Project Bar-B-Q is a great place to discover tomorrow's audio technology, so I was intrigued when someone on the mailing list mentioned the new Kerchoonz K-box portable speaker. Could its "gel audio technology" really deliver unprecedented bass from a tiny box? The short answer is yes.
The K-box ($73.50) is about the size of two stacked iPhones: 6x12x2.7 cm. It has a pleasant rubbery skin and seems solid and well made. Inside are both a standard speaker (for middle and high frequencies) and a vibration speaker (similar to this one) for bass. A gooey pad on the bottom of the device transmits the vibrations to wherever you stick the K-box — your desk, a coffee table, a bookcase, or even a mirror — transforming the surface into a giant woofer. (I wouldn't recommend the mirror, because the goo quickly loses its grip on vertical surfaces.)
The Kerchoonz K-box (right) is elegantly simple: It charges over USB; connecting a 1/8-inch audio cable turns it on. You control volume from the source device. The vents in the top pass middle and high frequencies.
The bass is amazingly strong; I could actually feel it in my chest when I put the speaker on the right surface. I had fun wandering around the house with my iPod and the K-box, sticking it on different surfaces to test the effect. The best surface I found was an eight-foot-long cabinet with a 3/4-inch-thick plywood top. Here are two recordings I made there with a Zoom H2. First you'll hear the sound playing from the iPod's internal speaker, then with the K-box held above the surface, and finally with it resting on the surface. The song excerpts are from DJ Harry and Was (Not Was).
- Internal → Hand → Surface
- Hand → Surface (Changes after the word "attorney"; I'm not sure if the distortion on the word "journey" was from the speaker or the mic.)
The gel pad gets fuzzy with dust after a while, causing the K-box to jump around, but a quick swipe with a damp cloth restores its gooey grip. The K-box also dove off my desktop a couple of times when I was feeding it bass-heavy sounds from my Korg Kaossilator with the volume cranked. This speaker gets mighty loud.
Here's the bottom of the K-box, showing the gel pad that couples it to your tabletop — plus some of the dust the pad gathered during my search for the ideal resonator surface.
In contrast to the bass, the treble is weak. It sounds muffled, and because the high-frequency speaker fires upward rather than toward your ears, the brightness decreases further. (High frequencies are very directional, whereas low frequencies are much less so. That's why most home theater systems use only one subwoofer.)
Also, the K-box sums incoming stereo signals to mono, which reduces the sense of space. Kerchoonz says you can connect two K-boxes to a stereo-to-L/R splitter cable for stereo, but that would be pricey. I got good results by splitting the stereo signal with a dual headphone adapter and running some speakers with better tweeters in parallel with the K-box.
In many listening situations, though, you'll be moving around a room rather than rooted intently between stereo speakers, and for that, the K-box delivers a good sound. I also enjoyed hooking the K-box to my synthesizer keyboard so I could feel the bass as I played.
The main drawback I noticed was occasional buzzing distortion in the sound. When it happened, it was obvious even at low levels and with a fully charged battery, and made me want to unplug the speaker immediately. The PR rep explained, "You received an initial pre-production sample of the K-box and Kerchoonz has actually addressed and corrected the sound distortion you recognized in their commercial units."
Assuming that's true (and that you don't need stereo sound and sparkling highs), I think the K-box is a terrific choice for a portable speaker. The fantastic bass response makes it sound much richer than any other speaker I've heard that's even close to this size, and yet it's amazingly compact and easy to use. An orange light turns on when it's charging; a blue light illuminates when it's playing. Other than a battery gauge, I can't think of any interface improvements I'd want. (Kerchoonz says a full charge will deliver up to 20 hours of playback.)
Here's some more background from the company:
Our aim was to come up with a product that could make a cell phone sound better than it does normally for less than $100 and give it as much range, volume, and bass [as possible] but still make it small enough for portability.
Gel Audio is a patented loudspeaker technology developed in Scotland. The core of the technology uses silicon to hold the metal components together and transfer the energy to surfaces to turn these surfaces into a loudspeaker. There is no cone structure as in conventional loudspeaker technology and this means that they take up less space than conventional loudspeakers. The key attributes of Gel Audio are that it does not require cutouts or grilles, and more important for consumer products, delivers a bass performance that cannot be achieved by a conventional loudspeaker of a similar size.
Typically, portable speakers are a huge compromise: Make them small enough to carry, and the bass shrivels into wimpiness. Add goofy resonant chambers or electronic frequency-doubling, and the sound turns boomy and artificial. The K-box creates a satisfyingly loud and deep sound from a conveniently small box at a reasonable price, and the back-to-mono design works well in typical listening situations. The treble isn't crisp enough for me to whip out my own wallet, but I'm eager to see where Kerchoonz takes its gel technology next. The company founder is a musician herself, so that bodes well for even better-sounding K-speakers in the future.
UPDATE, 2011-11-26: The Kerchoonz is now rebranded as the Wowee One. I recently bought one on Amazon for $35; at half the former price, it was a reasonable buy. This unit doesn't have the unpredictable distortion I heard in the earlier model, though I do notice it buzzed on certain midrange notes when I connected it to my digital piano. In any event, it's a handy and impressive speaker to have around. I'm currently running it in parallel with a Divoom iTour-pop (who thinks up these names?!) to fill in the missing high end.