The Creative Sound Blaster Axx 200 is a portable Bluetooth speaker with an identity crisis.
I say that because it's not just an NFC-enabled Bluetooth speaker, it's also a PC soundcard, an MP3 player, a phone charger, a speaker phone, a voice and call recorder, a megaphone and a police siren. Yes, a megaphone and a police siren. Seriously.
It also has up to 15 hours of battery life and carries Creative's familiar SBX audio enhancement technologies to make music sound better and phone calls sound clearer.
It's the smartest portable Bluetooth speaker I've ever come across, and costs $150 in the US and £130 in the UK which is about par for a brand new Bluetooth speaker like this.
Now, I know what you're thinking, you've been waiting your whole life for a portable speaker that can act as both a megaphone and a police siren. But bare with me for just a second because I'm going to go through this thing feature-by-feature, and believe it or not, the megaphone and siren aren't the main event.
In my head, at least, the Bluetooth speaker aspect of the Axx 200 'intelligent wireless sound system' is going to be your chief interest. And as such, it's a thoroughly decent performer.
You charge the device using a micro USB cable and there's a 5V DC-out USB port onboard so you can plug your phone in to charge both at the same time. There's also an optional charging dock which makes charging simple and convenient but costs a frankly insulting $60/£50 extra - save your money, I say.
Pairing is easy using NFC, but just as painless if you're on an iPhone or other non-contactless device. And once you're up and running, sound quality is actually pretty decent.
It's a small device, but the sound feels full bodied and wholesome. Bass has personality and there's smoothness in the midrange. It's unlikely to blow you away with its audio majesty but it certainly won't disappoint you either. It'll go pretty loud, too, though it sounds really quite horrid at maximum volume.
Music sounds even better through the line-in port on the back which you can use if you want to save your phone's battery or if you don't have Bluetooth on board.
There is a problem, though, when it comes to control. With many (most) Bluetooth speakers these days, buttons on the device itself are able to control your source - alter volume and pause tracks etc. But while the touch-sensitive panel on the top of the AXX 200 can alter volume, there's no way to play/pause your music or skip tracks without touching your phone or tablet.
This is frustrating in itself, but the fact that you'll find play/pause and skip forward/back buttons on the rear of the device certainly makes things even more frustrating.
The buttons are on the back because the Axx 200 is also capable of onboard music playback.
There's a microSD slot on the rear which you can load up with MP3's if you so wish, though navigating them can be tricky due to the lack of a screen. You can use folders to separate into albums and playlists but you'll probably end up dumping a load of stuff in one directory and using the shuffle toggle to choose what to play.
I'm not sure why you'd want to listen to music in this fashion, given you can just pair with your phone. It seems like a very niche feature but of course no one will force you to use it like this if you don't want to.
It all works via plug-and-play, though one Windows 8.1 machine I tested on needed a lot of encouragement to get it up and running. No such problem with my Windows 8.1 laptop - I put that down to the occasional lottery that is using Microsoft Windows.
As an inside music system the Axx 200 is far less impressive than as a portable device, but you can use the line-out port to plug in headphones or a bigger set of speakers to beef things up if you want to. Sound quality is excellent when listening in this way, but again, whether even one person will use the Axx 200 for this I am not sure.
Like most other Bluetooth speakers these days, the Axx 200 is set up to handle your calls. With four onboard microphones placed around the base of the device, it can pick up your voice from any direction (the speakers, though, are very much forward-facing so you're going to be wanting to sit in front of the speaker anyway).
There's a phone button on the touchpanel with which you can answer calls without touching your phone, and from here you can even activate Google Now or Siri to dial contacts using voice commands. No need to get your phone out of your pocket.
Creative's bundled in the same call-optimising tech we saw in the original desktop-bound Axx devices, which include noise reduction and an ability to pinpoint your voice and silence everything else so your friends can hear you properly.
It works well and if you've got a microSD card in that rear slot we talked about, you can hit the red record button to record your calls.
Hit the button when not in a call and you can just record your own voice. Creative reckons you can use this to play Karaoke or record vocals for that awesome new track you're laying down in your studio. I'm not so sure that's a good idea.
But whatever you use it for, you can play your recordings back using the play/pause button. Quality is decent, but again, I'm not sure why you'd need this feature when your smartphone will record sound easily enough on its own.
Megaphone / Siren
Let's be honest, Creative included these features just... because. So let's not get too philosophical about it.
There's a springy microphone button the back of the device which you can use to activate megaphone mode - either in push to talk or open mice mode. To get any kind of projection from it, though, you'll need to dial it up to high volumes which your ears will not thank you for. It's not brilliant and the jury is very much out on whether anyone will be able to understand a word.
One thing's for sure - you clearly will not be popular with the people around you if you use this feature too often. Not only is it astonishingly annoying, but you look like a right idiot holding it up to your mouth, too.
Double-tapping the Noise button on the touch panel when you're in megaphone mode will toggle the waaaa-waaaaa siren noise. Good for attracting attention if you're in trouble perhaps? All I'll say is don't let the kids find this feature or you'll end up smashing it up and burying the bits under the patio before long.
If you want to you can install the Sound Blaster Central app on your Android and iOS devices. This allows you to change settings on the Axx 200 when connected by Bluetooth and also to monitor its battery level.
The App will also walk you through some of the features of the Axx 200 using video tutorials which is probably the only real reason to install it - I got rid of it as soon as I'd finished testing.
Creative has made a very strange product in the Sound Blaster Axx 200. As a Bluetooth speaker it's more or less excellent - easy to use with pleasing sound quality but it's disappointing that you can't control your Bluetooth music without digging your phone out of your pocket - that feels like an oversight.
I also can't help feeling that all those other niche features are a bit redundant and get in the way a bit, and I wonder how much cheaper the device would have been without them. However, it has to be said that $150 is probably about what you'd expect to pay for a brand new speaker like this even without all the extra features, so it's hard to really criticise them.
It's still quite a lot of money, though, and you'll get the same sort of sound quality from other products like the Jabra Solemate which you can now pick up for quite a bit less. So if you don't want all the extra bits, I'd say you should maybe look elsewhere.
But ultimately when it comes down to it I can't deny that the unique approach Creative has taken with this thing makes it quite lot of fun to have around and I'd recommend it to anyone who's looking for a does-it-all Bluetooth speaker with a bit of an x-factor.