How do you make a portable wireless speaker that can stand above all else? If you're Creative, you use your sound card audio processing technology pedigree to your advantage while also packing as much features into a small sized portable speaker as you possibly can. That result is the Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200, a feature-packed portable wireless speaker with an unbelievable amount of functionality at a relatively reasonable price. More is always better, right? And if more is what you want, you'll get what you ask for with Creative's AXX 200 including excessive amounts of Xs. Creative is billing the AXX 200 as an intelligent wireless sound system, but we're not so sure 'intiligent' is the right description. One thing certain though, we have never reviewed a wireless speaker quite like this on Gadgetmac. So let’s get started.
We usually like to start and show off the packaging and unboxing of products, but this time there really is nothing special about Creative's uncreative packing job. So let's just skip over it and tell you what you get when you purchase the Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200: a micro-USB to USB charging cable, a small USB wall adapter (bonus points for that), and the world's saddest carry pouch we have ever seen included with a product. This white cloth-like drawstring pouch is so thin it's see-though. You may think it's a napkin at first. There's absolutely no thought or effort put into the accessories, and that shows throughout the product itself. It'll cost you $150, which is very reasonable given the amount of features and audio performance that comes along with the AXX 200. That's $50 less than what you'd pay for something like the UE Boom.
There's also a separate charging dock accessory for the AXX 200 that unfortunately isn't included, but Creative is currently running a promotion where you can get it for $20 instead of the $60 retail price. That said, Creative's Sound BlasterAxx Docking Base ridiculously overpriced. It does however come with multiple travel plug adapters and the same universal USB power adapter that is included with the speaker itself. But we think Creative should have just included the docking base with the speaker from the start instead of charging $60 for it. It's the same charging accessory concept we've seen implemented by Bose's SoundLink Mini. The difference is that Bose includes the base with its speaker instead of selling it as an optional accessory.
Of course we were given one to try, and it works as expected. The base offers you a convenient conductive charging alternative for recharging your AXX 200 by simply docking it into the charging base without having to connect a cable into the speaker. The bottom of the speaker features a removable rubber cover which reveals the conductive charging pins for use with the Sound BlasterAxx Docking Base. You can store the cover on the bottom of the charging base for safe keeping.
At first glance, the AXX 200 is a mundane looking device compared to other offerings on the market even though it does feature a somewhat different, white colored hexagonal-shaped rod form factor with a slanted shiny black top. It is larger and more angular than the UE Boom, which in comparison is a lot more suave with its cutting-edge styling and unique material composition. Truthfully, I find Creative's desktop speakers to have a more interesting design curve than this portable variant. It just doesn't bode well with me having that white, blank stare, albeit slightly edgy, standing there looking like one of the most unexciting and uninspiring statues of all time. I find the AX 200's styling or lack thereof to be as outdated as the CD drive.
Creative's AXX 200 stands 7.8-inches tall, which is 0.8 of an inch more than the Ultimate Ears UE Boom. It's also a bit wider in diameter, and although the difference is insignificant, we do like the UE Boom's refined and toned shape better. Regardless, you could just as easily fit the AXX 200 into pretty much any gear bag as it is still very much portable and weight about the same as the UE Boom. Both speakers are designed to be used vertically in a stand-up position so that the sound can be delivered in a more immersive way. And no, unfortunately for the AXX 200, it wasn't designed to pump a full 360 degrees worth of audio all around itself like the UE Boom does. A definite missed opportunity for any vertical standing speaker, and an obvious advantage for the UE Boom as it does sound much nicer from literally any angle. That being said, the speaker driver placement does positively affect the directional audio output towards a more wider range rather than it sounding like another speaker with narrow front projection.
If you really wanted to you could use the AXX 200 on its side, but because there are only two speaker drivers inside which are each facing the opposite side and fire the audio at a side angle, it wouldn't be the ideal usage for a speaker that was designed to be used while standing in a vertical orientation. Unlike the UE Boom's round cylindrical shape, the hexagonal shape of the AXX 200 allows you to position it at a side angle without covering up the rear side which you cannot do due to the bass exhaust port at the back.
The AXX 200 has a solid, glossy-finished plastic construction all the way around with half of its front side being covered by a perforated white speaker grille. It's got an acceptable build quality that won't wow you or give you the impression of poor construction. While not nearly as innovative or impressive as the UE Boom's weather-resistant construction, the AXX 200 looks to be a durable device you can throw into your bag. Expect that shiny plastic to easily scratch.
You name it, the AXX 200 has got it. Every imaginable feature you could possibly fit into a small portable wireless speaker that costs no more than $200 is at your disposal. Well...except for skip/backward track buttons. That would be just too much. Apparently, the line is also drawn at even more essential features like auto-Bluetooth connectivity pairing, decent speakerphone quality when using Bluetooth and power standby time. But other than that the AXX 200 pretty much looks after itself and your kids.
When it isn't being used to stream wireless audio, you know, like a normal portable speaker, the AXX 200 serves more than a dual purpose. As mentioned earlier, the AXX 200 features numerous different types of uses including the ability to function as an external backup battery charger, a USB sound card DAC, noise-canceling speakerphone with a 360 degree voice pick-up using two front and two back mics, external microphone input, on-board voice recording to a microSD card, and other arguably gimmicky description fillers like integrated megaphone voice amplification and MP3 file player using a microSD card. There's so much this speaker can do, and in many different ways. But what we're going to be focusing on is microphone and audio quality. The rest is all just little bonus features as far as I'm concerned.
On the side is where you can use the AXX 200's buiil-in NFC feature to pair your device by just tapping it around that area. If you don't have an NFC-supported device you can use the Bluetooth pairing button on the back to pair instead. A very bright blue LED light behind the speaker grille at the front of the AXX 200 will start to blink when the pairing process mode is activated. It will indefinitely turn solid blue when wirelessly connected.
On the back, there are a number of different controls including dedicated voice recording and micro-SD card button controls, a multi-function power on/off/standby and Bluetooth pairing button as well as a megaphone switch which allows you to use the AX 200 as a microphone speaker using its dual rear-facing microphones located above the power button when you want to sing along karaoke style whilst your voice is amplified and beatified using a reverb effect, record your voice to a memory card or simply have fun using a number of voice changing effects which is designed to serve as a children's play toy feature. Both of the Bluetooth pairing options work very well using Android and iOS devices, and you can actually have two different devices connected at the same time.
The only significant drawback to the AW 200's Bluetooth connectivity is that it does not reconnect to your device after turning back on, even from standby mode. You'll find that you will have to go into your Bluetooth setting or tap via NFC to pair the AX200 with your device each and every time you power it back on from either putting it into standby mode or completely turning it off, which needless to say is infuriating. Be it an Android or iOS device, Bluetooth auto-repairing apparently was never thought of by the people over at Creative. This isn't an issue with other Bluetooth speakers namely the UE Boom, which instantly reconnects to your device the moment you turn it on as it should.
I'll be honest with you, the most visually impressing thing about the AXX 200 is its touch-sensitive control interface. The moment you power it on, the shiny black, almost glass-like surface (which is actually just cheap plastic when looking closer) evenly illuminated with white control buttons like a HUD on some spaceship. It's a very cool interface indeed, and it actually works very well too. The capacitive button sensitivity is pretty great and responsive to the touch including the volume slider which can either be tapped on or swiped using your finger. What else? The bright illumination is obviously an awesome and unique feature for the AXX 200, but there is an issue - or drawback to it to be more accurate. And that's for that fact that it is always on. You can't turn it off, nor does it dim or fade away after being inactive for a couple of seconds or even minutes. It attracts your attention, but maybe too much in that we can see it being a distraction for some users. What Creative should have done was to integrated an ambient or proximity sensor on top of the panel so that it would be less of a nuisance and more user friendly.
LED lights are useful when tastefully integrated into a device, but what’s annoying is that for some reason the AXX 200 thinks that it’s a skyscraper and that it needs to warn aircrafts with a bunch of LED lights constantly lit and even blinking. If you haven’t noticed, there are exactly 11 LED lights that are always on. When the battery is full, 3 LED lights are lit at the very bottom while a bright blue Bluetooth LED light at the front top of the speaker is the most intrusive of the bunch. On top of that, the AXX 200’s touch control panel cluster of buttons is always lit and cannot be turned off nor does it after a period of time. The white touch-sensitive volume button bar thinks its some type of strobe because it always blinks no matter what. The only time when these lights turn off is ether when the speaker if put into standby mode or completely turned off. It’s a shame that with so many apps, albeit poorly designed, there is not one setting that will allow users to control the behavior of these lights. Sure they make the AXX 200 stand out, but for many it will not seem like it's for the right reasons. Some type of auto-dim function mentioned earlier would be a very welcome and necessary addition if Creative would push out a downloadable firmware update.
Call quality over Bluetooth is average when noise-cancellation is turned on. However, I didn't find that the AXX 200's voice focus feature helped as much as it reduced the volume of my voice pick up when sitting away from the speaker. It supposedly turns into a more directional microphone rather than omnidirectional as you move around the room, but I didn't find it to work better than using the noise-cancellation feature alone. Nonetheless, the audio quality is comparable to that of the built-in microphones on new Macs, which is surprisingly very good for crystal clear and audible voice chat and two-way call quality. The audio slightly improves when connecting the AXX 200 to a computer using USB, which Creative says enables you to use the AXX 200 as a high-end teleconferencing system.
When wirelessly connected to the AXX 200, as you get a call the call button on the touch interface will blink in which case you can tap on it to answer and end the call. Of course the speakerphone feature will be automatically activated. You can also bring up Siri or Google Now using the same button with an iOS or Android device.
But for that you're going to need to use your own memory card because the AXX 200 does not have any built-in storage other than providing a place for you to stick it in the back. It's also worth noting that none of these play and skip buttons can be used to control the music on your device when paired even when you don't have a memory card inserted which is just useless. Because without a memory card, most of these controls are useless.
If you want to liven-up your headphones when you're sitting at your desk using your computer or laptop with contrasty audio, you can use the AXX 200 as a USB DAC which bypasses your computer's built-in headphone output and its sound card, and instead uses the USB port to channel audio into the AXX 200, which in return process the audio signal using its own Sound Blaster multi-core sound processing chip to deliver you a higher quality sound. That said, chances are that you already have a pretty good audio output to even notice a difference in quality. However, the AXX 200 does enhance the sound coming from your Mac or PC using its SBX mode which adds a bit of color and richness to the sound when you plug in your headphones into the back of the speaker.
Built in is a large 5200mAh dual-purpose battery battery which not only does it provide you with up to an impressive 15 hours of wireless Bluetooth audio streaming (the same amount on the UE Boom), but it can also be used as a backup battery pack to charge external devices like your smartphone. The 2.1A USB charging port at the back charges devices such as the iPhone 5s fairly quick and nearly twice over. With that in mind however, if you're using the AXX 200 to charge your device know that you're basically using up the battery to power on the speaker itself. So on a full charge you can get away with charging an iPhone back up to around 80%, while still having a an hour or two left to keep wirelessly streaming music simultaneously. Creative does note that it helps greatly if the external device you want to charge is shut off.
There are three white LED dots at the very bottom front side of the AXX 200 which tell you the battery as well as the charging status. In addition, out of the three LEDs the middle one will light up when the speaker is put into standby mode. Of course not much can come from just three lights, and as you can imagine it's a very limited approximant. The UE Boom on the other hand features a more detailed battery life status using a smart spoken battery percentage notification. Fortunately for iOS users however, when the AXX 200 is paired via Bluetooth a battery indicator meter icon will appear near the Bluetooth connection status to give you a better indication of the remaining battery life compared to the three on-board LEDs.
Creative likes to boast more about its Sound Blaster technology rather than the actual driver hardware inside the speaker. And we quickly found out why that is. The AXX 200 hasn't got a single bass radiator in it, which makes it sound a lot like JBL's Charge speaker using just two relatively small dynamic drivers to handle the heavy lifting resulting lack in low-end definition you'd otherwise find present in other compact portable speakers such as the SoundLink Mini and UE Boom. Thanks to Creative's technology infusion, the AXX 200 does have an amped audio output. Meaning that is outputs louder volume despite having a smallish form factor. That's true to some degree. While the AXX 200 can deliver room-filling audio for its portable stature, it isn't as loud as the UE Boom, which is roughly 15% louder.
The midrange and bass aren't rich sounding on the AXX 200. Similar to every portable speaker we have tested from JBL, there's simply too much treble in the audio which compared to more balanced and fuller sounding offerings can be described as somewhat hallow, thin and just lacking richness. Depth and definition is certainly something the AX200 needs more of. However, there's still good news. Vocals come through with immense clarity. Surprisingly enough, the highs on the AXX 200 are absolutely phenomenal. So the sound signature is definitely less warm, and more bright with high treble bias. You can of course play around with the AXX 200's SoundBlaster Central app using various different types of audio profiles and EQ settings, but no matter what you do, you won't be able to truly improve the AXX 200's audio quality. You may alter its sound signature a bit, but you'll find that nothing really does sound better after all. And that's even if you successfully changed settings, because the app is terribly buggy and unreliable.
Furthermore, you can custom tune the sound and voice settings on the AXX 200 from your Mac/PC, iOS or Android device using Creative's Sound BlasterAxx audio control center app. The amount of flexibility in customization and features is astounding. But what if you just want to listen to music without having to mess around with settings? Not that you'll find any of the settings to have positive improvement on the audio quality, and we made sure to test them all. You can of course use the AXX 200 as you'd normally would any other wireless speaker. The only thing you need to know or use is the SBX setting mode which is a button located at the top control cluster of the speaker. It's on by default, but if you turn it off you can alter the audio with just a tap and no apps or other setting tweaks. The difference this mode makes is essentially a fuller and more alive sound vs a somewhat flatter, boring sound. Both actually have their own positive impact on how your audio ends up sounding, so be sure to try which mode sounds best to you.
The noticeable difference between the AXX 200 and UE Boom is the low-end and detailed richness. The UE Boom sounds much nicer with its slightly more detailed midrange and richer, fuller bass and low-end. The UE Boom has a warmer sound because of its richer midrange and bassier low-end. Otherwise, the highs and vocal clarity on both speakers is comparable. It’s a pretty close comparison in terms of audio quality, but the UE Boom does have a richer, cleaner and more detailed sound when hearing the two side by side. That said, if you already purchased an AXX 200 speaker there’s no need to replace it with the UE Boom. The difference in sound performance is negligible, and even more so when not directly comparing the two side by side.
At the end of the day we found that the AXX 200 doesn't sound quite as good its rival, the UE Boom. However, it does a damn good job with its audio performance compared to a lot of other speakers at this prince range. It's without doubt one of the clearest sounding portable speaker we have tested. It's just lacks bass and better midrange richness to merit a recommendation from us. Because while the AXX 200 boasts a handful of other features that aren't found on other portable speakers of its size (some which are flawed by the way), what it all comes down to is raw audio performance. And like most first generation compact speakers, the AXX 200 leaves room for improvement on that front.
At $150 it's a tough act to recommended purely because it stands between reasonably priced $100 portable speakers, and the higher-end $200+ portable speakers – which are capable of offering a complete audio experience in a compact form factor. The AXX 200 is neither here nor there. But if you think that you'll benefit from its external backup battery charging functionality as well as other arguably gimmicky on-board voice recording and megaphone features, then we think you'll actually really like what Creative has got in store for you with its AXX 200. We know one thing is for sure, the AXX 200 not only has an insanely great battery performance with up to 15 hours of wireless usage, but is also doubles as an amazingly useful gadget to have if meticulous audio quality isn't your primary requirement. Creative will have you think that the AXX 200 is worth more than what it costs right now, but we think differently. It is loaded with little drawbacks, lacks at least one bass radiator and doesn't automatically pair with your Bluetooth device once you turn it off.
For most people, the AXX 200 will fit the bill, though it does come with its fair share of caveats. It has moderately good sounding audio quality that albeit lacks bass, is crystal clear across the range. Not only that, but the amount of features, some being actually useful, bring more value to an otherwise solid performing portable wireless speaker. That being said, we don't think the AXX 200's audio quality is rich enough compared to other portable speakers to merit a recommendation at $150. It would be more valuable if Creative spent less time stuffing a bunch of features into the AXX 200, and instead focused a lot more on fine tuning the audio performance with better driver hardware with all of that form factor space.
Update: Creative informed us that within the Sound Blaster Central app settings is an option to turn on "Bluetooth auto connection". When enabled, it will let the AXX 200 to automatically connect to a previously paired Bluetooth device. We made sure to test it out, and indeed the speaker reconnects a few moments after it is turned on as it should. Though it isn’t as quick to pair as the UE Boom. Why this isn’t turned on natively and by default on the speaker itself boggles our mind.