Libratone Zipp review: Portable AirPlay speaker has trade-offs

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MSRP: $449.95

The Good The portable Libratone Zipp AirPlay speaker has a modern, eye-catching design and excellent sound for its size, and you can connect directly to it from an iOS mobile device, PC, or Mac. It has a built-in rechargeable battery or can be powered by an included AC adapter. It also has a USB port for charging smartphones.

The Bad Many source devices can't access Wi-Fi services while connected to the Libratone, or need to use pricey data plans; the Zipp only has 4 hours of battery life with wireless on; it's not compatible with Android smartphones and tablets (no Bluetooth); and it's expensive.

The Bottom Line The Libratone Zipp is one of the best-sounding and best-looking portable wireless speakers out there, but its high price and Wi-Fi limitations give us pause.

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7.9 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8

One of the problems with Apple's AirPlay wireless-streaming technology is that it's not as easy as it should be for the average consumer to set up initially. But Libratone, a Danish company that's now expanding to the U.S., has resolved this problem with its new, strikingly designed high-end portable AirPlay speaker, the Zipp.

What's the trick? Well, instead of having to connect to your Wi-Fi network and then the speaker, you can connect directly to this AirPlay speaker from your iOS device (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) or desktop/laptop PC (Windows or Mac) running iTunes using Libratone's PlayDirect feature. All you have to do is fire up the Zipp's Wi-Fi connection and it will appear as a Wi-Fi network when you scan for available networks in your settings. You then connect to it and hit the AirPlay icon from within Apple's Music app (it appears at the bottom right of the screen when you call up a song) and you're good to go.

For $50 more, you get two extra zip-on speaker jackets. Sarah Tew/CNET

It works remarkably well, and in our tests the AirPlay connection offered higher fidelity than a Bluetooth connection. One thing worth noting is that to make the PlayDirect AirPlay connection, you do have to start from whatever music app you're listening to and hit the AirPlay icon from within the app. You can then switch over to other local music services and maintain the AirPlay connection.

Notice I said "local" music services, however. Because the Libratone monopolizes the Wi-Fi connection with the audio source, that same audio source doesn't have access to the Web at large. That means Wi-Fi-only devices (iPad, iPod Touch, some Macs) can't use any Web-based streaming-audio apps, such as Rhapsody, Slacker, Mog, Rdio, TuneIn Radio, and so forth. You can only use the files saved to the device: local iTunes music, cached Spotify music, downloaded podcasts, and the like. If you follow Libratone's detailed instructions, broadband devices such as iPhones and LTE iPads can pull from online sources via a cellular connection, but that will eat up precious megabytes of your data plan. (PCs and Macs with Ethernet can stream online music that way, and then use a Wi-Fi connection to the Libratone.) For many, that could well be a deal breaker.

The Zipp's eye-catching look should appeal to anyone who appreciates minimalist, modern design. It doesn't come cheap. The speaker is available from the Apple Store at $399.95 for the base model, which comes with a single gray "Italian wool" cover. That cover can be swapped out, and Libratone sells packages that include two extra covers for $449.99. Separate covers sell for $50, so the company says there's some value in going for the step-up package, which comes in a couple of different versions with a few different color combos). For instance, the review sample I got came with extra fuchsia and yellow covers along with the base gray.

Using the leather carrying strap, you're ready to tote the 4-pound, 10.25-inch-tall Zipp from room to room -- or outside. When you're transporting it, it feels like you're carrying around a canister or mini keg.

The included strap makes the Zipp easy to move from room to room. Sarah Tew/CNET

The power and volume buttons are on the top of the speaker; the power cord plugs into the bottom. On the side, you'll find a USB port and an audio input for wired connections to audio devices. That USB port provides power for charging a mobile device, which I appreciated. You can charge devices with it whether the Zipp is plugged in or not. However, the Zipp's battery will obviously run down faster if you're charging your iPhone at the same time as you're running the speaker from the battery.

Overall, I liked the design a lot, and the carrying strap made it really easy to tote the speaker around.

The Zipp has a built-in rechargeable battery. It gives you about 4 hours of play if you're in wireless mode and up to 8 hours if you turn the Wi-Fi off and use a wired connection via the audio input. That 4 hours of wireless streaming is in line with the Philips Fidelio SoundRing AirPlay speaker, but it falls well short of what most Bluetooth speakers provide.

Time for a jacket change. Sarah Tew/CNET

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