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Tech Savvy: Crankin' it Up

Hey there, Tech Savvy fans! Leading up into the Christmas season we'll be providing extended reviews on many of the items that you will find in our Gift Guide. This year the Tech Savvy Gift Guide will be published on Nov. 9, and like previous yea...

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Hey there, Tech Savvy fans! Leading up into the Christmas season we'll be providing extended reviews on many of the items that you will find in our Gift Guide. This year the Tech Savvy Gift Guide will be published on Nov. 9, and like previous years it will be in the form of a four-page insert that acts as a "jacket" for the other inserts. On that week we will not have our normal page here but will have the Gift Guide be the main focus.

This week we get to take a look at another tremendous option in the realm of Bluetooth portable speakers - the SMS Audio Speaker.

If you recall, I reviewed the SMS Audio Headphones earlier and I was a huge fan of them, so I was really excited to get my hands on their Bluetooth speaker to see if it lived up to my expectations from the headphones. In some unfortunate cases you find that some companies start out with a great initial product but then their sophomore efforts and beyond can wither in quality and desirability. I am happy to report that is definitely not the case here - the headphones were top notch and this speaker is probably the best in its size that I've tested thus far.

SMS Audio ( www.smsaudio.com ), if you don't recall, was founded in partnership with the rapper 50 Cent. Unique to these products, however, 50 Cent had direct input into not only the design of the speakers but also into the components and materials that went into the whole SMS line. Being in the studio certainly has its benefits as this gives an insider's perspective into what parts will give top quality without breaking the bank.

The SMS Speaker is unique to some other speakers we've taken a look at in that the speakers don't face forward, they face to the sides. Two speakers, each facing right and left. This contributes to some of the digital effects that are built in and despite my initial fear, it does not impact the volume or sound quality by changing the angle of the speaker.

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The overall design of the speaker is very eye-pleasing, made of a rubberized plastic for the shell, it has metal grating that covers the speaker with the SMS logo on each speaker. All of the control buttons are located directly on top of the speaker, and only the charging port, power button, aux in and microphone are located on the sides.

When you open the box you will see the great packaging that all the other SMS products come in, it really feels like the red carpet treatment of unboxing, something that is important if you're spending your hard earned money on something you want to be great. It also comes with a charging cable, auxiliary cable and a soft-sided case that you can use to offer a degree of protection to the speaker. Unlike the headphone case, this one was purely soft sided. The headphone case had a bit of a shell to it that held its shape a little more, the one the speaker comes with does not. Has it made a difference? No. Do I see it being an issue in the future? No. The headphones have much more that can go wrong - they need to protect the headband that connects each side - and because they fold up there are more exposed pieces that need that protection. The speaker is a solid, one-piece construction and since there are no raised buttons or edges there isn't much at real risk in normal, everyday, situations.

The buttons, except for the power button, are all soft buttons - they have a little raised bump so you can feel where the button is and they have the appropriate function label on them - play/pause, volume up and down and track forward and back are the standards. They also have a call button which you can use to activate the phone on your device, pressing the button once will either answer a call or activate voice dialing on my Android phone, and pressing and holding redials the last number I called. It's simple, easy and performs the functions that I need it to.

There is also a button marked 3D on the top. This is the setting button for any 3D sound effects that you want to activate. There are a series of preset sound "atmospheres" let's call them. They change the dynamic quality of the sound that comes out of the speakers. If you think of your home stereo and the different settings you have for your Surround Sound, this is similar to that. You can change to a clear setting for your phone calls, pump up the bass for listening to music, or create a chambered hall effect for live performance recordings or symphonic audio.

I ended up settling with one of the more generic settings for regular use that amplifies the mids and lows, but doesn't muddy the bottom end like so many of the other presets will do. My only complaint with the 3D sound settings, and this is true of every single other audio device that I've heard that uses these, is that I can never remember which one I'm using and if it's on or not. The SMS does reset every time you turn it off, which is nice, and it also uses audible beeps to indicate when you turn that effect on, but I can never remember what setting is which. So, you end up going through all the settings once or twice to hear them and then settle on the one you want. Maybe it's just because I'm so used to being able to read the setting on my home stereo, or maybe I just have a poor memory (I'm betting it's a combination), but it is something I like.

The sound quality itself, as I mentioned before, is probably the best I've heard for a speaker in this size and in this price range. Even when turning it all the way up the sound will not distort. The quality of the audio is like that of the headphones - crystal clear, rich and full.

Pairing the speaker with my phone was insanely simple and the connection is strong and reliable. Another neat feature of the speaker is that it is NFC capable and I can use the NFC on my phone to pair it initially or I can use it to connect or disconnect the speaker from the phone. This is a useful feature if I want to take myself off a speaker call into a private conversation without hanging up, or if I'm listening to music in a group and I get a private phone call, I can disconnect the phone from the speaker and then answer my call. The only downside is that the speaker will go into a "sleep" mode if you leave it powered on for more than 10 minutes or so without being connected, and the NFC will not wake it and re-connect. End of the world? No, but it was a little confusing the first time it happened and I wasn't sure if the battery had died or not.

Speaking of battery, let's chat about that. SMS boasts a 12 hour play time for the speaker and it really lives up to that. Unfortunately, I did not do a rundown test but in real world application, I used it for a week with listening to music for an hour or so each day, two-three conference calls and it came through just fine. It held up just fine and for everyday usage it should stand up to most people's requirements. It recharges relatively fast and, like the headphones, has an indicator light on top to show approximately how much battery if left.

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The SMS audio speaker has a MSRP of $199.95, but I've seen them as low as $175 new. This puts it in line with the Beats line of the same size, and the Braven 855, both other speakers that I've reviewed and this one takes the cake. Both the Beats and the Braven are nice speakers in their own right, and depending on what you intend using the speaker for, and where, may help influence your decision, but the SMS has been my favorite so far.

All in all the SMS is a fantastic speaker at a great price, it made the gift guide because it would be a great option for someone who travels a lot, business folk who are looking for a nice option for their office that they can use for listening to music and for calls, or for that college student who doesn't have a lot of room. If you're in the market for a portable bluetooth speaker this year, this is the one to get.

Tech Savvy Lead: Stay tuned as we check out the Droid Turbo from Motorola, out this weekend, from Verizon - I've only spent a small amount of time with it so far, but my initial reaction is this is a must have phone- they are also offering great incentives to upgrade in the month of November. Check it out.

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