Form meets function in speakers

Master & Dynamic's new wireless speaker is designed by architect David Adjaye.
Master & Dynamic's new wireless speaker is designed by architect David Adjaye.PHOTO: MASTER & DYNAMIC

BOSTON • To adapt to a streaming world, makers of home speakers are thinking out of the box.

For the record, they used to be big and blocky, more or less an eyesore.

Hanging on the wall or sitting in the corner of a room, they were accompanied by a tethered music player and a hotchpotch of vinyl, eight-tracks, cassettes and CDs.

Over the past few decades, music formats have got smaller. The days of having a large CD collection or an iPod with 10,000 songs are just about history - thanks to streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, Tidal and Apple Music.

For US$10 (S$13.60) a month, you can access more than 30 million songs on your phone or tablet.

Audio brands are listening to what consumers want.

The latest home speakers - by brands such as Sony, Bose, Master & Dynamic, Samsung, Bang & Olufsen and Libratone - have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities.

They come with smartphone apps that let you control your music from anywhere in the house.

"People are listening to more music, more often and in more rooms in the house than ever before," said Mr Mike Culver, president of Libratone, which is based in Denmark.

It was not until streaming became king that audio brands switched their attention from wired models to wireless speakers for the home.

Home speakers have been redesigned inside and out. They are more polished, compact and feature-rich, many at accessible prices.

Samsung's Radiant360 collection starts at US$179.99 and does not skimp on powerful features that used to be seen only in larger, more expensive speakers.

Audio brands have looked to the architecture and design world for inspiration. Architect David Adjaye, lead designer of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, crafted Master & Dynamic's new wireless speaker from sculptural concrete, giving it an artisanal feel.

Bang & Olufsen collaborated with renowned Danish textile company Kvadrat to design its speaker's swoppable fabric covers that are meant to match the mood of a room.

Aesthetics are far from an afterthought, but the tech underneath is the real story.

At home, a Wi-Fi network lets you connect your smartphone, streaming app and voice-controlled assistant to your speaker.

Once you are connected, your smartphone - along with the Amazon Echo or Google Home virtual assistants, if you have one - can control the speaker.

Some speakers can even be paired and played together over the network. Bose's SoundTouch 10 wireless speakers let you stream the same music in different rooms or create zones to play whatever you want, wherever you choose.

If Wi-Fi is not available, some speakers allow you to use Bluetooth as well. Bluetooth lets you easily connect your phone, tablet or computer to a Bluetooth-enabled speaker and stream anything you want.

With Bluetooth, however, "you don't get the same sound quality or range as with Wi-Fi", said Mr Jonathan Levine, chief executive of Master & Dynamic.

"Likewise, with Wi-Fi, the speaker operates as its own Wi-Fi device, avoiding the disruption often caused by incoming texts and calls," he added.

Because of those advantages, some audio companies predict that Wi-Fi will take over Bluetooth, at least in the home.

For its new Playbase speaker system, US electronics brand Sonos has already dropped Bluetooth capabilities in favour of a Wi-Fi-only experience that is designed for both TV audio and music streaming at home.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2017, with the headline 'Form meets function in speakers'. Print Edition | Subscribe