Ash Kramer is seduced by the impressive sound and versatility of a pair of diminutive speakers that happen to be built like the proverbial brick shithouse, but come out smelling like roses.
WHEN I FIRST read about the BT3 speakers in an email from the local agent, I immediately asked for a review set. Q Acoustics seems to be on something of a roll right now, which whetted my curiosity. Check out Andy Baker’s review of the Concept 20 stand mounted speakers here as an example of the kind of innovative thinking this British company is coming up with.
Initially, the BT3’s seemed to be billed as Bluetooth speakers, but the company has wisely recognised that they’re way too good to be lumped in a category as broad as that. Call them wireless stereo speakers if you like, I did. There’s no doubt that they’re serious pieces of audio gear, something which became apparent before I even plugged them in.
To clarify, these little speakers are built like a tank, and no one would bother to go to that much trouble if sound quality wasn’t high on the agenda. The cabinets are pretty darn solid, which is admittedly easier to pull off with boxes this diminutive (148 x 240 x 226mm W x H x D) but by any measure, they’re resonance-free and impressively weighty. The small form factor is just right in this instance because it means that the BT3’s will fit in just about anywhere, on stands as dedicated stereo speakers, or on small shelves, or placed next to a flat panel TV or even on a desktop, which is where they spent a good portion of the review.
There’s a 50-watt amp in the right hand speaker feeding the left via metal binding posts. There’s a DAC in there too, which explains the digital optical input on the back, along with the Bluetooth V4.0 connectivity (with aptX). Users also get 3.5mm and RCA analogue inputs, plus a subwoofer output which add to the BT3’s versatility. The drivers under the fixed grilles are a 100mm mid/bass unit and a 25mm tweeter placed alongside a narrow front port, a design element that makes sense with speakers that might well spend most of their lives on shelves close to a rear wall.
All the necessary cables (bar the optical one) are supplied, along with a small plastic remote control offering control over source, power, volume and mute. On-board controls are limited to a power switch round back, and source selection/standby and volume control buttons on top of the right speaker.
In addition to being well built, the white finished review speakers look good. Some would say that they’d look better in a gloss white, and that’s what I thought when I first saw them but the more restrained matt finish really grew on me over the course of the review. They’re also available in black or red.
As desktop speakers, the BT3’s are superb. I ran them using Bluetooth from an iPhone 5S and a MacBook Pro, and also using a 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable from the Mac. In the narrow-field environment of the desktop, these little speakers sounded just like the miniature hi-fi speakers they are, offering all the traditional virtues of smaller transducers – crisp imaging, a wide soundstage and quite a lovely midrange and top end. They’ve been tuned to be smooth and reasonably warm, which makes them particularly easy to listen to, but don’t think that they’re soft – anything but.
There’s plenty of treble energy here, and the bottom end is quite a bit deeper and punchier than expected. In fact, flag that: placed close to a wall, there’s a surprising amount of bottom end on offer here, considering how small these things are. They’ve been tweaked to sound big down below but the port’s contribution to the bass isn’t too obvious; nor is the bass loose and waffly. Instead you just get a bigger sound than expected, with a snappy energy and a sense that there’s an abundance of power on hand, which makes them great fun to listen to. They’re by no means shrinking violets or producers of small sound.
The BT3’s fare very well with music streamed via Bluetooth, making even thin 64kbps Pandora streams sound good, yet they also sound great with 320kbps and CD quality files. Given my current preference for streams from Mattafix, Wyclef Jean and Matisyahu, the bass obviously delivers the goods because I just can’t put in a full day of writing if the music doesn’t sound right, not with other speakers and so many sets of ‘phones hanging around.
I spent a lot of time listening to them via Bluetooth but the BT3’s went on to show their overall quality by sounding remarkably good when hooked up to my Marantz SA8260 SACD player. The ever-generous Gary Steel recently gave me the Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne double CD set, because “it put him to sleep”. Of course, this means that I really like it, not all the tracks but enough to keep it in the collection. There are some beautifully recorded tracks on here, particularly ‘These Days’ by Don Henley with Blind Pilot. With a set of old Chord speaker cable replacing the bell wire supplied with the BT3’s and a short length of Slinkylinks RCA interconnects in place, this track was just lovely to listen to, with the speakers filling a reasonably big room and again sounding much bigger than they are.
There is of course a limit to how loud they can go; after all, they’re not exactly huge but as long as that’s respected, they’ll impress every time. For apartment dwellers, they’d be perfect. With the BT3’s in full song, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that you’re listening to a nice set of bookshelf speakers and an integrated amp. Which in effect, you are. That dead-as-a-doornail cabinet has to help the overall sound but all up, it doesn’t seem that Q Acoustics has cut any corners here.
Even the internal DAC put on a good show when it was fed a digital signal from the Marantz via a QED optical cable. I preferred the sound from the SACD player, which makes sense considering how much it cost when new. But that DAC means that the BT3’s will happily take an optical digital signal from a flat screen TV (or a DVD or Bluray player) and make it sound damn good, which is another place these speakers will excel. Frankly, they’ll kick any equivalently priced soundbar right out of the field, except perhaps when it comes to outright bottom end extension, because soundbars usually come with bass boxes masquerading as subwoofers. If that’s an issue, just add a decent sub to the BT3’s for home 2.1 home theatre duty and you’re away. It’s worth remembering that the BT3’s will make music sound sweet in a way that most soundbars can’t even begin to imagine.
It’s also worth noting that you just can’t match the BT3’s sound, quality and versatility for the money. Feel free to try – take $799 and go shopping. Good luck buying a set of small speakers that sound like this, plus an amp plus a Bluetooth streamer plus some way to get an optical signal from your TV for that kind of loot. Can’t be done, end of story.
Which is why these little powered wireless speakers are such a sweet buy. Some will moan that Bluetooth isn’t a high-quality audio platform but what it lacks in outright fidelity, it makes up for in sheer versatility – and hundreds of hours listening to various Bluetooth devices leads me to believe that it’s very much fit for purpose. I really liked having these speakers around. In fact, I’m vaguely contemplating keeping them as my desktop speakers if I can keep my desk clear enough for long enough. Highly recommended. ASHLEY KRAMER
Note – these speakers were reviewed at $999, which was the RRP at the time. A week or so later, the local distributor informed us that the price was now $799. That just makes them an even better buy.