Review: Creative Labs Sound Blaster Roar 2 speaker

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The Creative Labs Sound Blaster Roar 2 speaker is 20 percent smaller than the original, yet doesn't sacrifice on hardware or audio(Credit: Stanley Goodner/Gizmag)

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Creative Labs likes to do things big by packing its speakers with power and features. The original Roar, which we reviewed last year, delivered impressive sound and functionality. As an encore to the original, the Roar 2 is designed to be 20 percent smaller without any sacrifice or compromise to the hardware and audio. How well does this new version succeed? We recently spent a few weeks putting the Roar 2 speaker to the test.

Design & Connectivity

The Creative Labs Sound Blaster Roar 2 speaker has a semi-distinguished, classy-clean look to it. Some might call the styling "safe," but that still doesn’t make it any less attractive. Either way, the ivory/satin-finish plastic with semi-gloss grille and flat-black rubber serve to make the Roar 2 look more expensive than it is. Although the precision-machined metal on the bass radiators adds a bit of glimmer, there are no garishly-glossy parts to cheapen the overall appearance. If all this sounds too adult for one’s tastes, Creative also offers boldly-colored silicone bumper cases for the Roar 2.

Versus the original, the Roar 2’s slimmed-down figure makes it comfortably easy to pick up and position with just one hand. While the speaker is not terribly heavy at 2.2 lb (1 kg), you can still feel the density of hardware. And despite the smaller size, it’s still considered to be on the larger end of the scale for battery-powered speakers. The Roar 2 is more indoor/backpack-portable; it’s fine to move, but you probably wouldn’t want to wear/carry it all day as with smaller or travel-sized speakers.

There are 18 steps of volume adjustment, each accompanied by an LED flash, with the maximum level also earning a single beep. The Roar 2 remembers volume settings even after being powered off. Minimum volume on the speaker mutes all sound, no matter what a connected device’s volume may be set at (there are still speakers out there that don’t do this). Tiny LED lights indicate the status of wireless connectivity, voice recording, charging, and remaining battery life. A quick flip through the manual provides all the details, so it’s certainly worth the look.

Like Creative’s Sound Blaster Roar and Sound BlasterAXX speakers, the Roar 2 can power mobile devices via the USB output port, and play music directly from an inserted microSD card. Track controls allow navigation through folders and the songs therein, although this tends to be easier said than done. If the contents of the card aren’t in excess and/or you are intimately familiar with them, it doesn’t take too long to find what you want. Otherwise, it can be an exercise of patience to find a specific song or album.

With the built-in voice recorder, speakerphone capability, 3.5-mm auxiliary input, USB audio input (for PCs, laptops, PS4), and bass/audio enhancement, the Roar 2 hosts quite the array of useful features – more than you’d get from a standard portable speaker. And if all that wasn’t enough, you adjust/calibrate the audio output through Creative’s Sound Blaster Control Panel software (for Windows/Mac). Unlike the original Roar, there are no weird gimmicky features (e.g. life saver mode, alarm/siren) to puzzle over. The Roar 2 has just about everything one might want, except maybe water resistance, but that’s a different category all on its own.

Strangely, the Roar 2’s speakerphone output is only half as loud as that of a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 smartphone, even with all volume levels maxed out. In order to hear, especially in semi-noisy environments, you need to lean in pretty close. Which is fine, because the built-in microphone isn’t the most powerful either. But so long as you’re within a foot or two and project your voice towards the Roar 2, the microphone picks up well while ignoring background noises. To the person(s) you’re having a conversation with, your voice will sound strikingly clear, albeit a touch distant.

When it comes to Bluetooth wireless range, the Roar 2 certainly gets to strut its stuff. Most all speakers list the standard 33 ft (10 m) reach, which tends to remain true under ideal conditions. But for those of us who don’t listen to music in an open, unobstructed field, it’s the functional range that counts. Indoors, with people, appliances, and furniture to get in the way, the Roar 2 capably maintains a steady connection up to about 30 ft (9 m), through one interior wall, before starting to drop off. It goes to show that not all Bluetooth hardware is created equally, and Creative Labs chose well.

At moderate or less volume levels, the Roar 2 is certainly capable of the listed eight-hour playtime. However, using the Terabass or Roar features (especially with higher volumes) quickly drains that battery. So if you plan on rocking out the entire house and pushing those decibels, expect somewhere between 4.5 and 6.5 hours of music. Compared to many of today’s speakers, that’s considered pretty low. However, the Roar 2 doesn’t take long to recharge – a little over two hours – and it can play while charging through the wall adapter. But unlike other portable speakers, the Roar 2 can’t play while charging via USB.

Audio Performance

Some speakers out there can get pretty obnoxious with the on/off jingle. Thankfully, the Roar 2 has a short startup sound of low/moderate volume that is not overly-energetic (sounds like some mysterious authority-type theme). So this means you can power on the Roar 2 in an office environment without having people peeking over cubicle walls to see what the heck you’re up to. And so long that your child isn’t a super-light sleeper, you can safely activate the Roar 2 for nursery lullaby music without waking the little one. The Roar 2’s shutdown sound is a quick, muted "bwoop."

Unfortunately, the Roar 2 isn’t as demure when it comes to streaming wirelessly via Bluetooth. The speaker emits a light, white-static hissing noise that you can hear from sitting within six feet (around two meters) in a silent room. It’s especially noticeable during periods of empty space with no or low-playing instruments. Although this hiss will always underscore the music, it (thankfully) doesn’t scale with volume, so turning up the speaker up helps to mask its presence.

The Roar 2 is incredibly capable of flooding small to medium-plus size rooms with music. Despite the speaker’s power, larger rooms will require some thought for optimal placement for ideal audio coverage. You can crank the Roar 2’s volume all the way to max (both speaker and connected device) and encounter a remarkably meager amount of distortion. Sharp or shrill edges are mostly limited to the very tips of the upper highs, which sometimes exhibit slight haloing. Vocals remain strong and clear, rarely sounding washed out or experiencing semi-hard, sibilant consonants.

The mids and lows maintain well at these maxed volumes, although songs with a super-healthy amount of bass and drums tend to overwork the Roar 2’s passive bass radiators, causing them to develop a subtle buzzing sound. But the quickest and most effective way to fix all of these distortion problems is to nudge the volume down a few ticks, which still leaves the Roar 2 plenty loud. Temper the volume, and everything will be peachy. Other speakers claim to push the decibels, but tend to do so conditionally with unlistenable distortion.

Enabling the Roar feature serves to drive all levels for volume, which can also contribute to the before-mentioned buzzing. The trade for having this enhanced projection is a sacrifice to fidelity. With Roar enabled, the audio tends to sound thinner and a little more hollow, which makes it more ideal for outdoor use and/or competing against noisy groups of party people for background music. Quite useful when needed.

The soundstage is respectably wide and open, allowing the Roar 2 to fill rooms well, track quality and music genre depending. It’s not an omnidirectional speaker, so placement does count. And since the tweeters and woofer all face the same direction, the Roar 2 can play either lying flat (ideally, a low central position) or standing up on edge (ideally waist high, closer to walls). The former has greater overall spread at the cost of sounding a touch more distant, while the latter is something the original Roar couldn’t do without blocking the tweeters.

The Roar 2’s overall balance seems close to neutral, somewhat favoring the highs and mids a little more. If you’re playing the speaker at reduced volumes, activating the Terabass feature helps to boost the lows (more on this later), bringing them more in line with the mids and highs. Because of the speaker’s design and power, the stereo separation is suitably-defined and better than what you might expect for its size. You get a good sense of depth, front-back orientation of instruments, and the lateral location of each. The Roar 2 maintains capable edges of sound, and individual elements don’t feel too pressed for space within the stage.

But the real shining star is clarity. The Roar 2 conveys music that sounds palpably real, appreciated through musical definition and (especially) vocals. Put the speaker across the room, and you can well imagine a small stage with live people and their gear right there. This clarity helps to highlight faint notes and undertones of instruments and vocals, especially of those in the highs. And with the way vocals lead instruments, it’s not hard to get drawn into the music performances. Play some Journey, and you can hear how the Roar 2 captures the breathy emotion and intensity behind the words.

Cymbals and hi-hats are smooth and metallic, very rarely exhibiting toy-like tinniness, which generally occurs at extreme volume levels. The Roar 2 delivers cymbal crashes that "shush" as they should, although some notes can linger a little too long. Stringed instruments, such as mandolins and harps, fare better at maintaining accurate tone and characteristically-quick plucks of sound. While the Roar 2’s high may not be the most crisp, the smoother edges offer a sweetness that blends well musically with everything going on. Listen to Lindsey Stirling and you can hear the varied ways she makes her violin sing, lively and twinkling one moment, drawn-out and mournful the next.

The highs lead down into the mids smoothly, continuing on with clarity and presence. Midrange vocals, especially the male kind, stand out with a natural warmth and rich timbre. The Roar 2 demonstrates attention to detail through the hit/scratch of guitar strings, or squeaks on frets. Saxophones are delightfully bright, squealing-tart, and full of energy. Most all instruments sound excellent, able to hold their own even as track complexity increases. However, the Roar 2 has a bit of a dip around where the mids transition into the lows, which affects instruments playing in that area (e.g. hard rock or metal genres). For example, the dual lead guitars in Dethklok’s song, Awaken, sound moderately and uncharacteristically recessed.

Lows coming out of the Roar 2 are kind of gentle-neutral, with more focus on clean, musical quality over raw power. There’s a richness to the sound, and the speaker does exceptionally well to not overdo the lows to gross excess. Drums maintain characteristic tone and bounce, delivering quick hits and an almost equal delay. With lighter music, like jazz, light rock, or folk, drums and bass sound appropriately-weighted with respect to other instruments. Most anything you play on the Roar 2 is going to be fun and enjoyable to listen to. However, the experience can vary, depending on personal preference and genre. To some, the lows may seem slightly anemic and overshadowed by the highs, mids, and especially by strong vocals.

Those who listen to music loaded with low-end action, such as hip-hop, metal, or EDM, may sense a lack of impact with the Roar 2. Songs that go deep (e.g. with kick drums, synth, etc.) tend to bring back moderately-subdued "pops" instead of satisfying "thumps," respective to the speaker’s size. The extension is good, but the Roar 2 doesn’t quite have the grip to capture the full envelope of sound. You’ll hear strong bass strings, but not necessarily all the purring action with it. Naturally, there’s only so much the woofer and bass radiator can do versus the amount of open listening space needed to fill. Cranking the volume up increases projection range, but the thinner spread of sound leads to some lost nuance.

Thankfully, the Terabass feature works well, its effect being most appreciable at low to moderate listening levels. You’ll still hear a difference at high volume – the "oomph" just won’t be as profound by comparison. Depending on track composition, the Terabass can bring the lows on par with the highs and mids in terms of presence and force. So if the drums and bass are feeling a little limp, enabling the Terabass adds some vigor to the hits. The weightier punch brings about a nicer "thump," making the lows sound fuller, a little more plush. Although this boost largely keeps unwanted muddiness or bloated boom at bay, it can and will exacerbate the before-mentioned buzzing from the bass radiators.

The Verdict

The Creative Labs Sound Blaster Roar 2 comes across as more refined and thoughtful versus the original. It pays attention to small details, such as remembering volume level, while ditching silly features and strange button functionality. The Roar 2 can reach high volume levels with low distortion, delivering excellent clarity and incredible vocals throughout. And although the lows may seem a little lacking in full expression to some, they’re actually quite capable. At moderate listening levels, especially with the Terabass enabled, the Roar 2 maintains better balance and low-end punch, which is something that other portable speakers within the same price bracket can have difficulty with.

Although the Roar 2 exhibits great strength and overall utility, it can feel like a mixed bag at the extremes. The battery life is decent until you decide to crank the volume and/or use the audio-boosting features. You can charge the speaker while playing music via Bluetooth, but only with the wall adapter and not the USB cable. The Roar 2 emphasizes its ability to bring massive amounts of volume for its size, but doing so tends to lead to buzzing bass radiators and instruments sounding more pale/hollow as they attempt to cover greater distance. If you play the Roar 2 at too low of volume levels, you’ll likely hear that static hiss underlining the music. And all of this can vary slightly, depending on the types/genres of songs being played.

Thankfully, this speaker has a wide middle area of volume where all music can sound fantastic even though, technically, it’s not a true second-generation product; it uses the same hardware as the original. However, when you consider the slimmed-down stature, connection options, quality and clarity, and versatile features, the Roar 2 quickly becomes a value leader at the US$169.99 price point. Without a doubt, you feel like you’re getting way more speaker than you’re paying for, audio and all. Even if you believe you won’t use every aspect, it’s more likely than you think, so over time you’ll end up appreciating the Roar 2 that much more.

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