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 exactly 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.
In 1974, Sonab released what ended up being the smallest of Carlsson’s up-firing, omni-directional speakers. It was called the OD-11. It had one woofer and one tweeter, both of which were recessed angled at about 45-degrees toward one corner. The speaker could placed on the floor, mounted to a wall, or used on a bookshelf. People absolutely loved it, and tens of thousands were sold in Sweden alone between 1974 and 1978.
When Teenage Engineering, the Stockholm-based collective behind one of the coolest synthesizers you can buy, decided to make a speaker more suited to streaming music, the OD-11 instantly came to mind. Working with the Stig Carlsson Foundation (who owns the rights to his designs), they proceeded to give the old “Carlsson Cube” a modern overhaul.
While it looks largely the same from the outside, this new version comes with a few notable internal reworkings. There’s an integrated 100-watt analog Class-D amplifier, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4 LE, a new U-shaped bass reflex duct (for added low-end performance), as well as an entirely new way of interacting with, and playing music through, the speaker.
Setting everything up is a pleasant exercise in Swedish simplicity. You plug the OD-11 into an outlet, flip a toggle switch on the bottom to one of three positions, find the speaker on your Wi-Fi network, and connect. All of this can be accomplished with either the free Orthoplay iOS app or an online browser-based version. It took me about a minute.
So does this reengineered icon still live up to the high standard its ancestor set? You bet your Swedish meatballs, it does. Like the original, the new OD-11 is wonderfully open sounding. So long as you follow Teenage Engineering’s advice and place the speaker so that its woofer and tweeter are pointed out to toward the center of the room (there’s an LED dot to help you), the little guy spits out consistently uncolored and pleasantly expansive sound regardless of where you sit in the room. Actually, let me qualify that: So long as you stream or play high-quality music to the OD-11, you’ll get great results. It’s actually pretty unforgiving to low-res music. Much of that is because it doesn’t have the overly exaggerated bass that a lot of other wireless speakers have, which can mask poor recordings and overly compressed digital files.
I auditioned two albums I’ve been listening to semi-obsessively to on headphones, desktop nearfield speakers, and my home theater system to see how the mono OD-11 setup fared. To get a sense of its dynamic range, first I queued up the Swans’ To Be Kind. Thankfully, Michael Gira’s persistent barks and howls remained as menacing as ever, and the album’s oscillating waves of noise and percussive chaos never managed to distort the small speaker regardless of how much I cranked the volume. It obviously wasn’t the same as listening to the album sitting perfectly between a pair of tower speakers, but for a tiny, unobtrusive cube you stick in the corner or on a shelf, the OD-11 filled the room admirably.
Ditto on the fuzzed-out, synth-y weirdness that is Tobacco’s Ultima II Massage. Even without an over-abundance of bass, the low-end bite of songs like “Beast Sting” and “Self Tanner” maintained their groovy impact. In fact, I think I may have even preferred listening to the album’s warped synths and heavily processed vocals on the OD-11, which managed to open up its frequently claustrophobic feel.
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.