If you've been following the surge of AirPlay speakers that started hitting the market in 2011, you've likely feasted your eyes on the spendy wool-clad systems by Libratone. While its larger Live and Lounge units have primarily been purposed for households, its new Zipp speaker is the being touted as the "first and only" portable AirPlay speaker. Make no mistake, unlike B&O Play's portable AirPlay-equipped Beolit 12 ($800), the Zipp's loaded with Libratone's proprietary PlayDirect protocol, meaning it doesn't require a separate wireless network / router for iDevices to connect to it over the air. The Zipp moniker is a play on the swappable wool grill which cozies around its vertically-standing tubular enclosures. Weighing four pounds and measuring in at 10.2 inches high by 4.8 inches in diameter, this "portable" unit is a good bit larger than the Blutooth-equipped Jawbone Big Jambox placed sideways, but it'll certainly fit in a backpack -- hey, it does have a leather carrying strap. Thankfully, that weight is partially due to its internal rechargeable battery, which should last up to eight hours.
As far as the speakers go, you'll find a duo of 1-inch ribbon tweeters facing the sides for the left and right channels, along with a 4-inch up-firing woofer. The rig also features Libratone's signature FullRoom design, which forces a 360-degree dispersion of the sound by way of deflectors in front of the tweeters. Beyond that, it'll naturally work with Libratone's existing iPhone app, allowing you to change the DSP on the fly for optimal output regardless of its placement in a room. The Zipp will hit Apple Stores later this October wrapped with a single red or grey zippered grill for $399, while other retailers will carry the $449 Classic Color and Funky Color editions, which each come with a trio of those wool grills (black, blue and red for the Classic, and black, pink and yellow for the Funky). Past that, a single grill by itself will cost you a relatively expensive $49 directly from Libratone. In the meantime, join us past the break for more details about the unit itself and PlayDirect, our initial impressions and a hands-on video overview.
Libratone Zipp AirPlay speaker (hands-on)
Libratone Zipp (press shots)
As we mentioned, the Zipp's standalone AirPlay trick is possible thanks to the company's proprietary PlayDirect protocol. We're told that it was put in place with some oversight from Apple and doesn't degrade the lossless streaming quality -- it's essentially just firmware that works in conjunction with the AirPlay-enabling BridgeCo chip. Other AirPlay speakers allow you to directly connect to them as a WiFi hotspot in a similar manner, but generally relegate the function for network pairing and firmware upgrades. All that said, using PlayDirect will mean that you can't use WiFi on your iOS device for data as its connected, meaning browsing and the like will only be possible over your cellular connection -- sorry iPod Touch users. Don't fret though -- as you'd expect the system can work like a normal AirPlay speaker over your WiFi network as well.
In terms of controls, there's a backlit power and status button flanked by volume buttons on its white top, while along the side you'll find backlit WiFi and battery indicators, a WiFi reset button, a USB port (for updates, charging devices and digital audio input) and a 3.5mm audio jack -- all of which get hidden by that leather strap we highlighted earlier. This section also serves a mount for the wool grill. The bottom of the unit has a thick rubber foot to keep it from moving, along with a port for plugging in the power adapter. Overall, the layout of all the ports and buttons is very clean, blending in well with the design. We're happy to report that the unit we checked out started up in less than 15 seconds -- for perspective, most AirPlay systems we've used have annoyingly taken around a full minute.
Speaking to the build quality, the Zipp feels very sturdy, but its 4-pound weight isn't something we'd want to carry by hand for very long. Sadly, the unit isn't weatherproof, not to mention that the wool likely won't take well to getting wet. The zipper is even held in place by magnet, although we noticed it doesn't keeps the zipper shy of fully closing up. With only a very brief amount time to listen to the Zipp, we can't make any firm statements to its audio quality. At a moderate volume level, the unit maintained a similar sound signature to what we've heard from rest of the Libratone lineup : an airy soundscape with bright highs. The unit got loud enough make us worry about our hearing, and it also seemed able to pump a hefty chunk of bass out of its woofer as well. In case your curious about the wool affecting sound quality, Libratone let us know it's a special blend that doesn't impede the sound output. As it stands, we'd say the Zipp is essentially the new phablet of portable speakers, sitting as a bigger, Airplay-packing option to the Big JamBox for iOS users.
Update: As it turns out, Pioneer contacted us to highlight its notably larger A3 "portable" speaker also offers up direct connection for AirPlay, albeit under a different moniker (for perspective, it's much larger and almost double the Zipp's weight). We've reached out to Libratone to get more on info about its "first and only" claim.
Update #2: We heard back from the folks ar Libratone. PlayDirect is "the first full WiFi access point implementation built into an AirPlay-enabled speaker." For further clarification, hit that second PR button below.
No wires, no hassle, no compromise – Libratone introduces a truly portable AirPlay® speaker
Copenhagen, Denmark, 27 September 2012: Libratone today announces the first ever truly no-compromise and hassle-free wireless speaker, the Libratone Zipp.
An attractive and compact portable speaker, the Libratone Zipp is the first and only device to deliver the performance and convenience of AirPlay without the need for a Wi-Fi network and complicated setup thanks to Libratone's all-new PlayDirectTM technology.
With the battery-powered Libratone Zipp, you are able to take wireless high-end audio to the outside world, eliminating the need to be close to a wireless network. A full charge provides up to eight hours of playtime wired and up to four hours using the wireless connection.
The fashionable Libratone Zipp not only gives anyone the freedom of music anywhere, anytime, it also features changeable wool covers in eight vivid colors to suit all tastes and occasions. As with the rest of the Libratone product family, the Libratone Zipp works seamlessly with iPad, iPhone, iPod touch and Mac, as well as PC.
"We wanted to design a speaker that makes high-end sound portable and truly wireless," says Tommy Andersen, CEO of Libratone. "Similar to a pair of headphones, Libratone Zipp follows you wherever you go – around the house, to work, in the park or on holiday. PlayDirect technology makes Libratone Zipp a wireless, out of the box product - setting your music free has never been this easy!"
An exciting innovation developed especially for Libratone Zipp; PlayDirectTM technology makes it possible to stream music with or without the need for an in-home Wi-Fi network. This Libratone-only feature is an easy-to-use, ideal solution for picnics, camping trips and other outdoor activities.
PlayDirectTM works in conjunction with AirPlay technology, creating a direct Wi-Fi connection between the Libratone Zipp and any compatible device, such as an iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, or computer. Whether connected through Airplay or using PlayDirectTM, Libratone Zipp is immediately ready to deliver a high-quality audio experience.
Contemporary design and color
The slick Libratone Zipp offers a contemporary design with a Scandinavian heritage and a rainbow color selection, including Salty Grey, Pepper Black, Pineapple Yellow, Raspberry Red, Passion Pink, Plum Purple, Petrol Blue and Icy Blue. Libratone's characteristic fine Italian wool covers are sold separately and are quick and easy to change. Additionally, the minimalistic speaker features a leather handle for easy portability.
A 360° sound experience
FullRoomTM technology is a 360-degree sound experience created by specially designed drivers inside the Libratone Zipp. Unlike conventional speakers, which have a "sweet spot" directly in front of the speaker, FullRoomTM technology disperses sound in all directions for an unrivaled experience – no matter where the listener happens to be.
Contrary to regular speakers, Libratone Zipp doesn't have a front or back meaning that everyone around it is surrounded by music. To further enhance the music experience, you can download the Libratone app that allows for customization of the sound.
"The round shape of Libratone Zipp is an example of how design and functionality can go hand in hand. The cylinder shape combined with the FullRoom technology makes Libratone Zipp a social speaker, including everyone in the music experience," says Kristian Krøyer, creative director at Libratone. "The cover change feature also makes Libratone Zipp a long-lasting design object."
Libratone Zipp dressed in Salty Grey or Raspberry Red is sold exclusively at Apple Stores and Apple Online from October 2012 and retails for $399
Libratone Zipp also comes in 3-pack-color boxes with two extra wool zip-on covers included. The elegant Classic Color Collection features Libratone Zipp in Pepper Black, Petrol Blue & Raspberry Red and the fresh Funky Color Collection includes Pepper Black, Passion Pink & Pineapple Yellow covers. The Libratone collection boxes are sold broadly in retail and online from October 2012 and retails for $449
Also available in the Libratone AirPlay family is Libratone Lounge, a true hi-fi replacement for your living room, and Libratone Live a versatile AirPlay speaker and winner of the CES Innovations 2012 Design and Engineering Award.
Libratone PlayDirect is the first full WiFi access point implementation built into an AirPlay-enabled active speaker system. The market has seen a few limited early implementations of an AdHoc mode (point-to-point WiFi) where AirPlay speaker systems were allowed to play music from one source when the systems rebooted into setup mode (Pioneer states in their manual that a reboot into 'Wireless Direct' mode takes approx. 30-40 secs). The Libratone PlayDirect implementation in Libratone Zipp differs in several ways to this functionality:
PlayDirect is a full and intelligent WiFi access point implementation which easily can be selected by a user when an external WiFi network is not available. Once selected Libratone Zipp scans the WiFi band for the best available channel where traffic is light so optimum performance can be delivered even in WiFi-traffic dense environments.
Libratone Zipp broadcasts its SSID and is available for multiple sources to connect to it at the same time. Furthermore Libratone Zipp handles all addressing services as a WiFi access point and the optimum signal path is monitored and selected throughout the connection by use of a diversity antenna array.
When back in range of the users normal WiFi network the Libratone Zipp can revert smoothly to this network with the already stored WiFi settings by simply selecting the WiFi button on the Zipp. Switching time between PlayDirect and normal AirPlay mode on the Libratone Zipp is only 12-13 secs.
For a social speaker like the Libratone Zipp this gives an array of new possibilities as the speaker can act as a real Jukebox by connecting e.g. a computer with iTunes to it in PlayDirect mode. By sharing the iTunes library this enables multiple iOS users to also connect to the Libratone Zipp and use it as a Jukebox through the Remote app. This also enables a full iTunes library to be accessed from an iOS device without any stored music content; all in an environment without WiFi coverage, because the Zipp handles this through PlayDirect.