Review – AuraBox

The AuraBox is a 3” Bluetooth speaker by Divoom, which also functions as a 10×10 LED light-box. Supporting audio playback wired and wireless via bluetooth, a mic for phone-calls, and an app for controlling the LED display for custom animations and notifications, it all sounded pretty promising… Check the conclusion at the bottom for my final thoughts.

AuraBox - Slip-Cover

Packaging and Physical Overview

The packaging and physical presentation is arguably the best aspect of this product. It’s not on par with Apple levels of unboxing experience, but everything has a nice feel and weight to it. Inside the outer slip-cover is a matte black wooden box. Snuggly fitted inside is the speaker, and a small cardboard box with a 7-page manual (x12 languages) and two light/mid weight cables. It includes a 22in 3-pole 3.5mm audio cable for AUX input, and a 31in Micro-B USB cable for charging.

AuraBox - Packaging & Accessories

The speaker/light-box itself is roughly 10.7 x 10.7 x 5.25 cm, and is fully black with no printing. The LED face is glossy and comes with two layers of plastic film on. One might have been a “screen protector”, but came off with no effort, so I hope that wasn’t the intent. All other sides are covered in black soft-touch rubber, and the few symbols and logos are engraved in the surface. There are six clicky buttons and a hole for the microphone on the top, and the 3.5mm audio and micro USB ports are on the face with the speaker grill. With pressure there’s no flex anywhere but a small amount on the grill, and it feels solid overall. That said, as you’ll read below, sub-par internal quality is likely responsible for unusable wired inputs and the (possible) failing of an LED after minimal use (more just before the conclusion).

AuraBox - Buttons

When plugged in via USB to charge, it automatically powers on (and makes a startup chime), which could be annoying in some instances. Doing so while already on made no interruptions or sounds. A tiny red led illuminates next to the port until the internal battery is full.

AUX Use (Wired)

For my unit, this mode is unusable. It works, but something doesn’t seem right and I get consistent artifacts in the audio. With multiple devices as the source, I tested the included cable and two others of my own, and there were tiny skips and glitches that I instantly found annoying. I tested the various devices and cables among others with other speakers and headphones, and no artifacts occurred.

AuraBox - Inputs

I also noticed that with some cables, simply turning the plug going directly into the speaker could completely stop and restart the audio playback, as if it was unplugged. I made sure every component was perfectly still, so I’m guessing it’s a problem with either the physical jack or the components receiving the analog signal. Your mileage may vary, but I couldn’t imagine using this mode with my unit unless I was a good distance away. Finally, I’ll note that while it obviously can’t control a player via a standard 3-pole 3.5mm audio cable, they at least thought to make the play button act as a simple mute in this mode.

Bluetooth Use (Wireless) & Sound Quality

Even before you get to the App, or on various devices that can’t run it, the speaker operates as any standard Bluetooth audio device/headset would, including the phone ringing/answering functionality. There is latency present of roughly half a second.

I tested with two Android devices, an older iOS device, and a Windows 7 PC. In my time using it in this mode, I don’t believe I came across any real problems. Pairing felt a bit slow, but we’re still talking seconds. It had the latency in all cases, but the audio remained clear and uninterrupted, except for an odd half second of muting and beep that happens when you hit the max volume via the physical buttons. The minimum volume nor any point under the maximum don’t have that feature issue. I found on really all platforms, it was faster and smoother to adjust the volume via the buttons or slider on the player. On all platforms using standard players (not the one included within their app), holding volume up or down skipped song forward and back, and play and pause functioned as you’d expect. For Windows 7 and Android (at least the phones that I tested) the software and hardware volumes were separate, but it did control the volume slider in iOS.

On the PC, pairing and setting it up as an audio output was slower and you have to know where to look, though this has been vastly improved in Windows 8.1/10. Once configured the audio output worked fine, but I couldn’t get the mic to pick up anything even though it showed up as a recording device in windows. Receiving calls worked as advertised with the phones, and the mic quality was usable.

Range-wise, it worked fine without interruptions through a wall or down the hall a bit, but definitely don’t expect it to work across the house with the average phone or PC as your source. The audio quality doesn’t degrade with distance, it’s digital so it simply buffers, and it’s a relatively clear cutoff.

AuraBox - Grill

While I have experience with high-end audio equipment, even up to the live concert level, I don’t use too many portable speakers along these lines. With most sources I couldn’t max out the volume without a bit of distortion from its 5 Watt 3” speaker. Sitting near me in an enclosed room, I’d say it got louder than I would need, though it’s directional quality made it feel odd at top end. Facing directly at me I found the highs to be a tad brittle. Pointing it away from me at an angle towards a wall (or other solid object) around a foot away, seemed to remedy that as well as giving it a larger presence, which works out well considering you’d like to see the LEDs anyway. Of the tracks I tried, it seemed to suit natural sounding instruments best; a classical guitar + electric bass piece stood out to me. The bass output is solid (the thing really shakes in your hand), though it lacked some depth. I don’t believe it would impress those looking for that specifically.

Even with my limited portable speaker experience, I can assure you there are better options at a lower price point, but aside from the issues with the wired AUX input, I wouldn’t say the audio experience is bad. I wouldn’t shy away from using it on-the-go if it’s all I had on me, a clear improvement over any phone or laptop unless stereo separation is a priority. I’ve seen other speakers that can pair together for stereo, and it would be even cooler here if it tied into the LED effects, but sadly that hasn’t been implemented.

AuraBox - App

Smartphone App (Android + iOS) & LED Light-box Functionality

When you turn on the speaker, it displays a heart and plays a chime, then flashes a Bluetooth logo to note that it’s in pairing mode for 60 seconds. At essentially any time you can… Tap the power button to check the battery level, or hold it for two seconds to turn the speaker off. Tap the rightmost button to cycle between the 8 preset LED modes and off. The rest of the functionality relies on the app…

I was only able to test the Android side (Galaxy S5), so I can’t speak on the iOS version. After simply clicking to pair with the speaker on, the app presents you with 4-5 modes. In order from least to most useful:

Music

It’s a music player… that offers zero additional functionality if not far less than the one you already use. Multiple iOS users have claimed this doesn’t function at all for them. It did for me on Android, but there’s no reason to use it anyway.

Alarm

It offers two functions, Sleep and Alarm. The sleep option is essentially a timer for how long to play sound effects, with 5 preset periods (10, 20, 30, 60, and 90 minutes). Alarm is as you’d expect. Both have a toggle button to enable them, and a “Scene” button, which opens some pretty pictures attached to abysmal sound effects. Various nature sounds that don’t loop properly and last literally seconds before doing so. I’m all for ambient nature sound-effects to go to sleep to, but these are inexcusably horrible. There’s no reason to use these, as any app built for this purpose would play the audio through this or any other speaker.

Light

A series of pages to swipe through that simply toggle between the 8 LED presets. Doing so is actually quite snappy, while pressing the physical button to flip through them is so slow and inconsistent. This is also seems to be the only way to set the color of the full color preset. The presets are:

  • Clock – 24h format only, no other options color or otherwise.
  • Temperature – Celsius (default w/o app) or Fahrenheit. It has a color-coded bar across the bottom as if the LED color would change, but it stays white.
  • Halo – A panel of solid color, set only via the app, 7 choices. (more on this below)
  • Music Equalizer / Spectrum – False Advertising. Zero options, ugly yellow w/ red tip color scheme. Simply moves or doesn’t based on if audio is coming through, no reaction or spectrum visualization at all.
  • Imagination – A bright cyan background with some clashing dots moving around randomly.
  • Party Rock – Yellow caution arrows moving in 12 ways before looping. The second best preset, but could be massively improved with color selection and other customization.
  • Rainbow – 6 of the 7 possible colors rotating in a pie-chart, and then the same colors in a noise/confetti pattern for a few seconds.
  • Countdown – BY FAR my favorite preset, and it has a really nice effect when cast on a white table or wall. It’s basically a countdown from 5 to 1 and 5 sparkling effects, each one of 5 colors, with a wipe of that color before all 10. The best this thing this has to offer, so it’s a massive shame that there is zero customization, nor is it even close to possible to make something like this via the tools provided. Frame-by-frame this is countless layers, and they give you 8 maximum…

AuraBox - Dark Light-Box

Gallery

5 tabs of presets. Local (ones you have saved), Popular (I thought at first these were user uploaded, but it’s just some popular brands/characters the devs made, and a few promoting alcohol and cigarettes for some reason…), Flags, Numbers/Letters, and Animations. Nothing remarkable, and it could be vastly improved with a user uploading system. Another annoyance is that you can’t quickly preview a design. You must enter it as if you were editing it, hit play, and after that exiting brings you back to the very top level of the gallery, not where you left off.

Design/Animation

The tool used to design your own images and animations. There are only 7 colors to choose from + black, and they aren’t even in a sensible order in the editor. They have essentially taken red, blue, and green LEDS, and have only programmed them to be off or on at full power. You have their 3 base colors, 3 pairs of 2, all 3 being white, and none being black. Without variable brightness, you end up with a bunch of colors that are in my opinion, mostly harsh and unappealing.

Now let’s get more onto the tool’s functionality. You tap or swipe to draw with a selected color, that’s it. This is no fill or background color option, nor is there an undo. Changes don’t show on the grid in real-time, you must hit play, including between changes in speed for animations. There are only 3 preset animation speeds, with a maximum of 8 frames (that you can’t rearrange, you must manually place every pixel), making it impossible to replicate almost all of the presets. GIF files utilize frames with a variable delay for each, allowing a single file to have one section where a single frame starts and sticks for a long period, and then another section where there’s 60 individual frames displayed in a second. That kind of programming would work excellently for something like this, even if you were limited to under a dozen total frames. Their implementation is more like a traditional video file, where each of it’s 8 frames are displayed for an equal time period based on the slider, which only has 3 speeds and doesn’t go anywhere near as slow or as fast as I’d want it to, or more importantly as their own preset effects can…

Notifications

A set of notifications for various functions and applications on your phone, which temporarily override the other modes if enabled. In addition to incoming and missed calls, there are various services along the lines of Twitter/Facebook/Skype/Texts, all of which can be toggled on or off individually. A nice feature certainly, but you can’t customize the notification images, and the images within the menu are misleading as they show colors not possible on the 7 color panel.

Words cannot express how disappointed I am by the tremendous lack of customization here. I’ve seen programmable pixel art light-boxes in the past, and they seemed like a ton of fun. The limitation of 7 colors and inept software crush any chance of that. Hell, even with the color limit, better software here could have made this vastly more interesting. It could have been a great toy, a tool even, but its real implementation is little more than a gimmick.

After my first short session of testing it, I packaged it up and set it aside with the utmost care. After taking it out again for more, I turned it on to find one of the LEDs had failed. There are technically 3 LEDs in each of the 100 squares, and one of the reds had gone out. So if the whole panel is set to yellow (R+G), that single “pixel” is green, if all purple (R+B), it’s blue. As if I wasn’t already limited enough… That said in the process of writing this review, I left the LED panel on next to me, set to my preferred countdown/explosion preset, and after over an hour of that looping, all of a sudden that red LED started functioning again. Possibly a bad solder point, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it randomly stops again.

AuraBox - Bluetooth

Conclusion

The initial unboxing and physical presentation are very well done. The soft-touch rubber surface can collect dust, and the glossy LED face fingerprints, but I don’t find that an issue as it’s easy to wipe off and the feel in the hands is worth it. It has a solid and relatively weighty feel, and there’s not a single noise or rattle with vigorous shaking. All seems well, until you start using it

As I addressed above, the auxiliary input for wired devices is unusable on my unit because of various audio artifacts, and a single red LED in the grid failed after my very first short session of extremely careful use, but came back for some unexplained reason after running the countdown/explosion preset for over an hour. Bluetooth playback works just fine on basically any Bluetooth enabled PC or mobile device, and calling using the built-in mic on mobile phones, no app required. It can reach through a wall or two, or roughly 25-30ft of open air. As long as you are in-range, I found none of the artifacts present from the wired input, and leaving the range will simply cause it to buffer and skip as it is a digital signal. I believe the box actually utilizes two Bluetooth receivers, one for the audio device, and another utilized by the app for controlling the LEDs.

Said app has a reasonable visual presentation, but showcases dozens of bad choices. A tremendous lack of customization options and ease-of-use functionality that you just expect these days. Not only can’t you customize almost all of the things that you’d imagine you’d be able to at first glance, but you’re so limited by the palette of colors (6 + white + black). Red/Green/Blue LEDs with only two states (3-bit RGB). By contrast, most of the modern RGB peripherals coming out these days have 256 levels of brightness per channel, for ~16.8 million possible colors per key or region. 8 steps (9-bit) for 512 colors would’ve been absolutely excellent, matching what Corsair released with their first RGB keyboard (though they were panned for false advertising as they claimed the 16.8 million figure…). Even 6-bit (2 bits per channel = 4 states for each color R/G/B) for 64 colors would have been a massive improvement in terms of creative freedom.

I’d consider myself a creative person and I could’ve seen myself playing with designs and animations for numerous hours with more competent tools, but with what’s available I drew couple and put it down. The device isn’t particularly “rugged” or waterproof, and the audio volume/quality can be had elsewhere for less, so the light-box aspect had to be great to make this a worthwhile product. Even beyond the creative aspect which not everyone would have the patience or aptitude for, the one feature they absolutely had to nail in my mind was a reactive lighting mode, and they didn’t even try… “Is audio running? Play this ugly canned animation with a few frames”, it’s hilariously bad… It didn’t even have to be full spectrum visualization, just a simple flashing or pulsing with a few color modes to pick from would’ve been great. Lights moving in-time to sound can have a notably positive impact on the listening experience if done well, and it’s much easier to achieve in a case like this where you’re passing the sound directly through the device, rather than listening via a microphone.

I’m an enthusiast, a “power user”, so I’m hard to please and I get that. This combines two products into one, and is likely one of the best of its kind in that sense as there are very few available, but it under-performs in both areas, and does very little to make that pairing meaningful. The calling functionality tied with the visual indicator is about it, and the first thing you’d expect being a reactive lighting mode, is sorely missing. Even if the alternative was more expensive, my experience with it would have me looking elsewhere for two separate devices that do their respective jobs better, or another combined unit in the future that really nails it.

Finally, while I’m a bit biased speaking as a heavy PC user, a more open app for the PC could be tremendously useful in a revision or rework of a device like this. I’ve seen small illuminating boxes and dongles for PCs and laptops that serve this kind of functionality with only an RGB LED or two (the blink(1), a tiny 2 LED dongle raised 109K a few years ago on Kickstarter…). Imagine what you could do with a wireless box, 100 LEDs, a speaker with acceptable quality a volume, 4 physical buttons, and enough of a range to reach to the next room over or across a large open room. Software is incredibly key, and in this case there is no support for that aspect on anything but smartphones, and it isn’t well implemented at all. As I said earlier on, this could have been a great toy, a tool, a creative outlet, or even a small learning resource for programming as the Blink(1)’s software is. There are numerous directions you could take this in, but surely even only one of them is better than no support at all…

Alternatives

There are two components, the speaker, and the LED grid for notifications and custom designs. This is the only products I could find that combine both in a similar manner, are the JBL Pulse / Pulse 2, and SuperNova Light Cube from ThinkGeek. The SuperNova likely doesn’t sound as nice, uses a 6×6 LED grid beneath a clear prism, and only has a few selectable preset light effects with no reactive modes or phone connectivity for notifications or customization. The original JBL Pulse is twice the price of the AuraBox, with the Pulse 2 at over triple. Both can be used in pairs with themselves or I believe other JBL speakers for stereo and have reactive lighting modes. The second is said to win out handily in sound quality and volume, but the lighting effects and modes of the original were much better (especially it’s spectrum visualizer, which users seem to be begging for them to implement in a firmware update for 2).

On the pixel light-box and notification side of things, there’s the L8 SmartLight which raised over 200K on Kickstarter and the DOTTI it seems to have inspired. Both are a in a much smaller form factor, and use 8×8 grids instead of the AuraBox’s 10×10. The DOTTI seems to only utilize a smartphone app, but clearly has a larger range of colors, does have a reactive spectrum mode (I’m unsure if it’s genuine), and allows you to connect 4 at once for more advanced designs and animations. The L8 SmartLight got Kickstarted in 2012 and is only just recently being distributed. It has various additional sensors and a larger LED on the back for an array of uses and effects, and seems to have Windows PC support and a more robust set of functions on the phone as well. Not having access to them I obviously can’t vouch for either, especially considering how many factors there are as you’ve seen from this review, but I’d absolutely love to test and compare them at some point. Both are in a similar price point to the AuraBox, but without the entire speaker component of course. Again, as a heavy PC user, if the Windows tools for the L8 SmartLight are as powerful as they seem, it could be really cool addition to my system, where I already use a much higher quality set of speakers.

For the standard portable speaker side, I haven’t tested enough of a variety to give a solid recommendation. However, Bobby (the owner of the site) highly recommends the BIG JAMBOX from Jawbone. It’s totally in another pricing tier, but from what I’ve seen it’s very well built with substantial battery-life. It’s available in various colors and mesh patterns for around the $170-190 range. In the also bought section you’ll find a ‘Certified Refurbished’ option available for as low as $125 shipped. Your mileage may vary of course, but many users seem satisfied.

For full disclosure, the AuraBox was “purchased” through Amazon for almost no cost via Divoom for this review. Maybe my expectations were too high. This is still a very unique product, it’s just disappointing that the execution of the software and LED light-box aspect were nowhere near what I was expecting from my initial impression of Divoom’s product page. Hopefully at some point they or some other company can nail this concept, as I definitely want one when that finally happens. Again this may seem overly critical, but I try to address as many aspects as possible, as so many sources just don’t. If money is tight you wouldn’t necessarily buy this product, but in other cases, I’d like to help the consumer know exactly what they can expect beyond the surface traits. Anyway, another long review, but even if you skipped right to the end, Thanks for Reading! 😀

 

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1 Response

  1. Just a quick note….you state…
    “Bluetooth playback works just fine on basically any Bluetooth enabled PC or mobile device”

    Maybe note that this is not true for linux. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to get it to work with Ubuntu 16.04.

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