Bluetooth speaker from Kickstarter comes home
I'm not an audiophile but I love my radio shows, podcasts and my gadgets. Not having a strong opinion about music or having my ears untrained to appreciate smooth sounds doesn't mean I cannot get excited about this product. The MP3 revolution allowed us to have huge music collections in our pocket sacrificing the convenience of playing a CD in the Hi-Fi stereo system at home. No setup is required.
Connecting iPods and later iPhones to a good speakers involved cables and leaving the device on a table, critically losing the portability that made MP3 players so unique. We knew the iPhone was capable of more than that — it can communicate wirelessly in several ways. It was only a matter of time until accepted that convenience outweighs the quality loss in beaming music via Bluetooth.
Hidden Radio & Bluetooth Speaker is a wireless speaker launched into the market thanks to the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter. After reaching close to a million dollars, 5,358 pledges and months of intense work, the first units have shipped to the people that believed in the idea almost a year ago. I backed the project attracted by the industrial design, the credibility of the creators (who had a working model in place) and the actual cost: these things are slightly cheaper and looked more exciting than other wireless speakers in the market one ten months ago.
The Hidden radio (to shorten the name) is available for pre-order at a discounted price and will retail after November from $149.95. I got myself two units in limited edition black taking advantage of the bundles available during the Kickstarter funding stage. I received them last week and these are my impressions so far.
Concealed in a cap
The Hidden radio's unique feature is its cylindrical shell that doubles as a cover to protect the device and a knob to control the volume output. Twisting the cap clockwise reveals a speaker hidden within — hence the hidden name. The gesture isn't as intuitive as moving the knobs in your kitchen. The cap lifts when you rotate it, making it feel more like moving a nut in a bolt.
The body of the speaker is made of plastic although the metallic matte finish tricks the eye. In the silver version you'll see some similarities in the grill with the laser micro perforations Apple makes on its aluminium products, just slightly larger. A quick inspection of the exterior only reveals a tiny led light on the base that is used to indicate power, Bluetooth pairing and battery charge. The minimalism here is taken to the extreme keeping all the other controls concealed under the base. One of the creators explains International Business Times the reason for not polluting the appearance with a logo.
Only when you have a peak underneath you discover its secrets: a rubberised base gives the body enough grip to the surface to twist the cap without moving the whole thing. A modal button is discreetly concealed to toggle the radio and speaker options while the mini USB used for charging is located in a small chamber in the centre. Not the most accessible area but the key is to keep the unnecessary away from the exterior.
Aesthetics over performance
So far so good. The promise of a beautiful piece of equipment that arguably plays music better than your laptop makes you wonder, how does it stack up against other alternatives? Without being an expert, the Hidden radio sounds like a small speaker. The cylindrical shape that promises to fill a medium-sized room isn't very convincing with its tin highs and muted bases. Looking at the specs you should know what you're getting into. Again, I'm not an audio specialist. What is evident are the important trade-offs in a battery powered speaker and its audio output.
Although the Hidden radio comes with a silky pouch to protect it from scratches when you carry it around in your backpack, this doesn't strike me like a very portable device. The looks of it claim to have a place at your desk, but not so much in your backpack. Taking this with you could be as convenient as carrying an spare objective to your DSLR: the shape isn't going to fit comfortably most rectangular pockets.
Having the acoustic parts concealed in a cylindrical shape doesn't do it much good.
Unfortunately there are more important issues with the product that raise my concern. The signature lift-to-hear cap isn't as smooth as the video suggests. The speaker is light enough that the motion to twist the cap often detaches the rubber bottom from the table. Even using it on the smooth worktop in my kitchen the Hidden radio struggles to remain still while I turn the cap clockwise. This odd situation makes you push downwards to keep the speaker standing, which is counterintuitive when all you want to do is pull it up. Can you imagine the waste of energy tightening a nut in the same way?
The first time I tried felt odd and it's been like this for a week. I have given up, eventually using both hands to turn it on, but this clearly wasn't designed to operate like this in the first place. I honestly hope the cap loosens up with the time get a smoother feel. I've run the test with friends asking them to switch the Hidden radio on and the've all felt into the trap of using both hands. Only when I ask them to try a second time using only one hand they realise what's meant to be happening.
The Kickstarter experience saves it for me
This is a first edition of the product and the creators have addressed the loss of grip during production stage. This is one of the nice things about participating in the development and production of projects in Kickstarter. People that pledge money have a communication line open with the designers and are aware of these type of glitches. The interaction with designer and engineer John Van Den Nieuwenhuizen and Vitor Santa Maria has been honest and transparent, making it one of the most enjoyable Kickstarters I've backed even if it has taken some time to complete.
There is, however, a different story when you bring the Hidden radio to the market. I doubt potential buyers a at a brick and mortar shop, say an Apple Store, would be impressed after trying it. With a table full of competing wireless speakers, the Hidden radio isn't going to grab much attention with its sound quality and tricky way to operate it. Despite what John and Vitor say, if you didn't know this was meant to be used with one hand, you wouldn't have guessed.
With all its potential, the Hidden Radio & Bluetooth Speaker leaves me with a sour aftertaste. All the effort that has gone into delivering an quirky way to interact with your device and an strikingly good looking object wouldn't justify its purchase considering other alternatives on the market. For the last ten months I've been using an expensive Bose SoundLink Wireless Mobile Speaker at home and the Koss Porta Pro Stereo headphones which I found vastly superior in sound quality.
I cannot consider the Hidden radio as a replacement to built-in laptop speakers, let alone to bring music to a room with people. I want to love the Hidden radio and I'm sure the next version will address my concerns, equipping better speakers and softening that cap. It seriously makes me want to hack it attaching a suction cup to the bottom.
If you're having trouble pairing your Hidden radio via Bluetooth you can find a fix in this quick guide: