Libratone Zipp review: Portable AirPlay speaker has trade-offs

Libratone is calling this "a full 2.1 stereo system with FullRoom technology and DSP optimization," though it's really a mono speaker that simulates stereo. A 4-inch bass and two 1-inch ribbon-based tweeters deliver the sound.

Libratone's iOS app allows you to tweak the speaker's sound. Screenshot by David Carnoy/CNET

If you're wondering whether you can tweak the sound of the speaker, you can. Adjustments are made through Libratone's app, which offers up a bunch of preset sound profiles to choose from -- you can't simply raise and lower bass levels. There's also a FullRoom optimization mode, which you can use to optimize based on where you have the speaker placed in the room, on the floor, for instance, or on a table. The app also tells you just how much battery life your speaker has left and whether there are any firmware updates available.

Performance
Because the Zipp is so easy to move around, you'll end up testing it out to see how it sounds in different spots. And it definitely does sound different in different spots. Stick it on the floor in the corner, you're going to get bigger bass but lose out on some of the treble. Stick the Zipp on a table, you'll lose a little bass but hear more treble.

The speaker does play very loud for its size and can fill a medium-size room with sound. I put a wide variety of music through and compared it with Bluetooth speakers such as the Jawbone Big Jambox and Bose SoundLink Wireless II, both of which sound very good for small, portable Bluetooth speakers. The Libratone offered, richer, cleaner sound, which was partially because AirPlay streaming simply sounds better than Bluetooth streaming.

I had a few other folks listen to the speaker, including CNET contributor Steve Guttenberg and editor Ty Pendlebury, and we all agreed that the Zipp is strongest in the midrange and also does well with the bass. Its weakest point is treble -- things just roll off a bit with the highs and it's not as impressive. Still, for a speaker this size, most people will be awed by just how much sound, and decent sound, the Zipp can produce.

Like a lot of these smaller speakers that are strongest in the midrange, the Zipp sounds the best with acoustical material and vocals. U2's track "Pride (In the Name of Love)" from the "Unforgettable Fire" album sounded clean and powerful. The Pretenders' "Isle of View" live concert also sounded really good. Turn up the volume with hip-hop, rap, and techno tracks, and you'll run into some of the speaker's limitations; it can sound a little strained at times at higher volumes. But, as I said, it can certainly play loud, and could power a small dance party in a pinch.

I did experience one glitch where the speaker stopped appearing as a Wi-Fi network -- meaning I couldn't connect to it -- and I had to do a hard reset of the speaker by holding down all the buttons at once. It's unclear what happened, but it was fine after that.

As far as range goes, you can stream from up to 90 feet away depending on your environment (it might be better in an open space). That's better than most Bluetooth speakers. Again, the demo was conducted with local cached music from iTunes and Spotify, because unlike Bluetooth speakers -- and other AirPlay systems -- the Libratone's PlayDirect feature precludes the ability to stream online music in real-time via Wi-Fi.

Conclusion
The Libratone Zipp is one of the more impressive compact portable speakers I've heard, and its PlayDirect AirPlay connection and eye-catching modernist design help set it apart from the competition. But there are two big negatives: the price and the inability to access online audio sources.

Regarding the price: at a $400 base price with one speaker cover, the Zipp is currently the least expensive in the Libratone speaker lineup. But $400 is still a good amount of dough to spend on a speaker, and you can certainly get a set of stereo speakers -- the Audioengine A5+ speakers come to mind -- that sound significantly better. However, this is a premium portable speaker that offers the advantage of mobile wireless streaming, a factor that will be worth more to some than others.

There are other popular premium mobile speaker options. One of our recent favorites is the Logitech UE Boombox, which is a decent value at $250. Both the Jawbone Big Jambox and the Bose SoundLink Wireless II will run you around $300. They're more compact and don't sound quite as good as this Libratone, but because they're Bluetooth speakers, you can stream with any Bluetooth-enabled device, not just iOS devices and computers with AirPlay.

The Jambox has speakerphone capabilities, and the Bose seems a little more durable for outdoor use. Those advantages aside, I think that if you're an iPhone or iPad owner looking for a portable speaker that you're going to use more at home than on the road, the Zipp may be the better choice despite its higher price.

As to the lack of Wi-Fi streaming while connected to the Zipp: that will be a deal killer for some, a nonissue for others. If that's not an issue for you, this is a four-star product; if it is, it's a three-star one. So we're splitting the difference in the overall rating.

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Oct. 15, 2012
  • Speaker System Type portable speaker
  • Speaker Type AirPlay speaker
  • Wireless Technology AirPlay
    Wi-Fi
  • Amplification Type active
  • Connectivity Technology Wired
    Wireless