Review: Libratone Zipp is the portable AirPlay speaker to beat
Libratone's Zipp is another entry in the continually expanding market of colorful and unusually shaped wireless, portable speakers. However, while most of those speakers use Bluetooth, the Zipp uses Apple's AirPlay technology; and instead of being a short, wide speaker system, the Zipp is a tall cylinder.
That cylinder is 10.2 inches tall, 4.8 inches across, weighs four pounds, and is covered in...wool. In fact, the Zipp surely gets its name from the colorful, zippered, wool covers you can dress it in. The $400 version of the Zipp includes one wool cover (either gray or red), while a $450 version includes three covers: either red, blue, and dark gray; or yellow, pink, and dark gray. (Other colors are available separately from Libratone.) These covers work fine, and they’re easy to put on and take off. In theory, they’re fun and offer easy-to-replace protection and personalization, though I'd likely just pick my color when I purchase the speaker and never swap it out.
The white round top of the Zipp remains exposed even when the speaker system is zipped up in its cover. On that white surface sits a button with Libratone’s singing-bird logo. You press the main button once to wake up the speaker or, if it's already awake, to mute the AirPlay volume level on the source device. Press and hold the button to turn the Zipp off.
Surrounding that button is a circle hosting volume controls and a LED status indicator. The light pulses when the Zipp is asleep, shines solid when the Zipp is playing music, pulses yellow when the Zipp is booting, and pulses red when the Zipp is in trouble—either due to Wi-Fi issues or because the battery level is very low.
That main button isn’t centered on the top of the Zipp; rather, it’s situated near the front of the device. On the opposite side, running down the back of the Zipp, are several other elements: the attachment point for the speaker’s leather wrist strap, a battery-status indicator (which indicates low battery, charging, or fully charged), a PlayDirect button and indicator (more on that in a bit), an AirPlay-setup button, a USB port, and a 1/8-inch (3.5mm) auxiliary input. Underneath the unit, on its base, is the jack for the included power adapter; there’s a little notch in the base for the cord to nestle in as it exits from beneath the Zipp.
What’s this PlayDirect business? It essentially means that the Zipp can create its own Wi-Fi network for AirPlay purposes—you don’t need to connect your source device and the Zipp to an existing network. When in PlayDirect mode, you connect your device—iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or Mac—to the Zipp’s network, choose the Zipp as the AirPlay destination, and you can start streaming to the speaker immediately—no further configuration is required. This means that unlike other “portable” AirPlay systems we’ve covered, the Zipp really can be taken beyond the reaches of any existing wireless network and still stream music to it. But it also means that if you pair your iOS device or Mac to the Zipp’s PlayDirect network, you won’t be able to access the Internet for as long as you stay connected to the Zipp.
If you choose a traditional AirPlay setup instead, the Zipp offers a simple (and immensely satisfying) configuration option I haven’t encountered before: You connect the speaker via USB to your iOS device, and then press and hold that PlayDirect button. At that point, an alert appears on your connected device, asking if you’d like to share its Wi-Fi settings with the speaker. Tap Allow, and the Zipp automatically inherits your iOS device’s Wi-Fi settings, reboots itself, and you’re good to go.
Alternatively, you can use the Libratone iOS app to configure the Zipp (and change its name), or configure the Zipp by aiming your iOS device or Mac’s browser to the Zipp’s IP address when connected to the Zipp’s own Wi-Fi network. Interestingly, all the configuration options start with your using the PlayDirect button; the manual makes no reference to ever using the AirPlay setup button instead. A Libratone representative explained to Macworld that you can use the AirPlay button to toggle between PlayDirect and AirPlay mode.
Libratone claims that the Zipp’s built-in battery offers up to eight hours of wired playback or four hours of wireless playback. In my testing while using AirPlay, the low-battery indicator came on at almost exactly the four-hour mark.
Inside the Zipp are a four-inch bass driver and two one-inch, ribbon-based tweeters. They combine to generate impressively full sound. That bass driver won’t give you true low bass, but it does give the Zipp a substantial lower-end presence. Overall, music sounds excellent coming from the Zipp.
Libratone dubs the Zipp’s audio as “FullRoom sound.” That term refers to the fact that the Zipp aims to play music in 360 degrees, rather than pointing the audio in a single direction. I don’t always love that effect—I felt it made the HiddenRadio suffer—but the audio hardware inside the Zipp makes that setup work well here.
Though it’s 1.3 pounds heavier, the Zipp feels about as portable as the big-but-totable Big Jambox (4.5 out of 5 rating). And as great as the Big Jambox sounds, the Zipp sounds even better. With its clever AirPlay and PlayDirect implementations, its simple setup process, and its attractive design, the Zipp is an easy speaker to recommend. If you want a portable AirPlay speaker, it’s an excellent option—as long as the price isn't too steep for your needs.