House Of Marley One Foundation review: Music-first Marley speaker barely misses the mark
A sound bar that can play music well is sort of a white whale. Most sound bars are designed to be cheap and only play explosions and dialogue well. The nuance demanded by music is beyond their capabilities. Even the decent ones, like Sony's HT-NT5 or the high-end Definitive Technology W Studio, involve some degree of compromise.
What about a system that's built from the ground up for music, but can also act as a sound bar? That's the intriguing idea behind the House of Marley One Foundation. The system is designed around wireless music -- Bluetooth and Qualcomm's AllPlay -- but it also features a wealth of inputs for connecting your TV or other device.
We're fans of the company's design approach, down to the real oak facade, but the sound just doesn't measure up to the price. Its bass is relatively anemic compared to systems with subwoofers. Further, treble sounds a bit harsh at volume, so despite being able to play louder than competitors, it doesn't sound better. Add in the high price and massive size, and it's tough to see who the One Foundation would appeal to.
Guess we'll have to keep combing the seas a little longer in search of that elusive whale.
They don't make speakers like this anymore.
Unlike other one-box speakers or sound bars you may have seen, the One Foundation is large. It's like a log, the part-of-a-tree kind. A thick slab of varnished oak is bolted onto the front, which holds in place a pair of 3.5-inch paper drivers flanked by 1-inch silk dome tweeters.
If you mount it as a traditional sound bar beneath your TV it will block part of your screen if you don't have 9 inches of clearance (and sadly, it lacks wall-mounting capabilities). It measures 8.75 inches tall, 31 inches wide and 4 inches deep.
The speaker features a volume control on the top right of the device which glows in a color corresponding to the input -- which, of course, is blue for Bluetooth. This is also echoed by another light at the base of the unit.
The remote control that comes with the speaker is a simple rectangular slab with a couple of large sculpted buttons for volume and input selection.
The One Foundation uses chipset-maker Qualcomm's comparatively lame answer to Sonos, called AllPlay. As far as proprietary multiroom systems go it's pretty low on the pecking order, with only Monster, Fon and House of Marley supporting it in the US (Hitachi and Panasonic are available in other markets for what it's worth). Though the speaker was announced way back at CES 2013 the version with AllPlay onboard only appeared in the last 12 months.
The number of streaming services AllPlay supports is low when compared to rivals, with only Napster and Spotify appearing. The application itself is pretty easy to use though, with a familiar "file tree" arrangement. It enables you to play songs from your phone and network in addition to the streaming services.
The One Foundation features a number of connections including an optical input, USB, 3.5mm input and a set of stereo RCA inputs and a set of outputs. The latter can be used to connect a subwoofer should you wish. The speaker lacks an Ethernet port, relying on Wi-Fi and a Bluetooth connection instead.
The House of Marley One Foundation looks, feels, and sounds like no (other) sound bar, and it sounds better the louder you play it. In our compact new CNET listening room bass was plentiful, but nowhere as deep as the bass we got from the much lower in profile Sony HT-NT5 sound bar/subwoofer system.
When we started listening we placed the One Foundation one shelf down from the top shelf of our equipment stand, but the sound wasn't right. So we moved it up to the top shelf which was definitely for the better. The One Foundation should be placed as near a seated listeners' ear height as possible.
The One Foundation likes to party, no doubt about that. To start, we played rock and of course, reggae, and the speaker was a lot of fun.
A couple of issues cropped up, too, starting with the crowded stereo soundstage. The One Foundation sounds like what it is: a single speaker. That probably won't be an issue for non-audiophiles or anyone not sitting in the "sweet spot" directly in line with the One Foundation. The fact is that stereo separation is inherently limited for single-speaker systems.
When we compared the One Foundation with the new Sony HT-NT5 sound bar/wireless subwoofer while listening to LCD Soundsystem's "Too Much Love," the HT-NT5's bass punch and clarity totally clobbered the One Foundation's, and the Marley's treble was harsher than the HT-NT5's. Vocals sounded pretty good on both speakers, however.
The HT-NT5 played loud enough, but it didn't sound as good as the One Foundation when played loudly. Oh, and we noted that when we weren't playing movies or music, we heard a small amount of hiss and noise while sitting 6 or 7 feet from the speaker.
With movies we were even less satisfied with the One Foundation's sound. That mono-ish soundstage was too narrow on the TV series "Lost: The Second Season." The scenes of the beach or in the dense jungle felt too cramped and narrow. Male voices were too "chesty," and thick when we were sitting 6 feet away from the speaker; after we moved back another 3 feet the sound balance was better. This speaker is better suited to music than movies or games.
Using AllPlay to coordinate music between several speakers worked well, though the relative lack of services -- no Pandora, for instance -- hurts it against all of its rivals. Sound quality was similar to what we'd heard using a wired connection. That is to say, at low levels the sound is a little muddy, at two-thirds it sounds good, and anything over that sounds shouty. You'll want to play this thing at "uncomfortable to talk over" volume in order for it to sound its best.
Priced at more than a grand the House of Marley One Foundation is a tough sell. The real oak front baffle is a nice contrast to the look and feel of the usual plastic or metal 'bars, but the sound quality for the most part isn't so hot. Yes, it can rock out like few sound bars can, but the deep bass "foundation" comes up short. That's curious, as we imagine most reggae fans will need to add a subwoofer to this already very expensive speaker.