In 1981 I remember getting my first Walkman, a device that changed how and where people listened to music. It was your own personal music library that could be carried with you where ever you went to be listened to with headphones. In 1981 I also remember buying my first set of external speakers as well. Let’s face it, in reality music tends to be a social medium. I mean we discuss it, we go to concerts, dances and jam sessions and it’s very rare you go to any sort of party where there’s no music at all. With the portability and storage of devices these days, the ability to carry around a heap of music or movies is even easier. There are occasions though when you want to play your music out loud, where headphones aren’t appropriate, or you want to share your tunes or movies with others, and it’s here where most inbuilt speakers fall short . Most devices, smartphones and tablets all tend to have fairly average and quiet internal speaker ability and let’s face it, even a lot of notebooks have fairly anemic sound. The X-mini speaker range from Xmi, including the KAI Capsule Speaker, attempts to address this issue.
If you need to share your music, there’s no end to the number of speakers and docking stations available. The problem is many of these solutions tend to be not overly portable. Xmi is a Singapore-based company that started in 2006 and have become well-known for their X-mini portable sound solutions. The X-mini range of both mono and stereo speakers are made to address the tricky balance between size and sound. While previous models were wired only, the KAI adds Bluetooth capability to give a completely wireless solution.
Included is a carry bag and charging audio cable, which has a standard USB head, mini USB head and 3.5mm stereo plug. It’s a nice touch that the cable comes included with a small Velcro tie to keep things neat and tidy. It’s also nice that they put in a flyer for the charity Children International; more corporations should do this sort of stuff. Kudos, guys.
The KAI is small and easily portable. Made with a matte rubberised exterior, it feels solid and well made. It’s powered by a 40mm magnetically-shielded speaker at 2.5W and weighs in at 92.5g. With the resonator closed, it’s 50.0mm X 62.0mm, so it doesn’t take up much space at all on your desk or in your gadget bag. It’s worth noting that Xmi won Red Dot Design Awards in both 2008 and 2011 for their designs.
Want to use your KAI with a non-Bluetooth enabled device? Integrated into the base is a 3.5mm cable – nice, neat and tidy. It tucks away and you don’t have to worry about carrying or remembering to bring an additional cable with you. However, the cable is quite short (11.5cm), which means that even picking up your device to change a setting can be tricky. You can also use the included miniUSB charging-to-audio cable, which is longer (58cm), but this means having to carry this cable with you.
All the controls are on the base of the capsule. In wired mode, none of the controls do anything – contrary to the instruction sheet that says you can control the volume. I’ve confirmed this with X-mini, and they’re going to amend the manual. In Bluetooth mode you can control volume, skip/back your song, pause play and answer/hangup from phone calls using the rocker switch. On the right is a mute button, really handy if you want to quickly mute the sound if say you get a landline phone call in the office. Bluetooth control is great because it means that you don’t have to use your device to change things, which in my case means I don’t have to turn on my phone, put in a lock code, find the media player, then poke away at the screen.
Further around is the power switch, which also allows you to choose wired or Bluetooth mode. Pairing your device is easy: turn the switch to Bluetooth, do a scan on your device, discover it and pair. No painful pairing codes or anything like that, and it supports A2DP stereo. The stated range is 10 metres, however even in an open room with my HTC Desire, I found that the sound started breaking up at around 7-8 metres. Don’t forget that range will be determined by the Bluetooth on your device as well. No biggie, as I can’t see myself ever really wanting my speaker and device being that far apart anyway.
Next is an LED that gives you power status: blue for charged and dimmed blue when running out of juice. It also shows red while charging and blue when charged. Recharging is accomplished via the miniUSB port and takes around 2.5 hours. When charged, the unit is quoted as giving up to 8 hours playtime wired or 4 hours on Bluetooth. I’ve had it running on battery, both with Bluetooth and wired, for 9 hours a day for the last 5 days in my office (albeit at a fairly low background volume). There’s still juice for the weekend, so the stated runtime is conservative and most likely based on having it cranked the whole time.
Lastly is the Buddyjack port and built in microphone for speakerphone mode. Buddyjack allows you to add additional speakers to your sound. If you add another X-Mini mono speaker this still won’t give you stereo sound, just “multiplied” sound. The 3.5mm Buddyjack port can also be connected to an external audio system, such as your portable stereo speakers or home sound system, and still be Bluetooth controlled.
The microphone doesn’t have any noise cancellation technology built in, but that didn’t seem to be an issue when tested in a quiet office environment. I didn’t tell the callers that I was on a speakerphone and they never asked or had any issues hearing me. The calling party comes through loud and clear via the speaker, as would be expected.
Of course all these features aren’t worth squat if the sound output is substandard. During my test period, I listened to an assortment of music from classical, live, instrumental and vocal up to modern rap and Heavy Metal (real 60s/70s Heavy Metal not this stuff the youth listen to today :)) I also threw in a few movies, again everything from more vocal-centric movies to action movies with heavy explosions. Testing was done on a smartphone (HTC Desire), an MP3 player (River T6), an Android tablet (Thinkpad Tablet), and notebook (Toshiba R700) via both Bluetooth and wire.
Across all devices and genres mids and highs are crisp and clear. Snares, highhats, rimshots, triangles all “pop”. Vocals (spoken and singing ) are always clear and crisp. It’s hard to describe how crisp the sound is in words. The bass isn’t going to make your eardrums bleed, but it’s amazing how much there is given that the driver is really only the size of a normal tweeter. The bass expansion resonator definitely makes a big difference with the lower frequencies. Close the KAI and you can immediately hear the difference in mids and bass.
Compared with a Bluetooth connection, connecting the cable drives the speaker a bit harder at the same player output volume, and I couldn’t hear a discernible difference between sound quality. For me Bluetooth connectivity is the preferred option, as the added versatility of position and control outweighs any additional loudness via wired. The amount of sound from the unit via either method is more than sufficient for personal use and will easily fill a small/medium sized room – even without turning it up to 11 Please do note, I’m no audiophile, but I do know what I like and what sounds good to me
It’s worth noting that there’s a number of factors that come into play with the quality of the sound you’ll achieve:
- Source file – GIGO
- The player you’re using and what equalization options you have or use.
- Any speaker that you overdrive will distort, and if you turn the KAI up loud enough your speaker will start “dancing”. At this stage sound is distorted, highs “CRACK” rather than “pop” . The trick is to get the right mix of volumes between the output of your device and the output of the KAI. Another annoyance if it starts “dancing” is that the hard rubber feet start “clacking” on the surface.
- The surface and position of your KAI can assist in enhancing the bass. Hard solid-wood surfaces work well, corners or close to walls works, and even putting the speaker on an empty box will assist in more bass. Being wireless assists with easily being able to do this as you don’t have to place the speaker next to your player.
- Your personal ears (and I admit mine may be a bit stuffed from too many years of scuba diving, concerts and playing in bands in my younger days)
A few things that would make it a bit more “friendly” to me:
- The rocker switch to change volume/tracks is a bit sensitive and a few times I went to change the volume but instead changed track (long flick changes volume, short flick changes track).
- It would have been nice if they’d used microUSB to charge instead of miniUSB as this is much more standard these days with smartphones and players. The miniUSB is just now another cable I need to carry around with me to charge it, as all the rest of my devices use microUSB.
- It would be nice to have a more graduated battery (early) warning.
- I’m a bit worried about the exposed speaker. The supplied bag will protect it a bit when thrown into my gadget bag, but I’m concerned I might end up with a hole in the speaker from something sharp.
- I’m in two minds about the price. Their wired-only version of the same unit is around 1/3 of the price, so you’re paying quite a premium to get wireless connectivity and a speakerphone. I’ve shown this to many people during the test period, they all love the size, they all love the sound, but when you tell them the price it’s “Oh, I don’t love it that much” .
One thing that might put people off this unit is that the sound is only mono, but to me it’s not such a big deal. I’m often moving around a lot doing things while listening to music, so I’m really not going to get any advantage from full stereo separation.
All in all, the size and portability, the ability to control your music player from the KAI, the speakerphone capability and Bluetooth dongle ability, and of course, the quality and crispness of the sound makes this a really versatile device. It’s never going to replace a good set of headphones or a good stereo system, but due to its fantastic balance of size and sound, it’s found a permanent place on my desk at work, at home, and in my gadget bag to supplement the weak speakers on my devices. During the testing period I’ve definitely had fun getting some of my own back on the kids as usually I have to put up with hearing their music all the time :) In my opinion the sound (both volume and quality) that the KAI puts out far exceeds what you’d think you could get out of such a small portable unit. It certainly lives up to Xmi’s slogan of “Sound Beyond Size” .