How much do you think a slim, hand-sized, ultra-portable, water-resistant, sandproof, bluetooth speaker with great audio quality should cost? If you’re thinking of any of the big-name audio companies, you’re probably thinking of something in the region of US$150 to US$200 (approximately S$200 to S$280). But what if you don’t have that kind of money – or don’t want to spend that kind of cash on something that merely supplements your normal desktop audio or home entertainment system?
Enter the Nude Audio Super M.
This compact wonder is a very portable, water-and-shock-resistant, bluetooth-capable speaker. It delivers generally pleasing audio at moderate to alright-that’s-quite-enough volumes. And it is clearly designed to appeal to a wide range of casual listeners for as wide a range of reasonable use-cases as possible, at an extremely competitive price point – just slightly north of the US$100 mark at US$114.95 (S$129 SRP by Singapore distributor Digital Hub).
By looking at and holding the physical speaker, it’s quite clear that the overriding design priorities for the Super M had to be simplicity, and portability. This can be seen from its basic suite of functions, slim form factor, thick carrying cord, stiff grille and rubber bumper. All other elements take their cues from this overriding priority. The Super M’s curves invite you to hold it, to slip it into your pockets and move around (which I actually did, more often than I thought I would). Its slim form factor make it easy to squeeze into small bags, and the lack of hard and sharp corners keep it from snagging on clothes and other personal effects. This cannot be said for many other speakers, which either have hard corners (think Jambox), or are just a tad too bulky or awkwardly-shaped (pretty much any other portable speaker I can think of) to squeeze into small luggage.
And what portability this speaker has! In all my years of owning portable speakers, this is probably the very first set that’s truly felt inviting and effortless to bring around. The slim curvy chassis is easy to grasp, and the (somewhat loose) rubber bumper on the edge, as well as the pill-shaped rubber motifs on the grille (a very subtle Nude Audio brand mark) makes it very grippy no matter how you try to hold it. The thick carry cord makes it easy to loop around handles, hooks, fingers, and helps transport the Super M, or hang up when there’s no table space available. And, being not much larger than an iPhone 6 (though much thicker), it’s the most pocketable portable speaker I’ve ever owned. The fact that this speaker is also water and sand-resistant is just icing on the portability cake. I’ve not had the chance to take this to the beach, but I can say this speaker does stand up to being in a warm, humid shower.
The Super M has a very basic feature set: bluetooth audio, handsfree speakerphone, ⅛” analog audio input, micro USB charging port. While it may appear bare-bones, Nude Audio took pains to make sure that these features are truly well executed. The experience begins with a fuss free power-up cycle. No messing about with teeny tiny sliding switches or soft-touch buttons here. The Super M’s power button depresses with a satisfying tactile click, and a pleasant three-note chime announces that the unit has properly powered up. Such a refreshing change from the silent power-ups of other units (leaving me wondering, albeit briefly, whether the unit is actually on), or worse, the awful and jarring BWONNGG that assaults my ears every time I power up my Jabra Solemate. Another two-note chime announces that the speaker has successfully connected with my source player, and often, I find the Super M connecting so quickly that I hear a continuously ascending melody when I start up the speaker. It’s a very subtle, but noticeable attention to detail that makes the Super M experience that much more pleasant and inviting.
It’s not all perfect though. One point that I’m not too comfortable with is the looseness of the rubber bumper that covers the edges of the Super M. There does appear to be a significant amount of play, and the rubber bumper is not actually glued on or otherwise secured to the Super M’s frame. Based on comments in Kickstarter, Nude Audio says that this is by design, and should not be cause for concern. However, several Kickstarter backers as well as Amazon reviewers have mentioned that the rubber band is so loose as to fall off the unit completely. Caveat emptor! That said, my rubber bumper has held up very well so far, so I’m not complaining. Other have complained of DOA units, bluetooth pairing issues and such. However, based on feedback and product comments on Amazon, many, many others have received the units in good working order. So it would be premature to conclude that Nude Audio has serious QC issues (as some Kickstarter commenters might have you believe).
There are always limitations inherent in the portable speaker format. To me, the first major compromise that manufacturers and users alike seem to make when it comes to portable speakers, is sound quality. It’s (presently) physically impossible to achieve full spectrum audio reproduction in an enclosure as small as the Super M, as the small cabinet size precludes the use of cabinet resonance and porting to enhance low end, and also limits the size, variety and quality of speaker drivers that you can use. Considering that the Super M was designed to be manufactured and sold at a significantly lower price point, this imposes further limitations on component choice and quality.
With that being said, Nude Audio seem to have bucked the trend, by paying as much attention to sound quality as they have to the overall design of the unit itself. They’ve done their best to maximise the Super M’s sound quality, given the inherent limitations of current technology and format, as well as the small enclosure that they opted for, owing to their design considerations. And despite the challenges involved in making a small speaker sound good, the Super M has to be one of the best-sounding portable speakers I’ve enjoyed to date.
Frankly, for its size and price range, I’d even daresay that nothing else comes close.
(image taken from the Nude Audio Super M webpage)
Given its dimunitive size, the Super M sounds surprisingly larger than appears possible. I’d attribute that to the four full-range neodymium drivers (two on either side, see mandatory explodey speaker graphic thing from Nude Audio above) working to create a subtle sense of airiness and expansiveness, as compared to other speaker units with only front-firing speakers. Sadly, this doesn’t translate to a wider soundstage, and for all intents and purposes, this is still pretty much a mono speaker with little to no noticeable stereo separation, which is par for the course where such speakers are concerned. Bass frequencies thump with surprising convincingness and authority, thanks to the two passive bass radiators (also one on each side of the Super M) helping to flesh out the bottom end – although they definitely can’t reproduce sub-bass frequencies the way a subwoofer does.
The Super M’s overall sound signature definitely falls on the warm end of the spectrum, with a gentle treble roll-off and low-midrange emphasis lending a sort of gauzy veil to most genres of music. Treble freaks will no doubt be disappointed, but most portable speakers I’ve heard that had a treble emphasis tended to be shrilly and brittle (Jambox, I’m looking at you). The exception to this would be the Soundmatters Foxl, which has lots of clarity and midrange firmness, without being brittle or harsh (though at the expense of bass performance). However, that is not to say that the Super M is muddy and veiled – on the contrary, it has a surprising amount of presence and clarity, even at low volumes, out of line of sight and at longer distances. I rarely had any trouble discerning voices, words and even basslines, regardless of volume, speaker position or location.
If I were to compare this to an existing speaker, I’d say that the Super M sounds closest to the Jabra Solemate, which itself is not a bad-sounding portable. However in a straight-up A/B test, the Super M was definitely the more enjoyable listen. Its expansive and airy character made the Jabra Solemate sound congested and boxy in comparison, and the Super M had significantly more clarity than the Solemate, even when playing at modest volumes and long range.
Very impressively, the Super M is able to perform well in a multitude of positions. It does best placed upright on a table or cupboard, as this maximises the coupling effect, harnessing the natural resonance of the surface to enhance bass frequencies. Placing it in a corner or close to a wall creates a proximity effect that also enhances low end. Hanging the speaker by its cord on a bath rail, doorknob or wall hook does little to diminish sound quality – although bass frequencies do diminish slightly as the speaker is de-coupled from a resonant surface. Lying the unit flat on a table or bed does not diminish sound quality either, although it does introduce a bit of midrange honk. Compared to other speakers, the Super M is truly very forgiving when it comes to placement.
On a lark, I decided to use the Super M in place of my car stereo. The picture above shows the Super M in use in my car – although this picture was taken when I was parked somewhere. When in motion, I lay the Super M flat, above my instrument panel and closer to the windscreen. The grippy rubber logo on the speaker grille kept the Super M from sliding around during turns. The Super M definitely didn’t perform as well as the car’s audio system, largely due to the lack of stereo separation. However, the Super M was able to produce more than enough volume to be heard over engine noise, and retained a lot of sonic clarity, despite lying flat on my dashboard, with audio reflecting off the windscreen. I can definitely see the Super M standing in for a broken car audio system, or taking over when you have to drive a rental car with an audio system that doesn’t work with your portable audio player.
The Other Stuff
The small enclosure of the Super M not only imposes limits on audio performance, but bluetooth performance as well. Some early users of the Super M appear to have had issues with Bluetooth range, and Nude Audio worked quickly to resolve this for future units – kudos to them for the fast action. My Super M has more than acceptable range for indoor use in an apartment – I can almost reach from one end of the apartment to the other – approximately 14 metres or 45 feet – and I can have the speaker running in a separate room from my audio player. This is definitely a much longer range than my Foxl, which gives up the ghost around the 9-metre mark, or if I bring my music source into the next room.
Battery Life appears to live up to the 8-hour claim, and I’ve been able to run the Super M for slightly over half a day without breaking a sweat. I do wish that there was some sort of low-battery warning chime, or a different coloured indicator light when the battery runs low, as the speaker just shuts off abruptly when battery runs out. Minor, but surely annoying.
Some users have complained about not being able to listen to audio whilst charging – this is not the case for me. I was able to use the speaker whilst it was charging. Not sure if this was an issue with early units.
I’ve tested the analog audio input a couple of times, and it behaves a bit differently from other speakers I’ve used. The main volume button on the Super M seems to be disabled, and the speaker appears to take volume cues from the audio source, scaling volume according to your source device’s output level. This could be an issue if your source has low output, especially for Android phones, which tend to have lower output levels.
The Deal Closer
But what really brings this entire package together is the extremely competitive price point. Coupled with the great design, ease of use and decent sound quality, there truly cannot be a better portable speaker, for the money, available in the market. Nude Audio have truly thought this product through from all angles – from design, to user experience, and price point. It is very clear that a lot of thought has been put into addressing common user pain points.
Ideally, that would be the end of my review, but…
About that Kickstarter campaign
As much as I love the Super M for what it is, and will continue to use it, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the major pain points that surfaced at the tail end of Nude Audio’s Super M Kickstarter Campaign.
Don’t get me wrong – for the most part, Nude Audio ran a fantastic campaign. Regular down-to-earth communications, quirky update videos, tons of opportunities for community involvement, releasing stretch goals before funding targets were reached. But where the entire campaign just fell flat for me was after Nude Audio started to miss shipping deadlines. Now, with Kickstarter, a certain degree of latitude is needed where shipping is concerned. To me, its perfectly fine to cut a Kickstarter creator a lot of slack in this department, simply because for many creators, it is their first time – hence the need to crowdsource funds! It’s remarkable enough that a project gets fully funded, let alone funded past its target.
However, shipping targets were promised, then missed. Promised, then missed. Rinse, repeat. Nude Audio did keep up some communications for a while, but the first straw came with a cheery Christmas / New Year missive that blithely declared that the entire Nude Audio team was going on holiday, despite the fact that many backers were still waiting for their units. Now, I’m no workaholic, and I’m totally all for taking holidays. But for a major product campaign like this, in which distribution is still stuffed up, and backers are hounding the team repeatedly for news, surely an exception can be made for this one Christmas season? I am truly baffled by this management call to (a) declare a holiday and (b) announce it to the whole world. Personally, I would have gone with at least skeletal staffing, if not a deferred holiday, and continued emphasis on pressuring distributors and ensuring units reached backers within the promised deadlines.
I’ll use my case as an example. In that final mass update from the Nude Audio team on 20 Dec 2014, Singapore backers were assured that distribution centres have received and processed the Super Ms, and that deliveries would “take place in the days leading up to Christmas”. Christmas came and went, and my mailbox remained largely empty. After some snooping around, and helpful comments from other Singapore-based backers, I discovered the Singapore distributor, and was able to self-collect my Super M from them.
This would have been a sour note to end the whole Kickstarter campaign on, but to add insult to injury, NA started making units available for commercial sale on Amazon! I’m not sure what the deal was with that one, perhaps a contract was signed ages ago when it appeared that backers would receive their units in time. Nonetheless, it is a tad galling to know that there are backers – who put in money to support a project with the hopes that they would be among the first in the world to receive the fruits of that project – who have yet to receive their product, whilst others who didn’t support the Kickstarter campaign, are already receiving the units they’ve ordered from Amazon.
The Super M is probably the best designed and best sounding portable speaker you can buy, for the money, to date. Will it win audiophile awards? Unlikely. While the market has shown that pristine sound quality is not exactly a top priority, the Super M is no audio slouch, and produces excellent sound quality for a unit at this size and price point.
Will it replace your home entertainment system? I hope not. But it will definitely sit alongside your main sound system as something you’ll bring around the house, or out to the poolside and on holiday. Everyone will have a reason to own a Super M. More importantly, anyone who wants to own a Super M will very likely be able to afford it, and not balk at the price. And that’s what’s truly Super about the Super M.
I’d have loved to end off on that note, but once again, I must call attention to what appears to be Nude Audio’s ongoing logistics issues with Kickstarter Backer fulfilment. As great a product at the Super M is, its the slightly sour taste in the back of my mouth when I think about how the Super M went to retail before all the Kickstarter Backers got their units, as well as the slightly tone deaf public communications during the fulfilment phase, that keeps me from wholeheartedly recommending the Super M as the portable speaker to buy. Caveat emptor, but I sure wish we didn’t have to be.