Review: Brookstone Big Blue Live and Studio speakers combine performance and value
Brookstone may not be a name you associate with good Bluetooth speakers—or quality speakers of any type, for that matter—but the $150 Big Blue Studio and $100 Big Blue Live are two well-designed Bluetooth speakers that offer surprisingly good performance, especially for the price.
Both the Studio and the smaller Live are available with gloss-black or -white outer frames. (To tell them apart in this review, remember that the Live is the Little one.) Each model is accented by a silver grill with a blue, glassy circle—actually a button—in the center. The HAL-reminiscent circle lights up in brighter blue on the larger Studio when powered on (though you can optionally turn that LED off); the circle doesn’t light up on the Live.
The larger Studio measures 9.5 inches wide, 5.6 inches deep, and 5 inches tall and weighs 6.6 pounds. The Live looks like its baby brother, measuring 5 inches wide, 2.5 inches deep, and 2.4 inches tall; it weighs in at a mere 1.4 pounds.
Pairing with either speaker is simple. You just hold down the big, blue button on the front until the speaker beeps, which puts the system in pairing mode; you then pair it with the device of your choosing—iPhone, iPad, iPod, Mac, what have you. I successfully paired each system with my Mac and several iOS devices.
On the Studio, that center button is also the power button: You hold it down to turn the speaker on; a brief tap turns it off. On top of the Studio sits a touch-sensitive volume control, demarcated with a Minus icon on the left and a Plus icon on the right—you slide your finger in between to adjust the volume level.
The Studio’s backside hosts several controls: two dials, marked B and T, for adjusting bass and treble levels, respectively; and a button for disabling the front LED. Also on the back are the power jack, a 1/8-inch (3.5mm) auxiliary-input jack and a similar auxiliary-output jack. The auxiliary output works only when listening to a Bluetooth source—you can’t use it when listening to an auxiliary-input source. I test a whole lot of Bluetooth speakers at various price points, and the auxiliary-output jack and bass and treble controls make the Studio stand out to me—I rarely encounter either option.
The Live includes a built-in, rechargeable battery, and it actually sports two power controls: There’s a Main Power switch on the back, which powers the system down completely to prolong battery life, and there’s a power button on the top of the unit that puts the system in standby mode. (When in standby mode, you can wake the speaker using a paired Bluetooth device.) The other buttons on the top of the Live are previous, next, volume up and down, and a phone button that does double-duty as a play/pause button. The phone button can’t initiate calls (or trigger Siri); it’s meant for pairing and unpairing, and for declining or ending calls. (You must answer calls from your phone.)
You can expect about four hours of playback time using the Live’s built-in 1150-milliamp-hour (mAh) battery; recharging it with the included Mini-USB cable and wall charger takes three to four hours. In addition to the Mini-USB port on the back of the speaker, you’ll find a 3.5mm auxiliary-input jack. The speakerphone on the Live is adequate; I could hear folks on the other end loud and clear, but they could instantly tell that I was using a speakerphone.
The Live generates good audio, but the Studio’s is—unsurprisingly, given the size disparity between them—far better.
The Studio uses two front-facing, full-range speaker drivers, a down-firing woofer, and a passive radiator. The Studio sounds simply phenomenal for its size, and it’s a steal at its price. It’s not top-quality, audiophile-caliber audio, like you might expect from the Klipsch Gallery G-17 or the Altec Lansing InAir 5000, but it’s very good and the Studio is much, much less expensive than these models (surely in part because it uses Bluetooth rather than AirPlay). Cranking up the bass dial doesn’t yield an overpowering thud; rather, it comfortably boosts bass presence to make the low-end more prominent without leading to distortion. Top-end volume is impressive too—you could fill a crowded, good-sized room with sound using the Studio.
The Live, for its part, packs a smaller—but not insubstantial—punch. Compared to the Studio’s 30 total watts of power (7.5W per channel, plus 15 for the woofer), the Live offers just four watts, two per channel. You also won’t hear any stereo separation from a speaker this small, but what you do hear is impressive in its own right: The sound isn’t quite as big as what the original Jambox (4.5 out of 5 rating) can generate, but it’s awfully close—the Jambox costs $100 more than the Live, but sounds, to my ears, roughly $20 better. The Live even provides some bass presence, with the result being clear, enjoyable sound. I found that using an iOS app to adjust my iPhone 5’s audio output—I used the $1 EQ 10 app—coaxed even more impressive sound from the Live, but you don't need to do this to get good sound.
Both the Studio and the Live are impressive Bluetooth speakers. The Studio can fill a big room; the Live can fill a small one. The Studio’s audio quality is the more impressive of the two, and if you don’t need the Live’s portability or battery-powered operation—and the extra $50 isn’t a concern—the Studio the one to purchase. If, on the other hand, you do crave that portability, I recommend the Live over the pricier Jambox, since its audio is nearly as good as the Jambox, its onboard controls are better, and it costs $100 less.