The multi-room market is snowballing and Otone, with wireless speakers having been its big trade from the off, naturally wants in.
It joins the rat race with the BluWall Direct, a wi-fi (and Bluetooth) speaker that can pair with up to eight others within a 50m range, with only one needing to connect to your home network.
If you’re going to dot speakers around your house, you’ll want them to look good. And if you associate ‘good’ with colourful, the Direct – available in blue, green, pink, black, grey or white – may just strike your fancy.
Just as the latest Libratone Zipp ditches its woolly cover, another fuzzy friend comes to fill the void. The Otone is wrapped front to back in the carpet material you’d find on a school classroom floor with just a belt-thick metal strip around it where customary playback buttons perch on top.
Underneath this are two 5cm drivers, a 7.5cm subwoofer and 11.5cm passive radiator.
There’s a rubber handle attached, floppier than the pleather ones seen on the likes of B&O speakers and Ted Baker radios, albeit nonetheless handy for carrying the Otone to a picnic – a reasonable thing to do considering it has a rechargeable battery promising eight hours of use for portable kicks.
That can also be used to top up your smartphone via the USB input on the unit’s rear – also home to a 3.5mm input and headphone output.
Bluetooth connectivity keeps the ‘Blu’ moniker relevant, and built-in wi-fi (there’s no ethernet port) allows streaming from Spotify Connect, TuneIn and iHeartRadio. It’s a promising start, although more services would need to be added for it to rub shoulders with the likes of Sonos and Bluesound.
It can sniff out songs on any smartphone, tablet or NAS device connected to the same network too, and makes good on its promise of hi-res support. However, while it played 24bit/96kHz files without a hitch, it wasn’t happy with any 24bit/176kHz or 192kHz files from two smartphones or our NAS drive, either skipping them or playing with significant judder.
The Otone app (free to download on iOS and Android) gets you going in no time, and you can choose to stream between 64kbps and, matching Spotify Premium streams, 320kbps. While not the most sophisticated app we’ve seen, the interface is straightforward enough to navigate, with some helpful instructive prompts on first acquaintance – drag and drop to play in solo or multi mode, or touch ‘LR’ to pair two in stereo.
Being able to favourite songs (although not those from Spotify) and rename speakers is useful too.
Things are not all rosy, however. The playback interface can be slow to switch songs and we are subjected to the occasional drop out. Furthermore, the app detected our Naim NAS but no songs on it, so we had to play its library remotely through a smartphone’s DLNA feature. Needless to say we’d like less flakiness and more reliability.
Sonically it makes a good first impression, throwing out a bigger sound than some smaller multi-room speakers for the same money. It’s rich and weighty, which flies in the face of the thinness often part and parcel with small budget speakers.
It doesn’t let the weightiness cloud its judgment of clarity or balance – even if the low-end is perhaps the BlueWall Direct’s favourite child; treble is rounded off and not quite so crisp or present as we’d like.
Bass guitar underlying Wolf Alice’s Blush is pretty deep, the poignant opening guitar strums ring clear and true, and breathy saintly vocals have depth and meaning. It doesn’t quite manage their expressive delicacy as well as the Libratone Zipp Mini does. The Libratone has the crispness, general finesse and, more critically, space the Otone lacks too.
When the explosive chorus shatters all musical fragility, things feels cramped and claustrophobic through the Otone, with guitars meshed together and drums getting lost somewhere in between. Invariably, this is only exaggerated at higher volumes.
In Duke Dumont’s Won’t Look Back, it can only take silver when it comes to bass punch too, the thump of the bassline a tad soft and podgy through the Otone.
Right now, Otone’s BlueWall Direct is only middling in all three, and while it gets brownie points for hi-res support and Bluetooth connectivity, it needs to step up its game to get noticed in what’s one of today’s most competitive and ruthless technology markets.
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