Teenage Engineering's OB-4 speaker lets you remix the radio

Mash up music and more as you listen.

Teenage Engineering

A recent leak of a forthcoming Teenage Engineering product had some commenters lamenting that “it was just another Bluetooth speaker.” Today, the OB-4, as it is known, is official. And yes, it is a speaker. And yes, it does have Bluetooth (along with Line in and an FM receiver). But if anyone thought they would stop there, well then you’re probably not that familiar with the Swedish audio company.

Described as a “magic radio” the OB-4 has a few tricks up its sleeve. Of course, it can be used solely as a Bluetooth speaker if you wish. Or an FM radio. Or as a dedicated speaker for its synths (the dimensions of the OB-4’s top plate are a nod to the OP-Z). It’s also fully portable thanks to the built-in 5,000 mAh battery (72 hours of radio, or about 40 hours regular use) — but it also has some more intriguing touches.

For one, there’s the motorized “tape” dial. The OB-4 records any sound played through it on a loop, like a dashcam but for audio. As it does so, that dial rotates. Touching the dial will manipulate the sound, like the world’s smallest turntable. You can slow things down, speed them up, rewind live radio and so on. The volume dial is also motorized, so if you turn the volume up via your phone, the dial will move automatically to reflect that change. A party trick, sure, but these are the design touches Teenage Engineering is known for.

There are also some experimental features that are… curious to say the least. These are found under the “disk” mode setting. At launch this will include a “Karma” feature (that plays mantras and quotes in a creative, psychedelic way); Ambient mode (that plays abstract, meditative soundscapes created by live radio being fed through a synth engine) and Metronome mode — which simply plays a repetitive grandfather “tik-tok” sound at any tempo you desire. “It’s an open-ended space for us, where we will continue to experiment and grow the functionality of the OB-4 over time.” product designer Thomas Howard told Engadget. He suggested that more abstract or clever features for disk mode could include sounds that help you sleep or AI-based synthesis.

Teenage Engineering OB-4.
Teenage Engineering

But first, let’s talk about that FM radio. You might ask: Who even listens to FM anymore? Well, according to Howard, the team at Teenage Engineering does. And they think it’s an underappreciated medium. "We're really, really into FM radio [...] I think it's really about this sense of being able to tap into something that's really live and really local to your community,” Howard told me.

Romance over an older technology aside, this is radio Teenage Engineering style. Owners of the company’s OP-1 synthesizer will be familiar with its built-in FM tuner. You could easily sample it and include it in your songs. The OB-4 is primarily a listening device, but you can still manipulate the sound by recording loops and giving them DJ-style effects like beat-repeat or changing the loop length. This is true for all audio inputs, not just the radio, so one person could be on the OP-Z, and someone else could be remixing it live via the speaker. Or just remix live radio, because why not?

But it’s about more than just being able to remix drive-time hits. The FM functionality could be expanded in the future to work with other Teenage Engineering products. "There's also a lot more that we can do [with FM], building the world of our products together," Howard added. He suggested that future products could have FM transceivers meaning they can connect with zero latency.

Interoperability is a big thing for the company, and Howard hinted at having tested using multiple speakers around the office operating as a sort of local broadcast network. Essentially, if future products come with FM capabilities, there are all sorts of weird possibilities.

It’s not just the FM radio that will open up some more unusual opportunities. The OB-4 comes with “Classic” Bluetooth, but also BLE (Low Energy). The latter in particular offering up some potential interesting functionality beyond audio — Teenage Engineering says it will be used for MIDI, too (and even possibly “mesh” connections with other devices).

It’s very hard to translate what I saw in my demo of the OB-4 to a coherent idea of what this product actually is (beyond a speaker). But when I heard it, it did make more sense. As Howard put it “What we're really trying to do is, we're thinking to ourselves, how can we make music listening more active. How can we get people more involved with that.” He gave the example of people who might not have a background in DJing, or using synths, but can still be actively involved with the music or sounds coming out of the OB-4. He was also keen to state important it was that they made something so simple to use that it’s not intimidating — the OB-4 has few buttons and only subtle visual feedback.

Teenage Engineering OB-4.
Teenage Engineering

It’s all... an interesting idea, but it might be one that’s hard to articulate until we’ve had some time with the OB-4 ourselves; there’s a fine line between clever and curiosity sometimes. It’s a line that Teenage Engineering has been able to stay the right side of so far with all its previous products, so we’re hoping that’s still the case here.

Though there is one other factor to consider, and that’s the price. A $599, this is not a product designed to compete with the likes of JBL or Ultimate Ears. It’s also more expensive than a Sonos One by a decent margin, and even more pricey than the portable Sonos Move for that matter. Of course, Teenage Engineering would argue that it isn’t competing with any of those products. But prospective buyers will need to ask themselves if the quirky extra features (and sound quality) are worth the extra spend. We’re reserving judgment until we try it out for ourselves, but experience tells us that somehow what seems weird now will make perfect sense once we get to play with it. At least, that’s the hope.