The Hidden Radio

Nearly a year ago I backed the Hidden Radio project on Kickstarter. The device looked great and the reward level seemed very reasonable for backers who wanted to get a device when the project was complete.

I had been considering a Jawbone Jambox, but instead decided to back the Hidden Radio. It seemed like a win-win situation: I would be able to help the project happen, and in return I’d get a clever Bluetooth speaker that looks cooler than a Jambox, gets twice the battery life, and costs less.

Last week, the first round of Hidden Radios began shipping. Mine arrived on Thursday evening. Anna and I have been using the speaker around the house as much as possible all weekend long. Below is my review of the device.

Hidden Radio, Jawbone Jambox, and an iPhone 4S for Context

The Concept

The design and idea of the Hidden Radio is brilliantly clever. I mean, it’s basically just a giant volume knob. As Gilbert Lee wrote, when concepts of the Hidden Radio were first sent out back in the fall of 2008 (the same time the Google Chrome public beta was released): “The entire product is the UI!”

After several years of R&D, it wasn’t until 2011 that John Van Den Nieuwenhuizen and Vitor Santa Maria were ready to mass produce the Hidden Radio. They turned to Kickstarter in November of 2011 and raised just short of a million dollars over the course of their 60-day campaign.

And now, a year later, the Hidden Radio is a reality.

I received a white version and it’s altogether beautiful.1 When closed, the device is about the size and weight of a thick, double old-fashioned glass. Anywhere you put it, the Hidden Radio looks like it belongs there.

As mentioned above, the device is entirely UI. The Hidden Radio is designed to work as simply and beautifully as it looks. Alas, this is only in theory. In reality, the manifestation of the UI is difficult and thus frustrating.

Controlling the Volume

The Kickstarter concept video shows people casually reaching over to their Hidden Radio, placing a few fingers on the top of the device, and turning up the volume with ease (cut to 00:50 of the video to see what I’m referring to).

Unfortunately it just doesn’t work that wonderfully. Turning the volume up requires a fair amount of downward pressure on the unit in order to keep friction between the speaker’s base and the table top. But that same downward pressure also causes friction within the housing itself, thus making it extremely difficult for the shell to twist upwards and reveal the speaker grill.

There are a few surfaces in my house that have enough friction with the Hidden Radio’s base that I don’t need to apply too much downward pressure and thus could successfully turn the volume up using one hand. However, most of the time turning the volume up — and turning the device on — requires two hands.

The device is little more than a giant volume knob with a speaker inside, and yet, ironically, it’s the most difficult-to-use volume knob in my home.

It’s hard to know if the volume adjustment become easier over time. Perhaps after regular use of the Hidden Radio’s cap will eventually loosen its grip, making it easier to adjust with one hand. Or perhaps this is something the Hidden team will resolve in the next iteration of the Radio.

Turning the volume down is easily done with one hand.

Connectivity Issues

Perhaps the most maddening shortcoming of all is the Hidden Radio’s irrational desire to power off.

This can happen when you least expect it, and usually when you least desire it. My Hidden Radio powers itself down after about 60 seconds of inactivity. And so, if I pause the music on my iPad in order to take a phone call or have a conversation, I have to turn the Hidden Radio off and back on before resuming music playback.

What’s worse, on Saturday evening the Hidden Radio refused to play music for longer than 15 minutes at a time. A handful of songs in and the speaker would simply disconnect its Bluetooth connection. I would then toggle the inputs (there’s a switch underneath that toggles between Bluetooth, audio-in, and FM radio) to get the Bluetooth to reconnect.

(For some owners, I’ve heard this mid-music shutoff happens as often as every couple of minutes.)

What’s interesting is that the mid-music shutdown was only happening on Saturday evening. Since then it hasn’t been an issue.

Sound Quality

For a small speaker that majors on portability, wireless connectivity, and battery life, you know there are going to be tradeoffs. Even with that in mind, and even after the 8-hour “break in” period for the speaker, the sound quality does not impress me.

At best it sounds a bit like a cheap boombox. At worst it sounds like a muffled, cheap boombox.

When turning the sound down, not only does the volume output of the internal speaker decrease, but as the grill gets increasingly covered up, the sound becomes more and more muffled.

The sweet spot for the Hidden Radio’s sound is somewhere around 75-percent open. This is quiet enough to keep the bass from distorting and open enough to not sound muffled.

Worth it?

After 4 full days of jamming out to my Hidden Radio I find it to be a trophy of design and a failure of engineering. It is, unfortunately, the most textbook case of gadget form without function I’ve ever seen.

As a backer of the Hidden Radio on Kickstarter, I got my device for $119. They are now currently on pre-order for $150, and will then sell for the regular price of $190. At that price, I do not consider the Hidden Radio to be worth it.

If you’re going to spend $150 or $190 on a Bluetooth speaker, get the Jawbone Jambox.

I ended up ordering the Black Diamond Jambox to have some context to compare the Hidden Radio. The Jambox costs the same price and is so much better of a speaker.

The Jambox sounds fantastic — it is much louder and fuller than the Hidden Radio with richer bass and no distortion. Moreover, it is easier to control (how ironic), and its dimensions seem more portable to me. There is, however, one clear advantage the Hidden Radio has over the Jambox: Battery life. 15 hours versus 10, respectively.

The Jambox is certainly not as clever as the Hidden Radio. Nor is it as complementary to the decor of its surroundings. But the Jambox works and sounds better — and that’s what matters.

  1. I’m pretty sure I got the white one due to a glitch in their fulfillment processing somewhere. The white ones are actually more expensive.
The Hidden Radio