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Gallery Photo: Libratone Zipp review gallery
Gallery Photo: Libratone Zipp review gallery

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Libratone Zipp review: PlayDirect AirPlay takes on Bluetooth speakers

A Danish upstart goes head-to-head with the Jawbone Big Jambox and Bose SoundLink

Libratone isn't a household name yet, but the 30-person Danish company with its roots in acclaimed Steinway Lyngdorf audio is hoping to change the face of portable speakers, literally. Having grown from just ten employees at the introduction of its cashmere-adorned Lounge and Live AirPlay speakers in 2011, the company is back with a new Zipp portable speaker, targeting a well-heeled market segment now dominated by the likes of Bose and Jawbone. However, unlike most portable speakers that rely upon Bluetooth, the Libratone Zipp opts instead for AirPlay and a new technology it calls PlayDirect. Unlike Bluetooth, PlayDirect has more bandwidth for streaming lossless audio between Apple devices and the company's speaker. Better yet, it doesn't require a Wi-Fi access point; a trick that lets you take the $399 Zipp along as a companion speaker for picnics or a day at the beach. PlayDirect gives you the convenience of Bluetooth with the higher-quality audio and range associated with Wi-Fi, and that's a pretty big deal.

Hardware / design

Hardware / design

The leather strap is a quirky, yet truly useful addition for lugging about the 4-pound speaker

The most visible design element of the Zipp speaker is a selection of colorful sleeves that zip (get it?) into place. I was pleasantly surprised to find the trio of sleeves that shipped with my review Zipp to be less wild, but just as wooly as the prototype device I previewed a few weeks ago. The well-worn prototype came across as a bit too furry, whereas the Italian wool on the shipping unit was plagued by fewer loose strands to better complement the speaker's minimalistic design.

Our $449 review unit shipped with the "funky collection" of very attractive black, pink, and yellow (my personal favorite) sleeves. Libratone also offers the "classic collect" of black, "icy" blue and red sleeves. The $399 / €399 Zipp is sold exclusively through the Apple Store with a single sleeve. Individual sleeves spanning eight colors are available via Libratone for $49.95 each.

I "broke" a plastic bit on one of the sleeves when removing it the first time by pulling too hard on the rigid section around the jacks and handle. Although the plastic piece glued to the inside of the wool snapped, it doesn’t affect the fit or finish when zipped back into place.

The leather strap is a quirky, yet truly useful addition for lugging about the 4-pound speaker and for hiding a bevy of ports and buttons along the back, including battery and Wi-Fi status indicators, a PlayDirect / Setup button, and USB and aux-in jacks. The power cable inserts into the bottom of the speaker with a variety of plug adapters included for US and European wall outlets. On the white plastic top of the speaker you'll find the Libratone logo that doubles as an on / off push-button. The logo itself is encircled by a static volume up / down controller ring that pays homage to the iPod click wheel of yore.

Small enough to fit inside a backpack or shoulder bag

Inside you'll find one 4-inch bass and a pair of 1-inch ribbon tweeters. That bass driver is what immediately sets Zipp apart from Jawbone's $299.99 Big Jambox limited to just two active drivers. The 4-pound Zipp's other physical advantage over both the Bose SoundLink and Big Jambox is its size: at 12.2 inches tall and a 4.8-inch diameter, it offers a total volume of 220.8 cubic inches. That makes it almost twice as large as the 111.6 cubic inch Big Jambox and more than twice the size of the 93 cubic inch Bose SoundLink and recently announced SoundLink II. Still, the Zipp’s definitely small enough to fit inside a backpack or shoulder bag and is easier to carry in a single hand than the brickish Big Jambox.

For comparison sake, the $299 Sonos Play:3 weighs in at 347.26 cubic inches. Although it lacks a battery, it's still a direct competitor to the Zipp in the home. Similarly, Bose recently announced a larger 324 cubic inch SoundLink Air for $349.95 that stacks up nicely spec-for-spec with the Zipp. An optional $89.95 Bose battery pack adds to the size and weight but makes it a direct competitor to the Zipp, albeit in a more expensive and less portable package.

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Sound comparison

Sound comparison

For speakers, simple physics always trumps marketing muscle when it comes to performance. Never has this been more evident than when comparing the Libratone Zipp with Jawbone's very popular Big Jambox. The Zipp's larger enclosure, beefier componentry, and 4-inch bass driver leaves the Big Jambox in the dust in every listening case. The Zipp sounded warm, rich, and full across the board compared to the Big Jambox which sounded thin and tinny by comparison. Of course, Zipp costs $100 more than the $299.99 Big Jambox, but in this case, you're getting what you pay for.

Comparing Zipp to last year's Bose SoundLink Bluetooth portable speaker was less conclusive, however. "Astral Weeks" by Van Morrison was nearly indistinguishable on the two speakers. The Zipp did better with "So What" by Miles Davis, offering a richer and more detailed listening experience than the SoundLink. Overall, the Bose made an impressive showing across a variety of genres considering its lower price and more compact, yet stoic industrial design. Nevertheless, I preferred the Libratone's overall sound. Again, Zipp costs $100 more than the original SoundLink and Bose has already released the improved SoundLink II for the same price (but not available in time for this review).

The final head-to-head pitted the Zipp against an entry-level, but larger Sonos Play:3. The result was a wash; the two speakers were just too similar to say one sounds superior to the other. The Zipp did tend to focus a bit more on the high end, able to isolate Muse front-man Matthew Bellamy’s falsetto better than the Play:3. Nevertheless, this is only an advantage on default settings since both speakers offer programmable DSPs to tweak the audio to your taste. Zipp costs $100 more than the $299 Play:3 but the Sonos speaker doesn't include a battery for true portability.

In general, the 360-degree-firing Zipp was able to fill a room better than any of the speakers compared, whereas the Play:3, SoundLink, and Big Jambox all sounded best when seated directly in front of the respective device. Unsurprisingly, the Zipp offered the least amount of stereo separation which isn't exactly the forte of these monolithic portable speaker designs. But, the Zipp does get very, very loud, with the first signs of distortion occurring at about 90 to 95 percent of max volume — well beyond my comfort level and that of my neighbors.

Another point in favor of the Zipp is the free Libratone iOS app. In addition to showing the battery charge and giving your control over the speaker’s Wi-Fi settings, the app also lets you optimize the Zipp's audio for its location in the room and your particularly sound preferences. Zipp is set to a Neutral audio setting by default, with sound treatments available for Easy Listening, Soft and Comfortable, Rock the House, Jazz Club, Movie Time, and Live Concert; each app selection tweaking the Zipp's high, mid, and low output accordingly, often imperceptibly. The app's room optimization again defaults to Neutral, with options for Outdoor placement, Shelf, Tablet, and Floor, with further customizations for distance from nearest side walls and back wall (back defined by the wall closest to the Zipp's strap and ports) and the table's surface dimensions. Sure, it's overkill for the vast majority of music listeners, but I suspect audiophile-types will have hours of enjoyment adjusting these persnickety settings.

The 360-degree-firing Zipp was able to fill a room better than any of the speakers compared
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Usage

Usage

Apple pulled the routing capability in the final version of iOS 6
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Libratone is correct in calling "PlayDirect" a Zipp exclusive. After all, the trademark is owned by Libratone. However, the direct-to-device wireless streaming capability is available in the underlying AirPlay chipset, and thus is available for exploitation by any number of vendors. In fact, we've already seen the same feature revealed under a variety of names: Pioneer calls it "Wireless Direct" on its A3 XW-SMA3-K speaker, whereas Klipsch calls it "Wi-Fi Direct" on its G-17 Air speaker system. There are slight variations in how the technology is implemented across manufacturers, but the functionality presented to the user is nearly identical. Nevertheless, it's most definitely new, it works well on iOS 6 devices, and it's a potential boon to higher-end portable speaker manufacturers who want to avoid Bluetooth's audio-constraining bandwidth limits. But, as usual, there's a catch.

When I first tested Zipp at its announcement I was able to stream Rdio and Spotify music over 3G to the Zipp connected to my iPhone 4 over PlayDirect Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, Libratone's Creative Director, Kristian Krøyer, tells us that Apple pulled the routing capability in the final version of iOS 6. It still works, mind you, but only after configuring your iOS device with a static IP address when directly connected to the Zipp’s PlayDirect Wi-Fi network. An unusual step that many will find insurmountable, turning their iPhones and iPads into dataless iPods. Libratone's working on a more elegant solution but it's not expected anytime soon.

Enabling PlayDirect is simple. Turn on the Zipp, press the PlayDirect button and then join the Libratone network from your Mac or iOS device when the it appears in the Wi-Fi list after about 20 seconds. You can now select the Zipp as you would any AirPlay speaker and begin direct-to-device audio streaming. Multiple devices can be attached to the PlayDirect Wi-Fi network at once, but only one device can select it for AirPlay output. To switch devices — for example, when a friend at the beach has music to stream — you must first deselect the AirPlay speaker (not just pause the music) from your device before your friend can select it and start streaming. While some might miss the lack of a true party mode, I think most will be happy with this level of control over the party mix.

PlayDirect just worked for almost the entirety of my listening experience. However, I did run into an issue where the audio would cut out every minute, almost exactly, for about three to five seconds at a time until I finally rebooted the Zipp. I haven’t been able to recreate the issue but Libratone is looking into it and will issue a firmware update for the Zipp if required.

Of course, the portable Zipp speaker can also join your home Wi-Fi network. PlayDirect is a feature that you'll use when away from the home which, for the majority of people, is the occasional-use scenario. Most of the time it'll be placed on a shelf or tabletop for listening around the house. AirPlay's ability to download your home Wi-Fi settings over a USB-tethered iOS 5 (or above) device makes joining the Zipp to home Wi-Fi networks a snap, although I had to reboot the Zipp and run the procedure twice after the first transfer didn’t stick. The free Libratone app can also be used for Wi-Fi setup as can any PC or Mac web browser. Switching to Wi-Fi mode for the home after returning from a party in the park is as simple as hitting the Wi-Fi button on the back panel and waiting for about 45 seconds for it to rejoin your network.

Zipp can also play audio from tethered devices via its USB and aux-input jacks. iOS devices will playback audio when connected to the Zipp's USB jack. As a bonus, the USB jack charges any portable USB device while the Zipp’s aux minijack supports ubiquitous audio playback. The Zipp’s battery is rated for about eight hours of continuous tethered use or four hours of playback over AirPlay — roughly what saw in my own testing.

With regard to range, the Zipp, thanks to Wi-Fi, is superior to both of the Bluetooth speakers I tested. Whereas the SoundLink and Big Jambox would both drop at a range of about 30 feet away and one floor down, the Zipp only lost connection when I went to the extreme opposite corner of the house, two floors below. Unfortunately, Zipp doesn’t much like losing connection and consistently refused to let me rejoin the PlayDirect Wi-Fi network once I was back in range, necessitating a reboot of the speaker. Conversely, the Bluetooth speakers were available to stream just as soon as I was back in range.

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The Libratone Zipp is my new favorite portable wireless speaker. Then again, I bought into the iOS / Mac ecosystem a long time ago so choosing an AirPlay wireless solution over Bluetooth isn't a radical decision. At home, Zipp is a fantastic portable speaker that integrates easily into my existing Wi-Fi and AirPlay network of devices. Grab the handle and drag it to any part of the house that requires big, warm, room-filling sound.

Zipp looks fantastic and sounds great, but its biggest selling point is with PlayDirect, a new AirPlay technology that untethers the Zipp from your home network and router allowing you to create a direct-to-speaker wireless connection from your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad for trips outside. In other words, it combines the audio quality and range associated with Wi-Fi with the convenience of Bluetooth. Just be sure that you’re comfortable with static IP configurations before handing over your $399.

Windows Phone and Android device users would be better served by a Bluetooth wireless speaker. And right now, for my money, the Bose SoundLink (and new SoundLink II) is the best in class. Sure, the SoundLink looks like a speaker designed by a committee of uptight suburban executives, but it costs $100 less than the Libratone Zipp and offers the broadest range of compatibility available. For the same price you could get a better-looking but inferior-sounding Big Jambox, but really, why would you?

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