shows when you listen to soft dialogues and low orchestral scores, which are all crystal clear, even at low volumes. If you often end up driving to the middle of nowhere, pitching a tent, making some popcorn and watching a movie, then these are just the right speakers. 

Verdict

While the official MRP is 4,990, the device is actually available on ecommerce sites for up to a thousand rupees cheaper than that, which makes it a really attractive proposition. Considering the quality of the device, it seems to have been priced just right, but we wish that Sony would make the deal sweeter for those who want to pick up a pair. The speakers are available in six colours, and those who are into camo will like the Taupe one. The Sony SRS-XB13 is a small, lightweight but hardy speaker meant for outdoor use. With a surprisingly loud sound from a small form factor, an extra kick in the lower frequencies through a passive radiator, and an exceptionally long battery life, this speaker is just right for its intended use, but does not have too many extra bells and whistles. 



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