Introduction and features
Bluetooth speakers designed to unlock music stored on your smartphones, tablets and computers have come in all manner of weird, wonderful, and even weirder shapes over the past few years. But nothing before has looked quite like the BenQ TreVolo.
The main - though certainly not the only - reason for this is that it uses, uniquely for the portable speaker market, electrostatic speakers, known more colloquially as flat panel speakers. I'll get on to the audio ramifications of this later, but the most immediate impact is aesthetic and practical as the two flat speakers either side of the main bodywork are hinged so they can be folded back against the main body's sides for transport, and pulled forward again for music playback.
It's a nifty idea, and one that's been pretty well executed in terms of the robustness of the hinging mechanism and the flushness with which the speaker 'wings' tuck into the main unit when closed.
That main unit is also extremely solidly built, and continues the unique look with its deep grey (silver is also available) matt finish, trapezoidal vertical shape (which is nicely weighted at the bottom for extra stability), and the eye-catching array of 18 gold-ringed venting holes on its forward edge.
These holes aren't just there for show, though. Tucked behind them are two front-firing woofers built in to add some 'meat' to the audio - a likely welcome touch given that electrostatic speakers tend to struggle to deliver much low frequency action.
In fact, when you open up the electrostatic speakers you can additionally see a couple of promisingly large passive radiators, one built into either side of the main chassis, to further extend the woofers' low frequency performance.
The TreVolo doesn't ship with a remote control. While I personally wish that it had, the system can be controlled by a dedicated BenQ app for your smart devices, while the control buttons on the top side of the main unit are large and tactile. They include the main power on button, volume up/down buttons, and, unexpectedly, buttons for answering and hanging up your phone. Yes, you can use the TreVolo as a swanky speakerphone, there's even a noise-cancelling microphone built in so you can talk through it in noisy places without becoming unintelligible.
There's a further large Bluetooth activation button on the rear side, and a row of jacks along the botton edge comprising a micro USB port, a power input, and 3.5mm line out and line in ports. The USB port means you can connect the TreVolo directly to your computer and if you go this route the speaker can play 16-bit/48kHz resolution files.
The Bluetooth connection is interesting too, since it's supported by aptX technology. This overcomes Bluetooth's usual bandwidth limitations to enable low-latency streaming of CD-quality audio. In fact, I was very pleased to discover that the TreVolo even supports playback of high-resolution FLAC and ALAC file formats.
For the most part the TreVolo is admirably easy to use. It syncs with Bluetooth devices in mere seconds, with no hassle whatsoever, and its fold away speakers are an inspired way of giving you a speaker you can easily move from room to room or even outside (though be warned: it's not waterproof!) without having to suffer with a weedy sound when you get it to where you want to use it.
Also impressively useful is the TreVolo's battery life. BenQ claims a potential 12 hours of playback from a single charge, and while this will obviously vary depending on how loud you run it I found I was easily able to use it almost constantly throughout a working day without needing to plug it in. Excellent.
Counting against it from a usability point of view are the facts that it doesn't ship with a remote, leaving you having to control it via the buttons on its main chassis, and the way sound quality is slightly dependent on where you physically position the speaker.
For US$299 (about £203, AU$394) you can get better all-round sound quality elsewhere, especially if your music tastes err towards the heavy in dance, indie or rock terms.
However, if your tastes lie in the areas where the TreVolo excels, then the exceptionally detailed and immersive nature of its sound actually makes it uniquely qualified - and therefore worth the money - to deliver the goods despite its diminutive size and practical design.
How good the TreVolo sounds depends on what sort of music you feed it though when it's at its best, it really is very good.
As noted earlier, electrostatic speakers tend to have quite distinctive characteristics. They tend to deliver impressive clarity in the upper-mid and treble parts of your music, but can struggle compared with normal 'full-size' speakers when it comes to delivering bass. This is why most systems that use electrostatic speakers (including the TreVolo) partner them with separate bass components.
In action the TreVolo is slightly restricted in what it does well by its electrostatic characteristics. Feed it fairly sparse and/or very cleanly defined and detailed music and it sounds good bordering on stunning. Feed it something dense and bassy, though, and it slides back in to average territory.
Focussing first on its strengths, the amount of detail you can hear from certain types of music is stunning, well beyond anything else I've heard at a similar price level from such a relatively small speaker system.
You can pick out extra breathing and background instrumental noises when listening to relatively sparse content like the Antony & The Johnsons' I Am A Bird Now album, and Antony's falsetto voice takes on an even more, entirely appropriate, ethereal feel. I've never heard Hope There's Someone sound so accurately and heartbreakingly fragile before on anything other than a high-grade hi-fi system.
Other predominantly vocal-driven, relatively sparse material like Nick Cave's The Boatman's Call album also sounds superb, putting you right there in the recording studio with the artist.
Piano-based classical music sounds gorgeous too, as can orchestral pieces if they're not too dense or loud. Think Pachelbel's Canon rather than the 1812 Overture.
If jazz is your bag then again the TreVolo's electrostatic-based audio characteristics will for the most part leave you feeling more than satisfied at how good such a small and portable device can sound.
There's a more general strength to the TreVolo's sound, too, in that its soundstage extends far beyond the speaker's physical form, delivering height as well as width to present you with an immersive wall of sound capable of filling a surprisingly big room - despite the fact that actually the TreVolo can't go as loud as some other Bluetooth speakers.
So what sort of music does the TreVolo struggle with? Essentially it's not a great fan of heavy bass or very dense, multilayered sounds. Which means it's not the best option for fans of bass-driven dance or garage music or dense 'wall of sound' rock or indie music.
The layered cascading guitars of something like The Boo Radleys' Everything's Alright Forever LP, much of the new Swervedriver album or anything by My Bloody Valentine sound muddy and muffled, while the vocal tracks on such dense material are left sounding like a child singing into an empty cereal box.
It doesn't help the TreVolo's case with dense and/or beaty music that it can sound as if it's digitally processing the most raucous moments, resulting in a more compressed sound and even what sounds like a sudden drop in volume at times.
It's worth adding, too, that the TreVolo really thrives on high quality sources. It doesn't seem to have either the processing chops or enough 'give' in its speaker range to handle heavily compressed music well. The difference in Radiohead's King Of Limbs encoded in FLAC and a typical MP3 bitrate was even more night and day on the TreVolo than it usually is with 'desktop' speaker systems. So if you get a TreVolo try to use the highest bit-rates you can for your music sources without eating up insane amounts of memory on your storage devices.
Another issue some may have with the TreVolo's sound is that it doesn't deliver an especially defined sense of stereo separation. This won't annoy everyone; indeed, I can imagine many people liking the more organic, immersive feel you get from the TreVolo. But if you're the sort of person who likes a more clinical stereo sound again the TreVolo may not be for you.
One final issue with the TreVolo's sound is that it's more dependent on where you place it than most similar types of device. Bass increases, and sounds more integrated with the rest of the frequency range, if you place the system as close as you can to a wall. And I also found that the sound quality increased drastically when sitting near the speaker if I tried to position it at roughly the same height as my head.
The TreVolo is a genuinely innovative new entry into the over-crowded portable speaker space. What's more, since its main innovation (the use of fold-back electrostatic speaker wings) turns out to be more than just an aesthetic gimmick, the TreVolo has a genuine chance of turning its pioneering spirit into some decent sales figures.
The electrostatic speakers help to deliver an exceptionally clear, detailed sound ideally suited to classical, jazz and even certain types of pop and rock music. It's less comfortable with dense rock and dance music, but if its talents match your tastes, it's well worth seeking out.
The TreVolo looks cool and cute in equal measure, standing out on shop shelves and making a great talking point for dinner parties. Its sound is excellent with relatively light or sparse music too, it supports high-resolution audio files, and its design and battery life make it surprisingly portable for such a good-sounding system.
It's not quite as much of a musical all-rounder as some other speakers in its category, with dense and/or deep music sounding a bit muddy. It's also not cheap in the context of the general Bluetooth speaker market (though actually, nor is it expensive by the standards of electrostatic speaker technology), and sometimes its audio processing feels overbearing.