Libratone Lounge AirPlay Loudspeaker Reviewed

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Libratone Lounge AirPlay Loudspeaker Reviewed


Libratone-Lounge-AirPlay-Speaker-review-color-shelves.jpgThere's no denying that Apple is a brand focused, almost exclusively, on user interaction. This is not a bad thing, for even me, a former Apple customer, will not deny Apple its due, for no one does it better. However, in order to share in the blissful Apple experience, you must be committed, like all-in on a hand at poker - that's the Apple way. Because so many are willing to go to such lengths for what they deem as unilateral simplicity, there is no shortage of Apple-centric merchandise, especially wireless audio devices designed to take full advantage of Apple's AirPlay technology. Case in point: the Lounge wireless or AirPlay-compatible loudspeaker reviewed here from Scandinavian newcomer Libratone.

Additional Resources
• Read more reviews similar to this in our Soundbar Review section.
• Explore more options in our Bookshelf Speaker Review section.
• Learn more in our Streaming, Apps, and Downloads News section.

The Lounge retails for $1,299.95 and is available via select dealers or online through Libratone's own website. $1,299.95 isn't cheap, especially for a wireless loudspeaker aimed at allowing you to play back your favorite iTunes-purchased music via your home network. But then again, the target market, Apple customers, are used to paying a little more when it comes to their entertainment or connected devices. While the Lounge may look the part of a soundbar, it isn't, though its look is definitely unique, if not a little retro. It's one long slab of gloss white plastic, wrapped in your choice of five Italian cashmere wool covers, complete with accent stitching and a Levi's-esque red tag that trumpets the manufacturer Libratone's name. The wool color choices include Slate Grey, Blueberry Black, Blood Orange, Lime Green and Vanilla Beige. The Lounge is large at nearly nine inches tall by 40 inches wide and just under five inches deep. It's hefty too, tipping the scales at 27 pounds. The front of the unit has but one button; in fact, it's the only button on the Lounge speaker, which I'll talk about in a moment. Connection options, located on the back, include an AC power receptacle and a 3.5mm audio mini-jack for either analog or optical digital sound.

Libratone-Lounge-AirPlay-Speaker-review-color-speakers.jpgBehind the stylish wool grille rests a single eight-inch inverted woofer married to two four-inch ceramic midrange drivers and two one-inch ribbon tweeters similar to what you'll find in Golden Ear Technology or MartinLogan's recent designs. Each is powered by its own amplifier: 50 watts for the woofer, 25 watts per tweeter and 25 watts each midrange driver, for a total of 150 watts. The driver complement and internal power amplifiers give the Lounge a reported frequency response of 38-20,000Hz, with a max SPL output of 103dB. The Lounge utilizes internal DSP in the form of Libratone's own FullRoom Acoustic Technology, which is said to provide better stereo and 360-degree sound dispersion.

The Lounge is AirPlay-compatible, meaning you can stream music to it, as well as control it from any AirPlay-equipped Apple device. On Libratone's website, the compatible devices list includes iPad, iPad 2, the new iPad, iPhone 4S, iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, iPod Touch (fourth, third and second generations), iOS 4.2 and iTunes 10.1 or later. The Lounge is Mac- and PC-compatible, but PC users must still use iTunes for PC in order to take full advantage of the Lounge's functionality. Libratone offers an app to coax even more performance from its loudspeakers, the Lounge included. However, since I no longer am an iPhone customer, I was unable to test the app's functionality. According to Libratone, the app is used to interface with its own FullRoom Acoustic Technology, allowing you to better tailor your Libratone loudspeaker(s) to their respected environments. The app also allows you to control the Libratone speakers' volume when using a 3.5mm-connected device, which is most helpful, since none of the Libratone loudspeakers have manual controls for volume.

The Hookup
Unboxing the Lounge is simple enough for a single person, though the box itself, while stylish (surprise, surprise) is rather complicated in its design. There are numerous flaps, wraps and tabs one must navigate before finally coming face-to-face with the Lounge speaker itself. My review sample came finished in the Blueberry Black wool wrap with gloss white accents. The Lounge is a big speaker, which is more than evident when you remove it from its foam surrounds for the first time. Libratone includes a wall bracket to facilitate wall-mounting out of the box, but since this was a review and not a permanent installation, I didn't use the wall mount. Instead, I opted for a simple tabletop placement.

My first instinct was to install the Lounge in my reference room in front of my Panasonic plasma. However, due to its size, mainly its height, this plan was not going to work. So I relocated the Lounge to my bedroom, where I sat it atop the top shelf of my Sanus Accurate Series rack. This placement put the Lounge directly below my bedroom's 40-inch Samsung LCD HDTV, which, as it turns out, is the same width. Also, due to the Lounge's physical height, it appeared as if I had mounted it directly below my HDTV; got to love happy accidents. Next, I plugged the Lounge into my power conditioner, flipped the master on/off switch and watched as the speaker went through its power-up procedure.

Libratone-Lounge-AirPlay-Speaker-review-window.jpgConnecting Via AirPlay
Since I recently switched back to PC from Mac, I no longer had an iPhone or Mac laptop to use with the Lounge. Luckily, my wife did, so I commandeered her MacBook for a day in order to test the Lounge's connectivity claims.

The process of getting your Apple device to speak to the Lounge, or any Libratone loudspeaker, is pretty straightforward. First, you'll want to make sure your wireless network is active. Then you'll click on the wireless icon in the upper right corner of your screen. With the Lounge powered up, and the light blinking red, you should see it appear in your list of wireless networks. Choose it, then open up your web browser and type 192.168.1.1 into the URL bar. A simple Libratone page will open on your browser, with a single drop-down menu where you'll choose the Libratone loudspeaker, in this case the Lounge, in order to connect to it. Once you finish this step, you'll be treated to a simple page telling you that your device is syncing. Once the button on the face of the Lounge turns from red to white, you're good to go. Go back to your wireless networks, choose your home network and then launch iTunes. Locate the AirPlay icon in the lower right corner of iTunes, select the Libratone speaker of your choosing (for me, it was the Lounge), and you're done. Track selection, EQ and volume will now be handled via iTunes, with the sound emanating from the wirelessly connected Libratone loudspeaker.

You can set up multiple Libratone loudspeakers via this same method and place them in different rooms around your house and control them all via a central computer through iTunes. I was able to test this by having the Lounge in my bedroom, while having a different Libratone loudspeaker, the Live, in my living room. AirPlay allowed me to toggle between the two rooms, as well as play music in both rooms simultaneously without ever leaving iTunes. Pretty neat.

With everything connected and working via my wife's MacBook, I lived with the system for a week before formulating my conclusions. I also connected the Lounge to my Samsung HDTV's 3.5mm audio output, which effectively turned it into the default TV speaker.

Performance
I began my evaluation of the Lounge with it acting as my Samsung's "internal" loudspeakers. In this configuration, I was able to control the Lounge's volume using my Samsung's remote, though I was not able to control source selection with a remote. That duty fell to the Lounge's single button. It took a lot of trial and error before I was able to get the Lounge to find its own 3.5mm input and thus allow the sound to flow. Once the two devices were playing along, the sound quality via the Lounge was definitely larger than what I had grown accustomed to from the Samsung's stock speakers. However, I hesitate to call the Lounge's sound, at least with broadcast material, high-end or even discrete. While the sonic canvas was larger, with better mid-bass and bass definition, there were still boxy colorations throughout and sibilance in the high frequencies.

Read more about the performance of the Libratone Lounge on Page 2.

HTR Product Rating for Libratone Lounge AirPlay Loudspeaker

Criteria Rating

Performance

3

Value

2

Overall

2.5

Disagree with our product rating? Email us and tell us why you think this product should receive a higher rating.


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Libratone-Lounge-AirPlay-Speaker-review-dog.jpgNot wanting to draw any conclusions based on broadcast transmission standards, I popped in Poseidon on Blu-ray disc (Warner Bros). Chaptering ahead to the New Year's celebration just before the rogue wave strike revealed a more open sound from the Lounge, though not one that bordered on surround. There was the faint semblance of a two-channel-like performance, but not one that possessed any width or depth beyond the speaker's physical boundaries. Vocals were richer than with my previous experiences, but still not wholly natural or convincing in their scale, as they were clearly emanating from the Lounge itself. When the rogue wave hits the cruise liner, the sound was definitely loud with strong dynamic swings, but the low animalistic growl that is normally in this scene's bass track was absent, as was much of the raw, unbridled power present in the wave's attack. Instead, the midrange and low mid-bass were just over-pronounced in an attempt to synthesize the feeling of actual bass. The midrange at higher volumes became thin and colored by cabinet resonances, which took away from any dimensionality. Turning the volume down a notch or two did help flesh things back out, but again, the sound was more akin to big TV speakers than a discrete pair of bookshelf or monitor speakers in a single chassis. The high frequencies had a lot of top-end energy, but not a lot of finesse or air. The tweeters could definitely play loud but, like the other drivers in the cabinet, their sound was never really able to break free. An improvement over internal HDTV speakers? Yes, the Lounge is that. But a stylish soundbar killer? No, it is not.

Realizing that the Lounge is not marketed to home theater or soundbar enthusiasts, I didn't wish to beat it up with another Blu-ray or DVD demo. Instead, I opted to use it as nature intended - as a purely lifestyle-oriented product. From the comfort of my living room, I was able to send music from my wife's MacBook to the Lounge in our bedroom. I cued up Alanis Morissette: MTV Unplugged Live (Maverick) and the track "Princes Familiar." I'll say this, and I'm not sure as to why this is, but the Lounge is a better music listening device than a movie or television one. That said, listening to music via the Lounge was more or less a facsimile of what the performance should be, rather than coming close to recreating it. Think of a real echo, then think of an echo created using a reverb filter, same end result (sort of), two drastically different sounds. Because of this phenomenon on this live recording, the sound emanating from the Lounge had sort of a "hall" DSP sound throughout. The high frequencies exhibited some sibilance at the extremes, though admittedly the Lounge's highs were clean, albeit digital. Midrange again had a bit of boxy resonance and a recessed quality that skewed the performance lean or cool and the bass didn't flesh things out, for it too was analytical. Dynamics, however, were good, as was the Lounge's ability to play to room-filling levels, which got me thinking.

Realizing that Alanis Morissette isn't so much what the kids are listening to these days, I cued up something a bit more current in the form of Alex Clare's album Lateness of the Hour (Universal Republic) and the hit single "Too Close." I went ahead and let AirPlay control the other Libratone loudspeaker I was sent, which was in my living room. I hit play and, within a few moments, my house was filled with music. I didn't sit and listen from a stationary point; instead, I moved about and did other things. This is where the Libratone Lounge shows its strengths, for as a distributed audio loudspeaker, meant for playing your favorite playlists in the background, it is phenomenal. I'm not joking - it's amazing how much better things sound when the sound itself is not your primary focus. While I was folding clothes, feeding the dogs and dusting off furniture, the sound provided by the Lounge and other connected Libratone loudspeakers was just what the doctor ordered. Could I critically evaluate it? No, because I wasn't critically listening - I was merely enjoying the tunes, but at a distance. Now, $1,300 is an awful lot of money to spend on ambient tunes, but then again, in the right decor and for the right enthusiast, the Lounge just may be the perfect speaker. As I moved about my home carrying out my morning chores, I felt as if I was in one of those iPhone commercials starring Zooey Deschanel, where she talks into her phone and music just starts playing. Zooey would love the Lounge.

Libratone-Lounge-AirPlay-Speaker-review-color-stairs.jpgThe Downside
While I understand the Lounge's target market, I'm never a fan of putting all my eggs into one basket, which Libratone has done by ostracizing anyone not willing to march to the Apple beat. While I appreciate that the Lounge does offer a 3.5mm jack to use with devices not from Cupertino, it's not why you buy a product like the Lounge.

Speaking of the Lounge's 3.5mm audio input, it's helpful when connecting to your HDTV - okay, it's the only way - but selecting the input via the Lounge's single button interface is terrible. Honestly, getting the Lounge to switch to the 3.5mm input via the single button control was pretty much luck of the draw and one that left me on the losing team more often than the winning one. You would think that pressing the button once or twice would do it, but since all manual control is relegated to a single button, I soon found out that it's how you push the button that makes the difference. Hold too long and you'll reset the system, too fast and you'll get nowhere, and no, the Lounge is not signal-sensing. Maybe the iPhone app has input control, but since I don't have an iPhone, I can't say definitively one way or the other. Suffice to say, the single-button manual control offered by the Lounge (or any Libratone loudspeaker) is silly.

I appreciate the quality and choice of colors served up via the Italian cashmere wool speaker grille, but it doesn't look all that fancy or high-end. In person, it looks a bit like felt. In fact, it wasn't until I started writing this review that I even realized it was Italian cashmere wool at all. Maybe I'm not sophisticated enough to have been able to immediately identify Italian quality straightaway, but I can't help but think that Libratone could have gotten away with using a lesser material and maybe saved you a few bucks in the process.

Lastly, the Lounge does not pull off a stereo, let alone multi-channel soundstage. I know it's not a soundbar aimed at playing back movies, which is why I'll forgive its multi-channel performance, but as a stereo loudspeaker, it sounds decidedly monaural. Connecting it to your HDTV and making it your display's "internal" speaker is definitely an improvement over anything you'll hear direct from an HDTV. But even with its proprietary DSP, the Lounge fails to be as good at recreating the sense of stereo or multi-channel space as do many of today's soundbars, some costing up to $1,000 less. As a wireless distributed audio loudspeaker, the Lounge excels in its style and ability to be linked to a single source, aka your iDevice, which is no doubt going to win favor with the Apple faithful.

Competition and Comparisons
The Lounge's biggest competitor has to be fellow Scandinavian manufacturer Audio Pro. Audio Pro offers a number of wireless solutions, including discrete loudspeakers, as well as all-in-one stereo designs, a la the Lounge from Libratone. Audio Pro's price points are similar to that of Libratone's, as is its market appeal, so this decision is largely going to come down to personal preference.

In terms of the Lounge's competition from more traditional soundbars, there are a lot, many of which are less expensive and/or offer more flexibility and better all-round performance - for example, my current reference, MartinLogan's Motion Vision soundbar. The Motion Vision retails for $1,499.95, has a far more upscale look (in my opinion) and features some of the same driver technology, specifically its use of folded motion ribbon tweeters. However unlike the Lounge, the Motion Vision has a larger, more spacious sound with cavernous, chest-pounding bass and better manual and user controls. It can even decode and play back mutli-channel audio soundtracks, such as Dolby Digital and DTS. Connect it to an already wireless device, such as an AirPort wall-wart, and you'll be able to enjoy the same wireless functionality as the Lounge. You can achieve similar results with less expensive soundbars options, too. Other stylish and good-sounding options that come to mind are Bowers & Wilkins' Panorama Soundbar, as well as its Zeppelin Air.

For more on these soundbars and others like them, please visit Home Theater Review's Soundbar page.

Libratone-Lounge-AirPlay-Speaker-review-living-room.jpgConclusion
So how do I best sum up the Libratone Lounge wireless loudspeaker? Style over substance. While those whose decor leans more towards Case Study furniture and Eames lounge chairs will no doubt relish the Lounge's modern visual appeal, there just isn't much else here, outside of its wireless capabilities. For nearly $1,300 retail, I suppose I just expected more. But then again, maybe the Lounge doesn't need to do more or cost less; fans of wireless devices of any sort often prefer simplicity and historically don't mind paying more for it. It's not that the Libratone Lounge loudspeaker is a bad product, it just isn't a great one. It's merely adequate, though it masks its shortcomings with some rather upscale and attractive industrial design and wireless music capabilities.

Additional Resources
• Read more reviews similar to this in our Soundbar Review section.
• Explore more options in our Bookshelf Speaker Review section.
• Learn more in our Streaming, Apps, and Downloads News section.


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