You were teased with the idea of it, then managed to catch glimpses of it from CES 2014 coverage. And not too long ago, the Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell speaker hit Kickstarter and surpassed the funding goal with the help of 1789 backers. I dig what Outdoor Tech dishes, so they sent me a pre-production unit to test out.
With the Kickstarter campaign over, backers are eagerly awaiting their production model. Thumbs up to all of you for unlocking the bag, straps (omg, the straps!), and cable funding goals. Of course, the big question: how does it sound? You won’t be disappointed.
Design & Connectivity
If you’re familiar with the Outdoor Tech Turtle Shell speaker, then you certainly see the family resemblance with the Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell. Otherwise, if this is completely new to you, then you’ve never seen a speaker quite like this. The Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell speaker looks like a cross between a military stealth fighter and angled-turtle art. It doesn’t look like any kind of traditional speaker, which is a big part of its appeal. It’s not simply marching to a different drummer – Outdoor Tech cartwheels to its own fife.
The build is solid and rugged. You can make a seat out of this speaker if so desired; it’s not that comfortable, but it beats lava rocks and pointy sticks. It’s shockproof, dustproof, and water resistant. It could probably take a dunking, but I wouldn’t push it that far. A serious dousing, however, gets shrugged off no problem. The material is a smooth (but not slick) matte black that keeps fingerprints muted while rolling off water. Surely, this is a speaker for the outdoor adventurer in all of us.
The underside of the Outdoor Tech Big Turtle speaker is concave, which lifts the bass membrane up a bit so it doesn’t make immediate contact with surfaces. This helps to keep both the audio and the speaker itself cleaner (think dirt, water, etc). At the same time, it makes placement easier on uneven surfaces, with practically zero chances of it tipping over. Two handle openings are big enough to slip in four fingers for carrying or mounting. With a little imagination and creativity, you can go beyond a simple carabiner clip to put this speaker wherever you want.
All of the ports are located lip edges and are protected by silicone covers. Non-Bluetooth devices can plug in to the audio in/out ports via 3.5mm cable. The other end has the wall adapter power connector and a 5V/1A USB output port. Since the Outdoor Tech Big Turtle speaker packs a whopping 7800mAh internal battery, it’s nice to be able to tap into reserves to charge up external gadgets.
Power and volume/track controls are located on the front, under the NFC surface for instant pairing. Users are greeted with audio notifications for power on/off and battery level. The announcing voice is slightly clipped, but I prefer quick info than some lengthy, drawn-out startup sequence full of musical noise. Operation is self-explanatory if you’re familiar with speakers. Press-hold the power button to turn on/off, and the volume buttons double as track forward/reverse with a long hold. The single LED light indicates power, charging, and Bluetooth connectivity.
The Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell speaker gets good and loud. It projects well enough to fill a large room with party-level noise (not easily drowned out by activity and conversation from a dozen people). I can blast this speaker downstairs and hear the lyrics clearly if I am upstairs. The volume can’t compete with noisy outdoor environments. Places like a backyard BBQ, poolside party, or campsite work very well. A park playground teeming with children is too big to effectively carry music, and a beach’s waves and wind reduce audio range too.
But outside of extremes, this speaker will perform perfectly fine for most. Outdoor Tech set a good limit to the volume level, since more would simply open up greater distortion. At max volume (both the speaker and connected device), vocals turn grainy and hard consonants develop a piercing edge. Percussive instruments in the highs and mids turn sharp, on top of the general distortion. All it takes to correct it is a few volume clicks down on the connected device. The Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell speaker tends to strain audio right before distorting, so that’s an indicator of getting close to optimal limits.
Although this speaker features twin tweeters, there isn’t much sense of a left and right audio channel. The sound is omnidirectional, which makes it hard to feel out the edges of the soundstage. For those who want their music to go forward instead of up, the Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell speaker is shaped so that you can prop it up on its side. This is actually pretty helpful if you plan to place the speaker next to a wall, directing music into the room. Otherwise, the best placement for omnidirectional sound would be right smack in the middle of the room.
Some people might find that vocals and instruments sound crowded on this speaker, but I think of it more as cozy. Even when a track is complex, with different things going on in the highs, mids, and lows, you can hear that minimal amount of space in between individual elements. Simpler pieces showcase instruments having more room to breathe. Although edges can be a touch fuzzy sometimes, you won’t hear notes bleed and blend in with each other. That part counts for much in my book.
Even though the soundstage is cozy in general, instrumental imaging is sharp enough that one can get a sense of depth. Even ancillary instruments, such as maracas & tambourines, are self-contained and individualistic. You can hear that drums and bass are behind the piano and lead guitar. Vocals are at the front edge, and rarely (if ever) trail behind instruments. The overall transparency of sound is good – not perfect. While it’s clean with no electronic taint, the Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell does miss out on some of the quieter and more subtle details of music.
Thankfully, the highs exhibit only minimal synthetic and tinny sounds. Cymbal crashes come off a little light, yet maintain more of a solid, brassy tone. Sometimes there is a faint touch of sizzling, depending. But, overall, such instruments stay within the realm of sounding natural. You have to appreciate when bells and chimes ring, instead of mimicking tumbling tin cans.
The attack and decay of notes in the highs is to my liking. It’s a pet peeve, when notes linger too long and run into each other. While listening to Glenn Morgan’s album, Southwind, I was delighted to hear how the notes sound accurate. The layers of instruments are clear and distinct enough to let one zero in on a specific part. I especially like how the stringed instruments quickly flit from note to note.
Although the highs sound pretty good for a speaker of its price class, there are some limitations. Namely: peaks and extremities. As strong vocals peak beyond what the Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell can effectively handle, this sharp brightness intensifies. This happens not just with a singular element, but also from a general swell of musical energy and power. The outermost edges of the sound envelope start to roll off the highs and develop some strained, crispy edges. I heard this throughout Bruno Mars’ song, “Natalie.” Although reducing the volume level helps, it doesn’t completely eliminate this aspect.
Tracks that have prominent male vocals and guitars showcase great energy that comes from the mids. Vocals from the Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell speaker have great power and delivery through the highs, mids, and lows, but they really shine in the mids. It’s got the stuff to get people up and moving to the music – good tone and clarity. I like how the mids aren’t some afterthought of sound, but really grab attention. Speaking of which, I find myself continually drawn to trumpets and brass from this speaker. The Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell captures that great burnished tone that carries throughout the mids.
Vocals come ahead of the instruments and are quite complimentary with guitars. You’ll get a lot of enjoyment from the music stylings of The White Buffalo, Ray LaMontagne, and songs with midrange emphasis. Guitar strings are rich, present, yet not outshined by the bass and drum sections. There’s enough definition to be able to hear the clear pluck of acoustic guitar strings.
Just as with the highs, the mids, too, sound strained at peaks and extremities, though not quite as bad. It usually happens in brief moments, where music bursts forward and slips from the Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell’s control. The vocals maintain much better than the instruments, but both tend to lose edge definition in such cases. This is more likely to happen when there is greater instrumental complexity going on during a crescendo.
If you’re a staunch basshead, the lows from the Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell speaker may sound weak to the ear. But for everyone else, especially considering the price tier, you’ll find it to be neither lacking nor anemic. Although the membrane that delivers the lows isn’t necessarily big, it brings sound that balances well with the highs and mids. So no matter what type of music you listen to, the lows will sound at their best and very complimentary. There’s no complaint of too much bass emphasis within classical or folk music here.
The Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell delivers punchy yet gentle lows that hold their own without overperforming. Drums and bass are in the back, yet present enough that you can pick them out individually and follow along. Songs that feature a lot of drums, like “B.O.B.” by Outkast, might surprise you with how deliberate and catchy they are. This speaker brings about only the top-end of lows, but it’s more than just skimming the surface. It doesn’t have the size and power to conjure up mid or sub-bass textures.
What I really like is how the low-end performance is consistent and virtually untouched by distortion or strain. Even with the overall coziness of sound, drums and bass guitars remain individual from each other as well as from instruments in the mids and highs.
Wireless & Battery
The Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell features Bluetooth 4.0, which is part of the reason why this speaker can play strong from dawn ‘til dusk. The latest Bluetooth uses less energy. It’s got some serious wireless range, too. I’ve been able to maintain a solid signal to my smartphone up to 37 feet (minimum, fairly consistently), through not one but two interior walls. The breakup of audio connection is quick and evident, especially if a body walks through the signal at this kind of range (through two walls), so you’ll get a good idea of limits immediately. The Bluetooth on this speaker is definitely one of the top of all the Bluetooth speakers I’ve had a chance to test out.
In terms of battery life, the specs indicate that this speaker will run for 16 hours. I’ve had it last longer than 20 hours before losing track. While it never went on too much beyond that, it’s still an impressive amount. I assume that the extended life is due to lower volume listening levels, and that max volume will sputter out at the 16-hour mark. It only takes a few hours to charge the speaker back up – you know it’s done when the single red LED goes dark.
Speakers that have a USB port for charging gadgets is starting to be a new and very convenient trend. The Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell is no different with this feature, but it has a significant advantage over the competition. Unlike the rest, the Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell doesn’t need to be powered on in order to charge a device. Those other speakers use up energy while on and sitting there, depleting reserves; when it comes to mobile smartphones and tablets, every drop counts.
It’s not a small internal battery either. 7800mAh is a pretty good size for charging devices, let alone for that and powering a speaker. Note: Most external battery packs I’ve ever purchased and used came only partially charged, so I’ve always made it a habit to fully charge them before use. I tend to fully charge and discharge a new battery a few times, just so I can level out the charge states of the individual cells. It helps to maximize the battery’s manufacturer-listed potential.
The standard efficiency rating of external battery packs currently on the market is 70 percent. This means that 30 percent of the battery’s listed capacity is consumed while charging up devices. So, for example, a standard 1000mAh battery would effectively deliver 700mAh of energy.
For nothing but charging external devices, the Outdoor Tech Big Turtle shell delivers right around 72 percent efficiency, give or take. It took quite a number of cycles to have it level out around there. Regardless, that efficiency is equivalent to 5616mAh of usable energy, which is not too shabby. So what can one do with 5616mAh of battery energy? That’s good for 1.8 full charges to a Samsung Galaxy Note 2 (3100mAh), or 3.9 full charges to an Apple iPhone 5 (1440mAh). Just keep in mind that the USB port is only 1A, so devices that can charge faster will require you to wait that much longer.
Within the same price bracket of the Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell speaker, you’ll be hard-pressed to find another speaker to match both physical and audio qualities. It’s harder still if you add in unique design as another comparative. While the Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell is perfectly fine for indoor music, it really wants to travel and play outside. As a companion speaker, it can go and survive where so many other speakers would too timid to try.
Although the musical soundstage may be a little cozier than some would prefer, it doesn’t go so far to have elements bleed on or overstep each other. What the Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell may lack in the finer details of music, it makes up for it with balanced lows, great volume, and features. True that this speaker is some larger than other rugged speakers, the bass radiator is totally worth it. Compared to speakers with minimal hardware for the lows, the Outdoor Tech Big Turtle Shell totally shines.
As for battery life and wireless range, Outdoor Tech proves that they pay attention to the things that mean so much more for day-to-day use. This speaker doesn’t skimp out. If you’re itching to get your hands on one, the first round of Big Turtle Shell speakers has just started shipping to its Kickstarter backers. Stay tuned to OutdoorTech.com, for this latest speaker will be available to order very soon.