Review: Libratone Zipp AirPlay Speaker
Compatible: All iPads, iPhone 3G/3GS/4/4S/5, iPod touch 2G-5G
To wrap up our week of new speaker reviews, we're looking today at two AirPlay speakers -- Libratone's Zipp ($449) and XtremeMac's Tango Air ($300) -- both from companies with past experience in making wireless audio systems for Apple's devices. As Danish audio company Libratone has previously released large, monolithic, and pricey speakers, Zipp is actually its least expensive offering yet. By comparison, XtremeMac has generally focused on affordable speakers, such that Tango Air is its most expensive offering to date. Yet both developers have coalesced on a similar basic idea for new AirPlay speakers, releasing plastic and fabric all-in-one systems designed to be carried around with built-in handles. From there, the designs are very different from one another in pretty much every other way.
Yes, there have been deliberately “cute” speakers in the past—ones shaped like animals, for instance—but Libratone’s Zipp is the first design we’ve seen that looks cute in a mature way, thanks to refinements of earlier industrial design concepts the company introduced in its earlier models. Doing away with the previously boxy, angular shapes in favor of a white and black plastic tube, Zipp is slightly over 10” tall and 4.75” in diameter, and designed to be wrapped in one of three included zippered wool outfits called Zipp Speaker Covers. Each Zipp also includes a simple black carrying bag and a black wall power adapter.
Libratone intriguingly depicts Zipp in a photograph with eight different color options, and thankfully doesn’t make it hard for users to enjoy some color-shifting for the base price. You actually get to choose from two different sets of three wool covers (black/red/blue or black/pink/yellow) when making the initial purchase, while eight total cover colors are sold separately for $50 each. More likely than not, you’ll get the color or colors you want during the initial purchase, but if you subsequently need a different shade, that’s an option—and something few other companies have ever offered for their Apple speakers. Libratone also makes installation and removal of the covers extremely easy, and though the idea of paying $50 for something so simple is sort of ridiculous, the company deserves praise for executing so well on a smart customization concept.
The wool covers hide a black matte plastic core, exposing only a rear leather strap for easy carrying, a rear panel with USB/aux-in ports and wireless setup buttons, and the top and bottom surfaces. Up top is glossy white plastic with a simplified control pad for volume, power, and wireless pairing, while the bottom has a recessed power port so that the battery-powered unit can easily charge on a flat surface. Thanks to smart design, Zipp can be rendered impressively minimalist, with its leather strap and cord both hiding away. Unlike many AirPlay speakers, it can also be used with the cord detached for between four and eight hours of playback per charge—a feature it notably shares with iHome’s $300 iW1 and $200 iW3.
On the wireless side, Libratone includes both AirPlay support and the more recent PlayDirect standard, which allows Zipp to be used on the go by creating its own Wi-Fi network—near-effortlessly, we found in initial testing, as you can press a rear setup button and connect your iOS device to the temporary network right away. Alternately, you can set it up on your existing Wi-Fi network by attaching your iOS device and a self-provided Lightning or Dock Connector cable to the USB port on Zipp’s back, then pressing the Zipp setup button to share your iOS device’s settings. It’s easy, though as we’ve said before, AirPlay remains a distant second to Bluetooth in overall responsiveness and convenience; it’s only more useful if you want to simultaneously play the same song on multiple AirPlay speakers, which Bluetooth can’t do. PlayDirect is a welcome option, though like regular AirPlay, it demands a lot more battery power to achieve the same ends as a more device-compatible Bluetooth connection.
Libratone notably promises four hours of AirPlay wireless playback per charge, versus eight hours if you’re willing to connect your own cable for wired play. Unlike other AirPlay speakers we’ve tested, Zipp’s rear USB port notably does not charge an iPad, but it does supply enough juice to recharge an iPod or iPhone regardless of whether it’s plugged into a wall—a factor that may modestly limit its playtime when disconnected.
From our standpoint, Zipp has one critical issue, and that’s audio quality for the price. Thanks to a three-speaker design that relies upon two 1” ribbon tweeters and a single 4” upward-firing bass driver, Zipp winds up sonically rivaling good $150 wired speaker systems—not great ones—which means that there’s a huge price-to-performance gulf between Zipp and its rivals. At moderate listening levels, Zipp performs music with a fairly significant mid-bass slant, using targeted doses of sharp treble to offset what might otherwise sound somewhat flat and thumpy. Unfortunately, the clarity isn’t much better than smaller standalone docking systems such as XtremeMac’s $150 Tango TT, and roughly on par with iHome’s aforementioned $300 AirPlay system iW1. Zipp’s peak amplitude is only enough to fill a small room, and even then, with high-volume sizzle in the treble that wouldn’t impress anyone for half this unit’s price. Merely acceptable sound in a $449 speaker might make sense to a company that typically sells even more expensive products, but given the huge assortment of great-sounding competitive options that start at around $150 and get better from there, Zipp feels outclassed in everything save for looks.
All of that leaves prospective users to decide whether the frills—the wool outfits, the AirPlay and PlayDirect functionality, and the battery-powered option—together make up for the so-so sonic performance. From our perspective, they don’t. Zipp is such a beautifully designed system from the outside that we really wanted to love what was inside, and to the extent that Libratone has only improved the AirPlay setup and streaming functionality since the release of its past systems, it’s hard to uniformly fault the product’s engineering. Unfortunately, the speakers inside Zipp deliver such collectively mediocre results that they don’t belong in an audio system with this sort of price tag, and we would have struggled to justify a higher rating for the system if it had sold for $100 less. Consider Zipp only if your needs for fashion and battery-powered convenience are so strong that you’re willing to pay a $150 premium over iHome’s iW1, which offers very similar functionality at a much lower price point; our suspicion is that the coming year will bring comparably beautiful Bluetooth options that sell for even less, and deliver considerably better performance.