Teenage Engineering's OB-4 'magic radio' is playfully decadent

Remixing the radio is fun, but it comes at a price.

James Trew / Engadget

How long can one enjoy a five-second loop of “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and The News? I managed a solid six minutes, chopping it in half, extending it, moving the loop up and down the lyric — “pow pow power, p...p...p... pow-er.” Huey tried, in vain, to complete the lyric, but I wouldn’t let him. And so it went until I finally let Mr. Lewis finish his sentence. Besides, the golden-oldies radio station I was remixing on the fly was likely about to serve up another classic itching for the OB-4 treatment. I found myself doing this a lot with the curious speaker from Teenage Engineering; I am still not sure what this thing is for, which is why I must continue my research.

When I spoke with Teenage Engineering about the OB-4 ahead of its launch, they couldn’t quite explain it either — the company calls it a “media instrument” or “magic radio” for what it’s worth. I mean, they told me everything that it does. But not really why, beyond proclamations like “active listening experience.” They certainly never mentioned the power of love. But they were very enthusiastic about the FM tuner in the OB-4 (a common feature in Teenage Engineering gear). They were also keen to tell me about the “disk” mode — which is weird enough to warrant its own section later rather than me badly explaining it here. But what is under no doubt, is that for all the weird bells and curious whistles, the OB-4 is a portable speaker with more modern connectivity than just FM radio (i.e. Bluetooth and 3.5mm in). And it’s a very good speaker at that.

It’s also just a lovely object, which is praise you can apply to almost everything Teenage Engineering has made. Whimsical, pricey and a little eccentric is kinda their M.O. at this stage and the OB-4 (at $600) is all of those things. The angular, future-yet-retro design reminds me of what would happen if an old pullout car stereo underwent a Nordic redesign. The two speakers on the front look like piercing, musical eyes, and the carry handle serves triple duty as a place to stow the (included) FM antenna cable and a stand for the speaker if you want the controls pointing toward you.

There are other delightful design tweaks, too, such as the motorized “tape” dial on top. Practically speaking, this serves as a rudimentary fast-forward/rewind control, but the fact that it slowly turns whenever you play any music practically begs you to play with it. Touch it and the music stops, unless you move your finger, even just a little bit, at which point you realize it’s almost like the world’s smallest turntable. If you ever wanted to “scratch” the radio, your dreams have been answered. Levity aside, it is a much more interesting way to fast forward or rewind your music than tapping an onscreen button.

Teenage Engineering OB-4 review.

The volume dial also hides a secret (or two). Beyond the mundane function of controlling the loudness of your music, it also syncs with the volume on your source device when connected via 3.5mm or Bluetooth. Turn the music up on your phone and watch the dial magically move on its own. When I instinctively reached for the volume control directly to see if there was any resistance from the clearly embedded motor, it wasn’t there. This is cute and clever all at once, and you’ll find yourself using the phone, not the knob, to change the volume even if it’s within reach.

Later on, as you seek to discover all of the OB-4’s secrets, you’ll inevitably stumble upon another function of the volume control, and that’s as a pitch/speed control. Hold down the Input button while music is playing, reach for the volume dial, and your music will slow down or speed up depending on which way you twist it. Scratching, looping and pitch control? This speaker is definitely the world’s weirdest DJ tool.

It was the looping that hooked me the most. I tried it beyond the analog drumming of The Power of Love, much to the annoyance of my spouse, who probably just wanted to listen to a song the old-fashioned way (from start to finish). But with the OB-4, every song or sound is suddenly just fodder for all the weird things you can do with it and looping is probably the most satisfying. Push down both the Input and Play buttons while any music source is active and it’ll start recording a loop. Let go to mark the endpoint and the OB-4 will keep playing that section until you release it with a tap of the Play button (a right-facing arrow appears on the mini display any time you’re no longer listening in real-time to remind you).

There are some utilitarian functions underpinning all this of course. The fact that the OB-4 is quietly recording every sound it plays allows you to rewind live radio, or skim back through a recording or interview in a new way (the speed control also lets you play things in reverse/rewind). You’ll have two hours before it starts recording over what’s in its memory, so you can revisit a lot of whatever you have been listening to, whatever source that came from.

Oh, there’s an app among all this curiosity, too. It’s the same orthoplay app you might already have if you own Teenage Engineering’s other speaker, the OD-11, and it’s an ocean of calm and simplicity. None of the wacky features can be accessed here, only volume control (which also moves the physical knob remotely), transport controls and input selection.

Teenage Engineering OB-4 review.
James Trew / Engadget

We haven’t got to arguably the weirdest part yet, which is the “disk” mode. Teenage Engineering describes it as a place for experimental features. As of this writing, it has three primary modes: an atmospheric drone that uses snippets from the radio to create an unfolding ambiance; a metronome; and a “karma” mode that features calming sounds and (several, too many?) Amituofo-style chants. As I write this, I am listening to program 14, one of the more soothing ones. Sadly, you can’t loop or remix these, but then I guess that would defeat the point.

For all its Amituofos and DJ-esque features, the OB-4 is a speaker first and foremost. The two four-inch drivers are bolstered by a pair of neodymium tweeters and the result is very pleasing. As a portable speaker, it’s somewhat beholden to the environment you place it in, but when I listened to a track I have heard a thousand times before, I thought something was wrong… until I realized I was just hearing elements of the drums that I had never been able to notice before. This doesn’t mean the whole song sounded better — just that it was shining a light on frequencies that my other speakers apparently overlook.

This thing is loud, too. Teenage Engineering claims it’ll throw out around 100dB, which in lay terms is commonly known as “plenty”. A cutout on either side gives the bass enough room to throb, even when it’s grainy hip-hop on the radio. In fact, especially when it’s grainy hip-hop on the radio.

You can, of course, plug this thing in but the OB-4 is primarily a wireless speaker. Teenage Engineering claims you can eke out 72 hours of radio listening at “normal” volume, which slides down to just eight hours of full-blast Bluetooth streaming. That would be an intense eight hours, but for most people you’re likely to get a day or two’s varied listening out of each charge.

Teenage Engineering OB-4 review.
James Trew / Engadget

There are a couple of things that the OB-4 doesn’t have that are worth mentioning. Most notably, for me, is the lack of a line out. I know this is a speaker itself, but I do feel it’s a missed opportunity that I can’t record some of the wackiness I’ve done with it, or feed it into something else. There is also no “smart” component here, at least in the classic sense. There’s no virtual assistant support (not that I think anyone familiar with Teenage Engineering was expecting it), which given that it’s the price of two Apple Home Pods, feels worth mentioning. Just use the assistant on your phone and move on I guess?

There’s also, at this time, no direct integration with other Teenage Engineering products, which definitely is something fans of the company might expect. That’s just “for now” though. When I asked a company representative about this, I was assured it’s on its way (along with new features on disk mode, something else that was touted at launch), but no details on when and what.

I know it’s not nearly as fun as listening to a mantra over a standing bell or remixing 80s dad pop on the fly, but we really should talk about that price. By any standards, $600 is a lot for a portable speaker. In fact, I struggled to find many of the best-known smart speakers that cost much over $200. Of course, Sonos’ Move will set you back $400 but you’ll get a lot more practical functionality, music-wise (albeit no FM radio tuner!).

This puts the OB-4 in the next level up, where brands like Bang and Olufsen like to hang out. Its nearest equivalent portable speaker is $500, so a cool hundred less than Teenage Engineering’s. Though the Danish legacy brand also has models that will run you over $1,500 if you really need to spend it.

Teenage Engineering knows this speaker is spendy. It made sure to remind me at launch that this took six years of R&D (that motorized volume dial wasn’t easy we presume). It’s also a small company that proudly makes niche products. Still, it’s a big ask. But, like everything that the company makes, I am glad it exists and can’t wait to see what else it can do further down the line.

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