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.
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
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 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
There are other popular premium mobile speaker options. One of our recent favorites is the
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.