Review: Theatre Box wireless 3D speaker offers portable 3D sound

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Gizmag reviews the Acemile Theatre Box wireless 3D speaker(Credit: Stanley Goodner/Gizmag.com)

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Born from Kickstarter, the Acemile Theatre Box wireless 3D speaker has blossomed into the kind of triumph that so many campaigns dream of. Not only was the project over-funded by a healthy margin, but backers started to receive tracking numbers for their speakers roughly three months after the close of funding. Talk about a fast efficient turnaround time. But does the Theatre Box deliver on sound? Read on for our experience with this crowdfunded success.

Design & Connectivity

At first blush, the Theatre Box 3D sound speaker has a pretty conventional, unassuming shape – some might even call it boring, while the more diplomatic might say it's refined. Either way, Acemile decided upon simple and practical with the wraparound metal grille, rounded corners, and a width that makes one-handed pickup easy. The 10.3 x 3.3 x 4.3 inch (260 x 85 x 110 mm) size lets the Theatre Box slip easily into most bags and backpacks for carrying. Thankfully, there’s no cheap plastic feel, and extra points are scored for the satin rather than glossy exterior.

Despite the portable form, the Theatre Box uses a DC wall charger instead of a USB cable. Ultimately, it’s not a big deal since the internal battery charges quicker this way. And the speaker does indeed reach around 20 hours of playtime – give or take a bit depending on volume level – before you'll need to plug it in for a recharge. Included with the power cable in the box is a flat-ribbon audio cable and small instruction booklet.

Touch controls are laid across the top of the speaker, each answering with a glowing flash of white and a "water boop" sound when pressed. They are neither the best nor the worst one could have, although physical buttons would have been preferred. Touch controls do little good in the dark and the area of touch sensitivity is small, primarily confined to the icon design, but at least they’re adequately responsive. All the normal controls are there with the notable exception of play/pause for some reason.

The volume resets itself each time the Theatre Box has been powered on, so depending on how you prefer to listen to music, this may or may not be a plus. Although the intent behind such design was noble (not having unexpectedly-loud music blaring), it would have been nice to be able to toggle it on and off. The same applies to the startup/shutdown sounds, although the latter is kind of fun.

As for Bluetooth wireless, the Theatre Box performs as well as one would expect for both range and connection quality. Completely unobstructed, the speaker is good for 33 feet (10 m), although those last few feet are a little touch-and-go. When the audio starts to garble or stutter a bit, then you know it’s time to back up a step or three.

But whatever you do, don’t get attached to the first 1.5 seconds or so of any of your music. This is because when, and only when, nothing is currently playing, the Theatre Box misses that first moment right after hitting play. If you know your favorite music well there’s no way to not hear this happening, which means it will end up as a pet peeve for many.

Audio Quality

For its compact size, the Theatre Box puts out a good amount of sound, which is loud enough to fill rooms and carry over to adjacent ones. While some speakers in the same size class can peak higher decibels, the Theatre Box balances volume versus distortion exceptionally well – better than many, in fact. With the speaker’s volume maxed out, a connected smartphone can push volume up around 80 percent before distortion starts to seriously kick in. Even then, the amount of distortion may be too little to seriously hinder your listening experience.

At worst, the highs turn sharp and crunchy (especially at the edges), the mids develop a coarse grain, and the lows fuzz and lose definition. Despite all that, cymbals and hi-hats play musically instead of piercing eardrums with harsh noise. It's certainly impressive to find a speaker of this size and price be able to use nearly every tick of volume while maintaining balance and clarity.

Be it the fading of piano notes, breathy intakes preceding words, vocal inflections, crisp pronunciation, or faint echoes, it’s easy to pick out detail no matter how loud or soft you choose to listen to music thanks to some impressive dynamics. The Theatre Box delivers the same emotional impact from sung whispers as anguished screams regardless of speaker volume.

When listening to music or a movie with strong directional sound, imaging location and movement is easy to hear. It’s best when you’re sitting at least 6 ft (2 m) from the Theatre Box with it resting at least 3 ft away from the nearest wall. Four 2-inch full-range drivers and one 3-inch bass driver are set so that each side of the Theatre Box projects audio.

With standard stereo speakers, the sound can change depending on your respective position, and most omnidirectional speakers lack edges to the soundstage, essentially acting as a mono speaker with depth as the only real dimension. The interesting part of this speaker is that it delivers a 360-degree range of sound in addition to the left/right stereo imaging, making it something more of a hybrid.

With the Theatre Box, you can place it in a central area and hear music the same no matter where you are – mostly. There is still that right/left stereo focus, but it's not so prominent as to skew the sound. In some ways, circling the Theatre Box while it's playing almost feels like walking around the entire soundstage during a live performance. And that’s pretty fun.

The presentation of the unit is laid back, but not distant. This could be partially related to how the speaker projects, but it does make for an open, airy performance that’s more like an outdoor amphitheatre instead of indoor venue. The depth of the soundstage is pretty good for the speaker’s size, and despite the laid-back presentation, music comes out very real, as if the speaker wasn’t even a part of it at all.

It plays a treble that is gentle, not to be mistaken for weak or recessed. The tonal balance of the highs, mids, and lows is done well, leaving no part sounding detached from the rest. Sometimes highs can end up feeling like a haloed layer hovering over the main body of music, but this isn't the case with the Theatre Box. The crash of cymbals and hi-hats are packed with energy while maintaining metallic texture. Cymbals rarely sizzle or tizz, and when they do it's forgivable due to how well the audio blends.

If a song features some really full mids and hearty lows, the highs might sound a little thin by comparison. But this is usually at higher volume levels, when there is a complexity of instruments, and also depends on track quality and genre. With lighter music, such as traditional Celtic folk music, the high-end output is rich and clear. Wind and string instruments are vibrant, delivering crisp edges of sound even as multiples overlap each other. The open space along with quick note decay keeps the blur of sound to a minimum.

Lush vocals, brimming with emotion and energy, may end up as the Theatre Box’s fan-favorite aspect of audio. A great example to listen to is Ingrid Michaelson’s song, You And I, as this speaker handles the multiple voices with distinct, clear edges and ample space in between. It’s hard not to gravitate toward vocals, especially ones in the mids. When you hear the artist’s voice in front of the instruments, it adds a bit more depth to the entire soundstage and performance.

The mids are solid and practically free from coloration. Having that separate bass driver helps to keep the low-mids truer to tone. If metal music is your thing, especially songs that feature dual lead guitar, you can hear them distinctly from each other and from the drum kit in the rear. Lesser speakers tend to blur and muck up this kind of arrangement, so it’s appreciable how the Theatre Box handles the complex action without sacrificing instrumental integrity or imaging.

There’s no shyness of detail within the mids. With the right track, you can hear the space of a recording studio or the hit and scratch of strings. Again, this goes back to the clarity of audio. While guitars and vocals are great in the midrange, many may feel drawn to the excitement of brass. Trumpets and saxophones are bright, bursting with a burnished tone.

The low-end balance of the Theatre Box is good, fitting perfectly with the size and scope of the speaker. Most of what the unit delivers lies in the mid- and high-bass ranges. Drums are clean and punchy with a quick decay. You can hear the "thrumming" character of bass strings, even behind other elements within a track. This speaker takes care to articulate low-end clarity with just the right amount of warmth to carry and match energy of the mids and highs.

It’s the low-bass frequencies where the Theatre Box pulls back, likely to maintain the quality of sound for the size of the hardware. Even so, some tracks and/or musical genres show glimpses of low-end impact through the bass driver. But that’s all it is – a moment. If the Theatre Box chose to push more than that, it would have led to lows churning muddy and losing richness. And if you’re an audiophile or audio enthusiast, maintaining a refined sound that highlights the musicality of the instruments is more important than a faint rumbling through the chest cavity.

3D Holophonic Sound

Not everything you play on the Theatre Box will have that lifelike 3D sound. If an audio source is in stereo, the speaker plays it as stereo, but if you have 3D audio (e.g. from movies, binaural 3D soundtracks, holophonic sounds on YouTube, etc.), the Theatre Box brings a level of immersion that other speakers don’t. The depth is pretty incredible, with the way the layers of sounds hit the ears at the proper time. You can "feel" the dynamic movement of voice/noise as it positions itself closer or further away. Or side to side. Or both. It's quite easy to hear, very lifelike, and very different from simple stereo imaging. But you just have to remember that this only comes about when the source itself is 3D.

The Verdict

Even in a super-packed Bluetooth speaker market, the Theatre Box 3D sound speaker has what it takes to succeed and bring earfuls of audio enjoyment. It’s portable, it has excellent battery life and it’s great for both music and movies. You can crank it all the way up and suffer only minimal-to-moderate distortion. The sound quality is great and comes out bigger than you’d think just from looking at the Theatre Box itself.

But despite its strong points, the Theatre Box is fairly basic when you compare it to other speakers. First, it’s not much to look at with its very "plain Jane" type of appearance. Secondly, the Theatre box doesn’t offer added features, such as a USB output charge port and ruggedness, that are becoming more common in modern speakers. It just delivers 360-degree sound and handles holophonic audio. It's hard to say how much mileage one may truly get from 3D holophonic sources, but it is fun when you get to indulge.

The Theatre Box is not a true 360-degree sound speaker, which is not a bad thing. As a hybrid system, it gets to enjoy the perks of stereo and omnidirectional projection with few of the drawbacks. You can sit front and center from the Theatre Box to appreciate the stereo imaging and movement back and forth. You can also place the speaker in a central area and be in that "sweet spot" of listening wherever you are. In this respect, the Theatre Box accomplishes something other speakers don't.

Will the Theatre Box replace a multi-channel home theater speaker system? Not quite, especially if you’ve been accustomed to a certain level of precise audio imaging. But if you wanted to enjoy a movie upstairs, in the garage, in the backyard, at the park, or at a friend’s house, your TV and home theater speakers aren’t going to be of any help. And this is where the Theatre Box shines, since it, along with a smartphone/tablet/laptop, are all that’s needed for that "movie theater" experience on a mobile scale. The US$299 price is fair, and those who want can purchase the leather carrying case to make on-the-go audio easier.

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