There'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.
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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.
Behind 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.
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.
Connecting 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.
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.