Portability is something often considered for new products these days because people seem to expect it. Cellphones have become slimmer, laptops have become lighter, Lindsay Lohan disappears when she turns to her side and now we have things like portable laser printers. Speakers that you can lug around with you have always been a thing, from the early portable, battery-powered boom boxes to what we have here today, a set of portable, small, omnidirectional speakers. Razer says the Ferox is “tiny but mighty” and I’ll be putting that to the test.
The Ferox’s packaging is rather small and efficient. It manages to cram in the two speakers, the cables to connect them, a nifty carry bag and some paraphernalia. Inside is a small user’s guide, a shorter-than-normal love letter from RazerGuy, two stickers and a little booklet on Razer’s conformity to international standards. Funny enough, although it tells you which elements weren’t used in the manufacturing process of the speakers or their accessories, like Lead, Mercury, Cadmium, Hexavalent Chromium (really deadly stuff right there), Polybrominated biphenyl or the Ether variant, it would be much, much more useful if all of this stuff was actually in a language we could understand.
That aside, let’s get into it. The speakers are cone-shaped and have a matte finish in the middle, with glossy plastic running in a rim around the base and top. The top of the speaker has an embossed Razer logo and is slightly tented in the middle, showing off some nice reflections when you rotate it under some light. The speakers are position-agnostic and there’s no left or right speaker to choose from. The cable actually dictates that and has two mini-USB gold-plated connectors marked “L” and “R”. There’s also a 3.5mm audio jack that provides stereo sound and a regular USB male connector that’s used to charge the speakers. I like the way they’ve been set up because you can plug in one speaker on its own for mono sound, or both for stereo.
A nifty thing about the speakers is even if you open them, they won’t use battery power until you plug the USB cable in. Turning them on requires you to depress the lid slightly, releasing the conical grille and the 30mm driver, which then pops up on its own. Once they’re plugged in, a opaque plastic ring on the base begins to glow a soft blue and slowly pulsates while you’re playing something. Its really cool to see it in the dark and when the batteries are low, it changes to red. The drivers direct sound up and are bounce it off the top of the lid. With Razer’s design, instead of the speakers directing sound towards you, they shunt it all around in a full circle and for the first time, people in front, behind and to the sides of the speaker will hear what’s going on without having to angle their ears or bunch up together.
The only detriment to what is, in my opinion, a brilliant design, is the fact that omnidirectional speakers, and generally speakers of this size, sacrifice a lot in the areas of middle frequencies and bass. In most cases, it’s the size that limits what it can do to the laws of physics to put ear-melting melodies into your brain. Bass speakers normally direct sound towards you, but it’s less effective if you’re just throwing it around. That’s why you put bass speakers on a carpet if you have a wooden floor, or why it’s recommended to have a carpet in the middle of your lounge if you’re on a tiled floor, as the bass loses its power the more the sound bounces, nearly halving its potential energy each time it does. Volume isn’t a problem for units like these and certainly in the case of what would be the Ferox’s rival, the Shoxx speakers, but it’s keeping pitch frequency consistent that’s the main issue.
How come I don’t see no batteries, huh?
Those are inside the speakers, underneath the main label which is held on by a small black strip of metal. I can’t open them for worry of breaking the warranty but it’s two Lithium-Ion batteries with a quoted life of twelve hours. Now note that it’s twelve hours each for both speakers but they don’t share charge between them when the USB cable is connected. You can’t, for example, plug in both, play them at half volume and expect a 24-hour run, it doesn’t work like that.
Volume is also something else that’s a little different from what I expected. There’s no in-line adjuster on the cables so the satellites only play as loud as the device you’re playing the music from can amplify the sound, be it an iPad, Samsung Galaxy, a laptop or even a desktop computer. So long as the device you’re playing the music from has volume adjustment, you’ll be able to fiddle with the sound levels. If it doesn’t, as in the case of a console, these speakers will only run at half volume.
Once you adjust it higher, you could probably go to 75% volume without losing clarity or introducing distortion. Beyond that, the Ferox speakers use software to amplify the sound coming in, sort of how VLC Player boosts mid-range and high-end frequencies at the cost of clarity. It works for some things, but not so well for other devices and in the case of a computer, you have to keep on adjusting either the Windows volume or the application’s volume because no one setting works perfectly. Then again, the target market of the Ferox isn’t those of you with computers or laptops, it’s with cellphones and tablets, devices which have a relatively low maximum volume.
“Could you be loved?” Badam bam, bam bam bam…
Despite the limitations of these small critters, I never expected the kind of volume I subjected my ears to when I turned them on. I plugged them in and put Windows Media Player onto full volume and was literally so blown away I had to put them down to 20%. If you’re used to having a volume knob to fiddle with instead of delving into individual software settings, it’s best you look elsewhere. While the volume and response was pretty good on the desktop, it was a different story for a mobile phone, which is what I used half the time.
The Ferox was one example, aside from what I mentioned in the Carcharias review, that sound quality isn’t all about speakers or the hardware you’re using, but also about the audio source, what codex you’ve encoded it into and, rather crucially, what volume its been set to. I figured early on that devices like Apple’s iPad and iPhone would have high sound quality anyway because Apple forces audio encoding in AAC and 320Kb/s bitrates, but what about for devices that don’t have those requirements (Notwithstanding the fact that I can’t own an iPhone)? I took down a sample of Ellie Goulding’s “Lights” from YouTube and ripped it straight to MP3 audio quality. I landed up with a 128Kb/s audio track with the same volume level as the music video. Then I created two more copies – one coded in MP3 at 64Kb/s and another one at 128Kb/s MP4 but with some volume leveling applied, raising the default by about 50%.
With the normal track, there was definitely a volume level I was hitting too easily. I was at full volume on my LG C660, but the speakers weren’t breaking a sweat. I tried the volume-leveled track and immediately things were better, although because volume leveling only really works well when you’re changing it from the original source, it wasn’t as clear and sounded good as I thought it would be. To all those people who get their music by ripping it off YouTube, you’re really not hearing the full monty. In fact, if you compared that quality to a CD, you’d hear for yourself that it pretty much sucks. Switching to the 64Kb/s track wasn’t too bad, but the lower bitrate did show that the Ferox speakers were being pushed even less, lacking definition and pitch range.
With my regular playlist, I decided to see what kind of audio quality these things couldn’t handle. Marylin Manson’s “Lamb of God” played through pretty well, but going up to full volume wasn’t such a great experience, with Manson’s raspy vocals becoming a bit unclear and some notes from the lead guitar missed. I settled eventually on 70% and this seemed to work well. There’s little bass to speak of and mid-tones aren’t as good as a set of headphones, but it was acceptable. Push up to 90% and you can fill a small room with some decent sound, although it’ll be a bit tinny. Linkin Park’s “In my remains” at 320Kb/s MP3 went through well enough, although you miss a lot of the song because there’s no bass and you miss out particularly in the areas where Chester starts the chorus and where Bourdon starts banging on those drums at around 0:56. Then again, Linkin Park has never been a band with blow-your-mind audio.
I found that playing tracks at 192Kb/s was actually much better. No distortion, no volume issues (assuming you’ve ripped it properly) and it sounded pretty clear. I took a small detour with Kidd Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” and at 192Kb/s and 70% volume, it was pretty good. Bearing in mind that it was mainly a guitar solo it’s relatively easy for a set of small speakers like this to handle. Going anywhere over 85% I easily picked up some distortion and I think that’s where the digital amplification kicked in. I also considered that it could be my handset itself limiting things. Regardless of these limitations, the Ferox handed any track with ease and sounded good. Enough, even, for those random parties you might get stuck in. On the desktop, I could go up to 80% volume before distortion became an issue. For their size, these speakers do a damn fine job, even if they’re not the best you can buy.
I tried a couple of movies and high-definition trailers with the Ferox on the desktop and everything sounded good at 70% volume. I could clearly hear conversations and when something exploded, someone died or someone had an orgasm (I watch Californication, okay?), it was all there. Once again, though, the weak bass and underwhelming mid-tones left me unimpressed with the Ferox’s performance for some scenes in AMC’s The Walking Dead. Bearing in mind that I have no volume leveling on the speakers themselves, it wasn’t a bad experience, but it could have been better. I suspect that the Ferox wasn’t really designed with watching movies in mind.
“Why are we reloading?” Shhhhhhhling! Thwak!
I tried out a couple of games with the Ferox plugged in and I was surprised at the results. While I expected the lack of bass, there was a lot of volume in these cans and at full it was really too loud! I started with Portal 2 because of the awesome background music and GLaDOS’ sultry, robotic voice. I had to settle on 50% volume as the most comfortable level, going to full actually became too loud and I started to feel a little queasy. Wait, you didn’t know sound could make you feel sick?
Moving onto games like Crysis 3 and Borderlands 2 the experience was generally good, but a little underwhelming thanks to the lack of in-line volume controls. I had to set the master volume down on both games and in softer scenes I couldn’t hear what some people were saying. Volume again wasn’t an issue at higher levels and 50% was actually a bit loud for Crysis 3’s “Welcome to the Jungle” level, possibly the one that’s most taxing in the entire game when it comes to graphics. At 50% there was some distortion in the explosions that were going off all around me.
In both shooters, gun shots didn’t sound as good as I expected, but it gets the job done. It sort of sounded like I was listening to them being played through a tin can because my sniper rifles in both titles didn’t sound like small explosions. The amount of treble is a little off-putting at higher volumes, mainly because it removes any chance of actually being drawn into the game because it just won’t sound right. All in all it ranged from acceptable to good and I expect that even for gamers that aren’t mobile, if you don’t have a lot of space on your desk and can’t put a 2:1 speaker setup somewhere, this is a nice idea.
It sounds like you want to like them, but don’t?
Don’t get me wrong here. I’ve heard Shox speakers before and they were good, but not great. The Ferox, by contrast, costs six times as much but performs about two to four times better. They’re a fantastic idea and the small package, the carry case, longer battery life and better portability make it a much better buy. Certainly these will last you longer in terms of build quality because they’re solid and don’t feel anything near flimsy. I especially love watching the top pop up and the blue light come on. You probably won’t even need to charge them that often because you can leave them plugged in via USB and when you’re out and about, I don’t believe most people will be able to drain the batteries because there are few situations where you’re able to blast music out of them for twelve hours straight.
What I don’t like is the few things that Razer has cut out. The lack of in-line volume controls does bring useability down because you now have to adjust everything through your device, rather than a convenient little knob on the wire. Even having something built into the speakers themselves would have been awesome and if Razer were to give both speakers their own volume controls, I’d be tempted to snap them up myself. I could put both speakers on my left but lower the right’s volume to 50%, letting me hear sounds that would normally be on my right, but with them being softer telling me that it’s not coming from the left. I know that’s slightly confusing to explain, but I’ve done it before and it works.
Lets also get the obvious thing out the way while I’m in “find something to complain about even though I think this is awesome” mode. Even though the Ferox normally retails for around R700, their design and size pretty much predicts what you can expect from them – high volume and low bass. You can’t really expect such a diminutive set of cans to produce orgasm-inducing stereo sound, but they’re very, very good at specific things. Portability is one, making what seems effectively like surround sound is another.
But I guess that’s also the one irritant, really; the omnidirectional sound design. You can’t lower the volume and sneakily watch Deal or No Deal, or porn, while someone else is in the room because the sound will still travel in their direction. I wouldn’t be able to watch the episode where Fry and Bender are sentenced to death by sexual exhaustion in Futurama because other people would look at me weirdly. In addition, it’ll irritate others in the same room if you’re playing games and they’re trying to have a conversation, or studying, or watching their own episode of Deal or No Deal. Directional speakers are better in this regard because the sound only gets fed in your direction, even at low volumes. Headphones, even better.
As I said before, Razer’s Ferox is undoubtedly made for listening to music because while it does everything well, it’s designed to be plopped on a table in the middle of a room with an iPod plugged into it for a small gathering, or to share your favourite music with others. For that use-case, they’re fantastic. As desktop speakers, they work well enough but that’s not their intended use. I must say though, Razer’s pulled this off very well. What’s in store for their next set?