One's house is one's castle, and nothing feels quite so regal as reclining in a gigantic armchair in the middle of your living room, and listening to your favourite symphonies, or bangin' drum and bass. So you need a speaker set-up. But heaven knows they're ugly things -- great masses of shiny black plastic filling your precious living space like so many stuffed orcas. Libratone wants to eradicate ugly speakers forever with the Beat -- a snuggly wireless speaker designed for anyone who owns an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. But, at around £550, is the Beat worth throwing down your notes for?
Stylistically, the Beat is a winner. Available in grey, black, beige and red, it stands out from the crowd because of its plush covering and the fact it's quite tall. It has a triangular shape, for reasons we'll get too later, and a big chrome handle along the spine, for carrying it around.
You'll need that handle too, because the Beat is quite hefty. Lugging it from room to room might prove useful in rare circumstances, for example if you have dinner guests over, or if you want to put it on the patio during a barbeque, but, for the most part, we see this speaker staying pretty stationary.
There's a single button on the top right corner of the Beat that's used for getting the tunes pumping. And getting tunes pumping is the Beat's single most impressive ability.
The Beat comes with a box full of connectors that channel audio from your device of choice to the Beat, over a proprietary 2.4GHz wireless frequency. Connecting iDevices wirelessly is blissfully simple -- just stick the little 30-pin connector into your Apple kit, and all sound will be ported to the Beat.
Importantly, the Beat doesn't work only with the iPod app on your iCompanion -- it will play sound from other apps as well, so listening to Spotify is on the cards, for example. If you're a fan of mobile gaming, you could enjoy the Angry Birds music blasting out at full volume, and hear, with crystal-like clarity, the kamikaze screech of every bird that hits a pig's castle.
There's also a USB transceiver for pumping tunes through a PC or Mac. We tested the plug-and-play transceiver with a PC and found it simple to get up and running. We can't imagine the process being any more complex if you're using a Mac.
We're told that, if you own more than one Beat, they'll both start playing if they're both in range of the music source. Alternatively, you could position them tactically around your house so that music starts playing whenever you walk into a new room and come within range of a Beat. We only had a single review sample, however, so we couldn't test this feature.
The simple set-up is absolutely the Beat's strongest suit. If you simply can't stand having messy cables lying around, or plugging your device into a speaker system every time you fancy blasting out a few tunes, the Beat will prove a seriously appealing proposition.
Libratone reckons the Beat is capable of generating stereo sound from just a single speaker, the secret lying in the Beat's angled back. Stick the Beat up against a wall, and its triangular shape means sound from the mid-range drivers and ribbon tweeters is fired backwards, bouncing off the wall and out into the room from two very different directions.
This sounds fine in theory, but is it any good in practice? Not especially. We liked the sound we got from the Beat, and it does a reasonable job of filling a room, but it was always obvious to us that all the sound was emanating from a single tower. This becomes increasingly obvious at high volumes. We listened to some songs with extreme left and right panning, such as Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody and the start of Ash's Burn Baby Burn, and we could detect a slight directional change, but not a great one, or as noticeable a change as you'd get with more than one speaker.
The low end is astonishingly powerful, and, even at high volumes, the bass stays controlled and punchy. Listening to Santeria by Sublime, which features a prominent, walking bass line, we were impressed by the floor-shaking, gut-rumbling properties of this tiny tower -- it really does deliver a fantastic thump considering its relatively small stature.
The same can't be said of the mid-range, however, which loses its cool when the volume is cranked up. Anything that's heavy on electric guitars is liable to sound tinny and messy -- punk and rock music isn't going to sound its best through the Beat. When we tried to rock out to Get What's Coming by The Creepshow, we found the guitar getting tangled up and losing clarity, or distorting unpleasantly. Our socks remained firmly on our feet.
Pop music handles better, and we were impressed by the high-end clarity of the hi-hats and the more piercing keyboard notes on the pop-tastic Dress You Up by Madonna, as well as the presence of the slightly more obscure guitar in the mid-range. The bass line, while always present, didn't sound like it was ballooning out of control.
Acoustic tracks, like Ashitaka Ans San by Seiji Omotani (from an album of brilliant Studio Ghibli covers on slack-key guitar) sounded reasonably precise too, but not as crystal-clear as they did through other speaker set-ups or even high-end in-ear headphones.
All things considered, the Beat's sound quality is decent, but the very prominent bass might prove too much for some people's tastes. The stereo effect didn't really impress us either -- if you want a really great stereo sound experience you'll have to invest in more than one speaker unit. In short, we're not convinced that the Beat offers £550 worth of audio oomph.
If your priority is setting a speaker up and playing music with an absolute minimum of fuss, we think the Libratone Beat will be worth considering, and the wireless playback feature works really well. But the sound quality, while decent, isn't as good as we'd expect at this price, which makes the Beat tricky to recommend if you put a premium on sound quality.
Edited by Charles Kloet