At the end of 2021 I received an email inviting me to attend a "gathering of influential reviewers" at Google's London offices, to learn about becoming a "better asset to my community". The event was being put on for people who engaged with Google's "Community Guide" programme, a vaguely gamified layer that sits on top of Google Maps and encourages people to leave reviews, update information, and generally do work for Google, but for free 😉 I wouldn't say I'm a hugely active participant in this ecosystem, but I am someone who always fills out those "please review us/tell us what you thought" emails that most e-commerce sites send out. I'll also try to review local businesses that we visit in-person if they ask us to; I'll definitely do it if I said I would to a server or other staff member and sometimes just to support a restaurant or attraction I was particularly impressed with.
Because I've been doing this for over a decade, and because I tend to leave fairly lengthy reviews, I've slowly built up a decent level of engagement across most of the main reviewing platforms. Whether it's TripAdvisor, Google Maps, Booking.com, Reevoo, Amazon, or TrustPilot, I've got reviews going back years, some of which have floated to the top of their respective subjects and received a decent number of upvotes or likes.
To be clear, I don't properly engage with any of this. I don't have hundreds of reviews on any platform; it's probably less than 50 on each. For example, I have 22 proper reviews on Google Maps at the time of writing, and a few dozen corrections/answered questions. I don't go out of my way to review every place we visit or everything we purchase and, if I did, I wouldn't do so on a third-party service – I'd track that here, on my own website.
So I was mainly just bemused at this invitation to meet other like-minded "community influencers", assumed that it had been sent to anyone in the London area that had submitted any reviews in the past year or so, deleted the email, and forgot about it. But then, in the run-up to Christmas, I started getting some unusual notifications. We'd visit a new café and that evening I'd get an email asking me to add my review, which on its own isn't that odd. But in that email, I'd get told some ridiculous statistic, like the fact that my previous review of a restaurant now had 70% more engagement than most similar reviews or had twice the average positive interactions. Around New Year, we went for a walk in Wimbledon Common with some friends, and whilst doing so I had a push notification asking me to rate the park and claiming that I'd just surpassed 200,000 views across my prior ratings.
I've not been able to verify any of these stats, or find any kind of interaction analysis on my Google account, so it's possible that these are just made up numbers intended to encourage you to engage with their platform. But it did get me wondering whether that email was a little more targeted than I had thought. Was I, actually, getting to the point of being a valuable asset to companies like Google? Was I becoming an influencer, someone of value to brands? Nah, probably not 😂
Then, in a slightly wild turn of events, Reevoo reached out and asked me if I'd be happy to review products for them. They'd ship whatever they needed to be reviewed to me, all expenses covered; I might even get to keep whatever it was, depending on the manufacturer. There was no indication what the products would be, but apparently my reviews on their site have also become "influential" enough that I qualified for some kind of testing programme 🤷♂️ Never one to turn away free stuff – and more than a little intrigued – I signed up, filled out a bunch of personal information to determine what kind of market value I might provide, and figured that nothing more would come of it. After all, I don't fit into any particularly interesting demographics. Being white, cisnormative, able-bodied, male, and middle-class, I've found that any role I'd fill in a market survey is likely oversubscribed already.
Well, I must have said something right on that form, because a couple of weeks later Bose (of all companies) reached out to see if I'd like to review a new mid-end Bluetooth speaker they were releasing. Would I‽ 😲
So, for the last week or two, I've been testing their new Soundlink Flex speaker. I submitted my review of it a few days ago, but it doesn't appear to be live yet. As part of the whole deal, I've given permission for Bose to use it in marketing material, on their website, and (of course) for Reevoo to publish it on their service as well. That said, whilst I think the speaker is a pretty solid piece of kit, I didn't exactly give them a glowing review. Reevoo uses a slightly odd multi-rating scale, but I believe mine would roughly equate to around an 80-85% score, which feels fair, but perhaps not what Bose might have hoped from someone who has effectively been given a £150 speaker for free (at least for now).
Overall, the process was pretty fun, though I definitely wouldn't class it as casual. I probably spent around 3-4 hours really putting the speaker through its paces, writing up notes, and then editing them for the final review. I imagine they were hoping for something a bit more easily digestible, but I had this guilty feeling about reviewing something that I hadn't actually bought. My reviews are always my genuine experience, no matter how brief or lengthy, and I didn't want this to be any different. Plus, the whole point of this exercise is to populate the device with reviews for launch, which mean these function as feedback for the vast majority of Bose's potential customers. That adds weight: it's important that other people are able to make an informed decision. Do unto others, and all that.
Still, I feel like my skewed form of integrity may end up meaning this is a "one and done" type deal 😂 Time will tell, but I wouldn't be surprised if my foray into the world of influencers and tech reviewers didn't last that long. I hope that isn't the case because, as time-consuming as it was, I really enjoyed the process. Plus, whilst I don't yet know if Bose will ask me to send the speaker back, if I do get to keep it, well, that would be pretty incredible!
Which all leads me to wonder: should I be doing something more with my reviews? If people are genuinely finding them useful, should I be treating them a bit better? I already post reviews on this site for all of the media I consume; behind the scenes I've also been tracking everywhere we've visited for the last year or so, including details like what we ate, whether I liked it, who we were with. I have a microsite just for my record collection, and I kept a log of the beers I've tried on an Instagram account for years.
I don't intend to review everything I track, but I have wondered about keeping a list of the things I own which I would particularly recommend. I enjoy reading those on other people's websites and frequently return to gear lists like Thomas Heaton's for recommendations or sanity checks. Plus, if this isn't a one-off event and I do occasionally get asked to review items or take part in market research, wouldn't I rather keep that work somewhere that I control?
But on the other hand, I already struggle to keep up with film reviews and am more than a little worried that the only reason I've been able to find the time to create an effective lifelog over the past year is because of this whole global pandemic thing. Even small trips to see family have resulted in day-long catchups to backfill check-ins, something which I think has directly impacted how often I write blog posts or engage in other hobbies. Do I really want to add yet another type of content to an already overstuffed schedule?
I'm not sure, but it's something I'm definitely thinking about. After all, if I'm going to be an ✨ influencer ✨, I'd rather do it on my terms and use it as an excuse to generate content that is something that I would either find useful as a consumer myself, or which I can return to in the future if I ever needed to. I guess the question is, why do all that work and then just hurl it out into the ether?
With that in mind, for now, here are my actual, unedited thoughts on the Bose Soundlink Flex. If I ever do create a gear microsite or expand my existing reviews section then I'll repost this there, but for now this at least makes it available for anyone interested 😉 It's not in a format that I particularly enjoy, but that's the format which Reevoo wanted and I can't be bothered to edit it again!
- Initial setup and general pairing are very easy and painless. Reconnecting is a breeze: just turn the speaker on and it would automatically find my phone or smart speaker in seconds.
- Overall audio quality is decent, with mid-tones and vocals particularly clean (though see improvements for some additional thoughts). The bass could use some improvement, but it isn't "bass heavy" like a lot of speakers, which is nice.
- The speaker is LOUD! Turn it up to full (with your connected device also on full) and I'd say it's almost antisocial 😂 Better yet, even at top volume there is little distortion, vocals come through cleanly, and it still sounds great.
- Battery life and charging are excellent. It took about 3 hours to charge from flat to 100%, has held charge for well over a week without issue, and uses about 5% an hour with playback at a good volume. I also like the fact that it announces the current charge level when you first turn it on, though this can also be disabled in the app if you want to.
- I also really appreciated the small moulded feet on the bottom and back, which keep it reassuringly steady when placed on a flat surface, without being noticeable when held or hung from the fabric loop. Unlike a kickstand, there's no real risk of them breaking over time either. Just a very neat solution and backs up the overall excellent build quality.
- Whilst you can't communicate with a smart speaker from the device directly, I was still impressed with how easily it worked in that context. Pairing with an Amazon Echo was very simple and meant I could use my smart speaker with much better audio quality, as well as placing the sound source wherever I needed, rather than being stuck to where my wall sockets are.
- Whilst pairing with the app is painless, you can also use the speaker without it just by connecting to phones via Bluetooth, which was great for sharing with friends.
- Whilst the packaging is very slick, the instructions were a little bare. That's probably because the device walks you through set up via inbuilt audio prompts, but mine was completely out of battery when it arrived, which I had no way of knowing (battery is only knowable via the app, which you need to first pair and set up, or via an announcement when you first turn it on). So just be aware that you likely need to charge it first!
- Whilst the audio quality is solid overall, I initially wasn't that impressed, finding the bass muddy and highs flat. What I discovered after some experimentation is that you need to set the speaker to 100% volume, either with the buttons on the top or via the app, then control the actual volume from your phone or music app. That completely removed the muddy bass and made it sound much better, but does mean that the volume buttons are pretty much useless on the actual device.
- I also found that lying the speaker on its back, with the buttons facing whoever is listening, produced the best sound. It looks best when stood upright to me, but that does take the edge off the bass, which you get back by lying it down.
- Also, given the price, I never felt blown away by the audio quality. It's a lot better than cheap Bluetooth speakers, or small smart speakers like the Echo Dot, but I found my older full-size Echo device consistently output cleaner sounding music. Podcasts sound great, but there's something hard to pin down about high-fidelity music. Vocals are perfect, the bass is there, but it just lacks a bit of punch, like the audio is being compressed a little. It's by no means bad – I'd say it was actively good – and for pop music, dance tracks, or rap it sounded just as good as high-end speakers or headphones. But for very nuanced tracks, or very full sounds like classical or rock, it lacked a little depth to the audio.
- The app is also a bit weak. It consistently "lost" the connection with the speaker, even though music playback continued flawlessly, and you can't really do much with it, but without it using the device is a bit more frustrating. It's also lacking any advanced features, so you can't tweak the sound profile or even rename your connected devices. The latter sounds small, but having phones (in particular) just read out a random string of numbers when they connect is much less useful than being able to call it "My Phone" or "Samsung Galaxy" or something useful. That said, the random name generator for the speaker itself was a very nice touch and made it simple to find in Bluetooth pairing menus.
- Relatedly, there's no way to tell what volume the device is set to without looking at the app, which is a shame.
- Finally, it seems like the device has an inbuilt microphone*, so it's a real shame that you can't directly communicate with smart speakers! Being able to just press the central button and say "Alexa, play my most liked songs" or "OK Google, what's the news" would make the Soundlink Flex an extremely useful way to get smart home integrations into areas where smart speakers can't go, like bathrooms, gardens, or unpowered sheds/garages. Particularly given the water and dustproof design, it would make the speaker invaluable. As it is, for a travel speaker, it's still great, but I don't see myself using it as much around the home.
- I might be wrong about this. You can use the speaker to take calls when paired with a phone, but it's possible that the Soundlink is using your phone's mic to do so. For example, you can use the Alexa app on your phone by long-pressing the middle button with both devices paired, but if the phone's mic is obscured or disabled then nothing would register. I also found this hit'n'miss with how well it would work, with the Alexa device often saying it was playing music, but no sound coming out of the Soundlink, though this appears to be an issue with Alexa and not the speakers.