Microlab H21 Bluetooth Bookshelf Speaker System Long-Term Review @ ModSynergy.com
You might have noticed in the last quarter of 2013 that we had been focusing more on portable Bluetooth speaker solutions than ever before, and for good reason; they are becoming very popular and quickly becoming ever present in the marketplace. These are great gifts to give away for people on their birthdays, Boxing day and Christmas holidays. These Bluetooth speaker solutions have been popping up all over the place being offered in many different sizes, shapes, colors, quality, and with many different features and technologies embedded inside. Part of the reason why these Bluetooth speaker solutions have been popular is because they offer wireless audio capability along with the practicality of portability allowing the ease of pick up and go. These portable Bluetooth speakers can be taken with you to the park, beach, or office, all without wires.
One main reason for this enormous growth in Bluetooth speaker solutions have been because of the high demand of Bluetooth enabled devices such as the Smartphone, Apple iPad, iPod, and more. The cell phone industry is a hot commodity, more so than ever with the booming popularity of Smartphone's in everyone's hand. The continued rise is expected to grow even further within the next couple of years and shows no signs of slowing down.
Most, if not all cell phones on the market today come with Bluetooth technology, even the cheap ones have it. It's a wireless technology and feature we all love because it allows the convenience of hands-free calls for example, which has been an ongoing problem with distracted driving.
Bluetooth can and is also used for transmission and streaming of music wirelessly to a Bluetooth speaker, in the car, in the home, in the office, even in the showers, and this is becoming an ever increasing trend as you see all sorts of wireless Bluetooth enabled headphones on the market.
This is where Bluetooth accessory makers are clamouring for your hard earned money. The iPhone and iPod were the first ones to really push the idea of a speaker dock with great success. With these speaker docks you could finally enjoy music coming from the iPod because it's being outputted through a larger speaker designed for music. The drawbacks to these speaker docks are that they are simply stationary and not portable, and they required your iPod or iPhone to be plugged into the dock, basically preventing you from freely using your device to do other stuff at the same time as playing music from your device. In this regard, we now have Bluetooth solutions that aim at solving this issue.
Before the end of 2013, I reviewed the Microlab MD312 which was a portable 2.1 configuration Bluetooth speaker system that I came to find rather very impressive considering the price of the unit, it literally could hold its own with a much more expensive Samsung portable Bluetooth speaker I also tested. It looked great with its unique pebble like shape, the sound was fantastic, the bass was incredibly impactful and quite amazing considering its smaller size, I liked the fact that it used a widely available Nokia cell phone battery, the MD312 just executed very well.
Well today I have the opportunity to share with you my findings on another of Microlab's latest Bluetooth products on the market. This one is meant for the home and office, therefore not as portable as the ones we've previously looked at. The unit we look at today is called the Microlab H21 and it comes as an elegantly designed 2.0 configuration bookshelf speaker system. It's a two-way system that comes with a 3.5” woofer (that handles the low and mid frequencies) and 1” tweeter (that handles the high frequencies). It comes with an internal amplifier that allows the Bluetooth enabled H21 speaker system to output a total continuous RMS power of 36 Watts, the most wattage by any of the Bluetooth speaker systems we've looked at up to this point. Read on to know more, see how the Microlab H21 looks, and what it can possibly offer for your audio interest.
Established in 1998, Microlab began with a group of audio enthusiasts. Within two progressive years, our innovative skill and design expertise are recognized as a major professional speaker manufacturer worldwide.
Products after products, we set the trend and standards in the speaker industry. Microlab continues to lead in groundbreaking audio products with quality and performances.
These past years, we have been steadily progressing as we grew in product range, categories and strength. Today, Microlab offers a full range of home theater system entertainment products. Ranging from desktop PC, notebooks, LCD TV, CD/DVD players, iPod, iPhone or game console, to wherever they are…be it in the living room, bedroom, or in the kitchen, you will find Microlab product, a perfect match for your playback devices. Plug it in and immediately listen and feel the differences. A perfect companion to transform your playback audio device to Hi-Fi quality entertainment.
Microlab H21 Product Overview
The Microlab H21 is a high-tech bookshelf speaker that integrates advanced audio technology with its luxury leather outfit. It is ideal for indoor music entertainment. The Leather skin design highlights its high-end quality. Different leather color choices allow you to use the H21 as part of your home decor. The unique speaker drivers and amplifier provides excellent Hi-Fi sound performance.
Incorporating Bluetooth 2.1+ EDR (Enhanced Data Rate) technology for wireless music entertainment, the H21 lets you connect to your mobile phone or media device without cables. Using A2DP and AVRCP profiles, it lets you listen to stereo music by connecting to any Bluetooth enabled device, such as iPhone, iPod, or Android devices.
Designed with a beautiful leather finish, this versatile stereo system fits perfectly in your living room, computer room, bedroom, or home office and all without taking up much footprint because of its compact size. Bass reflex tunnel design means deeper and impactful bass effect. Classic bookshelf stereo speaker arrangement creates better dynamic sound reproduction and movements for realistic sounding effects.
The Microlab H21 is ideal for digital movies, TV, PC/Notebooks, CD/DVD/Blu-Ray, and all multimedia applications.
The Microlab H21 comes with two audio connection methods in the form of wireless Bluetooth transfer or traditional 2 RCA input audio interface. Connect both speakers with the included speaker wire on the H21's terminal binding posts.
Additionally, the Microlab H21 offers more flexibility by including a standard USB connection at the rear, which allows charging of portable Bluetooth enabled devices through its 5V 1A USB port.
The Microlab H21 features a rotary knob that allows you to control volume, and features multiple buttons that allow you to change sources, to play/pause, and go back/forward through its use of A2DP and AVRCP profiles, giving the user the fuller experience.
Microlab H21 Product Features
Microlab H21 Product Specifications
First things first, about this particular unit being tested, it's a demo unit that has been touched and used by various people so there are signs of use, especially with the box. The leather needed a wipe down too, please ignore the possible dirt on the photos. If you decide to purchase the H21, the Amazon link will be at the bottom, you won't have this problem.
The Microlab H21 comes in a regular corrugated box that measures approximately 337 x 239 x 235mm and weighs at approximately 11.5lbs with all the packing material foam protection inside along with the accessories. It would have been nice if there were side cut-out handles on the box for easy carrying but that was not the case.
The corrugated box is a simplified white background design with an image of the actual H21 speaker at the very front. Microlab could have put more effort in their box design to be honest, for a upper level product that is the H21, they could have made it more elegant. But alas the saying goes, don't judge a book by its cover.
The H21 and Bluetooth icon/designation follows. Turn to one side and there are quick technical information of the speaker in 15 different languages along with a large Microlab logo up top, while the opposite side gives a simple schematic diagram of the applications that the H21 can be used for. Below the diagram is a quick features listing which reads the following information...
Open the corrugated box and you will find the following items...
On my digital scale, the main speaker unit (right channel) with the integrated amplifier weighed in at 4.820 lbs, whereas the left channel speaker weighed only 4.452 lbs. This is almost comparable to carrying a traditional laptop.
Both speakers together without anything bogging them down weigh a total of 9.272 lbs. Measurements again are 116 x 198 x 202 mm for the right channel, and 116 x 189 x 202 mm (W x H x D) for the left channel. The volume knob is what makes the right channel technically taller.
The Microlab H21's construction and build quality is simply top notch, the bookshelf style speaker comes in a solid wooden cabinet and fine leather overlay. The enclosure is solid and does not flex at all, it doesn't feel cheap or hollow, and it's not plastic. It feels substantial in its size and weighs under 5lbs per channel.
The Microlab H21 Bluetooth Bookshelf speaker system is sold in 4 different leather cabinet color combinations which include Black, Coffee, Red, and the White color model that is being reviewed today. As you can see below, the different color combinations are very polarizing for a bookshelf speaker system. I'm inclined to believe this is not real leather, as evidenced by the price, but frankly it doesn't matter as the H21 is just outright classy.
Microlab has created for the H21 a beautiful and unique look from the traditional and timeless design of a bookshelf speaker system. The H21 doesn't reinvent the wheel, nor does it need to, but it enhances on an already solid foundation by giving the solid wooden cabinet a fancy leather finish, rounded corners, and metal protective grille. It completely exudes a feeling of luxury and elegance.
Directly up front we have a finely spaced metal grille that not only adds to the overall aesthetics of the Microlab H21 Bluetooth speakers, it's also very functional in preventing finger pokes and any damages to the patented 1” High-Frequency tweeter and 3.5” Low-Frequency driver.
Microlab points out to me that specifically for the H21, they are utilizing a tweeter manufactured and supplied from a leading international supplier for acoustic parts, the Dr. Kurt Müller GmbH & Co. KG company, or DKM. DKM has over 70 years of experience in development and production of loudspeaker components and was founded in 1934 in Berlin, Germany. They provide components such as cones, tweeter cones, surrounds, diaphragms, for home audio, car audio, and consumer applications.
Around the grille is a grey plastic rim that accentuates the style further. You can see depending on how the light hits the grille, 6 rubber mounts in between the grille and the inside of the H21 to prevent any vibrations during high volumes. Microlab's logo sits at the bottom center of the speaker grilles.
Right and Left Side Profiles
Turning over to the right or left side profiles of the H21 you will see the fine wrinkle leather grain effects that give the H21 and edge in style and substance, the pattern is pretty much the same throughout and gives that wrinkle effect as you slide across the leather with your hands. It has the subtle soft touch feeling to it. And as mentioned with this test unit being a demo unit, its seen better days and its gone through many hours of usage. Many hands and fingers have touched it and the leather became dirty with stains. The good thing is that cleanup is a breeze, just use a cloth soaked in warm water to release those stains and make the leather look bright white again.
Coming directly to the bottom of the H21 we see 4 rubber clear feet that gives the H21 an extra bit of height, the beefy squishy rubber feet prevents the speaker from vibrating on the table, and prevents the speaker from sliding or falling. A black strip down the middle is where the leather is tightly curled into. On each speaker there is a Microlab Quality Control inspection sticker.
Directly up top on the main speaker, which happens to be the right channel, there is a control panel the features 1 volume knob and 3 other buttons that allow changing of the source (from Bluetooth to RCA), play and pause, backward and forward. They have good tactile feel to its click. Also up top are 3 LED indicators, 1 for Line IN source, 1 for Bluetooth source, and 1 for Bluetooth activity.
The volume knob on the H21 feels quite plasticky and feels a bit awkward, they could have done a better job. That's not to say it's bad, but could have been so much more. First of all I do not like that there is no indent anywhere in the volume knob, it just spins round and round in circles without you having any feel to where it starts and ends, indents between lowest to highest volume would have solved this matter. Another option would be having a ring of LEDs that gave you a visual indication on the current volume level.
Second, I also didn't like that on this demo unit, the volume knob kept rubbing against the plastic when turning the volume knob. I'm pretty sure this is isolated to this specific demo unit, as lots of people have already played with this specific unit and likely damaged it somehow maybe by pressing down too hard. So now you have that plastic on plastic noise at certain positions while spinning the volume knob.
This is where all the magic happens on the Microlab H21, where the party begins. I like how everything is labelled so you don't get confused.
Bottom center of both speakers reveal the position of the speaker, one being left channel, one being right channel.
Both speakers have 1 bass reflex port baffle at their respective speaker position, left channel speaker has the bass reflex port on the left side, while the right channel speaker has its bass reflex port on the right side.
In theory and when tuned properly, the bass reflex port baffle in a speaker system will enhance how deep the bass can go, and it also affects how impactful the bass is felt or portrayed as opposed to not having it at all. It also allows for air/heat to be exhausted out of the wooden cabinet.
I am very interested in seeing how well the bass does on the H21 considering my last review of the pebble shaped Microlab MD312 portable 2.1 Bluetooth Speaker revealed it had great bass considering the small size and how it had more impactful bass when compared to the 5x more expensive Samsung DA-F60 portable Bluetooth speaker system. Just the fact that this Microlab H21 is in bookshelf speaker form and is physically larger than any other Bluetooth speaker system I've tested up to this point gives it a great chance to perform at a high level.
Both speakers are connected to each other via traditional speaker wire through the H21's terminal binding posts which accept traditional speaker wire or ones with banana plugs on the ends. Microlab includes the traditional bare style speaker wire (inexpensive), one side is silver and the other side is gold, indicating negative and positive leads. These terminal binding posts feel solid and of high quality, they don't feel cheap nor do they have cheaper plastic caps. These are metal and gold plated.
In this case with traditional bare speaker wire leads, you unscrew the binding posts until at a certain point you see an eyelet where you stick in the speaker wire, and begin tightening back the binding post until you make a tight solid connection. Or you can pick up or make your own speaker wire ends with banana plugs and simply insert them into the terminal binding posts, those are much more simpler and faster to connect and disconnect. But such is the case with the H21, in this application, you are likely never to disconnect the speaker wire ever again.
Beside the bass reflex port is the lone RCA audio input jack. Would have loved 2 RCA jacks, but a single will suffice since Bluetooth is the other audio connection. Microlab includes a 1.8 meter length RCA to 3.5mm stereo cable so that you can connect these up with let's say you're computer system or non-Bluetooth device that utilizes that standard 3.5mm connection. For anything else that requires otherwise such as a DVD or Blu-Ray player for example, you'll have to provide your own cable or just use ones that come with that particular device.
One lovely addition that isn't marketed that much in regards to the H21, and should be, is its integrated USB 2.0 charging port. At the rear you'll see a single USB port that can be used to charge any USB enabled device such as your Smartphone, tablet, iPhone or iPad. It's such a great convenient feature to have, let alone in a speaker system. It will allow you to charge your device without needing your own separate charger for that device. Label says that the USB port is the standard USB 2.0 5V standard and charges at a standard rate of 1A, on an iPad I believe that is considered a slow charge, for all other devices 1A charge rate is typically normal.
Lastly you have your manual on and off flick switch at the bottom right of the speaker and DC IN port where you plug in the included power brick adapter that is of the 18V / 2A specification.
Streaming Music Through Bluetooth...Some Background Info
Let me start by saying that streaming music wirelessly through Bluetooth is very convenient. However, music that is streamed wirelessly always ends up compressed to a certain extent. This is more true if you have lossless FLAC music collection on your device, it's almost pointless as to expect the true FLAC bit-rate to be broadcasted in its entirety...it's not happening. Therefore, as to talk about sound quality through Bluetooth, that's a hard thing to put into words because at the end of the day, sound will be degraded to an extent over Bluetooth. I'm not sure how hardcore Audiophiles can cope with this as they are meticulously obsessed with sound quality!
This is a tiny bit similar in nature (degraded audio) to what happens with music through an FM transmitter (though Bluetooth is vastly superior to FM transmissions in every possible way), where signals can leak from one frequency to the next affecting the sound quality. However, the biggest difference is that Bluetooth is digital while FM is analog, Bluetooth by nature of being digital, can transmit more data and is superior in every possible way.
Unlike leaking frequencies in FM transmissions affecting sound quality, none of that happens with music over Bluetooth because of something called SSFH or Spread-Spectrum Frequency Hopping. SSFH makes it very rare for any two Bluetooth devices to be transmitting on the same frequency channel at the same time and they are ever changing.
Don't get me wrong, music for most people will sound excellent via Bluetooth, it's significantly and vastly improved over any FM transmitter solution in every regard. Most people honestly wouldn't be able to tell the difference if you compared music through Bluetooth or one that on a CD. All I'm saying is that it depends on so many variables, for example your Bluetooth device and its Bluetooth version for example.
Cheap Smartphone's broadcasting music over Bluetooth versus good Smartphone's make a difference to the sound quality, loudness and clarity, believe it or not. I've personally experienced this using a cheap Chinese Smartphone versus a decent Samsung Galaxy Smartphone, there was a clear and noticeable difference and it was not placebo effect.
Factors such as the quality of the Bluetooth speaker and its transmitter/receiver components, other Bluetooth devices transmitting nearby that may be interfering, distances between the two BT devices, signal-to-noise ratio, these all affect the sound quality.
How to pair Smartphone with Microlab H21
Pairing to the Microlab H21 with your Smartphone is very simple. With my Android Smartphone, I was able to pair the H21 with my Smartphone in about 10 seconds. Your results will vary depending on the device used.
With Bluetooth already enabled on your device, turn on the Microlab H21 and wait until you see the top Bluetooth source LED indicator light up. By default on the H21, the Bluetooth mode is the default source selection. Once you turn on the Microlab H21, its internal Bluetooth transmitter receiver will begin to enter pairing mode within the first 10 seconds looking for previously paired devices. If the H21 sees that no previously paired device exists within the first 10 seconds, it automatically enters pairing sequence mode after the first 10 seconds for you to pair with any unpaired BT device. You will see the Bluetooth activity LED on the H21 rapidly blink between red and blue colors continuously when searching for devices to be paired with.
You only need to pair the first time and after that the Bluetooth speaker will automatically connect each time your Smartphone's Bluetooth is enabled.
If in the event you are asked for a Bluetooth pairing code, it is simply 0000. Most times you will not need this, the devices will automatically do this on your behalf.
Using the Microlab H21
The Microlab H21 is very easy and straight forward to operate, so I'm honestly not going to talk about how to operate it. I'd like to point out that it's great to see that the top panel has buttons that allow you to play or pause a track and/or to skip to previous or next track on your Smartphone, all without touching your Smartphone. This is possible through support for the AD2P and AVRCP Bluetooth profiles. Just to have this type of flexibility is a great positive.
As for the convenience of having Bluetooth on a speaker system, one of the great positives of having such functionality in a speaker system is when you have a party or a gathering of people over. It just makes it so much easier for your friends to play their music that they want through the speaker, it literally takes the guess work away from choosing songs to play, you put it on their hands.
How does it sound?
This likely is strange to say, but I cannot believe Amazon.com has the white leather Microlab H21 selling for only $128.80USD on sale, and free shipping! And I'm the guy that usually complains about prices being too high, but the H21 should be honestly selling for much more based on what it offers and how it performs! That's how utterly overwhelmed I am about these Microlab H21's, the fact that they are underpriced means even better news for customers.
I don't know why the difference in pricing, but the black leather version of the H21 is more expensive on sale for $134.99, while the red leather version is the cheapest at $122.36. And no, colors don't affect the Microlab H21's performance, ha-ha. I'd venture to say that if you can wait and snag this for $99 on sale (it's possible it drops that low), it would be steal of the year.
The Microlab H21 sounds absolutely fantastic, easily the best Bluetooth speaker solution I've tested to date, and one of the best speaker systems in general that I've tested, without a single doubt!
As I've stated in my past audio reviews, the quality from a speaker is only as good as the source that is being used to run it. What I advocate is investing in two things. Invest in your source; audio will only be as good as where and what it’s coming from. Invest in your speakers or headphones; picking right the first time will prevent you from needing anything else in the future. Once you have established an audio source, the speakers or headphones you opt for will perform to its fullest potential.
The analogy I use is that of running your vehicle through the snow in the winter season. Most people have that false ideal that a large SUV is the best for winter, yet we see these same very SUVs struggling in the snow, or turned over in a ditch, while the little cars zip by. The reason stems from their tires, most of these people are running all-season tires which have little to no grip in the winter weather, whereas even the cheapest winter tires (with a softer rubber thread) will outperform all-seasons any day, every day. You can have AWD or 4WD, but it doesn't matter if you're tires are the weak link to the whole system, you're vehicle will not live up to its potential. Same thing for audio.
The Microlab H21 offers crisp clear sound with high level of detail in almost all of the ranges, low, mid, and highs. Out of all of the Bluetooth speaker systems I've tested so far, the Microlab H21 demolishes them all based on its bass prowess that can be attributed to the physical stature of the speaker, the bass reflex port, and of the 3.5” low-frequency woofer that Microlab utilizes. The bass is seriously thumping real bass, as much as one can get from a 3.5” woofer and without an external subwoofer. Honestly, you might not even need a subwoofer, that's how great the bass is on the H21. Put them in the corner of a 90 angle and even more so is the effect of extended bass. You can hear it reach down low and you can feel the impact, especially in a medium sized room let's say about 500 square feet. For the best sounding audio, the RCA audio input connection remains the best way to enjoy audio. Bluetooth isn't too far behind but you can hear differences between the sources.
Bass Rating (From 0-10, 10 being the best): 7.5/10
Equally rich and vibrant is the midrange and highs. They could be a bit brighter, but they are still performing great, giving away high amounts of detail and all without distortion, until you reach a volume that is too high for anyone to handle. The overall sound coming from the H21 feels rich and full, maybe they could have more personality or spunk, but they are still very impressive. Again sound is subjective to people, some people prefer and have different tastes, some like their sound to be controlled, some like it over the top, etc.
The Microlab H21 does a great job in vocal clarity making it very revealing to the ears. The high-frequency range on the Microlab H21 is very good allowing you to hear subtle details and nuances other speakers often leave muddled and unclear. I like that with the H21, the highs are not piercing to the ear as some lesser performing speakers are.
I really like the fact that with the Microlab H21, it excels in all of the ranges, not just in one area, and I also like the fact that in each range, they complement each other and do not take away from each other. For example, the bass is thumping, yet it doesn't take away from the midrange or highs, and vice versa. Is it the most accurate speaker out there, obviously no, but let's be honest here, this is not a $1000 speaker system. For what it is, these are pleasing to the ear and pretty damn great.
Where To Buy
The Microlab H21 Bluetooth speaker system has a list price of almost $150 USD. For the time being, the white leather version (the one I tested), is now on sale at Amazon.com for only $138.80 with free shipping! I don't know why the difference in pricing, but the black leather version of the H21 is more expensive at $134.99, while the red leather version is the cheapest at $122.36.
The product is sold by and shipped directly by Amazon so you can buy with confidence. I love Amazon and their service. Please note that they only have 10 left of the black version, 5 left of the white version, and 1 left of the red version, though more are on the way. So be sure to use the following link in order to secure your purchase of the Microlab H21 if you're on the market for a Bluetooth speaker. Thank you.
Some Amazon Deals That May Interest You!
Honestly there's not much negative to say about the Microlab H21 other than that they are absolutely worth every single penny (and then some), they are absolutely overwhelmingly positively impressive.
I've been operating on these speakers for about 6-months now and they have never failed or shown any reliability issues.
I would have to say that if you're on the market for a Bluetooth speaker system, the Microlab H21 is a must have product.