Audio quality is scientific…until it isn’t. Until it comes into your home, or until you’re in the store listening, and you say “that sounds good”…or not. That’s why companies can charge ridiculous fees for high-end audio equipment and claim it’s better when, in fact, it’s worse. It’s too easy to fall for expensive products on the promise of quality. Libratone has been on my radar since CES 2012, when the CEO gave me an excellent demo in a perfectly-built sound station with hardware that cost several thousand dollars per item. Not exactly for everyday consumers. Fast forward two years and the company now has several offerings under $1K spots with three products: the Zipp ($400), the Loop ($500), and the Live ($550). The least expensive of the set, the Zipp, is a portable battery-powered speaker built for on-the go use, which explains the giant leather handle strapped to it. This is a speaker from the future: a 60W amp that still manages to last roughly 8 hours of excellent audio performance completely on a battery.
What sets the Zipp apart from others, aside from being battery powered (it can also be plugged in) is “smart” connectivity through your iOS or Android device. Clearly aimed at the higher-spending Apple audience, the Zipp (and the whole Libratone line) connects to your iPhone via USB to latch onto a Wi-Fi network to create an Airplay network. The process is straightforward: plug the iPhone cable (lightning or 30-pin) into the USB port on the back, pull up the Libratone app (free), and let the magic happen. It took me several tries, but it did work on a standard WEP network with password protection.
The Zipp actually connects in three ways: either cabled (direct), Wi-Fi (non-Airplay), or Airplay. For Android users, it can also connect via DLNA, though like everything for Android that isn’t made by Google the process is a bit more cumbersome. Non-Airplay mode sets the Zipp as it’s own Wi-Fi network where anyone can connect and stream the music of their choice through. A crude but highly effective method when on the go. You can also connect with a standard auxiliary cable if you’re feeling really low-tech.
With it’s high level of connectivity, the Zipp makes an excellent travel companion. It gets very loud and retains a high level of audio clarity, sans distortion, through roughly 90% volume. At 90% you could play audio for a group of 50 in mono and everyone would be able to hear it clearly. Case in point, I used the Zipp for a New Years party and it worked flawlessly for streaming music over the home Wi-Fi.
The one exception for audio playback connectivity is actually Apple’s fault, through the Apple TV. You can’t set the audio source properly on the current version of iOS for the Apple TV.
While the Zipp does start at $400, the audio quality is more attuned to the dolla holla of $600-$700 speakers, without any additional software or connectivity components. The best part of the Zipp is that, unlike most speakers, it’s made to be used for any situation, be it the living room, the office, outdoors, and most importantly, all of the above. Setup is minimal (though the Zipp does not retain Wi-Fi passwords, so you’ll need to reset the connection anytime you move it), and it’s small enough to take anywhere. Throw it in the passenger seat, a backpack, or anything larger than a hand bag.
The only real letdown is the app, which looks like it was built for iOS 5, and acts as poorly too. It’s not that it doesn’t work, but that the prompts don’t really help users who are having trouble connecting, which is really the only purpose of the app.
I was particularly impressed with the sound quality not for music, but movies. The audio range is wide and very even, providing crisp highs and clear lows, though at the very low end the bass trembles. Using the single speaker for stereo sound, which it is built for, is also strange because of the circular frame. The Zipp is made to be paired with additional units, so if you plan to DJ for a small group, buy two or more.
While audio quality is Libratone’s biggest sales point in the audio market, the Zipp succeeds future-proof connectivity to smartphones and Wi-Fi networks and portability without compromise. The Zipp is the lowest-end product and yet it could easily be confused for a much more expensive product. One that’s fit for travel in nearly any situation. It’s the best travel speaker I’ve ever used, by a longshot. I wouldn’t recommend you use it for your wedding reception…but you could do a lot worse.