We’ve had something of a love-hate relationship with the Libratone Loop. This circular-fronted speaker has a distinctive, quirky design and - even though we’ve ended up with the grey finish for review instead of one of the more exciting colour options - it’s enticing to the eyes straight out of the box.
But it does demand a £400 price tag for what is little more than an all-in-one Wi-Fi and DirectPlay speaker. Great for smartphone, tablet or laptop output from the right source, but without Bluetooth there are certain limitations. And while it’s not down to us to tell you how to spend your cash, does the Loop feel worthy of its asking price; and after stumbling at some initial hurdles did the it eventually win us over in the sound quality department?
To look at the Loop has a sense of budget Bang & Olufsen about it. The front of the device is circular, supported by a slot-in plastic stand to the rear, which takes just seconds to assemble. Done.
The Loop has a woollen material cover with stitching to the edges, including a Libratone label to the side. It's more Italian designer clothing than speaker you might think.
Although it doesn’t feel particularly designer in all departments: the circular on/off button to the front, for example, is plasticky and you’ll spot that from a mile off. Could have done with a little more high-end thought here and there to step the whole product into a more luxury look.
If you want to hang the Loop on the wall then there is a section to the rear that can be removed and ported with a screw-in mount. But don’t forget that as this is a wired device the likelihood is you’ll end up with a trailing cable - less of a problem when it’s sat in the corner of a room, on a bookshelf or table, but probably more garish when in plain sight.
Colour-wise there are plenty of wool coat options: pink, blue, purple, black, grey, yellow, red and a turquoise-like shade. Something for everyone.
A wolf in sheep’s clothing
Once set up the manual that comes in the box is delivered with easy-to-understand step-by-step instructions. It’s well illustrated, colourful and made us think "this’ll be easy" because of the effortless visual design of it all.
Problem was - for us, anyway - is that it wasn’t easy at all. And here’s where we started to fall out of love with the Loop - at least at first. We set up the speaker via Wi-Fi, paired to a MacBook Pro to output tunes via AirPlay. It was all going swimmingly - until it paired, blasted out absurdly loud music for three seconds and then just stopped.
An hour of tinkering, with the front light indicator flitting between all manner of colours and, nope, the Mac wasn’t having it any more. So on to the Libratone app for iPhone we moved. But it wouldn’t pair via this either.
The Loop was having none of it, and neither were we: the Loop ended up back in its box - a bit like the naughty step - where it sat for a week.
Seven days later we felt prepared to give it a second chance. We plugged an iPhone in to the rear USB port, followed the instructions and were outputting audio via wired connection no problems. The Libratone app still wouldn’t work though, for as many times as we tried it. However, the Macbook, this time around, worked just fine - and once sorted we were very happy indeed.
It did make us wonder why there’s no Bluetooth option for audio though. AirPlay is fine enough, but it can mean restrictions for some sources. When we wanted to catchup from Ministry of Sound radio, for example, we couldn’t - because that particular app doesn’t offer the listen again service and there’s no AirPlay option for the in-browser solution.
Outside of Mac land there’s DLNA compatibility for Android, Windows Phone 8, and Windows machine users. Whether you want to stream from Nokia Music, Windows Media Player, or any other DLNA ready device - you can.
Shake, rattle and roll
Once we had the audio flowing the Loop felt like it was worth the initial frustration. Then it was back into the love hotseat.
It’s not a particularly big device - with a 13.1-inch diameter it’s a little larger than a 12-inch vinyl record, as we checked - and, therefore, you wouldn’t necessarily expect big sound. But big sound is what you get. Oh yes, it’s powerful, rich and rather lovely at the right volumes.
Under that woollen jacket there’s a 5-inch mini sub that really whacks out the bass. It rumbles along with whatever you happen to throw at it, including tracks with proper low-end frequencies in. If you prefer your dub to your doo-wap then you won’t be disappointed. Indeed, whatever you choose to listen to the Loop delivers some fine results.
There is a caveat to that, however: the output volume. Certain tracks - and we’ve really tested it to the max over the weeks - can cause rattle. It’s not distortion, nor is it the device vibrating upon whatever surface it happens to be sat, but the interior driver clattering against its enclosure. Most people won’t listen to the kind of music we do (we suspect), but we found the sub-bass from Dom & Roland’s 1998 track Elektra to push the Loop over the edge.
Still, we didn’t just listen to angry dance music. The less compressed, not-so-loud classic Portishead album Dummy, the latest - and rather wonderful - Foals album Holy Fire and a variety of other tracks that we've been feeling this December haven’t revealed any further issues or note. So we’ll forgive the apparently isolated rattling issue.
Another point is just how well the Loop fills even large rooms with sound. The circular shape and clever porting that you can’t see by eye helps project the sound output. It really works too - it sounded really loud in our large 20ft-long living room without negating any frequencies.
If we're hyper critical then the top-end from the built-in separate tweeter can be a little over-bright at times, with some sounds being a touch sharp. And that’s not based on a tune's file quality - we’ve tested out 24-bit AIF recordings, iTunes M4A, Apple lossless and MP3 files of various compression.
As the Loop is a single, all-in-one device it isn’t possible to get the equivalent left and right separates that you would from an amp and speakers setup. In saying that, we did find the sort of stereo separation produced a wide, spacious sound wherever you happen to be in relation to the speaker.
If you want to tweak the output a little then even software such as iTunes comes with a built-in equaliser. We rolled off the 16K top-end a tiny amount, pushed a curve in the upper mids to give some added punch and differentiation from the bass and, depending on what genre of music we were listening to, it sounded glorious to our ears.
Then, just as we were ready to confess our full-blown love for the Loop we had yet more issues with connection. "The AirPlay device “Libratone” is not available." Ugh. Other AirPlay devices we've used have worked just fine, so we don't know why this was the case. And when stuff like that happens in the real world it's so frustrating - we want to be listening to the Loop's glorious sounds, not punching walls and wasting time over setup problems. To fix it was just a case of setting up the Loop again as if starting over.
Our experience with the Libratone Loop has been a rollercoaster ride from frustration through to full-on aural pleasure and then back to the start again. But that's because we’ve had AirPlay issues - something you might not experience. That being the case, and despite no Bluetooth being featured, we like the distinctive design of the Loop and just how good it can sound.
For a fairly small speaker it bangs out the sound with gusto. Big, bold, loud, full of bass - the top-end can be occasionally harsh and we did find one sub-bass laden track that made the driver rattle when at volume - there's a lot to love in the Loop's output.
But at £400 it’s not a budget device and as there are so many alternative speaker systems out there - some with more versatile multi-room and modular functionality such as Sonos - it’s likely to limit its success. If you're not thinking about the cash so much then Libratone has struck the right balance of design and audio quality - which other speaker can you think of that wears a woollen jumper? - to the point that we’ve wrestled our way to being happy with what the Loop is all about.
The more we mulled it over and the more audio we listened to, the happier we became. The Libratone Loop is a tidy, attractive audio product that does things a little bit differently and yet still sounds top quality. We’ll take that.