CoolStream Portable Bluetooth Speaker [product review]

About a year ago, Coolstream made a splash with its Bluetooth receiver that plugged into iPhone docks. Since Bluetooth is a standard data transmission method, this allowed any Bluetooth streaming device to send music directly to the dock, keeping people rocking out to their favorite tunes.

Fast-forward one year, and Coolstream is at it again: this time with the BTS201 ($59.99), a highly portable Bluetooth speaker system.

Master your iPhone in one minute a day:

Sign up to iPhone Life's Tip of the Day Newsletter and we'll send you a tip each day to save time and get the most out of your iPhone or iPad.

Physically, the BTS201 is fairly small, about the size of an SLR camera (around 7x4x3 inches). Tacky rubber feet keep it stable and free from sliding around. Real metal speaker grills prevent damage to the drivers and cones and the perforations are tiny enough to keep debris out, down to about the size of a grain of sand. The enclosure is decidedly NOT waterproof (though it worked surprisingly well in a ziplock for splash protection by the pool). Control buttons and indicator lights on the top of the device are a bit hard to see from the front of the unit, but simply picking it up, adjusting as necessary, and then putting it back down again solves that handily.

The built-in, non-serviceable lithium polymer 1000mAH battery can be charged in two hours, and will provide around four hours of run-time. One thing to be aware of is that the BTS201 has no auto-power-off, so if you stop listening to music you have to remember to turn it off or you’re going to have a dead battery and be a very sad panda the next time you go to use it.

Any Bluetooth receiver has to do Bluetooth and do it well.  Coolstream's experience in this area has given them the ability to produce a solid, intuitive solution.  The BTS201 uses Bluetooth version 2.1 with Enhanced Data Rate (EDR) for faster data transfer and lower duty cycles which reduce power consumption.  Profiles supported in the BTS201 are A2DP (for increased audio bandwidth/quality), AVRCP (for remote control of players), and HFP (allowing telephone control).

Pairing up the BTS201 with both Android (Jelly Bean) and iOS (6.1) devices was simple, quick, and easy.  In neither case was entering a pairing password (in this case, 0000) necessary to successfully bond the devices—just turn on Bluetooth and then turn on the BT201.  Within a few seconds the device is recognized, the indicator LED on the top of the BTS201 changes color to steady blue, and you’re ready to rock and roll!

Bluetooth range was respectable, easily reaching across well over 30' in line of sight, but as always your results may vary depending on player hardware (in this case, a Samsung Galaxy 4s and an iPhone 4s).  Coolstream suggests using higher player volume settings and then reducing output at the BTS201 via the top panel buttons in order to reduce background noise, but I didn’t think it was necessary to do that with my hardware.

Due to the implementation of AVRCP, player transport controls for play/pause/next/previous can also be done through the top panel buttons. I noticed a bit of a delay when using this feature but it wasn't an issue—just don't press the buttons too quickly without letting your player "catch up."

One very handy feature is possible with the inclusion of a built-in microphone: the BTS201 can become a hands-free speakerphone! I spend a huge amount of time on the phone, so I was naturally pretty jazzed about this feature. Since the device supports the HFP Bluetooth profile, pressing the phone button while an incoming call is received automatically pauses the music, takes the receiver "off hook," and enables the speaker and microphone.  Call quality is quite good--far better than using the speakerphone option built into the phone itself.  Plus it can mean not having to get up from your chair!

CoolStream could have stopped there, but they went on to include three more inputs!

The first is a USB host, which means your old thumb drives can be used once again.   Just drag and drop your files to your drive, plug it into the BTS201, and select the USB mode with the mode selector. The second input is an SD card, which works the same way.

In both cases, the top panel buttons (pause/play/next/previous) can be used to navigate the library or seek within a particular track.  There is no shuffle mode, nor can you browse to an arbitrary file or folder (which would be very difficult anyway as the BTS201 has no display): the songs will play in alphabetical order by file by folder one after another, and will globally repeat at the end of the list.

The last input is a good old-fashioned 1/8” TRS phone plug.  What’s so cool about this is that ANYTHING that has a headphone jack now becomes a signal source for the BTS201.  When I tested it with an old Sansa Clip mp3 player I had laying around from back in the dark ages, it performed flawlessly, as well as with an old iPod.  One thing to keep in mind is that the analog input is pretty sensitive (600mV/THD10%) so if you turn up your device’s volume too much you’ll get some distortion.  When that happens, turn up the volume on the BT201 and turn down the volume on the player and you’re good to go.  Of course this depends highly on your hardware as well as the type of music you’re playing.

Another benefit of using the analog input is that power consumption on your device can be reduced when compared to the Bluetooth connection, since you can disable your Bluetooth radio. However, this will also disable the other features of the BTS201 such as speakerphone and player transport buttons, but the choice is nice to have.

Sound quality is surprisingly good.  Two 4 ohm, 52mm neodymium magnet drivers are driven by a 3 watt per channel amplifier.  Frequency response is 80Hz - 20kHz.  Stereo separation is a bit restricted by virtue of the small size of the single enclosure, but that is part of the price of this level of portability.

The thing I like the most about this product is how competitively priced it is: it will be available starting Aug. 4, 2013, from Coolstream and for $59.95. For such a rich feature set, awesome construction, reliability, and fantastic sound quality from a tiny, portable package, it’s a steal! 

I give the CoolStream BTS201 a rating of five out of five stars!

Master your iPhone in one minute a day: Sign up here to get our FREE Tip of the Day delivered right to your inbox.