Holiday Gift Guide 2014: Altec Lansing Life Jacket

Altec Lansing Life Jacket HGG 2014A few days ago, I was laughing while a speaker floating in my bathtub blasted assorted tunes as water splashed around it. Nope, it wasn’t another repair nightmare taking place, but Altec Lansing’s waterproof Life Jacket Bluetooth Speaker ($149.99 MSRP), one of which I got to review. It certainly nails the waterproof thing to a T, but how does it sound outside the pool or tub? We’ll get to that below the jump.

First off, for such a small speaker (6” long, 2” high, weight one pound), it’s quite sturdy and can take bumps and dings that would probably put lesser speakers out of commission. Over the course of three days, I intentionally dropped it a few times on the carpet here, outside on the grass in front of the building and once on the pavement (ouch!) and it worked fine each time. Visually, the Life Jacket has a simple and functional design in its oblong shape and angular cut corners. A pair of front-firing speakers and a rear bass speaker covered by a black metal grille. On top center of the speaker are one power and two volume buttons with an NFC (Near Field Communication) panel to the left. This is a no-nonsense item that’s stressing its durability and screams out “try me!”. The Life Jacket’s rubberized shell that protects the electronics underneath also helps keep dirt and sand out. Well, within reason, as I’d gather burying the speaker in a sand castle or pile of mud for a few hours by some overeager kids might affect it somewhat.

Also, you’ll need to know that the thick rubber cover on the back that protects the USB and 3.5mm ports MUST be closed securely for the unit to retain that waterproof status. This is important if you’re buying this as a gift for a younger kid or someone not so careful with their tech who thinks “waterproof” means “under any circumstances”. As I sat there cracking up at the Life Jacket in about a foot or so of water in my bathtub, I got the idea of Altec running an ad where a few dozen of them floated in a swimming pool blasting away as water sprayed upwards as some guy and gal on a beach chairs sat listening under an umbrella. Anyway, for you normal users out there who just want to pair up your favorite Bluetooth-enabled device and get to the listening of tunes of your choosing, the speaker does exactly what it needs to without any fuss. As with other Bluetooth speakers that use NFC technology, all you do is turn the speaker on and place your device on or near the left side. You’ll get a pleasant voice confirming a proper connection and after that, you’re good to go.

altec-life-jacket-bluetooth-speaker-top 

Sound quality is solid in some respects, but quite interesting depending on your musical tastes. In other words, you’ll get decent enough sound if you’re looking for a reliable outdoor-quality speaker that’s built to be beaten up a bit, but it’s not going to be an audiophile’s first pick off the shelf. Thanks to aptX® CD-quality audio and dual 2.5” Neodymium drivers with passive radiator, there’s plenty of pumping sonic bliss and no distortion to be found here even with the volume cranked all the way up. However, you dancing dudes and ladies may want to listen up. There’s an unusual lack of bass booming thunder here, particularly if you listen to music that uses a great deal of it. However, for general purposes (and music that doesn’t rely so much on the thump factor), the audio quality is fine. I’d gather that had Altec added an AM/FM radio to this thing, it would be an instant hit among people who get most of their news and music while in the bathroom.

Nevertheless, everything I threw at the Life Jacket worked perfectly, from the iPad and Galaxy tablets I’d borrowed, a few old to new cell phones and even my PlayStation Vita, which just needed a brief initializing before always being recognized afterwards. The fun thing about using this with a portable game system that has a Bluetooth connection is hearing how great some games sound outside of using ear buds or even expensive headphones. Room filling sounds and music that make a game a bit more fun? I’ll take that any day of the week. The unit can store Bluetooth info for up to eight devices and also has a 3.5mm port so you can plug in older music players or other devices and get your tunes on.

I personally don’t listen to music at a room-clearing volume anyway, so my tests of the unit at full blast were limited to listening to some Bernard Herrmann soundtrack music (from the Sisters and Taxi Driver soundtracks) outside use in a nearby park. Hey, I’m an old New Yorker, so that stuff is mood music to me. One guy walking by didn’t see the speaker because I’d placed it down on the ground facing upwards, so he and his dog stopped and were watching me listen to what seemed to be very ominous music coming from the sky or some rocks nearby. Of course, I ended up plugging the Life Jacket and showing it to him just so he’d not think he was going nuts. When I told him it was also waterproof and floated, he laughed and let out an “Oh yeah?” before laughing again and noting that he’d buy one just to pull a prank on his wife by dropping it into the tub while she took a bath. Oh, look – another happily married satisfied future customer, I suppose (yeesh!).

Connect your phone and that Life Jacket turns into a speakerphone with an on board microphone. You can probably take, make and disconnect calls with voice commands while in the bathtub or shower if you like. I didn’t do that particular water test because I’d have to explain to whomever I called that I was doing a review and not to mind the running water they’re hearing in the background. That and I’m generally not a big speakerphone fan. Too many memories of working for a boss who abused his (and usually, anyone he was screaming at on the other end). I made a few quick calls to check the functionality out and found the speaker works okay, but there’s a bit of distortion and garbling at times. I’m not sure if it was my ancient Alcatel phone or the fact that I think every speakerphone call sounds the same to me (somewhat annoying). But I’d say the USB phone charger feature may be the better draw to those who like to shout their business to the world (who should just use whatever speakerphone feature their current devices have).

One minor issue for some buyers may be battery life, or the 16-hour battery life the site says the Life Jacket offers. With continuous play, I got closer to 12 before I needed to recharge the Lithium-ion battery. However, my unit did have a charge when I received it, so I’d consider it impressive that it played for almost dozen hours out of the package before needing a top-up. I tend to not wait until a battery needs a full charge before a recharge, but I’d say I was pleased that the speaker surprised me by not needing to be plugged in after only a few hours of use. I’d gather one’s mileage will vary according to usage, of course. By the way, that $149 price point? Yes, you’ll be paying that if you go the full retail route. But as this is the age of MSRP’s being a first resort for those who don’t like shopping around (aka suckers), it’s doubtful that you’ll pay that much for this baby.

Overall, the Life Jacket is a pretty cool speaker that’s got enough to like about it to make it a fine gift. However, it needs a bit of kick in the bass if it’s going to take off and be one for the younger set and their auto-tuned tastes. I like what’s here a lot and can absolutely recommend it for your get up and go needs. But if you demand butt-shaking booms and thumps galore, you may want to drop a few more dimes on a higher-end model made to bring the bigger beats home.

Score: B

-GW

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