The best iPhone speakers: reviewing AirPlay’s greatest hits

We’ve reviewed a few popular Bluetooth speakers lately, and while some are great, the tradeoffs are usually the same: you’ll tear your hair out dealing with the clunky process of pairing and unpairing devices, and there’s usually a significant loss of sound quality involved. But if you’re on iOS, you also have the option of using Apple’s AirPlay system, which works over Wi-Fi to offer a much smoother experience. Setup is a breeze (just make sure your device and speaker are on the same Wi-Fi network), playback is seamless, and there’s almost no degradation in sound quality. If you own an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, adding an AirPlay speaker to your living room or bedroom can theoretically turn your device into an powerful little entertainment hub with great sound, no wires, and no hassle.

Until recently, that dream really was theoretical — although there have been a few AirPlay speakers on the market, they were almost all extremely expensive and saddled with the usual bugginess of first-generation products. (In many cases it was cheaper and simpler to just add an Airport Express or Apple TV to your existing speakers.) That’s changed recently as newer AirPlay speakers have started to roll out; manufacturers are starting to get the hang of the technology, and there are some more inexpensive options out now. We gathered up a bunch of available AirPlay speakers and tested them out to determine which one’s worth the money in your wallet and the space in your home.

Before we get started, there are a few longstanding AirPlay issues to consider in general. First of all, you’ll always need to be near a Wi-Fi network, unlike Bluetooth, which only requires that the device and speaker to be relatively close to each other. You can use a Bluetooth speaker almost anywhere, but AirPlay devices are much more restricted in their portability because of the Wi-Fi requirement. (Forget about streaming wireless music in the park, for example.) You’ll also need to set up AirPlay speakers anew every time you hit a different Wi-Fi network, and some networks (like one at the Verge offices) are too crowded for AirPlay to negotiate a reliable connection.

None of these issues are dealbreakers if you’re just listening to music at home or in your backyard, but there’s definitely something lost when speaker and phone can’t just connect directly as they do with Bluetooth speakers. If you can deal with those tradeoffs, AirPlay definitely offers better sound, more usability, and tighter integration with your iOS device. So… which speaker to buy? Let’s take a look.


B&O Beolit12

Bang & Olufsen Beolit 12

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Bang & Olufsen’s B&O Beolit 12 looks like a lunchbox. An $800 lunchbox. I don’t know how better to describe it, really — the 6.2-pound cube is a dead ringer for a cooler. It’d be a good-looking cooler, at least, thanks to its leather strap, prominent mesh-like grille and hard plastic sides and edges. There are a few capacitive buttons on top of the device, and it’s simple to use, once you get it set up. To get it ready, you’ll need to deal with an Ethernet cable, a computer, and IP addresses — the manual does a good job of guiding you through the process, but it’s not as seamless or obvious as it could be.

The Beolit 12 has USB and line-in inputs, but it’s definitely designed to primarily serve as an AirPlay device — there’s no remote or dock, and everything’s supposed to happen on your phone. There is a rechargeable battery inside the device, which makes it much more portable than some of the other Airplay speakers we tested. The battery is rated to last eight hours, which is plenty of time to accompany a picnic or party.

Batteries and beauty are one thing, but the Beolit 12’s greatest quality is that it sounds absolutely fantastic. It’s a bit heavy on the bass output, but sound is crisp, clean, and without a hint of distortion. Adele sounds incredible singing “Set Fire to the Rain,” and there’s remarkable clarity in the crazy bass line of The Knife’s “Silent Shout.” It’s not the loudest speaker I tested, but it’s certainly loud enough to fill a room and fuel a party — just maybe not a club-like rager. Whether it’s superior enough to warrant its $799.95 price tag is a more difficult question, but suffice to say you’ll definitely get what you pay for.

7.2/10

Great sound doesn’t come cheap

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JBL OnBeat Air

JBL OnBeat Air

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JBL’s $249.95 OnBeat Air is one part AirPlay speaker, three parts dock. There’s a swiveling dock on the device that accepts iPhones, iPods, or iPads, and there’s a brace for the iPhone that keeps the device in place even in landscape mode. It’s a killer device for watching movies in bed, and the OnBeat’s relatively small footprint — it weighs 1.9 pounds and is only about 5.5 inches wide — makes it perfect for your bedside table or desk. There’s a small, simple membrane remote, which is better than no remote at all, but not much.

To set up the OnBeat Air for AirPlay, you just put your iOS device in the dock. Up pops a message prompting you to download a JBL app, which you use to get the speaker on the right wireless network. The app is simple and helpful, but the process is a mess: you connect directly to the OnBeat Air’s ad-hoc wireless network, then use a clunky interface on the tiny screen to connect to the network. Then you go back and connect to your original Wi-Fi network, at which point you can finally listen to music over AirPlay. Well, theoretically anyway: it took me about six tries to even get the networking page to load, and three or four more to get the connection to take. It did eventually work, though.

Listening to music is a very hit-or-miss experience with the OnBeat Air. High-end frequencies are bright and airy, despite being a bit tinny. There’s almost no bass response, though, so hip-hop or pop music loses a lot of oomph. Vocals come through clearly, but the device doesn’t get very loud, and distorts at anything above about 60 percent volume — once again, this is a device you’ll want on your desk or bedside table, not filling your living room. It’s a great and versatile dock, but not a great AirPlay device or a great speaker. You might even be better off saving $50 and buying the plain-Jane OnBeat, which is the exact same device without the AirPlay functionality.

5.8/10

Great iPod dock, so-so AirPlay speaker

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Logitech UE Air Speaker

Logitech UE Air Speaker

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If B&O’s Airplay speaker looks like a lunchbox, the Logitech UE Air Speaker is a bowtie. A big (about 20 inches wide), heavy (6.4 pounds) bowtie. It has a mesh grille on the front, and the sides curve slightly toward the back — it’s a nice look, and would look great on a shelf or table. Two buttons flank a volume scroll wheel on the top, and on the back are Ethernet, line-in, and power jacks. A dock pops out of the front, and lets you drop in your iOS device; the dock connector rotates a bit, too, so you can dock an iPad if you so desire. I love that the dock is retractable, because the speaker is so much sleeker when it’s not showing, but I still want the option for when my iPhone needs to charge and play music simultaneously.

Logitech’s setup is similar to JBL’s — when you first dock your iOS device, it prompts you to download a companion app, and all the setup happens within that app. Logitech’s app is even better than JBL’s, and I was set up and listening to music in all of about 90 seconds. The Logitech / UE app also has an EQ built in, so you can customize the speaker’s output without changing universal EQ settings on your phone.

The UE Air Speaker sounds good, but it’s not the sonic wonder the Beolit 12 is. It’s insanely melt-your-face loud, but it has a bit of distortion on the highest highs and the lowest lows. It compresses sound a bit to try and combat that distortion; that means a song like M83’s “Midnight City” loses its peaks and valleys. It’s ever so slightly tinny as well, again a result of the compression. It does a nice job with pop or classical music, but anything with huge dynamic range or loud volumes doesn’t shine quite as brightly.

6.5/10

Altec Lansing inAir 5000

Altec Lansing inAir 5000

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Altec Lansing’s $499.95 inAir 5000 is enormous. Its trapezoidal body is wider and taller than the UE AIr Speaker, with a mesh grille covering the front and back and silver accents on the side and top. The few buttons and ports are hidden on the side, so you don’t see them from the front – it cuts a very attractive figure. There’s a USB port on the back for connecting your iOS device directly to the inAir, and a line-in port on the side for connecting almost anything else. A glowing light underneath the device shows the speaker’s status. There’s also a nice metal remote, which you can use to control playback, volume, and the like. It’s really basic, with only a few controls, but it’s nice to have.

Getting it set up to use is a complex process similar to the Beolit 12. You connect your computer to the inAir’s ad-hoc network, then enter its IP address, then use a kludgy in-browser menu to get the device connected to your desired AirPlay network. There are clear instructions in the manual, but this is definitely not a device you’ll want to move around much, because it’s such a bear to get it connected to a new network. That t’s enormous and cumbersome to carry around doesn’t help, either.

You’d expect large sound from such a large speaker, and that’s definitely what you get from the inAir 5000 — it was easily the loudest speaker I tested. Sound potency doesn’t necessarily equal sound quality, but I was generally a fan of the inAir 5000’s output. Vocals are bright, airy, and clear, and there’s just the right amount of punch in the low end. There’s the tiniest bit of distortion on really bass-heavy tracks, but only at near-max volumes, and at that point your ears have probably stopped working anyway.

7.5/10

Big speaker, big sound

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iHome iW2

iHome iW2

It’s the $29 headphones of AirPlay speakers

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iHome typically aims its products at the happy medium: not too expensive, but still good enough to be workable. With one look at the iW2, you’d already have guessed it’s the cheapest of the bunch, at $199.99. Its black mesh grille wraps around the entire body, and a silver edge covers the bottom. There are a handful of buttons at the top set into a fingerprint-prone glossy black surface, and there’s a large, full-featured remote as well; this is definitely one of the least AirPlay-specific speakers we tested, since you can do so much with the remote or on the speaker. There’s a USB port on the back, and the iW2 comes with a cable for connecting your iOS device directly; there’s a button on top for switching between wired and wireless audio sources.

iHome went the app route for setting up the device, which is definitely the best move, but it’s not executed very well here. When you first plug your iOS device in, you’re prompted with four possible app downloads, and it’s not obvious which is the right one. (You want iHome Connect.) Even once the right app was installed, the first few times I tried to connect the iW2 to a Wi-Fi network it simply didn’t take. Fortunately you can go the direct-connect-and-IP-address route, too, and that worked pretty easily.

The closest analog for the iW2’s sound quality is the white earphones that come with your iPhone: though discerning listeners will immediately toss them aside and get something else, lots of people use them because they’re free and most people don’t care that much about sound quality. That’s the power of a $199 price tag: it’s tempting to forgive the iW2 for distorting even at medium volumes, and its compression is such that there’s virtually no low-end or dynamic range in a song. The speaker’s reasonably loud, and once you get through the setup process it’s a pretty seamless experience, but audio quality is awfully mediocre.

4.7/10

The Verdict

The verdict

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On pure sound quality alone, there’s no contest here: the Bang & Olufsen Beolit 12 is head-and-shoulders above all the other devices tested here. $799.95 is a seriously steep price, though, and for most people the increase in perceived quality won’t be as large as the increase in price.

The iHome iW2 occupies the other end of the spectrum: it’s cheap, but you’ll quickly tire of its limitations and poor quality, and likely find yourself wanting something more.

The Altec Lansing inAir 5000 occupies the perfect middle ground. At $499.95 it’s not particularly pricey for what it does, and its sound is good enough that only the most discerning listeners will take issue with it. (Those discerning listeners also don’t blink at spending $800 on a speaker, so the Beolit’s no problem.) The inAir 5000 is large, so make sure you’ve got room for it, but it’s good-looking and unique enough to stand out. More importantly, it sounds good on nearly any kind of music, and whether you’re pumping jams to a party or listening to quiet classical music while you read, you’ll be happy with how your music sounds coming out of the inAir 5000. If you’re looking for the best mix of price and quality, look no further.

For now, anyway. We’ll be reviewing more AirPlay speakers as they become available, so stay tuned!

Compare this: Beolit 12 vs. inAir 5000 vs. UE Air Speaker vs iW2 vs OnBeat Air


The Altec Lansing inAir 5000 is a great happy medium among AirPlay speakers. At $499.95 it’s a little expensive, but its sound quality and design are a step above most of its competitors. It can’t match up to the B&O Beolit 12 in terms of pure sound quality, but for buyers looking for the right mix of price and quality the inAir 5000 strikes the balance just right.

Bang & Olufson know how to build a speaker: the Beolit 12 sounds amazing, is impressively loud for its size, and even looks good — as long as you’re into the high-end lunchbox aesthetic. There’s really only one reason not to buy the Beolit 12, and that’s the fact that it costs $799.95. For most people, that’s probably a dealbreaker, and with good reason; it’s hard to justify spending more a speaker for your iOS device than you did on your iOS device. If you’re not concerned with the outlay and only want the best sound possible, look no further, but if you’re looking for a better value you’ll probably find it elsewhere.

Logitech wins big points for making the UE Air Speaker incredibly easy to set up — thanks to the handy companion app, I had the Air Speaker ready to use faster than any other AirPlay speaker I tested. Though its sound is plenty loud, it’s not always high-quality, and you’ll definitely notice the compression dulling low and high notes. At $399.99 it’s a good speaker, and a solid choice for someone who’s not overly concerned with sound quality and just wants to pump up the jams, but there are better AirPlay speakers out there from Altec Lansing or B&O.

The iHome iW2 does support AirPlay, but it’s not a good implementation on any level. Sound quality leaves a lot to be desired, and even the setup process is more complicated than it ought to be. If you don’t care at all about sound quality and just want to listen to music as cheaply as possible, it’ll serve you fine, but it’s definitely worth the extra cash to buy a device like the UE Air Speaker or the inAir 5000. For $50 more, you can also get the $249.95 JBL OnBeat Air, which adds a useful dock and improves sound quality a lot — though even the OnBeat Air leaves a lot to be desired in that department.

If you’re buying a device to use as a dock and alarm clock, and AirPlay’s just a nice feature to have, the $249.95 JBL OnBeat Air is a great device. It’s small enough to fit on your bedside table, you can dock an iPhone or iPad (and even rotate the iPhone), and JBL’s companion iPhone app is a pretty decent alarm clock. At anything beyond medium volumes, though, the OnBeat Air starts to distort, and its compression makes everything sound tinny and washed out as well. Setting up AirPlay wasn’t as easy as it could’ve been either. I’d consider the OnBeat Air as my next alarm clock, but not as a speaker for actively listening to music.

Big Jambox review

The most appealing aspect of the original Jawbone Jambox is its surprising ability to push big sound relative to its diminutive size. Other battery-powered wireless speakers might be louder or less expensive, but only Jawbone manages to foster a supreme balance of acoustics, portability, and design from such a convenient little package. As such, it’s long been my go-to portable speaker, even with its rather steep $199.99 price tag.

So, what the hell was Jawbone thinking with today’s announcement of the Big Jambox? A product that’s six times larger by volume, more than three times heavier, and $100 more expensive than the best-selling original when it goes on sale in the US on May 15th (pre-order now). Why mess with a winning formula?

Video Review

Video Review

Hardware / design

Hardware / design

The Yves Behar wave, hex, and dot relief textures are even more stunning at this new size


Pricing a Bluetooth speaker at $299.99 is risky business, even for Jawbone — a company notorious for selling its original Jambox speaker for $199.99. At this price, Jawbone has a brief window in which to make that emotional connection so critical to the premium end of the buying spectrum. And boy does it deliver.

The Yves Behar wave, hex, and dot relief textures carried over from the original Jawbone are even more stunning at this new size. The Big Jambox is now completely wrapped in a perforated steel mesh. The elastomer rubber used on the top and bottom of its smaller sibling now only covers the end-caps and should provides Big with a bit of protection against falls. Our white review unit looks absolutely fantastic, so striking that Jawbone should have exposed it with the same transparent retail packaging it uses for its Up fitness band. A real missed opportunity in my opinion — the opaque cardboard covering Big Jambox simply can’t invoke the same passionate response as the real deal.

“Big” says more about its size relative to the original Jambox than the competition

Out of the box the Big Jawbone speaker measures 10.25 x 3.25 x 3.75 inches and weighs in at 2.7 pounds making it an absolute beast next to the 5.94 x 1.57 x 2.24 inch / 0.77 pound original. Having said that, Big Jambox is still small — compact enough to be grasped with a single hand. The “Big” in its name says more about its size relative to the original Jambox than the competition. At launch, Jawbone will also sell a small travel case with a handle and slots for the AC block, cables, and Big Jambox.

Big shares the 3.5-mm analog input, Micro USB jack, built-in 360-degree echo-canceling microphone, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR radio, and the big spongy buttons of its sibling. It also carries over the ability to download apps, a variety of customizable voice alerts, and a programmable DSP that enables a switch to Jawbone’s binaural LiveView listening mode at the push of a button (more on that later). What’s new is a push-button power switch replacing the up-down toggle, a dedicated charging port and pairing button, and a series of eight rubber feet along the bottom to help reduce vibration. Jawbone includes an AC wall charger, 60-inch Micro USB Cable, and 36-inch 3.5mm cable in the box.

Along the top you’ll find the same volume up, down, and multi-function Talk (now labeled with a “J”) push-buttons, in addition to three very handy new controls for Play / Pause, Previous / Rewind, and Next / Fast-forward. Each button is distinctly shaped to match its function making them quick to decipher.

Of course, things have changed on the inside as well. Big’s acoustics originate from a pair of 2.25-inch neodymium drivers of proprietary design, and two opposing passive bass radiators centrally located in the front and back of Big’s 10-inch airtight enclosure. Big also packs a much larger 2,600mAH rechargeable lithium ion battery that bumps the 10-hour rating on Jambox to 15 hours for Big (or 12 hours according to the packing materials) — less if you prefer your music, games, or films loud and thumpy (more on that later).

What’s missing from Big Jambox is notable: Wi-Fi and AirPlay.

The obvious challenger at this price and size is the $299 Sonos Play:3, a proprietary Wi-Fi speaker that lacks a battery or Bluetooth in its 10.6 x 6.3 x 5.2 / 5.71 pound chassis. That makes Big about half the weight and a third the size of the entry-level Sonos. On the AirPlay front, Big will compete directly with the $299 rechargeable iHome iW1 speaker. The iW1 is about 50 percent larger by volume and twice as heavy.

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Sound

Sound

A spacious sensation of swirling audio not unlike Princeton’s metaphorical fly

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So, it looks great, but how does it sound?

Before answering that question, we should return to a feature that Jawbone introduced to Jambox back in October of 2011: LiveAudio. The software update was the first commercial implementation of BACCH 3D sound on a speaker. Developed in the 3D3A lab at Princeton University, 3D sound creates a three-dimensional audio image by manipulating the level and time that sounds hit the left and right ears. It then filters the audio to reduce crosstalk. In its perfect implementation, 3D sound lets you sit in front of two loudspeakers and locate the position of each audio source, be it a choir member, or instrument in a band or orchestra. It’s not surround-sound, it’s positional 3D audio accurate enough to create the illusion of a fly circling your head. Jawbone’s Jambox implementation of LiveAudio was more gimmick than anything. While noticeable, you had to sit directly in front of the speaker at ear-level and at a range of about three to five feet to experience the sensation. Not so with Big.

LiveAudio experienced on the Big Jambox is something that must be heard to be believed. The Cars’s Moving in Stereo is one song, in particular, that exploits the feature rather dramatically, resulting in a spacious sensation of swirling audio not unlike Princeton’s metaphorical fly. Of course, the acoustical gymnastics only work if you’re in front of Big, but with a range of three to ten feet it’s far more forgiving to your listening position than the original Jambox. You can easily switch LiveAudio on and off by simultaneously pressing the “+” and “-” buttons on top of the Big Jambox. Although LiveAudio tends to reduce the overall volume of most tracks, I find myself leaving it enabled most of the time for the perceived stereo separation and boost in detail.

Only select tracks take advantage of 3D audio. Fortunately, Jawbone maintains some rather eclectic Spotify, MOG, and RDIO playlists to show off the feature, and even offers a LiveAudio logo free of charge to qualifying artists.

Big had a good start to the critical listening phase of the review, handling the swelling introduction and lazy cymbal crashes of So What by Miles Davis with aplomb. The track benefits greatly from the positional audio effects of LiveAudio. Then Miles kicks in with that horn, the bass lands, and my preference immediately switches to the much fuller sound of the Sonos Play:3 I used as a reference, making the Big Jambox sound shrill by comparison.

Big’s treatment of Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat was overly thin even with LiveAudio turned off. And I Got A Story to Tell by The Notorious B.I.G. was scandalously flat on the B.I.G Jambox, unable to match the incessant baseline recreated by the Sonos. The audition finished with a bass-heavy club edit of Strobe by Deadmau5 which sounded, well, awful by comparison with the much larger Sonos.

At this point, after just a few songs, I realized that for the same money the Play:3 was a superior compact wireless speaker. Unfortunately, the Play:3 is far less portable due to its size, lack of Bluetooth, and lack of a battery. As such, the comparison isn’t entirely fair to the governing laws of physics.

I’m a big fan of the original Jambox not because it’s the best sounding $199 speaker but because it produces great sound from such a tiny package. From that same perspective, the Big Jambox is an excellent little Bluetooth speaker that goes anywhere. It’s certainly a vast improvement over the palm-sized Jawbone Jambox in terms of audio quality, though it loses some portability in the process.

Usage

Usage

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There’s a perfect storm of trends in consumer electronics that’s driving the recent interest in battery-powered Bluetooth speakers: 1) a preference for ultra-thin laptops, tablets, smartphones and even televisions that results in a lack of space for decent speakers, 2) the near ubiquity of Bluetooth in portable electronics, 3) the rise of streaming audio and video services, and 4) high-speed wireless data that lets you store your media in the cloud for access from anywhere. And while personal headphones can overcome the poor audio of modern devices, they also isolate the listener. Portable Bluetooth speakers are ideal for anyone who desires better sound, untethered mobility, and the ability to share audio with others around you.

Even as an owner of a Sonos whole-home wireless audio system, there are many occasions where a battery-powered Bluetooth speaker is exactly the kind of flexibility I need: picnics in the park set to a Spotify soundtrack, impromptu iPad movies or smartphone gaming sessions for the kids wherever they may be (outside, in the car, or holed up in the basement of some extended family member), or a decent audio solution that can be tethered to the TV in a business hotel room or holiday vacation home. While the original Jambox and speakers of its ilk can serve some of these needs, Big Jambox provides both a bigger and better payload.

Jawbone says the battery on the Big Jambox will last up to 15 hours – “up to” being the important qualifier. The first test on a full battery yielded more than seven hours of audio playback while using Big under a variety of scenarios including Bluetooth speakerphone (one hour), Bluetooth gaming (30 minutes), Bluetooth music (five hours), and tethered to a TV (one hour) over its 3.5-mm audio jack. A second test, yielded much better results: 13 hours in total while listening primarily to music streamed over Bluetooth from Spotify and Nokia Music. It’s easy to imagine reaching that 15 hour pinnacle had I limited playback to NPR podcasts fed over Big’s 3.5-mm jack at about 10 percent volume. My preference for a strong kick drum and booming explosions while gaming certainly affected overall battery performance in my initial test.

Pressing the circular Talk button (labeled with a “J”) on top of Big speaks the battery status in human-friendly words. Big Jambox automatically announces “battery is under a quarter full” when it drops below 25 percent, followed by “recharge battery now” just before shutting off. The Talk button can also be used to accept incoming phone calls when Big is paired to your smartphone. Press it again to hang up. Press the Talk button twice and Big Jambox redials the last number called.

iOS users have the unique ability to see the speaker’s remaining power next to the Bluetooth indicator — no app required. Android owners can download the free Jawbone Companion app to see the battery level and to configure Big to interrupt music and announce calendar events — it’ll even automatically call any phone number associated with the meeting at a touch of a button.

Big can handle two concurrent Bluetooth device connections, thereby allowing you and a friend to simultaneously DJ the Big Jambox party. It remembers up to eight paired devices. Pairing is activated by the dedicated Pairing button at the end of the unit (Big automatically enters pairing mode the first time you turn it on).

Connect Big over Micro USB to your Mac or PC to download AudioApp from the mytalk.jambox.com site in order to personalize the voice that announces battery life and caller ID. There are 10 voices available ranging from breathy (The Bombshell) to nerdy (Classic Arcade). You can also download the DialApp to customize the Talk button and to change settings like announcements or the name of your device.

Big Jambox works fairly well as an occasional Bluetooth speakerphone but it’s certainly not ready to replace the Polycom SoundStation in the executive boardroom. While plenty loud, the experience of listening to cellphone quality audio over a Bluetooth loudspeaker is irritating, at best. However, it can come in handy when the grandparents want to check in with the grandchildren.

Gaming with the Big Jambox is a special treat, adding a healthy shot of immersive sound to the experience. Pairing my iPad with Big and playing AirSupremacy ups the fun with visceral explosions felt deep inside the chest.

There are many occasions where a battery-powered Bluetooth speaker is exactly the kind of flexibility I need

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Coming into this review I had a hard time believing that a Bluetooth speaker could possibly be worth $299.99. But who amongst us could have predicted the meteoric rise of the $199.99 Jambox responsible for literally dozens of imitators. Nevertheless, at this price Jawbone has positioned its Big Jambox against the well regarded Sonos Play:3 which offers better overall sound. The only AirPlay speaker available at this price is the poorly reviewed iHome iW1 rechargeable. Of the three, however, Big Jambox offers the best balance of design, sound, and portability. It’s also a vast improvement over the palm-sized Jawbone Jambox in terms of audio quality, though it loses some mobility in the process.

Maybe I’m blinded by the brilliant white of the Yves Behar design, or maybe it’s the surprisingly full sound from a relatively small speaker of such impeccable build quality. Whatever it is, a $299 purchase price for the Big Jambox is not only possible, it’s also highly probable in my case as it fills my need for social audio on the go.

Compare this: Big Jambox vs. Jambox vs. Play:3 vs. iHome iW1 vs. Bose SoundLink

Logitech Mini Boombox review

When Logitech announced its new Mini Boombox back in November, our advice was to give the portable speaker a listen before handing over your money. The advice wasn’t due to any personal vendetta against Logitech, rather, it had everything to do with company’s claim that the tiny speaker could offer an “immersive sound experience” for just $99.99 — a quote attributed to Azmat Ali, Logitech vice president of tablets and mobile in the accompanying press release. That’s a bold proclamation for a device measuring just 4.55 x 2.8 x 2.28 inches and weighing half a pound. Fortunately, we received a unit in-house for review allowing us to put it head-to-head with our favorite battery-powered portable speaker, the Jawbone Jambox.

Video Review

Video Review

Hardware

Hardware


You can tell a lot about a piece of consumer electronics by the care used in its assembly. So, look at that Mini USB cut-out, just look at it — that was my first impression of the device. Wait, back up, my first impression began at the unboxing where the Mini Boombox was found ensconced in the kind of chintzy plastic that would make a fast-food-beverage top blush with supremacy. Once free of its packaging waste, I was taken aback by the feathery weight of the speaker as I began removing the massive sticker positioned along the top of the device to indicate the location of the invisible capacitive-touch buttons. However, instead a clean removal, the sticker left a nasty residue which had to be rubbed into tiny beige balls of glue, skin, and paper, and then surgically plucked from the device. It was then that I noticed the mangled USB cutout.

The penny saved on the $99.99 price tag doesn’t justify these kinds of manufacturing and assembly shortcuts. The out of box experience left me completely underwhelmed and the speaker hadn’t even been turned on.

The Mini Boombox features two speaker drivers powered by a 10-hour rechargeable battery that receives its electrons courtesy of a supplied USB charger or laptop jack. Controls include an on / off switch, a 3.5mm AUX input, and a glowing red panel of capacitive buttons along the top that activate (and illuminate) with a touch for music and Bluetooth call control. The Mini Boombox supports the A2DP and HFP 1.5 Bluetooth profiles for audio control and hands-free calling support, respectively, and a square Logitech logo on the front of the speaker glows blue when paired with a Bluetooth device.

The Logitech Mini Boombox measures 115.6 x 71.2 x 58-mm (or 4.55 x 2.8 x 2.28 inches) and weighs 229-grams (.5-pounds) making it about 25 percent larger by volume (and 35 percent lighter) than the 151 x 57 x 40-mm / 347-gram Jawbone Jambox it competes with. And other than the physical design and all important acoustic guts, the Mini Boombox offers all the same features as the Jawbone Jambox — on paper anyway.

The penny saved on the $99.99 price tag doesn’t justify the manufacturing shortcuts

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Sound

Sound

“The Logitech Mini Boombox rises to the occasion to bring an immersive sound experience wherever you go” — Logitech VP, Azmat Ali

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Once the capacitive touch panel is activated — sometimes taking up to a second to respond to the first touch — you can control the Bluetooth audio features on your phone (we tested with an iPhone 4 and Lumia 800) like volume, play and pause, and track skipping backwards and forwards. A double tap of the phone / Bluetooth icon initiates a call to the last known dialer and a single tap hangs up. Speaker phone quality was decent and offered far more amplification than any smartphone so no complaints there. But the true test of any speaker isn’t voice quality.

Audio was flat and too treble-heavy for our tastes without any hint of nuance or stereo separation

Anxious to test the bass, the first music track I streamed to the Mini Boombox was Karen O belting out her Led Zeppelin cover of Immigrant Song under the tutelage of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. After a few seconds of emotional buildup, the rush of sound caused the Logitech to bounce across the table with audio so piercing that I reflexively lurched for the controls in an act of self preservation. Sound from the Mini Boombox begins distorting at anything above 50 percent volume. So, while it’s a very loud box to be sure, it’s also unlistenable at such high levels. In fact, the speaker would have progressively convulsed itself right across the room if the noise was bearable for anything longer than a few seconds. The Jambox, however, while not as loud, doesn’t distort until reaching about 80 percent of top volume, yet remains mostly stationary thanks to its extra weight and rubberized coating that spans the length of the base.

Regardless of volume, the Mini Boombox was easily bested by the smaller Jambox in every genre especially at the low end. But even treble friendly recordings like Shelter from Birdy sounded too harsh on the Logitech speaker. Audio from the Mini Boombox was simply flat and too treble-heavy for our tastes without any hint of nuance or stereo separation. In fact, we find it very difficult to justify the $99.99 when the Mini Boombox offers only a modest (but definitely noticeable) bass improvement over the speakers integrated into most full-sized laptops. $50 might be a better price for the Mini Boombox especially if you only wanted to use it for gaming, although even at that price I still wouldn’t be tempted due its plastic bulk and poor build quality.

On a positive note, the battery managed to last a few days under fairly heavy testing with Bluetooth streaming, often at full volume, easily living up to the claim of 10 hours.

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The Mini Boombox is simply not worth $99.99 in our estimate. The impeccably built Jawbone Jambox costs $199 (or less: it’s been on sale for $150 recently) and provides a far more enjoyable listening experience that can be personalized and expanded with additional features. Better yet, the Jambox can, at times, live up to Logitech’s hyperbolic claim of creating an “immersive sound experience” especially when listening to music tracks recorded for three-dimensional binaural listening. A Bluetooth speaker is a luxury, so our advice is to save up for a Jambox and relish the experience instead of loathing the Mini Boombox.

Jawbone Jambox with LiveAudio review

We’ve been fans of the Jawbone Jambox ever since its late 2010 launch. Although its $200 price tag is sure to cause a double-take, living with a Jambox for the last six months made me a believer in the portable Bluetooth 2.1 speaker powerhouse with 10-hour battery (depending upon use). Today, the little 57 x 40 x 151mm speaker gets even better thanks to a free 2.0 software update that adds LiveAudio to the mix – Jawbone speak for playback of three-dimensional binaural recordings. I was skeptical that any tweak to the unit’s DSP would be worth my attention, let alone yours. But all doubt was cast aside once I found suitable tracks to exploit the feature.

Quick take

Quick take

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The 2.0 update was fairly painless, requiring a visit to the MyTalk section of the Jawbone website and then tethering the Jambox to my Mac. From there the update took about a minute. The first few tracks I listened to — “Myxomatosis” by Radiohead, and “I Would For You” by Janes’s Addiction — sounded worse (quieter and flat across the lows, mids, and highs) with LiveAudio enabled. Fortunately, the company pointed me to a few Spotify tracks that could exploit the three-dimensional audio feature including “Moving in Stereo” by The Cars and “07 Ghosts 1” from Nine Inch Nails. These tracks, in particular, were significantly enhanced with LiveAudio enabled — something you can quickly toggle by pressing and holding the “+” and “-” keys simultaneously. The effect does require the listener to be at ear-level with the speaker at a range of about three to five feet, and it won’t work over the Jambox’s tethered 3.5-mm audio cable — it’s a Bluetooth-only feature. The result, however, was undeniable.

Jambox LiveAudio update is like Moving in Stereo

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Listening to the swirling introduction of the The Cars, “Moving in Stereo” was like standing in a new wave Osterizer with Paulina Porizkova running her fingers through my hair… and that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, the effect only works on tracks recorded with three-dimensional binaural listening in mind. Thus, I found myself constantly toggling the feature for each new track in order to test the benefits. Behavior that’ll get old, quick.The 2.0 update is available now.

Sonos Play:3 review

The Sonos Play:3 might be small for a speaker but it’s a critical part of the company’s strategy to increase its visibility. As such, the entry-level all-in-one “Wireless Hi-Fi” had better perform — capable of impressing current Sonos customers already accustomed to a premium wireless music experience that just works, while attracting mainstream attention from consumers increasingly seduced by Apple’s AirPlay siren.

Sonos’ plan is two-fold: 1) lower the price of entry, and 2) simplify its elevator pitch. While $299 / €299 / £259 for the Play:3 sounds expensive, it’s actually one of, if not, the cheapest all-in-wireless speakers competing at the high-end of the audio market. Really, the only comparative all-in-one speaker is the Zeppelin Air from B&W priced at $599 — twice the price of the Play:3.

The company signed Greg Perlot, Sonos’ new Chief Brand Officer, to execute the second part of its plan. While we don’t normally concern ourselves with marketing execs, it’s worth noting that Greg is the former Microsoft director of advertising responsible for the Rolling Stones-infused “Start Me Up” campaign for Windows 95. More recently, Greg was the CMO at Quiksilver promoting the brand’s casual, youth-oriented lifestyle. That makes Greg responsible for the abundance of tribal art you see tattooed on wayward suburban kids, in addition to the simplified Sonos logo and new psychedelic artwork, itself inspired by the speaker circuitry inside the Play:3.

John MacFarlane, Sonos CEO, readily admits the difficulties he’s had explaining what his company does. “If you were sitting next to me on a plane and asked, ‘what does Sonos build?’ I’d say, ‘a multi-room wireless music system.’ Then I’d get into, ‘we want to fill your house with music and play everything on the planet.’ At that point, you’re already five minutes into the conversation,” concedes the chief executive. MacFarlane turned to Greg Perlot to clarify the message, who in turn responded with a two word pitch: “wireless HiFi.” “That makes so much more sense,” said MacFarlane, cognitively kicking himself for not coming up with the phrase on his own, “it elicits the right questions.”

With Perlot’s help, the company has also simplified its naming scheme around verbs. The “ZoneBridge” become “Bridge,” the “Controller 200” becomes “Control,” and the “S5” becomes “Play:5.” Even the Sonos website has been overhauled with a slick, more intuitive look for the launch of the Play:3.

Hardware

Hardware

The Play:3 lacks an amplified subwoofer, relying upon a passive, rear-firing bass radiator


The Play:3 wireless speaker measures 5.2 x 10.5 x 6.3 inches (132 x 268 x 160 mm) and weighs 5.7 pounds (2.6 kg). I can easily lift it with a single stretched hand. The bigger Play:5, by comparison, measures 8.50 x 14.40 x 4.80 inches (217 x 365 x 123 mm) and weights 9.15 pounds (4.15 kg). To achieve its smaller size, the Play:3 is limited to a single Ethernet and power jack on the back compared to the Ethernet pair, headphone, line-in, and power jacks found on the Play:5. However, unlike the bulkier Play:5, the Play:3 also includes a standard 1/4-inch, 20-thread socket for easy placement on the wall using a standard satellite speaker wall mount.

Naturally, the Play:3 had to scale back the individually amplified drivers as well; just three — one tweeter flanked by two 3-inch mid-range drivers — compared to the five drivers found in the Play:5. Notably, the Play:3 lacks an amplified subwoofer, relying upon a passive, rear-firing bass radiator. That makes the Play:3 more sensitive to placement unlike the Play:5 with its powered 3.5-inch bass driver (more on that later).

In addition to wall mounting (via standard third-party mounts), the Play:3 can be set on a table horizontally or vertically. While small rubber feet along the bottom and left side (only) indicate which direction is down, it’s easy to reverse orientation, especially when placing the speaker vertically (flipping it upside down in horizontal mode blocks the mute and volume controls) — not that this made any noticeable difference to the sound.

The smaller Play:3 solved two placement issues I had

Placement of the Play:3 is more flexible than the Play:5 thanks to its smaller size. In my own house, I was able to slip the Play:3 horizontally into the gap between the ceiling and my kitchen cabinet — a crevice too small for the Play:5 — liberating the counter space once occupied by the Play:5. I placed another unit on the floor in the corner of my office. The angled side (now bottom in vertical mode) of the unit meant that the music was aimed upward into the room. The smaller Play:3 solved two placement issues I had with Play:5 without having to resort to a wall-mount. Your mileage, will of course, vary.

Setup

Setup

Sonos is synonymous with ease of use and nothing changes in that regard with the Play:3

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Sonos is synonymous with ease of use and nothing changes in that regard with the Play:3. Current Sonos owners already have a SonosNet — a secure AES-encrypted, peer-to-peer wireless mesh network — in their house so adding the Play:3 is dead simple. Just press the mute and volume up button simultaneously on the top of the Play:3, and select “add a Sonos component” from any of the free Sonos controllers for Android smartphones, iOS devices, Macs, or PCs; or the dedicated $349 Sonos Control. Voila, you’ve just added sound to another room in your house.

First time Sonos owners must bridge the SonosNet to their home network in one of two ways. The easiest (and cheapest) way is to run a cable between the router and the Ethernet jack on the back of the Play:3. Unfortunately, not everyone’s home is wired for Ethernet thus limiting speaker placement to the same room as the router. To solve this, Sonos sells a $49 Bridge that connects to the router, freeing up placement of all your subsequent Sonos speakers. Either way, after the SonosNet is up and running you must install at least one Sonos controller to activate the Play:3 on the network. Simple in practice but difficult to explain to Ma and Pa McLuddite at retail.

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Two Play:3 speakers can be setup as a stereo pair, assigning one speaker to the left channel and the other to the right. While this feature has been available for awhile, pairing two Play:5s, impressive as it sounds, is overkill for most homes. The smaller and cheaper Play:3, however, makes the perfect stereo solution for larger rooms. In fact, you can purchase two Play:3s for the price of a single B&W Zeppelin Air resulting in a substantially better listening experience..

Music

Music

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Sonos is making a pretty bold claim with the launch of the Play:3: “Stream any music on Earth.” While that sounds hyperbolic, it’s actually fairly accurate. Sonos streams music from more than 100,000 free internet radio stations and dozens of subscription music services including Spotify, Rhapsody, MOG, Rdio, last.fm, Deezer, and more depending upon your country. It’ll also stream the obscure music collection you amassed during that year abroad at Saint Martins. So really, if a song’s been digitally recorded, Sonos can stream it over the internet or off your hard disk.

iTunes users will be happy to know that Sonos works seamlessly with your iTunes library and playlists. Otherwise, Sonos also supports any music library stored on a NAS supporting SMB/CIFS. All Sonos devices can play MP3 (compressed), WMA (compressed), AAC (MPEG4), iTunes, Ogg Vorbis, Audible (format 4), Apple Lossless, Flac (lossless), WAV (uncompressed), and AIFF (uncompressed) formats.

Note: The Mac OS X Lion update broke compatibility between Sonos systems and music libraries stored on Macs. Sonos has promised an update to fix this “very soon.”

Sonos can even stream from AirPlay-enabled devices via a bolt-on solution. However, this requires the purchase of a $99 AirPort Express that you attach to any Sonos component with an audio-in connection (like the Play:5 but not the Play:3)..

“Stream any music on Earth”

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Sound

Sound

A single Play:3 easily filled my average-sized room with sound — two Play:3s setup in stereo quickly overwhelmed it

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So, it’s small, relatively cheap for an all-in-one wireless speaker, and streams all the music on Earth. But is it any good? Yes, yes it is, very good in fact.

Surprisingly, even though the drivers are close together, the Play:3 was able to deliver decent stereo separation. Standing the unit on its side, however, centered everything (except the logo) in the second or so it took for the motion detector to reprogram the audio. According to Sonos, horizontal mode is meant to create a wider stereo response, while in vertical mode, music is meant to sound “brighter on the highs and crisper on the mids.” And you know what? Although I didn’t hear it during my initial hands-on, I clearly heard it when testing the units in the quiet of my own home.

I tested a pair of Play:3 speakers in a variety of rooms and orientations with all equalizer settings centered and loudness on. For comparison, I used a pair of Play:5 speakers as reference, sourcing 320kbps music streams from Spotify. It was quickly apparent that, like real estate, the most important consideration when setting up the Play:3 is location, location, location.

In general, the sound emitted from a Play:3 positioned in the middle of a room (like the press shot above) pales in comparison to a Play:3 nestled up to a wall. The reason for this has everything to do with the Play:3’s subwoofer, or lack thereof. Remember, the Play:3 lacks a powered sub relying upon a passive, back-firing bass radiator. While the passive driver coupled with the active drivers allows Sonos to deliver reasonable bass in such a compact enclosure, it can’t match the raw thump of the Play:5’s 3.5-inch powered woofer. Don’t get me wrong, the sound was surprisingly full even with the Play:3 positioned in the center of the room (about five feet from any wall). However, placing the back of the Play:3 just a few inches from the wall helped reinforce the low-end bass significantly, while rounding out the mids.

With the Play:3 and Play:5 next to each other on a center table, the Play:5 was the clear winner in every musical genre listened. The results weren’t so clear, however, when I moved to the Play:3 within a few inches of the wall (leaving the Play:5 in the center of the room). Synth heavy pop tracks like “Smalltown Boy” from Bronski Beat actually sounded better on the play:3 which, in my opinion, was more capable of isolating the higher frequencies — the Play:5 was more balanced, exhibiting a more overall softness by comparison. The Play:3 also kept things tighter than the Play:5 even as the volume rose to 75 percent. Again I preferred the Play:3 when listening to “Triangle Walks” by Fever Ray, but damn, it was close. Listening to a remastered 2006 version of “I Would For You” from Jane’s Addiction clearly demonstrated the Play:5’s ability to reproduce an overall richer and more nuanced sound than the Play:3. I also preferred the Play:5’s more balanced delivery of “Revenge” by Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse (featuring Flaming Lips) with the Play:3 spending a bit too much time in the middle-to-low frequency muck for my tastes.

Moving the Play:5 against the wall next to the Play:3 gave the Play:5 an edge across the board. There were times when the bass became overpowering on the Play:5. However, this was easily rectified by clicking off the loudness. In fact, the Play:3 with loudness on and the Play:5 with loudness off sounded nearly identical at the low end. Obviously, we reinstated the loudness when a Morningwood track “Jetsetter” came into rotation for the obligatory kick to the chest.

The final test pitted two Play:3s setup in a stereo pair against a single Play:5. Unsurprisingly, the pair of $299 Play:3s blew the $399 Play:5 out of the water, wherever the speakers were placed. While a single Play:3 easily filled my average-sized room with sound, two Play:3s setup in stereo quickly overwhelmed it (not a bad thing). Remember, you can pair two Play:5s together in a stereo union, but you can’t mix and match a Play:3 with a Play:5.


So, will the Play:3 see Sonos break into the audio mainstream? Probably not. Don’t get me wrong, the $299 Play:3 is a brilliant all-in-one wireless speaker that fits perfectly within Sonos’ lineup. At $100 less than the $399 Play:5 it can, under certain conditions, trump its bigger brother. Two Play:3s combined in a stereo pair easily bested the Play:5 while still costing a buck less than the $599 Zeppelin Air — the only shipping all-in-one AirPlay speaker in the same class. Not only is the Play:3 the best way to introduce your family to Sonos, it’s also the best way to expand the music coverage in existing Sonos households.

But for Sonos to break into the mainstream it’s my opinion that it must further simplify its message. The $49 Bridge component is still confusing to first time Sonos buyers — do I need it or not? Hell, you can see the confusion in some of the early Play:3 “reviews” that were posted (tip: it’s not required). Sonos should just give away the Bridge (already reduced from $99 to $49) to first time buyers and make it a required component for setup. Of course, it wouldn’t really be free as the cost would be spread across Sonos’ speaker components. The other option is to eliminate its proprietary SonosNet network altogether. AirPlay partners seem content developing for off-the-shelf WiFi networks. In our experience, AirPlay, running on newer QoS-enabled 802.11n networks, is very robust. Maybe “good enough” is preferable to “it just works” when shooting for the mainstream market.

At the end of the day, music isn’t rational — it’s experienced as if it had the power to communicate directly with our emotions. The repulsion you feel when hearing that Friday song is immediate, there’s no processing — it’s only later, after that initial jolt of arm-flailing nausea that you comprise an appraisal. Sonos combined with a music subscription can slake that emotional jones in an instant with millions of tracks ready to stream around the home — “every song on Earth,” if you will. With Sonos, I haven’t felt the need to pirate a single track in the last four years. I’m happy to pay $10 per month so that I never have to hunt, download, test for quality, and then hunt again for songs, albums, or compilations. This goes double for the less tech savvy members of my family. Clearly, Sonos isn’t for everyone. Sonos CEO John MacFarlane is the first to admit that AirPlay is great if you’re a college student who needs to fill a single room with sound. But if you’re a home owner, with multiple family members holding a variety of musical tastes, well, there’s nothing quite like a Sonos. And the Play:3 makes for a fantastic new product in the company’s flexible wireless audio lineup.

Libratone Lounge review

You’ve likely never heard of Libratone. Fair enough. But maybe you’re familiar with Steinway Lyngdorf Audio, the Danish company that specializes in high-performance professional audio? Jes Mosgaard, the former CEO of Lyngdorf Audio and former CTO of Steinway Lyngdorf, is now with the 10-person Libratone organization in its quest to deliver professional-grade audio to the slightly-soiled masses. Remember the name because Cupertino’s taken a liking to Libratone with plans to showcase the Danish company’s AirPlay speakers in Apple’s physical and online stores.

My first encounter with Libratone was in Berlin for IFA 2010. I was immediately impressed with the quality of its wireless tower but troubled by the need for a 30-pin dongle to wirelessly stream audio from iOS devices. Remember, Apple had just announced its wireless streaming technology dubbed, AirPlay, three days earlier making Libratone’s dongle-based Beat speaker obsolete before it even shipped (though I’ve been assured that sales are good).

Here we are, almost a year later, and we still only have a few AirPlay speakers on the market. Oh sure, several were announced from Klipsh, Philips, and iHome, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anything other than B&W’s Zeppelin Air to purchase. As to JBL’s overpriced $350 On Air dock, puhlease — B&W and Libratone’s offerings are in a whole different class.

Sound

Sound

The Libratone Lounge is a monster in every sense of the word

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The Libratone Lounge is a monster in every sense of the word, including the $1,299 base price which climbs to $1,399 for the cashmere colors. After recovering from the sticker shock, the first thing you’ll notice is its size. Designed to fit beneath a 42-inch television perched on a base or hung on the wall from a bundled mount, the Lounge measures 100 x 22 x 12 cm (40 x 8.7 x 4.7 inches) and weighs 12 kg (27 pounds). Everything about it is big, including the sound which set my house to motion during the bass demonstration. I’d say the jump in audio quality from the Libratone Live to the Lounge was equivalent to the degree of change between the Play:5 and Live. Libratone is positioning the Lounge as a fashionable all-in-one replacement for your dull living room speaker boxes.


Lounge delivers a total of 150 watts of room-filling power

And while the Lounge may look like it, it’s not another soundbar trying to bounce faux surround sound off the walls of cramped urban home theaters. You can, of course, plug your TV into the 3.5-mm mini-TOSLINK jack at the bottom of the Lounge (as you can the Live) for full stereo audio. Libratone’s beefy Lounge delivers a total of 150 watts of room-filling power (1x50W bass, 2x25W tweeter, 2x25W midrange) across an 8-inch inverted woofer, a pair of 4-inch ceramic midrange units, and another pair of 1-inch ribbon-based tweeters. During my demo, the wide distribution of the midrange and tweeters created decent stereo separation. Naturally, you won’t be using the Lounge to stream AirPlay video up to the television. For that you’ll need an Apple TV or your favorite hacked OS X device.

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There’s no other AirPlay-enabled speaker on the market capable of matching the Lounge in price or acoustic muscle. Unfortunately, testing a Libratone Lounge won’t be as easy as the Live since only Apple’s flagship shops will carry the beastly soundbar. Just don’t expect it to rock your home theater with simulated Dolby surround — this $1,299 (or $1,399 for the cashmere colors) all-in-one speaker is for the stylish, well-heeled lovers of stereo audio, only.

Libratone Live review

Let’s get the announcement out of the way first. Libratone just let loose a pair of high-end wireless AirPlay speakers for the home: the $699 / €699 / £599 Libratone Live tower or the $1,299 / €1,199 / £1,099 Libratone Lounge soundbar. That’s a lot of coin for the average consumer. Question is, will they be worth the price when they ship in September?

Before attempting to answer that, let me say this: I love music, be it delta blues, beat jazz, Detroit electronic, or hard driving rock-n-roll. It’s a mood thing. And I’ve been streaming wireless music around my house for more than a decade. My adventures in wireless audio began with some interference-prone 900MHz speakers weakly riding an FM signal. Those were replaced with a set of amplified speakers attached to a Bluetooth 1.1 adapter kit which I later replaced with an AirPort Express in 2004. Four years ago I was treated to wireless music nirvana with a multi-zone Sonos system that I recently enabled for AirPlay. The Sonos is nearly always on, sometimes for critical listening, sometimes for the after dinner family dance party, but more often than not it’s just music in the background. I’m no audiophile. Hell, I can’t even play an instrument (though I’ve purchased a few to assuage my shame). And you know what? That’s ok, I’ve come to accept my position in the fat chewy center of the consumer audio market. So, how does Libratone stack up? Read on to find out.

Background

Background

Apple had just announced AirPlay three days earlier making Libratone’s dongle-based Beat speaker obsolete before it even shipped

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You’ve likely never heard of Libratone. Fair enough. But maybe you’re familiar with Steinway Lyngdorf Audio, the Danish company that specializes in high-performance professional audio? Jes Mosgaard, the former CEO of Lyngdorf Audio and former CTO of Steinway Lyngdorf, is now with the 10-person Libratone organization in its quest to deliver professional-grade audio to the slightly-soiled masses. Remember the name because Cupertino’s taken a liking to Libratone with plans to showcase the Danish company’s AirPlay speakers in Apple’s physical and online stores.

My first encounter with Libratone was in Berlin for IFA 2010. I was immediately impressed with the quality of its wireless tower but troubled by the need for a 30-pin dongle to wirelessly stream audio from iOS devices. Remember, Apple had just announced its wireless streaming technology dubbed, AirPlay, three days earlier making Libratone’s dongle-based Beat speaker obsolete before it even shipped (though I’ve been assured that sales are good).

Here we are, almost a year later, and we still only have a few AirPlay speakers on the market. Oh sure, several were announced from Klipsh, Philips, and iHome, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anything other than B&W’s Zeppelin Air to purchase. As to JBL’s overpriced $350 On Air dock, puhlease — B&W and Libratone’s offerings are in a whole different class.

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Hardware

Hardware

It’s essentially last year’s Libratone Beat updated with a BridgeCo chip for AirPlay

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That brings me to the Libratone Live. It’s essentially last year’s Libratone Beat updated with a BridgeCo chip to enable wireless audio streaming over Apple’s AirPlay protocol — no dongle required. The Live also got a bump to 150 watts, with five dedicated amps powering a 5-inch bass unit, a pair of 3-inch midrange drivers, and a pair of 1-inch ribbon-based tweeters all arranged around the triangular circumference for 360-degree sound.


Sound

Sound

I was impressed — very, very impressed

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I listened with the Live in two typical positions: first on a table about 3 feet (1 meter) from the wall and then again sitting on a knee-high bench nearly touching the wall. The bass reflection in the second case was intense. In either placement, the audio sounded equally rich regardless of my listening position in the room. To further enhance the experience, Libratone will provide a universal iOS app in September letting owners manually correct the audio based upon the speaker’s location. Mind you, this isn’t equalization, it’s an adaption of the sound system to the acoustical characteristics of the room. The iOS app can also be used to apply future firmware updates to the Live and Lounge. Kristian Kroyer, Creative Director at Libratone, said that Mac and Windows PC apps are also coming sometime in the future.

As to the sound, well, I was impressed — very, very impressed. It easily bested the smaller Sonos S5 Play:5 system I used as a reference. The 47 x 19.5 x 15 cm (18.5 x 7.7 x 6 inch) / 6.5 kg (14 pounds) Libratone Live simply provided more power over more range to better the Play:5 in raw thump, clarity, and room-filling music. Of course, The Libratone Live is also $300 more expensive than the Play:5, but at least you’re getting what you pay for. Assuming you paid $699 for the “slate grey” base model — the “blood orange,” “vanilla beige,” “blueberry black” and “lime green” models come swaddled in cashmere for an extra hundred bucks. Hey, audio dealers (and Libratone) love an up-sell.


So, will I be swapping out my Sonos for these Libratone speakers? No, but I’m a home owner with multiple listeners, music collections, and streaming audio services to manage. While the Libratone Live speaker ($699 or $799 for the cashmere finish) does best the audio reproduction of my relatively diminutive $399 Sonos Play:5 all-in-one, it can’t compare to the quality of sound and features offered by two Play:5 speakers ($798) joined together in a stereo pair. And now that Sonos has introduced its feisty little $299 Play:3 wireless Hi-Fi units, well, for my money Sonos provides more flexibility and more value for the home than any available AirPlay speaker, Libratone included.

I can, however, wholeheartedly recommend the Libratone Live AirPlay speaker to any iOS or iTunes user itching to fill an urban space with some serious wireless sound, especially if you already own an AirPlay-enabled receiver or Apple TV. Yeah, the Libratone Live is expensive, but the audio delivered is commensurate with the price. The only shipping AirPlay speaker boasting similar acoustic specs is the aggressively designed $599.95 B&W Zeppelin Air. It’s $100 cheaper than the Live and you get a 30-pin dock, remote control; and jacks for USB and Ethernet. As always, you need to give the Libratone Live a listen for yourself before handing anyone your hard-earned cash — a task made easier with the Libratone Live headed to your local Apple store in September.

Tesla Cybertruck: all the news about Elon Musk’s futuristic pickup truck

Here’s everything you need to know about Tesla’s first pickup truck, which Elon Musk has called “heart-stopping” and his “personal favorite” of Tesla’s vehicles.

Pickups have become more popular lately — their share of the US light vehicle market increased to 17.5 percent in 2019, from just under 13 percent in 2012. They’re also the fastest-growing auto segment in the US. That makes Tesla’s entry into pickups sensible, analysts say. Another pickup perk: pricing. Pickups tend to be expensive.

Even with direct competition from established players (like Ford’s forthcoming electric F-150) and newcomers (like Rivian), there is a ton of money to be made in pickup trucks.

But Tesla may distinguish itself from the rest of the market with its Blade Runner-inspired design. Musk has said that he wants to combine Porsche-level performance with utility that makes a Ford F-150 look like a Tonka truck.