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Sunday, May 18, 2014, 03:38 pm PT (06:38 pm ET)

Dual Review: Libratone's Lounge and Zipp speakers cover both ends of the spectrum

Libratone has made a name for itself by baking high-tech components, innovative design and consistent sound quality into its systems, features usually seen only in much more expensive systems. AppleInsider was able to take a look at how the Lounge, one of the company's first models, stands up to its recently released portable, the Zipp.


Libratone's Lounge and Zipp speakers sit next to Apple's AirPort Extreme, Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's Playstation 4.


After finding Libratone's mid-size Loop AirPlay-enabled speaker a strong performer with powerful sound that belies its compact size, we wondered how the Danish company's largest and smallest products would compare in a side-by-side test.

The Lounge is the big daddy of Libratone's collection and was one of the first devices the company launched. A variation of "sound bar" style speakers, the Lounge is a bit taller than most and sports a wool wrap instead of the traditional cloth mesh or metal grille covers. It also holds the distinction of being one of the first Speaker AirPlay-enabled standalone speakers to hit store shelves when it launched nearly three years ago

As for the Zipp, Libratone shrunk down its speaker tech and crammed it into a portable (but still fairly large) tubular chassis. Also skinned with a wooly cover, the speaker is the only battery-powered device in the company's lineup.

The disparity in size obviously affects the two speakers' sound output, but the areas in which they deviate are surprising. With similar parts and a common design philosophy, the Lounge and Zipp perhaps share more in common than they differ.

Design



Lounge

On one end is the massive 26.5-pound Lounge, which stands 9.3 inches tall, 39.4 inches long and 4.7 inches deep. The system is by no means compact, though it is quite sturdy for having such a shallow cabinet.



Breaking up the 2.1 stereo speaker's monolithic facade is Libratone's salt-and-pepper wool cover. The uneven texture serves as both a design flourish and helps the unit blend in with surrounding furniture. At least to the point that one can hide a 40-inch speaker. Stitching on the sides of the cloth give a unique appearance that is a refreshing change from the usual black plastic or shiny silver metal seen on comparable devices.

The Lounge sports a strong metal chassis with strategically placed cavities to resonate a veritable wall of sound. Up top, the metal bodywork is capped with a polished white plastic material, while the bottom is covered with a thick and soft rubber foot. While the unit itself is unlikely to slip around, the rubberized layer serves to insulate vibrations.



Like other Libratone products, there is one multifunction button placed on the unit's front face for easy access. The company's logo glows white, yellow or red to indicate a solid AirPlay or ad-hoc connection, power state and other system information. Unfortunately, the speaker lacks physical controls for music playback and volume control, meaning users have to adjust settings from their iOS device or computer.

Moving on to functional components, the Lounge comes with one 8-inch inverted driver handling bass, two 4-inch ceramic cones covering mids and pair of the company's signature 1-inch ribbon tweeters for the highs. A 150-watt digital amp feeds 50 watts to the bass driver and spreads 25 watts each to the ribbon tweeters and mids. Digital Sound Processing is also standard.

For those who don't want to use the built-in AirPlay and DLNA support, the Lounge includes only one 3.5-millimeter mini-TOSLINK jack out back. It's clear Libratone designed this speaker for wireless playback.

We should also mention that the Lounge's power cord is heavy and sheathed in a woven cloth composite material to protect against tangling and breaks.

Zipp

Taking its name from a zipper operated wooly cover that can be swapped out for other colors, the Zipp carries over Libratone's basic design philosophy with a largely stark aesthetic broken up by flourishes of fabric and leather.



From the top, components include a shiny white plastic cap with an embedded power button surrounded by a ring containing two buttons for volume control. A small LED integrated into the volume ring displays system status with the usual red, yellow and white indications.

The cylindrical body is wrapped in Libratone's wool, while a large silver rivet holds on a thick leather carrying strap. Rotating the strap upright reveals a 3.5mm input jack, two illuminated buttons for AirPlay and Bluetooth selection a set of buttons are revealed that control settings, AirPlay and direct link selection, USB audio and a battery life indicator.



Beneath the wooly exterior, a four-inch bass driver — sitting on the battery, amp and circuitry housing — shoots directly upwards into a hanging array of two one-inch ribbon tweeters. The resulting audio is well blended and dispersed through a thick plastic grille composed of multiple parallelograms.

Standing an impressive 10.2 inches tall with a diameter of 4.8 inches, Zipp is not a small portable by any means. Add to that a 4-pound carry weight and the speaker turns into a substantial piece of kit.



Grounding the Zipp is a rubberized non-slip foot that isolates the unit from vibration. A deep cavity houses the charger port, while a notch cut in the side of the base lets the thick gauge cord connect without tilting the speaker, allowing for use during charging.



Performance



The Lounge

As expected there is a chasm of difference between the Lounge's power output and that of its smaller sibling. More interesting, however, is how the speakers present content to the user. Both offer high sonic fidelity, but the respective onboard DSP settings are designed for two totally separate listening experiences.



For our tests, we used AirPlay as the technology represents the highest level of wireless playback on each respective speaker. Setup was painless and involved directly connecting to each unit, modifying Wi-Fi access settings and reconnecting to our main network. The speakers show up under an iOS device or Mac's AirPlay output list.

First up was the Lounge. With its large footprint, top flight components and powerful amp, we were expecting a lot of performance out of the oversized soundbar. It delivered, but with some caveats.

Midrange drivers are positioned as far apart as possible for great stereo separation, while the two tweeters are sit directly above giving a nice blend from mid to high frequencies. A central inverted active bass unit brings immediate and room-filling bottom end notes that, while not earth-shaking, brings a hefty rumble.

We would characterize the vanilla factory DSP setting as neutral but not dynamic enough for our taste. Switching between the various user-selectable presets, we found "Jazz club" to be the most free with the hardware, letting the driver cones fly and restricting bass only to a moderate degree.



One issue we noticed is that the DSP is intrusive in many presets. It's possible that Libratone is protecting against distortion by limiting bass output, though the end result is a gimped low end not up to par with what a speaker of its size. As far as bass reproduction is concerned, "restrained" would be a generous term for all Lounge DSP profiles. It's tight and fast, but the real "oomph" comes only at near-max volumes.

We believe that it's the DSP at work, but the Lounge suffers from an apparent dip in sound fidelity between low and midrange frequencies. It could be that the large center bass driver and extremely wide stereo mid/tweeter positioning contributes to the this dip, though a smooth curve can be achieved on certain tracks with certain digital presets.

That being said, when turned up to 80 to 90 percent max output, the Lounge's sound begins to blend nicely and can easily shake floors if needed. We hardly listen to music at such high levels, though the setup is an interesting choice for what is essentially an oversized personal speaker.

We would have liked to see a bit more in the way of home theater capability given the price and size of the Lounge, which for many will reside in front of or near their HDTV. Optical TOSLINK input is a good start, as is AirPlay from Apple TV, but without physical controls it's quite troublesome to change volume settings when watching over Apple's streaming box.

The Lounge should not be confused with a surround-sound system as the split driver and tweeter setup only allows for true stereo audio output. DSP can be employed to simulate so-called "full room optimization," but discrete channels will not be processed and output as such.

Testing Lounge with a variety of music, the speaker likes smooth, rolling tracks like jazz, classical and some classic rock best. Pop songs and electronica are not as well reproduced, but are acceptable when played at high listening levels.

The Zipp

With the Zipp, sound quality was comparable, if not equally powerful, to the Lounge. Without the extra low- and mid-range drivers, Libratone had to compensate with sound processing, partially coloring the otherwise pristine high-end output afforded by the two ribbon tweeters.



While other portable speakers pack in dual drivers for stereo sound, Libratone's take is perhaps more effective as channel separation is rarely distinguishable in such a small form factor. Further, the Zipp is made to be the center of attention, easily handling DJ duties for a medium size party. Blasting crisp, luscious sounding tunes in 360 degrees, the Zipp is one of the most versatile devices we've tested.

Libratone markets the Zipp as a "360 Scandanavian," which basically means produced sound emanates in all directions from the 10.2 inch-tall chassis. Tweeter orientation is such that coverage is largely proportional to bass tones reflected off the top cover


Zipp's four-inch driver.


The overall sound profile is similar to the Lounge, with shimmery highs and super tight bass performance, but midrange frequencies drop a bit in the scale since that ranged doesn't have a dedicated driver. Instead, the bass and tweeters come together through DSP to fill the void, managing to do so with mostly accurate response.

We were duly impressed with the Zipp's dead quiet sound floor, which constantly had us checking to make sure the unit was powered up when sampling certain symphonies with long largo movements filled with soli viola lulls.

When it was time to turn up the tunes, we chose a selection of top pop, rock, country and other tracks listened to by the speaker's target demographic. We were floored. Not only is there sheer power that literally caused vibrations underfoot, but the sound itself was pristine in a way we've never heard — or expected — from a speaker so small.




Playing back the latest cuts from Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake and others, thumping bass was reproduced faithfully alongside higher frequency synth tones. Everything blends together in a way that feels complete.

Most impressive was Ariana Grande's "Problem," which features the young diva powering through incredible highs followed immediately with bumping bass and hard to reproduce reedy sax tones. Even when she extends her vocal range down to humming low tones, the Zipp picked up and presented the segments with equal strength.

Except for a few EQ presets like Movie Time, Zipp generated uncolored and powerful playback across its 60-20,000 Hz frequency range. DSP governance helped out a lot, but was not so intrusive as to create audio artifacts.

It should be noted that correct EQ settings are needed to achieve optimal playback. While we found the included setting comparable for a wide swath of music, we would definitely want access to a visually equalizer for fine tuning those hard-to-match tracks.


On of Zipp's one-inch ribbon tweeters.


In sum, the Zipp is one of the best — maybe the best — portables we've ever tested.

Libratone claims about four hours of life for the Zipp when untethered, but we managed to keep the unit operating for over 6.5 hours at 75-percent volume over AirPlay.

A/B Testing

Only by A/B testing the Lounge and Zipp were we able to really see the differences built into each unit by Libratone's audio engineers. With the Lounge, it feels like the DSP setup was made to hold back the powerful bass unit, which in some cases trades off raw power for higher sound fidelity.



The Lounge is definitely designed for the home and it shows with a neutral, open sound that quickly fills rooms. On the other hand, the Zipp performed almost as well, but of course lacked true stereo separation unless we were seated facing the speaker in a specific orientation (with the tweeters firing to the left and right of our head).

As can be expected, the Lounge has a filled-out sound, but we found it can get a bit mushy compared to the compact Zipp. Once again, we blame DSP for the inconsistent low- to mid-range frequency performance on the Lounge, but engineers had to come up with a way to balance the driver/ribbon tweeter configuration. The Zipp only needs to worry about one driver and two tweeters, making it easier to create software that delivers much more consistent output.

Overall, the speakers showed more similarities in sound resolution and signature than they did differences in power and stereo capabilities.

Conclusion



The Lounge and Zipp are on two ends of the spectrum in terms of size, power output and usability, but Libratone has managed to imbue both models with similar sound quality. While their sonic fingerprints don't perfectly align, the use of ribbon tweeters in each device lends a uniquely clean and crisp quality not heard in competing products.



The speakers are good bedfellows, but the sonic differences between the two are noticeable when conducting A/B testing. It's not that either one is deficient, but we would say the Zipp carries a more precise sound that can be turned up to 11 without fear of losing resolution.

An area in which the Lounge can't possibly compete is portability. Although the Zipp is bigger than most on-the-go speaker systems, it offers high-quality AirPlay connectivity, more than decent battery life and, most importantly, incredible sound.

In addition to utility, the portable device is a generation ahead of the Lounge in terms of hardware support. USB audio may not be of use to many, but the onboard physical controls are a blessing, especially for a speaker meant to be shared.

With the Lounge now entering its third year of production, we are impressed that the setup continues to outshine most of its stereo soundbar contemporaries. Factor in a high price tag, however, and the Lounge becomes immediately less appealing considering what it offers.

If you're looking for good sound and good looks, the cost may be worth it. Despite its high-end sound, the unit lacks more than a few things that would make it a perfect device, not the least of which involving physical controls. Overbearing DSP and insufficient EQ settings should be on the list of to-dos for Libratone's R&D staff. Hopefully the next iteration of the device will be more balanced.

Most impressive, however, is what Libratone was able to pack into the Zipp. Amazing accuracy, punchy tones and better DSP implementation mean an overall better experience. As we said above, this speaker is one of the best devices we've tested and in our minds is worth the relatively high price of entry.

Libratone Lounge Score: 3 out of 5




Pros:



  • Ribbon tweeters and four-inch drivers offer full midrange sound
  • Wide stereo separation
  • Incredibly loud but clear


Cons:



  • Weak mid-range reproduction
  • Restrictive DSP system
  • Expensive


Libratone Zipp Score: 4.5 out of 5




Pros:



  • Amazing sound fidelity from small package
  • Room-filling 360-degree sound
  • Advanced connectivity and extended battery life on-the-go


Cons:



  • A bit larger than competing products
  • DSP overbearing in certain EQ modes


Where to Buy



The Libratone Lounge goes for $999 on Amazon, representing a $300 savings off MSRP. Colors available include Slate Grey, blood orange, beige, blueberry black and lime green.

As for the Zipp, Libratone currently has multiple collections of the device including the salty grey, raspberry red and solid black "Soul Collection" for $349. The "Classic Collection" of colors icy blue, raspberry red and pepper black for $399, while the "Funky Collection" comes with yellow, fuchsia and black options for $403 each.