Bose SoundTouch series streams tunes from your network
By Jim Bray
Bose has a handy system for getting tunes from your computer and spread through your house, with typically Bose sound quality along the way.
It's the SoundTouch (Click here or on the picture to open a slideshow) series of hardware and software, a terrific system that works well and will probably only work better as time passes as they add more supported services to their software. In the meantime, you can stream pretty well anything that's on your network - as long as their file formats are compatible - and I've also streamed a couple of my favorite radio stations' online streams.
Bose invited me to the introduction of the SoundTouch systems in New York last fall, and it was an interesting demo set up in a Manhattan townhouse, but I'm never really comfortable with corporate demos as the best way to audition anything, for obvious reasons. Not that I don't trust Bose; in fact, it's the opposite: every Bose product which I've been privileged to see introduced over the past several years has worked as presented and advertised, and after living with them for a couple of months - like I've been doing with a pair of the SoundTouch components - the experience has made me even more enamored with them.
Bose sent me the SoundTouch 20 and the SoundTouch Portable, both of which the company says list for $449 Canadian. I wish they'd have sent the larger SoundTouch 30 system ($749 Cdn.) as well, because it's closest in size and, undoubtedly, sound quality to the remarkable SoundDock 10 I've lived with for a few years and which never ceases to amaze me with the quality of sound that emanates from such a relatively small box.
Still, the 20 also offers excellent sound for its size and while the Portable doesn't crank as loudly as I'd like, it cranks plenty loudly enough for its anointed job. In fact, both of these units really excel at playing quietly yet still offering fine quality sound from small packages. I've taken the Portable onto my patio to play tunes outside and if it went any louder I'd have neighbors complaining. Yet I have no complaints about the sound quality at the moderate volumes at which it works best. The thing is very good.
Maybe it's true that good things come in small packages! If so, I'm glad to only be 5'6" (I'll let you guess whether that's height or width)!
The Portable reminds me of the SoundLink and SoundLink Mini portable Bluetooth products, except that it's bigger and uses Wi-Fi to connect to your tunes rather than Bluetooth. In a perfect world it would connect both ways, but the SoundTouch and SoundLink products have different mandates.
The SoundTouch 20 plays a lot louder than the Portable, though it also performs exquisitely at lower volume. I parked it in my living room, on the shelf above the SoundDock 10, and while the SoundDock will blow it away when it comes to cranking capabilities, the SoundTouch 20 holds its own very well at less than ear bleeding volume. I imagine the SoundTouch 30 will go head to head with the SoundDock 10 quite nicely.
Bose uses custom-designed transducers to produce surprisingly (considering the products' size) clean midrange and high frequencies, while a ported enclosure handles the low end, giving enough punch to easily fill my living room. Digital signal processing keeps the sound balanced for the volume at which you're playing it back, hence the not-surprisingly good sound quality at loud and quiet volumes.
Having Wi-Fi capability is a really nice, well, touch, and I can see the market for such capabilities only getting larger over the next several years. I already stream from my network to the SoundDock 10, but since it's designed as an iPod dock or Bluetooth receiver (the latter via an optional Bluetooth adapter that replaces the "iInterface") I have to do it from a separate device, in this case either a Western Digital media box or networking OPPO Blu-ray player. And that means I have to turn on the TV to access the other devices' menus and, via them, the tunes. The SoundTouches eliminate this need, though you'll want to take advantage of the SoundTouch app to navigate folders and files if you haven't stored them in the units' presets.
Those presets are another nice thing about the SoundTouch versus the SoundDock and/or SoundLink - they're on the units themselves and on their remote controls as well, so you can store playlists or favorite places on your network or online for easy repeat access. The presets also mean you don't have to take the remote with you when moving the Portable around - though in that case you'll be giving up the "skip forward and/or backward" buttons on the units' control panels, which isn't a huge deal but something I missed when I dragged the Portable around the house with me while doing my chores. Still, it's a more flexible system than the SoundLinks, which have no remote at all.
One thing I wish Bose had added, especially to the Portable - since I kept it in my bedroom - is a sleep timer. I like going to bed to music, and I accomplish that currently by tuning to an all music channel on the TV there, using its sleep timer to turn off the tunes rather than have them play all night. The only way I can accomplish that with the SoundTouch is to plug the TV's audio output to the Bose' auxiliary input and use the TV's sleep timer - which wouldn't shut the Bose off but would at least shut it up.
Setting up the system using Bose's sparse but straightforward documentation worked well. First, you download the SoundTouch app to the computer on which your media files are stored, then you plug each of the SoundTouch units into a USB port there and follow the onscreen prompts. From there, you can unplug the systems from the computer and set them up wherever you want.
You can choose to only install the app onto your computer, but Bose also makes versions available for iOS and Android devices. I installed one on my iPad Air and loved how it made finding and playing music by artist, song, album, folder, etc., easy, rather than forcing me to run downstairs and fire up the app on the computer all the time.
The app also lets you choose which of the SoundTouch units play the tunes, and you can operate them singly, both playing different sources or both playing the same source. You can also play each device separately via their remote or top panel controls.
Saving a stream, or a playlist or whatever, to one of the six presets is easy; you start the playback and then hold down the appropriate preset button (on the virtual button on the app) and a blue color slides across it, after which the label of whatever you're saving appears next to the preset's number. It's about as bozo-proof as I've seen (though I still managed to screw it up a couple of times; fortunately it's easy to reset as well!). Bose says it's like having your favorite tunes on speed dial, and that's a pretty apt description.
I had the dickens of a time getting the system to access the music files I had organized - well, "organized" was really a misnomer - on my network, but it was more because my files were all over the place and I was asking the system to do more than it was designed to do. So I went back to square one and organized the music and playlists through iTunes, which is drag and drop easy as long as the program understands your files' formats, and from then on had no difficulty at all. This isn't meant as a commercial for iTunes (which is annoying in other ways), just as a bit of advice to have your files organized so the Boses (and other such devices, if you have them) can find them properly.
Another thing I love about the SoundTouches is the OLED display which, though its monochromatic output is kind of a waste of OLED technology, displays song, artist or station info on the front of the unit. I wish the SoundLinks had this, but since they're so small I can't imagine how it could be done.
I was interested to find that other network-media savvy devices can access the Bose software's library, too. That means DLNA/UPnp capable devices such as Smart TV's and the aforementioned WD and OPPO products can play your already-organized tunes in rooms where you don't have a Bose SoundTouch product, making even more of a full-home solution.
Besides the SoundTouch products mentioned here (don't forget the larger SoundTouch 30!), Bose has released "SoundTouch-compliant" versions of some other products, bringing such "catalog items" as the Wave and VideoWave systems to the wonderful world of Wi-Fi.
There are also weather-resistant outdoor speakers you can use on the patio or deck (if you haven't already purchased the SoundTouch Portable) as well as a Wi-Fi version of the Lifestyle home theater. Bose also has an optional controller that's a bit bigger than a hockey puck and can operate any SoundTouch device from the palm of your hand, your coffee table, or via a wall-mounted bracket.
Right now, the systems offer Pandora and Bose says it'll add iHeartRadio and Deezer later this year, with other ones added as they become available. I don't use any of these, so can't comment on how well the Bose handles them, but it worked fine with the Sky.FM channels I tried. There's already been one software update since I started playing with the SoundTouch stuff, and it was a painless procedure to install it.
While I've been very happy with the sound quality of both units reviewed here, it's important to realize the old "Garbage in, garbage out" saw, so if you download or rip files that are compressed heavily - usually to save disk space - the sound quality will suffer. This obviously has nothing to do with Bose and as a bit of a self-styled audiophile, I'd rather dedicate more disk space to ensure I get better audio quality. So if you "feed" the SoundTouch units well, they'll "purr-form" for you very nicely.
Copyright 2014 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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