We travel (for pleasure, at least) to leave our world behind for a while. Still, bringing along the things we love most is often a good idea, whether they be family and friends, a beloved Chihuahua, or our jazz albums. Not long ago, portable audio meant big CD folders and boomboxes, so bringing Miles and Bird along with you on vacation wasn’t easy. But thanks to internet streaming and a new generation of super-portable audio products, getting great sound on the go today is hardly more difficult than playing a kazoo.
Because almost everyone carries a smartphone now, we have instant and affordable access through streaming services to almost every jazz album ever recorded. The challenge is how to hear the music while we’re in a hotel room in Chicago, on a plane from New York to Montreux, on a beach in Thailand, or anywhere else our travels happen to take us.
Sharing Your Sound
Although one easy solution for on-the-go sound is to travel with headphones or earphones, it’s not that much fun to walk around a hotel room with headphones on—and, of course, you can’t share your sound with your travelmates that way. So while headphones are a must in transit, once you’re settled, you’ll enjoy having a Bluetooth speaker with you.
Fortunately, the audio industry seems to have settled on a very practical basic design for Bluetooth travel speakers: a square enclosure measuring about four inches by four inches and about one-and-a-half inches thick, small enough to slip into any suitcase. Most of them incorporate a rubber strap that can attach them to a piece of outdoor gear, such as a backpack, bike, or beach chair.
I’ve tried most of these speakers, and my favorites are the $59 Tribit StormBox Micro and the $119 Marshall Willen. Both are IP67-rated, which means they can survive for 30 minutes under one meter of water, and they’re sealed against dust too. Both can play loud enough to fill a small hotel room or entertain a couple lounging on the beach. While both of them have a surprisingly full, satisfying sound, the Willen has clearer highs, stronger bass and cooler features, including a metal joystick that adjusts volume, skips tracks, and turns the unit on and off. It also stands upright, which the StormBox Micro can’t do. And every time I look at the Willen’s design, inspired by the classic Marshall guitar amps, I can’t help but feel John McLaughlin and Jimi Hendrix are traveling along with me, in a way.
If you’re renting a cabin or an Airbnb, though, you’ll probably want more volume. For a little over $100, you can get a speaker powerful enough to entertain a dozen people lounging around a patio but compact enough to fit easily in a duffel bag: Sony’s $129.99 SRS-XB33. At about 9¾ inches long and two-and-a-half pounds, it’s comfortably portable, yet it combines the dynamics needed for a Mike Stern fusion side with the delicacy required for a Bill Evans solo piano recording. Sony also makes an almost identical but larger version, the $249.99 SRS-XB43, if you want to amp up the volume even more, although at six-and-a-half pounds and not equipped with a carrying strap, it’s probably not something you’d want to take on an airplane flight.
Notching Out the Noise
Unfortunately, no Bluetooth speaker will do you much good when you’re actually in transit. For that, you’ll need a good set of headphones or earphones—and if you’re flying, you’ll probably want something with noise canceling, because standard headphones and earphones can do very little to block the monotonous, bassy droning emanating from jet engines.
Until recently, the big names in audio had the best noise-canceling technology under tight patents, often leaving smaller companies unable to offer any kind of technology worth paying for. More recently, chipmakers such as Qualcomm have started to build noise canceling into their integrated circuits, making the technology available to everyone at much lower prices. Take, for example, the $129.99 Soundcore Life Q35 headphones or the $69.99 1More PistonBuds Pro earphones: Both have noise canceling that’s competitive with that of any other headphones or earphones on the market. You can hear all the details of intimate acoustic recordings, such as the live tracks from Cécile McLorin Salvant’s Dreams and Daggers, without having to crank the volume up. That’s a particular blessing when you’re stuck in the back of the plane, where the engine noise is usually the loudest.
Even if you’re trying to pack as light as possible, it’s a nice idea to have a couple of these products with you, no matter where you’re going—because there’s nothing like a great bebop side to lift your spirits when a summer rainstorm forces you back into your hotel room.
What’s an IP Rating?
When shopping for portable audio products, you’re sure to see IP ratings, such as IPX4 or IP67. IP stands for “ingress protection.” The first number rates protection from foreign objects, such as dust. (If there’s no rating for this, the manufacturer uses an X.) The second number is the moisture resistance. A web search will tell you the details, but basically, the higher, the better.