Though only a fraction of speaker makers understand this to be true, industrial design — the way something looks, feels, and works — has come a critical differentiator between audio equipment in the iPod and post-iPod era, arguably more important to mainstream users than raw sound quality and in some cases pricing. As Bose’s original SoundDock demonstrated starting in 2004, a streamlined, simple industrial design with good enough audio can justify a price premium over better-sounding, more powerful, and less expensive rivals, a reality that some companies have embraced more impressively than others. Today, we’re briefly reviewing two new AirPlay speakers with seriously striking industrial designs — Philips’ Fidelio SoundRing ($300, aka DS3881W/37) and Libratone’s Live ($700) — which are each designed to appeal to different users, but rely upon their distinctive looks to justify atypically premium price points.
Before discussing the specifics of each unit, we need to underscore a point that we’ve previously discussed in reviews of other AirPlay speakers: one year after its introduction, AirPlay remains a somewhat confounding and disappointing solution for streaming audio to third-party speakers. Despite the strong reliability and excellent video, audio, photo, and app streaming performance we’ve seen when iOS devices use AirPlay to share content with second-generation Apple TVs, third-party AirPlay speakers continue to suffer from overly complicated initial setup procedures, surprising streaming delays, and at best occasional audio drop-outs that under some conditions can become more numerous and disruptive. When we began to test Libratone’s Live, the recently-released iPhone 4S was dropping audio every minute and seemingly crashing the speaker, an issue that was acknowledged by multiple AirPlay speaker makers and remedied with iOS and router firmware updates. But as we’ve said before, recent Bluetooth speakers are faster, somewhat easier to set up, and more reliable with iOS devices than the AirPlay units we’ve tested. Our hope is that Apple and speaker makers update the AirPlay software to become more reliable in 2012.
Danish audio company Libratone’s Live is based upon the earlier Beat speaker, and looks very similar—deliberately designed to appeal to a user’s eyes, though with a niche shape and unusual physical orientation.
Shaped like a rounded-off triangular tower with a chrome handle on its back edge, Live is wrapped in contrast-stitched black, white, beige, or gray wool and topped with glossy plastic; a fabric Libratone tag hangs off the top right edge like a pair of jeans. The combination of materials look and feel somewhat odd together, but definitely stand out from the pack. Like SoundRing, Live doesn’t include a remote control or other frills; Libratone packages it with nothing more than a simple soft carrying bag and fabric-wrapped power cabling—our unit arrived with two European-style cables rather than the regular single U.S. plug that will apparently ship with U.S.-sold units. Unlike SoundRing, Live doesn’t include a rechargeable battery; it’s designed to be connected to a wall and stood upright, rather than laid flat like a soundbar. An analog 3.5mm and optical audio port on the back provides a means for wired connections if you prefer them; there’s no USB or other Dock Connector port, however.
Live has a couple of advantages over many AirPlay speakers, mostly in its relatively streamlined control scheme. Libratone has reduced the controls to a single multi-functional, multi-colored front button and a rear power switch: the front button is used to set Live up on your wireless network—a challenge that took us about 10 minutes to work around—while volume and other audio controls are handled strictly through your AirPlay-compatible device, reducing the cluttered lights and controls seen on the tops of units such as iHome’s iW1.
When the unit’s working, the front light-slash-button glows or pulses white; it changes color to indicate connectivity issues, which you’ll definitely need the manual to deal with. Some users will appreciate the elegance of Libratone’s approach, while others will wish for at least a couple of extra buttons now and then.
On paper, Live looks like a serious challenger to Bowers & Wilkins’ Zeppelin Air, which held the title of “most expensive AirPlay speaker system on the market” until Live arrived on the scene. Libratone includes five speakers within Live’s wool-covered chassis, and they’re very similar in size to B&W’s Zeppelin Air choices: one 5-inch bass driver, two 3-inch midrange drivers, and two 1-inch tweeters, a combination that can and should at this price point be optimized for delivering dynamic sound across virtually the entire audio spectrum.
The reality of Live’s performance is somewhat more complex. Judged strictly on its own merits without reference to competing products, Live is fairly understood as a pretty good audio system at a very high price premium. It’s very similar to the Zeppelin Air in that it delivers reasonably crisp, detailed sound straight out of the package without any tweaking, and though its bass performance isn’t as powerful as B&W’s, Libratone offers a free iOS application that lets you make preset-based equalization tweaks, and adjust the speaker’s performance given certain mounting heights and wall distances. If you’re willing to play with the app, which is cleanly designed but only iPhone/iPod touch-formatted and a little more complex than it could have been with integrated music playback/testing functionality, you can improve Live’s sonic performance to match your living or office space, and make changes as you shift it from location to location.
However, unlike Zeppelin Air, which uses its widened football-like shape to provide very obviously stereo-separated sound, with low-distortion performance even at the blisteringly loud peak volume it can reach, Live could easily be confused with a monaural speaker at regular volume levels, and tends to become less dynamic sonically at higher volumes. Because of its tall, narrow body and triangular shape, Live has the challenge of trying to perform sound partially through the inward-tilted sides of a roughly 8”-wide frame—a poor shape for stereo separation, the details of which can only be heard clearly when you get relatively close to this system.