At one time, Bluetooth speakers were very difficult to get right. The few companies who did know how to do this, therefore, could charge a premium for their products.
However, the exponential growth of technology means that many competitors start to catch up and also get things right. Products become cheaper and more accessible. Not only do manufacturers become wiser, but the gap between premium and budget products in terms of functionality and power gets smaller and smaller.
The ION Pathfinder 280 appears to be a prime example of this. It costs much less than competitors who promise the same kind of capabilities, functions, and battery life.
For around $105, the Pathfinder 280 promises a battery life that will last multiple parties. Along with sound quality and a range that can fill any space and overpower any crowd should you need to. And it can even open your beer!
However, these are all mere words, promises, and boasts made on the side of a cardboard box and the company website. So, I decided to put the 280 through its paces to discover whether “too good to be true” should be added to the slogan on the front, in my in-depth ION Pathfinder 280 Review.
Design and Build
Pathfinder’s design is simple. But, once you start taking a closer look and spending some time with it, you’ll begin to realize where all the thought went into.
The square-shaped Pathfinder is very heavy, mainly due to its battery. Nonetheless, this always helps to make a speaker more grounded.
Luckily, there are two built-in handles on either side. As well as a telescopic handle and wheels so it can easily be transported. Furthermore, regardless of the weight, it’s fair to say this is one of the most portable Bluetooth speakers you can buy, considering its power.
You like to move it, move it…
The two side handles have been colored red, and while subtle, this makes a big difference, especially when combined with the RGB strip that runs around the grill.
The wheels on the bottom, while tough enough to last long, won’t survive everything you throw at them. So, try to keep them clean and don’t go off-roading. Likewise, the two rubber feet will keep the Pathfinder steady once you’ve decided where you want to place it.
Tough enough to party…
The grill that protects the drivers is metal, while plastic is used in most of the construction of the Pathfinder. But, it is high grade and, therefore, durable. The same can be said for the quality of the rubber used for the controls on the front panel.
This is reassuring since there are quite a few buttons on the Pathfinder. They are due to the 280’s extensive features, but I’ll get to those in a bit.
There are USB and AUX ports on the front, as well as the AC port on the back. All are protected by rubber flaps which, like the red accents on the handles, aren’t entirely necessary but very nice to have.
The most appealing design feature?
This has to be the handy storage compartment on the top of the speaker. Large enough to contain any smartphone, it also houses two more ports for charging.
Finally (and most importantly, if you’re a freshman), the Pathfinder has that ever so handy bottle opener located on the right side of the speaker. Cheers to that!
Functionality and Battery Life
The Pathfinder comes with an IPX5 rating. This means it will be fine if it catches a few moments of rain while you scatter to get the rest of your stuff into the house.
For technically-minded folks, the Pathfinder is rated safe for contact with water for a duration of up to three minutes. Therefore, it’s one of the best splash proof Bluetooth speakers on the market. Although, we would strongly advise against trying to place it in water during drunken pool parties.
There are the two auxiliary ports and USB ports mentioned earlier. These allow for charging devices as well as connecting them for audio playback.
The Pathfinder is equipped with Bluetooth 5.0 and produces a solid connection at a range of up to 85 meters. One downside is that there is no multipoint pairing. So, you’re limited to one device at a time.
Furthermore, there are slight delays when watching videos and movies. This can happen whether streaming or directly from the memory of the device.
Controls and Built-In Features
The button controls are easy to understand and laid out in a way that is unlikely to cause confusion. So, the ease-of-use score is high. There is a Bluetooth button to engage in pairing and a light button that allows you to select a light pattern of your choice.
A control labeled “BOOM” is not something you’d necessarily want to see on any of your electronics. But, on a speaker, it does have pleasant connotations. The BOOM control enhances the bass frequencies and engages a light show.
Party with your pals…
The Pathfinder can link itself with another Pathfinder and create a stereo pair; this can be engaged using the Link button. It indicates all connections made and/or severed with audio prompts. Also, there is a display that indicates the selected volume level and the battery life.
The Pathfinder does come with a companion app for sound customization. But, it also has neat built-in EQ shortcuts.
Pressing the EQ button will alternate the display between “HI” and “LO.” Having selected your range, you can boost or cut as desired by turning the volume knob. And finally, save the altered profile by pressing the EQ button again.
Save your favorite stations…
The Pathfinder has an FM radio which allows you to switch between FM1 and FM2. The ‘Previous’ and ‘Next’ buttons allow you to scroll between frequencies. You can then save your favorite stations to one of eight preset buttons.
FM1 and FM2 have eight slots each, so that’s a total of 16 possible presets. This, along with the EQ customization, makes the 280 one of the most versatile Bluetooth speakers you will find.
The advertised battery life for the Pathfinder is a very impressive 100 hours from a 10-hour charge. While ION did not state under which conditions this figure could be met, we are confident that it can.
Our testing, and that of other users on YouTube and alike, come to a very impressive 68 hours at moderate to high levels after a seven-hour charge. This makes it one of the longest battery life Bluetooth speakers around. So, you can party from dusk till dawn, and then some.
The ION Sound XP App is perhaps not the most extensive out there. But, one could argue that combined with all the physical controls, you’ve got more than enough.
The app has a simple and elegant layout. And it’s important to note that there is a difference between the physical EQ controls and using the app. The app has a three-band EQ, allowing you to adjust the mids as well. Additionally, there are seven presets to choose from, and you can save your own.
You also have access to the linking function, the FM radio, and the BOOM control. Finally, the XP app gives you the ability to control the lights as well as activate and deactivate the voice prompts. All of these add up to one of the easiest to use Bluetooth speakers you can buy.
The dynamics of the Pathfinder certainly surprised us when first testing the speaker. The Pathfinder is more than capable of producing enough volume to satisfy the needs of any party house or small get-together.
One of the loudest Bluetooth speakers you will find. Not just in the budget range, but in every range. The amount of compression applied when you push it to the max is minimal. So, the quality doesn’t degrade much, and distortion is minimal as well.
The default signature on the Pathfinder definitely favors the mid-range, which means that vocals and main instruments are always present and clear. The main downside of the sound is the lack of balance between frequency ranges.
This is especially noticeable in the balance between mids and highs. The imbalance sometimes causes one to sound good and the other bad, or results in both mids and highs sounding bright or dull.
It’s a good thing ION included the BOOM control as well as an EQ because the biggest weakness in terms of sound for the Pathfinder is the low-end.
The bass simply has no presence in any type of genre. Whether it’s bass-heavy or not, and even when using the BOOM function or the EQ to enhance the bass, the low-end seems recessed. I, therefore, recommend leaving the BOOM function on permanently and using the EQ to add bass boost as well.
Overall, I rate the sound quality on the Pathfinder as below average to good depending on your settings. But, getting that low-end boost makes a massive difference.
Furthermore, I recommend getting at least two units to improve the soundstage. That’s because using a single speaker will sum all the content to mono, which is never good if you actually love your music.
ION Pathfinder 280 Review – Pros and Cons
- Well built.
- Good functionality and companion app.
- Gets very loud.
- Excellent Bluetooth range.
- Bottle opener.
- Easy to transport.
- No multipoint pairing.
- Average sound quality.
- Bad soundstage.
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ION Pathfinder 280 Review – Conclusion
The Pathfinder 280 is a great budget speaker for party people. That being said, it will also suit outdoorsy types who like good functionality and portable power as well. However, this is not the speaker for someone who wants excellent sound quality.
While the quality on the Pathfinder is by no measure bad, it’s not going to impress audiophiles. However, it will outlast your most hardcore gatherings thanks to impressive battery life and a sturdy build, which is the most important thing in most parties.
Just don’t throw it in the pool. And, remember to push that BOOM button. You’ll be waking the neighbors for literally days. The Final Score is 8 out of 10.
Until next time, happy listening!