The volume dial also hides a secret (or two). Beyond the mundane function of controlling your music volume, it also syncs with the volume of your source device when connected via 3.5mm or Bluetooth. Turn up the music on your phone and watch the dial magically move. When I instinctively reached the volume control directly to see if there was a clearly built-in motor resistance, it wasn’t there. It’s cute and smart at the same time, and you’ll find yourself using the phone, not the button, to change the volume even if it’s close at hand.
Later, as you seek to uncover all the secrets of OB-4, you will inevitably come across another function of the volume control, namely a pitch / speed control. Hold the Enter button while playing music, tap the volume knob and your music will slow down or speed up depending on how you turn it. Scratching, looping and pitch control? This speaker is arguably the weirdest DJ tool in the world.
This is the loop that hooked me the most. I tried it beyond the analog drums of The Power of Love, much to the chagrin of my partner, who probably just wanted to listen to an old-fashioned song (start to finish). But with OB-4, suddenly every song or sound is just fodder for all the weird things you can do with it and the loop is probably the most satisfying. Press the Enter and Play buttons when a music source is active and it will start recording a loop. Release to mark the end point, and the OB-4 will continue to play that section until you release it by pressing the Play button (a right-pointing arrow appears on the mini-screen whenever you do not listen more in real time to remind you).
There are of course utility functions behind all of this. The fact that the OB-4 silently records every sound it plays lets you rewind the radio live, or browse a recording or interview in a new way (the speed control also lets you play back things in reverse / rewinding). You will have two hours before he starts recording what’s in his memory, so you can review a parcel of everything you’ve listened to, regardless of the source.
Oh, there is also an app among all this curiosity. It’s the same orthoplay app you might already have if you own Teenage Engineering’s other speaker, the OD-11, and it’s an ocean of calm and simplicity. None of the wacky features are accessible here, only the volume control (which also moves the physical button remotely), transport controls, and input selection.
We probably haven’t got to the strangest part yet, which is “disk” mode. Teenage Engineering describes it as a place of experimental functionality. At the time of this writing, it has three main modes: an atmospheric drone that uses clips from the radio to create an unfolding ambience; a metronome; and a “karma” mode that offers soothing sounds and (many, too?) Amituofo-style chants. As I write this, I am listening to Program 14, one of the most calming. Unfortunately, you can’t loop or remix them, but I guess that would defeat the point.
For all of its Amituofos and DJ-esque features, the OB-4 is first and foremost a loudspeaker. The two four-inch speakers are reinforced by a pair of neodymium tweeters and the result is very pleasant. As a portable speaker it is somewhat indebted to the environment you place it in, but when I listened a track I’ve heard a thousand times before, I thought something was wrong… until I realized I was just hearing parts of the drums that I had never been able to notice before. That’s not to say the entire song sounded better – just that it was lighting up frequencies my other speakers apparently ignored.
This thing is also loud. Teenage Engineering claims it will throw in around 100dB, which in layman’s terms is commonly referred to as “a lot”. A cutout on either side gives the bass enough room to throb, even when it comes to grainy hip-hop on the radio. In fact, especially when it’s grainy hip-hop on the radio.
You can of course plug this thing in, but the OB-4 is primarily a wireless speaker. Teenage Engineering claims you can enjoy 72 hours of listening to the radio at “normal” volume, which comes down to just eight hours of full Bluetooth streaming. That would be eight intense hours, but for most people, you’d probably get a day or two of varied listening time for each charge.
There are several things that OB-4 born have that are worth mentioning. More specifically, for me, it’s the absence of a line. I know he’s a speaker in himself, but I think it’s a missed opportunity that I can’t save some of the craziness I made with him, or bring him into something else. There is also no “smart” component here, at least in the classic sense of the term. There is no virtual assistant support (not that I think anyone familiar with Teenage Engineering would expect), which given that it is the price of two Apple Home Pods, it is worth mentioning. Just use the assistant on your phone and move on, I guess?
There is also no direct integration with other Teenage Engineering products for the moment, which is what fans of the company can expect. It’s just “for now” though. When I asked a company rep about it, I was assured it was on the way (with new features in disk mode, something else that was touted at launch), but none detail on when and what.
I know it’s not as fun as listening to a mantra on a standing bell or remixing 80s pop daddy on the fly, but we really should be talking about this price. By all standards, $ 600 is a parcel for a portable speaker. In fact, I’ve had a hard time finding many of the more well-known smart speakers that cost well over $ 200. Of course, Sonos move will set you back $ 400, but you will get much more convenient features, music wise (but no FM radio tuner!).
This takes OB-4 to the next level, where brands like Bang and Olufsen like to hang out. Its closest equivalent portable speaker is $ 500, so a good hundred less than Teenage Engineering. Although the inherited Danish brand also offers models that will make you run over $ 1500 if you really need to spend it.
Teenage Engineering knows this speaker is expensive. He made sure to remind me at launch that it took six years of R&D (that the motorized volume dial wasn’t easy, we presume). It is also a small company that proudly manufactures niche products. Still, this is a great demand. But, like everything the company does, I’m glad it exists and can’t wait to see what else it can do later.