Review: Teenage Engineering OD-11

Teenage Engineering’s OD-11 speaker has been stuck in “coming soon” limbo for a couple years now. After appearing at the past two Consumer Electronic Shows, blowing a Summer 2013 launch date, and going on pre-order last fall, this white block of almost-vaporware finally materialized at the MoMa Design Store in New York last week. And while you won’t need to be a Scandinavian audiophile to enjoy this Swedish speaker, you will need a sufficiently padded bank account.

First, some history. Stig Carlsson isn’t a household name here in the U.S., but a generation of Hi-Fi-oriented Swedes grew up buying and listening to his speakers. Working for Sonab, the audio engineer designed some remarkable (and truly weird looking) speakers during the ’60s and ’70s. Some were shaped like cannons; others had curved tweeter arrays and strange woofer configurations. These designs were all informed by the audio engineer’s (still controversial) philosophy, which basically amounts to this: Loud speakers should be made and tuned for real-world listening rooms, not some perfectly dampened anechoic environment. Carlsson called this ortho acoustics, and crafted his speakers to spew sound in all directions, purposefully bouncing it off couches, walls, ceilings, and other modern day furnishings.

Aside from its accurate, room-filling sound, there’s are other highlights too. Teenage Engineering’s Orthoplay iOS app is well designed, intuitive, and easy to use. You can quickly boost both the treble and bass through the app as well as switch from streaming Spotify to your iTunes library in seconds with the app. The browser-based Orthoplay even lets you drag and drop songs directly from Soundcloud to create your own custom playlists.

Alas, you do eventually discover some fairly big limitations. Despite being equipped with Bluetooth, there’s no way to actually stream music using it. Apparently, it’s there solely to communicate with a hardware remote you have to buy separately for $99 (which I did not test). This seems strange to me. Then there’s the lack of actual streaming services with built-in functionality. Yes, Spotify is pretty huge, but it’s not like it’s the only popular music service out there. Granted, you can get around this limitation with some services (like Beats Music) simply by using AirPlay, and Teenage Engineering says it will eventually add more, but it’s still a bit of let down for something that calls itself a Cloud speaker.

Speaking of AirPlay, that really is the only option you have to stream. I didn’t find this particularly annoying, but that’s largely because it always seems to work for me. Colleagues of mine, however, haven’t been as lucky with Apple’s wireless streaming protocol. And it’s definitely worth noting that factors like network signal strength, interference, and the physical placement of your equipment can have a huge impact on performance.

For me, the biggest drawback is undoubtedly the OD-11’s price. At $899, it’s nearly twice what many would consider paying for a fancy premium wireless speaker. You get a $100 discount if you buy two OD-11s, but I’m still not sure who would pay $1,699 for two small speakers, even if they do sound good. It’s also a little disappointing when you consider that part of what made the original OD-11s so popular was their affordability. In 1978, a pair cost 1,300 Krona. That’s about $190 today, or $713 with inflation, still less than what one costs right now. I’m sure it took plenty of engineering kung fu and frustrating trial to error to modernize these speakers, but it’s just a shame so many people won’t get to hear the end result of that labor. It is lovely sounding.

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