Grain Audio is a new name in the audio industry. And like every other newcomer, Grain Audio wants to make it by being different. By standing out from what everyone else is doing. But how does a company achieve this seemingly arduous proclamation? The ambiguous answer is wood. Although you can't tell that from our photo above, we can assure you that wood is in fact the center of attention. Grain Audio wanted to make a portable wireless speaker that united the simplicity of contemporary lines with genuine wood as the speaker's enclosure for not only having excellent acoustic properties that improve audio quality, but obviously for its striking and unique appearance. The result is the Packable Wireless Speaker - or PWS for short. This is a wireless Bluetooth speaker that can very easily be taken outside or placed on a bookshelf where it'll feel like a part of your posh decor. As always, we've got a couple of portable speaker comparisons waiting for you down below where you'll also find the full review of Grain Audio's PWS!
Ahh that's more like it. Behold, the Grain Audio Packable Wireless Speaker in all of its $249 wood-clad glory. But not just any kind of wood, the PWS uses FSC-certified solid walnut wood. You know, the not so cheap stuff. And it shows. The walnut grain and deep dark color is simply a magnificent sight for any wood enthusiast. The idea was to create a wireless portable speaker that felt more natural, more alive and a hell of a lot more sophisticated than any other one currently being sold. Having the PWS sitting in front of me, I can definitely feel how uniquely different it is from every other portable speaker I have so far tested. There's a special visual appealing to it, but I wouldn't go as far as to say that the PWS is the best looking or best designed portable wireless speaker that I have used. Now that is of course me talking from personal taste. Though I would say that the PWS is the most handsomely designed portable speaker as far as wooden portables are concerned.
Little did you know, Grain Audio started its success on Kickstarter where it exceeded its original funding goal that eventually helped the company fulfill its dreams of producing unique, wood-orientated audio products. The PWS is a part of Grain Audio's collection of woodgrain audio gear which includes the $199 natural-sounding OEHP over-ear headphones, the $99 IEHP in-ear headphones and the more serious $699 PBS Passive Bookshelf Speaker system for the home.
Admittedly wood-made portable Bluetooth speakers are a minority, however, Grain Audio is certainly not the first to come up with the idea of incorporating wood into the construction of a portable wireless speaker. One example is Vers Audio. Another Kickstarted brand which has beaten Grain Audio to the punch. Yet we think Grain Audio has succeeded in bringing the best designed and possibly sounding portable wood speaker to market with the PWS. The Vers Audio Q203 speaker is gaudy in comparison.
Grain Audio's PWS measures 7-inches wide, 2.4-inches thick and 3.1-inches tall when placed horizontally. So essentially it's like you're carrying a brick with you. This is probably the largest, bulkiest and most hefty portable speaker we've reviewed in its class excluding the Big Jambox - which really cannot be classified in the same portability category as the PWS and others like the UE Boom, SoundLink Mini and Charge speakers. Will you be able to fit the PWS into your pocket? Not a chance. But it'll slip into any gear bag no questions asked.
The natural properties and beauty of wood aside, I must say that I'm quite fond of Grain Audio's design language. Having dealt with countless audio gear, the PWS certainly bears a heavy Scandinavian design influence with its svelte, minimalist design and clean lines. The mixture between the warmth of wood and the coldness of gray rubber and metal is a trendy outcome that looks and feels right. Externally, the Packable Wireless Speaker has a very clean and flat front speaker grille with an exact mirrored rear side. It isn't hard to mix the two sides when setting up the speaker because only the small Grain Audio "G" branding on the middle control button at the top of the unit tells you the right orientation. Since it is a directional-firing speaker, you should pay attention.
Grain Audio's PWS is the sort of speaker that I'd expect to find at Urban Outfitters and not at a big box retail giant like Best Buy. And that's not saying that Grain Audio's PWS is poorly designed. It's just that different from the mainstream products that one would readily find at such establishments. What this really means as far as design is concerned is that the PWS has a special quality to it that simply wouldn't fit with other speakers, and that's exactly what makes it one of the most charming, elegant and sophisticated portable speakers I have ever tested. Let's just say that Grain Audio's PWS will not immediately appeal to the tech-savvy crowed, but instead it'll find more interest from mature, middle-aged individuals who are looking for that warmness in an otherwise modern-day gadget.
Grain Audio may be new to the market, but it sure has done its homework. From the packaging down to the included accessories, the PWS is professionally presented just as you'd expect from other well-known competitors - namely Ultimate Ears and Jawbone.The revealing packaging may not be the most user-friendly of all to get opened, but once you succeed, you'll be awarded with some goodies inside. As I was opening the PWS packaging I felt like I was unboxing a Jawbone product. And that's a huge compliment. Even the included accessories such as the black protective sleeve pouch, ultra-compact USB wall adapter (good on you, Grain Audio), the micro-USB to USB charging cable and the 3.5mm to 3.5mm audio cable feel like they weren't just thrown in as an afterthought. They actually have a high quality look and feel to them that we often see being included with higher-end products that are heavily reliant on good design from the smallest ingredient.
And if you haven't picked up on this yet, the gray color of these pack-ins do actually match the PWS speaker in a way. More specifically, they match the gray rubber that is incorporated into the PWS. Nice little attention to detail is always a good start.
The PWS case in particular is one of the nicest protective storage/carrying pouch cases we have seen included with such an offering. The speaker slips into the pouch with extra room left at the top for you to fold up the end like a brown paper bag creating this makeshift handle made out of a clip buckle that finally secures the opening.
Although the soft fabric material isn't going to offer serious protection, it'll do fine protecting the speaker while you're traveling and will also help keep that walnut wood in pristine condition. It is worth mentioning that there is indeed a water-resistant coating applied to the finish of the wood, but it wouldn't hurt taking extra care of it.
As you’d expect from a $250 portable speaker, the PWS is built remarkably well. The wood enclosure sandwiched between a durable rubber border with metal perforated speaker grilles offer a substantial built quality that gives the PWS a really solid - brick-like construction. It feels like a premium product, and I reality can’t see anything that Grain Audio could have done to improve the build quality any further.
When it comes to additional features, the PWS takes streaming music more seriously and simply couldn't give two cents about anything other than that. That's why it has no speakerphone functionality nor does it have any on-board back/skip control buttons. What it does have are basic essentials like volume up and down button controls, and a single middle "G" button which is a multi-function button that doubles as a Bluetooth pairing control as well as the speaker's on/off switch. The buttons are rubberized and have great tactile response when pressed.
It's also worth mentioning that this "G" button does light up blue when paired over Bluetooth, or lights up red or green denoting the battery and charging status.
On the right side we have a micro-USB charging input as well as a 3.5mm audio input for use with the included audio cable in case you'd like to connect the PWS to a non-Bluetooth audio source. While not an options I'd ever find the need for, it is a very useful feature that is practically a welcome standard on all portable wireless speakers.
Bluetooth pairing with both iOS and Android devices is a flawless and quick procedure. I've experience no issues streaming over Bluetooth to an iOS device like the iPhone 5s from across my apartment and even through walls. Connection remained strong and interference-free even past the standard 30 feet wireless range. However, I found that when using an Android device, the Nexus 5 to be more specific, the PWS' Bluetooth range of roughly 30 feet would drastically be cut in half due to choppy connectivity going beyond roughly 15 feet which is disappointing.
The built-in rechargeable battery had no trouble providing the claimed 8 hours of wireless streaming. It isn't as impressive as the UE Boom's 15-hour battery life, but it does sit at the sweet spot of a day-long battery performance. The feature that let's you check up on the PWS' battery status is literally identical to the UE Boom in that a female voice announces remaining battery when pressing the two volume buttons simultaneously. The only noticeable difference between the two speakers is that the PWS’ battery status voice is inferior to that of the highly polished voice found on the UE Boom.
Before we talk about sound characteristics, Grain Audio tells us that the PWS features two 2" proprietary loudspeaker drivers and a passive bass radiator of an unknown dimension. It also features MaxxAudio sound processing technology that's used in sound boards and is developed by a company called Waves. How this technology positively affects the sound performance isn't easy to test since it is all inherently active and cannot be turned off. And then there's the natural sound enhancing properties of the wood enclosure. It supposedly helps improve the PWS' sound by introducing a warmer, more natural sound. I'm not so sure that wood has anything to do with how the PWS sounds, but there's definitely a very warm sound delivery in its signature.
The second the PWS starts playing a track (Love Is To Die by Warpaint for example), it right away sounds like the audio is coming from a different speaker. And that’s because it’s hard at first to believe just how full-bodied the PWS sounds considering its portable size. This is the first portable speaker of its size that is the closest to sounding as amazingly powerful as the Editors' Choice Award-winning SoundLink Mini by Bose. The low-end will jump straight at you with its hands up looking to knock you out cold.
The bass is perhaps the best thing about the PWS since it’s the hardest characteristic to find in these highly portable wireless speakers. When the volume slider is pushed up, the PWS delivers an irresistible low-end bass thump that vibrates anything within a 5 feet. Sadly, that includes the speaker itself which despite having rubberized feet and a patented "Bass Isolation system", turns on a smooth flat surface due to the pulsating vibration caused by the passive radiator. Not that the vibration is audible, but it does eventually change the orientation of the speaker which is a bittersweet annoyance at higher than average listening volume.
Having a strong presence of bass is always a great thing, however, in the PWS’ case it comes at the cost of clarity. The midrange suffers the most from the heavy bass response or lackluster driver tuning. The sound is great until you listen to more detailed tracks where the PWS struggles to output clear instrument separation and simply drowns in its recessed mids, muddled bass and somewhat tainted highs. First, the bass is too overwhelming. In particular the low-end which sounds overpowering and ends up sounding like it’s on the verge of breaking apart at the highest volume level - which isn’t that loud. Speaking of loudness, the PWS will fill up a large living room, but it isn’t as powerful as the UE Boom which is roughly 20% louder and can be hear all throughout a 3-bedroom apartment.
Putting Grain Audio's PWS up against Ultimate Ears' UE Boom shows us that they share an equal length, albeit the UE Boom's cylindrical form factor is at an advantage as far as portability goes. The two sound vastly different from each other. That's because the UE Boom lacks the solid bass component that the PWS is capable of pushing through. That said, the UE Boom makes up for the lack of thumpiness with plenty of clarity and detail throughout the board. Of course low-end detail isn't as pronounced as it is when listening to Grain Audio's PWS or the SoundLink Mini. Another downside to the UE Boom by some people is the fact that it has a treble-rich sound signature which isn't warm and balanced across the spectrum when directly comparing the two speakers side by side. When watching a movie or playing a game, you definitely want to be using the PWS over the UE Boom for its bass-driven, full and rich sound. Although some people may still prefer a more clearer, brighter sounding speaker like the UE Boom.
Then there's the PWS' $249 price tag, which is more than what Bose charges for its all-aluminum $200 SoundLink Mini portable wireless speaker. Which is of course a noteworthy competitor, but with a slightly more compact and streamlined form factor with a better overall sound signature and cleaner, more collected bass response mind you. And that makes it very difficult for us to recommend the PWS over the SoundLink mini as far as portability, build and sound quality are concerned. That said, if you fancy the PWS' rustic walnut wood construction over the cold, industrial unibody design of the SoundLink Mini, and you don't mind paying a bit more for it - then we don't see why you shouldn't go with Grain Audio's PWS. Well, except for the fact the SoundLink Mini is still a more accomplished performer. Nevertheless, we are impressed by what Grain Audio has achieved with its first ever portable speaker offering. It's clear that the company is headed in the right direction, but some things need improving.