Tree Labs Astro Bluetooth Speaker Review: Lightweight, stylish, and sounds good too

There is a seemingly infinite number of portable Bluetooth speakers on the market. Do we really need one more Tree Labs seems to think so with the Astro.

Tree Labs says what differentiates the Astro from its competitors is that it plays music unadulterated instead of using DSP software to change the music to fit the limitations of the speaker. Tree Labs goes further on to say that the Astro is “the only Bluetooth portable speaker to play music the way it was recorded.”

Now, the merits of those sweeping marketing statements are way beyond the scope of this review. Let’s just say that those are nice slogans and consumers should rarely put their stock in marketing cliches. For the purposes of our review, we wanted to see how the Astro served as a portable speaker and if it sounded good.

[subhed] Under the HoodUnder the aluminum facade, the Astro relies on a pair of two inch deep cushion neodymium magnet full range drivers that the company says are customized for the Astro. There is also a stiff passive radiator that Tree Labs says is used for extra-deep bass (thought they never define what extra-deep bass is and in my listening tests the bass wasn’t very deep).

Connectivity is kept to a bare minimum. There is only wireless Bluetooth and a 3.5mm input.  Plugging in a 3.5mm jack will immediately override any Bluetooth connection.  There's no button you need to press to switch between the two.  To re-initiate Bluetooth, you need to unplug the 3.5mm cable.

There’s a built-in polymer lithium rechargeable battery that, on paper, will give you up to 16 hours of playing time and require only 2.5 hours for a full recharge. Battery and all, Astro is super-easy to tote around at only 1.16 pounds.

I was really disappointed to see that there is no option for USB charging. You need to use the included 7.4V power adapter to charge it. That was one of the biggest misses for me. For a device that’s billed as a portable, having to carry around a special 12v charger instead of using the almost ubiquitous USB chargers in homes and cars is a bit of a head scratcher.

[subhed] Personalized colors or tattoos You decide.When I first got the Astro I was struck by how small and light it was. The Astro is constructed with a brushed aluminum front and rear and wrapped with a thick silicone bumper, which comes in four colors. The silicone bumper should protect the Astro from small drops or moderate handling. However, if you want deck out your Astro in a different color later after purchase, there isn’t an option to swap out the silicone case with different color.

Unlike most speakers, you can give the Astro a tattoo... sort of. Tree Labs has partnered with Tattoo Temple in Hong Kong to create customized editions of the Astro called the x Tattoo Temple. There are six x Tattoo Temple Art edition speakers, each of which has unique tattoo deigns gracing the front speaker grille. The x Tattoo Temple Art editions carry a $20 premium over the standard edition. 

[subhed] Where form and function meetTattoos aside, another of the Astro’s distinctive design elements is its large silicone ring. The ring has a single purpose—to carry the Astro. Initially, I thought the loop was bizarre, but the more I used it, the more I liked it. Unlike other portable speakers, picking up and toting the Astro along was easy—even with one finger.

To be clear, not everyone I showed the speaker to liked the loop feature as much as I did. My wife, for example, hated the loop. I found that there won’t be a middle ground. You’ll either like it or hate it.

Carrying around the Astro also got me thinking about potential uses and contexts for such a speaker. Two that came to mind are presentations and desktops. Pop the Astro into a briefcase or backpack with a projector and you have a superb solution for small presentations where you need basic sound for multimedia, though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for movies as you'll understand in my listening tests below.

[subhed] One Button to Rule them AllThe Astro has  a single physical button on the top of the unit that serves a few purposes. First and foremost, it is the on/off button. Holding the button down for about three seconds will turn the unit on or off. However, a single press of the button when the speaker is on will pause the audio. Pressing the button a second time starts things playing again.

The on/off button also solves one of my biggest problems with Bluetooth speakers: Switching wireless sources. Pressing the on/off button quickly two times will put the Astro back into Bluetooth pairing mode. From there, just select the Astro from your Bluetooth source and you’ll be good to go. Cryptic, “unable to connect” errors will be a thing of the past.    

[subhed] This is a full-range speaker Not quite.Aside from the much larger Mohu BeBox I recently reviewed, most portable Bluetooth speakers haven’t really impressed me with their sound. They are just too small. They sound thin and tinny with no bass. That’s where things get interesting with the Astro. Tree Labs describes the Astro as “full range” and that it is designed to “reproduce with fidelity the full audio range spectrum…” While those are nice marketing phrases, after taking the Astro for an extended spin, I’ll tell you that you certainly won’t mistake the Astro for a subwoofer and you’ll be hard-pressed to get any substantive output below 60Hz. No, you won’t get the full impact of Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 "Organ Symphony.”

I think what Tree Labs means by the term “full range” is that they are playing the speaker’s on-board drivers at their full range. This can be very confusing for the average consumer.

[subhed] How does the Astro soundThe Astro plays larger than it looks. Listening to Junkie XL’s soundtrack for Mad Max: Fury Road, I was able to play the bombastic soundtrack to very loud listening levels with relatively little strain or distortion—a key feature for backyard, beach, or poolside listening (thought the Astro is not waterproof).

Even though there were clear compromises to the top and bottom end, most music through the Astro surprisingly good. Overall, Fury Road came across nicely. R.E.M’s “Orange Crush” and “Turn You Inside-Out” from the classic album, Green were great to jam to. Album after album, track after track there was decent detail and dynamics, but there was no real bottom end at all to the music. Drums especially were robbed of their visceral impact and the overall weight of the music was thinned out.

Now, as long as I stayed on-axis, things were good. However, if I moved off-axis by about 15 or 20 degrees, I started to get some noticeable coloration to the music. It was readily apparent with vocals. Playing Sarah McLachlan’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River” from Wintersong cast a dark veil over Sara’s voice. Male vocalists didn’t fare any better. Imagine Dragons’ lead man Dan Reynolds suffered the same fate on just about every track from Night Visions.

While this little David of a speaker won’t slay any Goliath’s it did admirably well for its footprint.

[subhed] The bottom lineThe Astro is a nicely-designed, fun little speaker that’s easy to carry around. It sounds great for its size. However, the need for a 12v power adapter instead of USB recharging limits what could have been a much more practical portable speaker system.


Theo Nicolakis

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