Getting a portable speaker to fill a room without being huge is, even with all the options out there today, still a pretty tall order. You have to spend a fortune or make some big sacrifices. I have a pretty solid 5.1 setup for my TV, a substantial 2.1 option for my computer. But in places like the kitchen, where I tend to make a lot of noise, I haven’t found an option that could overpower the sound of delicious, sizzling ground beef enough to let me hear a podcast clearly. After spending a significant amount of time with Denon’s HEOS 1, though, I’m starting to think maybe I wasn’t investing enough money to get what I was looking for. The HEOS 1 is the runt of the litter in Denon’s entry into the wireless speaker network. Like offerings from Sonos, Bose, Google, and JBL, Denon’s HEOS line is expandable, and the HEOS 1 is just the beginning of what can be a whole-house speaker system if your wallet can handle the hit.
Let’s dig into the low end of Denon’s wireless speaker offering and see what it can do and, most importantly, how it sounds. As part of this review, we’ll also be looking at the HEOS 1 Go Pack, a separate battery that will let you go totally wireless. The HEOS 1 on its own comes in at $199.99, while the Go Pack is another $99.
Not only is the HEOS the smallest of Denon’s multi-room system, it’s also a bit of a black sheep in terms of looks. Or maybe I should say grey sheep. Where most of the speakers in the line are predominantly black or white, the HEOS is decidedly grey, though there’s a good reason for that which we’ll get into when we talk about features.
At about 7.5-inches tall and 5-inches wide and deep, Denon’s speaker isn’t huge, but it’s not something you’ll throw in your backpack, either. If you’re going to travel with it, you’ll have to account for it in your luggage. At 4lbs, it’s not exactly light, either. But it’s exactly as hefty as you’d expect a solid speaker to be, and it compares favorably with other speakers in my home.
The HEOS 1, even more than the rest of its line, looks decidedly like a speaker. It looks like a piece of consumer audio equipment. It isn’t designed to look like an art piece, nor to look like a piece of furniture. In that way, it kinds of fades into the background. If it’s going to end up a conversation piece, it’ll be because of the sound it makes, not its looks.
The HEOS 1 is pretty feature-light, and that’s going to be a sticking point for many considering it.
Port-wise, it has a proper loadout including jacks for power, USB, ethernet, and auxillary, as well buttons for initiating Bluetooth and initial Wi-fi setup. Denon kept on-deck control ultra simple, though, with mute and volume buttons on top of the device and nothing else. All other controls will be handled through your connected device. This feels a little anemic, in my opinion. I would like to see, at the very least, a play/pause button onboard.
Then there’s the optional battery pack we talked about before, the $99 HEOS 1 Go Pack. Connecting it is as simple as twisting a plastic disc on the bottom and twisting the battery in place. It’s worth noting here that Denon did do a recall for this battery, so you may want to check their site if you plan on picking one up.
That the battery is a separate purchase and so expensive – a hundred bucks for a battery? – is one of my biggest sticking points with the whole setup. If you’re going to spend thousands of dollars outfitting your home with wireless speakers, then a battery might not be necessary, but for the rest of us it’s definitely a crucial feature. Without the Go Pack, the HEOS feels incomplete to me. In my daily use, the speaker follows me from my bedroom where it charges up overnight and plays the white noise I use to sleep into the bathroom where it plays a podcast through my shower, and into the kitchen where it talks me through cooking breakfast and dinner. My tiny apartment doesn’t have convenient plugs in two of those three rooms, so the battery pack is an absolute necessity for my use case.
The battery itself is a mixed bag. It feels substantial, and Denon promises up to 6 hours of playback with it. The problem I have is that the device doesn’t handle idling well. If you don’t go hit the power button on the battery to cut off the juice, the speaker will sit there and drain the battery as if it was playing. You need to make sure this thing is charged before you leave, and bringing the plug along isn’t a bad idea if you’re planning some extended playback and don’t plan to be judicious about using that power button when you’re not outside.
And this thing is definitely designed to be used outside. Along with the battery, the Go Pack includes a rubber patch meant to seal all the jacks on the back. With the Go Pack’s rubber insert properly in place, the whole package is rated as IPX4 splash resistant. While it can plug into a whole network of other HEOS devices, the HEOS 1 is meant to work on its own as a portable piece of audio hardware. This is also why it looks different from its bigger siblings – the HEOS 1 is the only member of the team that’s water resistant, while the others have a more standard fabric covering typical of indoor/limited-outdoor equipment. Denon even talks on its official product page about mounting the speaker outside using the built-in mounting hole seen on most speakers.
Setting up the hardware was a pretty straightforward affair, though it has some room for improvement. You can use a network cable to your router or a 3.5mm cable to your phone to do the initial setup.
Therein lies one of the problems with the HEOS and so many other wireless speakers – they have a limited life. While I’m rocking a Samsung Galaxy S6 from 2015, back when things had audio jacks, modern phones often drop that connectivity. Because the HEOS is using the connection to send data – I would guess this is almost akin to the way a dial-up modem worked – connecting the 3.5mm jack through a USB Type-C to 3.5mm adapter doesn’t work for setup according to reading I’ve done. I haven’t tested this myself since I don’t own any USB Type-C devices just yet, but mobile phones are one of the fastest ways to get new tech out into the mainstream. In a few years, USB Type-C without an audio jack is going to be the norm.
Once you have that connection setup, though, you don’t have to plug the HEOS 1 into anything aside from power ever again if you don’t want to, at least not until you change your Wifi password.
Wireless playback can go Bluetooth or over Wi-fi. Over Bluetooth, things are pretty much as you’d expect. Over Wi-fi, you’ll use Denon’s HEOS app – another futureproofing concern. As it is now, though, the app is solid. You can play audio from the device itself, and the app an connect to Pandora, Spotify, Tunein, Amazon Music, Deezer, Napster, IHeartRadio, Sirius, Soundcloud, Tidal, Rhapsody, and it can play audio right off the drive of the device it’s connecting to. With Google and Apple wanting to get their own audio hardware into homes, it’s not surprising to see them missing from that list, but if you’re deep into any one ecosystem you may find the HEOS app lacking. The same goes for if you have any local music on app playlists. I have a few older tracks from my collection of old discs, and when using Spotify Connect they simply don’t play.
Also in the app, you can do things like updating the speaker’s firmware, adjusting streaming quality, network settings, and the bass/treble balance. I also very much appreciated the option to set brightness of the Status light to “off.” It’s eye-searingly blue, and that doesn’t work in the aforementioned bedroom situation. If you update the speaker’s name in the app, that also updates its Bluetooth name. If you have more than one of these in your house like Denon is clearly hoping, that’s going to be a boon.
If you’re spending $200 on a portable speaker – $300 with that battery – you’d expect it to be a pretty good piece of hardware.
And indeed, for that price, you’re getting a heavy, powerful speaker that does a solid job of what you’d expect from it.
First and foremost, the HEOS 1 gets nice and loud. Portable speakers I’ve had in the past have had issues getting loud enough to overpower a frying pan full of cooking food or the combined sounds of a running faucet and a dishwasher. The HEOS can absolutely do that, and more importantly, it sounds good doing it.
The HEOS 1 is definitely bass heavy. It leans on the low end and offers surprisingly punchy bass across the board. If you dig into stuff like Dick Dale’s “Miserlou,” the deep engine-rev guitar is in full force. Hip-hop tracks of just about any flavor from the Fugee’s “Killing Me Softly” to Dr. Dre’s “Kush” stand up well, too.
The mids and highs are clear, but the bass is so heavy that it left me feeling like the upper end of the spectrum didn’t get quite enough attention. There’s something missing that’s hard to pinpoint here.
Even so, the HEOS 1 sounds good. In speakers lacking detail, cymbals can often degrade into a background hiss, and they’re clear in tracks like Kyuss’ “Green Machine.” The wire-brush drumsticks in Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green” still sound like wire-brush drumsticks. I’ve seen people complain about hissing in this track elsewhere, leading me to believe they’re not listening on very good hardware, and I feel like that speaks volumes about how well the HEOS 1 works as a portable speaker despite some lacking fullness.
If I have any real qualms about the HEOS 1, it’s the price. I consider the battery a must-have part, and $100 is just too danged much to ask for a battery. The speaker is a bit more reasonable at $200. You’re getting what feels like a durable, heavy-duty piece of hardware meant to be moved frequently, used outdoors and in, in the bathroom and kitchen, and anywhere else you want to take it.
I can’t speak to the HEOS 1 as part of the greater HEOS wireless speaker system, but as its own piece of listening hardware, it does a great job at its intended task. It’s not going to replace a pair of reference speakers in a home theater, but it’s going to help make quality audio more portable.
DISCLAIMER: We received a complementary review unit of the HEOS 1 and HEOS 1 Go Pack from the manufacturer for review and used it daily over a few weeks before writing this review.