(Pocket-lint) - Braun is 100 years old in 2021, but it's been so long since the company launched an audio product that some readers may not even realise Braun is an audio company at all. Don't they just do beard-trimmers and electric toothbrushes?
It's been the thick end of 30 years since Braun had a dog in the audio-industry fight, and that's an awfully long time to be planning a comeback. The audio landscape has changed more than somewhat in the time Braun's been away - so while it's all well and good having a product in New York's Museum of Modern Art (as Braun does with its Atelier stacking hi-fi system from 1963), it's the here and now that counts.
In an effort to force its way into the here and now, Braun has looked to its illustrious past. Its new three-strong 'LE' range of wireless speakers (of which this LE03 is the smallest and most affordable) is a reinterpretation of 1959's classic LE range of electrostatic loudspeakers.
But obviously it's no use just being a tribute act. If the LE range is going to succeed in the current wireless/multiroom/smart speaker market, it's going to take more than nostalgia. So does the LE03 have what it takes to be relevant?
- Black or white finish
- Aluminium enclosure
- Dimensions: 170 x 170 x 84mm
- Optional stand for positional flexibility
One man's minimal and sophisticated is another's bland and anonymous. So, as usual, you'll make your own mind up as to the way the LE03 looks.
What we can tell you, though, is that the LE03 is finished impeccably and constructed with obvious care. The four sides of its enclosure are formed from a single piece of aluminium, into the top of which are recessed a few physical controls (including a manual ‘mic on/off' button) and a couple of mic openings.
At the front it's almost entirely acoustic cloth, while at the back it's slightly more prosaic plastic with an analogue 3.5mm socket, an input for mains power and a 'racetrack' passive radiator behind some perforations. There are also a couple of screw-holes in case you want to use either the optional floor-stand or wall-bracket, while on the bottom there's a pair of silicon feet in case you don't.
The world is far from short of smart speakers, at a very wide range of sizes and prices - but, to our eyes, at least, the Braun Audio LE03 is one of the best-realised designs among them.
- Bluetooth 4.2, Chromecast, Apple AirPlay 2, analogue 3.5mm inputs
- Class D amplification
Beneath its clean exterior, the LE03 features three drivers designed to cover a 70Hz - 21kHz frequency range. It's an eclectic line-up: a forward-facing 3.5in aluminium cone high-excursion woofer, augmented by a 1.5in full-range balanced mode radiator, and underpinned by a rear-firing 5x3in racetrack passive radiator. Power (the amount of which is an inexplicably closely guarded secret) is provided by a single Class D amplifier.
In terms of getting audio information on board in the first place, the LE03 is decently flexible. Google Chromecast streaming immediately puts literally hundreds of streaming services, podcast providers, and content sites of all other types, on the menu. Bluetooth 4.2 and Apple AirPlay 2 offer further options, and if push comes to shove there's that physical analogue 3.5mm input available too.
The Bluetooth 4.2 connectivity proves perfectly capable of dealing with high-resolution digital audio files from Tidal, Amazon, Qobuz, Primephonic and all the rest, as well as 24bit/96kHz downloads.
- Google Assistant
- Braun Audio control app
- Push/push physical controls
As well as Google Assistant voice control - the LE03 proves sharp-eared and responsive to vocal commands - the native app of your favourite Chromecast-capable streaming services is obviously also available too. In terms of physical controls - volume up/down, Bluetooth pairing, play/pause and mic on/off are all available - there's an all-important action button that's required for integrating your LE03 into the wider Google Home ecosystem in the first place.
There's a modicum of control offered by the Braun Audio app, too. It's most useful for selecting a preset placement profile (depending on where you have your LE03 positioned) and there's also adjustment for bass and treble EQs. It's also where you can set up your stable of LE speakers as a multiroom system, and/or configure a couple of LE03 as a stereo pair.
- Frequency response: 70Hz - 21kHz
- 24bit/96kHz high-resolution DAC
It seems most likely the majority of LE03 will find themselves sitting on their integrated silicon feet on a shelf or work-surface, so that's how we decide to kick off. And with a Tidal Masters file of David Bowie's Be My Wife streaming from an iPhone via AirPlay 2, it doesn't take long for the Braun to reveal quite a bit about the way it operates. By the time we hit the first chorus, in fact, it has made its characteristics pretty plain.
The LE03 is quite a narrow, focused listen. The source of sound is obvious - there's none of the width of soundstage some other single-enclosure speakers at this sort of money seek to generate. As a result, music sounds fairly confined - frequency information is piled up in the manner of wedding-cake, rather than spread out in the more usual wedding-buffet style. There's just not a lot of elbow-room in the Braun's presentation, and instruments sound like they're competing with each other rather than complementing each other.
That's not to say the LE03 lacks expression, though. It's hardly the last word in bass extension (despite that oversized passive radiator) but it gives a good account of the detail and texture of low-frequency sounds. There's decent discipline to the low-end, too - bass notes and hits are pretty straight-edged, with little overhang and no suggestion of making the midrange any more cramped.
The midrange itself is similarly detailed and convincing as a result. The staggeringly mannered vocal in the Bowie song is unmistakable, and in relative terms there's quite a lot of low-level harmonic variance revealed.
There's a hint of sibilance to the top end of the frequency range, though. Treble sounds are just slightly edgy, and this is a trait that's exacerbated the further north you wind the volume. Balanced Mode Radiators aren't the easiest to extract convincing high-frequency information from, and in this instance Braun hasn't got the balance quite right. Backing off the treble in the app's EQ can calm this tendency a little, but it also dulls the overall presentation.
There's quite convincing integration of the entire frequency range, though, which is by no means guaranteed from a small speaker packing three drivers. Rhythmic expression is good too, and there's a reasonable amount of dynamism in a broad quiet/loud/quiet sense.
If you're sold on the Braun aesthetic - and why wouldn't you be? - then it might be possible to overlook the LE03's sonic shortcomings. After all, in terms of detail, integration and overall poise, the LE03 has plenty to recommend it.
It's not the last word in audio fidelity, though - there's the confined nature of its presentation, its lack of low-end extension, and its rather toothy top-end reproduction to be considered.
It's around now that you'll start to wonder about alternatives - and that's when the Braun LE03 starts to look a bit pricey with all that considered.
The most obvious rival is probably the best pound-for-pound smart speaker around, and comes complete with a class-leading app, simple multiroom possibilities, voice control and a balanced, convincing sound.