A Stylish New Model Hits The Smart Speaker Catwalk

“Er, what is that?” It’s the first thing my son asks me when he walked into the house recently after several months away.

The object he was inquiring about looks like a pointed oval with a diamond-shaped front and is not, as my wife suggests, an alien dinosaur egg. Though, admittedly that would have been cool.

In fact, it’s an Obsidian, a portable wireless smart speaker from Pantheone, an Australian company that has emerged to challenge the status quo in the multi-room audio market. The Obsidian is the brand’s second offering, with the first being the suitably named Pantheone I which is larger and at £2,399, more expensive. Though at £1,199, the Obsidian is far from a budget choice.

Featuring Alexa integration, Apple Airplay 2 and a 15-hour battery life, the Obsidian looks to combine great sound with style. Streaming services supported are Spotify, Amazon Music, Tidal, TuneIn, Pandora, iHeartRadio and Napster.

Google fans will note that Chromecast support is notable by its absence. It does feel more like an Apple-friendly device at present but in conversation with the company it was hinted, though not confirmed, that Google Chromecast support could arrive via a firmware update at some point. In the meantime, however, you can still use Spotify Connect within the Pantheone app to beam music directly to the speaker from an Android phone.

You can also use Bluetooth and codec support includes SBC, AAC and AptX. Again though, Android users might be disappointed that AptX HD is not present.

While some may nitpick at the spec, design-wise the Obsidian is a hit. Eschewing the conventional, boxy shape of most multi-room speakers, the Obsidian’s curves and angles draw the eye without overwhelming a room. It has a presence but is also classy and understated.

Anyone in the market for a wireless smart speaker these days has a wide range of options to choose from so it’s clear that Pantheone is aiming big. As such, the Obsidian needs to be good.

While the price is relatively high, much of the cost will no doubt come down to the fact that each Pantheone speaker is hand-made. Constructed of a sculpted, polished resin I’m not sure I love how it feels to the touch, but it certainly feels very well put together. At 65cm high 46cm wide and just over 43cm deep, the Obsidian is bookshelf friendly – though as 5Kg is had better be a strong shelf.

You’ll only have to worry about the feel when you move it though, which is encouraged as it contains a battery rated for 15 hours. I never managed to run that down completely during my testing so it should be long enough to all but the longest parties. It charges quickly too when plugged in. Note that if you leave it unplugged with no activity it will turn off after 30 minutes to preserve power and you will have to press the small button at the rear to turn it back on again.

The front is covered by an acoustically transparent mesh with a triangular-shaped diamond. This is more noticeable in the white version rather than the black, both of which I was sent to test. There are buttons on the front, + and – for volume, an “M” to switch between inputs (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Aux-in), and a circle to manually activate Alexa. While the buttons looked minimal, they use haptic feedback to make a sound when pressed, but this has a delay which for me was an unsatisfying feeling.

Tech specs

Behind the removable fabric cover, the Obsidian contains a single 4.5in driver that digs down to 55Hz and two side-facing tweeters that go up to 22KHz, it’s all powered by a 40W Class-D amplifier. Codec support includes MP3, AAC, ALAC, APE, FLAC, WAV, WMA, and OGG up to 24-bit 192KHz, but only when played using the Pantheone app. Airplay 2 however, is limited to 24-bit/48KHz.

The Obsidian supports 5GHz and 2.4GHz Wi-Fi (there is no Ethernet) and by default, it will connect to a 5GHz network, to increase the stability of hi-res audio streaming. If you want to use 2.4GHz, it will have to be available as a separate network and selected manually.

In use

Set-up proved to be straightforward. It quickly connected to my Wi-Fi network and my Alexa account, and I had two of them up and running in minutes. With Airplay on my iPhone, I was able to synchronize audio from Apple Music with two existing Airplay devices I already and in combination with the two Obsidian’s my downstairs was soon filled with music. I was party-ready! All I needed now was some friends, but sadly, Pantheone doesn’t supply these. Oh well. At least once you’ve registered your speaker with Amazon you can talk to your speaker and try out Alexa’s many hilarious skills. OK, I might need to get out more.

In everyday use, I found the Obsidians reliable and stable in terms of availability over Wi-Fi. I did encounter one glitch where one of the speakers offered up a new firmware which then consistently failed when I tried to upgrade but after one message to support via the app this was fixed the next day and after a quick reset, I was back up and running.

As with Airplay, pairing two Obsidians in the app was quick and easy, and once you do so, you can control the volume of each unit together or separately. When linked you can also make one unit playing just the left channel or the right, which enables them to be used as a pair to deliver a wider stereo soundstage for music or to use as TV speakers. Note that they don’t offer support for spatial audio – for that you have to look to its larger and pricier sibling, the Pantheon I.

To test the left and right channel output feature I used the track Hey Bulldog by The Beatles. While the band considered it a throwaway only worth placing on their contractual obligation Yellow Submarine soundtrack, in typical Beatles fashion it’s still brilliant, with high-energy piano, guitar and McCartney’s melodic bass underneath Lennon’s biting vocals. It is also rather oddly mixed, with the opening piano ranged fully over to the left and the vocals only on the right. As such, if you set both Obsidian’s speakers when paired as left channel only, you get no vocals at all from the track, until a minute in when a stereo background vocal kicks in. Pro tip: if you leave paired speakers playing one channel only don’t forget to revert them to stereo in the app before you unpair them as this will not happen automatically, so you could end up messing up your music.

Sound quality

So how do they sound? In a word, superb. While the lack of high-res Bluetooth and the limitations of Airplay 2 mean that hi-res purists might poke holes, this would be missing the point. For portable bookshelf speakers, these are tremendous sounding.

The bass is powerful and deep, and voices and mid-range instrumentation was presented with richness and depth. Of course, my immediate points of comparison in the room were the original Amazon Echo device and a Google Home Max, which are no match in terms of scale or price, but the difference in quality was still night and day. Whether I was listening to music or a podcast there was a richness, depth, and weight to the sound. It felt like I could hear what I was listening to for the first time.

The app enables you to change how the output depending on the speaker’s location, either in a corner, near a wall, or in free space. This essentially changes the bass output, so it doesn’t get too boomy by reflecting off the walls. There are also EQ controls though this simply consists of bass and treble controls.

With the speakers set up as a stereo pair, things get even better. I was struck by the sheer power and volume these are capable of generating – they put my decent Ruark Audio MR1 Mk2 PC speakers to shame – though again the price points and size are vastly different. Queen’s Brighten Rock pulsated with depth, and I could pick out Brian May’s overlapping multi-layered guitar riffs and my head started bopping when John Deacon’s bass kicked in. Freddie sounded majestic as he should. The only thing to do at that point was to listen to Another One Bites the Dust, which sounded funky and tight with tight bass. The decay of the sound effect was conveyed with great dimensionality.

The Pantheone Obsidian speaker delivers a powerful and detailed sound and Alexa functionality in a stylish sculpted shape. While the price is high you will feel you’re getting your money’s worth with excellent sound quality with enough heft to fill medium-sized rooms with ease. The addition of Google Chromecast support would sweeten the deal for Android users, but that niggle aside, this is top drawer stuff and we look forward to whatever is next from Pantheone.

Source: www.forbes.com

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