I was recently sent a review unit of an interesting new Bluetooth speaker set to launch on Kickstarter. The Astro speaker from Tree Labs takes a minimalist approach, both visually and in terms of digital tweaking of sound. It’s a different approach than most speakers offer and it’s kind of refreshing…
I like the look of the Astro Speaker. It’s a simple upright rectangle just under 8 inches wide and 3.5 inches tall, with a metal speaker grill that hides a pair of 50mm drivers and one passive driver. Flexible trim (silicon or rubber) wraps around the edge — mine was an attractive slate blue — the back is plain metal and the only visual flair is a loop in one corner. You could use that for carrying the Astro. The only button is an On/Off switch on the top of the case, and a rubber flap seals off a power port and Aux input jack.
Visually, this is the epitome of minimalist. No flashing LEDs, no row of buttons and no funky form factor. You can’t use the Astro as a speakerphone and you can’t even skip a track or turn up the volume. I almost always end up using my iPhone for those functions anyway, so with most Bluetooth speakers I find all those buttons never get used. At 1.16 pounds it feels solid.
Tree Labs is also emphasizing the fact that the Astro speaker doesn’t use any software gimmickry to tweak the sound it produces. There’s no “Super Bass” or “Loudness” button and the audio isn’t digitally manipulated in an effort to sound better, a process Tree Lab points out can strip layers from the source music, with an end result that lacks the richness of the original recording. The company is marketing the Astro as the “the world’s only true pure audio portable speaker.”
In practice, I found the Astro speaker performed as advertised. Music coming out of a relatively small speaker without being digitally enhanced resulted in the mid-range being much more prominent than with most speakers. Bass was still there, but it never threatened to overwhelm the mix. And while the high notes weren’t as bright as with other speakers, it never seemed muddy. Even at maximum volume (which was surprisingly loud, given the 2×6-watt amplifier), distortion was minimal. One bonus of this approach is that if I decided I wanted to hear some thumping bass for a bit, my iPhone’s EQ worked more effectively than with other Bluetooth speakers. I suppose not having two algorithms working against each other to tailor the audio was the factor there.
Sound volume was much more restrained when using a source plugged in to the AUX jack. It was nowhere near the same maximum level as as the Astro produced using Bluetooth and didn’t even register (at least for my hearing) until it reached about 30 percent.
The only thing I didn’t like about the Astro was its use of a plug-in power adapter for recharging instead of the USB cable that’s become a standard for many of these speakers. That’s one more thing to remember to bring with you, or to misplace… Oh, speaking of recharging, the polymer lithium battery is rated at up to 16 hours of play time and I was getting around 12 hours with the volume usually at about 50 percent.
The Kickstarter campaign isn’t live yet, but is expected to launch on Monday. According to Tree Labs, the retail price of the Astro speaker will be $179. That’s in the sweet spot between the slew of inexpensive Bluetooth speakers and higher end, premium devices. I think it’s worth it, especially if you’re a fan of minimalist design.
Update: The Astro Kickstarter campaign is now live and raised over $18k in its first day.
Disclosure: Tree Labs provided an Astro speaker for review purposes.