We haven't reviewed many solar powered speakers on Gadgetmac, and that has partially to do with the fact that they're not a popular bunch to say the least. Though Eton has quite a few impressive new solar powered speaker offerings which are all wirelessly portable and can live off of the sun's powerful rays. Eton's reasonably priced new $200 Rukus XL is one of the more promising wireless solar powered speakers we know of. With a large adjustable solar panel and a built-in rechargeable battery, the Rukus XL can charge itself up while also sharing some its solar juice with any iPhone-shaped device that charges off of USB power through its charging dock-like compartment. On top of that, its got 8 speakers drivers under the hood so getting its point across during an eventful outdoors party won't be much of an issue. Going somewhere Amish? Then check out our full review on the RukusXL's solar powered prowess after the break!
Eton's marketing of the Rukus XL as a portable wireless speaker is somewhat misleading. If you expected the Rukus XL to be pocketable, you should have checked the specs beforehand because the only place where you'll be able to fit it is into the backseat of your car. Its got a discretely positioned, convenient carry handle for you to comfortably carry it around with you, and I guess that merits a portability moniker to a point. But there's a big difference between this particular portable speaker and a Mobile Boombox portable speaker.
It's too cumbersome to be called a portable speaker, however, it can be carried along with you which does make it portable in theory. But in practice it's just not going to be coming with you if you commute around the city. There's a specific reason why a wireless solar charging speaker like the Rukus XL exists though, and that's when time comes to go on a trip to the beach, camping out for a few days in remote places and so on. Or if you're looking for a wireless speaker that you wouldn't have to bother plugging in to recharge, using the Rukus XL pool-side is one of its fortes.
Eton'sRukus XL has that self-contained mobility unit type of look to it that's uniquely Eton as far as speakers come. And it's silver and black wedged, triangular shaped design isn't just untraditionally nifty but it also plays an important part in its solar powered capabilities as you'll soon discover. Although we haven't tested many, I'd go so far to say that Eton's solar powered speakers are some of the best on the market. Though they're not without fault, nuisances and caveats.
By comparison, the Rukus XL is larger than a Jawbone Big Jambox, but still smaller than Logitech'sUEBoombox in some respects yet it just feels more bulky due to its non-streamlined shape which the UEBoombox has. It measures 14.5 inches across by 8 inches in height, and 5 inches at its thickest point which coincidentally is its bottom region. Unlike Eton's more compact wireless solar powered speaker called the Rugged Rukus, the Rukus XL is of course the much bigger and more powerful speaker Eton makes both in regards to its audio quality and solar power capabilities.
Rubber button controls are located at the top of the device including volume, bass boost, auxiliary mode, battery status and music playback controls.
On its bottom right hand side protected with a rubber flap, the Rukus XL features a line-in audio input which you can switch to from the default Bluetooth wireless connection using the auxiliary button, a DC power input for when you need to charge up the device quickly and without the sun's help as well as an on/off charging switch that controls the RukusXL's powered USB port which enables you to plug in an external device to charge. Leaving this on will drain the internal battery.
For a portable wireless speaker that's geared for outdoors use not to have some kind of weather or splash protection is a letdown. It's a shame that Eton has made sure to splash-proof its less expensive Rugged Rukus and not the Rukus XL. On top of that the Rukus XL doesn't seem to impress with its build quality and healthy dosage of visible screws, but it does seem to have a sturdy construction that won't fall apart during travel. You won't be impressed by it nor will you be disappointed when you take the Rukus XL out of its packaging for the first time. Metal speaker grilles protect the RukusXL's crown jewels, and you'll find that the sides have this tough rubbery construction that I would have liked to see it be added all over instead of the use of cheap looking plastics found everywhere else. The tinted plastic compartment door which protects your device whilst its charging inside seems like an afterthought to me. It doesn't secure itself closed and using it will make you feel like opening a fake plastic oven door on a children's kitchen playset.
The flip-out solar panel could have used more refinement, but it does its job well with a hinge that holds its angle per your positioning. It's worth noting that the plastic shield covering the solar panel surface isn't durable at all as it scratches and scuffs very easily. Overall, the Rukus XL lacks that high level of finesse you'd get for paying $200 on a speaker made by a different brand like Jawbone, Logitech or Beats for instance which invest a great deal of attention to design detail.
On its back, the Rukus XL carries a large built-in monocrystal solar panel which is nearly as big as one side of it. It is seamlessly a part of the RukusXL's triangular design until you flip it open to better catch the energy of the sun. One of the great things about this solar panel is that its got a strong hinge that holds its position at any angle. If the portable Joos Orange solar charger taught us anything it's that solar power is a weak source of energy especially when powering gadgets using a relatively small panel surface, and that compact solar panels and gadgets don't bode very well. That's true when speaking about the Rukus XL's solar panel, only it's a much better performer than the Joos Orange. Eton says the Rukus XL can produce massive amounts of energy, but I'm afraid that you'd need a solar farm-sized panel array to back that ballsy claim.
In the month or so that I have been using the Rukus XL, I've never once had to plug it in to charge its internal battery using the included wall power adapter. You could say it has been powering itself strictly on free solar power. But before you get the wrong idea, I'll have you know that with minimal use, the Rukus XL I've been using had plenty of time to charge using its large solar panel which takes hours to charge. Speaking of which, I could never fully reach a full charge using just the power of the sun. Leaving the Rukus XL under direct sun for 5 hours straight only brought it up to roughly 50%. That's short of Eton's advertised 5 hours under direct sunlight to have it fully charge its internal battery. When fully charged, the Rukus XL does actually live up to its 8 hours of battery life when wirelessly streaming music over Bluetooth. It also helps that the solar panel continuously does its duty in charging up the internal battery whenever there's bright sunlight.
The advantage of using the solar panel is that during the day the Rukus XL can live off of solar power while slowly reserving energy in its internal battery which would be later used to keep it powered during the night. I may have skipped a few hours, however, I must say that the Rukus XL can sustain a healthy hybrid living this way as long as you make sure it is always under direct sunlight during the day in order for it to recharge itself whilst streaming music.
When I say roughly 50% charge, it's because there is no precise way of determining how much battery power the Rukus XL really has. Instead you'll just need to settle for a near-useless battery meter check that displays the remaining battery life using caveman symbols of static battery icons. You can only really know by guessing when you have say 11 - 40% left by guesstimating using increments of 29%. Anyway, checking the remaining battery life is without a doubt confusing and just unpractical by today's standards. That has also been the reason to why it was so difficult testing the RukusXL's solar panel energy efficiency at charging up its internal battery. It was too time consuming and just a pain in the ass to even follow through. Whatever the people at Eton were thinking when they were designing the Rukus XL, the battery meter and status gauge aren't user friendly one bit.
In the middle flanked by speakers is where you'll find a compartment which is designed to store your iPhone or iPod whilst protecting it from the sun or a poolside splash using a tinted black plastic flip-down cover. In addition to a impractical elastic strap that secures your device inside and the slightly padded interior lining, there's a USB charging port located at the bottom of the compartment which basically acts like a dock in which you can plug in your charging cable into with the device inside or simply placed externally all while playing your tunes through the RukusXL's speakers.
Continuing to stream and play music using the power of solar energy seems to have been working quite well I must say. I wasn't expecting the solar panel to recharge the internal battery enough to last a few hours of use, but indeed it has. Unfortunately, using that harnessed power drains the battery much quicker when trying to charge external devices. The Rukus XL is capable of putting an extra 20-30% of juice into an iPhone 5 without draining completely which is a useful feature, but not a highlight. Solar power isn't quick nor powerful enough to put enough juice back into the RukusXL's internal battery for you to even consider charging your iPhone while playing music for more than 30 minutes.
With a 30-foot distance limit, the Bluetooth connection has been reliable within that realm. Once paired with an iOS device the Rukus XL maintains a solid connection, as one would naturally expect, that never skips a beat nor prompts re-pairing after numerous cycles.
The compartment isn't big enough to hold a 5-inch device like the Galaxy S4 nor an HTC One. It has been designed specifically around the iPhone and iPod whether you're using a protective case or not. If you try closing the compartment door with your iPhone inside along with its charging cable, the lid will not fully close. You'd either have to use a very short cable or nothing at all.
Ladened with two tweeters, two woofers which are all positioned directly in front along with four passive radiators spread around the front and opposite sides, the Rukus XL definitly has enough fire power to show spec-wise. Because for a speaker that boasts numerous larger drivers which should put any ultra-portable speaker smaller to it by comparison to shame, isn't really doing that at all. Yes the volume is loud enough to fill an apartment-sized living room, but out on the beach it isn't going to sound as loud. But if you're having say a pool party then having a Rukus XL around will suffice.
So it does pump better sounding lows, but we expected much louder and detailed sound and not a large wireless speaker that can closely be matched when put up against a much smaller offerings such as the UE Boom and SoundLink Mini. I'm not even talking about the Big Jambox or UEBoombox either. We can only assume the reason to the RukusXL's underwhelming audio performance based on its size and speaker hardware - is that Eton has none of the audio expertise that both Logitech, Ultimate Ears and Bose have. So at the end of the day it kind of makes sense why the Rukus XL doesn't blow our socks off with its audio performance like a $200 speaker should.
That being said, I'm actually surprised that I like the sound quality coming out of the Rukus XL because prior to firing it up for the first time, I wasn't expecting such good quality sound from a company that has no audio pedigree whatsoever. I mean Eton markets itself around solar power technology embedded into semi-portable speakers. One thing I noticed was that the volume of the Rukus XL is limited at a not so high decibel in proportion to its size. And I'm sure it's because Eton was afraid to push the drivers beyond their limit in order to keep a clean and distortion-free sounding audio. Which it hasn't I'll have you know because at the Rukux XL does distort slightly at higher volumes when "bass boost" is on.
Sound in more detail, the mids have a tinny, metallic sound that's noticeably more pronounced when playing rock. Highs are pleasantly good though and I'd even say comparable to the clean and bright sounding highs of the UE Boom - which is a fantastic little wireless speaker that's fully weather and water resistant that costs as much as the Rukus XL does funny enough. By comparison, the UE Boom is roughly 30% louder than the Rukus XL which is just insane, but where the Rukux XL excels in low response, the UE Boom understandably falls short. Then again you can almost fit the UE Boom into your pocket as if it were some very tall energy drink can whereas in order to carry the Rukus XL around you'd need something much bigger than a pocket...a car. Because stuffing this thing into your backpack will leave no room for anything else.
Don't get me wrong though, the Rukus XL is still a lightweight wireless speaker you'd have no trouble hanging onto - but for how long is the question. And if you challenge the fact that we're unfairly comparing the two against each other, know that the UE Boom is a very capable little speaker with outstanding 15-hour battery life that might even challenge the RukusXL's solar power charging abilities depending on how and where you use your speakers.
Without turning on the RukusXL's bass boost, the UE Boom produces clean audio that's up to par if not slightly more pleasing. The Rukus XL sounds considerably flat until hitting that magic button. Why Eton even put an optional bass boost button is beyond us when clearly the Rukus XL sounds its best with it activated. It's pretty much going to be on all the time. The bass is obviously more powerful on the Rukus XL than it would be on any smaller portable speaker except for the SoundLink Mini, but that alone isn't making me think it's a must buy in terms of portability. A Big Jambox is just as powerful, but much more compact making it a better alternative if portability and quality audio is your main concern.
Personally, I would choose the UE Boom or even the SoundLink Mini over the Rukus XL if sound performance and portability was my number one priority. But if you plan on camping out for a few days, then it makes sense going with the RukusXL's solar panel prowess that would essentially provide power that will help power your audio source whilst also serving as an emergency backup solar powered battery charging facility you can carry with you. With that said, bare in mind that the RukusXL's solar panel requires hours of sunlight if you want to use it without ever having to plug it into an outlet. However, it will serve as a very useful emergency power source for when you need to make a phone call should you be left with a dead battery.
Overall it's right to say that the Rukus XL performs well sonically, but at the same time it doesn't sound remarkably better than a much smaller portable speaker nor is it very aesthetically charming. It does well in overshadowing a great compact speaker such as the UE Boom with greater mid and low presence in its sound signature that translates into a thicker, bigger sound that gets the point across at a non-audiophile grade level. The solar panel only sweetens the Rukus XL as a portable wireless speaker that can infinitely sustain itself on a solar energy diet without ever having to be plugged into the grid, yet with that you'll have to sacrifice sound quality for the price you pay. If you're going to be spending a lot of time out in the sun with no access to electricity, you may want to consider Eton'sRukus XL. Otherwise, you should look the other way.
For $200, the Rukus XL leaves us wanting more out of its large bulky size and limited audio performance, more notably the lack of water-resistant protection for such an outdoorsy system. That last part could become a problem when using it around the beach and water in general. We still think that solar powered speakers, or gadgets in general, is a category that's at its infancy. You could argue that the UE Boom hasn't got a solar panel, but with an outstanding rechargeable battery performance that runs for 15 hours straight, there really isn't a need for one if at the end of the day you come back to civilization. Grab a Gum++ backup battery charger and you've got yourself a worthy Rukus XL alternative without sacrificing portability. And if you've got spare room, we'd recommened looking at more capable wireless speakers such as the UEBoombox, Big Jambox or even the SoundLink Mini.